As of Sunday morning, the 101 was still closed in Montecito, so I resolved to head down to Westwood for the Ecstatic Dance LA celebration. After lunch, rather than heading up to the Getty Center, I was inspired to visit the Armand Hammer Museum.

It was deja vu all over again as – just as when I visited with my sons during Kevin’s attendance at UCLA – most of the museum was closed for their annual rotation. Apart from the standing collection (mostly French and American oils from the 19th century), they had four environmental experiences.

The most profound is Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya. Saydnaya is the death prison established by the regime of the Syria dictator Bashar al Assad. During the course of the civil war, more than 13,000 people have been destroyed there.

The guards at the prison maintained control through a strict regimen of silence. Any significant noise was punished by beatings – even the screams of those beaten were punished with further abuse. As a result, every sound was impressed upon the victims. Through acoustic forensics, interviews with those released have reconstructed the organization and operations of the prison.

The installation is simple: at the entrance, two large speakers that first demonstrate the effects of a 19 decibel drop in sound – reflecting the drop in the volume of the prisoner’s speaking when the prison stopped serving any investigative purpose and became simply a death camp. The recording starts with a loud siren, and drops through a series of declarations of annihilation (including the extinction of frog species in the Amazon). When the volume is inaudible, the recording continues with the testimony of a prison survivor describing the use of silence as an instrument of torture. Finally, the artist and acoustic specialist describe their methods.

The entry is dim, as the main installation is set off by a large partition. Walking around the partition, we are confronted with a number of overhead projectors, each bearing a ray tracing of the acoustic reconstruction. Two smaller text projectors add testimony of the investigation to the setting.

I entered during a lull in the recording, and stood in the center of the room, amidst the projectors, trying to feel my way into the situation. It was distant until I turned around to look behind me, and found that my shadow had fallen across the ray tracing on the partition. The pain washed through me then, and I turned my back to the young female docent as I allowed it to penetrate. When I finally left, I made the mistake of asking her “Do they have a PTSD therapy program for you after you spend all day in here?” Her face nearly cracked with grief. I don’t think that she understood before that moment.

I went down to the Peet’s Coffee on the corner and resolved to soak in the sun and listen to music. Brahm’s First Piano Concerto seemed appropriate, but the street traffic was noisy. After finishing my coffee and scone, I thought to head back into the Hammer atrium where I’d be able to focus on the music. As I stepped into the quiet, I had the sudden inspiration that I should do my listening in Hamdan’s exhibit.

The first movement of the concerto is an elegy to Robert Schumann, Brahm’s unstable contemporary who committed suicide at a young age, leaving a wife and young children. Much as the exhibition’s recording, it opens with crashing orchestral chords that evoke the trauma of receiving news of a tragic loss. After extended orchestral development, the piano solo enters with an echo of those chords. It was at that point that I paused the recording before walking up the stairs.

As I settled on the floor in the back of the projection space and resumed the concerto, the exhibition recording started, blaring loudly over the music. Again, the trauma and sorrow washed over me.

This was the process, then: holding onto the pattern of the music as the noise and words stepped over it. The stronger chords exerted themselves even through the loudest sections, but Brahm’s meditation has passages of delicate arpeggios and simple, haunting melodies that even hushed voices would occlude.

The thought that I projected was only this:

If they won’t let you speak, then hear this; share it.

To not be forgotten. To receive evidence that love transmutes sorrow into beauty. And, as the first movement ends with it’s playful re-iteration of the opening themes, to hope that children would come to restore joy where greed and fear have made a wasteland of the human heart.

Foreign Commercial Policy

As with others, I have been concerned to see the shrinking of the State Department under the Trump Administration. The President of the American Foreign Service Association, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, has penned an editorial (to be published in the December issue of Foreign Service Journal) that summarizes the self-inflicted wounds on our ability to conduct foreign policy, and demands that we ask “Why?”

I see two reasons. The first, and lesser, is Trump’s preference for the military option in foreign policy. I believe this is rooted in two realities: American has by far the most powerful military in the world. Trump is a man of simple judgment, and so doesn’t need to reason much beyond that. Furthermore, he is undisputed commander-in-chief of the military, which is why he has so many generals in his cabinet. They are bound to do what he commands them to do. What more could a narcissistic megalomaniac want?

Constitutionally, the president’s control of the military is constrained only by the requirement that Congress declare war. Unfortunately, since 9/11 the military has been operating on a global remit to wage war against terrorism, which under the rubrik of “state sponsored terrorism” can be interpreted to mean almost any hostile act.

The second reason to destroy the State Department is more insidious. Trump doesn’t reveal his tax returns because they document his participation and profiteering in money laundering, often in collaboration with leaders from other nations. Trump’s motive is to clear the barriers to such conduct, barriers maintained in large part by investigators hosted and supported by our foreign service.

As CEO of Exxon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bragged that Exxon was a supra-national power. He thumbed his nose at American sanctions against Russia, and undercut repatriation agreements intended to ensure that African dictators allocated for public benefit a portion of resource extraction profits.

