Maybe it will be something sudden. You’ll be crossing a bridge, walking your bike with the pedestrian light, and a drunk driver will whip through the intersection, not notice the blinking light, and you’ll be Humpty Dumpty.
Maybe it will be something longer. Cancer, maybe. Cancer gets lots of people.
Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll actually go the distance. Maybe you’ll avoid all the accidents, not get cancer, not get Alzheimer’s. Maybe it will be old age that gets you. You’ll be a hundred and ten. You’ll have arthritis and bad bowels and all your faculties, but a tiny blood vessel in your brain will explode and you’ll have a stroke and be dead before you hit the floor.
And guess what? There’s not a single fucking thing you can do about it.
Nothing. NO-thing. No amount of hand cream or botox or face lifts will save you. Death even got Joan Rivers in the end.
No amount of positive thinking will protect you. Wayne Dyer, who was bragging in an audiobook I was listening to about how it had been twenty years since he got a cold, got cancer. He’s still with us, but how long before it comes back?
No amount of exercise will stop it. Jim Fixx died of a heart attack — while running!
So knock it off.
Knock off all the silly superstitious bullshit that you think is going to protect you.
Stop hiding all the old and the broken people away where you don’t have to look at them.
Stop worrying about what other people eat because you’re jealous, since you can’t bring yourself to enjoy an occasional cheeseburger without guilt.
Stop with the Power of Positive Thinking and the Secret. Stop with the victim-blaming. Stop with pretending that if you just colour inside the lines, it won’t happen to you.
Because it will. If not now, then later, and there’s no amount of magic that is going to protect you. No one has achieved immortality through magic yet, except maybe St. Germaine.
So why let it bother you?
Okay, you might live a little longer if you don’t eat burgers all the time. But one cheeseburger really will not hurt you that much.
Old age isn’t a disease. Hiding and marginalizing the old will not prevent you from getting old. It’s not catching; it’s already programmed into your DNA. Everything breaks down in the flesh. Physical bodies cannot last.
If you develop positive thinking, life might be more fulfilling because you will not dwell on unhappiness. But it will not prevent bad things from happening to you.
More than that, losing your irrational fear of death will make you a more compassionate person.
If you don’t try to tell yourself that the homeless guy on the street corner just isn’t thinking positively enough, maybe you’ll give him some spare change. Maybe you’ll buy him one of those hamburgers you can’t bring yourself to eat. Maybe you’ll even actually talk to him, and you’ll learn his name is Joe and he’s a Desert Storm vet with PTSD who was abandoned by Veterans Services because they don’t want to admit that Gulf War Syndrome is a thing and he drinks so he can sleep.
If you don’t think that old age is a disease that you might catch, maybe you’ll spend some time with older people. And you’d be amazed at what you can learn when the past is something that happened to someone in your monkeysphere and not something you read about on the internet. If you don’t try to tell yourself that younger people are more valid than older people, maybe you’ll glean some wisdom because nothing is new under the sun and likelihood is that your original, “innovative solution” has been tried before.The fear of death underlies all of our fears. It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention. But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway. Eventually it will go wrong.
The fear of death underlies all of our fears. It makes us afraid to do things just in case we trip over some imaginary line that gets the Grim Reaper’s attention. But you can do everything right and it can still all go wrong anyway. Eventually it will go wrong.
The irrational fear of death is what keeps us from getting involved when we should. It’s what stops us from standing up against wrongdoing; because, after all, maybe someone will target us if we say something. It’s what keeps us from caring when caring matters. Easier to try to believe there’s a reason why one person is lucky and one isn’t. Why some of us constantly struggle and others have everything handed to them on a plate. Why one person dies from choking on a chicken bone in their soup and another lives through being struck by lightning with no permanent damage.
But don’t you believe it! There is no reason. Sometimes, bad shit just happens to good people. And sometimes, good shit just happens to bad people too. No one’s keeping score. There’s no brownie point system. Impressing whatever god you believe in will not result in earthly rewards, nor protect you from harm because you’ve earned enough good karma points.
So, since that’s something you can’t control, stop letting it control you.
Let it go! Relax! Have fun every once in a while! Take risks! Dare! Because life is more fun when you’re not worrying about how it’s going to end. And love is easier when you’re not afraid of people.
Should we link our politics and our faith? This is a question that is beginning to be asked in our community. Some of that has to do with the stir that Gods & Radicalshas created, especially the recent controversy.
I try to stay out of online bickering, and when I feel I must get involved I try to do it in the form of a column so that we can have a mature, intelligent debate rather than a bunch of back-biting, pot-stirring and name-calling, with the usual wake of vultures showing up to cannibalize whomever looks weakest for their own self-glorification through gossip. Hard experience has taught me that wading in to the mix while the shit is still flying is never helpful. But even I was drawn partway into this one. I guess it’s because it’s such an emotional issue for me. It’s a button-pusher, and my buttons were pushed.
Sometimes that’s a good thing. It makes you consider where it is that you really stand on important issues, and why; or it forces you to confront all those shadowy sub-motivations and personal issues that you bury under the subconscious muck. For me it did both.
One thing that made me very . . . I won’t say angry, but perhaps exasperated is the correct word . . . was the accusation leveled against the writers of G&R that we put our politics before our faith. That couldn’t be more wrong, and I felt inspired to explain why.
