Dao Du Jour II, Day 61: Lying Low

Chapter 61: Lying Low

“The polity of greatness
runs downhill like a river to the sea,
joining with everything,
woman to everything.

By stillness the woman
may always dominate the man,
lying quiet underneath him.

So a great country
submitting to small ones,
dominates them;
so small countries,
submitting to a great one, dominate it.

Lie low to be on top,
be on top by lying low.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Reflection on the war in Ukraine, I am reminded of the film Blow, in which Johnny Depp plays a drug dealer who is eventually caught for smuggling pot across the Mexican border. His defense in court is futile, but disarming: he insists he was just bringing some trees across an imaginary line. The same idea animates John Lennox’s “Imagine”: “imagine there’s no countries.” It’s a seductive idea that is empirically true: states, nations, and borders are all fictions. And yet we sense that it is also somehow false.

Imagine there are no novels; no plays; no movies; no comic books; no games. If you have trouble doing that, then you are on the way toward seeing what is fishy in the dismissal of polities as polite lies.

Plato engaged this paradox head on in the first book of political philosophy in the Western tradition. As Socrates and his friends puzzle out the design of an ideal society, he insists that there must be a shared narrative that binds the people together, a common identity that supersedes their roles as rulers, soldiers, and craftsmen. It is a lie but, he argues, it is a useful and noble lie. Though literally false, it is symbolically true in that it does not merely help a people survive, but it reminds them of why they should: who they are, what they stand for, and what deserves to be passed on. The story encodes the virtues and values they valorize.

We now have ample evidence for what would have been common sense to everyone before the Enlightenment: that human beings are storytelling animals. It’s right there not only in Plato, but in Aristotle, when he said man is by nature a political animal. Without a good long soak in a community that tells stories about what is good and bad, just and unjust, noble and base, a human being will not become fully human.

If a culture loses any sense of nobility—of what is good, better, and best and, conversely, what is bad, worse, and worst—then every lie will present as equally empty. Saturated in the smug sensibility that it has overcome the political superstitions of its forebears, such a people will recline in the knowledge that, as Nietzsche’s last man puts it, “formerly all the world was mad.” It is precisely this comfortably numb posture—nihilism, cynicism, and relativism—that the crisis in Ukraine has shaken the West out of. What war is good for is that it is a force that gives us meaning; this war has broken the spell of the post-historical paradise cast by the end of the Cold War. What Trump did in the realm of “bits,” stirring up culture war, Putin has done in the world of “its,” by launching an actual war.

At some level, it is true that all of the entities in question—NATO, the EU, Ukraine, Russia, the rules-based liberal international world order, etc.—do not, strictly speaking, exist. The problem is not merely that this is unimportant; it’s that it is exactly this conceit that dictators exploit. The so-called “post-truth” condition of our politics is something Putin both helped create and benefits from. Putin draws his power in large part from the West’s lack of purpose and waning faith in its founding ideals and way of life; that is has become a victim of its own success, grown fat, lazy, and distracted; that it has become liberal in Robert Frost’s sense of the word: a person “too broad minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

What is “our own side”? That the world of the West, in Hemingway’s words, “is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” That the story we tell ourselves about democracy, liberty, equality, and human rights is the best one out there, however we have failed and will fail to enact it. Or at the very least that, beyond all the reverse patriotism and racial reckoning and scarcely concealed imperialism of US history, the West is better than what Anne Applebaum has recently called Autocracy, Inc.

Putin’s fever dreams are a classic case study in gender identity pathology played out at geopolitical scale. Purporting to return Ukraine to the bosom of Mother Russia, Putin brings to light both the most immature, alienated form of masculinity and its twin, the dark feminine. So obsessed with being and becoming a “great power,” Putin is turning his country into a petty one. The man who cannot respect the feminine power will be devoured by it. Plumbing the depths of the Arctic Ocean for oil, and pushing the boundaries of NATO, he has effectively poked and awoken the slumbering bear of liberal modernity. The real “mother Russia” is the feminine principle of rest, limit, stillness. He can drill as deep into Mother Earth as he wants, and sneer and snarl at the liberal West all he likes, but she will tear him apart in end, one way or another.

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