We, They, and Us: UU Tactics and Strategy for 2020

We stand today a month removed from the 2019 UUA General Assembly, under the theme “The Power of We.” The tagline, and the Assembly content itself, has helped promote a discussion on what “we” within Unitarian Universalism means. From that, the logical next step is to discuss the not-we, the “they”. And in a dialectical fashion, with “we” the thesis and “they” the antithesis, “us” is the inevitable synthesis.

Or is it?

I attended a summer gathering in New England last Sunday, in which the topic was on the we-they-us trifecta. From the description, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction the sermon was going to take. Additionally, because the summer gatherings often had discussion segments, I didn’t know how the random mix of people who showed up that Sunday would interpret the title and topic.

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Ultimately I was disheartened by what I heard from the individual leading the service. While in a recent post I dismissed the “generation gap” hypothesis explaining the tension within the current UU church, the content of the sermon clashed strongly with my political socialization, and the realities of America as it exists in 2019.

The address focused in part of the term “political tribalism.” This is an old concept, but it was revived by author Amy Chua in a new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua has a fairly lengthy, fairly controversial history- she authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which ignited a national debate on high-expectation parenting and whether that had a negative effect on child development. More recently she was a leading voice arguing Brett Kavanaugh was a great leader of young women and carried water for him during the rape allegations that threatened his nomination to the US Supreme Court (her daughter was later rewarded with a Kavanaugh clerkship in a blatant and cynical quid pro quo). She authored a giant Atlantic feature to uncritically lay out her entire thesis of political partisanship tearing apart the constitutional system of American government.

I’m not going to devote this entire post to Chua, who I think is decent at historical analysis but pretty consistently wrong in her contemporary social commentary (for the record, I read her comparative historical book Day of Empire when I was a teenager and thought it was pretty good). The idea of “political tribalism” in the sermon was, from my perspective, a fundamentally misleading concept for a number of reasons. It’s also been taken pretty much at face value in the media. Let’s list three big problems:

  • The term has an imperialist mindset. “Tribalism” is used as a way to say our politics are more primitive, brutish, and violent than they were previously. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point in this case. Many communities exist as tribes today, they are not a historical stage of development. To suggest that tribes and “tribalism” (whatever that means) are primitive and inferior is both cultural erasure and pretty racist.
  • It’s a false equivalence. Dividing America into “left” and “right” tribes, or “red” and “blue”, or saying tribes fall under racial, ethnic, national, and gender lines is painting with a broad brush and saying all these “tribes” are short-sighted and destructive. Conflating the alt-right, who have murdered people in cold blood in places like Charlottesville and Christchurch, with the left, who in this period haven’t killed anyone, is misleading and indicates a politically useless centrism. It also treats ideological difference as little more than bickering, rather than a life-and-death struggle for universal health care, an end to the climate collapse, and justice for communities of color targeted by police violence.
  • Its logic is entirely backwards. The idea is that political partisanship is undermining the Constitution and the government that stems from it. This is both really obvious, but also misidentifies the problem. Partisanship is not what’s hurting society. It’s the Constitution. As I wrote in 2016, in “The pre-democratic American Constitution“, the Founder were fundamentally opposed to democracy and willfully ignorant that partisanship and political parties would arise around issues such as taxation, the extent of federal power, and most importantly, slavery. The Constitution has never been rewritten to establish America as a contemporary democracy, unlike every other modern country, developed or developing. Reducing partisanship is not only not going to happen, it’s not even going to solve the core problem. 

The sermon then transitioned from political tribalism to reaching out to the “they”, creating dialogue with the other side. This means talking with “reasonable” Trump supporters, finding common ground, and using moral suasion to stop the racist Trump regime. The individual giving the sermon talked about regular discussions with a Trump-voting gym acquaintance, and how productive all their discussions have been.

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Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Here’s a reality check: of all the potential options for 2020, this person is most likely voting for Trump again. 2020 will be a very high-mobilization election, this is very clear. Basically everyone who voted in 2016 is going to vote in 2020 as well- with the exception of those being disenfranchised by Republican state governments, the Trump-packed court system, and the Department of Justice. So, it’s not likely that this person abstains from voting for president. There’s a slight chance they vote third party instead of voting for Trump, but people who say they’re going to vote third party often end up voting for a major party candidate. So is this proud Trump voter really going to vote for a Democrat, even a centrist like Joe Biden? Let alone a progressive like Warren, or Sanders? To do that, they would have to like the Democrat more than they like Trump, and Trump has 90% approval among Republicans, which is as high if not higher than approval ratings by Republicans for previous GOP presidents.

