Oct 152019

As regular readers of this Web log know, I’m an Italian-American – my full name is Tom Collins Martini, and my father, now long retired, was a bartender at a Manhattan society hotel. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he invented a number of modern martini cocktails and named his children after the ones of which he was particularly proud. All of this explains why my brother, Rob Roy Martini, brought his wife and son over to my home in Great Falls, Virginia on Monday, October 14 for dinner – to celebrate Columbus Day, an American holiday celebrated by Italian-Americans since 1792 and made an official federal holiday in 1971.
Now, I would be the first to admit that we Italian-Americans have the accomplishments of many better people of our ethnicity to celebrate other than those of Christopher Columbus. And I certainly recognize that a lot of people of Native American, First Nations and Indigenous ancestry have ample reasons to hate and despise him. Furthermore, I am fully aware of what an historical buffoon he was. By 1491, educated people all over the world had known that the Earth is round for over two thousand years – in fact, a Greek named Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated its circumference around the year 230 BC, and his figures were later found accurate to within three percent. Moreover, they also closely agreed with several subsequent calculations performed by various other Greek as well as Roman, Arabic and Persian scholars. So when Columbus approached King John II of Portugal in 1483 with his proposal to sail due west around the planet from Portugal to the orient, the team of mathematicians and astronomers the king hired as consultants to assess Columbus’ theories readily saw that he was fudging the numbers. Ignoring the calculations of Eratosthenes and others, Columbus instead presented his own, based on estimated distances derived from contemporary maps, traveler’s accounts and a truly Panglossian misinterpretation of the work of a particularly inept first century geography writer named Strabo of Amaseia, who, in what is obviously a discussion of the greatest upper and least lower bounds of estimates for the size of the Earth (i.e., the limits of error on the measurements) failed to make that clear to readers who were either idiots or had a reason to engage in wishful thinking regarding the smallest possible value. Thus, Columbus’ calculations, if taken seriously, would have indicated that the circumference of the Earth was about thirty percent less than it actually was – and actually still is, of course – allowing him to argue that ships could sail due west from Portugal to the orient in less time than sailing around Africa, and, more importantly, without running out of food and water, causing their crews to die of starvation and thirst before arriving.
Therefore, having had the prudence to hire some expert government contractors instead of trying to figure out a convoluted technical question himself, and, more importantly, the common sense to take their advice, King John II sent Columbus packing – to Spain, where the monarchs, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile were widely known for a plentiful lack of both. By 1492 he had not only talked them into believing his cockamamie theories but also convinced them to grant him a Spanish knighthood and the titles of Viceroy, Governor General and Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as a ten percent commission on all the revenues derived from his expeditions.
In 1492, naturally, nobody in Europe knew anything about the existence of North, Central and South America, much less that they basically presented a solid barrier to westward maritime travel that stretched from the North Pole nearly all the way to Antarctica. And as might be expected of a megalomaniac sufficiently demented to style himself Viceroy, Governor General and Admiral of the Ocean Sea, when he encountered what would later be named the Americas, Columbus was having none of it – he went to his grave convinced that the people he had met, robbed, brutalized and murdered in the islands of the Caribbean Sea were some sort of Chinese, Japanese or Indians, and in fact called them the latter name, which we still inaccurately use to refer to the native peoples of the western hemisphere to this day.
So there we have it – Christopher Columbus, the man who didn’t know where he was going, didn’t know where he was when he got there, and didn’t know where he had been when he got back. And yet, Italians everywhere celebrate his exploits – I shall not, for obvious reasons, call them achievements – as if he were in fact something other than a damned fool. No wonder there are several movements here in the United States calling for a change in the holiday’s name to Indigenous People’s Day, Native Americans Day or Conquest Remembrance Day, and several states have actually done so. But to Italian-Americans, well, Christopher Columbus may be a jamoke, a goombah, and totally gazootz, but he’s our totally gazootz jamoke goombah. Consequently, no matter what else other people end up calling a certain holiday in October commemorating the arrival of renaissance Europeans in the western hemisphere, it’s always going to be Columbus Day to us. So, hey, paisan, stugots! Nobody’s perfect, capisce?
