There’s a framed poster that hangs over my staircase. I
bought it thirty-five years ago in a museum gift shop outside Checkpoint
Charlie, one of several crossing points between West and East Berlin. Berlin
was a divided city after Germany’s defeat in World War II with the Western
powers controlling West Berlin and the Soviet Union controlling East Berlin. In
August of 1961, the East Germans erected a barbed wire barricade which was to
become the Berlin Wall. The wall was actually a series of barbed wire barriers
and concrete walls with trenches and guard towers in-between, forming what has
been called a “death strip”.
In 1981, twenty years after the construction of the Berlin
Wall, I stood before it, standing in the American section at Checkpoint
Charlie. I walked right up to the barbed wire and photographed the wall but
when I got too close a Communist soldier in a guard tower pivoted and pointed
his rifle at me. He was in his 20s, possibly younger than me at the time. I
didn’t think he would shoot an American and precipitate an international
incident. Then again, young men often don’t think with a broader, mature
perspective. He might well have shot me. I took one last picture and backed
away. Yet it is an eerie feeling to have been singled out and targeted by a
The wall was built to keep East Germans inside East Germany.
Despite emigration restrictions, 3.5 million East Germans had defected,
crossing into West Germany before the wall was constructed. The initial barriers
literally went up overnight. Families in different parts of the city were
separated once Berlin became a divided city. Children were separated from their
parents. The poster I purchased in the gift shop after my encounter with the
Communist guard was of a photograph taken the day after the wall went up. A
child, perhaps five years old, stands behind the barbed wire trying to reunite
with his family on the other side. A teenaged East German soldier violates his
orders not to let anyone cross the border, parting the barbed wire with his
bare hands so the boy can crawl through. But he’s not looking at the boy or the
sharp barbs cutting into his hands. He’s looking away to his right to see if
anyone spots what he’s doing. The photograph doesn’t need any words because the
expression on his face tells everything you need to know. His face is contorted
in a paroxysm of fear. The stark terror in his eyes is palpable. He knew what
he was doing. He knew the risk he was taking.
A museum guide told me the boy made it across to rejoin his
family, and that the young soldier was caught and executed. This was what
Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was all about. This was why America was the
philosophical enemy of the Soviet Union. Freedom was one of America’s most important
foundational values. Separating families, preventing citizens from leaving,
barbed wire, armed guards, building a border wall, and executing a teenager for
letting a little boy rejoin his family – these were antithetical to American
values. I bought the poster, framed it, and hung it on my wall above my
staircase where I see it several times every day going up and down the stairs.
It is a constant reminder that freedom isn’t free, and that many brave
individuals risked -- and like that unknown East German soldier -- sacrificed
their lives for the freedom of others. It is a reminder not to take for granted
the freedom we have enjoyed in this country, which is not universally shared.
Six years after I visited the Berlin Wall a Republican
president, Ronald Reagan, called on the leader of the Soviet Union to “tear
down this wall”. Two years after that, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
I pass that poster every time I go downstairs to watch TV. I
turn on the news and listen to the current Republican presidential nominee talk
about building a wall around our border. It will undoubtedly separate families.
Will the wall have barbed wire? Will there be guard towers? I wonder who will
guard the wall. Will these guards shoot young children trying to cross the wall
to be reunited with their families? Or will they in turn be shot if they aid
the children like the brave young East German soldier in the poster? What has
happened to our American values that the Republican Party’s battle cry would go
from “tear down that wall” to “we’re going to build a wall”? Guard towers and
barbed wire are the tools of dictators, Nazis, Communists, and totalitarians.
They are not the symbols of freedom and certainly not the symbols of America.
In two weeks, Americans will, both individually and collectively, be presented
with the opportunity to define or redefine American values. On November 8, the
world will be watching.
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I'll be a guest at the Imaginarium Convention, a 3-day event in Louisville, KY centered around creative writing, from October 7-9. The convention will feature extensive programming with panels and workshops covering the craft of writing.
Lawrence O’Donnell said something absolutely remarkable on Morning
Joe just a few moments ago… and he didn’t even realize he had said it.
To put it in context, he was talking about the line on
Donald Trump’s 1995 tax return that showed the billionaire reported income of
$3.4 million. “That’s not so much,” O’Donnell said. “That’s less than a local
New York TV anchor makes.”
Stop and think about this for a minute. Never mind
O’Donnell’s intent, that a billionaire should be making billions, not millions.
Never mind the obvious difference between gross income and net income after
deductions. Focus on what’s really important in what O’Donnell let slip: a
local television anchorman earns at least $3.4 million a year.
Okay, maybe a TV anchorman in Des Moines, Iowa makes less.
