On civic atheism

With the decline of organized religion in western societies, beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but continuing into the twenty-first century, many practices and ideologies emerged to take its place as the guiding institution- both entwined with and autonomous of the state. The nineteenth century saw the rise of romantic nationalism, which motivated social action and conflict much like the religious wars of previous eras.

Encompassing nationalism, but more varied, is civic (or civil) religion. The concept, originating with Rousseau, is that a new, unifying and exalted force takes the place of the church, with its own myths and sacred figures and texts that function in a similar fashion.

Civic religion is highly developed in the United States, and instantly recognizable, even to those who were not born here and did not experience American socialization. From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion:

Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.

In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place.

Civic religion saturates the political and social mainstream of American society. Both political parties invoke the Founding Fathers, treat texts like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence much as prior societies did the Bible. The difference is in interpretation and emphasis- whether the American myths and legacy are compatible with a diverse and multicultural population. Though President Trump’s refrain of ‘America First’ is rightly seen as historically tied to intolerance and fascist ideology, exalting America as above all else, either the material nation or the abstract idea of America, is not particularly controversial. Even those that support multilateralism and international cooperation are often fiercely patriotic, and appeal to the civic canon to justify their decisions.

What is civic atheism?

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever discussed the idea of civic atheism, and given it a definition. Similar ideas exist- it is implicit in socialist internationalism, for instance- but I feel it is best to use the term as a contrast to civic religion. If there is religion, if there is a sacred and holy, there is its opposite, a negation.

Civic atheism is defined asa worldview that rejects the mythology of the state, the primacy of its core figures and texts, and exceptional narratives as irrational or otherwise indefensible.

Why civic atheism? 

  • Civic religion is ahistorical. It creates myths and rearranges history to glorify the nation and the state. Acceptance of, and participation in, civic religion is predicated on overlooking social problems and injustice when it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative’.
  • Principles of American civic religion have problematic ethical and moral implications. The ‘American dream’ (‘a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful’ [Merriam Webster]) can interfere with empathy, as it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and failure is a shortcoming explained by individual factors. Belief in meritocracy is not fair to the less advantaged. Civic religion has a lack of understanding of both power structures and intersectionality.
  • Civic religion is the foundation of xenophobic nationalism and is used to marshal support for unjust wars. How often was the flag used to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, despite a complete lack of evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or could be occupied without massive consequences?

Civic religion is the true inheritor of the established churches- it also inherits the same fundamental issues from dogmatic religion.

Groups that try to tell a different story of America- the indigenous tribes that lived here long before, and live here today; the black community with its history of slavery and discrimination that predates the founding of the country; the immigrant communities from all over the world who are told to accept civic religion in order to be accepted, no matter its wisdom. It is fine to be a civic atheist, and have a cultural system that does not exist to bolster the state. It may be the healthiest way forward, in the light of profound and systemic social problems.

Resistance v. Collaboration in the Trump Era

Since the election of Donald Trump this past November, the term “resistance” has been everywhere. His policies must be disrupted and a new, stronger opposition must coalesce. While Democratic political leadership pledge resistance, the facts state otherwise.

When an oppressive force takes over a country, the opposition gravitates towards two ends of a continuum. On one side stands resistance, the other, collaboration. Erik Loomis correctly points out that building trade unions want to collaborate with Trump, despite the existential threat to the environment and unions themselves. It’s as if the Reagan administration never existed.

But it’s not just the conservative unions with memberships that swung towards Trump in the Rust Belt. Progressive champions are also guilty. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who liberals usually speak fondly of, both say they support the utterly unqualified Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. All but one Democratic senator confirmed Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Secretary of Defense. This despite Mattis having what can only be called bloodlust; a military man who can’t wait to kill foreigners. These same senators will in a year’s time decry what Mattis does in office, but they chose to approve him. This is not resistance, not even close.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, every person had a choice to make. Many rejected the Nazi occupation. They banded together to undermine enemy control, through intelligence gathering, noncooperation, and sabotage. The French Resistance was integral to Allied victory and the end of the Nazi state.

Others decided to seek peace and coexist with the occupation. Philippe Pétain, perhaps France’s greatest living military hero, turned the destroyed republic into a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy. Some collaborators were authoritarians eager for the chance. But others thought they were doing noble work, shielding France from the world of the Nazis. They were willing to work with a power that history knows was irredeemable.

