True words aren’t charming, charming words aren’t true. Good people aren’t contentious, contentious people aren’t good. People who know aren’t learned, learned people don’t know. Wise souls don’t hoard; the more they do for others… More
Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak, as water;
nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.
So the wise say:
By bearing common defilements
you become a sacrificer at the altar of earth;
by bearing common evils
you become a lord of the world.
Right words sound wrong.
Be like water.
This is sort of the central metaphor of the Tao Te Ching. Be fluid, flexible. Flow around impediments; don’t try to push through them. Fill up the containers of your life. Be patient, gentle, and persist. Any impediment will erode before you. No power can overcome you, as you shift and flow to fill up whatever container you’re given.
Any harsh words or cruel acts can be overcome. Be like water, friend. Water shifts and flows, expands and contracts, but remains water. No one can take away who and what you are.
Be like water and persist in gentleness. No one can withstand you.
Like I said yesterday, Lao Tzu is subverting the traditional metaphors for power. The mountain is strong and rigid. Water is weak and pliant. And yet it’s water that will define the shape of the mountain, that will cut valleys through the rocks and stone.
What’s rigid breaks.
It’s like flint. Flint is incredibly strong. It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s brittle. Which means that if you hit flint in just the right way, it chips and crumbles to nothing.
Then you compare that to water. No matter what you throw at water, no matter how you rage at it and feel it give against your hands and feet, the water just flows back and fills the space you left.
You cannot beat water.
But you can destroy stone.
Be like water.
There’s a lot I’d like to say here about how absurd the american center has become with regard to Russia, but I’ll leave it to Masha Gessen and Matt Taibbi.
Despite its brevity, the report makes many repetitive statements remarkable for their misplaced modifiers, mangled assertions, and missing words. This is not just bad English: this is muddled thinking and vague or entirely absent argument. Take, for example, this phrase: “Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.” I think, though I cannot be sure, that the authors of the report are speculating that Moscow gave the products of its hacking operation to WikiLeaks because WikiLeaks is known as a reliable source. The next line, however, makes this speculation unnecessary: “Disclosures through WikiLeaks did not contain any evident forgeries.”
Or consider this: “Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him.” Did Putin’s desire to discredit Clinton stem from his own public statements, or are the intelligence agencies basing their appraisal of Putin’s motives on his public statements? Logic suggests the latter, but grammar indicates the former. The fog is not coincidental: if the report’s vague assertions were clarified and its circular logic straightened out, nothing would be left.
It is conceivable that the classified version of the report, which includes additional “supporting information” and sourcing, adds up to a stronger case. But considering the arc of the argument contained in the report, and the principal findings (which are apparently “identical” to those in the classified version), this would be a charitable reading. An appropriate headline for a news story on this report might be something like, “Intel Report on Russia Reveals Few New Facts,” or, say, “Intelligence Agencies Claim Russian Propaganda TV Influenced Election.” Instead, however, the major newspapers and commentators spoke in unison, broadcasting the report’s assertion of Putin’s intent without examining the arguments.
Hypothesize for a moment that the “scandal” here is real, but in a limited sense: Trump’s surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet. Trump is enough of a pig and a menace that it’s easy to imagine doing this and not feeling terribly sorry that your leaks have been over-interpreted.
If that’s the case, there are big dangers for the press. If we engage in Times-style gilding of every lily the leakers throw our way, and in doing so build up a fever of expectations for a bombshell reveal, but there turns out to be no conspiracy – Trump will be pre-inoculated against all criticism for the foreseeable future.
The press has to cover this subject. But it can’t do it with glibness and excitement, laughing along to SNL routines, before it knows for sure what it’s dealing with. Reporters should be scared to their marrow by this story. This is a high-wire act and it is a very long way down. We might want to leave the jokes and the nicknames be, until we get to the other side – wherever that is.
Russia has become the universal rhetorical weapon of American politics. Calls for the release of Trump’s tax returns—which the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) hopes to have subpoenaed as a result of its lawsuit alleging the violation of the Emoluments Clause—are now framed in terms of the need to reveal Trump’s financial ties to Russia. And the president himself is recapturing the campaign debate’s “No, you are the puppet” moment on Twitter, trying to smear Democratic politicians Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi with Russia.
The dream fueling the Russia frenzy is that it will eventually create a dark enough cloud of suspicion around Trump that Congress will find the will and the grounds to impeach him. If that happens, it will have resulted largely from a media campaign orchestrated by members of the intelligence community—setting a dangerous political precedent that will have corrupted the public sphere and promoted paranoia. And that is the best-case outcome.
More likely, the Russia allegations will not bring down Trump. He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” As for Sessions, in his first speech as attorney general he promised to cut back civil rights enforcement and he has already abandoned a Justice Department case against a discriminatory Texas voter ID law. But it was his Russia lie that grabbed the big headlines.