Dinner was a combination of Northern and Southern Italian cuisine, featuring radicchio trevisana and castelfranco, frico friulano with crispy hen of the woods mushrooms and a leek-black truffle dressing; chitarra with an organic cherry tomato sauce of basil and garlic; maccu di San Giuseppe; pasta alla Norma with ricotta affumicata; pesce spada alla ghiotta; vitello cacciatora, bistecche di cervo alla griglia alla toscana; and desserts consisting of cassata siciliana, crocetta di caltanissetta and zuccotto con alchermes. All accompanied by Sergio Zenato 2013 Valpolicella, Pio Cesare 2011, Gaja Alteni di Brassica Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and plenty of Segafredo Primo espresso delights, made with freshly ground whole beans and prepared straight up, Americano or with with a choice of grass-fed organic cow, goat or sheep milks, using my new La Marzocco Linea espresso machine.
Katje, Rob Roy’s wife and incorrigible vegan, politely picked at the vegetarian dishes while Rob and his son Jason, who can’t cook and are constantly having to eat Katje’s non-meat, non-dairy non-even-seafood-for-God’s-sake creations gorged on double helpings of boutique butcher’s snow white veal, organic free-range Montana elk venison and wild caught Sea of Cortez swordfish. Did I mention that Jason brought his new girlfriend, Sosin, to our Columbus Day festa di celebrazione? Well, he did – she’s Kurdish, I was told. Her father is an engineering professor at Erbil Polytechnic University. She’s a graduate of MIT and a PhD candidate in computer science at Johns Hopkins. She and Jason met where they work, at Whizzonator-YoyoDyne Information Systems headquarters in Reston. And boy howdy, did she have a few choice bones to pick besides the ones on her plate.
“What is the matter with the United States?” she unexpectedly demanded in her Oxford Received Speech accent after our dinner party’s collective consumption of a fourth bottle of wine, in the midst of a discussion of how much jail time our fellow Italian-American, Rudolph Giuliani, consigliere to the Trump crime family of New York, will get for his participation in an alleged money laundering conspiracy with a couple of Putin organization thugs recently arrested at Dulles airport. “You have this… this… half-witted monster in the White House and you let him betray an ally that has sacrificed over ten thousand soldiers and one hundred thousand civilians in your interest. Everyone here is obviously intelligent and erudite enough to comprehend the manifest absurdity, innate callousness and inexcusable cruelty of such behavior, the result of which has been the utterly senseless slaughter of even more people who believed in and trusted you. Please forgive me for interrupting your polite amused chatter about Trump and his henchmen, as if they were nothing more than clowns and fawning trained apes, performing some macabre pantomime of a surrealist abattoir portraying the most cynical and amoral heights of realpolitik, but can any of you explain why your country withdrew a well-protected advisory de minimis military force, the only significant purpose of which was to serve as a trip wire to prevent a Turkish invasion, and allow to occur a humanitarian atrocity which is threatening to become comparable to the Armenian genocide of 1914?”
“See?” Jason said as he wrapped his right arm around her shoulders, gave her an affectionate hug and beamed a proud smile around the table. “I told you! She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever met!”
“Speaking of intelligence,” I responded, “in order to understand the current foreign policy situation, it is essential to realize that the statistical distribution of IQ in the US is bimodal, with one peak at ninety and another at one hundred and ten, with a saddle formation between ninety-five and one hundred and five. In addition, there are also long tails below eighty-five and above one hundred and fifteen.”
“Are you saying that, therefore,” Sosi reasoned, “the United States’ preeminence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is due to the anomaly of the higher mode, and phenomena such as the Trump presidency are a result of the lower one?”
“Precisely,” I affirmed.
“And how, pray tell,” she pressed, “did this long tailed, bimodal distribution of intellectual capacity occur?”
