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Monday, 29 November 2021

Bernie Madoff as Tragic Hero

A Tragic Hero?

Bernie Madoff died Wednesday, April 14, 2021, while serving a 150-year prison sentence.  It might grate to see Madoff described as a "hero."  In literature, a tragedy is a situation, a plot structure.  A "tragic hero" is the character at the center of that situation.  Imagining Madoff as a monster may be more comfortable, but that image prevents us from learning whatever there is to learn from his story.

The Death of Tragedy

The history and concept of tragedy is one subject where I can actually claim some expertise.  For almost three thousand years, every major philosopher and most major and minor literary theorist had something to say about tragedy.  It all came to a stop in the postmodern period.   As Terry Eagleton observes in Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, “the term [tragedy] hardly scrapes into the postmodern lexicon” (ix).  The discussion may have finally exhausted itself or, as Alvin Kernan suggests, in The Death of Literature, “The definition of a central genre like tragedy has proceeded in so many directions, many of them quirky in the extreme, as in the end to disintegrate, rather than firm up, the term and any experience that might possibly lie behind it" (42).  Ultimately, my claim of expertise is a bit like saying I'm in the top one hundred of a sport that nobody plays anymore.

The History of Tragedy

That said, here's the two-paragraph description of the 3000-year history of tragedy. The word "tragedy" comes from Greek and would roughly translate as "goat song."  Why a goat?  Tragedies were performed as part of an annual competition and the prize was a goat.  Also, these performances were part of the annual Dionysian harvest festival.  Dionysus was the god of wine and madness and tragedy.  (If you're getting bored:  Dionysus is Baccus in Latin, as in Bacchanalian orgy, so you can substitute sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll here to get the general idea.) The goat--known for its sexual prowess--was the symbol of Dionysus.

The major Greek tragedies were written in the 5th century BCA.  A hundred years later, Aristotle wrote The Poetics, in part to refute Plato's claim that in the perfect society poetry would be banned but more importantly for the following millennia Aristotle claimed that tragedy was the highest form of literary art.  For the next 2,500 years or so, it was generally accepted that tragedy was the highest form of literature because . . . well, because Aristotle said so.  The only debate was about which of Aristotle's features was the most important and did this play or that play have the necessary features.  Eventually, the word "tragedy" began to be used as an honourific; in other words, it wasn't being used just to describe a category of literature or a thing so much as to connote greatness.  In the Modern Era (the 20th century until the mid-60s), the West was going through an adolescent crisis of self-esteem, and it was commonly claimed that we were no longer capable of producing tragedies.  We lacked the culture, the refinement, the sensibilities, the character and characters, the myths, rituals, gods, and whatever, to create or appreciate tragedies.

The Double-bind Theory of Tragedy

Then I came along with my double-bind theory of tragedy which dozens of people have now read--okay, maybe a dozen if I include myself.  Everyone knows that "tragedy" means something bad and sad happens.  When I studied the dramas that most people readily acknowledge as tragedies I saw a consistent pattern. The pattern I saw closely resembled the "double-bind situations" which Gregory Bateson and  R.D. Laing claimed to be, in 100% of the cases studied, the cause of schizophrenia.  Having noticed this resemblance between the claimed etiology (the causes) of schizophrenia and a similar pattern of double-bind, no-win situations in tragedy, I also noted that tragedies led to actions which were not only bad and sad but mad. The hero's fate was inevitably stereotypical insanity, alienation, self harm or suicide.

The Double-bind Etiology of Schizophrenia

The ''double bind" as described by Bateson and Laing is one in which the individual faces contradictory injunctions but cannot escape the situation.  Laing explains that the bombardment of the individual with contradictory demands that s/he must do something and must not do that same thing, most often imposed by the closest of family members, leads to "ontological insecurity" and mental breakdown.

This image is typically presented as a lighthearted version of a double bind:


Imagine that at every important twist and turn, every love-hate, life-or-death dilemma in your life you faced this kind of unsolvable double bind.  R.D. Laing surmises it would drive you crazy. We can all intuit as much.  The authors of tragedies throughout history have intuited as much.

The Orestia by Aeschylus

The Orestia by Aeschylus, the only extant complete ancient Greek tragic trilogy, establishes the pattern.  Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon, is bound by prevailing notions of justice and his role as a prince to avenge his father's murder.  Orestes is further compelled by his self-identity as a moral agent under the scrutiny of the gods and the world to do what is right:  avenge the assassination of the King, his father.  However, justice requires that he kill his mother, Queen Aegisthus, who is responsible for the murder of her husband, King Agamemnon. We can boil down Orestes's double bind to something like:  in order to maintain his understanding of himself, justice and the world, Orestes's must kill his mother.  But in killing his mother, Orestes will abandon his understanding of himself, the world and justice.  To be Orestes, he must kill his own mother; killing his mother, he will no longer be Orestes.  

The Madness of Hamlet and Orestes

Two thousand years later, Shakespeare adopted a similar plot in his version of Hamlet.  Hamlet slowly descends into madness as he attempts to come to terms with the fact that his mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, are responsible for the murder of his father, King Hamlet. When Orestes kills his mother, he is immediately possessed by the Furies--possession by the gods being the stereotypical understanding of madness at the time.

An Identity requires a view of the world, a sense of reality

The destruction of the tragic hero implies more than the death and/or madness of an individual.  The hero's identity is part of an ecosystem.  Individual identity is fed and sustained by a larger worldview, an understanding of the world which in its imagined, narrative form we call a myth. The collapse of the individual into madness is, by definition, the collapse, overwhelming and negation of a sense of reality--the sense of reality though which an individual identifies and defines her/himself.  Faced with a double bind which is a product of identity and a corresponding sense of reality, which must be resolved and cannot be resolved, the individual descends into "ontological insecurity." Self and reality cease to exist.

Bernie Madoff's world and identity

The fact that, more than an individual identity, a sense of reality or worldview or, in a more succinct shorthand, a myth is brought into question and negated by the double bind is exactly what makes tragedy modern.  It is also what makes this discussion of Bernie Madoff's life story relevant.

Tragedy penetrates myth, questions and negates reality

In The Origin and Early Development of Greek Tragedy, Gerald Else describes tragedy as "a new penetration of myths from within" (38). Tragedy allowed a questioning of the gods by an individual from "personal experience and hard personal meditation, without benefit of revelation or cult" (37). Additionally, as Karl Jaspers observes, in Tragedy Is Not Enough, "breakdown and failure reveal the true nature of things" (43).  Carrying these observations to the case of Bernie Madoff, we recognize that Madoff's fall and the collapse of his 64-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme coincided with the collapse of the financial markets in 2008.  The tragedy of Bernie Madoff, King of Wall Street, was a penetration, from the inside, of the myth of capitalism.

It is commonly claimed that no American was ever charged with a crime because of the collapse of the markets in 2008. In fact, Madoff was the icon, both the villain and the victim, of 2008. His Ponzi scheme was different in degree but not kind from the sub-prime-mortgage chicanery which brought down the markets. Bernie Madoff wasn't caught by the authorities; he confessed and turned himself in when he realized that the Wall Street collapse would also collapse his Ponzi scheme

The Wizard of Lies

Diana Henriques' The Wizard of Lies supplies the details which allow us to see the tragic double-bind pattern of Bernie Madoff's life.  We can see hints of a "Romeo and Juliet" story in the fact that Ruth Madoff was thirteen when she first met her future husband.  She was eighteen when the Madoffs married on November 25, 1959.  Days later Bernie filed the papers to create Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.  He was twenty-one. 

Henriques observes that Ruth's family, the Alperns, were significantly higher on the socio-economic ladder than the Madoffs. We might imagine a "Great Gatsby" scenario with Ruth playing Gatsby's "Daisy" and the object of his Macbeth-like ambitions. By 1962, as Henrique reports, Bernie was already operating illegally as an unlicensed stock broker for clients of his father-in-law's accounting firm and covering up "huge losses he inflicted on his clients when he improperly invested their savings in high-risk newly issued stocks."  Madoff's fraudulent reporting of profits actually enhanced his reputation on Wall Street leading to more people investing in his firm.  After the crash of 1987, Madoff began to pay off his clients with cash from new investors, and his Ponzi/pyramid scheme had begun in earnest.  Madoff claimed to be aware in 1998 that his scheme was destined to collapse and his crimes uncovered.  Why he didn't run? Why didn't he escape somewhere with his ill-gotten millions? Henrique quotes Madoff that “There was never a thought to run away and hide my money.… It never entered my mind to do that.”

Bernie Madoff's world

We may doubt that Madoff never thought to run away, but the evidence supports his claim:  he didn't run away, and we might surmise that the possibility was beyond his imagining.  In his description of tragedy, Arthur Miller writes:
It is necessary, if one is to reflect reality, not only to depict why a man does what he does, or why he  nearly didn't do it, but why he cannot simply walk away and say to hell with it.  To ask this last question of a play is a cruel thing, for evasion is probably the most developed technique most men have, and in truth there is an extraordinary small number of conflicts which we must, at any cost, live out to their conclusions.  [. . . . ]  I take it that if one could know enough about a human being one could discover some conflict, some value, some challenge, however minor or major, which he cannot find it in himself to walk away from or turn his back on. . . . .   I take it, as well, that the less capable a man is of walking away from the central conflict of the play, the closer he approaches a tragic existence. (Arthur Miller's Collected Plays 8).
There are a number of parallels to note between Bernie Madoff and Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Miller's Death of a Salesman:  a New Yorker, father of two sons who eventually repudiate him, husband of a long-suffering wife, a man with "all the wrong dreams," whose demise was an indictment of the myth of "the American Dream."

The Madness of Bernie Madoff

Bernie Madoff lost everything.  He defrauded friends, family, charities and people around the world, many of whom, through the machinations of their financial advisors and investment banks, were unaware that their money was invested with Bernie Madoff.  Madoff's crimes caused the loss of life-savings, pensions, homes, jobs and lives.  For many, the challenge was to find punishment equal to the scale of Madoff's crimes.  But tragedy isn't about justice.  Strict moral justice is reserved for melodrama.

Madoff lost his wealth (though most of it did not exist), his property, and his reputation.  He became a universally acknowledged icon of evil.  Bernie and Ruth made a suicide pact, taking a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills.  Their attempt failed.  Their older son, Mark, also attempted suicide with pills, then later hung himself in his New York condo while his infant son slept in another room.  Ruth became a social pariah and was unable to attend her son's funeral.  The Madoff's younger son, Andrew, died of cancer.

Novalis:  "Character is fate."

Was there a time when Madoff could have stopped and put an end to his fraud?  Perhaps. But, like Oedipus, the king of another time, Madoff was a victim of his own success.  Arguably, given his character and his world (New York, Wall Street, the financial markets), he was fated to see his tragedy through.  We can calculate Madoff's double bind.  He showed the willingness to fully attest to his own guilt to protect his family.  To confess to his crimes at any point would be to destroy his family.  Continuing his crimes would also eventually destroy his family, leaving, in his own words "a legacy of shame for children and grandchildren."   

Bernie Madoff as scapegoat

Terry Eagleton argues that the scapegoat ritual is the essence of the tragic. I disagree. The purpose of the scapegoat ritual is to load the sins of the community onto a symbolic figure which is destroyed, thereby expiating the community from its guilt. To treat Madoff as an egregious anomaly, a singular deviation, a monstrous incongruity, a scapegoat, is to absolve the financial system, which allowed his fraud to thrive for more than two decades, from any culpability or inquiry. Tragedy is relevant today specifically because it brings into the question exactly those mythologies which we might imagine beyond question. As Henriques observes: 
Madoff’s construction of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history was enabled by the Wall Street he had helped to build. He played a prominent role in shaping the modern market, from computerized NASDAQ trading to the mystique of hedge funds to the proliferation of specious derivatives.


Bernie Madoff as human being

If there is anything to learn from the Madoff case, and I believe there is, we must begin with the premise that he was human and consequently susceptible to a double-bind situation which, in turn, brings his ecosystem into question.  As Henriques concludes:

[. . .] to insist, as so many of his victims have, that Bernie Madoff was not fully human, that he was a beast, a psychopath, is a facile cop-out, one last comforting delusion that will leave us forever vulnerable to the seductive spells that all Ponzi schemers cast. Madoff was not inhumanly monstrous. He was monstrously human. He was greedy for money and praise, arrogantly sure of his own capacity to pull it off, smugly dismissive of skeptics—just like anyone who mortgaged the house to invest in tech stocks [ . . . .]

The Wizard of Lies (film)

In the film version of The Wizard of Lies, Diana Henriques plays herself interviewing Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro). Not surprisingly, the film retreats from the  image of Madoff as a tragic human.  (The movie business in general, like postmodernists, is reluctant to embrace tragedy.) In his final scene in the film, Madoff/De Niro complains of being compared to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and  addresses the rhetorical question to Henriques: "Do you think I am a sociopath?" The question does not appear in the book.  If the intended subtext is that Madoff remains protective of his ego and indifferent to the tragedy he has wrought, then whatever is to be learned from the failure of his existence and the world that nurtured it is lost. The less likely interpretation that Madoff's flat affect was a sign of impending schizophrenia is the one that I would uphold.


Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Is "Typhoid Mary" Back Among Us?

 Mary Mallon (1869-1938)

Mary Mallon, aka "Typhoid Mary,"  was an Irish-born cook and asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid virus who immigrated to the USA and worked for a number of affluent families in New York.  Wherever Mary worked an outbreak of typhoid fever followed.  She is believed to have contaminated 122 people, five of whom died.  Throughout her life, Mary denied that she was responsible for the contagion.  Her solution was to change employer frequently, eventually changing her name several times.  


Causes of typhoid fever

Typhoid fever is generally associated with drinking water contaminated with feces.   Mary was forcibly quarantined by the New York Health Department for two years and eleven months.  Her feces were repeatedly tested confirming the presence of typhoid.  The removal of her gallbladder would have prevented her from transmitting typhoid, but she refused the operation. She was released from confinement after signing an affidavit promising not to work as a cook and to practice good hygiene.  However, after two years working as a laundress, Mary changed her name and returned to her more lucrative employment as a cook.  Authorities were able to track her by following outbreaks of typhoid fever at various New York hotels and restaurants.  She was quarantined a second time in the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island until her death, 23 years later, in 1938.

Washing hands in the Bible

Mary didn't believe in washing her hands.  She was a devoutly religious woman.  The Bible offers sacred precedence since it is widely recorded in the New Testament that Jesus and his disciples refused to wash their hands before eating

Is "Typhoid Mary" back among us?

Is "Typhoid Mary" back among us?  In a number of odd ways, she obviously is.  Literature about her case frequently suggests that she was treated unfairly.  She was the only individual in the USA ever incarcerated for having typhoid.  The closest legal comparison we have these days is the creation of laws for the criminalization of non-disclosure of AIDS.  In 2019, in Canada, "the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights released a report on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure. [. . . .] The committee recommended that a new law be created specifically for the transmission of HIV."

For a significant cohort of Canadians, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, refusal to wash hands, social distance, wear a mask and ultimately be vaccinated constitute criminal behaviours, no less so than an AIDS carrier failing to inform a sex partner or Mary Mallon anonymously working as a cook with unwashed hands.

Comparisons of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers with "Typhoid Mary" and AIDS spreaders might seem hyperbolic to some.  However, given the scale and consequences of the Covid pandemic, the comparison is an understatement.  The consequences of an unprotected, asymptomatic Covid virus carrier moving through the community could very quickly dwarf the 122 diseases and five deaths caused by Mary Mallon or the handful of deaths and diseases caused by a narcissistic AIDS carrier.

Are the vaccinated and unvaccinated equally contagious?

Recently the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) published a report on the spread of Covid among people attending public gatherings in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, from July 3rd to 17th, 2021.  The executive summary of the one-page report states that "Cycle threshold values were similar among specimens from patients who were fully vaccinated and those who were not." This sentence was picked up by the media and widely interpreted as meaning that fully-vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals were equally contagious.  What the body of the report actually says is:

Although the assay used in this investigation was not validated to provide quantitative results, there was no significant difference between the Ct values of samples collected from breakthrough cases and the other cases. This might mean that the viral load of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 is also similar. However, microbiological studies are required to confirm these findings.

There are so many uncontrolled, unknown variables in these sentences, it is difficult to pin down a conclusive interpretation.  To keep it simple:  In the rare event of a breakthrough case in a vaccinated person, "This might mean that the viral load of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons infected with SARS-VoV-2 is also similar," through the media, became "the viral load was identically in vaccinated and unvaccinated people, therefore they are equally contagious."  And the Centre tasked with "controlling disease" unwittingly became a source for those refusing to be vaccinated.  

Ethics and values

In May 2019, I wrote, in Ethics by Numbers, that the "ethical dilemma" wasn't here yet, but it was before us.  The moment of the dilemma is now. We now have a solution to the pandemic:  vaccines.  How do we deal with individuals who refuse to be vaccinated?  Is the ethical choice egoism and what Ayn Rand called The Virtue of Selfishness, with individuals deciding for themselves what they consider best for themselves as individuals?  Or is it time to say that what is ethical is what is best for everyone, or at least for the greatest number?

In a New York Times editorial, "If You Skip the Vaccine, It Is My 'Damn Business'," Jamelle Bouie eventually comes to consider "the larger cultural and political context of the United States."  Bouie concludes:

When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot then blame people when inevitably they act as if they are. If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one.

The contrast with American radical individualism is the draconian utilitarianism of communist China.  The world looked on in horror as images circulated of Chinese authorities in Wuhan welding shut the doors of people with Covid-19 in order to curtail the spread of the disease.  

Can the ethical dilemma be resolved?

This is the dilemma.  Do we embrace ethical egoism and American radical individualism, sacrificing the lives of millions, in the name of liberty, freedom, personal privacy and rights?  Or do we sacrifice individual liberty and human rights, in the name of saving lives and putting an end to a global pandemic?  This contrast does not offer a better, more moral choice, just a potentially lesser evil.  

Of course, the dilemma would disappear if we could depend on enlightened individuals to do what is right for themselves and everyone around them: masking, isolation and vaccination.  Yet, even as the pandemic has taken more than four million lives, individuals, through dissembling and denial, refuse vaccination, choosing to make themselves crucibles of the virus, allowing it to thrive and mutate, becoming more deadly and contagious for the rest of us.

Perhaps the citizens of New Hampshire offer guidance.  The state motto is "Live Free or Die."  So far, sixty percent of New Hampshire residents have been fully vaccinated.  Staying alive is a sane and healthy prerequisite of living free.

 

Monday, 5 July 2021

Virtues, Vices, and Values

A Charter of Values?

 In 2013, when the Parti Québécois government was proposing a “Charte des valeurs”  I reacted, on this blog, with "outrage, shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration, fear."  Admittedly, by the time the  Coalition Avenir Québec introduced its  "Bill 21: An Act respecting the laicity of the State," a watered-down version of similar legislation, my reactions had mellowed.  (See The "We" Vote in Quebec.) Nonetheless, I remain distinctly uncomfortable whenever I hear a politician invoking "values" and, still worse, "our shared values."  We might expect the expression "our shared values" to be followed by a list of said values but it almost never is.  Upon hearing "our shared values," the white supremacist and the advocate of Black Lives Matter might both breathe a sigh of relief thinking "finally, one of us"--which explains politicians' love of this empty expression.

The Common Objects of a People's Love

In his inauguration speech, Joe Biden offered this list: "Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth."  But he didn't call them values.  Citing Saint Augustine, he referred to them as "the common objects" which define a multitude as a people, and this particular list as what defines Americans.  However, as some critics have pointed out, what Augustine was suggesting wasn't necessarily values or virtues.  



“If one should say, 'a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love,’ then it follows that to observe the character of a people we must examine the objects of its love.” — St. Augustine, City of God 19.24


The objects of a people's love could equally well be venal, could be vices.  The USA may be the "land of opportunity," whose "military-industrial complex" ensures its security, and whose constitution guarantees its citizens the liberty to have guns but not necessarily abortions or to use the girls' washroom if your birth certificate says you're a boy, but I've never thought of dignity, respect, honor (except for the spelling) and truth as being distinctly American. 

Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues

The more I have reflected on this topic, the less certain I've felt about what counts as a value.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the vices or "deadly sins" are clear:  pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth.  The "heavenly virtues"--prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity--are more ambiguous. We might like to imagine that virtues and vices are absolutes, but it seems obvious that the difference between them is one of degree.  Moderate degrees of the vices seem desirable, while exaggerations of the virtues are equally undesirable.

Values and Valour

Invariably, we imagine our values are virtues and, conversely, we are likely to imagine that other people's values seem like vices.  In truth, few of us ever have to discover what our values truly are or if we have any.  The word "values" shares its underlying root with "valour"; that is, not just worth but strength and courage.  Our values are the principles that we have the strength and courage to maintain under stress and to act upon.  Still, even the most valourous among us can find themselves in a conflict of values, a no-win, double-bind situation which is the defining characteristic of tragedy.  (See The Double-bind Theory of Tragedy and Madness.)

Obedience to Authority:  Virtue or Vice?

Anomie, the absence of values, has long been the claimed condition of privileged, modern societies.  I am mindful of social psychologist Stanley Milgram's infamous Yale "Obedience to Authority" experiments which revealed that 65% of the test subjects would torture a victim to death using electric shock simply because someone who appeared to be in authority told them to.  Obedience is, of course, the most taught and enforced value in education.

What Are Your Values?

The webpage What Are Your Values? provides a list of 150 potential values, including obedience.  Looking at this list and every other list I have considered, I come away wondering:  are these really values?  The webpage offers a soft definition of values as "the things you believe are important." Sex and money don't make anyone's list of values, but I've met a few people who seem to think they are important.



The Central Bank:  God or the Devil?

I was drawn to Mark Carney's Value(s), in the first place, because of the title and because he was Governor of the Bank of Canada and Governor of the Bank of England.  To conspiracy theorists like my friend Henry Makow and members of the Zeitgeist Movement (not to mention bitcoin fans and fanatics), central banks are the spawns of Satan.  Against this foil, it was striking to read Carney's passionate prescriptions and earnest defense of central banks and a "sound dollar."  His sententious, Polyanna proposals for a better world are occasionally ponderous and left me wondering: would fat cats on Wall Street and in the Federal Reserve give two seconds of consideration to what he is recommending?

What's Good for General Bullmoose . . .

In Values, Carney comes across as a nice guy determined to be nice to everyone, even  Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase and a member of the New York Federal Reserve Board.  However, in Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland reports on the animosity between Carney and Dimon which exploded at a meeting of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington in 2011.  Freeland points out:

The battle between Carney and Dimon gets at a bigger and more contentious issue [than taxes and profits]:  Are the interests of the state and its big businesses synonymous?  If not, who decides? And if they do clash, does the state have the right--and the might--to curb specific businesses for the collective good?

As Freeland records, Dimon widely promulgated his position that the kinds of global banking regulations Carney was proposing were "anti-American." The Carney speeches Freeland quotes show that the genesis of Value(s):  Building a Better World for All is at least a decade old.  Carney himself traces its origins to his childhood in Canada.

Can values drive value?

Carney argues that:

Values and value are related but distinct. In the most general terms, values represent the principles or standards of behaviour; they are judgements of what is important in life. Examples include integrity, fairness, kindness, excellence, sustainability, passion and reason. Value is the regard that something is held to deserve – the importance, worth or usefulness of something. Both value and values are judgements. And therein lies the rub.

"Therein lies the rub" indeed.  Can we separate values and value, the dancer and the dance?  Or, on the other hand, are they in complete contradiction to one another?  Witness the paradox of The Antiques Roadshow.  An expert explains the values embued in an artifact, but the climax of every episode is the revelation of the dollar value of the object, which is based on the current market and only a tertiary result of beauty or craftsmanship, history or sentiment.

The fiat global reserve currency:  where's the trust, integrity and transparency?

Carney claims that the value of "fiat money is grounded in the values of trust, integrity and transparency." The US greenback, the fiat (non-gold/commodity-based) money that really counts because it is the "global reserve currency" and about which Carney has remarkably little to say, as we have seen, is backed by the threat of military intervention.  (See Petrodollar Warfare.)  Moreover, in recent years, as Kishore Mahbubani (Has China Won?) decries and Josh Rogin  (Chaos under Heaven) lauds, the US has been weaponizing the dollar. (See Analysing the Discourse on the USA-China Cold War.)  The US Federal Reserve was born in secrecy and, to this day, most people don't realize, as Carney confirms, that 80% of the money in the world is created by private banks.  (See The Truth About Money.)

How Many "values" are there?

Carney's orbit of values expands centrifugally to include, in his final chapters: "solidarity – fairness – responsibility – resilience – sustainability – dynamism, and – humility." Once again, I find myself questioning which, if any, of these stand as values.  Values are the principles we are prepared to uphold in the most challenging of times.  Logically, values spring from ethics.  The word "ethics" comes from "ethos," behaviour over time, often translated as "character," and contrasts with "pathos," the emotions of the moment.  In the end, I conclude "values" is a misnomer.  There is only one value: justice.  Those things we call "values" are details:  customs, habits, rituals, and allegories.  Justice must be based on ethics, and Kant's much-maligned "categorical imperative"--laws are moral if you accept them being applied to you--imperfect as it is, is as good an option as we have available to us.





Saturday, 3 July 2021

Traditional Distinctions: Comedy versus Tragedy

 Traditional Distinctions: Comedy versus Tragedy

elementstragedycomedy
reader responsestrong emotions: pity and fearlighthearted: laughter
reader distanceattraction aversion: close enough to feel pity but wanting to escape from fear, terrorironic or comic distance, we cannot be too close or sympathize too much with the "victim" of a comedy
reader focuson an individual, we are inside the hero's head, emotions, dilemma; often sense the entire play is about this individualon a collective, on a group of people therefore not a strong concern about a single individual, more on relationships between people than the inner life of a single character
plotunified,strong sense of coherence and cohesion of events, serious, 24 hours, imitation(mimesis) of reality but with a "beginning, middle and end"; sense of individual quest, typical plot is a character against fate or destiny as determined either by the gods or society, often a double-bind situation where no positive result is possibleincongruity, wit, humour, repetition, exaggeration, error; accidents 
surprising, ridiculouos series of events; most typical plot of comedy is a young couple being blocked from each other by someone older
characterhero is a superior character, or what Frye calls high mimetic; important role in society, but also displays personal characteristics like courage, strength, determination, desire for truth, capacities for leadership or self expressioncharacters tend to be like us or below us, low mimetic or ironic in Frye's terms; inferior characters means that we do not take their destinies or behaviour too seriously
themes and issuesmost serious themes and abstract issues: future of the state, death of a king, taboos like incest and patricide/regicide; tied to gods, religion, justice, honour; transcendence and fate, existentialism, the meaning of life and the ultimate truth of our existencebawdy and body themes; body parts and body functions are at issue, sex and cuckoldry are common themes
language and imagerylanguage is of the highest level and tone to correspond to the most serious of themes and issue abstract issues: religion, the gods, honour, truth, justice, and seriousness of tone, regicide, incest, matricide, the future of the state language is expected to be of a lower register and we expect to hear about body parts and body functions therefore vulgar, vernacular, and colloquial
endingends in death, disaster, destruction of the central character and others; Frye observes that tragedy ends with the hero separated or alienated from his society--if he survivesa happy ending, or at least one in which people get what they deserve (as in "poetic justice"; Frye observes that in comedy the characters end up being brought closer to and into line with their society.

Friday, 4 June 2021

How Do You Steal an Intellectual Property?

Every Property Has a Price 

Whenever I think of "a property," I imagine a couple of wooded acres by a lake.  By definition, an "intellectual property" is a creation of the human mind.  Can a thought be a property?  According to Mark Carney in his tome, Values: "The value of intangible capital (like software and intellectual property) now dwarfs that of physical capital (like factories and real property)."  Value, as Carney reports disapprovingly,  in our capitalist, market-driven society comes down to price which, in turn, means money.

Dead Celebrities

Michael Jackson's net worth has increased dramatically since his death nine years ago.  Managing the finances of dead celebrities is a very lucrative business.  We might like to imagine when we hear the expression "intellectual property" that the artist, inventor or scientist is being protected and getting the full financial reward of her brilliant idea, but history shows this is seldom the case.  Michael Jackson may have enjoyed abundant financial reward for his work but, even in his case, when we look at whose brain created the "intellectual property" and whose bank account ended up with most of the money, they are rarely the same person.

Injustice or Asymmetry?

We might imagine that this financial "injustice" (more an incongruity or asymmetry, actually) is a modern malaise but it runs throughout history.  "Render unto Caesar what is Ceasar's, and unto God what is God's."  The people who make money are the people in the money-making business.  (See The Truth About Money.) The principle is as old as recorded human history, though it may have become exaggerated in recent times.

Shakespeare Never Gave up his Day Job

You might think that Shakespeare got rich from writing plays, but he made his money by being a stage manager, a part-time actor, a co-owner of the Globe Theatre, a share-holder in the theatre company, and from some shrewd real-estate investments.  (Shakespeare never gave up his "day jobs.")   John Heminges and Henry Condell made money on Shakespeare's plays by publishing the folio edition of the collected works, seven years after Shakespeare's death.  (That publication is why Shakespeare is so widely known and studied today.)

How Newton Made Money

The history of science, physics and mathematics was forever changed by the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, but Isaac Newton had been unable to have his manuscript published.  Edmund Hailey paid for the publication out of his own pocket and was never financially reimbursed.  The Royal Society, responsible for scientific publications, compensated Hailey with unsold copies of their recently published Encyclopedia of Fish.  Of course, Newton eventually made money.  He wasted a lot of time as an alchemist trying to turn lead into gold, then he became Master of the Royal Mint.  (There's a pun in there somewhere.)  His financial gain did not approach a nano of the value of his "intellectual property."

Insulin Then and Now

The Canadian doctor Frederick Banting and his colleagues sold the patent for insulin for $1.  In the USA today, a single vial of insulin costs between $175 and $300.  Research any major medical breakthrough you can think of; invariably, someone discovered something, and someone else made a lot of money from the discovery.  Some people are good at making things and some people are good at making money.  

Exceptions Which Prove the Rule

We are all aware of the apparent exceptions to the rule:  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.  In Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs is quoted describing Gates, disparagingly, as "a businessman."  In my reading of the same biography, I came away with the impression that Steve Wozniak was the creator of the "intellectual property" that became Apple.  Elon Musk may be the only true exception to prove the rule.  I wonder if it's prophetic that he named his company after Nikola Tesla the brilliant inventor who died in poverty.

Romantic Clichés

The romantic cliché of writers and painters living in poverty is so well established that we tend to view affluent artists with suspicion.  The general rule is that artists are either born with money, marry money, live in constant financial distress, or a roller-coaster combination of the three.  Even though what they produce might end up being worth millions.

Robber Barons or Patrons

When we talk about the theft of intellectual property, what exactly are we talking about?  My cynical self says we are talking about stealing money from the people who make money from somebody else's intellectual property, like robbing thieves.   This attitude is completely wrong.  Artists need patrons, supporters, gallerists, publicists, and publishers--someone who believes in their work.  Picasso had Gertrude Stein, van Gogh had his brother Theo, James Joyce had Harriet Shaw Weaver, Tom Wolfe had Maxwell Perkins.  Only the lucky few profit financially in their lifetimes.

Inventorship Versus Ownership

The point is a simple one and well established in copyright law:  inventorship (or authorship) isn't ownership.  Owners make money if there is money to be made.  Consider yourself lucky if someone thinks your "intellectual property" is worth owning.   You are among the very rare few if you are the author and the owner and manage to make money. 

Intellectual Property:  An Ostensive Definition

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy breaks down "intellectual property" into copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and trademarks.  The Encyclopedia solves the problem of stealing a thought by pointing out that "Typically, rights do not surround the abstract non-physical entity; rather, intellectual property rights surround the control of physical manifestations or expressions of ideas."

Furthermore:

[ . . .] rights only extend over the actual concrete expression and the derivatives of the expression—not to the abstract ideas themselves. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as expressed in various articles and publications, is not protected under copyright law. Someone else may read these publications and express the theory in her own words and even receive a copyright for her particular expression. 

Copyright is probably the most familiar form of "intellectual property" and plagiarism is the commonly understood theft of a copyright. The "intellectual property" I am most familiar with--the 20-page, peer-reviewed article in an academic journal--tends to get lost in a grey, copyright wasteland. Researching online I once discovered work I had published advertised (falsely, I'm afraid) as "a top article in the field," then realized I would have to pay a subscription fee to a database company to access my own work. I, like most academics I imagine, don't give much thought to monetizing publications. Aside from tenure and promotion, the reward is just being read and the vague feeling of promulgating knowledge. Teachers, in general, freely share their "intellectual property" every working day of their careers.

Copyright and Plagiarism

Plagiarism in the arts and academia is a very challenging accusation to prove.  (Forgery is, of course, a very different crime.) Early in his career, Shakespeare was accused of plagiarism.  Some readers might be surprised to realize that virtually every play Shakespeare wrote was adapted from an earlier story.  "Romeo and Juliet"  had been published twice before Shakespeare wrote his play version.  (See Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?)  T.S. Eliot was particularly critical of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in part, because there had been two earlier Hamlets before Shakespeare wrote his.  (See Holding a Mirror up to Hamlet.)  After 350 years, the controversy continues over who first invented that form of mathematics called calculus--Newton or Liebnitz.

Chinese Theft or American Efficiency

These days, when we hear of the "theft of intellectual property," it is most often Western media reporting on China.  The expression "efficiency infringement" is currently being used to describe large American companies overstepping someone's patent.  Of 143 recent press releases on the FBI website related to "Intellectual Property Theft" about 30 mention China or Chinese nationals.

Trade Secrets

"Trade secrets" are the broadest and least clearly defined category of intellectual property.  They can include computer code, lab results, or a company's negotiating strategy.  Despite being "secret," they come with some of the biggest price tags and consequences.  "Chinese National Sentenced for Stealing Trade Secrets Worth $1 Billion" is a typical headline from the FBI website:  "A former associate scientist was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison in federal court today for stealing proprietary information worth more than $1 billion from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company."

The details of the case seem oddly mundane:

According to the plea agreement, [Hongjin] Tan used a thumb drive to copy hundreds of files containing the proprietary information on Dec. 11, 2018. He subsequently turned in his resignation and was escorted from the premises on Dec. 12, 2018. Later that day, he returned the thumb drive, claiming that he had forgotten to do so before leaving his employer’s property. Upon examination, it was discovered that there was unallocated space on the thumb drive, indicating five documents had previously been deleted. Investigators with the FBI searched Tan’s premises and found an external hard drive. They discovered that the same five missing files from the thumb drive had been downloaded to the hard drive. Tan maintained the files on a hard drive so he could access the data at a later date. Further accessing the material would have been financially advantageous for Tan but caused significant financial damage to his Oklahoma employer.

It whets my curiosity to know how five Oklahoma oil company computer files could be worth a billion dollars.

The Echelon Affair

A historical review entitled The ECHELON Affair conducted by the European Parliamentary Research Service quotes the Smid Report that 

a global system for intercepting communications, probably known as Echelon, indeed existed and was managed on the basis of a secret agreement (the UKUSA agreement) between five countries, the USA (as lead partner), the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

According to The ECHELON Affair, based on the Smid Report:

The countries most advanced in industrial espionage were using it [industrial espionage] for purposes of tailoring their economic or industrial policies or for gathering information useful to national companies trading abroad. The least advanced countries were concerned with acquiring know-how on the cheap.

The report quotes former CIA Director William Webster:

"Our political and military allies are also our economic rivals and the ability of an economic rival to create, win or control markets in the future has security implications for the United States."

In an Ideal World . . .

According to the World Intellectual Property Indicators 2018, in both 2016 and 2017, China filed more than twice as many patents as the USA.  It is odd that the country which has filed the most patents globally is also the country accused of being cavalier about the theft of intellectual property.  In Has China Won?, Mahbubani claims that, contrary to Western impressions, provinces, officials, and even individual companies in China operate with long-established habits of independence.  He argues that it has been a mistake for the central government to allow American businesses, which are the greatest supporters of China in the West, to be mistreated by lower levels of government and business.

As we reflect upon "intellectual property theft," it's worth keeping in mind that most of the time we are talking about money.  As long as the USA is the country which prints (or digitalizes) the global reserve currency, Americans don't really need to worry about money.  However, at stake is global hegemony.  We in the West, especially close allies like Canada, quite logically, might be more comfortable with the familiar, democratic, capitalist USA as the global hegemon. Mahbubani repeatedly emphasizes that in the USA-China geopolitical contest, both countries should step back and determine what is in the best interests of their populations.  Money and hegemony aside, collaboration and the sharing of intellectual property would seem to be in the best interest of the people of both countries, not to mention the rest of the world on the sidelines.  Unfortunately, the possibility of cooperation in science, medicine, economics, infrastructure, culture, and technology for mutual, even universal, benefit is retreating further into distant obscurity on a daily basis.


Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Analyzing the Discourse on the China-USA Cold War

 Is It a "cold war" or a "Cold War"?

Are we in the middle of a Cold War without anyone telling us?  In Chaos under Heaven, Josh Rogin asks:  "Is the United States in a cold war with China?"  Then responds,  "That’s the wrong question, because it doesn’t provide a useful answer. The historical analogy is too imperfect."

 

In Has China Won?, Kishore Mahbubani avoids the expression "Cold War" in favour of "Sino-American geopolitical contest."  Despite denial and avoidance, both books frame the ongoing conflict between China and the USA as a sequel, however imperfectly analogous, to the Cold War between the USA and the USSR.  The current situation may not be an exact replica of the Cold War, but the saber-rattling, military build-up,  hardening of alliances and animosities, exchanges of undiplomatic insults and accusations,  tariffs and sanctions, calls for a decoupling of supply chains, as well as business, scientific and academic endeavours, and the escalating propaganda all indicate an ongoing "cold war" (or whatever you might choose to call it).


Then and Now comparisons

A key difference between the old Cold War and the new "cold war," both authors agree,  is that last time the USA had a plan.  Specifically, both books reference George Kennan's "long telegram" and subsequent article in Foreign Affairs detailing a master strategy for the American containment of the USSR.  Both books lay heavy blame for the absence of a coherent American policy toward China on the Trump Whitehouse and more explicitly on the incoherence of President Trump himself.
Additionally, Mahbubani argues that:

In the current geopolitical contest between America and China, America is behaving like the Soviet Union, and China is behaving like America did in the Cold War.  In the Cold War, America was often supple, flexible, and rational in its decision-making while the Soviet Union was rigid, inflexible, and doctrinaire.

Mahbubani dedicates a chapter to demonstrating how the structurally entrenched "rigidity and inflexibility of American decision making" cannot stop itself from constant increases in defense spending and military expansion.  Military contractors, according to Mahbubani, target US politicians with promises to establish or expand manufacturing in their constituencies, ostensibly buying the votes needed to increase defense procurement.  In contrast to America's uncontrollable defense spending, Mahbubani claims

The height of Chinese defense rationality is shown in their decision not to increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons. America has 6,450; China has 280. However, if 280 is enough to deter America (or Russia) from launching a nuclear strike on China, why pay for more?
[However, according to recent reports "China, which has historically relied on a small and constrained nuclear arsenal, is expanding its capabilities and deploying multiple, independently retargetable warheads on some of its ICBMs and will likely add more in the coming year."  See World War III.]

Blindness and Insight

Rogin offers detailed insight into the chaos which reigned in the US response to China over the last four years but concludes that "the one part of the [Cold War] analogy that holds is that the CCP under Xi sees itself as being locked in an existential ideological and political struggle with the West."  There is a blindness in this claim that China is in a cold war but the USA isn't which runs throughout Rogin's monograph, a constant denial that it takes two to tango or to have a cold war.  In chapter after chapter, Rogin displays outrage and alarm at how business, security, and politics are suspected of intertwining in China, only to follow with detailed, well-informed exposition of the innumerable high-profile Americans who move seamlessly across business, academia, national security, the military, politics and government.  To a non-American reader, it is somewhat shocking to read how many American business people and academics end up working for the CIA, the FBI, NSA, and various associated organizations, which Rogin reports without a blink of notice.

What is discourse analysis?

The most common of postmodern, post-structuralist, structuralist and semiotic observations is that we do not have access to reality.  Our physical perceptions are limited, unreliable and tell us little about the world.  What we know (or think we know) about the world comes to us through various cultural representations:  through languages and images.  Grammar is comprised of the rules for how words work inside complete sentences.  (See What is English Grammar?)  The purpose of grammar is to create redundancy.  The purpose of redundancy is to create clarity.  At its simplest, discourse is how sentences are connected together with words like "however," "therefore," "consequently," and so on.  The purpose of discourse analysis is to recognize, establish and understand the meanings of discourses which by definition always extend beyond single sentences.  The analysis of discourse, most obviously, includes a study of word choice, but also repetition and figurative language.  More broadly a discourse is held together by a theme or motif and works with suggestion, allusion and connotation.  Ultimately discourses are coherent with or incoherent in relation to other discourses.  The current broad discourse in the USA is that China poses a threat to America and to the West in general.   Truth (as I've argued in Does Knowledge Require Truth?) is uniquely a feature of those things which have meaning and is determined by how coherent one discourse is in relation to others.  Truth holds until one of the links in the chain of truths is broken.  At the moment, any discourse which presents China as an imminent threat is, consequently, taken as true.  However, the relative truth value of a discourse must be measured against logic (inductive, deductive and abductive reasoning) and how many of the known facts a particular discourse is able to encompass coherently.


Why this digression in the middle of my discourse on the Sino-American cold war?  Because I don't know the reality of what is happening in China.  I don't really know what is going on in the USA.  I'm even confused about what has been happening in Canada.  I do, however, know, to some degree, what is being written and said, and how we are all called upon to judge the relative truth, the coherence of what we are being told.


US "Bingo Club" Journalist versus Singapore Ambassador to the UN

I have already established my disbelief in the postmodern notion of "the Death of the Author."  Knowing who wrote it is always an important element of understanding the meaning of a text.  A hundred pages into Chaos under Heaven, Josh Rogin, a journalist with the Washington Post,  describes himself as a member of the "Bingo Club": "the secret group fighting China's influence operations" named after "a similar group of cops, spies, and experts who convened secretly in San Francisco in the late 1980s to confront the urgent espionage threat China posed at that time."  Rogin's "secret group" [not so secret anymore I guess] is led by Peter Mattis, "a CIA counterintelligence analyst on China before leaving the agency to work in the private sector," who is also the nephew of the Trump-era Defense Secretary, James Mattis.


Kishore Mahbubani, who served for ten years as Singapore's ambassador to the UN, describes himself as having "cultural connections with diverse societies in Asia, where half of humanity lives, all the way from Tehran to Tokyo."  The theme of his book is that American policy and attitudes are out of sync with the majority of the world's UN members.  The USA has walked away or threatened to walk away from numerous global organizations and agreements, whereas most countries of the world and China, in particular, have been moving in the other direction.  Mahbubani argues that most Americans are simply unaware of China's history, culture, and Asian geopolitical situation, and are apt to misinterpret its political ambitions.

Vocabulary and word choice

Rogin's choice of adjectives leaves little room for doubt about his attitudes and intentions toward China.  He, thankfully, avoids the use of "evil," but China (the country, the CCP, companies and individuals) are copiously described as "malign," "bad-actor," "threatening," "aggressive," and "repressive."  Here is a typical paragraph:

I got a call from an Asia expert friend who previously worked in the military but now consulted for the private sector. He was holding his own secret meeting to bring together like-minded Washington folks to think through a separate probtem [sic] emanating from China—the giant national champion technology firm Huawei. In less than a decade, this company had lied, cheated, and stolen its way to threatening domination over mobile networks around the world. This group wanted to strategize a way to stop it.  [my bold emphasis]

Rogin's most frequently repeated and quoted claim is along the lines of "the dire threat China under CCP leadership posed to the United States." Despite his conclusion to the contrary, in order to specify the "threat," Rogin cites comparisons to the Cold War:

China's ambitions were in fact worldwide—that the CCP was trying to reshape the global order to fit its interests and that this posed an unacceptable threat to the security, prosperity, and health of free and open societies—then the comparison to the Cold War was useful, insofar as it helped one grasp the scope and scale and stakes of the challenge.

How does China pose a "dire threat" to the USA . . . and the world?

To illustrate the threat posed by Confucius Institutes, Rogin cites examples of Chinese authorities' insistence that Taiwan should not be identified as an officially independent country on websites and in documentation. 

After claiming that the Huawei company has "lied, cheated, and stolen," Rogin offers no evidence to support this vocabulary.  Rogin's "most famous example" of the Chinese threat was "in 2019 when China punished the NBA for one manager's tweet."   

When Darryl Morey, manager of the NBA's Houston Rockets tweeted in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, there was a Chinese backlash.  I found it interesting to learn that Morey was "a trained researcher and technology expert who worked for years in Washington’s national security community before joining the NBA." The NBA eventually apologized to China for the tweet and was consequently criticized by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. 

Rogin reports that Joseph Tsai, a "Taiwanese-born naturalized Canadian billionaire" who owns the Brooklyn Nets, posted on Facebook that "hundreds of millions of Chinese" were insulted by Morey's tweet. Rogin claims that Tsai's "ties to Beijing run very deep, and his politics are completely in support of the CCP’s aims."

Still on the theme of the "dire threat" and the NBA, in October 2019, 15 young American-resident "Uyghur activists" chanted, carried posters and wore t-shirts protesting against Chinese repression in Hong Kong, in XUOR and against Lebron James who disagreed with the Morey tweet.  The protestors were not allowed to carry their signs into the stadium.  They were verbally attacked in Mandarin by a spectator after the game.  

The individuals Rogin mentions are prominent activists.  Bahram Sintash works for the US-funded  Radio Free Asia and Ferkat Jawdat, whose protests of his mother's detainment in China have been widely publicized in the USA,  was granted a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The problem with Rogin's claims of China's being a dire threat to the USA and the world is that the concrete examples, like the NBA kerfuffle, never come close to supporting the level of his vocabulary. 

American claimants of Chinese malfeasance like Sintash and Jawdat seem to receive significant US access and support.  In Rogin's monograph, "Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell" is presented as an object of suspicion because of her family ties to China.    Steven Mnuchin, Trump's Secretary of the Treasury, who, according to Rogin, "fought [ . . ] tooth and nail" against sanctions and a trade war with China, is presented, at turns, as a  dupe and a sell-out to the Chinese masterplan of world domination.

 A Different choice of words

The most repeated adjectives in Has China Won? would include: "rational," reasonable," "logical," "balanced," and "pragmatic."  Hence, a typical paragraph from the Mahbubani monograph would be:

Common sense would dictate that both countries should cooperate in infrastructure. Yet, given the poisonous political attitudes toward each other, common sense cannot operate. This is why a major strategic reboot is needed in the relationship between the two powers. If the two powers first tried to define what their core national interests were—especially their core interests in improving the livelihoods of their people—they would come to the logical conclusion that there is fundamentally a noncontradiction between their national interests.

The Question of spin

Mahbubani and Rogin seem to deal with a similar handful of facts but each gives these facts a very different spin.  For example, the fact that American companies are extensively invested and profiting in China, while China is extensively invested in the financial markets in the USA, at face value, might seem a good thing, a "win, win" as the Chinese love to say, and a guarantee of peace and prosperity for all.  Similarly, the fact that China contributes billions to American universities, funding various scientific and academic collaborations, as well as Confucious Institutes to educate Westerners on the Chinese language and culture, at first glance, seems laudable. 

Rogin is adamant that these entanglements are a threat to all that Americans hold dear. Mahbubani is full of praise for American universities, but Rogin details how Chinese funding of university programs has become an intense focus of US national security and secret services. Rogin himself signed up for a course at an American Confucius Institute and discovered nothing more perfidious than an effort to teach him Mandarin but assures the reader that these centers are designed for greater ulterior motives.

Rogin details how Americans end up investing in Chinese companies through index funds on the US stock markets.  To exemplify the risks of investing in China,  Rogin cites the China Hustle, a Netflix documentary, about the use of "reverse mergers" in which Chinese companies merge with a dormant company on the US market thereby allowing the Chinese company to be publically traded in the US.  As the documentary shows, American speculators were eager to invest in Chinese companies.  The con in this process is the misrepresented value of the underlying Chinese companies.  [Very similar to what went on in the dot.com meltdown.] The problem with Rogin's argument is that, based on my viewing of the documentary, it isn't clear that this is uniquely and exclusively a Chinese hustle, and could equally well be described as an American hustle with Chinese participation.  In fact, Chinese media revealed the scam years before American investors began to take notice.

A common complaint about China's "not following the rules," including in Rogin's book, is "forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft."  As Mahbubani outlines, China has profited and progressed mightily since it joined the WTO (World Trade Organization) as a "developing country" in 2001.  Mahbubani explains that, while some American businesspeople might resent the requirement, "under the WTO’s agreements on intellectual property, developed countries are under ‘the obligation’ to provide incentives to their companies to transfer technology to less developed countries.”  Obviously, American businesses might rankle at Chinese companies' "playing the rulebook," the requirements and additional pressure to transfer data and intellectual property, but have accepted the situation as the price of doing business and making healthy profits.  The current complaints stem from China's having so rapidly progressed from being a "developing country" to a super "developed country."





The USA's not-so-secret weapon

One fact that both Mahbubani and Rogin agree upon is that the USA's ultimate weapon against China is the American dollar, aka the Federal Reserve Note. (See also Petrodollar Warfare.)  The US dollar is the "global reserve currency" meaning most international transactions are made with US currency.  In other words, virtually every country in the world needs US dollars to buy stuff from other countries.  Most of the money in the world's financial system is created by private banks and financial institutions (See The Truth about Money), but the process begins with the US Treasury printing "treasury bills" (basically IOUs from the US government) and selling them to institutions in the US and around the world.  If you have US Treasury bills worth X amount, you are considered to have X amount of US dollars, which you can use to pay for things from other countries which might not be willing to accept your country's currency as payment.  Being the country which supplies the money which other countries have to use works out very favourably for the USA.

As Mahbubani explains:

Domestically, the US government spends more than it collects in income. This creates a fiscal deficit. Internationally, America imports more goods than it exports. This creates a trade deficit. How does America pay for these twin deficits? It borrows money.

Unlike other countries whose currencies would be devalued and economies collapse if they over-extended their borrowing,

America can fund its twin deficits and pay for its excess expenditures by printing Treasury bills. The US Treasury only has to pay for the cost of paper. In return for handing out pieces of paper, the rest of the world sends real money (hard-earned cash) to buy the US Treasury bills. For example, Chinese workers have to work hard to produce low-cost goods to export to the rest of the world. These exports receive hard-earned dollars, which the Chinese government converts to yuan to pay to the workers. What does the Chinese government do with these hard-earned dollars? It uses many of these to buy US Treasury bills. The US Treasury then uses these dollars from China to pay for excess government expenditures. For the record, the largest purchasers of US Treasuries are China ($1.113 trillion), Japan ($1.064 trillion), Brazil ($306.7 billion), the United Kingdom ($300.8 billion), and Ireland ($269.7 billion).

Mahbubani suggests the USA's "weaponizing of the dollar," to punish any company dealing with Iran, for example, is an unnecessary strategy which puts the incredible privilege of the US dollar's being the global reserve currency at risk.  Rogin, on the other hand, quotes "Roger Robinson, the former chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission" and "the son of a senior FBI counterintelligence official."  Robinson, who "started his career as a Wall Street banker, but [ . .] made his name as a cold warrior," argued that the USA needed to further leverage "China’s single greatest weakness and one of America’s greatest strengths—access to money."

Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet

Rogin's book and most Western media reports on China's relations with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet tend to use a typical array of terms: "genocide," "cultural genocide," "ethnic cleansing," "repression," "invasion," etc.  These discourses are striking for what they leave unsaid--the historical, cultural, political and even geographical context.  For example, most reports on the Uyghur genocide leave out discussion of the East Turkestan separatist movement,   Uyghur terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and throughout the Middle East, or even that the USA has imprisoned Uyghur in Guantanimo.  

Articles on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong rarely include reference to the fact that China was forced to surrender Hong Kong to the British Empire and to accept imports of opium as a consequence of the Opium Wars

As US naval forces are building up in preparation to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, there is little recognition that since Taiwan already enjoys de facto independence with goods, services and people able to move in both directions from Taiwan to China, Taiwan has little need for "official" independence, and China has little motivation to invade.  

Reports on the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1949 and ongoing "cultural genocide" rarely include reference to the Seventeen Point Agreement between China and Tibet, which included provisions such as

The central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama. Officials of various ranks shall continue to hold office.
The established status, functions and powers of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni shall be maintained. 
By the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Ngoerhtehni are meant the status, functions and powers of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and the ninth Panchen Ngoerhtehni when they had friendly and amicable relations with each other.
The policy of freedom of religious belief as laid down in the common program shall be carried out. The religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, and lama monasteries shall be protected. The central authorities will not effect a change in the income of the monasteries.

After signing, the Tibetan government in exile facilitated by the CIA repudiated the peace treaty. Would the inclusion or exclusion of these facts from the predominant discourse make any difference? To those who are fully committed to the Manichean vision of a morally superior USA and China as an evil empire (or the exact reverse), the facts won't make much difference. To undecided skeptics, like me, a discourse that attempts to be inclusive, comprehensive, contextualized, balanced and measured is what approaches coherent truth, and offers a rational way forward.

US Objectives in supporting independence movements in China

In a full-page opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Roger Garside, author of China Coup:  The Great Leap to Freedom, argues that 

[ . . ] the U.S. and its allies must make regime change in China the highest goal of their strategy toward that country. This is not a goal that governments can openly declare, but it is one they must actively pursue.
This well-known secret is the only explanation, in pragmatic terms, for US-backed support for independence movements in regions of China.  As a consequence, logically, it would be impractical, in fact, political suicide, under the present conditions, for the Chinese regime to soften its stance vis-a-vis democracy and independence in these regions.

Differences of culture

Western discourse on China is inevitably couched in terms of "freedom," "democracy," and "human rights," but such claims seem credulous.  The People's Republic of China operates under a communist system.  The presumed ethical underpinning of the system is utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number. Western democracies operating in a capitalist system are based on egoism, whatever is good for the individual is ethical.  The prioritizing of individual human rights over other concerns and values is a mark of Western democracies even while they struggle to act according to their own ethical standards.  Communist China, in contrast, clearly prioritizes what is good for the majority:  security, peace, even solidarity over the rights of the individual.  The constant complaint against communist China failing to operate according to a democratic system of Western values seems willfully naive.

As Mahbubani puts it:

Americans hold sacrosanct the ideals of freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion and also believe that every human being is entitled to the same fundamental human rights. The Chinese believe that social needs and social harmony are more important than individual needs and rights and that the prevention of chaos and turbulence is the main goal of governance. In short, America and China clearly believe in two different sets of political values.

These days, across the political spectrum, understanding the opposition is seen as a sign of weakness.  (See Madness and Terrorism:  Between Sympathy and Understanding.)  But what is the alternative?

Meanwhile in Canada

Roger Garside claims it is an ominous sign for communist China "that public opinion in a country as pacific and measured in its outlook as Canada should have evolved as it has."  Has Canadian public opinion about China "evolved" or was it decided for us? 

Both Rogin and Mahbubani recognize Canada as a trusted ally of the USA.  However, both mention that when Trump imposed tariffs on China, he imposed them on Canada at the same time.



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