My nephew Ben writes for a right-wing “news-entertainment” site called Liberty Writers News where he goes by the pen-name Danny Gold. In December, the Washington Post did a story about Ben and his writing partner Paris in which the Post defined what Ben and Paris write as “fake news.”
Ben resents the term “fake news” because he is very careful about sticking to verifiable facts in his stories. He doesn’t make shit up. His alter ego, Danny Gold, however, writes from a very biased, very pro-Trump point of view.
I’ve had a lot of long discussions with Ben about politics, spirituality, and life in general ever since he learned to talk. In fact, the book Hardcore Zen was originally written for him. And I mean specifically for him, because I didn’t think anyone would publish it. It’s actually a very long letter directly to Ben about Buddhism.
I’ve talked to Ben about Trump too. He is far less rah-rah about our president than his Danny Gold character. But he does think that Trump’s election was, on the balance, a better thing for the USA than if we’d elected Hillary Clinton.
I’m writing about him here because yesterday one of the people who sometimes comes to our Zen things in LA decided to “out” me about my relationship with Ben on Facebook. Ben argued with this guy about a political comment the guy had made on one of my FB posts. Rather than addressing Ben’s point, the guy posted some screen shots of Liberty Writers News, and of me and Ben. I do not know his intention. But it seemed to be to discredit me as a writer and teacher by association.
Up until now, I didn’t think it was necessary or important for me to write or speak about Ben and the work he does. It’s pretty removed from what I write and speak about. But if people are going to be attacking me for it, I figured I’d better make sure no one thinks I’m trying to keep it a secret.
It worries me that the guy from my Zen group seems to have thought my relationship with Ben was the sort of thing he could use to attack my credibility. It worries me even more that a couple of my FB friends engaged with him and clearly did see my relationship with my nephew as an issue.
Is this what American Buddhism has come to? Has it become an entirely partisan endeavor? Is American Buddhism now indistinguishable from Leftist politics? Maybe that’s overstating things. But it genuinely worries me that we may be headed in that direction.
My teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi, was fond of quoting Kodo Sawaki who said, “the Left Wing is wrong but the Right Wing is also wrong.” Nishijima was no Leftist peacenik. Back when George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was underway, someone asked Nishijima about it. Nishijima said he was in favor of Bush’s actions. He believed the invasion was necessary to establish stability in the Middle East.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether he was correct or not. What is interesting is how Nishijima’s students — including me — have been careful not to share his political views too widely.
One reason we haven’t shared them is because Nishijima’s politics were never central to his message. His life’s work was interpreting Dogen and making Dogen’s philosophy available to a wider audience. He only stated his political views when he was specifically asked about them. And he always made sure to add that his political opinions were his own, and not to be confused with Buddhism. He’d usually preface any political statement with the words “This is just my point of view.” Or else he’d say, “I want to say this very softly, but…”
Because of this I’ve never considered it necessary to write about Nishijima’s politics. Still, I have been guilty of sidestepping the matter when it has come up. I generally try to change to subject.
There is a strong assumption among American Buddhists that if you believe in peace and the oneness of humankind, as the Buddha taught, then you would surely follow the political philosophy of the American Left. After all, Leftists are for love and light, and against war and badness. Conservatives stand for hate, killing, and carnage.
I used to believe that myself. But I don’t anymore.
I think sensible people on all sides of the political spectrum mostly want the same things. They generally just disagree about how to achieve those things. Other times life is ambiguous and you have to compromise in order to have a stable society.
Progress is a good and necessary thing. But human beings are animals. We human animals don’t like change. No animal does. Humans are very good at adapting, but adapting is hard and needs to be taken at a pace we animals can stand. When you push us too fast we react badly and progress becomes impossible.
I have respect for political conservatives because they are often able to see better than I can when progress is going too fast and the brakes need to be applied. But sometimes they stay on those brakes longer than is necessary.
I have respect for progressives because they are often better able to see where humanity could improve itself. But they have a tendency to let their idealism about how things could be get in the way of seeing how things actually are.
People on both sides are susceptible to corruption. People on both sides get too greedy sometimes. Both sides get too rigid in their viewpoints and fail to see when plans that sounded good in their speeches aren’t really working when put into action. People of all political affiliations get too into defending “self” instead of being able to put that aside and work for what’s right even if it conflicts with their own fixed points of view.
I’m proud of my nephew. He likes to sneak little progressive things into his right wing articles. Like in an article on Islamic terrorism where he wrote, “Please, do not hate anyone just because of their religion or even their country of origin. The Bible says we shouldn’t.” Or in an article on Hillary that said, “Hey, I don’t care if a woman runs the country. I say GREAT. As long as that woman is NOT Hillary Clinton.” He refuses to run stories that are racist, sexist, or homophobic. He knows a lot of his readership would love it if he ran stories like that, but he won’t do it. He’s a good kid. He’s one of the most self-aware people I’ve ever known.
I just wish more American Buddhists were able to be as skillful as Ben is about confronting their biases and trying to see points of view other than the ones they are attached to.
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