Saturday, January 17, 2015

the contemplative vehicle

On today, a university student doing some research for an essay regarding contemporary Buddhism asked, Why does Buddhism appeal to you? My answer to such questions changes depending on the day, with certain aspects taking the forefront in my mind, and today was no different. Since recently starting Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, some of the things mentioned in the introduction and foreword have given me a new appreciation for what the Buddha taught from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to people like Dawkins, for example, there are two kinds of units in natural selection, the gene (as replicator) and the organism (as vehicle). And while the vehicle may be more or less altruistic, doing things out of compassion, generosity, love, etc., the genes are decidedly 'selfish.' In this context, deceit is arguably fundamental in animal communication, therefore, as Robert Trivers points out, "there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practiced" (The Selfish Gene, xx).

Here we see that some of our motivations, influenced by a subtle form of selfishness (original sin?), lay hidden within us. This is akin to the Buddhist teaching that many of our actions are conditioned/coloured by greed, aversion, and delusion (i.e., selfishness and self-deception); and one of the Buddha's insights was that we can master these mental processes of conditionality in such a way as to 'go against the stream' of craving (tahna, which here can be seen as the influence of genetic selfishness on human psychology) and ultimately transcend craving altogether. As Dawkins puts it, "Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes" (xiv); and the Buddha was one of the greatest revolutionaries in this regard.

So looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I'd say that it's the contemplative aspects of Buddhism that appeal to me the most. Although other religious traditions have their own forms of robust contemplativism, Buddhism has a very thorough and explicit form that I think cuts straight to the heart of the human condition. By practicing things like mindfulness meditation and constantly observing our actions via MN 61, we begin to remove this evolutionary veil of ignorance or avijja ('not knowing'), allowing us to see within the hidden depths of our psyche so that we can begin to condition changes in our behaviour and perception that lead to fuller awareness, self-knowledge and control, and liberation via transcendence of our genetic programming.

Today, Buddhism comes in all shapes and sizes, arising out of a peculiar Indic culture, replete with its own religious traditions and worldview, and further shaped by the diverse cultures in which it's taken root, giving rise to numerous schools and approaches. Much of it may appear to be outdated and superstitious to the scientifically minded; but I think the underlying goal, as well as the various practices and insights that characterize 'Buddhism,' have a lot to offer us in terms of understanding and transforming ourselves.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

all lives matter

Suffice it to say that I find torture to be beyond the pale, and I don't think we should be doing things like rectally feeding anyone as "a means of behavior control." But what concerns me more than the torture itself is the lack of outrage at such glaring inhumanity and injustice, even after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report describing some of the techniques used, including the aforementioned form of sexual assault, and the fact that 1/5 of the detainees were "wrongfully held."

It's especially frightening to me that a recent PEW poll shows a majority of those polled believe the CIA's methods were justified, and that the information gleaned helped prevent terror attacks despite the fact that the report suggests the exact opposite (assuming that's even a viable justification in the first place). This should engender as much public outrage, in my opinion, as the events in Ferguson, New York, etc. The more so, I think, because each is an concrete example of abuse of state power characterized by a lack of accountability. The two are intertwined—they're multiple heads of the same political-economic hydra.

Unfortunately, many people feel they deserve to be put into cages and tortured, even though many were despite being innocent (or at least not proven guilt of any crime). And many doubt the validity of the report, even though people 'in the know' like Dick Cheney are going around defending some of the previously unknown torture techniques like rectal feeding described in the report. Worst of all, many are indifferent to such acts of cruelty.

What complicates matters is that it's part of a broader, systematic problem that's beyond any one individual, making it difficult to face in the first place. I know when I often ignore the news, for example, it's because it's usually overwhelming and I feel helpless to do anything about it except express my impotent outrage on social media. But seeing the responses from the growing #blacklivesmatter movement and others like it, I think people can collectively make a difference and force changes to be made, especially if they're able to connect the dots and realize that these issues are just symptoms of a bigger, systematic problem.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

power to the people

I started walking home from the Holiday Ale Fest and ran straight into a march protesting the decision not to indict the officer involved in the murder of Eric Garner, as well as the decision not to indict the officer involved in the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown. All those involved were rallying against the recent decisions and the societal issues underlying them.

