Cancer, Technology and an Ineffable Visceral Space

Everyone was a cancer patient and everyone was–like all those people who go to cancer hospitals, have the best care in the entire fucking world and don’t make it–going to die. This was an all-consuming thought. And really, what was the point of it all? Why had I bothered to go through all that, if it was just going to be a less intense version of that for the rest of my time alive?

From Julian Langer

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I.

I regularly commit what might be considered a severe social faux pas, though it is not really a blunder and I do not feel shame about it. This faux pas is that I mention, often too lightly, in conversation a subject matter often deemed too taboo for everyday conversation.

The subject matter is that which goths, nihilists and existentialists love to talk about – I talk about death.

From my mother’s death and my father’s near death from drug addiction in my early childhood, as well the loss of other family members and loved ones; death and life have been constant themes within my thoughts. But undoubtedly the biggest influence on my relationship and perspective towards life and death has been the experiences I went through as a young cancer patient.

As I go to write about the process of being-a-cancer-patient, I’m immediately struck by how the words I turn to feel entirely inadequate. If I were to try to really communicate to you (as in you individually reading this, if we were relating one to one) something of what it feels like to be the other side of cancer treatment, I’d probably lower my stance, draw in air and release a guttural and primal scream; then grab hold of you in the tightest, fullest hug I could muster; and then play you something on the guitar. So little of that felt phenomenon can be expressed this way – as-in via text. But I’ll go on.

II.

They found my tumour initially because they were trying to find out why I was developing double vision. I first noticed the double vision in its early stages when I watched seagulls fly by the river in the town I live near to. Given the state of British ecology, these birds are forced to live within the built-space this culture has constructed on top of the land. They are an extremely regular sight, and often labelled vermin by those who do not have eyes to see their beauty.

My eyes were seeing in double. It was weird. It was confusing. Corrective glasses made normal day-to-day activity easier, but why was this happening?

I had my first MRI scan, to see what was going on in my head. What an experience that was! They had to restart the scan because I’d moved too much looking around the scanner as it did its thing.

If you’ve never been in an MRI machine, let me paint you a picture in words of my times in MRI machines. First thing you do is you lie on this platform, positioning yourself so your head rests in the slot designed for it. Then they place this grey-thing under your knees, so your legs are slightly raised throughout. You then feel the platform rise towards the ceiling, stopping when you are level with the opening of the machine. Your head then gets put in this open-box thing, with wadding to make you more comfortable, and you are handed something to squeeze should you need the process to stop or attention for any other reason. Then you feel yourself moving backwards into the machine, into silence. This is a hideously uncomfortable silence, where you are fully aware of how uncomfortable your body feels within this colossal piece of technological construction. And it feels as if it would go on forever, but then it starts.

The first time I heard that noise I felt my heart pounding immediately. Everything about this was wrong! If you can imagine all the worst elements of drum and bass, mixed with the worst elements of industrial metal that would be the best comparison I could give. That sound pulsates through your entire body, and it feels like it is the noise shaking the machine with your body inside it. My muscles tightened. My mouth went dry. The first time I couldn’t stop looking around to see if something was going wrong – as I said, they had to restart it and begin again because my moving had meant the scans were unusable.

Not in my first time, but in the vast majority of scans after that, they’d stop halfway through, to inject this dye through a cannula I’d already had put in place, so they could track everything better; then to return to the shaking booming machine. Sometimes you’re given headphones and they put music on, but I’ve never heard it over the mechanical thumps in the belly of those things. An energetic, visceral surge desiring escape flowed through me, which remained the case throughout every other time I found myself inside one of those machines – though I eventually learnt to get myself very Zen in them and to ignore what was going on around me.

The day after this first scan, my 19th birthday, I went in to get the results and a doctor informed me that the scan had found a pineal legion, a brain tumour, which at this stage couldn’t be confirmed as cancerous, benign, or what. What followed for the next year and a half was months of regular MRI scans, the occasional lumbar puncture and waiting for the tumour to grow large enough to get a biopsy of; because it was too small and they didn’t want to risk damage when all it was doing at that stage was moving my eye.

III.

I had been practicing Buddhism since I was 17 and I turned to this heavily during this time, as well as throwing myself into creative projects. The waiting period was strange. I’d been a study-geek since I was a kid and I continued to find myself drawn to studying all I could find on philosophy, radical politics and “spiritual” stuff. Life continued as normal in many ways. It was just always there, as this ever-present thing.

A friend performed reiki on me, which was weird. Christians and Muslims who knew of me having a brain tumour prayed for me. The tumour was growing still, but at an incredibly slow rate – which meant it was still too small for the neurosurgeons to do a biopsy of it. Was this “spiritual” stuff contributing to this? I didn’t know, but fuck it, I wasn’t gonna knock it!

As I mentioned, I was embracing a Buddhist practice at that time in my life – though possibly a more westernised form than many of you reading this will view as true-Buddhism. I would meditate semi-regularly and occasionally chant. My recovering addict father had pushed the idea on me throughout my childhood than everyone “needs” some form of “spirituality,” and for a time I had largely internalised this notion. This conflicted though with the writers and philosophers I was finding myself drawn to; individuals like Wilde, Nietzsche, Camus and Armand; as what I was getting from their writings were words that fuelled my fire to rebel against this push from my father.

So in place of his Christianised Buddhism, I adopted a much more (indifferent-)agnostic Buddhist practice. Before my embracing a Buddhist practice I had explored Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Neo-Paganism (with a consistent solid interest in Hinduism, but didn’t consider practicing until after treatment- and only for a short period), but none of these really stuck as long as Buddhism did and that was what I was embracing during my time as a cancer patient.

My father and I have always had a strained relationship, with him consistently pushing the idea that I should forgive him for his part of our relationship, because if I don’t I will suffer, as I go to hell/have a hellish life for not forgiving him – gosh darn it, don’t you just love Christian morality! With this, he asserted on multiple occasions when my treatment actually started that he believed that, because the tumour was a pineal legion, and some “spiritual” people have called the pineal gland the gateway to the third eye, that I had the tumour because I wasn’t a more spiritually-forgiving person (though I strongly suspect he was simply pushing for me to be less pissed off at him, so if I did die he would feel like at the very least we had made peace and he could feel like a decent dad).

Let me take a second to say though that, in many ways my father was a great dad during treatment, pushing to get me the best care and driving long distances to appointments and lots more. But if I’m going to write about how cancer affected my perception of the world, life and death, I have got to write about how he pushed that the tumour was basically my fault and I had to get more “spiritual”, as he saw it, in order to not die (but this piece is not about him or my relationship with him). Moving on.

IV.

