On The Road: Chile Can’t Decide

 

Punta Arenas, Chile

Charles Darwin was just shy of 24 years old, his eyes open in wonder as the HMS Beagle slid along the shore of the largest island in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. His eyes grew wider as bonfires flared along the water’s edge. “They must have lighted the fires immediately upon observing the vessel, but whether for the purpose of communicating the news or attracting our attention, we do not know,” he wrote. 

These shore people called themselves Ona and Yaghan. Canoeists and fishermen adept at navigating the labyrinth of channels in these straits, in wintertime they kept fires constantly stoked for warmth. The Yaghan wore only the scantest clothing despite the cold. To fend off wind and the rain, they smeared seal fat over their bodies.

The Ona lived across the strait, on an island just visible through the spray and mist. History calls them fierce warriors who adorned themselves with necklaces of bone, shell and tendon, and who, wearing heavy furs and leather shoes, intimidated the bare-skinned Yaghan. Darwin gave them their backhanded due, calling them “wretched lords of this wretched land.” An acerbic settler once described life hereabouts as 65 unpleasant days per year complimented by 300 days of rain and storms.

The main town at Chile’s southern tip is Punta Arenas, with 145,000 people a proper town with a proper town park, which is home to a statue of Magellan and its smooth, often-rubbed toe. If you rub the toe they say you’ll be sure to come back. Twenty two hundred kilometers south of Santiago, you take what entertainment you get. So we rubbed the toe.

A band of cold rain swept over the Hotel Cabo de Hornos, churning the Strait of Magellan dirty gray. Punta Arenas’s “oldest and grandest” hotel was, well, it was just a hotel, all of its walls painted a determined shade of mustard. We and the staff watched sleety squalls spray over the strait.

By the time you reach the town of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lakes District, the Pan American highway has long since made its point, 816 miles of Chile to the north and no fancy roads heading south. The farther you go, the more determined you’ll need to be to get all the way down to Punta Arenas, and you’ll have to be plenty determined, for there are still over 800 miles to go.

I walked to the water, stepping lightly around potentially threatening mongrels holding a Purina warehouse at siege, and I put my hand in the chilly Strait of Magellan – right there amid floating plastic bags and candy wrappers.

One passenger ship was calling just now. Across the strait, looking just about west to east, low hills rose around a town called Porvenir. It wasn’t very far but I couldn’t make out much. We’d come down to the southern tip of Chile to have a look around, to see what makes it unique.

Punta Arenas is a place where your rental Nissan Saloon sedan comes equipped with a wire screen to prevent gravel cracking its windshield, because blacktop roads end where towns do. We looked ridiculous, we thought, motoring off toward the hills. A quarter inch mesh of expanded metal surrounded the glass all around, far enough away for the wipers to operate underneath.

A foot-square hole was cut in front of both the driver and the passenger with more mesh hinged over it so that the normal position was open for ‘city’ driving, but for your serious gravel roads you could pull a string that reached inside your side window and roll the window up really fast to catch the string and bring the protective panel down. That sealed the windshield against rocks and provided you with a good, oh, thirty percent view of the world in front of you.

The bottom of the continent is a place where beyond the city blacktop there are virtually no houses and there is virtually no traffic. Except for there being roads between towns, things looked a little like summer in coastal Greenland. There were tiny white wildflowers and there were no trees.

Northbound at a place called Reubens, where stood a settlement of a few buildings, trees began to appear. The Nire, or Notofagus antarctica, a native species, grows to ten crooked and branched meters, compacted and dominated by the winds. Fields of tree trunks stood twisted and contorted by the wind. The forest presented in two shades of green – the needles and lighter clinging lichen. Rolling hills replaced the horizon-to-horizon flat. You could watch sheets of rain approach from miles away and wash overhead on their march to the other horizon. Snow topped a few low peaks.

