March 26, 2015

The Role We Embrace

Lately, I've seen a bunch of training videos making rounds on social media that share a similar aspect: they each try to "out thug, the thug." They're mostly "Combatives" training where some brutal "attack" is met by an even more brutal "defense" that lays out the opponent and has plenty of spitting and screaming to boot. It all reminds me of the Mike Myers-coined Scottish martial art, "Fa-Que!" that's "Mostly just head butting and then kicking people when they're on the ground."

Some time ago we had a guy stop by for training, he was energetic, but erratic, taking an “all or nothing” approach – either full out or no out. I had to take him aside to say we're trying to find some subtle things in training, and we should be looking to heighten our sensitivity to various openings and vulnerabilities. Since he was engaging drillwork as a stress-filled scenario he was missing a large measure of it. But I guess that's what he really wanted because he never came back.

Combatives was formulated around World War II to cover the variety of hand-to-hand fighting methodologies for both the mindset and physicality to engage and defeat enemies during mission operations. It's appropriate training for military and law enforcement agents, whose missions and jobs often deal with confronting and subduing enemy and criminal elements.

However, when civilians train Combatives they invariably adopt its inherent context, just like one does with any martial art. Train Judo, or MMA Jujutsu, and you adopt the context of competition, because that's the framework of how the techniques have been developed, taught, learned, habituated, and executed. No one ever expects some free-for-all melee or a knife to be pulled in a Judo or MMA match and that's how it's understood and trained. With Combatives, the context is confrontation, where participants train to confront and overcome aggressors.

But unlike the military and law enforcement, civilians are not employed, duly authorized, or obligated to withstand and overcome human conflict and its violence and thus makes Combatives a poor fit. Civilians must be prepared to protect and secure themselves and others with a broader range of options than those afforded by the narrow scope of Combatives, such as when personal escape or extraction of loved ones is required under dangerous conditions, or resistance from aggressors is necessary in violent scenarios. I am not saying Combatives training can't or doesn't teach such options, I'm saying its inherent confrontational context shapes the narrative of how it's understood and applied under conditions.

Be careful adopting a confontational "kill or be killed" approach, and training to dispatch opponents in the most aggressive, fast, and brutal ways. It's fine if one is a commando, but I suspect most folks training civilian Combatives are not commandos, they are "Call of Duty" commandos, who just think the training is really cool. But treating every conflict like an ambush that must itself be re-ambushed is a prime way to get you or train others to get themselves into even more trouble.

We're only ever as mighty as our next opponent, not because we're some Prius-driving namby with a well worn "☪☮e✡☥☯✝" sticker, but because chances are we'll actually be at some disadvantage, be it we're weaker than our opponents, like most women, or injured, or surprised. And then Popeye-ing open that can of spinach so we can "thug" others, who are in the process of "thugging" us, gets right messy. Keeping training too "essential" can get out of hand when we strip away the worthwhile character-building stuff that ought not be thrown out. So if every answer to every conflict is "Fa-Que!" and a head butt, you might want to reassess your training.    

I suppose the Combater will say, "Hey, violence of action trumps technique." Yes, it sure as hell does. You can drop a bomb on an entire village just to kill one sniper. The strategy never fails, that is, provided you have a really big bomb and the stomach to drop it, no matter the collateral damage. And that's the issue here: if to overcome hard, fast, and aggressive violence of action, we ourselves are forced to action that is even harder, faster, and aggressively violent, we're on a slippery slope.

The real problem with "out thugging the thug" is not its working, it's that it isn't worth working. To "out thug" we have to habituate our behavior, train to act "thuggish" and become that which we despise. No thanks. When everyone is viewed as a potential enemy, everyone gets treated as a potential enemy, and you can include friends and loved ones in that shit show. Ya know, Marvel fans don't condemn Bruce Banner for not perpetually living life as the unstoppable Hulk because we recognize life's not worth living as a perpetually paranoid beast, who trusts no one.

