What is the Real Issue?

From time to time Buddhism can get political, and being Western and a native of a democracy, I'm one of the political Buddhists.

More accurately, Buddhism isn't the center of my life any more than democracy is - it's just a part of it, and one thing informs and augments the other. That's one reason Sangha isn't about a single Buddhist practice. (Another reason is that the Kingman area doesn't have enough Buddhists for Sangha to secularize into one system in any case. If you were to count on your hands the largest number of attendees we've ever had, you'd still have some fingers left over.)

I'm also aware of my own heritage. I'm at least 50% Kraut, and I love my beer-swilling, Schnitzel-gobbling, Hoftbraü Haus-frequenting ancestry. I even have the tricolor flag hanging in the stairwell at my home. My mother was born in Germany in 1946, and had dual-citizenship status in the US for a while when she was a child. My maternal grandmother still has a German accent. She was very much embroiled in the German state in the 1930s and 40s, and was there to see the Nazis rise to power and sweep her nation with a kind of ghastly parochial madness.

But those kinds of things, as terrible as they can be, happen sometimes. We should expect ourselves to be territorial, even when we don't know how to stop it from going crazy. It's in our nature. We evolved from the same branch of primates that yielded all modern apes, including chimpanzees and bonobos. We have behaviors in common with our two closest primate cousin-species - bonobos form social groups around the ideals of sharing; and chimps are fiercely territorial, their social groups dominated by a single all-powerful male.

Looking at our nearest animal relatives might be instructive in some ways. It would be a grave error, I think, to impute reason to our own decisions as a species based on how other primates behave, and it would be just as mad to suggest that we ought to behave more like them. But a study of our behavior, contrasted with theirs, can be illuminating.

It's in our nature, but that does not mean we cannot do something about it when we see it happening in ourselves. We're evolved from animals, but we have human intelligence, and whether you believe it's God-given or not, we're obligated to use it.

It seems that the entire universe is currently aware of a particular law that's recently been passed in Arizona. While it's probably true that the law has been misinterpreted by virtually everyone who has an opinion on it - for or against - it's certainly true that there's a lot of emotion in play.

That alone should tell us something. Laws are, ideally, guidelines toward socially-normative and -acceptable behavior. They shouldn't exist to exert one worldview over another (without valid reason), shouldn't exist to be strictly punitive against a particular minority, and certainly shouldn't exist with the sole purpose of drawing attention to an issue.

As an example, it's illegal pretty much everywhere in the US to engage in pleural marriage. While a lot of people may agree with those laws - I don't* - what most probably don't know is that they came into existence strictly as a response to the early Mormon church.

In the early 1800s the Mormons were heading west to get away from the incorporated states, where they'd found themselves persecuted** for several reasons - such as suggesting that there might be a living prophet who was in touch with some kind of god, in much the same way as Moses was said to be - but also because the Mormon faith allowed for (and actually praised) the institution of polygyny.

There were lots of things about the Mormon religion that made a lot of people uncomfortable, but the Establishment Clause made it impossible to illegalize the religion entirely, so as a sort of Mephistophelean compromise it was decided instead to make pleural marriage against the law. Today, of course, we consider it de rigueur that marriage involves only one couple, but that's just us. There are more than a few other nations where polygyny is still very much the norm.

The problem is, simply, that the reason for making pleural marriage illegal was based solely in singling out one particular group whose beliefs and practices made others intensely uncomfortable. Well, my personal discomfort at your behavior is not a sufficient reason for me to start drubbing you with legislation.

Think about it another way. I don't eat at fast-food burger chains, because their primary product is factually known to be unbelievably unhealthy. But that does not mean I want to see laws passed against others eating an Animal-style McPounder with King Bacon or some such; more importantly, I don't believe I have the right to demand that such laws be placed on the books. If someone wants to eat himself to death, it's just not my place to tell him he can't. After all, no one is forcing me to engage in a behavior I choose not to.

In more recent history, we saw pot made illegal pretty much entirely because of the actions of William Randolph Hearst, who had an effective newspaper monopoly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the days before television, or even radio, that really meant something. Almost everyone in the US who read the news read it from a Hearst paper.

He didn't just own the news, though; he also owned a lot of forestland, whereon he grew the trees used to make the pulp that his papers were printed on. Nice. He was making money, coming and going.

