Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Yes, Virginia, "Cultural Appropriation" Really Does Exist

By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community ....

And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children? Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home.
[U.S. President Andrew Jackson, Address to Congress, December 8, 1830]
I was on my way to a Zen Meditation retreat in Kentucky when I heard the news, on the radio, about the deaths during a "Spiritual Warrior" workshop in Sedona, Arizona, led by James Arthur ("As seen on Oprah, Larry King and The Secret") Ray.

The Temple where the Zen retreat (not the Spiritual Warrior workshop) was held had been built in the architectural style of a traditional Korean Buddhist temple. The adoption of this design was done at the urging of Zen Master Seung Sahn, one of the leading figures in modern Korean Buddhism (in fact, he is considered one of the "Great Soen [Zen] Masters of Korean History"). The precise location of the Temple itself was determined using Feng Shui, in which Zen Master Seung Sahn was an adept. The retreat was led by an american, Zen Master Dae Gak (who has been my Zen teacher for almost 20 years), who received his training to be a Zen Master under Master Seung Sahn.

So there I was, an American of European ancestry going to Kentucky (of all places) to participate in a Korean Buddhist religious ritual. A significant part of the retreat consisted of traditional Buddhist chanting done twice a day. This chanting was done mostly in Chinese (actually Sino-Korean, the liturgical language of Korean Buddhism, similar to classical Chinese). Even more important were the daily talks given by Zen Master Dae Gak, who (as is usually the case for Zen teachers) uses the "koan" literature from the Sung Dynasty in China as the basis for his talks.

Was I engaging in "cultural appropriation"??

Obviously not.

Both Buddhism and Geomancy (Feng Shui) came to Korea from China. Both underwent significant changes in Korea, but I would argue that at least in the case of Buddhism (my knowledge of Feng Shui is vanishingly small), the essence of the Buddhist teachings was preserved (and in some ways perhaps even strengthened) in the process of adapting them to Korea. Of course the Buddhist tradition had originally come from India and had already undergone significant changes in it's transmission from India to China. For more on Geomancy in Korea see, for example, the book The culture of fengshui in Korea: an exploration of East Asian geomancy by Hong-key Yoon. For more on the tradition of Korean Buddhism see, for example, the website of the Jogye Buddhist Order, the largest Buddhist denomination in Korea.

Buddhism is one of the great "success stories" of world religions. Starting in what is today the nation of Nepal, it spread to the west as far as the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria; south to island that is today known as Sri Lanka; east to China, Korea, Japan; and north to Tibet and Mongolia. It also spread throughout the Indian sub-continent and from there to Southeast Asia (including where the nations of Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia are today).

But unlike Christianity and Islam, Buddhism did not engage in a spiritual scorched earth policy as it spread. In India people continued to worship their old Goddesses and Gods, often while simultaneously following the teachings of the Buddha. In Tibet to this day people still practice the ancient Bon religion which long predated the arrival of Buddhism (in fact, the modern Ri-Me movement of Tibetan Buddhism explicitly promotes the simultaneous study of Bon and Buddhism). In East Asia Buddhism developed syncretic forms in combination with Confucianism, Taoism and more ancient traditions (such as Shinto in Japan or Shamanism in Korea), but in addition to mutually influencing each other, these traditions also persisted in institutionally distinct forms. Not one religion, anywhere on earth, has ever been "extirpated" in the name of Buddhism.

That's the thing about "cultural appropriation". It really does exist, but it is merely one aspect of a much larger phenomenon: cultural genocide. Where cultural appropriation genuinely occurs one will find that it is part and parcel of a wider effort at eradicating the very culture that is being "appropriated". This "appropriation" is like the charming practice of early Christians who destroyed Pagan Temples and then "appropriated" bits and pieces of what was left over for their Churches.

The charge of cultural appropriation made against James Arthur Ray actually has some merit to it, but not because he is a New Ager wanker pretending to teach things that he knows nothing about (although that is true enough). James Arthur Ray is involved in cultural appropriation because he actively and proudly promotes the culture that enriched itself on the savage exploitation of the native americans. That culture is called Capitalism, which, in turn, is simply one of the modern faces of Christendom. For the inextricable linkage between Capitalism and Christianity see the works of Max Weber (for example, his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and, more recently, Rodney Stark (for example, his The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success).

In fact, the whole "self-help" movement is deeply rooted not only in the ersatz pop-psychology bilge that is the essence of Capitalist "culture", but in the very teachings of Christianity itself. While this is most easily seen in the perfect merging of Calvinism and Capitalism found in the non-scriptural credo, "God helps those who help themselves" the connection goes much deeper. The difference between Max Weber and Rodney Stark is that Stark sees the much deeper connection between Capitalism qua Capitalism and Christianity qua Christianity.

