Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Foreclosures and Real Estate Debacle...Who Is Responsible?

(Important message from the Controller General of the USA, David Walker (60 Minutes program))

A friend of mine posed this question today in an email. Who is responsible for this economic mess in the USA? The borrower? The brokers? The financial institutions? The Federal Government?

EVERYONE is responsible in some way for their part of the chain of events, cause and effect. It’s a mad cycle.

1) The GOVERNMENT is responsible because they run the national economy…they control the Federal Reserve, Central Bank, determine interest rates, provide programs like FreddieMac and FannieMae to secure insecure loan positions, and continue to spend beyond their means on a global scale when they have no money to spend…just printing more without authorization of the governed, which causes the devaluation of our currency and decreases the global value of our properties. Now this government is passing laws to bailout the huge institutions they are “in bed with”…and using your and my money and future retirement funds to do so.

2) The FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS are to blame because they are greedy and prey upon the weak and underfunded. They push and sell contracts that further drive their client towards dependency, bankruptcy and ruin. They provide easy, almost free money in exchange for control and 1st position on the borrower's heavily financed properties…which they seem to assume will always go up in value…just like the borrower does. They also are charging multiple times interest compared to what they are paying on interest THEY are paying for the source funds. They deserve no bailout. It was their risk, it should be their bath or correction to manage, or they should be swallowed up by their competition just like what would happen in most any other industry.

3) The BORROWER is to blame because they have blindly “drank the Kool-Aid” of free and easy credit and hidden behind historic bankruptcy laws that protect the debtor more than the lender. They are ultimately responsible because THEY signed the legal contract, terms and conditions of their loans and mortgages. They are the ones who have not put away money in savings or towards their future retirement to cover their debts/obligations during down times like this one. They are the ones who continue to fuel the fires of commercialism and consumerism along with voting for big government programs that will give them guarantees in life…which feeds back to…culprit # 1 above!

4) The REST OF US are to blame for going along with government bailouts and using our tax dollars and social security funds to guarantee covering these debts we didn’t enter into. We blindly expect our government to find the solution and cover everyone’s greed and stupidity…without realizing they are going to do it out of OUR financial hides and future revenues. The few producers are expected to cover the masses lack of knowledge, work ethic and sense of responsibility…but there comes a point where we just have to say NO…

Whatever happened to free markets and Laissez-faire economics? "Laissez-faire" is now an old fashioned concept of "...a doctrine that maintains that private initiative and production are best allowed a minimal of economic interventionism and taxation by the state beyond what is necessary to maintain individual liberty, peace, security, and property rights." What right does the government have constitutionally to interfere with our economic system and the contracts that we sign? And the biggest question yet...what right does the government have to forcefully take from me and you (via taxes, fees or secured social funds) to cover the obligations of other 3rd parties? NONE.

So, per my perspective, we have all contributed to this colossal failure in our system...if only by allowing everyone to "pass the buck" all the way down to us, the tax payers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

On Flags, Borders and Patriotism...

My wife and I were watching some boxing on TV the other night from Las Vegas. The boxers were all draped in the various flags of their countries and even wearing them on their boxing trunks. It caused a healthy discussion between us about the meaning of wearing your country’s "colors" and whether it is appropriate or not in professional sports.

I suppose there is an underlying theme starting to take root here on my blog discussing and questioning the divisions of mankind via borders, religions and political parties. On one hand, it is healthy to have pride in one's self, nationality, and/or beliefs. It is quite another to flaunt or be boastful about such or feeling that somehow our race or nationality or religion is superior and more significant than all others. This attitude between governments and its peoples in my observations have been at the core of the world's historic conflicts and wars. Most of the world grows up being taught to revere or respect God and country before that of personal sovereignty and self worth…or respect of OTHERS.

We see this strikingly evident in these sports events. When a competitor becomes a champion or wins an important event, it is somehow important for him/her to give credit to their god, to their family, or to their nation for the opportunity and the win. I have similar negative reactions when I see professional sports figures "crossing" themselves when making a touchdown or coming up to bat in baseball. The subliminal message to me is that somehow they won or will make a hit because God ordained it or that their country, race or community is superior to all others. You very rarely hear a competitor honestly say "I worked hard and sacrificed my whole life for this accomplishment, and I thank all of you for recognizing it. I am proud of myself".

To this point in life, I don't have a huge hang-up with international competitions and events like the Olympics. Unfortunately though, these things get tainted with this "we" are the best...or worst...in the world because of our accomplishments or lack of them in the sporting arena. Should we really be encouraged to root for a competitor based on their race, creed or nationality? Is it even appropriate for a competitor to "wear" their flag before, during or after an event? In some cases I would personally "shudder" to have certain athletes or artists in "my" country representing me or my ideals of what "America" stands for.

Quite often in the news you read of athletes being injured or killed for losing a competition on behalf of their country. Many soccer stars over the decades have been killed in Latin America and elsewhere for making a mistake or "losing" a game for "their country". This becomes a dangerous mindset...and arguably is a replacement often times for underlying hostilities between these forces of state, religion or race. Some of the biggest rivalries in tennis have been between the USA and Russia. Why? Well, to me it is obviously representative of the continuing hostility and mistrust these superpower governments have historically represented to the world.

Another problem today is you have certain governments holding their "stars" prisoner. In order to compete internationally they have to have their government's permission, and in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela and other tyrannical governments, these competitors will never be seen by the world in competition unless those governments allow them to travel...or the person finds a way to flee and pursue asylum within another country. These governments force their athletes and artists to make a decision between living in obscurity their whole lives or risking everything including their extended families to live and compete in a free country or society.

Where is the pride in wearing the "colors" of repressive governments and regimes? What does it mean when people don’t want to take credit for their accomplishments? In a boxing match or a soccer match, if one nationality wins over the other, does it really mean they are a better country than the other? If an American player loses in the ring or on the field, does that really excuse an almost international chuckle under the world's breath that "see, America isn’t all that great and powerful"? What does it mean when a Mexican beats a Puerto Rican in the ring? Is Mexico a superior country? Are we somehow invisibly fighting cultural wars at these sporting events with so much emphasis on one's nationality or religion?

Personally I think it would be healthier to see competition as global and on individual merits. Heck, many of the team sports in the USA have a number of first string players who were not born in the USA. Soccer, baseball, basketball...all has star players that are not "American". Does that mean that it’s not truly an American team and we shouldn’t take pride in their accomplishments? Maybe for purists that is a point to be considered. I like to see a world where competitors can choose which country they are going to live in and what team they will play on. If they play outside the USA, does that make them "Un American"? If a Cuban exile succeeds playing in America, is he representing America, or Cuba? Where does the pride belong?

On a small scale, I see the psychology of sports first hand here in Panama and other small Latin countries. When they play and beat a much bigger country's team...there is an immediate country wide fiesta in the street with chanting and “nah nahing” the country they beat. It’s as if these players are the total alter ego of every local citizen. Is that a good thing? And why don’t we hear the same jubilation when a Panamanian discovers a vaccine that saves millions of lives or when a student of any discipline wins significant international awards? Does that not have the same significance as a sporting event?

