[Guest poster and friend of the blog, Mark Saltveit, posts an extended response to Donald Sturgeon’s “Daoist Nazi Problem” below.]
Can There Be a Nazi Dao?
By Mark Saltveit
Of all the religious philosophies, Daoism is the one most concerned with practical, daily life. Seeking and practicing the pure, perfect way to do something is itself a spiritual practice, a small Dao that may lead you to the Big Dao. That’s why there are so many books with titles like “The Tao of Tool Crafting” and “The Tao of Large Animal Husbandry.”
Last October, Donald Sturgeon wrote a piece on Warp Weft and Way that raises a fascinating question: does every task, no matter how “wrong” or unDaoish, have its own Dao? Specifically, can there be such a thing as “The Dao of Nazism”?
This is one of the few topics I have some actual academic knowledge about. I studied the Nazis for a while as an undergraduate, in my multidisciplinary social science major at Harvard. (After a year, it got too grim, and I changed my focus to a much cheerier topic – the Vietnam War.)
I think the short story is that, if you choose to pursue Nazism, there are some less effective and more effective ways to pursue it; the more effective ways might be considered a sort of Dao of Nazism. However, both the goals of Nazism and the techniques you would use to pursue it inevitably corrode your ability to act in Dao, so it would prove quickly self-defeating.
This is essentially what happened in real life. The Nazi hit upon some powerful techniques that helped them come to power and win some early battles. But their overall program, and the specific techniques they pursued, were so intrinsically self-destructive and inflexible that the gains were short-lived, and those same approaches carried the seeds of inevitable defeat.
As a general proposition, mastering a small Dao is a great way to approach the big Dao, as Lord Wenhui observes when marveling at Butcher Ding’s way (Zhuangzi ch. 3). This is because the pursuit of many crafts or goals can help us hone our self and our ability to perceive accurately and act decisively, with well-honed instinct. At its core, Daoism tells us to focus on improving our selves, our accurate understanding and emotional strength as well as physical power, before we worry about fixing others or the world at large.
However, some endeavors in themselves are destructive of our selves and our ability to follow Dao. They color our perception with greed, feed our vanity and arrogance, or linger around temptations humans are rarely able to avoid (power, sex, fame and glory.) The archer loses his accuracy when thinking of prize money; the emperor meddles too much in his kingdom, like someone overcooking a small fish, and ruins it.
Chapter 68 of the Daodejing says that we should approach war reluctantly and only when necessary. My reading is that this is not for moral reasons, but because the pursuit of battle is so destructive of ourselves, of our ability to think and act properly. It’s the opposite of the self-cultivation Daoism prizes, something more like self-degradation.
The danger isn’t the physical damage of losing a battle, but the emotional risk of winning one. It’s well understood that humans need to vilify their enemies to handle the terrible scenes and emotional extremes of war. If defining flavors and musical tones dulls our senses, how much more will separating nations into pure good (us) and pure evil (our enemy)? Perhaps most dangerous of all is the temptation of victory, the arrogance and blood lust, and even just the adrenaline addiction depicted in popular works such as The Hurt Locker and Michael Herr’s classic Vietnam book “Dispatches.”
If the excitement and assertion of power over life and death in a normal “good” war is so destructive, how – given human nature – could any person be expected to withstand the temptation of the absolute arrogation of power at the core of Nazism? Daoism is relentless in its modesty, humility and subtlety. A large country should be governed as if frying a small fish; Nazism dynamites the lake and chars the chum on a bonfire.
One difficulty with this discussion is that it’s arguable whether there ever was a coherent ideology behind Nazism. Fundamentally, the movement was built around the skills and obsessions of one very charismatic, almost certainly insane leader. It may be a mistake to look for any sort of consistency in it, much less a deeper philosophical basis.
And yet, there were techniques that Hitler and his minions pursued that were novel and dramatically effective, which might be considered some sort of Dao. Examples include the Blitzkrieg style of rapid, massive invasion, new forms of air attack, secret code technologies, etc. But most of these are general techniques and tools of war and politics, not intrinsic to the governing style or horrible crimes of Hitler’s regime or movement.
Some of the more typical aspects of the German Wehrmacht were clearly liabilities as well as assets. Its rigid order and hierarchy clearly helped cut through the fog of war and make certain battle plans more effective, especially at first. But just as clearly, their inability to improvise gave the Americans and British a large advantage as the war dragged on, and the utter predictability of their secret messages was a vulnerability that the Bletchley Park codebreakers exploited to crack their ciphers and read many of Germany’s most critical communications, unbeknownst to Hitler and his lieutenants.
This proved decisive in the buildup to the D-Day invasion; German forces were massed at Pas de Calais instead of Normandy because of a massive deception campaign that our code-breaking made possible. Hitler even ordered troops not to respond to the Normandy invasion, convinced that it was a diversion.
As for specific techniques that might be considered a sort of “Nazi Dao,” two come to mind from my study of the Nazi movement. The first is one of these general tactics unrelated to ideology, a simple trick that seems to hold true for any public gathering, whether for politics or entertainment. Hitler intuited that scheduling any gathering in a room that is too small creates a feeling of excitement and a sense that an important event is taking place. (The converse is also true; even a large enthusiastic crowd loses power when scattered around an auditorium that’s too large.) My experience as a standup comedian has borne this out, time and time again.
The other technique is much more sinister and goes to the heart of Nazi pathology. It is a good candidate if you are looking for something to identify as a Nazi Dao, not only because it had a dark, destructive force, but because it encapsulated a vital part of what made that movement both powerful and doomed.
This method explored and exploited coercive psychology, following (whether deliberately or not) the Freudian theories so popular at the time. They hit upon a maniacally effective method of enforcing compliance, not out of fear but from deep, nearly insane rationalization. I’ll explain.
As Nazis took control of local towns, they quickly forced everyone to make a choice; openly resist them, and face execution or concentration camps, or prove their loyalty by committing acts that they felt to be deeply wrong. This left the new recruit with a psychological dilemma: either admit that they were committing horrible crimes out of cowardice, or rationalize by accepting the Nazi ideology that justified this behavior.
As you might suspect, many if not most people choose rationalization, and those that didn’t were yet more intimidated by the crimes and insane avid zeal of their former friends and neighbors now committing these crimes. Bizarrely, the more crazy the ideology used to rationalize the crimes, the more tightly bound are those who accept it, because the psychological fall they face if they accept their wrongness is all the steeper.
Arguably, most modern cults and some political movements use variations of this same technique. (Scientology is a good example.) Unlike the undersized room technique though, this method is clearly destructive and not sustainable. It is a psychological Ponzi scheme that can grow very large but will then crash all the harder when it inevitably collapses. Beyond the obvious human toll, this technique offends the Daoist sage because Daoism prizes clear perception and understanding, while this technique necessarily and deliberate separates the practitioner from reality, which of course makes its adherents less effective.
A small Dao will generally lead to the big Dao, but there are some tasks that should be avoided whenever possible, because even when done the “best” way, they are inevitably self-degrading. Nazism provides a clear and extreme example.