Friday, January 10, 2014

The Lens

In my last post, I wrote:
The demobilization of reform forces is the historical context in which we have to look at UU history since 1961.
By "demobilization of reform forces," I mean the Nixon-Reagan Thermidor, the mobilization of a conservative counter-movement to all the reformist movements which surfaced in the 50's and 60's.

To tell the story of Unitarian Universalism since merger is to tell the story of the many UU strategies for resisting, escaping, accommodating, subverting and ignoring this counter-revolution.  It is the most useful lens through which to view this now 50+ year history, just as we now view the story of Unitarianism in the antebellum period through the lens of abolition and slavery.

It is not our preferred lens. We tell other stories to organize our history. We tell the story of our ever-increasing inclusiveness and openness, as women, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and trans people entered our ministry and congregations. We tell how we created an interfaith solution to the humanist/theist divide which dominated the pre-merger times. We tell a story of courage in Selma and cowardice in Boston and Cleveland, repentance in Calgary and the slow journey since then. You could trace our history along the lines of our youth ministry: LRY and Common Ground, and YRUU, and AYS and OWL.

None of these story are false, and still stand on their own, as histories. I am saying that the overall narrative which brings these together is the story of our attempts to deal with the rising tide of anti-liberalism.

Telling our story in a different way, around a different theme, or in a different key, does not change what happened. It does shake up our thinking, offering different ways to view the present and to see a different future. We are shaped, but not determined, by our history.  The first step to changing ourselves is to change how we understand who we are and how we got here.

Such a view, de-centers us. The Nixon-Reagan Thermidor affected every institution, culture and subculture in the country. It gets us out of thinking that we make our history, and in touch with the fact that history makes us, as well.

5 comments:

Clyde Grubbs said...

It is an interesting hypothesis, but there is another story that needs to be heard.

In 1959 we were not that different in terms of economic liberalism, social liberalism, cultural liberalism. We strongly encouraged our gay ministers and laity to stay in the closet. We said to our women "your voices are too high for the pulpit" and your leadership style is to nice. The kind of patriarchy that one sees in old movies prevailed. We supported the Cold War including the wars against the Guatamala and Indochina. We were comfortable with Jim Crow and Indian termination and ethnic jokes. We did not do economic justice.

So many of the youth allied with new UUs supported the cultural and social liberalism of the 60s and 70s. And Nixon did reflect a move to contain the upsurge (so he could win that Indochina thing.) But the motion was all a response to the Right, we changed in response to the women's movement, gay rights movement and movements of people of color. The sustained peace movement deconstructed the imperium that we supported in 1959 and critiqued in deeper and deeper ways as the years passed. Schultz supported Bush's war on Iraq to save Kuwait and we were began burning our bridges to the foriegn policy establisment. A UU was Clinton's Secretary of Defense. But the scepticism is deep in our ranks toward the Empire these days.

The other story is the story of Liberal Religion across the Board. The UCC, the Episcopalians, et al.

What our all those ministers reading in theological school? What films are being seen on film night. So yes, we have been in a struggle with the Reaction, but the Reaction has been responding to a deep movement by social and cultural forces as well.

Meanwhile the 1% of stealing our lunch.

Tom Schade said...
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Tom Schade said...
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Tom Schade said...

Clyde,
Yes, you are right. It's always impossible to find the ultimate cause of any historical trend; what caused the cause?
I think that the mainspring of US History has always been has been the conflict in the US South between African Americans and whites. When that broke into the open contest in the 50's and 60's, it set off a numerous other challenges to the status quo. And then, the rightwing developed an anti-liberal, anti-reform narrative to create a majority based on cultural resentment, racism, hetero-patriarchy etc. UU's were caught between sympathy for insurgent movements and the right's anti-liberalism. Once the Nixon-Reagan reaction gained political power, the 1% were served lunch.

E;z Curtiss said...

Lately I've been enamored with the work of Lillian Smith, a southern liberal of the middle twentieth century, in Killers of the Dream. It is both disturbing and convincing to see how well Smith's formulation fits the information in Craig Steven Wilder's tough-to-read-but-essential-to-know Ebony and Ivy, the story of slavery's essential contribution to the social institutions we have been used to call our pillars of Englightenment civiliation.

The dynamic described by Smith and Wilder lies deeper than either narrative offered by Clyde or Tom. Smith and Wilder instead describe a family systems problem. Both repeatedly describe social injustice arising at the level of the extended family -- not just extended across the siblings, but stretching across generations. And while Smith contends that affluent southerners cynically manipulated both racism and religious fervor to prevent trans-racial class solidarity, Wilder points out that the racism provided fundamental direct support for the affluent as well.

So what does this say of our own narrative? That we're not even close when we look at recent history and northern institutions.