I don't know where they originated from, but I found myself in the front as the group marched from Pioneer Square to the Moda Center, chanting along the way various slogans such as, "No justice, no peace," "Who's streets? Our streets," "Who's lives matter? Black lives matter," etc.

It just felt good, right; and being near the front, I started screaming at the top of my lungs, raising my fist and raging against the system with all my being. All that was going through my mind was, "This shit has to stop, and I have to be on the front line against racism, sexism, and every other kind of discriminatory 'ism' there is. Enough is enough!"

I don't know if anything I do, or ever have done, will actually make a difference; but I know I'm at least willing to try. I'm not afraid to add my voice to the millions crying out for the same thing: Equality. Justice. Peace. An end to discrimination and oppression in all of its forms. If at some point we're not a part of the solution, we by default become part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

justice doesn't exist for the state

This is why I doubt equipping cops with cameras will do any good. Even when it's caught on tape, they rarely ever get charged for killing an unarmed person, whether it's by beating, shooting, or choking:

Grand Jury Lets Cop Choke Guy To Death Because Everything Is Terrible

The problems are built into the very fabric of our justice system. Nevertheless, I've seen a lot of people lately posting things like, "Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racists. Quit labeling." This is true, not all cops are bad people, just as not all black people are criminals and not all white people are racists. But what people don't seem to understand here is the oppressive nature of the police as a social institution itself.

Individual police officers may very well be good people; but the real issue is, the police as a whole are primarily protectors of property and enforcers of the state, as well as a means of extracting surplus-value from working people (through parking tickets, traffic fines, etc.). They get their marching orders from the ruling class, not 'the people'; and more often than not, it's minorities and the poor that are the most affected by those policies.

When the police target the poor, the homeless, minorities, etc., they primarily do so because of institutionalized pressures created by those in power. Sit-lie and anti-camping ordinances, for example, are two ways for the state to legally harass homeless people by forcing them to move if they're sitting or lying anywhere in certain areas at anytime, often at the behest of local business alliances.

And there are numerous other laws that target minorities and the poor, such as harsher penalties for someone caught with crack cocaine, which is more prevalent in poorer communities and communities of colour, than powder cocaine, which is a more 'effluent' form of the drug, despite no physiological differences between the two. (In 2010, the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine was finally reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act.) It's a two-tiered justice system weighed heavily in favour of the wealthy.

When the police send in riot cops to arrest protesters, even if they're non-violent and protesting a gross injustice, they do so because they're more concerned about protecting property and making sure economic supply-lines for both goods and labour (i.e., roads) remain open than they are justice and the lives of the people they're allegedly there to 'serve and protect.'

And due to the lingering effects of racism, from slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the practice of redlining to the unconscious racial biases that still haunt our perception, our judicial system is disproportionately biased against minorities, particularly the black community. Non-whites statistically get targeted more than whites; non-whites statistically get harsher sentences than whites; etc.

But what this case and others like it demonstrate to me is that, ultimately, justice doesn't exist for the state. The Establishment and those designed to serve and protect the interests of the ruling class and wealthy are above the laws that the rest of us plebs are subject to. They play by an entirely different set of rules.

A cop killing an unarmed black man? Or an unarmed, mentally-ill, homeless person who didn't do anything wrong, like James Chasse? No grounds for indictment. But a black man killing a cop? A homeless person killing a cop, even in self-defense? Shit. They'd probably never see the light of day, if they weren't killed themselves in retaliation.

But I think people are finally getting tired of the disparities, the growing militarization of the police, and the lack of accountability. In a lot of these cases, the cops seem like they're above the law.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Ferguson. What can I say about it? Not much, really. I don't live there, and nothing I say will change the situation. I'm just some dude in Portland reacting to the news. That said, two thoughts immediately come to mind. One is, I'm tired of police officers getting away with murder, particularly the murder of unarmed people of colour, the homeless, and the mentally ill. It happens way too often, and no one is ever held accountable.

