The More Things Change,
The More They Stay the Same
December 20, 2003
When a dog bites a man, that is not news… but if a man bites a dog, that is news.
— John B. Bogart
In mid-November, Norway, frustrated in its attempts to mediate a peaceful solution to the civil strife in Sri Lanka; reluctantly halted its diplomatic mission; and the world was treated to the spectacle of militant Buddhist monks burning a Norwegian flag. That it wasn’t Old Glory going up in flames came as a novel relief to Americans in general; but to us American Buddhists, it came as a small but meaningful vindication of our belief that Buddhists are human beings, after all. They can get angry and they can fight. Ahimsa doesn’t mandate catatonia any more than, in the case of flag-burning, it mandates common sense and decency.
The sight of Buddhist clerics doing something as contentious as destroying Norway’s flag was considered so unusual that it warranted world wide news coverage. This misses the point that it was, in fact, unusual. The Associated Press photographer who took the picture could likely have gone the length and breath of Sri Lanka and not found another instance of flag desecration.
The same type of disproportionate attention is given to the pronouncements of people who are famous for things other than their political insights or who are otherwise newsworthy by virtue of some momentary exhibitionistic act. These self-proclaimed arbiters of national policy have always been troublesome to a majority of people who do not share their views.
Lanka is a name dear to Buddhists. It is said that on this island off the southeast coast of India, The Buddha once delivered a beautiful sermon, “On Entering Lanka” (Lankavatara).
In the days of European imperialism, the three separate nations into which the island was divided were combined into one, called Ceylon. It was never a happy grouping. In the north, the people were Hindu Tamil, members of an Indian religious sect whose principal deity is Skanda, the son of Shiva. Skanda is a charismatic war god; and his militant followers, the Tamil Tigers, keep that inspirational source ever in mind.
The greater part of the island, however, is Buddhist – Sinhalese and Theravadin in nature. Their counterpart to the Tigers is the National Bhikku Front.
An admittedly oversimplified account of the conflict is that the Tamils want independence and the Buddhists want Union and majority rule; and in these causes there has been considerable violence.
Some of the POW’s of Hell Fire Pass. Prisoners would work 16 to 22 hours in straight shifts. When they fell down they would seldom get up because they would be kicked to death. Many prisoners were tortured for the smallest offenses. The Japanese commander’s motto was “if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished.” Punishments included savage beatings, being made to kneel on sharp sticks while holding a boulder for one to three hours at a time and being tied to a tree with barbed wire and left there for two to three days without any food or water. Photo courtesy of Bruce Langslow at HellFirePass.com.
It came as a curious coincidence that in the very same days that Norway abandoned its attempt to broker an end to the civil war, Public Television showed a documentary about the hundred thousand Allied Prisoners Of War – British, Australian, Dutch, American and Asian – whom the Japanese starved, tortured and worked to death building a Thai-Burmese railroad and its infamous bridge over the River Kwai; while a switch of TV channels revealed network news coverage of a hundred thousand people massed in London apparently to vent their hatred of the United States. The protesters had prevented the Queen from riding with the President and Mrs. Bush in her golden ceremonial carriage – an honor, the news media showed – she had been able to extend to the Emperor of Japan who had overseen those atrocities in Thailand. We saw old footage of the crowds who happily cheered Hirohito and live coverage of people who called George Bush a murderer and carried an effigy of him posed in the familiar likeness of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad statue.
The subject came up at my prison sangha. How could anybody make sense of this baffling series of coincidences. I didn’t see much that needed explanation beyond the media’s quest for things controversial and the usual defense mechanisms we see around us every day.
Anti-war demonstrators in London’s Trafalgar Square on Nov. 20th, 2003 parading with a statue of a fallen President Bush, likening him to Saddam Hussein in the famous photos of American troups toppling his statue in Bagdhad during the war. Photo courtesy of CrimeLynx.
An event, to be newsworthy, has to be startling, something we can all talk about in check-out lines or around water coolers. If an ordinary dog bites an ordinary man, nobody cares. That’s a commonplace occurrence to us, if not to the man or dog involved. But if a man bites a dog? Ah… it may not warrant a 5-inch banner, but the media will cover it.
The defense mechanism that drives a man to “bite a dog” takes a bit more in the way of explanation.
There are definite reasons why the emotion displayed by a crowd of demonstrators seems always to be greater than the sum of its parts. People, with opposition that varies in both kind and in degree, may assemble to protest, but the people we notice are the most vociferous or visually outrageous. Many people on those London Streets were not voicing hatred of anybody. They were there to register their considered opposition to a foreign policy with which they obviously disagreed. These citizens constitute the loyal opposition, vital to democratic governance. Had they been the only ones demonstrating, the Queen would have taken the President and Mrs. Bush for a ride in her golden carriage.
Reasoned protest is interested in making its reasons known. It states its point of view, perhaps its fears about the consequences of the present course, or its support for those who, it believes, have been unjustly treated; but whatever its reasons, politicians are wise to take note.
But many of the protesters in London displayed excessive emotions, some absurdly so, that in no way could have been construed as reasoned opposition, a fact noted by the men in the prison sangha and also by a few law abiding citizens who contacted me. How did it happen that the Queen could honor Hirohito, Adolph Hitler’s greatest ally, and be prohibited from extending the same honor to the President of the United States, then, as now, England’s greatest ally?
Sometimes, the answer is – to use the analogy of believing a coiled rope to be a coiled snake, (the ancient model of mistaking the false for the real) – that when we see what appears to be violent opposition, we are not seeing opposition at all.
Particularly in the religious life, we learn to suspect that public shouts are made to muffle private whispers, indications that an ego-protecting defense mechanism has been activated:
A vehement denunciation of a “shameful evil” frequently compensates a hidden inclination to indulge in that very evil, the classic Freudian “reaction formation.”
