Reading this essay, I quickly concluded that Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister Cecilia Kingman was not chosen for her erudition on fascism, especially in its current North American context, let alone in UU circles. Fascist tactics from the far Right are in-your-face on the national scene (lying, name-calling, nasty propaganda, conspiracy theories, Jan. 6 insurrection, etc.), But Kingman also posits worrisome fascist values and tactics within historically liberal UU circles.
Now I would certainly agree that there are fascist tendencies in the UUA, but Kingman imagines these where they don’t exist and is blind to where they do exist. I describe these tendencies as “woke identity politics”, using woke, not in its original meaning of “alertness to injustice”, but in this alertness gone overboard into Orwellian abuses of language, revisionist history, and the persecutions now called “cancel culture”, turning the quest for justice into injustice. In fact, this is a key style of fascist thought control in itself – to turn the quest for justice upside down.
This cancel culture is only a milder version of the notorious physical violence and death of classical European fascism. In the larger US society this persecution has seriously damaged human rights, even scientific inquiry, escalating the cultural wars, political polarization, and backlash, instead of dampening and healing divisions by finding common ground.
Within the UUA cancel culture has meant censorship and deplatforming, censure or name-calling, even disfellowshipping of principled ministers (3 in 3 years) who refuse to toe the party line. In other words, open violations of the 4th UU principle (‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning”) and 5th principle (rights of “conscience” and “democratic process”), all rationalized by the doctrines of woke identity politics.
As a life-long UU and leading activist for justice, I was shocked by the highly unethical behavior and institutional capture by anti-UU ideology and practice in 2017. So I spent the next 6 years in study and activism with national dissident groups, building the resistance and forging alternatives. These groups are led by distinguished UUs who’ve been targeted and are populated by UUs who’ve seen all this up close, especially when indoctrinated ministers have left broken congregations in their wake.
A Deeper Dive
To dig deeper, we start by asking “what is fascism” and how Kingman deals with this contentious word. She cites the 10 tactics of fascism listed by Jason Stanley in his book ”How Fascism Works”. But this and other books focus too much on how classic European fascism worked in particular countries in the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes obscuring the essence that is visible in hindsight.
Thus I define the essence of fascism as “A populist system of identity politics, seeking authoritarian rule, with doctrines of victimhood that target ideological and social enemies using vilification combined with persecution or physical violence to impose social order, trampling on human rights and intimidating institutions into submission.”
Note that the identity politics of classic fascism was focused on promoting and exploiting either racial or ethnic identity (Hitler) or nationalistic identity (Mussolini) with Jews and communists being principal targets, while major institutions like industry and religion learned to “go along to get along”.
A key feature of this style of thought and action is that “the ends justify the means”, with idealistic or even mythical ends, a style also found in totalitarian regimes and dogmatic religions. A similar key feature is that it’s a battle between “the virtuous us versus the wicked them”, all based on serious distortions of reality, overriding reason and science.
A third key feature, correctly identified by Kingman, is conformity – that “differences cannot be allowed to flourish” when they might prove disruptive to the ideology or agenda of the regime. A fourth key feature, also noted by Kingman, is that fascism is like a virus, waiting for the right conditions to strike again, but she is not clear about the dominant conditions, such as increasing stress from escalating inequity, insecurity, or poverty.
Cecilia Kingman”s Intellectual Pedigree
Now we look at similarities and differences between classic fascism and the UUA ideology and practices. For this purpose I define the essence of woke identity politics as “An elitist identity politics, especially of race and gender, based on postmodern critical theories of blame and shame, that uses propaganda, censorship, and persecution to impose ideological and social order, instead of impartial democratic and legal processes.”
First notice the differences from the definition of fascism, especially that woke identity politics is elitist – coming out of university departments, intellectually based on sophisticated philosophy. This is the opposite of the crude working class populism of Trump. Another clear difference is that physical violence is replaced by verbal violence to minimize legal repercussions and backlash.
But in both cases, identities serve the same purpose – to mobilize support among the favored identities and their allies and to establish doctrines of victimhood and thus the target identities. But note the difference that the favored identities in the woke case are those “historically marginalized” relative to the dominant culture, whereas in classic fascism, being populist, the favored identities are a key part of the dominant culture.
Kingman cites works I’ve read on fascism by Jason Stanley and Timothy Snyder but not the books by Robert Paxton and Theo Horesh. And she cites no books at all about woke identity politics – her blind spot. I recommend “Woke Racism” by John McWhorter , who cites two UU incident of cancel culture, “The New Puritans” by Andrew Doyle from the UK, “I Feel Therefore I Am” by Mark Goldblatt, “A Self-Confessed White Supremacy Culture” and “(Dis)Continuing Racial Inequality” by Anne Schneider, a very knowledgeable UU, “Against Illiberalism” by David Cycleback, another insightful UU, the satirical “The Rise of the New Puritans” by Noah Rothman, and the classic “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer.
