On Interconnected Political Debacles: the City of Birmingham, the State of Alabama, and our never-particularly United States of America

As a rule, I have low expectations of those in political office – at every level. This country’s systems – at every level – have been biased from the outset toward the affluent, so that the pursuit of power, property, and profit frame public policy and public discourse.

That system of power often circumscribes and circumvents even the best efforts, intentions, and characters. 

Nonetheless, a spirit of public interest has managed to survive for a long time, kindled by uneven bits and pieces of a democratic and practical commitment to the greater good – including in some part to those disadvantaged by the system and the very Earth itself. 

The calculated withdrawal from that commitment to public good – and especially from the needs of marginalized people and the planet – traces most immediately back to the Reagan era 1980s, with specific roots in the would-be oligarchy’s opposition to 1860s-70s Reconstruction, 1900s Progressive Era, 1930s New Deal, and 1960s Great Society reformist public policies, as well as the broader enfranchisement represented by Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement. 

(and, while embodying specific forms of progress, the reforms of those eras still never went far enough in inclusion and avoidance of harm to vulnerable people and the planet – but that’s a discussion for a different day)

Make no mistake – this autocratic neoliberalism is deliberate and it is comprehensive in its approach. And it has become much more efficient, skillfully manipulative, and technologically adept in its reach. 

At a national level, what we witness in the current president is jaw-dropping in its awfulness, but it is an unsurprising outcome of the trajectory of this country since the Reagan era (and that trajectory has been advanced by both parties, though to different degrees. The Democratic party under both B. Clinton and Obama has also been actively complicit, though Republican abdication of public interest has been of an entire different magnitude. Both are problematic, but one is clearly worse). 

It is wholesale capitulation to the mechanisms of concentrated private profit and ownership – at the expense of everything else, even human life, in a wholesale philosophy of commodification. 

Trump is more unprincipled – and louder – in his manipulation of identity politics to secure his power, but he’s just an unvarnished, unrestrained, accelerated embodiment of that whole agenda. 

On the state level, Alabama’s government has always leaned this way. Such tenets are obviously well-enshrined in the 1901 Constitution. But the Powers-that-Were-&-Are did a clever end run on us 2010-2012. Those forces now maintain an effective stranglehold on power in Montgomery, which ensures that Montgomery continues to have a stranglehold on the rest of the state. That Governor Ivey has maintained a mask ordinance in the actual public interest is a wholesale minor miracle.

And as for this city: those same forces of white-supremacy-entrenched, resource-extraction-based capitalism have also long held sway in Birmingham. But there has also been a long tradition of a public sector structured to at least ensure essential public spaces and institutions (libraries, neighborhood associations, public works, parks and rec, schools, and so on). 

It also provided for a civil service sector to run that infrastructure. That essential sector provided economic mobility for those employed and a significant degree of economic stability for their extended networks. The positive effects permeated the entire community for decades.

Here, as elsewhere, that sector has been the subject of political patronage – and some folks ascend and others take a hit as the top of the municipal tickets change. But on the whole, it’s an infrastructure that provides meaningful services, often through longstanding relationships, to the whole of the city – not just those who can pay for perks and private delights and comforts. 

And if properly directed, it’s a structure that could address issues of widespread poverty and the need for a scaffolding of affordable housing, public transit, food security, accessible healthcare, and quality education. 

If properly directed. 

Birmingham municipal leadership has ebbed and flowed in how well it engaged the public sector and the public platform to tend to the needs of ALL its people. That has been a matter of variable commitment, variable integrity, and variable competence at navigating through civic inertias, possibilities, and external constraints. 

What’s going on now is an entirely different game.

Over the last couple of years, Birmingham has fallen fully into line with this orienting principle of neoliberal privatization that we see at work nationally and globally. 

It is premised upon the dismantling of the public sector (other than increasingly militarized mechanisms of social control) in favor of privatization, which can be outright or through ‘public-private partnerships.’

While these forces have long been one part of the equation, the comparatively recent complete embrace represents a paradigm shift in local politics – and it will benefit the affluent, both of this city and of the surrounding suburbs, at the expense of poor and working-class folks (who in this city are overwhelming Black – this is a narrative of institutional white supremacy, regardless of who advances it). 

The direction and intent has been clear for a while now, but the COVID era has offered opportunities to accelerate the process.

The current budget debacle has been a clear illustration. We will see more of such maneuvers in the weeks and months to come, I fear. Last night’s City Council meeting, which ultimately passed that budget, was raw theater for this manipulative power. 

So – the combined forces of the Mayor’s office and a (at least) 5-person lockstep voting bloc of the City Council provides all that the Local Powers That Be need to move the agenda of neoliberal privatization on along full apace.  

