The United States presidential election was a great spectacle. It was also a battle over the nation’s history and its future.
As historians will tell you, how we characterize the past has direct bearing on how we imagine possible futures. What is the vision for a post-Trump America?
In both the lead-up to Nov. 3 and its aftermath, history loomed large. More than 200 scholars of authoritarianism, fascism and populism signed an Open Letter of Concern about the imminent threat to democratic processes and institutions, drawing on histories of past regimes that have curtailed democratic rights and freedoms in moments of instability and unrest.
Fascism historians Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Federico Finchelstein warned that Donald Trump’s narcissism is more than just a character flaw; it is a clarion call to build an authoritarian state. Even in defeat, they argued, strongmen and their followers often continue to undermine institutions — just as Trump appears to be doing following the election with his refusal to accept the results. The answer? See through the rhetoric, exercise caution and remain vigilant.
For others, fascism may not be knocking at the door, but the shock of the 2016 election was not undone by the 2020 results. If anything, the strong showing of the Republican party, despite a platform of xenophobia and hatred, exposed the chasms that divide Americans by race and class.
Trump is reminiscent of far-away strongmen like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A good portion of the electorate likes what he’s selling anyway. That’s a bitter pill for a country that came of age on pledges of allegiance to fundamental freedoms.
As historian Adam Tooze put it in the Guardian immediately after the election, Trump supporters love “his aggression, and his gleeful slaughter of liberal sacred cows.” Will the defeat of a single politician silence his millions of supporters and change a system rife with inequality and abuse?
Changed the playing field
Even in defeat, Trump has already changed the playing field. His linguistic disobedience, alternative facts, lies and media manipulation have given false claims some legitimacy, paving the way for others to carry the baton forward in a politics of hate, recriminations and denial of truth.
Without serious social and electoral reform, the next authoritarian to make a play to lead the U.S. may be much more capable. Trump may have been stopped from his “autocratic attempt,” but the party he transformed has yet to renounce his politics. Trump lost, but Trumpism is alive and well, along with the conditions that propelled him to power in the first place.
At best, the post-election future might be one of regrouping and rebuilding; at worst, there will be more challenges to legal norms and truths by the outgoing president and the Republican Party.
Americans rose to the challenge?
Biden supporters, meanwhile, have tapped into other American pasts. While they acknowledge Trump’s brutalism has been concerning, they saw Americans rising to the challenge, “taking back the conversation” and placing renewed faith in institutions.
They saw glimmers of hope in the record-breaking voter turnout, and in efforts to replace Confederate emblems from state flags and remove racist language from state constitutions.
They revelled in America’s diversity, praising the herculean efforts of African American and Indigenous activists and voters for defeating Trump. But they did so often without recognizing that these same groups had the most to lose from a Republican victory during a global pandemic that hit their communities particularly hard.
Trump’s everyday racism is not an aberration. Although it may be extreme, it’s at the core of America’s history.
Tiffany Florvil, a scholar of transnational Black activism, put a fine point on it when she echoed the words of historian Thomas Holt: In the United States, “race lives because it is part and parcel of the means of living.” Racism is woven into the very fabric of American life. It is a feature of American democracy, not any authoritarian aberration.
What this means is the Civil Rights movement is not a thing of the past. It is an ongoing, unfinished project.
Scholars of African American history and law have been saying this for a long time. America’s institutions, economy and media are all built upon a history of what UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley has called racial capitalism — a system of exploitation with repercussions into the current day.
As Kimberlé Crenshaw put it in Time magazine, referring to Trump’s directive to all federal agencies to stop anti-bias training to address white privilege:
“It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
America’s past — borne of stolen land, slavery, head taxes and segregation — is evident in the dog whistles of Trump’s rigged election speech, citing Detroit and Philadelphia as notoriously corrupt, and the chatter on the far right about the need to turn the election result into a justification for another civil war.
But it also surfaces when Democrats too quickly forget the struggles racialized populations endure to safeguard a democracy that has not always protected them.
All of these facets of America’s past and future are circulating right now as Americans ponder Trump’s exit and whether he will go peacefully.
But the lessons drawn from history should not be solely focused on patterns that repeat themselves; they should also guide us in shaping policy and law.
Only an honest engagement with the full scope of American history, including the crushing role racial inequality has played for generations, will help its citizens imagine an alternative future in which freedom and equality might indeed be possible.
The file photo taken on September 8, 2003 shows US forces manning a checkpoint in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. (By AFP)
Iran says it is high time the international community stood up to Washington’s historical warmongering policy, commenting on the Memorial Day in the US that remembers America’s wartime fatalities.
“Time to stand against US violence, warmongering, as remembering millions of lost lives,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry tweeted on Tuesday, a day after the United States commemorated the occasion, which is marked annually on the last Monday of May.
“Regretful that 100,000 American soldiers killed in battles waged because of US leaders’ instrumental rationality & insatiable greed,” the tweet read. “US war machines have just led to killing, destruction, [and] atrocities.”
America’s history of armed incursions is as old as the country, whose very foundation is owed to the deadly invasion of North American territories.
Across modern history, the US’s militarism has most notably been reflected in the Vietnam War (1955-1975), which is bitterly brought to the fore on Memorial Day. Estimates of the fatalities resulting from the war go as high as 4.2 million people, including 58,209 US forces.
In what has become the longest war in its history, the US along with its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as part of a so-called war on terror. The invasion — which is still underway — toppled the Taliban regime but the Afghan group’s militancy remains resilient to this day. The chaos has also led to the rise of Daesh, the world’s most notorious terror outfit, in the Asian state.
According to the latest figures, over 2,400 US military deaths have been recorded in the war, while over 20,000 American service members have been wounded.
More than 100,000 Afghans have also been killed or wounded since 2009, when the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began documenting casualties.
Washington’s first major incursion in the Middle East came in the form of the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s in favor of Saudi Arabia. A decade afterwards, the US began planting its jackboot far more firmly in the region by invading Iraq in 2003, a wholesale war that turned the country into a scene of rampant violence.
Nevertheless, Washington has never fallen short of finding excuses to militarily intervene in the region along with its allies
The most recent bout of US-led operations in the Middle East came in 2014, when the US and its allies began a military campaign in Iraq and Syria under the guise of uprooting Daesh, which had risen amid the chaos resulting from Washington’s own wars in the region.
Washington has, throughout its history, also been lending immense political and military support to the regional regimes that are responsible for killing and displacing tens of thousands of people in pursuit of their political agendas.
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In 1913, 412 million people lived under the control of the British Empire, 23 percent of the world’s population at that time.
It remains the largest empire in human history and at the peak of its power in 1920, it covered an astonishing 13.71 million square miles – that’s close to a quarter of the world’s land area. Statista’s Niall McCarthy notes that at its height, it was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets” but of course the sun finally did set on it.
The Mongol Empire existed during the 13th and 14th centuries and it is recognized as being the largest contiguous land empire in history. It of course originated in Mongolia and once stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending into the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, covering 9.27 million square miles.
The Russian Empire comes third on the list with a peak land area of 8.8 million square miles.
The data for this infographic was published by website World Atlas.
In August of 1951, a strange illness descended on the small French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit. Victims complained of abdominal pains, delirium and hallucinations of flames and hellish creatures. Some tried to throw themselves out of their windows to escape the imaginary inferno. Others wandered the streets, their screams heard above the ambulance sirens, in scenes that must have been reminiscent of zombie films.
More than 300 people in the region were taken into medical care. Five died and about 60 ended up in psychiatric hospitals, with some still hallucinating a month later.
Today, the question of just what caused the mysterious illness still sparks debate. But many medical specialists and historians agree that it might have been rye ergot fungus, a parasite that latches onto rye crops, but also wheat, barley, oats and wild grass.
Those affected at the time would most likely have eaten bread made with contaminated rye flour and contracted what we now call “ergotism”. But in the Middle Ages, people gave it more fantastical and frightening names: “burning disease”, “hell fire” or “St Anthony’s fire” and “St Andrew’s fire”, after the order of French monks who cared for victims.
Ergotism was likely discovered when humans began cultivating grain, about 10,000 years ago. Roman scholar Pliny is the first to mention ergot-infested grain much later, in the first century AD, but not until after historians and chemists described the Greeks using the fungus as a chemical weapon and a psychoactive drug during the celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Ergot owes its effects to its alkaloids, or organic compounds found in plants well-known for their medical benefits. Examples are morphine (from poppies), which relieves pain, atropine (from berries), a treatment for poisons, and quinine (from the bark of the cinchona tree), used to treat malaria. Each of these are part of the WHO’s list of essential medicines, but each can be harmful, even fatal. They’re all good, and they’re all poisonous. Similarly, the alkaloids in ergot can both heal and cause horrific illness.
