The Idea of America - Part Two

“In the beginning, all the world was America.”
John Locke

Here in Nicaragua, the natives go about half- dressed…without shame or sunblock. Fruits hang from the trees…and chickens run about the yards – ready to be plucked off. It is a kind of paradise.

There are snakes in the trees too. But it is not exactly the Garden of Eden. The sun beats down hard at midday. Only mad dogs and Americans venture out.

“The Garden of Eden was a perfect place,” Manuel explained. “Man had free will. He could live in harmony with nature and God…and everything would be fine. But if he defied God, the stain of original sin would be on his descendants forever.”

Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Ever after, men and women have been tarnished. Every silver lining has a cloud…and a correction follows every bubble market.

“It is just wonderful here,” said Elizabeth this morning, as we were walking along the beach. From the clubhouse where we are staying, you can walk for miles down the beach. You will see birds and fishes…and, occasionally, humans.

Two girls with very dark skin and strong indigenous features passed us. They wore dirty dresses and one carried a chicken.

“Is that your dinner?” I asked in such bad Spanish I hardly expected an answer.

I got an answer. But I don’t know what the girl said.

When America was discovered some people thought it might be a kind of Eden. Explorers recounted their tales of naked savages, snakes and low-hanging tropical fruit. Maybe it was Eden, but gone to seed.

Whatever it was, many people thought they could make a paradise out of it. Adventurers, entrepreneurs, religious zealots of every stripe – all made their way to the New World intent upon turning it into the Eden of their dreams. Five hundred years later, America is what they made of it – both a paradise…and a complete mess.

But if Americans have a special gift, it is a talent for ignoring the debit side of the ledger. Most Americans look at the country as if it were an Enron financial statement. Sure, many of the assets are fictitious and the liabilities are understated. But, like Merrill Lynch, we are all bullish on America.

“Well, you asked for it,” writes my old friend, Jim Davidson. And so we had. I had written to friends to tell them about a book I have been working on – an anthology on the “Idea of America.” Jim’s reply tells us what the name…if not the place…is all about.

“A volume on [the idea of America], should include an analysis of the ancient religious notion of “Merica” as held by the Essenes and Nasoreans (Qumranians). Josephus, the 1st century historian of the Jews, reported that the Essenes believed that good souls resided in a perfect land that lay over the great ocean to the West. This same view is fossilized in the beliefs of their descendents, the modern-day Mandeans, who tenaciously survive in Iraq and Iran. They trace their origins to John The Baptist.

“They believe that good souls go to a kind of heaven beyond the ocean to the West. This place, the land of the western star (the planet Venus) is known as ‘Merica.’ This mystical land may more likely have been the inspiration for the naming of the continent than the received view that it derives from the first name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian ship-chandler, later of Seville, who did not sail to the new world until seven years after Columbus.

“At the very least, the putative designation of the New World continents with his first name seems a puzzling injustice to Columbus if it was done in honor of exploratory prowess. Why not call the new land mass Columbia or Christopheria? At best, Vespucci was an ‘also ran.’ And if you were going to name continents in his honor, why not call then ‘Vespuccia’ or ‘Vespucciland,’ or something of that sort?”

“How did the attribution of the name “America” to Amerigo Vespucci arise?” Jim asks. “There is good warrant to suppose that the connection is either a conscious cover for naming a continent after an heretical vision of a heaven on earth, or, more probably, a misconception. The author of this misconception is known.

“He was an enthusiastic monk from the monastery of St. Deodatus in the Duchy of Lorraine, who gave himself the imaginative pseudonym of ‘Hylacomylus’ (Greek for ‘wood’, Latin for ‘lake’ and Greek for ‘mill’) as a kind of cipher for his German family name of Waldseemuller. Hylacomylus or Waldseemuller had access to a printing press, and in conjunction with some other geography junkies, he published in April of 1507 a volume of 103 pages, ‘An Introduction to Cosmography’, devoted to recent geographic discoveries. His research showed that the newly discovered land mass was already being described as ‘America.’ He also learned of the travels of Amerigo Vespucci.

