Laws regulating cannabis are laws regulating the body

In honor of 4/20, here is a paper I published a couple years ago in my school paper on the science of marijuana consumption. And here’s a few interesting facts about the drug:

  • sea squirts were the first organisms to develop cannabinoid receptors
  • when Tupac Shakur was cremated, members of his musical group Outlawz combined his ashes with marijuana and smoked him
  • the first ever sale on the internet was a small bag of marijuana
  • Carl Sagan, writing under a pseudonym, once wrote an article outlining what he saw as the beneficial effects of smoking it

Combing through the history of drug criminalization in America, it is clear that much of the law arose in response to national or state crises. It’s very obviously too simplistic to say, these drugs became illegal because they are dangerous; it’s also disingenuous to claim criminalization occurs simply to oppress or discriminate against certain groups of people (although, certainly, racism played a role in several criminalization campaigns, definitely including marijuana’s). The attitude has changed toward recreational weed: people think it should be legal because it’s safe and has legitimate medical benefits (instantly making its Schedule I status ridiculous). These things are true, but when progressives rest their drug legalization case on these mild criteria they weaken the case for more dramatic legislation which could produce effects far more progressive. Marijuana should be legal because laws which regulate it are laws which regulate the human body, in ways that only effect the user. The case for legalization is a case for freedom and autonomy, and from it follows the lifting of prohibitions on ketamine, opioids, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide, psilocybin, ecstasy,cocaine, etc. The economic argument for drug decriminalization is clear; the legal argument (like the iron law of prohibition) is clear; the moral argument is deontological and follows from much of the spirit of new political voices that wonder about government’s role in regulating the body.

The argument, often given by marijuana consumers, that it should be illegal because, were it to become legal, small businesses would get wiped out by larger conglomerates, and lower quality weed would get produced, is partially false and wholly single-minded. Most of the people that get jail time for weed are busted only for possession, not distribution; some people have been charged with life imprisonment for minor acts of growing — some of them retired veterans dealing with mental health issues. Focusing on how potent the weed would be if decriminalized is focusing only on how we, free individuals, will make out; it leaves these people in prison for a minor bump in hedonism. Further, cannabis’ potency has soared over the years since its initial popularity (in truth, a consequence of prohibition). It’s unlikely that it would start to de-escalate, as demand is so high. And weed is available in a multitude of forms now: the experimentation could only grow with laxer drug laws. Also, small businesses are often the ones hardest hit by regulation of products. The massive cartels will suffer most by drying up the black market, and then individuals who want relatively harmless drugs like marijuana can avoid entering a seedy underground (where they are exposed to far worse ails) to obtain it.

Prohibitionists also claim to be concerned about the children: with weed legal, won’t younger people start doing it? Again, the case for drug legalization is a case for autonomy, so this argument is misguided anyway, but to answer it — the best research from Colorado after recreational legalization (see Reason) suggests no statistically significant fluctuation in youth use. Marijuana is already immensely popular with young people; it can’t get much more in-fashion. Also, the recreational measures being introduced propose 21 as a purchase age: if kids are obtaining the drug from their neighborhood dealer now, the new laws would only direct them to buying from older, and probably more responsible people.

Most of the arguments point to decriminalizing weed, and not just because it’s safe and has medical benefits. These arguments also justify the extension of similar opinion to “hard drugs.”

For a more just criminal justice system, and a more free society … legalize it.

Happy 4/20. (And no, by the way, I don’t smoke.)

Where is the line between sympathy and paternalism?

In higher-ed news two types of terrifying stories come up pretty frequently: free speech stories, and Title IX stories. You’d think these stories would only be relevant to academics and students, but they’re not. These issues are certainly very important for those of us who hang out in ivory towers. But those towers shape the debate–and unquestioned assumptions–that determine real world policy in board rooms and capitols. This is especially true in a world where a bachelor’s degree is the new GED.

The free speech stories have gotten boring because they all take the following form: group A doesn’t want to let group B talk about opinion b so they act like a bunch of jackasses. Usually this takes place at a school for rich kids. Usually those kids are majoring in something that will give them no marketable skills.

The Title IX stories are Kafkaesque tales where a well-intentioned policy (create a system to protect people in colleges from sexism and sexual aggression) turns into a kangaroo court that allows terrible people to ruin other people’s lives. (I hasten to add, I’m sure Title IX offices do plenty of legitimately great work.)

A great article in the Chronicle gives an inside look at one of these tribunals. For the most part it’s chilling. Peter Ludlow had been accused of sexual assault, but the claims weren’t terribly credible. As far as I can tell (based only on this article) he did some things that should raise some eyebrows, but nothing genuinely against any rules. Nonetheless, the accusations were a potential PR and liability problem for the school so he had to go, regardless of justice.

The glimmer of hope comes with the testimony of Jessica Wilson. She managed to shake them out of their foregone conclusion and got them to consider that women above the age of consent can be active participants in their own lives instead of victims waiting to happen. Yes, bad things happen to women, but that’s not enough to jump to the conclusion that all women are victims and all men are aggressors.

The big question at the root of these types of stories is how much responsibility we ought to take for our lives.

Free speech: Should I be held responsible for saying insensitive (or unpatriotic) things? Who would enforce that obligations? Should I be held responsible for dealing with the insensitive things other people might say? Or should I even be allowed to hear what other people might say because I can’t take responsibility for evaluating it “critically” and coming to the right conclusion.

Title IX: Should women be responsible for their own protection, or is that akin to blaming the victim? We’ve gone from trying to create an environment where everyone can contribute to taking away agency. In doing so we’ve also created a powerful mechanism that can be abused. This is bad because of the harm it does to the falsely accused, but it also has the potential to delegitimize the claims of genuine victims and fractures society. But our forebears weren’t exactly saints when it came to treating each other justly.

Where is the line between helping a group and infantilizing them?

At either end of a spectrum I imagine caricature versions of a teenage libertarian (“your problems are your own, suck it up while I shout dumb things at you”) and a social justice warrior (“it’s everyone else’s fault! Let’s occupy!”). Let’s call those end points Atomistic Responsibility and Social Responsibility. More sarcastically, we could call them Robot and Common Pool Responsibility. Nobody is actually at these extreme ends (I hope), but some people get close.

Either one seems ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t already subscribe to that view, but both have a kernel of truth. Fair or not, you have to take responsibility for your life. But we’re all indelibly shaped by our environment.

Schools have historically adopted a policy towards the atomistic end, but have been trending in the other direction. I don’t think this is universally bad, but I think those values cannot properly coexist within a single organization.

We can imagine some hypothetical proper point on the Responsibility Spectrum, but without a way to objectively measure virtue, the position of that point–the line between sympathy and paternalism–its location is an open question. We need debate to better position and re-position that line. I would argue that Western societies have been doing a pretty good job of moving that line in the right direction over the last 100 years (although I disagree with many of the ways our predecessors have chosen to enforce that line).

But here’s the thing: we can’t move in the right direction without getting real-time feedback from our environments. Without variation in the data, we can’t draw any conclusions. What we need more than a proper split of responsibility, is a range of possibilities being constantly tinkered with and explored.

We need a diversity of approaches. This is why freedom of speech and freedom of association are so essential. In order to get this diversity, we need federalism and polycentricity–stop trying to impose order from the top down on a grand scale (“think globally, act locally“), and let order be created from the bottom up. Let our organizations–businesses, churches, civic associations, local governments and special districts–adapt to their circumstances and the wishes of their stakeholders.

Benefiting from this diversity requires open minds and epistemic humility. We stand on the shore of a vast mysterious ocean. We’ve waded a short distance into the water and learned a lot, but there’s infinitely more to learn!

(Sidenote: Looking for that Carl Sagan quote I came across this gem:

People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.

That about sums up my approach to discussing these sorts of issues. We’d all do better to occasionally give our opponents the benefit of the doubt and see what we can learn from them. Being a purist is a great way to structure your thought, but empathy for our opponents is how we make our theories strong.

A short note on monarchical nostalgia

Kingship organizes everything around a high centre. Its legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations, who, after all, are subjects, not citizens. In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often even contiguous, populations for long periods of time. (19)

This passage, from Benedict Anderson’s much-cited book on nationalism (Imagined Communities), does a good job of summarizing what the world looked like politically prior to the Industrial Revolution. It does a less good job of summarizing what monarchy is, politically (see this or this), but does do a great job of explaining why monarchies were able to exert governance over populations that were linguistically, religiously, and ethnically diverse.

What is less clear in this passage is its explanation for why paleolibertarians are so enamored with monarchy and why some non-paleo libertarians often write nostalgically about imperial pasts. Even though this is not clear in the passage (I doubt Anderson had intra-libertarian squabbles in mind when he wrote Imagined Communities), it is a great way to explore why libertarians have nostalgia for monarchy and empire.

Let’s start from the top, though. Libertarians don’t like nation-states because of nationalism, because of borders with taxes and restrictions on movement of goods and people, and because of the power that governments can exert over well-defined spaces of territory. So, instead of delving into the intricacies of why nation-states are around, some libertarians reach back to an older age, where “borders were porous and indistinct,” state sovereignty was not the end game of geopolitics, and governments had ways other than nationalist propaganda to bring diverse populations to heel. So on the surface, nationalism was non-existent, borders were open, and diverse groups of people lived together in relative harmony under one roof. What libertarian wouldn’t like that? Fred Foldvary’s post on restoring the Ottoman Empire is a good example of this kind of historical naivety. (Barry and Jacques have both written good rebuttals to this kind of wishful thinking.)

Historical naivety is one thing, but the arguments of so-called “anarcho-monarchists” are quite another. Arguing that monarchy is anarchy because monarchs don’t reign over a nation-state (instead they rule over the private property of the crown) is disingenuous at best, and nefarious at worst. Royal property and private property are two different things (“L’etat c’est moi“). This argument leads directly to the awful, embarrassing arguments of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and his acolytes, who have a bad habit of claiming that anarcho-monarchism is somehow libertarian. I’m going to skip over the specifics of their arguments (Zak has done great work on this topic, but in short Hoppeans claim that anarcho-monarchist societies would be able to physically remove undesirable people from their societies; “undesirables” mostly mean socialists, homosexuals, and non-Europeans), and instead point out that Hoppe and company are simply wrong about what a monarchy actually is.

Monarchies had porous borders, they constantly warred against their neighbors (sometimes for “interests of state”), and their populations were polyglot and illiterate. I haven’t spent any time reading Hoppe, so maybe I am treating him unfairly here and he is perhaps an advocate of a new type of monarchy, but as a student of Habermas I would assume Hoppe likes to use history as a guide for understanding and explaining the world around him. How on earth could he be so wrong about what monarchy actually is, unless he is being disingenuous about his whole anarcho-monarchist utopia?


On a completely unrelated note, Benedict’s Anderson’s book on nationalism is published by Verso Books, rather than a traditional academic press (such as Princeton University Press or University of California Press). Verso Books is a left-wing publishing house dedicated to radical critiques of everything non-leftist, so I find it a bit odd that Anderson’s book has come to be so well-cited in the academic literature on a number of topics. It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s popularity, despite being an explicitly ideological book rather than an academic one, explains much of the strife currently happening on campuses across the West regarding freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

Pride and Subsidies

Freakonomics had an episode on the dramatic impact of subsidies on the visual effects (VFX) industry. Long story short: 1) VFX companies operate on razor thin margins, 2) the industry chases subsidies from competing local governments–Canada and London are  currently important locations, 3) Californian politicians want to bring these jobs back to LA, but doing so would probably be a net burden.

(Let’s put aside the issue of the state of California trying to play central planner by effectively creating different tax rates for different industries. That’s a bad idea for reasons we can explore later.)

Putting yourself in the head of a Californian, something about the policy feels right (maybe not for the typical NOL reader, but probably for the median voter). I’m sure you could convince the median voter that these subsidies are a bad idea, economically. But even so, I’d be willing to bet that you’d still get significant support.

I’m confident that if you were to talk this issue over with a representative sample of California voters–or X industry in Y region for similar industry upheavals–you could convince them of the probable negative impact of such policy and still see many voters at least weakly supporting the policy. Why? Because being able to point to a movie and say “that awesome explosion was made in my backyard,” is worth some degree of sacrifice for these people.

Perhaps people want our government to give us something to be proud of (God knows they give us enough things to be ashamed of!). Perhaps people have some latent willingness to pay to be able to say that some high status industry is in their community/city/state/country.

We like pride, but it costs us. This puts us squarely in the domain of economics. How do we figure out how to make the trade off between pride, and the price we must pay for it? Some cases seem easy, at least in hindsight–the sacrifice of the civil rights movement was a small price to pay for the pride generated–but cases like the VFX industry, aren’t so obvious, but still high stakes.

I don’t think we’re likely to be able to figure out the bill. We can be proud of NASA, movies, the post office, and whatever else. But how much of the cost can we attribute to engaging in activities that make us proud? We get the same issue in markets. I have more than brand loyalty for Honda (the maker of my motorcycle); I’m also proud to associate with Honda as an innovative company with a history of liberating the world’s poor.

A clever statistician or economist could estimate some important facts about how people tend to make these trade offs. Doing so could help us make better decisions, but can’t ultimately replace our own judgment.

Given the uncertainty we face we really have to make a decision about whether to err on the side of over- or under-provision of pride goods–and this is true in a variety of settings.

I suspect that the “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach is the appropriate one here. We don’t want to have one Secretary of Pride deciding to err on the side of over-provision and the result is that a bunch of children die from preventable causes so that we can all feel proud about how cool the latest domestically produced Fast and Furious movie is going to be. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy of slavery was never ended because it would interrupt business as usual.

Markets, civil society, and government face different sorts of pros and cons with respect to how they might make these trade offs. Arguing about them could create a new academic discipline at the intersection of ethics, economics, and sociology.

In all three spheres, there will be many very bad decisions made. But if you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. The question to ask is what sort of pride goods will tend to survive, and in which spheres?

What we can say for sure is that private, voluntary exchange and cooperation (free markets and civil society) at least allow us to choose our associations. And they require us to choose, and choose again on a regular basis. Our nation is mostly based on luck. Where we live tends not to change much. Voting with your feet is costly, so we should expect it to be that much harder to dismantle big mistakes. The political process routinely results in outcomes we’re ashamed of (about half of voters are ashamed of the results every presidential election!).

There aren’t markets in pride so it’s hard to know how the benefits compare to the costs. But we can (and do) exhibit pride in markets. We should probably do more of it. And perhaps we should also be more skeptical of government, even though we normally think of them as providing pride goods. On the margin, anyways, I think this is a good direction for most people to move. Be proud of your community because the people have whatever unique traits they do. Be proud of the brands you buy from for their contributions to the state of the art. Be proud of your local sports team.

Bruce Lee’s Application Of Taoist Philosophy In Jeet Kune Do

Bruce Lee - Jeet Kune Do

Bruce Lee was born on November 27, 1940 and died on July 20, 1973. Even though he was just 32 upon his death, he had achieved so much in his limited lifetime. He was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.[1] He was a cha cha champion in Hong Kong at age 18, a world renowned martial artist and a Chinese actor who was not only immensely popular in Asia, but who also made his breakthrough in Hollywood at a time when oriental actors were rarely accepted for lead roles. What is less known among the public is his keen interest in philosophy, a subject he studied at the University of Washington. Writing about where his interest in philosophy came from, he wrote:

My majoring in philosophy was closely related to the pugnacity of my childhood. I often asked myself these questions: What comes after victory? Why do people value victory so much? What is ‘glory’? What kind of ‘victory’ is ‘glorious’?[2]

In one of my previous posts, I discussed the similarities between the libertarian concept of Spontaneous Order and the Taoist concept of the Tao. In this post I will discuss the application of Taoist philosophy in Jeet Kune Do (‘the way of the intercepting fist’), the martial arts that Bruce Lee founded in his mid-20s, and its roots in Taoist philosophy. I will identify several Taoist aspects that form the philosophical foundation of Jeet Kune Do. First however, I will give an anecdote of his wife Linda Cadwell on Bruce Lee’s initial motivation to develop Jeet Kune Do at all.

Bruce Lee’s initial motivation for Jeet Kune Do
Bruce Lee started teaching martial arts to Westerners in his newly founded Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, a training gym in Oakland, California. Then by late 1964, Bruce Lee received a letter with the signatures of the most important elder Chinese martial arts masters in San Francisco who did not

look favourably on Bruce’s teaching martial art to Westerners, or actually to anyone who was not Chinese. So strongly did they harbour this historically bound belief, that a formal challenge was issued to Bruce, insisting that he participate in a confrontation, the result of which would decide whether he could continue to teach the ‘foreign devils’. (Cadwell, 1998, p. 8)

Without hesitation, Bruce Lee accepted the challenge. Linda Cadwell remembers the fight that followed as a pivotal point in Bruce Lee’s life:

Within moments of the initial clash, the Chinese gung fu man [Bruce Lee’s contender] had proceeded to run in a circle around the room, out a door that led to a small back room, then in through another door to the main room. He completed this circle several times, with Bruce in hot pursuit. Finally, Bruce brought the man to the floor, pinning him helplessly, and shouted (in Chinese), ‘Do you give up?’ After repeating this question two or three times, the man conceded, and the San Francisco party departed quickly. The entire fight lasted about three minutes, leaving James and me ecstatic that the decisive conquest was so quickly concluded. Not Bruce. Like it was yesterday, I remember Bruce sitting on the back steps of the gym, head in hands, despairing over his inability to finish off the opponent with efficient technique, and the failure of his stamina when he attempted to capture the running man. For what probably was the first time in his life, Bruce was winded and weakened. Instead of triumphing in his win, he was disappointed that his physical condition and gung fu training had not lived up to his expectations. This momentous event, then was the impetus for the evolution of Jeet Kune Do and the birth of his new training regime. (Cadwell, 1998, pp. 11-12)

Now that we know that Jeet Kune Do originated from Bruce Lee’s discontent with the physical condition he had achieved through traditional gung fu training, I will discuss how Bruce Lee was striving for a new martial arts that was superior to the already existent ones, and how this martial arts is ultimately rooted in Taoist philosophy.

Jeet Kune Do as a way of life
Bruce Lee had, throughout his whole life, always been intrigued by the question how to find his true potential, and how to express himself honestly. He wrote:

“Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential”.[3]

“When I look around, I always learn something, and that is to always be yourself, express yourself, to have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate him. They always copy mannerism; they never start from the root of their being: that is, how can I be me?”[4]

Bruce Lee believed that the answers to both questions – how can I find my true potential and how can I be me so that I can express myself honestly – are ultimately related to one another.

1. Be one with the Tao; be formless like water, and be pliable
Bruce Lee believed that the person who is trained within a particular martial arts style and who clings to it indefinitely or a person who is only trained within a particular philosophical doctrine becomes self-delusional. He thought that the person who is incapable of exceeding his style or doctrine is stiff and narrow-minded. His narrow-mindedness makes him blind to observe objectively and to see the truth. He is what Bruce Lee calls, ‘the traditional man’. Bruce Lee wrote:

One can function freely and totally if he is ‘beyond system.’ The man who is really serious, with the urge to find out what truth is, has no style at all. He lives only in what is. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 17)

But in classical styles, system becomes more important than the man! The classical man functions with the pattern of a style! (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

How can there be methods and systems to arrive at something that is living? To that which is static, fixed, dead, there can be a way, a definite path, but not to that which is living. Do not reduce reality to a static thing and then invent methods to reach it. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 18)

Classical forms dull your creativity, condition and freeze your sense of freedom. You no longer ‘be,’ but merely ‘do,’ without sensitivity. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 19)

You cannot see a street fight in its totality, observing it from the viewpoint of a boxer, a kung-fu man, a karateka, a wrestler, a judo man and so forth. You can see clearly only when style does not interfere. You then see it without ‘like’ or ‘dislike;’ you simply see and what you see is the whole and not the partial. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 24)

He thought that committing himself to styles limits both his potential and his self-expression. This critique is however not only limited to martial arts. He extended this critique to Confucianism, a philosophy which he considered as too rigid, and too narrowly focused on set rules and traditions. According to Bruce Lee, man ceases being a human being and instead becomes a mechanical man, a product of mere tradition if he reveres and just follows rules and mannerisms. The philosophy that perfectly fits Bruce Lee’s vision of a self-expressive and ‘style-less’ martial arts is the epistemologically anarchistic Taoism. How can a person, according to Bruce Lee and Taoism, find his true potential and express himself honestly? The answer is to become formless, pliable, and forever adaptable just like the Tao is formless, pliable, and forever in flux.

