A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline

This is a follow up to the three previous Pipeline posts- the original, II: Feedback and Insight, and III: Fragmentation and Space.

Up to this point, I’ve been talking about the “alt-right pipeline”, which emerged relatively recently and gained mainstream salience around 2015 with the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. However, that is pipeline, not the pipeline. There is no one pipeline, many have existed throughout the decades. They share common features and can be identified by those features, and several have targeted certain portions of the Unitarian Universalist population.

I’m going to use this post to explore the aspects of a pipeline, how its innocuous surface makes it easy for well-meaning, progressive people to fall down. To do this, I’m going to use an earlier pipeline- the New Atheism pipeline, which transitioned into an anti-Islam and anti-feminist movement over time. Figures in the New Atheist movement like Richard Dawkins were common reading among UUs- the first copy of The God Delusion I saw in print was at my old congregation’s book sale table. Some of the introductory figures weren’t ever reactionary, some became reactionary over time, and some were always reactionary but had some surface level of scientific credential or other traits masking their underlying nature.

The New Atheist pipeline is older than the alt-right pipeline, but they fit together imperfectly, like a kitchen pot with the wrong lid. There are some figures who have figured into both. The New Atheism pipeline is older, but its infrastructure never went away- people everyday are growing up, discovering the works of major 21st century atheists, and being led down the path to intolerance. Compared to the alt-right, which has had many of its key figures and communities banned from major websites and otherwise marginalized, the most salient New Atheists still retain the platform they once had. They continue to publish, appear at conferences, do guest spots on one another’s podcasts.

This is not an exhaustive timeline of New Atheism. For an overview of its key figures and their general argumentative framework about god and belief, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good overview, as does RationalWiki. We’re speaking of a thread that begins around 2004 (Sam Harris’ The End of Faith) and reached perhaps its greatest salience a couple years later (Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (2006); Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006); Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (2007)). The “movement” goes through multiple phases, eventually ending up at GamerGate- the systematic harassment  of female cultural critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn, starting in 2014 and largely becoming indistinguishable from the nascent alt-right a year later. Some figures remain distinct from the alt-right, some have a foot in each camp, some went straight from being part of one pipeline to another

Edit: A commenter mentioned that New Atheist-minsogynst controversies predate GamerGate by several years, particularly “Elevatorgate” (beginning in July 2011) which involved unwanted sexual advances, convention culture, and the male, cisgender, white demographic dominance within the skeptic community. This also involved Richard Dawkins both dismiss these concerns and in the process say some horrible things about Muslim women. It shows how Dawkins, an entry point in the pipeline, also quickly can pivot to highly regressive opinions, and frequently uses incidents like Rebecca Watson’s story of unwanted sexual advances to instead launch into a rant about Islam.

Here is the general sequence of a pipeline, using commonalities between the New Atheist and alt-right pipelines:

  • Intellectual figures begin a pivot from areas of their expertise to politics and philosophy. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor with clinical and teaching experience dating back to the 1990s, suddenly goes from talking about psychology to “free speech” and the right to misgender trans people. He then begins to critique postmodernism, Marxism, and cultural studies, which he has no real background in. Richard Dawkins goes from influential evolutionary scientist with works like The Selfish Gene to talking about religion and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Figures with media and/or academic credibility begin to share the stage with more extreme, polemical individuals, legitimizing them and their ideology. Peterson goes on the Rubin Report. Dave Rubin also interviews far-right British xenophobe Tommy Robinson and “race realist” Stefan Molyneux. Sam Harris has race scientist Charles Murray on his podcast to talk about race and IQ.
  • An online community gradually moves from the entry point to more extreme content through aggressive targeting by profit-seeking grifters. YouTube videos on a wide variety of subjects (including left-wing and liberal politics!) are preceded by long ads for Dennis Prager’s “PragerU” propaganda outfit, and Ben Shapiro’s show. Shapiro does an ad read for a toothbrush company in the middle of an anti-abortion speech, because his politics and money-making ventures merge into one.
  • The original point of the movement is lost, and is replaced with right-wing bigotry. New Atheist personalities like thunderf00t stop making videos about Young Earth creationists and start mostly complaining about feminists. Sam Harris talks about Muslim migrants “replacing” white French citizens, which was an influence on the Christchurch shooter’s ideology, gradually replacing religious arguments with “cultural” or racial arguments.GamerGate was ostensibly about “ethics in video game journalism” but from day one was rooted in an attempt to weaponize the internet against women. GamerGate eventually ‘hollowed out’, with only the most unhinged, radicalized people left to carry on the campaign- a split between “true believers” that fell down the pipeline, and the grifters. Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, started in GamerGate, but moved on to Brexit and anti-“SJW” rants when the media attention, and sources of money, shifted.