We are not training simply to sharpen up a few skills or perform a bunch of formulistic techniques - it is immature to think so. No, we are training for far more important reasons: to make decisions. And to do so, we have to exhibit judgment - moral and ethical judgment - if we intend on making the right decisions.  

No easy feat, since to do so involves changing the person we are and living up to the sense of internal self-worth we all hold deeply. The martial way gives us the opportunity to do so, but it's up to us to authorize oneself as a protector, a defender, a guardian of self, others, all others, as the best way to accomplish this.

March 19, 2015

You Only (Value Life) Twice

A letter in response to "The Protector Ethic":


Interesting as always. 

After a 20+ year career in the military where most of my fellow soldiers fall into the guardian type I do realize that even those good men can be manipulated into fighting any enemy if the justification is there. Many times in our history the propaganda demonized the enemy in order to make it easier for young men to kill them. 

In many of the third world counties life is cheap. In some babies are killed because they are of the wrong sex. It is sometimes the Sparta justification where a weak baby is discarded for a strong baby. This justification has happened and probably will continue to happen until the end of time. The issue of abortion splits the population in half. Even those against it change their minds in cases of rape or incest. 

I would like to think that everyone values life, but I think there are intrinsic values each personality holds that some value more important than life. How many choose death versus living a lifetime oppressed, diseased or without their love?

I miss your insightful conversations. I look forward to coming back to class once my work and traveling calms down.

My thoughts:

Thanks for your thoughts and insight. Always interesting.

The point I am trying to make with the "protector ethic" is to recognize a universal value in which every human being feels a sense of guardianship toward their own or the life of someone else. In that universality lies the Natural Law - it is commonly shared by all humans, and "natural" because it does not require special training to bring it out.

A universal value is recognized as universal, not when everyone values it the exact same way, but when all people partake in the value in some way. In this case, all people do not have to value all life, but only some life (self or others) to participate in the “valuing” of life at all. And they do – they either value their own life, or someone else’s, perhaps even their group or tribe. But where this comes from is, philosophically, a little more complex.

A recent New York Times article made the case that from grade school children are being exposed to a mode of thinking that is both confusing and wrong - that there are no moral facts, no such thing as moral truth, only facts that can be scientifically proven or its contradiction, personal opinion.  

Now, I often write about the "value of life" as being a motivational and instinctual fact, to the extent that no one can deny its existence or participation. And to be sure, the value of life involves two distinct aspects, the physical - life itself - with the meta-physical in orbit around it. The meta-physical would be all that we consider worthwhile in life, including the sense of "ought-ness" and obligation referenced within values, morals, ethics, justice, and rights.

The two are so closely aligned, like the moon orbits the earth, it is my opinion they should not be considered mutually exclusive. But what is clear, is that the meta-physical is only important because life is vital to us. The moon imparts an influence upon the earth, but without the earth to orbit, why would that influence matter? The truth here is simple: without life to influence, the meta-physical aspects humanity considers worthwhile do not matter. And in terms of morality, that notion can be a pill too bitter to swallow for some, for it opens the door to moral fact and how we can know it.

Is there any value or moral or ethic or justice or right worth the taking of innocent human life? That is the operative question. It is not to ask whether people will take innocent life - obviously they will and do for all kinds of reasons. This is to ask for a value judgement - whether they ought to. Under the law, if a person kills an innocent for their own reasons, we call it "murder," even if they believe those reasons are moral, ethical, just, or their "right."

Now, if there is any meta-physic worth killing innocent life for, it could be used to refute the priority of the value of life as the standard of value judgments. But if not, it represents a powerful argument against moral relativism, since any rebuttal must make the claim that life is a relative value - worthwhile only to some, but not all - and thus forfeits life as the standard to whatever arbitrary value notion one has faith in to create such gravitas.

But therein lies the rub of contradiction - no meta-physical value notion exists that is not morally calibrated unless by humanity's protection of respect for "life itself." To make their case, moral relativists will at some point have to argue for the "moral-ness" of murdering innocent human life.

