Friday, November 23, 2007

Heretic, Not Apostate

Baha'i cyberspace is abuzz with the latest article to come out in *Religion*, writen by Moojan Momen, called "Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community". It is, apparently, the long-awaited rebuttal to the many academic articles and books published by ex and unenrolled Baha'is. Since I'm one of the "apostates" named, it's probably appropriate that I respond. (Alison Marshall and Umm Yasmin have already commented on Baha'is Online.

The centerpiece of Momen's argument is that the all the ex-Baha'is, and unenrolled Baha'is, who have been active on the Internet, and have succeeded in publishing in academic journals are "apostates" i.e. former members of a religion that have formed an oppositional coalition. That we all, without exception, are motivated by "ressentiment", a driving hatred and need for revenge against our "spiritual past". Well, I'm not an apostate; I still believe in Baha'u'llah. If one wishes to apply a negative term about who I am and what I've done, probably "heretic" would be more accurate. Baha'u'llah is not my "spiritual past"; He is my spiritual present. But my beliefs differ in some respects from the orthodoxy established by the Baha'i administration.

The notion that our only motivation is hatred is just ridiculous. For one thing, some of the books Momen cites are not "attacks" at all, even though they do present a viewpoint of the Baha'i Faith that diverges from orthodoxy. Juan Cole's *Modernity and the Millenium* is not an attack. Bill Garlington's *Baha'i Faith in America* is not an attack. These are books who tell Baha'i history in a fashion displeasing to conservative Baha'is; that's all. To claim that they are attacks verges on the paranoid. And, I note, that there is no attempt at all to actually refute these academic works in any substantial way.

The thesis makes no sense; it verges on simple name-calling. For example, Momen says that Garlington, the gentlest of souls, only "recently" became an apostate. Let's see, Bill sat around quietly for nearly twenty years after his resignation, then suddenly felt a surge of "ressentiment" and was thus motivated to write his book? This is ludicrous. Juan Cole has scarcely said "Boo!" about the Baha'i Faith during the last four years. So, where's his "hatred"? Denis MacEoin spent most of his time as a pseudonymous novelist, and he was conspicuously absent during the Internet Wars. (He wrote one barbed review of an apolegetic book, is all I remember.) Where's his "need for revenge"? I myself have written very little during the past few years; I pretty much talked myself out. (My article came out last year, but it was actually written a few years ago. It just took a while to get published.)Readers of this blog will note that I haven't said anything here about the Baha'i Faith in over a year.

What Momen has done is interpret the events of the last twenty-five years strictly in terms of the old "covenant-breaker" paradigm. Basically, today's "apostates" are just CBs without the formal excommunication: haters of the light, no spiritual sustenance except for attacking the truth, spiritually poisonous, etc. I'll quote him:

"Although these apostate groups and the very similar 'covenant-breaker' groups, as they are known by core Baha'is, are often referred to as sects or splinter groups of the Baha'i Faith, this characterisation is in a sense incorrect. These groups are not developing their own distinctive beliefs and practices. They exist only to attack the main Baha'i community. In Scheler's terms, they are not living in their new faith community, but are engaged only in a series of acts against their former community. Their new community exists only as a 'point of reference' from which to attack the former community."

Well, one reason I haven't developed my own "distinctive beliefs and practices" is that I consider myself a Baha'i. When I get up to say my prayers in the morning, when I recite the Writings, when I meditate on the Most Great Name, I'm not doing it to spite the administration. But then, one's spiritual life is not what's at issue here. No doubt the good doctor would treat my spiritual practices as irrelevant, especially as I haven't invented any new ones to distinguish myself from other Baha'is.

Momen's wrong about the splinter groups anyway -- some of them, the BUPC for one, have evolved some very distinct, one might even say downright weird, beliefs. But he's just bringing out the old canards about covenant-breakers that Baha'is have been repeating for the last hundred years.

I would suggest a different paradigm, one which I refer to often on Unenrolled Baha'i: That disillusionment with one's religious community causes a grief that is similar to any other loss that human beings experience, such as divorce or death of a loved one. One goes through various stages to cope with it. I was initially frightened, then I felt a sense of disorganization, sadness and despair. Then, for a long time, I was angry -- which is where a lot of my writing on the Internet came from; the writing helped me make sense of what had happened. A lot of the anger got redirected from the Baha'i administration to the more vicious fundies active on the 'Net. But gradually, I put myself together again.

Momen treats this admittedly articulate "angry phase" as if it is endless and incurable. Now granted, there are a few people he points to where this seems to be the case, but these folks aren't playing with a full deck and can't even manage to get along with their fellow dissidents -- or much of anyone else, for that matter. But most of us are past it -- Juan is, Denis is, Alison is. I don't think Bill Garlington was ever that angry, or if he was, he got over it long ago. Paul Johnson is another one named that you just don't see around any more. To claim that he harbors an "obsessive hatred" towards the Baha'i Faith is just not credible. But to Momen we all fit in the same bag as the looneys on talk.religion.bahai. A covenant-breaker is a covenant-breaker is a covenant-breaker.

There were a few factual errors: Momen says my "Unenrolled Baha'i" group is on Beliefnet. The UB board there has been dead for ages. My list on Yahoo! predated it, has 230 subscribers, and continues to attract new ones, and buzzes along very nicely, often with scant attention from me. Some of those who were around at the time are disputing his account of the Talisman crackdown and the Majnun post. He also is very misleading when he mentions the *Dialogue* incident -- the administration did a whole lot more than refuse to allow an article to be published. The editors were denounced at Convention, and were grilled by NSA members, and one was sanctioned. The hostility shown on the part of the Baha'i administration, and which did so much to push these people into "marginality and apostasy" is severely downplayed. Baha'i liberals are "marginal" because they are deliberately "marginalized" -- that's an important aspect of this whole story. Baha'i liberals aren't so rare as is implied; they are still showing up on the Internet on a regular basis. I even know some in real life, locally. As one poster mentioned, if there are so many, in what sense are they marginal? We become inactive more often; we leave more often, because we are made so obviously unwelcome.

As for me, I virtually had to resurrect my blog from the dead in order to comment on this. So much for "obsessive hatred". The Internet gives the illusion of continuous commentary, because whatever you say, stays here. My words are still here, but I'm long past having any need to debate or wrangle with these people any more. I don't need to do it; I don't want to do it. When I do show up online, it's mostly to function as support-giver and moderator on Unenrolled Baha'i, or sometimes I'll muse a little on Karen's Path, but that's it. Anyway, I'm a heretic, not an apostate. If you've gotta insult me, at least do it accurately. :-)

[Postscript 11/24: I just had the thought this morning, as I re-read this article, that what Moojan has done is not so different from what we did. That is, he is trying to make sense of events which caused him distress. I disagree with his formulation, of course, but I think I understand the need to write what he has written. All the Baha'is who were aware of, or part of, the events on the Internet had to try to make sense of the post-Talisman environment. So, maybe I shouldn't think too hardly of him for it. But I'm not an apostate!! kb]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Education Code? What Education Code?

I just ran across
this story
from the LA Times about the Santa Ana school district. Apparently, the administration was pressuring teachers to lie about the number of children on their rosters, and created a phantom classroom in order to comply with the state's rules (and get the state money) for limiting K-3 classrooms to 20 kids or less. In other words, teachers were expected to pretend that certain kids were not in their room, and they were formally enrolled in a class that didn't exist -- except very occasionally, taught by a substitute teacher. The weirdest part of it, to my mind, is that they expected that all the teachers would have no scruples about lying on the books -- I mean, there's a whole lot of people who actually take the virtue of honesty seriously. And, most teachers also appreciate smaller class sizes, so the lie wouldn't even be to their own advantage. I sure notice the difference when I'm subbing K-3 and when I'm subbing 4-8.

The article prints a letter to the principal from one of the teachers. Unfortunately, it is not particularly well-written, and spends a long paragraph griping about how the district treats its teachers, tacking on the issue of simple dishonesty almost as an afterthought. It would be wrong to lie about this, even if the district was absolutely wonderful to its teachers.

But the longer I hang around schools, the more I see that this kind of law-breaking happens all the time. I mean *all* the time. Lots of ink is spilled about this or that educational reform, lots of controversy -- and laws are passed. But in your local school, where the rubber meets the road, nothing at all changes, unless the local district wants it to. And they can get away with it, because it's so hard for individuals to fight. You'd have to round up an entire group of parents or teachers, and have a nasty showdown about it, just to get a school district to follow laws and policies already on the books.

Some folks out there might remember all the hubbub about "social promotion" i.e., the practice of simply passing kids from grade to grade, regardless of their academic performance. Well, in California, a law was passed to end that. It sits there in black-and-white in my school district's Promotion and Retention Policy. If a failing student is not retained, the school district must explain why, and provide an alternative solution to getting the child up to passing level. Note that it is the *refusal* to retain that must be justified. My school district doesn't do that at all. This is what our personal fight was about. They did lots of dancing around, citing irrelevant studies -- and they most certainly did not come up with any alternative to simply passing my daughter on and letting her fail the next grade. The only way to force them to do that was to hire a lawyer and fight for months, during which she'd be halfway through the next grade -- so what would be the point? But it was a blatant violation of the law, and callous disrespect for my daughter and our family.
(I'll restrain my ranting on this issue so close to my heart, but I'm still steamed, obviously.)

But there are lots of examples of blantant disregard for the law on the part of school districts, besides my own experience. Every few years it seems like there's some big flap down in the South over school prayer. Now, as most people know, school prayer has been deemed unconstitutional for decades. It's just another example of how, if no one challenges a local policy, it just goes on as if the Supreme Court had never ruled, in total contempt for the law. It would take a pretty brave soul to challenge school prayer in a small, southern Baptist town, even if one privately disapproved. Seems like it's always some new family that moves in, that ends up doing it.

I've seen several instances of IEP kids (i.e. kids with learning disabilities) go without services, or being given inadequate support -- which is illegal as hell. But unless the parents -- and by that I mean a *group* of parents are willing to organize and raise a ruckus, it goes on. And they need someone who knows the ins and outs of the school bureaucracy to guide them through the process. I found out after our personal fight that I might have gotten better results if I had sent copies of everything to the county Department of Education -- something that had never even occured to me. The school system is very practiced at dealing with disgruntled parents, but for the parents, it's always their first time.

Another thing that weighs against fighting a school, is that any school is a temporary place for any individual child. Around here, elementary schools are K-5, middle schools, 6-8. It's tough to commit yourself to a fight that may last a couple of years, when your child may only be there for that much longer -- and you might decide that it's better for your child to take them out of the school rather than spend time and money battling over the issue. (Only a minority of kids spend all their elementary school years in one district anyway; people are mobile in this country.) While a new school solves the problem for an individual family, it leaves the school unpunished, unrepentant, and continuing to ignore the laws that are supposed to govern it.

So, I wish the teachers of Santa Ana the best of luck. It looks like they've already been through the wringer.