Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away. It’s pretty amazing that I know that. I have never paid such close attention to American politics before. I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat. In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.
But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries. There’s a huge generational divide. It’s the generation we call the Millennials. They’re changing how everything works. In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference. Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this. Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.
Why? Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative? Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation. Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change? Well, that’s partially true too.
But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV. And Millennials don’t.
The Problem with Corporate Media
We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power. The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens. My parents still share this subconscious assumption. But it’s not true. It’s never been true.
Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations. In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation. It’s only common sense, really. These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations. What you may not know is just how large they are.
You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist. But again, you would be mistaken. Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies. That’s right, just two. They are Sun Media and Postmedia. How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?
It didn’t used to be that way. There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies. Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time. Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?
Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule. But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it. Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:
Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source. Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city. If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.
Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines. The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines. The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.” Seems innocuous enough, right? But let’s break it down a little. First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers. Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.” So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon. Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.” This demands polarization. It makes it personal. It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.” It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.
In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.” We are meant to be alarmed. Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest? And “across Canada?” What could be causing such a sweeping concern?
Our next big clue is image. The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage. I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.
In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event. And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible. The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard. If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!” Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!” You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”
Now let’s break down the articles themselves. Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely. In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension. Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people. The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand. So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little. Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.
In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.” So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.
It seems like it’s a conspiracy. But it really isn’t. It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between. And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.
Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat. People couldn’t understand it. But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative. In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias. And they are expected to.
This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems. Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors. As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding. Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose. And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.
But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe. The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister. He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions. Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me. (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)
Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.
It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy. Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages. Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few. I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.” Even my parents. The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.
There’s another concern with corporate media. The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates. And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.
How the Internet is Transforming Politics
In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers. Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read. Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed. When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.
Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished. Why did the New York Times become so respected? Because everybody read it.
We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear. But that’s changing. There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example. And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.
Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages. We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels. And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.
Or so it would seem. The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.
Millennials don’t watch TV anymore. They don’t read newspapers. Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.
So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really. And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer. Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.
Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think. They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed. Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not. Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language. And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.
More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme. Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts. They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia. They Google any statistics they are offered. They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals. You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience. They will double check.
As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference. Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election? Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.
Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape. But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls. This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor. And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.
We are seeing this in American politics as well. Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth? Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots. It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.
Will this factor change the course of this American election? It already has. Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has. In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system. He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.
Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media. It’s a whole new world out here.
But the battle isn’t over yet. The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage. Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views. I will address these issues in my next article.
*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.
I receive messages from the Gods but I don’t think I’m particularly special in this; the Gods Who wish to talk to people do so to many people frequently. I have a natural affinity for hearing Gods which is like being able to sing or draw— something anyone can do a little, some people have a talent for, and anyone who wishes to improves with practice. The hard part is being able to interpret the God-sendings into coherent, action-oriented directives and using divinatory tools is one of the ways I use to make sense of the sendings. As well, divination allows me to ask specific questions and get directed answers. Since I am Diaspora Irish I use a traditional Irish divination tool, the Ogham.
I spent some years doing professional divination with a set of Ogham cards that I had developed. I developed the design on the cards, that is, not the tree significator nor the traditional kennings although I did a little substitution for North American plants instead of a few British Isles ones that don’t grow here at all.
So there I was at a ‘Psychic’ show, doing readings with ‘Ancient Irish Tree Cards’ (in all the hundreds of readings I did professionally over the years only one person actually knew what ‘Ogham’ was) and the activities director of a local retirement home came by and asked me if I would come and do a little talk about Irishness at the home on Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m open to talking, but on the day of the presentation I drove up to the home and thought, ‘Whew!! This is a pretty upscale nursing home– I’m not sure I feel comfortable with this….’
Soldiering on (in solidarity) I was escorted into the library and given an easel
(I started with a recitation of an adaption of ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’:
Here in this fateful hour, I place all Heaven with its power, And the sun with its brightness, And the snow with its whiteness, And the fire with all the strength it hath, And the lightning with its rapid wrath, And the wind with its swiftness along its path, And the sea with its deepness, And the rocks with their steepness, And the Earth with its starkness All these I place By the Gods’ almighty help and grace Between myself and the powers of darkness.
with large-sized copies of appropriate cards for each invocation).
After that I was talking about the imagery in the various pictures and told the story of why the wren is the king of birds.
One old geezer who had clearly spent a long long lifetime of never being opposed in anything nor ever spending a moment of his time in doubt of his essential self-worth decided that now was the ideal instant for him to step up to his favourite pastime of pestering:
“This is just MAKE-BELIEVE!” he said querulously.
“These are legends, yes” I responded, “But they explicate essential truths in a fantastical format.”
“Faugh!” he said, “Fairy tales!”
Then I lost my Socialist temper (as the sparks fly upward) and countered,
“Look at the back-story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, for example:
Goldilocks thinks of herself as a cut above the disadvantaged people living in a little cottage in the forest.
‘They are not like me’ she says, ‘They do not feel things the same way— they are just bears.’
So she feels quite comfortable eating their porridge, breaking their chairs, and using their beds. When the ‘bears’ come home and find her asleep, what is the essential truth, the moral of the story, that is the teaching lesson here?”
The Querulous Geezer was thrown off balance by the indirection and not having me straightforwardly complain that he is causing trouble or being impolite and has no answer nor does any other of the audience…
“If you take all that they have from the poor they will rise up against you and eat you.
And then one of the Nize Little Old Ladies changed the subject.
When I told the story at dinner that night, my son laughed and said,
So you’re not invited back for next year?”
It has become common usage in my family to identify what might on today’s Internet elicit ‘check your privilege’ as ‘they think we’re just bears’.It is the first move in the action that the Capitalists-in-Power use to disempower and enslave— the creation of Otherness.
On the one hand, Otherness is a completely fallacious concept— in the broad overview we are barely different from chimpanzees; the tiny differences of pigmentation, of religious belief, of sexuality are vanishingly small against the universal human need for inclusion and the push of curiosity.
On the other hand, what individual people signify as important to themselves is so wildly variable as to preclude assumptions altogether. Everyone is slightly Other— having different likes and dislikes, believing different things sacred, valuing different behaviours.
On the gripping hand all of our prejudices, our cultural mores, our languages, and the mind-set each language creates, are learned and can be re-learned at need when we are exposed to some other culture or decide that the biases of our ancestors or starting culture no longer applies. What always applies is the First Law:
‘Don’t be a Douche’.
No one is so Other as to justify being treated as less than ourselves.
Judith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).
When I found a first hint of my Goddess, I was twenty and alone.
No one else at my small-town-South, church-affiliated college was openly trans. I wasn’t just socially stigmatized – I lacked spiritual tools with which to understand my alienation. Then one professor, a lesbian feminist with a goddess-symbol pendant, gave me a book: Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. Daly’s post-Catholic thealogy taught me that a male authority figure wasn’t the only sort of God. Soon, I found a sacred place under an oleander tree and prayed to “the goddess;” within a few years, I’d gone through the Goddess Movement to the Meter Theon’s devotional service and the vows I’m under today.
In large part, Mary Daly set me free.
However, had I actually met her, she would’ve wanted nothing to do with me. Daly helped found what today we call the TERF movement: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, a strain of feminism for cisgender (that is, non-transgender) women who believe trans women shouldn’t exist. Some of them follow through with harassment or even physical violence.
I thought of this paradox — that a TERF’s book could set in motion a trans woman’s religious feminism — when the cis Pagans in my social media sphere recently discovered that certain Pagan leaders have TERF ideas. A professor at Cherry Hill Seminary, Ruth Barrett, signed a petition denouncing trans people’s involvement in gay rights; Cherry Hill stood beside her in a subsequent press release.
Of course, this is no one’s first rodeo. In 2012, similar criticisms emerged when the founder of Dianic Witchcraft, Z. Budapest, excluded trans women from a ritual at PantheaCon that had been advertised as a rite for women. Trans exclusion has been a fact for decades in many Pagan communities.
But where does this sentiment come from? Trans women exist and many of us are polytheists and/or Pagans; why should anybody mind?
“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves…Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”
– Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire
When TERFs and right-wing Christians talk about trans women, they agree that everything comes down to sex. Take a few examples:
Last November, Houston, TX (my hometown) voted to repeal an antidiscrimination ordinance that included protections for trans people. After months of TV ads slandering trans women as rapist men lurking in the bathroom, the final count was 2 to 1 against the ordinance.
Right now, in Washington State (my adopted home), lawmakers have written six different bills, all intended to deny trans people the right to use the bathroom that best matches their gender. All of these politicians (and their supporters) have endorsed that same bathroom-rapist lie.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ran annually until last year, maintained a blanket no-trans-women-allowed policy. One year, a Lesbian Avengers chapter with a trans woman member did attend, and the trans teenager found herself surrounded by a hostile crowd of adults, some of whom threatened her with knives. The festival claimed that trans attendees would somehow pose a special danger to rape survivors.
Janice Raymond, who wrote the anti-trans manifesto The Transsexual Empire, explicitly equated the existence of trans women with rape, and claimed that trans lesbians who had consensual sex were actually, somehow, committing rape. When she developed these ideas as a grad student, her thesis adviser was Mary Daly.
No trans woman has ever been found sexually harassing people in public restrooms. The figure of the bathroom-rapist trans woman is like Hookman or Bloody Mary: an urban legend, not an actual person. But politicians don’t write bills cracking down on the cursed monkey paw market. So, whence this particular urban myth’s political credibility?
On Catcalling, Good Sex, and Nonconsensual Work
As I discussed in my last article, capitalist patriarchy runs on women’s unreciprocated social labor. I didn’t, however, much talk about the way that sex, sexuality, and sexual desire fit into this system.
In heterosexual settings, women generally put much more effort into sexually satisfying their partners than their men reciprocate. We see this in everything from the deeply-gendered nature of sexy underwear (lingerie for women is an industry, lingerie for men is comedy fodder) to the juxtaposition of normalized fellatio and stigmatized cunnilingus. Rape is simply the extension of this one-sided approach to sexual pleasure past the line of consent. Obviously, male-centric but consensual straight sex qualitatively and morally differs from rape. Nevertheless, both exist within a gender system that makes the work of good sex something that women generally perform both for ourselves and for men, but that men usually perform quite a bit less.
