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The Wine Country Fires: A Perspective



For my readers who are unfamiliar with the Wine Country of Northern California that’s been ravaged by these recent wildfires, I want to give a little geography lesson, and tell you why the disaster is so epic, even for a state that’s seen some pretty devastating wildfires.

As many of you know, my career was in the wine industry, with a focus on the wines of California. Living in Oakland, I traveled frequently to the wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which were the epicenters of the fires. Both are roughly 40 miles north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area.

This is the heart of California’s multi-billion dollar wine industry. Its wines made California famous; those from Napa Valley remain the most expensive in America. The area is preternaturally beautiful, as wine country tends to be: rolling hills, forested mountains and, in the verdant valleys, jeweled vineyards, with creeks and rivers splashing through riparian corridors.

As near as I can tell (and it will be some time before the facts can be determined), the series of fires appear to have started in a single location: near the northern Napa Valley town of Calistoga. This is a village of great rustic charm, a tourist draw with its charming little wineries, mud baths, spas and restaurants. Apparently, the fire then went in two directions: South, towards the city of Napa, some 30 miles away, and west, to the even larger city of Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, which is twenty miles away. There was vast destruction all along the way. The worst, as has been widely reported, was in Santa Rosa, where homes by the thousands were torched, but there also was extensive ruin around the city of Napa.

To appreciate the scale of the fire, though, you have to realize that, in spreading westward from Napa to Sonoma, the fire found, not one, but at least two separate routes. One route led directly west from Calistoga, across the Mayacamas Mountains separating Napa and Sonoma counties (the mountains themselves rise to 4,700 feet), and thence directly into the Santa Rosa region. But another route found its way, 30 miles to the south, from the city of Napa across the region known as Carneros, which runs along San Francisco/San Pablo Bay, spanning both counties; and from there, it hit the town of Sonoma, and poked its way northwest into the Sonoma Valley, also known as the Valley of the Moon, where it caused extensive damage in the charming towns of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, on the way to Santa Rosa.

This is a geographic scale that is unimaginable. The entire area contained within it didn’t go up in flames, of course, but for such a huge expanse to have burned is mind-boggling. The total fire acreage was in the hundreds of thousands. Of course, there have been other large-acreage fires in California, but they’re almost always in wilderness and mountainous regions. Napa-Sonoma by contrast is thick in houses, buildings and people.

By contrast, one of the worst fires in California history prior to the Wine Country Fires was right here in Oakland, which by contrast burned only 1,520 acres in the Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 (although the total number of homes destroyed then was approximately 3,000, close to the total number of burned homes, about 5,000, in the Wine Country Fires. But the Oakland neighborhood that went up in flames was densely packed with houses).

In wine country and California history lore, the burned areas are famous names: Napa, Calistoga, Oakville, Carneros, Sonoma Town, Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa. It’s impossible to describe the emotional impact to outsiders. To come up with a silly but illustrative example, it’s as if a wildfire had destroyed the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea, Times Square, the Upper West Side, Harlem and the Financial District. Had that happened, of course, the world’s media would have gone into hyperdrive. In the case of the Wine Country Fires, the media of course took notice, but the feeling here in Northern California is widespread that the national media, including television and print, under-reported the extent of the disaster, focusing instead on Trump-related issues.

The same thing happened in 1991 after the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I remember writing letters of complaint for the media’s failure to report in sufficient alarm its hugeness. It had been, after all, the worst fire in American history, as measured by several parameters: the greatest destruction in real estate/insurance value (with the possible exception of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire), and the worst urban-wildland interface fire in U.S. history. Now, here we are again, with the Wine Country Fires establishing new records.

The talk in wine country now is of recovery and rebuilding. I, personally, doubt that there will be much impact on the wine market, although I could be wrong: as I keep saying, we still don’t know how many vineyards were destroyed, how many wine storage facilities, how many winemaking production and distribution centers, or, for that matter, how many winery workers lost their homes or died. Nor do we know what the effects will be of smoke taint. Economically, the cities and towns—Napa and Santa Rosa above all—will take a very long time to rebuild, and one weeps for the tens of thousands of people who lived there who lost all.

Emotionally, for all of us with ties to wine country, the impact will be lifelong. It’s such a shock. It’s so hard to wrap one’s head around the scope of destruction. We who have driven those roads—Highway 29, the Silverado Trail, Route 128 over the Mayacamas, the Oakville Grade Road, Highway 12 in Sonoma, the 101 Freeway through Santa Rosa—and we who have enjoyed the amenities that burned down (I stayed at the Fountaingrove Inn, with Gus, many times)—we still cannot fathom how vast this monster was. The fire was, as Governor Brown stated, the worst in California in his 79 years on Earth, and when all the numbers are in, it will certainly be officially declared the worst in California’s history. The dates Oct. 16-19, 2017, for many of us, will be one of those, like Nov. 22, 1963, that is seared into our memories for the rest of our lives.


