Happy Watergate Day

Long-time friend JB (no, not that JB, this JB) just reminded me that on June 17, 1972, 50 years ago this Saturday, undercover police arrived at the Watergate Complex to investigate a possible break-in. The police arrested five guys wiretapping and burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee there. These five hapless idiots actually had a lookout across the street who was supposed to keep an eye out for police, but he got hooked watching a B-movie, “The Attack of the Puppet People.” Ultimately, it turned out the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, had authorized the break-in, and the subsequent cover-up. Nixon would famously declare on national television, “I Am Not a Crook.” Very few people believed him.

Please do not draw unhealthy parallels between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Trump had nothing to do with the storming of the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Nor has Trump tried to cover up his involvement in that armed insurgency. The big difference between Trump and Nixon is that Trump is actually in fact and really truly the lawfully elected president of the United States. He won the 2020 election. Trump is not a loser like Nixon. He is a winner. Therefore, everything he does is lawful, by definition. Donald Trump Is Not a Crook. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way (no parallels between Nixon and Trump! none!), let us continue.

I was in middle school when the Watergate break-in happened. The subsequent Watergate scandal and the eventual melt-down of the Nixon administration had a big impact on people in my age cohort. I was in high school on the fourth anniversary of Watergate Day, and six of my friends and I decided to engage in some political theatre: we would “break in” to the main office of the high school, and plant some bugs (dead insects we found lying around school somewhere). Then we would ask the secretary to sign a document we prepared in advance, attesting that we had “bugged” the office.

We were all about 14 or 16 years old, and both disgusted and fascinated by the spectre of the American political system as it unraveled before our eyes. We could barely keep from giggling as we carried out our plan. As the secretary willingly signed our “Certificate of Veracity,” the assistant principal, the man in charge of discipline at the high school, walked in. He barely restrained his own laughter, and at the bottom of our “Certificate” wrote: “I caught these buggers,” then signed his name.

This story of political theatre is primarily aimed at today’s middle school and high school students. Perhaps it will serve as inspiration for you on the fourth anniversary of the storming of the Capitol building.

Happy Watergate Day.

Thanks to J.B. for sending along this photo of the Certificate of Veracity

“Whitened Buddhism” and the opiate of the masses

Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.

Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:

“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”

For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:

“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”

Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:

“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]

Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]

I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.

Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]

Phone privacy and abortions

Now that Roe v. Wade is likely to fall, we all have to think carefully about electronic privacy and abortion. Big Tech is already tracking everything you do. The data they steal from you can easily be used to find out whether you (for biological females) or your partner (for biological males) is pregnant.

The Digital Defense Fund (DDF) has created a “Guide to Abortion Privacy” showing how to maintain your reproductive privacy. The DDF guide is focused on phone privacy, but similar principles apply to computer privacy; make sure your laptop is as secure as your phone.

DDF also provides a poster and an infographic about abortion privacy. DDF appears to give permission to repost these graphics freely, so I’ll include the infographic below. (Image alt text can be found here.)

Digital Defense Fund infographic “How your phone documents your abortion experience”

Actually, anyone wanting to maintain online privacy should study these guides. We live in a world where increasingly individual behavior is subject to outside control. Big Tech wants to control your behavior as a consumer. The Religious Right want to control your religion, gender, sexual orientation, and pregnancy. Big Business wants to control your ability to organize for better working conditions. And so on…. If you want to retain some small amount of control over your life, you need to do whatever you can to maintain your online privacy.

Out of the mouths of Scots

Sometimes another blogger says what you want to say, but better, and more concisely. Earlier today, Scottish blogger and science fiction author Charles Stross wrote about how the Supreme Court of the United States intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, saying in part:

“It is unwise to underestimate the degree to which extreme white supremacism in the USA is enmeshed with a panic about ‘white’ people being ‘out-bred’ by other races. This also meshes in with extreme authoritarian patriarchal values, the weird folk religion that names itself “Christianity” and takes pride in its guns and hatred of others, homophobia, transphobia, an unhealthy obsession with eugenics (and a low-key desire to eliminate the disabled which plays into COVID19 denialism, anti-vaxx, and anti-mask sentiment), misogyny, incel culture, QAnon, classic anti-semitic Blood Libel, and Christian Dominionism (which latter holds that the USA is a Christian nation—and by Christian they mean that aforementioned weird folk religion derived from protestantism I mentioned earlier—and their religious beliefs must be enshrined in law).”

That just about covers it, doesn’t it.

Next, let us discuss how Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale is about to jump genres, from science fiction into historical fiction….

Wait, what?!

A new study from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) looks into religious affiliations of QAnon devotees. QAnon devotees believe that governments, media outlets, and world finances are in the control of pedophiles who worship Satan. They also believe that there’s some kind of big convulsion coming that will get rid of all the powerful elites, allowing the world’s true leaders (like Donald Trump) to return to their rightful positions of power. And QAnon devotees believe that real American patriots are gonna have to get their guns and use violence to save America.

41 million Americans believe in QAnon — roughly 16% of the population. We usually think of QAnon devotees as white Protestant evangelicals. But you can find QAnon devotees in many different religious groups. For example, 17% of all QAnon believers are “Nones,” religiously unaffiliated Americans.

PRRI also looked at specific religious groups to determine what percentage of each religious group were QAnon devotees. So while 17% of QAnon devotees are Nones, only 11% of Nones are QAnon devotees. Hispanic Protestants had the highest percentage of QAnon devotees, at 27%. Interestingly, 17% of all Buddhists are QAnon devotees, whereas only 14% of white mainline (non-evangelical) Protestant Christians were QAnon devotees. And 7% of Unitarian Universalists are QAnon devotees.

Wait, what?!

7% of us are QAnon devotees. So if there are roughly 200,000 Unitarian Universalists, that means there are 14,000 Unitarian Universalists who are QAnon devotees. Well, I guess we can take comfort that there’s only one group — Jews — with a smaller percentage of QAnon devotees (5%).

But still….

Teaching and critical race theory

Classroom teacher and public intellectual Jose Vilson has a post on his blog on “the work we must do” in public education. After pointing out that our guiding principle should be “educating for an informed democracy,” he provides good advice on how to respond to the misguided critics of critical race theory:

“We can say ‘critical race theory has two tenets: 1) we have systems that depend on racial hierarchy and 2) we can do something about it.’ We’ve been doing this work towards a better democracy for decades and can’t shy away from it by going on the defensive. We teach the truth without apology. We’re unafraid because we know our communities trust in us to do this work and we know history will look kindly on those who put justice, compassion, and the truth in front of young people who need it the most.”

I know that I’ve been responding to the silly attacks on critical race theory by pointing out how those attacking it don’t seem to know what critical race theory actually is. Critical race theory is not, for example, the same thing as the Frankfurt School of Marxism, despite what some pundits would have us believe.

But I think Vilson is right. There’s no reason to go on the defensive. Instead, we can meet these attacks head on. Maybe some people don’t like “critical race theory,” but racial hierarchy is real. Since a fundamental purpose of education should be to strengthen democracy, then we of course we should talk with children about the places where democracy has fallen short. Of course we will address all topics in a developmentally appropriate way, but there is no reason to lie to children.

Coloniality and gender

I seem to have very little time these days, as the Omicron surge winds down, and as our congregation opens up again (or maybe re-opens up? — or is it re-re-opens up?). Nevertheless, I’m slowly making my way through some essays by Maria Lugones, and I’m currently reading “The Coloniality of Gender.” In this essay, she critiques Anibal Quijano’s theoretical work on global capitalism for his “complicity with the gender system.” In other words, many males who write about colonialism ignore how women are dominated.

But Lugones is also laying out another way to analyze gender, a model which she calls “the modern colonial/gender system”:

“In Quijano’s model of global capitalist Eurocentered power, ‘capitalism’ refers to the ‘structural articulation of all historically known forms of control of labor or exploitation, slavery, servitude, small independent mercantile production, wage labor, and reciprocity under the hegemony of the capital-wage labor relation.’ (‘Colonialidad del Poder y Clasificacion Social,’ Festschrift for Immanuel Wallerstein, part I, Journal of World Systems Research, V. xi, #2, summer/fall 2000). In this sense, the structuring of the disputes over control of labor are discontinuous: not all labor relations under global, Eurocentered capitalism fall under the capital/wage relation model, though this is the hegemonic model. It is important in beginning to see the reach of the coloniality of power that wage labor has been reserved almost exclusively for white Europeans. The division of labor is thoroughly ‘racialized’ as well as geographically differentiated. Here we see the coloniality of labor as a thorough meshing of labor and ‘race.’”

Lugones connects colonialism, capitalism, gender, and race. This has some interesting implications for the way we Unitarian Universalists think about anti-oppression work.

Noted without comment

“…[there are] levels in what counts as political. As you dare to witness police arresting people, or dare to ask a woman who is saying ‘no’ to a man’s hold whether she’s all right, whether she wants to leave, you notice that it is quite different to do that than to organize a demonstration against Anglo takeover of land and water in the U.S. Southwest. It is all beyond the pale, but the latter is more easily understood as political — it is afforded a kind of sociality — that the others may lack. So, there are levels of disruption, levels of resistant, in terms of the political sense that the act makes. Foundations that fund political projects often look for political activity that makes a particular kind of ‘within-bounds’ sense. It is important to take stock of the ease of acceptance, since there is a need to try to roam more deeply into the social to understand who’s paying for one’s acceptability.”

— Maria Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 2.

Step by Step

I got curious about the song “Step by Step,” a song that Waldemar Hille and Pete Seeger put together — it’s hymn number 157 in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. Hille found a poem in the “Constitution and Laws for the Government and Guidance of the American Miners’ Association” (1864), and he and Seeger made a song out of it. But Seeger said they changed some of the words, so I got curious about the original wording. I found a digitized copy of the poem online, and it reads like this:

Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won,
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one,
And by union, what we will
Can be all accomplished still.
Drops of water turn a mill—
Singly none, singly none.

I decided I liked the original words better than Hille and Seeger’s rewrite — the original second stanza feels more positive to me. Then I realized I’ve always disliked Hille and Seeger’s tune; it sounds like a dirge, better suited to a funeral than to a union marching song.

Worst of all, Hille and Seeger slapped a copyright on their song. Maybe while they were alive they would have given permission to use it freely, but they’re both dead now. Besides, who wants to have to write for permission to sing the song?

So here’s my version of this grand old union song. It has the original public domain words, paired with a tune licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License:

Click on the image above for a PDF.

Solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis four people at a time

The title of a recent San Francisco Chronicle article says it all:

He wanted to let homeless neighbors sleep in cars outside his church. It launched a two-year battle.

The “he” in the title is my new UU hero, Chris Kan. Chris grew up in San Francisco, and after a stint teaching at UC Santa Cruz, moved to Silicon Valley to do cancer research. He also joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), where he got involved in an effort to allow car dwellers to park safely in the church parking lot. I’m proud to say that UUCPA is my congregation, too, and I’m proud that many of us supported Chris in this two year battle — showing up at City Council meetings, working behind the scenes with community stakeholders, coordinating with Move Mountain View, a local nonprofit, to provide support services, arranging to have a Porta-Potty on site, making sure we could provide free wifi to car dwellers, and on and on — but Chris was the one who provided clear and steady leadership through this agonizing two-year process.

Sadly, we all knew that UUCPA’s permit application would take forever to get through the city of Palo Alto. The city is notorious for its torturous permitting process. And during the application process we suspected we’d hear comments like, “We don’t want those people living near us.” Those are the things you have to expect when you propose any solution to Silicon Valley’s housing crisis: the city government will take forever to approve the project, and some city residents will talk about “those people.”

Admittedly, we were a little surprised when Stevenson House, the subsidized elderly housing project next door to our church, filed a last minute appeal to block our permit this summer. But it all turned out all right in the end. You can read about the appeal in this news article — the reporter quotes Grace Mah, president of the Stevenson House Board, as saying the Board wanted background checks. True, some safe parking programs do require background checks, but our local county opposes background checks because they raise another barrier to housing. Fortunately, the Stevenson House Board quickly changed its mind, and the next time they met they voted to drop the appeal. (That installment of the story is reported here.) I’m a big supporter of Stevenson House’s mission, and I appreciate the fact that their board, after doing their due diligence, ultimately supported our safe parking program. We’re grateful to have a good neighbor like Stevenson House, a group that’s also committed to solving the Silicon Valley housing crisis.

The big problem is how badly local city governments are handling any proposed solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. As Chris Kan told the Chronicle reporter: “They basically treated [the safe parking program] the same way you would if I was building a condo building…. [but] it’s literally a parking lot with a trash can.” I suppose you could do some incisive social analysis of why local city governments throw up barriers to any solution to the Silicon Valley housing crisis. However, I’ve given up on incisive social analysis, preferring to pour my energy into supporting people like Chris Kan, who are actually out there solving the problem. As I said, Chris is my new UU hero.

Update: NBC Bay Area covers this story here. Here’s an excerpt from their story — I particularly like Amber Stine’s comment at the end:

“A board member at the senior living facility next door [i.e., Grace Mah of Stevenson House] asked for a review…. She eventually dropped the request after Kan and other church members explained the program…. ‘The pushback is fine. Some of it is necessary. It creates conversation. I think it’s the outcome that matters more than anything,’ said Amber Stime, executive director of Move Mountain View.”