Scrap notes

My religious community seems to be replaying an experience from the mid 20thcentury by committing a great deal of time and money to eradicating white supremacy in our culture. My life nowadays does not permit me to read all the commentary, so these words cannot be considered anything more than stray responses to what little I’ve had time to read. What I can authentically say is how I feel about what is happening.

  • My heart goes out to the three women mounting legitimate campaigns for our presidency. The precipitate resignation of our most recent elected president, and installation of an interim triumvirate, raises questions about the transition back to what the bylaws established. It looks like we could wind up with a “shadow cabinet” with whom it will be sensitive to disagree. 
  • On the other hand, as far as concerns go about the money, that’s a common complaint when it comes to redress for systemic racial injustice. Forty years after the original Black Empowerment controversy (which did contribute to financial pressures, but only in conjunction with many other things from that era) I am more aware of what my Relatives of Color (ROCs) suffered through years of living in exactly the same institutions that felt so congenial to me. While our shared family culture drew them into these milieus, the stares, and worse, somewhat pushed them out. I have had Black UU friends, and in private conversation, they honored me with how lonely our religion often felt, how careful they felt they needed to be, to “tone it down,” to “not come across as too Black.” If this pain is still how it feels, which appears to be the case, then what should we not spend? If someone in your family has deep pain, do you really begrudge them the money?
  • I am not scared of losing the UU culture of white supremacy, but I do fear losing  the pastoral haven of religious community.  Part of my current self-definition involves being less affluent within a fairly affluent family. Yes, I made my choices, but it still hurts to not be able to capitalize on the low airfares to Europe, to read all my friends’ travel posts on FB and know that will never be me. Economic reports suggest that this is an area where POCIs can feel my pain — even remind us that their legendary family and community cohesion sprang heavily from practical considerations born of poverty– but I worry they will only remind me I’ve already had more luxury than most POCIs can ever hope for.
  • Having been through this before, I worry our religious community lacks the inner strength to succeed this time. I wonder how much we blamed the empowerment efforts for consequences of mistakes we made ourselves and never fully, courageously examined. So what are our other activities now, and will they really do us true good? I hate Policy Governance for many reasons, but in my home congregation, it doesn’t seem to shut down communication.  The denominational level might seem different, but as someone who wants to bring back the National Conference model, I don’t care which part of the Boston power-club holds the reins. Both branches hold the reins too tight, which could well strangle ourvcollective inner health. So I hope it will not become impossible for us white folks to raise institutional concerns, so long as the dialogue maintains space for racism implications.

These are personal views, not prescriptions. Today is my 63rd birthday, which ought to give me some license to look backwards, sidewards, inwards, and around. 

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Distinguishing Among Different Kinds of Safe Harbor in a Refugee Crisis

This weekend many of my clergy colleagues have given their time, money, and personal comfort to demonstrate against oppression of immigrants in this country without legal authorization. Part of what confuses the public conversation about what to do is that there are various types of what are called “push” situations, meaning there needs to be more than one avenue for response. 

What does not work is to lump everyone who gets here “by any means possible” into a single Emma Lazarus grand category. Such idealization — not even blurry thinking, but irrational emotionalism– overthrows not only our own nation’s immigration laws, but established international norms for shifting populations. The international community itself has overthrown these norms, by allowing what began as one kind of operation to morph into the other without any positive decision to make the change, but discussions always begin with a reclarification of the benchmarks.

The two different categories of welcome are “resettlement country” — where people are free to build homes and pursue citizenship — and “first asylum countries” — where people are kept safe until whatever crisis drove them out gets resolved. Part of the problem facing the United States at this time is that Mexico, the logical country of first asylum for the Honduran refugee children, has set up a system for effectively funneling them north to the US. There’s a long list of reasons why nations dislike providing first asylum, the most important of which can be seen in the Middle East, where Palestinians have been living in so-called refugee camps since 1948. Without distant nations volunteering to resettle refugees out of camps in first asylum nations, the only other recourses are imprisonment or repatriation. Involuntary repatriation is not allowed under international norms and United Nations standards for countries for whom it provides refugee assistance.

Politywonk has no particular theory on how to solve the problem of the Honduran refugee children. However, the depths of my resume reveals a year spent working in a program whose whole purpose was to separate legitimate refugees from economic migrants, with the commitment to find everyone some kind of home in a country which had agreed to resettle a certain number of these refugees. Yes, some of them were economic migrants, and they went to the back of every line.