The main thing I am pointing out here is that these are all learned behaviors on a global scale. It goes back to the days of the Greek and Roman empires and early Olympics...and is now continually carried out on a global basis through various international competitions and periodic modern Olympics. Once again we face huge politicizing of the coming Olympic Games in China. It is now looked at by them, and the rest of the world, as a time to show off their country, and hopefully their athletes. If they lose face at home and don’t win a majority of medals, will this somehow mean they are far inferior to the rest? If the USA athletes don’t do well, will it mean something to the rest of the world? And the politicizing of this goes back a long time...much to my disdain.

I leave off with the lyrics of my favorite John Lennon song. As weird as he was, he hit this theme right on the head:

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ron Paul...revisited

This is the video that I wish I was observing one of our current Presidential contenders performing on. Instead, it is little, wily Ron Paul who is one of the only politicians speaking the truth on our economic crisis and warning against the bailout of our currency and real estate mortgage crisis via the new bill supporting the bureaucratic Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac funds. You may not be attracted to his image or his voice...but rational minds cannot ignore his message. Our liberties and wealth are in huge jeopardy.

Per Mr. Paul’s message, in the new rescue bill passed by congress and signed by Bush per the housing crisis, it is evident we are exchanging treasury bills for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities which in turn are the assets behind our currency. Bailing out the housing industry seems the paramount need of the federal government. You have to face the truth that your government is covering these bad mortgages and bad credit decisions with YOUR tax dollars. That’s their only source of revenue. Prices are going to go up based on further pressure on the dollar internationally because of our ever increasing debts and bail outs. No one seems to want to take the medicine of budget tightening, federal cutbacks and focusing more on our domestic problems and markets instead of all our "foreign interests".

Buried in this bill are points like finger printing mortgage brokers who are now being blamed for the mortgage crisis. As if they are all criminals and the source of our financial woes. COVERUP! It’s just like government blaming all the drug dealers for the individual use and abuse of drugs. When will they wake up to the fact that where there is demand there will be supply? Also in this bill is a law that all credit card transactions will be reported to the IRS. Now...what does that have to do with the mortgage crisis and economic systems pains? OH...it is now the American consumer’s fault that our system is in chaos...and this justified our government's further invasion of its citizen’s privacy. Next thing you know, they will be arresting you for buying "heretical" books or "pornographic" films on your credit card (there is a good summary on the history of government censorship at www.beaconforfreedom.org ). Yes my friends, we the citizens are to be blamed and suspect for causing these entire crisis for our pure and innocent federal government.

So, we continue pumping the market bubbles with more money and credit...printing more dollars and manipulating interest rates. What kind of free market, democratic system is this? It's almost like they are purposely out to "kill the dollar". As one commentator recently said, "this is not a time to be pessimistic or optimistic...it is time to be REALISTIC”. We have to get off this mad, big government, media manipulating merry-go-round.

How do we do that? Well, our first opportunity is at the ballot box this election. We need to get a significant message to our "representatives" that we want them to be fiscally responsible, and yes, put more of the controls back into OUR individual hands. We can manage our money and problems better than the federal government can. We just need to be forced to. Government should be teaching and incentivizing citizens to save for retirement, take care of our health, work hard for money that we get to keep. Instead of taxing the fruits of our labors, tax the pursuits of our materialism and gluttony. Instead of prodding us to "spend more" to keep the consumer markets flying, government should be encouraging us to save more. It also should be trying to support our currency against all others so that what goods we do buy from foreign entities are not at such inflated prices in the exchange.

We need to realize that the economic and market wars are key to our survival...not the armed battles we are fighting. If we lose our money, we cannot build a strong defense. If we lose the value of our money, we will go broke just trying to feed and clothe ourselves. If we lose the value of our money, we cannot afford to travel outside our country and will become more isolationist than ever. If we lose the value of our money, we will become the slave labor and the foreign rich countries will be living off our demise. They will over run us...economically! It is my firm opinion that this is the master plan of the "terrorists and evil doers" that started us down this catastrophic path on 9/11/01. In just seven years, they have brought us to our knees economically...while they continue to take our billions of dollars every year out of our system and put them into magical kingdoms in Dubai and other rich desert locations. We need to wake up to the fact that our system is on its knees, begging forgiveness. It’s time to change course before it's too late...and this is spiraling and changing in global marketplaces in record short cycles. It's not your children or grandchildren that will suffer...it will be YOU. It’s not that far off if we don't change our course.

I'm quite aware that neither Ron Paul nor any other leader can do this on their own. We don’t need a pariah or "benevolent dictator". We just need to unite as Americans on the principles we were founded on to take back our freedom and independence from government and world organizations trying to strangle us. We need more Lee Iacoccas (checkout Lee's online blog)and Ron Pauls to stand up and be heard...with a few million citizens standing behind them. We need more leaders like Thomas Jefferson who believed:

"Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law."

"Manfully maintain our good old principle of cherishing and fortifying the rights and authorities of the people in opposition to those who fear them, who wish to take all power from them and to transfer all to Washington."

For me, Ron Paul is one of the few voices of reason in our current congress. It does not surprise me that he did not get nominated as the Republican candidate for President. He doesn’t wield the "image" or "spin" it takes to woo today’s American voter. If I could though, I would attend his September 2 rally if only to mark support for the free market and constitutional representative government ideals he stands for…and hopefully be inspired by other likeminded citizens I would meet. He's not like these other politicians...and I like that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Pickens Plan

The other night I saw TBone Pickens commercial for his plan on moving the USA from our oil dependency to renewable, clean energy solutions. Key quotes from the PickensPlan website are:

The Pickens Plan is a bridge to the future — a blueprint to reduce foreign oil dependence by harnessing domestic energy alternatives, and buy us time to develop even greater new technologies.

In 1970, we imported 24% of our oil. Today it's nearly 70% and growing.

At current oil prices, we will send $700 billion dollars out of the country this year alone — that's four times the annual cost of the Iraq war. Projected over the next 10 years the cost will be $10 trillion — it will be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.

Building new wind generation facilities and better utilizing our natural gas resources can replace more than one-third of our foreign oil imports in 10 years.

Natural gas is our country's second largest energy resource and a vital component of our energy supply. 98% of the natural gas used in the United States is from North America. But 70% of our oil is purchased from foreign nations.

According to NGVAmerica, there are more than 7 million NGVs (Natural Gas Vehicle) in use worldwide, but only 150,000 of those are in the United States.

Building wind facilities in the corridor that stretches from the Texas panhandle to North Dakota could produce 20% of the electricity for the United States at a cost of $1 trillion. It would take another $200 billion to build the capacity to transmit that energy to cities and towns. That's a lot of money, but it's a one-time cost. And compared to the $700 billion we spend on foreign oil every year, it's a bargain.

