Home > Commentaries on TTC > 57 – the number of states in the USA that President Obama claims to have visited

57 – the number of states in the USA that President Obama claims to have visited

The more laws and restrictions there are/The poorer people become,/The sharper men’s weapons,/The more trouble in the land.

Rules and regulations only buy an illusion of progress. But it’s only when you invent a rule or pass a law that you create rule-benders and law breakers. Laws, rules, regulations etc also create a sense of entitlement – not always a fair sense of entitlement. Reduced to the microcosm of the classroom, this might result in a student demanding less talk, more grammar. I’ve been there.  Lao would not be impressed.  His tip for success remains, “Do nothing.” Once again, we are told that those who do not strive will become heroes of the universe. The slacker’s philosophy.

Lao suggests that the smart ones take no action and  [the] people are reformed. The smart ones enjoy peace and people become honest. The smart ones do nothing and people become rich. They have no desires and people return to the good and simple life. If we can be so presumptuous as to believe that the teachers are the smart ones and the people are our students, how would that change your teaching? The teacher holds back and a new type of student emerges: one who can be honest about their achievements, who develop a wealth of learning resources, who enjoy learning a language in a good, simple way.


Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. March 7, 2011 at 14:28

    Did you see the programme on telly about Western and Chinese civilisation yesterday? How China was the world leader till the 15th century, then Europe took over due to competition between nation and city states, while China stagnated under inward-looking Confucianism. Am I right in thinking Confucianism and Tao are not at all similar?

  2. March 7, 2011 at 15:18

    ^ The Needham Question. The way I see it is that they are very different but equally limiting philosophies. Confucianism teaches servility and unquestioning obedience while Daoism teaches passivity and spiritualism, i.e. necromancy and geomancy. Both not really acceptable in a modern context.

    • March 7, 2011 at 15:25

      Thank you. I had to look up all those terms, and am enlightened for it.

  3. dfogarty
    March 8, 2011 at 08:01

    An interesting exchange indeed. David asks if Confucianism and Tao are dissimilar and Luan responds by talkisng about Confucianism [and] Daoism. I don’t think that Daoism (or Taoism, more frequently in UK English) is the same thing as Tao. In the same ways that many Christians would point to the Roman Catholic church and say that it isn’t real Christianity or, more secularly, many communists would point to any “communist” government and say that it isn’t really communist.

    David – the first thing to remember about tao is what Lao Tzu said about it in the first chapter: The name that can be named is not the name; the tao that can be told is not the real tao. This might appear cryptic (or mystical, if you’re an Orientalist), but it’s pretty straightforward: tao is something, says the old boy, which is constantly in flux. The minute someone codifies it and explains it to you, you know that they’re not giving you a very good picture. There will be a different kind of tao for everyone in the world. For everything in the world.

    Unlike Luan, I don’t see this as limiting. I see it as truly reflective of the reality that science doesn’t always face up to. When I was a child I used to be sceptical about the TV viewing figures. How could they know what people were watching in their houses. How did they know that the people were actually sat in front of their TV set watching what was on and not in the kitchen, making tea or sat on the sofas, playing cards? When I found out the methodology, I felt vindicated: they took a sample of the population and asked them and then extrapolated wildly to the whole of the country. In reality, millions of us could have been tuning in late at night to Open University programmes.

    A Taoist media would probably print TV viewing figures such as, “How do we know if anyone even turned the television on last night?” or “Was there anything on the box last night?” Such imprecision must make the heads of many (such as Luan?) implode under the apparent arrogance and vacuity that they seem to exhibit. It’s not what I take from taoism though.

    I look at messages such as these (or the ideas within the tao te ching) and I see somebody telling me to work it out for myself. Somebody who is saying to me that there is an obvious meaning behind such apparent frippery, I just have to uncover what that meaning might be. Tolstoy wrote that the kingdom of god is inside you which was a fairly daring thing for a man of his time and place to say. It’s not that dissimilar to taoism: all of the answers that you will ever need in life can be found by looking inside yourself and looking around you. Now that we’re back talking about gods, let me correct Luan by pointing out the obvious that taoism does not teach necromancy and geomancy. A part of taoism does. But the tao that can be named ya-di-ya-di-ya. Some people divide taoism into different parts: contemplative taoism and hsien taoism, where hsien refers to the immortals that such people hope to become. Lao Tzu would probably argue that you can’t have one without the other. Similarly, some people might go into classes unprepared and with no materials and teach a blinder. You might call it Dogme, but they might refute such a label because they don’t believe in Lord Thornbury or Master Meddings. It’s just how they teach.