This happens outside of straight encounters, too. “Straight guys think lesbians are hot” is practically a proverb. Plus, the ubiquity of catcalling shows that no public space excludes what feminist theory calls the male gaze. When a woman goes down the sidewalk, puts on clothes in the morning, or wears makeup, her goal is rarely to give male strangers a moment of sexualized entertainment. However, when they catcall her, those men have just gotten their entertainment from the work she’s performed (even if existing in public is the only work she’s done).
She didn’t put together a public presentation in order to give men a show, but they got a show anyway by ogling and heckling. They’ve extracted benefit (entertainment) from her labor (wearing clothes and walking down the street) without her consent, and without reciprocation; they certainly aren’t likely to try to amuse her in return! In short, they’ve just exploited her work.
Every bit of this applies both to cis women and to trans women. All women, trans and cis, run the risk of rape and sexual harassment; all women who date men, trans and cis, deal with partners who demand that their own pleasure must always come first.
However, the exploited sexual labor of trans women goes past that of cis women. Patriarchy tries to reduce trans women’s entire existence to sex. Supposedly, we only transition to satisfy a sexual fetish; supposedly, the only people who sleep with us have a fetish of their own. We go into sex work much more frequently than cis women because hiring discrimination is so rampant. Mainstream cultural depictions of trans women at work rarely include jobs other than sex work and hairdressing. (And remember, patriarchy believes that women groom and get haircuts solely to attract straight men.) Without letters of approval from self-appointed psychiatric “experts,” it’s extremely difficult to access trans-specific medical care (mostly hormone therapy and various surgeries). Those gatekeepers have traditionally denied that healthcare to trans women they deemed insufficiently feminine, attractive, or heterosexual.
This extra layer of sexualization brings an extra layer of gendered violence. A majority of trans women have been raped and/or sexually abused, and anti-trans violence gets overwhelmingly committed by men who sleep with us. (Throw in race and occupation to the mix, and you’ll find that not only are most anti-LGBT hate murder victims trans women, but a large majority of those women are Black and/or Latina, with a substantial number of sex workers in the mix. When bigotry kills LGBT people, that bigotry is usually racism plus sexism plus transphobia.)
So patriarchy disproportionately sexualizes trans women, while disproportionately punishing us for it. Why? When that happens, what’s in it for patriarchy? It gets a class of women who perform extra sexual labor, while facing too much brutalization to easily challenge that. More exploitation, less resistance.
Anti-trans ideas only make sense in terms of that social situation.
Prejudice and stigma occur so that trans women stay in that extra-exploited situation. People who say that trans women are really men don’t mean that literally; after all, when most people say “you really are a man!” to an actual man, it’s a compliment. Those same words to a trans woman are an insult and a threat (and often precede physical violence). However, the combination of stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence that gets thrown at trans women keeps us easier to exploit. In sociological lingo, that’s transphobia’s social function.
And plenty of trans women have stories about getting hit on by TERFs and conservative transphobes. As often as not, the people who rail the loudest in public about how we’re sexually disgusting are the ones who sleep with us in private. No surprise that those who most directly benefit from our sexual labor also most want us kept in line!
However, anti-trans politics does more than that. By campaigning against a hated and nearly defenseless minority, both right-wingers and TERFs gain visibility, prestige, and clout within their communities: conservative Christianity and majority-cis feminism, respectively. Pagan TERFs like Ruth Barrett bolster their position within feminist witchcraft and the broader Pagan scene. If the benefits transphobic actions accrued were to stop, so would those actions.
If TERFism hurt rather than enhanced someone’s position within Pagandom, then anti-trans practices would wither.
“An injury to one is an injury to all!”
– The Industrial Workers of the World
I don’t write this article for other trans people.
Trans Pagans and polytheists have already spent decades attempting to undo the power of anti-trans leaders within our communities. We already know just how dangerous and spiritually deadly transphobia gets.
Cisgender fellow Pagans,I’m writing for you. I don’t want to make yet another moral appeal to support us because it’s just and virtuous to do so (although it surely is); instead, I want us to consider, together, what anti-trans Paganism means for us all. If you’re a cis woman, I have as much a stake in ending patriarchy as you – andtransphobia only exists because it’s part of patriarchy. If you support full inclusion for trans women as women, you’re helping to reject one of patriarchy’s more violent ongoing projects! And if you’re a cis man, I have the same message. Transphobia is patriarchy, and patriarchy is capitalism, ishomophobia, is racism, andisevery other structure of exploitation that keeps the ruling classes on top. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is a statement not of moral solidarity, but of sociological fact. Propping up discrimination against someone else just strengthens the powers that oppress you.
So, together, let’s make the Pagan subculture a place where hating trans women destroys reputations instead of growing them. Let’s make our traditions islands of pro-trans feminism; let’s say “you’re being divisive”to transphobes, not to their critics.
After all, I know firsthand the power and intoxication of feminist self-embrace that people like Mary Daly offer at their best. If some of them fell short in their attempts to wash away patriarchy’s values, the strength of the Pagan feminist lifestance is surely enough to survive if we acknowledge that transphobia is patriarchy, and choose to do better than our precursors. Affirming trans women as women makes that feminism more powerful, not less.
And besides – if we can’t even reject patriarchy’s marching orders within feminist Paganism, how can we expect to do so anywhere else?
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.
The feet should set perpendicular to the ground, the knees almost together. It would be uncivil to stretch out the legs, or place one foot on top of the other. If you are in special company, do not cross your legs. Among friends of the same level, it is normal to do so.
from “A Catholic Manual of Civility,” a primer used to educate Brazilian boys (many of them indigenous) how to act like Christians. [emphasis mine]
Picture with me a man I’ve seen quite often. He’s large and sits on a bus, taking up several seats. He’s got his legs spread out, one completely into the aisle. Also, to one side of him are several bags and a backpack. He’s taking up a lot of room and doesn’t seem to notice or care that others could be sitting in those spots. Worse, he’s clipping his fingernails, and he’s listening to loud music.
This man is engaged in manspreading. You’re maybe aware of the concept—it’s in the Oxford Dictionary now:
The practice whereby a man, especially one traveling on public transportation, adopts a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seat or seats.
And the problem of ‘manspreading’ was significant enough to lead the MTA in New York to being levying fines to men for spreading their legs, as well as posting signs stating, “Dude…Stop The Spread, Please.”
If you ride public transit, you’re probably recalling all the times you’ve sat next to some ass who’s taken up too much space, or found yourself standing because there’s no room. And maybe you agree with certain Tumblr blogs and internet memes that his callous disregard of others is an obvious display of The Patriarchy, because women either can’t, don’t, or wouldn’t do such things.
Before we go on, though, I should tell you two things. The man I mentioned? He’s Black and homeless. The bags he carries contain all of his human possessions. And he smells a bit different from the rest of the folks on the bus, ‘unpleasant’ to most people. And he mutters to himself. And he grooms himself, all things which are considered rude to do in public spaces. And we’ll talk more about him later.
The second thing I should tell you? I ‘manspread’ too.
Why? It’s not, as some ridiculous Men’s Rights Advocates have suggested–and popular anti-manspreading Tumblr accounts have asserted–that I’m attempting to give more space to my genitals. Any man with testicles so large (and fragile) that sitting upright would crush them probably shouldn’t be sitting at all. Nor is it because I think I deserve more space than others in cramped quarters.
There are actually two reasons I ‘manspread.’ The first reason may elicit a bit of sympathy from you and make you hate me a little less, and the second reason may give you a crucial key to understanding how Capitalism shapes all of our existences, creates social conflict, feeds racism, establishes the patriarchy, and ensures we fight each other rather than the rich.
Bear with me, yeah? And I’ll try to give you a little more room here.
Work is Anti-Yoga
Mechanisation–the turning of the body, male and female, into a machine–has been one of capitalism’s most relentless pursuits.
Silvia Federici–In Praise of the Dancing Body
I was a chef for several years, working in quite a few restaurants in Seattle. Restaurants are Capitalist enterprises, and they’re one of the best ways to see how the imperative for profit is always at war against the lives, desires, and bodies of workers.
At one of them, I fucked up my knee in the walk-in refrigerator. It was a very busy Friday night, and one of our servers asked me to move a keg for her. It wasn’t ‘my job,’ but she was small-framed and didn’t have the strength to move it, so I moved it for her. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that someone had spilled some water on the floor, and I slipped, contorting my leg so badly in the fall that my ACL (one of the ligaments which keeps the knee attached to the leg) snapped.
That hurt, by the way. A lot. And my bosses tried to fight my worker’s compensation claim, which anyway wouldn’t have paid for the $18,000 surgery I needed to replace the ligament. Fortunately, my partner at the time had just gotten a full-ride scholarship to grad school in Canada and I was able to come with him and get it fixed for free.
That surgery didn’t fix the other problems that came along with the injury. I walk with a swagger now, my right foot is always askew from my left foot. The inclination of my body, when sitting in any sort of chair (except a straight-backed, wooden chair) is to slump forward to reduce the pressure on my lower back with my legs splayed. That is, I ‘manspread,’ but not because I’m a jerk: I’m actually trying not to experience significant pain.
I still try to compress myself as much as possible in tight situations, aware the experience of being in crowded spaces is uncomfortable for everyone. There’s a calculus involved; is my pain likely greater or less than the discomfort someone sitting next to me might feel?
Most people can’t claim this injury as an excuse, though. But plenty of people (mostly men) still do this, apparently clueless (or worse, unconcerned) about the experiences of others around them. Are there so many assholes in the world?
Maybe. But the language and ethics we use to understand and judge ‘manspreading’ or other ‘anti-social behaviors’ is pretty insufficient. For instance, it certainly can’t be said that having ones knees spread open is “The Patriarchy” in action when we consider documents like the Catholic Manual of Civility (quoted at the beginning of this essay) or other Christian primers which were used to do ‘educate’ poor and indigenous peoples into acting ‘Civilized.’ After all, the Catholic Church is pretty much synonymous with Patriarchy.
So, what’s going on with manspreading and our generally angry reactions to it? Let’s go back to the kitchen where I hurt my knee, and I’ll tell you another reason why I think most men ‘manspread,’
That kitchen was poorly designed, like almost every restaurant in which I’ve ever worked. When building a restaurant, an owner is faced with a calculus the customers rarely see. Space is always a premium, especially in an urban setting, and because an owner wants to maximize profit, the dining area receives priority when deciding how the space will be set up.
The more tables available in a restaurant, the more customers can eat at once. More customers equals more profit in the mind of a restaurant owner, and under capitalism, profit is the primary imperative. Thus, the more space devoted to customers, the more potential profit.
