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 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…

Mar 182011
 

Back when Pagan + Politics got started, I was looking forward to articles that discussed the interplay between religious and political convictions from a Pagan perspective. There have been a few such articles, and I have enjoyed them greatly. There have also been articles that focus on news important to Pagans, such as Ryan Smith’s laudable series of exposés on the Religious Right.

I must admit, though, that religion is a primary topic of interest to me, while politics is, at best, secondary. Thus, when it comes to discussions of religion vs. discussions of politics, religion will have the lion’s share of my interest. I think the same must be true of some of the readership here, based on the frequency of the comments I read asking: “What does this article have to do with Pagans specifically?”

I think this is a pertinent question. As such, I would like to take this opportunity to step back from the discussion of specific newsworthy items for a moment, and to broaden the focus of our conversations a bit. What I would like to hear from the readership (including the other contributors to P+P) about are your thoughts on the relationship between your religious stances and your political views.

To use myself as an example: Religion is primary among my concerns, and my political views are, perforce, shaped by my religious views, and not vice versa. As a Reconstructionist of a certain stripe, I have had to spend time examining the worldview I started with when I joined my particular tradition, and examining the origins of the trends of thought that shaped that worldview. I did this with the intention of adopting the worldview, the “mental culture,” so to speak, of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. To the extent that I have succeeded, I have also succeeded in changing quite a bit of my outlook on the world, on events, and on people in general. This has necessarily changed my political views from the moderate leftism of my late teens to something that seems to exist outside of the Left-Right dichotomy, or even the diamond-diagram preferred by Libertarians.

What about all of you? Is religion your primary focus, or is politics? Do your religious views affect your political views, or the other way around, or both, or neither? What are the sources of your religious and/or political views? I look forward to reading your comments.

 Posted by at 11:40 am
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 142011
 

To say the states of the Union are facing fiscal problems would be an understatement. With nearly every state in the country facing serious budget deficits as the recession takes its toll and stimulus funds drying up states are doing whatever they can to stay above water. Whether through steep cuts in spending in Texas, structural reforms in California, or weakening public unions in the Midwest all are united in their search for an answer. Nowhere is a more radical effort being waged than in the state of Michigan.

 

The Republican-controlled Michigan State Senate recently passed a highly controversial bill to address the fiscal crises facing state. In the name of fiscal responsibility a group of state officials appointed by the governor known as emergency financial maangers would gain virtually unchecked power over all aspects of the local government in their charge. Some argue thesepowers are necessary to address the multitude of fiscal problems in Michigan by giving the emergency managers the extra leverage needed to get the job done. As they see it emergency managers are necessary to clean up the state’s problems and they have been used successfully in Michigan previously. This does not answer the question of if the new powers, or the changes to process, go too far.

 

The first line crossed is in the process of declaring a state of fiscal emergency. The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act grants a considerable amount of unchecked power to the governor’s office. In the new bill the governor would have the final say on if a local government is in a state of fiscal emergencyi. The governor have the sole power to appoint the emergency manager with no outside review or confirmationii. The new manager, once appointed, could only be removed by the governor or impeachmentiii. The law goes further by giving emergency managers full immunity from any legal liabilityiv.

 

So why would the emergency managers need protection from legal sanction? The Fiscal Accountability Act gives the emergency managers unprecedented authority over their municipalities. The list of powers given to the managers is staggering in its breadth and scope. Once in place there is little the emergency managers cannot do. From the outset they completely control the process being given the sole responsibility of developing the financial plan for the municipalityv. The plan does not need any outside approval of any kind; the public has no opportunity to vote on the issue. The state fiscal emergency remains until the emergency manager declares the crisis has been resolvedvi.

 

During this time the manager is charged to issue “all orders necessary” to make the plan happenvii. This is backed up by substantial authority explicitly spelled out in the bill. The manager is given the power to create the budgetviii, sell or transfer local government assetsix, and remove non-elected local officialsx at their sole discretion. They handle all contract negotiations and, at their discretion, can unilaterally terminate themxi. If a manager is put in charge of a school district they are given the power to set their educational planxii. Any municipal official deemed by the emergency manager to have “not reasonably” carried out an order can be barred from access to municipal facilities, mail, and internal informationxiii. In spite of being in a state of fiscal emergency the municipality is required to foot the bill for the emergency manager’s pay, expenses, and staff for the durationxiv.

