The Tao of Karl Hess


In college—regular classroom school, not studio art,  I took a class in comparative religion. Huston Smith was visiting professor. Smith exuded the calm authority of the main-man of comparative religion—we all felt it was cool that he had written the text book: World’s Great Religions. Course syllabus included The Sacred and the Profane—Mircea Eliade—how we create the “Dancing Ground”—the place where we express our relationship to a spiritual sense of the world. There was also on the syllabus the just released, Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas; what is allowed in the temple and what is kept out. The nature of pollution in the largest sense. It became a primer for the nascent eco-movement. As explications of Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish practices unfolded, it was the Jains who really got to me, sweepers walking in front of practitioners lest they step on an ant. Fallen fruit was the only allowed food. A strong kind of devotion. But finally it was the balance of the Tao, that everything is contained in everything else, relaxed and easy, that made me convert (as if you could convert to something like the Tao—the original “Is you is or is you ain’t religion? And even if you ain’t, you is.“)

The familiar Yin-Yang symbol expressed so much—that black and white circle divided by an “S” swirl with a dot of the opposite color in the other. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”, etc. So trying to come to terms with the sense of the Tao it makes real and lasting sense that Taoism became the physicists go-to spiritual philosophy. For example: our Sun and all the stars operate in a Taoist sense. The tremendous crushing force of the Sun’s massive gravity (330K times the Earth’s mass) causes ignition in nuclear fusion and the ensuing explosion lights the fire of a star. The outward pressure of the explosion acts against the gravity keeping the great mass in balance, keeping it from becoming a black hole. It’s all in harmony until the hydrogen fuel is exhausted. Hans Bethe of the Los Alamos A-bomb project won the Nobel Prize in 1967 for discovering this. When Niels Bohr, the father of Quantum Mechanics, knighted for his work, needed a coat of arms, he chose the Yin-Yang symbol as the center of his flag.


The motto reads: Opposites are Complimentary.

The Tao of Physics was published in 1974 by Fritjof Capra, a best seller and was central to a movie in 1990, based on Capra’s The Turning Point called Mindwalk. The Tao was central to 60’s mythology, often trivialized and hippyish, like an appliqué´sewn into a tie-die bedspread, but all true things out-last fashion.

And Karl Hess? A Taoist? He was the arch-conservative speechwriter for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Hess’ ideas and strategy oozed onto center stage to boost Reagan’s ascendancy to the White House.

For my birthday in 1967, I was given a copy of the I Ching or The Book of Changes and learned to toss the coins for divination. Cool stuff and when you first feel your way through it, you feel that you know everything as only a 20-year old can. Eventually, everything would transform into its mirror image. Relax, “nothing’s better, nothing’s best, eat good food, get lots of rest” Oy, veh! There was a lot of herbal tea sipping and gazing at the hexagrams, six line codes, of the world’s oldest written wisdom. Older than Jews. I still toss the coins when facing the turn of a life. Why not? It’s never gonna tell you anything directly but maybe it’ll give you a sidelong glance through the wrong way down a telescope. It does tell you something outside of your own mind’s own wool-gathering and maybe it’s just your own mind getting sparked by some esoteric writing—the language was fun to read.


The 64 Hexagrams of the I Ching

In those super-pop days, R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural comics came in as a simultaneous high-pressure front of drug-driven enlightenment passing for wisdom—the gurus were marching in, feeding on a very rich substrate of spiritual hunger. “What’s it all mean Mr. Natural?” Flakey Foont asks the guru in Zap comics. Mr. N with his long white beard who’s scooting along a sidewalk,  answers Flakey, “Don’t mean shit, Flakey, but get a load of that little unit in the hot pants over there.” Very suspect, all this new age business—you could get a good round of fervent going and believe a lot of it yourself. I sure did. Thanks to Mr. Crumb for popping the bubbles of a lot of fuzzy claptrap posing as wisdom. What’s it all mean? And what’s all this got to do with Karl Hess?