Is it worth the time and effort to try to persuade one Trump voter to vote for the Democrat? Probably not.

Gene Sharp, in his influential pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, talks about four ways for a nonviolent resistance campaign to win- conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration. Here is the section where he discusses the probability that opposing forces will convert to the resistance’s side:

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(Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 35) (full text)

Now this applies more to mass action at a very large scale, like what is currently happening in Puerto Rico. The mainland has not had mass action of this scale for any sustained period- not during the Women’s March(es) or the airport protests, or the recent Lights for Liberty vigils.

But it can be fairly applied to the one-on-one conversations we have with political opponents. Can Trump voters be converted? Maybe, a few? I was politically socialized starting around the beginning of the Iraq War, with the first phase ending with the election of Obama. The “bipartisan” period in American politics is dead, and has been for a long time. The parties are now, for the first time in a long while, if ever, ideologically coherent. There are no longer sectional differences, meaning liberal Northern Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats. Trump has control of the Republican Party, and its voting base agrees with what he’s doing. They don’t want someone “moderate.” The party will not be taken back by Trump opponents, who are a tiny fraction of the party and politically irrelevant. People who think individual moral suasion is a viable political tactic want to go to a mythical past that, if it ever existed, hasn’t in my 29 years on this planet. The desperate need for “normalcy” is wanted, but there never was normalcy. Unless you were an upper-middle class professional white person, for whom the profound injustice and violence of the US political and legal systems do not reach you, except in documentaries and charity outreach.

Alternatives to Converting “Moderate” Trump Voters

  • Register a street to vote. Or a neighborhood. You have a lot of time to do it. Every hour you argue with an uncle or a tennis friend or whomever in your social lives voted for Trump, you could do something that a) affects more than one person, and b) uses energy to uplift marginalized communities
  • Fundraise and organize rides to the polls.
  • Phonebank for candidates and ballot issues.
  • Collect signature for popular ballot issues (like the minimum wage or legalized cannabis) which boost turnout.

All of these things are better uses of your time. It is not about reaching across and compromising with “they” to create “us.” Not everyone should be compromised with. The leader of the service suggested “not leading” with UU values like trans inclusion and marriage equality. To hide these issues in discussions is to treat them as, ultimately, political expendable. This election is about mobilizing and empowering the “we”, more than reconciling with “they.”

“They” need to be defeated politically. Their policies need to be repealed. The courts they packed need to be countered. The concentration camps need to be destroyed and their inhabitants freed. I don’t really care whether my uncle votes for Trump in 2020. Because I’m going to find people to cancel his vote out and then some. That’s the way forward.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? III: Fragmentation and Space

Building off of my first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II: Feedback and Insight), I will now explore a phenomenon that either is very recent (if you’re of a certain, younger age) or quite old- the unity and fragmentation of UU spaces.

Unitarian Universalism is very congregation-focused. The question I get all the times by people who are curious is “what is a UU service like?” And any long-time UU knows that’s an impossible question to answer before the service. Congregations vary widely between themselves and week-to-week, as guest ministers and special speakers may deviate sharply from routine. The Unitarian Universalist Association gets a lot of focus put on it, both by external parties and individual congregants, but it comes from a very historically weak legacy. David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), says that for many decades in the 19th century, the very idea of a national Unitarian organizing force was viewed with profound suspicion. Obviously, things have changed a great deal since then, but congregations are both very idiosyncratic and hold a lot of authority, both day-to-day and in sending delegates to the General Assembly.

Speaking of General Assembly, it serves as one of the few (some may argue, the only) national-scale space for UUs to gather and cross-pollinate. But even it is restricted- most people don’t attend General Assembly in a given year, many never will. And the space, while national in composition, is also a bubble of sorts. The fallout of Rev. Eklof distributing The Gadfly Papers at this year’s Assembly was confused and chaotic to outside observers. Even myself, someone who considers themselves up-to-date on UU matters, who has a call tomorrow with the Boston University School of Theology to explore a divinity degree, could hardly follow what happened. There were notable statements issued, a wide variety of individual reactions spread over social media, but a lot was lost between GA and the larger whole. Answers like whether the minister was disciplined, on what grounds, by whom, and when, were difficult to come across.

