Holocaust Remembrance Day

      Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day, as it is observed in Israel, this year begins in the evening of May 4th and ends in the evening of May 5th. I’m not Jewish, but I am choosing to commemorate it on my site this year because it’s always good to be reminded of history and how easy it is to flirt with darkness and get drawn in, especially considering the troubling public infatuation with Trump as a presidential candidate and the mob mentality at his rallies. For me, World War II is not a remote history lesson, something I learned sitting in school or watching the History channel, but a gritty, visceral reality—I spent countless hours with Julian Moody, a real World War II veteran, as he shared his experiences and showed me the many photographs he took during his service. I could see that Julian was deeply affected by the war and it was still with him after many decades. The word he used often to describe it was “epic” and I definitely had the sense of huge forces of world history playing themselves out on a grand scale, and his participation in this was not something to take lightly. No, we may never have a literal Holocaust of the type in World War II in America, but the root of evil can take many forms—the hatred, fear, and intolerance that lurks beneath the veneer of any civilization along with any sociopathic tendencies in a leader can quickly metastasize into senseless chaos and destruction that is hard to stop once it is fed by public hysteria and gains momentum, as was painfully learned in World War II.
      I have been blessed to come across two striking first person, nonfiction accounts of that era: Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck and The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II by Denis Avey. I would recommend the books to anyone interested in learning more about that dark period in our history. I read the books last year since 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and even though that was many months ago, I thought back to the books often. The quality of writing in both books is especially notable, and the insights gleaned also serve as a warning on the current political climate.
      Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck is an unusual document, unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Reck was a non-Jewish German man who moved in higher social circles and could have belonged to the Nazi party but was repelled by it. His Diary is not a literal diary of dated daily entries, but rather thoughts, reflections, and observations written in the years 1936 to 1944 as he watched his country fall into the abyss. His writing was very critical of Germany and the Nazi regime so he wrote at tremendous risk to himself. In spite of warnings by friends (an acquaintance of theirs was raided by the Gestapo) he persisted in his writing, hiding the pages in a tin box which he buried in the woods on his extensive property. Only in the final weeks of the war, were the pages removed from their hiding place. They were first published in Germany in 1947 by a publisher who soon went out of business, but reprinted in 1964 and 1966, with an excellent English translation in 1970 by Paul Rubens. At the time Diary was first published it received little attention and Reck was (and still is) misunderstood and dismissed by some as an annoying aristocrat whining endlessly about the cow-like stupidity of “mass-man,” which is unfortunate. Diary is full of keen insights, along with unique, close-up observations of Hitler since they ran in the same social circles. Reck’s description of his first close up encounters with Hitler who was not yet a major political figure runs as follows:
      “Eventually, he managed to launch into a speech. He talked on and on, endlessly. He preached. He went on at us like a division chaplain in the Army. We did not in the least contradict him, or venture to differ in any way, but he began to bellow at us. The servants thought we were being attacked, and rushed in to defend us.
      When he had gone, we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic. We sat a long time and no one spoke. Finally, Clé stood up, opened one of the huge windows, and let the spring air, warm with the föhn, into the room. It was not that our grim guest had been unclean, and had fouled the room in the way that so often happens in a Bavarian village. But the fresh air helped to dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.
      I used to ride at the Munich armoury, after which I liked to eat at the Löwenbräkeller: that was the second meeting. He did not need to worry now that he might be put out, and so he did not have to smack his boots continually with his riding whip, as he had done at Franckenstein’s. At first glance, the tightly clenched insecurity seemed to be gone—which allowed him to launch at once into one of his tirades. I had ridden hard, and was tremendously hungry, and wanted just to be let alone to eat in peace. Instead I had poured out over me every one of the political platitudes in his book. I know you will appreciate my sparing you, future reader, all the dogma. It was that little-man Machiavellianism by which German foreign policy became a series of legalised burglaries and the activity of its leaders a succession of embezzlements, forgeries, and treaty breaches, all designed to make him appeal to the assortment of schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and stenographers who have since become the true support and bastion of his regime . . .as a fabulous fellow, a real political Genghis Khan.
