Burma Petition

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Being Peace

I want to respond once again to this fellow, who thinks the Burmese monks are saps for not leading an armed resistance against the military junta instead of a nonviolent protest.

The monks and their followers have caught the world’s attention, I’ll grant you that. (That and a subway token…) International pressure is probably the only hope right now, but see what good that’s done for Tibet or Darfur. Or against Iran. Or against the Taliban. I don’t need to continue. …

… These people don’t want to lose, and they’re prepared to fight a lot dirtier than the monks are.
But we already knew that.

As for Gandhi (and Martin Luther King), they knew that their opponents, bad as they were, had moral limits.

The blogger may be a graduate of the Michael Medved School of History; I don’t see many “moral limits” in the history of racial violence in America.

The American government sent the military to enforce civil rights, not suppress them. If the protestors thought they were up against similar foes, they misjudged badly. The protests are gone, and people have died.

Isn’t it only decent to ask what for?

In other words, means justify ends. But Buddhists don’t think that way. In fact, one of the differences between Eastern and Western thought is that westerners tend to think of events in terms of ends, or results, whereas easterners are more likely to think in terms of never-ending cycles of cause and effect. Ends are not, in fact, ends. Even after great victories — or defeats — the wheel of existence does not stop, and in time “ends” dissipate like smoke. Because cause and effect are locked together in a great, eternal continuum, means do not justify “ends,” ever. Even if you achieve a desired goal, sooner or later you will enjoy — or suffer — the fruits of whatever means you used to achieve it.

As my first Zen teacher said, often, “What you do to others is done to you.”

There was an article in the Spring 2007 issue of the American Buddhist magazine Tricycle — available to subscribers only, alas — about political action and nonviolence. In “The Disappearance of the Spiritual Thinker,” Pankaj Mishra wrote,

It may be hard to conceive of nonviolence as a viable force, especially as we appear to be in the midst of a worldwide upsurge of violence and cruelty. Nevertheless, the history of the contemporary world is full of examples of effective nonviolent politics. The movements for national self-determination in colonized countries, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the velvet revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the gradual spread of parliamentary democracy around the world–the great transformations of our time–have been essentially peaceful.

Every time a peaceful resistance is put down, somebody is bound to say they should have used guns. But when an armed insurgency is put down, or when it turns into a cycle of violence and vengeance dragging on for generations, for some reason this doesn’t count against the effectiveness of armed insurgency. And how often does the residual anger from one war blossom into the next one?

In fact, I’d say nonviolent resistance has a pretty good track record, particularly as far as long-term results are concerned.

I particularly like this next paragraph (emphasis added):

And there have been activists and thinkers in our own time, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Václav Havel, who rejected politics as a zero-sum game (in which the other side’s loss is seen as a gain) and adopted moral persuasion and conversion as means to political ends. As the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr., after a spate of Buddhist self-immolations in Vietnam in 1965, “The monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man.”

This touches on Pankaj Mishra’s thesis, that the western concept of “shaping history,” or pushing mankind toward some idealized future by any means, is the chief cause of much of the violence of the past couple of centuries. And I acknowledge that much of Asia got sucked into the game of shaping “history” by force — Japanese militarism of the 1930s, China under Mao. But it’s a very un-Buddhist way of interacting with the world.

“Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man.” If you observe long enough, you notice how easily un-self-aware people become like their own enemies. Consider the McCarthyite or Bushie, eager to flush the Bill of Rights down the toilet in the name of “freedom.”

The monks of Burma make a conscious choice not to become what they are trying to defeat. They choose not to give in to intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination. That’s the point of chanting the Metta Sutta as they march. To do otherwise would betray everything they have vowed to maintain as monks.

Pankaj Mishra continued,

Imprisoned by the totalitarian regime of Czechoslovakia, Havel echoed a Buddhistic preoccupation with actions in the present moment when he warned that “the less political policies are derived from a concrete and human ‘here and now,’ and the more they fix their sights on an abstract ‘someday,’ the more easily they can degenerate into new forms of human enslavement.” In his own political practice, Gandhi opposed any mode of politics that reduced human beings into passive means to a predetermined end–it was the burden of his complaint against history. He insisted that human beings were an end in themselves, and the here and now was more important than an illusory future.

