Selections (3)

A periodic roundup of selected political opinion and social commentary, reflecting the political values of liberalism and the ethical values of Buddhism.

Vol 2, No 3 ……… February 1st, 2021

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FEATURED SELECTION:

In a recent newsletter to his email subscribers, New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni marveled at what he described as Joe Biden’s “generous” comments about his predecessor Donald Trump. Since generosity is one of the three core ethical virtues espoused by Buddhism (the other two being compassion and wisdom), and since the primary theme of this occasional feature on The Liberal Buddhist blog is the common values promoted by liberalism and Buddhism, Bruni’s comments are offered in their entirety as this issue’s featured selection …

“Today I’m going to reach back to the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. How good it feels to write that! President Joe Biden. We needed a change, and now we have it, and the rightness of this particular one was captured not just in his excellent inauguration speech but also in other words and gestures of his in the hours just before and after that address.

I’ll focus on three unscripted sentences shortly after 5 p.m., when a small group of journalists were on hand for his signing of several executive orders in the Oval Office. One of them asked about the content of a letter that President Donald Trump — who actually followed tradition in this instance — left Biden. There’d been doubt that Trump would do so. “The president wrote a very generous letter,” Biden said. “Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous.”

Generous. The word grabbed me, and not because Biden used it twice. For starters, “generous” perfectly describes Biden’s response to the question he was asked. He could simply have declined to characterize the letter, citing etiquette and discretion. He certainly wasn’t under any obligation to compliment and essentially thank Trump, not after Trump refused to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election, spread conspiracy theories and fomented violence. Trump was intent on making Biden’s transition into the presidency as rocky as possible and bequeathing him a country almost impossible to govern.

Biden nonetheless went out of his way to be big. To be kind. He placed Trump, of all people, in proximity to “generous,” when our former president (it feels good to write that phrase, too!) is anything but. Ever since Election Day, Biden hasn’t merely been urging civility. He’s been modeling it, despite a magnitude of ugliness and absurdity from Trump and his Republican enablers that has tested it at every turn. It’s a monumental feat of discipline. It’s the epitome of grace.

And it’s the definition of, well, generosity, which is as good a one-word summary of what America and Americans need right now as any other. We need it from our president. We need it from other political leaders. We need it most of all from ourselves.

I don’t chiefly mean material generosity, though there’s a strong argument right now for government spending well beyond the norm and there’s a call for those Americans who have not been financially hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic to lift up those who have. I mean emotional generosity, spiritual generosity, the kind that puts proper value on the public interest and the common good; the kind that recognizes the trap of endless, boundless rancor; the kind that acknowledges human flaw while rooting hard for human redemption. It doesn’t downgrade the importance of accountability, punishment, justice. It integrates that into the mapping of a place where we can most successfully fix all that needs fixing.

Generously, President Joe Biden is trying to point us there.”

You can sign up for Frank Bruni’s weekly email newsletter here.

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ADDITIONAL SELECTIONS:

#1 – Joe Biden’s uplifting inaugural address …

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2021/jan/20/unity-is-the-path-forward-joe-bidens-inaugural-address-in-full-video

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#2 – Amanda Gorman’s inspirational inaugural poem …

https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000007561374/poet-amanda-gorman-inauguration.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20210121&instance_id=26239&nl=the-morning&regi_id=1518433&segment_id=49887&te=1&user_id=d5db21857560d585c919832c1b387ecd

A Few Words about the June Democratic Debates

In my last post, I declared that I would be listening to each of the participants in the first round of the Democratic presidential candidate debates for some hint of generosity, compassion, and wisdom in their remarks.  Well, not long into the first evening’s debate, I started feeling a little like the hapless hero of that old pop tune, the guy who was “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”.  There I was, looking for compassion on a debate stage whose ten occupants were focused mostly on creating a visual moment that could go viral on social media and thereby boost their poll numbers. What I heard instead was a lot of interrupting, grandstanding, and in a few cases, personal attacks. Hardly what Buddhism refers to as “skillful speech”.

With hindsight, I guess this was to be expected.  The format of these early debates – crowded as they are with so many candidates – all but guarantees this kind of behavior. Attention goes to the ones who speak up the most forcefully, and at this early stage, media attention is to a campaign what oxygen is to a person – the very substance that keeps one alive.

The fact that Kamala Harris is considered to have scored the biggest “win” – largely if not entirely due to her impassioned verbal confrontation with Joe Biden – would seem to validate this assertion.

My conclusion:  we’ll have to wait until the candidate field has been narrowed down before this form of one-upmanship abates.  Ironically, it will probably take even more of this one-upmanship in order to accomplish the very narrowing down that will hopefully bring about its end.  Then, perhaps, the debate stage will morph from one of the above-mentioned “wrong places” to, in fact, the perfect place to listen for words of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

I’ll be waiting.

A perspective on the upcoming Democratic candidate debates

Two years ago, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, I argued in one of my final posts on my old blog that no practicing Buddhist could in good conscience support the candidacy of Donald Trump for the simple reason that his entire public life prior to his entry into politics had been marked by Buddhism’s “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion.

Two years later, I would make a similar argument that no practicing Buddhist can in good conscience support his presidency, ravaged as it has been by those same three poisons. And few, if any, Buddhists of my acquaintance would need that argument presented to them.  There is simply no way to reconcile the policies of what many pundits have termed “Trumpism” with the ethical principles of Buddhism.

So, whether politically engaged or not, most American Buddhists will likely find themselves aligned with the Democratic party in the 2020 presidential election, and thus I suspect that quite a number of us will be watching the upcoming Democratic candidate debates with a particularly keen interest.

What criteria might a liberal Buddhist apply in order to differentiate among the twenty candidates who will be participating in the first of these debates, scheduled to take place in two separate sessions, with ten candidates in the first and the other ten in the second, on the successive evenings of Wednesday, June 26th, and Thursday, June 27th?

Certainly one essential quality needed in the eventual nominee is the “electability” factor. Undoubtedly, every person in this country – Buddhist or not – who has for the past two years been appalled by the spoken and tweeted words of Trump, horrified by the inhumane actions being taken at the southern border, and terrified by the reckless climate-change-denying policies being implemented throughout the nation, passionately hopes to see the current president soundly defeated at the ballot box next November.

And while I too will be watching the Democratic debates with an eye toward discerning who among the candidates has the most realistic chance of actually winning the election, I will also be listening to what each of them says with an ear for detecting who among them is speaking in terms of the Buddhist virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  These three traits, of course, are considered to be the antidotes to the “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion – which have been the shameful hallmarks of the Trump presidency, and of Trumpism in general.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was a memorable TV and billboard advertising campaign for a popular packaged bread at the time, Levy’s real Jewish rye. The ads featured the smiling faces of persons of indisputably non-Jewish ethnicity (a burly middle-aged Irish policeman was one such happy face), each of whom had just bitten into a delicious-looking sandwich made on rye bread, with the tag line “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.”

In a similar vein, I would like to propose that you don’t have to be Buddhist to be in favor of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  And I’m hoping that some of the Democratic candidates are in favor of them as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever meditated or sat through a dharma talk.

Generosity.  Compassion.  Wisdom.  These are what I’ll be listening for during the debates this week, and again during the next round of debates in July.

In my next post, shortly after the July debates, I’ll report on whether or not I heard them.