Before treatment actually started I’d had this headache for 3 days. It wasn’t too bad and I wasn’t worrying, but worried family pushed for me get an emergency appointment to see my GP, so I did. At that stage they weren’t worried about the headache. But a few days later I’m in A & E with a migraine, being given the steroid dexamethasone to reduce the pressure the tumour was putting on my brain – now the little fucker was getting interesting and starting to kill me.

Suddenly shit got different! Suddenly I was back and forth between appointments. Everyone wanted to keep Julian alive.

Julian however was mostly focused on sleeping and eating. Dexamethasone had two side effects, both of which I found near unbearable; I couldn’t sleep and I was always starving hungry. Stress and having lots to think about still has an impact on my sleep patterns, but with the meds at this time I was getting three hours maximum most nights – there was lots of watching TV throughout the night, trying to fall asleep to it. And the hunger, words are entirely inadequate for describing the depth of the hunger I was feeling. This wasn’t “I’ve missed a meal and now am more hungry than I would normally be at this time” hungry! This was “I am screaming at you to put food in me or else you will fucking die arsehole” hunger; it was a hunger that felt like there was an emptiness within my being that was going to collapse in on itself if I didn’t eat something. So you better fucking well believe I ate! Salad sandwiches multiple times a day, fajitas, crisps, pasta and SO MUCH CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE ME IF I TOLD YOU! (I owe a great deal of my mental well being throughout the months of dexamethasone and afterwards to Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked ice cream).

While so much around me was about keeping me from dying, I was consumed by the suffering this medication I had been put on to keep me alive was bringing me. It was only in the months after treatment that I started to value that experience of suffering – but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

My first night sleeping in a hospital for observations was a new experience for me, one that I did not want, but went along with because the doctor I was under the care of at that point had insisted on it, despite my obviously finding the idea extremely upsetting. I’d seen my mother die in a hospital bed when I was 7; and I’d stood there screaming at her body for her to wake up and to be my mum again. Years later I learnt she died because the hospital made an administrative error and she could have survived what happened to her. To my mind, hospitals meant death. Those cold, sterilised walls and floors felt like lifeless expanses that something entirely visceral inside of me was rejecting, in a very primal way. But as I said, I did it. I slept there, or at least tried to, and made it through until the morning.

The next day I asked the doctor if I could start coming off the tablets, because the headaches had gone and I wanted the suffering to end. Without properly understanding what they were doing and in an utterly careless fashion, he stated yes and gave me an incredibly short weaning off period to come off them – which I accepted because, here was the professional saying what I wanted to hear. Days later I was rushed to hospital (a different one to the one I’d slept at) with an excruciatingly painful migraine and in a zombie like state of lifelessness and put straight back on the dose I’d been on, along with another steroid to help my endocrine system recover from the “crash” in hormones I had just undergone. I’d very, very nearly died and felt like death – the doctor fucked up and I never saw him again.

V.

It was a strange feeling, nearly dying, and coupled with the lack of energy, because my body was void of nearly all the testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol I usually had flowing through me, I felt like a nothingness, empty and soulless, with all my personality sucked out of me. It wasn’t that I felt depressed, or sad, or anything like that. No! That would have been something – even when I felt sad and depressed I felt alive. This feeling was death.

Being back on the steroids perked me up, a bit. I was still exhausted and not-all-there, but I was more me, which was something at least. That same visceral feeling I would have with the MRI machines I had with the meds. They were entirely undesirable, but they were working and doing what I needed them to do. Taking them was a choice made for my personal welfare and I am selfish about my personal needs.

Shortly after this though came the second close brush with death. I was taking the medication, but had a mind-blowingly bad migraine. This one was more intense than the others had been. This was pain I couldn’t have imagined feeling. I didn’t want to move, so tried to sleep it off. This didn’t work and pretty soon the paramedics were at the house and I was being carted off to the hospital.

The painkillers I had at the hospital went down an absolute treat! I was the happiest I’d been in a long time! Everyone around me was panicked and trying to work out what to do with me. Calls were being made between hospitals, my father and girl friend were terrified and loved ones were being called with updates on how I was doing. And while all that movement was going on around me, I was high and happy.

Hours later and a journey from North Devon to Bristol in an ambulance, I found myself on the neurology ward of Frenchay hospital, having my surgery plans explained to me by a lovely old hipster brain surgeon (with a brief chat about mutual music loves). I asked what general anaesthetic would be like and was told “like a good gin and tonic.” I was on the bed, about to go into the theatre room, and told they were about to put me to sleep. There was a moment when I was aware of them administering the painkiller and then I was awaking in the recovery ward.

When I woke up there were two definite differences to my body from when I’d gone to sleep. The first I was prepared for and had expected. The surgery I had was called an endoscopic third ventriculostomy and involved them placing what is called a ventricular reservoir in my head – basically a tube in my brain and a silicone bump on my head to protect me from potential future hydrocephalus. This is something that I have in my head still 6 years on and will most likely have until the day I die. I have often joked about being a bionic human, with my body forever changed by technology. I’m not going to lie; it is very weird to think about – but I’ll write more on this later. All that mattered at that point was – I am alive and this is gonna help keep me alive! The second difference, though less permanent, was far more traumatising at the time.

VI.

Soon after waking I came to discover a tube attached to my bed that had not been there before. After a brief investigation of the bed and my body, I came to realise the tube was inserted somewhere I had never EVER expected to find a tube! (If you haven’t guessed already, they’d inserted a urinary catheter). THE HORROR! I don’t mind telling you that my penis is something I value and treasure, for a multitude of reasons, and have degree of aesthetic preferences around its appearance and treatment, which includes not having a tube up it. There was an element to which it was apparent, the doctors had seen my naked body, in a way I had not considered before, which, given the amount of body-shame I felt at the time was a bit embarrassing. But more so, again in a very visceral, animal and primal embodied sense, I DON’T WANT A TUBE UP MY DICK!

Hours after waking up, when I felt like I had enough energy to walk a little bit and had shown I could move my legs, I asked the nurse to remove the catheter, so I could walk up and down the ward. She held my member and then moments later I felt a sensation in my dick that makes me squirm and recoil in disgust still, as I write this. After a minute to recover from what just happened, I started to get myself off the bed. A nurse from Somalia, whose kindness throughout my stay on that ward I will value for the rest of my life, held my arm as I walked the corridor from one end to the other. No one thought I’d be walking that quickly, but I was defiant and knew I was going to do it – I knew that this body that I am wasn’t going to just lay in bed with a tube where no tube should be; I was going to walk, and fuck anyone who said otherwise.

