• San Pedro’s ‘Little Italy’ Raises Historical Fiction Question

    • 09/13/2018
    • Richard Foss
    • Cuisine
    • Comments are off

    By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Columnist

    Generally, Los Angeles ignores or destroys its past and minimalls rise in neighborhoods that used to have character.

    San Pedro is an outlier thanks to a combination of accident and design. The city missed the mid-century wave of indiscriminate development and has some superb period architecture. Less attention has been paid to the people who occupied the lovely Victorian homes and worked in the Deco-era buildings. As such, it sounded like a move in the right direction when the Los Angeles City Council decided to commemorate a local ethnic group that was once a vibrant community but is now an aging minority.

    As a historian, I was puzzled when I heard that part of San Pedro would be designated as Historic Little Italy at the instigation of Councilman Joe Buscaino. Though a large Italian community did exist here, most coming from the coast and islands near Naples, the area’s Croatian community has been more active in recent decades. It’s worth noting, though, that to Angelenos in the 19th century they were the same. Angelenos routinely referred to coastal Croatians as Italians, because it was a linguistic designation, not a national identity. Before 1871 there was no nation called Italy. Due to the trading importance of Venice most coastal Croatians spoke Italian as a first or second language and shared a food culture and in 1870s LA there were Italian restaurants owned by people with names like Markovich and Illich. In San Pedro the two communities, both Catholic and involved in the fishing trade, were commingled almost from the outset.

    Once I looked at the boundaries of the area to be designated as Historic Little Italy, I was confused. The borders are Gaffey on the west to Pacific Avenue on the east and from 6th Street to 17th Street, encompassing a largely residential area with no particular connection to the historic Italian community. The oldest existing businesses catering to San Pedro’s Italian community, Marabella Winery (1932), and A-1 Grocery (1947), are just outside the designated zone, as is Mary Star of the Sea Church (established 1889, current location 1958). Had that rectangular historic zone been rotated 90 degrees, it might have included all of these. The oldest Italian business I could find within the  zone is Buono’s Pizza (1973), which isn’t quite in the same league as the church when it comes to centers of community. (J. Trani’s, which is inside the zone, dates from 1987, though it was founded by a family that has operated local restaurants since 1925.)

    Since I assumed the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District was involved in this designation, I reached out to them first. An email from their spokesperson stated that they were “a bit perplexed as to how this came about, as there didn’t seem to be a public process.”

    The San Pedro Historical Society was not consulted either, and an email from a board member includes the sentence, “I know of no significant Italian landmarks in the San Pedro area.” I contacted the office of Councilman Joe Buscaino, and had a conversation with his communications director, Branimir Kvartuc. My questions and his responses are below, with my commentary in italics.

    Richard Foss: Will designation as a historic district open up any funding leverage for local improvements?

    Branimir Kvartuc: The intent of the designation is a preamble to the Little Italy that the councilman wants to establish in downtown San Pedro. Italians have greatly contributed to the history and economy of San Pedro and the councilman wants to do whatever he can to preserve the culture. Establishing a Little Italy is appropriate on the basis of its historical merit. The historic designation will legitimize the creation of a Little Italy.

    The second thing he (Buscaino) wants to do is create a plaza that will be called Little Italy. A Little Italy today is not what Little Italys were 50 years ago in New York or San Francisco. The definition is not the same as it was. Today, Little Italy is more of a branding mechanism, so the councilman is thinking about doing a Little Italy Plaza, similar to the one that was recently established in San Diego. He’s using that as a model, a plaza that has a value in branding.

    (As I can’t include our entire conversation here, this is as good as anywhere to note that the word “branding” cropped up in Mr. Kvartuc’s responses many times.)

    RF: What about the Croatian community? They were regarded as Italians in the 1850s, and the area is now more associated with them. The Croatian Hall is within the zone boundary.

    BK: They’re equal. Why Little Italy? Little Italy has a better brand name than a Little Croatia. Look, having grown up in San Pedro and being Croatian, I take zero offense to the fact that it’s a Little Italy, because I understand and respect the branding of it. Nevertheless, I think that the Italian and Croatian communities in San Pedro are completely intertwined, and both communities will be using the plaza.

    RF: The boundaries of this zone extend to 17th Street in a mainly residential district — why?

    BK: That area is called Vinegar Hill, because that’s where a lot of Italians lived from the 1920s to the 50s. They made their own wine, and that’s what that came from.

    (The designated zone does not overlap the existing Vinegar Hill historic preservation zone, which extends from Beacon to Pacific, from 8th to 14th Street. The homes in the Vinegar Hill district all date from 1886 to 1927, while the designated “Historic Little Italy”zone includes 1950s residential housing, 1970s apartment and retail buildings, a Dollar Tree and a 99 Cents Only Store. A member of the Vinegar Hill Preservation Zone who was involved in that organization’s foundation said that their board was not consulted about the Historic Little Italy designation and he could not figure out any rational explanation for the chosen borders.)

    RF: Just outside of the designated district are A-1 Grocery and Marabella Winery, two of the oldest Italian-owned businesses in San Pedro. They offer unique products tailored to that community. Why are they outside of the zone?

    BK: You’re taking the line a little bit too literally.… I don’t have the exact answer as to why exactly the line was drawn where it was. I’ll get back to you on that. The plaza will be an incentive and a magnet to bring in people, and they will all benefit.

    (Despite follow-up requests, one of which was acknowledged via email, Mr. Kvartuc did not get back to me.)

    RF: I’m comparing this to the city of Westminster designating part of the city as Little Saigon, which was in response to years of pleas from the community. The San Pedro designation doesn’t seem to be a response to a popular movement.

    BK: The community movement at this point we’re at now is coming from the San Pedro Business District and the [San Pedro] Chamber of Commerce. They have been trying to do everything they can to promote San Pedro as an event space. We have the Fleet Week, the Battleship Iowa that is drawing over a million people a year, the San Pedro Fish Market has been drawing a million people for a long time and when the San Pedro Public Market is built they’ll have a new building and will continue to draw people. Using Hermosa Beach as an example, before the Pier Plaza was built Hermosa Beach was a seedy place. We’re about 20 years behind Hermosa, but that’s what shook up that area and this designation has been done to lay the foundations to create a branding mechanism to do economic development in downtown San Pedro. The bottom line is economic development, that’s what all of this is about. It’s not like the example you just gave in Westminster, it’s so we can attract more businesses. They may not be Italian businesses, but maybe more restaurants.

    RF: I contacted the Arts District to see whether they might be involved in creating an Italian film or music festival, perhaps something involving Italian art and design, and they said they have never been contacted.  Who is doing the planning and will the public be involved?

