Presented at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies, Jan. 25-6, 2020
In 2013 I published Faultlines: The 60s, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine. Written largely in 2010, it explained the crisis splitting our nation was an outgrowth of three deeply embedded divisions within our society.
The first was a lasting cultural, political, and religious divide between states that ultimately rejected slavery and those that endorsed it. For various reasons this division was growing increasingly toxic since the ‘60s.
The second was triggered by a civilization-wide undermining of Western modernity’s Enlightenment ideals, weakening their ability to offer attractive alternatives to political and economic authoritarianism. Nazism and Fascism were the result in Europe, after the catastrophe of World War I. Now was our turn.
The third was modern civilization itself going through a change so deep its like had happened only once before in human history. When groups of people shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture, everything once taken for granted was upended. Today we are far along a similar shift from rural and agricultural civilizations to an urban technological one, and again, everything is upended. Old verities lack substance and new ones are controversial and threatening to many. The shift to agriculture empowered a one-sided emphasis on masculine values. The shift to technological and urban society is empowering feminine ones, while traditional masculine values become increasingly pathological.
The first two fault lines give us little room for optimism. However, the third offers an alternative to the cultural and religious nihilism that dominates our culture today. NeoPaganism is particularly well adapted to this new way of life, and two of its most central features, the revaluing of the feminine and of nature, are at ground zero in today’s cultural and political struggles.
There is a deeper level to this problem, however, one not amenable to a secular perspective. Those defending Donald Trump’s endless lies, fraud, extortion, incarceration of children, destruction of environmental legislation, and the rising threats of violence against those who disagree, do not defend their merits. They ignore these issues. Instead they attack critics personally, project these actions onto others, and always seek to change the subject. At most they say everyone does it, but refrain from criticizing these things. Rather than defending the indefensible, they attack any who criticize it. Rational discussion with them is, usually, literally, impossible.
Yet we know in other contexts many of these people are reasonable, even praiseworthy, as family members, friends, and colleagues.
This is strange.
I believe an animist perspective lends significant insight to this puzzle. I want to offer here an animist analysis of how evil can arise in a world lacking it, and how it manifests today. For ultimately, I will argue, we are dealing with genuine evil.
What is evil? I describe it as malevolence, as taking pleasure in causing the suffering of another, a suffering out of all proportion to whatever reason is given to justify it.
As I argued in Pagans and Christians, a good world of fallible beings is capable of generating enormous malice. We need only look about ourselves to see how this can be true. When someone does something that injures us, or has the unintended consequence of injuring us, we often take it personally. If we give in to our anger or resentment, we then seek to ‘get even,’ or show we cannot be taken advantage of.
If we initially misunderstood our target’s actions (and who among us has not at some point done just this?) he or she may well think our aggressive actions exhibited unprovoked malice. If they then react against us, that confirms our suspicions, and a vicious spiral can develop, where people who initially had nothing against one another become enemies.
This is one of several ways malice can come into existence from sources who themselves are ignorant, not malicious. However, such actions are not necessarily evil. They arose from misunderstandings that bred reciprocal misunderstanding, followed by cycles of mutual escalation. Neither party need take pleasure in making the other. Once the affected parties learn the initial cause was a misunderstanding, the anger often dissipates.
But there is also malice that takes pleasure in another’s suffering. How can it arise in a world we regard as good? To understand evil, it is necessary to understand power.
Power is simple in essence and complex almost beyond imagination in its manifestations. Power is the capacity to make a difference. If you cannot make a difference, you have no power. If you can, you do. Your power stops where your ability to make a difference ends. We need power to survive. Power in itself is not a bad thing, and can make many good things possible.
As a species, we are unique in living within both physical biological and ideational cultural realms. Some other animals have elements of culture in their collective life but, compared to us, these realms are very small. Our thinking makes use of words we did not create, values we learned from others, and culturally formed identities. I will return to this ideational/cultural realm later, but for now only emphasize we need power to survive and prosper in both realms.
Varieties of power
Power can take many forms. Starhawk distinguishes between power-with, power-from-within, and power-over. “Power-from-within,” refers to the ability to walk our talk, to make a difference in how we act rather than passively responding to others’ actions. “Power-with” refers to our ability to influence equals. “Power-over,” refers to power as control or domination. All three exist in complex relationships with one another.
I suspect we are hard-wired to find acquiring power attractive because power overcomes many barriers to satisfying our needs and desires. From a human perspective, power is necessary to survive, potentially in too short a supply, and the power we have can be lost. Therefore we feel good when we acquire it or use it. This is true for all three forms of power Starhawk described.
