Disputed Ground

On Martial Arts, Politics, and Culture.

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Liberalism and speech

Some late thoughts on the firing of left-wing blogger Matt Bruenig:

Bruenig was fired from his blogging job at Demos, a liberal think tank, after he called Neera Tanden a scumbag, referencing the “Scumbag Steve” meme.In the aftermath, some rather nasty liberal partisans have tried to get Bruenig fired from his other job as a lawyer.

Many have rightly skewered the naked hypocrisy of how “civility” is enforced. In the world of DC elites, advocating that we bomb Libya and pillage their oil is “civil”, but calling the author of that comment a scumbag is uncivil. Beyond that, these people can’t even consistently meet their own self-serving standard, and routinely engage those less powerful with rude or aggressive language.

Be that as it may, I don’t think the issue is hypocrisy. I think this sort of behavior is perfectly consistent with espoused liberal belief (here liberal is used to mean the large core of establishment democrats and their supporters).

Liberals like Tanden believe that it would be wrong for an elected committee of federal officials to have fined Bruenig the equivalent of his Demos pay, as a means of deterring him from posting at Demos again. They are right to believe this. Yet, they also believe that it is perfectly OK for unaccountable “private individuals” to deny Bruenig both the pay and the platform, even if they are doing so under economic coercion from other “private” actors.

How do they justify such a self-evidently incoherent belief? For the current generation of liberals, there exists two distinct spheres (A) Politics & (B) Society. Rights only apply to (A), and malfunctions in (B) are only a problem if they can be tied to malfunctions in (A).

Let’s try this out to see if it holds up.

Voting rights: It is a problem if formal political legislatures attempt to make voting more difficult by imposing ID card requirements. Yet, for liberals, it is not a problem if, as in New York, millions are excluded from a primary election. “Parties are private organizations, they can set their own rules!”.  Onerous registration rules, in practice, can be just as effective a means of voter suppression as ID cards. The difference then is not in impact. The difference is that liberals believe in a different set of rules for the “private”.

Expression:  It would be wrong for the federal government to stop you from publishing your political views. Yet, for liberals, it would be fine, even if unfortunate, for a media owner to stop you.

The elites: Liberals are focused on diversifying the elite, rather than abolishing it. The problem is not tremendous inequalities in both material and power, the problem is that, due to the legacy of various discriminatory political paradigms, the elite is a disproportionately white and male one. On a purely strategic level, such a lack of diversity is dangerous for the elites. Beyond that, we get to the core of the beliefs: Inequalities generated by the market are OK. So long as the market is kept sufficiently free of the malfunctions that stem from the rival sphere of politics.

Liberals, however much they may want to temper the lows of the market, ultimately believe in its meritocratic elements. Their very opposition to formal government censorship is based on the supremacy of “the marketplace of ideas”. Countless voices are censored every single day by this so called marketplace, quietly and without attention. Liberals are right to oppose government censorship (A). They are wrong to discount the unjust coercion of private censorship (B).

Such a series of confusions is built on a foundation of lies. Privatized coercion is coercion nonetheless. Most of us will run into the walls and constraints of private power way more often than the political constraints of the state. Just as we oppose public coercion, we ought oppose private coercion. Accordingly political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient component of human freedom.

We can go further still, and denounce the lie that politics and the market exist separately to begin with.  Human beings don’t live in two separate spheres. From “the original sin” of ill-gotten appropriations of wealth, to the mechanisms needed to keep the current economic system functioning, to the petty cronyism and corruption of the networks of government and corporate interest, the two realms are really one. (A) has never been separate from (B).

Thus, we go back to our particular case. In the world of think tanks, with their funding derived from the select interest groups that curry favor with factions of the government, the farce of some separate meritocratic marketplace rendering its judgment becomes even more laughable.

