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The Children Of Columbus: The Multinationals And Their Courtiers

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As the nation commemorates Christopher Columbus, let's not forget his 21st Century descendants: the multinational corporations who span the globe in search of wealth.

Columbus is honored as an adventurer In the European-created nations of the New World. He's seen a little differently by those whose ancestors were enslaved by Europeans, or who arrived in chain. To them, and to the nations that didn't have our landed gentry to unshackle them from colonization, he's more likely to be remembered as a pirate and mercenary.

But then, Christopher Columbus didn't have someone like Tom Friedman to sing his praises and rationalize his deeds. Or did he?

The Children of Columbus

The Children of Columbus aren't polishing sextants or unfolding maps. They're negotiating deals and influencing politicians with their wealth. They're manufacturing airplane parts, or running banks, or designing computers. They're bending the world to their will.

Like his 21st Century descendants, Columbus had some technical savvy - they say he knew the trade winds better than anyone - and like those descendants, he made some foolish mistakes. He was also very, very wrong about where he was headed.

But Columbus had the backing of a powerful crown. As every Wall Street CEO knows, you can get away with a lot of mistakes if you've got the Throne behind you.

Columbus, Incorporated

Like any good multinational corporation, Columbus Inc. wasn't limited by its nationality. Columbus, who was born in Genoa, first pitched his trade voyage to the King of Portugal. When he was turned down, he turned to the Spanish court of Ferdinand and Isabella.

Contrary to popular belief, Columbus wasn't trying to prove the Earth was round. People knew that already. It was a business venture, plain and simple: He would claim lands for the Spanish Crown andd get 10 percent of the take in return.

They celebrate Columbus as the discover of North America, although he never actually landed here. The nearest he came was Cuba. Close enough, apparently. As Guantanamo Bay's past and present residents can attest, many people on this continent still consider that island American territory.

Whole Lotta Leif

Leif Erickson did make it to North America, and he did it many centuries before Columbus. But he didn't sign a contract. If you want credit for your accomplishments you have to monetize them.

Just ask any of the bluesman whose songs were ripped off by British and American rock bands in the 1960s. Colonialism takes many forms, and theft of riches - whether they're creative, intellectual, mineral, or just amount to bragging rights - is one of its hallmarks.

Leif Erickson, meet Willie Dixon ...

Exporting Theocracy

History's filled with the stories of the conquistadors and their brutality. They had their apologists too, those who claimed that colonization was 'civilizing' the native peoples. Students of free-trade rhetoric might want to study the Requerimiento of 1513, a 'liberal' document issued by Spain's quasi-democratic Court of Castile which affirmed that indigenous people had souls and should therefore celebrate the rightful and God-given roles as vassals of the empire which God had granted to the Europeans.

Enslavement was immoral, said the Requerimiento - unless the locals resist, of course: ""We emphasise that any deaths that result from this (resistance) are your fault..." (If that sounds bad to you, try rereading the US justification for civilian drone killings in Pakistan.)

From this enlightened loophole came the horrors that followed: The forced conversions. The mass killings. The forced resettlements and so-called "Indian reductions." The enlightened conquerors could exploit and torment the peoples of entire continents, with the Requerimiento to soothe their consciences.

It's considered passé nowadays to conquer and subjugate peoples in the name of God. We have "democracy" instead -- a limited and economically driven form of democracy that we're all too happy to export in the name of 'progress.' If there's one thing Corporate America's all too happy to export from our shores, it's the Citizens United ruling.

"Let Freedom reign!"

The Everlasting Fire

Today's Requerimientos aren't found on bulls or proclamations, but in print and TV editorials. No one has mastered the art more than Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Last week Friedman wrote a column called "China Needs Its Own Dream" which continues his long history of praise for China's autocratic rulers, and hoping that they'll use their powers to manage their people's burgeoning prosperity more wisely than we've done.

Coincidentally, as Friedman was bemoaning water shortages in Shanghai and the imminent plight of the Chinese leisure class, the Foxconn plant which manufactures iPhones in Taiyuan was shadowed by a riot which involved at least 2,000 workers, depending on reports. And as Friedman's column went to press, three to four thousand Foxconn workers were reportedly striking in the city of Zhengzhou.

Mr. Friedman's own paper, the New York Times, wrote a shattering series of articles about brutal conditions at Foxconn, including one entitled "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad," which described the slow death from burning of a worker named Lai Xiaodong: "His features had been smeared by the blast, scrubbed by heat and violence until a mat of red and black had replaced his mouth and nose."

"Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms," the Times reported. "Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk."

China's authoritarian leadership, which Friedman said he wishes we could emulate "for just one day" in this country, have deliberately forced their workers into brutal and unsafe conditions. Apple, the US government, and we as consumers have been complicit in that process. (There's more information on the FoxConn situation, and Apple's complicity in it, in the writeup of our interview with law and economics professor William K. Black Jr.)

Flow States

Friedman, on the other hand, doesn't even mention these horrors. He's too busy imbibing the worldview of China's US-trained management consultants and disgorging sentences like "Chinese today are yearning to create a new national identity, one that merges traditional Chinese values, like balance, respect and flow, with its modern urban reality."

