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.

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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.

Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

Well, we’ll see how long things live in the blogosphere, because after only a few hours I regretted posting intemperate remarks about the congregation I currently belong to. They are good people, and our interim minister is fantastic. It pains me that they would be hurt by what I wrote there.

But I did have a couple of points, so I’m gonna follow the lead of Patrick Murfin and try to focus on a theme here. For my starting place, here’s the part of that post I want to lift up:

“Free-Range UUs” is an attractive phrase (it attracted me), but from a ministerial and denominational level, it needs a little unpacking.

Genuine free-rangers just don’t resonate to weekly, even twice monthly, attendance at congregational worship. I number among those who believe there are other forms and times of ministry and community that could bring more of these folks closer.  Up here in Vermont, as the nights get longer and colder, farmers are starting to talk about where their free-range chickens are going to spend the winter: barns, coops, etc. Out in the drought and heat, large animals have limited their wanderings to convenient reach of the watering and feeding supplements. Our denomination needs to think like these farmers, and get more living water and daily bread out to where the animals want to wander.

Not to be confused with free-rangers are the folks taking fallow time to renew themselves, after tons of time teaching RE, chairing some committee, serving on the board.  I believe that this, too, is a neglected ministerial field.

And then there’s the group in which I put myself yesterday, the “pissed off.” Sometimes we’re just disappointed, but we’re alienated. The denomination’s current approach to this group is to just wait for it to go away. No standardized exit interviews, no workshops like the “Coming Home” series run by Roman Catholics. Either they come back or they don’t.

I haven’t read the whole bylaw change on virtual congregations, but they seem like a good idea. As someone who has spent the last two years finding spiritual community primarily on Facebook, I can testify that in the end, a computer isn’t enough. You start to want to see people, to hear their voices. Facebook friends now figure in my travel plans, and I hope my hospitality for those who want to cool off with a summer week in northern Vermont.

Which means that, in the end, there’s no substitute for ministering to the various groups currently sheltering under the “Free Range Label.”  And happily, there’s a survey asking “Free Range UUs” to take a few minutes to describe ourselves to the denomination. I hope Free-Rangers will do this. Our denomination is taking some courageous steps forward, away from what now turns out to have been the mistaken effort to redefine ourselves as only “an association of congregations.”  Both Unitarians and Universalists achieved their greatest growth and prestige in an era that made provisions for individual as well as communal covenanters.

I took the survey, even though I don’t really qualify as free range, because I pledge to a congregation and worship there regularly.  After all, two out of three types of free-rangers — the fallow and the disappointed — are sitting in our pews right now, trying to strategize an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.

Interpreting the Scream: A Call for a UU Mothers’ Day Pulpit Action

I remember the first day the State of Vermont paid me to take care of my partner, with her sometimes-mild-sometimes-totally-scary disability.

On the surface, nothing changed. For two years I had been doing these things because I love her and I want her to have the life I believe God wants her to have. That does not mean miracles, it means human relationship and basic work, reliably delivered, and fully made use of by the recipient.

But what a feeling to get paid!  No more putting aside something vital at home for a few hours of minimum wage reimbursement and cheerful conversation with people who do not have Huntington’s Disease. No more walking back into the house exhausted and seeing everything I had left behind.. and now I’m too exhausted to do it

No more feeling guilty toward Macy’s, my former employer, for having to call out when she’s too sick, for showing up late after squeezing in just one more little task, for declining to cover a sudden opening that takes experience and skill, in a specialized department.

No more struggling to shoe-horn into my over-packed schedule the leisure and family activities that reward her for doing all the work she does to live at the unprecedented front curve of disease management she has achieved.

It was a happy day. I dressed in good clothes, just to clean, cook and shop. I’m old enough to remember ridiculing the 1950s tv moms who wore heels to run the vacuum. Now I knew how they felt: like them, I was lucky lucky lucky to be able to make a good house for the person I love.

I remember that feeling every time I encounter socially conservative families getting more and more hysterical about the rights of unborn children, the sanctity of pregnancy. Here’s the latest.

From my rarefied vantage point as a professional caregiver for a loved one, my heart goes out to those folks every time one of my lefty friends brings another such outrage to my attention.  We used to talk about “dream interpretation.” Nowadays, I watch the news and work on the new art of “scream interpretation.” That’s what I’m working with here.

Scream interpretation tells me that all this talk about protecting children is less about abortion and more about mothers and fathers who worry about caring for their children. Today I walked past my local Roman Catholic church. My parents live in an affluent parish, and some of the young mothers were joyously planting flowers around the huge churchyard. Inside there was a class preparing for First Communion, but not one of these women was pregnant. They were slim and fashionable. The contraceptive ship has sailed.

So what’s all the screaming about? The hysteria about sanctity of life, about motherhood as a worthy mission? Even — bless you, Rick Santorum — about a father’s desire to cancel a day of campaigning for president to be with his wife and well children while the baby of the family fights for life?