The left then, in our response, should be clear about a few things. I don’t think the focus should be about the plight of the Bruenigs. In this particular case, they seem like resourceful people. They’ll be alright. Nor do I think we should act surprised when these institutions behave this way. On the contrary, we expect them to. They will never act otherwise, and it is exactly because of this behavior that we propose to replace these institutions with something more equitable.

And we should be optimistic. Every day, some very educated scold finds themselves defending the indefensible. These are the people that consider themselves very educated, oh so smart, consider themselves progressive, and without any sense of irony or self-awareness condescend to others that “it’s not censorship, only the government can do that!”. No one buys it. As elites and their followers get drunk on their own indoctrination and discredit themselves with their shamelessness, they’ll face a world in which a growing number of people see the con for what it is.


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The Democratic Primary on the eve of 4/19


The Case For Voting for Sanders and against Clinton:

Bernie Sanders is a rare sub-species of politician. He represents a throwback to an earnest new-deal style liberalism that he calls “democratic socialism”. In an age of austerity, means testing, and war, he champions a universal right to healthcare and peace. Rarer still, in his life’s work and conduct, he appears to be a genuinely decent and honest person.

His opponent is Hillary Clinton. In contrast to the constructive energy and positivity of the Sanders movement, there is no defensible case for Hillary Clinton. She is a politician who has advocated for a war that resulted in the unnecessary and violent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. She is a friend to the rich and an enemy to the poor. She has promoted bigotry, and the curtailment of civil liberties. Most of the problems that she opportunistically wants to solve now are problems that she had a hand in creating in the first place. She is funded by those who benefit most from the broken status quo, and as such will represent their interests.

All of this is beyond dispute, and all of this makes it very difficult to advance a positive argument for Hillary Clinton. As such, her supporters’ only recourse is to engage in a series of distractions and meta-debates, hoping that if they kick up enough dust, her superior money and name recognition will carry her through the primary.

No one is perfect. This blog would disagree with Sanders about some issues. But given the stakes and the choices, the course of action is clear. This blog advocates that participants in the democratic primary vote for Sanders.

To understand the difference between the two candidates, consider the example of how they approach money.

Question: “What does Hillary Clinton represent?”

Answer: “Wall street.”

Establishment liberals are stuck in a conundrum. Years of complaining about Citizens United, and now their preferred candidate is making an argument that money doesn’t corrupt. Something has to give.

Companies like Goldman Sachs are profit-seeking entities with a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to earn as much money as possible. These companies are very good at making money, and very good at buying politicians to help them make more money. To believe that the millions of dollars that Clinton has received from Wall Street haven’t influenced her, is to necessarily believe that (1) She is different than all the other bought-and-paid for politicians, and (2) That suddenly all these profit seeking entities like to throw away money. Sorry, not buying it.

That these firms continued to give her money is a sign that they believe they’re getting something out of it, and we should believe them. The Wall Street firms that believe she is buyable are spending millions of dollars on that belief. The liberal pundits that try to claim otherwise are spending nothing, and they stand to gain insider access and positions should Clinton win. Thus, those investing in Clinton have an incentive to be correct, and those defending her have an incentive to lie.

“Name one thing she’s changed her mind on as a result of money!”

Is the retort we get from her ever more desperate defenders.  This is a stupid question because corrupt politicians don’t admit that they’re corrupt. They always have their spin and their reasons.

They’re also opening the door to another damning possibility. She’s not corrupt. She’s earnest in her support for the rich and powerful. The oligarchs see the work she does on behalf of them and choose to support her after the fact. Neither is good.

Luckily for us we can also meet the challenge to find evidence of corruption head on. Elizabeth Warren asks us to  remember the bankruptcy bill:


No longer able to deny the influence of money, Clinton is forced to take Human Shields. The first is Obama. From the debate:

“Mrs. Clinton used Mr. Sanders’s attack on her for taking speaking fees and contributions from banks to drive a wedge between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Obama, perhaps more aggressively than at any point in the campaign.

