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Miyamoto Musashi, arguably Japan’s greatest Samurai, said: “To Hold Down a Pillow” means not allowing the enemy’s head to rise . . . you must always be able to lead the enemy about. The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.” This is also, effectively, what our Federal Governments do to us, the body politic. Journalist, Mike Woodcock examines why we don’t get better government and what we can do to stop falling for the same gag.

Illustrated GIF by Rachael Bolton

I had a discussion with a good friend the other day. She insisted we can get good government. I disagreed, even though she’s smarter than me. Let me explain why.

*Miyamoto Musashi, arguably Japan’s greatest Samurai, said: “To Hold Down a Pillow” means not allowing the enemy’s head to rise . . . you must always be able to lead the enemy about. The important thing in strategy is to suppress the enemy’s useful actions but allow his useless actions.”

I read this years ago and it stayed with me: the idea that you don’t need to even fight someone to win. You just need to keep them busy enough to not fight you directly. In open war or one-to-one combat, this is a limited, defensive strategy that it takes a master to execute.

It’s what Floyd Mayweather famously did to Conor McGregor. Kept him busy for eight whole rounds with . . . nothing. Busywork. McGregor bought it hook, line and sinker – walked everywhere he didn’t need to, throwing wasted punches that were never going to achieve anything. Halfway through round eight a by-now utterly exhausted Conor McGregor was ruled out on his feet.

And this is also, effectively, what our Federal parliamentarians do to us, the body politic.

‘Work the Body . . .’

It is by this strategy that we are at once governed and prevented from seeking better government. Our government does not need to rule us. It only needs to keep us too busy to rule ourselves.

This is achieved by simple tactics – that everyone knows and can identify, and uses themselves – usually daily, usually arguing with complete strangers on the internet.

Let me give you an example: The Bait & Switch.

Take a major issue of the day – say, marriage equality. Get folks emotionally invested in the idea of ‘gay marriage’. Now make the argument about something else. The right to say no. To say yes. What’s being taught in schools? The right to equal legal standing. The right to . . . ‘rights’.

It doesn’t much matter, because now we’re fighting amongst ourselves about *what the argument is*; and not simply voting on whether to allow every member of society to enjoy equal legal protections and acknowledgements. (Disclosure: I voted Yes.)

That we even made it to a plebiscite is exciting heady stuff, I suppose. (If you consider voting on the rights of other humans to be treated as people under the law exciting and heady).  It’s also kind of sad, because though it turns out that most of us voted yes, functionally not much will change. We have wasted two of our most precious resources on this: time, and our collective will to stay engaged with politics.

. . . and the head will die.’

The wider issues that affect *everyone* – house prices, education standards and costs, public health policy – are all kept in the abstract. We are not offered a plebiscite on closing down negative gearing. We are not asked if we would like a Federal corruption commission. We are not offered a choice on a full Crown inquiry into banking practices.

Instead, our Facebook feeds are full of fauxtivism: like this post about Adani Coal, share that video promoting Vegan lifestyles, argue with this other guy who is *COMPLETELY WRONG* about cyclists. We’re guilty of it ourselves – easily lost, easily distracted.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t uttered that timeless Australian proverb: Bloody politicians. This is largely because the purpose and function of Government, the Art of it, is not to resolve issues: it is to pass laws around them. While it makes for a great episode of Yes Minister, should we not be demanding better: politicians that are legally qualified for the position as citizens would be a fabulous start. Why can’t we even start there?

The answer if course is simple: We are too busy. We have a full time job, if we’re lucky, and / or a side hustle. We might have kids, ongoing education, a mortgage, or all three. Maybe a health issue somewhere in the extended family, car payments, work deadlines, weekend time with friends, loves and family, you name it. And we’re full up. We’re done.

We lose interest in the problem’s solution, because anyone with the power to change it will offer nothing realistic to do so: we are encouraged to flail away at the symptoms, while the disease of sub-par government festers on.

The great loss, and the great danger that goes with long term inaction, is disillusionment with the process. When nothing is resolved, tension builds, and disillusionment leads to some odd choices.

And before you know what you’ve done, there’s an anxious redhead sitting in the senate wearing a burqa, a British voting public that wants to leave but also doesn’t want to go, and a sitting US president that may just bluster himself into a shooting war. (The best that can be hoped for there is that he is, in fact, just like all the others: full of noise, sound and fury, signifying nothing.)

Lose the Pillow

What bothers me is that this ‘strategy’ is nothing new: we are ruled with a 350 year old idea: keep us busy arguing about gay marriage and suchlike, and the government has a free hand to avoid being called upon to resolve critical issues.

The bright side is that Musashi also offered a simple solution: Do not screw around with these bastards:

“The sure way to win is to chase the enemy around in a confusing manner, causing him to jump aside, with your body held strongly and straight. . .

The essence of strategy is to fall upon the enemy in large numbers and bring about his speedy downfall . . .

The Way of strategy is straight and true. You must chase the enemy around and make him obey your spirit.”

Call them to account. Stay on their case. Sounds a solid argument in favour of a robust fourth estate; the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. Frankly I’m worried; but I hope I’m wrong, and my friend is right.

All it takes is enough of us to get up off that pillow.

dramatis personae

*Miyamoto Mushasi was arguably Japan’s greatest Samurai. He wrote a Book of Five Rings on how to implement strategy and tactics that you should probably read because he once killed a guy with a stick. (the other guy had a sword.)

Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather is a loudmouthed, undefeated middleweight who is also the richest, most boring boxer of the past decade.

Conor McGregor is a loudmouthed, roundly defeated-in-eight middleweight Irish guy who is more fun to watch but got destroyed fighting Mayweather in a switch of codes that I’m not going to explain because what do you live under a rock or something?

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