This is heady stuff for a billionair big Texas oilman like Tbone Pickens to be proposing. And obviously this does not help support the McCain/Bush/Republican platform position on just drilling for more oil in the USA. It has been widely speculated that this would NOT bring prices down at the gas pump, which is the main driving force of consumer American's dissatisfaction with the Fed governments lack of action on our oil crisis. Unfortunately, most Amercians could give a damn about the environment, or sending 700 BILLION per year to our foreign competition and enemy states. Our selfish consumerism is focused on one thing...our pocketbooks and economic health. The cost to our environment of pollution coming from carbon fuels is of very little concern to most voters. Should it be any surprise our politicians have given it so little heed?

Obviously this Pickens Plan and publicity is ill timed for McCain's Presidential run. He has unfortunately lined right up with Bush and company to support more drilling and has done very little in his career to deal with these issues before now. Instead of being "first up" to support and signify Pickens has some good ideas and that he will support politically this agenda, he seems bent on trying to defend against this and stay on the side of big oil profiteers and OPEC.

In a NYTimes article today by Tim Egan called "The Oil Man Cometh", he points out how embarrassing this must be to the Republicans as one of their own confronts their inadequacy and hypocrasy on this subject. A few key quotes from that article are:

Republicans are furious at their longtime benefactor. Senator John McCain is currently running an ad in which he directly blames Barack Obama for $4-a-gallon gas at the pump — as bogus a claim as anything yet made in 2008.

Meanwhile, looking bravely to the past, Bush and McCain are trying to convince us that more oil drilling will save us from $5-a-gallon gas. History says otherwise. The number of oil and gas permits on federal land doubled in the last five years, with no effect on price or supply. And Bush’s own Energy Information Administration says increased drilling wouldn’t move the market in the short term.

McCain knows this, despite the brazen lie in his Obama gas ad. He now says drilling offshore would have “a psychological impact.” Just like that “mental recession” his former chief economic adviser Phil Gramm spoke of. These guys need to get off the couch.

It’s sad to see McCain go down this path, an easy sell for a fast-food nation. Straight talk distress.

In summary, it should be interesting to see how this plays out for the elections. I have really WANTED to support McCain because of his historic "Maverick" independence within his party and his previous efforts to regulate big money influence over politics and campaign reform. Unfortunately, it now seems he has flip flopped in directions I cannot support...and while I'm not ready to vote for Obama...I continue to be distressed and depressed at the condition of our government in the shadow of so many ominous problems facing our nation.

Maybe we need to vote for a "TBone Pickens"...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Are We Stereotyping Arabs and Muslims?

After recently reading and viewing a number of articles/videos on the Arab and Islamic world, I need to start venting some of the conflicts that arise in my thoughts and observations. This video (part 3 of 4 segments) helps demonstrate some of the conflicts over the issue of stereotyping and what we understand...or don’t... of what it means to be Arab and or Muslim.

An opinion piece showing up this week as an article in the Panama News by Nadal Sakr was a message to Arabs and Muslims about the upcoming elections in the USA. In this article the author strongly points out the stakes that American Arabs and Muslims have in the upcoming USA elections. The core idea is that with current American sentiments related to Muslims, they tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to their contributions to the United States of America and their voting power. Our media primarily focuses on Islamic "terrorists", and no where near as much time is spent on other factions within American Islam. Yet, the fact remains that 1 out of every 100 of your neighbors in the USA are of some form of Islamic faith.

While I liked the article, I was confronted with a lot of uncomfortable information when looking for background on the author, Sakr. He is primarily known as an activist with "March for Justice" which seems primarily devoted to defending Arabs and Palestinians from the Jewish "mob". Someday I will get to an organized blog on the Middle East though it seems to be a topic where no one can win and everyone loses. It seems to be conflict most easily summarized down to "one of us has to die...the Jew or the Arab...we cannot both live on the same planet in peace" (I realize that is an over-simplistic statement about the conflicts over there). Having grown up fundamentalist Christian in America, lots of Jewish friends (even an ex-wife who was Jewish)...it is probably hard for me to be totally objective. Yet, I realize that throughout history there have been atrocities on all sides of those various factions...and no one figuratively speaking is without "blood on their hands". Who is going to initiate real and sustained dialogue to end these conflicts once and for all? I don’t think the USA has been too successful...and our country has obviously not been very "neutral" when it comes to Middle East conflicts. We provide a majority of the weapons to BOTH sides of the hostilities, though obviously more weighted on behalf of Israel. Our young country's history has not been without its share of debauchery and evil actions. So...where is Jesus in all this?

Now, I have heard and observed all kinds of inflammatory comments regarding Muslims and Arabs in recent years. I also have been fortunate to become friends with a few here and there in my life. My main observation is that it is not easy to refrain from being swallowed up from one viewpoint or another in the passionate causes between being American, Jewish, Christian, Muslim...and all the religious and statist issues those labels bring up. I took two college courses on the Middle East...one from a Christian professor viewpoint and the other at Western Michigan University from an Arab teacher who I could not understand but one out of every 5 words he said in English. I read a couple good books through that class, but came out of it with not a very clear picture of what happened, why, and where are we. I also think I did not get a very good grade. This was also during the time when Iranians were rioting and writing on all the walls at Western Michigan about "down with the Shah", Death to the Shah, Shame on America,...all that free speech stuff was a bit confusing and unsettling. It wasn’t until many years later that I read a bit of background on the USA governments puppet government behind the Shah that I understood what those young students were all upset about. We basically set up the whole scenario for the backlash of fundamental Islam in Iran because of our lack of respect and understanding for that culture. Did we really think we could make nice democratic Christians out of those millions of Muslims?

Here in this small country of Panama we have large populations of both Jewish and Arab. In many cases they mix in the same restaurants, bars and social clubs while in other ways they each have their particular synagogues, mosques and private membership organizations. Some are partners in significant businesses and many of them compete against me at poker tables and tournaments where nationalities and religions are non-issues when it comes to the competition for money. I have many Jewish and Arab business connections, and a few of them I call friends. I also hope they see ME as something outside the shadow of just being a "gringo" or "American"...but the reality is I can never be 100% accepted or "one of them". All factions are heavy into the "bloodline" thing, which seems to rule over ideology.

Many of these Jewish and Arab friends have known what it means to be discriminated against and ridiculed for their race or religion. Many of them have lived in war torn Arab countries where Christian versus Muslim versus Jew is the common everyday friction of life. Yet, for many of them when they get to a neutral country like Panama, it is amazing how peacefully everyone gets along all of the sudden. Is it something in the water or the air over in those Middle Eastern deserts? I'm sure that underneath the surface we all experience the stereotyping of each other whether we are Jewish, Arab or American...but it seems that everyone here is not fighting the battle...though there is no doubt money and support goes to the various factions in the "homeland". But on all these sides, most people just want OUT of the conflict. That’s why they have come here...and they are thriving well for doing so and for the most part living in peace. It’s much safer here than in most mixed neighborhoods of large USA cities. Let’s hope it stays that way…or that understanding improves in America.

