He Got the Optimism, Not the Humility

Going Into Labor, part 3

The story of George Pullman is of particular salience to us Unitarian Universalists. This story -- the story of the industrialist who owned an entire town, ruled over it, sparked a national strike, and then brought in the Army to violently break that strike -- is our story, quite specifically. You see, George Pullman was one of us in a very direct sense.

George Pullman was a Universalist: born, raised, and lifelong.

George’s father, raised a Baptist, and his mother, raised Presbyterian, converted to Universalism, drawn to the “God is Love” message of the Universalist minister Thomas Eaton. George's Dad often led the services when no preacher was available. The Pullmans were a devotedly, devoutly, Universalist family. Both of George’s two older brothers became Universalist ministers and were prominent figures in our faith. Late in his life, George Pullman had a Universalist church built in his hometown, Albion, New York, as a memorial to his parents. Industrialist George Pullman was born, lived, and died a Universalist.

Something of the Universalist outlook may be detected in his life and actions. He believed his workers deserved decent accommodations. He saw that education was a win-win: it made workers lives better, and made them more useful workers for businessmen like him. "I have faith," Pullman told the press, "in the educational and refining influences of beauty, and beautiful and harmonious surroundings."

Pullman had a kind of Universalist hope that different denominations could come together and worship together in one church. There is a certain idealist, utopian strain of thought in the planning of his town. Shortly after Pullman's death in 1897, courts ordered the homes sold to individual homeowners.

Liberal religion is characterized by an optimism about human possibility. From our beginnings 450 years ago, Unitarians and Universalists have been peoples who rejected Calvinistic conceptions of humankind’s total depravity. That optimism about human capacity is displayed in Pullman’s vision of a company town where every one was happy and productive. So what went wrong?

It's not hard to see that what went wrong was that Pride and Control took over. Yes, people can get better -- can learn, can grow -- but they have to do so in their own way. Growth, learning, and development cannot be all planned out with precise outcomes determined in advance.

Pullman believed in human improvability, but didn't believe in people enough to let them work out their own growth, awakening, salvation, in their own way -- even if they used their freedom to go backwards for a few years -- or a few generations -- and even if, left to their own devices, they drank, or listened to speeches from agitators, read independent newspapers, gathered and discussed unsavory ideas.

Pullman wouldn't listen to his workers' needs. We can’t ever be so arrogant that we won’t meet and talk and consider where other people are coming from.

For Labor Day, remember George Pullman, the industrialist whose meanness sparked the events that led to the creation of the holiday.

Remember George Pullman, the Universalist who got the optimism but didn’t get the humility – because we Unitarian Universalists today follow in his footsteps in more ways than it's comfortable to admit. When has your voice of “let’s make it better,” come out as "fix it my way or I will treat you as evil obstructionist"? When have your own ideals made you cruel? I think we do that every time we think someone else is wrong.

Then let this be our Labor Day prayer: to find the courage to talk to the people we think are wrong, and stay at it until we get over ourselves. “God rejoiced at our disobedience,” said Rabbi Kushner, “and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.” We feel the estrangement.

For Labor Day, as we consider our theme of the month for September, covenant, I ask you: Will you covenant -- will you commit -- to the labor it takes to return home? That labor, we cannot outsource to China. To go into the labor of giving birth to ourselves -- to go into the labor of giving birth to community -- we can’t get surrogates in India. It’s up to us.

My challenge to you – and to myself -- is to talk, face-to-face, with someone you think is wrong. It’s election season – it’s not hard to find them. The hard part is talking to them, and keeping a civil tongue even if they don’t.

And that is hard. Over the summer LoraKim and I went down to southern Virginia for a short visit with her brother. My brother-in-law and I did have a conversation about matters – political matters – on which we disagreed – and I failed to be a sympathetic listener. It’s very clear – to me – that he’s wrong. I wasn’t able to stay at it, get over myself, my conviction of rightness, stay pleasant. He didn’t either, but our challenge is to be better – whether the other person is or not. Next time we see each other, I’ll try again – chastened by how badly I failed at in July.

