Although most of the bleary-eyed humans that gather at the dog-park in the early morning perceive only a maelstrom of fur running to-and-fro, a blur of legs and tails that stops now and again for the occasional crotch-sniff, shit, and a usually frustrated attempt at sexual intercourse, on some mornings the curious occurs almost unnoticed amidst the quotidien.
When my dog and I arrived this morning, a collection of the neighborhood Basenjis was involved in a discussion about the appropriate level of involvement, for a Basenji, within the political environment in which they live. I am suspicious of Basenjis. They have a certain smugness that makes me leery. Their peering eyes remind me of Caesar’s statement to Mark Anthony; “let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights: yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”
“Because of the great influence that the United States has in the world,” began the tallest of the four Basenjis (his collar indicated his name was Larry), “the individual in the United States is perpetually called upon to respond to the actions of the state with a greater urgency than if he was living in a much smaller country with much less impact on world affairs.”
You can well imagine my reaction to hearing a dog instigate such a conversation at 8AM – there was a strong whiff of sanctimoniousness about the young pup that was only reinforced by the conceited way in which he tilted his head from side to side as he spoke.
Larry continued. “This feeling of responsibility is born out of a belief that in a democracy, everyone is responsible for what the state does in his name. One cannot escape moral responsibility through abstention. And so, as one becomes aware of illegitimate and cynical warfare, hypocritical attacks on animal rights, gross social injustice and non-collar political corruption, one feels called to don the helmet and grab the spear to defend the republic.”
I went through my daily to-do list on my cellphone. “Gather tax receipts. Set up my annual health-check for Friday. Fold in those edits from my editor. Call my mother. Get back to that guy in Paris.” I flicked to Twitter.
Basenjis rarely interrupt each other. They consider it rude. So when one of the four did just that I was surprised and lifted my head from news of the latest Israeli-settler encroachment into East Jerusalem. A big-shouldered one of the four, with a lazy eye interjected.
“But the United States today is not the democracy of such ideals, but a plutocracy in fact, in which the negotiations between the moneyed corporations and everyone else, consistently conclude in a resolution most favorable to the corporations. We live as second-class citizens and few things are as pathetic as someone donning armor to defend the circumstances of his own enslavement.”
And with that, the two other dogs sitting around him overlooked the interruption and nodded in unison. The Rude One continued.
“Those who believe in democracy today must live a schizophrenic existence, alternating between a feeling of responsibility for the actions of the state in which they live and an acute appreciation of their impotence to effect even the slightest change within that state.”
At this point my dog had passed a fine specimen in the corner of the park. I pulled on the long string of blue doggy bags, reflected on the lowliness of my station, and went to pick up the shit. I could feel the approval of my fellow dog owners. I was responsible. We were responsible. How great. We’re still all picking up shit. It was pungent, and in the early morning I forgot every thought I ever had, and tried not to gag. When I returned from the garbage pail, the Rude One was still at it.
“From the attempt at health-care reform, the bail-out, the corporate bankrolling of rabble-making media and compliant politicians – it seems apparent that the average American today stands in the same relation to his state as the average Indian once stood in relation to the British Empire. We are perpetually sold the American Dream, much as the great people of India were once told of their good fortune to be subjects of a foreign Queen.”
I’ve learned not to discount coincidences in the animal kingdom. They are often the result of a communication that one does not at first observe. For example, at the very mention of Old Vic, Harold, the fat-headed English bulldog came over and after what seemed like a gentle invitation to sniff, slobbered saliva all over the Rude One.
The Rude One stood there stoically, like a porn star in a bukakke film waiting for the camera to be turned off. Through the bulldog-saliva he continued.
“I am not making the equation between the American plutocracy today, and the British Empire, to incite a rebellion similar to that which brought the latter to an end.”
The English bulldog turned and plumply sat down nearby to observe the proceedings. He casually turned toward the Rude One, lifted his arse and farted. The Rude One rubbed a paw across his face to remove the saliva and continued.
“Our present is much more hopeless than India in the 1940s. The corrupting influence of corporate power on the hard-won rights and freedoms that ought to adhere in a democracy seems likely to only grow in breadth and in depth. One cannot help but think of the recent U.S. Supreme Court case unleashing the financial war-chests of corporations on our elections, as yet another beat in the quickening pace.”
