My guest today, Jack Weatherford, is an anthropologist and author of several books, including one on money, a number on indigenous cultures in North America and beyond, and a revisionist and very thought provoking history of Genghis Khan, called “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.”
Tom Morgan, who is a successful fund manager, described this book on Jim O’Shaughnessy’s podcast Infinite Loops as the best business and investing book that he’d ever read. That got me curious, so I grabbed a copy, changed my mind about almost everything I believed about Genghis Khan, and invited Jack onto the show.
In this conversation, rather than talking about investing, we explored the impact that Genghis Khan had on the modern world, how he introduced the rule of law, meritocracy, paper based money, religious freedoms and international trade routes. In fact, even though he was a genuine pioneer in many of these arenas, and this was 800 years ago, listening to the news today, it feels like we’re going backwards in a number of these topics.
Mark Bidwell 0:39
Before I introduce you to this week’s remarkable guest, I wanted to tell you about a leadership program I’m running in the next few months. As you may have noticed, I don’t run third party commercials on this podcast because I want to respect your attention and your time. But I suspect some of you listening will find my peer based leadership program called Outside Views, of real interest, especially if you’re facing problems and challenges that you can’t solve by relying on your existing playbook, your past experience. As we often discuss on the podcast, our world is increasingly characterized by VUCA problems, that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous problems, problems which can really only be properly addressed by looking at them through different lenses, which brings diverse perspectives. And if you’ve listened to some of my past episodes, you will know that the data is clear and unambiguous. Increasing your diversity increases your revenues, your innovation, your ability to solve complex problems. Just being in the presence of someone different from you causes you to think differently. The Outside Views program, which I founded in 2016, gives people like you, executives, founders, entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs, access to these diverse perspectives, teaches you key leadership and indeed life skills for thriving in today’s world, and makes you part of an exclusive and accomplished peer group of like-minded individuals who you can learn with and learn from. And if you’d like to know more, check out the Outside Views section of my website outsidelens.com. We don’t run this program very often, and there are only eight slots in each cohort, so I do urge you to take a look. Without further ado, let’s get to this week’s episode.
Mark Bidwell 2:40
Hi, this is Mark Bidwell, welcome back or welcome to the OutsideVoices Podcast. My guest this week is Jack Weatherford, who’s an anthropologist and author of several books, including one on money, a number on indigenous cultures in North America and beyond, and a revisionist and very thought provoking history of Genghis Khan. I first learned about this book listening to Patrick o’Schaugnassey’s podcast Infinite Loops, where his guest, Tom Morgan referred to the book on Genghis Khan as having been described by a successful fund manager as the best business and investing book that he’d ever read. In my conversation with Jack, rather than talking about investing, we explored the impact that Genghis Khan had on the modern world, how he introduced the rule of law, meritocracy, paper based money, religious freedoms, and international trade routes. In fact, even though he was a genuine pioneer in many of these arenas, and this was 800 years ago, listening to the news today, it feels like we’re going backwards in a number of these topics. So I hope you enjoy my conversation with Jack Weatherford.
Mark Bidwell 3:56
Jack, it’s great to have you on the podcast. Thank you for your time. Maybe we can start with anthropology. I think you graduated the same year that I was born. Why did you choose to become an anthropologist? What does it entail?
Jack Weatherford 4:10
Well, Mark, I was all on your side being a fellow anthropologist till that comment (laughing). Anthropology, it’s so hard sometimes, like, why did I get attracted to anthropology or why to my wife, or why to Mongolia? You can say things but we never know. I had a certain scholarly inclination, but I also wanted to travel. And I think that was a large part of it. I love to get away from the city perspective, of just the great cities of the world. I went to the University in Germany, I enjoyed it very much, but there was a lot more to the world than just Rome and London and Paris and the big cities. And even in Germany, although I studied in Berlin and Frankfurt, I lived in the countryside about an hour away, just because I was a little more comfortable with getting to know the way of life there. So anthropology has just appealed to me and that’s about the only honest thing I can say. The rest would just be intellectual crap that we could add onto it.
Mark Bidwell 5:16
And how would you describe what it means to be an anthropologist? What’s your definition of anthropology?
Jack Weatherford 5:22
I do think it’s a way of seeing the world that, first, gives a certain priority to the way the people see it, about whom you are talking. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about a tribe in New Guinea, or you’re talking about the workers in the IT office, it doesn’t matter who it is, but it’s to learn how to see the world through the eyes of other people. It’s not to become those other people, you don’t have to become a tribal member or become an IT expert or something, but it’s striving to understand how they see the world. Basically, all people are fairly good, fairly good. And when we disagree with people, it’s often because we can’t see the world through their eyes and through their experiences, and how they got there. Part of that for anthropology of course, is the importance of language, that’s the key. Even when we all speak the same language, we’re all speaking English, for example, with other people you work with, or other people in your country, they have different experiences. The words mean something slightly different. Even a simple word like mother means a lot different to a person who did not have one, or the person who had several. All these things are relative. Anthropology helped me tremendously to see the world through the eyes of other people.
Mark Bidwell 6:44
And I think you’re an expert in tribal peoples, you did a lot of work on North American, Native American Indians and tribal culture, indigenous communities. Maybe we can come back to that in a minute. But perhaps the reason I came across your work and was so keen to have you on the podcast was your wonderful book in 2004, called “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.” And the second part of the title is so fascinating. What was it about Genghis Khan that attracted you to write this book, to dig into him and his legacy, his story?
