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.

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.

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?

Nov 022010
 

I admit, I’m burnt out. I haven’t made an appearance here for quite a while, as midterm hype and campaign season idiocy dominate the news and distract us from the ordinary work of everyday effective civic engagement. People I usually admire greatly hop on board the “Get Out the Vote” train to What’s-The-F’ing-Point town and I don’t get to see them again or have an intelligent conversation about nuanced political philosophy unfettered by contrived, arbitrary party polarization until they’ve gotten the “lesser of two evils” rhetoric out of their system sometime in mid-November.

Fear is rampant and dominates all political discourse. Whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, everyone understands how little their vote matters unless they’re lucky enough to be on the winning side, and so the goal of courting the swing votes becomes all-consuming, tinged with all the desperation and hysteria of the insecure. In the ordinary world of everyday action, even small changes and personal choices to act mindfully and ethically can have cumulative effects, and you don’t have to wait for everyone else to get on board before you begin your own work to contribute meaningfully to the world. Not so with voting. The process of voting drastically downplays the importance of individual action even while it pays lip-service to individual participation. Everyone knows the system is broken, but we’re all so terrified of change that we wear it like a Halloween mask, evoking its specter every election day in the hopes that real change might safely pass us by.

I spent all day today working on an essay about why the refusal to vote is a legitimate expression of political dissent, and a responsible, effective choice about how to allocate one’s time, money, energy and resources in ways that more directly promote social justice and cultural change. Then I realized that I had spent more time drafting that essay than most voters today would spend standing in line to cast their ballot, and more time than readers would take to read the essay and consider its implications. Yet, almost definitely I would be the one accused of abdicating my civic duty, of behaving irresponsibly or selfishly, of being too lazy, naive or idealistic to participate effectively as a rational adult. The irony struck hard, I have to admit. I’m feeling a bit burnt out and cynical.

I’m not here to tell you not to vote. I’m here to tell you that I care, deeply, about the problems of this country. I’m here to tell you that my choice not to vote is a direct result of that care and concern. I’m here to tell you that I believe ritual actions have meaning, and to cast a vote for the “lesser of two evils” to represent my complex views in a system that has long since lost my confidence would be a ritual act that would only help to insure that system continues unchecked and unreformed. I’m a pragmatist. I have written almost three thousand words today explaining how my pacifism, my pragmatism and my conscience compel me not to vote in this election. Yet my own appeal is ringing in my mind: there are better things we could be doing with our time, better things we could be doing with our will and our energy, better things we could be doing with our talents and our passions.

I hate going through this every election year. The choice not to vote is never a foregone conclusion, and every two years I sit down and ask myself what reasons I have for voting, what I expect to accomplish and whether or not those goals are worth the compromises and concessions I would have to make. It is never easy, and it is all the more difficult because of the desperate campaigns of intimidation, emotional blackmail and downright bullying that come from both Left and Right as that sacred Tuesday in November approaches. You would think that my active engagement in community would count for something. You would think that the other 729 days I spend working my heart out as a concerned citizen and passionate member of this society might outweigh that one day every two years that I decide to stay home from the polls. But so much depends on those stupid little levers.

If politics is going to function, it must learn to function according to the examples set in nature. The erosion of the stream-bed. The falling of autumn leaves. The infinite ways in which order and structure emerge out of the on-going negotiations of immediate relationship and community participation. Instead, the current political system is more like one of those ball-and-pin games you find at the arcade — drop a marble in one of the slots at the top and watch it bounce its way down among a maze of pegs until it lands, hard and determined, in one of the walled-off slots at the bottom. A physicist might be able to calculate the possible paths among the mess of metal pins, trace the trajectories, advise you which slot along the top to choose to best ensure you win the $500 prize at the bottom. Or a statistician, perhaps, could watch enough games to predict with a reasonable amount of certainty the likelihood of each result. But this is all just game theory and abstraction, a way of avoiding direct participation and political involvement. In the end, despite the flashing lights and fabulous prizes, it’s just a tiny marble set loose inside a box.