The Tao Te Ching states the following metaphor of life (flexibility and softness) and death (rigidity and hardness):

A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 76)

Both Lao Tze and Bruce Lee took water as the ultimate metaphor for that which is flexible and soft. Bruce Lee maintains that in order to fulfil your true potential and express yourself honestly you should become like water, formless. To be like water means to be an objective observant, relaxed and to be flowing with life – to be one with the Tao.

In the Tao Te Ching one can find the following lines:

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78)

There is a story about Bruce Lee’s discovery of what it means to be like water and to be united with the Tao. I am not sure about the authenticity of the story, but I will share it nonetheless as it helps to illustrate the significance of being formless in combat or in life:

Bruce, at the age of seventeen, had been training in gung fu for four years with Sifu Yip Man, yet had reached an impasse. When engaged in sparring Bruce found that his body would become tense, his mind perturbed. Such instability worked against his goal of efficiency in combat.

Sifu Yip Man sensed his trouble, and approached him. ‘Lee,’ he said, ‘relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movements. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.’

Bruce Lee believed he had the answer to his problem. He must relax! Yet there was a paradox: the effort in trying to relax was inconsistent with the effortlessness in relaxing, and Bruce found himself back in the same situation.

Again Sifu Yip Man came to Bruce and said, ‘Lee, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself: never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but control it by swinging with it.’

Sifu Yip Man told Bruce to go home for a week and think about his words. Bruce spent many hours in meditation and practice, with nothing coming of it. Finally, Bruce decided to go sailing in a junk (boat). Bruce would have a great epiphany. ‘On the sea, I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water. Right then at that moment, a thought suddenly struck me. Wasn’t this water the essence of gung fu? I struck it, but it did not suffer hurt. I then tried to grasp a handful of it but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance, could fit into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substance. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Therefore in order to control myself I must accept myself by going with, and not against, my nature. I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature.[5]

Bruce Lee emphasized the importance of ‘a style of no style’ that he later would regret the name Jeet Kune Do as a name implies limitations or specific parameters. Bruce Lee wanted it to resemble the Tao, nameless and of almost supernatural power. Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching states:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1)

See this video in which Bruce Lee asserts that we should be like water:

2. Break rules and conventions and have no way as your way
Jeet Kune Do does not limit itself to styles. It takes from other styles what is useful, discards what is useless, and adds what is uniquely our own. The slogan of the Jeet Kune Do logo reads two things: (a) take no way as your way, and (b) take no limitation as your limitation. As styles, rules, conventions, mannerisms limit us we should deconstruct and transcend them. Jeet Kune Do is therefore iconoclastic. Bruce Lee wrote:

Jeet Kune Do favors formlessness so that it can assume all forms and since Jeet Kune Do has no style, it can fit in with all styles. As a result, Jeet Kune Do utilizes all ways and is bound by none and, likewise, uses any techniques or means which serve its end. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

What are the characteristics of a martial arts with no style? According to Bruce Lee, it becomes open-minded, non-traditional, simple, direct, and effective.

Bruce Lee contended that:

Jeet Kune Do does not beat around the bush. It does not take winding detours. It follows a straight line to the objective. Simplicity is the shortest distance between two points. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 12)

In Enter the Dragon, there is a scene in which an ostentatious man asks Bruce Lee what his style is. Bruce Lee answers: “You can call it the art of fighting without fighting”. Being challenged by the man to show this style, Bruce Lee cunningly proposes to take a boat to a nearby island where they can fight. When the man set foot on the boat, Bruce Lee let the boat drift away and pulls it on a line. The essence of the story is that (a) one should not be pretentious as that is not honest self-expression, and (b) a fight should be won in the most direct and easiest manner, preferably without the use of violence.[6]

You can find the videoclip here:

In order to break with traditions and conventions means that we should also get rid of our past attachments. This is what Bruce Lee meant when he metaphorically said that we should ‘empty our cup’.

3. Empty your cup and learn the art of dying
To empty your cup means to get rid of your self-delusion so that you can look at the world from a new and refreshed perspective. In order to find your true potential and your nature, you should first be self-conscious. You should know what you want, what you desire, what your strengths and weaknesses are, your pride, your fears, your accomplishments, your ambitions and eventually get rid of all that as they maintain an ego that interferes with who you truly are – a fluid personality who cannot be narrowly defined by your desires, fears, achievements etc.

In the Tao Te Ching one can read:

Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind become still.
The ten thousand things rise and fall while the Self watches their return. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16)

This is frightening for most of us, because it confronts us with our own prejudices; we may find that our traditions that have previously given us a sense of security may be baseless. However, Bruce Lee did not only want us to break with the archaic, but he also showed us an alternative – a way of creating new values and skills to supersede the old. In this respect, Bruce Lee’s views of how to progress in life is very much in line with the iconoclastic Nietzschean übermensch: we must first break with traditions and try to rise above our culture so that a higher being can emerge from our renewed self-creation. This is how I personally interpret Bruce Lee’s saying that we should learn the “art of dying”.

In a famous scene in Longstreet, Bruce Lee taught us not to make a plan of fighting, he told us to empty our mind, and to be formless like water. The “art of dying” is the “art of being non-fixed” – the art of being a different person tomorrow than we are today by letting go our past attachments including our ambitions. I believe it is similar to the Nietzschean ideal of self-creation: continuously subjecting our current values to our personal judgements, breaking down ‘lower values’ and creating ‘higher values’. The art of dying is hence a metaphor for continuously breaking down our past selves, values, attachments, pride, desires (dying) and creating our new selves (being reborn) so that we can continuously improve. The “art of dying” is therefore also the “art of self-forgetfulness”, a skill that is characteristic of the ‘baby’ who is its self-propelling wheel in Nietzsche’s story of the ‘three metamorphoses’ from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

See here the scene of Longstreet:

Bruce Lee wrote:

Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 14)

Emptying our cup precedes our discovery of new truths or new values so that hopefully we can find ourselves and become our own standard. Bruce Lee told us not to despair when we cannot find solace within our past attachments as the creation of personal values is vastly more valuable.

See here a great explanation of ‘emptying our cup’:

The logical consequence of self-creation is that one becomes his own standard.

4. Become your own standard and accept life
According to Bruce Lee, we should not worry about what others think of us. He advised us not to look for a personality to duplicate as that would be a betrayal to our selves – one might call this practice ‘other-expression’ instead of ‘self-expression’. Being our own standard also encompasses the acceptance of disgrace and losses as much as accepting grace and victories. How else can we accept ourselves and fulfill our own potential?

The Tao Te Ching advises us the following:

Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.

What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
Accept being unimportant.
Do not be concerned with loss or gain.
This is called “accepting disgrace willingly.”

What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
Misfortune comes from having a body.
Without a body, how could there be misfortune?

Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all things.
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all things. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13)

5. Wei Wu Wei
Lastly, I would like to discuss another aspect of ‘having no way as your way’. To have ‘no way as your way’, is also Bruce Lee’s expression for following the Taoist doctrine of ‘wei wu wei’ (‘action without action’ or ‘effortless action’). Bruce Lee maintained that when a person is truly in control of himself, he experiences his action without consciously forcing his actions to happen. Self-consciousness is initially required for the understanding of ourselves, but to be truly expressing ourselves through our actions we must move into a state where we act unconsciously. I think it is best comparable with the English expression of ‘being in a state of flow’. Bruce Lee said:

I’m moving and not moving at all. I’m like the moon underneath the waves that ever go on rolling and rocking. It is not, ‘I am doing this,’ but rather, an inner realization that ‘this is happening through me,’ or ‘it is doing this for me.’ The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action. (Bruce Lee, 1975, p. 7)

This idea is expressed as follows in the Tao Te Ching:

Tao abides in non-action (‘wu wei’),
Yet nothing is left undone. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37)

Footnotes
[1] See http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55http://www.ranker.com/list/time-magazine-100-most-important-people-of-the-20th-century/theomanlenz?format=SLIDESHOW&page=55

[2] I do not remember where I have found this quote.

[3] Idem

[4] Idem

[5] From http://www.becoming.8m.net/bruce02.htm

[6] The scene is actually based on an old Japanese Samurai folk tale. The tale goes as follows:

“While travelling on a ferry, a young samurai began bullying and intimidating some of the other passengers, boasting of his fighting prowess and claiming to be the best in the country with a samurai sword. When the young warrior noticed how unmoved [Tsukahara] Bokuden [a legendary Japanese swordsman] was, he was enraged and not knowing who he was dealing with challenged the old master to a duel. Bokuden told him;

‘My art is different from yours. It consists not so much in defeating others but in not being defeated.’

He continued to inform him that his school was called The Mutekatsu Ryu meaning ‘to defeat an enemy without hands’. The young samurai saw this as cowardice and demanded satisfaction so he told the boats-man to stop at an island so they could do battle there.

However when he jumped into the shallow waters to make his way to the fight venue, Bokuden got hold of the boats-man’s pole and proceeded back to deeper waters minus a now irate young samurai. The wise old master laughed and shouted to his would be adversary; ‘Here is my no sword school!’” (See, http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php)

Bibliography
History Of Fighting. Retrieved from http://www.historyoffighting.com/tsukahara-bokuden.php

Lao Tze. Tao Te Ching. Retrieved from http://www.schrades.com/tao/taotext.cfm?TaoID=1

Lee, B. (1975). Tao Of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications.

Little, J. (1998). Bruce Lee: The Art Of Expressing The Human Body. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing.

French Africa

This is a meandering essay; although it’s about history, it’s a bit personalized, for effect. In other words, it’s far from straightforwardly scholarly history but I think it’s all or mostly true. Be patient, at one point it will become about the former French African colonial empire and socio-cultural strata it deposited in France, and there to this day.

Acting Uncool

Often, in my dotage, I sneak a look at TV5, the French language cable channel. Often too, I fall asleep on the couch while watching its usually – but not always – insipid programs. One day, a short documentary catches my attention. It’s about sexual harassment of French women on the public way. It catches my attention because it’s not obvious to me what would pass for sexual harassment in France, I mean, this side of grabbing and such. So, it turns out that the makers of the documentary had placed a man with a hidden camera near a cafe on a street with a bad reputation. The street is near to one of the main railroad stations in Paris, guaranteeing a two-way flow of commuters, including women, of course.

In the course of twenty minutes, the documentary displays about thirty episodes of “sexual harassment.” I am only a man, of course, and thus limited, and a skeptic, but the worst harassment I witness takes the form of annoying mouth noises that I am not talented enough to reproduce with words. Mostly, there are gauche invitations to have a cup of coffee. The documentary ends with the expected boring, trite lamentations, blah, blah. There is zero mention of a striking fact: All the harassers without exception sport a thick North African accent.

I say a “thick” accent to signify recent arrival in France. The accent normally erodes in a few years or months. I imagine the harassers were young immigrants from small villages in Algeria and Morocco trying artlessly to deal with the knowledge that they were now in a society where sex could theoretically be had outside of marriage and outside of prostitution. Some may have been merely lonely and naively hoping to make a French friend. Political correctness clashes with political correctness: Harassing women, even if only verbally, is terrible but mentioning that the harassers all proceed from Muslim countries is terrible too. So, make the documentary and shut up about the obvious!

This is not a very interesting story, of course; I know this. Would anyone expect probably poorly educated rural young men from sex-segregated societies to learn to be cool with women as they are stepping off the boat? It will take quite a while, at best. For some, it will never happen; they will remain uncool forever. Then, they will marry an immigrant woman from their area of origin. Again, it would be absurd to expect anything else. In the same vein, would it be reasonable to imagine that all those immigrants would quickly come to appreciate the importance of the separation of religion from governance (of “church and state”) when it’s anathema in Islam?

Is it possible that a few will never appreciate at all the beauty of such separation? Is it possible that their ignorance, or their hostility, will be passively transmitted to their offspring, together with pork avoidance, for example? Will (would) that transmission have a cumulative effect on French society? France contributed more than its share of apprentice terrorists to ISIS, even would-be war brides, even young women ready for the sexual jihad. The one thing may have little to do with the other. And, it’s true that a startling number of the above are converts from Christianity or, more likely, from atheism.

French people who are not racist, or even “Islamophobic” in any mechanistic sense, carry this sort of question on their minds all the time. Some French people who have been in France for a long time but have Muslim names become themselves attached to secularism (la laïcité). They also discreetly worry about the very same issue. Those who will actually talk about it appear more worried than their fellow citizens with names like mine, or like “Pierre Dupont.” This is all impressionistic, of course. There is no survey. For one thing, it’s illegal in France to gather data about ethnicity.

How did it come to this, you might wonder. Why are these guys in France at all, the ones acting uncool in every conceivable meaning of the word?

Quitting Algeria

In 1962, the French Republic and the Algerian nationalists of the Front de Libération Nationale (“FLN”) came to an agreement about Algerian independence. That was after 130 years of French colonization and eight years of brutal war, including war against civilians, from both sides. The colonization had been in depth, with hundreds of thousands of French settlers convincing themselves that Algeria was a kind of second France, resembling the original in every way. Except, that is, for the inconvenient prior presence of numerous exotically dressed people who were neither Christians nor free-thinkers. Except for the fact that many of the French settlers were newly minted poor immigrants from Spain and Italy.

At Independence, I participated in the evacuation of large number of French civilians from the country as a little sailor. I mean “French French.” By that time and belatedly, the presumably Muslim population had been granted citizenship. Too little, too late. Probably in an an effort to divide to conquer, the numerous (Arabic speaking) Algerian Jews had all been granted citizenship in the 1880s. In the days of evacuation, the number of (old) French who wanted to leave was much greater than French authorities had planned for. An aircraft carrier – emptied of its planes – had to be used. It was a pathetic show, complete with broken, uncomprehending old grandmothers who had probably never set foot in France. There were no deluxe suitcases in sight but there were used mattresses. Some factions within the FLN were threatening the French with death if they did not go immediately; others would have liked to keep them, or some of them. The death threats prevailed.

