Archive for the 'misguided ideas' Category

On the “Charter for Compassion”

16 November 2008

I guess I have three closely related reasons (plus a new, stand-alone bonus reason — for a limited time only!) for being uncomfortable with this effort, and for being so immediately dismissive, as much as I generally like Karen Armstrong’s books.

1. There seems to be a reductionism at work here which I find annoying and dangerous. For me, for example, I don’t think that the Golden Rule is “fundamental.” as they say, to the Christian faith; I think it proceeds from certain theological commitments which are fundamental. It’s important to get these words right, since words seem to be all it’s about.

2. I think it’s a mistake to reduce the idea of good or redemptive works to the idea of “compassion,” a word which smacks far more of mercy than of justice. Again, important to get the words right.

3. “Jim”, in the comments to PeaceBang’s post on this, wondered about such derision of an “almost cloyingly benign” effort, AS THOUGH THAT WERE A GOOD THING!

What used to be called main-line churches (a term which is more usefully culturally than theologically, and which for me includes most Catholics and UUs) have made a fetish out of ineffectiveness. In terms of our prophetic ministry, we have taken impotence as evidence of virtue. So yes, anything that digs the Church deeper into fecklessness is rightly the object of derision.

4. This is supposed to a worldwide effort but on this site and in a search in several different languages, all of this material seems to only be available in English. I could be wrong, though.

(crossposted as a comment over at PeaceBang)


Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool.

2 October 2008

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

Bill Sinkford, president of my estranged religious home, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has decided he wants to have a dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. There’s a great debate going on about whether this, and the crowing press release from the UUA, was a good idea. I think it was a bad idea, not just because it was with the president of an oppressive regime, but because it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to be prophetic which is wrong and naive.

What makes or breaks a democracy is not “public dialogue,” but widely distributed political power. Ahmedinejad can “dialogue” precisely because an oppressive political system means that he is never forced to be responsive to anything that may emerge out of the dialogue. This doesn’t hold anyone accountable because it doesn’t force them to be responsive.

The prophetic voice is one that builds organized, strategic power to hold power people accountable for their bad actions. Instead, we put out press releases and pass resolutions. This episode is not a prophetic stand. This is masturbation, only more dangerous. (And probably messier.)

To be prophetic we don’t just want a relationship — “king-to-jester” is a relationship — we want a relationship of mutual respect. I would want my (future) kid to talk to bullies, yes — but to stand up to them, not to “ask them questions,” and certainly not for the fleeting thrill of poking some other bully in the eye. We get respect with public officials by being powerful.

To be prophetic, we have to talk as equals. In other words, not “dialogue,” but negotiation. Moses didn’t go up to Pharaoh to get to know him better, he did it to negotiate: “Do this, or else.” And he could do that because he had power to back it up. In his case, God’s plagues; in ours, the power of organized people.

President Bush may not hold as many press conferences as I like, but he is accountable for this as for other things in a way the Iranian president never has been — witness the initial failure of the bailout, or the 2006 congressional elections. And Bill Sinkford and the UUA have never done anything I know of that has made any public official more accountable.

As for the idea that we should have a relationship with them for “pastoral” reasons, i.e. to help him see the error of his ways, this is (1) stupid, given that UUs don’t even count as “people of the book,” and are thus unlikely to be listened to by a conservative Muslim, and (2) is better done in private anyway, if we really care about the state of his soul.

Updated: a couple of times for clarity and typos.

Updated again: My further comment on this issue, in response to this comment by Fred:

There is a need to develop some level of talking points in any conflicted relationships. There is a need to have some sort of level playing ground from which to build to those more difficult points of disagreement. The current adminstration has stated that no conversations with Ahmadinejad would occur without some sort of pre-conditions. Of course, then Condi Rice did meet with his representatives so one has to wonder what were the pre-conditions if any, to allow that meeting. Some of those pre-conditions might occur at a lower level of interaction. Enter the Peace and Reconciliation folk.

