Jul 122011
 

The Rosa Parks of Sustainable Gardening?

Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to accommodate a white passenger. That act of civil disobedience resulted in her arrest, and quickly became one of the defining and most memorable acts of resistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

It might be a stretch to describe Julie Bass as “the Rosa Parks of sustainable gardening”… but not by much. Bass is no activist. She’s just a homeowner living in Oak Park, Michigan, who planted a vegetable garden in her front yard — like the one Michelle Obama planted on the front lawn of the White House, she notes — and who now faces arrest and jail time if she refuses to tear it down.

Why? Because of a city ordinance which reads, “All unpaved portions of the [screening and landscaping] site shall be planted with grass ground cover, shrubbery, or other suitable live plant material.” And a complaint from a neighbor to a city councilman that the front-yard garden looked like a “New Orleans cemetery.”

Since when is a vegetable garden not considered “live plant material”? The debate turns around the meaning of the word “suitable,” with city officials arguing that, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard.” Of course, the word “suitable” does not mean “common” (no, not even according to the dictionary), and Bass’ attorney Solomon Radner argues that the term is intentionally vague, allowing the city to enforce arbitrary policies, and therefore unconstitutional. Even if city officials were correct about the meaning of the word “suitable,” however, Radner points out that the ordinance itself also lists several exceptions, including vegetable gardens: “Exempted from the provisions of this article, inclusive, are flower gardens, plots of shrubbery, vegetable gardens and small grain plots.”

This confrontation over property aesthetics might have remained a local matter if it hadn’t been for Facebook, where multiple fan pages in support of Julie Bass’ cause have sprung up, spurring broad international criticism of the Michigan suburb’s position. City officials complain they’re being misunderstood. “We’re not against people having gardens,” said City Manager Rick Fox. “Just not in their front yards.” Sure, and it’s fine for African-Americans to ride the bus… as long as they sit in the back, right Rick?

Of course, that comparison’s a bit of hyperbole — but again, not by much.

This summer, the U.S. continues to face devastating floods, droughts and fires that threaten large swathes of midwest farmland and bring the consequences of human-caused climate change into inescapable focus. Political and cultural leaders all over the world acknowledge that environmental destruction has become so dire and so wide-spread, it is perhaps the single most difficult, most vital challenge we will face in our lifetimes, on which the continued existence of the human species itself might depend. If the rights of our fellow human beings to live freely and equally continues to be an issue of immense importance, how much more so the rights of the earth and its ecosystems on which we depend to live free from pollution, exploitation and destruction?

Yet cases like Julie Bass’ illustrate how unsustainable, un-”green” practices and lifestyles are not only culturally ubiquitous, but sometimes even dictated by law. It has long been known that expansive lawns of perfectly-manicured grass are not only exceedingly expensive to maintain in many areas of the country, but that monocultures of non-native plants are unhealthy for the local environment, depleting nutrients in the soil and disrupting the careful balance of local insect and wildlife populations leading to problems with disease and pest control. Environmentally-minded individuals might wonder, in such cases, if maybe we should take a long, hard look at what else the word “suitable” might mean (which the dictionary actually defines as “right, appropriate or fitting for a particular person, purpose, situation or place”).

Loving the Earth is a Political Act

All across the U.S., as well as internationally, people are beginning to do just that, and discovering that seemingly common-sense steps to make their homes and properties more eco-friendly often run up against antiquated property laws meant to enforce aesthetic values often based on underlying, unacknowledged classism, racism and industry profits. The result? A growing movement of eco-activists taking matters into their own hands through sensible, everyday acts of civil disobedience. Far from the “eco-terrorists” who blow up buildings or destroy property in protest of exploitation and pollution, many eco-activists today are ordinary citizens working on a local level to overturn outdated laws that keep them from living gently and respectfully with the earth.

Though Julie Bass and her family might not consider themselves such activists, they’re part of that movement, too, in defending their right to grow their own vegetables on their property. The trend of growing sustainable, eco-friendly “Victory Gardens” has picked up steam among green-minded (and green-thumbed) Americans in recent years. Modeled after the wartime vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown during the World Wars of the last century by private citizens trying reduce pressure on public food supplies, modern-day Victory Gardens combat climate change on several fronts. Using sustainable gardening techniques to grow local food means relying less on factory-farmed produce fertilized with petrochemicals and sprayed down with damaging pesticides that then must be shipped across country. Hands-on gardening helps to reconnect us with the local landscape, the local community and our own physical bodies. Michelle Obama sees her White House Victory Garden as a step in her campaign against childhood obesity, by encouraging healthier eating habits and a renewed enjoyment of fresh fruits and vegetables. As the interest in Victory Gardens increases, cities like Oak Park will face the task of re-evaluating ordinances which seek to protect property values by enforcing a specific value judgement about the aesthetic and practical concerns of landscaping and gardening.

Another way individuals are quietly embracing acts of civil disobedience is by line-drying their clothes. In many cities and towns all over the country, it is actually illegal to line-dry laundry, despite the obvious ecological and personal benefits of this age-old practice. Why? “Many homeowner associations seem to believe that the act of air drying clothing present their developments as being low-income,” saying that for some “clotheslines connote a landscape of poverty rather than flowering fields.” The advocacy group Project Laundry List works to overturn this classcist attitude by supporting a “Right to Dry” bill and helping to educate individuals about the benefits of line-drying.

Perhaps one of the neatest and most committed ways people are engaging in eco-civil disobedience is through the Small Living or Tiny House Movement. In the wake of the housing bubble and bust, people are turning their backs on the dream of a McMansion with private drive and in-ground pool, and are looking for homes with smaller ecological footprints — both figuratively, and literally! Tiny houses are small cottages or cabins built from sustainable, natural materials on trailer beds or permanent foundations ranging between 65 and 140 square feet. Not only does it take less energy to heat, cool, light and clean such a small residence, but folks who choose the tiny house lifestyle choose to live with fewer material possessions and a greater reliance on community spaces and public amenities. Some build tiny houses in gorgeous natural landscapes, trading spacious indoor rooms for amber fields, majestic mountains and spacious skies.

The problem is that the small size of tiny houses breaks many conventional building and zoning codes concerning the appropriate size of a single family permanent residence. Some cities have even gone so far as to make it illegal to camp in your own backyard, to prevent homeowners from setting up tiny houses as permanent “camps” for themselves or others. Such laws are in place for a variety of reasons — including concerns for safety, aesthetics, over-crowding and property value — though many of them were determined by the housing industry itself as a way of ensuring what Jay Shafer calls “mandatory consumption” of larger-than-necessary residences. Shafer, founder of the popular Tumbleweed Tiny House Company which designs and builds tiny houses, lists civil disobedience as one of his primary motivations for his and his company’s work, and is committed to proving that house size is not a requirement for safety, prosperity, or happiness.

The nonviolent, community-oriented principles of civil disobedience have been used effectively in some of the most profound cultural movements in the world, including the Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights movements in the United States. And the idea of civil disobedience is not new. In 1849, the famed naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau published his essay “Civil Disobedience” encouraging individual citizens to act in good conscience as “a counter friction” or resistance against the institutional “machine” of any government that produced injustice. As the writer of Walden, a book of reflections on simple living in harmony with nature and a deeply influential text for the modern environmentalist movement, I like to think Thoreau would be particularly pleased at the role of civil disobedience has played in recent years in expressing our love of the natural world and our willingness to work to protect and care for it.


This post was originally published at No Unsacred Place.

May 312011
 

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana

Popularly misattributed to Plato, it was Spanish-American George Santayana who first wrote that ringing phrase in his “Soliloquies in England” in 1924, just after the greatest, most horrifying war the world had ever seen. No wise and ancient philosopher tucked away among refined Ionic columns, but a man who, like many of his time, witnessed the devastating power and tragedy of violence on a scale previously unimaginable, and for the pettiest of reasons. The phrase was not so much a philosophical observation, as a mockery of those who would celebrate too soon the tenuous peace they had accomplished through violent means, who foolishly dreamed that the war was over. A phrase written by a man who would live to see another World War spring from the festering wounds of humiliated, impoverished Germany, and the stirrings of the Cold War to follow — a man who most famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Plato did have some things to say about war, as well. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.” Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I can’t help but think that there is some cosmic irony in the fact that it was General Douglas MacArthur, dismissed from command by Truman for insubordination and publicly promoting aggressive war tactics against the President’s orders, who first attributed Santayana’s quote to Plato in a farewell speech to the cadets at West Point on May 12, 1962, only months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. In his farewell speech, MacArthur praised American soldiers as the greatest lovers of peace, while insisting that war and victory must be their sole obsession. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

I know little about death and what our ancestors, the beloved dead, would say or do if they were alive today. I find it hard to believe that Plato would be anything less than horrified by the mechanisms of global warfare and violence that we have invented in the last century; I imagine that he, like Santayana and so many other philosophers of our time, would struggle to reconcile such sweeping violence with a belief that there is reason and structure within the chaos, that he would be forced to temper his Idealism with the realities of impersonal genocide, chemical and biological weapons of mass suffering, remote-control drones and sophisticated technologies of destruction. But if he were living today, Plato would not be the Plato of history that we remember and honor, the philosopher contemplating the shadows in his cave with what we like to imagine as a kind of prescient wisdom. He would be somebody else entirely. So I can’t say what our dead might think, feel or desire.

But I do believe that the dead live on in us. Decay is only another kind of creation, and as the poet Gary Snyder writes, “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.” The cycles of nature make this much clear: death is not an ending, but only another turn in the spiraling trajectory of life’s will to unfold itself into the universe. The dead live on in us. Whether in the form of literal reincarnation, souls taking up the mud and blood of the world to mold new bodies in which to make their homes — or as a metaphor that speaks of life feasting on life, each atom of air, each molecule of water cycling and recycling through countless beings, connecting us all in an eternal weft of flesh woven through the strung up warp of the horizon — is a matter for theological debate. Either way, we come to face the horrifying fact that life continues.

Horrifying, because it forces us to look at the past with different eyes. It reveals that notion — that “the dead have seen the end of war” — as a last vain hope, so long as those of us still living pursue war and violence as a means to a someday future peace. If the dead live on in us, then what kind of life do we owe to our ancestors, who fought and died — as we do still today — for the hope that it would not be the dead, but the living who would benefit? Maybe they fought for noble reasons, believing they did what was right, believing that their participation in violence could some day bring about a better world. Do we prove them wrong? The breath of that officer who once shouted his commands now fills the gasping lungs of the refugee driven from her home by bombs. The blood of the soldier spilled defending his country now runs as tears down the cheeks of the children of our enemies who, too, have lost fathers and brothers to war. We are all connected. Life continues.

On Memorial Day, I find it difficult to celebrate the militarism of our culture with barbecues and fireworks. I am brought up short by the irony of history and the ambivalence of memory. I remember not only those who have died before me, but that those of us living today are the future they were dying for, and the weight of that obligation keeps me sober and sad. That we have failed our ancestors in some way by failing to live more peaceful lives… that we have failed them by perpetuating “the Old Lie, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”*… that we have failed them by continuing to put off and postpone the real and difficult work of peace for another day, another generation…. those are the thoughts that linger in my mind when so many of the people around me seem eager to forget everything but the glory and the triumph and the self-congratulations of the victorious.

But on the day after Memorial Day, I square my shoulders and get back to work. There is much to be grateful for, and many of our beloved dead who left us legacies of peace who deserve to be remembered as well. If Memorial Day is a day to grieve the deaths of those who sought, whether nobly or foolishly, to secure a better peace through acts of war, the day after Memorial Day — and every other day besides — is a day to honor their memory by living that peace they hoped for, and ensuring that our own descendants have less reason to grieve.

~

* From the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” by Wilfred Owen, British poet and WWI soldier, who voluntarily returned to the front lines in order to continue to document the horrors of war, and who died in battle exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice.

May 032011
 

What does justice look like? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past few days, in the wake of the startling news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Responses have been flooding the internet as various people weigh in, many of them admitting a certain amount of relief and gladness, still others refusing to rejoice in the death of another human being, even an enemy. There’s been gloating and congratulations, praise for the Troops and grudging admiration offered to Obama even by his staunchest opponents and detractors. (And there’s been snark, too, as faux-news outlets announce that the 2012 presidential election has been canceled in light of overwhelming bipartisan support, while some ask if the moral of bin Laden’s death is that “we only like a black guy when he kills a brown guy”.)

Has justice been done? I’m not sure. When I turn a reflective eye on my own reactions, I have to admit that I feel very little more than mild surprise. I don’t feel relieved or happy about the news, but nor do I feel particularly sorrowful. I might even describe my reaction as curiosity, albeit a wincing, hesitant kind, that leaves me wondering, “What next?” After a decade of using bin Laden and the threat he represented as the raison d’être for so much of U.S. war-mongering and justifications for our violent, heavy-handed foreign policy — after three on-going wars, thousands dead, millions of civilians turned overnight into refugees — I wonder if the death of a single man can do much of anything to restore balance and see justice done. It seems to me strange to believe that the death of one person could somehow satisfy the demands of justice, if the thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan could not. And if those deaths were not for the sake of justice, then what is it we’ve been doing? What have we done?

The news leaves me only with more questions. What will the ramifications be for our involvement in the Middle East? Will we finally end these idiotic wars, or will they continue to drag on indefinitely? Would it have been better to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to trial, or would such a trial have been merely a mockery of justice, a foregone conclusion? Is it really a blow to bin Laden’s “street cred” and claim to martyrdom that he was found living in a mansion in Pakistan, or was it only ever Americans who needed to believe he was living desperate and isolated in a desert cave somewhere? Will this become just one more excuse to continue the U.S. policy of torture and human rights violations in the name of national security? And who will be the next boogie man, the next evil-doer public enemy?

Because there will be one. The United States has a history of forming ill-advised and unethical alliances that come back to haunt us — Russia against Hitler, Saddam Hussein against Iran, bin Laden (CIA trained, let’s not forget) against Russia… Even now, we’re sending military aid and support to rebels in Libya we know next to nothing about, while continuing to prop up dictators in strategic locations all over the world. Celebrating bin Laden’s death seems like little more than rejoicing that we’ve managed to sever one of our own gangrene limbs before the infection could spread.

But even that rejoicing may be too hasty. Sitting in a coffee shop this morning, I listen to local red-blooded Americans talking amiably about how they shouldn’t have let the women and children out alive — they should have just bombed the whole place, taking out everyone in the compound along with bin Laden. After all, these patriots reason, they were there, they were involved, they were witnesses and accomplices. Surely, guilt by association should apply, and they deserve to die. They joke about it like it were a football game. But it’s that same logic that al-Qaida and others use to justify killing American civilians — no one is innocent when they benefit from a corrupt, tyrannical system, no one can escape righteous justice when it comes, there is no such thing as an “innocent” bystander, you’re either with us or against us.

This is not justice. It’s barely even revenge, so much as it is reveling in the easy violence of the victorious and powerful. How could there possibly be justice for such death? How can we imagine we can weigh deaths against one another and come out even?

What does justice look like? Perhaps to some justice is the opposite of mercy, but that seems to me to be too entrenched in black-and-white dualism. Justice is not defined solely by retribution and punishment, but by restored relationship and mutual healing. If it is to have a purpose beyond emotional indulgence of the powerful taking revenge on the weak who have wronged them, the purpose of retribution must be restorative at its core. Justice is done when those who have suffered have the chance to heal, and those who have done violence or harm have the chance to atone — to be “at one” with their victims in experiencing the full nature of their violation and the devastation it has caused.

There is no justice in death. Justice rests not in our ability to make others suffer as we have, but in our capacity to grieve and to heal from the violence of the past. Justice rests not in the destruction of those who have wronged or threatened us, but in the reconciliation that will prevent them from doing it again, not through force of arms but through understanding and mutual respect.

Has justice been done, now that bin Laden is dead? The threat of extremism still looms large, with plenty of others poised and ready to take his place. Do we really expect that we can make ourselves safe and build our peace on the graves of our enemies? Do we really think we can keep up these wars forever, stamping out terrorists one by one, without ever redressing the underlying imbalances and abuses that define our relationship with the rest of the world? The death of a single man pales in comparison to the on-going work that real and lasting justice demands.

Apr 102011
 

An amazing, though not surprising, story caught my eye recently in Yes! Magazine on the ever-developing scientific discoveries about our closest primate relatives in the animal kingdom.

For those of us whose religious practices are anchored in relationship with the earth and its many inhabitants, the scientific world has often seemed to lag behind in its recognition of the complexity and subtlety of nonhuman experience as we witness it on a regular basis. Studies revealing the intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins, elephants, corvine birds, honeybees and even trees and other plants, confirm what many of us have long known to be true of the many denizens that share the planet with us.

Yet for all the reluctance and skepticism of modern science, the general knowledge of the nonscientific layperson often lags another decade or two behind that. Such is the case when it comes to our closest animal relatives: primates. Most people are familiar with research from the 1960s and 1970s when scientists first began to document examples of violence and even a kind of proto-”warfare” among chimpanzees and other primate species. Advocates of patriarchy and warfare as inherent aspects of human nature often cite these examples to make their case, stating that efforts towards peaceful and egalitarian societies are bound for failure in the face of our “natural” animal instincts towards violence and domination.

Yet, as biologist Robert M. Sapolsky points out:

…all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored because of its small numbers; its habitat in remote, impenetrable rain forests; and the fact that its early chroniclers published in Japanese. These skinny little creatures were originally called “pygmy chimps” and were thought of as uninteresting, some sort of regressed subspecies of the real thing. Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp.

A layperson more up-to-date on their popular science may have also heard of the bonobos, especially their reputation for “free love” sexuality.

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

Within their female-dominated social system, bonobos often engage in sharing food (and sex) along with other well-developed ways of easing social tensions and establishing community bonds. Bonobo males tend to be smaller than their chimp relatives, and far less aggressive. Yet, like the chimpanzees with their aggression, bonobos seem to be “peaceful by nature,” and it’s difficult to say exactly why they are the way they are. While their genetic similarity to human beings certainly puts a damper on arguments drawing too heavily from the example of chimpanzees alone, as Sapolsky says, “the bonobo has little to say to us” as a species with an undeniable history of both war and peace to reconcile.

Perhaps far more fascinating, and far more relevant to conversations about the “naturalness” of peace versus violence in the human animal, is the latest research coming from primatologists on the adaptability and elasticity of primate nature.

This adaptability appears most strikingly among some of the most violent of primates: the savanna baboons of the African grasslands. An expert with thirty years experience researching this species, Sapolsky describes them as aggressive “warriors,” noting the strict hierarchies among males based on violent rivalries to establish dominance, the high rate of aggression directed towards third parties (e.g. subordinate bystanders), and the fact that most males die as the result of violent conflict of one kind or another. Yet even in this species, with violence so apparently innate, surprising adaptability can be found. Sapolsky cites one particular study of a troop of savanna baboons in Kenya (known as the “Forest Troop”) whose dominant, aggressive males were all wiped out by disease in a “selective bottleneck” in the 1980s, resulting in a population of less aggressive and more social than average males and a doubled female-to-male ratio. Sapolsky writes:

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

But the real surprise came almost twenty years later. To this day, this particular troop of baboons retains its less aggressive, more peaceful behavior despite the rarity of such behavior among others of their species. Furthermore, this change in behavior is not due to genetic selection. Male baboons leave the troop of their birth at puberty, ensuring genetic variety; as a result, by the early 1990s all of original high affiliation males of the Forest Troop had died and their male offspring moved on, to be replaced with male baboons from other troops. These new males, rather than causing a resulting increase in aggression among the members of the troop, adapted to the more social, more peaceful culture.

The use of the word “culture” here is no accident, either. As Sapolsky explains:

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.

What implications does this new research have for human beings grappling with questions of nature versus nurture when examining issues of violence, war, peace and justice?

For generations, human beings viewed themselves as unique or special among the creatures of the earth, able to rise above their degraded, violent, “fallen” animal natures and choose instead lives of peace, morality, justice and kindness. Today, both earth-centered, embodied Pagan traditions and modern research in biology and neuroscience challenge the false dichotomy that would separate human beings from the other animals of the world. While some might see this as reason to embrace the “inherent violent tendencies” of human nature and revel in the destructive and aggressive behaviors that result, growing evidence in many fields of study suggest that “nature” is far from the cruel, brutish, “red in tooth and claw” realm of fear and struggle that we have long assumed it to be. In fact, the natural world is full of examples of affection, compassion, sympathy, friendship, altruism and, yes, peaceful community living — even among our close relatives.

But more importantly, studies by contemporary primatologists continue to uncover examples of how our closest animal relatives are not just capable of peace, but of astounding adaptation, flexibility and elasticity in their behavior. Evidence for the existence of culture among nonhuman primates, in which behaviors of sociability and cooperation can be learned and passed down for generations, suggests not only that humans are far from unique in this respect, but that our striving towards justice, fairness and peace — our longing for “thinking to replace killing” — may itself actually be an expression of our primate natures.

The philosophy of pacifism has been built on this very notion. The word itself — from the Latin roots pax and facere, meaning “to make peace” — invokes the idea of creating peace even in the midst of violence. Pacifism does not deny that violence is an aspect both of human nature and of our shared history of warfare and conflict. Rather, it celebrates the creativity and adaptability of the human animal, and our capacity to respond to conflict and destruction with kindness, patience, compassion and altruism. Pacifism looks to human culture as that reserve of wisdom and tradition that we inherit from our ancestors, who have seen the violence and war of history firsthand, and that we will pass on to our descendants in our turn, and it asks us the simple question: what kind of culture are we willing to create?

The natural world is no longer the world of unbending, immutable physical laws scientists once believed it to be, even by their own admission. More and more, we see the evidence in nature — both in nonhuman animals and in ourselves — that there is room for chance, there is space for choice, and there is, always, the possibility of change.




Now would be a good time to mention the newest PNC blog, No Unsacred Place, which launched last week and has already featured several excellent pieces by writers such as Ruby Sara, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Meical abAwen and more! There is a great variety of both talent and expertise among the writers of this project, who’ll be covering everything from animal rights to nature-based liturgy to green living. The blog administrator, I will also be participating as a writer, focusing especially on topics of deep ecology, environmental ethics and issues of “ecojustice.” So if you’re interested in more articles exploring “the relationships between religion and science, nature and civilization from a diversity of modern Pagan perspectives,” definitely head on over and check it out!


* My friend and coworker, Arthur, can be blamed for the title of this post. Enjoy the literal video version.

Mar 232011
 

(…Continued from yesterday’s post.)

It might seem strange that a supposedly secular society would be so concerned with the use of its cultural symbols as to codify their exclusivity into law, especially when those symbols themselves appeal to universal values like equality and freedom. The evocation and use of cultural symbols has more traditionally been understood as the realm of mythology and religion, and here we see how religion, shading into philosophical ideology, fades further into political philosophy and politics, with no hard and fast line between them.

This flexibility of cultural symbols in creating and shaping our political system and the very laws of our government reminds us not to grow too comfortable with ideas of “secular” government being easy to define, let alone simple to realize. Personally, I have often wondered if “secular” government as we understand it in the West may not simply be a new and more recent kind of civil religion, based on its own particular mythos and set of practices and taboos. David W. Ingle and Carolyn Marvin argue as much in their research into totemism and blood sacrifice in their modern manifestations in United States political and social discourse. In his recent book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, Bron Taylor skirts a similar theory in his exploration of environmentalism, and its expression through political activism and eco-terrorism, as constituting a form of nature spirituality in contemporary American society.

The implications of civil religion may often be overlooked by minority religious traditions such as Paganism, even while we see the potential conflict between “secular” civil religion and alternative spiritualities unrolling on the global stage, expressed best in the conflict between “the West” and Islam. More than a few Americans now claim, as Pat Robertson stated in 2007, that Islam “isn’t really a religion, but a political movement.” Such statements rely on a strict dichotomy between political ideologies, and “real religions” — which can coexist peacefully with the civil religion of Western liberal capitalism, either because their social expressions are sufficiently in line with its own, or because they offer no coherent, cohesive vision of community religious life as an alternative. In a “secular” civil religion that associates itself with the cultural symbols of freedom and equality, and in particular with freedom of religion, those religious worldviews that conflict with or threaten Western liberal capitalism are redefined as “political” ideologies instead. Since, as we’ve seen, religion, philosophy and politics make up more of a continuum rather than a set of distinct categories, this strategy works fairly well. Even defenders of Islam often respond with arguments about why Islam, rather than presenting an alternative socio-cultural approach, can be incorporated into the overarching civil religion of the West — that Muslims can be ordinary consumer capitalists like you and me proves that their worldview is a “real religion,” not a political philosophy.

But the nature of religion can hardly avoid some political implications. Praxis-centered, “embodied” and/or nature spiritualities, perhaps even more than faith-based, doctrinally-focused religions, must eventually turn to questions of how spiritual ideas express themselves in and through community. For now, Pagan traditions exist in such a small minority that they are hardly considered a threat to any but the most rabid fundamentalists, and certainly not a viable alternative to the socio-political structures of the United States. For the most part, Pagan traditions benefit from appeals to “secular” politics, where protections for religious minorities are enshrined in theory, if not always upheld in practice.

On the other hand, experimentation with alternative forms of community creation, identity and structure have been part of modern Paganism almost since the beginning. Revival Druidry traditions of today have their roots in the social clubs and workers’ unions of Britain in the 1800s, which concerned themselves primarily with providing both financial and social support to workers and their families. In the United States, goddess traditions grew up together with the feminist movement in the ’60s and ’70s, experimenting with matriarchal, non-heirarchical and anarchistic models of community organization. The Druid Network recently succeeded in gaining religious charity status under UK law without having to compromise its explicitly-stated anarchistic organizational structure. Conversations in the Pagan community have focused for several decades now on questions about the relationship between community support and infrastructure, and the commodification of religious tools and services, sometimes playing a role in conflicts such as the recent Feri/Faery schism.

With all of this history to consider — not to mention the growing concern among nature-centered Pagans about the potentially environmentally devastating consequences of consumer capitalist practices — it would be naive not to wonder about the future of Paganism and its relationship to the civil religion of the United States. Indeed, one form that this relationship might take is already beginning to express itself, as some Pagans appropriate cultural symbols associated with American patriotism and identity, incorporating them into overtly religious contexts. Worship of the “revealed goddess” Columbia on the Fourth of July and treatment of the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text, for instance, are two examples of the blending of Pagan spirituality with American civil religion. (Keep your eyes peeled — as we enter the warm, sunny summer months of outdoor picnics and barbecues — for more examples of the increasing coincidence between Pagan seasonal festivals and American patriotic holidays.)

The use of political symbols in religious contexts may seem to be just a quirk of modern Pagan spirituality, an intentional revival of more ancient concepts of community and tribe. But as the case of the Liberty Dollar and the existence of Title 18§486 in U.S. law both illustrate, such religio-political overlap lurks just beneath the surface of secular society as well. Though for now Pagan traditions may be “mostly harmless” and even at times benignly supportive of American civil religion, we may do well to remember the lessons of ecology. The poisonous monarch does not benefit from a dilution of its associative power. And the United States government can, and will, exact a high price from those who are too successful in utilizing its symbols for their own purposes.

Mar 222011
 

The story reads like one of The Colbert Report’s “Nailed ‘Em” segments. Sixty seven year old Bernard von NotHaus — founder of Liberty Services and the creator of the Liberty Dollar, a collectable coin minted from and backed by precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper — was convicted last Friday on charges of counterfeiting and “domestic terrorism.” The sentence he faces? Up to 15 years in prison, and the forfeiture of 16,000 pounds of Liberty Dollar coins and precious metals, valued at nearly $7 million, to the U.S. government.

The Curious Case of the Silver in the Currency

That’s a pretty heavy price to pay for selling collectible coins. (Watch out, Home Shopping Network, your Obama Coins could be next, if the Republicans win in 2012!) But according to U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, the punishment more than fits the crime:

“While these forms of anti-government activities do not involve violence, [she said,] they are every bit as insidious and represent a clear and present danger to the economic stability of this country. We are determined to meet these threats through infiltration, disruption, and dismantling of organizations which seek to challenge the legitimacy of our democratic form of government.”

Did you catch that? The subtle equation of economic stability to democratic legitimacy has become such a familiar assumption in American culture that the comment might almost pass unnoticed. But it suggests there’s more to the story than might be obvious at first glance.

The Liberty Dollar, first designed in 1998, is manufactured from precious metals that have been rising in price as the U.S. dollar has fallen in value over the past decades. A one troy ounce Liberty Dollar, originally sold for $1US, was worth almost $30US as of October 2010. Backed by an objective measure — the weight of the metal from which it is made — the Liberty Dollar differs from other alternative currencies such as Phoenix Dollars and digital gold currency.

The Liberty Dollar also differs from counterfeit money in a few essential ways. Most importantly, although it utilizes patriotic images such as the Statue of Liberty in its design, it makes no attempt to replicate the look of actual United States coins, nor was it ever marketed or sold as legitimate U.S. currency. Unlike counterfeit money, which seeks to utilize cheaper materials to imitate a more valuable currency, Liberty Dollars are minted of precious metals that accumulate in value, so that Liberty Dollars are actually worth more than their U.S. dollar counterparts.

It seems as though producing and selling Liberty Dollars should be no more “insidious” than creating heirloom jewelry or other collectible item out of precious metals with the intention of providing “inflation-proof” investment alternatives. So what explains the U.S. Attorney’s accusations not simply of counterfeiting, but of subversive and dangerous domestic terrorism?

Executive member of Liberty Services William Kevin Innes is also under indictment for counterfeiting and fraud, and faces up to 45 years in prison. A resident of Asheville, North Carolina, he approached local businesses in the Asheville area to encourage them to accept Liberty Dollars in addition to U.S. currency in their business transactions. Before doing so, however, he consulted with the police to make sure the organization’s activities were lawful. “If we’re criminals, why were we going to the police and being out in the open?”

Certainly, such behavior contradicts the very definition of counterfeiting, which involves the intent to deceive or defraud. The federal indictment itself seems contradictory in its charges: it alleges that Liberty Services was “engaged in a conspiracy to pass off their product as legal tender” while at the same time alleging that “the intent of Liberty Services is to put the Liberty Dollar into circulation and have it compete with U.S. currency.” How an organization could both be in open competition with U.S. currency and attempt to pass its products off as U.S. currency is not clarified. This is not surprising, considering that the year before the indictment, the U.S. federal government seemed confused about its position on the matter:

[I]n 2006, the U.S. Mint issued a statement saying that using the coins in place of standard currency was criminal. But in the same year, a Treasury Department official told media that if merchants wished to accept the coins, they were free to do so.

Freedom of Trade, Freedom of Association

As minor as this story may seem in comparison to the workers’ protests going on around the country as Republicans (and Democrats, too) use shock doctrine tactics to push through anti-democractic legislation, it sets some startling and disconcerting legal precedents about individuals’ freedom to barter or trade goods and services as they see fit. In this way, it reflects the on-going hypocrisy of a government which obsessively invokes the god of “free trade” while actively undermining certain conditions — such as workers’ unions and alternative economic models — that naturally arise when actual free trade and open exchange take place.

Equating the free and knowing consensual exchange of one product for another — a collectible coin for a soup and sandwich at the local café, for instance — with “domestic terrorism” suggests that the U.S. government possesses complete and exclusive control over the medium of exchange and the valuation of labor, and that trades and barters which take place outside the purview of the United States government are by their very nature illegitimate and, at worst, illegal and subversive. Such a claim would seem to undermine the very idea of a “free market,” and this is especially ironic when we remember, as Tompkins reminds us in her quote above, that invoking free market capitalism has become so essential to the government’s rhetoric of “healthy democracy.”

What’s especially interesting about this case is that alternative currencies, far from being illegal in the U.S., are available and in circulation in a number of towns and resorts. Ithaca Hours are one such example. The oldest and largest local currency system in the country, Ithaca Hours were invented by Paul Glover in 1991, modeled after earlier forms of alternative currency that proliferated in the U.S. during the Great Depression.

One of the primary functions of the Ithaca Hours system is to promote local economic development. Businesses who receive Hours must spend them on local goods and services, thus building a network of inter-supporting local businesses. While non-local businesses are welcome to accept Hours, those businesses need to spend them on local goods and services to be economically sustainable.

It is no coincidence that alternative forms of currency tend to increase in popularity as the value of government-backed currency falters and falls. The recent bank bail-outs in the United States — and the creation of billions of dollars out of thin air by the Federal Reserve through a process known as “Quantitative Easing” — have done little to bolster confidence in the stability of the U.S. dollar.

So what’s the difference between Liberty Dollars and Ithaca Hours? Why is one allowed to flourish, while another lands the creators and executives in prison? One reporter points out that, “What differentiates the Liberty Dollar, however, is its nationwide reach and the precious metals in the product.” Unlike Ithaca Hours, which are a local novelty with limited application backed only by an amorphous definition of labor value tied directly to the U.S. dollar itself, the Liberty Dollar has measurable independent value and national (potentially international) application. In other words, Ithaca Hours aren’t a real threat, because they do not offer a real alternative. Liberty Dollars are, because they do.

But simply providing a legitimate alternative to government-backed currency does not by itself render the Liberty Dollar illegal under U.S. law, and charges of counterfeiting are difficult to prove in a case where the value of the Liberty Dollar rests explicitly on its distinction from, not its similarity to, U.S. currency. That’s where U.S. Code Title 18 Section 486 becomes relevant:

Whoever, except as authorized by law, makes or utters or passes, or attempts to utter or pass, any coins of gold or silver or other metal, or alloys of metals, intended for use as current money, whether in the resemblance of coins of the United States or of foreign countries, or of original design, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

Some argue that this law may not be constitutional, but what interests me more is the function of such a law in the shaping of American cultural identity. Accusations that Liberty Dollars should be considered counterfeit, and acts of domestic terrorism, merely for including images, words and other features “associated with legitimate U.S. coinage” (such as the words ‘trust in God’ and images of the Statue of Liberty) require closer scrutiny of the role that cultural symbolism plays in American society.

To understand how charges of counterfeiting and forgery could possibly make sense in a case where there is clearly no intent to deceive or defraud, it helps to look at an example from ecology. The viceroy butterfly is practically indistinguishable from its more popularly known and far more poisonous relative, the monarch butterfly. The same bright orange etched through with delicate stained-glass patterns of black cover the viceroy’s wings, and for this reason, it benefits from the monarch’s deadly reputation among their common predators. The monarch butterfly, however, loses ground every time a predator eats a non-poisonous viceroy. The existence of a non-poisonous butterfly that looks almost indistinguishable from the poisonous variety means that the association of that bright orange with the threat of danger is weakened. And so these two species of butterfly have evolved in a dance of adaptation and mimicry over hundreds of years, the patterns of their wings changing as the monarch seeks differentiation in the face of the viceroy’s imitation.

The cultural symbols of American national identity play the same role in modern Western society. It may at first seem utterly ridiculous to say that the United States government has exclusive rights to the use of symbols and images of liberty, freedom and divine blessing, but such claims often rest at the heart of American creedal identity and the legitimacy invested in the federal government when it claims this identity for its own. The legitimacy of a democratic government rests heavily upon the perceived correlation between the self-conceived identity of its citizens, and the government and its institutions as the primary source and expression of that identity.

In the case of the Liberty Dollar, a non-government organization has succeeded in utilizing classically “American” symbolism to offer a potentially effective and legitimate alternative to government-backed currency. As in the case of the viceroy and monarch butterflies, Liberty Services benefits from this association, appealing to core aspects of the self-identity of American citizens (which, ironically enough, includes a distrust in government) in order to lend legitimacy and weight to its products. But the United States government, like the poisonous monarch, suffers from the resulting dilution. It is no longer associated as strongly with, nor seen as the primary source of things such as liberty, freedom, blessings or — what money itself symbolizes most powerfully — wealth and prosperity.

To be continued tomorrow…

Feb 172011
 

Call me the name of peace
as though it were a curse,
and I will bless you, saying,
Yes, and I will lift up
the white flower of cowardice
and trembling, I will lift up that blossom
the color of snow and ocean foam
and moonlight, cloud and empty wind
and bone. I will lift it up with these hands
worn and worried with bickering,
limp with the luxury of blood,
the hands I inherited from my ancestors
whose bones, too, are white beneath the mud.
The goddess of war climbs the mountain’s peak,
the hard, pale sunlight like the whites of her eyes.
Wonder, too, is a kind of power.
What curse she lays on the wearied earth, saying,
Yes, and Peace, and other fearful things.
The hills grow soft, will not be rushed
as last year’s dead lift up
the small, white blossoms of the spring.

Jan 292011
 

It’s interesting to watch the quiet struggle of conflicting interests and ideologies going on inside the United States right now as the protests in Egypt unfold.

An uncoordinated, non-ideological, largely nonviolent, popular uprising against a corrupt autocratic government tugs at the heart strings of the American psyche and cuts deep, right to the core of what are generally labeled “American values.” It’s hard for ordinary citizens in this country not to see parallels with their own mytho-heroic past of righteous revolution against an oppressive government. It’s hard for us not to cheer on the underdog and side with the people, especially when those people are ordinary citizens taking to the streets in the face of police brutality, political oppression, economic failures and a backwards regime that would rather cut off access to 21st century technology than allow its citizens the freedom of expression and communication.

At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about the future of the Middle East, and by extension the United States, if a true Egyptian democracy were to replace Mubarak’s authoritarian (but secular) regime of the last thirty years. Next to Saudi Arabia, Egypt has served as the U.S.’s strongest ally in the Middle East in recent decades, providing it with protected access to the Suez Canal during wartime and aiding Israel in policing the borders of its occupied territories. In return, Egypt has received billions of dollars from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention other perks. As one CNN reporter ‘tweeted’ from Cairo:

Teenager showed me teargas canister “Made in USA.” Saw the same thing in Tunisia. Time to reconsider U.S. exports?

So naturally, the U.S. government response to the protests in Egypt has by and large consisted of carefully worded non-responses, as the administration tries to hedge its bets and come out on the side of the winner, whoever that may turn out to be. President Obama’s mild chastisements for Mubarak to heed the demands of protesters and make needed reforms hardly rivals the harsh words of Condoleeza Rice back in June 2005, while ignoring the protesters’ single most deafening demand: that Mubarak step down. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden, in a moment of gaffe-like candor, told reporters that “those [demands for freedom and democracy] that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt,” suggesting the priorities of U.S. government officials place regime stability and economic success above such goals as freedom from oppression and universal human rights.

Setting aside for a moment any speculation about what the potential consequences of current events might be — and with so many lessons from history weighing in on either side, any analysis at this point can hardly hope to reach beyond mere speculation — we have an opportunity to watch a battle unfolding within the American psyche itself. The crux of this cognitive dissonance, which finds itself splitting along old lines of realism versus idealism and universalism versus exceptionalism, boils down to one simple question: who is democracy for?

If we side with the traditional ideology and idealism purported as “American values,” we are likely to answer that democracy is for everyone — that its very strength, as well as its ethical superiority, lies in its peaceful engagement of community-rooted needs through the authentic expression of the collective social will. The power of democracy, according to this view, is precisely its alliance with ideals such as freedom of expression and belief, and the centrality of universal human rights as the basis for just governance. All individuals within a community deserve to have a voice in how that community functions and how it is ultimately governed. And, as with any ecosystem or bioregion in the natural world, the needs and desires of a given human community are likely to be specific to that community. Though they may be informed by international conversation that provides a more global perspective, they cannot be justly dictated or enforced by external authorities. Such external pressure would be not democracy, but colonialism or imperialism.

If, instead, our answer reflects the practical, “realpolitik” game-theory approach that has overwhelmingly defined U.S. foreign policy over the last half-century, we are likely to answer that democracy is for Western society and its protégés only. Where the idealistic approach to democracy becomes problematic, after all, is when we find ourselves with a community seemingly hostile to Western social values and conceptions of progress, who may enshrine in their elected governments their own ideals and values instead of ours. Though the United States has commonly congratulated itself for its “exports” of democracy all over the world, it has traditionally expressed wariness, mistrust and sometimes overt hostility towards self-grown democracies rooted in the local communities and cultures of non-Western countries, such as those in Latin America and the Middle East in particular. Meanwhile, the U.S. has often pragmatically allied itself with dictators and autocrats in the interest of maintaining friendly relations with these powers for economic or military benefit. As Rice stated in her June 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East[.]”

“…And we achieved neither,” she concluded then. Five and a half years later, these words manage to capture the kind of catch-22 the U.S. now finds itself in with regards to Egypt’s uncertain future. Robert Malley, an expert in Middle East relations, explained the precarious position that the United States now finds itself in, after decades of ostensibly “pragmatic” support for an unpopular and oppressive regime:

Every time we open our mouth, it runs a risk of hurting the objective we’re pursuing[, he said.] The more we appear to be backing the regimes we’ve been backing for decades, the more we place ourselves on the wrong side of history and the more we alienate the constituencies who could be coming to power.

But[,] the more we side with the protesters, the more we’re hurting the existing relationships and appearing to be fickle. [...] It’s not clear to me that the protesters will take seriously expressions of solidarity from a country that’s been backing autocratic regimes.

Though the Egyptian protests currently represent an up-swelling of popular support for comfortably liberal Western values such as individual rights and economic progress, if those in Egypt perceive the U.S. as hostile towards whatever power seeks to replace Mubarak in the near future, they may seek a pragmatic ally themselves in Islamic opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Still, in the end, the events now unfolding in Egypt may one day prove to overturn the assumption that idealism and realism are inherently at odds with one another, especially when it comes to establishing trust through concrete and symbolic action on the global political stage. Sincere efforts to uphold ideals such as freedom and human rights may serve the United States better in the long run than hypocrisy in the name of pragmatism, especially if idealists are correct in their belief that democracy itself may play a role in developing healthier, more tolerant and, eventually, more stable societies.

If Rice is correct in observing that democracy cannot be bought by sacrificing it for stability, perhaps its corollary might be this: that freedom and human rights can be won, thoroughly and meaningfully, by facing the risk that comes with instability. This is certainly the feeling among Egyptian protesters this week, who describe themselves as having broken through a barrier of fear and found new reason for hope.

“For the first time, we felt as if we can breathe. We can say no. So we came today to fight for our rights,” says Usama el-Wardany, an upper class Egyptian who became politically active when his friend of Khalid Said was beat to death at the hands of police last year. “I think they’re going to kill us today, but I feel this is how I will achieve my rights, so I’m not scared.”

For now, protesters within the United States turning out in solidarity with those in the streets of Egypt this weekend, state boldly:

US foreign policy should reflect both our stated ideals and our interests in that region.

Finding a way to balance these two, and to compensate for and overcome a history of compromised ideals and realpolitik-masked hypocrisy, remains the biggest challenge for the United States in responding to the changing currents in the Muslim world today.

Jan 222011
 

A follow-up to my previous post about the relationship between politics and insanity: I recently came across this fascinating interview with Manfred Schneider, professor of aesthetics and literary media who has recently written on the subject of assassins and paranoiacs, exploring their stories throughout history and the role they play in present-day politics. In the interview, Schneider places the shooting in Arizona earlier this month into an historical context, describing the shooter, Jared Loughner, not as crazy or irrational, but as “hyper-rational”:

Every assassin is a perceptive observer and interpreter of signs and events. For him, nothing happens by accident. He scrutinizes the world in search of hostile intentions, and he imagines conspiracies everywhere. To us, the outcome seems insane. Yet logic and rationality are key components in the paranoid suppositions arrived at by the assassin. Paranoia is not irrationality but hyper-rationality. Loughner is a very typical example.

Yet this type of hyper-rationality can also characterize the minds of great thinkers and geniuses (such as the fictional character, Sherlock Holmes), who may also be skilled at discovering patterns of meaning in apparently random details or coincidental events. What makes the difference between a perceptive genius of analysis, and the hyper-rational delusions of the paranoiac and would-be assassin? In part, of course, it depends on how accurate or true to reality one’s conclusions are. Yet as Schneider points out, this may be particularly difficult to determine for oneself (Loughner certainly thought his conclusions were accurate), and so another check against paranoid hyper-rationality is the self-reflection and perspective to be gained from engagement with a broader community, which provides a means of examination and communication. Schneider explains, “Without a communicative means of reconciliation with the world around him, he [the paranoiac] begins to create his own system to explain the things that concern and oppress him.”

Once again, we see that the “insanity” of hyper-rationality has social and political undercurrents. Disconnection from a community capable of providing a sounding board for our individual psychological need to seek out meaningful patterns can result in paranoia and delusion. However, as I mentioned in my post last week, there are times when a community or society may itself be neurotic or psychologically unhealthy. The example that Schneider uses to illustrate the difference between delusional and insightful hyper-rationality is itself very telling:

[T]he analysis that then US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, which concluded that there were mobile biological weapons laboratories in Iraq, was based on the same structure as the lunacy of Adelheid Streidel, who critically injured (German politician) Oskar Lafontaine with a knife in 1990. She believed that there were underground factories in (the Bavarian town of) Wackersdorf, where people were being killed.

Here, the difference is that Powell was speaking for a nation, a community which confirmed and supported the suspicions of WMDs in Iraq, while Streidel acted alone, based solely on her own delusions. Yet we have since learned that there were no such weapons in Iraq, and that the reasons provided for the Iraq War were largely disingenuous, when they weren’t downright fabrications. What does this say about our ability to rely on community to provide us with a trustworthy check on personal paranoia? (And what of the role of dissenters, such as myself and millions all over the world, who were shouted down as traitors and cowards for opposing the war and calling its justifications into question?) Schenider himself cites the societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as examples of communities in which the majority had succumbed to paranoid delusions. We find ourselves faced with the same troubling question that haunted Freud in his later years: what do we do when the society we live in might just be “crazy”?

Especially interesting, to me, is that statistical studies have found a correlation between an increase in paranoia and suspicion within the very societies that tend to be more secular, open and transparent. As Schneider theorizes, it’s as though the more information freely available and accessible to people, the more they tend to doubt its veracity and suspect “something else” is going on behind the scenes. Though Schneider doesn’t offer an explanation for why this might be, it may have something to do with our need to seek out meaning even when confronted with overwhelming amounts of information, or patterns of cause and effect so large or so detailed that they appear to the casual observer to be merely random. Paranoia rears its ugly head in the face of uncertainty and confusion, when we are ill-equipped by our community and by our own mental capacity to integrate and make sense of the world around us in any meaningful way. One of the primary signs of delusion, Schneider points out, is a total lack of uncertainty:

When all of the non-rational moments that are part of reason disappear. That’s when it turns pathological. When there are no longer any doubts in a person’s thoughts, and there is no hesitation in his actions. When empathy is no longer possible and the person becomes consumed by the feeling that it is absolutely necessary that certain things be done to prevent the worst from happening.

How does this relate to Paganism, and to pacifism?

For the latter, I take my cue again from Schneider, in discussing the events of 9/11 — he describes the tragedy as “a lesson in uncertainty,” in which the U.S. faced extreme pressure to step into the paranoid perspective of the terrorists, who imagined the stage of global politics as an epic battle between the West and the Muslim world. In many ways, socially and culturally, this is precisely what happened in this country, and we are still seeing the ramifications of this increase in paranoia in the rhetoric of many politicians on the Right. Yet Schneider also notes a much healthier way of responding: accepting such “black angels of chance” for what they are, unpredictable and often meaningless moments of grief and loss, moments that we may never be able to fully explain or predict. Yet, by acknowledging that it is not mere madness that drives such individuals and leads to such events, we can learn to understand the way that hyper-rationality functions both in individuals and in societies. Such understanding gives us precisely the insight and perspective necessary for the kind of self-reflection that can help us check our own tendencies towards paranoia.

Pacifism, ultimately, is an exercise in confronting uncertainty in just this way — learning to cope with the potential for violence (in both ourselves and in others) without resorting to violence in retaliation or defense, without stepping into the delusions of our attackers who might claim with paranoid certainty that no alternatives exist. Instead, the philosophy of pacifism encourages us to see in the actions of others reflections of our own potentials, so that we might learn from them with empathy and insight while also acting with intention to create alternatives to violence even in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

Paganism, too, can provide a check against the paranoia and delusions of unhealthy hyper-rationality, in two important ways. First, as I discussed in my previous post, it can provide us with a more-than-human community to which we can turn for a “communicative means of reconciliation” with the larger world, even when our human communities seem mired in neuroses. I think it is no coincidence that the societies in which paranoia seems to increase also tend to be societies that encourage a disconnection and isolation from the natural world.

The scientific comprehension and appreciation of ecology provides part of this engagement with the more-than-human natural world, yet Paganism and nature-centered spiritualities more generally also supplement and extend this engagement further through religious activities like prayer, meditation and ritual directed towards the natural world and its many beings and inhabitants, rather than towards a transcendent, supernatural deity. The modern Pagan movement also embraces certain aspects of postmodern philosophy, such as deep play and the celebration of meta-narratives and self- and group-identity creation, which can help to remind us of the “non-rational moments that are part of reason.” Grounded in healthy community, an engagement with the non-rational can provide the perspective, and the wilderness, in which uncertainty and doubt can find a proper home, without giving way to either hyper-rationality or the pure lunacy of irrationality.

Jan 142011
 

I was down in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, with my fiancé attending the OBX Wedding Expo when news reached us about the recent shooting in Arizona. I rolled out of my hotel bed on Sunday morning to find him already up, bent over his computer checking his RSS feeds the way people used to scan the paper during their morning cup of coffee. “A Democratic Congresswoman got shot in Arizona yesterday,” he said. “They think the incident may have been incited by the violent rhetoric of the Right and folks like Sarah Palin, but it’s also likely that the guy who did it is unhinged. His political philosophies are all over the chart. Some of it seems clearly influenced by the Tea Party, but then there’s stuff about the Gold Standard and even Marxist Communism in there.”

I sighed, grabbed our reusable eco-mugs and a few plates and headed out the door to scavenge the continental breakfast in the hotel lobby downstairs. “Since when is inconsistent political philosophy a sign of insanity in this country?”

Downstairs, the news was on all the TVs, and a few older people gathered at one of the tables in the corner by the display of breakfast food. I got one or two funny looks when I passed over the disposable styrofoam plates and began piling up fruit on the ceramic plates I’d brought along, dropping a few instant oatmeal packets in my pocket to take back upstairs to our hotel room. If it had been any other day, someone might have said I was kinda crazy. Instead, the news reporters on the televisions went over again the developing details of the shooting. Not only the politician, but a dozen or so others had also been shot, and police were still looking for a witness/accomplice identified only as a fuzzy blur on some security footage. “That’s really something,” a kind-looking elderly man said to me, but I couldn’t tell if he was referring to the news, or my plate of fruit and hunks of waffle. I smiled mutely, shrugged and turned to leave.

~

That was how I heard of the shooting. We had limited internet access over the next few days, and things on our mind other than bloodshed, violence and hate — things like the symbolic meaning of flowers and the price of organic catering, and just how hard it would be to convince my parents to hire “Barryoke Karaoke ” for the rehearsal dinner. Not that the shooting of a Congressperson wasn’t big news — but in the grand scheme of things, given the political climate in this country and the escalating insanity we seem to be dealing with on a regular basis, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. It was a tragedy of dramatic irony, one that you could have seen coming a mile away, which made it painful but not urgently so.

When we finally arrived back in Pittsburgh, stocked up with more pamphlets and brochures and business cards and free pens then we knew what to do with, the reactions from Right and Left were still rolling in. The debate had already curdled into two main clumps: either the guy was crazy, or the Right was to blame. Every once in a while, you found some subtlety in there somewhere, something like, “Even if the guy was crazy, the Right fueled his craziness and gave it a purpose and a target.” But mostly, it was a debate about who was to blame, and why. As usual, our country had been running bickering circles around each other almost continuously since the shooting, flinging mud and vitriol and sometimes the occasional plea for peace or pity.

These days, I find myself growing less interested in who’s to blame for all of these tragedies we keep experiencing, and more interested in how we respond to them. My initial reaction to the shooting — the cynical rejection of our naive expectation that politics in this country be grounded in sanity or stability, let alone compassion and nonviolence — says a lot about me, I know. I’ve become jaded by the drama, or wise to the farce, depending on who you ask. But I couldn’t help thinking, over this past week, about that quote I read recently in The Voice of the Earth, when Theodore Roszak quotes Freud in his later work wondering, “May we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations or some epochs of civilization — possibly the whole of mankind — have become ‘neurotic’?”

This musing, too frightening for Freud to accept (apologizing for his lack of courage, he declares he would rather acquiesce to a diseased government than face the risk of anarchy), eventually led to the modern-day Radical Therapy movement, which embraces the premise that “neurosis is defined within a political context; it is therefore intimately related to the social health and harmony that surrounds the individual.” The Radical Therapists of today reject the notion that any social deviance can be neatly labeled a neurosis without considering the political and cultural implications of its form and causes; they seek to advocate for those who are suffering from mental disorders, and defend them from forces that would “adjust” them to a sick society. But while this radical movement, like many, does better at tearing down old structures than it does at building new ones, Roszak goes on to argue that the foundation for a transcultural understanding of sanity might just be found in our dawning grasp of ecology. Our place in the natural, more-than-human world might give us insight into the inner life of the mind, and offer us a check on the neurotic impulses towards fear and violence (as well as over-consumption and environmental suicide) that lead to the repression, frustration, rebellion and ever-escalating wars that Freud feared were the fated lot of “civilization and its discontents.” As a Pagan, the grounding of individual sanity in the more-than-human life of the Earth makes a kind of visceral sense to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The idea that bears repeating, here, is the relationship between insanity and political context. It’s no surprise to me that Jared Loughner might be suffering from a severe mental disorder, but more important is the willingness of some to attribute his violent actions to his insanity. The accusation of insanity has almost always been used in this country to rob violent actors of their agency and free will. Sometimes, this is to mitigate blame, to appeal to a sense of compassion that would provide help to the sufferer of mental illness. At other times, it is a label we too easily attribute to our enemies, so that we can avoid confronting any hard truths about ourselves that their actions might reveal. Islamic extremists are shrugged off as “crazy” terrorists, without legitimate complaint against the West and its behaviors, who have no rhyme or reason for their hatred. Because they are “just crazy,” they have no free will or agency of their own, they cannot choose not to be violent, they cannot be reasoned with, they are beyond redemption — and so, we are justified in whatever actions are necessary to put them down or take them out. They cease to be fully human; they are merely “insane.” The same accusations are often enough made about politicians and pundits in this country — Obama is accused of socialism and “hating America”; Sarah Palin is mocked for her stupidity and kookiness; Glenn Beck earns ridicule for his conspiracy theories. Those on the Left who find the political platforms of the Tea Party and the Right repugnant much too eagerly denounce such figures as “just crazy,” and reject the very real fear and uncertainty that drives their political base. As a pacifist myself, I admit to my share of mockery and dismissal — to me, anyone who would seek to justify an act of unmitigated or large-scale violence has to be a little bit insane.

Yet we all hold the potential for violence and fear within us. For each of us, there is a seed of that insanity, a wildness that balks against civilization, its structures and expectations. I do not intend to excuse or downplay Jared Loughner’s act or the suffering it has caused, but to complicate our assumptions about sanity in an often troubling world. In my personal experience, it is precisely those who argue most fervently for their own uncompromised sanity in a quickly degenerating society who show the least compassion for and understanding towards others. Our relationship with insanity mirrors our relationship with violence in this way. The more certain we are that there could be no room in our hearts or minds for “what those people do,” the more likely we are to be in denial and out of touch with our own selves as whole and complex human animals. But the fact is that none of us are governed solely by reason or kept entirely safe within the bounds of social normalcy. Violence will happen, and insanity will surface — sometimes as acts of nature or accident, and sometimes as the result of massive-scale systemic patterns over which no one seems to have any control. And with these will come the frantic, angry urge to place blame and explain such events away.

But if insanity has been used in our political rhetoric to reject free agency and deny choice, then we might benefit from learning to define sanity as the ability to choose, freely and with integrity, how we handle our own anger, fear, hatred and violent urges. With this definition, we might find ourselves a little bit more suspicious of political philosophies or parties that would seek to excuse violence as “inevitable” or without alternatives. A socio-political worldview that rejects our capacity for change or choice in these matters would clearly be “insane.” Accepting ourselves as an intimate part of the natural world — with our own untamed wildness and unexplored wilderness, in which not only violence and fear, but also (r)evolution and inspiration begin — we can seek the kind of transcultural perspective that Roszak speaks of when he talks about “ecopsychology.” Our understanding of sanity might then be grounded in an acute awareness of just how diverse and ever-changing the world actually is, and how many options lay before us.

~

Ever on the look out for amusing bits of news, just the other day my fiancé sent me a link to this interesting article about our ape relatives, the bonobos, notorious for their laid-back, free-love kind of lifestyle:

Bonobos like apples. They like them a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to do bonobo research without a supply of green apples to motivate them to do the experiments.

But they like group harmony most of all. And the sudden appearance of the apples in their midst [tossed in by a researcher] immediately raises the threat of discord. Who will get to eat the apples?

If these were chimpanzees, the strongest males would immediately claim the fruit. There would be a fair amount of shoving, and possibly some bloodshed.

But bonobos are so communal that the tension produced by something so precious as an apple in their midst must be dispelled by a gesture of community. In this case, everyone gets to cool off with a little sexual comfort from their neighbor. Then, self-interest replaced by a certain yummy group feeling, they settle down to share the apple.

How different would our society be if we chose to follow the example of the bonobo? If we chose to respond to scarcity and uncertainty with playfulness and generosity? If we chose to respond to loss and pain with compassion and comfort for the grieving?

What insanity denies our capacity to live this way, to make that choice?