This past Sunday, Rev. Dr. Collin Bossen, the interim senior minister at First UU Houston, delivered a lengthy and thought-stoking sermon. Actually, he delivered a two sermons stitched together: one in his stole and in his role as an ordained minister, the other without his stole in his role as a scholar who has studied white supremacist movements in the US.
After he spoke, the congregation sang "How Can I Keep from Singing?" the old Quaker hymn that contains this powerful verse:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
The bells of freedom ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
To prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?
In the modern context of Late Capitalism and right-wing populism run amok, the vision of tyrants trembling offers us a glimmer of hope. Perhaps we can make some white supremacists tremble while we're at it.
Like any good UU preacher, Bossen modified his original sermon to address the crisis du jour: the white supremacist mail bomber and the mass murder at Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh. As someone who has studied white supremacists and anti-Semites, he certainly knows that they are a painful symptom of a systemic disease, and that the hateful words of authority figures too often leads to hateful actions.
Bossen connected some dots with the international trend toward fascists or fascist-wannabes elected to powerful positions in other nations: the Philippines, Hungary, Brazil (not yet official as of Sunday morning) and other spots in South America. Austria narrowly averted a fascist takeover, thanks to an effective campaign by the Green Party there.
I couldn't help noticing that Bossen never referred to the current occupant of the White House by his name. I'll have to ask him some time whether he just finds it difficult to utter the phrase "President Trump" without laughing, sobbing, or screaming. The whole of it was noteworthy as much for what he did not say, or merely implied, as for what he did say.
To my recollection, he did not say anything about whether this nation should take a modified approach to the First Amendment, similar to the practice in parts of Europe, wherein hate speech (narrowly defined) is subject to civil or even criminal penalties. Whether he said it or not, I must admit that I was thinking it.
He also did not say something else that I was thinking as I listened. What I consider the most insidious aspect of the recent upswing in socio-ethnic violence and fascist governance in the US and elsewhere is that these movements are funded and supported by the corporate entities that have been redistributing wealth upward and amassing unprecedented power since 1980. These entities are also bankrolling right-wing take-overs wherever they see the potential for them.
Sure, there is hatred of the other in the general population, here and abroad, into which these fascist and quasi-fascist movements can readily tap. But it's so much easier when you have several thousand Koch Brothers investing millions in candidates in order to reap billions.
In recent years, the US government has shifted from covertly shoveling money to the billionaire class to doing it overtly. They no longer need to hide it. Some folks are just fine with that, as long as the government keeps Hondurans from stealing their jobs. Millions of others are seeing it, and they vociferously disapprove. These millions are waking up, at long last, but it's a gradual process: "VOTE!" they keep shouting in social media, as if voting will accomplish anything; fat lot of good it did for the Clinton voters in 2016, even though they were the plurality. (Gee, thanks, Twelfth Amendment!)
But I also see evidence of liberal folk realizing that political life doesn't stop at voting. Like the people in various government agencies who have put their jobs on the line by ratting out their superiors and conducting subtle acts of sabotage, We the People need to become ungovernable. With any luck and a benevolent left wind, that smoldering awakening will turn into a prairie fire.
Stochastic Terrorism: Cool Term
The White House and Fox News drop a hint, and a resentful white dude with firearms or explosives takes the hint and acts on it. The White House and Fox News do not specifically tell them to do it, so they have plausible deniability for any resulting criminal offenses. But they stoke the hatred in the resentful white dude, and he turns words into actions, which we then hear about on the news shows.
Sarah Gish and I, along with the venerable Chuck Roast and Clint Broussard, have both had our turns as personalities on KTRU Rice Radio and KPFT Pacifica Radio. In her appearance on KPFT's Open Journal Monday night, Gish dropped a phrase that really caught my ear: stochastic terrorism.
I first heard the word "stochastic" in Probability and Statistics during freshman year at Rice, the course I took to avoid taking a real math course for distribution credit. The adjective conjures images of chi-squared distributions, like those featured in Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow in the mapping where German rockets were falling in London (which correlate with main character Lt. Tyrone Slothrop's sexual escapades, but that's a side-issue).
This in turn brings to mind a snippet from Tom Lehrer's 1965 song about Dr. Wernher von Braun:
Don't say that he's hypocritical;
Say rather that he's...apolitical.
"Vonce rrrockets are up, who cares vhere zey come down?
Zat's not my department!" says Wernher von Braun.
Before we proceed too far down the nerd-culture rabbit hole, let's circle back to the question of whether our society should tolerate or stifle what many perceive as hate speech. I don't have a definitive answer for you, so if you've read this far, I apologize. However, I do have some thoughts on the matter. Suffice to say, it's complicated, but it comes down to one simple proposal:
Stop giving right-wing hate-mongers media coverage so far out of proportion with their actual numbers!
To those who point out that our society itself is racist/misogynist/homophobic/xenophobic etc., I agree. Millions of American residents hold views we consider ugly or hateful. But far fewer act on those views to the point of physical violence (as opposed to the systemic violence of discrimination in hiring, housing, and health care, which is no less appalling and certainly more widespread).
It is worth remembering that people on the far right complain frequently of "hate speech" they find in even moderately liberal viewpoints. Lefties may decry righties' eliminationist rhetoric, but that rhetoric springs from authority figures telling them that lefties are their mortal enemies—and in the conservative Strict Father worldview, authority figures deserve your respect and credence (unless other authority figures say they don't).
Strict-Father Americans have been conditioned, for example, to see socialism as an existential threat: i.e., if the socialists (or the "socialists") get elected to power, our nation will descend into Venezuela-style financial chaos, criminals will run unchecked in the streets, and right-wingers will be penned up in labor camps. Never mind that none of the above happened under those "socialists" Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Early in Obama's first term, we witnessed the rise of the Tea Party movement as a response to his election. How did this movement rise so quickly, to the point of Tea Party Republicans defeating or nearly defeating established office-holders in Republican primaries, and then getting elected? They received media coverage. Then they got an infusion of funds, courtesy of former Congressmember Dick Armey and his well-connected FreedomWorks friends, as well as from the Koch Brothers.
(NOTE: Using the Tea Party movement as an example is not my way of suggesting that all Tea Partiers are fascist. However, in my perception, giving Tea Partiers a mass-media platform made overt fascist candidates like Donald Trump not just possible but viable.)
Unitarians, Universalists, and UU's, currently about 0.1% of the US population (and that's a generous estimate), have quietly exerted outsized influence on US culture and politics. Four US presidents have been associated with the UU movement, plus Obama's mother grew up in an active Unitarian household.
By comparison, actual Tea Party activists in 2010 may have made up 4% of the population; progressive peace, justice, and ecology activists, fewer but comparable. Guess which faction the TV networks decided to give a platform. (Hint: the faction with more money behind it.) In 2011-12, coverage of Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs was sparse; any press Occupy received was incomplete and usually negative, even in "liberal" media outlets.
That incessant coverage of the Tea Party boosted the visibility and the message of their movement. Even if the coverage was negative—even if Rachel Maddow spent 15 minutes ranting about the Teabaggers' sheer lunacy—it still got the message out.
Back then, I watched a lot of The Rachel Maddow Show on msnbc.com the morning after each show aired. She gave us inspiring peeks into progressive activism: the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, the occupation of the capitol building in Wisconsin, Rev. Edward Pinkney and the fight against the unelected Emergency Management government in Benton Harbor, Michigan. (Pinkney is out of prison now.)
But as an antidote to Tea Party madness, was Maddow holding up Greens or Socialists as an antidote? Nope. Phil Donahue had already been fired for voicing opposition to the invasion of Iraq on his show; better not rock the proverbial boat. Even as Maddow and Melissa Harris-Perry (also a UU and deemed too progressive for MSNBC) shone a light on Black Lives Matter et al, there was an undercurrent of electing Democratic Party candidates will make everything OK.
Fast-forward to 2015-16. The networks gave candidate Donald Trump oodles of coverage, as Michael Moore reminds us in Fahrenheit 11/9. They could have ignored him; they could have declared his candidacy a non-starter, as they did from the get-go with Dennis Kucinich (twice!)—or, say, Carly Fiorina and the whole second-tier "kids' table" of Republicans in 2016, and dropped him like a cold bowl of oatmeal. But holy fuck, what ratings Trump brought in!
The media-industrial complex skipped over M.K. Gandhi's "First they ignore you" step; everyone except Fox News and CNBC went straight to laughing at Trump, then occasionally fighting him...and then he won. OK, the Internet is reminding me that Gandhi didn't really say that. But Cheeto Jesus decided to appropriate and pervert it anyway, persecuted minority that he is.
To conclude: If Big Media can decide to shut the gates on progressive and radical leftists (after all, the lefties ruined a perfectly good war in Indochina), they can also decide not to provide a platform for bigoted "populist" ideas, movements, and candidates. If that seems like censorship or is not a satisfactory solution, then they can give equal voice to left-populist and progressive ideas, movements, and candidates. Then we can see whether the marketplace of ideas is more receptive to inclusivity, equal rights, nonviolence, and compassion, and other true values of the Left.