“It was he who first concluded, probably erroneously, that the already common designation of the new continent as ‘America’ was somehow connected to ‘Amerigo’ Vespucci. He wrote:

‘Now, these parts of the earth (Europe, Africa, Asia) have been more extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci…. Insomuch as both Europe and Asia received their names from women, I see no reason why any one should justly object to calling this part Amerige (from the Greek ‘ge’ meaning ‘land of’), i.e. the land of Amerigo, or America, after Amerigo, its discoverer, a man of great ability.’

“Waldseemuller printed these musings along with his map of the world, which designated the new land mass ‘America.’ Notwithstanding the fact that his underlying premise that Vespucci discovered America is false, the association Waldseemuller asserted has been taken as writ ever since. But note that Waldseemuller did not name ‘America’ after Amerigo Vespucci. In fact, all he did was offer an explanation for an existing name, ‘America’, that apparently had been applied to the continent for some while. Since Waldseemuller wrote his ‘Introduction to Cosmography’ 15 years after Columbus landed, it would be astonishing if the sailors and others referring to this new land waited all that time to come up with a name for it. It is doubtful, to say the least, that they would have chosen ‘America’ in honor of Vespucci. Even if a monk in Lorraine could mistake the issue and declare Vespucci to have been the discoverer of ‘America’, others, including the sailors themselves, would have known better.

“I suspect that the fact that the new world was already being designated as ‘America’ when Waldseemuller wrote indicates that the Nasorean concept of a paradise over the western ocean had been transmitted beyond the Near East. The crusades were the probable mechanism of transmission, particularly the Order of the Poor Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or the Knights Templar. These mainly French knights were suppressed as heretics by Philip IV on October 13, 1307.

“The principle reason for their persecution was that they were rich and France was broke. That said, there is some basis for supposing that they really were heretics in the medieval Christian sense. In addition to looting the Temple of Solomon (really Herod’s Temple) of buried treasure, the Templars also seem to have picked up a number of religious concepts similar to those of the Nasoreans who wrote the Qumran scrolls. Chief among them was the idea that Jesus was a man, not a god, and the true teaching of Jesus had been lost. The concept of ‘Merica’ as the Land of the Star in the west or ‘La Merica’ (as it would have been known to the mostly French knights) could easily have been intriguing to them. And just as the Templar battle flag, the skull and cross bones, somehow crossed the ocean to become the emblem of pirates in American waters, so the name ‘La Merica’ or simply ‘America’ may have been known among the sailors and attached to the continent.

“In a sense, ‘America’ may be an artifact of Templar heresy, along with the Tarot, which was the forerunner of the modern deck of cards, and apparently was invented by the Templars as a cryptic education tool for transmitting their beliefs. Seven centuries later, the Tarot has somehow survived as a tool for fortune tellers. The Minor Arcana, of 56 cards, became the basis of the modern deck of playing cards (with the four knights removed after the suppression of the Templars).

“In any event, the Knights Templar were also the founders of Free Masonry, which for all its hocus pocus veils some interesting ideas, including the importance of the ‘Gnostic’ search for individual knowledge, including the quaint notion that ‘truth will conquer all.’ And don’t forget the non-trivial fact that most of the Founding Fathers of The United States of America were Free Masons, probably Scottish Rite Free Masons, before the rituals of Free Masonry were purged of their Nasorean heresies by the British royal family in 1813. The U.S. founding fathers were famous for their weak adherence to conventional Christianity. (On this point, see Jefferson’s Bible.)

“In any event, I believe that the name ‘America’ has ancient origins, derived from ‘Merica,’ the Nasorean Land of the Star of the West. This was thought to be a perfect land across the ocean of the setting sun where good souls dwelled. It rather gives some of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric about America as a special place designated by God an unexpectedly ancient provenance.”

Bill Bonner
Febraury 22, 2002 — Nicaragua

*** “Positive news on the economic front isn’t sinking in,” Reuters reports. Apparently investors are “preoccupied with accounting fears and credit problems.”