We feel our estrangement – so many of our fellow citizens, we are suddenly realizing, have such anger and fear – it’s easy for us to get angry at, and a little afraid of, them. The labor of returning home, one small step toward one small mend in one small relationship at a time, is ours to do. May we take it up.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Going Into Labor"
See also
Part 1: Labor Day, Holy Day
Part 2: Why We Have Labor Day


Why We Have Labor Day

Going Into Labor, part 2

For years George Pullman had been a philanthropic supporter of fine schools – with the aim of providing business with a better quality of laborer. He wanted a happy, loyal workforce, so his town provided for all his workers’ needs. They got a state-of-the art home: indoor plumbing, gas lights, sewers – well above the average dwelling of the time. They got fine country air and beautiful neighborhoods.

The mortality statistics, indeed, established that Pullman, Illinois was one of the most healthful places in the world to live. The town created a national sensation. The press praised Pullman’s benevolence and vision.

To ensure there would be no unhappiness, Pullman prohibited outside agitators, allowed no saloons, or vice district. The hotel on the edge of town had the town’s only bar, and it was open only to visitors, not the residents. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. He wanted his workers to have clean homes, so his inspectors regularly entered homes to inspect for cleanliness and could terminate leases on ten days notice.

Private charitable organizations were prohibited. He built only one church building in his town: the Greenstone Church. Pullman’s plan was that all religious denominations would band together and share the one building. But the various denominations would not unite, and no single denomination could afford the rent, so the church stood empty for the town’s first seven years until Pullman finally slashed the rent by two-thirds, and Presbyterians rented it.

Then in 1893 the stock market crashed. The railroad "bubble" (overbuilding railroads, and relying on shaky financing to do it) burst. The "Panic of 1893" was, at the time, the worst economic depression the United States had ever experienced. 150 railroads closed. There was massive unemployment. Pullman cut his workers' wages by 25 percent or more. He did not, however, reduce the rents he charged his workers for living in Pullman, Illinois.

The next year, 1894, 4,000 Pullman employees went on a wildcat strike: "wildcat" because it wasn’t authorized by the workers’ trade union officials, which was because they didn’t have any trade union officials, which was because Pullman didn’t allow labor unions. Then organizers for Eugene Debs' American Railway Union came in and signed up many of the striking workers, and the Pullman strike spread. Soon 100,000 railroad workers across the country were refusing to handle trains with Pullman cars.

The strike shut down much of the nation's freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit. Various sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking the replacement workers the railroads sought to hire. At its peak, the strike involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Pullman called up his friend and fellow railroad director, United States Attorney General Richard Olney. With President Grover Cleveland's backing, troops were sent to Chicago. The federal government secured a federal court injunction against the union, Debs, and the top leaders ordering them to stop interfering with trains that carried mail cars. They refused. The Army moved in to stop the strikers from obstructing the trains.

Violence broke out in a number of cities: millions of dollars in damages and 30 people were killed. The Army broke the strike. Debs went to prison for violating a court order. The railroads fired and black-listed all the employees who had supported the strike.

As soon as the strike was over and the trains were running, President Cleveland and Congress moved to make conciliation to organized labor. Six days after the 1894 Pullman strike ended, legislation was pushed through Congress declaring that the first Monday of September was a Federal holiday, Labor Day.

So we have Labor Day as a consolation prize after the Feds sent in troops to protect corporate interests and break up a strike. It was a bone to try to head off further conflict. And they put it in September, instead of giving official recognition to the more widely known International Workers Day on May 1, because they wanted to pull attention away from the more radical labor movements.

Every Labor Day, let us remember this story of the origin of the holiday.

The story of conflict between "management" (the wealthy, the controllers of capital) and people whose labor they want to make use of (whether slaves, indentured servants, or laborers) is the central and on-going story of our country. This is who we are as a people.

Labor Union membership peaked in the 1940s and 50s, and has been declining ever since. Meanwhile, the percentage of all workers whose incomes fall below the poverty threshold was 4.7% in 2000, and rose to a peak of 7.2% in 2010. Since then, it’s down very slightly, and holding about steady at 7.0% of all workers earning poverty wages. On the weekend for celebrating labor, let’s remember the 10.5 million who labor but whose pay is so low that they remain in poverty.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Going Into Labor"
See also
Part 1: Labor Day, Holy Day
Part 3: He Got the Optimism, Not the Humility


Labor Day, Holy Day

Going Into Labor, part 1

The three-day Labor Day weekend celebrates the economic and social contributions of workers. Many of us get the day off from work or classes and are glad to have a chance to gather with friends, have a cook-out. It’s a chance to have a good time. For Labor Day, we honor and celebrate: Labor.