But the more space devoted to dining, the less space can be devoted to the kitchen and server-stations. Obviously, a restaurant requires a kitchen in order to operate, but more often than not, the kitchen is quite small. I’ve worked in quite a few of excruciatingly small spaces, and applied for two jobs where, at 6 foot 1 inch and 200 pounds, I was told “You’re too big to work in our kitchen.”
Another thing about many of these kitchens—the counters are often a little too short if you’re of above-average height. Counters on ‘the line’ (where most of the preparation was done) are often slightly too short to work without slouching over, something my tall co-workers often complained about but something my shorter co-workers claimed never to notice. Shorter co-workers experienced other problems in these kitchens, though. Many shelves were often placed very high in order to maximize the use of space (sometimes so high that even I had trouble reaching them). One liked to think that the inconveniences, body-aches, posture problems, and other difficulties the taller workers experienced balanced out the same problems experienced by the shorter of us.
Besides, work is anti-yoga, right?
In all these cases, though, we workers needed to contort, squeeze, stretch or bend our bodies to fit the space allotted us. We had no control over the design of the kitchens (and definitely not the size), but ultimately faced the choice: transform our bodies to fit the work, or hope to find a place our bodies fit better.
Cramped, Crowded, and Capitalist
My experience in kitchens initiated me into an understanding of the conflict between space and profit-imperative. And my experience with my knee injury led me to understand a bit more about the design of public spaces, particularly in transportation.
In Capitalist societies, public transit operates under the same profit-imperative that affects work-spaces, even if there’s no money being made. Costs must be kept to a minimum, revenue must be maximized, and accommodation of human bodies are often an afterthought (if thought about at all). Calculations are made to ensure the least amount of buses or trains are run on routes to move the most amount of people, keeping labor cost (bus-drivers, mechanics, etc.) down, and human difference is an unfortunate problem to be overcome, not a primary logic.
The seats in public transit are standardized–that is, the same seat is available to a person who is 6’5″ as someone 4’10”. In a situation where all seats were built large enough to accommodate a very tall person, everyone would be likely quite comfortable (particularly those for whom such seats would mean a lot of extra room). But, of course, this is not the case. Designing such spaces for very tall people would reduce the amount of available space, increasing the overall cost while decreasing the potential profit (excess revenue) from transit riders.
If you are tall and find yourself sitting in a seat too short for you, your knees either hit the seat in front of you or are a little higher than your waist. The first problem is quite painful after just a minute or two (try pressing your kneecap against a wall for a couple of minutes and describe the feeling), while the second situation puts quite a bit of pressure on your lower back and spine (try this by sitting in a chair, putting a few books under your feet so your knees are slightly higher than your waist, and feel where it starts to hurt).
In both cases, widening the distance between your knees relieves the pain. That is, splaying your legs (‘manspreading’) is one way the body tries to fit in a space not designed to fit it. In fact, this position could be said to be the body attempting to act like a body, rather than a machine.
But let’s consider what else the Capitalist logic of standardization of space and disregard for human difference does. The situation for those in wheelchairs is awful. On most buses in the cities where I’ve lived, there’s often only 2 spots available for them. These spots are also the same spaces allotted to the elderly, blind, or otherwise impaired. On top of this, women with children in strollers, homeless folk with hand-carts, or travelers with luggage must compete for these same spots, and a hierarchy arises to determine who is most “deserving” of the space.
I’ve watched a tragic number of fights between harried single mothers with children and elderly folks over that last remaining seat, and unsuprisingly, they are often of different skin colour. Worse, support and intervention from other passengers tends to fall along racial and class lines, too, a pitched social battle to determine which vulnerable person should be favored over another.
The scarcity of space and disregard for human difference generates strife and conflict, as is the potential for all scarcity. But let’s look at another aspect of this scarcity of space to find the answer to a question very few ever seem to ask.
There’s Only One Thing Between Us
I recently returned from a week visiting my sisters, and had the delightful pleasure of sitting in between two financial managers who were taller–and wider–than I was on a flight with an ultra-low-cost airline.
You can perhaps imagine the experience. Middle-seats are already uncomfortable, whether you’re tall or not. Add to this my posture issues from the aforementioned knee problems and the fact that all three of us were too large for the seats in which we sat. Figure in to this the fact that airlines have increasingly reduced the distance between rows of seat, and you’ve got an unpleasant experience altogether.
Airplanes, particularly, seem to generate their own realms of conflict. On a flight to Ireland from Orlando a year ago, I watched a woman hit an older man repeatedly with her carry-on luggage and shout at him when he asked her to be more careful. It looked almost like it’d come to fists, the woman becoming increasingly belligerent and threatening, her antagonism increasing the more the old man insisted she stop hitting him. And others were starting to take sides, and it was awful.
Of course, we were all cramped. We had all passed through intrusive security measures in an airport which treats humans less like people and more like cattle being led to market. We all had an impending 8-hour flight in an enclosed steel tube. The seats were small, the overhead compartments hardly designed to ensure it was easy to put things in and take things out. Though the woman was being quite awful to the old man, I couldn’t deny she was reacting to the stress of the space and the utter lack-of-control any human must endure when traveling by air.
Put a bunch of people in a tiny cage for 8 hours and they’re likely to act out, yes? But since we’re talking about standardized space and the Capitalist profit-motive, it’s particularly worth looking at the cold war that occurs in every seat over the arm rest. If you’re in the middle, you’ve got it worst—the person on your left and your right are likely to dominate the armrest to either side of you, and you are faced with the choice—force your way to a little more comfort, or stew for the duration about the assholes on either side of you?
But wait—there’s an obvious problem here we take for granted (if we even notice at all):
Why is there only one arm-rest between two seats???
It’s certainly not that chairs come with only one arm rest, nor that it’s impossible for seat-makers to make them large enough that two people could put their arms there.
The reason, again, is Capital. To give each person enough room to move and to rest their arms without struggling against another person would require larger seats, and gaps between them. Doing so would run directly counter to the imperative of the Capitalists who profit from air-travel. In fact, to sit in comfortable seats where you are not compelled to battle in a long war of ‘micro-aggressions’ with the people next to you requires paying an extreme premium to sit in ‘first class.’
Here we can finally see the crux of the problems we face in public places. All those petty conflicts, all those micro-agressions, and all the hierarchies which arise between people in crowded theatres, airplanes, public transit, and elsewhere arise in response to the conditions created by Capital.
The Body Is a Very Rude Thing
Rude: late 13c., “coarse, rough” (of surfaces), from Old French ruide (13c.) or directly from Latin rudis “rough, crude, unlearned.”adj. perhaps related to rudus “rubble.” Sense of “ill-mannered, uncultured; uneducated, uncivilized” is from mid-14c.
Pagan: late 14c., from Late Latin paganus “pagan,” in classical Latin “villager, rustic; civilian, non-combatant” noun use of adjective meaning “of the country, of a village,” from pagus “country people; province, rural district,” by extension, pejorative) Savage, immoral, uncivilized, wild.
The imperative to profit leads an airline to cram as many people into as small a space as possible, just as business owners and other capitalists expect workers to adapt their bodies in order to earn a living. The imperative to keep costs down means seats in public transit and other places are not large enough to accommodate the wide range of human size and mobility difference.
None of this is to excuse wretched behavior in public spaces: there’s rarely any good reason to hit an old man with your valise, nor to prevent others from sitting by splaying your legs and laying out your bags. We still have expectations of public behavior and preferences against people being rude to us, strangers or otherwise.
But what passes for morality and civics (either amongst the codes of social justice or traditionalism) will always meet a dead end if the very conditions which create the conflict are ignored, dismissed, or denied. Worse, many of these concepts of morality and civics aren’t even our own, anyway, but have been shaped by the constant need of the rich to have better-behaved and better self-disciplined workers.
The Birth of Bourgeois Morality & The War on The Rustic
“…the violence of the ruling class was not confined to the repression of transgressors. It also aimed at a radical transformation of the person, intended to eradicate from the proletariat any form of behavior not conducive to the imposition of a stricter work discipline. The dimensions of this attack are apparent in the social legislation that, by the
middle of the 16th century was introduced in England and France…”
Silvia Federici, Caliban & The Witch
Since the birth of Capitalism, humans have been increasingly compressed together into urban spaces because that is where most work is to be found. We should remember, though, that the people who filled the cities were often displaced people unaccustomed both to city life and particularly to factory life. In fact, it’s taken centuries for those factory owners (capitalists) to train rural, peasant and ‘uncivilized’ peoples to endure the conditions of those factories.
On top of this, the peasants who came to the cities had been otherwise ungoverned. They were literally un-civilized and un-disciplined, and this made them very difficult to rule. The process of turning those people into what we have become now (that is, workers) was long, bloody, and involved altering the conditions of society itself so that the behaviors, patterns, manners–basically, civilization–required of those uncultured, unwrought, undisciplined people became not just part of the requirements of employment, but the actual basis of society.
The class of owners who needed disciplined workers? They’re called the Bourgeoisie (‘those in the city,’). That Class Struggle that Marx wrote about between the workers and the Bourgeoisie wasn’t just pitched-battle, strikes, and police murder, but also a long period of shaping the behaviour of the poor (through laws, education, punishment, and public shaming) until the poor finally internalized that behaviour that would make them good workers.
This is the process Silvia Federici wrote about in Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation, and it included the eradication of the belief in magic:
Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action. “Magic kills industry,” lamented Francis Bacon, admitting that nothing repelled him so much as the assumption that one could obtain results with a few idle expedients, rather than with the sweat of one’s brow (Bacon 1870: 381)
Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?” (p. 142)
…as well as a complete change in the relationship of humans to the body:
It was in the attempt to form a new type of individual that the bourgeoisie engaged in that battle against the body that has become its historic mark. According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means of the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life (Weber 1958: 53). Capitalism also attempts to overcome our “natural state,” by breaking the barriers of our natural state by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set b y the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as is constituted in pre-industrial society.(p.135)
That is, the process of creating the working class involved disciplining, taming, and civilising people, stripping them both of their relationship to magic and particularly their relationship to the natural world and from their bodies, including the enjoyment of the body. Or put another way, Capitalists required workers who had lost their rustic, rude, and rural qualities, which included their Pagan tendencies.
To do this, they got plenty of help from Christian leaders (John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was one of their primary weapons in England) and other moralists who would help inculcate new social codes and norms into the unwashed, uncultured, rude poor. And as the Bourgeoisie continued to gain power, the scourge of rudeness, uncivilized behavior, and ‘immorality’ amongst the poor became an increasing topic of discussion. Primers of all sorts arose, aimed primarily at women and the poor to teach them how to act better, more polite, more like them.
Bourgeois Morality & Social Policing
While the war between the upper classes and the unwashed masses upon whom they relied was always being waged in Europe since the beginning of Capitalism, it got particularly intense in the early 20th century as very rich industrialists needed to find even more disciplined workers for their assembly lines. Henry Ford instituted a ‘morality police’ to monitor the personal lives of his workers, and John D. Rockefeller created an educational foundation to shape and advise government in creating better workers. The stated philosophy for it is revealing:
“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen — of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
What’s particularly important in this quote is the tension between parent and child, and the direct attempt to break behavioral patterns passed through tradition. Though many of these efforts took on the shape of benevolence (or paternalism), taken together they show that our actions, our self-discipline, and much of our morality has been shaped by the rich, not by our own self-generated ideas of what makes one a ‘moral’ person.
Again, what we should also give attention to here is that this is the same logic that comprised the ‘white man’s burden’ or the mission civilatrice of European missionaries, entrepreneurs, and civil servants in colonies on the African, Asian, and South American continents. The rhetoric used by wealthy industrialists towards ‘white’ poor people echoes exactly the rhetoric of paternalistic education of the ‘uncivilized’ peoples an earlier generation of Bourgeois needed to shape and mould through education and punishment.
We have inherited a system of morality that is not our own, but rather those of our rulers. We’ve been shaped and moulded into a class of people who have internalized the morality of the Bourgeoisie and made it our own, while being alienated from our own bodies, the cycles of nature, and older beliefs in magic. This is, at least partially, the unacknowledged and rotten root of much of our tendencies to belittle and even hate those with disabilities (they are not ‘good workers’), the very poor (they are rude, unhygenic, lazy–all anti-bourgeois traits), the messy (consider the popularity of voyeuristic shows about ‘hoarders’ in US television), and all manner of other ‘anti-social’ behaviours.
Moralism has quite the history of creating social conflict. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out in The Burden of Our Times, many moral codes and associated ideologies are rarely adopted by the powerful unless they are useful for governing. Race-theory (a relatively new ideology–there was no real notion of racial difference before the Enlightenment, and certainly not one inhabiting the general opinions of commoners) became useful as a governing ideology only when the rich needed to keep slaves and former slaves from uniting with European-immigrant workers against their bosses. Anti-Semitism is another such (im)moral code: rulers and the rich in Europe whipped up anti-Jewish sentiment amongst the poor and workers in the 1800’s most often when they found themselves unable to pay the substantial amounts of money they’d borrowed from Jewish lenders to fund their own wars and colonial exploits.
In all these cases, it’s quite difficult for us to see what is actually shaping our own morality, standards, and ideologies. This is hardly any excuse for being awful to people, of course, only a reminder that our ethical systems are too often inhabited by an almost invisible, almost Archonic, spirit of morality.
Let’s return to the question of the so-called manspreader now. The person taking up too much space on a bus is not playing along with the rules of the space, but what are those rules, and who sets them?
We experience those spaces as ‘community’ spaces, but they aren’t actually created by us, nor do we actually have control over them. This is more obvious in an airplane where it’s easier to see that the passengers are not a community, but only temporarily stuck in the same space together. Public transit seems more like a communal space, but who actually controls them? Not the people who ride them or use them, except in very, very indirect ways like voting. And voting, anyway, only gives the illusion of influence, not actual say in any matter.
Someone who takes up several seats in a public bus when there are others who could sit there is being certainly awful. But what they are doing is not much different from many of the other anti-social behaviours which have been criticized in the past by the rich. Rustic, rude, uncivilized, ‘low-class’ qualities: being loud, eating in public, grooming, having ‘unruly’ children, breastfeeding in public–all of these are the sorts of activities the poor and ‘undisciplined’ traditionally engage in, activities they have not been disciplined, educated, and socialised against.
That last aspect is most relevant to the question of ‘manspreading’ and other misplaced ‘social-justice’ crusades, because socialisation against unacceptable behaviors is most effective when it’s performed by people within the same economic class as the offender. If the rich were to be going about telling women or men how to act in public spaces, disobedience of these standards would approach open revolt. But fortunately for then, we police each other, particularly through public shaming.
Since manspreading has been taken up as part of a Bourgeois Feminist critique and prescribed a heavy-dose of public shaming, we should recall two previous social menaces which attempted to bring men in line with proper social behavior: Prohibition, and the public shaming of war-resisters by women–including Suffragists–during World War I with white feathers.
The Order of the White Feather, supported by prominent early feminists and suffragists, which publicly shamed men for not volunteering to fight in World War I
Lest anyone misunderstand my point (and missed my heavy reliance on Federici here), let me be clear: the metrics and narratives of Feminism are crucial to any revolutionary understanding of our social conditions. Patriarchal forms persist and are the dominant ruling ideology within Capitalism, and none of this should be used an excuse to undermine truly radical Feminism.
But we should be particularly wary of the tendency to adopt Bourgeois Morality within our attempts to right the systemic wrongs caused by Capitalism, particularly when we find ourselves suddenly taking positions on questions that further oppress people whose very bodies stand as resistance to Bourgeois demands. Thus, Feminist leaders (for instance) who find themselves employing violent anti-trans rhetoric as part of their hopes to eradicate the Patriarchy are only helping Capitalism: the transperson, if anything, embodies a physical resistance to the Bourgeois need to divide the working classes into easily-managed categories.
Moreso, we must remember that a great many of the complaints about anti-social or ‘rude’ behaviours are directed toward the poor, homeless, people-of-colour, immigrants, and others who are traditionally the enemies of Capital and the Bourgeoisie, and precisely whom any revolutionary project must not only include, but be led by. Anything which polices their behaviour and re-inforces ‘respectability,’ work-discipline, and Bourgeois moral standards must be rejected.
The Revolt of the Rude
None of this is to say that there is no place for morality or standards of social behavior. Nor is this to assert Patriarchal attitudes do not persist in the behavior of men in public spaces. On the contrary, I’d argue that we actually cannot attack the Patriarchy, nor create community standards, without first attacking the problem of Bourgeois Morality and the illusory society it creates.
When someone’s actions prevent us from using or enjoying a space, we feel wronged. This is an essential feeling, and one we need to cultivate. In fact, it’s precisely the feeling which fueled widespread resistance to Capitalism, Enclosure, and the creation of private property (land).
Before Capitalism, land was shared by a community who could use it as they saw fit, but custom, tradition, and social pressures kept them from over-using it. Overhunting or overharvesting in a forest, over-grazing or over-fishing in fields and streams meant the entire community suffered. The logic of The Commons was one of shared resources and shared obligations, and those who tried to ‘squat’ or ‘enclose’ shared spaces for themselves would be ostracized by the community.
But that older, rustic morality has been replaced by Bourgeois Morality in which we castigate the woman with too many shopping bags or the man with splayed legs on a subway while ignoring or even rewarding and praising the developer who turns open fields or run-down buildings into condos.
A person with their legs splayed, or their shopping bags filling the seats next to them, or the person apparently callous and indifferent to the needs of others in public spaces is violating the same sorts of societal standards which once held together The Commons, except for one difference: these are not The Commons. Our sense of fairness, of charitable social interactions, and our expectation that others around us will not ‘take too much’ linger, but the social spaces where such morals matter actually don’t exist.
An airplane, a restaurant, a park, and even public transit in a Capitalist society are nothing like The Commons, because there is no real or direct community control over the size, shape, design, or use of those spaces. Instead, we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world, believing the illusion of our jailers, parroting their moral codes, mistaking proximity to community.
We should consider the man I mentioned at the beginning of this essay again. The Black homeless man on the bus, with his legs spread apart and his bags on the seat next to him, unshowered, cleaning his nails, talking loudly to himself and listening to a radio without headphones: is his behavior on account of poor upbringing (the conservative answer), male privilege (the pseudo-feminist answer), systemic injustice (the ‘Social Justice’ answer), his Blackness (the racist answer), or his homelessness (the Liberal and Capitalist answer)?
Or do we rush to judgment specifically because he reflects back to us our own imprisonment in the Capitalist work-ethic and Bourgeois Moralism? What if it’s only our own submission to the centuries-long moralistic training of the Capitalist classes that makes us think we have the right to police his behaviour in the first place, or even that there’s anything wrong at all with what he’s doing in a public space?
And what if he is actually showing us the gate to our own liberation?
I should here admit: it is hardly an easy journey through that gate. My own reactions to this man I mentioned embarrass me to no end, but I’ll admit them, because you’ve probably felt some version of them, too. I’d often encounter him on days I really didn’t want to go to work. He’d slow the bus down, take a long time to get on and an even longer time to disembark. He had a broken, swollen foot which extended far into the aisle, and it was never easy for people to get past him. And he smelled. It was evident he rarely showered, rarely washed his clothes. And despite being a social worker who regularly worked amongst people with poor hygeine, his existence frustrated me.
No. He didn’t just frustrate me, he annoyed me, and I obsessed over him. I’d blame him for making me late. I’d be irritated by his music. The sound of him clipping his nails pissed me off. When it was cold or raining, his body odor really made me angry, because I couldn’t open the windows.
I wasn’t the only one, either. An awful camraderie develops between people sharing a mutual annoyance at ‘anti-social’ behavior. Women and men, all of them white and well-dressed, rolled their eyes and held their nose and made other signs to each other, sharing an imagined solidarity of suffering in the presence of this human. You’ve seen this, I know. You’ve been part of it. We all have.
If anything, though, I almost hated him, because he made me confront the very real conditions of my own life. He and I are both subjects of Capitalism, but I’m luckier. I had a job, had a home, could go to a bar or buy a latte as my reward for being a good worker, for doing what I’m supposed to do. He had no home or job, no place to shower, no place to store his stuff, no private place to clip his nails or listen to music without anyone judging it.
He was me, or me if I didn’t obey.
More than that, though, he didn’t have to worry about all the internalized fear about his public presence. He didn’t bother compressing his body into a tiny space, he gave no regard to how much stuff he was carrying in public. He was free to enjoy music in public without giving a shit what other people thought, and he’d laugh off (or sometimes just say ‘fuck you’) to anyone who’d ask him to turn it down. I think I was a little envious of him—not his poverty or homelessness, but his freedom from the regime of Bourgeois respectability and hatred of his body in all its rustic, unwrought, uncivilized, and unapologetic glory.
