Bohemian Buddhist Review

Karma Politics and Capitalism

Lewis Lapham and Michael Moore have radical ideas for America

From the Depths by Wm. Balfour Ker

Politics: Lewis Lapham's The American Ruling Class and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore isn’t known for nuancing the news.  And Lewis Lapham isn’t known for loving America’s powerful financial elite, even though he grew up among them.

Each of them has made movies that would probably get them incarcerated in a totalitarian country.  The good news is that we can partake of their inverted visions of a better America.  The bad news is that they may be preaching to the choir.  

But then, hey, choir members need preaching to sometimes, too. Which then helps them/us go out and preach.  In this case, about how badly our current capitalist system serves us – and the rest of the world.  Those of us who have eyes to see how generally destructive a force America’s power is – sometimes in spite of itself – must keep the faith that something nobler than our often self-righteous self-interest is possible, otherwise we lose all hope, become dispirited and un-active.  While Michael Moore clearly hasn’t let this  happen to him, I worry about his ungainly weight gain.  We need him to take good care of himself.  Who else would put miles of yellow crime scene tape around Wall Street?

Lewis Lapham was editor of Harper’s magazine until 2006 and is the author of numerous books of penetrating political insight.  Lapham’s movie, “The American Ruling Class,” takes more of a cynical than comedic tone.  He sets two recent (male) Yale graduates on a path to find, define, and try and join the ruling class in America; one wants to, the other doesn’t. 

Some of the more memorable moments of Lapham’s serious semi-documentary (music and singing lighten the load) are a wealthy descendant of the East Coast’s illustrious Peabody family musing that America’s finest hour was shown by the Marshall Plan after WWII, i.e., when we demonstrated certifiable compassion; James Baker giving a mini-lesson on the projection and perks of American military power around the world, i.e., the privilege of empire; and Pete Seeger, in response to one of the Yalies asking what good protesting injustice could do, saying, “I may not be able to change the world, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let the world change me.”  I.e., keep your moral compass, son.

Seeger gave the analogy of a seesaw that was stuck way up on one side.  He said we need a lot of people with teaspoons of sand to help balance it out on the other end.  Even though it may look hopeless, enough sand in enough teaspoons, and kazam, you’ve made the see-saw level.  So -- huge endemic changes may or may not be coming our way  anytime soon. But this doesn’t mean we can’t always find ways to help each other, by practicing kindness, tolerance, and forebearance.  Changing samsara, the world of suffering, starts with changing our own hearts and minds, and it’s very hard work. 

Moore’s title is disingenuous because of course he doesn’t love capitalism, he loathes it. What does he propose in its place? “Democracy,” he says with a straight face.  (Recently, he posted an online challenge to Americans who really care about changing our system for the  better.  Google “Michael Moore’s Action Plan:  Fifteen Things Every American Can Do Right Now. . . “) 

Liberals are fond of reminding us that it was efforts by progressives like George Bernard Shaw and his political cohorts who brought us, among other things, the five-day work week and the minimum wage.  Michael Moore is of the same ilk. All this is well and good.  Very well and good, in fact, because without some leisure time and freedom from basic wants we can’t find time and/or energy for spiritual contemplation, which is a necessary – no, essential – ingredient for a relatively happy, healthy, and meaningful life, no matter the overall political system.  

The New Yorker’s review of “Capitalism,” by David Denby, ended with the sentence, “It’s a sad movie – funny, yet wounded and bewildered.” Exactly, I thought, the state of the nation Michael Moore is depicting. We certainly have our humorous (if outrage-inducing) moments, as in the nightly jousting between Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc.  Yet Americans are also deeply wounded and bewildered by what’s happened to our economic system and the apparent betrayal by leaders who have sold out so spectacularly to special, highly-moneyed interests. 

Arguably the most moving minutes in Moore’s movie was old news footage of FDR, sitting in his private office, looking ill but resolute, reading what he called the American “Economic Bill of Rights.”  “We cannot be content,” he began, “…if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed and insecure.” 

Ancient Buddhist texts outline a similar message:  “ . . . if a ruler allows poverty to develop . . . stealing arises . . . it is [the ruler’s] responsibility to avoid this by looking after the poor and even investing in various sectors of the economy.” (Somehow, I doubt this meant investment banks.)

Roosevelt’s compassion for his countrymen was almost heart-breaking.  The “rights” he wanted to implement included a good job with decent wages (via unions), good housing, good health care, a good education, and “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.” 

Ironically, the countries we defeated in WWII have incorporated more of these rights into their policies than we have;  Germany and Japan seem to have taken FDR’s words more to heart than our own leaders, who seem to forget that “America’s … rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these … rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.” 

From a Buddhist perspective, motivation is everything.  In spite of what we like to believe, we cannot always control results, but we can control why we do things. If our motivation is positive, wanting to help others, not harm them, then we can expect a positive outcome; if negative, then a negative outcome can be expected. And systemic, egregious greed -- or a political system that supports and/or fosters it -- cannot be considered anything but negative. 

A positive outcome of the current crisis would be a chastening effect on our runaway capitalism and help us re-examine the underlying motivation of our actions. How can we expect to prosper as a whole if we’re ripping off our own people?  Or arming the rest of the world?  Or ignoring the climate crisis?  Or . . . (insert your own burning issue here).

We need to acknowledge our mistakes, redress social wrongs, and re-think our mission as a nation.  Is it to dominate the world purely for our own purposes, thinking that we are somehow disconnected from everyone and everything else?  Or is it, in the words of FDR -- and the spirits of Lewis Lapham and Michael Moore -- “to move forward . . . to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”  Surely this – enlightened self-interest -- is the best way to embody the universal longing for a healthy, happy, and secure future.

*Illustration by my grandfather, Wm. Balfour Ker, for Life Magazine, circa 1906, as relevant today as ever.