      With his oily hair falling into his face as he ranted, he had the look of a man trying to seduce the cook. I got the impression of basic stupidity, the same kind of stupidity as that of his crony, Papen—the kind of stupidity which equates statesmanship with cheating at a horse trade.”
      Much later, at a public rally, in examining Hitler’s face through a pair of binoculars, Reck noted, “the face bore the stigma of sexual inadequacy, of the rancour of a half-man who had turned his fury at his impotence into brutalising others.” which is remarkable considering in recent years there has been some speculation, based on a doctor’s report, on Hitler suffering from a genital deformity. In reflecting on his impressions of Hitler over the years, Reck writes, “Notwithstanding his meteoric rise, there is absolutely nothing that has happened in the twenty years since I first saw him to make me change my first view of him. The fact remains that he was, and is, without the slightest self-awareness and pleasure in himself, that he basically hates himself, and that his opportunism, his immeasurable need for recognition, and his now-apocalyptic vanity are all based on one thing—a consuming drive to drown out the pain in his psyche, the trauma of a monstrosity.”
      Reck also gives cutting observations on the social and economic forces in Germany that gave rise to Hitler and the Nazi war machinery. Hitler’s self-hatred and monomaniacal need for power coincided with a turbulent political and economic situation that had roots in previous regimes as well as the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression. Add to this mix the German government’s increasing collusion with corporations and the relentless drive towards industrialization. Reck viewed the German fixation with mercantilism, industrialization, and technology as vulgar and barbaric, the mindset and mentality epitomized in what he derisively termed “mass-man”. Reck saw “mass-man” as spiritually bankrupt and ultimately spawned from the shadow side of the French Revolution which famously made Reason into a cult and germinated the concept and fervent hysteria of Nationalism “which puts an aura of heroism around mercantilism and the bourgeois drive for power…” In writing of this mass mentality that had become entrenched in Germany, Reck writes, “It was possible only at a time of generalised atheism, and  purposelessness, and brute force. Of course, I.G. Farben welcomed Hitler—he provided their poison factory with the aura of a philosophy!” As if to validate the popular adage that Satan most successfully deceives by making people believe he (and God) doesn’t exist, in despair Reck writes, “My life is loneliness, and the growing awareness that it must be so—loneliness among a people whom Satan has overcome, and the awareness that only by suffering can the future be changed…” Reck further notes that Germany, in such a spiritually bankrupt atmosphere, gave license to its worst side: “every nation normally puts its demons, its delusions, its impossible desires away into the cellars and vaults and underground prisons of its unconscious; the Germans have reversed the process, and have let them loose.” As we all know, all these forces and elements plaguing German society came together as in a perfect storm culminating in the Nazi military industrial complex and a military campaign bent on taking over all of Europe as well as its most evil manifestation—industrialized murder.
      The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz, written by Denis Avey (with Rob Broomby), gives an excellent account of World War II from someone who served as a British soldier. Avey was just one year and four months younger than my American veteran friend Julian, so it was interesting to get a different and British perspective of the same war from someone around the same age as Julian. Avey was born on January 11, 1919 and grew up in the village of North Weald in Essex, England. He didn’t join the military for any noble reason, but rather adventure. A naturally feisty personality and fiery temperament made him daring but also got him into trouble. He fought in the deserts of Egypt and Libya against the Italians and Rommel’s Africa Korps and was eventually captured by the Germans and became a prisoner of war. Avey, undeterred, made several desperate escape attempts, including a harrowing escape from a torpedoed ship that was transporting prisoners, only to be caught again. Avey was ultimately imprisoned long-term at the E715 POW camp at the IG Farben Buna-Werke complex which was also the location of the Auschwitz III-Monowitz concentration camp. The POW camp and Auschwitz III-Monowitz were so close together that their entrances were only 800 meters apart. In Avey’s words: “It was hell on earth…There was no grass, no greenery of any sort, just mud in winter, dust in summer.” During the day, the POWs, who were fed and treated better than the Jewish prisoners, were often forced to work alongside the Jews who were too weak to handle the heavy work that went on continually at the IG Farben complex.