The shallowness of Kingman’s study of fascism is all too evident. She proclaims that “it is plain that in the United States we are in the midst of an orchestrated takeover by fascist political groups.” Now there certainly has been an attempted takeover but the Jan. 6 insurrection failed and was certainly not “well-orchestrated”. Note, moreover, that Trump is often described as a fascist wannabe because he did not control a thuggish secret police or militia and was forced to work within the system when in office. Actual authoritarian rule in the US today has been accomplished by corruption and institutional capture orchestrated by Wall Street, the top corporations, and the billionaires.
Enlightenment Values as Degenerate
A key motive of the new UUA ideology is expressed by Kingman as “moving away from individualism to communitarian values”. This is the powerful collectivist thinking and action sought by all fascist-type regimes. The civic and moral individualism of the UU first principle (“the inherent worth and dignity of each person”) and of the Declaration of Human Rights is portrayed as weak and degenerate compared to the strong and united in body and spirit.
Here we see the conformity that Kingman claims to oppose, and identifies as a key feature of fascism, appearing as conformity of thought to the irrational and intolerant doctrines of woke identity politics, in practice enforced by censorship, bias, and persecution. Note that the one thing that most unites the UUA dissidents is dedication to diversity of thought, not conformity, understanding that we are made stronger and more resilient, not weaker, by learning to deal with this diversity in accordance with the 4th UU principle.
Competing for Status of Victim, the Race to the Bottom
As to victimhood, Kingman begins her Essay by addressing the “systemic harm and trauma, which has unequally targeted us”, meaning that members of marginalized identity groups have been targeted systematically but that the dominant group of cisgender whites, especially males, has been largely spared. Though this has some historical truth, she provides no evidence that it operates that way in the UUA in 2023.
In fact, in the notorious hiring controversy of 2017 and in the Gadfly affair of 2019, the traumatized targets were both cisgender males. Meanwhile the attackers were from historically marginalized groups and their “white allies” and were never held accountable for their vindictive, evidence-free name-calling. Since this dynamic has now been replicated in diverse contexts, we conclude that inverted hierarchies of identity are now at play, with injustices left to fester. Thus Kingman’s viewpoint has an air of unreality or delusion, cited by Stanley as one trait of classic fascism.
Seeing White Supremacy in Her Soup
Kingman’s claim that the UUA has an ongoing “white supremacy culture” (WSC) is equally delutional. In fact, historically UU was centered in New England, not the Old South, with many courageous individuals supporting abolition in the 19th century and later the civil rights movement. There is no evidence for any current practices in the UUA that are being justified by beliefs or attitudes of white racial superiority.
The WSC claim comes across like the anti-white dogma that “all whites are racist” identified by Rev Thandeka in her famous 1999 lecture on “Why antiracism will fail”. Such abuse of language in “whiteness studies” of critical race theory has been described as Orwellian, after George Orwell’s “newspeak” from his novel “1984”. Ironically, DiAngelo and others who weaponize language like “racist” and WSC themselves convey an air of smug, self-righteous superiority, as if acting out the white supremacy they so rightly condemn.
Kingman is equally blind to the results of woke identity politics in the larger society. As someone with many years of experience in local politics, including election to my local school board, Kingman’s ignorance cannot be ignored. In particular, the big voting losses to the Democrats in recent years are mostly their own fault – abandoning much of the working class and regarding them as “deplorables”. In fact, the cultural wars have become an important factor, with woke identity politics throwing gasoline on the fires, not dowsing them.
The 7 Principles are Racist
To Kingman, UUs who defend their 7 principles do this only to protect white privilege, based on a mythical past. This extreme cynicism is totally at odds with reality but consistent with the deeply held anti-white prejudice at the heart of whiteness studies. In fact, Enlightenment principles, including our 7 principles, have never had a mythical past. Citizens have always struggled to maintain them against a wide variety of attacks and corruptions.
Enlightenment principles triumphed against fascism only in WW II and have struggled to stay afloat against the escalating inequality of the last 40 years and now against the onslaught of identity politics and the revival of fascist tactics. The current wording of the 7 UU principles required years of stop and go struggle before finally reaching a consensus in 1985. Today’s leadership is very determined to bury these principles of democratic and just governance – to replace them by the obsession with identities and the tools of conformity. For example, “accountability” no longer refers to a democratic process but means accountable to elite caucuses of certain identity groups who are accountable to no one but themselves.
Instead of propagating stereotypes of privilege, with all the moral baggage of the associated victimhood culture, Kingman should simply proclaim that we all have privilege or competence in certain spheres of our lives and that with these assets comes responsibility. How we choose to understand and fulfill our responsibilities – that’s what makes life rewarding and communities stronger. No finger pointing required.
For example, Kingman assumes that congregational leadership is likely to be male and based on generational wealth, embodying “patriarchal white hegemony”, when the opposite is often true today. An example is my home congregation, where the staff is all female, the leadership mostly female, and the bigger donors are a handful of managers and professionals without generational wealth. Participation is based on what assets everyone brings (knowledge and skills especially), not presumed roles, identity, or status. This is a laid back, humanist culture, hardly the uptight 19th century WASP culture that Kingman portrays as still influential in UU congregations in 2023.
In conclusion, Kingman needs to inform herself about woke identity politics to see the actual fascist tendencies in the UUA today, and she is not much more knowledgeable about the authoritarian threat in the larger society.
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