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.

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.

 

 

 

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Thomas Paine: an always-relevant radical

The birthday of Thomas Paine just happened, January 29th on the Julian calendar. But since he doesn’t turn 279 years old until February 9th on our Gregorian calendar, there is still time to pen a retrospective!

As a political figure, most Americans learned in middle school US History that he wrote something called Common Sense, and it was a big deal when everything was starting to pop off in the Thirteen Colonies. The trajectory of his life after 1776 showed how different his political philosophy was with the bulk of Founding Fathers. A feature in Jacobin written last year emphasized that until his relatively recent rehabilitation, Paine was the icon of rogues and radicals only. If the establishment hated you because you wanted to abolish slavery or have a trade union or whatever, you probably looked to Paine as a source of wisdom.

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Paine, before injustice gave him grey hair. Portrait by Matthew Pratt

What stands out with Paine, and makes him a superior model compared to fatally compromised thinkers like Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, is his consistent denunciation of all systems of exploitation. His argument in Common Sense was for independence, yes, but it was more importantly an argument aimed directly at the monarchy and aristocracy. Many Founders fought a war against a monarchical colonial power, but they weren’t necessarily republican in their thinking. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a particular king; Common Sense is an indictment of the whole idea of kings. Indeed, there was much ambiguity about the new American executive initially, with many wanting Washington to become king, or at least king-like. Gordon Wood talks about this aspect of the early republic, additionally his chapter “A Monarchical Republic” in Empire of Liberty is a summation of how conservative many Founders and Framers were about the break from hereditary rule.

So even in this first step, Paine was outpacing most of the other Founders. After colonial rule, he took on a whole spectrum of society. He went after the institutional church in The Age of Reason. He defended the democratic revolution in France, almost ending up a casualty in the purge-y portion. Agrarian Justice is the most substantial critique of private property and institutional privilege of its generation. He was one of the early abolitionists. And he stood against the majority of the National Convention that wanted the King executed- because he saw the death penalty as another archaic injustice not suited for a democratic age.

Indeed, Paine’s consistency is refreshing. Not only compared to Jefferson’s incoherent views on freedom and slavery in his own time, but today. Many people call themselves lovers of liberty, but only advocate for a part of Paine’s philosophy. Conservative Americans love the talk of liberty above tyranny in Common Sense, the irreligious enjoy the broadsides against Christianity in The Age of Reason. And it’s easy for liberals to like Paine’s argument for a welfare state in Agrarian Justice. Of course, this was the case in his own time- he was loved and reviled by the same people at different times. Even today, with many progressive developments, Paine remains radical. Where other Founders have calcified into marble, his fight is not yet finished.

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Paine seemingly never wrote anything that didn’t make at least some powerful people mad.

The living character of his writing made him one of the few figures that benefitted from 1960s-era historical revisionism. In my generation, the pedagogy of the Founding has been complicated- how can the Virginia planters that dominated politics be lauded, when their leisure was the result of human bondage? Even now, the critique is hesitant and usually after-the-fact. Paine is in full color, waiting to be embraced.

So I believe that the question of Paine’s place in the traditional Founders isn’t worth debating. He fits in with the Founding Fathers that represent the rest of the spectrum of the American people. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Frederick Douglass. Lucretia Mott and William Ll0yd Garrison. And even John Brown, who despite his troubling nature still was willing to die to make “all men are created equal” something other than a statement of hypocrisy. Their revolution was about more than white men and their property rights. I suggest a promotion to hang out with a much more fitting pantheon.

The culture of ‘imminent threat’

 

In my current home of San Diego, a man named Fridoon Rawshan Nehad was shot this spring by a police officer. While there was a surveillance video of the shooting, its release was blocked by much of the political apparatus, most notably District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

The video is obviously graphic, and is available here. Officer Neal Browder arrives on scene around four minutes in, with him opening fire about 25 seconds later. In this screenshot Nehad is in the foreground, and the white flash is a gunshot.

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I won’t go into the details of the video itself, since it seems discussion of systemic state violence gets bogged down into a ‘was the victim threatening’ discussion for each case. What I will say is that Nehad did not have a knife (he actually had a pen), he was experiencing a mental health episode, he was not moving any faster than a casual walk, and though he was walking towards Browder he was not walking at Browder.

