Filed in Politics

Above the Fray

A Huffington Post blogger wonders if he can practice right speech and cultivate equanimity without losing his edge as a political advocate.

RJ Eskow

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© Jaume PlensaIn September 2006, I appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox Radio show with Christian right leader Gary Bauer, to argue against anti-Islamic bigotry. Phoning in to the studio from my home, I began by saying that extremists exist among all people and that anti-Islamic fervor was being used by the right for political purposes. They asked me about a recent threat on the Pope’s life, where he had been told to convert to Islam or be murdered.

“We all abhor violence and terrorism in the name of religion,” I began, “whether it’s Muslims exhorting the Pope to convert to Islam, or Ann Coulter saying that we should kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. That’s hateful speech, and all decent people oppose—”

In classic Fox style, Hannity cut me off. “Kind of like Howard Dean saying all Republicans are dark, evil . . . ”

“I’m sorry,” I answered, “you probably didn’t realize I wasn’t done yet.”

“I did realize you weren’t done,” he snapped. “I just wanted to know if you’re just a liberal hack who just likes to go after Republicans.”

I tried to remember the Buddha’s words: Let us remain free from hatred in the midst of people who hate. But my blood was boiling.

“See, this is what you guys do. You don’t let people finish—”

“I’ll let you finish when I want to let you finish.”

Do not say anything harsh, or what you have said will be said back to you. “Stop,” I said. “Let’s do something a little different. Let’s see if we can’t all agree.” Pause. “Maybe we can all agree that there is a very hateful, dangerous movement within Islam that needs to be stopped. Can we agree on that?”

Longer pause.

“The most effective way to do that . . . is to support moderate Muslims like the five hundred imams in Britain who signed a fatwa condemning terrorism—” “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop right there.” Hannity, an experienced radio performer, cut in to let his equally polished guest make an unrelated point. Soon Bauer was concluding: “People like your other guests are more interested in scoring cheap shots against the President than they are in facing the evil that confronts all of us.” I was given no chance to respond before the show suddenly ended. The audience of millions was gone in an instant. Standing in my kitchen, I became aware of a humming sound that seemed to come from a long way off. It was the dial tone from the phone in my hand.

I was left feeling angry and frustrated. It was two against one. I had been interrupted, silenced. Friends questioned why I appeared on Fox Radio in the first place, but I had thought I could say something meaningful. Vanity played a part, too. A lot of people listen to Sean Hannity.

When I told the story to Dharmavidya he said, “A crucial point is to try not to lose your cool.” How? “Take a time-out. And also recognize that this is the sort of creature we are. Picture the Buddha watching and smiling to himself, saying, 'This is how these humans behave.'

“I think Western Buddhists need to recognize that we are imperfect beings,” he said. “In an awful lot of Buddhist groups everybody is pretending to be two millimeters off enlightened, but we’re not. Even Thich Nhat Hanh talks in one of his books about how somebody stood up and called him a coward when he was giving one of his talks in the U.S. during the Vietnam War. He said he was livid and had to leave the hall.”

“Hey, big fella!” the email read. “You need to do some more basic research! Ah, no, you don’t. Just break more wind and put it up as information.”

The New York Times reporter was enraged. I had slammed his latest article. His email said I had overlooked some basic points in his story, but I hadn’t. It was obvious that he had never read past my first paragraph.

The email was a major blunder for him, and potentially a major win for me. I was ethically free to print it, since he hadn’t asked that it be kept off the record. It would make him—and his newspaper—look both rude and careless with the facts. It would bring a lot of readers, too. But I hesitated. There was an ongoing debate about carelessness and bias in the Times’s foreign policy reporting. This could have an impact. Still . . .

I didn’t publish it. The next day I responded, telling him what he had overlooked and explaining why his article appeared to have a pro-government tilt. Here’s what came back: “Thank you for replying, and for the thoughtful content of your remarks. . . . You’re right, it would have been good if [I had addressed your points] . . . and I concede that I lapsed into vulgarity—but not until I read one of your [commenters’] remarks about my 'castrated journalism.' . . . I look forward to your further comments, and feel free to write.”

In return, I apologized for the tone of my piece. It felt good, but had I done the right thing? Was an influential reporter now going to be more open-minded? Was I growing spiritually? Or was I just losing my edge?

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. “The Buddha was attracted to irony,” he said. “He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, 'There must be a lot of holy fish.' And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering—on its followers.”

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn’t necessarily un-Buddhist? “Not necessarily,” said Dharmavidya. “The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker’s intent is.”

“First, do no harm.” The physician’s precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: “No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words.” No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

And equanimity? In the end, it seemed to be like dignity: only you can provide it for yourself, and only you can take it away. Yes, anger still appears sometimes. I’m told to accept it and move on. When I feel I’ve met my original goal—to be of service—it’s been deeply satisfying. But the attention itself can be addictive. It seduces. It has brought moments of excitement and ego gratification, but the pleasure has been ephemeral and unsatisfying. Each such moment was like a brief human life, born of craving and vanishing like lightning. The yearning for attention ultimately proved hollow, like all addictions.

Still, the War For the Imagination is everyone’s war, a struggle on behalf of all life. Di Prima, herself a Buddhist, says that “you can’t be a conscientious objector” in this war. “No one can fight it but you,” she writes, “and no one can fight it for you.”

A high government official gave misleading testimony today. There may be more needless suffering unless somebody corrects the record. If not us, then who?

And so, in an unquiet world, the battle rages on.

RJ Eskow is a freelance writer, business consultant, policy analyst, and musician. He maintains several blogs and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and other websites. His November 16th post is here.

Image 1: S/T XII © Jaume Plensa, Image Courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery

Image 2: Self-Portrait as H.B. II © Jaume Plensa, Image Courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery


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