synthetic zero

January 28th, 2010

I was talking with an online acquaintance of mine who is irritated at me for not buying into the idea that Obama has been mostly a betrayer of liberal causes. It had gotten to the point that he was surprised that we agreed on anything at all. Yet I reminded him that we agree on most things: we agree the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake. We agree that the economy is being drained by casino operators calling themselves financial services companies who are taking a rake off the top. We agree that same sex marriage ought to be legal. We agree that income disparity in the US is undermining our long-term stability. We agree, in short, on most things when it comes to goals and policy.

Where we disagree is more in terms of tactics. He seems to think Obama is almost a traitor to those of us who worked to elect him. I think he’s done far better than any president in at least the last few decades. The backlash against him reminds me of my years in college in the 80’s, when my friends on the left had so many complaints about others on the left that the left basically just tore itself apart, leading to its decline and near irrelevance.

What I believe is that to win you have to make allies. I’m not saying liberals are wrong to try to press Obama to go left, and I’m not saying that we should always try to appease the middle. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand on principle even when it isn’t moderate; as Obama did against the Iraq war long before it was fashionable to do so.

But we need allies. We need to stand together. Obama is an ally. I think he’s doing a damn good job. Not perfect but come on, what president is ever going to do everything exactly as you want him to.

The disease I see happening now among some on the left is similar to a disease I saw in college: someone does or advocates a few things you don’t agree with, and you think immediately he must be allied with the forces of darkness. He wants evil to succeed, and he’s been bought. Well, I don’t agree. I think there are legitimate reasons why people who share the same overall view of things might disagree on tactics or even strategy, and that this shouldn’t cause us to assume bad faith and turn on each other. I don’t know why liberals seem to do this more than conservatives, but it seems as though we do (though Tea Partiers are beginning to do this on the right —- yet they managed to get behind pro-choice Brown in MA so they may be learning their lesson already).

I think it’s unfortunate that many on the left are seeing Obama as a “huge disappointment” or even an enemy when a lot of this has to do with our own idea of who he was supposed to be in our minds. The moment he does anything we don’t agree with, he’s betraying us? I don’t think so. I think it’s right to pressure him politically to do what we think he should, but I think it’s a shame when we turn on each other because of disagreements about tactics.

Ultimately I think if we were objective about this, we’d have to say Obama has been far more effective in his first year than Clinton was in his first year. But we had much lower expectations of Clinton, so we judge him far less harshly. I don’t think it’s fair to judge Obama as a failure just because he didn’t live up to our unrealistic expectations, despite the fact that he’s done far better than Clinton did on most issues. Clinton tried to get health care passed — he didn’t get anywhere near as far as Obama has. Was Obama’s standoffish approach wise or not? Clinton tried “leading” on health care and was pummelled because of it, and it failed. Obama let Congress work out a bill and has gotten much closer to success than any president in the last century.

The guy isn’t perfect but give him a chance. Governing is difficult, especially when Republicans have decided to filibuster everything in sight. If we throw Obama away because he doesn’t live up to our fantasy of who we thought he ought to be, Heaven help us when a Republican wins in 2012. Then we might learn to finally appreciate this President: but perhaps too late.

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January 4th, 2010

A friend of mine was recently describing how he tends to make a mental graph with the label “how are things going?” and project it forward in time; if the trendline is down, he can get depressed, even though this whole thing is often based, in his own words, on a mostly imaginary projection into an imaginary future. That phenomenon (”how are things going?”) is the crux of a huge complex of almost entirely useless cognition. Often when thinking about doing some sort of contemplative practice, meditation, Zen, etc., people think the ultimate goal is finding some vast cosmic awareness or something like that — which isn’t to say vast cosmic awareness isn’t accessible in some sense. But really, from the point of view of what’s really at issue with the teachings of schools like Zen or other contemplative traditions I’ve practiced for many years, it’s far more just about making room for what is present in our lives, directly, which has a lot to do with just relaxing this one habit, the habit of thinking about “how are things going?”

Some people like to talk about this subject in terms of emphasizing the “here and now” over things far away. But I think, while that’s a decent rule of thumb, it’s also misleading. There’s nothing particularly special about “now” as a moment in some sort of imaginary timeline. What’s good about the “be here now” idea isn’t the idea of “here and now” — it’s letting go of the unnecessary habit of thinking about things in terms of “how are things going?”

The “how are things going?” thoughts can have the appearance of attending to things that aren’t in the “here and now”, but in in reality they’re pulling us away from awareness of what is happening in our lives, both here and now and far away in time and space. All these thoughts do is reinforce various judgements and projections which are simply distracting us from our lives, whether we’re talking about the here and now or any other aspect of our lives.

For example, even if we’re supposedly focused on the “here and now”, we might be thinking “oh, I’m really screwed right now, things are going badly” or even “things are going really well” — either one is a mistake, a distraction, unnecessary and pointless. These thoughts pull us away from our lives precisely because they collapse everything down to a single dimension of good versus bad. But such a judgement cannot possibly capture the richness of what is going on. It closes off real thought about our lives — and thought, even about things that aren’t “here and now”, can be helpful, illuminating, incisive, and insightful. Getting stuck in a one dimensional world of “doing well” or “not doing so well” and either one is a narrow, ridiculously compromised and unnecessary way of thinking. Such thoughts simply crowd out our ability to be really present and aware of the true dimensionality of our lives. To really work with our lives, with the world, requires being open to every aspect of it, rather than labelling things “good” or “bad” and thereby turning them into unworkable cartoons. How can you work with “it’s a disaster!” or even “things are great!” Either judgement is a turning away from reality in its richness. There’s no content in these sorts of judgements, nothing to actually work with.

The problem isn’t whether the subject matter is here and now or elsewhere. It’s perfectly fine to think about the past and the future, etc.; the problem is collapsing all that into a cartoon judgement, letting our flattened idea of the world replace openness to the radical unknowability of the world, the universe; to the unexpected, as well as even to what we know about but don’t want to face, accept, or work with. An excess of judgement gets into the way of a direct, open participation in presence with the entire context of our lives whether it is “here and now” or anything else.

Luckily even when we’re involving ourselves in these thoughts our larger being is still functioning in a larger context (our unconscious, our physical bodies, etc.) But our conscious involvement with a narrow view nevertheless causes us a lot of unnecessary suffering and grinding of gears, even if, thankfully, that’s not all that’s going on (so of course it’s a good idea not to turn “am I worrying about how things are going?” into yet another occasion for self-recrimination… ha). Simply dropping this pointless habit is all it takes to open out to something radical and present and only partially knowable: our actual lives.

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