Free Against Hope

Lately, I’ve recalled a conversation a friend of mine had with me several years ago, back in Texas. He wondered why I even bothered studying Marxism – “do you really think,” he inquired, “that there will ever actually be a revolution in America? I’d call that a pipe dream.

Looking over a few of my personal political heroes, I’ve weighed his question. After all, their experiences seem to share one particular theme. See if you can spot it:

Each movement created ideas and techniques full of potency and beauty. Each one generated plenty of experiments and concepts from which today’s radicals could learn much. And each one failed, liquidated by hostile forces, their goals still unrealized decades later. Historically speaking, even the cleverest and most effective revolutionary movements stand an overwhelming chance of destruction, not success. Sure, it’s prudent and useful to keep hold of some revolutionary optimism. And unlike my friend, I do believe that there can, eventually, be a successful fundamental restructuring of politics, economy, and society. However, it stays true radicals in the West, by and large, end their lives frustrated or worse. Further, those who do make it to power often find (as did Prime Minister Tsipras and President Mitterand) that winning the political game doesn’t always mean you get to change the rules.

So, one might ask, what’s the point? Is Leftism merely quixotic, just defiance for its own sake? Why should we do what we do?


 

 

 

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Thetis and Achilles Before the Oracle, tapestry, Jacob Jordaens and Jon Raes, ca. 1625. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 68.23.

Why did Achilles fight at Troy?

After all, he didn’t expect to capture the city. He knew, thanks to the Pythia’s prophecy, that signing up for that war meant that he’d die in the field before Troy fell. Obviously, that meant he didn’t fight for personal material gain either; what good does a casualty get from plunder? And, of course, he wasn’t trying to contribute to the maintenance of his family or kingdom. If he wanted that, he would have chosen the long and unremarkable life the oracle offered. Few families celebrate a member’s death in combat overseas, or their committing to join a campaign that (according to a respected diviner) was guaranteed to last nearly a decade.

Did he fight for honor, glory, and fame? Sure – but that only bumps the question back one degree, like the monotheistic child who asks “if God made the world, who made God?” Why did Achilles find honor, glory, and fame worth more than his life? What made them so profound that Achilles not only relinquished his chance at survival, but also let go hope of participating in an Achaian victory?

Let’s begin from the problem of Achilles’ motivations and find out what, if any, ethical framework we can extrapolate. Ethics, after all, only means figuring out what to do and why. And, we’ll see, the implicit ethics that Achilles exemplifies also turns out to be quite relevant when revolutionary work faces likely failure.

Traditionally, formal ethics contains three main camps: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Roughly, each category proposes a different primary criterion for rightness and wrongness. For consequentialists, the likely results of an act – the consequences – determine its morality. Deontological ethicists, however, say that what counts is the act itself: regardless of consequences, some actions are inherently right and others are intrinsically wrong. Finally, virtue ethicists prioritize the character of the person involved. According to them, ethics means making yourself into someone who exemplifies goodness.

In general, the Left embraces consequentialism. Marxists, anarchists, and reformist socialists all tend to agree that the currently-existing government and economy cause quite a bit of harm. Marxists and reformists also usually believe that they need to respond by engaging with government. Reformists say running for office works best, while Marxists disagree and typically support outright replacing the existing state instead. Anarchists mostly reject working with any state at all, but generally do concede that some degree of social disruption (either violent insurrection or mass nonviolent resistance) will be necessary for any future solution. Few anarchists consider either inflicting or risking violence to be intrinsically morally good, any more than Marxists and reformists consider the existence of governments in general to be. But, in the end, all understand that bringing about needed change to reduce harm doesn’t mean causing literally zero harm in the process. It means selecting the option that offers the least extra harm and the most potential benefit. Even though these different segments of the Left frequently dispute which path, exactly, fits that description, they still typically share a basic moral landscape.

Admittedly, one can also find deontological and virtue ethical undercurrents. In particular, proponents of nonviolence often argue that killing is intrinsically wrong and should not be accepted as a revolutionary tactic. (Typically, they express more comfort with property damage, maintaining the distinction between things and people). Additionally, certain branches of Marxism-Leninism place great weight on the habits of character their adherents cultivate. Nevertheless, in the end, even revolutionary pacifists generally end up framing their position in consequentialist terms: “nonviolence works better,”not “killing is always wrong.” Similarly, even the more character-focused communists ultimately concur that their ethics are only virtue-based inasmuch as they provide helpful rules of thumb in the pursuit of larger, consequentialist goals.

Achilles does, of course, accept the defined goal of the Achaian campaign. He and his comrades fight the Trojans because without conquering Troy, they can’t punish Paris and make Helen come back to Menelaus. But is Achilles expressing a consequentialist’s reasoning that he ought to do whatever will most likely accomplish his stated aim with the least trouble?


 

 

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Dispute Between Achilles and Agamemnon, etching from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1710.

The philosopher who established Marxist Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, affirmed that the relationship each of us has with the world and everyone else rests, in the end, on choice. Whatever external circumstances exist, the way a person responds to them is the way they choose to respond to them. (As Viktor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, observes, even when there’s no external freedom, no one can remove your control over your internal reactions and values.) In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre reveals that everyone’s orientation towards the world results from their choice to adopt a particular set of values. To deny this absolute existential freedom, he points out, is just self-deception. Whether we admit it or not, we are all already making those decisions. (Indeed, the idea that you don’t choose your own worldview is, in fact, an example of a worldview that you only believe if you choose it!)

Achilles fights on the field of Ilion, but when Agamemnon insults him and refuses to make amends, Achilles goes on strike. He knows that without him, the Achaians will flounder – in fact, he asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to persuade Zeus to make sure of it! Now, in each case – deciding to fight, and deciding to withdraw – does Achilles live out the same values?

As Sartre observes, we don’t get to pick either the circumstances of our births or the psychological tendencies in our brains. However, we do decide how to react to our circumstances, and whether or not we go along with our mental predisposition. In the end, everyone carries absolute responsibility for the kind of person they elect to become. “Existence,” he writes, “precedes essence.” You aren’t born with an essence, a basic nature. You’re born simply existing, carrying the existential reality of your freedom. Your only “essence,” you create through each choice you make.

(Sartre was an atheist, and characterized his intention as “to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position.” However, even those of us who aren’t atheopagans – for instance, I’m a devotional polytheist – needn’t find any inconsistency there. Accepting many gods of limited scope no more resembles the monotheist theology of omnipotence that Sartre rejects than does Sartre’s own worldview.)

Achilles has chosen to be a person who cultivates personal honor and heroism in combat. To be sure, he wants recognition, but that stays secondary. This is no Sir Robin, who cares so much about his reputation that he won’t go anywhere without poets to compliment him! For Achilles, in the deed, the glory. He doesn’t fight to win (because he knows he’ll die before the war ends). He doesn’t fight for the admiration of his peers (withdrawing from combat would win few popularity contests!). While he certainly cherishes other things too (for instance, his boyfriend Patroklos), honor and heroism always top his list of priorities. He makes his first two major choices – going to war and withdrawing to his ships – because they express the kind of person he chooses to be.

He disdains deontological concerns. If not for the personal slight from Agamemnon, withdrawal would have been cowardly. After the insult, it became honorable; neither fighting nor not fighting is intrinsically right. Further, he eschews consequentialism, except as a subordinate approach. He never renounces the stated Achaian goal of conquering Troy, and overall his actions during the near-decade of siege reflect his military commitment. But when he does withdraw, he goes out of his way to make sure it hurts his comrades: he enlists Zeus himself to ensure it!

In short, Achilles embraces his existential freedom by selecting his values. Then, he implements them in a kind of virtue ethics.


 

 

“[It] is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hour by hour resolve firmly to do what comes to hand with dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”

-Marcus Aurelius

I find hints of Existentialism perhaps the ancient Mediterranean’s most popular formulation of virtue ethics: Stoicism.

According to the Stoics, the trick to eudaimonia (“good spirits,” a state of contentment, well-being, and general flourishing and thriving) lies in human nature. They taught that the basic nature of humans involved the application of logos. This uniquely and universally human capacity lets us examine our lives and choices, understand them, and – most importantly – choose to live virtuously, free and content, “unmoved by blame or by praise.” To the person living in eudaimonia, only virtue matters, no matter what anyone else says or does. In the words of the former slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus:

“This is how I came to lose my lamp: the thief was better than I am in staying awake. But he acquired the lamp at a price: he became a thief for its sake, for its sake, he lost his ability to be trusted, for a lamp he became a brute. And he imagined he came out ahead!”

The greatest possible good consists of living in a way that properly expresses one’s nature as a human. But, contrary to modern understandings, “human nature” doesn’t automatically express itself, and it certainly isn’t shorthand for people’s inevitable shortcomings! Rather, as Epictetus proclaims, unvirtuous behavior makes one less authentically human. Human nature is available to everyone, but realized only by those who acknowledge that they are free to become whatever they choose to be (and then choose to be ethical). As Heathens say, whatever happens, we are our deeds.

Achilles tacitly accepts this assessment of his condition, although his understanding of “right values” differs quite a bit from the Stoics’ (or, for that matter, the communist Sartre’s). The oracle of Apollon presents him with foreknowledge of the outcomes of his two options. He selects the more painful one. The privations of war, absence from his home, and loss of longevity matter less to him than embodying the values he has decided to make his own. And, for someone who accepts their freedom and creates an “essence” out of their values, even bodily death can’t negate their virtue.

Like Achilles, we have moral and existential freedom. Like Achilles, we have to decide how to engage with a brutal war, the end of which we can’t expect to witness. How will we choose? What values will we embody?


 

 

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The Fight of Achilles Against Scamander and Simoeis, painting by Auguste Couder, 1825. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 15307.

I believe we should answer the Existentialist challenge by creating a revolutionary virtue ethics.

Gods or not, we are free. Whether or not we admit it, we all choose the values that we enact. As revolutionaries, we certainly ought not select the specific values of Achilles – his honor has too much toxic masculinity and too much of the absolute subordination of women to emulate, especially given the patriarchal dynamics of the activist scene. However, his existential courage should inspire us to live our own values of cooperation, community, and compassion alongside liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Of course, the current Leftist preoccupation with consequentialism does offer benefits we should retain. In particular, we ought to imagine our preferred endgame around “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and our activities require all the strategic and tactical thinking we can muster. Individually, none of us can expect to experience victory, but collectively, we must take risks and make decisions with that goal in mind.

However, that needs to remain secondary. Winning isn’t certain, and statistically, whatever movement does eventually make revolution in the West probably doesn’t exist yet. Nevertheless, we participate in the work because it reflects the values we’ve chosen – and to understand those values properly, we shouldn’t cling to the hope of emerging triumphant. Act rightly because our most authentic human nature demands that we choose to do so. Organize because the horrors that oppression and exploitation create mean that anything short of opposition makes us complicit.

Like Achilles, we find ourselves facing a nearly-indestructible enemy. Like Achilles, we can expect our lives to end before the siege does. Our Troys are white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and empire. Our war has lasted quite a bit longer than nine years, and will continue for many years yet. But, our existential reality is the same as his, and the same as the Stoics’, and the same as Jean-Paul Sartre’s.

Our only essence is the values we choose to express. Each of us is the kind of person that our choices create. Outcomes aside, that’s inescapably real.


 

 

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other.”

-Assata Shakur

Our duty is to make ourselves into the sort of people who fight for universal freedom, and the sort of people who pick their goals, consequentialistically, in order to win. But ensuring the highest possible chance of victory doesn’t mean expecting to experience it firsthand – let alone fighting because we want to individually see the future we envision.

Rather, let’s be revolutionaries because it is right. Let’s let our revolutionary virtue ethics proclaim that it is human nature manifested to “tremble with indignation at every injustice.” In the end, rightness doesn’t come from success (although anything short of wholehearted striving for success would surely compromise our rightness). Whether it ends in victory, tragedy, or anticlimax, virtue justifies itself.

Achilles knew this deeply enough to accept his death for the sake of it. Let’s make our choice, and embrace it too.

 

 


Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

Blood Cries Out From The Soil

(this is for the dead)

Fighter jets are flying overhead; their screeching rage punctuating the rumbling roar of heavy-tread machines behind me. Particles of dust and exhaust cling to sweat-drenched skin in the searing sun. Everything feels dry, desiccated, as if all the shadowed life of this place has been swept over by a sudden desert.

My attention’s drawn to something unexpected–four red strokes against white, crimson vivid as blood, pasted against a steel pole. It’s a glyph, a sigil, with a power steeped in terror.  I need to leave this place to find a friend, but my attention is held. Something hardens in me as I stare, a sorrow awakening in veins constricted by anger.

I cannot believe what I am seeing. I look around myself to see if others note it. Women wearing head-scarfs are gathered nearby, speaking to each other quietly next to buildings which soon, too, will become rubble to be hauled away. It’s unlikely they’ve seen this mark.