Strange v. Moore? Who the hell cares

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I don’t see what all the sturm und drang is about that Alabama Republican Senate primary. So Moore won instead of Strange. So what? They’re both toxic versions of the same person: homophobic, extreme right-wing religious fanatics, who would trample the Constitution under their jackboots and use the Bible instead of U.S. law in their legislative rule-making.

Moore’s bizarre radical Christian ideology is well-known and is best exemplified by his psychotic view of gay rights. “Homosexual conduct should be illegal,” he told C-SPAN, adding that gay sex “is the same thing” as having sex with “a cow, or a horse, or a dog.”

Shades of Rick “Man on Dog” Santorum! Can we agree people like Santorum and Moore suffer from serious mental health issues?

But Luther Strange isn’t any better. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage constitutional, Strange declared his unyielding opposition. Recognizing the difficulty of going against a direct Supreme Court ruling, Strange—who was Alabama’s Attorney-General at the time—said he’d work out more creative ways to prevent queer people from marrying. I expect the focus will now turn to the exercise of one’s religious liberty,” he announced. “I will continue to defend the religious liberties of Alabamians and ensure that people and businesses honoring their religious beliefs are protected.” This clever, mean-spirited scheme by the Christian right was dreamed up to make same-sex marriage as difficult as it can be for decent, law-abiding gay people, under the phony guise of “religious liberties.”

So really, from the point of view of reason, fairness, logic and sanity, what difference does it make which Republican is elected in Alabama? That state—which also has given us the inestimable gift of former KKK member Jefferson Beauregard Sessions–lost its moral authority decades ago, about the time they elected a guy named John Patterson as governor. As Attorney-General, Patterson repeatedly “frustrated and opposed” attempts by African-Americans to have Brown v. Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that struck down segregated public schools) enforced. As governor, Patterson promised [that] if a school is ordered to be integrated, it will be closed down,” and he had black students who staged a sit-in at Alabama State University expelled.

Sounds like a certain Republican president who wants professional athletes fired for expressing their right of free speech! And then, of course, Alabama also gave us the immortal white supremacist, George Wallace, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ spiritual godfather.

The mainstream media claim is that this Strange-Moore showdown portends some kind of internecine war within the Republican Party “that could undermine their best-laid plans to defeat Democrats in 2018” by draining financial resources away from the general election into the primaries.

But that argument doesn’t hold water. America has clearly entered a post-two party era in which primaries on the left and the right are a given. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.) There will be primaries regardless of what happened in Alabama or anyplace else.

The thought of Roy Moore in the Senate is hardly a cheerful one, and one despairs at the utter sickness now epidemic among poor white Alabama voters addicted to pathological interpretations of the Bible. One can only hope this fanatic, Moore, will be an isolated voice of cranky craziness in the Senate, even among his fellow Republicans. Yet, had Strange been elected instead, he would probably have voted 100% the same way Moore will (assuming he beats the Democrat, which seems likely). So, as I said, for me, it’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee: two seriously deranged, morally-impaired, dangerous and ignorant theocratic bigots, both in the fascist mold of the Donald J. Trump, both out of step with history, both profoundly wrong for America.

Dictators always start by killing the free press



He’s still at it, calling everything he doesn’t like “fake news” and claiming that he, himself, is the only trustworthy source of information in the United States. Here he was the other day, on twitter: Only the Fake News Media and Trump enemies want me to stop using Social Media (110 million people). Only way for me to get the truth out!” And here: “I love reading about all of the ‘geniuses’ who were so instrumental in my election success. Problem is, most don’t exist. #Fake News! MAGA.”

Fascists often disparage real journalism in order to hoodwink a credulous public. There was once a man, Carl Severing, who in the early 1930s was Minister of the Interior in Weimar Germany. This was the period when Hitler was rapidly consolidating power, and while Severing was not a Nazi, his rightwing policies helped pave the way for Hitler’s takeover, in 1933. Severing cracked down on the free press; one of his more famous dictums was, “Press freedom has become press license. We cannot permit demagogues to inflame the masses any further.”

That was the beginning. Hitler seized power on Jan. 30, 1933, and almost immediately set out plans that would give the Nazis total power over all newspapers.”  His propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, oversaw the Reich Press Law (Oct. 4, 1933), which allowed “the Propaganda Ministry, through its Reich Press Chamber, [to] take over the Reich Association of the German Press, the organization which regulates the profession.”

Said Goebbels, in words that might have been tweeted by Donald Trump, Not everyone has the right to write for the public. That right has to be earned through moral and patriotic qualifications…the concept of freedom of opinion is under lively discussion. Indeed, the people’s belief in it everywhere has become shaken… bounds must be set to freedom of thought and freedom of opinion at the point where these begin to conflict with the interests of the nation as a whole.”

He did not use the words “fake news,” but Goebbels’ (and Hitler’s) animosity toward a free press had significant overlaps with Trump’s. Would-be dictators hate it when enterprising journalists crack through their veils of secrecy and report on their misdeeds and crimes. Indeed, no tyranny in history has ever tolerated a free press, or has survived unfettered scrutiny.

