Archive for March, 2009

A compassionate society

March 29, 2009

     Karen Armstrong, a leading popular historian of religion, was recently on the Bill Moyers program touting her “Charter for Compassion.”  She argues that it all comes down to the Golden Rule, and the need for compassion – subordinating one’s own ego to see oneself in the place of another, to feel what the other feels. She says we are not a compassionate society.

     I disagree on both counts. In an ideal world of ideal beings, compassion might be the standard to expect. But in the real world, it is asking too much, and is more than needs to be asked. We don’t have to feel compassion for each other. It’s enough to recognize each other’s right not to be interfered with.

     We actually do have some compassion built into human nature by Darwinian evolution, because during our long early history, in very tough environments, a tribe whose members helped each other out would have survived better than an “every man for himself” tribe. But that same Darwinian competition also made us to regard strangers as potential enemies. So we are naturally compassionate toward those we consider “tribe-mates,” but not others.

     However, we do not really need some kind of “Kumbaya” emotive bonding among strangers which, again, is not realistic to expect. We need merely an understanding that if you want to be free from interference yourself, then you’re obliged to acknowledge the same right in others. This we can reasonably expect of people. And that would be enough to make the world considerably better than it is now. An awful lot of our problems are rooted in a failure to recognize the rights of others to non-interference. (There’s a lot of contentious politics in that.)

     So first things first. Let’s first achieve the non-interference principle. Then maybe someday we can progress from there to a higher stage of universal compassion. You must crawl before you can walk.

     But, perhaps paradoxically, I also disagree with Armstrong that our society is fundamentally non-compassionate. We have, again, evolved to be compassionate in some respects, and people do subscribe to an ethos of compassion as an abstract ideal. We believe we should act better collectively than we do as individuals. Thus the very word “compassion” already has huge force in public debate, and we tend to support public policies that embody compassion (or that we think do so). That’s why we have had a social safety net. You can’t tell me we don’t live in a compassionate society when people vote to tax themselves to improve the situation of strangers less fortunate. But note that here again, it is not necessary to actually feel compassion for them, in Armstrong’s empathic terms, to support such policies. It’s enough to understand the moral and pragmatic bases for such policies. What counts is not what we feel, but what we do.

Eckhart Tolle: The Future Is Now

March 17, 2009

  The New Age “spiritual” guru du jour, Eckhart Tolle (, was on PBS the other night. I listened out of curiosity.

     Tolle’s key concept is “the power of now,” or living in the “now.” He mocks people (most of us) fixated on the future, which is profoundly misguided, he says, because the future does not actually even exist. He sees most people as focused on wanting things in the future, and regarding the present only as a stepping stone to that future. This he labels literally “insane.” He describes us as always looking toward the next thing rather than the present, and when the next thing comes, we want the next thing after that, making life a journey with the destination continually receding into the distance, and we never stop to live it. Tolle’s alternative, which he deems more valid and fulfilling, is living instead in the “now.” We are always in the “now;” the “now” is wherever we actually are, and that’s what we must be attentive to.

     This is a seductive idea, but fundamentally nonsense. This is not how the brain works; not how life works.

     We do not experience discrete “now” moments. We experience instead a seamless progression through time. Life is like a film. Each frame corresponds to Tolle’s “now.” But we can’t stop the film! We cannot perceive a single frame, but only the motion which together the frames create. And we cannot really be attentive to the “now” either – because as soon as we attend to a particular “now,” it is already past, and we are already in the future – which Tolle says does not exist.

     But it surely does. It’s possible you will drop dead in the next moment; but otherwise, you will be in the future, and very soon. Not only does it exist, not only is it real, it is inescapable. Accordingly, it is absurd to suggest that our concern with the future is misplaced (or even insane).

     It is actually the present – Tolle’s “now” – that is essentially nonexistent. The past took up a very long span of time. The future will too. But the present occupies no span of time at all; it is merely the point of intersection between past and future. Like the point of intersection between two lines, there’s no “there” there.