Trump and Tillerson are both united in their intention to minimize political interference in the ability of US business to profit overseas. My sense is that they look at Iranian resurgence – led by the corrupt Revolutionary Guard – and increasing Chinese hegemony on the international stage – led by the corrupt People’s Army – as evidence that American power can be sustained only if military and commercial policy are fully aligned.

Tillerson is gutting the State Department to create conditions under which that alignment can be established. In part, that is a rational response to global realities, but it has the undeniable side-effect of supporting the construction of a global kleptocracy. For Trump, that is the compelling motivation.


I caught a little piece of an Oliver Stone interview last night. He was saying that after thirteen years of watching Trump be decisive and commanding on The Apprentice, very few except the politically sophisticated would be able to perceive the empty vacuum at the heart of his persona. Of course, about the time of the Access Hollywood recording, producers at The Apprentice let it be known that they had to work really hard to maintain that image. Trump was abusive during scenes, and arbitrary in his decisions. One of the challenges was building a back-story that justified his actions.

Coupled with this is the dominance of Fox News in Republican circles. Joy Reid was on with Chris Hayes last night, observing that the reason the Republican base still remains loyal to Trump is because Fox continues to tell them that the Russian interference scandal is nothing worth paying attention to.

Contrast this with Joseph McCarthy, leader of the Red Scare scandals of the 1950s. McCarthy would roll into town, make a bunch of baseless accusations against local politicians, and then leave. The press would publish front-page denouncements of McCarthy’s targets, followed by back-page retractions when the accusations were debunked. Lives were ruined by the asymmetrical publicity.

What undid McCarthy were the televised Congressional hearings. Before the cameras, he was revealed as a manipulative little weasel.

Of course, some among us see Trump in the same way, but his electorate has been conditioned to associate those traits with carefully-scripted moments of glory.

But what about his sons?

It was cathartic to see Donald, Jr. on Fox News last night. He came across as a whiny brat.

Trump, Sr. characterizes the meeting with Russian representatives as “opposition research” that “almost anyone” would pursue. If so, that’s an indictment of our political culture. Trump has long been cozy with organized crime figures, and draws his legal talent from a community of ugly intimidators – men that will not even bother to apply for security clearances that would never be granted. Is this where we have come as a nation? A political culture in which winning by any means possible includes crawling through the gutter with people whose livelihood requires corrupting virtue?

In the early hours this morning, I found myself musing that maybe Comey took the line he did against Clinton in part to create conditions under which that culture would be exposed. I know that it had invaded the FBI itself, where anti-Clinton zealots used Breitbart publications to motivate a criminal investigation of her family. This is a visible case of misuse of agency resources by political operatives, but what if elected officials all across the country are interceding in investigations to protect criminals that have contributed to the destruction of other candidates?

I personally don’t find that inconceivable.

J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI as long as he did because he had files full of the dirty secrets that elected officials wished to keep hidden. Could it be that organized crime has its own database at this point, and is securing its influence by blackmailing the political class? The Russian government – now the most powerful organized crime ring in the world – may not be motivated only by its foreign policy goals to attack our political system. It may also be extending its power through organized crime, and collaborating with U.S. criminals to corrupt not just our political class, but our entire culture.

Smoking Dope

Matthew Walther at The Week argues that no smoking gun has been found to support the claim that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Walther (isn’t that the name of a gun manufacturer?) wanders a little, asserting that when the Clintons fly first-class for their global charity, they reveal their corruption, and so justify ongoing support for the President. I find that argument weakened, however, in that Trump flies in a private jet purchased with funds gained laundering money stolen by Russian kleptocrats.

And as for the central assertion: it’s going to be awfully hard to find a smoking gun in the radioactive crater left by the hydrogen bomb Trump has set off in American foreign policy. As Rachel Maddow has been laying out, Russia has been given everything that it could have asked for. Trump’s craven catering to a murderous tyrant is all the evidence required to prove his unfitness to be our head of state.

Or should that have been “cave-in cratering?”

My Fair Islam

Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana has posted a threat to “radicalized Islamists” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Higgins claims that his words are being twisted by the left for political gain.

And what, my dear Mr. Higgins, do you think the ISIL propagandists are doing right now? Telling the impoverished Muslim world that they will find security if they recite the Pledge of Allegiance with marbles in their mouth?

After all, from their point of view, America sends special forces and fighter jets around the world to murder women and children.

There’s no tracing back to the origin of fault. Your job as a political leader is thus not only to fund security, but to build coalitions that reach across sectarian lines. That includes running incendiary words past Islamic leaders. They’re the ones that bear the brunt of hatred, and you damn well better ask permission before you claim the privilege of “free speech.”

You’re the POTUS

The most disturbing statement I’ve heard Trump utter came in his conversation with Lester Holt. After admitting that Putin asked Trump to meet in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, Trump said “and, you know, who am I to say “No”? Nothing speaks more to me of the fact that Trump lacks the confidence to lead our great nation than his failure to understand that he CAN stand up to the leader of the greatest criminal enterprise in the world – they being Vladimir Putin and the Russian state.

Either that, or it was Trump’s folksy way of saying that he really admires the guy.