Thursday, December 30, 2010

Politics and Okinawa and martial arts

It is difficult to avoid politics. History is always political. What is more, the political issues of an earlier era always are reinterpreted in light of today’s political issues.

A study of Okinawa, for example, raises many past and present—and universal as well as particular—issues. I am once again led to this insight by my interest in the history of martial arts. Okinawa, an island that was only fully incorporated into the nation of Japan after the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century, figures prominently in any full accounting of the development of unarmed combat because it is the center of one of the most internationally popular systems, karate.

In the summer of 1964, when Japan hosted the Olympics, I first heard a version of the legendary origin of karate. In 1609, Japanese invaded Okinawa and outlawed weapons-possession by the locals, and, subsequently, the art of unarmed combat developed secretly. The modern political issue that this reminds me of is gun control, which we might more generally call “weapons control.” In most such cases, a total weapons ban is almost never enacted, but, rather, weapons control usually means that some people cannot legally possess weapons while others—their oppressors—are allowed, and in some cases even encouraged, to possess weapons. This practice has been repeated virtually everywhere in all eras, from ancient China to Renaissance England to Turkish Armenia to Nazi Germany to the present day in many countries: first disarm your enemies, and after that it is like the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel.

More recently I learned the following Okinawan legend: In seventeenth century Okinawa, the Japanese samurai were able to go around Okinawa committing crimes against the locals with impunity because they had swords while the locals had none. One day, a samurai tried to rape an Okinawan woman but an unarmed Okinawan man happened by and disarmed the samurai. The story does not tell whether unarmed martial arts were outlawed by the conquerors before or after such incidents.

Now, either I or the ABC television network back in 1964 got some of the history garbled. Karate did not arise after the invasion by the Japanese, because there were unarmed combat systems on Okinawa before that. To understand this, you have to look at the geography of Okinawa, which is the largest of a thousand-mile-long chain of islands that once constituted the Ryukyu Kingdom, and is situated between the Japanese island of Kyushu to the northeast and the Island of Taiwan to the southwest. The people of this island chain had their own non-Japanese language and were more apt to trade with and be influenced by Chinese than Japanese culture. One of the things they learned from the Chinese was kung fu or kenpo, as it is more often called in Japan. The Okinawans seem to have had their own fighting system, called “tii” or “te,” which they combined with kenpo to develop a hand and foot fighting system called “kara te” or “karate” meaning “Chinese hand.” This would likely have been the already developed system used against the seventeenth century rapist in the legend.

Politics keeps rearing its head in this story. By the end of the nineteenth century, Okinawa was being fully integrated into Japan linguistically, culturally, and politically. At the same time, Japan was trying to dominate Asia and was hostile toward China. It so happened that the “kara” in “karate” came from the word for China in general or the Tang Dynasty in particular, but it also sounds like the Japanese word for “empty”; so, in the early twentieth century, the character for “China” or “Tang” was replaced with the character for “empty” in the Japanese writing of “karate” to make karate seem more Japanese. (Never mind that the Japanese writing system itself is based on the Chinese one.)

In the future—no doubt the near future—we are looking toward a crisis involving a small group of islands that form part of the Okinawa Prefecture. The Senkaku islands, which are claimed by Japan, are also claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (Red China). The PRC also claims Taiwan. Once China feels they can do so with impunity, they will take over Taiwan, and if they do so, they will sooner or later take the Senkaku islands, too. This will bring them into conflict with Japan once again. The Senkaku islands have no native population, however. Taking the Senkakus would be more of a cause for alarm depending on who was taken first. Taiwan taking the Senkakus would be an international crisis. The taking of Taiwan by Red China would overshadow the fate of the Senkakus whether the ChiComs moved on the little islands or not. It would be very threatening, however, for the PRC to invade the Senkakus before attacking Taiwan because Japan and Taiwan would each regard it as an attack on them. It is always ill-advised to make two enemies at once without neutralizing at least one of them first.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Does everything have to start with the Greeks?

There are actually intelligent (but very mistaken) people who believe that Greek or Sanskrit is the most ancient language and that either Greek is the mother of Sanskrit or vice versa. The academically dominant theory is that there was originally a group of people, possibly living about 5,000 years ago somewhere north of the Black Sea, who spoke an ancient language that we call proto-Indo-European (based on what later happened to it; we do not actually know what if anything its original speakers called it). As these speakers moved away from their original homeland, they lost touch with each other and the language they spoke started changing until, because they were separated, it ceased to be the same mutually intelligible speech, but instead became different languages. Another process went on at the same time: these groups met with other peoples who spoke other languages that had diverged from earlier languages at much earlier times, and these already very different languages would have influenced the Indo-European speakers to change their languages in ways quite different from other Indo-European speakers who encountered and were influenced by completely different languages. Some linguists say that if you combine Greek vowels with Sanskrit consonants you have an approximation of what proto-Indo-European was like. Thus, neither Greek nor Sanskrit is parent to the other, but both are very old children of the much older language from which they both derived, and, so, they share similar characteristics like grandchildren or cousins who share features of their common ancestors while maintaining individually unique characteristics.

Indeed, Sanskrit and Greek are strikingly similar in some respects. Although they have completely different alphabets (the proto-Indo-European speakers diverged long before the invention of writing), there are words that are still strikingly similar even after thousands of years of separation. (Words in different languages that are similar because they have a common “ancestor” are called “cognates.”) For example, “para” in Sanskrit can mean “beyond,” “far” or “distant” while in Greek the same word can, among other things, mean “beyond,” “by” and “beside.” The word seems to suggest more closeness in Greek than in Sanskrit, but it is a word that suggests spatial relationship in both languages. “Maha” means “great” in Sanskrit while “mega” means “great” in Greek. The differences are not arbitrary but quite regular; that is, “a” in Asian Indo-European languages often translates to “e” or “i” in western Indo-European languages; similarly the appearance of an “h” sound and a “g” sound in pairs of cognates is also common. It’s the initial letter or the harder consonants that tend to change less from language to language in cognates. For example, “pada” is Sanskrit for “foot” while “podos” is the Greek for “feet.” (English and German are also Indo-European languages, but in them the “p” becomes an “f” and, in English, the “d” becomes a “t.”) “Is” in Sanskrit is “asti” while it is “esti” in Greek. In Sanskrit “pancha” means “five” while “pente” is the cognate for the same number in Greek.

