Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Which Political Party...?


Which U.S. Political Party Today Trusts People?

“Philanthropy grows with the level of trust in society.”  This claim appeared in today’s LA TIMES (10/25/10) in a long article on India’s “rich-poor gap” with photos of a billion-dollar pagoda-like “home” built for Mukesh Ambani, an oil baron, in the middle of Mumbai’s slums.  The quote is from Professor Dipankar Gupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is also quoted as saying that India has “a trust deficit” that prevents wealthy Indians like Ambani from giving to society in the style of American philanthropists Warren Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates. 

Corruption is blamed for the lack of trust and philanthropy in India, where the traditionally poor are low-caste (or outcaste) Hindus whose karma in a former life is thought to have created their fate in this one.  This insidious notion is even part of the belief system of lower caste Indians themselves, who have said things to me like “I am careful, sir, to keep my place (my dharma) in this life so that my next one will be better.”  Some mean that spiritually, but many today mean they are willing to do anything to make sure their next life will be as a wealthy upper-caste person.  The corruption Indians speak of is simply accepted as part of life, with everyone, high and low, on the take.

Before the recent technological boom of the inter-net, it was difficult for young educated (and I should add, Muslim or higher-born Hindu) Indians to get on the international free-market economy.  But electronic, construction, oil and chemical barons (like Ambani, “the world’s fourth-richest person”) have been born overnight, it seems.  Also, now we find that when we in the rest of the world have a problem with our computers, cell phones, etc., we speak to young Indians who try valiantly to speak American English (broken down into New York, California, Tennessee and Texas imitations) instead of the distinctive Indian English accent they have learned in school.

This matter of trust or the lack of it intrigues me.  Whether we believe in rebirth due to our own actions or being sent to heaven or hell by God when we die surely must play a part in how we view others and how we treat them.  Religion is behind our view of truth (and even more so if we believe in no religion at all), at which point truth and trust dance around each other in fascinating ways.  

I’ve come to believe that our political groups today in America are clearly based on different views of truth, i.e., reality.  Consequently, it appears to me that American political groups view human beings differently, and shape their agendas accordingly.  Simply put, if they trust people to do the right thing, their politics reflect that trust; if they do not trust people, their politics reflects that lack of trust.  So is it a good thing to trust people or not?

In theory, at least, the United States of America is founded on the idea that all people are the same, regardless of their religious or political views.  I love that theory, and believe that our sameness as human beings does indeed trump everything.  But in practice most Americans view themselves as citizens of a Christian (or “Judeo-Christian”) nation.  That has made a lot of other citizens nervous (and rightly so, I think, but that’s another story.)

The agendas of Democrats and Republicans have taken different forms at different times in our history.  President Lincoln, for example, was a Republican.  But by today’s standards he would be a Democrat.  Ever since the Great Depression the two forms of American political life have been basically the same as they are today, viz., the Democrats indorse the need for government programs that will provide the general public with basic services, whereas Republicans believe in individual liberty to the extent that people can get rich regardless of the general public’s welfare. 

What I find interesting in this is that both Democrats and Republicans are overwhelmingly Christian in their religious preference and moral stance, despite their very different political philosophies.  They can and do defend their positions with New Testament scriptural references (as witness Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25 for the Democrats and Matt. 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8 for the Republicans.)  The gist of these obviously contradictory teachings is that rich people cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (an article of faith for Democrats), and that poor, lazy people will always be around, so get used to it (the Republican justification for always saying no.)

Now in terms of answering my original question about which political party today trusts human nature, it would appear that Democrats do not trust human nature and want to control it, whereas Republicans do trust human nature but feel obliged to give a handout to poor people whenever possible.  If you are a Democrat you expect to pay taxes for the basic needs of all people in society, rich and poor, because you know that people are naturally selfish and will not take care of the health and welfare of others.  Of course Republicans, who in theory trust good (wealthy) people to do the right thing in the trickle-down society, today come out of the womb crying “No taxes!”

Clearly, if you are a Republican you will not want to pay for social programs, such as Social Security and Medicare (and of course the vile Obama Care.)  You will want to do whatever you want and get as rich as you can.  You will fight to keep government to a minimum, both statewide and nationwide, and you will put your faith in the free market economy.  Democrats, however, will want to protect everyone from falling through the cracks, at least to the extent of feeding people, housing them, and protecting them from harm and illness.  Lots of laws and taxes are necessary for that bold agenda.

