If Only We Hadn’t Had A War.

Photo by Steve Villano, taken in Assisi, Italy at a Peace & Reconciliation Conference.

When I am at a loss for words, or reasons why things did or did not happen, I seek out solace or guidance, or both, from authors whose work has slapped me across the face, or broken my heart. One such writer is Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer.

During the final days of the United States 20-year War in Afghanistan, I turned to Nguyen’s book “The Refugees,” to deepen my understanding and feeling of what thousands of Afghani refugees were experiencing, desperate to escape their country now back under Taliban rule, 20 years after the True Faithful, blinded by Sharia Law, had been driven out of power, not for how they brutalized women and tortured their fellow countrymen, but for harboring terrorists who slaughtered civilians in the West.

I turned to “The Refugees,” Nguyen’s collection of vignettes of Vietnamese refugees, who fled their country after the North Vietnamese drove out American forces following an excruciating 11-year War. An eerie quote from a women, I took to be Nguyen’s mother, jumped out at me:

“If we hadn’t had a war, we’d be like the Koreans now. Saigon would be Seoul, your father alive, you married with children, me a retired housewife, not a manicurist.”

The feeling of intimate wistfulness, the power of hope, was familiar to me. Yes, it echoed my own mother’s sentiments that those of us who grew up poor in America “lived in hopes and died in despair, “ but there was something else about it that I knew.

It sent me scurrying for my copy of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and to a remarkable passage toward the end of his book, which, each time I read it, takes my breath away. The long paragraph runs across pages 353 and 354 of the paperback version of the book, over 40 lines, is punctuated by semi-colons, and populated heavily by a set of “ifs.” The super sentence suggests how different the world, and his character’s life, would have been, “If” only certain events had or had not happened:

“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant…if we forgot our resentment, if we forget revenge; if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other; if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists…”

I first read Nguyen’s haunting language during the early summer of the American Presidential campaign of 2016, and repeated the “if” sequence dozens of times during the campaign’s closing days, when I traveled around North Carolina observing Barack & Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren try mightily to win that important swing state for Hillary Clinton.

I interviewed dozens of voters, entered historic African-American churches constructed since before slavery was dismantled, and listened to the rhythm of the voices of the citizens with whom I spoke, quietly warning me of the dark times to come by the cadence of their language. I composed what they said into a song reminiscent of Nguyen’s work:

“If history had taken a quicker turn toward the arc of justice, if everyone’s skin color were the same; if furniture were still being made in North Carolina’s factories, and clothing in it’s mills; if I had become an attorney or a diplomat and moved away; if my Jesus could sit down and have a beer with yours, and pick ribs clean together; if I was not frightened by the darkness of your skin and the bright, bold hope in your eyes, and if you did not resent my very existence on the same street where you lived as a sign of your own failure…”

Now, that relentless imprinting of Nguyen’s “IF” paragraph from The Sympathizer seized me again, drumming home that a few changes here or there, over the course of 20 years, might have altered, for the better, tens of thousands of Afghani and American lives. And so, I attempted to change some lives, and history, with some slight revisions of my own, following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the deaths of many more Afghani civilians, and 13 more American soldiers young enough to be my grandchildren:

“They were good students, just like me. They learned their lessons well, and so have I…if I had fallen in love with the right woman, if I had been a more virtuous lover, if my mother had been less of a mother, if my father had gone to save souls in Iraq, instead of here…if we forgot resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if the Americans hadn’t come to save us from ourselves, if we had not bought what they sold, if the Soviets had never called us comrades…if the Taliban had not been so self-righteous and unbending and so sexually repressed, like the religious fundamentalists of America, and if native Aghanis had simply said, Hell No, on first seeing the white man, if our tribes and mullahs had not clashed among themselves, if the Koran had never been written, if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if I had never been born, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?

Peace, perhaps, if only things were different.

We Should Have Listened to Tony Kushner About Kabul.

I woke up this morning in August, 2021, in Kabul — or, more precisely inside the powerful, prescient play, “Homebody, Kabul” at the New York Theatre Workshop, 20 years ago — surrounded by Tony Kushner and Roma Torre and Carol Villano, and I knew I had been here before.

Barely a few months after the World Trade Center Towers, where I spent 6 years of my life, were destroyed, and nearly 3,000 humans slaughtered in the attack, we ventured back to Broadway, or, Off-Broadway to be exact.

It was only because a new play from the brilliant Tony Kushner was opening — his first play since “Angels in America”. Kushner wrote and rewrote “Homebody, Kabul,” for several years before 9/11, eerily warning us about the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999, and their appetite for brutality, inhumanity and Jihadism.

I went to see it at the recommendation of Roma Torre, then NY 1’s Theatre Critic, with whom I became friends a decade earlier, when both of us worked at News 12 Long Island. We sat in the old East 4th Street theatre for the next 4 hours, mesmerized by an opening 45 minute monologue by the actress Linda Emond, playing a lonely English woman who dreamed of the romance of old Kabul for decades.

When she lived out her dream and went to Kabul in Act 2, and her family followed to search for her, the Taliban were in-control, arresting women because of their gender, selling them off into sexual slavery, and beheading anyone who disagreed with them.

Kushner’s words, wisdom and uncompromising loyalty to telling the truth hit me like an anvil — just as “Angels” did earlier, and now, 20 years later, his words jolted me out of my sleep, when I learned that the Taliban, more violent, unforgiving and determined than ever, had, once-again, entered the gates of Kabul after thousands of deaths — American and otherwise — and billions of dollars spent battling them, across four US Administrations: two Republican, and two Democratic.