 

These may seem like jarring shifts, but taking place over multiple years, the transition can be too gradual to see effectively. Each stage of the pipeline is connected to the next- they share conference appearances, podcast guest spots, promote each other’s books. Thus, an atheist in 2004 could start with The End of Faith, and end up 12 years later hearing Harris give Charles Murray two hours to talk about race science. The God Delusion, sold at the UU congregation I spent five years in, is connected through common platforms to “red pill” anti-feminists and Islamaphobes. Sometimes the transition is a handoff between different people, other times a single person shifts over time. Those that became a fan of an author’s early writings, and retained some attachment to their work, could end up with a much more extreme set of values just by keeping up with the work of Dawkins, or Harris.

New Atheism was launched as a campaign against fundamentalism and irrational conservatism. Its intended audience included many UU humanists and atheists. But key people who helped create the movement eventually flipped all the way around, to become Western chauvinists, Islamaphobes, anti-feminists. Or, sometimes, they were always these things but they had a more innocuous entry point that disguised their underlying ideology. 

 

 

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.

De-Arrest Every Single One, Free Them All

It’s not clear what the legacy of Donald Trump’s presidency will be. A lot is contingent on whether he leaves in 2021 or 2025 (or maybe stays beyond that, who really knows). It could be his links with the fossil fuel industry during the key period to avoid climate catastrophe. It could be his disgusting personality and history of sexual harassment and violence. I don’t think it’ll be his potential links to Russia, but I may be wrong.

Right now, July 15, 2019, it’s clearly the concentration camps.

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A concentration camp for migrants and asylees, El Paso, Texas. Credit: Reuters

The debate of what to call these horrid human misery camps is tired. They are concentration camps, much like Japanese internment camps were, and the early Nazi-era camps that existed as eventual pipelines shuttling people to death camps. The term is over a century old, and historians nearly-universally see the term as being used fairly like people like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

So with that being established, what are we obligated to do about them? The liberal response, which is focused on symbolic protest and use of electoral politics is, to me, fundamentally flawed. Mass symbolic protests like the Women’s March have had no long-term effect on Trump administration policy. Electoral victories in Congress did not yield a solution, as Nancy Pelosi gave a blank check to the administration to create more camps (or, more likely, keep the camps as-is and increase enforcement and apprehension, creating further crowding and misery). The Democratic Party is hopelessly divided on what to do about the border, with many having bought into the idea that there is a non-manufactured ‘border crisis’ with record unlawful crossings. The truth is more about clogged immigration courts, performative cruelty by the administration as a deterrent to crossing the border, and wasting taxpayer money sending soldiers to the border to do nothing in the heat.

Not to say that there are not urgent crises in countries that produce a large number of migrants. The Obama administration’s support for a coup in Honduras that entrenched military rule, corruption, and gang power, which he nor Hillary Clinton were ever held meaningfully accountable for, has had a domino effect on the region. Mass migration, including unaccompanied minors, rose sharply during the latter half of Obama’s administration. The crisis is a mixture of interventionist, illegal foreign policy and purposefully cruel domestic priorities. The end result is a humanitarian nightmare.