      As my friend Julian once told me, “war takes you totally out of everything. In a war, everything is turned upside down, nothing is the same anymore. Life is totally different. That’s why it haunts you and stays with you your whole life.” Avey gives his account with complete honesty. He shamefully recalls when Les, his friend and fellow soldier, was blown up next to him in the middle of a battle at Sidi Rezegh in Libya, his first thought was, “Thank God it wasn’t me.” He relays all of his experiences in a transparent manner as well as his later struggle with post traumatic stress disorder and how it negatively affected his first marriage.
      Who knows what each one of us would think or do in the same desperate circumstances that Avey experienced or in similar war conditions. The tragedy and indignity of war is such that, just to survive all the horrors, people are forced into shutting off emotionally and often reverting to the most primal state of self-preservation, which later thaws into post-traumatic stress disorder and crippling guilt. PTSD was even less acknowledged or understood than it is now. It was given the anemic term “combat fatigue” and generally swept under the rug as just another unfortunate consequence of war. In order to shield himself, Avey shut off emotionally and retreated deeply inward. For many years, he struggled alone with an especially severe case of PTSD. In his time, there were no adequate resources and he mainly dealt with it by not talking about it at all, because in his generation and culture, you just didn’t talk about experiences like that. It was only later in life, in speaking about and writing about his experiences, that he was able to experience some healing.
      A number of times through his book, Avey, in describing how he handled himself in war conditions, states something along the lines of, “I had to think of number one,” or “I was just looking out for number one,” which I don’t feel is accurate. He was doing his best to survive some dismal and extreme circumstances, yet at the same time, he made a number of sacrifices and took risks where most people wouldn’t. There was little that was truly selfish on his part. This distortion and guilt is typical of people and veterans who survive extreme trauma and unspeakable horrors. Avey is obviously very hard on himself. Given what he witnessed, he probably feels he could and should have done more and was selfish, but the truth is, he was very courageous and self-sacrificing. He made a number of risks and effort when none was asked of him. He showed up for duty when he didn’t have to—he was given a plum assignment in South Africa and could have stayed there and lived the good life, but chose instead to go back to the deserts of North Africa to fight—which ultimately led to him being captured by the Germans. While imprisoned and working at the I.G. Farben complex, with the help of a civilian worker and using his engineering knowledge, he always made an effort to engage in some form of surreptitious sabotage in the complex. He also lost an eye after confronting an SS officer for beating a Jewish boy. And he did his best to give food to the jewish prisoners and make sure a jewish prisoner had extra cigarettes which were used like currency in the prison to obtain privileges and favors. These are just some examples of personal risk and sacrifice on the part of Avey. And finally the act that inspired the title of the book. The title makes it sound like he kicked down a door or snuck in through a window or something along those lines, but it was more like an “exchange” between Avey and a Jewish prisoner after he had developed a relationship of trust with him. I don’t want to be a spoiler and give too much away, so sorry, no more details—you’ll just have to buy the book.
      There has been some controversy over whether Avey actually did enter Auschwitz. It is documented that he was a POW at the E715 POW camp, but no proof that he actually entered the Auschwitz camp, so there has been some speculation that in his old age, while not deliberately making up the story but through some form of wishful thinking, Avey had imagined this occurred, incorporating information about Auschwitz he gleaned over the years from other sources. Whether this is the case or not, isn’t that relevant to me. I don’t doubt he is doing his best to tell the truth. I spent countless hours with a World War II veteran, so sense when someone is telling the truth in regards to war. Avey’s descriptions of his experiences fighting in the desert campaigns of North Africa, as a prisoner, and as a fugitive on the run ring true. Even in the chance that he did “elaborate” on the Auschwitz portion, any mental confusion on his part would be something I would easily forgive, given his especially severe case of untreated PTSD. Besides that, for me, the quality of writing supersedes the controversy—it is a beautifully written book which in sections reads like a good thriller and worth a read just for that. A well-written book is always a pleasure to read.