“The comments that Senator Sanders has made that don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession,” she said. “Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”

Hillary Clinton thinks you’re stupid. This is one of those paragraphs that’s almost too absurd to respond to. Another politician took corrupting donations therefore she should too. The economy has cycles therefore everything was done perfectly. Clinton actually ran in a primary against Obama but Sanders is the real extremist for merely talking about running in a primary against Obama.

One might just laugh at the absurdities, but some of Clinton’s other attempts to distract from her corruption, aren’t so funny:

“I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is…”

Three thousand people killed, their last moments spent in absolute pain and fear, all so a shameless, sociopathic, politician could justify being bought off by the super-rich, all the better for the oligarchs to further carve up this country. This is disgraceful.

This is a campaign run by liars. People who will say absolutely anything.

So who should we reward with our support? Remember that those that will lie to you to get power will lie to you when they have power.

Why should we tolerate this dishonesty. For pragmatism? Like the rest of her campaign that’s a lie too. Sanders is more electable than Clinton according to the data we have. You can concoct all sorts of scenarios where you think Sanders’ political label hurts him, but you must recognize that doing so is mere speculation and not based on any evidence. Sanders has higher favorability, lower unfavorability, has more individual donors (that aren’t close to maxing out), and beats the Republicans in hypothetical head to head matchups by the largest margins.

So inevitably, win or lose in New York tomorrow, when people tell you to support Clinton for pragmatism, or demand that Sanders drop out to avoid hurting “our” chances, remember that the opposite is true. Sanders is the most electable candidate. Moreover, Clinton’s campaign damages the progressive movement every day that it continues to exist. In order to defend the indefensible, the Clinton campaign is making right wing arguments against universal healthcare, and free public tuition. The Clinton campaign is making imperialist neo-con arguments for war. The Clinton campaign is siding with the conservatives on the Supreme Court when it comes to Citizens United and the issue of money in politics. The Clinton campaign is openly attacking progressive causes and attempting to shift the democratic party even further rightward. For the good of progressives, she should lose the nomination.

Primary voters then get a two for one when they choose Sanders. They continue pushing left and continue the struggle for a more equitable and just society, one where healthcare is a basic human right. On the other, they get try and stop the dishonest establishment politics of the increasingly reactionary Clinton campaign. Do not reward the liars that frighten seniors by telling them that somehow universal healthcare attacks medicare. Do not reward those that attack public education. Reward instead those that stood on the right side of history. Reward the candidate that marched with Martin Luther King. Reward the candidate that continues to push for a greater social safety net. Reward the campaign that has been built on decades of principle and fundamental honesty.

Vote Sanders.


Submission-only rules suck because Jiu-Jitsu should be a martial art.

Respect the position bro.

Respect the position bro.


Said the wise Jiu-Jitsu master back when Jiu-Jitsu fighters were the most dominant martial artists on earth.


Said the guy selling you a $20 internet stream in 2016, when Jiu-Jitsu is at its least relevant point in years.

What went wrong? Why are we here? After a series of increasingly dull sub-only events, including today’s Polaris card that featured zero submissions, we should address the issue of sub only, and why it’s bad martial arts.

The case for sub-only goes something like this: “What matters in fights is the finish. Getting a pass doesn’t mean you won a fight, but getting a submission does. Likewise, people want to watch exciting events, and submissions are more exciting, therefore we should watch submission only.”

These arguments have persuaded large segments of the community, but they’re ultimately flawed.

