Monday, May 06, 2024

Hope, Denial, and Healthy Relationship with the News

a service presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on May 5, 2024

Opening Words

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
and the slow parade of fears 
(without crying).
Now I want to understand.

I have done all that I could 

to see the evil and the good 
(without hiding)
You must help me if you can.

Doctor, my eyes tell me what is wrong.
Was I unwise 
to leave them open for so long?

- Jackson Browne

Reading

In addition to its plot and characters, the novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren is one of the greatest storehouses of metaphors in American literature. Here’s one relevant to today’s topic:

It was like the second when you come home late at night and see the yellow envelope of the telegram sticking out from under your door and you lean and pick it up, but don’t open it yet, not for a second.

While you stand there in the hall, with the envelope in your hand, you feel there’s an eye on you, a great big eye looking straight at you from miles and dark and through walls and houses and through your coat and vest and hide and sees you huddled up way inside, in the dark which is you, inside yourself, like a clammy, sad little foetus you carry around inside yourself.

The eye knows what’s in the envelope, and it is watching you to see you when you open it and know too. But the clammy, sad little foetus which is you way down in the dark which is you too lifts up its sad little face and its eyes are blind, and it shivers cold inside you for it doesn’t want to know what is in that envelope. It wants to lie in the dark and not know, and be warm in its not-knowing.

Sermon

I’m taking a bit of a risk this morning.

Whenever I write a talk, I try to keep certain balances in mind. To me, those balances define what it means for a talk to be a Unitarian sermon rather than an academic lecture or a political speech or some other kind of sermon.

One of those balances is between the personal and the universal. I think a Unitarian sermon needs to be personal. It shouldn’t just be a collection of abstract notions I think you’ll find interesting. The topic should mean something to me and figure in my life. But on the other hand, a Unitarian sermon shouldn’t just be personal.  It shouldn’t be idiosyncratic. My experiences and struggles should illustrate some larger, more universal point, because this isn’t therapy and you didn’t come here to listen to my problems.

Today, though, I’m talking about an experience that I know is personal, but I’m only guessing about its universality. I think maybe something similar happens to a lot of you also, but we tend not to talk about things like this, so I don’t really know.

The experience is an intense spiraling downward that gets triggered not by anything in my personal life, but from my interaction with the news. I hear about something in the outside world, the public world that we all share, and then the walls come tumbling down.

Let me tell you the last time this happened to me. The trigger — which, looking back, seems kind of trivial, but these things usually do after a few months — was the Hur report. Maybe you remember: Robert Hur was the special counsel tasked with investigating President Biden’s unauthorized retention of classified documents, an investigation that in some ways paralleled the one that led to former President Trump’s Florida indictment. The bottom line of that investigation, from my partisan perspective, was positive: Hur found nothing that would justify pressing charges. As an official matter, the case was closed.

But along the way, he took a swipe at Biden’s mental competence, describing the president as “an elderly man with a poor memory” and “diminished faculties in advancing age”. Biden responded with an angry press conference that made things worse. As he was leaving the room, he answered an unscripted question about Gaza, and said “Mexico” when he obviously meant “Egypt”.

And then the media frenzy was on. According to the CSS Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication: During the next week the New York Times alone published 26 unique articles about Biden’s age, only one of which pointed out that age might also be a problem for Trump. For a week, Biden’s age blotted out all other considerations: It mattered more than anything his administration had accomplished, more than Trump’s plans for authoritarian government, and even more than January 6th. Nothing else was worth discussing, because Biden is old.

And I thought, “My God, we’re doomed. We’re going to lose our democracy because one man said Mexico instead of Egypt.”

And that’s when the bottom fell out of my mood. The effect lasted for several days. I would seem to be coming out of it, but then something would remind me and I’d sink back down again.

In Paul Krugman’s subsequent column he didn’t talk explicitly about his emotions, but I imagined he was having a similar experience: “I am,” he wrote, “for the first time, profoundly concerned about the nation’s future. It now seems entirely possible that within the next year, American democracy could be irretrievably altered.”

OK. From here I could go into a long rant about the importance of this election, or how the media is covering it, or why in spite of everything I’m still hopeful about November. But that’s not where I want to go.

No, what I want to talk about is that experience, that sudden mood collapse touched off by something in the news. The something doesn’t have to relate to politics or elections. It could be about climate change or the Supreme Court or what corporate capitalism is doing to our culture or whatever else you happen to worry about.

One minute, you’re sailing along calmly, thinking, “Yeah, there are problems, but we’ll be OK.” And then you hear or see something. Maybe it’s a big thing, like the Dobbs decision or the October 7 attacks. But it doesn’t have to be. Maybe you hear about a heat wave in Asia. Or see police fighting with protesters. Or maybe somebody you know, somebody you thought knew better, surprises you by repeating some hateful political talking point about trans people or immigrants.

And in an instant the bottom falls out. That guarded confidence you felt a minute ago is gone, and suddenly all you can think is: “We’re doomed. We’re on a track to some unthinkable dystopia, and nothing I do makes any difference. People don’t understand, and I can’t explain it to them, because I can’t even imagine what they were thinking to begin with.”

I experience this as depression and despair, but I know other people for whom it manifests as anger: How can so many people be so stupid or self-centered or short-sighted?

We don’t usually talk about these experiences, because it feels like confessing a weakness, or like a virus we don’t want to pass on. If I’m panicking inside, I don’t want to tell you about it, because I don’t want you to panic too. But I think we do need to talk about this, for at least two reasons. First, because when this happens to you, it’s really unpleasant. Despair is one of the most painful emotions out there, so the less time you can spend in it, the better.

And second, it’s debilitating. When that sinkhole opens up or that volcano of rage erupts, it’s hard to keep doing any of the constructive things you ordinarily do. And if you do manage to keep doing them, you probably aren’t doing them very well. I know that when I’m coming from a place of fear or anger, when I’m running away from an internal panic, I have bad judgment and find it hard to connect with people. In situations where I’d like to communicate confidently and persuasively, what tends to come through instead is my anxiety and fear. So despair, depression, and anger tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies. If you and everyone like you are panicking, that in itself can be something to panic about.

Ever since February I’ve been wandering around asking people if they recognize this experience and, if so, what they do about it. I’ve learned two things from those conversations: First, not a single person has told me that they don’t know what I’m talking about. And second, from the remedies they suggest, I gather that most people experience this as a passing mood, a short-term unpleasantness that they just need to get over.  So I’ve heard suggestions like: Eat something. Get a good night’s sleep. Go walk in the woods. Watch a movie. Get a big hug from somebody. Snuggle with a pet.

In essence, these remedies treat a poor mental state like a malfunctioning device. You don’t need to understand exactly what went wrong. Just unplug it and then plug it in again. Reboot, and hope the problem goes away. Most of the time, it does.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Or it goes away for a day or a week, and then the whole pattern repeats itself: You hear that the bird flu might lead to another pandemic, read about another species going extinct, hear somebody else confidently proclaim their racism or sexism, and the roller coaster takes another dive.

At this point, you need more than just a distracting hobby or a comfort animal. You need a strategy.

The beginning of strategy is noticing patterns. One pattern I’ve noticed in my life is a weekly cycle. I post my political blog on Monday mornings. And even though I’ve been assembling it all week, Monday morning usually requires about six hours of intense concentration. In particular, it’s emotional concentration, because I test each sentence for all the ways it could be misunderstood, and all the unintentional insults I might be dealing out to readers who come to this topic with life experiences different from mine. By Monday afternoon my empathy is exhausted, including my empathy for myself. So Monday evenings are difficult for me, and I’m highly vulnerable to these kinds of collapses.

I’ve tried a number of remedies, but the one that works best is simple acceptance: This is what Monday evening feels like. Notice it, accept it, don’t make it worse, but also don’t take it too seriously. I get through Monday, try not to expect much out of myself on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning I’m almost always fine.

In the Carlos Castenada books, Don Juan talks about stalking your dysfunctions the way that a hunter stalks prey. In this case, you may need to stalk your fear, despair, anger, or other negativity. Find out where it hangs out, where it comes from, where it goes, and plan your strategy accordingly.

But sometimes even that doesn’t work. And at this point, you might wonder whether you’re in the territory of that old vaudeville joke: A guy walks in to his doctor’s office and says “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor responds: “Don’t do that.”

Does it hurt when you pay attention to the news? Don’t do that. Stop looking. Stop caring about elections or the planet or global injustice or anything beyond what you need to get through your day. That’s the question Jackson Browne was wrestling with in the opening words: I’ve been living with my eyes open. Was that a mistake?

Now, for me, not paying attention to the news would mean shutting down my blog, which has become a major part of my identity. But even without that consideration, I also think it would betray my Unitarian values.