Muzzling the press, however, can work only if a large segment of the public agrees with the would-be dictator that “bounds” really do need to be set. In the Germany of the early 1930s, this situation existed: millions of Germans blamed the newspapers (and Jews, which owned many of them) for their woes: unemployment, inflation, and the disrespect with which they felt they were treated by the victors of World War I.

In today’s America, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are similarly resentful of what they call the “libtard” media: CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets. They cannot stand the fact that their hero, Trump, is having his every move closely watched and reported. It enrages them that he cannot do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, to whomever he wants, without this disreputable Fourth Estate hounding him. If you tell them that freedom of journalism is a bedrock principle of western democracy, they laugh; they do not want democracy, they want an autocracy of the right, and a religiously-oriented one, at that. They want an authoritarian who will ram through his policies without restraint. They want the loyal opposition silenced. They cannot tolerate a media that reports, investigates, exposes lies and corruption, nor can they tolerate an independent counsel who is tasked with getting to the bottom of the disturbing facts unearthed by enterprising reporters. Hitler led his country, and most of Europe and the world, to destruction by first persuading people that a free press was a threat. Trump is following exactly the same playbook. His epitaph might well be Severing’s dictat: “Press freedom has become press license.”

P.S. Here’s some real fake news: Pence’s tweet from July 25: “Proud to break Senate tie to open debate to rescue Americans from failed Obamacare. Thanks to @POTUS, this is beginning of end of Obamacare.”

Didn’t exactly work out that way, did it, Mr. Vice President?




Happy July 4th!

0 comments resumes publication tomorrow. Party safe!

Repubs about to repeal and replace, while Trump tells another lie



Just last month, following the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act, we saw Donald J. Trump hold a celebratory fiesta at the White House. Grinning and high-fiving, Trump and the Republicans touted it as following through on their campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. This picture

shows how smug and self-satisfied they were, sipping cold beer in the Rose Garden, as Michael Pence bragged, “Welcome to the beginning of the end of Obamacare.”

That was on May 4. Now, just six weeks later, we have the Senate on the verge—apparently—of passing its version of the Act, a version said to be not as harsh on the poor and elderly, due to the need to get the votes of Republican “moderates” like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. And what is Trump’s attitude? Now, he “clearly” wants a health care bill with “heart,” Sean Spicer said yesterday, a few days after reports that Trump had called the original House version “mean.”

Okay, let’s get this straight. Trump liked the House version enough to invite House Repubs to his little party. That was then. Now, when the Senate is supposedly softening it a little, he decides it’s “mean.”

Make sense?

Some will claim this is Donald Trump’s attempt to play what some pundits have called “three-dimensional chess” (or, in some accounts, four-dimensional chess). What this means, explains the conservative National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, is that Trump is playing ten moves ahead…that he’s brilliantly distracting the media by creating this or that controversy.” As the website Know Your Meme puts it, “’Trump is Playing 4D Chess’ is an expression used by supporters…when speculating that his campaign is using advanced political strategies to manipulate and dominate the news media.”

The expression, which originated in a Dilbert cartoon, suggests that Trump is a super-brilliant strategist able to think in ways that are far superior to conventional political thinkers, using techniques of contradiction and obfuscation to achieve his goals. Certainly there is contradiction aplenty in him calling the House bill “mean” after praising it—although “hypocrisy” might be a more apt term. But I think his reasoning is far simpler than “four-dimensional chess.”

In fact, his motive is pretty obvious. With record low poll numbers—even Republican support for him is plummeting—Trump realizes he needs to change people’s perception of him as a blithering idiot. In his own analysis, he thinks the public perceives him as “mean,” as well they might, given the insults he routinely hurls at everyone he resents. He knows, also, that the public is scared to death of the American Health Care Act, which will toss tens of millions of people off healthcare, and cause drug prices and premiums to spiral. He’s got to neutralize that perception—or, to be exact, the perception not of the actual bill’s effects, but the perception of himself as uncaring. What better way to do that than to criticize his fellow Republicans as mean? Maybe some low information voters will think, “Hey, Trump can’t be that bad, if he’s sticking up for the little people against those mean Republicans.”

Trump’s stunt is phony as hell. It’s a smokescreen and a distraction and it’s not likely to work. But wait, there’s more, and it has to do with Trump’s pathological lying. He uses words differently from you and me. We all know he means nothing he says, or at least, very little; and even if he does mean something he says today, he can turn 180 degrees tomorrow and feel no shame—perhaps not even remember his flip-flop. What I’m getting at is that, when there is a bill he signs, even if it’s worse than the original House version, Trump will claim that, because of him, it has more “heart” and is in fact filled with heartful, healthful benefits for the American people. Great benefits! Incredible benefits! You’ll love it! It will be one more lie—but his credible voters will buy it, as they have willingly accepted every previous lie he’s told.

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