    BK: The San Pedro Chamber of Commerce is on board and participating in the conversation, and so is the Downtown Business Improvement District. A nonprofit is being developed to raise the funding to create and maintain the plaza, and the board will be responsible for programming the plaza. The public process will begin after the board is established…. To all the (program idea examples), yes to all of them. Yes to non-Italian events as well. The farmer’s market might move there, we’re looking into that. It’s about having it programmed as often as possible, if we’re lucky 365 days a year. There will be places to hang out at the plaza, to eat at the plaza and hopefully restaurants can set up European-style so people can eat outside.

    (The reference to involving the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District only after a board is created implies that the Arts District will have no representation on the nonprofit’s board, and that any role in the programming will be limited. Since the Arts District has been active in the community for many years and has broad community support, it seems surprising to not include them in the formative stage.)

    RF: There are some public spaces that may be intended to commemorate a people or event, but are standard public parks in all but name and decorative touches. What can you tell me about the design of the plaza?

    BK: There’s a consultant that was hired to kind of develop the model and it’s the same consultant that did the Little Italy in San Diego. His model is to vacate a public street and create the plaza out of that public street. The model is to do that in as much density as you can find. Being that there’s at least a thousand new apartments going up in San Pedro, we’re trying to create a situation where we can attract new business into that area, because that area will be connected into the new San Pedro Public Market, making that entire area a destination.

    (The reference to a thousand new apartments seems to be based on proposed developments that are scheduled to be completed over a 10 year period. I have been told that only 420 new units have been approved at this time. As designing, building and moving new tenants into a new plaza would probably take a decade to implement, this is probably consistent with that estimate.

    Kvartuc did not say how the area designated as Historic Little Italy might be connected to the Public Market. It is a half-mile walk uphill from southern edge of the Public Market to the closest point in the Historic Zone and almost a full mile from the centerpoint of one to the centerpoint of the other. If any public transit is planned between the two, Kvartuc did not mention it. He also did not address adding parking structures near the plaza to accommodate increased auto traffic. A request for clarification was emailed on Aug. 3 and a response was promised, but none was received by Sept.4,  when this article was submitted.)

    In Retrospect

    Our conversation lasted almost half-an-hour and I don’t have room for all of it here, but in retrospect two things stand out. One was that while the potential for attracting new businesses was mentioned many times, Kvartuc never mentioned any initiatives to promote existing businesses that have roots in the community. Any new businesses on the plaza would be likely to include Italian groceries and restaurants that will compete with locally-owned businesses outside of the development. Had there been any mention of a plan to assist historic San Pedran businesses in relocating to the high traffic zone, it would have at least indicated that their interests and livelihoods were being considered. Instead all benefit to the existing local businesses was expressed as potential additional traffic by people who are in the neighborhood to visit the new development, rather than as an integral part of that development. The same focus was true when describing likely visitors; while the tastes of residents of the yet-to-be-built apartments and condos were mentioned several times, there was no mention whatever of serving or connecting with the existing Italian community.

    That community was economically and culturally important for more than a century and they still patronize the 40-odd local Italian eateries that range from humble pizzerias to elegant restaurants. It would be worthy to celebrate their heritage with art and cultural celebrations that reflect their origins in a particular region of Italy. Links and cultural exchanges to that area might be explored and an archive might be made of reminiscences of those among us who remember when the Ischian dialect was heard in these streets. If properly done, a Historic Little Italy project and plaza could help recently arrived residents make connections between their own experiences and the brave people who left their homeland to make a living among their kin in California. Whether part of that district is co-designated as a Little Croatia or not, Croatians can be integrated into the narrative because to their contemporaries they were Italian too. It is a nuanced history and as such more challenging to reveal, but in my opinion including that community would be more rewarding and meaningful to those who visit with the desire to learn.

    The location of any designated space to memorialize the historic communities is of more than academic interest, because the public can tell the difference between a genuine and manufactured tourist attractions and will respond accordingly. San Diego’s Little Italy project, which was mentioned as a model for this one, includes the 1925 Italian church,  a Victorian-era firehouse turned museum, the sites of a macaroni factory and tuna canneries and a clutch of restaurants that go back to 1950. The district boundaries were obviously chosen to include places of genuine civic and cultural importance and as an economic driver integrated with cultural education the project has been very successful. We can not say how the site for the San Pedro version was chosen, because requests for that information have been rebuffed.

    Kvartuc’s assertion that “A Little Italy today is not what a Little Italy was 50 years ago” will be challenged by those who believe in meaningful connections between cultures and places. There was an Italian community in San Pedro 100 years ago, and their descendants live and work here now. However it appears that only one of them – Buscaino – has any say in how and where that heritage will be commemorated.

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  • SCR’s Sense and Sensibility

    Not All a Jane Austen Adaptation Can Be

    By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist

    As clever as Jane Austen’s work can be, its depth is more or less limited to one subject: the hearts of women beating within and against the horribly sexist corset of 18th-century English society. That said, she wrote the shit out of that subject, embedding it within engaging and romantic plots sprinkled with generous dollops of drollery.

    Not surprisingly, her half-dozen novels have provided source material for so many adaptations that when you come across a new take, it’s nigh on impossible not to compare it with one you’ve seen before. But I’m going to try my best to resist.

    Besides, maybe this is all new to you—in which case, a spot of plot is in order: The Dashwood women have just lost their patriarch, whose sole male heir decides to kick them out of their lifelong home. That’s 18th-century patriarchy for ya. With few rights and little money, the women are lucky that a kindly distant relative provides them with a modest country cottage. But the move proves pivotal to their future in ways they cannot foresee, as the two elder daughters — Elinor (Hilary Ward) and Marianne (Rebecca Mozo), the binary star of the Sense and Sensibility solar system — meet men who will change their lives for better or worse.

    Ultimately better, because Jane Austen doesn’t do tragedy. In fact, Austen is quite predictable once you have a sense of what she’s up to. This is romantic comedy in the classical sense, and you get what you pay for.

    South Coast Repertory’s staging is completely in keeping with that predictability. There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise you. Rather than reach for something new, in the hands of director Casey Stangl, Jessica Swale’s adaptation grasps for the tried and true, giving us the same straightforward rendering of Austen that’s made for a number of fine films and PBS miniseries.

    That works well enough throughout Act One, where not only does the plot move along trippingly, but Stangl and company do an excellent job mining the humor out of the era’s stiltedness and ceremony. The highlight is the introduction of Willoughby (Preston Butler III), Marianne’s rakish young suitor. Period manners and melodramatic conventions are amped up to absurd levels, making for true hilarity.

    Unfortunately, the play never again hits such heights. With little to laugh at in Act Two and a change of pace that becomes a panicky hurry by the last half-hour, audiences are likely to come away feeling not quite satisfied.

