Weekly Digest: Merry Christmas
Honoring fathers, the Unitarian Universalist crack up and more in this week's roundup
Welcome to my weekly digest for December 22, 2023, with the best articles from around the web and a roundup of my recent writings and appearances.
I’ll resume posting on January 2. Until then, I’m including some longer form pieces at the end for your Christmas break reading enjoyment.
Since we are off for a bit, I’ll make this one an open thread where anyone is welcome to comment and share his thoughts.
To My Father
This short, 25 minute documentary looks at the life of Troy Kotsur and his father. Kotsur is a deaf actor who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in the film CODA.
Though Kotsur doesn’t go into any depth on his own faith, it’s clear that it made a deep impression when his father looked to God in faith for his son’s deafness, and later for his own much more severe problems.
And in a this short video comedian Andrew Schultz talks about what it meant to have his dad believe in his dreams when no one else did.
Unitarian Universalist Crackup
It’s not just the evangelical church that’s getting torn up by politics. America’s most liberal religion, the Unitarian Universalists, are also being devoured by it. The Financial Times ran a lengthy feature on the culture wars dividing America’s most liberal church.
Unitarian Universalism, a religious movement with some 150,000 members across the US, has long been considered a beacon of progressivism, pluralism and tolerance. But in these essays, [Todd] Eklof launched a stinging attack on its leadership, arguing that the UUA was driving the church in an illiberal, dogmatic, intolerant and “identitarian” direction and that it had become a “self-perpetuating echo chamber” that prioritised “emotional thinking” over logic and reason.
The chaos and controversy that ensued has surpassed even Eklof’s wildest imaginings, and serves as a kind of microcosm of the way the culture wars can divide even the most politically liberal members of American society. Because the struggle in the Unitarian Universalist church is not one between progressives and conservatives; it is between people on the same side of the political spectrum. “Why are UUs so bad at singing hymns?” goes one of the (many) jokes about Unitarian Universalism. “Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the lyrics!”
A life-long Democrat, Eklof was fired from a job in 2005 after speaking out in favour of gay marriage. He also wrote in The Gadfly Papers that America remains a “systematically white supremacist country”. But since the book’s publication, he has been accused of racism, homophobia, ableism and bullying; he has been dropped from a mentoring position at a theological school; and “disfellowshipped” — in effect, excommunicated — from the church.
Unitarian Universalism is a distinctly American religion. Formed in 1961, when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America — both have roots in the Christian faith — the modern UU church has no formal connection to Christianity. In fact, it has no prescribed dogma at all: it welcomes those from all faiths, and those with no religious faith at all. Not only can an atheist join the UU church; they can also become one of its ministers. “Deeds not creeds,” goes one of its taglines. “We need not think alike to love alike,” goes another.
But Eklof was concerned that this principle was being abandoned. “I thought freedom of conscience and freedom of speech was our thing,” he wrote in his preface. “But as the essays I’ve written herein will show, not so much anymore.”
And at the end of the 1990s, Unitarian Universalism once again appeared to be ahead of the pack by embracing a new approach that was gaining ground in progressive academic circles: anti-racist theory. At its 1997 general assembly, the UUA passed a resolution to set up a “Journey Towards Wholeness” task force, whose report recommended that their congregations “participate in anti-racism and anti-oppression programming” in order to collectively become “an anti-racist multicultural institution”. But not everyone was on board with this new movement. Some people felt that while it might look like liberalism, it was actually rooted in a completely different analysis of the world and that this was in effect a new kind of dogma — in a movement that was meant to have no such thing.
That the church is so overwhelmingly white and wealthy has always clashed with its view of itself as progressive, Peter Morales — who served as the first Latino president of the UUA, between 2009 and 2017 — tells me. A 2014 Pew Research survey found that only 1 per cent of its members were black, more than a third had graduate degrees, and more than two-fifths had a household income of $100,000 or more.