Though there are heinous acts around the world (and always will be), and from culture to culture disparities arise as to their ethical behavior toward life itself, no one, even in those seemingly "life is cheap" cultures, would deny life has value, and must be valued to some degree. For if it were not, those societies and cultures would threaten collapse. In fact, we see failed states occur – take Africa – when the value of life is not respected, which is to say innocents are murdered because the meta-physical conceptions society is based upon (values, morals, ethics, justice, rights) have been twisted to serve at the pleasure of relative, arbitrary concerns, like any dictator or warlord employs them.

Because the value of life balances our respect for physical life with the demands for meta-physical value judgments, it also becomes the point of debate with the theory. As you stated, some folks respect life to differing degrees, although no one, even within the most contentious political, religious, or social debates, would deny that life itself has value and must be valued. If they did we could know with moral certainty that they're wrong. For whereas some can argue exactly how much influence the moon may impart upon the earth (claims of "degree"), no one in their right mind would argue the earth orbits the moon. It does not, it can not without upending the laws of celestial governance. And this is exactly how we ought to view meta-physical, relative concerns superseding life-sustaining universal ones - the upending of our Natural Laws.

Now some will claim this is all too problematic, for if life itself is to be the ultimate moral standard, we're looking at something terribly impractical as we’ll have to outlaw driving and processed foods, since they endanger life far too much, as well as any conception of “just war” or even self-defense since there will always be the chance of an enemy’s life being taken. 

But the rule to obtain moral truth is this: protect respect for the value of life and don't disrespect life for relative concerns. Not exactly a revolutionary idea, except when you put it in context against the meta-physical values that many folks believe are the highest values of society. Go ahead and choose one: love, goodness, kindness, honor, freedom, liberty, liberalism, conservatism - whichever value you might choose as number one, its particular formulation can only be morally factual by not disrespecting life for relative values. This means in essence, that in order to qualify as moral, each meta-physical value must protect respect for the value of life. If it does not, or when it does not, then you most assuredly have something immoral. 

This is why thinking that any stand-alone meta-physical value is what civilized society ought to ultimately be aimed at and calibrated to, is to invite all manner of relative, subjective, and arbitrary valuation of said aspects that will inevitably supersede the sanctity and dignity of life itself, the innocent state of human "being."

The value of life unlocks and translates our contemporary debates by exposing our primal motives and inclinations. And our contextual conditions sheds light on its proportionality. Take the debate surrounding abortion, split along a continuum between those who believe unborn life is sacred and ought to be protected and those who believe in the right to choose abortion for any reason, at any time.

Let us imagine a hypothetical world where no children were being born due to some unknown cause – a kind of “Children of Men” reality – and after decades of no new births, a woman becomes pregnant after being raped. Can we see how adamant "choice" views might change toward her right to abort, even when conceived during the violence of rape? And in our contemporary world, would it be somehow antithetical to our collective sensibilities if a woman who was raped decided not to abort the child? Not at all. In fact, many would see it as an act of love and compassion. Others would obviously see it as merely flushing filth from the sanctity of their body. But even in cases when abortion is deemed necessary to protect the life of the mother, do we think it out of the question if that mother chose to accept the risk to her life in trying to give birth? What if it were her last chance to have a child and a family?

In these cases, protection of the value of life is the primal inclination and motive. It is this aspect that can be confusing for all involved, and, like you pointed out, also used immorally to dehumanize others to make them easier to kill. Without constant calibration to the touchstone of the value of life and its natural law, we can easily slip off course in our meta-physical value judgments. In fact, during the Nuremberg Trials in the aftermath of World War II, Nazi officers, who had committed acts of unspeakable horror, were to face a new concept, "crimes against humanity" (supposedly formulated by natural law theorists), since the events within concentration camps had been legal under German law. This recognition of the rights embodied within our own humanity (our life value) paved the way for the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

So when I mention or write of the "value of life" it is always to these meta-physical aspects of ought-ness and obligatory precept, pulled in by the gravity and priority of our visceral, physical living lives. Like life, love is also a dual concept in which we can experience both physical and meta-physical aspects: our emotional (meta-physical) values of care, responsibility, and devotion can compel us toward lifetime pair-bonding, while sex (love-making) can unify couples through procreative drives to create new life and families.