Because the middle ground is treacherous between resistance and collaboration, accommodation, whatever you want to call it. For the last half century, activists have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within. This strategy failed in the past, and some Bernie supporters and Black Lives Matter activists are trying again today. But today’s activist can easily be tomorrow’s apologist, as social movements are co-opted. Given how much progressive work and resources went into campaigns like Warren’s senate run, it is disturbing to see her choice to work with Trump. If there is widespread belief that Trump is an illegitimate, dangerous precedent, confirming his extremist nominees and having chummy meetings to talk about pipeline jobs is not the way to go.

Those in the streets, blocking streetcars and shutting down intersections, they see Trump for what he is. To have a “wait and see” approach is a privilege many do not have. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, indigenous peoples, they are under attack now. Accepting Trump as legitimate is to sanction their oppression. Green card holders and dual nationals are being denied entry to the US, creating international chaos and showing that whatever promises were made prior to Jan 20, they should be considered null and void. The progressives in Congress have rolled over and confirmed the officials who will defend the refugee ban. They had no problem spotting the neo-fascists an administration, and then maybe trying to fight that once it was built.

Total resistance is the only way forward. But the front lines need dedicated people. And as much as the Women’s March was a show of opposition, it seems to be headed towards more symbolic resistance that colors within the lines and plays friendly with authority. The economic and political structures that hold Trump and his ideology up are never under threat.

Just after the election, the Daily Beast, a ‘progressive’ media outlet tied to Chelsea Clinton, wrote this:

But if he is our next president, we will not question his legitimacy or hope he fails.

Instead, we will count ourselves members of the loyal opposition—loyal to the United States of America and opposed to the policies proposed by the president-elect during his campaign. And we will reflect on what has led so many of our fellow Americans to embrace such a messenger.

How does that strategy look today?

 

The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

The death of Alfred Olango, disability, and “failure to comply”

A black man, Alfred Olango, was killed by a police officer on Tuesday in El Cajon, CA. It’s the first major city to the east of San Diego, about 20-25 minutes by car from where I live.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-3-23-02-am
Site of shooting in downtown El Cajon, Sept 27 2016

Not much is known for sure, other than that the dead man was “acting erratic.” A woman identified as his sister said he had mental health issues. According to the NBC report, the police “did not release details on the specific threat he presented to officers.” There is also contention about whether the police confiscated cell phones of bystanders who may have had video of the incident. They likely did, given how often the police aim to suppress video that may run counter to police testimony. There’s also little reason to give police the benefit of the doubt. Look no further than the recent allegations of gun planting in Charlotte  and a much clearer case of planting in 2011 in St. Louis.

The killing of a mentally ill man echoes last year’s killing of Fridoon Nehad, which involved a long fight to release surveillance footage of the incident. The details I covered in December 2015 here. A big similarity in these cases is the difference between being erratic and being dangerous. Erratic behavior has many sources- in Olango’s case it looks like a seizure is the reason. A variety of disorders like bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, and some types of depression can also make individuals confused and incapable of responding to police demands- which are often given loudly, on top of one another, and with a very small time window for compliance. At my low point in 2012 when my mental health was worst, I could have easily been described as erratic. And I now realize that can put my life at risk, in a way never before considered.

Alfred Olango, from twitter.com/uaptsd
Alfred Olango, from twitter.com/uaptsd

Police protocol in these cases is infested with ableism. It assumes a perfectly compliant, quick, enthusiastic response to police orders. If someone fails on any of these counts, their life can be in danger. Sometimes the cops will just open fire before any real attempt at less-lethal options- Fridoon Nehad was shot by an officer who spent about 25 seconds from parking his car to killing him. But consider the case of Charles Kinsey, a black man shot for trying to help a young autistic man in his care, Arnaldo Rios. Kinsey served a perfectly compliant surrogate for someone who was unable to do so, and yet police did open fire on Rios, missing and hitting Kinsey instead. The resulting trauma for Rios has been awful, with him not getting proper therapy. But many people with mental or development disorders don’t survive their encounters with police. Robert Ethan Saylor, who had Down’s Syndrome, was tackled and asphyxiated over a dispute about a movie ticket. Again, defensive behavior or tics was interpreted as a threat. People who are deaf or hard of hearing routinely suffer from violence, since a basic assumption is that all people can hear instructions. And of course, many people don’t speak English, so being yelled at in the foreign language is just confusing and may lead to so-called ‘erratic’ actions. Police always filter civilian behavior through a lens of perfect ability. That is, those who are not fully able and somehow lesser and more likely to be targets of violence. The most vulnerable sections of the population are threatened by the institutions that in theory should protect and serve them.

These issues would be much less prevalent if American police really committed to deescalation, and had proper understanding of the symptoms and nature of mental illness. I was even part of a county program in 2014 that helped explain mental illness and stigma to schools, crisis lines, and yes, police departments. But it’s not working- street-level cops still can’t process disability at any level. The existence of the ADA, and the sense that people with mental and physical disabilities have rights has no place among the police.

