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Blind Boy Apollo
and the All-White Astronauts

New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Sunday, June 15

neural puerilism

puerilism. n. Childish behavior in an adult,especially as a symptom of mental illness.
~ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

If you've been playing along at home, you know we have already mentioned the Jill Bolte Taylor phenomenon -- for such it surely is -- more than once: in Better Living Through Brain Damage and in Reading Between the Synapses. What I only recently learned is that the New York Times jumped the bandwagon (and quite possibly the shark) even earlier than I had thought: on May 13 in the form of an op-ed piece by David Brooks titled The Neural Buddhists.

Brooks makes the following points, verbatim. I've only numbered them so I can interpolate my reactions to each (in red).

  1. First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.
  2. Agreed, and this is crucial, not a throwaway line. Brooks is clearly aware of advances in attachment theory, as evidenced, for instance, where he writes, "Love is vital to brain development."

  3. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.
  4. This is a succinct restatement of the old "perennial philosophy" trope, which is largely suburban legend promulgated by Mircea Eliade, Aldous Huxley and that general ilk on a gullible generation of postwar baby boomers. Yes, like me. Plus, it's pretty freaking hard to determine what anyone might actually be "intuiting," morally or otherwise.

  5. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love.
  6. Says who? Well, says Jill Bolte Taylor and her "liberating" neural dysfunction! Q.E.D. Except it's a circular argument. Same as it ever was.

  7. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
  8. Objection! Calls for speculation. In fact, constitutes speculation of the wildest sort got up as certain knowledge. In a word: bullshit.

By enumerating these points, Brooks implies that they follow on one another. They do not.

To cut to the chase in the fewest possible words, I would like to belatedly comment on David Brooks's column...

For another take, less humorous than mine, perhaps, but more damning, see Donald Lopez's post titled The Buddha according to Brooks (thank you, Annie). Unlike Brooks and so many of the self-elected neurotheologians, Lopez knows a little something about Buddhism, as demonstrated by his many books on the subject. In that blog post, he writes...
Although it is always risky to speculate about authorial intention, one might imagine that by Buddhism, Brooks means an ancient Asian tradition that is largely free of beliefs, dogmas, and rituals; whose central form of practice is meditation; which focuses on the here and now rather than the past or the future; which has no personal deity; which is fully compatible with Jewish and Christian mysticism and, especially, with science. Each of these characteristics is historically dubious when one surveys the various forms of Buddhism that emerged across Asia over the past 2,500 years. Those characteristics, however, are all central tenets of something called Buddhist Modernism, which emerged as a result of the colonial encounter.
But do read the entire post. It's... enlightening.

As a sort of footnote here, though not unrelated to our larger theme, I never realized that Brooks, whose columns I've noticed from time to time in the Times, is the selfsame David Brooks who wrote Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.

Bobos are what Brooks defines as the bohemian bourgeoisie -- not altogether unlike my NewAge++ class. Of them, he writes...

Everything the old gentry tried to make smooth, we in today's educated gentry try to make rough. They covered over ceiling beams. We expose them. They buried bulky stone chimneys in plaster and paint. We unearth stone chimneys and admire massive rocky hearths. They prized delicate narrow floor planks. We like broad sturdy ones. They preferred marble. We prefer slate....

More broadly, they liked polish and high civilization. We like indigenous spirituality.

Emphasis mine, because, boy howdy, do "we" ever! I howled at Brooks's Death Comes for the Yuppie routine, which is seriously brilliant. But I was not impressed by his conclusion that these New Agers 2.0 are essentially innocuous, doing no one any real harm with their ludicrous "lifestyle choices" and laughable belief systems.

Plus, I don't much cotton to former editors of The Weekly Standard, especially those who make statements like this...

DAVID BROOKS, NEW YORK TIMES:  Obama‘s problem is he doesn‘t seem like a guy who can go into an Applebee‘s salad bar and people think he fits in naturally there.

Me, I don't think this new class is so innocently nontoxic. I think there's a dark side. Darker than most of these well-meaning white-bread Bobo motherfuckers even guess.