The second is, I love all the middle-class white people who don't have to worry about cops shooting them to death for simply walking down the street criticizing the people who live with this terrorism ever day, and who get justifiably upset when cop after cop gets little more than a paid slap on the wrist for shooting an unarmed person to death in their community. If you were in their position, you'd be a little pissed off, too. Don't let your relative privilege blind you to the oppression and suffering of others. The whole thing brings to mind something MLK Jr. said in 1968:

[A] riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear 3 of 8 that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

serve the people

I haven't been inspired to write much about politics lately, but I thought this Jacobin article was rather interesting in that it helps to illustrate the underlying moral foundation of capitalism, one making the last, first, and the first, last. With all of our technological innovations and productive capabilities, the question arises, Why don't we live in a world of material security for all? What's stopping us?

The obstacle, in my opinion, is an increasingly outdated mode of production and the ideology underlying it. Our productive capacities are such that we no longer have a material necessity for capitalist wage-labour and artificial scarcity, but the demand for profit creates an economic system that consistently depresses our productive capabilities and produces artificial scarcity, limiting the production and consumption of commodities to only that which can realize profit.

Just looking around at the world today and all the thing we've accomplished, I think it's fairly obvious that we've reached an epoch of potential material abundance via the technological advancements and innovations of the past. Nevertheless, the old masters are refusing to let go of their death grip on wealth and power, their ownership of the means of production, finance, etc., stalling our transition to a post-capitalist society. And in many ways, we, too, are stalling that transition by buying into the dominate ideology of the ruling class.

I think the growth of this ideology partially has its roots in the early days of capitalism, being influenced by a combination of factors including the emergence of the 'Protestant work ethic' in conjunction with the enclosure of English commons, anti-idleness and poverty legislation, poorhouses, and the transition of people (often forced) from serfdom into wage-labour. In this process, the idea of making money, and especially the idea of capital accumulation, took on a moral framework in which being idle (i.e., not making money) was seen as something immoral and sinful. In essence, wage-labour became something almost sacred. And this attitude wasn't just limited to the growth of capitalism in Europe, but made its way to the New World as well. For example, the ethics of hard work and accumulation can be found in the writings of Benjamin Franklin, who coined the phrase "time is money":

Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. [...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.

But it's not just the ruling elite who turn a blind eye to poverty and deprivation, nor isn't only the ruling class who thinks of the poor, the homeless, and the least among us as parasites infesting our society. As Marx writes in The Germany Ideology, "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas," meaning that "[t]he class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it." Hence, a society's culture, religion, and political institutions will be heavily influenced by the ideas of those who "regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age."

For example, I think that Jane Devin's 2012 article, "Walmart Greeter Buys 6-Pack of Beer & Is Condemned" (which, for some reason, has disappeared)," does a decent job of illustrating a common double standard in regard to how today's self-identified 'middle class' judges both the rich and poor, a pseudo-moral judgmentalism that I think ultimately stems from an ideology dominated by wealthy, ruling-class elites. The growing trend to, in her words, "flog the poor for their perceived failings and abuses, while at the same time [ignoring] the capricious excesses of the rich" is evidence of this; and I think the self-made myth and the meritocracy myth are two examples of ideas that originate with the ruling class and, due to their ideological dominance, influence the rest of society.

It may seem like there's no alternative, that we've reached the 'end of history' and the final phase of our socio-cultural evolution; but I honestly believe we have the capacity to create a world characterized by equality and material abundance in which things like distinctions of rich and poor and oppression truly become superfluous—one that no longer caters to one class of owners, but to the needs of all.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

explaining my political cynicism, where jesus and marxism meet

Talking about voting yesterday, I realized that the simplest ways of explaining my apathy towards our two-party electoral system is as follows: Liberals idealize the state as much as conservatives idealize the market, neither seeing how each is co-dependent and exploitative under capitalism. Instead of being a people-centered system, we live within a profit-centered system. And under that system, liberals think things like poverty and other social ills can be fixed by the state, while conservatives think the magic is in market, both ideas equally as wrong due to the inherent contradictions within capitalism. Voting for one of the two major parties, you're essentially voting for different sides of the same coin. And voting for a third party is effective as a statement, but certainly nothing revolutionary. That's not to say our votes don't count because they can at least steer the direction of policy; but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that that direction isn't severely limited by the structure of the system itself. The logic of any institution is first and foremost to preserve itself. You can't vote away poverty et al. in capitalism anymore than you can vote away money; and the majority of the most meaningful change in society comes about through our interactions with one another at the local level, individually and as a community. Checking a box every year or two isn't half as important as how you treat your neighbor and vice versa.