For his own part, James Arthur Ray is not ambiguous concerning his relationship with Capitalism. He promotes himself, literally, as the "Master of the Entrepreneurial Mindset". You can't make that shit up. Also see the immediately preceding post in this blog On the Personal, the Political, the Pathetic, and the Commoditization of the Spiritual and especially the paper by political scientist George Davis quoted in that post, and the many helpful references found in Davis' paper.

Finally, below is a very relevant excerpt from Sita Ram Goel's Catholic Ashrams: Sannyasins or Swindlers? In that book Goel examines the more subtle tack taken by some Christian missionaries in India after the spectacular failure of more aggressive tactics. In particular Goel takes on the phenomenon of "Christian Ashrams" and the more general phenomenon of so called Indigenization. The following is Chapter Two of Goel's book, Indigenisation: A Predatory Enterprise:
The precedent cited most frequently by the literature of Indigenisation is that which was set by the Greek Fathers when they used Greek cultural forms for conveying Christianity to the pagans in the Roman Empire. Fr. Bede recommends this precedent to the mission in India. "The Church," he says, "has a perfect model of how it should proceed today in the way it proceeded in the early centuries. Christianity came out of Palestine as a Jewish sect. Yet within a few centuries this Jewish sect had taken all the forms of thought and expression of the Greco-Roman world. A Christian theology developed in Greek modes of thought, as did a Christian liturgy in Greek language and in Greek modes of expression; a calender also developed according to Greek and Roman traditions. Surely all that is a wonderful example meant for our instruction of how the Church can present herself to an alien world, receiving forms into herself while retaining her own Catholic message."1

Another expert on Indigenisation is more explicit about what the Church had done in the Greco-Roman world. "As we reflect on the process," writes R.H.S. Boyd, "by which Christianity in the earlier centuries became acclimatised in the Greek world, and by which it made use of certain categories of Greek thought, we are struck by the double face of its acceptance of 'secularised' Greek philosophy and philosophical terminology, and its complete rejection of Greek religion and mythology. Greek religion was gradually secularised. Philosophy was separated from what had been a religio-philosophic unity. The religious content - which had already been deeply influenced by secularisation right from the time of Aristophanes and Euripides - developed into a cultural, literary, artistic entity 'incapsulated' and isolated, except in the Orphic and mystery traditions, from that living, existential faith which transforms men's lives."

There is no evidence that Greek culture had become secularised before some of its forms were taken over by the Church. The history of that period stands thoroughly documented by renowned scholars. The record leaves no doubt that it was the Church which forcibly secularised Greek culture by closing pagan schools, destroying pagan temples, and prohibiting pagan rites. In fact, the doings of the Church in the Greco-Roman world is one of the darkest chapters in human history. Force and fraud are the only themes in that chapter. But facts, it seems, have no role to play when it comes to missionary make-believe.

In any case, Dr. Boyd has convinced himself that "there is at present a rapid process of secularisation going on within Hinduism". He finds that philosophical Hinduism in particular has become "demythologized". "It would seem, therefore," he continues, "as though Hinduism were already started on the path followed by Greek religion. And so we are led to the question of whether or not it is legitimate for Christian theologians to use and adapt categories of what still purports to be religious Hinduism, and yet is very largely secularised. What, indeed, is the real meaning of the word 'Hindu'? Does it describe the fully mythological Hindu religion? Does it describe certain philosophico-religious systems? Or is it simply a synonym for 'Indian culture'? We shall find that some Indian Christian theologians, notably Brahmabandhab, have believed that Christianity was not incompatible with cultural, secularised Hinduism."

Legitimate or illegitimate, compatible or incompatible, the literature of Indigenisation provides ample proof that several Hindu philosophies are being actively considered by the mission strategists as conveyors of Christianity. The Advaita of Shankaracharya has been the hottest favourite so far. The Vishistadvaita of Ramanuja, the Bhakti of the Alvar saints and Vaishnava Acharyas, the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Vichara of Raman Maharshi are not far behind. For all we know, Kashmir Saivism and Shakta Tantra may also become grist to the missionary mill before long. Missionaries working among Harijans are advocating that the Nirguna Bhakti of Kabir and Ravidas should also be accepted as candidates for service to Christianity. The more enterprising mission strategists recommend that different systems of Hindu philosophy should he used for tackling different sections of Hindu society. In the upshot, we are witnessing a keen contest among Indigenisation theologians for acquiring doctorates in Hindu religion and philosophy. Christian seminaries in India and abroad conduct crash courses in the same field. Christian publishing houses are manufacturing learned monographs, comparing Hindu philosophers with Christian theologians - ancient, medieval, and modern. And the same operation is being extended to other spheres of Hindu culture.

Fr. Bede is not bothered by considerations of legitimacy or compatibility. What concerns him most is the need of the Church. "We are faced," he says, "with a tradition of philosophy and mysticism, of art and morality, of a richness and depth not excelled, and perhaps not equalled, by the tradition of Greek culture which the Church encountered in the Roman Empire. What then is our attitude towards it to be? It is clear that we cannot simply reject it. The attempt to impose an alien culture on the East has proved a failure. There are no doubt elements in this tradition which we may have to reject, just as the Church had to reject certain elements in the Greek tradition. But what is required of us is something much more difficult. It is an effort of discrimination, such as the Greek Fathers from Clement and Origen to Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Aeropagite undertook, not merely rejecting what is wrong but assimilating all that is true in a vital act of creative thought."

This is not the occasion for an evaluation of the philosophical calibre of the Greek Fathers. Those who have taken the punishment of examining their performance without wearing theological glasses, tell us that even at their best they were no more than practitioners of petty casuistries. What comes in for questioning in the present context is the Christian claim that Jesus scored over Zeus simply because some theological text-twisters tried to pass Judaic superstitions as Greek sublimities. The history of Christianity in the Roman Empire is not an obscure subject. The careers of many Christian emperors, popes, patriarchs, bishops, saints, and monks are proof that the contest between paganism and Christianity was decided not by philosophical cajoleries but by brute physical force.

The mission in India had no scruples about using force whenever and wherever it had the opportunity. It changed over to other methods only when it could wield the whip no more. The latest method sounds soft but is no less sinister. "Indigenisation," say Kaj Baago, "is evangelisation. It is the planting of the gospel inside another culture, another philosophy, another religion." What happens in the process to that "another culture, another philosophy, another religion" is not the mission's concern.

Fr. Bede give the clarion call. "In India," he says, "we need a christian Vedanta and a christian Yoga, that is a system of theology which makes use not only of the terms and concepts but of the whole structure of thought of the Vedanta, as the Greek Fathers used Plato and Aristotle; and a spirituality which will make use not merely of the practices of Hatha Yoga, by which most people understand Yoga, but of the great systems of Karma, Bhakti and Jnan Yoga, the way of works or action, of love or devotion, and of knowledge or wisdom, through which the spiritual genius of India has been revealed through the centuries." Mark the words, "make use". The entire approach is instrumental and cynical. Yet Fr. Bede calls it a "vital act of creative thought". The whole business could have been dismissed with the contempt it deserves or laughed out as ludicrous but for the massive finance and the giant apparatus which the Christian mission in India has at its disposal.

As one surveys the operation mounted by the mission under the label of Indigenisation, one is driven to an inescapable conclusion about the character of Christianity: Christianity has been and remains a sterile shibboleth devoid of a living spirituality and incapable of creating its own culture. This spiritual poverty had forced Christianity into a predatory career from the start. It survived and survives to-day by plundering the cultures of living and prosperous spiritual traditions.

Christianity's predatory nature is loathsome to pagans who have inherited and are proud of their own culture. Yet it is quite in keeping with Jehovah's promise in the Bible. "Just as the Lord your God promised to your ancestors, Abraham, Issac and Joseph," proclaims Jehovah, "he will give you a land with large and prosperous cities which you did not build. The houses will be full of good things which you did not put in them, and there will be wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive orchards you did not plant."

The Bible preserves a graphic and gory record of how the descendants of Abraham and Issac and Joseph helped Jehovah in fulfilling this promise. They appropriated the lands and properties of the pagans with a clean conscience. They were convinced that they were only taking possession of what already belonged to them by the terms of a divine pledge.

Christianity claims that Jehovah switched his patronage to the Church militant when the latter-day progeny of his earlier prophets became disobedient and killed his only son. It was now the turn of the Church to redeem the divine pledge. The history of the Church in many lands and over many centuries shows that it did far better than the preceding chosen people. It deprived the pagans not only of their physical possessions but also of their cultural creations. The condottieri who carried out the operation in the field of culture are known as the Greek Fathers.

It should not be a matter of surprise, therefore, that the mission has started singing hymns of praise to Hindu culture. That is the mission casting covetous glances before mounting a marauding expedition. What causes concern is the future of Hindu culture once it falls into the hands of the Church. The fate of Greek culture after it was taken over by the Church is a grim reminder.