Jack Weatherford 7:22
To be honest, I wasn’t attracted to it right away. It took me a long time. At the time, as you say, I was more interested in tribal people, and I had done a lot of work on the American tribes in North and South America. And of course, their fate was horrific in the end, they all suffered terribly. And I was very interested in looking at another side of where the tribes were more triumphant and trying to understand the relationship of tribes to the so-called civilization, the great cities of the world. And for that I wanted to do a book about the Silk Route, and what was the role of the tribal people along that route. That’s what first took me to Mongolia, and then I just kind of got stuck there. I’ve been there for 23 or so years now, and I never got to the end of that book. I never wrote the book that I set out to write. But as you said, I got all involved with Genghis Khan, and then I ended up writing a biography, which is something I never expected in my life to write. But I recognize no one had written the book I wanted to read. And so I just had to write it, I had to write it.
Mark Bidwell 8:28
It’s a biography. It’s also a historical text as well, versus a more traditional anthropological book. It does read, as it says on the front cover, the part-travel and part-epic narrative. It’s a wonderful story that you put together. Maybe we can start with the making of the modern world. Maybe just listing some of his achievements, the scope of his, as you mentioned earlier on, his triumphalism, the scope of his achievements. Maybe just frame this, so listeners can get a sense of quite how significant the landmass, the peoples were that he and his legacy dominated.
Jack Weatherford 9:09
First, a quick part to get out of the way, is just the military part. He was the greatest conqueror in the history of the world. He conquered an empire larger than any other conqueror had ever done. We compare it to Alexander the Great, or to Caesar or to anyone else in history, they cannot even come close to one half of what he conquered. That’s the part that’s already known, that he was the great conqueror, and he built this huge empire that stretched through Eurasia. But what was more interesting to me was not to tell that story, it’s been told and told and told, often in a very negative way, and I didn’t want to just fight the negative stereotype to mock that. But why did people stick with him? He had an army of 100,000 people. He had a nation, after he united all of Mongolia, he had a nation of one million. Yeah. So you have one million people, you have an army of 100,000, how do you conquer hundreds of millions of people, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Poland, Hungary? It goes on and on. How is that possible? And how do you rule them? You don’t rule them by force. You have 100,000 soldiers, you don’t rule by force. There’s another story there. There’s something else going on. Why would people be willing to follow him, even if they fought him? Why didn’t they keep fighting him after his little army of 100,000 moved on? China alone had more than a million soldiers at this time. So I began to look for that, and then that is what led me to really how he transformed the world. And some of the things that he did, for example, his first law was the law of religious freedom. What? Genghis Khan, the law, right, how did that happen? Well, it happened because his first foreign war was out to protect the weaker people who were being forced to convert to Buddhism, and they appealed to him, and they swore allegiance to him if he would help them, and he went after the khan who was ruling, or the emperor who was ruling over them at that time. They chased him into the mountains of what’s now Pakistan and they killed him, and they liberated the people, and then Genghis Khan, other leaders had sometimes given religious freedom to the religious, to priests, to temples to monasteries, not to people. Genghis Khan then made the law that every person has the right to choose the religion that he or she wants, and anyone who tries to force them to convert should be killed. Anyone who prevents him from converting should be killed. That was revolutionary. Nobody in the whole history of the world had ever given religious freedom as a right to the people, not to the religion, to the people. So he attracted religious minorities everywhere he went, everywhere. In the Muslim world, he attracted Christians, he attracted Jews, he attracted many types of Muslims who were the minority in the places they were. So that was one law that he did. Another one was a simple law of diplomatic immunity, that every envoy is an envoy of peace, even if you’re at war with those people. They cannot be harmed. They cannot be killed. They cannot be captured or prison tortured. That was revolutionary. Even today, it’s still revolutionary. Diplomats are still killed today, taken hostage and all kinds of things happen. And he also was set out, anytime a Mongol ambassador was killed, male or female, because he also had a female ambassador, he went after him and he killed the people who did it. As long as he lived, he never let the death of one of these diplomats go unrevenged. Well, that’s a harsh law in many ways. On the other hand, it’s a law that we can understand that a lot of people would appreciate having that kind of protection. Perhaps the most important was that he connected Asia and Europe. Yes, they’ve been connected before, they had the Silk Route and things traveled. But we don’t know if any European person who ever went to China and came back before him, or any person from China who went to Europe and came back before him, but since him, every day of every year people are traveling back and forth. And it’s not just the people, it’s the goods, they’re carrying stuff. And so in the past, you could have traveled, say from China, a package of silk, for example, from one oasis to the next oasis to the next city, to another oasis to the next, it was very slow and very expensive, because any place you had to pay. Now he created a freeway, we might say, just zoom right through. They can go all the way through, the merchants can get their caravans, they can go straight through, they’re taxed once in their territory, only once, never again. So he created this fast movement of people. That’s why we see, by the time of his grandson, someone such as Marco Polo, Marco Polo’s father and uncle went to China, came back to Venice, picked up Marco, they went back to China, they sailed back to Venice, again. Nothing like that had ever happened in the history of the world. So people benefited from this unification. They benefited from his laws of religious freedom, his laws for the protection of women because his mother had been kidnapped, his wife had been kidnapped, and he made it a capital offense to kidnap or sell a woman. They were simple things that appealed to people for practical reasons. He didn’t set out to be the world’s first capitalist, or the first feminist or the first religious freedom activist, he did these things because they worked. He was a practical man.
