Bonsai Societies

One of the gifts Japan has given to the world is the elegant art form of the bonsai tree.  The bonsai artist grows a miniature tree in a small container, carefully guiding the plant into an aesthetically pleasing form.  That form can be a scale model of a full-sized tree or a more exotic shape.  This is art, and the only constraints are the skill, patience, and imagination of the artist.

A disturbing aspect of bonsai is that the trees involved are actual trees.  If the bonsai had been planted in the wild, they would, barring fire, flood, or other disasters, grow to a normal size.  Instead, the birch, cedar, or maple tended by the bonsai artist is doomed to a stunted existence.  All well and good for a plant, a life form that even the notoriously self-righteous vegans gobble down.  But it still strikes a poignant note when viewing a bonsai, however beautiful.

If people could restrain themselves to training a bonsai to live within arbitrary limits, the world would be a happier place.  Unfortunately, the same urges that drive the bonsai artist compel others to paint on a larger canvas.  There exist individuals who aspire to sculpt entire societies, entire cultures, into aesthetically pleasing shapes.  Driven by visions of utopia, these saviors of humanity feel justified in carving social order to fit their views.

The bonsai is shaped by trimming leaves and branches, bending boughs, and restricting roots within its pot.  Equivalent methods are employed by those who view societies as a bonsai project. 

As a bonsai is constrained within its pot, the shaped society is allowed to sink its roots only within the confines of an approved ideology.  In this way, troublesome contrary opinions, and the historical evidence to support other points of view, can’t be drawn up from the soil to taint utopia with doubt.  That the roots of the bonsai society are consequently shallow and weak does not seem to concern the artist.  Why should it?  The visual result is paramount, not the function or the health of the tree.  Hence, statues are toppled and books are burned.

The shape and size of the boughs are tightly controlled as well.  Normally a tree will reach for the sun, the branches growing to place as many leaves as possible in the light.  This promotes the health of the entire tree.  The bonsai artist, however, finds this annoying.  The tendency of the tree to do what its DNA tells it is best is combatted with binding and clamps.  The societal bonsai artist employs a range of tools to shape things to his vision.  At first, these measures include comparatively gentle persuaders: censorship, quotas, intimidation.  If that doesn’t work, or work fast enough, direct actions are called for.

Instead of leaves, undesirable people are trimmed from a shaped society.  Preferred trimming tools vary.  During the French revolution, the guillotine was employed.  The Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution favored the firing squad, although the gulag came into vogue as the Soviet Union became established.  The Nazis perfected high-throughput gas chambers, influenced by the famous German love of efficiency.  And Mao pioneered the use of the student mob for removing troublemakers.  Sometimes the simple methods are deemed best: in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, plastic bags were used to suffocate people the state considered a threat, such as anyone wearing glasses.  If you bothered to correct your vision, you might’ve read a book.  And reading a book outside of the control of the Party was just too big a risk for the communists to take.

There are two major drawbacks to treating a culture as if it can be sculpted.  First, the guiding vision must be coherent.  But who gets to define that vision?  The dear leader, of course.  The leadership of shaped societies inevitably has to brawl its way to the top, against not only those with which they disagree, but also against comrades.  Only the strongest, most ruthless will can triumph, then retain the power necessary to bend the tree in a grim, endless struggle.  Ironically, much more effort is expended in the battle over who will wield the shaping tools, blood-soaked as they become, than is applied in achieving the utopian vision.

Secondly, these bonsai societies end up weaker than a culture left to grow on its own.  Just as a tree naturally sinks roots deep into the soil, seeking nutrients and moisture, a society is strongest when it is firmly rooted in its past.  The founding history and traditions flow up into a society, nourishing it.  The roots that seek them cannot be chained by an unrealistic ideology.  They search for the truth, and the deeper those roots delve, the better.

In addition to deep roots, the trunk and branches of a society must grow tall, strong, and resilient, allowing the leaves to find the light and boughs to bend with the wind.  The societal bonsai artist is blind to these needs.  All that matters to him is achieving the vision, regardless of the degree to which the tree is stunted.  In fact, stunting is desired.  It makes the shaping easier.

The result is a tree, a society, with shallow, starved roots and a weakened trunk.  The bonsai may cling tenaciously to life, but it won’t thrive as it could have, should have.  And it will be toppled by winds a normal tree would likely weather.  The precipitous collapse of the bonsai grove that was the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact is a case in point.

Trees, and cultures, are best when they are allowed to grow and develop on their own.  They know what to do.  It’s in their DNA.  They sink deep roots.  They develop strong, resilient trunks and branches.  Each leaf reaches for the sun independently, without need for a half-baked plan imposed by the most ruthless fanatic left standing.  Spontaneously, trees and societies grow the tallest, the eldest, and, arguably, the most magnificent living things upon the face of the Earth.