It’s not that the game is rigged. It’s that it is contrived, constructed, manufactured — in short, unreal. The fact that such a contrivance has very real consequences only makes it more dangerous, and more compelling, but in no way more necessary or inevitable. Should I choose to willing enter into a constrictive pre-ordained role as “voter” pondering which slot to pick, which button to press, based solely on which way I hope the marble will just happen to bounce? I am not a physicist, a statistician, a sociologist, historian or political analyst, and when it comes to politics, I am certainly no gambler.

So another election day comes and goes, and I sit at home a ball of tension and frustration, witness to the usual bread and circuses. I cannot fault others for voting. We each do what we feel to be right. But I want to make an appeal to you — spend the next two years doing more than just casting your opinions to the wind. Do more than following the media from one controversy to the next, always wondering how this latest development will effect this or that person’s chances for reelection. Find your soul work, find your passion, find the gifts you have to share with your community, and then for gods’ sake, do that with all of your might. And support others in doing the same, so that they don’t burn out and give up. Be bigger than the system, be better than the system. Don’t let election day drag you down and make you small. Stop waiting for someone else to promise change.

Go to the polls today, if you must, if your conscience compels you or your fear drives you. But tomorrow, begin the work of outgrowing that fear and dependency, of helping to create a world in which corrupt politicians are drowned out by the voices and passions of everyday people working for a better world. Own your will. Live your advocacy. If you want to change America, do it.

In the meantime, here’s an amusing video from several years ago, back when it was easier to have a light-hearted perspective on these things (ah… those were the days). Enjoy:


The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Rock! – Mid-Term Elections
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

Oct 032010
 

Over at the Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters writes about the recent violence and bullying directed towards young people in the GLBT community, and the culture of suicide and self-hate tolerated and perpetuated by many mainstream faiths often in subtle, unnoticed or unacknowledged ways.

In the end, it comes down to theology. Not, as Sanders points out, the easily defeated cartoon hatred of Westboro, but the more subtle belief systems that make even “accepted” GLBTQ individuals the “other”. A theology that, even if unspoken, privileges a certain kind of person over another. [...] While defenders of these theologies talk of tradition and incremental change, more die, and are harassed, every day. It is for this reason, among many others, that I think we not only have to reassure kids that “it gets better”, but we also have to reject theologies that empower hatreds of this kind and replace them with something else.

His point is well-taken, as is his observation that the Pagan movement is just one of many alternatives striving to offer that “something else,” engaged in the difficult work of challenging and dismantling traditions of systemic intolerance. The modern spiritual traditions that make up modern Paganism have drawn for many decades from the political and philosophical streams of feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, pacifism and social activism. All these movements seek, in different ways, to expand the conversation and complicate our understanding of “other” and “self,” demanding that we bring our attention and our care not only to those “like us” but to those we might otherwise overlook, dismiss or ignore.

However, I think it is a mistake to view this work as solely concerned with social hierarchy and the mechanisms of domination within the mainstream. As feminist philosophy notes, “The personal is political.” While we quite rightly find sympathy and solidarity with those who are marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream culture of today, I find myself disturbed by the frequency of arguments that declare: “We as Pagans should care about this cause because we, like the GLBT community [or other minority group], are also a minority and so what happens to them could happen to us.” Such an argument recognizes, sure enough, the themes of intolerance and hatred in the mainstream that unite us as a religious minority with other marginalized communities (whether they be racial, ethnic or sexual-preference minorities, women, the lower class and impoverished, or the other animals, plants and ecosystems who share this planet with us). Yet such reasoning encourages us to continue to care for and sympathize only with others “like us” — even if they are like us primarily in their socially-defined otherness. It implies that our responsibility to concern ourselves with the problems of the marginalized lasts only as long as we ourselves feel the threat of that marginalization. The ethic of privilege remains unchallenged; we’ve merely succeeded in exchanging one privileged group (the mainstream or majority, conceived as the Western (Christian) white male) for another.

The real challenge, I believe, is to continue to engage in social movements that reject and dismantle the hierarchical, patriarchal and hegemonic systems that give rise to intolerance and hatred towards “the Other,” while at the same time bringing this challenge home to ourselves in a very personal way. It is not enough to identify and care for those groups whom society has ignored, dismissed or overlooked. As individuals, we also have a responsibility to examine our own social and interpersonal relationships, in order to discover those communities and individuals that we ourselves are inclined to dismiss or marginalize.

This may be a difficult task for some Pagans to embrace. In more than a few modern Pagan traditions, an emphasis on local community and a reverence for the kindred and ancestors can too easily give way to a kind of tribalism that defines concepts such as honor and courage in terms of defense against the threat of “outsiders,” or asserts that care for “my” family and “my” in-group takes precedence over more universal social concerns. The joyful celebration of diversity can too quickly devolve into a rejection of anything that connects us or seems to obligate us to our fellow human beings — especially if those fellow human beings come from the “Judeo-Christian” mainstream.

Still, the traditions of modern Paganism also offer a unique opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this continuing conversation about acceptance and otherness. Unlike many social movements of today, the Pagan movement — precisely because it is a spiritual movement — speaks to deeply personal and intimate aspects of our relationships with the world and with each other. From a Pagan perspective, we can take this commitment to healthy community and thriving diversity not only as a socio-political philosophy but as a personal, spiritual imperative, enshrined in the heart of our earth-centered and/or polytheistic religious traditions.

Already we see this attitude at work in many aspects of various Pagan traditions. Our appreciation for history and heritage in a society of shrinking attention spans and an ever-growing obsession with the new-and-shiny not only informs our views on how communities can be organized and nurtured, but connects us with our ancestors and the dead in personal ways through rituals of honor, commemoration and conversation. Similarly, the common Pagan reverence for the natural world and the ecosystems of the earth shape our social and political lives, influencing everything from who we vote for to where we shop, to what we eat and wear; yet our personal relationship to nature is also fostered through meditative and ritual practices that put us in touch with the “spiritual side” of our animal, physical selves and challenge us to discover our own ways of relating to and living with(in) the natural world. While some of us engage in social activism and political protest in support of civil and gay rights, many also worship gods and goddesses who transcend, defy or redefine gender boundaries, who celebrate sexual intimacy as a sacred act, or who have their roots deep in the cultures of non-white, non-Western religious traditions of the past. By entering into relationship with these deities, we transform the cause of equality, diversity and mutual respect from a political platform into a intimately powerful expression of our being. In these ways, and in many others, modern Pagan traditions often bridge the gap between the personal and the political, the spiritual and the social.

I hope that one day Pagans will be just one more diverse and complex community in a manifold, thriving global society. But when that day comes, we will need to have a better ethical standard in place than “we should care about oppressed people because we are oppressed.” While I agree that silence in the face of bullying and violence is unacceptable, neither is it enough to stop with a critique of social trends and larger political patterns in the mainstream, venting frustration that “others” have done nothing to stem the tide of hatred and abuse. Pagan spirituality opens up for us the potential to bring our commitment to social justice, peace and diversity all the way home to the heart of our spiritual practice and our interpersonal relationships. Perhaps one day we can move from an ethic that privileges those who are “other-like-us” to an ethic that embraces and upholds the sacredness of relationship and connection in all its myriad forms. An ethic that says not “we should care because we, too, are different” but one that proclaims, “We should care because we are all, after all, in this together.”

Sep 222010
 

DADT Repeal Stalls in Senate

Yesterday, the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy stalled in the Senate amidst partisan bickering stirred up by the impending midterm elections in November. The New York Times notes:

The outcome, at a time when Congress is increasingly paralyzed by the partisan fury of the midterm elections, was more a result of a dispute between Democrats and Republicans over legislative process than a straightforward referendum on whether to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers to serve openly.

The repeal of DADT became a pressing issue earlier in September when the US District Court in central California ruled that the legislation, in effect now for seventeen years, was unconstitutional.

The policy was originally introduced by President Clinton in 1993, as a compromise between the policy of previous administrations, which have officially and explicitly barred non-heterosexuals from military service since 1950, and Clinton’s campaign promise to allow all citizens the opportunity to join the armed forces. During his campaign for the 2008 presidential election, Obama made similar promises and expressed support for the repeal of DADT, but has so far been slow to move on these matters. However, in late May 2010, two different pieces of legislation were proposed that would have included a repeal of DADT soon after the completion of a U.S. Department of Defense study (due to be completed in December of this year) about the effects of a repeal on military competence and morale.

