Friday, April 28, 2017

A little Friday morning reading

I've enjoyed Neil Gaiman's writing for years, and I'm interested in trying to binge-watch the new series American Gods after it's gotten good and going. (I've tried several times to binge-watch shows--The Man in the High Castle, Penny Dreadful, Dark Matter--but I couldn't watch any past the first season; they always disappointed.) Anyhow, I really liked American Gods my first reading and intend to reread it before watching the shows as I don't remember many details (and the trailers remind me I've forgotten more than I'd thought), and I want to get in on this binge-watching thing that everyone, including my wife, has been doing.

I've been reading much about how several TV shows now are especially relevent as they give insights into Life Under Trumpism, and especially American Gods and The Handmaid's Tale. But for the Gaiman book, I read a very good interview in which he says the following:
I have this mad theory about American elections. There is a reality-TV quality to them, in that they tend to go to what people think would probably be the most interesting story. “Who’s more interesting? Who’s a better story? Bob Dole or Bill Clinton? Let’s go for Clinton, it’ll be more interesting!” And there is that point where you’re going, “Okay, so is it Hillary, who still feels kind of like a rerun? Or is it Trump?” Even articulating that as a theory means that people are going to mishear what I’ve said. It will turn into a clickbait headline and people will be going, “You said that Trump was a better story!” No. I think Trump is an out-of-his-depth idiot. Who is possibly criminal. And certainly incompetent. I think that, actually, having a sane and functional right wing is a good thing. Having what we’ve got right now is a bad thing.

When the novel was written, it was written about America as a country of immigrants, of people who either came here of their own free will, or escaped here, or were brought here against their will. And what that meant — talking about the religious traditions and talking about the cultural traditions and talking about what that became. And having a lead character who was racially — and in all other ways — a melting pot. That, when I wrote the novel, didn’t seem to me to be particularly problematic, difficult, or even praiseworthy! Things that I did not think were praiseworthy or sensible included writing about indentured servants and transportation. Writing about the slave trade. Writing about a gay, Muslim salesman encountering a genie who drives a cab in New York.

I wasn’t doing it for the credit. I was doing it because it all feels right if you’re talking about America. Suddenly, Trump came in and now I’m reading articles in Vanity Fair about, “This is the most political stuff you’ve ever seen.” Well, I guess that’s all true, but it’s not like we sat down and went, We are the opposition. We simply started telling our fucking story and then the world changed. It would be like telling a pro-Jewish story in Berlin in the 1930s, and suddenly you’re looking around going, “We’re apparently doing something big and important.”
 Oddly, this theory of his comforts me, as the idea that we love a good, juicy story is a lot more appealing than that we like chaos and incomepetence. It's certainly played out at times in American electoral history (although it's important to remember we never had Presidents Bryant or Long), and if it's true it suggests that, like all the other times, most of us will get through it. Of course, some of us won't. And it's for those the rest of us must act up.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A reason we ended up with Trump?

I've lately been reading a book about adolescence, A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch, which is, I'll be the first to admit, rather dated in its information, having been published in 1998. But precisely because of that I'm left to wonder if the following information, presented about the early teens of the mid-90s, who are parents now, is a good descriptor for what has led to Trump's election.

In 1992, a USA Weekend survey of over 236,000 young people revealed that 25 to 40 percent of teens see nothing wrong with cheating on exams, stealing from employers, or keeping money that isn't theirs. A 1989 Girl Scouts survey of 5,000 kids found 65 percent would cheat on an important test. A survey by the Josephine Institute of Ethics in 1992 similarly revealed that 75 percent of high school students admit to cheating...The biggest reason, according to 65 percent of the students, was that it was more important to get good grades than to be honest..."People are under lots of pressure. The attitude is that everybody does it, people don't look upon cheating as bad, none of your friends look at you as bad because you cheated." Everybody knows it is the wrong thing to do, "but I am not convinced that it is unfair when you are in a class you are never going to need again in your whole life but...the difference between a C and an A will make a difference in what college you get into.
Paradoxically, there is an ethic of cheating. This is how most students explain it...: It is easy and it is not always straight-out cheating. It is the little sneaky stuff like asking somebody from the period before what is on the test, or being absent so you know what is on it the next day. "Real cheating is having the answers in front of you while you are taking the test, looking at someone's paper."
The truth, and everybody knows it, is that to get into college an A or B is always better than something lower, and students' lives are so full of pressure and activity, especially for the smartest and most ambitious, that something has to give. "Even though we are told it will hurt us in the long run, that is a bunch of baloney...Maybe you are hurting other people and that may be unfair, but you are not hurting yourself. Why not take the easy way out if you can go home and be with friends for three hours or work in a subject that really matters to you...[?]" The bottom line is that "grades are more important because they get you someplace--getting good grades, not being ethical." 
This may be the crux of the matter. In the Girl Scouts of America survey, it was found that by a huge margin the youth problems of the headlines--peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, sex, gangs--were not the "crisis issues" for kids. Their concerns were "the social expectations of the adult world which all have to do with pressure..." In times when society lacks clear ethical guidelines, when parents neither spend the time to educate about time-honored values...and personal responsibility nor necessarily model consistent value`s in their own lives, kids are responding to the one message they hear loud and strong from the adult world: Succeed. Do well. Do whatever you need to do... 
Kids have grown up with a regular diet of people like Leona Helmsley, who ripped off the government; Mayor Marion Barry, who was reelected after being in prison for cocaine possession; Michael Milken and his junk bonds; Ivan Boesky and insider trading; Pete Rose and gambling. The list seems endless: Watergate, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Lorena and John Bobbitt, Whitewater. Stories of killings for sneakers, parents who abandon their children, drive-by shootings. The students see inconsistent punishments or no consequences at all... 
Somehow people keep on expecting kids to have a certain belief system or a commitment to certain kinds of values that are not evidenced with any regularity in their environment. Values do not spring fully formed out of nowhere. And cheating, among all the things people are doing that are not right, turns out to be fairly benign.
 Get ahead any way you need to. Cheating isn't the worst thing you can do, and you have to do it because everyone else is and it's the only reasonable response to everything they expect of you. If you aren't caught, you won't be punished, and if you are caught, well, people will understand. There's a sliding scale of unethical behavior and you can always justify it by contrasting it with what someone else does or could do. Act like we tell you, not how we act. Most importantly, other people do a whole lot worse, and they're the real reason things are bad.

Is there a better description for what history will come to call Trumpism?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

To recognize the fragility in each of us

In my last post I made reference to a developing story out of Oklahoma, that of Ron Robinson, a UU minister outside Tulsa. I say "developing" because there have been no reports since his initial arrest on March 30, and I can't imagine there haven't been additional developments.

I don't know him or heard of him, but friends of mine have either been mentored by him or worked with him on projects. His past accomplishments are impressive: co-founder of a UU congregation, university professor, youth pastor, ordained minister, director of a local foundation and its food pantry. Would that all of us had this sort of spirit.

Almost hidden in that list is a damning title: youth pastor. Because Ron Robinson has been arrested on "federal charges for distribution or receipt of child pornography and possession of and access with intent to view child pornography." Hence my certainty there have been more developments since his arrest. 

Now, I'm not going to talk about his guilt or innocence because aside from the stuff noted above, I don't know anything about it. But I've seen enough Law & Order: SVU episodes to know that there is a high bar for prosecutors to meet to start a potentially costly federal case while the air is full of states and the government crying austerity. So I'm presuming at least some guilt. 

I don't have any experience or insight to bring to Robinson's case. What I have mostly is a couple questions. Why do so many people later charged with child endangerment of any kind seek positions in the clergy? And what is the UU response to it happening in our denomination?