So if General Assembly is not a national space in a true sense, let alone for Unitarians, both ex-pats from North America and indigenous Unitarian traditions, that span the Earth, does such a space exist?

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The evolution of the Internet has made large spaces both easier and more difficult to create. In the early Internet, UU and UU-adjacent listservs and Usenet groups were comparatively universal in reach among those online- there was little in the way of competing platforms. Though the reach of the Internet has grown spectacularly in essentially a quarter-century, the rise of competing, proprietary corporate-created social media platforms has fragmented the spaces where Unitarian Universalists discuss the faith. Much of the online population remains on Facebook, where privacy settings tend to keep discussion within certain boundaries. I have very few UU Facebook friends, so most discussion of the religion, for me, comes from public pages like DRUUMM and Black Lives of UU. And even then, like many millennials I spend little time on Facebook compared to other platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram. A lot is being said, but it replicates the congregational structure rather than breaks through it, with the exception of certain individuals whose contacts span multiple areas and churches.

Spaces that could be more inclusive, like Reddit, are now breaking apart rather than coming together. A splinter of the /r/UUReddit community formed this week, in reaction to more stringent rules about hateful conduct and bad faith arguments tactics like sea lioning and ‘just asking questions’. This is not the only splintering of UU space there has been, just the most recent. Fragmentation is born of fragility, especially white fragility. Certain groups are unwilling to move forward and instead retreat backwards towards a mythical, pre-political, pre-anti-racist church.

An attempt is being made by myself and others to reach out, find both old allies and new potential Unitarian Universalists. The UU Discord chat server (join by clicking the invite link here) started from a suggestion on Reddit, but has matured into an autonomous community including ministers, divinity students, lay leaders, congregants, and people who just found out about UUism fifteen minutes ago and have all kinds of questions.  It skews young, as existing Discord users are likely to be podcast listeners or gamers. Recently the Discord launched a Twitch stream, which besides the usual game playthroughs has great potential as a source of new UU content- book clubs, worship services, discussions, and much else can be done streaming for a live audience all over the world.

There are efforts made to make a larger, distinctly UU space. A recurring motif in welcoming new users to the Discord is “why didn’t I know about Unitarian Universalism ten years ago”. There is a need for more visibility, even if UUs will forever shun the kind of door-to-door evangelizing that other faiths practice. People find the faith when they find it, but it could have been a great source of affirmation, comfort, and support had they known about it during prior crisis moments in their lives. This means reaching out, both within and beyond the UU community.

Unitarian Universalism, if active in online spaces, can also be a counter to alt-right radicalization with a voice encouraging principles of equality, inherent worth, and love in our living tradition. If there is no UU content on a platform, that is just more space for the reactionaries- we cannot expect billion-dollar profit-seeking corporations to keep the alt-right in check. We must be active directly.

As Mario Savio implored to humankind, both then and now, on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! (Source)

It is unlikely that a vote or a petition will shut down the alt-right pipeline.

It’s up to us.

Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.

 

 

The pre-democratic American Constitution

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Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

Obstruction by design

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One of the great tropes of American politics is the ineptitude of Congress. In particular, great amounts of journalistic ink have been devoted to gridlock in the U.S. Senate. The headline is always correct- the Senate is dysfunctional and no expertise is needed to see that. But I think there are some poor assumptions made when people talk about the Senate. Here are two:

  • Senate legislative gridlock is new. It’s really not. Important legislation has passed the House only to die in the Senate since the birth of the Republic. In particular, the first half of the 19th century went from crisis to crisis, as while the South had a much lower population than the North, they were given an equal number of senators.
  • Senate rejection of treaties is new. The US has signed many treaties but often does not ratify them. UN treaties are some of the most well-known, such as the Kyoto Protocol and more recently the UN  Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which failed two years ago. This predates the UN, as the United States, who proposed the League of Nations but did not become a member due to Senate opposition.

Both segue into my main point- the Senate is an inherently obstructive institution. That is why it exists. Its flaws are not borne of modern political culture but just the latest decoration. Not only is the Senate by nature obstructive, I would say that almost all upper houses in parliaments and congresses are obstructive. By nature the elections for the upper body are not rooted in proportionality- many bodies like the German Budesrat have an artificially small gap between tiny regions and huge ones. In cases like the United Kingdom’s House of Lords, the members aren’t elected at all, and their modern power is purely to delay and obstruct legislation.