    But to get to the crux of your question, Confucianism and Tao are actually one and the same inasmuch as that tao is in everything! But many elements of the taoist canon would contradict many elements within the Confucian canon. Taoism is supposed by most to predate Confucianism. The biggest differences can be summarised as follows: Confucius wrote about how to tame things and live with them; Lao Tzu wrote about how we need to change ourselves and live with the wild things. The ideal Confucian leader would be someone who was humane enough to love his (gender selected consciously) people and would be respected enough to set a good example; the taoist leader might as well be sat under a tree, smelling of Peach schnapps. Confucians think that Nature is to be studied, dissected, taken apart and labelled. Taoists would ask why bother? You’re not going to be able to replicate Nature. Surely it’s better to try and spend some time studying it to work with it?
    Politically, I see the Confucians as the erstwhile bleeding hearts of the left. They are motivated by honourable intentions and their only regrets about helping the poor is that the poor read right-wing newspapers and despise them. The poor live in these areas, in houses that are just-so, they read these newspapers and they watch this television. They are not overly interested in cricket, but they love to watch football soccer on an overly large television screen that one has to wonder where they got the money from to buy. They have no intention of ever working, but are human so need to be taught how to behave like humans.
    The taoists, on the other hand, are anarchists. They don’t want to start leading anyone nor do they want to start providing a sociological study of the poor. They are less concerned with rhetoric and more concerned with direct action. They recognise that if you work with what you have around you, then the world will change. Taoists and anarchists advocate looking at the whole rather than at the smaller parts. When you can get a whole picture, then you won’t be fooled into obsessing about the finer details (exemplified perfectly a few years back when a colleague who was virulently anti-war in 2003 voted for the Labour party in 2005 despite them prosecuting the Iraq war; anarchists, naturellement, don’t waste their time voting).

    Educationally, Confucianism is all about how to tackle our ignorance and become smarter bunnies. Taoism is all about recognising that our ignorance is here to stay and working within that limitation. The Needham Answer. But Needham didn’t quite get the message. It’s not, “We’re dumb and we’re always going to be dumb. Why bother?” The best way to approach taoist writings is to ask yourself, “They seem to be saying this, but this doesn’t fit in with the whole. How else can I interpret this text?” Taoists would make mighty fine anthropologists, I suspect. They favour the broad brush of qualitative methods and allow the reader to draw the most appropriate conclusions.

    Taoism is often accused of being passive by people who interpret it perhaps a little bit too literally. Wu-wei is not “Do nothing” ; it is wei-wu-wei, action through non-action. Far be it from me to provide the definitive gloss to this rather confusing principle, ignorant as I am. Behind the principle there is a concept that whatever has authority over us, be it political, natural, familial, economic, etc. only has authority over us because we permit it inasmuch as we recognise this authority and react to it. Non-action, wu wei, can be interpreted as meaning that this recognition of authority is withheld. Do nothing. What happens when enough people withhold their recognition of authority can be seen quite clearly in Libya at the moment. The authority acts violently in order to force recognition. Would a Libyan taoist just sit back and accept the policeman’s [once again, gender chosen consciously] blows and bullets? Well, some might; some might not. You have to respond as you would naturally respond: wu wei – do nothing that goes against what you would normally do. To thine ownself be true. And, within this, we find another difference between taoism and confucianism. Confucius is more about taming yourself so that you can live well with others and within the hierarchy. Taoism starts off from the belief that if people are living in line with tao, then peaceful coexistence is a given. Where a Confucian garden would presumably need a lot of planning and a lot of care, a taoist garden would not see the need to meddle. This causes problems when a would-be taoist marries a Confucian. My solution? Move to a country where people live in flats (or plants don’t grow).