The way of heaven
is like a bow bent to shoot:
its top end brought down,
its lower end raised up.
It brings the high down,
lifts the low,
takes from those who have,
gives to those who have not.
Such is the Way of heaven,
taking from people who have,
giving to people who have not.
Not so the human way:
it takes from those who have not
to fill up those who have.
Who has enough to fill up everybody?
Only those who have the Way.
So the wise
do without claiming,
achieve without asserting,
wishing not to show their worth.
How is it that a poem 25 centuries old remains radical? How is it that none of this has ever been implemented?
Is it truly the human way to steal from the poor to line your own home with treasures?
How is it still a radical idea that we should care for the poor? That we should help those who can’t help themselves?
Why is it so painful for us to give up some of our wealth, some of our comfort, so that others can survive? So that others can live humanely?
I wish I had answers. In the US, it’s staggering how much support there is for capitalism, even during and after watching capitalism crush the world economy. We imprisoned none of the people responsible, but plenty of those who were taken advantage of.
It’s a sickness.
The Way may not be the only way, for many have preached about helping the poor and needy, but the Way offers a new perspective to look at this problem that seems to be unsolvable.
That unsolvable problem is this: How do we instil enough empathy in people to make them actively care for those who suffer?
are soft and tender.
Corpses are hard and stiff.
The ten thousand things,
the living grass, the trees,
are soft, pliant.
Dead, they’re dry and brittle.
So hardness and stiffness
go with death;
go with life.
And the hard sword falls,
the stiff tree’s felled.
The hard and great go under.
The soft and weak stay up.
Le Guin’s commentary:
In an age when hardness is supposed to be the essence of strength, and even the beauty of women is reduced nearly to bone, I welcome this reminder that tanks and tombstones are not very adequate role models, and that to be alive is to be vulnerable.
Like Le Guin, I appreciate how the Tao Te Ching continually subverts the classic descriptions of strength and power. Throughout the text, Lao Tzu elevates weakness, vulnerability, softness, passivity, and peace. He denigrates aggression, violence, and any other exertions of force.
The Tao is power, but it does not force us. It does not dictate how we must behave.
It invites us to follow.
People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why they rebel.
People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
that’s why people hold it cheap.
But those who don’t live for the sake of living
are worth more than the wealth-seekers.
This poem is especially relevant this week. It’s relevant every week. Every day.
Written 2,500 years ago, and it’s such a clear denunciation of capitalism, which did not even exist in any formal way.
I don’t have much to say about it. It’s all right there, self-evident as it’s always been.
Find a new way. Reach past capitalism. Imagine a new way. A better way.
It’s small consolation to be worth more than your murderers while they’re murdering you.
When normal, decent people don’t fear death,
how can you use death to frighten them!
Even when they have a normal fear of death,
who of us dare take and kill the one who doesn’t!
When people are normal and decent and death-fearing,
there’s always an executioner.
To take the place of the executioner
is to take the place of the great carpenter.
People who cut the great carpenter’s wood
seldom get off with their hands unhurt.
The first four lines convey the abnormality of those who don’t have some level of fear with regard to death, and the abnormality of those who aren’t afraid to kill someone.
Most people fear death. It’s just a fact. Even though the Tao Te Ching tells us there’s nothing to fear from dying, Lao Tzu understands that that’s simply not reality for most people. And so the fear of death is woven into normal society. We’re all afraid to die, and we’re especially afraid to be killed. Even more so if the killer is the state, and I think this poem can be looked at from the perspective of a society.
What could be more abnormal than when the state kills its citizens? What kind of insane place is that to live?
The Death Penalty has been abolished in my state for over a century, but a few years ago Tim Pawlenty tried to get it reinstated.
Can you imagine the level of savagery needed to convince people who have no desire to kill their fellow citizens that they need to start killing prisoners and criminals?
But this is america, the home of barbarians and savages who cloak themselves in words like freedom and patriotism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, though. How we’re one of the most savage countries in the world. We routinely murder our citizens right in the street. We shoot their dogs right in front of them for the crime of barking. We steal food from children and the poor and give it to the young men and women we send to die on foreign shores. We take money from teachers and hospitals and schools to make sure our police have tanks and our soldiers have weaponry so advanced no sane person would even consider fighting us.
We’re meant to be the height of civilization! The wealthiest country to ever exist! And yet we’re little better than pillagers, barbarians, pirates.
Anyway. I think of that after reading this poem because Lao Tzu is telling us that those who take on the role of executioner rarely find themselves undamaged by the job.
And we have made ourselves the executioner of democracies around the world, the executioner of our own people, the executioner of every Muslim country in the world. And now we’re setting our eyes on China.China! Who manages to look civilized compared to us. A nation that has nearly a billion people well below the poverty line. A place where dissidents are imprisoned permanently, where petty crime is punished with such severity that it’s almost better to be a real criminal than a kid caught with marijuana.