One of the most vocal opponents of Eklof and his allies has been Reverend Sarah Skochko, a 39-year-old mother with a masters in poetry who gave a sermon in October 2019 to her congregation in Eugene, Oregon, calling Eklof’s book “morally reprehensible”. She describes “the Gadflies” as an “alt-right movement” within the church made up of “overwhelmingly retired”, “mostly white men” who are “trying to stop the justice work of our denomination” and who disingenuously present themselves as “either victims of an inquisition, or as valiant heretics fighting for free speech”.
At this year’s general assembly in Pittsburgh attendees were required to wear masks at all times and asked to wear a coloured sticker to demonstrate their “personal comfort level with safe distancing”. They were also encouraged to introduce themselves with their pronouns, a “land acknowledgment” — explaining which part of the US they were from and which indigenous group lived on the land before them — and a visual description of themselves for anyone who was visually impaired.
This change would scrap the “principles” that have existed in some form since the merged church was founded in 1961 (there are now seven after an extra one, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, was added in 1985). These would be replaced with a set of “values” represented by a flower pattern, with a chalice and the word “LOVE” at the centre and six petals representing the new values. These include a new commitment to “dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression”, and a change of wording in the very first principle of Unitarian Universalism.
She was even more dismayed when she saw the image on the official card she received from the UUA for this year’s “Thanksgrieving” — a term Unitarian Universalists use instead of Thanksgiving because the latter serves as “a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people”. The card “made it seem like the new bylaws are a done deal and if you don’t go along with it, you’re standing in the way”, she says.
You can click over to read the whole thing, though the FT has a very hard paywall.
Best of the Web
Samuel D. James: Let me live again - thoughts on It’s a Wonderful Life
WSJ: Inside the Schools Where Boys Can Be Boys - On all male schools
WSJ: The Big Benefit at Work That Dads Are Afraid to Use - An article trying to convince men to max out their use of paternity leave. It’s interesting to see how this is framed. For women, it’s typical to argue that their taking time off for children hurts their careers and incomes (hence calls to refactor how work is structured in order to underwrite female choice on this). But for men, the Journal tries to act as if not taking paternity leave is somehow “leaving money on the table.” There’s a big effort being made to convince men to dial back their commitment to career and work less in order to eliminate the advantage this gives them over women in the workplace.
The Atlantic: The Great Cousin Decline - Falling births rates mean a dramatic decline in the number of cousins
WSJ: The Trump Revolution Among U.S. Evangelicals - includes a nice mention of American Reformer
New Content and Media Mentions
In case you missed it, this week I published newsletter #83 on the case against pragmatism.
I also wrote about relentless focus vs. collecting lottery tickets - two views on the pursuit of success.
Walter Kirn in the Atlantic: If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy. - In this 2015 article, Kirn writes about invasion of privacy by tech and surveillance capitalism avant la lettre.
I knew we’d bought walnuts at the store that week, and I wanted to add some to my oatmeal. I called to my wife and asked her where she’d put them. She was washing her face in the bathroom, running the faucet, and must not have heard me—she didn’t answer. I found the bag of nuts without her help and stirred a handful into my bowl. My phone was charging on the counter. Bored, I picked it up to check the app that wirelessly grabs data from the fitness band I’d started wearing a month earlier. I saw that I’d slept for almost eight hours the night before but had gotten a mere two hours of “deep sleep.” I saw that I’d reached exactly 30 percent of my day’s goal of 13,000 steps. And then I noticed a message in a small window reserved for miscellaneous health tips. “Walnuts,” it read. It told me to eat more walnuts.
It was probably a coincidence, a fluke. Still, it caused me to glance down at my wristband and then at my phone, a brand-new model with many unknown, untested capabilities. Had my phone picked up my words through its mic and somehow relayed them to my wristband, which then signaled the app?
It was the winter of 2013, and these “walnut moments” had been multiplying—jarring little nudges from beyond that occurred whenever I went online. One night the previous summer, I’d driven to meet a friend at an art gallery in Hollywood, my first visit to a gallery in years. The next morning, in my inbox, several spam e-mails urged me to invest in art. That was an easy one to figure out: I’d typed the name of the gallery into Google Maps. Another simple one to trace was the stream of invitations to drug and alcohol rehab centers that I’d been getting ever since I’d consulted an online calendar of Los Angeles–area Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Since membership in AA is supposed to be confidential, these e‑mails irked me. Their presumptuous, heart-to-heart tone bugged me too. Was I tired of my misery and hopelessness? Hadn’t I caused my loved ones enough pain?
Click over to read the whole thing - it takes unexpected turns.
Boston Review: The New Politics of Consumption - A 1999 essay with great reflections on American consumer culture.
To be sure, other social critics have noted some of these trends. But they often draw radically different conclusions. For example, there is now a conservative jeremiad that points to the recent tremendous increases in consumption and concludes that Americans just don’t realize how good they have it, that they have become overly entitled and spoiled. Reduced expectations, they say, will cure our discontents. A second, related perspective suggests that the solution lies in an act of psychological independence-individuals can just ignore the upward shift in consumption norms, remaining perfectly content to descend in the social hierarchy.
These perspectives miss the essence of consumption dynamics. Americans did not suddenly become greedy. The aspirational gap has been created by structural changes-such as the decline of community and social connection, the intensification of inequality, the growing role of mass media, and heightened penalties for failing in the labor market. Upscaling is mainly defensive, and has both psychological and practical dimensions.
Similarly, the profoundly social nature of consumption ensures that these issues cannot be resolved by pure acts of will. Our notions of what is adequate, necessary, or luxurious are shaped by the larger social context. Most of us are deeply tied into our particular class and other group identities, and our spending patterns help reproduce them.
The current consumer boom rests on growth in incomes, wealth, and credit. But it also rests on something more intangible: social attitudes toward consumer decision-making and choices. Ours is an ideology of non-interference-the view that one should be able to buy what one likes, where one likes, and as much as one likes, with nary a glance from the government, neighbors, ministers, or political parties. Consumption is perhaps the clearest example of an individual behavior which our society takes to be almost wholly personal, completely outside the purview of social concern and policy. The consumer is king. And queen.
In contrast to the liberal approach, in which consumption choices are both personal and trivialized-that is, socially inconsequential-Bourdieu argues that class status is gained, lost, and reproduced in part through everyday acts of consumer behavior. Being dressed incorrectly or displaying “vulgar” manners can cost a person a management or professional job. Conversely, one can gain entry into social circles, or build lucrative business contacts, by revealing appropriate tastes, manners, and culture. Thus, consumption practices become important in maintaining the basic structures of power and inequality which characterize our world. Such a perspective helps to illuminate why we invest so much meaning in consumer goods-for the middle class its very existence is at stake. And it suggests that people who care about inequality should talk explicitly about the stratification of consumption practices.
If we accept that what we buy is deeply implicated in the structures of social inequality, then the idea that unregulated consumption promotes the general welfare collapses. When people care only about relative position, then general increases in income and consumption do not yield gains in well-being. If my ultimate consumer goal is to maintain parity with my sister, or my neighbor, or Frasier, and our consumption moves in tandem, my well-being is not improved. I am on a “positional treadmill.” Indeed, because consuming has costs (in terms of time, effort, and natural resources), positional treadmills can have serious negative effects on well-being. The “working harder to stay in place” mantra of the early 1990s expresses some of this sentiment. In a pure reversal of the standard prescription, collective interventions which stabilize norms, through government policy or other mechanisms, raise rather than lower welfare. People should welcome initiatives that reduce the pressure to keep up with a rising standard.
Click over to read the whole thing.
For more on the background of consumer culture - and much, much more besides - watch Adam Curtis’ famous BBC four part docu-series “The Century of the Self” on the outworking of the ideas of Sigmund Freud in our society.
You can also watch the episodes individually on Youtube. Just do a quick search.
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