Mark Bidwell 14:42
And we’re still struggling with some of these topics today, 800 years later, of course. You touched on the role of women, as you say, he gave women rights, when he was off campaigning, and the women were running the Empire back at home for a number of years. And the other that really struck me was how he almost brought in the concept of meritocracy, so overturned the feudal system in many respects and implemented meritocracy, which our issues are still being faced and wrestled with today.
Jack Weatherford 15:20
Yes, both of those things were very important to him, again, not from an ideological perspective, it’s because of what had happened with his mother and his wife. But also because he had so few people, he had 1 million people, 100,000 soldiers, all the men were off with the army, all of them. He’s not going to let anybody stay at home who can move and ride a horse, they’re going to be out there with him. And so this is where I think the anthropological lens is very helpful. By living with the nomads, you see that the men are often gone, they’re out with the herds, the women run things. And so by extension, they were able to run the country in his absence. So these were just simple practical things. He needed his daughters, he needed his wives. He needed his mother to be back there helping to administer things, not because of an ideological commitment. And this gave rise to tremendous amount of power among the women, Mongol women were very powerful. And the part about merit is also extremely important, because early on, he fought some of the tribes of Mongolia. He defeated them, and they had aristocratic clans, you might think of aristocrats, but I don’t know what else to call that, the ruling clans of these different tribes. So they would swear peace to him, they would trade some things back and forth. And he would ride off, they would revolt, by the way. So he recognized that he could not depend upon the rich, he could not depend upon the former leaders to support him. And so once he conquered the Tatar people for about the third, fourth time, then he decided, okay, he’s killing off all the rulers, he’s not taking them anymore. They’re not going to rule. When he conquered any city or kingdom after that, he killed the king, he killed all the ruling people, they were useless to him, he knew that they would betray him, and he let live anybody who had a skill. If you could speak a language, if you could weave a rug, if you could do pottery, if you could do any kind of skill, you lived. And if you could do numbers and speak languages, you could come into his administration. So he opened it up within his own world. His family had deserted him, all of his father’s people had deserted him, and left him and his mother to die on the steppe with the other children. Somehow they survived thanks to the genius of his mother and the hard work. He had no respect for his own clan in a way for what they have done to him. He did not promote people based upon kinship. Instead it was young friends that he made growing up, who stuck by him, and none of those, with possibly one exception, who had never swore allegiance to him, none of them ever turned against him. They were the most loyal friends to the end of his life. So it was a kind of meritocracy, again, just based on simple experience, nothing to do with ideology or a plan, or political stance or any sense like that. I should also add, since we’re on merit, for most of us, our greatest virtue is our greatest fault also. For him, in the end, he did love his sons a little bit too much, even though he had not promoted people based on kinship. In the end of his life, he did weaken and he left the Empire to his sons and also to his daughters, but not to his generals.
Mark Bidwell 18:53
Can we just talk a little bit about him as a person, his leadership characteristics? Because he, as we’ve touched on, some of the results that he was able to generate and the way in which he did, there are parallels in today’s world. Obviously, it was 800 years ago, so it’s difficult to talk about his leadership philosophy, but you touched on it. How would you characterise him in leadership terms, as a leader of people, what kind of behaviors did he exhibit? What were his philosophies that you could pull out of your work?
Jack Weatherford 19:26
He did not come from an aristocratic background. His father had not been a khan, so he didn’t have that behind him. He was a part of the people around him, the friends that he had forever. He said, he made it very clear, even at the end of life, he said, I wear what they wear, I eat what my soldiers eat, I sleep the way my soldiers sleep. I have the same kind of tent, he never had a palace, apartments, he never had a tomb, he never had anything built for him. He lived exactly the way they lived. I think that made a great impression upon them and inspired the loyalty of these people to him, that he was one of them to the end. And he wouldn’t take any title other than just Genghis Khan, that was it. The men around him had the right to walk into his tent at any moment. They didn’t have to go through any kind of test, they didn’t have to do anything special to him. He was one of them. This kind of equality was very important, but also he didn’t set himself above them in terms of intelligence. In many ways he was, in some things, but not in everything. For example, he had another man, a general, somebody who started off as just a humble boy, working for him, and Subutai was a better strategist, a military strategist. Genghis Khan yielded to him right away and kept him, and Subutai not only did he remain loyal, but his son became a follower and so did his grandson later, all the way through the generations became very loyal to the Mongols, then what eventually became a royal family. But it started with Subutai. Genghis Khan’s own younger brother Qasar was a better shot than he was with the bow and arrow. And he admitted that, so he wasn’t trying to be the best in anything. Nothing. He’d always let people around him.
Mark Bidwell 19:27
Yeah, what was so interesting, I think you said he never fought the same war twice. Behind that was, he would absorb the new technologies, whatever was working from around him. In the corporate world, we talked about the not invented here syndrome, where things just get rejected because we didn’t come up with it. He was sufficiently humble and intelligent to recognise that if something’s working, then let’s import it, let’s take advantage of it, and then it becomes part of how we operate.
