February 13, 2017

Under the Blade 2017

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Happy New Year! 

Is it too late to say this? Perhaps. I’ve been hard at work on the new book, so I haven’t had much time. But the draft is in to the editor now, so I can take a break from writing that to write this. 

2016 was a great year for the dojo! We got new students, new digs, had great events, including our 17th annual Gasshuku with a record turnout!  And we went back to Japan with a crew in tow! Hell of a time. The best part of the trip was our four new Godans! Great stuff. 

2017 is shaping up nicely. The biggest news is the impending book. It looks like by the end of this year, you’ll be able to walk into your local bookstore and pick up a copy. I don’t have all the details yet—I can’t even release the title—as there’s still a lot of work to be done. Wish me luck. 

Theme for 2017

Last year’s training theme had to do with basics from the outside inward. This included all the principles of positioning, leverage, and initiative and how we could look at them through the lens of fundamental movements. This year, the theme remains, only we’ll be seeking the basics from the inside out. This will still include study of the principles, but from the standpoint of alignment, posture, and kamae. 

In our theme for internal basics, I’d also like to make room for some internal ethics. I’d like to offer a starting place for our ethical concerns that run tandem with our physical training – you can’t have one without the other and think yourself successful at either. 

My thoughts here for a basic ethic in 2017 is be honorable.  

Subjective Subjects

It is an immeasurably polarized time. I wish I could say it’s all due to a nasty Star Wars vs Star Trek debate America had with itself after it got drunk and stayed up too late, but folks paying attention know that isn’t true. It’s far more consequential than that.

Growing up, I can’t remember when our politics and values were so divided. The reason for the division is simple: subjectivity is overwhelming universal values. That’s it. If you don’t know what “subjectivity” is, don’t fret, actually you do, I’m just being fancy. 

It’s basically this: folks are placing their politics above their ethics

Politics are completely subjective, like a lunch you order on a Thursday. Who you voted for, if you voted at all, is your business and not up for debate. Do citizens have a duty to vote? Nope. None at all. And that’s a good thing in a country that ranks your liberty alongside your pursuit of happiness. That’s the beauty of subjectivity – caring only as much as you want to care. 

But ethics are not subjective, they’re objective - no one gets by without them. Literally everything you say and do, how you say and do it, and who it all affects is manifest in everyone’s life. How you treat yourself and others is a direct result of you as MVP of your ethical game. And if you’re alive, you’re playing that game with the rest of us, whether you like it or not.   

America’s Congressional votes over the last 50 years is a telling reminder that this subjective vs objective game is nothing new, it’s been played for years. The Washington Post published visual diagrams of the votes from 1949 through today and they’re stunning. Flipping through them quickly gives the appearance of mitosis cell division, when one whole becomes two distinct halves of red and blue.

Part of the problem is we all used to believe in the big stuff that bound us and squabbled over the details. We believed that despite its faults, America was fundamentally good, and its founding values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of your own happiness, held the potential for prosperity no matter who you were. 

But those beliefs are now too often challenged when so many make their mark by directly undermining that cultural narrative, whether that’s through extreme examples of collectivism or individualism. And unfortunately, this subjectivity is rearing itself all over the damn place like a friend who needed a place to crash for a few days and now its four months later.

Our media, social and otherwise, is now delivered to us as crafted outrage, like any potter shapes clay. Our righteousness is stoked from being told that justice is upside down in the world. But the world is now so interconnected we’re actually over-connected, as everyone is in everyone else’s business, which seems to beg our opinion about what everyone else is doing.

Unfashionable actions taken by regular folks are now caught on video to explode around the world and ruin lives. A lesson learned can no longer be a personal experience – it’s the end of you. Now that online clicks have been monetized, the world becomes a stage for documenting and inciting indignation and folks can literally strike it rich off the golden veins of others’ misery.

Contrarian protest is now a goddamn sacrament, even when its aims are aimless or contradictory, like those squelching free speech to protect free speech. To listen to some of these folks explain themselves comes off like kids explaining stuff in their patented un-punctuated, rambling incoherence. I can barely gather from them that if you’re not protesting then you don’t #care, and if you don’t #care then you #don’tmatter. Or something.

There is a palpable sense that our private lives are under siege, especially when what we intimately believe is smugly proclaimed to be unpopular and old-fashioned by nihilists, who have proudly proclaimed to have given up unpopular and old-fashioned beliefs like good and bad, and right and wrong. 