After the surgery I spent several days and nights on ward and then came home for a few weeks rest, before I went up to hospital for the second and hopefully final lot of brain surgery. This was a weird time. I felt in many ways ruined, especially the day the last of the general anaesthetic wore off and I couldn’t stop crying. I had my head shaved, because where they’d shaved a rectangular block out of my long fringe looked ridiculous, and that was a particularly sad moment, as I’ve always love my hair. I was low energy, because of my hormones and what it was taking out of my body to recover from the surgeries, and still starving hungry all of the time. I had started seeing regularly a craniosacral therapist and the holistic treatment was definitely helping me sleep, which was a plus, as well as supporting my recovery in other ways. Chocolate ice cream was continuing to be a great pick me up. But what helped me the most through those weeks was something entirely beyond words.

Between her university classes and exams, my girl friend Katie, then of 5 years (now wife), was doing all she could to be there for me and be loving and supportive. The experience of love I got from her was more than just words and deeds. There was an energy I could feel in her touch, as she held me with my head on her lap, not judging as I wept uncontrollably. Whether we were watching TV or talking to family, her arms around me communicated an intention that rendered all words as lesser. One night she washed me as I sat in the bath and the love and care I felt her hands communicate made all language slip away into an abyss that left me in bliss. Amidst all the horror that was going on around me, all the suffering and shit I was going through, here was something completely wonderful, that brought the beauty of life and experience back to me in a direct and immediate way. As much as her actions were beyond words, my descriptions are entirely inadequate. You will never be able to know the energy that was felt between us in those moments (and honestly that is something I am glad of).

The second lot of brain surgery was quicker than the first and in many ways a lot easier. I spent most of my stay on ward consuming that beautiful hyper-real spectacle that we postmodern 21st century westerners remain addicted to: TV. No catheter! And was again able to walk afterwards faster than expected. The thing that was the best part of my second brain surgery was that the biopsy had found out the type of tumour that was in my brain.

If you know anything about pineal germinomas (also know as germ cell tumours), you will know that, as far as brain tumours go, being told you have one is extremely good news! These tumours are very easy to treat; they don’t often come back; and really this was confirmation that I was going to kick cancer’s fucking arse and live beyond this hellish ordeal I was going through! This was the best news yet and everyone around me was glad to learn this.

I had a month between my last brain surgery and starting radiation therapy. That month involved mostly listening to music, watching TV, playing guitar, eating (LOTS), siting in the garden and the occasional outing to shops or town, if I felt well enough to do it. I was exhausted though. It took me 3 attempts to stand up from the toilet one morning. The thing I kept saying to people was that I just wanted to go and walk outside. That primal urge to move my body across the land was something I felt deep within me, but at that time I simply couldn’t. That was something deeply upsetting and frustrating. My body, the being that I am, felt like something other than myself, but equally I was consumed by this-is-me-now – and I had to deal with that.

I knew I was alive and that was valuable. I felt like death, but knew that this process was transient and I would soon be a different space and in a different space.

Radiation therapy was weird. The first thing I remember them doing was making me this mask to hold my head in place on the table – a mask I kept after treatment ended and have a solid love/hate relationship with. For a month I would go to the hospital 5 days a week every morning; lie down on this table, in front of this colossal machine that looked straight out of science fiction; have my head locked in place by the mask; have radiation beams fired at my head, which you cannot see, hear, or smell, but after the first week or so start to feel the effects of; and then go home, and spend all day resting, playing guitar, video games or watching TV. The day my hair fell out sucked! I was in the bath and it all just started to come out in clumps – it felt much more like losing a part of myself compared with when it had been shaved off 2 months earlier (that was (kind of) my choice at least). But the real impact of radiation therapy didn’t start until after cancer treatment had ended, in the months immediately after – a period of time I have barely spoken about with anyone.

VII.

As I go to write about this now, I’m aware of my body tensing and I’m thinking more about my breath and what my eyes are doing in their sockets. This is very much a space where I have always found the idea of trying to put words to it something I couldn’t do. This was a space of finding myself in the dark-mysticism of what philosophers like Bataille, Foucault and Lacan have called limit-experience. This space is probably the closest I’ve been to the impossible and probably the closest I’ll get to the impossible.

If this comes across as non-sense to you, what I’m about to write, that is ok with me – if you haven’t experienced this you most likely simply won’t get it. This period, the months immediately after treatment, around my 21st birthday and immediately after; this was a point of falling into a schism, whose abyss seemed like it was going to consume me. I kept this very, very private at the time, as I didn’t want to upset those who had supported me throughout the proceeding months and who had done all they could to keep me alive. It felt like utter madness, where I was split between contradictions and caught between monoliths. This wasn’t feeling depressed or sad but something like being both caged and liberated, will also climbing and falling.

I’d thought about suicide a fair bit during my mid-teens, but mostly in a distant sense. The time I considered it most was in the months immediately following treatment. Why? Well to answer that I have to start a little before this period.

As I was going to and from between radiation therapy appointments, watching people in their cars from my seat as we drove past them, I would often think about them going to work to get money to buy food and pay for everything they needed to stay alive. I would also think about them feeling exhausted from work when home, watching TV and sitting on their smart phones playing games and tweeting crap they didn’t really care about. I would think about this over and over and over again. I would think about society being made up of people distracting themselves from death and doing all they could to avoid it all day every day. The more I did the more it all appeared to be one noisy MRI machine; one giant radiation therapy machine; one catheter up everyone’s dick.

Everyone was a cancer patient and everyone was–like all those people who go to cancer hospitals, have the best care in the entire fucking world and don’t make it–going to die. This was an all-consuming thought. And really, what was the point of it all? Why had I bothered to go through all that, if it was just going to be a less intense version of that for the rest of my time alive? Why not just kill myself? I would never be anything of who I was before – I’d always have the tube in my brain and knew I’d never see the world the same again. The Buddhism I had embraced for years was feeling more and more like a lived suicide; a denial of my life through trying to lose my attachment to this body that I am and that I had just gone through so much to keep alive. I contemplated suicide, a lot. I thought of what it would be to just not exist.

All “spirituality” grew less and less beautiful, and seemed more like a technology of flesh renunciation, as I found myself increasingly within-my-body. For a short period I explored Hinduism, but the more I did I found myself trying to find meaning in this space that just didn’t resonate with me (though perhaps was the religion that best mirrored my experience). I’ve always hated arsehole “humanist” atheists, who are often more dogmatic than most religious people, and didn’t want to reject what might be beautiful in religious stuff. But I knew that that stuff was no longer for me. It all felt like part of the same life-of-death this culture was looking increasingly like to me, and I wanted to embrace as little death as possible. (Perhaps if my father had been different I’d have a different relationship with this stuff – but that would be a different me and a different world, so I can never know.)