      Best of all, The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz has a thrilling surprise and message of hope at the end, complete with witnesses and proof. While it may have appeared to Avey that, in his words, “The Great Architect had turned his back on Auschwitz,” (I don’t agree with all of Avey’s thoughts and views, but that doesn’t mean I can’t like his book), the outcome of his story proves that there is hope even when things appear hopeless. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will make my point by just summarizing. Avey wrote some letters while a prisoner requesting something—this seemingly small and insignificant gesture bore fruit in an unexpected way that stretched across decades. When the BBC video taped Avey telling his story, they purposely placed him in front of a picture window with a view of Hope Valley in Derbyshire which immediately brought to my mind the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekial 37 where the dry bones unexpectedly came to life. God breathed life into the valley full of dry bones and promised, “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them: I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” What appeared to be completely dead, abandoned, and hopeless, there was still life in it. Even as flawed, muddled human beings, seemingly weak and powerless against overwhelming, dark forces, taking a risk—even in the form of a small act, a small gesture—can be like a breath of life and hope, as Avey proved with his actions.
      When an Auschwitz survivor who was assisted by Avey was asked after telling his story what advice he would give future generations, he said: “For evil to succeed all that was needed was for the righteous to do nothing.” Both books make that important point, that we can’t be silent or passive. Reck, despite warnings from friends and Germany unleashing all of its demons, persisted in his writings. “Driven as I am by my own inner necessity,” he wrote, “I must ignore the warning and continue these notes.” If only more people would be driven by such an inner necessity—as Avey pointed out, the evil that came to full bloom and resulted in World War II can happen anywhere, at any time. In his words, “It could happen here. It could indeed happen anywhere where the veneer of civilization is allowed to wear off, or is torn off by ill will and destructive urges.”

Terror or Love: It Takes a Community to End Terrorism

      “…for myself, it was only the fear of love from which one flees into absolute violence,” wrote Michael Baumann a.k.a. Bommi Baumann in his 1975 book Terror or Love? (originally titled Wie Alles Anfing in German.) Baumann was part of a now barely-remembered domestic terrorist organization in Germany with ties to terrorists in the Middle East. Inspired by the student unrest of the 1960s, this “militant kernel of Berlin’s counter-culture” began as a group called the “Central Committee of the Roaming Hash Rebels.” Becoming increasingly violent, they eventually sent members to Jordon to receive training from Palestinians on terrorist tactics such as use of arms and bomb-making. Nicknamed the Hash Brothers (which eventually became the June 2nd Movement), they went on a rampage of bombs and violence in the neighborhoods of Berlin which made headlines in its day. In my random browsing, I came across Baumann's obscure book chronicling his misadventures as a terrorist and his eventual abandonment of the movement and his provocative comment stuck with me. In spite of large differences in context and seemingly far removed from current events and radical Islam—Baumann was a far left, dope-smoking hippie who happened to prefer bombs to peace—I felt there was a commonality and insight to be learned. (Bear with me, this is going to be a long thread.)
      Record numbers of young westerners are choosing to join radical extremist groups such as ISIS and people are scratching their heads over why. There is no single profile. Former recruiters and recruits reveal a range of reasons that include but are not limited to: dissatisfaction with their lives; lack of healthy family; racism; a sense of injustice; a desire for belonging; disenchantment with the typical lifestyle of a westerner; a desire for meaning and purpose; a desire to belong to a cause; outrage over the hypocrisy of the west; a belief that the west is against Islam. When ISIS began to make headlines, Defense Secretary Hagel and General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the need for military action of some kind is without question, but that there is no military-alone solution to ISIS, that radical Islam is ultimately something that won’t or can’t be eradicated by military force because it is an ideology and mindset.
