Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Great White Whale and an Empty Rag

“…a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it”

“The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!”

Herman Melville’s words greeted this day 159 years ago as American readers began their entranced journey with Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod in search of the elusive Moby Dick. Cracking open the classic, Chapter 1 reads like it was pulled off the newsstands moments ago:

“Grand Contested U.S. Election”
“Bloody Battle in Afghanistan”

Really? After a century and a half, we’ve advanced thus far?

I was reflecting on this paradox as I drove to Washington’s Dulles International Airport for my flight to California. En route, the BBC was reporting on the interview with British General Sir David Richards who was quoted as saying that the West cannot defeat al-Qaida. Defeating Islamist militancy, he said, was “unnecessary and would never be achieved.” I couldn’t help but think about the futility of Melville’s caricature of the first Anglo-Afghan campaign and the 1843 analysis by the Reverend G. H. Gleig, a British Army Chaplain from the failed war. He discerned that the war was, “…begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it.” General Richards and his U.S. counterparts have not studied or taken heed of Gleig’s summation in which he declared that “Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.” For at the end of Richards’ interview, he recommended that the solution for Afghanistan was education and Democracy. Ah, I hear that there’s a great white whale out there!

Quite possibly, the most profound observation in Moby Dick is Queequeg’s observation that “…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” While I waited in the interminable line at the moribund TSA queue at Dulles (quite possibly now the single most inefficient TSA outpost in the U.S.), I reflected on the events of the past week. No really, with over 20 x-ray machines and body scanners sitting idle, TSA, thanks so much for giving travelers time to reflect! With an employment crisis in America, staff the equipment for crying out loud! Oh, there I go…, now back to my reflection.

Melville’s wisdom spoken through a South Sea Islander showed up in many manifestations this week. As I spoke to a colleague about creating new economic models for farmers in Bangladesh, I was impressed by the intellectual poverty our society has when thinking about alternative capital models. While conscious of the usurious tyranny of micro-credit (celebrated with a Nobel Prize) in which people are charged over 40% interest in the world’s poorest nations in the name of development, equity was suggested as the only alternative. Why? Was there any notion of enterprise liquidation possible? Was there a healthy merger and acquisition middle market to monetize an enterprise in Bangladesh? Was there ethical capital that would be patient to partner with a new enterprise in its bumpy launch? No. Equity was suggested because we don’t know a different way. When the Treasury and the Federal Reserve both know that our economic “recovery” is a façade masking the obfuscation of toxic assets which overlay our current Great Depression, they turn to printing more money so that the Fed can support bank dividends one last, euphoric time before the sham is revealed. And when we know that our Bretton Woods debt-based currency is valueless, we haul out the G-20 apologists to rail against a gold standard failing to realize that China and the rest of the growing economies have already adopted a de facto basket commodity monetary standard.

And for the moment, let’s set aside the screaming reality that needs to be addressed – namely, that we don’t understand the illusions in our own fallacies which lead us to believe that the levers we’re manipulating will change the collision course with reality. Rising above the din of hawkers of “recoveromics” is a commentary that Melville and his literary contemporaries Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes seemed to discern 160 years ago. We don’t effectuate change by altering the narrative by degrees. We can only provide perspective to effect social change by offering an entirely new narrative that is evidenced in graphic realism.

Let me explain. The reason why the British went to war in the first Anglo-Afghan war was to secure safe-passage for industrial interests. That’s right. Men were sent to their deaths in service to companies – not to a country. Resources required to sate the consumption of Europe needed to have access to overland routes from India and Afghan interests were not cooperative. So tens of thousands were killed and the world was no less dangerous. For business and ideology, the British – in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (and then the Russians and Americans) – followed the same path. Hundreds of thousands were killed and the world was no less dangerous. While Americans were literally and figuratively fighting amongst themselves (levying tariffs to make Northern Industrialists wealthy and hold the South in a subordinate position) and the British were campaigning in Afghanistan, Germany’s Second Reich was investing in science and technology and coming up with things like the internal combustion engine (1876) and high speed rail (1879). By 1900, the economy built on investing in new metaphors for industrial vision in Germany eclipsed the British economy built on military defense of trade routes.

Whether it is in how we view economic, political, or ideological systems, or how we approach transformation, a picture seems to emerge like that barnacle encrusted white whale from the depths of the abyss. We can continue to use the tools which have brought us our current ruinous condition – usury, subterfuge, futile conflicts animated by ideological monomaniacal despots, and wanton gluttony – and, when enlightened, rail against the same. Or, we can actively endeavor to manifest a different narrative. The harpoon rope that pulled hunter and hunted into their watery grave is as unimaginative in the governments of the U.S. and Europe today as it was 160 years ago. And in 2170, another carbon-based life form may sit at his keyboard and join Melville and me in trying to point out the need for new modes of engagement. However, I know that we’ve had our fill of Ahabs. In collaboration with colleagues around the world, we’re lighting lamps without blubber. Consignment to perdition is not a human condition that must persist.

Call me David. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world… let’s write a new story.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave