“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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Mort Report Extra: Our Lady in Pain

TUCSON, Arizona - I'm an ocean and a continent away, in a sunny place with cactus blooms beginning to color a hopeful new spring, and I can barely see my keyboard. Like everyone who has felt the power and glory of Nôtre-Dame de Paris, I am eviscerated with grief.

We have no reliable facts yet on what and why. But we already know what it means. The world has lost a vital underpinning, for eight centuries a symbol of humanity's best urges on a planet hardly short of the other kind.

Much of the damage will be repaired. Perhaps Quasimodo the hunchback is still up there in one of those stone towers where Victor Hugo imagined him. But this is not about a building. Even if the cause was a tragic accident, this is a sign of terrifying times.

I happened to catch the first CNN newsflash. As all reporters do, I ran through possibilities. It is Holy Week now in a world smoldering with religious hatreds and political opportunists in Washington fanning the embers. Could it be evil-inspired arson?

Chances are the fault lies with construction crews at work among tinder-dry timbers. Yet instant reaction across anti-social media shows the extremes across today's boobosphere, which allows anyone to weigh in with blame and condemnation.

Donald Trump quickly made it about him, tweeting that the French should use aircraft to douse the flames, as if French authorities who have preserved their splendid 2,000-year-old city remarkably well need any uninformed kibitzing.

The Securité Civile in Paris offered a more useful tweet: “The release of water by aircraft could, in fact, cause the collapse of the entire structure.”

During 52 years in Paris, I've developed a deep respect for its firemen. When flames once flared in my Ile-Saint-Louis apartment, wailing sirens were at the door almost before I put down the phone. Now I live on the Seine and see Nôtre-Dame from the bow of my boat. The river brigade responds at blinding speed, but its water cannons could not reach flames high atop an imposing cathedral set back on a broad esplanade.

Firetrucks were delayed by traffic, in near-paralysis at rush hour because the mayor has shut down main thoroughfares, narrowed lanes and changed one-way streets in a campaign to make way for pedestrians and bikes.

Those are details. What matters now is Our Lady in pain.


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On Mort Report and the Endgame of Thrones

TUCSON, Arizona - A Facebook remark by a Bosnian photographer I knew in Sarajevo bit like a scorpion: “I don't think it is OK that Mort Rosenblum retired Journalism and get himself to political activism.”

“Not retired from reporting,” I replied, “just saying things as I see them.” But I got his point. We worked for Associated Press back when fair and balanced was no laugh line. Objectivity was far less of a moving target.

We old-crocodile reporters haven't changed that much, but capital-letter “Journalism” has. At a time when authoritarians and big money divvy up a planet threatened by endgame, this ought to trouble us all.

These days, anyone with an internet link can be a journalist, regardless of motives or grasp of facts. Schools that taught ethics and tenets focus on how to deliver a message rather than getting it right.

America's attention has turned inward. Smart kids learn little about the real world. A senior in my international reporting class spent weeks focusing on Iraqi refugees and then told me Iraq's capital is Bangkok.

Excellent reporting in the “mainstream” and countless tributaries competes with hyped horseshit. Network news fixates on domestic trivia, barely scratching the surface of what matters to our very survival.

I spent 39 years on seven continents for AP. I spent two as editor of the International Herald Tribune when it was the gold standard for global news. Now it's time to step back to fit mosaic pieces into a big picture.

Mort Report is non-prophet. It claims no omniscience, sticking to facts and objective analysis. It is also a non-profit, with help from readers who care about their world. Click here if you'd like to join in.

My inspiration is I.F. Stone's Weekly, at its peak in in the 1960s, a blend of Izzy Stone's own reporting put into broad context. Christiane Amanpour's definition for new journalism is apt: Truthful but not neutral.

I'm now in Arizona where I teach two months each year. The border I've known since I was a kid is news as Donald Trump whips up fantasized fears that isolate Americans and force countless others to suffer.

Soon I'll be back in the wider world, which so many Americans ignore. Domestic issues won't matter when Earth is unlivable. People who hate us have already closed off much of the map for safe travel.

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About Those Benjamins and the Survival of Israel

TUCSON, Arizona - Donald Trump's daft assertion - “Democrats hate Jews” - not only reflects an Israel policy that fans smoldering anti-Semitism across the world but also threatens the very survival of a hard-won Jewish homeland in a region armed for Armageddon.

“Democrats have become an anti-Israel party,” Sarah Sanders told reporters recently. Then, sticking by that absurdity under harsh questioning, she added: “They've become an anti-Jewish party.”

Judaism is a faith and a heritage. Zionism is politics. They can overlap, or not. No one speaks for an ancient religion defined by perpetual argument. And if Jews did have a pope, he or she would hardly be Bibi Netanyahu, much less Sheldon Adelson, Trump's Israel-First funder.

Since 1967, I have reported off and on from Israel, nearly every Muslim country and European slums where Islamist zealots whip up hatreds. Today, I see Trump's embrace of hardcore Zionists feed growing hostility that risks conflict no one's God can stop.

Tom Friedman had it right in a New York Times column evoking an existential danger from Congress and AIPAC, the formidable lobbying group: “It's the threat that America will love Israel to death.”

If a two-state option remains open, negotiation is possible. “But once that's gone,” he wrote, “all hell will break loose in the Jewish world…It would rip apart every synagogue, Jewish Federation and Jewish institution in America.”

That's in the United States. Imagine the impact across the Middle East, beginning with the West Bank and Gaza with no Palestinian Authority to balance extremists.


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