      So where did the roots of this ideology and mindset originate? The mind of the man considered to be godfather of modern Jihadism, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was a literary critic, author, and educator turned Islamic theologian most known for his notorious Islamist tract Milestones. Qutb’s work was cited as a primary source of influence on bin Laden by the 9/11 Commission Report, and although now ISIS and al Qaeda are at odds, ISIS, in their own propaganda, traces its origins to bin Laden.
      Qutb spent two years in the United States, from 1948 to 1950, on a scholarship to study the educational system. He visited major cities such as New York and Washington D.C. and also spent extended time in Greeley, Colorado. He recorded his observations in a small book titled, The America I Have Seen. Depending on what mood you are in when reading it, this strange document can seem annoying, insightful, sophomoric, or hilarious. He displays a cultural snobbery (e.g. his mocking complaints over the unfamiliar use of salt and sugar and haircuts lacking “elegance”) and there are some amusing factual errors (he claims the first immigrants to North America were adventure seekers and British prisoners.) And while Greeley in the late 1940s would be considered very conservative by today’s standards, based on Qutb’s description of a church dance while there along with his impression of the American female, you would have thought that he visited a disco and a strip club. He obviously exaggerates, seizing on the most negative and presents a picture of America in the ugliest, most unflattering angle and light possible, but some of his observations admittedly are astute, incisive, and cut to the core of a spiritual and moral bankruptcy that exists in America, a country that gives God a lot of lip service but frankly in daily practice seems to put more faith in applied science. When grasping for reasons as to why radical Islamists hate the west so much, we often state, “They hate our freedom and democracy,” as if it were just a petty matter of envy and resentment. But unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that. What we Americans (and westerners in general) smugly and complacently see as progress, Qutb viewed as a regression into a more primitive state and that our fixation with technology is actually barbaric akin to a caveman eyeing his tools with vulgar fascination over what more powers he could wield if he could only dream up more tools. In Qutb’s words:

Wall Street: Face Reality and Work Honestly

Wall Street facing Trinity in the 1920s
      Off and on, in the past year or so, I’ve been reading about Wall Street and a couple times came across images of the gothic cathedral at the head of Wall Street on Broadway, a half a block from the New York Stock Exchange. The captions read, “Trinity Wall Street” and I thought, “That’s a beautiful church—I wonder if it’s connected in any way to the Trinity I went to with Don and Sue on a regular basis when I was attending the academy? Maybe they’re part of the same diocese?” I attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York from 1987 to 1991. I had no family in the immediate area, so I often visited Don and Sue Jenner (a friend of my mom’s when Sue lived in Erie, Pennsylvania) who were like a kindly uncle and aunt. I didn’t care much for being at the academy—I managed to escape to various places on the east coast with the sailing team on some weekends, but my favorite time was in New York with the Jenners. It was about a half hour train ride from Kings Point to Penn Station and from there a brief subway ride downtown to Tribeca where they lived.
More recently (NYSE on right)
      In the new year, when chatting with Don on the phone, I mentioned the photographs of Trinity and asked, “Was that Trinity connected to the church we went to?” Don then informed me, incredulously, “That is the church we went to.” Then it was explained—we never approached it from Wall Street or entered from Broadway. We walked down Greenwich Street, cut across to Trinity Place and entered from a rear entrance, so I never saw it from the angle that it is most often photographed. And those photographs tend to cut off large portions of adjoining areas and buildings that I associate with Trinity, so from my viewpoint, it looked completely different. I do have a dim memory of standing outside the church once and looking up and seeing a street sign that read “Wall Street” and thinking, “We’re on Wall Street?” but I’m sure that thought was soon replaced by a vision of dim sum. It was not unusual for us to eat in Chinatown after church which I always looked forward to when zoning out during the service. I was not a Christian at the time so hardly considered my time there real church attendance. I was basically a jellyfish floating along in the current of Don and Sue’s Sunday routine. I did enjoy my time in church—or rather I enjoyed the theater of it—the choir, pipe organ, candles, stained glass, clouds of incense blown about by people in robes waving censers—your basic Anglican high church experience which in my mind, was more relaxing than being at the academy.