I am a Democrat, third generation.  I hold much the same view of human nature that my grandparents and parents held.  Historically that view is based on the Christian values of many Protestants who made their way here from Scotland and Ireland in the 19th century.  They believed that we are born into this world as pure children of God, who must make our way through life’s thicket of good and evil, and will be judged by God in the afterlife according to how well we do. 

Protestants of our type are like children with blank notebooks, who are free to write their own fates, so to speak.  We thus choose to follow good or evil, rather than have those qualities in us from birth.  We are not burdened with the sins (the “Fall”) of Adam and Eve, as Catholics and many other Christians believe.  Instead, we ourselves write all our choices in our notebooks, and will be held responsible by God for those choices after we die.  The best choices for us constitute a morality that is pretty clear:  our guide in figuring out what is good and what is evil is spelled out in the New Testament.

That text we hold to be the inspired Word of God taught by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Anointed of God, as perceived by the ancient Jewish communities in the Near East.   Shortly after his death (and for believers, the Resurrection) Christ’s life was chronicled by his followers, in an account that has changed how the entire world marks time:  for over 2000 years now we have been living in the Christian era, from the traditional date of Jesus’ birth in the “first” century, when God appeared on earth in human form, and continuing through all subsequent years of Our Lord (Anno Domini), including 2010.

My ancestors believed that strength was in numbers, in government as well as almost everything.  Unions were a big part of their reality because they assumed that rich people were corrupt.  They knew in their hearts that they themselves would be corrupt if they had the money.  They observed how the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, and saw that as the way of the world.  But they were rebels.

The people around me were quite sure that the only way to improve the world was to put laws in place to make people do the right thing.  I remember how my father would point to the cruelty of tyrannical rulers (including especially those in the Vatican) to illustrate to me how life would be if we let dictators with money rule our lives.  He sometimes commented under his breath that the history of Europe was just a step above the “dog-eat-dog” record of cave men.  America was different.

Later I began to take this reasoning to its extreme and wonder if the “great notion” of communism was not a good thing.  But I heard enough about Stalin after WWII in the 1950’s and saw first-hand the hell of collective life under China’s Mao when I visited there for the first time in the 1970’s to know that trying to control human beings by communal mandate was a great mistake. Chaos and control, anarchy and tyranny, are two sides of a coin.  There had to be a middle way.

My relatives in Oklahoma in the 1930’s said often that the pragmatism (a middle way if there ever was one) of the Roosevelt doctrine (Franklin’s not Teddy’s) saved their lives.  Most of them were farmers and ranchers who lost everything in the natural droughts and unfair economic policies of the 1920’s.  When my parents received federal money to work in Comanche County as case workers and manage the Ft. Sill Indian School, they felt FDR’s policies gave their college degrees meaning.  The WPA put their expertise to work, thanks to government support, without which they might have starved on the long trek of dust-bowl refugees to California.  (My mother assured me that I was born late because she and my father were too busy helping raise their nephews and nieces, but that by 1935 they could count on the government to help them raise me.)  Members of my extended family wept for days when FDR died.

For us the road to heaven was clear.  We had to choose service over salary.  The widows, orphans, and just plain lazy people around us deserved our help.  If we had to give all our money to them, so be it.  Just making more money to enrich our own lives was dangerous.  We didn’t want to die rich and spend eternity in hell!  Political activism looked good to us.  So we joined protests, against the Truman policy that embraced the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, and later, against the policy of racial discrimination that in the south still wrapped our country in a cloak of ignorant self-righteousness.   

Before that, sometime after WWII, I remember feeling that things were slowly changing around me with my friends and relatives.  Many people saw good times ahead and took advantage.  My Aunt Jewel, a beauty-shop owner, was fond of saying, “It’s time I looked after Number One:  Me!”  Before I knew it, all the children of my generation became staunch Republicans.  Now many of them are Tea Party know-nothings.  Don’t they realize (those who are poor and without jobs) how desperately they need Democratic policies?  I am torn between wanting to put them in seminars on political (and moral) responsibility and simply wringing their necks, one by one. 

