“Ideology is the opposite of philosophy. Philosophy is the curiosity which guides its inquiry according to universal principles. Ideology is a prior prejudice that seeks out an echo-chamber of reaffirming information.”
― Stefan Molyneux
There is an unofficial school of thought that argues a strong belief can override a number of flaws in a violent situation. The regular reader of my material will note how much importance I place on attitude and one might argue that a strong sense of self-belief underlines the perseverance needed in a “never give in” attitude. However, what happens when belief becomes an ideology? How much can this impact on the functional structure and practical efficacy of a combat system?
I recently stumbled over a “raw” cut of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast entitled: “Which Had the Superior Military: First or Second World War Germany?” For those who don’t listen to this show I urge that you rectify that fast and buy this guy’s entire back catalogue. Many an hour of mundane manual labour and many a long car journey has passed happily thanks to listening to Mr Carlin’s discussions, insights and reflections on historical events. He fills up a lot of unavoidable dead time with a plenty of information and food for thought. His Hardcore History shows often inspire me to write and to theme lessons. This experience was no different and it made me think a lot about my current writing on the problems in martial arts subculture. I do not believe that we should always act microcosmically and macrocosmically on the same issue – life is just too complicated to wholly adapt such a pattern – however, there are certain instances where that might be fairly applicable. This podcast episode makes the argument that a key problem with World War II’s German military was its ideology. My research on Bullshitsu – what I categorise as the nurturing of irrational beliefs in martial arts – touches upon the forced welding of religion and ideology on martial arts as well as a refusal to see outside of a respective tribal bubble. This could be compared to the main points Carlin makes in this particular podcast.
Before I continue, it is important to point out that this short pilot episode did not let World War I’s ideology completely off the hook. The military of the German Empire’s elitist aristocratic nepotism impacted on its effectiveness. However, Nazism was a far more corrosive, pervasive and ultimately debilitating belief structure. WWI Germany differed from WWII Germany in the respect that far more people were in positions of power, based on merit rather than ideology. Furthermore, the German head of state, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was kept separate from most military decision-making. Aristocratic Germany had its idiosyncrasies, like any other monarchic system of the time, but it had established a longstanding system of military pragmatism and technological progression. By contrast, everything the Nazis did was underpinned by their beliefs and the whims of their head of state – who acted more like a cult-leader – the Chancellor and Führer, Adolph Hitler.
Fanaticism to the Nazi cause and being in favour with Hitler trumped competence in the WWII German military hierarchy, allowing such buffoons as the drug-addicted and massively self-indulgent ex-fighter pilot, Herman Goering, into positions of immense power. Relying on Goering’s Luftwaffe (German air force) in several key points of the war, such as the Battle of Dunkirk and the Siege of Stalingrad, cost the Germans dearly. The racist policy of the Nazis was also responsible for much of its undoing. With their entire plan for the Thousand Year Reich being based on the ideal that victory could only be achieved through the strength of a pure Aryan race of soldiers, Germany lost the expertise of a huge number of highly skilled military personnel. Another major issue that contributed to several large scale strategic blunders on the Nazis behalf was Hitler’s obsession with a grand scale Jewish Conspiracy Theory. This can be traced back to a hoaxed and plagiarised anti-sematic booklet entitled “Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion”. Such faulty thinking led Hitler to declaring war on the USA when he was already attacking Russia. This resulted in the Germans being caught on both their eastern and western fronts, fighting Soviet Russia and the USA respectively. This eventually ended with Germany’s two fronts receding all the way back to Berlin, where they lost the war. Bullshitsu exhibits comparable flaws in the way it undermines the combative potential of different martial arts systems.
Many martial arts operate within strict hierarchies. Whenever possible, martial arts founders like to keep their arts within their literal or extended family. Nepotism thrives within the martial arts infrastructure with many a martial art chief instructor operating like a cult guru or, dare I say, gangster with his strict inner-circle of senior teachers. Sycophantism is endemic in said inner-circle. Adherents slavishingly adhere to a feedback loop that indulges the founder to explore whatever whim he sees fit, often warping the art without criticism. Consider the Chinese Buddhist martial artist who enforces a rule that every technique performed must be prefaced with a block and that every set form must consist of nine techniques or multiples of nine techniques. The insistence on blocking first when doing a set form has spread like a virus through 20th century martial arts mythology, leading to a huge amount of criticism from astute observers of interpersonal violence. Likewise, pushing belief in the pseudoscientific, mystical concept of numerology to shape the way techniques are retained can either artificially limit or extend important physical recordings of fighting methods. Both ideas end up creating cognitive dissonance in followers of this system when they start bringing in pressure-testing of some description.
