25 November 2014

In the Heat of the Night

Less than 12 hours after it came down, many have already responded to the Grand Jury decision about officer Wilson's killing of Michael Brown.  I have not, and there is a reason.

Long ago, before I was thirty but after I was married, there was a moment when I was so filled with anger that words were useless.  In my fury, and my haste to quit the room, I toppled a coat rack which broke when it hit the ground.  Handmade by my father-in-law, and thus very precious to my wife, the sight of it lying in fragments broke me into pieces as well.  I collapsed in tears of regret and shame.

Like Billy Budd, to express deep anger - the profound anger of powerless injustice - often does more harm. It is not revenge at all but a volcanic response to being done wrong and being unable to right it.

This may be the heart of why racial justice has always been part of my life and work.  It started when I was 12 and promoted including Tony, one of the black kids being bused in to school, to be on the safety patrol.  None were and that was wrong, even to a kid like me.  I succeeded.  A week or two after he got his white belt and badge my messy desk caused my teacher to have me cut from the safety patrol.

The irony and proximity has never left me. Those who work for racial justice will not be welcome because true racial justice means everything will change.

In our dogmatically capitalist times, where politics and morality are treated as markets and success is measured by how much more you have than someone else, the reality that racial justice means everything will change means for many that the winners become losers and vice-versa.  Justice is thus a 'zero-sum game,' as we now say, meaning that some have more and some have less and that's just the way things are.

And that's what makes me angry beyond words. If we think this is the way it has to be - some having more justice than others - then America is a lie because America exists 'to establish justice.'  We must believe that everything should change, not only because the way things are now are unjust but because we will be better off as people and a nation if we do this.

Liberty and Justice are not zero-sum games, limited resources, commodities to be bought and sold and traded.  Yet we treat them like they are, and so some get more and some get less.  In America, people of color notably get less, as they have for over 400 years.

It may be that in this case, there was no crime according to law.  I am prepared to see that, but only if others are prepared to say that law is no guarantee of justice.  Injustice is very legal when it comes to marriage for lesbians and gays in Michigan.  Injustice is quite legal when it comes to children getting educated fully.  Injustice is legal where money is speech and poverty is silenced.

We need a better America, the one we pledged allegiance to in school.

07 November 2014

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” – Isaiah 9

A rather long post, following many post election thoughts, and to console my political son who was the second in command for someone who lost her re-election bid by 58 votes.
Although we are less and less Christian as a people, many of us even now recognize and enjoy the tradition that speaks of light after the dark, something we all understand in the northern hemisphere and also a metaphor for hope after despair which is what Isaiah meant after all.
American elections always come within sight of Christmas season, so to my fellow liberals and progressives and Democrats let us recall the words of Isaiah. Yes, there is reason for weeping and gnashing of teeth, and lamentation is understandable but, and let me repeat that word with emphasis – BUT – dismay serves the victor a second victory. Here, then, are some reasons for hope and courage, which are essential especially now.
1. America is a conservative nation, even among liberals. (“I thought you said reasons for hope?”) Yes, this is a reason for hope. By conservative I mean skeptical about government. One hundred fifty years ago Gideon Tucker wrote, “No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session," sometimes attributed to Mark Twain as well, who may have appropriated it somewhere along the line. Suspicion of government is very old among us, well entrenched and even liberals share this notion in some areas. Who of us is not outraged about mass incarceration, police misconduct, civil forfeiture, the Patriot Act? A healthy distrust of power is part of the liberal view as well. In other words, we are not as divided as we may feel.
2. Because we are conservative – skeptical – by nature, people will preserve the status quo long after it has been harmful to them. It is a form of preferring the devil you know, as the saying puts it. I think Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition of conservatives and liberals expresses the heart of the sentiment, “Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”
3. This fact is as old as the country itself. “And accordingly, as all experience hath shown,” writes the Declaration of Independence, “mankind (sic) are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to change the forms to which they are accustomed.” We liberals may decry the folly of those who vote ‘against their own interests,’ but it is an old and well-established fact of social behavior. We should not be surprised when it happens, and rather expect it. As Winston Churchill wryly observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.” And he was a conservative!
4. Therefore, liberal ideas will only be adopted when all else has failed. As a consequence, we should expect to be the minority most of the time. Which clearly means WE SHALL LOSE MORE ELECTIONS THAN WE WIN.
5. But we must not wait until disaster calls us – like firefighters – to the flaming house of democracy. That would be derelict. Though we may not be called upon until the last moment, we may not be absent in the meantime. But what should we do in that meantime, how shall we be ready when the nation needs us?
6. Even the conservative hopes for what the liberal hopes. What is that? “Liberty and Justice for All.” Where liberals have failed is in speaking to that hope in everyone. We have fallen prey to the same devil conservatism serves, fear. Conservatism thrives on fear as this is its basis. Some fears are appropriate, unchecked government power being one. But liberalism is premised on hope, and all people need hope, the light in the darkness, even conservatives; but liberals have lost that voice insofar as it speaks to the nation and not just themselves.
7. That is why dismay is conservatism’s second victory, for by feeling defeated we give up our soul, which is hope. The emotion is legitimate for the moment, as all defeats are hard. It is equally hard not to analyze why we were defeated, forgetting that victory for us is always exceptional and never the norm.
8. Our task is to ask not what went wrong with our strategy and organization, but how we can better speak to the hope. Technique helps win some elections, but ‘without a vision the people perish,’ and it is the liberal vision that people need. Thus the next step is not asking how to get people to vote but making people hungry to vote. We have two years. Here is how.
9. Reclaim our gift as those who believe the future of America is before us (hope) not behind us (fear). We cannot win elections or hearts by trying to compete over whose fears are more dire, or by using its cousin, anger. Fear and anger are the emotional basis of conservatism, after all.
10. Express liberal hope in words every American knows and reveres, ‘liberty and justice for all,’ ‘we the people,’ ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ ‘I have a dream,’ and so on. Our greatest moments as a nation have been moments when liberals were in power.
11. Let go of specific policies and platforms, the techniques of government, and talk only of the people and the nation. Liberalism is larger than government, but right now it has been cornered as mere belief in big government. Let’s then lose the language of government with its programs (which sound like money spent) and laws (which sound like regulations and limits) and speak instead of democracy and liberty, of justice and fairness, of community and responsibility, of all the things everyone values. These are liberal hopes, but not enough people know they are.
12. Finally, rejoice in the victory of our fellow conservative Americans. They are our neighbors and friends and as wrong as we think they may be, we are as likely to wrong as well. And cheer them on because liberal hope extends to all Americans, not just those who think like us. Let’s disappoint those who think us defeated and outcast by drawing the circle of our hope around them as well.

