Trees, Squash, Goldfish, and The Talented Tenth

Tom Schade has directed us to a marvelous sermon by Cynthia Landrum, which declares that the vertical “tree-planting” model of denominational growth does not fit with the “spreading squash” social patterns of today’s young adults. The new Millennial lifestyle challenges more than liberal protestant institutions: it gives us a framework for asking how middle class culture will recover from the social, financial, and ecological violence it has suffered since 1980.

When a gardener wants to plant a tree or welcome spreading squash, the first step is not to find and clear an “under-developed location,” but to gather seeds and uproot seedings with which to populate the new gardens. Our national mythology applauds this self-appointing first step, and truly, it is neither good nor evil of itself. And it isn’t voluntary as often as The American Dream asserts: too many folks wound up here due to violence, injustice, bad fortune.

This morning on Turner Classic Movies, Frank Capra unfolded the tensions that affect a family when “a rising businessman tries to make his immigrant parents assimilate.”  His protagonists are Eastern European Jews with solid social ties and skills from the shtetl (the father’s jokes, the mother’s pushcart business), and son Morris has new world ambitions. He sells papers. When his tenement burns, he organizes a fire sale. Eventually he is able to move his parents and sister to Fifth Avenue.  Mother loves it, but Father pines for the old friends with whom he joked and worshiped; Morris’s sister marries her childhood sweetheart and has a baby.

Here is the fundamental question: Will Morris treat that baby as an offshoot or as a weed?

That question, rather than race, religion, ethnicity, even gender, defines the class war that splits today’s global population.  So far, Morris has been imitating the Northern European American Dream, casting off old social and cultural ties to establish himself in a culture-free community of success stories. Capra announces the English vision when Morris swaps his family’s Ellis Island name, Goldfish, for the English-sounding, “Finch.”

In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson describes a transnational 21st century elite which does not battle, but rather appropriates, the most successful achievers in all demographic groups. Together they build a network of social bubbles wherein to encounter only each other while jaunting through every landscape and culture on the blue marble. This is the real class war: not between particular cultures, but pitting various Beta cultures — the followers, the familial, the local, the traditional — against universalizing Alphas.

Could he really mean, the Goldfish vs the Finches? To prove that Alpha culture isn’t the same as English culture, I offer a series on Masterpiece Classic,  “Lark Rise to Candleford.” Here we see plenty of very English Beta folk, hoping for any progress that increases security, convenience, amusement. At the same time, they examine with suspicion any novelty that eradicates (uproots) their social fundamentals. The premise of “Lark Rise to Candleford” is that these are people for whom life’s markers and measures are physically smaller but much more intensely felt. And why are those little Beta events felt so strongly? It’s not that Betas feel so much, but that Alphas feel so little. (As Exhibit A, I offer Lady Mary Crawley, who demonstrates every Sunday that some women can eat their own flesh and blood for breakfast more quickly than most males can swallow a Happy Meal.)

Finches appear on both sides of the class war divide; that happy discovery seduced New England settlers into an honest belief that they could engineer a nation which would prosper the offspring of Alphas and Betas. Our parent denominations, in their heydays, valued those now-despised “Big Donors” because everyone worshiped together, shopped locally, traded regionally at most, by which means many an industrialist rescued many a floundering parish. Unitarianism and Universalism flourished before the true Age of Alphas, by fostering what W.E.B. DuBois called The Talented Tenth: “the preachers, teachers, physicians” and local artisans who strengthen themselves in order to support weaker tendrils, nourish aspiring volunteers shade fragile seedlings from hot sun. But when plunder capital gutted local economies landscapes began to wear out, our English-based culture reverted to its ancestral model of self-preservation. “Strike out toward more fertile fields,” we told our young people, tempting them to uproot themselves by paying for enjoyable four-year colleges. (I won’t bore you with the details of how this pattern arose because of the particular way feudalism broke down in England, as compared to its death patterns in Germany and, most famously, France. But it’s an interesting story for another time.)