     The general idea of attending to the present moment is admittedly not completely meritless. When eating a piece of chocolate, you should mindfully attend to the sensation, the flavor, the pleasure. But you cannot stop the film; it is experienced not as one frame, one moment, but as you move through time; it is experiencing the future as it becomes past.

     In fact, we can live our lives only by attending to the future, and acting in ways that reflect our desires for how we want that future to be. It is only the future that our actions can affect. We obviously can’t affect the past, nor even the present, because it’s gone like quicksilver as soon as we perceive it.

     So, if you want to eat dinner in the future – a few minutes from now – you had better stop attending to that “now,” where there is no dinner, and start cooking. That is what living is. What we experience in the “now” is experienced only because of what we did previous thereto, when it was still in the future. We have desires for how we want our future to be, whether the next decade or the next minute, and those desires shape all our actions. That is living rationally.

     Indeed, therein lies the meaning and purpose of life. Those spiritual sages who tell us to get rid of our wants and desires speak nonsense. It is only because we have wants and desires that anything matters to us. Our emotions, our feelings, our motivations, are all ultimately anchored in our wants and desires. Remove that and we’d be immobilized; life would be empty, pointless. Why even care whether you are alive or not if you have no wants or desires? And when Tolle tells us to attend to the “now,” the only possible reason would be that the “now” embodies some experience that we want or desire – like the experience of that piece of chocolate — one which, a moment ago, as we reached for the chocolate, was a want or desire concerning the future – the very thing Tolle disparages!

Int’l Rescue Committee’s Darfur Petition

March 9, 2009

The so-called government of Sudan — actually, a gang of murderous thugs using religion as a cover for their dirty doings — has now banned international aid organizations from operating in the Darfur region. One of those excellent organizations, the International Rescue Committee, has organized a petition to the UN Secretary-General concerning this further despicable action by these sons of bitches. I don’t know how much good it does, but the IRC deems it urgent, because a lot of lives hang by a thread in Darfur. So please go their website and sign the petition:

Trillions and trillions

March 6, 2009

     The Democrats won the last election. But it’s the essence of our system that while the majority rules, it doesn’t rule absolutely.

     Republicans are getting blamed for perpetuating partisan divisiveness, balking at President Obama’s initiatives. He says they proposed doing nothing about our economic crisis. Actually, Republicans wanted to support a stimulus bill (and made stimulus proposals); but congressional Democrats, rather than particularly targeting the economic crisis, mainly used it as a pretext to fulfill their longtime wish-lists. And even if this legislation does help the economy in the short term, it unfortunately sets the stage for deeper problems down the road.

     Now comes Obama’s proposed budget. It is gigantic not only in size, but as a political watershed, expanding the role of government in a fundamental way. Yet we seem so traumatized by recent economic turmoil that we resemble the proverbial deer in the headlights. We are not giving this the intensity of attention and debate it demands. We’re having a revolution, and shrugging our collective shoulders.

     Government spending is being ratcheted up in ways that will be impossible to reverse when the immediate crisis ends. Every time government doles out money it creates interest groups that will fight like tigers to avoid losing their free lunches. Congress, cowed by political pressure and bought off with campaign cash, can’t say no.

     The $3.6 trillion budget envisions a $1.7 trillion deficit. That is, Obama proposes spending almost double the government’s income. He says the deficit can be halved by the end of his term. But that’s based on rosy projections of economic recovery that almost no experts consider realistic, and on assumed future spending cuts that defy political reality too. And even if the annual deficit is halved, that would still be almost a trillion dollars, far outside past norms; and it can only grow again as baby boomers age.

     Such deficits might be financed by borrowing. But that crowds out private borrowers and drives up interest rates, both choking off the economic growth we need; and paying interest on the borrowings makes deficits even bigger. Or taxes could be raised—which also stifles economic activity. Or else the government can print money—generating inflation and devaluing the dollar. Any of these effects would be blockbusters, because of the sheer size of the sums needed.

     We, as a nation, need to pause and discuss this.