Sunday, April 18, 2010

Great Fun With a Scientist and a Priest at U of Chicago

Last night I was part of a fantastic evening with Bob Bossie (a rather radical priest), and PZ Myers (a wonderful atheist & scientist), at University of Chicago titled, “A Communist, a Scientist, and a Priest Sat Down to Discuss… Morality to Change the World.”

A couple hundred students and others packed in and most of them stayed riveted until finally our moderator, Ted Jennings (Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary) called it an evening.

PZ posted a short blog entry about the evening, along with the notes of his opening remarks, here:

Once the conversation began, things moved quickly over a wide range of subjects and we never fully made it back to PZ’s statements about the relationship between science and morality – but I’ll say here that I strongly agree that science cannot answer questions of ought, that bringing science to bear in arguing what ought to be done in no way guarantees the interests of humanity will be pursued, but that attempting to answer questions of ought without science is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Check out his comments, in particular those he writes about what is wrong with both secular and religious arguments against homosexuality.

Bob Bossie is extremely committed to the struggles of the oppressed both in this country and around the world. He began his presentation with a quote that I am paraphrasing, but which essentially posed that, “If they come for the innocent and do not step over your body, cursed be your religion and cursed be your life.” I am proud to say that he and I both recently added our names to this statement organized by The World Can’t Wait calling on people to resist the unjust wars, torture, and repression that continue under Obama entitled, “Crimes Are Crimes - No Matter Who Does Them.” []

Usually, if a moderator does a good job it means that their role is not particularly notable. Ted was a bit different than this. His comments and questions, although brief, stimulated me (and I suspect others) to think quite a bit harder – in very good ways. At one point, after I spoke about how people’s sense of what is natural and of right and wrong changes as the way that society is organized changes (for instance, many used to argue that slavery was just “natural” but very few think this anymore, and many today argue that being focused on “me first” is “natural” but after a revolution when people are no longer forced to compete to survive that will no longer seem so), Jennings replied, “So, we are talking about morality to change the world, but also changing the world to change morality.” You get the idea – he’s a deep guy.

The audience asked about many things, including quite a few questions about communism and revolution. They asked about the history of communism, whether the Revolutionary Communist Party has the right to claim it is the vanguard party, whether vanguard party’s are even necessary or desirable, and (among other questions about revolution and communism) about the policies in the Soviet Union post-WWII when the early advances around women’s liberation were largely reversed with a revival of patriarchy. One guy asked a very profound question which, frankly, more people ought to be asking; whether the kind of upheaval and destruction that accompanies revolutions can be morally justified… but at the same time can refusing to make revolution, or to take bold actions to urgently address the suffering humanity is facing on a grand scale, morally justifiable? I spoke about the learning curve of communist experience and challenged people to get into the new synthesis of communism and revolution that Bob Avakian has developed – with some particular emphasis on some of his most recent work re-examining the centrality of the fight for women’s full liberation as a central and driving force for revolution starting now and all the way through till two radical ruptures: with all traditional property relations and all traditional ideas.

There were MANY other questions as well (I told you, folks stayed late and kept their hands up!) – about science, about religion, about the environmental catastrophes closing in on the planet, how to overcome distrust between different cultures, the role of the internet and new technologies in changing the world, the Tea Party movements, the rising global human population and its implications, humanism, and more.

The students who organized it should be proud of what they did.

At several points the question of gradual change versus a total revolution came up. I argued not only that things are too intolerable for humanity to take the gradual approach, but even more fundamentally that the depth of change that is needed is structural and not change within this system. That a revolution is much more finite, that is, the seizing of the power and the establishment of a new state power – but that that is only the beginning. A revolution really only clear the ground, uproots the economic structures and repressive capitalist state that requires and enforces relations of exploitation and oppression. But, transforming all the social relations, attitudes, ways of thinking and even of feeling takes much more time. But if you don’t make a revolution you can’t even really begin that process and that our responsibility now is to fight to hasten and prepare for a revolutionary situation.

Today, a friend of mine recalled a passage from Wallace Shawn’s extraordinary play, “The Fever,” which is entirely relevant to this question of “gradual change.” It was so good when I went back and re-read it that I am going to excerpt a lengthy passage from it here. Take your time and really take it in.


So we have everything, but there's one difficulty we just can't overcome, a curse: we can't escape our connection to the poor.

