Couldn’t’ve said it better myself

From “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen (Orion Magazine, 2009), excerpted in the zine “Know Your Shit,” UC Santa Cruz, 2018:

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would ahve gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal ‘solutions’?

“Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal comsumption — changing light bulbs, inflating tires, dirving half as much — and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent world wide….

“I want to be clear. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

Couldn’t’ve said it better myself.

Our personal consumption profiles are not going to stop all the global environmental justice crises. What is going to save us is a combination of political activism and change in the global economic structure; some moral technological innovation (as opposed to the now-dominant amoral technological innovation driven by the profit motive) may help, but only if coupled with political activism and economic change.

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades….”

Philosopher Peter Leiter makes some crucial points in a May Day interview with Il Manifesto, “Italy’s leading communist newspaper” (look for the link to download an English translation of the interview). Here are three highlights from the interview:

“The U.S. left has been dead for decades, starting with the state purge of communists in the 1950s and continuing with the neoliberal revolution since the 1980s and the war on the organized labor movement — so Trump is more symptom than cause of the fact that there is no left in the U.S….”

This is probably the most important thing that Leiter says in this interview. The lack of meaningful leftist politics in the U.S. not only means that Bernie Sanders, a center-left politician, is popularly thought to be a socialist — it also means that most U.S. residents do not actually know what leftist politics look like. This is a huge hole in our political discourse. Leiter goes on to add:

“‘Identity politics’ is the narcissism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, who want to get their share of the ‘capitalist pie,’ including their share of ‘respect’ as reflected in language and culture. … Insofar as ‘left’ politics in the U.S. has been captured by identity politics, it has been rendered impotent against the real obstacle to human flourishing….”

In other words, in the absence of actual leftist politics in the U.S., we have a putative leftist politics that does not aim to reform the economic injustice perpetuated by capitalism; instead, this putative leftist politics wants to keep capitalism going by offering it to historically marginalized groups. Even for those who strongly support capitalism, it’s important to understand that the goal of identity politics is not fundamental economic reform; its goal, while worthwhile, is much narrower.

Leiter will be taken to task here by U.S. academics who will point out that he is a white man and therefore can not understand identity politics; but as Leiter points out, most academics come from “bourgeois backgrounds” and indeed some of them are “actual or aspiring members of the ruling class”; as apologists for capitalism, they are not going to engage in serious critique of capitalism. So if he as a white man can’t understand identity politics, then they as aspiring members of the ruling class can’t understand leftist politics.

And here’s perhaps my favorite passage from the interview:

“Moral and political ideals are very important to human beings, but there is no evidence that the often unintelligible theoretical writings of academics about these ideals make any difference at all. Marx, who was a good writer (unlike Habermas), seized the imagination of revolutionaries in the 19th-century because he explained to them the causes of what was visible to them and what to do about it; he didn’t have to persuade them that they were suffering. No one who reads Marx could mistake him for Habermas….”

I once went to a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas. He spoke with a heavy German accent, but the real reason I found his lecture incomprehensible is the same reason I find his books incomprehensible: he’s a lousy writer. You can’t go about changing the world if you write specialized books that only appeal to a tiny number of professional philosophers and other academics.

There is more to Leiter’s interview, and no matter what your political persuasion, it’s definitely worth reading — it’s hard to find any American these days who can speak intelligently about leftist politics as they relate to the U.S. context.

Why my blog will leave Facebook

For several years now, I have linked my blog posts to Facebook. I’ve decided to end that arrangement.

I’m not doing this because Facebook helped Cambridge Analytica meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There is nothing new in that ongoing news story. We have long known that Facebook steals information about us and uses that information to make money. We have long known that as a corporation, Facebook has no moral scruples; if corporations were really persons, as the U.S. Supreme Court asserts, Facebook would be a psychopath. Psychologist Michael Tompkins of the Sacramento County Mental Treatment Center describes psychopaths as “skilled actors whose sole mission is to manipulate people for personal gain”; a phrase that accurately describes Facebook. Facebook lost 14% of its capital value in the last couple of weeks, astonishing that psychopathic corporate entity; and now that entity is trying to figure out how to pretend to be moral, thus allaying our fears so that it can continue to lie and cheat and steal even more from us. But this is a long-standing pattern of behavior; the Cambridge Analytica debacle is nothing new, and there’s nothing in that debacle to make my change my ideas about Facebook.