Me in the Jenner's apartment (about 1992)
      I very much appreciated the time we had together in New York. It was always a pleasure to spend time with Don and Sue and in hindsight, I am especially grateful to Don for giving me my first real introduction to Christianity. On our frequent outings in lower Manhattan, we walked everywhere or took the subway. (Like most people who live in New York, they didn’t own a car—Don taught management and marketing among other things at CUNY-Borough of Manhattan Community College which was just footsteps away from their apartment.) Wherever we went, if we passed a homeless person who asked for something, Don gave that person something, even if all he had was some change. I was pretty broke at the time so wasn’t inclined to give usually so once I said to him, “That’s really nice you give like that,” to which he replied casually something along the lines of, “You never know if you’re giving to or feeding Christ himself.” That comment blew my mind. Don was of course being faithful to Matthew 25:37-40. “‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” I did not know this scripture at the time but intuitively grasped the meaning from Don’s comment and behavior. Until then, it never occurred to me that Christianity could be radically different from what I thought it was. Six years of unpleasant Catholic school and an atheist father had prejudiced me completely to “organized religion.” It would be a number of years before I actually converted to Christianity, but I now recognize that experience with Don and his comment as an important early seed.
      It was only in the past few months in finishing up transcribing and editing my project with Julian Moody that I have been musing and reflecting on all this. I met Julian in 2007 in Santa Barbara and our friendship grew through the course of the financial meltdown in 2008. Born in 1917, he had lived through the Great Depression. With him I had discussed both financial crises of 1929 and 2008—the truly miserable worldwide consequences of reckless activity on Wall Street. Now it seems strange and funny to think that both financial meltdowns had occurred just down the street from where I was sitting in church. And ground zero of the economic meltdowns is just blocks from ground zero of 9/11. I remember when arriving at the Jenner’s apartment building for the first time, I gasped at the sheer mass and scale of the 110-story World Trade Center which stood six to seven blocks away from their apartment. Sometimes when a ship I was on as a midshipman was docked at Port Newark or Elizabeth in New Jersey, I would visit the Jenners. The train station I got off at was at World Trade Center, in the bowels just below the twin towers and then I walked up to their apartment sometimes against a tidal wave of business suits during rush hour. I’ve also eaten with the Jenners and Rev. Lloyd Casson of Trinity in the cafeteria off the 44th floor sky lobby in South Tower. The sky lobby was gorgeous with stunning views of the city. To think that is all gone now, destroyed by Muslim jihadists angered by what’s vaguely referred to as our “freedom,” but perhaps also rightfully enraged by the crass materialism and lack of morals of our times and culture (but obviously expressing their anger in a completely misguided and immoral way.) I never really thought about it much since 9/11. I spent quite a bit of time in lower Manhattan during those important formative years, and off and on I would think of that time in my life but never dwelled on it too much, but lately it has been on my mind and heart a lot. Crossing an ocean on a ship, the world seems so huge, but yet it is also so small and interconnected.
      In our recent reminiscence regarding Trinity Wall Street, Don spoke of the historic pipe organ being permanently damaged by the dust cloud fallout of the tower collapses. He also mentioned that the main entrance of Trinity used to face the Hudson River instead of Wall Street. Trinity, which is older than the United States, has had three churches on that site since 1697 when first granted a charter by the British monarchy. The first church burned down in the great fire of 1776. It sat in ruins for some years and when rebuilt in 1790, the entrance was mysteriously changed to face Wall Street, the reason never documented so we can only speculate why. The roof of the second church collapsed after an especially severe snow storm in 1838-39, forcing another rebuild. The church as it now stands was completed in 1846.
