Tuesday, February 20, 2007




I have nothing further to add.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Oh, Right

After the last election, I wrote the following:

"In a national level, Democrats have picked up the House, while it looks like Republicans will maintain their hold on the Senate. A divided government once again, and I have to confess, it couldn't come too soon. Hopefully a split between the various branches will render our government completely ineffective, unable to take a shit without going through reams of bureaucracy first, and a paralyzed government is exactly the kind of government I like."

The bickering over the Democrats' recent non-binding resolution has brought my attention to the fact that -- while a power squabble rendering both parties ineffective is all well and good -- one of the things that a legislative branch *can* be effective at is, say, serving as a check on the executive. Which doesn't seem to be happening.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Absolutely Negative

Couple of random thoughts, which may or may not form part of a coherent whole:

-I'm a moral absolutist. This means that I believe that there is an objective good and evil that operates within human society. I don't believe that morality is something solely defined by the society or the family that you were raised in; I believe that there are certain beliefs and actions which are fundamentally damaging for human beings to practice, and damaging to those around them.

-Saturdays are pretty heady for me. I have Tai Chi classes in the afternoon, church in the evening, and cabarets at night. It's a good day for thinking about stuff.

-There are those who characterize absolutism as simplistic point of view. To my way of thinking, the relativistic view -- that words and deeds carry no objective moral weight -- is the simplistic one. My belief is not that mankind is divided into good and bad people, but that each man's soul is a daily battlefield between the two -- that every word and action we deliver carries significance.

-I've started going to church again. People tend to roll their eyes a lot when I talk about light and darkness at work in the world, and the conflict between the two , but sitting through the homilies is reminding me where I got it from. It's place where people talk about that conflict -- and take it very seriously indeed. The church views itself, rightly or wrongly, as a bastion of light in a world of darkness. This is, perhaps, why I've always attempted to characterize theatre the same way -- that I want my profession to serve a similar function in the world.

-I think that the greatest work of twentieth-century literature -- and the one that will be regarded as such by future generations -- is Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." People scoff at this, because the books are very popular, and people believe that things that are popular can't be great art. They're wrong, and it is.

-One of the things I find so effective about the books is their complex portrayal of evil -- that evil is characterized both as an external force to be resisted physically, and an internal force to be resisted morally.

-The external force -- as embodied by Sauron -- I find effective, because it's so faceless, so chillingly bureaucratic. It's a single animating consciousness with no individual personality behind it. The face of Sauron is in his works.

-The internal force -- as embodied by the Ring -- I find effective, because it corrupts, not by appealing to the worst impulses in mankind, but to the best. Boromir is corrupted by his nobility, his patriotism, his desire to defend his nation. Gandalf was tempted by its potential to heal.

-Is such exercise of power inevitably corrupting? If you told me I could be absolute dictator of America for one week, I'd be tempted. Think of all the good I could do in that time! But would I really be able to step down after a week? After all, I would have to make sure that my changes could be maintained for an adequate period of time. And I'd stay for another week, and another -- until I ended up trying to reshape the country into my own image.

-This is part of why Superman's such a great metaphor for American power. I've joked that he's a man with the powers of a god, who uses them to defend the property of middle-class white people. But would he be wiser to use them more broadly? He could win any war single-handedly, but the source of his authority would be nothing more than brute strength. But to *not* intervene in a war, and to end it quickly, makes him responsible for the lives that are lost. It's America's dilemma, isn't it? We simply have too much power to wield responsibly.

-Tai Chi is interesting because -- like many Chinese arts -- it's defined largely by its duality: that it functions both as a kind of moving meditation and a form of self-defense. It has a "Yin" aspect, a soft, internal one, an embracing of the void, a desire to cleanse oneself; and a "Yang" aspect, a hard, external one, a bright, powerful form of physical resistance. It, too, recognizes the need to confront evil both internally and externally, through that poetic contradiction of resistance and submission.

