Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Waiving The Flag With The Right Intention

When I consider the combination of the confrontational political atmosphere of today with the instant (no thought necessary) medium of tweets and status updates, I shouldn’t be so surprised by some of the mindless statements people make. Yet, I am surprised. And bothered. And I really can’t sit around being all “zen” about it.

It’s not the politics itself; it is the confusion of opinion with reality and the intentions underlying the statements. Yes, we are all entitled to our own opinion. But that doesn’t mean all opinions are equal. If I believe the moon is made of moon rocks and you believe the moon is made of Swiss cheese, these beliefs are not equally valid.

Enter Michelle Bachmann.

"I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" -Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Oct. 2008 (more quotes)

Politics aside, claiming that any of our representatives in Congress are anti-American is ludicrous--like claiming the moon is made of Swiss cheese (although if this were the case I’d have been more likely to become an astronaut). But this is the uncivil tenor of conversation these days. The fact is, Tea Party Pete and Progressive Liberal Linda both serve the country in their own ways. Both waive the American flag earnestly. That cannot be denied (at least, reasonably). Yet, there is a difference.

When I apply the buddhist concept of right intention to all this flag waiving, the difference is stark. Now, the word right is often swapped with wholesome or skillful (as opposed to unwholesome or unskillful). So whether we call it right intention, wholesome intention or skillful intention, the idea remains the same.

From the perspective of buddhist philosophy, the world is an interconnected whole (like one grand ecosystem if we go back to High School biology lessons--thank you Mrs. Scalf). And since it is whole and complete, there is a sense of abundance. On the contrary, if you view the world as a fragmented, dualistic society where all are competing for a few meager scraps, there is a sense of lack.

Acting from a sense of abundance, our intentions are that of generosity. Acting from a sense of lack, our intentions are that of greed. So how does this tie in with flag waiving?

Generous flag waiving unifies, galvanizes and inspires a group of people to rise to their highest character. The greatest leaders in history have always done this.

Greedy flag waiving separates, splits and pits one group against another in their most base survival instincts (like Bachmann did). From an intention of greed, patriotism is used (and abused) as a way to draw a tight circle around those that agree with the flag waiver, and by doing so, drawing others out. 

On a more personal scale, there are several ‘copy and paste’ status updates (usually in ALL CAPS) and e-mail forwards that use greedy patriotism. They waive the flag of patriotism:

  • to insult other countries (freedom fries);
  • to argue against immigration (our country not theirs);
  • to keep the Spanish language out of our schools and government (thank god they don’t make us say the pledge in Spanish),
  • to ostracize anyone who disagrees with their point of view (the Birther movement against President Obama),
  • and the list goes on ad infinitum...

These are not mindful sentiments. These are uses of patriotism from the view of the world as an us-versus-them battle to the death. Now, I am not denying that there are times when patriotic sentiment rightfully helps unify a group of people against a common enemy--Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were worthy of the wrath they received. But, it is simply not appropriate to waive the flag of patriotism every time someone disagrees with you.

After all, isn’t the greedy intention for flag waiving in direct contrast to the symbol of the Statue of Liberty and its generous inscription. And isn’t it anathema to the idea of the United States as a land of opportunity where one is willing to offer a hand to help an honest person up off the ground (regardless of what nationality is on his or her passport).


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. ~ Statue of Liberty

We all choose (consciously or unconsciously) what intentions drive our actions. I find life more fulfilling when I choose generosity. You may see the need for greed, no one can change that. But if you find yourself thinking that lack is the way of the world and a dog-eat-dog xenophobic attitude toward “others” is the best tactic, I ask you this. If you and I were neighbors and your house had just burned down, would you want me to act from generosity and invite you in for the night and feed you or would you rather I act from greed and tell you tough luck?