Saturday, March 27, 2021

What price Unity?


A Shot in the Arm


Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Cola Wars


Like the ancient Huns, we Americans are a war-like people. We make war on everything, from the Global War on Terror to the War on Drugs. You name the problem, and we’ll start a war on it. Maybe it’s our love affair with guns or something in our water. Many Americans treasure gun ownership more than they do the right of children to be educated in an environment where they’re not in danger of being shot. We Americans do love us some war; we even tried waging war on poverty.

We even have war over soft drinks, or actually war between soft drinks. Whoa, you say! A war between soft drinks, you’re kidding right? No, dear readers, I’m as serious as a train wreck. For over a hundred years the two iconic American soft drink companies, Coca Cola™ and Pepsi-Cola™ have been engaged in a head-to-head competition worldwide for the taste buds of consumers.

Coca Cola got its start in 1886 when a Civil War veteran in Columbus, Georgia, who was taking morphine for injuries suffered in the war became addicted and sought a safer alternative pain killer turned to the coca leaf. From the 1860s to the 1880s cocaine was a commonly used cure-all. kola nut extract, a stimulant, was added to the cocaine, along with sugar and other flavorings, and Coca Cola was born. Seven years later, a North Carolina inventor came up with a similar drink using kola extract and flavorings which was initially named Brad’s Drink, but by this time Coca Cola was so popular, in 1898, he changed the name to Pepsi-Cola, and the competition began.

This fierce competition wasn’t called the Cola Wars until the 1970s when the two giants of the soft drink industry went after each other in a big way with promotions, ad jabs at each other and the like. But by the 1970s they’d already been at each other’s throats for nearly a century. As of now, they’ve been at it longer than the 1337 – 1453 Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Some of the things these guys do are pretty unbelievable. When I served as a diplomat in Vietnam and Cambodia for instance, the golf clubs where I played either had contracts with Coke or Pepsi as their beverage supplier and couldn’t offer both. They can’t pull stunts like that in the U.S., but with worldwide sales there are a lot of places where they can.

The thing that makes this so funny is that except for sweetness—Pepsi tends to be a bit sweeter—it’s hard, for me at least, to tell the difference. Fact is, I like both company’s non-cola drinks, Coke’s Fanta and Pepsi’s Sprite, but the colas remind me of a worm medicine we had to take as kids. The only way I can stand either is when mixed with rum or bourbon. Of course, they never advertise them as mixers.

Anyway, I digress. My point from the beginning is the warlike nature of my fellow Americans. We’ve had our burger war between Burger King™ and Macdonald’s™ and coffee wars between Starbucks™ and Macdonald’s™.

I don’t know if any side has ever really won any of these wars. The War on Poverty, for example, was a total failure. We still have too many people who make less than minimum wage, and don’t get me started on the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. We still have both.

Will we ever evolve into a peace-loving people, people who live up to the words we use to beat other countries over the head, but ignore here at home? I certainly hope so. But just between you, me, and the gate post, I don’t think it’s ever gonna happen.

I just wonder what we’ll make war on next. – 

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Dealing With Bullies


Bullies in the work place are one of the principal reasons many people are unhappy with their work and one of the main reasons people leave their jobs. Bullying, however, is nothing new. Heck, they’re probably as old as humankind. I can imagine when homo sapiens started living in groups larger than the immediate family, there was a bully in every cave.

When I was a student back in the 50s and 60s, in a small East Texas town with a population of just over 700, and attending a school with approximately 100 students, we had in our grade 1 to grade 12 school two bullies. One was a boy and the other was a girl. They were cousins, and were the terror of the school, forever tormenting smaller kids, starting fights, and generally making nuisances of themselves. The thing I remember most clearly about them is they were specialists. The boy picked on boys and the girl picked on girls. Even back then people tended to specialize.

Back in those days, despite being tall for my age, I was a shy, skinny kid, with a preference for sitting in a corner reading a book over joining in the rough and tumble activities preferred by my classmates. Since I didn’t mix with crowds of kids during school hours, I seldom encountered the school bullies who preferred to do their thing for an audience. There wasn’t any joy in bullying someone if there was no one to watch.

That’s not to say, though, that I never had to deal with them, and that’s the theme of this article. By happenstance, I learned the most effective way to deal with a bully.

One day, I was assigned, along with three other students, to sweep the concrete steps of our newly constructed red-brick school that had replaced the dilapidated old wood frame structure. As we were just about finished, the bully decided to have some fun and entertain the other students who were hanging about the schoolyard waiting for recess to end. He began tormenting the smallest kid in our work crew, bringing the poor boy to tears. I was standing on the top of the steps with a large broom in hand, and when my little friend started crying, something snapped inside me. I hefted the broom like a baseball bat and yelled at the bully to ‘leave him alone!” Of course, that then drew his attention to me.

Like I said earlier, I was tall for my age, but as thin as a rail, while the bully, who had an inch in height and probably twenty pounds on me, had muscles from hefting bales of hay on local farms. You might think I’d just walked into the bear’s den and set myself up for a thrashing, but you’d be wrong. The bully took a look at the four-foot pole I had on my shoulder, and the snarl on my lips, and backed down. He slunk away like a beaten dog, and for the rest of my time in school never bothered me or my friends again. In fact, he even tried a week later to make friends with me.

What was the lesson I learned from this encounter? I learned that most bullies are really cowards, and when confronted will do what cowards do best – turn and run.

It took me a while to actually come to that conclusion. At the time I was just happy that I didn’t get pounded on.  I did finally figure it out, though, and it came in handy many years later when I was a young army major in Korea working for an army colonel who was a classic bully, and a totally lacking in empathy sociopath as well.

Near the end of my first year working for him he threatened to give me a bad performance review because I’d been selected to be the command briefer over him, which angered him. Hint: that’s not a legitimate excuse for a bad review. Recalling my previous encounter with a bully, I told him to try it, and I’d eat him alive. Not sure what I meant by it – it sounded good, though – and, it worked. He gave me a wide-eyed look, walked away, and when my rating arrived, I got highest marks from him.

And that’s how you handle bullies. – NWI

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Neighborliness and shoveling snow


On Jan. 31, we had our first significant snowfall in the Washington, DC area. The scarcity of the white stuff is probably a result of climate change and global warming, but that’s a story for another day.

What this snowfall brought to mind for me is the concept of ‘help thy neighbor.’

When I was a kid growing up in East Texas any time someone needed help, for just about anything, neighbors from far and wide would show up. After leaving home and living in cities around the world for over 20 years, I found that I missed having ‘good neighbors.’

Then back in 1988 I built a house in a new community in Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. We didn’t live in it for any length of time until 2012, but over the years I got to know my neighbors, some of whom built their homes the same time we did, while others are relatively new comers.

After retiring from government service and going into fulltime writing –working from home – I’ve gotten to know those neighbors better. We now chat across fences, or when we’re raking leaves. I didn’t realize that I missed that kind of camaraderie.

It really hit home, though, when the snow came. As much as I hate snow, or any other kind of cold weather, I knew the driveway needed clearing lest it turn into a deadly ice rink, so I bundled up, grabbed a snow shovel, and started digging.

My neighbor, David, who moved in a couple of years ago, had just finished doing his driveway, and he and his son, Mikey, volunteered to help me. My neighbor Jim, from across the street, was doing his driveway and sidewalk, so David’s daughter, Rachel, went over to help him.

Since we were using David’s snow blower, we finished first, so we all went over and helped Jim finish, then back to David’s to put the finishing touches on his driveway.

It’s called being a good neighbor, and the conventional wisdom that it no longer exists is just plain wrong. In neighborhoods around the world, I imagine there are other people like us, people who’ve developed friendships over time, and who pitch in to help each other when help’s needed. It’s a comforting feeling.

The only dark spot on the day. An hour after we finished doing our driveways, it started snowing again. I decided to sleep in the following day and let Mother Nature take care of it from there.

That decision held for all of two hours after I finally hauled myself out of bed – late for me, I usually get up at 5 or 5:30, but on that morning, I stayed in bed until 6 a.m. After exercising, cleaning up, and doing my usual breakfast of cereal and coffee, I looked outside and saw that it hadn’t snowed as much as I feared it would.

