May 312011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

May 032011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 202011

Drum’s Dilemma

Last week Kevin Drum at Mother Jones posed the following question:

Suppose that you lead a comfortable middle-class life. Let’s say that you’re in your 30s, married, two children, and you make $100,000 per year. I offer you a fair coin flip with the following possible outcomes:

  • Heads: You will be stripped of most of your assets and will earn $30,000 per year for the rest of your life. That’s all you get, and neither friends nor family can top it up for you.
  • Tails: You will earn $1 million per year for the rest of your life.

Would you take me up on my offer to flip the coin?

Most of his readers decided not to take the bet, reasoning that they’d rather be assured of their comfortable $100K lifestyle than take the chance of being dropped down to $30K. Even the possibility of earning a cool million a year wasn’t enough to make it worth that chance. In other words, the chance of losing $70K is enough to scare you away from a chance of gaining $900K.

This may seem irrational, but it’s not. What it shows is that people living at $100K have a lot more in common with the millionaires than they do with the people living at $30K. At $30K, you’re one disaster — one car accident, one layoff, one sickly child — away from poverty. At $30K, you’re precarious at best. But at $100K, you’re secure: your kids are going to college, you can take a couple of major vacations every year, and you can weather recessions and sickness without much trouble. In fact, your lifestyle isn’t that different from someone earning a million a year — at least, not in ways that matter. How many times a year can you really take helicopter rides to Aruba, anyway? And how many politicians can you buy before you’ve got the complete set, and they start cluttering up the living room and drinking all your cheap champagne?

In other words, the less money you have, the more each dollar is worth. And that means that it really takes a very small amount of money to raise people out of poverty and give them a comfortable living.

This is what countries like Brazil are finding with a new kind of poverty program in which the people are essentially paid cash incentives to stay in school, attend family and vocational guidance courses, and so on. The incentives are not large — $20 or $30 a month in most cases, depending on how many children they have. (Of course Brazil’s cost of living is, on average, about half that of the US, but a similar experimental program in New York City pays only about $6000 per family a year.) It’s not much money at all, but for these folks it goes a long, long way, and it can make all the difference. In the years Brazil has been operating the program, poverty has dropped like a stone, from 22% to 7% in less than a decade.

Programs like these rub some people the wrong way. Many of the middle-class in Brazil, for example, are opposed to it, saying that it is basically a free handout, rewarding people for doing simple things that they ought to be doing anyway. It’s unfair, they say, to all those who fought their way out of poverty without any help. It’s paid for by taxing people who’ve worked hard for their money.

Perhaps so; but the program works, and it works cheaply. And, in the final analysis, it works by establishing a little bit of mutual vulnerability. Here’s why: a man at the bottom of poverty’s well, living in a hut at the edge of São Paulo, is a threat to no one, but is infinitely vulnerable to the whims of the rich. But when he climbs out of that well, gets an education, gets a job, suddenly his employers are depending on him to get work done for them. They have become vulnerable to him, just a little. And by doing so they’ve brought him into the web of profound interconnection and mutual vulnerability that we call the global economy.

The Wars that Weren’t

A little vulnerability goes a long way in war, too.

The greatest war ever avoided, WWIII, was almost started many times. For example, Churchill asked his military advisors to draw up plans (called “Operation Unthinkable”) for an invasion of the Soviet Union almost immediately after Germany was defeated. He was concerned that the US would be distracted by Japan, leaving Europe almost undefended should Stalin decide to push further west. The only way England could win such a war would be to strike first, by surprise. But he decided to take a chance on peace. Later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when American and Soviet warships were playing chicken in Caribbean waters, a Russian nuclear submarine, surrounded by American warships and running out of air, decided to violate orders and surface peacefully, rather than attack.

For a long time, the United States and the Soviet Union pursued policies of mutually assured destruction, meaning that they strove to maintain so much thermonuclear might that, if one attacked the other, the destruction of both was mutually assured. What ended the stalemate, though, was the mutual esteem of Reagan and Gorbachev: Reagan trusted Gorbachev enough to sign far-reaching arms reduction treaties with him, and Gorbachev trusted Reagan enough to relax the militant control of the Communist Party and experiment with openness and restructuring (glasnost and perestroika). Today, though Russia is no longer imperialist or communist, and the United States is rapidly losing world prestige and economic solvency, both nations have continued to build on that trust, and are on the verge of signing another arms reduction treaty. Mutual assured destruction has been replaced by mutual assured vulnerability.