Today I came across a theory that says something else may have begun with the Greeks: martial arts. Possibly as long ago as four thousand years, Greek warriors developed a fighting system called pankration (often pronounced “pan-krat-eon,” from “pan” all + “kratos” power), which combined wrestling and kick boxing. Pankration might be translated “all powers,” “all strengths,” “all skills” or it might just be a way of saying “no holds barred and anything goes.” Breaking bones, fatal choke holds and other tactics were originally legal even in the Olympic Games. In fact, the Spartans refused to enter the Olympic pankration competition because they thought the rules against eye gouging and biting made the sport suitable only for sissies.

Pankration must have been an effective hand-to-hand combat technique in the right hands. It is said that the pankratiast Dioxippus, unarmored and armed only with a club, defeated the soldier Coragus who had full armor, a shield, a spear and a sword. (Both men survived the fight because Dioxippus showed mercy.) Dioxippus and Coragus were members of the army of Alexander the Great. He conquered the known world as far a northern India. It has been suggested that pankration was thereby spread to central and south Asia and that Buddhist monks brought it to China and Japan where it then became the foundation of kung fu, jujitsu, etc.

I am not sure that I believe this. I have not seen the research that supports this hypothesis. It sounds very speculative to me. An alternative possibility is that pankration/jujitsu techniques tend to arise in every civilization. Their similarities are the result of the similar requirements of unarmed combat and the universal mechanics of the human body. For example, variations on throwing an opponent over one’s hip are universally found but need not require that this practice came from one place, because smart warriors would be likely to discover and rediscover such a technique because of the nature of physical contact between combatants. This has got to be due to physics and biomechanics as much as culture.

And then there is cooking. I have seen a cookbook that maintains (Italian cooks everywhere are going to see red) that all modern Western cooking including Italian and French is based on ancient Greek cooking. They may well have started it, but modern Italian and French variations on food preparation have decidedly improved on the experience of eating since the heyday of pankration.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"...let our bodies be freely handled and examined by whoever chooses!"

The whole Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport screening scandal has put me in mind of Walt Whitman’s dystopic poem “Respondez,” which consists of one nightmarish exhortation after another, among which is this line:

Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in public, naked, monthly, at the peril of our
lives! let our bodies be freely handled and examined by whoever chooses!

* * * *

I have not been posting here recently because I have been participating in NaNoWriMo, which—if you do not know—is National Novel Writing Month. The objective is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. I am up to about 39,000, so I still have a chance of finishing on time. The aim is to make a good faith effort to tell a coherent story but not necessarily to cross every t and dot every i. Rambling is acceptable. What is the prize? A T-shirt. Isn’t that the prize for everything nowadays?

Nevertheless, I have been hankering to comment on the passing scene.

* * * *

I would like to award the Benito Mussolini Fascist Prize to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) for wishing that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would end the journalistic free speech of Fox News and MSNBC in favor of something Rockefeller calls “quality news” which sounds antiseptic enough to kill anything, especially liberty.

I would rather abolish the FCC the very existence of which is an affront to the spirit of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These unelected bureaucrats will soon be regulating the Internet, and I do not mean in some hypothetical future—they are actively planning to do it as you read this. Who gave them the right? No one. That’s the point. They have taken the right.

* * * *

WASHINGTON - David F. Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian Party (LP), died unexpectedly on November 21 in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 66.

Mr. Nolan was also a member of the Libertarian National Committee (LNC). He is survived by his wife Elizabeth.

Mr. Nolan founded the Libertarian Party with a group of colleagues in his home in Denver, Colorado on December 11, 1971.

Mark Hinkle, Chairman of the LP, said, "I am saddened by the news of David Nolan's death. He not only helped found the Libertarian Party, but remained active and helped to guide our party for the last forty years. We are now the third-largest political party in America, and one of the most persistent and successful third parties in American history, thanks in large part to David Nolan. We will feel this loss."

Mr. Nolan ran this year as a Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senator in Arizona, against incumbent John McCain. In 2006, Mr. Nolan ran for U.S. Representative in Arizona's 8th District, against incumbent Gabrielle Giffords.

Mr. Nolan was also well known for his invention of the "Nolan chart," a two-dimensional chart of political opinion that was designed to get past the more familiar but deficient liberal-conservative paradigm. Marshall Fritz, founder of the Advocates for Self-Government, refined the Nolan chart into the popular World's Smallest Political Quiz with its diamond-shaped chart. ...

Comments from friends and colleagues:

...Wes Benedict, Executive Director of the LP: "While I've admired David Nolan for years, this year I finally had the pleasure of working directly with him. He was an enthusiastic and principled activist doing the hard work right alongside newer members."

Jack Dean, longtime friend and political associate: "David was the conscience of the Libertarian Party. He was always there to remind us what the party was about."

Mr. Nolan had submitted a resolution for consideration at the November 20-21 LNC meeting in New Orleans. Unaware of Mr. Nolan's death, the LNC adopted the resolution, which reads as follows:

"WHEREAS the Libertarian Party can grow only by attracting new members and supporters, and

"WHEREAS libertarianism is a unique political philosophy, distinct from both contemporary liberalism and contemporary conservatism, and

"WHEREAS we need the support of both former liberals and former conservatives who have come to realize that libertarianism and the Libertarian Party offer a better path to achieving a just, humane and prosperous society,

"The Libertarian National Committee hereby reaffirms that the Libertarian Party welcomes individuals from across the political spectrum who now accept the libertarian principles of self-ownership and non-aggression."

—from a Libertarian Party Press Release, 11-22-2010

My comments:

My encomium to David Nolan is that I remember him from the 1993 Libertarian National Convention (when the spirit was still with me). At that time I noted that the uninformed observer--if he thought to pay Nolan any heed at all--would probably have concluded that Nolan was just a regular party member, making occasional remarks from the floor like any other delegate. It was when, late in the three-day proceedings, Nolan was called up to the podium and given an award for his service to the party, that the uninitiated observer would at last have realized who Nolan was. To say that, as a founder, he gave up to others a great deal of control over his creation constitutes an enormous understatement.

As to some of the contentions in the obit, Nolan did not actually invent the unfortunately named “Nolan chart.” Like all great ideas, it was something that Nolan read about. My understanding is that two late-1960s poly-sci professors had developed a questionnaire that teased out people’s political views on a wide variety of issues with great subtlety, but found that when they tried to put the results on a one-dimensional left-right political spectrum, it wiped out all of the fine distinctions their questionnaire had revealed; so they came up with a two-dimensional grid to replace the conventional one-dimensional spectrum. Nolan or Fritz developed this into the “diamond chart” or “political map” that arbitrarily puts the libertarian position at the top and the authoritarian position at the bottom with the conventional left at the left and conventional right at the right. (Of course, this diamond-shaped presentation could also be turned into a square, which is what I believe it originally was.)

There are two Brits who have also popularized this grid model of political charting on the Internet without crediting any other originator, but it is the same idea with their own spin. (I won’t mention them although you can easily enough poke around until you find them.) What really makes the name “Nolan chart” unfortunate is that there is already a Nolan chart that has nothing to do with Dave Nolan’s; it is the name for the probate attorney’s genealogical chart showing the order in which a decedent’s property should be inherited by his or her next of kin.

The important thing is that by popularizing the two-dimensional political grid, the Libertarian party and its non-party allies (such as Advocates for Self-Government, named in the above release) have promoted an improvement in political thought that cannot be underestimated. Any model of political views whether one- , two- , three- or even four-dimensional is merely arbitrary, but the fewer dimensions it has, the more oversimplified the model is. Adding a second dimension reveals the extremely limited and misleading character of the one-dimensional political spectrum. (Show me a three or four dimensional model that works and I'll acceed to its superiority over the Nolan model; but I haven't seen one yet.) In real life, political views are not arranged along a continuum like the color-light spectrum. Even if we allow that we can use the spectrum on an issue by issue basis, people can have conservative views on some issues, liberal views on others and moderate views on still others; to label that person liberal, conservative or moderate on the basis of 40 to 50 percent of their views is to miss the complexity and subtlety of their actual views. So, instead, the two-dimensional model looks at political views as regions of a map. I like to think of it as camps located within an imaginary geographical area:

A camp might take up a quarter of the map where people tend to agree on certain issues, but their degree of agreement is not uniform. We go down the road from one camp and find another camp. There are at least four camps, but depending on how we divide the grid, and how narrow we make each camp, we could group together those who are in most agreement with each other and have five or more camps. The map is made from two spectrums or axes at right angles to each other. You can be equally conservative on both axes or more liberal on one axis than the other. By using both axes, opinions on different topics can be used to plot a position on the grid that is not tethered to one point on a spectrum but rather slides depending on opinions on several different topics.

In light of all of this, it is very ironic that the press release quotes from Nolan's last act, a resolution that speaks of the Libertarian party’s openness to “individuals from across the political spectrum.” Nolan had tried to change the terminology away from talk of a spectrum. This goes to show how very hard it is to kill the notion of a one-dimensional spectrum.

My own favorite line about the inadequacy and misleading-ness of the political spectrum goes: “A political spectrum that goes all the way from communism to fascism is like an alphabet that goes all the way from A to B.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

Some thoughts on the Constitution's Language and Other Historical Subjects

Some day I'm going to write about the confusion created by the difference in the meaning of words that are used in the United States Constitution when it was written versus their common usage today. For example, "regulate" and "regulation." When the Constitution's Article 1, Section 8 speaks of Congress's power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" the word regulate meant something more akin to "promote" to the Framers, rather than the meaning of the word in government usage today which is more akin to "limit" or "control." Similarly, the expression "A well regulated Militia" in the Second Amendment has today been used to suggest that the government has a right to regulate (limit or control) gun possession, but in the eighteenth century, the use of "regulated" in conection with the military or a militia meant "discipline" or, more specifically, parade ground drilling. This preamble to the point of the amendment--which is that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"--refers to the need for practice of an armed militia unit together and with their weapons.

As a side note, the context of the Second Amendment is clearly (from the phrase "being necessary to the security of a free State"--there: I have quoted every word in the entire amendment though not in order) is a state militia as a creature of each state and not as an adjunct to the national military. In the Federalist Papers the assumption is clear that the militia is not like the modern National Guard in that the state militia might be expect to fight against the national army if it acted militarily against a state's interests. This leads me to another point and what I believe is the greatest flaw in the Constitution: James Mdison only focused, in his creation of the Constitution, on making a novel division of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national government; he took for granted and therefore paid no legal attention to the balance of power between the national and state governments. Over time, and in various ways, the balance has shifted away from the states and toward the national government. The de facto abolition of independent state militias is only one of the ways in which this balance has shifted. In the time of the Founders, the power of the states, much greater than it later would be, was taken for granted by Madison. (Historically, we might debate whether Madison and Hamilton understood this would happen. Some think that Madison was naive on this point while Hamilton knew that the Constitution might promote the diminution of state power.)

Occassionally separate lines of research come together to illuminate each other. Recently this happened. Last year or the year before I was reading about President Millard Fillmore, my favorite under-rated president. One of the tibbits I learned was that during his administration, someone tried to get the United States government to support a plot to overthrow the emperor of Austria. On the face of it, of course, the Fillmore administration's rejection of this proposal seems justifiable. Why should the United States have involved itself in such a scheme? What possible benefit could it have had for our country? Would any American president of that era taken up the offer to get in on this scheme?

Well, my current reading of a biography of the nineteenth century German politician Otto von Bismarck proves that the Fillmore administration's caution was more than justified. In 1848, there were several attempted revolutions in Europe, almost none of which led to any permanent change. By 1850, the Austria government had removed one emperor and his chief minister and replaced the emperor according to the laws ofd succession and put in a new chief minister. In other words, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. During this transition, many people in Europe thought that the untested new government in Austria might be ripe for overthrow or vulnerable to attack. It must have been based on this that the United States was approached after 1850 with a scheme to help tople the Austrian monarchy. It turned out, however, that the new government was being managed by very able political and military leaders who secured Austria through several political maneuvers including winning the support from the Czar of Russia. Austria was not as vulnerable as many assumed. And although Bismarck and others later rested some power away from Austria, at the time the Fillmore administration was being offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an anti-Austrian coup, the Austrian government was actually too strong for the schemee to succeed; so the United States would have caused itself needless grief if it had involved itself in such a project.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Legendary Charm Schools

After reading the novel “The Charm School” by Nelson DeMille recently, I was reminded that I had read about the central conceit of the novel’s plot—that the former Soviet Union had top secret spy schools that taught agents to act just like Americans, Brits, Frenchmen, etc.—back in the 1960s. An Internet search shows that the idea has, indeed, been around a while and has been the subject of many books, but nothing on the ’Net demonstrates that such “charm schools” ever really existed. The material on the Web is a mixture of fiction and questionable not to mention sometimes contradictory nonfiction. There are even reviews of some nonfiction accounts that claim these are hoaxes. This is not to say that the schools did not (do not?) exist; it just means that there is a great deal of mythology and legend surrounding these schools. No discussion of them on the Internet seems to prove their existence, but that does not mean that there are not somewhere reputable books and articles off the ’Net proving their authenticity.

