2016-08-23

Life Is Not a Utilitarian Calculation

In 1990, I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, studying simultaneously in government: political theory, and in philosophy. In an ethics seminar taught by Cora Diamond, we were considering various angles of critique of utilitarianism when Professor Diamond passed out photocopies of a poem: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito," by Zbigniew Herbert. Whatever part of me might have been inclined to defend the utilitarian project in ethics was swept away by that poem, as well as such essays as Professor Diamond's own "How Many Legs?"

Certainly there are times in life when working for a desired outcome is well and good. But the utilitarian claim that this is the whole of the ethical life, I cannot buy. I took my copy of "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" from Professor Diamond's class, cut away as much of the blank paper as I practically could, and affixed it to my metal filing cabinet, covering it under a layer of clear packaging tape. Ten years later, a then-new acquaintance of mine, LoraKim Joyner, would see it there, and we would read it together and find ourselves crying.

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924 -- so was a month shy of his 15th birthday when the Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939 September, beginning a six-year period of occupation of his homeland. The young Herbert continued his studies in secret classes organized by the Polish Underground and in time became a member of the Polish resistance movement.

In 1974, Herbert published Mr. Cogito, a collection of 40 poems. The titles of the book's poems almost all reference Herbert's everyman, Mr. Cogito. A sampling from the Table of Contents:
"Mr. Cogito Looks At His Face In A Mirror"
"On Mr. Cogito's Two Legs"
"Mr. Cogito And A Pearl"
"Mr. Cogito Considers Returning to His Native Town"
"Mr. Cogito Meditates on Suffering"
"The Abyss of Mr. Cogito"
"Mr. Cogito and Pure Thought"
"Mr. Cogito Reads A Newspaper"
"Mr. Cogito's Alienations"
"Mr. Cogito Considers the Difference Between the Human Voice And The Voice of Nature"
"Mr. Cogito Laments On The Pettiness of Dreams"
"Mr Cogito And Pop Music"
"Mr. Cogito Narrates The Temptation Of Spinoza"
"Mr Cogito Occasionally Receives Strange Letters"
"Mr. Cogito's Meditations On Redemption"
"What Mr. Cogito Thinks About Hell"
"Mr. Cogito On The Upright Position"

The book's last poem is "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." ("Przesłanie Pana Cogito," also sometimes translated as "The Message of Mr Cogito.") Whether the titular envoy is bringing a message to or from Mr. Cogito is not clear. But the message reminds us that life is not a utilitarian calculation.

As I read the poem, I imagine what it must have been like to have been in the Polish resistance, as Herbert had been. It would demand courage that could not have relied on hope, for the resistance, realistically, could not have had hope. Resisting the Nazis was not something that one did because one thought Nazis could be defeated. Rather, resistance was just what was required of an honorable life. In that world, at that time, it was evident that evil had won and would continue. The task of good people was hopeless resistance: standing against the Nazis until caught -- as seemed sure to happen before long -- and executed.
"The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"
By Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Bogdana Carpenter

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns your dark star in the breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

2016-08-21

Women's Rule

I'm thinking -- rather in the abstract -- about the idea of woman-only legislative or decision-making bodies. Seems like a bad idea. For instance, I saw this proposed "new rule" on Facebook a while back.


Rachel Maddow seems to be proposing that laws regulating vaginas be made only by an all-female legislature.

While I appreciate the sentiment, the "new rule" seems unwise. We surely wouldn't want to say that only people with guns get to make laws regulating them. Or that only people with a million dollars get to make laws taxing millionaires. Or that only people making toxic waste get to make laws regulating toxic waste. But the more important counterpoint I'd want to make is: even if you DO have a vagina, you shouldn't get to make laws regulating other people's vaginas. An abortion ban, for instance, is a bad idea -- and it would still be a bad idea even if it were favored by a majority of women.

Either there is a public interest in the regulation of women's bodies (or men's) that justifies curtailing women's (or men's) rights, or there isn't. (I happen to believe there isn't.) If there is, then assessing that public interest and considering strategies for protecting it would be the work of the public, both women and men, through their elected representatives, both women and men. If there isn't, then it doesn't matter whether the regulators would be men or women -- no one gets to do the regulating.. Either way, a woman-only legislature would be unwarranted. I reject Rachel Maddow's suggestion that people like me (men) have no place in the conversation.