Jack Weatherford 21:42
I think coming from a background where you don’t already have this big civilization around you, which gives you your religion, your technology, the books to study, he had to improvise with everything. Of course, he’s the person who grew up without ever seeing a city in his life. I have no evidence he ever saw buildings in his first 30 or so years of his life. So all of this was new to him. When he encountered it, he had to be open to new things. Part of it was just, how do you get through a land that’s agricultural. They live on the steppe that’s open, you ride your horse anywhere, you go into these countries, they have roads, the fields are plowed up and they have ditches there and they have walls, it’s very hard to cross, so he had to improvise constantly. And he failed many times, many times with it. But it did mean that he would walk away. One of the first things, at his first conquest of a city area, it’s now in China, but it was called the Tangut People or the Xi Xia dynasty at that time. He was conquering the Tangut, and of course, it’s a city. He’s got to conquer a city. He somehow got the idea, somebody told him, I don’t know that, okay, divert the river, use a river to knock down the wall, you have no other way. You have no artillery, you have nothing. And so he did. He diverted the river, and the river flooded out his whole camp. Okay. It didn’t work that time. Next time it worked. They learned, okay, yeah, the river can flood you as well as the other people, so he was still open to it, and he made it work. All the way up until they finally conquered Baghdad in the time of his grandson, by that time, they also, they used the river, they diverted the river to knock down the walls of Baghdad. These sort of strategies that he learned along the way were half from imitating other people, and then half from his own innovation and willingness to try it again, and if it failed to try it again. And to listen to other people, let them tell him he’s wrong, and they tried a different way.
Mark Bidwell 23:40
Yeah, this theme of cloning from other people, we’ve touched on this in previous podcasts in the context of investing, but also in the context of innovating in the corporate world. Let’s take things in from the outside, and then as you say, the experimenting, if it doesn’t work, then iterate, then try again. As I was reading a book, it just struck me that these are themes that continue to play out in the world of business today. That’s why I was so keen to talk to you. There’s so much that we can learn from his success, albeit in a completely different field, and 800 years ago, as well.
Jack Weatherford 24:14
I certainly believe you, Mark, but you’re the expert on that side. I don’t know the business world. I could talk about the tribes here and there for a long time, but I just walk into a shopping mall and I’m lost right away. I can’t even find my way. But I do think there are certain principles, probably whether you’re talking about leadership or other things like that do cross through cultures and through time. And the things that I see in him that I admire the most are things that I think would be applicable today, even if you’re working with the latest technology and in a bunch of different business formats, but I say that out of belief, not out of knowledge.
Mark Bidwell 24:54
Yeah. People might be listening to this and thinking, well hang on, this doesn’t sound like the Genghis Khan that I’ve read about and heard about. He was a bloodthirsty savage. Can we just talk about his reputation? Because there are kind of two bookends to his reputation, well, probably three. There’s firstly, how Chaucer wrote about him, then how Voltaire wrote about him, and then how you’re writing about him. What happened to his reputation? Maybe we can just talk a little bit about how that has evolved over time.
Jack Weatherford 25:21
Well, the reputation depended a lot on whether or not you were conquered by him, and whether or not you came out of the elite. So most of the books that were written were being written by elite people who had been conquered. Those tended to be negative, however, not in all cases, because in some cases, especially with minority people who were educated minority people, and they were conquered by him, they were extremely positive. So we have both the most positive and the most negative books in the Persian language. They were conquered by him. And we have some of the greatest biographies about him, and also all these numbers of the people killed, which were vastly exaggerated. It was war, they fought, he killed a lot of people, there’s no doubt about that. However, the numbers are often a little bit crazy. But the Persians were both in, I would have to say in the end, of pipe fear in the sense that even the people who supported him very much could be critical of some things. And even the Persian writers who hated him as just the demon of hell, they would sometimes be quite fair to him, sometimes. So that was excellent. On the other hand, the Russians universally hated him, there was just no question about that. China, of course, was eventually conquered by his family, in his generation he conquered half of it, and then his grandson conquered the other half. Then at first, there were some suspicions, but then later, it was very positive, because they were ruling. Then after the ruling ended, there was much more negativity. That’s how it goes. In England, as you say, Chaucer, who was the first to write in English about him, was very positive. But there had been some other scribes earlier on, religious scribes who wrote in Latin in the UK, and they were very negative, because he was not a Christian, and he had conquered Christian people in Russia and Poland, and Germany and Hungary. It was a mixed record, and mixed early on. Then, gradually, he became a hero to some people, and he became a villain to others, especially after the fall of his empire. Then even the Persians turned against him after the fall of Ilkhanate, that part of the empire. The people who have been supporting him most then no longer did. But of course, you have the other group, the Moghuls, who went on to rule India, they claimed descent from him, and they followed him and even their word Moghul, it’s Persian for Mongol. So there are many different views of him. But you’re right that the negative view in the West really gets going strongly with Voltaire. Because for Voltaire, 100 years before Voltaire, we had another book about him by a French woman, the first book written about him in a European language was by a French woman, she was Huguenot, a minority, and she saw the greatness of his leadership, and she knew almost nothing about the history. She didn’t know these foreign languages, and she wrote a novel about him. The novel was so successful in so many languages in Europe, that then a very great scholar, François Petis de la Croix, who was a translator in the French court, just a wonderful scolar, he wrote the first real biography of Genghis Khan, and it was called ‘Genghis Khan the Great’. Now, oddly enough, the first novel about him is still to this day in the library that George Washington owned in Mount Vernon in America. His wife brought that book into the marriage. And also, the books of Petis de la Croix are in the US Library of Congress, the Library of Virginia, and other places donated by Thomas Jefferson. So these are people who saw him in a very positive light. But Voltaire, you’re right, he’s the one there in the middle of the Enlightenment, they’re all getting these ideas about human rights and everything. And so he wants to criticise the French king. Well, he was a coward, an absolute coward. He wouldn’t say what he wanted to say, so he went to Switzerland, and he wrote this play about Genghis Khan in which he’s really French king, with all the complaints that Voltaire had about the French king, he put them onto Genghis Khan ruling as a tyrant, and that helped to change the view of Genghis Khan. That was followed, unfortunately, not too much longer by the rise of Napoleon. That’s really what came out of the French Enlightenment and revolution was Napoleon, a new emperor. And even by then people like Thomas Jefferson, who early were strong supporters of Genghis Khan, by the end of life when they saw Napoleon, they didn’t want to support the conquerors of any type anymore. He never turned against Genghis Khan, they just stopped his comments about him. So it’s been back and forth, back and forth to history. I come down on the side of Chaucer, and Petis de la Croix, and the great Persian writer Juvayni and Rashid-al-Din, some of these people.