But more than anything, he reminded me that all the freedoms and luxuries and comforts that I ‘earned’ as a good worker came with the sacrifice of my soul and the internalization of the very logic which causes him to be homeless. And then I’d start thinking about how much I’d rather not be going to work, and how uncomfortable the tiny seat into which I’d crammed myself, with my knees pressed hard against the seat back in front of me, was.
And I’d start thinking about my illusion of control and the false ‘community’ I’d let myself believe I was a part of. I didn’t know anyone on these buses, and they weren’t created with people my size in mind, nor were they really ‘socialist.’ They existed to help ensure workers could get to their jobs, because without them Capitalists would have no one to exploit.
The man before me was the Abyss into which any of us must stare, if we are ever to hope to lose our chains and become free. He (and not I) was the true Pagan, the rustic, rural, rude remainder of Capitalist civilisation, and the price he paid for his freedom was homelessness, poverty, and the hatred of the rest of us on the bus.
Manifesto of the Rude
We can, of course, allow things to remain as they are, instituting increasing rules and public-shaming crusades against people who don’t act civilized. The rewards for doing so are waged out in hours and shiny products, evenings at restaurants and weekends at bars.
We can even convince ourselves that we are doing some good, fighting ‘the patriarchy’ or making a more ‘socially just’ society by policing each other, making sure we act in-line, keep our heads down, and never let our bodies be anything but efficient machines to be tucked-away and put out of sight after use.
Or, we can revolt, re-claiming the rudeness of our bodies, refusing to apologize for the amount of space we take up, our difference in size and shape and ability. But to do so requires a sort of de-colonization and an overthrow of the Bourgeois Morality which has shaped what we believe to be polite, civil, and good.
What would such a morality look like? What would be our demands?
We could start by refusing the easy answers in uncomfortable situations. Instead of demanding that others follow the rules we’ve internalised, we should interrogate those rules and our reactions to the bodies of others. Are they really doing us harm, or are we actually struggling against our own desires for liberation?
We could also start by demanding an end to the Capitalist logic of standardization. If a body doesn’t fit in a space created by Capitalist logic, it’s not the fault of the body. We should stop demanding others squeeze themselves into such spaces, and demand there be more room to be human. This is particularly essential in regards to those with disabilities
Likewise, we should stop pretending that public spaces are anything like The Commons. It is not the person taking up too much space in a bus or train who is the enemy, it is the rich who own the land under our feet. This would be the first step to reclaiming actually-existing Commons, land shared by communities where the poorest amongst us can subsist outside the imperative of Capitalist work.
And finally, we must embrace all that is rude and rustic about others in order to liberate our own bodies. As noted by Federici in her reference to Max Weber, Capitalism requires us to see our bodies as means to gain wealth while forfeiting spontaneous enjoyment. Therefore, leisure, frivolity, and celebration must not only be part of our resistance, but the foundation of our morality. Rather than shame (or worse—report) the person brushing their hair or eating food in a bus, shouldn’t we rather delight in such things? Are they not caring for their body the way the rest of us do? Couples engaged in public displays of affection—is there not something beautiful—and Pagan–about people expressing love? Or the rude person playing loud music on a bus, what if we danced to that music or sang along? Is there anything more Pagan than music in a public space?
If anything, such a revolt of the Rude would also be a revolt of love. Love would cause us to demand more space for ourselves, more enjoyment of our bodies. Love would stand against the logic of the machine and the shaming of the stranger. Love would claim the right to live outside the demands of profit.
Love would make us bodies again, rather than workers.
Love is a very, very rude thing.
Let’s be in love.
Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of the first A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest, and A Kindness of Ravens, and a columnist for The Wild Hunt.
He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love.
He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon.com/Paganarch.
Two days and one hundred years ago, women first achieved the right to vote in Canada. This was in the Manitoba provincial election; the federal government followed two years later. So it is perhaps fitting that the day before is the day I finally chose to start reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
I’ve been a feminist and a science fiction fan since childhood, so many people have recommended this book to me over the years. The year it was published, 1986, I was eleven. I think someone first recommended it to me in 1991, when I was protesting the Gulf War. I always meant to read it. It was “on my list,” especially as a Canadian. Margaret Atwood is considered to be one of the most significant Canadian writers and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist icon.
I was not inspired to read it because of the centennial of women’s suffrage in Canada. I was finally inspired to read it because I am doing some science fiction related reading challenges; one to read new-to-me female authors, and the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was both on a list of award-winning speculative fiction by female authors, and a list of award-winning LGBTQ speculative fiction. You can find those lists at https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… and https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list… respectively. Because I’m intending to read a lot of books this year, it was convenient for me that this book, which I meant to read someday anyway, was on both lists.
Let’s just establish, right off the bat, that I think this is an absolutely stunning book. I am glad I waited so long, because I don’t think I would have been mature enough to understand a lot of it until this point in my life. And I have mixed feelings about it. It’s frustrating and disturbing. Atwood has made some statements about it that make me angry. Some of the things critics have said about it make me want to beat my head against a wall. It can be difficult to follow if you’re not used to the style, because it is written in a flow-of-consciousness perspective that changes back and forth between present and past tense. Some have criticized her for this but I’m sure it was deliberate. The epilogue of the book, a fictional history lecture, says that the story was found recorded over some secular music cassette tapes from the 1980s, usually after a few minutes of music have played. So when you read it, picture a woman about forty, maybe forty-five, telling a story in a tired voice that is sometimes deliberately neutral, sometimes choking back tears and other times choking back rage. Listen to her talk; don’t read it expecting standard writing conventions. Perhaps, if you’ve ever heard a woman telling her tale in an interview for the Shoah project, picture her voice sounding like that.
So, yes. Mixed feelings. On the other hand, I chewed through this book in two and a half very busy days, abandoning all my other reading projects after leafing through the first ten pages. I was riveted to the edge of my seat. Would the protagonist live? Would she die? The whole novel was like holding my breath, waiting for what comes next. If Atwood intended us to feel this way — waiting in desperate anxiety — because that was what the protagonist’s life was like, then she succeeded admirably. The suspense was downright torturous. Also, the message . . . the message . . . How subversive. How frightening. What a fantastic wake-up call in so many different ways, and not just in how it pertains to women.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in an alternate history in which declining birth rates in the mid-eighties, attributed to toxic chemicals, pollution, radiation and other ecological disasters, along with AIDS and a virulent strain of syphilis that caused infertility in most men exposed to it, fell to frightening levels. Women’s independence, the use of birth control, lesbianism and homosexuality, were seen as exacerbating this (and perhaps they did). People reacted with fear, as they often do in such situations, and a religious Christian fundamentalist cult rose to power, toppled the United States government, shot the President and most of the Congress, and formed the Republic of Gilead. They used a symbol and a militant ideology never seen before. And suddenly the lives of women drastically changed.
Because all money had become electronic and there was no paper money, they started by freezing the bank accounts of anyone with an F attached to it rather than an M, and they forced people to fire all women from their jobs. Women were denied the right to own property. Men and women who were in second marriages or extramarital relationships, or anyone who was gay or lesbian, were declared unpersons. Their children were taken from them because they were considered to be “unfit parents,” and women so classified with viable ovaries were forced through reeducation camps, with cattle prod wielding “Aunts,” to become Handmaidens; that is, broodmares to the rich and powerful. Women of the right status and religious background were assigned in arranged marriages as Wives to significant and powerful men; women who were no longer fertile but weren’t “undesirable” were assigned to be “Marthas” (maids,) “incorrigible” women were taken out of official existence to become “Jezebels” (sex slaves,) and those who were too old to do anything else or beyond “reformation” (accomplished through a combination of brainwashing and torture) were sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste and radiation until they died. All of them were assigned different modes of dress to signify their role. Jezebels never went out in public and never left the brothels they’d been assigned to; Handmaids could only go out in pairs so that they could spy on each other and only to do specifically assigned tasks, wearing a red habit with winged wimples described as “blinders” so they couldn’t see out of the sides. All “vanities” such as immodest dress and makeup were banished and women were forbidden even the right to read. Conversely, men were denied the right to marry until they had proven themselves to the people in power, and were forbidden sex or even masturbation until that time also.
Lots to be discussed here. First of all, critics of the novel have tisked at how unlikely they feel this is to happen in the glorious United States of America. Except that I’ve seen many disturbing echoes of Atwood’s predictions in our society right now. How so many things are blamed on Islamic terrorism. How gradually freedoms and rights and privacy have been eroded in the name of “safety” and “security.” How we are gradually being railroaded into giving up paper money. The anti-abortionists, the censors in Britain. The backlash against LGBTQ rights; the “bathroom” laws. The systematic discrediting of feminism and of Planned Parenthood. Encouraging intolerance as a religious “right.” I won’t lie; you guys to the South of us are beginning to scare the shit out of me.
Some critics have said that they just don’t see all of this happening this quickly. But it has, and it is happening right now. The state of women in the Middle East, two generations ago, was comparable to that of women anywhere else in the world at that time. When the Soviet Union broke up much of Eastern Europe erupted into a seething hotbed of “ethnic cleansing.” In a mere five years in the late 1930s Germany transformed from a modern 20th century country to a totalitarian regime which is still causing shockwaves in our world culture. And in the Islamic State, right now, women are being given to jihadis as brides or sex slaves. I think of American “purity balls” and I shudder.
The story is set in what used to be Boston, Massachusetts, and the choice was made to emphasize the United States’ history of Puritanism. The corporate media and the religious right have been building up our political climate for something like this since at least 1991. I am not a doomsayer; I don’t believe in end-of-the-world prophecies; but I am a student of history and if you don’t recognize the parallels and it doesn’t concern you, you’re being willfully blind.
In order for such a regime to exist, you must create a hierarchy of haves and have nots, and so Atwood establishes that hierarchy in vivid detail. The Unwomen of the Colonies were the bottom of the food chain, deprived even of a right to life and health. The Jezebels at least had the privilege of that; though of course they were deprived of the right to liberty and personhood and were required to service the men who came to them. The Handmaidens came next, who at least could live and go out in public, though of course they, too, were required to do what was commanded of them, perform sexually for men, and had severe restrictions on their behaviour, their speech, and even were denied the right to a name; being called “Of-” plus the first name of the Commander they belonged to. The Handmaiden of the tale was called “Offred”; we never learn her real name. The Marthas were not required to spread their legs on command but were menial servants. The Wives had to obey their husbands but otherwise were the mistresses of the household. Aunts held an in-between place in which they are given extra privileges; what those were weren’t defined, but they earned their extra privileges by disciplining the Handmaidens, as some Jewish people earned extra privileges in the death camps by disciplining their fellow Jews. And above all of them, the young men, who at least had the right to read and go where they wished; then the Guardians, who were the foot soldiers; then the Commanders who were effectively above the law; until they weren’t.
