April 22, 2014

Let Them Eat Empathy

The Dalai Lama becomes an unwitting spokesman for free market capitalismMax Zahn

I’m no marketing executive, but I’ve watched enough TV to understand the basic syllogism underlying all endorsements: celebrity X is well-liked; celebrity X will appear with a product; therefore the product will be well-liked. Variations arise, of course, depending on what the advertisers are trying to sell. They get Megan Fox to endorse jeans because she’s sexy. They get George Clooney to endorse tequila because he’s classy. And, as it turns out, they get His Holiness the Dalai Lama to endorse market capitalism because he’s virtuous.

Before calling foul at the false equivalence of that final example, take a look at last week’s Times Op-Ed “Capitalism and the Dalai Lama” from Arthur Brooks, the president of a free market think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Brooks struck up a friendship with the Dalai Lama in April of 2013, and recently welcomed the renowned monk for a series of panels at AEI. (I wrote about these panels in February.) Brooks’s column proudly and extensively recounts the visit, invoking the Dalai Lama’s moral authority for the advancement of a neoconservative mission.

The article is hardly a departure for Brooks. In fact, it’s his job. As the President of AEI, he is responsible for forwarding the organization’s stated goals of “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.” In other words, he’s a salesman for the very act of sale. If America is an engine of industry, then Brooks is in charge of taking it on a perpetual roadshow—polishing the frame, unclogging the cylinders, and never forgetting to mention the horsepower.

The odd man out in this case is the Dalai Lama. The seeming incongruity of the friendship between him and Brooks—an avuncular Marxist in maroon robes and the beltway’s top market evangelist—may be the precise source of its appeal for His Holiness, since events like the panel offer a perfect opportunity for him to model a “nondual” approach to policy discussion. Leveraging his unique public persona, he can remind us that—no matter our political valence—we are all just people seeking joy. Weirdly enough his approach worked, at least for the day. The Dalai Lama’s unconditional acceptance intoxicated the panelists, eliciting profuse appreciation and drunken hopes that Washington might “finally break out of the rut [it has] been in for so many years.”

The degree of collective delusion was shocking. It was as though a bunch of gladiators had met at the coliseum for a seminar on conflict resolution—and they convinced themselves that, going forward, the stadium owner and customers would be just as happy paying to see a pleasant conversation. The panel—which also included seasoned vets like Mitt Romney’s head economic advisor Glenn Hubbard and mega-rich hedgefund superstar Daniel Loeb—decided to simply ignore the structural factors that dictate the terms of Washington debate: those cumbersome realities like the need of elected officials to raise millions of dollars from special interest groups and wealthy individuals, some of whom were surely in attendance. Instead, in the company of the supremely compassionate Dalai Lama, these experienced politicos convinced themselves that the challenge was a matter of confronting personal shortcomings. They just needed to alter their colleagues’ patterns of thought. This is willful naiveté masquerading as virtue.

In his Op-Ed, Arthur Brooks picks up exactly where the panel’s self-congratulation left off. He opens with a rhetorical question that frames the article: “What can Washington, DC learn from a Buddhist monk?” Again, this premise starkly contrasts the virtue of His Holiness—and, by extension, Brooks—with the negligence of an entire system of federal government. Simplifying this systemic failure as no more than the sum of its maladjusted individuals, Brooks implies that if Washington politicians were to learn compassion from the Dalai Lama, then they could actually get something done.

 What immediately follows is an anecdote from Brooks’s visit to Dharamsala, during which he felt “hunger pangs” while in the midst of meditation:

It seemed to me that such earthly concerns had no place in the superconscious atmosphere of the monastery. Incorrect. Not a minute later, a basket of freshly baked bread made its way down the silent line, followed by a jar of peanut butter with a single knife. We ate breakfast in silence, and resumed our meditation. This, I soon learned, is the Dalai Lama in a nutshell: transcendence and pragmatism together. Higher consciousness and utter practicality rolled into one. 

While tremendously committed to his spiritual regimen, the Dalai Lama’s concern for physical sustenance—according to Brooks—exemplifies his “pragmatism.” Shortly thereafter, Brooks refers to this pragmatic approach when explaining the Dalai Lama’s visit to AEI, which should apparently come as no surprise because His Holiness’s “teaching defies freighted ideological labels.” Therein lies the crux of Brooks’s caricature: a straight line drawn from the Dalai Lama’s aversion to asceticism to his non-attachment to view and finally to his willingness to listen to political opponents; all of which fall under the umbrella of “pragmatism.” It’s the exact kind of pragmatism that DC lacks. With elected officials and their benefactors bent on scoring political points, there is no opportunity for the characteristically Buddhist, selfless compromise that Brooks purports to crave.