Human history is actually full of avoided wars, but they usually aren’t very exciting, and rarely make the history books. Who remembers that John Adams, at the last minute, decided to reopen negotiations with France over the kidnapping of American seamen? He avoided war, which lead almost certainly to his loss in the election of 1800. And who remembers the war between the US and Britain in 1850′s that did not happen because an English vessel, frozen at sea and abandoned by her crew, was found later by the Americans, refurbished, and presented as a gesture of goodwill to Queen Victoria? Its timber was used to create the desk in the Oval Office. A small gesture of vulnerability, of common humanity, is often all it takes.

A Future of Vulnerability and Strength

And things continue to improve. The good news is that the world has made huge strides against violence and poverty in the last couple of decades, defying just about everyone’s expectations.

Poverty has been decreasing because of economic globalization. While there are many deep problems with capitalism, it’s much better than any other large-scale economic system that has been tried, and we are starting to see the benefits of that. In any free market exchange of goods, both sides gain; and while, for the most part, the rich western nations continue to benefit more in dollar terms from each transaction (because they are in a better bargaining position), the third-world nations benefit more in relative quality of life, because, as we have seen, a few dollars goes a very long way. When you buy an iPhone, you get an iPhone, which is a good thing; but the Foxconn employees of China, who make the phone, get a secure job and a much higher standard of living, which is proportionally a much bigger gain. This is not in any way a perfect system, a fair system, or a sustainable system (as the dozen suicides at Foxconn last year amply showed); but for now, despite its problems, it’s what’s reducing poverty rates around the world.

It’s also contributed to the fall in violence. Increasing economic interdependence means that war becomes riskier and costlier. Other things have helped as well: the end of colonialism and the Cold War, the increase in the number of democratic states, changing cultural attitudes, and the efforts of the UN have all reduced the incidence of war dramatically. Again, we have a long way to go here, and many countries and societies remain far too bellicose. And there are countervailing tendencies: as the example of the Congo shows, the same free market capitalism that makes war increasingly expensive can also incite corporations to try and influence international politics, stirring up violence and strife to control valuable markets. But there is still great reason to hope.

What’s driving all these improvements is the gradual increase in mutual vulnerability. Instead of fighting, we stand back to back. Instead of taking what we want by force, we make a trade. And sometimes, instead of trading, we simply give. Every time we choose to take a chance on vulnerability, when we invite the stranger into our home, we make it easier for them to trust us, and be vulnerable in return. And when we are vulnerable to each other, we can let our guards down, learn from each other, and strengthen each other. We draw each other, one by one, into the great human tribe.

Jan 182011

The Deadly Oath

The ancient Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, “The Death of Aífe’s Only Son,” tells how the great warrior Cú Chulainn killed his son, Connla. Cú Chulainn had been training for battle in a distant land with the warrior princess Aífe, and the two became lovers. But not long after Aífe became pregnant, Cú Chulainn had to return home. “Send him to me when he is grown,” he told Aífe. “But make sure he grows to be a mighty warrior. Let him never turn back from a journey, once begun. Let him never refuse a challenge to combat. And let him tell no one his name.”

When Connla grew old enough, Aífe swore him to the oaths as his father had asked, and sent him to Ireland. Connla met many troubles on his travels, but defeated many enemies, for he never turned back, never refused a challenge, and never revealed his name. At last he came to Ireland and the home of Cú Chulainn in Ulster, but did not realize it. He was challenged, of course, and asked his name, but he did not back down and refused to identify himself; so he found himself in battle against the men of the household.

Connla was a mighty warrior, and he defeated many of Ulster’s best; so to defend the honor of Ulster, Cú Chulainn himself met the boy in combat. Though Connla recognized his father during the fight, he still could not break his oaths; and he could not defeat Cú Chulainn, who was the greatest warrior of Irish legend. At last, when Connla was defeated and lay dying, he told Cú Chulainn his name. Cú Chulainn, grieving, took the boy in his arms, and said, “Here is my son for you, men of Ulster!”