Finally at 8:45, I shrugged, put on a heavy coat, donned my heavy, fur-lined gloves and went out to scrape the light dusting of snow away before it turned to ice. My neighbor, Jim, obviously had the same idea. We chatted as we scraped, a job that thankfully didn’t take long. Who would ever thought that snow would make good neighbors? – NWI

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A message to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green


This is in response to the sign she put outside her office:

There are two sexes

A Man and a Woman

Trust the Science

or something to that effect. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

How Much Do You Know About Valentine's Day


How much do you know about Valentine’s Day?

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On Feb. 14, people around the world celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers, candy, gifts, and professions of love. Few people, though, know the true history behind this holiday that has almost as much universal appeal as Christmas.

You might be amazed to learn that the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day, though thought by many to be in celebration of the death of Saint Valentine in A.D. 270, is actually believed by scholars to be a holiday set in the middle of February by the Christian church in an effort to ‘Christianize’ the pagan celebration of Lupercalla, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.

One of the rituals of Lupercalla involved young women placing their names on slips of paper in a large urn. Village bachelors would pick a name and be matched with their chosen woman for a year. Marriages often resulted from these matches. Cupid with his little bow and arrow is based on the Greed god of love, Eros.

Valentine greetings were common during the middle ages, with written ones popular after 1400. In the 1840s, American artist and business woman Esther Howland designed and began selling mass-produced Valentine’s Day cards, popularizing them in the United States.

No one is actually sure who the mysterious St. Valentine was. The Catholic Church recognizes three Saint Valentines, all from different periods, making it possible to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day in February, November, January, or July, depending on your preference. In fact, in some cultures, there is actually two different holidays.

One other juicy tidbit that not many people know is that Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been a holiday about love and affection. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was also a practice to send cards to people one didn’t like, with sentiments that were the opposite of liking. These were called Vinegar Valentines, and some of them were scathing. Something to think about if there’s someone in your life that you’d like to unload on but would prefer not to do it face-to-face. I can just picture it. You send a card to your landlord who has refused to fix the cracks in your apartment’s ceiling that says, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue. Fix my ceiling or no rent for you.’

I remember Valentine’s Day when I was a kid. In my little country school we would all make crude valentines and send them to the person in school that we had a secret crush on. A naturally shy kid, I never signed mine, so my secret crushes remained secret from everyone but me. In the digital age, paper cards are becoming passe. Far too easy to go to one of the Internet e-Card sites, pick one out, and email it to everyone you like. Most of them even let you know when a recipient opens your card; something you don’t have when you put one in the mailbox.

I hope I haven’t spoiled what might most of you readers favorite holiday. Then again, maybe knowing the true origins of this day of days will make it even more special to you. After all, if you celebrate it you’ll be carrying on a tradition that dates back almost to the beginnings of what we know as recorded history – keeping the ancient traditions alive. Now, isn’t that something to warm your heart? – NWI

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The most illogical language in the world


The most illogical language in the world

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Pronounce the following word: Ghoti. Back in the 1970s, when I taught English in Korea, I used to start each term by writing this word on a chart and challenging my students to pronounce it. It might surprise you to know that no one, absolutely no one, ever got it right. It’s not, as you might be thinking, ‘Gotty,’ or ‘Goaty.’ The pronunciation I was looking for here was ‘Fish.’

Okay, pick your chins up off the floor, and let me explain. I used this old exercise that I learned many years ago to illustrate to my students just how irregular the English language can be, and to stress upon them the need to be flexible as they approached learning it. Why, you might ask – or how does ghoti spell fish? Permettez-moi to explain.

‘Gh’ is pronounced like the ‘gh’ in enough, or ‘f.’ ‘O’ is pronounced like the ‘o’ in the word women, and ‘ti’ is the ‘ti’ in the word nation, ergo ‘fish.’ Get it? Unlike many languages, the spelling of words in English does not follow a fixed pattern. Each word’s spelling and pronunciation must be learned individually.

I’ve studied several languages other than English, and for a long time I believed – because I’d been told – that languages like Chinese, Japanese and Russian were the world’s most difficult. I should have been suspicious since none of the people telling me this were Chinese, Japanese or Russian.

When I went to Korea in 1973, after my last army tour in Vietnam, I began teaching English at night at one of Korea’s cosmetics companies. Preparing my lesson plans, I had a startling revelation; of all the languages I’d been exposed to, English was the most nonstandard and illogical. Spelling rules have more exceptions than cowards got draft deferments, and pronunciation is so hit or miss you have a 50 percent chance of saying a word wrong.

There is no rhyme or reason for this, other perhaps than the fact that English has so many words borrowed from other languages. English is like a hoarder’s closet; it has some of everything.

We have some of just about everything. From French we get café, and restaurant, from Italian we get macaroni and cappuccino, and we get okra and gumbo from some African dialect. And, that’s just in the food and drink category.

And, you don’t want to get me started on spelling and pronunciation. Take this sentence, for example:  I went through enough books, though, I sat against the bough of the tree to read one that I bought at the store.  In every one of these words the ‘ough’ letter combination is pronounced differently.

Why do so many English words have a silent ‘e’ at the end—‘have’ being one exception? Why are some words spelled with ‘sion’ and others with ‘tion’ but both are pronounced the same way? Here are some other ‘things that drive you crazy about English. So, a will sew a silk purse from the sow’s ear. So and sew are pronounced the same, but so for sow unless you plan to sow some seeds, in which case it joins so and sew.

Are you totally confused now? Don’t be. Millions of kids learn this darn language and get by just fine. True, in the United States we have a problem with some people who can’t read well, and, as I can attest from running a writing workshop every summer, even more who can’t write their way out of a paper bag, but people manage.

So, I’m not trashing English, but I do want to set the record straight. You’ll get a lot of English speakers who get very defensive when you say that English lacks logic. Hey, it is what it is, so get over it. We have the zaniest language I know of, except maybe languages like Khosa with those tongue clicks which I have never been able to master.

But that’s another subject I’d rather not bother with at the moment. – NWI

Friday, January 22, 2021

Has Competency Returned to Government (or am I still dreaming?)


At noon on Jan. 20, the United States will see the swearing in of its 46th president since the founding of the republic. The president-elect has already signaled the direction he wishes to move the country by naming people for senior positions who are clearly qualified for the jobs as opposed to naming those who have personal loyalty to him.

​Does this mean I can finally wake up from the nightmare that’s been the past four years? Well, only time will tell. On the one hand, some of the signs look promising. For a change, people familiar with how government’s supposed to work, and who have long experience in their fields, are being named to senior positions. That’s a good sign. But every coin has two sides.

​Political pushback started before inauguration and official nomination of even a single individual. The opposition from the party that lost the White House is not surprising. That seems to be the rule not the exception over the past decade as politics in America have become as divisive as they were during the period in the 1800s leading up to the Civil War—and, I’m not predicting a Civil War, so calm down.

I’m just stating an inescapable fact. What’s even more worrying, though, is the divisions and pushback from within the winning party, as some argue for even more concessions for their points of view. Putting narrow agendas before the overall good of the country is not a good thing.

​Most of the things they ask for are worthwhile, but in their zeal to push their narrow interests, some seem to forget that Rome wasn’t built in a day. There’s a Spanish expression, poco a poco, avanzamos, meaning, ‘little by little, we move ahead.’

When I was in the army, many eons ago, I was taught that the key to making progress was to do the most important things first and work your way down the list of priorities. Right now, the most important priorities are to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuild the economy better, address issues of racial justice, address climate change, restore the faith of the people in governmental institutions, and restore the country’s place in the world.

Until we make progress on these issues, it will be hard to even think about other things. Even the important aforementioned priorities will require time to achieve. Racial justice and climate change, for example, will require changes in the way people think, currently very much based upon their political beliefs. Changing peoples’ minds does not happen overnight.

​In my view, the way to make progress is to make sure those we put in positions of power and decision making are competent. We should strive for diversity, and that seems to be happening, but competence should be the driving factor.

​I’m a perpetual optimist, always looking for the bright side of a tarnished coin. If enough people, especially those people sitting in positions to really make things happen, agree with me, the nightmare can finally come to an end.

One can only hope that on January 21st, they will wake up determined to do what’s right for a change, and put partisan bickering aside for the good, not just of the citizens of our country, but for all the people in the world who have long looked to the United States as the beacon of hope for all who ‘yearn to be free.’

​I’m not giving up hope, but I am keeping my fingers crossed. – NWI

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Philippine Newspaper runs my column

 When I was asked to write an occasional column for a newspaper in Bacalod, Philippines, I'd never heard of Negros Now, a paper in Negros Occidente. I agreed because Gigi Estrella (Gigi Star) a radio personality and friend of mine, twisted my arm. Little did I know it would be the print version as well as online, or that they would make a big deal of it.  Just got some images of print editions recently, including my latest, which I just posted.

Guess in addition to a western author I'm now officially a newspaper columnist.

Don't let others hold you back

Don’t let others hold you back

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I was just 16 when I graduated from high school. I had taught myself to draw and paint and had dreams of being a commercial artist. Unfortunately, in the Texas of 1962, such jobs for people of color were in short supply—meaning, they didn’t exist.

I was also determined to be a writer. I’d always loved reading and had wone a national short story writing contest when I was 13.

Of course, you know the story. It was Texas, and, according to the lady at the employment bureau in Houston, there were no jobs like that for ‘you people.’

Now, I’ll bet you’re thinking this disappointed and discouraged me. Well, you’d be wrong. It angered me and made me even more determined. I realized, though, that Texas was not the place where I could make my dreams come true. I remembered something my grandmother used to tell me. If things aren’t working out for you in one place, move. So, that’s what I did.

I set out to get as far away from Texas as I could. I waited until four days after my 17th birthday and joined the army. Six months later I was far away from Texas, Augsburg, Germany to be precise, up to my shoulders in the deepest snow I’d ever seen in my life, and on the first steps of a 20-year career in the U.S. Army.

How, you might ask, did this help me to realize my dream? I’ll tell you. I did my soldierly duty by day  but wrote, drew, and painted at night. By the time my first tour in Germany ended in 1964, I’d been published several poems and articles in Stars and Stripe, the newspaper for American GIs serving overseas. After seeing my byline in such a widely-circulated paper the die was cast. I knew I could do it.

Over the years that followed, with assignments in the United States,  getting a commission as a second lieutenant, and subsequent assignments in Germany again, in Panama, Vietnam, Korea and several places in the United States, I got articles, photographs, cartoons and other pictures published in magazines and newspapers from Germany to Korea, and even began making money from it. A couple of months I even made more royalties than my army pay.

By the time I retired from the army in 1982, and became a diplomat, I could honestly say that I was an artist, a photographer  and a writer, and I had the clippings to prove it. I published my first book in 2008, and since then have published a total of over 200 works of fiction and nonfiction, including several that are, at the moment, in Amazon’s Top 100 sellers in their genre.

Why am I telling you all this? Simple. This is a bit of life advice. I rarely use such absolute terms as ‘always’ and ‘never,’ but this is an exception. Listen and pay close attention. Never, and I do mean NEVER, let other people hold you back from striving for your dreams.

There are all too many people who will tell you what you can’t do, and precious few who will encourage you, other than maybe your mother, and even mothers will sometimes be a part of that naysaying chorus.

There is, however, only ONE person who can really decide how far you can go. YOU! Never forget that. ALWAYS hold onto your dreams, because every great discovery, every victory started as a dream.

We put men on the moon because someone had a dream that it could be done. We cured polio because people like Jonas Salk had the audacity to dream that it could be done.

Achieving your dreams require patience and tenacity. The patience to work at it day after day, and the tenacity to stick with it after you’ve failed a few dozen times. Achieving your dreams requires imagination and creativity. When one thing doesn’t work,  try another, or try something in a different way.

Achieving your dreams requires courage, the courage to go where others dare not go and to do the things that others dare not do. I’ll give you an example. I write westerns. The sort-of, old fashioned cowboys and outlaws with lots of horses and shoot outs.

The number of writers of color writing in the western genre can probably be counted on one hand, and when I decided to write my first one, my family looked at me like I’d just grown a second head. I was intrigued by the prospect, though, and as a student of history, I knew some things about those spaghetti westerns that many don’t know—I knew that they were historically inaccurate.

I decided to write westerns that were an accurate representation of the history and were good stories at the same time. Except for my friend and publicist, Nick Wales, a Brit who has the same rebellious attitude I have, everyone said that I was wasting my time.

I ignored them, and now, after eight years, I’m not only recognized as a true writer of entertaining westerns, I have the honor of having had six books at the same time in the Amazon Top 20 sellers in the western genre. That doesn’t happen too often, and if I’d listened to the naysayers it wouldn’t have happened.

So, go out there and find your dream. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Everyday Importance of International Relations: Walk a Mile in Your Own Shoes


by Charles Ray

When I served as the U.S. Department of States Diplomat in Residence at the University of Houston (TX) during the 2005-2006 academic year, in addition to recruiting and mentoring college students interested in taking the Foreign Service Exam, I did a lot of speaking on diplomacy and foreign relations in southeast and south Texas. One of the audiences I particularly liked talking to was high school students, the most interesting and challenging I’ve faced in my 30-year diplomatic career.

The principal of a Catholic school in Missouri City, a town just outside Houston, asked me to do a talk to her ninth graders on international relations. She asked that I try to relate it to them rather than giving the standard State Department lecture, which frankly is targeted to an older audience.

Up to this point in my career, my contacts with American teenagers had been almost exclusively with my own kids and the children of my Foreign Service colleagues. I went home that night to the house I’d rented near Houston’s Astrodome, wondering how I would be able to find a way to communicate to this audience ‘in its language.’

As I sat at my computer staring at a blank screen, an image came into my mind of the twelfth graders I’d spoken to at another school. For some reason, my mind focused on the fact that an overwhelming majority of them were wearing expensive running shoes; Nikes, Adidas, and the like. Why that came to mind, I don’t know, but it reminded me of my tours in Cambodia and Vietnam, two countries where a lot of the shoes and other athletic gear for companies like Nike, Adidas, and the Gap are manufactured. Then, it hit me. I knew how to make international affairs relatable to an American teenager, and in doing so, make it more understandable for adults as well

While many Americans think that foreign political, economic, and social events have little bearing on their lives, a look at our everyday economy tells a different story.

Our Economic Dependence

Who, when reading or hearing about instability in the Middle East or the price of a barrel of oil, thinks of his or her shoes? Those expensive Nike, Adidas or Reebok athletic shoes, believe it or not, are made of a large number of petroleum-based polyurethane products, and glued together with an adhesive that is also a petroleum-based product.

The factory machines that are used to make them are run by electricity that is often provided by diesel-powered generators. The trucks and ships that transport them depend upon petroleum products.

But it doesn’t stop with your feet.

Do you have any idea how many products you use daily, and often take for granted, are made from petroleum products? Hair cream, styling gel, chap sticks, moisturizing lotions, varnish, glue, furniture, car seats, surf boards, and yes, condoms, just to name a few.

If oil gets too expensive, or the supply is disrupted, it is not just driving your car that’s affected. When we talk about dependency on foreign oil, we tend to look just at developing more fuel-efficient cars. What about all the plastic products we use and discard every day?

What about some of the other ‘foreign’ issues that impact our daily lives?

Viruses Can Spread Around the Globe Quickly

We all know that AIDS is a terrible disease. It has been brought under control in the U.S., but is still decimating populations in the developing world. And the current COVID-19 pandemic is orders of magnitude worse. Both show the interrelatedness of the world we live in. Originating in Wuhan, China, within months COVID had appeared worldwide, affecting every continent except Antarctica and disrupting the world economy. A hitherto unknown disease that mutated to enable animal-to-human and then human-to-human transmission, originating in a distant foreign city, is suddenly on our TV screens, complete with daily casualty counts, much like the Vietnam War was in another era. Air travel makes the spread of a deadly virus from the most remote area to world capitals a matter of hours.

But, let’s go back to those athletic shoes. They are most likely assembled in a factory in a country like Vietnam. Most of the workers are young rural women who are between 18 and 25. COVID-19, which caused industries in many countries to shut their doors, has a direct impact on your ability to buy those shoes. The factories can’t make them, and because of border closings and suspension of air traffic between countries, those that have already been manufactured, can’t be shipped. The result: the outbreak of a disease in a country an ocean away impacts your ability to purchase the goods you desire, even if that disease never makes it to our shores.

COVID-19 and other infectious diseases are not just humanitarian and health issues. They have real economic consequences for all of us.

We Are Not Immune from Political Events Abroad

Political upheaval can also create problems for the average American, even when it’s in a remote country that many Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map.

On January 28, 2003, after weeks of back and forth insults between Thailand and Cambodia over the alleged statements made by a Thai soap opera star that were considered insulting to Cambodians, young Cambodians took to the streets of Phnom Penh, burning the Thai embassy and most Thai-owned businesses in the city.

The already frosty relations between these two historical rivals took a sharp dip, and military forces were alerted on both sides. Borders were closed for nearly a week. Cambodia’s billion-dollar-a-year garment industry ships mainly to the U.S., to customers like the GAP and other top sportswear companies. Needless to say, garment buyers sweated that week, fearing that relations would not improve and they would be left unable to fill post-Christmas orders. Now, most Americans probably never heard about the anti-Thai riots in Cambodia, but I’ll bet you that every executive of GAP in San Francisco knew every detail, and followed events assiduously.

Let’s go back a bit farther in time, and talk about another obscure country that, unknown to the average American, had a potentially negative impact on America’s economy. Sierra Leone, in West Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite a connection with the U.S. that dates back to the 1600s, most Americans know nothing about it. From Sierra Leon’s Bunce Island slave fort, slaves were shipped to work the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. Many Sea Island, Georgia residents today can trace their ancestry directly to tribes in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, one of the first naval battles of the American Revolution was fought there when a French warship shelled British positions.

Not knowing this history can be forgiven, but do you know what titanium is? It’s a strong, light metal that is used in manufacturing high performance aircraft. Titanium dioxide is also the component of white paints and dyes; the white dye used in your shoes contains titanium, as do some wax papers. In Sierra Leone, an American company mined the element rutile, which is titanium dioxide in its natural form. Up until 1994, Sierra Leone produced 25 percent of the world’s supply. It was also, unfortunately, ruled at the time by an inept military junta and in the midst of a brutal war financed by the ruler of its neighbor, Liberia, none of which the average American knew much about. Expansion of the rebel war caused the company to suspend operations, drastically impacting the supply and price of titanium worldwide. Now, we can all do without white shoes, but what about the jet engine of the plane that flies the shoes from the factory, or the wax paper you use in your kitchen?

Feeling the Impact of Events Half a World Away

What we drive, wear, eat, and play with, our safety and security, the amount of money we have in our paycheck, all are impacted at times by events half a world or more away.

The next time you go shopping, check the ‘made-in’ labels on products in your favorite stores. Whether its Target or Dillards, there’s a more than fifty percent chance that a majority of the labels will say ‘Made in China’, or some other country. The vast majority will be made somewhere other than the United States. I wear a flag pin on my lapel that has a slogan, ‘Aberdeen – All American City,’ which was given to by the mayor during an official visit years ago. The plastic wrapping that it was in (another petroleum product) had a little white label with the words ‘Made in China.’

Most people have a credit card and a computer. The next time you have a problem with either, you’re likely to call the ‘Help Line,’ and chances are you’ll find yourself talking to someone in southern India rather than southern Indiana.

Your ‘American’ car was probably assembled in a plant in Mexico, and of course, the gas to propel that car is most likely to have been imported from abroad.

Clearly, foreign events — social, economic, and political –are not just remote happenings that we can afford to ignore. Ignorance of these events will not protect us from their negative effects.

Some would say the solution is to produce everything we need right here in the U.S. It sounds seductive as a political slogan, but is it practical, or even possible? Like it or not, we live in a globalized world, and there is no vaccine against globalization. Rather than ignore it, or blindly oppose it, we need to learn to live with it. And, to learn to live with it, we need to educate ourselves. We all need to learn that international relations matter in our daily lives.

Whether you’re a teenager wondering when the new line of sneakers will be on the shelves, a day laborer wondering how you’ll make next month’s rent, or a day trader tracking the ups and downs of the stock market, it helps to be aware of the impact faraway events can have on your daily existence. A virus won’t be stopped by border walls, and the negative economic impacts of events half a world away don’t need visas to enter our country and turn our lives upside down. While many of these events can’t be prevented, recognizing their potential to affect us, being aware of the interrelatedness of the global society, enables us to mitigate some of their impact.

We need to walk a mile in our own shoes to get a better understanding of our place in the world.End.


Charles Ray served 30 years in the Foreign Service 1982-2012), after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army. He was the first American consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and subsequently ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. In addition, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006 to 2009.