January 18, 2008


Lately, El Cabrero has been thinking about what people who want a less violent and more just world can learn from studying strategy and the history of conflict, with a special emphasis on the teachings of Sun Tzu.

As mentioned previously this week, there are some areas in which The Art of War and the modern theory of nonviolent action dovetail.

As you might expect, there are also areas where it's a bit murkier. Take this passage from Chapter 1:

Warfare is the art (tao) of deceit. Therefore, when able, seem to be unable; when ready, seem unready; when nearby, seem far away; and when far away, seem near. If the enemy seeks some advantage, entice him with it. If he is in disorder, attack him and take him. If he is formidable, prepare against him. If he is strong, evade him. If he is incensed, provoke him. If he is humble, encourage his arrogance. If he is rested, wear him down. If he is internally harmonious, so divisiveness in his ranks. Attack where he is not prepared; go by way of places where it would never occur to him you would go. These are the military strategist's calculations for victory--they cannot be settled in advance.

Speaking for the moment purely as a martial artist, that's the way you do it.

In karate, for example, you may deliberately appear to leave yourself open to entice an attack for which you are prepared or feint in one or more directions to draw attention away from your main intention.

In judo, you might fake one throw to set up another. In grappling, you never reveal how close you are to tapping out. If someone more powerful than you attacks, the best tactic is to yield to their force and unbalance them.

Common ingredients to all this is controlling the perception of the opponent, applying energy where it has the most effect, avoiding superior force.

In the ordinary scuffles of life and in nonviolent efforts to make a difference, deception is a bad thing. Putting out wrong information can completely discredit a cause. Misleading people to do what you want them to do is not very nice either. Then, as Mark Twain put it,

Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said.

Having said that, however, there is an inescapable element of theater in all social life. The late great sociologist Erving Goffman called it "the art of impression management" in his classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and it's something we all do just about all the time.

Most everyone tries to appear at ease when nervous, politely interested when bored, more prepared than we really are, etc. Every coalition in the world tries to present itself as more powerful and unified than it probably is.

And even the most honest people exercise some control over the information they convey. Most people probably wouldn't give bank account or credit card numbers to strangers. Honest coaches don't reveal their strategy to each other during a game.

Nearly every group chooses when and where to release information and what information not to release. Many people wait for the most opportune moment to try to accomplish something. Every rational person engaged in debate on an issue will take advantage of the weak points in an opponent's position given the opportunity.

Finally, to borrow from the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, there are some situations where what he calls "communicative rationality" can work. Those are situations where all parties have a voice and access to information and decisions are arrived at by agreement. In an ideal world, that would be the norm.

But there are situations in life where one person or group has power over another and isn't interested in listening. Habermas noted that in cases where open and equal communicative action is blocked, people may have to resort to strategic action of some sort until the possibility of communicative action is restored or achieved.

NEEDED: A NEW NEW DEAL. That's the theme of this Washington Post column by Harold Meyerson.

ON THAT NOTE, Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute noted earlier this week that

both hourly and weekly earnings fell in 2007, a sharp reversal from the gains in 2006. After growing by about 2% in 2006, both hourly and weekly earnings fell, after adjusting for inflation, by about 1% last year.

THE LONGEVITY DIVIDE. Also from EPI, the latest snapshot shows that the growing economic divide is reflected in life expectancies. While people are living longer,

the increase in longevity is not balanced across the income ladder. According to a new working paper by Hilary Waldron of the Social Security Administration, a male in the top half of the earnings distribution who turned 60 in 1972 could expect to live 1.2 years longer than one in the bottom half. By 2001, the gap had grown to 5.8 years...

BIG BUSINESS AND PUBLIC TRUST are two things that have very little in common in recent opinion polls.

TWO ON MASSEY. Lawyers in a WV Supreme Court case involving Massey Energy have asked for the recusal of justice Benjamin, who was elected in 2004 with massive support from a 527 supported by CEO Don Blankenship. In a different court, Massey couldn't rely on...uhhh...fortune:

Federal environmental regulators believe a record $20 million fine, new pollution monitoring requirements and the threat of automatic penalties for additional violations will force Massey Energy Co. to change the way it does business.

STOP THE PRESSES!!!! According to this item from Wired Science,

Hungarian researchers have written a program that explains the meaning of dogs' barks.

El Cabrero has been working on similar research and recently cracked the code one sound emitted by the man in the picture. It came out as "Perhaps you would care to play a round of squeaky toy."


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