The American Dream traditionally has had two components: personal safety and personal opportunity. Immigration law doesn’t see it that way. It is my belief that the first step in calming the  current hysteria is to set up such a system for this crisis. We need a first asylum program for legitimate refugees — people with well-founded fear for their lives in the place where they have spent their lives thus far — which treats them differently from economic migrants. And for economic migrants, regular immigration law continues to apply. Making these distinctions would anger the most vocal observers on both sides of the issue by thwarting a lot of family reunification dreams among folks not here with legal authorization. Yet for those with genuine needs for personal protection — including some for whom family reunification would be an outcome — this system will indeed save their lives.

Idealism represents the polar opposite to categorical hatred. Neither of them is a good guild to public policy. And given that lives are really at stake, Politywonk respectfully submits that considering international legal norms can help even our nation get its house back in order.

Cautious about “First Principle Euphoria”

For weeks, if not months, my historian’s heart and mind have been nervous, conflicted, about the various “Standing on the Side of Love” campaigns teeming through my denomination, Unitarian Universalism. It has taken quite a while to sort it all out. Welcoming the refugee children and reopening the books on people who have been unjustly incarcerated (and are still alive) both feel right. They follow long-established policy statements by our General Assemblies, and more and more take shape as work done by dedicated members of our faith community. Indeed, although my current life doesn’t support such offerings, it gratifies me to state that back when I had the chance, I did indeed work in a refugee camp, identifying and assisting victims of bitter war.

So what’s the problem? For a long time, I could not tell. It took the return of an old PBS program, a Secrets of the Dead about Irish railway workers, to finally finish the puzzle. The most idealistic form of patriotic Universalism deludes us into wishful thinking if we turn our backs on the harsh truth of immigration history. Sure, the Statue of Liberty called on us to open our doors and shores. But a more callous, a more vicious thread of the American Dream — what might be called The American Scheme — saw such infusions of enthusiasm differently. If the American Dream says anyone can work hard and make a good living here, if not for themselves then for their children and grandchildren, the American Scheme says that an entrenched elite can weave itself into a secretive network of social institutions by which all this enthusiasm can be exploited, sucked dry, discarded. From this enthusiasm the most talented will be plucked for a different kind of exploitation. By appearing to have succeeded by their own efforts, they will renew the social networks of power, giving false hope to some group which had begun to understand the slight dimensions of its chances for collective stability.

As to the opening of the prisons, need I mention the disaster which was the closing of mental institutions in the early 1970s? “Community treatment” it was called. “Community neglect” is more likely. Might I remind us that many of these unjustly incarcerated are exactly the same individuals, or survivors with exactly the same neurological issues, that we refused to support before? I look at cities installing those anti-homeless spikes on benches and grates, and suddenly prison looks like a better alternative for many.

So what’s a good liberal to do? People are dying in place, struggling to find safety and freedom; we hardly can turn our backs on brutal bloodshed. And our troubles — what we derisively call “First World Problems” — truly do pale next to theirs. Surely we can adapt our lives to come up with some greater generosity?

Well, maybe not. Unitarian Universalists need to take a second look at our First Principle. My attention has lately shifted to the second part of its affirmation of everyone’s “inherent worth and dignity.”

How do we affirm and establish everyone’s God-given dignity in the current world of shrinking resources? Politywonk — and I bet this is pretty common in my faith family — spends a lot of time studying the news and hissing at screens bearing bad news. Then I turn my attention to the quest for structural reforms at macro levels. Single Payer Universal Access Health Insurance. A higher national minimum wage. Access to family planning for all families everywhere. When it comes to covenants, my focus makes a huge jump: covenant is for family and congregation; the next level is universal civic religion.

But now that I’m old — sixty, which is, you have to admit, more old than young — reality advises that intermediate covenants are what supports life’s frail intervals. Neighborhood and congregation caring for others, not just in the abstract, but at the ready, over and over, the same faces, the same voices, the same stories, over and over and over. This takes my mind back to the refugee program at the end of the Indochinese war. By sending an advance guard of “pre-screeners” — of which I was one — and finding out who everyone was (and verifying with endless hours of document-sharing by means of modern electronics) and where they had a reason to settle successfully, the international community achieved what might have been the most successful relocation program in history. Yet when President Obama suggested this a few weeks ago — “let’s go down to Honduras and sort people out” — he was hooted off the stage.