A thousand sheep blocked the road. Gauchos and a squad of dogs marched them forward. The dogs ran and darted, responding to the mens’ whistles, and moved the sheep off the road for us. You wouldn’t need to play with these dogs at night. They’d be worn out.

Guanacos lived everywhere, grazing on cliffs like mountain goats. Maybe four feet tall at the shoulders, llama-like, brown and white, from the camel family, they may weigh 200 pounds. They live in family groups, and do this funky juke with their long necks when they run.

One other thing about far southern Chile – Punta Arenas is the home of Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, a descendant of South Slavs. Maybe 20,000 of Punta Arenas’s 145,000 people are of Croatian descent, and there are around 200,000 Croatians in Chile. Boric’s family, among many others, emigrated in 1897 from Ugljan, an island of vineyards and olive groves opposite the coastal city of Zadar.

By the end of the nineteenth century descendants of the Ona and Yaghan still lived in the fjords and all across the rocky outcrops of Tierra del Fuego, but once Chile and Argentina agreed on their border in 1881, the call went out for settlers. As it happened, just then the catastrophic accidental import of an insect pest to the Rhône Valley was destroying vineyards from France all the way to Dalmatia. Boric’s ancestors fled the plague, abandoning Croatia en masse for a new home in the wild, wild south.

•••••

Gabriel Boric

In March, the bearded young Boric joined the historic line of left wing Latin American leaders when he assumed Chile’s presidency at age 36 years and one month; at the time he was the world’s youngest leader. His administration came to office with a rare gift: the chance to draft a new constitution.

Three years before and innocently enough, then-president Sebastián Piñera allowed a fare hike on Santiago’s metro system. A 30 peso hike, about four cents, wouldn’t be a casus belli most places, but in Santiago, protests led to 29 deaths, looting, the torching of metro stations and a state of emergency. The uprising, led by students, wasn’t about the pesos. It was about decades of neoliberalism and remnants of the Pinochet dictatorship they couldn’t shake loose.

Piñera rescinded the fare increases but birthed a new hashtag, #ChileDespertoAs the protesters said, Chile woke up. The movement gained a name, the “Estallido Social,” social explosion, leading to the drafting of the new constitution and a referendum on its adoption.

The proposed constitution was anything but conventional. It called for a national single payer health system, free education including college, the right to abortion with few restrictions in a two-thirds Catholic country and the guarantee of Indigenous rights on a continent where, as Carlos Barón has written, “the equivalency of the ‘N’ words is still the word ‘Indio.’”

To understand just how radical the proposed constitution was, a brief step back:

Salvador Allende, a lifelong Chilean politician, ran for president in 1958, 1964 and finally won in 1970. First a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1937 and subsequently a Senator, cabinet member and party secretary, he was about as known a quantity as you’ll find.

Nevertheless, in a place as far from the daily heartbeat of the Cold War as you could be, Allende’s socialist vibes unnerved the Nixon administration. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once briefed newspapermen that Chile could be a “contagious example” that would “infect” U.S. allies in Europe. Ponder that. Chile might infect European allies.

On September 11th, 1973 at high noon, British made Hawker jets bombed the presidential palace in Santiago. Allende’s rallying cries on radio failed to summon support, military police abandoned the presidential palace and Allende was killed. General Augusto Pinochet, head of the armed forces, assumed control.

A young lawyer and right-wing ideologue named Jaime Guzmán, wrote a new constitution for the new regime. Guzmán supported free markets and authoritarianism, idolizing Frederik Hayek and Fransisco Franco. During Allende’s administration he had joined a fascist terror group.

His constitution left the government in a “subsidiary state,” subordinate to private business, reducing it to subsidizing the private sector’s efforts in basic areas like education, health and pensions. The government was unable to intervene in the economy unless explicitly allowed.

Notably, the Pinochet constitution granted the “rights of private citizens over waters,” codifying corporate confiscation of rivers for, for example, the mining industry, and rendering the government helpless to stop it. Aside from small bore reforms in 2005 under the presidency of Ricardo Lagos, this constitution, with its state subsidiarity, still stands.