In the 10th century, ergotism regularly killed tens of thousands in western Europe, when famines forced the poor to eat contaminated grain. Writers of that era described its most awful symptom: gangrene. “Several men had their limbs afflicted by sores in Paris and neighbouring towns,” wrote the historian Flodoard during an epidemic in the year 945. “The limbs, burnt bit by bit, were consumed until death ended the torment.” About 50 years later, the fungus killed 40,000 in the south of France. Monk Raoul Glaber, who was also convinced that the black and withered body parts had been burned, wrote, “At that time a terrible plague struck down upon men, that is to say a hidden fire which, when it attacked a limb, consumed it and detached it from the body.”
But despite these horrific symptoms, the same properties inside ergot are now used to treat migraines. And that’s not its only remarkable use.
THE TEMPTATION OF ST ANTHONY BY HIERONYMUS BOSCH, CIRCA 1501, DEPICTING THE HALLUCINATIONS OF ERGOTISM, ALONG WITH A MAN STARING AT THE FOOT HE LOST DUE TO THE DISEASE [BOTTOM LEFT].
Experts have identified two forms of ergotism: gangrenous, as above, and convulsive – less deadly but just as frightening. Ergot activates the same neurotransmitters as serotonin, which are essential for the proper functioning of our digestive system, our mood and our sleep-wake cycle.
In massive doses, serotonin produces what we call serotonin syndrome, when the brain sends erratic signals to the rest of the body. The intestines empty themselves, muscles contract, skin is covered in sweat and the mind becomes confused. Taking MDMA can also trigger it – if you’ve ever clenched your teeth while rushing, you’ve had a tiny taste of the syndrome.
Convulsive ergotism was a type of serotonin syndrome, with the alkaloids in the fungus harming the body by overwhelming the brain. Convulsive ergotism swept through Norway from the Middle Ages until the 17th Century, causing victims to convulse violently for hours at a time, locking their limbs into grotesque and painful positions and sometimes requiring several people to overpower a victim. The convulsions were so strong they could cause pregnant women to miscarry, while historians describe wrists and hands having to be broken in order for people to regain mobility, or spines bent so far that victims were curled up into painful “balls”.
These same alkaloids have also been hugely important in obstetrics, as they cause powerful contractions in the uterus. From the 1500s, midwives fed the fungus to women to induce labour, but that stopped in the 1800s due to side effects such as uterine rupture. Today, doctors still use it for postpartum haemorrhage, or major blood-loss after childbirth.
Like in 1950s France, the ergot hallucinations in medieval Norway were mysterious and morbid. The visions were connected to the horrific physical symptoms of the disease: the burn of gangrene became the fire of hell. Naturally, in those times, the disease was often blamed on the supernatural. Victims of the sudden convulsions believed they were being harassed or possessed by demons. At other times, creatures in the visions were perceived as friends to witches in the village. Many believe the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th Century were in fact the result of hallucinations caused by contaminated rye. However, the hallucinations were interpreted as witchcraft and 20 people were hanged.
THE TEMPTATION OF ST ANTHONY BY SALVADOR DALÍ, 1946.
It was around that time that a few doctors and experts made the link between ergot and the weird events. Thanks to a number of methods (including pesticides and the breeding of fungus-resistant crops), ergotism was practically eradicated within the next century, save for what many believe was a re-emergence in the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit.
In the 1930s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann became interested in the fungus. His work with ergot would result in treatments for haemorrhages, infertility, Parkinson’s disease and, later, a molecule of serious cultural influence: LSD. Famously, Hofmann was actually trying to create a compound to stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems when he formulated LSD-25, his 25th ergot-based compound. Years after drug companies had given up on the substance, Hofmann accidentally ingested some and the rest was history.
Thankfully, LSD hallucinations are very different from the fiery visions of poor ergot victims. But the drug is just another use of a fungus that’s profoundly influenced history in the West: spanning epidemics, belief in the supernatural, the pharmaceutical industry and even the arts. Everything from apocalyptic paintings of the Flemish School to the psychedelic music of the 70s carries the mark of a fungus that can take you to heaven or hell.
