Aikido: Powered by Kindness

7 06 2017

Some of what follows may sound childish and fanciful. I realize that. Please bear with me.

I practice Aikido. Sometimes I imagine scenarios in which I am forced to use it. I suspect this goes with the territory for any kind of self-defense training. And I suspect all those imagined scenarios share a similar emotional atmosphere. Namely, the defender is in deadly danger, and acting with controlled desperation to incapacitate the attacker as quickly and as fully as possible. The attacker is at best aggressive and unreasonable, at worst murderous and terrifying, but always contemptible, undeserving of mercy.

Well, I was at practice last night, and for no reason I can discern, it struck me: Aikido is joyful. Aikido is kind. Aikido’s power comes not from the desire to crush your enemies, but the impulse to embrace your friends.

Let me stop here for a second and reiterate the caveat that goes with all decent self-defense training: real life situations are no joke. It is a huge mistake to imagine yourself as the hero of an action movie. Real fights happen fast and do not follow a script. The Portland stabbing is tragic proof. That event has rattled me in a lot of ways, which I might write about in another post.

But for now: in Aikido, we practice blending, throwing, joint locks, and pins. We practice conscientiously, to protect our partners from injury, but often note the opportunities to break a joint, cause excruciating pain, or otherwise incapacitate an attacker who threatens serious harm. In my imaginary scenarios, that’s what happens. I perform a technique forcefully, past the safety threshold, because some asshole is threatening my life and that’s what he gets.

But here’s the thing. In that scenario, I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m tense. And even as I go through the imaginary motions, I know that tension is what sabotages Aikido. In practice, over and over again, I find that staying relaxed and loose makes techniques far more effective. Last night, I noticed the connection between that relaxation and the playfulness of training with friends who I enjoy.

Aikido is really not a self-defense art. It’s really an art of letting the air out of fights. When done expertly, Aikido is extremely powerful, because it reframes the dialog.

So here’s another scenario, every bit as irresponsible and unlikely as the others. What if we could see the attacker as a friend? What if we could recognize his aggression as a symptom of personal distress, however deeply it has perverted his behavior? What if we could understand him as a human being, someone who’s company we would enjoy if circumstances were different? What if we could enter into the confrontation in the spirit of fun, of play, of dance, of friendship? What if we could happily blend with the attack, joyfully redirect the energy, cheerfully move to a place of safety, and kindly put our upset friend in a time out?

I’m not there yet. I most likely never will be. It would take an impeccable warrior to enter a potentially deadly conflict with that kind of relaxation.

But maybe it’s a useful thing to imagine, in preparation for other conflicts. Maybe it’s a helpful approach to personal arguments. Maybe it’s a way to reach across the gulf of our fractured society. There is real power in kindness.

 





What It Will Take

27 05 2017

Among anti-Trumpers, the question that always comes up after every fresh egregious breach of common decency is, what’s it going to take? What will it take for Trump supporters to change their minds? We thought the pussy-grabbing tape would do it. We thought mocking the disabled guy would do it. We thought attacking the parents of a dead veteran would do it. We thought the heartless health care bill would do it. We think maybe each new revelation regarding Russia might do it.

Well, they won’t. Attacking Trump will never work, no matter how righteous the attack may be. The whole reason they support him in the first place is because they feel under attack.

To change Trump supporters into Trump opponents, we need someone or something else for them to support. Some voice that can answer their grievance of being forced out of the national conversation, while offering alternatives to Trump’s cruel, impossible, and just plain dumb policies.

I realize I’m speaking in gross generalizations here. There are lots of different people who support Trump for lots of different reasons. But when looking for an anti-Trump strategy, or just a coping mechanism, we’re mostly framing the questions all wrong.

We need to get past the personal revulsion, the despair, the denial. That’s a tall order, because those things are justified, but we gotta do it. Because everything Trump does and says comes from Trump, not from anyone else. We need to recognize that we are a pluralistic country. We need to be able to disagree with our fellows without succumbing to hatred, even if it seems like the other side won’t. We need to refrain from making assumptions about others, and develop a positive message that includes everybody.
I know a lot of people on the left are sick of taking the high road. I know that people much less privileged than me have been struggling to do just this for generations. I don’t for a second believe that outright bigotry should go unanswered. I don’t know how to do it, what I’m asking for. I don’t know what it looks like. I can’t get into details without going down a million rabbit holes of caveats. I just know it’s the only thing that will work.