While the language for the repeal of DADT was passed by the House back in May, the amended Defense Authorization Act, a “$725.7 billion annual defense policy bill” that has been passed by the Senate for 48 consecutive years, stalled yesterday after a successful Republican-led filibuster. Republicans voted unanimously to block debate on the bill after Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, introduced several “left-leaning” amendments in addition to the repeal of DADT, including an amendment concerning a path to legal status for illegal immigrants who join the U.S. military. Republicans complained that Reid’s move was overt pandering to a Democratic base leading into the midterm elections; however, a few commented that they would be open to renewed debate on the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” after the completion of the DOD study in December, though it is hard to predict what the result of such a revisit might be.

Sex and Lies in the Armed Forces

As a pacifist, I have mixed feelings about this debate. While it seems clear to me that DADT is an overtly prejudiced and unconstitutional policy, I feel a certain ambivalence about a cause that takes for granted the appeal of military service as a noble and desirable occupation. I feel the same in response to issues about Pagans in the military. Should non-heterosexuals and non-Christians be “allowed” to join the military? Certainly. Do I think it’s a good idea for anyone to join the military? Honestly, no. But a vital aspect of my philosophy of pacifism is the affirmation of personal choice, and so I find myself unintentionally working to expand the “right” to join the United States military at the same time I continue to speak out against the military itself as an institution of state-sponsored, large-scale organized violence.

But what I find truly fascinating about this debate is this question of how the repeal of DADT might effect the competence and efficacy of the armed forces — or as it’s mostly described, the military’s “readiness and morale.” Forgive me if I sound crude, but whenever I read that phrase, what do you think is the image that immediately jumps to my mind? A couple of macho soldiers caught out back behind the barracks with their pants down around their ankles and their faces frozen in mortification as a siren suddenly blares and the enemy attacks. If only those soldiers had been “ready”! If only those soldiers didn’t now feel such low “morale” about the sin they’ve committed! O how ever will they rally to fight for our freedoms now?

I have little doubt that this is perhaps the primary concern of those who use the phrase “readiness and morale” to describe the potential threat they see in the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Yet I cannot see any bigger distraction to service members than the systemic prejudice and bigotry that requires some of them to actively lie and repress a vital aspect of their humanity, while cutting them off from sources of support and healthy relationship at the risk of jeopardizing their military career.

But this is nothing new for the military. Very similar problems exist for women in the armed forces, for whom sexual harassment, abuse and rape continue to be a largely undocumented and under-reported crisis. According to Defense Department statistics, sexual assault in the military continues to rise, the most common form by far being that of heterosexual men against women:

Women, in fact, are more likely to be assaulted in the military than in civilian life: “Despite the suspected underreporting, sexual assault is more common in the military than it is among the civilian population, the report suggests—two for every 1,000 service members, versus 1.8 per 1,000 civilian women and one per 1,000 civilian men.” [emphasis added]

To worry that a repeal of DADT might introduce sexual abuse and scandal into the military is to be rather pathetically ill-informed about the abuse and harassment already very prevalent in the ranks.

Make Love, Not War

Despite their ads promising career advancement in a noble profession, the military is undeniably an institution of organized violence. This is its stated purpose, after all. With Basic Training explicitly designed to break down new cadets and transform them into “good soldiers” in the image of masculine force and discipline, dependent upon the military and its command structure rather than on the “feminizing” influence of mother and homeland, it is an institution that willfully breaks down healthy relationships of support and community and replaces them with the idealized “band of brothers” bonded in intense relationship through the trauma and violence of warfare.

Within such a violent institution, it should come as no surprise that violence and abuse is turned against our own service members as well as our “enemies,” and that the service members most likely to experience abuse are those who stand out as different (e.g. women, homosexuals, ethnic and religious minorities, etc.). It is also no surprise that the repeal of DADT seems to some to threaten the ideal of the masculinely-defined “band of brothers” as a functioning military unit. Harry Jackson, a pastor in Maryland and bitter anti-gay opponent of a DADT repeal, proclaimed:

Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will destroy the necessary readiness and cohesion of servicemen and women to perform their duties successfully. Introducing sexual tension and conduct into our barracks will be a distraction from the very business of the military [...].

Part of me wonders if Jackson and others like him might not be more right than they know.

