A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? III: Fragmentation and Space

Building off of my first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II: Feedback and Insight), I will now explore a phenomenon that either is very recent (if you’re of a certain, younger age) or quite old- the unity and fragmentation of UU spaces.

Unitarian Universalism is very congregation-focused. The question I get all the times by people who are curious is “what is a UU service like?” And any long-time UU knows that’s an impossible question to answer before the service. Congregations vary widely between themselves and week-to-week, as guest ministers and special speakers may deviate sharply from routine. The Unitarian Universalist Association gets a lot of focus put on it, both by external parties and individual congregants, but it comes from a very historically weak legacy. David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), says that for many decades in the 19th century, the very idea of a national Unitarian organizing force was viewed with profound suspicion. Obviously, things have changed a great deal since then, but congregations are both very idiosyncratic and hold a lot of authority, both day-to-day and in sending delegates to the General Assembly.

Speaking of General Assembly, it serves as one of the few (some may argue, the only) national-scale space for UUs to gather and cross-pollinate. But even it is restricted- most people don’t attend General Assembly in a given year, many never will. And the space, while national in composition, is also a bubble of sorts. The fallout of Rev. Eklof distributing The Gadfly Papers at this year’s Assembly was confused and chaotic to outside observers. Even myself, someone who considers themselves up-to-date on UU matters, who has a call tomorrow with the Boston University School of Theology to explore a divinity degree, could hardly follow what happened. There were notable statements issued, a wide variety of individual reactions spread over social media, but a lot was lost between GA and the larger whole. Answers like whether the minister was disciplined, on what grounds, by whom, and when, were difficult to come across.

So if General Assembly is not a national space in a true sense, let alone for Unitarians, both ex-pats from North America and indigenous Unitarian traditions, that span the Earth, does such a space exist?


The evolution of the Internet has made large spaces both easier and more difficult to create. In the early Internet, UU and UU-adjacent listservs and Usenet groups were comparatively universal in reach among those online- there was little in the way of competing platforms. Though the reach of the Internet has grown spectacularly in essentially a quarter-century, the rise of competing, proprietary corporate-created social media platforms has fragmented the spaces where Unitarian Universalists discuss the faith. Much of the online population remains on Facebook, where privacy settings tend to keep discussion within certain boundaries. I have very few UU Facebook friends, so most discussion of the religion, for me, comes from public pages like DRUUMM and Black Lives of UU. And even then, like many millennials I spend little time on Facebook compared to other platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram. A lot is being said, but it replicates the congregational structure rather than breaks through it, with the exception of certain individuals whose contacts span multiple areas and churches.

Spaces that could be more inclusive, like Reddit, are now breaking apart rather than coming together. A splinter of the /r/UUReddit community formed this week, in reaction to more stringent rules about hateful conduct and bad faith arguments tactics like sea lioning and ‘just asking questions’. This is not the only splintering of UU space there has been, just the most recent. Fragmentation is born of fragility, especially white fragility. Certain groups are unwilling to move forward and instead retreat backwards towards a mythical, pre-political, pre-anti-racist church.

An attempt is being made by myself and others to reach out, find both old allies and new potential Unitarian Universalists. The UU Discord chat server (join by clicking the invite link here) started from a suggestion on Reddit, but has matured into an autonomous community including ministers, divinity students, lay leaders, congregants, and people who just found out about UUism fifteen minutes ago and have all kinds of questions.  It skews young, as existing Discord users are likely to be podcast listeners or gamers. Recently the Discord launched a Twitch stream, which besides the usual game playthroughs has great potential as a source of new UU content- book clubs, worship services, discussions, and much else can be done streaming for a live audience all over the world.

There are efforts made to make a larger, distinctly UU space. A recurring motif in welcoming new users to the Discord is “why didn’t I know about Unitarian Universalism ten years ago”. There is a need for more visibility, even if UUs will forever shun the kind of door-to-door evangelizing that other faiths practice. People find the faith when they find it, but it could have been a great source of affirmation, comfort, and support had they known about it during prior crisis moments in their lives. This means reaching out, both within and beyond the UU community.

Unitarian Universalism, if active in online spaces, can also be a counter to alt-right radicalization with a voice encouraging principles of equality, inherent worth, and love in our living tradition. If there is no UU content on a platform, that is just more space for the reactionaries- we cannot expect billion-dollar profit-seeking corporations to keep the alt-right in check. We must be active directly.

As Mario Savio implored to humankind, both then and now, on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! (Source)

It is unlikely that a vote or a petition will shut down the alt-right pipeline.

It’s up to us.

The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 12.15.29 AM

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.

In the dark: world poverty

A collection of important visualizations of poverty have been posted up at One.org. All of them have something to say, but I thought I’d share the one I think is the most important.

Access to energy across the world, 2010

I was reminded of an article about access to electricity in the developing world. I couldn’t find that one, but there is a more recent feature was written by the CEO of the website that posted these visuals up.

In developing countries, when you lose electricity, it’s usually temporary. And even if your power is out for the afternoon, you’re surrounded by businesses and infrastructure that’s running 24/7. To live in the dark – not just in your own home, but whole communities – is something that the developing world knows all too well. Former colonies, abandoned by imperial powers and left to rot, are left in the dark in other, less literal ways. Little or no access to the internet. Lack of literacy and libraries. Terrible transit infrastructure. Crippling poverty that makes almost all types of goods out of reach.

There are a thousand ways to demonstrate inequality. It depends on what you are contrasting. Some inequalities only hit home when you got beyond domestic, and look at a global scale. This isn’t about people in different tax brackets, it’s the realization that billions of people have lights and billions do not.