There are a large number of lawyers in Washington DC which raises the frightening prospect that constitutional law textbooks are to be found throughout the city, even now, within easy reach of the average Jack Russell. I say this because at the very mention of the recent Supreme Court case, two French poodles, a miniature Schnauzer, an Irish Wheaten, a Chinese Shar-Pei and a Mexican Chihuahua all gathered around the Basenjis.
The Chihuahua dove right in even before it had found its seat in the widening circle. “Yep, yep, across the world, the great power of unregulated capital grows day after day and our ability to freely determine the terms under which we govern ourselves contracts in suspiciously equal measure.”
He turned his nose towards the Shar-Pei.
“Even China, the oft-cast great determiner of the coming century, will inevitably fall beneath the rod of global corporations engorged by access to its markets and those of India, and Indonesia.”
The Shar Pei sat silently, his eyes rolling slowly towards the English bulldog.
The Wheaten took up the baton, in a brogue that turned the heads of all the ladies.
“The ‘Government Affairs’ departments of corporations that today trade beef for pork in the restaurants of Washington DC will tomorrow do likewise in Beijing, Bombay and Jakarta. I can see no brakes, no checks-and-balances, no barriers that might impede this march. I see no great social awakening in the centuries ahead as China and India take time to learn the lash of the whip, for three centuries of the whip in the United States has failed to provoke any effective counter-reaction. Even that measure of social-security we won in Europe today is being gutted by the requirement that we bend the knee to the international financial markets.”
I must say I was surprised to see one of the French poodles intervene, because, well, I think everyone will agree that poodles are seldom interested in politics. Nonetheless, one of the tall svelte French hounds stepped forward with a natural elegance that reminded me somewhat of Kristin Scott Thomas. The other stood there motionless and vacant.
“These international markets, unhinged from any regulatory body that would protect non-market values such as democracy will always sniff out the poor and the desperate jurisdiction and reward them for lowering their standards for health, environment, dog-biscuits, safety, and in the end, equality. Now mind you, I say all of this while at the same time acknowledging the great benefits that corporations bring to life on earth. Never in history have so many been lifted out of poverty as in the last 20 years, due in great part to China’s embracing of capitalism.” At this point the Shar Pei turned to look at her, his eyes dropped to her tail with that look that even dogs clearly perceive to mean nothing other than: “great ass.” She continued obliviously and turned her nose in the direction of the English bulldog; “I just reject the idea that we have to choose between a vibrant economy and a democracy.” The English bulldog adjusted himself again. And farted.
It was some measure of how interesting all of this was becoming to me that I ignored the various pings of my cellphone notifying me of to-do items, calendar appointments and morning emails. So engrossed had I become, that I did not notice that my own dog had since circled the park and now walked from behind me into the center of this impromptu congress. His languid walk was in such contrast to the heightened and almost shrill air that was consuming the participants, that he stopped the conversation cold. He sat in the middle of the group. Silently. He repositioned his legs, which were often stiff in the mornings due to arthritis. He stared at each in turn.
“This then is our predicament,” he began. There was a silence that soon become awkward. The dogs began to stare from one to the other.
“We sit here torn between impotence and a refusal to surrender. Existentialism,” he nodded towards the French poodle (she seemed flattered), “sits like a box of Christmas decorations ready to bedeck such frustration in baubles and tinsel so that we may think of it as noble. But even amidst the joy of Christmas morning, every Christmas tree knows that it is dying. That it has been hacked from its mother.”
Good metaphor, boy!
“There seems to be no answer other than to start with that which we know to be true – that even as we sit here we are each of us passing, and that all things, will in turn follow each of us to the grave. Much as those who are nervous about speaking in public are encouraged to imagine their audience wearing business suits, it centers us, does it not, in such times as these to imagine the inevitable truth that everything we know will pass and, in the extreme, that even the great and beautiful Mother Earth on which we shit, will at some point in time leave nothing but a cosmic echo of where she once existed.”
Two dog-treats when we get home. At least.
The wide-open almost teary eyes of every dog were at this point transfixed on this mysterious old one with his peculiar accent and smelling of the most pungent piss they had ever experienced. Feeling now that the fat silence confirmed that they like he stood in the same awe before this imagined moment, he continued.
