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. 

Arian Evangelists? How Did I Not Know This? Does Everyone Else Have This in Hand?

Perhaps it is inevitable that a historian who immerses herself in marriage will succumb to the attractions of genealogy. How much better when matters genealogical start intersecting with my ongoing recreational scholarly deep dive, which has made its way back to medieval English history. But X marked a surprising spot: not in England, but Germanic sources on the continent. Yes, most of my forebears were German, but, more amazingly, so is my religion: England was just a byway. Unitarianism came from Arianism, and it did so because the Arians sent evangelists into the Gothic and Vandal tribes who sacked Rome. Others of these evangelists found fertile ground with Constantine, the Eastern Roman Emperor, and among the Slavs who became so many of his subjects.

So much of what Harvard taught me about Unitarian history thus proves wrong. It was not primarily a religion for Western Europe’s educated classes, leaping to brilliant rejections of Roman Catholic superstition — rather, it was a superstition of its own. People learned it from others –way back in the fading years of the Roman Empire — and passed it on the same way. It survived in places to which it was driven, from whence it emerged when able. It became the language of educated English middle classes, so far as I can tell, because that’s who conducted the wool trade by which it finally crossed the English Channel. In England, I’m guessing, it settled in as a working class religion because the fabric trade engendered an industrial enclave.

I can’t help noticing the importance of this discovery to the current political plight of progressive politics. The Unitarian disdain for evangelism is best summed up in the old saw about the Beacon Bill newcomer who admired the hat of a grande dame. Where, inquired the newcomer, had the resident bought her hat? “We do not buy hats,” sniffed the matron, “We have hats.” So it is with our beliefs: if you have to ask how and where to get them, perhaps you will not fit in among us. Maybe that explains the self-conversion culture of the Unitarian Universalism of my youth and young adult years. More importantly, perhaps this explains why we do not trouble ourselves with all those lesser down-ballot and off-year elections by which the evangelism-driven conservatives have tied us up in knots. To knock on doors and introduce yourself to neighbors, to step down from the pedestal of international world peace and talk about fixing sidewalks — it turns out these are things our Arian forebears would have done — and did — which is why we have our Unitarian religion today.

II always wondered how the theories of an aged bishop in North Africa landed in North America 13 centuries later and blossomed into this imperfect but aspirational democracy. What happened in between? Was this some weird religious locust, emerging only when the climate allowed, even after so much time had passed? Historians debate two models: continuous and discontinuous. I’ve done enough gardening, tended enough children, done enough genealogy and genograms, to believe there is no such thing as radical discontinuity.So my religious roots appear to be more natural, less rebellious than my adolescent ego ever suspected. Not only does this apply to me, but to my religion itself.

 

 

 

 

Has Oscar Handlin’s Moment Finally Come?

When Harvard scholar Oscar Handlin published, in 1951, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People, his book won the usual praise and criticism. Unlike so many other academic headliners, though, it also won the Pulitzer Prize and repeated reissues, most recently, in 2002, by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I used to occasionally see Professor Handlin, than an emeritus who had the private study next to the emeritus for whom I happily researched. It is remarkable how little these men in their 80s could be recognized as lions of cultural commentary. Yet Handlin’s book might be more relevant today than it was in 1951. He argued that generations of alienation followed most large waves of immigration, but critics of his era rightly pointed out that the prosperity and cultural integration occasioned by World War II vitiated this problem. But now, with that prosperity and cultural integration decisively in decline, Handlin’s analysis stands up to the current spotlight: recent immigrants, from different countries and to countries other than ours, hold up well to his descriptions.

Recently I purchased this book for a close re-reading. What hit me most immediately was the poetic, almost cinematic, flow of words with which Handlin seduces as much as he persuades. Most of his evocations describe sepia-colored museum displays of Eastern European pastoral cultures that have mostly vanished from the memories of the living and do not resemble the lands vomiting forth new refugees. But his core analysis remains a solidly welded iron framework on which new surface materials easily graft.

