Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent: My Deliverer Is Coming

If I didn't believe, I think I would have fallen into an abyss...

And of course, purple...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the Left Is Frequently Insufferable

From Adbusters Issue#99 Jan-Feb 2012 by Darren Fleet. The article takes a minute to find its footing, but basically it busts the left for being moralist, legalist busybodies without the idea of liberating itself from the same issues. The parallels that the author draws with Christianity particularly resonate with this Christian. It is hard to convince someone else about a value system if you, yourself, have not been transformed by that system. It is why Left commentators often seem so self righteous, and also ignorant, projecting wants and desires onto a government system that cannot, even on a good day, begin to satisfy them. It seems that no matter how hard we try, it keeps coming around that true change is an inside job.

Lefty arguments are fraught with asterisks, exceptions, caveats, considerations, footnotes, excuses and pie-in-the-sky moral posturing coded in a lexicon that most people don't even get. The right meanwhile is able to stand behind simplistic,strong and wrong optimism,cloaking itself with the grace of God and good intentions. The left is caught navel-gazing and obsessing over whether or not their actions are philosophically correct; stuttering, qualifying, apologizing, accommodating...whimpering along the way. The right meanwhile is going with its gut, shooting from the hip, smoking people out of their caves, straight talking...pick your conservative maxim. The reins of global power are in the hands of those who are able to symbolize a big idea, whatever that idea may be. The fortunes of the global left depend on whether or not they can take a stand on a big idea again. Zizek, Badiou, Hedges, Klein, Ranciere, Bifo, have all hinted at what the left has lost, but it's Jonathan Franzen who hammers the point home.
"Craving sex with her mate was one of the things (OK, the main thing) she'd given up in exchange for all the good things in their life together. Walter tried everything he could think of to make sex better for her except the one thing that might conceivably have worked, which was to stop worrying about making it better for her and just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind. But the Walter who could have done this wouldn't have been Walter."
You might be wondering what does this have to do with the left? In asking, you, like me,and maybe all of us, highlight a common affliction we suffer--the creeping truth that activism has become a mask for spiritual and character rot. That maybe we have erected a progressive facade to cover the worst of denials, our animal. Sex has everything to do with the current state of things. It represents our most basic human desire and our most common trait of voluntary repression. If behind closed doors we cannot be free, what possibility do we have of offering anything to our world? This doesn't mean that you need to be an S&M character in order to be progressive, but it shows the point that for a message to be genuine it must come from a place of personal emancipation. Sincerity and liberation are addictive.The most successful entities in any society know this and use it to their advantage. Las Vegas was built upon the principle that if you build it they will come. And they did, making a multibillion dollar oasis in the desert. Las Vegas tells no lies. There is no delusion in traveling to Nevada's desolate plains and throwing your money away. You get what you pay for--a casino brothel under the baking sun. The sincerity is quantifiable. The potential for financial liberation, no matter how unlikely, is intoxicating. Likewise, if a movement has currency, sincerity, honesty and a hint of real liberation, people will come. Tahrir Square, London, Syria. Vancouver Stanley Cup riot. All sincere regardless of cause.
Australian author and environmentalist Clive Hamilton has been arguing for the past decade that the left has been floundering around like a bunch of whiny holier-than-thou beach bodies, screaming how to save the world without first having ensured that they too won't be sucked under the wave. The left make poor lifeguards is essentially what he means. They don't ensure their own safety-personal liberation--and are likely to be drowned by the victim they are trying to save--the converts.This is not an argument about hypocrisy, far from it. It is a psychological assessment of what Hamilton considers the savior complex endemic in the global left. A complex that has no currency without corresponding personal sincerity. Do this. Do that. Don't consume that. Buy this. We'll fight the corporation. Lets fight the right-wingers. A better world is possible. A cacophony of soft maxims supported by desperate bodies throwing their personal misgivings and unhappiness onto the altar of activism--the same impulse that drives entire populations into ethnic nationalism, religious conversion and other ubiquitous populist enterprises.