That this situation even happened is testament to how people fall through the cracks- Nehad suffered from serious mental illness and houselessness for many years prior to his death. Despite the prevalence of mood disorders and schizophrenia, most police departments have no understanding of how to deal with individuals who are unable to understand and comply with police demands.

District Attorney Dumanis and the police leadership are selling the same justification as usual- the idea that as the victim was an imminent threat, lethal force is justifiable.cjones11292014

This thinking ties the domestic to the international. Drone strikes, airstrikes, and the wholesale invasion of nations are all justified based on imminent threat ideology. With the militarization of the police, calculations about the use of lethal force by American institutions sound the same no matter where on Earth you happen to be.

But the thing is, the definition of an imminent threat can only be stretched so far. Nehad was erratic, but he was not in any sense threatening. Most of the body count from drone strikes had no connection to threats against the US or the West. The structures of power, at any level, want the maximum amount of autonomy and the minimum amount of accountability. Eliminating threats is only the stated purpose. Gaining power by setting precedent and pushing against any and all limitations is the key. With DA Dumanis (known for being corrupt) as an ally to prevent judicial oversight, the police rise above the law.

Many cases since Mike Brown throughout the United States were even more egregious than Nehad- they lacked even the foundation of a defense. But almost nobody goes to jail. Police security culture makes investigation and prosecution- even if the courts are willing, all but impossible.

The list of those killed by city and county police in San Diego is long. The answer to ‘who polices the police?’ is pretty simple- it’s you. Agitation at the grassroots level have made sweeping lethal police shootings under the rug far more difficult. Popular opinion since Ferguson has shifted radically. The idea that America is not a color-blind, egalitarian society is creeping into the mainstream. Police power grows best in the shadows, and the institution never expects dedicated resistance.

Worth and dignity, even the condemned

Yesterday Kelly Gissendaner was killed by the state of Georgia. She was a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the Unitarian Universalist organization for the imprisoned, isolated, and far-flung people searching for truth and meaning. Her history and beliefs are very different from my own, but she is one of many people convicted of serious crimes who devoted herself to transformation in part due to the publications and work of the CLF.

As a Unitarian Universalist, the first principle of the faith is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”. That includes those condemned to die. There is no justice to be won by the State engaging in murder and calling it justice.

Sanders and his supporters: transform or perish

The Sanders campaign understands transformative politics. His supporters have not, at least yet.

Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15. Credit to Maximilian Cotterill
Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15.
Credit to Maximilian Cotterill

Transformative political movements need to be able to adapt and respond to social crises. They need to see criticism as valid and important. We now live in the post-Seattle Sanders campaign. What has happened in the last three-plus days with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows the candidate and his staff are willing to evolve and transform. His base of largely white progressives have not taken interruption and criticism well at all, and has fallen back on arguments that I frankly find insulting.

The campaign has hired Symone Sanders, a black woman with a background in justice system activism, as a national press secretary. Also brand-new is a racial justice campaign platform that I think is pretty comprehensive. It divides violence against people of color into four distinct categories (a structure that as a sociologist I appreciate for its clarity), and deals with police reform, mandatory minimums, voter disenfranchisement, the War on Drugs, all tied into the established (but previously whitewashed) economic policies.

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Additionally in tonight’s massive rally in Los Angeles he allowed Black Lives Matter activists to open up the program. Most (perhaps all) other candidates would likely have just beefed up security.

I think besides him lagging far behind Hillary Clinton in campaign staff diversity, Sen. Sanders and the core, experienced people who are running his campaign get it. The activists who interrupted the Seattle event and those like them know that. They target Sanders because he was the most likely candidate of either party to respond to their concerns. They were right, and a bunch of activists have said that the Democratic candidates have been in touch about incorporating racial justice into what they do.

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One would hope that this process will be a learning experience. An example of how parts of the social justice movement can combine to become stronger. The wider base of Sanders supporters has made me discouraged though. Without the people who will ultimately decide his fate in the primaries accepting Black Lives Matter as an integral part of the process, this will just be a wise decision from the top with no larger social currency.

My friend Chad posted this picture up. He’s a Socialist Alternative member who moved from San Diego to Seattle recently to work with a local SEIU chapter. He took this during the period of silence in remembrance of Mike Brown, after the planned event was interrupted.