As Unitarians, I don’t believe we’re supposed to be fat and happy. I think we’re supposed to be active, well-informed citizens. I think we’re supposed to be involved in the give-and-take of democracy. And even to lead those discussions to the extent that we’re able. As a religious movement, we take seriously Thomas Jefferson’s warning: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”

But that said, sometimes you do need to step back and let the world manage without you for a week or two. We all, I think, have inside us that sad little fetus Robert Penn Warren was talking about, the one that wants to stay warm in its not knowing. Once in a while, we need to show ourselves some compassion and take a little time to comfort that fetus.

And sometimes the negative pattern you’ve stalked to its lair is obsessiveness. So you need to ration your attention and set up circuit breakers to keep yourself from going down a rabbit hole. More than one person has told me that they need to enforce a rigorous bedtime to keep themselves from doomscrolling their news feeds far into the night. You can make those kinds of adjustments without permanently turning your back on the world.

I want to devote the rest of my time this morning to thinking about prevention. Short of ignoring the world’s problems, is there some regular practice, some mental hygiene, some healthy relationship to the news, that can prevent these sorts of mood collapses?

I think there is. But to understand it, we need a more precise diagnosis of the problem.

If you look at the kinds of responses I’ve mentioned — paralyzing fear, despair, depression, and annihilating anger — I think they’re all symptoms of broken denial. You keep telling yourself that some unpleasant thing can’t happen, and then you get reminded that it can. So you get angry or depressed or fall into despair.

That’s what happened to me in February. I had been telling myself, and telling my readers, that the American people are basically sensible, and they’ll rise to this challenge. Every voter starts paying attention on their own schedule, so at any given moment they might tell a pollster all kinds of things. But come November, most voters will look around, figure things out, and do the right thing.

But then for a week in February, nothing mattered but Biden’s age. And I was forced to admit: Maybe not.

So if the root problem is denial, then the obvious solution is to live without denial. But that’s a lot easier said than done. Perfect perception of reality is not given to human beings. We all piece together our worldviews from a few facts, some reasonable deductions, a little hearsay, a few wild guesses, and maybe a bit of wishful thinking. No matter how hard you work on your picture of reality, the world is going to continue to surprise you.

And figuring out how to respond to those surprises gets tricky. Take my response to the Hur report. That mood crash should have told me that I had been in denial about something. But what exactly? What was the belief that events had exposed as dysfunctional? And what was the right belief to replace it with? It’s really easy to get this wrong, and many people do.

Here’s one way I could have thought it through: What got me in trouble, what got exposed as denial, was my belief that the American people are going to do the right thing in November.

So maybe the correct view, the thing I need to admit to myself, is that the American people are going to do the wrong thing. The Republic is doomed. We’re going to vote to end democracy once and for all. That’s just how it is.

I see people do this all the time: If my positive belief is denial, then the exactly opposite negative belief must be true. Climate change is going to destroy civilization. Rational thought can never compete with religious extremism. Humanity will never make any progress on poverty or war or bigotry. We’re all doomed.

I say I could have thought it through that way, but it’s actually worse than that: I did. For several days I tormented myself with those kinds of negative thoughts.

But eventually I realized that this kind of thinking was just the flip side of the same denial. Because my true mistake, the conclusion that needed replacing, wasn’t that the election will have a happy outcome. My true mistake was telling myself that I know what’s going to happen. Jumping from “I know things are going to turn out well” to “I know things are going to turn out badly” wasn’t undoing my denial, it was maintaining it.

Because here’s the scary, humbling, but true thought that I was actually denying: I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can guess. I can speculate. I can argue that one outcome is more likely than another. But when you come down to it, I just don’t know.

I don’t know who’s going to win the election. I don’t know if Trump will ever face justice. I don’t know how bad climate change will get before we turn it around, or if we even will turn it around. I don’t know what future wars we might find ourselves fighting. I don’t know what new plagues are out there. I don’t know if we’ll ever figure out how to organize humanity to offer everyone a chance at a good life. I don’t know how long it will take the arc of the Universe to bend towards justice, or if it’s even bending that way at all. Pick any problem or issue you care about, and I can’t promise you anything. Because I just don’t know.

And that, I think, is the essence of the problem we all face: How do we keep going, keep striving, keep doing whatever we can to give humanity its best chance to thrive — without falsely promising ourselves that whatever we’re doing is certain to work?

My best response to that question is actually in one of my previous talks, the one I gave during the Covid lockdown, when we were meeting over Zoom with the congregation in La Crosse. Remember? I talked about hope.

My hope at the time was that if you remembered anything from that talk, it would be this: Hope is neither optimism nor pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future, but hope is an attitude towards the present. Hope says that striving is worthwhile. It doesn’t promise you an outcome. It just says that trying is better than not trying.

So in conclusion, that’s the mental hygiene I’ve been trying to live by these last few months, and that I recommend: Cultivate your capacity for hope, and regularly exercise your ability to live and function in the presence of uncertainty.

Whether we’re talking about the election, climate change, some other public issue, or even some challenge in your personal life, try to avoid both optimism and pessimism. Try to avoid either promising yourself a positive outcome or getting lost in some negative scenario. Just keep striving for the best outcome you can reasonably imagine, and then let things happen as they will.

We don’t get to choose the future, but we do get to choose our own actions.  

Choose well.

Closing Words

The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance. -- Benjamin Franklin

Monday, November 13, 2023

My Humanist Afterlife

Presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
12 November 202
3

In the traditional wheel of the year, fall is when things come to a conclusion. You can see different aspects of that theme in the season’s two major holidays: Thanksgiving is about harvest, and Halloween is about death.

The great UU preacher and author Forrest Church once summed up all of religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Most of us deal with that challenge, at least in part, by practicing denial. Yes, we’ll die, but let’s not think about that right now.

This is the attitude Don Juan cautioned Carlos Castaneda against when he told him to “use Death as an advisor”. Simply by living, we use up a finite resource. When we deny Death or ignore it, we lose sight of that finiteness. And so we might be tempted to fritter time away. Death would advise us value our time more highly.

A second kind of denial is embedded in many religions, which teach that death is not as real as it looks: The body that dies is not important; it’s just the housing for a soul, which lives on eternally. In Christianity, that eternal life happens in Heaven or Hell. In many Eastern religions, the soul traverses a series of incarnations as anything from an insect to a god.

As I’ve mentioned in previous talks, I grew up at St. James [Lutheran Church in Quincy] with a very literal Christian theology, and my parents maintained that faith for their entire lives.

In 2011, my mother’s funeral was held at Hansen Spear [a local funeral home]. When I wrote about it later for UU World, I confessed how isolated I had felt as I listened to the minister’s description of Heaven, that perfect place where Mom now was and where we would all someday join her. Because as appealing as that story can be, and as much as I might want to believe it, I simply could not. Trying to assemble that vision in my mind was like building a house of cards that kept falling apart as fast as I could construct it.

Something I never wrote about is a very sad and difficult conversation I had with my father a year and a half later, shortly before his death. Dad knew he was dying, and in fact looked forward to it, because he believed he would see Mom again, along with his parents, sisters, and many old friends. My sister still practiced the Lutheran faith, so he was confident she also would arrive in Heaven eventually.

But as Death approached, he was now facing the fact that I probably would never get there. So he needed to say good-bye to me, and it was hard for him.

It was hard for me too. First, because no one wants to be included in his father’s list of dying regrets. And second, because my religion is something I take pride in, and to his final breath, Dad never understood.

As Dad was saying his good-byes to me, I think that he came as close as he ever would to having the Universalist epiphany, a religious awakening that Christians here and there have been experiencing since the earliest days of the faith: the realization that Heaven can’t truly be a place of perfect bliss if anybody you care about is missing. And if everybody is loved by somebody, then the only Christian salvation that makes sense is universal salvation. If we don’t all make it to Heaven, it can’t really be Heaven.

But Dad never crossed over into Universalism, and I did not push him, and he died.

That UU World column I mentioned implied a question that I don’t think I’ve ever answered in public: If I can’t believe in the Christian afterlife I was taught at St. James, what do I believe? Have I come to some alternative vision? Or have I made peace with the idea that Death is final and there’s nothing more to say? Or do I just try not to think about it?

Well, the first thing I want to say is that since I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist, I’ve heard several theories of what persists after Death. And I have to confess, that if the goal is to help me make peace with my own death, I haven’t found them particularly helpful.

For example, I often hear that we live on in the effects of our actions, and particularly in the influence we’ve had on the lives of others. And while that’s certainly true, if you find it comforting, you have way more confidence in the efficacy of your good intentions than I have in mine.

How many of us can say with any confidence what the ultimate consequences of our actions will be, or if, when they’re all are added up, the sum total will be positive or negative. That kind of assessment is a Judgement Day I don’t think I want to face.

I also hear that we live on in the memories of those we leave behind. Now, I appreciate that this thought comforts survivors, and helps us get past that period when grief seems overwhelming. It encourages us to hang onto our memories of those we have lost, even through that period where those memories are most painful. As President Biden has said, “There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son, or daughter, or your wife or your husband, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.“

But as I look ahead to my own death, the thought of living on as a memory is not that consoling. For one thing, the people who know me best may not live much longer than I do.

