How the Spirit of Martial Arts Changed My Politics (for the Better)

Narrative Activism
by Scott Summers Jan 4, 2017

I grew up in Republican country. I’m not talking about shades of soft pink and rosy red conservatism. I’m talking hardline, elephant-stomping, GOP crimson. It’s an expected part of growing up in L.A. (Lower Alabama). I knew from a very early age — despite knowing nothing about politics — that Democrats were wrong about everything, and that liberals were held to the same degree of contempt as communists and labor unions in the view of practically everyone I knew.

That healthy, Republican lean has an almost genetic quality in the American South. My parents echoed what my grandparents taught them. This belief was further reinforced by friends from church and once-a-year visits from relatives in other states who confirmed that the liberals were ruining everything in their part of the world too. Any political discussion was a confirmation bias wrapped in an echo chamber, and until I was in my early twenties, I’d never heard another side to the story.

That other side came in the form of a questionnaire during a college survey course. In previous questionnaires, I’d always selected Republican-identified candidates and viewpoints clearly presented on the form. This one was different. This form asked, very simply, “Which political candidate said this statement?”

That was it. No marker, no identifier. Just a statement, and a multiple choice list of headline names. And I realized right there, as I read through the list, that I had no idea what I actually believed — much less, who said what. Some of the remarks seemed reasonable. Hell, some even seemed like a breath of fresh air, a wholly different ideology than the rhetoric that I’d been indoctrinated to during my childhood.

That innocuous, little survey set me off on a quest for more information about American politics. It challenged me to tune into my local broadcast and to learn more about the political system. I began rifling through basic party ideology and examining political candidates and representatives to better understand the tenants of a system as complicated as the politics of Southern gossip.

This political examination was interwoven with my first major foray into martial arts. I’d done standard after-school karate classes before, but this was something different. As much as sensei enjoyed sparring and reinforcing techniques, he stressed tradition and worked to interweave the combat arts with historical context.

Sensei often encouraged extracurricular reading. During my first year, I worked my way through The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War, The Art of Peace, Hagakure, and similar books while trying to better understand the philosophical nature of martial arts. Between these texts was a drive to learn more about American politics and, more importantly, to understand what truly resonated with me as a citizen with the right to vote.

Most warrior-philosophers speak heavily to the struggle for balance and inner peace. Sun Tzu notes that the supreme art of war is to “subdue your enemy without fighting”. In The Art of Peace, Ueshiba warns against competition and criticism while noting that working to improve oneself is a never-ending process. It’s revealing that so many who have seen war and conflict preach for peace, and that society holds them in such high regard while ignoring their message.

This push for balance and stability lead me closer to the center of the political spectrum but, for me, it was a move as long as a country mile. The rigidity instilled in family values and cultural tradition shattered in the face of social equality and a strong desire for separation of church and state. I still believe that some of those values are important, like fiscal conservatism, but my personal philosophy on how we should do it (less military spending, higher taxes, and greater wealth redistribution) all fly wildly in the face of the Republican ideal. The same is true for my ideas on social structure and the military.

America worships its military. You rarely hear anything regarding military activity without the word “hero” popping up somewhere nearby. Clearly, it’s a cornerstone of the political and industrial system, if you’re harkening back to Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” and the iron triangle. For someone who has spent years learning about the application and use of necessary force on a personal level, the final output of the system seems superfluous. This has nothing to do with soldiers themselves, by the way, and everything to do with the inner machinations of a war machine that can’t seem to stop itself.

What’s the point of using all that force? Why do we fight? What are we fighting for? The case can be made that America makes the world a safer place by establishing a military presence in democratically unstable parts of the world and that more spending means more safety. Just as easily, you’ll find counter arguments blaming the US for the current situation in the Middle East, saying that the country is addicted to imperialism, and that, for all its spending, the soldiers themselves are getting the short end of the stick when their career is done.

As much as I’d like to tell you that I have the answers, I don’t. Honestly, I don’t believe anybody does, because I’m not sure that the country itself knows what we’re fighting about anymore — or why. From my position, that calls for a pause and a chance to reevaluate. Maybe it means approaching a problem from a different angle, or using force as a last resort. Nobody will disagree that there is a time and place for the proper application of force and willpower.

Without the wisdom to apply those forces, and without a definable goal that we as a country agree upon and get behind, it seems almost impossible to work toward outcomes that are communally beneficial, not just for one country but for the world at large. One of the most difficult things to learn in martial arts is commitment. In training, where you’re moving slowly to prevent injury, you still have to commit your weight and momentum to the technique you’re practising. When you increase the speed, you have to commit to the belief that the technique will hold up. Most importantly, if you’re going to fight, you have to commit to the fight.

I’m not sure that we, as a nation, have really done that. And if we have, did we do it because we wanted to, because of collateral damage that we caused, or because we really felt like there was no other option? It’s too early to say how history will brand the post 9/11 era, and whether or not America is actually the force of good that the media would have us believe. It seems like the greatest fights of our time are still ahead of us and have almost nothing to do with war.

My fear is that we’ll use force to solve problems better handled through other methods — all of which have their own sets of challenges — because it’s easier to silence a dissenting voice than to reason with it. Maybe it’s just me, but the last thing I ever want to do is throw a punch — and it’s funny because that’s the one thing martial arts taught me how to do reasonably well.

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