One of the gifts Japan has given to the world is the elegant art form of the bonsai tree.  The bonsai artist grows a miniature tree in a small container, carefully guiding the plant into an aesthetically pleasing form.  That form can be a scale model of a full-sized tree or a more exotic shape.  This is art, and the only constraints are the skill, patience, and imagination of the artist.

A disturbing aspect of bonsai is that the trees involved are actual trees.  If the bonsai had been planted in the wild, they would, barring fire, flood, or other disasters, grow to a normal size.  Instead, the birch, cedar, or maple tended by the bonsai artist is doomed to a stunted existence.  All well and good for a plant, a life form that even the notoriously self-righteous vegans gobble down.  But it still strikes a poignant note when viewing a bonsai, however beautiful.

If people could restrain themselves to training a bonsai to live within arbitrary limits, the world would be a happier place.  Unfortunately, the same urges that drive the bonsai artist compel others to paint on a larger canvas.  There exist individuals who aspire to sculpt entire societies, entire cultures, into aesthetically pleasing shapes.  Driven by visions of utopia, these saviors of humanity feel justified in carving social order to fit their views.

The bonsai is shaped by trimming leaves and branches, bending boughs, and restricting roots within its pot.  Equivalent methods are employed by those who view societies as a bonsai project. 

As a bonsai is constrained within its pot, the shaped society is allowed to sink its roots only within the confines of an approved ideology.  In this way, troublesome contrary opinions, and the historical evidence to support other points of view, can’t be drawn up from the soil to taint utopia with doubt.  That the roots of the bonsai society are consequently shallow and weak does not seem to concern the artist.  Why should it?  The visual result is paramount, not the function or the health of the tree.  Hence, statues are toppled and books are burned.

The shape and size of the boughs are tightly controlled as well.  Normally a tree will reach for the sun, the branches growing to place as many leaves as possible in the light.  This promotes the health of the entire tree.  The bonsai artist, however, finds this annoying.  The tendency of the tree to do what its DNA tells it is best is combatted with binding and clamps.  The societal bonsai artist employs a range of tools to shape things to his vision.  At first, these measures include comparatively gentle persuaders: censorship, quotas, intimidation.  If that doesn’t work, or work fast enough, direct actions are called for.

Instead of leaves, undesirable people are trimmed from a shaped society.  Preferred trimming tools vary.  During the French revolution, the guillotine was employed.  The Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution favored the firing squad, although the gulag came into vogue as the Soviet Union became established.  The Nazis perfected high-throughput gas chambers, influenced by the famous German love of efficiency.  And Mao pioneered the use of the student mob for removing troublemakers.  Sometimes the simple methods are deemed best: in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, plastic bags were used to suffocate people the state considered a threat, such as anyone wearing glasses.  If you bothered to correct your vision, you might’ve read a book.  And reading a book outside of the control of the Party was just too big a risk for the communists to take.

There are two major drawbacks to treating a culture as if it can be sculpted.  First, the guiding vision must be coherent.  But who gets to define that vision?  The dear leader, of course.  The leadership of shaped societies inevitably has to brawl its way to the top, against not only those with which they disagree, but also against comrades.  Only the strongest, most ruthless will can triumph, then retain the power necessary to bend the tree in a grim, endless struggle.  Ironically, much more effort is expended in the battle over who will wield the shaping tools, blood-soaked as they become, than is applied in achieving the utopian vision.

Secondly, these bonsai societies end up weaker than a culture left to grow on its own.  Just as a tree naturally sinks roots deep into the soil, seeking nutrients and moisture, a society is strongest when it is firmly rooted in its past.  The founding history and traditions flow up into a society, nourishing it.  The roots that seek them cannot be chained by an unrealistic ideology.  They search for the truth, and the deeper those roots delve, the better.

In addition to deep roots, the trunk and branches of a society must grow tall, strong, and resilient, allowing the leaves to find the light and boughs to bend with the wind.  The societal bonsai artist is blind to these needs.  All that matters to him is achieving the vision, regardless of the degree to which the tree is stunted.  In fact, stunting is desired.  It makes the shaping easier.

The result is a tree, a society, with shallow, starved roots and a weakened trunk.  The bonsai may cling tenaciously to life, but it won’t thrive as it could have, should have.  And it will be toppled by winds a normal tree would likely weather.  The precipitous collapse of the bonsai grove that was the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact is a case in point.

Trees, and cultures, are best when they are allowed to grow and develop on their own.  They know what to do.  It’s in their DNA.  They sink deep roots.  They develop strong, resilient trunks and branches.  Each leaf reaches for the sun independently, without need for a half-baked plan imposed by the most ruthless fanatic left standing.  Spontaneously, trees and societies grow the tallest, the eldest, and, arguably, the most magnificent living things upon the face of the Earth.