As a Pagan who honors the earth and worships the feminine as a vital and balancing aspect of the sacred, it seems likely to me that much of the military’s capacity for inhumane and indiscriminate violence against faceless “enemies” stems from an absence of healthy, supportive community informed by open sexuality and gender identity. Certainly, there is no evidence that women are inherently more peaceful than men, and there have been plenty of examples throughout history of women participating willingly, even gleefully, in warfare and violence. Yet current issues of sexual abuse and anti-gay bigotry in the military seem to me to stem at least partly from our inability to hold mature, balanced discussions about gender identity and its connection to violence, arising from the repression of one’s sexual identity — whether it is the repression of homosexuality or of biological femaleness — in order to conform to a patriarchal, hierarchical conception of nobility and sacrifice.

To allow women and homosexuals to serve openly in the military will likely bring these issues of gender politics and their conflict with the traditional macho-masculine conception of militaristic violence increasingly into the light of real discussion. It may very well jeopardize “the very business of the military,” as it becomes increasingly difficult to justify violence against a dehumanized “Other” while at the same time working towards an embrace of diversity and difference within ranks. These two aims — to support diversity and acceptance within the military, while training armed service members to be efficient and effective executors of violence — may in actual fact be at odds with one another.

That is, at least, my hope. Time and again in my own experiences, I have seen how open dialogue about difference and an honest engagement with diversity has helped to foster communities of inner strength who no longer rely on violence against an external “enemy” for their group cohesion. With increasing numbers of women involved in the armed forces, and increasing acceptance and support of GLBT service members, perhaps we may see a similar transformation of the military itself. Anyway, one can dream….

Aug 022010
 

VoPP!When Jason first invited me to write for Pagan+Politics, he asked me to cover news and topics that might be relevant to Pagans who are pacifists, but also news about pacifists in the Pagan community.

The first request was easy. What news isn’t relevant to the present-day Pagan with a persistent predilection for peacemaking? So much of what gets reported today is rife with violence, war and conflict born of obstinacy and ignorance. Even for someone like me, much more comfortable waxing philosophical-poetic than reporting in journalistic-style on national and world events, it was easy to find a plethora of topics to write on.

But news about Pagan pacifists? That request seemed a bit more daunting. One mark of the effective peacemaker, like any artist, is how effortless and natural he can make the work appear, and the dull story of peace-at-work rarely makes the news except in extraordinary circumstances. Plus, I had no “in”s with pacifistic leaders and activists in the Pagan community, and no networking ties that would help me keep track of their various goings-on. Sure, I was a peacemaking Pagan, but my pacifism, like my Paganism, has often been “solitary” and creatively subterfuged to look like, well, everyday kindness and rational living. Of course, I could set up a few Google news alerts to help me out and keep me informed. But Pagans are still only a small minority almost everywhere in the world, and pacifists likewise are for the most part considered a “fringe” political force. I don’t need to draw you a Venn diagram of exactly how big of an overlap two minority groups make in the eyes of the daily news cycle.

And that’s when my whole “active engagement in creative peacemaking” thing kicked into high gear. As a pacifist, you don’t just sit around waiting for war and violence to happen so that you can take to the streets with your cleverly-put signs and sourpuss faces. You get moving, you get active, you get creative and joyful, and you make peace out of whatever you happen to have on hand. So I began to think, “You know, if I can’t find a lot of ‘Pagan pacifist news’ going on out there… why don’t I make some?”

And ‘lo, the Voices of Pagan Pacifism project was born!

From this seed-thought of being a news-maker grew the full-fledged idea of hosting a website to showcase and archive voices from the incredibly broad and diverse Pagan community. Now absolutely anyone walking a Pagan path and engaging in peacemaking work can make the news and have their stories heard. Harold the Heathen, Danielle the Druid, Wesley the Witch — move over, Joe the Plumber, you’ve got some company.

The VoPP project seeks to highlight the voices of ordinary peacemakers in the Pagan community, while also providing resources, well-researched articles, suggestions for peace-centered ritual and practice, and a helpful directory of individual and group contact information for Pagan pacifists from all over the world. The premiere issue of VoPP, launched on Lughnasadh 2010, has already gone international, with essays from Pagans living in both the U.S. and the UK. And there’s more to come! Each month’s issue will feature an interview (check out the Interview Application page, and the next voice on VoPP could be you!), along with a variety of articles on nonviolence, history, ecology, media, and social justice. The VoPP collection of solitary and group rituals, spells and meditative practices will continue to expand, as will its network of movers and shakers in the world of practical peacemaking and activism in the secular and Pagan world communities.

