Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Critique Is Not An Attack

An email to the New York Times Washington bureau, and reporter Patrick Healy.

The piece I am responding to is a short blog entry at the New York Times website. Click here to read it, won't take long.

To Mr. Healy or whom it may concern,

The quality of our political writing matters.

There is a tendency to cover political campaigns or debated issues as if they were sporting events, which lends some excitement and drama but can also do a disservice to the nature of debate. I thought of this when reading this blog entry by Mr. Healy.

Starting with the headline: "Bernie Sanders Attacks Hillary Clinton Directly on Trade Deal." Of course, I understand that writers rarely write the headlines. But whether this is a note for Patrick Healy or for the editor, the headline is absurdly misleading. On the substance, all candidate Sanders did was say that candidate Clinton should take a clear position on TPP. That isn't an attack, and here is my point.

There is a tendency for lots of people to lose any distinction between an argument and an attack. If I say "My opponent hates America," that is an attack. If I say, "My opponent's position on Issue X is misguided, and instead we need to consider my policy," that is a political debate. Sure, candidates can muddy that line, but the line exists and political writers have to emphasize that line.

One reason there is less civic engagement is that people are loathe even to engage in political discussion. The negative impression people have of political argument is based on the behavior of our national politicians and media figures. The press has an important role to play not only in reporting the facts and telling a compelling story about political campaigns - but in demonstrating constructive discourse.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Prosecutorial Discretion

This morning, 14 indictments or so were handed down in connection with some corruption in professional soccer. ("Soccer" is what we in the United States call football, or calcio.)

Instantly, I created this meme and set it loose on social media. So quickly, in fact, that I failed to notice a typo. (Very hard to correct at this point, but the point is made.)

Friday, May 15, 2015


So, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and a contingent of American Buddhists went to the White House. They met with some Obama officials and took this photo on the White House lawn. One of the concerns they brought up, I guess, is militarism. (Militarism means more than just having a way to defend your country, by the way. Militarism is about extending military power, projecting it elsewhere, and creating an industry around it. So talking about militarism is not talking about 'self-defense.')

One zen teacher and author, Brad Warner, posted the image on Facebook saying he wasn't too sure about the message but did not elaborate. The comments were fascinating to read. Some outright defenses of imperialism - including the sentiment that empires might be necessary for order, that peace can only come at the price of war, and some very blurry sophistry about how the whole universe is inherently violent, suggesting that the violence of microbes or volcanoes might be indistinguishable from human violence or violent institutions. Nothing mean-spirited, mind you, just a lack of meaningful distinctions and political analysis. ‪#‎ShitBuddhistsSay‬ ? Except I don't know if the commenters consider themselves Buddhists.

In one zen center where I spent several years, there were people who actively discouraged reading/thinking/discussing politics or history or economics because, the caveat went, it would ensnare you in the realm of opinions and ideas, leading to arguments where you defend those ideas, and thus you become personally attached and depart from your practice. A wise caveat in itself.
But you have to use discriminatory thinking for operations as simple as crossing a street. And seeing the world clearly, penetrating false consciousness, is a correct function of thinking. A monk once told me he was not part of the material world and its affairs. So I got up and got his mail out of the mailroom. He had an IRA statement (investment in the economy, meaning investment in production and distribution of goods), he had a bill for his automobile insurance, he had a medical bill, and other things tying him very much to worldly affairs. He also had a cell phone. This is false consciousness. I heard a lot of strange opinions in that community including defenses of monarchy (much like the defense of imperialism).

Having some political analysis is part of seeing the world clearly. Understanding your own biases and assumptions is part of that, too.

The violence of microbes is grossly different than the violence of a thief. The violence of a hunting animal is different than the violence of an angry or frightened human being. The violence of a volcano or other natural event is grossly different than the forced expulsion of human beings. Erasing that distinction is reckless. Justice can be dismissed as a mere concept to which we can become attached - but the same could be said of "enlightenment" or "freedom" or any of the Buddhisty things we talk about. In one way or another, we end up selecting certain ideas as useful and correct in finding our direction.

Which ones we choose (and which ones we ignore) says a lot about our own consciousness.