In the early 1900s, though, a device called a decorticator was invented. Its chief value was that it could remove the green stems from certain plants, separate them from the pulpy core they contained, and render the product into something that could be used as paper, grown cheaply and abundantly, at much less cost than turning wood into pulp. The problem was that one of the major crops that could be thus rendered, one that grew practically anywhere you wanted to plant it, was hemp - marijuana. Mm'kay?

Hearst didn't like that, since it represented a direct threat to his wood-growing empire.

Of course another thing hemp was used for (at least its leaves and buds) was - no, not rope-making - recreational smoking for the high it produced.

So Hearst did something obvious. No, he didn't buy up vast tracts of hemp-growing land; instead, he began playing up the stories that broke occasionally, seeming to implicate pot in all manner of ill deeds. That no one could directly correlate crime activity with pot use didn't matter. He had a massive platform, a vast bully pulpit of newspapers working in close coordination from coast to coast, and within a few years was able to convince many people that marijuana was a pernicious social ill. (Consider how some people still react today to the kind of nonsense published in supermarket tabloids - Son of Batboy! - then imagine that it was published as actual news, expand that to fill an entire nation, and you'll get the idea how he was able to make it happen. Or, just think of the Internet, an infinite number of monkeys tapping at an infinite number of keyboards.)

But the facts didn't back anything up. No one ever tokes a bong and then goes on to beat his wife and children. Smoking pot and driving is no more dangerous than drinking and driving - or texting and driving, think about that - and pot isn't any more carcinogenic than tobacco. More recently it's been shown that pot has medicinal value taken in moderation, just as alcohol does. Nevertheless, pot was thoroughly and totally demonized, nationwide, for years. ***

So, long and short, we saw panic backed by junk statistics working together under a national wave of carefully-coordinated "news" stories that, in the end, created something we're still trying to decorticate a century later.

(For the record, I don't smoke pot - I can't for a number of reasons - but I have before, and I did inhale, and I did like it. When the stuff finally gets legalized, you can be sure I'll be in line. Maybe not at the front, but I'll be there, grooving to Pink Floyd while I wait.)

Shall I mention the wild success that Prohibition turned out to be?

The point, again, is this. Some behaviors made some people uncomfortable, and that discomfort was irritated and fanned until it reached a kind of low-grade hysteria. As a result, laws were passed that criminalized a behavior which really shouldn't have been criminalized.

How about hate-crime legislation? Given my leanings, this might be a surprise, but I'm actually not in favor of that. I tend to side with those who believe that any crime is already illegal enough, and if sentences were passed down that actually punished the criminal, we might not need to define anything a a hate crime.

Similarly, I know that being in the US illegally is illegal. That's a tautology and doesn't require further elaboration.

So ... why are we singling out one group, whose behavior might make us uncomfortable, when the facts don't support the assertion that there's a higher crime rate associated with this particular group, and particularly when it's already illegal for them to be doing what they are in the first place? Is this a conservative's ideal of smaller government? Somehow, I imagine it isn't.

There's something else to consider here. The new statute also allows for anyone to sue law-enforcement officials when they don't believe that the LEO's are doing enough to curb illegal immigrants. There are a lot of emotional reactions to the facile presence of this law, but to my mind, this provision is the most disturbing and potentially damaging.

Think of all the money our legislature craps away on useless foolishness now - and add to it the requirement of defending itself against petty vindictiveness brought about by someone who doesn't happen to like his neighbors, and who thinks he's found a way to get rid of them, just by making a claim that all that German polka music is keeping him up every night.

Some people just don't like Biergartens. Is that enough to bring about statutory persecution? Or are we all just a group of angry chimps?

What would Jesùs do?

* Provided everyone involved is capable of agreeing with it, and does so of his or her own free will, I can't think of a good reason why marriage should be restricted to any number of partners - or their gender. Religious dictates do not count as a good reason, at least, not to me. If you're against pleural (or gay) marriage, don't get into one. Otherwise, it's really none of your business, nor mine.

** Not too unlike the original Mayflower passengers of 1620, when you think about it.

*** Furthermore, pot is not a "gateway drug". Yes, users of heroin probably started with pot, but not all pot users move on to heroin. And it's almost certainly true that, before they did pot, all heroin users overconsumed alcohol. Want to talk about a gateway drug? They serve it every day in bars and restaurants all over the US. There is no such thing as a gateway drug for anyone except those who seek increasing highs. They have to start somewhere.