Handlin says this:

Immigrants left behind a cohesive and interwoven, almost magically immersive, culture, and thrust themselves into a social environment where nothing was what it appeared to be. Nor. in the new realm, do verbal descriptions and prescriptions set out clear paths to success. This instills loneliness, but also confusion. Against both these sorrows, ancestral religion counterposes connection, security, and order.

Hold that thought for a moment, because I contend that it marks the place where the alienation of the nativist — the person who insists that being born in a country ought, in itself, to count for something — meets the social and religious desperation of the immigrant. Handlin’s point about religion’s tangibility closely match the psychological experience of economically marginalized nativist fundamentalists. Marine LePen has more in common with the Islamists than she has with satirists and scientists. In the Cincinnati of my young adulthood, the widespread registration of African American voters horrified the LGBT community by electing a preacher who had no doubt that all of us were going to burn in hell. Being a member of the liberal clergy, this pairing bothers me. Some of my sympathy is with those who advocate the equality of faith and reason, even as my reason and faith unite to protest either reason or faith, when they call for the death, the inequality, the marginalization of other people.

But that’s my personal quandary. What Handlin offers the present situation, with an urgency unknown since the 1920s and 1930s, is how the immigration experience — even when it succeeds economically — continues as a trauma for the second generation. Young people always want to know where they came from. They want their parents to have stature. So the second generation of immigrants, seeing the belittlement of their parents, look to the old world with some hope that going back would restore the family’s grandeur. Handlin eloquently, poignantly, describes this exploration as an unfolding of disillusionment. The photos show buildings, farms, families, even clothing and cars, that cannot compare to what the second generation now understands as home.

Here’s where Handlin jumped off the page at me:

He contends that in these circumstances, it is the second generation that works hardest to reinforce the religious or cultural heritage that proved transportable, transplantable. It is all they have left of their family stature, their elder-wisdom. And if the new country gives them no additional forms of stature, of wisdom, their need for this vestigial wealth grows all the more desperate. If they cannot make it work in their new country, and the homeland looks fluid, undefended, perhaps they can restore its old order in their time.

So now, let’s think again about these alienated Muslim young people. Their old countries are not just dirtier, less free, anarchically governed — things that might lead them to cut those ties — but most visibly, these nations have been invaded. Bombed. Despoiled by greedy outsiders. Given the comforts many of these countries enjoyed in recent memory, how easy for an unsettled young adult to blame the foreign bombers, the foreign corporations, rather than the domestic elites who invited in the plunderers and bartered the national abundance to put themselves in the global rich. There’s a movie that shows this process in action, but a young adult who hears western politicians sneer at his parents, who must remove her religious clothing under government edict, probably has no heart for damning information about people who look, who worship like her. She or he wants revenge against those who destroyed the only option that now seems most attractive: a return to the land of one’s grandparents, to relax into that magical, unified cosmos.

Perhaps this will sound like an apology for terrorism. That’s the last thing I intend. But as a religious woman, I sympathize with sisters not allowed to wear religious clothing in public. As a person with family ties to places despoiled by war (Germany, Poland, China), I know what it is to yearn for landmarks that no longer stand.

The iconoclasts of Charlie Hebdo did not deserve to die for their indiscriminate anti-religiosity. But neither do the women and men and children of the new Muslim diaspora deserve to disappear behind a haze of bullets and bombs cast by the worst members of their own communities. My own faith is Unitarian Universalism, which calls on me, today, in pain and anger, to remember the dignity and soul of people rendered marginal by outrage among their own.

How to make Evil Banal (Slavery and Freedom Summer, too)

Inadvertently this blog has stumbled into a little series on the function of covenant in the endless war between banality of evil and civic courage. Given that a few of us are attending to the centenary of the first engagements of what became known as The Great War, and subsequently as The First World War, it’s not a bad idea. One historian the other day asserted that the whole thing had been one big conflict, with an extended cease fire between the two major conflagrations. Does Albert Camus explain the Roaring Twenties? It looks to me like we’re probably heading into another such half century, or might already have entered into it. Not sure what the cease fires were, but they sure look to be over.

So, back to the banality of evil in its war with civic courage. Yesterday’s “Fresh Air” gave a fuller expansion to reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s expose of kidnapping for ransom as the bankroll process for terrorism. Where to start with all the ways this resonates with headlines and history stories! But when seen through the lens of making evil banal, the fit simplifies — and terrifies. For what she describes matches almost perfectly the description of Nazism’s rise to power in Weimar Germany, and Mussolini’s in Italy.

First came the thugs, who attacked brutally and publicly. Then came the ideologues, who justified the brutality with simplifying statements of how the violence fit into social possibilities for those who supported Nazism. Exploiting and manipulating free speech in a too-liberal democracy, this combination which drew out and suppressed all political and cultural opposition, by veiling with thin persuasion what it aroused with manipulative rhetoric.

Cultural opponents fell into two groups: those with different lifestyles and those with different ethnicities. Political intimidation of persons with different lifestyles, including the well-known round up of homosexuals, coincided with early round-ups of political opponents. So if rhetorical persuasion wasn’t doing the job, maybe our prisons will. These folks –many of them labor leaders and followers — suffered imprisonments that were long enough to suck out their civic courage, but short enough to allow them back into society. Here they spread the well-known phrase, “resistance is futile.”

But their releases spread something else: false data for folks who wished to deceive themselves that the Jews, Roma, and later political opponents would also be held, subdued and released. It was the perfect complement to thugs in the streets: “This party is just doing what every government does: discouraging its enemies and rewarding its supporters. Learn your lesson and you’ll be fine.”

This is where the notorious Al Quaeda expense accounts come into it. When an organization shifts its invitation to supporters from participating in face-to-face violence to simply doing an office job, Adolph Eichmanns result. I do not doubt that for those who would like to engage in personal terrorizing, Al Quaeda still has opportunities, but for those too dainty for such work, it now has a second path to social stature. There was a point in Terry Gross’s interview yesterday when Rukmini Callimachi said that the kidnap victims are now being obtained indirectly, by social networks who have been displaced in the wars and droughts and nation-building chaos which is today’s northern Africa. Tuaregs are doing the dirty work in Mali, other Bedouins in other places. “You mean they are outsourcing terror?” exclaimed Terry, in genuine surprise. “Yes,” replied Callimachi.

Here was where my mind exploded with the “ah ha!” moment in a difficult part of African’s history with kidnapping for enslavement by Europeans. In ancient times, and at many moments throughout time – including our own — slavery was/is the fate of prisoners of war. Because this was the African tradition –as well as the well-documented European tradition — I conjured until recently that American slavery relied on some unknown-to-me interior wars for hostages for sale to slavers. That didn’t make sense: no continent can hide four centuries of warfare strong enough to produce that many kidnap victims, but the alternative was just too awful to contemplate. But recent history makes clear that some Africans were making money kidnapping and selling others, on a regular basis, in much the same way Callimachi describes Al Quaeda operating today. There was no war, at least not at this level. It was simply the most lucrative business available in a continent whose healthy young people were being siphoned out, much as gems and minerals would later be hauled away.

And here was where Hannah Arendt became and remains an incendiary scholar. The fact that some Jewish community and camp leaders “cooperated” in selecting immediate victims for Nazism cannot be denied. But the terrified submission of people at gunpoint, people who are witnessing the brutal deaths of people standing right next to them, possibly in their own families or with other close social ties, should not be equated with the self-satisfied professionalism of people like Adolph Eichmann, slave kidnappers, Al Queda career climbers. To have only a single word — “cooperation” —  is a language failing that needs to be corrected. “Cooptation ” is worse, for it implies not only grudging physical participation, but acceptance of key ideas.

People who are randomly alive in a holocaust, even by their own actions (for similar actions had no saving grace for many others) cannot be asked for civic courage. The Warsaw Uprising succeeded by recognizing the need to unify personal consciences into warfare. No, civic courage is the duty of people to stand up from within the potential professional ranks of banal evildoers, individually taking risk, from start to finish. The hard part is that to do so is to shift the holocaust from others onto oneself. To save other families is to lose one’s own. That is the function of the public violence with which such campaigns begin. You will not just linger on a lower rung of the social ladder, you will see us brutalize your children, humiliate your parents, dispatch your grandparents and suckling babies as if they were some kind of pests. Boko Haram, anybody?

So who signs up for this? The United States has been honoring Freedom Summer this year, remembering the martyrs, and noticing again how most of the folks who went — black and white — were childless, unmarried, in a stage of life devoted to detaching from family and finding one’s personal deepest meaning. Civic courage has its banality, too; such activism was made possible by families whose children did not have to send money home. But what happened in Freedom Summer — this never really came home to me until this year — is that Cheney, Schwirmer, and Goodman were killed at the very outset of the campaign. Volunteers were still arriving. The message was clear: you can turn around and save yourself now. The recognizable pattern of totalitarianism, starting out by exhibiting random brutality.

But the volunteers did not turn around. The families they came to serve were at first reluctant to associate with them, terrified of long-term consequences (already being victims of the long-term consequences of slavery’s lingering outrages). But by staying out the summer, entering into the risks, the poverty, the cultural structure of local African American communities, the volunteers modeled civic courage. This is what I mean by affirming the “dignity” of someone, once you’ve decided it is your job to stand up for their inherent worth. The truly banal participants in horrible evil can be outlasted. They get nervous when they see alternative career ladders that might be more lucrative than that offered by the monster machine. Ambitious white southerners learned to get along with integration when federal policies made it a condition for regional uplift; racism lingers most heavily among white folks left behind as The New South made progress, and frustrated northern minimum wage workers, who have adopted the region because it has a rhetoric for shifting the pain of their poverty onto “others.”

The appearance of alternative professional options is the moment when the terror campaigns click into high gear: other millions — political, religious, and social rebels–  join the Jews and Roma in the gas chambers, roadside trenches, anonymous forest graves, on the gallows. These other millions died — and still die– defending personal consciences. When their numbers are high enough, pacifism has no prospects. But “just war” is not the right description of taking up arms at this point. The “just war” would have been earlier.

But would it have been by equally ugly methods –drones? renditions? plowing over houses? Or would it have been by establishing, nourishing, and defending a banality of civic goodness? Something like our Great Compression, when unions and corporations (yes, they did that then) fought like crazy not only to enrich their members but especially to provide life long security for families who joined their ranks. Something like what Europe has now, with its regulations against quack science in the name of profit and its protections for personal integrity against corporate expansionism. Something like what Singapore practices, with its mandatory savings accounts and educational oversights.

I began this series by complaining about mistaking media events for civic courage, and my assertion remains the same. Civic courage means living in the long haul. It means entering uncomfortably close quarters and making yourself vulnerable to folks who won’t get what you’re saying, doing, living. At least not at first. But if what you do there is show them your covenant, and show them how they, too, can fulfill their dreams by accepting you in their covenant — not for transformation or imitation, but just at the level of mutual toleration and respectful communication — only then will you have smothered evil’s incipient banality.

 

 

 

 

 

In Defense of Demonstrating

My favorite movies explore the interplay of character and ideas. If they include history, so much the better. This explains why Politywonk is amusing herself with “Hannah Arendt”, whose topic speaks for itself. It’s a German film which makes use of footage from the actual trial of Adolph Eichmann. 

Eichmann explained himself with words that jolted back to life all the times I’ve gone out to demonstrate, petition, observe a police commission, write a letter to an editor. The words were simple, as translated in the film:

“If there had been more civic courage, things would have been different.” 

Eichmann is here explaining how he lived with a split conscience. One half maintained his personal values, of which he declared the highest one was to keep his personal oath. The other half, which he suppressed, considered what was happening and calculated the outcome of disobeying orders. 

There was no part of him which contemplated that following orders and performing as an excellent bureaucrat, he sent six million Jews to horrible deaths. For that he was hung, and probably a good thing it was.

When Arendt published “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her claim that evil could manifest as banality rather than monstrosity outraged many. In reality, it simply updated the old truism of Edmund Burke, “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”  In the movie, Arendt says that totalitarianism has accomplished the ultimate evil, which is to build environments in which human beings feel that being human is irrelevant. Punishment does not follow crimes, rewards do not follow work. I remember being told, over and over, by my politically active family — as well as by so many others — that the first crucial step is the one taken by Eichmann, in which his humanness became irrelevant to himself.

Although I often decry the tendency of Unitarian Universalists — and other bleeding hearts of every faith — to demonstrate again and again at every outrage, these demonstrations do serve the purpose of modeling the civic courage Eichmann said might have changed his strategy for survival. I support this. But a culture of demonstration lacks the tough backbone of neighbor-to-neighbor self-exposure that characterized Freedom Summer and the majority of work that I and others did against the Vietnam War and in support of La Raza and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers. Hours and hours every week — including every Saturday morning at a large suburban Kroger’s, leafletting every shopper — were what made these efforts successful. Equal marriage has swirled onto beachheads worldwide because individuals came out to their families and those families chose to stand with them, often in spite of social ostracism.

As much as I respect the sacrifice of time and money, it doesn’t take civic courage to jump from one media event to another on a superficial basis. There’s a phrase called “Skin in the game,” which refers to this process of positioning oneself in a vulnerable social spot. This is what bothers me about demonstration culture. People get praised. People get speaking opps. Even if they go to prison, it’s not a long, tough ride. And usually, with a fine or community service, the whole event dissolves and demonstration culture starts looking for another.

Someone as superficial as Eichmann would certainly have paid attention to demonstrations. But someone so ambitious would probably not have been swayed without more than one personal conversation, more than one individual or family who stood up and got away with it.

“Civic courage.” Thank you for that phrase, Eichmann trial. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. It’s important to remember what it means to do it well.

Gardening as Racism

The neighbors catty-cornered from one of our lilacs have a beautiful grapevine growing against our common fence. For about two weeks, I’ve been noticing that their grapes have twined and vined over and through my lilac, first where it overhangs their property, and now, way into my yard. Today’s late afternoon gardening task was to cut these vines (on my side) and pull them off the lilac.

Makes sense, eh? But I live in the part of Burlington where Jews and Italians cultivated grapevines during the half-century of prohibition my people imposed on theirs. So while my clippers trimmed and pulled, my heart mourned the injustice this simple act of gardening would once have been.

How Dandelions Changed My View of History

Image

When Unitarian Universalists sing our beloved hymn, “Spirit of Life,” one of the lines of its prayers is, “Roots, hold me close.”

And what we’re probably picturing is the shallow, wide-reaching structure known as “Grassroots.”Image  Note that the fibrous, or grass root, system spreads widely, equally, but also, fairly fairly close to the surfaces. Its new growth springs up pretty readily on a side-by-side basis. That explains why my recent lawn-recovery technique, of raking out all the old dead blades, leaving aerated soil bare to the sun, has resulted in fresh patches of cheery green.

Note, also, that this is completely different from a tap root. At first glance, of course, if you’re working at shallow depth, you can’t tell one from the other. But any lawn-keeper can tell you that pulling up a dandelion from just below the surface doesn’t work. Removing the branch roots is at best, temporary, and at worst, productive of new growth.

One of the first gardening jobs my father ever taught me was to get a pitchfork, or a taproot trowel, and dig them out, one by one, from way deep inside the earth.

Watching the news lately, as certain patterns of both oppression and response spring up from place to place all over the landscape, I got to looking past evil gardeners (the Koch brothers, the NRA) and asking if Aljazeera was showing me tap roots. They crawl along under ground, unseen, drinking from deep layers, and popping up where no one realized conditions might apply.

And the only conditions that apply is a soil, light, air, and water combination that suits this tap root.

What are the tap roots of our oppressions and responses?  My first thought was, “family systems.” Generation after generation doing what it learned as grandparents played with new babies.

And where did the grandparents learn it? Of that, I am not sure. But my guess is this: the original culture from which your grandparents issued. My fiancee and I get along so well in part because we both come from the Germans and Quakers of a certain part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other, we just naturally tend to do the same thing. She loves the leaven of my English paternal line — but that, in itself, reflects a Germanic outgrowth.

So here’s my curiosity: where have German roots — the largest, and least discussed part of the US European mosaic — blossomed or poisoned (it depends on where you try to poke through) our regional patterns of behavior?