After a fashion, we should not expect this information to be easily available and firmly authenticated. Firstly, the schools are always described as ultra-top secret. The Soviets would not have liked even the rumors to exist if the schools were real. Secondly, while you might think that Western intelligence services would want to expose the existence of such schools, they might not want to panic their citizenry by officially revealing that the person sitting next to you at the lunch counter might be a spy. better to let the information filter out to the public in the form of fictional books and television programs.

As I noted in my review of "The Charm School” at Shelfari, DeMille’s novel sets its spy school in the middle of Russia just off the main road between Minsk and Moscow, while the charm schools of legend were discretely placed in more remote areas. For example, the supposed location of the school for spies destined for English-speaking countries is said to straddle the former Soviet republics of Tatar and Bashkir (now Tatarstan and Bashkortostan respectively), not too far from Kazakhstan.

Beck and Manifest Destiny

The Glenn Beck Program on the FOX News Network has always been something of an intellectual high wire act as Beck explores American politics with a daring sensibility that is sometimes brilliant and sometimes on the edge of implausibility. On his August 18, 2010, installment, he may have gone too far even for many of the loyal fans in his audience. Already this week, his statement that our nation’s problems are too great for us to solve without God’s help caused many to complain that he had given up on any solutions. At this, Beck demurred. As a twelve-stepper, he does not believe that just because man cannot solve his problems without God’s help, that this means that he cannot solve his problems at all. If Beck believed that, he would still be rising from his own sick only to head for the nearest bar. Rather, the problems we face are so daunting that we need to fortify ourselves with faith, according to Beck. Then we need to role up our sleeves and dive in.

Although I am a nonbeliever, I am actually in agreement with Beck’s view that religion is a necessary touchstone for an American revival of limited government Constitutionalism even though the doctrine of limited government does not require religion. The fact remains that, across the United States, Americans believe in God and would not respond to a political message that denied God. If you do not think so, just try getting someone elected president who does not have a plausible religious affiliation or allegiance.

Glenn Beck is intellectually more curious than most other talkers on radio and TV. He reads history books incessantly, causing dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep. His choice in authors is not entirely impeccable but it is more right than his critics would allow. I am reminded of another scholar I admire when I contemplate Beck’s use of sources. Ordinarily, Beck is right to seek original sources when he is looking at history, however, when looking at the historiography of a scientific question such as the origins of Native Americans, going back to older sources is not necessarily the best strategy. The writer Vardis Fisher wrote a series of novels based on his reading in anthropology. He based his Testament of Man series on a self-educated course in anthropology. Fisher had a Ph.D. in English literature, so he understood the methods of scholarly research and did well in some respects, but he essentially went back to the theories of nineteenth century anthropology, opening himself up to the criticism that his work did not take advantage of the most up-to-date insights into the origins and cultures of human beings.

On August 18, Beck delved into the origins of Native Americans in a way opens him to criticism that he is or at least is on the verge of preaching a highly dubious theory of their origins. I use the word “preaching” advisedly. Beck is a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church. They teach that Native Americans are the long lost tribe(s) of Israel, and similar in culture and language to the ancient Hebrews. Beck offered this view as one of the theories advanced during the nineteenth century, and, although he did not explicitly endorse it, the fact that he did not refute it but instead gave it almost pride of place, suggests that Beck is putting himself in danger of losing a predominantly Christian audience that has tolerated his Mormonism so long as he did not emphasize doctrines that differed from mainstream Christianity. (The idea that native Americans are from the near east is enshrined in the Book of Mormon, the volume peculiar to Beck’s church.)

Beck has not gone wrong by arguing that Native American origins are debatable. There is much modern scientific controversy about how long ago Native Americans arrived in the Americas and whether or not others from the Old World continued to sojourn in the Americas. A skeleton has been found in the Pacific Northwest, for example, that has surprisingly European features and yet is older than the known arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Beck also used the same episode of his show to present another inchoate theory of his that I find intriguing if underdeveloped. He posits a distinction between Divine Providence and Manifest Destiny. The former is characterized by humility (Not my will but Thy will, oh Lord) whereas as Manifest Destiny is characterized by the sin of pride (I’m on a mission from God; so get the hell out of my way, I’m coming through). Divine Providence was often invoked by the Founders of the United States, many of whom believed that God showed his blessing on their revolutionary enterprise by granting the success that, by the odds, should have eluded the colonies in their fight against Great Britain, the most powerful country in the world in the late eighteenth century. As Beck describes it, they did what they believed to be right, notably without having might on their side, and afterward felt that their success proved that they had been guided by God all along.

In contrast, Manifest Destiny begins with having the power to do what one wants to do and justifying it by the arrogant claim to having been ordained by God to realize one’s ambitions. Again, if the distinction is not easy to grasp, remember that belief in Divine Providence tends to inspire humility while Manifest Destiny is rooted in hubris; belief in Divine Providence dictates doing what you believe is right even against the odds, while Manifest Destiny justifies the exercise of power to get what is usually, by no small coincidence, self-aggrandizing. Noting that the term Manifest Destiny did not arise until about 1845, Beck links the idea to the administration of President Andrew Jackson (in office 1829-1837). 1845 is an interesting year. It was the first year of the administration of James K. Polk, whose support of the annexation of Texas, by the way, won him the endorsement of former President Jackson. Polk fomented a war with Mexico, which the United States won, and saw the expansion of United States territory into the Southwest.

An interesting note about this expansion: Due to the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson in 1804, the United States already had expanded westward in the north. Although the border with Canada was at issue when Polk became president, the general outline of that border was not as radically changed as the one with Mexico soon was. I have long suspected that the objection of Abraham Lincoln and a few other northern congressman to Polk’s adventure against Mexico was that they saw expansion into the Southwest as a benefit solely to the Southern slave states and of little or no benefit to northerners who could feel relatively more secure that they practically had their own Manifest Destiny already. (I am, however, underemphasizing the passion that many northerners had for establishing Oregon and California as American territories.) As a representative of Illinois, Lincoln saw no advantage to his constituents if the United States took over New Mexico, but his constituents did not see it that way and voted Lincoln out of office largely because of his opposition to the Mexican War.