12 October 2014

Different Topic... But No Less Provocative For Some At Least

Ok, so I felt sick last night, a cold that made a last ditch effort after I over exerted myself digging out dead shrubs in the yard.  (yes it was foolish).  And lying in bed with a fever of 102 I scanned the tube for something to watch.  Behold, the 2012 movie version of Les Miz, something I had not seen.  Nor had I seen the theatrical version , but many of the songs were familiar to me.  People said it was a good movie, and though I had not seen the show I had read the book.  Good choice.

Bad choice.  For those who don’t know “Les Miserables” is one of the longest books in the world -1500 pages in English and 1900 in French (those French!). Upton Sinclair called it "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world."  It is similar in size as well as date to “War and Peace.”  Having read both, and eager to recommend them both, I can now conclude that the stage and screen version of “Les Miserables” is a failure.  Here is why.

Victor Hugo wrote it to describe in detail and consequence, “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night,” displayed not simply by individual characters but by fictional case studies.  He demonstrates how they interact and interlock – one creating the other, and all sustained by an imperious government bent on preserving order at all costs.  Valjean’s story cuts across them all, but Fantine and Thenardier and Marius and all the rest have their own stories as well, complete stories that describe in immense detail how society drives them to choices between bad and worse.  It is an immense novel because he is trying to take it all in.  Very much as Tolstoy was trying to render all of Russia in “War and Peace.” 

The show and movie tell one story, though.  Because of that we meet Fantine but do not learn her full story.  We deal with Thenardier but never see his complex connection to Marius.  Gavroche is a major character in the second half of the book, long before the uprising.  While the cat-and-mouse of Valjean and Javert propel the plot, the plot is not the point.  And that is all the show can do. 

Mind.  I do not mean that the show is bad in itself; it simply fails as a presentation OF the book.  By reducing it, of necessity of course, to a single plot, the philosophical basis for the book, its raison d’etre, is lost.  For those who never read the book it comes down to a relentlessly miserable and maudlin tale that makes the whole thing into a melodrama, which is precisely not what the book presents.  Those elements are there in the book, but the purpose of the book always comes through because of its complexity and length, and thus redeems the sentimentalism from mawkishness.  The show and movie cannot because those media are not ‘big’ enough to contain a book.

There are some theatrical versions of books that do work.  Bernstein Hellman’s Candide is excellent, but that book is simpler and obviously shorter.  And it was never a big hit.  Few theatrical musicals come from books actually. Of the most popular, the “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Wiz” and “Tobacco Road” have their direct origins in books.  So maybe I should not be surprised.

The huge success of “Les Miz” is actually unusual for a musical based on a novel.  Perhaps if I had not read the book first I would have like it more.  That said, I do hope some who enjoyed the show went on the read the book and discovered there was an even richer experience there than in the theater.

29 September 2014


Pew Research says support for same sex marriage has dipped a little.  No surprise, I think.  Everything human has ups and downs.  Perhaps it indicates a little ‘cause fatigue’ or something else.   Of course we shall hear some prophets on the right say it is a bellwether or some such thing.  As there are still some who believe the Civil War is not over (Tea Party anyone?) there will be die-hards for traditional marriage for generations to come.  Same –sex marriage, though, is inevitable despite them, and this tiny dip which is a sociological tip of the hat to an era that has come to an end.  All we who protest now are doing is making sure the foot dragging doesn’t take too long.

That being said, I wish to start another odd conversation about the way our society works, and because same-sex marriage has been so prominent it made me look at a curiosity of our culture that I believe deserves to change.  To wit, the legal authority of clergy to solemnize legal marriage. 

Those training for clergy life are always eager for the moment when they can ‘sign licenses,’ which is the one official thing we do that make us clergy different from civilians.  Virtually everything else we do can be done by lay folk, legally I mean.  But signing those licenses is the proof of our station and status.  What I did not know back then was that this authority to sign marriage licenses is not global.  
It seems that modern clergy authority to legitimate marriage is mostly an British custom.  In other parts of Europe and the New World religious and civil marriage have been divorced (excuse the pun) for some years. 

If our American (and Canadian) practices are cultural legacies not universal law, and we clergy who boast of our radical reformation roots have stood strongly against the commingling of church and state, then why do we allow ourselves to do this?  Some of us have refused to sign licenses until gay and lesbian couples can also enjoy legal marriage, which is noble but my question is why we ever sign them all? 

The more I think about it, the more it seems that this convention violates the intent of separating church and state.  By making clergy magistrates of marriage, then then wield civil authority not according to the law but according to their religion.  There is no reason for clergy to have this civil power, though.  No religion requires it, as every religion in the USA and Canada exists in places where clergy do not have this authority.  The convenience factor is minor, again as billions elsewhere do not seem aggrieved.  Its original purpose, which was to make it easier for those far removed from cities to have access to legal marriage, is now moot.

I believe it is time for clergy – from my UU tradition and others – to demand that the states remove this unhealthy and unwise practice.  Losing it will not impede religious practice, does not impose impractical burdens on couples or society, and tempts religious leaders to mix theology with law and church with state. 
What do you think?

29 August 2014

Now that I have Finished my Journey

Here I go again, stepping on a wasp's nest this time, perhaps.

In a recent Facebook post I questioned democracy as a way of creating justice.  It is a good thing, I said, not because of what it does because of what it prevents, to wit, tyranny. By slowing, complicating, and otherwise impeding actions that would be faster and clearer, it makes tyranny harder to accomplish.  But democracy does this by impeding all decisions not just bad ones.  So when we decry the gridlock and the compromise and the watering down by Congress we should not see this as anti-democratic but utterly democratic.  This may be what Churchill meant by calling democracy the worst of all political systems, except compared to others.  As bad a democracy is for getting things done, it does a fairly good job of preventing great tyranny by being so cumbersome, messy and venal.

This time - and this is very different - I am pondering a pattern of reasoning that assumes the innocence of the oppressed from deserving their oppression indicates an overall innocence. (A corollary would be that those guilty of oppressing others are guilty in some overall way as well.)

I see this in a variety of locations in time and place, but perhaps most notably in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.  Here's how:

The Israeli government is doing oppressive things to the Palestinian people around them - in Gaza and the West Bank and in their own midst. Our natural sympathies for those who are suffering has, for some, made the Palestinian people and their cause noble.  Because the one is wrong, the other must be right.  And for some the wrong of the one means they are wrong in general and the innocence of the other renders them innocent in every respect. Therefor any defensive action by Israel will be seen as wrong by some, and any provocative action by Palestinians will seen as just.

Logically, this is a form of the error called 'post hoc ergo propter hoc,' that because this is wrong that is right.  It may in fact be true, but not logically. But most people are not analyzing the situation logically. We see disproportionate violence and other acts which strike us as excessive. But that does not mean those who are harmed by those acts are innocent of anything except not deserving that.

The problem as I see it is reducing the dynamic of oppression to a binary moral zero sum game.  One one side is bad, the other side is good. When that happens, categorical thinking tends to rise - one side is ALL bad and the other side is ALL good.  In this instance, Israel's policies are bad, so Israel is bad, and Jews who believe in Israel are bad. (Those who read my post linking to the NYTimes article about anti-semitism should take time to read the comments which is where I began to think about this matter.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/02/world/europe/anger-in-europe-over-the-israeli-gaza-conflict-reverberates-as-anti-semitism.html?

It is hard to believe both in the necessity of Israel - which I do - and in justice for Palestinians - which I also do. But as one poet once told a younger one "everything serious is difficult" and it would be hard to find something more serious than this.