Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bruce Lee Was Wrong

There is a scene in the classic Bruce Lee movie, Enter the Dragon, where the martial artist gives a young protégé sage advice. He is training the student to control his “emotional content” by instructing the boy to kick him. The exercise is one of control, not anger. After an exchange or two, the trainee starts to get it. Then comes the real lesson.

“Don’t think! Feeeeel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon.” Whack! “Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory. Do you understand?” Whack! “Never take your eyes off your opponent, even when you bow.”[1] 

While many of us may remember this notable quotable, my concern is that in today’s geopolitical context, we are experiencing the social consequence of too much feeling and not enough thinking. Yes, I am saying that maybe Bruce was wrong. Take a few moments throughout the day to survey the variety of sources from which you ingest day-to-day information. It does not really matter which it is; this is not a politically partisan point. Then ask yourself, from which place does the content of those ideas come: from a thought or from a feeling? My hypothesis stemming from several kinds of observations over the past several years is that critical thought has been replaced by angry critique. The two are not the same, and I have a growing concern that the latter is becoming an increasingly convenient and comfortable state of mind. 

Thus, we need to take time to think about what we are thinking about. To help with that, here are companion thought pieces sure to challenge the emotional content of today’s confusing context. These emerge as a consequence of terrifying political and social experiences in the 1930s and 40s and in an emerging context of a competition for ideas. As you read them, try to set aside any current feelings, and control your emotional content by looking critically at the thought contained within the words.

First, consider political theorist, Hannah Arendt’s, ground-breaking study of anti-Semitism and the social pathways that guide people toward illogical rule, The Origins of Totalitarianism. This is an important work for many reasons, namely for her excising the crucial question burdening many societies after the fact: how could that have happened? While we could superficially make a case for bringing her early 1900s context to the present, that would be like concentrating on a finger pointing away to the moon - i.e. missing a broader point about how and why groups of people come to think, believe, and behave what they think they believe. In retrospect we often wonder how something could have happened. Arendt provides a penetrating look at how social phenomenon like totalitarianism can happen. Here is an example:

Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies,” “one against all,” that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.[2]

Here is more in a marked up excerpt of chapter 8 from the 1951 edition in which she discusses the rise of various continental movements.


Next, take a look into the logic undergirding a grand strategic view of what would become a decades-long struggle against the Soviet Union. The 1950 report to the National Security Council, often referred to as NSC-68, is a national strategic guidance document that conveys a brilliantly simple American idea while detailing an intricately complicated adversary.[3] The simple message of the American idea was “In essence...to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual.”[4] The document sets up a competitive framework in which the struggle against a new foe would center on which system could better optimize the value of a person as either inherently necessary to create value to the system or inherently necessary to fulfill the value of the system. Here is an example of that:

From this idea of freedom with responsibility derives the marvelous diversity, the deep tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society. This is the explanation of the strength of free men. It constitutes the integrity and the vitality of a free and democratic system. The free society attempts to create and maintain an environment in which every individual has the opportunity to realize his creative powers. It also explains why the free society tolerates those within it who would use their freedom to destroy it. By the same token, in relations between nations, the prime reliance of the free society is on the strength and appeal of its idea, and it feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it.

For the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity. It derives its strength from its hospitality even to antipathetic ideas. It is a market for free trade in ideas, secure in its faith that free men will take the best wares, and grow to a fuller and better realization of their powers in exercising their choice.[5]

NSC 68 describes a competition of ideas. Here is rest of that competitive framework:

The greatest vulnerability of the Kremlin lies in the basic nature of its relations with the Soviet people.

That relationship is characterized by universal suspicion, fear, and denunciation. It is a relationship in which the Kremlin relies, not only for its power but its very survival, on intricately devised mechanisms of coercion. The Soviet monolith is held together by the iron curtain around it and the iron bars within it, not by any force of natural cohesion. These artificial mechanisms of unity have never been intelligently challenged by a strong outside force. The full measure of their vulnerability is therefore not yet evident.[6]

When looking at these two pieces, we begin to see some similarities in the fomenting of social phenomenon in the 1930-1950s context and the early 2000s context. That phenomenon is a function of thought or as Arendt offers as a central thesis to many of her works - thoughtlessness. The point here is not to draw historical comparisons. The analogies are far from clean. Rather, the point to raise here is that something more than feeling is required of a civil society today. A civil society today needs to think about what it is thinking about. I grow increasing concerned when I hear the tone and tenor of public discourse today, especially that surrounding issues of foreign affairs because the substance of that discourse seems to sound far from thoughtful. Maybe Bruce Lee was wrong. Instead, maybe what we all need a whack on the head followed by renewed sage council: “Don’t feel! Thiiiiiiink…”


[1] For a quick clip of this infamous scene, check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d5o8d1kitM
[2] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951, p. 227.
[3] ""A Report to the National Security Council - NSC 68", April 12, 1950 ...." https://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/coldwar/documents/pdf/10-1.pdf. Accessed 8 Aug. 2017.
[4] NSC 68, p. 5. Emphasis added.
[5] NSC 68, p. 7.
[6] NSC 68, p. 15.