An even more intriguing aspect of Beck’s thesis is his connection of Manifest Destiny with Progressivism in the late nineteenth century. Modern progressives are sure to hate this connection because they now think of progressivism as being opposed to Manifest Destiny; but historically, I think that Beck has read the late nineteenth century Zeitgeist accurately. The Progressive Era was characterized by the same missionary zeal and arrogance that characterized Manifest Destiny. Expansionists and progressives both believed that they were on a mission from God to extend the influence and dominance of the United States government. The two eras also overlap as Manifest Destiny was fully realized in the late nineteenth century with the closing of the frontier, just as progressivism was emerging as a kind of expansion into an inner frontier, within a more settled society.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ranking the Presidents

The Siena Research Institute, which has been ranking U.S. presidents since 1982, yesterday put out its 2010 list, compiled by surveying historians and other presidential scholars. [238 presidential scholars, historians and political scientists, their press release says in a footnote. Now what are these presidential scholars who are neither historians nor poly sci professors?] Presidential Rankings. (For the complete list, follow the links until you get to "Rankings.")

For the fifth time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has topped the list “as the top all time chief executive.” Barack Obama is in the survey for the first time and came in at fifteenth. That’s 15. One-five. A man who has been president for a minute and a half.

Lincoln, after three consecutive stints in the number two slot on the survey, has been replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. That’s two Roosevelts at the top of the survey. (What are the odds?)

Jefferson has gone from number two in 1982 to number three in 1990 to number five in the three subsequent polls including yesterday’s. T. Roosevelt was number five in the 1982 poll. There can be few explanations for changes like these other than a sea change in political thinking among scholars. Perhaps they have drifted from being progressive to being hyper-progressive in their political orientations. Jefferson was not a very great friend of progressive-like thinking, although his incorporation of the Louisiana Territory into the United States, and even more, the imperial way that he went about it, have long endeared him to the cult of the State. So he must remain in their top ten.

George Washington, the man who defined the presidency, has been steadily in the number four slot since 1982. On the other hand, while Madison has jumped from number nine to number six, Woodrow Wilson has gone from a seemingly secure position at number six to number eight. This seems to undercut my explanation because Wilson is the patron saint of American progressivism, but you do not want to look too closely at his record of racism and xenophobia in this day and age, and perhaps the scholars have; so that might explain his slight fall from former grace.

John Kennedy has gone from number eight in the first poll, to ten in the subsequent two polls, to removal from the top ten yesterday. He is now eleventh.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who didn’t appear in the top ten until the third poll, is now in tenth place. Eisenhower's stock has gone up ever since scholars realized that he was not the hands-off chief exec that he deliberately made everyone think he was. Like Washington, he cultivated an image of aloofness from the day-to-day that disguised the near micromanagement of his administration's affairs.

From these poll results, you get the impression that if you looked at topics discussed by historians and political scientists at their conventions over the year or two before each of these polls came out, you would see a trend: whichever presidents were the topics of panel after panel would rise or fall in stature in the collective minds of scholars depending on the consensus arrived at through groupthink.

Here are the top ten for this year with a + or – after each name to indicate whether the reputation of that president has risen or fallen since 2002, the last time the poll was taken. (The absence of any symbol indicates that the ranking is the same as it was in 2002.)

1. F. Roosevelt
2. T. Roosevelt +
3. Lincoln –
4. Washington
5. Jefferson
6. Madison +
7. Monroe +
8. Wilson –
9. Truman –
10. Eisenhower

It is curious that, occasionally, the presidents are listed in chronological order in the poll as are Jefferson, Madison and Monroe above. However, they were not in this order in previous polls.

The Loudonville, NY institute’s press release says, “Teddy Roosevelt had, more than any other president the 'right stuff', and tops the collective ranking of a cluster of personal qualities including imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, background, and being willing to take risks. Lincoln, according to the experts, demonstrated the greatest presidential abilities while FDR ranks first in overall accomplishments.”

The release goes on to quote Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, professor of statistics at Siena College and a co-director of the institute: “In nearly thirty years, the same five presidents have occupied the first five places with only slight shuffling. Despite decades of new research on former presidents and the accomplishments or lack thereof of the current chief executives, scholars display amazingly consistent results.” Well, of course, groupthink produces consistent results, but that does not mean that it reflects common sense. On the other hand, how consistent are these changing results, really? "Slight shuffling" might not be the right term since the shuffling among the top five might rather reflect Richter-scale shifts in collective thinking. That is, if these rankings were reasonably objective, they should remain more stable ESPECIALLY nearest the top. Lonnstrom goes on to say, “Only eight names have appeared in the second five over the years. Wilson and Truman hold onto membership in this club while Kennedy, John Adams and Jackson fell, Eisenhower holds on and Madison and Monroe have seen their stock rise.”

The press release adds, “The current president, Barack Obama, while highly rated on imagination (6th), communication ability (7th) and intelligence (8th) scores poorly on background (family, education and experience) [32nd] and enters the survey in the 15th position."

This attention to background seems rather classist, especially in terms of family and education, but Obama must, indeed, score poorly on experience, having never before held a leadership role. His ability to compromise, though, is ranked delusionally high at ten. Who has he compromised with? Other like-minded Democrats? Venezuela's Hugo Chavez?

Again from the press release: "George W. Bush, had entered the survey at 23rd when the study was last conducted one year into his first term. Today, just one year after leaving office, the former president has found himself in the bottom five at 39th rated especially poorly in handling the economy, communication, ability to compromise, foreign policy accomplishments and intelligence. Rounding out the bottom five are four presidents that have held that dubious distinction each time the survey has been conducted: Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin Pierce. Andrew Johnson leads the ‘worst ever’ in both abilities and accomplishments finishing below both Buchanan and Harding, but Harding tops the worst in personal attributes including integrity where he finishes just slightly ahead of Richard M. Nixon.”

The release claims that the bottom five are relatively stable, but just as Kennedy and Jackson pop in and out of the top five, Ulysses Grant and Millard Fillmore pop in and out of the bottom five. Grant is now 26th after having sunk to 38th in 1994. Professor Tom Kelly, the other co-director of the survey says, “Aside from the newest entry in the ‘Bottom Five’, George W. Bush, the others have a firm hold on this ignominious distinction. Three, Pierce, Buchanan and Andrew Johnson wrap around one of our finest presidents, Abe Lincoln[,] and those three perennial poorly ranked are held responsible for a failure to avert the Civil War in the case of Pierce and Buchanan, and perhaps even more shamefully in Johnson, prolonging the national disgrace with a prejudiced, Jim Crow, reconstruction.” Kelly goes on to say, “Harding, well, no one appreciates corruption nor accepts ineptitude as an excuse.”

