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.

Feb 172011

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

Jan 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?

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.

Continue reading »

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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May 052010

Outside my window right now, a breeze lingers and turns through the riotous green of the trees, and the climbing ivy clings to the mottled red brick of the house next door. My cat sleeps curled on the futon next to me, making a gentle noise that is sometimes a purr and sometimes a snore. The pale yellow curtain billows to brush my arm, and above everything, the sky crests blue.

I want to begin this way because I know that writing for Pagan+Politics as a pacifist and an anarchist is likely to be a difficult and sometimes daunting task, that my views will likely stir up a lot of criticisms and objections among some of you, maybe even provoke a few unkind accusations. Comments might get heated, and issues will definitely get complicated as together we tease out the many implications, false assumptions and unacknowledged fears tangled up around words like “peace,” “freedom” and “responsibility.” I have been writing publicly about pacifism for several years now, and it still remains a challenge to face down my own anxieties about misinterpretation, hypocrisy, judgement and impotence. It is not always fun to write about ideals and ethical principles that can make not only my readers but even myself feel uncomfortable, uncertain, inadequate, angry or sorrowful.

So why do it? Because I honestly believe that, despite our discomfort and uncertainty, despite our habitual resistance to the idea, the truth is that peace is easy and freedom is innate. Though we are surrounded today with myriad examples of violence, war, hatred and rage, though we have complicated systems of government control looming over us at every step — ordinary, everyday life for most of us is still characterized by spontaneous, consensual cooperation and moments full of the profound simplicity of peaceful relationship. Outside my window and here in this room, the world revels in this sunny spring afternoon, a spring that came without coercion or malice, that arose delicately and swiftly out of the interplay of countless creatures and forces, gods and forms, all organizing themselves through their striving and reaching and vying and dancing, rooted in the necessary rot of autumn, preserved through the inevitable cold of winter, and deeply engaged in the ceaseless process of becoming something beautiful.

It is undeniable that violence, too, can be all too easy, and this is why I believe that Paganism needs committed pacifists among its ranks. As a small but quickly growing, often chaotic community cobbled together from the bits and pieces of memory, history, scholarship, creativity, identity and hope available to us in a modern/postmodern, globalizing/global-warming world, we are not only wild and strong-willed on the fringes of mainstream culture — we are also vulnerable and clumsy, still finding our feet. The Wild Hunt‘s coverage last month of the child abuse case involving a self-proclaimed “druid” reminds us in no uncertain terms that we cannot take for granted this vital process of forging healthy relationships both as individuals and as communities, relationships based on values like honor, honesty, kindness and love. Even simple, natural things like peace and freedom can take a lot of hard work to realize in the face of resistance.

As philosophical schools with a history of hundreds of years across many cultures and religions, both pacifism and anarchism have sturdy roots in the spiritual as well as political world community. Like Paganism itself, they are often misunderstood, misapplied and intensely debated even among their practitioners. Yet the broad, mind-bogglingly diverse community that is today’s Paganism can benefit greatly from a study of these philosophies. While most of us are familiar with the popular, often-quoted Wiccan Rede, as a community we have grown beyond the point where its simple eight-word instruction can serve as a meaningful starting place for conversations about harm, violence, intention, freedom and peace-making. Though the Rede’s laissez-faire moral code may work very well for some of us, it cannot possibly speak to the huge range of perspectives found among those practicing Druidry, Asatru, Neo-Shamanism, Ceremonial Magic, Feri, Dianic and eclectic Witchcraft traditions, Hellenic, Khemetic and other Reconstructionist paths, Voudon, Santería, and the almost endless permutations and combinations thereof. Pacifism and anarchism can provide the Pagan community both with a fertile common ground for conversation, and examples of effective direct action from the past and present day. Each has its theorists and activists, its intellectuals and apologists, its heroes, martyrs, tragedies and holidays. What Pagans can learn from the history of struggle, debate, defeat and subtle triumph of these philosophies, which have existed on the vulnerable, breath-taking fringes of the mainstream for generations, cannot be underestimated.

Yet there is something perhaps even more important about what we as Pagans can bring uniquely to the philosophies of pacifism and anarchism. Grounded in acts of civil disobedience, conscientious objection and nonviolent resistance, pacifism has long suffered under the common misperception that it is passive and detached in nature, characterized by a refusal to engage or participate. The muddy, sweaty, full-bodied liveliness of modern Paganism, expressing itself creatively through engaging ritual, drama, sensuality, art, music, poetry, story-telling and writing, can bring an earthy energy and a sense of sacred embodiment to our understanding of pacifism as peace-making, an active process of attending and creating, in which new choices are made and new alternatives forged even in the midst of violence. Likewise anarchism, breaking free from the rule of law and the comforts of government, can too often flounder into mere chaos as passionate individuals pursue disparate goals without grounding in a common vision. As Pagans, our engaged experiences of nature provide just this needed grounding, building organically from the natural laws, energies, currents and forces of the earth as a living, spirit-filled organism and ecosystem. As people aware of our place in the natural world, we can discover and honor a shared but intrinsically local emergent order and structure to community life without reliance on externally-imposed rules or hierarchical rulers.

Even as there are leaders and role models in the Pagan community whose spiritual and political lives are guided by the theories of pacifism and anarchism, there are many critics who would argue that pacifism is, at its most basic, against our human nature, or who claim that anarchism is fundamentally opposed to peaceful, cooperative social existence. My own view of peace-making and free community, however, has been guided with every breath by an honest and reverent relationship with the natural world, one that does not rest easily with the naïve view of nature as safe, cute and cuddly, but pushes instead towards a more expansive understanding of the roles that destruction, death, power, passion, will and conflict might play — roles that do not degenerate into violence and oppression, but instead lead us human animals in the ceaseless process of becoming something beautiful.