Innocence, Habits and Donald Duck

 

We recently remembered 9/11/2001.  We do not, however, remember 9/1/1973 when General Pinochet overthrew Chile’s popularly elected government with our very active support.

Why do we remember only when we were the victims, not when we were the perpetrators?

Ariel Dorfman reflects on that in A Tale of Two Donalds and his conclusion, “We really don’t have to leave this world as it was when we were born”, got me thinking.

Some preamble:  Why did we help to overthrow Chile’s government?   Because the Chilean people had for three years been working to build socialism via the ballot box and our leaders were afraid they might succeed, inspiring the same thing to happen here.

The focus of Dorfman’s book was Donald Duck because: “If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the U.S. — not just in Chile but in so many other lands then known as the Third World — it was the Walt Disney Corporation.”

What was symbolized by Disney’s Donald Duck world?  “a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States … the inability of the country Walt was exporting in such a pristine state… to recognize its own history”.

What history did we not recognize?  What, as Dorfman puts it, was our sin?  “[our] violence (the enslavement of blacks, the extermination of natives, the massacres of striking workers, the persecution and deportation of aliens and rebels, all those imperial and military adventures, invasions, and annexations in foreign lands, and a never-ending complicity with dictatorships and autocracy globally)”.

Why is Dorfman writing now about what happened almost half a century ago?   Because, he says:  “We are clearly in a moment when a yearning to regress to the supposedly uncomplicated, spotless, and innocent America of those Disney cartoons, the sort of America that Walt once imagined as eternal, fills Trump and so many of his followers with an inchoate nostalgia.”

Now here’s what struck me.  The innocence Disney conveyed is real.  At the same time, the violence, selfishness and greed that Dorfman points to are also real.  How can both be true?

It’s because, in the Buddhist understanding of existence, our intrinsic nature is good; we behave badly only out of habit.

What happens is, our mistaken acts accumulate into conceptual and emotional habits, then our behavior is governed by the things we always think and feelings we always have, not the unique circumstances in each moment.

Buddhists call all that programming karma.  We call the habits we share our culture.

By observing people who have studied, reflected and done Buddhist practices for long enough, we can see they are not on auto-pilot.  They are naturally kind.  The Buddhist understanding of our nature is confirmed by observation.

Buddhism is not the only way to overcome bad habits, of course, and Buddhist leaders in Myanmar are currently exterminating their Muslim Rohingya population.  We first need the right motivation, then whatever way works to train ourselves out of selfishness, greed and violence.

One of our greatest warriors was especially clear about making the right choice.  Three months into his first term President Eisenhower gave this speech:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

“This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Why did we not heed Ike’s words, or his warning eight years later about our emerging military-industrial complex?

And why did our current leaders just vote for another vast increase in military spending while trying to pay for it and a further tax cut for the wealthy by cutting medical care for tens of millions of other Americans?

Because, despite our intrinsic goodness, we keep choosing not to acknowledge the habits we inherited — our sense that we were entitled to exterminate Native Americans and enslave people of color, the greed, fear and violence that govern so much of what we do.  We keep reinforcing those habits.

We could, as Buddhist and other teachers explain, shed our selfishness, violence and greed.  We would just have to recognize our programming then work diligently and long to get free of those habits.

Castigating others feeds our own self-righteousness, so let’s stop doing that.  Let’s each of us just work at freeing ourselves.

And let’s stop electing leaders who subvert other governments.  In 1973 we worked to overthrow Chile’s democratically elected government.  Twenty years earlier, we’d done it in Iran.   Thirty years later we did it in Iraq, then Libya.  We’re trying it now in Syria and helping Saudi Arabia do it to Yemen.

Let’s elect leaders who will inspire us to act as the good people we are.  But before that can happen we’ll have to work sincerely to overcome our amnesia and purge our programming.

3 comments on “Innocence, Habits and Donald Duck

  1. Maybe it’s not just habit. First, as the song in South Pacific says: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” … by the media primarily … and by the people who were carefully taught as they grew up. After awhile it does become habit.

    • Agreed. Much of what we believe is what we’re taught to believe. Our children learn a history in which we were always virtuous. As my brother-in-law who advised World Bank customers on education policy once told me: “You and I might think the goal of education should be a well-informed and thoughtful population but that is not what government leaders want.”

      Much of our emotion is triggered intentionally, too. The goal of mass media is not to inform but to stimulate us to respond to advertisers. As the head of CBS said: “Trump may not be good for America but he’s damn good for CBS.”

      We start life emulating our parents. They teach us how to stay alive then so much more. We absorb their concepts about living, and their emotions about events and situations. Then we start to absorb the ideas and behaviors of others in our community. We learn how to be accepted. So, our own ideas and emotions are shaped by those we grow up among.

      Our emotions and actions become programmed responses. They do not respond to the situation we are actually in but to our idea about the situation. That idea selected from our storage of concepts is the result of what we notice about the situation. It’s a recursive process — we notice only what we expect. So, our habits gain strength. Our ideas keep being reconfirmed by experiences they in fact shape.

      I’m not trying to convert anyone to Buddhism but I will mention another aspect of that understanding of existence because it’s illuminating. There are considered to be three poisons that account for our negative behavior – hatred, desire and ignorance. Among them ignorance is the root poison. It’s the one that makes it possible for us to feel the hatred and desire that underlie all the harm we do to each other.

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