Screencap of ABC 10 report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi5Xa_ja_7I

The true answer, to help make sure there is never another Alfred Olango, is community policing. Community members and organizations band together to help keep things safe, using their pre-existing trust to make bonds that the police will never be able to. And a community effort means more local knowledge, including those who live with mental or developmental disabilities. Communities also don’t want gun homicides and violence- they have the most vested interest in deescalation. Restorative justice can change mindsets in a way mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline cannot.

Alfred Olango is not the first, not in this country or this county. But he is a reminder that police departments have the most sinister and deadly ableism one can imagine.

San Diego will participate in 022, the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Event details are on Facebook here. The national event website is here.

Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.

 

On defeating Teflon Trump

Long before he ever announced running, going back to the 2012 primaries, it has been hammered home that Donald Trump is incredibly unqualified for high elective office. But he managed to power through his opponents, despite most experts across the spectrum assuming he would burn out.

The disparity comes I think because Donald Trump is very well-suited to running for President. If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon president, Trump is the Teflon candidate. His public image and private life have been raked over the media for decades, such that we became desensitized to traits and actions that should be a huge deal. By 2016 all of it congealed into this buffonish likability, where faults strangely morph into assets given enough time. Hillary Clinton has Teflon aspects, but she never had the pop culture exposure that elevates someone from a (flawed, vulnerable) politician and not a character.

trump

Thus the zombie campaign. No matter how many shots are fired, there has never been a real dip in poll numbers for Trump since the beginning of the primaries. The only thing that would really have a serious impact, if we think primarily about his business and rhetoric, would be a full leak of his tax returns. But since he can keep tight about that until after the election, only a well-timed Wikileak is going to make that a reality.

This is why I feel the speech by Khizr Khan at the DNC, along with tons of follow-up media and a Washington Post editorial by his wife Ghazala, are really a tuning point against Teflon Trump. The usual criticism has lost its impact. He has no record in elected office. And his long-term political history is eclectic, since he was socially moderate and friendly with Democrats until recently. But that speech hit a fresh vein. Candidates are often criticized for not serving in the military, or for getting cushy posts away from the frontline. Personally, I don’t equate military service with patriotism and vice-versa. But going into the concept of sacrifice, which means so much more. And it’s a new way of looking at Trump’s wealth and privilege. If public servants are supposed to be selfless, then any good candidate should have had to sacrifice something. Trump has indeed sacrificed nothing, anything, while the Khan family lost their son.

When this speech went viral, Trump had a response that was unusually poor. Trump often says too much, or the wrong thing in public, but this always went back to the well-tread criticisms America had grown used to. He came off not only as an asshole, but unprepared to deal with the accusation that he has not known sacrifice. His plans to ban Muslim immigration came into new context, and he lacked the self-assuredness that allows his (usually half-baked) ideas to stand as legitimate policy planning. Instead of Teflon Trump, we saw a house of cards.

All of this should be surprising. Another late night monologue about his marital history and Trump Steaks seems trite. Khan in a few minutes managed to dig through Trump the character, the pop culture celebrity, and expose him as the racist, petty, vapid man he truly is. This needs to happen more. Trump is not a joke, he is a menace, and has made discrimination and harassment of non-white groups somehow acceptable to his supporters.

The Teflon Trump must lose his shine.

Dallas and symptoms of injustice

The details of what happened in Dallas are sketchy right now. It seems that people have jumped to conclusions and then retracted them just as fast. That there is ever-more brutality between police and civilians should not be surprising in America. Continuing injustice will always cause an escalation in violence. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians comes because there has been no solution at the root. No healing. Everything is in retaliation to actions of the present, and the cycle repeats.

Last November white men opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minnesota. The vast majority of casualties in the past few years have been people of color (in initial killings) and in the subsequent protests. There will be a fight going forward, and I think the two major arguments- “not all protestors” and “BLM wants to kill police” that will show up are both flawed. National injustice creates a social movement, and these marches and events are symptoms of injustice. Protestors, both in San Diego and everywhere, chant “no justice, no peace.” That can be interpreted (and often is), but it’s more of a statement about the present. As long as injustice exists- and is rarely punished- there will be a space for further violence.

So it’s not that I reject or endorse violence against police officers. I personally use nonviolence in my activism. But we should not be shocked that something like the Dallas shooting happens, just as we should not be shocked at the Minnesota shooting. The system is rotten, and the aggregate will be rotten as well.

I wish safety going forward, as future protests will grow even tenser. Take care.