Without knowing it, Cú Chulainn made his son’s death inevitable with the oath he asked Aífe to swear him to. An oath such as that — which forces you to never give up, never back down, and never establish friendship or trust — is a recipe for death. Either you will hide away in a cave and starve, or you will go out and fight until you find someone who can defeat you. Your fate will be poverty or violence. This, I think, is one of the main lessons of this ancient story: the paradoxical fact that, in many situations, strength and prosperity arise from a certain amount of vulnerability.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The famous modern fable of the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates the situation well. From wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

It seems clear that the only sane course of action is defection. If you defect, the best outcome is freedom, and the worst is 5 years; if you cooperate, the best outcome is 6 months, and the worst is 10 years. Since you can’t communicate with the other prisoner, there is no reason to assume that he will remain silent. Like Connla, you can’t run away or back down, and you can’t establish relationship or trust with the other prisoner. You have to defect.

It should be clear, however, that the situation changes drastically if the prisoners can communicate with each other, and work out a deal to coordinate their responses. The situation changes even more if these prisoners have a previous working relationship, have established some trust between them, and have reason to think that they won’t betray each other.

What Tribes Are For

This basic dilemma is the underpinning of the human notion of the tribe. Among most tribes, exchange of wealth is not handled with money, but through acts of mutual charity, based on an expectation of trust. A brother gives a gift to a sister not because she’s paid him, but because they know each other, trust each other, and love each other. Between tribes, however, exchange of goods is usually handled with barter or money. After all, you can’t necessarily trust those foreigners to be as nice as you are; you can’t just give them gifts without any strings attached. That would make you too vulnerable.

Despite this, many ancient tribes had a strong tradition of hospitality. Being hospitable, in the simplest case, just meant taking a stranger — someone not of your tribe — into your home, and offering them food and shelter for at least one night. The wisdom of this is easy to see from the Prisoner’s Dilemma: start with trust. Offer vulnerability first. If the stranger betrays your trust, you could get seriously hurt. But the potential benefits of a new relationship — of finding a new member of your “tribe” — are so great that it’s worth the risk.

As people have become more populous and resources become more scarce, it has become more important and valuable to start breaking down the us-vs.-them distinction. The tribes of upper New York, for example, set aside their differences for mutual protection, and created a new, larger “us” called the Haudenosaunee. The member tribes were made more vulnerable to each other, since an attack on one was an attack on all; and it would have been easy for one tribe to betray the others and gain a quick victory by surprise. But in exchange for this mutual vulnerability, as long as they held their trust, they gained mutual protection. Another example: around the same time, the landowners and barons of England, dissatisfied with the rule of King John, forced him to sign a charter that explicitly limited his power (they would have preferred him to be replaced with a king under their own control, but no suitable heir was available). The Magna Carta established in writing that the king needed the barons, and the barons needed the king, and turned their mutual vulnerability to mutual advantage. These examples inspired many others, such as the US Constitution, the United Nations and the European Union.

Today the world is far more interconnected than ever before, and with profound interconnection comes profound vulnerability. We are vulnerable not only to physical attack, but to economic hardship. Great Britain could decide to turn their nuclear weapons on the US tomorrow. Canada could decide to stop trading with the US, which would cost us $600 billion (the cost of the Iraq War) in one year. But they won’t, because they are just as vulnerable to us. We could end our partnerships, and shore up our defenses and economic self-sufficiency, but then we would be even weaker and poorer. Again, we are strong because of our mutual vulnerability.

But usually people don’t think in these terms. We tend to imagine that defeating enemies means making them weaker and us stronger, instead of focusing on changing enemies into friends. And when we think of helping the poor, we often imagine giving up something of our own for someone we don’t know, instead of imagining the mutual benefits that come from creating a new relationship. Thus these habits of thought — these instincts that make us distrust strangers, divide the world into us-vs.-them, and reject mutual vulnerability — give rise to two of the world’s biggest problems: war and poverty.

But it’s hard to give up security, real or imagined, for a chance of mutual gain. Just how much vulnerability is required to turn poverty and violence around? Surprisingly, it turns out, not much. Just a tiny bit will be enough to start things going. In the next post I’ll show why that is.

