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?

cubicles

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.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight

Five days ago, I released my first blog post in a long time (a very long time if we’re talking about UU-related content), “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. I’ve had one other UU post be as popular as this prior, 2014’s “Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home”. So it’s interesting five years later to see the same viral-like spreading of my post throughout social media. Like before, people I know tell me they’ve read it without me showing it to them. It’s already in their circles.

I could tell that people were reading, based on the slight uptick in blog views in the past few days:

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 1.27.47 AM

Unfortuately, since UUs predominately use Facebook, most of the shares (and thus comments) of this piece, 37 shares in all, are private and I can’t learn from them or give you any sort of meaningful response to them. I’ve had some listserv messages, blog comments, Facebook messenger contacts, and the UU Discord server. But a lot of what’s been said, I can’t see. I respect their privacy if these conversations wanted to remain hidden, but also if they’re critical comments in particular, I can’t give any sort of apology or explanation here.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I’m not crazy. People generally agree that a) alt-right language appears in conversations in UU circles, both in real life and online, and b) this is not confined to a few very loud cranks. What I see is the surface of something that happens in many congregations. Since we’re a strongly local-power faith, what the UUA leadership says and the congregational leadership do can be very different.
  • People are fed up. The alt-right language and citing of people like Jordan Peterson or alt-right pipeline people makes some people really ticked off. The current state of things is not sustainable- I’m reminded of the opening to W.B Yeats’ “The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

  • This kind of language and conduct cuts across demographics. Seminary students are reading Peterson, older congregants talk down about identity politics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are possibly drawn to these arguments. It’s not just about dialogue of a certain group- solutions need to be much more nationally-scaled.

Let me respond to what I think is the one critique I was sent that I think was made in good faith and is not just white fragility manifesting itself. My post was not meant to be ageist, if you felt it was, I’m sincerely sorry. Let me quote myself to show how I think I argue specifically against the ageist explanation:

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new.

I think a good-faith reading of that indicates a lack of age prejudice. The people specifically calling it ‘ageist’ have bones to pick with me on both religion and politics, so I think it may be more a weapon to win a debate than a substantial critique.

Here are some more solutions that I came up with talking with people about the piece:

  • Establish covenants of right relations. These covenants establish standards of behavior within a congregation and open opportunities for dialogue, and calling us back to shared values. It also sets definitions and consequences of disruptive behavior. Setting these covenants up before people bring in alt-right rhetoric and its associated harmful actions is preferable to dealing with disruptive congregants ad-hoc, which can lead to the appearance of, or reality of, unfairness.
  • Establish a more robust UU social media presence. Many congregations record services, either audio or video. Every congregation that records material should publish it, edited well, each week on YouTube and link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU Discord, or another group could also use the streaming service Twitch to hold virtual services and religious education. The robust chat service in Twitch rooms allows for people all over the country to join in worship, conversation, and education. It’s also an excellent fundraising platform- a leftist YouTuber named HBomberguy raised $340,000 recently for a trans charity by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over two days.
  • Decide how to deal with provocative speech that seems to have some sort of right-wing or alt-right definition or nature to it. The Gadfly papers hurricane at General Assembly this year indicates that there are good and bad ways to try to start a conversation about controversial ideas. Had it been written in a different tone, with different vocabulary, and introduced and distributed earlier with more forewarning, I bet it would have been more fully engaged with- rather than the intolerant gunk it turned out to be.

    Decide as a congregation, if someone comes up using alt-right language, what is the protocol? Is there a committee of communications set up? Is there a person to report to that’s not a minister? How does a congregation determine a) whether such language is alt-right in nature, b) how disruptive it really is, and c) if it could lead to unhealthy action.

These are only a few ideas. If people have further feelings, feel free to tweet at me or DM me on my Twitter (@MackayUnspoken), or join the UU Discord where I’m user “LeftistUU’. I feel that there is a need to have a dialogue that doesn’t concede to the right, and in the process jeopardize our Principles, but also recognizes that people whose language and behavior has negative impacts on communities of color may have good intentions. We have to move beyond intentions, to impact. Because unless the impact is positive, an action cannot be morally defended in a complete way.

 

 

The legacy of George Carlin and “political correctness”

Content Warning: Some of the links in this post contain potentially offensive content. Please be advised that this is an attempt to be instructive and not to harm anyone or further hurtful language and stereotypes.