“I rise from such dark depths like a Newfie from the sea gasping for air. The affairs of state, my status as a member of what is called a democracy, are in that moment clearly secondary. My essence is that I live, that I breathe, that I inhale, that I experience what it feels to be alive. All these affairs, that the bounty of youth affords you time to consider, are but adjectives. To allow them to consume you is to allow them to become you. You must always remain wild and un-collared in your heart.”
A woman in a pair of pink pajama pants, with the word “Dartmouth” festooned across her not insubstantial backside, bent down and plucked the Chihuahua from the circle. This rude awakening broke the mood and seemed to remind each in turn that the day was upon us. My dog walked nonchalantly towards me, stopped and stared, waited. He sniffed the leg of the bench and almost imperceptibly tried to lift his own. All I could see was a faint trickle of piss. I put him on his leash, turned off my phone, and we headed home, slowly.
I find myself feeling awkward, which is a good thing, because it means something new is happening. About two weeks ago I discovered the teachings of an intelligent and sincere Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. The level at which he interprets religious traditions, confirmed a line of thought that I’ve left untended for a while.
As best as one can determine anything through the use of one’s senses, I have observed effects that suggest to me that I have a spiritual component. I would not describe the evidence as absolutely confirming the fact, but more like the evidence suggesting that exercise is good for me. When I think of myself in a spiritual way, when I make decisions taking how it affects my spirit into account, or I engage in a spiritual exercise, whether it is meditation, visiting a place of contemplation, regardless of the religious tradition, or simply walking in a forest, I feel better, much better. When I do not take that sensitivity into account, I feel worse. That’s the phenomenon.
I am quite willing to accept the idea that my reaction is simply a learned response. I am willing to accept that it is merely the internal manifestation of a behavior implicitly prescribed by my culture, i.e. that the image of the Buddha, or a quiet church in the middle of the day, or the silence of a forest, is so commonly thought to induce a sense of peace, that it does – a placebo effect if you will. Assuming that that is true, it is barely relevant. I am going to die soon. This prioritizes the good, once it doesn’t cost too much, over the perfect.
My perspective is that the well-known religions of the world are interwoven with the fallible and corrupting influences of their having, over centuries, become tools with which the powerful control the less organized. And you can see this in every religion. At some point, the spiritual practice leaves the womb and becomes tainted with the political desires of a temporal power. But within each of the world’s religions, there is an awareness of man’s spiritual capacity and how that needs to be managed, and most exciting, how it can be grown. Thus, beneath all the mumbo-jumbo, there is a very useful skill. It is as if all the medical doctors in the world were also religious priests, who, in addition to knowing the workings of the human body, also babbled on about absolute nonsense. Before we rightly throw away all the mumbo-jumbo, I would like to identify and preserve that medical knowledge for future use. Similarly, before throwing out the superficial trappings of commonly practiced religions, I’d like to go into their most refined learnings and ask – what in there is useful? What did they know about how the human animal works? For example, all mystic traditions suggest that a human being can enjoy a higher and more sustainable level of happiness when he ceases to weigh every event in life against his own egotistical desires. When I’ve practiced this idea, I experience an enjoyable peace. So I am going to do it again. Interesting and useful insights like this, that do not require one to believe in six impossibilities before breakfast, can be found in the more universalist writings of mystics within every religious tradition in the world. They represent centuries of work-product by some very intelligent individuals. It is simply ignorant inefficiency to cast-out these notes because of a refusal to apply one’s own intelligence in such a way as to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I started this note by saying that this line of thinking felt awkward, and here is why. I support the New Atheist agenda to spread the light of rationalism into the dark corners of religiously motivated ignorance, whether it be the lunatic-fringe in the American Evangelical Christian tradition or the religiously sanctioned misogyny of fundamentalist Islam. But, as described above, I also believe man has a spiritual component. This is sometimes difficult for my fellow atheists to accept. But even more so, the idea that the great demon of organized religion might have anything of value for a rationalist buried within its hulking mass. As I try to make this point in conversations, perhaps less fluently than I have hopefully managed to do here, I find myself coming away frustrated that secularists are usually as guilty of interpreting religion at the same imbecile level as those they perceive as backward.