*** Here at the Daily Reckoning we offer this humble opinion: they should be.

*** The total number of U.S. bankruptcies filed in 2001 jumped 19 from the year before. The 2001 total exceeded the previous high of 1.44 million mid-bubble bankruptcies filed in 1998. And some experts forecast the surge will continue this year.

*** “I think the feeling of most people is that 2002 will be an equally big year,” Sam Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, told Reuters. Ninety-three percent of ABI members expect filings will continue to rise.

*** “We are getting to the end of the grace period in which you can get the hell out of stocks and bonds and into gold,” suggested Richard Daughty, editor of the Mogambo Guru economic newsletter. “There is not one piece of good news anywhere, except that there are still legions of ‘investors’, and I use the term pejoratively, who are willing to put perfectly good money into ludicrously overvalued stocks. Debt loads are untenable and getting more so daily, and bankruptcy after bankruptcy will inevitably follow, causing more billions to be lost permanently. Ugh.”

*** Ugh, indeed… and another losing day on Wall Street. The Dow lost 106 points to 9834, while the Nasdaq got smoked for 59 to 1716.

*** Accounting worries at Computer Associates, AIG, IBM, Cisco; a negative credit implication from ratings agency Fitch for JP Morgan Chase; fibre-optic company Ciena telling us its revenue forecast – not earnings, but simple sales, mind you – was a full one-third lower than the Street’s last guess… we could go on.

*** Around the world things looked up a bit. The Nikkei responded more positively… rising on hopes that a Matsushita restructuring plan will bear fruit. Japanese investors also ignored another headline bankruptcy – this time at Japan Metals, the nation’s largest ferro- alloy manufacturer. The index rose 61 to 10,356. In London FTSE closed up 49 at 5073 on a short-lived rebound in some of the recently depressed areas.

*** “What passes for analysis these days,” writes our man on the scene in London, Sean Corrigan, “was highlighted by two successive quotes Bloomberg carried from the same fund manager at the £70 billion Clerical & Medical. Yesterday, he commented on FTSE’s rise by saying, ‘It’s a recovery market; some of the technology sectors clearly offer growth opportunity.’ After a sour opening this morning tempered his optimism a bit, the same fund manager suggested ‘bringing the recommendations of those high-flying stocks to potentially more realistic levels’.”

*** As I’m sure you’re aware, one of our favorite themes here at the Daily Reckoning is that of easy money and aggressive credit expansion leading eventually to a whole “raft” of errors among entrepreneurs.

*** “In a market built on honest money,” Corrigan offers, “one can expect some smart people to win when they go into business and some – not-so-smart, or just plain unlucky – to lose, leaving us (hopefully) with a small positive balance. But when easy money swells the coffers – money created from nothing by the banking system – no one has any solid foundation on which to build their ventures. The longer the Boom goes on, the more gleaming corporate HQs get erected on quicksand.”

*** But, “having been through one of the longest and strongest Booms in history, we should not be surprised that there are many more pillars of such temples left to topple.” Still, we’re not the only ones urging caution…

*** Billionaire Theodore J. Forstmann, who started his own leveraged buyout firm 24 years ago and who has made a fortune ploughing $13 billion into 29 investments in over two decades, suggests “this time things ARE different.” (emphasis added)…

*** “It’s not a good time to be making big, long-term, illiquid bets,” says Forstmann. “There’s a war going on. The economy is very ragged. We’re in a severe deflationary monetary environment, which means that it’s exactly the wrong time to be using leverage…In point of fact, I think now is a pretty difficult time to be investing.”

*** On the other hand, suggests our friend – and recent perma-optimist – Jim Davidson, “The good news is that we don’t have to be so intrepid.” Jim writes, “No need to cross the Weddell Sea in an open lifeboat. No need to skin a penguin. Ours is not a story of miraculous survival, but of seeking a financial advantage in miraculous times. History is accelerating in a different and better way for us. We are experiencing, on average, four years of technological progress each year during the current quarter century.”

*** The macro-environment aside… the pace of technological change, believes Davidson, could lead to some ground-breaking opportunities for investors willing to accept the risks. While, we’re not convinced… his argument may be worth a look.