This is not a direct sequel to my last post, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?“, but I want to discuss another aspect of the core of that post. “Political correctness’ is another term that has multiple, contradictory meanings to different groups, but has definitely been pulled toward the right in recent years, and is often debated using at least some reactionary assumptions about what it entails. To illustrate how political correctness has a multiplicity of meanings, and is a term that should be contested by progressives, I’m going to talk about one of the great “political incorrect” figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Carlin died in 2008, when I was a junior in high school. I had discovered him shortly before, and watched his HBO specials in chronological order, covering from the mid-1970s to shortly before his death. I was into “edgy” content and visited sites like 4chan during that time- though at the time of things like their protests against Scientology, rather than the current white nationalist version of the site today. Carlin is part of the reason that when I grew disillusioned with the presidency of Barack Obama, I drifted left rather than right. I found Unitarian Universalism in late 2009, and that has been transformative. My 2008 self is hard to recognize these days, but Carlin is a key figure in it.

Carlin Bookstore
Carlin signing his book, Brain Droppings. From Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A lot of tributes to Carlin were published last year for the 10th anniversary of his death. Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian. The “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine is historically important; it was also genuinely about free speech, as the Supreme Court determined that the government had certain powers to control what was said on public airwaves. The basis of his reputation, to people who only knew him for that, was about the 1st Amendment- not “free speech” arguments done in bad faith by the right today about being unable to spread hate on private social media websites.

Here’s an oft-circulated quote by Carlin on political correctness, which I’m going to work off of. It’s been appropriated, mostly by the right and alt-right, but that’s based on a simplistic reading- if not an outright misreading:

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech. (source)

The core of Carlin’s work, from the beginning to the end, and in essentially every one of his televised specials, was the misuse or perversion of language. He opened a special with the awful contradictions in people calling themselves “pro-life” while supporting death squads in Central America, the death penalty, and generally being against financial support for all people, especially children. He talked about the transformation of terminology for traumatic experiences in warfare- from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” to ultimately “post-traumatic stress disorder”. His point wasn’t that PTSD is made up or that people don’t suffer from it, but that something key was being lost in the technical language. Carlin wanted to get the truth, ugly as it was, over papering over systematic racism and inequality with changes in word use.

Note the end of that quote- “I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” This is an acknowledgement that these problems are deep, institutional ones. No amount of language change will protect black men from the police, or end urban and rural poverty. The right wants “free speech” to punch down and use language to hurt people, all while endorsing a personal responsibility narrative and labeling people who are suffering “snowflakes” or “bums” for their poverty, their anguish, their sense of violation.

Carlin punched up. The Reagan administration being a criminal gang. Wall Street bankers laundering drug money made from an epidemic that was destroying inner city communities of color. Organized religion abusing children and conning people out of their money with fire and damnation language. Compared to the recent special by Nick Di Paolo- an hour of white grievances, complaints about social justice warriors, and promotional material that made light of a murdered activist, Carlin is not cut from the same cloth. Those influenced by him have gone a variety of directions with his style and manner- Louis C.K opened a special with a routine that involved saying several slurs multiple times for comedic effect. After his history of gross sexual acts was made public, he returned to the circuit with a Di Paolo-esque right-wing sensibility based on cheap shock value and intolerance. Others have evolved, and emerged with a more thoughtful comedy that tries to move beyond the surface level shock value. The growth of Sarah Silverman from her early days of stereotype jokes to her most recent, introspective special on NetflixA Speck of Dust, shows an alternative way to take Carlin.

Observational comedy can be done at a very superficial level. Attempts to ape Seinfeld routines often stop at pointing out something strange and pausing for a laugh. Carlin was not observational, he was analytical. He went beneath the strangeness of modern society, and talked about what lay beneath. He wasn’t didactic and he didn’t explain the joke and ruin it. It’s just he had something more substantial to say than many of his contemporaries, and those that have taken “political incorrectness” as their standard in 2019. Was he politically incorrect? Absolutely. Did that mean he rejected things like social justice, healthcare and education, protection for the vulnerable, and anti-racism? Absolutely not.

Was Carlin perfect? No, there is plenty to find in his massive corpus that hasn’t aged well, or wasn’t good even within its own time. But he showed that being politically incorrect doesn’t just mean sliding down the alt-right pipeline. It’s not playing to majority anger at people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s not lazy stereotypes and slurs for pure shock value. He believed in free speech in a more genuine way than the alt-right does today- who when they hold power immediately move to punish and criminalize people and speech they don’t agree with.