There is a great danger in denying the spiritual aspect of man. By doing so we deny him the tools to manage a potentially dangerous desire that those of insincere intent are only too willing to exploit. The primary nefarious actor I have in mind is consumerism, which today offers to feed man’s undiagnosed spiritual needs while starving him at every step. As has been observed by the famous thinkers of the Left, having satisfied our basic needs for food, shelter and a modicum of security and health, corporations in the developed world can now only grow by creating new needs in an already fattened population. They do this largely by targeting man’s unsatisfied spiritual longings with disingenuous offerings of Elysian peace and transcendence beyond the limitations of our individual capabilities. The luxury-goods industry offers the least subtle examples. It promises to transform us, in effect, into gods, if only we buy the most expensive cars, jewelry, cologne, clothes, etc. I see this as the great evil in the society in which I live. It enslaves us, divides us, makes us profoundly unhappy because of what we sacrifice to pay for these baubles, and moves us further away from a more sustainable happiness. And it is not even the fault of corporations, they are merely the drug dealers of a vice we refuse to refuse. But if we do not recognize our spirituality, if we do not entertain it as a variable which must be weighed, we rob ourselves of even the language with which to diagnose our own addiction.
Alas, it has been my experience that the discovery of spiritual treasures cannot be a social exercise. Humans in groups seem incapable of avoiding the wrestle of egos, the insistence on one-upmanship. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I differ with the words of Jesus – wherever two or three are gathered, the spirit is invariably not among them. Maybe this will change for me someday, I hope it will, but for now it seems impossible to grow uncorrupt flowers of spiritual refinement in a social environment. It seems to me that it can only be done in the private cloister of one’s own mind, in a place beyond words. I think the range of tools found in the mystic traditions of the world’s religions may afford some that are of use. But the process of discovery is a solitary one. All that is common is the need.
At the beginning of this year I decided to consciously try and move beyond what I diagnosed as “binary thinking.” Since then, the importance of such a transition has only become more apparent. This resolution is not, as some may be forgiven for perceiving, some self-aggrandizing intellectual conceit. It was necessitated by a realization that I was missing out on some of the best parts of life.
What do I mean by “binary thinking?” Our current political environment offers a perfect starting-point. I live in Washington DC, and this is, most definitely, a company town. “The plant” in this town is the US government, and for many of us politics is akin to what in other, perhaps better-adjusted communities, passes for sport. Capitol Hill is our Wrigley Field and we go about our everyday lives as lawyers, artists and entrepreneurs with one eye on what’s happening at the plant. Just as Detroit in the 70’s must have obsessed about the market-shares of American and Japanese car producers, so here we obsess about the oscillating front-line between, from my perspective, the forces of egalitarian progress and the retrograde machinations of the well-heeled incumbent amoral elite. A decade ago I began my own personal fatwa on the Fox News Network. I haven’t watched it since. But even the remaining news networks that I continue to endure, frequently enrage me by demonstrating the Lilliputian brain that guides this lumbering superpower. However, given the importance of the public issues at stake, (whether it be a war unleashed on a foreign civilian population with infuriatingly inhumane thoughtlessness, or the indifference to the suffering of millions of people living and dying without health care) I simply cannot in good conscience stand idly by. And so I have jumped in to the Theatre of Tantrums and argued my preferred simplification. And I don’t feel too bad about that because the behavior of the Republican camp has never failed to undermine my lowest expectations. But all of this has had a price. When you debate with an idiot you never truly win. It’s like spot-training with a weakling. You will win every single bout, but compared to who you could have been, you are losing every day. Political debates in the current political environment become declaratory squawks about the obvious. There is no discussion about the nuance, the tradeoffs and the grays of political policy. Steeped in this environment as we are in this town, this mental brutality creeps in to one’s thoughts about almost everything else. If you can’t say what you mean about spirituality, relationships, a restaurant, economic policy, philosophy, fashion, culture, art in an unambiguous sound-bite, well then you don’t mean very much at all. And over time, like someone with a growing cataract, you begin to see less and less of life’s detail. Everything is a servant of some grand meta-narrative, and it is either wholly positive or negative to the degree to which it serves that theory. And through this “binary thinking” we corrupt ourselves into cogs, bland, uninteresting, minimalist, sterile, hard, coarse, idiotic, but perfectly labeled.