Except that Warren Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, deserve reconsideration for their successful routing of the depression of 1920, which most historians—if they know of it at all—dismiss as a fluke rather than the result of swift action by these maligned presidents who stopped it and kept it at bay, respectively. (Note that Herbert Hoover, who presided over the inception of what became the Great Depression, has never made the bottom five although he is near the bottom.)

One of the most unfairly maligned presidents, Millard Fillmore, ranked 38th, made the bottom five list only in the 2002 survey, but just missed it this year, edged out by George W. Bush. To show the fickleness of the survey, consider how Fillmore and his predecessor Zachary Taylor were ranked in previous polls:

Coolidge (30)
Benjamin Harrison (31)
Fillmore (32)

Fillmore (32)
Tyler (33)
Taylor (34)

Taylor (33)
Tyler (34)
Fillmore (35)

Taylor (34)
Grant (35)
William Harrison (36)
Tyler (37)
Fillmore (38)

Taylor (33)
Benjamin Harrison (34)
William Harrison (35)
Hoover (36)
Tyler (37)
Fillmore (38)

Not only can these scholars not make up their minds, but they are demonstrably wrong in these rankings.

Robert Rayback, in "Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President," shows why Zachary Taylor was a much worse president than Fillmore. Fillmore, whose worst "accomplishment" was the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act—for which he may be granted excuses but no good reasons—nevertheless made excellent foreign policy moves for which he has almost never been given due credit. Certainly not by this poll which ranks him 33rd in foreign policy. It ranks his predecessor, Taylor, only slightly worse than Fillmore in foreign policy at 34th and better overall at 33rd, even though the Taylor administration dithered over foreign policy crises that were never resolved until they were dumped into Fillmore’s more capable lap. And why does Taylor rank 28th for executive appointments when his appointees were riddled with corruption (I guess corruption can be overlooked, Kelly to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas Fillmore ranks 35th for replacing them with more honest and able men?

The Fillmore administration skillfully avoided wars with Peru, Mexico, England, France, and Spain, not to mention that Fillmore passed on a chance to indirectly participate in an attempt to overthrow the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A “greater” president might have seized upon any number of these opportunities for blood and glory (Four of the top ten presidents in the Siena survey were actually wartime presidents but three others were military commanders during wars before their presidencies; furthermore, Washington actually led troops to quash the Whiskey Rebellion during his presidency, and Eisenhower was commander in chief as the Cold War escalated.), but Fillmore judiciously gave up the admiration of posterity in exchange for international peace even if his efforts to keep peace domestically ultimately failed.

Yet Taylor's ranking has only risen in the Siena poll. I suspect that Taylor is given a sympathy bump because he died in office or because he was a successful general before his presidency or because of some other irrelevant consideration. Or perhaps this just tells us something about the ignorance of the participants. Yes, they are scholars, but who studies the administration of Millard Fillmore? Most of the scholars are more likely to be versed in, say, the Lincoln administration. When it comes to Fillmore, there are few scholars familiar with the primary sources and many who would be more familiar with the hearsay spread by Fillmore’s contemporary detractors (such as one-time ally and later enemy Boss Thurlow Weed; I think a politician should gain points just for being on the enemies list of a man known as Boss Weed) as well as later detractors. In the latter case, his detractors had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in recognizing, for example, that Fillmore’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act did not prevent the Civil War (though it very likely postponed it).

On the other hand, how many historians know that when President James Buchanan let the South capture federal arsenals without resistance, Fillmore declared that he would not have been so passive. Had Fillmore been president in Buchanan’s stead, the Civil War might have begun a year earlier than it did; but it did not start when he was actually in office, even though passions were high among Southern secessionists in 1850. (Of course, as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, passions were high among secessionists in Massachusetts and other Northern states that justly found the act an imposition on their states’ rights.)

The Siena Institute release goes on to say, “Over two hundred presidential scholars ranked the 43 U.S. Presidents on six personal attributes (background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck and willingness to take risks), five forms of ability (compromising, executive, leadership, communication and overall) and eight areas of accomplishment including economic, other domestic affairs, working with Congress and their party, appointing supreme court justices and members of the executive branch, avoiding mistakes and foreign policy. T.R. led the attribute category and was tops in imagination and willing to take risks. Lincoln leads in ability with first places in ability to compromise, executive ability and overall ability. FDR not only is the overall top rated president but also leads in accomplishments topping the list in party leadership, handling the U.S. Economy, and foreign policy accomplishments.”

One wonders how these evaluative criteria are thought to work. How do you measure “luck,” and what are the dimensions of “imagination”? (See a previous post of mine wherein I lampoon a silly ad campaign by UVA Medical Center that poses just such questions.) President Jimmy Carter loses points for having bad luck, says the press release. Does the poll take into consideration whether or not a president makes his luck or merely reacts to circumstances?

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton moves up because of reevaluation of his background (family, education and experience) and executive appointments. How do you decide to reevaluate such things when they have not changed? When all that could have changed are the obviously fickle minds of the scholars who were surveyed? (No doubt, the individuals who are surveyed have changed since 1982, as scholars retire and die and are replaced by younger scholars.) Also, the first George Bush is steady at 22nd in the rankings while Ronald Reagan has fallen from 16th to 18th. Carter has fallen even further, from 25th to 32nd.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Census Questionnaire

We received our 2010 Census questionnaire this week. Last week we got our advance letter, warning us that the questionnaire would be here shortly. That letter cost the taxpayers something like 85 million dollars nationally. The Census director, Robert Groves, says that sending that letter was worth it because it is expected to increase the response rate to the questionnaire by five or more percent. That would save money on sending census takers to follow up on those who don’t fill out the questionnaire. Of course, the idea that money will be saved anywhere in this process is belied by the fact that preliminary census efforts earlier this year had cost overruns. Operations to save money by scoping out buildings to see whether they were occupied proved too expensive. People were hired, trained and worked only one day before quitting.

