Jeff Lilly

Jeff Lilly is a druid, linguist, and author of the blog Druid Journal, where he writes about druid things -- meditation, relationship with Spirit, soulful fulfillment in scholarship and art, reconnecting the ancient with the modern, creating beauty, and healing the world. Professionally, he is a computational linguist, with a focus on socio-linguistics, historical linguistics, lexical semantics, and lexicography; so he has a keen interest not only in the minutiae of the working of the human mind, and the centrality of its manipulation of symbols, but also the broader patterns of social change and development. He has published papers on conversational implicature, dialect analysis, lexical semantics, and syntactic universals. Spiritually, he was raised Zen Buddhist in the culturally conservative South, and is now a revivalist druid. He has worked in the fields of internet search, text-to-speech processing, and the defense industry, and is the father of four children. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his fiancée Ali and their black cat, Cu Gwyn.

May 052011

I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation about the death of Osama bin Laden — most of my thoughts are summed up well by others — but I do want to point out something that struck me about Barack Obama’s remarks Sunday night:

Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Has it? He seems quite certain, and I wonder why.

As a Christian, Obama’s personal sense of justice must presumably be founded on Christian principles — on words such as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek,” and so on. Overall, Jesus seems to take a firm stance against all violence, even in self defense. But in his speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the principle of the ‘just war’:

…war is justified… when certain conditions [are] met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

The idea of ‘just war’ is most fully developed in Catholic doctrine, and has changed over time. Christians during the time of the Crusades believed that violence, even aggression, was fine, as long as it was done for a noble cause. The more limited modern theory of ‘just war’ takes an intermediate view between Jesus and the Crusaders.

But in that same speech, Obama went on to criticize the just war theory as being too impractical:

…while it’s hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished…

As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [the non-violent philosophies of King and Gandhi] alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms…

The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

So if the nonviolence of Jesus, King, and Gandhi is too impractical, and the ‘just war’ theory is too idealistic, then by what is Obama guided? Does he agree with the Crusaders — that violence is justified in a good cause? Isn’t this consequentialism — that the ends, in other words, justify the means? Surely Obama would not agree to that. But that’s what “practical” means in this context, when you get right down to it. You do what you have to do to get the job done, even if you have to break a few ethical eggs.

As a druid with Zen Buddhist leanings, I don’t have a Bible writ with doctrines of peace. I know that, while the ancient druids aspired towards peace, the human world, the natural world, is not a place of cut and dried right and wrong. And so I know that in any ethical dilemma, a healthy dollop of humility and doubt is called for. We are mortal creatures of limited knowledge; we cannot see all ends, and our judgements are bound to be faulty. In fact, I think Obama struck nearer the mark when he said — in that same speech:

To say that force may sometimes be necessary… is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…. Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly…

For we are fallible… Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

I think these words are wise. And so — as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan — as ultimatums were issued instead of exploring every diplomatic option — as nations were invaded with overwhelming force, far disproportionate to the threat of the terrorist network — as our nation bent and broke so many of the Geneva Conventions — as the laws protecting the privacy and rights of our own citizens have been legislated away with barely any debate — but Bin Laden was, at last, caught by a single SEAL team, working from intelligence gained without torture, with no loss of civilian life — how can he say with such certainty that justice has been done?

I cannot. It makes me wonder where he thinks justice lies.

Mar 302011

Recently Obama spoke about his decision to commit US troops to assist the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi. His choice, he said, was difficult, but clear: to prevent a slaughter of Libyan protestors, military action against Gaddafi’s forces was essential. The US cannot intervene everywhere, but when we can act to support freedom, we must. To do otherwise would be a violation of the core principles and beliefs of America.

Maybe Obama was right. But to me, the decision was not so clear. After all, these weren’t peaceful protestors, as in Egypt: these were rebels, soldiers, who were defending themselves. Obama said we were preventing a slaughter, but really we are taking sides in a civil war. And we don’t really know who these rebels are: recent reports indicate at least some ties to al-Quaeda (is anyone really surprised?) and other Islamist groups. Not to mention, if the rebels fail to defeat Gaddafi outright, how much further will we be drawn into the fighting? Are we going to be stuck trying to build a third Muslim nation? Obama emphasizes that we’re not going it alone here, we have lots of allies, America is not in charge — which is all fine, except of course it limits our control of the situation. And will all of this improve the “Arab street’s” opinion of America, or make it worse? There’s no way to know. To me, it is not clear at all that military intervention was the best course.

But I think there’s a bigger question here, one Obama didn’t even mention. Why are we in this situation? Why are we having to make this choice? How did we get backed into a corner of having to choose between a possible slaughter and a possible quagmire? And even more importantly: how can we avoid it in the future?

Here’s what I think. Obama’s right in one thing: we cannot violate our core principles — as Americans, and as human beings. But we got into this because we did violate those principles. And what are those principles?

Principles of Humane Action

We have to ask ourselves: what manner of world do we want to see? I use the word ‘manner’ specifically because the manner in which we do things is essential.

“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.” — Huxley

In order to give the means the proper weight in our considerations, we must take a step back from our goals. Instead of thinking about ends — exit strategies, “democracy in the Middle East,” etc. — we must hold processes and means in mind. What means do we want to see at work in the world? How do we want the world to work? Those are the means we must use towards our ends.

And I do not think there is much disagreement in principle on what kinds of means we would like to see. We wish people to use cooperation, or friendly competition. We wish to see peace rather than war. We wish to see distributed power rather than concentrated power: in society, as in nature, power concentrated in one place is unstable, and tends to disperse in disruptive ways. We wish to see people participating in determining the shape of their own lives, rather than having their fates decided for them. We wish to see initiatives from the grassroots, rather than having goals and means handed down from on high. These principles underlie not only American democracy, but most pagan traditions, and our deepest human nature.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

So in Libya today, why do we face a choice between evils? Mostly, of course, this is Gaddafi’s fault. But we can’t fix him by waving a magic wand; we can only change ourselves. And we are here, facing this choice, because we violated our core principles again and again as we rose to a world power.