And yet life itself is rich with wonder and beauty and intricacies beyond imagination. But we will never experience much of it unless we run the risk of being called a hypocrite by fools for the chance to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Many years ago, I “left the Catholic Church.” It was, albeit at a young age, a reasoned and intentional, political, philosophical and theological rejection of the entire establishment. Specifically it was my response to the Church’s policy towards single-mothers, homosexuals, contraception and contraception in the context of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Beyond that it was the rejection of a monarchical hierarchy and the idea of an intermediary between me and a higher presence. And then finally, most fundamentally, it was a consequence of a belief that there is no God. But today, in this imperfect world, I have come to see the need for allies to counter-balance the vulgarity of the marketplace and it tendency at times to commodify humanity. Furthermore, I cannot deny that in me there is some quality that my conditioning has made me think of, and define as, the spiritual. I am open to the idea, though not entirely convinced, that it is a Pavlovian reaction; that the common association of a religious teaching, temple or artifact with a certain type of feeling makes one feel that feeling. But what if that is true? And if that is true, then how many other feelings in my life may be Pavlovian? Do I really like steak, Bach, forests, log-fires, my friends? Should I, for the sake of some imagined truth, forgo these things, embrace the misery of their absence because of a suspicion that my desires for them are merely desires for the pleasure I associate with them? At what point does all of this become mere semantics? What is the value of the reward? Oh and by the way, your death is coming, and faster than you think! “All knowledge is vain and full of errors that does not spring from experiment.” So this Christmas morning I went to church.
I sat there in a beautiful Byzantine cathedral with mixed emotions. The excerpts from the bible were parochial. The sermon was infantile. But the architecture and the music were beautiful. And inside me I had this maelström of voices; “sell-out!”, “they always come back in the end don’t they (insert cynical smile here)”, “you’re being sold, its just like an iPod – you’re a sucker!”, “sheep!” “you are the last person that should be allowed in a church.” And I struggled to overcome these voices. I tried to focus on what I had come there on that Christmas morning to feel. I wanted to feel transcendence. I wanted to draw sufficient strength from the millennia of devotion, from something more beautiful than the present, a shared belief at least in the beautiful, so as to overcome my own pettiness, my own finite obsessions, my own impoverished binary thinking. And I did. I thought on that Christmas morning of my ancestors, my family, humanity stretched across time, hope, perseverance, beauty. I slipped into a mental exercise whereby those that had looked on this beauty before me became tangible to me. I sat with them in communion. And simultaneously I understood, that this was something I was creating, and yet it took me beyond myself, to a place that was, at some level, at least no less an illusion than the one I was standing in. The mass ended. I left. Confused and at peace.
Now I feel awkward about that last paragraph. I’m a very secular person. Some will misinterpret what I have written. Some may even feel betrayed. I know that I would be among the first to look at it on another occasion and dismiss it with an “oh please.” But in the end, the particular example is not important. What is important is running the gauntlet. What is important is the process: the perception of things as they are, with both negative and positive aspects, and then mining the potential good. The world becomes much more interesting with this approach. Life becomes better. There is less of the struggle about it. It feels like a more holistic way to live. The Cheney/Palin/Limbaugh Republicans continue to be the paid bitch-boys of Satan (there is light between my point and moral relativism), but almost everything else earns a redeeming quality. Life becomes playful again, and wonder returns to the earth.
All things are defined by their opposite. Without night there is no day. The extreme of anything leads to its antithesis. Thus, in determining how one should live one’s life, without balance, to pursue one direction without restraint is to end up in completely the wrong place. With sufficient degree, one’s destination couldn’t be further away from where one wants to go. But where along the road is this balance to be found? No one knows. Perhaps it is essential to go all the way. Perhaps it is necessary to go to Hades in order to know the joy of returning from the Underworld. This cannot surely be a practical solution, there are more hells than man can endure. In the best case, one runs out of life just as one runs out of hells. Then falling from a once youthfull hand the secret returns to the darkness. Perhaps there is a sufficient degree. Perhaps once you have seen one ouroboros you have seen them all and can intuitively understand their universal applicability. A sailor, even in a foreign fjord knows how to sail his ship, he knows where the deep water must be. This then is judgment, knowledge, the fruit of man’s first trip to hell. And like Prometheus, once stolen from the Gods, one flame alone is sufficient to illuminate the earth.