I scrape it off the pole. No one seems to note my actions, neither the uniformed man who watches the gathering of Arabs a hundred feet from this pole, nor all the others passing by. It peels off easily, and I slip it into a pocket to show others, just as another aerial machine-of-death makes a second pass over where I stand.

“Indian Country”

I’m standing on a street corner in Seattle, not the Middle-East.

There’s a naval celebration going on–those jets are The Blue Angels a military performance troupe. I’m not in the middle of a declared war-zone, but I am in the middle of an occupation. And the sticker? It was three K’s, placed on a light pole in the middle of a traditionally black neighborhood undergoing massive gentrification. The bulldozers behind me are tearing down old homes and shops to make room for high-priced condominiums.

This was not far from the house I’m staying at. My host has been a First Nations man who was adopted out as a child to a white family who actively worked to keep him disconnected from his indigenous past. Neither of us have ancestral connections to Seattle, though he’s got closer claims to actually being on this land than I.

Also, he’s gay, like I am. Seattle’s a remarkably “tolerant” place for sexual minorities who play the middle-class games.  It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed here so long, why I returned here after being gone for a year. I was elsewhere, searching for home, but this place called me back.

But by being here, I’m helping to displace the people who lived in this neighborhood before. In fact, this was one of the few places where blacks could live in Seattle due to redlining and other practices. I’ve met folks who still remember when it was called “coon town.”  They’re younger than you’d think.

White, mostly liberal folks, flooded this area after the recent housing-price collapse, buying up foreclosed homes. Many of those evicted were black. Many, from the stories I’d heard, had taken out equity loans on houses that their grandparents were born in and found the sudden inflation of rates meant they couldn’t pay it back. Real estate agents harassed the residents who hadn’t lost their homes; My neighbor and friend complained of still getting unsolicited offers from white realtors several times a week. The poor, mostly minorities were pushed out, and bourgeois entered.

Blacks were hauled over in slave ships to help white people make money in America. Immigrants were brought in to build the railroads and then vehemently oppressed when they were finished.  And all these groups helped displace the indigenous First Nations before them.

Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.
Collected Buffalo Skulls, 1870. The U.S. Government and private corporations encouraged the slaughter of Buffalo to starve First Nations peoples.

Did I just say displaced? I’m sorry. I meant slaughtered.

You used to be able to get money for “Indian” scalps. The U.S. government once encouraged people to shoot buffalo to help starve the First Nation resistance to westward expansion. Freed-slaves who joined the army were heavily involved in the Indian Wars and called Buffalo soldiers. And even today, “Indian Country” is U.S. Military slang for enemy territory.

But because of all that violence, the smallpox blankets and massacres and starvation, this open, tolerant, liberal city I live in has space for me. I’m “free” to practice my Pagan religion now, and the same military which killed natives now officially recognizes both my religion and my sexuality. This is all supposed to be “progress,” except I just saw a KKK sticker in a traditionally black, gentrifying neighborhood, and we’re all on stolen, conquered, and occupied land.

We Inhabit The Past

buffalo-4

What we know and believe that the past and our histories greatly determine how we encounter the present. Without knowledge of slavery, for instance, I might be inclined to see the poverty of minorities in America as some sort of problem inherent within their cultures or, worst of all, intrinsic to their very nature.  And if I am ignorant of that past, I might encounter all the anger, rage, and despair of minority communities as unwarranted, unjustified, and dangerous.

Most everyone, though, knows about slavery and has at least a vague understanding of the slaughter of First Nations people on this continent, so the matter is less what is actually known than what is actually believed about those things.

As I’ve mentioned before, belief affects human actions, not just human perceptions. Our accepted histories are not mere narrative. They rise to the category of belief precisely because they determine the way we encounter the present.

One of the most difficult problems in our histories is the notion of “progress;” the Enlightenment notion that we have moved beyond the past into a better present. This Progress Narrative is a way of divorcing and disconnecting our present from all the atrocities of the past while justifying our actions now. Once, Americans held slaves and treated minorities as less-than-human, but now, we are equal. Once, Americans slaughtered indigenous peoples on this land, but now we’ve passed to a more progressive, enlightened state.

It’s a narrative of the past, certainly, but it defines what we think of ourselves now. Post-Colonial, Marxist, and Anarchist scholars have variously noted how Western civilization creates a conception of itself which poses all other present and former societies as primitive, existing in a less (politically, economically, and socially) evolved state. That is, it “others” all societies besides itself, positions itself as the most-evolved form of society humanity has yet attained, and then sees all societies (including itself) through this filter.

A particularly pernicious effect of this, though, is that parts of our own society that do not fit this narrative become ignored, made invisible by the story we tell about ourselves. We see moments of crime against sexual, religious, and racial minorities as aberrations to the liberal, tolerant society in which we live, as if all the past is behind us and all the blood of scalped and starved natives, of tortured slaves, of murdered immigrants do not, even now, fertilize the ground upon which we plant our organic gardens. And when we look at our past, we disconnect those events from the present in which we live. The displacement of peoples, slavery, First Nations genocide–those happened then, but we live in now.

But history is full of processes, not just events and presences, which continue to haunt and continue to not just shape but inhabit our modern interactions with each other.

The post-colonial historian, Dipesh Chakrabarty, writing about European mode of disenchantment and secularism, noted:

what allows historians to historicize the medieval or the ancient is the very fact that these worlds are never completely lost. We inhabit their fragments even as we classify ourselves as modern or secular (Provincializing Europe, p112).

This has a terrifying consequence. Our notion of being different and removed from the atrocities of the past is utterly false, even more so when those atrocities are unacknowledged and unrepaired. White Americans do not currently own African slaves, but the conditions of slavery continue to affect the descendants of those slaves and the wealth derived from slavery continues to benefit the descendants of those owners and American society. The land taken from indigenous peoples through violence is where we all now live. We’re not just the inheritors of atrocity–we are also the beneficiaries and the continuation of them.

We can look at our present through this lens and start to understand much of our current political, racial, and economic crises and how we, willingly or more often inadvertently, continue the atrocities of the past into the present. The United States of America was birthed in colonization with the oppression of peoples. Is it any wonder that our government supports other governments doing similar things?  It took a very long time for the U.S. Government to stop supporting Apartheid in South Africa precisely because “European settlers on non-European land” looked awfully familiar.  We can see the same thing in the Middle-East, as well. Regardless of what one thinks of that conflict, it should give us pause that the U.S. Government has given more military aid to the Israeli government since the second World War than to any other country in the world.

“Not in My Name”

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From the frontispiece of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Speaking of governments, one of the other legacies of The Enlightenment besides Capitalism, Nationalism and Democracy, is the notion of complicity. Like egregores, the modern state demands a shared identification of its people. That is, since sovereignty no longer derives from the land or the gods and now is said to derive from “the people,” it’s become difficult to separate the actions of a government from the people whom they are said to represent.

