The Ineradicable Stain of Whiteness

This may be my last post on the troubles that have bubbled up in the Unitarian Universalist church. It’s getting boring, and it’s not as if my glorious opinions are going to change anybody’s mind. Positions on both sides seem to be well entrenched. For whatever it’s worth, though, here are a few parting reflections.

First, let’s acknowledge that welcoming people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and personal attributes into the UU community is a terrific thing to do! I doubt whether a single UU person thinks that’s a bad idea. My own congregation is overwhelmingly white, and my vague memories of a couple of other UU churches in the area suggest that this is not an anomaly. Whatever our feelings are about being white, we trust that lots of people from other cultures have important things to say about the world. We can learn from them. Also, if we feel that what happens in our own church has any value, we would like to share it with everybody.

Even a cursory look at the history of North America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries will prove beyond doubt that most of the pain and suffering has been caused by white people. Historically, the white people have been brutal oppressors — and it’s not just history. We would like to pretend that things are different today, but they’re a lot less different than we open-minded white people would like to think. The criminal justice system in the U.S. is heavily weighted against people of color — and that’s just one example. I could make a long list.

A UU friend of mine says she is learning to “listen harder” to the people in marginalized, traumatized communities, and that’s important. We (meaning “we white people”) need to know what their lives are like. And as we listen, we need to bear in mind that people have different styles of expressing themselves. They may be perceiving something that’s true, but they may not be able to articulate it clearly in the way a white person will understand.

But that’s only part of the story. My friend doesn’t want to read Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers. She says she trusts the hundreds of UU ministers who have denounced the book. When I commented that I’ve had some supportive comments on my blog from people who agree with me (about, if nothing else, the danger in attempting to suppress a book), my friend said, “Were all the comments from white men?”

Quite evidently, she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to “listen harder” to white men. She seems to have pre-judged that the views of white men are not to be trusted, or are of less value, or something like that. Possibly she is aware that the dialog on issues of inclusion and diversity (or on anything else) has been heavily dominated by white men. Given that everybody’s attention span is limited, it’s understandable that she might feel she has already heard what white men have to say, and is now going to devote herself to listening to other voices.

Yes, white men’s voices have dominated far too many conversations on these topics. But that’s a statement about a statistical average. Statistics don’t apply to individuals! The fact that white men’s opinions have historically been (and are still) given more weight than other people’s opinions does NOT invalidate the views of any individual white man. Any individual white man may be off on a completely different tangent from the statistically significant group of other white men. We won’t know what his views are until we listen to him.

While listening to white men, we need to be careful not to accept their views at face value. We need to be analytical. We need to look for hidden bias.

But of course the same thing must be said about any other listening we do. If we’re listening to a trans black woman or a deaf gay Hispanic man, we need to be careful not to accept their views at face value. We need to be analytical. We need to look for hidden bias.

In a nutshell, we need to treat white men exactly the way we treat anybody else.

Even talking about valid and not-valid uses of statistics strikes some people as a white tactic — a way of de-legitimizing other people’s views. Historically, that’s a reasonable accusation. Seemingly solid pseudo-science has been (and is still today) used by racists, as my friend pointed out. Here’s the thing, though: Science, logic, and math are color-blind. If you’re going to refuse to engage in a logical discussion because white people like to use logic, what you’re actually accomplishing is, you’re giving those white people a jolly good reason to ignore you.

Is that your goal? Wouldn’t it be more effective to learn to argue logically, so that you can outflank them and prove to everybody’s satisfaction that you’re right and they’re wrong?

My friend also feels that the term “white supremacy culture” is appropriate as a description of the whiteness of the UU community. I object strenuously to this term. I pointed out to my friend that “white supremacy” refers to organizations like the KKK, which are explicitly racist. She replied by pointing out that words are often adapted or re-purposed. She mentioned that “queer” was at one time a slur, but that gay people have reclaimed the word as a sort of badge of pride. The same thing could be said about the word “nigger.” White people can’t use the word, but I’m pretty sure African-Americans use it when talking to one another. I think it’s a term of affection.

But those are bad examples. Reclaiming a word and using it in a positive sense is not what’s going on when people talk about “white supremacy” within the UU community. They’re using the term as an insult — as a slur. The term is used as an attempt to de-legitimize the feelings, observations, and concerns of white people.

Yes, we live in a dominant white culture. White people don’t even notice how privileged we are, and we need to become aware of that. The fact that I can drive down the street without worrying that I’ll be shot dead by a cop in a routine traffic stop — that’s white privilege. I can certainly understand how people of color are angry about that, and angry as well that so many white people don’t see how different the day-to-day experience of African-Americans and Hispanics is.

I get that. Or at least, I hope I get it. But still, I’m left puzzled. Is it really helpful to insult white UUs by telling us we’re no better than the KKK? Is that a smart, effective tactic? Does it open up the possibility of a healthy dialog? Or are you just tossing a verbal hand grenade because you’re angry?

If a significant number of white people are saying, “Uh, excuse me — we’re not the KKK,” might it be a good idea to listen harder to them?

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What is “harm”? This term has emerged in the heated dialog that is roiling the Unitarian Universalist community. One hears, not infrequently, the accusation that some person is, in some way, “causing harm.” The nature of the harm is sometimes left unstated; it seems some people feel that the accusation of “harm” is sturdy enough to stand on its own, without any supporting evidence or analysis.

I think it will be helpful if we’re clear about what “harm” is and what it isn’t. I’m going to suggest that just because your feelings are hurt, that’s not necessarily “harm.”

Several types of behaviors can cause hurt feelings: simple ignorance, bad manners, voicing a differing opinion, and hate speech. Hate speech is clearly harmful. But when someone says something you disagree with, that’s not harm. Even if they’re wrong and you’re right, it’s not harm. Even if they’re a white heterosexual male and you’re a homosexual woman of color, it’s still not harm.

At the point where simple ignorance becomes persistent, stubborn ignorance — a refusal to learn — it can be harmful; but we need to be careful not to label expressions of simple ignorance as “harm.”

Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers expresses opinions that are quite different from those of some other UUs. But I take it as axiomatic that the expression of opinions, even when they’re wrong, is not harmful. This is one of the reasons why the Open Letter from hundreds of UU ministers “naming the harm” in Eklof’s book is a matter of deep concern.

At times one may suspect that the person expressing their opinions has a hidden agenda; that actually they’re engaged in an urbane, civilized form of hate speech. This does happen, and it can get messy. But ultimately, an argument against a particular set of opinions cannot — must not — be based on mind-reading. We can only argue against what the person actually said: We dare not dismiss it on the grounds that we think we know their motives. We dare not dismiss it on the grounds that that person is friends with other people whose opinions also offend us.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this later. Right now I’m off to my local UU church, where the topic of the Sunday service will be diversity and inclusion.

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The Perils of Advocacy

Chris Rothbauer’s critique of The Gadfly Papers (it’s on; your search engine can find it) was recommended to me by a member of my local Unitarian Universalist congregation. She hasn’t read Eklof’s book, but she read Rothbauer. On that basis, she’s disturbed by what Eklof wrote.

I felt I shouldn’t ignore her input, so I read Rothbauer’s piece. He does indeed highlight some of the weaknesses of the book, but not in a way that allows us to have much confidence in his own views.

In his preface, he first says, “There are a lot of good arguments for not reading [the book] altogether. There’s also a good case for not buying it but, rather, trusting those of us telling you that it’s very problematic.” In the next paragraph he says, “People are continuing to use the above author’s note as supposed evidence that I’m in favor of a ban of Eklof’s book, even after I addressed it in my follow-up article. This is being amplified by people getting together in certain social media groups and deciding what it is I believe without asking me. To summarize what I wrote there: it takes a huge leap in logic to get from ‘There are arguments for something but decide for yourself what to do’ to ‘OMG BOOK BAN!!!’”

I would certainly read his initial statement as recommending a book ban: not, to be sure, a physical ban but rather a social and ethical ban. That’s more or less an aside, but it may suggest to the alert reader that Rothbauer is shaping the narrative to suit himself.

At the outset, Rothbauer refers to Eklof’s first essay as follows: “Its opening essay, ‘The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind,’ depends on the telling of stories to demonstrate how safetyism, identity politics, and political correctness are corroding the foundations of this liberal religion. As such, the minimum standard we can expect of these stories is that they be fair and present all sides of the issue.” (Below I’ll have more to say about the word “depends” in that sentence.) Later, he adds, “[Eklof’s] telling of stories lacks nuance, fact checking, and just presenting all sides fairly.” This seems a reasonable enough standard, and Rothbauer may be right that Eklof didn’t do his homework. Unfortunately, Rothbauer himself falls rather short of his own standard.

Alternatively, we might prefer to maintain that no author of an advocacy essay should be required to present all of the sides or diverging views in a fair and balanced manner. Advocacy is about taking a stand. An advocate is free, and must be free, to interpret events or ideas and then present to the reader or listener the result of his or her interpretation. An advocate must not distort, but may, in the interest of clarity or conciseness, freely omit. The point at which omission turns into distortion is not always easy to determine.

It is fair for a critic to use omitted information to discredit an advocate’s point of view; but it is not fair to criticize the advocate for failing to include divergent views in an essay. Rothbauer does the latter; he does not do the former.

There’s little question but that the Yiannopoulos-at-Berkeley story was a poor choice on Eklof’s part. It was a complicated set of events, and my own reading of it is that there are no good guys anywhere in it. But Rothbauer asserts, implicitly, that the reason the Berkeley students were protesting violently against Milo Yiannopoulos was, “At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milo publicly outed transgender students on campus, and publicity from the university made it clear he was going to do this again in Berkeley, this time with undocumented students.” His source for this information is The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray.

I don’t have Bray’s book, so I don’t know what Bray said about the events. Nonetheless, two or three things need to be pointed out. First, Rothbauer is relying on information from another source. He did not, as far as we can tell, interview anybody to determine what did or didn’t happen at Berkeley. This is the fault that he accuses Eklof of. And we may perhaps guess that Bray’s view is one-sided, that it is not “fair and present[ing] all sides of the issue.” Second, it is a primary principle of free speech, both legally and ethically, that no one can be punished (or silenced) for what you fear they are about to say.

If we assume that Bray’s account of Yiannopoulos’s intentions is accurate — that Yiannopoulos intended to out local trans people in his speech — we need to consider that this tactic is used by both sides. A recent news story outed thousands of law enforcement people for their membership in alt-right organizations. These people are clearly a threat, and they need to be identified by name; I wouldn’t dream of disagreeing with the decision to name them. But if Yiannopoulos and his followers feel (bizarrely) that trans people are a threat to their pathetic way of life, on what basis would we say that Yiannopoulos’s tactics are wrong but identifying dangerous law enforcement personnel is right? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Turning to the second story, which concerns the outrage (Rothbauer’s term) over the UU World article “After L, G, and B,” Rothbauer says this: “Eklof is right that the article was well-intentioned, but he makes his first mistake in assuming that the cause of the outrage surrounding the article was simply that it was written by a nontrans writer.” That word “simply” is slippery. (I use it a lot myself. Probably too much.) In issuing a public apology for having published the story, two of editor Christopher Walton’s three reasons for apologizing are as follows: “…it was hurtful to put a straight, cisgender person’s experience in the foreground, especially as one of the first major articles in the magazine on this topic. We should have developed another kind of story in such a prominent spot that centered trans and nonbinary voices. Finally, when we reached out to Alex Kapitan, a leader in the trans and gender nonbinary community, while researching the story and ze urged us against the approach I had picked, I erred in failing to grasp the important cautions ze offered: a story told from a cisgender perspective would cause harm.”

I’ll have more to say below about Kapitan — but there’s your evidence, in black and white. Two of the three reasons why Walton felt he needed to apologize for an absolutely unblemished article boil down to, “We should have let a trans person write the article.” Rothbauer is actively distorting the record.

After which, Rothbauer says, “I’m friends with Eklof on Facebook, but at no time during the writing of his essay did he contact me to clarify any details of what happened. To my knowledge, none of my colleagues on the steering committee [Transgender Religious Professional Unitarian Universalists Together (TRUUST)] were contacted either.” But that criticism is entirely beside the point. We know what happened: Walton apologized for publishing a well written, well researched, heartfelt article on an important issue. Walton told us. Why did he apologize? He tells us. He did it because trans people didn’t want to listen to the perspective of a cisgendered woman on the subject. They thought the cisgendered woman should have been shut down.

That’s the whole point of Eklof’s essay. As an observation of how the article was responded to by some segment of the trans community, it seems to be entirely beyond debate.

How would it have improved the essay for Eklof to engage in a dialog with Rothbauer, the steering committee, or Kapitan? Perhaps if he had explained his reasoning, they would have admitted that he was right and they were wrong. But that seems not very likely.

Rothbauer again: “…what came up over and over again in our discussions was not our anger that the writer was cisgender per se, but that the very first major article UU World ever published about transgender people was not only written by a cisgender person, but that it failed to utilize most of the data from the then-recent and well-publicized TRUUST report on the experiences of trans UUs in our faith.” The article did, in fact, mention the TRUUST report, so if we set aside the question of authorship, the substance of the complaint seems to be that Rothbauer and others felt that the article should have included more of their statistics. But why? The report has been made public. Why would it be necessary to reiterate more of the statistics from the report?

This complaint, it seems to me, is grasping at straws. Any editor of a print magazine has to be concerned, in every article, with the word count. The report was freely available; why waste words repeating what’s in it?