So what would be prompting me to re-consider the question of woman-only decision-making bodies? Are there some situations -- beyond, say, the governance of a college sorority house -- where a single-gender decision-making body would be appropriate? I wouldn't have thought so until the 2016 Olympics brought Caster Semenya to my attention. Yesterday (Sat Aug 20), the South African runner took the gold in the women's 800-meter, with a time of 1:55.28. While Semenya's margin of victory was comfortable -- second-place Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi finished in 1:56.49 -- she set no world or Olympic records. The world record for the women's 800m, 1:53.28, was set in 1983, and the Olympic record, 1:53.43, was set in 1980. Suspicions of performance-enhancing doping cloud both of those records.

Semenya is hyperandrogenic. She was raised and identifies as female. She has internal testes and no ovaries or womb. Her testosterone levels are three times as high as those of most women.

In 2009, Semenya won races at the world track and field championships in Berlin, and questions about her gender followed.
Track fans were quick to note that Semenya, with her beefy biceps and flat chest, doesn’t look like most women. The New Yorker called her “breathtakingly butch,” noting that, “Semenya became accustomed to visiting the bathroom with a member of a competing team so that they could look at her private parts and then get on with the race.” (Olga Khazan, Atlantic)
In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) approved a rule that capped the amount of testosterone female athletes could naturally posses and still compete as women: 10 nanomoles per liter -- three times higher than the 99th-percentile level of naturally-occurring testosterone levels in women.

Last year, 2015, the Court of Arbitration, citing lack of clear evidence that testosterone alone constitutes an unwarranted advantage, suspended IAAF's testosterone cap.

The London Olympics of 2012, however, were played while the IAAF's testosterone rule was still in effect. Some athletes went to extraordinary lengths to meet, and go beyond, the rules:
At the London Olympics, four female athletes, all 18 to 21 years old and from rural areas of developing countries, were flagged for high levels of natural testosterone. Each of them subsequently had surgery to remove internal testes, which produce testosterone, as well as procedures that were not required for resuming competition: feminizing vaginoplasty, estrogen replacement therapy and a reduction in the size of the clitoris. (John Branch, NYTimes)
For the 2012 Olympics, Semanya took drugs to lower her testosterone levels. She experienced reduced muscle mass -- and perhaps an effect on her performance, though not much. She won silver in the 800m, with a time of 1:57.23. (The gold went Mariya Savinova of Russia who finished in 1:56.19.)

So is it fair for Caster Semenya to compete as a woman -- and without artificially counteracting her natural testosterone?

Some points to consider:

1. Olympians are, by nature, abnormal -- often in genetically identifiable ways.
"Still, it’s not considered unsportsmanlike to simply be strange-looking. Countless Olympians are celebrated for unorthodox features that give them an edge in their sports. Much has been made of Michael Phelps’s preternatural wingspan and ultra-flexible feet that turn into 'virtual flippers.' Biostaticians have said Usain Bolt’s 6-foot-5-inch height and fast-twitch muscle fibers make him perfectly suited to sprinting. Other athletes have less obvious advantages, like high levels of hemoglobin or diminutive heights tailor-made for tumbling passes.(Olga Khazan, Atlantic)

Eero Mantyranta, a Finnish cross-country skier who won seven Olympic medals in the 1960s, including three golds, was found to have a genetic mutation that increased his hemoglobin level to about 50 percent higher than the average man’s. (Jere Longman, NYTimes)
Why do we celebrate these genetic abnormalities, but not Semenya's?

2. The IAAF doesn't inquire into whether some men have abnormally high natural testosterone, and whether that gives them an unfair advantage. The response might be: Abnormally high testosterone in a man doesn't raise a question of sex classification, while Semenya's testosterone, and internal testes, do raise questions about her sex classification. But are we content to say it's fair that women athletes are subject to having their gender questioned and men athletes never are?

