telling it true

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 the more they have,
the more they give the richer they are.
The Way of heaven profits without destroying.
Doing without outdoing
is the Way of the wise.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

In this final poem, Lao Tzu drums out several of the paradoxes and central ideas that make up the Way. To give is to gain. To learn is not to know. Being truthful and good may not make you friends or give you the kind of power generally thought of as power.

The Way is simplicity. It’s flexible.

The Way is smiling and laughing.

The Way is feeding ducks at a pond.

The Way is buying groceries for the guy who forgot his wallet at home.

The Way is walking through a city or field or forest or park.

The Way is many things and yet hard to state.

But at its core, it’s asking us to be kind and gentle and thoughtful.

That’s pretty much it.

Kindness can change the world. Every act of kindness you do will ripple into the acts of others. Kindness will swell, very gradually, and that rippling can become a wave and that wave can sweep over a city, over a state, over a country. But only if we don’t seek such power. Only if we simply act and follow the Way.

It’s a beautiful thought, and it may be a true one. But it’s a lot to ask of people, for some reason.

Being kind is a radical act. Promoting peace is a radical idea in this country that loves war so much. But it’s only through these radical acts that the nation will change.

So resist. Be gentle, be peaceful, be kind. It’s the most meaningful act of resistance we have available.

freedom

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

Waley says this endearing and enduring vision “can be understood in the past, present, or future tense, as the reader desires.” This is always true of the vision of the golden age, the humane society.

Christian or Cartesian dualism, the division of spirit or mind from the material body and world, existed long before Christianity or Descartes and was never limited to Western thought (though it is the “craziness” or “sickness” that many people under Western domination see in Western civilization). Lao Tzu thinks the materialistic dualist, who tries to ignore the body and live in the head, and the religious dualist, who despises the body and lives for a reward in heaven, are both dangerous and in danger. So, enjoy your life, he says; live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of heaven.

Is this a utopia?

It’s hard to say, and it’s hard to say if Lao Tzu is even meaning for it to be.

I’d say he’s not, at least in any practical sense.

Mostly, it’s the idea of a place where people are content to live. They’re not chasing after the unknown or even the known. They’re living life, and that’s enough.

It’s been a trend for a long, long time. The idea that there’s something more for us out there. That life is meant to mean something. That the farther we go, the more humane we become.

I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t even know if it’s useful to think of it as sort of true.

I’ve traveled a fair amount. More than most people, I’d say. So it’s difficult for me to seriously say that it hasn’t influenced the way I experience and view the world, but I’m also not convinced that doing those things was necessary to my vision of the world. Or, to put it another way: I may have come to who I am through a different route.

Of course, such thoughts aren’t especially useful to think about, since hypotheticals about who I might be had I had a different life are, you know, boring and tedious and intellectually unsatisfying.

I think what Lao Tzu, and the Tao Te Ching, in general, are saying throughout the text is that you must come to learn who you are. You must find yourself within yourself. Travel and education may bring you more easily to the surface, but it’s not the only path, and it may not even be useful for most people.

Be like water.

Know yourself, and then no matter how far you go or what you learn, you will be content. You will be able to fit into any mold, adapt to any circumstance, and yet you will remain yourself.

Imagine a society so self-possessed that life is just contentment.

I don’t know if it’s a utopia, but it’s certainly a pretty idea.

In a time of so much self-reflection and intellectual insulation, I think this is especially important. To understand who you are you need to find some kind of quiet. A place to meditate and reflect.

The issue we have, I think, is that our self-reflection happens publicly. We post our self-reflections on the internet. Even this, one could say, is an example. I’m simply writing private thoughts down, but then I’m posting them where anyone with internet access can stumble upon them.

Is it really self-reflection when it’s projected through the internet?

Can we ever know ourselves when we’re so wrapped up in the lives of others?

That’s not to say we should imitate Descartes. I think his version of self-reflection as road to self-discovery is pretty stupid. Because it begins with the idea that humans are, at some point, entirely alone.

This is too easy to reject because it’s never true.

And the Tao is never about self-isolation. Almost every poem is balanced by a regard for the greater world. Questions for state, for power, for peace. Taoism is about engaging with the world while being yourself. By following the Tao, we discover ourselves, and in discovering ourselves, we demonstrate the Tao for others.

Bring the Tao to the world, but do it in your every word, your every action.

That’s resistance.

That’s Taoism.

Be like water.

keeping the contract

After a great enmity is settled
some enmity always remains.
How to make peace?
Wise souls keep their part of the contract
and don’t make demands on others.
People whose power is real fulfil their obligations;
people whose power is hollow insist on their claims.

The Way of heaven plays no favorites.
It stays with the good.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

Le Guin’s commentary:

The chapter is equally relevant to private relationships and to political treaties. Its realistic morality is based on a mystical perception of the fullness of the Way.

Make peace.

Be kind.

That’s really what it amounts to.

Don’t take advantage of others.

Don’t exert force upon others.

Be kind.

Find peace.

Be gentle.

Be like water, friend.

paradoxes

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.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

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.

three articles about russia

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.

Russia, Trump, and Flawed Intelligence

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.

The Russia Story is a Minefield for Democrats and the Media

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: The Conspiracy Trap

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 bow

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.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

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?

hardness

Living people
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;
tenderness, softness,
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.

Lao Tzu
Ursula K Le Guin’s version

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.