The parents of workers like Lai Xiaodong presumably also "yearn to merge traditional values" with not having their son burn to death - especially from a fire which could have been prevented, and which both Foxconn and Apple could have prevented. But that doesn't warrant a mention from Mr. Friedman. He must have been preoccupied with the construction of paragraphs like this one, formed precariously from a single, Winchester Mystery House-like sentence:

So Juccce has been working with Chinese mayors and social networks, sustainability experts and Western advertising agencies to catalyze sustainable habits in the emergent consuming class by redefining personal prosperity -- which so many more Chinese are gaining access to for the first time -- as "more access to better products and services, not necessarily by owning them, but also by sharing -- so everyone gets a piece of a better pie.

Sustainable? That paragraph isn't sustainable. It's about to collapse of its own weight like an over-leveraged bank built on a toxic mortgage-backed securities dump. A writer's job is to turn jargon and scrambled bits of data into information and readable prose. This is getting it backwards.

We shouldn't be surprised to meet incomprehensible jargon on the road to empire. Conquistadores, like their modern-day equivalents, needed the blessing of a priesthood - and priesthoods usually derive their power from speaking in a language nobody else can understand. Today's high priests are granted MBAs, not vestments, but the principle's the same.

Which raises the question: What might a Requerimiento-era Friedman have sounded like? We assume such a 16th Century writer might have written tomes with titles like The Equus and the Palm Tree and Hot, Flat, and ... Well, It's 'Hot' and 'Flat,' Anyway."

What might he have said about Europe's own offshore adventures?

'The Natives Need an 'Aztec Dream,' by Don Tomás de Castile, Duque de Friedman

From the works of Don Tomás:

On my most recent trip toTenochtitlan - the former Aztec capital that is now the beating heart of a new continent's commerce - I struck up a conversation with the Indian boy who was pulling me across the city by means of leather straps across his back, which were affixed to the sedan chair in which I rode.

'It seems to me,' I told the huffing little fellow, 'that the job you now hold would not have existed if the Europeans had not employed the technology at their disposal in order to arrive at your tiny, backward nation.'"

'He caught his breath before replying, 'Yes, Senor.' I couldn't help but notice that, in the manner of the locals, he was perspiring rather heavily. 'Your marvelous technology has made the world much smaller. Although,' he added as we ascended the plaza steps, 'perhaps it could be a bit flatter.'"

By God! I thought to myself as he stumbled away, this fellow is right! How wise he is for his twelve short years of life. Perhaps I should have given him the few coins he clearly expected.

I considered the many great technological achievements which had brought this great day about: the rudders from China and our own lateen sails, granting our ships mastery over wind and wave; those brilliant ships themselves, the three-masted caravels that shrink this great round globe; the astrolabe, sextant, and compass, which conquer time and space for us; and ... and ... I'm forgetting something ... oh, yes.

Gunpowder.

But, I wondered, how shall these indigenous folk adapt to their new-found prosperity? Surely, I mused, our civilizing missions in these lands must include assisting them as they catalyze sustainable habits in the emergent consuming class by redefining personal prosperity.

A nearby cat hissed at me as I spoke those words aloud.

I immediately brought out a quill and parchment and sketched a quick drawing: 'Boats,' read the box in the upper left. 'Printing,' I wrote in the middle box. 'Moral superiority,' I scribbled in the third. And across it all I wrote a single word:

"Convergence."

Thus was my latest tome born.

Refugees

A couple of years ago I went back to Utica, NY, the rust-belt town where I grew up. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a perfect example of upwardly mobile working America. People worked in factories, in textile mills, in warehouses, making a decent wage. They bought modest but comfortable homes, and weren't forced to live in dormitories where they might be awakened at any time of the day or night because Steve Jobs wanted the next iPhone to be rush-produced.

And nobody burned to death on the job.

The factories are empty now, crumbling into ruins and overgrown with weeds like Aztec pyramids fallen to ruin. The families we knew are gone, the parents dead or departed and the children gone elsewhere looking for work. Housing prices fell so low in Utica that it was chosen as a refugee resettlement center. More than ten thousand refugees live there now, from Bosnia and Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, and other corners of the planet.

Will we rebuild from the ruins or surrender to these global forces that have displaced all of us? It's our choice; we just have to realize it's a choice we can make. Meanwhile the trade winds keep blowing, as they always have and always will.

Columbus, Pizarro, Vasco da Gama ... the British East India Company ... the Dutch East India Company ... United Fruit ... IBM ... ATT ... Apple ... The names change, but the Children of Columbus live on. And, for now, so do their refugees. We can choose to civilize them, with laws and regulations, or they'll continue to 'civilize' the world.

The voyage from the spice trade to the iPhone trade is a journey through time and space, a curved line on our eternal Columbian cartography. Columbus Day: Some people are still lucky enough to have a job, and some of them are lucky enough to have today off. Anything that gives people a break these days is fine with me.

But unheard and unseen refugees, past and present, haunt the heart of today's commemorations. And rewriting our history is the work of the hour.