Sorry.  It’s a good thing I am not king of the world!  My prejudices are so strong against selfishness and greed I verge on fainting or heart attacks all the time.  I’m boiling mad at the excesses of wealthy people (yes, even Mr. Ambani) when needy people are all around us.  At one point in my life I made some extra money by acting as a scholar in residence on archeological digs and cruises to far away places, for very wealthy (and usually undereducated) people who were blind to anything but how they could make more money.  The newly wealthy were the worst. 

Give me someone who has inherited their wealth and gone to a good school and I’ll give you the next liberal bleeding heart in the war on poverty.  There’s something about a guy who had nothing and then gets rich through hard work or chance.  He immediately turns his back on others who are poor, the way he used to be, and vows to prevent them from getting any of his stuff.  If he has mega-church pastors who are preaching the feel-good-get-rich gospel he will feel perfectly justified in giving in to his greed.  (Of course he also might find his house in foreclosure!)

I’m embarrassed that I would like to kick stingy wealthy people to the moon.  I’m even a little ashamed that we Democrats have so little trust in human nature that we feel inclined to control people through government restrictions and taxes.  I feel especially guilty because my reading of Christianity says I have not kept the first two major commandments:  to love God with all my heart, mind and strength, and to love my neighbors as myself.  (It’s really hard to turn your other cheek when you have righteous anger in your heart.)

My guilt as a Christian is nothing, however, compared to my guilt as a student of Buddhism.  In my studies of Asian religions as a child and teenager I empathized with the historical Buddha Shakyamuni because he was such a rebel.  As a high-born Hindu of the princely Kshyatriya caste, he came to the conclusion that he had no proof that the pillars of Brahmanical teachings – regarding rebirth, karma and caste – were true.  Moreover, he suggested that full realization of the oneness of all being, or Enlightenment, could somehow be glimpsed and put to use now, by anybody, long before the eventual Enlightenment (Nirvana) that Hindus believe in was supposed to take place. 

My interest in Buddhism turned practical in my twenties.  At the insistence of my Kyoto University professors, I began to practice Zen meditation in temples and found it offered me insights that only deepened the practical aspects of Christian love and compassion.  Profound stillness allowed me to become empty of myself and full of everything and everyone else.  I literally felt filled with respect and love for others as myself.   The gap between me and everything else just disappeared, briefly and then intermittently, during meditation.  After lots of practice that insight returned even at times when I was not formally sitting in meditation.  

These moments of insight (vision, clairvoyance) have appeared to Christian mystics over the century, but not, I think, to Protestants in my tradition.  So I am grateful to have Buddhism in my life.  My primary Zen teacher in Japan, Miyauchi Kanko, ordained me while we were on a pilgrimage to Buddhist sites across north-central India and into Nepal, in 1970.  I have continued to practice and train ever since, in Kyoto and in Seattle, where I established the University of Washington’s Zen Center (now the Temple of the Great Plum.) 

After becoming the director of the Asian Studies program at Pepperdine University in 1987, in Malibu, California, I brought leaders of various denominations of Buddhism, as well as Islam and Sufism, to speak to students from time to time.  In retirement since 2004, living in Palm Desert, CA, my wife and I have continued a long relationship with the Pure Land Buddhist denomination’s Bukkyo University, both in its campus in LA and in Kyoto, teaching courses in the histories of Japan and the West, and Christianity and Buddhism.  We also serve as advisors to Bukkyo students who are attending the College of the Desert near our home.  Finally, we both serve St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church and School in various ways, as board members and outreach volunteers.

In eight days Americans will go to the polls to vote for the leaders of their choice in a mid-term election.  Everyone is predicting that the conservatives will win.  That means Republican, Independent, and Tea Party candidates will split the vote.  We Democrats can only hope that the split will be enormous, and that our candidates will be allowed to provide the caring styles of government based on Christian and Buddhist (and yes, Muslim) principles that are directly opposed to the wild and wooly winner-take-all policies of the Bush/Cheney years.  

I’m sorry the Republican Party thinks individual freedom means serving self-interests first and society second, if at all.  If that’s what their level of trust in society gives them the right to do before practicing philanthropy, then I will wear my Democratic lack of trust as a badge of honor, and practice my philanthropy in public policy.   

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