The current occupants of those offices are apparently willing to ride that heady mix of power’s endorsement and opportunity. It may continue to get them somewhere, especially if they are willing to resurrect ethics only for superficial viewing in campaign promises. Yet they should be aware that the system they’ve pledged into also regards them as disposable. 

That this paradigm shift took hold by manipulating grassroots electoral methods and promises is a particular sin. When some of you pledged a vow of servant leadership, you certainly did not make clear who and whose interests you intended to serve. 

Things will get complicated as we move on along. The 2021 local elections are already kicking in. Some of the critiques we are hearing now and in the time to come are motivated by the speaker’s own political ambitions and opportunism. Let us listen for that – and ask questions. There may be true and honest leaders – and we need those leaders with wisdom and integrity – mixed among those folks, but we will have to discern carefully. Nothing and no one is a given.  

There will also continue to be people who genuinely believe in actual equity, care, and justice for people and the planet – enacted with skill and with a dedicated concern for civic and common good. There are people with real integrity speaking into this struggle. I do my best to count among that number. My own personal interests might be better served by being quiet, but the ethical imperatives of my faith compel me to speak out. This is pastoral work and this is a Christian commitment for me.

On the national level, the choices are pretty clear, if less than we might have hoped for. 

Closer to home, we’ll have to keep paying attention, keep asking questions, keep making demands on the system that it be more genuinely accountable, equitable, and just in service of the public interest, and keep taking it to the streets when the interests of the commons are unheard and unheeded.

Let us never cease to ask the questions: “who benefits from this” “whom is this intended for?” “who may be harmed by this, whether it’s intentional or not?” And if the answer comes at the expense of marginalized people or the planet for the sake of the Affluent Class or the powers of patriarchy and white supremacy, we have to be ready to speak back and push back. 

Many thanks to all who have worked so hard to create structures for participatory budgeting and people’s power, liberated from political manipulation. Your expertise, dedication, witness, and example are a great gift to us all – and it is my joy to journey with you in this work.

Amen

Weather and Wonder

It’s a sorrow that we consider modern conversation about the weather ‘small talk.’

We live on land under the eternal sky. The weather frames the whole of our everyday experience. Our ancestors lived that way  – and others less insulated from the natural world know it intimately still. 

I wonder if the designation of ‘small’ might be more a reflection of our human hubris, we who are actually only small, wondrous bits within God’s vast creation. 

We find ease in culture’s urbane economic rush to recenter our own selves as the world’s obvious priority.

What might happen if we were to defy the shallow and instead hew more deeply to the experience of the weather? What if we were to allow it as fully into our consciousness in the quiet everyday moments as in the dramatic ones?  

Not only our judgment about its effect on us in any given moment (though “Dang, it’s hot”  is inevitable in some form in Alabama in July), but as a treasured part of being human and an honest transcendent reality. 

What if we were to notice and breathe and give thanks throughout the day? What if we were to study deeply the natural and human-shaped patterns? What if we held fast to reverence and awe and open-ness and the blessing of it all? 

Some ethical and spiritual traditions (religious or not) encourage such a practice, but mostly we are too busy. 

But I wonder who we might be as a people if we were to let wonder change us. 

Amen

Sleeping Gods, Sleeping Demons

I pledge allegiance
to the economy

to the Economy
that hides
behind the flag

of any given
nation

like the
stars and
bars

Oh. Wait.

like the
stars and
stripes

like somehow we
care for people
and rocks and
birds
and trees and
corn and
bread
instead of

for the Dow
for the dollar

for what does,
by chance,
that flag stand for?

I pledge allegiance
to the shred
of privilege

I might find here in
the land of
the free
market.

I pledge allegiance
to the proper
wealth of the
high and mighty
who bought low
and sold high

brought low,
sold high

and who sold
out

the rest
who live
and breathe
and matter.

Life and Death and Neoliberal Capitalism

If you don’t believe in good government and the critical importance of the common good, you will not govern well.

Nor will you promote efforts focused on widespread well-being.

Hardened neoliberal capitalism has been the dominant cultural narrative of power for the last 40 years and the ascendant reactionary force for at least the last 75 years. (note: rooted in LONG-standing cultural and economic forces that trace back much, much further – but I can only do so much here in this post)

At best hardened neoliberal capitalism will not support – and at worst it will crush, co-opt, or privatize for the economic benefit of the (very) few:

– independent, deep-thinking, careful researching, publicly accountable forms of media

– genuinely public services for the greater good, including transit, healthcare, education, housing, food access, and educational institutions like museums and libraries

– public regulation designed to ensure that people with great power do not exploit the rest of us for profit, including regulation of healthcare, airlines, pollution of air, soil, ground- and surface water, finance sectors, ecosystem conservation and destruction, workplace safety, and access to and safety of basic utilities.

