Saturday, May 28, 2011

The woes of America and attachment to form

Protester at March for America wears an Americ...Image via Wikipedia
Red, white and Buddha was an early decor theme for this blog for those who remember it from its early days. I think that it has a new meaning for me now, as there is an Eastern teaching that America needs now more than ever: non-attachment to form. This won't require anyone to convert to anything or from anything in terms of their formal religious affiliation, but it does mean a change in how we in the United States (del Norte) see ourselves and our country. This change is essential if we hope to live up to our ideals of freedom and prosperity and to move out of the spiral of declining standards of living for all but the wealthiest of our citizens. I don't expect that anyone must listen to or agree with me, but I don't see the point in letting the ambiguity keep from at least trying to say something. It can't hurt to give it a try. If it helps even one other person think about some important issues for a few moments, it is well worth my time and effort.

The concept of attachment to form has many nuances, so to clarify what I am talking about there is akin to the old saying "If you love something let it go." We can get hung up on possessing something and wanting to preserve it just like we remember it, encased in amber, perfect forever in terms of conforming to our (personal or collective) memory of it. We don't want it to grow, change, fade, or disappear. Yet this is the fate of all things. Living things cannot be encased in amber, or preserved in a chemical pickling, or pick your process. That is for dead things, and if we do this to living things they die. We often want to preserve things as they exist in our memory because we cling to them to keep ourselves from being swept away. Our own bodies, thoughts, feelings and conceptions are constantly in flux as well, and this too is natural. It's like floating down a stream. But sometimes we get panicked, and want to stop the ride, so we reach out and grab whatever is close at hand and try to hold on, but we are only fooling ourselves because everything is floating down the stream, even that to which we clinging.

Now, if I were going to talk explicitly about religion and spirituality, this would be an opportune time to mention that our truest, deepest self is the water itself, the eternal stream, and hence there is no need for flailing or grasping. But instead I want to briefly hint at how attachment and non-attachment to form (form can be any physical, emotional or mental object) relates to current problems in American society. This includes our xenophobic jingoism and our cannibalistic form of corporate capitalism. Both of these things are corroding our current societal well-being as well as undercutting our future. They reflect outdated ways of thinking that are sadly straining to retain and build their influence over our people. They can only serve to increase our burden and our misery, both for us and for future generations.

The mythic America is the first form to which our citizens are attached and it is actually a cluster of several different forms with many varieties. This is the America of selective perception, wherein the parts of our nation's history that conform to what people wish America was are emphasized and those parts which contradict this image are diminished or neglected. This distortion is useful to people promoting a particular ideology and is supported by ignorance of history. People may talk about wanting to go back to the "good old days" because they are thinking of certain aspects of society from a particular time period, such as higher church attendance or better wages for working class citizens, but they neglect that at that same time there may have been voting restrictions based on race, gender or owning-property, there may have been widespread and socially accepted attitudes that were homophobic or sexist. That doesn't mean it is wrong to value things like religious observance or decent wages, but the fact is there is no idyllic time in American history in which no one was being oppressed, or suffering discrimination, or living in poverty. Some may think this ought to be obvious to a seventh grader, but very often this simple observation is over-looked in favor of nostalgic rhetoric, which is much more palatable and convenient.

The next form to which our citizens become attached can be summarized as convention, otherwise known as "the way we've always done it". Other than the fact that this too is a gross over-generalization that cannot be true even at face-value, it also provides a great deal of comfort and is very convenient. It too has many varieties such as "that just the way it is" and "that's just the way it's always been". This kind of thinking blends smoothly into the mythic view of America, so much so that these two kinds of form are often inseparable in the minds of many citizens. Yet if it were true, we would mostly be be rural farmers living on the East Coast and only white male land owners (many of whom would have slaves) would be allowed to vote. No expansion, no industrialization, no urbanization, no emancipation, no suffrage. The idea of convention usually extends back one or two generations, and is therefore often over-stated as well as parochial and short-sighted. It the same historical myopia that keeps people from realizing that long before Latinos we we've blamed numerous other migrant ethnic and national groups for our social and economic problems (Asians, Italians, Irish, etc).

The mythic America and American convention forms are problematic for numerous reasons but on a practical level they fail to appreciate the value of innovation or to properly identify the factors correlating to positive changes in our society. Instead vague euphemisms and muddled imagery is used to imply that people and circumstances were somehow superior "back then". There is a lot of nebulous talk about "values" or "the founders" which is loaded with emotionalism. This sentimental white-washing of our history plays well with crowds gathered to listen to the political stump speech or the pundit-turned-demagogue, but it does not provide a coherent or honest explanation of who we have been nor who we are at present, and without this any talk of who we can or ought to be moving forward is just a so much hot air to stir up the crowds and give a only a sense of being an informed or engaged citizen without the actual effort required to be either.

The fact is that we can and do change as a country and as a society, and in and of itself this fact can neither be judged to be a "good" or a "bad" thing. Context, that is, the patterns of contingency or cause and effect, as well as intentionality, must be supplied in order to ascertain the relative utilitarian or ethical value of conservation or of change. Again, this may seem to be statement that would be obvious to a twelve or thirteen year old, but still it seems to be one too often lost in our public discourse. This perhaps is connected to the intellectual and emotional maturity of our political debate and discourse, which seems to occur at a junior high level. Nonetheless, we must each of us as individuals strive to move beyond this immaturity and if necessary drag our political leaders along with us toward a mature and informed perspective on the issues facing our nation. And to begin this process is to come to a place of non-attachment, of letting go of dubious and suffocating forms such as mythic America and American convention.