It was too bad that the French left in such large numbers. It made the transition to independence technically more difficult than it could have been. It gave the upper hand in Algeria to those who had the best guns rather than to those who could govern, or to the people. It was a pity for all concerned. The French refugees faced an uncertain and harsh future in France, for the most part. For the Algerians, many positions were left for a while without competent personnel, including a budding oil industry in the Sahara. There was a shortage of medical doctors for many years.

Make a mental note of this fact: The French French were not the only ones fleeing. They were accompanied by tens of thousands of families with Muslim names and whose native language was other than French. They were Algerians who had chosen the wrong side in the war of independence and who feared to be massacred in the new Algeria (correctly so, it turned out). Those joined the other hundreds of thousands who had been living in France for economic reasons beginning with WWI.

I think of those events as a double tragedy or a tragedy leading to a tragedy. The Algerian independence fighters who had prevailed by shedding quantities of their blood were definitely not (not) Islamists. In most respects, intellectually and otherwise, they were a lot like me at the time, moderate, democratic leftists. In fact, I once spent a moving three hours drinking coffee with a convalescing FLN soldier my age, in a third country. He and I had most things in common, including the French language. (More needs to be said about communities of language.)

The true Algerian revolutionaries were soon replaced in power in Algiers however by the professional soldiers of an army that had never really fought because it had been formed outside Algeria while partisan-style forces battled the French army. The military is still in power, fifty-five years later. I think of their regime as a classical but fairly moderate kind of fascism. It has bloodily fought Islamism to a standstill on Algerian soil so, everyone pretends to like them.

The Poor Politics of Colonialism

I went back to Algeria – as a tourist, a spear fisherman, believe it or not- six years after independence. I was warmly received and I liked the people there. They felt like cousins, the sort of cousins you played with in childhood but have not seen in adulthood. I think now, as I thought in 1962, that the nationalists were on the right side of the argument but I miss Algeria nevertheless. It’s like a divorce that should not have happened if someone had been more reasonable. Even such a short time after the events, events I had lived through as an adult, it was difficult to comprehend what had gone wrong. It was difficult to find any trace of hatred for the French. A young man I wanted to thank for a favor done asked me to take him to a restaurant where he could eat Brie, made expensive by a tariff. (Do I have the talent to make up this anecdote?)

I blame the astonishing incompetence of a French political class that failed in the course of 130 years to invent a form of citizenship that would have accommodated a large and fast growing Muslim population. At the time, it was widely argued that the Muslims insisted on being ruled by a mild form of Sharia insofar as their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce, were concerned. Such an arrangement was incompatible with the strictly secular laws of the French Republic, of course, they were told. The Muslim numerical majority thus had to remain subjects, with only individual access to citizenship, more or less like any Finn or any Bulgarian. I don’t know if this was a genuine obstacle or an excuse for a simple case of yielding to the local French population who did not wish to live under Muslim rule, even if only for local affairs. In spite of their well publicized humanitarian and liberal values, French parties of the left played a prominent part in colonization and in the attendant repression of native populations. The late Socialist Pres. Mitterand, for example, was vigorously policing Algeria when he was a young politician (who had had one foot in the Resistance and one foot in Vichy, earlier, another story, of course).

A brief history of imperialism

After completing the military conquest of Algeria in 1847, which had been arduous, France soon developed a vague appetite for easy territorial gains overseas. The age-old British rival’s imperialism probably inspired the French. By WWI, France had placed under its control, Algeria’s neighbors Tunisia and Morocco (the latter, split with Spain), and the present countries of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Congo (the small one, next to the Belgian Congo). During World War I, France also took Togo, and the southern half of Cameroon from Germany. We must add Djibouti on the Red Sea and the large island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Most – but not all – of the population in the colonies was Muslim. Possibly close to half were native speakers of Arabic dialects. However in North Africa, large minorities knew no Arabic but were speakers of several varieties of Tamazigh (“Berber”). French colonial power did not fail to utilize this linguistic dichotomy, as you might expect. Be it as it may, at the close of WWII, you could travel straight south from Algiers on the Mediterranean to Pointe Noire, (across the river Congo from Kinshasa in the larger and better known Belgian Congo) without ever leaving French control.

The possession of a colonial empire seems to have generated monopolistic profits for a few French people, the extraction of which were accompanied by routine atrocities in some parts. The horrors of French rule in the equatorial colonies where hevea -rubber trees – grew, was documented by the great writer André Gide in his travel narrative Un Voyage au Congo. National possession of the empire gave the average French person much psychic income, I think. At least, it facilitated fantasizing – under the gray French skies – about palm trees and warm seas. And adventurous but skill-less young Frenchmen could always find jobs easily in the southern colonies, overseeing native (black) labor just for being white, French, and knowing the common language (French) well.

All the sub-Saharan African countries achieved independence peacefully in the late fifties or early sixties. Morocco and Tunisia had preceded them in 1956. Before that, in Sétif, Algeria, a peaceful demonstration against the French government was put down in 1945 in a massacre where thousands perished. In 1947, an attempted insurrection against French colonial power in faraway Madagascar was ended with another bloodbath. One concrete objection to colonialism is that it regularly places mediocre men in charge of the destinies of many others, some of whom are not mediocre. Those who gave the order to shoot in both Sétif and Madagascar where low level public servants.

Compare

There is an intuitive tendency to view colonialism largely or completely in terms of the culture of the colonial power. This is probably wrong. What matters is the circumstances of the colonial acquisition and the use to which it was put. The contrasting cases of Algeria and Senegal are instructive in this respect.

Algeria was conquered militarily between 1830 and 1847 in a thoroughly ravaging war. Note that 1830 was only 18 years after the Waterloo defeat. The Napoleonic era’s stupendous French military victories (excepting Waterloo) were fresh in the collective consciousness. Plus, the political entity centered in Algiers had been far from a bucolic and peaceful place before the French conquest. Its economy relied heavily on piracy and various forms of slaving. It made a likely prey. No one or almost no one was going to miss it. (It’s a mystery why Thomas Jefferson ran out of breath before he got to that Barbary state.) Algeria always mattered because it seemed a likely colony of settlement. It became one, a good one, in spite of the existence of a large native population.

The balance of France’s African colonies – with the exception of Tunisia that was wrested from nominal Ottoman rule by a brief military invasion – was acquired without much purposefulness and with little fighting. A large swath of land near the Equator was taken without a fight by an Italian adventurer, a naturalized Navy officer, a contemporary of Stanley. Brazza was usually accompanied only by a handful of native troops. Wherever he went, he cheekily raised the French flag and abolished slavery. The capital of the Congo bears his name to this day (indicating that he left a pretty good memory).

