Terminating NAFTA: Lessons from Ninth-Century Nuns

Terminating NAFTA: Lessons from Ninth-Century Nuns August 28, 2017
A 16th-century representation of St. Ebba and her followers' self-mutilation. Obtained through Creative Commons.
A 16th-century representation of St. Ebba and her followers’ self-mutilation. Obtained through Creative Commons.

The tragic deaths of ninth-century Scottish nuns could teach Donald Trump about the hazards of ending NAFTA.

In 867 A.D., Viking raiders assailed Scotland, raping and pillaging their way across the countryside. Eventually, their armies neared the gates of Coldingham Priory in the southeast of the country. When the nuns who dwelt there heard about the menacing invaders, they were struck by an overwhelming sense of dread.  As women who had taken solemn vows of chastity, they feared that the Danish marauders would forcibly rob them of their virture.

While her subordinates were tormented by premonitions of sexual violence, the Mother Abbess of Coldingham, Ebba, had an idea. She reasoned that if she and those in her order appeared unattractive, the Viking horde would refrain from assaulting them. So she cut off her nose, creating a gaping hole in the middle of her face. She then counseled her underlings to do the same, which they promptly did. When the invaders finally reached the nunnery, instead of finding attractive women, they were met with the sight of disfigured “ghouls” with blooding running down their faces and staining their clothes. Horrified and disgusted, instead of assaulting the nuns, the would-be rapists burned down their quarters with them inside.

Some believe that this apocryphal tale of the now-canonized Saint Ebba is the origin story for the saying “cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face.” That phrase has come to mean harming oneself in an attempt to injure others or deprive them of some benefit. In the context of the idiom, the damage one inflicts on oneself is often greater than the blow landed on one’s foes. For example, although St. Ebba succeeded in depriving the Vikings of sexual assault victims, her actions resulted in the maiming of her and her followers and their fiery deaths.

During a press conference today with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, President Trump again suggested that he would terminate NAFTA. NAFTA, a decades-old trade agreement among the United States, Mexico, and Canada, has been an unprecedented boon for the countries that are party to it. It has made it easier for American companies to sell their goods across the border and has helped nurture a middle class in Mexico with a voracious appetite for U.S. products. In addition, the accord has helped tamp down on the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico – because Mexico’s economy has improved under the deal, there is less of an incentive for its citizens to immigrate here. NAFTA has also been crucial for the health of American auto part manufacturers, who are able to export more easily their products to auto assembly lines in Mexico.

One could go on ad infinitum about the benefits of NAFTA for the United States. But Donald Trump, with his limited understanding of economics and emotions-based decision making, doesn’t seem to understand the positives of the trade pact. In fact, he seems to think that in order for us to “win” against Canada and Mexico, it is essential that we end the agreement. He should learn from the story of Saint Ebba – America shouldn’t cut off its nose to spite its face.


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