Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Hiking into the Wilderness

Recently, I hiked with a friend. After losing over 100 pounds, she enjoys walking an hour a day and can get along with anyone, which explains her willingness to spend time with me. I'd call her a "Southern belle," except she's Midwestern and from Minnesota. 

Speaking to any native-born American in 2021 involves some degree of post-traumatic political disorder. They are beginning to realize the same tools that elevate deserving and undeserving elites also shield just about anyone capable of generating marketing dollars. Consequently, once million dollar advertising campaigns commence, a domestic violence incident becomes insignificant to local police departments--and, increasingly, private security and PR firms--receiving assignments from those same marketing firms. Though a symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and government--which issues permits and provides consultants--encourages positive portrayals of government employees, once upon a time, Americans recognized the difference between protecting talent to promote leadership versus advancing people to mislead the public. (Neither General Eisenhower nor General Marshall saw combat but were justifiably recognized as military experts, and their values shaped the entire world after WWII.) 

Obviously, government's corruptibility when receiving non-transparent, private funds is nonnovel. Mobster Al Capone wasn't convicted of federal tax evasion rather than murder because local governments were more honest in the 1930s. Moreover, even if local governments manage honesty, they are often outgunned technologically. (Someday, Americans will realize expertise allowing an intelligence agency to "spoof" surveillance video of a competing country's nuclear reactor may also be used to replace domestic surveillance footage, complicating police work.) Though marketing departments have never been bastions of integrity, a sharp eye isn't required to see USA's content machine degrading as it produces flimsier copies of the same celebrities, with Kanye West replacing Puff Daddy, Kim Kardashian replacing Dolly Parton, and several more attempted clones I'm glad not to know. (We don't immediately recognize clones because their color or ethnicity has changed, their diversity used to sweeten superficiality.) Meanwhile, America's upper echelons continue the trend of marketing dollars overwhelming substance, thus mutating politics into a jobs program for content curators and other persons intent on occupying space otherwise open to competitors hostile to the status quo. 

Against this backdrop, my friend and I walked and talked for two hours at a local park, having enough of a pleasant time to schedule another hike in two days. On the day of the hike, however, my friend texted me, saying she needed to change plans. She was going to the beach by herself to "listen to some music and not talk about governments or politicians or politics." "I need to recenter my vibe," she said, and in that moment I fully realized the precariousness of the American experiment. That my friend and I were able to converse at all was a small miracle. Our time occurred only because the American marketing machine convinced my father and mother, whose second language was English, to leave Scotland for Texas. From these two ESL learners came a son who earned an English degree and whose linguistic ability you are now seeing because of the risks they took. Had my parents been inundated with media reports of school shootings, police brutality, and other American events, it is possible they would not have taken a transatlantic journey. Risk-reward ratio is a concept everyone understands, regardless of mother tongue. The marketer's or propagandist's job is to render the equation in their client's favor and leave the rest to fate.

Such a paradigm may not be inherently immoral, except fate is not the correct term. What we deem fate--including an empire's decline--is the direct result of whether institutions uphold their principles in ways balancing the status quo with changing demographics. If native-born citizens (aka the majority) no longer have the patience or willingness to adjust their institutions as circumstances change, the result is failure fated by reason of indifference

Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals? -- Elie Weisel (1999)  

Thus far, I have approached the situation from the perspective of a political minority, but indifference is contagious and does not spare the majority. It is only that the majority takes notice of failing institutions much later than the minority unable to use government connections or political savvy. For example, last week, I needed a response from the county to complete some work. An automated reply indicated a three-week wait, an unacceptably long time for a process requiring 10 minutes per individual application. No database exists showing the number of outstanding applications--they are handled as soon they reach the appropriate department--and the public has no choice but to trust government workers are not dallying. 