 “In other words, Washington needs to be more like the Dalai Lama,” says Brooks. And, in a final flourish of sanctimony:

Without abandoning principles, we need practical policies based on moral empathy. Tackling these issues may offend entrenched interests, but this is immaterial. It must be done. And temporary political discomfort pales in comparison with the suffering that vulnerable people bear every day.

Notice how Brooks underplays the possibility that “tackling these issues might offend entrenched interests,” and describes the likely consequence as little more than “temporary political discomfort” (italics added). Money is the lifeblood of a politician. One cannot mount a viable campaign without it. After years of leadership at a major Washington think tank, Brooks must know this dynamic firsthand. Yet instead of criticizing the influence of wealth on congressional paralysis, he downplays it. In the course of blaming Washington operatives for their cowardice, Brooks himself is unwilling to extend the critique far enough.

It is at this point in the argument that the function of Brooks’s naiveté reveals itself. By reducing Washington politics to a series of petty conflicts between stubborn individuals, Brooks avoids outlining the contours of his own ideology. He disguises free market capitalism as a natural way of being—as the proverbial invisible hand devoid of first principles, which stands in contrast with the fraught ideological morass of Washington. In so doing, he does not have to address the concentration of wealth and influence, which inevitably rise up from an unregulated market to clog national politics. Finding himself in a less-than-robust post-recession era of capitalism that features historic levels of inequality and the steady degradation of the planet, Brooks does what many of his market-beholden counterparts on Wall Street have done: he plays dumb.

This sleight of hand should come as no surprise from an adept salesman like Brooks. The shocking kicker, though, is that Brooks appropriates the Dalai Lama and Buddhism as New Age window dressing. It’s a libertarian politics perfectly crafted for our happiness-obsessed cultural moment. Paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, Brooks celebrates his assertion that “the secret to human flourishing is the development of every individual.” To buttress the point, he quotes a statement from His Holiness at AEI’s panel, during which the monk wondered, “Where does a happy world start? From government? No. From United Nations? No. From individual.” It takes only a short inferential leap to link Buddhism and free market capitalism at the nexus of personal responsibility. Dragging Buddhism across that divide, Brooks presents a Western flavor of the religion that deemphasizes sangha and hallows self-improvement.

This 21st-century conservatism transforms self-reliance from a material question to a metaphysical one. That approach aligns seamlessly with a slim-fitting Buddhism. The ensuing marriage allows Brooks to elude any questions of power and wealth disparity. After all, each bloke can be just as happy as the next. It doesn’t matter if he’s the director of a Washington think tank or the lunch lady at the school cafeteria down the street. Make no mistake, this is the ruling elite denying redistribution on spiritualized terms. It’s paternalism with a wide, loving smile—an easy grin that, when seen from afar, looks a lot like the one we’ve come to expect from the Dalai Lama.

Max Zahn, Editorial Assistant

Further reading: The (Justifiably) Angry Marxist: An interview with the Dalai Lama | Occupy Buddhism: Or Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist | Talk Isn't Cheap: The Dalai Lama Visits AEI—NeoCons’ high church | The Need of the Hour

Image 1: Flickr/Kris Krüg
Image 2: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Image 3: Flickr/Kris Krüg


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drleroi's picture

Hopefully, I person actually realized that more money would not make him any happier. Despite the cultural and structural limitations of capitalism, it is anchored in the consumer mentality that more stuff will make us happier. As long as we buy into the belief that what we need to be happy is more stuff, we are at the mercy of those selling it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"what we need to be happy is more stuff" indicates the second lowest life-condition: hunger (just above hell). When practiced mindfully, Buddhism brings forth the highest conditions of bodhisattva and buddhahood. "More stuff" is then clearly seen for what it is: just more stuff that does not provide true and lasting happiness.

budman's picture

WillRowe. Thank you for eloquently saying what I have been think for some time. And I don’t beehive he is apologizing for capitalism, he’s simply stating that it’s still better then, say a Socialist system. No one in there right mind could deny that the system has many problems. But many times Tricycle seems to view there left sided (for lack of a better word) views as a way of going after the right. To think either have the right answers is of course is foolish. There are many in this country that need help and should receive it. There is a continuous abuse by business and indivualds who abuse the system whether it be making laws to favor their business interests or people getting government money who don’t need it or deserve it. This I believe is a moral issue and hopefully through views like Buddhism over time people will do what’s right from their own moral perspective. But when people talk about things like wealth distribution it’s a very slippery slope. And quite frankly a little scary. Just for the record I’m not one of the wealthy ones.
And I do agree that “To Big to Fail “ is too big.
But overall I think it is a good thing that the Dali Lama is getting involved in circles that he may never have been involved in before. It can only help to spread the long term appeal of the Dharma.

