Adventures in grilling

It was hot today, so we decided to grill our dinner. I hardly ever eat beef any more (can’t afford it, it’s bad for me), but Carol had gotten some local grass-fed beef from a nearby farm, so we grilled hamburgers and potatoes. That wasn’t quite enough for a dinner. Carol saw that we had a small mild white bitter melon in the refrigerator — what about grilling that? She basted it in olive oil and rosemary before she grilled it. It turned out well — slightly crispy, nicely bitter, very yummy.

Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture…. Continue reading “Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists”

Immigration detentions

This week, we’ve seen widepsread outrage on social media about the detention of children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This outrage is a good thing. We should all be outraged.

But I would like to remind people what happened in 2007 when ICE raided the Michael Bianco plant, a defense contractor in New Bedford, Mass. There was a quick surge of outrage, which quickly subsided. And nothing changed in ICE.

Not only that, but the full story of what happened was lost in the noise of the outrage. I was in New Bedford in 2007, where I occasionally served as a chaplain for labor unions, and from union members I heard parts of the story which didn’t get much publicity. Here’s what I heard from union members and other activists in New Bedford:

Just before the raid, ICE contacted state social workers. ICE knew that many of the people they were planning to detain had children, and they wanted the social workers to come take care of the children. The social workers refused: first of all, they knew they didn’t have the resources to take care of children (and, from what I heard, ICE was not offering funding to care for the children adequately); second of all, the social workers did not want to be part of such a ridiculous and inhumane raid.

ICE made the raid anyway. Today, ICE continues to assert that they did nothing wrong. On the 10th anniversary of the raid, WBUR, a Boston radio station, interviewed Bruce Foucart, the ICE official in charge of the Michael Bianco raid, who claimed: “‘We worked with [the then Massachusetts Department of Social Services], we worked with public safety, we worked with the New Bedford Police Department, we worked with the New Bedford School Department officials,’ Foucart says. ‘Our concern was we did not want to have children coming home to empty houses.'” That is not what I heard from union members, who included workers with the Department of Social Services and the police: social workers said children were not adequately cared for. Besides, parents were separated from their children, which is simply inhumane. Despite what ICE said and says, the whole thing was a complete mess.

Worse yet — and these things were barely reported in the news media or in social media — it turned out that the unscrupulous management of the Michael Bianco took advantage of the vulnerability of these mostly Mayan immigrants — because yes, the management knew quite well that their workers did not have proper documentation — by forcing the workers to work two consecutive eight hour shifts each day. Management avoided alerting the state labor department by giving each worker two names. A worker would punch out from their first eight hour shift under one name, then punch back in again with a time card that had a different name. The union members from whom I heard this story pointed out the management of the Michael Bianco plant violated the law in several ways: they forced workers to work hours per week more than the maximum allowed under Massachusetts state law; the workers did not receive overtime pay; and the workers were cheated out of at least some of their base pay.

To make matters still worse, the management of the Michael Bianco plant — the management of a U.S. defense contractor — got away with minimal penalties. A slap on the wrist. That’s all. ICE ruined the lives of the undocumented immigrants and their children, and the people who were really at fault were barely inconvenienced. And ICE learned that the outrage dies away pretty quickly, so they have continued making the same kinds of raids.

Yes, we should be angry at what ICE is doing right now. But please remember that this kind of thing has been going on for more than a decade now. I’ve heard a lot of people saying they want to do something to stop this human rights atrocity, and that’s great — but in the honesty of your own heart, please think back to March 6, 2007. Were you outraged at what happened in New Bedford? Did your outrage back then cause you to work to end the abuses of ICE?

And, as you answer in the honesty of your own heart, will your present outrage last long enough for you to do anything more than send a check to the ACLU? Will your present outrage extend beyond the commonly accepted narrative that the only place ICE commits abuses is along the Mexican border? — can your present outrage extend to ICE abuses in a down-and-out working class city in Massachusetts in 2007? — will your outrage be able to extend to ICE abuses that are happening in Iowa, North Carolina, and throughout the United States, most likely including where you live?