Perhaps the only thing to be done is abandon social media entirely, leaving loudmouths loudmouthing to empty seats. Surely this will become more popular as outrage tires us physically, drains us psychically, and leaves us spiritually hollow. 

Ethics Before Politics

On Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, just days after two armed, militant, and murderous Islamists were killed by Sheriffs when they stormed a “Draw the Prophet Mohammed” contest in Texas, the comedian said one of the few things that I have ever agreed with him on: 

It is not okay to shoot other people because you are offended by what they draw. Even if they drew it to offend you. No shooting of them. Never okay … You cannot shoot people because you don’t share their opinions. You cannot shoot people even if they offend you … Not even if those people specifically set out to provoke you. Responding to cartoons, or words, or ideas with violence is wrong … The violence just perpetuates the fear.

I especially liked his opener, “I can’t believe we have to reiterate this.” Indeed. I can’t believe it either. But here we are.

To this end, if you’re someone who’s easily offended by what others have to say politically, to the point where you take physical action to stop them from saying it, like protesting to destroy people or property, you are placing politics above ethics – you’re placing your feelings above the lives of others.

It’s a shitty thing to do and indicates that you are a lousy person, who clearly doesn’t get it. My advice is to cut it out before someone, bigger and stronger than you, places their ethic above your politic.

Stop placing politics above ethics. Here’s how: 

1.       Be honest. 
2.       Seek truth. 
3.       Clarify and Resolve
4.       Hold yourself accountable. 
5.       Stop dehumanizing.

Be Honest: Stop ignoring what is obviously the case, and worse, stop lying to others about it. Willful ignorance and worse, intellectual dishonesty, turn you into a fool or a fraud. Don’t be either.

Seek Truth: Once you decide to be honest, it becomes easier to seek truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle. Do you trust your side to be honest with you? You shouldn’t. Their talking points are scripted to keep you glued to them, which generally means keeping you outraged. In our dojo we have a saying, “When in doubt, make it harder.” If you’re a true believer in your agenda, because you think it better, righter, and truer, then you should challenge your agenda to make sure it really is. Listen to the best arguments from the other side. Do not trust your side to give the best of the other, be a big boy and go over there and hear and read it from them. It’s called making up your own damn mind and it’s a great habit. You may just learn something about yourself.

Clarify and Resolve: give your opinion only when and if it helps to clarify and resolve conflict. For some perspective on this, leave social media for a time – a day, a week, a month. You’ll be glad you did and be surprised upon return with the vitriol after cutting it from your diet. Then, if piping up in conversation, online or in real life, helps clarify a perspective or point, great. Pipe away. But if you’re someone who just spits gas on a garbage fire because you like the taste of gas and the smell of burning garbage, because you’re a garbage troll who lives under a bridge in a dump full of garbage with plenty of gas, you should quit training because you’re a shitty person and shitty people don’t deserve to train. 

Hold Yourself Accountable: if you’ve been consistently lied to by some media outlet, you should stop listening to them. If you’ve made things worse by your words, or your actions, you should apologize and then think twice, thrice, or frice, if you plan on doing it again. If you take part in a peaceful protest and it gets un-peaceful and blocks traffic to illegally detain people, or devolves into a riot, you should leave. You should not support financially or morally threats of violence, which is exactly what illegally detaining people implies, or any violence whatever against property or people, even if you think you’re really, really right. You aren’t. Cops have enough to deal with in a peaceful protest, let alone an un-peaceful one. And with you sticking around Instrgramming, you are endangering their lives because they have no idea if you mean them harm or not, so you become just one more element in a host of others elements they have to account for to protect themselves and others. Stop putting your politics above your ethics because this is exactly what you believe others are doing to you. Want to make the world a better place today? Start with yourself. 

Stop Dehumanizing: this is easily first, but I thought I’d end on it. Stop demonizing the other side. Stop calling them evil. Stop calling them sub-human. Stop calling them Nazis, racists, or fascists if they are clearly not those things and here’s a hint: most of the time they are not. They are folks, just like you, who are impassioned about what they believe, even if you think that what they believe is fundamentally flawed (it may be). Our emotions can get the best of us, though the best of us do not let their emotions do that – and you shouldn’t either.