This has always baffled or disappointed those who measure nonviolent political action in terms of the regimes it changed. But for Gandhi, nonviolence was not merely another tactic, as terrorism often is, in a zero-sum game played against a political adversary. It was a whole way of being in the world, of relating truthfully to other people and one’s own inner self: an individual project in which spiritual vigilance and strength created the basis for, and thus were inseparable from, political acts. Gandhi assumed that whatever regimes they lived under–democracy or dictatorship, capitalist or socialist–individuals always possessed a freedom of conscience. To live a political life was to be aware of that inner freedom to make moral choices in everyday life; it was to take upon one’s own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action rather than placing it upon a political party or a government.

As Gandhi saw it, real political power arose from the cooperative action of such strongly self-aware individuals–the “authentic, enduring power” of people that, as Hannah Arendt presciently wrote in her analysis of the Prague Spring of 1968, a repressive regime or government could neither create nor suppress through the use of terror, and before which it eventually surrendered.
Many of Gandhi’s own colleagues often complained that he was delaying India’s liberation from colonial rule. But Gandhi knew as intuitively as Havel was to know later that the task before him was not so much of achieving regime change as of resisting “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power–the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.”

This power, the unique creation of the political and economic systems of the modern world, pressed upon individuals everywhere–in the free as well as the unfree world. It was why Havel once thought that the Western cold warriors wishing to get rid of the totalitarian Communist system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel wrote, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”

This takes us back to what Glenn Greenwald wrote in (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. Those who have become convinced that they are waging an epic and all-consuming existential war against Evil cannot, by the very premises of their belief system, accept any limitations — moral, pragmatic, or otherwise — on the methods adopted to triumph in this battle.

Efforts to impose limits on waging war against Evil will themselves be seen as impediments to Good, if not as an attempt to aid and abet Evil. In a Manichean worldview, there is no imperative that can compete with the mission of defeating Evil. The primacy of that mandate is unchallengeable. Hence, there are no valid reasons for declaring off-limits any weapons that can be deployed in service of the war against Evil.

Equally operative in the Manichean worldview is the principle that those who are warriors for a universal Good cannot recognize that the particular means they employ in service of their mission may be immoral or even misguided. The very fact that the instruments they embrace are employed in service of their Manichean mission renders any such objections incoherent. How can an act undertaken in order to strengthen the side of Good, and to weaken the forces of Evil, ever be anything other than Good in itself? Thus, any act undertaken by a warrior of Good in service of the war against Evil is inherently moral for that reason alone.

It is from these premises that the most amoral or even most reprehensible outcomes can be — and often are — produced by political movements and political leaders grounded in universal moral certainties. Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

In Buddhism, good and evil are not thought of as attributes one may or may not possess. Rather, they are the consequences — beneficial or detrimental — of thoughts, words, and volitional acts. A practicing Buddhist doesn’t think, well, I’m a good person, and my cause is just,and my intentions are good, so whatever I do to attain this goal is OK. Believe me, after a few years of meditation practice, when a thought like that comes up you recognize such an idea as folly and let it go.

Of course, sometimes you have to fight. I don’t know where Burmese Buddhism falls on the pacifism scale, but Zen Buddhism in particular has a long association with the martial arts. However, even the most proficient martial artist should recognize there’s a time to fight, and a time to walk away from a fight.

The monks of Burma have chosen nonviolent resistance, as did the monks of Tibet and the monks of Vietnam, who still face oppression from Communist leaders. Short-term, this may not seem an effective strategy. Long-term, I suspect it is the wisest course.

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Burma Updates

The AFL-CIO is organizing a rally at the Burmese embassy today in Washington, DC, beginning at 3:30 pm. This will be followed by a march to the Chinese embassy.

* * *

Seth Mydans writes for the New York Times:

Myanmar’s armed forces appeared to have succeeded Friday in sealing tens of thousands of protesting monks inside their monasteries, but they continued to attack bands of civilian demonstrators who challenged them in the streets of the main city, [Rangoon].

Witnesses and diplomats reached by telephone inside Myanmar, a sealed country, said troops were now confronting and attacking smaller groups of civilians around the city, sometimes running after them through narrow streets, sometimes firing at protesting groups.

“Today has been quieter than previous days, meaning far fewer protesters came out, but the military is being very quick to use violence, tear gas, guns and clubs to break it up,” said the chief diplomat at the United States Embassy, Shari Villarosa.

Diplomats said there was no way to estimate the numbers of dead and wounded in Yangon or other cities, but they said it was certainly far higher than what the junta has reported.

Most recent news from Jason of The Buddhist Channel:

Kindly forgive the brevity and the lack of formatting of the following email. I am now sending this information out as we are now receiving it. As many of you are now aware phone lines have been cut, mobile networks have been disabled, and Internet access has also been disabled.

Information, therefore, is now very difficult to obtain and confirm. I therefore am unable to confirm any of that which follows, but my sources are adamant that this is the truth:

Soldiers from LID #66 have turned their weapons against other SPDC soldiers and possibly police in North Okkalappa township in Rangoon and are defending the protesters. At present unsure how many soldiers involved. Some reports cite “heavy shooting” in the area.

Other unconfirmed reports have stated that soldiers from LID #33 in Mandalay have refused orders to act against protesters. Some reports claim that many soldiers remained in their barracks. More recent reports now maintain that soldiers from LID #99 now being sent there to confront them.

Reports of approx. 10,000+ protesters gathering around the Traders Hotel in Rangoon. Other reports of 10,000+ protesters gathering at San Pya Market in Rangoon. Further reports of approx. 50,000 protestors gathering at the Thein Gyi Market in Rangoon.

According to Mizzima, an unknown number of soldiers from Central Command and South East Command are presently on their way to Rangoon to reinforce SPDC army troops.

Also according to Mizzima, an unknown number of aircraft have been scrambled from “Matehtilar” airbase – probably a reference to Meiktila in Mandalay Division.

According to one journalist, SPDC have turned water cannons against crowds at Sule Pagoda. The report maintains that the water contained some type of chemical. awaiting further information. Please circulate this information as widely as quickly as possible.

See also the hourly dispatches from Mizzima News. There are reports that troops are marching to middle Burma. “At this reporting, it is not clear if the troops are marching to reinforce or to challenge the troops in Rangoon for shooting the Buddhist monks.”

Update: See also Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés at The Moderate Voice.

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More Drool

Believe it or not, Michael Medved has a column at Townhall making excuses for slavery in America. It wasn’t all that bad, he says.

Medved presents six “inconvenient truths” about slavery, which (condensed) are:

1. American didn’t invent slavery. Lots of other countries did it too. Yes, but by the mid-19th century the practice had been pretty much run out of Europe, as well as the northern states, for being barbaric and immoral.

2. Slavery existed only briefly — 89 years from the Declaration of Independence to the 13th Amendment. It probably didn’t seem all that brief to the persons who were enslaved. And, of course, it had been going on for some time before the Declaration of Independence. Medved figures that only about 5 percent of today’s Americans are the descendants of slave owners. That may or may not be true, but I’m not sure why it’s relevant to anything.

3. Slavery wasn’t genocidal. Dead slaves brought no profit, Medved says. Of course, about a third of the people captured in Africa to be sold into slavery died in the ship voyage to America, but Medved says the slavers didn’t intend the slaves to die, so it doesn’t count. “And as with their horses and cows, slave owners took pride and care in breeding as many new slaves as possible,” Medved writes. No, really, he actually wrote that. I am not making this up.

4. It is not true that the United States became wealthy through slave labor, Medved says. Many “free soil” states were more prosperous overall than the slave states. That may be true, or not, but those cotton plantations were cash cows for the plantation owners. In 1855 raw cotton amounted to one-half of all U.S. exports, valuing $100 million annually in 1855 dollars. (Source: Encyclopedia of American Facts & Dates [Harper & Row, 1987] p. 255.) There was huge income disparity in the slave states; the plantation-owning elite hoarded the wealth.

5. The United States deserves special credit for abolition. Huh?

6. “There is no reason to believe today’s African-Americans would be better off if their ancestors had remained in Africa. ” Actual quote. Who says conservatives are insensitive? Well, me, for one.

Jillian at Sadly, No and John Holbo at Crooked Timber also comment. But no one so far has asked the critical question, which is What the hell was eating at Medved’s reptilian brain that inspired him to write this? Has criticism of American slavery been in the news lately?

Update: See also Kevin at Lean Left, who has a more substantive retort to “fact” #5 than I did.

Year the British ended slavery throughout the Empire: 1833. Number of wars it took to do so: 0. Year the Spanish Empire ended slavery (except in Cuba, where the ban was not enforced by local governors until 1886): 1811. Number of wars to do so: 0. Year the U.S. ended slavery throughout the country and its territories: 1865. Number of wars it took to do it: 1, the bloodiest one in American history. In fact, all European powers abolished slavery before the United States did. So, no, dear Mr. Medved, we as a nation don’t deserve special credit for a bloody damn thing. We were below average, even by the standards of the day.

Update 2: I’d like to add that during our civil war the wealthy industrial interests of Britain put a lot of pressure on Victoria and Parliament to enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. The Americas were their chief supplier of raw materials for their textile mills, and the owners were losing money. But anti-slavery sentiment was so strong in Britain — even among mill workers who’d been laid off because of the war — that active support for the Confederacy was out of the question. And, of course, Prince Albert favored the Union, which means Victoria did, also.

Update 3: This is a riot.

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Loose Lips, Drool Drips

Media Matters:

Limbaugh: Service members who support U.S. withdrawal are “phony soldiers”

During the September 26 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh called service members who advocate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq “phony soldiers.” He made the comment while discussing with a caller a conversation he had with a previous caller, “Mike from Chicago,” who said he “used to be military,” and “believe[s] that we should pull out of Iraq.” Limbaugh told the second caller, whom he identified as “Mike, this one from Olympia, Washington,” that “[t]here’s a lot” that people who favor U.S. withdrawal “don’t understand” and that when asked why the United States should pull out, their only answer is, ” ‘Well, we just gotta bring the troops home.’ … ‘Save the — keeps the troops safe’ or whatever,” adding, “[I]t’s not possible, intellectually, to follow these people.” “Mike” from Olympia replied, “No, it’s not, and what’s really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.” Limbaugh interjected, “The phony soldiers.” The caller, who had earlier said, “I am a serving American military, in the Army,” agreed, replying, “The phony soldiers.”

In RushWorld, Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, 26, and Sgt. Omar Mora, 28, who died in Baghdad a few days ago, were “phony soldiers.” Gray and Mora were two of the authors of a New York Times op-ed called “The War As We Saw It” that criticized the Iraq occupation.

Limbaugh has never served in the military. He got a medical deferment from the Vietnam-era draft. Exactly how Rush would know what constitutes “phoniness” in soldiering is anyone’s guess. Historically, loyalty to “the cause” has never been a prerequisite for soldiering, as the bulk of the wars fought since the invention of war didn’t involve a cause at all, and soldiers fought because they were ordered to fight. Military historians long have noted that soldiers on the battlefield say they fight for each other, for their comrades in arms, more than for king and country.

See also Jon Soltz, “So I’m a ‘Phony Soldier,’ Rush?

And, of course, criticism of George Bush and his “policies” is not unpatriotic, a point few righties seem to be able to wrap their heads around.

A few right-wing blogs have weighed in, all huffing and puffing indignantly at the liberal smear of Rush. They note that Rush didn’t explicitly say, word-for-word, “Service members who support U.S. withdrawal are phony soldiers.” Someone else brought up soldiers who express criticism of the occupation to media, and Rush interjected “phony soldiers.” See, that’s entirely different.

So far, the best explanation of the smear against Rush comes from the ever brilliant Macranger. After repeating the much-debunked lie that Media Matters is funded by George Soros, Macranger points out that it was a caller, not Rush, who criticized critical soldiers — Rush was just helping him out when he said “phony soldiers.” Then in the next paragraph Macranger says [emphasis added],

By the way, his and Rush’s opinion is not a lone one among active soldiers by the way, many of whom view “malcontents” with not so loving feelings. In fact as I told you before that back “in the day” we spotted these types in basic training and “marked them” with a special party! You know, to let them know just what they had signed up for in case they forgot.

I think somebody needs to get his story straight. See also Digby.

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