One cannot help but consider the issues of intersectionality of our own time. Our corporate masters give lip service to religious fundamentalism to whitewash their activities and control the populace through “moral instruction.” They tell women not to complain about the inequalities they are handed, because they could be transgendered. They tell white people in poverty not to complain because they could be black and thus subject to being shot in the street, even for being a twelve-year-old with a toy gun in an open carry state. That’s how they control us. And we really need to stop allowing it, because the elite, whoever they are, will keep pushing until we force them not to. This, ultimately, is the message behind “The Handmaid’s Tale”; the sad reminder that we must band together, and view an assault on the rights of any one of us as an assault on the right of all of us. Otherwise, who will be there to help when they come for you?
Atwood sometimes receives anti-feminist criticism because her male characters are two-dimensional (true) and because even Offred’s former husband Luke was suspect. When women were denied the right to own property, hold jobs and have money, he put his arms around her and said, “You know I’ll always take care of you.”
Perhaps he didn’t react the way we thought he should have. We might think that Luke should have immediately said, “Okay, let’s run for the border.” But lots of Jews stayed in Germany because they just couldn’t believe that what was happening was actually happening. No one would go that far . . . would they?
I also believe that Atwood’s purpose in having Luke react in this way was to point out how complicated gender dynamics are. Let’s be frank; in many ways, modern feminism is a brand new thing. For centuries men have owned all the property (actually, I believe property rights created the patriarchy) and all of their identity has been wrapped up in their net worth and how well they can take care of their families. Feminism, especially social feminism, challenges that. It causes us to question what it is that makes one a man. Even now, women will rarely marry a man who makes less money than she does, and if she chooses to, people keep telling her to ditch the bum. If we had true gender equality, what difference would it make?
I have said little about the writing in the wake of the politics and the message. On one hand, I must compliment Atwood on her brilliant, liquid prose. Every word chosen is there for a reason; every symbol means something (for instance, the Handmaidens wear red, which of course hearkens back to red light districts, the Scarlet Letter, and also menstrual blood; red in Western culture is the colour of sexuality and fertility, as well as of anger, passion, and blood). It’s truly a pleasure to read such a good writer.
On the other hand . . .
You may be a bit surprised, after my glowing explanation of the message and the politics, when I say that really, Atwood’s story isn’t all that original. Dystopian societies meant to highlight challenging modern political issues are nothing new in science fiction. Nothing new at all. “1984” should come immediately to mind. Remember, Big Brother is always watching (and keylogging your internet usage).
Which is why it makes me gnash my teeth in fury that Atwood had the audacity to claim that this story wasn’t science fiction. She actually said (in an interview included in the back of the edition I read) that “Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” But she was nominated for a Nebula and she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I shake my head in dismay. I’m sure Ms. Atwood knows perfectly well that what she’s talking about is only one sub-genre of science fiction, known as “space opera.” Let’s face it, the real reason she said that is that she was afraid that they would take away her magical “literary writer” card if she lowered herself to writing mere “genre fiction.” And why isn’t “literary” considered a genre? Snobbery and nonsense. Ursula K. LeGuin, easily her equal in this craft, responded to that “but isn’t this science fiction?” question with bold statements that she could see no reason why genre fiction should be considered less “literary.”
Science fiction fans get so tired of this. I am reminded of how everyone, including James Cameron, was soooo convinced that “Avatar” was so original, when basically he wrote “Dances With Wolves” with special effects and I’ve seen even his variation of it as least twice in popular sci-fi novels written in the 90s or earlier. I suppose if you’ve never read science fiction this might look original, but literary critics have a lot of gall claiming that it is if they sneer at my beloved “genre fiction.”
However, Brian Aldiss argued in his book “Billion Year Spree” that reading science fiction is generally a lot different from reading other forms of fiction. When someone is described as looking up at the green sun, we assume the sun is green, not that this is a metaphor for something else, and that it will be explained later. One thing that is clear is that Atwood is not writing to science fiction audiences. And that might be a good thing. I referred it to my mother, who has never understood my love of science fiction, in the hopes that it will help to bridge the gap.
And thus I, as many others have, found the epilogue annoying at best, and wish that Atwood had simply let the book end when it did. First of all, it didn’t wrap up any of the things that were left up in the air. Some things we will never know for sure. Second, I don’t feel it added anything at all that I didn’t already know. I did not feel that the nature of the Gilead Regime or who, exactly, some of the characters were required any further explanation than was already given. Fictional lectures to give perspective to science fiction stories have been tropes since Robert Lewis Stevenson first delved there in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
That epilogue has also annoyed feminist critics. But maybe that was the point. The (male) professor giving the lecture on “The Handmaid’s Tale” pooh-pooh’s Offred’s style and level of education. He remarks that it’s clear that Offred was an educated woman (“as educated as anyone can be in 20th century America”,) which the class chuckles at, and then he goes on to say that since she was so educated, how much more valuable this document would have been if there had been some information about the nature and structure of the powers-that-be in Gilead, if she had included dates, wars, important commanders, that kind of thing.
I say that maybe this was the point, however, because in the first place, it points out how quick we are to sneer at our ancestors, and how much more advanced we always believe ourselves to be, even when we’re not; and perhaps she was also critiquing how our white privilege and militant Anglo culture is always so much concerned with who is important rather than the suffering and experience of ordinary people. Is this a commentary on the way we teach academic history?
Despite my quibbles and its flaws, however, this suspenseful, subversive, emotional and beautifully-written novel is perhaps more relevant in our time than ever before. Everyone should read it at least once, and sit with the things that it forces us to think about. I am inspired once again to band together, defend the rights of the underdog, and seek out the company of other women.
“Their primary focus is to now enter social movements, community spaces, spiritual communities, and the like, and influence them in a certain direction, usually towards the “preservation of the European traditions and people.”
The folk-song collector Alan Lomax once described the Gaelic song tradition of the Hebrides as “the flower of Western Europe,” and I for one agree with him. I love Gaelic songs so much I’ve taught myself how to sing several of them – including a few about old pagan heroes like Fraoch and Caoilte. I sing them to my kids as lullabies. I taught myself how to speak Gaelic to a beginner-intermediate level. I even wrote some bad poetry in the language. I worship Gaelic deities such as Brighid and Macha, and I practice a martial art involving a Gaelic weapon (the Highland broadsword).
Still, I never call myself a Gael nor do I consider myself a Gael. I love and appreciate Gaelic culture, but it’s not my identity. I was born and raised in New England, surrounded by English-speakers. My mother’s ancestors were Karelian Finns, my father’s a mix including Scots, Irish, German and even Transylvanian. I once answered the question “what is your ethnic identity” on a Gaelic learner’s survey with the phrase “Tha mi ‘nam Geangach!” (I am a Yankee!)
Few issues are as emotionally important to me as the survival of the Gaelic language and culture, which have been under threat for centuries. So why am I uncomfortable with forms of polytheism based on ethnic identity – even when that identity is described as Gaelic?
2- “What’s broken can always be fixed. What’s fixed will always be broken.”
“Fascism, as a radical current, critiques the current social order for various reasons, often times taking to task the same things that revolutionaries do on the left. Boredom. Environmental destruction. Alienation. Poor living standards. All of these things are presented often times within the fascist program of critique, but it does so with a fundamentally different set of values.”
In modern capitalist society, alienation and disenchantment are the normal state of being. People feel cut off from each other, cut off from their own selves, soul-less.
It’s only natural that some people would seek to recover what they feel they have lost, creating or recreating an identity from the broken pieces they’ve been given. That’s how it was for me. When I was a kid, my parents told me that my distant Thompson ancestors had come from Scotland, and for some reason that gave me a sense of who I was and led to my lifelong interest in Scottish history and culture.
That doesn’t make me Scottish, though. I’m still a Geangach. If I was to think of myself as being Scottish, I’d have to disregard and erase not only all my other ancestors, but my actual life experience as a New Englander. I can’t just pick one element of who I am and blow it up into a new identity. Not even if it was a much larger part of my actual background – I don’t think of myself as a Finn either, although my mother’s first language was Finnish.
I worship Gaelic deities because I love and honor those deities and Celtic mythology in general. I don’t worship them because they’re “the gods of my ancestors,” even though a few of my ancestors probably did worship them in the distant past.
Some religions are firmly based in a specific ethnic identity, but those ethnic identities are unbroken and continuous. If I had been born in the Hebrides, I might think of my worship of Brighid as being part of my ancestral heritage. Here in Maine, the context for my religion is totally different. Any attempt to base my worship of Gaelic deities in some notion of Gaelic identity would feel like an artificial construct to me.
So, I sometimes describe myself as a Gaelic Polytheist or a Celtic Polytheist because the deities I worship are Gaelic and Celtic and because I pray to them in the Gaelic language. But when I interact with other Gaelic Polytheists, I soon find that many of them mean something very different by the phrase. Many of them refer to the Gaelic gods as being the gods of “our people,” by which they specifically mean people of Gaelic descent. Not people in the Gaelic communities of Ireland or Scotland, but people in the United States and elsewhere with Gaelic ancestors – even if they haven’t spoken any Gaelic in many generations. They’re talking about “Gaelic blood” – and that makes me squirm.
3- “Serpents and sons of blood…”
(H)ierarchy, authority, tradition, and strength over the weak are the values, and the political apparatus that is chosen is just the method…
Maybe it’s because I have no more than a drop or two of “Gaelic blood” myself – except that languages don’t have “blood.” A recent DNA study on the MacNeills of Barra concluded that the clan was almost entirely of Scandinavian descent, yet the MacNeills were unquestionably a Gaelic-speaking Highland clan. Any claim of “Gaelic identity” based on genealogy alone is questionable at best, because Gaelic identity is not racial and cannot be reduced to DNA. Donald Trump’s mother was born on Stornoway in the Outher Hebrides, yet Trump shows not the barest hint of a traditional Gaelic worldview or mentality.
Gaelic Polytheists don’t seem to be like this. Every Gaelic Polytheist group I’ve come across seems to be aware in one way or another of traditional Gaelic values, and interested in reviving or renewing them. Yet I’m still uncomfortable.
