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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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The War On Stupid People


The War on Stupid People

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority.  … Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift.  But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.”

This is the conclusion drawn by David H. Freedman in his article in the latest Atlantic (July/August 2016, p. 13-14.)  I happened to see Mr. Freedman on a TV news show yesterday, where the discussion was about “experts” and “elites” who may have unwittingly brought on the recent onslaught by “stupid” people against progressive politics and politicians.  I have said openly that I am terrified of Trump and his followers, as though they were barbarians at the gates of my world, or playground, as Freedman has it.  Suddenly I see that I am one of the elites who consider Brexit and Trump supporters to be unbearably stupid. But wait.  I’m a Zen priest and Bible scholar (see the rest of this essay on sugoisekai.blogspot.com.)

I am convinced that we all are inextricably connected to each other (Buddhist wisdom) and must treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated (Christian wisdom). The pivotal word here is “we”:  who exactly are we?  Zazen and prayer are supposed to turn us into creatures of loving kindness (in very different ways, of course.) Whether someone (including myself) has reached a deep level of perception, or is sinful or sinless, is not my concern. 

But I have considered stupidity to be somehow separate from any of the other things that distinguish us. The last thing I (or any progressive) would do -- as Freedman points out -- is to discriminate against others on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, love-life, religion or physical disability.  But their IQ?  How often have I called people stupid?  Many times!  Now as never before, religion and politics have seemed to me to be overrun with stupid people.  Anti-abortion, anti-gay Christians and tea-party Republicans drive me crazy with their stupidity!

You don’t have a university degree?  Or you have one from a Podunk college?  Forget it.  I know what you think and will say (and VOTE on) before you do. As a Japanophile I enjoy telling Americans that in Japan married couples do not have babies unless they can afford them, raise them and send them to college.  Pregnancies that don’t meet that test are aborted.  My listeners (especially Catholics) never quite get over the shock of “are aborted,” so my general point (“look how smart the Japanese are”) is completely missed. That is sad to me.  I’m even left speechless by people who use double-negatives and don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” (something that linguistics departments are accepting nowadays, more’s the pity.) 

As my own son, Reg, has said to me (and that I repeat, but only in jest), “Dad, you are a snob!”  The fact of the matter is, I am.  I secretly maintain a deep prejudice against pop music and sports.  “Artists” on rock and country western stages and big-time stars on the basketball court, baseball, football and soccer fields are idolized beyond reason and paid outrageous amounts of money; whereas real (i.e., classical) musicians, singers and dancers (real artists) struggle to make enough money to live on, even before retirement. I am insulted beyond anything I can express in words.    

So what do I do now? I can stop insisting on proper English usage and ignore pop music and sports.  But there are weightier matters here.  A Zen student asked his teacher, “How should a Buddhist regard ISIS?”  (Hello, James Kenney.)  This is the question of our age.  My knee-jerk response (the same one that stupid people have) is, “Kill the bastards!”  That is not the response I as a Zen teacher would let slip.  (As a Christian soldier I might.)  But I do believe that when I feel deep anger I need to be angry.  I need to face anger head-on, just like I need to go into my feelings of hatred, fear, resentment, disappointment or even love when they appear in my heart.

Is the answer then, “Ignore ISIS” or “Let the Muslims sort it out”?  I don’t think so.  We all must do something.  I happened to be in Llasa’s Jokhang square in 1980 when a demonstration by Tibetan nuns was put down by Chinese authorities.  (A documentary of it was made sometime later by Western filmmakers who were there and who interviewed some of the nuns who escaped to Dharamsala, India.) I was proud of the nuns then and still am.  They sacrificed their lives.  Many were tortured and many died.  Tibetan Buddhist priests have generally taken the position that each person can react to such brutality in whatever way they choose.  Many have decided to follow His Holiness the Dalai Llama to India, others have immigrated to the U.S. and Europe.  There may have been no alternative.  I’m sure the Chinese were ready to annihilate the entire clergy if they had actually staged a revolution.  They have done a good job of wiping out Buddhism in Tibet as things stand today anyway.

For me there is, in fact, no answer to what should be done today about the Chinese Communists -- who now feel religion can be practiced but only under tight surveillance -- or about ISIS, which considers its interpretation of Islam to be the only correct one and that other Muslims (and any unbelievers in any part of the world) deserve to be killed. I saw public executions in Beijing in 1970.  We all have seen beheadings and stonings by ISIS zealots on TV.  I draw the line at killing.  Any killing.  But for any reason?  I’m not sure. 

The latest ISIS bombing in Istanbul may be a frantic act of a group of people under attack by other people, including us. Should we have gotten involved in Kuwait and Iraq in the first place?  No.  But what is happening now, as a result of that incursion or not, is happening.  Careful, skillful, shrewd political maneuvering is necessary to prevent a mass killing on a scale to which not even Hiroshima and Nagasaki can compare.  It is a global issue.  We ARE the world, even if xenophobes in this country think we are not.  Or that global warming is not real.

My understanding of reality, my perception of it, can be liberating enough to me that nothing actually matters.  And nothing, no one thing, not even everything, does.  We all die eventually.  But there is something called “skillful means” that all of us can use.  Real skill comes out of deep meditation (samadhi). Let’s work together.  This is an existential crisis.  We don’t have to exist.  But we can, at least temporarily.  Shall we?