Now, here’s the most important thing I have to say:

Please remember that all injustices are linked. I assume you’re already working on another one of the pressing injustices of our times. Maybe you’re working for well-known campaigns like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or global climate change. Or you might be working to address less well-known but equally important projects like ending domestic violence, or stopping toxics in the environment, or transgender rights, or nuclear nonproliferation, or literacy, or stopping elder abuse, or labor rights, or whatever. I would suggest that the most important thing for us to do is continue working on the injustices to which we are already committed. Continue that work, and find out how to make explicit connections between our present justice work, and the outrages that ICE is committing. This was the power in what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was doing at the end of his life: making explicit the connections between racial justice, peace, and economic justice — making explicit the notion that all injustices are linked, and that working on one injustice helps the fight for justice everywhere.

It’s fine to feel outrage and anger and fear and discouragement, and all those other complicated emotions that we’re feeling now. But I’d suggest that we not let our present justice work slacken even one little bit. Mind you, if your community is subjected to one of these raids, then you may find yourself having to change your justice focus to immigration raids. But in any case, if your outrage over the border detentions causes you to lose momentum on your justice work, in other words if the outrage gets in the way of doing justice work, please let the outrage go. We need to find solace and support through our justice-making communities, through our congregations, wherever we can — get professional psychotherapy if you need it — but we don’t want to be consumed by outrage.

In fact, I’d suggest that instead of becoming obsessed with news media and social media accounts, you will feel better if you engage in any kind of justice work. Because all injustices are linked, you will be making a difference in the injustices that ICE is currently perpetrating.

Parama Pada Sopanam

I’ve written before about Moksha Patam, one version of the Indian board games from which the classic Snakes and Ladders game is derived. A few weeks ago, I decided to order the real thing — I ordered Parama Pada Sopanam, another version of Moksha Patam, from Kreeda Games in Chennai, India. Kreeda’s mission is to promote traditional Indian games, by “learning through play.”

I ordered two games for use in our religious education programs (plus one for my own use!), and they arrived today. I was more than pleased with the games. The cloth game board is beautifully designed. The traditional long dice are fascinating and satisfying to throw and use. The wooden pawns, though smaller than I would like, are a pleasant shape with good colors. The game box is made out of corrugated cardboard, which sounds cheap, but the bright printed designs on the box make it look exactly right. I liked the little cloth bag in which the pawns and dice are stored. And nothing in the game is made of plastic, which makes it all the more satisfying.

Kreeda’s games are aimed at modern families (and educational programs) who want to retain a connection to traditional games and culture. The best part of Kreeda’s version of Parama Pada Sopanam are the brief stories for each of mythological names of the “snakes.” If you land on a square where you are to slide down a snake, you can read aloud the brief story of that mythological figure. Thus, this game is not just fun, it is a way to become introduced to some traditional Indian myths.

Mind you, ordering a game from India is not exactly easy. The cost of shipping from India is more than the cost of the game; however, the game is inexpensive, so the overall cost is not prohibitive. The bank had a hard time when we wired money to Kreeda. And the U.S. staff of the international courier, DHL, proved less than competent in delivering the package: we saw the DHL truck drive right up to our house, then were notified that the driver could not find our house; when I called the national office in Arizona to straighten things out, the woman on the phone was less than polite, and wanted me to go pick up the package at their warehouse; and when the package finally arrived, one of the game boxes was partially crushed (which is OK by me, given that it will get wrecked anyway in our program, but it is annoying). If you decide to order a Kreeda game from India, be patient — and ask if you can pay Kreeda to pack the game in a sturdy box to prevent DHL from crushing it. What I really wish would happen is that someone in the States would import this game, and other games made by Kreeda — that would lower the cost, and make delivery easier.

I’m looking forward to playing this game with the early elementary children in our program. I expect the children in our program will have fun, and enjoy absorbing a little bit of one of the greatest cultures in the world.

Ecojustice Camp, year four

Friday was the last day of Ecojustice Camp. This is the fourth year our congregation has sponsored this camp, and each year has been more fun than the last (from the adult leader point of view).