So what do we do? While Donald Trump certainly flirts with fascist ideas, there is certainly more space to plan resistance than existed in 1930s and 1940s Germany and Italy. ICE is used to targeting individuals and small groups with the element of surprise- they rely on heavily-armed police to deal with actions like the Portland ICE occupation. There are certainly mainstream actions that can be taken to deal with these injustices. Winning district attorney and mayoral races with progressive candidates that firmly (actually) refuse to cooperate with federal immigration is important. ICE depends strongly on the consent and active assistance of state and local law enforcement- if such support is removed, the house of cards is revealed. Further occupations of ICE buildings, the homes of senior officials, and contractors that do business with the agency could be effective- assuming activists have a clear strategy for victory and do not fall into lifestyle activism like occupation camps have often been criticized for becoming going back to Occupy Wall Street and before.

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A Lights for Liberty vigil. July 12, 2019. Credit: AP

But will history be satisfied with that? Are future generations going to be okay with “I voted” and “I went to a vigil”? Would we be satisfied with that in any prior period with concentration camps? Are we willing to live with hypocrisy?

With that said, let’s talk about de-arresting.

De-arresting has two distinct meanings. One is when one is released from arrest without certain information being filed. The other, which I’ll be referring to, is a form of direct action where a person or persons who have been detained or arrested are freed by protestors using various methods, including force. Given the high amount of illegal arrests at events like the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, it can be said that de-arresting can be justified, assuming we do not start from a position that the only legitimate power is state power, and that law enforcement officers (and prison guards, ICE officials, federal agents, Border Patrol, etc.) are always justified in the actions they take. This is uncomfortable territory for the political center and mainstream, even if they strongly disagree with mass arrests, deportations, child separations, and concentration camps. This is the electoral-direct action divide. Plenty of people have one foot in each camp, but many refuse to cross it. The reasons are complicated- they include personal sympathy with law enforcement (“my brother is a police officer!”), class interest, internalized bigotry, and simple lack of initiative.

Let’s also say that de-arresting is not strictly about the use of force. In Gene Sharp’s 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, which has been used in the color revolutions across Europe and the Caucuses, the Arab Spring, and in the Hong Kong democracy movement, among many others, we see ostensibly nonviolent means that still support actions like de-arresting, given certain circumstances. I’ll bold some I think are particularly relevant:

16. Picketing

66. Total personal noncooperation
67. “Flight” of workers
68. Sanctuary
69. Collective disappearance

139. Noncooperation with conscription and deportation
140. Hiding, escape, and false identities
141. Civil disobedience of “illegitimate” laws

143. Blocking of lines of command and information
144. Stalling and obstruction
145. General administrative noncooperation

146. Judicial noncooperation

170. Nonviolent invasion
171. Nonviolent interjection
172. Nonviolent obstruction
173. Nonviolent occupation

175. Overloading of facilities
176. Stall-in
177. Speak-in

196. Civil disobedience of “neutral” laws
197. Work-on without collaboration
198. Dual sovereignty and parallel government

183. Nonviolent land seizure

Now, in the streets, when a migrant is being detained by ICE, or held in a concentration camp, or separated from their children, the lines between “nonviolence” and “force” blur a lot. What if a police officer charges you with a baton? Do you resist or not? If an officer is dragging someone towards a car, is it violent or nonviolent to distract or intimidate them into letting them go, or pursuing you instead? It’s why principled pacifism has problematic aspects. I still believe nonviolence has clear advantages- there are clear problems with the actions of anarchist Willem Van Spronsen and his “propaganda of the deed”. These things are best done in massive groups, in which soldiers or police are outnumbered heavily. The more people there are, the less likely authority figures will risk using force, lest they lose control of the situation entirely. There is a long history of mass occupations and civil disobedience, including the mutiny of soldiers- such as the 1986 Peoples’ Power Revolution in the Philippines, and the retreat of riot police from the federal building in the 2000 Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia, leading to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević. These were mass movements, broad coalitions ranging from the mainstream to hardened activists, to the authorities themselves. Their united actions and planning exposed rifts within the ruling class, which were then isolated and dismantled piece by piece, like the storming of the Bastille 230 years ago yesterday.

The situation is fairly straightforward. Thousands of people are in concentration camps where they don’t belong. Their conditions are horrific. Children are separated from parents, sometimes to be adopted by American families without parental consent. We have to get them out. They have been arrested and detained, but their ‘crimes’ are unjust for any level of imprisonment. They are held and dehumanized as an act of pure cruelty, just like the Boers in South Africa, the Roma, Communists, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals across Europe by Germany, and the Japanese in the United States and Canada.