At the same time, Western civilization happens to inherit a tradition in which labor is punishment. In the Genesis story, the original humans ate “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and Yahweh kicked them out of paradise, and gave them labor: gender-specific labor.

The woman’s labor is childbearing. Genesis says:
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:16)
The man’s labor is working the fields.
“Cursed is the ground because of you. In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread." (Gen. 3:17-19)
So labor is what we have to endure because we ate of a tree and got called out. We go out of Eden and go into: labor. Tough break.

The interpretation of that Genesis story that makes more sense to me is one offered by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in Eyes Remade for Wonder. Kushner suggests that the whole thing was a setup. Like any good parent, God knew that to grow up we would have to leave home and so put that tree there to create a pretext for kicking us out.
“We have read it all wrong. God was not angry. God rejoiced at our disobedience and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.”
The return home, however, is not easy. It is, in fact, labor.

For the most part, though, we think of labor less as the work of "returning home" and more as punishment. When we can, we avoid it -- outsource it to Asia. We outsource factory labor and telephoning labor. We even outsource the childbirth labor. Someone creates an embryo in a lab, ships it abroad for gestation in a stranger's body, then takes possession again after birth. Overseas labor – of both kinds – is cheaper. Farmed-out childbirth is an industry in India, turning the rural poor into wombs for hire.

The trend to outsource our labor was satirized in “The Borowitz Report,” which ran this fake-news piece:
Labor Day Officially Moved to China. First US Holiday to be Outsourced. Labor Day, one of America's most beloved and longest-celebrated holidays, has been officially moved to China, U.S. officials confirmed today. The Labor Day celebrations are expected to kick off Monday afternoon in Beijing with a barbeque attended by over seven million people and presided over by former NBA star Yao Ming. The transfer of Labor Day to China represents the first time in American history that an entire holiday has been outsourced, experts said.... Meanwhile, U.S. officials said it was looking 'more and more likely' that Thanksgiving would be relocated this year to India. 'At the very least, Americans will still be able to celebrate Thanksgiving by phone,' one official said. 'But they should listen closely because some menu options have changed.'"
Well, that’s silly. Whatever work we may have sent overseas, we will always have the work of living here, and with it, our celebrations.

Labor day is a holiday – which originally meant holy day. So this is about the holiness of work – whether we work for pay or not. Whether or not labor seems to us to be a pain or a drudgery to endure just to pay the pills, there is before us also the prospect of labor as the path home. A holiday becomes again a holy day when, among other things, we honor the occasion with retellings of particular sacred stories -- stories made sacred by the meaning we give them.

What are the stories that consecrate Labor Day? I'm not sure Labor Day has any widely recognized sacred stories, so let me offer a story. I offer this as a candidate for adopting and making sacred through the widespread retelling of it every Labor Day. It is a cautionary tale of industrialist George Pullman, born 1831.

George Pullman founded the Pullman Palace Car Company that manufactured railroad cars, particularly the Pullman sleeping car. In 1880, he bought 4,000 acres 14 miles south of Chicago, and got an architect to design not only his new plant for making railroad cars, but a whole town: houses for 10,000 workers, shopping areas, a church, theaters, parks, a hotel, and a library – all owned by one man. He built and owned the power plant that powered his factory and his town. The town was named after him: “Pullman, Illinois.”

Pullman’s workers worked for him, lived in houses owned by him, paid their rent and their utilities to him, and shopped in stores owned by him, strolled in his parks. His aim was to solve the issue of labor unrest and poverty.

Next: So what went wrong?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Going Into Labor"
See also
Part 2: Why We Have Labor Day
Part 3: He Got the Optimism, Not the Humility


Sh*t Your Brain Tells You

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Confirmation bias is
"the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities." (Wikipedia)
We all do this. It's a huge influence on the way our brains work. Thucydides observed, some 400 years BCE, that "it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy." Dante's Divine Comedy notes, "opinion—hasty—often can incline to the wrong side, and then affection for one's own opinion binds, confines the mind." Thomas Jefferson said, "The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.”

