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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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. . . .
“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).
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”
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.
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.
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.
Samhain just around the corner, its relation with Day of the Dead is an issue
of some importance to many Pagans. Taos, where I now live, is famous for the
ubiquitous presence of decorated Day of the Dead skulls in many shop windows,
all over town, all year long. Of course,
Day of the Dead themes have been integrated into Halloween celebrations as
well, even though Mexicans are a small part of the population. The dominant
Hispanic community had been here for centuries when Mexican people brought Day
of the Dead with them. Since then, elements of it have caught on, particularly
with the White population.
As it has, the issue of cultural appropriation has arisen. Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture, or members of it, borrow and use aspects of minority cultures outside of their intended context. Recently, Aya de leon offered a thoughtful critique of Anglo celebrations of Day of the Dead as cultural appropriation.
Leon writes she was shocked “to find Day of the Dead events in my native
Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by Chican@s or Mexican@s or
Latin@s, but events with zero Latin@ artists participating, involved,
consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.” She criticized this as an attack on both
Mexican culture and a deep disrespect for the celebration’s meaning, arguing
“Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death,
a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to
sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?”
nature of this controversy has great relevance for we NeoPagans everywhere, for
some have criticized us for those aspects of our daily practice inspired from
other cultures. I agree with de Leon to a point, and disagree past that point.
I think the reasons why I both agree and disagree shed light on these issues
within the broader NeoPagan community.
There are clear examples of cultural appropriation as de Leon describes it. Consider a blackface minstrel show pretending to present Black American culture as entertainment. It appropriates elements of Black culture for White amusement by emphasizing its strangeness as inferior to ‘White culture,’ and in doing so, helps keep Black Americans subordinate to them. One could defend blackface as satire, but it is the dominant satirizing the subordinate, the strong the weak, by a direct assault on their feelings of worth as selves and as a culture.
simply arguing employing Day of the
Dead symbolism in White culture as constituting cultural appropriation such as
this is a mistake.
What is Day of the Dead?
of the Dead’s celebrations honor deceased relatives and friends. People bring
food, candles, and sugar skulls (calaveras) as offerings to the graves of loved
ones who have died. Marigolds invite the
departed spirits back to earth. The
altars created for this time are colorful, bedecked with portraits of the
departed, and offerings connected with their favorite pastimes while among the
living. In more rural areas people visit
cemeteries and make their offerings there. In cities and in the US, much of
this takes place at home.
of the Dead is both a deeply personal and a family event, one whose mood is
upbeat and depictions often spectacularly colorful, with the celebration often
accompanied by dancing and large puppets.
On the one hand people invite back and honor the departed. On the other
hand, the skull masks and humor help them to “laugh at death” as some celebrants
explain. Death is not the end of life,
it is another step along our path.
Day of the Dead is not Samhain under another name, nor is it simply a Mexican Halloween. When it came out, my Mexican friends urged me to see the movie The Book of Life to get a sense of how they view Day of the Dead. I did, and the was delightful and beautiful.
a common focus on death and the humor often present in the costumes, there are
few if any connections between Day of the Dead and traditional Halloween
trick-or-treating, which has lost nearly all connections with its early
the other hand, Day of the Dead shares many similarities with Samhain, but with
differences as important. The time of year is virtually identical, both honor
those who have passed on, and in the coven with whom I have most often
celebrated Samhain, we celebrate a dumb feast, where favored food is offered to departed loved ones.
However, the dumb supper is not treated as a happy reunion with those who
passed on and, while Day of the Dead is celebrated during the day and night, we
generally celebrate at night. There are
honors Death as a crucial part of the Wheel of the Year, and does not just
focus on those who have passed on. As a time when Death will dominate at least
symbolically until Yule, or the Winter Solstice, colors are usually dark, we
make offerings to Hecate at night, where three roads come together, and I have
never seen Samhain treated as a fun family event. Day of the Dead is filled with humor and Samhain
these differences as well as the similarities, are NeoPagans engaging in
cultural appropriation if they include a colorfully decorated skull on our
altars, or otherwise employ some of its symbolism and art?
usual, context is everything.
