Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gold, silver, and war

In The Good Olde Days, not all that long ago, currency notes could be exchanged for gold or silver at most banks in the Western world. Indeed, in many countries (perhaps all; I don’t know) currency notes began as simple chits issued by warehouses. People got tired of carrying around lumps of metal. Why not park them in specialist warehouses owned by goldsmiths and silversmiths, get their receipts, and carry those around to pay for goods and services? As long as the warehouse-owners were trusted, and their receipts weren’t forged, there would be no problem. Reputation was everything.

A single receipt for a pound of gold or silver might not be easily negotiable, but if you asked the man nicely he would give you twelve receipts each exchangeable for a troy ounce. (12 ounces to the pound. A troy ounce is 480 grains, and a grain is 64.79891 milligrams. Wikipedia is not always reliable on certain international political matters, but I don’t think it would lie to us about weights and measures.)

Why gold and silver? Because there was a limited supply of each metal, and that supply was tightly controlled by tribal or national rulers, who also controlled the manufacture of official monetary coins. A system of coinage wouldn’t have worked with stones (for instance) because anybody could pick up stones along the road, and how would the local rulers control their supply? Central control was essential, if casual panners and miners were to be kept in their place at the bottom of the social ladder.

From earliest times, rulers of clans, tribes and nations insisted on licensing the warehouses, and usually claimed first dibs on the right to borrow or steal the inventory of stored metals. The borrowed gold and silver was used to buy weapons of war, and was repaid out of the loot from conquered towns and cities. From the Roman and Norman conquests of England to the Mongolian and British conquests of India, loot was the main objective. The gold-warehouses did well out of successful wars, and often went broke after unsuccessful ones when there was no loot to replace the borrowed inventories.

Having a vested interest in their borrowers’ success, warehouse-owners tried mightily to see that wars ended in the way that was most profitable for them. As bankers, they still do. Wars are still a major source of profits, both directly (lending to governments to buy weapons and soldiers) and indirectly (lending to armies and weapons-makers). There are huge profits to be made out of invading and occupying foreign producers of oil and minerals, notably in Africa and the Middle East.

Today’s national rulers insist on central control. It can be argued that the bankers today control the rulers; but it is more accurate to say that the bankers are the rulers. They own the legislators.

If you think about it, there is no other reason to wage war, than to obtain loot. The exact form of the loot changes according to circumstances, but in essence it is always something that can produce greater wealth for the looters. Occasionally it is land, but usually it’s something portable.

Invasions and occupations are sometimes reported as being for access to water or harbours or strategic mountains, but those are incidental objectives. Histories tell of wars between religions or cultures, but there has always been a material objective in mind. Today the bullshit is about “the clash of cultures” – Western Christians and Jews versus Eastern Moslems – with the Chinese being held in reserve for the next manufactured clash of cultures.

Today the Western invaders’ purpose is oil and minerals. Easterners haven’t done any invading, lately, but if they ever get around to it, their objectives will be the same – maybe even the exact same oil etc that is being stolen from them now! There will be nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Confessions of a subversive

Surfing online blogs and forums is a fascinating waste of time. It probably doesn’t amount to an addiction, but it’s close. I am signed on to five expat-forums, and there are five expat bloggers that I check out every few days. The bloggers all write entertainingly and fluently from their current homes in France, Chile, Thailand, Santo Domingo and Indonesia. My blog is not as popular as theirs, but it does have some followers.

Because blogs are essentially ego-trips, we bloggers all envy those among us who manage to attract thousands of hits each week. How satisfying that must be! My blog gets around one thousand a month – pretty small beer. I don’t advertise my blog locally, because attracting too many local fans might land me in more trouble than I could handle. For the past 26 years my writings have brought the wrath of the political and bureaucratic establishments down on my head, and I don’t want to have to fight deportation again.

I first found myself “off-message” when I was hired to set up a permanent Chamber of Commerce office in 1986. Despite being a British colony, Cayman openly censors commentaries, especially by expats. There is a whole department of government devoted to suppressing freedom of speech. A major purpose of our Immigration Department is to exercise censorship through the issuance or non-issuance of Work Permits.

The local politicians reluctantly allowed the Chamber of Commerce job to go to an expat; they had to be persuaded that they had nothing to fear. Unfortunately, that wasn't true. Supported for the first time by a back office, my Directors publicly opposed two major proposed Laws. Those Laws provided for state control of the entire private-sector workforce and of all pension-moneys. Oops! Shocked by this unprecedented opposition in a hitherto docile electorate, the political directorship slandered the Chamber as “a seditious organisation” and its Manager as a “subversive”.

When we actually won the hearts and minds of the voters on the pensions issue (we called it an Income Tax), my Work Permit was pulled and my young son scheduled for deportation. Linda and I scrambled to salvage what we could. This was our home, and no bunch of quasi-Marxist politicians was going to throw us out. For the next two years I was stamped in each month as a visitor by the Chief Immigration Officer, a Civil Servant who reported to the British Governor and not to the local establishment.