I think these folks are actually wishing that they could feel the way I feel getting paid to take care of my partner. Sure the affluent young mothers can plant flowers on a Wednesday during school vacation. But most young families don’t have that kind of affluence anymore — or if they do, they’re not sure how long it will last. And every time they send a sick child to day care, every time they leave a 10 year old minding a 3 year old, every time they turn a sick infant over to a grandparent instead of sitting by the bed until the fever breaks — every time that happens, these young families feel insulted. They are being denied their American Dream, by a nation which no longer even offers a language to describe it.

Leadership on the left has to stand up for the language of paying for the job most women want most: caring for their family in times of need. Step one, of course, is calling out Rick Santorum on his hypocritical gambit of using Pennsylvania public school funds to pay tor his wife to provide homeschooling in Virginia. If that’s not a “mothering allowance,” I’d like to know what it is?  And naturally, since some folks are dramatically overpaid in this nation, I’d put a solid ceiling above which you don’t get this cash.

This is all I can come up with, because most Americans, of any political stripe,  have demonstrated their belief that more children — unplanned at best, unwanted at worst — are not what they really want. They prove this by using contraceptives. But so far, the right has given the only language of family sanctity tat most Americans have ever heard. And every time liberals rebut them with our own scream of fear, that women will be driven out of paid employment, the hearts of caregivers explode with the pain of  having been misunderstood.

Our positions necessarily speak the hard truth that not every potential child will come to life.  “You could choose which ones to kill, and keep some other,” we smile. And their hearts scream in agony:  “I am killing them already every day! It’s in their eyes when I  leave them at day care. It’s on my mind when I leave them unattended.  I am killing them every time I’m not there to make a healthy meal, walk them to school instead of dropping them off. I am killing them every day — and I hate it.”

Other countries give their family caregivers several years of paid support for doing what all of us agree is hard and complicated work.  Some of these countries are developed already, but others use this as a fast-track to development because kids who have parental nurture make better students, employees and citizens. I learned about this not in Europe, but in Singapore: it was part of the “Little Tiger” era.

In today’s political climate, talking about pay for caregivers has a civic benefit. Money is how we demonstrate that something has value, how we honor an action or output across different subcultures, languages, races, even state boundaries. This is not an issue of race, of  “language spoken at home,” or “where your parents were born.” This is all of us saying to all good parents, “Your children are the future of my country.”

Unless I’m a total freak, I believe that paying other caregivers as I am paid will release huge waves of tension throughout our national body politic.

Teachers will be able to teach, knowing they there is someone to help with homework, meals, routinized scheduling.

Employers in the larger economy will be able to pay those who serve or produce their product in accord with what that product or service can put back in the cash register.

Public safety officers will have allies to help implement corrections or protections that take care of our most vulnerable.

Why should taxpayers foot the bill?  We pay everyone who takes care of our country: the soldiers, the law enforcement officers, the inspectors, the infrastructure builders, the teachers. And yet, who does more for our country, for any of its component parts, than parents who have the time and resources to take care of our families?

That’s how I felt the first day I got paid.  I want that feeling for everyone who’s doing the work of child-raising and elder-caring.

As the United States of America (as opposed to the United States of Mexico or some of the others we never acknowledge) heads into its next presidential election cycle, a universal fear has given voice to anger and derision, and stopped the ears of many who used to pride themselves on openness to new information. I watched Keith Obermann last night for a bit, and was simply disgusted by his reliance on invective to communicate arrogance. For 9-11-11 Paul Krugman launched a column that simply exploited the occasion to complain again about exploitation of the occasion.

I don’t disagree with the politics of either journalist, but I would like to point out, as a pastor and historian, that the purpose of formal occasions like elections and memorials is to pause and listen to each others’ stories, fitting them in with the facts we think we know, double-checking said facts against these stories, and then trying to move forward together. Doing history is so often prophetic precisely because it calls us to surrender to larger stories that may or may not support our personal narratives. That is why people prefer myths — metastories that make key points or offer up acceptable explanations of how “the we of me” (Carson McCullers’s great expression in Member of the Wedding) got to be in a certain predicament or privilege.  The anger which comes from being contradicted is why people in stress hang onto hagiography — the creation of saints who make inarguable virtue of what the individual wants to believe is the right thing to do.

At the end of next month, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and the  Harvard Divinity School will join together to present a panel on the late Professor of American Religious History, C. Conrad Wright. It is my honor to be on this panel, speaking on Conrad’s personal mission of using the academically maligned field of denominational history to witness, as a prophet, to covenants that in his time were under attack.

They are still fragile. They are both right and wrong for this new millennium. But that is for another day. Right now, I lift up the example of a scholar who was willing to research, study, retell and affirm stories from history that did not match the feelings of  his contemporaries. Over time, however, those stories became part of who are have become and are trying to be. And in one sense, his point still applies: Covenant means listening with pastoral openness to the stories of people whose stories do not fit with ours. Hearing them out on what they know they need and think they want.  And then, looking into our collectivity with honesty to be sure we are ready to meet those needs, without surrendering our ethics to the most extreme or hurtful of anyone’s passions.

Including ours.