Friday, February 21, 2020

Mis-Using Myth But Getting the Point

First, a quotation:

"Successful presidential candidates are mythmakers. They don’t just tell a story. They tell a story that helps people make meaning out of the current moment; that divides people into heroes and villains; that names a central challenge and explains why they are the perfect person to meet it."

Myths are of course true, just not the way that David Brooks uses the word. Here we go again but it's kind of important. At least to me. He means to tell "the truth." I mean to get to the truth by using myths to go deeper. Onward.

As usual David Brooks of The Times gets a crucial feature of the analysis or the language dead wrong. But he also has the point in the midst of the malaise. Here he is using the word "myth" in the ordinary parlance. This saddens, infuriates, discourages me as much as the superficial use of "yoga" or other words that _could_ mean more but don't because words mean 'how people use them' (and NOT what they 'could' mean. This is why, for example, you may have noticed that I don't often refer to Rajanaka as either "yoga" or "tantra" anymore---because we have lost the meaning-war and there is no getting it back (for now).) Anyways, David writes about the election:

"My takeaway from Wednesday’s hellaciously entertaining Democratic debate is that Sanders is the only candidate telling a successful myth. Bloomberg, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar all make good arguments, but they haven’t organized their worldview into a simple compelling myth. You may look at them, but you don’t see the world through their eyes."

First, there was nothing "hellaciously entertaining" in my view. Rather it was insipid, frustrating, demeaning, and unhelpful. If that's what it takes to win the presidency, I would rather live with penguins full time. I hated every moment and lost respect for EVERY candidate. Name calling, misrepresentations, angry bullshit from everyone about the other. Nothing was gained, much was lost. Trump won bigly.

Right now I am betting that the nightmare continues, only worse.  Far worse. Catastrophically worse after he is re-elected.  There really is such a thing as the Trump Voter and they are in States that will decide the election.  It's that simple, California.  So vote "your heart" and lose.  Because voting your myth depends on what kind of myth you like.  That's my point, not that of David Brooks.

David uses the word "myth" pejoratively and that, of course, is what sends me _personally_ over the edge. Meh. I have no hope, ZERO for reclaiming "myth" because yoga _means_ stretching and "Tantra" not only means bullshit it mostly (99%) IS bullshit. Notwithstanding, he is also on to something.

That something is that people who inhabit a story don't need believe it (he has it backwards, of course, as usual, he makes this mistake frequently), they need to want it to be true. People don't vote for arguments, they vote for their wishes, their dreams---even bad, ugly dreams, like Trumpists. But it's not about arguments, it's about who they want to believe they are. This is why I prefer pragmatists, as candidates and in most things.

Not that you should care, but I see the world as Mahabharata: you fight when you think it's the best thing you can do, winning is often losing and deeply compromising, you make a better deal on the basis of the battle, and you try to live with yourself and your enemies as best you can. Not everyone shares that view or that vision but for me, _that's the real world_ that I mythologize. I need stories that use myth to ground you in the hard world that is and in the dreams you want, without losing either.

For Sanders, like for Trump, there's much more dreamy bullshit about what is and what will be or could be. Their version of the hard world, well, Bernie's isn't wrong or false. It's that their solutions will never happen because the demons are just as real and cannot be destroyed. No demon is destroyed, not ever. I say David is right, most people want that sort of myth where they just get what they want, and they believe they will get it. They want their dream, they want their fulfillment. I see the end of the story as just the next bit of living with yourself because you don't get what you want, you get compromised and compromise. You get to die another day, as the saying goes, and that's not so bad because the alternative is far worse.

I think he's right too that Sanders is the likely nominee. Trump's reelection is, imo, far more likely because America will far more easily buy Trump's myth in WI, MI, and PA. I'm not prepared yet for the Mondale McGovern blowout that will likely happen. Unless it doesn't. Carry on, ragingly.

Here's the link to David Brooks' piece:

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Getting Personal and Finding a "More Human" Empathy In our Religion and Politics

Scholarship doesn't reward the personal. We're told it's not our job. But Rajanaka---and that means you, people you likely know, friends, folks who've come to the conversation with open minds and willing hearts---has taught me that I don't know any other way of doing scholarship and live with myself.

I've never been very good at just reporting the facts without thinking aloud about what I'm thinking. I like to try to imagine lives I have not lived and not likely to lead but within every conversation I ask myself, to the core of being, "Well, what do you think, Ji? Do you know what you think?" Studying religion will do that to you, if you let it. Not just religion.

As far as I can tell nothing is more personal than politics. If you decide not to participate, think about it or deal with the maelstrom and malaise, it's still all gonna matter. It's going to change your life and it's likely going to change others at least as much, maybe a lot more.

Politics can be as selfish as you want it to be. It shares that with religion or spirituality, which we think of as a "me-problem." Truth is, that too isn't just a me-problem. How we evolve our learning in every way will cut to the core and that means it will reach out into other lives.

But there's a chance in politics that's rarely as clear in your religion or spirituality: what you think or believe or do can change others' lives and change yours _right now_. There's an urgency we are all feeling now because what we know is that truth, decency and dignity itself are on the line. This is an _emergency_, folks. Our imperfections, our long and storied histories of light and shadow are nothing in comparison to the menace we face.