During WWII, we felt we had no option but to build a tremendous military force to defeat the fascists. After WWII, we felt we had no option but to keep building that military force as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. After all, military intervention worked against Hitler, so we assumed it would always work everywhere. And anyway, it was profitable for our military industrial complex.

But in fact, a huge military by its very nature violates our core American and human principles. It is not an organization for cooperation or friendly competition; it is not peaceful; it concentrates power, instead of distributing it; it’s hierarchical, not grassroots. Perhaps we did need a huge military, for a while. But throughout the Cold War, our greatest efforts should have been towards drawing that military down, and exploring other options for promoting world peace and cooperation.

Because such options exist. What if we had worked toward establishing the UN as a true global organization for peace, instead of a factory for the cloaks of legitimacy we need for our military interventions? What if we had devoted as many resources to the Peace Corps as we had to the Marine Corps? What if we had put 50% of our discretionary spending towards encouraging charities, non-profits, and other non-governmental organizations around the world, instead of building enough ICBM’s to destroy the Soviets hundreds of times over?

We don’t really know, because we didn’t even consider those options. Instead, we built one big hammer, and the whole world looks like a nail; and it seemed that our only options in Libya were to use the hammer, or not.

We need to find ways of downsizing that hammer, and dispersing its power. We need to start creating other options. There are dozens of organizations working towards peace and understanding in the Middle East. We need to support them, and we need to create an environment that fosters more of them. Otherwise, no matter how dearly we hold our principles, the world will always be a bed of nails.

Mar 242011

American troops are now committed to more fighting in the Middle East, for good or ill; and while the UN resolution casts this conflict as one between Libyan civilians and their illegitimate government (i.e. Gaddafi), it might be more accurate to see it as part of the millennia-long struggle between tribes and states — a struggle that states have been slowly, steadily winning. Is that a good thing?

Modern pagans today often look favorably on tribal affiliations. Tribes were central to human life throughout the world before nation states began coming into prominence several thousand years ago, and if you’re a pagan who believes in the religion of your ancestors, the tribe has to be central to your worldview. The tribe was the locus of the gods, the kinship associations and loyalties, the language, the music and culture, the cuisine, who you could marry and who you could not, and so on. Re-creating something so all-pervasive is not a simple thing. What is the place of the tribe in the modern world? What kind of authority should it hold? What happens, for example, if tribal law conflicts with the law of the state?

This is not an academic question. Most governments take a dim view of any kind of organized power structure that might compete with them, and they take steps to make sure that they are the final authority. Native American tribes, for example, have to be officially recognized by the US government and work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If they don’t, then they have no legal authority at all — they do not have control over internal tribal affairs of law and punishment or cultural activities or tribal property, they are ineligible for federal assistance, and so on. In some tribes, there are two competing authorities: a tribal authority recognized by the BIA, and a “shadow” tribal government, often composed of traditional elders, working to preserve some semblance of self-determination and autonomy. Of course, divided tribal loyalties of this sort ultimately work to the advantage of state authority.

While it might be tempting to put all states in the “bad guy” role — playing the Goliath to the tribal Davids — the situation is, of course, more complex than that. Libya is an interesting case of a relatively new state in which tribal affiliations and authorities are still quite strong. There are at least 140 different tribes and clans in Libya, and at least 30 that are cohesive enough to have a significant power base in the country. Muammar al-Gaddafi (his name, “Gaddafi”, comes from his tribal affiliation) built his power on the tribes that controlled the military and state security and police forces in the late 1960′s. Although a lot of his official rhetoric emphasizes Libyan unity and downplays tribal affiliations, in fact he relies on tribal loyalties and infighting to maintain his position. Tribes that are loyal to him are awarded privileges and choice government positions; those that oppose him are punished. The powerful Magariha tribe, for example, controls a lot of the military, and has been loyal to him for a long time. But if it were to change sides, Gaddafi would be in trouble quickly.

Gaddafi’s state apparatus is in no position to “recognize” tribes, or control their internal affairs as the US does with Native Americans. Tribes in Libya are independent entities, and they provide a lot of the grease that oils the wheels of society. Just as joining certain fraternities at American universities can help you along in a career in law or politics, being part of certain tribes in Libya gives you access to jobs, preferred treatment or services, perks, connections, and so on.

Arguably, this strong tribal structure is a big reason why peaceful revolution failed in Libya. In neighboring Egypt, where tribal affiliations are weak, the army was loath to fire on peaceful protestors; they were more loyal to Egypt than to Hosni Mubarak. But in Libya, many people in the military are more loyal to their tribe than to Libya or Gaddafi. The soldiers may not like Gaddafi much, but it is not surprising that many chose tribal loyalty over nonviolence (especially since most of the civilian protestors weren’t part of their tribe anyway).

But interestingly, among the rebels based now in Benghazi, the tribal affiliations actually appear to be weakening. Instead of organizing themselves by tribes and creating a patchwork of rebellious regions, they have created a coalition of corporate, tribal, and international interests, adopted pan-Libyan language, and are apparently working towards a statist, non-tribal alternative to Gaddafi.

So if Gaddafi loses, the Libya that emerges will be more centralized, and less dependent on tribal authority and identity. But if Gaddafi wins, he will have solidified his power base without relying on the tribes; so, again, the tribes lose. In Libya, it is not a question of whether the people will be free, but whether they will be ruled by a yet-to-be-determined mix of corporate, oil, tribal, and international interests, or by Gaddafi. Either way, the tribes are weakened, and the state wins again.

If tribes become footballs in political games, if they become wedges that powerful interests can use to drive people apart, if they become cliques, then you begin to skirt dangerously close to separate-but-equal facilities, racial profiling, and sectarian violence. The human heart is pulled in several directions — toward universal brotherhood, towards family and kinship loyalty, towards peace, towards order, towards prosperity. These impulses are all noble in and of themselves, but when they come into conflict, what is the best path forward? It is not clear, to me at least, the best role for a tribe to play in the modern world, with so many strong corporate and state powers ready to use any excuse to divide and conquer the loyalties of the people.

