December 31, 2015

Taoism for the Modern Age

I used to be on a popular dating site where you answered a bunch of questions to try to match with like-minded people.  One of the questions was "How do you feel about Taoism?". The positive answer option was "I love the Tao Te Ching!" and the negative was "Don't like it. Taoists are too passive."

This irritated me in two different ways.

First, there is a second major Taoist text, the Chuang Tzu, that is a much better exposition of Taoist ideas.  It's funnier, clearer, and is made up of narrative pieces that make it a better read.  Unfortunately, other than the famous piece about Chuang Tzu dreaming he is a butterfly, it is not as well-known in the west.

The better known Tao Te Ching is quite challenging to translate, even by the usually challenging standards of Classical Chinese texts (there is a whole other post in that), and some of the translations available in English are really quite loopy, so that people can interpret them however they want with very little understanding.

This might account for the second irritation: the belief that Taoism is essentially the philosophy for slackers who plan to smoke dope in their basement for the rest of their lives.

On the contrary, I think Taoism is exactly the philosophy needed for modern western people, especially North Americans. Unfortunately, Benjamin Hoff had the same idea with his book The Tao of Pooh, a book that was popular when I was in university.  And though his book is amusing, I think it gave a lot of people the wrong idea about Taoism by aggressively attacking "Confucian" ideas (really North American success values by proxy) and making it seem that Taoism was just hippy "dropping out" from an ancient Chinese source.

But Taoism is much more sophisticated than that.  Sure, Chuang Tzu light-heartedly spoofs other contemporary philosophers, such as Confucius and Hui Tzu (the latter a philosopher of logical reasoning), but it is not to negate them, but show that their concerns are only part of a greater whole, a bigger picture.

We don't need to give up our ideas, values and goals, or abandon our strivings, so much as to remember that we are part of a huge, complex world, with its own forces and "ends". Learning to go with the world's natural flow and align our designs with the currents (human and natural) around us would allow us save some of our energy and to enjoy our lives more: you don't have to paddle so much if you are going with the current.

So a good Modern Taoist doesn't have to be a slacker. They will just spend more time figuring out how they can use the current to get them somewhere they might like to go, rather than ignoring that current and blindly going up against it and making themselves miserable in the process.

December 28, 2015

Donald Trump and Rob Ford: Diagnosis and Prescription

I live in a city that was briefly famous around the world for having a clueless, egotistical, crack-smoking mayor. 

Like many Torontonians (and most Downtowners), I was embarrassed and frequently mystified that Rob Ford had been elected in the first place. Who were these bozos who had voted for him? Couldn't they see how incompetent and ridiculous he is? But his "Ford Nation" fans couldn't seem to get enough, never censuring his antics, and eating up his "shock the bourgeoisie" pronouncements.

More recently, in the US, Donald Trump has been making headlines with his own shocking pronouncements.  The more shocking they are, the more enthusiastically received they are by supporters, and the more establishment voices are appalled and dismayed, with frequent astonishment that anyone can succeed with such buffoonery and demagoguery.

Part of what these two men have in common is reasonably obvious: both on the right, both appealing to a working class constituency.  On the surface, both seem to appeal to white, native-born voters, but interestingly, in the case of Rob Ford, many of his supporters are actually from visible minorities.

Another thing they share: their antics make the urban, globalized establishment crazy.

And I think this is the essence of their appeal, rather than the literal content of their policies. In both cases, a disaffected group takes pleasure in seeing the winners in the current economic order tweaked and horrified. 

In Rob Ford's case it was the suburban poor forced out of downtown by gentrification, and in Donald Trump's it is working class or small town men whose economic prospects have been off-shored by globalization.

Democracy works best when all constituencies feel that they have a voice. Perhaps rather than reacting with outrage at crazy policy suggestions, we should listen to the underlying concerns that fuel them. Not only will we reduce our own risk of apoplexy, we might strengthen our democracy and our society. 

If that doesn't move you, think of it this way: if you listen to the concerns of the constituency, you will stop encouraging the creation of the maddening showboat politicians needed to give them a voice.