Nov 132010

I am, frankly, nearly fed up with daily-politics-as-usual at the moment — and as a result, I’ve been finding it hard to come up with things to share here at Pagan+Politics, happy to let some of our awesome new writers take the reins for a while. I do have several philosophically-bent essays “in the works,” as it were, but I thought it might be a refreshing change of pace to share some creative writing with you good folks.

After all, poetry and aesthetics have played a very important role in the evolution of my personal philosophy of peacemaking. Back in 2003, before it was cool to point out the distinct lack of evidence for WMDs and the possibility that the government was lying to us about just how much of a threat Saddam could realistically pose, I felt like the only person in the world who thought this mad rush into preemptive war might just be something we’d come to regret. (I remind my father that if he ever catches me being wrong about the long-term consequences of US foreign policy, I promise to treat him to dinner. Poor guy…) But then there was the Poets Against War project, organized by Sam Hamill. Sure, plenty of the more than 200,000 poems collected from people all over the country were emotional tirades or sentimental appeals to flower-child naivety. But it was good to know people were out there, giving expression to their grief, rage and fear in forms that aspired to beauty, balance and communication.

As a Pagan, I’ve always loved the idea put forward by Ross Nichols that,”Ritual is poetry in the realm of acts.” In many ways, poetry is ritual on the page, quieted down and condensed into language humming with power, held within the stillness, the empty spaces between stanzas. Poetry is about making those leaps of connection and juxtaposition, and discovering the possibility of relationship within a world full-to-bursting of particulars, contrast and conflict. Poetry is about learning how to work that conflict into something beautiful and meaningful, holding contradictions in tension in ways that resist the all too easy collapse into chaos and confusion. It is no coincidence that the Irish deity Brighid is both a goddess of poets, and a patron of healing, protection and social justice. The peacemaker learns to trust her poetic side, learns to trust those leaps of intuition and insight that seek out relationship and beauty in the most unlikely places, and above all believes that such relationships are possible.

Peace is not always something you can prove with carefully constructed logical arguments. Sometimes, logical argument takes too long and provides too many opportunities for people to ignore the careful step-by-step process of building an alternative worldview. (My writings here have sometimes fallen to this very criticism, readers quibbling with a single sentence decontextualized from the flow of prose.) When Europe was first swept up in the dazzling machinery and technology of the early Industrial Revolution, it was the Romantic poets who first began to articulate the nagging sense of loss and disconnection from the natural world, providing a new context for dissent when logic and reason seemed to rule the day.

In his fascinating text The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes, “The work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It is a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective.” To write a poem is just such an act. Poetry is a medium uniquely suited to breaking open our usual frames of reference and subversively undermining our ability to fit experience into predetermined categories and ideologies. Like ritual, it creates and defines its own sacred space — and within that space, magic has room to happen.

In Praise of Blood

All our lintels are gory
with its security, and here
I am with that thudding
little secret in me, the politics
of knowing when to break
skin, and whose. Each
door I enter is blessed,
a momentary shrine
that this embodied blood keeps
moving, without scab
over unstained wood.
I call that dream mucus —
my brain, a thick pouch
sleeping. I roll under:
inside, a tower falls
over; a bureau tears
through a papery ceiling;
everyone is related.


Half-Glass Full*
Sure, I’m an optimist. Sure.
I support the President. I stand-behind
this administration and its decisions, the preemptive incisions of an inaccurate knife
into foreign political bodies, the preventative leeches and blood-letting getting the best
of diseased oil veins and the fame of this or that evil man, today’s devil, starved of resources
and recourses to diplomacy — or better yet, hanged and dangling for the crows and gods to pick at. Sure.
I’m an optimist.
I give this administration the credit
-or-debit they’re due, the smooth intoxication of the process, the noxious self-flagellation of a people
at the steeple of competing religio-corporate denominations, by which I mean monetary domination,
by which I mean natural free-market selection, that kind of election,
and the pervasive protection of this, our way of life,
our insecurity, our cure to most economic hiccups, the pick-up games of novelty and indulgence
tapped into, tapped out
and the day’s hard night just the soft flickering flakes of blue light
in the ad campaigns and local ten o’clock news. Sure.
Sure, I’m an optimist.
I believe in saviors. I put my faith
in the one-man stands against any regression, against carcinogenic confessions of disappointment
or doubt, against the mounting unease of contextual drought,
against the sluggish-fire liars spouting simplicity
and discipline and the keys to a heaven I’m already in,
against the slight aggravation of anti-acronymic-mutation, the double-you
dot double-you dot jay dot dee, like a legitimate question, a half-formed suggestion
not just what would he do but if it were me
I’m an optimist, sure, without comfort or coddle —
just a short, hard glass and a big fucking bottle.