One of the earliest documented sightings of aerial phenomena took place on April 4, 1561 at dawn over Nuremberg, Germany. The sky was apparently filled with the machines, clashing in battle for well over an hour.
What drew my attention is the correlation between major solar activity and major events throughout human history. Look at the graph. Is there any truth to this? Because I believe we are in for some major solar activity soon.
Resolution demands investigation of “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic”
Sixty-two countries have collectively called for an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus and the reaction of the World Health Organisation.
A resolution led by European countries and Australia has been backed by every EU country, as well as the UK, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, India, Canada, Russia, Mexico and Brazil.
It is set to be presented to the World Health Assembly, the grouping of health ministers that sets policy for the WHO, on Tuesday, where a vote will be held.
The resolution states that WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus must “initiate at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the origin of COVID-19.
It also asks for an evaluation of “experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19”.
The resolution also demands an evaluation of the “effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal”, and “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
The draft also suggests that the WHO should work with the World Organisation for Animal Health to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.”
It does not, however, specifically mention China at all, most probably in an effort to avoid further enraging the communist state, which has already threatened to ruin Australia’s economy by imposing strict tariffs.
The WHO has come under intense scrutiny for repeating Chinese claims in January that the virus was not contagious between humans. The body has since complained that it has not been invited to take part in China’s investigations of the outbreak.
As we highlighted last month, the WHO blocked doctors from urging countries to impose border controls to stop the spread of coronavirus and repeatedly told countries not to close borders, despite this being proven to be an effective way of controlling the spread of the virus.
According to sources who told Fox News that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, this represented the “costliest government coverup of all time” and “the World Health Organization (WHO) was complicit from the beginning in helping China cover its tracks.”
Historical documentary about 1918 Swine Flu or Spanish Flu and the role of World War I in spreading the disease among troops making it into a worldwide plague of devastating proportions. The video covers where it began, how and where it spread, the symptoms, how it affected America, and whether it could happen again. (It did, it’s here!)
China has learned from its own rich history and is applying those lessons to re-emerge as a major 21st-century power
With hybrid warfare 2.0 against China reaching fever pitch, the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative, will continue to be demonized 24/7 as the proverbial evil communist plot for economic and geopolitical domination of the “free” world, boosted by a sinister disinformation campaign.
It’s idle to discuss with simpletons. In the interest of an informed debate, what matters is to find the deeper roots of Beijing’s strategy – what the Chinese learned from their own rich history and how they are applying these lessons as a re-emerging major power in the young 21st century.
Let’s start with how East and West used to position themselves at the center of the world.
The first Chinese historic-geographic encyclopedia, the 2nd century B.C. Classic of the Mountains and the Seas, tells us the world was what was under the sun (tienhia). Composed of “mountains and seas” (shanhai), the world was laid out between “four seas” (shihai). There’s only one thing that does not change: the center. And its name is “Middle Kingdom” (Zhongguo), that is, China.
Of course, the Europeans, in the 16th century, discovering that the earth was round, turned Chinese centrality upside down. But actually not that much (see, for instance, this 21st-century Sinocentric map published in 2013).
The principle of a huge continent surrounded by seas, the “exterior ocean,” seems to have derived from Buddhist cosmology, in which the world is described as a “four-petal lotus.” But the Sinocentric spirit was powerful enough to discard and prevail over every cosmogony that might have contradicted it, such as the Buddhist, which placed India at the center.
Now compare Ancient Greece. Its center, based on reconstituted maps by Hippocrates and Herodotus, is a composite in the Aegean Sea, featuring the Delphi-Delos-Ionia triad. The major split between East and West goes back to the Roman empire in the 3rd century. And it starts with Diocletian, who made it all about geopolitics.
Here’s the sequence: In 293, he installs a tetrarchy, with two Augustuses and two Caesars, and four prefectures. Maximian Augustus is charged to defend the West (Occidens), with the “prefecture of Italy” having Milan as capital. Diocletian charges himself to defend the East (Oriens), with the “prefecture of Orient” having Nicomedia as capital.
Political religion is added to this new politico-military complex. Diocletian starts the Christian dioceses (dioikesis, in Greek, after his name), twelve in total. There is already a diocese of the Orient – basically the Levant and northern Egypt.
