The Buddha in the TV Room

Posted: Aug 14, 2014 12:01 AM

It was just a snippet of conversation overheard in a crowded restaurant: "... and we put the Buddha in the TV room."

At that point I stopped eavesdropping, lost somewhere between contemplation and amusement, fascination and puzzlement. They all have a way of mixing on hearing some comment that, from the moment it's made, I know will remain stuck in the little gray cells, like a roadblock, stopping all other traffic.

Yes, this one's definitely a keeper, I thought at the time, a stray comment sure to be called up again and again whatever state of confusion the news has reduced me to at the moment.

For the news is too much with us early and late, and watching and listening, we waste our powers of concentration. The flickering images in the corner come and go, distracting us beyond end, capturing and holding our attention day after day, night after night, while our own lives are put on hold, and the Buddha in the corner is forgotten, lost in the ferns and knick-knacks. It might as well be a potted palm, or some long unnoticed picture in the hall.

The ever-present flow of Breaking News seduces and betrays us, mainly by pretending to be new. The cast of characters in the news may change, but the plot remains remarkably the same: good and evil forever mixing. Just as weapons change but war remains the bloody same.

Vanity of vanities, as the Preacher observed millennia ago. And those charged with commenting on this all too familiar parade, like pathologists staring at X-rays day after day, yearn for surcease. Effect without cause, reaction without thought, one piece of news follows another with no apparent pattern or purpose, a string of random events that seem to have no connection with first things, permanent things, the kind of things that cry out with what Martin Luther King called the fierce urgency of now. And the Buddha in the TV room fades into the background, reduced to another ornament, left to collect dust.

Tens of thousands of children arrive at our southern border unescorted, unprotected, vulnerable and confused -- and our leaders want to debate how they got there, who is to blame, what laws need to be enforced or not enforced, repealed or changed or ignored. ... Meanwhile these children and political footballs are moved here and there and who knows where, the very picture of the least of these. You'd think anybody confronted by a child in need of help and help right now -- food, shelter, clothing, a comforting presence -- would help now, ask questions later. At least you'd hope so.

Once the children are taken care of, a place found for them, there'll be plenty of time to debate the causes and cure for this influx. But for now, first things should come first. Instead the usual politicians, demagogues on all sides of the issue, and kibitzers in general are too busy fighting the problem to fix it. Midterm elections are coming up fast, and there are voters to stir, rhetorical points to be made, anything but solutions to pursue. First things will have to come any time but first.

The same goes for crisis after crisis, whether real or hyped. In an empty field somewhere in Ukraine, an eerie silence settles over the thriving crops. All seems as it should be, except scattered here and there amidst the ripening grain, almost hidden from view till somebody stumbles over one of them, are the bodies. Just where they were left to rot day after day. It may take a moment to notice the dead's papers, their luggage almost hidden in the tall grass, the wreckage of a passenger plane shot out of the sky, its fuselage severed ... and all the other flotsam-and-jetsam of a modern air disaster. Till someone finally has the decency to bury the dead.

The evidence in the field decays while investigators are held at bay day after day. It will be weeks before the far-away burials begin amidst all the incriminations as a war goes on all around the neglected dead. As for the suffering living, the latest crop of refugees is left to gather on a barren mountainside in the Middle East till an air drop may or may not save some of them.

Through it all, the televised images keep flickering in the darkness, and the Buddha stares impassively on, lost in all the little trinkets and house plants and cute antiques around it.

Speaking of antiques, remember the old Glass-Steagall Act? It successfully separated ordinary commercial banking from high-risk speculation for most of a century -- till it was quietly repealed in the heedless Clinton Years in a kind of bipartisan absence of mind. Now it's been replaced by this Dodd-Frank monstrosity that could have been designed by Rube Goldberg, and now remains a work forever in progress. It's supposedly being fleshed out by an army of new regulators, but they may never finish the job. Why should they? Once they're done, they could be put out of work.

Glass-Steagall was, in toto, 37 pages long; Dodd-Frank ran 848 at last count, and that's not counting all the rules and regs, the clauses and sub-clauses still being extemporized by this administration. It's the kind of law authoritarian regimes love, for if it's sufficiently murky and always getting murkier, the bureaucrats can keep making it up as they go along, forever issuing new exceptions and waivers to benefit those interests the administration favors and punish those it doesn't. In that sense, Dodd-Frank is the financial version of Obamacare, always changing, never finished, shaped only by the ever changing preferences of those shaping or misshaping it.

First principles? Not a sign of them. Small is beautiful? The simpler the better? A government of laws, not of men? Constancy of purpose in policies foreign and domestic? All of that is lost in the undergrowth. Like the Buddha in the TV room.