1) The focus on the submission puts the cart before the horse. Submissions end fights, but that does not mean that the best way to get submissions is to simply go for more of them at the expense of fighting for positional dominance. Getting submissions is difficult, so traditional Jiu-Jitsu strategy has been to first secure increasingly dominant positions and establish control. In the course of securing these positions, the opponent either (A) commits a major blunder in an attempt to scramble out of a bad position, (B) fatigues from fighting against superior leverage and gravity, or (C), allows you to establish such an immensely dominant position- such as a flattened out back mount- that imposing a finish becomes easy. Indeed, not only does this make the finish easier, but following this process also prevents your opponent from climbing up the positional hierarchy, and protects you from serious damage or defeat if you lose position while attempting a submission before securing dominant control. Imagine a striking coach saying that what matters is the KO, therefore let’s throw nothing but power punches to the head. Such a mindset should be treated as equally nonsensical in Jiu-Jitsu. Good process leads to good results, and submissions should be the end point of your strategy, not the starting point.

2)The submission only format does not lead to better fights. While this blog would disagree that only fights that end in submissions are exciting, let’s grant that premise for the sake of argument. The problem remains: Submission only matches don’t result in more submissions. Why is this so? Simply stated: Because the format abandons combat realism. As discussed in argument (1) above, submissions often occur in process of positional battle. In a real fight, positions represent dangerous striking, and so you fight to avoid them, or get damaged with strikes. In a point Jiu-Jitsu match, the rules respect that combative reality, and award large and oftentimes insurmountable point margins for transitions up the positional hierarchy. In submission only neither applies. You have neither of these things to contend with, and so you begin to lose the relevance of position, and with it the factors that make finishes happen. An overwhelmed opponent can go to a draw against superior opposition by avoiding risky scrambles, suffering no punishment from being controlled, and actually expending far less energy than the aggressor. This is why most sub-only tournaments now seem to be draw-only tournaments.


“But what about EBI?”

EBI suffers from the same thing, but they realized the issue earlier on and manufacture overtime submissions through a unique rule-set that can force people to give up their backs or an armbar, something their athletes often can’t get to during regulation because of the perverse incentives of no-points/sub-only rules. EBI overtime goes even further and adds a clock to this, flipping it on its head and making the awarded position super-dominant in OT by penalizing you for every second you spend being controlled. This is why submission rates shoot up during EBI overtime.


Conclusion: Examining the incentives of the sub-only rule set, and the various ways these tournaments deal with it, it’s clear that submissions come from the value of positions. In real fights, positions can be a matter of life and death. The more a rule set recognizes and respects that reality accordingly, the more that rule set will tend to produce submission finishes.

Bad Arguments, Bad Faith, and Bernie

Few things are more absurdly maddening and counter-productive than watching the last couple of years of progress washed away in this fight between the anti-racism movement, and economic leftists.

Among those few things are the bad arguments being made to defend not only shutting down a social security event, but doing so by screaming at and pushing senior citizens. Here we’ll examine some of the arguments put forward by a prominent blogger, and by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.

First, for anyone not paying attention, this happened:

Sanders supporters reacted with a mix of bewilderment and anger. Queue the following meta-debates!

The first piece to highlight here is one by UK writer Richard Seymour.

As is typical of the genre, you get a scatter gun of cherry picked tweets, loose link translation, looser association, omission, more translation, followed by the grand finale of implication:

 “The Sanders campaign now has an ‘official’ shout-down chant prepared, in the event of such irruptions: ‘We Stand Together’.  Given that this is intended be chanted to silence black anti-racist activists, it does rather raise the question of what that says about the ‘we’ thus constituted.”

Let’s, as the phrase goes, “unpack this”. Only two paragraphs into a genuinely awful piece, we arrive at a place where chanting over people heckling “you” is “you” silencing “them”. How dare you heckle my heckle at an event you organized!

Perhaps aware that this is supremely weak and Orwellian sauce, Seymour decides to kick sand in your face by pointing out that these are “black” anti-racist activists. An inclusion that would only be relevant if Sanders was OK with “white” anti-racist activists shutting his event down. This not being the case, let’s be charitable and say that Seymour wrote this piece on a sort of thoughtless auto-pilot, rather than just being a dishonest smear artist casually cheapening racism by falsely using it to prop-up his non-arguments. One might also point out that the person who introduced the “We Stand Together!” chant, is herself a black anti-racist activist. Perhaps white graduate student Richard Seymour will raise the question to her about “the ‘we’ thus constituted”. Let’s again be charitable though and assume he didn’t know and was just banging into the keyboard in a lazy, ignorant, trance.