And as for the others, let me put it like this: Do you ever overhear people talking about you? Whether they’re saying good things or bad things, how accurate is it? The thought that similar conversations might still be happening ten, twenty, fifty years after your death — how satisfying is that?

When I floated this topic on Facebook this week, I heard a third idea that I hadn’t even thought about: the satisfaction of letting your corpse dissolve into the Earth, so that its elements can be taken up by new life.

Those comments were a lesson to me in how different people find meaning in different places. Because I don’t really care what happens to my corpse. I’m with Socrates on this: According to Plato, when Crito asked Socrates what to do with his body, he replied: “Do whatever you want, as long as you don’t imagine that it is me.”

In short, if the point is to make peace with being alive and knowing that I’m going to die, I’m going to have to look for that peace somewhere else. But where?

Before I start trying to answer that I need to lay down some ground rules. First, I can’t just try to talk myself into believing something because it’s pleasant and I want to believe it. If that was going to work for me, I’d still be a Lutheran.

And second, I believe in Occam’s Razor. So I’m not going to postulate whole realms and forces and choirs of angels unless something in my lived experience suggests they exist.

Now, that said, I differ from a lot of humanists in having a fairly loose definition of what counts as experience. So if you’re like Ezekiel, and you’ve been granted a vision of going up to the throne of God and being shown what’s what, I wouldn’t tell you to ignore it. But nothing like that has happened to me, not even in dreams. So I’m limited to constructing my vision out of fairly mundane materials.

My final prior consideration concerns how humanists tend to go wrong when we reason about spiritual matters. Too often, we don’t back up far enough. We take the questions traditional religion asks, and we try to answer them within that established framework, but using only the evidence humanly available. And so the answer usually winds up being “I don’t believe in that.” — which may be honest, but is seldom very helpful.

So if you let the question be “What happens to the soul after the body dies?”, and if the possible answers are “It dies too”, or “It reincarnates”, or “It moves on to some eternal realm”, then I’ll probably wind up saying “I don’t believe in a soul”. And how does that help?

So I think I need to start further back. What the heck is a soul  supposed to be anyway?

Your soul, if you listen to the people who believe in such things, is the essence of who you are. It stays with you, or more accurately, it is you, all the way from birth to death.

Try to think, for a moment about the totality of your life: all the changes, all the relationships, all the roles, all the careers, all the responsibilities, all the activities and interests that dominated your attention for some period of time and then were replaced by something else. Does it feel like there’s been an essence to all that? Do you really feel like you’ve been the same person, all the way from birth to the present moment?

Personally, I don’t. I find myself agreeing with Joan Didion, who wrote: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”

The narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men describes an even more fragmented experience of identity: Travel, he says, is a frail thread that connects “the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place. You ought to invite those two you’s to the same party, some time. Or you might have a family reunion for all the you’s with barbecue under the trees. It would be amusing to know what they would say to each other.”

I wonder the same thing sometimes. At age 14, I wanted to be a baseball pitcher. In high school, I was on the chess team and spent all my free time working on my game. For a time, I thought I would be a novelist. My first career was as a mathematician, and for years math was as all-consuming as any interest I’ve ever had.

I don’t do any of that stuff now. So am I really the same person? If any of those past versions of me could look into the future, would they feel vindicated or fulfilled by the person I am today? I’m not so sure. More and more, I suspect that there is no essential Me that has been present through my full 67 years.

That lack of identification explains why both reincarnation and Heaven fall flat for me. Suppose that someday after my death a baby is born who remembers nothing of my life, the people I loved, or the things I tried to do. In what sense could that baby possibly be me reincarnated? That eternal essence we supposedly share is so abstract that I can’t identify.

I also have trouble identifying with myself in Heaven. Think back over your life and consider the extent to which you have been shaped by imperfections, both in yourself and in the outside world.

Maybe you spent much of your life overcoming a disability, or trying to win the approval of a difficult authority figure, or fighting addiction or depression, or living up to unrealistic expectations, or competing with a brother or sister, or dealing with poverty, or believing that you’re ugly or unlovable, or facing the consequences of mistakes you made, or battling society’s bias against people like you.

Your whole life has been shaped by imperfection: the imperfections of your body, your character, the people you lived with, or the society you lived in. How you dealt with those challenges is a big part of who you are today.

Now imagine yourself transported to a perfect place, where none of that matters. All your questions have been answered. Your conflicts with others are now just misunderstandings that have been resolved. Your physical or psychological wounds are healed, and so on. Who are you, in that world? Is that really somebody you can identify with? Is that really you living on?

So I could stop here. But if I did, this would be another one of those typical nay-saying humanist talks: A bunch of people believe in X, Y, and Z, but I don’t. And the unstated implication would be that if you do believe something and it gives you comfort in the face of Death, then I think you’re just wrong. The end. Sing the closing hymn.

But instead, let’s take a step further back and see if we can still solve the original problem somehow. Remember: I’m supposed to be responding to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. I’ve been working with the idea that my soul is some kind of eternal essence, and trying to imagine how this essential Me can transcend Death. 

And I haven’t done very well with it. So I could just say, “That’s it. I’m done. Death is Death. Deal with it.” But what if we think of the soul differently? “OK,” I imagine you saying, “but different how?”

I want to introduce my soul model with an anecdote that’s meant to be amusing: A man takes his son aside and says, “I want you to have this; it’s your great-greatfather’s ax. Your grandfather replaced the head. And I replaced the handle.”

Now, you may notice that those two pieces are the whole ax. So not a single atom of what the man is handing down actually belonged to the boy’s great-grandfather. And yet, there is also some kind of continuity that goes back that far.

In philosophy, this conundrum is known as the Ship of Theseus. Plutarch tells us that the city of Athens preserved the ship on which Theseus returned from Crete after his adventure with the Minotaur. But rather than let it rot in a museum, they kept it seaworthy by replacing pieces as they wore out. Over the centuries, probably every plank of it had been replaced at one time or another. So in what sense was it still the Ship of Theseus?

See where I’m going with this? What if I think of my soul not as an eternal essence, but as a Ship of Theseus? It’s more or less the same from one day to the next, but pieces are constantly wearing out and being replaced. So while there’s continuity all the way back to my first breath, if I look back twenty years or forty years or sixty years, I barely recognize myself.

That feels more right to me somehow. It fits with how I experience my life and think about my past. But how does it help?

A few minutes ago I talked about the experience of looking back at moments in my life and not identifying with them. And I projected forward, imagining futures beyond my death and how I would have a hard time identifying with them as well.

But now let’s talk about the opposite experience. There are people who are not you at all. But when you see them, and what they’re going through, you identify completely. Say there’s a new kid at school who doesn’t know anybody and doesn’t fit into anything yet. And you’re not a new kid. You know lots of people and feel at home in all sorts of situations. But you remember when you were the new kid, and you feel a strong connection.

Or maybe you’re older and your children are grown and out of the house, but you talk to a young parent who feels overwhelmed in exactly the way you felt overwhelmed. Or you’re a teacher, and you see a student touched for the first time by a piece of great literature, just like you were. Or someone’s mother has died, and you remember how it felt when your mother died. Or you’re at a wedding (maybe of a couple you don’t even know, because you’re just somebody’s plus-one), but you savor the bittersweet memory of imagining a whole life stretching out in front of you with all those possibilities. 

You know what I’m talking about. Those people are not you. And yet, in some significant way, they are.

Or maybe, in some small way, they’re somebody else, somebody important to you. Someone you’ve lost. You see a smile or a gesture, or hear a tone of voice, and — just for a moment — it’s your old friend, your brother, the girl you took to the prom. It’s a small thing. And yet, it’s not.

My Ship of Theseus may be a unique collection of parts. But a lot of those parts were mass produced. I can look around and see them in other people’s ships. When I see another ship with one of my parts, or maybe a part I replaced long ago, I feel the connection.

That’s how I’m hoping to live on.

What doesn’t work for me in the traditional notions of an afterlife is that they promise to preserve my uniqueness. And that doesn’t feel credible to me, because I see my uniqueness as just an idea, an abstraction. What connects me to that baby born 67 years ago is so ephemeral, it barely matters to me. And if that thin thread somehow stretches into the infinite future, I’m not sure I care.

But what I believe is going to live on, and what I do feel strongly about, is my commonality, the ways that I am like other people. The challenges that shaped my life — people will go on facing those challenges. Some of them will rediscover the same responses I came up with. And some will do better. Probably right now, there are people out there somewhere facing situations that I screwed up, and they’re fixing my mistakes. There’s something satisfying about that thought.

The things I have been, other people will continue to be. The battles I have fought, other people will continue fighting. The relationships I have had, other people won’t have exactly those relationships, but they’ll have similar ones. My closest, most special relationships, maybe they won’t turn up that often. But they are part of the broad range of human possibility. And sometime, somewhere, other people will stumble down that same path.

When that happens, will I be looking down from some eternal realm, sharing their moment? Maybe not. But I don’t think I need that.

