Unfortunately it’s not okay to sucker punch Richard Spencer
"Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” Dr. Martin Luther King
"I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self- defense, I call it intelligence.” Malcolm X
“This Great Duty (adherence to the yama rules) is to be followed throughout the world, irrespective of station at birth, country or place, time or custom.” Patañjali Yoga Sutra 2:31, tr. by Shyam Ranganathan
“But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.” John Lennon
In the great Indian epic the Mahabharata, the climactic war between the forces of dharma, led by the five Pandu brothers Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva, and the forces of adharma, led by the Pandus’ cousins the Kauravas, quickly devolves into a stalemate. The stalemate is broken only when the Pandus start cheating, or at best fighting dirty. Some examples: Arjuna neutralizes the threat of his invincible great great uncle Bhishma by sending Shikandhi (a warrior Bhishma has sworn not to fight because he had been a woman in a previous incarnation) to assault him. With Bhishma thus distracted Arjuna sneaks up and shoots hundreds of arrows into him. Although Bhishma cannot be killed, nevertheless he is forced to spend the rest of the war lying in agony on a bed or arrows. A few days later the eldest Pandu brother, Yudhishthira, lies to his teacher Drona, letting Drona believe that his son has died. When Drona collapses in despair he is promptly beheaded by his arch-rival’s son. This is especially ironic because Yudhishthira’s father is Dharma, righteousness itself personified. Bhima takes grisly revenge on his cousin Dushasana by ripping his arm out of its socket, cracking open his ribs, and drinking his blood! Extra ruthless. Later still Arjuna kills his half-brother Karna when he is unarmed and defenseless. Naturally, these outcomes might be troubling for those familiar with conventionally moral stories. While it is true that all of the aforementioned villains (for lack of a better term) have it coming, you expect heroes to fight honorably. In Westerns, for example, the guy with the black hat draws first, and the guy with the white hat fires second in self defense. Or if he does fire first it is to neutralize an imminent threat to an innocent.
Back when I used to do traveling workshops I liked to tell a very abridged version of the story of the Mahabharata as one of my lectures, and this aspect of the story (along with the many depictions of hunting and various other cruelties) was troublesome to some of the students. “But, but… what about ahimsa, man?”, was a question I would get. Up until very recently I resolved the question of “how do good guys fight dirty” by contrasting the Mahabharata with India’s other national epic, the Ramayana. In just one example among many, there’s a point in the Ramayana in which the hero Rama has a chance to rescue his wife Sita from the demon Ravanna by subterfuge. Rama demurs, though, because to rescue his wife by the same means by which she was taken from him would put him on the same moral level as Ravanna. He later faces Ravanna in combat and wins. In short, all the lessons of the Ramayana are couched in terms of ideal situations. Rama is the ideal man, Sita the ideal wife, Lakshmana the ideal brother, Hanuman the ideal friend, etc. etc. So my resolution of the Mahabharatha’s moral ambiguity was along the lines of: while the Ramayana presents the world as it ought to be, the Mahabharatha presents the world as it really is. In fact, the epilogue of the Mahabharatha states: “What is written here can be found elsewhere, but what is not in this book cannot be found anywhere.”
I’ve recently come around to a better way of thinking about all of this thanks to Instagram. There’s a guy I follow named Shyam Ranganathan whose handle is @yogaphilosopy_com. I don’t always see eye-to-eye about with him when it comes to Yoga, but I dig the majority of what he has to say very much. A few months ago he posted about the notion of conventional morality, and how it can be exploited by the wicked. It stuck in my craw, where it had been percolating and marinating until I had a eureka moment just a few days ago. His post was about conventional morality reads:
“Conventional Morality is the code of good outcomes, good character and good rules. Conventional Morality gives rise to Moral Parasites: people who do not wish to be constrained by Conventional Moral rules (or any such moral considerations), but wish everyone else to be constrained by such rules. In this case, a State of War exists between the Conventionally Moral and Moral Parasites. Moral Parasites engage in constant belligerence against the Conventionally Moral. The Conventionally Moral in turn do not retaliate or engage in preemptive strikes as this would be a departure from Conventional Morality. This makes them an easy target of Moral Parasites…Accordingly, we free ourselves from Moral Parasites by abandoning Conventional Morality and instead opting for Yoga: Devotion to the Ideal of the Right, namely Sovereignty (Īśvara). Not being bound by Conventional Morality, the Yogi is no longer an easy target for the Moral Parasite. This is in everyone’s interest.”