3. Gender rulings for athletic eligibility intersect with race and class in troubling ways.
"Testimony presented at a hearing on the IAAF’s sex testing procedures last year showed that 'to date, [the testosterone limit] has only been used against women from developing countries' and that the rules created 'an inconsistent and unfair patchwork of compliance by different countries around the world.' It’s notable that the women who’ve made the news for being scrutinized under the testosterone rule have been people of color. (Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight)
4. Rulings on eligibility for athletic events don't occur in a vacuum, but reflect and reinforce cultural norms. What are the harms from restrictive norms, and what is the good from greater acceptance of diversity? Determining that a woman is "too masculine" is a humiliation -- one to which sporting authorities have subjected many women through the years. Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan failed a gender test in 2007, was shunned by her community, and attempted suicide. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand refused to take treatments to lower her testosterone level, faced athletic ineligibility, and appealed. She testified that “she fears that if she loses her appeal, she will have to leave her village.” She told "of a young female friend who’d been forced out of her village after people refused to recognize her as a girl because of her appearance" (Aschwanden). Sex testing (including enforcing a testosterone maximum) is not simply a matter disqualifying a few hyperandrogenic women in order to expand competitive opportunities for "normal women." Rather: (a) the disqualification is particularly humiliating; (b) such disqualification reinforces discriminatory attitudes toward all women who look "too manly;" (c) sex testing reinforces stereotypes of femininity instead of promoting acceptance of all body types and talents.
"When you’ve had people tell you that your body is too muscular or you’re not feminine enough (as I have), a system that makes it OK to enforce a particular kind of female body feels vindictive." (Christie Aschwanden, FiveThirtyEight)
We have a system of competitive athletics that forces us to treat sex as if it were binary even though we know sex is not binary. Sex expresses on a continuum. Some have propoased that athletic competitions should offer three categories for competitions: men, women, and intersex. But that would merely replace the task of policing one dividing line (between "men" and "women") with two dividing lines (one between "women" and "intersex" and one between "intersex" and "men"). Sex is no more trinary than it is binary. (If three, why not four? Or five? Or seventeen?) Unless we are willing to make athletic competition unary -- which would be the end of women's athletics -- athletics is probably stuck with the Procrustean task of fitting the sex continuum into a binary.

One might conclude that Semenya should be allowed to compete as a woman but still have doubts about how much further along the intersex continuum a person can be and still be woman. And under what standards or conditions should transwomen be allowed to compete as women?

The suggestion that people like me (men) have no place in the conversation now looks much more reasonable than it did in the initial example. When it comes to regulating women's reproductive choices, no one -- not men, and not other women, either -- should get to override the individual woman's choice. When it comes to who counts as a "woman" for purposes of athletic competition, some decision-making body is unavoidable. It is only women's interests that such a body must weigh -- the interests of all women, whether hypoandrogenic, hyperandrogenic, or mesoandrogenic. Let an autonomous sports authority consisting exclusively of current and former women athletes and coaches oversee the determinations of eligibility for women's athletics. Include transwomen, and some intersex woman-identified people -- even some who probably wouldn't themselves be found eligible to compete as a woman -- on the eligibility board.

It's not that the decisions of an all-woman board would be beyond criticism. They wouldn't be. But the meddling of men in the question of who counts as a woman has a sordid history and can add nothing positive at this point. Our job is to get out the way and support empowering women themselves to rule on this one.

On the question of eligibility to compete in women's sports, my opinion is that I have no business having an opinion.

2016-08-18

Black Lives Matter, Palestinians, and M4BL

In early August an organization called the "Movement for Black Lives" (M4BL) issued a platform titled "A Vision for Black Lives." This policy platform declares that, “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” and further says that, “Israel is an apartheid state."

The words "genocide" and "apartheid" are startling and extreme. Israel may certainly be -- and is -- criticized for its treatment of Palestinians, but Israel is not committing genocide, nor is it an apartheid state.

A number of UU congregations have officially expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Community UU at White Plains, which I serve, resolved last April that it was an "ally of the Black Lives Matter movement and its Guiding Principles"

Does this mean that CUUC (and other congregations that have officially voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement) has condemned Israel -- or has supported an organization that condemns Israel? Not in the least.

