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…

Sep 022010
 

Having returned from my trip to Northern Ireland positively overwhelmed with thoughts on activism, religious dialogue and the peace process, I find myself still working to organize and articulate my reflections into an interesting, half-way coherent post. But bear with me — a post is on its way!

In the meantime, however, I thought I would direct folks’ attention to an insightful article by Will Wilkinson, a liberal libertarian, who explores the concept of American identity along lines very similar to those I discussed back in July (although he tackles the issue far more concisely and adeptly than I did!):

Americans certainly aren’t “a people” in the sense that the Japanese, the Kurds, or the Jews are a people. There is no American ethnicity; the U.S. is a resolutely multicultural (and multilingual) country. The usual idea is that American identity is creedal, or organized around a distinctively American set of ideas and values.

The trouble is that even when there is widespread agreement on nominally common values, conceptions of those values vary wildly.

Wilkinson goes on to examine specific examples of just how certain values — for instance, “individual freedom” — have widely variant conceptions among modern politicians and political theorists, and how often these modern conceptions do not accurately reflect the intentions of the Founders, who themselves were often in disagreement.

Some of them took the ideal of individual freedom to be consistent with chattel slavery while others correctly found human bondage obviously at odds with liberty. Some defended a robust conception of freedom of conscience while others wished to ban the practice of certain religions for freedom’s sake. And so on.

These reflections echo my own thoughts on the matter. Even when we can agree on what to call these “common values,” our ideas about what exactly such values mean in detail or what they might look like in practice are often so different and diverse, it would be difficult to argue for a set of “American values” as in any way distinct from human or universal values more generally.

This issue comes up powerfully in Cara’s recent post on Glenn Beck’s promotion of “honor” at his rally last week. Few of us are willing to argue against “honor” as a valuable character trait. However, I do think many Americans, myself included, find such talk of honor couched in overtly religio-conservative-militaristic terms to be disconcerting to say the least. The “affirmation of middle-class, white Christians” as exemplars of honor as Beck conceives it gives us some indication of precisely how we might expect such a value to be upheld and put into practice.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that so much of U.S. politics these days revolves around issues of identity and cultural values, much more than around particular policy decisions and matters of governance. What we are experiencing in the United States right now is quite explicitly a kind of “culture war” in which the American identity itself is up for grabs. Personally, I suspect this focus on values and identity is a deliberate attempt to obscure or distract from the particulars of policy-making. Matters of governance are rarely evaluated in practical terms of merit or consequence, but are immediately placed into the context of competing cultural values. Political leaders make policy decisions based on how it will effect their “image” in the public eye and whether it will help or hinder their chances in future elections, not on a realistic analysis of the pros and cons of putting given policies into practice. As Wilkinson explains,

That’s why movements to glorify, elevate, and honor a particular conception of American identity based on a particular conception of the American creed necessarily  marginalize equally or more historically plausible conceptions and therefore tend to suggest that citizens who favor those conceptions are less or even un-American.

It is hard to imagine a common ground or process of compromise in such a situation, in part because it is often hard to pin down precisely what the similarities and differences in governance actually are. As long as the debate remains focused on whether honor or compassion, self-reliance or social justice rest at the heart of “real American identity,” we will continue to find ourselves stuck in a war of values that demeans or dismisses our political opponents, instead of seeking ways to compromise and work with them.

My suggestion? Let’s set aside this talk of “American identity” and accept instead that such an identity, if it exists at all, is far too diverse and complex to give effective guidance to the specifics of political process. Let us return to discussions of the policies themselves, and allow each citizen to determine for her- or himself how best to embody “honor” or “justice” or “self-reliance” in their political and personal lives. Let’s expect more from our political leaders (and, dare I say it?, talk-show hosts) than the non-stop pandering to group-identity conflict and the inevitable fear-mongering that results. When Glenn Beck and the Tea Party can promote practical suggestions for effective governance, instead of populist unrest and self-congratulation — even if I don’t agree with those suggestions when they come, I’ll be more than ready to engage them in debate.

Jul 082010
 

In attempting to respond to Erik’s recent comments on my previous post, I found myself deep in the throes of writing a full-blown follow-up essay. Rather than try to squeeze this into the comments section where it might be lost or overlooked, I thought I would share it here, for ease of continued conversation and debate. But please do check out the comment thread that sparked this post if you have the time, especially because Jeff’s response covers many of the points I had originally planned on making and does a thorough and congenial job of laying out a few of the most obvious difficulties in trying to identify a singular, united American identity.

What follows is my own expansion on these basic issues. I might also have titled it “A Deconstruction of American Identity,” for it is really a lengthy treatment of several different attempts to define what “American identity” means as a socio-cultural construct, and then the reasons why I find each approach inadequate. Although destruction on the material level can be as easy and quick as smashing someone’s sandcastle, I have found that the deconstruction of an intellectual or mental-emotional concept, especially one as repeated and defended as “American-ness,” often takes a great deal more time and energy, sometimes even a lifetime of contemplation. There are certain mystics who talk of “spitting back up the apple.” What they mean is clearing out and cleansing ourselves of all our dearly-held beliefs and assumptions, vomiting up the fruit of the tree of knowledge so preciously guarded. Some, like the Zen Buddhists, work at quieting thoughts and sinking to a place deeper than the chattering monkey-mind; others such as Socrates, Descartes and other Western philosophers, use the chatter of the mind itself as the path that leads to unknowing, following it spiraling down chasing question after question. But the emptiness of unknowing, the chaotic mystery or Mystery underneath the layers of rhetoric and assumptions… within this emptiness is where we become free. Only with that freedom can we begin to ascend the spiral again and choose, with wisdom and efficacy, to “opt in” to the creative process of making and naming ourselves.

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