Something un-worded, visceral, embodied and entirely animal kept me from doing anything like attempting suicide. During this time I was still playing a lot of guitar and writing songs, and I had lots of love and support from people around me, in particular from Katie. This gave life more beauty during this horrific time. I then started re-reading existentialist philosophers, in particular Camus and Nietzsche, and took creativity in the face of all the meaninglessness around me to be my pathway. And I began to find value in what had happened, knowing that I was in many ways stronger for what had happened, though forever changed.

I started at the same time my undergraduate degree in social psychology and philosophy, and putting myself out into the world as a singer-songwriter. As I explored these spaces I found myself within, delving both into my studies and my creativity as a musician, I found myself drawn towards the weird, the fleshy and the wild, in ways that I couldn’t put to words, but that fitted this sensation I had been undergoing.

After the first year post-treatment I was doing well. I’d started exercising more and the body I am was feeling more and more like me. My degree was going very well and music was bringing me lots of joy. I was beginning to find a vocabulary to articulate something of what I was aware of but could not say, not out of taboo, but because it felt beyond the words.

I read Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and was exploring existentialist ideas on authenticity and inauthenticity, which was the closest thing yet to the feelings I had undergone and the awareness I had of myself within the world. I explored this alongside poststructuralist ideas on hyper-realism and the self as an object constructed through the technology of language. I began to explore philosophy of technology and found resonance with philosophers like Zerzan and found rekindled a visceral childlike love of what is Wild and living. And as my body grew stronger, I would walk more and more through the woods that surround me in the British countryside, listening to the birds as often as I could hear them. Aesthetically, I’ve always been drawn to music that conjured images of Wild “natural” spaces, with poetry of living-beings, and works of art that are of non-domesticated scenes and full of madness. I’d found a space that I shared energy with, and, though it was in so many ways horrifying, as I studied with increasing intensity the ecological situation and what that entails, I found myself increasingly energised and more passionate about living as furiously as possible.

One night, as I was starting on the first draft on Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods–a work that was largely me trying to put words to this sensation I had undergone–the words I had received through the studies I was engaged with at that time – I spent several hours reading articles and watching talks on “diseases of civilisation”, which includes, as you might have guessed, cancer. Weirdly enough though, this didn’t make me feel angrier about civilisation or about what I had gone through as a cancer patient, in any way that might immediately seem logical. That unworded, visceral, animal and entirely defiant energy within me was burning in a way that felt beautiful to me.

What became apparent to me was that civilisation is a cancer and that cancer’s manifest form, as a phenomenon, is technology: the technology that is keeping people alive is also killing them. Two things can happen with cancer – either it kills you, or you kill it. If I kill it, like I had done before, then I survive and keep living. If it kills me, then my body will become something else, something the cancer has no way of affecting. This was a strange but wonderful realisation to have. It was neither hopeful, or hopeless. Whatever happens, regardless of whether you have cancer or not, you and I are definitely going to die, which is ok, because we grow into new beings, still very much part of life.

It all felt absurd, but beautifully absurd. Horrific and ugly, but also something I wanted to grab at and bite into. That ineffable visceral energy, whose Wild burnings I’d felt throughout all that time going through treatment, like some skilled fish who lingers just below the surface ready to strike at insects or birds who come to close, that nameless energy, born out of the paradoxical dark-mysticism of the impossible limit-experience I had found myself within, I was starting to be able to articulate it, through the book project, through other writing projects and, though it was finding itself less in song and more in instrumentals, through music.

I was aware that I couldn’t find another living being doing what this culture does. The badgers, birds, trees and foxes weren’t living that cancer, those their lives were obviously impacted by it. And it seems to me, the more I study civilisation, that this is not a “human” phenomenon, but one specifically of this culture.

VIII.

I am still trying to find words to describe this impossible, embodied process to people who might find resonance with this experience of Being-in-the-world. I study loads and write loads, because, to a large degree, the project of my life is trying to scream at the world “YOU ARE FUCKING ALIVE” and as much of what that means, in as beautiful deconstructive, destructive and creative ways as I am able. I don’t know how successfully I am doing this, or will ever do it, but it is where my passions are drawn to.

But here is the thing – we don’t really have a cure for cancer (and I write that as a cancer survivor, who knows we can kill it). And all our bodies, like the earth we are manifest Extensions of, are infected with civilisation. Technologies might dull the pains and reduce the affect it has, for as long as we have the means to provide those technologies – like the painkillers and steroids I loved and hated in so many ways. Greater more powerful technologies might kill this cancer; but like how radiation therapy could have given me another tumour and still might well make me infertile as an on-going affect on my body, they could well lead to other, potentially worse, horrors. I don’t know to what degree the prayers and the crystals, the juices and holistic therapies, the reiki or the meditation, did anything, but I’m not arrogant enough to claim that I know they did nothing and am glad for any part in my healing they could have provided. Getting through cancer is messy – it is shit, piss, blood, tears and involves being looked at in an entirely naked sense. To survive cancer you have got to put the image you want to have of yourself aside and simply be who the fuck you are in that moment.

We all have civilisation within our being. Many(/most) of us will die from it. It is not a nice comfortable thing to acknowledge, but it is the truth I feel within my body and am as sure of that as I am sure of my own existence within Life, as this mammal who dances mad dances in the woods of Briton. If any of us are going to survive it, it will be those of us who remove our catheters as soon as possible and summon up all the strength they have within them to walk. It is difficult, it is heart breaking, but it is also wonderful, in a weird paradoxical way.

I am not writing this expecting many of you reading this to like it. I am sure lots of you will disregard me as some hypocritical “primitivist” bashing the technology his life has depended upon, through the medium of the internet that wouldn’t exist if he had his way. To those of you who feel that way, I’m not bothered by you not getting it, because I doubt I would if I had not felt the sensations I had done and if your body has nothing similar to draw from you just won’t get it. And if civilisation is what kills you too, I hope your passing is as painless as possible.

Politics has come to seem more and more to be a machine of death, that cultishly worships itself; with its varying factions being different deities within this pantheon. Though less the case than in mainstream-politics, this largely seems the case with radical-politics too, with its endless arbitrary factionalism, call-outs policing of each other and politics-as-fashion. Because I feel a visceral, animal pull of will towards life/power, rather than embracing death, for the most part, while sometimes anti-political, I have tried to keep the bulk of my projects away from politics. This is also the case for the 2 political ideologies I have been occasionally lumped in with (despite having voiced critiqued of both) – anarcho-primitivism and eco-extremism.

