Guest sermon text: “And in society at large.” (9/14/14)

I was asked to give a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto when the parish minister was at the church summer retreat. There was no set topic, so I decided to write about Principle Five of the Seven Principles. Essentially, I ask what Principle Five really asks of us, and argues the need to promote economic democracy, socialism, worker control, whatever you’d like to call it. Given September 14, 2014.

“And in society at large.”
Andrew J. Mackay

Should you have time to do some real, intense, dedicated pondering, the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism is dynamite daydream material. They represent the foundation of a moral philosophy; ourselves, our church, our societies emerge from that foundation. This morning I’m going to take one principle and explore its meaning and potential.

Principle Five recognizes that the community supports “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Those last five words- “and in society at large.” It is not a specific checklist. Rather, it urges us to evaluate the whole interdependent web of existence that we find ourselves a part of. That phrase compels us to dream big. Envision a world nourished by the roots of democratic freedom.

As a sociology student, the definition of society is important. To dive into Principle Five requires us to define our terms. Without clarity of language this journey would be like an astronomer trying to study the planet Saturn without knowing where it is or what it looks like. [pause] The word comes from the Latin socius, which can be translated as “companion” or “ally”. Society binds people together in friendship and trust. Hopefully, it should rest on our humanity and common feeling. Author Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in 2010 “The belief that we are all competing with each other for scarce resources, that life is by nature a zero-sum game, ignores critical truths that rightly deserve the designation of ‘natural law’. Humans are a social species. We are pack animals; we like to be together lots of the time. Some of our greatest joys and oldest cultural practices involve sharing: our homes with a stranger, bread and wine with friends, material goods with our families.” The aspect of our lives where zero-sum thinking dominates, to the detriment of many, is the structure and culture of the economic system.

Large business pursues optimal profits, with much collateral damage. Chemicals spill into the West Virginia water supply, jobs are moved from Ohio and Illinois overseas, retail workers are not given enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits. We are a part of the economy, the reason it exists, yet often we feel helpless and swept up in something beyond our control. This economic power then influences our political democracy. UUs for years have been working against the influence of money on politics, so the danger is well-known. Politicians driven by business interest cash often ignore their constituents. According to an October 2013 poll, Americans held a higher opinion of the DMV, hemorrhoids, and cockroaches than Congress. I am 24 years old and gridlock, both in this state and in Washington, seems natural.

In society at large, everything is interrelated. If one aspect lacks accountability and popular control, it will harm the others. Without addressing core issues, attempts to build a better world will be undermined. There exist many proposed solutions for a more just economy, from the general public and UUs in particular.

Much of today’s activism is built around making large businesses yield to the popular will. Some of you may get email newsletters asking you to sign a petition against Wal-Mart, or Exxon-Mobil. Bad behavior! Environmental waste! Corruption! Send them a message! It is a demand, we want a say, this can’t continue. At this year’s General Assembly, a high-profile resolution was passed, moving to divest from fossil fuel conglomerates. Our UU community aims to use economic power to create a sustainable society. Divestment is often linked with boycotts and sanctions to make corporations and whole states change their ways. California was host to the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, where popular will forced powerful agricultural interests to stop exploiting migrant farm workers. Worldwide action punished South Africa economically for its vile system of apartheid.

This all points to a desire for more democratic control in the American economic system, by workers of a particular business, and the general public who must deal with the fallout of business decisions. Both groups, employees and the communities they live in, must deal with the trauma of outsourcing, cuts to wages and benefits, and disregard for the environment. In a lifetime, the average American will spend 90,000 hours at work, but the typical worker has no say in how her company is run. Unions increase worker power, but their scope is limited, and less than 7% of private sector workers belong to one. The public company is run by a small board of directors and a small set of principal shareholders, who often are the same people. The UUA is part of an interfaith group that buys shares in companies to create pressure for reform. Such efforts can only go so far- corporate stock gives disproportionate power to holders of special types of shares. And the reality is that promoting economic justice may mean cutting profits and endangering stock price. Working within the system where profits are expected to increase indefinitely means calls for justice may go unheard.

The world of privately-held companies lack any internal accountability. In the US, the largest private companies have $1.8 trillion in annual revenue and employ 6.2 million people. Their work can be damaging to humans and the environment. The two largest private companies in the country are Cargill, which sells palm oil and soybeans from areas that used to be rainforest, and the petroleum multinational Koch Industries.

Not to despair. The world of today has never been inevitable. There is a place for the democratic process in the economy. Some existing businesses show a different way of doing business. There are cooperatives all around us, where workers and consumers get a say. Credit unions in America serve 44% of the economically-active population. They are community not-for-profit organizations, where account holders are the owners and elect their leadership. To have a say in a large banking chain, you need to purchase quite a lot of stock. You are not a part-owner of Wells Fargo or Bank of America just because you opened up a checking account. You are not consulted on their business decisions. Credit unions and other cooperatives are owned and run by the community, and their decisions by nature factor in the human element. The Manhattan board of a large bank doesn’t have to consider the effect of foreclosures or high interest loans on a small community. A local credit union does; the leadership and ownership live in the community, and must personally deal with the fallout of destructive policy.

In the past year I’ve learned of an idea created by credit unions that shows the value of a democratic, community-run mindset. Several states now allow a contest called save-to-win. Most states have a lottery, with big prizes and lots of advertising. Lotteries are played by the poorest Americans, and few ever win. It is in some sense a poverty tax, where people are exploited by their hope for a better life. Save-to-win is simple: for every $25 put into a savings account, you get a raffle ticket for a drawing at the end of the week, or month, or year. It has created the excitement of a regular lottery, while increasing the savings of poor Americans. People are excited and motivated to save for their future. Credit unions have created a lottery where you can’t lose. This is a part of a society of companions and allies. There is more than the zero-sum, everyone can win and thrive.

Cooperatives go beyond the local credit union or organic food mart. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is a diverse organization with many cooperatives, divided into finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. They employ 74,000 people, and by company rule, no person can make more than 8 1/2 times the lowest-paid worker. In a country still devastated by the credit bubble, Mondragon has stayed strong.

The economist Richard Wolff, who you may have spotted on Moyers and Company or Charlie Rose, has crafted an initiative called “Democracy at Work”, where businesses can be created that are self-directed by workers. A few years ago I saw him speak in Berkeley, and his words were invigorating. The framework for democracy in the economy, that largest component of “society at large” exists. There are realistic solutions. It is a matter of will.

If companies were run by the workers, would their jobs and factories would have all been moved overseas? Or would they have taken initiative, and made the enterprise work here, whatever it took? Would a worker-run factory pollute the groundwater, when the leadership would have to come home and drink it? When we send petitions, or move our money, or boycott a company, we are demanding accountability. The best way to make the economy accountable to the people is to make the people accountable for the economy.

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus finds the Temple of Jerusalem filled with money-changers and vendors. The money-changers were turning the currency of poor pilgrims into a special temple scrip, at a large markup. This system still haunts us today, though instead of temple cash it is called Disney Dollars, and the pilgrims have been replaced with sunburned tourists. Jesus is furious of this exploitation. He flips the tables over and drives the lot out with a lash. As they leave, he shouts “It is written . .  ‘My house will be called a house of prayer . . . but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ It is rare that we see Christ in such a fiery temper. Something about the operation of the Temple made him livid. He did not admonish the money-changers, and he certainly did not simply forgive their misdeeds. He flipped a table. A popular meme three years ago had a painting of the scene with the caption “The First Occupy Wall Street.”

The scene shows the importance of sacred places and sacred institutions. The Temple is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and it was being sullied by profiteering. Perhaps some things should be above profit. Our political democracy today is built upon profit, as special interest cash creates a skewed set of priorities for elected officials. We have our own secular temples, that we cherish and treat with special care, and perhaps the moneyed interests need to be driven from those places too. The best way to achieve democracy, a deep and encompassing democracy, is to change the way money is spent and businesses are run.

The 17th of September will mark the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. If nothing else, the movement sought to link the economic power of the 1% with its political power and influence. The question of why Congress is less popular than cockroaches has a complicated answer, but money has certainly steered it to this point. When myself and fellow members of Occupy San Jose handed out flyers on how to join a credit union, and picketed banks, and along with local non-profits encouraged churches and small businesses to divest from large banks who were foreclosing on houses in their community, we had an idea that there may exist a better way of doing things. Perhaps there is a place for democracy in society at large.

General Assembly: Why wasn’t there a second banner?

This will be the first of several posts written in the aftermath of Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, held in Portland, OR from June 24-28.

A workshop I wandered into on Friday was “Class Diversity: Exploring Our Past, Building Our Theologies”, which was an interesting take on why class-diverse Unitarian congregations are rare exceptions- the socioeconomic strata of membership being very similar to what it was in the 19th century.

This was on the day that the Supreme Court announced same-sex marriage was a right under the 14th Amendment. Right outside the room this workshop was being held in, a massive rainbow banner had been constructed and signed by hundreds upon hundreds of people.

[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
A woman came up during question-answer and gave an emotional statement that I think really dug at the heart of how Unitarian Universalism can have clear biases with regards to class. I don’t know how many people ever thought of the day as an exercise in classism, but her remark made it clear to me that there was a double-standard in play at Assembly.

Her question is this post’s title. While the court ruling about marriage equality is landmark and an important victory in the 21st century civil rights movement, it was not the only important ruling that week. The day before, the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act, which threw a lifeline to millions of poor Americans:

The latest filings show that about 10.2 million people had signed up and paid their insurance premiums through the exchanges as of March, and 6.4 million were receiving subsidies to help afford coverage in the 34 states that had not set up their own marketplaces.

Those consumers stood to lose their subsidies, worth about $1.7 billion a month, if the justices had agreed with the challenge.

These two rulings affected several million people directly. Being unable to marry who you love and being unable to pay for live-saving medical care are both serious social problems which were addressed to some degree this week. But there wasn’t a banner out in the convention center hall celebrating that 6.4 million people could keep their health insurance.

Detroit's racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white. [http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
Detroit’s racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white.
[http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
And I think if a banner was appropriate to celebrate a civil rights victory, a third banner should have sat there as well. The same day as the ACA ruling (Thursday afternoon), and the day before the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court enacted a significant change in how the law deals with discrimination cases. It allowed for a new type of argument in cases of housing discrimination. Previously you had to prove intent in a very strong standard- basically a smoking gun saying “I’m denying housing to this community based on race”. Obviously it was hard for those affected to successfully sue; now something called disparate-impact theory can be used- if evidence shows that a law statistically promotes housing segregation, that can be enough. If this is to spread to other places- disparate-impact is used for hiring in some circumstances, but not many other places with potential for discrimination, it will be just as important as the marriage equality and ACA cases.

So why only one banner? The housing case is also a discrimination issue, and both are part of the modern civil rights movement. The ACA ruling in terms of dollars is a big win for the working class. I don’t know why there was only one banner, though I’ll offer this potential theory:

What makes marriage equality different from healthcare subsidies and housing discrimination is that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects everyone regardless of race or class. In a faith that skews white and upper-middle class, the presence of one banner (and one banner for that particular case) is evidence of implicit bias. I agree with the woman who spoke up, she added a concrete sense of what classism is that the workshop really needed to be worthwhile.

The next post will tackle how the Black Lives Matter movement caused tension and strife, both across racial lines but also generational ones. Certainly if Black Lives Matter, a step towards ending racial discrimination in housing (with its ties to the ghetto and redlining) should be celebrated. How does Unitarian Universalism grapple with its own diversity questions, the balance between support and paternalism, and being a leading force for change versus being earnest and strong followers?

Sanders goes free-tuition, part of tiny sliver of leaders who have any sense

It’s good to see Bernie Sanders go beyond the liberal Congressional ideas about reducing loan rates and providing tax credits, calling for free tuition that would end the United States’ status as a dinosaur in college affordability and availability.

SFT logo. Created by Andrew J. Mackay
SFT logo. Created by Andrew J. Mackay

The group I’m a part of, Students for Free Tuition, is about real solutions in education. These planks of free education aren’t even radical- it’s just an attempt to get back to higher education of yesteryear, when it was more affordable, and government assistance came from grants and not loans.

There’s a frame of thinking that voting and political participation is low because people are stupid or duped. I think it’s more so that the tepid, halfway solutions proposed won’t work, and most people know that. Free tuition makes all the sense in the world.

The war on student resistance: UC Santa Cruz and beyond

The Atlantic has published a long feature by Matthew Renda on the Highway 6- a set of student activists at UC Santa Cruz who were arrested and charged by the authorities for blocking a highway. Their issues were twofold: skyrocketing tuition costs in the UC System, and police violence against people of color. At the same time the university suspended all six, causing them to lose their housing and healthcare.

Six students blockade a highway over student fee hikes and police violence against people of color
Six students blockade a highway over student fee hikes and police violence against people of color

While The Atlantic has a strange and inconsistent tone on higher education in America, this collected the situation as it exists right now. What is clear is that college administration is becoming increasingly arbitrary when it comes to student protest, and its punishments are so severe considering what other infractions get. A year and a half suspension is a lot more than many universities have handed down for sexual harassment and assault- crimes that often happened on the campus itself. Whether the Highway 6 action was a crime is unknown at this point- though most of the thousands who have blocked highways since the shooting of Michael Brown were not charged, let alone tried. But it is strange (and unjustifiable) to see UC Santa Cruz being zero-tolerance on peaceful protest- and heaping on punishment on top of the authorities who actually have jurisdiction with off-campus direct action.

