by Ward Parks, 2003
This 2003 essay by Ward Parks still holds valuable comments for the present time.
To: Friends in the Trust’s Spiritual Training Programme
Date: 10th March 2003
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am writing this informal letter to you, co-participants in the Avatar Meher Baba Trust’s spiritual training programme, concerning a certain aspect of our community life that I have been noticing particularly over the past year or two.
The Meher Center in Myrtle Beach has a rule prohibiting the discussion of politics on Center. At Meherabad, of course, we have no such rule, and political discussions sometimes take place, in the Pilgrim Centre and elsewhere. What I have been observing of late is a growing spirit of political correctness in many of these conversations. It seems to be widely assumed that any pilgrim or resident at Meherabad as a matter of course embraces liberal-leftist politics and that one can therefore make politically partisan remarks in groups of people one doesn’t really know well with full confidence that everyone will assent. Sometimes these remarks are quite derogatory to people who do not subscribe to liberal-leftist points of view. Yet in the “culture of conversation” that is emerging at Meherabad there appears to be little awareness that Baba lovers may indeed be as diverse in their politics as they are in other ways.
A current topic of conversation, naturally enough, is the impending Iraq war. Many Baba lovers oppose it, and the criticisms of George Bush one hears around Meherabad can be quite severe: he is an idiot, a warmonger, a cowboy, a child-killer, similar to Hitler, and so forth. Yet people often identify strongly with their political beliefs, and for those who support George Bush — as I do on this issue — this kind of talk is rather hard to sit through.
In fact, amid the many negative comments about Bush, rarely do I hear anything in the nature of a substantive argument; usually these comments are, in essence, expressions of disdain. Yet surely it is possible for a Baba lover to approve the stand Bush has taken. The threat of a major terrorist attack — an atom bomb set off in New York City, for example — is quite real; and this danger can (arguably) be related to Iraq. Moreover, the regimes of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il of North Korea are utterly monstrous, like Stalin’s on a smaller scale. When I hear fellow Baba lovers in the Pilgrim Centre wax passionate about the evils of George Bush and then react with indifference to accounts of the atrocities of these genocidal tyrants, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with what seems to be emerging as the political “norm” in our community.
Again, a supporter of Bush’s stand on Iraq might note that Baba Himself endorsed violence under certain circumstances. He did not recommend universal pacifism; indeed, He explicitly rejected it. Baba’s two discourses on “Violence and Non-Violence” (Discourses, pp. 67-75) make a variety of distinctions; pertinent to the present case, one might claim, are the distinctions between “nonviolent violence” and the “nonviolence of the coward.” Baba’s discourse on “The New World Culture” in Listen, Humanity devotes several paragraphs to the rebuttal of Gandhian non-violence (Baba did not use Gandhi’s name, but He was clearly referring to that movement). “For the masses,” Baba says, “it is undesirable to adhere to external non-violence when it is a question of clear duty to resist aggression in their own defense or in defense of weaker brothers. Insistence on universal non-violence can only lead the masses to a cowardly, irresponsible and inert attitude” (Listen, Humanity, p. 143). While passages such as these could be applied to particular sets of circumstances (such as the Iraq imbroglio) in different ways, surely it is conceivable that a reasonable person might interpret this passage as being consistent with the undertaking of “nonviolent violence” against a proven military aggressor and mass murderer of his own people such as Saddam Hussein.
My purpose here is not to persuade anyone to accept my own views on the Iraq war, something which I could not accomplish in this short space even if I wanted to. Iraq as such is not my real concern here. My aim is rather to remind my brothers and sisters that we are not all liberal Democrats — since as a community we seem to be forgetting this. The Iraq war is just one of many political issues in which we seem to have started to presume a false consensus or even unanimity. Yet the only good consensus about politics at Meherabad, in my opinion, is “no politics.” That is, while individuals will continue to hold their own political beliefs and no doubt talk about these sometimes in appropriate ways, the common culture that arises among us should be should be free from political bias and presupposition. Baba Himself said that He had no politics, and as a general rule He discouraged political activity among His lovers. What Baba Himself gave to us ought to be sufficient for the creation of our community and culture.
