Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Meeting My Inner Authoritarian

Reflection delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco on October 23, 2016.

The first trouble I remember getting into at school was in fifth grade. A student teacher was in charge for the week, and each student was given a daily allotment of blocks. Going to the bathroom now cost three blocks, a drink of water two, and one to sharpen a pencil. I thought this was unfair, and quickly used up my allotment with trips to the bathroom and pencil sharpener, and then boldly walked over to the water fountain. I was told I’d be eating my lunch in the classroom while my friends went out to the school yard. I couldn’t tell you today exactly what inspired my protest, and I didn’t win any classmates over to the cause, but I continued it for the week. The lonely lunches indoors felt right, for some reason.

Dia de las Mujeres, Managua, Nicaragua

I’ve found myself resisting authority in different ways over the years since: marching against both Bushes’ wars on Iraq, sitting against the Sit Lie law, camping out with Occupy San Francisco, en las marchas con mis companeras y companeros en Nicaragua, and dressing as Afraid the Clown to fly across country – the TSA were really good natured about the last one, and it brought a lot of smiles, but it also seems to have gotten me on a watch list. For many years, I’ve identified as a Fool, who was the one who spoke truth in the King’s court, regardless of the risk.

Yes, I have been an egalitarian consensus loving . . . fool, wearing my contempt for authority and hierarchy with pride for years.

Then I became a father. The beginning part was easy – aside from being stressed and muddle-minded from a lack of sleep – it was all about caring for and wondering over the beauty of this amazing little being. Then, they started to move, and it became about: “Don’t grab that electrical wire, take this toy instead.” “Wait! Don’t crawl headfirst down those stairs!” “Ahhh! You’re about to run into traffic!” Which kept me on my toes, but I didn’t mind because they don’t know any better. Somehow, when I first thought “now it seems like he’s doing it on purpose,” and put my son in his room to calm down, he realized that he could just walk right out. At that moment, he became the protester, and I became – the cop?

I tried – still try – to be kind and reasonable: “Buddy, I need you to stay in your room until you’re ready to not throw things.” “Hell no! We won’t go!” – Not his exact words, but you get the picture. I began to see in my actions, and even my thoughts, the behavior and logic of what we radicals – can I call myself that? – call The State and Its Agents: “I’m stopping you from doing something you’ll regret later.” “I’m doing this for the good of the community (or, in this case, the household.)” “I’m confining you until you agree to behave differently.” “I’m just trying to restrain you, not to hurt you.” Of course, the stakes are lower in our confrontations, and no one ends up bruised, let alone with broken bones or a bullet in their back.

As I watch my son resisting authority which must seem to him arbitrary and at times unreasonable, using the techniques of those with no more to resist with than their mind and body, I find myself full of questions. Is my parental authority absolute and legitimate? Are there times when the use of force is appropriate? Is there a truth I should be listening to in even his most unreasonable screaming and tantrums? In his hitting?

In calm moments like this, I am grateful for how my son reflects the world back to me, and keeps me always learning. And, though sympathetic toward his teachers and other adults, I’m proud to be raising a resistor, especially in this world where unjust authority needs to be resisted by those who can.

Perhaps I’ll teach him a song we once sang to cops arresting protesters:


“You can forbid almost anything, but you can’t forbid me to think. You can’t forbid my tears to fall, and you can’t close my mouth while I sing.”

Walking into place

On the 17 hour Amtrak ride from San Francisco to Portland, I struggled to understand exactly what I was making the trip for. Some things were clear: I want to spend time with my sister, her husband, and their 10-day old baby. Portland is one of my favorite cities to be in (not just because of my family). And the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly is here, and I will host a Street Retreat here on Saturday, as I have at GAs in Long Beach, Ft. Worth, St. Louis, and Ft. Lauderdale, as well as the 2008 Assembly in Portland.

I questioned: How could time on streets compete with a brand-new nephew? How could I connect meaningfully with the convention without paying the $400 registration (I had not requested a scholarship or volunteer shift in advance defray the cost)? Why would I sleep on the same streets, at the same convention alone, where I had with 3 other Fools in 2008?

After an evening with an adorable baby and his family, and a good night's sleep on an air-bed, I set out for the convention center on foot this morning.

Walking the streets has a remarkable ability to orient me to my relationship to a place.

As I came down Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, through historically African American neighborhoods being transformed through gentrification, I stopped at a mural on the side of a community health center. It read: "Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival. - Rene' Dubos...1981" Those words drew me into reflection on tolerance, and what we might offer each other beyond tolerance 34 years later.

I also met Simon with Boo-Boo, his 16-year-old poodle, panhandling drivers "to take care of Boo-Boo," who won't eat the dog food offered by local charities. He directed me to Blanchett House to find a free meal.

By the time I reached the convention center, it occurred to me that my work was to ground myself in the local ecology and bear witness to what happens on the boundaries between the convention and the streets.

The Faithful Fools often talk about bearing witness being our work, but remembering sometimes feels like revelation. 
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