The key to that program’s success was not bureaucracy, it was covenant. No one got released for resettlement until someone at the destination had agreed to provide shelter, financial support, educational and job mentoring for each applicant, one by one. Congregations and social welfare agencies mingled with families in making and fulfilling these commitments. Neither federal bureaucracy nor civic religion — both ultimately impersonal and depersonalizing — has ever accomplished what these highly partialist (the opposite of universalist, meaning, “only part is saved”)  structures achieved with particular commitments. (For what it’s worth, the same held true of organized labor — which is why it ultimately failed. Its success lay in nurturing certain ethnic and family networks; it failed when those same groups — wrongly, as it turns out — believed they no longer needed its power against impermeable secret networks of exploitation.)

For several years now, I’ve watched our yellow-tee-shirt brigades pop up in place after place, hoping always to discern not just a fireworks of caring but a network of mentoring and nurture. Maybe it’s happening. But there’s a painful moment — which I’m going through now — of grieving that idealistic universalism and exposing my heart to all the aches and pains of personal relationships. It’s so much more fun to demonstrate, and there’s always another outrage. But how many folks in need will watch my car drive past them as I head for that next media event? Maybe it’s time to remember the starfish story and hold up these little beachheads as the real places where our yellow teeshirts can build a better world.

“Church History” and Trayvon Martin

The day just closed marked the anniversary of Reverend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invited address to a small collection of students, recent alumni (Theodore Parker), and community members (including Elizabeth Peabody) at what was then known as the Theological School at Cambridge. The Divinity School Address, (DSA) as it is now known, has been called the foundational document of Transcendentalism, not so much a shot across the bow as into the powder magazine of the nascent congregational Unitarianism struggling mightily to hang onto respectability, power, and cultural relevance in a fast-changing world.

Today on Facebook, one scholar chose to highlight a theme which comes up many places in Emerson, that is, the primacy of instinctive religion over received religion. I am currently reading Self Reliance, where, if anything, church history takes a much more sustained hit than anything Emerson says in the DSA. But when I put down my Emerson to take in several hours of MSNBC commentary on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, church history jumped out from every word.

I agree with Emerson, this is no time for quarreling over whose congregation was established first and whether or not so-and-so was ordained by such-and-such a congregation or by some other. But this IS a time for remembering the very church history made by Emerson and his allies of many faiths in reacting to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. For I heard commentators tonight, speaking about New York City’s stop and frisk policy, as well as about the acquittal (not exonoration) of a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante. For me it all came together in this video, when Joy Reid and Rev. Al Sharpton explained that this says to African Americans  that any white person, civilian or official, can challenge the presence and conduct of any black person — child, youth, adult, senior, anyone — for any reason.

These are the words of the Fugitive Slave Law, that is, to empower every white person to put every black person in the place that white person considers to be that black person’s place. The law’s intent was to institutionalize every African American in slavery, or scare them out of the country (it spurred a HUGE increase in flights to Canada via Underground Railroad). Today there is no slavery to send them back to, but perhaps our penal system has taken over that function.

And when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, states like mine (Vermont) moved immediately and officially to disqualify our officials from taking part in it. This little-remembered fact led the South to abandon — until now — its push for a strong central authority supporting slavery, moving back to states’ rights as the fallback. (This explains why liberal religion needs to focus is social justice not at national television cameras, but at state legislatures.)  A Vermont lawyer in Missouri helped a family who had been living as free people despite official slave status to appeal this law. It was the Dred Scott Decision which took the question of citizenship out of the hands of states and federalized it, by declaring that Africans had no right to citizenship, no matter what state they inhabited and whether or not they were free.

And here is where church history — not omitting Rev. Emerson’s own works — becomes relevant. Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and other liberal religious stood up against this pervasive persecution  to say we would not participate. Moreover, as Caucasian religious organizations, we would do everything in our power to protect African-heritage individuals from every form of second class citizenship, beginning with this omnipresent fear of persecution and endangerment.

I’ve been wrestling for over a year with the Transcendentalist conviction, which Emerson states in Self Reliance, that a person should not be distracted from the work to which they are called by anything, not even pleas from philanthropies, charities, and neighbors with whom we have no other exchanges. Does this mean we UUs ought to limit our commitment to social justice? By this definition, Emerson’s life contradicts his writings. But tonight what it means to me is that since I have brother and sister Americans who feel, in effect, that the Fugitive Slave Law is still in effect, then as an American, this is my genius, this is my locality, this is a neighbor with whom I have business. If we have to retool our focus to state-to-state emphasis, in order to counter the current strategies of oppression, that does not mean we are pulling back, but moving forward.