1. CUUC supports the Black Lives Matter movement -- which is not an organization, and, in particular, is not the organization called M4BL ("Movement for Black Lives"). The Black Lives Matter movement is made up of a loose coalition of organizations (including, now, CUUC) and individuals. "Black Lives Matter" is a merely a slogan and a hashtag (a point King Downing emphasized when he spoke at CUUC last March) -- not an organization or entity. It has proven to be a particularly powerful slogan, and a number of organizations have formed incorporating part or all of that slogan or inspired by the slogan's sentiment. These organizations differ widely, and most take no position on Israel-Palestine relations. No one, and no single organization, can speak for every person or group who expresses the slogan or tweets the hashtag, "Black Lives Matter." The M4BL platform is not a platform of the entire Black Lives Matter movement, so support for the Black Lives Matter movement does not imply support for M4BL's platform.

2. Being an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement does not entail endorsement of everything that might be endorsed by individuals or organizations also allied with that movement. As an ally, we support the core hopes of the movement for ending discrimination against US blacks and seek to promote the most effective means toward that end. The statements about Israel are not even a core part of the M4BL platform -- they are peripheral to that platform's overall focus of concern. And even if the statements about Israel were (as they are not) the centerpiece of the M4BL platform, remember, again, that the M4BL is not the whole Black Lives Matter movement, but only a part of it. Many other organizations that are part of the Black Lives Matter movement are strongly opposed to M4BL's anti-Israel sentiment. (For instance, the Ecumenical Council of Missouri, representing hundreds of predominantly African American churches: SEE HERE, though the article mistakenly refers to the M4BL platform as "the recent platform of the Black Lives Matter movement.")

3. The CUUC resolution makes no mention of M4BL. If M4BL was even in existence last April, it was no part of our conversation or consideration.

4. The CUUC resolution specifies support for the "Guiding Principles" of the Black Lives Matter movement. (SEE HERE). It is these principles, which are the principles of an organization called the Black Lives Matter Network, and not any subsequent platform from another organization, M4BL, that CUUC voted to support. These Guiding Principles make no reference to Israel or Palestine. (Note: The Black Lives Matter Network has expressed its support of the M4BL platform -- but our support for the Network's Guiding Principles does not imply support for anything else the Network goes on to endorse.)

CUUC's resolution neither condemns Israel, supports condemnation of Israel, nor supports any organization or group that condemns Israel.

That said, we may wish to go farther and explicitly declare that we reject the M4BL's statements about Israel. Personally, I reject those statements. It would be up to the congregation to decide to make a congregational rejection.

What's Going On Here?

Why has the M4BL chosen to take on Israel? Why aren't they sticking to what we would think they would stick to: US racial justice matters? The one foreign government that M4BL singled out for criticism
"wasn’t the Syrian government, which has killed tens of thousands of innocent people with barrel bombs, chemicals, and gas. Nor was it Saudi Arabia, which openly practices gender and religious apartheid. It wasn’t Iran, which hangs gays and murders dissidents. It wasn’t China, which has occupied Tibet for more than half a century. And it wasn’t Turkey, which has imprisoned journalists, judges, and academics. Finally, it wasn’t any of the many countries, such as Venezuela or Mexico, where police abuses against innocent people run rampant and largely unchecked." (Alan Dershowitz, Boston Globe)
Perhaps M4BL thought Syria was already widely condemned. And that the abuses in those other places were either on a smaller scale or didn't seem to parallel the type of treatment many blacks experience from US police. I don't know. (Even so, that would still seem to leave Tibet.)

In any case, where did M4BL's condemnation of Israel come from? Why are they doing this? I began digging for an answer. Alan Dershowitz regards anti-Semitism as a sufficient explanation. I can't rule that out as playing some role, however large or small, but I do find there to be also other factors.

A part of the answer is intersectionality -- or intersectional theory -- so allow me to digress to unpack that a bit.

Intersectionality

"Intersectionality" is a word I've started hearing a lot in the last couple years in Unitarian Universalist social justice discussions. It has its origins in work I was talking about with my Fisk students 25 years ago: how do the oppressions of blacks and of women intersect? Writers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Katie Cannon argued that the experience of being a black woman could not be understood as merely additive: the experience of being black plus the experience of being a woman. Rather, the intersection of these identities created more magnified as well as novel forms of discrimination. Injustices based on race, ethnicity, gender, and class interrelate and are bound together in what Patricia Hill Collins called "interlocking oppression."