They need to be de-arrested. The camps must be dismantled. Their leaders need to be tried and convicted of their crimes. How does one do that? You can gather a dedicated coalition and use raw numbers to do the job. You can try to fight the soldiers, police, and agents- though that is the terrain they are most comfortable with, and regular people are least comfortable. You can wait until 2020 and hope Donald Trump loses a partially-rigged election and relinquishes authority. And hope a Democratic president doesn’t maintain such terrible detention facilities.

There are multiple paths, with one goal. Which way will it be?

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight

Five days ago, I released my first blog post in a long time (a very long time if we’re talking about UU-related content), “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. I’ve had one other UU post be as popular as this prior, 2014’s “Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home”. So it’s interesting five years later to see the same viral-like spreading of my post throughout social media. Like before, people I know tell me they’ve read it without me showing it to them. It’s already in their circles.

I could tell that people were reading, based on the slight uptick in blog views in the past few days:

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Unfortunately, since UUs predominately use Facebook, most of the shares (and thus comments) of this piece, 37 shares in all, are private and I can’t learn from them or give you any sort of meaningful response to them. I’ve had some listserv messages, blog comments, Facebook messenger contacts, and the UU Discord server. But a lot of what’s been said, I can’t see. I respect their privacy if these conversations wanted to remain hidden, but also if they’re critical comments in particular, I can’t give any sort of apology or explanation here.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I’m not crazy. People generally agree that a) alt-right language appears in conversations in UU circles, both in real life and online, and b) this is not confined to a few very loud cranks. What I see is the surface of something that happens in many congregations. Since we’re a strongly local-power faith, what the UUA leadership says and the congregational leadership do can be very different.
  • People are fed up. The alt-right language and citing of people like Jordan Peterson or alt-right pipeline people makes some people really ticked off. The current state of things is not sustainable- I’m reminded of the opening to W.B Yeats’ “The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

  • This kind of language and conduct cuts across demographics. Seminary students are reading Peterson, older congregants talk down about identity politics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are possibly drawn to these arguments. It’s not just about dialogue of a certain group- solutions need to be much more nationally-scaled.

Let me respond to what I think is the one critique I was sent that I think was made in good faith and is not just white fragility manifesting itself. My post was not meant to be ageist, if you felt it was, I’m sincerely sorry. Let me quote myself to show how I think I argue specifically against the ageist explanation:

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new.

I think a good-faith reading of that indicates a lack of age prejudice. The people specifically calling it ‘ageist’ have bones to pick with me on both religion and politics, so I think it may be more a weapon to win a debate than a substantial critique.

Here are some more solutions that I came up with talking with people about the piece:

  • Establish covenants of right relations. These covenants establish standards of behavior within a congregation and open opportunities for dialogue, and calling us back to shared values. It also sets definitions and consequences of disruptive behavior. Setting these covenants up before people bring in alt-right rhetoric and its associated harmful actions is preferable to dealing with disruptive congregants ad-hoc, which can lead to the appearance of, or reality of, unfairness.
  • Establish a more robust UU social media presence. Many congregations record services, either audio or video. Every congregation that records material should publish it, edited well, each week on YouTube and link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU Discord, or another group could also use the streaming service Twitch to hold virtual services and religious education. The robust chat service in Twitch rooms allows for people all over the country to join in worship, conversation, and education. It’s also an excellent fundraising platform- a leftist YouTuber named HBomberguy raised $340,000 recently for a trans charity by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over two days.
  • Decide how to deal with provocative speech that seems to have some sort of right-wing or alt-right definition or nature to it. The Gadfly papers hurricane at General Assembly this year indicates that there are good and bad ways to try to start a conversation about controversial ideas. Had it been written in a different tone, with different vocabulary, and introduced and distributed earlier with more forewarning, I bet it would have been more fully engaged with- rather than the intolerant gunk it turned out to be.Decide as a congregation, if someone comes up using alt-right language, what is the protocol? Is there a committee of communications set up? Is there a person to report to that’s not a minister? How does a congregation determine a) whether such language is alt-right in nature, b) how disruptive it really is, and c) if it could lead to unhealthy action.