That clerical malfeasance includes sexual abuse of kids isn't new. Like teachers, foster parents, police, social workers, every position that has some measure of authority over them, there are many, many examples among religious leaders of every faith of taking advantage of children in some way. And while prosecution of these cases may be new, it's certain that the practice is very old, in some faiths may even be codified. (This link is included, not for its authority, but for its examples from multiple faiths.) But some practices continue now. Not only, of course, in Catholicism, but among  Protestant groups, among Jews, HindusBuddhists even among Animists

Religious leaders are perhaps most susceptible to the delusion that their position of power is a role assigned by God and that, if they want something, God must want it too. I don't think it's putting too fine a point on it that, while I'm sure few contemporary religious abusers would put this in such a straightforward way, what it often comes down to is they feel authorized, by their position and respect and the tendency of congregations and individuals to defer to them, to rationalize their abusive behavior (or in the case of child porn, their viewing someone else getting away with it) as being something they have the imprimatur of the group to do (or in the case of viewers, the thrill of watching someone else do it). You feel a powerful tingle when you get away with something you know you shouldn't do; I've felt that with theft. 

So we know it happens. What do UUs do when it happens among us?

The first thing, obviously, is to remove the abuser from that position, and that was done. As I understand the news, Robinson was brought to the cops' attention by his use of a website they were monitoring, but I like to think anyone who caught wind of his behavior among his congregation would have reported him. I don't know if I would have talked with him first. 

But I think the attitude displayed by friends and co-workers of Robinson, The UU Missional Cohort, is one we should mimic. They remain dismayed, they grieve. And they gather and weep and recognize the fragility in each of us. They assert that "Missio Dei—The Mission of God—even for those of us who quibble about the definition of 'God,' is bigger than any one person, or movement, or religion...The mission of oneness, that we are here to serve each other, to create a Beloved Community that is nothing less than a heaven on earth...We believe in a larger truth—that we are here to abet and witness to the wonder of existence, that we are here to serve each other and to realize Shalom—that each and every one of us is a minister, a servant of that creative, sustaining and transformative power." That Shalom, that Beloved Community, is, must be inclusive even of people like Ron Robinson. 

Whether we recognize the Ron Robinson in ourselves or in others, my time teaching in prisons taught me that he is our brother, our dad, our cousin, our friend. He's transgressed the law of the tribe and he'll be punished for it. If hell is separation from God, then a part of that is separation from your tribe. But once he has served his sentence, we must let him, and others like him, back in. With watching, with certain agreements, with monitoring; but if he will do that then we have to do that. We are a justice-seeking people, and it is just to accept one another's deep criminal flaws and behave, not as if those flaws don't matter, but because criminally flawed is still human. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Guides on the journey

There isn't a reason my opinion would be sought out on this issue. But in the midst of the garbage fire that is the Trump administration, it's important to keep your eye on the smaller things happening that effect us on a different level.

To wit: the resignation of my denomination's president. This isn't like Pope Benedict XVI resigning, or even the resignation of Rowan Williams. I even find that many UUs are unaware of it. But within the hothouse world of Unitarian Universalist politics, while it's not a hot-button topic, it is cause for concern and speculation.

To understand it totally, you'd need to go back to the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade; but you can get enough background by remembering the problems of the late 1960s. It was a different America, both for better and worse, and one of the ways it was better was the spirit of "can-do" optimism on the part of society at large, and one of the ways it was worse was the ability for much of the makeup of that society to ignore the concerns of its minority citizens. Here is a good timeline that explains much of how the situation came about. For a fuller examination, I recommend the books of Mark Morrison-Reed, particularly Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.

It was at least in part because of their behind-the-scenes treatment by the nascent Unitarian Universalist Association that many black members left, and it's perhaps a legacy of that period that UUism has fewer members of color than it ought. There is much in UUism that attracts black and brown freethinkers, but as Dr King said, Sunday morning remains the more segregated day of the week. Those who do belong watch carefully the way the organization refers to and treats them, with justification.

