Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Warring States

March 5th, 2008 · No Comments

Depending on who you read, the dates given for the beginning of the Warring States period (Zhanguo Shidai) in Chinese history vary. There was no demarcating event – no Sarajevo or Pearl Harbor, no bold first incident that set the wheels of chaos in motion. It was not as if there wasn’t any war and suddenly, out of the blue, there was war for the next 250 years of it. The dates mostly cluster in the first half of the 5th BCE. The previous era, known as the Spring Autumn (Chunqiu) was obviously a time when things too were in the state of serious unravelment. Confucius – or rather the disciples who wrote him up – based his philosophy on trying to keep the lid on through ritual, propriety and, of course, the all-important rectification of names, and his death is sometimes used to mark the beginning of the period of zero-sum warring period.

During this period of constant struggle for power Confucianism was not the only thing that flourished. Arts, language, and writing took off, as did the development and proliferation of metal works that allowed not only for the weapons of war, but also the tools for agriculture. Iron took over from bronze. As states disappeared and the bodies piled higher, culture grew at an astounding rate. Funny how, sometimes, things like that happen.

This was also the time for development of military strategy, and the legendary Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) was said to have produced The Art of War during this period. Not long ago in a listserv forum I belong to, a member referred to Sun Tzu in a way that equated his “victory without battle” strategy to a comment made by another member who advised that an American president should be “harmless as doves.” I advised the referent to remember that Sun Tzu was a general during a period of constant war, which was all about “the last man standing.” Though he developed great strategies to gain victories through deception rather than engagements, he must have been quite willing to kill anything that moved. That was the only way anyone could be the guy looking out over the strewn field when evasive strategies failed. If he had not been willing to wade swinging into the slaughter we would never have heard about him. I am not, by the way, advocating slaughter. I feel quite sure that if I’d been around during that period of Chinese history, I would not be remembered today.

But this morning I woke up with “warring states” on my mind, though it was not about states battling each other, rather that it was the battle between the two Democratic contenders within certain American states’ primaries today. Let me state clearly here that I lean heavily in the Democratic direction, though, for the record, I was once registered as a Republican in Bighorn County, Wyoming. Nearly everyone in northern Wyoming in the early 80’s was a Republican, and all local elections were settled in the primaries. In that particular election I was very interested in the outcome of the sheriff’s contest. Though I will not get into details, I did vote for the winner for one of the very few times in my life. It was a practical registration, a one-time deal, after which I showered and burnt junipers branches in my stove.

But today I am thinking about the Dems, who have come up with two candidates for the presidency who are not DOA white guys. In the last two presidential elections they have done their damndest to develop successful strategies to lose the presidency. But now that they finally have a shot at winning back the White House, at a time when it would be hard not to, they end up with two candidates who are spending all their time drubbing each other rather than whacking the piñata from Arizona. Go figure.

Who would have ever thought that George W. Bush could have held the White House beyond his disastrous first term? But, despite all odds, he managed to do just that. You can blame it on creative ballot box stuffing, or the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth and other Karl Rove posses, but in the end when he should have been stomped into a pulp, he wasn’t. The sad fact was that the Democrats couldn’t produce someone with a negligible pulse, which was the same problem they had in 2000. Al Gore may have subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Peace, but when he ran for president it was too difficult for many to feel his beat, one that was successfully hidden beneath countless layers of wooden veneer.

But now they have two candidates who are doing their best to kill each other in public, while John McCain, who may be a “hero” to some, but who is clearly not presidential material for these times, continues with his free ride for a lot longer than he should. I can only hope that the Democrats get their heads out into the daylight. If Hillary cannot gather the support from the people’s delegates, the harebrained super-delegate route may be the only one that can save her, and this would not be good.

That the last man standing might be a woman is fine with me, just as long as the Democrats let it be decided by the people, the electorate, and not via the privileged political route of backroom mischief. If it is, it could very well deliver the presidency into the hands of the same ones who’ve been botching it so badly for the last seven years. And the world, more dangerous now by far than it was 7 years ago, would be an unimaginably more dangerous place. For the world’s sake – not just the US – we have to get things back on some sort of track. All this wandering – legal, moral and otherwise – has got to come to an end. If it doesn’t, well…. I am not sure if I want to think about that today.

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