They have no authority to alter current foriegn policy with Iran but they can show a different face to that country. It is the same strategy used when we invite or are invited to a cultural exchange or to have a student exchange. It is a grass roots development that allows for human interaction at the human level not the political level which is conflicted.

Me again: But, Fred, the problem is that if you want human, not political, interaction, than the last thing you should do is go meet with a political leader.* All meetings with political leaders are inherently political, and call for a prophetic stance, not a pathetic one.

[*You should go meet with regular folks. I’m told that the FOR does arrange for this, which is good as far as it goes.]

I also think it’s impossibly naive to think that political conflicts are primarily motivated by a lack of “understanding,” and if we only showed each other “different faces” our problems would be solved. Political conflicts primarily arise from serious — and legitimate and real — disputes about resources, self-interests, and values.

And I want to be clear — I think the prophetic failure here is not just that Sinkford et al. entered into dialogue without holding Ahmadinejad accountable, but that they do so having also, over many years, failed to hold our own government to a more rational, compassionate and progressive relationship with Iran (among other places). By being more concerned with ego than with being both ethical and effective in the public sphere, the UUA has enabled the current problems in our Republic no less than they have enabled Ahmadinejad. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a pragmatic stance in politics but is a sorry basis for prophecy.

This is all just a big misunderstanding.

1 October 2008

This whole Sarah Palin episode has reached such heights of ridiculousness that it’s hard to know what things are scurrilous rumors and which are facts. So far, the more outrageous things are the true ones, but I do think she’s gotten an unfair shake.

For example, I hear (but am too busy with sarcasm to look up) that she didn’t know what the morning-after

Uh-oh, indeed.

Uh-oh, indeed.

pill was. I think the important thing to remember is that in Alaska, the morning-after pill is pretty useless and therefore not widely known. After all, as far north as they are, the “morning after” is actually sometime in the middle of the second trimester.

And then there’s the interview in which (I shit, dear reader, you not) the two authors most influential on her are C.S. Lewis and a guy who for many years had a column in Runner’s World.

Now, if I were running for high office, and didn’t know much of anything about anything, I would probably look for a “reader’s digest” — a primer, if you will — to help me get oriented. If I’m running, then I would probably see Runner’s World there on the shelf and think, Hey, I’m running for something! This is probably pretty helpful.

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy Quarterly

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy Quarterly

And put yourself in her shoes: you open up Runner’s World, having heard for the last several weeks about all of the strange exotic places in the news, and half the sentences start with “I ran.” What would you think? it’s an easy mistake to make.

This whole thing is just a big misunderstanding.

Polling racism (updated)

21 September 2008

Pollsters have, you know, training as pollsters, but I’ve got a question.

Marc Ambinder has a post up about race and the “Bradley effect,” which is the idea that support for minority candidates will be overrepresented in pre-election polls. I’m most interested in this AP poll (link goes to story which links to the poll results), in which white voters are asked how well various words describe most Blacks.

Now, I’m no scientist — my Physics 201 and 202 over the summer was probably the most intense scientific experience I’ve had — but it seems to me there’s no control in this study.

Yes, only about 15% of White Republicans described Black people as “determined” — but it certainly seems possible that those being polled are generally misanthropic, and would describe White people the same way.

Note: this is not to say that there’s not bias against Black people. I think certainly there is more and subtler racism than most people think. But this study doesn’t reveal it. There doesn’t seem to be any control here, asking about White people, or people in general. If the same 85% of Republicans who wouldn’t describe Black people as determined also wouldn’t describe White people that way, then we may have cynics, not racists.

Science people! Help me out here. Am I wrong?

Update: There are other problems with the poll.

Power, as they say, before policy

14 September 2008

Take a gander at this article, allegedly a defense of organizing, which I think has it wrong in a number of ways. Its thesis is that organizers and Sarah Palin have a lot in common, a conclusion likely to please neither party. Let me focus on this sentence in particular:

“I like organizers, if they sign on to the right causes.”