Religion Informs Culture
There is a movement not to use the singular word “community” to describe us Pagans, because we don’t really have one. That’s true. But we do have a distinct Pagan culture. Anthropologists who study us refer to it as a “sub-culture” (which we don’t like, because we’re too proud to be “sub-anything,”) or a “counterculture” (which isn’t exactly true; most of us aren’t directly opposed to the culture we live in, we just don’t entirely agree with it.)
The separation of church and state is something Americans hold as an unalienable right. Weirdly, you are kind of alone in the world. Most other countries, even we Canadians, your closest neighbours and probably closest to you culturally, don’t quite go that far. Culture is something we talk about as being an important force. Culture is an issue that our bilingual country, which was founded on, and continues to grow by, the juxtaposition of three distinct cultural aspects — Anglophone, Francophone, and First Nations (note the plural) — has had to be hyper-aware of since our founding.
We do believe in the principle of not enforcing a religion through the mechanism of the state. Our Charter of Rights & Freedoms (our Constitution) protects freedom of religion. We Canadians are strong supporters of that right and we try to accompany those rights with equal respect (which aren’t quite the same thing).
But religion is also a part of culture. The Quebec court systems and legislature in many cases still carry crucifixes on their walls, because when they joined Canada, Quebec was a distinct French Catholic culture living under English Protestant rule. Much of the religious element is moot now in the wake of what was called the Quiet Revolution,which happened in the mid-seventies. The Catholic church was a significant part of everyone’s life in Quebec, running most social services and so forth — until, all of a sudden, they weren’t, and much of that became secularized. But there are remnants. For instance, property still passes to the eldest son, at least in part, after a man who owned it dies, rather than entirely into the hands of his widow.
This distinct Francophone culture ultimately culminated in a long series of Constitutional crises and an endless series of referendums, a strong Quebec Sovereignty movement and a federal political party whose entire goal was Sovereignty for Quebec. There were arguments and a lot of bitterness on both sides, but I think we seemed to have settled into an uneasy peace that is becoming easier with each passing year.
However, the triumvirate of religion, culture and politics doesn’t have to be a negative thing. That Anglophone-Francophone cultural tension is part of what makes Canada so unique. It teaches us to have a broader appreciation for cultural differences in general and to create a truly beautiful fusion in many places. And we’re learning how to do it better. For instance, many First Nations incorporate their spiritual practices into their social services and decision-making processes. They believe that this helps to create a sense of community which makes it easier to come together on divisive issues. Furthermore, many official federal and provincial functions are beginning to include elements of First Nations’ ceremonies. I think this is a positive trend and I’d like to see more of the cooperative decision-making elements of some of our most politically powerful First Nations included as well.
This culturally diverse history is why we can open our arms to 25,000 Syrian refugees without batting an eye, knowing they will bring their own unique colours to our mosaic.
Much of the American and Canadian judicial system is founded in English Protestant Christianity. Our system believes in “right” and “wrong,” and it punishes what it sees as wrongdoing. The enforcement of concepts of good and evil is an Abrahamic concept and you probably don’t even think about this, since you grew up in this culture and despite the efforts of the more extreme of us to throw off that yoke, it still influences our behaviour and perhaps always will. Christian ethics also led them to found the very first hospitals and pensions for widows and orphans — institutions no one but the most dedicated libertarian or fascist would argue against now.
Yet Protestant Christianity has a powerful Humanist influence, which culminates in trying to balance the needs of the state with the rights of the individual. In a way, both Paganism and Atheism are simply following the reasoning of Protestant ideas — human rights, personal dignity, and individual relationship with the Divine — to their ultimate conclusions. (Please note that I do not say “logical” conclusions. Faith, by its nature, is illogical and is something we engage with emotionally and then justify through reason. At least, that’s what I think.)
Ethics are, perhaps, the most significant influence that religion can have upon us. This is something we Pagans tend to be a bit fuzzy on. We’re a new religion (yes, even the Reconstructionists) and so we are still trying to figure this stuff out as we go. Most of us would say that the Christian ethic simply didn’t work for us and that was the impetus that drove us into this crazy patchwork quilt of a community. Many of us, if pressed, would say that we have no dogma at all. We are liars, but at least we are subconscious liars. It’s our genuine belief, not an intentional falsehood, and I think it’s based in a misunderstanding of what “dogma” actually is. Kind of like when people say they’re not religious because they don’t believe in Jesus.
Many of the definitions of “dogma” don’t fit, including anything that is declared, proclaimed or handed down. But as Brendan Myersonce tried to explain to people in a lecture I attended, that very thing is dogmatic! Part of the Pagan dogma — one of our most “settled or established opinions, beliefs, or principles” — is that no one has the right to act as an authority for the whole group on anything, ever.
Where am I going with all of this? I’m suggesting that Paganism does, indeed, have some powerful dogma that affects our ethics. Like, for example, a strong ethic of personal rights and freedoms. A slightly less strong ethic of personal responsibility. I have written about my belief that the Charge of the Goddess is a series of ethical commandments that is at least as important as the Rede, if not more so. And I’ve also written about my belief that the Rede is not nearly such a black-and-white, namby pamby ethical code as you may have been led to believe. Other Pagan faiths have their own liturgies and their own codes of ethics, such as the Nine Noble Virtues, and these will dictate ethical choices just as surely as mine do.
