Monday, April 16, 2012
We're the Problem
Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?
- Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars
Apparently this happened a couple years ago, but I was only alerted to it recently by this thread on Martial Arts Planet. Famous (or infamous) "ninjutsu masters" Ashida Kim and Frank Dux are now inductees into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame. I don't know how legitimate or prestigious the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame is, so I don't know if this is a great honor or just an excuse to throw a party. I do know, however, that any "hall of fame" that includes Kim and Dux is inviting some pretty big questions about its selection process.
I am, as I keep saying, only a beginner myself, so I can't make any criticism of these two men solely on my own meager authority. But the good folks at bullshido.org have taken Kim and Dux apart quite handily: here and here, respectively. At the very least, these two have extremely questionable credentials and are propagating a movies-and-comic-books perception of the martial arts. Worse, the information presented by Bullshido makes a strong case for outright lies and fraud.
And yet, both these men are receiving honors like induction into the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Both are successful instructors. Kim has made a living for decades writing ninjutsu books. Dux has even been the subject of a major motion picture starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
If the evidence against these two is so strong and so available, how have they become so successful? Why have people been so willing to give their money and their respect to two men who can be easily discredited with a simple internet search? Back in the Eighties when they were first cashing in on the ninja craze, perhaps a lack of information might have been blamed, but we've had Google for more than a decade now. And even without it, shouldn't reasonable adults be skeptical of claims to have trained under secret masters or won secret tournaments that no one else has ever heard of?
Before I go too far, let me make clear that the purpose of this piece is not to discredit Ashida Kim or Frank Dux. If a few people, after reading this piece, are inspired to learn the truth about these two for themselves, so much the better. But Kim, Dux, and many others like them are just symptoms, not the disease. Here, they only serve as a starting point for a discussion of something much bigger than them. I hate the players far, far less than I hate the game.
Snake oil salesmen, as some savvy readers are likely already thinking to themselves, are hardly unique to the martial arts. Every field has its share of charlatans and underqualified hacks looking for an easy dollar. But in the martial arts, the easy dollars seem especially easy to come by. What makes the martial arts exceptional is not an abundance of snake oil salesmen, but an abundance of eager snake oil consumers.
There are plenty of examples right here in the Milwaukee area (my little blog can't do much harm to Kim and Dux, but I won't be naming these names). I could direct you to a popular taekwondo club in a southern suburb of Milwaukee run by a "master" whose fifth dan in taekwondo comes from an organization that doesn't exist. It took me ten seconds on Google to find this out; dozens, perhaps hundreds, of students are willing to pay this man up to $160 a month for training but couldn't be bothered to take those ten seconds.
I could direct you to a kenpo instructor on the south side of Milwaukee who was kicked out of the organization that oversees his tradition and stripped of his rank by its board of masters. This information is supplied helpfully in the Yahoo! Local reviews of his club. He continues to make a living as a teacher of said tradition, however, and his club was even recently featured on the local news.
I could direct you to a martial arts club in the northwest part of Milwaukee that is part of a successful nationwide chain. The "grandmaster" who founded that chain has been fined for consumer fraud, has spent five years in prison for conspiracy to commit tax fraud, and claims to have won a championship tournament that does not exist. His clubs have also been widely accused of cult-like behavior by the media. All this information is readily available on Wikipedia.
Note the commonalities here: (1) they're all being kept in business by many paying customers, and (2) very damning information about all of them is only a click away on some of the most popular search sites on the internet. This is not a case of secretive businessmen protecting their livelihoods by keeping their shady practices under wraps; their secrets are out for anyone who bothers to look. But people, even people smart enough to accumulate a lot of money for themselves, aren't looking. Why not?
I think the answer lies in the popular perception of the martial arts as something esoteric and inscrutable. People assume that they can't understand the mysteries of the martial arts on their own, and so put their trust in anything they see in movies or hear from someone in a fancy costume. The sport of mixed martial arts is slowly chipping away at this perception, but not quickly enough for my tastes.
For example, Florida judge John Hurley recently declared from the bench that the hands and feet of anyone with a black belt in karate should be legally considered deadly weapons. That's right, moms, your 12-year-old who's put in three-and-a-half years at Master Bob's Karate in the strip mall is now a deadly weapon.
This kind of ignorance boggles the mind. John Hurley is no one's fool. Besides being a former attorney with a law degree, he's also a former Navy intelligence officer. He wasn't born yesterday. Why is he willing to accept such a fanciful, romanticized understanding of the martial arts without question, even when his understanding of the martial arts is about to be a focal point of a ruling? I think he, like so many others, has never considered the possibility that a deeper understanding is available to a layman like himself.
The legal implications of this kind of misconception are staggering, but that's not the worst of it. Meet Jim Green:
Yes, that's a child Green is teaching to take falls from imaginary forces. It should go without saying that I find this despicable and dangerous.
Personally, I don't care whether or not Green honestly believes his karate gives him telekinetic powers. What really frightens me is that parents (no few of them, judging from the kids sitting along the edge of the mat) were happy to entrust their children to a man who wants to use them as props in his magic tricks. They were undeterred by their knowledge of basic physics and apparently unwilling to to seek out a second opinion before investing their money and their offspring.
I've never encountered anything quite this outlandish in my own aikido (though examples of such things in aikido can certainly be found--a quick look through YouTube turns up at least two telekinetic aikido masters), but I have had instructors try to teach me how to throw opponents with "spiritual energy" and try to demonstrate how they can increase the pressure their body weight puts on the mat through manipulation of ki. In cases like this, I nodded and smiled politely, but my common sense was unshaken (it is worth noting that I no longer train at the club where these instructors teach).
I don't think this shows exceptional willpower or wisdom on my part. What makes me different from the willing victims I've profiled in this piece is my confidence (the result of reading I did on the subject before I started training) that nothing in the martial arts is too mysterious or magical for my uninitiated mind to comprehend.
Such confidence is not hard to come by and does not require martial arts experience. We have the internet. We have libraries. We have televised mixed martial arts competitions with experienced commentators who get paid to explain how techniques work. In today's world, there are simply no excuses left for being duped into martial arts nonsense. We have every defense we need right at our fingertips.
Martial artists like myself love to complain about charlatans who stain the reputation of the martial arts. I think it's important, though, to remember that people like Kim, Dux, and Green aren't really the problem: we are. We're the ones begging, and even paying, for the opportunity to be fooled. Others may be telling the lies, but the lies need us to feed them.