Mar 172011

The US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, recently spoke with the Washington Post about how unfair it is that the mainstream media in this country continues to slam rural America. He was taking issue specifically with Ezra Klein, who, reviewing Ed Glaeser’s new book, “The Triumph of the City,” talked about the many virtues of gathering people together en masse. Cities, he said, provided opportunities for the free exchange of goods and ideas, and increases in productivity and innovation, in ways that are impossible in a spread-out, rural setting. This is why our cities continue to grow and grow, despite the internet, iPhone, and other flashy shiny telecommunications capabilities that reduce the need for people to interact face to face.

Then Klein slammed the countryside: “But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living.”

Obviously, no Secretary of Agriculture worth the name could let such vile slander pass unremarked. Vilsack called up Klein and gave him an earful of reasons why rural subsidies are essential. Since Vilsack is a politician, the reasons were couched in lofty platitudes and misleading statistics, but here are his reasons, boiled down to the essentials:

* A disproportionate percentage of our military personnel come from there
* It’s where we get our food and water
* It’s the foundation of 1/12th of our economy (according to one way of accounting)
* There are a lot of poor people there
* Farmers are good people and deserve our support

Klein countered that, in a capitalist economy, the way we show our appreciation for people is usually by giving them a bigger paycheck. Instead of agricultural subsidies, why not pay our soldiers more? And urban people are patriotic, too; joining the military is not the only way to show one’s patriotism. Plus, there are a lot more poor people in cities than in the countryside. Urban and suburban people are also good and deserve our support. Why disproportionately support this 1/12th of the economy, and not other 1/12ths? Vilsack had no answers; he just repeated his bromides.

It’s true: we Americans love to talk about rural home family values, about patriotism and service and the simple American farmer and all that. My father grew up on a farm, and he and his family always waxed nostalgic for those pure halcyon days. But while I was growing up, the old farmstead stood empty and unused, except for the neighbors’ cattle. When I asked why grandma and grandpa didn’t live at the farm anymore, the answer was simple: they preferred their big house on the lake, with friendly neighbors and a short ride into town. And all the kids who’d grown up on the halcyon farm had gone off to the cities to work in non-halcyon manufacturing. Odd, that.

It’s not just Americans who like to talk about how great the country is; pagans do, too. There is something undeniably compelling about the forest, the rolling open hills, the looming mountains… They speak to the soul in a way that grassy city parks and mall parking lots rarely do. When you’re looking for a spiritual leading, suburban lawns are a poor substitute for the open prairie. When you’re out on the untamed earth, you can hear its voice whispering so much more loudly, if you let it. It takes you away from your humanity, for a while, and connects you to wilder, deeper parts of life.

Does that mean that rural areas are somehow better, and that the rural life is superior? Do rural communities need our subsidies? Is Vilsack right?

Cities do something essential for us, too. If you let them, they will re-introduce you to humanity, and show you new ways of being human. Modern American cities are far more multicultural than they have ever been before; within them you can find speakers of every language, from any social or economic class, rubbing elbows at the grocery store, walking in the parks, sitting in the coffeeshops. You will find whole new ways of thinking and being. And American cities are patriotic, as well — not in a way that celebrates red-blooded American Protestant supremacism, but American values of egalitarianism and multiculturalism. American cities have the poorest neighborhoods and the richest, the most religious and most atheist, the most conservative and most liberal, the most egalitarian and most authoritarian… If you want to learn about humanity, cities are where you go.

And opening yourself to your own humanity is just as essential a spiritual practice as opening yourself to the Earth. Perhaps the contrast between grounding and centering is instructive here.

When you center yourself, you find the right relationship between the different parts of your human body, making sure that all pieces are in alignment and that the energy is flowing well everywhere within yourself. And when you go to a city, you feel the alignment between different parts of human society, and the energy and resources flowing throughout.

When you ground yourself, you find the right relationship between yourself and the Earth, feeling the connection between your body and the planet around you. Similarly, when you leave human society and head into the country, you touch again the connection between your humanity and the wilderness.

Many religious traditions celebrate those who walk away from humanity — the pilgrims, the hermits and monks, the desert fathers, the dream questers. And there are definitely answers to be found out there in the desert. But the cities have their own answers, and open your mind to different kinds of questions, as well.

Mar 022011


In the 17th century, the population of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) suddenly crashed — and, oddly enough, it does not appear to have been the fault of the Europeans. In 1600, the island’s population was about 15,000; by 1722, when Europeans arrived, it was probably no more than 3,000. No one is sure of the reason behind this 80% decline, but archaeological records of pollen count suggest an answer: deforestation.

When the Polynesians first arrived on the island, it was heavily forested, primarily with a rare kind of palm tree (now extinct). During the thousand years that Rapa Nui was inhabited before the Dutch arrived in 1722, the pollen count steadily dropped, probably due to a combination of factors — the clearing of land for agriculture, the fancy taken to the palm nuts by the rats the Polynesians brought with them, and the use of the palm logs to transport the mighty moai to their sentinel posts by the sea.

The moai are the famous Easter Island statues. According to oral tradition, they were built as part of the Rapa Nui ancestry religion, and represented the guardianship of the ancestors over the island. The statues were placed around the coast, facing away from the sea towards the land, as the ancestors faced away from the spirit world towards their children.

Historians conjecture that as the population (of humans and rats) grew, and more moai were built, and trees died, the climate changed, becoming drier and hotter. The island’s precarious ecosystem eventually toppled, leading to the end of the power of the moai and their priests, and famine, and perhaps cannibalism.

Were the islanders foolish? After all, if things are getting bad, one should build more moai, not less, right? They were the protectors, right?… Perhaps they seem short-sighted to us today, but this kind of short-sightedness is not uncommon in human societies.

No doubt they had their blind spots — as do we.


There is no resource more critical to modern life than oil. It’s not just used to power trains, planes, cars, and trucks, but it’s an enabling technology — it’s used to make other things work. Coal and oil and other petrochemicals build our homes, pave our roads, generate our electric power, and serve as the basis for plastic and pharmaceuticals. Take away petrochemicals and just about everything else unravels.