What I need, if I’m going to make peace with Death right here and right now, is to imagine those people, to be aware of my similarity to them, and to feel a sense of connection stretching out into the indefinite future. That connection seems real to me in a way that Heaven or future incarnations don’t seem real.

And you may feel differently. But for me, right now, it’s enough.

Closing words

The closing words are from The Grapes of Wrath:

Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one — an’ then …

Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.

If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.

See?

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

"You Must Have Learned Something in 20 Years": reflections on two decades of blogging

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
March 26, 2023

When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. - Charles Sanders Peirce


One of the things I learned growing up in Quincy is that news happens somewhere else.

Years later, I heard ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne capture the experience perfectly with a twist on an old sports cliche. On paper, he said, it was obvious who would win the upcoming game. “But football games aren’t played on paper, they’re played inside TV sets.”

That was my experience of the news: It all happened inside a TV. The images on the screen might be of DC or New York or some city on the other side of the world, like Saigon or Tel Aviv. Occasionally they might show a small town somewhere. But almost never this small town. Because news happens somewhere else.

After I left Quincy I lived in a number of places, and then in 1996 I moved to New Hampshire. I got there too late for that year’s presidential primary. But in the 2000 cycle, I began to understand the magic of living in the land where presidential campaigns begin: Big name politicians wander the streets trying to get your attention.

Most of that cycle, I was a day late. I’d read in the local newspaper that Vice President Gore had been shaking hands in a restaurant a few blocks from my apartment. Or Senator Bradley had talked to 15 voters in somebody’s back yard.

Yesterday.

But I did manage to see John McCain, because everybody saw John McCain. He was everywhere. No venue was too small and no question too trivial. The man was amazing.

On the night of the primary, the big news was McCain’s landslide victory over Governor Bush, who had spent a lot of money on advertising, but almost never let ordinary people touch him or talk to him.

So I’m watching returns come in on TV, and they cut over to a reporter at the McCain victory party, where excitement was building and the candidate was expected to appear soon. It was in a hotel about three miles away, so I said to Deb, “Let’s go.” And we did. We walked in the door, elbowed our way into the crowd, and got there in time to hear McCain’s victory speech.

Some of you may have been watching that night, and you may have thought that speech was happening inside a TV set. But it wasn’t. I was on the floor, and when I looked up there it was: news.

The next day, all the candidates and cameramen packed up and forgot about us for another three years. But in 2003, the cycle was starting up again. And this time I was determined to do it right. I found the web page where the Manchester Union Leader kept track of which candidates were going to be where, and I decided I was going to see everybody. Best of all, I was going to see them early, when even the front-runners would be begging for attention.

And while I was at it, I thought I’d participate in the latest trend on the internet, and invite my friends to join me on a vicarious journey. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist yet, but I planned to write up an account of every candidate I saw and email it to anybody I thought might be interested.

My project began on April 3, 20 years ago next week, which I now regard as the anniversary of my blogging career. John Kerry was speaking at the public library in Peterborough, about 45 minutes away. His speech was full of exactly the kinds of information an undecided voter needed: He told us about himself and his qualifications, talked about what he wanted to do as president and how he would be different from President Bush.

And then he opened the floor for questions. I had always wondered whether the questions at events like this are real or planted, and I found out: I got to ask Kerry about his vote for the Patriot Act, which I doubt he wanted to discuss. He gave an answer that I didn’t totally agree with, but I could respect it. And that was the general impression I wrote to my friends: Kerry probably wouldn’t be my first choice, but I could be OK with him as president.

When I had envisioned this project, I thought the only value my emails would add was immediacy: My friends could read about the same events in newspapers, but the accounts would seem more real coming from someone they actually knew. I didn’t expect to see completely different events from the ones that got reported nationally.

But I did.

You see, somewhere in the middle of his talk, Kerry made a quip. The Bush administration had used the phrase “regime change” to describe its goal in Iraq, and Kerry turned that around, saying that we needed some regime change right here in America.

It was a cute line, but there wasn’t much substance to it, so I ignored it. Rush Limbaugh didn’t. Somehow Rush heard that line and told his radio audience how unpatriotic he thought it was. Several Republican congressmen picked up that attack: This decorated Vietnam veteran was unpatriotic because he had characterized an incumbent president losing an election as “regime change”. So now it was on. Kerry had to strike back, saying that he didn’t need lessons in patriotism from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. It went back and forth for days. So if you heard anything about the Peterborough speech, that quip was what you heard. But if you had been in the room, it would have gone right past you.

Then I heard Howard Dean speak in a room above my local brewpub. The media had been describing Dean as the antiwar candidate. And yes, he said a few things against the Iraq War. But mainly he talked about his record as governor of Vermont, with particular emphasis on healthcare and education. The next morning, though, the major newspapers only quoted what he said about the war, as if that had been his whole speech.

It happened again and again: I saw one event, and then I read about a completely different one.

I had trouble wrapping my mind around what I was seeing. I felt like the campaign speeches were being covered badly, but it didn’t match any recognizable model of bad news coverage. The articles weren’t lying. No one was being misquoted. The omissions didn’t seem to favor one candidate over another. But I was coming at these events from the point of view of a voter trying to decide what kind of president these candidates would make. And apparently, that made me different from just about everyone else who was covering the campaign.

My project had started out as a lark, a fun thing to do and share with my friends. But as I got into it, I started to think that it was actually important. And that was my first step towards becoming a blogger.

Now, the theme of this talk, other than me getting nostalgic, is what twenty years of blogging has taught me. And so the first lesson I’ll pick out goes back to that beginning: The media doesn’t have to lie in order to do you a disservice.

Journalists may report what they’re seeing and hearing with perfect accuracy. But if they’re coming to those events with a mindset that isn’t your mindset, and if they’re trying to answer questions that aren’t your questions, then they’re not going to tell you what you really want to know. Nobody has to be a villain in this story, but your interests are not being served. So no matter how many articles you read, and how much time you put into following the issues you care about, you can’t be sure you’re being well informed.

This lesson sits in the background of my Weekly Sift blog every Monday. Because the hardest work I do on the Sift actually is not gathering the information or crafting the text. The hardest work is discernment: I’m trying to be a responsible citizen of a democracy, and I assume the same about my readers. Given that basic mindset, what issues should I — and by projection, you — being paying attention to? And of all the things that were said and done this week relating to those issues, which ones are genuinely important?

From the primary campaign, I branched out. That November, the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that same-sex couples had a right to marry. The news media focused on reactions to the ruling — who was for it or against it — but I wanted to know what the judge had said. I found the text of the opinion, and discovered that it was easier to understand than I had expected. So I wrote about it.

Periodically, I was noticing things about the Iraq War or the War on Terror that weren’t getting the attention I thought they deserved. So I wrote about them too.

Distribution by email turned into a web page anyone could access, and then in 2005 became a blog. I got into the habit of starting each week by posting a list of articles I had found worthwhile the previous week. Later I began adding short comments on those articles, and in 2008, I spun that Monday-morning summary off into its own blog, The Weekly Sift. I’ve posted something there almost every Monday since.

So that’s the second thing to learn from my experience: Once you start something, you never know where it’s going to go. Something that begins as a lark may turn into a project that lasts 20 years.

And when you do something for 20 years, the world changes around you. When I started blogging, the problem I saw was that a dominant media narrative might be out of touch with what ordinary people need to know. And I saw the internet as a tool for fixing that problem.

So along with much better known writers like Ezra Klein, Digby, Josh Marshall, and Amanda Marcotte,  I became part of the movement that made independent blogs more influential. Then came Facebook, Tik Tok, podcasts, and social media as we have come to know it. And now we have the opposite problem, which is arguably worse: people can create echo chambers that responsible journalism never penetrates. And they can support each other in believing whatever they want to believe, independent of the facts.

So today, if you want to believe that your candidate won an election he actually lost by seven million votes, or that a vaccine that has saved millions of lives is part of a sinister plot to control you, you can. Maybe the people trying to save the world from climate change are actually conspiring to enslave us all in a global socialist dictatorship. Who can say? There is no Truth to be reported. There’s only what you want to believe, and how many people you can find who agree with you.

What’s even more disturbing to me is that so much of the rhetoric that justifies that disinformation sounds like what I was saying 20 years ago: You can’t always believe what you’re told. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. You need to look behind the curtain and do your own research.

In some ways I feel like the Clint Eastwood character Dirty Harry. In the first movie, he’s a police detective who refuses to be bound by procedural niceties that let guilty people go free. But in the second, he sees what happens when that attitude goes too far. This time, the villains he has to track down are a cabal of cops who take it on themselves to assassinate anyone they identify as a bad guy. Late in that film Harry says what to me is the most memorable line of the whole series: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

And so today, as the internet takes away the power of experts in all fields to make us look at truths we’d rather ignore, we all need know our limitations. I can write about anything, but I’m not a universal expert. I’m not a climate scientist or an epidemiologist or a military strategist. My life experience doesn’t tell me much about being Black or female or poor or trans. The world is full of people who know things I don’t. Important things. True things. And so, over the years, the Sift has had to become more balanced: It’s not just about what to doubt, but also who to trust, and what I believe we can rely on.