The rest of his post isn’t very interesting. You get accusations of “nationalism”, from a writer that’s supported a plethora of nationalist movements himself. You get accusations of “eurocentrism” from a white European academic against an American whose family fled the holocaust. You get oversimplified attacks on the complicated issue of Immigration (see a good rebuttal here). You get a fair reminder of some of Sanders’ more unfortunate foreign policy commitments, but it’s a reminder that’s made somewhat weaker by the fact that some of the people attacking him have said things like this:

Creator of “#BernieSoBlack”


The piece ends on a note that epitomizes most of what’s wrong with this debate. True to his Leninist roots of wanting to lead the dumb masses, Seymour advises advocates of Sanders to forget about principles and what they really think, and instead focus on positioning and how best to use #BlackLivesMatter for their own self-aggrandizement:

“Sandernistas would do well to reflect on one thing.  In a few months’ time, Sanders’s campaign will be gone…But Black Lives Matter, or rather the movement with which it has become synonymous, isn’t going to go away….Where do the Sandernistas want to be in all this?  Do they really want to say that they spent this time complaining about the movement because a couple of activists disrupted the campaign of an old not-very-radical, ‘colour-blind’ social democrat?”

Fuck giving people the respect of honest disagreement! Seymour knows a winning brand when he sees it and wants you to get in early! Positioning, positioning, positioning. As always with this type of authoritarian, the guiding question isn’t “is this true or not?”, instead it’s “how can I manipulate and exploit others to my own advantage”. In its own way, that seems like much more of a…let’s again be nice and call it a blind spot.

It’s this type of self-interested, opportunistic thinking that makes it so easy for authoritarians like Seymour to make common cause with careerist liberals close to the political establishment. As Chomsky reminds us:

“These ideas, described by Lippmann’s editors as a progressive “political philosophy for liberal democracy,” have an unmistakeable resemblance to the Leninist concept of a vanguard party that leads the masses to a better life that they cannot conceive or construct on their own. In fact, the transition from one position to the other, from Leninist enthusiasm to “celebration of America,” has proven quite an easy one over the years. This is not surprising, since the doctrines are similar at their root. The critical difference lies in an assessment of the prospects for power: through exploitation of mass popular struggle, or service to the current masters. “

Fake recognize fake.

Credit where credit is due though. The audacity required for someone who has advocated working with Islamists to play prolier than though with democratic socialists is truly mind-boggling. Like literally. A person with dignity might have their mind literally break. Seymour should be given some kind of award for achieving new heights of inconsistency in his quest to uphold the proud authoritarian tradition of despising democratic socialism. He can even put it up on the wall of his office in the London School of Economics.

Still, Seymour’s brand awareness might eventually help people forget about his previous issues around race. Or maybe not.



Now, while it’s easy to dismiss a ridiculous figure like Seymour, the next set of arguments we’re going to look at come from Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is a movement that’s tapping into someone significant, and so what she says warrants close attention: http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/bernie-sanders-v-black-lives-matter-502576707783

In this interview a few nights ago with Chris Hayes, Garza lays out some arguments that are troubling.

Garza: “(our plan is) to make sure that our lives are represented in every candidates platform”

Let’s judge that plan on its merits then. The argument seems to be:

  1. To get issues on a candidate’s campaign platform, you need to shut down their events.
  2. Candidates do what is on their campaign platform.

Conclusion: To get politicians to take action on racial justice, we have to shut down their events until they put it on their platforms.

A slight problem though: The premises are false!