Through Eyes of Peace

Wriggling pale and fleshy things, so ugly
and alone in the bowels of the world, chanting
our war chants and brandishing our weapons.
I see what we are. Alone in the dark,
going into death, and you think I say this
out of love? Because I am sentimental
and foolish? Because I have never known anger,
or righteousness, or hate, because I am
soft and pulpy and full of light? No.
I see what we are, confused and hairless and half-formed
animals. I see our weapons, how they are so utterly
smooth and hard and full of grace, the slip
of steel against steel like the singing of a harp,
the trembling power of the long, slow missile
falling to the earth and how wide and small the world is
from such a height. And you think you are free
because it intoxicates you, this escape
from the truth of being human, weak and without
even the teeth for raw flesh, without the stomach
for it — but how large our eyes
have become, living in this dark, and what horrors
we can see in the turning of shadow on the rocks.
So we build our cages of one another’s bones.
We brandish our weapons, swinging them high
in rhythm with this song of blood and righteous fantasy
and glory in how we are lifted, by the rising tide of war,
beyond ourselves, beyond our gross and little lives,
beyond the reek of old age and insufficiency,
beyond even our fear of death itself
into a place of ringing beauty and perfect form
where we might finally talk of justice without wincing.
And you think you are free.
But you have made only another fortress of rot
and gore, another impotent barricade
that the maggots will unmake, and the rain will wash away.
You cannot slip away so easily from the burden
of being alive, mired in the squirming pool
of living things. That is not our freedom. It is a lie.
I see what we are. I will not be cloistered away
in these chambers of anxiety and war, cramped and festering
for fear of what lurks waiting in the world.
No, I would be clean, and at peace
with the ugliness of lonely death and longing, choosing
instead the intimate beauty of what I am,
wild-eyed animal shivering in the void and wind,
until I too am eaten, with gentle savagery,
by the world I’ve come to love.


We Will Not Make Peace

And I died there
on the hill
beneath the apple tree.
At least once.

It is amazing
the perspective death
brings with it,
and how vital

it suddenly becomes
to speak uncomfortable
words, spat like seeds
onto the ground

slick and wet and hard
and ready to break
open, as if it were simply
impossible to swallow

such truth any longer.
Or maybe, somewhere
in your tightening throat,
that word once lodged deep

peace, like a stone —
that you could not dislodge
and that choked you, brought you
here, to this place.

I am like a creature
who cannot help but marvel
at my own body
lying cold and still

beneath the apple tree;
what was past has become
someone else, and you
are always in the process

of choking and dying,
while I am being born
under a wide sky
large enough for orchards.


>* Does anyone remember, back in early 2007, when Bush said he was a “half-glass full” kind of optimist? No? Well, anyway, he did. And the irony pissed me off.

Jul 052010

National holidays like the Fourth of July always leave me feeling a little bit uncomfortable, like being the only single friend tagging along on Married Couples’ Night Out, or being invited to goggle and goo-goo at the pink, squishy newborn whom everyone else thinks is just the cutest thing to blink but has just spit up down the front of my shirt. Yes, I suppose, setting everything else aside, I can accept and even respect those folks who speak of love of country as something deeper, or higher, than blind support for everything the government does. But I have to be honest — I don’t get it.

My Nation-State, ‘Tis of Thee?