These are only a few ideas. If people have further feelings, feel free to tweet at me or DM me on my Twitter (@MackayUnspoken), or join the UU Discord where I’m user “LeftistUU’. I feel that there is a need to have a dialogue that doesn’t concede to the right, and in the process jeopardize our Principles, but also recognizes that people whose language and behavior has negative impacts on communities of color may have good intentions. We have to move beyond intentions, to impact. Because unless the impact is positive, an action cannot be morally defended in a complete way.

 

 

The legacy of George Carlin and “political correctness”

Content Warning: Some of the links in this post contain potentially offensive content. Please be advised that this is an attempt to be instructive and not to harm anyone or further hurtful language and stereotypes.

This is not a direct sequel to my last post, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?“, but I want to discuss another aspect of the core of that post. “Political correctness’ is another term that has multiple, contradictory meanings to different groups, but has definitely been pulled toward the right in recent years, and is often debated using at least some reactionary assumptions about what it entails. To illustrate how political correctness has a multiplicity of meanings, and is a term that should be contested by progressives, I’m going to talk about one of the great “political incorrect” figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Carlin died in 2008, when I was a junior in high school. I had discovered him shortly before, and watched his HBO specials in chronological order, covering from the mid-1970s to shortly before his death. I was into “edgy” content and visited sites like 4chan during that time- though at the time of things like their protests against Scientology, rather than the current white nationalist version of the site today. Carlin is part of the reason that when I grew disillusioned with the presidency of Barack Obama, I drifted left rather than right. I found Unitarian Universalism in late 2009, and that has been transformative. My 2008 self is hard to recognize these days, but Carlin is a key figure in it.

Carlin Bookstore
Carlin signing his book, Brain Droppings. From Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A lot of tributes to Carlin were published last year for the 10th anniversary of his death. Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian. The “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine is historically important; it was also genuinely about free speech, as the Supreme Court determined that the government had certain powers to control what was said on public airwaves. The basis of his reputation, to people who only knew him for that, was about the 1st Amendment- not “free speech” arguments done in bad faith by the right today about being unable to spread hate on private social media websites.

Here’s an oft-circulated quote by Carlin on political correctness, which I’m going to work off of. It’s been appropriated, mostly by the right and alt-right, but that’s based on a simplistic reading- if not an outright misreading:

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech. (source)

The core of Carlin’s work, from the beginning to the end, and in essentially every one of his televised specials, was the misuse or perversion of language. He opened a special with the awful contradictions in people calling themselves “pro-life” while supporting death squads in Central America, the death penalty, and generally being against financial support for all people, especially children. He talked about the transformation of terminology for traumatic experiences in warfare- from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” to ultimately “post-traumatic stress disorder”. His point wasn’t that PTSD is made up or that people don’t suffer from it, but that something key was being lost in the technical language. Carlin wanted to get the truth, ugly as it was, over papering over systematic racism and inequality with changes in word use.

Note the end of that quote- “I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” This is an acknowledgement that these problems are deep, institutional ones. No amount of language change will protect black men from the police, or end urban and rural poverty. The right wants “free speech” to punch down and use language to hurt people, all while endorsing a personal responsibility narrative and labeling people who are suffering “snowflakes” or “bums” for their poverty, their anguish, their sense of violation.

Carlin punched up. The Reagan administration being a criminal gang. Wall Street bankers laundering drug money made from an epidemic that was destroying inner city communities of color. Organized religion abusing children and conning people out of their money with fire and damnation language. Compared to the recent special by Nick Di Paolo- an hour of white grievances, complaints about social justice warriors, and promotional material that made light of a murdered activist, Carlin is not cut from the same cloth. Those influenced by him have gone a variety of directions with his style and manner- Louis C.K opened a special with a routine that involved saying several slurs multiple times for comedic effect. After his history of gross sexual acts was made public, he returned to the circuit with a Di Paolo-esque right-wing sensibility based on cheap shock value and intolerance. Others have evolved, and emerged with a more thoughtful comedy that tries to move beyond the surface level shock value. The growth of Sarah Silverman from her early days of stereotype jokes to her most recent, introspective special on NetflixA Speck of Dust, shows an alternative way to take Carlin.