The first premise is merely false, or at best unclear. Where is the evidence that to get a response from Sanders you needed to shut down a social security event by screaming at and pushing old people? That things happen a certain way does not mean it is the best way things could’ve happened. These sorts of acrimonious divisions have real political costs, and the burden of proof has not been met as to why these tactics were preferable over others.

And that’s just on the pragmatic side. Let’s not discount the matter of principle. The framework of war erodes rights. It’s a trick long mastered by the state to crack down on dissent and due process. In the Global War on Terror, “the battlefield is everywhere” claimed the reactionaries in charge. It is a claim that paved the road to where we are now. Indefinite detention, torture, and assassination. The battlefield is everywhere, and you’re on the battlefield – you wouldn’t give rights to an enemy soldier firing at you, would you?

This same erosion of respect for rights is tragically mirrored in a portion of the activist circle. It accepts the war framework. While this is more tethered to reality, since the violence dispensed both by the state and private actors towards many of the oppressed is present all around us, it nevertheless sets us off on the slippery slope to the bottom wherein we abandon the centrality of rights of speech, assembly, and association.

If it’s war, then all options are on the table. The argument goes: Disrupting events is not as bad as shooting unarmed black men. Obviously correct, but the threshold of “not as bad as killing” is too low of a bar. “Torture is not as bad as death” says the reactionary. It is a proud tradition that says that free speech is a moral good. One that should be expanded.

There are some that will not be persuaded by appeals to moral principle. They buy into the war framework and everything it implies. To you I’d advise this: Power wins that game. In a country where norms of shutting down speeches becomes embraced, you’ll very quickly find that some of the worst people are very good at that sort of thing. Dissident speech is the most threatened and fragile. It is also therefore pragmatically better for the left if political events don’t get shut down.

Now, If the first implied premise is clearly false, then the second, that politicians will actually do what’s in their platforms, is dangerous.

It’s a premise that’s ludicrously false, yet one that is being used to channel countless young activists into this type of politics. It’s the type of politics that discounts record. It’s the type of politics that acts like lying doesn’t exist. It’s the type of politics that benefits sociopaths with millions of dollars to spend on public relations teams.  It’s the type of politics that benefits someone whose security is handled by armed agents of the state. It’s the type of politics that has you in nice private meetings with Hillary Clinton while disrupting the event of someone who marched with Martin Luther King.

As socialist activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (who is to the left of Sanders and is no great fan of him) observes:

A preliminary thought on the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 election: I wonder what the end game is when the objective seems to be getting the leading candidates running of the Democratic Party to produce robust plans detailing how they will address the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean for either Sanders or Clinton to produce more campaign platforms concerning “racial justice” when they remain in a political party that is complicit and invested in the destruction of Black neighborhoods through the instruments of privatization…The hashtag and slogan “earn our vote” implies, if not forthrightly declares, that there is a particular combination of planks the Democratic Party can put together to win the vote of the movement.

(Hat tip to Freddie Deboer)

One might go further here and point out that Garza is implying not just that there is a possible combination of words that might get them to endorse Hillary Clinton, but Republicans as well. Such a politics is not defensible.

It is not an honest politics. It is not a winning politics.

It is a self-destructive politics.

Garza continues: “Folks like Code Pink, or Act Up – mostly white folks- are disrupting the president, disrupting business as usual…we don’t see the same level of vitriol that we’ve seen against black lives matter.”

Where to begin? Should we start with the obvious fact that again, the premise is false? The “level of vitriol” directed against these groups was/is absolutely staggering.

Or maybe we should point out that the noxious implication of racism here is being made against people who supported action to combat HIV (a virus that doesn’t recognize social constructs), and opposed the Iraq war, where hundreds of thousands of non-white, non-American, humans died?

Or should we instead point out that the comparison makes no sense? One does not shut down the President’s events because one is not capable of doing so. One does not get to push and scream in the face of the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. Funny how again we find that this sort of political argument stacks the deck in favor of the powerful.