The smallish country of Senegal in western Africa is a special case of French colonization. French political presence there dates back to the 17th century, first in the form of slave trading posts. Later, the four main cities of Senegal were re-formed as French political municipalities. This, in the absence of a significant local French population. The inhabitants of those cities obtained French citizenship in 1792, that is, earlier than many inhabitants of France. They were eligible to vote and to be elected. French power over the countryside extended slowly from those four towns meeting little resistance.

This special case matters because the assimilationist current in Senegal was strong before independence in 1960 and it continued after independence. Today, it’s difficult to find a Senegalese who does not speak good to excellent French. The unknown percentage who can write do it in French. Interestingly, the casual racism guiding the interaction with the natives of the few French administrators and military personnel, plus a handful of businessmen, was largely suspended when they dealt with the Senegalese. (Personally, I think labels matter, “citizen,” for example. Obviously, that’s another story.)

The narrative of the colonization of Senegal is fairly important because it shows one case where a Muslim country (95%) is explicitly friendly toward the West and well informed about it (via the French language). It is also politically stable and democratic although it is poor (GDP/capita of only about $2,600 around 2015). It’s a case of successful intellectual colonization. I have even personally heard English-speaking Africans accuse Senegalese intellectuals of the same sins of arrogance and obstinacy that usually stick to Paris Left Bank intellectuals. Something went right in Senegal.

By the time of WWII, much of public opinion – including the still-large officer class – was enamored with the notion of France as a great Muslim power.

Colonial strata within France

Every new acquisition of territory in Africa generated a new wave of emigrants to France: students, low-level civil servants climbing the bureaucratic ladder, and some laborers. Public school teachers of native extraction – a large number – would go to France for training through what was intended as a revolving door. There, some would find true love, marry and stay. Every loss of a colony did the same as every acquisition because – as I have mentioned – not everyone knows how to choose the right side in a conflict. Every war also brought Africans to France, as soldiers and as laborers both. Many won French citizenship and remained too. Over the twentieth century that African-originated population grew inside France because immigrants, mostly from rural areas, usually multiply faster than the more urban host population. All immigrants and all their children and all their grandchildren attended the Republic’s schools, or, more rarely, the few Catholic schools.

There was comparatively little true racism, racism by color. (Read the subtle observations of the black American writer Richard Wright, for example.) The existence on the soil of Metropolitan France of a long assimilated black West Indian population may have contributed to deny conventional racism much traction. Despised cultural traits and a condition of economic inferiority on the one hand, and skin color on the other, just did not coincide well enough.

The relative rarity of color sentiment and its shallowness, does not mean that the French were or are free of prejudice, of course. For more than one century, the worst jobs in the country were occupied by immigrants from North Africa, mostly Algeria. Those were people from deeply rural, primitive regions, literate in no language. For most of that period, they lived in ghettos, while their wives and children remained behind in a Maghreb that was always fairly near.

Those people were subject to systematically poor treatment. It was made much worse by the Algerian war of independence that was fought partly in France, with numerous acts of terrorism. French French people never knew enough about Islam until recently and they were too religiously indifferent to call that prejudice “Islamophobic,” I think. What is now the largest political party in France, the Front National, used to be overtly anti-Muslim. Under new leadership, it has cleaned up its act in this respect, avowedly because that stance was doing it more electoral harm than good. It’s now against all immigration. In the current (2017) presidential campaign, some people with Muslims names have said publicly that they would vote for the Front. (They remain a curiosity, I am guessing.)

I am trying to be fair and descriptive here. Two relevant stories. When I was a teenager, I worked part time in an expensive hotel in Paris. Luxury hotels are like theaters; they have a public stage and a backstage. There was a middle aged guy who was the fix-everything man. He was knowledgeable and he had all the tools of most trades. His name was “Ahmed” backstage but it became magically “Jean” when he was in the public area. The great and luminous French movie star Isabelle Adjani (b. 1955) kept her half Algerian origins in the closet for half of her career. To be fair, when she disclosed that she was the daughter of an Algerian Amazigh (a Muslim) a consensus quickly formed that her secrecy had been silly. It’s also possible that she feared the nude scenes in her movies would meet with dangerous disapproval from her father’s group of origin.

In the end, there is a large sub-population in France today that traces its ancestry to various parts of Africa, north, west, and central. By American standards, some are black, some are white. Many or most are citizens. Many are not but have a legal right to live in France by virtue of some international post-colonial agreement or other. Some almost have that right. Many – and still coming – don’t have any such right at all but their cousin lives there. Their children all attend school. They all arrive knowing some French from the schooling in their countries of origin. Given the comparatively effective (comparatively) French school system, and given the unsmiling, generalized French contempt for multilingualism, they all end up “French” in some sense, knowing the French language well, familiar with the fundamentals of civics, well versed in basic French history.

Muslim identity

The only trait that consistently differentiates some, or probably most people of African origin from the rest of the French population, is their presumed Muslim identity. (Notably, you almost never hear of people of African descent who are Christian, or even nothing at all.) Islam matters as a cultural fact, even irrespective of genuine religious sentiment, because it prevents mixing to a large extent, and especially, intermarriage. Previous immigrants, from Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, and more recently, Portugal all tended to marry French. Even more so did their daughters. Muslims from Africa mostly don’t except that a few men marry non-Muslim women.

I say “presumed” Muslim identity because there is no rigorous way to estimate the current Muslim population in France. That too, is forbidden. Going by names – which is often done – is sure to give bad results. It’s likely that most French people with a Muslim name are like the bulk of other French people, religiously indifferent.  Hence name counting inflates the number of Muslims in any meaningful sense. Still, there are many mosques in France and many recriminations about their being in insufficient number. There is a large, monumental, highly visible mosque near central Paris. It shelters the headquarters of the official national organization that represents the interests of French Muslims with the government. I don’t know how representative that representative organization currently is, of course.

People with Muslim first names and last names are everywhere in France, over the latitude and longitude of the territory but also from the bottom – sweeping the streets of Paris – to the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. (A while ago, I was half in love with a French woman named Rachida Dati. She was a minister in Pres. Sarkozy’s cabinet. It did not work out!) The first French soldier to die in the NATO expedition in Bosnia was named El Hadji. The Paris cop terrorists killed outside of Charlie Hebdo also had a Muslim name.

There are many other markers of long-term African presence in France. Here are some, pell-mell: Best couscous in the world. The North African Arabic word for “fast” is commonly used in French, including by people with 32 ancestors born in France. One of the many vocables for the male appendage in French, also one of the most commonly used, is straight from Arabic. (Don’t count on me to satisfy you salacious curiosity; do your own research.) Paris is the world center for the promotion and recording of rich West African music. Same for most fiction and poetry in French, including a significant production from Africa. The strange, often baffling intellectual movement “la négritude“(“negroeness,” I think) developed in France. The largest or second largest collection (after that of the British Museum, maybe) of black African art in the world is in a Paris museum, etc.