This is different in other countries though. I first noticed it with a German friend. She and I had been talking about American CIA involvement in the overthrow of socialist governments in the Middle East and South America. I’d said to her something regarding how “we claim to believe in Democracy, but will undermine it when the people vote for someone we don’t like.”

“Why do you keep saying ‘we?’” she asked me.

I didn’t understand the question.

“We?  Why ‘We’?  You weren’t there, and you didn’t do it. The government did. Americans often say ‘we,’ and I don’t understand why. Germans don’t do that.”

I’d noticed this, but had thought it was merely a linguistic difference. “You never say ‘we’ when talking about Germany?”

“That’d be silly,” she replied. “I’m not Germany. I’m German, but I’m not Germany. You’re not America, either.”

I still think on that matter. It was relieving to understand that I was not personally responsible for everything the U.S. government had ever done. It was also terrifying, because I began to understand the meaning of implicit consent; how people in power were bombing children in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they represented my interests, and I was helping to pay for it with taxes from my paltry wages.

Before I’d understood this, my reactions to the founding (and foundational) violence of America were most often ones of disbelief. Sometimes I’d accuse the historian of such horrors of lying, or twisting facts towards an agenda.  But I realized I was mostly just being defensive, because I couldn’t believe “we” had done such a thing.

Thing is, “we” didn’t. Others did, just as others do now. But they did it in “our” name, just as they do now.

I’m a vehemently anti-racist Pagan Anarchist. On what grounds could a government ever have thought I’d want them to kill indigenous people? Or buffalos? Or allow and encourage people to own slaves?  And how could they possibly think that they’d be accurately representing my will by dropping bombs on children in the Middle East?

The answer’s awfully obvious. No government such as that could ever speak on my behalf.

There’s another side to this idea of sovereignty and complicity. If the actions of a government are a reflection of the will of the people, then it makes perfect sense that our government was wrong to attack us directly.  For any government to attack the people for whom that government is a mere proxy. After all, governments just do what they’re elected to do, right?

Many Gods, No Masters

So here I am, a gay Pagan living on stolen land. I didn’t steal it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was stolen. Not having been directly responsible, I cannot personally make amends, nor can I, with all the magic of the gods and spirits, hope to resurrect the dead, to undo those crimes.

More difficult, I have little choice in this matter. I live where I can; where I can afford; where things are open to me; where I feel safe. And I’m bound by the citizenship conferred to me at birth. I cannot merely “go back to Europe,” to my ancestral lands, because I have no legal claim to do so.

I guess I could perhaps do what many people do, which is ignore the whole thing, tuck the horrors away into a neat little envelope called “past” and pretend like these things don’t still happen. The more I work with spirits, though, the more I realize the dead don’t just go away like that. Besides, the horrors continue.  Poor minorities are still shot dead on American soil by city militia. The descendants of slaves continue to live in deep poverty and are thrown in prisons now, instead of slave ships.  And the government which claims to represent me, which derives sovereignty from my “consent,” slaughters people in other countries, too.

Knowing all that, I cannot look away.

This, too, is why it’s impossible for me not to see conflicts elsewhere as part of the same legacy of which we, in America, still re-enact. Watching the conflict in Israel/Palestine, I cannot help but think both of the plight of the people in the occupied territories and their poverty as being similar to what the indigenous people around me suffer. Simultaneously, I cannot help but identify with people in Israel who did not themselves choose to steal land from others. Many of them are the descendants of people who moved elsewhere, some are also people who fled from violence and hatred elsewhere.

Besides thinking Capitalism is the worst thing we’ve ever come up with, this is why I’m an Anarchist. The foundational violence which haunts every “freedom” in America was perpetrated by people who were not me. The violence which America still enacts in the world is committed by people who falsely claim to be acting on my behalf. I did not consent to those horrors, nor do I consent to them now, nor will I allow them to do those things on my behalf.

Anarchism doesn’t stop at rejection of a government. Recognizing that the suffering of other people relies on my implicit consent, I cannot allow that violence to occur. Governments who claim to represent my interests and who extract money from me in order to commit atrocities must be toppled, and the conditions which have allowed them to thrive must be changed so that they no longer may do so.

My Anarchism, however, is also my Paganism. The gods and spirits we’ve pushed out of our present continue to exist, as do the dead. Just because I live in the present, I am not absolved from my inheritance, nor of my legacy.  I cannot perform rituals on stolen land without working to have it returned, I cannot worship gods of place and people without fighting those who’d poison those places and sever those people from their gods.

There’s something really liberating about this knowledge, though. The notion that the past is dead is false, and this means we Pagans who are attempting to reconstruct ancient worship of ancient gods are still living among fragments of those religions. We don’t need to prefix what we’re doing with “neo-,” even if what we come up with, guided by our gods, is a different configuration from what our ancestors had.

That is, if the past is not ever truly gone, it can be rewoven, reshaped. It’s around us now. Processes which started centuries ago and continue to this day can be ended and amended. Fragments buried in plain sight under our illusion of being modern can be teased out from their hiding places.

We only need to stop claiming that the past is over, so we can own up to the past that is still with us.


[This piece first appeared on The Wild Hunt on August 9, 2014]


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd AuthorRhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. Follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.

 


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Book Review: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge 2016 and the Apocalypse Now Reading Challenge 2016.

Method of the world’s destruction: ecological devastation, corporate greed, and a mad scientist’s bioengineered supervirus.

Oryx and Crake is the second Margaret Atwood book I have read. I am finding that I have mixed feelings about her. I think she’s a brilliant writer. Her prose is magical and her sense of character amazing. I can’t help but feel a little pride in her as a Canadian. But the critics always wax rhetoric about how wonderfully original she is. She’s not, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Obviously these people just don’t read science fiction.

Atwood’s basic scenario here is a weird mating of The Time Machine, The Stand, and Frankenstein. Professional reviewers claim that Atwood has written “an innovative apocalyptic scenario in a world that is at once changed and all-too familiar because corporations have taken us on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.” It sells books because of our secret fears of genetic engineering. However, it’s not true, and if that’s what these people think then they weren’t paying attention. Also, one professional reviewer who was quoted on the cover of the edition I read said it was “uproariously funny.” I don’t think it was funny at all, and I think that if this guy thought it was funny he’s probably one of the corporate drones that Atwood was critiquing in the book. Someone in a review also said that it was confusing because she jumps back and forth between different moments in time and changes tenses when she does; and this same reviewer had the audacity to criticize Atwood’s grammar! Her grammar was the professional quality one might expect of such a critically acclaimed writer, and the story started in media res and was told primarily in flashbacks, and if that was confusing, I think you should stick with teen fiction.