-This, ultimately, is why I believe that the invasion of Iraq is doomed to failure: because we've been fighting it as an *external* war, and not an *internal* one. We have enough physical power crush any opponent; but our own moral position is too hollow to inspire, to lead. We've built a throne of blood with nobody to place upon it.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Ancient Chinese Secret

“Rule a nation with justice.
Wage war with surprise moves.
Become master of the universe without striving.
How do I know that this is so?
Because of this!

The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.”

That was written by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, nearly six thousand years before John Locke was born. It was written during a time of political upheaval and philosophical revolution. The nation was divided into dozens of different entities in constant war with each other, and its citizens were desperately seeking another way. Confucius taught that the way to order was through submission: submission of the child to the parent, of the wife to the husband, and ultimately, to the state.

At the same time, Lao Tzu was teaching another way – not just another way, but literally the Way, called the Tao. He spoke of the harmony achieved within oneself, with one’s environment – of a world in which man and the state simply left one another alone.

I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes lately, and it’s my first in-depth exposure to a soft style of martial arts. Most of my training has been in hard styles – I’m a red belt in Tae Kwon Doe – which consist largely of direct force, of muscle against muscle, bone against bone. And I have a lot of respect for that philosophy – if I’m in a fight with someone, it makes sense for me to hit someone as hard as I can, as fast as I can.

A couple of classes ago, one of the instructors did that thing that every martial-arts instructor does, y’know, where the scrawny old guy stands in front of you and says, “Okay. Come at me as hard as you can.” And you know you shouldn’t, because you know something fucking awful is going to happen to you if you do, but you just can’t help yourself, y’know?

First, he demonstrated the resistance of a hard style – pushing against me with all his strength, and we were about evenly matched. Then, he showed the resistance of a soft style – where I would lunge against him and just somehow fall *through* him or *past* him.

It was like pushing a noodle – because *it’s impossible to push against something that isn’t resisting you*. The more force you exert, the more damage you do to yourself. It’s the perfect illustration of Lao Tzu’s philosophy – that beautiful contradiction of resisting without resisting.

Unsurprisingly, the philosophy of Confucius ended up becoming the philosophy of the state, ultimately establishing four thousand years of varying degrees of tyranny. Lao Tzu, it is said, fled society altogether – his great work, the Tao Te Ching, was supposedly dictated to the gatekeeper of the Han Gu pass, who would not let him depart without leaving some tangible legacy behind.

That seems to be the response of so many of those who fear and despise state power – to abandon civilization altogether, from the Taoist monks, to the survivalist nuts running around in the woods today. And they’re an easy target of ridicule, but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some merit to their approach. After all, talking about societal collapse isn’t paranoia, it’s history -- *every* society collapses, it’s just a question of *when*.

For my part, that kind of retreat is unthinkable, for at least three reasons. One, because I’m incapable of surviving outside of the boundaries of civilization. Hell, if I can’t get a pizza at three in the morning, I feel like I’m trapped in Lord of the Flies.

Two: because I’m in love with civilization. In fact, that’s a huge part of the appeal of a free market for me. Milton Friedman has this wonderful speech he gives (well, gave, sigh) in which he holds up a pencil and makes the assertion that there is no man on earth who is capable of constructing it. And he’s right – he goes on to list the thousands upon thousands of people involved in its creation, from obtaining the raw materials, to their refinement, to their ultimate combination. There’s a poetry to that, to the specialization and collaboration that city living creates, that I honestly can’t imagine living without.

And, three, although this is by far the least logical one – there’s a part of me that wonders if that kind of retreat from society isn’t simply another kind of submission. Perhaps there is no virtue in resistance – it may simply be the product of idealism and naivete – but I’m young enough yet to be that naive. And I’m tempted to observe that our country was founded by those idealistic enough to resist.

“Why are the people starving?
Because the rulers eat up the money in taxes.
Therefore the people are starving.

Why are the people rebellious?
Because the rulers interfere too much.
Therefore they are rebellious.

Why do the people think so little of death?
Because the rulers demand too much of life.
Therefore the people take death lightly.
Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much.”