So contrast this English-based American Dreams with the versions lived and love by African Americans, Asian Americans, Roman Catholic and Jewish families. These cultures may alter their theologies and marital boundaries, but they still see reaching up and spreading out as mutually supportive. Cast upon these shores by Old World violence, and therefore not imprinted with voluntary self-amputation, these cultures relish family reunions, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, wakes and funerals, Quinceañeras, Eid-al-Fitr, and Lunar New Year.  How different are their sprawling feasts from those tiny nuclear families dotting college graduations.

WASP culture defines success as having the resources “to send our children away,” while everyone else is saving their money “to show our children where they came from,” and, if possible, “spend more time with the rest of the family.” My own belief is that Unitarian Universalism will reach its stratosphere by aggressively multiplying and strongly supporting a regular calendar for each age group to return, to remember, to commemorate, to rededicate. “Prophetic vision” means nothing to me; I see it as a fancy disguise for that ancestral call to either uproot oneself, or if that’s not possible, torch the landscape one cannot escape.

Perhaps this religion has reached its apex of population penetration in Vermont because, although  our children usually have to make their money somewhere else,  we’re too small to forget them, and so fond of them that they strive to “make enough money to settle back home in Vermont.” Vermont has maple trees, Vermont has squashes, and it’s probably no coincidence that we also have the only legislature in the nation that has mandated universal compost collection by 2016. This is a state without weeds (Emerson’s name for a plant you don’t want where it is). What we try to uproot is the Alpha mutation, that anomaly in every species that gorges itself without ceasing on other people’s products, and decapitates every social network that threatens to limit Alpha self-perpetuation.

And yes, we were originally mostly English.

The Right Wing Vision: Eugenics Disguised as Demographic Collapse

Please excuse that my posts are shorter and less developed than they used to be. But if you’re as busy and as jumpy as I am, perhaps you like this better.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty, and commentators are commenting. When I listen to the Radical Right policy programs — opposition to health insurance, opposition to unemployment insurance, opposition to infrastructure spending (including things like roads and bridges), opposition to public health regulatory frameworks, the only thing I can figure is that they are hoping for a demographic collapse. That’s right, they — by which I mean the professional politicians, not their confused, frightened, outraged victims in The Tea Party — seem intent on driving most of the voters out of their districts and states. It’s no longer fashionable — or legal — to condemn the reproductive enthusiasms of the poor, so the next best thing is to wear out the parents and starve out the children. Perhaps the poor will be so committed to demographic collapse that they’ll move out of the Red State or district to one which offers them medical options for limiting the number of their offspring.

But when I googled “demographic collapse,” what I discovered is that The Tea Party believe that the demographic collapse strategy has already been launched, and it has them in its crosshairs. And why? Because depopulation has so far been most effective in rural areas, whence jobs, hospitals, schools, corner stores, have been disappearing. So yes, there is a demographic collapse strategy underway, sweeping against poor folks of every race, political persuasion, language, ethnic heritage. 

And by “poor”, please note that I assert that the relevant level of wealth is not how much you have now, but how much you had as a child, how much you have now, and what you believe you will be able to make available to your offspring. Wealth is not a single number, it’s a generational process involving social, political, and economic capital. And if your parents had more than you have, and your kids have no hope of inheriting any from you, you consider yourself “the new poor.” If you’re in this new poor, you have good company. The natives of most Western European countries are also busy limiting the number of their offspring. The countries once made socially rich by the Enlightenment definition of humanity no longer give humanity a reason to reproduce. (And yes, I realize — and would be the first to point out — that much of this was achieved through hereditary unpaid hostage labor and decimation of original landholders; it was a definition that needed a lot of improvement.)