Halloween in America
60 years ago, when I was a kid, Halloween focused on kids going door to door
collecting candy and fruit, while dressed up as princesses, pirates, ghosts,
and other fun outfits. Halloween
decorations were usually made by the children, perhaps along with their
parents. It had already changed from
many of its earlier manifestations. Since that time, two big changes have
happened to Halloween.
corporations have made Halloween a holiday profit center second only to
Christmas. Over-the-top yard decorations overwhelm its once dark atmosphere
illuminated by jack-o-lanterns. Store shelves filled with all manner of ‘scary’
stuff begin appearing in early Fall, far from Oct. 31. As with Christmas, capitalism is polluting
Halloween by seeking to subordinate all cultural symbols to the corporate
desire for wealth.
is one big change, but there is another.
now get more involved than the past in parties and celebrations. It seems to me this enhanced involvement
reflects at least to some degree the concerns of people for whom traditional
Christianity no longer speaks, but who still must come to terms with two of
life’s most unsettling truths: we all will die, and we will (almost certainly)
never again see those we love who have preceded us in death.
capitalist degradation and the increasing role of adults in Halloween’s
celebration are signs of a weakening Christian hold on a culture long dominated
by it. But the two have very different foci, and it is this context that we
should think about Day of the Dead, our own Samhain, and how they fit into the
needs of modern America.
Day of the Dead – a second look
of the Dead’s roots are in pre-Christian central Mexico. The indigenous Aztec and other peoples
apparently had a similar celebration.
The conquering Spanish first tried to abolish the celebration, and when
that failed, integrated it into a Christian context. Originally taking place in
August, it was moved to November, focusing on All Souls Day. Today Day of the Dead altars will often have
Christian symbols such as crosses, which would have been absent in celebrations
500 years ago.
So Day of the Dead is itself a kind of hybrid where, on the one hand, conquering Catholic Spain sought to appropriate a Pagan sacred observation into their traditions whereas on the other, the indigenous people of central Mexico sought to assimilate enough of this effort into their traditions to be able to preserve the core of their ancestral celebration. In addition, Day of the Dead’s success in addressing universal human concerns and ability to harmonize what in most respects were antithetical spiritual traditions gave it a life of its own. It has spread throughout modern Mexico and Central America, far beyond the culture of its origins.
some Mexican people, Day of the Dead is mostly Christian, with a veneer of
traditional practices as well. For
others it involves returning to their Pagan roots. For most Mexicans I suspect
such issues are of little interest: it is a time to celebrate the lives of
their departed loved ones and invite them back at a time when the veils are
thin. In short, Day of the Dead does not have a universal coherent spiritual
framework beyond the core of celebrating departed loved ones, even among Mexicans.
With this comment we return to the issue of cultural appropriation.
I will never forget a 2014 Day of the Dead celebration I attended in Santa Rosa, California. Many beautiful altars had been erected in the center of the city, and various Mexican dance groups put on performances while food vendors made sure no one would be hungry. The dance troupe Danca Azteca closed the evening with a spectacular performance. The group is a well-known and apparently widely spread Mexican group. (I have seen another Danca Azteca troupe perform here in Taos as well.) Day of the Dead is far from their only celebration as a group. For example, they also honor Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess. Many are quite clear in their intention to honor the preChristian deities of the past.
Santa Rosa, during their Day of the Dead performance, their second to last
dance was a . . . Spiral Dance, with the audience invited to enter and
participate. This dance was Wiccan, not
Mexican. I felt very much at home! This dance was not appropriation, for the
culture Dance Azteca celebrates is hardly a dominant force in this country. Nor
was it cultural assimilation, for there was hardly any need for one culturally
weak group, Mexicans in America, to seek to preserve its traditions by
incorporating elements of an even weaker group, Witches.
else was going on.