      The coincidence of attending Trinity with Don and Sue, my friendship with Julian, and recently reading about Wall Street had set me musing much about the financial crises of 2008 and 1929. The main culprit of the 2008 meltdown were derivatives known as credit default swaps (or CDS.) Ironically, CDS were created to make loan instruments safer and thereby the financial system safer. In a CDS, the risk is separated from loans and viewed and sold as a commodity (in the form of an unregulated insurance policy against loan default) with the hope that the risk is now somehow eliminated or at least reduced. But as former derivatives trader and author Satyajit Das points out, the reality is that the risk is never eliminated, it is just being moved around in a complex shell game in an interconnected global financial system. Firms believed they were unloading the risk associated with bad loans to other firms in other countries, only to unwittingly buy them back via credit derivatives so complex they are barely understood by the people trading and dealing in them. And more troubling, irresponsible and predatory lending became more prevalent after the creation of CDS with the belief that the risk was now avoided. This fueled an epidemic of bad loans whose risk had now, through the proliferation of CDS, become systemic, infecting the entire financial system. This sickly house of cards collapsed, beginning with the Bear Stearns collapse in 2008, leading to a severe global recession and also prompting government bailout of banks to prevent a worldwide financial crisis akin to another Great Depression.
      The traditional view of mental illness is a split or break from reality. The well-meaning attempt to split out and eliminate risk via credit default swaps has turned out to be a sad delusion. And the lie and cancer at the center of this delusion, the belief that you can get rid of risk, in other words, consequences. We would all love to believe that there is no such thing as consequences (especially in regard to our own poor choices) but, just as you can’t avoid gravity, the consequences come. And consequences to poor choices was at the heart of the 1929 financial crisis. The 1920’s was one big party based on fast wealth, and the era in which consumer credit was first conceived and practiced on a mass scale. “Buy now, pay later” and buying stock on margin became the norm, and everyone believed, “The sky’s the limit.” This materialistic delusion reached its heady heights as the decade progressed and then came crashing down to hard reality in the stock market crash of 1929.
      My friend Julian, who credits his mother for his family’s survival through the Great Depression, described his mother as stalwart, a kind woman with a very high sense of responsibility. He said his mother taught him to “face reality and work honestly.” How I wish she were still alive to say this to some who are working on Wall Street. But as Satyajit Das pointed out, Wall Street has the power that it has because we now believe that finance drives everything. In his words, “In the modern age our god is finance except it’s turned out to be a very cruel and destructive god.” And I would add the adjective “insane” to describe this god.
      When Trinity’s main entrance was changed to face Wall Street instead of the Hudson River in 1790, by then, Wall Street was already a center of trading, speculation, and financial activity. The real reason for the change in orientation is lost in time so we can only surmise. Maybe some would cynically say the entrance was strategically placed to draw in the cash flow. But perhaps the planners, builders, and clergy (or at least some of them) sincerely hoped to entice the people on Wall Street to enter the church and worship Christ instead of the cruel, insane god of finance. And to also come to know Christ and God’s concern for the poor, marginalized “nobodies” and “the little man on the street” (who may be Christ without one even realizing it.) Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” How funny that Christ can be so close and yet so far away. And this is a choice we make all the time, just as the choice to face reality and work honestly is a choice we make all the time. But many of us, along with Wall Street, if we’re really honest with ourselves, care more about money and materialism than Christ and the things that concern God. As Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and money at the same time.” It seems we’re repeatedly and collectively learning the consequences of this truth the hard way.

Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard

      2014 was full of big news items (Isis, Ebola, Ferguson, etc.) that received a lot of coverage for obvious reasons, but the suicides of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard stand out in my mind as reflective of issues that perhaps aren’t examined as much as they should be.
      Like many, I liked Robin Williams. I grew up with Mork and Mindy and thought he was a good actor and comedian. And I knew someone who had met and spent some time with Robin (through Robin’s lifelong friend Jonathan Winters who frequented the Coffee Grinder, a coffee shop that existed for years in Carpinteria, California where I live.) And this person observed that it was impossible to truly connect with Robin in an authentic way, not due to any conceit or snobbery on Robin’s part, but because Robin seemed to have a compulsive need to be always “on” and performing. When he told me this, I remembered an interview with Robin I had read. The interviewer had asked about his earliest memories of performing and Robin explained that his mother was the unhappy wife of an auto company executive and as her only child, he constantly entertained her to try to make her happy (and presumably get her attention and love.) Those two pieces of information always stuck with me over the years. So when I learned of his suicide, which occurred on August 11, 2014, I was very saddened, but it also came as no surprise to me.