The Ties That Bind Us

Recently, I was counseling a friend, troubled because he felt some of his students were not clear thinking, holding beliefs and propagating values that he felt were antithetical to training itself. I reminded him to not be so sincere. No teacher should endeavor to make certain that every student sees the world like they do. Or that everyone is as comprehensive in their views as we might believe we are. Good people regularly live with contradictions in their beliefs. But this isn’t something we should be overly concerned about and there’s a good reason why: as martial artists we share far more together than we may think we do.

To some extent he was on to something because martial training takes certain things for granted. For instance: life has value and meaning. And that value and meaning is unequivocal - it is the normative source of all the concerns we might have in navigating the world, including decisions regarding morals and ethics. And when that compass needle deviates, even one degree, from that magnetic North, everything gets fucked up and confusing. All people who train and endeavor to train must understand at least on some basic level that life is worth protecting. If they did not think this, why train physically to protect it? 

The concern here is that there is no shortage of subjectivity because when these relative concerns supersede universal ones we’re left with contradictions that stoke conflict.

Take freedom and equality - two mutually exclusive concepts that protect each other, as our founders discovered. Equality means our lives are of equal value and demand and deserve respect. This universal value means no one has the right to take advantage, harm, or kill us for their own subjective beliefs, like someone who tramples you to get their lunch order in first. Freedom is the liberty to pursue whichever subjective beliefs, like lunch orders or politics, we find valuable, provided they do not violate our equality. These concepts complement each other and make America, America, and not North Korea. They share a nice balance because their purpose is contingent upon such balance.  

But re-define equality from life, to "outcome," a subjective economic concern in which everyone must receive the same results, no matter what they want, who they want it from, or what values they conflict with, we wind up out of balance and lose our freedom. Re-define equality from an objective to a subjective value and it is no longer compatible with freedom. It causes conflict because economically defined equality infringes on liberty - folks cannot side with their values when they conflict with other people’s values. 

If you think a devout Christian should be coerced by force of law to disregard their beliefs to take part in events antithetical to their value system, I hope you’re consistent enough to agree that a devout atheist, or a devout humanist, or a devout Muslim should be coerced by that same law to take part in events that are antithetical to their beliefs. Equality of outcome means uniform results, which means tossing that First Amendment right to free association (or dis-association) because our freedom to value and believe as we see fit is now outlawed.  

Without equality defined objectively, we cannot enjoy our subjective freedom. And when a state sponsored entity compels us through force to do something antithetical to our values—values that are not in violation of our equality—then we are being taken advantage of. And if we are being taken advantage of, we are not being treated as equal human beings. This is where justice is flipped on its head to serve the “just-us” subjectivists.

Honor the Honorable

Actual justice, applied virtuously and impartially, begets the righteousness that aspires toward a moral resolution because it preserves the universal values for all involved, not just the few under conflict. When Republican president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, legally freeing slaves held in the Confederate states at the height of America’s Civil War, it was a long overdue act of righteous justice precisely because it reaffirmed dignity for their lives—and dignity for life itself—overruling any slave’s institutionalized dehumanizing station, one that had for generations been societally established as moral and just. 

Recognition of worth for the innocents/innocence among us, resolves any question of worth for all of us. In this way authentic justice stands in direct opposition to subjectivity and its claims to morality, which only drains justice of its force.  

The voracious nature of human need for morality, equity, and righteousness, exposed by our miserable misfires at them, doubles down on the importance for martial artists, warriors, and protectors, and anyone who deals with conflict, to know natural justice as a virtue, so as to best understand the essence of the moral-physical philosophies that both guide and bind us. 

All the questions we might have about whether people are equal to each other, whether we should treat each other fairly, how we should understand each other, come down to the warrant of our argument – does it respect life? If so, then we can articulate the right reasons, enact the right policies, invoke the right rights, value the right morals, and act on the right ethics, all because we’re dialed in to true justice. Everything hinges on it. 

The martial way is simply a physical extension of our Natural Law, that sense that life ought to be protected. No matter where you stand politically, or what your beliefs are, if you embrace this “protector ethic,” then you embrace the idea that your life is worth protecting, and if it’s worth protecting, it’s worth defending physically, if necessary. 

So no matter how far you believe a person with the opposite set of beliefs or politics stands from you, if you both agree on the protector ethic, then you are not as far away from them, or they from you, as you might think. 

Celebrate this. Revel in it - universals always dispel the small-minded. We can squabble over the details, but the big stuff that binds us should always come first. Strengthen your ties to others by treating them by what you know is the truth.

When we recognize this, we are better able to feel where honor comes from. Constancy in acting upon this makes one honorable. 

