A history of outside agitation: the role of UUs

Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
Marker for Viola Liuzzo, murdered by the Klan, March 25, 1965.
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer; with it, a chance to reflect on the history of outsider agitators. That term gained currency in reaction to movements like the Freedom Rides and the Summer, where northerners of all races came to break down segregation and Jim Crow. This was portrayed as dangerous, much like the old antebellum South and its fears of slave insurrection. In March,1965 a UU minister, James Reeb was killed while working with Dr. King, Jr. Two weeks later, another UU named Viola Liuzzo was murdered by Klan thugs. In every way they were different than the communities and people they were trying to help, but their sacrifice was important. That is because they were agitators, and agitators help justice triumph- no matter is they were ‘outside’ or not.

Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, murdered March 9, 1965.
Marker remembering Rev. James Reeb, died March 11, 1965.

 

The role of outside forces, especially white leftist activists, has been hotly debated. I’ve shared some discussion on the matter. What we have is an old quandary- how can you help, without making things worse? The sandpit that makes outside agitators difficult, and even dangerous, is one of selfishness. If outside forces pour into Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida, or indeed Mississippi and Alabama fifty years ago, their level of self-interest helps determine their use. Put bluntly, joining a protest in St. Louis and throwing rocks at the police is a great way to get on TV. That kind of behavior sabotages local efforts to press for change, and draws attention to a small minority, to the detriment of larger grievances.

Though there are moral principles at stake here, the question those who wish to help need to ask is “if we can, how can we help you?” versus “I know what can help you.” Respect for autonomy, whether in the black community, or indigenous peoples fighting Chevron and mining companies, or whatever group is engaged in struggle, is important. Part of the Freedom Summer was allowing the oppressed to gain political tools to use against their oppressors. Supplying power to others, not using your own power in their name.

Principle Five: An invitation for radical economic democracy

I’ll be out of the state for 2 1/2 weeks starting Sunday, so full posts will be rare or non-existent. Since I’ll be headed to a scenic part of the world, I’ll take nice pictures and write as much poetry as I can.

I’ll be giving the guest sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation in mid-September. Part of it is already written, there is still quite a bit of research to be done, primarily religious history reading. There are a lot of parts to tie together, which is encouraging. Ideas are not a problem, it’s just a matter of number and order.

At its core, this is a meditation on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, where we triumph “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In particular, the last five words, “in society at large” are of deep interest to me.

That is an incredibly radical statement, far more than is acknowledged. If UUs are to promote democracy in society at large, it goes far beyond traditional electoral government. In terms of time invested over a lifetime, the economic system is far more present than all the campaigns, referendums, and voting days combined. There is no way to deny that the American economic system, capitalism of a vast size and scale, is a critical part of society. In 2014, it is also undemocratic. Large firms are highly resistant to public opinion, and voting power is decided by investment- which scales with wealth. If you own stock, you have a stake in a publicly-traded company. If we are honest, everyone has a different kind of stake in the actions of these companies. Their pollution, their political donations, their treatment of workers and communities. We are socially taxed with representation.

As written, principle five is calling out for economic democracy. Meaning a system where the workers and the decision-makers were the same people. Such a shift would go beyond reform, it would ditch the economic structure and start from scratch. Not that this is unheard of- America like many other countries has a tradition of co-ops and collectives, just not on the national and international scale. The nice things about UUism is the built-in radical instinct.

The UU congregations and fellowships are aggressive with their external pressures, as divestment from fossil fuels was passed at the General Assembly this year. Boycotts have been used in the past and should continue against anti-LGBT and anti-union organizations. Social change often requires economic change- in the case of the Civil Rights Movement desegregation applied not only to public schools, but the private enterprise of Southern society.

The core structure of a traditional enterprise is oligarchical, where the board that regulates the executive often share members. I’m trying to dig down into the religious history of opposing economic elites and keeping certain things beyond the reach of money. Driving the money changers out of the Temple and driving the insurance companies away from healthcare are moving on the same axis. Part of true democracy is keeping the political, electoral democracy strong and robust.

So it’s interesting working through the whole issue. What is the democratic process? Different countries have different methods of voting and different political cultures. What is society at large? What does that exclude? Individual conscience and collective will are often in conflict, that is another dicey subject.

This is the beauty and the madness of the seven principles. Each covers a vast swath of belief and conviction. The madness is the vagueness, but the beauty is that you can get lost in each one and test the limits of your mind and soul. When I give my sermon in two months there will be those that accept my definitions and implications, and those that don’t. Our parish minister has to deal with that with every sermon she makes.