The final and most important lesson I want to draw this morning centers on an issue that never comes up explicitly in the Sift, but hovers constantly in the background. The roots of this actually go back further than 20 years.

In the spring of 2000, CNN was intensely following several stories that had little to do with my daily life, but that I got hooked on: A court was deciding whether to break up Microsoft. Elian Gonzalez’s mother had drowned bringing him to the United States, and now his father in Cuba wanted him back. There were a couple of other major stories that, truthfully, I can’t even remember now. But following them took up a huge amount of my time, not just watching reports on them, but also arguing in my head with people who took the other side of those issues.

So one day I was walking through a park next to the Nashua River, while in my mind I raged against some wrongheaded person I had just seen on TV. And I was miserable, in that particular way that I get when I’m afraid my side is going to lose an argument that we really deserve to win. (Maybe you know that feeling.)

And then something happened. A theist might say that God’s grace shone down on me for a moment. But whatever caused it, my consciousness suddenly took a step backwards and I got a longer perspective. And I began to laugh at myself. Because here I was on a beautiful spring day, in a lovely spot, at a moment when my life overall was going pretty well, and I was miserable.

I was miserable in that unique way that addicts are miserable. I was filled with anxiety and tension and fear and rage — and a yearning for relief from those feelings. But I was looking for relief in something that was actually going to make it all worse: more news coverage. The latest details on those stories, more talking heads arguing about them — that’s what I felt like I needed. It was crazy.

So I went cold turkey on the news for a couple weeks, and I did indeed get better. I was once again able to experience the ups and downs of life as they came, without an ever-present background anxiety, and a desperate grasping after experiences that would make that anxiety worse.

But of course, ignoring the news is not an answer either, any more than it’s an answer for an alcoholic to live the rest of his life in a rehab center. I am a voting citizen in a democracy, and I live in a society that faces real issues of justice and injustice. Closing my eyes to everything bigger than my personal life might be necessary from time to time, but long term it can’t be the right response.

So there’s one central question that always hangs in the background of The Weekly Sift: What is a right relationship to the news?

Over time, the central mission of the Weekly Sift, at least as I see it, has become modeling that right relationship — staying aware of the news, thinking about it, even reacting emotionally to it at times, but not sliding into a destructive obsession with it, or letting it depress me to the point that I can’t enjoy my personal life.
 
A lot of that right relationship has to do with pace. And that’s why I stay disciplined about keeping the Sift weekly rather than interrupting your life with updates whenever something happens. Because you ought to think about the news regularly, but you don’t need to be thinking about it all the time. If you are thinking about it all the time, particularly if you’re thinking about it in an anxious, needy way that makes you keep turning on your TV or picking up your phone thinking “What’s new? What’s new? What’s new?” — that’s a sign of addiction. Back up. Go walk in the sunshine. The world can survive without you for a few days.

Even weekly is too frequent for many issues, so you’ll notice that I don’t try to cover every issue every week. I don’t write about racism every week. I don’t write about climate change. It’s not that those issues aren’t important, but they’re playing out over decades, and the struggle against them is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep tabs on those issues, and if you think of yourself as an activist, you should probably review your strategy occasionally: Are you doing enough? Is your work effective? What might you do differently?

Having that conversation with yourself several times a year is probably healthy. But if you’re having it several times a day, you’re probably just driving yourself nuts. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb for thinking about the news: Thinking deeply about an issue now and then is generally better than rehashing the same few thoughts over and over.

Once you start thinking about the news as a possible source of addiction, you may begin to notice how that addiction works. One of the main mechanisms for getting us hooked is through speculation. Once you believe that you know what’s going to happen next, good or bad, then you have to keep checking to see whether it has happened. If you anticipate something hopeful, then you are plagued by the fear that it won’t happen. And if you anticipate something fearful, you still keep hoping that it won’t happen. Either way, you feel like you need to know.

The business model of the news media relies on keeping you hooked, so they do their best to feed speculation. Imagine a news anchor saying:“Nothing much happened today, so you can take some time off from the news. Watch a movie, tend your garden, call an old friend. You can check back tomorrow.”

Of course they’re not going to say that. If nothing much happened today, then they need to keep you focused on all the things that might happen soon. Important things. Scary things. Things that might give you the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. So you should feel about them, yearn for them, fear them.

Getting ahead of the news can make sense if you need to be taking preemptive action or preparing for a quick response. If there’s a bill in the legislature, maybe you need to call your representative about it now, rather than waiting to see if it passes. If a change in government policy might hurt a certain group of people, maybe you should be thinking ahead about how you’ll  help those people.

But most of the speculation we hear isn’t like that. It’s a pure “I want to know what’s going to happen.” And the people telling you what’s going to happen typically don’t know.

Take a Trump indictment, for example. All this past week, the media kept us on edge. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. Today — no, not today. Tomorrow then. These are the charges you can expect. Or maybe those. And his supporters will riot. Or they won’t.

And what good has any of that speculating done us? How are we better off than the people who have been withholding their attention until something actually happens? Think about the hours we could have been spending appreciating life.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that no one else can tell you whether you have a healthy relationship to the news. It’s a matter for your own introspection and discernment. There’s no number of hours you should or shouldn’t be spending. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not you can pass some current-events test.

There are really only two questions to focus on. First, what role do you want to be playing in our society and culture? Do you see yourself as an activist, as someone who helps in some way, large or small, in shaping opinion and plotting the course of our democracy? Are you well enough informed to play the role you see for yourself?

Second, how is your experience of the news affecting your experience of life? Does staying informed make you feel more competent and effective? Or is it filling you with anxiety or depression or guilt? If it’s the latter, then I would urge you not to just take those feelings as an unavoidable response to the way things are. Instead, I encourage you to use those feelings to examine how you relate to the news, and to think about whether or how that relationship could change.

The closing words have been attributed to the Sufi poet Hafez, and I think what he’s saying about fear could also apply to anxiety or guilt or depression: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”


Saturday, February 25, 2023

Delight in Each Other: Democracy as a Covenantal Relationship

 a service presented at First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church
in Bedford, Massachusetts
February 19, 2023

Opening Words 

The opening words are from the sermon John Winthrop preached on board the Arbella, to the colonists on their way to found the new town of Boston. 

"We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body."

Time for All Ages: Stone Soup 

One day a traveler came to a village, pulling a cart behind him. In the cart was an enormous cooking pot, 
and inside the pot was … nothing. 

As he approached the village green, villagers came up to him, looked in the cart, looked in the pot, 
and said, “You don’t seem to have any food with you, so I think you may have come to the wrong place. This is a poor village in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Many are hungry, and no one has extra food to offer you. You should just keep going, and maybe you’ll have better luck down the road.” 

But the traveler said, “You mistake my purpose. I didn’t come to ask you for food. I am going to cook a wonderful soup in this pot, and offer a bowl to anybody who wants one.” 

Well, there were indeed many hungry people in the village, so that offer drew their attention. “But what are you going to put in your soup?” 

To which the traveler replied: “Watch and see.” 

So the villagers watched him as he filled the pot with water from the village well, and gathered wood and started a fire. And as the water began to heat, he took something out of his cloak and unwrapped it: a stone. 

“This is a magic stone,” he said. “Exactly how I obtained it is a tale that perhaps I might tell some other time. But for now just let me tell you how the enchantment works: Whenever I am hungry (and I have to admit I am getting hungry now) all I have to do is boil this stone, and it produces stone soup, which is the most filling and nutritious soup I have ever eaten. The stone will fill any vessel with soup, and that’s why I carry a pot so much bigger than I need for myself, so that I have plenty to share with others.” 

The villagers weren’t sure what to make of this story, but they watched as the traveler stirred and sniffed and reminisced about all the wonderful times he had eaten stone soup. And as they listened to him, their mouths watered and their stomachs growled. 

“All you need is that stone?” someone asked. 

“Well,” admitted the traveler, “by itself stone soup is filling and nutritious, as I said. But if you add just a little cabbage, it becomes tasty as well.” 

To everyone’s surprise, one of the village’s poorest women said: “I have a few cabbages hidden away.” 

“These will do marvelously,” said the traveler as he cut them up and added them to the pot. Now the air was full of the smell of cooking cabbage, which drew all the rest of the villagers out to the green. 

“Stone soup with cabbage is indeed quite tasty,” the traveler said. “But if it also has a few carrots, it becomes downright delicious.” 

“I have a few carrots,” another villager offered. 

Once the carrots were added, the aroma became irresistible, and the villagers began to volunteer. 

“Do you think some potatoes would help?” 

“I have just a bit of salted pork.” 

“Corn,” offered another. “Salt and pepper.” 

The traveler praised each offering as exactly what the soup needed, until one by one, every household in the village had added something to the pot. With each ingredient, his claims for the soup grew, until he declared that even the King himself would not enjoy such a fine soup that day. 