With this, I have tried to focus my writings, not on quietist renunciation, but on what it means to Live, while we are surrounded by this Leviathan of death, this cancer, this vile and disgusting machinery. I’d also like to put it here that I haven’t embraced anti-civilisation philosophy because I read anti-civ writers like Zerzan, Kaczynski, Quinn or Jenson – though many of their ideas and arguments resonate with my experience – but because what I as-my-body has gone through, both as feeling-what-it-is-to-be-dead and as being-an-Extension-of-the-world-that-is-dying. This is something beyond words and argument; it is the space that you find yourself in after the full stop at the end of the last sentence.

Here I am, committing that faux pas again – the great cosmological-taboo. I love the work by Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, though my writing project has been and ones currently in process, have all been reversal of his assertion – whether or not we commit suicide is a rather boring and unimportant question; whether or not we commit Life is the philosophical question that my being feels drawn to. Sure, Life might be weird and absurd and impossible and confusing, but there is an awe inspiring mystical beauty to all of that, which I find to be a desirable place to dance in. Anti-civilisation politics and philosophy is never going to be popular within “society” and is always going to offend those who don’t like and don’t find resonance with it.

I’m not trying to write something people are going to like – I’m trying to communicate something honest. We are drowning in information, thanks to the internet and TV. There is very little honesty, very little authenticity. If this is a faux pas, so be it.


Julian Langer

Writer of Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods, blogger at Eco-Revolt, and has been published on a number of other sites. Eco-anarchist and guerilla ontologist philosopher. Lover of woods, deer, badgers and other wild Beings. Musician and activist.


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Binding the Wolf

Editor’s Note:

Because of the length of this important essay, we’re making it also available as a downloadable .pdf file. Also, please note: as this a research essay, it contains extensive quotes from white nationalist and white supremacist writers and websites. We believe it’s important for readers to know precisely what such people are saying, but advise that some of the content is potentially unsettling.


Addressing the Odinist Issue Within American Heathenry.

From Syn, Frigga’s handmaiden

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Introduction

Modern-day Heathens have become increasingly frustrated with various hate groups’ cultural “misappropriation” of our sacred symbols; and, while we keep asking ourselves as well as one another what we can do, the answer eludes us. That is because the very soul of our religion as we know it today was and continues to be born out of the ashes of a racist ideology. That racist ideology “pre-appropriated” (before our present time) our chosen gods and our symbols in an effort to raise one specific group up over another and to annihilate those who did not “fit” within their ideal world. It continues to be used by some to further their agenda of racial superiority [1].

That is the raw ugly truth that we wrestle with; and while we can each deny that we are not “that”, for many people, specifically those who are affected by these hate groups, it doesn’t matter. Because to them, we are all the same until we demonstrate that we are not.

Although there are no actual numbers to support this, it is my perception that more Heathen groups than not have adopted a “universalist” perspective, which holds that the religion is open to all, irrespective of ethnic or racial identity. A minority of others (who tend to be louder and garner of all of the negative media attention) adopt a racialist attitude—also called “Folkish” within the community.

For those not familiar with the term, “Folkish or Volkish” people and groups view Heathenry as a religion with inherent links to a Germanic race that should be reserved explicitly for people of Northern European descent [2].

The term “The Folk” is not in itself a racist term and just because you may hear someone refer to a group gathered as “The Folk” it does not mean that they are racist. For Universalist Heathen groups, the term may refer to their Kindred, the people who are attending the ritual, or believers in the Heathen religion or folkways. “Folkway” is a sociological term that describes the traditional behavior or way of life of a particular community or group of people.

Also, while the term “Heathenry” is used widely to describe the religion as a whole, many groups prefer different forms of designation, influenced by their regional focus and their ideological preferences.

Heathens focusing on Scandinavian sources sometimes use Ásatrú, Vanatrú, or Forn Sed; practitioners focusing on Anglo-Saxon traditions may use Fyrnsidu or Theodism; some of those emphasizing German traditions might use Irminism; and those Heathens who espouse folkish and extreme-right perspectives tend to favor the terms Odinism, Wotanism, Wodenism, or Odalism [3].

Additionally, some of these folkish Heathens further combine the religion with explicitly racist, white supremacist, and extreme right-wing perspectives, although these approaches are repudiated in various ways by most Heathens.

This document is meant to be thought-provoking and freely shared. It is hoped that rather than poke holes in my scholarship and references that you will read it, share it and have meaningful discussions with your Kindred and other Heathens as to how best to implement the suggestions that are provided at the end. Hopefully, you will also come up with some creative solutions unique to your own situation.

It is my intent to provide a high-level summary of the origins of the White Supremacy Movement in the United States and show how that movement became combined with modern-day Heathenry.

There is no attempt to provide suggestions for alternative reading material or organizations.

This article seeks to identify the major players and organizations historically affiliated with the racially-centric offshoots of Heathenry; and, focuses mainly on Odinism within the United States while identifying the central figures linked to these groups and offers what I see as some practical steps that universal/independent Kindreds and Heathens can take to:

• Combat the overall appearance of collusion with the Odinist racist ideology by no longer keeping a shameful silence, and,
• Ensure that our sacred symbols are not further co-opted by the Odinist racist agenda by taking them back.

But, first, a little history of the White Supremacist Movement and how the two (White Supremacy and Heathenry) became combined.

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History

According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START),

“White supremacy operates on the belief that Whites are intellectually and morally superior to all other races. This belief is based on a mix of religious, socio-cultural and pseudo-scientific assertions that phenotype—including differences in skin tone and physiognomy, among other things—equate to differences in intellect, moral virtue, and social sophistication.

While traditional targets of White supremacist rhetoric and violence have been Jews and African Americans, the movement has broadened its focus to include other ethnic and religious groups, including Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, Muslims, and Sikhs. They have also targeted individuals of different sexual and gender identities, such as gay/lesbian and transgendered individuals.

White supremacy groups advocate for what they perceive as the appropriate and natural racial hierarchy, which places the Aryan race above any other racial groups. More specifically, they promote practices and policies that are supposed to ensure the privileged status of the “Aryan” people and their social control over (what they perceive as) lesser races, particularly within the United States.” [4]

White Supremacy has ideological foundations that originated within 18th-century scientific racism, the predominant paradigm of human variation that helped shape international and intra-national relations from the latter part of the Age of Enlightenment (in European history) up to and through the current time (the 21st century).

The author, Simon During, in his book, Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction, states that “Scientific Racism became such a powerful idea because … it helped legitimate the domination of the globe by whites” [5].

This was certainly true during the colonialization period in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and to some extent the United States. In every case, the people who were being colonialized were seen as inferior in every way. Over time they lost their own cultural identities as they adopted the customs and religions of their conquerors in order to survive.

