Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ryan Croken - Of Monks and Men: A New Kind of American Toughness

Very cool article suggested by my friend Danny Fisher.
Of Monks and Men: A New Kind of American Toughness

By Ryan Croken

In which the author expresses frustration with the gendered imaginings of “courage” and “compassion” that are so deeply interwoven in our politics, and asks: why not a Buddhist monk for president?

Super-monks Thomas Merton and HH the Dalai Lama

Reflecting upon the interdependent nature of human relations, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote:

If a cruel and violent person disembowels you, you can smile and look at him with love. It is his upbringing, his situation, and his ignorance that cause him to act so mindlessly. Look at him—the one who is bent on your destruction and heaps injustice upon you—with eyes of love and compassion.

As I read this remarkable passage, I am struck by two incongruous observations: 1.) the notion that hatred and blame are logical fallacies is one of the most sensible and reassuring metaphysical prescriptions I have ever encountered. 2.) If any American politician, male or female, were ever to endorse this philosophy, it would be career suicide.

The incompatibility of spiritual intelligence with political viability is a curious phenomenon. To probe the root causes behind the separation of enlightenment and state, imagine (for a moment) an impossible yet illuminating hypothetical: Thich Nhat Hanh is running for president against, say, George W. Bush. This historic campaign would undoubtedly give rise to many important, superficial issues, but perhaps one question above all others would seize the electoral imagination: is Hanh “tough” enough for the job?

The standard metrics would be employed. Does he eat the flesh of dead animals? Has he recently threatened or condemned a Third World nation? Does he enjoy sports in which strong, sweaty men frequently smash into one another? As soon as the American public learns that Thich Nhat Hanh’s favorite pastimes include sitting quietly, smiling, breathing, and drinking tea, Hanh ’09, “The Right Man for the Present Moment,” would be done for. The gentle monk would be branded a sissy and sent back to his commune in France.

The fearless Zen master may have the courage to set himself on fire to put an end to war; but for this very reason he would be considered weaker than George W. Bush, a man who has earned his masculine credentials through his resolute yearning to send other people to war.

This backwards way of measuring “manliness” and defining “toughness” is as dangerous as it is absurd. There is nothing “tough” about starting a war. Starting a war is stupid and easy. Similarly, being “manly” in America today is just as easy and unthinking and unsatisfying as ordering a Budweiser at a bar. Yet the equation of toughness with violence (and violence with viability) has driven some of our political leaders (male and female alike) into such a femiphobic paroxysm that the coveted commodity of “manliness” has become an impediment not only to saintliness, but also to sanity.

Progressives Take the Bait, Act Tough

Along the way, the collective valorization of a phony phallus has demeaned much of the progressive agenda by associating it with the sappy murk of estrogen. Environmentalism is mocked as tree-hugging, opposition to the death penalty signals a maternal leniency, peace is for pussies, and gay rights are, well, gay. With this gendered hierarchy of virtues in place, how can progressives legitimate their platform in the Viagra-addled frat house that calls itself our government?

One way would be to embrace the pre-packaged trappings of “manliness,” but to direct their aggressive energies in a more Democratic direction. Grab a megaphone, for example, and scream “World Peace or die, motherfuckers!” Gnaw on a bloody steak and shoot a hunting rifle up in the air while pronouncing your support for animal rights and a ban on assault weapons. If you oppose one war, try to find another war to support. Insult people, personally. Become sanctimoniously irritable. Invoke Theodore Roosevelt a lot, and do not communicate a single idea without the assistance of a sports metaphor. Convince people that, even though your opponents may call you “soft,” you still have hatred and violence in your heart. Avoid saying the word “heart.” Pound your fist on the table, demanding something, anything, because, look out, goddamn it, you mean business! As a general rule of thumb, be a huge asshole. Better yet, be a huge dick.

This may work. Keith Olbermann, for example, with his pseudo-chivalric jousting (“you, sir, this; you, sir, that”), has not been ineffective in picking apart Republican propaganda. But looking beyond short-term tactics and marketing strategies, all of this testicular pageantry reveals a progressive movement that appears to be fundamentally ashamed of some of its core principles. Whatever immediate political success it may bring about in the polls, practicing a martial outrage in the name of peace is worse than mere hypocrisy; it is, at heart, a form of spiritual triangulation. It accepts, without challenge, the false premise that in order to be “right” about something, you have to be “tough,” and in order to be “tough,” you have to be militant, one way or another.

The Courage to be Girls

The fact that so many intelligent, well-intentioned people feel compelled to abide by the dictates of this awkward, ill-conceived paradigm has nothing to do with the biological constitution of men, and everything to do with a deeply-rooted social paranoia of being perceived as “unmanly.” Boys will be boys, it’s true; but largely because they are horrified of being girls. What we need right now, in the face of this self-destructive sexism, is precisely the courage to be “girls,” and to reject “tough” policies forged in the semi-conscious cellars of gender neurosis.

What we need is the courage to embrace a form of American masculinity that is inclusive of a global humanity, and does not flee from the words “peace,” “empathy,” and “love.” What we need, in short, is the courage to reconceptualize our understanding of courage, and to rid ourselves of the lie that tells us that compassion is weak.

“When I speak of love,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” With these words, King was attempting to liberate the redemptive power of love from the gendered stigma of cowardice, because love, in his opinion, had become “an absolute necessity for the survival of man.” At this critical juncture in our planet’s history, instead of paying sentimental tribute to King’s icon, I suggest we listen to his message.

But is America ready for this type of listening? Are we capable of bringing about the revolution of values and perception that King was advocating? Smiling with eyes of love and compassion during disembowelment, à la Thich Nhat Hanh, is probably off the table at the moment. But deep down in the recesses of America’s metaphorical soul, I sense a powerful and courageous softness brewing. In our art, our prayers, our songs, and other forums where, for some reason, men are socially permitted to express their deepest longings and highest aspirations, there is an abundance of tenderness—a seemingly infinite reserve of exceptional weakness and emotionality.

If we can pray for love, and sing about love, why is it so uncool, impractical, and unmanly to vote for it? If all you need is love, and war is good for absolutely nothing, what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

The irony of it all, I suppose, is worth a laugh. Masculine “practicality” (still the predominant discourse in American political life) is destroying common sense; and while a few notable public figures are willing to declare that “toughness” is not, in fact, tough, the vast majority our political leaders, when it comes to taking a stand on this issue, remain insufferably flaccid.

Thich Nhat Hanh, alas, will never be president of the United States. But the failure of his imaginary campaign—and the specifically gendered reasons behind that failure—leave us with an ominous insight.

If we were to apply Nhat Hanh’s effeminate notion of interdependence and “I”/ “Other” unity on a global level, we would find ourselves trapped in a troubling (and not entirely unrealistic) dilemma: the United States is currently threatened with disembowelment, and the United States is the one holding the knife to its stomach. What do we do? Do we take manly action against our aggressor? Or do we waver, do we dither, do we pause and reflect like little babies? This abstract question has some very visceral consequences, for if we cannot find the cowardice within us to give peace a chance, if we decide to thrust and twist the knife into our own belly in the name of “toughness,” one thing is for sure: we won’t have the guts to be “tough” anymore, and we’ll all be left screaming for our mommies.

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