It appears to me that there are two ways in which the brain can learn; a structured way and an unstructured way. Structured learning occurs as follows: 1. Each act of learning begins with learning a basic building-block. This ability must become fluent before the next block is added, otherwise the structure will become weak. 2. Once this basic building-block has been perfected, an additional but still basic building-block is added. 3. Once a sufficient number of building blocks have been added and learned, complications, exceptions and nuance are added. Unstructured learning, known colloquially as “picking things up” is less structured; 1. Information arrives in the student’s mind without meta-data or semantics. There is no indicator as to whether this information is a basic building-block or a complication, a rule or an exception. The brain must initially identify whether the information is structured or unstructured. Often the context provides this identification. If I am taking a class in say computer coding I anticipate the information will be structured. However, if I talk to a friend of mine about computer coding in a cafe, I anticipate that the knowledge will not be structured. 2. Once my brain determines that the knowledge is unstructured, it then decides the urgency with which it must determine a structure. If determining a structure is urgent, it will scan the incoming data and try and determine a pattern. It will then compare the putative structure against the incoming data and identify parts of the structure as either rules that are always true or rules that are occasionally true. Once a tentative structure has been created, it will then categorize non-structural data within the categories created by the structure. 3. If a structure is not urgent then the incoming data free-floats in the brain. It makes a connection with existing data in a much less intentional manner. It may be recalled later as a single piece of information or together with some other knowledge structure to which it has attached itself. Structured learning requires more energy but is more efficient because the knowledge parts are categorized, delivered in a pedagogical order and with a precise destination in mind. Non-structured learning has no plan, its architecture is organic and without pre-determined goal. What is the point of this observation? The higher energy cost of structured learning means that structured learning often fails to achieve its goal for want of the necessary energy. In other words people often quit. On the other hand unstructured learning requires much less energy because but often fails to produce fruit because insufficient depth of knowledge has been achieved over a given unit of time. This produces the trivia expert or the hobbyist. The interesting question is whether more things can be achieved through a hybrid of these two approaches? Part-structured and part unstructured. Thus an individual may leave flying classes (structured knowledge acquisition) and relax by watching a film about flying (non-structured knowledge acquisition). Such a hybrid model might reduce the rate of quitting from that observed in the structured learning environment but lead to more end results than that achieved by the mere knowledge browser. The quintessential expression of this hybrid idea is the educational game.
Late at night my mind becomes a lawless region for vagrant ideas that slope beneath fading streetlamps of consciousness. One such thought this night, while reflecting on why anyone would leave a virtual world of their own creation, is the funny notion that we are all the avatars of a divine entity in a virtual world of his/her/its creation. Through us he/she/it (oh for crying out loud everyone knows God is an old man with gout) gets to experience the sensations of a trillion souls. And you thought your inbox had a lot of email!
You know how it goes when people write about elephants. Something like – I looked into the eyes of this majestic animal and I sensed an old wisdom and a deep strength. Well I didn’t. I couldn’t make eye contact with them – the closest I came was when they looked intently at the banana in my outstretched arm. As I looked at these huge prehistoric-looking animals, chained and driven by a creature no bigger than its leg, I thought of a line from Macbeth:
Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance.
This whole situation felt like a breach in nature. There were some 14 or 15 elephants and the mahouts could steer them this way and that with a single word. A crack of the whip and they would increase their speed carrying us across stream, river, mountain and forest. It was majestic and embarrassing at the same time.
As I swayed this way and that in the chair on top of its back I looked down at its huge head, perhaps some three or four feet in width. To my left was a deep gorge. All it takes is for this animal to have a single thought that it might do otherwise that it is being told and suddenly we humans don’t matter any more – nobody can stop this animal if it decides to do what it wants. All that would be left for humans to do is figure out where in the jungle they are headed and how many riders are left alive.
But it doesn’t have that thought, though I can never say it didn’t cross its mind. How did it come to this? Somewhere in its head this mighty animal conceded defeat. And the reason was most likely food not whips. Whips and chains would be as affective as cobwebs if it really came down to that. This animal was beaten by its desire, defeated by itself. It made me feel sad.