When the traveler pronounced the soup done, he ladled out a bowl to each and every villager. And as he scraped out the last of the soup for himself, there at the bottom of the pot was the stone. He very carefully picked it up, cleaned it off, wrapped it in a cloth, and put it back in his cloak for the next time he might need stone soup. 

And as the villagers ate, they all agreed that this was indeed the most wonderful soup they had ever tasted, and every word the traveler had said about it was perfectly true. 

Readings 

I’m Doug Muder. As you might guess from my name, I’m of German ancestry. Large numbers of Germans were already coming to the American colonies in the 1700s, and my direct ancestors began arriving in the 1840s. And so, whenever people start debating who is or isn’t a “real” American, my status never comes into question. 

If you are similarly privileged, I recommend this exercise: Page back to the era when people like you first started coming here, and see what was being said about them then. When I did that, I found this letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson in 1753 about the threat that German immigration posed to the Pennsylvania colony. 

“Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in our Streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German: They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings 
in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.” 

In time, though, Germans and a variety of other immigrants became acceptable. As far back as de Tocqueville, it has been observed that Americans are united more by a set of beliefs than by ethnicity or sect. The canon that defines that so-called American creed has never been codified, but I’ve collected a few texts that I think you will all recognize. 

From the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

The Preamble of the Constitution says a little more about why governments are instituted: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

From the Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that … this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

The final reading is by Barack Obama’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who, when she doesn’t have a job that takes her elsewhere lives in Concord. She may look and sound like a lifelong American, but she is an immigrant. She came from Ireland at the age of 8, and wasn’t naturalized until adulthood. 

In her autobiography The Education of an Idealist she describes the ceremony like this: “During our collective Oath of Allegiance, we pledged, ‘I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ 

“Looking around the courtroom, seeing emotion ripple across the faces of those whose hands were raised, I was struck by what America meant as a refuge, and as an idea. All of us gathered that morning had reached the modern Promised Land. We weren’t giving up who we were or where we came from; we were making it American. 

“I hugged an elderly woman from Central America on my left, and a tall man from Russia to my right. We were all Americans now.” 

Sermon 

As many of you probably know, I write a weekly political blog where the topic of democracy often comes up. 

One downside of looking at the news week-by-week, as I do, or day-by-day, as many cable news shows do, is that it’s easy to focus on the latest threats to democracy, whatever they happen to be: Say, election denial, or a violent attempt to overturn an election (like the one in Brazil last month or here two years ago), or a voter suppression law, or gerrymandering, or an assault on the free press. A short-term view tends to make us reactive: Democracy is under attack. How can we defend? 

But this morning I want to take a longer view and think about the health of democracy. Not who is attacking it and how, but what do we need to shore up and rebuild? Not what is tearing democracy down, but what makes democracy work in the first place? 

Health is often more mysterious than disease, and I believe that’s the case here. Some very important things about democracy aren’t well understood or appreciated, even by people who value it highly, like Unitarian Universalists. One big misunderstanding, I’m sorry to say, is embedded in our Fifth Principle, the one that commits us to affirm and support “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” 

It’s the only mention of democracy in our principles, and from it you might get the idea that the essence of democracy is process: holding elections, having a Congress, giving courts the power to uphold human rights.
 

That kind of thinking has led well-intentioned people astray time and time again, for a very simple reason: If you have military control over someone else’s land, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the European powers did in their former colonies, then it’s not hard to impose a process.You can assemble a constitutional convention, guarantee that the first set of votes are counted accurately, and leave behind an elected government operating under a constitution that promises human rights and the rule of law. 

Presto! You’ve created a democracy. 

But again and again, those externally imposed democracies have failed, because the processes of democracy are empty 
unless a Spirit of Democracy animates them. Anyone with enough power can set up a democratic process. But only the people themselves can infuse that process with a democratic spirit. 

That sounds a little mystical, so I should probably give a concrete example of a living democratic process I have experienced myself, and which you may have experienced as well. Several years ago I served on a jury in a criminal case. In the beginning I wasn’t thrilled to be there, and I doubt that my colleagues were either. Who is, really? I doubt many people get the summons and say, “Oh great! I get to do jury duty!” 

But it didn’t take long for the ritual of the court to work its magic on us. Surprisingly quickly, it became real to us 
that in this particular time and place, we were the community. It was up to us to weigh the law’s just demands against the defendant’s rights. 

None of us had a personal stake in the outcome. We didn’t know the defendant or anyone else connected with the alleged crime. If we had not caught the spirit, our deliberations might have become a rote performance. We might have listened to the witnesses half-heartedly and then just voted our preconceived opinions about crime or the kind of people who live in that neighborhood. We might have gone along with the majority just to get it over with. 

But we did catch the spirit, and we did our job well. We listened intently, both to the evidence and to each other. We thought hard about the case, and as we discussed it, several of us changed our minds. And even though we voted to convict, if I am ever on trial, I hope I get a jury like us. 

But whether we understand the importance of spirit or not, the people threatening democracy do. It’s striking how many of their attacks leave the processes standing, but hollow out their meaning. Russia, for example, still preserves the form of campaigns and elections, but any opposition leader who gets too popular, if he’s not just killed, may have to choose between exile and prison. Hungary still has the appearance of a free press, but nearly all the major news outlets have been bought by allies of the government. In a gerrymandered state like Wisconsin or North Carolina, voters can cast ballots however they like, but whatever they choose, the party that drew the maps has locked itself into power. 

The worldview that underlies such empty democratic rituals is one of deep cynicism. Justice can’t be blind. Government is always corrupt. Science is fake. News is just propaganda. There is no shame in lying, because everyone lies. 

And none of that is seen as the debasement of higher values; it’s just how life is. There are no real democracies, no common truths on which we might base our discussions, no shared principles that might guide our deliberations. Only children believe in such things. Only power is real. 

Having invoked that cynicism, I’ll try to dispel it with a second positive example, this time from one more document out of the American canon, the Mayflower Compact, which bound together the pilgrims on their way to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

The Compact is pretty thin on process. The pilgrims promise “to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient”. In other words, they pledge to come up with some kind of process eventually. 

But they do something else in this document, something no external power can make you do. The pilgrims “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic”. They promise that those processes they intend to establish someday will be “just and equal”, and work towards “the general good of the colony”. 

What they’re are saying, in other words, is that we have decided to be a People together. Rather than submit to some external authority, we commit to govern ourselves. And rather than use that government to exploit each other, we pledge to treat each other as equals and seek the common good. 

That’s what’s missing when the processes of democracy become empty: a covenantal relationship among people. Democracy is alive not when we are committed to freedom of the press or one man one vote or trial by jury. All those abstractions only come alive when we are committed to each other, and to all the people who share our covenant. Everything else flows from that. “Delight in each other,” John Winthrop told his flock. That’s where it starts. When we value each other, when we feel responsible for each other, and accountable to each other, then the Spirit of Democracy will animate our processes. 

Today I’m mainly talking about American democracy and the American covenant. But an idea I want you to hold in the back of your minds is that this applies to First Parish too. For more than two years, Covid has really been doing a number on our ability to delight in each other. Our democratic processes have continued to function, but we’ve also seen how brittle they can become when they can’t be anchored in a larger consensus formed during coffee hours and potlucks and concerts, or while working together on an auction or a plant fair or a haunted house. 

All that has been restarting lately, and just in time. In a little over two months, the search committee will be introducing us to a candidate to be our senior minister. Then we’ll have decisions to make, and maybe a new era to kick off. It will be an exciting time, and it will also be challenging. 

But if we remember our covenant, stay true to each other, and take advantage of whatever opportunities we can find to delight in each other, then I’m pretty sure we’ll be OK. 

So back to America. If democracy depends on its covenant, then we need to do some hard thinking about the American covenant and how to keep it strong. Fundamentally, a covenant is two things: a group of people, and the commitment they make to each other. And so the health of our democracy depends on finding the right answers to two foundational questions: Who is an American? And what is this “America” that we have come together to form? 

The Samantha Power reading described our ritual of naturalization, through which we induct new people into our covenant. And as she makes clear, that ritual is not empty for the new Americans themselves. It’s also deeply meaningful for the people who preside; I could have offered any number of readings testifying to that. 

But one of the primary avenues of attack on our democracy is to hollow that ritual out. Too often today, we hear people talk about “real Americans”, a group of people different from (and presumably much smaller than) 
American citizens as the law defines them. The definition of a “real American” changes from one speaker to the next. Maybe you have to be white. Maybe you have to be Christian. Maybe you have to be native-born, or speak English with a certain accent. You may become less “real” if you turn out to be gay or trans or socialist. 

Once you accept this notion that some American citizens are not “real”, you are on your way to overthrowing democracy. Because how can an election be legitimate unless the legal voters make the same choice the “real” voters would make? And if they don’t, doesn’t it make sense to suppress the votes of the “unreal” Americans, or gerrymander them into districts that minimize their power, or find some loophole in the process that allows the “real” candidate to take office in spite of getting fewer legal votes? Ultimately, wouldn’t even violence be justified? 

