Friday, December 18, 2009

The intersection of faith and politics

Religion and Politics seem to be about where all my interests overlap. I've more experience in church governance than anything else outside of school. At school, I'm most fascinated studying Turkey and Iran, which are both outliers for the role of religion within their government. My advisor has made his work studying Western Europe, and the consensus state that failed tom emerge in 1918 but came about after 1945; a consensus marked clearly by the inclusion of religious parties in many mixed-confessional nations. The role of confessional political parties in post-war Europe is significant enough that a case has been made attributing the rise of fascism to a lack of meaningful participation in politics by the deeply religious. It is an intersection so rich that I go from idle musing to wonkish details in seconds.

In academia, this works out well: comparing the struggles that led Europe to its mostly secular public sphere coexisting with the occasional state-sponsored church is a valuable reference point for understanding similar the church and state relations happening elsewhere in the world today. Very good, but very niche.

The more immediate intersection of religion and politics, and the impetus behind this post, was their role in the politics of the US today. On twitter, many friends of mine, whose opinions I value, argued that if churches take political stances, they should lose their non-profit status. I mentioned that churches can lose tax-exemption for endorsing candidates, but this only slightly dodged the issue. What matters is not so much that a tax-exempt organization doesn't support specific people - it matters that they both get to be tax-exempt and engage so actively in the public sphere.

At the core of my friends' distaste for politically-vocal religion are images like this one:

From Overcompensating: "Here is a picture of a group of Americans who just found out they have successfully denied equal rights to another group of Americans." That is, to put it lightly, disgusting. The categorical denial of rights to a group of people is something abhorrent to the ideals of most Americans'.

It's deplorable activity, for which the correct response is disgust, distaste, and shaming. But these people should never be forcibly excluded from politics. If we exclude them, we exclude the very idea the morality can be based on religious experiences/teachings, and we are left with secularism alone to inform our collective values. There's an argument to be made for that - secularism is the shared values of everyone sans religion, and in a world where multiple religious interpretations exist, removing religion altogether has a lot to say for it. Another large part of the European consensus involves having a forcibly secular public sphere.

But there are problems with that. In France, the secular public sphere has invaded the realm of personal choice and religious practice, where most notably muslim women are forbidden from wearing veils in public. Rather than allowing for a shared society of shared values, that's oppressive. And in England, there has been controversy over the relation between the country's historic legal system and the values of some of its residents. This lead the Archbishop of Canterbury to claim that Shari'a law in the UK will be inevitable, and led a Tory shadow minister to say in response:
"We must ensure people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law. Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices. But let's be clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through parliament and the courts."
While the debate is framed as between religious law and secular law, the religious context and values that formed and informed british law go unmentioned. What is ostensibly secular law tends to reflect the values of protestants fairly closely. In this case, trying to keep the religious out in the name of secularism is similar to the nativists of the 1890s-1920s trying to keep southern Europeans out of the USA in the name of "Nativism". It can be done, sure, but it's hypocritical, and it assumes as normal a state that was itself the result of centuries of change.

But even more important than the implicit religious values that informed secularism to the inclusion and protection of religious institutions as tax exempt is the role of religious activism. The easy example here is the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States, and it's one of the most meaningful as well. Nationwide religious associations motivated and coordinated activists on an issue that was as explicitly political as it was anything else. Religious groups also protested and argued against civil right in the South, too; even my Unitarian church suffered a split thanks to disagreement over the civil rights movement. But the civil rights movement could not have acted as it did, and had the success it did, if it did so without the religious values that enabled it to both challenge the status quo and to call upon the US to live up to its own ideals.

And then there is today, where the appearance of religious activism is of one march to quash rights after another. Certainly, that religious activism is happening, but it is happening because conservative religion is generally about quashing rights anyway, and while I can accept individuals voluntarily taking on religious restrictions on behavior, it will always be hard for me to accept forcing such restrictions on others in the name of religion. But today's religious activism is not exclusively activism on behalf of the right.

Today, at All Souls Church in DC, Mayor Fenty signed into law a bill granting marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples. This is the second-to-last step (a confirmation by the national legislature is next) of a long campaign, spearheaded by the religious community of DC and helped by the Unitarian Universalist Association's Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Here was religion acting inconcert with secular society to better secure the rights of all citizens, and this was the result of seeing marriage equality as not just a secular concern, but as one with a religious mandate behind it. This activism in specific is crucial to the purpose of our nation, and having religious activism as a valid means of expression, as a protected means of expression, is vital the vibrancy of our democracy. And crucial to all of this: we must let religious organizations be invested in this world. If we take that away, if we make it hard for religious groups to engage with the nation in which they exist, we lose the participation of part of the population (itself a problem in democracy), and we lose the ability for religion to remind us of our higher values and nobler virtues.

The problem has nothing to do with the religious being active in politics. The problem has everything to do with *which* religious are active in politics, and I for one prefer the participation of all to the exclusion of any.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance Day

Given how much I write about war here, it only feels appropriate to mention Veterans day. Or Remembrance day. Or Armistice Day. It's a tricky holiday, mainly solemn, but with such a strong focus on service and internationalism it's hard to not get lost pondering it.

My initial response to today was to be annoyed at the change that has befallen Armistice Day. This day, 91 years ago, ended the most needless war in human history. It ended for many thoughts of glory in war, and it especially ended (for all but one nation) the notion of glory on the offense. It was a powerful halt. Humanity would give it one more go before throwing out the very idea of actually fighting annihilistic war, but WWI was the first moment when not fighting wars even became a considered idea. Honoring the Armistice is important.

A blogging acquaintance of mine posted today a great, semi-connected series of remembrances. Most striking about her memories and the stories she relays second-hand are their modernity. While very few alive today remember WWI, Europe saw hot war in the past two decades. And we forget so easily in the West that while hot war may be dead at home such peace is a modern anomaly. We forget that many parts of the world suffer lingering effects of where our Cold War was actually fought, or where our abandonment and indifference let senseless war happen again. Rwanda may now be as much a part of history books as WWI, but that's still only 15 years old. Hesitancy to act and memory of the costs of engaging in war must always be measured against the costs of inaction. Remembering only part of it helps no one.

Then there is veterans day. I have only one immediate relative that actually fought in any war - my father and uncles were not part of US action in Vietnam, and my maternal grandfather has been a cyclops since he was six. So the veteran I knew was my paternal grandfather, Alfred Leroy Atherton Jr. I've written about him before, and I have this somewhat mythologized version of his legacy as family history. He was late to WWII, and spent his year or so in the war as the spotter in a plane scouting for an artillery division. It's easy to make metaphors about that - "he saw the totality of war" or "he was removed enough from combat to get the big picture", and it is very tempting to make these part of the myth. I don't actually think his experience as a spotter specifically influenced his life that much, but I never had the chance to ask. What I do know is this: after the war, and after finishing his degree on the GI Bill, he joined the Foreign Service, and his first deployment was in what was becoming West Germany. He became a diplomat, and spent 36 years as an agent of his country working to prevent wars.

It's for this reason, I think, that I tend to link appreciation for diplomats with appreciation for veterans. We respect and honor those who served their countries in times of need. I just support a definition of that service which includes those who did everything they could to keep us out of wars.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Agency: A Case Study

The latest bit of life-threatening trivia that's seen some major media coverage has been the fear of a link between vaccines and autism. Such a link does not exist. The science is there, is solid, and is not an evil plot. So why does the myth persist? As the linked-to story in Wired says, parents are willing to do anything out of love for their children. They are eager and willing to believe in alternative cures, or in radical measures to save their children. A lot of emphasis has been places on this as a failure of rationale choice: vaccines are inherently safer than the diseases they protect against. A striking visual example is this chart discussing the risk of taking the HPV vaccine versus the risk of not doing so. HPV not in any way associated with Autism, but the case against HPV is similar: well-publicized incident of a side effect gone wrong, or of the potential for a harmful side-effect, with little real coverage of the damage caused by not taking the vaccine. To scientists (and, generally, to rational human beings) this makes no sense: the least risky action is desired, and should be taken.

So why the resistance to vaccinations? Agency.

People see themselves as having control over whether or not to get a vaccination; they are upset at laws about mandatory vaccinations, which to them imposes the risk of side effects. In refusing to be vaccinated or vaccinate their own children, this people are acting against the only risk they perceive: that caused by vaccines themselves.

They are, at the same time, assuming that disease is a factor beyond their control. Getting infected by any of the diseases that a vaccine would protect against is seen as something against which they are powerless (or, more likely, unaware), and so isn't a risk to avoid. They've seen/read/researched the stories about things gone terribly wrong with vaccines. But the renewed outbreak of diseases like measles (basically non-existent for my generation and the one immediately preceding it) doesn't register as a new risk. These people, these parents fearful of autism (or more generally the mercury in all vaccines) are making a terrible assessment of the possible risks, but it's not irrational - they just have no idea of the risks where the balance of risk falls.

