On Bastille Day, Past Glories and a Fretful Future

TOURTOUR, France — Rockets' red glare, bursting in air, lit up faces of awe-struck kids waving candles in paper bags on sticks. Parents stashed wine bottles to ooh and ahh at lights cascading down the old church tower. Fireworks here, up close and personal, are spectacular.

Afterward, this hilltop Provence village drank and danced late into the night. Visitors retrieved cars parked every which way under roadside sycamores, without a glance from the few indulgent cops. The next day, every TV blared the parade in Paris.

The jets, wingtips almost touching, trailed blue, white, red low over the Champs-Elysées. As always, the Foreign Legion Pioneers stole the show: bearded bruisers in buffalo-hide aprons gripping axes, not guns. Since 1831, they have cleared the way for commandos quelling mayhem in far-flung corners of empire.

Emmanuel Macron stood as tall as a short guy can in an open jeep, flanked by the Garde Republicaine in gleaming silver helmets on horses. His honored guest was Angela Merkel, leader of Germany, which invaded France twice in the last century.

Last year's invitee, an American president who wanted his own show of military might at home, missed the point. Troops and tanks are just the backdrop to a family affair that fetes what Charles de Gaulle called une certaine idée de la France.

That certain idea seems secure on Bastille Day, with its echoes of Victor Hugo: “France, France, without you the world would be alone.” But the country so many of us outsiders love and hate with equal passion is fast morphing into something else.


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If Democracy Is a Spectator Sport, the Good Guys Lose

PARIS - I've struggled not to say this, even to myself, but Democrats stand a growing chance of condemning the world to Donald Trump's impossible dream: a greed-based oligarchy in America with authoritarian rule bent on stamping out truth.

Too many Americans see democracy as a spectator sport, and they obsess on inside baseball - domestic issues - rather than real-world crises. If candidates continue to snipe over details, the worst president ever could win by default.

In Hong Kong, two million people just jammed the streets, some facing 10 years in prison for storming government headquarters, to force concessions from China. That is as if 90 million people marched on Congress and the White House.

In the United States, half of eligible voters don't even bother to cast ballots. Among those who do, Republicans rally behind the party choice, no matter who it is. They share ideology. Democrats are prone to stay home if not inspired by a candidate.

“If this doesn't change, it doesn't matter who the candidate is,” author Max Brooks observed recently on Bill Maher's Real Time. “If we don't come together now, we're dead.”

America is now beyond politics. An unhinged megalomaniac thwarts a global effort to keep Earth habitable, and he fans conflict that could trigger unstoppable war. At his elbow, John Bolton outdoes Peter Sellers as Doctor Strangelove. Yet the last Democrat debate, a choreographed pageant extravaganza, ignored the outside world.


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The I’s Have It – And We All Pay the Price

NAPLES, Italy - You can still get to Sesame Street from here and just about everywhere else in spite of Donald Trump’s attempt to wall it off. So as Big Bird might have it, this dispatch about countless global crises is brought to you by the letter “I.”

Put aside 25 other letters in the alphabet and consider only what is happening behind that single capitalized vowel.

Iran, Iraq and Israel are at risk of accidental Armageddon. India’s demagogic Hindu nationalist leader plays chicken with Pakistan. Indonesia faces climate calamities and Islamist zealotry. Iceland, warming fast, may soon be Rockland. Ireland now has a border to protect.

And here in the heart of an Atlantic Alliance that just commemorated victory over Nazis and Fascists 75 years ago, easy-going Italy is making a sharp right turn. Matteo Salvini, vice premier, is gaining popularity fast by blaming Italian woes on migrants and liberals.

 This is no time for America to obsess about itself. Yet the pronoun, “I,” and its inseparable partner, “me,” define thinking today in the White House, the Senate and among much of an apathetic electorate. A cohesive worldview has sunk into whatever.

I often liken Trump to Mussolini, but even many Italians who fear a return to fascism say that is unfair to Il Duce. He was no fool, they argue. When he put Italy first it was more than an excuse to bilk the poor and fatten up the rich. Nonetheless, he ended up hanged by his heels.

