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Knowing when to hold my peace

WikiBookshelfThe winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review features an essay by blogger RJ Eskow (a regular at The Huffington Post) about the challenge of balancing blog-inspired activism with Buddhist disciplines. Both the promise and the limits of Eskow's vision appear in his lede:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle There is no way you can avoid taking sides

In the years since Diane di Prima wrote those words in a poem called "Rant," the United States has become a rantocracy of screaming politicians, pundits, and talk radio hosts. They shout, even when they whisper. Some of us try to make ourselves heard above the shouting, and that raises Buddhist questions: Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.

In today's political dialogue, what's left?

Eskow acknowledges his pugnacious style -- such as referring to "Cheney's Chappaquiddick" or threatening to "respond physically" to a Joe Klein column ("I was joking, but the feeling was real") -- but suggests that pundits Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are worse ranters still.

Eskow achieves two breakthroughs: he refrains from responding when one of his readers criticizes him for writing about JonBenet Ramsey rather than Darfur, and he chooses not to exploit aggressive email from a New York Times reporter that would have diminished the reporter's image. These feel like rather small steps in the rantocracy that Eskow sees in American politics, but it's something. Eskow has a clear grasp of the long-term goal:

"First, do no harm." The physician's precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: "No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words." No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying.

I mention Eskow's essay by way of confession. Blogging is not my default setting as a writer, and I'm not sure I've ever found a relaxed, unguarded voice in this medium. Blogging has sometimes made it too easy to lapse from noting irony to indulging unkind sarcasm.

Eskow makes his peace with sarcasm by consulting Dharmavidya David Brazier:

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. "The Buddha was attracted to irony," he said. "He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, 'There must be a lot of holy fish.' And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering -- on its followers."

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn't necessarily un-Buddhist? "Not necessarily," said Dharmavidya. "The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker's intent is."

I'm more inclined to agree with my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long argued that sarcasm is of the spirit of murder.

As Eskow confronts the Buddhist notion of right speech, I struggle with Scripture's teachings that an abundance words can lead to foolishness (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or that the tongue is a most destructive force (James 3).

GetReligion has welcomed me during two tenures, and I'm grateful for that, but it is now time to devote myself to other callings. One year from now, I owe an editor friend a book about tithing. That book will be the primary focus of my writing in 2008.

I will continue writing a column for Episcopal Life and contributing to a blog called Covenant, which strives for irenic reflection on the Anglican Communion's conflicts.

I think Eskow asks, in so many words: How do I blog without losing something important in my soul? For now, this is my answer: I must blog less, and do more long-view writing that generates joy -- both in my life and, I hope, in the lives of my readers.

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