Observational comedy can be done at a very superficial level. Attempts to ape Seinfeld routines often stop at pointing out something strange and pausing for a laugh. Carlin was not observational, he was analytical. He went beneath the strangeness of modern society, and talked about what lay beneath. He wasn’t didactic and he didn’t explain the joke and ruin it. It’s just he had something more substantial to say than many of his contemporaries, and those that have taken “political incorrectness” as their standard in 2019. Was he politically incorrect? Absolutely. Did that mean he rejected things like social justice, healthcare and education, protection for the vulnerable, and anti-racism? Absolutely not.

Was Carlin perfect? No, there is plenty to find in his massive corpus that hasn’t aged well, or wasn’t good even within its own time. But he showed that being politically incorrect doesn’t just mean sliding down the alt-right pipeline. It’s not playing to majority anger at people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s not lazy stereotypes and slurs for pure shock value. He believed in free speech in a more genuine way than the alt-right does today- who when they hold power immediately move to punish and criminalize people and speech they don’t agree with.

My end point links back to “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. Decades of a deregulated media dominated by right-wing finance capital has imbued language with a decidedly right-wing flavor. If you meet someone upset about “political correctness” today, it is likely has regressive roots. But speech is important- what you say and how you say it can change relationships and society at large. However, we cannot adopt the reactionary mindset and debate on their terms. They cannot be compromised with in good faith, because they are and never have been acting in good faith. Language must be reclaimed, and dialogue should be based on coming together and agreeing on common principles and definitions. Otherwise progressives are left defending unfair caricatures, not real moral stances. There is nothing to be gained in that.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?

In the past few months, I’ve become more active in online Unitarian Universalist circles. Mostly this has been a new Discord chat server that’s mostly attracted young adults, “UU curious” people looking for more information, and a few seminarians or UUA-affiliated individuals. The server sends out a notification every time a thread is posted in /r/UUReddit, the main UU community on Reddit. I wouldn’t otherwise check the community that often, but I’ve ended up reading a fair amount of threads made there and noticed some trends.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of tension about the direction congregations and the UUA are taking in regards to anti-racism. A small group of people have very clear, complex grievances and take up a lot of the oxygen. However, I do think their perspectives run deeper than one might want to think, though as usual it’s hard to get a sense of what salience it holds for the entirety of active UUs, those that are partially attached to the faith, and those that are curious or new to the church.

There’s an argument to be made that the conflict is simply generational. Issues like white fragility (does it exist, to what extent, is X person or group exhibiting signs of it), support of Black Lives Matter (whether it is integral or a distraction from core UU activity, whatever that may be), and controversies that pop up most noticeably in the UUA leadership and at General Assembly, but are replicated to some extent in local congregations that we don’t tend to hear about.

There are multiple ways to frame this, I choose a ‘Civil Rights Movement’ contrasted with ‘new social movements’ framework. A significant portion of congregants were socialized in the 1960s struggles for racial equality, and maintain a lot of assumptions and expectations that that era had. Since then, well, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Black, Latinx, and ethnic studies, which mostly date from around the Voting Rights Act or the decade after, have engaged in conversation and intensive analysis on racism, both historical and the progress, stagnation, and regression that have defined the last half-century of society. There is a strong thread linking the Birmingham campaign and Black Lives Matter, but they exist in their own time and cannot be transported back and forth. It’s far too complex for that.

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new. But this is all an introduction to my main point.

I’m seeing some long-term UUs adopting language created and used by right-wing or alt-right individuals and groups, and it’s profoundly unhealthy. In the past few months, I’ve seen unironic use of the words “social justice warrior (SJW)”, “postmodernism”, “political correctness”, “identity politics”, and “Critical Race Theory”, among others, used in pejorative ways. While “SJW” is by its nature pejorative (unless you’re someone who’s decided to scoop it out of the mud and wear it proudly, as I often feel like doing), the others are serious academic and intellectual movements that are deeply important to many people, often from marginalized communities. The issue is when this language is taking its content and perspective from illiberal sources. While postmodernism has an august history of being intentionally misinterpreted and belittled by people, it is now most often invoked by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has released a best-selling self-help book and has massive popularity in certain circles. His usage of postmodernism as an insidious conspiracy, tied to Marxist thinking and destructive to “Western society”, has gained currency in certain circles and is spreading through the internet. He’s a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with his episodes gaining over five million YouTube views each, not counting those that listen to it in other forms.