– independent institutions that build non-transactional relationships, such as (some) religious communities (*and if you ever want to understand why I lean so heavily into the importance of churches, we can have lovely conversation about this particular point over coffee one day), community organizing, non-exclusive connection based on proximity (such as the best examples of friendship and neighborliness), revolutionary social movements of any form, and a broader cultural understanding of the manifest reality of our interdependence.

– creative expression, psychological insight, and human engagement that cannot be monetized – or that at least deconstructs and resists that form of reductionism.

– ideological or material care for diverse, vulnerable human lives that do not embody the potential for profit.

I’m certain I’ve missed something – and you can let me know if you think of it.

This is not a blanket endorsement of a non-accountable public sector. History is rife with examples of public sector power that has been abused and public sector money that has been exploited for personal enrichment.

Power is a dangerous drug.

Higher education using public funding of student loans to erect fancy bureaucratic castles of prestige and consumer appeal on the backs of debt-burdened students is one good example.

The creation of a financial-bottom-line driven healthcare system, bloated by the manipulation of public sector payments to drive profits, is another.

Collusion with the profit-driven mechanisms of perpetual war is another example still.

YET all that takes place within a deterministic (NOT free) neoliberal capitalism framework of culture and economics.

If we want to come out of this difficult time having made real progress, then we must reject the idolatry of this very particular, contextually-driven cultural-economic system.

It convincingly presents itself as the natural order of things.

It is not.

It is a poisonous human construction sold to us as freedom.

The toxic forces that perpetuate this system are already visibly hard at work.

If we don’t want more of the same, – only worse – we TOGETHER have to demand fundamental challenges and changes to the system.

That STARTS with understanding the nature of that system.

That’s my point here.

Then there is more work to be done.

I do not know exactly what the alternative looks like but I am certain that we can collectively figure it out – if we choose to.

I think we can be sure of some its necessary components, but this post is long enough that I’ll save that for another one.

So for now I’ll stop with the critical analysis of the moment and say

Amen

Learning the Shape of Loss: #COVIDera Edition

A spot of bleach
blossoming on a
new shirt

an old dog’s
eyes that swell
and shut

the time before
“social” met  “distancing”

Told to stay
home we could
not sleep

Two women
fighting in the
cleaning products
aisle

laughter dropped
by 9% with kindness
trailing as the
market for
contentment
opened down
sharply
overseas

A grievous deficit
of touch

If he’s dying
but not from
coronavirus
does it even
count?

I was
going to . . .
Oh. 

Masking tape
with grungy,
peeling edges
announcing safe Xs
across the
floor

Told to stay
home their
dreams died
a
little 

or more
than a
little

32 different plans,
including for
May 12

Some will
not eat

A thousand
in-person social
rituals
per
day

Time for perfect
poems

scratch that:
Time for perfect
anything

The empty
echo of
hymns
unsung

I couldn’t
visit you

Told to stay
home, they faced
greater dangers
there than
any virus 

it is only
death
after all

Kicking a drunk
man out of
church
because
he can’t
stand
back

Speaking of –
told to stay
home, they
had no
home

Oh no
not her

The brainspace
taken up
by
Zoom knowledge

All sense of what
day it is

A significant part
of our
ever-loving
minds

The memory of
the last time
we went
there
before
this
all
happened.

 

 

a #coronaclypse lament

In the Clifton Strengths Finder , my greatest gift is Connectedness.

For those not familiar with the Clifton measure, Connectedness measures faith in the inter-connectedness of all things and dedication to seeing and building patterns of relationship among people.

It’s funny in some ways, in that the next 4 of my personal gifts are all aspects of strategic thinking. Cumulatively, that weights strategic thinking as my strongest quality.

(the first paywall first gives you the top 5, though I’ve done the whole 34 – it reveals what those who know me well would likely expect)

There’s no shortage of room for strategic thinking in this moment.

And connection (in the right dose for any given person – I see you and respect you, my introvert friends) – is part of what we need most right now.

Yet the constraints of contemporary life were already making it harder, especially in its non-transactional-economics-driven guises – and now we have this moment. And we have the ways in which the grim forces of this moment threaten to further constrain (and capitalize upon) our spirits.

Having left my indispensable pocket notebook on my desk during my weekly mail check visit a couple of days ago and finding myself lost without it, I walked the couple of miles to the church and back this afternoon.

I am lucky, in that doing so allowed me the opportunity to wave to neighbors I know and those I don’t and serendipitously to a number of friends.

The distance among us, however necessary and appropriate, felt wrenching today – and made all the more so by how dependent our vitally important cyber-connections are on the tools of surveillance capitalism.

I was already tired of ‘promoting things’ — really important, meaningful things – and of navigating the ethics of promoting important things so that they are not buried in the noise of neoliberal capitalist marketing – or reliant upon toxic methodologies even for good ends.

And it’s harder now – and worse now – and we have little idea of how it will turn out or how to figure out a way to do it any better, try as we might.

These moments of cultural connection pale in some ways in relation to the life and death exigencies of COVID suffering – and I would not in a million years detract from our attention to those needs.

But this is the stuff of meaningful living – and it makes me sad right now.

There is of course always hope and faith and always work to be done – and I have the former in ample supply and the latter as a disposition.

I am just taking a moment for lament, as one part of this era’s season of griefs.

I both appreciate and further grieve that our collective mournings are part of what connects us at this time.

Amen

The Internet and Private Space

As I was working on the wording of last Sunday’s sermon the other day, I stumbled over some wording that stirred up my thinking about one of the complexities of this moment. 

As I was writing, I tossed out the comment “in public on the internet.” 

I left the phrase in my sermon because it fit in contrast to “in public in person” for conveying the intent of a relatively minor point.

Yet I knew even then that it was problematic. 

Because there is no public space on the internet.  

Every online space is also a product, a personally or organizationally branded and controlled transactional, manipulated invention. 

There are people and organizations that offer opn spaces, but ultimately such a space still belongs to the entity that curates or moderates it,  that constructs it or pays for its domain name and server space. 

As with all things, there are trade offs. 

Online spaces are more accessible than physical ones for a range of folks and a range of reasons. 

That is good.

At the same time, they are less accessible to others. 

That is not good. 

And beyond the question of accessibility, they are still privately controlled. They produce and are a product of the ongoing erosion of public space, the wholesale dominance of an enacted ideology of privatization. 

Some of us are deeply disturbed by hardened postmodern neoliberal capitalism’s commodification of all things, its reduction of all matters of life to economic transactionalism. 

A shift of activity from physical spaces to online ones inescapably intensifies the process of privatization. 

I don’t see how it cannot, at least not under contemporary paradigms of privatized internet space. 

And of course I’m participating in one right here. 

Before all this started, I had begun studying Shosana Zuboff’s work on surveillance capitalism – and also begun trying, if not to extricate myself and the church from it – because I’m not sure that’s even possible – at least to develop alternative ways of communication and representation as well. 

But in the urgency of this moment, I’ve had to set that aside and lean fully into efficient, broad-reaching, monetized privately controlled internet spaces – like this one and like Google’s suite of products – for the purposes of conversation, substantive work, and meaningful connection beyond the walls of my household. 

I simply don’t have the resources of time, energy, money, and knowledge to do otherwise and still get all the necessary (or at least a significant portion of the necessary) things done. 

Even beyond those exigencies, I’m increasingly aware of how our cultural worldview and expectations – perhaps even our ways of understanding knowledge-making and being – are being shaped by our reliance on and seduction by such pervasive privatized methods and mediums/media. 

It can be democratic in certain ways, but in all things it is entirely reliant on the money and control mechanisms of the private market. 

I am SURE there are folks working in this field, likely even in analyzing and theorizing cultural production in the COVID era – and it may be that Zuboff has more to say about this in particular and I just haven’t gotten there. 

So this is still an evolving thought on my part – and I need to do more lit search to properly situate it. 

But I want to go ahead and set it out there because it’s important as a touchstone of understanding about how we are forming and being formed by powerful forces motivated by particular agendas (some of which are good in my opinion and some not – but it’s critical to recognize them as private agendas operating in privatized spaces no matter what). 

I welcome thoughts and feedback, as well as references to work by others in this area.  

Easter and the Capitalist Resurrection

Never mind that
you are gasping
for breath
and still
contagious.

Come sunrise
on Resurrection Day,
you will surely see
the (dollar) signs
gathered
round the
idol’s outstretched
grasping
hand

No stone of
conscience
to roll
away

Christ, the
Market is
Risen
today.
Ahhhh
le
lu
YEAH
we are
back in
business

All Hail the
Power of
Preserv’d
Profit as
Elijah and
Moses
would surely
agree.

Lord we lift your
Golden Calf
on high

Up from the
Grave the
Economy
Arose and
We All
Rejoiced

Human Condition, 2020 – Part I

I started the day
with a poem
which got interrupted
by something,
important,
that got
interrupted,
which then was
interrupted
by something
important
that got interrupted
by something
else,
important,
leaving me
late to
where I was
supposed
to be.

Several
interruptions
followed. 

And then came
more
important
interruptions
stacked
one
on
top
of
the
other.

Facing west,
late (again)
to the next
important thing,
the sunset
stretched orange
across the
full
sky,
interrupting
my hurry,
leaving me
breathing,
with my poems
tucked neatly
in my pocket
til there is time.