Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

For several weeks, I’ve found myself ruminating on a passage from a book I recently read during my research on the good, bad, and benign of multi-tier marketing systems.  This was part of my counter-evidence file; people who strongly opposed the model as currently practiced.  It was written by Steve Butterfield several decades ago and is called Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.  While I think some of his conclusions are not supported, I keep coming back to this, on page 161:

Disaster is brought on most frequently, not by skeptics who agree to live under flawed and cumbersome human laws, but by “men of principle,” who cannot be satisfied with anything less than the Law of God.  Kurt Vonnegut compared the Thomist hierarchy of laws to playing cards: “Divine law, then, is an ace.  Natural law is a king.  The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.”*  Dictators, according to Vonnegut, have fistfuls of aces and kings to play.  What troubles him about our country “is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish if, when they grow up … they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.”  The groundwork for this vital lesson is that “no one really understands nature or God.”  American freedom will end “as all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.”**

… [snip] …

Aces and kings always beat queens.  In any conflict with a God-inspired Leader, not only the Bill of Rights but critical intelligence becomes a lousy queen.  And there will be a struggle between the holders of the highest cards “until somebody plays the Ace of Spades.  Nothing beats the Ace of Spades.”

Palm Sunday, Dell 1981, p. 10
** Vonnegut, pp. 11-12
*** Ibid

I keep returning because of the trade negotiations that are being held up in international economic circles by the recent human rights violations implemented by Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei.  Billions of dollars are at stake and now 119 members of the United States Congress are threatening to call off trade negotiations entirely because of Hassanal’s actions.

[mainbodyad]If you aren’t aware of what is happening, here’s a quick rundown: Hassanal is one of the most infamous sinners and hedonists in the world from one of the most famous families of hedonists and sinners anywhere on the planet.  He and his family routinely break nearly every conceivable law, moral code, commandment, and edict in nearly every government and religion known to humankind.  From drug fueled orgies with prostitutes to international investments that profit from usury (of course, it’s not called that but the effect is the same), the $20 billion fortune he has amassed from oil revenues allows him to get away with whatever he wants in a country where his word is law.

Despite being known into the far reaches of the globe for decadence and shamelessness that has practically no bounds, Bolkiah recently increased his already substantial power by pulling out the Ace of Spades.  Less than a year ago, he gave a command that his country will be ruled by old school Sharia law – the same law he and his family routinely violate and for which they have no regard.  The law will be implemented in three phases:

The same man who has attended sex parties aboard 747 airlines filled with countless underage girls is going to stone others for committing these same acts.  The same man who has a gay son who is fond of taking pictures of himself on a bed surrounded by half naked men dressed as angels is going to stone the gay sons of his countrymen, while presumably, still allowing his family to live in peace.  That tells you he isn’t interested in anything but power.  This is a device, a tool, that allows him to claim God’s authority while threatening anyone who challenges the family.  Meanwhile, they will presumably go on living as they do because, obviously, they don’t actually believe in any of it.  (Seneca the Younger wasn’t kidding when he famously said 2,000 years ago that, “Religion is considered by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful”.)  It would be a remarkable thing if anyone actually believed the Sultan wasn’t all but an atheist in name only.

When the rational thinkers, including his fellow countrymen in his home society, condemned the Sultan for taking Brunei back to the dark ages, he responded: “Theory states that Allah’s law is cruel and unfair but Allah himself has said that his law is indeed fair”.  It’s a neat trick.  Since he doesn’t believe any of it, and won’t be subject to it, it allows him to sidestep accountability to morality.  There is simply compliance for thee but not for me.  “Good” has no objective truth, no measurable test, and no supporting characteristics.  Good is whatever he says God says it is.  Which is to say, it is nothing.  It ceases to have any meaning at all.  Therein lies the power of the Ace of Spades.


Brunei, which has effectively been under martial law since the 1960’s when emergency executive power was vested in the monarch, is now at the center of a trade disagreement due to the Sultan’s command that strict religious law will be put into effect for all citizens, even if they aren’t Muslim.  This includes stoning adulterers, dismembering or amputating thieves, executing gays, and imprisoning or fining those who have a premarital pregnancy or don’t attend Friday prayers (even if you aren’t Muslim).
This image was originally posted to Flickr by tylerdurden1 at It was reviewed on 5 May 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

I don’t know what will ultimately happen in Brunei.  One thing is certain – the backlash in the civilized world has been severe.  The Beverly Hills Hotel, once one of the most profitable and booked hotels in the country, faces ruin and mass layoffs as practically all of Hollywood’s royalty has made it a personal mission to stop people from staying there and putting more money in the Sultan’s treasury as he is the ultimate owner of the Dorchester hotel group.  Now, even the city of Beverly Hills wants him to dump his ownership stake.  (Sadly, I, myself, put a few thousand dollars into the Sultan’s pocket when I stayed at the Palace Hotel in New York a few years ago shortly before it was sold by Dorchester.  In light of recent revelations, it bothers me a great deal.)  Bolkiah doesn’t even notice.  He’s amassed so much oil money that money ceases to be important.  It’s about consolidating power.

Only an Enlightened Society Can Learn to Ignore the Ace of Spades

It can be a hard thing for a lot of people or societies to shake the Ace of Spades.  Consider the experience of some refugees who manage to escape from North Korea.  One woman, Yeonmi Park, talked about how she would try and monitor her thoughts even years after being freed because she had been so inculcated with the notion that Kim Jong-il was omnipotent.

[mainbodyad]Alternatively, examine populations.  The United States is no exception.  Look at what happened with Christianity back in the 19th century.  Those who believed in a Biblical worldview, in which the Bible was infallible and the literal Word of God, continued to defend slavery because the Word of God permitted it in both the old and new testaments; e.g., Leviticus 25:44, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have; you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you.” and 1 Peter 2:18, “Slaves, submit yourself to your masters will all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”  Yet, the modern Christians, mostly in the North, decided that the Bible was wrong and that acting like Christ meant no man should own another person; that slavery was, itself, inherently evil.

Entire denominations split into two during the lead up to the Civil War when brother took up arms against brother in what became the bloodiest battle in our country’s history in terms of percentage of the population killed or maimed.  That’s why you have things like the Southern Baptists.  They were the branch that broke off from the mainline Baptists because they believed the Bible was literal and that slavery was not only acceptable but that God specifically authorized it.

Ultimately, the rationalists won and the Ace of Spades burned, at least for awhile, though at an unfathomable cost.  The Southern Baptists learned a lesson first written out in Judges 1:19: The Lord may be with you, but He’s no match for superior scientific weapons.  The fact that it took that kind of bloodshed to rid men of the notion that one of the most evil institutions to ever exist was somehow divinely ordained is shocking and disheartening.