My end point links back to “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. Decades of a deregulated media dominated by right-wing finance capital has imbued language with a decidedly right-wing flavor. If you meet someone upset about “political correctness” today, it is likely has regressive roots. But speech is important- what you say and how you say it can change relationships and society at large. However, we cannot adopt the reactionary mindset and debate on their terms. They cannot be compromised with in good faith, because they are and never have been acting in good faith. Language must be reclaimed, and dialogue should be based on coming together and agreeing on common principles and definitions. Otherwise progressives are left defending unfair caricatures, not real moral stances. There is nothing to be gained in that.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?

In the past few months, I’ve become more active in online Unitarian Universalist circles. Mostly this has been a new Discord chat server that’s mostly attracted young adults, “UU curious” people looking for more information, and a few seminarians or UUA-affiliated individuals. The server sends out a notification every time a thread is posted in /r/UUReddit, the main UU community on Reddit. I wouldn’t otherwise check the community that often, but I’ve ended up reading a fair amount of threads made there and noticed some trends.

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of tension about the direction congregations and the UUA are taking in regards to anti-racism. A small group of people have very clear, complex grievances and take up a lot of the oxygen. However, I do think their perspectives run deeper than one might want to think, though as usual it’s hard to get a sense of what salience it holds for the entirety of active UUs, those that are partially attached to the faith, and those that are curious or new to the church.

There’s an argument to be made that the conflict is simply generational. Issues like white fragility (does it exist, to what extent, is X person or group exhibiting signs of it), support of Black Lives Matter (whether it is integral or a distraction from core UU activity, whatever that may be), and controversies that pop up most noticeably in the UUA leadership and at General Assembly, but are replicated to some extent in local congregations that we don’t tend to hear about.

There are multiple ways to frame this, I choose a ‘Civil Rights Movement’ contrasted with ‘new social movements’ framework. A significant portion of congregants were socialized in the 1960s struggles for racial equality, and maintain a lot of assumptions and expectations that that era had. Since then, well, the landscape has shifted dramatically. Black, Latinx, and ethnic studies, which mostly date from around the Voting Rights Act or the decade after, have engaged in conversation and intensive analysis on racism, both historical and the progress, stagnation, and regression that have defined the last half-century of society. There is a strong thread linking the Birmingham campaign and Black Lives Matter, but they exist in their own time and cannot be transported back and forth. It’s far too complex for that.

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new. But this is all an introduction to my main point.

I’m seeing some long-term UUs adopting language created and used by right-wing or alt-right individuals and groups, and it’s profoundly unhealthy. In the past few months, I’ve seen unironic use of the words “social justice warrior (SJW)”, “postmodernism”, “political correctness”, “identity politics”, and “Critical Race Theory”, among others, used in pejorative ways. While “SJW” is by its nature pejorative (unless you’re someone who’s decided to scoop it out of the mud and wear it proudly, as I often feel like doing), the others are serious academic and intellectual movements that are deeply important to many people, often from marginalized communities. The issue is when this language is taking its content and perspective from illiberal sources. While postmodernism has an august history of being intentionally misinterpreted and belittled by people, it is now most often invoked by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has released a best-selling self-help book and has massive popularity in certain circles. His usage of postmodernism as an insidious conspiracy, tied to Marxist thinking and destructive to “Western society”, has gained currency in certain circles and is spreading through the internet. He’s a frequent guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast, with his episodes gaining over five million YouTube views each, not counting those that listen to it in other forms.

Peterson’s views on postmodernism are nonsense from a philosophical standpoint. But being wrong has never stopped an idea from being dangerous. Peterson is part of a clearly-defined “pipeline to the alt-right“, whereby individuals, who may range from apolitical to conservative to quite liberal, are steadily fed a narrative that blames social problems on “SJWs”, postmodernism, ethnic studies, and social movements. This can take people to incredibly dark places, as an in-depth feature last month in the New York Times titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical” showcased. This process takes months or even years, and starts from very mainstream, innocuous material. Peterson’s self-help 12 Rules for Life has sold over three million copies (at least, the figure is from January), and been translated into fifty different languages.

I’m concerned that UUs can fall into this line of thinking. There is an entire ecosystem created to guide people away from progressive values, if they have grievances about efforts towards combating white supremacy and creating a thoroughly anti-racist church. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have algorithms that shift innocuous searches about “political correctness” or “safe spaces” into hard-right content, by people who have trained to sound persuasive. Figures like Peterson and Dave Rubin even describe themselves as “classical liberals”, though their underlying ideology is reactionary and can turn dangerous.