Deities Inform Your Politics
Polytheistic faiths have an additional factor that influences these things, and that is the individual Deities we choose to follow (or Who choose us) will also influence our ethics and our priorities, and thus, our politics. A devotee of Coyote or Loki is probably a bit of a shit-disturber, coming from the understanding that sometimes the wisdom of the Fool and the Trickster is needed to make us question ourselves and take us down a peg. A devotee of Apollo, on the other hand, is going to resent anything that breaks the harmonious order. Neither side is wrong, and both are needed, but they will clash in places and as Pagans, we must simply accept this as part of our reality.
A Personal Perspective
Winding this discussion in from the wide perspective to the personal, I am a Wiccan, so for me there are some definite ethical guidelines–contained within the smattering of liturgy we have–that I feel I should observe. I say “guidelines” because individual interpretation and understanding is also one of those ethical guidelines.
One of these ethics is an abhorance of slavery. “You shall be free from slavery,” my Goddess(es) says, and so I must believe, since Her “law is love unto all beings,” that She would want me to fight for the freedom of all.
There’s more to it than that, but a lot of these things intersect. Environmentalism comes from a love of the earth and its creatures and a desire that we might all be free to enjoy the earth’s bounty. My sex positivity and my staunch defense of all rights to choose in reproduction, relationship and personal expression are bound up in a combination of that freedom from slavery principle, love unto all beings, and the exhortation to sing, feast, dance, make music and love, and the need for beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence.
As a result of all of that, I feel I must defend the oppressed. Oppression can be expressed socially, politically, militarily, or economically. It is my understanding that these things are abhorrent to my Goddess, and abhorrent to me, that drives me to take a stand against them.
Culturally, as a Pagan I have allies. Culturally, Pagans of various stripes, but perhaps none more so than the Women’s Spirituality Movement, have a long history of forming peaceful but outspoken opposition to oppression. This has filtered over into the whole community and in particular, a lot of Polytheists seem to be on board. It makes much more sense for me to support the work of my allies in this complex and wearying fight, driven by my religious ethics, than to do it alone. I get more done that way. And I get encouragement when I need it. I don’t always agree one hundred percent with everyone who writes for Gods & Radicals. But dammit, they’re doing something. And I would answer their critics with, “and what are you doing?”
Spiritually, I also believe I have a calling to do this work. I have written before abouthow Diana accepted my offer to pray to Her before I realized what that really meant. At the time, I was connecting to the Maiden Warrior Goddess in the Moon Whose name I had been given. I believed in feminism and the wild and its preservation and I had no interest in sex whatsoever, so Her Maidenhood was attractive to me.
But over time that relationship changed. I learned, as I began to realize my bisexuality, about Diana’s preference for the company of women. And about Her love of the occasional man who was especially worthy of Her attentions. I discovered Women’s Spirituality then and a spiritual impetus to support my desires for equality.
And then, when I had finally reconciled my sexuality and the idea of the holiness of sex, when I had accepted a path to become a High Priestess in the way that a Catholic might have accepted a calling to become a nun, I discovered Diana, Queen of the Witches, Mistress of all Sorceries, seducer of Her brother, Lucifer. She and Lucifer gave the world a daughter, Aradia. She was sent to the world to teach witchcraft to the masses and liberate the oppressed. Hence, the choice of my Craft name.
I suppose, as my awareness of politics has grown, I have realized that in many ways, it is a part of my spiritual calling and the oaths I have sworn to become involved in politics. It is my sacred duty to defend the underdog, to raise up the powerless, and to oppose oppression wherever I see it. And if you haven’t read Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, the “oppressors” that Aradia led Her followers against in the myth were the Church and wealthy landowners. In other words, the 1% of their time.
I won’t disagree that there are drawbacks to this stance. In many cases I can’t just “go along to get along.” I can’t keep my mouth shut. It’s like a Bard’s Tongue; silence for too long will just cause blunt, tactless statements to slip out. Sometimes I have to point out elephants in living rooms.
Some people would rather not have to confront a lot of these issues. I don’t blame them; it’s tiring and I don’t always have the energy for it either. I hate fighting. But sometimes I have to. If I don’t, who will?
There are places where politics and faith must not mix; for example, a Pagan conference, or a Pagan Pride Day. I once chastised someone for posting information about an environmentalist rally on the local Pagan Pride list (which I was moderating). I was intending to go to that rally myself, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was presumptuous to assume that other Pagans shared that political view.
But the blogosphere is not one of those places. Indeed, I would argue that this is the very place to discuss and debate politics, faith, spirituality and ethics. The blogsophere is the modern Pagan Agora. If you don’t want to be part of that, you’re welcome not to. But you can expect that I — that we — are not going away any time soon.
*Note – When I read back the article I realized it sounded like I had a negative opinion of the Francophone-Anglophone cultural juxtaposition in Canada. Nothing could be further from the truth, so I expanded that paragraph. Also, I added a link to a great article that Steve Posch wrote today about Aradia and the opposition against slavery.
I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.
Gods&Radicals is not just a site of beautiful resistance, but also a publisher of A Beautiful Resistance! Our second issue is out soon, and there’s still time to pre-order or subscribe. You may also like A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer(featured above).
Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles claimed, in The Communist Manifesto, that the history of all societies has been that of class struggle. In a later edition, however, Engels inserted the following footnote:
“That is, all written history.”
What led to that clarification? Specifically, the discovery by anthropologists that pre-literate societies in Russia and elsewhere had held land in common. While all written histories of the world were founding narratives for the right-to-rule of the upper classes, unwritten histories told a different tale: stories not of hierarchies and class, of propertied rulers and priests, but of ways of being where property belonged to everyone and no-one.
In the footnote, Engels adds:
“with the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes.”
It’s tempting to call these primeval societies ‘pagan’ and perhaps we should. As Oscar Wilde suggested, the best way to overcome a temptation is to give in to it. Besides, much of modern Paganism draws from the myths and relationality of less hierarchical societies, borrowing from the later-recorded oral histories of gods and spirits–with very liberal applications of imagination and dreaming—to create a New/Old way of being.
Likewise, Paganism can be said to be reaction to Civilisation, or at least a certain understanding of it. The alienation of modern workplaces, the vapidity of technological distraction, and the apparent emptyness and Authoritarian nature of major religious forms compel many of us to look elsewhere for our meaning. For most of us, Paganism as we currently create it provides exactly that alternative.
If our desire to live according to Pagan forms of being is compelled by more than mere dissatisfaction with what’s on offer from the marketplace, churches, malls, televisions, cubicles and burger stands–that is, if it isn’t only a matter of consumer preference, but actually a resistance to those things—then no day embodies that desire, that compulsion, that celebration of the body and the natural world like Beltane, or May Day
But May Day doesn’t just belong to Pagans. While perhaps hundreds of thousands celebrate Beltane, many millions more in cities across the world have enacted a different sort of ritual, the revolt of worker against boss, renter against landlord, marcher against cop, of world-time against clock-time.
Are these May Days so different?
History From Below
Ask that question to Peter Linebaugh, and one imagines he would laugh, and then give you some very wild–and dazzling–history lessons.
The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day is a collection of 11 essays, each written about and for May Day (and, as he cheerfully notes in the introductory essay, sometimes written ‘the night before’ the occasion) which dance and weave into each other like the ribbons of a maypole.
Linebaugh doesn’t tell history in lines, and that’s a good thing. Linear history is the story of the machine-age, the mechanistic world of the factory and the skyscraper, the narrative of progress and the line-up to the gas chambers. Such a history wheels along, unstoppable along iron tracks past the present. Through its windows we might catch a glimpse of the ‘great men’ of earlier times, the generals and warlords, men of religion, men of industry, men of science; if, that is, the black smudge of coal and petrol smoke does not obscure our view.
Peter Linebaugh doesn’t tell the story of those people, he tells ours, the ‘History from Below,”and he recounts it not in lines but in webs, nets, drawing threads and throwing cables across vast distances to connect the people who actually live history, rather than watch it parade by.
For Linebaugh, the worker and the witch, the coal miner in Appalachia and the prisoner in London, the dead Sioux and the Italian anarchist, the daughter of an African slave and the German philosopher are all part of the same dance, each holding a coloured ribbon about the pole which unites us.
The Dance of the Red & The Revolt of the Green
The Green of Beltane and the Red of May Day are interwoven through their shared acts of resistance against Authority and the demands of the bosses. As he explains in the title essay (originally written as a tract in 1986):
Green is a relationship to the earth and what grows therefrom. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red designates death with surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is social expropriation. Green is husbandry and nurturance; Red is proletarianization and prostitution. Green is useful activity; Red is useless toil. Green is creation of desire; Red is class struggle. May Day is both.
The essay opens with a history of the Green, the pagan and irreligious celebrations from which most modern witches and pagans reconstruct the holiday. That it needed to be reconstructed at all further entwines the red and green threads together:
The farmers, workers, and child bearers (laborers) of the Middle Ages had hundreds of holy days which preserved the May Green, despite the attack on peasants and witches. Despite the complexities, whether May Day was observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagan or Christian, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentled or calloused hands, it was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. Whatever it was, it was not a time to work.
Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities. The repression had begun with the burning of women and it continued in the 16th century when America was “discovered,” the slave trade was begun, and nation-states and capitalism was formed.
As Authority and the needs of Capitalists sought to form humans into machine-workers, festival days during which no work was to be done (as he points out, hundreds, and all of them sacred) became sites of battle. The celebration of May Day was banned, but as Linebaugh shows, this only made the celebrations more anti-authoritarian. In England, the May Day games were thereafter called the “Robin Hood Games” by the peasants, initiating the ‘Red’ current.
Of course, May Day is better known to the world not as an ancient European tradition, but a day of mass strikes, revolts, and marches to commemorate the Haymarket Massacrein Chicago. The events that day came about as part of a workers movement to reduce the length of the workday to 8 hours and to protest State repression and murder of labor activists. For Linebaugh, this is both the Red thread (leftist organisation against Capital) and the Green thread (the demands of the people for time to actually live life, rather than toil).
The Great Tapestry of Resistance
Other essays in the collection explore more of the modern class struggle centered on May Day. His essay X²: May Day In Light of Waco and LA explores the relationship between class struggle and social justice through the lens of Exploitation and Expropriation (the source of the X²).