Here’s a bit more in the way of concrete specifics from Matt Taibbi.





My Unsolicited Dissertation on The Matrix, Part 4

19 05 2017

The Matrix Trilogy: Truth

“There is no spoon.”

Several years ago I started writing these long winded posts about The Matrix trilogy, because I like the movies a lot, and I’ve always felt they don’t get enough credit for the challenging questions they raise. My plan was to write four posts, one for each of four words that recur significantly in the movies’ clipped dialog, and which reflect the primary themes of each movie: Belief (The Matrix), Choice (The Matrix Reloaded), Purpose (The Matrix Revolutions) and Truth (the trilogy as a whole).

But after I got through recapping the films and analyzing the first three themes, I found I had nothing much to say about Truth. I tried a few times, but never got very far, and after awhile I quit trying.

That was in 2011. We are living in a different world now.

In the films, there is the Real World, the Truth; and there is the Matrix, a virtual reality, a fiction, an utterly convincing illusion. We human beings have always had our convincing illusions, but they have never been more powerful than they are today. We know this because different segments of the population live according to different, and incompatible, realities. Climate change, vaccines, gun violence, police violence, immigrants, gender, health care, the EU, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton — people in different camps have polar opposite views of these things. Presumably only one viewpoint can line up with objective Truth. The other viewpoint must be a fiction. But for those who believe, it is true. The illusion on one side is just as much a guiding principle as the truth is on the other side. Whether it’s objectively true or fictional, the preferred belief is perceived and experienced as fact. We are embedded in our chosen realities as fully as any coppertop in the Matrix.

I’m not going to get into which of our competing realities is the most real. I’m just here to lay down the long-not-awaited conclusion to my unsolicited dissertation. I’m going to try to find the role and the meaning of Truth in the Matrix trilogy. You can decide how much bearing it has on real life.

In my post about The Matrix: Revolutions, I concluded that belief, choice, and purpose are intertwined. Each theme is a lens looking at the same thing: the exercise of free will. Humans make choices, informed by belief (itself a choice), according to and in search of purpose. The words “belief,” “choice,” and “purpose” crop up in all three films, but each occurs with emphatic weight and frequency in only one. The word “truth” has more or less equal emphasis throughout the trilogy. Truth exists separately from free will. One hopes and assumes that one’s Beliefs, Choices, and Purpose align with the Truth, but it is not necessarily the case.

As Morpheus says to Neo when he is first acclimating to the Real World, “What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” Our senses are all we have to go on. If they can be manipulated — if we can’t trust them — then we can never be certain of what’s real. But second-guessing our senses is useless. There is no external frame of reference we can access. We have no choice but to accept what we sense and do our best.

Cipher embraces the concept of sensory reality. He is fed up with the misery of the Real World, and conspires with the Machines to betray his comrades in exchange for the chance to re-enter the Matrix. He knows his actions will cause his crew to die and humanity to remain in bondage. he also knows that once the Machines wipe his memory, nothing outside of the Matrix will be real anymore — not in any sense that will matter in his daily virtual life. His plan fails, but he raises a crucial question. Is there any meaningful difference between personal truth and objective Truth?

“Yes” is the strongly implicated answer. The Machines and their virtual slave engine are clearly the bad guys. The Resistance are clearly wiser and more powerful then the sleepers still plugged into the Matrix. But as we learn in The Matrix Reloaded, Truth is elusive, and illusions come in layers. The Resistance believe they know what’s true and what isn’t, because they’ve broken out of one imprisoning fiction. However, larger illusions still grip Morpheus, Neo and the others. The revelation that The One is another control mechanism create by the Machines almost shatters Morpheus. Discovering that he can hack into machines from the Real World, wirelessly, puts Neo in a coma. The Resistance may have peeled back one very powerful illusion, but can they claim to know the Truth any more than those still victimized by the Matrix?

The Matrix Reloaded ends with Neo breaking a cycle of control — the Machines’ narrative of the One — that has been in place for generations. The Matrix Revolutions deals with the fallout of breaking that cycle. The humans are more enlightened than they ever have been since the Machines took over. They finally have some leverage on the Machines. Neo and Trinity fight their way to the Mainframe, and Neo is able to negotiate for peace. To reach that point, Neo and the others had to break through layers of deception. But Truth is not invalidated just because more illusions remain. It is true that the Matrix is a lie, and a prison. Everyone in the Resistance has to absorb that truth before they can have any notion of resisting. Misconceptions about the One don’t change the relationship between the Matrix and the Real World.

