Why We Are Cynical About Ourselves

I have made a simple call that Unitarian Universalists move to express solidarity with low-wage workers, the working poor and poor people. To be clear, I meant solidarity in a fairly conventional political sense: expressing support for, and organizing support for, reformist proposals to improve the economic circumstances of the working poor. I did use the word solidarity deliberately, because I think that the capacity to feel solidarity with others is an essential virtue of the liberal character, and one that we ought to encourage.  But I don't mean mind-melding, or thinking that we are who we are not, or telling people on the front lines how to conduct their struggle.

The pushback from some of my friends and colleagues has been to question whether Unitarian Universalists are really capable of solidarity.  Are we locked instead into our privileges?

Let's look at the situation.

UU's are mostly Democrats these days.  By what percentage do you believe Obama carried UU congregations in 2008 and 2012?  The kinds of demands that are on the agenda right now for the working poor are on the national party platform of Democratic Party.  Raising the minimum wage is a mainstream issue.  US Senators are talking about increasing social security benefits.  The Senate has passed comprehensive immigration reform.  Elizabeth Warren is proposing student loan relief. Medicaid expansion in the red states is going to be a major issue in the elections this year.

Why would Unitarian Universalists believe that somehow they were incapable of participating in political coalitions operating in the interests of low wage workers, pensioners, the unemployed and others of our fellow citizens in economic hardship?

Especially when "they" are "us", past, present and future.

Support for these demands is just good coalition work.

So why would we doubt that we could do it authentically and sincerely and effectively?

Pay attention, now.  I have said this before, but it is hard for us to hear.

Our cynicism about ourselves, about liberals like ourselves, comes from believing what our political opponents have told us about ourselves.

Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams, playing a psychologist,
shows Matt Damon pictures of himself bearing the marks of the abuse from his father.  Damon resists looking at them, laughs them off, but Williams just keeps repeating: "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault." "It's not your fault."

For forty years, the triumphant and dominant conservative movement in the United States has insistently condemned liberals as self-serving, hypocritical, elitist, and dictatorial. Every criticism of the status quo that liberals made was turned back against them.

Now, I'm not saying that liberals are not implicated in the injustices that are this nation's past and present.  I doubt that Matt Damon was a perfect child, as well.

But I am saying that forty years being caricatured and vilified by a dominant conservative movement has affected us, and made us cynical about ourselves.

We are caught up in our heads, second-guessing ourselves, doubting our capacity to take even the simplest of actions.  The way forward is to act, and then reflect, and then act again, and then reflect, and learn from our mistakes and the feedback we are getting from those around us, and then act again.


  1. Clyde Grubbs12:53 PM

    Cynicism is never wise, and cynicism about "ourselves" is, as you suggest rooted in a deeper problem.

    The notion that communities "internalize" the negative self images of that community that are narrated by dominant culture is known in anti-oppressive analysis as "internalized oppression." Thus the struggle against Indian mascots is tied to the damage it does to indigenous pysche's to see these images. The notion that middle strata liberals might absorb such negative self images is worth some further examination. Especially since middle strata liberals tend to think of themselves as "elite" rather than oppressed.

    But another source of "cynicism" is in fact a characteristic of middle strata liberals, that being expressive individualism. Solidarity with the working poor and the just plain poer calls us to a certain "dying to" individualism and joining wholeheartedly into the messy and sometimes crazy making ways of "the other." There is culture shock.

    Perhaps some of the pushback is resistance. After all, being called to "die" in order to be reborn as a new being in solidarity with the poor can cause apprehension, sort of like diving off a cliff.

  2. It took me a minute, but I finally figured out why it is that I'm in cynical mode when it comes to UU solidarity.

    I don't think that most UUs are as liberal as you do. I think that most UUs are just slightly more reformed Calvinists. I think most UUs believe that a lot of the social problems that are being talked about are really issues of personal pathology, not a systemic issue.

    Now...do I think that most UUs think about these issues the way that, say, a Rand Paul or Paul Ryan do? Not exactly. But I do think that Strom Thurmmond, Barry Goldwater, and Lee Atwater won. Since '48, most whites have been voting and working against their own economic interests because of fear. Choose your fear; it doesn't really matter which one. But the growth of the suburbs and exurbs (and also a good deal of the growth of Unitarian Universalism) was a direct response.

    My contention is that until the theology changes (UUs actually go for the Universalism part and drop the Calvinism), solidarity isn't going to go far. Hence my cynicism; mainly because I don't think most UUs will want to acknowledge that they really are Calvinists.

  3. Coming at it from another direction, most of us are clinging to those last shreds of middle class dignity as hard as we can. having worked numerous hourly jobs (thanks to the UU insistence on underpaying DRE's and MREs), I can't tell you how many days I came home wrapped in my own ambition to continue slow-cooking rather than giving in to fast food, to watch PBS rather than sitcoms, to read a book or The New Yorker or New York Times rather than watch any tv at all, to write rather than to read. As you get more and more tired, less and less confident that your job will be there tomorrow, you spend a lot of time wondering what of these former trappings is worth keeping. You don't want to hear about life without them -- that is something you fear. What you want to know is who will help you keep the few you select. Only when you've gone through that selection process, downsized your life, do you have the emotional time and energy to take on the powers-that-be. But in my own case, having done all that grieving and pitching, my old political energy is finding more room and voice.


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