I am not sure, for instance, what a country actually is. The nation-state as a political entity has largely been defined as that peculiar hybrid of state and nation, of sovereign territorial unit and cultural/ethnic group. When we speak of the “state,” we mean the government and its military, exercising control over a given region, enforcing its borders and regulating the activities within them. On the other hand, appeals to the “nation” evoke the idea of a shared culture and heritage, a common tradition made up of familiar historical icons and social symbols. The nation-state, in today’s political language, is that entity that exists where state and nation happen to coincide in the same geographic location.

The concept of the nation-state can become problematic, however. Take Israel. (Please.) With aspirations to create a thriving nation-state, a Jewish democracy in the heart of the Middle East, the Israeli government has resorted to methods of oppression and occupation against the native population, Palestinians who had already been living in the region for generations when the State of Israel was first established (sixty-two years and two months ago, as of next week). Jews of the Diaspora, immigrating primarily from Europe and the former Soviet Union, hardly share a sense of cultural or ethnic continuity with the native Arab population, and this presents a major obstacle to “nation-state”-hood. The Israeli government’s solution, in an effort towards security as a sovereign power and solidarity with the West in its cultural self-identity, is to push out or exterminate those unwilling or unable to participate in their pre-determinedly “Jewish” democracy.

This story should sound familiar, for it parallels our own. The birth of our “nation” as a cultural/ethnic entity did not so much occur with the war for independence from Great Britain, which established the sovereignty of the United States as a geopolitical unit with its own government and military (i.e. the birth of our “state”) but did not signal any great rift of cultural identity. Rather, it had already begun years before with the gradual colonial occupation of the “new world” and the extermination of its indigenous peoples, the Native Americans. Indeed, this process of birthing a national identity was so gradual that in many ways it did not reach its full completion until almost a century later, after the Civil War and its aftermath firmly established the federal government as preeminent political body of a united politico-cultural unit. (Indeed, this linguistic analysis of plural versus singular usage of the term “United States” notes that it was not until 1902 that a House of Representatives committee ruled that “the United States” should be treated as singular rather than plural — in other words, our self-identity as a singular nation was formally recognized and established by the national government only a decade or so before the start of the first World War.)

The Settlers’ State — Mother of Exiles

The irony of this generations-long establishment of our sense of “nationhood” to compliment our formal political “statehood” is that, at the same time, ideals such as freedom and diversity were also slowly expanding — often painfully and against the explicit efforts of the government — resulting in an increasingly pluralistic society. The famous sonnet displayed within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty — with its lines, “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — could reasonably be understood as a call of welcome primarily to the poor and wretched of Europe, then suffering under the economic and environmental pressures of the industrial revolution. (Oddly, the alternative title for Lady Liberty provided by the sonnet, “Mother of Exiles,” never caught on.) Only in recent decades has this call come to be appreciated as far broader in its implications and meaning, embracing those of Asian, African and Latin-American ethnicities as well (while many still retain an ambivalent attitude towards people of Arabian or Middle Eastern descent). Yet with the widening embrace of diversity comes the increasing tension between ethnic-cultural integrity, on the one hand, and assimilation into a shared sense of American identity, on the other. In other words, as the real and actual diversity of the United States continues to deepen, and if it is to remain authentic, the sense of the U.S. as a “nation-state” — a geopolitical unit that rests on a shared cultural foundation — finds itself on increasingly shaky ground.

Now this suggestion — that the United States as a singular nation is in a culturally unstable place — might sound quite radical, but in many ways it has echoes in conversations throughout the Pagan community. Not a few folks challenge the notion that “Paganism” can be fairly described as a singular movement or community at all, but may better be understood as a loose collection or network of archetypal types of religions, plural. In this particular debate I come down, albeit in laissez-faire fashion, in favor of using the word “Paganism” broadly and inclusively, primarily because I see at the heart of “Pagan identity” the invocation of (as I put it in a recent post): “the contemporary Western (counter)cultural (new religious) movement(s) centered on or drawing inspiration from an archetypal conception of ancient (and/or pre-Christian) native(/cultic/indigenous) Indo-European religious tradition(s).” But this only forces us to ask what is the archetype at the heart of “American identity” around which the concept of the U.S. as a nation-state coheres?