So to defend democracy, we need to stand up for the idea that naturalization is real, the birthright citizenship promised by the 14th Amendment is real, and nothing about your sexual preference or gender identity or political philosophy makes you any less real of an American. We need to hang onto that vision of Samantha Power hugging the Hispanic woman to her left and the Russian man to her right, because “We were all Americans now.” 

To a large extent, that vision is true to our history. At the time of the Founders, the challenge was to get people to come here, not to keep them out. And so we barely had immigration laws at all until after the Civil War. 

Some people like to claim that their ancestors came here “the right way”. But there was no wrong way for my ancestors to come in the 1840s. They just showed up and survived a few years, and then they were Americans. 

What united Americans then, and has continued to unite us through the centuries, was not ethnicity or language or religion, but that vision expressed in Jefferson’s Declaration: Everyone comes to this world with equal worth and dignity. Everyone has the right to live, to steer their own course through life, and to try to thrive as best they can. Government power derives not from God or the ancestors or any other external source, but from the consent of the governed. 

As President Washington told the Hebrew Congregation of Newport: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” 

If you’re here, and you believe those things, and if you’re willing to cast your lot with the rest of us, to defend our lives and our rights the way we defend yours, then you’re as American as anybody else. 

Last week, Lisa Maria mentioned some of the metaphors Americans have used to describe this joinable covenant: a melting pot, or (as she prefers) a patchwork quilt, where immigrants keep their prior identities, but (in Samantha Power’s words) “make them American”. In the same vein, I’ve also heard America described as a tossed salad. Personally, though, I see America as a stone soup. 

Think about the mistake the villagers are making at the beginning of that story, the one the traveller tricks them out of. Each of them has a little food, but they all imagine that their own stash is the only one. And so they look at each other as mouths to feed, and not as people who might have something to offer. 

Again and again, immigrants have come to our shores looking like they have nothing. But again and again, that has turned out not to be true. They brought their talents. They brought their culture. They brought their energy. And they made it American. We haven’t always treated our immigrants well. But America at its best has always eventually realized that these aren’t just mouths to feed. These are people with something they can add to our soup. 

That unofficial American creed also goes a long way to answer the second fundamental question, to define the “America” our covenant is trying to form: a place of liberty and equality, where people have the opportunity to apply their talents and become whatever they have it in themselves to be. 

And to that I would add one more idea, which I would trace back to George Washington’s Farewell Address: America is a kind and generous member of the community of nations — willing to help, standing with others who defend the same freedoms we want for ourselves, but not seeking empire or dominance. 

But as I paint that patriotic picture, I can already hear the objections rising in your minds: How can we reconcile such a positive vision with the actual history of the United States? With the Native American genocide? With slavery and Jim Crow? With the oppression of women, of gays and lesbians, of a long list of groups who in one way or another have been labeled abnormal or unworthy? How do we reconcile it with the way we treat those who are coming to our border right now, looking for help because they have nowhere else to go? 

Those questions point to the second argument we have to win, if we are going to defend democracy: The America that defines our covenant — we can’t look for it in the past. It is a goal for our future. There is no moment we can look back to and say, “That was America. Let us make America great again.”

The America that defines our covenant is an ideal and always has been. We have never lived up to it and we’re not living up to it now. 

Who would know better than a black man in the midst of the Great Depression just how far the America of history has fallen short of the American ideal? 

In 1935, Langston Hughes saw the vision of America as clearly as anyone: 

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

But he also lived the reality. “America,” he wrote, “never was America to me.” 

His poem laments not just his own oppression, but all the people America has failed. And yet he does not give in to cynicism, or reject the ideal of America in scorn or disgust. For Hughes, our repeated failures only reinforce his commitment that someday we must succeed: “

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [one] is free. …
America has never been America to me,
And yet I swear this oath: "America will be!"

We fulfill the vision of America today in many ways that we fell short two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, or even ten years ago. Our highest hope is that future generations will be America in ways that we never have been, that they will look back on us not as the good old days, but as an era only slightly less benighted than the ones before it. 

Summing up, to keep our democracy healthy, we need to renew our commitment both to each other and to the ideal America we want to create. But how? Every day, whether you get your news from the Left or the Right, you are reminded how divided we are, how polarized. So how can we renew our covenant, even with people on the other side of the partisan gap? “Delight in each other,” John Winthrop said. That seems so distant now. 

In his recent book The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas describes the work of a Russian internet troll farm that created countless fake American social media identities in order to influence American politics and culture. Their goal was not to convince us to support Russia, but rather to turn us against one another. 

“The troll farm … had encouraged the view, already on the rise, and not without roots in reality, that the basic activity of democratic life, the changing of minds, had become futile work. … [It] wanted Americans to regard each other as immovable, brainwashed, of bad faith, not worth energy, disloyal, repulsive.” 

That belief is easy to find today on both sides of our political divide: Our opponents are not just wrong, they are irredeemable. But I want to close by pointing out that this hardened attitude violates our Universalist tradition, which refuses to write people off just because they don’t see what we see. 

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be misguided, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion. 

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. But no matter how frustrating and annoying such people may be, they are Americans, and we are in covenant with them. 

If we’re going to renew our covenant and preserve our democracy, we need to hold onto our Universalist faith that no one is beyond redemption. And that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth. 

Closing Words 

The closing words are by Langston Hughes 

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Democracy as a Religious Principle

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
October 30, 2022


Opening words
“We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be democratic, but that it cannot be otherwise.” - Abdolkarim Soroush

Responsive reading 

#594 “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”

Readings
I thought I’d start by reading you some criticisms of democracy and party politics from other times and places.

The first known usage of the phrase “Vox populi, vox dei” (The voice of the people is the voice of God.) comes from a letter the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York wrote to the Emperor Charlemagne in 800 AD,

“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.’

In Gulliver’s Travels, which Jonathan Swift published in 1726, a Lilliputian explains local politics:

“for about seventy moons past there have been two struggling parties in this empire, under the names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels of their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.

“It is alleged, indeed, that the high heels are most agreeable to our ancient constitution; but, however this be, his majesty has determined to make use only of low heels in the administration of the government, and all offices in the gift of the crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly that his majesty’s imperial heels are lower at least by a drurr than any of his court… The animosities between these two parties run so high, that they will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other.”

Another Lilliputian political division could not be tolerated at all.

“It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.

"The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire.

“It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.”


Around the turn of the 20th century, journalist Lincoln Steffens toured America’s biggest cities and described the corruption of their political machines in articles that got reprinted in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities.

“When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. ‘Ah, but they are all foreign populations,’ I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless.”

Steffens found that he could not blame political corruption on any particular group, or even the politicians, who were just businessmen of a sort. The problem was the voters.

“If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other party that is in — then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.”

But the electorate wouldn’t do that, leading Steffens to this conclusion: “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.”

Message
An election is coming up, and I’m a political blogger. So you can imagine how much I’m tempted to launch into a rabble-rousing campaign speech. I have opinions, I have a podium 
— it just seems obvious.

But I’m going to try to restrain myself, not because there’s anything wrong with talking politics in church — I’ve certainly done it before —  but because I believe that religious institutions are at their best when they offer us a chance to step back from our habitual arguments and examine issues from a broader perspective. Not just “What are we going to do these next ten days?”, but “What are we doing with our lives and why?”

So today I want to talk not just about this election, but about democracy.

Unitarian Universalism has made a religious principle out of democracy. Our Fifth Principle commits us to “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” The responsive reading we did elaborated on that: “We believe that all people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Such a principle may not be unique among religions. You heard in the opening words that even some Muslims more-or-less agree. But it is unusual.

Most American Christian churches make at least some claim to patriotism, so around the Fourth of July their ministers may praise our democratic system of government. But they see democracy, at best, as a very human system far inferior to living under God’s direct supervision. So the Christians who long for Jesus’ earthly return expect him to rule a Kingdom of Heaven, not ask for your support in a Republic of Heaven. They say “Jesus is Lord”, not “Jesus for President”.

That’s in line with a view of government that goes back to the earliest empires, in which legitimate authority descends from Heaven like a lightning bolt, and hits the highest point: the King, who then transmits authority down the social pyramid.

St. Paul, a Roman citizen, wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” European kings claimed to rule by the grace of God, and Chinese emperors by the will of heaven. Some rulers, like the Pharaohs, were gods themselves.

Churches have been similarly hierarchical, and many still are. God’s wisdom is revealed to a Pope or Prophet, who transmits it to bishops and priests, who pass it down to the people.

Then Gutenberg happened.

So yes, my local pastor might be one conduit for God’s wisdom to reach me. But if Bibles are cheap enough, and ordinary people can read, then we could also learn from Moses or read the words of Jesus himself. By meditating silently in my own home, I might ask God to inspire me directly, without any middleman.

Before long, Protestant sects were promoting personal communion with God as the ideal, and hearing God’s message from someone else as a second-best alternative. In time, many denominational bureaucracies have become more administrative than spiritual. They publish hymnals, vet ministers, and support missionaries in distant lands, but they don’t mediate between the individual and God.