Power-from-within and power-with can harmonize with recognizing others as having intrinsic value. But they may not be.
The African proverb “I am because we are” is deeply perceptive. My inner power-within can recognize the importance of this context. But it need not. Consider the extreme individualism of Ayn Rand’s fictional heroes.
Power-with can also fall far short of respecting others to the degree it manifests as an in-group tribalism that looks down on those not a part of it. Openness to awareness of relationships can be more or less inclusive, and in its more exclusive forms has justified horrible crimes against others.
But one can argue in both cases the failings are ultimately based on ignorance. They fall short of true evil.
Power-over is a different matter.
Power-over is a necessary element in life. I must have power-over my tools to use them to achieve a goal. I may value tools for other reasons as well, such as their beauty or their connection with valued people in my life, but when I use them as tools it is because they increase my power to make a difference. But whereas a tool is basically an object, a living being is a subject. Power over a subject is domination. I do not dominate my hammer, but I can dominate my pet or a person.
Exercising power of any sort usually feels good, and its successful use strengthens our connection to it, and the emotional energy we enjoy with its exercise. When we feel deficient with respect to the first two kinds of power, or they are insufficient for getting what we want, acquiring more of the third is attractive.
Sometimes the pleasure we get from exercising power becomes reason enough to exercise it. This can be true for all three forms of power. It is here that power-as-domination gets out of our control, so that we become its vehicle rather than it being ours. And with this, the seed of genuine evil is planted and watered. Power feels good even as it can diminish us by flattening our perceptions and divorcing us from what is most basic to our humanity. It was for this reason Lord Acton famously said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”
Means become ends
Seeking power often begins with laudable motives, justified by ideas and commitments not themselves destructive. In war, both sides usually think of themselves as the good guys, who are justified in what they do by the actions of the other. This is even true of conflicts where, in retrospect, the evils committed by one (or both )seem obvious.
But when conflict exists, it is easy to subordinate everything else to the power to defeat opponents. Even the supposed goals we initially sought the power to achieve can be lost from sight.
Consider these five quotations, and where their logic leads.
Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a top Palestinian Hamas leader, said to an interviewer “All Israelis are potential soldiers. They are all potential killers of Palestinians. When Israelis kill our women and children are they not terrorists? You’ve heard the saying, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?” (Quoted in Michael Bond, The Power of Others, London: One World, 2014. 87.)
Gilad Sharon, son of a major Israeli military and political leader, wrote
THE DESIRE to prevent harm to innocent civilians in Gaza will ultimately lead to harming the truly innocent: the residents of southern Israel. The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.
Osama bin Laden argued “given that the American Congress is a committee that represents the people, the fact that it agrees with the actions of the American government proves that America in its entirety is responsible for the atrocities that it is committing against Muslims.”
Responding to bin Laden’s 9-11 attacks, George Bush said “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” He was echoed by Hillary Clinton, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”
Al-Zahar’s logic applied to killing Israelis, Sharon’s identical logic to killing Palestinians, bin Laden escalated this reasoning to include killing citizens of Israel’s ally, the US, because U.S. aid helped Israel kill Palestinians. Then American leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, expanded potential targets to include anyone anywhere in the world not on our side. But there is another step…
William C. Bradford, an assistant prof. of law at West Point argued legal scholars critical of the war on terrorism represent a “treasonous” group appropriately attacked as enemy combatants. Such people
. . . can be targeted at any time and place and captured and detained until the termination of hostilities. As unlawful combatants . . . propagandists are subject to coercive interrogation, trial and imprisonment. Further the infrastructure used to create and disseminate [such] propaganda –law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews –are also lawful targets given the causal connection between the content disseminated and Islamist crimes incited. . . . [these] scholars and the law schools that employ them are –at least in theory –targetable so long as attacks are proportional, distinguish noncombatants from combatants, employ non-prohibited weapons and contribute to the defeat of Islamism.
Bradford carried the logic of Power-over as expressed by Al-Zahar, Sharon, bin Laden, Bush and Clinton to its genocidal and totalitarian extreme, but it was implicit in every earlier quotation. This perverse and immoral outcome arises from pursuing the logic of treating everything and everyone as a useful tool of power, an obstacle to overcome, or irrelevant.
Because acquiring power is so satisfying, getting it can become divorced from why we initially sought it. This happens in many ways, and when it does, the quest for power becomes its own reason for existence. Everything else is now a means for acquiring or exercising power, an impediment, or irrelevant.