Mark Bidwell 30:29
And Nehru as well, right, I mean, Nehru in prison was writing to his daughter who went on to be Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India.
Jack Weatherford 30:38
Oh yes, Nehru, sorry, I heard the Roman Emperor Nero. My hearing is not so good. Thank heaven you mentioned his daughter, Indira. Yes, India, of course, was getting its independence when he was in prison, they did not have it. And so at this time, he started looking back for a hero in Asian history, who stood up against Europeans, and he said, the Europeans were destined to colonise the world, and to rule all of Asia, look at Genghis Khan. And he wrote this to his daughter, Indira. And then afterwards, when India became independent, it was one of the first countries to really tie closer to Mongolia. They began to work on the first translation of the secret history into English. It was, allow that I don’t want to say it was successful, but it was made from the Chinese language, so not directly from Mongolian, and that made for some problems with it. However, it was the first effort to translate the real history of Genghis Khan into English. And for that, I respect India very much, and they have stood by Mongolia all the way up until the COVID crisis in sending vaccines to Mongolia. The two countries are quite closely related.
Mark Bidwell 31:53
Fascinating, fascinating. If we can just switch a little bit. You’ve also written about money, and you’ve written about indigenous communities in North America, in the Americas. On money, you mentioned before we came on that you are pretty disconnected with what’s going on in the mainstream world today. I’m curious, and it might be the answer is, I don’t know, but there’s a lot of development going on in the field of digital money today. And I’m just wondering how you would see that fitting into the history of money that you’ve written about extensively? Do you have a view on that Jack, or not really?
Jack Weatherford 32:29
Well, first, I’d like to give one more plug to the Mongols about money, and that is, of course, China invented paper money. But Kubla Khan, the grandson, but Kubla Khan, he was the one who created the first, really attempted at international paper money system, and it was very successful while he was in power. So just want to set that aside for a moment, we’ll come back to it. I wrote a book about money based upon the material stuff that money is. There were three parts to that book. The first part was about money as metal, that’s mostly coins, and then the second was money as paper, beginning with Kubla Khan and many other people along the way of that story, and the third was electronic money. Those are the three phases of material money in the world. But if we look back, Kubla Khan’s effort was very successful, because the people had to turn in their coins to get paper money. And when Maffeo and Marco Polo arrived at the borders, they had to turn in their money, that gold or silver that they had, they got paper money, but then when they left the country, they changed the paper money back for gold and silver. It was a system that worked because he had the power to enforce it. It said right on there, if you counterfeit this, you’ll be executed. It was kind of a fallback punishment the Mongols used for everything. And we don’t know if anyone was ever executed for that crime. However, it was printed on the money, as opposed to In God We Trust. So it was the power of the government that supported that money and made it possible. And then what happened, of course, in subsequent history was very often it was banks issuing paper money, private institutions issuing paper money. It was very easily abused, and those systems tended to fail. Eventually, then governments took over the monitor, federal government in the case of the United States, or whatever the central power is, in order to enforce the use of paper money, not to force people to use it, but to enforce its validity. That’s been very important. Now, countries also abuse it. We see over and over where inflation goes wild, as some of the worst examples have happened within our own lifetime. But before that it was in Germany in the 1922-23 inflation, and Hungary at the same time. So countries kind of abused it but overall the government’s had a better record with the paper money. So now we’re in the age of internet money and electronic money. God knows what’s out there that I don’t understand at all.
Mark Bidwell 35:13
You would be amazed by what’s going on, I’m just beginning to get my mind around it, and it is staggering. There’s a lot beneath the surface, but let’s keep going.
Jack Weatherford 35:22
It does remind me of the early days when all these banks were issuing their own paper money, right and left. In part, I believe today, governments are allowing it to go on to see how it’s going to work and to let these people work out the kinks of it. And they’re going to see what works and what fails, and if the systems work, they’re going to be controlled by whatever controls the world. And that’s for now, governments are the most powerful institutions financially, they have the power and I think they’re going to control them. It doesn’t mean that all other types of digital currency would be wiped out. No, there are going to be places for smaller amounts I would imagine. However, in the end, it’s not going to be some system that’s independent of governments the way some of the propaganda say this is going to work, it’s the people online. Well, we see what the people online do. They cheat, they lie, they steal, and they spread hate online. That’s what’s happened to the internet in this world. It started out with a dream of peace of love and understanding and all. Well, it’s the same with money. We start out with this, oh, it’s the people that are going to be controlling it, because it’s oh, you don’t understand how… They’re right, I don’t understand at all. But it’s not technology, it’s humans. This is what’s important. And so I’m very skeptical about the electronic money that’s going on now, but in the long run, it is going to be the primary money of the future.
Mark Bidwell 36:55
Excellent. Finally, I’d like to just touch on your transition to Mongolia, but before that, and it’s a big question, and maybe it’s the wrong question, because it’s hard to answer in a short period of time, but your study of tribal cultures in the Americas, what are the key things that we can learn today in 2021 from how some of these cultures organise themselves, sustainability, thinking long term. I’m just wondering if there are any really big messages that we can learn in the same way, as we’ve covered some of the things that we can learn from Genghis Khan and his success.
Jack Weatherford 37:31
I think a lot of people have talked about this topic of learning from indigenous people. I think a lot of it is garbage, and things that they say. A lot of it relates to sustainability and the environment. Yes, they were good with the environment, because the environment was so small, it’s as far as you can walk. There are some things we can learn like that, but this thing about, such as long term planning for the earth, and we ought to save the earth, this sells modern books, and makes I’m sure amazing chat shows, and maybe you’ve had this on the podcast, and I’ve insulted someone I don’t know. But when I look back at Genghis Khan, as I said, there was nothing ideological, there are a lot of practical decisions, but we can learn from that kind of thinking, because often those people don’t have a tie in to just one religion or one way of life, or one type of technology. They’re more adaptable. And this is something I see in the world with these people. I live half the year now, well, since COVID I’ve been living two years in Cambodia, but it’s half the year in Mongolia half a year in Cambodia. I interact with the kind of people who are much more down to earth in a very literal sense, very well connected to what’s going on around them. I feel like I learned a lot of things from them about how to live and about adaptability, something as simple as the COVID crisis came along. Well, the people in the West, of course, they’re all panicking. Here in Phnom Penh, where I am, in the capital, people left. They went home, they went home to plant crops immediately. And the people who stayed in the city, who didn’t have a family in the countryside, most people who do have family in the countryside, and they identify with that, they know how to do it, they know how to work the rice, they know how to work these crops. But the people who didn’t stayed in the city, they planted the balcony, they planted things on the roof of the house. And then they started growing, or how would you say raising frogs and also insects, and little very small things that they could raise in the city, sometimes chickens, but they’re getting a little bit big for the city. Immediately, immediately. The country had no vaccines, they had no treatment, they had nothing, but the people immediately started doing what they knew how to do. And I read the news, or try to read the news, but I hear the news from America and from Europe, and the people are waiting for the government to decide what to do, and they’re complaining because they’re locked down, and they have no access to food and all. Here the people, well they’re growing their own food, as I say, even on the roof of the house they were growing food. Well, now, it’s been two years more or less into this crisis, and I believe that the numbers only over 1000 who have died in Cambodia from the virus, out of seven or so million people, and a lot of people got the virus here as in other places, but there was something about the adaptability of the people to the situation, up to the virus, but to the situation that we’re missing in the West. The government wasn’t going to come rescue them, nobody was going to send them a big check in the mail. Nobody was going to mail out parcels of food to them. They knew to take care of themselves, and they went out and they did it. I earned so much respect. Now I wish I had maybe been in Mongolia at this time too, to see exactly how people responded. I heard from a lot of people. But I think that when faced with these new crises that are great crises for civilization, that other civilizations have faced repeatedly, and often it’s the indigenous people who are better at handling crises than we are. Even sometimes, I’ve noticed that the people who come from this kind of background, they have an innate ability to function in an internet world, because in some ways, it’s not like the old civilized world where everything is linear. You plow the fields straight, and you have the crops planted straight, and you think straight, and you write in a straight sentence. If you could see how the Khmer language is written, it’s the most complicated in the world, all over the place. The vowels are up here and down there, and everything is different. The people have the ability to think in a different way, they can conceptualize the internet in a different way, they can move through it in a different way. But I saw even sometimes on the Native American American Indian reservations, how these hunting skills. of hunting and gathering were better for use of the internet, than knowing how to farm. So there was something there. There are various little things that we’ve missed. It doesn’t have to be the big picture of saving the environment, Mother Nature, and indigineous ancestors tell us about how to save for seven generations. No, it’s not about that. It’s about simple things like, okay, how do you hunt a rabbit, and how do you find what you need to find on Internet? It’s the same. I respect these people and I learned so much from them.
Mark Bidwell 42:29
I think you received an award as a result of writing the book, which is the highest award that a foreigner can receive from the Government of Mongolia. Is that correct?
Jack Weatherford 42:38
Mark Bidwell 42:39
And subsequently, you’ve moved from the US to live, to retire in this part of the world. I’m curious about, you’ve touched on some of the things you’ve learned, but how, I suppose it struck me Jack, it’s quite a big move, right? Most people when they’re retiring, they head back to where they come from, and that’s a huge generalization. I’m just struck by, how did you reach that decision? Was it a no brainer, and you found your new home or what led to that stage in your life, what way you’ve chosen to live your life?
Jack Weatherford 43:06
All those things you hit on are true in some way. I did find my home for many years, I was living half in Mongolia with my wife, and then there was another way of learning that I learned a tremendous amount, because my wife was disabled, she became paralyzed, and she lost the ability to talk and all these things. And yet until nine months before she died, we spent half the year in Mongolia. It’s a very poor country, you don’t have paved sidewalks everywhere, things like that. I saw how my life could be there, that we didn’t have all these handicap things, but the people just move in and they take over immediately. I could go out on the street with my wife, and I knew that immediately hands would come, people don’t say, excuse me, may I help you? Where are you going? No, they see that you’re trying to get above the curb, they lift you up or lift her up over the curb. It’s that simple. So I learned a tremendous amount living there with her. And she was very happy, because in part, I think, because the children were not afraid of her, even though she was in this odd situation where in America, people are quite afraid of you. And their little children would come up and climb up on her. I learned a lot, so I loved Mongolia. And then when she died, there was no question for me, that’s where I wanted to be. But also you say it’s going home. That’s kind of how I felt. I don’t mean that just an emotion. I was born in South Carolina, a very poor state. I was born in the poorest of conditions. We had no electricity, we had no running water. We had none of those things that you think of as a modern life. I lived with my grandparents until I was five years old. I lived there under that situation. So every day I smelled fire, we cooked with fire, the only lighting we had was kerosene. So we’re cooking with fire, and it becomes just a part of your life, of how you don’t have all these electric things around you, you have wooden latches and you have a different light. And then I go to Mongolia, and I’m very comfortable with many aspects of it. Yes, it’s different, and they’re living in a tent, and they have wool and I never saw wool in my life growing up, or whatever. Everything was cotton out there. So it’s different, but I felt like the world had left me behind, the world changed so much. Now, anyone over a certain age, we are illegal aliens in this world, we really don’t fit in this time and in this place. So for me to go back to a place where I feel more comfortable. Just negotiating the streets of America I get very… I don’t have a phone, I didn’t grow up with radio or television or phone, nothing. I love to live without. Now I have a computer I do have that. I don’t have an alarm clock. And I don’t have a clue how to use it. I don’t have a clue. Because now it’s going to be a problem because to cross the borders, you have to have a phone to get these codes. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I ever travel again. But I like to live in that world without it. I go to America, and they say, oh, call the Uber, call the Lyft. Oh my god, I walk. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t even know how to take a bus anymore, or the subway anywhere, because it’s so complicated, all these electronics. So I like a simple world.
Mark Bidwell 46:38
So Jack, if I could just end, this has been wonderful. Thank you very much for your time. Three quick questions. The first one being, what have you changed your mind about recently?
Jack Weatherford 46:50
I do change my mind in an intellectual sense of doing scholarship and work, that I believe one thing at one time, and then I believe another thing, I try to maintain that flexibility, in part by not adhering to a theory. The theory is what traps you. I’m trying to just study the material and let the material somehow speak to you, and somehow try to hear the voice of the past. That’s been very important. Other things are some of the things I’ve just mentioned, that I felt the world left me behind and I changed my attitudes about wanting to keep up with it. Other people say oh, even though you are old, you should be on the iPhone, and you should do this and that. Yeah, well, maybe, but I’m just, it’s not that I’m trying to be contrarian, but I want to spend my time doing my research and my writing. That’s what’s really important to me, and just living my simple, simple, simple life, and all this other stuff interfere. Just to recharge a phone, you have to have electricity, you got to make sure you’re in a place with electricity, and things like that. So I’ve changed a lot of my attitude. A part also, is what I mentioned here, some with reference to my wife and Mongolia, I changed my beliefs in our western way of life and the superiority of our medical system, and all of our systems that are so superior, our democratic capitalist world. I’ve changed my opinion about many of those things, I’ve become much simpler, I haven’t become a socialist, or I haven’t become any of those kinds of things, but just a much simpler kind of life that I want to follow. And I don’t always listen to the experts, in fact I mostly don’t whether they’re legal experts or… I don’t have television, so I never ever watch. It’s just full of experts, whether it’s on cooking, or on the latest stupid thing the President said, all this kind of stuff. I don’t care. I don’t care about these experts in any field, from science and medicine right on down through politics and economics and money and Bitcoin, all the rest. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to pay attention to it.
Mark Bidwell 49:10
Great answer. Thank you very much indeed, thank you. Second question: where do you go to get fresh perspectives, especially when you’re facing tough challenges?
Jack Weatherford 49:19
From the very personal emotional aspect is to go out, just to go out. And Mongolia, I live in a valley and my closest neighbor’s five kilometers away. I have lots of space for walking, and for two years after my wife died, I just walked and walked and walked and walked and walked. I could sort of never stop walking. I thought mourning was supposed to be one year, I should be over this, I was expecting it. I was prepared. I had every document, everything was fixed. Everything was ready. Why am I still doing this? But anyway, I walked. In this particular valley, we have lots of horses and cows. They come up because there are no people there and they can graze. But in Mongolia, of course, animals are free range or whatever they use that phrase for now in the West. They have affinity groups, they go with who they want, they don’t have fences, they don’t have herders who come with them. The animals come, they come up every day, several, 100 horses and cows, and they go back out of the valley every night, because we have wolves up there. And the wolves come out at night, they attack the animals, if they’re there, they do, they come out and get them. And so they go back. So I just have the animals, I talk to them, I greet them, I see the same ones every day. They’ve very busy lives, they’re eating, they don’t have time to talk to me. But still, I just wander around, and then that’s where I get the emotional part. Then often the intellectual part comes with it. If I’m stuck with something from my scholarship I’m trying to work out, why this one says that, the Persians say this, and then we have this Latin report, and I don’t even know what this Chinese said, I’m so confused. I go out and walk, the answer may not come, but at least I’m going to feel better about it. And very often the answers do come in walking. So for me, walking, preferably in a quiet place, preferably with water close by, or trees or something like animals, cows or something, that’s where I get the power. That’s where I get it.
Mark Bidwell 51:22
Wonderful. And then the final question, how has a failure set you up for future success?
Jack Weatherford 51:30
Okay, I will tell you the truth. It’s simple. I told you about my background. My education was not good, until even in school in America by the time of the sixth grade, seventh grade I was in a retarded class, the lowest level of learning in seventh grade. And then I got to move up later in the ninth grade to what they call a shop, where you learn how to do wood work all the time. I was never even allowed in the college entrance classes. Never. I don’t even know why I wanted that, I have no idea, because I really wasn’t very smart. I wasn’t educated, I didn’t speak well. All these things were missing. But somehow I found a way, and I found out I could take summer school classes because that’s for people who failed, and I never asked until I took a course. And I took some courses in summer school, and I got to college, and I was so proud. So very proud. I had made it to college. The first year I failed English. I failed English. This is my language. I’m supposed to be able to speak it. Well, I could speak. And it’s not because I was drinking, I didn’t think it’s serious, I was partying. No, I was very serious, very serious, and I failed it. In fact, the highest grade I got was C which is just the middle, one course, all the others were D. It was a huge shock. I was put on probation, I was told I was gonna have to leave the college, I wasn’t going to university because my grades were so bad. So it was a failure. It was a failure. How anybody like that can ever write a book about anything? Well, I met my wife. I mean, she wasn’t my wife when I met her. She was his smartest girl I’d ever met in my life, was most beautiful, most everything in the world. And it took me a long time to confess to her that I had wanted to write and I had failed English. And when I finally did, she just treated it like it was nothing. I thought she was going to be startled and staring at me and wondering. She said, what the hell do they know? They’re just a bunch of teachers. They only know how to teach. They don’t know how to do anything.’ But she had the power to make me believe whatever she said. Then somebody said, yeah, what did they know? They don’t know me. That’s what she said. They don’t know you. They only know just English. They don’t know you. And to this day, that’s maybe the most important thing anyone’s ever said to me in my whole life. She gave me a power that’s just unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. And over and over, she could tell me things and make me believe it. And it wasn’t, I must say, much, much later somebody asked, how have you been together for more than 40 years at all? And she said, well, it’s because I lied to him and he pretends to believe it. And I thought, what? What? Anyway, somehow, I can’t say I overcame, but she overcame it for me, it was something like that. So I must say I don’t mind failing. The critics take my books and say, oh he’s an apologist for Genghis Khan the Mongols, and he’s trying to pretend like he was a feminist and an environmentalist, and to be honest, I don’t even want to read them. I heard about them because people asked me about them. It’s okay. You can hate my work, but what’s that going to change about my life? What does it matter? Like the English teacher who failed me. Later my wife said, where do you think she is now? I have no idea. I wish her well, I wish her well, she did her job and I failed, of course, she didn’t fail me, I should say I failed her. But something about, somewhere in all of that, I developed that ability to make mistakes, just accept it, face up to it, and kind of go on with it in my life. Sounds like bragging. I don’t mean to brag, because I didn’t make that up. It was given to me, I must say by my wife, I think. She had that ability, and I just sort of imitated her, I think, to go on, go on. But it was easy for her because she was so smart, and so beautiful, and everybody adored her. With me it wasn’t the case, so I had to work a little bit harder than she did to get by. So, I failed.
Mark Bidwell 55:49
Wonderful. Have you got anything else coming? Have you got any new books coming soon? Because you’re obviously still working, and I just wonder if there’s anything else coming out soon?
Jack Weatherford 55:58
I guess it’s safe to say, I don’t know, I have so many restrictions placed upon me, I signed these contracts, they restrict everything in your life. I think I could never go to the toilet again without asking permission from somebody from three written copies and notary. But anyway, I’m in the final stages of a book with Harvard Press, it’s going to be out next year. It’s about the origin of the Chinese navy under the Mongols. And it’s a story, people don’t expect the Mongol Navy, what? And if they know anything about it at all, they know that Kublai Khan tried to invade Japan, and he failed. That’s what they know. Well, to me, that’s one chapter. He still had the greatest fleet in the world. Marco Polo, after coming overland by camel and horse to reach China, he sailed home on a Chinese ship, from China all the way to Hormuz in Persia, modern Iran. That was a revolutionary change. Again, it’s like the Silk Route. There was a trade port, the port you could go from Hormuz to India, from India to the other side of India, to the islands of Indonesia around it. You could do those things, but to have those ships, fleet sail from China to Persia and back again and change the world, it was the Mongols, the Mongol rule at that time, using Chinese ships, Chinese technology, but they reorganized the way of thinking. Instead of doing what the Song Dynasty did, and the Song Dynasty was absolutely a great dynasty, intellectually and technologically incredible, but their philosophy was more or less, we do this, people want to trade with us, they can come to China and trade with us. Kublai Khan’s idea was more, okay, we’ve got all this stuff to trade. We’ve got the ship, we have the technology, we’re going out to the world, here we come. It was a much different approach. So anyway, this is my new book. I probably said more than the contract allows me to say before it’s published, but don’t tell anybody.
Mark Bidwell 58:04
It’ll be our secret. Wonderful, I’ll watch out with interest. Jack, this has been fantastic. I feel my world has opened up and become richer, having read the book and having spoken to you, so many thanks. And as we said before, and I traveled, obviously, you weren’t there, but my journey on the Trans Siberian Express goes past your front door. So maybe if it happens, if I do it again, I’ll get out at the local train station. It’d be wonderful to spend some time with you. It’s been a fascinating conversation
Jack Weatherford 58:31
Mongolia is waiting for you.
Mark Bidwell 58:33
Many thanks for your time, Jack, really appreciate it.
Jack Weatherford 58:36
Thank you Mark.