The strong emphasis on ethnic identity bothers me, as does the strong emphasis on tribalism as the ideal form of social organization. The meticulous Gaelic-ness of a modern polytheist organization, based self-consciously on Iron Age social structures – none of this bears much resemblance to Gaelic culture as it currently exists. If we’re not just reviving the worship of ancient deities but the entire structure of ancient Gaelic society, that can only be because we believe that society to have been a superior way of life for us to emulate. Why exactly should we make that assumption?
Like many other Brigidine devotees, I tend to interpret St. Brigid of Kildare as having a strong connection to the pre-Christian goddess. I can’t prove the connection and you don’t have to agree with me, but Brigid’s comments about the social order of her own era still seem highly relevant to me. According to the Vita Prima or “First Life” of St. Brigid, the saint once said:
“the sons of kings are serpents and sons of blood and sons of death…”
People who admire Iron Age Irish society uncritically won’t be thrilled with this description, but is it not an accurate description of the sons of power and privilege in any era?
Leaving aside the fact that “sons of death” is probably a reference to berserker-like pagan warbands, this is still a striking condemnation of the injustice and inequality St. Brigid saw and fought in her own society.
She was, after all, born a slave in that society.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to admire about ancient pagan Ireland – personally I admire many things about ancient Ireland. However, I do think we should be cautious about taking it as a model. We should be cautious about taking any form of past society as a model, not because the past was worse than our own time but because we need to think carefully about what kind of society we want to replace capitalism with.
If we approach this project with sloppy thinking, we leave ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by the most cowardly and intellectually dishonest people in the pagan community.
I’m talking about fascists.
4- Fith-Fath Fascism
The reality is that the obvious images of traditional war fascism are so repugnant to everyone in modern society that people who share those ideas are never going to cloak themselves in them if they want any chance of success…
I don’t believe in progress. I don’t believe societies move from a “tribal” model to some more “progressive” model in any linear way. I don’t believe in regress either, so I don’t think of tribal society as some lost golden age we have to fight to recover.
Rather, I think societies develop based on specific and localized circumstances. People always have problems to solve, and societies develop in different directions to address the specific problems they face. Some of those solutions are ad hoc and some are well thought-out. Some are optimal and some are very much less than optimal. Some are cynical maneuvers to benefit a few.
When I question the concept of tribalism in pagan religion or leftist politics, I’m not criticizing tribal societies. I’m not even dismissing the possibility that our religion and our politics could give birth to healthy, happy and flourishing neopagan tribes. These things could happen, and I have friends and family who describe themselves as tribalists. Some of them are also influential and very knowledgeable Gaelic Polytheists, and some are committed anti-racists.
Still, in the big picture of history, tribal forms of organization are neither better nor worse than other forms of organization. They just are what they are.
However, they do offer one thing that a lot of us crave, and that’s a strong sense of connection and identity. This is exactly what many of us are looking for, and this where our vulnerability to fascist infiltration creeps in.
When Gaelic warriors would raid into enemy territory, they would sometimes use a magic spell called a fith-fath to ensure that anyone who spotted them would mistake them for deer or other animals. Like shapeshifting infiltrators from an enemy tribe, fascists and white supremacists cloak themselves in whichever shape will best disguise them, always hoping not to be noticed so they can introduce their toxic ideas.
We would all reject someone talking openly about totalitarian rule and white supremacy, but when those same values are cloaked in words like “European heritage,” “tribal identity” and “warrior values” we may not see them for what they really are.
People who have been fooled so completely will sometimes go to absurd lengths to argue that they have not actually been hoodwinked – as in the recent controversy about Stephen McNallen, head of the Asatru Folk Assembly. McNallen called for the revival of the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi vigilante militia, to “protect” white Europeans from Muslim refugees. Yet he continues to claim he isn’t a white supremacist, and some people in the heathen community seem to want to believe him. Why would anyone accept such a ridiculous claim? This is the nature of shapeshifting, the nature of glamour. Until we are willing to see the truth and say the truth, the spell keeps working.
5- “Weak toward the feeble, strong toward the powerful”
At their core is a disbelief in the capability of all people to rule, the inequality and stratification amongst people, the essential nature of value in biology, and the need to lead through violence, heroism, and strength…
Some people in the Gaelic Polytheist community seem to have a serious misconception about the role of strength – one that doesn’t align with traditional Gaelic values, but does align with fascist values.
“Our ancestors valued strength above all else.”
“Considering that strength was so important to our warrior ancestors…”
“Our ancestors venerated strength…”
“How do I deal with negative feelings, when I know that our Celtic ancestors valued strength and despised weakness?”
These are paraphrases of comments I’ve seen in the community. Let’s compare them to some actual quotes from Gaelic wisdom-literature, which is generally presented as being spoken by kings or warrior heroes:
Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness. (Maxims of the Fianna)
I was weak toward the feeble, I was strong toward the powerful. (Cormac MacArt)
Do not deride the aged when you have youth. Do not deride the poor when you have wealth. Do not deride the lame when you are swift. Do not deride the blind though you have sight. Do not deride the ill when you have strength. Do not deride the dull when you are clever. Do not deride the foolish though you are with wisdom. (Cormac MacArt)
These are brief quotes without full context, but as you can see they do not glorify strength for its own sake and they specifically forbid the warrior from despising weakness. The ideal presented in these texts is to be strong when strength is appropriate and gentle when gentleness is appropriate. It’s an ethic of balance, not of domineering aggression.
So where are Gaelic Polytheists getting the idea that “our ancestors” valued strength above all else? How could this misconception have crept into the community, among people who have read a lot of old Gaelic lore and should know better than to fall for it?
I would suggest that this is no accident,and that the presence of this idea in the community indicates that fascist values are creeping in without being recognized. That doesn’t mean the people repeating the idea are fascists- only that they’ve been fooled by the fascists.
Remember, modern fascists are cowards and liars, and most of them will never admit to being what they really are. They will always pretend to be something else, cloaking the same old ideas in new rhetoric and new symbols. Tribalism is sometimes used as one of those symbols, but that’s only fitting – considering that the whole concept was invented by colonialist anthropologists in the 19th century.
6- What Comes After
Fascism promises to restore the true order, the heroic history that never was. Fascism outlines a mythology about a particular grouping by suggesting that in the past it was racially homogenous, filled with heroes, perfectly run, and where by people are spiritually fulfilled.
The whole notion of pagan tribalism (and anarcho-tribalism, for that matter) depends on the concept of “tribe.” Yet the validity of this concept is far from established, and the word is now rejected by many anthropologists.
According to the Encylopedia Brittanica:
Tribe, in anthropology, a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups (known as bands), having temporary or permanent political integration, and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology… The term originated in ancient Rome, where the word tribus denoted a division within the state. It later came into use as a way to describe the cultures encountered through European exploration. By the mid-19th century, many anthropologists and other scholars were using the term, as well as band, chiefdom, and state, to denote particular stages in unilineal cultural evolution. Although unilineal cultural evolution is no longer a credible theory, these terms continue to be used as a sort of technical shorthand in college courses, documentaries, and popular reference works.
Actual “tribes” are highly diverse in terms of social and political organization. Some are hereditary monarchies, some have ruling councils, some use a feudal structure, some are almost totally decentralized. So there isn’t really any clear definition of the word “tribe,” except that it refers to a stage in a completely fictional model of social evolution designed to justify imperialism. One aspect of “tribe” in the anthropological sense is homogeneity of ancestry, language, culture and ideology – so if we describe ourselves as neo-tribalists, we’re implying that we want a similar homogeneity.
After capitalism destroys itself, it is certainly possible that people will form new “tribal” societies in order to survive. If we think carefully about what we want to do ahead of time, we may choose to do something completely different – like the Kurds of Syria. After the central government withdrew from their area, they chose not to base their new society on Kurdish ethnic identity even though they could easily have done so. Instead they set out to create a radically egalitarian, multi-ethnic society.
As capitalism continues its forced march toward self-destruction, one of the most useful things we can do is to think about how we would make use of the precious opportunity a similar power vacuum would give us. The fascists are doing exactly that, and we know very well what their world would look like. For those of us who embrace pagan tribalism or anarcho-tribalism, the challenge is to enact whatever we value in the concept of “tribe” without being infiltrated and corrupted by fascist values.
That isn’t our only option, though. Instead of trying to form pagan tribes, we can take our pagan values and make them part of a truly free, truly equal new form of social order. The Kurds of Rojava were up to the challenge. Are we?
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.
I don’t just mean easing my client to the ground and checking for stroke. As I wait for the charge nurse, I focus on my smile. Other residents have visitors, after all; they’re liable to complain about a caregiver who lets it show that she’s had too little sleep for a 12-hour shift. Nursing resembles customer service, waitstaffing, and retail: most of the work does not involve the specific set of tasks listed in the job description. 80% of the time, nursing means presenting cheerfulness, politeness, deference, and a willingness to handle other people’s interpersonal tension no matter how they treat you.
And as I push through the minor crisis on the emotional momentum of my devotional prayer that morning, I wonder, “Why should my employer care about my facial expression as much as my ability to cushion this client’s fall?”
Of course, it’s gender.
Two sociologists in particular have defined the ways we approach the connections between gender, emotions, and work. Emerging from the Second Wave of Western feminism in the 60s and 70s, Louise Kapp Howe wondered whether increased access to paid work had, in fact, much improved women’s lives. She found that women overwhelmingly got shunted into low-wage, majority-women, service-sector occupations; for these she coined the term “pink-collar” (as opposed to still-male-dominated blue- and white-collar jobs).
Later, Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart showed us what those pink-collar jobs disproportionately involve: she termed it emotional labor. Emotional labor is a waitress smiling and laughing even when a customer is rude. Emotional labor is a retail clerk greeting everyone who walks in with a smile, no matter how she actually feels. Emotional labor is a nurse aide acting pleasant even under deeply unpleasant conditions.
Emotional labor is the work of acting like you feel a certain way because the boss and customers demand it. And emotional labor, above all, is “women’s work.”
She tells me everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I know what to do.
This time it’s not a client, but a partner. Relationship abuse, though often not discussed, is as much a reality for LGBT people as for straights. By this point, she’d quite effectively isolated me with a move across the country, and I wouldn’t get away from her for several more months. So I smile, and I draw on whatever emotional strength I can find – from the Meter Theon, from myself, from the ability to do emotional labor on demand that women under patriarchy have to develop. The skill set here didn’t differ from the one I use at work. And in principle, it doesn’t differ from the work of listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead).