Peterson’s views on postmodernism are nonsense from a philosophical standpoint. But being wrong has never stopped an idea from being dangerous. Peterson is part of a clearly-defined “pipeline to the alt-right“, whereby individuals, who may range from apolitical to conservative to quite liberal, are steadily fed a narrative that blames social problems on “SJWs”, postmodernism, ethnic studies, and social movements. This can take people to incredibly dark places, as an in-depth feature last month in the New York Times titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical” showcased. This process takes months or even years, and starts from very mainstream, innocuous material. Peterson’s self-help 12 Rules for Life has sold over three million copies (at least, the figure is from January), and been translated into fifty different languages.

I’m concerned that UUs can fall into this line of thinking. There is an entire ecosystem created to guide people away from progressive values, if they have grievances about efforts towards combating white supremacy and creating a thoroughly anti-racist church. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have algorithms that shift innocuous searches about “political correctness” or “safe spaces” into hard-right content, by people who have trained to sound persuasive. Figures like Peterson and Dave Rubin even describe themselves as “classical liberals”, though their underlying ideology is reactionary and can turn dangerous.

So, is there a genuine UU-to-right-wing pipeline? Among at least a smattering of people, yes. Given the older tilt of the membership, a lot of discussion occurs in private and semi-private Facebook contexts, so it’s hard to measure. But there are people with long-standing UU roots who are picking up language and ideas from the pipeline, and they spend a great amount of energy spreading their beliefs. Young people, especially young men, are especially targeted by people like Peterson. Young UUs are exposed to a lot other than religious education. What effect is that having?

What can be done? Well, a simplistic attempt to compromise with aggrieved congregants is not a good way forward. Unitarian Universalism exists within a white supremacist society, and I believe Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has helped start a discussion about how progressive members of the faith may have issues with talking and acting in an anti-racist way, in a way that differs from other movements. Moving backward, to an essentially mythical pre-identity politics, pre-BLM church, is not possible, let alone advisable.

  • Understand that good people can get swept up in harmful behaviors. The alt-right pipeline, like white fragility, occur in people who have good intentions and may not feel like they are drifting morally or politically.
  • Recognize that social media is incredibly powerful, and its reach extends far beyond UU spaces. Many UU congregations aren’t on Twitter, or don’t update it. Some don’t even have active Facebook pages, or they are pretty insular, not being designed for outreach and education. YouTube usage by UU congregations is scattershot- some places upload events and sermons, some record but don’t upload, some don’t record or upload. Pretty much everyone knows that UU cultural salience is very low- the spaces where it doesn’t have a presence, something else will be there for people to consume. And it may be profoundly illiberal and inconsistent with UU Principles or theology.
  • Decode. When someone you know talks about “identity politics”, where are their definitions and ideas coming from? Part of the right’s success has been to take academic or liberal language and inject it with a second meaning, which can be poisonous. People can keep the same lexicon, but be drifting to a very different place. It’s important to figure out where people are at. As a social scientist, I always start by defining my terms. It’s reasonable at a congregational meeting, General Assembly, or an online discussion to pause and ask “what does this mean to you? to me? to us?”

Unitarian Universalism is a big tent, riven with contradictions and tension. It’s the price we pay for not stopping people at the door and demanding they follow a script. But it also means divisions can fester, and people can be taken in dark directions. As a millennial, I’ve seen plenty of people get taken down the alt-right pipeline, even fellow activists. There is a need for vigilance. Don’t leave people behind.

Laozi said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. There’s a good chance it’s been used at a service you went to, at least once. But these journeys are not always to self-improvement and enlightenment. There is another side. The only constant is change, but change is value-neutral- it can be light or dark, progressive or regressive.

 

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.