Richard Fidler's picture

Any economic system that is predicated on limitless growth is unsustainable. Capitalism monetizes whatever it can, ignoring those things that cannot be easily monetized: childcare, care of the elderly and sick, happiness itself. It falls back on the profit motive as the primary motivation for action. It privatizes profits and socializes the costs: BP makes the money and the government supports those thrown out of work because of a fouled environment. Capitalism fosters inequality as it makes democracy unworkable through the purchase of candidates and the electoral process. I cannot see an economic system less adapted to the dharma than the economic system currently operating in the United States.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Wondering how Brooks and the AEI can creatively use Pope Francis for their next series of panels.

Will.Rowe's picture

That wealthy people exist in capitalism consistently torments some people. While the majority of the people bettering themselves through this same system does not even matter to these bothered souls. Nor is the great generosity by the wealthy and the middle class taken into account.
The premise seems to be the very idea of owning capital is immoral. Even assuming this is demonstrable, which would be a most difficult task indeed, what system exactly would be used instead? Communism? That system has already led to 100 million dead and many millions literally enslaved. Moreover, there are always some better off than others in any system, so why keep that privilege only allowed for the communist party members?
There seems at times to be the underlying idea that one must be communist/socialist to be Buddhist. Consider this for a moment before dismissing it. Do you really believe this?
European socialism? That merely replaces the individual generosity with the state generosity to some that it has taken from others. Moreover, since when does a stronger central government end up being so much better for all?
There is definitely an anti-capitalist bias at Tricycle that appears from time to time, sometimes subtle and sometimes overt. I think perhaps the Dalai Lama should not be used for political purposes by either side. I also think that the idea that capitalism is bad because some people become wealthy should not torment us; rather, acknowledge the value of each doing for himself and others.

James Shaheen's picture

Here's an interesting piece that may add to the conversation. Piketty is no Marxist yet his critique is likely to inflame the right. The left, on the other hand, may call for stronger medicine.

lshaw's picture

Has "capitalist" become the new "N" word?

childish's picture

You can count me squarely in the "overt" camp. People do not miraculously "become wealthy." Nor is the accumulation of wealth solely due to individuals' effort and cunning: the bootstrap model. This denies the system of privilege we undeniably inherit and inescapably participate in. You seem interested in apologizing for or simply denying the existence of the exploitation built into capitalism. I'm no fan of communism as practiced in Soviet Russia, China etc.; I only wish that we all could more deeply see the truth of our interbeing and allow that truth to inform the ways that we seek to provide for ourselves.

suki's picture

Sure, there are some "generous" folks with a lot of money that give to charitable causes, but the system itself is corrupt because it has been long divorced from true democracy.

Many worship the philanthropic efforts of Bill Gates, for example. He tries, I think, to do some good in his mind. But a CEO is an incredibly useless and archaic job that can easily be democratized. They give themselves huge sums of money despite poor performance and run off with their money, abandoning the ship they helped to sink.

Do you really want free capitalism? Without limits? You already got it, and now we have corporations "too big to fail". If something is too big to fail, then it is also too big to exist. It becomes incredibly obvious that we need more intervention in order to curtail the astronomical advantages the wealthy have versus everyone else in society. If you don't like democracy or human flourishing, then we can remain with the status quo.

Last but not least, what about wealth itself? It's a death sentence in many ways, squandering the human spirit. We are consumers first and foremost. Masses of people are forced to do uninteresting work for very little compensation so people can have worthless, fetishized gadgets like a new version of the iphone and dispose of the older model. As a result of all this new technology, people are more isolated than ever, pretending to fiddle with their smartphones so as not to make eye contact with anyone else. It's simply not worth it. If you aren't critical of capitalism, you simply don't know what's going on. Please re-read the article, especially the parts about using willful naivete to ignore the more pressing matters. Let bygones be bygones, these capitalists who violate all market principles are doing good for themselves and others, right? No need for any criticism here.

michaelstumpf's picture

Really no one can say anything in terms of capitalism and some of it's limitations and the lack of social responsibility of big companies as much as big government,I would like you take a perspective of capitalism limitation for a moment ,personally what is capitalism seems to be doing hijacking Democracy,how can these two co-host,and not be label socialist?What I see is not a fair opportunity for all to make Money and give it away as they see fit.It's just a game right?