By the election of Gabriel Boric the Pinochet constitution was 42 years old and showing its age. It was written to secure Pinochet’s military regime and hold the market, not the government, responsible for social services. Where the government was responsible was to ensure that mining, and natural resources, not be regulated.

Back to the present.

Since the Pinochet constitution was largely the product of one man, Guzmán, Chile determined that a new constitution would come from delegates chosen in open, democratic national elections held in 2021 that chose 155 delegates to a constitutional convention – with seventeen seats reserved for indigenous groups and gender equality. The result? The largest bloc was made up of independents, many with limited political experience. Only some 13% had held political office before; it showed.

About twenty percent of the delegates came from the right. This may or may not have been a fair snapshot of the electorate, but those numbers allowed left and center-left delegates a comfortable enough majority to ally and return an overfull document containing 388 articles, including vague and exotic declarations like “nature has rights” and animals are “subjects of special protection.”

Chile would be declared an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country,” with at least eleven Indigenous groups given autonomy as “nations” within the country. The draft also contained the reasonable enough notion that there should be some limits on corporate confiscation of water for mining.

For all its good intentions, the convention had produced a vague and aspirational document giving entrenched interests a surfeit of targetsThe draft included, for example, restitution for historically Indigenous lands.

There was another problem: a steady stream of questionable behavior by convention delegates themselves. Some tried to shout down the national anthem on opening day. One was forced to resign after falsely claiming to have cancer. Another tried to cast a vote while taking a shower.

Still and with all that, I’m mystified by all this What’s the Matter with Kansas stuff, in which working-class and poorer people vote counter to their interests. A popularly elected body offered up free education, gender parity (married couples couldn’t get divorced in Chile until 2004) and the right to decent housing. Yet this was rejected in every one of Chile’s 16 regions and 338 of 346 municipalities. What happened?

Part of the answer is the predictable, aggressive TV ad campaign run by vested interests. Anyone who has seen a television in the United States this election season will sympathize. To turn on the television on was to be implored to reject this scary, demonic document. 

Opponents took to morning talk shows and the evening news to repeatedly denounce  the document as “extremist” and “poorly written,” while conservative think tanks produced opinion polls of doubtful accuracy showing that most people would vote down the new draft. Social media spread disinformation, and fake copies of the draft constitution circulated, with doctored articles. A senator named Felipe Kast charged on conservative radio that the draft constitution “allowed for abortion until the ninth month of pregnancy.”

No surprise that exit polls suggested people were confused. Rechazo (Reject) partisans, it’s said, spread rumors that the new constitution would abolish home ownership and allow Indigenous communities to summarily secede. A Rechazo spokesperson, a university law student a year younger than Gabriel Boric named Fransisco Orrego, claimed the document would abolish people’s rights to own their homes if they had bought using social subsidies, a common circumstance.

For the first time ever, non-felon prisoners were allowed to vote. Here is a measure of the effectiveness of Rechazo’s campaign to muddy the waters:  of fourteen prisons, only one voted to approve the draft constitution. The Tocopilla prison in Conceptión, the only one to approve the draft, was also the only prison where “physical copies of the draft constitution were actually distributed.” The other prisoners had only media to inform their vote, and they all voted no.

The defeat and consequent retention of the current constitution is an unattractive option, as meanwhile private sector actors will continue to use “state subsidiarity” to block reform. Further, the whole process led Chileans to a low opinion of the country’s new leader.

It’s a real shame to waste all that promise. After a fast start, that the draft constitution was roundly rejected has dealt a tough and possibly fatal blow to the young reformer just six months into the job. Gabriel Boric hit his all-time low approval rating in October, at 27 percent. He may already be consigned by a skeptical public to sitting out a few elections and attempting to return one day not as a firebrand from the left, but as a more properly aged traditional pol.