What separates, as the feature states, someone arrested for protesting at the U.S Capitol or a couple miles from campus? The first did not see any punishment from administration, but the Highway 6 were suspended within hours, denying due process rights reserved for these situations. Their lack of trust in the system have led them to plead no contest in court.

Since Occupy, the state of activism in the UC system is marked by confusion and inconsistency. A major calculation in planning action is possible consequences- but with UC Santa Cruz, the consequence is somewhere between none and grave. These things are supposed to be hammered out through a process that guarantees rights and prevents the exercise of arbitrary power, but the administration is willing more than ever to skip all of that.

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Lost in all this is the message put forth by these student groups- that students and faculty are losing their university to private corporate interest, and all over the country there is injustice against people of color. Their punishment is proof of their concerns- a institution with a history of radical activism is willing to silence it to keep the privatization of education moving forward.

From “who” to “what”, from branch to root

The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.

Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.

Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act.  Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.

The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.

Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.

Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.

Forever seeking solidarity

The big development in radical politics this week is the so-called Corinthian 15 (all interesting radical developments include a physical space and a number), who have refused to pay the debts they incurred at their now-defunct for-profit colleges. The New Yorker captured the promise of this action with their article title- “The Student-Debt Revolt Begins”. Given that there exists over $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt, a move towards nonpayment would take the initiative away from private loan companies and overpriced schools.

However, reading an online left-wing community, I was disheartened to see a sentiment that is common, but could fatally undermine mass action. Many of us see for-profit education for the expensive scam that it is, and are at least concerned about the population that goes there. But there’s also an urge towards thinking these people are dumb, and deserve the debt they accrued.

From the start, a potential rift between for-profit students like the Corinthian 15, and other students, plus the public at large. This goes against the basis for popular action in the left-wing ideology- solidarity. The success of the 15 depends on people who aren’t directly affected supporting and expanding the resistance. Contempt for for-profit students creates a hierarchy, where some but not all students are victims of their loan companies and boated universities. If capitalism really is the underlying problem of exploitation, then this split cannot persist. A lack of solidarity is the reason that the British left became a joke in Life of Brian- many groups with the same general goal, but refusing to work united due to minor differences.

If there is no solidarity, no mass action, then the differences are pointless. Arguing over the right path means nothing if the path is not walked to its conclusion.

Another troubling aspect is the trend online for left-wing commenters to say “solidarity from Ireland” or “solidarity from Ohio!” when reading stories or posts about protest activity. It’s harmless, but I feel it cheapens the term, which is about concrete mutual support. When the Gezi Park protests broke out, activists used Indiegogo to raise $100,00 from individuals, many not living in Turkey, to let protestors run a full-page ad in the New York Times. It allowed the movement to speak for itself, and didn’t smother the resistance with rhetoric from outsiders. That is true solidarity, and shows that even if you can’t physically participate, there are things you can do beyond a social media comment. We must becomes more creative

“Solidarity Forever” begins with one of the best encapsulations of what solidarity is and should be:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the Union makes us strong

There is nothing weaker than small groups that could be one large group. Even dedicated socialists and progressives can have elitist tendencies. That’s not surprising, but we have to teach ourselves to accept all exploited people, even if their plight might seem self-inflicted. There’s a world to win, and we must act united.

If not racist, what? If not now, when?

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The new poll that finds almost half of UKIP voters admit to racial prejudice, but a large chunk of those don’t believe themselves to be racist. This goes beyond voters to the many UKIP officials at the local level who have been expelled for racist views, like Rozanne Duncan this month. Again, she says she’s not racist despite not apologizing for what she said.

This seems to be part of the larger devaluation of words in political discourse. If one can admit openly to prejudice but deny they are racist, the whole debate on what constitutes a racist loses its mooring and floats in the void.

Even more extreme individuals use terms like “racialist” or “racial realist” to describe themselves. People who use race to structure their view, and value one conception of race above another, find the word too toxic to apply. This is why language keeps migrating- political correctness has changed over the decades in part because terms gain toxicity from being used as insults, necessitating new, previously unused language. Racist is used as an insult in a way that racialist is not, because racialist was more or less invented in recent times. In that sense, words gain new meaning over time- and what constitutes a racist seems to change by the year. Apparently UKIP voters aren’t racist- they’re some new, replacement word.