Sunday, March 22, 2009

Madoff and Three Airplanes

"This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds who is a threat to this country."
Theodore Roosevelt, Memphis, TN, October 25, 1905

A friend recently told me about this quote and said that for years we allowed the crooked man to succeed. We all worshipped at the altar we built to money. We lied, cheated and stole from each other so we could have larger televisions, bigger cars and monstrous houses in an effort to prove our worth to ourselves and to others. My friend reminded me that the great Roman Empire let its greed become a cancer and it rotted from within. He asked if the United States was any different. The lofty ideals that founded this country had been replaced by materialism and all levels of our society were infected with the illness.

Although I hated to hear what my friend said, I couldn’t entirely disagree with him. We created a huge bureaucracy to protect us from terrorist attack but isn’t the harm Madoff and those like him did to our country every bit as bad as what was done to us by three airplanes? In focusing on one type of terrorism, we ignored another.

So how does all this connect to communication, the focus of this blog?

It has to do with what we tell ourselves and the rest of the world. The goals for which we strive say everything about who we are. If we grasp for money and its trappings, that says something about us as human beings. On the other hand, if we strive for non-tangible wealth in health, education and peace, we convey a different message.

Now, as we push forward through these troubled times, we have the opportunity to set aside petty politics and money-grubbing. We can focus on the things that are truly important to our future – honesty and charity. If we do not, we tell the world and our children that we have learned nothing, that money is still the idol we worship and that we deserve our destruction.

I pray the story we tell is one of which we can all be proud.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Necklace of Trouble

The real estate meltdown gets all the blame for the world’s financial problems but it is just one bead on a string of troubles having to do with greed. There are plenty of others on the necklace: investment ponzi schemes, toxic loans disguised and sold to unsuspecting investors, millions siphoned from failing companies, credit cards maxed out, no-bid contracts. The list is endless.

What made us so discontent that we were willing to do anything to have more and better stuff? I submit that communication got us here. Twenty-four hours a day we watch people have more, get more, do more. Repeatedly we see granite countertops or eight cylinder cars where laminate and four cylinders will do quite nicely.

There are several programs that illustrate my point but let’s look at just one – a prime time series about surviving in a jungle settling. The show is not about overcoming difficulties in the wilderness. It’s about one person lying and cheating more successfully than anyone else. There are no negative consequences for this behavior. The best liar is handsomely rewarded for it and millions of people see it happen.

Thanks to Madison Avenue and a corporately-owned media that is itself concerned primarily with wealth our desire for riches is incessantly nourished. Instead of rooting out the vice in our midst, the media built an altar to it and erected celebrity idols on it.

Do I blame the media for the financial problems that currently beset us? Mostly I blame “we the people.”

We willingly worship at that altar. When our children cheat, we blame the teacher. When industry leaders steal from us, we continue to do business with their companies. When our politicians lie to us, we re-elect them. We ignore what we know is right and instead do what we think will make us rich.

The strongest form of communication is action. What we do or don’t do says everything about who we are. For years we told ourselves that what a person could buy and what someone owned was the key to determining that person’s significance. The tragic results of that focus are all around us.

As we struggle with the consequences of our self-indulgence, what will we communicate to each other and our children going forward? Will our actions tell a different story? I certainly hope so.