Requesting a Transfer

I’m serving notice: as a liberal, I no longer want Maureen Dowd on my side. Her column this weekend begins:

On the first day of Christmas,
my Rummy sent to me
a Saddam pigeon in a palm tree.
Not knowing Osama’s address,
Rummy hastened to ‘Potamia – and a mess,
exhorting his pal Cheney,
“Let’s bomb Baghdad again, golly gee!”

It’s not funny, it doesn’t scan, it barely makes sense, and it only gets worse. If you want to subject yourself to further torture, and a serious case of the D.C.’s, read the whole thing here.

Please consider a new career, Maureen. You’re not helping.

Athletes and Steroids

When it comes to sports fandom, we’re all kids. And kids love superheroes.

We don’t just want our sports heroes to win. We cheer them on because their abilities go beyond our own. In an idealistic sense they may represent, as Olympic officials and other sports boosters profess, the best that humanity can achieve. But in their physical feats they are superior to us, and thus, to us, superhuman – just like Spiderman, Buffy, or Harry Potter. We enjoy seeing a slugger break a home run record or a runner achieve a record time in a race in the same way we enjoy seeing Spidey vanquish a super-powered foe.

If just a few athletes are found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs, fans’ sense of fairness will render harsh judgments upon them. This week’s New York City newspaper headlines excoriating Jason Giambi express this. But if many, most, or all the athletes in a sport are taking such drugs, now or in the future, there will be little if any outrage.

Today’s steroid drugs cause health problems, but in the future there will be better ones that don’t have adverse side effects. At that point there will be no medical disincentive to take them.

Get ready for a new world. This genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Fighting For Our Country

Ted Rall claims, in an article reproduced on the Common Dreams progressive website, that American soldiers killed in Iraq (and Vietnam, Korea, and even WWII) have not died “for their country” but merely for their country’s “geopolitical interests.” Rall bases his position on the fact that throughout its history the US’s military actions have almost never been in defense of its national existence.

But the sense in which Rall is correct is so narrow that his argument amounts to an oversimplification and probably doesn’t contribute to the cause of peace.

It is specious to distinguish so sharply between an actual invasion, such as occurred in the War of 1812, and an enormously destructive attack such as 9/11. Although 9/11 itself may not have threatened the very existence of the nation, Rall’s argument falls apart, for two reasons.

First, the war to dislodge the Taliban, who nurtured and protected Al Qaeda, was an act of national defense: defense of the lives of our citizens from further attacks by an enemy that had in effect declared war on us. Rall doesn’t even mention the action in Afghanistan – could it be because it doesn’t fit his argument?

Second, the real possibility of terrorist organizations acquiring weapons of mass destruction forces us to consider scenarios in which our national existence is, in fact, threatened.

Rall, however, focusses on the past:

For one American president after another, winning or losing doesn’t matter. For an empire, military action is its own reward. Our willingness to wage war intimidates adversaries and their neighbors into giving us what we want: cheaper oil, military bases, favorable trading terms. When American sailors invaded the Falkland Islands in 1832, it was “to defend American interests.” Ditto for 1855, when U.S. forces stormed Fiji. Ditto for the 1903 Dominican Republic action (where defending U.S. interests meant suppressing a popular revolution), Honduras in 1911, the Soviet Union in 1918, Lebanon in 1953…you get the idea. The soldiers who fought in those invasions were told they were fighting for their country. Those who lost their lives were called heroes.

American soldiers who die overseas in wars of intimidation or wars over oil may not be, technically, national heroes. But that’s only if you consider a nation to be purely a moral entity. Real nations, by nature, want to benefit themselves and gain advantage.

Not to mention the fact that the soldiers may still be heroes to their families, friends and communities. A soldier may put him or herself in harm’s way for a “greater good” that is merely family or personal honor, a sense of duty or tradition, or merely the pride of doing one’s job to the best of one’s ability. Cartoonists and bass players might not know about or relate to some of these things.

Yes, “since Iraq neither threatens our freedom nor our borders, [our soldiers are] neither protecting our freedoms or (sic) fighting for America.” But demoting the soldiers from heroes to sacrificial lambs doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. They’re not victims. They’re part of the system. It’s a volunteer army. The opportunities offered to people who enlist in the armed forces are real, the risks known. The fact that soldiers who die in Iraq are called heroes may bug Rall, but no matter how you look at it, they died for their country. Whether we like what the country is – or has become – is the real question.

Tax the Churches

A recent discussion on Blogcritics along with this New York Times article about the separation of church and state in Italy have prompted the following thoughts.

I live in Brooklyn, the Borough of Churches. There’s practically a church on every block, and where there isn’t a church, there’s a synagogue or temple. There are also mosques in the neighborhood.

My block has a Seventh Day Adventist church. Its busiest day is Saturday, not Sunday. Crowds of kids play on the sidewalk out front. I don’t know too much about what goes on there, since it’s a Spanish-speaking church. I do know they sponsor food drives and clothing drives, and generally have decent relations with their residential neighbors.

Like all the churches, they don’t pay taxes. Why? Is it because they’re a non-profit organization? I wouldn’t know anything about their finances, but I do know how rich some churches are. The Catholic church, for example, and some of the evangelical churches. It’s a stretch to think of these churches as not-for-profit.

I believe that the tax-exempt status of a religious institution should be proportional to its nondenominational charitable activities.

For example, a church that spends money on fancy cars for its preacher should be taxed on those expenses. A church that runs a soup kitchen but requires its beneficiaries to pray for their supper should have to pay tax on the portion of its income used to run that soup kitchen. A church that owns its building and uses the facility for both worship services and charitable deeds should be taxed according to a formula, the same way a person can deduct home office expenses from his income taxes. Better financial minds than mine could come up with the formula.

If you agree with me that such a proposal is unlikely to be taken seriously in America, you will also probably recognize that we are a religious country, in the sense that religious institutions are given special privileges withheld from individuals, private landowners, and businesses. I don’t agree with these special privileges. But my view is in the minority. It would probably even be fair to describe it as marginal.

Still, think about it next time you walk (or drive) by the churches in your area. What if they all had to pay property taxes the same way you or your landlord does, the same way the commercial building owners on Main St. do? Then your municipality would have more income and could lower property taxes. Your tax burden (or rent) could be less. Meanwhile the churches, if they had to account for every untaxed dollar they spent, would be better practicioners of what they preach.