So — are we likely to run out, like the Rapa Nui ran out of trees?

Actually, the answer is no. We have something going for us that the islanders did not: capitalism.

This four-minute video (“Are We Running Out Of Resources?”) explains the situation succinctly. The basic summary is simple: when we start to run low of something, the price starts to rise. This encourages people to (a) use less, (b) find more sources of it, and (c) find substitutes. The video talks about how this already happened with copper, and has been happening with oil for over a hundred years.

When whale oil got too expensive, we started getting oil out of the ground. When the gushers stopped flowing, we dug deeper. When that got too hard, we started digging out in the ocean. When that got more difficult, we started using chemical extraction processes on oil sands… and so on. In the meantime, we have slowly, slowly started using less by developing hybrid vehicles, using wind and solar power, and so on. (You don’t see much of this in the US, because oil is unusually cheap here, but in Europe they’ve been moving away from petrochemicals for decades.) And we’re finding substitutes, such as ethanol and artificially-produced petroleum (made of sun, water, and carbon dioxide).

So we’re extremely unlikely to ever reach Peak Oil — at least, in a way that anyone cares about. By the time we start really running low on oil (if we ever do), it will be so expensive that we’ll have already switched to other technologies.

But to my mind, this isn’t really about how great capitalism is, or how clever our little monkey brains are. This is really about the bounty of the Earth. Whether you consider the Earth a goddess, or the slowly mouldering carcass of Ymir, or a ball of moist rock smeared with a thin sheen of green life, there is no question of its generosity.

There are many kinds of teachers. Some teach with pain, others with pleasure. Some teach by example, others by lists of rules, others by poetry or by visions or by music. The Earth is a teacher primarily by generosity; and it teaches you how to deal with abundance. You have only to look at an apple tree in autumn, laden and bowing under the weight of its fruit. Please! it seems to be saying. Please, please help yourself!

So why are there so many people in want? Ironically enough, it’s because of capitalism, and our clever monkey brains.

Are You Buyer, Seller, or Product?

Many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition, sickness, and lack of basic necessities like water. This isn’t because the Earth isn’t giving us enough; it’s because its resources are unfairly distributed. Capitalism ensures that there will always be plenty of food and energy for those who can pay, but it also ensures that there will never be enough for those who can’t.

Not only that. The same capitalism that adjusts prices based on scarcity also provides incentives to overconsume and pollute. A corporation that digs up more and more oil has a huge incentive to advertise it, to market it, to sell it — as much as it can, as expensively as it can. This leads to overconsumption — using more than we need, wastefully. (As Jerry Mander famously said, if they have to advertise it, it means you probably don’t really need it.) And oil companies have no capitalist incentive at all to clean up after themselves, to safely dispose of the chemicals they use to extract the oil, or step carefully on the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

Here’s the basic problem: capitalism inherently divides the world into buyer, seller, and product. The more of the world you can make “product”, the more money you can make. And while capitalism does great things for the buyer and seller, it treats the product like — well, like dirt. The product gets no respect, and has no value other than the money it’s bought with.

And, oddly enough, Easter Island again provides the perfect example. Slavery — which is nothing more than productizing human beings, treating humans as thing to be bought and sold — a slightly more extreme form of capitalism — slavery did more than a thousand years of deforestation. Before the Europeans arrived, deforestation reduced the population by 80%; but after the Europeans arrived, the slave trade and invasive sheep ranching reduced it by another 96%. In 1877, just 150 years after European contact, only 111 people remained on Rapa Nui.

Today most of the island is a World Heritage Site, and national park. It has a population of about 5,000 (about 60% native), and its largest industry is tourism. Sounds pretty good! But lest you think that we people today are wiser or better than the shepherds and slave traders of the 1800′s, or the moai-builders of the 1600′s, just imagine what would happen if major oil reserves were discovered there.

Just because you’re sitting at a feast does not mean it’s ok to eat until you’re sick. The Earth is generous — she will give and give, long past what she owes us, long past the point of satiety, long past the point of her death, and ours. We haven’t yet learned the Earth’s lesson.

Feb 182011

The Vikings are thought of by most people as barbaric invaders, pillagers, and looters: violent, greedy, and wanton. Of course this is a caricature — the Vikings did more trading, exploring and settling than anything else. But there’s no denying that the Vikings inflicted great damage on the peoples of northern Europe and Russia, and their habit of attacking Christian holy sites made them seem especially fearsome.

Even after the Nordic nations became Christian, they had a reputation for their ferocity. During the Thirty Years War in the 1600′s, Swedish armies destroyed about one third of all the towns in Germany.

But now things are different. Today the five “Nordic” countries — Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland — have planted themselves at or near the top of most measures of human happiness for decades. None of them have invaded any other nation in modern times. They are not pagan, but neither are they particularly Christian — Norway has the lowest number of people calling themselves “religious” of any Western nation (36%). They are peaceful, free, and prosperous, with low crime rates, low infant mortality, high employment, universal medical care, low personal and institutional debt, and excellent low-cost furniture.

How? Socialism.

Socialism! It’s harder to imagine anything further from that old Viking spirit. Instead of trading, exploring, and settling, or even a little pillaging on the side, prosperity and living standards are kept high by strong governments, thick and hearty safety nets for the poor and elderly, and tax rates close to 60% of income.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. But a recent paper presented by the five Nordic countries at the Davos World Economic Forum challenged that notion. Instead, they say, the secret of the Norse is actually their particular brand of rugged individualism:

…it is the combination of extreme individualism and a strong state that has shaped the fertile ground for an efficient market economy: Less tied down by legal, practical or moral obligations within families, individuals of both sexes become more flexible and available for productive work in a market economy. Gender equality has resulted in both higher fertility rates and higher female participation on the labor market than in other parts of Europe. (from the introduction to the report)

The paper goes on to argue that strong government programs like universal health care, easily accessible child care, and retirement benefits allows individuals more personal choice and freedom. With health care taken care of, the sick and elderly have more choice of careers; with child care taken care of, more professional women can enter the workforce; with retirement benefits, people don’t have to scrimp and save all their lives, but can spend their money when they earn it. (Good thing, too, if they’re only keeping 40% of the check…) All of this, it’s argued, levels the employment playing field and allows more actual freedom — freedom for both men and women to get sick, have children, and grow old, without worrying unduly about employment.

The Nordic countries, they say, place their faith primarily in two loci: the state and the individual. The state is there to balance inequalities of opportunity, so that each individual has the maximum freedom to order their lives as they see fit.

The report also compares the Norse societies with those of Germany and the United States. Germans, they say, place their faith in different loci: the state and the family. German culture extols the virtues of family life, and compares the family to the state. The individual is important only insofar as the duties they have to the state and to their families. The state and the family will take care of you, and you owe them allegiance; your personal desires just aren’t as important.

The US, on the other hand, places its faith in the individual and the family — no state is involved. Americans don’t trust their government at all, and if you’re sick, old, or need child care, you should either take care of it yourself, or get your family to help you. The state owes you nothing, and shouldn’t be trusted with those responsibilities anyway. Do you want Obama telling you how to raise your kids?

If this report is anything like accurate, it means that the Nordic model of society isn’t really available for export. Germans can’t adopt the model, because they don’t trust individuals enough to place society’s burdens on them. (Of course, individuals aren’t given the training and resources to earn that trust.) The US can’t adopt the model, because Americans don’t trust the government enough. (Again: the government isn’t given the authority and resources to earn that trust.)

The authors of the report compare the rugged individualism of the Nordic countries to the heroine Pippi Longstocking, who is “the strongest girl in the world and an anarchic individualist who lives without parents in her own house, with only a monkey, horse, a bag of gold and a strong moral compass for company.” (Quoted from the Economist.) This seems a little odd to me — if she’s an anarchic individualist, how does that square with state-sponsored health care and so forth? But I think the intent of the report is clear: the people of the Norse countries use their governments to allow them to be rugged, anarchic individualists. At least, that’s how they see it.

Perhaps it’s not so different from Viking times, after all. The Nordic system allows individuals to sail away into the life or career of their choosing, to trade, explore, and settle as they like, unencumbered by family obligations, ill health, or fear of old age. Looked at that way, the government isn’t a thief taking 60% of their income for its own purposes, but a knarr, a seaworthy merchant ship, which opens up the sea of possibility and opportunity to every citizen.

(But a 60% tax rate?! …Well, those ships were mighty expensive…)

Given all of this, I’d like to invite any willing Heathens to comment. If you’ve lived or worked in the modern Nordic countries, would you say this portrayal of them is accurate? How do you think it squares with the pagan Norse societies of a thousand years ago? And does the modern American Heathen conception of the state / individual / family triad owe more to ancient pagan belief, or to modern American cultural biases?

Feb 072011

Are all religions compatible with democracy and human rights?

This question has been part of the undercurrent of discussion about the protests and uprising in Egypt this week. In particular, some people have wondered whether it is possible for a Muslim people to have true democracy and a wholly free society, in which the human rights of all are honored. While Turkey and Indonesia are both majority-Muslim nations with governments that are indeed democratic, they each have received sharp criticism for human rights abuses. In other words, in the opinion of most observers, there is not now, nor has there ever been, an example of a free, just, democratic Muslim country.

Obviously, that fact by itself does not mean the prospect is impossible. After all, 300 years ago, there had never been a free, just, democratic nation of any religion — and there are precious few of them today. And — most interestingly, to my mind — among the nations at the top of the list of free, just, societies, there are not many that are particularly religious at all.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the member nations of the European Union are among the freest, most democratic nations, according to the UN. They have the fewest human rights violations for most of their citizens. And in most of these nations, the people are quite secular in outlook: a recent Gallup poll shows pretty clearly the correlation between religious fervor and human rights abuses.

You can see the correlation within the United States itself. When the country was founded, racial discrimination was concentrated in the highly religious Southern states, while religious discrimination was concentrated in the highly religious New England states. And in modern times, human rights abuses such as segregation and ill-treatment of indigenous peoples (and, more controversially, the death penalty) have been more readily countenanced in highly religious states.

Of course, a secular society is not always a free or democratic one. The Soviet Union was officially atheist, and repressed as much religion as it could; and similar situations held in Maoist China and Nazi Germany. The question here is not whether a secular society can be repressive (it clearly can be), but whether a strongly religious society can be free. Does powerful religious belief inevitably lead to human rights abuses? Or is it just certain kinds of religious belief? Or is the correlation a coincidence?

Damon Linker, a political philosopher and writer for The New Republic, suggests that only the kind of religion compatible with freedom is one that “makes few supernatural claims, is doctrinally minimal, and serves as a repository of moral wisdom.” Why? Because religions that have lots of heavy-handed doctrine can easily find themselves in conflict with the basic tenets of human rights.

A simple example: suppose your religion is one that believes in eternal punishment for nonbelievers. And suppose someone is standing in the park, preaching to all and sundry a false religion. Should he be allowed to do so? According to the principles of human rights, he absolutely should — even though that may condemn many of his listeners to eternal punishment. According to your religion, absolutely not — he’s like someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. He must be stopped, because he can do too much damage.

Another example: suppose your religion teaches that your land is sacred, and that trespassers upon it must be punished and expelled, by deadly force if necessary. And suppose a trespasser comes, claims the right to the land, and begins chopping down your sacred trees and ripping up your sacred earth. Should you be allowed to you whatever force is necessary to stop this? Does your right to protect your sacred land trump the trespasser’s right to security of person and trial by peers? This is particularly sticky if the only “peers” or “judges” around do not recognize your right to your sacred land.

This is why a “doctrinally minimal” religion is one that works best with free societies: it allows the human rights to remain sacrosanct, and the religious doctrine to bend and adapt.

Given all this, it’s worth pondering these questions:

  • Can a Muslim society be free and democratic? In my opinion, absolutely — but it must be a “doctrinally minimal” Islam, one which interprets the Koran in ways sympathetic to human rights. If the history of the Muslim countries unfolds like the history of the Christian nations of Europe, “doctrinally minimal” Islam may well gain in strength and popularity over time.
  • Can a fundamentalist Christian society be free and democratic? The answer is unequivocally no. Christian principles — even basic ones like “love your neighbor” — are not the same as universal human rights. And many fundamentalists wish to restrict the ability of other religions to freely practice, and want their religion promoted in schools. Under human rights principles, you are perfectly free to hate your neighbor’s guts, practice however you like, and send your children to a non-Christian school, with no legal consequences.
  • Can a strongly patriotic society be free and democratic? I wonder. Some of the most patriotic nations in history — the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany — have found it very easy to subvert the individual to the state. Patriotism becomes a kind of state religion. Again, it comes down to conflicting beliefs: are human rights more important than the survival and success of the nation? …Even a nation dedicated to the preservation of those rights?
  • Can a pagan society be free and democratic? I think the answer is yes; but with reservations. Pagan societies of the past have had horrible human rights records, of course. What happens if your god (or your doctrine, or divination, or holy text) tells you that someone must be silenced? Or that your tribe is better than another tribe? Or that violence against another is justified? Or that marriages should be arranged?… Again, there need be no conflict between paganism and human rights, so long as the pagan ‘doctrine’ is held lightly, and interpreted in ways sympathetic to the principles of human rights.
  • Ironically enough, freedom of religion is one of the most basic human rights; and yet for a free society to work, it appears that religious fervor must be watered down and made toothless. In other words, you can believe what you want, as long as you agree with the principles of human rights. Is this just?
  • Should human rights take precedence over religious doctrine? I’ve argued that free and democratic societies cannot flourish, unless religion bends to accommodate; but I have not argued that free and democratic societies are necessarily better than strongly religious ones. Are they? What makes human rights so great, so much more important than what the gods might say?…

I have my opinions… but I want to hear yours.

Jan 282011

Things are developing quickly in Egypt — so quickly that everything may have changed by the time you read this. For a long time Egypt has been stuck in a holding pattern under its dictator Mubarak and his careful balancing act. He has been crucial to American interests, part of our campaign to contain Iran and strengthen Israel. The fact that he is a dictator with a rather bloody record and his people have lived without a free press or other basic human rights has been an uncomfortable fact for half a dozen US administrations.

But now Egypt is rocked by protests. Mubarak has shut down cell phone and internet access to try and disorganize the protestors, a move that will cost him dearly on Monday if the banks can’t open and do their business. Is it time for the US to withdraw its support? Or will what replaces him be even worse?

Alex Massie of the Spectator writes:

It seems extremely unlikely that every “reform” movement will produce results that please the west, especially initially. But the fear of something worse only takes one so far. The Telegraph editorialises that “The West needs to be on its guard that, by supporting the cause of Arab democracy, it does not unwittingly unleash the forces of radical Islam.” Well, yes. So does the Telegraph believe that, in the long-term, Arab democracy is impossible? Does it actually think that the west has been supporting democracy in the Arab world? (Apart from a brief, but even then ambivalent, flurry when Condi Rice was Secretary of State.) Or is it still too risky? If so, then for how much longer must it, and the people, be suppressed?…

Sons of bitches remain sons of bitches even when they’re notionally your sons of bitches. In the end there’s a limit to how long you can support or tolerate them. Eventually the clock runs out on realpolitik. We may not be at that moment yet (there’ve been false dawns before) but some day we’ll reach it. God knows what the consequences will be and some of them are likely to be pretty grim. But that’s what happens when you’re working with crooked timber.

Massie suggests it may be time to cast aside realpolitik, the philosophy of pragmatic statecraft made famous by Otto von Bismarck during his efforts to create a unified German state in the 1800′s. Bismarck, the First Chancellor of Prussia, ruled during conditions not unlike Egypt of today: there were popular uprisings and protests against the monarchy, demands for human rights and political freedoms, and advances in communications and transportation that made it harder to keep dangerous ideas from spreading. Bismarck felt that a ruler had to look first to practical matters, matters of power and influence, not idealistic dreams or moral crusades. Regardless of what the people of Prussia wanted, his duty was to his king and the king’s rule, and he held that pragmatic goal in mind. By the end of his tenure, he had marched Prussian armies into France and captured Paris, and united Germany under Prussian rule, creating the Second Reich.

Realpolitik was introduced to US foreign policy by Henry Kissinger, who (for example) encouraged Nixon to open trade negotiations with China, despite its loathsome record on human rights. Kissinger reasoned that China was going to be a great power in the world, regardless of what the US did, and they would be a much better ally than an enemy. So the US held its nose and Nixon went to Beijing. Since then, the US has been engaging in realpolitik of this sort all over world, particularly the Middle East. Some observers wonder whether we’ve entirely lost our sense of smell.

But now one of our odious odorous dictators might be falling. Is Massie right? Are we done with realpolitik in Egypt? Not really. Our philosophy hasn’t changed; what is real has changed. We’re still interested in power politics, in maintaining a coalition against Iran and protecting Israel and our oil interests. What’s changed is Egypt. Even Otto von Bismarck adopted some liberal social policies when it suited his geopolitical goals. Sometimes it’s pragmatic to give the people what they want.

Realpolitik is alive and well, and will always be, as long as power players like massive governments and corporations exist. And they will smash resistance and prop each other up when it’s to their advantage, regardless of idealistic fantasies like “right” and “wrong”. We can’t get them to stop playing realpolitik. But as Egyptians are learning, we — the people — can change the “reality” they’re politiking with. They’ll play their games, but it’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to play along.

Jan 252011

Strong, of course. I officially predict that Obama will say that the state of the union is strong. I also officially predict that President’s speech tonight will be full of platitudes like “answering history’s call” and “we face difficult challenges” and “give our children a better life” and “America stands on the side of freedom” and so on. And there will be a big laundry list of things he feels like he’s accomplished, and things he wants the federal government to do. And he’ll strut and smirk a little, like the alpha male he is. But he’ll try to show he’s a compassionate alpha male, by pointing to some people in the audience and calling them by name, and talking about letters he’s received from gosh durn ordinary Americans, and so on. And through most of the speech he’ll desperately wish he could smoke a cigarette. And, at the end of it, he’ll ask his god to bless America.

Don’t get me wrong — I really do like the man, and I’m pretty sure he’s doing the best he can, given his assumptions and beliefs and talents and shortcomings. I think he’s been one of our better presidents. But I also think the office of president is way too big for one man, way too big for one administration — in fact, way too big for even one nation. When one man can direct half of the world’s military spending, that’s just too much. It’s impossible for anyone to really be a good president, no matter how good their intentions are, or what their dreams are.

The Actual State of the Union

Anyway, I don’t really plan on watching the speech, since I have more important things to do with my time (catching up on season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to be specific. First time I’ve seen it. That was really great show, did you guys know that?). Besides, as I said above, I know what he’s going to say, and it’s pretty much irrelevant to the actual state of the Union.

The actual state of the Union! If only he could really tell us that! If only anyone could really tell us that! The economy, measured by corporate profits, is coming back to life; but measured by the lives of most Americans, it’s still pretty rotten. We’re still fighting two wars, which have pushed the national government deep into debt. Because of the tanking economy, many of the states are even worse off. All the oil we dropped into the Gulf has mysteriously disappeared, which I find quite worrying. 2010 was the tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record. Things have been better.

What will 2011 bring?

Well, it so happens that I’m an astrologer, so I can say a little bit about that…

The Dreams of the Union

The language of astrology is not like the language of history. It does not deal much with the concrete details of battles, rising and falling economies, or political fortunes. Instead it speaks in the language of dreams: universal archetypes marching on the stage of the elemental powers. When Jupiter moves into Aries, there is no specific information there about births, deaths, the flow of international finance, and so on. Instead it is a dream image: the king (Jupiter) moves onto the battlefield (Aries), and takes on his aspect as the Warrior King archetype. This could mean literal warfare, but could also mean more abstract clashes of ideas, powers, wills. And this dream is dreamed for everyone, all over the world.

What are the dreams of 2011?

2011 will see a lot of action with the higher planets — especially Jupiter and Pluto, the agents of power, will, and destiny. At the beginning of the year (Feb 25) Jupiter will square Pluto, signifying a time of conflict between these energies; but later (July 7, Oct 28) they will be trined, signifying times of coordination and mutual support. Pluto is currently in Capricorn, a sign of cardinal earth, which may be why the Earth has so frequently been in the news recently, with 2010′s oil spills, hurricanes, and earthquakes of axis-shifting magnitudes.

Jupiter moves from Aries to Taurus this year, and as such may be thought of, in pagan terms, as two kings: a warrior king (Aries) and a great bull (Taurus). Its first encounter with Pluto might be thought of as a conflict between a warrior king (Jupiter in Aries) and a volcano god (Pluto in Capricorn). The next two encounters will be more positive, as Jupiter will be the great bull, and thus more in alignment with Pluto’s earthy Capricorn energy.

As Jupiter moves from Pisces into Aries, Uranus will follow it. Uranus is a toppler of empires and shaker of foundations: the last time it was in Aries, the Great Depression weakened the economic hegemony of the free world, leading to the rise of fascism and imperialism across the globe. I would not expect a lot of sudden movement in 2011, though, since Uranus does not participate in any major aspects during the year.

Then on March 28, the warrior king will be opposite retrograde Saturn in Libra, which can be thought of as righteous judgement. This could manifest as judicial injunctions, or the judgement of the world community, turning against world powers or corporations.

But not everything will be about the clashes and alliances of destiny and power. Jupiter (in its aspect as the great bull) will sextile Neptune on June 9th: a time in which ideals and dreams are transformed into practical steps, particularly in the realms of earth and water. And Mercury will be retrograde three times: March 30 – April 23, August 3rd – August 26th, and November 24 – December 14.

Dreams of the Father Figure

For us on Earth, each of these great astrological events are like a stirring in the deeps of a very deep lake, a stirring that creates the ripples on the surfaces of our lives. The warrior king and the great bull dance with destiny, and take as their partners in turn both righteous authority and high ideals, and shake the foundations of the world; but they dance also in our souls, with the same urgency and force, the same meaning and profundity.

For some people, the president is sort of like a Father Figure for the nation, and the State of the Union is his way of telling the Family what he expects of all us kids. But a father figure is just an archetype, like the warrior king or the great bull; and a single human cannot really instantiate more than a tiny part of such a thing — not for a nation of 300 million souls. In the last analysis, the State of the Union address is a piece of political posturing, allowing the president to set expectations, send dog whistles to his base, and put political pressure on his opponents. It says less about the condition of the United States “family” than it does about the president’s personal goals and challenges for the year.

Obama has way too much power for one man, and his actions will affect billions of people around the world in ways no one can predict. But he is still just one person, dreaming his life and trying to assign it meaning. As we all do.

Jan 202011

Drum’s Dilemma

Last week Kevin Drum at Mother Jones posed the following question:

Suppose that you lead a comfortable middle-class life. Let’s say that you’re in your 30s, married, two children, and you make $100,000 per year. I offer you a fair coin flip with the following possible outcomes:

  • Heads: You will be stripped of most of your assets and will earn $30,000 per year for the rest of your life. That’s all you get, and neither friends nor family can top it up for you.
  • Tails: You will earn $1 million per year for the rest of your life.

Would you take me up on my offer to flip the coin?

Most of his readers decided not to take the bet, reasoning that they’d rather be assured of their comfortable $100K lifestyle than take the chance of being dropped down to $30K. Even the possibility of earning a cool million a year wasn’t enough to make it worth that chance. In other words, the chance of losing $70K is enough to scare you away from a chance of gaining $900K.

This may seem irrational, but it’s not. What it shows is that people living at $100K have a lot more in common with the millionaires than they do with the people living at $30K. At $30K, you’re one disaster — one car accident, one layoff, one sickly child — away from poverty. At $30K, you’re precarious at best. But at $100K, you’re secure: your kids are going to college, you can take a couple of major vacations every year, and you can weather recessions and sickness without much trouble. In fact, your lifestyle isn’t that different from someone earning a million a year — at least, not in ways that matter. How many times a year can you really take helicopter rides to Aruba, anyway? And how many politicians can you buy before you’ve got the complete set, and they start cluttering up the living room and drinking all your cheap champagne?

In other words, the less money you have, the more each dollar is worth. And that means that it really takes a very small amount of money to raise people out of poverty and give them a comfortable living.

This is what countries like Brazil are finding with a new kind of poverty program in which the people are essentially paid cash incentives to stay in school, attend family and vocational guidance courses, and so on. The incentives are not large — $20 or $30 a month in most cases, depending on how many children they have. (Of course Brazil’s cost of living is, on average, about half that of the US, but a similar experimental program in New York City pays only about $6000 per family a year.) It’s not much money at all, but for these folks it goes a long, long way, and it can make all the difference. In the years Brazil has been operating the program, poverty has dropped like a stone, from 22% to 7% in less than a decade.

Programs like these rub some people the wrong way. Many of the middle-class in Brazil, for example, are opposed to it, saying that it is basically a free handout, rewarding people for doing simple things that they ought to be doing anyway. It’s unfair, they say, to all those who fought their way out of poverty without any help. It’s paid for by taxing people who’ve worked hard for their money.

Perhaps so; but the program works, and it works cheaply. And, in the final analysis, it works by establishing a little bit of mutual vulnerability. Here’s why: a man at the bottom of poverty’s well, living in a hut at the edge of São Paulo, is a threat to no one, but is infinitely vulnerable to the whims of the rich. But when he climbs out of that well, gets an education, gets a job, suddenly his employers are depending on him to get work done for them. They have become vulnerable to him, just a little. And by doing so they’ve brought him into the web of profound interconnection and mutual vulnerability that we call the global economy.

The Wars that Weren’t

A little vulnerability goes a long way in war, too.

The greatest war ever avoided, WWIII, was almost started many times. For example, Churchill asked his military advisors to draw up plans (called “Operation Unthinkable”) for an invasion of the Soviet Union almost immediately after Germany was defeated. He was concerned that the US would be distracted by Japan, leaving Europe almost undefended should Stalin decide to push further west. The only way England could win such a war would be to strike first, by surprise. But he decided to take a chance on peace. Later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when American and Soviet warships were playing chicken in Caribbean waters, a Russian nuclear submarine, surrounded by American warships and running out of air, decided to violate orders and surface peacefully, rather than attack.

For a long time, the United States and the Soviet Union pursued policies of mutually assured destruction, meaning that they strove to maintain so much thermonuclear might that, if one attacked the other, the destruction of both was mutually assured. What ended the stalemate, though, was the mutual esteem of Reagan and Gorbachev: Reagan trusted Gorbachev enough to sign far-reaching arms reduction treaties with him, and Gorbachev trusted Reagan enough to relax the militant control of the Communist Party and experiment with openness and restructuring (glasnost and perestroika). Today, though Russia is no longer imperialist or communist, and the United States is rapidly losing world prestige and economic solvency, both nations have continued to build on that trust, and are on the verge of signing another arms reduction treaty. Mutual assured destruction has been replaced by mutual assured vulnerability.

Human history is actually full of avoided wars, but they usually aren’t very exciting, and rarely make the history books. Who remembers that John Adams, at the last minute, decided to reopen negotiations with France over the kidnapping of American seamen? He avoided war, which lead almost certainly to his loss in the election of 1800. And who remembers the war between the US and Britain in 1850′s that did not happen because an English vessel, frozen at sea and abandoned by her crew, was found later by the Americans, refurbished, and presented as a gesture of goodwill to Queen Victoria? Its timber was used to create the desk in the Oval Office. A small gesture of vulnerability, of common humanity, is often all it takes.

A Future of Vulnerability and Strength

And things continue to improve. The good news is that the world has made huge strides against violence and poverty in the last couple of decades, defying just about everyone’s expectations.

Poverty has been decreasing because of economic globalization. While there are many deep problems with capitalism, it’s much better than any other large-scale economic system that has been tried, and we are starting to see the benefits of that. In any free market exchange of goods, both sides gain; and while, for the most part, the rich western nations continue to benefit more in dollar terms from each transaction (because they are in a better bargaining position), the third-world nations benefit more in relative quality of life, because, as we have seen, a few dollars goes a very long way. When you buy an iPhone, you get an iPhone, which is a good thing; but the Foxconn employees of China, who make the phone, get a secure job and a much higher standard of living, which is proportionally a much bigger gain. This is not in any way a perfect system, a fair system, or a sustainable system (as the dozen suicides at Foxconn last year amply showed); but for now, despite its problems, it’s what’s reducing poverty rates around the world.

It’s also contributed to the fall in violence. Increasing economic interdependence means that war becomes riskier and costlier. Other things have helped as well: the end of colonialism and the Cold War, the increase in the number of democratic states, changing cultural attitudes, and the efforts of the UN have all reduced the incidence of war dramatically. Again, we have a long way to go here, and many countries and societies remain far too bellicose. And there are countervailing tendencies: as the example of the Congo shows, the same free market capitalism that makes war increasingly expensive can also incite corporations to try and influence international politics, stirring up violence and strife to control valuable markets. But there is still great reason to hope.

What’s driving all these improvements is the gradual increase in mutual vulnerability. Instead of fighting, we stand back to back. Instead of taking what we want by force, we make a trade. And sometimes, instead of trading, we simply give. Every time we choose to take a chance on vulnerability, when we invite the stranger into our home, we make it easier for them to trust us, and be vulnerable in return. And when we are vulnerable to each other, we can let our guards down, learn from each other, and strengthen each other. We draw each other, one by one, into the great human tribe.