An interview with JUSTnews editor Philip Symons

I chatted with our outgoing editor Philip Symons, to explore what it has been like being editor of JUSTnews all these years. The questions, and Philip’s answers, appear below. 

How did you come to be Editor of JUSTnews?

I took on the job of editor of JUSTnews when I retired as president of CUSJ at the AGM in 2006. I had learned something about the job from helping our wonderful first editor, Mel Johnston. When Mel retired as editor in 2002, we had a series of editors, including a committee, who took the job on temporarily when no one else would do it. However, rotating editors proved unsatisfactory as the format of JUSTnews varied between issues, and sometimes the interim editor forgot to put the date or number on the issue. We badly needed a permanent editor.

I’d done a lot of writing and editing as a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and even worked as a part-time consulting editor for the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, so I knew I would enjoy the work. I also wanted to retain a relationship with CUSJ, which I thought was a very necessary organization at this time, and for which I had great admiration. It was a natural fit.

What was your life like ‘Before JUSTnews’?

I’d always had an interest in social justice, passed on to me from my mother. I joined the Social Responsibility Committee of the Unitarian Church of Victoria, as it was then, before I joined the church itself. I received the second issue of JUSTnews in the mail in 1997, and immediately became a member. After the headquarters of CUSJ moved from Toronto to Victoria with Mel Johnston and then president Bob Van Alstyne, I joined the Board. So becoming editor of JUSTnews didn’t change my life so much as it gave an outlet to my “yearning” for social justice, as the Rev. Melora Lynngood has called it (JUSTnews, Vol19 No1).

What is your favorite Discussion paper and/or article of JUSTnews, and why?

My favourite Discussion Paper was No. 22, “A Bronze Bullet: The Spirit Level–Why Equality is better for Everyone.” I had become concerned about our society, and the direction in which it was headed: compassion for our fellow beings seemed to be decreasing, poverty was increasing, we were electing people to government like Mike Harris and later Stephen Harper… We needed to change the direction in which Canadian culture was headed. But how does one do that? Where does one start? Then, in the summer of 2011 while vacationing among the Gulf Islands with my wife Marya aboard our little sailboat, I read  the book “The Spirit Level…“. I’d had no idea the extent to which inequality in wealth damages human society, but Wilkinson and Pickett had pulled together an incredible amount of information–their book deserved to be better known–and acted upon!

Since that time, I’m happy to say, inequality in wealth has received a lot more attention not only because of Wilson’s and Pickett’s book, but other books too, and news, including, recently, the Rev. Steven Epperson’s Discussion Paper No. 33, “Dark Money: Epiphany and the Hidden Trillions.”  “Greater equality [in wealth] is indeed better for everyone.”

Philip’s interest in sailing started early

What was the most controversial issue that JUSTnews addressed?

I think the most controversial issue of JUSTnews was the one with the lead article, “Conservatives Proven Stupid, but Progressives are Idiots,” by George Monbiot (Vol. 16. No. 1, Summer 2012). I received a forthright and thoughtful rebuttal to this from Jeff Wilson of Grand River U. Congregation, which I published in the next regular issue of JUSTnews.

What are you looking forward to being able to do in all the free time that you will have, now that you are no longer planning, editing, formatting, and writing JUSTnews?

Chuckle! JUSTnews didn’t take up all that much time in hours, though each issue occupied me over several weeks. Now both Marya and I are looking forward to doing more things together, though I fear Marya’s joy is likely to be short-lived: I have a lot of things I want to do, and many of them, such as writing, are difficult to share. However, we both enjoy music, attend a non-performance fun choir together, and go to as many concerts as we can afford the time and money for. But she finds herself a “choir widow” each week while I attend practices with three of our church choirs, and much as I’ve tried to shed some of my other social justice responsibilities, things keep cropping up. When I was working for pay, I had time to have a lovely garden; I’ve advised many people, “Don’t retire, you’ll get too busy, and your garden will go to pot–well, no, maybe just go to seed!”

What is the biggest change in the U-U religion that you have seen take place in the years that you have been editor of JUSTnews?

Hmm, that’s an important and difficult question. I think one of the biggest shifts I’ve seen is not in UU-ism, but in other faiths. As someone said recently, “Unitarians used to be leaders in social justice, but now other religions are catching up.” That’s good news! Gay marriages are more common now in other denominations than previously.

I work with a small multi-faith organization where, as we were starting a meeting one day, someone said something derogatory about the Pope, then, realizing the Catholic nun there had overheard, immediately apologized. “Don’t worry,” replied Sister Joyce, “I think the same as you do!”

But I don’t believe Unitarians will ever become redundant; at a breakfast meeting once, I explained to a Buddhist woman that we had atheists, agnostics and deists in our congregation. “Goodness,” explained my interlocutor, “how do you all get along?” I love our diversity in beliefs, which is something with which most other faiths have difficulty.

Has being editor of JUSTnews affected your life in any way? In other words, what is your take-away from this experience?

Cym, you do pose challenging questions! I think being editor of JUSTnews has confirmed my faith in humanity, and particularly in Unitarians and our principles (which are not “ours” so much as those of every non-radical faith). I suspect others could find that same confirmation in many other ways.

What is your advice to the incoming editor?

Be proud of every issue you put out, and enjoy doing it.

What is the most pressing social justice concern as we enter 2018, in your opinion?

This question brings me back to an earlier one: what is my favourite Discussion Paper? I believe that more equality in wealth is vital; it will improve all manner of things in our society, in particular it will improve compassion and understanding among us, which will improve our democracy and ability to work together to ameliorate if not resolve the huge issues of the future, including climate change, insufficient food and water for everyone, collapsing economies and health-care systems… The future, I’m afraid is not pretty, but a lot can be done to avoid the worst. More equality in wealth is not a silver bullet–it will not cure all our problems–but at least it’s a bronze bullet. It’s a good place to start.

1 thought on “An interview with JUSTnews editor Philip Symons”

  1. As always Philip has given us much to think about. I took his place as president in 2006 at our AGM in Saint John , New Brunswick. I recall that we met in the basement of an old church which no longer had a congregation. Much of the basement was filled with pews and made for a sad setting. It reminded us that without active membership a church too cannot survive. Philip stayed on the Board and provided excellent advice.

    He and Marya know how to entertain. When Linda and I had supper at their home in 2007 Philip arranged for Mel to welcome me with the sound of bag-pipes. It was a memorable time as four (Mel, Bob, Philip and myself) of the five presidents were present!


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