On the Road: Back Home

Here’s my most recent column as published last week at 3QuarksDaily.com. I do a column there every fourth Monday. Here are my past columns.

On The Road: Back Home

by Bill Murray

In spring the pandemic lurked. Boris Johnson was Ukraine’s new best friend, Russia’s domination of Ukraine appeared imminent and the UK basked in the queen’s platinum jubilee. I’ve been away since spring. Have I missed anything?

Andriyivska Church (St. Andrew’s Cathedral), Kyiv, Ukraine.

The war continues. Many who caution they can’t get inside Vladimir Putin’s head proclaim from in there that his scheme is to split and outlast a freezing western alliance this winter. We operate from that premise this fall, while minding an added pinch of Kremlin nuclear horseplay.

Putin must now fulminate over his mobilization. Timothy Snyder thinks this war was meant to be played out as a Russian TV event  “about a faraway place.” But as the birches fade in Moscow, the fight creeps ever farther into the Motherland.

A month ago I was convinced mobilization wasn’t in the cards, because by the time call-ups got even the most basic training it would be that muddy time of year when the weather constrains fighting vehicles to the roads and the great European plain becomes a great big mess.

So to hell with basic training.

Novaya Gazeta Europe, now operating from Riga, reports that a “hidden article of Russia’s mobilisation order allows the Defence Ministry to draft up to one million reservists into the army,” which may or may not be Putin’s intent. But finer legal points have a distinctly irrelevant feel now, as Commander Putin appears to be personally running the war these days.

Surely he will do whatever he thinks he can get away with while eyeing the discontented stirrings of his domestic population. Which is one more thing to wait out. While waiting for the Europeans to fall to squabbling this winter he now has to placate the home folks. Pesky, that. Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of Ekho Moskvy, which Putin censored off the air in March, wrote in the Financial Times that “It’s unclear what collapses first — Putin, or everyone else.” Let’s watch.

Europeans surely will howl over energy prices this winter, but we’ve learned by now that the EU thrives only in crisis. Only around a threat does it cohere. The view from October suggests a fraught winter when anything might happen.

One safe bet: The shifty, on-paper-only Russian land grab in four of Ukraine’s regions won’t lead to a renaissance on either side of the purported new border. Novaya Gazeta Europe published the obvious: “The country’s economy will fail to reconstruct the facilities in the occupied territories due to the sanctions and general economic isolation.”

Despite aid from an impressive list of countries, Albania to Vietnam (the US’s contribution as of early October surpassing seventeen billion dollars), prewar Ukrainian territory on either side of Russia’s occupation lies in ruin.

“The Ukraine Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment – August 2022”, a report from the World Bank, the Government of Ukraine, and the European Commission, shows catastrophic damage. Here’s a summary: 

World Bank chart

Then there are human needs. The UN counts 7.6 million Ukrainians displaced, some seventeen percent of the country, with a quarter million uprooted Ukrainians living in Warsaw alone. Most are women and children, a percentage of whom are destined never to return to the domestic circumstance they enjoyed before the war because either their husband or their home will be gone. A further percentage of those who do will resume their relationship with a husband suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

At the very beginning of this war the atrocities at Bucha chased away all the Ukrainian doves. Whether or not Putin ordered war crimes, he has condoned them and he is evermore complicit in their shame. Ukrainians know this viscerally and will offer him no way out. So we get quotes from advisers to President Zelenskiy like Mykhailo Podolyak, who told Reuters Ukraine will not be deterred even by a nuclear attack.

The fight goes on.

Coda: What about the strange case of the missing Russian air force? “(O)ne of many unanswered questions is why Russia has launched a military campaign at huge cost with maximalist objectives, and then declined to use the vast majority of its fixed wing combat aircraft.” This quote, from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, came on the fifth day of the Russian invasion, and remains true 231 days later. Surely it’s the strangest element of how this war has developed. Is the Russian military holding back in case of having to fight NATO? Has it already raided every microchip from all those imported dishwashers?

•••••

 

Moscow, USSR, 1986

On August 30th Mikhail Gorbachev died. His legacy depends on whom you ask. Margaret Thatcher? Gorbachev was a Soviet leader she could do business with. A Berliner? Gorbachev acquiesed to reunification of their city. But ask a 1990s supporter of Lithuanian independence. Gorbachev’s armored personnel carriers seized the TV tower in Vilnius, killing 13.

(If you can hunt one down, buy the still-thrilling book of contemporaneous accounts of the Soviet collapse, the New York Times’s The Collapse of Communism.)

Ironically, Gorbachev’s halting moves toward easing repression in the 1980s led to disdain from the people of the Soviet empire (an early anti-alcohol campaign didn’t help). Newly granted freedoms allowed the Soviet fringes to beg for, then demand more, turning the Soviet ship toward Putin’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Twenty-five years out of office Gorbachev used the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster to finger it as a turning point in the Soviet collapse, claiming he came to think about time in pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl terms. “The Chernobyl disaster,” he wrote, “opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.” 

Having first visited Moscow three months after the Chernobyl catastrophe, I became interested, studied the disaster closely and subsequently visited Chernobyl. It may serve the former General Secretary to see the collapse of the USSR on his watch as brought on by cataclysm, by an event with effects far beyond the control of a mortal leader, but the truth is, Gorbachev didn’t grant the “much greater freedom of expression” Chernobyl set in train. It rode in on the shock tide of the government’s dismal opacity with vital health information. Soviet citizens were appalled and disgusted.

Radiation was mysterious, menacing, personal and permanent. Before, most people were good Soviet citizens in the same way you might be a good American, Brazilian or Filipino. Only dissidents were dissidents, there weren’t many of them, and nobody thought they were very important.

Chernobyl’s fateful reactor four

But Chernobyl made things personal. Now there was radiation in your little girl’s milk. They said the government mixed irradiated cow meat with uncontaminated beef and sold it across the land, to dilute all the contaminated meat, and people believed it. Now your government was trying to poison you.

Behind the monolith lurked only mortals, panicked and mendacious. Chernobyl punched holes through the Soviet ramparts and facts poured out. Like Nixon in Watergate, Gorbachev changed the subject. He took his road show to Havana in April 1988. Fidel Castro stroked his beard and declared, “Perestroika is another man’s wife. I don’t want to get involved.”

The empire reeled, and at every extremity. In February 1989 Lt. General Boris Gromov’s fortieth army, untold columns of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers slunk back across the Friendship Bridge into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan, bringing to a close a nine year occupation of Afghanistan that cost 15,000 lives.

The Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites were wobbling out of orbit and by autumn they fell from the Soviet sky. Gorbachev the traveling salesman visited Helsinki. His spokesman Gannadi Gerasimov made weak light of the situation. “You know the Frank Sinatra song, ‘I Did It My Way’?” he asked reporters. “Hungary and Poland are doing it their way.”

Two weeks later the Berlin Wall was down and now the Soviet republics themselves were afray. Soviet fighting vehicles dispersed a demonstration, killing 20 in Tbilisi. Azerbaijani villagers beat Armenians and Armenians ejected Azeris, igniting the Nagorno-Karabakh War that lasted six years and killed some 30,000. And by then it was too late. Political prisoners were out of the gulag, the cat was out of the bag and the whole shabby thing fell down.

While Gorbachev failed in the end to reform his own system, as Mark Galeotti says, he was “a failure for all the right reasons,” and his troubles did begin the Cold War’s demise. Last Wednesday, just a month and a half after his death, the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy, bookended the Gorbachev era by declaring “the post-Cold War era is definitively over.”

•••••

Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments, so far.

