Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Weaving the Fabric of Diversity (January 24, 2009)

I count myself lucky to have been born after the American’s with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibit discrimination based on race, religious, sex, national origin and disability. I’m glad that I grew up in a post-segregation world, grew up with heroes like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Susan B Anthony. Unfortunately I grew up with the idea that oppression was a historical artifact. I didn’t know that hate crimes still happen, that discrimination still happens. And I sure didn’t understand that these types of overt oppression are just the tip of the iceberg.

It didn’t start to dawn on me until I entered the working world and I had the audacity to question my boss about the fact that the only white candidate for a job was hired she said “It’s not about race, I just think Mary would fit in better.” The light dawned back when I was the receptionist for a manufacturing company and I noticed that women were not even interviewed for the higher paying factory jobs. The head of HR explained “women are not strong enough to work on the factory floor. Women work in the sorting room.” The fact is that the vast majority of discrimination that goes on in the world is not the overt hateful sort that scandalizes us. Most of it is perpetrated by ordinary people and institutions that are just doing things “they way they are used to doing things.” The hiring discrimination I witnessed is illegal[ We still can’t get Pennsylvania to pass HB300 which would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas based on sexual orientation and gender identity.], but I don’t think my old co-workers even understood that they were discriminating. So oppression is not a thing of the past. It is still woven into the fabric of our society and its institutions. The UUA has committed itself to become an anti-oppressive institution, and challenges us to do likewise.

Now I know it’s hard to think of UUCAS as an oppressive institution. How can we, who work so hard to be welcoming and warm, be oppressive? But being a congregation that “encourages spiritual growth and ethical living” we wanted to explore how oppression really works, and how we could become an anti-oppressive institution and more supportive of diversity. This past fall and winter we offered an Adult Education class called “Weaving the Fabric of Diversity”. Our curriculum taught us that there are some common elements to all kinds of oppression. First, oppression relies on a “defined norm.” What’s normal in our culture? It’s a white, young, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able-bodied male who has access to money, education and other resources. Now in terms of numbers, this is not the “majority” of people in America, but it represents those people who have a certain kind of access to institutional power. This group certainly is the norm in congress. In the Senate right now only 17 out of 100 people are women 13 are non-Christian, and only 3 are people of color. In the history of the US there have only been 6 openly gay members of congress, and there has never been a gay member of the senate. What is “normal” to our decision makers in Washington, is not really “normal” to most of the people in America- but the decisions made by those few powerful people are going to define and legislate normal for the whole country.

Think about other kinds of institutions- like schools; the teachers and school boards have the power to teach what they understand to be normal. The way I was taught American history, it started in Europe and told a story of those white men who lead institutions from the founding of the United States of America until today. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I realized that anther way to teach American History would be as a history of this land and all who have lived here, or learned that the GLBT movement has a history, and that that history is an important part of the story of our country. Now my high school history teachers were good people. I don’t believe there was any intentional plan to exclude certain folks from the American image of itself. Yet the history I was taught was oppressive, and the school that taught it perpetuated that oppression. If I myself was not queer, and had never had friends or family who came out to me, and never sought out books on queer history and culture, I would leave Stonewall out of Contemporary American History textbooks not as a proactive act of oppression, but as a passive one. Either way, the result is the great diversity of Americans are taught an “American Norm” that does not reflect their own experience, or their own history.

So institutional power is one thing necessary for oppression and the maintenance of a defined norm, another is economic power. It is a well known fact that women make less than men. In 2004 the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed women still make only 80.4 percent of men's weekly median earnings . In virtually every occupation listed, men earned a higher median wage than women, regardless of job title. How could this systemically unfair distribution of resources NOT contribute to the oppression of women, and yet I don’t believe in some giant conspiracy theory, just very powerful societal norms backed up by economic power.

Another important characteristic of oppression is that the institutional authority backs up the norm with violence or the threat of violence. The statistics show clearly that people of color are more likely to be brutalized by police than white persons. Violence against Transgender folks is regularly in the news. You don’t have to be yourself the victim of violence to know that it is dangerous to be in certain places if you are a person of color, that it is dangerous to show any ambiguity to your gender. The “defined norm” that “Boys don’t wear pink” is enforced not just by our cultural teachings, but by the knowledge that there are people in this country who believe crossing those normalized gender lines is an excuse for violence. The norm is backed up by the US police forces, the prison system and the army. Think about all the times the army has been called in to break up a labor strike- to support management over and above labor- to enforce that management is “normal” and working folks are “other.”