Beyond appropriation and assimilation
ago I had a conversation with a Sun Dance Priest on the Crow reservation in
Montana. I had taken a German friend there at the end of a road trip exploring
Yellowstone. Ellen had friends who had studied with Larsen Medicinehorse in
Germany, and urged her to meet him. I provided the transportation, since Crow
Agency was not that far from Yellowstone.
and I got along well, and at one point he told me if he were to teach me how to
conduct sweat lodges, “there will come a time when you change it.” I waited for some words critical of
EuroAmericans appropriating Native traditions. They never came. Instead he said
“And that is how you make it yours.”
this, Medicinehorse did not mean anything goes. For example, he told me he had
stopped teaching some Germans because they had started charging for Sweats.
“Making it yours” involved respectfully
integrating one tradition into another context. Something important at the core
was preserved but something new would also emerge.
Day of the Dead/Halloween/Samhain in
think we are seeing something hopeful emerging in the changing context of how
Halloween is celebrated in America.
Before moving to Taos, I conducted joint celebrations of Samhain and Day
of the Dead with Mexican people in Sonoma County. We had side-by-side altars.
and people were encouraged to light votives honoring their deceased loved one,
and to place them on the altars of their choice. My Wiccan-style altar had marigolds on it,
and the skull was a colorful one, in keeping with Day of the Dead symbolism.
Otherwise it was very traditional. Beyond the flowers and skull, their had
little in common visually.
generally, when people paint their faces to resemble skulls, there cannot help
but be a recognition that in time our skulls will probably be the last evidence
we existed here. White celebrants have
the opportunity to laugh at death, something lacking in our culture. This is neither assimilation nor appropriation.
It is creative integration.
a culture we are rethinking the place of death and the departed in our lives
and this time of year provides a great framework for it to happen. Already in
many more liberal parts of America there is growing recognition of Samhain as
well as Day of the Dead, and I am sure it will not be celebrated by non-Wiccans
in the way we traditional Witches do.
This bothers me not in the least.
there is also a point to the worries of those who, like de Leon, worry about
cultural appropriation. Cultural
appropriation as a bad thing is not mixing compatible symbols and practices in
new ways, it is in using such practices and symbols removed from any
traditional context, and in ways that are not respectful of their origins. For example, a contest as to who has the best
skull face decoration. The risk is the commercialization of this time of the
year, or of its symbols.
excluding Mexican people from planning and participating in celebrations, such
as Aya de Leon described, can easily become a version of the Blackface Minstrel
shows. Customs and images taken out of context can be played with and used to
emphasize the strangeness of those for whom they are an important part of their
lives. Fraternity Blackface parties are
the opposite of any honest engagement with African American culture. This is
genuine cultural appropriation reinforcing power and domination as
year I will once again have a colorful skull on my Samhain altar, and marigolds
as well (if I can find some- mine died a few days ago in a hard freeze).
On the Fourth of July it is traditional to think at least a little about the founding of our country. In a country that replaced the birthdays of specific presidents of great historical importance with the anonymous “Presidents’ Day” holiday, this doesn’t require much thinking, and still less learning. Flying the flag is popular, but less popular is thinking about what it stands for. When we occasionally do think about what it stands for, the issue quickly gets complicated.
Many of us were appalled when we learned of the massive crimes committed by our ancestors. The destruction of Indian societies, the curse of slavery, and the many aggressive wars and subversion of other societies no threat to ourselves, the better to serve corporate interests, all give decent people reason to pause at the more unthinking forms of patriotism that have been the norm. The hypocrisy of claiming something superior about our society while thoughtlessly approving such crimes is over 200 years old and seemingly unending.
Why then, celebrate? Is it not like celebrating the marriage du jour of someone like Donald Trump?
I think there are three very important reasons.
First, the Declaration of Independence based its arguments on the rights of human beings, and not of Englishmen, which would have been a traditional reason for seeking independence. All were equal in their rights.
Second, and related, the absolute right to religious freedom was made a basic principle of our constitution. The United States even ratified this principle in a treaty with Tripoli stating we were in no sense a Christian nation, a treaty where Washington and Adams both played a role in its writing.
Finally, given that our Declaration justified government by consent of the governed, adopting the constitution required the consent of every state to enter. It could not be imposed. Tiny Rhode Island was a continual thorn in the Founders’ side, but rather than incorporating it into any of the much larger neighboring states, as was the European precedent, it was accommodated.
