Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester, MA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.


Sides and Circles

Hello, again.

In the current climate of both religion and politics, I cannot refrain from reaffirming my loyalty to historic Universalism, as opposed to historic Unitarianism. Looking back to the late 18th and 19th century, these are the elements that clarify my call.

Pre- and post-Civil War America were very similar to the era in which we live now. Generations of European Americans had worked the stolen land and settled into a non-immigrant, non-capitalist lifestyle. In other words, high ambition no longer fired their souls. Instead they wanted quiet, stability, safety, and security, for themselves and their descendants. They were local folk, artisans and farmers, whose highest passion often resided in their local Bible-based faith. When it came to keeping local order, most of them relied more on a fear of hell than a confidence in law.

Sound familiar?

Unitarians of the same years were forming the earliest industrial class, and educated management, such as they could devise, was big with them. In greater Boston, they owned textile mills and relied on the daughters of these settlers for cheap, well-behaved, unambitious labor. Others were pure capitalists (author’s note: this part references my own forebears) whose business relied either directly or indirectly on the kidnapping, selling, and bonding of Africans, or the slaughter of ocean-going mammals. In any case, they wanted to get ahead, stay ahead, and position their offspring ahead. Education was a major weapon in both their definition of character and their toolbox for oppression. This led them to dismiss what we would now call the working class and small farmers as “uneducated.” What began as denigrating slurs in the 19th century (with the occasional anti-immigrant violence) had by the 20th century become a lethal combination of eugenic science and anti-evangelical liberal Christianity.

Universalists approached the challenge of settler comfort completely differently. Overwhelmingly, Universalists bubbled up within this very milieu, and what motivated them was concern for the peace of mind of their family and friends. Far from disrespecting the Bible’s call for strong Christian faith (Unitarians preferred Biblical passages extolling the doing of good works), Universalists found in faith their own key to calm and character. In Boston, at least, Unitarians would have no more to do with Universalists than with any other evangelicals.

But Universalists did not show their conversion by turning away from traditional evangelicals. When you find something this wonderful, you want to share it with those you love the most. Those with whom you identify. So Universalists declined to denigrate evangelical preachers, for either their intelligence or their faith. Instead, Universalists would ride from town to town asking evangelicals to name their most distinguished preacher. Offering no insult to this cleric or his (always) followers, nor ridicule of the foundations of their religion, the Universalists would invite this person to share a public platform for public debate on whether the Bible did or did not call for eternal damnation for sinners.

In most cases, having achieved at least a few conversions, the Universalist would eventually set up a riding circuit, supporting adherents with worship and pastoral presence to sustain them in an often-hostile home turf. As early as 1837, Unitarians were smart enough to realize that in areas such as these, liberal religion would fare better through an alliance with local Universalists than attempting to plant a socially elitist brand of religion. From alliances such as these (called “fishing agreements”) arose a distinction between historically Unitarian and historic Universalist congregations.

The assumptions behind these debates and their congregations are the ones to which I now feel called to shape this blog. My family has plenty of dirt under recent nails, and grease on recent hands. I work these days in the most traditional woman’s role, which is caring for a disabled family member full time. I’m on the left of the political spectrum, but identify with many well-meaning Trump voters.

Yes, I believe there are such people.

Yes, I believe their stories, their circumstances, their ideas have merit in many cases.

Yes, I believe that the only successful change issues will be specific, limited, consistent, and self-interested in ways we all share in public areas.

I do not believe all Trump voters are good people, but many of them are. So like those old-time Universalist preachers, I will ride these electronic waves wherever they reach, to see if I can help us find some common ground on which to rebuild our nation.

Not Just a European Union Responsibility

Way back in what seems like another lifetime,the end of the French-US wars in Indochina sent thousands,if not millions, of desperate Vietnamese, Cambodians, Loatians fleeing the victors by any means available. Shabby boats, bleeding feet, hands and knees calloused from crawling through open stretches: the world watched in horror as they suffered, died, or triumphed in such poor physical condition that it seemed impossible they would ever recover. Numerous nations banded together to rescue and support these fugitives, both with rescues and with resettlement. Among the thousand tiny points of light, late in the game, you could then find this writer, helping interview and document those who arrived in Indonesia.

Now the same nightmare has reincarnated itself, on the Mediterranean Sea, Judging from the stunning lack of interest on the part of US news media (what’s left of it), I gather we Americans have decided, with both glee and relief, that this time, it’s not our fault.

Well, yesterday’s New York Times front page calls on us to reconsider. It isn’t that surprising but it’s good to see the numbers laid out so fully. How could arms profiteers NOT have been our best guess at why this has gotten so bloody so fast? The Times also notes that these new sales stem from a fundamental change in US foreign policy, which has up till now been careful to allow Israel a clear and present superiority. Now that we’ve crashed all the former governments –horrible as they were –with our shock and awe adventurism, we’ve opened our government wallet to let all the flotsam and jetsam buy in.

Because the news channel of choice at my house is Al Jazeera, my wife and I are well aware that this open sea disaster has now gotten worse over four years. That’s about the same interval that Boat People struggled across the South China Sea before Politywonk first landed in Southeast Asia. This leads me to skip over the tears-and-guilt issues and leap straight to the issues of Compassion Fatigue (“why do we have to always help out these strangers?”) and Foreign Aid Disgust (“This is nothing but international welfare that we can’t afford”). We need to look at new ways to fund these operations, with stronger targeting on those who caused the problems in the first place. Yes, this is more Pottery Barn Foreign Policy (Colin Powell’s assertion that “if you break it, you pay for it) — but this time, it’s not us taxpayers who need to dig into our wallets.

1) First up, let’s check the role of the Export-Import Bank in this debacle. It’s a little bit like slavery was in the pre-Civil War South: the majority of slaveholders had fewer than ten slaves, but the large hostage holders had such huge operations that more than 80% of the enslaved lived in their vast enclaves. Ex-Im assists a large number of small businesses in vital ways, but the vast majority of its money goes to Boeing and a few other titans. According to its own website, their initatives include support for arms sales. Yes, I’m a Vermont leftie and I hate having to encourage Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, but in this case, the Tea Party is doing good work and deserves our support.

2) Second, let’s impose a Humanitarian Excise Tax on the profits arms and other industries have gotten from their Middle East sales and labor contracts. These are the funds for those refugees and other humanitarian assistances. In particular, I would tax the salaries and capital gains of their primary executives and shareholders (yes, Dick Cheney, this means you).

3) Let’s call on our media to pay attention to the details of these outrages as they get worse. In Indochina, the Boat People and Trekkers got robbed and raped by an expanding population of pirates and highway robbers. I note that over the last few days, Al Jazeera has added reports of robbing and sectarian high-seas murder to the other miseries reported by those who can manage to land or get rescued in the current holocaust. You can expect a steady increase in these occurrences. Hopefully, if there is any last antidote to Compassion Fatigue, these tails (many of which I heard personally) will do the trick.

When a person spent their young years dealing with something as awful as the South China Sea Boat People and Cambodian Trekkers/Crawlers, their one consolation is that they’ll never have to see anything so awful again. Again and again, all over the world, that hope has been misplaced. It’s time for us to honestly, fully, take action on everything we can do to turn off the bloody spigot. (And yes, I know there are other arms dealers anxious to fill our void: it will be up to us to penalize them in every way we can manage, including cutting them out from renewals of preferential trade deals as those arise.)

Thank You, Right Wing Conspiracy

Good morning, lovers of the planet and democracy (yes, we’ve been watching Thom Hartmann). To listen to Democrat officialdom and their media mouthpieces, you would think our nation faces the biggest crisis since the Civil War whose end we will commemorate next month.

Yeah, you would think that.

But let’s think, instead, like Abraham Lincoln. Let’s think, instead, like Dr. Martin Luther King. Because what the Right Wing Conspiracy — and yes, there clearly IS such a thing — has given us planet huggers all the tools we need to shut down THEIR favorite project, the Trans-Pacific Pipeline (TPP). Here we have a secretly negotiated international pact to silence local initiatives against despoliation of basic labor and ecological rights. Here we have a legally enforceable regime which makes it illegal for local government to function in support of its human citizens whenever any corporate “person”‘ — anywhere in the world — claims that local measure violates the corporation fundamental right to maximize profit.

Remember John Adams, and the long-ago “Alien and Sedition Act”? It’s back, and it’s bigger than ever.

But the trade-deal conveyor belt that is today’s federal government has learned it faces rising opposition to such deals. Hence the new device called “Fast Track,” which means the Congress only gets to vote a total bill up or down. It cannot revise, advise, or devise any alterations. Technically, this is the same requirement for ratifying  a treaty, but because a treaty requires a 2/3 majority for approval, negotiators work with a constant calculation of how to reach such a high number. Fast track happens before you know it, and calls only for simple majorities.

Both parties have sought fast track for some of their deals and opposed fast track for deals negotiated by their opponents. Meanwhile, the international left-right fringe objects to the entire regime of “trust me-hate them” secrecy and obfuscation. Unfortunately for us localists, we cannot see past the tear gas of social issues that the money lobby employs to keep us suspicious of each other instead of against them.

