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How Charlottesville set the clock back to the dark ages

Many have fallen before for the notion that history is not only a chronological progression, but also marks the evolution of ideas. For those, the events at Charlottesville should come as a shocking wake up call.

The press is still discussing the aftermath of a march by white nationalists and neo-Nazis. This is understandable. A racist militant plowed his car into a march of counterdemonstrators, killing a young woman. Loss of life to an act of domestic terrorism is outrageous and leaves us without words in the face of a crime that would have been unthinkable only one year ago.

While the irony of an American neo-Nazi mimicking the modus operandi of Islamist terrorists was not lost on most analysts, they are missing the point. Violence has many manners to express itself. Our concern is that players on the political fringe are back on the fore.

There is one major reason for that. It’s the current occupant of the White House. His equivocations in the wake of the act of terrorism that took the life of Heather Heyer, 32, were an encouragement for white supremacists. And so they interpreted it, rejoicing that the president of the United States had not repudiated them. He finally did so, yielding to pressure from his own party.

But make no mistake. White extremists have been energized by the media attention and a presidential statement blaming “many sides” for the events at Charlottesville. With his tweet, the U.S. president signaled that racists, neo-Nazis, and supremacists are the moral equivalent of their opponents.

That can only happen when the worst kind of populist panders to his most extreme constituency. As we say in the title, these white men who marched with torches in Charlottesville set the clock back to the dark ages we thought Americans had been liberated from after Abraham Lincoln and the tragedies of the Civil War.

In a way, history is the record of the unprecedented. What is happening right now in the States can lead to developments that otherwise would be inconceivable. Even during the Civil War, there was never an interruption to the continuity of the properly constituted American government. Unlike many other countries in the hemisphere, there has never been an overt coup d’état in the history of the United States. That history does not necessarily clock the progress of humanity does not mean that leaders should not try to bend it in that direction. Yet moral compass is needed for that. And that is sorely missing from the Oval Office right now.

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Too much coffee may be hurting Starbucks

A financial analyst decided to downgrade Starbucks’s stock to market perform from outperform. Andrew Stelzik, at BMO Capital Markets, believes the coffee chain has too many stores. According to his research, Forbes says, “there are 3.6 Starbucks stores within a one mile radius of a typical Starbucks in the United States.”

This has led to increased “cannibalization,” Strelzik said in a research note. “Strong new store performance appears to be coming —at least in part— at the expense of existing store traffic.”

In other words, new Starbucks stores rob their older peers of customers. Why that happens may be beyond the scope of Strelzik’s research. Your correspondent, a former New Yorker, may offer you a clue.

Starbucks is probably the best place to hang out in New York or anywhere else in the States. The coffee is usually good or very good (depending on your taste), the ambiance is welcoming, WiFi connectivity is excellent and you can sit down forever to work on your computer, read, meet friends or befriend strangers.

But there are problems. As your correspondent has noted at some of his favorite Starbucks locations, over time stores decay. First to go is bathroom cleanliness. Even at stores where the WC is behind armored doors and locked with passcodes, the filth may occasionally be indescribable. Then clutter and garbage begins to pile on tables. Unmannered patrons leave half-finished drinks, which at Starbucks may be the size of a bucket, on counters, tables and even restrooms. Staff morale begins to decline, and so does service, eventually.

What happens next is almost inevitable. A sprightly new Starbucks opens a few blocks down the street and the big migration begins. Until the cycle of decay starts anew. Perhaps Starbucks should recruit an army of undercover inspectors to monitor what is going on in its vast empire. It would be a pity to see it go down. No other company has translated more successfully the Italian caffè concept into a quintessentially American coffee store.

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Lunch with the Amish as we Cross New Mexico

Instead of the cafeteria, I signed up for lunch at the dining car on the third day. Chance had it that an Amish couple would share the table with me. We had just left Gallup behind, a name made famous by the poll company. It was hard to believe the global firm was associated with this little town.

They looked past fifty yet their demeanor and speech made them look more youthful. The wife was following the conversation with attention and a smile where due, but she only spoke once, towards the end. Even though they were speaking Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves, so thick was their American accent that a casual listener would be fooled into believing they were speaking in English.

While we were awaiting our carnivorous meals – she ordered a burger with fries, her husband chicken, and I, a steak – we exchanged the first courtesies: where are you from, what’s your name and what do you do. His name was most unusual, so much so that it overrides my principle of naming the subjects of this chronicle by pseudonyms: Orus. He did not know what it meant, but it was the name of his parents’ landlord when they married and moved into their first house. If what I knew about the Amish was correct, then their landlord, too, must have been Amish. But Orus did not say it.

Indeed, he did not say they were Amish for the first fifteen minutes of conversation, until he asked, a little intrigued that I was not asking, whether I knew that they were Amish. And it only came up because I was discussing the travails of journalists in the era of the Internet. Whatever happened elsewhere, in their home state of Ohio newspapers were in healthy shape, Orus thought. “There are many Amish in Ohio, and they can’t use the Internet, so they still buy the paper,” he said. “You know that we are Amish, right?”

Orus was a real estate agent at Holmes County, the largest concentration of Amish in the United States. He thought there were more of his kin in Holmes than in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Then he took a call on his mobile phone, a compromise with modernity that surprised me. Were they Amish of the Old Order? I asked. They were indeed, but obviously he had decided to make an exception to the rules forbidding use of portable electronic devices. There was none of the “chat room,” the hall where the other Amish I had spoken with a couple of days ago would go to place and take calls for his work as steel roofing salesman.

So I mentioned my amazement when I saw Amish on trains. No, they were allowed to ride on trains, even the most conservative among them. “That’s probably because there were trains around back in the day,” he reckoned, shortchanging Amish history by at least two centuries. They had arrived in the seventeenth century and the first trains had started to roll in the nineteenth century. Their reaction cannot have been but scandal and rejection at the time. Over the centuries, however, they must have come to terms with a means of transportation that in America had come to be quaint when compared to airplanes.

“But I really don’t know,” he said, when I queried further on the theological rationale. “I have good guesses, but that’s about it.” A Sudoku devotee, he was not much into books, and it was clear curiosity was not his biggest strength, or weakness. His grandfather had once visited Europe by boat, but he had already died by the time Orus was born.

“We make exceptions in case of emergencies,” he said. His mother had been flown to Mexico for cancer treatment. She was in Tijuana, where they were going to join her: they would board a bus in Los Angeles headed south across the border. Had not her first flight, at the age of 73, frightened her? “Not at all,” Orus said.

Then I returned to my seat and dozed off until dark. When I opened my eyes were crossing a bustling city, full of neon signs, cars, and people, brimming with life. It was Flagstaff, Arizona.


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This is the nineteenth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun
Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station
The Southwest Chief
The Crossing of the Mississippi
“Next Official Smoke Break: The Paris of the Prairies”
“On the Road”
Where Trains and Cars Come To Die
The Jumping Devils of Glorieta Pass