Monday, September 19, 2011

A Brief Comment on Taxes for the Wealthy

How can we live in a country where millionaires pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families?  And how can anyone, millionaire or not, claim that this is not only okay, but absolutely fundamental?

From doing just a brief bit of reading, the reason why this phenomenon exists is because everyone - whether they are a millionaire or not - pays the same tax rates on their salaries.  The rate varies depending on how much you make.  Very wealthy people, however, frequently receive a great deal of their income from capital gains investments, which are investments in things like real estate and businesses and the stock market.  This income is different from a paid salary.  The taxes on those capital gains incomes are something like 15%.  So a billionaire investor, like Warren Buffett, whose income is more or less exclusively from capital gains investments, pays 15% in taxes, while a middle-class worker making $50K per year in salary probably pays a higher rate.

Can someone explain why people whose income comes from capital gains shouldn't pay the same sort of tax rates as people whose income is primarily from earned salary?  Why should unearned salary (salary made from interest in investments) be taxed lower than salary you actually work for and earn?  I suppose a quick and simple answer would be that it encourages investments, which is good for the economy.  But I still can't help but wonder why perhaps increasing that amount by a small margin (say, from 15% to 18%) wouldn't be beneficial for the federal budget and the overall tax burden and economy, while at the same time it wouldn't discourage people of means from investing in things like businesses and real estate and the stock market.

I'd love to hear some opinions on this, if anyone has one.    

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Notes from the Cave: Kitchen Edition

The laptop is sitting on the kitchen table, so this isn't really "from the cave."  There are pumpkins in front of me, and unpacked groceries on the counter.  The lawn is freshly mowed, and my wife is completing her female duty of folding laundry.

(That's a little joke, by the way.)

Have I ever mentioned that I am totally disinterested in football?  College, NFL, high school, whatever the level, I find it not at all exciting.  In fact, I always get irritated this time of year at how much the sports news gets controlled by football.  This disinterest in football must be Prosecution Evidence #273 for why I'm a bad American.

Cook-out this afternoon with the in-laws.  It's overcast and cool, but frankly - at this point - I'd take that over 95 and humid.  This has been the first real "autumn" weekend in these parts.  It finally cooled off this past week, and yesterday was a beautiful 72 with sunshine.

I attended Happy Hour with my co-workers on Friday night at a club at Newport-on-the-Levee, which is a swank shopping and restaurant district in Kentucky, right on the Ohio River opposite downtown Cincinnati.  Out of our group of people, which waxed and waned throughout the night, swelling up to maybe 12 or 13 souls, I was easily the oldest.  In fact, I think there was only one other person there who was even past 30.  I was the only one married with children.  Several people in our group are young enough, biologically-speaking, to be my daughters.

In short, I was the creepy, old, fat, married dude among the young, hip party crowd.

I joked about it all night, but by the time the festivities were over, I was left with a legitimate feeling of being too old for this shit.  The bar crowd was a touch on the trashy side, and the average age was probably 24.  I saw some guys get carted out by the bouncers after jumping onto the stage during intermission, and around that same time, I saw a girl bare her breasts at the foot of the stage, Mardi Gras style.  Those were both firsts for me, and I've been in a club or two in my life.  There was also a tall, blonde drink of water who jumped onto the stage during the first set to dance and gyrate her hips in a very good imitation of sexual intercourse, holding her hand in the air, a drink in the other, and getting all orgasmic as the cover band played "Crazy Bitch."

I think this really was the first time I have ever been out in a setting like that and thought that I was basically too old to be there.

I also did a "Four Horsemen" shot while I was there, and I felt like I had battery acid in my stomach until about noon the following day.  The Four Horsemen, by the way, is a shot made up of equal portions of Jack, Jim, Johnny, and Jose - i.e., whiskey, bourbon, scotch, and tequila.  In other words, hairspray.

I found a big snakeskin in my yard about a week ago.  How disturbing is that?  With the trees and the horse pastures behind us, I've always been aware that snakes were not only possible, but probable, but it is still disturbing to finally see the evidence.  I have no idea what kind of snake it might have been, but it was not exactly small.  I'm guessing there probably aren't poisonous snakes back there, but of course I don't know that for sure.  In any case, it's getting cool now, so they'll be retreating to their dens.

We also have bats, screech owls, raccoons, and of course horses back there.  And just to remind people, I live in a metropolitan area of over 2 million people.

Apparently, the plural of "raccoon" is "raccoon," because Google Chrome is telling me I spelled it wrong above.  I'm leaving it, though.

The dog is scratching his water bowl, so I suppose I will sign off and hydrate his annoying ass.    

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Government Spending

Sounds like a fantastically interesting blog post to come, eh?  Stick with me...I think you might find it more through-provoking than you think.