1992 saw the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, during which 55 people were killed, thousands of people injured, and millions of dollars of property destroyed after a jury found the police officers who had severely beaten Rodney King not guilty of excessive force.
A common trick of Authority and the media is to de-legitimize the political anger in such uprisings, particularly amongst Black folk. Because much of the damage to business occurred not to white-owned establishments but to Asian-owned shops, the Rodney King Riots were written off as blind rage or even racist.
But Linebaugh sees in these events (which occurred during the few days before and few days after May Day that year) the same repeating form which led to the Evil May DayRiots in 1517. Artisans in London attacked foreign merchants and bankers who had been brought in by the King to undercut wages and destroy the organising power of the guilds. Manipulating immigration policy has always been a trick of the powerful against the lower classes.
It’s in such places that Linebaugh’s historical narrative becomes most powerful and truly international. Linebaugh is particularly adept at showing the relationship between events in Europe and events in North America, a transatlanticism unfortunately rare in most histories.
Europe and North America are not the only continents where Linebaugh finds the spirit of May Day. Africa, the Middle East, and Asia all birth the repeating form of resistance. The threads intertwine fast and taut: anti-colonial struggle in Kenya connects to the Black Panthers, the struggle for the commons in Indonesia to student movements in the United States, striking soldiers from England to Ghandi and displaced Arabs, and eastern European vampire myths connect to privatisation and austerity moves in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
By the final essay (his retirement speech from the University of Toledo), the world of the Red and Green, the histories from below, have become a great tapestry of resistance which, like the title of the book, is True, Wonderful, Authentic….and Incomplete.
Like his other works, Peter Linebaugh leaves you dazzled, full of great optimism and the sense that the world is much smaller and an end to Capital much closer than you ever dared hope. But just as quickly, the stories end, the tapestry seems to fade away and you are left holding the colored cords, unsure what comes next.
His history of May Day is indeed incomplete. There are many, many more May Days to write about, including the one approaching. Will the Green and Red finally win this time? Will they twine together, braiding with all the other colors of the earth’s fecund life? The Black threads are there too, as are the Asian, the First Nations (see particularly his earlier work on Tecumseh in Stop, Thief!.) the Arab and the white, great ribbons all suspended from the top of a great tree.
Will we dance the world Peter Linebaugh shows us into existence around that pole this year? Or will it be the next? Either way, in his final lines Linebaugh invites us to that dance:
We have the world to gain, the earth to recuperate. M’Aidez! M’Aidez!
Rhyd is a writer, theorist, Anarchist, Marxist, and Pagan living in a city by the Salish Sea in Occupied Duwamish Territory. He laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, growls when he’s thinking, and does all those things when he’s in love. He’s the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals, also writes at Paganarch, and can be supported on Patreon.
I could drink green curry
like water from your lips,
awash in a verdant haze.
Longing to never wake-
to never surrender this
My will has dissolved into
the finest soma
and all my dreams becoming
the favored liqueur of the Gods.
I spoon jam sparingly
onto a piece of toast
hoping to add moisture
to this texture of cardboard.
All I know is that if this
famine does not end soon
there will be nothing left
except a spoon, an empty jar of jam
and a sheet of cardboard.
Hunter Hall’s a ferocious poet seen late last century lurking black-hooded about the rainy streets of Seattle. Reading Deleuze&Guattari while slinging brutal mochas, channeling serpents and raw riot through her spoken-word performances, she now lurks somewhere in the Salish Sea, plotting revolution while baking for her children.
I will never grow tired of rattling cages
It does not matter if it is mine or yours
I love to hear the clanking of the bars
The rattling of bones
The shrieks in the night
Of my fears dying- one by one
Did you know that I have the key?
There is an escape
And there is a way out
Don’t follow the light,
It is not for you and I.
I follow the scent on the wind
The promise of winter’s crisp breath
I follow the sound of a branch breaking
Nock Draw Anchor Aim
A breath for the taking
I will never grow tired of
Whether it is mine or yours
It matters not when we are becoming
Other, becoming whole under the open sky
Did you know that I care not
For the opinions of your gate keepers?
I only ask
To drive this nail home
That I have no masters
And this cage is only kept around
For the rattling
A score for the settling
Bones for the breaking
Like a snake
I flick flick flick
My lids and silvery tongue
while cities fall to dust
and my doubts slide
Like a slip off my unbent
As I destroy any bonds
Placed upon me
Time and time again
With a ululating cry
Hunter Hall’s a ferocious poet seen late last century lurking black-hooded about the rainy streets of Seattle. Reading Deleuze&Guattari while slinging brutal mochas, channeling serpents and raw riot through her spoken-word performances, she now lurks somewhere in the Salish Sea, plotting revolution while baking for her children.
We’re currently in the editing process of the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance! Pre-order, subscription, and underwriting information is here.
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.
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.
In my day to day life (setting aside the world of the internet) I travel more in academic than pagan or occult circles and as such I am more likely to interact with, say, a Marxist professor than a druid. This has made me acutely aware of a challenge to the unification of Paganism and radical anti-capitalist politics that might be less pressing to those more fully engaged in the unification from the side of convincing and motivating other pagans. I more frequently face, and can anticipate resistance from, those fully identified with various brands of radical anti-capitalist politics from Marxism through to anarchism than from anyone associated with Paganism or occultism.