In self-defence I began writing political commentaries in the lesser local newspapers, and became so high-profile as to be almost impossible to deport. Both parties fought to a standstill, and retired exhausted. A bold dissident to most expats of the day (though not all), a hateful villain to many Caymanians, I finally won the right to stay; but there was a whole mess of blood on the floor when the fight was over – and much of it was mine.

Over time, the lesser newspapers folded, and a generous fan set up my blog as a vehicle for my critiques of society’s shortcomings. Blogs cost nothing to operate, so they need no revenue, and no advertisers who might be vulnerable to threats from the authorities.

Bloggers can write what they feel like writing; it’s a wonderful freedom. My blog covers religion, historical speculation, politics, crime, finance, human rights, violence against women, and barking dogs – as well as carrying reminiscences about back-packing through the Middle East in the 1960s with a girl I met at a Youth Hostel and later married.

This month I reported on playing cricket in Vanuatu and Corfu, for goodness sake. Fun to write, but not the sort of topic to attract a huge worldwide base of avid readers. Sigh. I probably need to work on a new business model.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When the clock struck four (cricket in Corfu)

Most Scots are cheerful folk, but the race does produce some individuals who are dour, humourless and just plain cranky. Ian was one of these. All the same, we were momentarily sorry when Fred hit him with a cricket ball. Fred was our team’s fast-bowler and Ian was half an hour late on an attempted leg-glance.

(American readers, please just accept the technicalities without question. They’d take too long to explain. Be thankful I didn’t describe the attempt as a shot off his legs. His legs were never in any danger of being shot off. It’s just – oh, never mind.)

The ball hit him on the back of his thigh, behind the pad. He went down in a heap – in obvious pain and cursing fit to bust. We fielders cut short our appeal for LBW and gathered round the fallen warrior. The umpire wandered down from the bowler’s end. “Are you all right, Ian?” Poor Ian. “Of course I’m not all right, you bloody fool! It hurts like hell and I can’t stand up.” The umpire sighed in sympathy. “Well, I’ve got some more bad news for you. You’re out.” Poor Ian – the only man on the field who didn’t see the funny side of that.

The standard of cricket in Vila in the New Hebrides (now Port Vila, in Vanuatu) was low enough to allow me to participate without embarrassment – and Ian too, most days. It was the first time I’d played since high school 16 years before, and the setting was too beautiful to resist. The field was a specially cleared space in The British Paddock, overlooking the little harbour with Iririki Island in the middle distance.

(At this time – the early 1970s – the New Hebs were jointly administered by Britain and France as what was formally called a Condominium. Informally, it was called a pandemonium, which fairly describes the chaos that usually results when the French and the British join forces in any venture. I’ll write about that some other time; this post is supposed to be about cricket.)

A year or so after leaving Vila, we and our new baby were living out of a Kombi van and an old tent in a camping ground on Corfu, where I turned out a few times for The British Casuals. That was a scratch team of whatever foreigners happened to be on the Island. The standard was as low as it was in Vila, so I felt no shame.

The British had introduced cricket during their governance of the Island in the fifty years following the Battle of Waterloo. There was a Greek National Team in my day, whose members were spread among three or four local teams, which played with us on equal terms. All one can decently say about their abilities was that they were better cricketers than umpires.

They weren’t always sure of the rules, which situation generally worked for them. They scrupulously kept the rule about stopping for tea when the clock struck four, but were less fussy about others. On the other hand, they had only a tenuous grasp of tactics, which usually worked against them.

The field was in the middle of the Corfu Town Square, surrounded by seedy hotels and restaurants. Recent photos on Cricinfo.com show that matches are still played there, although there is also a far nicer place elsewhere on the Island. The Greek National Team is now drawn from eleven clubs and plays in a formal ICC league, ranked very low down alongside places like Pitcairn and Lithuania.

At least, they did before the current economic crisis. If the poor fellows can’t afford to import bats and balls any more they may revert to the standards of old. I wonder if they still have my name and address in the archives...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cayman for visitors

 Jay and Kay (real names changed to protect the innocent) have put Linda up twice over the years, in Australia, so we owed them. They were here this week for a few days, and we showed them around. They’re our age, so there were no booze sessions at beach parties or nightclubs. The pace was leisurely; we concentrated on four of our Island’s best attractions for oldies: Rum Point, “Stingray City”, the Turtle Farm and Camana Bay.

Grand Cayman is a very comfortable place to live (the comfort being largely based on thousands of low-paid indentured migrants), but it doesn’t have anything in the way of beautiful scenery. Driving around is pleasant, and the contrast of rich and poor is interesting, but it’s not a pretty island.

We drove our friends to the other end of the Island and back, stopping at Rum Point for some shallow snorkelling, and an outdoor lunch after all the cruise-ship passengers had left. The latter are bussed up to a jetty on North Sound and boated across to feed the stingrays before lunching at Rum Point. Drinks and fish-&-chips for the four of us cost US$100, which is pretty good value for here. No charge for using the beach chairs, and we brought our own snorkel gear.

Next day, Captain Marvin’s crew took us out to the stingrays’ feeding place by the reef at the entrance to North Sound. The rays bump and nudge humans for food, which caused Jay and Kay to have nervous flashbacks of Steve Irwin’s death in 2006; a frightened ray stabbed him in the heart with its stinger. (Irwin was an eccentric Australian who played dangerous games with crocodiles, snakes and stingrays in the wild, until he ran out of luck.)

The Turtle Farm is good value these days for US$15 each. Swimming with turtles isn’t my cup of tea, but most people like to cuddle them, as much as turtles can be cuddled. We used to keep a couple of terrapins when our son was young. They scrabbled for attention whenever they heard my footsteps on the stairs, and liked being stroked. We thought they loved us, but when Linda let them out for a walk one day they ran off and never came back. Well, “ran off”... Disappeared, anyway.

The Turtle Farm is state-owned, and (therefore) loses between $500,000 and a million dollars every month. Those bumper-stickers that read CRIME WOULDN’T PAY, IF THE GOVERNMENT RAN IT -- very appropriate. Cayman has more than its fair share of loss-making government enterprises. Pedro’s Castle is another. It’s a tarted-up Civil Service committee’s version of a plantation “great house” that requires two girls (one cheerful, the other not) to sell ice-creams and tickets to chance callers-by. We welcomed the ice-creams, but didn’t reckon it was worth ten bucks apiece to see a fake castle up close.

Camana Bay is a visionary new town being built on a fifty-year timeline by Ken Dart, whose company manufactures most of those Styrofoam-type containers that fast-food comes in. The town (“Dartsville”, informally) is a peaceful and gentle place to wander round, and very popular with residents. No expense has been spared, or discounted rents for several (many?) of the shops and restaurants. There’s no way some of them can be earning a profit from such scant custom.

We got up ridiculously early this morning to see Jay and Kay off. We may never see them again, but we gave them some good memories of our island. You do what you can, don’t you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The war against women

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) drives hundreds of soldiers and veterans of today’s Western armies (mainly Americans) to kill themselves, and sometimes their families too. Usually, the suicides come after months of depression and despair; nightmares, fragile nerves and paranoia are common symptoms. Families and old friends watch the victims sink under the burden of bad memories of the atrocities they have seen and done during their overseas deployments.

It may seem a perverse judgment on first reading, but in some degree those suicides represent the hope of mankind. They are our proof that some soldiers retain enough humanity to feel shame and guilt at the things they have been ordered to do, and have done. Of course not all who share those experiences and memories feel driven to suicide. Most suffer in silence, and pretend they don’t suffer. Some aren’t affected at all, because they lack the mental capacity for compassion. They are sociopaths, pretty much by definition, and we should be very afraid of them.

They will be our children’s and grandchildren’s guardians and torturers. They will be the enforcers of any and all oppressive domestic decrees and laws, and will bring to that job the same cold brutality they practised during their military service. They will obey orders without question. They are monsters.

There was a news item recently about a US drone strike on fifteen women and babies in Pakistan on the way to the river to do the family laundry. Now there are strict rules for the ordering of drone strikes; there is nothing casual about them. The targets are carefully identified and certified, and their assassinations justified and specified. Only then are their executions passed into the steady hands of the drone-pilots in military bases inside the USA. There is nothing casual about the exercise.

The slaughter of the women and babies was deliberate, as all such slaughters are. That’s what terrorism is, in occupied territories – taking out innocents in the hope of persuading fathers and spouses to stop resisting the occupation. That’s America’s and NATO’s “war of terror”. It’s the Mafia model, and it works well.

How do those actions rank in the general context of violence against women and children? Is it worse than domestic wife-bashing and child-cruelty, or better, or about the same? My own personal opinion is that it’s worse, but I may be wrong. I am a human-rights advocate, and my loyalty is to the human race, above any particular ingredient of it. I am not a Christian, but I honour the sentiment ascribed to Christ in the King James Version: inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I interpret brethren to include sistren (sisters), and I regard the sentiment as applicable beyond whatever tribal or national context they may have held. Not everybody does, which is why “human rights” have failed to be accepted as anything more than leftist whimsy.

No women’s organisation or children’s protection society in the West ever publicly deplores drone-strikes against foreign women and children. Simple tribal solidarity beats gender solidarity hands down.

Why else aren’t Western women's organisations interested in the basic rights of women and children in non-Western countries? Why do they grumble about the enforced wearing of burkas and the like, but stay silent on rapes and murders by Western soldiers? What kind of priority is that?

By their silence, Western women (judging by their representatives) give support to their tribal soldiers’ perception that females and children of different tribes and cultures aren’t worth spit. God help us. As a culture, ours is not nearly as advanced as we like to think it is. We have a long way to evolve, yet.