The outbreak of the Civil War saw the desire to uphold White Supremacy being cited as a cause for the state of Texas (and others’) secession; in its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union, it states:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.” (UCS Louisiana)

In L. Frank Baum’s “Editorials on the Sioux Nation” (1890) the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels wrote:

“The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians.” [6]

The denial of social and political freedom (based on race) continued into the mid-20th century, resulting in the civil rights movement… and brings us to the nexus point at which American Heathenry was born. The following figures and organizations emerged during the same time period:

1969: A Danish-born Nazi activist from Florida, Else Christensen, created the Odinist Fellowship and The Odinist magazine. The term Odinist originates in its current form from Christensen and her writings. She espoused the establishment of an anarcho-syndicalist society composed of racially Aryan communities [7].

The term “Aryan Race” is a racial grouping used by the proponents of such a grouping to describe people of European and Western Asian heritage. It derives from the idea that the original speakers of the Indo-European languages and their descendants up to the present day constitute a distinctive race or sub-race of the putative Caucasian race [8]. It should be also be noted that the languages (or branches) allowed to be included as Aryan can be very subjective and may have additional modifiers such as language root, bone and muscle shapes, skin tone, eye color and shape, hair color and texture, and, given modern science, your DNA. “Aryan” is a loaded word given its use during the Third Reich where it was used to define whether one looked a specific way and therefore had the right to live and procreate while one who did not possess these traits was inferior and must, therefore be eliminated.

Christensen also came to be known as the “Grand Mother” among racially oriented Odinists, with many paying homage to her even if they had sought out a more aggressive approach to racial issues than that which she adopted. Alternately, many in the Odinist community know her as the “Folk Mother”. A number of her ideas proved to be key influences on the American Odinist movement, most notably her political and economic “tribal socialism,” her emphasis on recruiting people through prison ministries, and her emphasis on a Jungian archetypal interpretation of the Norse deities [9].

Mattias Gardell in his book, Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, states that:

“Christiansen upholds as ideal a decentralized folkish communalism modeled on self-sufficient communes like those of the Amish… Christensen claims that tribal socialism allows freedom of “self-expression”, private enterprise and encouragement for every member of the tribe to reach its fullest potential while also addressing the socialist concerns and sharing resources responsibilities and caring for the young the elderly and the disabled of the tribe. The concerns for the community as a whole and the welfare and the future of the tribe are of paramount importance, superseding those of the single member of the tribe.” [10]

There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with referring to your group as a “Neo-Tribal” group if, in fact, you are. Just be aware that the term “Neo-Tribal” can be a loaded term and may require an additional explanation, depending on your audience.

Else Christensen subscribed to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews control the Western socio-political establishment, and believed that this would prevent the growth of any explicitly political movement to spread racial consciousness among those she deemed to be Aryan. Instead, she believed that Heathenry – a Pagan religion that she termed “Odinism” – represented the best way of spreading this racial consciousness. In 1969, Christensen and her husband Alex founded a group called The Odinist Fellowship. Following the death of her husband in 1971, Christensen continued her work and relocated to the United States. That year she began publication of a newsletter called The Odinist, which continued for many years.

Early 1970’s: From Arizona, Michael J. Murray (a.k.a. Valgard Murray) came to Odinism / Asatru through Elton Hall, the Arizona organizer of the American Nazi Party (ANP). Murray was involved with the ANP into the late 1960s [11]. He later became the Arizona organizer of the ANP [12] as well as a vice-president of Else Christensen’s Odinist Fellowship [13].

1972: From Texas, Stephen A. McNallen created the Viking Brotherhood after reading a novel, The Viking, by Edison Marshall. He wrote a “Viking Manifesto” in which he stated that the Brotherhood was “dedicated to preserving, promoting and practicing the Norse religion as it was epitomized during the Viking Age, and to further the moral and ethical values of courage, individualism, and independence which characterized the Viking way of life, and, placed greater emphasis on promoting what McNallen perceived as the Viking ideals — “courage, honor, and freedom” — rather than on explicitly religious goals.

This fact is mentioned in several books: Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft by James R. Lewis (1997); Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah by Jeffrey Kaplan (1997); and, Jung’s Wandering Archetype: Race and Religion in Analytical Psychology by Carrie B. Dohe (2016).

Gods and Radicals has an excellent article that is worth reading in order to gain a better understanding of McNallen’s controversial ideology of metagenetics. The article states in part that:

“The core of McNallen’s Folkish ideology is the belief in a concept known as metagenetics. Metagenetics claims culture is passed on genetically within specific groups of people. Such genetic connections to culture also determine what deities one can connect to.” (Weaponization of folkish heathery)

While McNallen’s own words seem banal, the implications of his theory are not:

“The idea of metagenetics may be threatening to many who have been taught that there are no differences between the branches of humanity. But in reflecting, it is plain that metagenetics is in keeping with the most modern ways of seeing the world. A holistic view of the human entity requires that mind, matter, and spirit are not separate things but represent a spectrum or continuum. It should not be surprising, then, that genetics is seen as a factor in spiritual or psychic matters. And the ideas put forth by those who see consciousness as a product of chemistry fit into metagenetics as well- for biochemistry is a function of organic structure which in turn depends upon our biological heritage.” (Metagenetics)

McNallen claims these ideas are based on, “intuitive insights as old as our people” but then proceeds to cite no sagas, sources, or examples to back this claim up (in other words, it’s his version of unsubstantiated personal gnosis). The closest he gets is when he claims reincarnation by bloodline was a universal belief among the ancient Germanics saying, “A person did not come back as a bug or a rabbit, or as a person of another race or tribe, but as a member of their own clan.”

He cites Carl Jung as justification for his theories and concludes:

“No doubt, on an earlier and deeper level of psychic development, where it is still impossible to distinguish between an Aryan, Semitic, Hamitic, or Mongolian mentality, all human races have a common collective psyche. But with the beginning of racial differentiation, essential differences are developed in the collective psyche as well. For this reason, we cannot transplant the spirit of a foreign religion ‘in globo’ into our own mentality without sensible injury to the latter.” (Stephen Mcnallen part one)

1973: From/in England, John Gibbs-Bailey and John Yeowell founded the Committee for the Restoration of The Odinic Rite or Odinist Committee [14]. Yeowell had been a member of the British Union of Fascists in his teens between the years of 1933–1936 [15].

“Established in the United States in 1979, the organization changed its name to The Odinic Rite after it was believed that it had gained enough significant interest in the restoration of the Odinic faith in 1980.