And what about us? Are we so different? We go to the barricades and the courts to defend ourselves against whips and chains but our desires run wild. You can enslave a human just like an elephant – tell him about status, pride, nation, honor, wealth, possessions, duty, weapons of mass destruction, an invisible being or beautiful women, hell tell him 40% off all this week and he will do anything you want. He will turn away from his own will and haul people up and down mountains for a piece of paper. He will spend every minute of his life toiling to buy stuff he never wanted. He will even lay down his own life. And yet like the elephant, if we would only wake up. If one just allowed the thought of freedom to reside and take root in one’s head then nothing could stop the heresy. Forget the bananas.
I am generally in favor of political correctness. It has helped to create a new code of manners and etiquette that at the very least points the way to a more inclusive and respectful society for all. But it has also had a prophylactic effect, preventing an acknowledgment and discussion of the differences between social groups and cultures, a confession of our inner thoughts and ignorance and the consequent growth to a more thorough and educated view of the differences that make us unique and interesting.
With that by way of apology, let me proceed to confess my perspective. The biggest difference that I see between Western cultures and those that I have experienced to date in Asia relates to the role of the individual in society. It is not an extreme difference but one of degree. I was most recently reminded of this today when reading an article about Singaporean literature. The article made the general observation that Singaporean literature in Malay, Chinese and Tamil concerns itself with issues of daily life and interweaves these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic and social events. By contrast, Singaporean literature in the English language is described as concerned with the individual and extrapolating human experience. I have a feeling that this distinction is an urgent one, because given the economic rise of China, the West is going to have to work with China as a partner to develop a global consensus on complicated issues such as international human rights, bioethics and privacy rights. These discussions will take place in the space between these two different views of the role of the individual in society.
The Western viewpoint is that, as Lord Acton put it, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The West feels this has been the lesson of our history from the tyranny of Roman emperors and medieval kings to the great evils of Nazism and slavery. Individual rights, and the individualism that they reflect and encourage, are seen as a check on the dangerous accumulation of power by government and bureaucracy. This perspective of the central role of the individual owes something to the religious traditions of Western society. The Judeo-Christian tradition (greatly influenced by the Persian Zoroastrians), views the world from the perspective of the individual, his relationship with God, and his path through a life of choices between good and evil. The actor is the individual, choice is his script and society is the backdrop.
The Asian perspective to me seems different, at least at this point in my education; society is the actor, harmony is the script and the individual is the backdrop. While walking in a classical Chinese garden yesterday I came across a statue of Confucius, on the side of which was written an excerpt from his dialogues. It stated; “[w]hen the Great Way prevailed, every person was a part of public society and public society belonged to everyone. The virtuous and the able were chosen for public office. Fidelity and friendliness were valued by all. People not only loved their own parents and children, but loved the parents and children of others as well. The elderly lived their last years in happiness; able-bodied adults were usefully employed; children were reared properly. Widowers, widows, orphans, the childless aged, the crippled and the ailing were well cared for. All men shared their social responsibilities and all women have their respective roles. Natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends. People wanted to contribute their strength and ability to society for public good and not for private gain. Trickery and intrigue could not occur in such a society. Robbery, larceny and other crimes all disappeared. Gates and doors were not locked, no one ever thought of stealing. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.” What is clear from this description of the ideal society is that the perspective is not the individual first and then society but society first with consequent benefits for the individual.
Both the West and the East share the same goal of “the good society” but they differ in how they think it can be achieved. I think the difference in viewpoints is cultural and not the function of economic development because I have also noticed this difference in perspective in Japan, a country that has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world now for almost two centuries. As a Westerner, I am concerned that the unchecked accumulation of state power, gathered in the guise of perpetuating social harmony, will lead to a corruption with a terrible toll in human life. I can imagine that the Asian perspective is that the rampant individualism of the West has led to a disharmonious society, riven by unlimited greed that will end with a terrible toll in human life. I think that we can each learn from the other – it is true that individual rights without economic growth may be poor consolation, but it is also true that economic growth depends on individual rights. As technology and trade bring once seperate civilizations into common society, there is much to be gained from a dialogue between our different persepctives, for the sake of both harmony and freedom.