In spring both Finland and Sweden were in a froth about NATO and in a great frenzied hurry to get in there. I only have first hand knowledge from Finland, but there at least, they’re still in a hurry. Polls reflect historic support for NATO, and although everybody is pretty sure Russia has its hands full in Ukraine, online Finnish groups this summer urged visitors to bring a radio, in case cyberattacks took the utterly wired Nordic countries off the grid, and during our yearly visit in July, potassium iodide pills commanded a bounty in eastern Finland, when they could be found at all.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has declined to rule out allowing nuclear weapons on Finnish territory. Speaking at the inaugural Helsinki Security Forum three weeks ago, he said “We don’t have any particular requests or reservations that we would be setting as preconditions for our membership.”

Coming from the taciturn Finns, this is astonishing, because it sets up the possibility of nuclear weapons 600 miles from Moscow and 250 miles from St. Petersburg. On the other hand, Russian nukes have long been scarcely a hundred miles away from Finland and Norway, in and around Russia’s Arctic submarine bases near Murmansk. Mainly right now, first things first. Finland just wants in.

Hungary and Türkiye were always expected to be the biggest obstacles and they still are. All the other NATO countries have approved Finland and Sweden’s membership. As to Hungary, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto says “this will take a while. But (Haavisto’s counterpart, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó) said that they are dealing with Finland and Sweden together, and that they don’t foresee any obstacles.”

The public reason for Türkiye’s objection is the Nordics’ refugee policies, through which some pro-Kurdish agitators have been granted asylum and even citizenship. Ironically, Sweden was the first Scandinavian state to recognize the Turkish Republic in 1923, and Stockholm has always supported Türkiye’s EU bid.

Both countries are straining to accommodate the Turkish President. In June both countries agreed to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously.” Last month Sweden’s Inspectorate of Strategic Products reversed a ban against exporting military equipment to Türkiye (though it hasn’t said what equipment is moving), and a flurry of meetings continues.

President Erdoğan’s objections are plausible enough, as far as they go. But behind the refugee issue lie a couple of less public considerations, namely the perilous state of the Turkish economy, and Erdoğan’s poll ratings, both of which beg Erdoğan to puff out the Presidential chest and play to anti-western nationalism.

Erdoğan’s Shaky Prospects

Emmanuel Macron’s new talking shop, the European Political Community, afforded an opportunity for a flurry of face to face meetings in Prague early this month. There, Erdoğan tried to pry the Nordics apart: “As long as the terrorist organizations are demonstrating on the streets of Sweden, and as long as the terrorists are inside the Swedish parliament, there is not going to be a positive approach from Turkey towards Sweden,” he said.

On the other hand, “The relations with Finland are quite different in nature than those between Sweden and Turkey,” Erdoğan said. “Finland is not a country where terrorists are roaming freely.”

The Finns weren’t having it, the Finnish Prime Minister emphasizing Finland and Sweden would stand together or the NATO bid would fall apart. “I think it’s important for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the same time because it’s a matter of security in northern Europe,” Sanna Marin said. Her Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto reinforced that idea last week, telling the Finnish national broadcaster YLE, “This is bad news, because it is very important that Finland and Sweden join NATO at the same time, including with regard to NATO’s defence planning.”

And that is where we are at the end of summer: Türkiye remains unsatisfied with Sweden’s amnesty policies and continues to push for extradition of people it calls terror suspects. As to Hungary, “[Putin] loves the idea that he has a buddy inside NATO who is his spoiler, who makes things difficult,”” says “András Simonyi, Hungary’s first ambassador to NATO.

Sweden held a general election last month which has resulted in a change in government. Parliament is scheduled to vote today on the Prime Ministership of Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson, who, for the sake of getting this done, will leave the outgoing government’s NATO negotiator in place. I wonder whether in the end Erdoğan’s aim is to emerge from his Levantine negotiating bazaar with US F-35 aircraft.