Today The Odinic Rite defines Odinism as the modern-day expression of the ancient religions which grew and evolved with the Indo-European peoples who settled in Northern Europe and came to be known as “Germanic”. The Odinic Rite shuns such descriptions as “Viking religion” or “Asatru” insisting that the Viking era was just a very small period in the history and evolution of the faith.” [16]

While you can go to their website and read some of the essays posted by some of their members and you can infer a lot from these essays, there is really very little information in terms of what the organization is about, the contents of their organizational meeting minutes, moot agendas, etc. They are behind a “locked, members-only” web-wall” (Odinic rite).

1976: McNallen created the Asatru Free Assembly (AFA).

Late 1979 – early 1980: Also from Texas, and a member of the Asatru Free Assembly (AFA), Stephen Edred Flowers, commonly known as Stephen E. Flowers, and also by the pen-names Edred Thorsson, and Darban-i-Den, founded The Rune-Gild, an initiatory order focused on “the revival of the elder Runic” tradition, advocating runic magic [17]. From 1978 to 1983 he led the Austin Kindred of the AFA [18].

Writing as both Stephen Flowers and Edred Thorsson, his prolific books have been instrumental in the advancement of a unique aspect of Heathenry. While it has been argued that his methodology for rituals, runic magick, and its derivatives, may not be purely Germanic and may have borrowed heavily from other magickal traditions; he is unquestionably the one who “got there first” in terms of being in the right place at the right time to get the concepts and words out there. Consequently, he is credited with advancing what has become standard Heathen practice for many people interested in both a magickal system and ritual practice that was separate and apart from the Western Mystery Tradition of calling quarters calling and circle drawing.

Into the present day, Edred Thorsson as a prolific writer, continues to support McNallen and his organization(s). All royalties from his books go to a racist organization: “Since 2013, the AFA has owned rights to many of Edred Thorsson’s books.”

1986 – 1987: From Arizona, Valgard Murray and his Kindred founded the Ásatrú Alliance (AA), which shared the Asatru Free Assembly’s perspectives on race and published the Vor Tru newsletter [19]. He invited other Kindreds to a formational Althing in 1988 [20], and also served on the Board of Directors and as General Manager of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly [21]. In 1987 he served as General Manager of the AFA, and in 1986 founded World Tree Publications [22].

Here are the By-Laws of the Asatru Alliance (from their website):

(As approved by Althing, September 21st. 2263 Runic Era)
• Asatru is the ethnic religion of the indigenous Northern European peoples.
• The Asatru Alliance is a free association of Independent Kindreds seeking to preserve and protect the ancient faith of our ancestors.
• The Asatru Alliance is organized along tribal democratic lines, permitting the full expression of our religious opinions, opting for the sanctity of our Asatru faith.
• The Asatru Alliance does not espouse a priest class. Each Kindred is free to determine its own spiritual and tribal needs.
• The Asatru Alliance will promote the growth of Asatru through the sponsoring of national and regional Things and Moots. We will also publish magazines and books as needed to achieve our goals.
• A Thing Speaker will be chosen for AlThing by the host Kindred(s). The Thing Speaker may convene the Thing as needed. AlThing Delegates of Record shall serve as a standing legislative body with full authority of the Thing until the commencement of the next AlThing. The Thing Speaker or any Delegate of Record can call for a caucus of delegates for suitable cause.
• The Thing/Law Body has absolute authority in dealing with By Laws or other issues of the Asatru Alliance.

Kindreds
• The Asatru Alliance will promote the establishment and growth of Kindreds.
• The Asatru Alliance will not interfere with the functions of Kindreds unless petitioned by a majority of members of said Kindred for aid.
• Kindreds are free to apply for membership in the Alliance, or leave the Alliance, as voted upon by a majority of the subject Kindred membership.
• A Kindred shall consist of at least 3 adult members and meet on a regular basis.
• Each Kindred is expected to send a delegate to the AlThing each year. No attendance, no vote. Kindreds may address the Thing by proxy.
• Any Kindred can be removed for cause by the Alliance by the majority vote of the Thing delegates after a fair hearing.

Membership
• Any member of an Alliance Kindred is a member of the Alliance.
• Three or more individuals of the Asatru community can band together and form a Kindred and apply for membership in the Alliance.
• The Board of Directors of the Asatru Alliance shall be responsible for the screening of new Kindreds. There are three levels of membership in the Alliance. Formational, Probational, and Full Voting Kindreds. Formational Kindreds must send a delegate to the Thing to petition for Probational Kindred status. Probational Kindreds must attend a future AlThing and petition the Thing to attain Full Kindred status.

Approval
• These By-Laws are to be approved or amended at each Althing.

1987: In November, the Asatru Free Assembly disbanded (reportedly over whether or not neo-nazis could be admitted) [23], and on December 20, Edred Thorsson founded The Ring of Troth along with James Chisholm. The Ring of Troth defines itself as belonging to the Universalist and inclusive sector of Heathenry. Taking an inclusive, non-racialist view, it soon grew into an international organization.

In the Preface to the Special Yrmin-Edition of Thorsson’ book, A Book of Troth, (2003), Thorsson states that “when it was first published in 1989, it was at first to be the official text for The Ring of Troth. After a few years, it was ousted from that position in favor of a more politically correct and collaborative effort called Our Troth by Kveldulf Gundersson” [24].

Thorsson goes on to state, “It was thought that a book contributed to by several authors would be more to the liking of those who’d like to build consensus rather than follow a vision.” [25]

1989: Thorsson was expelled from The Odinic Rite (OR) following his “Open Letter to the Leadership of the Asatru/Odinist/Troth Movement” wherein he detailed his involvement with the Temple of Set.

1994: McNallen founded the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA), an ethnically-oriented Heathen group headquartered in California.

1995-ish: Ron McVan, Katja, and David Lane created Wotansvolk, a white nationalist, neo-folkish, Neo-Nazi organization. David Lane, now dead, served a 190-year prison sentence in connection with the white separatist revolutionary domestic terrorist organization group The Order, (and for violating the civil rights of Alan Berg, a radio talk show host) [26]. (Alan Berg was killed.) The Lanes founded 14 Word Press in St. Maries, Idaho to specifically publish David’s writings. McVan joined 14 Word Press in 1995 and founded The Temple of Wotan (co-writing a book by that name). 14 Word Press – Wotansvolk proceeded to publish several books for the practice of Wotanism before becoming defunct in the early 2000’s [27].

The 14 Words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” [28]

1995: Ron McVan, originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [29], became involved with white separatism in the 1970s after reading the works of Ben Klassen [30], a Republican Florida state legislator who supported George Wallace [31]. During this time, Wotansvolk published monthly pamphlets and operated a prison outreach program [32]. While Wotansvolk is one of many groups active in prisoner outreach, it seems to be (far more) successful in its outreach efforts than other Asatrú / Odinist programs” [33].