Of course, that description sounds a bit like america, too. The only difference is we have more prisoners and a billion fewer people.
We have destroyed our own nation through our savage policies. And that’s not even just talking about our policies of war and aggression. The way we allocate funds, the way we choose violence over textbooks, bombs over feeding and clothing the needy. We are a nation so riddled with the disease of violence that we can’t even consider that there may be a better way to exist. That there might be another way to behave.
The new federal budget is just an extension of rapacious capitalism that we’ve been practising for decades. People are shocked by it, and for good reason. It’s absurd.
But it’s an absurdity that we’ve been happy to go along with for decades, as long as we stated it in polite ways. And that’s what the US has learned most from totalitarian states: take away rights, choice, and care as politely as possible; make sure someone stands up and condemns it, but make sure she stands alone while 99 dudes nod or shake their head, depending on which side of the aisle they sit on. But make sure they stay sitting.
I suppose I’ve gotten sidetracked here.
The point is that choosing violence does things to you as a person, as a society. Every violent choice we make allows us to choose violence again, but this time with fewer pangs of conscience, with fewer cries of condemnation.
Even our most politicallly progressive, in america, are sill advocates of mass violence against foreign peoples. Sanders and Warren support all kinds of state violence. They just want it laid out more politely. Keith Ellison got smeared by his own party (!) because he had the audacity to say that Palestinians were also human and deserved rights.
Even the party that’s meant to stand up for a civilized way of life is full of barbarians, savages, who want nothing but war, and whatever treasures can be pillaged from the ruins.
Brave daring leads to death.
Brave caution leads to life.
The choice can be the right one
or the wrong one.
Who will interpret
the judgment of heaven?
Even the wise soul
finds it hard.
The way of heaven
yet wins handily,
yet answers fully,
The net of heaven
is vast, vast,
yet misses nothing.
This poem is mostly a reiteration of what amounts to a central thesis of the Tao Te Ching. The Tao asks us to act without acting, teach without speaking. It ties these ideas to the way of heaven, reiterating the permanence of the Tao. How it began before everything else, exists within everything else, and will last long after all else fades and dies.
The first stanza puts emphasis on our action, and it’s asking us to understand what our choices mean. Daring and caution may be correct or incorrect, depending on the context.
The second stanza reiterates the difficulty of knowing the Tao. Every moment brings a new choice. Sometimes the answer is clear, but often it’s not. The correct action in one instance may not be the correct action in another. The correct action for me may not be the correct action for you.
The Tao is fluid and flexible and everychanging. The stream of infinite flux.
It’s for us to try and do the best we can. We’ll be wrong often. We’ll fail often. But there’s value in the effort. There’s value in simply considering our choices.
Get used to contemplating what your choices mean. Because life does not always offer simple choices. The support of one idea may be correct today but incorrect or incomplete tomorrow.
I find myself often thinking about all this in terms of today, which makes sense, considering I’m alive today. But we’re seeing such fervor in opposing Trump that we’re often missing important details. We’re often ignoring context and reality, because we’re willing to believe in any awful rumor about the man.
Which is to say: many in the opposition are behaving the same way conservatives behaved when faced with an Obama or Hillary Clinton presidency. Any rumor, no matter how absurd or ridiculous, became instantly believed, spread, and consumed. Proof wasn’t needed because their disgust was already so great that there was no bottom to the evil they believed these two could commit.
What we’re seeing as a response to Trump is sometimes equivalent to journalistic fraud, and that should scare everyone.
I stand with the opposition to the president. Everything he’s done so far, and everything he seems to plan to do, is a disaster. But let’s remember that there’s a difference between propaganda and journalism, between rumor and revelation.
Remember, too, that the Democrats can bring up impeachment for at least a dozen reasons. None of them have done so. It’s unlikely that one of them will, since Nancy Pelosi also refused to bring up impeachment against George W Bush, because she said he never did anything illegal.
As if war crimes and crimes against humanity just simply don’t exist.
Remember what your Democrat senators and representatives do during this term. It may have been the correct choice for you to vote for them, but very few of them are behaving the way we hoped, which means it’s unlikely that they will be the correct choice again.
Remember, too, that there may be a time we need to work with this administration. For some, even reading me write that shows me to be some kind of Nazi sympathizer or traitor. But there may be very good reasons to work with a Trump presidency, especially if he ever follows through on a meaningful infrastructure bill.
So remember that choice is not absolute. It’s fluid and messy. Your choices today matter, and the ones you make tomorrow will matter too. Every choice you’ve made in life has mattered. So be careful with your choices. And remember that the world changes with you and without you. A choice that is correct today may not be correct in tomorrow’s context.
That’s why you need to pay attention.