You have to admire his willingness to go out on a limb. But he’s by no means along in having an unfortunate tendency to focus on issue campaigns, and on the merits of a particular approach to a community problem, and which approach is the right one. Organizers are no more immune to this than anyone.

But of course no policy is objectively right. There are only choices, which we make on the basis of our values and our other self-interests. Experts in economics, in sociology, in science can tell us what the choices are, what the consequences are of a particular policy or procedure. The real trouble has always been figuring out which trade-offs we should make as a society – not whether approaches (do-nothingism among them) are imperfect (they all are), but how they are imperfect, and which imperfect projects we the people will undertake anyway.

Democracy is not measured by the universality of the franchise. It’s measured by how many people have a stake in that process of figuring-out. The price of admission to that process is power, so the power-building work of organizers is what really makes a deeply democratic society – whether you agree with the causes or not.

The Powers-That-Be have been choosing imperfect solutions for many hundreds of years – but the imperfections have been the imperfections that they want.

Organizing is about building power, not about the merits of a particular issue. And people who won’t otherwise have enough power to have a seat at the table getting that power is an unqualified good.

*[There’s also a tendency to focus on the tactical element, mainly because tactics are fun. Who doesn’t smile at the idea of a “shit-in” shutting down O’Hare, a la Rules for Radicals? But tactics are about what you do with your power. They’re not a substitute for it, especially over the longer term.]

Empowerment and entitlement.

8 March 2008

Like Scott Wells, I’d been reluctant to wade into the discussion about youth and young adult funding within the Unitarian Universalist Association, mainly because I care only slightly more about intradenominational politics than other people do. And most of you who read this aren’t Unitarian Universalists, anyway.

But this whole mess is a nice excuse for me to talk about organizing, which I love. Back to youth and young adults in a bit.

In organizing, we spend a lot of time talking about self-interest. Self-interest is distinct from selfishness (concern exclusively about the self) and selflessness (concern exclusively with others); a working definition might be “concern for the self in relation to others.” I have short-term self-interests: I’m hungry, so getting some food is in my self-interest. I have other, deeper self-interests: I want to have a family. I want to be respected. I want to be right with God.

The only way to relate honestly with other people is by finding common self-interests. Read that sentence again, and then again until you believe it.

A simple example: It’s in my self-interest to eat. It’s in the self-interest of the grocer to sell me food. So we come to an arrangement that satisfies both self-interests (namely, me buying food and paying for it) and then we’ve had an honest interaction. Viola! Our self-interests are different, but they come together in ways that are mutually satisfactory. The same is true of all honest interactions; they’re just more complicated or subtler. With me?

Now, power is just the ability to engage other people’s self-interest. The power that large groups of people have relative to elected officials is that officials have a self-interest in not ticking off people who vote for them. The power that my boss has relative to me depends (in part) on my self-interest in not being fired.

All of that stuff is in the first day of organizer training. So what does that have to do with Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults? If y/ya want to be “empowered” – which I can only assume means to be, well, powerful – they need to stop whining and find ways to engage the self-interest of the rest of the Association. Funding is being cut because y/ya “leaders” have not managed to engage the self-interest of the people who control the UUA.*

So what would a process leading toward real y/ya empowerment look like? Well, off the top of my head, it would involve introspection, one-on-ones, small group meetings, etc. — whatever was necessary to identify the individual and collective self-interests of UU Youth and Young Adults. It would, as Scott said, involve “creat[ing] institutions that create the desired goals.”

Then, with a clear understanding of what they want, they would meet with the key power people in the Association, and try to figure out how they could make what they want be in the self-interest of the power people in the denomination. They would need to be very clear in their own minds that denominational politics, like all politics, is about power. And political power is the ability to induce and/or engage the self-interest of whomever can give you what you want.


* This resolution uses the language of “investment” in y/ya programming, but doesn’t tell the rest of us what the dividends will be. It could be any number of things: Maybe the self-interest they engage is our desire for there to be strong UU institutions after we’re gone. Maybe it’s something else. But to be “empowering” for everyone involved, it will have to be negotiated out of our respective self-interests, not whined into existence.