Most relevantly, they don't see getting vaccinated as reducing risk. Because exposure to disease isn't something they have control over, but exposure to medicine totally is. It's a major disconnect they've developed between vaccinations and disease. The solution? Coming from my social-sciencey background, I'm inclined to think that the problem can be solved by a reframing of vaccination. Vaccinating is a choice just as much as not vaccinating is, and the positive good caused by vaccines is little publicized, and even more rarely seen as an actual decision.

We humans remember when things go wrong. We have a terrible problem with forgetting when and why things went right.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Support Your Local Papers! Gordon Sisters in the Times-Picayuner

Here's something genuinely weird: I don't have internet in my apartment, and I just signed up for a month-long subscription to NOLA's local paper (the Times-Picayune). I'll probably get another when that one runs out. Why? Well, the easiest reason is that I like having something disposable to read every morning. A better answer would be that, with my church membership, apartment, and employment(ish) here, I feel committed enough to through down some more shallow roots.

And the best answer? Have some foreshadowing, and check this space again in a week.

Edit 10/5: After my totally unsubtle buildup, the Times-Picayune story on the Gordon Sisters Window. It does a better job of the history than I do (easy access to newspaper records helps with that), and on the whole, I think it's well done. My only qualms are, funny enough, nitpicking with my ministers language - while it's important to emphasize the good that the sisters did, I think there is little gained in excusing them as "products of their time", instead of focusing on them as "flawed people acting on contemporary notions of justice." To me, what is fascinating about them is not the views they held in common with their peers, but instead how they managed to hold those views and do lots of good works despite them. That said, I think the story does justice to the Gordon sisters, and First Unitarian Universalist of New Orleans decision to honor them as flawed humans. The newspaper article gets the nuance down, and for that I am grateful.

Again, my previous post discussing their complicated historical legacy is here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Realist goes M.A.D.

Over the past two days, I've made some fairly bold claims about nuclear power on my twitter account. Here's my claims:
  • I trust the sanity of people who have the most to gain by not engaging in nuclear war. Being king > being dead. And yes, even Kim Jong Il has more to gain by not nuking, and he's as close to insane as we've got. It's in Kim Jong Il's interest for people to think he is crazy - he (and those in power around him) gain nothing, however, by actually engaging in Nuclear War.
  • The main argument I've heard for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) not being stabilizing: Bernard Lewis, who claimed that the Iran govt was apocalyptic, and saw the certain destruction of nuclear war as an inducement, rather than a deterrent. I spent a good part of last year writing a response for my War on Terror class. My core counter argument was, essentially, that while Ahmadejinehad (and Iran proxy) have a lot to gain through nuclear posturing, and even through the possession of nuclear weapons, they are first and foremost a government. And as a government, things are better for them if they both a) stay in power, and b) stay alive. Religious belief may be strong enough to motivate a terrorist to kill himself on behalf of his community, but very few people are genuinely willing to risk initiating the actual death of their community. Altruistic motives fuel suicide terrorism; if you think your death will benefit the community, you may well do it. But it does not extend far enough to risk the entire community, because nothing is gained by that.
  • M.A.D. works precisely because even if the leader has more to gain in a war, and leaders usually have the most to gain, gains in war become impossible w/nuclear second strikes. Were a nuclear nation to initiate war against another nuclear nation, the damages that resulted would be, well, apocalyptic. You'd get two devastated nations, and the cost + time involved in rehabilitating them is certain to be expensive. Not going to war is, in this day and age, always cheaper and the better economic prospect for a nuclear armed nation. Plus, any government that initiates such a war is sure to either die, be deposed, or be greatly reduced in power within minutes.
  • Finally: a single person may be irrational (Ahmadejinehad, Kim Jong Il). But a small group of people (say, the rest of the governing bodies in Iran with a special emphasis towards the Supreme Leader, or the bureaucratic elite of the DPRK) errs towards rationality.
  • Governments of States, as collections of people with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, are going to be more rational and more restrained that the sum of their parts. They might posture, and they may well pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent, but actually engaging in nuclear war is not in their interest.
That is, more or less, the whole of my argument as regards states. Nonstate actors are generally perceived as less rational. Fortunately, however, nonstate actors can't really produce outright nuclear weapons on their own (dirty bombs being another matter). Nuclear forensics, while not as developed as it should be, mitigates the risk of a nonstate actor obtaining (and therefore using) a nuke. Nuclear forensics, ideally, makes the nation that gives a nuke to a nonstate actor (read: terrorist) responsible for any deaths caused, and therefore vulnerable as though the state itself had launched the weapon. So rather than MAD deterring the use of weapons by nonstate actors, it deters nations unloading nuclear weapons on terrorist groups. And so that makes the governments of all nuclear nations put a premium on tight control, small stockpiles, and encourages nuclear actions to be controlled as a state, rather than enacted by nonstate proxies. Following the thesis of states as rational actors, MAD is an effective deterrent, so long as nuclear war is seen as fundamentally unwinnable.

Qualifiers and Postscripts:

Nuclear forensics is valuable, but it isn't as effective a deterrent as MAD. MAD is purely a "between states" thing, and works on the premise of states as rational actors. Since states have a lot to gain by posturing, posturing through nonstate loose cannons is a fancy little risk in this day and age. That said, nuclear forensics still holds promise of making deterrence continue to be relevant, two decades after the cold war.

Security through proliferation? The topic itself came up because a friend made an aside about how giving everyone nuclear weapons was not the path to peace. Another friend interjected that I "might advocate giving all STATES nuclear weapons. Some silly thing about rational actors." So, I then went out and kind of babbled my way through a rough version of the argument you see above. I genuinely trust states rational actors, and I stand by the value of deterrence in a world with nuclear weapons. What I omitted in the above argument but included in my conversation are two fairly important asides:
  1. The only nation that was nuclear and actively, unilaterally disarmed itself was the apartheid government of South Africa. The reasons for this were multiple - the cold war was ending, South Africa really didn't see a need for itself to be nuclear, and the outgoing government really did not trust the rationality of the people they were handing the reins of power over to. It's an example of disarmament, which is a net win for everyone, through an explicit distrust in the rationality of states, which is probably fair but makes me a sad panda. I'm not sure what relevance this has, beyond being basically a silver bullet counterargument to my stated claims. Seemed worth mentioning, any way.
  2. Having nuclear weapons protects a single nation while increasing the risk to all other nations, resulting in a net lose of security. This is a macro-scale effect of the SUV phenomenon: if you drive an SUV, you yourself are safer, but every SUV on the roads makes the roads less safe. More nuclear weapons among more states doesn't actually provide much in the way of stability to anyone outside the most recently nuclear state, and greater proliferation comes with a greater risk of loose nukes and nonstate actors using them. For this reason, while I don't begrudge a nation like Iran seeking to protect itself with a nuclear deterrent, I'm really not all that fond of greater proliferation. I understand it, and don't see it as leading to the end of the world, but in absolute terms it's not a good thing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Gordon Sisters, their Window, and Quiet Little Faults

Today in my church we dedicated a pair of stained-glass windows. The new set is a beautiful post-Katrina triptych, donated and made by volunteers who made many a trip to the city to rebuild. It's not a subtle piece, but it is very pretty, and hyper-relevant to the building in which it is now housed. It's history, though already pretty elaborate, is nothing compared to the main focus of this morning's service.

At the center of the morning, and at the center of the wall facing the congregation in our sanctuary, is the Gordon Sisters window. It's a piece of stained glass with more history than most towns, and it commemorates two little-known but tremendous figures for social justice, who just so happened to be members of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans.

The sisters were fascinating people. Childless and never married, they brought sanitary water and sewage to New Orleans, worked to build a "model home-school for the care and vocational education of the mentally handicapped", spent ten years working for children's rights (which resulted in the Child Labor Act of 1906), one of them directed the Louisiana State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and they "pushed for the state constitution to allow women to vote," where "partial victory was granted and women taxpayers were given the vote, in person or by proxy, on matters relating to taxation." It's about the perfect distillation of late 19th century progressive causes. Reading that, it's a wonder that we don't lionize Kate and Jean Gordon with Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton.

But there are reasons for this. For all the progressiveness of the Gordon Sisters, there are some quietly omitted flaws. Kate fought for women's' suffrage, but she fought for it through state rights. There's a reason Louisiana only gave the right to vote to women taxpayers - that's a category that is almost exclusively white women, and this was the Jim Crow south. Pursuing suffrage on the state level meant that you could still exclude some as you expanded the franchise. This was intentional. This is a stark contrast to the standard progressive discourse about late 19th century liberation movements. We remember Susie B as an abolitionist and a suffragette - they go together perfectly in the progressive canon. We forget, in praising our forebears, all the murky grey area and disagreeable positions that came before.

Jean, too, falls into the grey area of history. The second hit on her name is a book discussing eugenics in the deep south. At the above-mentioned model home school, Jean Gordon admitted only whites, and then sterilized them so that feebleness could be weeded out of the white race. We, as a church community, honor the fight against hardship and feebleness, but it is hard to look back with fondness on forebears who embraced so overtly racist a policy as eugenics. These are sins of omission, perhaps, but it makes a platonic ideal of what should be an examination of caring but deeply flawed people.

This will emerge into a new light soon, and it was already simmering at the service today. Racist predecessors are hard people to acknowledge. More challenging even than that is reconciling the tangible good they produced (sewage and drainage, child labor laws, and even the murkily reasoned good of expanded suffrage) with ulterior motives we would today find appalling. History is not the kindest of materials to work with, and Unitarian Universalism is not free from it's ill effects.

The window itself is still beautiful, it's figures all full of dignity. They're all white (and a dog), but that doesn't have to diminish from the dignity of the piece. It just requires that we are conscious of the exclusion, and mindful that when we focus on achieving justice, our definition of justice is limited to our experience. One day, history may well judge us for our biases, and it is good that it is done.

I'd worry if progressive meant the same thing after a century later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mayoral Quickie

Having not read the Albuquerque Journal in a while (being out of state can do that), I missed an article about the Mayoral Candidates positions on Albuquerque's water future. Here's what they have to say, in turn, using the same order as my earlier post.

Romero said the Mayor's Office should take more interest in the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which has a voting position reserved on its board for the mayor.
Chávez does not attend water authority meetings but sends his chief administrative officer instead.
"We can't just stomp our feet and say, 'I don't like this authority,' " Romero said.
He said more oversight of the authority from a mayoral administration could help coordinate conservation, growth and acquisition efforts.
Romero supports acquiring new water rights, and said the focus needs to be on conservation. He said the city's water conservation record can be improved in its golf courses, parks and buildings.
"The program (to improve city conservation) needs to be accelerated," he said.
Chávez touts his administration's water record with what he calls the most important act as mayor — pushing for the San Juan-Chama diversion project to get off the ground after decades of unused, city-owned surface water in the Rio Grande flowed past the city every year.
Chávez was one catalyst for the construction of the new water system in his first term.
Chávez said he supports desalination, but only as a short term measure. He said reuse systems and new technology, such as toilet-to-tap systems, "if people can get over the 'ugh' factor," would also be welcome in the city.
Chávez is also proud of the steep decline in water use per person in Albuquerque since the 1980s, where personal usage has dropped per capita by about 90 gallons a day.
He said the real improvements can come from the state Legislature, which could force surrounding areas that use the aquifer to implement conservation programs.
Chávez, a former state legislator himself, said the city can do "virtually nothing" to force conservation on other communities. The state has that power, however, he said.
"We can't continue to be the only entity with a meaningful conservation system," Chávez said.
Berry said the city needs a vision and a plan for conservation and future water sources. He said his administration would have a scheme to not only help look for new water rights, especially large water transfers like the San Juan-Chama project, but to also make sure the city is prepared to responsibly pay for it.
"I think the city should have a leader who ... helps drive the vision and helps implement the plan," he said.
Desalination of brackish water, using the aquifer for water storage and the large water transfers are all options to add to the city's water supply, he said. Conservation, for the short term, is the city's best bet for more water, he said.
"Enhanced conservation is the cheapest supply of new water," Berry said.
But Berry also warned that some conservation techniques he supports, such as water reuse systems and low-flow toilets, do not save any water for the city's new water system, which requires the city return its used water into the Rio Grande downriver. He said only new water supplies will satisfy large growth in the area.
My Take:

All the candidates argue for conservation as the first and best way to manage our cities water. Good. Romero wants the Mayor to take a more active role in water policy (which includes acquiring more water rights), Chavez says that the real change needs to happen in the state legislature, and Berry wants to marshal new resources in a way that allows for long term growth. Given that choice, I'm kind of disappointed in all of them, but least disappointed in Romero's position. The city needs a very strong orientation towards conservation, because any growth that happens without it will only make the city much more likely to die out. Marty Chavez should be able to step up on this - the Albuquerque/Rio Grande corridor is the biggest fish in the NM water usage pond (I believe - correct me if I'm wrong), and the mayor of ABQ can do a lot more with that than he thinks he can. Romero sees that active role, but doesn't have any more sweeping vision. As for Berry, he sees conservation as a way to enable growth, which isn't inherently bad so much as a little risky.

Your thoughts?

Friday, August 28, 2009


Here's what I've written about New Orleans before on this blog.

I mention that because one never takes a city in all at once, but instead develops a relationship with the place, which is transformed and changed by time. I've spent the better part of two years here, and my feelings are very different than where I started out.

Initially, I came to Tulane because I found the premise of a college committed to rebuilding a city after a natural disaster to be both exciting and refreshing. I have long been eager to be thrown into good works. That hasn't happened as much as I would have liked yet; it is easy to forget the the key component of good works is works. But I've done some, and I've joined a church here. I've also moved into my first apartment, near the campus and still paid for by folk not me, but an actual residence with implied duration. It's small steps, signs of more permanent action.

I've evacuated this city once. Last year, Gustav looked ominous and deadly. It wasn't; the storm got weaker, and they city, having already had it's difficult evacuation, came back together much more smoothly. It was an odd moment, to be a refugee within the US and leaving a city I was only slowly growing into. For me, it was novel. For my co-congregants, it was very close to traumatic. They'd fled Katrina. They had seen the worst that could happen to a city, lived through it, returned, and spent a week anxious that the very worst would happen again. I've no idea how one gets used to that, but apparently it is possible.

There's a lot to say about Katrina, four years later. I've gone from viewing it as a natural disaster to a human one. Sobering, but it means that it was preventable, and the next one is preventable too. There's more to say than that, but I'll leave it to the (hopeful) next First Couple of New Orleans, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and James Perry:

While these grassroots efforts are extraordinary, they have proved insufficient for the herculean task of restoring New Orleans. Despite the spirit and commitment of its people, the city's levee protection is inadequate, its violent crime is soaring, its school system is failing, its local economy is overly dependent on tourism, and its neighborhoods are ravaged by blight. For example, millions of volunteer hours over four years have put more than 2,000 units of housing back into commerce. While noteworthy, the success pales when one considers that more than 80,000 units of housing were damaged.

New Orleans teaches us that individuals and families bear an important responsibility in restoring the city and our nation. New Orleans shows the innovative capacity of civil society and local entrepreneurship. But New Orleans also reveals that recovery is limited without effective, transparent, responsible government action.

There's a lot more here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include their excellent conclusion:

The lesson from New Orleans is clear: racial injustice and racialized politics too often stand in the way of doing what is best for the whole community. We need both local and national leadership that will stand for fairness for all people while also refusing to misuse historical racial antagonisms for their own purposes.

The survival of New Orleans is no longer just about restoring America's most distinctive city. We are all living in Katrina Nation now. Learning the lessons of New Orleans may just have the power to save all of us.

Four years ago, negligence nearly killed this city. I'd like very much for it's suffering to have not been a death, and for the lessons here to be well learned.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Why UUs Are Political at Church

Editor's Note: This piece is a rough draft or part of the rough draft of a sermon, intended to be given at either First Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans or First Unitarian in Albuquerque. It is written with that kind of audience in mind, and is also in part a response to Rev. Davidson Loehr's piece on "Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying"

We are a people always on the verge. For many years, it was at the forefront of religious liberalism, that jargon-filled term which we so often use to say we are theologically diverse, and are comfortable being theologically diverse. And for many years, we have prided ourselves on being at the front of many social movements on the political left. For many Unitarian Universalists, there is a tacit agreement that political liberality and religious liberality go hand in hand. After all, if everyone is free to have their innermost religious beliefs, why won't they think just like us?

It is an easy trap to fall into. There is an ever-present vocal minority in our congregations that reminds us of our hypocrisy, constantly chiding us for being overtly political, and being so consistently political one-sided. Remember, we set out to embrace a diversity of beliefs. Politics is filled with division. Why is it that, for so many of us, church has become the place where we are comfortable politically?

A good political scientist would tell you that the last 50 years, and especially the last 25, have seen a rise in the use of religious language in politics, and the explicit use of religious sentiment for political gain. I am not going to say that. Well, I'm not going to say that any more than I already have. We do not need such a cynical perspective for why religion has been involved in politics.

What I will say is this: people care about politics in a religious way. We say that we have faith in our candidates. When we vote, we say we vote our values, and religion does nothing if not help us reaffirm our values. And when our candidates' lose an election, we become apocalyptic. Politics can shape our external world in ways that often seems remote and all-powerful. And this effects us, as religious people.

When we see a piece of discriminatory legislation get passed, that hits us. We take it as a challenge to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that is as much a political position as it is a theological one. We feel for it religiously. Environmental legislation affects us because we care so deeply for the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. And for many UUs, it is hard to see how military action can possible help us be part of a world community with peace and justice for all. These things are not just politically upsetting, they are spiritually disturbing. We are a political people precisely because we are a religious people.

We are not excused for being so one-sided politically. My vision of inherent worth and dignity may include universal healthcare, but another vision may just as easily see the first principle only meaning the equal right to choose to buy insurance. The principles leave a lot unsaid, and that is for the best. For me, and I suspect for at least a few of you, they form a core around which we have built our own beliefs, and while we may share the same core, we are not in any way obliged to share the same body.

That doesn't mean some political action won't shake us all to the core. And it doesn't mean we cannot share in our profound distress just because our bodies of belief are so different. What it means, for me at least, is that rather than replacing religion with politics, we are more honest than most in how closely the two are fused.


Coming in part II: Why our Universalist heritage in particular lends theological weight to a closer religious relationship to politics.

Bonus thought-provoking statement I wish I could write more about: How does the political/religious relationship in Black Liberation Theology serve as a counterpoint to the desire of many for UUism to be apolitical?


Edit # 2: There's been some discussion in the internets! Lots of back-and-forth here, and then some responses here and here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Mayoral Race in Albuquerque

As is my custom, here's a post about an election for an office I care about. Normally, I'd do a separate post for each candidate, but there are only three, so I figured I'd just run them down in one entry. As is also the norm, my commentary is based primarily on the issues page of each candidate.

Starting from the Left:

Richard Romero

  1. Public Safety
    1. It's bare-bones, with a focus on more boots on the street. There is nothing here to object to, but a special mention should be made of Romero's desire to fire the current APD police chief. The current chief is decent, and there is no need to turn the mayor's office into a spoils system. If he thinks the problem is the current approach to policing (which he does, by promising specific change there), then the problem is programmatic and not rooted in leadership.
  2. Education
    1. (Side note: I'm waiting for a detailed analysis of the mayoral candidate's education plans from Scot Key over at Burque Babble; until then, I'm just going to poke the summary)
    2. When he says "cut waste", he does not specify any waste to be cut. Far as I'm concerned, that makes those words empty.
    3. He has generally good ideas - make school more involved in the community, let city resources be more broadly shared.
    4. Attending school for 7 years of No Child Left Behind, I am exceedingly hesitant to see an executive with other duties get involved in education. Romero does not seem to be overstepping - he wants better city/APS integration more than he wants to dictate school policy, but my hesitancy stands.
  3. Ethics and Honest Government
    1. It's a bare-bones section
    2. Yay for ending pay-to-play, yay for being upset about Suncal TIDDS
    3. Ethics and Honest Government requires more than just an audit. If he wants to create ethical government, he should propose some more lasting changes, and create some better, independent policing organs.
  4. Building a Clean and Green Economy. Supporting Small Business
    1. He understand how the internet leads to efficiency! Praise Xenu! But no, seriously, internet-driven efficiency in more of what the city does (provided they keep a well staffed and well paid web team) is a great idea.
    2. The rest of this, about sustainable development and reasonable development fees, is better than I was expecting.
    3. But we really don't need the petty sniping at Marty that fills the discussion of how things are currently done.
  5. Renewable Energy
    1. Interesting plan to start turning over 1/10th of city buildings to exclusively alternative energy, as an inducement for those wanting a market to already exist when developing alt. energy for the city
    2. Beyond that, nothing
Our Once-and-Future Mayor Marty Chavez
(a special note: Marty does not have actually have an issues page; instead, his views are culled from the "Achievements" section of his website. Yeah.)
  1. Public Safety
    1. More cops, and better police coverage. Not inherently bad things
    2. "Through numerous town halls the Mayor, APD, and the FBI have created state of the art software to help fight cyber-stalkers." is an absolutely meaningless line. maybe the city has helped with the development of software, but until we see some data about how the city was a test lab/funded/encouraged/lobbied for the development of this technology, you can know as fact that town hall meetings did not create software.
    3. Genuine "Yay!", though, for the family advocacy center.
    4. These two lines:
      1. The Safe City Strike Force continues to clean up crime-ridden parts of Albuquerque, especially many parts of historic Route 66.
      1. Albuquerque is virtually graffiti and litter free due to Mayor Chavez' strict zero tolerance policies.
    5. Taken together, they read to me as a policy of "we will intimidate and crack down on the homeless, the destitute, and the young", rather than address the problems that these things are symptoms of. Not to say that I endorse the crime along Route 66, graffiti, or litter. I just think that Route 66 is already excessively patrolled (downtown, at least), I think he's using coded language.
    6. I mainly think that problems are more complex than the "more police, faster crackdowns" approach he's advocating.
    7. (And, as disclaimer, my bias is that I don't assume Marty understands youth and instead have felt, as a youth growing up in his Albuquerque, that he sees them as a problem.)
  2. Economic Development
    1. Recession should limit expectations but
    2. Albuquerque sure is on a lot of good lists!
    3. Let's quietly gloss over the fact that some of why we are doing so well now is that we didn't have a real estate boom that could collapse on us. Some lists mention this, and while that is not *bad*, it does mean that Marty deserves perhaps less credit here than he claims.
  3. Transportation
    1. We have buses!
    2. Some of them are pretty fast!
    3. Also, yay for other modes of transportation, like the bike avenue that was the work of many, many advocates. Oh, right, them...
      1. It's not bad for the city or even the Mayor to claim credit on this one. It'd be more powerful to me, as an undecided voter, to see acknowledgment of government working with community activists.
  4. Sustainability
    1. It's a great big list of conferences/ranking/initiatives which all show that either we're really good at green, or we're good at lip service to green. Very hard to figure out which is which, though.
    2. The genuine point worth mentioning is the methane capture system, which seems like a modest step, but one in the right direction.
  5. Amenities
    1. Landscaping! We have it! (And, okay, it is pretty).
    2. Skate parks, and the BMX facility are evidence that Marty doesn't hate all youth. Also, they're pretty great.
    3. The biopark and Isotopes stadiums are all finished now and great!
      1. Qualifier: many of these things were started under mayor Jim Baca, and so it's like Nixon stealing credit from Kennedy for the Apollo missions.
  6. Seniors
    1. Albuquerque does have some pretty functioning senior centers
    2. A lowered age of eligibility for access is a genuinely good thing
    3. Expanded "Meals on Wheels" program shows that this isn't just a middle class thing
    4. I can't find flaws here besides brevity.
  7. Animals
    1. Marty has animals up for adoption at every press conference, which seems oddly genuine for the guy
    2. This is also pretty great when it means an APD officer has to handle Kittens
    3. But what about the big pitbull controversies we've had? Something seems iffy and missing.
    4. On the other hand, this isn't a section he has to have, so that's forgiven.
  8. Education
    1. Marty created a small charter high school that somehow managed to send all it's seniors to college.
    2. There isn't policy here, just vague talk of coordinating local public resources.
    3. If you're going to be involved in local education, say more. If not, say less. This is just awkward right now.
Richard J. Berry
Again, I'm using the issues as defined by the candidate
  1. Immediate and Long-term Job Growth
    1. Initial Shock Moment: the GOP candidate is advocating for a rapid use of funds on hand to help fix our recession
    2. An appropriate economic policy of having the city buy local first, or help create local suppliers instead of relying on out-of-state ones. Isolationist/populisty, but I like the city and am all for it standing on it's own, so those fears are put aside.
    3. More local workforce training, which is always a good idea, but I think it's also parts of most every candidate's plan
    4. New Business Round Table
      1. Pro: "that brings leaders in business, labor,
        education, and the environmental and civic communities together" ; yay inclusivity of all community factors! (and minor yay for not feeling a need to specifically mention religion here)
      2. Con: "knock down barriers that are
        preventing businesses from starting, growing or relocating to
        Albuquerque"; while regulations are not always an inherent good to citizens, "knocking down barriers" could undermine efforts to go green, which paradoxically could also hurt Albuquerque tech-heavy business
      3. Verdict: probably a good idea, and probably not anti-green, esp. given the nature of City Council as a check on the Mayor
  2. Public Safety "Sanctuary City" Policy
    1. Berry wants to end this
    2. "This" is a policy that makes life in Albuquerque easier for illegal immigrants
    3. It will instead merge APD policy with current Bernalillo county policy, which makes illegal immigrant status relevant upon arrest, instead of waiting to see if illegal immigrant status matters specifically to the case at hand
    4. Also: he wants to end the practice of drivers licenses for illegal immigrants
    5. He sees the drivers license policy an enabling crime, and is careful to mention that he voted in favor of anti-profiling laws
    6. I can't figure this one out
      1. I don't know the data on how Marty's policy is specifically intrusive.
      2. I am not sure I like the Bernalillo policy of "immigrant status only on arrest" better than the ABQ policy of "immigrant status only if explicitly necessary", but I like them both better than most things most states do about illegal immigrants in the name of crime prevention
      3. I'm a very big fan of the drivers license program for illegal immigrants - it allows them to report crimes without a fear of themselves being arrested, and that is great, and an anti-crime measure. I do not see where it increases crime (besides, of course, the crime of being here illegally).
      4. I think coherence between Bernalillo and Albuquerque police departments would be good, but I'm not sure they both shouldn't adopt Marty's policy instead.
      5. Despite evidence to the contrary, I don't think this is actually racist. Berry wouldn't have voted for an anti-profiling law if he was, and he'd also be opposed to Bernalillo policy if this was racially motivated, or just about not liking illegal immigrants
      6. Then: I don't know how this benefits safety, and I don't have racism as an easy excuse for a police policy that isn't about safety.
      7. I would really like to see the data that made Berry support this position, because I feel as though something vital is omitted here that would give it all coherence.
  3. Public Safety: Property Crime
    1. My prior biases on this section:
      1. Property crime is inherently a class-biased concern
      2. I'm generally more for saving the lives of people than I am for saving their stuff; if I have to prioritize, that is how I am doing it.
      3. That said, protection of property is what allows for stability, investment, and western civilization.
    2. Proposes actual budget reallocation: away from beautification projects like Tingley and the Trolleys, and permanently to Youth Gang Prevention, Substance Abuse Programs and Neighborhood Deterioration
    3. Acknowledge the economics of the issue by making the selling of stolen property, and the ensuing profits, much more difficult
    4. The plan to cut down on resale of stolen property mainly involves carrying through with persecutions
    5. None of this is inherently bad. Some of it is actually quite good.
    6. Very little of this gets in the way of saving lives when lives need to be saved; in fact, that he sees Substance Abuse programs as linked to property crimes is really, really smart. I think he gets this.
  4. Government transparency
    1. Oooo, online searchable trackable spending of tax dollars. Accountability-lovers dream.
    2. Also, public, online access to "The City’s “Checkbook” and General Ledger Accounts
      Contract Amounts and Vendors; Government Salaries; and Study/Program Data." is in no way a bad idea.
    3. There isn't much more, but none of this is bad, and much of it is quite good.

I'm not going to endorse anyone in this race.

I like what Richard Romero has to say about Green Energy and Sustainable Development. I think he has great ideas for education but I worry about involving the mayoral office in education. I also think he feels the need to improve policing and transparency, but I am not convinced he knows a way to do that.

I think that Mayor Marty has done less than he credits himself with, but more than his critics think. I'm genuinely skeptical about his approach to public safety, and what that means for youth in this city. But he's not all bad, and many of his non-development initiatives are things that have improved Albuquerque. I can't really deny that. I don't like that he has been mayor of my city for 3/5s of my life, but he's not incompetent enough to outright disqualify.

I knew nothing about Richard Berry before this post, and I have been genuinely surprised to find a pro-active-government member of the GOP. Perhaps the past decade of neocons and the past years sparking of libertarian activism have thrown off my understanding of what republicans can be, but it's kind of pleasant to discover a sane, pro-business centrist. That said, I'm still not sure I like him. His proposes policy changes concerning illegal immigrants are savvy, and I do not think they are done with malice/hatred/xenophobia or any other excuse that would interfere with his logic. I still can't see what that logic is, however, unless it's a simple belief in the rule of law, and the includes immigration law. To me, immigration law is secondary to the lives of the people residing in Albuquerque, but such a legalistic perspective is at least something I can disagree with reasonably, instead of vehemently oppose. His section on property crime (and, actually, his plan on immediate and long term growth) seems to include a smart reading of behavioral economics (or at least a partial one, to which I say: yay!), and his transparency plans are, simply put, great. My hesitancy on him unrelated to illegal immigrants is that I'm don't see any focus on Albuquerque green and even better for tech. "Green" is never mentioned, and the tech is just assumed. These are not bad things, but they are not great things. I want, in 2009, to have a mayor that is about renewable energy, and about long-lasting renewable energy growth in my desert city. Much as I like his other policies, he doesn't have that little crucial bit.

What does this mean to you, the voter?

Albuquerque has three comprable candidates, none of them bad, none of them stellar. Whoever wins the election, I will disagree with/be skeptical of their Public Safety initiatives. But otherwise, there's some real choice - Romero is aiming Burque green and sustainable, and that's good. Marty is all about making Albuquerque a city that is thriving, and he's done that repeatedly through odd ways (curiously, most of the development that in my mind defines Marty was left out of his list of achievements). And Richard Berry has some good economic policy, and perhaps the transparency plan the Duke City needs. These are not bad choices. They all come with downsides (Romero's education intrusiveness, the person of Marty Chavez, Berry's skepticism about illegal immigrants), so it's a choice to weigh carefully.

Last Word

I mention all of this as a gigantic aside to a future discussion about the Mayoral Race in my second city of New Orleans, where my biases are clear and I'm outright supporting a candidate. Next to the range of possibilities afforded New Orleans, the ABQ race is dull. Be grateful - that dull means it is very, very, very hard for a wrong choice to fuck up and destroy the city.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

How to Lose Students and Alienate Community

In the Albuquerque Journal this morning, there was an article discussing the new smoking bans on the university of New Mexico campus. Here's a map of the designated smoking areas with perhaps the best one-sentence summary of the issue. Initially, it is easy to sympathize with the college - in an ideal world, no one ever dies of lung cancer from second hand smoke, and that's a noble aim. But noble aims go pear shaped all the time.

When I was a high schooler, I helped engineer and pass a ban on smoking at UU youth conferences in my district. I'd lost a grandparent to lung cancer not long before. I was no fan of smoking, and high school conferences had previously had a problem of an exclusive community of smokers existing. That in turn led to people who wanted to spend time with their friends either breathing a lot of second hand smoke or starting smoking themselves, both of which are far from ideal for a religious youth conference. On top of it all, UUs tend to have a high ratio of asthmatics/those with breathing problems, and smoke itself was a hazard for them. So many of us moved to pass a ban by majority vote. We succeeded.

What happened, then, was a lot of destruction. Con-goers who smoked would come with their addiction, but being high schoolers, without the income to have nicotine gum or patches instead of cigarettes. Or they would sneak off to try and calm their addiction so they could be present for community, and we'd ban them from coming back. A few youth, in the middle of high school, just stopped coming to cons outright, feeling unwelcome and hated by their peers. It was against the spirit of the community, and the values of the religion, and the ban remains to this day. It is by far the most lasting decision I had made as part of that community, and it causes harm. What it doesn't do is get people to stop smoking. Our noble aim failed utterly.

The ban didn't actually address any real problems. It was a prohibition, and it attempted to excise a behavior. Had we been concerned about the health of the asthmatics, we would have kept smoking outside and away from entryways. Had we been concerned about the health of smokers, we could have provided nicotine patches for them, and let them still be part of our community. And had we cared for the whole of the community, we would have enacted a policy by a system of consensus, not a majority vote, and certainly not by a handed-down ruling. We did none of this, and instead shifted problems around. We lost people, we made others feel uncomfortable, and we violated our own principles.

The UNM smoking ban is well-intentioned. But it is a frustrating prohibition forced upon legal adults, and it goes beyond necessary restriction (like 30 feet from entryways) to become an obsessive nanny state policy. And it might ultimately have the desired effect, but I still feel that it shows a disregard for the capacity of adults to make personally responsible choices. Part of giving people freedom, and giving people responsibility, is giving room for mistakes. Here, I think, it'd do well to quote Lux Alptraum:
And this is, perhaps, the crux of a progressive discourse: to be able to recognize the reality and rationale of bad decisions, while still pushing forward with an idea of what we all should be doing, of what our best decisions look like. Because it’s only with the knowledge of what we should be doing, and why, that we have the ability to stray safely — to make those mistakes and live to regret them (or not regret them, as the case may be).
In order to be rational people, we have to have that range of decision making. Forcing people's decisions simply doesn't work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama Healthcare Quickie

Obama just gave a press conference on healthcare, and my thoughts will probably go up here tomorrow. For now, though, here's a redirect to my blog series on healthcare from the beginning of summer.

Equally important: here's an amazing New Yorker article about why paying-per-test is a terrible plan, and why the Mayo Clinic Model is kind of brilliant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Money is Tinkerbell

Money, as currently exists, is an entity whose usage is dependent on confidence, and whose value is dependent on interest rates. Interest itself isn't a trait native to money but is dependent upon the agencies responsible for the creation of money itself. In many countries, this is handled by a central bank; The Bank of England, for example, or in Germany the Bundesbank. In the United States, our central bank equivalent is the Federal Reserve, which is frequently attacked for being this shadowy, arbitrary, and impartial conspiracy unto itself. Given the nature of money, I like it for exactly those reasons.

Puzzled? You're not alone. The Nation recently authored a very thorough article discussing how to reform the Federal Reserve for the modern age, and to end the collusion between it and bankers. The article raises many valid points, and I'm still not entirely certain of my opposition to the plan it suggests.

Anyway. Here is my rough contrast between the Fed and Congress as vehicles for Money Generation in this nation.

Congress: explicit money generation (as, notably, stated in the constitution. Article 1, section 8). So what the Fed does (coin money, regulate the value thereof) are congressional powers. The traditional avenue for money expansion (growth through lending) requires that congress borrow money on the Credit of the United States, which itself seems to require a body outside the United States Government. Note: There is nothing here saying congress couldn't set the interest rate or will money into existence. Responsibilities other than money generation: the entire federal budget, as well as tax creation/other sources of federal income. Basically, all that spending that people look upon so unfavorably.

: Somewhat arcane money generation, thanks to it's backroom dealings with bankers and the inherent secrecy of its governing board. Controls interest on the dollar, can release surpluses of money that it wills into existence. There are more steps to the process, but the Fed, as the controller of dollar creation, can spontaneously have $80 billion to distribute into banks. Responsibilities other than money generation: regulation of banks, sort of. Which it has totally failed at. But it still does money generation fine.

On paper, there is no reason congress shouldn't generate money. But since money is confidence-based, and since it's explicit value (interest) is also tied to confidence, I am hesitant to put the money supply directly under congressional control. Congress, as a body, is not terribly confidence inspiring. It's like asking the audience to clap so that Captain Hook can live - it makes just as much sense as clapping for Tinkerbell, but no one likes Captain Hook, and so they'd all just let him die. In that sense, I think, the Fed does wonders. By playing an abstract role at a distance from the rest of government, it gets to appear weird and fickle and impartial. While it's more vulnerable today than it has been at almost any point since existence, the dollar is not being questioned. It is, as arbitrary currencies go, okay. What usually happens with massive injections of newly made money is hyperinflation, as prices go up and dollars become worth less. Right now, it looks like the dollar is deflating. As the fed injects new money, money is actually becoming more valuable. Even though we can see it being conjured into existence. It's strange, and I attribute it to the very obtuseness and arcane workings of the Fed.

This doesn't mean that the Fed is flawless, or that money is itself worthless. But because the value of money is largely dependent upon people thinking it has value, there is something to be said for money generation to be a detached, almost magical process. You've got to convince people to clap, and we'll keep doing it for Tinkerbell.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Obama the Dictator? Part 3: Conclusions

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Obama is not fascist: a mere definitional examination of the term is enough to easily rule that out. Nor is he a dictator: he won in a popular election, as well as in the electoral college. Dictators rarely, if ever, come into power through fair or open elections. And his presidential power is not unique or unprecedented; we just had 8 years of expansion of executive power, so it should come as no surprise that the current president enjoys many of the powers awarded his predecessor. This is all unexpected.

The disappointment in the conclusion, then, is that many similar abuses remain. Some of the targets of these abuses have changed (or, more correctly, some of the perceived victims may have changed), but the power remains, and has not been dismantled. We have a president in the United States with serious power. No surprise there. That some of it is unconstitutional is a bit disappointing, and that's the fun part of being a citizen.

Caring about politics means perpetual stewardship.

Even with the president you wanted, just as much as with the president you didn't. As Americans, with our peculiar form of democracy, we have to constantly work to secure the rights we should already have, to secure the ones we are wrongfully denied, and to make sure that our government accurately reflects us as people. The only things outright damaging to this system are apathy (which allows others more invested to dictate all decisions), and powerlessness/rage (which themselves see the destruction of existing institutions as the only way to freedom). I don't feel that either of those are viable, but they both offer the easy moral shortcut of wiping one's hands clean of this nation. To care, to be invested in this nation, one has to accept the existence some terrible things while one works to make them right. I'm a bit of a statist, so my default position is always that change can come gradually, and can come from within. And partisan though I am, this is true across administrations. Very little will change that, while very little will convince the apathetic/powerless/angry that this is possible.

Obama the Dictator? Part 2: Supporting Arguments Examined, Debunked

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Specific Claim:

1. A controlled media, for example the fact that the press corps is rigged (just one example)


1. The press is rigged? The press always shows a bias a) to those in power, and b) to folk that get them good ratings. Bush was an exceedingly popular president in his first term, and I was kind of appalled by how networks could be fawning over him. I'm still appalled by Fox news, but that's because my bias is elsewhere. I don't like MSNBC for it's blatant pandering either, really. And CNN is gimmicky bullshit. I get my news from sources that aren't television. Television is awful. But that fact that it is ratings-minded and lowest-common-denominator doesn't mean that it's rigged. It means that it is flawed.
ALSO - oftentimes, the media is dependent on the White House for the release of important information. In the case of the Iraq War, the Bush administration was free to control most of the flow of information to the media. So it's not good, but it is hardly a unique crime.

Specific Claim

2. The fact that the government is putting in legislation pushed by close friends of the President which will severely limit the civil liberties of some groups (ie Christians, Veterans, and others that have been labeled more dangerous than the Islamic Jihad by Homeland security)


2. Inside the US, as inside any nation, the biggest threat to domestic stability comes from the armed, unemployed, and disenfranchised. In the US, the relatively small Muslim community is one that largely came here by choice, came with means, and on average is living the American Dream quite well, having a higher income on average than other demographics. Inside the US, Muslims have no reason to be labeled a threat.
However, the last great act of terrorism perpetrated against the US before 9/11, and the largest act of US domestic terrorism, came from a christian and a veteran. It's a damn ugly fact, but the militia movement that arose in the 90s was made because it was a democrat in office, someone to the left of what they wanted. Had this protest been purely ideological, the militia would have been active for the past 8 years resisting Bush. They weren't. This is partisan.
Last summer, an out of work white man opened fire on Unitarians because liberals were ruining this country. Same with the young man who shot up Pittsburgh police. Same with the old Nazi who shot up the DC Holocaust museum. Same with the man who shot George Tiller. This is rightist violence, not anti-authoritarian violence. The DHS didn't label those groups threats because they are political opposition. They labeled them threats because they have, over the past 20 years, consistently proven themselves to be threats when Democrats are in power.
Internationally, Muslim extremists are more of a threat. Domestically, not so much.

Specific Claim

3. His Chicago style elimination of people he sees as a threat ie: Sarah Palin


3. Palin's role on the national stage as much as anything led to her resignation. That Obama benefits from it is clear. But that he caused it? That's a claim with little supporting evidence beyond her own personal sentiments

Specific Claim

4. His installation of Czars which have no accountability to either the people or the legislature.


4. We've had Czar's in office since the 1970s (conspiracy theorists note the prominence of Biden's name in this article.) ALL MODERN PRESIDENTS DO THIS. To make an exception for Obama is really to dislike him for other means, and be frustrated that he's making the decisions. If you're upset about the power itself existing, then protest it in every administration since Nixon. Don't single out one guy.

Specific Claim

5. He socialized corporations AND banks


5. This isn't socializing the banks or any other corporation. That would mean the federal government would assume permanent ownership, or that the public would assume permanent ownership through the government. That isn't happening. The US populace hates it when the government owns anything, and government here isn't set up to run these institutions. The strict capitalist thing to do would be to let them all fail, but that didn't work in the depression, and I'd rather go through temporary stewardship than risk global economic collapse.

Specific Claim

6. He practices misinformation, and has supported hate mongering legislation in congress. Also, he's criminalized Christianity


6. All governments practice media manipulation. It's the role of the citizenry to hold the media accountable for honesty. There's been no hate mongering legislation, unless you count the president's support of DOMA. Homeland security is an executive branch body, and so doesn't legislate to get its will done. I don't actually know what bills you're referring to, so I can't counter with specifics. Being involved in the economy is what government does, ever since the 1930s, and even before, really. I wouldn't call any of this fascist. I'd call it government.
6b. The groups criminalized are those that urge murder, like the Army of God abortion clinic bombers. That's not a religious group, in the way that al-Qaeda isn't a religious group. Religion is a shared identity, but the purpose is different. That's not criminalizing religion; that's criminalizing terrorism.

Specific Claim

7. I'm sick of "Well we inherited this mess": put on your big boy pants and quit lying to people; or "why are you still blaming the past - if you're in power, can't you fix it?"


7. And you're right, it's been almost 6 months with Obama in the Whitehouse. He should have done a lot more to dismantle the police state he inherited. But to say that you can fix every thing that went wrong over the past 8 years in 6 months is really just to ask the president to fail. That's unrealistic, and it's absurd.
New Orleans still has fields where in August 2005 it had neighborhoods. It's been almost 4 years, in the richest nation on earth. You'd think we'd have this done by now, but we haven't. Why? Remaking is incredibly hard work. It takes time and sustained effort.
I'm not asking you to pass the buck back to the Bush Administration. I'm just asking you to acknowledge the role they had in making possible this present government you so despise. Obama did not spring into office fully formed from the mind of Keynes. The past *matters*.

Specific Claim

8. Fascists always come in under a different name and there are different types, George Bush was a militarist, Obama's more of a Machiavelli type
8a. Czars are creepy-powerful; I am upset about the Czars, i understand that they've existed but it makes me nervous to watch people being put in charge of huge areas of our day to day life as a nation and being answerable to one person and one person only.


8. Fascists come in explicitly under the fascist name. Franco was explicit, Hitler was explicit, Mussolini coined the word to describe his party.

8a.And yeah, I don't like it too, but that's a different issue. That's not about the person of Obama; that's about the nature of US government. The difference is important.

Specific Claim

9. I just don't understand how more government is the answer to big government that was promised on the campaign, or how spending more money will get us out of debt.


9. The reason that we are currently spending more money is because depressions are caused by an absolute lack of spending. The brilliance of Keynesian economics is that the great depression was a perfectly functioning laissez faire state: all savings were invested as capital. The problem is that it was a balance of zero - no savings mean no investment. The way out of the depression, the spending in times of scarcity, is to get money circulating. Ideally, leaving a depression money flows fast enough so that tax revenue on the recovery compensates for spending at the lowest point. Governments are weird, and one of the few institutions that can spend money on the promise that they'll exist to repay it. It's weird, certainly, but it is doable by nations in a way that it isn't by personal finance.

9a. Big government is always a tricky proposition. I certainly enjoy roads, schools, and the presence of law enforcement. I also like that my home is protected militarily. Those are more or less given baselines, rights made possible by government. I would really like the certainty of lifelong healthcare not tied to my employer - that'd be a right and a freedom I could enjoy if we had a public healthcare option or a universal healthcare system. Government would make the possible, and can do it in a much better way than our system currently unfolds. At present, as soon as I graduate college and am off my parent's plan, I have no guarantee of health, and won't until I find stable, salaried employment. If I freelance, my costs for healthcare go way up. If I work part time or in many hourly jobs, I wouldn't have an affordable option for healthcare. So that's a problem that big government can solve, by taking over with universal (unlikely) or introducing a public option. And then there is regulation. I'm pretty happy having not played with lead toys as a kid. I enjoy the safety provided by speed limits. I like that zoning prevents a factory being built next to my house. I'm in favor of requiring minimum standards for how companies treat their workers. And I like that companies have to pay attention to their ... environmental impact, because I enjoy a livable world. That's government that is kind of big, but provides a lot of immediate benefits.
Also, I like that we have a justice department and a state department, to conduct our internal and external affairs with professionalism. Those are large, executive branches that benefit this nation as a whole, but individually its much harder to see. Or the FDA, which though sometimes iffy at least means there is a place that can prevent poison being sold as medicine. Or FEMA, so that when shit hits the fan we have someone to respond or a place for blame. That's all big - we're a nation of 300 million. The only big government I outright have a problem with are things like the department of homeland security, which is a scary police-state apparatus thing. It shouldn't exist, and their are serious problems with the current forms of the CIA and FBI. And, oddly enough, the FCC which let telecommunications companies doing spying work on ordinary ... citizens without warrants. That scares me, because it is big and ignores constitutional rights. That is what I hoped Obama would get rid of, and again, he's lagging on this.

Specific Claim

10. I cannot say with any fibre of my being that Barack Obama sits well with me. I believe our President is morally bankrupt and lacking in any real understand of what's going on.


10. I have seen nothing in Obama to suggest an immorality - though Chicago breeds fear he's Hawaiian by birth, and that's a very different sort of multicultural upbringing from every US president ever. But that's a different ethnic perspective and national context; that doesn't strike me as ... immoral. And yes, he's admitted this nation is flawed. We certainly are - our constitution declares certain people both less than human and property. That's a flaw, and while we've amended it away, the past does not die with legislation. Things are certainly better now than they ever have been, but that doesn't mean they are perfect or that their isn't work to be done. But again, that's a perspective. That isn't immorality.
As for lacking in real understanding, I was first drawn to Obama because he, of all things, understood the internet. That seemed to me to be relevant understanding, and was something Hillary lacked or didn't care to publicize. And I voted for Obama on the basis of Foreign Policy, because he saw a way for the US to function in the world that was ... still strong but did not require belligerence or demonization. He is willing to try diplomacy first, and I think that shows a profound understanding for the dignity of other nations and for the US's role on the international stage.
As for his economics, I think he gets it. You govern differently in a recession than in a boom time, and he's doing that. But look. I like Obama because his policies resonate well with me. There are many Americans that don't go online, or live in cities, or trust other nations, and to them he may look foolish. While he is many things, incompetent is not one of them.

Obama the Dictator? Part 1: the Claim itself

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Claim: Obama is fascist, or close to it


1. Crying "Fascism" is a lazy talking point made by whoever is out of power in US politics.

2. Distinguishing between Obama and Fascists:

2a. Popularity: Obama is charismatic; so were fascists, but the similarities more or less stop there.

2b. Civil Rights violations: I'm a bit disappointed that he hasn't done more immediately for civil rights, but he wasn't in office when Bush and the legislature passed the Patriot Act, from which most rights violations stem. And it was the Bush justice department that allowed for the label of "enemy combatant" to be a loophole out of the law. I believe that current policy is under review, but at any rate it didn't start with Obama (counterpoint: continuing a flawed policy is jsut as bad as creating it)

2c. Involvement in the National Economy is a Fascist Characteristic: Involvement in the national economy, it is no different than that of many, long-standing democratic governments. England, for example, went further and nationalized *as a democracy*. France for decades supported "national champions" on subsidies. But neither of those were fascist moves, in the same way that injecting money into the banks or assuming control of GM isn't fascist. It's statist, but that is the nature of government

3. Defining Fascism
Fascism has a huge component of nationalism and militarism, historically coming from an alliance of the unemployed, veterans, and conservative politically/religiously, and historically all against communist or leftist governments. Obama has no new militarism; he made his name by being anti-war. And while he is certainly on the left, totalitarianism on the left is not fascism; it's communist, it's socialist, or it's totalitarian, but it is decidedly not *fascist*. And most totalitarian features of leftist government are missing here - there have been no nationalizations, and the government is only holding companies temporarily until it can inject taxpayer dollars into stable private institutions. Bush did the same in October, and it's a fundamentally capitalist/centrist move.

4. Being angry about the President when your party is out of power You can disagree with the president. Lord knows every American does it at least half the time. But being charismatic != being fascist, and being the executive does != being a dictator.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Airing my own Dirty Laundry

I've always been fairly vocal and political, so it is probably unsurprising that some of my teenage opinions found themselves in the local paper and are now online, in a nice sort of permanent-record way. So, in the interest of full online disclosure, here's the article.