Before I start I want to make a few statements about the information below.  First of all, when I say "government spending," I'm talking about the United States federal government.  I am not talking about what an individual state government spends on any given program.  Secondly, I am obviously not going to cover every single government program in existence.  I'm just going to touch on the big ones and the "hot button" topics.  Third, what follows is by no means a scientific analysis of the federal budget.   I've basically gathered this information doing Google searches and am simply spelling out my findings.  If you want a thorough analysis, go buy a book or something.  And finally, the numbers below are not exact figures.  As anyone who has ever tried to make sense of the federal budget can attest, it is extremely complicated.  We like to compartmentalize things and simplify them, but in reality there's nothing simple about it.  For instance, we tend to think of "Welfare" as some official program that has a specific budget.  In fact, it's a whole slew of programs that have a wide variety of budgets and funding sources.  Social Security, for instance, is a form of welfare, but most people aren't thinking of Social Security when they think of "the Welfare program."

Okay, now on to the good stuff.

1.  Planned Parenthood.  Funding for Planned Parenthood has long been a hot button topic when it comes to government spending.  Opponents say it's a liberal program that spends enormous sums of money to help people get abortions and encourage teens to have sex.  Supporters say it teaches healthy sexual behavior and provides vital medical services to citizens.  Regardless of your opinion about Planned Parenthood, the fact is that about $350 million is spent by the government every year on this program.  Sounds like a lot, doesn't it?  In fact, if you compare that to the U.S. population, it averages out to about 1 dollar a year for every American.

Now, obviously, not every American is a tax-paying citizen.  A 5-year-old doesn't work, after all.  According to the IRS, something like 100 million people pay taxes every year.  So if you are a taxpayer, Planned Parenthood costs you about $3.50 every year.  Three dollars and fifty cents.  Per year.

It hardly seems worth complaining about, no?

2. NPR.  If all the time spent fighting Planned Parenthood over $3.50 a year seems silly, you'll really be shocked by this one.  This spring, there was a big fight about ending the federal funding of NPR, with conservatives saying it was money that could be spent better elsewhere, and liberals saying the conservatives just didn't like NPR because it's not FOXNews.  Regardless of your stance there, what most people don't realize is that this fight was over roughly 3 million bucks.  I call it "3 million bucks" intentionally, to imply what an infinitesimal amount of money this is, when compared to the federal budget.  Roughly $0.03 comes out of your paycheck every year to fund NPR.  That's 3 pennies.

By comparison, the amount of taxpayer money spent by Congress this spring to draft this legislation, debate it, and vote on it, probably cost more than the actual amount of taxpayer dollars spent to fund NPR for a whole year.  Think on that for a minute.

3. Medicare.  Medicare is always a popular topic in major elections and every candidate has his or her own opinion on what should be done about Medicare.  For our purposes here, I will simply note that it costs about $800 billion a year, and that number includes Medicaid, which provides health services for the poor and elderly.  This is roughly 23% of the total U.S. federal budget.  (This data, and the data the follows, is based on numbers from 2010).

4. Social Security.  Like Medicare, everyone has an opinion about this.  The government spends about $700 billion on Social Security every year, or about 20% of the total budget.

Together, Medicare and Social Security account for about 1.5 trillion dollars, or roughly 45% of the total U.S. federal budget.

7. Welfare.  This  is a biggie.  Eeee'rrbody wants to fix Welfare.  Too many hard-earned taxpayer dollars going to support losers who won't work.  The interesting thing about this is that there is no single government program called "Welfare."  "Welfare" is just a generic term referring to government money given to citizens.  Technically speaking, Social Security is a type of welfare, and so is Medicare.  For that matter, so is money given to people for disaster relief.  

So in order to define what I mean when I say "Welfare" (with a capital "W"), simply understand that I am specifically referring to government money that is given to poor people to help with their life expenses.  These officially include housing, food expenditures, and "other income security."  In 2009, those expenditure totaled about $285 billion.  That's a lot of money, no question.  But unfortunately, it doesn't actually tell the whole story.  Some of the programs included in that total are not specifically directed at the poor.  They are programs that are available to the poor, but they are also available to people who do not qualify as "poor."  Counting only those programs that give money to poor people, and only poor people, the number drops to about $190 billion dollars.

Still a lot of money, right?  But there's still more to the story.

Roughly 60% of that $190 billion goes to organizations which help the poor.  That means it is money being spent only indirectly on the poor.  If you count the actual amount of money given directly to the poor each year (i.e. "the welfare check," or food stamps, or government housing), the total is about 80 billion dollars.

There's no question that 80 billion dollars is a lot of money.  But it's only about 3% of the total amount of tax dollars received by the federal government every year (in 2008, that total was $2.7 trillion).  So if you want to simplify it, you can imagine that for every 100 dollars you give to the IRS every year, exactly 3 of those dollars goes directly to help the poor and indigent.

Anyone who has a problem with that probably needs to re-evaluate their opinion.    