Can we feel compassion for those who berate us, lie about us, demand fealty threatening our safety should we disagree? How we are feeling for others isn't supposed to be this hard but these are troubled times.

Empathy is no small matter. We like to believe it is natural. As Mencius said some four hundreds years before the Common Era, "Who does not feel for the child who falls into the well?" He believed pity and compassion, empathy itself came as a matter of course, as the well-spring of our shared human nature.

But in the privacy of the voting booth we face no maker but ourselves and therein lies the real test. No supernatural judgment awaits and what is karma but what we yet understand about the consequences of our actions? We can "look out for ourselves" or we can imagine a bigger world, one that implicates each and every person not because we know them but because we don't. So what will we do depends on who we choose to be. That might be worth a thought.

I teach now in University concealing only as much as seems right to insure that students feel no pressure, so that they might reach their own conclusions and assess their own values. Whatever comes through that is personal I hope makes clear that we must take learning personally. We have to decide how what we know matters and if it might change the world we share.

In a room of adults---rather than University students--- I'm just as committed to be personal _and_ to do my level best to educate, to avoid even the slightest tincture of indoctrination or evangelism. But in this environment I feel a different responsibility because I _expect_ adults to already have their own hard-won opinions. We won't persuade each other of much, I think.

Instead we will ask each other how what is personal to you might matter to you should we disagree. We learn that empathy, however natural it is, is something we can feel more deeply when we learn from one another. That is a lesson I think Mencius would also agree is part of the task of becoming, as he puts it, "more human."

Confessions of a Dreamer Pragmatist, Or is that the Pragmatist Dreamer?

I am at heart both pragmatism and dreamer. If that's a paradox, add it to the list.

My jam is prudence and risk, it's hit your target and aim high and then higher. It's try not to fall for the fleece and the folly and never let anything stop you from what you really want to do. It's humility with a tincture of recklessness. It's modesty but shameless audacity.

I love the worldly world, yes, I love a lot of things made in the material world: things made with human hands and experience, things made with careful attention to every detail, things that will age, can be fixed or are just beautiful and serve not practical purpose at all, and above all tell a good story. I also love the contemplative, the poetic, just thinking and thinking and taking the the long way home. I love the glitter and the dirt. I love the facts and the myths with every bone in my body.

I ran off to India and would have happily wandered the temples with never, ever have another given a thought to coming home. I came home and have had the same job for more than 30 years, picked up my kids from school pretty much every single day. I don't mind a good conflict of interests.

I think the way to get that spot you long for over the rainbow is little by little, again and again. YMMV. I'm not suggesting you do it my way. We each need to figure out how to get to our own personal Valhalla.

Not always as important to be right as it is to know what rings true in your heart, what works for you, what will get you through today and tomorrow and maybe ahead. It's good to give in and lose sometimes. Have an idea but know that the best laid plans fail, yeah, fail. Without a plan you're thinking that the seat of your pants will be enough, when maybe it won't. Then what? You have to adjust and adapt in every circumstance, pick the best of bad choices, never, ever relent to go for it---whatever it is for you. You have to imagine, conjure, and envision what asks more from you than you've ever thought possible. You have to live within your means and over your pay grade. I will accept what can be done and still not give up on what could be.

So let's go to the phalanx of candidates for the presidency. So here's my personal take as I work on my inner paradoxes.

*Sanders, Yang, Steyer, and Warren offer too much reverie for me. What they propose will not happen even when I like the dream. Too much the dreamers for me because the asphalt or the barefoot path through the jungle has taught me what hard falls and broken bones (dreams) feel like.

*So what of the pragmatists? Biden is too old. Pragmatically, and this is a hard one: Buttigieg is too young and can't answer the one set of questions he must, about race. I have a very soft spot for a person of such depth, intelligence, and sensibilities. My admiration is dreamy but my pragmatism tells me he's not quite the thing. I want to be with the enthusiasm that POC will bring and, truthfully, pragmatically I trust their intuitions. When in doubt listen to the folks who know that trust is hard won. Bloomberg is a safety value in case it's the dreamer crowd and he doesn't care if he's president and he let a lot mean stuff happen that shouldn't have happened.. I feel confident he will put his money into goodness because like all sane people he hates Trump and can really do something about it.

I have not been thrilled with Senator Klobuchar until the end of the NH Debate. She has been too wonky, too legislative and procedural. Presidents need to say big things and mean it. They need to know how symbols and stories work, not just how bills pass the Senate. I needed to see someone MORE dreamy, less pragmatic. She's got pragmatic in spades but she needs some hearts too. Well, she just scored big in hearts. See the video in the first comment below. The thing about FDR really ripped me 'cause she meant it.

I love people who really mean it even when I think they are too dreamy or too pragmatic. Bernie _really means it_. I just don't fancy that much grievance and that much dream when it won't get done, and the same for Warren---though I hope both deeply influence the nominee. If I lived in NH I would vote for Senator Klobuchar. She's shown me heart I didn't know she really had. So there's that. You choose best when you know how you feel and think.

**Watch Senator Klobuchar seal the deal here for hearts, not just pragmatic in spades: