Book Reviews

Resisting the Politics of Victimhood


- June 11th, 2019
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We are a self-contradictory people.

In our private lives, we affirm, or at least speak as if we affirm, the virtues of personal responsibility, self-reliance, self-discipline, wisdom, humility, generosity, and justice. These are the virtues that we strive to instill in our children. With an eye to this end, we appropriate measures to thwart the vices of irresponsibility, neediness, laziness, ignorance, arrogance, self-absorption, and a sense of self-entitlement.

And yet the politics of 21st- century America are unmistakably the politics of victimhood.

Is there a way to resolve this tension?  Is there a way to resist something as ubiquitous as the politics of victimhood while cultivating the virtues that are indispensable to a self-governing citizenry?

Peter Simon Liciaga has an answer.  Liciaga, a 58 year-old Puerto Rican man who originally hailed from the housing projects of the Bronx and who began studying the martial arts when he was 9 years old, is a sixth-degree black belt master of Tang Soo Do, a Korean-based martial art practiced by such notables as James Dean, Chuck Norris, and Michael Jai White.

Master Liciaga is also my master.

He has just published his first (but I hope not his last) book, Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to the Martial Arts.  

It is between the pages of this volume—so slender that it easily could be read within a single sitting—that Master Liciaga provides both adults and their children alike a means by which to immunize themselves against the infantilizing effects of victimhood politics.

While the martial arts are not required for the cultivation of those virtues that the human race has celebrated for millennia, the martial arts are indeed unique insofar as these virtues are intrinsic to their study.

To reiterate, the martial arts are alone among human activities insofar as they are designed to maximize all of one’s potentialities as a human being.

This is a point that Master Liciaga underscores repeatedly. In fact, it is the most basic principle that pervades his philosophy of the martial arts.

The martial arts, Liciaga has come to realize after decades of study, is a philosophy, not just of combat, but of life. If one reads with sufficient care, one will note that it is this metaphysical perspective that powers every word of Liciaga’s book.  

While the Western intellectual tradition is more heterogeneous than any other, if it could be said to have a dominant current it is the one advancing the notion of a mind-body dualism, which is endorsed either explicitly or implicitly by many of its most prominent contributors.

Despite the fact that, the embodiment of the Logos, Christianity, the faith of European Man for the better part of two millennia is a resounding repudiation of this fiction, mind-body dualism nevertheless persists.

Even today, the body is still treated in academia, politics, the popular culture, and even within the churches as if it was an extraneous possession, a machine to be controlled by the ghost inhabiting it.

This idea of the human-person is one that many of us have unconsciously imbibed. Master Liciaga disabuses his students of it in no uncertain terms:

The human being is a spiritual being, a unity of mind and body.  

You are not a mind possessing a body. Nor are you a mind and a body.

You are a mind-body, or an embodied mind.

Mind and body, in other words, are not two fundamentally irreducible substances, nor is it the case that body is ultimately reducible to mind or mind reducible to body.

The human being is a spiritual being, meaning a unity of mind and body.

Just as two sides of the same coin are distinct but  inseparable, so it is with our bodies and minds. They, each derive their identity from their relationship to the other side, but each is ultimately composed of the same stuff.

Between the mind and the body there is a symbiotic connection or a conversation, so to speak. The body communicates to the mind just as the mind communicates to the body.

This being the case, as the martial arts harden the bodies of their practitioners, they also sharpen their minds. Not only do the martial arts cultivate physical excellences—pliability, agility, balance, and martial prowess generally—they also instill such mental virtues as humility, practical wisdom, self-discipline, and even courage and a sense of justice.

Martial arts cannot improve on the excellence of the one thing at the expense of the other. It can only improve both simultaneously because the human-person is a unity, a spiritual organism composed of body and mind.

The martial arts are intrinsically antithetical to the Politics of Victimhood. As Master Liciaga underscores, not just in his latest manuscript but on a daily basis by way of his podcasts and while teaching his art at Dinoto Karate Center in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, the martial arts are inherently oriented toward empowering students—men and women; the young, the not-as-young, and the elderly; parents and children; blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians—so that they may in turn enrich and strengthen their communities.

Though he is the eternal optimist, Master Liciaga labors inexhaustibly to emancipate his students of any delusions they may have concerning the nature of life. Life is hard, and evil is real.  It is because of this view of life that Liciaga is the optimist that he is. The cheeriness with which he greets both the blessings and the challenges that each new day allocates to him is the means by which he combats, and helps whomever will listen combat, the pain and suffering of the world. (Incidentally, Liciaga, who is on Facebook, and other social media, welcomes people to contact him.)

This positivity, this confidence in oneself to surmount the travails of life, is the gift that Master Liciaga tries to bestow, not just upon his students, but upon all who would read his book and listen to his daily podcasts.

Everyone can only benefit from reading Peter Liciaga’s, Black Belt Strong: A Parent’s Guide to the Martial Arts.

Photo Credit: iStock/Getty Images

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