The deification of the Founding Fathers, and the subsequent Framers, needs an injection of the political reality they crafted. The Connecticut Compromise gets applause as a brilliant piece of union-saving policy work, but it dictated a system where the rights of the minority could hold up nearly every vital government function. This ‘minority’ is often abstract, usually given a very virtuous portrait. Currently that minority is often a group of small-minded politicians, who by virtue of the Senate system do not need to explain their actions or defend their conduct. In the past that minority was representatives of slave power, who killed actions to limit the spread of slavery using the power given to them, even when they were strongly outnumbered by free-state residents.

Media outlets and individuals bemoan terrible Congressional approval ratings, and how little is done in the Senate in particular. This should not be surprising. American government is a blueprint for obstruction.

A history of outside agitation: the role of UUs

Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer; with it, a chance to reflect on the history of outsider agitators. That term gained currency in reaction to movements like the Freedom Rides and the Summer, where northerners of all races came to break down segregation and Jim Crow. This was portrayed as dangerous, much like the old antebellum South and its fears of slave insurrection. In March,1965 a UU minister, James Reeb was killed while working with Dr. King, Jr. Two weeks later, another UU named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan thugs. In every way they were different than the communities and people they were trying to help, but their sacrifice was important. That is because they were agitators, and agitators help justice triumph- no matter is they were ‘outside’ or not.

Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, murdered March 9, 1965.
Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, died March 11, 1965.

 

The role of outside forces, especially white leftist activists, has been hotly debated. I’ve shared some discussion on the matter. What we have is an old quandary- how can you help, without making things worse? The sandpit that makes outside agitators difficult, and even dangerous, is one of selfishness. If outside forces pour into Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida, or indeed Mississippi and Alabama fifty years ago, their level of self-interest helps determine their use. Put bluntly, joining a protest in St. Louis and throwing rocks at the police is a great way to get on TV. That kind of behavior sabotages local efforts to press for change, and draws attention to a small minority, to the detriment of larger grievances.

Though there are moral principles at stake here, the question those who wish to help need to ask is “if we can, how can we help you?” versus “I know what can help you.” Respect for autonomy, whether in the black community, or indigenous peoples fighting Chevron and mining companies, or whatever group is engaged in struggle, is important. Part of the Freedom Summer was allowing the oppressed to gain political tools to use against their oppressors. Supplying power to others, not using your own power in their name.

The young, the old: society trying to keep itself together

Two crucial processes exist in modern life. One is society trying to get the younger generation ready for present reality. The other is society is trying to help (or sometimes make) older generations adapt to present reality. Tension between these age cohorts could be considered a more complicated version of the generation gap.

All groups are insulated, as everyone self-selects their friends and company. The young and old are special. Children have yet to shoulder the full weight of the social system. Their experiences are rarely independent of their elders. Even at 24, this split for me is clear.

For instance, I was just old enough to understand what 9/11 was without relying on someone. I understood that terrible people do exist, that the places targeted had great value, and that nothing was going to be the same from then on. Those entering college this fall do not have the same base of knowledge, something that the author of Gin and Tacos explains well as a professor having to deal with 18 year olds. As he states, we are failing in some regard because the present reality depends on both the distant and recent past. We teach the Civil War from elementary school onwards. History classes rarely give the same scrutiny to the post-Vietnam era.

I have a problem with how the tension between older generations and the middle strata of American society gets portrayed in the media. Clearly this line is blurry. People of typical working age are creating the technology and ideas that move things forward, but not exclusively. Also the political ruling class trends older, with many elite players being past retirement age.

However, stories about the gap tend to focus on narrow difficulties, like how inventions like the Internet have been difficult to diffuse among those who grew up with typewriters and rotary dial telephones.

If we are honest, it goes far beyond that. The civil rights movement marches on. Even I needed some help with discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. To spread new expectations requires going into communities that have their own standards. Children are far easier to teach than 60+ individuals, and that is a clear point of conflict in “the generation gap” or something similar. There is an expectation of change, but it will never fully translate.

This bit of sociology fascinates me. Popular media tends to ascribe special qualities to a generation; The Wire collected over a century’s worth of ‘the youth are so dang selfish, the worst ever!’ A better way to view it is in the rate of social change. When culture changes rapidly, the disparity between one group of individuals and another rises. In a time like now, when change is rapid and spread across all aspects of life, the stress of holding it all together is great and it shows. What is society but many different groups, held together by a few fragile chains?