The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

The (forgotten) radical politics of liberal idols

Martin-Luther-King-August-28-1963

So another year, another day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is perhaps the single most warped figure in contemporary America, where his legacy is used to defend the entire spectrum of opinion- anything from social services to Gun Appreciation Day. What is clear each year when his life and work is celebrated is how much of King’s radical politics have been sanded off. Indeed, “there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism”. Here’s one of many relevant quotes by King on economic justice:

“There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” (source).

This phenomenon is entrenched to the point where it now has a term- “Santa Clausification“. This is the most public case of the sanitizing of important modern figures, but it’s far from the last. I’m here to argue that the most guilty party are liberals, in particular white liberals, who celebrate figures like King but omit the philosophy that make their dreams and ideas so powerful.

Let’s just stick with people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize like King. How about Nelson Mandela:

“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro … Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny … There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” (source)

That was from a speech made in 1991.

Mandela held anti-imperialist ideas that had much in common with Castro and Guevara. While his long imprisonment and his role in ending apartheid is appreciated, the radical politics that led him to attack the racist system are ignored.

IndiaTv4300ad_dalai

What about the Dalai Lama? He speaks to packed crowds all over the world, and he’s very popular in my Unitarian Universalist church, and among American liberals and progressives. He’s more complicated than just the spiritual messages and peaceful ideology-

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has spoken openly of his Marxist politics, once stating “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (source).

And finally, the most recent Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has in her short lifetime been appropriated by Westerners, who use her near-death experience to justify military action against Muslim countries and paint places like Pakistan as impoverished, backward, and in desperate need of Western intervention. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

But Malala tries as much as possible to distance herself from the actions being taken in her name. She states that drone strikes are “fueling terrorism”, and sent a message to a socialist conference in Pakistan that reads in part:

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation. (source)

So four Peace Prize winners, four political radicals, and four figures who are often softened or used selectively. This is disheartening, because their awards and legacy (living or dead) were meant to get the whole world to learn from their example. Even if you are not a socialist or have radical politics of any strain, to celebrate these people without those aspects is to see the world through a warped glass.

We talk so much about Dr. King’s dream, about what kind of society he wanted, with racial and social equality. But that dream, that society, is not a capitalist society. An illusion is that his dream is achievable with the current economic and social system in place, when it’s clear that the issues of imperialism and militarism he spoke of in the last three years of his life are still rampant, and connected to a lack of radical political solutions.

Besides a lack of depth, these four figures, all non-white and from three different continents, have been skewed by a media and consumer culture that mainly caters to white Westerners. The Dalai Lama is glued to a whole meditation and enlightenment industry that has popped up in America. But if he speaks of peace and love in the world, he is speaking of a world crafted by socialism. Often he is portrayed as an exotic wise man coming from the East to bring wisdom. I think some of his wisdom is being selectively ignored.

I don’t mean to demonize the modern American liberalism, nor say for a moment that integrating other cultures into your own religious practice is bad. Unitarian Universalism as a faith is all the more stronger for being open to incorporation. There is a danger, though, of placing radical and unorthodox world figures into a conventional mindset. Radicalism gives the ideas and aspirations of these four, and many others in a similar situation, weight and makes them something more attainable. King’s dream of a racially and socially equal country without true economic democracy is a fantasy. We can get filled up with the hope that these individuals espouse, but not stay around for the heavier course of methods and practice.

You don’t have to believe the radical politics, but you have to engage with them. Otherwise you’re wasting a great part of their characters, and leaving wisdom on the table.

Open Mosque, and the not-quite Reformation

Vice writer Gavin Haynes has a new feature out about Open Mosque, an eclectic liberal mosque in Cape Town. I think he oversells the idea that Open Mosque is unprecedented in its views (the Alevi of Turkey are millions strong, largely secular, left-wing, and gender-equal). Otherwise, I found it interesting. The idea that Islam needs a Reformation like the one Luther kicked off in the 16th century has gained much currency recently with the rise of ISIS and their so-called ‘caliphate’. This is problematic- early Protestants were extreme theocrats (anyone living in Calvin’s Geneva would let you know that), the two religions are dissimilar in a lot of key areas, and since the Reformation global industry, culture, and politics has emerged that create complications. But taking the idea of the Reformation as a potential good, let’s go on.

Haynes gives an idea as to what a Martin Luther figure would look like- TV news tends to skimp on the details of how a Reformation would work, besides moderate Muslims creating new institutions that end the reign of hard-liners. Taj Hargey has a key thing in common with Luther- going back to the core text and using it as the moral guide to society. This is a lesson that all religious people can use- going back to scripture, what does it say, and what kind of society does it put forward? What is the gap between scripture and modern day religious authority? I don’t think Open Mosque will change the face of world history like Luther managed to, but it is offering a genuine alternative. What I worry is that violence against him and his congregation will prevent the spread of new ideas.

Mario Cuomo’s one amazing sentence on the death penalty

One of Mario Cuomo's many vetoes of bills to reinstate the death penalty in New York.
One of Mario Cuomo’s many vetoes of bills to reinstate the death penalty in New York.

Mario Cuomo is gone. We are left with a rich legacy, and his loud, hypocritical bully of a son. I was reacquainted with him last year, as Ken Burns uses his young sports dreams as emblematic of New York Italian-American identity in Baseball, which I finally got around to watching. To some extent he has to be compared (and contrasted) with Ted Kennedy. Liberal icons from the Northeast, who could of but did not end of being President. Both were active in a political era characterized by the gutting of labor and welfare. I preferred Cuomo’s personality and he’s my kind of politician. But both are now gone, and the players in American liberalism are relative newcomers.

Cuomo was probably the best high-ranking voice against the death penalty, with about a dozen yearly vetoes of bills introduced to bring back capital punishment in New York. His statement with the 1991 veto is perhaps the best succinct statement of why the death penalty is profoundly wrong:

“The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mario.