Cultures

Those who know me, in person or through Notes On Liberty, or Liberty Unbound, those who spend even a little time on my blog (factsmatter.worldpress.com), or on my FB page will have heard me lamenting loudly the sterility of contemporary French culture. I cry torrents, especially over the impoverishment and the muddiness of the current French public French language, I mean, as spoken in France, specifically.* For the past fifty years, the French have had precious little to show by way of visual arts, or music and much of their contemporary literature projects the very cold of the grave. Aided by endless government subsidies, the French make many mediocre movies whose slowness and technical imperfection passes for intellectual depth, especially among a certain category of Americans.  (On this topic of government help to the French movie industry, you might read Delacroix and Bornon: Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable? A Skeptic’s Case for the Cultural Exception, with Special Reference to French Movies.” [pdf])

French public figures talk like teenagers and they generally don’t know how to finish a sentence. If a member of the French intelligentsia speaks to you about Iraq, for example, say a journalist at prestigious Le Monde, you know no more about Iraq when he is finished than you did when he begun; you may know less. It was not always like this. (And, I will not insist that the decline of French culture and language are due to my emigration to the US at age 21 but the dates coincide pretty well.) Incidentally, the museums are still good; actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached. But I digress. This is all to let you know of a certain critical pessimistic state of mind of mine.

Still, there are French cultural phenomena that continue to interest me. One is a “culture” TV show with a strong political component that’s tougher on politicians than anything we do in the US. (It’s called, “On nest pas couchés.“) Another is a pure political show, also hard on the politicians interviewed there. (It’s called simply, “L’ Emission politique.“)

So, another time, I am watching French TV intently because there is a retrospective show on the anarchizing singer/composer George Brassens who died in 1981. Brassens is the closest thing France has – except for Edith Piaf –  to a secular modern saint. He wrote elegant poems addressed to ordinary people that the intellectual elite also admired. He also put to music Victor Hugo and even the medieval poet François Villon. He sang all with a distinctive stage presence.

That night several current stars of French popular song have been gathered in one setting to each sing one or more of Brassens’s songs. A man named “Slimane” takes one of the three or four most popular, most familiar of Brassens’ pieces and sings it in a deliberately Arabized manner. When he is finished, the eyes of several women singers sparkle. I am strongly moved myself. Slimane has given new life to a classic. No one will ever forget his hybrid rendition of the song.

This is yet another time, I am dozing on the couch (again) after a good French political show I mentioned elsewhere. The TV is still on, of course. Something stops me from falling right asleep; something drags me back to consciousness. This has never happened to me before. What’s waking me is the clarity of the language used by a youngish man being interviewed for one of those culture/literature shows that abound on French television.** The man to whom the voice belongs enunciates precisely; his words are well chosen without being precious; his grammar is impeccable; he finishes every one of the sentences he begins; he does not stutter. He speaks like a man who has thought of what he is speaking about.

Soon, I am alert enough to realize that the fine speaker of French is on the show to flog his newly published book. The book is about conversations he has had in his mind with the writer/philosopher Albert Camus. Now, Camus died in 1960, by the look of it, before the current writer on Camus was born. Camus has a special place in the minds and hearts of several generations of a certain category of French men that used to include me. He is one of the fathers of popular “existentialism.” (I have to use the qualifier and the quote marks to avoid the predictable correction by pedants who will push quotes in German into my email to prove that Camus is in no way a real existentialist. WTF!) Camus received the Nobel in literature in 1957 but that’s not why we care about him. I cannot describe here in detail the particular category of French men who revere him but here is a pointer: Early on in his fame Camus broke up very publicly with his good buddy, the better known Jean-Paul Sartre because Sartre would not denounce Stalinism.

The young writer on TV is black. I am told he is a well-known rapper in France. His name is Abd el Malik. Anecdotal evidence about nothing, some will say. Will it influence me in the future in spite of my good social science training? You bet. How can I avoid it? How can millions of French people ignore this kind of episode irrespective of their views on immigration? That man’s short presentation was like a ray of sunshine in a uniformly dark forest. Why should they not let it impress them?

The story does not end here, Camus himself was a Frenchman from Algeria, obviously not a Muslim. He was born to a widowed, half-deaf and illiterate Spanish immigrant woman who cleaned houses to support herself and Albert. The French are not so much confused about the legacies of their former colonial Empire as they are faced with a confounding reality.


* French is well spoken in various places, in Senegal, first, in much of urban Morocco and Tunisia, and among the Haitian elite, of all places. Romanians and Lebanese also tend to speak a very classical French as a second language.

**I say this with a little bitterness because, as someone who is still practicing being a commercially unsuccessful American writer, I regret strongly that we don’t have a plethora of such shows in the US of A.

Dear Mr. Pirie, refrain from using the “neoliberal” label

A few days ago, Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute announced the publication of the Neoliberal Mind.  Basically, Pirie accepts the grab-everything-we-don’t-like tag that many would-be thinkers have tried for decades to stick upon what we can refer to as the “liberal right” (I prefer the French expression of droite libérale). All he does is take the same message that classical liberals have been using for centuries and puts a new label on it.

It is a PR stunt. To be fair, I have often made the joke that there should be a New Liberal Party of Canada so that its members may be called the “neoliberals” so as to ridicule those who use the word. As such, I am poorly placed to frown upon Pirie’s book. Nonetheless, I wish that Pirie (and the folks at the Adam Smith Institute) would refrain from using the label.

Why? Because for years, the word “neoliberal” has been the most efficient sorting tool to separate the wheat from the chaff.

There is no generally agreed upon definition of “neoliberalism”. Everyone has its own spin on it. Sometimes, academics who use that word sometimes to mean what classical liberalism entails. In other instances, they speak about subsidies to certain companies as “neoliberalism”. Once, and I am not joking, I debated a policy analyst from a left-wing think tank who told me that rising levels of public spending to GDP could be qualified as  part of a “neoliberal” agenda.

A concept without a concise definition which is meant to collect into a bag everything that is not liked is not a relevant one.

Generally, those who use the word have this épouvantail (the word strawman has a scarier sound in French) of the beast they claim to slay. But it is generally a caricature that does not hold basic scrutiny. They argue that “neoliberals” value profit and are “cold utility maximizers” who draw everything they believe from the cold hands of the economic sciences. They are generally unaware that economists (which are often lumped in the same bag as the main promoters of “neoliberalism”) adhere to no such simplicity. One merely needs to read James Buchanan, Vernon Smith, Elinor Ostrom, Deirdre McCloskey, Max Hartwell, William Easterly to be cleansed of this simplistic (and simpleton) view of the human mind. Using a concept that is ill-defined and does not even survive the most basic of ideological Turing tests has no value.

In the end, the sole value of those who spew the word “neoliberalism” is that they signal to readers and scholars that their work might be worth avoiding. To be fair, some of those who use the word produce interesting research and comments. Generally, they tend to use the word parsimoniously and they make it a point of honor to define it in clear and unambiguous terms. They are an exception and, generally, good research tends to be absorbed in the mainline if the point is valid. As such, the word “neoliberalism” is useful because it sorts out the wheat from the chaff.

I understand the PR value of accepting the cloak – which is what Pirie is doing. However, are we not forsaking the best weapon to identify bad social science in so doing?