In such a crowd the challenge is not to convince anyone of the problem of capitalism, that work is well over, but rather to answer their confusion when attempting to establish solidarity between a pagan perspective and their own. Of course many of my more strictly activist friends don’t much care either way, their attitude is largely that you can believe what you want just so long as you fight for the right things, but the rather high theoretical level of debate that often occurs with those who are both professional academic and political companions raises some serious challenges. These challenges have often hovered in the back of my mind as I have written my previous posts, and many answers to them have been embedded in those posts though they have not always been overtly discussed as such.
I think the time has come, however, for me to attempt to directly address at least one type of criticism of Paganism and magical practices from the standpoint of radical theory and practice. This challenge takes the form of a criticism of pagans and occultists as stuck in a counterproductive idealogical illusion. At the simplest level it shows up as a criticism of us as trapped in “magical thinking” which distracts, limits, or misdirects our potential for real political action.
For now I will not be concerned with the question of what actual type or mode of thought we could accurately call magical. Rather I will simply be relying upon various standard formulations of the idea of “magical thinking” as found in political theory, anthropology, and psychology in order to assess whether the application of this term to pagan anti-capitalism is fair. For this purpose we should note that “magical thinking” as I intend to use it is almost universally considered a bad thing, sometimes it is even considered the fatal illness that keeps people from coming to meaningful political consciousness. In a nonpolitical context I was recently talking with a pagan priest who was seeking psychological counseling for concerns unrelated to Paganism or the occult but who found it impossible to get his therapist to discuss anything other than a diagnosis and treatment of “magical thinking” based on nothing more than the fact that my friend was a pagan priest! Clearly this was a bad therapist, but the general attitude is not an anomaly especially in much of the radical anti-capitalist community.
So, what is “magical thinking”? The most direct formulation of it is not very useful, as it is too question-begging to withstand the slightest criticism. This would understand “magical thinking” as you might expect, the belief in “false causes” such as spells and so on. I say that this formulation is not useful because it simply shifts the conversation to the question of whether or not magic is actually real and effective. Theoretically this is an interminable question and anyone with a grounding in philosophy of science should see it can’t at all be the start of a criticism but rather an endlessly postponed potential conclusion. Arguing with a Marxist over the reality of magic when they accuse you of “magical thinking” is not a productive endeavor. It is a criticism just as naive as it assumes the fault it claims to diagnose is. Plus, ultimately, it is purely a practical question of strategy no different in kind from “does peaceful protest or participation in mainstream politics work or is revolution necessary”. So I will put aside any question as to the reality or efficacy of magic and feel justified in doing so because I think this isn’t really the meaningful content of a criticism of “magical thinking”.
Rather than focus on the practical and empirical questions associated with magic we can instead consider “magical thinking” as an epistemic criticism. In fact, engaging in “magical thinking” can be understood as being victim to a type of ideology in the Marxist sense in which the concrete relation between people and social classes is mystified. This would also associate it closely with the idea of religion as the “opium of the masses”. I would like to focus, then, on a few different approaches to understanding the ideological illusion known as “magical thinking” and then ask whether Paganism 1. necessarily falls prey to this ideological illusion or 2. tends towards this ideological illusion.
Rather than engage with the frequently racist and culturally imperialist origins of the concept of “magical thinking” in anthropology, I shall instead focus on its appearance in radical political theory. My two main theoretical resources will be the work of Paulo Friere (and the influence of Erich Fromm upon it) as found in the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the discussion by Marx of ideology and religion as the opium of the masses.
Loving Death and Loving Life
Friere was a Brazilian philosopher and educator with a particular concern for the ways in which education disempowers or politically empowers disenfranchised members of a community. Through extensive work with the illiterate poor in Brazil he developed a distinction between two different types of eduction. The first, and most traditional method, he terms the “banking method of education” which sees the student as a passive and obedient receptacle into which the active and authoritarian teacher deposits information and skills. The second method, which he implemented with great success, was termed the problem-posing method. It is unnecessary to go into too many details about the philosophy of education here, though I encourage any of you to check out Friere’s excellent work, but the key point for us is the unification of the banking method of education with a certain perspective it engenders in its students that Friere frequently refers to as a “magical” view of the world.
Whereas the banking method directly or indirectly reinforces men’s fatalistic perception of their situation, the problem-posing method presents this very situation to them as a problem. As the situation becomes the object of their cognition, the naive or magical perception which produced their fatalism gives way to perception which is able to perceive itself even as it perceives reality, and can thus be critically objective about that reality.
(Paulo Friere Pedagogy of the Oppressed Chapter 2)
Using a distinction derived from Erich Fromm, Friere describes the banking method as necrophily, or the love of death, versus the biophily, or love of life, found in the problem posing method. A necrophily perspective is death loving to the extent that it embraces those things that characterize death and rejects those things that characterize life. Specifically, life is always growing and changing while those things that are dead are unchanging. Necrophily is primarily characterized, then, by a view of the world as stable and unchanging. Whether this applies to “laws of nature” or mathematical truths or economics or the laws of grammar the key effect of this “death loving” rejection of change is that it presents social and historical relations as fixed and only unrealistically resisted. Necrophilic education inspires one, then, to “wisely” and “practically” adjust oneself to the powers-that-be and learn how to get along while sticking to your place and accommodating your superiors. Biophily, on the other hand, recognizes that whatever is currently the case has come to be and both can and will inevitably change. What is more, it recognizes that each person has an active role to play in those changes. If one adjusts oneself to the current social formulation one is actively contributing to its maintenance and if one works to change it one is actively contributing to the continual growth and change of society. There is no passive option since inaction is an active choice contributing to the structure of the whole.
