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Political musings from the middle seat

8 mins read

By Scott Graber

It was Monday morning and my wife and I were boarding the blue and silver KLM jet that would take us to Amsterdam. Our departure from Fiumicino (Rome) had been delayed by more than an hour meaning that making our connection at Schipohl (Amsterdam) was doubtful. We were anxious and angry.

Now, I must say that being anxious and angry about departures (or arrivals) was not always my reaction when it came to international travel. Once, long ago, I was relatively fearless — and entirely skeptical — about promised departure schedules. I had traveled to obscure places — especially in the third world — knowing that the published departure times were mostly advisory, hoped-for notions of when one might arrive in Abidjan or Abuja. But that morning we were not in Kinshasa, or Bangui, we were in Rome, for God’s sake.  As we banged our way into the cabin I was further annoyed to discover that the plane was full and I would be sitting in the middle seat of a three-seat row.  But all of this happened before I met Stefano — a fellow passenger on our flight from Rome to Amsterdam.

Stefano sat next to me in the KLM cabin and we talked from the moment the seat belt sign went dark until we landed two hours later. In the beginning it was “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” and “Where are you going?” But before long we moved to current events and, eventually, political philosophy. The political discussion really began when he said that he despised Hillary Clinton and would have voted for Donald Trump given the chance. 

He said that Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, led the effort to remove Muammar Gaddafi and then she supported the removal of Assad in Syria. He said that these two decisions sent thousands of immigrants into Italy and into Europe. These are not, Stefano said, immigrants fleeing tyranny; rather most of these Middle Eastern and African immigrants are simply seeking a better life from what they had. These immigrants have brought big problems to Europe. These people, he argued, don’t have the right to come to Europe under these circumstances.  

I challenged him on this, saying that it was not Hillary’s intent to create a tidal wave of immigrants when she helped overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. Stefano said that was her intent. And, further, it was her intent to weaken Europe. 

“Why in the world would she want to weaken Europe?,” I asked.

“She wants to promote big American corporations, big American banks, and a weaker Europe is one way to do that,” he claimed.

“I can’t agree with any of that,” I said.

Then he said that he thought Vladimir Putin was a “good guy”. 

“Why on earth do you say that?,” I asked.

He said that Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of Putin’s efforts to re-annex Ukraine was going to lead to more trouble. He said that Russia has always had “pillow” or buffer states that it controls on its borders. 

“Ukraine is Russia’s pillow” he said. “Russia has a right to protect itself.” 

I said I disagreed — “I think you’re wrong, Stefano”— but I wanted to hear him out because I suspect he represents a view of the United States that is shared by other young Italians. 

He went on to say that Russia now is having to revert to its Cold War, saber-rattling persona and that if fighting breaks out Western Europe will be first to take the brunt of a Russian invasion.

Stefano — young and friendly and not really struggling with the English language said — “I think American is as imperialistic as any of the old European powers.” 

I saw an opening.

“Do you see any parallel between Imperial Rome and modern day America?,” I asked. “Would you not agree that Rome, your people, gave the Mediterranean 1,000 years of peace and stability? Would you not agree that Roman Legions, stationed on the Rhine, kept a lot of people safe for a very long time?” 

“This is not a valid comparison,” he said.

“Why not?”

“The Roman Army was brutal, but they were spreading a ‘culture,’ and they would offer citizenship to those they conquered. The United States has different motives. They are advancing the interest of banks.”

“Obama created an agency to reign in banks…I think its called the Consumer Protection Agency or something like that,” I said.

“I know,” Stefano said, “but Obama is not Hillary Clinton.”

I then told Stefano that I had actually met Bill and Hillary Clinton and they were not as evil as he thought. “There is some altruism in them.”

“But she took money from American corporations.”

“Yes,” I said, “and I suspect she regrets doing that.”

We sat for awhile in silence and then connecting flights and corresponding connection gates were announced by the pilot on the PA. I was thrilled that our JFK gate was announced. He wouldn’t announce that gate, I thought, unless there was some possibility that we could make that connection.

“Where would you live, Stefano, if you could live anywhere in the world?”

“If you would do something about health care I would live in the United States.” 

“What?!?”

“You have freedom of speech in the U.S.,” he said. ”In Amsterdam I cannot criticize Muslims. It is illegal. Yes, I would live in the U.S. if I could have free health care.”

I think we would have talked for another couple of hours if we had the opportunity. But at this point my thoughts turned to getting to the JFK departure gate and getting myself home regardless of what Stefano thought about Hillary Clinton’s motives. 

“Schipohl is a small airport,” Stefano said. “It’s like a hub…with spokes. Nothing is too far from anything else. You can probably make your flight if you run.” 

And we did run. We ran like the athletes we once were. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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