In a one-party state like California, my immediate reaction was to assume a lack of accountability based on non-transparency, but I realized a more connected, more trusting, more faithful person might take a different approach. He might, while accessing the application, notice translations incorporating our city's sizable Vietnamese and Mexican speaking population and conclude resources were being diverted that would otherwise speed up the process. A tale of two cities emerges: whereas I blame the majority for using government to boost their influence under unaccountable terms, the majority can counter by blaming the costs of greater inclusivity. Just like that, two residents reach vastly different yet reasonable conclusions using the same data, but with one distinction: as a political minority disdaining the state's political Establishment, I cannot vote in ways that impose my interpretation on the majority, and without millions of dollars allowing me to advertise my opinion, I cannot convince dispersed voters to change their minds, nor can I nudge government lawyers to investigate themselves. In contrast, my fellow resident can more easily access established channels of communication used by the majority to carry out his proposed solution(s). Put simply, he is not bound by the weight of historical vested interests and their present-day progeny. 

I do not mean to suggest a native-born American can flip a switch and inspire a mob. The journey from an open society to isolationism, from curiosity to scapegoat, requires sustained effort from government and the private sector, particularly when eluding self-blame. Somehow, whatever the time period, as services degrade, a minority is always there to deflect attention from external exploitation by powerful interests eager to associate with a vulnerable group or 
the majority's own mismanagement. Given humanity's wont to project faults onto dissimilar groups or to create institutions whitewashing weaknesses (e.g., regularly including bars and pubs in Christian media makes alcoholism more acceptable), true diversity always denotes cultural powderkegs.

A small part of an aisle selling alcohol in an American grocery store

What happens to a dream deferred? ... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode? -- Langston Hughes, "Harlem" 

Another example: to some native-born citizens, a police officer is helpful and to be trusted, but to many others, the same person represents danger. Yet, neither the minority nor the majority know which uniformed officer will come calling when needed, and since many honest officers exist, any gap in perception results from one side having faith in their institutions' willingness to impose accountability while the other is skeptical of equal treatment. From where does the majority's faith arise? Is it segregation, a feature of post-WWII planning that divided groups by religion and race in order to better manage them through targeted investments and tax spending? (Not all international law experts realize segregation and partition, often with United Nations support, go hand-in-hand: Israel was partitioned into three states based on religion: West Bank (Christian), Gaza Strip (Muslim), Israel (Jewish); Czechoslovakia became Czechia (non-Catholic) and Slovakia (Catholic); Pakistan (Muslim) split from India (Hindu); South Sudan (Catholic) seceded from Sudan (Muslim); etc.) If Western city planning includes segregation, which may have resulted from Western dependence on slave labor and an unwillingness to see black/Negro slaves as fully human, then gerrymandering and other legal maneuvers ("separate but equal") are features, not bugs, of American culture. As such, while American progressives are taught their country is continually striving for "a more perfect union," in reality, a perfect division has succeeded. Yet, so long as any group is skeptical of equal government treatment, even well-meaning government employees become viewed as non-individuals--a matter not helped by government unions--which in turn leads to contempt of public institutions by violating the principle of the sanctity of the individual.

"My mom and dad may have been segregationists, but we were taught fairness and decency, and what we were seeing [in the South with Bull Connor and KKK bombings] was not fair and not decent... It was a turning point [in our critical consciousness]." -- progressive Judge William Alsup, who grew up in Mississippi and attended MS State in the 1960s (February 25, 2021)

If a diverse society requires effective checks and balances to maintain trust between residents and government, can a segregated society function without legal safeguards by using tribal affinity as a cost-effective replacement? Our political betters certainly seemed to think so. 

Where does this leave my kind-hearted friend and I, her cynical compatriot? Nowhere new. Conflict portends opportunity, giving citizens, politicians, and business leaders a chance to mediate, gather information, and achieve a balance between vested and new interests. Absent open conflict, information gathering requires cloak-and-dagger operations ill-suited for local governments. Conflict, however, is a two-edged sword: at the same time it improves the signal (and hopefully the fidelity) of noise, it stress-tests political structures, often finding them wanting, especially as voter-targeting technology encourages soft deceit. (I've seen photos of my Catholic-educated mayor kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and also standing next to a Catholic-educated police chief encouraging cooperation with federal deportation authorities. To see the hypocrisy, watch Immigration Nation (2020).) Sadly, it has never been easier for public leaders to dissemble and in doing so, bamboozle communities. When confronted with conflict, some attempt solutions, and some get better at public relations. The United States, like my friend, probably prefers a bit of both, but also finds it easier to avoid the matter altogether if possible. Unfortunately, avoidance or better PR masks indifference while allowing authorities to temporarily solve issues using unoriginal ideas like debt and deportation. Somewhere along that path, diversity's long-term benefits are put in danger of being subsumed by short-term negatives, with the mob always waiting for its cue.     