So, is there a genuine UU-to-right-wing pipeline? Among at least a smattering of people, yes. Given the older tilt of the membership, a lot of discussion occurs in private and semi-private Facebook contexts, so it’s hard to measure. But there are people with long-standing UU roots who are picking up language and ideas from the pipeline, and they spend a great amount of energy spreading their beliefs. Young people, especially young men, are especially targeted by people like Peterson. Young UUs are exposed to a lot other than religious education. What effect is that having?

What can be done? Well, a simplistic attempt to compromise with aggrieved congregants is not a good way forward. Unitarian Universalism exists within a white supremacist society, and I believe Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has helped start a discussion about how progressive members of the faith may have issues with talking and acting in an anti-racist way, in a way that differs from other movements. Moving backward, to an essentially mythical pre-identity politics, pre-BLM church, is not possible, let alone advisable.

  • Understand that good people can get swept up in harmful behaviors. The alt-right pipeline, like white fragility, occur in people who have good intentions and may not feel like they are drifting morally or politically.
  • Recognize that social media is incredibly powerful, and its reach extends far beyond UU spaces. Many UU congregations aren’t on Twitter, or don’t update it. Some don’t even have active Facebook pages, or they are pretty insular, not being designed for outreach and education. YouTube usage by UU congregations is scattershot- some places upload events and sermons, some record but don’t upload, some don’t record or upload. Pretty much everyone knows that UU cultural salience is very low- the spaces where it doesn’t have a presence, something else will be there for people to consume. And it may be profoundly illiberal and inconsistent with UU Principles or theology.
  • Decode. When someone you know talks about “identity politics”, where are their definitions and ideas coming from? Part of the right’s success has been to take academic or liberal language and inject it with a second meaning, which can be poisonous. People can keep the same lexicon, but be drifting to a very different place. It’s important to figure out where people are at. As a social scientist, I always start by defining my terms. It’s reasonable at a congregational meeting, General Assembly, or an online discussion to pause and ask “what does this mean to you? to me? to us?”

Unitarian Universalism is a big tent, riven with contradictions and tension. It’s the price we pay for not stopping people at the door and demanding they follow a script. But it also means divisions can fester, and people can be taken in dark directions. As a millennial, I’ve seen plenty of people get taken down the alt-right pipeline, even fellow activists. There is a need for vigilance. Don’t leave people behind.

Laozi said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. There’s a good chance it’s been used at a service you went to, at least once. But these journeys are not always to self-improvement and enlightenment. There is another side. The only constant is change, but change is value-neutral- it can be light or dark, progressive or regressive.

 

Guest sermon text: “And in society at large.” (9/14/14)

I was asked to give a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto when the parish minister was at the church summer retreat. There was no set topic, so I decided to write about Principle Five of the Seven Principles. Essentially, I ask what Principle Five really asks of us, and argues the need to promote economic democracy, socialism, worker control, whatever you’d like to call it. Given September 14, 2014.

“And in society at large.”
Andrew J. Mackay

Should you have time to do some real, intense, dedicated pondering, the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism is dynamite daydream material. They represent the foundation of a moral philosophy; ourselves, our church, our societies emerge from that foundation. This morning I’m going to take one principle and explore its meaning and potential.

Principle Five recognizes that the community supports “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Those last five words- “and in society at large.” It is not a specific checklist. Rather, it urges us to evaluate the whole interdependent web of existence that we find ourselves a part of. That phrase compels us to dream big. Envision a world nourished by the roots of democratic freedom.

As a sociology student, the definition of society is important. To dive into Principle Five requires us to define our terms. Without clarity of language this journey would be like an astronomer trying to study the planet Saturn without knowing where it is or what it looks like. [pause] The word comes from the Latin socius, which can be translated as “companion” or “ally”. Society binds people together in friendship and trust. Hopefully, it should rest on our humanity and common feeling. Author Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in 2010 “The belief that we are all competing with each other for scarce resources, that life is by nature a zero-sum game, ignores critical truths that rightly deserve the designation of ‘natural law’. Humans are a social species. We are pack animals; we like to be together lots of the time. Some of our greatest joys and oldest cultural practices involve sharing: our homes with a stranger, bread and wine with friends, material goods with our families.” The aspect of our lives where zero-sum thinking dominates, to the detriment of many, is the structure and culture of the economic system.