There’s no diocese of the Occident. But there is a diocese of Asia: basically the Western part of Mediterranean Turkey nowadays, heir to the ancient Roman provinces in Asia. That’s quite interesting: the Orient is placed east of Asia.
The historical center, Rome, is just a symbol. There’s no more center; in fact, the center is slouching towards the Orient. Nicomedia, Diocletian’s capital, is quickly replaced by neighbor Byzantium under Constantine and rechristened as Constantinople: he wants to turn it into “the new Rome.”
When the Western Roman Empire falls in 476, the empire of the Orient remains.
Officially, it will become the Byzantine empire only in the year 732, while the Holy Roman Empire – which, as we know, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – resurrects with Charlemagne in 800. From Charlemagne onwards, the Occident regards itself as “Europe,” and vice-versa: the historical center and the engine of this vast geographical space, which will eventually reach and incorporate the Americas.
We’re still immersed in a – literally – oceanic debate among historians about the myriad reasons and the context that led everyone and his neighbor to frenetically take to the seas starting in the late 15th century – from Columbus and Vasco da Gama to Magellan.
But the West usually forgets about the true pioneer: iconic Admiral Zheng He, original name Ma He, a eunuch and Muslim Hui from Yunnan province.
His father and grandfather had been pilgrims to Mecca. Zheng He grew up speaking Mandarin and Arabic and learning a lot about geography. When he was 13, he was placed in the house of a Ming prince, Zhu Di, a member of the new dynasty that came to power in 1387.
Educated as a diplomat and warrior, Zheng He converted to Buddhism under his new name, although he always remained faithful to Islam. After all, as I saw for myself when I visited Hui communities in 1997 when branching out from the Silk Road, on my way to Labrang monastery in Xiahe, Hui Islam is a fascinating syncretism incorporating Buddhism, the Tao, and Confucianism.
Zhu Di brought down the Emperor in 1402 and took the name Yong Le. A year later he had already commissioned Zheng He as admiral, and ordered him to supervise the construction of a large fleet to explore the seas around China. Or, to be more precise, the “Occidental ocean” (Xiyang): that is, the Indian Ocean.
Thus from 1405 to 1433, roughly three decades, Zheng He led seven expeditions across the seas all the way to Arabia and Eastern Africa, leaving from Nanjing in the Yangtze and benefiting from monsoon winds. They hit Champa, Borneo, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, Jeddah/Mecca, Mogadiscio and the Eastern African coast south of the Equator.
Those were real armadas, sometimes with over 200 ships, including the 72 main ones, carrying as many as 30,000 men and vast amounts of precious merchandise for trade: silk, porcelain, silver, cotton, leather products, iron utensils. The leading vessel of the first expedition, with Zheng He as captain, was 140 meters long, 50 meters wide and carrying over 500 men.
This was the original Maritime Silk Road, now revived in the 21st century. And it was coupled with another extension of the overland Silk Road: after all the dreaded Mongols were in retreat, there were new allies all the way to Transoxiana, the Chinese managed to strike a peace deal with the successor of Tamerlane. So the Silk Roads were booming again. The Ming court sent diplomats all over Asia – Tibet, Nepal, Bengal, even Japan.
The main objective of pioneering Chinese seafaring has always puzzled Western historians. Essentially, it was a diplomatic, commercial, and military mix. It was important to have Chinese suzerainty recognized – and materialized via the payment of a tribute. But most of all this was about trade; no wonder the ships had special cabins for merchants.
The armada was designated as the Treasury Fleet – but denoting more a prestige operation than a vehicle for capturing riches. Yong Le was strong on soft power and economics – as he took control of overseas trade by imposing an imperial monopoly over all transactions. So, in the end, this was a clever, comprehensive application of the Chinese tributary system – in the commercial, diplomatic and cultural spheres.
Yong Le was in fact following the instructions of his predecessor Hongwu, the founder of the Ming (“Lights”) dynasty. Legend rules that Hongwu ordered that one billion trees should be planted in the Nanjing region to supply the building of a navy.
Then there was the transfer of the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, and the construction of the Forbidden City. That cost a lot of money. As much as the naval expeditions were expensive, their profits, of course, were useful.
Yong Le wanted to establish Chinese – and pan-Asian – stability via a true Pax Sinica. That was not imposed by force but rather by diplomacy, coupled with a subtle demonstration of power. The Armada was the aircraft carrier of the time, with cannons on sight – but rarely used – and practicing “freedom of navigation”.