I wish my friend would reflect on the following: "Why do we not remember most native-born Germans fondly from 1932-1938? And why, given Germany's past and present ethnic and religious diversity, do we not lionize anyone but anti-Germans from that time?" One clue involves German emigration; after all, if Germany's Albert Einstein left in 1932, other talented individuals must have also departed, shifting attention from monolingual Germans. Be that as it may, given Germany's economic success after 1936, which includes movie-making, why are we, the recipient of so many German immigrants, mostly indifferent to Germany's individuals based on the accident of time? Though Americans may be in denial, we know the answer: indifference spreads quickly and spares no one in its wake. In murdering millions of minorities, Germany obliterated its citizens' place in humanity's remembrance, even though most Germans were not directly culpable. A people indifferent to brewing conflict or skilled at avoiding genuine inclusion tend to be as forgotten as the minorities they neglect or deport, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

A leading voice in the chorus of social transition belongs to the white liberal... Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality... The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., from Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) 

I forgot to mention my friend enjoys trance music, a form of electronica. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I won't belabor it. It's too easy. Almost as easy as going to the beach.   

© Matthew Rafat (March 2021)

Bonus I: My friend and I discussed cruise ship workers, who are often non-citizens because of low wages. Cruise ships are not subject to labor laws because their operations mostly take place in non-territorial or extrajudicial waters. I said 
given currency arbitrage, the hourly wage was not as important as working conditions and the likelihood of citizenship. Additionally, an empire's ability to underpay, in relative terms, foreign workers improves its willingness to accept immigrants. My proposed solution? Mandate one-year contracts with quitting for good cause or early termination immediately vesting all contractually unpaid wages; and require companies to put foreign workers on a path to citizenship after two years' tenure. Of course, companies may "game" such rules by terminating employees after two years, even good ones, and aggressively litigating the meaning of "good cause," but the law was never meant to replace integrity, and at some point, journalism must play a role in modifying unfair corporate behavior. (Note: upon hiring, one years' worth of wages could be put into an escrow account handled by an independent entity.)

Bonus II: Some people may see a conflict between my appreciation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mennonites, and Amish and the ideas herein. There is no conflict. The aforementioned groups are apolitical as a matter of morality, not apathy, and have ample evidence supporting their intent. 


Friday, February 26, 2021

Most Political Debates, Summarized in Two Conversations

The majority of America's political debates can be summarized in just two short conversations:

SCENE ONE

A: "Look at this wide-ranging, comprehensive legislation that will change everything." 

B: "Have you actually read it? This legislation spans several volumes, much of it indecipherable. If it really replaces the existing paradigm, then you're looking at a bonanza for politically-connected players as they swoop in to provide what this legislation requires." 

A: "Under existing legislation, your side benefited because you passed it and your friends and lobbyists doled out contracts based on your understanding of the legislation. Why it is a problem if we do the same thing?"

B: "Well, if it works, we're going to catch hell because it'll look like we didn't know what we were doing before, so I'm going to try to stop it. Then we'll copy the parts we think we can incorporate into our existing framework, take the credit, and let the judges resolve any poorly-worded sections." 

A: "Sounds like you've got a lot of faith in lawyers and litigation, but go ahead and try to stop us. We'll blame you for harming the poor, handicapped, [insert vulnerable group], and the country by not passing this." 

B: "How are you going to fund the legislation? More taxes? Good luck with that." 

A: "We will do exactly what you do--borrow money. We're the federal government. We can borrow as much as we want." 