What has changed for me is I’m beginning to see clearly how Facebook makes its users mean-spirited, unreasonable, and rigid. Facebook reduces public discourse to meme graphics, rage porn, and incestuous conversations among people who already agree, worsening the political and social polarization of the United States. I’m particularly troubled by the effect Facebook has had on the thought processes of Unitarian Universalists.

In particular, I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post meme graphics that play fast and loose with facts; these are ministers who are careful to fact-check their sermons, and it troubles me that they won’t fact-check re-posted meme graphics. I’ve watched Unitarian Universalist ministers re-post rage porn — graphics, videos, or text designed to induce rage, rather than to promote dialogue — these are ministers who would actively resist inciting rage in committee meetings, or in sermons, or in pastoral counseling sessions, and again I am troubled that they feel it is acceptable to induce rage through a social media platform. And I have watched as Unitarian Universalist ministers expel from their Facebook “conversations” anyone who disagrees with whatever narrow conception of “truth” that prevails in that particular conversation; by so doing, they erase nuance, leaving behind only binary, either-or thinking.

It’s not just Unitarian Universalist ministers who do this. Unitarian Universalist lay people are just as bad. I don’t like what Facebook is doing to Unitarian Universalism. To me, one of the strengths of Unitarian Universalism is that it encourages tolerance of other people’s thoughts and feelings, even if I happen to disagree with them. Another strength of Unitarian Universalism is the insistence of the importance of reason, a human faculty that is disengaged by rage porn. Facebook is designed to get you to spend as much time as possible staring at it — that’s how they sell advertising — and to do that, Facebook disengages your reason and erases your sense of tolerance.

There are other horrible aspects of Facebook: it induces feelings of isolation; it is addictive, and interferes with other activities; it is destroying public discourse, and thus directly attacks democracy. These results are not side effects of Facebook; these are direct results of the way Facebook is designed. Obviously, other social media platforms, with socially-manipulative designs similar to Facebook, produce similar results. I abandoned Twitter some time ago. I stay away from Snapchat. And now it’s time to pull back from Facebook.

I’ll still use Facebook to find Sacred Harp singing events. But I no longer want to link my blog directly to what I can only describe as a psychopathic corporate “person” that turns otherwise reasonable people into mean-spirited, unreasonable, intolerant, ill-mannered destroyers of democracy. If you want to read my blog, from now on you’ll have to go directly to my blog.

(Something I should make clear: Amy, the Unitarian Universalist minister I work with, is a responsible user of Facebook.)

Domination vs. understanding

“We may perhaps survive as humanity if we would be able to learn that we may not simply exploit our means of power and effective possibilities, but must learn to stop and respect the other as an other, whether [the other] is nature or the grown cultures of peoples and nations….” So said Hans-Georg Gadamer in 1992, at a time when he was increasingly worried about aspects of the Industrial Revolution — weapons, technologies, ecological disasters — that made it questionable whether our species will survive.

There are at least a couple of philosophical alternatives to learning “to stop and respect the other as other.”

First, you could engage in deconstruction, that philosophical fad of the 1980s and 1990s. Some of those who do deconstruction claim that understanding the other isn’t really possible. (This claim always made me wonder if they could ever make me truly understand what they were saying about deconstruction.) I sometimes feel that the public discourse in the United States is dominated by a half-assed version of deconstructionism, in which everyone has their own truth and they have given up on understanding anyone other than a small circle of allies all of whom think exactly the same thoughts. While deconstruction can be a useful intellectual tool, it can also be an excuse for not listening to anyone else.

Second, you could simply attempt to dominate others. I think there are many people who start out with the best of intentions and wind up trying to dominate everyone else unwittingly. It takes a lot of work to really understand someone else’s viewpoint, and it’s easy to get lazy: why try to listen to someone else when it’s so much easier to yell at them? So that’s one way you can slip away from understanding and slip into domination. But for the college-educated professional class, there is a still more insidious path to domination, and that is being condescending. A great many college-educated professionals think they are much smarter than everyone else; and the more successful they are, the smarter they think they are. When yo have that attitude, it’s easy to slip into the mistake of believing that you know best, and that everyone should just do what you tell them to. It’s pretty ugly when you see it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are the most egregious examples, with their foundations giving away money only to those causes which Gates and Zuckerberg, in their supreme condescension, think are worthy. But condescension is equally ugly in the average software engineer or college professor or minister, because condescension is nothing but an effort to dominate other people instead of listening to them.