Diving down the rabbit hole, I had a look at the report on the trans UU experience prepared by the TRUUST steering committee to which Rothbauer belongs. There are quite a lot of statistics in the report. The method(s) by which the statistics were collected and the margin for error are not discussed, however, so we’re left to our own devices in judging what the statistics mean. We do know that the sampling size was small (278 people). We’re given no information about the wording of the questions that were asked; nor are we told how the people who responded were located and approached, nor how many people were solicited for responses and failed to respond. The statistics, taken all in all, are suggestive, but hardly definitive.

42% of respondents reported that they regularly felt marginalized in their UU congregations. But what does “marginalized” mean to them? The term would seem to have a variety of possible meanings, so we’ll have to look at what’s in the report.

Halfway through the report, there’s a sort of definition: “Trans-related marginalization, such as people using the wrong pronouns, un-inclusive language in worship, and a lack of (or resistance to) gender neutral bathrooms, is a key contributor to trans people feeling a lack of belonging.” Really? Is this what all the fuss is about? Given that the survey identified more than 80 terms that people in the trans UU community use to refer to their gender, it should surprise absolutely nobody that there’s some pronoun confusion.

As an atheist, I object to the spiritual language used in Sunday services (and hymns) just about every week, but I seldom bother to complain about it; the lack of inclusive language is not, in my opinion, a big deal. And let’s be frank: If you need to use the bathroom, use the damn bathroom! If the biggest complaint trans people can muster is the sign on the bathroom door, they need to get a grip.

The report includes a number of (anonymous) quotes from trans people who have left UU congregations in which they explain why they did so. Some of these quotes may indicate real problems at some church or other. (“The minister engaged in active bullying toward me.”) Others indicate nothing specific. (“The worship and community left me feeling empty and felt like going through the motions.”) But let’s look more closely at that bit about the minister bullying. It’s horrifying! Or is it? Wait a minute — did the steering committee contact the minister in order to hear both sides of the story and present a fair view of all sides of the issue? That’s Rothbauer’s own standard for the presentation of a public document, but the TRUUST document, which quite likely he was involved in preparing, flagrantly violates the standard.

What are we to make of this? Could it be that TRUUST only wants to look at one side of the issue?

It’s undoubtedly true, as indicated in the TRUUST report, that trans ministers have a hard time getting called to full-time ministerial posts with a congregation. This is a shame, but it’s understandable. Here’s how it looks to me: An important part of a minister’s duties is providing emotional support to members of the congregation. Emotional support is an intangible; it’s not something that can be mandated by policy. And it remains the case that many people (UUs along with everybody else) do not feel perfectly comfortable interacting on a close personal level with a trans person. Hell, I don’t feel perfectly comfortable, and I used to date a trans woman!

No matter how supportive of trans rights we may be at a public level, being comforted by a trans minister during an emotional crisis will feel awkward to some people within a congregation. This is not surprising, and it’s not an indication of bias or marginalization; it’s just the real world.

Fifty years ago, the same thing would have been true of a gay minister. We’re moving past that, but work remains to be done. It will take a lot more time for trans ministers to be fully accepted. And I don’t think it’s wrong for a ministerial search committee seeking a new minister to take their own intuition into account with respect to this important aspect of a minister’s job.

It’s perfectly true that a trans member of a congregation might feel awkward in a counseling session with a non-trans minister. But let’s be realistic. If the search committee is weighing the merits of two well qualified candidates, and decides that in a pastoral counseling situation one of the candidates would be effective with 95% of the congregation, while the other would be effective with only 50% of the congregation, which candidate should the search committee prefer? I will leave it up to you to answer that question for yourself.

Rothbauer goes on to complain that Eklof didn’t contact Alex Kapitan, “the trans person who asked the article [in UU World] not be published.” Let’s see what Kapitan said about it. Here’s the relevant quote from Kapitan’s own online description of the situation: “…an article written by a cis person, that centers cis people and cis perspectives, about trans people, is not incremental progress—it’s harm.” That’s the substance of Kapitan’s complaint: The article should have been written by a trans person. The fact that it was written by a cis person and addressed primarily to other cis people (who of course are more than 90% of the UU community) is “harm.”

This is precisely the sort of narrow, one-sided view that Eklof is protesting in his essay. But Rothbauer thinks Eklof should have reached out to Kapitan in order to include Kapitan’s view in his essay. Does anybody doubt what the result of reaching out would have been?

Kapitan’s piece (if you’re curious, it’s at is grotesque. It’s immature, it’s one-sided, and it’s whiny. I’m not going to dissect it here by offering quotes. Well, maybe just one more. In conversations with editor Walton prior to the publication of the article, “I named that a cis person writing a piece about trans people would cause harm.” There it is, in black and white. Only trans people, in Kapitan’s childish view, are to be allowed to write for publication about trans people.

Quite evidently, Walton did in fact reach out to Kapitan and discuss the upcoming article, but he didn’t find Kapitan’s view persuasive. That he later backtracked is not to his credit. And in any case, it’s abundantly clear from that quote that Eklof is on firm ground in his analysis of the incident.

Rothbauer doesn’t analyze Eklof’s LREDA story. Nor could I find anything about the LREDA incident online, so I can’t comment on it either. Rothbauer then says this: “…that’s really the problem with the crux of Eklof’s book: it all hinges on the accuracy of the stories he tells.” No, this isn’t the case at all. The stories are illustrative, but they’re not intended to be the core of his argument. He quotes several times from The Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt. He also quotes from Fukuyama’s book Identity.

Perhaps it’s significant that Rothbauer focuses entirely on the accuracy or inaccuracy of the stories Eklof presents, and on the research he assumes (without proof) Eklof failed to do. It’s safe, I think, to assume that the three UU incidents Eklof discusses are not the only incidents he’s aware of. I doubt he would have bothered to write his book if he didn’t know any more than that about what’s going on. What Rothbauer doesn’t do is engage in a dialog with or attempt to disprove Eklof’s central thesis. He specifically declines to do so: “…there are plenty of think pieces out there about the concepts he describes, both pro and con; I don’t need to rehash them to make my point.”

His point, when we boil it down, seems to be this: He doesn’t feel Eklof is accurately representing what’s going on in the UU community. But Rothbauer’s own account is not free of bias, misrepresentation, or failure to research. Possibly it’s worth mentioning that at no point in Rothbauer’s critique does he tell us that he himself reached out to Eklof for a response to the points he raises. At best, what we have here is the pot calling the kettle black.

Oops. I shouldn’t have used the word “black” to refer to a less than admirable state of being. I don’t think I’ll apologize, though. Make of it what you will.

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White Light

Racial and cultural divisions are often a tangle and a tragedy. This is true around the world, but perhaps especially in the United States, owing to our history of colonialism and, frankly, genocide by the white invaders. The forces that drive racism seem to be deeply buried in the human psyche. Eliminating those forces may not even be possible, but we owe it to ourselves and to one another to try.

In order to be effective in this effort, we need to understand what we’re dealing with. If you make a wrong assumption at the start, and then take action based on your wrong assumption, good results are not likely. So it’s worthwhile to sit back and ponder the situation as dispassionately as we can.

