Life

The Value of Mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about writing something on this topic ever since I left a relevant internet comment at I site I like. But it was David Brooks column on “The Limits of Empathy” that finally spurred me to do it. It spurred me by being so exactly half of the point, while completely missing the second half. The half Brooks gets essentially right, is this:

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

Precisely. It’s an undeniable truth that people think about doing the right thing far more than they do it. If I did the right thing even half the times that I’ve thought about it but not done so, a non-trivial number of people would hold me up as some kind of personal moral hero. It is so easy to see what the right action would be and so hard to actually carry it out.

But Brooks’s answer to this problem, “sacred codes”, is deeply flawed. I’ve never seen any set of codes that was resilient and multifaceted enough to be much use at all among all the messy problems and circumstances that so often serve as our excuse for inaction.

More so, codes have this very real problem of being unbending. You fail to follow the code a few hundred times and you’re likely to reasonably stop even aspiring to it. Codes like the Ten Commandments have been failing for thousands of years precisely because they’re so deeply codified and unadaptable. If every Jew and Christian in America took seriously the commandment that “thou shall not covet they neighbors goods”, America would be a drastically different place. But instead most of them aren’t even aware that it’s on the list.

This is fundamentally the reason that mindfulness practice, being here now, is so important. As I said in that aforementioned internet comment:

The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our minuscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone thinks they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.

Empathy is something most people do intellectually. They have the thought: it must have sucked to be a Cherokee. They did everything the white Americans asked of them, many of them became better citizens and Christians than the average white Georgian who was their neighbor. But because they wanted a national identity and were the wrong color, they were pushed hard, behind Andrew Jackson’s saber, off into Oklahoma. We can easily understand this without internalizing it. Knowing these facts, and grasping that it must have been terrible only gets you half the way to responding adequately in such a situation.

You must, if you truly want to act in an empathetic way, internalize the struggle of the Cherokee story. You must, yourself, feel what that must have been like. To have your treaties torn to shreds and your people treated like mere obstacles to other men’s goals. And then you must keep that story with you well enough that you never forget what it feels like to be on that side of a confrontation. So that you can act with the understanding of what it was like to be a Cherokee when you turn your mind to the question of, to take an example, Palestine.

This is not an easy thing. And it’s harder still when you’re actually confronted with an angry Israeli complaining about the explosives that get hurled over the wall and disturb her family’s peace. But no set of rules will make it any easier to do the right thing. Especially when you’re constantly distracted by the thought of dinner, that beautiful girl you saw the other day, how much your finances have suffered for this trip, and your childrens’ questionable life-choices.

What’s needed is for you to sit there with the woman’s anger, the parallels between the Palestinian story and that Cherokee one you feel so well, and your understanding that at base all people want the same things and to frankly and empathetically bring her into full contact with the entire reality of the situation. Only be being completely present with all those realities can you lead others to that place of full comprehension and carry out a wise response.

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american society, politics, USA

Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

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