What is actually great about this book is the fact that it is a brilliantly-written Greek tragedy that ultimately results in the likely extinction of the human race; along with quite a lot of the animals that we are familiar with. There’s a lot of “for want of a nail” stuff going on here. At several points disaster could have been averted, but it isn’t because of human flaws and human mistakes, and so all hell literally breaks loose. The epicenter of many of those flaws and mistakes is the protagonist, once called Jimmy but now known as Snowman, who found himself uniquely in a position by which he could have saved the world but, like Hamlet, fails to do so because of ignorance, negligence, and his tragic flaw, which is a desperate desire to be loved or even liked by someone, largely stemming from childhood neglect, emotionally distant parents, and a very lonely childhood. I love it because so many people in real life fail to do the right thing because of that flaw, or they overlook things that probably should have triggered alarm bells.

Others have found Snowman to be really unlikable as a result of those tragic flaws, but I didn’t. I found I had a lot of sympathy for him, and I could understand why he did a lot of what he did. Jimmy’s mother reminded me of my own, who was bipolar, undiagnosed and untreated for the length of my childhood. You learn that she and Jimmy’s father were at odds over some morality issue associated with the work that Jimmy’s father did for the Corporation they both used to work for. And in this future vision, Corporations own Compounds and keep their people entirely separated from the rest of the world, which they call the “pleeblands” (which of course was actually “plebelands” at one time, one would guess), and your worth, status and wealth depend entirely on your usefulness to the Corporation. Scientists and mathematicians are valued; artists and writers are considered a waste of oxygen; unless they write advertising for the Corporation, of course. Protesting the Corporations is outlawed and demonstrations are punishable by death. In this, Atwood borrows extensively from the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction (or, if you believe her and the critics, she reinvents the wheel).

You learn also, mostly as side stories in Jimmy’s personal observations of what goes on around him growing up, that the world is in a desperate state of ecological disaster due to climate change, there are too many people and too little resources, and the work that the genetic engineering companies do is actually important, or at least some of it is, in assuring the human race’s survival; except that they create primarily what makes the CEOs of the Corporations money, rather than what is good for humanity, due to selfishness and an innate sense of their own superiority over the pleebs (the rest of the planet). In this we also see some shades of the overpopulation horrors of the 1970s, such as in Soylent Green (or Make Room! Make Room!, as the book it was based on was called.)

Quickly you learn that Snowman is looking after an artificially-created sentient race that bears some resemblance to humans, and who comes from humans, but who aren’t quite human. They’ll remind science fiction aficionados of H.G. Wells‘ Eloi. They were created by someone named Crake, who is a very important character in the novel, being the mad scientist in question, and who was once a friend of Snowman’s. Also, there was someone named Oryx in his past, a woman he quite clearly loved, who for some reason was believed by the Crakers to be the creatrix of the animals. But since they are guileless, innocent, and somewhat simple like the Eloi, their beliefs seem almost mythological or biblical. You also learn that Crake was somehow responsible for whatever killed humanity, which was clearly a plague, and if Atwood tried to tell me she never read either The Stand or I Am Legend I would call her a liar, because parts of the book were full of eerie scenes of human life stopped dead, just like Stephen King and Richard Matheson wrote about so well. The title of the book is meant to represent both sides of human nature and not just the characters.

Sounds like spoilers? Nope, not a bit, because you find out most of this stuff in the first chapter. The story is more about how it all unfolds than what happened. And in this, Atwood displays a masterful understanding of the dark side of human nature and how the light side of it can be manipulated and twisted to dark purposes. It’s an amazing story and I was reading it with page-turning alacrity because it was gripping and fascinating. Only at the very end does everything become clear.

There are many questions that should concern the modern mind. Have we already gone so far with climate change that it will inevitably destroy the human race? How far is too far to go with genetic engineering? What are we going to do when there are so many of us that we overwhelm the planet’s resources to care for us, which might already have happened? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves out of greed, neglect, indifference?

And yet there are also subtler questions of human morality and the nature of religion. The Buddha’s dilemma comes up; the Buddha abandoned his wife and child to pursue enlightenment. Did he do the right thing? Buddhism is founded on the idea that attachment is sin, but if anyone did this in modern society we would call them a nutbar or a jerk, and certainly they don’t have normal human empathy and are probably something of a sociopath. There’s a Frankenstein-like element too; the Biblical references in the story of the Crakers is quite clear. Did God mean to create us? If so, was S/He aware of the full consequences of that? Were we created imperfectly and almost by accident, to be lesser, or greater, beings than our creator(s)? Was the Creation a total accident, or some madman’s weird plan?

And there’s a subtle human dilemma too, and that is the damage created by neglecting a child and denying them real love. Snowman might have been able to recognize that Crake was a sociopath if he’d had anything resembling normal parental empathy, but he had no basis of comparison. Is Atwood subtly critiquing the fact that since our society demands that both parents work, our children are being raised by babysitters and the internet? I think perhaps she is.

I really wish I could recommend this novel to everyone, because it does what really good science fiction is supposed to do, which is to make you question the world and society we live in, in a setting that is weird enough to make us feel a little safer than confronting it directly in the present, real world. But not too safe, because some of this sounds a little far-fetched; but not enough of it. Not enough of it by far.

View all my reviews

When Deities Say “No” to Apolitical Polytheism

While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)

Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.

(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)

As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.


“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”

– Julius Firmicus Maternus

 

“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”

– Z. Budapest

I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.

Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.

Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?


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I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.

Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.

That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.

My religious mission demands I address them. I can’t pretend they’re not political.


“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”

– Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organized violence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.

Obviously, plenty of people disagree with that description of society. And while I believe it’s empirically true, my deities certainly never sat me down and said “read Silvia Federici.”

You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.

But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.

My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.

The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.

And that is what living polytheism looks like.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The Irrational Fear of Death

Someday, you’re going to die.

Yes, you.

Maybe it will be something sudden.  You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.

Maybe it will be something longer.  Cancer, maybe.  Cancer gets lots of people.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance.  Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s.  Maybe it will be old age that gets you.  You’ll be a hundred and ten.  You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.

And guess what?  There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.

Nothing.  NO-thing.  No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you.  Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.

No amount of positive thinking will protect you.  Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer.  He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?

No amount of exercise will stop it.  Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!

So knock it off.

Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.

Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.

Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.

Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret.  Stop with the victim-blaming.  Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.

Because it will.  If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you.  No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.

"Cow Skull" by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.
“Cow Skull” by Lucy Toner. Courtesy of Publicdomainimages.net.

So why let it bother you?

Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time.  But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.

Old age isn’t a disease.  Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old.  It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA.  Everything breaks down in the flesh.  Physical bodies cannot last.

If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness.  But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.

More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.

If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change.  Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat.  Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.

If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people.  And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet.  If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The fear of death underlies all of our fears.  It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention.  But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway.  Eventually it will go wrong.

The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should.  It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something.  It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters.  Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t.  Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate.  Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.

But don’t you believe it!  There is no reason.  Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people.  And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too.  No one’s keeping score.  There’s no brownie point system.  Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.

So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.

Let it go!  Relax!  Have fun every once in a while!  Take risks!  Dare!  Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end.  And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.

mind_of_a_dog_

A review of Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog

A stream of consciousness documentary of fragmented memories, emotions and excerpts from the life of Laurie Anderson: Heart of a Dog is hardly a regular film. Do not expect a linear or well-rounded narrative. But if you love atmospheric imagery and being taken along into someone else’s inner world, it is worth to go and see this film if you get the chance.

I love art house film, but I do not regularly visit the cinema. So the response here is not the response of a “vetted” film critic, but rather a personal reflection of someone who is, on account of inexperience, very impressionable. The reason I felt compelled to write about it anyway was the fact that the film, perhaps inadvertently, posed a couple of vital questions to me.

The reason I went to see the film in the first place was shamefully mundane: I had read it was, at least partly, about her rat terrier Lolabelle. We have a Dutch rat terrier ourselves; any work of art featuring such a willful canine would have caught my attention. The film turned out to be not as much about Lolabelle herself, but more universally about love and loss, and danger too. To be honest, the friends and family who visited the film with me, were not as impressed as I was. The references to 9-11 elicited a “not again” response from our very European group. It did not bother me. If it had happened on my threshold, an event of that scale would trickle through in anything that came after.

Questions of hierarchy

The lovely thing about a film such as this one is that the free form and associative imagery enables every individual to take home something different to ponder upon. For me, the question of hierarchy in relationships arose. In this film, I felt, there is no inherent hierarchy in relationships; if there is, it is only a qualitative distinction the author makes. Her dog was, as it seemed at least, as important to her as her mother: their decline and death are given equal attention. We follow Lolabelle into the unknown; the Bardo; and we wonder what she experiences there. She is considered a spiritual being, on an equal plane of existence with us (which I believe to be true).

Yet this apparent lack of hierarchy is problematic when one considers that Lolabelle is, in the end, her pet. As their owners, pets rely solely on us, without any choice. I said: We “have” a rat terrier. Although we might look upon him as one of our own, a family member, in the reality of our society he is our property.

The film shows this poignantly when we hear how vets try to convince Laurie Anderson to end Lolabelle’s suffering at the end of her life. Yet, she decides, guided by a Buddhist teacher, Lolabelle should be allowed to live out her life in her own time (albeit with pain killers). This troubled me deeply. There are reasons to decide to end an animal’s suffering when death is near; there are perhaps also reasons to decide to let an animal live out its natural life and only ease their passing. I have buried quite a number of pets in my lifetime. I am frankly always very relieved when the decision is made for me.

On the leash

In essence, our relationship to our pets can be compared to the relationship with a young child. The film demonstrates this sentiment when Anderson tells us of her dream of giving birth to her dog. The difference is that our children grow up; eventually they are emancipated, and we are relieved of this power over life and death; which I feel can be oppressing to them as well as us. What is more: only in extraordinary circumstances would a person have to decide about the life and death of their living and breathing child. Yet, in the relationship towards our animals this is a regular occurrence. We decide the range, scope and duration of their lives, the existence and extent of their sexuality. Although many pet lovers, including myself, abhor the notion, pets are in effect commodities in the way children could never be.

We mold their behavior: Lolabelle’s piano playing is indisputably cute, but clearly not a way of expressing herself. It is a bargain: she gets snacks, and we get to see her play. It is hardly natural behavior, and can we even speak of such a thing in dogs like rat terriers; especially bred for many generations to suit human needs? We are their Gods and laugh at our own creatures’ folly.

Surrogacy and hypocrisy

However loving our relationship to our pets might be, it is not always a complementary or additional relationship. Social mobility and displacement lead many of us into isolation; pets are often utilized to fill the gaping holes in our heart. In relationships with other people we are held accountable; the attraction of a relationship with our pet is the absence of this. They love us anyway. They have no choice. Our lives are often stifled, and cramped in time and space; and this leads to even more cramped and stifled lives for our pets. And, when we are no longer able to care for them, they are sometimes discarded, even though we never set out to do so.

Our relationship with the animals is tainted by this surrogacy, and also by hypocrisy.  This hypocrisy is clearly demonstrated in the miserable lives of millions of animals in the bio-industry. They suffer and die in the machine, so we and the class of so-called “lucky” pets get to eat, often in great excess. Only in their relationship with us, do the animals “earn” their worth. We do not, as our society’s actions show, endow all animals with this intrinsic value. Our pet’s relationship with us is the portal by which they are vindicated and elevated, sometimes only temporarily, from the horror of an industrial exploitation of our fellow beings.

There is great duplicity in our relationship with the prime representatives of the animal kingdom in our daily lives. I have no clear cut answer if and how this duplicity should be resolved. I do think, as someone who has lived with and loved pets all my life, it is good to be aware of these issues. I am not advocating the abolition of pets: I cannot imagine my life without them. But our understandable desire for communion with them, has numerous problematic side-effects. Even as I personally endeavor to do no harm (which for me is striving towards an entirely plant-based lifestyle)through my pets I am still a cog in this maelstrom.

I realize this review turned out to be less about the film itself, and more about the questions the film posed. If the object of art is to make you think, this film certainly succeeded in this respect for me.


linda-and-puk

Religious by nature, Linda lives in Dutch suburbia with her family and pets. She is an avid gardener and a budding writer. She blogs at theflailingdutchwoman.wordpress.com.

 

 


Book Review: The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There have been quite a lot of reviews of this book on Goodreads, so I think I’ll make mine brief.

This was a brilliantly written book in which three novellas — one a gothic horror novella about cloning, another a dreamscape fantasy novella of an alien world, the third being an almost Kafkaesque story of totalitarian imprisonment and suffering — interconnect. This is pure literary science fiction, in which the plot is not the point, but the theme, and that theme is Colonialism, racism, and institutionalized Colonialism and racism, and the role of identity and memory.

The protagonist of the overarching story is an anthropologist named John V. Marsch, though he never once is the viewpoint character, except by proxy in the final story through scattered and deliberately disordered journal entries. He might be descended from the aboriginal race (or races) of the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. It is generally accepted that there was at least one, and possibly more than one, aboriginal race of shapechangers who took on human forms when the human colonists came; and it is generally accepted that the humans wiped them out. However, Veil’s Hypothesis, which was invented by one of the incidental characters you encounter, suggests that the indigenous race forgot they were ever of another race, so they have intermingled among humans and the only real difference is that they have bright green eyes and they can’t use tools well. This is further complicated by a belief of the aboriginal peoples in a race called the Shadow People, who once used tools but don’t anymore, and who can manipulate thoughts and dreams. And they may once have been humans in an ancient first wave of colonization that has been long forgotten.

You will find none of this explained in the story, by the way. These details are gleaned from reading between the lines in the process of the existing stories to form all the pieces of the puzzle.

What it has to say about identity, memory and Colonialism is brilliant and thought-provoking. How memory is unreliable. How Colonial arrogance leads to a sociopathic lack of empathy and the cheapening of human life. How institutionalized racism creates unwarranted and irrational distrust in people. How it leads to the persecution of a class of people which is cloaked in “righteousness.” How identity depends a great deal on not only genetics and experience, but on one’s personal narrative. How truth depends greatly upon one’s point of view.

The writing is also brilliant. The language is amazing, and the clever, interweaving plot elements are mind-boggling. I will probably have to read it again just to pick up on all the subtle nuances I missed the first time around.

So why did I only give it a three rating? Well, to be blunt about it, I was not intending to read poetry; I was reading a novel. I found that Wolfe was so concerned with his theme and the unfolding puzzle that I could get invested in none of the characters and none of the plots, with the exception of the second story, which had the character acting in such a bewildering way at the end of it that I’m still not sure I know what really happened. In general the novel left me with a feeling of confusion and dissatisfaction. So, it was great writing, yes. But did I really enjoy it? I feel a little bit like the morning after from the time when I discovered alcohol-soaked parties in the SCA in my youth. I’m *told* I had a good time. My face hurts from smiling and my throat is hoarse from yelling and laughing. But if that’s true, why does my head hurt and why is there such a bad taste in my mouth?

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Book Review: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Lord of LightLord of Light by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was outstanding. It was deep, thoughtful, and marvelously subversive, and like all good science fiction, it makes you think.

A bunch of people in a far future on a distant planet with some superpowers establish a society that they model consciously after Vedic civilization (it never says why or how, but there is an assumption that most of the people are Indian). For some reason (again never fully explained) the people do not start out with the levels of technology of their ancestors; somehow it has been lost. They discover the people with the superpowers and start to treat them like gods. The “gods” divide into camps. Some take the fascist view that since they can do things that others can’t, they *are* gods and worship is their due. Others (the minority) take the position that they need to help people to rediscover the technology they lost, and if they *must* be seen as gods, they will use the press to further that end and then “resign” their positions and disappear into myth. Sam, our protagonist, consciously uses the legends of the Buddha to that end.

Some have commented that they don’t understand this novel, or that it reads more like fantasy. It’s intended to be read that way, and to someone with even passing familiarity with Vedic mythology it’s brilliant. The characters who assume the roles of “gods” speak to each other and their “worshipers” with a weird mishmash of pseudo-archaic-speak that can’t possibly be anything but affected, which is downright funny. Much of their “miracles” are also due to extremely advanced technology. The technology used to justify their Ascension is extremely loosely described by design and might just as well be magic for the reader’s purposes.

The author explores many deep themes of religion. He asks us to consider the nature of what a “god” actually is. Gods get to be gods in our myths because they are immortal and they can do amazing stuff that the rest of us can’t. So at what point does that become true? I have read numerous dissertations that theorize that superheroes are modern stand-ins for Pagan deities (Superman = Sun God, Wonder Woman = Moon Goddess, Batman = God of Vengeance/Justice, etc.) If they can do things that we can’t, and they’re effectively immortal, aren’t they *actually* gods?

If not, then how do we justify our gods being gods in the first place? Perhaps the gods we are familiar with were just people who can do things that we can’t. If it’s because they’re more “enlightened” than we are, how do we know that? Maybe they’re con artists, like Sam, who says all the right things but doesn’t believe them himself, until an enlightened “follower” shows him that the words of the Buddha that he’s aping do actually have truth. And furthermore, many gods in mythology behave just like us, only they do more damage when they do stupid or mean things because of their powers. (And that’s every god ever, from Thor to Zeus to Jesus to Jehovah himself).

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? Is it a necessary part of human development? Is it something that we “transition out of” when we grow up as a species, or is it something that we always need? Which gods are the “real” gods anyway?

Some have wondered if this book might be disrespectful to Vedic beliefs. I can see that some might find it so, and considering that when the book was written no one would have thought twice about it because it wasn’t Christianity, Judaism or Islam, that’s progress. But I don’t personally find it so. For the record (full disclosure) I am a rather devoted Wiccan Priestess who has written books and keeps a blog on the topic, and I’m sympathetic to the Vedic deities because a) Hinduism and Paganism are very similar in many ways, b) some modern Pagans worship Vedic deities, and c) many of us dabble with Buddhism as well because it also has a lot in common with contemporary Paganism. So understand that I take these deities very seriously and have the highest respect for Them. But this is no way invalidates the issues being raised by the author, who is challenging and exploring the nature and necessity of religion as a whole. Is religion something that holds us back as a species, or does it inspire us to greatness? Is faith the only thing that keeps the darkness within human nature in check, or is that only our mortality? What kind of horrors would we get up to if we weren’t limited by human frailties?

At the time Lord of Light was written, science fiction extolling the virtues of human ascension through technology were common. Zelazny, with a combination of cynicism, humour, respect and love, suggests that no matter how advanced our toys and powers become, we’ll still just be people and we’ll still act like it, for good and for ill.

I found myself contemplating those figures who were said to be divine incarnations throughout history, such as the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zoroaster or Pythagoras, and I find myself wondering if they, as Sam does in this novel, originally established their following as a protest *against* the gods and those who claimed to speak for them. The Buddha was protesting the Vedic caste system; Jesus was protesting the Pharisees. Did they intend to become objects of worship, or was that a corruption of their original message?

More than the religious issue, however, Lord of Light can be read as a powerful anti-capitalist message. What starts the conflict between Sam, the handful who join him, and the rest of the “gods,” is that a new merchant class takes over the Wheel of Karma (the technology that allows people to transfer to new bodies when they die) on behalf of the “gods,” who direct them to only permit people to reincarnate if they’re doing the things that the “gods” want them to do, which they get to make up arbitrarily. They encourage the populace to labour for them with lesser technologies than they might receive, and destroy their works whenever their civilization discovers a higher level of technology than the “gods” wish them to have (such as the printing press) by promising that those who are pleasing to the “gods” might reincarnate into better positions when they die. But the “gods” and the Lords of Karma make up the rules to suit themselves and secure their own “divine positions,” so who really gets to advance? Free thinkers are also punished by being reincarnated as apes or dogs, for example. In this I see the message we are told by the 1%; we are all just temporarily embarrassed millionaires. But who really gets to advance, and by what rules other than toeing the party line?

Not only does this story contain all of that, but the allegory is a lot like “American Gods” or “Gods Behaving Badly”, and it’s a funny and sympathetic look at the human condition. Highly recommended!

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Culture Weaving

It is not very well-known outside of anthropology just how much culture (and our enculturation from the day we are born) shapes the way we think and how we see the world. Our consciousness takes shape within a social container. A larger piece than you might think of your own personal identity and personality has come about as a response to your social environment, whether embracing or rejecting aspects of the society into which you were born and/or exist within now. Culture is a powerful force that shapes societies and, yes, individuals.

In a hyper-individualistic culture, like that in the U.S., hearing that culture shapes our personalities and identities might chafe. We’re all self-made men and women, right? Nobody/nothing makes us think things or be any way other than what we choose – we’re independent thinkers and islands of selfhood!

Except that we aren’t, not totally. Humans don’t actually work like that. Humans are social creatures, and culture permeates our minds. But our culture has decided that every man and woman is an island (which might come together in a nuclear family archipelago, at least), and to shape our society as if that were true… which causes problems. It detaches us from our community, and erases the community’s role in personal development, in collective responsibilities, and all manner of things. The culture re-styled us as islands, but we’re not, and delusions like that wreak some havoc with the functioning of systems like societies, and even personalities, making them maladjusted and unsustainable. They often carry that corruption forward and affect other people, society, and even other societies detrimentally.

In a question of nature vs. nurture, people in this culture don’t usually realize that culture is both. It can nurture, but it is also nature – the environment we develop within, as well as a natural phenomenon that evolved with/in us – inextricable. Humans aren’t humans without culture. We aren’t even capable of language unless other humans teach it to us at the critical early stages of psychological development. If we miss that enculturation due to isolation, at that point in our childhood, we’re not going to learn language at all. There will only be rudimentary communication for the rest of our life, like the other primates — even if we’re later surrounded by language and being actively taught — if we miss that window of opportunity, we will not have human language (grammar, recursion, storytelling, etc.) We need to develop within culture to be human, and it’s best if our culture is a healthy one. Unhealthy cultures/societies tend to produce unhealthy individuals.

John Fire LameDeer

Shaping reality is wielding magic, and that’s why I find culture (and religion) so fascinating. I’ve always found magic fascinating. Magic is in the subtle programming underlying what we see in front of us. Bardic arts involve being able to see and illuminate for others the influence of fine distinctions, in words and meaning and emotion. Wisdom flourishes in being fluent in this subtle language, able to understand it, speak it, and direct it.

You can trace so many of our problems back to culture and mistaken conceptions / bad memes that became installed in culture and that have cast a spell of illusion on our society, making us stumble along blindly and knock over things that we need… like belonging, equality, and other aspects of healthy relationships with each other and with nature; the intrinsic value as well as the instrumental value of each person/being so that we won’t treat each other as mere means but always also as ends; contemplative time to develop our minds and sense of subtlety/spirit; and so on. The lack of these in our present culture can be laid at the feet of capitalism, the Protestant work ethic, Abrahamic religion’s concept of human dominion over the earth, and such memes that have developed into chaos over time, barely contained by increasingly complex technology or systems of law, as they grew to their logical ends within the arc of history. Nature is proving them out as unwieldy mistakes, but they are still dearly held beliefs, because it’s somewhat rare for memes and their effects to be visible to people.

Since culture teaches us individuals how to see the world, a blind culture makes for blind people, unless another culture, sub-culture, or some circumstance teaches one of us to see differently than our culture sees. Most people reading this have probably had a taste of such circumstance and the experience of seeing differently than their culture taught them to see; if not from being in a minority religion in a predominantly Christian culture (especially one with roots in the healthier cultures that came before much of what ails this one) with a whole other cosmology, then perhaps from some other route to caring more about nature and community than is normal for this society, and thank gods/spirit for that, I say! You have been called, initiated, and given a responsibility. The world needs you. You can bless it.

I believe that this is like a second sight, and that learning to see behind the cultural curtains can ignite a desire to heal the flaws in the system because you can see right where they reside, how it came to be that way, how it can be undone or done better, and understand that it is within your power because we make culture, as much as it makes us. We wear it, but we weave it. We can bring our culture back into alignment with nature’s truth, and off the distorted track caused by beliefs that disconnected us from it.

Culture, religion, politics, ethics, art, personality, spirit… it’s all interconnected and mutually-influencing. As much as we sometimes like to examine them separately, they do not exist separately. We can use this holistic vision to wield a healing magic and to become culture-weavers who influence society to bring balance where it is needed. I know that’s why I’m here at Gods & Radicals, offering our community and the world my art and the insights I’ve gleaned from my experiences, education, and the meta-view afforded by walking between the worlds. I’m singing guiding songs to awaken and help my people see magic, know health, and weave in wisdom. You, my kin, should weave with me, and spread healing out into the world, setting things a-right for healthy community. Learn all you can about this world and it will come naturally, as all the pieces come together in a clearer view of the whole, and you’ll develop a trust in nature to tend toward health, wholeness, and the sustainability and stability of goodness. We just need to help smooth out the knots where ignorance and imbalance make ideas tangle and distort the whole cloth of this beautiful world. There will always be knots, but we have some really gnarly knots to work out right now, after centuries of some truly bad ideas that dominated and have been tearing the fabric, outright. The medicine of our hands, minds, and spirits are needed. Come, learn to see the patterns, so we can re-weave with stronger threads.

 

Lia Hunter

LiaHA student of anthropology and philosophy, lover of learning and homeschooling mother, Lia Hunter grew up in a conservative Christian cult and had to learn critical thinking the hard way, now values it highly, and looks behind all the cultural curtains. She came home to Paganism in 2000 and blogs at SageWoman blogs (The Tangled Hedge) and her personal spirituality blog (Awenydd of the Mountains).