Monday, September 28, 2015

Where Superman Got it Wrong (September 27, 2015)

For generations Super Man has been the ultimate role model. He’s polite, clean cut, humble, and devotes his life to helping others in their greatest need. And this despite the fact he’s not even from around here, his own planet having been destroyed when he was just a baby. At his best, Super Man is a story that calls each of us to selflessly help friends and strangers when they are in crisis, even when that may mean putting ourselves in unpleasant situations.

There are some who say that history is made by great men -- individuals with talent, character, charisma, who shape our destiny. This is called, not surprisingly “the Great Man Theory. ” The theory was put forward in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. This must have been the theory behind history books we read in High school- the names and dates of kings and generals and presidents. But a couple of decades later Herbert Spencer put forward a counter-argument that kind of blew my mind; Spencer said that “great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes”.[i] 

Let’s take the Super Man story itself . It was originally created in the 1930s by 2 high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and over the years the comic book has had 5 different writers, 10 different pencillers, 4 different inkers, and that doesn’t count “the Adventures of superman” series. If it hadn’t touched something important in our collective imaginations, if we hadn’t been buying the comics all those years, Superman would not be who he is today. His story has been told by TV shoes, video games, Broadway musicals and movies, and none of that would have been possible with out “the social conditions built before [his] lifetime.”

Consider the movies -- the 1978 one with Christopher Reeve that I watched when I was a kid, or that “Man of Steel” one that came out just a couple of years ago. If you look these films up online, the title usually appears with the name of the director, or the name of the star. But have you ever sat through movie credits all the way to the end. Like, ALL the way to the end? That’s a LOT of people who work on those movies. No one could create something that big alone.

That’s why I like the Avengers movies that have been coming out lately. Has anyone seen any of these movies? This is a group of Super Heroes from the Marvel Universe -- Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor, black widow, Hawkeye are all recruited by SHEILD to guard us against threats to our safety and liberty. Director Fury quips “there was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so that when we needed them they could fight the battles that we never could” Naturally these strong-egoed super heroes are unwilling to work together at first, but eventually must put their own egos aside to save humankind. I like the fact that they work as a team -- that collaboration is held up as a value for the modern superhero.

The dark side of the superhero archetype, whether our superheroes are working alone or as a team, is the implication that “they could fight the battles that we never could.” It encourages us to look outside ourselves, outside our community for someone who will come out of nowhere in the nick of time to save us. Because these Avengers films still show us, the ordinary earthlings, mostly running and screaming, and slow to do anything to save ourselves. When the Avengers drop in from above, they immediately yell for all the ordinary people to get out of the way so the super heroes can do their work. 

As my family and I walked out of the theater after seeing Avengers; The age of Ultron this summer, I wondered how all these super hero movies that are so popular right now are effecting our sense of who we are, and what we are called to do in this world. It worries me that it divides the world into Super Heroes, Super Villains, and everyone else who needs to run and hide or else be crushed. 

Consider the footage we see after a natural disaster- outside agencies rushing in from around the world, relief teams pulling a child from the wreckage days after the disaster, when all hope was lost. A recent interview [by I forget who] with a reporter who was deconstructing our media coverage of disasters, noted that part of the reason we see the images that we see is because it takes a while for both the media and the outside agencies to arrive on the scene. By the time the Red Cross or MSNBC arrive, they have missed much of the story.

The people who live near the earthquake or fire are the de facto first responders. The people to your right and to your left are your best hope of help, and you are theirs. They know where the greatest need is, and they know where people disappeared and who is still missing. But, according to this journalist, when the NGO or the national guard comes in, the first thing they do is just what the Avengers do- create a perimeter and require those first responders, now categorized as “victims” to leave “ for their own safety.” 

Then, the reporter continued, when the dust has settled, and the last heroic rescue has been made, and photographed the reporters and emergency responders leave. This reminds me of a scene out of superhero movie too. You know the one, where Superman or Ironman hover in the sky looking down on the wreckage of the great battle in which they saved humanity. The ordinary people, dusty and bloody, stare up at them with teary eyed gratitude “thank you superman” they say, as superman flies off to his fortress of solitude, or his date with Lois Lane. But there in the background we see the rubble of people’s destroyed lives, we know the suffering has not ended, and that the rebuilding has just begun.

Consider the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Now 10 years later, many neighborhoods, schools, jobs have never been restored. The grief residents feel lives with them every day. The story does not end when Superman or even the Avengers stop the super villain, or avert the natural disaster; the work of healing and rebuilding continues for a long time. The work is not particularly glamorous or photo ready for the news media as ordinary people, day by day rebuild the world. As the great Adrienne Rich says:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age,
perversely with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

As the Hero in our reading, Michinori Watanabe found, it was ordinary people, you and me, who were there for one another when they needed it most. 