I got to thinking about this after writing yesterday’s post (“Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!”). I think I was being a little hard on the Unitarian Universalist ministers. Their response to Rev. Eklof’s book was surely inappropriate, but they’re trying hard to wrestle with an intractable problem. Possibly Eklof needs to wrestle harder with it too.

I’m going to ramble a bit. I don’t have a coherent thesis to present, just a collection of reflections.


I’m a writer. I use words professionally, and I understand that the choice of what word to use can make a big difference. Words carry baggage.

A big part of my negative reaction to the current effort to stamp out the residual racism within the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community is due to the out-stampers’ use of the term “white supremacy.” This term has clear connotations in modern culture. It refers to conscious racism on the part of groups like the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood.

The differences between the KKK and a UU congregation could not possibly be more stark. To use the term “white supremacy culture” to refer to anything in UU culture is flatly preposterous. I can understand why the term is being used, however: Its shock value is undeniable. It’s a verbal hand grenade.

Nonetheless, it’s a mistake. Using the term — flinging it freely without attempting to define what you mean by it — is going to alienate a lot of sensible people. People you would like to have on your side. People like me.

I would suggest that the term be replaced, and promptly, by a term that has a similar denotative meaning but that isn’t laden with the same baggage. I would earnestly recommend using the term “dominant white culture.” It means much the same thing. Nobody doubts that the dominant culture in the United States was founded and continues to be dominated by people whose ancestry is European — that is, by white people. Ours is a dominant white culture. I have no complaint about this term, and I doubt anybody else would.

The Wider View

Sadly, it’s human nature for a dominant group in a society to impose its customs on smaller, more marginalized groups, and to disparage members of those other groups for their differentness. White North Americans may be especially energetic and intransigent about it, but we’re far from unique.

The Japanese, from what I’ve read, have always looked down on the Ainu. Right now the Chinese are trying to stamp out Tibetan culture. If a white American moved to Saudi Arabia today and tried to practice his usual culture, he would quite possibly be arrested and perhaps even beheaded. And sometimes it’s white-on-white: In the 19th century, Irish and Italians were routinely discriminated against in the U.S.

Those in dominant cultures routinely discriminate against minorities. This is normal. That doesn’t make it right — please, nobody get confused about what I’m saying here. All I’m saying is, it appears to be part of human nature. It’s probably due to the activation of an instinctual apparatus. This doesn’t excuse it; we can all learn to push back against our instincts! But we do need to understand what we’re dealing with.


The instinct operates in both directions; it’s not just directed by dominant groups against minorities. When any of us is in a social setting where most of the people are clearly part of a different cultural or ethnic group, we’re likely to feel some discomfort. If I, as a committed atheist, were to venture into a Catholic Church, I would feel very, very uncomfortable! Catholics scare me. I don’t understand them. There’s something wrong with them.

Not that there’s actually anything wrong with them, you understand. Or if there is, that’s a topic for another time. I’m strictly talking about my own emotions. In a Catholic Church, I would be a minority.

I’m sure many straight men would feel much the same way in a gay bar. A straight man would be uncomfortable not because he’s secretly gay and is suppressing an urge to nuzzle another man’s neck, but simply because he is suddenly a minority. He doesn’t understand the social signaling that’s going on — the rich mix of nonverbal communication. He doesn’t know where to sit or how to use his hands, for fear he might signal something without knowing it. He could easily be embarrassed, or give offense.

The Unitarian Church has historically been pretty darn white. In many communities, it’s still pretty darn white. Here in my local church, during the three years I’ve been a member, we’ve had four African-Americans, but one died, two are moving away, and another just stopped coming, I don’t know why. We have, to my knowledge, one man whose ancestry appears to be Sikh, an Indian woman, and a couple of very Anglicized Hispanics. And that’s it.

Well, okay, I know we have a few Jews and a few gays, but you can’t tell by looking at them, so I can’t do a head count. And of course I shouldn’t have to, and wouldn’t if that weren’t the topic under discussion.

Here’s the point: When people of other races or ethnic groups venture into our church to give it a try, I certainly hope and expect that they will be made welcome! We’re not the freakin’ KKK! Nonetheless, I can see why they might feel some discomfort when they see the sea of white faces. “Are these really my people? Do I belong here?”

Circling Back

I’m trying to relate these thoughts to the identity crisis that has gripped Unitarian Universalism. I don’t have any easy answers. Yes, UUism is steeped in the dominant white culture. How could it not be? And yes, we would all like to see minorities of all sorts (black, Latinx, gay, trans, disabled) join the UU family and play a bigger role. But how do we nurture that change?

I would suggest that we need to start by being clear about one or two things.

We need to be clear about the difference between discomfort and discrimination. The fact that you’re feeling discomfort, or that you’ve misinterpreted some nonverbal social signaling and gotten into an awkward situation, is not an indication that you’re being discriminated against. If you’re a person of color and you feel uncomfortable in an overwhelmingly white UU church, it’s not because UU’s are racists, and it’s not because of any built-in structural racism that can be extirpated from the UU organization or culture.

We need to listen carefully and respectfully to the experiences of marginalized groups within the UU community — not just people of color but also gay, trans, disabled, and other people. But it would be a mistake to assume that anybody’s view of the situation (and how to fix it) is automatically correct or automatically wrong. Just because I’m a white person doesn’t mean that I don’t or can’t understand. I may understand, or I may not, but we will both learn whether I’m right or wrong by talking it through! It’s also the case that the view of a marginalized person is not necessarily correct, just because they’ve seen the situation from a different angle. That person may be right, or they may be wrong. We won’t know until we sit down and talk about it.

And it’s essential that when we have the conversation, we need to begin by acknowledging that either of us may be right — or wrong. “You can’t possibly understand because you’re white/black/straight/cis/whatever” is the anguished cry of emotion and frustration. It’s not an analysis of anything. Taking it as an analysis is guaranteed to be a mistake.

If we don’t begin by understanding that we are all capable of understanding (and of misunderstanding), how will we ever make things better?

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Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!

This is going to be a long post, and nothing to do with writing fiction, although it may perhaps furnish a real-life example of dysfunctional group-think for authors who want to know more about how that sort of thing works. I’m going to offer a critique of a brand new, shiny uproar, complete with sequins and sugar sprinkles, that blossomed last week at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

Right now I’m pretty disgusted with the ratio of heat to light — there’s way too much heat, not nearly enough light. It seems to me that a bunch of UU ministers have gone way overboard in defense of their own view of how things are and ought to be. Their efforts seem, frankly, not to be in the spirit of Unitarian Universalism at all. (See below for more on this.) I’m sure they all think they’re doing the right thing, but their thought processes seem, to me at least, rather dodgy.

That happens when emotions run high. I get that. But I hope we can all calm down, take a deep breath, and discuss the issues calmly.