    I understand how people can disregard taoism as passive, overly spiritual, vacuous and limiting. But that’s not my take on it. I am reminded about a police inspector on the news back at a time when the anti-globalisation movement(s) was/were growing. “We want to talk to them,” he said, “we want to work with them. But when we try and meet their leaders, they tell us that they don’t have any.”He saw willful mischief-making afoot, but didn’t understand that for many people who were classified as anti-globalisation, having a leadership was both unnecessary and undesirable. This made perfect sense to them, but the inspector was stumped by what seemed to him to be uncooperative sods. So it is with the taoists and the non-taoists, I suspect.
    Taoism is not a dogma as far as I am concerned. It is something that will affect everyone in a very individual way, and therefore it is not something that can be accurately codified. I have said the same sort of thing about Dogme before – and provoked a very harsh reaction from a moderator at #ELTChat who clearly thought I was being some sort of elitist, obscurantist wanker. But it’s not a refusal to cooperate, it’s a recognition that it’s futile to try. My take on tao/dogme/anarchism is not going to be the same as my fellow travellers’ so why should I try and put forward my take on them as the take. I can talk about my take on them and hope that people will find their path leading off mine. Or that people will begin to look at things afresh.

    In just this way, you come here and ask these questions; Luan comes here an provides his answers; these questions and answers make me sit down and think about them and I find myself moving position ever-so slightly and finding a new path. This is the kind of thing that used to infuriate me about Christians: no matter how much bile and reason one threw at them, it just reinforced their idea that they were right. The bile made them love you all that much more; the reason reinforced their belief that the ways of the lord are mysterious. If that is how I am coming across, my apologies! There’s nothing mysterious about tao, though. It is what you are; it is what you have; it is what you do.

    Snakes alive! [avoiding all reference to religion now] I have to go. I doubt that you bothered to get this far. If you did, the winning numbers in the UK triple lottery are going to be between 1 and 49. You read it here first.

  4. March 8, 2011 at 09:22

    Thank you indeed Diarmuid, wonderfully written. I’ve saved it and will read it again and again. (I don’t play the lottery – wu wei you might say)

  5. March 9, 2011 at 05:31

    Interesting post, Diarmuid. Wu wei is very similar to Cowperthwaite’s principle of positive non-interventionism which underpinned Hong Kong’s rise. Free market anarchy in practice – the only type of anarchy that can work, in my opinion.

    • dfogarty
      March 9, 2011 at 06:51

      Kropotkin points to many instances in life when things happen in line with principles that anarchists advocate. Free market anarchism isn’t one of them…In fact, there are serious questions as to whether free-market anarchism can even be called anarchism. It has a very restricting view of what constitutes “freedom” and largely depends on the argument that if one willingly bends the knee to oppression, then one is still free. It argues for the freedom to do as one will with one’s property, but doesn’t address the imbalance of power that arises when people own things. If I own a farm and cattle and the poor sod outside my gate owns nothing, can I really say that there is freedom. Not if the poor sod is now coerced to work on the land or in the factories of other people.

      Anarchism is about more than freedom from the authorities. It is about freedom from their authority as well. It is about communal power rather than the power of the oligarchs. And it is perfectly workable – given the right conditions. As an ideology, anarchism found its voice not much more than a couple of hundred years ago. To write it off as unworkable at this early stage would seem somewhat premature. Anarchism has worked on occasion in the past and has tended to collapse because of the hostility directed at it by its opponents who crushed it; not because of any inherent flaws. One might argue that the internet across which we are communicating is one of the greatest monuments to anarchist organisation and structure.

      In the meantime, anarchists of today can continue to make every effort to help people towards the realisation that oppressive power and coercion are not serving them – or anyone else- particularly well. How do they do this? One might argue that wu wei means by setting a good example and letting others draw their own conclusions.

      That many anarchists are engaged in bickering fights with other anarchists and other left wing organisations might provide a rationale for why people such as yourself look to the anarchist movement and draw the conclusion that that’ll never work. But you do yourself a disservice if you allow your own ideology to lead you to the foregone conclusion that the only type of anarchism that will work is anarcho-capitalism.

      Here, once again, endeth the lesson.

  6. March 9, 2011 at 11:48

    Great debate, Diarmuid.

    You may be confusing “free market anarchism” with “anarcho capitalism”. Anarcho capitalism would basically be capitalism as it exists now minus the welfare and regulatory state.

    Proudhon suggested that capitalism should be replaced with worker co-ops or other voluntary associations. But the co-ops would still be taking their goods to a market. Since any group would be able to start up a co-op this would be a “free” market, given that no one co-op would have a monopoly.

    In a collectivised anarchism (where the whole of a community or society owned the means of production) there would be a tendency towards monopoly and restrictive practices (therefore, not a “free” market).

  7. March 10, 2011 at 02:10

    Perhaps it endeth the lesson in your mind but I think you have provided a bit of a facile argument. You haven’t taken the basic leap of faith to admit that history shows us no pure form of any socio-political system beyond feudalism and small monastic communities.