We support the norm by assuming that those who don’t comply with the norm are “other” and we could only accept them if they conformed or assimilated. Consider the kind of “defined norm” that perpetuates classism. Have you every heard anyone say that folks who don’t have much money are poor, not because they couldn’t afford to get the kind of education that would have led to better paying jobs, but because they are lazy? Yes, even those folks who work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet and feed their family – the rationalization goes that if they had always worked hard and made the right choices they wouldn’t be in that pickle. So the one poster child who works her way up from the housing projects to make it through medical school and become a doctor shows that “becoming normal” is possible, and anyone could do it if they just tried hard enough.

When we hear these ideas often enough we start to believe them. “Maybe it is my fault, maybe I am lazy and not as smart or good.” This is how internal oppression is born. I begin to carry in my way of thinking about myself and the culture the sense of norm that my culture teaches me and backs up with money and power. And because not everyone sees their life experience on TV, in the history books, in church, this leads to isolation.

When we see that oppression works in the same way regardless of the group that is being oppressed, this is called “linked oppressions.” If we are able to analyze and dismantle the mechanisms of oppression, we would have tools and processes for dismantling all oppression. Think about all the women’s suffrage and the abolition movements learned from each other in the 19th century. Think about how the black empowerment movement, the women’s liberation movement and the disability rights movements fed and taught one another back in the 1970s.

So we at this church have long aspired to be as welcoming and inclusive as we can be. But it is not enough to say “everyone is welcome to join us.” In order to be truly welcoming we must analyze our own church system for oppression, search our own hearts, do our own work to remove road blocks which might prevent folks from feeling truly welcome. We must remember that race is not a black issue, homophobia is not a gay issue; each of us has an ethnic history, each of us have a gender, a sexual orientation, a body that with weaknesses and strengths.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of EVERY person. So how can you and I challenge oppression? The first step is just noticing and recognizing oppression and its harmful effects. We try to get in the habit of challenging the idea that some people are “normal” and that society’s responsibility is to support and reinforce “normalness” The more we accept this challenge as part of our search for truth and meaning, and the more we support each other in that search, the more the subtleties of oppression will begin to reveal themselves in the fabric of our society. And once we learn to recognize it, then we have a chance to help change it -- whether that means speaking up when you hear a racist or homophobic comment at work, or visiting your legislator to ask equal rights to be protected under the law.

We can also practice that countering oppression here in this beloved community. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a racist or homophobic remark in this building, so our challenge will be to pay attention to the more subtle ways that some identities are normalized and others are marginalized. Can folks with visual impairment read or our orders of service? If you don’t know how to read, can you still enjoy worship with us? To help us understand the blocks and discouragements that stand between this congregation and greater diversity, we have to be willing to use our imaginations to put ourselves in our brothers and sisters’ shoes.

And how will we know if we have reached our goal? We have to be in relationship with folks who are different from us so that we can be accountable, otherwise our actions will say “we know what’s best for you” and we are still a part of the system of privilege and power. We have to ask and listen. We are quite diverse in our congregation already- so we can ask a family with small children “what roadblocks are in your way to full participation in our community.” We can ask folks whose hearing is challenged if they are missing any parts of worship. We can ask folks who struggle to make ends meet whether our church events and programs create uncomfortable barriers for folks with tight budgets. We have to venture outside our familiar circles, however, to find out what obstacles persons in wheel chairs might find when visiting our church, or how this congregation might be more welcoming and comfortable to African-American or Native-American neighbors.

We challenge ourselves to pro-actively do our own work, because that is the first step toward countering oppression in the world. Even if after 3 years of work our congregation looked no different to the naked eye, we would be changed in our hearts. Says Rev. Tom Owen Tolle, “The quest for diversity [asks us to promise 2 things]: that we will practice diversity within our own walls, not merely preach it in the wider world; and that we will stay on the path forever. Authentic diversity is not an ad hoc project but our way of being and doing religion.” I am glad we are on that path together.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers (January 17, 2010)

The pop song goes:
“I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass.
…I've never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has.
Which makes me wonder if I could.”

