Monday, July 06, 2009

Wrapping up (Sean)

Photo by cole24

My apologies for taking a full week to get this posted -- once we left GA we had some catching up to do on the rest of our lives.

We've already blogged most of the salient details of our experience at this year's GA, but I promised I would say more about the AIW's and voting thereupon. I'm sorry that I don't have the energy (or, alternatively, scanning software) to enter the text of the proposed AIW's here (I have not found them posted on-line yet, either, but maybe I just don't know where to look), but there were six of them, and the assembly passed all six overwhelmingly. Update: Links to the six AIW's can be found here.

I, however, voted in favor of only a single one, either abstaining or casting my vote in a tiny minority of "opposed" on the rest -- and I will explain my "no" votes in just a moment.

My reasons for abstaining are easier to explain, and I think were unwittingly highlighted by a question asked from the Procedural mic, I think sometime after we had passed the fourth AIW. One of the delegates got up and asked if, by passing these, we were committing to do anything about them. The visceral sense that I had at that moment is that a fair number of delegates in the room were wondering the same thing.

Frankly, many of these AIW's are like mom and apple pie -- it's hard to be against them, conceptually. And it probably makes us feel good to stick our voting cards high in the air to express our support for the sentiments. However, I feel strongly that merely saying we believe something should be done, without actually doing anything, both dilutes our message, and distracts our attention.

The responses to that delegate's question, while accurate, sound almost schizophrenic: Yes, we as an assembly are committing to do exactly what each AIW says we will do -- in most cases, that's to bring the statement/issue back to our congregations for immediate action, including letter-writing campaigns, calls to congresspersons, etc.. In the very next breath, however, is the stipulation that our rules of congregational polity mean that the Assembly can not make any congregation do these things, nor will we get involved in congregational priority-setting. So, really, take it or leave it -- we all voted for it, but whether your congregation does anything about it is really up to them. I, therefore, personally think that voting like this at General Assembly does little more than make the assembled delegates feel good about themselves, without actually either advancing the issues or bringing the faith together. (I recognize that there are exceptions, however.)

Ironically (or perhaps not), the one AIW which I voted in favor of, a call for a Commission of Inquiry on US-sponsored torture, contained only eight "whereas" phrases, followed by a "resolution" calling for such a commission. Nowhere does it state that anyone either in congregations or the UUA will do anything further to advance this cause. I suppose one might hope that the Washington office might do something with this, or perhaps Rev. Morales can take it with him to his next meeting with congress or maybe Secretary of State Clinton, but we did not actually charge anyone to do anything.

I suppose that one of the reasons I abstained from some of the other issues is precisely because they did charge our congregations with doing something (but see above), and yet it seems to me that we, as a movement, have already spread ourselves fairly thinly across a broad range of initiatives, possibly to the point of failing to first adequately care for our own survival as a relevant faith. The last thing I want to do, frankly, is to mandate that every congregation begin a letter-writing campaign to the Bolivian Ambassador calling for a Truth Commission on human rights violations, when I know for certain that some of those congregations are struggling for their very survival in harsh economic times, and we aren't even certain that our own government isn't guilty of human rights violations. Nevertheless, according to the resolution so adopted, I am apparently mandated to write just such a letter myself.

There was, in fact, another resolution which I was initially in favor of -- opposing sexual orientation- and gender-identity-based violence in Iraq. A lofty and admirable goal, to be sure. The resolution commits us to pressure the US government to, in turn, pressure the Iraqi government to deal with this. Ultimately, I was swayed by several impassioned arguments from the Con microphone. Chief among those was that it was rather hypocritical of the US to be bullying anyone else on the planet on these issues, where clearly we have not yet even committed to wiping out these crimes (or even, in some cases, making them crimes) on our own soil.

Another persuasive argument that was made on this issue was that we have committed to being respectful of other cultures and religions, yet here we are committing to tell another culture and/or religion what behavior it must tolerate of its citizens or practitioners. While there is almost never a justification for violence, implicit in our plea here is that persons of non-heterosexual or non-birth-gender identity have an inherent right to a place in that culture. Our values and principles here regarding the rights of the individual are in direct conflict with our values and principles regarding respect for (or non-interference in? Like the "Prime Directive" from Star Trek?) the values and principles of other cultures and religions. The language of the AIW makes no attempt to resolve or even acknowledge this clash.

There were two AIWs to which I was unequivocally opposed. Both involved supporting pending legislation which, to my observation, the vast majority of delegates had not even read. (Perhaps they are little different from actual legislators in this regard.) While I admire the work of the handful of people who worked passionately on these resolutions, my motto is "trust, but verify," and so I undertook to research the legislation myself. Unsurprisingly, given the diversity of both people and opinions within our movement, the views expressed so passionately by these AIW's crafters represent but one side of very complex issues.

One of these was the AIW calling for unequivocal support of HR2894 (aka the "Holt Bill"), HR1826, and S751-752, all of which relate to ensuring fairness and accountability in elections. Again, a lofty and admirable goal. As I mentioned in my last post, I attended a workshop on this particular issue put together by its champions.

Photo by Sokwanele - Zimbabwe

Now, even a quick survey of arguments for and against these bills will turn up a great deal of controversy even among fair-election proponents regarding either their efficacy or their necessity, with a host of election watchdogs expressing a great deal of concern in injecting the federal government into elections that are not, currently, within their purview. But the real gist of the arguments being made by the supporters of this AIW are that honest and fair elections can not happen if computers are involved in any way, and/or if there are no paper ballots.

Now, I am a computer scientist by training (and so, perhaps, I am not unbiased), but this, to me, is hogwash of the highest order. The presumption that mechanical counting machines and/or paper ballots are not subject to tampering or error of any sort is simply unsupportable, and while I admit that tampering with computers may be easier for some people than tampering with lever-machines or paper ballots, the fact is that you can get just as close to tamper-proof or perfectly accurate with an electronic system as you are willing to spend to do so.

One of the arguments raised by this group is that election results can not be left to a single black-box vendor, as they have been in some past situations (due either to budget issues or a lack of technical savvy on the part of governments), and here I could not agree more. I would advocate, in fact, for open-source software to manage electronic voting. Another argument has been that votes can not be verifiably traced to an individual voter absent a paper ballot with a signature, and, here again, this is not true: any number of biometric measurements could be included at the polls, not to identify the voter ahead of time, but to verify her ballot in the case of it being contested, and to ensure that each voter casts a unique vote. One-way cryptographic signature techniques can be used to ensure that the vote can not be tampered with once cast.

A final argument made by this group is that computers have been losing tons of money at banks and financial institutions, who merely write off this loss without allowing the public to see that the computers are fallible. True -- right up until the cost to improve the computer system is lower than the amount being written off. As I said earlier, you can make it as fool proof and reliable as you want by spending more money; for banks, it is strictly an economic decision.

Paper ballots are subject to all the same issues. They get lost. They get mis-marked. They get miscounted. Does no one remember the "hanging chads"? For secretaries of state, it becomes an issue of spending money and resources on reliable and verifiable electronic voting, or money and resources printing, securing, collecting, and tabulating paper ballots. I, for one, do not want to see us roll back the clock on this one, any more than I want to hand back my plastic and check book and have to go back to carrying gold bullion around to purchase goods and services.

The other matter to which I was opposed was the resolution in support of the Red Rock Wilderness Act (S799/HR1925), legislation which has been pending (and failing to pass) for over a decade. My objection here is the all-or-nothing approach of a Wilderness declaration, which essentially bans all use, in this case of 9 million acres of BLM managed land in Utah.

Photo by yathin

Again, the goal is lofty and admirable. What this fails to consider is that, while a Wilderness declaration means you can't do most things on this land, the absence of such a declaration does not mean that you must do them. In other words, the BLM today is free to place specific use restrictions on any or all of this land, and has already done so in many cases. Supporters of this legislation, however, would have us believe that all manner of environmentally irresponsible usage is rampant. In point of fact, other than cross-country recreation, all of the subject acreage is currently free from such usage -- a precondition for it to even be considered for wilderness designation.

My chief objection to the legislation in its current form is that it makes all nine million acres of what is today public land nearly completely inaccessible to the very public that it supposedly benefits. Oh, sure, you'll be able to hike there, but most of it is unreachable by even the strongest and most well-prepared hikers in anything short of several days, and then only with expeditionary-level preparation. This is, IMO, elitist: it makes all this public land inaccessible to all but the exceptionally physically fit and able-bodied with plenty of time on their hands.

There is no question that the BLM has bungled some land-use decisions, and certainly they can continue to do so in this region. So let's fix the BLM, and/or the corporate lobbying process that grants public land use for resource extraction without proper safeguards and appropriate remediation. But a sweeping Wilderness declaration for nine million acres strikes me as overreaction on a grand scale.

I suppose, before I conclude, that it is my duty to tell you, the leadership of CLF, that the Assembly has spoken and we are to do all these things. (And, again, I am hoping the actual text of what we agreed will be available shortly.) So go forth and pass the word to the congregants!

That pretty much wraps up my report on the business aspects of GA 2009. All told, it was a good Assembly, much less harried and crammed full than the last one we attended in Portland. As always, we both personally got a lot out of it, spiritually and in regard to helping with the business of the Association. We thank the CLF for allowing us to represent them at the Assembly, and look forward to being of service again in the future.