Movies as an Education in Global Looting: The Sea Hawk (1940)

Movies and the World as an Arena of Violent Domination and Global Looting

The classic Warner Brothers swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, from 1940, within its romantic adventures and intricate swordfights (perhaps comparable to the car chases of later movies) is a partly historical, partly fictional version of a world built on imperial struggles and ransacking and despoiling. The hegemonic power in the West (and perhaps worldwide) is Spain. Phillip II the king-emperor wants to own and dominate and rule the whole world. In 1588, his Spanish Armada loses to England. (The British of course want to compare this to the Battle of Britain against the German Luftwaffe.)

Set in 1585, The Sea Hawk opens with King Philip II of Spain plotting world domination, laughing that all world maps will soon read simply “Spain” — once England is out of the way, of course.

The Spanish ambassador departs for England to escort his niece to Queen Elizabeth’s court, but in a spectacular sea battle, the Spanish galley is soundly damaged, boarded, raided and sunk by a group of pirates led by Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, a Sir Walter Raleigh stand-in played by Erroll Flynn. Thorpe rescues the galley slaves — they row the boat — and spares the crew, taking them aboard and delivering them to England. The jewels and other bounty (or a portion thereof) are a gift to the Queen.

His crew is part of a noble privateer coalition — the Sea Hawks — who justify their piracy as reclamation of English goods (and enslaved sailors) from the Spanish behemoth. The political fallout from Thorpe’s abduction of the ambassador forces Elizabeth to outlaw the Sea Hawks, including an official denial (and private approval) of his mission to Panama to steal a shipment of Aztec gold.

Inca gold is also mentioned in the movie as a target of robbing.

Sir John Hawkins (1532–1595), part of this group of global sailor-pirates and master-mariners, was one of the most notable sailors and naval commanders of the sixteenth century.

He is known for his pivotal role in the maritime history of England and the rise of the global slave trade.

John Hawkins, the son of a merchant, was born in Plymouth in 1532. He became a sea captain and in 1562 became the first Englishman to start capturing people in Sierra Leone and selling them as slaves to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. (Notice that selling slaves does not discriminate against Spaniards even with Phillip II threatening England. Business is business.)

Stealing Aztec gold as part of colonial or imperial plundering and the slave trade were part of the dark side of history, something the standard history books “skate over” dishonestly.

A key scene between the Spanish aristocratic beauty and Captain Thorpe:

Doña María Álvarez de Córdoba: “I’m not in the habit of conversing with thieves. I thought I made that quite clear, Captain Thorpe.”

Captain Geoffrey Thorpe: “Why, yes, all except your definition. Tell me, is a thief an Englishman who steals?”

Doña María Álvarez de Córdoba: “It’s anybody who steals… whether it’s piracy or robbing women.”

Captain Geoffrey Thorpe: “Oh, I see. I’ve been admiring some of the jewels we found in your chest… particularly the wrought gold. It’s Aztec, isn’t it? I wonder just how those Indians were persuaded to part with it.”

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Donald Trump continues this tradition of looting when he says of Iraq’s oil:

“Think of it as our oil under their sand.”

Thus the whole world is an arena where the weak don’t have any property rights: not the oil or gold, not themselves (slavery) and not their country (colonialism).

This exploitative hierarchy and “world-system” is part of “the way of the world” and even a romantic adventure story like 1940’s The Sea Hawk gives you a Hollywoodized glimpse into its roots. Imperial struggles in the West spill over into colonization and ransacking and looting. History books one sees in high school are dishonest and in that sense uninformative or even disinformative.

The popular PBS travel series Rick Steves’ Europe unintentionally gives us a wonderful example of this notion of plunder and looting as a pillar of world history in the show on Venice. Rick Steves is talking about the various statues in Venice’s central St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), and comments “I’d call the style ‘Early Ransack.’”

This Rick Steves quip about ransacking and historical wealth-building is very informative.

Globalization and Its Nuances

The PBS TV program History Detectives had an episode entitled “Atocha Spanish Silver” where the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was described like this:

“In 1985, one of the greatest treasure discoveries was made off the Florida Keys, when the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was found. On board were some forty tons of silver and gold, which in 1622 had been heading from the New World to the Spanish treasury as the means to fund the Thirty Years’ War.”

Is this an obvious case of globalization? What about Marco Polo? RomeHan dynasty China trade in silks? Silk Road and Samarkand? Colombus? Magellan? Vasco da Gama?

