Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's the Matter With Berkeley?

OK, enough of all this spiritual crap. Time to talk politics. It’s not that different after all. In politics, as well as religion, there are those who cultishly cling to dogma. We want to believe whatever political views make us feel good, and then use reason only to justify what we want to believe. So it's fruitful to question deeply whatever we think we know.

The endless presidential campaign cycle has begun. In my hometown of Berkeley, CA, living rooms and coffee shops are filled with left-leaning political discussion. There’s one topic that comes up with surprising regularity: Democrats champion government programs that benefit working-class people, so why do working-class people in the American heartland favor Republicans? It’s phrased something like this, “I can understand why rich people would vote Republican, but it’s so baffling and disturbing that non-rich people do so, when it’s so obviously not in their own interest.”

These conversations usually make approving reference to Thomas Frank’s popular book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What’s wrong with these heartland voters? What makes them unable to see that voting Democratic is what’s best for them? Pundit Molly Ivans writes of Frank's book, “I promise y'all, this is the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests.”

I, in turn, am bewildered at this bewilderment. The conundrum can be easily understood by exploring a few points conspicuously ignored in these laments.

1) Self-interest is always dependent on personal values.

What’s best is dependent on each individual’s opinions and values. If I equate self-interest with maximizing material wealth, I’ll use that same standard to judge the interests of others. When I see a government program benefiting a group, I'll assume that those affected will support it. I’ll assume that a minimum-wage worker will automatically support whichever party raises the minimum wage.

Other people, though, value self-reliance or other ethical values more than financial considerations. The people in Kansas are far more religious than those in Berkeley, so it’s not surprising that they respond to more non-material appeals. Once we accept that individuals may legitimately hold different values, it’s no longer surprising that a Kansan’s view of his own interest isn’t what a Berkeleyite thinks it is or should be. Those motivated by non-financial values can’t be controlled by promises of more money from the government.

2) People tend to be the best judge of their self-interest

Each individual is usually in the best position to decide what's in his own interest. We experience the effects of government in our own lives. This feedback determines our idea of our own interests, and motivates us to make our political choices with care.

A Berkeley academic’s ideas about a Kansan’s interest is theoretical. He may read books and study statistics, and use them to imagine how government policies impact the Kansan’s life. This academic perspective will exaggerate factors (such as finances) that can be easily measured, while missing the non-material factors that dominate the Kansan’s actual life.

A child, a psychopath, or an idiot may be incompetent to judge his own interests, and require a care-taker to do so. These are exceptions, not the rule. Even if the Berkeleyite is better educated than the Kansan, is the typical Kansan really so stupid that others should decide what’s best for him? If Berkeleyites assume that the Kansan, like a child or idiot, doesn't know what’s best for himself... we can hardly be surprised at how unpopular Berkeley-style political thinking is in the heartland.

3) Do people really act strictly in their own self-interest? Should they?

This is perhaps the most puzzling point. The Berkeley Lefties I know express shock and disappointment that the Kansan worker can’t be relied upon to follow his self-interest (by voting for Democrats as long as they promise to help him financially). But if we ourselves aren’t strictly motivated by self-interest, why should the Topekan be?

Surely Kansans are motivated by ideas about what’s fair to others, to future generations, and about what conforms to ethical and religious values. Maybe those who ask “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” are themselves overly motivated by self-interest. That would explain their bafflement that selfish motivators fail to explain or control mid-American voters. Alternately, maybe California Lefties consider their own unselfishness to be a mark of intellectual and moral superiority, and are baffled when the inferior American masses show they're not totally self-involved.

The Berkeley political discussions I’m speaking of generally conclude that Democrats need to find a different strategy. They must somehow get it through the thick skulls of Kansans what their interests really are. Maybe someday I’ll start hearing, “What’s the matter with Berkeley? Why can’t we let Kansans decide for themselves what they value and what’s in their interest?” Maybe instead of looking for ways to force our own values on everyone in the country, we’ll start looking for ways to maximize the freedom people have to live according to their own values. When I start hearing conversations like that in the Berkeley coffee shops, I’ll know that the political landscape is ready to change.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Impeach Buddha!

I like to keep up with Guruphiliac, a site dedicated to exposing bullshit in the spiritual subculture. I resonate with that blog because, since childhood, I’ve always liked to question whatever other people hold holy or sacred. In the process, I've gotten tons of grief for not being sufficiently reverent. It’s a relief when I find someone who can outflank me on the irreverence front, and Guruphiliac fits the bill.

(Case in point... most commentators swoon over "Hugging Saint" Ammachi. Who could say a critical word about a simple Indian lady who offers motherly hugs to all and sundry, in grand programs around the world lasting for hours? Yet in a recent Guruphiliac posting, webmaster Jody makes it clear that he ain't drinking that Kool-Aid: "Just because she puts on a good show doesn't mean she's not a diva bitch when she gets off the stage.")

In that same comments section, nublet claims a wisdom dimension to the Ammachi phenom, making comparison to the immensely popular Indian teacher Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950): “The unimpeachable advaitan Ramana Maharshi had an utterly unfettered devotional streak that many modern non-dualists would presumably find quite embarrassing. Do I need to post some of this or are you already aware?”

Here's what strikes me, and motivates this blog posting. Isn't it strange to rely on an authority when speaking about non-dual Truth? It’s like… if you want to know how many fingers there are on a human being’s hand, one way would be to Google that question, and doubtlessly you'd find an authoritative site that’d supply the answer. But that’d be ridiculous, since anyone, any time, can look at their own hands and count for themselves. Likewise, anyone who wants to understand Truth can just pay attention to whatever they’re perceiving and doing right now. How bizarre to suggest we rely on some dead Indian guy to know what Truth is!

Hell, I dunno, maybe Ramana was adorable, walking around half-naked and saying all sorts of cute stuff about the nature of reality. But when we fall into the belief that Truth is the property of a special person, it hinders our real job of attending to this moment. How could we possibly connect with what we’re doing right now, if we think there’s a bigger Truth somewhere else?

Nublet called Ramana “unimpeachable.” Dammit, I say that everything and everyone is impeachable. The dictum is well-known: If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet an eminent teacher, kill the eminent teacher.

It may seem that putting nice folks like Ramana and Ammachi on pedestals is an innocent thing. Well, it’s OK if that’s what you want, but there’s a price. As soon as we make that tiny distinction and believe that a special Sage knows more about Reality than we do… then heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.