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Saturday, November 12, 2011


From time to time, I enjoy catching an episode of Penn and Teller's cable television show Bullshit!. For those of you who don't know, Bullshit! involves the popular illusionist duo picking something they find dishonest, underhanded, or just plain wrong, and tearing it apart with all the wit and humor they can muster--which is a considerable amount. I don't always agree with the things they have to say (Penn and Teller are staunch atheists and libertarians), but I always enjoy hearing them say it.

Over the past few years, Bullshit! has taken on conspiracy theories, religious movements, pieces of legislation, political organizations, and New Age fads, just to name a few. Their commentary is caustic, irreverent, and usually heavily laced with profanity (as the name of the show might suggest).

It was with some trepidation that I recently sought out a particular episode that I'd read about on a martial arts message board. It turns out Penn and Teller had done a Bullshit! on the martial arts. I had to find it, of course, but the idea of Penn and Teller tearing into one of my favorite activities certainly made me nervous.

Would Penn and Teller tell me that my training is, well, bullshit? Would their show be ruined for me forever? Worse, would they challenge my belief in the validity and usefulness of my martial arts training? I almost couldn't bear to watch. But, of course, I did.

In their 30-minute attempt to burst the bubble of the martial arts mystique, Penn and Teller made the following allegations:
  1. No matter how much martial arts training one has, running away from or surrendering to an attacker is much more likely to prevent harm to a victim than any martial art.
  2. Most martial arts instructors have never been in a real fight.
  3. There is a telling lack of stories in the news about robbers and attackers being thwarted with martial arts skills.
  4. Martial artists' claims about healing and other powers of "chi" or "energy" are mostly nonsense.
  5. The colored belt system that many martial arts programs hold so dear is a modern invention with very little connection to martial arts history.
  6. Many things that are being taught in martial arts studios as "self-defense" would be considered criminal acts of aggression by a court of law.
  7. Most martial arts training is more fear management than danger management, meaning that many martial arts students are being misled into a dangerous, false sense of security.
  8. Injuries are far more likely to result from martial arts training itself than from living without self-defense skills.
  9. Breaking boards is a parlor trick that has very little to do with self-defense.
There are definitely some in the martial arts community who would be deeply offended by some of these allegations. I myself have had an aikido instructor who likes to talk about throwing with "spiritual energy", and a taekwondo instructor who treats the colored belt like an ancient religious relic. For all that they might protest, though, I look back at this list and find nothing particularly offensive, or even surprising.

Why? Because, as I said a few weeks ago, I have no problem thinking of myself as an athlete and the martial arts as a sport. I don't expect the martial arts to make me an invincible warrior and I don't pretend I'm following any ancient spiritual tradition, so there is no bubble to burst. The truth, as I said back in February, is only a weapon that can be used against me so long as I cling to a lie.

But why cling to a lie when the truth has so much to offer? In two years of martial arts training, I've improved my body, my confidence, and my attitude, all without buying into any of the "bullshit" exposed by the list above. Unless Penn and Teller can tell me that the martial arts aren't making me a happier, healthier person, they can't touch me. And thankfully, I can go on laughing at them.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Name Change

A brief note about the name of the my blog: I have changed it in an effort to be a little less esoteric.

"Newbie Deshi" was a pun on the Japanese term uchi deshi. I thought myself rather clever when I first came up with it, but it has been nagging me for some time that the title of my blog was going to confuse more than amuse. Only those of us with a background in the Japanese martial arts know what an uchi deshi is.

The new title, a reference to the television series Kung Fu, I hope is a little more suitable for mass consumption.

Nothing else has changed, not even the layout of the page, so those few of you who have been reading regularly, carry on as usual.