Today I want to tell you a story about our Unitarian Universalist Publishing house Beacon Press, about a time they were tested, a story which challenges us all to wonder if we could be brave enough to pass such a test.

Our Beacon Press was born as an in-house publisher for The American Unitarian Association, and in 1900 took it’s name from Beacon Hill on which the offices of the AUA were situated, and where the UUA offices are still located today. The name had metaphoric significance as well; you see on that hill, during the formative years of our nation, a tar bucket was hung on a pole at the peak. If enemies were approaching, the tar was lit, and the bucket would be hoisted to the top of the pole. This Unitarian publisher was to be a press empowered to shine a light on truth in troubled times. Their motto “In luce veritatis or ‘ In the light of truth’” would guide their work.

Said Walter Kring in the Christian Register (Which was the equivalent of today’s UU World) “The Beacon Press has always felt that what is printed is of far more important than whether the balance sheet is in the red or the black. Today the Beacon Press is known by many as one of the most courageous presses in America.” Beacon published such important and challenging works as the Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi (1957) and Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1962).

Gobin Stair, who became the third director of Beacon press in 1962, oversaw the publishing of several volumes that questioned the war in Vietnam: Howard Zinn’s “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” and Tatum and Tuchinsky’s “Guide to the Draft” (1969) which helped young men avoid being drafted. So when Beacon was approached with a request to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the moral imperative was clear. Allison Trzop, a grad student at Emerson College, found the story compelling enough to wrote a history of the episode as her Master’s thesis in 2006. It is her scholarship that brought this story to a new generation of UUs, and her work that I share with you today. Let’s start from the beginning.

In 1967 Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wanted to put together “a full history of U.S. decision making on Vietnam back as far as the 1940s.” He put together a team of 36 people and gave them access to all kinds of Defense department files, along with outside sources- newspapers and books. The task force director, Leslie Gelb, descried it as “a history based solely on documents – checked and rechecked with ant-like diligence.” The final version was 7000 pages long and was meant for internal use only. Most of the people who worked on the project only saw small sections in their area of specialization, but Daniel Ellsberg, a former marine who had worked at both the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation think tank, had access to the whole document. He wrote in his memoirs “It occurred to me that what I had in my safe at Rand was seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder. I decided I would stop concealing that myself. I would get it out somehow.”

Ellison, working with a former Rand associate Anthony Russo, photocopied all 7000 pages after-hours at a friend’s Los Angeles office. He leaked the first papers to the New York Times in March of 1971, but the Times sat on them for several months; it wasn’t until June 12 that the first of the papers were printed, and after only 3 days the New York Times was enjoined from publishing any more of the secret papers. It was the first time a U.S. Court had ever silenced a newspaper on grounds of “national Security.” Ellison then gave 2 sets of the documents to the Washington Post. The Post began publishing excerpts right after the Times injunction, but was similarly enjoined. On June 30 in “New York Times Co. v. United States” the Supreme Court heard an appeal, and both injunctions were lifted. The Times took up publishing the excerpts again the next day.

But remember 2 sets of papers were delivered to the Post, to editor Ben Bagdikian. Ellsberg had asked that the second set be given to a member of congress. Ellsberg approached several senators who declined, before Maurice Gravel, the Democratic senator from Alaska agreed to accept the documents. The heavy box of papers was exchanged in the Parking Lot of the Mayflower hotel in Washington DC. Gavel planned to read the papers into the record of the U.S. Senate during a filibuster of a bill that would extend the draft, but the filibuster was blocked because there wasn’t a quorum. Eager to enter the papers into the public record, on June 29 Gravel held an executive session of the Senate Sub-Committee on Buildings and Grounds which he chaired. He read from the papers for three hours and made an impassioned plea for a full disclosure to the public. Then, “with tears streaming down his face”, entered the documents into the public record. [p. 13] This meant that technically the papers were now in the public domain, but Sen. Randolph of West Virginia refused to authorize payment of a stenographer for a public record, blocking publication by the Government Printing office.

