All posts by John A Arkansawyer

President “That Guy” Knows What He Is Doing

Don’t lie to yourself. That Guy knows exactly what he’s doing.

Yesterday, about the attempted bombings:

Any acts or threats of political violence are an attack on democracy itself.

The day before, about a Republican congressman who assaulted a reporter:

Any guy who can do a bodyslam, he’s my kinda guy.

And then he acted out the bodyslam. Don’t lie to yourself. That Guy knows exactly what he’s doing.

Sen. Chuck “Chickenshit” Schumer (D-Wall Street) Speaks Out On The Current Crisis

Apparently this story got under the skin of the Senior Senator from the Great State of Wall Street:

Chuck Schumer Relieved He’s Never Taken Stance Meaningful Enough To Have Someone Mail Him Explosive

As usual, The Onion had the real news. That story was published yesterday at 12:53 PM. It ends:

At press time, Schumer had issued a tepid statement urging Americans to consider all sides in the matter.

Two hours earlier, Schumer had tweeted:

Make no mistake: Despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum—not just by one side. Regardless of who is responsible, these acts are wrong and must be condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike. Period.

It’s accompanied by a graphic showing one news story about a rock being thrown through the office of a Republican and another about a bomb being sent to the home of a Democratic ally. I keep thinking I’ve heard this sort of thing before, somewhere…

You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.

CNN President Jeff Zucker Has Failed In The Current Crisis

After yesterday’s attempted bombing of CNN headquarters, CNN president Jeff Zucker issued this statement:

There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media. The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.

That statement is a serious, possibly fatal, failure of journalistic standards. Why?

CNN and the press has been strict about not calling false statements from “The President and the White House Press Secretary” lies, on the grounds they don’t know the state of mind of a person making a statement, that they usually can’t know a false statement is a lie.

A liar has to know he’s lying in order to tell a lie. A false statement made in good faith, or even in ignorance, is not a lie. Depending on the circumstances, it is something else: A false statement, a negligent act, an irresponsible statement, but not a lie.

The time my boss told me I was getting a raise, and his boss make him take it back? While the expression is “made him a liar”, and while he was rightly chagrined at going back on his word, that is not a lie. He told what he believed to be the truth. He was not a liar.

(I still hold a grudge over that, as much over my boss getting jerked around by his boss as over losing my tiny cost of living raise.)

So read this again:

There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media. The President, and especially the White House Press Secretary, should understand their words matter. Thus far, they have shown no comprehension of that.

That is an example of Jeff Zucker assuming he knows the state of mind of “The President and the White House Press Secretary”. He assumes they don’t understand what they are doing. He is assuming he knows their state of mind, which he does not.

Possibly Zucker is trying to de-escalate. That is an understandable mistake, but it is still a mistake. It’s wrong to go against journalistic standards to give powerful people a break in one case while obeying those standards elsewhere, also to give powerful people a break.

It’s also a grave misunderstanding of the situation. What was the response from “The President and the White House Press Secretary”? Here are the words of President That Guy earlier this morning:

A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!

So here is my question to Jeff Zucker: What makes you think That Guy doesn’t know what he’s doing?

You Are On Fire

It was a pleasure to burn.

The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Frederick-Gray wrote a thoughtful call to action, Time for cold anger. It’s a quick read and worth your time. It contains several pointers to useful actions, and one piece of false hope when it says:

Anger is the legitimate response to pain, but it can become destructive. Turned inward and swallowed, it can consume us with shame, self-destruction, and despair. Turned outward, it can be explosive and violent. But when we understand the concept of cold anger—an anger that burns without consuming—we understand that anger can be the fire and the energy for action, for organizing, for creating justice. (emphasis added)

Right now, you are on fire. Every breath you take pulls oxygen in to burn in your guts; every exhalation puts out the carbon dioxide generated by the sacred trash fire that is our body. Every moment consumes a tiny bit more of us, some moments eating more than others. When we stop that burning, we are dead.

Take it from an anger swallower who wants to fly: There is no form of anger that does not consume you. Everything we do has a cost, even if it is only–only!–seconds of our life. Sometimes hot anger slices through stone cold bullshit like nobody’s business, saving precious time. Saving precious life. Precious lives.

Great Artists have told us this about fury and anger.

There’s anger that costs more and anger that costs less, and anger that gets more done or less done. We all pick our way through these choices and burn a little of ourselves every step of the way. Some of it is conscious choice–a slow and cautious way–and most of us run on habit and reaction and inertia. Sometimes you have to burn your way out of a rut.

