“Oh, we are the biggest and the best, and do not forget that California has been producing wine for more than two-hundred years,” said Mike Duvall, a salesman at the tasting room of Truett-Hurst, the first winery I visited during my short trip to Sonoma. You have to get up early in order to get tipsy in Sonoma, or you risk dizziness from navigating through the swarms of tourists that migrate through the area wanting to do exactly the same thing you are doing: absorbing information about grape varieties and soil quality, and the wood used for making barrels; discovering whatever new technological innovation making wine crisper or airier or denser or darker; and becoming savvy about the winemakers, who combine these wild factors into a single bottle of that precious drink, wine.
It is amazing how swampy Washington became with the presence of Donald Trump in the White House. There seems absolutely nothing else he can say or do but further his story, imposed mercilessly on the entire nation, day in, day out. This president must be happy to see himself at the center of attention, of both the national media and the political chatter traveling across the nation. Once again, it is Silvio Berlusconi, unlike Stalin and Hitler, who we can look toward when seeking an example of a person as equally self-absorbed, and in love with himself, as President Trump.
Who did not read what Thorstein Veblen wrote in 1899 on the emerging leisure class of America, in which he coined the term “conspicuous consumption” and examined how the wealthy used purchasing decisions to demonstrate their class? No one. Well, 120 years later there is a new book on the new “leisure” class, by sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, called Aspirational Class. “Aspirationals” are the group that the writer sees as the new elite. The book has been recently published and was described in a review published by Quartz:
I first visited the U.S. when I was a young student. Curious about the country while having nothing much to do in Europe during the summer of 1974, I applied for the ICCP (International Camp Counselor Program). They were looking for foreign students who would be able to work with American kids in summer day camps, “providing leadership and delivering programs.” But it was also about giving young Americans a taste of a foreign culture. So I got the job in spite of my scarce outdoor skills and got an American visa only because I was not a member of the Communist Party.
Above is a photograph of Manhattan taken from the 64th floor, the sky lobby, of the new One World Trade Center. The tower replaces the twin towers that crumbled on 9/11/2001. Ground zero of the attack took 15 years and a lot of money to rebuild. The entire area surrounding the new tower, encompassing the National September 11th Memorial and Museum and the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, hasn’t been popularly named yet. In hope that space might replace horrifying memories of the tragedy with a revived purpose, the area just kept the old name, that is The World Trade Center.
On April 6, 1992, the European Union (then called European Community) recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the former republics of Federal Yugoslavia. The young independent republic was one of the last to follow the path of the eventual breakup of Yugoslavia, a socialist multi-ethnic country of 20 million, that grew from the ruins of WWII. On that day in 1992, the capital of independent Bosnia was the scene of a great peaceful demonstration. But not for long. While thousands of Bosnians brandished the portrait of the late Tito, a symbol of ethnic tolerance, the Serbian snipers started to shoot, targeting an unarmed and peaceful crowd that never wanted to separate from Yugoslavia. Single sniper shots soon turned into mortar fire from the hills that surround the city. It was a massacre and the beginning of the longest siege in modern human history. In those first hours of panic and fear, when people were running for shelter to save their lives from invisible killers, they were screaming, asking: “Where is NATO? They said they would come and protect us.”
I always liked to read spy stories, and I’ve even met some real ones, during my student years. But the ones I met must have been unimportant since all they wanted from me was that I get involved in some political discussion. They were wasting their time because I only started to have a political mind much later after I left China. One could not avoid the politics in China in the period after Mao. So I learned how to reason politically while trying to decode the cultural environment that was nothing but politics. And, once you find out how China works politically, you will understand the politics of any other country in this world.
In Paris in the mid-eighties, in a small art shop around the corner from La Sorbonne, I found a poster of the Normandie, the French transatlantic liner that navigated between Le Havre and New York in 1930’s. It was a very well-preserved reproduction of an advertising manifesto of Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. The painting was a piece of art. It had a touch of futurism though, as I learned later, A.M. Cassandre, the painter, and designer, was more known for his cubist and surrealist strokes. The poster was not cheap for my student budget, and I did not yet have a permanent wall to put it on but, because from my teenage years on I always wanted to board one of those steamboats and travel across the Atlantic, I bought it. It was not about America; it was about traveling by boat…
History played a funny hand in newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen last Sunday. Macron, of whom nobody knew before this presidentielles, is celebrated now not only as the savior of France but also of the whole of Europe. In his victory over Le Pen, the narrative tells us, Macron prevented the fascist anti-European National Front from seizing power, therefore preserving the existence of the European Union, giving it another chance to reform and reintegrate.
This narrative assumes that without Macron’s victory, the anti-globalist movements that got a swing in the past year–since Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and Vladimir Putin’s plot to disintegrate the West through election interference–would’ve prevailed. The positive signals for Europe that arrived with the vote in Austria and Holland, and stopped short the nationalist and extreme right parties at the threshold of power, would have been lost with a Le Pen victory; the French election was a defining one. With Le Pen in authority, France would’ve reopened its gates to a flood of primitivism and backwardness that would lead to new dark ages. All this was prevented by the grace of Emmanuel Macron, we were told. Perhaps the most evident example of this kind of optimism is Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times. There is plenty of optimism to share in, but only to the point that a possible disaster was avoided for the time being. It’s no time for joy yet. We are walking a very thin, very dangerous line.
Less than 24 hours after he fired James Comey, director of the FBI, the primary investigative agency in the United States, President Donald Trump appeared in the above photo. This masterpiece of propaganda arrived from a Russian source. The man on the left, slightly and rigidly inclined, with his hands almost behind his back–a gesture that no doubt shows deference–is Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Despite his awkward body language, the Minister is laughing in response to his host’s joking gesture, pointing in good humor to the man on the right, the Russian Ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak. The President’s face is swollen, showing signs of a sleepless night, and could easily be confused with the ripped face of the one-time Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, known for his passionate drinking. It’s a strange scene, absurd even, considering that what we detect from the photo is intimacy, shared between accomplices.