Sermon: Why I Don’t Talk About Trump

2019 September 22
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons


Why I Don’t Talk About Trump

Ana Levy-Lyons

September 22, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


My kids have been wanting a small cabinet to keep their art supplies in. Actually, to be precise, I’ve been wanting them to have one so that their markers and crayons would no longer be all over the living room floor because they’re spilling over the sides of the crappy old basket we’ve been using. So the other day I go to Staples to try to find and buy this thing. I find a simple metal cabinet that will do the job. And I’m carrying it toward the cash register when I’m stopped by a very concerned employee who says, “Oh, you can’t buy that – that’s the floor model. You have to order it online from one of our computers here.” Okay, fine, so I bring it back to its place and go with the guy over to the computer to order it. When he pulls the cabinet up on the screen and starts to take my info, I notice that it costs $10 more than it says on the display. I point this out to him and he says, “Well that’s just the in-store price, online it’s different.”

 “What do you mean the in-store price?! I just tried to buy it in the store and you wouldn’t let me!” He laughs uncomfortably. I actually have to push back a second time before he relents and says that they will “match” the price that was advertised in their own store.

 Now, you might think that this was just a corporate error – the prices for things are always changing – or maybe the guy was new and didn’t know. But in general, this kind of ploy is actually part of corporations’ business models. You’ll see it if you try to call up your mobile phone company and ask them to match a deal you got offered by another company. They’ll tell you it’s impossible until you actually begin the mildly aggressive process of canceling your service with them. Then they’ll bend over backwards to give you the very things that they said were impossible before. They will push you right to the breaking point to see how much they can get out of you before they lose your business.

Locating that precise breaking point is actually a booming tech field right now. There are hot startups that monitor calls to customer service lines and calculate the level of exasperation in the customer’s voice. The chief strategy officer for one of these startups loves to talk about the potential goldmine latent in the tone of people’s voices. “Voice is the last offline data set,” he explained. Depending on how close the customer is to the breakpoint, the AI will direct the customer service rep to give them more or give them less. Figure out exactly how much they will pay and charge them that much. Figure out exactly how much misery they will endure and allow exactly that much. Do not spend an extra dime or an extra minute on a human encounter.

And of course as dehumanizing as corporations’ relationships are with customers, it’s even worse with their employees. Until workers can be replaced by machines, they are treated like machines. I’m sure that guy I was interacting with was paid as little as Staples could pay him, with as few benefits as they could get away with giving him. The average CEO now makes 271 times the salary of the lowest-paid employee. We’ve all heard the stories if not experienced these things ourselves: Walmart refusing to give employees predictable hours so they can plan for childcare. XPO Logistics forcing pregnant workers to keep lifting heavy boxes of Verizon phones throughout their pregnancy, not giving bathroom breaks. In the warehouses that pack and ship all our online orders, the working conditions are becoming Dickensian. And then, to mask the exploitation, companies like Amazon pay workers to post happy statuses on social media, raving about how great it is to work for them.

All of this pits people against one another. Workers against workers. Neighbors against neighbors. Customers against employees.  To buy that cabinet at Staples that day, I had to have that brief moment of conflict with another human being. It was a very mild conflict; it was no big deal when taken just on its own. But the system was not set up to, shall we say, encourage us to see the holy in one another. These constant little frictions and de-sanctifications in life under corporate capitalism add up to alienation. People feel isolated. Deaths of despair are on the rise – that’s deaths by suicide, overdose, and addiction. We’re all being pushed to the breakpoint. Mass shootings are in the news practically every day. Immigrants are being caged as if they were criminals. And the delicately balanced edifice of our water and air and climate and soil is terrifyingly close to a collapse from which we and millions of other species may not recover.

None of this began on November 8th, 2016. November 8th 2016 was an energetic convergence of the ugliest and most destructive forces in American culture, congealed in one spectacular manifestation. (And I mean “spectacular” in the sense of spectacle.) Here before our eyes was a concentrated form of the great absence – the spiritual poverty at the core of so much of our society. Here was an exaggeration – almost a caricature – of the values that animate our economy: our voices are just a data set; the natural world is a set of resources to be exploited; the interests of business supersede all other interests; life is a zero sum game of winners and losers; women exist for the pleasure of men; whiteness is normative and superior; wealth generated by slavery is legitimate wealth and may be protected by force; wealth generated by the genocide of native peoples is legitimate wealth and may be protected by force; wealth generated by the destruction of other species and ecosystems is legitimate wealth and may be protected by force; the future may be sacrificed for the present.

During the last election cycle, these values surfaced, fully visible, fully legible, unmasked, unashamed, practically shooting people on Fifth Avenue for all the world to see. They surfaced, they were not born. And on November 8, 2016 the American people affirmed these values as our own. But wait, you might protest! The American people did not do this. Those values lost by almost 3 million votes! And this is true. But it’s not a coincidence that the system that ensured their victory anyway – the Electoral College – was a system first designed to fortify the power of slaveholders. To this day it works to give the historical slaveholding states and rural states disproportionate power. And in over 200 years we’ve been unable (?), unwilling (?) to change this.