We need the poor. Without the poor to get the fruit off the trees, to tend the excrement under the ground, to bathe our babies on the day they're born, we couldn't exist. With out the poor to do awful work, we would spend our lives doing awful work. If the poor were not poor, if the poor were paid the way we're paid, we couldn't afford to buy an apple, a shirt, we couldn't afford to take a trip, to spend a night at an inn in a nearby town. But the horror is that the poor grow everywhere, like moss, grass. And we can never forget the time when they owned the land. We can never forget the death of their families, those vows of revenge screamed out in those rooms that were running with gore. And the poor don't forget. They live on their rage. They eat rage. They want to rise up and finish us, wipe us off the earth as soon as they can.

And so in our frozen world, our silent world, we have to talk to the poor. Talk, listen, clarify, explain. They want things to be different. They want change. And so we say, Yes. Change. But not violent change. Not theft, not revolt, no revenge. Instead, listen to the idea of gradual change. Change that will help you, but that won't hurt us. Morality. Law. Gradual change. We explain it all: a two-sided contract: we'll give you things, many things, but in exchange you must accept that you don't have the right just to take what you want. We're going to give you wonderful things. Sit down, wait, don't try to grab— the most important thing is patience, waiting. We're going to give you much much more than you're getting now, but there are certain things that must happen first—these are the things for which we must wait. First, we have to make more and we gave to grow more, so more will be available for us to give. Otherwise, if we give you more, we'll have less. When we make more and we grow more, we can all have more—some of the increase can go to you. But the other thing is, once there is more, we have to make sure that morality prevails. Morality is the key. Last year, we made more and we grew more, but we didn't give you more. All of the increase was kept for ourselves. That was wrong. The same thing happened the year before, and the year be-fore that. We have to convince everyone to accept morality and next year give some of the increase to you.

So we all have to wait. And while we're waiting, we have to be careful. Be-cause we know you. We know there are some who are the violent ones, the ones who won't wait. These are the destroyers. Their children are dying, sick—no medicine, no food, nothing on their feet, no place to live, vomiting on the streets. These are the ones who are drunk with rage, with their lust for revenge. We know what they've planned. We've imagined it all a thousand times. We imagine it every single day. The sound at the door—that odd "crack"—the splintering sound—then they break through the lock and run in yelling, pull us up from where we're gathered at the family table, having our meal, pull our old parents out from the bathroom, pull the little ones up from their beds, then they line us all up together in the hall, slap us, kick us, curse us, scream at us, our parents bleeding our children bleeding, pulling the children's clothes from the closets, the toys from the shelves, ripping the pictures off the walls. What will they do to us? we ask each other. What?—are they giving all the homes to people who now are living in the streets?

Then terrible stories—shops torn apart, random killing, the old professor given a new job: cleaning toilets at the railroad station.

It seems impossible—can that possibly have happened? A mob of criminals—or unemployed louts—people who a year ago were starving in slums? Are they going to be running the factories now, the schools, everything, the whole country, the whole world?

We have to prevent it, although the violent ones are everywhere already, teaching the poor that the way things are is not God-given, the world could be run for their benefit. And so we have to set up a special classroom for the poor, to teach the poor some bloody lessons from the past—all the crimes committed by the violent rebels, the followers of Marx. Shove the lessons of history down their throats. History, history. The crimes. The oppression. The famines. The disasters. Teach the poor that they must never try to seize power for themselves, because the rule of the poor will always be incompetent, and it will always be cruel. The poor are bloodthirsty. Uneducated. They don't have the skills. For their own sake, it must never happen. And they must understand that the dreamers, the idealists, the ones who say that they love the poor, will all become vicious killers in the end, and the ones who claim they can create something better will always end up by creating something worse. The poor must understand these essential lessons, chapters from history. And if they don't understand them, they must all be taken out and shot. Inattention or lack of comprehension cannot be allowed.

And in places where we find that the classroom is avoided, we must warn the poor that even the innocent are going to get hurt. We can't accept violence against the symbols of law, the soldiers, the police. We have to kill the ones who commit those crimes. But if the violence goes on for a long time, then the ones whose older sisters and brothers we've already killed may be so full of rage that they don't fear death. And to control those people, we may have to go farther—cut out their tongues, cut up their faces, force them to watch us torture their parents, watch the soldiers rape their children. It's the only way to control people who don't fear death.

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posted by Sunsara Taylor at 12:45 AM


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