Here’s to a prosperous 2017!

~James 

July 17, 2016

A Tomato in Fruit Salad?

This piece is in regards to a Facebook post of mine that this gentleman responded to. His response is highlighted here, and mine below. The video we are touching on can be found here:
https://www.facebook.com/james.morganelli.7/posts/10154349514554771 

This is reenactment. I do not believe there are many, if not all bujinkan practioners, who wouldn't walk away from an actual warrior training session in the SCA, bruised and shaking their heads. European martial arts are alive and well, through the SCA, the difference is, these warriors put their martial skills to the test on a regular basis. There is also something wrong with them, they like to get hit with 1 1/4" rattan, once you get hit by it a couple of times, you become desensitized to confrontation. Its funny you posted this. I was just thinking, I need to take the martial skills I've learned in the bujinkan and put them to the test in the SCA. I can think of no better way to test the legitimacy of what I've learned in the bujinkan, but I'm scared to be truthful. Thes guys are savages, when it comes to trying to one up them with martial skills learned somewhere else! I have no doubt, I would leave bruised and bleeding, for some time. And, I'm gettin' old, I bruise and bleed to easy. Hope you are well James. Thanks for the article, if anything else, it provoked a lingering thought in me!


Hi Sean,

Thanks for your thoughts. 

I had actually meant to post this in a private group and must have hit one button over another and here we are - I was tired last night. I don't normally post my thoughts publicly – there’s too much that is lost in translation making it difficult to provide and gain clarity on social media. Most of the time, it seems to me, everybody simply winds up more confused and outraged because we’re too busy making sure we’re heard, instead of wondering if posts or responses are actually merited in the first place, and if they are, thoughtfully so. If everybody really cared about the nature of what they wrote, there’d be a lot less of it.

Take this post, for instance. I didn’t mean for it to be public. I normally have discussions only with people that I know and train with regularly. In doing so, it changes the manner and gravity of one’s thinking and responses for the better, because I never post anything I would not be willing to say face-to-face or stand up for after the fact. Since I don’t know you, train with you regularly, or have any understanding of your relative ability and experience, I’m simply going to post my thoughts and leave it at that.

Nowadays (my editor hates when I use this word, but I’ll use it anyway because it really is true), in our world, and our nation at the moment, but especially in martial arts, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify wisdom from knowledge. In other words, people confuse the one for the other – they confuse the knowing of something for the wisdom it may impart, as if mere existence is the only evidence necessary for its efficacy. This is to suggest that all knowledge is wise, but is actually a devaluation of wisdom. Why this is happening is certainly attributable to the connectivity and speed with with we can know stuff, all kinds of stuff, which can lead to a superficial understanding of it.

However, as anyone who knows the difference between the fact that a tomato is technically a fruit and its actual usage as a food, they avoid placing it into a fruit salad. In the devaluing of wisdom, today’s thinking would have us throw Heirloom tomatoes into a bowel with the various berries, pineapple, oranges, and slices of kiwi because of “knowing” it is a fruit. History and experience (and taste) notwithstanding.

We arrive at wisdom in the martial way when we can apply knowledge, whatever it may be, ethically. That’s how we know the difference. If you are really serious in training the martial way, and for the reasons I suspect you train it, you have to be honest about the answer to this question: are you training techniques to protect and defend life or are training a life to protect and defend techniques? In other words, are you training as a means to an end - the survival/sustainment of life - or as an end in itself - to be “good” at “martial arts”? Context matters. One is not the other. One is wise. The other is knowledgeable. And much like we might marvel at the size of the rising moon and its seeming proximity, the difference between these points is so vast it is often overlooked.

I watched this clip and thought it was interesting and funny. You seem to think it is a manner to best test martial skills. Which skills exactly, I can’t imagine. It’s a game. A roughhousing one played on a field that uses rattan with a crazy amount of flex, padded swords, and plastic armor. Under those conditions, none of that stuff moves or is used in any manner even remotely close to what it is intended to model. But it has to be that way because it’s a game – if any of those tools were even tenuously accurate, people would die.

If you buy into the notion that rough training here equals best training practices, then carry it to its logical conclusion. But crash-up derby does not provide the best training to test one’s defensive driving skills for everyday life any more than slicing open an artery best tests the dexterity of one’s medical and tourniquet skills under stress. There’s a martial arts group that dedicates a good portion of their training time to kicking each other in the nuts, to, you know, toughen them up, or something. Seems backward to me. Perhaps that time would be better spent habit-forming the avoidance of such an attack. And why? Because when you sack your sack, lump your junk, and Bronson your Johnson, it has nothing to do with best practices intended to acclimate and habituate one to viable and sustainable outcomes in life and death conflict. It’s just weird.