All of these cases constitute a kind of harmless kind of “pop globalization” based on exotic voyages and travels.

Consider another such example, perhaps more academic:

“About the middle of the sixteenth century Antwerp reached its apogee. For the first time in history there existed both a European and a world market; the economies of different parts of Europe had become interdependent and were linked through the Antwerp market, not only with each other but also with the economies of large parts of the rest of the world. Perhaps no other city has ever again played such a dominant role as did Antwerp in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 50)

Debt repudiations in several places in the 1550s are described like this:

“This caused the first big international bank crash, for the Antwerp bankers now could not meet their own obligations.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 51)

This sounds like some kind of identifiably global period.

Actually, modern historians define globalization as “price convergence” (i.e., wheat has now a unified “world price,” implying a world market). This rigorous definition is confirmed by and also shows up in the data in the 1820s and may or may not be prefigured by all the Marco Polo and Atocha silver stories, mentioned above.

These episodes in history are not there yet.

One sees wheat prices and other commodity prices converging in the 1820s and thereafter based on railroads, steamships and telegrams.

The classic in this kind of analysis is:

Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson.

Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of In Globalization and History, Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of trade, migration, and international capital flows in the Atlantic economy in the century prior to 1914—the first great globalization boom, which anticipated the experience of the last fifty years. The authors estimate the extent of globalization and its impact on the participating countries, and discuss the political reactions that it provoked. The book’s originality lies in its application of the tools of open-economy economics to this critical historical period—differentiating it from most previous work, which has been based on closed-economy or single-sector models. The authors also keep a close eye on globalization debates of the 1990s, using history to inform the present and vice versa. The book brings together research conducted by the authors over the past decade—work that has profoundly influenced how economic history is now written and that has found audiences in economics and history, as well as in the popular press.

(book summary)

In everyday language, we associate the word globalization with some ever-increasing Marco Polo phenomena. While that’s not entirely wrong, globalization in the more technical sense begins to show up in the data only from the 1820s. At this point, we begin to see the convergence of worldwide wheat prices, for example. This makes the world, for the first time, a global “store” with unified prices. Here is the technical beginning of globalization. The years 1870-1914 are subsequently the first real era of modern globalization and represent a kind of “take-off” from the first stirrings of the 1820s. World Wars I & II might be seen as globalization backlash.

At this moment in world history, whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will constitute a new wave of deglobalization remains to be seen.

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.

Words and Reality and Change: What Is a Fluctuation?

Ludwig Boltzmann who died in 1906 was a giant in the history of physics.

His name is associated with various fields like statistical mechanics, entropy and so on.

A standard physics overview book called Introducing Quantum Theory (2007, Icon/Totem Books) shows a “cartoon” of Boltzmann which says, “I also introduced the controversial notion of fluctuations.” (page 25)

In common parlance, some common synonyms of fluctuate are oscillate, sway, swing, undulate, vibrate and waver. While all these words mean “to move from one direction to its opposite,” fluctuate suggests (sort of) constant irregular changes of level, intensity or value. Pulses and some pulsations suggest themselves as related.

Expressions like “Boltzmann brains” refer to this great physicist Boltzmann and you can find this notion described here: “Boltzmann Brain.”

Notice that the word “fluctuation” occurs four times in one of the paragraphs of the article “Boltzmann Brain,” as you can see:

“In 1931, astronomer Arthur Eddington pointed out that, because a large fluctuation is exponentially less probable than a small fluctuation, observers in Boltzmann universes will be vastly outnumbered by observers in smaller fluctuations. Physicist Richard Feynman published a similar counterargument within his widely read 1964 Feynman Lectures on Physics. By 2004, physicists had pushed Eddington’s observation to its logical conclusion: the most numerous observers in an eternity of thermal fluctuations would be minimal “Boltzmann brains” popping up in an otherwise featureless universe.”

You may remember perhaps you’ve also heard the term, perhaps on a PBS Nova episode on quantum fluctuation.

In the classic history of science book, The Merely Personal by Dr. Jeremy Bernstein (Ivan Dee, Chicago, 2001), one encounters the word fluctuation all over:

“This uniform density of matter …and fluctuations from the average are what would produce the unwanted instability.”

“So Einstein chose the cosmological constant…” (page 83 of Bernstein’s book)

Suppose we allow our minds to be restless and turn to economics to “change the lens” we are using to look at the world, since lens-changing is one of the pillars of Meta Intelligence.