I recently had occasion to look at some newspapers from 1859 and 1860, prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln. Both North and South were already mobilizing troops and issuing statements about top priorities. Lincoln’s top priority was different: he intended to conduct his duties in such a way that the Confederacy would fire the first shot. This would allow him rally the North, but it would also prevent the South from claiming they had been invaded. When Sherman marched through Georgia, when Joshua Chamberlain fought through Virginia, the local population was, as the saying goes, “hoisted by their own petard.”

It is not my intention  that we abandon the injustices perpetrated as racial, gender, and generational bullying Lincoln did not intend to ignore the provocations from the South. But here is a chance to do what the Republicans say they want to do — enforce sound principles of governance, as they have articulated these principles themselves Democratic officialdom protests that these are tools they themselves need when they hold power. But the Dems who espouse these tools only want for themselves a lessened — moderated — version of the same privilege enjoyed by the greedsters. James Carville is wrong and Elizabeth Warren — and the Tea Party –Bill’s $25,000 cigars do tie directly to Hillary’s secret emails. The average American knows why Hillary is giving expensive speeches instead of eating rubber chicken and shaking hands with folks who made a real financial sacrifice to attend her event — not the price of a book, but wages foregone, babysitter paid extra for a full day.

Not for a moment do I take back my support for just jurisprudence and an end to bullying by frightened former elites. But in a tough fight, you take allies as they present themselves. The last month it has been the GOP right wing sharpening blades that we planet huggers and justice-seekers can now use to kill the TPP.

When the Golden Rule Isn’t the Answer

Today’s UUs are often surprised to learn that Unitarianism was heavily Republican until the 1960s. Republicanism today bears no resemblance to its grandparent, and the same can sometimes apply to our religion. (Universalism has different antecedents, which mattered more in earlier eras, and of which I know too little to comment here.) My Dad was one of those Republicans, as was my mother’s father. My dad, a social scientist and inveterate skeptic, insisted that humanism would get nowhere by relying on The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) Yes, it has adherents in every culture, every era, every religion, every region. But at the same time, it constantly assumes that everyone wants the same thing, and that one thing which everyone wants will somehow magically result in peaceful coexistence and mutual advantage.

His alternative was free-market economics, based in the idea that everyone is a rational self-interested actor. (He’s pretty disenchanted with that now.) But when NEITHER of these things was working, he had a handy maxim which these days could probably be useful:

“Your rights end where my body begins; my rights end where your body begins.”

He did not say “body,” but “arm.” Today, that would make this an NRA slogan, rather than a Fourth Amendment (safety in one’s own space) catchphrase. He used the physical body, though, because he did not believe that anything which happens in the home is protected. A perpetual softy and family man, he abhorred domestic violence and neglect or mismanagement of children or elders. When he wasn’t doing civics and economics, he devoted every fiber of his being to either his marriage, his children, his parents, and his extended family. And his civics and economics were all directed at the betterment of families of all kinds.

This came to mind because events this week threw me into one of the situations in which he most strongly asserted that The Golden Rule must be set aside: professional friendship with a conservative Christian.

Religious passion is the number one asymmetrical situation. One party believes — with all their being, with all their power — that the best thing anyone ever did for them was to introduce them to some religious being or group. The other party has no yearning in that direction. To an evangelist, of course, the lack of yearning is just a sign that more work needs to be done. This is where the phrase, “Your rights end where my body begins” answers the bell.

The situation that troubled me this week was equally disturbing for the evangelical Christian. We invited her onto our caregiving team because we know her through the union. She is a skilled and sensitive professional, friendly presence in the home, and intelligent enough to appreciate our constant flow of news, documentaries, and historical writing. But we are a same-sex couple, people she’s been told are “sick,” “deluded,” even “possessed of great evil.” And what she sees in our home is two adults who love each other quietly, struggle to keep each other as healthy as possible, and are planning a religious marriage next weekend. We invited her to our wedding, and she says that if her work schedule permits, she will attend. She says — and I firmly believe this is true — that if people in her religion knew that she is caregiving for us, and looking at attending our wedding, they would give her serious grief. She has decided –and she says this — that we are who we are, and she is who she is, and that is that.

She asks what our religion “teaches” and names various Biblical touchstones. My answers are what she expects, and she says nothing. When I asked what her religion teaches “about families like mine,” she groans and says, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that.” We know what she means. But for whatever reason, she has decided to practice “tolerance.”