Should the Nordics eventually accede to NATO, non-aligned European countries will comprise a dwindling European club. Austria, for one, is feeling a little lonely. Its Defense Minister looks on the bright side, hoping maybe someday Cypress, Ireland, Malta and Austria can use their good offices as mediators. “At some point, not at the present time — but at some point, this day will come,” she says.

•••••

Four weeks ago we participated in a world moment we will never see again, the pageantry and spectacle of laying the Queen of England in the ground. Paul Kingsnorth called it “a rolling, dense mat of symbolism,” and only the hardest-hearted thought it anything but moving and flawlessly done.

In the distant political past of last month, most of us who view monarchy as anachronism found it appropriate for the moment to praise the queen rather than criticize the institution, withholding tacit rights to criticize the monarchy later. As the royal death set a fleeting moment of magnanimity swelling in the breasts of us all, I felt it fair to give Liz Truss a break. Her agenda having been entirely derailed right out of the gate was none of her fault. (I’d have counseled, girl, it gives you an extra ten days to polish up all the stuff you’re going to do.) I mean, Elizabeth II died just two days after Truss took office, for goodness sakes.

Now that we’ve seen her agenda, to hell with magnanimity. Time has left the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party behind and everyone can see it but the ruling Thatcherite rump of the Tory party, and even they are looking over their shoulders. Forty-one days on there are no shortages of eulogies for Truss’s Prime Ministership.

Side question: Who wrote Truss’s Downing Street eulogy? “The rock on which modern Britain was built?” Really? Eh. All the eloquence of seventh grade.

•••••

One last thing: Mickey Dolenz, Monkees drummer and singer of (I’m not your) Steppin’ Stone, sued the FBI last month, seeking release of a dossier it kept on the Monkees. A previously released excerpt reads “During a Monkees concert, subliminal messages were depicted on the screen which, in the opinion of” an agent whose name is redacted “constituted ‘left-wing innovations of a political nature’ including video footage of ‘anti-US messages on the war in Vietnam.’”

Also last month the FBI declassified its file on Aretha Franklin. It is a 270-page document, noting “Franklin’s performances for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which (Martin Luther) King was president. The FBI labeled these shows, held in Memphis and Atlanta in 1967 and 1968, as ‘communist infiltration’ events.”

Two More Years of High Noon?

I’ve been trying to think how it would feel to be Liz Truss or Kwasi Kwarteng. In the past, when I have (vanishingly rarely, of course) been a wee bit obnoxious in public and realize it, I’ve always just wanted to crawl under a blanket and disappear. By comparison, it is quite a feat to embarrass not just yourself but your entire country.

Yet the current iteration of the Tory party could continue to inflict its brand of humiliation on the country for two more years.

Fire!

A real tragedy this week. A fire has damaged some of the iconic moais, those giant stone carvings, on Easter Island (Rapa Nui). While some articles have characterized it as a forest fire, there really aren’t proper forests on the island, so it would probably have been more of a grass fire. Whatever it was, it hit in the worst possible place for the moais (see map).

Reports are that the fire has raged around Rano Rarako volcano, site of the main quarry where the statues were crafted. It’s the place you see in photos of half-buried statues, like below, and it’s adjacent to the very famous and photogenic Ahu Tongariki.

The Guardian quotes Easter Island mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa as saying he believed the fire was “not an accident,” telling local broadcaster Radio Pauta that “all the fires on Rapa Nui are caused by human beings.” He also said “The damage caused by the fire can’t be undone. The cracking of an original and emblematic stone cannot be recovered, no matter how many millions of euros or dollars are put into it.”

The Quarry

 

Ahu Tongariki

 

Woe Is Kent

In his weekly newsletter for The Independent, Simon Calder laments Brexit’s contribution to the state of travel in England:

Ashford International station in south-east Kent has a problem. It is not international, unless you count the Eurostar trains that whizz past at 186mph. The same applies to Ebbsfleet International in north-west Kent. 