So why is it that in the Middle East, Europe and the USA this is not so? Why are we not integrating well in those first world countries, and what can be done about it? I am not naive enough to think that thousands of years of conflict between ideologies can be settled once and for all in a short time. I also realize that human nature with its long memory, its bitterness and subliminal hatred...is easily passed on generation to generation. The biases of cultures, religions and races are not easily overcome in a fortnight. Yet, as our world continues to shrink, expand in population, and use up much of it's natural resources...we had better get a handle on these issues quickly before we totally lose control and reason in overcoming these differences. If the world cannot talk, the world will fight. If the world cannot trade together, they will begin to fight for that which they cant buy. If the world cannot join forces successfully to fight the terrorists and extremists no matter which religion or race they come from, we will be continually divided and devoured country by country, ideology by ideology. And the USA cannot go it alone in this battle...economically or militarily.

In light of my life experiences thus far, I find myself bent more towards a "humanist" agenda when it comes to this type of topic. By humanist I am not meaning the movement or religion of humanism. I suppose that topic could launch a whole separate blog. But what I am meaning is...I think the world needs to start looking at humanitarianism as a core fundamental belief and philosophy. Instead of spending so much time trying to sort out issues of faith, political persuasions and cultural definitions, I think we need to be focusing on what it means to be human and how to treat ALL fellow humans. If the entire world was exposed to and convinced to focus on this...the differences between us and our past conflicts would begin to fade into obscurity. If we can grow as humans to the point where we don’t define ourselves by our race, religion, class or political persuasion...but by our attributes and traits as human beings...we might start getting somewhere towards world unification. We cannot hope to accomplish that by domination and conquering of religions. World history is rife with the failure of that agenda to solve anything long term.

We also can’t solve our differences in the battlefield. The battlefield means someone perceives themselves as the victor, and the other side the loser. Losers become the oppressed...who over time grow from their bitterness and disillusion to a point where they rise up to dominance over the previous victors. And that human cycle goes round and round again in the annals of time and history. We need to get off that merry-go-round of wrong thinking and begin to change things within ourselves...and those close around us. Change will not come from without. And I also have not seen too many positive results in this from religious persuasions. If anything, religion builds more walls than bridges to understanding and mutual acceptance. It becomes a form of inward focused bigotry, of blindly building up false reasoning and replacing reason with "hope". By hope I mean...HOPE it’s true, HOPE I'm right, HOPE God comes through and takes me out of all this despair. Only when we can love and come to peace with ourselves as humans can we really begin to love others. When we begin to respect ourselves, we can begin to respect others. This to me is the most core first step towards world revolution and change. Love and respect. Without these ingredients, the human race is doomed. Our conflicts will be never ending. Our religions will continue with an inward focus.

OK...so that became a mini tangent on this subject...but here is how it ties in. Embrace religious tolerance...including embracing those who don’t believe in anything. We have too easily allowed the extremists, fundamentalists and "Jihadists" to overcome our sense of rationality and good judgment. Most of the world thinks that most "Americans" have only a "bomb and obliterate" mentality about their enemies...both real and imaginary.

I think the war between cultures and ideologies could be fought more effectively with reason and dialogue...not the kind we see on CNN and FOX network soapbox programs seeing who can outshout whom. Not the pomp and circumstance we see at high government level protocols with heads of state mixing with dictators mixing with various "royalties" and their bland representatives. I'm thinking more along the lines of steady and continued discussions on trade and humanitarian concerns by the regular humans in each country and region. Maybe it’s time we let the businessmen get in there for negotiating real trade and sharing/licensing technologies. Let the religious leaders get together to discuss mutual religious freedoms and understanding of difference. Let the mothers of the world get together and discuss how they are going to protect and educate their children not to continue the insanity of war and isolationism. Let the Doctors and health professionals around the world work together to find the cures to all our diseases. Let all the farmers of the world meet together to share best practices in raising various crops and livestock to better feed the hungry in our world. Competition and free enterprise is all good...but at the end of the day we have to see the best reason for those values...to bring out the best in each of us. Instead of trying to keep each other down a peg or two...we should be striving to lift our brother UP to our level or experience. This type of humanity works for anyone of sound mind and judgment...whether they wear jeans and t-shirts, a robe and turban, or barely nothing at all in the jungles of Africa and South America. Humans are humans if you let them be. We need to quit the stereotyping...and look for the commonalities. They are there...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Roots of Evil…

Since the posting of my blog on “Faces of Evil” , my philosophers mind can’t help but wonder about the causes for evil actions and people in the world. I am a “cause and affect” kind of guy, not believing that many things happen just by chance. I believe there is a reason for what happens in the world, and by that belief also feel that reason and thought can overcome irrationality and insanity over time…IF we allow ourselves to reason.

Judeo Christian tradition suggests that perhaps “knowledge” is one of the main roots of evil. In the tradition of “Adam and Eve”, it was their curiosity about the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” that led them to the first disobedient act against their maker. The story seems to suggest that the original man and woman had no knowledge of right/wrong, good/evil. Probably many of us wish we could have such a simple existence where we had no knowledge of the evils perpetuated in our world and so much guilt associated with it. It’s as if somehow our exposure to evil is so overpowering that we will have no resistance to doing wrong, or “sinning”. We strive at bringing up our children as protected from knowledge of evil as possible, yet most religions demand that we go through a process of repentance and forgiveness from our humanity. We are looked at as forever flawed…which arguably almost justifies our acceptance of evil in this world we live in. Yet I still grapple philosophically with the question of are we born evil and learn to do good, or are we born good and innocent but end up tainted by all the evil in the world and living in reaction to it?

As I think of potential root causes of evil, I think of the following potential causes:

Anger: Personally I think anger is one of the most common motivators of evil in the world today. You see anger in big and small ways everywhere you look in our world, from killings in the street to the frequent flip offs and cursing in traffic here in the streets of Panama. Anger is an emotional reaction to circumstances around or inside us. External forces such as people, governments, religions, hunger, poverty etc can all cause angry emotions/reactions. We also can be angry at or about ourselves. Our limitations, our looks, failures, or continual criticisms can cause anger directed back at ourselves. Whatever the source of the reaction, anger can cause us to lose reason. We have all heard of “blind rage” or “unbridled anger”. While anger is a very human emotion, it is quite another thing to be controlled by it. Yet…I think most murders and physical attacks are motivated by some form of “anger” that has gone out of control. Anger CAN be a positive emotion, if we use it in positive responses. There is the concept of “righteous anger” which comes out either in self defense situations or when we get angry enough at ourselves or others to motivate us to actions for change. So, in essence, there is good anger and evil anger. Perhaps the difference is what actions or reactions that anger leads to…whether building up or tearing down.

