Monday, January 24, 2011

The trouble with "Anti-"

Today, Monday, January 24, there is the annual "March for Life". Here at William Penn House, we are hosting some groups that are participating in the March and the events surrounding the march. We are glad to have this group for these few days, and hope there is a way the time here affords an opportunity for dialog.

But, as I was riding my bike in this afternoon, I rode past the gathering of folks participating in the march, and the varied signs ("De-fund Planned Parenthood", "Defend Life", "Women regret abortions", "Abortion denies men fatherhood"). What I have been thinking about is this: Where does a movement "for" something end and become an "anti" movement? What happens when we join forces under an 'anti-' movement, without giving a whole lot of thought about what we stand for. In the case of this march, for example, I did not see one sign denouncing the death penalty, unnecessary death caused by war, or legislation that calls for equal rights of all those who are born (such as for education, healthcare and marriage rights).

The lack of these kinds of questions I think is less a reflection of the people participants than the success of "movement" leaders. Often, these leaders succeed by giving people scripts (in the form of banners, slogans, bumper stickers), but not too much that they might actually think. Consider that the keynote speaker for the March for Life Dinner is Rep. Michele Bachmann, hardly a spokesperson of compassion for all of humanity, as she, in general, denounces the majority of her fellow Americans every day, calling on her constituents to take up arms ("metaphorically", she claims, but still without compassion). It really seems to me that this event is more about "anti-abortion" than "for life".

For those of us who generally reside in the "left" of things, I don't think we should sit too smugly, either. Do we reach out to others to have conversations about this? Are we grounded enough in our own beliefs and philosophies that we can have deep conversations with people with whom we disagree on abortion but perhaps do agree on "for life" issues? Just as the "anti-slavery" group in the run-up to the Civil War was made up of a broad coalition ranging from those who viewed blacks as equals to those who denounced slavery but did not believe in equality, our coalition of "anti-war" peers is a broad spectrum of people, not all of whom are also pacifists. In fact, "anti-war" people would actually include many in the military, but because we denounce the military, aren't we also being divisive by staking a claim in "anti-war".

I'm not sure where to go with all of this. I do know that movement leaders do great things by labeling things are "for" or "anti", or sometimes labeling something as "for" when it really is an "anti" (or vice-versa). I don't know that we are all served when we follow as lemmings with our placards, bumper stickers and yard signs rather than holding conversations that allow for deeper thought and introspection.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Are we too comfortable in our concerns?

"Whatever you have that you do not need does not belong to you".

These words cut me like a knife. Yesterday, Byron (E.D. at William Penn House) handed me a pamphlet printed by FWCC called "Standing in Uncomfortable Places". It's written by a woman, Alexie Torres-Fleming, about leaving a successful midtown Manhattan career to return to her Bronx NY community with a calling of love. Towards the end of her essay, she moves on to her lessons of life. The sentence above is lesson one. No explanation needed. Just a whole lot of hurting. It's something that has also been very much on my mind for quite a few years, but with greater clarity in the past few months.

I am becoming rapidly and increasingly convinced that so many of the issues that we Friends spend lots of time and money on are missing the most fundamental things that are more in-line with all that we espouse. Specifically, we as the larger body are completely missing economic equality, and I think we do so at the risk of our own integrity. I am not saying we be held responsible for the world of poverty, but as we raise our voices and live our lives in modern society, I do think we have to be more active in recognizing the role of poverty in the perpetuation of all that we lament. The challenge is that economic equality is not something we can simply look at as a problem of the poor: it is as much a problem of those of us who have more than we need. "Poor people" are not a culture, they are a part of society.

In all the years that I have been doing HIV-work, I have long-felt that the real issue is not HIV, but economic inequality. Bono was the first to raise this to a new level of awareness but his message has always been muted by his own image and lifestyle. It is hard to be critical of him, and I suspect he fully understands the dilemmas, but many of the people who have heard his message do not stop to think that poverty has a flip side - greed. He also painted the face of poverty as non-European. As a result, what we have is a fragmented approach to HIV - poor Africans and Asians, or in this country it is gay men, blacks, or drug users and sex-workers. We don't acknowledge the role of economics in how we break it down in our backyard and, in doing so, we don't recognize that it is American consumerism that feeds global poverty, and that "global" includes our country and those within it, not just beyond our borders.

Outside of HIV, among Friends we talk often about diversity but, when you look at our gatherings we are not a very diverse group. When you scratch beneath diversity, however, there is very little mention of economic equality. We have many Friends schools that are very liberal and progressive in thought, and can be vocal about the need to care for the poor. In most of these schools, you will see service trips, fundraisers and assemblies that talk about the poor and the afflicted, but how many of these challenge the kids to consider the wealth of their families in the equation. Many of the students come from families of great wealth. At what point do we introduce the idea that, as they enter adulthood, if they want to be serious about economic justice, what they do with their resource will matter. (For a more in-depth reading of diversity and equality, I strongly recommend "The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love diversity and ignore inequality" by Walter Benn Michaels).

But we don't need to go to the wealthy to be challenged by this concept of need vs. want. In my work at William Penn House, by standards of my peers, I (and all of us) are underpaid. But we have also talked about that being not just ok, but important to our work. I still can meet my needs and have some perks (or at least catch up on past wants). This keeps me still better off than much of the world, although far-below the level of many of my peers. I know that, among Friends, many of us make our career decisions with a heavy dose of ethics and integrity in the equation, but how deeply do we take the challenge that pursuing economic equality presents?

If you look at the FCNL list of issues, we really don't consider this at all. No doubt there are some issues that touch on economic equality, but there is nothing on the list that specifically calls for this in the form of what we need to call it: redistribution of wealth. FCNL takes its marching orders from the community of yearly and monthly Meetings, so it is really up to us to bring this forward. Are we willing? When was the last time we had a true national champion speaking up for the poor? Robert Kennedy? There have been others - Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, to name a few - but in terms of a national campaign that really spoke truth to economic inequality, it's been a long time. Mention it now, and it can easily be called "un-American". But I also think it is too easy for us to sit smugly and "tsk-tsk" the uber-wealthy and the corporate elite. Don't many of us have more than we need as well?

"Whatever you have that you do not need does not belong to you". As I said, this cuts like a knife. I suspect this may become a guiding principle that I will need to somehow consider as life continues to unfold.