Life itself gives rise to meta-physical aspects we might value about it. And only meta-physical judgment and articulation can laud priority and dignity upon life to ensure its proliferation, protection, and respect. This is Natural Law, granting us a scale upon which to apportion a protector (survivor) ethic for our living lives as well as the common sense, life-sustaining reasoning to make meta-physical value judgments.

It is by (physical) protection of (meta-physical) respect for the dignity of life itself we can know those judgments to be the truth of moral fact.

Hope to see you soon,


March 12, 2015

10 Questions with James Morganelli

What is your martial arts biography?

I started training Karate at a community center in my hometown when I was nine. Once I went through the course, I joined a Tae Kwon Do/Hapkido school in the next town over and a wrestling group at another grammar school, as mine didn’t offer it.

In high school, I floated around different schools, went to seminars, and trained a lot on my own, including weight training. At 16, at the height of the “Ninja Boom” I traveled to Nebraska to train with Robert Bussey, marketing his own brand of “modern Ninjutsu.” I would continue long-distance training with him for the next several years. Bussey had limited training with Hatsumi Sensei and Nagato Sensei and had received rank from them. But by the time I was training with him, he had split from everything Bujinkan. 

Bussey was good at what he did, but I would come to realize it wasn’t what I was looking for – it was primarily based on speed and power. His leadership would later get the better of him - his organization, "Robert Bussey’s Warrior International," fractured when a score of his top folks deserted him. It was at that time, I and several others in a training group based in Madison, Wisconsin, left as well.

At 18, I was concurrently training in Genbukan Ninpo, with Michael Coleman in Milwaukee, who was ranked under Shoto Tanemura and his organization. At the time, I had no idea of the vast differences or history between the Genbukan and Bujinkan, and since Coleman was close to my university, I traveled there occasionally. Coleman also hosted the first seminar for Tanemura that I attended. Eventually, I grew weary training with Coleman, unhappy with his approach.

I was training a lot over those years – with my own group at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, the group in Madison, and working out on my own. I also attended regional seminars, with folks like Stephen Hayes and his wife, Rumiko, or the time Tadashi Yamashita - headmaster of Shorin Ryu Karate and well known as “Sakura” from the Chuck Norris movie “The Octagon” - taught at a small local dojo. 

Back then I was prone to extremes - brutal sparring, violent techniques, and tough-guy attitudes. We practiced dive rolling over the roof (yes the roof) of my friend’s hatchback, broke patio blocks with our hands, and sometimes did pretty stupid stuff. Looking back, it all seemed like good fun at the time, but it was pretty dangerous.

I eventually transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and would graduate from there. Unhappy with any of the martial arts on campus, I began my own group and called it “Sentokai,” or "combat society" (hey, at 21, it sounded cool). We would become about six people strong and larger from time to time. I had my share of close calls then too when other folks showed up to see how good I was, like the Russian Kung Fu expert who tried to take my head off. This was also the height of my weight training - at 150 lbs I was bench pressing 320 lbs.      

After graduation in 1995, I moved to Japan and stayed with family friends in Tokyo until I found a job. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting there (in truth, an impossible series of coincidences), I began training in the Bujinkan. A fellow by the name of Paul Nolasco turned out to be one of Hatsumi Sensei’s early foreign translators. Paul began my training and would eventually set me on the right path. I can’t thank him enough. I joined Nakadai Sensei’s group at first, but eventually found myself drawn to Nagato Sensei.

During my time in Japan, I was promoted quickly, jumping a few ranks. I even took the Godan test a scant two years after beginning training, when Nagato Sensei himself ordered me to. I took the test twice, once at Ayase when Hatsumi Sensei buried a shinai in my head with a resounding “NO!” and then a week later - a much harder test, that still gives me chills to this day.