So here is a proposition that there exists a moral code beyond, or greater than the conventional one. And it is different. To use Yogic/Buddhist terminology one might say that adherence to Dharma may involve, in certain situations, behavior or action that is not moral. If it were presented in a Ven diagram the circles would mostly overlap but there would be a sliver of Dharma outside of conventional morality. And here is where I had my eureka moment: I remembered that in his book Fear and Trembling, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard uses a story from the Bible to teach a similar lesson. Now Kierkegaard doesn’t use the term Dharma, of course. He couches it in terms of religion versus morality. In one of God’s many ultra-hardcore moves in the Old Testament, he commands the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. It’s hard to think of anything more immoral than killing your own child. Fortunately for Isaac, Abraham’s willingness to carry out the deed is sufficient for God and so his life is spared. But, according to Kierkegaard, the story of Abraham and Isaac illustrates that religious duty supersedes moral duty. That is to say, if the command comes from directly God, or if there is a need to uphold Dharma (after all other options have been exhausted, it should be noted) then whatever act is so commanded or required is ultimately ok. Kierkegaard calls this the teleological suspension of the ethical, which in layperson’s terms means sometimes the ends justify the means.
Knowing that extra-moral action is an option to attain political ends constitutes a very seductive trap. It’s the same as knowing that there is a space beyond the gunas and all other worldly fetters waiting for you once you finally get all your shit in one sock and attain enlightenment, or moksha, or whichever term you prefer. The list of gurus who have engaged in all types of malfeasance under the aegis of “crazy wisdom,” or existing in a state of transcendence is long indeed. It is important to keep in mind, always and always, the two conditions under which it may be acceptable to act according to unconventional morality: 1) if you hear the command from God directly; and 2) after all other options have been tried. Generally speaking it tends not to end well for people when they claim they are following God’s direct command. From Abu Bakr al Bhagdadi through David Koresh, all the way back to Joan of Arc and beyond. I’m not an anti-theist, and I’m not saying it’s impossible for God to speak directly to you. But if God directs you to some political action, especially involving violence… I don’t know. One of history’s axioms is that the more convinced you are of your Rightness the more horrible the things you’ll do.
And going back to the Mahabharata, remember the Pandus finally decide to fight only after the Kauravas try to assassinate them by means of arson. Then when they come back out of hiding after that attempt they are denied the whole kingdom which was theirs by right and instead are given the barren, infertile regions of it. When the Pandus turn their portion of the kingdom into a paradise the Kauravas cheat them out of it in a game of loaded dice. After thirteen years in exile the Pandus return and are still denied the kingdom. All this and many more insults and indignities are heaped on the Pandus. And then when they do fight they fight honorably at first, but the Kauravas prove to be too great an adversary. The unconventional morality really only happens at the end.
Nobody denies that we’re living in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse says. There absolutely are moral parasites in power. But I don’t think we’ve tried everything yet, and I, for one, haven’t heard God whisper into my ear. From where I stand it’s not ok to sucker punch neo-Nazis or Proud Boys or anyone of that ilk. It’s not ok to steal a thin blue line flag from somebody’s front yard (this happened to my neighbor two doors down), and it’s not ok to ghost somebody who has only ever been a friend to you if they seem not to agree with you politically (this has happened to me).
The quotations by Dr. King and Malcolm X at the top of this newsletter comprise a wonderful dialethia. They seem to make opposite claims yet they are both true. Which quotation to apply? And when? Which way to lean? The answer comes from the Gita: “Yoga karmasu kauśalam (Yoga is skill in action).” Skill, skill, skill. It all comes down to skill. This skill, the skill of insight born of self-knowledge, is honed through daily practice. This practice may consist of asana, scripture, sitting, devotion to a worthy guru… or any combination of these. I encourage you all most sincerely to remain conventionally moral. With practice, if the time happens to come (God forbid) to act otherwise, then you may better know.