Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Few Observations about the Brit Hume Drama

Although this issue has lasted longer than the average Mayfly, it's probably on its way out very soon. Some other drama will appear to fill in the media landscape, and some other set of groups will be pitted against each other as a result. Before the last gasp comes, I'd like to share a few observations I've had.

1. The dramatic attracts an almost instant following.

It was amazing to me how, in a matter of about 24 hours, about half the lifespan of an average Mayfly, dozens of bloggers and on-line gawkers arrived to write something about Brit Hume's comments. It didn't matter what they wrote, only that comments were written and responded to in such rapid fashion. The speed of the internet has clearly ramped all this up and, that ramping up brings some interesting consequences.

a.) On the positive end, the ability to correct misinformation is so much easier and quicker now than any time during human history. Go back just a few hundred years ago, and comments made about, say Buddhism by a Catholic priest in a mass, might never receive a rebuttal during a person's lifetime, let alone in a matter of minutes like it is today. In addition, although Marcus, among a few others I have seen, wishes that people would have just let Hume's comments pass, it's clear that the level out public outpouring by Buddhists and people sympathetic to Buddhism - or to Tiger Woods maybe - led to a public discussion of Buddhism that might correct some biases held out there, as well as intrigue some people who might never have sought out Buddhism otherwise.

b.) On the negative end, the ability to read and respond to just about anything is so easy now that people often struggle to filter out the unnecessary. In addition, although I feel strongly that Brit Hume's call to conversion is a grave misuse of journalism, it's also true that I didn't much react to the fact that Buddhism itself was being dismissed. Others have however, which brings up a quandary for all of us out there who consider ourselves Buddhists. Namely, if someone condemns our practice, and we react to that, why is it that we are reacting? If the teachings are boats to get us to the "other shore" and then to be discarded, then what is it we are defending? Personal image? Public image? I really think this is a quandary because on the one hand, I feel it's imperative that people stop condemning religion and spiritualities, and/or claiming that their particular group is better or the only way. On the other hand, it seems kind of foolish for Buddhists to defend Buddhism, given what our practice teaches us.

2. What sparks debate and/or conflict is often trivial.

Think of any domestic dispute, fight between friends or strangers, or even some international conflicts. When you look at that which sparked the eruption, it's often pretty trivial.

In a comment made on another blog, Marcus wrote:

Gladly, most Buddhists happily shrug this off knowing that without the enraged blogs, the letter-campaigns, the us-vs-them knee-jerk reaction, it all soon goes away.

There are villages in southern Thailand where entire families are shot and killed simply because they are the last remaining Buddhists in that village – where is the reaction from the Buddhist blogosphere when that happens?

Buddhists continue to be persecuted in China, in Burma (the chanting of the Metta Sutra was recently banned there) and in other places on a daily basis, yet the Buddhist blogosphere generates moe heat over one individual Christian’s spoken opinion than any number of official regimes’ torture.

I totally agree with him that the issues he brought up are, in the grand scheme, much more important to be discussing, debating, writing about. Some of us bloggers have written a bit about some of these issues, but they deserve more attention. But let's face it, it's harder to write accurately and clearly about longstanding national and international oppressions than it is to write about a single news commentator misusing his position to proselytize. Which points to the fact that I believe Marcus' comment about most Buddhists happily shrug off this kind of issue is false. Maybe many of us let this one pass, but then someone runs over part of our flowerbed (See Ox Herding), or someone says to us that chanting is stupid, and we fly off the handle. Small, trivial events trigger deeper, unresolved attachments, gripes, and ignorance, plain and simple. In my opinion, it has been valid to call out Brit Hume's comments in a certain way, but it also points to the basic human struggle to make an appropriate response. We fail to write a lot about on going issues like those Marcus rightly pointed to, and yet we can fill volumes and volumes about Brit Hume, our "asshole" neighbor, Bill Harris, and other such story lines. It's not that the latter shouldn't be commented on, but the level of intensity around them tends to be inflated, whereas we struggle to maintain an appropriate level of intensity around issues that should have such attention, like the continued oppression of millions of people in Burma.

So, that's about all I have right now. Have a peaceful Thursday everyone.


NellaLou said...

Good post Nathan. Having jumped on the drama bandwagon on previous occasions, this one I almost didn't comment on in my blog. It gave me pause and that was a good thing. Although I did 1/2 a post on it, the swollen up sense of righteous indignation isn't there. This man is not different from me really in trying to express the sincerity of his beliefs. Sure wrong time, wrong place and rather awkwardly as well. I've done that too.

It's a distinction to me that has been clarified by this episode. Reading intention and applying that to commentary on events could be a little more generous on my part in this instance and perhaps in general.

Exploring the "why" of a situation and avoiding jumping to conclusions before that exploration has fermented for a while.

A lot of hue and cry over things does bring them attention but the same things still keep on occurring. It is not possible to control the world, other people and often one's self.

These thoughts are a bit disjointed.

Having a bout of activist disillusionment possibly.

Kyle said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I made a post to reply to it since I had a bit to say.

Mumon K said...

I gotta make the typical point I make, given my background. Sorry if it seems off-point, but to me, it isn't - it DOES highlight an issue Buddhists in the US should face.