Around the 10th anniversary of Katrina there was a surge of reporting about the hurricane and the recovery effort. It was during that surge that I heard about that fellow Kirk Washington who has done so much over the past 10 years to help his community recover. There were countless other stories of how people really got through those dark days, and how they continue to get through them together. We know now that not all the neighborhoods survived, that not every community came together. As Aldrich found, it is the closeness of our connections, our willingness to reach out to one another that is most important to making it though such catastrophic times. This is part of what we aspire to be as a UU congregation. And I have seen you do it- I have seen you reach out to one another in crisis and tragedy, I have seen you be there for one another. It is that very ordinary kind of heroism by which we are saved.

I propose that this critique of the super hero may emerges naturally from Unitarian Universalist ideals. One of the fundamental ideas of Unitarianism, a movement founded at a time when Calvinist theologians thought of humans as fully depraved , in bondage to sin and subject to God, was the radical idea that humans also have good capacities, including conscience and freedom to act. This has made us a “role up your sleeves” type religion, believing that each human has some part to play in the building and rebuilding of our world. As the great Unitarian Preacher William Ellery Channing wrote:
whenever we think, speak, or act, with moral energy and resolute devotion to duty, be the occasion ever so humble, obscure, familiar; — then the divinity is growing within us, and we are ascending towards our Author. True religion thus blends itself with common life.

Channing was a theist, but the same principle holds for those Unitarians who are Humanists- the use of our powers in freedom is at the heart of what it means to be human and to live a life of meaning.

On the other side of our lineage, it was our Universalist founders who rebelled against the idea that only some special elect were chosen by God, and affirmed that all of us had the potential for salvation. If we extrapolate this into our day to day living, I believe that there are not simply superheroes and supervillains who make history, while the rest of us try to get out from under foot. I know that each of us has the choice, in any given moment, to help, to heal, to save, to protect. We don’t always get it right, of course --we’re human. Sometimes we hurt when we are trying to help, sometimes we miss opportunities, and of course sometimes running and hiding is exactly the right thing to do. 

Imagine us all as one big team of Avengers- every living being on this planet. We are all called to be heroes in ways large and small. And – this is just as important- we need to remember when we swoop into a scene to help, that everyone we are there to help is a hero too. Too often we make the mistake of thinking we know best, we come in from outside the situation with fresh eyes and all our resources, and we actually might undermine the capacities, the needs of the very people we are trying to help. We need to remember that when we come to help, our call is not “everybody back- I’ve got this” but “Tell me what you know. Tell me what you are already doing. Where can I be of use?”

 The next time you are listening to the news, to the stories about NGOs flying in to help distressed populations, remember the thousands of untold stories of neighbors and friends who cared for one another before the relief workers could find them. The next time you are watching a movie about Super Heroes, or a documentary about Great Men from history, remember to fill in all the ordinary people who are part of the scene too, all the neighbors and strangers who helped one another flee and shelter while the Avengers had their great battle, and who together rebuilt their community when the battle was done and the Avengers were off eating shawarma. The most important work of disaster response is done by those who live through that disaster together. The next time some disaster, large or small, strikes your community, think of yourself as a first responder, and use your super or ordinary powers to help save the day.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Rethinking Privacy (August 30, 3015)

For the third annual summer read I offered you 4 very different stories about privacy. The reading Nick just did is from a book called Little Brother --a book set in the very near future, where technology that you and I would recognize from our everyday lives is suddenly co-opted by the department of Homeland Security in response to a terrorist attack. The same week I got to that part in the book, I also heard the report Karen read on NPR. Having the two juxtaposed like that was wakeup call to the fact that while the story in “little Brother” is science fiction, the use of common everyday technology by to track our movements and communication is very real. 
When I first read 1984 in 1984 (it was very popular that year) I thought the idea of a Video Screen that could see and hear our every action was a bit far-fetched. Then a couple of years ago I heard on the news that hackers were taking over people’s webcams[i], watching them in their private moments, even sharing some of these videos on YouTube without the knowledge or consent of the person in the video[ii]. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine works for a global high tech company, told me they were all issued a little black sticker to put over their webcam while they worked as part of the company security program. Suddenly our ordinary lives seemed like Hard Science Fiction.
As I walked into the Grass Roots Festival this year I noticed a sign posted to the gate. It said that such and such a company was creating documentary images of the event, and both video and photos would be taken. By crossing the gate you were giving up the right to your image irrevocably and in perpetuity. And if you did not want your image used? Just move out of the area where photos were being taken. As I gazed around the festival I noticed any direction I looked there was someone with a camera, or taking photos on their phone. By just showing up, we had given away our privacy. 
“Privacy is Dead. Get over it.” It turns out this quote is not from Mark Zuckerberg, president and founder of Facebook, but a paraphrase of his remarks in 2010, that the social norms around privacy have changed radically in the past decade. He said this at a time when he was defending the chances to the Facebook Privacy Policy many of us didn’t even realize was happening back in 2010.[iii] That’s the understatement of the decade. It was really exciting to find old School friends on Facebook when I first signed up. The first time the Google search engine wished me a happy birthday, the first time a lawnmower I had been shopping for online started appearing in pop up adds in my webmail, I was surprised, and a little disturbed, but now it seems totally natural that Earthlink knows what I bought on Amazon, and Google knows my birthday, and Facebook knows that I support marriage Equality and videos of Baby Goats. 
That all seems pretty innocent when you look at it from one angle- websites, apps, social media can use what they know about you to tailor their advertising to your interests and habits. I’m sure it costs a lot of money to run a company like Facebook, and they’ve got to make it somewhere. But once that information is out there, it’s out there. You can’t shred it like a paper document; trying to find and delete your date once you’ve pushed “enter” is like trying to catch all the germs after a sneeze. Just ask the stars whose private photos were hacked and spread worldwide like a virus without their permission. Information that we may share for the most practical reason makes it available to folks who may not have our best interests at heart.
For example, Americans are divided about how much information we want the government to have about each of us. Some feel that data they are collecting is a violation of the 4th amendment of the US constitution which guarantees the right to privacy:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.[2]
It has come out that the NSA is keeping data on every call we make- what numbers we call, when we call, and the duration of the call. Supporters feel that it’s fine to give up some of our rights for potential increased safety. they usually support it with a sentiment like “Innocent people have nothing to hide.” 
Which brings us to this morning’s question. What does privacy mean in this age of sharing, in this age of information? Is there anything about privacy that is more valuable than the ease of storing our photos and documents in the cloud? More valuable than finding the nearest restaurant on your smart phone? More important than making sure the government has in its storage banks every bit of information that could help them prosecute wrongdoing? What is privacy for anyway?
Think about artistic or creative expressions. For every song you hear on the radio or painting hung on the gallery wall, an artist put in hour after hour focused on the tedious work of creation. Often, when I practice a song I’m going to sing here at the Open Mic, I make some horrible sounds. Not just because I am out of practice and not yet ready to perform, but also because some of those horrible sounds are really helpful in warming up the muscles used for singing. I usually close the door to my study when I make those sounds, and I know for a fact my family appreciates that.
As a culture, we believe that privacy is important in certain supportive relationships as well. Our courts honor the privacy between doctor and patient- because there needs to be some place where you ask that really embarrassing question. We honor the privacy between therapist and client, between minister and parishioner, because we know everyone needs a place where you can speak the scariest truths about yourself, about your life so that you can get the help you need, or just hear a trained professional can say “that’s pretty normal.” Many times when we face grief, or despair, or a crisis of meaning, we need a little space from the noise of community to heal. 
And though we worship together as a beloved community, there is something deeply private about our spiritual lives. Consider the Buddha who finally found enlightenment sitting alone in meditation under the Bodhi tree. Consider Mary who, after the birth of her Son Jesus, and the arrival of the shepherds freshly visited by angels and when they all depart “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”[iv] Consider the great American Poet Wendell Berry, who has for several decades gone out walking each Sunday, alone in the farmed and wild places near his home, writing some of his greatest poems on these walks. Who wrote on one such Sunday in 1995:
“The best reward in going to the woods
Is being lost to other people, and
Lost sometimes to myself. I’m at the end 
Of no bespeaking wire to spoil my goods;