 

These powers, while staggering in their totality, are not the most potent they receive. With the approval of the state treasurer they can waive any need for competitive bidding on any contract over $50,000xv. Based on their sole discretion and judgment they can recommend the municipality be declared a debtor and placed under their complete controlxvi or worse yet be legally dissolvedxvii. The governor alone makes the final call. Most astonishingly the law makes legal appeal of any of these actions impossible. The only chance given to the local government is during the investigation process which requires the municipality to request appeal with a 2/3rds majority votexviii. Once an emergency manager is appointed the locals have no legal recourse between the manager’s legal immunity and the law’s restrictions.

 

What is happening in Michigan could be waved away as unique, radical measure born of an economically devastated and desperate state. It could be argued given Michigan’s genuinely terrible situation extreme action might be justified. This all assumes that what happens in one state will remain in one state. Currently 44 of the 50 states of the Union are facing serious fiscal problems. While Michigan’s situation is especially grim they are not the only state with local governments facing serious deficits. We have already seen how Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin has been copied in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, and is being seriously considered in Maine. Public outcry proved, in the short term, to be in vain in Wisconsin and other governors press ahead in spite of the lack of popular support. If Michigan puts this law into effect what would stop other states from considering their own version of the Michigan solution?

 

Also published at Ryan’s Desk

iSenate copy of Michigan HB 4214, Sec. 15(1)

iiIbid Sec. 15(4)

iiiIbid Sec. 15(5d)

ivIbid Sec. 25(1)

vIbid Sec. 18(1)

viIbid Sec. 24

viiIbid Sec. 17(1)

viiiIbid Sec. 19(1b)

ixIbid Sec. 19(1r)

xIbid Sec. 19(1n)

xiIbid Sec. 18(1c)

xiiIbid Sec. 17(1)

xiiiIbid Sec. 17(2)

xivIbid Sec. 15(5e)

xvIbid Sec. 19(3)

xviIbid Sec. 23(1)

xviiIbid Sec. 19(1cc)

xviiiIbid Sec. 15(3)

 

Mar 042011
 

Just over a year ago, I (and several others) made my first post on PAGAN+politics.  I was excited beyond belief and so honored to have been contacted by Jason Pitzl-Waters to participate in a blog project whose objective was to feature Pagan voices from across the political spectrum and encourage civil discussion.  An additional hope what that this would help end the stigmatization of minority voices in our community and show non-Pagans (and Pagans) that we are as diverse politically as we are in other ways.

I think PAGAN+politics has made a good start on those goals, but it has also shown just how far we have to go.

In my first post, I wrote:  “Carrying that over to politics, I think that most people and political Parties want the same outcome; a happy, healthy, open and caring populace. Just because we disagree on how to accomplish that outcome, why should we denounce one another as evil and hateful? Our unity and harmony should derive from the goal, not the method. Many paths can lead to the same destination.” I still believe that.  One of the more frustrating things about participating in this project is the realization that many people don’t believe that and never will.  They will always see ‘the other side’ as inherently evil, operating from either ignorance or base motives.  Even within such a diverse umbrella group like Paganism.

I love writing for this blog.  I enjoy talking about politics in general and have found it fascinating to delve into how religion affects our political views.  And how it doesn’t. I enjoy our differences and appreciate even more how alike we are.  I have made many new friends, many of whom don’t agree with me on a single thing in politics and it doesn’t matter.  We respect one another.  I have been given new opportunities.  I am an editor for PNC-Minnesota.  It’s wild being back in the news business, never thought that would happen again.  I’ve been able to write for Patheos.  And I’m chairing Pagan Coming Out Day, which is starting to take off.  That was born right here on this blog.

And yet…because of some of those opportunities and changes in my professional life, I don’t have the time needed to write for PAGAN+politics on a weekly basis.  I’ve been struggling with this for a few months, but I’ve come to the decision that I need to pare down what projects I am involved in so I can do them justice.  I will no longer be a regular contributor to P+p.  I’m not sure if this is goodbye or see you later, but I do thank you for all the fish.  Perhaps my addiction to P+p will overcome me and I won’t be able to stay away.  Don’t celebrate too much just yet!

(Tangent – one of the reasons why I wrote “Wisconsin, it’s none of our business” is because while outsiders concentrated their time, energy, and money on Wisconsin…look what is happening in Ohio. This has taken some Ohio union supporting people I know by surprise.  It shouldn’t have.)

In keeping with the nature of this project, I wanted to leave you with this video.  Let me explain a bit about what you will see and why I felt it perfectly encapsulated both political bipartisanship and the nature of this blog project.

The video is of the rally in Wisconsin.  The protesters there, many of them, have been spending hours or days standing out in the reallyfuckingcold weather.  They are tired.  They are cold.  They are also determined.  Some are getting frustrated, feeling like those in power aren’t listening to them.  Worried they will lose and how that will affect their lives.  (My opinion – they will lose, for now.  The Democrats will come back and the Bill will pass)

In the first minute of the video, the crowd sees Sen. Grothman(R) walking to enter the capital building.  They follow him and chant “shame” at him.  It’s pretty loud.  I don’t mind these kinds of displays by voters as I feel our elected officials need to buck up and understand that sometimes the electorate is going to angry with them and their actions.  But then again, I wasn’t all shocked, horrified, and offended by the Health Care town hall meetings that Democrats faced last year.

Then something changes in the dynamic of the crowd.  The crowd corners him up against the side of the building at about 1 minute into the video.  The media make a corridor and he presses forward.  At about 2 minutes int the video, someone starts yelling “Fuck You” at the Senator.  There’s always one, right?  The crowd starts to turn ugly. Watching it, you can see things start to shift and when you have crowds, things can go south on you quickly.   If you’ve been in crowds (or are a police officer) you know its when the crowd stops a unified chant, but increases its intensity, that you have to watch out for.  The mob, no longer just a crowd, presses in at the Senator.

2:45 in the video – enter Rep. Hulsey(D), wearing his bright orange union shirt.  He goes to the assistance of his colleague.  Shielding him and physically holding the mob back from him.  Putting his arm around him.  At first the crowd is still pushing against Hulsey, trying to get to Grothman.  A man who appears to be an aid or assistant to Hulsey helps push the crowd back, then holds his fingers up in a ‘peace’ sign and yells PEACE to the mob.  He puts his back to the mob, spreads his arms out,  and continues to push back at them.  After a while, the crowd, no longer a mob, takes up the chant of “peaceful” and hold up fingers in the sign for peace.  The Senator is kept safe, but it was a very near thing.  You can then skip to about 5 minutes into the video. Hurley addresses the crowd, trying to calm them down.  Hurley:  “I know you’re angry.” Protestor:  “Damn right!” Hurley asks that the protests remain peaceful and respectful.  He claims Grothman as his friend.  “Glenn Grothman and I probably could not disagree on more things and yet he is my friend.  He is my friend and he is a good person.”

I bolded that last part because Hurley also appears to believe what I believe and sums up what this blog project stands for – people can be good, decent, intelligent and still have a point of view different from our own.  And we can passionately oppose their view without losing sight of that.

Conservative commentators have been playing these videos as signs that the protest in Wisconsin isn’t all that peaceful.  I understand that, but it’s been pretty good for that large a crowd for that long a time.  I’m shocked (but not surprised – if this was a Tea Party rally the media would be all over this) that more isn’t being shown of the signs and what people are saying at the rally.  And please note  – the National Jewish Democratic Council would like people to stop the Hitler signs, quotes, and references no matter what party you belong to. However, when I look at the video I see a Republican is safe because a Democrat protected him with his body and his words. If THAT isn’t reaching across the aisle, I don’t know what is.  Even though the two are in opposite political parties during a time of very heated disagreement, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin in decades, Hurley still went to the aid of Grothman.  The mob, seeing only an enemy and getting ready to become violent, turns back into a crowd of people exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

That, my friends, is bipartisanship when it mattered most.  That is also the spirit of this blog project.  The contributors to this project should strive to be like Hurley.  And in our discourse, we should all seek to be the crowd, not the mob.  We need more chants of “peaceful” and less of “fuck you!”

Mar 022011
 
200px-Moai_Rano_raraku

Moai

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.

Oil

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 252011
 

…and probably none of yours.

Like many of you, I have been following the budget and union event in Wisconsin.  I’ve probably been following for longer than you because I live next door and this issue has been in the news for years here.  Yes, I have some opinions on the matter.  No, I don’t care to share most of them.  In fact, if it weren’t for my husband pushing me to write something about this you wouldn’t be reading this blog post.  So I’ll voice these two thoughts:  I find it unethical to try to affect the outcome of events in a state that I don’t pay taxes in, yet I see what is happening there as a serious threat to our form of government.  And both of these opinions have been formed by my religious beliefs.

Over my years as a Hellenic Polytheist I’ve become more and more libertarian in my political leanings.  I think that is a natural result of delving into both the ethical backbone of the religion and studying that in the context of the culture if was practiced in.  The Greek city-states were autonomous and were very different from one another.  When they weren’t waging war on one another they stayed out of each others business and let each city govern as it saw fit.  The city-states joined together to form defense leagues to repel foreign invaders and they cooperated for religious festivals.  This was a very early form of Federalism, which is a core concept in US libertarianism.  It had it’s weaknesses, but many of those weaknesses are minimized and the strengths of freedom and diversity are increased in modern Federalism.  Add to this the Delphic Maxim of ‘When you are a stranger, act like it’ – meaning that when you are outside of your home or city-state you should be act like a polite guest.  Don’t act like your way is the best and everyone should conform to you.

All of this leads me to be very uncomfortable with people traveling to Wisconsin to join in protests – on either side of this issue.   The citizens of Wisconsin are the ones who should be free to decide what their future should be as they are the ones who will live that future.  They are the ones who pay the taxes, union dues, and have children in the schools.  The protestors from outside the state will hop back on their buses and go home and that will be that for them.  I also wonder why people from outside the state, who don’t know or live with the complexities of the situation on a daily basis, feel compelled tell Wisconsinites what to do.  Are we smarter than the citizens of that state?  Do we not think that they are capable of deciding important issues like this?  When I enter another state or another person’s home I am very conscious of the fact that I am a guest and I try to act like one.  I have made a conscious decision in my life to live out the ethics of my religion in all aspects of my life and I honor the best ideals that my religion has brought forward into modern times.

There is one thing happening in Wisconsin that I will speak about – the Democrat Senators who have fled the state to stop the government from being able to function. On important issues like budget, a quorum of Senators must be in session to allow a vote to take place.  By fleeing the state, these Democrat Senators ensure that a quorum cannot be achieved.  Although I won’t join in the efforts to recall those Senators as I am not a voter in their districts, I see their actions as a threat to our form of government – representational democracy.  Another gift of ancient Athens and Rome which the USA has refined under the blessings of the Patron Goddess of our country, Columbia.

While many focus on elections as the heart of our republic, the true test of our form of government comes after the election. If the losing party recognize their loss and continues to participate, then representative democracy works. When the losing side refuses to participate and boycotts governance, as is happening in Wisconsin, then our form of government STOPS WORKING.  Our form of government rests on two things – free and open elections by an informed populace and the willingness of minority parties to continue to participate in governing.

It’s no fun to be in the minority, to be in the party that loses heavily in an election.  The GOP experienced that in our Federal government and had to stand by as laws were passed that they vehemently opposed.  The GOP didn’t leave the country, though. They complained, they grandstanded, but they participated in governance.  On Bills they opposed, they voted against the Bill and then they used that vote as part of their platform in the next election.

In Wisconsin, the budget crisis and public unions were a large part of the political discussion during the last election.  Republican ad Democrat candidates put forth their ideas on how to deal with the crisis and the voters cast their ballots.  In the last election they did something extremely unusual, especially for Wisconsin.  They voted in a Republican House, Senate, and Governor. Democrats became the minority.  But instead of doing their duty, upholding their sworn and sacred oath, they fled the state.  And that is a very dangerous thing for them to have done.  When elected officials do things like skip the state to shut down the government because you lost the last election, it puts our form of government in danger. It thwarts the will of the voters, it breaks the bonds of oaths, and it puts us out of balance with Columbia – which can bring Nemesis into the picture.  If it can’t be corrected, we could slip further into inbalance with the scales swinging wildly back and forth.  After all, don’t you think that when the Democrats are back in power, the other Republicans could use the same tactics?  What if this becomes more normal?

I’ll keep watching events in Wisconsin, but this is about as involved as I will get in the discussion.  And you certainly won’t see me crossing the border to join in the protests.

 Posted by at 10:13 am