    Especially if they’ve seen Ang Lee’s film version. Yes, I know I said I’d try not to compare this Sense and Sensibility with any other, but there’s simply no way not to, as South Coast Repertory is putting on a play that seems to want to be a film, including an original score (by Martín Carrillo, which works well enough, save for one motif that is awfully reminiscent of the As the World Turns theme) and scenes cut together in a fairly cinematic fashion. (You might say, then, that the end of Act Two is poorly edited.)

    The comparison—unfair as it may be—may shed some light on why Swale’s adaptation feels a little wanting. To her credit, she has made her own choices on what to include and what to omit from Austen’s highly detailed plot and voluminous dialogue, but some of those choices are questionable. A prime example comes near the end of the play. In the novel, as Marianne reflects on her relations with and feelings for Willoughby, she laments that her conduct has not been like Elinor’s, a signal of the sense she has gained from her experience. Swale has inexplicably left this out, excising an important part of Marianne’s character arc in the process.

    The acting is solid, if not inspired. Willoughby’s entrance scene is so good that it’s clear the cast is capable of more dynamic work, but Stangl keeps them a bit too reined in for most of the show. There are a few big emotional moments—for example, Ward does fine work with Elinor’s catharsis near play’s end—but this is not a production where the actors leave it all on the field.

    All South Coast Repertory’s productions are sleek, and this one is no exception. The mise en scène here is what you expect from a professional theatre company such as theirs—although, again, there’s nothing much to inspire. Anne E. McMills does some nice lighting work, particularly with a bit of morning sunlight angling indoors. Can’t say I’ve ever quite seen that onstage.

    Ultimately, this Sense and Sensibility doesn’t quite deliver on the promise that its source material provides. Would I feel differently had I never seen Lee’s film? Perhaps, although I doubt the verdict would have been drastically different. But I have seen it. That’s the risk you take when you choose to produce yet another adaptation of one of the most adapted—well adapted—authors of the last quarter-century.

    Sense and Sensibility at South Coast Repertory – Segerstrom Stage:
    Times: Sun/Tues-Thurs 7:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 8 p.m. and Sat-Sun 2:30 p.m.
    The show runs through Sept. 29
    Cost: $23-$86
    Details: (714)708-5555, SCR.ORG
    Venue: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr , Costa Mesa

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  • Kalimba channels vintage Earth, Wind and Fire.

    The Spirit of Earth Wind & Fire Shines Through Kalimba

    • 09/10/2018
    • Melina Paris
    • Music
    • Comments are off

    By Melina Paris, Music Columnist

    Earth Wind & Fire was at the forefront of the evolution of pop music in the 1970s.  In a decade of experimentation, the band bridged the musical tastes of a black and white America with multicultural spiritualism.  The Spirit of Earth Wind & Fire, transports audiences back in time with songs like September, Shining Star, That’s the Way of the World and Got to Get You Into My Life.

    Former band member, Sheldon Reynolds of Earth Wind & Fire, will perform with Kalimba Sept. 21 at San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre.

    Reynolds was with Earth Wind & Fire from 1987 to 2002. In 1994, the guitarist and singer earned a Grammy nomination for the song Sunday Morning. As a member of the band, Reynolds also received a NAACP Lifetime Achievement Image Award.

    Reynolds and Michael Cole, Kalimba’s guitar player, met when Cole came to Reynolds’ studio when he lived in Seattle. They stayed in touch for several years. Eventually, Cole reached out to him to tell him he put a group together, doing an Earth Wind & Fire tribute. He wanted Reynolds to know about it and suggested that maybe they could work together.

    “We play together when the band tours in LA and in Seattle,” Reynolds said. “We actually played in Moscow last year, (in August).”

    Moscow was surreal for Reynolds.

    “Because we had, for most of our lifetime in this generation, either feared or considered (Russia) an enemy — of all enemies,” Reynolds said. “But we were standing right in the middle of Red Square, hanging out with people. So, it was like the complete opposite. It was great.”

    They performed a private show, on the river near the Kremlin and were very well received. Reynolds said an influx of people actually got in, on the grounds where they were playing.

    “So we could come over there and do shows throughout Russia,” Reynolds said. “That was the plan. It went really well but we had some controversy with our White House (in 2016), so … now everything is on hold.”

    Reynolds also is working on a new series called Behind the Groove. The show pays homage to people who get left out of the fame and the credit for their work on great, famous songs.

    “Whether they wrote them, whether they performed on songs or were musicians or engineers, there are people who participate on these who never get any just due,” Reynolds said.

    Reynolds along with his manager and another producer thought up the concept for the show. There is a show clip on YouTube now. Reynolds said they try to bring out some of the fun stories that happen in the studio, such as accidents.

    “When I was in Earth Wind & Fire, they used to call me Toscanini,” Reynolds said. “Because I’m not a real keyboard player. (I’m kind of) a fumble up and do something right kind of guy. I would play keyboard on some songs and get in there and hit something that was crazy but it was cool and they would say, ‘Keep it, keep it. Don’t let it go, Toscanini struck again.’

    So, were (doing) stuff like that with Behind the Groove, the positive story and an uplifting approach.”

    Reynolds’ best musical experiences and growth as a human being came during his years with Earth Wind & Fire.

    “It wasn’t just a group (about) being famous … it was also a group I can feel proud to bring my parents to see,” Reynolds said. “It was the best experience in all forms. We were dedicated to excellence. We were dedicated to uplifting people, dedicated to providing music and intriguing lyrics. (We got) people to pay attention to some of the things they didn’t pay attention to, learn about history, religion and God. (It was) all the things the name suggests, all the elements.”

    Reynolds said working under Maurice White (Dec. 19, 1941 to Feb. 4, 2016), the bands founder, was the highlight of his life. The men also shared one thing that he didn’t want but Reynolds always teased his mentor about anyway, that is Parkinson’s Disease.

    “We used to joke about it,” he said. “How did two guys in the same band get the same rare disease? I used to tell him it was something they must have put in the fog machines.”

    Reynolds wanted to follow in White’s footsteps and keep the legacy going in the best way. But he didn’t want the Parkinson’s part. White had said to him “If you’re gonna take the groove, you’re gonna take the whole groove.”

    Reynolds still plays and sings. He said so far, the disease hasn’t affected him. Then he elaborated, it has in a certain way — in the way a musician would think or feel. But he was never a “burning rubber guitarist.” He’s played rhythm guitar and focused more on singing in the past 20 years. Playing and singing gives him an adrenaline rush and he said it positively affects his Parkinson’s.

    Reynolds added Kalimba is a very loving tribute to his former band. They are honestly paying tribute. They are not trying to be Earth Wind & Fire or reinvent the wheel —  it’s just paying homage and love.