The intersectionality that I am now hearing about among faith leaders has grown broader. We are now highlighting the importance of seeing how many social justice issues intersect: environmental and climate issues, LGBT issues, income inequality and poverty and class issues, housing, education, war and peace, species extinction and animal abuse, as well as issues affecting blacks and women.
"The term has come into popular use to describe the ways that various systems of oppression intersect and overlap, encompassing other forms of discrimination such as homophobia and classism, and issues ranging from police brutality to colonialism. It has become a banner under which minority groups link up to fight what critics see as unrelated battles, but what activists see as iterations of the same struggle for justice." (Anna Isaacs, Moment)
When congregations feel torn between whether to focus on racial justice or climate change, military drone use or affordable housing, it is helpful to remember the intersectional nature of all these issues. The issues are interlinked: peace requires justice, injustice is perpetuated by violence; peace/justice and responsible environmental stewardship help enable each other, etc. Neighboring colleague Rev. Peggy Clarke, who serves the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Hastings, wrote for the Huffington Post:
"The rationale that led to slavery and colonization and the deprivation of humans at various times in history is the same thought process leading to the destruction of earth. It is the framework that suggests everything is in service to the dominant class....Our current American paradigm allows one group to exploit another. The paradigmatic assumption is that women are in service to men, that the poor are in service to the rich, that people of color are in service to white people, that Earth and all her species are in service to humans. Privilege has been conferred on the dominant group and that dominance is maintained by our legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, environmental and military institutions. It is this same assumption of dominance that created and supported slavery, that committed genocide on the indigenous people of this continent, that institutionalized the repression of women for centuries and that has also approached Earth with a power-over mentality." (Peggy Clarke, Huffington Post)
Intersectional theory says that ultimately there is a single evil: the disconnection and pain of dominance and inequality. Thus, whether we are marching for peace, for racial justice, or for reducing carbon emissions, we are marching for the same thing: a vision of a fair and caring world. It's true that a single human being can't attend all the meetings of all the activist groups, so we must each make strategic choices -- but it helps to be aware that whether you're organizing "Commit2Respond," lobbying legislators for Planned Parenthood, writing letters for Amnesty International, advocating for reforms to reduce the corruption of our democratic process, or marching for raising the minimum wage, your friends who choose the other activities are, in fact, working for the same thing you're working for -- and each of these activities supports the others.

US Blacks and Palestinians

While intersectional theory began as a way to emphasize the difference between the oppressions of different groups (black women's oppression is qualitatively different from black oppression plus women's oppression), it is currently sometimes used to conflate all oppressions as basically the same -- all the product of the same thought process of dominance. Thus, the troubles of Palestinians and the troubles of US blacks go together. As one student activist put it:
“Throughout history, people who are oppressed do stand in solidarity with others who are oppressed. And now we live in a world where people who live on different sides of the world can actually connect with each other in a really easy way and find out what’s going on. No one is stuck to their own movement anymore.” (qtd Anna Isaacs, Moment)
Unbeknownst to me, two years ago, when demonstrators in Ferguson were facing the clubs and teargas of police, messages of support were pouring in from Palestine. Some of the tweets:
“Solidarity with #Ferguson. Remember to not touch your face when teargassed or put water on it. Instead use milk or coke!”

“Dear #Ferguson. The Tear Gas used against you was probably tested on us first by Israel. No worries, Stay Strong. Love, #Palestine”

“Where I come from, what some call ‘rioting’ we call an uprising #Ferguson #Gaza #Palestine #intifada”
The Ferguson activists appreciated the support. As Anna Isaacs, relates:
"It wasn’t long before messages of black-Palestinian solidarity reverberated in cities across the country, surfacing in signs and chants at demonstrations in Seattle, DC, Houston, Chicago, Miami and Columbus, Ohio." (Moment)
Perhaps, then, black activists felt solidarity with Palestinians, but not Tibetans, because tweets and other electronic communication allowed them to be in touch with Palestinians -- and to feel that the solidarity was mutual.