What do we see?

In 1927, Keynes’s professor Arthur Cecil Pigou (died in 1959) published the famous work, Industrial Fluctuations.

In 1915, twelve years earlier, the famous Sir Dennis Holme Robertson (died in 1963) published A Study of Industrial Fluctuation.

The word fluctuation seems to be migrating to or resonating in economics.

The larger point (i.e., the Meta Intelligent one): is the use of this word a linguistic accident or fashion or is something basic being discovered about how some “things” “jump around” in the world?

Is the world seen as more “jumpy” or has it become more jumpy due to global integration or disintegration or in going to the deeper levels of physics with the replacement of a Newtonian world by an Einsteinian one?

The phenomena of change—call it “change-ology” whooshes up in front of us and a Meta Intelligent student of the world would immediately ponder fluctuations versus blips versus oscillations versus jumps and saltations (used in biology) and so on. What about pulsations? Gyrations?

This immediately places in front of you the question of the relationship of languages (words, numbers, images) to events.

The point is not to nail down some final answer. Our task here is not to delve into fields like physics or economics or whatever but to notice the very terms we are using across fields and in daily life (i.e., stock price fluctuations).

Notice, say, how the next blog post on oil price dynamics begins:

“Our oil price decomposition, reported weekly, examines what’s behind recent fluctuations in oil prices…”

The real point is to keep pondering and “sniffing” (i.e., Meta Intelligence), since MI is an awareness quest before all.

Education and Causality Changes

Scientific classification
Species:H. naledi
Binomial name:Homo naledi
Berger et al., 2015

The box above shows you, if you reflect for a moment, how involved and hierarchical taxonomy can be. The box refers to the tremendous fossil finds around 2013 outside Johannesburg, South Africa by Professor Lee Berger of Witwatersrand University and his team and associates in caves nearby.

The fossil finds are determined to be “homo” and not “australo” as you see in the table above (to the right of the word genus).

The PBS NOVA program “Dawn of Humanity” (2015), is about the story of these fossil finds and the interpretations of the finds which are deeply instructive for all knowledge-seekers, students, etc. because they leave behind any idea of a linear clearly branching “tree of life” in favor of the “bushiness” of evolution (no clear tree structure) and the whole process finally seen as a “braided stream.” This refers to a geological concept of the multiple pathways and reticulations of glacial ice and snow melt going down a mountain valley to a lake. The rivulets, channels, are crisscrossing in a “fluvial” flow pattern that is so complex one doesn’t know exactly which “exact” water went into the lake. If you say the lake is “homo sapiens” (humanity) and the swirling bushy tangled flow is the evolutionary raw material, some final causality is elusive.
When a “braided stream” (this kind of glacial water flow) metaphor gets fused with a “bushiness” one, then one sees that the random factors and endless crisscrossing obscures linear mono-causal explanations as we always imagined.

If you imagine a time when these concepts are applied to history, economy, and society you can begin to sense many “causality revolutions” in front of us where today’s textbooks will seem charmingly naive.

Every student, enrolled or not, should ponder the concepts of “braided streamtaxonomy (shown in the initial table above) and “bushiness” as opposed to tree structure. The student might also “walk around” these metaphors and ask what they imply for the “fractal geometry of nature” (a twig is like a little tree or branch on a bigger tree or branch and so on).

Essay 53: Incomplete One-Field Analysis

Prof. Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago is an outstanding paleontologist/evolutionary theorist and has written marvelous books such as Your Inner Fish:  A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

“Cleverly weaving together adventures in paleontology with very accessible science, Neil Shubin reveals the many surprisingly deep connections between our anatomy and that of fish, reptiles, and other creatures.  You will never look at your body in the same way again—examine, embrace, and exalt Your Inner Fish!”

Prof. Shubin has done outstanding work in trying to understand post-dinosaur mammalian history and timelines.  (Rise of the Mammals was a recent PBS program that is relevant.)

What is inadequate about all such “bones-and-stones” approach to “how we got here” is that the human creature is ultimately downstream from culture as expressed in language (epic poems) and images (e.g., the Lascaux caves in France, say) and fossils, as wonderfully intelligent as the detective work is, are one flashlight and not the system of “searchlights” one really needs to understand anything.

The very first lines of Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey shows you this:

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer…”

(Quoted from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.)

Here one sees the cultural soul of the human: the invocation of muses, gods, the telling of stories, the singing of songs, contending and wandering.