In 1967 drawing class we spent a week trundling down to the docks in South West DC’s marina where sailboats and houseboats are nestled in together in a community of out-landers—some misfits and some rich guys living, joining, in a freer lifestyle away from the crush. A Bohemia. Nice place to drawboats are always a sophisticated shape to get on paper. Ripply water, once you get it, makes for some impressive illusion-ing. Our class is all sitting together beavering away at our pads, and this big guy walks up, leather vest, beard, twinkly eyes. Archetypal biker type. “What are you guys doing?” “Learning to see,” one of us says with not a little boho snark. He hangs, watching. “Are you an artist?” someone asks. He looks like an artist, some freedom in his dress, his beard, his curiosity. “Me? I’m a welder. I write a little bit.” It’s a Tuesday/Thursday class and we’re back on Thursday. He hangs out again. “You know if you want to be an artist, you have to learn to live on the cheap.” Amen to that.

A few months pass and the Washington Post Sunday Magazine has an article on the denizens of the docks where we were drawing, and who should they profile but the guy in the beard and vest. The welder. Hey!, I say. That guy on the docks was Karl Hess. Holy shit, Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter, the one who wrote: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was like some high-up right wing, John Bircher guy and now, here on the docks in DC, working class to the max. With his help, Goldwater had moved the Republican Party from the country club to the crypto-fascist party it’s become—Goldwater was against the civil rights movement on libertarian grounds but the southern racist yahoos ate it up. This wing of the party would become part of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” The party of Lincoln’s Emancipation became racist to the core. Oh cripes, Karl Hess? This guy is a total fascist. This is the guy who co-founded the National Review with William F. Buckley! Mr. “I write a little bit…” had several best sellers under his belt.

Turns out, Hess had had a tiff with the IRS and refused to pay any taxes. The IRS had impounded his wages for life until he paid up. His counter was to never work for money again. He learned a trade and became an itinerant welder working for groceries and rent in trade. He’d joined SDS for God’s sake! He was a fixture at anti-war rallies giving a speech on the Capital steps, railing against Viet Nam. Joined The Black Panther Party! Eventually, he moved to rural West Virginia, built his own house and was a true back-to-the-lander. He called himself an Anarchist Marketeer.

Years later I received a good lesson in how to parse this all out from my son’s major Professor at Georgetown (this is 20-some years down the road from the apogee of counterculture days—talkin’ 1986—but instructive here) I can remember with eidetic clarity the excited phone call from across the country, my son explaining Father G. Ronald Murphy’s ideas. He taught the idea of 3 classes of wisdom; an epistemology consisting of Knowing, Understanding and Realizing. We all know lots of stuff, like say, the dolphin is a marine mammal, it communicates in a sophisticated language. We know this. When we see a dolphin respond to a command in an experiment and then go outside the parameters of the experiment and do something unexpected; we understand this creature is intelligent. When I swam into a trio of dolphins, with snorkel, fins and mask as I did off the coast of Zanzibar a few years back, watching them cavort 20 feet under me, the two males with stiffies, playing a ménage à trois sex game in a triple helix, you realize in your own guilty pleasure at watching them, that these creatures live a much more sophisticated life of pleasure than you. You realize dolphins are having a lot of fun and are a creature that does so as a matter of course. Makes you think maybe the whole dolphin species had been reading Lucretius famous poem on high pleasure De Rerum Natura. When you meet someone like Karl Hess and have an extended chat, you realize how the balancing forces of the human psyche function as the Tao.

I know what the Tao is and I do feel I understand it, but Karl Hess gave me a reason to realize its truth, as everything seeks balance. Hess became my icon for this balance, leaving the limousines and loafer crowd and joining up with the counterculture. He would deny this Taoist thrust saying in the Academy Award-winning documentary on his life, Toward Liberty, that first of all, he was no Liberal but really a capital A Anarchist and very far away from Right-wing or Left-wing politics, but as an image in my mind his spirit flowed toward balancing the Tao in America.


In our little family of 3 children (plus partners) and 4 grands (another expected in a month’s time at this writing), we have developed a motto, “Langs Never Give Up”. It came from trying to cut some materials grandson Aloysius was working on. “Inventions” he calls them. They are really sculptures. He threw down the tool, “I can’t do it.” “Langs never give up”, I told him. It gave him just enough oomph to cut the thick wire in a satisfying SNAP! All of us in this strange new world we are just getting used to—the fake news alternative facts world. We must never give up. We are agents balancing the Tao. We must never give up.

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