Angela Davis' latest book, published in 2016 Feb, is titled: Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Apparently, those of us, like me, caught by surprise by the references to the Israel-Palestine issue in M4BL's platform just haven't been paying attention. Indeed, a number of black activists have been feeling a kindredness with Palestine going back well before Ferguson. For Patrisse Cullors,
"the constant sort of battering and terrorizing by military and for us by police is eerily similar." (qtd Anna Isaacs, Moment)
The roots of this alliance go back to the support for the PLO from some of the leaders of the black left of the 60s and 70s. Through the years the solidarity of US blacks with Palestinian has waxed and waned -- as has the relationship between US blacks and Jews, which has usually been the more significant alliance. During the Civil Rights era, Jews were staunch supporters of civil rights for blacks:
"African Americans found in the Jewish community some of their strongest and most vocal allies: Jews were disproportionately represented in Freedom Summer and in the fight for both the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights acts. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced Jews, and the iconic image of him walking side by side with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches remains a powerful reminder of that partnership." (Anna Isaacs)
Moreover, while the alliance between Palestinians and US blacks alienates some US Jews, it is not doing so as uniformly as it might have in the past. The plight of Palestinians has been gathering growing sympathy from US Jews, some of which are supporting the BDS movement ("Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" a strategy to pressure Israel to recognize Palestinian rights under international law -- SEE HERE). We are seeing, as scholar Alex Lubin (HERE) put it, "a divorcing of Jewish identity from the state of Israel." Ben Lorber (HERE) finds "a seismic shift is occurring in the American Jewish community" away from identifying Jewishness with Israel. This disconnect, in at least some cases, between Jewishness and Pro-Israel-ness makes Dershowitz's diagnosis of anti-Semitism somewhat less plausible -- at least as a complete explanation. Rather, availability of rapid communications facilitates a mutual recognition of the similarity of the conditions each group faces -- which lead to mutual expressions of support and to solidarity.

Consciousness of intersectionality makes it appropriate to express solidarity with other oppressed people -- this would reasonably include, but not be limited to, Palestinians. Singling out Israel, however, and accusing it of genocide, goes too far.

Unitarian Universalists and Israel-Palestine

In 2014, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Methodist Church divested from a handful of U.S. companies involved in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Various Quaker groups have also divested.

The next year, 2015, the United Church of Christ -- a liberal Christian denomination with which Unitarian Universalists often find common cause and collaborate on a number of projects (the "Our Whole Lives" curriculum, for instance, is a joint product of the UCC and UUA) -- adopted a resolution in support of BDS. Under the terms of the resolution, the UCC is divesting from companies that profit from Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and is boycotting settlement products (See ARTICLE HERE). Delegates to the annual June UCC synod voted 508 to 124 (80 percent) in favor of the resolution -- well above the two-thirds required.

With these actions as background, consideration of divestment came up at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus last June. Unitarian Universalists have expressed their concern with Israeli treatment of Palestinians before: the 2002 General Assembly adopted an Action of Immediate Witness supporting "Freedom from occupation and equal rights for all, including the right to exist in peace and security;" and opposing "Israeli settlements, land confiscation, house demolitions, and other violations of international law," as well as "all attacks on civilians, whether by suicide bombers, F-16 or helicopter gunships, or any other means" (See the full RESOLUTION HERE). Twenty years earlier, in 1982, a very brief (57 words) business resolution reaffirmed "opposition to anti-Semitism in all its forms" while recognizing "along with much of the Jewish community, that criticism of the policies of the government of Israel should not be equated with or confused with anti-Semitism."

The 2016 UUA General Assembly, in the end, took no action on Israel, Palestine, or divestment. This was largely due to the fact that a few months earlier, in 2016 March, the UUA's Committee on Socially Responsible Investing adopted a new human rights screen for all UUA investments. The new screen resulted in divestments from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, HP Inc., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and G4S -- the companies most frequently cited as companies that “directly profit from or support the occupation and its abuses of Palestinian human rights." The UUA approach thus accomplishes the divestment while avoiding the charge of singling out Israel. The new human rights screen for UUA investments examines all companies everywhere that may be profiting from human rights abuses.