I’m not a UU minister, just a member of the local UU church. There may be, in what follows, nuances I’m missing or details that I misstate. If so, I would welcome corrections. Nonetheless, as a member in good standing, I’m certainly entitled to have — and to voice — my own views.

This controversy first erupted two years ago. Peter Morales, who at the time was president of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) made some remarks that were interpreted as insensitive to issues of racial inclusion and racial equality within Unitarian Universalism and the UUA organization. He attempted to defend those remarks, but the controversy grew. He then resigned.

By now I don’t remember the details. They were reported in the UU World magazine, but sadly, I haven’t kept my back issues.

The controversy, at the time, was mainly to do with hiring practices; like many organizations in the United States, the UUA has (or had) quite a lot of white men in top positions. Ironically, Morales is Latino, but that fact doesn’t seem to have weighed heavily in the ensuing debate. What followed was a great deal of scrutiny of an alleged “white supremacy culture” (WSC) within the UUA.

This term, white supremacy culture, is deeply problematical and heavily loaded with emotional baggage. In my view, as I explained to our interim minister at the time, it’s a very poor choice of terminology. It’s tossed into the discussion mainly, I think, for its shock value, and not because it’s logically defensible. The fact that it has become entrenched in the rhetoric of what we might call Reform UUism is, I think, a big problem. I reject the term as a description of anything within Unitarian Universalism, and will continue to reject it unless and until the term is clearly defined in a way that makes sense to me. That question — what exactly do people mean when they say “white supremacy culture” — is the pivot on which this whole merry-go-round spins. (For more on this, see my follow-up posts “White Light.” and “The Perils of Advocacy“.)

On with the Show

Fast-forward to last week. At the 2019 UU General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, the UU minister in Spokane, Todd Eklof, released and distributed a short book. In the three essays in his book, which is called The Gadfly Papers, he takes a close look at the tactics being used by some folks within the UUA and UU congregations, tactics undertaken in a concerted attempt to root out racism, heterosexism, able-ism, and so forth.

Such efforts are, I’m sure, well warranted. Having read Eklof’s book (it’s only $3 for Kindle on Amazon), it seems clear to me that he is not pretending that racism and other forms of discrimination don’t exist within Unitarian Universalism. He takes issue, however, with the rhetoric that is used in discussing the issue, and with the tactics of those who are hoping to bring about sweeping change.

I would encourage everyone to read the book. You may agree or disagree with Eklof’s conclusions or his methods; that’s fine. Perhaps he’s right; perhaps he’s wrong. We can and certainly ought to have a productive and respectful discussion of the points he raises.

But that’s not what’s going on this week. On the contrary: An ad-hoc group of UU ministers has signed an open letter denouncing Eklof’s book. We’ll get to that letter below. Apparently, the book was banned at the General Assembly. Whether this was done because he had failed to follow some sort of procedure or because some people found his views upsetting and were therefore looking for a procedural excuse to remove it from the convention, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t there, and I’m not familiar with UUA procedures.

From what I’ve read since, some of the people who are upset by the book are urging UUs not to read it.

At least one of my UU friends tells me she doesn’t intend to read it. She seems to feel she can safely trust higher authorities (specifically, the UU ministers) on this topic. It’s only a short book, but she has a busy life, I get that. I’d be less concerned if she weren’t planning a whole series of church services to be given this summer on topics to do with racial and other forms of discrimination and/or inclusion within the church. Wouldn’t reading the book be practically a requirement for someone who is planning services on these topics? But I digress.

Telling people they shouldn’t read a book — any book — is shocking. It’s contrary to the whole spirit of Unitarian Universalism. Yet there’s a faction within the UU community who are of the opinion that some ideas (including, specifically, those in Eklof’s book) are so hurtful that they shouldn’t be discussed or evaluated. Ironically — except it’s not irony, it’s very much on point — this tendency toward censorship is precisely what Eklof is objecting to! That’s what the book is about.

He is asking for an open dialog, with careful definitions of terms and an examination of concrete evidence for such things as alleged racism. As a result, he’s being told to shut up.

Is this the church I belong to? Has it come to this?

The Open Letter

With that preamble, let’s have a look at the open letter from the UU ministers. (The indented paragraphs below are the entirety of the letter. Not one word has been changed or omitted.) It has been signed by more than 300 ministers. My goodness, how could so many educated, caring people possibly be wrong? Let’s find out.

An open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers regarding The Gadfly Papers

June 22, 2019

With sadness and anger, we, the undersigned, join our voices with the chorus of Unitarian Universalists speaking up to name the harm caused by yesterday’s release of The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister, written and self-published by our colleague the Rev. Todd F. Eklof and distributed at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington.

Right at the outset, we have a sweeping accusation: that the distribution of an essay on a topic of concern to Unitarian Universalists is causing harm. It should perhaps be noted in passing that while they say they’re going “to name the harm,” they never get around to naming it. Also, the size of this “chorus” is not explained. Are they talking about 5% of UU members, or is it 85%?

It is a bedrock principle of Unitarian Universalism, or ought to be, that concerned people on all sides of an issue should be free to share their views so that those views can be freely discussed. In fact, this is ideal is clearly implied in one of the cherished Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. It’s Principle 4. Principle 4 is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Perhaps the views being shared by some individual UU are wrong; but silencing the speaker rather than engaging in a dialog cannot be the right way to proceed. What seems sadly clear, however, is that to more than 300 Unitarian Universalist ministers, an open dialog is to be deplored. Their position, as articulated above, is explicitly that the book should not have been released.

They are explicitly violating the 4th Principle. And they’re ministers.

 As white ministers, we write today to make clear that this treatise does not represent us or our values, nor does it represent our vision for the ministry or for Unitarian Universalism.  We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color. (We also acknowledge the harm in the treatise directed toward LGBTQ+ people, religious educators, people with disabilities, and others–many of whom are also people of color at the intersections of multiple identities.)

Translation: Some non-white, non-cis, non-able-bodied people will have their feelings hurt by Eklof’s essay, and therefore it should not have been published or distributed. This is precisely the tactic that Eklof is objecting to. The correct response — the only possible response, if he’s causing harm and you wish to remain in alignment with the 4th Principle — is to engage in a dialog with him on a point-by-point basis. But as we read on, we’ll find that the ministers explicitly decline to do that.

What values or vision does the book represent, that so markedly diverge from those the ministers hold dear? The letter doesn’t tell us.

In addition, it should be noted that by using the phrase “intentionally provocative,” they’re implying that Eklof’s motives are somehow suspect. In a strictly logical sense, sure, he was being intentionally provocative. He titled his book The Gadfly Papers, and he tossed it onto the table at a General Assembly rather than circulating it privately to his colleagues. (He may have circulated it privately before publishing it; I don’t know.) Nonetheless, in using the phrase, the ministers are aiming to call Eklof’s motives into question. By implication, then, the phrase is an argument ad hominem. They’re referring to his actions rather than to the substance of what he said. Arguments ad hominem are not a valid debate tactic.

