I’m no marketing executive, but I’ve watched enough TV to understand the basic syllogism underlying all endorsements: celebrity X is well-liked; celebrity X will appear with a product; therefore the product will be well-liked. Variations arise, of course, depending on what the advertisers are trying to sell. They get Megan Fox to endorse jeans because she’s sexy. They get George Clooney to endorse tequila because he’s classy. And, as it turns out, they get His Holiness the Dalai Lama to endorse market capitalism because he’s virtuous.
Before calling foul at the false equivalence of that final example, take a look at last week’s Times Op-Ed “Capitalism and the Dalai Lama” from Arthur Brooks, the president of a free market think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Brooks struck up a friendship with the Dalai Lama in April of 2013, and recently welcomed the renowned monk for a series of panels at AEI. (I wrote about these panels in February.) Brooks’s column proudly and extensively recounts the visit, invoking the Dalai Lama’s moral authority for the advancement of a neoconservative mission.
The article is hardly a departure for Brooks. In fact, it’s his job. As the President of AEI, he is responsible for forwarding the organization’s stated goals of “expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity, and strengthening free enterprise.” In other words, he’s a salesman for the very act of sale. If America is an engine of industry, then Brooks is in charge of taking it on a perpetual roadshow—polishing the frame, unclogging the cylinders, and never forgetting to mention the horsepower.
The odd man out in this case is the Dalai Lama. The seeming incongruity of the friendship between him and Brooks—an avuncular Marxist in maroon robes and the beltway’s top market evangelist—may be the precise source of its appeal for His Holiness, since events like the panel offer a perfect opportunity for him to model a “nondual” approach to policy discussion. Leveraging his unique public persona, he can remind us that—no matter our political valence—we are all just people seeking joy. Weirdly enough his approach worked, at least for the day. The Dalai Lama’s unconditional acceptance intoxicated the panelists, eliciting profuse appreciation and drunken hopes that Washington might “finally break out of the rut [it has] been in for so many years.”
The degree of collective delusion was shocking. It was as though a bunch of gladiators had met at the coliseum for a seminar on conflict resolution—and they convinced themselves that, going forward, the stadium owner and customers would be just as happy paying to see a pleasant conversation. The panel—which also included seasoned vets like Mitt Romney’s head economic advisor Glenn Hubbard and mega-rich hedgefund superstar Daniel Loeb—decided to simply ignore the structural factors that dictate the terms of Washington debate: those cumbersome realities like the need of elected officials to raise millions of dollars from special interest groups and wealthy individuals, some of whom were surely in attendance. Instead, in the company of the supremely compassionate Dalai Lama, these experienced politicos convinced themselves that the challenge was a matter of confronting personal shortcomings. They just needed to alter their colleagues’ patterns of thought. This is willful naiveté masquerading as virtue.
In his Op-Ed, Arthur Brooks picks up exactly where the panel’s self-congratulation left off. He opens with a rhetorical question that frames the article: “What can Washington, DC learn from a Buddhist monk?” Again, this premise starkly contrasts the virtue of His Holiness—and, by extension, Brooks—with the negligence of an entire system of federal government. Simplifying this systemic failure as no more than the sum of its maladjusted individuals, Brooks implies that if Washington politicians were to learn compassion from the Dalai Lama, then they could actually get something done.
What immediately follows is an anecdote from Brooks’s visit to Dharamsala, during which he felt “hunger pangs” while in the midst of meditation:
It seemed to me that such earthly concerns had no place in the superconscious atmosphere of the monastery. Incorrect. Not a minute later, a basket of freshly baked bread made its way down the silent line, followed by a jar of peanut butter with a single knife. We ate breakfast in silence, and resumed our meditation. This, I soon learned, is the Dalai Lama in a nutshell: transcendence and pragmatism together. Higher consciousness and utter practicality rolled into one.
While tremendously committed to his spiritual regimen, the Dalai Lama’s concern for physical sustenance—according to Brooks—exemplifies his “pragmatism.” Shortly thereafter, Brooks refers to this pragmatic approach when explaining the Dalai Lama’s visit to AEI, which should apparently come as no surprise because His Holiness’s “teaching defies freighted ideological labels.” Therein lies the crux of Brooks’s caricature: a straight line drawn from the Dalai Lama’s aversion to asceticism to his non-attachment to view and finally to his willingness to listen to political opponents; all of which fall under the umbrella of “pragmatism.” It’s the exact kind of pragmatism that DC lacks. With elected officials and their benefactors bent on scoring political points, there is no opportunity for the characteristically Buddhist, selfless compromise that Brooks purports to crave.
“In other words, Washington needs to be more like the Dalai Lama,” says Brooks. And, in a final flourish of sanctimony:
Without abandoning principles, we need practical policies based on moral empathy. Tackling these issues may offend entrenched interests, but this is immaterial. It must be done. And temporary political discomfort pales in comparison with the suffering that vulnerable people bear every day.
Notice how Brooks underplays the possibility that “tackling these issues might offend entrenched interests,” and describes the likely consequence as little more than “temporary political discomfort” (italics added). Money is the lifeblood of a politician. One cannot mount a viable campaign without it. After years of leadership at a major Washington think tank, Brooks must know this dynamic firsthand. Yet instead of criticizing the influence of wealth on congressional paralysis, he downplays it. In the course of blaming Washington operatives for their cowardice, Brooks himself is unwilling to extend the critique far enough.
It is at this point in the argument that the function of Brooks’s naiveté reveals itself. By reducing Washington politics to a series of petty conflicts between stubborn individuals, Brooks avoids outlining the contours of his own ideology. He disguises free market capitalism as a natural way of being—as the proverbial invisible hand devoid of first principles, which stands in contrast with the fraught ideological morass of Washington. In so doing, he does not have to address the concentration of wealth and influence, which inevitably rise up from an unregulated market to clog national politics. Finding himself in a less-than-robust post-recession era of capitalism that features historic levels of inequality and the steady degradation of the planet, Brooks does what many of his market-beholden counterparts on Wall Street have done: he plays dumb.
This sleight of hand should come as no surprise from an adept salesman like Brooks. The shocking kicker, though, is that Brooks appropriates the Dalai Lama and Buddhism as New Age window dressing. It’s a libertarian politics perfectly crafted for our happiness-obsessed cultural moment. Paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, Brooks celebrates his assertion that “the secret to human flourishing is the development of every individual.” To buttress the point, he quotes a statement from His Holiness at AEI’s panel, during which the monk wondered, “Where does a happy world start? From government? No. From United Nations? No. From individual.” It takes only a short inferential leap to link Buddhism and free market capitalism at the nexus of personal responsibility. Dragging Buddhism across that divide, Brooks presents a Western flavor of the religion that deemphasizes sangha and hallows self-improvement.
This 21st-century conservatism transforms self-reliance from a material question to a metaphysical one. That approach aligns seamlessly with a slim-fitting Buddhism. The ensuing marriage allows Brooks to elude any questions of power and wealth disparity. After all, each bloke can be just as happy as the next. It doesn’t matter if he’s the director of a Washington think tank or the lunch lady at the school cafeteria down the street. Make no mistake, this is the ruling elite denying redistribution on spiritualized terms. It’s paternalism with a wide, loving smile—an easy grin that, when seen from afar, looks a lot like the one we’ve come to expect from the Dalai Lama.
—Max Zahn, Editorial Assistant
Further reading: The (Justifiably) Angry Marxist: An interview with the Dalai Lama
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