6. Defense.  Defense spending is enormous, and includes everything from the Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. military.  It's budget is broken up into several parts, some of which are expenses associated with the Department of Defense, and some of which are expenses that come from outside the Department of Defense, but which are still classified as "defense" expenditures.  These would include things like money spent on FBI counter-terrorism, or the money paid to a doctor at a VA hospital for treating a soldier.

All together, defense spending costs taxpayers about 1.5 trillion dollars a year.  The same as Medicare and Social Security.  However, since Medicare and Social Security have more varied sources of funding than simply taxpayer dollars, the amount of actual taxpayer dollars that go to defense spending every year is something like 55% of all taxpayer dollars spent every year by the U.S. government.

That means that for every 100 dollars taken out of your paycheck and given to the IRS, roughly 55 of those dollars go to defense spending.

Let me repeat that:

55% of your taxpayer dollars funds defense spending every year. 

Compare that to the 3% that funds direct government assistance to the poor.


The ironic thing about this is that when people talk about the 14 trillion dollar budget deficit - or whatever it is right now - it's NPR and Planned Parenthood and Welfare that they want to cut out of the loop.  No one would dare suggest that maybe our defense spending is what's really eating up our tax dollars.  Don't get me wrong...I'm not suggesting we weaken our military or refuse to provide services like healthcare to veterans.  I'm simply saying that when people consider the debt crisis, it is ironic that the single biggest eater of American taxes gets totally ignored.  Defense spending is as great as Social Security and Medicare combined!!  And when you compare something like government assistance for the poor to these enormous consumers of taxpayer dollars, it's just a tiny little fraction of the total - a few percent!

What I hope my readers may take from this post is that it is very easy to get fixated on hot button issues and government programs that politicians like to criticize for political points, but the fact remains that when it comes to the U.S. budget crisis, things like Welfare and NPR and Planned Parenthood and half a dozen other programs are nothing but chump change to spenders like Medicare and Social Security and the biggest spender of them all, defense.

What's really scary is that in researching Tea Party groups for my last blog post, I found at least one that said it wants to increase military spending, while simultaneously decreasing taxes and balancing the budget.  Evidently they want a military junta to be in control of this country, because the military is all we could afford if we balanced the budget, lowered taxes, AND increased defense spending.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Notes from the Cave

"Well, here we are in the Fabulous Forties, and life couldn't be better.  Sports!!"

Sorry, that's an inside joke that only my sister and parents are going to get.  Just seemed like a good way to start off this latest edition of Notes from the Cave.

Someone asked me today for my thoughts on the classic Thomas Paine treatise "The Age of Reason," which is one of the most widely-read pieces of literature from 18th century America.  Paine was an Enlightenment thinker and philosopher, and one of the most influential figures of the American Revolution, and this work is a well-known pamphlet discussing Paine's views on religion and the role of the Church.  I haven't actually read the entire thing, but in perusing it a bit this evening, I was struck right off by what he says in the opening section.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy...I do not believe in the creed professed [by any church]...My own mind is my own church.
This passage resonates strongly with me, to say the least.  In short, it sums up my own feelings perfectly.  My perception of God is probably different than Paine's was, and my reaction to "the Church" (as an institution) is probably somewhat different than Paine's, because "the Church" has a different role in society today than it did then, but the overall theme and feeling is definitely identical.  His description of "religious duties" could be my own spiritual mantra.  Later in the opening section, he says that all religious institutions, whether "Jewish, Christian, or Turkish" ("Turkish" referring to Islam), are "human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."  If you think this sounds inflammatory today, imagine how it sounded in 1794 Puritan America!!

Unlike Paine, who was a deist, I have come to realize in recent months that I can best be described as a panentheist.  I realize that most of my readers will not be familiar with this word or what it means.  It is a bit difficult to describe, and I have no doubts that some people will think it's just some fancy philosophical idea that would only appeal to someone who thinks way too much about things.  Well, that's me.

You may notice right off that the word is similar to "pantheist."  A pantheist, of course, is someone who views the universe - the cosmos - as one and the same with God.  To the pantheist, nature itself is sacred.  Pantheism can be characterized by the fact that it does not hold to beliefs in any personal god, supernatural creator, or divine being.  Pantheism, then, differs from atheism only in that it affirms the sacredness of the cosmos itself.

Panentheism is similar in many ways, but vitally different in one way in particular.  Like pantheism, panentheism affirms the sacredness of the world and the cosmos.  However, where the pantheist says that God and the universe are identical, and one does not exist without the other, and one completely encompasses the other, the panentheist says that the observable universe is only a part of what God is.  In other words, God encompasses the universe, but the universe does not encompass all that God is.

Because of this vital difference, panentheism is not a form of atheism.  In fact, it specifically affirms that God exists, encompassing and embodying the universe, but also separate from and greater than the universe.