Never before have such a project been put before me. Public speaking is one matter, a matter I’m comfortable with. Context is important, though. This is like a final project presentation, but instead of competing for points I’m searching for engagement and understanding. I’m excited, and hope it will be a chance for personal growth and contribute to the growth of the congregation at large.

We might all be monsters one day

Some of this may sound a bit dated, but it’s written because of a post yesterday on Gin & Tacos called “Incurable“- about how smart, regular people become bitter right-wing fanatics.

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A primary component of stigma against people with mental disorders is belief that the population is inherently violent. If I may forward my own theory, I think in the past decade we have seen an even more radical belief. It’s gone beyond ‘the mentally ill are violent’ to ‘all great acts of violence are done solely by the mentally ill.’

We can never forget what happened at Newtown. The subsequent blame game has important lessons as well. Wayne LaPierre ran a dedicated campaign to deflect responsibility from guns to quite literally anything else. Violent video games, the collapse of the nuclear family, and most frequently, mental illness. Had he been speaking about blacks or Latinos, his tone would have been considered hate speech. The Economist wrote a feature in the aftermath about the campaign, and conclude, bluntly, that “when he talks of mentally ill ‘monsters’ and ‘lunatics’ walking the streets in such numbers that all prudent citizens must arm themselves to the teeth, he is slandering both them and his country, just as surely as any American-hating bigot.”

The APA concurred in several publications, including this statement:

The association objected to LaPierre’s assumption that horrendous crimes such as the one committed by shooter Adam Lanza are commonly perpetrated by persons with mental illness. In addition, he conflated mental illness with evil at several points in his talk and suggested that those who commit heinous gun crimes are ‘so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them,’ a description that leads to the further stigmatization of people with mental illnesses.

That bolded portion leads me to my point. It’s the move from tendency to sole causality. In the NRA’s view, and the view of a large portion of the American public, regular ‘sane’ people don’t commit terrible crimes. Ever. That sentiment is dangerous. I’ll talk a little about the present then jump over to a historical example.

A couple years back I read David Neiwert’s The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the RightIt opens with a man walking into a Unitarian Universalist congregation during a children’s play, firing a shotgun. He killed two and injured seven, and they found in his truck a short manifesto blaming liberals for ruining America, and lots of material by right-wing talk radio and television personalities. The UU church took out a full page ad in the New York Times in which they declined to hate in favor of love, perhaps their finest hour in recent years.

So was this shooter completely insane? Or was he made violent by extreme political talk, over months and years? In this case, was it perhaps not genetic mutation but cultural influence that cause him to strap dozens of shotgun rounds onto his person and enter a sanctuary to kill indiscriminately?

Similarly, are those that shot Muslims and Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11 totally insane, or lashing out in grief and pain to make someone pay? Is not racism learned rather than a born trait?

Is every person in the US military insane when they plan and execute military operations that may kill far more civilians than Adam Lanza ever did? What about business executives who cut corners to increase profits, which could injure or even kill workers or members of the public?

Perhaps these things make people insane, and thus capable of great crimes. If that was the case, why is the NRA’s rhetoric, that  ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” bravado exempt from that trend? Even if some people are just by birth monsters, it is absurd to think that monsters cannot also be created- or that people can deteriorate at some point.

This doesn’t even touch how hypocritical groups like the NRA have continually been about mental illness. Dumping stigma on a group will not lead to more people getting treatment and being less of a threat to themselves and (possibly) others. It will keep people from getting treatment, because it is now thought of as a synonym for evil. The rhetoric is self-defeating, which reveals what it was all along- typical political scapegoating. Any speech by any politician of any background that identifies something else as the problem, yet is disinterested in taking steps to solve it, is not worth the paper it was printed on.

This whole process, which started well before Newtown but has organized itself since then, is about denying our collective capacity to do horrible things. You can see this in any discussion of a genocidal regime or dictator- as usual Hitler is the most visible, but there are dozens. People treat Hitler as a different species- something unique for all time, that could never be replicated. And in that, they let their guard down, and forget that as twisted a soul as Adolph Hitler was, he was still a human. He has more in common with each of us than society would ever like to admit.

To think that the ‘regular’ section of American life couldn’t possibly commit horrible atrocities is naive. It’s not all at the feet of mental illness, just like how Newtown wasn’t all at the feet of guns or violent media. But the more the United States public is willing to accept reality distortion to meet short-term political goals, the less will be done to make all citizens safe from criminals- of all types.