Confirmation bias accounts for the tendency for astrology fans to notice in others and in themselves the traits that astrology ascribes. But the problem goes deeper than that. Not only is there an unconscious tendency to find confirmation for our beliefs, but there is a bias toward confirming mere suggestions. If I suggest to you that a mutual friend can be understood as being like a bull, say, or like a lion, even if you don't believe me, the mere suggestion creates an involuntary, unconscious filter increasing your attention to the person's bullish or leonine qualities (whatever you may take those to be).

Astrology was buzzing on social media last week, as certain findings of science that have been known for some time suddenly became mildly viral. The constellations of the zodiac, it turns out, do not line up with the dates standard astrology assigns to each of the signs. Last January, a NASA blog for explaining science to nonscientists explained:
"The constellations are different sizes and shapes, so the Sun spends different lengths of time lined up with each one. The line from Earth through the Sun points to Virgo for 45 days, but it points to Scorpius for only 7 days. To make a tidy match with their 12-month calendar, the Babylonians ignored the fact that the Sun actually moves through 13 constellations, not 12. Then they assigned each of those 12 constellations equal amounts of time. Besides the 12 familiar constellations of the zodiac, the Sun is also aligned with Ophiuchus for about 18 days each year." (NASA Space Place, 2016 Jan 13)
Thus, the timetable of when the sun is actually in each of the 13 (not 12!) constellations looks like this:
  • Capricorn: Jan 20 – Feb 16
  • Aquarius: Feb 16 – March 11
  • Pisces: March 11 – April 18
  • Aries: April 18 – May 13
  • Taurus: May 13 – June 21
  • Gemini: June 21 – July 20
  • Cancer: July 20 – August 10
  • Leo: August 10 – September 16 
  • Virgo: September 16 – October 14
  • Libra: October 14 – November 23
  • Scorpio: November 23 – November 29
  • Ophiuchus: November 29 – December 17
  • Sagittarius: December 17 – January 20
When this timetable took off on social media, some folks were a bit freaked out. Reactive denial was common. One typical comment: "Oh hell, no. You did NOT just turn me into a Gemini. NASA be damned, it ain't happening."

In fact, no one's astrological sign changed. The astrological zodiac is based on the seasons, not what constellation the Sun is in. Aries begins on the vernal equinox, Cancer on the summer solstice, etc. The 12 signs of the zodiac divide each season into three equal parts. The astrological zodiac does NOT, after all, represent the dates when a line from Earth to Sun would point to the given constellation. Rather, the signs of the zodiac represent the first, middle, or last third of spring, summer, fall, or winter.

Still, the folderol got me to musing about the way the brain's suggestibility introduces a form of confirmation bias. My daughter is a Scorpio, meaning that she was born in the middle-third of autumn. The Sun, on her birthday, however, is in Libra. What subtle differences might it have made through the years of her upbringing if one minor background image/metaphor I had of her had been a balance scale rather than a reactive stinging arachnid? I don't know what the personality attributes of a Scorpio are supposed to be, and I don't believe that people who happen to be born in late October or early or mid-November are any more likely than anyone else to have any given measurable personality trait. The existence of such likelihood would be an empirical finding, and numerous studies have found no correlations between any measurable personality attribute and date of birth. Nevertheless, my brain, in some unconscious way that it couldn't help, associated the image of a scorpion with my daughter -- along with associating an image of a fish with myself and an image of a crab with my spouse. Suppose, instead, that my brain had associated the image of a balance scale with my daughter. Would my own reactivity to her have been assuaged just a tiny bit by this minuscule nudge toward seeing her as skillfully balancing competing impulses and pressures and away from likely to inflict pain if threatened? Or, on the other hand, would seeing her as a Libra have made me slightly more likely to treat her as passive, while seeing her as a Scorpio helped incline me to see her as fierce?

Confirmation bias is a problem. But not having it at all would be an even bigger problem. Confirmation bias, together with its cousin the behavioral confirmation effect (a.k.a., the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that happens when your expectations influence your behavior to bring about the expected result) helps us have a coherent sense of ourselves, our world, and our purpose in it.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have a theory of human reasoning: that it evolved not in order for humans to better discern truth or make better decisions. (Their article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences is HERE.) If that were its evolutionary function, surely natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias. Rather, reasoning evolved just in order for us to persuade one another. We are deeply social animals, and having a shared view of things helps us like each other and get along -- which is often more important than whether the shared view of things is true. If the objective is to produce at a conclusion that the group collectively endorses, then confirmation bias is quite handy: it keeps us focused on the evidence we can point out to each other to reinforce our consensus and bring lagging skeptics on board.