Fear: Many evil actions or people may find “fear” to be at the core of their evil. Fear of others and “otherness” is what drives up walls and divisions between humans. We tend to fear that which we cannot understand and those that are very different from us. Out of fear, many of us never objectively examine ourselves, our beliefs or even our past decisions. It’s much less painful to justify or blindly accept rationalizations for ourselves, our beliefs and values. Fear keeps many of us from pursuing our dreams or ambitions…we might fail. Fear keeps us from knowing other people and having meaningful relationships…because we might be rejected. Fear keeps us from examining the beliefs and traditions of others…because we might find our own lacking. When fear turns into the ultimate extremes of phobias, paranoia and persecution complexes…it can cause some of the most evil actions towards self and others. There is no doubt in my mind that fear has been a root of many genocides and evil wars in our recent and ancient histories.

Oppression: is the act of using power to empower and/or privilege a group at the expense of disempowering, marginalizing, silencing, and subordinating another. Oppression occurs when racism, sexism, extreme bigotry or even political movements are institutionalized and forced upon others. Oppression can be individual or on a mass scale. Oppression can lead to colonialism, imperialism and totalitarianism which often lead to angry and violent responses. I believe oppression of governments over their people or some minorities such as religion, races or cultures has caused much of our world’s large scale conflicts. In a majority of cases, the oppressor’s motivations are “evil”, and unfortunately evil begets evil. The responses can be equally violent and evil, even if occasionally justified.

Power: We examine power as perhaps the core cause of oppression. It is a human trait and one of the core drivers of human behavior. The lust for power is arguable number one in our lives before money, sex and others. Power in and of itself again is not evil. Most of us want power and influence to coerce good causes and positive results in our lives. Freedom is power…the ability to go where you want when you want in this life is arguably the epitome of freedom and power. Power can also be demonstrated in “benevolent dictatorships”, which some would argue is the best form of government. Since people cannot control or determine for themselves, they need a leader or government that forces them to “stay in line”, save for a rainy day and protects them from their enemies. While governing powers such as this can be a good thing…unfortunately those humans who come to power in governments and institutions too often become control freaks and egomaniacs. This is when power becomes evil and blinds those in power to the realities of the people they rule over or govern. This is when “power” becomes the impetus of many evil acts.

Insecurity/inferiority: These sentiments can be solid sources of evil behaviors in people. Many of the world’s most evil historic rulers had childhoods of extreme insecurity or sense of inferiority. As the human pendulum swings, when some of these former downtrodden rise up or manipulate themselves into positions of power and influence…the inferior starts thriving on being superior and many irrational and evil acts rise from the source of this historic insecurity. Democracy and liberty are definite threats to these kinds of leaders who want to bolster their own image and self delusion to the exclusion of all others.

Lust: Lust and even “additions” can lead to many evil acts. While rape and murder are internationally agreed upon against nature and legally accepted behaviors, we still live in a world that arguably has pandemic proliferation of rape and murder. Lust for life causes many of us to pursue highs that aren’t necessarily natural…smoking, drug use, sex…can all be used to placate our lust for life and/or help us escape from life’s realities. When our minds are filled with these pursuits, we often do not act rationally, become more aggressive about our needs and pleasures, and for sure the sensitivity and care for others quickly goes down the tubes of consciousness. It’s all about OURSELVES, and our concern about right/wrong, good/evil escapes our senses for the moment. Blind lust can lead to all kinds of evil.

Pride: As in most of these factors, pride in and of itself is not evil. Taking pride in one’s self, accomplishments, or abilities is not a negative. The problem arises when pride becomes so dominant in our minds that we see nothing but ourselves, and deem all others to be inferior or less deserving than ourselves. This sense of position in life can lead us to many irrational acts and a lack of values where others are concerned. Pride of country, nationality, religion, education, class and culture when blown out of proportion leads to many forms of isolationism, bigotry and evil.

Money: Obviously, money can be used as a fuel for many of these attributes. As stated in a previous blog, it is the LOVE of money that causes all kinds of evil. Money can be used for good or evil. Yet, in most cases what money means to us is a keeping of score between us and other people. In business, we get our money by beating out the competition for buying our services or products. Our winning a deal usually means many others LOST. And in many cases, the more one gets the more one wants…and the whole of life is made up of the pursuit of money…sometimes to the point of forgetting what or why we needed money in the first place. The evils of robbery, dishonest business practices, graft and corruption all have their roots in the lust for money. Certainly some people truly need more money in this world. Most of the money is in too few hands. If that was only because those few won the money fair and legitimately, it wouldn’t cause so many evil deeds. But…because so much money and possessions in the world are illegally gained and hoarded…money truly has become a core cause of most the world’s evils.

Yes, the world is full of evil. The question is does this evil have to be inevitable? Do we truly need to give in to the destruction of our world by evil forces and people? After all, it is HUMANS who sit in the seats of decision…decisions of who we will follow. Decisions on if the nuclear button gets pushed or not. Decisions about whether to invade your neighbor or not.

To the extent that we can examine ourselves and others objectively and rationally, we just might have a chance to fight evil with good. If we can just start by controlling our own evil impulses, that would be the first step that obviously any of us can take to overcome evil. To the extent that we can be honest and accountable to our families and friends, we can conceivable get their support for overcoming our own demons. In a world of cause and effect, we each can do our little bit to overcome evil and do good. Maybe it starts with just talking or writing about it…together? As it was once said, “the pen is mightier than the sword”…both for good and for evil.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Faces of Evil…

I was watching the news today reporting on the 300+ mass funeral held in Sarajevo for more bodies found going back to the 1995 genocide of Muslims in that recent historic conflict. They then showed the photos of the then Serbian President and his “General”, who are both wanted and missing men with the Hague international courts. In just seeing the videos of these two men, I shuddered at a sense of their “smiles of evil”. I also had to ask myself what motivates men to do these heinous crimes and massacres?

As a student of history, I have seen this inhumane approach time and time again…from the times of the crusades, the “Inquisitions”, the origins of slavery, the massacre of the American Indians, the Jewish Holocaust of Nazi Germany, African genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Kenya, the Congo and Apartheid of South Africa. It is hard to fathom that in such modern, “enlightened” times our general world population would allow these atrocities to continue against common people. Regimes and regime leaders run amok without restraint, perpetuating their agendas on huge populations while most first world countries sit mostly on the sidelines. Mess with our oil or threaten our economy…we’ll be right there. Kill off whole cultures within your own domain…it’s none of our business.

Sure, many organizations and private funds are striving to help in many of these continuing situations, but it seems to be a losing battle to keep “Statist” forces in check from killing off the minorities…or even majorities in some cases…of their own people.

To look philosophically at “evil”, it becomes quite a mixed bag. Most religions simply equate evil to the forces unseen between God and “the Devil”…or in some cases simply forces of “good and bad” or “right and wrong”. In Western philosophy, evil is usually limited to an object or creature to which harm has been done. Most cultures accept a form of this duality of “good versus evil” in which one can’t exist without the other. This is carried to the level where “man” cannot be only good or evil. There exists the potential for both in one person…and our life struggle is to overcome evil with good…even within ourselves.

