References to “karma” have pervaded popular culture for some time, and with many in the liberal blogosphere enjoying the fruits of epicaricacy as a result of Bush administration scandals coming to light, the k-word is getting thrown around quite a bit, and I’m afraid it’s unleashed my inner pedant. There are various ways to interpret the word, but I see a few common themes that come up repeatedly in popular usage, so those are what I’ll free-associate about here.

A simple-but-obvious thought: Couldn’t “karma” be used interchangeably with “law of averages” or “God’s wrath”? If you’re the kind of person who would feel ridiculous about invoking God’s wrath to explain Tom DeLay’s troubles, why do you feel any better about invoking karma?

“What goes around comes around.” Apparently, to many, this is profound. Actually, it’s a sequacious truism. Simply by existing, you will have a variety of experiences, some pleasant, some not. One is limited only by imagination in drawing causal lines of connection between events separated by space and time. How can this be disproved? Two events may have nothing in common other than sharing a vague, tendentious description of being “good” or “bad”, yet one is smugly assumed to have resulted from the other with the intent of evening out some cosmic ledger or imparting a lesson.

If I spit in someone’s face and they punch me, no one would call this “karma”. It seems to be a simple example of cause and effect. It’s only when there is no intuitive link between two actions or events, or a significant stretch of time between them, that this idea comes into play. If I find a wallet loaded with cash, and decide to keep it for myself instead of looking up the owner’s phone number and returning it, an observer would call it karmic justice if I were to lose my wallet some day, or if any other kind of financial misfortune occurred.

The truly dedicated can find proof in any sort of misfortune, of course – one person tried to chalk up a rough day I once had, involving car trouble, to the fact that I was often aloof and unfriendly to him. (Guilty as charged; he was an obnoxious fucker.) The same old anthropomorphic pettiness usually ascribed to an irascible deity is in this case applied to the universe as a whole. Ironic, considering that many people who would reference karma would most likely hate to be thought of as belonging to “organized religion”. God (or the universe) apparently takes offense at slights and arranges for certain situations to arise as punishment later, which may or may not effect any changes in the person’s personality or attitude (that part seems to be left unexplained). How does an impersonal universe feel a sense of moral outrage at injustice and move to react to it?

The unexamined facile definitions of “good” and “bad” really get to me. How can we measure the inherent or total value of an event or action? Where does the ripple effect from an action ever end? Also, there’s a facile assumption of being able to quantify what an action means to everyone involved. How can happiness and pain be measured in the same way as a financial transaction? By what standard can you assert that two separate events are somehow equivalent? Is there some sort of metaphysical currency that serves to measure their value, thus giving us some idea of how to judge the appropriate reaction to a particular action? (“karmic units”, or “KU”, perhaps?)

And the narcissism; oh, how it galls me. In order to believe that the world is constantly rearranged in response to your actions, what does this imply as far as other people’s agency? Are they simply unaware instruments of karmic retribution? Are they held responsible for actions that they undertake in the course of bringing about your comeuppance? And how do you know that decisions you make under the guise of free will aren’t simply part of the whole plan as it relates to someone else’s karma? Are you really so sure that you aren’t just a supporting actor in someone else’s drama?

Let’s consider Stalin as an example – how does karma fit with his life? Must he be reincarnated and brutally murdered millions of times to pay off his karmic debt? Or does he just have to live one life of unrelenting, utter misery? (I’m granting the dubious assumption of reincarnation here, because I don’t think even the most gifted sophist will be able to convince anyone that Stalin dying in bed as an old man was somehow fair.) Or, on a more sinister note: was he just a convenient way to quickly pay off millions of other people’s karmic debt?

All this relies on the ancient dichotomy between free will and determinism, which I mercifully won’t bother with here. I will mention what seems obvious to me, though: our ability to conceptualize and use symbolic representation developed slowly over the course of our evolutionary history. There never was a clear point in time where we were either “completely” self-aware and self-conscious (the way we think of ourselves now), or completely controlled by outside forces, which would seem to throw a huge monkeywrench into the whole scheme.

Personally, I think all this becomes moot when thinkers and authors like these pull the rug out from underneath the whole idea: there is no permanent, abiding essence or identity to attach this kind of responsibility to in the first place.