Specific manifestations of these forms are many, and include both positive and negative images of what America is or is not: a Christian nation, a land of opportunity, a manufacturing powerhouse, a nation of laws, a superpower, etc. The fact is, there is no state religion and the meaning of Christianity has not been consistent in our country. Jesus blessed the peacemakers, yet we are a world leader in exporting war and weapons. Jesus commended those who fed the hungry and healed the sick, yet in our material abundance millions of our own citizens go hungry and we are the only industrialized Western nation without comprehensive health care for its citizens. Or is the idea of a Christian nation supposed to do with census numbers and how many people affiliate with a label? If so, what difference do such demographics make to public policy in a the kind of secular democracy in which we live? Or is it the idea that a significant number of our earliest citizens had some connection to a form of spirituality associated with the Bible? If so, why is that any more or less relevant than the fact that many of these same people sanctioned slavery?

The idea of the United States being a Christian nation actually has nothing to do with any of these things. None whatsoever. It's just more of that nebulous talk about "values" and "the founders" which is meant to suggest that the ideology of whoever is using such language is somehow endorsed by their version of a mythic America and an implied continuity with a sense of convention, that it's "how things have always been." This is most apparent with the current pseudo-populist conservatives associated with the Tea Party movement and its Congressional supporters such as Representative Michele Bachmann, whose expressed views of US History are at times wildly inaccurate. The idea that such Tea Party conservatives can claim to love the Constitution yet not be aware of what is in it or how it has been interpreted over the last two hundred plus years isn't surprising because the actual document and the actual history are irrelevant. It's the vague connection to these things as grounds for justifying their preferred ideology that matters.

Of course, virtually every political party and social ideology tends to use imagery from a mythic America, but perhaps its not surprising the extremes of such sentimentalism among those who identify with looking to the past (i.e. conservatives), just as we might expect the extremes of sentimentalizing a Utopian future to fall typically to the side of those who are more foward-looking (i.e. progressives). And we can become just as attached to such visions of the future as we do to visions of the past. We must be a manufacturing powerhouse. Must we? Should we shun or ignore other possibilities of future economic growth because it doesn't match a vision of what America should be? And if we are going to revive manufacturing, what are we going to build? Are we going to stay rooted in the failing industries of the past, which will fight tooth and nail for their survival regardless of the impact of the nation? For example, if we want to follow the image of combining research and development with manufacturing what we dream up, why aren't we heavily subsidizing the green revolution? We must be a land of opportunity. But for whom? And what kind of opportunities? Don't we need to spell this out rather than relay on fuzzy buzz words?

We can also get lost in the assumptions about what America currently is. Many Americans like to think we are a nation of laws, yet the executive branch routinely ignores both the Constitutional mandate that Congress should hold the power to declare war and the War Powers Act, which limits any military operation initiated by the President to sixty days unless Congress has approved an extension. The super wealthy, their accountants and their criminal and tax lawyers get to play by a different set of rules than everyone else. Illegal detentions and the claim that the President can if necessary order the execution of citizens, both in the name of fighting terrorism, raise few eyebrows. But because we are attached to the image of who we think we are as a nation we don't want the discomfort of admitting we are not as fair or free as we want to believe. The same can be said of our commitments and obligations to other nations, especially when it comes to foreign aid. We rarely give as much as we agree to give and then only after much red tape and hand wringing.

Then there is "America the superpower". This plays into the notion of American exceptionalism (i.e. we are better than everyone else) and is fed by our xenophobic jingoism; that is, our smug self-righteous sense of superiority mixed with a paranoid suspicion and fear of anything foreign. If one doesn't buy into this notion one is frequently accused of "hating America." But what is the definition and the cost of being a "super-power"? The traditional thinking is that it means being a generous bully in terms of economic and military strength, a kind of benevolent dictator on the world stage. But if this is considered to be leadership, then what we can we expect besides having other ambitious nations try to follow our example? Even now money is being spent to plan new weapons for a cold war against China because our leadership cannot free itself from attachment to this idea that we must be a super-power and that this is how a super-power acts.

Have we no imagination left? Are we doomed to be so caught up in our attachment to these forms, to these straight-jacked to our thinking about who we are as a nation and a society, that we will march of a cliff rather than consider an alternative? America does have broad guiding principles, but part of its brilliance was its built-in capacity to adapt and grow. We don't need to ignore the past or fear the future. We can take a sober assessment of who we are and where we are and then decide how to go forward. The plutocrats may control most of our media and have increased their capacity to buy elections, but we the people are still in the driver's seat if we are willing to take responsibility. But if we love America, we have to let go of our romanticized illusions about it and be part of its new growth and renewal. We must renounce attachment to form and see what potential there is for new idea and opportunities. Turn off the TV, stop listening to blowhard radio and get some fresh air. We've got a lot of work to do.
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