I returned home and began teaching others reluctantly and eventually founded the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo, meeting many wonderful people over the years, including Mark Hodel, Jack Hoban, and my own students, many of whom have been with me now going on 15 years or more.

Training also led me to the love of my life. Hatsumi Sensei had studied Makko ho, a Japanese stretching art, and incorporated the four simple movements into training - we know them as the Ryutai Undo. When I heard about someone teaching Makko Ho here in Chicago, I couldn’t help but look them up. I would meet and fall for Tomoko Horikawa, who has brought love, strength, kindness, compassion, and grace into my life. 

Thanks training!

Why do you train?

Training offers me the best path I know of to become the kind of person I want to be.

What do you think is/are the core value(s) of martial arts training?

Through enduring training, we can learn to recognize humanity's guiding motivations and values and in turn gain the clarity to properly respect, protect, and defend ourselves and others. One of these ways is in the tempering of one's ego.

Can you explain your method of training and teaching?

As a Budoka, I've always made the distinction between practicing to eventually get good at some point in the future, and training to be good today. The reality is life is today, not when we decide we're ready for it. The time I share with my teachers and students is really borrowed time. In some cases, as with senior students, we've had a lot of time together and shared many memories. In other cases, like traveling to Japan, a seminar, or a student who never comes back, not so much. The world can change in a single moment, and the time we have together may be the only time we have. We should always be grateful for it and try to make the most of it.     

So, I've always allowed students to discover their training through context. Rather than have new students memorize and program themselves with "proper" form or procedure at the outset, which is really about preserving the art, I have them plug into the fundamental principles - positioning, leverage, and initiative - through effective movement to recognize opportunity and advantage, eventually refining their ability through alignment. 

I've found this method to be far more successful than being strict with form and loading them down with information, which normally is overwhelming since they have little clue as to how to organize it all to keep it coherent. It's like forcing proper form on a new golfer - now they can't play the game, let alone enjoy it. Besides, form is a tricky concept. To me, there is no form except that due to the context of the moment. Better to ask what "outcome" someone is trying to create. 

Martial arts are natural to humans. We've been dealing with their instincts and abilities for millennia and that's how I try to introduce them - from the inside out. My method is to get people's common sense "re-activated" to be useful, able, and "viable." That way, martial arts makes natural sense and they themselves can align their own form over time.

Is there a “secret” to training?

Yes - "Keep going!" Persevere. Endure. Show up and keep showing up. We learn nothing without the discipline to consistently put our feet on the mat. 

What would you recommend others do to improve their training?

Be honest, be viable, and be "free." 

Be honest with your partner - intentionally resist them, try to strike them or upset their position, and make sure they do the same for you. Honesty is the touchstone of the "survivor/protector ethic." It must be ever-present in the form of "conditions," otherwise there can be no truth to training. 

Be viable - utilize only the necessary amount of tactical space you require to keep you honest. This has to do with not trying to win or beat your opponent, but simply remaining un-defeated by them. 

And lastly, be "free" - intuitively imaginative in your movement. Rather than act as if you are training someone else's martial art, recognize that one’s training and ability is theirs to own - you have to move like you.  

What are the biggest differences today than when you first began training?

Confidence is high. Years ago, folks were incredibly cautious about training because there was not a lot of information about it or certainty about what to do with it. Now, everybody seems to be sure, even with vastly different approaches. It's a better state to be in, for sure, because it promotes innovation in thought and the means of training. The down side is when folks can't tell the difference between knowledge and wisdom. 

There will always be plenty of new students just looking for "enter-train-ment," but martial artists should always strive to dig deeper to offer training's intrinsic values and virtues to themselves and their students.  

What is the role a martial artist plays in our world?

A martial artist can be a needed and necessary leader in a single moment - the example that others ought to follow. But without the right training, we may have trouble recognizing that moment and it may just pass us by when it desperately needs us.

What one thing would you contribute to a “Book of Knowledge?”

Acknowledge the right to excel. 

Critical thinking, introspection, and one’s own sense of self direction in their training may just be the way forward.

Do you have any great hope for the future of martial training? 