What the emperor wanted was allied local rulers, and for that he used intrigue and commerce rather than shock and awe via battles and massacres. For instance, Zheng He proclaimed Chinese suzerainty over Sumatra, Cochin, and Ceylon. He privileged equitable commerce. So this was never a colonization process.
On the contrary: before each expedition, as its planning proceeded, emissaries from countries to be visited were invited to the Ming court and treated, well, royally.
Now compare that with the European colonization led a decade later by the Portuguese across these same lands and these same seas. Between (a little) carrot and (a lot of) stick, the Europeans drove commerce mostly via massacres and forced conversions. Trading posts were soon turned into forts and military installations, something that Zheng He’s expeditions never attempted.
In fact, Zheng He left so many good memories that he was divinized under his Chinese name, San Bao, which means “Three Treasures,” in such places in Southeast Asia as Malacca and Siam’s Ayutthaya.
What can only be described as Judeo-Christian sadomasochism focused on imposing suffering as virtue, the only path to reach Paradise. Zheng He would never have considered that his sailors – and the populations he made contact with – had to pay this price.
So why did it all end, and so suddenly? Essentially Yong Le run out of money because of his grandiose imperial adventures. The Grand Canal – linking the Yellow River and the Yangtze basins – cost a fortune. Same for building the Forbidden City. The revenue from the expeditions was not enough.
And just as the Forbidden City was inaugurated, it caught fire in May 1421. Bad omen. According to tradition, this means disharmony between Heaven and the sovereign, a development outside of the astral norm. Confucians used it to blame the eunuch councilors, very close to the merchants and the cosmopolitan elites around the emperor. On top of it, the southern borders were restless and the Mongol threat never really went away.
The new Ming emperor, Zhu Gaozhi, laid down the law: “China’s territory produces all goods in abundance; so why should we buy abroad trinkets without any interest?”
His successor Zhu Zanji was even more radical. Up to 1452, a series of imperial edicts prohibited foreign trade and overseas travel. Every infraction was considered piracy punished by death. Worse, studying foreign languages was banished, as was the teaching of Chinese to foreigners.
Zheng He died (in early 1433? 1435?) in true character, in the middle of the sea, north of Java, as he was returning from the seventh, and last, expedition. The documents and the charts used for the expeditions were destroyed, as well as the ships.
So the Ming ditched naval power and re-embraced old agrarian Confucianism, which privileges agriculture over trade, the earth over the seas, and the center over foreign lands.
No more naval retreat
The takeaway is that the formidable naval tributary system put in place by Yong Le and Zheng He was a victim of excess – too much state spending, peasant turbulence – as well as its own success.
In less than a century, from the Zheng He expeditions to the Ming retreat, this turned out to be a massive game-changer in history and geopolitics, prefiguring what would happen immediately afterwards in the long 16th century: the era when Europe started and eventually managed to rule the world.
One image is stark. While Zheng He’s lieutenants were sailing the eastern coast of Africa all the way to the south, in 1433, the Portuguese expeditions were just starting their adventures in the Atlantic, also sailing south, little by little, along the Western coast of Africa. The mythical Cape Bojador was conquered in 1434.
After the seven Ming expeditions crisscrossed Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean from 1403 for nearly three decades, only half a century later Bartolomeu Dias would conquer the Cape of Good Hope, in 1488, and Vasco da Gama would arrive in Goa in 1498.
Imagine a historical “what if?”: the Chinese and the Portuguese bumping into each other in Swahili land. After all, in 1417 it was the turn of Hong Bao, the Muslim eunuch who was Zheng He’s lieutenant; and in 1498 it was Vasco da Gama’s turn, guided by the “Lion of the Sea” Ibn Majid, his legendary Arab master navigator.
The Ming were not obsessed with gold and spices. For them, trade should be based on equitable exchange, under the framework of the tribute. As Joseph Needham conclusively proved in works such as Science and Civilization in China, the Europeans wanted Asian products way more than Orientals wanted European products, “and the only way to pay for them was gold.”
For the Portuguese, the “discovered” lands were all potential colonization territory. And for that the few colonizers needed slaves. For the Chinese, slavery amounted to domestic chores at best. For the Europeans, it was all about the massive exploitation of a workforce in the fields and in mines, especially concerning black populations in Africa.