Speaking of going easy on the powerful, one might recommend checking out some questions posed by Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, as he contemplates whether Garza is positioning herself to align with the power structure of the democratic party.

Continuing, Garza concludes with: “It’s not important to us that we are palatable to folks who are not sure whether they align with disruption or not.”

This, along with other activists saying that supporters of Sanders need to “re-examine their priorities” when they complain of the events being shut down, is meant to imply a certain superficial callousness. As if it’s all just a stylistic disagreement.

At a certain point, enough is enough. Of the two events that were shut down, one was about social security, the other was about immigration.

This isn’t about decorum. This is about people fucking dying. Thousands of people die every year in the United States due to poverty, and millions of others barely survive. How the fuck is it okay to shut down an event on social security which is one of the few things that stops senior citizens from having to eat catfood? The framing offered by Garza is as ludicrous as anti-poverty crusaders shutting down a black lives matter event because people die from poverty. Would anyone buy that for even an instant?

And let’s not forget about immigration. Tens of millions of immigrants are not only denied the right to vote, but are also denied basic legal protections, and fair access to the economy. Thousands now reside in exploitive work conditions that are called, without exaggeration, a type of modern day slavery:

“All across America, H-2 guest workers complain that they have been cheated out of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned. Some have even died on the job. Yet employers rarely face any significant consequences.”

Why don’t these issues deserve attention? Who is Garza to shut down these forums?

At a certain point, one need not even be a fan of Sanders to see that down this way lies damnation. We cannot renounce principles. We cannot forget that if you want to know what a person will do, you need to see what they’ve done. We cannot pit the various struggles against each other. We must unite the struggles. Our strengths is numbers, but numbers alone won’t work without principles and unity.

We must retain an eternal sense of optimism. Eventually though, if it turns out social security and immigration events were disrupted for an ultimate endorsement of Hillary Clinton, then one can’t help but feel a great sadness.

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The case against Private lessons, Part 1.

Like most people in the jiu-jitsu community, you’ve probably never taken a private lesson, will never take one, and think they’re too expensive even if you wanted to take one. You’re not interested in private lessons. Unfortunately private lessons are interested in you. In fact, there’s nothing private about them. Let me explain how private lessons ruin things for the rest of us:

I. Your Jiu-Jitsu gym is just bait.

Unless you’re a celebrity grappler, or an expert marketer (with all the shadiness that entails), you most likely don’t have hundreds of students and dozens of affiliates. Indeed, most schools are far more modest, with contracts somewhere in the dozens, and active members just a fraction of the contracts.

As things are currently set up, most jiu-jitsu gyms aren’t that profitable, and many lose money.

Why then, do rational people keep opening these gyms?

Simple. The quest to score private lesson gold.

Think of your BJJ gym as bait. What’s the prey…? Well, you’re hunting two types of animals:

1) The common blue (collar) fish:

These are the guys  that fill up most of your group classes. Seemingly a diverse bunch, some old, some young, some workers, some students, some hobbyists, and some with dreams of being a world champion. What they have in common though is a cap on their disposable income. Jiu-Jitsu is already a bit expensive for them, and none of them really shell out for private lessons. In fact, many of them don’t even want to, as they prefer the social aspect of hanging out with their friends in class.

2) The great white (collar) whale:

These are the folks that compose your private lesson base. Less diverse, these people tend to be either upper-middle class or outright rich. They get personal trainers at the gym, maybe do some bikram yoga, and generally pay for a premium experience. Getting in with the instructor for them is more important than getting in with the classmates. They pay for private lessons, because life has taught them that money can buy them the good stuff that is kept secluded from the masses.

“Ok, so what?”

It’s the position of this blog that private lessons are mostly worthless (though that’s a discussion for another time). However, tempting as it may be to just let wealthy people waste their money, the end result is bad for the martial art.