Atlas Struck Out

      As a Christian, I often wonder about the popularity of Ayn Rand with people claiming to be conservative. Her best-selling novel Atlas Shrugged, regarded by some conservatives as a bible on capitalism and often quoted by members of the Tea Party, is notorious for popularizing a philosophy that insists selfishness is a virtue. Rand is not Christian (in fact, she attacks Christianity in her novel) and unapologetically atheist, proof that many “conservative” Randians don’t bother to seriously examine or perhaps even bother to read the novel which runs over a thousand pages.
      Fortunately for people who don’t like to read, the three part novel was turned into three movies by a Randian producer. (Part I was released in 2011, Part II in 2012, and Part III just recently on September 12, 2014.) Strangely, considering Randians espouse excellent achievement, the productions resemble a made-for-tv movie series for a second rate cable channel. If you don’t believe me, try to watch them. (Note: none of the principal actors in Parts I, II, and III remain the same which might confuse you.) The movies were a flop with critics and most audiences, but the hype and controversy surrounding their releases has helped fuel more sales of the novel, which has been selling well since its publication in 1957 and was voted the second most influential book in America after the Bible in 1991. 
      This disturbing fact begs the question—why is Rand regarded as an authority on business and capitalism? Apart from one unfortunate incident in her childhood of the Bolsheviks appropriating her father’s business, she has little to no practical experience in the area of business. I was blessed to be friends with Julian Moody, a veteran who fought and risked his life in World War II to defeat just the sort of tyranny that Rand, from a safe distance, pompously railed against. This kind, humble, selfless man was also an executive coach and management consultant for over fifty years and worked with many companies both large and small throughout the United States. He also volunteered countless hours as a mentor and coach for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses in Santa Barbara where he lived since 1965. I was fortunate to spend many hours talking with Julian who patiently answered my many questions about his work. His experience in business was completely contrary to what Rand professes in her work and philosophy.

Happiness and Work

      Most of us spend more waking time at work than we do in any other place. And our place of work presumably becomes the main playing ground in which we exercise the pursuit of happiness, an unalienable right written in the Declaration of Independence. But are we truly motivated by the pursuit of happiness, especially in the context of work? Management consultant and executive coaching pioneer Julian Moody and I discuss happiness in the workplace in the topic: "Happy People – What We Can Learn from Them." This topic is part of our project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things.

Constructive Capitalism and Dr. Bronner

Dr. Emanuel Bronner 1908 - 1997
      I can't remember the first place where I came across Dr. Bronner's liquid soap (you know, the one with the peculiarly verbose label with references to Spaceship Earth, Halley's Comet and All One God Faith!) - it was many years ago - but I do remember my reaction. I thought, "Wow, this guy is a wacko," but I bought the soap anyways. I figured if he was honest enough to rant like a lunatic on his label, then his soap must be honest and pure as stated in the simple ingredients list. Sure enough, the soap was very good.

      Dr. Bronner was a third generation soap maker descended from Orthodox Jewish soap manufacturers in Germany. The first part of his life was marked by tragedy - his parents were killed in the Holocaust, and later, he was committed to an insane asylum where he endured barbaric electroshock treatments for his bizarre (but at least peaceful) views. He managed to escape from the institution to California where he founded his soap company in 1948. Fortunately, his latter days were marked by blessing. He reconciled with his abandoned children (so committed was he to his cause of uniting Spaceship Earth, they spent much of their childhood in foster homes) who in turn helped run the company. In spite of a sadly complicated and imperfect past, Dr. Bronner, in his geriatric years, enjoyed helming a successful family enterprise as well as an Eden-like existence of nude sunbathing and eating fresh guacamole, his favorite health food, on a regular basis.