“The higher mode and tail,” I explained, “arose because intelligent and educated people from all over the world – such as yourself, for instance – have been constantly attracted to the United States of America since its inception.”
“And the lower?” she asked, raising an inquisitive eyebrow as she sipped her wine.
“The lower mode and tail,” I elaborated, “arose due to a dual set of circumstances. First, the vastness of the continent which comprises the United States. Historically, it has allowed groups of… shall we say… pioneers… to occupy remote, isolated places such as Appalachia, the Ozarks, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, the Texas hills and Utah. The second was the institution of slavery in the southern part of the country, which skewed the labor market and gave rise to a large, impoverish underclass of so-called ‘white trash,’ who populate all states of the former Confederacy to this day. These and the members of those isolated communities in the mountain hollows and remote western settlements tend to form procreative unions having a high degree of consanguinity.”
“You mean, they marry their first cousins a lot?” Rob interjected.
“Correct,” I vouched. “And in a community where that occurs over several generations, marrying your first cousin can easily be the genetic equivalent of marrying your sister.”
“Which, I presume, in turn gives rise to an inordinate proportion of imbeciles?” Sosin speculated.
“Exactly,” I replied.
“And they voted for Trump?” she inquired.
“Let’s just say,” I told her, “that the percentage of the general population in that bimodal US IQ distribution which is below ninety five is also approximately equal to the percentage of US voters in Trump’s base – about thirty percent.”
“But if that is the case,” she objected, “and it has been going on for over two centuries, how did it come to pass that it took until 2016 for someone like Trump to be elected president?”
“Because,” I dryly stated, “in the past, our economy had places for imbeciles to work, and in the locations where they lived, imbeciles were so common everyone thought it was normal. But over the last half century or so, the brilliance of the folks on the other end of the IQ distribution changed those circumstance profoundly, resulting in constant, rising tide of automation, globalization and capital consolidation. Over that period, the environmental niches in the US where imbeciles could viably earn a living and breed more imbeciles shrank precipitously. Eventually, even an imbecile will realize they have been trapped, and when these imbeciles finally did, their angry social reaction in the name of politics turned out to be as profound as the well-intentioned technological and economic changes the American intelligentsia had wrought in the name of progress.”
“But Donald Trump himself is an imbecile of the first water!” Sosin objected.
“Right! And that’s what they like about him.” I shot back with a wink. “He’s an imbecile whose father was very rich and enabled his son’s bullying, irresponsible and criminal behavior while constantly bailing him out with more cash each time his massive stupidity got the better of him. But the angry imbeciles in the boondocks don’t see that – of course not, how could they? They’re imbeciles. What they see is ‘a man of the people’ who ‘understands their problems’ and wants to fix everything by doing battle with the Bogeyman, otherwise known as the US government, aka ‘the Swamp.’ So that’s how Trump got into office. As for his current actions in the Middle East, well, as I just said, he’s an imbecile, so what else could we expect? Since the day he first took office, everything Trump has done in foreign policy, and in every other sector of his remit as well, has been the bumbling actions of an imbecile. And one need not be a member of Mensa to see that Donald Trump will remain an imbecile until the day he leaves office.”
Weethdraw from Kurdistan? You eeembecille!” Jason exclaimed in a voice resembling Peter Lorre as he finished draining his wine glass and reached for a bottle to refill it. “What were you theeenking?”
Rob Roy broke out laughing, a bit too long, actually, and had some trouble stopping.
A moment of silence ensued as Katje and Sosin stared at them.
“Um… Ren and Stimpy?” Jason murmured with a shrug. “Ah… yeah,” he began as he turned to Sosin. “It’s an American… uh… cultural thing. I’ll show you sometime.”
Katje smiled demurely at Sosin, displaying her best girl-talk attitude. “Don’t mind them – men, you know. They have their own sense of humor. Right, Tom?”
“Happy-happy-joy-joy,” I quipped. “Now, who wants to try my cappuccino dei tre latte with their dessert?”