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Adding “There was a mix of fists in solidarity and middle fingers raised in defiance.” So the the two fingers here were not isolated but widespread.

My friend Max, who has deep connections in the Democratic Party machine, added in the aftermath “many consultants and strategists I know are saying that isn’t Bernie’s poll numbers or lack of $$$ that might doom him, it could very well be his strongest supporters.”

The level of discourse in the last few days has varied wildly, but I’d like to isolate some things being said that are both insulting and short-sighted.

  • There was a lot of talk of the Seattle interruption being part of a conspiracy. Who was behind it varied- I saw people claiming Hillary Clinton’s campaign was behind it. Others said the GOP. One person specifically said it looked like something Karl Rove would do. This talk, almost all from white people, is denying black autonomy. It is saying that these two black women are paid agents of white people. There are few ways to be more demeaning and offensive.
  • There was a lot of talk about the tactics being used are counterproductive. I wrote this just after the Seattle event.Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 10.32.57 PM
  • There was talk that Bernie is the “best ally” of black people and it’s self-defeating to target him. It ignores that being the best of a poor lot on racial justice is not an excuse for leaving him along.
  • There was talk of why Black Lives Matter activists don’t interrupt Clinton events, or GOP candidates. There is plenty of pressure on Clinton, but she also hasn’t been drawing the massive crowds that give exposure like Sanders does. Targeting the GOP is useless because they don’t care and never will. Activists are intelligent people and can make estimates of how much can be gained with a finite amount of time and resources.
  • There was gratuitous mention of Sanders’ background in civil rights- SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. That is all well and good, but that was forty-seven years ago. Mike Brown was killed a year and two days ago. This is a new civil rights struggle that requires a re-commitment to justice and equality.
  • There was a discussion of how inconvenient the interruption was, and how people came to see a program that involved Sanders speaking. These white progressives are either ignorant of history or fine with being hypocritical. Protest is inconvenient, that’s what separates it from regular day-to-day activity. What happened at Stonewall was a violent riot against the New York police. Civil rights activists shut down a lot of Birmingham for over a month in 1963. Black resource centers and academic curriculum came from events like the Cornell takeover, where radicals fought off a fraternity attempting to violently drive them out of a occupied hall, compelling the occupiers to bring in firearms to defend themselves. I helped shut down the Port of Oakland in late 2011. That cost a lot of people millions of dollars. Do I think that makes my action unjust? Not even a little bit.
  • Finally, there was just plain mean, borderline racist shit. It’s weird to see white progressives attack conservatives for calling black activists “thugs”, but then use similar language whenever black women do the same kinds of actions.

Sanders will not win the primaries by just getting the non-white vote. But he will lose them because people of color don’t show up in numbers to back him. Clinton has many advantages, including the overwhelming approval of her husband among Black Americans.

Since Peyton Stever wants modern data that says the same thing, I’ll link to this story that shows Hillary with a new +68 rating. The Clinton brand has always tested well, during and after the Clintons’ stay in the White House. Sanders has to build name awareness with a supporter base that’s a ready source of ammunition when the primaries actually close in. How will social media screenshots of racist talk from people with Sanders logo profile pictures play in black-heavy media outlets? Anyone remember how racist Hillary supporters were a massive headache in 2008?

nfd1iw-im0odafqmuzac7gJust because Sanders promotes policies that would economically help people of color doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for him. He needs to be responsive and show that he genuinely cares. His campaign is on aggregate doing a good job as of late. The large amount of volunteers scattered around the country, on the other hand, need to open their minds.

As Robespierre once said during the French Revolution- “Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?” A revolution is a very particular process. This is a very far step from status quo Democratic Party politics. Going to events, reading media accounts, talking with supporters, it is not surprising that many are unable to see this as an opportunity to run something distinct from the Hillary campaign, or the Obama campaign in 2008. Sanders wants a grassroots movement to change the country. What I see is a grassroots movement to get Sanders elected, with very little outside of that narrow goal.

Thus when there was a negative reaction to how the Seattle event went down, I was not surprised. A political revolution involves liberation struggle. The business-as-usual tack was to insult these women, tell them they were self-defeating, and place their actions in the confines of two-party partisanship. I saw a lot of that. I just passed my six year anniversary of deregistering as a Democrat. This fiasco is a big part of why I did so, even before I became a radical in the proper sense of the term.