    Time: 8 p.m. Sept. 21

    Cost: $28 to $68.

    Details: kalimbathespiritofearthwindandfire.com, www.grandvision.org

    Venue: Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro

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  • The Fleeting Glory of the Hatch Chilé

    • 09/07/2018
    • Richard Foss
    • Cuisine
    • Comments are off

    By Richard Foss, Cuisine & Culture Columnist

    Want a strawberry in February, beets in July, or winter squash on Memorial Day? Thanks to cheap shipping from places with different climates, you can get them all. In the 20th century we almost abolished seasonality and in the 21st we’ve just about finished it off.

    Still, there are still a few things that are only available for a brief period every year. One of them is a large green chilé grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico. Something about the environment there creates a unique flavor that is enhanced by roasting, and when Hatch chilés ripen at the end of summer it is the occasion for day-long celebrations. These used to be confined to New Mexico, but chefs elsewhere have recently joined the fun. One is Arthur Gonzalez, a Los Angeles-area native who moved to Santa Fe for a job at the famous Geronimo restaurant. Gonzalez talks about his first encounter with Hatch chilés in the tones most people use for religious awakenings.

    “On my first weekend I went to the farmer’s market and smelled this amazing aroma. I followed my nose to a place where a guy was roasting Hatch chilés, chopping them up, and serving them on a fresh tortilla,” Gonzalez said. “I had tried all sorts of chilé preparations and sauces, but that was different from anything else I had experienced. It was magical, smoky and a little sweet, a little earthy. My eyes lit up and I just said, ‘Whoah, that’s good stuff.’ I’d had pasillas, jalapeños, serranos, lots of other chilés, but this had its own unique flavor.”
    He was so curious about this ingredient that he drove 250 miles to the valley, where they came from and there, learned more about them.

    “The Hatch Valley was like the Napa of chilés, all green with the vines filled with fruit,” he said. “Most farmers believe that the minerals in the Rio Grande water make the difference. It could be that, or something about the micro-climate there, or the expertise of growers who have been raising it for generations, but there’s something special about those chilés.”

    As Gonzalez studied them, he found that there is considerable variation even within the valley where Hatch chilés grow.

    “There’s a place called Horseman’s Haven that is famous for really spicy green chili and they get their chilés from the same field every year because no others are hot enough,” he said. “Hatches range from mild to very hot, and you get the ones you like. As they ripen and get a tinge of red they become sweeter. When it’s half red and half green they call them pintos, like the spotted horse. I prefer them that way, with just a touch of red on them, because you get a deeper flavor.”

    Whether mild or hot, they’re probably the only chilé that is never used raw.

    “Roasting sweetens it and gives it just a touch of smokiness and in New Mexico whole families have roast parties,” he said. “They set up big tables and Grandma makes a lot of food while the family roasts, skins, and bags chilés to be frozen so they can use them throughout the year. At roast party dinners they just chop up the fresh chilés and put them in a bowl on the table, and you just add them to whatever you’re eating … they also make a runny enchilada-type sauce that they use in all sorts of ways.”

    One of the few places to try freshly roasted Hatches is Panxa Cocina in Long Beach, where Gonzalez is chef-partner. There he draws on his Oaxacan mother’s heritage and his interest in South American flavors, and during the month of September the theme is Hatch chilés.

    “At Panxa I base dishes on my heritage, on other Latin cuisines that intrigue me, and flavors from New Mexico, which I love,” he said. “In New Mexico the food is simple, with very intense flavors. This month I’ve included Hatchchilés in our cornbread, we’re offering a Hatch enchilada sauce, and I’m stuffing the chilés like a relleno. One item you won’t see anywhere else is the blue corn quesadilla with squash blossoms and Hatch chilé jam. The quesadilla is Oaxacan style, so it looks like an empanada, which is how my grandmother used to make them. We made a beautiful queso fresco using buttermilk, and it goes great in there. I’m working on an aguachilé, and I think the Hatch flavor will go very well in that.”

    Other featured items include a chicken fried steak with Hatch sauce, a surprisingly delicate Hatch relleno stuffed with prawns, walnuts, and corn, and even a desert of a chilé-stuffed sopapilla pastry with smoky vanilla ice cream. You can finish with a cocktail made with Hatch infused vodka with lime and hibiscus. It’s daring to theme a monthly menu around an item that most Californians don’t know, but Gonzalez obviously is an evangelist for this ingredient.

    You might think that Gonzalez wishes he could experiment with Hatch chilés all year, but he doesn’t. He enjoys the anticipation as he gets phone calls from farmers telling him how close they are to ripening, and he cherishes working with one of the few truly seasonal ingredients. Perhaps remembering how he learned about them himself, he is even duplicating the New Mexico chilé parties.

    “This year we’re having a public chilé roast, so customers can experience the process,” he said. “When I roasted chilés last year behind my other restaurant Roe, all the cooks came out asking, ‘What’s that smell? It’s intoxicating!’ It’s something you get on every corner in New Mexico at this time of year, and for just a little while, in a few places, you get it in California.”

    The chilé roasts will be from 12 to 4 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16.

    Details: (562) 433-7999; Panxacocina.com

    Venue: Panxa Cocina is at 3937 E. Broadway in Long Beach.

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  • Celebrate Mexican Independence with Gregorio Luke

    • 09/07/2018
    • Andrea Serna
    • Culture
    • Comments are off

    By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer

    Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence day. You already knew that, right? Many people outside Mexico mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican independence, which was declared more than 50 years before the Battle of Puebla.

    Independence Day in Mexico (Día de la Independencia) is commemorated on Sept. 16, the anniversary of the revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s famous “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”), a call to arms that amounted to a declaration of war against the Spanish colonial government in 1810.

    On Sept. 16, the actual Mexican Independence Day, you will have an opportunity to learn the true story of that nation’s Independence. The San Pedro Waterfront Arts District has invited the renowned lecturer Gregorio Luke to deliver an expansive presentation of Mexican art and history at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. The lecture is the launch of Cuatro@Cabrillo, a four-part education series on the art, history and cinema of Mexico.

    Luke, a former director of the Museum of Latin American Art, is an internationally recognized expert in Mexican art and history. Although he is known from his years at MOLAA, he began his career working in cultural affairs as the first secretary of Mexico’s embassy in Washington D.C. He has given more than 1,000 lectures at museums and universities through the United States, Mexico and Europe.

    Luke said that this is his most ambitious lecture to date.

    “I’m going to be try to give people the entire vision of a nation and their history, art and culture,” he said.

    The organizers have promised a kaleidoscopic vision of Mexico in this series, which brings to life the ancient art of the Aztecs and Mayans, the golden beauty of colonial cathedrals, the vibrant murals created after the 1910 revolution, as well as the cutting-edge art of contemporary Mexican culture.

    He launched his lecture career teaching about the great Mexican muralists known as Los Tres: Diego Rivera, Dávid Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Through the study of these artists he wove the history of a nation.

    The Mexican muralist movement emerged through the struggle for independence. The great murals produced in from the 1920s to 1970s, were created to tell the story of politics and nationalism with a focus on the Mexican Revolution, the mestizo identity and Mesoamerican cultural history. Luke, who was born and raised in Mexico, is a master of conveying the story of the history and culture he loves.

    He is also looking forward to speaking in San Pedro for the first time.“I am so excited to have received this invitation to speak in San Pedro,” he said. “It is a place that I have always loved to go and eat at the many wonderful restaurants. I love the sense that nothing is artificial, that everything is authentic”.

    Cuatro@Cabrillo continues in 2019 with the presentation of three films by Oscar-winning Mexican directors: Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón, Birdman by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro.

    Cuatro@Cabrillo tickets are $15 for general admission and $35 for VIP tickets. VIP tickets include an exclusive reception with Gregorio Luke, limited VIP reserved seating and free parking.

    Time: 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16

    Cost: $15 to $35

    Details: www.sanpedrowaterfrontartsdistrict.com

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  • Seeking to Hire a Paid, Full-Time AmeriCorps Member

    The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), in conjunction with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), is seeking to hire a paid, full time AmeriCorps member to serve as a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) Planning Specialist. Ideally, the position will begin service on October 1, 2018. HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program supports locally-driven strategies as a comprehensive approach to neighborhood transformation. The Planning Specialist will work with HACLA to develop and implement a transformation plan and outreach strategy, organize and attend community events to disseminate information and materials, as well as provide feedback to HACLA on community input. As an AmeriCorps position, the selected candidate will also receive a $5,920 education award. For more information, please contact John King @  John.King@hacla.org no later than September 18, 2018.

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  • McCain’s Funeral was a Ritual Salute to the One Not Invited

    • 09/06/2018
    • James Preston Allen
    • At Length
    • Comments are off

    Resistance, reaction and reflection

    By James Preston Allen, Publisher

    I was never a fan of Arizona’s Sen. John McCain. It is only belatedly that I’ve come to admire him for his reputation as “maverick” given his thumbs-down vote preserving the Affordable Care Act against the Republican Senate majority.  He truly was a maverick and if his politics had been a bit more to the left, he just might have made a great president. Although, I won’t ever forgive him for choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 election.

    His preplanned national funeral, however, was probably the most significant political act  of defiance of his career. It forced the Washington establishment to join in a poignant one-finger salute to He-who-was-not-invited.  Clearly, by the list of who was invited to speak and by what was said, McCain’s intent was to bring the nation back to some rational civility and common grounding in the basic creed of American beliefs.

    The funeral absorbed the entire news cycle for more than two days. The funeral had effectively pushed No. 45 to the periphery of the news cycle and brought much of the nation back to the fireplace via the national network news for two hours. The spin was provided by the significance of the ritual itself and by who said what.

    Both Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter and President Barack Obama took swipes at the current President. Meghan’s eulogy was so heartfelt and compelling that none of the people who watched it could keep a dry eye. It was her most defining statement and she delivered it with such courage that it set the tone for much of what followed.

    At one point, in reference to the Trump campaign’s slogan, Meghan said, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”

    Obama too, with a much more subtle critique, derided those who traffick in “bombast and insult and phony controversies and manufactured outrage.” He also attacked, “politics that pretends to be brave and tough but in fact is born of fear.”

    This, of course, was in contrast to the man everyone came to mourn — a celebrated national hero, Navy veteran and POW, who endured torture when he was captured in Vietnam.

    The kerfuffle over the White House raising the flag before a sufficient amount of time had passed after McCain died was just one more of the trivial distractions to which this nation has become accustomed. This includes the current state of affairs in which we have 24-hour news coverage of the current president’s tweeted insults, falsehoods and half-truths.

    Since the national funeral, there is the glaring recognition that the midterm congressional elections is a battle between two very distinct visions of America. This is evidenced by the fact No. 45 is and had been hurriedly hopscotching across the country to rally his base to forestall the “blue wave” that’s threatening to take over Congress and potentially have him don orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.

    As much as No. 45 has divided this country with his stupid, racist and delusional social media attacks, he has unified a resistance that we have not witnessed since Richard Nixon held that office. Some even labeled the ceremony as the Resistance Meeting. The floodgates of the resistance seem to be busting open now with new information and not just with the Robert Mueller investigations, but with several recent books and a new documentary film.

    Potentially, the most damaging is the recently released documentary, Active Measures, directed by Jack Bryan. The film starts by summarizing Vladimir V. Putin’s career through the time of his election as Russia’s president. In the heaps of interviews, video clips and flow charts, Bryan outlines the links between Putin and No. 45, Paul Manafort extensive work for Russia and the foreign shell companies that launder funds for Russian organized crime into the United States.

    If even half of what is revealed in this documentary can be proven in court, No. 45 has a great deal to worry about beyond this coming election.

    Then there’s Bob Woodward’s latest 448 page book, Fear: Trump in the White House. Woodward provides an unprecedented look inside this president’s inner circle. This book uses confidential interviews to show how some of the president’s own advisors view him as dangerous to our national security and some who have sought to circumvent the commander in chief.

    All of this and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court has truly galvanized the Democrat’s resistance in a way that was not foreseen a year ago. Clearly, more and more people are seeing this presidency as not only deleterious to our nation but as an existential threat to our republic and our democratic institutions.

    I’m sure the late senator relishes the thought that his passing instigated this, but he probably never imagined he would become a symbol of the “Resistance.”  I never would have thought it possible either.

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  • LGBTQ Community Celebrates 25 Years of Long Beach Film

    • 09/06/2018
    • Reporters Desk
    • Culture
    • Comments are off

    By Katrina Guevara, Contributor

    The Long Beach Q Film Festival has been transporting viewers to new places and times of empathy for decades. The festival will screen 15 films from Sept. 6 to 9 at The Art Theatre during its 25th anniversary.

    Once called The Long Beach International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, the four-day event has gone through many iterations. However, it’s remained true to celebrating narrative features, documentaries and short films that embody the spirit of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities.

    “[QFilms] always has a universal language,” said founder Robert Cano. “That’s why it’s a wonderful event for the whole community that is still looking for a place to belong, be loved, accepted, honored and recognized.

    Cano first screened films at his apartment in the early ‘90s.

    “The films reflected the AIDS epidemic and I was right in the middle of it,” Cano said. “I had friends dying left and right. I asked myself, ‘What do I do?’ My love was for movies. I thought maybe we can start something positive.”

    In 1981, the first case of AIDS was reported in Southern California. By 1993, it was the No. 1 cause of death among males ages 25 to 44 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

    As a student at Cal State Long Beach, Cano first screened a film that followed with a Q-and-A with the director at the inaugural event.

    “We were hungry to see ourselves on screen as there was less culture,” Cano added.

    More than 500 students came to watch at a theater that had a max occupancy of 200. To allow all attendees to view the film, Cano and the team screened the film twice.

    By the third year, the festival moved to The Art Theatre to accommodate its community.

    Cano has taken many roles apart from being the founder of the festival. He has been the programmer, moderator, public relations officer and interviewer, among other positions.

    The festival was revived at the LGBT Center of Long Beach from 1998 to 2006.

    Today, 100 percent of the proceeds from the film screenings go back to The Center.

    “I’m very proud that all of the proceeds go back to the center,” Cano said. “Every ticket sale and ad goes back into the center, which has always been there for me when I first came out, needed advice and help. It’s a win-win situation. [The Center] provide[s] so many life-saving programs and vital programs for community for mental, spiritual and physical health.”

    Cano said storylines are more complex these days. For example, Man Made, the documentary directed by T Cooper, chronicles four trans men who participate in Trans FitCon, the only all-transgender bodybuilding competition in the world.

    “[Seeing the transcommunity] be their authentic selves and be humanized actually brought me to tears. They’re not going away and want to be seen as regular people.”

    Another example of the diverse selections is Just Friends, a romantic comedy directed by Ellen Smit about two young men who reflect on their relationships with their mothers.

    Q Film also promotes underrepresented groups from all walks of life. Of the 15 films, 50 percent are written, directed or produced by women. In addition, 30 percent of films feature transgender characters when Hollywood is at one percent.

    Cano believes there is no longer an excuse with the film industry to not represent minorities.

    FX’s Pose has more than 200 transgender involved in front and behind the camera.

    “I was so frustrated with Hollywood last year,” Cano said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take, 5, 10, 20 years. Latinos, Asians, gays, everyone. We are still represented at less than 3 percent of the industry.”

    For Cano, Long Beach is the perfect place for the festival, especially with its first openly-gay mayor, Robert Garcia.

    “Just from Long Beach Pride, half of the attendees are gay allies,” Cano said. “I’ve lived here for 30 years. Even though I’ve had many opportunities to move, I keep coming back because it’s a special place. It’s a loving and accepting environment that is willing to work, accept and celebrate diversity.”

    Cano said the event gets bigger and better every year.

    “The community has come together and made it a wonderful event by making it their own with the support of straight allies. It is truly a Southern California event that is attended by an international audience.”

    And, the QFilm Festival has room to grow, especially being one of the few of Long Beach’s film festivals. Others include the Jewish Film Festival and Cambodia Town Film Festival.

    The festival expects 1,500 attendees this year.

    The 2018 film festival will take place from Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th St., Long Beach. Each film is $12.

    Details: www.qfilmslongbeach.com

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  • UTLA Brings School Issues to Community 

    • 09/06/2018
    • Reporters Desk
    • News
    • Comments are off

    By Dennis J. Freeman, Contributor

    United Teachers of Los Angeles is working to get factions of the Los Angeles community more involved in its efforts to be able to provide a better learning experience for students attending the Los Angeles Unified School District.

    Representatives from UTLA hosted a town hall community forum for parents, teachers and residents on Aug. 29, in Wilmington.

    The issues and the focus are plenty, said UTLA Secretary Arlene Inouye.

    The rapid take over of students from charter schools, the improvement of school safety, reducing classroom sizes, the need for more staff and upgrading working conditions are just some of the topics that was broached during the hour-and-a-half meeting.

    Inouye pointed out about two dozen issues that UTLA members would like to see get addressed. If not, LAUSD and other public schools in Los Angeles County won’t be the same, she said.

    “We have to keep building and creating these opportunities for us to come together to have people join us,” Inouye said. “It’s building; it’s not like a one-step thing, but it’s growing as we continue to work together. The issues are why we are fighting for, what we are fighting for and as we continue to get people to join us, I feel like it’s part of a national movement — that public education is under attack…. This is a critical time. So, it’s growing every day.”

    Inouye went on to say that while UTLA has a boatload of things that they would like to see changed within the district, there are several concerns that members see as pressing to get done immediately. According to UTLA, some LAUSD classes balloon up to 50 students per classroom. That’s not just an LAUSD problem, but a statewide issue. California is near the bottom of the list of states when it comes to teacher-to-student ratio. That’s a big deal, Inouye said.

    “We are fighting for students’ learning conditions, which are also our working conditions are indicators,” Inouye said. “So, we feel there is a need for smaller classrooms; that’s a big one because we’re 48th in the nation in class size. But we also need more professionals in human services like having a nurse at every school five days a week…. A kid cannot break her arm or need insulin only on certain days of the week. It’s a huge issue for parents. We have socially emotional needs. We need things like psychologists and social workers. So, we’re asking for more staffing. That’s a key one.”

    For Inouye and UTLA members, these matters, including the increase of charter schools, are just the tip of the iceberg of laundry list of items they are hoping to see change.

    “We’re also looking at issues such as special education and adult education and early education,” Inouye continued. “We have about 23 issues we have on the table because we have a diverse school district and diverse members as well. So, we are trying to meet the needs of all of our students. But what’s also exciting about our proposal is that we’re addressing not just non-economic issues like over testing and more learning that’s needed. … Students between pre-K and sixth grade take 100 tests. We also addressed school safety and school discipline plans and we want to have more of an educator’s voice at the local schools in those plans. Our members have been asking for that and the district has said ‘no’ to that.”

    Louis Mora is a health and science teacher at Harry Bridges Span School. He’s been a teacher for a decade. His biggest concern is the direction or lack of direction that education is going-not just in Los Angeles County, but across the country as well. To Mora, the narrative regarding teachers and public schools seem to be playing out everywhere with the same results.

    “I’m really concerned about the direction our country is going, in terms of education, especially here in Los Angeles,” Mora said. “We’re not going the right way and we’re short-changing our kids. We’re hurting them. People are just looking for short-term ideas and nothing long-term.”

    For LAUSD to right the ship, things are to have to flip, Mora said.

    “It’s got to be turned upside down from where it’s going right now,” Mora said. “They’re focusing on tests instead of overcrowded classrooms and tests. Us teachers, we can’t even survive where we live because we’re getting pushed out of our neighborhoods because we can’t pay rent, can’t pay our bills because our wages suck. Meanwhile, the cost of living is increasing. What’s happening teachers are leaving the profession to just to be able to survive. That’s going to hurt everyone in the long run.”

    Teresa Harnage has been teaching school for three-and-a-half years. Her husband is an educator as well. Harnage decided to attend the town hall meeting not as an educator, but as a concerned parent.

    “Public education is super important to my family,” Harnage said. “We are invested in our community. My son is a Boy Scout; we go to community events together. So, I believe in my community. My husband is a teacher as well. We’re invested in education. My son goes to school, so it’s important for me that he has the education he needs to be successful. I’m here to support whatever we need to do to make sure we have equity and have all the resources we need to make sure our students are successful.”

    Harnage, who teaches at Dodson Middle School in Wilmington, thought the meeting was productive for the community.

    “I believe it’s going to be helpful to make parents more aware of what’s going on in the school system and let them have a voice can in what they want,” Harnage said. “I want to see fair and equitable resources given to our students. I want the students to have the resources they need at school every day.”

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  • Which Hunt Will Succeed?

    • 09/06/2018
    • Paul Rosenberg
    • News
    • Comments are off

    How many different crimes aided the president — and how closely and personally was Donald Trump involved?

    By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

    On Aug. 21, within minutes of each other, two close associates of Donald Trump—long-time fixer Michael Cohen and former campaign chair Paul Manafort — were each found guilty of eight felonies. Cohen also implicated Trump directly in crimes. He made two admissions in court that Trump had been involved in criminal violations of campaign law to hide extramarital affairs. He admitted paying hush money to “influence the election,” acting “in coordination with and at the direction of candidate Trump.

    Within days, prosecutors revealed immunity agreements with two other close Trump associates — National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, reputedly involved in decades of Trump cover-ups, and Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s longtime chief financial officer—promising more prosecutions to come.

    “The guilty plea of Michael Cohen provides further confirmation of the following fact: MOST SUCCESSFUL WITCH HUNT EVER (And it’s not over),” Rep. Ted Lieu (a former Air Force prosecutor) tweeted, in response to the first announcement. Shortly after, he added, “With Paul Manafort being found guilty on multiple counts, I am revising the below fact as follows: MOST TREMENDOUSLY SUCCESSFUL WITCH HUNT EVER.”

    Rep. Adam Schiff (a former federal prosecutor) added:

    Trump campaign manager: Guilty

    Trump personal lawyer: Guilty

    Trump deputy campaign manager: Guilty

    Trump National Security Advisor: Guilty

    Trump foreign policy advisor: Guilty

    Some witch hunt, huh?

    “At least two separate criminal conspiracies helped elect Donald Trump president in 2016, one executed by the Russian government, another by Trump’s personal lawyer,” Wired’s Arrett  Graff wrote. “The questions now are how many different crimes aided the president—and how closely and personally involved was Donald Trump himself?”

    Scratch a liar, find a witch

    Predictably, Trump responded by repeating his baseless “Witch hunt!” claim—an ironic claim given that Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn, helped invent the modern witch hunt as lead investigator for Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. But the diversity of directions in which the convictions and guilty pleas pointed instead raised the question, “Which hunt?” The hunt for evidence of collusion with Russia? Financial crimes? Election law violations? Or something much deeper, going back decades—a pattern of both domestic and international corruption grown so vast that it threatens the very foundations of American democracy?

    Evidence for all these hunts have already been uncovered, and more will surely come. But what will be done in light of the evidence— remains in question.

    In addition, dozens of other hunts are needed. Axios recently reported the existence of House Republican spreadsheet listing “more than 100 formal requests [for oversight investigations] from House Democrats this Congress, spanning nearly every committee.” These are investigations that are a part of Congress’ constitutional oversight duty — investigations that Republicans have blocked, but Democrats will take up if they win control of the House in the mid-term elections.

    Tip of the iceberg

    Trump’s tax returns, family business (and conflicts with Constitution’s emoluments clause) and dealings with Russia are just the tip of the iceberg of that long list, which also includes Trump’s family separation policy, the hurricane response in Puerto Rico and a slew of cabinet-level investigations. This long list exists not just because Trump has held himself to be above the law, but because Congressional Republicans have agreed with and supported him.

    The lawlessness of the Trump presidency is a natural outgrowth of the decades of corruption that Trump has avidly participated in. The deeper international pattern of that corruption is laid out in a new book, House of Trump, House of Putin, by Craig Unger. It documents how both men have mob ties dating back more than 40 years, includes a descriptive listing of “Trump’s Fifty-Nine Russia Connections,” and cites BuzzFeed News reporting that “More than one-fifth of Donald Trump’s U.S. condominiums [1,300 of them] have been purchased since the 1980s in secretive, all-cash transactions that enable buyers to avoid legal scrutiny by shielding their finances and identities,” for a possible money laundering total of $1.5 billion.

    The money-laundering started with the 1984 sale of five condos for $6 million to David Bogatin, who was indicted for a gas tax scam three years later, fleeing to Poland. How much Trump knew about Bogatin is unclear. How much he cared is not. The floodgates were opened and have not closed ever since.

    The possible extent of Trump’s involvement with Russian organized crime significantly dwarfs the tip-of-the-iceberg Mueller investigation findings revealed so far. What’s more, Unger notes, the Russian mafia is essential a tool of the Russian state.

    “Where Americans cracked down on organized crime, Putin co-opted it,” Unger wrote. He weaponized it. Russian gangsters became, in effect, Putin’s enforcers.” Starting in the mid-1980s, he writes:

    Two powerful forces in a newly created global underground economy had begun to come together. On the one hand, the disintegration of the Soviet Union had opened a fire-hose-like torrent of hundreds of billions of dollars in flight capital that began to pour forth from oligarchs, wealthy apparatchiks, and mobsters in Russia and its satellites. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s zeal to sell condos, no questions asked, to shell companies meant that Russians could launder vast amounts of money while hiding their personal identities. Over the next 30 years, dozens of lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and other white-collar professionals came together to facilitate such transactions on a massive scale….

    Luxury real estate has provided a haven for Russian oligarchs and their kleptocratic president, Vladimir Putin, son of a factory worker and Russian seaman, to stash billions of dollars.

    Without subpoena power, Unger notes, it’s impossible to know how much Trump properties were used to launder Russian mafia money. But subpoena power is precisely what Mueller’s team has. Will they use it? That remains to be seen. But a Democratic-controlled House can investigate, as well.

    Double trouble

    A 2014 article in the American Interest,  The Twin Insurgency,  by Nils Gilman, reveals an even broader, deeper, and more troubling problem, as explained in its subhead, “The postmodern state is under siege from plutocrats and criminals who unknowingly compound each other’s insidiousness.”

    In this case, it’s not so unknowingly, but Gilman argues it’s not exactly what he had in mind, since Putin isn’t actually a plutocrat in his sense (though he is, reputedly, the richest man in the world). However, one sees Putin, he is operating consciously in the terrain Gilman describes and has benefited enormously from it.

    As Gilman argues, from 1945 to 1971, during the post-World War II “social modernist era,” states around the world using different models sought “to legitimate themselves by serving the interests of middle classes whose size they sought to expand.”

    But those models started failing in different ways, and by 1980 a reaction had set in, characterized most dramatically by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

    “Many states stopped even pretending they wanted to create a more egalitarian society and instead sought to legitimate themselves by claiming they were maximizing individual opportunity.” The resulting retreat of the state left the middle-class lives dramatically less safe and secure, vulnerable to threats on two fronts:

    From above, middle classes find themselves threatened by a global financial elite, in league with ultra-wealthy compradors, both of whom seek to cut social services and the taxes that pay for them — taxes that these elites depict as a form of illegitimate expropriation. From below, the middle classes find themselves exposed to a new resurgence of criminality, which has discovered in their plight a business opportunity.

    That’s the twin insurgency in a nutshell: predatory plutocrats above, criminal insurgents below, with a beleaguered middle class caught in between. Trump, of course, is presenting himself as a savior of the middle class, but his actual life-history make a mockery of that claim. He’s been closely allied with both sides of the twin insurgency and remains so today.

    Gilman was describing a global phenomenon, but Unger is describing a variation within that broader pattern. Their views of Trump are similar, describing Trump as self-absorbed where Putin is strategic. As Gilman told Random Lengths News:

    Trump I suspect — though we don’t know — had a completely opportunistic relationship with Russian sources of capital, and he was none too tidy about asking questions about where the capital he was using was coming from. The man has also fucked hookers in hotels across the world all his life. The result is that he really has no idea what they have on him ….

    But Russia is more complicated.

    “I don’t see Putin as being a plutocratic insurgent at all,” Gilman said. “The first generation of Russian oligarchs (Fridman, Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, etc.) were more like American businessmen like Adelson or Thiel: people who really wanted to achieve autonomy from the state. They were plutocratic insurgents. But they all got it in the neck when Putin came to power. That subordination to the interests of the state is precisely what plutocratic insurgents are trying to escape.”

    “In contrast, the current oligarchs in Russia, like rich business people in China, know that in the last analysis, and probably well before then, they are subordinate to the interests of the state as defined by the political leadership,” Gilman added.

    But many current oligarchs have mob ties, and Russia’s government is hardly comparable to China’s, as Unger notes:

    Putin’s greatest triumph is his extraordinary command over a Mafia state, a political system that is effectively a government of, by, and for organized crime.

    Organized crime may indeed serve the state, as Gilman argues, but the state it serves is made in its own image. And that’s reflected in how it fights war.

    “After the Euromaidan protests against Russian aggression began in Ukraine in 2013, Russia launched a massive global offensive in which its strategic goals were to weaken not only the United States but Britain, NATO, the European Union, and, indeed, the entire Western Alliance,” Unger writes. It involved interventions in domestic politics all across Europe, as well as America. He notes:

    The most striking fact of this massive new global conflict, however, may have been that barely anyone noticed that it was taking place. It was extraordinary. War is generally defined as armed conflict. However, Vladimir Putin had attacked the sovereignty of America and other Western nations—a Virtual World War III, if you like—but almost no one reported on it in the newspapers, on TV, on the radio, or on the Internet. That’s because this was a war by other means, a war that eschewed the bombs, bullets, and boots on the ground of conventional warfare, and instead relied on a new, sophisticated, asymmetric, hybrid form of “nonlinear” warfare….

    It was a war in which Russia hacked its adversaries; used third parties, such as Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, to make it seem as if leaks had emanated from heroic, highly principled whistleblowers, rather than Russian intelligence; hijacked social media and exploited algorithms to make highly provocative “fake news” go viral; transformed Facebook into one of the biggest purveyors of Russian propaganda on the planet; deliberately used not only “alternative facts” and fake news but bogus websites that pretended to correct fake news, and, in the process, upended the very notion of truth, of reality itself, of what is real.

    Back in the U.S.

    Destroying the ability to know what’s true has been a key element of Russian state practice throughout the Soviet era, all the way back to Tzarist times. It’s been a tendency in America, as well—we shouldn’t fool ourselves. But it’s one that we’ve struggled against, both through our free press, and through our broader array of civic institutions—educational, scientific, and cultural—as well as through the ranks of our professionalized, apolitical government agencies, such as the Department of Justice. All are imperfect, but at best they serve as checks on one another, as well as on arbitrary state power and plutocratic overlords.

    This is precisely what Trump wants to destroy. He has two months to do his worst, before the midterm elections. While many Democrats see winning the House as key to beginning impeachment, Talking Points Memo publisher Josh Marshall warns.

    “That’s a mistake. … By any rights, the President should have been removed from office months ago,” he wrote. “Impeachment is a mistake because it distracts from things that are much more important to protecting the country against President Trump.”

    For a Democratic House, Marshall said:

    “[T]he first order of business is to get hold of the President’s taxes, which is to say to have Congress make sense of his finances and financial relationships as a baseline for investigating his relationship with Russia, Russian organized crime and Russian intelligence. It is also the basis for any real investigation of the use of the Presidency for private gain: the Trumpian project of kleptocracy.

    Given the history that Unger lays out, these priorities make perfect sense. We need to gain the best possible sense of the large-scale lay of the land. Mueller’s investigation is focused on prosecuting specific crimes, which means that much of what he learns along the way will stay secrete.

    Congressional investigations are meant to inform the public, expose wrongdoing that may or may not be illegal and provide a basis for future legislation and oversight.

    “In many ways, getting to the bottom of what happened in 2016 is a bigger national priority than the punishment of individual wrongdoers, though there’s no reason we should have to choose between the two,” Marshall said. The 100 other investigations Republicans fear should go forward as well:

    Congress can do many things at once. But impeaching the President inevitably distracts from this and delays this. If anything it tends to harden partisan divisions rather than moving the ball in a way that can shift public opinion against the President. And after all that it will fail, with a shabby but real victory handed to the President.

    Trump is, and always has been, a minority president. He thrives on division, playing to, lying to and enraging his base, at the same time trying to confuse the larger public about the very possibility of established facts. Which is why a Democratic House (and perhaps even Senate) relentlessly focused on factual investigations is so crucial for the preservation of our democracy. The hunt for truth is the most important hunt of all. But it won’t even begin, in earnest, unless Democrats win in November.

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