“Whitened Buddhism” and the opiate of the masses

Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.

Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:

“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”

For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:

“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”

Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:

“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]

Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]

I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.

Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]

Coloniality and gender

I seem to have very little time these days, as the Omicron surge winds down, and as our congregation opens up again (or maybe re-opens up? — or is it re-re-opens up?). Nevertheless, I’m slowly making my way through some essays by Maria Lugones, and I’m currently reading “The Coloniality of Gender.” In this essay, she critiques Anibal Quijano’s theoretical work on global capitalism for his “complicity with the gender system.” In other words, many males who write about colonialism ignore how women are dominated.

But Lugones is also laying out another way to analyze gender, a model which she calls “the modern colonial/gender system”:

“In Quijano’s model of global capitalist Eurocentered power, ‘capitalism’ refers to the ‘structural articulation of all historically known forms of control of labor or exploitation, slavery, servitude, small independent mercantile production, wage labor, and reciprocity under the hegemony of the capital-wage labor relation.’ (‘Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social,’ Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein, part I, Journal of World Systems Research, V. xi, #2, summer/fall 2000). In this sense, the structuring of the disputes over control of labor are discontinuous: not all labor relations under global, Eurocentered capitalism fall under the capital/wage relation model, though this is the hegemonic model. It is important in beginning to see the reach of the coloniality of power that wage labor has been reserved almost exclusively for white Europeans. The division of labor is thoroughly ‘racialized’ as well as geographically differentiated. Here we see the coloniality of labor as a thorough meshing of labor and ‘race.’”

Lugones connects colonialism, capitalism, gender, and race. This has some interesting implications for the way we Unitarian Universalists think about anti-oppression work.

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