“Tolerance.” It’s a dirty word for idealists, but at our house, we’re going to give it a try. I suspect it will be harder for me than for her. She is instinctively open to others and interested in them, while I tend to categorize quickly and struggle to walk it back. Still, the very conversation rearranged my inner energies this week, in ways I hope will be good. It’s Pentecost (in my religion, not hers), so perhaps we can both trust that Holy Spirit, each in our own way.

Meanwhile, this Sunday will be Father’s Day — a good time to honor my father’s formulation. “My rights end where your body begins; your rights end where my body begins.”

It made World War II era Republicans the primary Caucasian Civil Rights allies for African Americans (Democrats were chained to racist local power complexes throughout the South). “Main Street Republicans” were the majority of that party, advocating for small businesses, healthy families, and adequate money and leisure to fulfill one’s personal potential. It probably shaped Dwight D. Eisenhower’s caution against diverting excessive government funds into what he labeled “The Military Industrial Complex.”

For New England Unitarians, this slogan captured a Republican ethos (often violated, I know), that we, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, might, with personal profit, dust off, and restore to our personal and political arsenal of phrases.

Why Do We Trust Ferries?

A dear Facebook friend, whom I hope to meet someday in person, has been riding one of America’s iconic ferries this week. At the foot of my own street, Lake Champlain Ferries are gearing up for another season of tourists, students, commuters, and people who just want to spend a couple of hours crossing Lake Champlain in good weather.

For us, with strong local protective powers overseeing our safety, these ferry rides are treats we give our families. We bring loved ones with disabilities, knowing they will safely disembark.

It didn’t feel that way when I lived in Indonesia.

And I thought of some friends who had made this crossing, when I saw this headline, from a ferry line we all considered reliable:

But much worse are losses for those who aspire simply to enter the Third World, fleeing places below any ranking of progress:

Perhaps it’s time to rethink “the laws of the seas” with an eye to passenger safety, rather than shareholder profit. Ferries apparently operate without basic rules of safety. Lifeboats. Safety drills. Crisis-proof, comprehensive message transmission systems. Captains and crew trained to anticipate challenges, plan, and respond accordingly.

There are little ferries that take cars across tiny waterways for fun. And then there are these floating parking lots, cruise ships, leisure resort destinations in themselves. Time to shift control into an international organization based on compassion, not competition among capitalists.

On Choosing Not to See “12 Years a Slave”

Rev. Meg Riley wrote a thoughtful piece about why white folks need to see this tough-to-take movie, even though we cringe at the horrors so well communicated. All her points ring true, but this sensitive white person still plans to pass it by. Bear in mind, as a full time caregiver, I haven’t seen any other movies in theater, either. But this will not be the one and only for this yearning cinephile when we finally organize the respite care schedule better. (Neither will “Gravity:” my finalists are “American Hustle,” “Frozen, and, at the top of the list, “Philomena.”

But Rev. Meg made me think pretty hard about our white duty right now. She also jogged a memory of someone in my on-line universe (who are you? Please step forward and take credit!) who commented on the Academy’s complete abandonment of “Fruitvale Station.” That commentator pondered that we still have “only one” syndrome. “Only one” film about African American historical injustices. “Only one” nominee from your-category-here-if-you’re-not-Euro-American-identified. “Only one” film that speaks more to the conscience than to the industry. Indeed, Rev. Meg herself uses the lingering revulsion from this movie to tweak her already-well-stoked conscience about unjust imprisonment and/or deportation.

Remembering that “only one” analysis dims the joy I felt last night over “Twelve Years’ ” victory. And why? Because as horrible as it is, slavery is, in our country, as depicted in this movie, not happening anymore. The killing depicted in “Fruitvale Station,” however, continues to stalk our landscape. If you are more worried about the Russians in Ukraine than about the police in your rear-view mirror at night, you, my friend, just passed your “white is all right” test. And you are probably more comfortable with “Twelve Years a Slave” than with “Fruitvale Station,” because basically, the latter film pushes something horrible into your face in the midst of a familiar and safe-to-you landscape. I lived in San Francisco when BART opened. I have friends who still ride it all the time. “Fruitvale Station” will be history someday, but right now it’s part of the world in which I pretend to stewardship. Social contract.

Forty-eight hours from now, those of us who take part in such observances will take down our last Christmas greenery, answer the last holiday cards, go to church to get smudged, to repent, to vow that we will do better, at least for forty days. Again we will enter Lent. Perhaps as you reread Rev. Riley and commit to seeing “Twelve Years a Slave,” you’ll contemplate the injustice that stalks the descendants of Solomon Nothrup by seeing “Fruitvale Station.”