B: "What's next? Are you going to promise voters a unicorn in every backyard?"

A: "If it wins us the election, why not?" 

END SCENE 

SCENE TWO 

A: "We've been getting complaints about [INSERT GOVERNMENT AGENCY]. They are too slow." 

B: "Well, we can centralize the work, but eventually we'll become a sprawling, intractable 
bureaucracy and lose all efficiency we gained pre-consolidation." 

A: "But right now, by spreading the work across different local and state agencies, we're creating unnecessary complexity." 

B: "Sure, but we're also reducing opportunities for centralized corruption and giving residents an easier time contacting local officials, who are more closely situated to the issues." 

A: "That may be true, but decentralization also potentially creates entrenched political fiefdoms because multiple agencies can slow down the work deliberately or claim they are not getting enough credit or recognition. Can't one entrenched city council hold up the entire process if it rejects accountability or if it tacks on additional requirements purely to justify its existence or expansion?" 

B: "Sort of. The more decentralized a government process, the more lawyers are required to navigate the system. In other words, more government complexity reduces personal agency, but also potentially improves the system as it adapts over time while keeping lawyers, judges, and legal associations in the loop." 

A: "So decentralization oftentimes means more lawyers, which either improves efficiency or reduces it based on finding the right lawyer; on the other hand, centralization might makes everything easier by creating a 'one-stop shop' but in doing so, eventually reduces efficiency." 

B: "In theory, the smaller the country and the smaller the population, the better centralization works, whereas the larger the country and the more diverse the population, the better decentralization works. This, however, is only a theory. Many other factors are in play, such as inflation, social cohesion, etc." 

END SCENE

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (February 2021)

Bonus: In the spirit of political cartoonist Tom Toles, I'll add the following sidebar to the first scene: "It's almost as if an independent third party could somehow help." 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Jocko Willink and the Fog of War

I've copied a Twitter thread below. With so many technological standards, a simple copy-and-paste across different platforms is no longer possible, but I've tried my best to clean up the content as much as possible. 

________________

One day, when Americans are paying war crime reparations to Iraq, I want you to remember this 2018 @tferriss interview with John Gretton Willink aka @jockowillink, former @USNavy officer. 

[Photo at the link above is of Tim Ferriss, who did the interview. The photo below appears to be from Iraq and USA's 173rd Airborne Brigade, NOT #JockoWillink.]
ImageThe issue of mentioning prisons in the interview will soon become obvious... ImageWillink continues defending the military industrial complex. Does he realize General Eisenhower popularized the term as a warning? ImageYou don't have true freedom if your country and its citizens require debt to survive. From @nntaleb: "To the ancients, someone in debt was not free, he was in bondage." ImageAlso, re: freedom in USA, "As of July 2019, the United States had the highest number of incarcerated individuals worldwide, with about 2.12 million people in prison." ImageWars are often fought not only to capture another country's resources or to prevent a rival's territorial conquests, but to place the defeated country in debt. The debt is usually demarcated in the victor's own currency, thus strengthening liquidity of victor's currency and victor's ability to impose economic as well as legal terms. Image"What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?" -- Mahatma Gandhi ImageCal Fussman: "I turned to the editorial page of a British newspaper. A cartoon depicted a giant Statue of Liberty wearing sunglasses & clutching a bayoneted machine gun towering over tiny Iraqis, who were throwing back stones. There were a lot of ways to feel about that cartoon." Harold Pinter: The crimes of USA have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. Almost forgot about Afghanistan: There was "'a reasonable basis to believe' that members of the Afghan National Security Forces, the US armed forces and the CIA had committed 'war crimes,' including torture and rape." I’ll end with a cautionary quote from Vietnam War veteran Paul Coates: “When you’re in the military, the only thing coming at you is military information. It’s just like being in America: You are totally brainwashed. Everything around me supported the war in Vietnam, so I bought into it.” And so it goes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Democratic National Convention was a Farce -- and So is the Impeachment

Hunter S. Thompson once said Democrats don't learn. Today, Congress apparently wrapped up Day 2 of an impeachment trial against a president no longer in office. I say "apparently," because no one sane is voluntarily watching the trial, nor does anyone believe enough votes exist to convict. Democrats seem unable to comprehend Republicans voting for a trial did so the same way an apiarist pretends to befriend bees in order to take their honey. (The analogy isn't perfect, because unlike the Democratic Party, professional apiarists understand danger and wear protection before walking into a hive.) In any case, the Democrats, having won Congress by less than a 1% margin and the presidency only because too many people voted for the Libertarian Party, are approaching a second impeachment as if Donald Trump is Richard Nixon reincarnated. An American history lesson is warranted, and we'll start from last year.

Not until after the 2020 Democratic Convention did I realize uninvited Representative Tulsi Gabbard was, like VP pick Kamala Harris, a mixed Desi. The popular media had hit us so many times with stories of Harris's ethnic background--visions of Obama and sugar plums surely dancing in their heads--they ignored the fact that the Democrats' messages of unity and diversity were contradicted by a single absent person. 

As an immigrant with an American passport--I no longer call myself American, preferring a more distended designation--everything indicates I stand to reach the upper echelons of political power only if I conform and agree with one of two sides. In elevating a mismatched duo of prosecutor and public defender to the top of the Democratic Party while literally shutting out anti-war dissenters, there is no longer any difference between the Democrats and the Republicans except on the issue of abortion. Decades of unchecked military spending since Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục and Catholic Joseph McCarthy dragged Americans into Vietnam have given the military-industrial complex a holy victory: total control of America's political structure with an obedient Catholic leading the way. 

Conventions were not always this way in America, that alleged land of the free. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, reporter Dan Rather was attacked by security personnel as he attempted to question a delegate being removed, and Senator Andrew Ribicoff dared go off-script, criticizing Mayor Daley's Gestapo-like tactics. (Catholic Richard Daley responded by insulting Ribicoff's Jewish background.)

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. -- Albert Camus (1957)

The conflict's genesis? The Vietnam War aka the American War of Aggression. One faction of the Democratic Party, led by George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy (not to be confused with pro-war Joseph McCarthy), was anti-war, and another, led by Hubert Humphrey, favored continued military action with the objective of forcing a negotiated settlement. The unpopularity--and infeasibility--of the war was underscored by VP Humphrey in 1965, who wrote, "American wars have to be politically understandable by the American public."

American wars have to be politically understandable by the American public. There has to be a cogent, convincing case if we are to have sustained public support. In World Wars I and II we had this. In Korea we were moving under UN auspices to defend South Korea against dramatic, across-the-border conventional aggression. Yet even with those advantages, we could not sustain American political support for fighting the Chinese in Korea in 1952. Today in Vietnam we lack the very advantages we had in Korea. The public is worried and confused. -- VP Hubert Humphrey, in 1965, ten years before the last USA serviceman left Vietnam

As part of the generation that grew up under multiple Iraq invasions--not just for oil, but natural gas--Humphrey's words sound quaint. It was against this conflicted backdrop and a mandatory military draft that the 1968 Democratic National Convention occurred, ensuring a volatile event. Policemen beat anti-war protesters using batons, knowing they had the full support of Chicago's leadership. Consequently, for at least one day, Americans couldn't tell the difference between the Chicago mob and their own government. How did the Democratic Party go from being so concerned about anti-war sentiment that it was willing to beat protesters in broad daylight to barring anti-war politicians from their own Convention? The answer is gerrymandering, another name for political segregation. Put simply, if you divide enough factions into their own districts, you can easily govern any group not already in power by ensuring conflicting opinions never meet in a public forum, thus sputtering and stalling out. Post-WWII, though the prevailing framework internationally
and domestically has been more "divide and govern" than "divide and conquer," American students are taught Western democracies promote optimal communication between conflicting groups.

[G]errymanders will only get worse (or depending on your perspective, better) as time goes on—as data becomes ever more fine-grained and data analysis techniques continue to improve. What was possible with paper and pen—or even with Windows 95—doesn’t hold a candle (or an LED bulb?) to what will become possible with developments like machine learning. And someplace along this road, “we the people” become sovereign no longer. -- Justice Kagan, dissenting, Rucho v. Common Cause (2019) 

In 1992, when Americans lacked conflicting viewpoints about the supremacy of their political system, Francis Fukuyama talked about the end of history. A mere decade later, General Colin Powell would cheerlead America into Iraq, another Vietnam, proving history was very much alive and continued to repeat itself. From that debacle arose Abu Ghraib and the destruction of America's credibility, which included the Democratic Obama/Biden administration assassinating an American citizen without due process. "The dumb are never with us for long, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Republicans learn faster than Democrats..." 

We now arrive at 2021, when the Democratic Party is impeaching a president already out of office, repeating the same highfalutin bullying that made Trump so popular in the first place. I've heard of security theater, in which the government takes actions that "make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security," so perhaps this impeachment falls under the category of "political theater." Why, then, does it seem so much more pernicious than any Shakespearean tragedy? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (February 2021)

If it weren't for this constant struggle on the part of the few creative types to expand the sense of reality in man, the world would literally die out. We are not kept alive by legislators and militarists, that's fairly obvious. We are kept alive by men of faith, men of vision. They are like vital germs in the endless process of becoming. -- Arthur Miller (USA)

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

2021 Wall Street Quotations

In February 2021, I decided to start a collection of quotes from Wall Street executives and pundits. 

February 9, 2021: "Now there are, with very few exceptions, no sectors that are cheap. [Yet] I think the market will gradually grind up during the year. I don’t see a correction anytime soon, unless the situation changes dramatically." -- 
JP Morgan's co-president Daniel Pinto (source: CNBC) [Shiller P/E Ratio 35.62]

February 10, 2021: "If there is a bubble anywhere, it is not in the equity market, it is in the fixed-income market." -- Cathie Wood, chief executive of ARK Invest (source: CNBC) [Shiller P/E Ratio: 35.59]   

February 17, 2021: from Eddy Elfenbein's blog:

Mark Hulbert has an interesting column at MarketWatch. It’s about a trio of academics who have devised a bubble-spotting formula. 

"Applying the formula the researchers derive, I calculate there is an 80% chance that the Technology Hardware, Storage & Peripherals index will be 40% lower than today at some point in the next two years... Though no other industries satisfy the researchers’ definition of a bubble, two others come close. They are also in the technology arena: Semiconductors and Semiconductor Equipment, and Software. Why focus on an industry that may be in a bubble, rather than the market as a whole? Prof. Greenwood told Barron’s that he and his fellow researchers learned from their study of the history of bubbles that they 'rarely are marketwide' events. Far more common, he said, is for a bubble to manifest in certain pockets of the market even as other sectors remain undervalued."


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Guns and Butter

People who think power comes from the barrel of a gun are mistaken. Real power comes from controlling the conduits, both legal and technological, of the currency that buys the gun. The more power involved, the more entities can buy protection, whether domestic or international, fueling further expansion and thus influence. In short, guns are the result, not the cause of stability, which makes sense once you realize a village with nothing valuable has no need for advanced weaponry.

There is another component most people miss when discussing protection, and we can re-use the undeveloped village as an example. Such a village exists not only because of internal factors, but external ones. Its lack of development means it has not attracted foreign direct investment or cannot do so. Were it part of a larger economic unit, the larger economic unit would be interested in maintaining as little a gap as possible between its most developed areas and its least developed ones--assuming a cohesive system. (An empire merely makes the same mistake as a successful country, misapplying domestic lessons to international ones.) Though degrees vary, power is always connected somewhere so it can extend influence, the strong seeking out the weak. The absence of a need for a gun connotes not only a lack of influence but a lack of connectivity to neighbors and thus a failure to build sufficient conduits to exchange information. Now ask yourself: would you rather have a gun and a midnight sentry, or information that tells you when you will be attacked? 

I realized this morning though the United States has a strong military, it continues to fail by attempting to overuse its influence overseas. If I am a small village, and a superpower approaches to offer its technology, which of course requires me to use its currency, I may be flattered, especially if I do not understand debt and currency arbitrage. Yet, even a naive villager realizes the same superpower that approaches and demands a rider requiring the village not to use another country's technology--thus inhibiting more diverse development--is not a true superpower, no matter the quantity or quality of its guns. The villager may even, after some deliberation, realize such a superpower does not see his community as an opportunity to exchange information but a way to block competitors. Now ask yourself: if you had a choice, would you rather buy guns from someone demanding an exclusive contract, or someone allowing you to diversify your economic contacts? 

The path from kampong to city to respected state may be long, uncertain, and arduous--and Singapore, which took this path successfully, makes its own guns--but the road from superpower to failed state is straightforward: when credibility goes, so does your empire. One wonders if USA President Biden, who is promoting unity, comprehends he is looking too far ahead in the dictionary. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (January 2021) 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Slavery, Democracy, and the Jesuits

Though JFK preceded him, Joseph Biden, Jr. is set to become a Catholic president in the United States during a time of unprecedented Catholic power. Remarkably, most Americans do not know the Catholic Church was banned in America's founding colonies, notably New York City:

For most of the colonial period Roman Catholic worship in New York City was clandestine or nonexistent, because the Protestant Dutch and then the English enforced laws prohibiting the organization and maintenance of Roman Catholic churches. (From Encyclopedia of New York City)
 

In 1816, Thomas Jefferson warned of the conflicts between Catholicism and republican governance: 

The first shade from this pure element, which, like that of pure vital air, cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen either pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic, which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. And we have examples of it in some of our State constitutions, which, if not poisoned by priest-craft, would prove its excellence over all mixtures with other elements; and, with only equal doses of poison, would still be the best. [Emphasis mine] 

I must confess I did not know the "Republican" in Republican Party referred to republican governance, i.e., a republic, because my American teachers and professors glossed over Christian religious differences. Reading Jefferson's words, however, it is easier to see that a republic is opposed to a monarchy, and America's founders discriminated against the Catholic Church because they were anti-monarchy (aka anti-papist). Unlike American students today, our founders would have had no problem connecting the structure of the Catholic Church and its doctrine of papal supremacy with European monarchs and Catholic collusion. Once Catholic, monarchs regularly expelled non-Catholics, eventually inducing Germany's Protestant Reformation. Discrimination begets discrimination, and the history of America can be best understood as a country founded on discrimination and its discontents. 

In the most recent Christian Science Monitor Weekly publication, I came across the following tidbit: 

Q: How did the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order, become involved in slavery? 

They began to buy, sell, and hold slaves in South America. When they came to Maryland to start missions in the 17th century, they quickly became slaveholders. Other churches came to be slaveholders, too, but the Jesuits were among the largest slaveholders in Maryland during this period. (William G. Thomas III, author of A Question of Freedom, January 4 & 11, 2021)

Were Catholics and Protestants in America able to set aside their differences by shifting their discrimination towards African slaves rather than against each other? If unity is the goal, perhaps it's time to discuss whether America's chattel slavery and the racism that followed resulted from a transference of religious antipathy into a different-colored bucket. Such historical interpretation aligns with our current political climate, where segregation is the norm and Catholics are considered Christians, even though all Christian offshoots, whether Christian Science or Seventh Day Adventist, exist because of splintering within the Protestant Church, which itself exists as a result of anti-Catholicism. 

Will President Biden assist his fellow citizens in reforming public history lessons so more Americans can heal from four years of division? I doubt it. The only way American Catholicism could have succeeded so spectacularly is if he himself, along with most Christians, lack an understanding of both European and American history. Unfortunately for us, Europeans do not suffer similar educational handicaps, meaning Biden's presidency may come to represent not unity, but the ascension of the EU. Such transference would continue the pattern of modern American political negligence, where leaders focused on the Soviet Union only to see increased Middle Eastern threats, then focused on the Middle East only to see increased Asian threats, and are now focusing on Asia. History, it seems, may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (January 2021)