This American identity, as we most often see it portrayed and invoked today, can be characterized most strongly by the small-town/suburban, post-war-prosperity atmosphere of the 1950s — that decade when American wealth and power went unchallenged in the wake of World War Two’s devastation in Europe, and many U.S. citizens enjoyed both a sense of national-identity solidified by world war, and the prosperity and economic freedom that an expanding global, capitalist free market could bring. This decade saw the diversity of European nations united in the citizenry of the United States, integrated into a powerful community with a unique self-identity; no longer a community of exiles making a break from old European ways, but now seen as the culmination and pinnacle of Western civilization, inheriting and surpassing the legacy of Great Britain and, before it, ancient Rome. The decade also saw the blossoming of the consumerist cultural model, conceived by economists of the time as necessary for securing continued prosperity, a model that largely defines our understanding of “liberty” today (with its diversity of products suited to myriad demographics and subcultures, and the freedom provided by purchasing power).

Of course, this national self-identity, this “American Dream,” was in some ways always and only an illusion, an imagined archetype which politicians and other political leaders would recall with nostalgia, or invoke with gusto, as the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements and the Cold War against communism in the following decades once again challenged the notion of shared American identity or nationhood, especially for those belonging to unpopular political groups, racial minorities, or the female half of the species. Even today, there are folks within the U.S. who spout xenophobic rhetoric in defense of this dream of idyllic national integrity and pride, and would see not a beacon of welcoming freedom but a wall of concrete and barbed wire along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Canada — we cool….. for now.) These same people, who often speak the loudest in praise of American identity and national pride, would re-imagine the “state” itself as rooted in a Christian ethos. Though established firmly as a secular state, they are not far wrong in declaring the U.S. to be a “Christian nation,” insofar as the shared cultural foundation has until only recently been generally taken for granted as primarily Christian in tradition and heritage. Certainly, this shared culture can change and, some argue, is in the process of changing. But such change will fundamentally alter what we mean by the “nation-state” of the United States of America.

How Do I Love Thee? …No, Seriously, How?

Which brings me back to this question — what exactly is a country? Is it the government and political institutions of the sovereign state? The shared cultural heritage that serves as a foundation for the nation? Is it this precarious overlap, the nation-state, which saw its culmination post-WWII and is now, arguably and perhaps thankfully, in slow decline and/or gradual redefinition?

Depending on how we answer this question, the meaning of the phrase “love of country” could change drastically. Yet it seems to me there is an intentional ambiguity, even obfuscation, in how this word is used. People who talk about “loving their country” often freely mix references to government (praising liberal democracy, when it’s functioning well, anyway), historical legends, capitalist economics, cultural figures raised to semi-deified status, military triumphs, citizens’ revolts, individual rights, the beauty and fecundity of the landscape, and the people and places of their local communities. Rarely do they make coherent sense of this jumble of images and ideas, playing instead on the emotions and sentimental heart-swellings these symbols provoke. We are meant to feel pride, and gratitude, and love…. but for what precisely is left ill-defined.

With good reason. Because when it comes right down to it, “country” is an abstract, whether we identify it with the nation, the state, or a confluence of the two. Without the generous peppering of beautiful landscape imagery — amber waves of grain, purple mountains, shining seas — and the recalled faces of neighbors and loved ones who embody that sense of “community” for us in immediate and personal ways, there is very little there to grasp onto and pin the sentiment of national pride and love. (It is likewise difficult to maintain a pride-filled love of one’s government — or worship its historical and current political leaders as demi-gods — while maintaining the kind of distanced, dispassionate analytical mind necessary to engage rationally and critically with its processes and policies. Sentiment or reason, when brought head-to-head one or the other is bound to falter. Which is why it worries me a little that so many Pagans have picked up the trope this year of celebrating Columbia, named for Christopher Columbus, as a goddess of liberty.)

