Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Five Poisons

As most thoughtful people are aware, the political culture in the US is becoming very toxic these days. Traumatized by the landslide election of a charismatic black liberal President, two major corporate-backed right-wing media monopolies, Fox "News" (sic) and ClearChannel (sic) Radio are shamelessly poisoning the airwaves with the pervasive, strident ranting of scurrilous, paranoid, pernicious, lying demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, and far too many others. They have already convinced a sizeable chunk of the population of blatant lies--that Obama is either a Muslim, a "furriner" born in Kenya, a "socialist," a "Nazi," a black nationalist who "hates white people" (Beck's actual words) or--quite simply--the Antichrist; someone who hates God and America alike and must, in their shared view, be destroyed "by any means necessary." And Republican politicians, never much noted for integrity, have been all too quick to pander to just such paranoid, hysterical nonsense in order to gain votes.

This pervasive "prolefeed" (Orwell's coinage for such venal and pervasive media lies and distractions to keep the masses in the dark) has the Democrats running scared and backing off from their initiatives, while the Republicans have just had a landslide sweep in the Midterm Elections, bringing many of the looniest of these "Tea Party" crazies right into the Senate and House. Such a terrifying outbreak of media-manipulated collective insanity is reminiscent in so many ways of the rise of the Nazis to power, the more recent Serbian genocide campaign against the Muslims, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and the Rwandan Genocide. Is this where we are headed?

The bodhisattva Franklin Delano Roosevelt, coming into office in a similarly crazy and unhinged time (the Great Depression) said it best: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Taking my cue from this insight, I wish to review some useful Buddhist wisdom, putting my own spin on it as always.

The Five Poisons begin with the Big Three poisons from the Buddhist tradition: Greed (Attachment), Ignorance, and Hatred (Aversion). But to these three, I would add two equally toxic spin-offs: Denial and Despair. All these poisons are pervasive in each of us and all of us--they are the wellsprings of Samsara, of the cycles of endless suffering in which we are trapped.

Greed, of course, is everywhere--it is the central organizing principle, or so it seems, of our modern Glomart society. "More is always better," and "To be is to buy;" these are the two messages we see and hear on television, all day every day. We are brainwashed, day in and day out, never to feel that we have enough, but always to want more stuff. Greed is also, of course, the central theme of Republican political discourse: "It's Your Money" the slogan popularized by Bob Dole, is the Republican mantra--that is, "Don't you dare take any of MY money to do ANYTHING for anyone else!"

Ignorance is, of course, the root of delusion, the root of both greed and hatred. The fundamental ignorance, according to Buddhist thought, is the illusory belief in a separate self, apart from everyone and everything else; the common belief we all have that we, somehow, are more important than anyone else. Hence "Looking out for No. 1" was the recurrent, hackneyed slogan of a flood of aggressive, mean-spirited self-help books, starting in the Reagan era--the Greed Society, as it was called.

But ignorance also arises from the loss of any ability to think, to distinguish truth from falsehood, about anything else. And such willful ignorance is also an epidemic in the US today: most people believe whatever they see and hear on TV or the internet, while our corporate media, competing for audience share with ever more sensationalism, have essentially abandoned their traditional investigative role of separating fact from fantasy or holding public officials accountable for lies. And so, increasingly, we live in a time of "universal deceit" when, as Orwell said, "telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

From greed (or sanctified selfishness) and ignorance naturally arises Hatred--the most malignant poison of them all. "If I can't get what I want, I will hate all those who deny it to me." Hence the right wing hatemongers trade on the fact that most people are easily swayed to hatred, so they openly and hysterically encourage the demonization of Muslims, contempt for the poor, racism, and generalized hatred of "big guv'mint" as the root of all evil--especially when the government tries to use taxpayers' money for decent, charitable purposes. They have no problem with the government squandering billions to invade and destroy Iraq and Afghanistan, because there they are (somehow) "protecting our freedom from the ter'rists." But try to spend one dime to create new jobs, curb carbon emissions, or provide health care to the indigent, and they raise the hysterical cry of "Socialism" and tell their followers to stock up on guns to "take our country back."

The problem is that the average ignorant TV-watching Joe out there loves his employer, however exploitive, because he pays him, and hates the government, because it taxes and regulates him or his employer. And nobody likes to be taxed or regulated. For this reason, such ordinary, unthinking people are easy prey for the hate-spewing demagogues to stir them into a frenzy of anti-government paranoia. This serves the agenda of Big Business perfectly, for it makes our elected officials terrified of regulating their emissions or raising their taxes, for fear of the wrath of the hate-intoxicated multitudes.

And the prime target of all this toxic hatred, on whom they focus it like a laser beam, is, of course, President Obama, the (negro) Muslim/Furriner/Socialist/Fascist/Dictator/Antichrist of their most feverish, media-induced nightmares.

The fourth Poison is Denial, the absolute refusal to admit the truth of a disturbing proposition when it is staring you in the face, and the consequent loathing (amplified, of course, by the Right Wing Hate Machine) of anyone who dares to speak these truths. The obvious examples today are the continuing, widespread denial of global warming, even by political leaders, despite overwhelming evidence from climate scientists worldwide, and the absolute refusal of the entire corporate media to allow anyone to question the (transparently absurd) Official Story of 9/11. If any one in the public eye even dares to raise such questions--to ask, for example, how it is possible for the top sixth of a steel frame building to disintegrate and simultaneously pulverize the lower 5/6ths at freefall rate without encountering any resistance--that person is instantly marginalized, smeared, and often subject to job loss and worse.

All of this spiraling madness in our country has opened up a vat of the Fifth Poison, Despair. Indeed, if the Republicans have become the party of Greed, Ignorance, Hatred, and Denial, the Democrats are now the Party of Despair, vainly trying to appease the howling mobs and hold onto their seats by watering down or compromising every principle they ever may have stood for, all while pathetically sending out desperate fundraising alerts to their despondent and disheartened base.

How did we ever fall so far, in such a short time, from the triumph of Election Day 2008? It is hard to say--President Obama is partly to blame for not being more aggressive and hitting back hard when attacked from all sides by the Lying Machine. He made the classic Machiavellian error of trying, as a leader, to be loved, rather than feared. He also made the huge mistake of trying to reach compromises with the vipers of the Republican party, rather than simply using his sizeable majority in both houses to push through his agenda and make them like it (as Roosevelt or Truman would have done). And as a consequence, his initiatives were so watered down that by the time they passed, they were worthless--and the Republicans simply amped up their well-funded hate campaign in response. So now his power base has eroded altogether, while his enemies surround him on every side like rabid hyenas. It is hard, under such dire circumstances, to feel anything but despair, for our country and for the planet.

So OK, what are antidotes to these poisons? I'll save that for the next blog...