For the actions before General Assembly that effected divestment see the UU World article HERE, and the Mondoweiss article HERE. While General Assembly took no additional action on the topic, it was addressed at General Assembly. See coverage of the panel discussion HERE. An article on the General Assembly resolution failing to pass is HERE.

Many have made the point for many years that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism. Unitarian Universalists officially emphasized that point thirty-four years ago. It's important to see that, while M4BL has condemned Israel, support of the Black Lives Matter movement does not entail support of M4BL. It's also important to see that condemning Israel's actions is not an attack on Judaism or Jews.

2016-08-01

Pending Moral Changes?

The Future Will Judge Us, part 3

One more issue that Appiah identifies as ripe for change: Industrial Meat Production

Criterion one: The arguments have been around a long time. In fact, it has been 235 years since Jeremy Bentham wrote:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But, ‘Can they suffer?’...The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
Criterion two: The practice is not defended on moral grounds. People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who eat meat do it from habit.

Criterion three: The practice persists because we push out of mind what we know about it. We put out of our minds the stomach-turning stories about what the animals went through to give their flesh to our comfort habits at the lowest possible price.
“Ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed -- crammed into cages where they can barely move and fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. These animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law -- in fact, the majority of state anticruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection.” (Appiah)
Given the conditions in which these animals live, killing them is the kindest thing we do. Appiah offers this suggestion:
“At least 10 million [cattle] at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.”
Their eyes turn to you asking, how did you support that? What were you thinking?

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. Future generations will find it difficult to forgive us for our meat-eating comfort habits that bequeathed them an environmentally devastated planet.

It’s been six years since 2010 when Kwame Appiah's Washington Post column described the three criteria (HERE) -- an extract of one of the themes in his book of the same year: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In those six years, how have his predictions played out so far?

Regarding prisons, we have in fact seen the beginnings of a shift in thinking about prisons. Prison population peaked in 2009, and has begun to come down slightly amid attention to releasing more nonviolent offenders.

Regarding climate change, last summer’s Paris accords were an important step – though still only a small step.

The number of elderly in nursing homes had already begun declining when Appiah wrote in 2010. After increasing in the 80s and 90s, the number of Americans aged 65 and up living in nursing homes declined 20% since 2000. That’s pretty substantial.

Per capita meat consumption in the US gradually climbed for 50 years until it peaked in 2007, and has since fallen. So perhaps we are seeing shifts underway in all four of the areas that Appiah predicted.

One area that Appiah didn’t foresee when he wrote in 2010 was the increased attention to the ways black lives are treated as mattering less than white lives, from employment to medicine to housing to schools, to, particularly, differential treatment by police and courts. An African-American himself, Appiah did not foresee change in this area – and, indeed, it is too soon to say that change is really happening, yet.

But his criteria apply. The history of red-lining neighborhoods, intentionally creating segregated housing concentrating African-Americans into certain parts of town has been known for some time, as have been the statistics of differential treatment. And no one defends the differential treatment. American racism was just something that, those who could, preferred to push out of mind.

Another area Appiah didn’t mention was sexual assault. We have widely understood for a long time that rape was indefensible, but we haven’t treated it very seriously – at least not when committed by white middle- and upper-class men. In the last couple years, we’ve seen new attention to sexual assault on campus, culminating in the outrage over the light sentence given to Brock Turner, the Stanford freshman caught sexually assaulting a drunk and unconscious woman. We are beginning to realize – I hope – that neither testosterone nor alcohol excuses rape. We are beginning to realize – I hope – that young men, even when intoxicated, actually can control themselves if they want to, and that holding them accountable helps them want to.

Moral progress is never smooth. We take two steps back for three steps forward, and discover often that principles we thought were established have to be fought for again.

Moreover, sometimes conscientious and well-informed people do succeed in making a change that, like Prohibition, turns out not to have been progress at all.

Future generations will look back on us and wonder what we were thinking. The best we can do today is just try to make sure that we are thinking.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
See also
Part 1: What Were They Thinking?
Part 2: Three Issues We Prefer Not to Think About