These three reasons lie at the core of what is most accurately called liberalism. Liberalism is rooted in two principles: individuals are the basic moral unit in society and all are equally so. It is a political philosophy with its most important roots in John Locke, and includes Americans with such different political agendas as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Franklin Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Dole. Two call themselves Democrats, one prefers the ‘socialist’ term, and two were Republicans, Their policy ides differed greatly. And yet, all were liberals.
What made them liberals was that all believed the individual was the fundamental moral unit of society, the right to vote was sacrosanct, and no religion had any legitimate role imposing its views by law.
Of course these people would criticize one another for failing to adequately understand liberal principles. People will always have different views on how basic principles apply to life. And America’s first liberal leaders were often deeply inconsistent in how they applied these principles. Slavery, the dispossession of Indian lands, and women’s inequality under the law were examples. Some even knew of such contradictions, but could not for the moment figure out how to deal with them.
Today we are so aware of our Founders’ failings to fully institutionalizeliberal principles that we have forgotten, or never knew, of the degree to which these principles actually changed society. A majority of American states abolished slavery peacefully, and those that did not explicitly repudiated the Declaration of Independence as mistaken. Its veneration undermined their tyranny. Women were able to vote in a number of northern states, with New Jersey using the terms “his or her” in its constitution. Within a short period of time property qualifications were abandoned for voting in all states. Tiny Rhode Island had been ahead of its time.
Not every liberal innovation lasted. Women’s right to vote was a step too far for those states to incorporate it, and failed to last. But remember, even today a majority of Southern White women support taking away women’s control over their bodies and adhere to a religion more at home with denying them the right to vote than to giving it. And, of course, the issue kept returning until the right to vote was guaranteed even for Southern White women who never would have managed to establish it on their own. In making their arguments, the suffragists always emphasized the country’s failure to abide by its own founding principles.
The influence of
No ideology so completely dominates a society that all its practices are defined by it. Calvinist New England tried, and failed. Marxism Leninism tried, and failed. I am sure that when we learn more about Iran, we will find the same is true for Shiite Islam there. Ideas, good and bad alike, are players in a complex social ecology.
The US inherited deeply illiberal practices, and with that inheritance, a great many people who profited from those practices. Ideas have always had to push against or modify other ideas and interests in seeking to influence the world, and liberalism was no different in this respect. For example, the anti-slavery North benefited from Southern cotton, picked by slaves. So what matters, I argue, is the direction in which ideas push change. They will never be all powerful, bit neither will they be simply window dressing.
What matters, to my mind, is their influence over time.
By basing the new nation on universal moral principles applicable to every person, they incorporated the grounds for criticizing our failures into its foundations. And these are the strongest grounds possible. They have empowered all movements that, in retrospect, have gradually expanded human well-being in this nation. There were no such internal principals able to criticize South Africa’s apartheid constitution or the Soviet Union’s Leninist one. For them, change came from repudiation of the founding values, not efforts at their perfection.
Today liberalism has fallen on hard times. The Republican Party has repudiated our founding principles on all three levels. The political and moral travesty that is called ‘neoliberalism’ subordinates individuals to the dictates of corporate interests and their need for profit. Critics of the status quo increasingly use collectivist concepts to frame their objections in terms such as White men or gender while abandoning talk of rights, preferring the term “privilege.” (Imagine building a movement based on “civil privileges’ rather than civil rights.)
I think I is important for Americans to honor our liberal founding principles, and we Pagans have a particularly appropriate symbol enabling us to do so. Today the Statue of Freedom, whose original stands atop our capitol dome, also adorns my altar.
One of the more disturbing things about the uproar among some mistakenly calling themselves ‘woke,’ while attacking natal women-only rituals in a Pagan context, is their failure to distinguish between universal human standards and those focused on honoring a particular dimension of the sacred.
Treating trans people as moral and intellectual equals in the context of daily life as well as the law, is a position I and most so-called ‘TERFS’ have always held. Further, the argument that in a spiritual or religious context honoring the sacredness of embodiment and the cycles of life, it is appropriate in some contexts for those who have actually experienced those cycles to engage in ritual among themselves in no way disparages those who do not qualify in this particular context- for we all have contexts of greater or lesser individuality where the sacred speaks most distinctly to us.
I am a man who is not welcome on women only rituals, and am in no way offended by that. Were I to design a ritual for young men coming into sexual awareness, I would not think of involving women in its planning, but neither would I think women were in any sense inferior.
Increasingly I find myself wondering whether the most rabid among those who criticize the legitimacy of natal women only rituals are also attacking the legitimacy of NeoPaganism as it arose and is practiced. They are not ‘companions on the path’ but rather taking a different path, while attacking ours.
One can be a Pagan and not be a NeoPagan. Conservative Hindus are as sexist and patriarchal a group as any on earth. Some (not all) modern Norse traditions are deeply patriarchal. Both clearly distinguish themselves from NeoPagans, even if by a more abstract standard we are all Pagans. I think the same is true for those attacking natal women only rituals. They are different from all of these- focusing on far more abstract and mental dimensions of spirituality. Which, of course, is their right.
But it is not their right to seek to control the practices of others with a different focus.
They should mind their own business, for we certainly do not tell them how to practice whatever it is that they call their religion. We can criticize one another – that’s fair – but a fair criticism is that a belief we have that shapes our practice is not justified in terms of the larger context of that practice.
For example, one could argue, (though I have no idea how), that honoring the cycles of fertility in a natal woman’s life, including first menses and menopause, are inappropriate for a religion that honors the sacredness in embodiment. That would be a legitimate approach to criticizing practices some trans activists find objectionable, though I think my simply stating it demonstrates its pointlessness.
One could criticize honoring embodiment as a dimension of the sacred. Many Buddhists and apparently some Hindus and Christians do. But such people have no business considering themselves in any serious way connected to those of us who do. If it exists, our common ground is at a more abstract level – such as acknowledging the centrality of kindness/compassion/love.
All of a sudden, some right wing online commentators are emphasizing that Scandinavian nations are “not socialist.” I am seeing this claim in many places of late. But for years, decades even, right wing commentators have called Sweden in particular and the others in general “socialist.” Some have gone so far as to call Sweden a new totalitarianism. Now suddenly this is stopping.
Is something interesting going on?
I think so.
Pretty much everyone able to read has easy access to evidence that, on balance, Scandinavian societies are much more successful than ours. The scary predictions of right wingers for decades that they would devolve into tyrannies has most obviously not happened. Further, Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians have spent more years than I am alive (71) denouncing every attempt to solve or ameliorate social problems with governmental action as “socialist” and tending to tyranny. But the countries they warned us about, mostly Scandinavian, are now glowing examples of success compared to us.
How do Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians hope to avoid people noticing what is now obvious to all that look at the facts? Confuse the issue. Make Sweden capitalist while describing its actual policies in an American context as socialist tyranny.
This trick is based on conflating two meanings of the word
“socialism.” One, as with the Soviets, is government control of the
economy through central planning. The second is government or
non-capitalist ownership of businesses within a market economy. As
libertarians will be the first to say, the Post Office and our highways
are socialist- and they are in this second definition.
Both meanings are legitimate if the differences are kept in mind. I do this by distinguishing “state socialism” (meaning central planning) from a more generic “socialism” that accepts markets and even private businesses. But there is another wrinkle here. Today in common parlance “socialism” often means different things in Europe than in the U.S.
In Europe Social Democratic parties are often rooted historically in Marxism- but for many good reasons chose to go leave revolutionary goals aside and sought to work peacefully within the existing system. Revolutionaries still wanted to establish state socialism as on the road to communism. Consequently the term “socialism” for many Europeans means state socialism as contrasted to social democracy.
The U.S. never had a strong Marxist movement at the popular level, but we did have many socialist movements in the second sense. So terminology here is different than in Europe. The equivalent of social democratic ideas in the U.S. did not emerge out of struggles with revolutionary Marxists. They arose rather more spontaneously from our own cultural dynamics. So what is called social democratic politics in Europe is often called just socialist politics in the U.S. For example see this statement by the Democratic Socialists of America.
With the Soviet Union’s demise and communism’s general discrediting, there are no state socialist nations of the first sort to use as examples to scare us. Venezuela is a right wing attempt to replace the old USSR as a bogeyman, and it is a pathetic one. And democratic socialist nations are successes. More and more of the younger generation are not only not scared by socialism, they are attracted to it.
So, what are these right wing oligarchs and their servants to do?
Change the framing.
Sweden is now ‘capitalist’ because it has a market economy! Of course,
it ALWAYS has had a market economy, but the right wing is seeking to
dissociate Scandinavian success from socialism. But what about Swedish
The right wing is now claiming all who call themselves socialist in this country want to abolish markets and substitute central planning when, so far as I know, there is not a single prominent American socialist who wants this. Socialism must continue to be demonized while changing its meaning to reflect the latest set of lie by capitalist oligarchs and their servants.
This is too sudden a change to be accidental, I think.
The NeoPagan community has been divided over issues of gender and sexuality, particularly the appropriate relations between natal and trans-women. While this controversy deals with important issues, its vehemence is due to mistaken ways of thinking about it, ways rooted in Christian styles of thought which strengthen looking at the issue in dichotomies. The result is framing the discussion in zero-sum terms.
When we deepen our understanding to grasp issues of sex and gender are shaped by context and relationship, they can be addressed fairly and reasonably for all sides. In particular, many Pagan societies have viewed their world as involving many genders, all of which are respected. Using examples from Native American societies in North and Central America, we can grasp that the term “Two Spirits” describes trans-people in ways fair to all. It recognizes the legitimate differences and similarities between natal women and transwomen.
To make its case, this paper – presented at the Conference on Current Pagan Studies, Jan. 26-17, 2019 in Claremont, CA – weaves together actual cases and ongoing controversies with philosophical analysis.
The controversy over appointing a ruthless political operative, perjurer, and probable sexual predator to the Supreme Court has led many people to put the blame on old White males and their culture of privilege. While there is some truth to this argument, it does not go nearly deep enough to shed adequate light on these crimes against the constitution. Going more deeply also sheds light on the rise of NeoPagan religion in this country.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wrote a particularly good analysis of the issues underlying the Kavanaugh controversy from a mainstream progressive perspective. Krugman emphasized Trump’s base is not motivated by economic issues, but rather from rage at losing their accustomed status in a society where more and more Americans are people different from themselves. The result is hatred of others, racial resentment, and a deep rage by white men in particular. more »
This post is from my August 8, 2018, blog at Witches and Pagans.
Z Budapest once stirred up strong feelings, ending in a demonstration, by holding a biological-women-only ritual at Pantheacon. The previous year another group had also excluded trans-women from an all women ritual. Some people decided it was time to challenge the legitimacy of such practices. It was quite the kerfluffel for a while. I was one of Z’s defenders.
Since then, more than a little ill-feeling has erupted between some biological women and men and some trans women and men. One group claims only biological women are women and the other that trans-women are as much women as biological women. Representatives on both sides have used abusive language towards the other. It has gotten ugly.
As a straight man, at one level this is not my fight. I am not welcome at either kind of women-only ritual.
But at another it is. It disrupts the Pagan community about which I care deeply, and reflects what I consider to be a deeply mistaken view of what it is to be a human being, ironically, a mistake with Christian roots.
I am struck with how the debate over whether or not abortion is morally acceptable has become a battle of slogans rather than of reason. I think the major culprits are on the so-called ‘pro life’ side, but at this point there is little rational discussion on either side. This paper seeks to correct that shortcoming, and will argue there is NO good reason for opposing abortion as murder, or anything like it. Because I give reasons for this claim, the anti-abortion folks have an opportunity to rebut me. They can’t.
Social institutions viewed from a Hayekian perspective closely match evolutionary and ecological perspectives in biology. All rely on the same systemic relationships of variation, selection, and inheritance. What Hayek called spontaneous orders are variations of a larger range of related phenomena. Concepts developed in one such field can enrich our understanding of analogous phenomena in others. Among the most important concepts explored here are individuals, organisms, species, and ecosystems. This integration carries important implications for how human societies can exist sustainably on the earth.
To read more, find the article here.