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.

Journalism, propaganda, and the police

“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams 

Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.

So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.51 AMThe body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.

A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.

This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.

Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.

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Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.

Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.

Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.

In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.

Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

Black Lives Matter more than CVS laundry detergent

Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015
Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015

So I was honored to be interviewed at the San Diego march in solidarity with Baltimore and the fight against police violence (story with full video here). About 200 people came out to fill the streets and create urgency- black lives do matter, and justice for the living and the dead will come from ordinary people seizing the initiative and finding their own power.

My friend and colleague in Socialist Alternative, Bryan Kim, was also interviewed by Channel 8, and we complemented each other well. Local news incorporated a lot of voices in this event- black, brown, and white, both the organizers and regular marchers.

This one instance gave me the chance to collect my thoughts on Freddie Gray, the events in Baltimore, and the larger epidemic of police violence against unarmed people of color that has been steadily snowballing since last year. Unlike many others pouring their hearts and minds out on Twitter, Facebook, and to their friends and colleagues, I never created a long, detailed response.

Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.
Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.

The one thought I’d like to throw out comes from my own background and belief in nonviolent struggle as the way to enact social and political change. Baltimore has presented a complicated picture for people with this set of views, and the media and institutional politics has tried to put people into what I’d dub “the nonviolent trap.”

Essentially, the media performed a litmus test on everyone who claimed to be nonviolent- either denounce the looting and conflict wholesale, or be called a hypocrite. My tiny soundbite was part of the counter- if we are to talk about violence in these protests, we need to include the violence put on communities by the police and the state. The trial was about one form of violence while ignoring the other, or at the very least requiring a clear denunciation before anything else can be discussed.

Looting a CVS and killing someone like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown are not the same kind of force. They have been made equivalent by some public figures, and often shown side-by-side as equal in media reports. Capital and humans are fundamentally different. The destruction of property through riot action or looting can cause real harm- often in urban unrest the businesses who end up taking damage are owned by people of color. But a damaged storefront can be rebuilt. In the case of something like a CVS, there is no intangible value to what was held within. People are not replaceable. I find looting to be a concern, though it is a product of structural injustice rather than simple greed. But as a nonviolent struggle advocate, I think we need to see conflict as a chain of events, and avoid the quick-take of what happened today. Denouncing only the people of color who have faced economic and social deterioration is a de facto censoring of the oppressed, and in the process helps the elites who have done so much harm.

The best speech you may never have heard by Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Beyond Vietnam” and given in 1967, has a bit I really like that I used as my basis when I was interviewed. It think it strikes at the root.

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (source)