The Human Condition:

The Kindness of Strangers – March 23, 2014

Karate salute with covered fist

Photo by Robert L. Thomas

In these days of tension, when everyone wonders what will happen between the Ukraine and Russia—will the U.S., NATO, or someone step in and save the one from the other?—I find myself adopting a cold and rather pitiless attitude. In my view, everyone is responsible for his or her own karma, destiny, and earthly situation. In my world, small countries that live next to large and aggressive neighbors should not take the moral position of Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers.

In this world of unstable alliances and fallen human souls, there are three countries I really respect, two of them small and one of them large.

I respect the United States, because after the false start at the beginning of World War II, which ended in a good finish for us, we determined as a nation to make ourselves strong and keep ourselves strong. We try to be a good neighbor, a solid ally, and a kind stranger. But all good intentions have limits. We cannot be the world’s policeman and project power onto the other side of the globe into other people’s backyards. We tried that in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq with mixed but often disappointing results. We are strong but perhaps not invincible.

The small countries are Switzerland and Israel. Both are positioned in harm’s way. Switzerland takes a position of armed neutrality, going it alone, making accommodations where necessary, but avoiding “entangling alliances.”1 Israel is surrounded by sworn enemies and precarious non-allies like Jordan and, for the moment, Egypt. Both of these countries have determined to make their own way. Both have near-universal military service. Both have solid doctrines about defense of their land and people.2 Neither attacks its neighbors without provocation, but they will not suffer credible threats. These are serious people with serious attitudes toward survival.

I believe in the doctrine of “peace through superior firepower.” Love everybody—so long as they remain lovable. Trust everybody—up to a point. But be ready to defend yourself with crushing force if you meet up with a bully or a bad character. That’s one of the reasons I learned karate at the university. Yes, there was the mystique of spies and superheroes like James Bond and Derek Flint, who were skilled in commando tactics and the mysterious art of jujutsu. But deeper down, I knew I was a peaceful individual who might one day get pushed around in this rough and tumble world—even though I’m an imposing figure at six-foot-six. I wanted to be able to back up that demeanor with some serious capability.

When you practice a karate kata, you begin with two non-fighting moves that are supposed to precede any honorable action. One is the bow, to show respect for your opponent. But unlike the formal social bow, where you look down at the ground, in the martial bow you keep your eyes on your opponent. Trust everybody—up to a point.

The other move is the salute, performed with one hand closed in a fist, the other hand open and covering it. The meaning is something like: “I don’t want to fight, but I can if I have to.” This is both a salute and a warning of personal determination. Peace through superior firepower.

Of course, I realize that not everyone has the time, the inclination, or the ability to become a master of self-defense. To achieve success at that, one must make the training, practice, and attitude of self-awareness, threat-perception, and calculation into ingrained habits of mind and body for the individual—or for the nation. The self-defense ethos shapes a person’s spirit and a nation’s culture. To take the position of the Godfather—to “refuse to be a fool, dancing on the strings held by all those big shots,” meaning those around you who are bigger, stronger, and more established—is to become, at least in part, an outlaw. One must make law for oneself, rely on one’s own sense of justice and fair play, rather than depend on the church, the government, the police, and the courts to look after one’s welfare and future.

The alternative is to find good friends and allies and make common cause with them. That is what the European Union is trying to do after a millennium and a half of tribal and national strife and warfare. That is what the thirteen British colonies on the North American continent tried to do with their Articles of Confederation and then with the U.S. Constitution after a prolonged war with the British. That is what NATO and the Warsaw Pact tried to be after the horrors of World War II. And, on a personal level, that is what humans have always done when they formed lodge groups, business associations, trade unions, clans of extended families, and ethnic affiliations. They seek protection through identity, combined forces, a common voice, and consensual watchfulness. Each gives up a bit of individual freedom, agreeing to dance on some of the strings held by fellow members, neighbors, or family relations.

To come back to the Ukraine’s situation, what no one—no person and no nation—can safely do is try to stay in the middle and remain weak. The Ukraine was still within the sphere of the old Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, yet tried to reach out to the more distant and less cohesive European Union for support. That was always a tenuous position to adopt—depending on the kindness of strangers. And yet, in the 1990s, the Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons left inside its borders from the breakup of the Soviet Union in exchange for security pledges from the United States, Britain, and Russia. That showed a willingness to dance on the strings of the big shots.

I feel sorry for the people of the Ukraine. I feel sorry for any person or group that carelessly puts itself in the path of history. Such action suggests a failure of vision: to think that the current situation is stable, that today’s arrangements will always pertain, and that a freedom won through happenstance—such as sudden release from the faltering Soviet grip—will endure through inertia or luck or an imminent increase in human enlightenment.

To think this way is to be a bit of a fool. Sensible people do not depend on luck and the kindness of strangers.

1. To quote from George Washington’s farewell address.

2. I strongly recommend John McPhee’s La Place de la Concorde Suisse for insight into Switzerland’s defense philosophy.