But most of all, my personal hope is that the Voices of Pagan Pacifism project will help Pagans and non-Pagans, pacifists and non-pacifists alike to extend the on-going discussion about peacemaking, justice and creative civic engagement as a vital aspect of the spiritual life. I hope that the presence of VoPP and similar resources help to change the conversation around words like “peace” and “pacifism” in the same way our conversations about “feminism” and “environmentalism” have changed so greatly in the last few decades. I hope for a time when even conservatives, cynics and pragmatists can call themselves pacifists as well as feminists and environmentalists. And I hope that Voices of Pagan Pacifism can help inspire and celebrate that change.

May 312010
 

“To say that you want to live in a less noisy world, and to say it with any depth of conviction, is in essence to say that you’d like to have your body back.”

- Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want

When we think about noise, most of us imagine the loud next-door neighbor who leaves her television blaring (or dog barking) into the late hours of the night, or the obnoxious teenage loiterer with the boom box or the booming car stereo. Some of us might think of the free-spirited rock star screaming out to his fans from the stage, or the infectious, roaring cheers of the stadium after our team scores the game-winning point. In short, what we think about is people making noise. Sometimes selfish or thoughtless, sometimes celebratory and communal, we still tend to imagine noise as a kind of earthy, embodied expression of our wilder, more primal natures. One of the central themes in Keizer’s book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, however, is that most of the noise we experience on a daily basis is automatic, the noise of machinery and technology. “It is the noise of ghosts,” he writes, “Three-quarters of our boom is boo.” The loud backyard picnic next door will eventually wind down and the people “making noise” will go home to bed, but the humming, grinding ambient sound of the power station nearby, or the sound of planes overhead, will continue unabated, untiring, and unchallenged.

This ‘spiritualized’, disembodied nature of modern noise points to a crucial separation between the human person and the object that functions, and makes noise, on her behalf. A normal conservation between two people averages between 55 – 60 decibels*; few natural sounds reach above this volume for any extended period of time. However, loud factory noise averages 90 dB, five decibels above the lower range for permanent damage to human hearing; a power lawnmower at 3 feet averages 95 dB; the noise in a video arcade averages 110 dB; and the sound created by a twelve-guage shotgun, 160 dB, is twenty decibels higher than the volume at which sound becomes physically painful. A great deal of our most damaging and distressing noises are not really “man-made” at all, but the noises of mechanization and automatization, noises of consumption, amplification and waste. Throughout his text, Keizer reminds us of this essential fact by exploring themes of how noise is defined by and affects the physical human body; such an exploration reveals the nature of modern noise to be, in a fundamental way, social or political, rather than personal — in other words, most of the noise we experience is the noise we have come to accept as necessary to keep our civilization running. To resist such noise is often seen as naïve, backwards, radical or even dangerous, and in this way the conversation about noise eerily parallels our political discourse on violence and war.

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May 242010
 

“We are all conflicted, compromised and confused.” So begins the final chapter of Garret Keizer’s book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise.*

When I first picked up this book, I had few expectations and, probably like many of you, no particular interest in noise beyond the common desire for a little “peace and quiet” in which to engage in my work, enjoy my leisure and sleep soundly at night. By the time I began reading the final pages, “Chapter 9: The Most Beautiful Sound in the World,” Keizer’s subject had come to hold for me both a deep fascination and a powerful frustration, for out of the “noise” that we live with every day, he had teased out themes of power, freedom, violence, embodiment, environment, and community, and more importantly, the roles played by our own complicity or resistance in each. Readers will discover many different topics of interest and analytical angles in a book so broad in scope; in many ways, the text itself reflects the confusion and conflict Keizer addresses, as he weaves a story of history, progress, war, technology, music, poverty, politics, ecology, race, communication, travel and longing, all around the central, tenacious topic of noise. His soft-spoken but passionate interest in what he calls, almost proudly, the “weak” issue of noise and its effects (especially on the “weak,” the vulnerable and disenfranchised in society and in nature) lends an intensity to his writing that quickly engaged me and became a guiding force of its own through the complex and sometimes overwhelming issues that surround battles over the “soundscape” of our lives and our shared world.
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