Now, I stand by my 16 year old self. I've said many times on this blog that I believe in youth rights, that I think the voting age should be lowered, and that youth free speech matters. And I say this well aware that this is my example of youth free speech:

At the other end of the spectrum is Albuquerque High School junior Kelsey Atherton, who not only refuses to say the pledge, but stands facing the opposite direction. Sometimes he says different words or makes additions to the pledge. When it comes to "under God," Atherton says "under god/s, under goddess/es, or lack there of."
Atherton says he stands backward because he is angry about Bush's re-election and the war in Iraq. "Absurd" is the word he uses to describe the war and the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina. He makes additions to the pledge to focus on what he sees as a narrow interpretation of God. The pledge should have either no religion or more inclusive language, he says. He even goes so far as to compare it to fascist chanting.
There are explanations for all of these; I'll go briefly through each one.
  1. "Under God/s and/or Goddess/es or lack thereof". I'm Unitarian. I have always been aware of a plurality of beliefs and belief systems, so the adoption of a formal procedure in public school to honor a very narrow interpretation of God, perhaps more broad than the Abrahamic Deity but not terribly so, is offensive as it alienates. It excludes the diversity that we as a nation cherish and celebrate, so that's why I tried to be more inclusive with my coverage of religion in the pledge. ALSO - it throws the meter of the pledge way off to say it, which helps highlight the fact that even "under God" throws off the pledges meter. "Under God" is a Cold War edition to the pledge urged by the Knights of Columbus as a way to further distinguish the US from the secular philosophy and government of Communists, specifically the USSR. The Cold War is over; if we are to still have a pledge, we don't need it to contain that.
  2. We don't really need a pledge. It is a weird national ritual, and it seems like the kind of thing we as a nation make kids do because they are too young to question it, and powerless enough to not object to it. While it isn't actually a bad thing to say (I have a copy of the original, pre-"under god" version in my room), I think it is a bad thing to ask people to say when they don't know what it means. That, to me, makes it fascistic - it asks for unquestioning devotion to a symbol of a nation, and then to the nation itself, does so with a divine mandate, and it is as a matter of course done nationally by children who can get in trouble for not joining it. That's disturbing, and it is kind of what kings do. We as a nation were founded on loyalty requiring consent - we left a nation that had abused our loyalty, and we fought a war with them because they were surprised we'd questioned the arrangement. Ritual, unexamined chanting does not have a place in our democracy.
  3. Protesting the Presidency of George W. Bush. I've never denied my partisan identity, and I will stand by my belief that George W. Bush is among the worst presidents this nation has ever had. While I disagreed broadly with most of his policy decisions, Iraq and Katrina stand as failures that go beyond policy approach. The Iraq War has a long litany of problems - foremost in my mind is how destabilizing and unnecessary it was, and how poorly planned it was. As for Katrina, it was the exact kind of natural disaster that we as a nation should have been able to handle. I sincerely think presidential neglect played a part in the destruction, alongside many, many other factors. So that's why I felt the need to have a symbolic protest. But the question will come to my choice of the pledge as forum for protest.
  4. The Pledge in Public schools is almost-tailor-made for petty dissent. It is short, daily, and overtly national. It's done during homeroom, which is a dead time in the academic day anyway. It is done amongst a group of peers. All of these facilitate the use of the pledge as a way to express a political opinion, with a minimum of effort, to one's peers (among whom one's opinion is important), without causing any substantive problems. I did it because I was upset (as many teenagers are), but also because I was upset politically (as I can be), and because I really, really needed to show that I was intellectually not on board with the leadership and actions of my nation. And that hurts, to care about a nation and feel so alienated from it's conduct that even joining in a morning ritual becomes hard. That's a political opinion that matters, and I'm pretty sure that the pledge is as good a forum as any to voice it. It did exactly what I needed a symbolic gesture to do, and it helped me keep my head through the other inanities of high school. That, I think, is reason enough.
And so it's out there and acknowledged. A political young adult was a political teenager. And while I deliberately try to be less aggressive, alienating, and partisan now, I think my actions as a youth were justified, were appropriate, and played a valuable role in shaping my present political identity.

Friday, July 3, 2009

GA Postlude

I spent today in San Francisco visiting an old friend. She's smart, and a year and a half shy of graduating from a university in Mexico City. We've been in contact for about four years, though we've seen each other hardly at all. In the total of our years of correspondence, we had somehow avoided the topic of religion. This is odd, especially for someone so focused on religion as myself, but today afforded us the opportunity to talk about it for hours. She was all questions, and so the topic became Unitarian Universalism. Within half an hour, she was fascinated. She'd never heard of the religion before outside of myself, and I had a hunch that given the right minister or the right congregation, she might actually have felt comfortable there. It was a highlight for me, to see someone so open to the religion as an entity unto itself, instead of a reaction against past unpleasantness. This, I think, is how we grow - casually, offering pluralistic spiritual fulfillment to all, not just those who have already tried and been burnt by religion.


Walking back from the BART, I was talking one of the friends I was staying with. I mentioned seeing the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist Church, and she mentioned having been UU until she was 10. I asked her why she left, and she said that the church she had belonged to did not believe in background checks for child care workers. This developed into a problem, and the family left the faith because a lofty ideal failed the church so utterly. This is how we shrink, and this is what has kept us small.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

UUA GA Quickie #4: Backstory

Today in conversation with a group of adults from my original church, I was asked to specify why I joined my second church during college, and why I am still in the faith when so many people my age raised UU have left. There is no single factor; here's the list of things I proposed as playing some role:
  • The Mid-High Guidance Committee. When I was 13, I was upset with the curriculum that year (bible-based), and with the decision to break middle schoolers into a group of 6th-7th graders, and a group of 8th-9th graders. I was in 7th grade; my closest friends were in 8th grade. I wrote a letter to my teachers and the Director of Religious Education expressing my discontent. Within months, the "Mid-High Guidance Comittee" had been created, for the purpose of sustaining community among middle schoolers.
  • Church Camp, which was the first real place that I was introduced to a broader community of UU peers, and which as always to me been an affirmation of community as a religious discipline. It helps, too, that the camp has involved into a highly generationally integrated setting, with children as young as five, elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, teenagers that run programing, college kids that do behind-the-scenes camp maintence, young adults that steward high school programming, and adult adults that run elementary and middle school curriculum.
  • Youth Leadership through Church Camp and YRUU. As mentioned in the previous point, high schoolers do a lot of the actual work of church camp. For me, that opportunity to be in a leadership position with other youth helping Unitarian kids from that age of 14 was a tremendous affirmation of the value of community, and the right of everyone involved to shape the circumstances around them. My experience with YRUU was similar. As a new youth, I did not really enjoy Conferences, but I found he business of Cons fascinating and loved the good work of improving our community. In my sophomore year, I was able to serve my home state as the New Mexico Social Action Coordinator. That too was a powerful experience for me, as it connected leadership/community involvement and works towards social justice.
  • Religious Education Committee. In high school, I was asked to fill a vacancy left by my father leaving the RE committee, and also to accompany a fellow youth. Being able to advocate for those younger than myself, and to strike compromises between the desires of adult teachers and the needs of UU children was valuable. It also let me see the inner workings behind a significant part of my childhood, and realize what adults could be like in decision making, which helped me see myself as just as worthy of having a say.
  • Worship Committee. In late high school, after leaving the RE committee, I was asked to be on the Worship committee, tasked with lay-leading and planning our services. This was the first leadership opportunity I had that did not involve youth or children as the primary focus, and it was a joy and an affirmation to be part of working for the larger church community. It also put me on stage as a lay leader about once a month, and that meant as a given I was at church at least once a month.
  • Denominational Affairs Committee. I was asked again to first serve alongside and then replace the friend who had founded the committee.
  • Youth Worship. Youth Sunday at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque stands as my favorite worship ever, and for five years I was able to speak at it. First year was with the coming of age sermon, and the next four years were all as part of the youth group. Speaking one's spiritual story is important for many UU's (all, really), and to be able to year after year speak my story as a raised UU with other raised UUs was truly an affirmation of our place within the denomination
  • Opportunities to speak to the congregation outside of youth worship. I was at 17 asked to give a pulpit editorial for something like stewardship sunday. This was my first time speaking not with oter youth, and I was able to share my experience of church camp and its sacred community. More recently, as a college student I was invited back to contribute a pulpit editorial for Christine's presidential campaign sermon. While having the editorial ready on the day of the sermon fell through, I was able instead to speak to a post-election mindset. As someone away at college studying politics, the ability to share that part of my life with my home congregation was again affirming.
  • Other programming I've forgotten. OWL, coming of age, my church extended family, the meaning found in my grandfathers memorial service at All Soul's in DC, the ability to use anti-racism training at my high school, the mid-high steered chirstmas pageants, and myriad other examples that have at the moment slipped my mind exist. While all important in their own way, they signify also that I am someone who would have the church be a part of my life as almost a given. Whether or not I am that way now because of any part of programming in my life is debatable, but I think the role played by all the programmign and engagement I have had with this faith makes it undeniable.
When asked by Albuquerque what they did right in raising my UU, I can't answer with anything other than this: they gave me religion that was not just spiritually satisfying, that was not just built around community, that was not just built around work towards social justice, and that was not just handed down to me. It was, instead, the sacred community whose work was justice, and whose rules and governance was malleable by one who felt the need to be involved and to effect change. It was holistic religion.

And it is what enabled me, in the first weeks of my freshmen year of college, to attend First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. It is the backdrop I had in my mind when I wrote these first impressions of what it was New Orleans UUs did right.