The presidency of the UUA has a fixed term and current officeholder Peter Morales' term ends in three months. The vote for a new president will happen at the annual General Conference. All three candidates are women, and are fine candidates. But all three are white women. And here is where it gets sticky.

When the retiring leader of the Southern region of the UUA, who is white, was replaced by another white man (and this is not a denigration of his abilities or his hiring), it was seen by members attending the Finding Our Way Home retreat, a group of clergy and religious professionals of color, that "the UUA had hired another white person over an unidentified woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job." That candidate, Christina Rivera, identified herself at the retreat as a finalist who was passed over because she wasn't "a good fit."

I have issues with Rivera's blog post. If I were to edit it, I would condense it and eliminate many of the remarks that suggest personal complaint, focusing on the need for diverse voices in leadership. But her primary point is important: "The Exec and First Management levels are the directors of departments and staff. They have the power, influence and autonomy to direct policy, resources and hiring. And autonomy is a huge measure of power within our dominant culture; who gets to decide the what, when, who and how of the UUA. And just seven are people of color. It is an insult to the over 100 UU Religious Professionals of Color gathered at the recent Finding Our Way Home conference to suggest that this is anything other than racial discrimination at the UUA." (Her emphasis.)

The charge that UUA leadership reflects elements of white male supremacy are merited. So, unfortunately, does nearly every other denomination. It's a holdover from the past, not only of the US, but of Europe. Typically, the landed gentry knew best, and in most European nations, the landed were white and male. There are deeply-ingrained assumptions and beliefs that society and individuals hold. There's nothing wrong or demeaning about accepting one's contemporary advantages and their having risen from historical ones. It is, literally, the least one can do. 

At the retreat, President Morales was asked what his opinion was and, unfortunately, he answered like a CEO rather than a religious leader. (I cannot locate a quote of his response, only paraphrases.) It was essentially that, "If we had more qualified candidates of color applying for those positions, there would be more people of color in them." Even Morales characterizes his response as glib, of having reacted when he should have listened. 

Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, whose co-founder and executive director is a friend of mine, is correct in asserting that this is a "crisis" in our faith and correct too in noting that "Those seen as 'fully qualified' are usually white, usually ordained ministers, often cisgender, often male and able-bodied, often heterosexual, and otherwise fit into common notions of what leadership looks and sounds like." This is one of the elements of white supremacy, that the norm is white (and usually male) and that anyone else qualifies as exotic or foreign. It's a mark of the ubiquity of this belief that many of us don't even recognize when we do it on a personal or an institutional scale. It's a mark too of its insidiousness that Morales, the first Hispanic president of the UUA, repeated one of its tenets. 

However, while everyone agrees he shouldn't have said it, no one called for Peter Morales' resignation. Friends among the UUA communications organization report, while there were a few calls from individuals, there was no coordinated effort, no one in the organization had suggested it, and no one thought it would solve the issue. It was completely out of the blue.

Morales is, of course, capable of making his own decisions and he wrote in his resignation letter, "I have clearly lost the trust of many people and my comments have become a focal point in the ongoing discussion. It is clear to me that I am not the right person to lead our Association..." But I am not convinced of the rightness of any of those statements. Many of us rolled our eyes at his comment and it may have been newsworthy for a day or two, but it and he have not been the focal point at all. That has remained the ongoing assumption among religious organizations that the de facto leader of any institution is a white male.

There are important issues our denomination has to grapple with; along with the above, there is the recent arrest of UU minister Ron Robinson on charges of child pornography, how we react to the maelstrom of Trump administration fiats, and the simple continuation of our faith in a world where the word has become synonymous with either cruelty or irrelevance. This is not a time for leaders to take themselves out of the game because they've made stupid comments. It's time to admit our mistakes and provide ourselves, if not as models, then as guides.