Holidays such as the Fourth of July serve as a kind of secular ritual for a civil religion, in which the visceral and embodied celebrations of the day — the parades, barbecues and fireworks, all couched in terms of broader politico-symbolic significance — serve to link the abstracts of “country” and “nation” to real, concrete experiences and memories. Without such national holidays, we might discover that it is not our “country” at all that we love, but the countryside itself, the land that gives us sustenance, the neighbors who warm our hearts, the ideals of justice and freedom that we see embodied quite powerfully in each other and ourselves without the need for the PATRIOT Act or the War on Terror to defend them. By participating enthusiastically in such ritualistic, state-sponsored holy days, we allow our experiences and memories of what is real and present to be usurped in the service of abstractions that can then be manipulated and played upon by those with their own agendas. We identify with the transcendent abstract, and our lip-service to diversity and difference is all too often lost in the rising tide of images, symbols and ritual acts all designed to evoke a very particular conception of national identity, one that recreates the idealized 1950s small-town feel and, even further back, the heroism and war of the Revolution itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good party. I will gladly hang out around the barbecue grill (veggie dogs and shish kabob, of course) or dance around the yard with sparklers and the fireflies on a warm summer night. I will happily come to dinner with you and your wife, or coo over your baby when it’s not being kind of gross. But don’t harbor any hopes of me playing along with some abstract ideal of Married Life or congratulate you on how your fertile lions have “really demonstrated the value of teamwork.” And don’t expect me to credit “my country” for the gorgeous scent of clover on the evening breeze or the belly-laughs shared with good friends over a beer. Because when it comes to stuff like that…. I just don’t get it.

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 »

Feb 252010

In a shameless ploy for sympathy, I’ll warn you that I’m writing this blog entry while under the effects of delicious, delicious Darvocet.   Since my surgery on Tuesday, I’ve been eating it like it was Pez.

Recently I read an article about how the USA may be past the point where we can pay off the national debt.  Not exactly cheerful reading, but I don’t think we need things to cheer us up right now. I think we need to take a serious look at how we approach finances, debt, and budgeting – both personally and nationally.

There is a strong ethic in Hellenismos that warns people against racking up debt or spending money recklessly. In ancient times, a main priority was to guard the financial well being of your oikos. The Delphic Maxims told people to Govern Your Expenses/Don’t Fall Into Debt, Guard What Is Yours, Work For What You Can Own. The reason for this was pretty straight forward – a household in debt could be a threat to the entire well-being of the community. The onus was placed on the household to be financially stable and that in turn, created a stable society.

If you want to think of a modern analogy, think of the safety briefing you get at the beginning of each flight. The Flight Attendant tells you to first put your mask on yourself before you assist someone else.

A family who had squandered away their money or had fallen into debt would be unable to make offerings or provide sacrifices to the Gods for the well being of their family and the community. They could not Help Your Friends or Give What You Have, two more Maxims that direct a person to help friends and supplicants.  A friend in need was never to be refused aid. Likewise a supplicant was not only never to be turned away, but was to be treated with respect while you helped them. These were sacred concepts – ikesia, xenia, and philoxenia.  To refuse to fulfill these requests would be to go against Divine Law and led to amertia (error) and miasma (pollution) for the one who receives and then ignores the petition. That, in turn, could lead to some level of unpleasantness as Nemesis worked to correct the natural order. A financially unstable household, unable to perform its civic, moral, and religious duties, put the entire community at risk.

Right now we are all paying a price for how we have approached finances. I do believe that Nemesis is at work, trying to bring back equilibrium. On an individual and national level we spend far  more than we earn, we spend foolishly, we rush to incur debt. It appears, on an individual level, because of the painful times we are going through we are changing our behavior towards money.  I wish that were true on a national level.

Since coming to Hellenismos I had been changing my views on debt to be more in line with the Delphic Maxims. The recent recession has only firmed my belief that perhaps these guys from long ago knew a thing or two. My husband and I have been working to decrease our debt while still making a good income. A firm financial base will allow us to perform our civic and (my) religious duties. My most fervent goal is to help Hellenion build a public Temple.

This is not a screed against welfare or against any specific government funding programs.  I do think we have placed, and continue to place, our country at risk by spending too much, too foolishly.  I believe the first place to cut back is in the area of our foreign expenditures – this includes the current wars we are fighting.  Nor am I making value judgments on those persons who are struggling to just survive right now. It is merely my wandering mind thinking about how my religion has affected my views on finances and idle wishing that we could all look at and manage debt a bit differently. Especially our elected officials.

My questions for all of you: does religion affect your views on money/finances/debt/budgeting?  How do you feel about the national debt?