Hierarchical political models were undermined as well. So the Declaration of Independence says that the Creator endows everyone with rights, and “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

In other words, what comes down from Heaven isn’t like a lightning bolt that energizes one specially privileged point, but more like rain that falls everywhere. And from the fertile soil of the People, leadership springs up.

But the down-the-pyramid model of authority has never gone away, even in America, and there’s still one obvious exception to democracy: children. We don’t let children vote, and their parents are allowed to carry them kicking and screaming out of candy stores. The consent of the governed is not required.

That exception may make practical sense. But it also creates a loophole: You can justify ruling people without their consent by arguing that they are like children to you. So slavery and colonialism were justified by the claim that non-white races are childlike, and it is the white man’s burden to look after them. Women were also seen as childlike, requiring the oversight of their fathers or husbands. Monarchy styles itself as a father-and-children relationship, which is why kings are called “sire”.

Because of these competing impulses extending the franchise to new groups of people 
has always been contentious. On the one hand, men without property, or non-whites, or women were clearly being governed, so the government should be seeking their consent. But the powers-that-be always argued that the people in question were insufficiently wise or mature    or educated or committed to the nation or to the common good. So adding them to the decision-making class would produce worse outcomes for everyone.

At times, even Americans have believed that we had taken democracy too far. Way back at the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman argued: “The people, immediately, should have as little to do as may be about the government. They lack information and are constantly liable to  be misled.”
Smithsonian curator Jon Grinspan’s recent book The Age of Acrimony describes the late 1800s as a time of crisis and self-doubt for American democracy, full of riots, assassinations, lynchings, corruption, and elections with dubious results. One author he cites from that era is Francis Parkman, a historian so distinguished that the Society of American Historians still awards the Parkman Prize for the best history book of the year. In 1878, not long after the disputed presidential election of 1876 had to be decided by a congressional commission, Parkman wrote an essay called “The Failure of Universal Suffrage”:

“When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests — when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar — when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason — then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him.”

Present-day Americans say it with less flourish, but I often hear the same sentiments, sometimes coming out of my own mouth: “How can so many voters be taken in by such an obvious conman? How can they believe such ridiculous claims? Can we really trust our fellow citizens to make decisions that affect us?”

Someone is using them, and profiting by them.

So, understanding those concerns, how can we revere democracy as a religious principle?What does our principle even mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we worship democracy. The voice of the people is not the voice of God. So no matter how big a majority a president or party assembles, those leaders are not infallible.

The Founders were not prophets, and the Constitution is not a holy document. We had to amend it  to abolish slavery and give women the vote. And there are parts I would still like to change.

In short, Democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, is a human institution subject to human failings.
 
Recognizing that fact is not an indictment of democracy, because the same is true of every form of government. A king or a dictator can be foolish — look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. An aristocracy can be corrupt, and is often oblivious to suffering in the lower classes. A board of the most qualified experts can get something wrong and refuse to acknowledge its mistakes.

Unitarians understand that every form of government is fallible. As Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy has religious significance not because it is perfect, but because the very idea of government presents a moral problem: If some of us are going to make decisions that are binding on the rest of us, that power has to be justified in some way. It’s not enough for the decision-makers to be stronger than everyone else, or to point to a divine command no one else can hear or verify. If government is going to be binding on all of us, then our own voices and our own judgment have to be engaged somehow. “All people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Now, I have to do an aside here, because libertarianism offers an alternative response to the moral problem of government: Maybe all government is immoral, so we should have as little as possible. Libertarians achieve that minimization by shrinking the mission of government to the protection of life and property. And they present that option as if agreeing to the current distribution of wealth and property were not such a big thing to ask.

I’ll just point out one thing: I own no beachfront property, so every beach in the world belongs to someone else. When did I consent to that?

More seriously: Every day, people are born into the world who have no claim on any part of this planet we supposedly share. And yet, they are supposed to respect whatever property the rest of us claim. Why should they?

I believe that if we expect people to respect the property system, we owe them some stake in that system. Many years ago I described that debt to you in more detail, in a talk called “Who Owns the World?” I still don’t see any way to make good on that debt without a government far more extensive than a libertarian would countenance.

So democracy remains the best solution we have to the moral problem of government. That’s how our religious movement has wound up committed to an institutional structure that we know has flaws.

Through our other principles, we’re also committed to the value of each person, to justice, equity, and compassion, and to truth. So we don’t get to deny democracy’s flaws, or to paper over the bad things that get done in the People’s name. When Japanese-Americans are sent to detention camps, or Jim Crow laws force Black children into inferior schools, we don’t get to ignore those injustices. We don’t get to say “All the boxes of democratic process were checked, so too bad for you.”
 
When confronted with all the ways that democracy can lead to immoral government, our response shouldn’t be “That can’t happen” or “Too bad if it does”, but “Let’s see that it doesn’t.”

In other words — and I consider this the single biggest thing I want you to remember from  this talk — our devotion to democracy commits us to a program far beyond elections and voting. Understanding the ways democracy can fail, we need to do everything we canto make sure that it does not fail.

Some safeguards are already built into the Constitution. Democracy can fail through the tyranny of the majority, when 51% of the people feel empowered to treat the other 49% however they like. The Founders anticipated that problem, so the Constitution limits the powers of government, and the Bill of Rights, at least on paper, protects the smallest minority of all, the individual.

Democracy also fails when the majority is thwarted, when people are prevented from voting or made to jump through unnecessary hoops. Or when their votes are gerrymandered into districts that produce predictable outcomes. Or when places like the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico are denied representation because their voters are the wrong color or speak the wrong language.
 
Those are not just political issues, they are moral issues.

Democracy fails when large numbers of people feel that they have no stake in the system and no chance to better their lot in life. So let’s see that everyone gets a stake and a chance.  

Democracy fails if the People are ignorant, the problem Francis Parkman pointed to. So let’s see that they aren’t. That’s how our commitment to democracy turns into a commitment to education.

And not just any kind of education. Imagine you lived in a monarchy, and someone had entrusted you with the education of the future king. Would you be content to fill his head with facts, so that he could pass a multiple-choice test? Or would you teach the future sovereign to think clearly, to understand what a fact is and what it really means to know something? To tell the difference between truths supported by evidence and shapes that someone points to in the clouds? Of course you would. And if the People are to be sovereign, then that’s the kind of education we should want for everyone. All of us.

Democracy fails when the People lose faith that their hopes and fears matter or that anything can be done to address them. We can see that now in our young people, who regularly see students just like themselves gunned down in school hallways and are told that nothing can be done. Or when they foresee the potentially devastating effect climate change will have on their future and are told that it’s not a priority.

So we must not be afraid to envision bold projects and we also must not be too proud to accept achievable compromises rather than do nothing. We need to take the steps we can while never losing sight of where we need to go.

Democracy fails when the People become cynical, when they see corruption in high places and think, “That’s just how things are. If we elected someone else it would be no different.” That’s what Lincoln Steffens was pointing to in The Shame of the Cities. Officials were corrupt because their voters aimed no higher, and thought the best they could hope for was to get a share of the spoils.

We see that today, when evidence of crimes is presented in prime time, but many voters shrug, because they have convinced themselves that the other side commits crimes too. So we must always aim high, refuse to spread accusations we know are false, and never be content to wink at wrong-doing because our side benefits. Whether or not our opponents trust us, we should be trustworthy.

And yes, I recognize the temptation to do unto others what we feel has been done to us. But we also need to appreciate that democracy is not a zero-sum game. Every time moral standards slip, the cynics are proven right, and democracy itself suffers.

Finally, and most difficult of all in today’s environment: Democracy fails when the people divide into tribes, when what matters is not “What is true?” or “Who has the best plan?” or “What is our best path forward together?”, but “What side are they on?” Are they white or black? Christian or Jew? Republican or Democrat? Do they wear their heels high or low? Break their eggs from the big or small end?

I don’t mean to trivialize the differences between our political parties, which are real and important. I voted before I left Massachusetts, and all for one party. But it’s also important that our parties not become like the parties of Lilliput, who “will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other”.

That doesn’t mean we have to compromise on what is true or false, right or wrong. It doesn’t mean saying “Maybe you’re right” when we don’t believe it, or ignoring crimes in high places simply to avoid riling the other side. But it does mean that we need to remember our Universalism, and refuse to write people off simply because they don’t see what we see. We need to hold onto our faith that no one is beyond redemption and that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth.

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be wrong, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion.

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. I’m not always up to that task myself. We all have our limits and must protect ourselves from abuse. But when we close off those connections and harden our boundaries, democracy suffers.

In ten days, we’re going to have an election. It is an important election, and (as much as anyone) I hope that my side wins. But I also hope that we never lose sight of the longer view: that for democracy to succeed, ultimately the People must win.

All of us.

Closing words
“The greatest way to defend democracy is to make it work.” — Tommy Douglas