Large business pursues optimal profits, with much collateral damage. Chemicals spill into the West Virginia water supply, jobs are moved from Ohio and Illinois overseas, retail workers are not given enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits. We are a part of the economy, the reason it exists, yet often we feel helpless and swept up in something beyond our control. This economic power then influences our political democracy. UUs for years have been working against the influence of money on politics, so the danger is well-known. Politicians driven by business interest cash often ignore their constituents. According to an October 2013 poll, Americans held a higher opinion of the DMV, hemorrhoids, and cockroaches than Congress. I am 24 years old and gridlock, both in this state and in Washington, seems natural.

In society at large, everything is interrelated. If one aspect lacks accountability and popular control, it will harm the others. Without addressing core issues, attempts to build a better world will be undermined. There exist many proposed solutions for a more just economy, from the general public and UUs in particular.

Much of today’s activism is built around making large businesses yield to the popular will. Some of you may get email newsletters asking you to sign a petition against Wal-Mart, or Exxon-Mobil. Bad behavior! Environmental waste! Corruption! Send them a message! It is a demand, we want a say, this can’t continue. At this year’s General Assembly, a high-profile resolution was passed, moving to divest from fossil fuel conglomerates. Our UU community aims to use economic power to create a sustainable society. Divestment is often linked with boycotts and sanctions to make corporations and whole states change their ways. California was host to the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, where popular will forced powerful agricultural interests to stop exploiting migrant farm workers. Worldwide action punished South Africa economically for its vile system of apartheid.

This all points to a desire for more democratic control in the American economic system, by workers of a particular business, and the general public who must deal with the fallout of business decisions. Both groups, employees and the communities they live in, must deal with the trauma of outsourcing, cuts to wages and benefits, and disregard for the environment. In a lifetime, the average American will spend 90,000 hours at work, but the typical worker has no say in how her company is run. Unions increase worker power, but their scope is limited, and less than 7% of private sector workers belong to one. The public company is run by a small board of directors and a small set of principal shareholders, who often are the same people. The UUA is part of an interfaith group that buys shares in companies to create pressure for reform. Such efforts can only go so far- corporate stock gives disproportionate power to holders of special types of shares. And the reality is that promoting economic justice may mean cutting profits and endangering stock price. Working within the system where profits are expected to increase indefinitely means calls for justice may go unheard.

The world of privately-held companies lack any internal accountability. In the US, the largest private companies have $1.8 trillion in annual revenue and employ 6.2 million people. Their work can be damaging to humans and the environment. The two largest private companies in the country are Cargill, which sells palm oil and soybeans from areas that used to be rainforest, and the petroleum multinational Koch Industries.

Not to despair. The world of today has never been inevitable. There is a place for the democratic process in the economy. Some existing businesses show a different way of doing business. There are cooperatives all around us, where workers and consumers get a say. Credit unions in America serve 44% of the economically-active population. They are community not-for-profit organizations, where account holders are the owners and elect their leadership. To have a say in a large banking chain, you need to purchase quite a lot of stock. You are not a part-owner of Wells Fargo or Bank of America just because you opened up a checking account. You are not consulted on their business decisions. Credit unions and other cooperatives are owned and run by the community, and their decisions by nature factor in the human element. The Manhattan board of a large bank doesn’t have to consider the effect of foreclosures or high interest loans on a small community. A local credit union does; the leadership and ownership live in the community, and must personally deal with the fallout of destructive policy.

In the past year I’ve learned of an idea created by credit unions that shows the value of a democratic, community-run mindset. Several states now allow a contest called save-to-win. Most states have a lottery, with big prizes and lots of advertising. Lotteries are played by the poorest Americans, and few ever win. It is in some sense a poverty tax, where people are exploited by their hope for a better life. Save-to-win is simple: for every $25 put into a savings account, you get a raffle ticket for a drawing at the end of the week, or month, or year. It has created the excitement of a regular lottery, while increasing the savings of poor Americans. People are excited and motivated to save for their future. Credit unions have created a lottery where you can’t lose. This is a part of a society of companions and allies. There is more than the zero-sum, everyone can win and thrive.

Cooperatives go beyond the local credit union or organic food mart. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is a diverse organization with many cooperatives, divided into finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. They employ 74,000 people, and by company rule, no person can make more than 8 1/2 times the lowest-paid worker. In a country still devastated by the credit bubble, Mondragon has stayed strong.