Here’s the key: Because time is limited, your instructor doesn’t have the ability to dedicate the same amount of time to a blue fish as he does to a white whale. They logically figure: Easier to catch a few whales, than it is to catch dozens of fish. While this thinking has sound short-term logic, in practice it ends up corrupting the curriculum, effecting the class schedule, thus hurting diversity, and ultimately suffocating the martial art in the long term by transforming it into something it shouldn’t be.

II. Time is money, and other people’s private lessons take up your time.

A hard balance to strike.

When people want to hire the top poker players in the world for personal coaching, the price is always equal to or greater than that player’s win rate at the table. If the poker player will on average make $500 per hour playing poker, then coaching from that player will cost at least $500 per hour, otherwise it makes no sense for that player to waste an hour that he could’ve spent playing poker.

The same is true for BJJ instructors. Let’s run the math:

A person that pays a “standard” contract of $150 a month (yes I know it’s higher in a lot of places), and comes around 2-3 times per week, give or take, is paying about $15 per class which is translates to $15 per hour of instruction.

In contrast, the standard private lesson rate for non-celebrity black belt private lessons can range from $100-$150 dollars per hour of instruction.

Which student would you pay more attention to? The one paying $15 an hour for group classes, or the one paying $150 an hour for private lessons?

This conflict explodes when faced with the dilemma of limited mat time:

People work. A lot of them work at the same times. Which means for us that Most people can only train between 6pm-9pm on weekdays. The blue collar students taking group classes, and the white collar whales are both competing for space on the mat during this window.

If you’re teaching 2-3 private lessons per week during a certain time slot, then it doesn’t make sense to have a class during that time slot unless it would net you the same or more value per hour.

It’s that simple. For a growing number of instructors, they simply won’t expand the schedule unless they believe it would consistently net them 2-3 new contracts per week (to match the value of the private lessons). Since no new class could realistically guarantee that, the net result is that they never expand the schedule past the bare minimum!

It also means they never expand the school, since they have no incentive to. For many instructors, the school should just pay for itself, so as to provide a location for private lessons. Since private lessons are usually cash, and the contracts are electronic (EFC) and thus taxed, break-even is probably better than a slight profit from a tax perspective. Thus a massive school that does $12,000 a month in contracts, and pays $10,000 a month in rent, is no different for them than a school that does $5,000 a month in contracts and pays $3000 in rent. In fact, the smaller school is probably preferred due to easier logistical issues, such as mat cleaning. All this despite the fact that most of us would prefer the larger school with bigger mat space and more training partners.

Finally, it kills diversity. Let me give you the real life example that inspired this article. I was speaking with an instructor, let’s call him X.

Me: “No one wants to be the first woman in an academy. It would be a friendlier environment to do it in a group. Why don’t you start a women’s only bjj class at 6 pm, and do a month long promotion to get women to try it out. You already have a big call list from the cardio kickboxing stuff.”

X: “It’s hard to get women to stick around. While a couple might, I teach private lessons around that time. I’m already turning some privates down. I wouldn’t do a class at 6 pm unless I thought I could get at least 10 new contracts out of it.”

Behold how any realistic chance of growing and diversifying our martial art is strangled in its crib by the presence of private lessons, and the elitist mindset it represents!

There’s plenty more to say about the evils of private lessons, but this article is already over 1000 words, so I’ll just end part 1 with a few final thoughts:

The first step in fixing jiu-jitsu is realizing that not all students share the same common interest. There’s a segment of the community that is actively trying to make the sport more friendly to the rich. Time is limited. So the time they take for them is time we lose for the rest of us. While the media seems to be providing bored rich people and celebrity dilettantes platforms with which to shape the community in their image (helicopters to attend my private lessons!!1!), we must fight back, so that the art of David doesn’t become just another overpriced luxury good for Goliath.

Next time we’ll discuss how private lessons actually water Jiu-Jitsu down and make it a worse martial art.

Feed back welcome!