So abhorrent is the idea and connotations of racism in most mainstream discussions – at least in the so-called developed world – that I doubt many martial arts teachers would want to be caught declaring blatant race supremacy, much less another race’s inferiority. That isn’t to say that there aren’t overt racist martial arts subcultures today – there most certainly are – but they exist on the extreme fringes of the overall subculture, as they do in general society. Nevertheless, martial arts have often been linked to ethnocentrism and this concept underlies many common origin myths. The supposed superiority of one art over another is sometimes connected to its cultural identity and many martial arts have historically been intertwined with nationalist movements. Having an ethnocentric belief in one’s martial art does not allow for adaptation or openness to progressive change. It promotes the idea that anything foreign is inferior and fuels logical fallacies, such as the appeal to tradition or antiquity. None of this is good for the practical improvement of an individual’s fighting ability or, indeed, their survival chances in a self-protection situation. Martial arts systems that have remained insular have suffered due to the inevitability of change. Rather than allowing in fresh perspectives from martial artists of different cultures to help improve certain aspects or even better preserve the intentions of the founder, these incestuous conditions lead to the warping of an art. They stifle the advancement of new ideas, new perspectives and addressing the constant need to adapt.
Finally, conspiracy theory ideology drives a lot of martial artists. Such an idea comes in many forms. Some martial arts figures cite a conspiracy by virtually everyone to besmirch their good name when credible evidence cannot be produced to support some of their outlandish claims and backstory. These claimants fail to accept the burden of proof. Folkloric tradition often favours stories of the underdog and this particular plot device feeds into the psychology of martial arts subculture. Here the imagination of the conspiricist is well and truly nurtured. Stories of righteous or simply charismatic outlaws using their superior mental resources against bullies proliferate throughout most cultures. Chinese martial arts are greatly influenced by such Wuxia classics as “The Water Margin”, where a gang of 108 outlaws form an army. Okinawa has its stories of peasant farmers developing their bujutsu martial art from using farmer’s tools. Japan’s modern ninjutsu practitioners perpetuate the story of a counterculture arising from an oppressed farming underclass in the Iga and Koka mountains. Even the character of Robin Hood is synonymous with English archery and Switzerland’s William Tell with the crossbow. The fact that there have been secret militias throughout history only emboldens belief in this mythology. From these stories we draw various conspiracy theories. Alternatively the martial arts conspiricist might argue that the conspiracy is within their actual martial arts tradition. This is where we get the so-called hidden techniques and secret techniques being claimed with no supporting evidence. The martial artist begins to sell the idea that he has decoded secrets of the ancients that unlock the magical potential of certain fighting systems.
Conspiricism is just another belief system and should not be confused with critical thinking. Martial arts have been suppressed and banned in certain countries throughout history, often in order to prevent civilians or an occupied country’s inhabitants to militarise against the government or occupying powers. However, empirical evidence tends to reveal a sad story for those who tried to preserve martial arts traditions in the face of such oppression. The last great hurrah for traditional Chinese martial arts in war occurred at the turn of the 20th century during the Boxer Uprising. The Boxers did strike some powerful early blows during their initial skirmishes against their foreign opponents and much of their success is testament to the efficiency of guerrilla warfare. However, the mystical ideology that drove them was never going to sustain their war against their opponent’s superior technology. Even when they allied themselves with China’s own military, deficiencies in modern training methods were shown up as Chinese soldiers regularly demonstrated their lack of firearms training, often missing their targets at point blank range. As for Boxers, themselves, their belief that the practise of martial arts movements would make them impervious to bullets and their single mission to expel all that was foreign was only ever going to end in destruction and devastating repercussions on their countrymen. The huge losses incurred by the Boxer side throughout the struggle should have been the last word on the use of magic in warfare.
There is no evidence that Ninjutsu was a secret martial arts tradition created, nurtured and perfected by a separate counter-culture to the samurai. Rather it was the skillset of a specific job role found in the samurai war machine. Contrary to the prevailing fairy tale, ninjas were found throughout the social hierarchy of Japan. Both samurai and ashigaru (foot soldiers) were ninjas. Various weapons, such as the sickle and chain, have a long history in the medieval Japanese military and there is no evidence to suggest it originated as an incidental weapon of suppressed farmers. This brings us onto Okinawan Kobudo, where we find that all the great historic pioneers of this art were members of that country’s aristocracy and not oppressed peasants.
It should also be understood that re-interpretation of martial arts or its evolution into a performance art does always equate to the concealment of secret moves. There is enough robust documentation that demonstrates the way martial arts have radically transformed over the years. None of this information is hidden. The art just changed, evolved and adapted according to the new demands of society and the views of its custodians.
My multi-volume book, “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work”, regularly touches upon the problems with ideology. Ultimately I think the engine for Bullshitsu is tribalism, but what often unites a tribe and pits it against others is an ideology. Said tribe might better described as a cult of personality, which a lot of martial arts schools and traditions resemble, but the ideology provides the toxic drivers and rationale needed to pursue impractical strategies, tactics and techniques. When the martial artist engages critical thinking he humanises the founders, pioneers, teachers and champions of combat systems. He can strip away the unproven and the unprovable. He can also better understand context, providing a clearer a picture of a martial art’s qualities. Dan Carlin’s episode on the two historic German militaries highlights what happens when absurd ideas run amok and go unchecked. Having a strong belief in one’s self might be a very useful aid when it comes to fighting, but systems of combat need the cold eye of reasoning and the harsh domain of empirical testing.
“Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work” is an upcoming multi-volume ebook, written by Jamie Clubb and published by Ex-L-Ence Publishing.
Photography: Still taken from the promotion of the “Kung Fury” short film from the Fightland website.