Not that burning is a pure good. It’s not. Fire is a great refiner, a wonderful source of heat and light, all that. And if you’ve ever spent a fun night around a trash barrel with friends and a six-pack, you will remember that “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”

But the quote continues, “He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.” If I were asked to give an example of Evil without violence, burning books would be a good choice. There’s a special terror in seeing what isn’t built to die–unlike a human, for whom death is just another punch on our ticket–die anyway. A book, a painting, a hope, an idea. They don’t die like we die, though in the long term they do die as we die. We live short term and save what we can.

So accept that you are on fire, that you are burning as we speak and will eventually go out. You may rise again like the phoenix, disperse like smoke, or settle like ash. You may just be a process that ends, or you may be one more cycle round the center. No one knows for sure, and I think most of those who claim they do harbor secret doubts.

Go ahead and burn as you wish, hot or cold, fast or slow, over under sideways down. Here are two opportunities to Catch Fire, two of many Great Ways To Burn:

Walk through the fire
Fly through the smoke
See my enemy
At the end of their rope

I can’t believe that the axis turns
On suffering when you taste so good
I can’t believe that the axis turns
On suffering when my head it burns

You don’t have to pick one or the other, or either one. You just have to choose something.

The Mathematics of the Soul

In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner published The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. The gist of it is in the title: Math is weirdly good at describing the physical world, good enough to seem unreasonable.

At the end, Wigner says:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning. (emphasis added)

I could’ve cut that off after the first sentence, but that phrase: to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement. I’ve had that feeling with math, when something click click clicked into place and made the most wonderful, most unexpected kind of sense.

What, then, is the mathematics of the soul?

It can’t be mathematics, because the soul

  1. isn’t physical, and
  2. doesn’t exist.

So let’s ask the question this way: What is unreasonably effective at expressing, communicating, shaping, and preserving the fruits of the human heart? What carries those precious things through time and space and past the death of the individual?

Beauty. Art. But most especially song and story, story and song.

Song and story intersect at rhythm and narrative. Song has harmony and melody; story has plot and character. Song slices through reason like a sharp knife through the butterlike-brain; story marinates and soaks and dissolves and precipitates thought from reverie.

Song and story are unreasonably effective in transmitting and preserving culture, persevering when written word and graven image do not. What’s sung and said is the most Permanent Record. Erasing that takes genocide, and even that doesn’t always work.

I could not accept a theory of humanity, a theology or a philosophy of life, without song and story as one of its foundations. Along with human solidarity and grateful wonder at the world, it is one foundation of mine.

A Different State Cluster Meeting

My state’s congregations have dropped our twice-yearly cluster meeting to once a year in the hopes of increasing participation.

A typical Cluster Meeting

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Opening Talk
    • Activity
    • Closing
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening
    • Business discussions
    • Session on Church Operations
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Session on Church Operations continues
    • Business Discussions and Announcements
    • Closing
  • Sunday morning
    • Do whatever the local congregation does

There’s nothing wrong with a meeting like that. It’s functional and useful. It’s also not going to appeal to people whose primary interest in church isn’t running the church.

Here’s a proposed variant event schedule. It was inspired by my personal observations and by this Call for a UU General Conference. It’s short and well worth your time. One recommendation from that report is “that the Unitarian Universalist Association schedule general conferences on a regular basis, perhaps in biennial rotation with General Assembly business sessions.” I think our twice-yearly schedule would be supportable if one of the two meetings was primarily a general conference and the other primarily a business meeting.

An ideal Cluster General Conference

  • Friday evening
    • Dinner
    • Announcements
    • Opening worship
    • Covenant
      • Build at first meeting
      • Review and maintain thereafter
    • Closing
    • Activity
  • Saturday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Opening worship
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
  • Saturday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Discernment (and Professional Development)
    • Announcements
    • Closing worship
    • Dinner
  • Saturday evening
    • Activity
  • Sunday morning
    • Breakfast
    • Do whatever the local congregation does
  • Sunday afternoon
    • Lunch
    • Work sessions for specific goals

That’s the ideal schedule. There’s one type of big variation that’s easy and likely. The Sunday afternoon work sessions could be done in parallel with discernment and professional development on Saturday. There’s overlap between the work sessions and the professional development–I’m thinking of that almost exclusively for church administrators, since ministers, religious educators, and music directors already have significant opportunities for professional development–so that’s doable. Those sessions are specialized and specific and task-oriented. Most folks neither want nor need to attend them. Professional development-type things could move to Sunday as well.

There’s another variation that’s a little more difficult and might be best stirred into a cluster business meeting: A local service project. This could be outwardly-directed toward the community, or inwardly-directed toward the hosting congregation. It’s hard to say how to make it work without having an outline of the service project in mind.

Design points

  • If necessary, hire a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing.
  • One broad topic.
  • Facilitated, not directed, conversations. People can tell when they’re being led.
  • Parallel work tracks to
    1. Take fullest advantage of the meeting preparations,
    2. Provide something useful for church administrators, who are not necessarily Unitarian Universalists, and
    3. Give people uninterested in or who already have “Answers to the question: “What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”” something to do.
  • Use the full Friday evening for covenant building, especially the first time around, to set both a pattern and an example.
  • Many short worship services of varied styles. Give people a taste of what they don’t often see or experience.
  • Make the trip worth it. If people are willing to stay the whole weekend, or must arrive late or leave early, give them something for their time and effort.
  • Fund it via congregational support rather than individual admissions. Don’t make people ask for support.
  • Use home hospitality and sleeping in the church as the primary lodging option.
  • Over-prepare food with the expectation of giving leftovers away to the homeless.
  • Did I mention getting a musician to make sure there’s lots of singing? Maybe two of them, just to make sure.

Why?

Most of it is in the Call for a UU General Conference, which is short and which you should read. Here for emphasis (and not to save you the effort of reading that short article) is the most relevant part:

The ecclesiastical body is an intentional community of delegates who come together for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment. The ecclesiastical body is responsible for discerning the religious movement’s ultimate and broad purpose. Ultimately, the ecclesiastical body asks and discerns answers to the question: “what is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in these times?”…Every effort should be made to make these conferences affordable, so that attendees are not limited to older people of means. Further, so that these conferences can build for the future of our movement, we should actively engage youth, young adults, UUs of color, and other historically under-represented groups…

Comment: This proposal is built in part to address our inability to “engage youth [and] young adults”, both those in our congregations and the many more who’ve left them.

We also strong urge the systemic reexamination of the roles and responsibilities enshrined in our current bylaws as we know this organization to have been derived from explicitly racist, sexist, and classist principles. The standard non-profit organization structure, first evolved in the early 19th century, was itself a copy of the business corporation, and specifically, a small New England business corporation that saw virtue in consolidating power to a limited number of patrons. The 1825 establishment of the AUA was very much a part of this milieu (see The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England by Conrad Edick Wright), and while there have been many changes since that time some core patterns of distributing power remain the same. Indeed, in many ways the UUA maintains much of the structure given it by Samuel Atkins Eliot (American Unitarian Association President, 1900-1927; some even call the UUA the “House that Sam built”). Eliot did work to deliberately match the AUA organization with that of business models, especially in terms of disempowering the Board, along the lines of successful “banks, insurance companies, and mills.” Of course, in doing so, he was also bringing the AUA even more in line with how wealthy New England families were accustomed to running New England charities. Eliot brought this same lens to his work as a Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner, where his stump speech was “From the Scalping Knife to the Can Opener,” a statement about how only assimilation to white culture would save Native Americans from their own “barbarism.”

Comment: I have seen the equivalent of violence done to people by treating a church like a business. That’s why I put this whole paragraph in. I hope it will shock you. There is corruption in the current model all the way down to its base and all the way out into the often genocidal society our forebears helped build.

The Task Force was charged changing the culture of the UUA from one of a member services administration to one of mutual covenanting. After over a year and a half of deep discussions, we have realized that this culture of covenant was precisely what was created by the conferences and conventions of our past, as they were designed for the mutual strengthening of the congregations, the creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability, and theological discernment (emphasis added)…The nature of business meetings, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, is fundamentally adversarial rather than covenantal.

Here we reach the heart of the matter:

  1. Mutual strengthening of the congregations
  2. Creation of relationships of mutual aid and accountability
  3. Theological discernment

I would suggest those are in reverse order. To strengthen each other, we must first know each other; to know each other, we must first know ourselves. So we begin with discernment.

There should also be an end in mind. The Arkansas UU Cluster can have a purpose, just as the UUA does. Currently that purpose is poorly-defined. That figures, because we haven’t talked among ourselves about what we want and why. I would suggest there are many things the Cluster could take as a goal. We could involve ourselves more directly in the Justice ministry which spun off from the Cluster. We could work together to plant a congregation in a likely spot–Russellville, Fort Smith, Joplin, Arkadelphia, or Pine Bluff. Somewhere with a concentration of people and at least half an hour from the nearest UU congregation. We could buy a piece of land and build a camp.

But before we know what, we have to know why. So we begin with discernment.

What’s left out?

I intentionally left out families and child care. My kid is in high school, nearly old enough to join the church, and attends adult activities. My concerns aren’t those of younger parents. The way to proceed with them is to ask every one of them in our congregations what would make a gathering worthwhile for them and then do that thing. The best way to proceed would be for congregations to allocate money to do this and ask their youth and young adults to plan it, to make the decisions about it, and depend on the rest of us to help faithfully implement their ideas. I’m not sure we’re mature enough to do that yet, but we’d best get there. As Marcus Aurelius said via Jim Whitehead:

The time is near at hand for forgetting all; near too,
the time for all forgetting you.

What’s next?

You tell me.

Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

Everyone knows this one, right?

Rev. Meg Barnhouse‘s lovely variation on the words of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic and the first woman known to have written a book in English.

This is one of the songs, and links to a song, I keep in my back pocket for troubles, my own and others. It helps me. When I think I know when it will help a friend, I apply it to them gently. It seems to work; I don’t think it harms. It heals by virtue of being beautiful, in many different ways.

When I first encountered the next song, I’d passed through my first period of fascination with mystics and visionaries–Smart, Blake, Sor Juana, and St. John mostly*–so I didn’t see Julian of Norwich in it. Probably the authors didn’t either; I find the ways of the Spirit are even more mysterious to us atheists than to any believer. I was also far too hip to like anything Big On The Radio, and this whole record was big! Big! BIG!! It took my great and wasted friend Orlis to make me actually listen to the damned thing–on a cassette, no less, in a house stuffed with vinyl records–and discover it was really good. It took listening since him to see how it was great. Continue reading Why and How You Should Use The Word “Chickenshit” In Church Services

“the Muller investigation just paid for itself” Is Ferguson, Missouri Justice

You’ve probably seen this tweet:

@Pappiness: As part of Paul Manafort’s plea deal, he’ll forfeit bank accounts and properties worth about $46 million dollars. Someone should let Trump know that the Muller investigation just paid for itself.

This is an understandable but unprincipled way to view a criminal investigation. It’s fighting the battle on Trump’s chosen terms. He’s good at getting people to do that. Stop playing his game.

Criminal investigation isn’t about making money. It’s a service, a public good, that is paid for by taxes. Money it generates should go into general revenue.

What it costs to investigate a crime is often well out of proportion with the monetary cost of that crime, and that can be a just expenditure of money. We recognize the injustice of measuring the value of justice by its cost…in principle–even as we tolerate it in practice! The murder of a rich woman should not get a bigger, better investigation than that of a poor man. There isn’t any just way to say one death is worth more than another. Wealthy neighborhoods get better police protection and investigation than others. These practices have to change.

We’ve seen what happens when money from investigations is given to the investigating unit. It often leads to fraud, both outright criminal fraud leading to convictions and casual fraud of the everyday sort. For instance: Seizing a muscle car and letting that unit keep the car for use in “investigations”. That’s legal but not legit.

We all know of towns that fund themselves with speed traps. We all know of rich people walking away from DUIs in ways that poor people can’t.

You know who else walks away from big-ass felonies by forfeiting money? The finance industry. Look at the number of charges which get dropped because the company involved agreed not to fight and to forfeit a lot of cash. Do the responsible individuals get punished? Sure. They feel it in their reduced bonuses or golden parachutes. Does it hold down financial crime? Does it deter or incapacitate the perpetrators, provide retribution or restoration? Does it do any of that? Or does it make getting caught at financial crime against ordinary citizens just a routine risk of business to be figured into ever-increasing interest rates and noted in a cheery stockholders’ report?

What it comes down to is that making revenue generation the goal of law enforcement–especially making the argument for a particular investigation by how it pays for itself, rather than how much truth and justice it delivers–is Ferguson, Missouri justice.

Ferguson discriminatorily squeezed some of its citizens under color of law to pay for a government the rest of its citizens wouldn’t pay enough in taxes to run. Whether it was pure racial oppression or simple class warfare–it’s harder to parse them apart than it is to separate salt from sugar–does not change our judgement that it is wrong.

That doesn’t mean seizing Manafort’s money wasn’t just. Getting money back from crooked financial institutions is just, even if it isn’t sufficiently just or perfectly just. If it’s a good start, I say live with that and improve later on.

“We got the money!” is a lousy justification for seeking criminal justice in the first place. Whether it’s profitable to investigate my murder shouldn’t determine whether my killer is found. Getting the money to fund government through prosecution is an unjust way of providing government. These are basic principles. Let’s respect them.