Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

So on twitter, I recently insinuated that Bloomberg stood to make money off of war because his fortunes are intimately tied to Wall Street, Wall Street makes more money in volatile times, and what makes things more volatile than war?

Having said that (and being very ambivalent about the current state of Israel, especially in regards to its treatment of Palestinians), I want to unpack that insinuation in more than 140 characters while also talking about antisemitism in a more historical (pre-World War II) context.

I'm not sure where to begin, so let's start with Bloomberg.

He makes his money mainly by renting out "Bloomberg terminals"... These are monitors (now flat screen) that run proprietary software. They are expensive, the contracts are legal works of art (if you, as a hedge fund, crash and burn, you still have to pay out your full contract even if you no longer have an office to house your terminal(s) in), and the terminals crunch numbers (in an almost infinite variety of ways) so traders don't have to.

I don't know if the company actually makes money off of Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Business Week, but they gain "mindshare"... Bloomberg considers Reuters and Knight-Ridder its competition, because Bloomberg isn't about selling stocks. It's about renting out the means to make sense of the almost infinite amount of financial data out there.

So, that's why Bloomberg the Man (and Mayor) cares about Wall Street. He wants more and more terminals to be rented by denizens of Wall Street, and more and more eyeballs to turn to Bloomberg when they want raw (or crunched) financial data.

Ok, so, also?  He's Jewish. Just like he's also a guy who was born well off, and made his first million on Wall Street before he was fired (gossip is, because he was a jerk. I couldn't possibly comment as I have never met the man).... He might also collect My Little Ponies, but I don't know. (Isn't that a great image? Savor it, do...)

I have a knee-jerk reaction (as do, I think, most people who I consider "properly brought up") to anything that smacks of antisemitism. So, when I talk about Jews (especially historically) I want to be clear that I'm not a huge student of history, I'm not Jewish, and there's no such thing as one Jewish viewpoint or experience. Not a monolith.

I get nervous when people talk about "rich Jews" "Jewish bankers" "Jewish moneylenders" and any variation on that theme. I want to explore where that (dangerous) stereotype comes from. (Also, this is from an Anglo-centric, Christian-cultural place. I don't know more than this. My limits don't have to be your limits.)

So, here are some places I start when thinking about it:

Going back to ancient history, with the losses of the first and second Temples, Jews (unlike other gods-worshipping folk) were no longer defined by a singular place of worship. Jews made an epic transition from being People of the Temple (a specific and concrete location) to People of the Book (an idea). (A thought-- much like Occupy, as we have moved from physical encampments to trying to create a common identity without a common place to link us. I wonder how well we are succeeding, and where we will end up?)

...Without being tied to a location (and often being refused the right to own land or the means of production in the places they made their homes), Jews had to come up with ways to earn a living that were not tied to a specific place. Trading, selling, and honing skills that could be taken with you in the dead of night should your neighbors stop tolerating your Otherness weren't just stereotypes. They were the smart decision-- and sometimes no choice at all.

In medieval and Enlightenment England, for instance, Jews (and later Quakers) were barred from college or working in government. What does a smart person do if they cannot be a professor or a public servant? They go into business. 

You may have heard the term "usary"... basically, charging interest on a loan, which (early) Christian churches said not to do. A (Christian) king who was interested in going to war might have trouble squeezing his vassals for enough money to fund a thousand knights all at once. (Christian) folks with money might not be interested in giving him a huge loan, with only a vague promise to pay it all back... later. After he's conquered the Holy Lands. ("Just this once, I promise. I can quit Crusading any time...")

Jews who had money (not, let me remind my gentle reader, Jews who did *not* have a lot of money, which there were plenty of. Perhaps even 99%) were not limited by dogmatic prohibitions against charging interest, so they had no religious, social or practical reason *not* to lend a powerful king money to fight his little war far away, as long as he (I'm assuming gender here; I bet there are a few women money lenders out there and I should love to hear about them if you know more about it, but I'm sticking with "he" as generic for the moment) got his (huge) interest jackpot later. (Yea, spoils of war!)

I don't know which came first, the Jewish money lender or the Jewish tax collector. I *think* that the "Jewish tax collector" motif comes more from Eastern Europe, where there were more Jews (than in England) but they were still often a minority-- a useful Other, as far as the ruler was concerned. Very useful, Others, when the populace starts to get restive about the huge amount of taxes you've been levying. Especially with all these wars you've been starting with the neighbor would-be Czar.

Sure, the peasants are ultimately mad at the king for taking their money-- but he's far away. The tax collector is the face of the 1%, the guy who is coming to your door. Much easier to punch *him* in the face-- and safer, too, if you can get away with it. He is the punching bag between the oppressor and the oppressed. Resentment of the (small) amount of power and otherness he represents (has) festered and flared over the years.

How does an unpopular local potentate cajole his peasants into believing he's someone you could drink a shot of Vodka with? Why, persecute a hated minority! Pogroms for everyone! Pass the pitchfork and look the other way...


Antisemitism isn't just a dangerous path to trot down for those who might be labled/accused of being Semitic. It is a time-honored tradition by the 1% to keep the money-makers & takers at a distance... just close enough they can reach into their pockets, just far enough they can toss them at the peasants while they run away in the other direction...

Bloomberg is a human being. He is making decisions based on the best information he has and the resources available to him. I don't know if he thinks much about history, or about people who don't have money.

I'm sure he has padded the war chests of many elected officials, and it's kind of nice that we live in a day and age when he doesn't have to just be a go-between, but can hold political office himself. (Yea.)

I'm nervous that he seems to fit a historical pattern so well. I worry that I might see a pattern where there is none, just because of the Christian culture I grew up in. (Nevermind that I was raised vaguely Hindu. Christian culture, I swam in it.) I worry that others might, too.

So I wanted to share some information about choices, so we can choose to make new ones.

Especially today, in honor of people who have paid the price for other people's bad decisions.


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