There are folks who think that BJJ is the best way to test groundfighting, Judo the best way to test throwing, and Kendo the best way to test swordfighting. But to what end? For viability in the martial way to protect and defend life (an imminently ethical concern), I disagree on all counts. Again, knowledge itself is not wisdom.

BJJ is best for tournament groundfighting, Judo best for tournament throwing, and Kendo best for tournament Kendo because the manner of their training habituates them to perceive and utilize their techniques under those ideal, tournament, conditions. That’s because Judoka don’t have to worry about getting stabbed by a used needle from a methhead in regular training, BJJitsuka don’t have to worry about multiple attackers beating their skull in with a bat in regular training, and Kendoka don’t have to worry about their sword bending or breaking when they clash in regular training. If they did, if every iteration of their training concerned these aspects, if the very notion of their training was embedded and infused with such possibilities, their training as we know it today could not be their training because the idealism with which it is carried out cannot exist in a world with methheads and their needles, multiple opponents and their bats, and swords that bend and break on impact.

None of their training would exist, because none if it could exist under the context of surviving and sustaining, protecting and defending life. It only ever exists under idyllic conditions - variable threats of the world be damned. Imagine a baseball player training to hit a fast pitch, and then trying to do the same while concerning himself with the potentiality that the umpire, or the catcher, or both will set upon him with stabbing weapons until he dies. If that possibility were an actual part of baseball proper, you wouldn’t see baseball anymore, as it would morph into a life-protecting endeavor completely different from the original.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking down any of these arts. I have great respect for them and the level of skill and athleticism they require. All these arts and even the gamesmanship above can be fun and exciting and provide worthwhile time spent with likeminded others for a plethora of good reasons. But one of those reasons is not reliance upon them for the betterment of warrior arts - the context is different. And when we assume the context is the same, because some of the techniques are, we wind up confused. We wind up with a bunch of shit. There’s a reason Michael Jordan didn’t cut it as a baseball player after he retired from basketball. As wise as he was in the one case, he was not equally wise in the other. Why not? Because the ball playing was from a completely different context.

If the touchstone of the folks in the clip was truly survival/sustainment, then the manner of usage would not be what it is. As it is, human crash-up derby is not more sound, or thorough, or rigorous for viable martial concerns, it is less so, because of the context: it’s an idealistic game, and the game dictates the manner of its usage, just like the arts above. It’s not about defending your life or the lives of others, it’s about playing the game. As such, it is not “more real,” or “realistic” because it is rougher. In fact, I would argue there is and can be no such training that is “realistic” at all. None. It does not exist, and for a simple reason: it’s contradictory.

For something to actually be of training use, it must be amenable to the human mind – it has to “make sense” or else no one can try or accomplish it. But the reality of the world and the capricious and variable means by which the violent bring violence has usually little to do with how understandable it is to us, with how much it “makes sense” to us. In fact, psychologically, interpersonal violence often confounds us, which is why most people want no part of it. If it did make sense, training would be a hell of a lot easier than it is. But in the world as it actually is, not the one we want or wish for, the only thing realistic is reality. Only real is real. Period. All our training, everyone’s training, is a well-crafted fiction, and must be for us to gain any understanding of extemporaneous viable change under variable conditions. That’s a lot to take in because training to be competent and ethically so, is really, really hard.

If you want to be better at what you do, try stripping your training down to its component parts: put a wooden knife in the hand of a partner and have them come after you. If you can resist and escape, or at higher levels confront and subdue them, you’re onto something. Techniques must then “fit” into the intervals necessary for any of these opportune moments to be viable. Better yet, have that partner go after someone else with the knife and intervene and defend them from the attack. There is no better means to understand and “test” martial ethics and its tactics than to provide for the safety and security of another.

Context matters. It calibrates, directs, and helps us navigate untenable waters and thus permeates martial endeavor. And it matters so much, it is such an enormous part of what we do and how we are able to do it, that we often overlook it without thinking twice. Like any necessary aspect of our daily existence, like stability before an earthquake, or breathable air, we only appreciate it after it’s become short in supply.

Best to you, and best to you in your training.

James