And then almost half the country didn’t vote at all. There were lots of reasons why people didn’t vote, but maybe most upsettingly, some stayed home because they sensed that the enormous difference that many of us saw between the two candidates was not real. And there is a grain of truth in this: the values that surfaced in the 2016 election are deeply baked into the structure and spiritual subconscious of this country. They are in all of us, like the micro-plastics that are now in our bloodstreams. They don’t reside in any one person alone.

All of this is not to say that the occupant of the White House has not done harm. His words and actions have led to horrific violence of all kinds. He has jeopardized our future. But he couldn’t do much without the active and passive collusion of the people of this country. When he deregulates an industry, he doesn’t make them do bad things, he just allows them to do bad things. He gives license; we give consent. When he rolls back auto emissions rules, he doesn’t cause the auto industry to make less fuel-efficient cars; we do, by buying them. The Amazon is burning because farmers set fires to clear the land for beef and soy. The whole world, including us, buys that beef and the pork and chicken raised on that soy. That’s why the Amazon is being destroyed. It’s not the madman in the White House or the madman in Brasilia.

And that Staples where I bought that metal cabinet – it had driven out the little mom and pop office supply store that used to be in the neighborhood. They were able to do that because people like me shop there. As much as I claim to hate it, I supported the rise of multinational chains like Staples. And as much as I deplored that moment of friction between me and my brother the sales guy, I played the game and I bought the cabinet anyway; I gave my consent to de-sanctifying relationships in the service of commerce. And as much as I deplore the extraction of metals and fossil fuels from the earth, I bought that cabinet anyway; I gave my consent to plundering the land in the service of convenience. I believe that it’s wrong to buy something new when I already have something serviceable. I didn’t need that thing. My kids definitely didn’t need that thing – they didn’t care. But I bought it anyway.

I don’t talk about the occupant of the White House, not because what I might say about his sins would not be accurate, but because it would not be useful. The change has to come from us. The change has to come from us.

This is bad news and it’s good news. It’s bad news because it’s really hard. My family and I all really like that metal cabinet. It’s clean, it’s simple, it has drawers and my kid’s markers and crayons are all neatly contained in those drawers now instead of all over the living room floor. It seems like a reasonable, modest thing to have bought, not a luxury. And most of what we have to change feels just like this. It feels like normal stuff. Absolutely shoulder-shruggingly normal. It doesn’t feel evil. It’s just the way we’ve always done things. It’s our culture. That sense of what’s normal is exactly what has to change. And it’s so hard because it’s so deep inside us. It’s the water we swim in. We have to change not only what we buy, but how we speak, how we spend our time, and ultimately how we think and what we want out of life.

The good news is that we are far more powerful than we think. We don’t have to rely on the government to solve the problems of our world (especially when it’s clearly not going to). We can take matters into our own hands. Some of us have more choice than others, based on our privilege, in what we have to do to get through the day. But every action we take, no matter how small, is dense with meaning because it has a ripple effect. In everything we do we have a chance to advance a love larger than us. What we do together as a community has an even greater ripple effect. What we need is spiritual culture change, and we have opportunities almost every hour of every day to change our culture. In Ann Frank’s words, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

The other good news is that we are not alone in this. We can lean on our religious community and traditions. From the vantage point of faith, we can swim in different waters. Those toxic values that surfaced like a sea monster on November 8, 2016 may seem all powerful these days. But through our religious imagination, through our myths and storytelling and testimony, we can turn them inside out. We can nurture a vision of an alternative, like blowing on coals to make a flame. Together, we can envision the liberation of the oppressed. We can envision other people not as adversaries, but as siblings. We can envision a relationship with the earth grounded in humility and reverence; an ethic of caring for the Garden with which we’ve been entrusted. It does not belong to us – we belong to it. We can envision each person as made in the image of the holy, whoever they are, whomever they love, wherever they are on their life journey, whatever the color of their skin or their country of origin, whatever their gender and whatever the source of their faith.

And if we see it, if we can see the world like this, we can be it.  We can live these visions into reality. This circles us back to what I preached about last week – living a religious life. We get to live as if it matters how we live – because it does. Religious practices give voice to our faith.

That tech startup guy was right when he said that voice is the last offline data set. But our voices belong to us and to no one else. With our voices we can sing of the world we believe is possible. With our voices we can say, “I love you.” With our voices, we can tell the tech guys that they don’t have to calculate when we’re going to reach our breaking point. We’ve reached it already and we’re calling forth a different way of living together on this planet for ourselves, for each other, for our children, and for all the creatures of the earth.

One Response
  1. C. Borcsik permalink
    September 26, 2019

    Just wanted you to know I was at church to hear this
    sermon and I enjoyed it immensely!

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