On the plus side, the overnight camping trip went far more smoothly this year; we firmed up the curriculum and added some new camp songs that both campers and adults loved; and we were better about integrating age groups. For the finances, I’m still waiting for all expenses to be submitted but I’m projecting that we’ll run a modest surplus again this year (the surplus provides start-up funds for the following year).

On the negative side, camp took it out of me this year: camp typically means a ten-hour day for me, and my regular duties as a minister get piled on top of that; that’s usually not a problem for just one week, but this year I haven’t fully recovered from some health issues, so I’m pretty well tuckered out. Having said all that, I felt it was completely worth it — it wasn’t just the campers who had a great camp experience, we adults did too.

Above all, it feels like this kind of camp is critically important in today’s world. It’s important to teach kids to enjoy the outdoors, while not shying away from the intertwined issues of environmental justice, racism, sexism, consumerism, etc. I don’t think there’s much hope for the world unless we teach First World kids how to love Nature, and how to save it from ruin.

Above: 6 a.m hike on the Ecojustice Camp overnight. Not many of the campers got up to go on this hike, but those who did had a blast.

Making the case for philosophy

At the Indian Philosophy Blog, Amod Lele has written a post titled “Making the case for non-Western philosophy.” Even though the title is ostensibly the subject of the post — even though the post is, on the surface, a book review about a book making the case for studying non-Western philosophy — Lele’s post really is making a case for studying philosophy at all, non-Western or Western.

As Lele puts it: “We live in an anti-philosophical and anti-intellectual age where philosophy, Western and Asian, needs defending.” As one specific example, he mentions “the awful US Republican debate where three different politicians took it upon themselves to take pot shots at philosophy.” It is worth noting that Donald Trump was not one of the candidates who took potshots at philosophy; this serves as a helpful reminder that the Republican party is riddled with anti-intellectualism.

Nor is anti-intellectualism confined to the Republican party. As a resident of Silicon Valley, I can tell you that Silicon Valley is a hotbed of anti-intellectualism. The only intellectual disciplines that are valued here in the Valley are those disciplines that will make you money; and really only those narrow areas within a discipline that will make money. Silicon Valley residents look down on the flyover states, but when I lived for a year in north central Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, I found more intellectual depth than I find here in Silicon Valley.

In his post, Lele discusses Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “the hermeneutic of faith” — which Lele defines as the willingness “to listen to the great thinkers of the past and take seriously the idea that they might be right — and contrasts that with the “hermeneutic of suspicion … which views previous thought as oppressive dead weight.”* Both the Republican party and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs may be accused of having their own versions of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” — the Republican party has left behind its intellectual past, and now appears to repudiate all serious thinking; Silicon Valley entrepreneurs view whatever predates computers as now hopelessly outdated and worthy only of amused contempt. Nor are Democrats immune from such thinking; too many Democrats worship Silicon Valley, and indeed the Democrats’ unquestioning embrace of neoliberalism and unrestrained capitalism also represents a kind of betrayal of serious thought. Identity politics, which now dominates the Democrats’ social policies, can also be deadly to serious thought: although identitarianism has been useful in deconstructing problematic thought processes, in practice identity politics can also serve as an intellectual bludgeon with which to shut down serious discourse and serious thinking.

Politically, socially, and intellectually, the United States is heading into a dead end. I don’t claim that philosophy is going to save us, or steer us out of the dead end. But I do claim that we need to let go of our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking about more than how to make money, and how to beat our political opponents. This is precisely where both Western and non-Western philosophy might be able to help.

We need look no further than the Confucian Analects, and the concept of rén which may be translated as kindness, forebearance, humaneness. For example, ren is defined as follows in the Analects (6.30): “The person of perfect virtue, wishing to be established, establishes others; wishing to be enlarged, enlarges others.”** This kind of thoughtful selflessness would do much to change both U.S. politics and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

And Confucius even had an answer for someone who wants to know how just thinking about something will affect the real world: “Ren is not far off; the person who seeks for it has already found it.”

 

Notes:
* It is significant that the spell checker in Firefox, my Web browser, does not contain the word “hermeneutics”; though you can be assured the spell checker contains every tech buzzword.
** My rewording of Legge’s translation.

“The universe is a very complicated place…”

For many years, chemists and other scientists thought that the inert or noble gases — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and radon — could not form chemical compounds and a valence of zero. In recounting how scientists did indeed create chemical compounds with the noble gases, Isaac Asimov, a chemist himself, wrote:

“The discovery of the noble-gas compounds came as a shock to some chemists and as a healthy object lesson to all. The universe is a very complicated place and there is very little of it we have penetrated. Even those portions of the universe with which we feel well acquainted can still hold surprises.”

Isaac Asimov, The Noble Gases, New York: Basic Books, 1966, p. 157.

Home on the Range

I remember a cartoon character — probably in a printed cartoon, not a video cartoon — singing a parody version of “Home on the Range” that goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the butterflies roam
And the dear little cantaloupes play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging bird
And the flies are not crowded all day.

Searching the Web for the first and second lines, using two different search engines, resulted in nothing. Although I did find a video with Bugs Bunny singing a different parody:

Oh give me a home where the millionaires roam
And the oil and the cattlemen play
With their gushing oil wells and their super hotels,
And they count up their money all day.

I know I did not make up the first parody myself. Will I remember where it came from? Will it ever appear on the Web? (Do I really care?) Such is the peculiar anguish of this point of development of the Information Age, when we realize that not all knowledge is available on via the Internet.

Arjuna’s Choice

A story from a series for liberal religious kids; this story comes from the Bhagavad Gita.

Once upon a time, two armies assembled at the Kuru Field. On one side was the army of Yudhishthira [Yut-ish-tir-ah], who was the nephew of Dhritarashtra [Dri-tah-rahsh-trah], the great blind King of the Kurus. On the other side was the army of Duryodhana [Dur-yo-tahn-ah], the eldest of Dhri-tarashtra’s hundred sons. Twenty years before, Dhritarashtra had decided to give his kingdom to his nephew Yudhishthira, instead of to his son Duryodhana; for he knew that Duryodhana was wicked and selfish.

———

As the battle was about to begin, great heroes, their bows and arrows at the ready, stood in their chariots behind their charioteers, who were busy controlling the horses pulling each chariot. Other great heroes also stood at the ready, armed with many different kinds of weapons, each of them skilled in war. (In those days, in that place, only men fought wars, so everyone there was a man.)

Ajuna was one of the heroes who stood in in chariots. His was a large and fine chariot, pulled by magnificent white horses who were driven by a skilled charioteer.

Suddenly, somewhere a warrior blew on a conch shell, making a loud and terrifying sound, to signal that the battle was to begin.

Other warriors took out their conch shells and blew them. Still other people beat on drums and cymbals, and blew loud horns. All this made an incredible noise which sounded over all the earth, up into the sky, making everyone’s heart beat faster.

Someone let loose an arrow, and other warriors responded by shooting their own arrows.

At exactly this moment Arjuna said to his charioteer, “Drive the chariot in between the two armies. I want to look at all these warriors standing eager for battle, those people I’m about to fight.”

His charioteer drove the chariot out in between the two armies. The sound of the conch shells, the sounds of the drums and horns, was just dying away. The two armies are about to join in battle.

Arjuna stood in his chariot, alone in the middle of the field, all prepared to fight. As he looked across the field, he recognizes many of the people in the other army—uncles, teachers, cousins, and friends of his. He saw fathers who had sons in his army, and brothers who were about to fight brothers in his army.

Arjuna thought to himself: “Here are friends and relatives on either side of Kuru Field, about to try and kill each other. This does not make sense.”

Arjuna turned to his charioteer and said, “My mouth is dry and my mind is whirling. I feel that we are about to do a bad thing. What good can come of it if brothers kill brothers, if fathers kill their sons? I feel it would be better if did not fight at all, and simply let the other side kill me.”

Arjuna could not decide what to do next. Should he throw down his weapons and let the other side kill him? Should he go forward and kill his friends and relatives? He did not like either choice, yet he must do something.

And his charioteer turned around, and gave him an unexpected answer….

To Be Continued….

Source: Chapter 1, the Bhagavad Gita