Privilege and Paper Balls.

This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.

In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.

I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.

It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.

The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.

I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.

Ignorance Is Not A Sin, Pride Is: Climate Science and Congress

I am not a Mexican. I have ever even been to Mexico. If you were to ask me about the authenticity of a particular restaurant, I couldn’t help you. What if, on the other hand, you asked 20 Mexicans, and 10 of them said “Absolutely authentic,” and 5 said “Pretty close,” and 4 said “Well, not from my part of the country,” and one said “No”? I would trust that it is authentic, wouldn’t you?

I am not a coder. All code looks a little random to me. If you asked me if a bit of code were efficient or well done, I could not answer you. I would ask a few friends. If I asked 50 friends to evaluate it, and 25 of them said it looked great, 15 of them said “I think it looks good, but that’s not a language I am really skilled at, so maybe it could have been done better,” 7 of them said “It will defintely get the job done, but it could be more efficient,” and the last three said, more or less “No”. I will still use that code with confidence.

Like so many members of Congress, I am not a scientist. Like members of congress, I have not really studied the issue of climate change and I could not hope to make reasonable predictions about the effects of greenhouse gasses and global temperature shifts. Like Congress, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t have the expertise to make predictions or reasonable hypotheses  about the effects of energy or economic policy on the atmosphere and how that will change the habitability of the planet. That isn’t my job.

Honestly, that is what should be great about having career politicians; we should elect people who know about policy and law and economics to handle those things for us because we can’t all be experts in all things. Like us, politicians call for plumbers when they have a leak or doctors when they are ill because, like us, their job focuses on a different skill set and knowledge base. Like us, they shouldn’t all be scientists, because they need to know the legal system, the financial system, how our highways are built and repaired, and many other aspects of creating policy to make the country run better.

The problem is that many of these politicians are looking at the science, reading the conclusions of scientists, and, not understanding it for themselves, they are ignoring what the professionals are trying to tell them because the truth is comfortable.

The federal government has several divisions that are paid to do research and make predictions. Those divisions have helped us prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes. They have helped us target missiles and fly aircraft into dangerous situations. They have taken us to the moon and landed a robot the size of a small SUV on Mars. They have proven that they are good at science, and they warn us that climate change is real, and that humans are impacting it in a substantial way. That means that we could change our actions and have an impact on the course and rate at which this change is happening, and that certain actions will improve the stability of the countries and infrastructures currently in place.

When it comes to war, the Republicans are on the record saying that the government, and especially the current president, should trust the generals. They believe that the people who have fought in and risen to lead our military are trustworthy on issues of national security. The Pentagon has had military scientists looking at this, and the US military has concluded that Climate Change is a threat and that renewable energy needs to be a priority in national security. Why aren’t we listening?

When it comes to atmospheric science and the ability to look at the big picture here on Earth, few human institutions come close to the resources of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They put most of our satellites in orbit, and they track weather patterns and changed to geography. We pay them to do it, because we need that information. Their mission is the advancement of science with the intent to “benefit all humankind“. They have been tasked with the non-partisan job of making the world a better place for people. They warn that climate change is a real threat to human civilization as we know it.

Over 97% of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming agreed that humans are causing it.

97% of scholarly papers from scientists working on the issue take the position that humans are driving climate change.

More importantly, as with the examples I opened with, we can trust that the people who know what they are talking about agree that human activities, especially the release of carbon that had previously been trapped underground in fossil fuels like oil and coal, back into the atmosphere, are making the problem much worse. Scientists who are working in the field of climate change overwhelmingly agree that it is a problem, and that we can make changes that will lessen its impact.

Now, of course there are some who look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That happens in every field. Literary scholars argue about author intent. Music scholars may argue about the historical value of certain composers. Biblical scholars are the reason that there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity. And, this is a really good thing in science, as the point of peer review is to be skeptical and make sure that the facts point to the conclusion reached. We need curmudgeons and malcontents to keep everyone on their toes and honest. Sometimes, the facts available require a change to the conclusions that science has been working from. That is how we discovered climate change to begin with.

What we see here, though, isn’t scientists arguing about methodology or conclusions. What we see here is an overwhelming consensus of professionals who are being ignored anyway because what they have to say is inconvenient. We have lawmakers admitting that they are not scientists, in the same way that the President of the United States is not a general, and instead of listening to the experts and taking the advice of the majority, they are choosing to do nothing on an issue that threatens us all.

“I am not a scientist” should be a bold statement of ignorance and willingness to listen to professionals. Instead, it is being used as a smoke screen to dishonestly claim that no one knows what the facts are. The folks doing so should be ashamed of their hubris.

The Word Responsible Has a Meaning

Below is a sourced version of a letter I wrote to the editors or the Denton Record Chronicle. Not knowing if it will be published, and knowing that the facts will be questioned, I invite you to share this with anyone who still has questions about the drilling ban. We can always revoke the ban if the slogan of “Responsible Drilling” is ever more than a campaign promise. We cannot undo some of the damage that will be done if we allow things to continue as they are. Additionally, I feel that I must point out the foolishness of shouting about “energy independence” while stumping for fossil fuels that are rapidly running out rather than backing the development of renewable and, preferably, non-centralized sources of energy like residential solar and wind power. We need better than status quo if we are going to prepare for a bright and healthy future for Denton.