I Know It When I See It

It’s 9:15 a.m. on the East Coast of the USA. While drinking my morning tea, as always, I caught up on the day’s headlines. All the news today all over the world stems from pretty much the same issue: cyber-bullying. And the front page of the http://www.NYTimes.com shows that I’m not the only one who thinks so: various articles explore the limits — once again –of freedom of speech. Personally, I still think Justice Holmes had it right so long ago. That’s because the mother of a friend of mine was a survivor of a real fire in a crowded theater — and 135 other people were not:

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Unregulated speech on the internet seems to be getting people killed. But no one wants to shut down the Free Market of Ideas.

My first thought is, let’s look at the dynamics of speech. It seems so simple to identify legally protected hate speech, the kind that  expresses a personal opinion.  And everybody feels hatred — it’s part of the inner mix.  If you think you’re against racism, take a look at the memes you’re sharing about The Tea Party and GOP. You think you’re among friends.

Are  you egging each other on?

 

Do you really know everyone who’s reading and sharing your post?

And what about when you express your contempt in such a way. and in such a forum, that reasonable minds might anticipate someone with less social discretion and personal self-control than yourself will see it and respond with explosive vengeance?

Would it matter if they believed they were acting in self-defense?

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Not hard to be against.

But what is it?

I asked my dictionary and thesaurus.

Is it poking?

Here are two kinds of poking.

The physical action is exactly the same.

Should we ignore the race and gender of the people involved?

If race was the first thing you noticed, the answer is no.

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Are the intentions the same?

How can you tell?

Do the likely outcomes matter?

If you can guess what they are, the answer is yes.

But really, in most cases, how CAN you guess the likely outcome?

Here is a summary of some other explorations of poking, using Poking on Facebook as a focus device.

Did You Just Poke Me?

And here’s an interesting caution about overreacting to a poke.

Poking Someone on Facebook Can Land You in Jail

And what about third-party placements that deny they intend to poke someone?

One sympathizes with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she and Prince William sue to stop unauthorized photos of a private unclothed moment going public. But really, is this not somewhat trivial, in a world that’s on fire for other reasons?

What if she’s a four-year old girl whose photo has been lifted from a Facebook birthday party shot — and now has been redone for people who like to masturbate using pictures of very small children to get themselves off?

Why do these publishers really think people want to buy bare-breasted pictures of a woman famous for her public dignity? Do you think it’s any different from these folks buying baby nudes for hundreds of dollars and putting them out there?

I’m not posting photos for this group of questions, but if you want to, I’m sure you can easily find them.

Again with Facebook, one of my favorite ways of staying in touch with people.

Facebook Is Filled with Third Party Aps.

And apparently now you also have to specify to Facebook that you don’t want it to share your “Likes” of products or services in advertising you might not be aware of.

Admittedly, this is pesky rather than dangerous. I get annoyed when I have to delete posts telling me who shopped where over the weekend. 

But is it only a nuisance? Since Facebook started using unauthorized third party “likes,” I have started instinctively wondering, when I see a “like” from other people, whether they really hit a button to recommend this product. Part of me worries that a moment of exuberance on their timeline just got raided.

The integrity of their name has been diluted, even with someone like me, who checks in with them several times daily.

Would it be unreasonable to guess that cutting into the value of what someone says to their friends would make them mad?

Which brings me back to my primary question:

What is the difference between playful pokes (some people say there’s no such thing) and the taunting, goading speech and gestures whose easily-anticipated outcome is violence by the recipient against the party they blame for jabbing them?

And if your only reason to feel safe from a violent response is that you believe this target to be too physically far away, or highly restrained in their character and actions, have you done anything different from taunting, goading, poking other folks with known propensities to violence?

Isn’t this why the Israeli right insists on a massive military response to every threat of violence to their homeland: so no one will ever again mistake the Jews for people who will let themselves be victims?

If so, this suggests that all of us ought to be willing to sometimes respond to goads and taunts not with pacifism, but with violence.

The other alternatives are, setting and enforcing regulations on all forms of free speech — or accepting that the nicest folks will always be the ones who get attacked.

Why Both Sides Need to Read the Whole Article

My leftwing Facebook friends and quite a few mainstream news media are blasting Paul Ryan for reciting, yet again, what lefties consider to be a lie: that GM closed its plant in Janesville, WI, during the Obama administration. But if everyone would just sit down for a minute and do a little research, the public record shows that both sides are telling emotional truth. Janesville has had a long, tough journey. That means some folks took a big hit under GOP leaders, some fell during Democrat administrations. So let’s take a look at the public record, which clearly shows that while finger-pointing might respond to “what happened when,”  it goes nowhere if we change the question to “why?”