Rev. Eklof names the “sadness, fear, and anger I sometimes feel about what’s going on in my religion” (p. 126) as one of his primary motivations for writing.  We, too, have sadness, fear, and anger: sadness at the pervasiveness of harm being done to our members, religious professionals, and colleagues of color; our fear that the explosive resistance to facing white supremacy culture within our faith will cause even more harm; and our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm, rather than nurturing a truly liberatory Unitarian Universalism.

“Explosive resistance”? Really? Here again, we’re seeing an argument ad hominem. If you dare to disagree with us, the ministers are saying, you’re engaged in explosive resistance.

More to the point, as Eklof explains in detail in his book, the term “white supremacy culture” is really quite slippery. Tossing it into this open letter without troubling to define it is precisely the kind of unthinking, inflammatory rhetoric that he is trying to move past. Until you read the book, you will be poorly equipped to understand just what a problematical term “white supremacy culture” is. So read it.

Also, what that last sentence is saying, translated into plain English, is, “We shouldn’t be having to waste time debating with you, Rev. Eklof. Shut up and let us get on with our good works.” They are alleging that he is causing harm, but as I mentioned above, they haven’t named the harm. The assumption seems to be, “Oh, we all know what the harm is.”

What, we wonder, would be possible if the creative energy of our leaders were freed up from reacting to instances of resistance and harm, and instead were channeled into imagining, building, and experimenting with practices that embodied the kind of liberation and wholeness that is the core yearning of our faith?

(Boldface type, which was added for emphasis, has been removed from the previous paragraph.) It seems to me that Eklof is precisely suggesting a way to move toward this wholeness. He quite specifically advocates respect for divergent views. He suggests more than once, and with concrete examples, that such respect is in short supply in Unitarian Universalism as it is presently practiced.

But the real problem with this paragraph and the one before it is that the ministers have somehow, against all logic and reason, convinced themselves that responding to the points Eklof raises would be a distraction from the good work they’re trying to do. Let’s read this sentence again: “…our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm.” No, no, no. Responding to the points Eklof raises damn well IS the work they need to do. If Eklof is wrong, the way to move forward is to demolish his arguments point by point, so that the truth and power of your own views will shine forth for all to see.

Claiming that engaging in a dialog with him would be a distraction from your good work is just whining. What the ministers are saying boils down to, “We shouldn’t have to spend time writing an open letter to you, Rev. Eklof. You should just agree that we’re right and keep your mouth shut.”

We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic” and “reason” over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture.  Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following:

Translation: “Do not expect us to use logic or reason. We’re not even going to try to refute him point by point.” Well, honestly now — how can you have a respectful discussion of important issues with people who explicitly deny the value of logic and reason, and who explicitly refuse to engage in a responsible dialog?

To me it’s appalling — no weaker word will do — that these people are attacking a book without articulating at any point their reasons for objecting to the book. They don’t want to talk about it; they just want you to agree with them that it’s horrible.

The only specific description in their letter of the content of the book is that it uses logic and reason. It seems a fair guess that the ministers object to the use of logic and reason (the quotation marks are theirs, and are no more than a disparaging rhetorical flourish — another ad hominem attack) because Eklof has used logic in a clear and painstaking manner in order to dismantle the overheated rhetoric that is much in vogue at the UUA when racism is discussed. If this isn’t clear to you, you need to read the book.

I do understand perfectly well that logic and reason have often been used, and are still used, in support of racism. But that’s not a reason for avoiding the use of logic and reason! On the contrary: The way you combat the use of logic and reason by racists is by being better at it than they are. Your emotions are, frankly, a damned poor substitute.

And now we come to the ministers’ bullet points. The boldface type is in the original letter:

White Supremacy Culture (WSC)  is alive and well within Unitarian Universalism.  The impacts of WSC are pervasive and harmful, and while all of us are spiritually harmed within such a dehumanizing system, the primary impacts fall upon people of color and Indigenous people (POCI).  This treatise, itself, is a manifestation of WSC, and is causing harm to our siblings of color, as well as to the integrity of our ministry.

Here again, the term “white supremacy culture” (WSC) is left undefined. We’re told it’s pervasive, but we’re given no examples or evidence; we’re expected to accept the assertion blindly, on trust.

One of Eklof’s central points is that if the term is used in any of the ways in which ordinary people would naturally use it, there simply isn’t any WSC in Unitarian Universalism. If you feel convinced that it is present, then it’s incumbent on you to begin by defining exactly what you mean by the term.

If we’re going to object to “explosive” rhetoric, surely the term “white supremacy” qualifies.

Eklof is quite clear about the need for concrete evidence of racism within an organization. You don’t get to assert that it’s there, that it’s pervasive, without showing a shred of evidence. Here’s a simple example, whose logic may be clear enough even to those who are relatively new to the process of thinking logically:

It may be true that some organization is heavily dominated by heterosexual white males. But that does not make the organization racist, sexist, or heterosexist. The Beatles were an organization consisting entirely of four heterosexual white males. Should we therefore conclude that the Beatles were a white supremacist band? This is the sort of muddled thinking that Eklof takes pains to deconstruct.

We believe our siblings of color as the experts in their own life experiences.  They have done the emotional labor of testifying, again and again, to the consistent marginalization, aggression, and traumatization that they experience in UUism, and are pleading with us to face and dismantle the systems and structures that enable such harm to continue.  We are grateful for this painful truth-telling, which comes at great personal and professional risk, and affirm that we witness and believe their experiences, and commit to addressing harm. All politics are identity politics, and when the default is white supremacist patriarchy, we must trust the experience of those who are targeted.

I’d love to know more about “the consistent … aggression and traumatization that they experience in UUism.” If these words truly describe the situation, then why on Earth would they have stayed in Unitarian Universalism? Why didn’t they flee? More likely, what we have here is explosive rhetoric. But perhaps I’m wrong. Let’s see the evidence.

But let’s set aside the question of aggression and traumatization — as we must, in the absence of concrete evidence. On a more general note, there’s an important difference between acknowledging people’s feelings and uncritically accepting their explanations for why their feelings were aroused. This paragraph conflates the two.

It might be, for example, that a woman of color is passed over for a job opening in favor of a white male and feels hurt, marginalized, and traumatized because she is convinced that she was discriminated against. And yet, it might (or might not) be the case that the white male was simply better qualified for the job! The woman’s feelings need to be acknowledged and listened to — but that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a victim of racial discrimination. The facts of the case need to be examined. Failure to understand this difference is a shocking lapse of judgment, one that we should not expect ministers, of all people, to make.

And what “systems and structures” are supposed to be dismantled? I know nothing about how the UUA is organized. If the decision-making processes need to be restructured, that would be a fine topic for discussion. In fact, Eklof does touch on that question in his essay. Apparently, however, his views on the subject are anathema.

The assertion that “all politics are identity politics” is blatantly false, and anybody who has been awake during the past ten years ought to know it. The impending climate crisis is NOT about your personal or cultural identity. It’s just not. And the solutions, if we’re able to find any, will be explicitly political. The framework of environmental law will have to be changed, and that will require concerted political action. Why is it even necessary for me to point this out?

When unjust power structures–and those who benefit from them–are exposed and critiqued, backlash is predictable.  We often conflate critiques of our behavior with condemnations of our personhood.  Here, however, we affirm that Unitarian Universalist ministers must act in solidarity with those harmed by the power structures, while also unequivocally declaring that although all people have inherent worth and dignity, all behaviors and ideas do not.  Ideas and language can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.  It is disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst, to argue that those who have been targeted by systemic violence have an obligation to bear witness to “ideas and words” that demean and diminish their personhood and discount their lived experience.  The predictable “freedom of speech” arguments are commonly weaponized to perpetuate oppression and inflict further harm.

It may be true that Eklof has benefited within the UU organization from being a white male. I wouldn’t know. (And we would need to see evidence of that before accusing him of benefiting, wouldn’t we?) The letter takes this unproven assertion as fact, and then tries to deduce another assertion from it, again with neither evidence nor logic: that his book was written in a spirit of backlash against a threat to his position, prerogatives, or status. This allegation is only implied; he’s not mentioned here by name; but the context makes it clear. The allegation is not only unsupported by evidence, it’s grotesque.

I find myself wondering how exactly ideas and language “can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.” I think I’d like some examples of that. It is a central thesis of Eklof’s essays that this notion — that voicing certain ideas is harmful — is a way of shutting people up. It’s a way of stifling dialog. It’s fascist.

I have certainly been guilty of calling people idiots — mostly on Facebook. Is that indeed a form of violence? Am I causing real harm? If so, I hope somebody will explain it to me.

I don’t know who has suggested that anybody has an obligation “to bear witness” to anything; that phrase has a rhetorical flair, but what does it mean? And “weaponized”? Really? The implication of this word, it seems to me, is that advocating freedom of speech is “commonly” (their word) used in a conscious way in order “to perpetuate oppression.” To paraphrase, what the ministers are saying is that you’re only advocating freedom of speech because you want to hurt us. If you didn’t want to hurt us, you would agree with us that some ideas are so harmful that they should not be expressed.

This is pathetic. It’s an exercise in victimhood. “Waaahh! Your nasty ideas hurt me! Shut up, shut up, shut up!” It’s certainly not a path to meaningful dialog.

Neither the perspectives espoused in this publication, nor the harmful process by which it was distributed, represent our understanding of competent, compassionate, courageous UU ministry. As we continue the painful but necessary process of confronting WSC in Unitarian Universalism, white ministers are being asked to take a hard look at ourselves — individually, congregationally, denominationally — and to practice new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.  A deep commitment to racial justice and dismantling white supremacy is a core competency of our calling as ministers, and those who cannot or will not commit to developing the musculature of resiliency, humility, and lifelong learning required may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.  We plead with our white colleagues who are struggling to acknowledge the realities of WSC in our faith to remain at the table and lean into this work with us, with an open heart to transformation and repair.

This paragraph begins by stating flat-out that Eklof’s ideas are not competent, compassionate, or courageous. Evidence? A point by point analysis and refutation? No, that would be too much work. We’re just going to insult our fellow UU minister and move on, secure in the armor of our righteousness.

And what’s that aside about “the harmful process by which it was distributed”? I have no clue. How could the process of distribution be harmful or lack competence? Well, if the copies were tossed around on the floor, I suppose, so that people were tripping over them and falling down. But I doubt that’s what the ministers meant. I don’t know what they meant.

It’s certainly possible that Eklof has an understanding of UU ministry that is just as competent, compassionate, and courageous as the understanding of the ministers who signed this letter. Different, surely, but not lacking in competency, compassion, or courage. But that’s not what these 300 ministers want you to think. They want you to conclude, without a shred of evidence, that Eklof lacks competence, compassion, and courage.

And then we get to “may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.” Translation: If you don’t agree with us, get out! We don’t want you here!

I’m also worried about those “new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.” What does that mean in practice? “Liberatory” means “freedom-enhancing.” If one of your colleagues writes a book on topics of mutual concern and you immediately jump down his throat and tell him he shouldn’t have released the book, how are you embodying a liberatory faith? How are you encouraging or even proposing to allow him his freedom as an equal within the UU community? Isn’t the freedom to have and express one’s own ideas supposed to be the bedrock of Unitarian Universalism? I sure thought so. Possibly I was wrong.

Sugar Sprinkles

Just to be clear about my own view of this controversy….

I’m not advocating for the views in Rev. Eklof’s book. I happen to think he makes a lot of good points — but I may be wrong, and he may be wrong. Most likely, he’s right about some things and wrong about others. The way to settle such questions is through a free and respectful dialog. Denouncing his book in inflammatory terms, however, while refusing to engage with its substance cannot possibly be right.

I’m sure there is some unconscious racism within the UUA, and within UU congregations. I’ve probably been guilty of it myself on occasion. This is not surprising; in fact, it would be remarkable if there weren’t pockets of racism here and there. Conscious, intentional racism in the UU community? I’d say it’s very doubtful. Unconscious racism? Certainly.

I agree that it’s vital that the UUA take a close look at this issue, as well as at related issues such as sexism, heterosexism, cis-genderism, and so on! That, it seems to me, is what these ministers think they’re doing.

However, it’s also clear to me that book-banning and telling people to shut up or get out is not healthy for any organization, and especially not for an organization that prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming. Nor is it healthy or respectful to belittle people for their commitment to logic and reason. If that is the direction that Unitarian Universalism is going, the whole denomination can go straight to hell, and probably will.


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Today We Have Naming of Parts

I’m trying a new author, Sam Hawke. Her City of Lies is pretty good so far, and after 145 pages (of 550) I plan to keep reading. But already I’ve spotted a few elements that just don’t quite fit together.

Building a believable, solidly constructed fantasy world is not easy.

Hawke’s city, Silasta, seems not to be on Earth. There are people, but the animals are unfamiliar. The culture seems more Asian than European, and that’s a good thing. The families are matrilineal, the people are dark-skinned, and so on.

The brother-sister narrators, Jovan and Kalina, are the friends and ultimately protectors of a young man named Tain, who starts out as the heir to the throne and, following a mysterious assassination, ascends the throne himself. Jovan has been well trained by his uncle to detect poisons. His uncle is both a close adviser to the old ruler and a surreptitious food taster. When both the ruler and Jovan’s uncle die of poisoning, Jovan takes over his uncle’s role, protecting Tain.

Apparently none of the other nobles are to know that the ruler employs a food taster. And that’s the first bit where the parts don’t quite fit together. If poisoning is common enough that the ruler employs a food taster — and not just a disposable servant or slave but a high-ranking noble who is trained to detect subtle poisons — then plainly assassination is a common enough danger that it should excite no comment for the ruler to employ a taster.

The social gathering at which the poisonings occur has more the flavor of a cocktail party than of a royal audience. There isn’t enough pomp or circumstance.

Tain himself seems to have little awareness of his royal status. In the opening scene he gets into a brief street fight with a drunk who has a knife. It’s bad enough that he’s tramping down the street with no palace guards to protect him from, oh, you know, assassins, that type of thing; but then he risks his royal neck for no compelling reason.

Shortly the city is besieged by what appears to be an army of irate peasants. And there’s Tain (who by this time is the ruler) up on the wall swinging a sword at the attackers. This is good plotting for the young reader, I’m sure, but it does paint Tain as rather an idiot. The city is depending on him to provide both stability and effective planning, but no, he’s out on the wall, where he could all too easily be chopped down by one of the invaders.

The city of Silasta is described as having been at peace for quite a long time. There are city walls because of wars in the bad old days. Okay, that’s fine. But during a century or two of peace, the city has not spread beyond the walls. When the army of peasants arrives, the city folks slam shut the gates, and then they’re inside, safe for the moment, while the irate peasants are outside. Our own experience with walled cities here on Earth would strongly suggest that there would be whole neighborhoods of poor people outside the walls — but no. Hawke’s world-building takes no account of such a normal demographic or economic trend.

At the point I’ve reached in the story, we still have no idea why the peasants are revolting, but two things are apparent. First, the nobles in the city (who own the vast tracts of land where the peasants work and live) have had not a clue about any impending unrest. (This seems to be a plot point. It’s unlikely that the nobility could all be so clueless, but I guess it’s possible.) Second, this army of peasants, though some of them are using hoes as weapons, is quite remarkably well organized. Communications between the city and the nobles’ estates have been severed by the rebels. Messengers sent out to seek help are quickly captured. The peasants are not simply a mob, they’re marching in an organized way. They’ve brought ladders for scaling the city walls, even.

None of this makes much sense. A populace so deeply disaffected that they could be roused into attacking their own capital city would have been in a visible ferment for years. There would have been riots. The ringleaders of the riots would have been summarily hanged by the nobles. There would have been widespread suffering across a vast swath of countryside, and even if the nobles didn’t care, they would have known about it.

Also, if they’re well enough organized to march in from several directions simultaneously, thereby surrounding the city, why didn’t the people planning the revolt plant a few dozen agents inside the city, who could wreak havoc on the improvised defenses? Great planning and poor planning, cheek by jowl.

The parts of the story — a poisoned ruler, a peasant army, an exotic culture, and so on — are all good, but they don’t hang together well. I’d like to say I’m confident that in the end it will all make sense, but I doubt it.

There’s a dual lesson here for writers — some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you can get away with slamming together some exciting ingredients and still get your novel published by Tor. The bad news is, at least a few readers will notice that your world-building is not going to win any awards.

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Drove My Chevy to the Levee

I know some of my friends are religious. Their faith baffles me. I don’t understand how anyone could ever think or feel those things: It just isn’t possible.

To me, a religious person is like a guy who is delighted to tell you all about his mint-condition cherry-red 1993 Chevy Corvette convertible. He loves his car. He invites you over to his house, raises the garage door, waves his arm expansively, and crows, “There she is! Ain’t she a beaut?”

And the garage is empty.

Not only is the garage empty, but the guy simply doesn’t understand when you tell him the garage is empty. He tells you about the new transmission he put in, the special brands of wax he buys, the gold-plated hood ornament, the horsepower. He offers to take you out for a spin in the Corvette, and shakes his head sadly when you decline.

What can you say to a guy like that?

What’s worse, this analogy is the most benign, charitable, kindly view I can take of religion. Any other way of looking at it is worse. A lot worse. But the analogy does point unerringly at the central threat that religion poses to our world.

Some religions are relatively benign, and many religious people are good, kind, and inoffensive. On the other hand, some religions are savage and horrifying, and many religious people are filled with anger, cruelty, and just plain bad information.

But no matter what their denomination, no matter what their personal character, they all have an empty garage and, blind to what anybody else can plainly see, are convinced there’s a mint-condition cherry-red Corvette convertible in the garage. The problem with religion is precisely this: It prevents you from seeing certain things that ought to be obvious. Religion — any religion — begins by insisting that you believe things that simply aren’t true. In order to cling to your religion, you must accept those lies. You must embrace them. You must ride around town in them with the top down and the wind in your hair, listening to the Beach Boys on the dashboard radio.

Of course you don’t think they’re lies. You’re offended that I would even call your cherished beliefs lies. But somebody needs to. It’s my turn.

Now, you may think you have a Corvette convertible while the guy next door has a rattletrap Model T that belches oily smoke and can’t go but fifteen miles an hour. The trouble is, he thinks the same thing! He thinks you’re the one with the rattletrap Model T. He’s quite proud of his Corvette. The two of you may even get into fist fights over who has the better car. (If only this were a metaphor. Can you say, “Northern Ireland”? I knew you could.)

Stepping aside from my rather belabored imagery for a moment, the problem with religion — any religion, no matter how beneficent you may think it is — is that it leaves you unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. In order to become an adherent of a religion in the first place, you have to embrace a set of beliefs for which there is not a scintilla of reliable evidence. You have to agree that you will be guided in your behavior by those beliefs.

This happens at a pre-conscious level in most cases, I’m sure. It’s an instinct, or the result of how the human brain is organized. A few of us are born with a different kind of brain organization. A few more are so shocked by what happens in their church that they give it up. But for untold millions of people, that moment of awakening never happens. They sleepwalk through life, thinking they’re driving a Corvette.

Once you’ve agreed to the tenets of your faith, you have no way to test them. You have no way to tell whether they’re healthy for you, for your loved ones, and for the world, or whether they’re monstrously awful and will cause nothing but suffering and mayhem.

Nowhere is this fact more starkly demonstrated than in the current rise of fascist Christianity. There is, in the United States, a terrifyingly well organized and massively well funded effort to shove fundamentalist Christian beliefs down everybody’s throat. The people who follow this creed don’t care about freedom. They don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is advancing their own twisted agenda.

Of course, if you’re one of the nice, good, kindly religious people, you may be firmly convinced that you’re nothing at all like these jack-booted thugs with their impeccable three-piece suits and perfect teeth. You have a cherry-red Corvette convertible. They only have a rattletrap Model T. (Your God is red-hot. Their god ain’t doodly-squat.) But they think the same thing about you! And how can either of you judge which is which? They certainly can’t — and sad to say, you can’t either.

The only people who are capable of figuring out which of the ideas put forth by the various religious traditions are good and healthy, and which ideas are dangerous and evil, are the secular humanists. We’re the only ones who can see that the garages are empty.

We’re all on foot. So walk the walk.

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