A good analogy to better understand the difference here is one that I like to call the "severed arm" analogy.  The pantheist looks at a severed arm and calls it complete.  The panentheist, on the other hand, looks at a severed arm and says it is incomplete.  It is only part of a much larger system, namely the human body.

In the same way, the pantheist views the universe as the sum total of what God is.  The panentheist, however, says the universe is only part of the reality of God.

As a panentheist, I believe God exists, and I believe the universe, and everything in it, is suffused by God and encompassed by God.  But I don't believe the universe is God.  It is only part of God's reality.  I do not believe God is a personal deity or a supernatural being.  I don't view God in anthropomorphic terms - that is, I don't believe God has a gender, or a body, or eyes to see with, or a voice to speak with, or kidneys or skin.  God can be seen by humans, but only in the sense that we have eyes to observe the world and the cosmos around us.  When you look at a flower, you are looking at a part of what God is.  When you look in the mirror, for that matter, you are looking at a part of what God is.         
  
What's funny about all this is that I was first introduced to the concept of panentheism almost seven years ago now, when I first began delving into religious philosophy and scholarship.  It resonated with me at the time, but it's almost like I sort of tucked it in the back of my mind and have only recently begun pulling it back out again and really thinking it through.  It's almost like I wasn't quite ready for it before, but now I am.

I still have all the same feelings and beliefs that I have always had in regards to the life and teachings of Jesus.  In that sense, I don't have a problem being called "Christian."  If a Christian is someone who tries to emulate the ethical message of Jesus, then I'm a Christian.  But I have started using that term less and less to describe myself simply because I have begun to realize that it is simply inadequate, and way too top heavy with theological and institutional religious baggage of which I want absolutely no part.

Well.  I didn't exactly mean for this to become a serious theological post.  So on now to some more mundane bullshit.

I have been doing a lot of shifts in the OR at work lately, and it's starting to piss me off.  I don't mind OR work, but when I have to be up there three or four days a week, every week, I start to get irritated.  Today I was expecting, based on my shift, not to be up there at all, and instead I came in and had to work there all day because of a call-in.  Tomorrow I am working a swing shift - 11-7:30 - and so I shouldn't have to do anything in the OR (fingers crossed).

I think I've mentioned before how I have started working this year with an old friend from high school who has started an online business giving English speaking and writing lessons to Japanese people.  Last week, I did my first "solo" lesson over Skype, and then did another the following day.  Both went reasonably well, and now I feel much more confident going ahead with this in the future.  I am also going to begin keeping a company blog to talk about writing, and I've already recorded a podcast on writing tips, which is part of the free content on the website.  I don't know yet what this work is going to promise me from a financial standpoint, but it's fun doing it for what it's worth.  If I can make a few extra dollars on the side, all the better.

I tried to watch the GOP debate the other night on CNN.  I really did give it a good faith effort.  But I only lasted about 10 minutes.  They weren't even done with the first question when I decided it was better to turn it off than sit there and get pissed.

I finally finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which took me about three or four weeks to get through.  I've heard other people say that it starts slow and gets better later, and that is definitely how I felt about it.  It's a 600 page novel, and I didn't really feel like the plot started moving in any significant way until about 300 pages in.  Despite this, I would still recommend it, because it was entertaining, and the last half of the book is a definite page-turner.  The writer simply takes too long to get to the good stuff.  Since he died shortly after sending the manuscript to his publisher, I can't help but wonder if they wouldn't have done some more work on it had he lived.  In any case, I intend to read the remaining two books in the series.

For now, however, I am reading Gideon's Sword, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  These two people coauthor intelligent thrillers together, and they are among my dwindling list of authors whose books I always buy in hardback.  I used to have four or five of these "hardback" authors, but nowadays I'm down to just them and maybe one other person.    

On the non-fiction front, I am reading scholar James Tabor's book "The Jesus Dynasty."  I've been slowly moving through this book since early in the summer, but I don't think I've touched it since before our vacation in July.  It's not that it isn't any good, I just haven't been all that interested.

OK, I guess that's it.




 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Tea Party and Libertarianism

If you Google the incomplete phrase "Are tea partiers," the first suggestion that pops up is: "Are tea partiers racist?"  The second is: "Are tea partiers libertarian?"  Considering that those suggestions pop up based on the number of times people enter them in the search box, the question of the connection between Libertarianism and the Tea Party movement is clearly a prominent one among Americans.

It seems that in mainstream society, there is quite a bit of confusion about this.  I have had people tell me personally that they believe the Tea Party movement is just a "rebranding" of the Libertarian movement.  I was thinking about this today, and decided it might be instructive to write a brief post about it.

In a word, the Tea Party is not Libertarianism rebranded.  In fact, if you want to think of the Tea Party as a rebranding of something, it is most simply a rebranding of Republicanism.

In a nutshell, the thing that has always differentiated Libertarians from Republicans or Democrats is that their party is a true amalgam of traditional conservative values and traditional liberal values.  Put simply, Libertarians are known for being fiscally conservative (low taxes, limited government involvement in the private sector), and socially liberal (individual freedoms and civil liberties).  Their overarching desire it to see a truly "small government" - one that pretty much stays out of your job and out of your home.

As such, Libertarians have always been supporters of typically conservative ideals like low taxes and very limited government spending.  They support balanced federal budgets, free market capitalism, and greatly reduced interference by the federal government in the business sector.  They have also long supported a greatly reduced military budget and military presence around the world, and have generally been considered "isolationist" from a military standpoint.  For a Libertarian, the U.S. has no business engaging in military nation building or foreign military intervention.  

In keeping with their "small government" ideals, they also support typically liberal notions about government involvement in people's private lives.  For instance, they have long supported abortion rights and gay rights, including gay marriage rights, the legalization of things like prostitution and certain drugs - especially marijuana - physician-assisted suicide and other end-of-life considerations, and have even lobbied for changes to statutory rape laws, allowing minors and their legal guardians to determine the appropriate age for a minor to begin having sex.  They also believe very strongly in a "wall of separation" between Church and State - in other words, keep God out of government.  In short, they believe in personal rights, privileges, and responsibilities.  This goes hand in hand with their commitment to a truly limited federal government.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, has nothing at all in common with this second aspect of traditional Libertarian values.  To begin with, many Tea Party groups are strong supporters of blurring the lines of Church and State.  One Tea Party website I visited (teaparty.org/about.php) explicitly says that America is a "Christian nation" and goes on to say that: "The Tea Party dream includes all who possess a strong belief in the foundational Judaic/Christian values embedded in our great founding documents."  This same site explicitly states, among their 15 "non-negotiable core beliefs," that the U.S. must have a "stronger military."  Clearly these are not Liberatarians.

In addition to this, and much more significantly, the Tea Party supports limited government from a government spending standpoint (low taxes, decreased federal budget, decreased government presence in the business sector), but has no problem at all with government telling you who you can and can't marry, what you can and can't do when you are pregnant, and who you can or can't have sex with when you are 17.  They have no problem controlling what patients and their physicians do in end-of-life scenarios, and they are not concerned with the government telling people what they can or can't smoke, or under what conditions two consenting adults can or can't have sex.  In short, the Tea Party consists of people who are fiscally conservative and socially conservative.

This doesn't make them Libertarians, it makes them conservative Republicans.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thoughts On the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

Rather than go into a long exposition about my opinions and feelings about 9/11 and its aftermath, I decided today to simply post the journal entry I wrote the day the attacks took place.  I think these words say far more than I could say today, looking back in retrospect.  This is the first time I've ever made anything in my journal public.  I've copied it word for word.

*****************

September 11, 2001

That date seems so insignificant looking at it here on the page, but I know in the future, it will be a day that will be well remembered by all Americans.  Today, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed, and the Pentagon was attacked, all with hijacked airliners on a kamikazee-style mission.  It was utterly horrifying.  Never in my life have I felt panic over a world event.  Vietnam was over before I was born, I was too young to care about Reagan’s near assassination, The Gulf War wasn’t really much of a war, and Waco, the ’93 World Trade Center bombings, and the ’98 US Embassy bombings didn’t phase me much.  But today, for the first time in my life, I felt true panic as I watched smoke and flame pouring out of the Pentagon, America’s symbol of military strength and power. 

I was sitting at my desk this morning at 9:00, like I do every morning.  It was a pretty day – pleasant temperatures and clear skies.  It didn’t seem like a special day.  I got up at about 7:20 and took a long shower as usual.  I got out of the shower, got dressed, took the dog out, read a note from my wife saying that her sister Sarah would be bringing my lunch with her to work (and noted that I wouldn’t need it as I already had lunch plans), and then gathered my planner and tennis shoes for working out, and walked out the door.  The drive to work was pleasant.  I said my morning prayer and then listened to a Guns n’ Roses CD.  Walking into work, I met up with the head of the sales department and we had a friendly conversation about Melanie and her pregnancy and how things are going.  Neither of us had the slightest concern for the security of the United States.  At the same moment we were walking into Tempur-Pedic together, there were people walking into the World Trade Center buildings, blissfully unaware that within an hour they would die in the worst terrorist attack in world history.    

At 9 a.m., my co-worker, Bill, was on the phone with our Connecticut warehouse.  The owner of the warehouse has a home office, and he evidently had the radio or television on.  He told Bill that a plane had hit one of the twin towers in New York.  Bill relayed the information to me and I sort of filed it away, assuming it was a small, private plane.  No big deal.  No panic.  Ten minutes later, our local warehouse manager came over and told us two planes had hit the twin towers.  I was incredulous.  “You mean to tell me that two separate planes randomly hit the World Trade Center towers five minutes apart?  That’s impossible.”  He assured me it was indeed possible and that the word was it was terrorists.  Strange.  But not strange enough for panic.  Not long after that, one of our executives tuned into CBS News on the internet and we watched as Dan Rather talked about the tragedy.  They showed footage of the second plane as it hit the tower, exploding in a belch of flame and smoke.  We were amazed and awed.  But still no panic.  We discussed the possibilities.  The ramifications.  Very strange indeed.  I returned to work.

