Gender-neutralizing the Sage

(An illustration from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan.)

Three weeks ago I interviewed Audrey Tang, Taiwan's Digital Minister, a trans woman, open source software hacker, and Daoist philosopher. Taiwan is engaged in a fascinating project to deploy digital tools to reduce political polarization and build democracy. One of the goals of my profile of Tang for Wired is to figure out whether there is anything from Taiwan's experience that could conceivably be transferable to the U.S.

I filed the first draft of the story last Wednesday. On Thursday, George Floyd died in police custody and the United States erupted. In my garden on Friday afternoon I heard kids marching down Martin Luther King Jr. Way chanting "Fuck The Police."

My head has been in Taiwan for the last month but the island is suddenly, once again, way the hell over on the other side of the world. And the question that I tried to get Audrey Tang to answer seems more insane than ever. What can we possibly learn from Taiwan? We are living in the middle of a pandemic and national civil unrest and the only thing our president is competent at is stoking public division. I'm waiting for my editor's reaction to my first draft and I already know the next version will be weighed down by the necessity of addressing the deepening fractures of the current moment.

I am sure I am not the only person who felt paralyzed this Monday morning, unable to meet the challenge of how to proceed forward as a creative person in the middle of this limbo of mayhem and uncertainty.

So I started Googling Ursula K. LeGuin.

Anyone who has been reading this newsletter will understand why I got a little delirious when Audrey Tang answered several of my questions by reading selections from the Laozi's Dao De Jing ("The Way and Its Power"). I own five translations of the Dao De Jing. Ten years ago, I wrote a piece for Martha Stewart's Whole Living magazine on how Laozi's wisdom helped me crawl out of a mid-life crisis. I am there for Taiwanese cabinet members who want to explain how they integrate open-source software development methodologies with Daoist insights to safeguard and improve the public welfare.

But I was a tad perplexed when I discovered that the source of Tang's quotations was a "rendition" authored by LeGuin, the fantasy and science fiction writer. Although LeGuin embraced Daoist thought and worked its themes into many of her creative works, she never learned Chinese. It struck me as a bit curious that Tang would have chosen such a diffracted translation.

But I love LeGuin, and it amuses me to think that my first exposure to Daoism was probably reading her first Earthsea trilogy as a teenager (it just explains so much.) And this morning, after I learned more about LeGuin's efforts to gender-neutralize the Sage, her own political identification with anarchism, and her thoughts on "the feminine and the Dao," everything  started to make more sense. Tang likes to call herself a "conservative anarchist." Tang's approach to politics, to democracy, and to the use of technology is deeply influenced by her rejection of traditional masculine ways of being.

LeGuin's Dao was an iteration tuned to Tang's specific needs.

And then I saw it: a way out of the gloom: a comment from LeGuin on the timeliness of Laozi's message: 

Ursula: Lao Tzu is very relevant at a time like ours. We’re in one of those big yin-yang movements, and the yang is so extreme. But then it will do what all extremes do, it’ll suddenly begin turning into the opposite. There’s another part of Taoism that we haven’t discussed that is part of my view of the world – extremes always do implode and begin to turn into the other thing.

Yes. That's what we all need to hear, right? The sharpness of the current contradiction is the prelude to a progressive resolution! Three and a half years of Trump has resulted in tens of millions of unemployed, hundreds of thousands dead, and nightly showdowns between protestors and police. This has got to be the darkest it gets before that longed for dawn. Please?

Except, LeGuin's comment was made in 2003, in the context of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush's first term.

So, OK, maybe Obama's election was the yin that compensated for Bush's out-of-control yang.

But that just set up the next turn of the cycle, or the next twist in the widening gyre: Trump's inversion of Obama.

And so it goes? This is one tough roller-coaster. I want to get off.