Saturday, May 26, 2018

When systems thinking goes haywire

"Systems thinking" is an essential component of a progressive worldview. When analyzing a difficult situation, a systems thinker sees how all of the components fit together, rather than focusing on finding the one component at fault.

Take, for example, the problem of school shootings. The conventional approach is to identify the shooter as the problem, and then propose solutions to eliminate the problem. "The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a [bigger] gun." So some right wingers have proposed arming teachers. I can't imagine, though, a more terrifying nightmare to conservatives than the prospect of an armed National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

So some conservatives have turned to the powerful weapon of systems thinking to analyze the problem of why young, white, male students kill their fellow students. It's actually a very good question. It is a very good start to name that there is a school shooter system. It is a complex set of people, institutions, customs, and relationships, and now, it turns out school shooters as predictably as an assembly line turns out automobiles.

How does that school shooter production system work?

This is when we see that putting powerful tools like systems thinking in the hands of immature ideologues results in mayhem.

The conservatives have come up with a cockamamie analysis of "a sexual marketplace". This is no surprise in the they tend to see everything as a marketplace, in which a library is just a bookstore with a bad business model.

Their theory is that in the competition for sexual access to women, men with high status get all the girls, while men with low status are forced into a life of involuntary celibacy. The "incel," the involuntarily celibate man, becomes so alienated, and angry, and isolated, and resentful, that he turns eventually to revenge against the women who have denied him, and the men whom they have chosen instead. Well, that is their theory.

What is a surprise, in fact gob-smackingly amazing, is that conservatives want to interfere with the normal workings of this marketplace, to create a more equitable result.

It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets live in penthouse apartments and mansions while those with the least assets are forced into homelessness. It doesn't bother them that people with lots of assets have access to superb healthcare, while those with fewer assets end up in the emergency room. Any intervention in the normal workings of the housing or healthcare marketplace would be anathema, but the plight of sexually frustrated young men demands action.

And starting from there, the systems thinkers of the right are coming up with all sorts of cockamamie solutions, but in the end, they come to "enforced monogamy", which is another name for the sexual system of the 1950's. Pre-marital sex is officially forbidden, which pushes people into early marriages, mostly to avoid the shame of an unplanned pregnancy. In order to work, enforced monogamy requires limiting access to contraception and the outlawing of abortion. Sex has to be shameful.

We all know that the 1950's didn't work out so well. It seems that the most common theme in popular culture since the end of WW2 has been the misery created by that system of enforced monogamy.

There are systems which turn out school shooters. Those systems are called patriarchy, rape culture, porn culture, and gun culture. Notice I said "cultures", not "markets." Cultures and markets are related and mutually reinforcing, but not the same.

What's missing for some young men is not the assets to successfully compete in a sexual marketplace. They lack the relational skills to function competently in the lifestage when people are forming intimate relationships. Their ability to develop those relational skills are limited by culture.

Porn culture teaches that satisfying sexual desires is the highest value in life. Rape culture teaches that the use of coercive power to compel women to satisfy sexual desire is justified, for its own sake. And gun culture ensures that a tool for expressing your rage in a public theatre of death is always available.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bishop Michael Curry's Homily

Bishop Michael Curry, on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, opened his homily with an invocation to a "loving and liberating God."

Consider that theological assertion, and then consider the history of his people, and finally, consider the audience he was addressing. He is the descendent of enslaved Africans. The ancestors of his audience, which included the British Royal Family and assorted other aristocrats, were the perpetrators and perpetuators and profiteers of the Atlantic slave trade. In their house, and to their faces, set as is their custom, into bland non-committal, Bishop Curry told them that God was all about liberation.

Bishop Curry was there in the role of spiritual teacher, the one with spiritual authority. Given the protocols of Christian worship, Bishop Curry had the authority to speak as long as he needed, without interruption, and without rebuttal. All his congregants could do was roll their eyes, or grimace, or, as Prince Harry did, give an odd half-smile, as though he was aware both of his bride's frank and undivided attention to the Bishop, and his family and friends' discomfort.

Bishop Curry was there because somewhere back in time, the enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity by the enslavers. It was an unlikely event with an unlikely consequence.

At the time, Christianity was the glue that held the world together. It was the religion that undergirded European political and economic power. It was the ideology that authorized the conquest of the New World and the genocide of its peoples. It was the religion that justified the kidnapping, enslavement and ruthless exploitation of the people from Africa.

Christianity was the user manual for the operating system of the world. It was the religion of humanity's highest strata.

But then, Christianity fell into the hands of humanity's lowest: the people who were considered disposable commodities, mere property, tools by the economic, social, and political systems of this world.

The conversion of the enslaved Africans set off a slow-motion explosion that still sounds along the ages. 

The Africans turned the Christianity they were taught upside down, backward, and on the back of the beat. They turned it from the sanctification of the earthly powers over them to a source of their own spiritual power to resist their oppression and exploitation.

Out of the elements of the old Christianity of Constantine, the Africans created a new, and truer, Christianity. From the user manual for the operating system of the world, they created a guide to hack, and subvert, and overthrow "the powers and principalities."

If one is inclined to think in terms of humanity's salvation story, it was a turning point, as significant as the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh's Army, or the resurrection of the Christ to expose the rotting roots of Roman power. The conversion of the enslaved people set off a slow-motion explosion that will someday end the supremacy of the white European Empire over all of Creation. Surely, it was a work of God, the loving and liberating God whom Bishop Curry praised.

So, let's grab a screen shot of the scene yesterday, one frame in God's epic movie of salvation and the reconciliation of humanity to God's self and to each other. It is the stuff of fairy tales, as every commentator commented. So let us name the fairy tale, and tell the whole story.

An errant, somewhat rebellious prince, the younger brother, has traveled the world and met his bride, Meghan Markle, an accomplished actress and a strong, spirited, and independent woman. They fall in love and are to be married in the castle of the Prince's family, with the Queen and all her court looking on. And in the middle of this glittering ceremony, a holy man rises to speak. His message is delivered with loving grace. But just by presence, the fact that he was chosen to re-present the Gospel of Jesus to that congregation, conveyed that all of this (the castle, the chapel, the glitter, the hats and dresses, the cars and carriages), all of this was built by a power that is spent, and all of this is doomed to fall, to be replaced by the power of love, the kind of love embodied that day by the love of the prince and his bride for each other, an expansive, inclusive, adventurous, and liberating love.

And then, the choir sang like angels.

It is the stuff of fairy tales, the revelation of ancient curses, the naming of the inexorable movements of human history, the parting of the dreary veil of the present to reveal a more brilliant future. In other words, it was a wedding; and it was church.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Electoral Strategy Beyond 2018

I wonder how many white people have never voted with the majority of black voters in any contested election. I don’t mean voting for a black candidate — there are black Republicans candidates who don’t get the majority of black votes. I mean voting with the African American voting bloc. 

15% of white voters in Alabama voted with their black fellow Alabamians to vote for Barack Obama in 2016. Obama lost the state by 28%. Doug Jones, on the other hand, received the votes of 30% of white voters in 2018; along with increased turnout by African American voters that margin allowed him a very close win. 

Political parties are racially polarized. People know that the parties have racial identities. People know that the GOP is a white people’s party. They know that the Democrats are a multi-racial coalition. When we hear that some Alabama voters hesitated “to vote for a Democrat,” we suspect that crossing the color line was the unspoken subtext. 

How you vote expresses how you understand your social place and interest. And whose interests you share. White voters who never vote with the majority of African Americans do not see that they share any significant interests with people of color. Some white voters, on the other hand, do. 

The key to political progress has to be to increase the number of the latter and to decrease the number of the former.  Others things have to happen, too, but persuading a larger number of white voters to see their common interests with people of color is essential. 

Some argue that all the Democrats need to so is advance race-neutral reforms that help all people: Medicare for All, or Free Public Colleges. In other words, return to the New Deal/Great Society type reform proposals. Great idea, but we know that the racial attitudes of many white voters make such proposals unattractive to them. They see them as giveaways to the undeserving. 

Some argue that we need a new, more progressive party. But such parties are, in the current moment, attracting small numbers of mostly white voters. The point is not that they weaken the Democratic Party, but they divide the multi-racial electoral coalition.

How do we move poor and white working class people who do not think that they share any politically actionable common interests with people of color. That attitude is not false consciousness. White people of all classes do have concrete and material advantages in a white supremacist system. White privilege is real. But, at the same time, poor and working class whites also share real common interests with people of color. But for many, they perceive their interests in white supremacy as the more useful, and under threat. If poor and working class white voters perceive that their interests are best served by the maintenance of their white privilege, then that needs to be confronted directly. 

In order to get the power to implement progressive reforms, there is no way around adding more white people to the multi-racial progressive electoral coalition. That takes a re-calculation of their interests.

Anti-racist education and organizing is necessary and hard, because so much is at stake. 

Liberal whites in their liberal organizations are now in the midst of struggling with white supremacy in their organizations. (I am looking at you, my Unitarian Universalist friends). The struggle agitates people; it’s tough stuff. Many people are torn and conflicted. They lurch from favoring change to wanting things to stay the same, to anger about being challenged, to self-reflection, to denial, all in a week, or depending on who they are talking to. It’s the experience of contradictions — pulled and pushed in opposing directions, intellectually and emotionally. But some people are learning, and acting on their new knowledge.

It is daunting to think that what is going in the white liberal churches and organization needs to happen in all kinds of white spaces, even with the people for whom their white privilege is all that seems to stand between them and personal disaster. 

But still, our immediate goal is not the transformation of all white people into anti-racist activists. Our immediate, pragmatic goal is to persuade a relatively small number of whites that their interests are best served by voting with the majority of people of color. Moving even a modest number of white voters into the multi-racial coalition can have large effects.