with The Huffington Post's Richard Eskow
The editors and I had already agreed to hold an online conversation about "civil discourse" with the Tricycle Community. Then, in a tragic coincidence, the shootings in Tucson brought the subject into painfully sharp focus. The topic has been the theme of my own engagement with Tricycle from the beginning. My first piece, "Above the Fray." dealt with my own conflicted feelings as a political writer and activist who found "right speech" and political engagement impossible to reconcile.
The world has changed so much in such a short time. My concerns about genteel language sound almost naive today. Right-wing activists carry guns into Presidential speeches. Politicians speak openly about using violence ("Second Amendment remedies") to change political realities they don't like, or fire pistol shots into a target bearing the face of their political opponent - without public condemnation. The wave of hate we were fighting in 2005 has become a tsunami. In recent years gunmen have targeted everyone from liberal religionists to abortion doctors - and now members of Congress.
"Above the Fray" described my own struggle not to escalate into vehement rhetoric - in on-air confrontations with Sean Hannity and other conservatives or during internal struggles with my own anger and frustration. I explored the topic further in a piece about Buddhism and political engagement called "Election Returns: The Karma of Politics, the Politics of Karma." That gave me the chance to speak with a wide variety of teachers (including Sulak Sivaraksa, Bernie Glassman, Jack Kornfield, Anne Waldman, and Wes Nisker) about my own sense of conflict between political engagement and the "angels of my better nature."
Each of them told me, in one way or another, that the answer lay in motivation. W. S. Merwin wrote:
with the night falling we are saying thank you
Was I saying "thank you" with my speech and deeds? If not, there are surely times for silence. Silence was my first response to the shooting in Arizona. Merwin's poem is called Listen:
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
I interviewed those Buddhist leaders while Barack Obama was emerging as our likely President, and they were glowing with the possibilities of reconciliation he represented. But reconciliation works best as it was practiced in South Africa, where forgiveness was preceded by admissions of guilt and an understanding of harms committed by the wrongdoers. Has our President taken consensus-building too far? Is there a time when the desire to accommodate all parties leads us astray? "A true leader is a molder of consensus," said Martin Luther King, Jr., "not a builder of consensus."
The President declared that the shootings in Tucson were beyond our ability to understand, and that nobody should seek to profit politically from them. But reality suggests otherwise. The rageful rhetoric, the calls to violence, all come from one side of the political spectrum. The victims have come from the other. Neutrality in a time of injustice can itself be injustice. Isn't there a time to name names, a time when keeping the peace is less important than speaking the truth? Can't our Westernized, gentled-down version of "right speech" sometimes be the wrong answer?
Is the President's tendency to make peace a strength or a flaw in times like these? If we are grateful for this precious gift of human existence, when does that gratitude express itself in strong language toward those who would rob others of it? We should engage with those who spread the disease of hate. But we run the risk of spiritual infection each time we do. Can it be avoided? Is it worth the risk? For once we have more questions than answers. It's your turn.
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is