Hindu culture grew out of Hindu religion over many millennia. The once cannot be separated from the other without doing irreparable damage to both. The Christian mission is bent upon destroying Hindu religion. Hindu culture will not survive for long if the mission succeeds. The plundered Hindu plumage which Christianity will flaunt for a time is bound to fade before long, just as the Greek and Roman cultures faded.

Let there be no mistake that the Christian mission is not only a destroyer of living religions but also of living cultures. It promises no good to a people, least of all to the Hindus.

[Postscript: And if you haven't seen the movie Magnolia, well, why the heck not!?!?!?]

On the Personal, the Political, the Pathetic, and the Commoditization of the Spiritual

James Arthur Ray, the leader of the recent "Spiritual Warrior" workshop that ended up killing two people during a sweat ceremony gone horrifically wrong, is one of three people identified in The Secret as, and I am not making this up, "philosophers". The three are:

John Demartini
Bob Proctor
James Arthur Ray

"Philosopher" is just one sub-category of the 24 "teachers" credited as part of the spiritual juggernaut that is The Secret. One "teacher" is identified simply as "The Miracle Man", another as a "Visionary", one a "Metaphysician" and one as a "Past Life Plant Therapist" (OK, I made that one up). I guess the makers of The Secret just asked people what they wanted to be identified as. I would have said "astronaut".

Interestingly, two people are identified as Quantum Physicists, and both of them actually are that: Fred Alan Wolf and John Hagelin have Ph.D.'s in physics (Wolf from UCLA, Hagelin from Harvard). (If Fred Alan Wolf knew the secret to success, btw, he would not be hanging out with these low-brow sleazebags. But you gotta pay the mortgage, I guess.)

James Arthur Ray's "philosophy" appears to be a mish-mash of the teachings of P.T. Barnum, Dale Carnegie, and Professor Harold Hill. Here are some representative quotes taken from his website:

"The real key to creating the life of your dreams is achieving true Harmonic Wealth®."

"You simply (and deeply) want to make more money and become more successful."

"You've come to the right place [if] you want to double, triple, even multiply by ten the size of your business."

"Since the beginning of the Journey, I have increased my monthly commissions 100%." [from a satisfied customer]

The following is taken from a fascinating paper by George Davis (Assistant Professor of Political Science at Marshall University in Huntington, WV), Pop-psychology and the Spirit of Capitalism: Self-Help, and the Work Ethic as Neo-Liberal Governmentality (a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, March 2007, Las Vegas, NV):
Understood as a governmentality, neo-liberalism represents a rather distinct approach to social and political life. Although neo-liberalism shares traditional liberalism’s concern with the ways in which individual freedom might be maximized, where traditional liberalism posits the market as simply one domain of freedom among others, neo liberalism “extend[s] the rationality of the market . . . to areas that are not exclusively economic” (Foucault 1997, 74). Neo-liberalism, in effect, crashes the barricades that separate the economic from the social and political. It breaks down any distinctions between the market and other possible domains of modern life and considers all facets of human existence governable by the same economic logic or rationality. Perhaps Gordon (1991) puts it most succinctly when he explains how this logic of the market now
concerns all purposive conduct entailing strategic choices between alternative paths, means and instruments; or, yet, more broadly, all rational conduct (including rational thought as a variety of rational conduct); or again, finally, all conduct, rational or irrational, which responds to its environment in a non-random fashion . . .
Economics thus become an “approach” capable in principle of addressing the totality of human behavior, and consequently, of envisaging a coherent, purely economic, programming the totality of governmental action. (43)
Where traditional liberalism imagined the state functioning only as the ultimate arbiter and regulator of market freedom (e.g. Smith 2000, 779), American neo-liberalism reverses this relationship between state and market and offers the organizing principle of free market as “the organizing principle for the state and society” (Lemke 2001, 200, emphasis mine). The individual commitment to self, work, and personal responsibility that Max Weber christened the Protestant ethic seems an important foundation stone in this neo-liberal worldview (see Taylor 1984).
Foucault 1997 is: “The Birth of Biopolitics.” In Paul Rabinow ed. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Essential Works of Michel Foucault Vol. I. New York: New Press, 73-80.
Gordon 1991 is: “Governmental Rationality: an Introduction.” In Graham Burchell et. al. eds. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality.Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1-52.
Lemke 2001 is: “’The Birth of Biopolitics’: Michel Foucault’s Lectures at the Collège de France on Liberal Governmentality.” Economy and Society 30 (2): 190-207.
Taylor 1984 is: Sources of the Self. New York: Cambridge University Press.
For any other sources or references please see Davis' original paper linked to above.