We evolved in a context of intratribal dependency and also intertribal conflict -- we really needed to get along with our own people and also really needed to be able to fight against outsiders. Tribal survival depended on being able to defend our stuff (our turf, our food, our males' access to our reproductive-age females), and, when times got tough, survival sometimes depended on being able to conquer a neighboring tribe and take their stuff. Shared viewpoints would have functioned to strengthen the bonds within our tribe, and also would have facilitated a useful hatred of neighboring tribes who had different viewpoints. We needed to have viewpoints that were a product of intratribal conversation and weren't terribly closely determined by reality -- because then the other tribe would arrive at the same conclusion, and we wouldn't be able to hate them for their corrupt beliefs. Confirmation bias suits the need with amazing efficacy.

The same process also produces our sense of self. The self, as George Herbert Mead said, is a "generalized other" -- meaning that we develop our sense of who we are by learning about others and internalizing our understanding of others-in-general. The same persuasive processes we use with each other to form a coherent group, we also use on ourselves to form a coherent identity. My confirmation bias helps me know who I am. The behavioral confirmation effect (self-fulfilling prophecy) helps me act in a way that I not only observe confirmation of my beliefs, but engage with the world to make confirmations happen. Without these, I would know neither who I am nor whose I am. As Joseph Campbell taught us, our myths -- which depend on confirmation bias to sustain -- are not only powerful, but also necessary.

It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart, for we are not logical. But being illogical does sometimes land us in a tight spot.

What is to be done? Some suggestions:

#1. Don't believe what you think. You were made to have confirmation bias, and to think that your own beliefs are true. Even suggestions you don't believe have a way of directing your attention and action to seek their confirmation. Now that you know this, you can partially counter it just by noticing it at work. When you notice it, say to yourself: "There goes my brain just wanting to confirm. I can't entirely stop it from doing that, but I can deliberately withhold cognitive assent from what it finds." Being a fan of a sports team can be good practice. Notice how you think the world is a better place if your team wins. Notice how you can't really believe that -- but you cheer for your team anyway, just because it's fun. Can you consciously bring the same attitude to other things that you think?

#2. Intend to cultivate negative capability. "Negative capability" was John Keats' term for "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Work on being comfortable not knowing. As the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn often repeated: "Only don't know." Cultivate awe and wonder and mystery -- which depend on the absence of a satisfying story/explanation. Refuse, to the extent you can, to let any story/explanation satisfy.

#3. Use play to switch around your images and metaphors. Your brain is built to latch onto stories, images, metaphors. You can't help that, but you can loosen the grip of any one story by playing around with other stories. I might have countered the biasing effect of a scorpion image for my daughter by playfully suggesting that we think of as many ways as we could that she was actually a good example of a Libra. And so on for all the zodiac signs. Read lots of novels, exposing yourself to many different stories. People who expose themselves to a great multiplicity of stories are less in the grip any one bias. (Well, I think so. Or maybe that's just my experience filtered through my confirmation bias.)

#4. Plunge in. This one may seem counter-intuitive since it amounts to heightening your bias. There is, however, something true about every bias. Plunge in and see what you can learn about yourself from stories woven from random events. The lines on your hand, the Tarot cards that happen to come up, your zodiac sign -- explore what meaning can be made out of such coincidences. Pay a visit to a palm reader, or Tarot psychic, or astrologer, and let them tell you you the detailed story they make up. You actually will learn something about yourself. Even if it isn't any more true of you than it would be for anyone else, it's still got some truth for you. Suppose you were born the first third of winter. Astrology says you're a Capricorn, so reflect on your goatishness. Maybe everyone is kinda goatish, but it's still a helpful exercise to focus on how you are. It brings attention to an aspect of yourself. You can then better notice when that aspect is asserting itself. When you notice, you can then decide whether that's really the aspect that you want at the fore just then. The metaphors, images, or stories that most insidiously influence us are the ones that operate largely unconsciously. Fleshing out the details helps us be more conscious of them.

Being human is great -- and, anyway, what else are you going to be? The gifts come with shadows, though. If we know them for what they are, they can be kinda fun.