Thursday, May 29, 2014

What does the UCSB tragedy tell us?

Last Friday night, there was a horrible tragedy near the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lives were senselessly and tragically lost at the hands of one young man. I prefer not to use his name, because I'm tired of turning mass murderers into celebrities.

Another tragic mass murder in the United States of America.

Like many people, my first thoughts were of mental illness and gun control. If only we had better mental healthcare -- if only we had better gun control -- surely such tragedies couldn't happen. That's where my mind went first.

It's been pointed out, as the week has gone on and we've learned more, that the murderer in this case purchased his guns legally, and that he was getting lots of mental healthcare. The murderer came from a family with money, and he was getting more (and more expensive) mental healthcare than most citizens could hope for when struggling with mental illness. What does that mean?

And of course, we can ask (and should ask, I believe) if there were gun control provisions that stopped someone with mental illness from purchasing guns, would that have prevented this tragedy? In addition to shooting several people, resulting in three deaths and other injuries, the murderer also stabbed three people to death. Guns are not the only murder weapons, though undoubtedly they make mass killings more likely.

I'm in favor of better gun control laws -- meaning more strict ones. And of course I'm in favor of people having easier access to better healthcare, including mental healthcare. And while these two things (and maybe these two things together) could only help the situation, I can't honestly say that I believe it would prevent tragedies like the one that happened on Friday night.

I think the issues go much deeper.

One of my colleagues (Rev. Victoria Weinstein) wrote a post that this latest tragedy makes evident the rape culture in the United States. You can read her thought-provoking post here: "Rape Culture and the Myth of the Random Psycho".

Another colleague (Rev. Tom Schade) wrote a post about the narrative of the "mental disturbance" of misogyny being disrupted; perhaps it's not a mental disturbance but an "ideology". You can read his thought-provoking post here: "Re-Mapping the Ideological Landscape".

Rape culture and misogyny are a huge part of what's behind this tragedy. And it is completely appropriate, and even crucial, that this discussion continues and goes deeper.

I would also note, as some have pointed out, that in spite of the breath-taking misogyny of Friday's murderer, several of his victims were in fact young men. In fact, more men were murdered on Friday night than women. This isn't to minimize the misogyny of the murderer, nor to say that the rape culture isn't part of the tragedy; these were still central to the tragedy.

But I would also name the culture of violence in the United States. The rape culture is a part of that larger culture of violence, so it's not either/or. It's both. When are we going to get serious about naming and changing this? When will the United States of America say enough is enough? When will we get serious about addressing our culture of violence? I will write more on this later.

Friday, May 16, 2014

"I always feel like somebody's watchin' me"

If you're a child of the 80s as I am, you probably remember the song "(I Always Feel Like) Somebody's Watching Me", by Rockwell. It's possibly best known for the backup vocals, which were by the ultimate 80s megastar Michael Jackson. As a bonus (or punishment), here's a video reminder:

You're welcome.

On a more serious note, the current era of never-ending surveillance means that, whether you feel like it or not, you really are always being watched. I attempted to preach on this topic earlier this "church year" in a sermon entitled "Someone to Watch over Me: Spirituality of the Surveillance State". You can listen to the sermon at this link.

Daniel Ellsberg with local Veterans For Peace folks, photo by Maurice Morales
This past Monday, May 12, I had the opportunity to attend a fundraising dinner for the ACLU of Massachusetts. It honored three whistleblowers: Thomas Drake, Cathy Harris, and Daniel Ellsberg. I attended with others from Veterans From Peace. Here is a picture of many of us from the local chapter of VFP with Daniel Ellsberg (He is at the top left corner of the flag; I'm kneeling in the lower right of the photo). Ellsberg the original "national security whistleblower" is a former Marine and a friend of the Smedley D. Butler Brigade of VFP.

Of course, Ellsberg is best known for "The Pentagon Papers"; this was published by Beacon Press (of the Unitarian Universalist Association) when others feared to publish it. So Ellsberg is a friend of the UUA, too! In 2007, he was part of a presentation about government secrecy at the UU General Assembly (along with Amy Goodman, Sen. Mike Gravel, and Rev. Robert West); you can read about it and see a video at this link.

It offends me that my government has so many secrets, and yet it feels it has the right to know all of my private affairs.  It offends me that my government has been keeping secret how much surveillance it has been doing on ordinary US citizens. It offends me that my government is spying on its citizens as though we are a threat just by our living and breathing.

On Monday night, it was thought-provoking to hear from Drake, Harris, and Ellsberg. How brave one must be to be a whistleblower! Truly, it turns one's life inside out and upside down, never to be the same again. Whatever your opinion of these and other whistleblowers, it is hard to deny that they believe what they're doing is right. They are willing to give up life as they've known it to expose corruption and dangerous secrets.

The surprise of the night was a greeting by Edward Snowden, who currently has temporary asylum in Russia after exposing surveillance secrets of the NSA. Below is a video of his greeting; the part that gets cut off in the beginning is a joke he made about being sorry that he couldn't join us in Boston as he was having trouble with travel arrangements.

I do believe that it is my duty as a Unitarian Universalist – or even just as someone trying to be a good citizen – to be counter-cultural when it comes to living in fear and accepting surveillance as the supposed price we must pay for security. We can fight docile acceptance; we can try not to give in too easily to the intrusions. As I closed my sermon (mentioned earlier), "For those who believe in God, there are far more sophisticated versions of theology than 'God is watching, so act right.' And for those of us who want to be good citizens and good human beings, there are more sophisticated and important reasons to act morally than the knowledge that we are under surveillance. I don’t know whether it’s in our 'best interests to act as if God were there'; but I do know that it’s in our best interests not to let our government get away with playing God."