Both stations have cavernous halls for international passengers en route to Paris and Brussels. But the Channel Tunnel train operator closed both stations at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though travel demand has returned, only the London St Pancras hub remains open. The Transport Select Committee wanted to know why such valuable infrastructure has been mothballed, reducing the travel horizons of the good people of Kent. So the chair, Tory MP Huw Merriman, asked Eurostar’s chief executive, Jacques Damas, to explain.

In his two-page reply, Mr Damas did not hold back on explaining the forces ranged against the train firm. Perhaps the fact that today is his last day in the job before retirement helped his pen flow more freely. While financial pressures and engineering issues have contributed to Eurostar’s woes, the main problem is Brexit. The British insisted on becoming “third country nationals” after leaving the EU. That means border officials must carry out extra passport checks. “The stamping of British passports by Continental police adds at least 15 seconds to individual passengers’ border crossing times,” he wrote. “Even with all booths manned, St Pancras can currently process a maximum 1,500 passengers per hour versus 2,200 in 2019.”

 Cutting capacity by 30 per cent and pushing up fares, he wrote, may not look the greatest business strategy, but it has stifled demand and prevented St Pancras becoming entangled in absurdly long queues as Dover was earlier this year. Opening the Kent stations would spread resources even more thinly and add demand that cannot be met. So they will remain disconnected from Europe until at least 2025. “Eurostar cannot currently pursue a strategy of volume and growth. We are having to focus services on those core routes which make the maximum contribution per train and to charge higher prices to our customers.”

Transport expands the sphere of life; Brexit has shrunk it. And the new government has also shrunk your pounds. Having bought an expensive Eurostar ticket, your problems are only just beginning. Last Monday morning, as sterling plunged to its lowest value ever against the dollar, the bureau de change at St Pancras was charging almost £109 to obtain €100, valuing the pound at less than 92 euro cents.

 

 

One Big Thing

The trouble is, everything’s wrong, all at once.

At the beginning of Covid, Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog ruled by daily bludgeon. One big thing was wrong, and kept being wrong day after dreary winter’s day. Now you drink your tea or coffee, or carrot, celery and ginger detox, you stare at your screen and you see that you cannot win. The Fox has filled up the internet with insurmountable odds.

Late capitalism, wicked, insidious inflation, rents you can’t afford, yes yes yes, all that. Quick! Raise interest rates! Stop this damned moment when workers dare to jostle for an edge. Kill jobs and that will show them. But feverish rent- and profit-seeking is a problem we’ve had for a time.

Populism going mainstream? Silvio Berlusconi was first elected Prime Minister eighteen years ago, so bring me your Trumps, Bolsanaros and Melonis and tell me what else is new.

But a land war in Europe(!) you say? Even that has been going on for over half a year now, a baldly ignorant geopolitical move that somehow, 144 million Russians who can’t make it to queue in the Caucasus mountains can’t be troubled to denounce.

The melting of Antarctica? Ditto that. What’s a foot or two of coastal flooding – maybe even while you’re still alive – among Instagram users?

No, never mind about all that. Here is what is really important, an epochal change that is happening in this month, in this year. The real one big thing: September 2022 is the last month in the history of the world when people will pay much attention to England. Or the United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Isles, you choose what to call that confused island set before it winks out before the eyes of the rest of the world.

Though the unending self harm of Brexit provides fresh reasons to sneek a peek through your fingers at the horror show (and shows every sign of doing so for a long time to come), the death of the queen marks the moment with perfect symbolic resonance.

God save the King is a pretty odd thing for any nation of well-educated grownups to say, and mean, in this century. Give it off to collective dynamics. Maybe. Still, they did it all very, very well, and I bow, curtsy and genuflect as best American guy can. Never again shall we see the chills-producing majesty of that awesome (in that word’s true meaning) march down the 2.64 mile, 360 plus year old Long Walk to Windsor Castle. The anachronism of the British monarchy went out with a perfectly choreographed flourish. And that is this month’s true and enduring historical event.