The economist Richard Wolff, who you may have spotted on Moyers and Company or Charlie Rose, has crafted an initiative called “Democracy at Work”, where businesses can be created that are self-directed by workers. A few years ago I saw him speak in Berkeley, and his words were invigorating. The framework for democracy in the economy, that largest component of “society at large” exists. There are realistic solutions. It is a matter of will.

If companies were run by the workers, would their jobs and factories would have all been moved overseas? Or would they have taken initiative, and made the enterprise work here, whatever it took? Would a worker-run factory pollute the groundwater, when the leadership would have to come home and drink it? When we send petitions, or move our money, or boycott a company, we are demanding accountability. The best way to make the economy accountable to the people is to make the people accountable for the economy.

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus finds the Temple of Jerusalem filled with money-changers and vendors. The money-changers were turning the currency of poor pilgrims into a special temple scrip, at a large markup. This system still haunts us today, though instead of temple cash it is called Disney Dollars, and the pilgrims have been replaced with sunburned tourists. Jesus is furious of this exploitation. He flips the tables over and drives the lot out with a lash. As they leave, he shouts “It is written . .  ‘My house will be called a house of prayer . . . but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ It is rare that we see Christ in such a fiery temper. Something about the operation of the Temple made him livid. He did not admonish the money-changers, and he certainly did not simply forgive their misdeeds. He flipped a table. A popular meme three years ago had a painting of the scene with the caption “The First Occupy Wall Street.”

The scene shows the importance of sacred places and sacred institutions. The Temple is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and it was being sullied by profiteering. Perhaps some things should be above profit. Our political democracy today is built upon profit, as special interest cash creates a skewed set of priorities for elected officials. We have our own secular temples, that we cherish and treat with special care, and perhaps the moneyed interests need to be driven from those places too. The best way to achieve democracy, a deep and encompassing democracy, is to change the way money is spent and businesses are run.

The 17th of September will mark the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. If nothing else, the movement sought to link the economic power of the 1% with its political power and influence. The question of why Congress is less popular than cockroaches has a complicated answer, but money has certainly steered it to this point. When myself and fellow members of Occupy San Jose handed out flyers on how to join a credit union, and picketed banks, and along with local non-profits encouraged churches and small businesses to divest from large banks who were foreclosing on houses in their community, we had an idea that there may exist a better way of doing things. Perhaps there is a place for democracy in society at large.

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.

 

From a college UU: value people, not brands

Yesterday in the weekly meeting for Unitarian Universalist students on campus, our service leader gave us definitions of “personal brand.” The discussion was interesting, but I felt nobody delved into how much conflict exists between the concept of a “personal brand” and a UU worldview. Since there wasn’t a good opportunity to explore my feelings then, I’m writing a response now.

Personal branding is emphasized in business circles, particularly among entrepreneurs. Just like with a traditional brand, participants attempt to broadcast a positive portrait of themselves, that uses whatever skills and resources they have. The idea, in theory, is to have a unique profile that makes you special.

Advocates of this process say that everything you do contributes to personal brand- education, work, choices regarding romance and children. One definition says that you need to define what you really find important.

But here’s the short-circuit. One thing you can value is not being bound by business concepts like brands. Thinking of people as brands is profoundly dehumanizing, and conflates personal identity with capitalist practice. Personal identity is broken up into quantifiable traits, because brands have no need for intangibles. “Value” is given a crass, narrow definition. Emphasis on personal branding- where everything, not just work-related, is crucial- fundamentally clashes with a spiritually fulfilling life. American capitalism is many things, but it is not a very spiritual realm.

It is depressing to read my life trajectory described in five-dollar word business speak. To bring up personal branding is important- I think UU young adult groups should discuss it since it’s ever-present in the adult world- but not with a starting assumption that it’s a positive thing. That needs to be proven. Forbes is not the arbiter of what principles we should hold.

Uniqueness is an empowering trait, but the flip side should be considered. Thinking in terms of brands atomizes people- existing in tension with the collective. Collective experience, religious, social, and economic, is essential to existence. When we are together, concepts like equality and dignity have meaning. For me, Unitarian Universalist spaces allow refuge from a world where nearly everything has adopted a corporate mindset. The campus that we had this meeting on is in crisis because the administration has become more like corporate executives and less like public servants.

What I ask here is to think about identity, and then personal branding. To you, are they similar, or not? What unites or separates the two?