Westerners misappropriating non-Western religious imagery

A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).

Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.

Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).

Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.

However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?

Shutdown

PG&E, the utility that everyone in northern California loves to hate, is going to shut down our power tonight, due to a forecast of high winds that could cause a downed wire that could in turn spark wildfires.

Why does PG&E have to shut down the power? Because they are owned by hedge funds, which demand maximum short-term profit instead of efficient running of a utility company, and they have skimped on power line maintenance for decades. Or, to put it more pointedly, as the governor of California recently said about PG&E: “Years of mismanagement, years of greed.”

Power could go out very soon, so I’m setting up the propane stove so I can cook dinner.

Your CEO has already earned more than you

According to the BBC:

The date of 4 January is marked as the day when CEOs of Britain’s biggest companies already earn what it takes an average worker to make in a year. But British CEOs are not the only ones who out-earn their workers so quickly. An analysis of the wage gap between CEOs and workers in 22 countries by the financial and media company Bloomberg shows that executives in the United States and India can get the average worker’s yearly wage even faster.

In Great Britain, CEOs make 201 times the average workers salary; in the United States, they make 265 times as much as the average worker. So if you live in the U.S., Great Britain, or India, your CEO may already have made two or three times your annual salary.

Silicon Valley has a high concentration of CEOs living here (that is, one of their many houses is located here). We also have a heck of a lot of homelessness here — people living in RVs, people couch surfing, people living in tent encampments, people living on the street, people living in homeless shelters — because of the high cost of housing, which has been driven sky-high in part by demand from people who have lots of money to spend on housing.

Which means if we want to solve the homelessness problem, it’s not enough to build more housing (the supply-side solution). Cutting CEO salaries, and the salaries of all the top 1/10%, is a good first step; Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, is not worth $40 million a year, nor does she need that much money, nor does she deserve it when her salary means that lots of people have to live on the street.

This also means that it’s not enough for Democrats to get angry with Donald Trump. The Democrats have been trying to ally themselves to Silicon Valley, but in terms of inequality of wealth the Silicon Valley execs are just as evil as Mr. Trump.

A leftist historian’s view

For quite some time now, the very few leftists remaining in the United States have been openly critical of the Democratic Party’s attempts to address racism. This is, in part, because leftists view the Democrats as neo-liberals who are committed to maintaining the inequalities inherent in free-market capitalism. One such leftist is Dr. Toure F. Reed, a historian at Illinois State University. Back in 2015, he published an article titled “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” in the leftist-socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he offered a historian’s critical assessment of contemporary liberal attempts to  address racism.

In his view, the liberal attempts to address racism in the 2010s (including, e.g., Black Lives Matter, etc.) do not compare well with the anti-racist efforts of the 1950s and 1960s. Those earlier efforts grew out of New Deal labor-liberalism, a very different political context  from the neo-liberalism of the 2010s; the earlier efforts were committed to broad economic egalitarianism, according to Reed, whereas contemporary efforts resist any attempt to include economic class as crucial to fighting racism. In his 2015 article, Professor Reed concluded:

“If one views the excesses and failures of the criminal justice system solely through the lens of race, then victims of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct tend to be black or Latino. However, if one understands race and class are inextricably linked, then the victims of police brutality are not simply black or Latino (and Latinos outnumber blacks in federal prisons at this point) but they tend to belong to groups that lack political, economic, and social influence and power.

“From that vantage point, the worldview expressed by Johnson and others misses the mark and falls into the same trap that, ironically, liberals have offered a stratum of credentialed black Americans for decades: opportunity within a market-driven political and economic framework that disparages demands for social and economic justice for all (including most black people) as socialist, communist, un-American, or even class-reductionist.”

Three years later, in late 2018, the situation hasn’t changed. And in 2018 Professor Reed published a new book, Why liberals separate race from class: The conservative implications of race reductionism. (New York & London: Verso, 2018). I haven’t read it yet, but I came across an interesting quotation that makes me think that I must read it:

“Emancipation and even Reconstruction were produced by a convergence of interests among disparate constituencies — African Americans, abolitionists, business, small freeholders, and northern laborers — united under the banner of free labor. The civil rights movement was the product of a consensus created by the New Deal that presumed the appropriateness of government intervention in private affairs for the public good, the broad repudiation of scientific racism following World War II, and the political vulnerabilities Jim Crow created for the United States during the Cold War. To be sure, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and even the civil rights movement failed to redress all of the challenges confronting blacks. But the limitations of each of these movements reflected political constraints imposed on them, in large part, by capital.”

In contrast to the current Democratic party agenda, I am convinced that racism can only be addressed by tackling classism, and by promulgating a broad egalitarianism. As a result, I don’t fit in well with the much of the political agenda of broader Unitarian Universalism. Our religious tradition is currently dominated by the concerns and outlook of the white college-educated elite (i.e., the majority of our members); elite Unitarian Universalists are unwilling to face up to the extent to which they benefit from the exploitation of the working class, and from the continuation of business-as-usual consumer capitalism. Fortunately, there were a goodly number of Unitarian Universalists who supported Bernie Sanders — even though I would consider him a center-leftist, rather than a socialist — he isn’t as far to the left as, say, Bayard Rustin or the later Martin Lught King, Jr., — but still, he represented a desire for a broad egalitarianism.In any case, I’m going to have to read Professor Reed’s new book.

More from Professor Reed:
“Between Obama and Coates,” Catalyst, Winter, 2018, is a historian’s detailed examination of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique of post-war liberalism
“Affirmative Action’s Labor Roots,” Jacobin, 2016, is a vigorous defense of affirmative action