We are rather familiar with a naive necrophilic perspective in the guise of those who not only cannot imagine a world without capitalism but actually think the idea of such a world is unrealistic and utopian. Such a perspective is naive because capitalism is far from the standard social formation throughout history and came about through various rather unexpected events, actions, and changes in history. Capitalism’s specific contemporary formations are a rather young thing and the dogmatic adherence to it as the only possible way of life is just as naive as assuming that any other current aspect of our situation is somehow historically prioritized or ordain and can’t or won’t change. Of one thing we can be certain, all will change eventually and frequently rather sooner than we suspect. This unquestionability of the present is connected to a key aspect of ideology in general, specifically ideology consists of a process of naturalization in which it is assumed that something is right and unchanging because it is presented as natural and universal (check out Judith Butler on the ideological naturalization of gender to see some excellent discussions of how this works).
The necrophilic perspective is the one termed “magical” and is clearly conjoined with fatalism. The necrophilic mistake is to assume that the current formulation of reality is ordained and maintained by some ultimate force – for many it has been God though more recently it is just as likely to be Nature. Capitalism, one hears, derives from “human nature” which we don’t choose or form and which we cannot change. Communism, socialism, anarchism, etc. are all lovely ideas but they are fantasies because they do not accommodate themselves to the unchanging dictates of Nature (or God and so on). We see clearly here the fatalism to which Friere refers.
The “magical” aspect of this worldview is related to the fatalism. It is magical to the extent that it takes social and economic facts to be symbols of deeper metaphysical truths or forces. One of the easiest examples of this shows up in the influence of Protestantism on the early formation of capitalism (and its remaining influence in contemporary American Prosperity Theology). As Max Weber made clear in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, early capitalism was fundamentally influenced by the reliance of some Protestant religious views on worldly success as a sign of having been chosen and saved by God. Success in business was a symbol of having been blessed by God and granted both grace and salvation. Worldly power and success are symbols of spiritual blessedness in the same way that being a member of the aristocracy was seen as a sign of having been chosen by God for power during the medieval period or membership in a given caste was representative of the Karmic state of the soul in Hinduism. This ideological equation of worldly status with otherworldly merit is clearly fatalistic and overlaps with one of the earliest understandings of “magical thinking” in terms of an associative thinking that sees symbolic meaning behind everyday objects and events.
It is important to note that the symbolic view of the universe is not, in and of itself, the problem but rather the specific claims of what symbolizes what and the related assumption that this symbolic connection (for example of wealth with holiness) underwrites the justice of the economic situation and its stability. The view is “magical” in a negative sense because it assumes a magical force endorses the current social configuration and it would be wrong, or impossible, to change it. It should be clear that there are much more common and equally “superstitious” or “magical” views of wealth and “success” floating around which we might be more familiar with, for example the simple equation of wealth with merit so common in capitalistic thinking. The idea that hard work, intelligence, virtue, talent etc. has primarily resulted in the status of the wealthy “mystifies” a very real collection of concrete relations of historical dominance, violence, theft, and privilege all grounded in luck (including accidents of birth such as race, sex, family, social class, global location, community membership, inborn mental and bodily characteristics and so on). Such views, whether of the “god given” or “self-made” variety, both inspire a type of paralysis because they make clear that things are as they should, and must, be.
Keeping in view the concrete matrix of forces and accidents that have given rise to the contemporary moment does not, however, foreclose at the same time reading this matrix in terms of symbols or as expressions of other levels of reality. A Marxist may remain at the level of the determining force of material economic factors but others, some pagans for instance, can accept the reality of this level while at the same time seeing it as an expression of a complex of forces at another level; for example a conflict amongst different gods or metaphysical principles. This doesn’t dismiss or foreclose the necessity of acting on the worldly level, rather the reverse. It hallows the profane with a sacred purpose in a way that is exceptionally foreign to religions focused on transcendental salvation in overt rejection of natural daily life. Within the domain of some universal all-powerful perfect monotheist creator God worldly welfare for others or for oneself tends to collapse into one of two categories; it is either a gift from God or to be dismissed in preference to God.
Our discussion has brought us into contact with a general criticism of religion for its penchant for “magical thinking” with hints that paganism may be able to avoid some key aspects of this criticism. Before we attempt to expand upon these hints, let us look at one of the most famous criticisms of religion from the stance of radical politics.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
The idea of religion as an opium of the masses has two senses here and the most overt one is not the one most commonly discussed. The most common understanding of the opium of the masses is that it is used to pacify the masses and make them tractable. This is what Christianity did when it justified monarchy via the authority of the Divine Tyrant just as much as when it counseled the poor to tolerate their lot and patiently wait for heavenly reward or counseled the slave to obey the master. All world-hating religions, intentionally or not, serve to prop up the status quo by directing people away from worldly action and concerns.
The above sense of “opium” does not, however, seem to be Marx’s main target here. Indeed, his discussion of religion is more ambiguous than that. Instead, religion is a sigh of the suffering and a heart in a heartless world. As the image of the chain covered in flowers makes clear, religion is also a beautification of a rather ugly situation. Insofar as it brings some grace to a graceless world and some comfort to those in pain it is not to be despised, but to the extent that this grace and comfort keep people from changing the world in which they suffer it is indeed a malevolent force of seduction.
Many forms of paganism are decidedly this-worldly, as I have often enough stressed in my previous posts, and as such do not inspire transcendental dreams of escaping the world of nature and political/economic struggle. Indeed, this world of nature is frequently enough understood either as identical with the object of worship or a particularly important manifestation or expression of the gods. We see this as well in some pagan visions of the afterlife (though it is worth noting that nowhere is the history of pagan religions so diverse as in views of what happens after death – every position from the achievement of a paradise to entirely ceasing to exist can be found). In some traditions death represents an increased identification with nature, in others we find the idea that the dead join together to continue to fight for their community, family, values and concerns in this world – the revolution continues after death, only the strategies have changed. Sometimes life is to be preferred to death, as in the shade of Achilles’ haunting words to Odysseus: “…don’t try to reconcile me to my dying. I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.” Whatever the fate of the dead, the focus is most often on this world, this life, and what we can and must do with it.
When religion is opium it provides comfort, but it is comfort by way of reassurance, by way of promises. Most Paganism makes no promises, indeed we can even find highly nihilistic forms of paganism. Opiate religion counsels the slave to be a good slave and, later, the master shall suffer and the slave shall be king. Opiate religion counsels the servant that real riches are found Beyond, or that the ruler is ruler by divine right and so deserves the service of those who are inferior. Paganism, often enough, counsels not to trust the promises of the gods. Nothing is assured, each and every god faces challenges, opposition, potential downfall and even death. Yes, in most forms of Paganism even the gods might die. What is has come about through struggle, through the conflicts amongst gods and conflicts amongst people. What is can change and will change, whether the grand cosmic order or the specific contours of our life. The pagan world is one of conflicting forces, a conflict we might hope and strive to make more a dance than a brawl, but a shifting and growing one nonetheless. When I speak with my gods, though of course I cannot speak for any of you, they do not tell me “Have faith, all will be well,” they tell me “Struggle, and we will struggle with you.”
There are, then, several aspects of Paganism as generally conceived that resist any accusations of “magical thinking”. First, Paganisms tend to see reality as too complex and pluralistic a collection to suggest that things are the way they aught or must be. Second, Paganisms tend to rely upon a view of history as the story (whether the story of gods, nature, or humanity) of how the current world has been crafted piece by piece through work and struggle, cooperation and accident. Nature and humanity, together with the many divinities, have all played off of each other as a restless changing community that continues to craft itself. Third, Paganisms tend to imply that gods and people alike are subject to a fate or chance that is, at least in part and sometimes very largely, a mystery. Zeus is as confused by the inevitable fall of Troy as anyone, and Odin cannot avoid Ragnarok. But this fate, as mysterious, is not a divine dictate or ordained order. There is the necessary, but humanity and the gods rarely know what is necessary or why. Fourth, more often than not the Otherworld of Paganism is an aspect of this world and the struggles that take place there are often focused on this world. There is very rarely any implication that the Otherworld, however it is conceived, is the real focus of this life when the gods themselves are bent upon this world from their own abodes. Most often the Otherworld is a neighborhood just adjacent to our own and not another reality in any robust sense. Worldly concerns and struggles pour back and forth across these vague boundaries almost constantly.
None of this is to say that pagans or Paganism can’t fall into “magical thinking” in any of the ways it has been discussed here. It certainly can, and it has at various points in history. Indeed, Hinduism is arguably a pagan religion and its view of social caste and reincarnation has clearly at times acted as a primary example of “magical” opium. But, I would suggest, Paganism is clearly not equatable to “magical thinking” and its inherent tendency as manifest repeatedly throughout different pagan cultures and religions is in opposition to “magical thinking”. This is not the case, I would argue, with any transcendental religion insofar as true value in these is always to be located somewhere and somewhen else than here and now. It is also not the case with monotheistic religions insofar as omnipotence precludes the possibility of any real conflict, productive activity, or accident at the ultimate level of reality. The battles within a monotheistic myth cycle are always staged affairs aimed more at enforcing obedience than co-creating reality.
Finally, many types of Paganism offer something that a stark political materialism such as that commonly found in Marxist and anarchist thought can not. It offers a view of the struggle that goes beyond the purely humanist. Marx’ criticism of religion clearly has a humanist ring as he calls for man to become his own sun. For most Paganisms this can’t but ring false. We fight not only for ourselves, but also for and along side of the forces of nature. The world is neither a creation of human consciousness alone nor raw material for our productive capabilities, these views are the failed remnants of a Modernism much radical politics has failed to get beyond. In the maintenance of a thoroughly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of nature, it is largely the adherents of radical political theory who have fallen into a mystifying ideological illusion that ignores the real community in which we find ourselves engaged as companions to all the other aspects of nature. Far from diverting our political action, this instead strengthens and motivates it in a way that other forms of radical politics can often fail to do. There is, all things considered, plenty of “magical thinking” involved in the very technological triumphalism and scientism that many radical anticapitalist agendas believe can save us.
Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to Paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem