Everybody’s got a theory on why Europe has done so well over the past couple hundred years. Why were the squabbling peoples of this small peninsula able to humble great empires like China and India’s Mughals? Well, obviously, there are a lot of reasons. And the internet (and the US congress) is awash in some really dumb ones. But I think I’ve got a good candidate that isn’t championed enough which I lay out in this video.
I’m a big fan of Western Civilization. I’m well aware of the downsides, but I’m also pretty impressed with what has been accomplished. But I find the standard story lacking. It’s too reliant on easy answers, and a direct line up from the Middle Ages. In this video I get into the details of the Protestant Reformation, and why it doesn’t match the standard story. The success of Western Civilization has been down to a few acts of genius, but mostly a muddle of unintended consequences, and some horrific mistakes, that ended up turning out pretty well. I think I’m paraphrasing a great David Hume quote there, but I can’t find it at the moment. If you know the quote I’d be grateful if you’d send it my way…
This two video series on literacy may seem to be a departure from my current production, but in many ways it’s an outgrowth of the thousands of comments I’ve answered over the past couple months. My “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” project is an attempt to point out how pointless it is to talk about 1400 year old ideas when we are dealing with the problems of the present day. This quick series deals with the importance of literacy, and why little that happened before mass literacy matters all that much. Let me know what you think!
Crowd-funded Media is essential. I’d like it if I could continue to do it, but that’s beside the point. We’ve got a lot of great institutions that do essential reporting and analysis. From newspapers, to universities, and even think tanks. But all of these institutions have obvious and hidden stake-holders that they are accountable to. We all know about the way that news organizations have to keep their advertisers happy. But Universities and think tanks have less obvious issues as well. Schools and think tanks are dependent on the US government for a lot of their funding. Schools have rich foreign students to attract. It’s not that this necessarily makes their coverage dishonest, it’s just that they won’t look into certain topics. This excellent New York Times article pointed out how completely large think tanks are owned by sovereign wealth funds and other large players.
None of this is a secret. It just isn’t talked about much. But it’s one of the most important factors impacting the way we see the world. Which is one of the reasons I started the More Freedom Foundation five years ago. I may not be able to continue to do this work, but we need someone to do it. It’s only individuals, and small groups of individuals that can truly look at the world honestly. Today I published a video on why I may be a joke, but I’m a joke worth supporting.
I launched a fund-raising drive last week, and the response has been incredible. We’re a third of the way to the goal just one week into the two month drive! I’m humbled and grateful to all of you, not just those who have chipped in on Patreon. Your views, likes, subscribes, comments and reads make this whole thing possible. So I’ve decided to give away a free essay. “Your War On Drugs, 6,000 Words on the Shame of the Nation” will be available for free for the kindle from May 22nd to May 26th. For those of you without a kindle I’ve attached a pdf version here…
My roommates went to Coachella this weekend. When they got back I made them talk about Saudi Arabia. They were pretty beat, but it’s still a more useful conversation than you would ever get on Fox News or CNN. The talk is a bit rambling, but it’s super useful. It gave us a chance to enlarge on some of the issues brought up by the videos. It also brings in some of the issues covered by the “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay that may not get covered in the videos.
The most important issue that the talk covers is my personal attitude towards Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabians. It’s important to emphasize that as angry as I am about the US-Saudi relationship, I bear no ill will towards Saudi Arabians. The whole country, even its leadership is caught in a trap. It’s not a trap that’s entirely of their own making. Find out more by reading the essay…
This is it! I’ve been preparing this “Everybody’s Lying About Islam” essay and video series for a very long time. Saudi Arabia is a problem, and nobody talks about it. So let’s talk about it. The standard establishment “Islam is a Religion of Peace” line is true to a degree. But it is deployed to deflect attention from Saudi Arabia and its very real and malign effect on world-wide Islam. Because US politicians (Trump included) spend all their effort protecting Saudi Arabia, the country most responsible for 9-11, many Americans get the accurate sense that they’re being lied to. They question why radical Islam remains a problem after 15 years of supposedly fighting it. Unfortunately this leaves them open to the Islamophobic line peddled across the political spectrum from Donald Trump to Bill Maher. The essay does what no corporate media outlet is interested in doing. It documents the US-Saudi relationship from FDR on down, and illustrates the horrific effects the relationship has had. 9-11 is nowhere near the worst of it.
This video is the first in a looong series I have prepped on the topic. Of course if you want the full story, I suggest you buy the essay “Everybody’s Lying about Islam”, available now on the Amazon Kindle. As I say in the video, it will tell you more about “what’s really going on” than a year of watching Fox News, or a year of reading the New York Times.
AHCA has failed! But what does this mean for Donald Trump? My suspicion is that this is what Trump and Bannon wanted all along. My roommate Ray disagrees with me strongly. We’ve decided to bet on the outcome. I think some kind of broader coverage Trumpcare plan will come out within the next six months. Ray disagrees. The loser will be forced to endure some form of social media shaming. What do you think that should be?
Steven Pinker talks about the “expanding circle of empathy”. Today’s video is an exercise in that. The concept, as I understand it, goes something like this. When we were all living in caves, we looked out for our family and that was about it. As societies develop, the circle of empathy expands. We look out for our tribe, our city, and over the past couple hundred years or so we’ve begun to see entire nation states as “our people”. Many of the challenges and victories of the past couple decades can be explained through this concept. Fights over everything from civil rights for other races and orientations, to environmentalism and animal rights are generated by differing ideas of the circle of empathy.
I’m generally a fan of expanding the circle. As I get older and crustier, I’m sure to object to stuff new generations come up with, but as of 2017, I’m pretty down with most expansion efforts. There’s one in particular that I try to get out ahead of. I spend a lot of time thinking about geopolitics. So much of what is written on the topic in the US fails to see things from the other side. It’s not that I’m not patriotic, it’s just that I think US interests are better served when we understand how other people are feeling. An expanding circle of empathy is a good in and of itself, but there’s also a utility there.
This video started off within one circle of empathy, and ends up in a broader one. Empathy is hard. The makers of Kong: Skull Island may have worried about the first circle, but as their actions and this video show, they put zero thought into the second.
Remember the too big to fail banks? They are still a problem. I don’t know when the next crisis is coming, but it’s inevitable. Too many of the problems at the root of the 2008 crisis have never been solved. This video lays out how Dodd Frank made everything worse. But it has created a situation that won’t be improved by repeal. It’s one of those catch-22 things basically.
I love it when the environment I’m in inspires a video. San Francisco is an interesting place. There’s a ton of money everywhere, and a ton of poverty too. I’m currently in the midst of a tour of the West Coast, staying anywhere there is a free couch, and San Francisco has probably been the most inspiring city. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Market Street, where the bulk of this video is set, has a ton of history (For California). The street has seen multiple cycles of boom and bust since the mid 19th century. The current vibe is definitely boom.
A few blocks away the Salesforce Tower is currently going up. It will be the tallest building in San Francisco and the second tallest west of the Mississippi. It’s hard not to think of the “edifice complex”. Nothing signals a coming downturn like a massive new skyscraper. NYC’s Empire State and Chrysler Buildings went up during the beginning of the great depression. The buildings that ended US dominance in the Skyscraper game, Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, were finished in 1996, one year before the Asian Financial Crisis. The Burj Khalifa, the biggest of them all (so far) signaled a financial crisis for Dubai.
The Salesforce Tower ends the video, but it definitely cast the mindset for the whole thing. That and Wells Fargo’s hilariously bloated presence in downtown SF put me in mind of financial crises past and future. I don’t know when the crisis will hit. Who knows, we could be at the beginning of a great boom rather than its end. But if our banks continue to be structured the way they are, we’re going to be in trouble eventually regardless. Hugs!
This video convinced me to put together a new playlist “MFF on the Markets“. The channel tends to be a little more focused on history and geopolitics, but I’ve been a stockbroker and a corporate lawyer in my day, so I’ve got some stuff to contribute on the topics of law and markets when I can stomach it. I was surprised that the playlist came to 34 videos. Check ’em out!
Certain white people like to bitch about identity politics. There are elements of this argument that I understand, and partially agree with. But if we’re going to discard identity politics white people should go first.
Last weekend I saw “I am Not Your Negro” a documentary film based on the words of James Baldwin. You should go see it. It helped me formulate some ideas I’ve been mulling over since listening to the soundtrack to the Hamilton musical. If you voted for Clinton, the chances are higher you know all about Hamilton. If you voted for Trump you may have no idea what I’m talking about it. The video does a fairly good job of explaining the phenomenon.
What follows is another white guy pontificating on race relations. Feel free to avoid it.
I believe that the United States could have a post-racial future. As James Baldwin says in the video above, we can forge a new identity on this continent. Many would argue that we already have. Most of my college professors held that the concept of “Whiteness” as currently practiced in this country is a wholly American invention. This was always served with heaping mouthfuls of Marxist interpretations of labor relations, so I’m not sure I’m completely on board. But I’ll eagerly concede that “White” and “Black” are slippery definitions. Italians weren’t necessarily seen as white 100 years ago, and the Irish weren’t 50 years before that.
Some would argue that the definition of “Whiteness” requires an “Other” to use as contrast. In this view the Italians and Irish assimilation to US whiteness relied upon the out group of African Americans to look down on. I’m not sure I buy that. But I’m happy to retire the concept of whiteness entirely. If the 20th century was the story of the color line, why not let the 21st century be the story of its disposal?
Accession to white privilege used to be the sign of successful assimilation. We can do better. Here’s a standard white privilege line: “What’s with all the hyphenations!? Why can’t we just be Americans!?” I’m actually kind of sympathetic to that, not that it’s my business how folks define themselves. Most people pushing that line, however, would probably take issue with the video above. In particular the fact that the only white guys in Star Wars movies seem to be the bad guys nowadays has been a real sticking point for a lot of white people. There seems to be a growing movement for “White Rights”.
Leaving aside about a million other objections to that idea, it strikes me as the wrong strategy. If you’ve got a problem with “identity politics”, jumping on the bandwagon is exactly the wrong way to go about opposing it. If you’re interested in a color-blind “American” identity, then you should be celebrating the de-whiting of our national mythology. An “American” identity should be built on our civic culture and history. To do that well, we need to make that culture and history as accessible as possible.
US history has never just been about folks from Europe. Paler folks were in the drivers seat for a lot of it. But people of color were making contributions every step of the way, and not just involuntarily. We need to do a better job of highlighting that fact. “Hidden Figures” my pick for the year’s best film, does an excellent job of just that. It surfaces the true story of African American women who contributed to the engineering of the space race. It’s also a lot of fun. These uses of history are to be applauded, and we need more of them.
I take history very seriously, I’m a big fan of Western Civilization and I’m also a committed Anglophile. The details of the ideas and culture that shaped the Founding Fathers are incredibly important. We should never lose sight of those things. But it’s also important to recognize that our sense of the American Founding isn’t completely accurate at the expert level either. 150-odd years of US friendship with the UK has probably over-emphasized the example of the British system in our study of law and government. Examples like Switzerland and an array of Southern European republics were more important to the Founders than is currently recognized. It doesn’t make sense to be sticklers for a particular expert vision of the Founding Fathers, because it’s not “perfect” either. History is always incomplete.
History nerds like me will always be playing in this toolbox, and that’s great. But US history isn’t just history. It’s also myth, renewed and changed with every generation. On the popular level, things like “European Heritage” and “Judeo-Christian Tradition” are over-emphasized. Lincoln saw these United States as the “last, best hope of Earth”, not the last best hope of white Christian dudes.
Look at that picture of “Black Thomas Jefferson” above. How cool would it be if 100 years from now, the main thing people saw as weird about the depiction was the fact that his clothes look odd? Perhaps that oddness would prompt a future student to look further into the details of the Founding Fathers. Depictions of the Founding Fathers that “look more like America” could lead to a broader class of US history nerds. And what could be better than that?
Oh, one last show note. If I remember my history (and my Hamilton) correctly, Thomas Jefferson was out of the country during the writing of Constitution. That could be construed as an error in the video. Sorry. If you caught and were annoyed by that, I love you, and am grateful you’re watching my stuff.
US media is filled with disinformation about Syria, as I think I’ve documented fairly well. The question of Christian Refugees from Syria is no exception. The idea that this population of refugees is being discriminated against by the US government has largely gone unchallenged. This excellent politifact explainer does a good job of debunking the issue, but dances around the true reason why there are so few Syrian Christian Refugees in the United States. They devote about a sentence to the fact that Syrian Christians support Assad, and never mention the economic status of those Christians who leave, which are the two central points of my video.
The US government can’t fully commit to fighting the idea that they are discriminating against Christian refugees from Syria, because the truth does too much to undermine its narrative of the Syrian war. In Washington, DC’s story, the Syrian opposition is filled with moderate rebels trying to bring about a modern Syria. Acknowledging that Christians feel safer with Assad than they do with the Sunni opposition undermines that image. In Washington DC’s story, the Iranian influence on Syria is just as nasty and destructive as the Sunni rebels ever-closer affiliation with violent Wahabi Jihadism. According to the US government the Iranian influence is worse. In this story Assad, a member of a small, disapproved of, Shia sect, is somehow the leader of a Shia fundamentalist force. The continued comfort of Christians with Assad undermines this story. So does the fact that Christians have always been a privileged pillar of the Assad regime. In truth, Iran and Russia are the status quo powers here, trying to preserve the structures of the Syrian government as they have existed since the 1970s. They are of course maintaining the status quo with brutality and violence but it’s the US and our Gulf allies that are working to bringing anarchy.
I really like this video, I think it’s the closest thing to actual reporting that I have done in this Syria series. It was developed through long conversations with Syrian refugees I knew in my five years in Istanbul, Turkey. I don’t consider myself a journalist. My business is narratives, unpacking them, correcting them, and re-forming them. To do this I rely on the work of real journalists in Syria and around the world. At best I’m an opinion journalist. With this one I rise above that a bit, and I’m happy for the opportunity.
You may notice that the sound on this one is fantastic. My on-going battle with sound is hampered by amateur equipment, and my growing but meager sound editing capabilities. This week in Los Angeles I was lucky enough to get some professionals involved. Through the good offices of MFF Patron Abigale James I was able to procure the pro bono services of Sam May, a professional sound guy. Folks can argue about the content of this video, but nobody can dispute that it sounds fantastic. I remain super grateful for the support I get from friends and strangers. MFF may seem like it’s a solo effort, but it’s really not.