Pure Truth may be unattainable, ever receding like a mirage (how’s that for irony?). Still, there is value in piercing each illusion, even if another one waits beyond it. New discoveries and baffling new questions arise in all the sciences, but only through the use of ever more advanced tools and practices, built on previously unearthed truths. We may not understand all the building blocks of the universe, but that’s no reason to abandon what we do know. The Earth is still round. Opposite charges still attract.

The pursuit of  Truth — the endless, arduous struggle to understand — makes us human. If we passively accept received truth, we give up our free will. We make ourselves tools. We become machines.





Open Letter to Steve Bannon

3 02 2017

Dear Steve Bannon,

What do you think will happen after you smash the state?

Where do you think your water and electricity will come from? Or food for that matter? What’s going to happen if you suddenly need heart surgery?

Seriously, what is the end game here? Do you imagine you can spend the rest of your days safely behind the Secret Service when all other institutions are demolished? Or do you plan to found and live in your own fortified Woodbury? Are you so awash in failures that a wild west fantasy is preferable to reality?

Is this really about some anarcho-free-market utopia? Because setting aside the question of how that would work, I find it very hard to believe you give a shit about society at large.

Do you plan to one day go back to the private sector, doing speaking tours? How is that going to work if you’ve dismantled the private sector?

Do you actually want to revive all that “master race” nonsense, or is that just your vehicle to power? In either case, how do you honestly see that playing out? Because I don’t see many of us putting up with it.

What government overreach hurt you so badly that it’s worth sending soldiers to kill and die in China?

Do you think you can make the National Guard round up all the women who wouldn’t date you and turn them into your sex slaves? Is that the goal you would sacrifice America for?

How do you see this ending? I would really like to know.

 





Skorpen & Skorpen At The Movies: Cars

30 01 2017

Neal: This surreal, dystopian satire pointedly skewers our society’s commitment to that most inefficient and unhealthy mode of transportation, the single passenger car. Our infrastructure is built around the automobile; Pixar takes this accident of history/tyrannical influence of auto and oil companies to it’s logical extreme, and presents a world literally entirely in service to cars. Whether the human race is extinct or helplessly imprisoned behind the opaque windscreens is left to the viewer to decide. Absurdity and futility are everywhere, but perhaps most perfectly expressed in Lightning McQueen’s Sisyphean task of paving a new road by towing a tar-and-smoke belching monstrosity, which happens to be the single non-sentient vehicular machine in the universe. (Five Kafkas 🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜)

Wyatt: Cars! Lightning! Mater! (Five Hot Rods 🏎🏎🏎🏎🏎)





Stuff I Believe

2 01 2017

Right after the election I read a blog post (now lost to the mists of the internet, my apologies to everyone) about how to prepare to live under a fascist regime. The author, who had spent time in fascist nations, suggested writing down what you believe in. Because fascism works by causing you to question and then forget your own humanity.

I don’t necessarily think we are about to find ourselves under a fascist regime, but the possibility is far stronger than it should be. And we are living in the golden age of disinformation, gaslighting, and doublespeak. So here is what I believe in, or at least a first step in identifying and laying it out.

I believe that our greatest strength as human beings comes from protecting and nurturing those who are most vulnerable.

I believe that hate binds people together as surely as love. When you hate someone, you attach yourself to that person. When you hurt someone, you create a burden that you carry afterwards. Different people are more or less aware of these truths, but they are true for everyone.*

I believe there is a bright line between right and wrong, but it’s different in every situation. There are no absolute guiding principles; yet if we have the strength to be honest with ourselves, we can always tell what’s right.

I believe we are all in this together. I am very upset about this election, I totally disagree with supporting Trump, and I plan to resist everything he represents. But we in this country still have to live with each other. And I believe Trump supporters and Trump opponents are all decent humans who fundamentally want the same things.** In a larger sense, the same goes for the rest of the world.

*Except for those with certain mental illnesses, i.e. sociopaths.

**Those who support Trump out of overt bigotry…to be honest I still think they are decent, under a mountain of psychological damage. But also honestly I have no patience and no tolerance for their shit.