It probably bears explain that by “bespeaking wire” he means the cord of his landline. For Berry there is something precious about those private moments in the woods where one can be wild – in the way a great Oak is wild, it answers to no one and is truly itself. Privacy is necessary sometimes to allow us to remember who we really are and what is important to us. Sometimes privacy is necessary to lose oneself, to lose the rigid persona we present to the world in our roles as minister, dad, neighbor, nurse, teacher. That is why I tend to be of the opinion that we avoid taking photos during worship. Because when worship really does its job, we might have an unguarded moment. We might shed a tear, or try something new, or entertain controversial ideas. I want worship to be a time in our week when we don’t worry about how our face is composed, or that the words we speak from our heart will be taken out of context later. 
But maybe we would give all that up for national security. Maybe, but I would argue that our freedom to dissent is part of what makes this country secure, is at the core of who we are as a country. Without our freedom to dissent, we quickly become that which we most fear- a totalitarian regime, a dystopian world like that in the classic and deeply disturbing novel 1984. Few of us still remember a time in this country where receiving the Socialist Party newsletter or consorting with a known communist meant you could be blacklisted, could lose your livelihood, your friends, your home. Which is why I think this is a great time to build in some privacy protections, to avoid a second McCarthy style witch-hunt in the future. We already know that if we do a google search on a question like “What is Socialism” or “what is Isis” that that data is carefully stored. That doesn’t bother us too much because no one has yet abused that data. But how easily could such data be abused, sweeping up people who just want to learn more about the world, to have good facts about socialism, about Islam (In this increasingly islamophobic time). These tools for data collection create brand new ethical considerations for us, and we as Unitarian Universalists, the people who published the Pentagon Papers, the tradition where many of our congregations gave up their tax-free status so as not to have to give names to the House Committee on Un-American activities, I believe there is a role for us here in this as well.
This is all so new, that we UUs have not yet come up with a cohesive ethical platform to guide us here, so each one of us must be part of creating those ethics together. The most important thing I hope you will bring back with you out into your week is simply an awareness of all the times each day we give away our privacy.
But if you do feel called to action, I suggest you let your elected representatives know that privacy is important to you. The outrage of many Americans (and foreign leaders) when we realized the extent of the information the NSA was collecting and storing drove the outrage of our public officials who took those concerns seriously when the Patriot act was re- authorized this past year.
If you want to learn more about all kinds of electronic privacy concerns, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, (which was mentioned in that NPR interview  Karen read). EFF is a non-profit that carefully tracks issues that affect our civil rights in the digital world in a way most of us just don’t have the time or technical expertise to do on our own. . In fact, EFF is working on a case called “First Unitarian Church of LA v. NSA” which is currently in the California Federal Court. The case involves an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in June of 2013 which demands “whole sale collection of every call made, the location of the phone, the time of the call, the duration fo the call, and other identifying information for every phone and call for all customers of Verizon for a period of three months.” such diverse groups as 3 guns rights advocate organizations, the Council on American –Islamic Relations, and Patient Privacy Rights--A total of 22 organizations signed on to the case to protect the freedom of association, against “government access to the records of who they associate with , when, for how long and at what frequency.” [v]
I also invite you to consider learning which options you have to protect your personal privacy in everyday life, and we do have a few. 
  • Consider using a search engine like “Duck Duck Go” which does not track your searches
  • Go into your phone and look at your privacy settings, and make sure they are set in a way that makes you comfortable.
  • Same with your Facebook account- any time you see the word “public” that means anyone in the world can see information about you. Consider a setting like “friends only” when privacy is important to you
  • Remember what Lindsey Lohan learned the hard way, and consider how you would feel if the cloud storage you use was hacked- is there anything you wouldn’t want shared by a malicious hacker?
  • For those of us who use an EZ pass to speed up getting through tolls, remember that the device transmits information about your location[vi] Remember that gray sleeve it came with? Consider storing your EZ pass in its sleeve when not in use.
Finally, let’s begin to create together some agreements about what we share. I once had a co-worker who had fled an abusive relationship, and it was very important for her personal safety that her photo not appear on that businesses’ website or social media. In today’s culture we photograph and share everything we experience as matter of course. What if we went back to the etiquette of the old photographers who asked “may I take your photo” and then the 21st century follow up “may I post that photo online?” Just a reminder- once something is posted on Facebook, legally it belongs to Facebook. Once something has gone viral, it, like virus, cannot easily be contained.
Although Orwell painted a pretty grim picture in his book 1984, I actually felt better when I finished it, because we do still live in a society where dissent is protected by law, where you can still put some tape over your webcam if you don’t want your every moment to appear on YouTube. We are right now in an evolving ethical landscape of what privacy means in the age of information. I suggested these books of speculative fiction as summer reading to kindle our collective imaginations. We still have the freedom to shape our world- to protect whatever privacy is important to each of us. Whether that’s the freedom to dissent, the privacy that is needed at times for spiritual and emotional growth, the freedom to dance really badly and without caring what anybody thinks, the privacy to experiment and learn without being judged, or the freedom to have irregular traffic patterns. Now is the perfect time to consider carefully what privacy is for, and what we want to keep private.