The New York times continued to print excerpts of these papers as “The Vietnam Archive” but Senator Gavel wanted to see publication of the full history. He approached publisher after publisher until thirty-some had turned him down. He approached first the larger publishers like Houghton Mifflin and Simon and Schuster, then he approached University and scholarly presses such as Harvard and MIT. Gavel was one of 2 Unitarian Universalists in the Senate at that time, but it was one of his aids who reminded him that his own denomination had a publishing house.
Beacon’s Editor in Chief, Arnold Tovell, and the director, Govin Stair agreed to look at the papers. Stair said in an interview “Our previous order was to publish those good books which are important books which the commercial presses won’t publish…and we were evading it in every way we could! … I had to tell my trustees that this was a principle, and that it was a silly thing to do, but I thought we should do it. But they had to know that it would cost ‘em. I stood up at that damned meeting and said it just as simply as that.”

And so on August 17, Beacon announced that it would print the Pentagon Papers, knowing it was the “biggest venture in the history of the small publishing firm.” Imagine, what they had been presented with was 7000 pages of “photocopied transcripts” with no particular organization. Said Gobin Stair, “It was an endless pile of notes. Nobody had shaped it.”

In addition to the huge editing task, there was the political stress as well. Stair recalls a phone call from Richard Nixon. “’Gobin’, said Nixon, ‘we have been investigating you around Boston, and we know you are apparently a pretty nice and smart guy…I hear you are going to do that set of papers by that guy Gravel’… The result was that as the guy in charge at Beacon,” Stair Recalled “I was in real trouble. Before we had decided yes or no, we were told not to do it. We were publishing books we like and that we think we can sell, and to be told by Nixon… not to do it, convinced me before I had [completely] decided, that it was a book to do.” But stair admitted feeling anxiety as well saying “I very much wish somebody else were publishing this.”

On September 17 two men from the defense Department walked in to Beacon Press and asked to see Gobin Stair. They demanded that the Pentagon Papers be returned. Before leaving they ran paper through all of Beacon Press’s photocopiers to see if the photocopies had been made on Beacon’s machines. Stair remembered the event as “Ominous and intimidating.”

The sense of fear spread. Beacon asked typesetters to give bids without knowing the exact nature of the project. When the project was revealed, the lowest bidder dropped out saying he was afraid of losing government contracts if he typeset the Pentagon Papers. The next lowest bid was $10,000 higher. They were off to a rough start.

Then, just 12 days before the Beacon press version arrived in bookstores, the Government Printing Office released its own set of the Pentagon Papers. (Remember, they had previously refused to do so). Now the government version did not even have page numbers, and was heavily censored. Said Gavel “You’ve got to appreciate that the decision to publish the papers by the Defense Department had to be a Whitehouse decision. It had to be a spiteful decision to punish… [Beacon] personally.”
On October 22 Beacon released a four volume set in cloth and paper. The New York Times Book reviewer proclaimed the Gravel edition “the best version.” At the release party Senator Gravel said in his speech “I was prepared to give up my Senate seat so that the American people could have these papers. Nothing but my family is dearer to me than my Senate seat – I’ve wanted to be a Senator since I was 12 years old. This” he said, holding up a copy of the book, “is my only pay-off…If there’s any question that I’d do it again, I would. I’d do it again and again and again and again.”

A week later, FBI agents walked into the New England Merchants National Bank of Boston, and asked to look at all UUA records for the past 6 months. The Bank refused, asking to see a subpoena. Two days later they FBI came back with a Subpoena for documents from all 12 of the UUA accounts. The president of the UUA, Dr. Robert West issued a statement that “Serious questions of church-state separation and freedom of the press are raised, in addition to the general issues of government intimidation and repression of dissent.” [p. 30] Senator Gavel and the UUA legal council requested an injunction based on Senator Gavel’s senatorial immunity, and the US court of appeals stopped the investigation while awaiting the ruling about Gravel’s immunity.

The respite was not long lived. On January 7 of 1972, the federal court of Appeals in Boston ruled that Gravel’s immunity would not protect Beacon press. UUA attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, and asked for an injunction based on a violation of religious liberty. The FBI withdrew it’s subpoena, but Beacon learned that the government planned to file criminal charges for (1) “receiving concealing, retaining and conveying stolen government property (2) receiving, retaining, communication and failure to deliver documents relating to the national defense and (3) interstate transport of stolen property of a value in excess of $5,000.” [p.32]
Said Edwin Lane (chair of the Beacon Board of directors at the time, who later found that his office phone had been tapped) “My greatest concern has always been that we could be completely exonerated by the courts and still be bankrupted if the Government chose to pit it’s fast financial resources against our small denominational publishing house… We could win every court battle and still be destroyed in the process.” [35] They were right to worry about the fiscal impact of the fight- Gravel’s attorney fees were more than $75,000 and the senate declined any funds towards his defense. The UUA paid more than $60,000 for Beacon Press legal fees.