 





Grief, Fear, Anger, Yes. Guilt, No.

11 11 2016

Nicholas Kristof, who I respect very much and usually agree with, had this to say about the election: “Today, having lost, we owe it to our nation to grit our teeth and give President-elect Trump a chance.” (Full article here.)

Here’s what we owe to our nation. We owe our sick, injured, and disadvantaged access to healthcare. We owe our peaceful, generous, hardworking immigrants a life without fear. We owe it to future generations to care for the planet and the climate. We owe women and people of color the most basic respect as full human beings. Trump’s election is already a blow against all of these things.

Unlike Bush in 2000, Trump won fair and square. There is currently no legal or procedural justification for booting him out (maybe this, but if successful it would almost certainly launch a civil war). So yes, he’s the president. As a civil society, we owe it to our fellow citizens to accept that fact.

But we don’t owe anyone any measure of compromise on Trump’s politics of exclusion. In fact, Democrats (and Republicans of conscience, if such there be) must vigorously oppose such ridiculous and cruel measures as a Muslim ban, mass deportation, and a border wall. We and they must strenuously denounce the violence that Trump has sparked. Real human beings, American citizens innocent of any crime, are fearing for their lives. It’s intolerable. To let it happen without resistance is unforgivable.

The peaceful transfer of power that America basically invented is a rare and precious thing. The institutional framework of our democracy is still worth preserving. In 2008, it was wrong of Mitch McConnell and his fellows to vow opposition to Obama’s every move, just because he was Obama. There is no call for such a vow from us now. But we can and should vow to oppose every move from the coming administration that is un-American. It may amount to the same thing.

If you’re like me, you’ve been in emotional turmoil since election night. I feel like the ground shifted under me overnight, and I’m now living in a nightmare world that I hardly recognize. We on the left are often inclined to look for what part we played in a given event, to see where we might correct our own behavior to improve future developments. That is a mature and healthy attitude. Let’s keep doing that by all means. But it’s also crucial to recognize the limits of our culpability.

I’m angry and scared and heartbroken, but I reject guilt. Could I have done more to avert this appalling outcome? I could have been more active– making phone calls, knocking on doors, donating money. I could have supported Bernie instead of Hillary. I could have recognized the information from pollsters as unreliable. I could have spent the last 20 years trying to educate my political opponents rather than lashing out at them.

But I didn’t vote for Trump. Other people did. Millions of them. People with free will and sound minds. We could have a long discussion about what lead them to do that, but they did it, not us.

Lots of things went wrong and lots of institutions failed in order to put an entitled thug in the White House. This campaign and election upended every expectation, at every stage. So don’t blame yourself. Learn from mistakes, try something different next time, but be clear about where your responsibility begins and ends.

I’m still struggling to understand what happened and why. I think liberals have had a string of victories in the “culture wars” that left large parts of the population feeling under siege. We have run roughshod over their beliefs while we fought to enshrine our principles into law. Right or wrong, there are consequences.

So we do have a part to play in healing the divide in our country. In every conflict, someone has to make the first move toward peace, and it does no good to wait for the other side to do it. But don’t let the troglodytes use your urge to self-examination against you. It’s not compromise and it won’t be peace if we try to meet scorched earth with self-effacing generosity.

Somehow we need to make a space in our worldview for our fellow citizens who don’t share our principles. But that absolutely does not mean we let go of our principles.

It’s easy to feel alone and defeated right now, but we are still half the country. More of us voted for Hillary than they voted for Trump. This statement from the government of California is very encouraging. Harry Reid’s statement is a shocking piece of candor from the habitually spineless Democratic Congress. We are many, and we still have power, and we appear to be waking up to the truth at long last.

What’s needed now is vigilance, resistance, and defense of the vulnerable. Trump has spent months telling us exactly the kind of president he will be. So, no. He doesn’t get a chance. Insanity doesn’t get a chance. Un-Americanism doesn’t get a chance. We won’t heal the divide by letting them walk all over us. Some people very deliberately worked to get us here. Don’t let them off the hook for the hate crimes that have already started.

I would finish by saying we’ll get through this, but honestly I don’t know. This is different than the crises we’ve weathered before. All I can say is, we are called to be the best people we can be, wiser and stronger than we ever thought possible. It’s necessary. Now is the time.