“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
On Bitgenstein’s Table, we consider 2,500 years of human thought in philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, and more to make better decisions. Some episodes will focus on investment decisions, but most will focus on product decisions: what kind of world we want to build with decentralized technologies, in particular cryptocurrency.
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Like the neighboring countries of Africa, Zimbabwe had a minority white government with a policy of segregation.
One man, Robert, saw his black brothers and sisters mistreated in South Africa and Rhodesia. He began to speak up, he became an activist, and he was arrested for sedition … and imprisoned for almost a decade.
As the world political situation changed, and calls for the man to be released grew louder, eventually, the government of Rhodesia gave in.
It was a victory for human rights. The released man participated in negotiations that led to a peaceful agreement in his government. But the negotiations fell apart.
And the activist took up arms in a violent massacre of the population that had supported his opponent. Approximately 20,000 people were killed.
The man’s name was Robert Mugabe, and the 1982–1985 massacre of civilians is now called Gukurahundi, or “the early rain that washes away chaff before spring begins.”
Robert proceeded to steal billions of dollars from his own people. His wife lived in luxury in Paris, and his sons thrive in South Africa, but the people of Zimbabwe languish. Until 2017, he was President of Zimbabwe, until a bloodless coup took power from his hands.
He had been a hero for black people in Africa. He was an anti-colonialism liberator. But when he began to see victory, he became a villain — slaughtering thousands of the very people he had fought to set free.
It’s an iconic line from Christopher Nolan‘s penultimate Batman film: “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Batman fans watching the movie all knew that these words were prophetic, as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight and crime-smashing District Attorney, ended the movie — and his life — as the broken, insane villain Twoface.
In the popular video game Far Cry 4, set in the fictitious Nepal-like country of Kyrat, the player character Ajay Ghale or Ajay Ghale must choose during the game between supporting pragmatic rebel leader Amita or compassionate rebel leader Sabal in the war against the horrifically cruel despot Pagan Min. Eventually, the player must kill one of these revolutionaries “for the good of Kyrat.” But soon after, the player sees the surviving leader become a new evil dictator.
At the end of the Hunger Games, President Coriolanus Snow laughs uncontrollably as the hero Katniss, instead of shooting him, shoots the rebel leader who overthrew President Snow. Why does she do that? Because that rebel leader had become as great a tyrant as Snow was, even launching an attack on the rebels’ own children to provoke the rebels to stronger action.
Katniss’s sister Primrose, the person she had volunteered as tribute to save, died in the treacherous blast. This disguised attack for the purpose of motivating the rebels is a move which I suspect occurs more often in today’s Middle East than we would like to think.
Harvey Dent, Sabal or Amita, Alma Coin. In fiction, the rebelling hero often becomes the villain.
And so in history. Mugabe is not alone.
The Tsars of Russia were brutal at times, and eventually the peasants rose up for their right — and their rebellion turned into a Communist regime that killed tens of millions of peasants.
Of course, the turn against earlier principles isn’t always as severe as all that.
Every president I can remember, from the first Bush onwards, has been accused of taking up the very positions he campaigned against.
George Herbert Walker Bush’s “Read my lips: No new taxes” became new taxes.
Barack Obama’s “We support whistleblowers” became a hunt for Edward Snowden.
I could name pretty much any president here. Many, faced with the reality and pressures of office, even compromised on the very issues they were arguably elected for.
Those who lead and promise revolutions of all kinds so often turn into the very thing they fought against.
Why would cryptocurrency be any different?
Here on Medium, I’ve talked about early influencers like Bruce Fenton and Nick Spanos. Fenton says, “if you’re not about revolution, you’re in the wrong space.” Spanos says, “if we don’t free ourselves with blockchain, they are going to imprison us with blockchain.”
Cryptocurrency started as a revolution, and many of its leaders insist to this day that it is a revolution. Especially those who haven’t gone corporate. But they admit that the revolution’s success is far from certain. It could be defeated, especially from inside.
Have many of the early revolutionaries taken on the traits of those they sought to replace?
Many established, respected financial firms in the traditional world grew rich by getting into things early and dumping on less privileged investors.
With the growth of private money and ICOs, isn’t that what’s happening in crypto right now?
When cryptocurrency advocates claim the moral high ground when responding to failures that burn through millions of dollars, don’t those defenses ring hollow with all of the scams, fraud, and pump and dump schemes happening in the space?
Now, it is true that without such an outpouring of money, some things that seem too crazy or risky would just never be tried.
Perhaps this Wild West is something we must accept as a part of technological innovation.
Is Bitcoin like the early Internet, which people thought was only for nerds and had few if any practical uses?
Is it like James Watts’s steam engine, which was the mighty herald of and force behind the industrial revolution and would not be supplanted for decades?
Is it like early Chinese rockets, which were used only for fireworks and in warfare, but not fully developed for hundreds of years — when they ultimately started delivering both massive warheads into enemy troops and humans and their machines out to other bodies of the solar system?
Maybe. Perhaps we’re just incredibly early.
Perhaps we have development activity that seems nonsensical to outsiders, like the early Internet.
A clunky machine that changed the world, like the steam engine.
A flashy gimmick that would turn into the most impressive technology we have, like the rocket.
But those who strike it rich by coordinated schemes of duping and dumping on retail money delay and undermine the revolution.
The cryptocurrency revolution is still real. I still believe in it.
But despite the damage big government does, I’m more and more hopeful for some regulation in the space. Fewer people would be hurt, scammed, duped, taken advantage of. Crypto’s reputation would improve, and adoption and general prosperity and revolution would be easier to usher in.
This week’s episode is short, because I don’t yet want to name names.
Well – and because there was a loud jazz band playing outside my normal recording location during my normal recording time. (They were good, though. It was almost worth it.)So the review of that economics book I promised in last week’s episode will have to wait until next week.
But think about it.
What former revolutionaries in cryptocurrency are turning against the people who supported their revolution — robbing them blind and leaving them holding worthless bags and the fading memory of their promises of freedom and wealth?
Question everything and everyone. I’m still an optimist about cryptocurrency, and you should be, too.
But the regulators will be portrayed as villains by those who could be punished for their duping of the public.
If you’re concerned about where regulation might go, you should donate to or promote Coin Center, an organization in Washington DC working to guide regulators to reasonable, intelligent regulations. Or, support an equivalent organization in your own country.
But though it must be educated, reasonable regulation, I’m no longer scared of regulation. Bring it on.
And we must be vigilant when our heroes turn to villains. Mugabe was left behind in 2017 when a bloodless coup took power from him. If your heroes turn to villains, leave them behind.
For those of you who are heroes in the space, no matter how hard it is, don’t become the people you’re trying to replace. That won’t lead to a revolution. Just more of the same.
Thanks for reading.
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Next week will be a summary and response to a great little book on economics I’ve been reading, and how we’ve been creating money out of thin air for thousands of years, and for most of that time, letting banks of various kinds build and crash the system again and again.
Will cryptocurrency finally break the cycle? We’ll discuss this next week, on Bitgenstein’s Table: the Crypto Philosophy Podcast.