We were warned again and again about these fundamentalist terrorists, and for a whole host of reasons — some humanitarian (like preventing the repression and annihilation of women), some geopolitical (like defeating foreign terrorism) some military, and some based on pure arrogance and pride — we persisted in pursuing a doomed policy.

Now, theTaliban have come home…and so have we, and it’s unlikely that lonely English ladies will long for the long-ago romance of Kabul ever again.

If only we paid closer attention to what Tony Kushner labored mightily to tell us about Kabul.

No, Andrew; Our Italian-American Culture Didn’t Make You Do It.

No, Andrew; Our Italian-American Culture Didn’t Make You Do It.

By Steve Villano

Andrew Cuomo hired me to work in New York State government—in the Administration of his father, Mario M. Cuomo—37 years ago.   Now, it’s time for Andrew to leave the service of the State he has long loved, and to which he and his family devoted their lives to for over four decades.

I am both sad and infuriated that he has put himself—and many of us who have admired and supported his ability to get good things done—in this terrible position. I am pained for his mother, the magnificent Matilda Cuomo, his three daughters and his three sisters to be forced to read about the sordid, sexist, sophomoric, and potentially illegal actions of the Cuomo who beat back COVID, and could have been President. 

And, I am filled with outrage for the scars Andrew afflicted on the 11 brave women who stepped forward, under oath, to testify to Cuomo’s unwanted touching, his untethered teenaged testosterone with which he tormented them, and their fear of losing their jobs, and harming their public service careers, if they spoke up.  Like New York State Attorney General Lettitia James, “I believe these 11 women.”

I watched the New York Attorney General’s full press conference, where her team of highly qualified, non-partisan investigators laid out, in devastating detail, the “Report of Investigation Into Allegations of Sexual Harassment by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.”   Then, I read the full 165-page report myself, and wept while I read in anger what he was charged with doing to these courageous women, and was dumbfounded at his unbridled arrogance, misogyny and abject stupidity.   I thought I knew from experience how arrogant and insensitive Andrew could be, but I never took him for being so politically dumb.

 I watched and listened carefully to Andrew Cuomo as he aired a pre-taped “commercial” defending his awful, possibly unlawful actions, by splicing in photos and videos of himself hugging and kissing lots of men and women, to normalize his behavior, claiming that he was so affectionate because of his “generational and cultural perspectives” that may be different.   He was ignoring the “toxic” harassment-filled workplace culture he created, and blaming it instead on his own Italian-American culture and background. No, Andrew; our loving, humanitarian Italian-American culture didn’t make you do it.  You alone did it.

As an Italian-American male nine-years older than Andrew Cuomo, I found his pathetic attempt to pin the blame for his abominable behavior on his loving, affectionate Italian family background particularly enraging.  To argue that he couldn’t control his libido because he was Italian, is like saying Italian’s can’t control their family’s association with organized crime, or that Black men cannot control their sexual desire because they are, well… Black men.   Despicable.  I wrote an entire book (Tightrope:  Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother, Heliotrope Books, NY,) to offer eyewitness testimony against such cultural slurs.

Still, as Cuomo requested, I read the 26-page  “Statement of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo Concerning the Sexual Harassment Allegations Made Against Him,” by his attorney and former Federal Prosecutor, Rita M. Glavin, which was, in fact, almost as juvenile and embarrassing as legal filings from the Trump team.

Contrary to what Cuomo said in his pre-recorded statement, his lawyer’s “brief” did NOT counter every accusation, being completely silent on perhaps the most serious allegation made against him, under oath, by a female State Trooper.  The Trooper—identified as Trooper # 1, who was transferred to Cuomo’s personal security unit despite not having the 3-year service qualifications– detailed how Cuomo touched her spine from her neck to the middle of her back, how he placed his hand on her stomach and moved it from her belly-button to her gun-toting hip, and how he invited her to go up to the second floor of the Executive Mansion in Albany, which contained the Governor’s bedroom.  Not one single word addressed the Trooper’s under-oath statements in Cuomo’s legal rebuttal.  Not one single word.

Andrew M. Cuomo can save his family, his beloved State, and Democrats across the nation much agita and further embarassment, by resigning immediately.   NYS Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, a Brooklyn Democrat, stated that Cuomo has “lost the confidence of the Democratic Majority in the Assembly (106 out of 150 seats), and “can no longer remain in office.”  

Yet, if Cuomo’s past political behavior is prologue, he’ll follow the playbook of his self-professed political hero, Bill Clinton—something I found incomprehensible since he had Mario Cuomo as his father:  a far, far better role model & human being.  

Clinton, guilty of an abuse of power, sexual harassment and lying under oath for which he was impeached, selfishly decided to tough it out, and not resign, preventing his Vice President Al Gore from running for election in 2000 as an incumbent president, which may have changed the course of this nation’s history—or at least the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Andrew Cuomo doesn’t resign—whether he runs for re-election or not—he’ll put New York, and national Democrats at a disadvantage in 2022, when the self-inflicted wounds of a Democratic celebrity, could not only cost New York Democrats the Governorship, but House Democrats the majority.  It’s no wonder that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden have already called for Cuomo’s resignation.

If he stubbornly refuses, Andrew Cuomo will finally prove something he’s been striving to show for his entire life.  He’s not his father.