By now I was emailing like crazy.  My friends and family were talking about it and sending me emails.  I was having a hard time concentrating on work.  Then, from inside his office, our exec said, “I knew it.  They got the Pentagon.”  And now the panic set in.  We rushed into his office and saw the image of the Pentagon in flames.  We were confused and scared.  Was it a bomb?  Was it another plane?  What was happening?  What would happen next?  The White House?  Where was the President?  I tore myself from the screen and went back to my desk.  My hands felt cold and my stomach was in knots.  I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack.  I called a friend at home and he was watching the telecast (he’d read one of my emails about the tragedy and thought I’d been joking).  He told me that Tom Brokaw was reporting that one of the towers had collapsed.  “Collapsed?” I asked.  “What do you mean it ‘collapsed?’”  He told me it had evidently collapsed.  Again I asked, “What do you mean by collapsed?  You’re telling me that one of the World Trade Center towers has fallen?  It’s completely gone?”  Evidently, he told me.  I felt slightly light-headed and still didn’t quite believe him.

A few minutes later we were back in the exec’s office, watching the telecast via the internet.  CBS was interviewing an eyewitness to the Pentagon explosion, but the camera view was still showing the single twin tower.  The upper floors were in flames and black smoke poured into the sky.  As the interview went on, the burning portion of the tower suddenly disintigrated.  On television, it looked like it had been turned to dust.  Then the building imploded on itself, falling straight down.  It was as if it had been vaporized.  The interview went on for a few seconds longer until Dan Rather cut in and told America that the second tower had fallen.  The camera angle panned out.  Where the two twin towers used to stand, regal and mighty, symbols of America’s economic strength, there was only dust and smoke and debris.  Unbelievable.  Amazing.  Like a movie.  How could they be gone?  How could such a well known pair of buildings – buildings I’d seen a million times on television and in pictures – be reduced to rubble in less than an hour?  The twin towers of Manhattan, GONE!  Wiped out.  No longer in existence.  Once the tallest structures in the world, now just a pile of debris.  Sitting here at half past midnight, fifteen hours after it happened, it still feels surreal.  Is it really true?  It can’t be.  But it is. 
 
Words can’t describe the feeling after seeing the second tower fall on live television.  Work stopped.  I couldn’t concentrate on anything.  I got NOTHING accomplished all morning.  I was on edge.  When would the next bit of news come over the wire that another place had been hit?  What was the deal with all the stories of hijackings?  Were there passengers on the planes?  We didn’t know.  It was a mass of confusion.  Rumors flew.  Bombs seemed to be exploding everywhere, planes crashing everywhere.  It was impossible to separate fact from fiction.

And sitting here tonight, there are still many questions and few answers.  We still don’t know how many are dead.  Perhaps thousands.  We know that four airliners were hijacked.  All four were transcontinental flights, full of fuel.  All four had passengers aboard.  It’s believed that the hijackers themselves wrested control of the plane from the pilots and guided the planes into the targets.  Two hit the twin towers in New York.  A third hit the Pentagon.  And a fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania.  At this time, it is not known what happened to that flight.  Did the hijacker lose control and crash the plane?  Did the pilot crash the plane on purpose to avoid disaster?  Was there a struggle in the cockpit that caused the plane to lose control?  What was the intended target?  The White House?  The Capital?  Some other military or government installation?  We don’t know the answers to any of these questions right now. 

And so I’m left considering the ramifications.  What does all this mean for the future?  War?  Perhaps.  I think that war is the most extreme possibility.  Retaliation from the U.S. is almost certain.  Osama Bin Laden is suspected as the mastermind.  He also suspected to be in Afghanistan.  These two facts have led public opinion against Afghanistan.  Would air strikes in Afghanistan be worth it?  Right now, I say yes.  The sense of revenge is strong within me.  For all my liberality, I’d like nothing more than to see every major city in Afghanistan razed by air and missle strikes.  Show them we mean business and that we won’t take this lying down.  I don’t generally have a patriotic bone in my body, but when someone sneaks into your house and starts trashing it, it makes you want to retaliate.

What about the impact on America?  How will this change things as we know it?  Security concerns will certainly be prevalent in airports.  How could four separate domestic flights be hijacked successfully from three different major airports?  Is it really that easy to hijack a domestic US flight?  What about further terrorist acts?  What will happen tomorrow?  BostonMiami?  Houston, where my parents live?  L.A.?  San Fransisco?  How vast is this ring of terrorism?  Too many questions, too few answers.

But the possibility of war frightens me.  We haven’t had a major war in this country in nearly 30 years.  That’s a long time, especially by the standards of the last 150 years.  Could this be the beginning of another world war?  A year from now, might we be bogged down in a war with Afghanistan and its allies?  Again, my gut feelings says no.  But I suppose only time will tell. 

************

As a sort of post-script, here is a portion of the entry I made the next night, on September 12th.

In light of the events of the last 36 hours, I felt I needed to write in my journal again, to put on paper the strange coincidence I’ve just discovered in my novel.  I’m working on a book right now tentatively called Everyday Experience.  In it, my main characters are on an international crime spree, and currently, they have just completed the succesful robbery of a death mask from a previously undiscovered tomb beneath the Great Sphinx.  I’m in the process of developing a mini-plot that involves the death mask and the curse of the pharaoh from whom it was taken.  In the story, I am leading my characters through an array of accidents and mishaps and catastrophes (or rather, they are leading me), all with the ultimate goal of showing the reader that the curse of the pharaoh is real.  The section that I am in the middle of right now has the main characters in their hotel room in Cairo.  They have just woken up to the sounds of fire alarms.  The building is on fire.  They run out to the veranda to look for a way out.  Smoke and flame are pouring from the windows.  One of the characters says the following: “We’ve got to get down!” Henry said.  “The fire’s below us . . . that means the floors above the flames will start caving in.  The entire building is in danger of collapsing!”  Strangely enough, this was where I left off when I finished last time.  The very last line I wrote.  That was on Monday night, around midnight.  Septebmer 10, 2001.  About 9 hours later, the World Trade Center was attacked and the twin towers collapsed in smoke and flame, due to the caving in of floors.  I find it very odd, and bit unnerving, that when I wrote that passage, I had no idea such real events would take place in America in just a few hours.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Thoughts About "Third Reich: The Rise & Fall"

This was the name of a recent 4-hour documentary on the History Channel in two parts - split between the rise of the Nazi Party, and it's fall.

I watched the first part today and was totally blown away.  Let me just say at the outset that if you have any interest in history in general, and the World War II era in particular, or if you are one of the many people who have ever wondered how the Germans could have let Hitler come to power, this is an absolute must-see.

The entire two-hour episode, from the first minute to the last minute, consists of historical video footage.  Unlike typical documentaries, which consist of still images and diagrams shown with narration, interviews with experts and eye-witnesses, and re-enactments of historical events, this documentary consists entirely of real video footage of Nazi Germany.  The producers use everything from news reel footage and Nazi propaganda movies, to amateur films and private home videos.  Some of the video footage has never before been shown on American television, and several of the pieces are still banned to this day in Germany (such as the propaganda film "Triumph of the Will," which was released in 1935).

In addition to narration, the episode includes dozens of relevant quotes from journalists, writers, diarists, and letter writers from the era, both pro- and anti-Nazi.

Because of these personal quotations, and especially because of the non-stop, period video footage, you feel - as the viewer - as though you are right there inside it, experiencing it first hand, rather than sitting back and having the story told to you second hand.  The narration aids in this, because the narrator frequently starts new sections with phrases like: "If you had been a German in Berlin, in February of 1934, you would have...," and so on.  It really draws you in, makes you see things through the perspective of the time.  It's a highly effective documentary technique.    

In short, the episode looks not at the political machinations behind Hitler's rise to power, but instead attempts to address the questions of why and how the German people allowed this to happen.  In that sense, it's not a political or military documentary per se, but instead provides a much more personal, sociological, and psychological view of the situation than what you typically find in documentaries and books discussing the rise of Nazism.

I think this documentary struck home so much with me because this very question - how could this have happened - is the primary question I was left with earlier in the year when I finished reading Herman Wouk's epic novels on World War II, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."  I think when most Americans consider things like the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the genocide in Somalia in the 1990's, they just assume that things like that are prone to happen in backwater, third-world nations.  Much more difficult to understand is how Hitler and the Nazis - and all the terrible things they perpetrated - could have happened in a modern, industrialized, well-educated, Christian, western European nation.  And if it happened there, could it happen here?

That question has been raised practically since the Nazis first came to power.  I'm reminded of a Sinclair Lewis novel from about 1937 called "It Can't Happen Here," which fictionalized the rise of Fascism in America.  I don't think it was Lewis's best book from a fiction standpoint, but the question he addressed was definitely a relevant one.

Some may argue that it's not relevant today.  Sure, it's disturbing that this could happen in a western European country populated by well-educated Christians who were basically decent people.  But then again, this was 80 years ago, so it's not exactly a pressing concern, or necessarily analogous to the world today.

I would agree, of course, that we probably aren't in any danger from neo-Nazis or neo-Fascists.  They have been effectively stamped out and sent underground, much like the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations.  But on a much broader level, we have to ask whether or not we, too, like the Germans of the 1930's, could ever let extremism - in whatever form - take control where we live.