A Christian missionary in Thailand once told me that Buddhists don't hear what you say, they hear what you do. The villagers observed him and his family closely, how they treated each other, noting expressions of love, equality, respect, humility and modesty. The most important quality of all to them, he said, was whether he had a spiritual revelation manifest in an outpouring of personal joy. This caused great concern to his colleagues and despite several years of effort, they converted no one. He and his missionary friends were gloomy and homesick. They offered a new system to the Thai villagers, but not a new way of being. That is where, as Hamilton argues, the left is today. A system without a soul. A people in denial. An obsession looking for a cause. A mass of people looking outward when they should be looking in.
We have all seen it. Maybe we are even these archetypes ourselves. The close-minded open-minded person. Well versed in emancipation and cutting edge lefty rhetoric but altogether intolerable, anal, pedantic, arrogant, rude and fully convinced they know what is best for society. Or the idealist who hops from cause to cause, virulently condemning a belief they wholeheartedly embraced only a short time ago, trying to convert you to direct your energy toward the latest paradigm. Or the usual suspect protesters manifesting a collective oppositional defiance disorder against anything and anyone representing vague concepts of power. Their own lives might be in shambles, without spiritual relief, entirely unable to define their action beyond a sentence,but that does not matter to their leaders. What has become tantamount in activism today is collective, organized action, however weak,regardless of the motivation or the emotional/spiritual source of that action. The left must have more to offer than this. It needs the righteous confidence of the right without the pride and arrogance . It needs the confidence of Evangelicals and the commitment of Islamist without the delusion and apologetics. It needs emancipation. It needs a new found spiritualism that places a premium on personal enlightenment and monasticism. It needs, in a word, liberation.
All the great religions talk about liberating the self first and how only out of that emancipation can goodness flow. Defiled, this principle becomes the blasphemous health-and-wealth evangelical doctrines sweeping Nigeria, South Korea, Holland and the United States. Undefiled, it is the key that unlocks paradise. In the gospel of John, Christ encourages his disciples, saying people will know you are Christians by your love for one another. His early disciples were afraid and isolated, living under Rome's heavy hand. To make converts they had to show in their joy that the belief was worth emulating. In Islam, Jihad, the struggle against desire and sin within oneself, is the primary task of the spiritual journey. Observed as intended, Jihad goes hand in hand with the bigger idea that if everyone just focused on being a "good" Muslim, being themselves, the law would wither away and society itself would become the creation of each inhabitants' revelation. Buddhism's all-suffering-comes-from-desire equally focuses on righting the self. Without enlightenment, the Buddha insisted, one was destined to replicate the errors of the past regardless of the goodness of intentions. The Dali Lama's modern musing, world peace through inner peace, is the greatest political assertion of this principle.
A wedge has been driven between politics and personal emancipation. Activism has been drained of its mysticism and reduced to a sterile rational prop, a blank slate upon which protesters trace their wants and desires--demands impossible for even the most benevolent and wealthy state to deliver. And despite its futile and Sisyphean character, this is still where the bulk of the left in the West finds itself today. Infinite causes, grandiose ideals...and miserable lives. Perhaps it is time to reverse the paradigm and reconsider what was thrown out with religion long ago--liberation of your animal soul.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Price of Civilization

