Monday, 15 December 2014

Between the Buddha & Camus

What truly divides us in politics is not some grand doctrine or unshakable party allegiance, but our core moral dispositions. Some see others in distress and pain, and instinctively assume such people have only got themselves to blame. And whatever evidence is produced to suggest the contrary, they will keep condemning them for countless deficiencies.

We recoil from such prejudice. When we witness suffering, we want to understand the underlying causes and find ways to overcome them. Unlike our detractors, we hesitate to proclaim ourselves ‘right’ about everything, for we merely seek to be as reasonable as we can under even the most trying circumstances.

But without the simplistic recourse of dismissing human misfortune as rooted in the flaws of scapegoats, we have to struggle to make sense of life’s seemingly endless stream of torment and affliction. Yet what can we do? However much we try to seek out amelioration and progress, the trials are interminable.

Two counsels have in the past proffered advice on this very problem. One is Gotama the Buddha, who observed that suffering was inescapable unless we were ready to attain nirvana through the extinguishing of desires and emotional turmoil. The other is Camus, who pointed out that life was inherently absurd without any meaning except for our defiance against injustice and oppression.

Gotama showed us the path to accepting the experiences that come our way and letting everything go without becoming perturbed. Camus reminded us that the only alternative to a meaningless existence is to engage in rebelling against the suffering confronting us.

What then are we to do? Keep fighting ignorance and exploitation knowing that, as in the myth of Sisyphus, our labours will never end with a final triumph? Or step back from the arena of conflicts even though that robs us of the moral purpose that underpins our existence?

Perhaps we should look beyond their apparent incompatibility and see them as two stages of a single journey. The coming of consciousness challenges us to respond to the causes and consequences of subjugation and suffering. At this point, there can be no surrender to the dominion of the powerful and the cruel. But when the time comes for us to exit, we should be ready to leave it to others to continue the campaign. Once we have completed our tour of duty, we should move on and embrace our own extinguishing.

If we retreat into nirvana when we are in the frontline battling the causes of avoidable suffering in this world, we betray ourselves. If we lament the contrived futility of not being around to fight on till the end of time, we deceive ourselves.

Between the Buddha and Camus, we have a pathway that leads us from the existential commitment to challenge the devious and the unjust, to the time when it is for us to embrace our own disengagement from the tumultuous combat. We rebels may take comfort in knowing that when our mission is done, nirvana awaits.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Con Identity

In everyday life, if we overhear some con merchant trying to sell a pack of lies to the family next door, we would warn our neighbours and perhaps even threaten to report the con-man to the authority.

In politics, the tricksters may not be so easy to spot; some victims grow so attached to the false hope being peddled that they resent anyone trying to talk them out of it; and worst of all, if the con goes down without a hitch, the perpetrator becomes the authority.

But precisely because the stakes are so high, we must do everything we can to expose the con identity of politicians who pretend they want to look after our interests when all they are after is more wealth and power for them and their accomplices.

So how do we spot the political Con? Here are four unmistakable signs:

[1] The Pyramid Trick
Whatever the spiel, the deck is stacked to ensure that it is always going to be more pay, tax cuts, bonuses and dividends for the privileged few at the top of the towering wealth pyramid, while everyone else has to work harder everyday just to stay above rock bottom. Look out for the promise of a fast track ‘social mobility’ draw where if you are one of the very lucky, and decidedly very few, you may get to climb a couple of rungs nearer to the upper echelons. You will be routinely told that all the accumulated wealth will trickle down to you in time, when all you actually get is a relentlessly growing burden weighing you down.

[2] The Smoke & Halo Trick
Any notion that may have a positive connotation will be dazzlingly shuffled before you – ‘God’, ‘Country’, ‘The Flag/The Queen’ (depending if you’re in the US or the UK), ‘The Family’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Traditions’ – stirring up Pavlovian expectations of something deserving of your unquestioning reverence. And while your attention is distracted by the fancy shuffling, your pay packet shrinks, your children can’t afford the inflated house prices in your neighbourhood, the costs of necessities from energy to medicine skyrocket, and you are left with mass insecurity.

[3] The Isolation Trick
Every move is designed to isolate you. Any collective strength you may have from being part of something larger will be drained from you. Voluntary groups daring to campaign are starved of funds. Unions are bashed. And public sector provisions for ordinary people are cut back in every direction (though subsidies for corporations continue to grow). You are told that you’re better off keeping your money in your pocket even when it could buy you much more through a public scheme. The more things are privatised and deregulated, the more you are left on your own – easy pickings for tricksters with all the aces up their sleeves.

[4] The Scapegoats Trick
A simple sleight of hand and you see nothing of the manipulation that sucks out the gains from your increased productivity one day and leaves you redundant with a cut-up safety net the next. Instead your eyes are drawn to the supposed ‘cheats’ sitting next to you – the refugees, the immigrants, the low pay and jobless needing help to feed their children. You are goaded into resenting them, despising them, and channelling all your frustration towards them, while the double-dealer pockets everything in sight.

We hear much about the need to educate the public about the importance of democracy and the value of voting. One preliminary lesson for all citizens must surely be on how to spot these devious tricks and shun the politicians with the reprehensible ‘Con’ identity.

[If you’re interested in reading a story of how Con politicians trick their way to taking complete control over the lives of everyone in Britain and America, try the satirical dystopian novel, Whitehall through the Looking Glass]