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.

Pedestrians, turned rulers of the asphalt

The fist
clenched
is only a sign of strength
if done by thousands
and not ones and twos
isolated and rageful,
the injustice flowing like
table wine at a summer picnic

the flag
brilliant red
is only a sign of unity
if flown over streets
taken by pedestrians
turned rulers of the asphalt
for all this is their land

the revolution
true and lasting
is only a sign of progress if
we join together for a cocktail afterwards
to say that we did this.

Forever seeking solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The bullshit economy

Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.
Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.

I was introduced to anthropologist David Graeber’s 2013 magazine feature “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” today. It’s an excellent example of academic writing cutting to the chase (philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt did a similar thing with his pamphlet “On Bullshit“), and gets at the core mystery of the post-industrial world. Wasn’t industrialization and automation supposed to make our lives easier, and give us more spare time? Graeber points out that a four-hour workday is totally feasible, but the reasons that so many administrative jobs have grown to replace manufacturing is social control.

As he concludes:

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

His example of the London transit strike reminded me of the BART strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2013. People of all economic stratums despised the BART workers for striking, and some of that may have stemmed from a sense of powerlessness that some usual riders have. Many people commuting in the Bay have these administrative or service jobs, many non-unionized and without tangible function. BART workers can shut down a transit system, their labor has great power. An increasing portion of people don’t have that efficacy. The end result, as Graeber says, are the ‘bullshit jobs’ workers turning against the remaining non-bullshit jobs workers- sparing the elite the trouble. Divide and conquer. Historically racism was used to pit working-class populations against one another, now this split in job function is the newest flavor.

Soviet economy has always been lampooned for its inefficiency, but it’s clear that 21st century capitalism has much in common when it comes to redundancy and busywork. I would forward that because capitalism has created great inequality and is by its nature unfair, any society with time to have an honest audit of the economic system would ditch capitalism and replace it with something else. So though many people have been replaced by machines and there is not a value-added reason for many jobs, keeping people busy prevents organization, reform, and if needed, revolution. Bullshit jobs are a self-defense mechanism, because those that benefit from capitalism value above all the maintenance of the economic system.

 

American Revolution: Against imperialism, but for it as well?

I attended a Socialist Alternative branch meeting in Oakland today. At the end there is the technical business, including future topics and who is to present on them.

One was a historical dilemma that is essential to the United States: how can the American Revolution be seen as a struggle for freedom, if it was forwarded by slaveholders, who by the end had even more authority over the people they owned? Even a middle school history class tackles with that. Of course, when you bring in ideas of capital, imperialism, and white supremacy, there are more nuances to explore and consider.

Since I’m headed on a journey through western Canada tomorrow, I can’t write out in full the thought I had.

Wasn’t the American Revolution a fight both for and against imperialism? The colonists fought against British colonialism. Their victory allowed for a more complete imperialism of western Africa; both current slaves, and those to be taken from their homeland, were subject to imperial control. And because there was a 32 year gap between British abolition of slavery and US abolition, the colonies gaining independence brought decades more oppression.

A world to win

Nathan Schneider, one of the first journalists to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement, has written a feature for Al Jazeera entitled “From occupation to reconstruction“. Anyone who has experience in Occupy knows the reaction from other people since the major encampments were dispersed. What happened to Occupy? It seems to have been a total failure.

Spanish indignados protest, Madrid.

The truth is more complex. Schneider, more than any other journalist I’ve seen, catalogs the evolution from 2011 to today. This is both internationally and in America, as Occupy was not the original spark. There were student strikes in Chile, an ongoing radical revolution in Spain, the crisis in Greece. Some protestors I met were led to believe that this was unique and special, it’s important when charting a global movement to avoid chauvinism.

Occupy was not shattered, it flowed into the thousand crucial issues that its participants cared about. Anyone who visited an encampment or went on a march knew that Occupy was big-tent in the extreme. Through the large actions, formerly unacquainted people met, formed workgroups, and it went from there. All the national media coverage about a $15/hr minimum wage comes in large part from the energy of Occupy. Before Kshama Sawant was a member of the Seattle City Council, she was a an Occupy organizer. What $15/hr is, fundamentally, is the working class playing offense. It’s putting the American economic system on the table. Beyond a system where the employer and the corporate politician says what they will allow, the last year has seen a shift towards workers saying what they need. Occupy was a key part in translating a key phrase bandied about- when something is “bad for the economy” it’s often just bad for people in power. The economy is a lot more than a few billionaires. Or at least it should be.

For a year or more I had an Occupy hangover. I missed the mass turnout, the radical direct democracy, the egalitarian nature of an encampment. There are new developments, evolutions of what started in September 2011, and they’re something to get excited about. It’s the real deal. And each tangible victory in 2014 makes every word chanted in 2011 mean something more.