Then on January 11, a subpoena was issued for Stair. UUA president Dr. Robert West sent a letter to religious leaders across the country warning that the FBI had compelled the disclosure of the names of their members and contributors. In that letter he argued that “An individual citizen’s decision to join and support a religious organization should not be subject to government investigation.” West’s ongoing outreach lead to the support by many faith groups, including the US Catholic Conference who offered legal assistance, and the Conference of American Rabbis which issued a statement against the government’s unconstitutional search saying “the end of religious freedom as we have know it could be near at hand.” [p. 37]
Letters of support came in from UUs around the country, some with donations from individuals or offerings taken up by congregations. I was touched to note that Dan Lion, founding minister of the congregation I served in Palo Alto sent a letter reading “I gave a 5 minute pulpit editorial on the UUA and the Pentagon Papers. Result: a request that a second offering be taken up. Hence the enclosed check.” West toured the country keeping the story in the public eye, and sought the support of news media and book publishers. The ALA issued a resolution of support for Beacon Press. Said West “The librarians were the most intensely concerned people I encountered in this who weren’t Unitarian Universalists”

But at the same time the UUA received hate mail from Unitarian Universalists condemning their actions- they felt being in possession of stolen goods was not solid moral ground to stand on. Members were concerned that the UUA stood on shaky financial ground as well. The initial investment in the publishing was $200,000, and by June of 1972 less than 1/3 had been recouped. Fortunately the Veach program made a loan of $100,000 to cover the costs, and later another loan for $300,000 for operating capitol. The press continued to flounder financially, cutting staff, new editions and publicity.

Then in June the Supreme court turned down the final UUA appeal- they would not be covered under Gravel’s immunity. The Association of American Publishers called an emergency meeting, and called for a $100,000 Beacon press legal defense fund. But in that very month the attention of the justice department turned to focus on the break in at DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.

As the Watergate investigation dominated the press, Ellsberg and Beacon Press waited to exhale. Finally by 1973 it seemed the Pentagon Papers were old news. Charges against Ellsberg and Russo were dismissed in Los Angeles. All hoped the case would not be pursued back east. The battle everyone had been bracing for never materialized. Said Stair in an interview later that year “If the Pentagon Papers came to us now, I’m not sure we could publish them.” [p. 46] But reflecting back in 2001 he called it “a high point in Beacon’s fulfilling its role as a public pulpit for proclaiming Unitarian Universalist Principles.”

What is the moral of this story? Beacon Press needn’t have gotten involved; 30some other publishers had turned down the opportunity for this small but noble role in the story of the Vietnam war. But Beacon’s sense of mission and principle was clear- if ever there was a time when this country needed the light of truth it was surely needed to guide their way out of the quagmire of war. But more importantly, Senators, publishers, typesetters, universities, were all afraid of retribution if they participated in the publishing of these documents. Says Edwin Lane, whose office phone was tapped while he was Chair of the Beacon Board of Directors “It’s tragic when a nation, dedicated and committed to the principle of freedom, reaches such a point that the greatest fear we have is from the government itself.” Sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies.

In the midst of conflict and drama, when tensions are high and things are happening fast, our body is hard wired not to act on principle, but to act for our own survival. Our sense of clarity of purpose must be so clear, so sure, that even with our heart racing we ground our actions and choices in our principles. Now that 38 years have passed, it’s easy to be proud of Beacon Press for making the “right choice.” But what must it have felt like to serve on that Board of Trustees, watching the Press your were charged with teeter on the edge of financial ruin, facing off with the Department of Defense. Would any of us have the courage of our convictions to make that kind of choice, for ourselves, for our congregation?
I think that song by the Mighty Might Bosstones hits the nail right on the head:

I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.
I'd like to think that if I was I would pass…
I've never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has.
Which makes me wonder if I could.
makes me wonder if I could.

May this story work in our hearts and give us courage whenever we are tested to stand up on behalf of truth.