A vitriolic attack upon the character of an authority figure is often a displaced criticism, one which the individual is impotent to direct against his true antagonist.
Juvenile acts of mischief or wildly dramatized claims and charges usually signal regression, a reversion to a former, more carefree lifestyle. (We see the same type of regression in a “mid-life crisis” when the inability to deal with the demands of maturity drive a man to buy a sports car and frequent singles’ bars.)
An assortment of unsavory charges can unconsciously be projected onto another individual in order to avoid the pain of accepting responsibility for having had similar desires or having done similar deeds.
The common denominator of all of these mechanisms is publicity. It almost seems as if the fact of being unaware of having shifted guilt onto a surrogate requires a man to broadcast the result; and the more outspoken his statement, the more convincing it is to him that no such shift has occurred. The one who has shifted the guilt becomes exactly as innocent in his own mind as the one upon whom he has shifted it becomes guilty.
And so we find among those who peacefully assemble to march and demonstrate opposition, a peculiar fringe group that needs instead to pose for willing cameras to show off bizarre costumes, signs, and props, and then, to insure greater coverage, to provoke the police by rioting in the streets.
We are not speaking here of hypocrites, the charlatans and con-men. They know who they are and it remains for us merely to recognize them. The people we have to fear are those whose guilt is so buried in their psyche they could pass a polygraph – the ones who seduce us into helping them to gain that required publicity, who seem at first to share our concerns, but who unconsciously fulfill another agenda, one that propels them into outrageous behavior.
Whenever we lend our names to a cause we need to be prepared to encounter this element.
In the early days of my ministry, I was asked to attend a meeting “to form an advisory council” that would protect the interests of “women in jeopardy.” The invitation specified that the purpose was to influence municipal spending priorities. Without proper guidance the city fathers would succumb to special interest lobbyists – and naturally we responsible folks had to champion the needs of homeless women and children and, of course, the battered women’s shelter. Without sufficient prodding, city money would surely be spent on fountains and shrubbery. Not being against beautification projects; but being definitely for assisting battered women and homeless kids, I agreed to attend the organizational meeting.
The group convened in a private home. I signed in and took a seat in the living room and chatted while the room filled up, some two dozen women being finally present. At the gavel, the chairperson stood and announced, “Ladies, there are lives at stake!” I nodded in affirmation and then sat back in disbelief when she announced that the lives that were in jeopardy were the personnel of an abortion clinic. Police protection for the clinic was the priority item. Her voice began to rise in a seductive cadence. It had been discovered that an employee (whom she did not name) of the clinic was actually a “Pro-lifer!” – but this was more than a variation of industrial espionage. The Pro-Lifer had gained access to the clinic files; and she would no doubt give names and addresses to her confederates. Patients, doctors and nurses would be harassed and possibly even harmed. On and on she ranted about this Pro-Lifer’s deceit.
A “Pro-choice” manifesto was passed around and I noticed that my name was already printed on it. Aside from a general statement in support of “women at risk” there was no mention of assisting homeless women and children or a shelter for battered women. It was all about police protection and criminal prosecution of employees who gained access to confidential files through misrepresentation of their credentials or sympathies. Whether I agreed with this goal or not was beside the point. This was not one of those meetings that had been initiated with one goal in mind and then, as sometimes happens, had gone into a related but tangential direction. From the outset, this was the sole purpose of the meeting, and I had been deliberately deceived into attending it. As I read the document, astonished to see my name among the signatories, I heard several of the women plan a protest march and additionally to institute a campaign of harassment against the suspect employee. Telephone calls could be made through the night, products ordered and delivered to her house; trash cans overturned, and if she had a dog, a left-open gate would let it run loose. I told them to take my name off the letter and said simply that if they didn’t remove it, I’d get a lawyer. As I walked to my car, I saw several women also leave the meeting.
I never heard anything more about the group. Their protest march was overshadowed by another incident: a police officer had refused an order to restrict certain protest activity on grounds that it conflicted with his religious principles. He believed that it was his duty to protect the innocent – and that, according to his conscience, included unborn children. The town was considering the pros and cons of disciplining him when it was revealed that he was considerably in arrears in his child support payments. This revelation left the Pro-Life group in disarray and then public interest moved on to other matters.
If, in fact, there had been a spy in the abortion clinic and that person was responsible for harassment or harm to patients and clinic personnel, I hoped she’d be held responsible; but as I saw it, deceit is deceit as terrorism is terrorism. Tormenting someone with 2 AM phone calls and planting a bomb on a plane are acts that are different only in degree. They are not different in kind.
We have entered a new age of media-conscious terrorism . A hate-filled fanatic can command a passenger plane to be turned into a missile and in doing so can commandeer the world’s television screens. And the danger here is that in this larger-than-life presentation of himself, he can forge archetypal connections to the emotionally unstable. He is powerful; and his strength supports their fragile egos and redeems them. His cause becomes the target upon which they can unconsciously plot the trajectories of their own psychological weapons. The more they discharge, the more emptied of hate their arsenal appears. Though they have been wretchedly helpless to deal with their own enfeebling guilt, in this catharsis their strength returns; and it does not matter at all that they have misdirected their anger, it is enough that they are relieved of its burden.
We don’t know how Norwegians felt about seeing their flag being burned by Buddhist monks; or how the sincere demonstrators in London felt about a few protesters whose excessive actions converted the right of political expression into a threat upon the lives of the Queen and the President. To us, watching on TV, it seemed strange that all the violence and hatred that were so graphically demonstrated in support of Saddam Hussein’s regime were done in the name of an appeasing peace.
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya
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