The problem that has arisen, as I see it, is centered in — and largely confined to — the domain of “talk.” In meal-time conversations at the Pilgrim Centre and other places, many people seem to feel free in general company to lambaste Bush, speak ill of “rednecks,” Christian conservatives, and the patriotically inclined, belittle those with reservations about global warming, and so forth. Personally I dislike these conversations, but since I do not want to quarrel all the time, I find myself frequently changing the subject, laughing at jokes that I don’t really think are funny, excusing myself and leaving when the tenor of discussion becomes too objectionable, and otherwise engaging in techniques of evasion. I am not complaining for my own part — fair enough, it contributes to my spiritual training; but I am concerned that some of our pilgrims must be having the same experience. It is not right that Baba lovers who travel from all over the world to Meherabad for the sake of the Lord of Love should have to be feel besieged or even humiliated on account of their political beliefs — whatever these beliefs may be. But in some of our conversations it seems to me that the derogation of politically incorrect people and viewpoints is gradually winning the status of a “safe” topic one can bring up as a way of touching base with others. We always need a stock of these — the weather, the health of so-and-so, how long one plans to stay in India, etc. — that serve as an innocuous means of starting up conversations and confirming our links with one another. But when a particular political party or philosophy becomes one of these topics (“Isn’t Bush an idiot?”), then, I feel, the atmosphere starts to be vitiated, and something needs to be said. Hence this letter.
The good news here, in my opinion, is that most aspects of our community and cultural and institutional life remain unaffected and apolitical. Overwhelmingly our focus centers on Baba. Most “political” quarrels among us have to do with individual personalities and their agendas within our own community and not on political ideologies in the outer world. Our worship remains centered on Him; our artistic expression praises His Person and His attributes; our service remains mindful of the fact that He is the One whom we serve. Fundamentally this community is healthy and sound so far as politics is concerned. And much of this is due to the restraint, consideration, and wisdom exercised in many ways by many among us, a fact which I deeply appreciate.
The problem I am concerned with, in other words, is not severe and still narrowly confined. It is “just talk.” But I myself have seen what “just talk” can lead to. Much of my former life was spent in the world of academia. During the early 1980s, many academics (including me at the time) used to indulge themselves in harsh castigations of conservative politicians — particularly Ronald Reagan. Within just a few years, what had previously been lunch-time social amenity became departmental practice. No one got hired except committed leftists; professors openly used their classes for purposes of political advocacy; and those who criticized the new regime got punished. I experienced this first hand: I spoke out publically against the politicization of education in my department, and in consequence was tried by a university committee on a harassment charge. How quickly what had been mere bias in informal interactions with colleagues hardened into outright political suppression!
We are not immune to this hazard here at Meherabad. In fact, critics of political correctness often name “religious” and “charitable” organizations as among the worst sites of the problem. Political correctness characteristically moves in a creeping fashion from small things with sudden leaps to big things. Politicization is brought about under the name of some virtue, and persons skeptical of it are censured for their lack of this virtue. Thus critics get intimidated, and a programme or activity can be transformed without the change ever having been brought under the direct review of the core values that are — or originally were — the life of that activity. Thank God, none of this has happened in our Trust, at least so far as political ideology goes. But we need to be aware of the corrosive effect that “loose lips” can have in helping to get this process started.
I do not want to be misconstrued as asking that special solicitude or “sensitivity” be given to conservatives or any other politically-defined group. To the contrary, I am most firmly opposed to any such preferentialism, strongly dislike the culture of “sensitivity,” and feel it would be best if political definitions did not figure into our community life at all. Nor am I asking for any kind of institutional action; that is why this letter has been addressed to you as individuals. The best place to work issues of this kind out is in the heart and conscience of those who are trying to make this a community that serves and loves Him. It is to that place in you that I speak.
What I ask you to consider is that, as members of a community and as spiritual trainees serving Baba lovers on pilgrimage, we try to uphold “no politics” as the politics that we share and that is our consensus. I am not saying that as individuals we should personally eschew political viewpoints and never talk about them, but that in community interactions and dealings with pilgrims we should try to avoid political presumptions and keep a political tinge out of the atmosphere. This effort on our part would be consistent with the example set by our Lord and Master, Who said that He Himself had no politics. If we can keep politics from bending and distorting our collective outlook, it will be easier for us to build our community and culture on the basis of a direct fresh perception of the values that He Himself set forth, values that will serve as the foundation for the New Humanity in the ages to come.
In His Love and Service,
© 2003 by Ward Parks