It is here that an animist perspective deepens our understanding and sheds light on what we are currently enduring. It is as if power has become a separate force subordinating people to it rather than being a tool people need to achieve their aims. And it has.
Culture and memes
Any culture is an ideational ecosystem of people and the ideas by which they make sense of their world. Each influences the other. Strongly held ideas focus our attention, bringing some things into greater attention while others go into the background. Consider the well-known experiment of a person in a gorilla suit crossing a basketball court while onlookers are focused on counting how often a ball changes hands between players wearing the same colors. A great many people do not see the gorilla!
Imagine how much stronger this effect will be if, instead of counting a ball changing hands, you are motivated by strong feelings of right and wrong. The ideas motivating these feelings can cease being our tools for understanding the world, and we become their tool for spreading in the world. They influence what we see, and what we do not see.
Some evolutionary biologists have developed the idea of a meme. Perhaps the most important recent book from this perspective is Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. A meme is an idea in its social context, existing within the network of human relations that compose a society. It could be a concept, a custom, or a symbol, but in each case, people using memes to communicate and relate with others accept them as part of their unquestioned social world. We have no choice. When we learn a language as children, we learn to understand the world through its concepts. As we grow up, we can question parts of our social world, and distance ourselves from them, but always from within a context that takes most of it for granted. We are not robots controlled by memes, but when we step back to evaluate a meme, we necessarily do so within the context of other memes we take for granted at the moment.
Memes usually do not have precise meanings, for people use the same meme in different ways. For example, monotheists give the meme “God” radically dissimilar meanings, but all regard their being monotheists as more basic to who they are than the fact they worship radically different entities. So long as the meme “God” is where their focus stops, few pay attention to these contradictions. The same is true for secular terms such as “patriotism.” It can mean love for one’s country and it can mean love of one’s country dominating others. Combining such memes can create particularly powerful meme complexes, such as “God and country.” But these meanings, coherent or incoherent, unite in the basic concept. Its energy is emotional, not intellectual.
It is no exaggeration to say our social and cultural world is a kind of ideational ecosystem comprised of people and the memes comprising the meanings we share in common to some degree. Without us, memes would not exist, and without memes, we could not create and maintain a complex society. They structure our perceptions, which reciprocally reinforce them in turn.
Memes and thought forms
The meme is a secular term, but a very unusual one, because its advocates find themselves consistently writing about them as if they were alive. Evolutionary biologists using the idea of memes refer to them in the same way we refer to living things. They often compare a meme to a virus. Viruses cannot reproduce without infecting a cell. A meme is a mental virus in that it must be used by other minds in order to spread. Nor is this kind of comparison confined to evolutionary biologists. Think of how we describe ideas. We usually do as if they were alive and we relate to them as such. An idea intrigues us, repels us, attracts us, and so on.
For evolutionary biologists the meme is both social and contained within individual brains somewhere. An animist such as myself sees the issue differently. Another way we describe ideas gives us a hint: an idea can be “in the air.”
NeoPagans aware of our traditions’ occult roots know of thought forms. Thought forms are deliberately created mental entities depending on focused mental energy for their existence. The best description of the creation of such a thought form’s creation is in Iris Owen’s Conjuring Up Philip. The Philip experiment also demonstrated thought forms could have a measure of independence, even if more narrowly defined than in a person. Long out of print, the book is expensive. But you can learn more from this Youtube video.
Memes are in many ways secular descriptions of thought forms. Both are mental phenomena. Both depend on being fed by other minds. Both are independent of any particular individual. But, some might say, thought forms must be created by skilled magicians using highly focused intents. However, a similar phenomena, egregores, are different.
An egregore is a temporary thought form created by many people sharing a common focus, particularly in emotional contexts, such as a football game, or a Nazi or Trump rally, a tight knit group, and perhaps even a city or neighborhood whose residents have a strong shared identity. Egregores provide the ‘feel’ of such events and places, and the sense of “we” in a group.
A meme is a secular description of a thought form or egregore- one that is not deliberately created, but ‘wild.’ It is maintained not so much by strong deliberate focus of a few adepts, as by the overlapping emotional energy of many continually using it. Memes are continually fed through people’s use of them at a lower level of emotional involvement, but with more focus then the energy of a game or rally.
Usually the relations between a meme and its host is mutually beneficial. They make human life possible just as we make them possible. But just as some viruses are harmful and others not, so it is with memes. Some memes are parasites. This happens when a person so identifies with a meme that it seems an integral part of who they are, but they are injured when doing so.
The mimetic trance
As soon as someone says “I am a X,” rather than “I think X may be the case” they shift from using a meme to identifying with it. Their thinking becomes increasingly subordinated to what serves the meme they host.The meme’s strength is its emotional hold on a person, not its rational force. As soon as we step back, and use reason to examine something, we separate ourselves from it. But unless we step back, reason seems powerless. It does not make a difference. Memes flourish not by the power of reason, but by the power of belief. How powerful can this be?
Consider the meme “war.” During war the well-being of one’s favored group is at stake. When the group feels deeply challenged, members tend to treat those outside it as real or potential allies, real or potential opponents, or irrelevant. Today we are reaping the results of the increasing use of the meme “war” to describe politics in our society.
For several decades influential writers on the right have replaced the language of political disagreement with the language of war. Initially it was described as a “culture war.” This language later expanded to include such absurdities as a “war against Christmas.” The meme “war” pushes those who identify themselves with fighting in it onto the same fatal path I described that began with Mahmoud Al-Zahar and Gilad Sharon, and ended with the totalitarian fantasies of William C. Bradford. But in this case it is applied not to violent external conflict, but within a context that was long described as a way to peaceably settle disagreements.
The person has entered into what I call a “mimetic trance,” feeling they would be untrue to themselves to abandon their identification. Consider the common American support for the “war on drugs” which blinded them to the overwhelming evidence that it did not work and that alternative approaches did. War is a powerful meme and the trance it opens people to an unusually blinding one.
As is the case with hypnotism in general, people in such trances may not even perceive information that does not fit. That is why they can be normal and reasonable people until the meme with which they identify is threatened. It is like a hypnotic suggestion triggering some behavior, once certain conditions are met.
In one of the best descriptions of a mimetic trance, though his book preceded the concept, Michael Polanyi quotes Miklos Gimes, a leading Hungarian Communist during the Hungarian Revolution in 1954.
“Slowly we had come to believe, at least with the greater, the dominant part of our consciousness, that there are two kinds of truth, that the truth of the Party and the people can be different and can be more important than the objective truth, and that truth and political expediency are in fact identical. . . . [This outlook] penetrated the remotest corners of our thinking, obscured our vision, paralysed our critical faculties and finally rendered many of us incapable of sensing or apprehending truth. That is how it was, it is no use denying it.” (p.29)
Gimes was later executed by the Russians for supporting the Hungarian Revolution.
As the meme “war” indicates, a meme parasitized person can suffer from moral inversion. That is, moral meaning is defined by the meme, and people are acceptable or not to the degree they serve it. When the trance sees others as hostile, the entranced will seek power over them and, like Bradford, eventually subordinate all values to domination alone.
Powerful senses of self-righteousness, unwillingness to treat those they regard as enemies with respect, unwillingness to engage in rational discussion, and willingness to sacrifice morality in service to gaining and wielding power are signs of this trance state. This description fits a great many of Trump’s supporters, although it is certainly not limited only to them.
For example, these men call themselves patriots.
Yet in different contexts they can be good friends, loyal family members, and productive members of society. I believe this process explains how the jovial party goers of Auschwitz in my opening picture could relax and have a good time when in a different context. Much of the time they were “normal people.” Very much like many of Trump’s most dedicated supporters.
From trance to evil
Being in a mimetic trance is not in itself evil. It is a precondition.
When we closely identify with a meme we perceive our world filtered through it. If this meme is one where we seek power over others, we open ourselves to infection by Power. Those attracted to power-as-domination create and maintain an egregore. I call this egregore Power with a capital ‘P.’ Mostpeople are not attracted to Power in its pure form, and so, to flourish, Power needs a vector. Memes with which we closely identify can become such vectors. It is our collective will and emotions finding pleasure in it that give it strength.
Needing a continual input of psychic energy, Power is attracted to wherever it can be fed, that is, wherever domination is sought. It is power-over for its own sake, and whatever meme it attaches itself to is a means to this end.
If my analysis holds up, Power is the ultimate demonic force in the world, human created, human maintained, but ultimately inimical to all human beings. As a kind of psychic crack, those entranced by it gain a feeling of power, but only by subordinating themselves to something ‘bigger’ than they.
Same insight by a different route
Whereas many modern Western anthropologists travel to indigenous cultures to study them from a Western perspective, Malidoma Somé was sent by his traditional village to study the modern West. Along the way he earned an M.A. at the Sorbonne and M.A. and Ph.D. at Brandeis. He is unusually able to give an informed view of Western modernity from a more traditional perspective. In doing so, important insights of his buttress my argument, and nowhere more than in his discussion of Power.
In Ritual: Power, Healing and Community Maildoma Somé writes: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/330400/ritual-by-malidoma-patrice-some/
When power comes out of its hiddenness, it shrinks the person who brought it into the open and turns that person into a servant. The only way that overt power can remain visible is by being fed, and he who knows how to make power visible end up trapped into keeping that power visible. . . .
He adds “To display power is to become servile to it in a way that is extremely disempowering. This is because the service is fueled by the terror of losing the fantasy of having power.” (p. 59) Somé is describing Power as a psychic parasite, a parasite fed at the expense of those providing it energy. It is the ultimate psychic parasite. (It feels good to be parasitized. Interestingly, scientists are discovering that the parasites that control the minds of their hosts often make them feel good, all the way to their destruction).
Because parasites flourish at their host’s expense, successful parasites must be relatively invisible to their host in-order to avoid its defenses. Often they also use a vector as a bridge to infecting their host, rather than directly infecting it. Toxoplasmosis infects cats by means of first infecting mice and changing their behavior to increase the likelihood of their being eaten by a cat. It works. Toxoplasmosis is a very successful organism.
Since our ideas require power to be realized in the world, in cases where opposition must be overcome, Power presents itself to us as an attractive means to achieve the idea. The meme becomes the vector, itself often a thought form of great attractiveness. Any goal can be a potential vector for Power and the more abstract the goal, the more removed from concrete manifestations of love and care, the more easily it can serve as such.
What is tangible and concrete connects us more directly with our richly textured experience of the world and others whereas seeing the world through abstractions filters that experience through simplifying ideas that distance us from life’s concrete details. As we distance ourselves Thous become Its, subjects become objects, and individuals become classes of traits like Blacks, Muslims, Christians, Pagans, or bourgeoisie and concrete relationships become subordinated to Justice, Equality, Vengeance, Greatness, and Morality.
The more concrete our encounter with another the harder it is for exercising open-ended power over them or equating dominating them with helping them. Power most easily influences us when no strong affections or commitments push against it, hence its attraction when we think in big abstractions.
I think this helps explain the long record of great atrocities committed by otherwise reasonably decent people in the name of laudable ideals, such as service to ‘God’, ‘country’, ‘justice’, ‘humanity’, the ‘working class,’ and similar abstractions far removed from concrete encounters. The trance requires being captivated by an abstraction. But when the abstraction becomes a vector to Power, they do not serve God or country or justice or humanity. They serve Power.
This is why political and religious ideologies so often serve as vehicles for Power. The contemporary American political and religious ‘right’ is very susceptible to this infection because its members generally endorse hierarchy as a good in itself and extreme hierarchy is a defining element of Power. The ‘left’ is somewhat more resistant since it values ‘equality.’ But the abstraction ‘equality’ can itself become a reason for subordinating the concrete to the abstract. When it does, it is as susceptible to being parasitized by Power as any right wing ideology. The long record of Communist atrocities committed from Lenin to Pol Pot demonstrates this. When totalizing ideologies contend, winning is eventually all that matters “in the short run.” Power then flourishes, and the promised “long-run” never arrives.
Power in practice
Power itself does not really care what idea serves as its vector. It seeks only to manifest itself. George Orwell captured the reality of Power as domination better than anyone else I have read. In Orwell’s novel 1984 O’Brien told Winston Smith
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. . . . We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. . . . We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.
O’Brien added “The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” From the torturer’s point of view that torture does not give us truth because the tortured will tell whatever the torturer want to hear to make it stop is no argument against it. O’Brien is describing the mentality of pure parasitical Power as it controls a human mind. This explains why when Russia conquered part of Germany, former Nazis could easily work for them, and when, later, communism fell, former Russian Communists could easily work in the new right-wing Russian state. Ideology was a vector, but the minds infected were infected by Power.
And here we are face to face with evil in its purest form: taking pleasure in causing the suffering of another. This is the spiritual foundation for why so many Americans seem blind to facts, unwilling to use reasons to make their point, and committed to seeing honest disagreement as evidence for badness. It dominates the political right, but we who oppose them are also susceptible. Intellectual arguments like mine will not break it for many, because to grasp an intellectual argument a person must step back from the trance, dis-identify with the meme, and examine it from a distance. As with Gimes and the Hungarian Revolution, moral and ethical outrage can break the trance, perhaps because the heart is the deepest level with which we connect to ultimate reality, and so cannot be parasitized.
The jury is out as to whether enough Americans will awaken from their trances in time to save what is best about our world.