Thursday, December 9, 2010

Drawing the Line

Roger raised a provocative and troubling question yesterday in the context of my reluctance to condemn Obama's actions and decisions on the tax bill: "Do you have," he asked, "a line he mustn't cross?" Having given this challenging question a great deal of thought since I read it, I have come to the realization that I actually don't--which, as I say, is troubling for one who considers himself a man of principle.

Here's what I've been thinking: when it comes to the decisions that I myself make, and the actions I take, I do have a line I believe I should not cross. That line is one I have learned from the Buddhist teachings. It's about not doing harm--to myself or others. I can do harm in many ways, from taking life to theft, to idle gossip and, in principle, telling lies--though there are situations in which the conscious lie can be less harmful than truth. (I struggle with the idea that the same could be said for killing, or declaring war. I consider myself fortunate not to be in that position of power, to not have that responsibility.)

But it's more problematic when it comes to drawing lines for others not to cross, presidents included. By all means, I can hope and wish most earnestly that other people share the line I personally will strive to respect. But I am not empowered to make their decisions or take their actions for them. I am not in a position to do more than make an educated guess at the complex factors that motivate and guide them. When I start drawing lines for others, I risk crossing another, into the territory of judgmental self-righteousness. I am inclined to go along with the suggestion of the title in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's recent essay in Tricycle magazine: "The Power of Judgment: Judgmental Is Bad, Judicious Is Good." There is a difference between the two, in that "judgmental" reaches out with blame, while "judicious" evokes an essential inner ability to discriminate.

To get to politics, then: I ask myself what purpose my line serves, once I have drawn it? Roger brings up the matter of "ratifying torture and illegal wars," raising truly agonizing questions about what I will condone. I do not, obviously, condone either of them--not even by my silence: I wrestle with my conscience, I question, I speak out. Nor do I agree with many of the other decisions Obama has made since taking office. I personally would rather he had taken different paths on a number of issues, and made more gratifyingly principled stands. But I am not faced with the burden of his responsibilities. I am not in a position to have to weigh the awful potential consequences of his actions, as he must do: will they result in greater or less harm to the people he has sworn to serve? Should he--as Tara suggests in a later response to the same piece, in a comment with which my gut heartily agrees--"turn up the volume and be confrontational"? Would that action serve his purposes, and ours; or would it merely satisfy my need to vindicate my principles and end up doing more harm than good to an economy already stressed to breaking point?

Let's recall that, a few days ago, the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly, 36-53 and 37-53, against Democratic attempts to restore taxes for those earning over $250,000 and $1 million, respectively. Let's not forget that Congress ducked their responsibility on this issue at a moment that would have been more propitious, before the November elections. With such meager, even mendacious support from his own people, would Obama's principled veto serve the great majority of those he serves, or harm them? I don't pretend to know the answer, but I believe it to be a problem that defies simple answers. I would personally love him to step in with a righteous veto pen and allow all the tax cuts to expire. But it's easy enough for me to wield my principles. I don't have anyone but myself to answer to.

I do believe that I share both the values and the conscience from which Roger speaks. I believe that I have not only the right but also the obligation to speak my truth out loud. But if I am to make a purely practical choice between support for Obama's moderation and the excesses of his opposition, my choice is clear. So I'm with Gail Collins, the only New York Times columnist I can bear to read these days. (I actually agree with most of them, but it's painful reading!) As she says in her column today, "I've got to admit it: I've fallen off the line-in-the-sand bandwagon."

Thanks for listening. I welcome your thoughts...

9 comments:

roger said...

how can we know that a principled presidential stand would not hold? he's never done it.

i do not for a millisecond doubt your own values or principles peter. i do think that an unwillingness to hold the president (judiciously) to his own stated principles is harmful to us all. there was also something in his presidential campaign about transparency. perhaps he could let us all in on some of the details of the terrible burden of decision.

robin andrea said...

I was reminded of this, while reading the number of votes cast in the Senate. In a different time, those 53 votes would have really meant something. I guess I am tired of the tyranny of the minority.

I do think it is good to have this discussion. We all want something more principled from those who profess to govern on our behalf.

PeterAtLarge said...

Yes, I also think it's good to have the discussion. I appreciate the responses. I'm thinking of doing an entry on anarchy...

mandt said...

"though there are situations in which the conscious lie can be less harmful than truth." You nailed the essence of it Peter. This comment seems to me to be classic Hegelian absolutism or a misreading of Buddhist stillness to avoid actionable opposition to injustice. I stand with those monks in Burma who kick ass.

PeterAtLarge said...

Roger, on second reading, I do believe he made that effort yesterday. That's why I said I had gotten what I was asking for--some sense of the difficulty of coming to such a decision, and the reasoning behind it. I still have my own doubts, but I understand more about where he's coming from. I hope he will continue to communicate to us in this way. Even if we disagree, we'll know our preferences have not simply been dismissed.

MandT, we do seem to come from a different view of Buddhist teachings. There are seriously wise and knowledgeable thinkers, including Thanissaro Bhikkhu--whose teachings, as you know, I very much respect--who expressed grave reservations about the Buddhist revolt in Burma, where many innocent lives were lost in consequence of the monks' actions. Like you, a part of me was thrilled at the idea of kicking some despotic ass. But the actions of those monks came at a greatly harmful cost. They also produced little or nothing in the way of results. They were, in a word, unskillful. Would I feel differently if the despots had been ousted? Maybe. In any event, the gratification of kicking ass is not, in my opinion, a good reason to support it.

CHI SPHERE said...

Another read is:

Change of Subject by Eric Zorn re " The eroded line in the sand"

Chicago Tribune, December 9, 2010

Maybe line in the mud!

CHI SPHERE said...

Or this:


www.house.gov/sites/members/.../Investigaions-Border-Report.pdf


In a neighborhood near you?

mandt said...

Peter, you are being too literal about, assigning 'kick-ass.' to less than a grave concern for human life or rights. Here would be a good time to inject the principles held within the Jataka Tales and the re-occurring theme of enlightened sacrifice. I couldn't disagree more with: "They also produced little or nothing in the way of results." Exposure to the world about the conditions in Burma was made manifest and further, pro-Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was given the world stage again. As I've said many times before, Buddhist stillness is not the same as passive aggression. Every individual can be active in little ways of compassion, others on a grander scale of action. Philosophizing about what is skillful is not the same as participating in liberation movements. Hundreds, if not thousands of monks participated in that movement and it is not for us to defame their motivations as less skillful. My brief time among the peoples of Burma gave me an impression of resilience and practice completely at one with life itself.

TaraDharma said...

Seems to be that many many people in history have come to harm after taking a principled stand on an issue. Does that make me wish they had not acted? No, their actions advanced human kind. Do I regret the violence against people? Of course. Do I understand that often this is the result of radical change of the status-quo? You bet.

I see violent reaction the world-over to policies that degrade and diminish the lives of what I'll call the "common man." Obama's support of the GOP's tax policies in endangering this country at its core and furthering an agenda that may well lead to our demise. I expect, from everything he told us while campaigning, for him to take a principled stand, and stand up to these power-hungry GOP bullies. I hear him when he says he doesn't want to hurt middle class families and the unemployed, but I believe there is a bigger harm being done here to the country at large.