The mind sciences of Psychology and Psychiatry continually struggle with the origins of behaviors, cause and effect, and defining moral dilemmas based on how our minds work…or don’t. Philosophy more questions the source of our thinking…are we good or evil based on our learned traditions?...good people breed good people and bad people bad? Is it a chemistry thing? Are we born good and turn bad…or vice versa…born bad and learn “good” behaviors? What are the origins of evil?

Biblical tradition would have us believe that Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden produced knowledge of evil that they were previous oblivious to. Does this suggest that knowledge leads to evil? That God somehow meant for us to be in the dark relating to "Satan" and evil? Interesting question.

Many books have and will continue to be written searching these age old questions. There are certain acts that are almost universally considered evil. Rape and murder for example. Yet…killing for a cause or in self defense is NOT considered evil by many and some of us relish thoughts of taking revenge against someone that has wronged us. Some people think war and killing is NEVER justifiable, always evil…others make it a “way of life”. Some people believe in turning the other cheek from a religious point of view while others believe in “an eye for an eye”. If you want to be pessimistic, it would seem historically that most advanced cultures were wiped out by barbarians...the Incas, Aztecs, Babylonian Empires were all advanced cultures that were wiped out by warrior nations.

It seems more and more in our world we live by the phrase “the end justifies the means”. In other words, all that is important is reaching OUR goals, wants and needs no matter what that means for the next guy. Consumerism is "King" and most people in the world will take what they want from anywhere they can get it. Fewer people are willing to individually stand up to injustice or outright violence to his neighbor. Most of the world is a spectator in the stands watching the battle between good and evil. Some of us root for the good…some for the evil.

In some religions, it is OK to kill the “unbeliever”, but a terrible offense to kill one of your own. It’s OK to rape your enemy’s wife or daughter but not someone from your own race or country. We have seen this carried out in the founding of many countries including our own US of A. Acts of war are judged differently than acts of domestic conflict. Morality and definition of good and evil is a very subjective thing in these modern times.

So, where does this conversation of the mind lead or leave us? One could say that each of us battles good and evil every day and we each make judgments or decisions that help determine the outcome of what wins…good or evil. For some of us, we sense a battle beyond our physical senses and we think all this is a spiritual or moral dilemma. Others of us believe in “survival of the fittest” and that there is a universal, Darwinian methodology in place that will determine the outcome of what we evolve into.

As usual, my perception is a pretty mixed bag of tricks. I believe there is a spiritual aspect to life that does invisibly affect and to some extent controls us. And…there can be spirits of good and evil. At the same time, I believe man has been given a mind powerful enough to have control and dominion over the evils that face us. We can CHOOSE to a great extent what kind of life we want and person we will be...or how we will react to evil. This is a great freedom…and a freedom to run from evil.

Yet, there comes a time for many of us when we have to stand up AGAINST evil. We have to be willing to sacrifice personal comfort and perhaps even our lives to pursue building that which is good for the rest of humanity. This needs to be done on an individual level more than a “governmental” one to be effective in the long run. Converts to "good" need to be won with ideas and actions, not facing the end of a gun barrel. We need to bring hope to the hopeless, water to the thirsty, love to the loveless…if we want to be successful in the battle between good and evil. We also need to stand up to evil leaders and regimes…the faces of evil that show up so often on our TV and computer screens. And, probably most importantly, we must stand up to the evil within US that tells us “it doesn’t matter”, “I can’t do anything about it”, “I’m helpless and hopeless”, “I am just a victim in this mess”. Let’s fight the face of evil, even if it is the one looking back at us in the mirror.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

John Templeton…a tribute

John Templeton has passed away at the age of 95. Born into a poor Tennessee family, Mr. Templeton was a Yale graduate, Rhodes scholar, obtained a law degree, and quickly moved to a career on Wall street in the late 30s. He grew up and remained a unique “Presbyterian” Christian. Unique in that he was quite conservative socially and believed in high moral values and faith, yet theologically he was quite liberal and spent his whole life in pursuit of further enlightenment and truth beyond the dogma of traditional religion. He was not a Biblical literalist, and spent millions on research and grants pursuing connections between science and religion. Of what I have read and known about him, he was a “thinking mans” believer. In many ways he was the predecessor of investment gurus like Warren Buffet and others. His family of mutual funds was ground breaking and some of the first and most successful funds to date. He was one of the first on Wall Street to push into global and international markets…preaching diversification of risk. He sold out of his investment group in 1992 to focus on his philanthropies and continued pursuits of knowledge and spirituality even into his 90s.

From his values and example, I pull the following lessons from his life and writings:

John Templeton was the original “buy low, sell high” evangelist on Wall Street. In many ways this made him a contrarian to the usual ebbs and flows of stock market gyrations. The Templeton Growth Fund averaged a 14.5% annual return from 1954 to 1992 making a $10,000 investment, with dividends reinvested, worth $2,000,000.

Even though he was an elder in the Presbyterian church, he maintained a broad view and scope of spirituality. He saw God and spirituality as a mystical, life long study…while espousing a shared divinity between God and humanity.

Mr. Templeton was a person who backed his beliefs with action…and money. I personally believe he was one of the finest examples of a smart, rich man who was able to honestly pursue his faith…and based on his successes both financially and spiritually was able to affect our globe impacting literally millions of people in providing support for independent thinking and living. Though creating great wealth, he lived simply and without pomp and circumstance even though he held the honors of knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and was one of Wall Streets first Billionaires. The business and management school at Oxford bears his name.

John Templeton also gained notoriety for his views on fallacies and shortcomings of America’s government and tax system. He renounced his citizenship on principle in the 1960s and moved to the Bahamas, a Commonwealth nation that has much lower taxation with respect for privacy and individual sovereignty. This gave him more control over his wealth…and an objective view of global investment opportunities uncommon in the USA.

So in summary, John Templeton was a self made man financially, a brilliant and independent mind that rose above the tapestries of religion and government to pursue his own revelation in faith and liberty. He then used his wealth for many human causes without submitting to the forces of statism or organized religion to limit his scope of discovery. He led the charge to global investment without losing his identity as a man and spiritual being. This is perhaps a very rare example of a “rich man getting through the eye of the needle”… (alluding to my other blog at http://panamaconnections.blogspot.com/2008/07/getting-camel-through-eye-of-needle.html )

Rest in peace Sir John.

Favorite quotes by John Templeton…

“The main focus in my life now is to open people's minds so no one will be so conceited that they think they have the total truth.”

“If we become increasingly humble about how little we know, we may be more eager to search.”

“The four most dangerous words in investing are 'This time it's different.'”

“It is nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.”

“It's self-centered to think that human beings, as limited as we are, can describe divinity.”

“I wouldn't call it radical; I would call it enthusiasm for progress.”

“If you want to have a better performance than the crowd, you must do things differently from the crowd."

"I have no quarrel with what I learned in the Presbyterian Church — I am still an enthusiastic Christian. But why shouldn't I try to learn more? Why shouldn't I go to Hindu services? Why shouldn't I go to Muslim services? If you are not egotistical, you will welcome the opportunity to learn more."

"The other boys at Yale came from wealthy families, and none of them were investing outside the United States, and I thought, 'That is very egotistical. Why be so shortsighted or near-sighted as to focus only on America? Shouldn't you be more open-minded?'"

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Getting the Camel Through the Eye of the Needle...

One of my most recent posts focused on perspectives of poverty and the challenge of understanding it. This very likely brings us around to look at the other side of the coin. What is it like to be rich…and if one IS rich, what is their role and responsibility in life based on their good fortune?

First to dispense with a couple “wives fables” about money and morality. Many people quote the Bible as saying “money is the root of all evil”. That is not correct. It says the “LOVE of money is A root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:9). It also says in Eccleciastes 5:10 (for those who don’t believe in the New Testament:)) that “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” And Jesus himself said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kindom of God.” (Mark 10:25).

Now, is all this quoting to allude or suggest that being poor is better than being rich? I don’t think so. I think it is more about owning our money and not letting money own us. We probably all know people, and maybe have sometimes been guilty ourselves, of being primarily focused on material pursuits in life to the detriment of our family, friends, maybe even our own health. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having financial goals and setting ourselves up for future financial security. In fact, this is strongly recommended in various Biblical passages as well as common sense. People who are financially self sufficient tend to be healthier, happier, and freer to live life as they please than those who live with heavy debts and are continually stressed out about getting by.

I continually have to go through self examination on this issue in life. I have never been totally focused on financial security. Instead I have tended to be the extreme risk taker, entrepreneur, more comfortable than most with “living on the edge”. I have had years of significant financial gain, and I have had serious financial setbacks and failures. I have been a lifelong student of how money works and what it means to people as I sell one thing or another to them…but money has never had the significance to me that it has many in my family or circle of friends. It has been more important for me to do the things I want/like to do than to spend my life pursuing a steady paycheck. Though mine has not been a road commonly taken, I actually have few regrets…and somehow I have always had a deep down sense of future success and security that comes from one of my core beliefs from childhood…”"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26)Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)”. Even through all my doubts and issues with modern Christendom, I have always strongly sensed that life has direction and purpose and that while we can affect it in many ways based on how we think, in the end we each have a unique and directed destiny. If we do the right things, good things happen most the time. Sure, life rains on the righteous as well as the unrighteous, but I still think good people survive the rain better…and most years farmers see fruit from their labors.

But what about the “happiness quotient”? Who are happier, rich people or poor people? It has been my observation that some of the UN-happiest people I have known were among the wealthiest…and some of the HAPPIEST people I have known were some of the poorest. This is perplexing, don’t you think? We grow up with all the commercials and culture around us pushing us to have nice things, a successful image, and a model’s good looks. New cars, new houses, new clothes…it seems to be the focus of most peoples time and conversations. For me those discussions get boring in short order. I like nice things as most people do. I like fast cars and motorcycles, and yes, wish I could afford an airplane right now. But…my life and conversation doesn’t center on that stuff like a lot of people I listen to. I am more about feelings, experiences, philosophy, people and spirit.

Many wealthy people I have known have had substance abuse issues whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex, what have you. For some of us, having money gives freedom to “escape reality”. Perhaps some of those people have a sense of guilt they are covering up with those activities? Did they make their money honestly? Did they earn their own at all? Or, do they have something to prove to some third party in their family or network that drives them in some unhealthy motivations and directions? Each of us is different I suppose. But I have noticed that a lot of people who have a lot or nice things are somewhat paranoid about losing or sharing them. On the other hand, I have known a lot of poor people who would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it or demand that you take the best bed and room in their house when you visit them.

Living here in Latin America I notice a lot of poor families who seem to always be together, arm in arm, smiling, clean and well mannered. Then I return to the states, or see American families come here, who have lots of money but seem to be estranged from each other. The kids are more ornery and demanding. Every one is shouting at each other. It’s a very noticeable cultural difference. So, in my mind achieving the “American Dream” is no guarantor of happiness. It seems the more we get, the more we want…and our lives become focused around serving our money or our things. I don’t think it has to be that way to gain reasonable financial wellness and we can find balance between work, play, family, friends and alone time.

As for attitudes toward the poor, I think it is important to have humility in dealing with those less fortunate than ourselves. I have always realized that I can take no personal credit for having grown up an American, in a reasonably successful family, and had good schools and mentors as I grew up who shaped me to any level of success or education I have achieved. Sure, I can take credit for whatever I have done to build on those advantages I grew up with, but to take pride in having more than other people…well…I can always find plenty of people who have much more than me. Am I envious of those that have more? I would be lying to say I don’t envy some of the people I know who have had better fortune or made better choices than I have in life. That doesn’t mean I begrudge them having what they have…as long as they maintain their humanity and don’t become totally absorbed with their “wealth” or things. There’s nothing more obnoxious and even sad than to see someone so absorbed in their money and things that they cannot relate to anybody else that isn’t at a reasonably equal level. I respect people who wear their wealth and success with elegance and simplicity. In recent years I have met some of the wealthiest people I ever knew who you would never know they were “loaded”. I also have run into quite a number of people who flaunt their recent good fortunes and have become isolated by their wealth by putting up their own walls. I think these are the type of people that Bible passage was talking about…easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle than for this type of rich person to enter the “kingdom of God”.

The “Kingdom of God” can mean many different things in my mind. One thought on this I have is that I believe the world we live in NOW is centered around a divine plan. I think we are meant to live as “rulers of this kingdom” the creator has given us. This alludes to having control and dominion over every aspect of this kingdom…including ourselves. We don’t have to wait for some future world or after life to begin living righteously and at peace with ourselves and our fellow man. If we can learn to control OURSELVES, we can then learn to control or affect the world around us more positively. If we have the gift of “growing wealth”, we should think of it positively and with a sharing attitude, both in helping others learn to do the same, and sharing a portion of our wealth with those less fortunate. If our wealth owns us, well…we will be missing the boat on a lot of other experiences and people who could enrich our lives in ways other than financial. We will be riding that camel to a very small point on the horizon of life with little hope for true success.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day…Recouping Our Independence

When you think about the 4th of July, otherwise in America known as “Independence Day”, there is usually quite a bit of pride, patriotism and celebration involved. You have your parades, your fireworks, the family BBQs and time together…all fun and good. Of course, when you are a closet philosopher, you can’t help but examine some of the deeper issues related to this holiday both on a personal basis and as an American patriot.

Maybe we should start there…”American patriot”…what does that mean? Is it about love of country, flag, our history, our government, democracy, or freedom? To be patriotic, do you have to support your country’s government good or bad? Does it require blind trust in the politicians your country elected and supporting all their bureaus such as the IRS, FDA, ATF, DOD, DOT, Homeland Security and the other 817 agencies of the federal government (just the executive branch)? Do you have to fly a flag or wear a flag pin in your lapel? What does it mean when we “pledge allegiance” and/or sing the national anthem? Those who have fought for our country and lost loved ones in our many wars somehow have a greater sense of attachment to “patriotism”…and its cost.

The dictionary definition of “patriotism” is “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty”. Based on those words, perhaps it’s time to take a thermometer reading of the USA’s patriot quotient. And we also need to examine if patriotism is a feeling or based on actions…or both. Kind of the same question we ask about “love” sometimes…is it a feeling, an action or both?

I think most of us would suggest that “actions speak louder than words” when it comes to love…and patriotism. It is easier to say “I love you” for some than it is to sacrifice for that which you love. And in other cases, it is hard to say the words, but the quiet consistency and support received from a “loved one” speaks much louder than the words they may never say. Yet, words and actions often go hand in hand. Many wise sayings are based on the power of words to either INSPIRE actions, or to define them. Without words, we are sometimes left with guessing the definitions of actions or getting a grip on our feelings. Such is the challenge faced when confronted with questions about our country and our citizenry…and it is especially challenging to define our sense of patriotism when living in a foreign land and hearing the views and opinions of those who are looking at us Americans from the outside.

Some people think if they or someone else are critical of their country, they are being “unpatriotic”. It seems the history of mass consciousness had been one of “following your leaders”…whether government, religious or otherwise…and trusting the essence of belonging to a certain citizenry or dogma without question. To question the correctness or morality of a President, the theology of a minister or integrigy of a corporate officer is somehow “bad taste” and is a form of personal attack on a whole institution or way of life to do so.

Patriotism is also used as a form of competition in elections it seems. Most politicians running for office pander to images and histories of patriotic sacrifice and even consistently comparing themselves to the images of “patriots of old”. Some people view John McCain as a great patriot because he served in the Navy for 22 years and spent years as a POW in Viet Nam. There are other “Americans” who feel it is un-patriotic and un-constitutional to support war and US intervention outside of our national borders. Some people view Barack Obama as a great patriot for rising to the top of political stature in such a short time from a minority upbringing and laud him for his community activism. Others view him as UN patriotic for not wearing a flag pin in his lapel or crossing his heart during the national anthem. Questioning or defending each candidate’s “patriotism” seems to be one of the core strategies in both political camps in this election year.

In recent years I have found myself living as an “Ex Patriot”, which in and of itself is an interesting label. It would appear to mean that if you don’t live within the USA, you are no longer a “patriot”. Now, I know it simply means “taking up residence in a foreign land” to most of us. But unfortunately to many, it is deemed that we are “renouncing” our native land, or are renouncing our allegiance to our homeland, that somehow we don't love our country of origin.

I think by living outside our homeland it gives a much more objective perspective to what it means to be “American”…a patriot…in our own self definition, and it is meaningful to be able to compare and share notes with those who are not Americans on that theme. At the same time, from afar a rational individual needs to admit that not all of America’s past or current government actions are all moral and just. We Americans sometimes have a “convenient” sense of morality and judgment. It’s hard for us to take responsibility for past atrocities committed against the American Indians, slaves and people “of color”, certain Japanese factions post Pearl Harbor, and the subjugation and basic elimination of whole cultures in a few small countries and some islands around the world which we dominated. And to study the involvement of some of our government agencies such as the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense and others in clandestine operations interfering in and overthrowing foreign political regimes is to find many cases of outright criminal behavior on our county's part. And to sometimes view the “ugly American” syndrome of insensitive “rich” Americans showing no respect for foreign cultures or customs is enough to make some of us “Expats” hang our head in shame to be named with that fellow citizen called “American”.

I am of the opinion that until a person lives for a time outside of their homeland and learns first hand other cultures and even language; it is hard to gauge what it really means to be an “American”. Our way of life, way of government, business methods and all are unique and different from most of the rest of the world. In many ways we are truly blessed with what we have and how we have it in the USA. Yet we take so much of it for granted.

Then again, it can be argued that much of our young 232 year old country is going the way of other previous cultures in history that are now extinct. All the empires of the world have come and gone. The Mayan and Inca civilizations, for their times, were very advanced and “civil”. The Roman, Ottoman, Persian and other ancient empires are all just that, ancient history. And just in the last 200 years you have seen the major decline of what once were the British, French and even Portuguese empires or conquests. Many knowledgeable, literate sources are now crying out warning of America’s danger of destroying itself from overexpansion of world influence, financial demolition, and cultural insignificance. We have successfully exported commercialism and blind consumption, but I’m not as convinced we have successfully sold the world on our culture and values. Our government continues to waste billions per year on fighting its own citizens consumptions of "illicet drugs"...perhaps our costliest losing war. Our families are falling apart, we are taxing to death the middle class and driving global businesses out of our country with taxation and constant litigation and regulation. Every four years or so we switch directions on foreign policies and domestic priorities, confusing the rest of the world and ourselves of what our true direction and intentions are in the world at large. We are losing our focus and identity, and spending ourselves into oblivion both on a personal and governmental level.

Some of us believe we Americans are in a crisis more dangerous and threatening than any we have faced before. We have enemies without and within our borders. The masses in our country are only interested in what their government can do for THEM, not how they can change or shape their government. We have lost any sense of sacrifice and insist that the world sacrifice its resources and cultures in deference to our views and ways of life. Our focus has become how we can control and change the world around us versus change and improve ourselves from within our borders. We would even rather use our enemy’s oil and minerals than use our own…at a huge additional price to our citizenry and lining our enemies pockets to buy more weapons to be used against us…and many companies in the USA manufacture and distribute those very weapons or at least supply the designs. Many of us feel that we are playing right into the hands of our detractors like Al Qaeda and others who have a long term plan to destroy us financially and morally until we implode. And a majority of Americans have started to see their government as a threat instead of a solace, with no sense of leadership, integrity or honesty.

Perhaps THIS “Independence Day” it is time for true patriots to take back their government and their independence from bureaucrats and autocrats who have taken control of every aspect of our individual lives. Perhaps it is time we demanded respect for our privacy as citizens and return to the concept of “no taxation without representation”. Perhaps it is time for patriots to demand that their representatives return to balanced budgets in government and a sustainable plan to pay off our national debt which has continued to spiral out of control no matter which political party is in the White House or in control of the Congress. Perhaps it is time for patriots to take on more personal responsibility and activism to support our veterans of war, the poor, widows and orphans instead of expecting our government to do so. I believe it is time for patriots to vote their conscience and not just for the "popular" candidate or simply accept a two party system of political choice. Maybe it’s time that true patriots demand a return to a constitutionally based government and court systems. If we lose our independence, our voice and our will to control our own destinies, those destinies will be determined for us by the “powers that be”, the holders of our debt…and/or our conquering enemies.

Wake up patriots!