Finding common ground

In the May, 2022, issue of “St. Anthony Messenger,” a publication of Franciscan Media (Roman Catholic), there was an article by Mark P. Shea titled “I’d Like To Say: Stop Weaponizing the Eucharist.” For those of us who take a pro-choice position, this article contains some observations that we could perhaps agree with. Like this:

“Our [U.S.] abortion policy is, in fact, a triumph of libertarian thinking and the free market. Women can abort or not as they wish…. What drive abortion is not the state but economic pressure. Abortion is primarily pursued as an economic relief valve by women who feel they cannot afford to raise a child. The number one abortifacient in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is poverty.”

Those of us in the pro-choice camp who are uncomfortable with libertarianism can find a lot to agree with in this statement. Obviously, we want to include other, less common, reasons for abortion (rape, non-viable foetus, extreme birth defects, etc.). But if we want to work towards finding common ground in a polarized political landscape, this would be a good starting point — provide adequate economic support for all pregnant women, and adequate economic support for all families with babies and children and teenagers. The libertarian, free-market approach to raising children is not working.

To prove his point, Shea goes on to note:

“There came a precipitous drop in abortion rates in the 1990s. The reason had nothing to do with the [U.S. Supreme] Court. It was due to Clinton-era policies that took economic pressure to abort off lower-income women. Far from ‘promoting’ abortion, the goal during the Clinon years was, in the words of the administration, to make abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ And the numbers show that Clinton’s policies, in fact, achieved the pro-life goal of reducing abortion.’

I am no fan of Bill Clinton, or his administration. But I agree with Shea that this Clinton-era policy was a good one. This could serve as a common policy goal that could be supported by pro-life and pro-choice advocates together.

Unfortunately, now that Roe has been struck down, I think there may be less incentive for pro-life advocates to work together with us to develop public policies that support families with children. Nevertheless, I feel this is an area where we should be working hard to find common ground in our polarized country. I hope we can make the case that libertarian, free-market policies are not good for children, regardless of the legal status of abortion.

People who no longer like capitalism

On Saturday, Pope Francis spoke to a gathering of one thousand people under the age of 35. He said, in part:

“‘The first market economy was born in the 13th century in Europe through daily contact with Franciscan Friars, who were friends of the first merchants. That economy certainly created wealth but it did not despise poverty,’ said [Pope] Francis. ‘Our capitalism, instead, wants to help the poor but does not respect them. … We do not have to love poverty,’ he added. ‘On the contrary, we need to combat it, above all, by creating work, dignified work.’”

We can argue about details of his interpretation of the history of capitalism. Nevertheless, Pope Francis is getting at something important — capitalism today despises people who are poor. Today’s capitalist Titans do everything they can to reduce the number of people they have to hire and make the remaining workers work insanely long hours. Then they speak with disdain of people who can’t find a job. In San Francisco, the rich young Tech Titans want the city to get unhoused people off the streets so they, the Tech Titans, don’t have to be confronted with the tent encampments that they help create.

Pope Francis was wise to make this address to a crowd of people under the age of 35. Pollsters have shown that the younger you are, the more likely you are to distrust capitalism. Among young adults, half prefer socialism to capitalism.

Those who still believe that capitalism is the best economic system have an uphill battle to bring the rest of us around to their opinion. Global climate change appears to have been aggravated by neo-liberal capitalism. Then consider that 11.6% of the U.S. population lives in poverty, while the capitalist system keeps funneling money up to the billionaires.

I think it’s possible to justify something other than the neo-liberal capitalism we’re currently stuck with. It should be possible to have a capitalism that deals with poverty, that creates dignified jobs, that stops the kind of unrestrained growth that leads to ecological disaster. But I’m not seeing anyone working in that direction. These days, capitalism seems to be pretty much divorced from ethical concerns.

As a result, we have mainstream figures like Pope Francis essentially saying that capitalism is evil. We have a growing number of young people who no longer believe in capitalism. We have smart people proposing interesting alternatives to standard capitalist economics.

For myself, I’m no longer able to justify capitalism from an ethical point of view. If the capitalist United States has an 11.6% poverty rate, something’s wrong….

Emerson on reparations

On January 1, 1863, in celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ralph Waldo Emerson read a poem to a Boston audience. In that poem, Emerson considered the then-current idea that slave-owners should be compensated for having their slaves taken away from them. To this ethically bankrupt notion, he replied:

Pay ransom to the owner,
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

This seems to me to be a good concise summary of the case for reparations.

And no wonder many present-day political leaders reject the notion of reparations to the descendants of slavery. If we compensate the descendants of slaves for their stolen labor, by a logical progression we might then have to compensate the offshore workers for the full value of their labor. Or compensate the underpaid warehouse workers and retail employees in this country for the full value of their labor. There’s even an implication that today’s billionaires did not in fact earn their fabulous wealth through their own efforts. In other words, the assummptions underlying reparations contradict the assumptions of economic libertarianism.

Is your identity set in stone?

If you’re reaching sexual maturity today, you have a wide array of sexual orientations with which you might identify. There are the old categories of straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian. There is a continuum from asexual through graysexual to allosexual, though it’s not a linear continuum since it also includes demisexual and aspec and other identities. The old continuum of gay/lesbian to straight (where if asked “how gay are you?” you might reply “a Kinsey 6”) now must include more than two binary genders. Thus, in addition to gay or straight, we now have pansexual, omni sexual, polysexual, etc.

In my observation as a sexuality educator, this plethora of sexual orientations can be both freeing and confusing for young adolescents. Some young adolescents, including the ones who have felt they are somehow different than the norms shown in popular culture, are relieved to find that there are other people out there like them. Other young adolescents, including those who may feel that they don’t fit into pop culture norms, may not see themselves reflected in any of the existing categories, or may see themselves reflected in more than one category. Even young adolescents who fit into one of the old categories (one they don’t have to explain to their parents) find the need to understand the new plethora of sexual orientations, as friends and acquaintances identify with other sexual orientations.

I think it’s helpful to introduce young adolescents to the concept of sexual fluidity. Back in 2014, social psychologist Justin Lehmiller wrote:

“Over the last decade [i.e., prior to 2014], the concept of sexual fluidity has drawn great attention from both scientists and the general public alike. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the basic idea behind sexual fluidity is that some of us have the capacity for a ‘flexible’ erotic response, which can lead to significant variability in one’s pattern of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity over time. In other words, someone who is sexually fluid may experience fluctuations in who they are attracted to, who they sleep with, and what labels they identify with multiple times over the lifespan.”

In other words, your sexual orientation can change over time. I feel this is a useful corrective to a culture that seems to want to put us into a limited number of essentialist categories — we are gay or straight (but not something in between), black or white (but not biracial), Democrat or Republican (but not socialist or communist).

There’s a theological point here. Existentialist theology suggests that humans don’t have a pre-existing essence. We define our essences ourselves, through our actions in the world. By contrast, essentialist theologies insist that humans have defined essences from their beginnings. Essentialist theologies include both conservative Christian theologies (“man is sinful”) on the one hand, and atheist theologies (“humans are programmed by their biology”) on the other hand.

While some Unitarian Universalists do espouse essentialist theologies, mostly essentialist atheist theologies, I’d like to think that most of us do not fall into the essentialist trap. Instead, we assert that humans can change over time. Where others try to place humans into little boxes of essentialist identities, as existentialists we know that we have the ultimate freedom to define our own essence through our actions.

Anesthesia

Update, October 10: Turns out when I wrote this, the anesthesia was still clouding my brain — my prose is even more confused and incoherent than usual. I’ll leave it up as written, so to show what anesthesia can do to you.

In college, I took a class with Lucius Outlaw, Jr., in which we read Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Husserl’s book opened up the possibility of observing the stream of one’s own consciousness, something I’ve been interested in, and have practiced, ever since. So when I went in for a colonoscopy yesterday, I decided to take the opportunity to try to observe what happened as I was given anesthesia, and later how I came out of anesthesia

Thinking back to a previous colonoscopy, I realized that I simply couldn’t remember some things I knew had happened after coming out of the anesthesia. I couldn’t, for example, remember getting dressed, though I knew I had done so. Before I underwent anesthesia yesterday, I wanted to see what I could retain in memory from the time I went under anesthesia until I arrived back at home.

I have a clear memory of when I lost consciousness. One of the nurses asked me to settle myself slightly differently on the gurney, which I did, and then — nothing.

Continue reading “Anesthesia”

Fatigue

I just received email asking for my help in a social justice cause that I care about. And I deleted it.

I can’t add any more to my life right now. Because — COVID. Because I’m trying to keep programs running to support kids and families who are stressed because of COVID. Because I know what little I’m able to do is inadequate, but it’s what I can do.

Yes, I know I should feel guilty for deleting that email. Yes, I know I should feel guilty for working for a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Silicon Valley when the needs are much greater elsewhere. But the nice thing about COVID fatigue is that I no longer have the energy to feel guilty. Instead, now I practice humility: I no longer pretend that I can save the world. I do my part, but I no longer have to pretend to do more than my part.

Is it science? or religion?

In a book published this year, the philosopher Evan Thompson says, “When science steps back from experimentation in order to give meaning to its results in terms of grand stories about where we come from and where we’re going — the narratives of cosmology and evolution — it cannot help but become a mythic form of meaning-making and typically takes the structures of its narratives from religion.” — Why I Am Not a Buddhist, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2020), p. 18.

What Thompson says is akin to what Hannes Alfvén said back in 1984, in his paper “Cosmology: Myth or Science?” Alfvén argued that “there has been — and will perhaps always be — an oscillation between mythological and scientific approaches.” He further documented what he felt was a mythical orientation in the cosmology of 1984: “In a true dialectic sense it is the triumph of science which has released the forces which now once again seem to make myths more powerful than science and causes a ‘scientific creationism’ inside academia itself.”

And these days, I’ve heard apparently well-educated people saying things like, “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in science” — thus ignoring or passing over the fact that scientific models are not matters for belief, they are intended to be checked against empirical evidence through multiple investigations, and they are subject to a constant revision that is not compatible with what is generally meant by “belief.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to turn science into a religion, and it would be better to find one’s mythic meaning-making elsewhere, maybe in poetry or music or paintings or novels or even religion.

Creolizing schooling

In the Black Issues in Philosophy series on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Josue Ricardo Lopez, assistant professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, writes about creolizing schooling:

“The project of creolizing schooling underscores political education as the central project of schooling. It is based on what Jane Anna Gordon in Creolizing Political Theory [Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham Univ. Press, 2014)] argues are at least three principles of creolization: building from the commonalities across our differences, respecting the most salient of our differences, and recognizing that the political is always open to contestation and negotiation.”

I hear echoes of Paolo Friere, John Dewey, and Maxine Greene in what Lopez is saying. Lopez goes beyond Dewey’s concept of educating for democracy, by framing the issue in terms of decolonizing, by considering who American democracy was designed for. As for Friere, he addressed a specific kind of adult education, whereas Lopez is specifically looking at schooling for children and teens.

Also of importance: creolizing is different from multiculturalism. In multiculturalism, cultures exist side by side; creolizing means that cultures change through their interaction with one another. Multiculturalism in education can have the tendency to make non Euro-American cultures invisible; by contrast, creolization

I do have a minor quibble with Lopez’s essay. Lopez rightly points out that “distinct projects will call for different knowledges.” However, the vision of what different knowledges might offer is too narrow. As someone trained in the visual arts, I rolled my eyes when the best Lopez could come up with for the visual arts was “artistic knowledge becomes important for turning brick walls into a canvas for murals that reflects the beauty of the community.” Yet the essay incorporates two infographics that I’ve seen too many times and that actually distract from the main arguments of the essay; if Lopez had cooperated with someone with visual training, there could have been graphics that amplified, rather than distracted from, the essay. Of course, Lopez reflects the bias of the academy: the written word is always considered superior, and the arts are poorly understood and relegated to a minor supporting role. In today’s political struggles, we need digital photographs, videos, animations, infographics, memes, video game design, user interfaces — site-specific murals and other site-specific artworks can be important for local communities, but online media is where young people can make a much bigger impact. (Parenthetical note: when it comes to the arts and education, Maxine Greene’s legacy is worth remembering: she engaged seriously with hip hop and other musicians, artists, etc., and through this engagement acknowledged that music and the arts have something unique to offer in education.)

In spite of this minor quibble, Lopez’s essay is well worth reading. This passage really struck me:

“I worked in Connecticut with Caribbean and Latin American high school students who recently arrived in the United States. There were multiple cultures, languages, religions, and perspectives students brought with them. However, their unique insights, needs, and interests were considered secondary if at all by the school….”

How can the unique insights, needs, and interests become matters of primary importance? How can the school use those unique insights and interests to address real world political issues? John Dewey said, “I believe that education … is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” And Lopez is expanding that notion for a globalized and multicultural society to include the project of decolonizing.

Now I’m waiting for the book on creolizing schooling….

The dangers of forgetting

A recent post on the Black Issues in Philosophy blog explores the dangers inherent in forgetting this history of violence perpetrated on black people. The authors, Desireé Melonas, professor at Birmingham-Southern College, and Alex Melonas, and independent scholar, note that society’s forgetfulness in this area can cause “black people [to become] subjects thought existentially to inhabit the realm of the ‘unreal,’ having therefore no legitimate claim on reality….” Needless to say, this has negative consequences for black people:

“We know that keeping intact historical accounts that blot out or minimize the severity of black terror violence perpetuates the idea that black people aren’t human beings whose lives are worth preserving, that they aren’t human beings at all. Reality, then, continues to conform itself around this idea.”

Melonas and Melonas have been addressing this existential threat on a local level by “confronting historical erasure.” They do this through a community remembrance coalition, one of many such coalitions across the U.S., to memorialize the victims of racial terror, educate local communities about instances of racial terror that have been effectively erased from community memory, and then advocating for racial justice in the present day. They say: “By renegotiating the boundaries of our collective memory, we invite into our consciousnesses an alternative view of those whom we ought to consider valuable.”

Their blog post, titled “Why We Forget,” is thoughtful and readable, both in exploring some of the philosophical problems that arise from communal forgetfulness, and in suggesting concrete and practical ways to address those problems.