Women who’ve survived abuse often have people asking us why we put up with it, why we stayed even after it became “really” bad. There’s plenty of answers – lack of financial resources, absence of crucial support networks, nowhere to leave to – but I rarely hear the biggest reason of all. Satisfying other people’s desires without expecting reciprocation is what women do; under patriarchy, that’s what “women’s work” means.
Much of the emotional labor required of pink collar workers involves smiling and apologizing at people targeting you with abusive behaviors. Tell an angry, verbally-violent customer, “don’t talk to me like that. I deserve basic respect,” and you’ll likely get fired. Submitting to an abusive partner or family member involves precisely the same work, and it’s work forced on most of us by the power structure of capitalism. The requirements of paid pink-collar work reinforce abusive dynamics at home, while the emotional conditioning of unpaid abuse makes women better at putting up with it on the job.
Capitalism runs on the abuse of women.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
– Karl Marx
When faking happiness at work is more than my depressive brain can bear, I pray for strength and find that the Mother of the Gods answers. When tolerating my abuser without melting down became more than was possible, I also prayed for strength, and also found that the Mother answered. Sure, Marx may have opposed religion on principle. But I wouldn’t have lasted this long without the power my goddess gives me. Patriarchy is the system growing on women’s unpaid, unreciprocated work (emotional, domestic, and social). And like all exploitation, patriarchy harms its victims. Women are consistently more religious than men across many different traditions. This holds even truer for Paganism than for the Abrahamic religions Marx had in mind. We seek so much divine support because we can’t keep going without it.
Many of us are used to getting through on the strength our deities give us, and many of our deities are used to “giving a portion of power to women” because women need it. But part of our work as anticapitalists involves removing the need for religion to act as a stopgap for exploited, struggling people. We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.
“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”
– Shane Claiborne
In the left-wing subculture, certain roles and political strategies get glory. Everyone wants to admire the building occupier who stands firm when they get pepper sprayed, or the leader whose oratory whips a crowd of demonstrators into ecstasy, or the organizer who founded six organizations and sits on the steering committee for five more. And confrontation and “speaking truth to power” surely do take courage and express the righteous fury of the activist community; sometimes, they even get material results. But there’s more to revolution than challenging the old (including the often-unsung behind-the-scenes work that allows confrontation to occur. While this work is disproportionately done by women, the visible glory-winning roles still tend to go to men). You also need to build the new.
During the Indian independence struggle, Gandhi developed a theoretical distinction between an “obstructive program” and a “constructive program.” The former means challenging existing unjust systems and demanding they change (by whatever tactics one chooses; virtually everything activists in the US currently do falls into this category). The latter, however, means building something better now, so that when the old system falls, something will be ready to take its place. While we need both, Gandhi rightly prioritized the latter, saying:
“My real politics is constructive work.”
Patriarchy is about labor. Patriarchy is about exploitation. And without doing away with patriarchy, we won’t really be able to undo capitalism; like all structures of exploitation, they’re too mutually reinforcing to get rid of just one by itself. The type of work exploited through patriarchy is generally women’s unwaged and unnamed domestic and/or emotional labor (be it in a pink-collar job or just informally, between friends, families, and lovers). Until you start looking for it, it’s hard to notice; so is abuse, of course, and abuse exists on a spectrum with unreciprocated emotional work. We can’t get rid of abuse without getting rid of the entire spectrum. Our constructive program must involve men doing this labor for each other and doing it for women. Even our male revolutionaries need to start doing the dishes.
Otherwise, women won’t find our communities sharing power and support together. We’ll only have what strength our gods can give.
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.
When people think of “racism” it is often associated with obvious and loud examples, like when a white police officer murders a black child like Tamir Rice. It is also found in unexpected places. For people of color like myself, it is found coming from our friends, partners, families, and coworkers. Many of the people reading this will know that just because a person may have befriended, is dating, or is related to a person of color, does not make those people exempt from being actively racist with malicious intent, or unknowingly biased, and everywhere in between. Some people indulge in casual racism to “fit in,” or to not seem like a downer when their friend makes a bad joke, but never actually make a racist joke themselves. Let’s face it, no one wants to be the person not laughing in the room, no one wants to be the person to try and correct a friend’s casual racism for fear of rejection, or be accused of “taking things too seriously.” And yet, all people have a responsibility they may be unaware of, or aren’t the type of personality to take those kinds of matters head-on. In any case, casual racism is still racism, and those that do nothing are part of the problem. None of this is new information to most, so let’s get to the point.
Racism is so subtle that it can also come spewing out of the mouths of people of color. To my horror, I saw a friend of mine, also a person of color, preface their Facebook status, “At the risk of sounding stereotypical…” My initial reaction was to say, “You may want to reconsider your friend choices if you feel the need to preface your message in that way.” The rebuttal from my friend was that the preface was a joke, and that most of his friends know that they do not act like a stereotypical [insert race here].
Reading their response brought up a lot of personal experiences for me. Hurtful ones. For the sake of too much information being better than too little, I am going to share the gist of my ethnic make-up. I am half Mexican, and half “white.” I was raised by my “white” half of the family, in a small city where the population is primarily Caucasian. I look like a mixed person, but definitely more like my Mexican half. Before I moved out of the area, I had friends who would justify my existence when introducing me to their other friends by saying, “It’s ok, she’s basically white,” or, “Don’t worry, she’s white-washed.” I would feel accepted, and would laugh it off so that everyone else could feel comfortable and see that I wasn’t scary. I would sometimes even add commentary like, “Yea, I don’t even know any Spanish,” as if that is something to be proud of. I had one bad friend in particular, someone I considered my best friend, who would introduce me to his family and friends as his “spick.” I felt like it was an inside joke that he had made me feel comfortable with, as if it was a term of endearment.
From where I am standing now, none of those people were ever my friends. None of them. Without knowing it, I was allowing, or otherwise making myself, the butt of their jokes. Much like you can enable a substance abuser by keeping quiet about your personal feelings, the same can be applied to bigots. The fact is that I was trying to politely navigate a society where “white” people are taught to question their safety around people of color. They are taught to question whether or not our existence in a room, or the world in general is valid. I got used to justifying my existence to make others feel comfortable, and did so as second nature. Society won, and taught me to be ashamed of who I am.
So now let me break down the reality of my friends post. When I saw it, I didn’t see a joke, I saw a person who was taught to be ashamed of their existence. I saw someone accidentally perpetuating racism, even though they are a person of color. I saw someone unknowingly shaming anyone who might adhere to the cultural stereotype they were so ashamed of being associated with. Considering the comments that followed, I definitely saw someone who needs to heed the advice to reconsider their choice in friends.
But there is more than one option at hand. The choice that this person has is to deeply consider the reality they have been presented with, or to forget that the conversation we had ever occurred. I have been at that crossroad; alone and naked there. I knew that if I took the road of comfort, I would always know deep down that my “friends” would continue on making derogatory comments like they always had, and I would have to ignore the light that had turned on. I knew that if I took the road uphill, that I would feel incredible sorrow and hurt, not only for my choice to back away from long lasting friendships that started in my childhood, but I would also have to face the fact that I was starting at ground zero when it came to loving myself completely. Needless to say, I put in the work and took on the uphill battle. I cried my way to the top, and stood tall in triumph when I got there. For the first time, I had confidence that I was physically beautiful because I am brown, not despite. I have surrounded myself with people that uplift my existence as much as I do, and never let casual racism slip on by in my friend circles. I do my best to educate others on uncomfortable subjects because I believe that is the only way to achieve a better future. I will raise my unborn child to do the same, as I know it is inevitable that at some point my child will have to stare racism in the face, and they will have a choice on how to react. We all have that choice. Pass it on.
Sophia Fate-Changer Martinez
With a thirst for justice, I am committed to exploring conversations no one wants to have in order to make the world a slightly-more-than-tolerable place to exist. I consider myself an actively outspoken Heathen Hedgewitch, a mixture of which tends to have otherworldly side-effects. I enjoy long walks in my cavernous dream realm, from which I often wake suddenly with mixed emotions about the reality of society. Lastly, and I hope not least, I am a member of Golden Gate Kindred in the Bay Area, and an administrator for Heathens United Against Racism (HUAR).
I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories – a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.
When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.
With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see below, my post didn’t pick up any replies:
Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).
It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.
Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.
But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.
Before I took the train home, I joined a massive illegal march through the streets of Paris. A kaleidoscope of people from every corner of the world, bedecked in red cut a path through the city, flooding from the Arch de Triomph to the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, one of Europe’s Mother Rivers. One of the last things I saw that day was a group of young Muslims, gathered together, posing for a photograph with a banner proclaiming the sacred duty – enshrined in the Qur’an – to steward the Earth on behalf of Allah. They stood upon the Champ de Mars, an open field named after Campus Martius in Rome, between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire in the heart of Paris. Sacred to Mars, the God of War, the original Field of Mars was the gathering place of Roman soldiers, before they marched off to fight hostile tribes. Mars is the God of War, but also of wild, growing things – of field and forest. His wars are – unlike those his Greek brother Ares – not mindless aggression, but rather conflict that seeks, in the end, a stable peace. Mars does not fight for the love of it, but because necessity drives him to do so. What unites this broad set of quality is the core masculine virtue of the Roman people – namely, virilitas – a life-essence that gives us the strength to secure peace, and make the Earth fruitful.
The fact that the illegal action on Saturday culminated in a place dedicated to such a god was, to my mind, a powerful ritual act. The patriarchal notion that only men possess the essential vital quality needed to promote peace and restore life is wrong; but the idea that these two objectives share a common foundation is more relevant than ever. To refer back to Laudato ’si, the plight of the Earth and the plight of the poor are one common cause. People from all over the Earth; men, women and everyone else; standing together hand-in-hand, before heading out to fight for the safety and fertility of the world upon which we all rely. Though I had to leave before the ceremonies were over, I was careful to say a prayer to Mars before I did.
Even though Paganism had no formal representation at the Conference, the influence of the kinds of thinking of which we are custodians was present in subtle ways. In the Green Zone itself, one of the official art installations involved brightly-painted trees, upon which visitors could tie ribbons upon which they had written their wishes for a better future. To tie a clootie in the heart of the Green Zone; to sing, and teach and pray in public; to represent our traditions as part of a great multitude – all these acts are sacred, and carry great potency. We neglect these rites only at great cost.
I say we should stand up for the planet and its people; we should be recognisable and recognised.
I’ll meet you on the Fields of Mars.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.