The questions on the questionnaire we received include whether you are at your address, because the mailing is addressed only to “Resident.” You are asked to give your name, phone number, how many people live at your address, their names, whether you rent or own, and the ages, dates of birth and races of everyone who will be living at the address as of April 1.

Since there are only two people in my household, it took little time to fill out the short form. I understand that the long form questionnaire that asks many more questions will come later and, as always, will go to fewer people. Cross your fingers they don’t come back at you with the long form.

Psychoanalysis and Gestalt: A Corrective to the lineage of psychotherapies

Recently, I found a chart slipped into one of my old psychology books that shows the connections and lineage between psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy largely mediated by Wilhelm Reich. There was a rather petty movement among psychoanalysts to write Reich out of their history after he broke with them, which has made it rather awkward—not to say political—to properly record the history of psychotherapy. For example, in their important textbook, “The Psychiatric Interview in Clinical Practice,” authors Roger MacKinnon and Robert Michels confess not knowing where the approach used in their text came from, and yet that approach—describing each psychiatric disorder in concrete physical and behavioral terms—is precisely the approach that was pioneered by Wilhelm Reich in teaching psychoanalysts in Berlin in early the 1930s. (The institute in New York where MacKinnon and Michels learned this approach was founded by Sandor Rado, who happens to have been Reich’s training analyst.) For many decades, Reich was “he who cannot be named” in terms of his actual positive contributions to psychoanalytic therapy, although it was politic to dismiss him as in an article penned by Richard Sterbe who captiously argued that where Reich was original he was wrong and that where he was right, he was entirely derivative. He gave as an example a paper by Karl Abraham, “A Particular Form of Neurotic Resistance Against the Psycho-Analytic Method,” which Sterbe claims is the entire basis of Reich’s best thought. This paper can be found in “The Psychoanalytic Reader” (edited by Robert Fliess) among other places, but Fliess also includes several of Reich’s early papers, which can be used for comparison. Such a comparison of Abraham and Reich shows that Abraham’s idea of prioritizing the material to be analyzed so that the therapist analyzes the resistance before analyzing the underlying material was so tentative that the tentativeness can be seen in the verbal hedging of his title. Indeed, the idea of prioritizing the material to be analyzed—central to Reich’s character-analytic approach—is so subtly, briefly and tentatively presented in Abraham’s paper that a reader could be forgiven for not noticing it at all. It was certainly not envisioned by Abraham as an approach to be applied systematically to every single resistance. Reich may well have gotten the idea from Abraham, but his development of it was an original contribution.

(Every new idea can be wrestled into submission by arguing that it is derivative. I once heard Thomas Szasz declare that every new idea is invented when its discoverer reads about it in someone else’s work; as an example, he made the case that Freud’s work is derivative of Socrates. Put simply, there are no new ideas under the sun, but this should not prevent us from giving due credit to those who have articulated the obvious when no one else was willing to pay attention to its full implications. This is what Reich did, and he played both a creative and evangelical role in making psychoanalytic-oriented therapy into a relationship between two real human beings rather than a consultation between an immaculately objective specialist and an objectified analysand.)

My overarching interest in my previous life as a student of psychology was—obviously from my chart—the connections between psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy that I found to be too often oversimplified. Yes, Friedrich “Fritz” Perls met Freud and trained as a psychoanalyst, but there is more to it than that. There are too many differences between what one of my psychoanalytic teachers liked to call “full-dress” psychoanalysis and gestalt therapy. In fact, what my teacher was calling attention to was the difference between old-fashioned Freudian analysis and modern psychoanalytic-oriented therapy, which actually shares more in common with the gestalt approach than either shares with Freud’s psychoanalysis.

I have now forgotten who Perls trained with, but I believe he had an unsatisfactory initial analysis followed by a more satisfactory one with an analyst who may have been the one who sent Perls to finish his training with Reich. Perls also attended Reich’s teaching seminars. Thus the psychoanalysis that informed gestalt therapy was already filtered through the Reichian character-analytic approach. In parallel, character analysis played a seminal role in the development of ego psychology’s technique of “defense analysis,” which is essentially character analysis by another name. The chief difference between character analysis and defense analysis is the psycho-somatic approach of the former as opposed to the psychodynamic approach of the latter. This “body-mind” focus of character analysis was brought over into gestalt therapy but was eschewed by ego psychology where Freud’s view of the internal dynamics of the mind were transformed into a different but equally non-somatic theory. (The same could be said of other psychoanalytic-oriented theories such as “object relations.”) Perls, nevertheless, presented a psychodynamic structural model of his own in his writings, even though several critics noted that this model had little if anything to do with the practice of gestalt therapy. That seems to be because Perls was really practicing character analysis while superficially nodding toward psychodynamics.

Reich’s influence on gestalt therapy did not stop with his early mentoring of Perls, however. Perls lost contact with Reich before his former teacher transformed character analysis into orgonomy, an approach that completely subordinated talking therapy to a focus on the somatic manifestations of psychopathology; however, after both Reich and Perls came to the United States, their students, patients and colleagues had cross-fertile contacts. Principally, a patient and student of Reich, Alexander Lowen, took the writer Paul Goodman as a patient, and Goodman was also a student and colleague of Perls, as well as a patient and colleague of Perls’s wife, Lore “Laura” (Posner) Perls. The intellectually acquisitive Goodman taught Laura virtually everything that he had learned in his therapy with Lowen. Goodman, who voraciously read the writings of both Freud and Reich, persuaded Laura to import into gestalt therapy both theory and practice from Reich’s orgonomy, albeit filtered through Lowen’s practice. (Reich, for his part, disavowed Lowen’s work, and, the one time that Goodman met Reich, the poet got nothing more from his hero than Reich’s plea that he “stop writing about me.”)

Obviously the name of gestalt therapy suggests a connection with Gestalt psychology. Both Fritz and Laura Perls were junior colleagues of the psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, who was influenced by the more purely academic Gestalt theory of Max Wertheimer, who was, in turn, one of three or so proponents of the Gestalt approach to understanding how the human mind processes visual and auditory information. Goldstein developed this idea into the "organismic" notion that the entire range of perception including proprioception as well as internal mental activity can be understood and analyzed in terms of Gestalten or “wholes.” Laura Perls also had worked directly with Wertheimer, and it turns out that her understanding of Gestalt psychology as approach to research psychology that is alien to psychotherapy led her to resist her husband’s decision to call his therapeutic innovation “gestalt therapy.” (German nouns are always capitalized, but I am putting “gestalt therapy” in all lower case because it has become an English language term.)