I have long maintained that part of what ails America is that corporations have become far too stakeholder and profit driven. Who cares how it came about, as long as the bottom line is in the black? This ends up driving an amoral quest for profit--profit at the cost of people. Do we want to love people and use things or love things and use people? Corporations these days, I think, have long lost the desire to pay the price of civilization. An excerpt from The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs captures much of this idea.

At the root of America's economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America's political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and towards the world. America has developed the world's most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.

I find myself deeply surprised and unnerved to have to write this book. During most of my forty years in economics I have assumed that America, with its great wealth, depth of learning, advanced technologies, and democratic institutions, would reliably find its way to social betterment. I decided early on in my career to devote my energies to the economic challenges abroad, where I felt the economic problems were more acute and in need of attention. Now I am worried about my own country. The economic crisis of recent years reflects a deep, threatening, and ongoing deterioration of our national politics and culture of power.

The crisis, I will argue, developed gradually over the course of several decades. We are not facing a short term business cycle downturn, but the working out of long-term social, political, and economic trends. The crisis, in many ways, is the culmination of an era--the baby boomer era--rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is also a bipartisan affair; both Democrats and Republicans have played their part in deepening the crisis. On many days it seems that the only difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Big Oil owns the Republicans while Wall Street owns the Democrats. By understanding the deep roots of the crisis, we can move beyond illusory solutions such as the "stimulus" spending of 2009-2010, the budget cuts of 2011, and the unaffordable tax cuts that are implemented year after year. These are gimmicks that distract us from the deeper reforms needed in our society.

The first two years of the Obama presidency show that our economic and political failings are deeper than that of a particular president. Like many Americans, I looked to Barack Obama as the hope for a breakthrough. Change was on the way, or so we hoped; yet there has been far more continuity than change. Obama has continued down the well trodden path of open-ended war in Afghanistan, massive military budgets, kowtowing to lobbyists, stingy foreign aid, unaffordable tax cuts, unprecedented budget deficits, and a disquieting unwillingness to address the deeper causes of America's problems. The administration is packed with individuals passing through the revolving door that connects Wall Street and the White House. In order to find deep solutions to America's economic crisis, we'll need to understand why the American political system has proven to be so resistant to change.

The American economy increasingly serves only a narrow part of society, and America's national politics has failed to put the country back on track through honest, open, and transparent problem solving. Too many of America's elites--among the super-rich, the CEOs, and many of my colleagues in academia--have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned.

We need to re conceive the idea of a good society in the early twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society's needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together. I would suggest that a majority of the public understands this challenge and accepts it. During my research for this book, I became reacquainted with my fellow Americans, not only through countless discussions but also through hundreds of opinion surveys on, and studies of, American values. I was delighted with what I found. Americans are very different from the ways the elites and the media pundits want us to see ourselves. The American people are generally broad-minded, moderate, and generous. These are not the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come to mind when we think of America's rich and powerful elite. But America's political institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longer holds these elites to account. And alas, the breakdown of politics also implicates the broad public. American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain the habits of effective citizenship.

"The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates. We might equally say that the unexamined economy is not capable of securing our well-being. Our greatest national illusion is that a healthy society can be organized around the single minded pursuit of wealth. The ferocity of the quest for wealth throughout society has left Americans exhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty and compassion. Our society has turned harsh, with the elites on Wall Street, in Big Oil, and in Washington among the most irresponsible and selfish all. When we understand this reality, we can begin to refashion our economy.

Two of humanity's greatest sages, Buddha in the Eastern tradition and Aristotle in the Western tradition, counseled us wisely about humanity's innate tendency to chase transient illusions rather than to keep our minds and lives focused on deeper, longer-term sources of well-being. Both urged us to keep to a middle path, to cultivate moderation and virtue in our personal behavior and attitudes despite the allure of extremes. Both urged us to look after our personal needs without forgetting our compassion towards others in society. Both cautioned that the single-minded pursuit of wealth and consumption leads to addictions and compulsions rather than to happiness and the virtues of a life well lived. Throughout the ages, other great sages, from Confucius to Adam Smith to Mahatma Gandhi and the Dali Lama, have joined the call for moderation and compassion as the pillars of a good society.

To resist the excesses of consumerism and the obsessive pursuit of wealth is hard work, a lifetime challenge. To do so in our media age, filled with noise, distraction, and temptation, is a special challenge. We can escape our current economic illusions by creating a mindful society, one that promotes the personal virtues of self-awareness and moderation, and the civic virtues of compassion for others and the ability to cooperate across the divides of class, race, religion, and geography. Through a return to personal and civic virtue, our prosperity can be regained.

It is not perfect; for some reason Mr. Sachs resists Jesus Christ as one of his sages. I think it is because Jesus Christ also asks for internal transformation and commitment. Your treatment of others flows naturally out of the love that God has placed in your heart via his forgiveness, grace and love. We have lost something in our country, however, and to at least acknowledge that loss is an important start.