In Asia, in contrast to Chinese diplomacy, the Europeans went for massacre. Via torture and mutilations, Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese colonizers deployed a real war of terror against civilian populations.
This absolutely major structural difference is at the root of the world- system and the geo-historical organization of our world, as analyzed by crack geographers such as Christian Grataloup and Paul Pelletier. Asian nations did not have to manage – or to suffer – the painful repercussions of slavery.
So in the space of only a few decades, the Chinese abdicated from closer relations with Southeast Asia, India, and Eastern Africa. The Ming fleet was destroyed. China abandoned overseas trade and retreated unto itself to focus on agriculture.
Once again: the direct connection between the Chinese naval retreat and the European colonial expansion is capable of explaining the development process of the two “worlds” – the West and the Chinese center – since the 15th century.
At the end of the 15th century, there were no Chinese architects left capable of building large ships. Development of weaponry also had been abandoned. In just a few decades, crucially, the Sinified world lost its vast technological advance over the West. It got weaker. And later it would pay a huge price, symbolized in the Chinese unconsciousness by the “century of humiliation.”
All of the above explains quite a few things. How Xi Jinping and the current leadership did their homework. Why China won’t pull a Ming remix and retreat again. Why and how the overland Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road are being revived. How there won’t be any more humiliations. And most of all, why the West – especially the American empire – absolutely refuses to admit the new course of history.
Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency in mid-march over the rapid spread of COVID-19, the task of developing a vaccine has fallen on the U.S. Army’s top virus research lab in Fort Detrick, located in suburban Maryland some 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C.
Over the past decades, leading researches on a wide range of viruses and bacteria were conducted inside the sprawling complex. Its state-of-the-art facilities also store some of the most dangerous toxins known to mankind, including Ebola, anthrax, and the SARS coronavirus.
The obscure army base came under the spotlight in 2008 after one of its scientists was suspected to have perpetrated the 2001 anthrax attack, where several letters containing the deadly germ was mailed to American media and government offices.
Last year, one of the most prominent high-security labs inside the campus was shut down by health authorities due to safety violations. Besides a few incidents here and there, Fort Detrick seems like an ordinary place for modern medical science. Dialing back to history a little further, however, a period of purely freakish history begins to emerge.
After World War II, Fort Detrick became a site of horrifying scientific experiments conducted under a top-secret CIA quest to control the human mind, known as Project MK Ultra. After more than 20 years, the project ended in abysmal failure and led to an unknown number of deaths, including a scientist who participated in the project, and at least hundreds of American and Canadian victims subjected to mental and physical torture. The experiments not only violated international law, but also the agency’s own charter which forbids domestic activity.
Project MK Ultra was brought to life by the godfather of America’s intelligence empire – CIA Director Allen Dulles, whose ever-fiery rhetoric about Soviet threat helped him prop up an omnipotent national security apparatus that would come to define American politics. In 1953, after capturing American pilots who admitted to deploying anthrax during the Korean War, Dulles began touting theories that they had been brainwashed by the communists of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. To ensure national security, he argued, the U.S. must devise its own brainwashing program.
Dulles’ claim turned out to be based on nothing more than pure Cold War fantasy as a report he later commissioned rejected the communist brainwashing claims. Yet, the cunning spymaster Dulles who was known to have actively rescued several top Nazi officials against the will of his own government continued the program for a far more nefarious reason.
As explained by David Talbot in his book The Devil’s Chessboard, many spies recruited in the early days of the Cold War were sketchy, undependable characters motivated by inner vulnerabilities such as greed, lust, or revenge. Meanwhile, the agency was looking for ways to rule out these psychological variables by creating human machines that would act on command, even against his own conscience.
In official terms, the main goal of the program was “research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior,” according to a declassified memo produced by the CIA Inspector General. It quickly ballooned in scale, branching into 149 sub-projects involving at least 80 institutions including universities, hospitals, prisons, and drug companies across the United States and Canada.
To master mind control, a cadre of rogue scientists freely tested extreme methods on humans that would land anyone in prison had it not been inside the parameters of Fort Detrick. These include forced administration of psychoactive drugs, forced electroshocks, physical and sexual abuses, as well as a myriad of other torments all silently carried out behind the high walls of “national security.”
Dulles was especially keen on finding out if hallucinogens like LSD could induce selected individuals to carry out “acts of substantial sabotage or acts of violence, including murder,” recalled the agency’s top poisons expert Sidney Gottlieb who spearheaded the program.
Declassified documents reviewed by CGTN showed the premises being investigated under the program ranged from the bizarre to the extremes of science fiction: Drugs that would “cause mental confusion;” “provide a maximum of amnesia;” “produce pure euphoria with no subsequent let-down;” “lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men;” and many others.
Throughout its two-decade lifespan, MK Ultra was executed in extreme secrecy as the agency had expected significant political backlash had it become public knowledge. It was so secretive, in fact, that only a few top agency officials were aware of its existence.
Unbeknownst to neither the White House nor Congress, people of the forgotten corner of America – the prisoners, prostitutes and the homeless – were picked off the streets as unwitting participants in the mad science at Fort Derrick: “People who could not fight back,” in the words of Gottlieb. However, the program also relied on people who could, including American soldiers and unsuspecting patients who inadvertently stumbled into MK Ultra-associated hospitals and clinics across North America.
In July 1954, airman Jimmy Shaver at the Lackland Air Force Base was accused of raping and killing a three-year-old girl in San Antonio. Throughout the incident, he was often reported to be in a “dazed” and “trance-like” state. While under arrest, Shaver also seemed to have lost a tremendous amount of his memory, including those involving his wife. Four years later, he was executed on his 33rd birthday. It wasn’t until later the public learned that Shaver, who had no previous criminal record, was one of the guinea pigs used by MK Ultra. The mind-control project had played a significant role in sending Shaver to the electric chair, according to The Intercept.
Others who survived the brutal experiments revealed the horrendous aftereffects of the CIA-sanctioned brainwashing. Linda McDonald, a 25-year-old mother of five young children, reported that she had essentially turned into an infant after going through the notorious Sleep Room experiments, which she was told would treat her non-existent acute schizophrenia. For 86 days, McDonald was in a coma induced by rounds of powerful narcotics and electroshocks that fried her brains 102 times.
“I had to be toilet trained,” McDonald said. “I was a vegetable. I had no identity, no memory. I had never existed in the world before. Like a baby.”
Yet, of all the 180 doctors and researchers who took part in these illegal experiments, few had expressed any suspicion or remorse. The one who did turned up dead.
Frank Olson was a biochemist and father of three children who worked in the Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick. He was one of the MK Ultra scientists who regularly traveled between “black sites” in Europe to observe different human experiments. After a 1952 visit to the Camp King, a notorious CIA safe house in Germany, he was particularly shaken by the cruelty to which Soviet prisoners were subjected to, according to Talbot.
“He had a tough time after Germany … drugs, torture, brainwashing,” Olson’s former colleague at Detrick, researcher Norman Cournoyer was quoted as saying. By the time he returned from Germany, Olson had suffered a “moral crisis” and was ready to give up his science career to become a dentist, according to Olson’s family. Yet, before he could change his life, the scientist himself had unknowingly become one of many unwitting victims of MK Ultra.
A week before Thanksgiving, Olson was invited to a weekend retreat in a secluded CIA facility at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. One night after dinner, Olson and other unsuspecting scientists were given LSD-laced drinks, after which he began to hallucinate wildly. The ordeal ended a week later when he crashed through the 10th-floor window at the Statler Hotel in Manhattan. The scientist’s death was hastily concluded by CIA officials as suicide. However, Olson’s children could hardly accept the “narrative” and began their own investigation into the tragic end of their father.
After decades back and forth with the U.S. government and investigation by Frank’s son Eric and Nils, including an exhumation autopsy, substantial evidence has weighted toward the possibility of the scientist’s murder. After examining Olson’s remains, Forensic pathologist James Starrs pointed out several key inconsistencies that contradicted with the official narrative suicide. Despite having landed on his back, the skull above Olson’s eye had cracked, suggesting a blunt force to the head prior to crashing through the window.
“The death of Frank Olson on 28 November 1953 was a murder, not a suicide,” Eric Olson declared. “This is not an LSD drug-experiment story, as it was represented in 1975. This is a biological warfare story. Frank Olson did not die because he was an experimental guinea pig who experienced a ‘bad trip.’ He died because of concern that he would divulge information concerning a highly classified CIA interrogation program in the early 1950s, and concerning the use of biological weapons by the United States in the Korean War.”