All evolution: cosmic, earthbound, whatever, does not capture the essence of humanity as the first words of Homer’s Odyssey where words, songs, stories take us into the human while the fossils and fossil archaeology are fascinating material infrastructure, as Prof. Shubin’s outstanding skeletal digs and “detective work” show us.

Essay 30: Magic or Sacred Geography as a Kind of Silent Education

Magic and its clone, sacred geography, are all around us and are crucial organizing principles for the way people think. Such emotions are an overlay over all formal education.

For Communists, the grave of Marx in Highgate Cemetery in England is sacred ground.  For some German soldiers after WWII who committed suicide on the steps in Feldherrnhalle (“Field Marshall’s Hall”—a display in Munich in Odeonsplatz of large statues of famous military leaders in German history), these statues and their place in Munich “means” something magical or sacred to them. North Koreans have Paektu Mountain which Kim recently ascended in a ritual addressed to the North Koreans. Think of Camelot or Lourdes.  Think of sites such as the Lincoln Memorial or Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or “holy sites” in Jerusalem or Mecca.

Think of magical and sacred things like the three imperial regalia in Japan which Emperor Hirohito fixated on at the end of WWII.

How does this kind of thinking permeate our lives in a way that nobody quite sees clearly:

The left in American politics (Bernie Sanders, Jeffrey Sachs, et al) explicitly or implicitly, think of Scandinavian social and economic systems as a kind of “magic geography” (i.e., defects and problems are not “welcomed” in their idealized visions). On the right, there’s a Singapore paradise of the imagination (what magic geography is) whereas Boris Johnson of England sees a “high wage, low tax” investment utopia which serve as a marvelous locale for the founding of both new businesses and new families. In this vision, men found businesses and women found or establish families, so everybody’s happy.

These competing visions can be traced back as far as you like, but we point to 1974 when Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) shared the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Professor Niall Ferguson, the conservative Harvard (now Stanford) financial historian (you may have seen his The Ascent of Money PBS mini-series), had a program years ago on educational TV where he walked around places in Chile that he presented as a pension “heaven.” Chile is now kind of falling apart with street riots convulsing Santiago. (Ferguson’s ideal Milton Friedman of Chicago was the main advisor of General Pinochet after the 1973 Chilean coup.

What none of these people see is that social reality is complex and highly changeable and that “magicalizing” one place or system (Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile) won’t work because successes that look solid or eternal are often caused by all kinds of “conjunctural” (i.e., of the moment) factors which don’t last “forever.”

Thus, much less “dogmatism” is called for so that one is not “swept along” by “ideological foolishness.” embedded in “magical geography” or its clone “sacred geography.”

Essay 29: Overview Strengthening: Using Meta-Intelligence to Orient Oneself

Let’s do an exercise in “overview building,” one of the key purposes of an education that is meaningful and not just an obstacle course or a maze governed by exams.

Think of the PBS miniseries of a few years ago: Guns, Germs, and Steel. It was a decent overview of history based on Jared Diamond’s famous book by the same name. Guns presumably encapsulates coercion, whether by armies, police or criminals. Germs stand for illness and disease in a germ-based view of sicknesses. Steel is the modern building material that allows skyscrapers, etc.

The viewer of the series might have felt a bit uncomfortable since humans with their “rage to belong, and rage to believe” (to paraphrase William James) make ideas into beliefs and doctrines and are not reducible to material factors like the Jared Diamond trio of guns, germs and steel.

The brilliant 20th century sociologist Ernest Gellner had a more inclusive encapsulation of human experience or world history when he entitled his own book of this type, Plough, Book, and Sword.

Plough” gives you settled agriculture (farming, roughly speaking) (i.e., food production not based on hunting). Gellner’s “Book” gives you ideas, doctrines, bibles, epics, stories, collections of documents and speeches, record-keeping beyond clay tablets, and so on. “Sword” gives you coercion à la Jared Diamond’s “guns.”

While Diamond omits “books.” Gellner omits “germs.” Books implies some level of reading and writing.

Ask yourself if you have an improved trio of mega-dimensions to explain human historical pathways or perhaps a quartet. Another trio might be: “Gods, Flags and Families.”

Tolstoy emphasizes the capriciousness of world history and accidents or “random walks” might then well be a plausible candidate for inclusion in our own version of a Diamond/Gellner-type title, as accident or accidentality or randomness.