The very rich who have bought the services of these politicians seem to believe they have created a world in which most of their neighbors, employees, servants, and neighbors are superfluous to both their happiness and their assets. Counterproductive, even. Yet there have been demographic collapses before — most notably after either pandemics or natural disasters — and eventually the very rich, too, become its victims. “Supply-side economics” — the discredited assertion that wealth comes from having abundant resources and the inclination to transform them into something useful for someone else — has solid roots in Jewish scripture — and probably any other. When Moses took the Israelites on their unguided tour of the wilderness, God sustained their natural lifespans with unsolicited, uncultivated, untended gifts of manna, honey, and water. Jesus and Buddha both enjoyed similar unbidden generosities, which they turned into gifts for humanity. So I do not dismiss “supply-side economics” as clear idiocy: it’s something we all want to believe, not just of what God can do for us, but of what we could do, if God would only give us a little more.

And that’s where the calculation flips. Because when God gives us a little more, it only expands the economy when we share it with others, shop with it, invest it in someone else’s paycheck. If we build a factory out of robots — the current fantasy of the very rich — it’s just a toy, because whatever that factory produces has no market. Demand is what makes things happen, not supply. There is no better proof than in studying the ministry of Jesus. You may or may not believe he performed any miracles, but he sure as heck did it in response to requests, rather than as a circus act or political message. Buddha made demands on himself, but most thoroughly energized his productive capacity to answer the suffering of others.

There is a debate going on tonight about unemployment insurance, health insurance, infrastructure repair, all kinds of jobs and assets that the rich no longer wish to provide to the poor. It’s been tried before, and for the rich, it didn’t go that well. The Black Death deprived Europe’s nobility of armies to keep their serfs on the land, which allowed the serfs to develop new skills and form new cities, and by networking among themselves, build up assets in social, economic, and political currencies. And when this happened, the old aristocracy were not the beneficiaries of new riches.

But neither were the families lost in the demographic collapse.

I Used to Be So Good at Vigiling

Now that disemployment policies (deliberate imposition of unemployment on otherwise willing and able workers, as opposed to “natural unemployment”) have taken so many out of the rhythms of outside work, Books of Hours, Daily Rules, etc, are making a big comeback. Being more of a Christian than anything else, I, too, have frantically searched various such resources for a way to manage my own expanding time.

Here are the three resources on which I have settled:

Music of Silence by David Steindl and Sharon Lebell, with an introduction by Kathleen Norris

Seven Times the Sun: guiding Your Child through the Rhythms of the Day by Shea Darlin

and a reflection series from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.

It seems I cannot master more than one piece of this at a time, and anything that’s mastered one day is likely to slip away the next week. But here are the ones I’m feeling pretty good about: Terce (the mid-morning break for renewal), Vespers (the end of day wind-down reflection) and Compline (the final, bed-placed spiritual immersion).  I have made some progress on Sext, which is said to be the worst one, because it’s when you pause for the midday meal and rest and then get back to work.

Notice I haven’t yet mentioned Prime — that first morning application of energy to tasks. But it’s coming along.

Nones — the end of day clean-up and preparation for tomorrow? Forget it. Not a clue. Someone once told me they detected some “J” in my Myers-Briggs profile, and I still wonder who they were talking about.

Which leads me to “Vigil.” I hadn’t been paying much attention to this one, and it turns out, I should have done. And when I reread that section of Music of Silence two days ago, it was not about the night before — Erev, as Judaism says — but more about that time one lies half awake before dawn, visions of the coming day darting through a mind too tired to chase them down. For me, at least, the result is a horrible clash of aspiration against mortality. Doomed before I start. It’s a dreaming moment, and I’ve reached an age, and a poverty, in which I know most dreams must be put aside. It seems to be the last part of me that hasn’t caught on to being out of the marketplace, away from the community where people push each other along, and thereby are all more productive.

There are things I still know about what will happen. When my fiancee wakes up, it will be Prime (thank God she’s a morning person and gets me going!) and energy will rise within me. When her Huntington’s Disease knocks her back into sleep about halfway through my Prime, it should be my Terce (coffee break), but often sinks into a premature Sext (lunch hour). But if I just remind myself that there’s lots to be done even later, through dinner and bedtime, it makes me feel better and Sext settles into a calm that refreshes.