Buddhists continue to be persecuted in China,...

Strictly speaking that is not true. Buddhists who advocate for the historical separatist known as the Dalai Lama aren't treated well in China.

China actually has been favoring Buddhism quite a bit in its Pure Land and Chan varieties. I know you never hear it in the US and "Buddhist" media, but the monks there join the temples at young ages for the same reason as monks anywhere, and they practice Buddhism.

I've met them, I've talked to them.

Having been to China a number of times, having seen these temples (some of them huge & well attended), having been in Temples such as the Lama Temple in Beijing where the issue of the Panchen Lama was openly and frankly discussed, I can only say that many people say things about China without actually having first-hand knowledge of it.

The Chinese government doesn't like the Dalai Lama because he was the titular head of a guerilla campaign against the Chinese government in the late 50s - 60s.

Now I'll duck & cover, but I stand by this statement.

Nathan said...


Marcus, who made the comment you quoted, lives in Thailand and is from England, so this is a bigger issue than just the media and Buddhist perceptions here in the U.S.

Tibet was not part of China - it was an independent nation. I fail to see how the Dalai Lama can be viewed as a guerilla leader of any sort.

I have nothing more to say on the topic right now though.


Nathan said...


Marcus, who made the comment you quoted, lives in Thailand and is from England, so this is a bigger issue than just the media and Buddhist perceptions here in the U.S.

Tibet was not part of China - it was an independent nation. I fail to see how the Dalai Lama can be viewed as a guerilla leader of any sort.

I have nothing more to say on the topic right now though.


Mumon K said...

Thanks for the reply. The topic is actually quite complex re: Tibet. I think it's time to address the issue again on my blog. I think it's a story few Tibet-philes in the West know.

Richard Harrold said...

Nathan, I'm sure Mumon can speak for himself if he cares to, but he did not state that the Dalai Lama was a guerilla leader; rather he said that he was the "titular" head of a guerilla campaign, and the definition of titular means one is the head of something in name only. This would imply that the actions of said guerilla army were carried out without any direction by the Dalai Lama.

I think Mumon is merely explaining historical fact; he is not making a statement as to whether the Chinese Communists are justified in their oppression or with the occupation of Tibet.

A funny this, this printed word and how it is viewed.

Nathan said...

Hi Mumon and Richard,

I actually have heard that there are plenty of Buddhists practicing in China currently.

And yes, I completely missed the word "titular" in the sentence, and so misread it.

I'm definitely not the most well versed on the Tibet/China situation, which is why I responded with such a short answer.


Algernon said...

Marcus mentioned Thailand, and that reminded me that when one of my blog's readers asked me what I thought about Brit Hume's comment, the part of me that seeks context and perspective was reminded me of the demolition of the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban.

It was, in the end, just a bunch of rocks -- and the Taliban did nothing to change that, only their form.

What struck me more about what they did was the unmistakable message they were sending to Buddhists in Afghanistan. And for some reason, people matter to me more than rocks. (I know, "avoid picking and choosing." ;-) )

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

Yes, nice post. Thank you.

But can I just say one more thing? Lot's of people have said this morning on their blogs that (in summary) "at least it got people talking about Buddhism".

As you pointed out, all this has "led to a public discussion of Buddhism that might correct some biases held out there"

My fear is that it might have actually created some biases.

If the only time people get to hear about Buddhism and from Buddhists is when they are writing to say how offended they are, when they are angry, when they are demanding that private indiviuals make public apologies for their opinions, when they are calling that indivual all kinds of insulting thing on their blogs, well, what exactly is it that people will learn about Buddhism?

I think this post of yours is totally right when you call for an appropriate response. Sadly, I honestly believe that what happened in many cases this week was not appropriate.

Wishing everyone peace,


Anonymous said...


"aren't treated well"

That's what you said, that Buddhists (who support the Dalai Lama) "aren't treated well in China".

No, you are quite wrong. They are more than just not treated well, they are tortured, brutalised, even murdered.

This week (yes, in the last few days while everyone's been discussing Brit Hume's personal opinions on Tiger Woods) the Chinese have sentenced Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche to eight and a half years in prison on what, in my opnion and that of most of the rest of the world (those who are bothered to look) on trumped up charges in an unfair trial.

During the interegation of Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche he was "handcuffed by an alternating hand each day to an iron pillar in the interrogation room, and with arms outstretched and unable to sit down he was interrogated continuously for four days and four nights by a team of six people in three units of two people; at the same time the defendant was told that if he did not confess that the weapons and explosives were his, then his wife and son would be detained."

So, yes, the Chinese continue to torture Buddhists and Buddhist monks on an almost daily basis.

And the western Buddhist blogoshere don't even notice, they are too busy writing letters to Fox news demanding that someone apologise for giving their opinion.


seanrobsville said...

This silly squabble between Christianity and Buddhism is, in the long term, completely irrelevant. Ultimately Islam will dominate.

spldbch said...

"On the other hand, it seems kind of foolish for Buddhists to defend Buddhism, given what our practice teaches us."

I wish you'd talked a little more about this. I think it's this statement that is the main point.

Mumon K said...

Finally getting around to a reply on the Tibet thing.

Sorry for the delay.