But we’re talking about a talking head who shows up on your screen for an hour
five nights a week bringing home more than three million dollars a year. I
realize that’s not a lot of money to someone like Lawrence O’Donnell who makes
$4 million a year in a business where his peers — TV anchors on the national scene — make even higher annual
salaries: Fox’s Shepard Smith ($10 million); ABC’s Anderson Cooper ($11
million); Fox’s Bill O’Reilly ($18 million); and NBC’s Matt Lauer ($25
million). That’s not money earned after a lifetime of hard work; that’s annual
income. You can do the math and figure out their net worths.
I’m not picking on TV journalists. Actor Jim Parsons’ 2016
salary was $25.5 million. Basketball player LeBron James’ 2016 salary was $31
million. Movie actor Bruce Willis charges $1 million a day to appear in a film
and “walked away” from an offer of “$3 million to spend four days on the set of
the third Expendables movie” when he didn’t get his demanded $4 million,
according to Vanity Fair.
These numbers are staggering. Do you have any idea what a
million of anything really is? How long would it take you to count a million
grains of sand? Now, think about what these people actually do to earn
these enormous sums. Lawrence O’Donnell appears on television, usually from the
chest up, seated, and… talks into the television camera… For an hour. He is
watched on TV by working-class Americans, like the ditch digger who has spent
all day sweating in the hot sun digging ditches for an annual salary of
$19,900. His hands are calloused from his shoveling and his muscles ache and he
comes home to flip on his TV and watch Lawrence O’Donnell sit in his
air-conditioned studio and chat for sixty minutes and draw his $4 million
Think about the emergency room physician, working all hours
of the night, facing life or death situations on a moment’s notice who earns
$249,000 a year. Or the high school teacher who is tasked with educating
America’s children who will lead our country into the future: perhaps the most
important job of all. For this, high school teachers earn $47,000 per year.
Now think about America’s elderly citizens, retirees, and
disabled. Sixty-five million Americans – and that number is growing as Baby Boomers
age – receive Social Security income. Many of them can no longer work and must
live on a fixed income. The average monthly Social Security check is $1,347
(some are as low as $700). The average annual income for an elderly or disabled
person living on Social Security is $16,000. To put that in perspective, the
federal poverty level is $11,770. Many people can only stretch their fixed
income so far and often have to choose between expensive medicine and food.
These are not lazy people. These are men and women who
worked their whole lives until they grew too old or became too disabled to work
any further. They worked hard doing the jobs large and small that benefited
society. They dug ditches to lay telephone cables and sewage pipes; they taught
unruly children to read and write; and they worked feverishly to save lives in
hospital emergency rooms. They are the “99 Percent”.
You won’t find the talking heads among them. Any one of us
would be set for life with what they make in a single year. Our retirements and
our old age would be assured, as theirs already are. They are the “One
Percent”. When Lawrence O’Donnell says $3.4 million is “not so much; that’s
less than a local New York TV anchor makes” he is giving us a glimpse into the
world and the mindset of the “One Percent”. It is a world ordinary Americans
cannot fathom, any more than its denizens can understand ours. Lawrence
O’Donnell will never have to choose between purchasing a prescription refill or
dinner. He will never have to worry about not having enough money to pay this
month’s electric bill. Most Americans struggle to make car payments; some own
their cars outright. Jay Leno owns 130 automobiles, including a $1.2-million
McLaren. It’s a totally different world.
As mind-staggeringly rich as the One Percent is, the
Uber-Rich are even wealthier. The top ‘one-tenth of one percent’ owns almost as
much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This is what Bernie Sanders was talking
about when he said “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great
moral and political issue of our time.” People are waking up to this. People
who grew up in white picket fenced suburban homes with working fathers and
housewife mothers, who now live in a time where they cannot afford to buy such
a home themselves, where both husbands and wives require two incomes merely to
survive and must often work far longer than their father’s 40-hour work week or
supplement their income with second or third jobs. They see the disparity
between their lives and the lives of the TV news anchors who “only make $3.4
million a year” and they are filled, not with envy, but with resentment. Of
such stuff are revolutions born.
These frustrated people – the 99 Percent – are on the verge of revolting. Bernie Sanders supporters were drawn to his message of a political revolution. Donald Trump has tapped into this frustration drawing support from people hungry for change who view Hillary Clinton as a continuation of the status quo – a status quo that benefits the One Percent and not them. It is ironic that the poster child for the One Percent – a man who owns his own Boeing 757 plane and a Fifth Avenue penthouse with solid gold furnishings – has been adopted as the savior by so many of the working class, who believe he will advance their interests ahead of his own or those of his fellow One Percenters. Regardless of who wins the presidency in 2016, this incredible, unprecedented, and unfair wealth and income disparity will continue and when the masses can no longer bear the burden it will lead to a revolution, if not political, then one as violent and bloody as the French Revolution. On that day, guillotines will line the streets and talking heads will roll.