I attended General Assembly as both a delegate from my congregation and as a candidate for UUA Trustee. To prepare for my role as a delegate, I attended two potluck dinner meetings with fellow congregants to hear what they had to say about the business at hand, especially about the Bylaws rewrite, and the work of the Article II Study Commission. The overwhelming message from my small congregation was that freedom of belief and congregational polity must be preserved.
As a candidate, my goals were similar to that charge: reinvigorate the democratic process in the UUA, and promote freedom of expression and diversity of thought. Really, without diversity of thought, the democratic process is just a hollow shell. Many of the dictators of the world have been duly elected with 95 – 100 percent of the vote. Democratic processes are not a guarantee of freedom, but without democracy, freedom is impossible. The two are so closely bound together that I cannot say which idea is more fundamental.
For the past six years, I have been engaged in public conversations, both as a citizen and as an elected public servant. I have learned much about communication – how it can be used to divide and conquer or connect and build. So in the several weeks leading up to General Assembly, I prepared not just what I wanted to communicate, but how I wanted to communicate. My expectation was that I would be heading into a space in which most people would disagree with me, some of them quite vehemently, and so with great intention, I opened myself up to the opportunities that awaited me to learn and share, to connect and grow.
I expected to feel like a new seedling, heading into a rainforest for the first time – a great crowd of unfamiliar beings, some competitive, some cooperative. The challenge before me was to find enough light in which to grow, and I planned to find that light by connecting with others.
Instead, what happened was that I was sprayed with Round-up. At least, that’s what it felt like.
Because the deadline for booths in the assembly hall was far before the deadline for candidates to submit petitions, I was not able to obtain a physical booth. So what I planned to do was campaign person-to-person (as I have done as a candidate in my city, out on the street), to hand out literature and buttons with liberal messages on them as a means of making contact. There had been a recently-published Policy on Literature Distribution that read (in part), “distributed information should be related to the GA program and events.” I was confident that as a candidate for election (a GA event), I would be allowed to distribute campaign information.
However, I was informed by the Election Campaign Practices Committee that no, I was not allowed to distribute literature, despite my literature being related to a GA event as per the policy. I was relegated to the sidewalk in the “free speech zone,” forty or so yards from the entrance. There were only a few times a day when it made sense to stand outside, and so unfortunately, I had few interactions. Overall, I feel disappointed about my experience at General Assembly 2022. The vibe inside the assembly hall was in opposition to and sometimes openly hostile to liberals; overall, the entire event struck me as extremely manipulative. In all ways and at nearly all times, the delegates were primed to think and vote according to the wishes of UUA leadership. More than once I heard the message that the UUA should move away from liberalism and towards “liberation,” should move away from the individualism of our First Principle and towards the collectivism of so-called Covenants. Other keywords were “evolution,” “transformation,” and “radical reimagination.” I lost track of the number of times Susan Frederick-Gray said, “This is a liminal time.” (Liminal means transformational. I looked it up after.) I thought to myself, “Well, it’s only liminal because you are pushing for it to be so.” UUA leadership could just as easily have said, “In these difficult times, it is more important than ever that we stick to our liberal values and promote them in the world.” Sadly, that is the opposite message from the one I heard.
The Bylaws were openly ignored and scoffed at. Business Resolution #2, which suspended the General Assembly Planning Committee, was – I believe – illegal, but that evidently didn’t matter to 95% of delegates who voted in favor. There was a long presentation by the committee overseeing the Actions of Immediate Witness, discussing problems they perceived with the process. More than one committee member spoke at length about the issues, with constant plaintive interjections that they can’t do it any differently, “because of the Bylaws.” (That’s an actual quote.) It was as if the Bylaws are not something like the constitution of our Association, carefully crafted over 61 years – not perfect, but debatable and changeable – but are instead nothing but a set of chains forged by uncompromising fuddy-duddies. Ninety-five percent of delegates voted in favor of a complete Bylaws rewrite.
Based on the way the candidates by petition were treated at GA, I have no reason to think that the Bylaws rewrite will include a provision for petition candidacy, the only provision that results in elections for most leadership positions. Based on the fact that the Article II Study Commission wants to know what our values “require of our congregations,” I have no reason to think that congregational polity will be preserved. Based on the saturated messaging of what I call Critical Identitarianism, which places power at the center of every human interaction and social structure, and which uses control of speech to preserve that power, I have no reason to believe that freedom of belief or expression will be preserved either. In fact, freedom was not even included as a UU value in the presentation of the A2SC.
In short, I was disappointed both as a candidate and as a congregational delegate, having been exhorted to stand up for freedom, democracy, and congregational polity. But to the best of my ability, and with much help from my friends, I did speak up, and will continue to do so.
Two Important Things
Join the Fifth Principle Project. It’s free. The Fifth Principle Project is an organic grassroots initiative to gather into community Unitarian Universalists who want to reinvigorate the right of conscience and renew the democratic process in the governing of our denomination.
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