The “Vote No” campaign against the ban of hydraulic fracture gas mining in the City of Denton uses the word “Responsible” without any context or meaning.

How can “responsible drilling” not include new regulations, oversight, or accountability? They say they want support for “Responsible Drilling”, but that is not what they offer as the alternative to the ban. If it were, the ban might not be needed.

Rachael Rawlins, of UT’s School of Architecture, as published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, shows that state and federal regulatory programs fail to effectively address emissions, the risk of malfunctions, encroaching land uses, or the potential interactive effects of fracking chemicals. Her studies show that “rates of childhood leukemia and lymphoma in Flower Mound are significantly higher than expected”,  tying these findings to the exploitation of the Barnett Shale.

If health risks aren’t enough of a concern, there is considerable risk to the local economy. Fracking sites provide lower tax revenue than most other land use; their equipment taxes our roads, our water supply, and other resources. Worse than that, fracking presents an imminent risk to Americans’ most important financial investment: their home. Scientists across the country collaborated on a geological study, finding “fluid migration from high-rate disposal wells in Oklahoma is potentially responsible for the largest swarm” of otherwise unexplained earthquakes 3 hours north of us. Add the fact that pollution fears are driving home prices down already, according to Forbes, and oil companies seem like very irresponsible neighbors to have.

I am not a feminist, but you can call me that if you want to.

That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:

I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.

I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.

I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.

30 Days of Gratitude: Nov. 5

Today I am grateful for the privilege of voting. I will work to transform that privilege into a right, shared by everyone. I am glad that my voice will be counted, and I will use that voice to speak up for those who are being marginalized.

The Principles of UU Evangelism

When was the last time you said to someone, “I had lunch at the best Italian place today”? Have you ever said to someone, “There is a farmers market every Thursday over off the highway, if you want better, local produce”? I can’t be the only person who has tried to convince people to visit at a small, locally owned business instead of a box store or chain restaurant. Have you ever let someone know that there is a local charity that needs the kind of items they might have otherwise set out on the curb? Have you ever talked to someone about an issue that they seemed misinformed about?

Evangelism isn’t foreign to many UUs. We just don’t apply it to our religion, which is a shame, because we are often driven to tell people about things that are exciting to us because they promote our Principles.

Part of the difference is that we have let Evangelism be owned by fundamentalists. People tell me that the definition of the word is to talk to people about Jesus and the Gospels of the Bible, and that it has no relation to Unitarian Universalism. Do we really believe that we have no place for Jesus in our religion? That would be a painful thing to hear for our great theological fore bearers, of whom we are so proud. When did we stop teaching “love your neighbor”? What would Unitarian Universalism be without non violent protests, where we “Turn the other cheek”?  Our Biblical message is part of our larger religious message; is it not as worthy of being shared as any other?

Some people have said that it goes against something fundamental in our Principles or beliefs to be excited and talk to people about why being a Unitarian Universalist matters in our lives. I would like to counter that, by saying that, just as we pray differently, worship differently, and fellowship differently from most Christian churches, we can evangelize in a way that still honors our Principles. Just as we haven’t, as a movement, given up those other words (nor should we), we shouldn’t give up the idea that we have a great message to share through personal evangelism.

We affirm and promote the idea that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Doesn’t that mean that we should be telling people that our church accepts who they are? Shouldn’t we make sure that they know where to find a community that will make room for them, as they are, and let them grow into the person they were born to be? Valuing their worth and dignity means wanting them to know that we offer something different in a church. It means telling them that, if they need it, it is there for them. Inviting people, warmly and sincerely, to join us honors their worth. Letting them choose for themselves honors their dignity. Shouldn’t we make sure they are aware of Unitarian Universalism as an option?

Unitarian Universalist congregations also covenant to “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. How can we grow if we are never challenged? How can we grow if we allow our churches to stagnate and age without seeking out new members? Our mission requires fresh ideas and new talents every year, to tackle fresh obstacles and meet changing needs. Our growth requires that we hear other perspectives and that we consider new information. Our mission requires that we engage people in conversation, and that we seek out people who hold different ideas than those already represented in our congregations.

The most likely sticking point, I think may be in our commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. As I said last week, “I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you.” I also believe, though, that we can plant the seeds by talking about our Principles, and I am proof that those ideas will stick with some people, and they can come to accept them, even if it wasn’t their first reaction. I have never advocated for beating people with copies of “On the Origin of Species” or “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. It wouldn’t do any good. Instead, let us lead good lives, do good in our communities, and make sure people know that we are expressing our faith and living out our Principles. We can tell people about how our congregations are families that accept and embrace our uniqueness. It isn’t about conversion or convincing people of anything other than that our church helps us be better people, and that we have a place in it for them, too.

It isn’t against our Principles to talk to people, to educate them and try to influence their decisions. Our Principles actually call on us to try to change our communities for the better. It cannot run contrary to those saving, loving, accepting ideas to share them with others, to widen and strengthen our beloved community. We cannot proselytize in the manner of fundamentalist. Ours is not a faith that comes with answers, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We can talk people through that, if they are willing to listen, but only if we are wiling to share. There are people you encounter every week who need to know that they can be loved for who they are. We need to extend an invitation to join in our work, because our beloved community is incomplete without them.

Evangelism isn’t in opposition to Unitarian Universalist Principles. It is required by them. As with so many other religious terms, we just need to come to our own understanding of what it means to evangelize. We can do it in a way that respects the personal quest for truth, while still proclaiming the worth and value of each person we encounter. If we have something great to share, how can we claim to better the world while keeping it to ourselves?

Equality of Opportunity: Raising the tide instead of the yachts.

American conservatives feel that they have to cut off benefits to the unemployed and the poor because they think very little of people, in general. They believe that many, possibly even most people would rather sit at home and watch television than work. They don’t care that there aren’t jobs (as evidenced by their failure to do anything about creating them). They don’t care that there are mothers receiving assistance because it would cost more to put kids in daycare than you can make at a minimum wage job. They honestly don’t care about the facts on the ground, as it were, because they believe people are making excuses to not work.

Now, they may, in fact, understand otherwise. They might just be playing to a base that like to hear such things, but this is too cynical, even for my blog, and I have to assume that they are acting in the best interest of the country as they see it. I will try, then, to educate the conservatives who find their way here.

The fact is that there is very little evidence of what people in a country with western culture would do if they didn’t have to work. What we do know is that there are a lot of mothers receiving government support for their families. According to the Census Bureau, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty last year. Two thirds of those people are children, elderly, or disabled, which is to say people who are not expected to work. Indeed, the GOP has made noise about rolling back child labor standards, but that is another post.

In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tell us “Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households“. 90%, for those who like numerical notation, of the money spent on entitlement programs in the USA goes to people who are working or who cannot work a full-time job because of age or disability. There is very little fraud, and most of these people are doing exactly what is expected of them.

So, what about those few people who are “gaming the system?” That surfer from California, for instance? Yeah… every system has some flaws and every program will be abused in some way. Isn’t it worth knowing that in the greatest country in the world, people aren’t starving to death? Is that really something to be ashamed of?

Finally, I did say that there was little evidence to show what might happen if people didn’t have to work; how society would look if people knew they would be fed and housed and that no entrepreneurial, educational, or artistic risk would leave them destitute. There is exactly one case that could be of real interest to us in the USA.

In Canada, in the 1970s, there was an experiment conducted by Canada’s elected liberals in Dauphin, Manitoba. They made sure that no one in that jurisdiction was poor. Called “Mincome”, every poor adult in the area was paid by the national and Provincial governments, to insure that no one lived below the poverty line. The participants were encouraged to work and earn for themselves, having their supplement reduced only  50 cents for every dollar they earned. The government wondered if people would keep working. Most did. Employment went down in 2 areas: New mothers and teenagers. New mothers spent more time with their children. Teenagers spent more time in school, as evidenced by higher graduation rates.

It allowed people to take the jobs that were available, based on whether they thought it would be good for them, rather than if it made the most money. People could wait for the opening they really wanted. It meant a lot more than simple employment, though. According to Dr. Evelyn Forget, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who is looking at the recently unsealed documents from the 4 year experiment, “We already know that hospitalizations went down and people stayed in school longer.” Hospitalizations went down? “When you walk around a hospital, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the time what we’re treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.

Her research shows that “In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.” Those are some pretty impressive results.

In short, this program only applied to 1000 families, about 30% of the population of the rural town. It ultimately cost more than $17 million. It also resulted in an 8.5 per cent decrease in healthcare costs, which was be substantial savings in a country with nationalized health care. In short, people were happier, healthier and, at least arguably, more productive, not less.

Given the limited facts available on the issue, it is unconscionable to let people live in fear for their homes, their families, and their health. It is within the power of the American Government to create a country where every person is permitted to educate themselves to the full extent of their desire to learn. We could be funding the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs by letting even those born to poverty take the risks that the rich take for granted. We could live up to our presumption of superiority by funneling our resources into our people, all of them, to see what Americans can achieve when they live in hope instead of worry. There is a loud, but well funded, minority working to ensure that we do not. That is the privileged class, trying to hang on to their advantage. It isn’t American, and we need to put an end to it. It is fine to reward success, even to the 7th generation, but we need to equalize the opportunity and institutionalize mobility. Only then can we return to our history of advancement and leadership and pull out of the political and cultural nose dive we currently face.

“Mincome” sources:

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/dauphins-great-experiment.html

http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/4100

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/1970s-manitoba-poverty-experiment-called-a-success-1.868562