So, in defense of Ryan’s memory and his superficial staffer, here is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline that landed on doorsteps in June 2009:

http://www.jsonline.com/business/49114047.html

Reports: Janesville loses GM plant

Michigan will get small-car line

By Joe Taschler and Joel Dresang of the Journal Sentinel
June 25, 2009

If — as I assume — Representative Ryan’s staffer was scrolling through the Journal Sentinel archives to find the date for an event emblazoned in the mind of  every family in that small town– something which the congressman rightly says ended the career vision of people he knew from high school, of neighbors he sees every day — yes, indeed, fellow lefties, this headline confirms that the final nail went in the coffin after Barack Obama had settled into the White House. That’s okay for harried staffers (I used to work in DC, I know that feeling!), but it really disgraces the co-called “political fact-checkers.”

Because look what the article actually says: Would everyone please shut up for a minute and read this:

“General Motors will announce Friday that a new small-car manufacturing line is to be located in Michigan and not at the company’s shuttered Janesville plant, according to news reports.

“If the news is accurate, it is disappointing beyond belief,” said Tim Cullen, a retired state legislator who is co-chairman of a state task force appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to save the Janesville plant.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News, citing anonymous sources familiar with the decision-making process, reported Thursday that a plant in Orion, Mich., would get the new subcompact car line.

Wisconsin officials said they had not been informed of the decision.

If true, the decision would be one of the final blows to Wisconsin’s identity as an automobile manufacturing state. Hundreds of Chrysler workers in Kenosha are awaiting word about whether Fiat, the new owner of Chrysler, will keep the engine plant open in that city.

About 1,500 jobs are at stake in Janesville.”

So the plant was already closed when that headline punched Janesville in the gut. When did that happen?

Here’s a report about the impact of the 2008 closing, effective two days before Christmas 2008.

Ripple effect felt in closing of GM’s Janesville plant

Rick Wood

“The closure may ultimately end up costing Rock County nearly 9,000 jobs, according to estimates compiled by Steve Deller, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Using a multiplier effect, Deller says almost every sector in the county may suffer some job losses, everything from construction to real estate to retail to health services.

“GM has been slowly but surely winding down,” Deller says. “But the timing is horrendous.”

The plant is ceasing production in the teeth of what may be the country’s most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. It also comes as the Big Three automakers – GM, Ford and Chrysler – are fighting for their survival.

“GM was the town, not so long ago,” says Bob Clapper, president of Fagan Chevrolet-Cadillac. “If you didn’t work there, you were related to someone who did.”

Clapper’s dealership tells a story of the town. One year in the late 1990s, he recalls, his firm sold 2,000 new vehicles, with around a third of them going to GM employees. This year, he says, he sold 800 new vehicles through October, with around 20% going to GM employees.

“We’re watching every expense,” he says. “We cut our advertising. We’ve cut our inventory. We’ll probably have a few less employees. Not a lot, a couple.”

At Zoxx 411 Club – a bar located in the shadow of the factory – they’ve served GM workers for decades, once employing four bartenders during workday lunch hours. Now, they’re down to two bartenders daily. As the GM work force has declined, the bar has sought to lure new business with dart leagues and big-screen televisions.

“We’re going to recover from this,” says Andy Sigwell, 40, the third generation in his family to operate the bar. “It might take 10 years, but we’ll recover.”

“In Janesville, workers and their families are trying to cope as best they can, bracing for the day they know will come, the ending of GM production…

“…Patricia Torner, 46, a pipe fitter at the Janesville plant, is keeping her options open. In many ways, the fate of Janesville is tied to people like Torner, who is divorced and raising her 10-year-old granddaughter.

With 22 years in at GM, she’ll take a job transfer to another plant, if she can get it. If not, she’ll attend college, trying to fast-track 56 credit hours she’ll need toward an undergraduate degree in psychology and social work.

If Torner leaves, her chiropractor will be down one patient, her hair dresser will miss one client, the veterinarian who takes care of her two dogs will suffer a loss. And, of course, Janesville schools will be losing one more pupil, Torner’s granddaughter.

Last month, she took her granddaughter on a tour of the plant, in what was dubbed Heritage Days, a last chance for the general public to see the assembly line in operation.

“As we’re riding around the plant, I’m waving to people I know and I thought, this is it, this is truly it,” Torner says. “It brought me to tears. I realized at that moment, we’re done.”

This fact-check took less than 2 clocked minutes. The blog post has taken fewer than thirty. But figuring out what to do next — now that’s gonna be the hard part.

And as the GOP likes to say, we’ll all do better if we start at the same starting line. As the Democrats like to say, that line is made of facts.