    As a Dao follower you note that what can be named as Dao cannot actually be the Dao. Likewise, what can be named communism cannot truly be it. There has not been a workable pure form at state level simply because the theory is a fabrication, fundamentally at odds with human nature. I don’t think this is any big revelation.

    There has never been a completely pure form of capitalism either. HK is probably the closest and as far as anarchy goes beyond the petri dish of primeval units there has never been a pure form either, but again HK is probably the closest. So we’re stuck between Scylla and Charybdis here and I think it’s a bit fanciful to proselytise about some vague but radical alternative which doesn’t suit the needs of the many.

    “And it is perfectly workable – given the right conditions.”

    Let’s say in your form of anarchy you do away with the state and the private sector, is that what it entails? Then who provides the public goods? Anarchy would cause absolute misery to the many. Capitalism and communism also cause misery but not on the same scale of abject uncertainty and denial of merit.

    “One might argue that the internet across which we are communicating is one of the greatest monuments to anarchist organisation and structure.”

    I think you are conflating anarchy with basic freedom. Anarchy moves towards rejection of the simplest laws, including unwritten laws, mores, morals, traditions and basic human rights – to live with a degree of protection from other people.

    Diarmuid, I think there is a vacuity and lack of practical hypotheses and examples in your position which suggests that this lesson has far to go…

    • dfogarty
      March 10, 2011 at 09:09

      Of the claim that words do not mean what they say, you write, “I don’t think this is any big revelation.” I think it is. And the fact that you appear to have unquestioningly accepted an idiosyncratic understanding of what both “anarchism” and “human nature” are would seem to lend credence to my belief.

      Is there anything wrong in facileness? Anything wrong in vacuity? Might not we all seem vacuous and facile to those who disagree with us?

  8. March 10, 2011 at 11:48

    I meant specifically that it is no big revelation to state that communism as a practical system is deeply flawed and diathetic, making it well detached from its theoretical basis. Obviously there are well-established precedents for this in modern history

    In my analogy of communism with the Dao, I was using your logic to emphasise the discrepancy between theory and practice. My actual disagreement with the opening epigram of the Book of Dao (note the use of pinyin, not Wade-Giles) and thus with the philosophy as a whole, is best summed up in Wittgenstein’s proposition that something which cannot be expressed in language does not really exist.

  9. March 10, 2011 at 18:20

    Sorry to butt in. However:

    TEFL101: “Let’s say in your form of anarchy you do away with the state and the private sector, is that what it entails? Then who provides the public goods?”

    Erm, people themselves. Colin Ward:

    “in the nineteenth century the newly created British working class built up from nothing a vast network of social and economic initiatives based on self-help and mutual aid. The list is endless: friendly societies, building societies, sick clubs, coffin clubs, clothing clubs, up to enormous federated enterprises like the trade union movement and the Cooperative movement. The question the latter-day discoverers of that tradition ask is, ‘how did we allow it to ossify?'”

    – “The welfare road we failed to take” (1996)

    You are conflating “private” with capitalist organisation. There are many real examples of private organisations that are neither state-run nor owned by capitalists.

  10. dfogarty
    March 10, 2011 at 21:57

    It’s not butting in! Your contributions are heartily welcomed. Of course, thepublic provide the public goods – that’s always been the way, I think. Who owns the public goods? The public. Who distributes the public goods? The public.
    Kropotkin also includes such things as the international postal service and the rail networks as evidence of cooperation for the greater good. The family is one that I always think of. Anarchist principles can be found in the most surprising – and the most obvious- places.

    On the Dogme list, there is talk of Dogme moments. From an anarchist perspective, I think we do well to find instances of anarchist principles.

  11. March 11, 2011 at 06:32

    Workers’ co-operatives are not strictly public goods. People still have to pay at the point of use. The danger of anarchism is that there is no incentive for people to group together to provide roads, lighthouses, defence, criminal justice, etc. without becoming a governing state themselves. Leadership and power structures will only ever rear their head again out of necessity. Pure anarchism is unworkable and about as desirable as fascism.

    • dfogarty
      March 11, 2011 at 07:35

      I disagree. About anarchism being about as desirable as fascism.

      An imposed anarchism would be pointless and would wither quickly. To work at all, anarchism needs a majoirty of people to be ideologically sold on the idea. The grouping of people together comes from an ideological commitment not because of financial gain nor because of the threat of force. It also comes from the realisation that the provision of such services is beneficial to all.

      It always strikes me as pointless in talking to much about the shape of the anarchosociety of the future when we are patently a long, long way from it. The anarchist movement, if one can be said to exist, needs to be looking to build itself and to make itself relevant to the lives of people in our society. At the moment, it is not doing so particularly effectively.

  12. March 11, 2011 at 06:47

    I the light of the attempt using dogme as a metaphor for anarchy, I think this quote by Bertrand Russell refutes it well.

    “Children, like adults, will not all be virtuous if they are all free. The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseauism, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education should have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge. We live in communities which require co-operation, and it would be utopian to expect all the necessary co-operation to result from spontaneous impulse. The existence of a large population on a limited area is only possible owing to science and technique; education must, therefore, hand on the necessary minimum of these. The educators who allow most freedom are men whose success depends upon a degree of benevolence, self-control, and trained intelligence which can hardly be generated where every impulse is left unchecked; their merits, therefore, are not likely to be perpetuated if their methods are undiluted. Education, viewed from a social standpoint, must be something more positive than a mere opportunity for growth. It must, of course, provide this, but it must also provide a mental and moral equipment which children cannot acquire entirely for themselves.” http://www.zona-pellucida.com/essay-russel.html

    He also goes on to point out the limits of this — it is a brilliant essay — but the point is that power structures must exist – they are a fact of life.

    • dfogarty
      March 11, 2011 at 07:42

      Absolutely. Power structures will always exist, just as leaders will eventually surface. I don’t think anarchists would refute any of that. Anarchism is more concerned with ensuring that any authority given to these leaders or structures is not abused. The underlying idea is that nobody has a right to tell me how to live my life. The responsibility is on me to live my life in such a manner that I do not impinge upon the liberty of other people as far as possible. We are all responsible for ourselves and, in a social situation, for the people around us. We should behave accordingly.

      Anarchists differ from non-anarchists in that they believe that it is possible to reach a stage when people can do this of their own volition rather than because they live in fear of possible sanctions. Pure anarchism – and absence of all forms of authority- is not a type of anarchism that has ever been proposed by anarchists. Perhaps it is this type of anarchism that you refer to when you say that it is as undesirable as fascism. If so, then we are in further agreement.

  13. March 11, 2011 at 15:32

    This sound more intriguing although it might require an evolutionary rewiring at some point. I think the biggest problem is the inherent threat to innovation caused by the abandonment of almost all serious competitive behaviour.

  14. March 11, 2011 at 19:52

    Agree with Diarmuid that of course, some authority in a given organisation or community is desirable.

    But, Luan, “competitive behaviour” is severely restricted in today’s oligopoly capitalism. If I want to open a coffee shop, I know that a certain multinational will move in and kill the competition. If I want to open a bookshop, I know a certain major national chain will open up and kill the competition. Same in any sector really. Unless one has access to reams and reams of capital, it is unlikely you would be able to compete with the big boys. The vast majority of the population do not have such access to so much capital, and therefore don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of “competing.”

    If we had true competition, why did governments around the world bail out banks to the tune of billions of dollars? Why did the US subsidise General Motors? Or put a $75 million liability cap on BP (if they had been fully liable for the Gulf of Mexico damage, BP would be finished)? If I go bankrupt, my business closes. If a “too-big-to-fail” state-favoured corporation goes down the pan, it can rely on tax money to sort itself out. This is really not “serious competitive behaviour.”

    Quote from Shea and Wilson’s “Illuminatus! Trilogy”:

    “CAPITALISM: That organization of society, incorporating elements of tax, usury, landlordism, and tariff, which thus denies the Free Market while pretending to exemplify it”.


    “ANARCHISM: That organization of society in which the Free Market operates freely, without taxes, usury, landlordism, tariffs, or other forms of coercion or privilege. “Right” anarchists predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to compete more often than to cooperate; “left” anarchists predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to cooperate more often than to compete.”

    I am to the “left”, so prefer cooperation. However, even if people chose to compete in an anarchist society, at least it would be in the framework of a free market, therefore light years more democratic and equitable than today. With the absence of intellectual property and patent laws, I think you’d find that innovation would flourish and not “threatened” at all.

  15. March 12, 2011 at 10:51

    It’s not all about capital, big marketing budgets and a pessimistic outlook though. Small companies can fight asymmetrically on the fronts of innovation, superior service, co-operation with big firms and by maximising their online presence. There is always space in badly serviced markets and there’ll always be enough of those…

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