This, I think, is the important question, and I think Germany of the 1930's is terribly relevant and analogous in this regard.  In a general sense, it certainly seems to me that extremism is on the rise, both in this country and around the world.  The Tea Party movement is an example of this.  Of course I'm not saying that Tea Party activists are Nazis who want to commit genocide or take over the world.  In fact, the Tea Party, from a political standpoint, couldn't be more unlike National Socialism under the Nazis.  Nevertheless, the Tea Party is an extreme, nationalistic response to a perceived crisis in government and culture, just as Nazism was an extreme, nationalistic response to a perceived crisis in government and culture.

What is even more disturbing to me than political activists who want to virtually eliminate the powers of the federal government, are the individuals loosely associated with the Tea Party movement who have much more insidious opinions and views.  I can't tell you how often I've heard people lament at all the Spanish they hear spoken around them all the time, and how they have to choose which language they want on an automated phone menu or ATM machine.   I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about how we need to shore up immigration and stop the flow of people across the border, whether illegal or otherwise.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about the loss of American values, corruption of the Constitution and the principles of the Founding Fathers, and the secularization of society.

All of these things stink of extremism, and have parallels in the Nazi movement as well as many other extremist movements throughout history.  Among the so-called "25 Points" of Hitler's National Socialist movement were clauses about shoring up immigration, returning to the principles of German law and customs, and advocating Christianity as a uniting religious principle to undermine secularism.

I tend not to be an alarmist.  I tend not to assume that events in the world spell looming and imminent disaster.  I think people who have "survival kits" at home are ridiculous (I heard a show about this the other day on a public radio call-in show, and I swear to God the people calling in sounded like they actually can't wait for some horrible disaster to befall the country so they can play Survivorman).  But I have been feeling increasingly concerned in recent weeks and months about the general undercurrent in America these days.  There is something decidedly insidious about many of the attitudes and opinions I encounter in daily life and how widespread they seem to be.

Mistrust of scientists in general, and scientific principles in particular, is especially disconcerting.  In a 2009 Gallup Poll, only 39% of Americans affirmed that they believe in evolution (of course, using the phrase "believe in" regarding a scientific principle is ridiculous and just shows how totally distorted by religion the issue has become, but that's beside the point).  Among regular church goers, the number dropped to 24%.  Granted, a significant number of people - nearly 1 in 3 - answered "no opinion."  But the very fact that 1 in 3 Americans could claim "no opinion" on something as basic as evolution is disturbing in its own right, and I suspect that anyone who would claim "no opinion" is basically saying they aren't sure - in other words, they have doubts.  It's a little like claiming "no opinion" on whether you "believe in" the theory of gravity.

In June of this year, a New York Times poll found that 64% of Americans agree that global warming is happening.  However, only 47% agree that human activity is the leading cause.  Perplexingly, 76% said they trusted the scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Of course, the NOAA strongly asserts that global warming is real and is primarily caused by human activity, so one has to wonder why people claim to trust them, but don't actually trust their conclusions.  This, of course, simply shows that many people simply don't know what they are talking about.  

Even more than this mistrust and misinformation regarding basic scientific principles, is the rise in recent years of extremist religious views in America.  America has always had a lot of crazy-ass fundamentalist Christians.  No one is disputing that.  But they are becoming more and more vocal and are beginning to infiltrate some of the highest offices in the country.  This is not so surprising, considering that religion, as a whole, is on the decline.  In 2010, for instance, 20% of respondents in a Gallup poll said that religion was "not important" in their lives.  That's the highest ever since the question was first asked in 1992 (that year, it was 12%).  Similar polls show that in 2010, 61% of Americans were member of a church or synagogue.  However, only about 40% of them attended regularly.  In 1992, 70% were members, with nearly 45% attending regularly.  

Despite this, the same Gallup polls show that Christians who consider themselves "evangelical" or "born again" Christians (which, of course, is a nice way of saying "fundamentalist Christians") are actually increasing in number.  In 1992, 36% of Christians claimed to be evangelical, with nearly 60% of Christians saying they were not evangelical Christians.  By 2010, evangelicals had risen to 42%, with non-evangelicals dropping to 53%.

I would argue that this illustrates my argument - religion as a whole may be on the decline, but extremist forms of religion are actually on the rise.

Well, I've managed to take this post in an unexpected direction.  I hadn't originally intended to go off on this tangent about modern American perspectives on science and religion.  But I think it's a good exercise in understanding why I am feeling increasingly alarmed at the mood in modern America, and the general undercurrent of extremism.  And this whirlpool has been stirred by watching this incredibly well-made documentary on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1930's Germany.  Look for it on the History Channel and DVR it or something.  It's worth watching.

Also, thanks to the Rev for suggesting, via Joseph Campbell, that I cut off my head.  It seems to have worked :)  

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