 Viewed from Europe, Trump seems more like a Charlie Chaplin caricature of Hitler, a puffed-up martinet enraptured with himself. But unlike Hollywood’s Little Dictator, Trump has the means to trigger unstoppable conflicts and thwart global efforts to keep Earth habitable.

 It is too early to worry much about Italy, with its entrenched family values and uncanny ability to get through just about anything as long as the coffee and grappa hold out. Those I-states in the Middle East are the real threat.


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“Forget It, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Just About Everywhere

SHANGA, Kenya – This dispatch got delayed; I was in no rush. Shanga (as in Shanghai) hasn’t been breaking news for 500 years. Today it is vital context as an American president plays dunces and dragons with China, which sees time in millennia, not four-year mandates.

Whatever Donald Trump might gain in trade talks, his public posturing spurs the ancient Middle Kingdom to ramp up its manifest destiny with economic, diplomatic and military expansion that began after the 2006 recession exposed weaknesses in Western dominance.

Plunder in a paradisiacal Swahili enclave on the Indian Ocean, which includes the ruins of Shanga and the fabled time-warp port of Lamu, is a telling example of China’s global quest for raw materials, food supplies and geopolitical clout. 

Coral-block ruins still stand in the jungle here, built by shipwrecked Chinese sailors in the 1400s, well before Columbus happened upon America. The stranded seamen fathered children whose DNA can still be found in their progeny.

Back then, Admiral Zheng He ruled the waves with a fleet of 28,000 men in 300 ships, some 400 feet long. A giraffe he brought from the Swahili Coast intrigued the emperor. But China turned inward, leaving European powers to colonize Africa. Shanga faded away. 

Today, the Chinese are back, bankrolling a $2.3 billion coal-fired power plant project on the mainland. Two Kenyan moguls cooked it up with help from a top politician whose rake-off is expected to fund a presidential run. This is an open secret, but reporters can’t nail down a paper trail.

Experts condemn the scheme. Kenya produces excess power, and all consumers pay a levy to subsidize unused capacity. The government is committed to developing alternative energy. The project would import coal and have to spend heavily on long-distance power lines.

Corruption is rife in Kenya; it has nearly as many white elephants as grey ones. But money aside, toxic smoke would foul the air and discharge would poison fish. Mangroves vital to ecological balance would be cut. And laidback Lamu, a U.N. World Heritage Site, would be lost.


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A More Perfect Union – Or Maybe Calexit?

LOS ANGELES - During the Passover crush at Elat Market down on Pico, cashiers in yarmulkes rang up matzohs and Manischewitz with signature grumpiness. Yiddish-speaking shoppers pawed over Hebrew labels. For the stockers and sweepers, the Muzak was Mexican.

The Golden State comes in colors, and brown is a prevailing hue. Nearly 40 percent of its inhabitants are Latino, almost as many as “non-Hispanic white.” The rest range from Bantu black to exotic shades of pale. Part melting pot, part mixing bowl, California thrives on diversity.

Californians fight to protect hard-won victories from Donald Trump's corporate giveaways, such as emission controls, clean coastlines and pristine wilderness. And more, they demand sanctuary status for fellow humans escaping hunger or violence at home.

Smart politicians keep Trumpian Republicans on the defensive, from hardnosed prosecutors like Kamala Harris and Adam Schiff to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of an increasingly mad House, who lost her studied cool when William Barr whitewashed the Mueller Report.

“The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to Congress,” Pelosi said last week. “That's a crime.” She blamed a corrupt triumvirate — Trump, Mitch McConnell, Barr — for answering only to moneyed special interests, imperiling the nation.

Then she dropped a neutron bomb in a New York Times interview. Unless a landslide sweeps away Trump in 2020, he could declare voter fraud and simply stay put for months in the Oval office with legal flimflam. Who would evict him? He commands U.S. armed forces.

California's population of 39.6 million makes up 12 percent of America. Its $3-trillion economy ranks it fifth in the world, behind only the United States, China, Japan and Germany. If the state can't talk some sense into a backsliding mother country, why not Calexit?


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