And maybe these two alternatives aren’t all that different; I suspect that deconstruction has devolved into yet another way that college-educated professionals can condescend to other people. Perhaps both these alternatives are the basic ingredients of the toxic brew that fuels public discourse in the U.S. today — where each person gets to have their own private truth, their own truth that they must defend against all others.

I prefer Gadamer’s alternative: Stop and respect the Other as Other. Listen to the world of non-human organisms. Listen to the “grown cultures of peoples and nations”; and so “we would be able to learn to experience the other and the others, as the other of our self, in order to participate with one another.”

Then we may have a small chance, perhaps, of surviving as humanity.

The Gadamer quotations are from Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics, trans. L. Schmidt and M. Reuss; ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 152; quoted in Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography by Jean Grodin (Yale, 2002), p. 329.

Political statement for geeks

You’ve seen those bumper stickers that some political progressives have, right? You know, there’s the word “Resist!” and under it or beside it the circuit diagram symbol for a resistor. (Though there’s a part of me that wants to know how many ohms of resistance I’m supposed to provide.) Now here’s a version of that meme aimed at geeks who are also politically progressive…

The middle two statements are nonsensical (is “capacitate” the opposite of “incapacitate”?). But the last statement is actually my preferred slogan for action in today’s political climate: I don’t want to resist, I want to transform (though let’s be clear that I do not mean this literally: I don’t want to transfer electrical energy through coupled inductors via a magnetic field, OK?).

Electrification

If you want to promote U.S. job growth, electrifying the CalTrain commuter rail line from San Jose to San Francisco should be high on your list of priorities.

CalTrain serves Silicon Valley, one of the major economic engines in the U.S.; however, in order to continue its upward economic trajectory and to continue adding jobs to the economy, Silicon Valley needs investment in its infrastructure, especially its transportation infrastructure. In addition, electrifying CalTrain would add construction jobs — jobs that can’t be outsourced. But the CalTrain electrification project is being delayed by the current presidential administration.

Since the current administration has stated that job growth and infrastructure projects are top priorities, they should support CalTrain electrification, a project that is ready to start producing jobs very quickly. Let’s bring some pressure to bear on the president and the Secretary of Transportation — click here to take action.

Take action on affordable housing

Housing advocates worry that funding for Section 8 housing may not be fully funded by the current Congress. Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing, a nonprofit that provides provides affordable housing in the western states of the U.S., writes: “A recent survey asked me what my biggest concern was for 2017 in regards to affordable housing finance. Without hesitation, I answered, ‘Section 8 renewals.'”

Graf suggests that if we want to keep Section 8 housing fully funded, we should contact our elected representatives in Washington to tell them this. Graf added that the National Housing Trust has a suggested message you can use to write to your elected officials, online here.

I used the Common Cause Web site — here — to find contact information for my elected officials. I modified the National Housing Trust talking points into a letter that focuses on my main concerns: housing for seniors, and housing here in Silicon Valley. I’ve included a version of my letter below, in case you share my concerns and want to save time by using my wording.

You now have no excuse. Take five minutes and use the online contact forms for your elected officials to express your opinion about Section 8 funding. Or take fifteen minutes, and send a physical letter.

Here’s my sample letter: Continue reading “Take action on affordable housing”

Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees

The BBC has posted the full text of Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” here.

The executive order states in part: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” By the same logic, the executive order itself should support the Constitution, including the right to religious belief set forth in the First Amendment, viz.: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What is particularly problematic here is that Trump, like both his presidential predecessors, is using executive orders too broadly. This particular executive order has the effect of proscribing persons with certain religious beliefs, notwithstanding that the courts have generally held that, while certain destructive religious practices (e.g., Hindu suttee, human sacrifice, etc.) can be prohibited by law, religious beliefs cannot be regulated by Congress. Trump’s use of a presidential executive order can be seen as an attempted end run around the First Amendment. US District Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a temporary stay of the executive order, though she did not attempt to rule on its constitutionality — that will be left to another court.

Although Trump has stated that this executive order does not target specific religious groups (i.e., Muslims), the effect of the order is to severely limit the admission of Muslims into the United States; under the order, no visas will be issued to nationals of seven countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all of which are Muslim-majority countries, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC notes that in an interview of Friday, Trump specifically said that Christians “would be given priority among Syrians who apply for refugee status in the future” (BBC’s paraphrase), thus implying that the government gives preference to certain religions.

All people belonging to faith communities should be wary of this executive order; we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of our religious beliefs in the United States, and this executive order is a definite step towards establishing state-sanctioned religious beliefs, insofar as it brands certain beliefs as not acceptable. As noted previously, Trump has indicated that Christian refugees will be considered exceptions under this executive order, but Christians should also be worried, unless you’re sure that you hold exactly the right kind of Christian belief that will receive government sanction. Atheists and agnostics, you too should be worried about the creeping establishment of government-approved religion!

Write to Trump right now to express your concern. You can send your email to president@whitehouse.gov — if you prefer to send classic mail, address your letter to:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Do this RIGHT NOW. Then tell ten friends to write letters as well. Let’s make sure the White House receives a million or more letters opposing this executive order within a week.

I’ll put the text of my email below, along with a sample email you can tweak for yourself….

Continue reading “Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees”

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

Why I won’t be wearing a safety pin

Another social media maelstrom, this time over the wearing of safety pins: Straight white people are wearing safety pins as a symbol that they are allies to people of color, BGLQQT people, Hispanic people, other marginalized or oppressed groups. Some people like the idea, some hate it.

I don’t have a strong opinion about whether anyone should wear a safety pin or not, but I know I won’t be wearing one, and here’s why:

A significant part of my career as a minister has been cleaning up after clergy sexual misconduct. This has turned out to be a complicated business: there are more than a few misconducting ministers who have a lot of power in Unitarian Universalism, and these ministers have a lot of friends. They have gotten very good at shutting down victims of ministerial misconduct, and shutting down those of us who stand by those victims.

Often these misconducting ministers, and their friends, talk about how they want to end ministerial misconduct. Then they’ll say that we have to do it the right way — we can’t rush, we can’t do any damage to those talented ministers who committed misconduct. In the end, this means they will resist any change in the status quo with all the force at their disposal, all the while talking as if they want real change.

Thus I have learned to pay little attention to what people say. Instead, I watch for those who stand up to sexual misconduct even when it is inconvenient, those who do something even when they think no one is looking.

As a corollary, I also assume that no one should trust me. Just because I’ve done a little bit of work on clergy misconduct, I do not expect victims of clergy misconduct, or anyone else fighting this battle, to claim me as an ally. It’s too easy to tell stories about yourself and make yourself into a hero; therefore anything I say about myself can be discounted. If you see me doing the work, then you can count me as an ally — but only for just as long as I’m doing the work.

As an example of what I mean, I had a conversation with a powerful UU minister this past summer. This person said that they were staunch advocates of cleaning up clergy sexual misconduct. Yet it quickly became clear that they knew little or nothing about how one actually cleans up after clergy misconduct; and it quickly became clear that they were allied with some ministers who have actively resisted change, that they had been mentored by older ministers who have been documented as having committed misconduct. This minister said they were a staunch ally to those of us working to end clergy misconduct; I believe they honestly thought they were helping end clergy misconduct; but their words and their deeds were not aligned.

That’s why I won’t be wearing a safety pin. I don’t want to be one of those well-meaning white people who have convinced themselves they’re anti-racists when they’re not. I don’t want to be one of those well-meaning straight people who think they’re fighting homophobia, but they’re not. I’m not looking to set up false expectations for myself; I already know I fall short, and I’m sure I fall short by a much greater distance than I’d like to think.

I’m not going to judge you if you wear a safety pin; we’re all doing the best we can, and me trying to judge you is just another way of falling short myself. But for my part, I’d rather be judged on what I do; that’s a course of action that won’t be particularly comfortable, but I suspect the lack of comfort will do me good.