The more we can offer training, the more people can have the opportunity to contribute to the well being of themselves and others. If we continue to refine ourselves and our approach, I firmly believe we really can make the world a better and safer place. 

March 5, 2015

The Protector Ethic

Here's a preview of the Preface from my latest book, "The Protector Ethic."

When scientists wished to record data from the stimulation of a frog, they used a bell to startle it into jumping. They would ring the bell and record how far the frog jumped only to then cut off one of the frog’s appendages. Snip!

Again they rang the bell, recorded how far the frog jumped, and cut off a leg; ring, record, cut – until the frog was nothing but a stump. When they rang the bell for what would be the last time and the frog did not jump, their conclusion was this: when all of a frog’s appendages are removed, it loses its hearing.

The moral of this story, told to my father in his first year of dental school, is this: do not disregard the obvious. And that’s essentially what this book is about – rediscovering and clarifying the obvious. The obvious is not the stuff we all agree on – nobody really agrees on everything anyway – but rather the stuff we know we cannot deny.

When I was actively chasing my master's degree I wrote a paper, one among many. It was tough, both long and difficult, in which I made the case certain values were “non-negotiable” and indiscriminate violation of them (such as truth telling, a prohibition on murder, and valuation for the lives of the young) would jeopardize the collapse of any valid society. In other words, these particular values were not simply “good,” or even “good ideas” they were crucial, fundamental, necessary – in short, obvious and for one reason alone: they are each predicated on protection of the value of life. When we don’t protect and defend the value of life, everything predicated upon it is in jeopardy. Who could deny that?

My professor, that’s who – he wasn’t buying. In fact, he wrote flippantly in the margin, “Why shouldn’t we let society collapse?” Such is the modern university experience – simple common sense is simply uncommon.

In fact, exploring “common sense” will be a large part of this book’s effort. We have often heard these words together, but do we actually know what it means? The phrase “common sense” is derived from the Latin sensus communis, (and this from the Greek koine aisthesis) the “common feelings of humanity.” Cambridge dictionary defines it, “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way.” If this is true, there must be certain “non-negotiable” presuppositions “to help us live” reasonably and safely within the “common feelings of humanity,” otherwise how could it be considered “common” or “sensible?”

It is not hard to conclude (provided one is not a university professor) values that protect, respect, and sustain life are not just worthy of valuation, but also necessary to value. In other words, they are moral, and “obviously” so. This cohering to the instincts and feelings of our human nature is why the “theory” of Natural Law - much like the “theory” of gravity - is the progenitor of our “common sense,” and forms the source of all that we accept as “good,” as well as outlines the disorientation we detest as “evil.”

Explaining all that can be quite a chore and in many cases paradoxical because, much like our pursuit of martial arts and its protector ethic, there is never just one thing that proves it - everything, in fact, proves it. My favorite quote from the English writer GK Chesterton:
A man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase … and the coals in the coal-scuttle … and pianos … and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
Such is the state between the pursuit of martial ability and the ethics of the protector - there is not one thing that proves the relationship, everything in fact proves it. And “everything” can sometimes be so obvious that we have great difficulty in recognizing and accepting it, so much so that in response to the question, “why do you train martial arts?” answers are as varied and incoherent as the multiplicity of training itself: “Why, there is that sword … and the culture of ancient lands … and discipline … and ninjas and stuff!” We see the minutiae, but miss the obvious bit about the relevance and priority of the survival ethic to protect the lives of self and others.

Training the protector ethic can sometimes be a confusing journey, but it can be made downright incomprehensible if we purposely obscure its path, due to our own penchant for hobby-ish distraction, or worse, outright refuse to believe the path actually exists due to some tacit buy-in of intellectual rubbish like “moral relativism,” which is basically like saying it’s okay not to do the right thing, because in our “nasty, brutish, and short” Hobbsian lives there is no knowing the “right” thing.

This book is out to demonstrate the obvious and show how we can see it, train to activate it, and sustain it to forge an actionable protector ethic for defense of self and others, leadership, and our own empowerment.