It should be noted that Kurt Goldstein shared a strong affinity for existentialist philosophy with Fritz Perls, and the two, seemingly independently, later referred to themselves as existentialist therapists.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Martial Arts Instruction Videos Reviewed

I recently ordered and received Kung Fu Grandmaster John C. Y. Tsai’s video tapes, “How to Protect Yourself” and “How to Protect Yourself Against Weapons.” These originally went for $99.95 back in the ’90s but I got each tape for a couple of bucks through Tsai (who pronounces it “tie,” presumably for the benefit of those English speakers who cannot handle pronouncing “ts” at the beginning of a word even though we miraculously manage to pronounce it at the ends of words like “puts”) offers many useful notions and techniques but underplays the importance of footwork and hip work in the execution of many of the moves he demonstrates. This is unfortunate. You would benefit far more from these tapes if you had some idea about what is going on below Grandmaster Tsai’s waist where the frame of the camera conceals what the rest of his body is doing when he steps aside from an attacker’s thrust. That said, his basic ideas about self-defense in life-threatening situations seem sound.

First of all, learn not to think like a victim. This is, of course, easier stated than done, but Tsai has a plausible psychological gimmick to counter the impulse to curl up in a ball and await the inevitable. He suggests thinking of your loved ones, as if they were with you and also under threat from your assailant. I would add that if you have sufficient self-esteem, you might even realize that your loved ones would really miss you terribly if someone killed you. So, even though your spouse or parents or children or friends might not be there, thinking of them might motivate you to put yourself into what Tsai calls a “protective” as opposed to a “victim” mode.

The next consideration is that you must be willing to counterattack unhesitatingly and ruthlessly if you want to survive a life-threatening assault. The saying “He who hesitates is lost” applies to this situation. Tsai urges his audience to practice the moves he teaches so that your body learns to perform them unhesitatingly. (An old Roman military saying puts it this way: “Conduct your drills like bloodless battles, and your battles like bloody drills.”)

Tsai limits his instruction to a few moves because he does not want to bewilder the student with too many choices and have him or her hesitate because of too many possible responses to a given attack. There are two components to the techniques he teaches: 1) counterattacks using the hand or foot, and 2) vulnerable areas of the assailants body that can be easily and effectively targeted. Tsai does not advocate that his presumably out-of-condition audience should try to learn fancy techniques such as reverse-spiral flying kicks. Rather, he recommends a finger or a knuckle to the eye, the edge of the hand to the throat, low kicks to the knee caps, and stepping on toes or the instep (especially effective with a woman’s high heel). The most vulnerable targets on the assailant’s body include the eyes, neck, throat and knee areas. About kicking somebody in the knee cap, Tsai notes humorously, “When somebody is bigger than me, and when I kick right, then he probably be shorter than I am.”

For the hand thrusts to the eyes and throat, Tsai advocates that you train yourself by putting your arm through paper targets. The idea is to learn to follow through so that you use your hand against your assailant’s body with enough force to cause damage by penetrating the surface. Psychologically, this is difficult for most human beings because it doesn’t sit well with the area of our brains that keep us from torturing puppies or gouging out another human being’s eyes. When faced with an opponent in whom that part of the brain is inoperative, however, it may be necessary to override your inhibitions in order to defend yourself. Paradoxically, if my life were threatened, I might have less compunction about delivering a penetrating blow to the throat than to the eyes, even though that could actually be more deadly than an eye gouge. Tsai even teaches a special technique called the eagle claw, which, when applied to the throat could bring about death very quickly. This is a sobering aspect of Tsai’s videos: the techniques he teaches on these tapes can kill, in some cases instantly. He does not teach these things with the intention of making killers better at killing, but with the expectation that his video student is a normal human being who might one day face a life-threatening attack, and Tsai hopes to prepare him or her to stay alive.

Advanced martial arts training takes years to perfect, and many quickie self-defense courses uselessly teach you to block blows, merely delaying your attacker. Such minimal defense could get you killed in a real, life-threatening situation. As Tsai notes in the “Against Weapons” video, you should not use your arm to block a knife attack because you will only end up getting your arm cut open. The best defense is an offense. Far better to attack a vulnerable area immediately and disable or even kill a knife-wielding assailant as quickly as possible. (At one point, Tsai mentions an easy way to stop an attacker using an ordinary pen—yes, it can literally be mightier than the sword.) The aim is to prepare you for fast and dirty ways of staying alive if the worst should happen.

Tsai’s Chinese accent does get in the way sometimes, and I found myself wishing that there were subtitles, but if you watch these tapes over and over—as you should if you want to get anything out of them—eventually you will understand almost everything he says. Although a little more attention to rudimentary footwork would have been in order, Tsai’s videos each deserve a B+.

* * *

You might understand the importance of hip and footwork better if you were to see the few tapes that I have from “Human Weapon,” the cable TV series from a few years back. It was a reality/documentary-type program about two young men who travel the world studying martial arts in different countries. It is not to be confused with a less edifying copycat show, “Fight Quest,” which focused, as its title suggests, on its pair of young men getting into fights in different countries and often getting hurt without teaching them or the audience very much of anything. Instructive comparison episodes for these two series are the ones that each did on Krav Maga (Hebrew for “close combat”), the Israeli Defense Force’s official martial art. “Fight Quest” does provide a brief scene of Israeli soldiers practicing the use of an empty firearm as a club, but this constitutes a negligible addition to the superior information provided by “Human Weapon.” “Human Weapon” went into Krav Maga’s history (invented by a man whose father had introduced jujitsu to Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago), philosophy (similar to Grandmaster Tsai’s but for advanced combatants), and physics (including hip and footwork). Meanwhile, the installment of “Fight Quest” left you wondering what, if anything, set Krav Maga apart from any other martial art. That’s an A for “Human Weapon” and a C- for “Fight Quest.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Constitution and the Census

I got my warning from the U.S. Census. “Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may receive its fair share.”

That’s slightly less insulting than the Census Bureau’s radio spots that tell us that we won’t even know how many traffic lights or teachers our community needs unless the federal government tells us. (See my post for February 24.)

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution calls for a census (“Enumeration”) only for the purpose of determining how many representatives each state should have in the House of Representatives. The number of representatives is determined by the population of each state. No other purpose for the decennial census was contemplated by the Founders. It is a good question as to when any other purpose arose, but certainly the number and reach of these other purposes has increased in the past one hundred years.