But Vigil. That’s the tough one. Right now what helps is blogging (thank you, dear reader), Facebook (God bless Community), and a small list of email check-ins that help me remember what I’m doing.

And, since it’s so verboten to say this for ministers in covenant or search with congregations, my monkey mind relies on judicious and minimal applications of Ritalin to keep it organized. There are many family members now using pharmacological as well as spiritual tools to deal with responsibly diagnosed ADHD.

Vigil is when I have to remind myself of that diagnosis. This will not be the day I do a thousand things. It isn’t supposed to be. It’s just one day, and there are just a few covenants — at best — in which only baby steps will be taken.

Knights used to vigil to prepare for investiture, a changed life. But in my protesting days (and thanks to those of you now able and willing to do this work), it was only a single execution, a single life for which I stood outside for hours.

That’s when I was good at Vigil: when I knew it was about the tension between life and death. How little we can hope to do, how much we can achieve by doing little.

Good News, Bad News

It should have been a moment of joy, not of calculation. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and however much I do for her, she does as much or more for me.

So OF COURSE when she asked me to marry her the other night, I said yes.

That’s the good news: Lynne and I are engaged. Despite her Huntington’s Disease (she is about to enter her twelfth year of living with it since diagnosis) and our being both women, marriage is a real option in her mind.

But maybe, for me, not so much.

Not that I hesitate in making her my life partner, calling her “wife” to my “wife,” “spouse” to my “spouse.” For years now, I’ve been fantasizing more about what she would wear to our wedding than what I would wear. Would she put aside her deep aversion to jewelry and wear a ring that tells the world she’s mine? It’s almost as if I quit wearing any of my own rings until the day she puts one on my hand.

But, alas, financially, I can only do a non-legal blessing ceremony. Not because we’re both women, but because at low incomes, marriage gets heavily penalized.

I don’t often encourage UUs to study information from Sam Brownback, the socially conservative governor of Kansas, but he’s got my back on this one.  That was in 2008; the update on Obamacare is just as bleak. Small wonder that David Blankenhorn, long a pro-family activist, has abandoned the fight against marriage for same-sex couples like Lynne and me and begun asking how to support any couple, straight or gay, who wants to be married and poor.

Even the laughably left-wing state of Vermont, which is perfectly happy to let us get married with full equal rights, would then turn around and cut off the pay I get for staying home to take care of Lynne. What started out as equal rights has suddenly made me aware there are equal penalties.

These same penalties apply in Social Security and numerous other low-income supports. The Earned Income Tax Credit, the single largest redistributor of income into working poor households, is one of the worst offenders. If you thought America had long since accepted life without The Donna Reed Show, you haven’t been paying attention to these injustices, not based on gender, but on class.

So yes, do congratulate us, and celebrate our good fortune in so many ways. But if you really want to do something useful, to make this about more than just two women in a struggling once-middle-class household, put these injustices up next to your concerns about DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) and devote yourself to any couple, straight or gay, who wants to get married — and simply can’t afford to.

The Less Comfortable Diversity

Let me just start with the disclaimer that it is not the goal of this post to eliminate anti-racism as something all of us need to work on, both in our personal and public lives.  But while anti-racism needs to include seeing race as one dimension of power, it also needs to engage the opposite dynamic, of removing race to look at power more deeply.

Here is what some scientists have found by looking at a group which lacks power as conveyed through the medium of education:

Life Expectancy Shrinks for Less-Educated Whites in U.S.

Published: September 20, 2012 (New York Times)

The purpose of this blog is to comment on the religious institution in which I am an ordained minister, The Unitarian Universalist Association, using our basic principles as a corrective. This often leads me to attack our imbalanced emphasis on institutional educational excellence as a detriment to discovering what we call the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Usually I position that critique in the larger world of employment and education itself, and call for greater application of what we now know about the many ways of being intelligent. My challenge usually bemoans the few avenues for enough economic stability to nurture self-fulfillment for everyone in a family and community. This is certainly no lonely prophetic mission: our religious educators and UUs for a Just Economic Community are coworkers who educate and sustain what little I can say.

But too often, in making this effort, I feel thwarted by an over-emphasis in displaying the more comfortable diversity of anti-racism. And why is anti-racism “the more comfortable diversity” for us?

That’s because from 1900 to 1927, in the first era of corporate academic expansion, American Unitarian Association President Samuel Atkins Eliot undertook an active campaign to shut down less affluent congregations. Equating the association’s future stability with the environment in which he had grown up — Harvard University, of which his father was president and virtually everyone he knew was a professor and/or graduate — he actively closed out small congregations that eked out their livings on the bottom edges of prosperity.

There are certainly congregations that ought to be closed, all the time and in every faith community. But using economic criteria to find them was a mistake. And to some extent, it may have been a smoke screen. A green velvet curtain concealing the more humble reality that the folks in such congregations often live life differently: they have a higher degree of hands-on contribution than financial largesse. In one of my favorite passages from his speeches, Eliot praised the women of one now-departed congregation for the industriousness — but his measure was that they were putting on food sales and such to raise money.

When folks got together to do gardening, painting, patching… this he tended not to see. Like me, he had a scholarly temperament, and, in fact, I very much advocate that all of us pay more attention to his praise of the role of scholarship in religious self-definition. But let’s not go overboard, like he did. Let’s use the one gift we get from the passing of time — the wisdom of hindsight — to see the bell curve of his perspective. His generation can and should be praised for opening books to so many who had not had the opportunity to enjoy them (he was even a strong advocate of prison and post-prison rehabilitation education and ministries), but they attempted to universalize that definition of human excellence. This led him into the cultural cleansing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and many of his peers into the horrid false science of eugenics, and the forced sterilization of folks with mental retardation or the social underdevelopment that results from generations of total deprivation.

Those are still the folks who make us uncomfortable, and race does not define them. They are not the objects of occasional charity, but neighbors who need consistent and unequal engagement from our best selves. Our growth will always keep us ahead of their growth. But if we do not connect with them — when we cut those social ties to local parish — we get what these scientists are describing: a group which is actively falling behind in the raw statistics of life and death.

I have written before that anti-racism — a laudable long-term value in Unitarianism and much of Universalism — served us as an internal unifier during the difficult years after Reverend Stephen H. Fritchman was removed from Unitarian (pre-merger) leadership for allegedly using the denominational publication to promote Communist Party goals. It was my privilege to serve as researcher for Reverend Charles Eddis’s comprehensive reexamination of this subject. Inevitably, as my wind-up reading delved into the fallout, I was stunned to see how the emerging Civil Rights movement allowed any former AUA Communists– who had been the strongest voice against racism — to carry on part of their conviction in harmony with mainstream Unitarianism and progressive national vision.

But let us never forget that the leader of the Civil Rights movement was DR. Martin Luther King. The ranks he led most effectively were folks who already had achieved the military and educational background — often over many generations — to enter the middle class from which they were being excluded. As Dr. King extended his reach to the more intractably underprivileged, his movement began to fall apart. We will never know what would have happened to that Poor People’s March on Washington if he hadn’t been assassinated — while crusading on behalf of garbage collectors.

But we do know what happened to the UUA. We lost the narrative of comprehensive progress and became fixated on the whiteness of our culture. Yet by doubling down against that whiteness, we remain stuck in the first stages of the Civil Rights movement, looking for people of color whose educational attainments bring them quickly and comfortably into the educational milieu Dr. Sam had laid out in an era which is rapidly passing into the dim dust of time.

There is no question that when you look at studies within every demographic community of this nation — from the Republican Party to African American leadership –you see the same dilemma. Every single group is stuck trying to figure out what to do for the folks in its ranks who have lost the education race. We are not alone in this, and we are not particularly guilty in this. It’s a national — indeed, an international problem.

But my particular group is a religion, and what little I know about religion tells me this: we will be judged guilty if we just walk by. We must quit looking past these people, rendering them invisible to what little privilege we retain — just because they happen to be the same race as ourselves and our far more privileged founders.

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.