The term Wotanism in modern times emphasizes white nationalism, white separatism and an ethnocentric, pan-European interpretation of modern Paganism. “WOTAN” is also an acronym for Will of the Aryan Nation. The followers often selectively cite Carl Jung’s theories of an “Aryan collective subconscious”, specifically his 1936 essay “Wotan” [34].

Present Day: One of the others convicted with David Lane, Richard Scutari, has become a frequent contributor to extremist publications. His definitions of a political prisoner and prisoner of war have become the standard definitions used by most white supremacist groups, and have been printed in numerous publications, including the skinhead magazine Hammerskin Press (now defunct) and Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance newspaper. Scutari writes letters to the extremist newsletters and magazines to which he has access, including the National Alliance-owned Resistance magazine and Fenris Wolf (also defunct). Scutari also actively promotes Nordic paganism as a form of racist religion [35].

Order member Richard Kemp, also a copious writer, has become a “spiritual leader” at the U.S. Penitentiary in Sheridan, Oregon, where he is serving a 60- year sentence. As reported by David Lane’s 14 Words Press, Kemp is now the “gothi” of the Wotansvolk at Sheridan. Because of his involvement in Asatru, Kemp was invited to speak at the Nation of Islam’s Day of Atonement program at Sheridan and has also been instrumental in organizing a “Midsummer Solstice” celebration and weekly Asatru services at the prison [36].

While Heathen Universalists and some non-folkish Odinists have rejected what they perceive as an attempt to appropriate the revival of the ancient native faith of northern Europe for political and racial ends [37], folkish Odinists, such as McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly, generally support Lane’s version of Wotanism and the Fourteen Words [38].

In 2016 McNallen turned the reins of the AFA over to Matt Flavel, Allen Turnage, and Patricia Hall [39]. The AFA then “declared point blank that non-white and LGBT Heathens were not welcome in their tradition.”; which then triggered the drafting of Declaration 127.

Conclusion

Knowledge is power; and, with that power comes great responsibility. A central division within the Heathen movement concerns the issue of race and there have been numerous “calls” for Heathens to address the sordid aspects of racism affiliated with our religion that have become progressively bolder over the past several years. The images and tragedy of Charlottesville, Virginia’s Unite the Right rally in August 2017, followed by the neo-Nazi rally in Newnan, Georgia on April 21st of this year (2018) disturb us. So, what are we as Heathen’s to do? A recent article in the Atlantic provides the following advice:

“Unfortunately for heathens, there are racists who have also adopted the Ásatrú faith. This, in turn, can create the impression that the racism issue represents the faith’s central feature. The struggle of heathens today is ultimately not just about rescuing their symbols from racists, but also about dismantling the broader idea that this rescue mission is what defines them.”

“There’s more to heathenry than just the fight against racist groups,” (Ulrike) Pohl said, adding that to get this point across, heathens need “a combined strategy” that blends internal theological work, public political activity, and education geared at non-heathens. As for educating heathens with racist leanings, the most important thing is to be able to offer them a richer, more compelling vision. “If we can offer a sense of community and a sound theology, I think it’ll be easier to explain to people why the blood-and-soil idea makes no sense historically or spiritually,” she said. “The best way to get people to come over to the bright side is to simply be cool.” (The Atlantic)

From what you have just read, while you know that what Ulrike Pohl states is correct, her advice doesn’t go far enough.

Here are the suggested “12 Steps to Bind the Wolf”:

• Compose and publish statements on all of your social media sites (or your personal profiles) that proclaim that you are: inclusive (if you are), independent of all other Heathen groups (if you are) and most importantly, fly the “Heathens Against Hate” flag.

I first became acquainted with the Heathen’s Against Hate banner via Woden’s Harrow on Frigga’s Web in 2003 and its “Heathen’s Against Hate” banner campaign. While Woden’s Harrow is now apparently defunct, I have an old copy of the document, which says in part:

“It is a sad necessity that requires me to make this page, but because of a few racist, Nazi, and Satanic websites that have a relatively high profile on the WWW, I feel this disclaimer must be placed on my website. The sites to which I refer claim to be Asatru or Norse Heathen while promoting Heathenism as white supremacism or a kind of Satanism. Of course, the practice the Old Northern traditions and other forms of ancient Paganism — the ancestral religions of much of Europe and the world — has nothing to do with race hatred or with Satan.

Heathens Against Hate is a banner campaign I started after seeing the Pagans Against Fascism banner created by the Wolfshof of Germany. Many legitimate Asatru and Pagan organisations in Europe have had such problems with the negative publicity given to Heathenism by the violent actions of racists, that they have had to put strong anti-Nazi and anti-fascist disclaimers on their Pagan Web sites. These disclaimers let visitors immediately see the orientation of the site. I think that this is a good way to educate the public and encourage non-Pagans to find out the truth about our religion. I originally made this statement as a disclaimer for my own site.”

Directions were then included on how to link to the Woden’s Harrow Heathen’s Against Hate banner campaign or which words to use to declare that you supported the Heathen’s Against Hate banner campaign.

Re-creating the banner for your social media site(s) is fairly easy: using a freeware picture of a raven (or two or three); write the words “Heathens Against Hate” under it and post as appropriate.

• Become acquainted with Declaration 127, and, actively support its tenets, as stated here and on the website:

“The Asatru Folk Assembly (hereinafter referred to as the AFA) has a long and well-documented history of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sexuality, and gender identity. In a recent statement, the AFA declared point blank that non-white and LGBT Heathens were not welcome in their tradition. While the undersigned organizations listed here fully recognize the AFA’s right to govern themselves as they see fit, and with full autonomy, we hereby exercise the same right.

“We will not promote, associate, or do business with the AFA as an organization so long as they maintain these discriminatory policies.

“The AFA’s views do not represent our communities. We hereby declare that we do not condone hatred or discrimination carried out in the name of our religion, and will no longer associate with those who do. We will not grant the tacit approval of silence in the name of frið (frith), to those who would use our traditions to justify prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, orientation, or gender identity.

“The AFA is free to stand for whatever principles it sees fit.
“They are free to stand alone.”

Implementation of Declaration 127 will vary by individual and Kindred. It’s a tough conversation to have and you may be surprised how others view Declaration 127.

• Refer to Odinists as White Supremacists and Nazis — because that is what they are.

• Refer to these groups as being domestic terrorist organizations, because they are.

While “Domestic Terrorist” is a state-definition which also includes the American Indian Movement, The Earth Liberation Front, and many indigenous and POC justice movements, it is not my intent to disparage these groups. I am just not sure what else we can call a group of people whose sole aim is to eradicate a group of people based on their DNA and sexual orientation. I am open to suggestions.

• Shun them (similar to what is outlined in Declaration 127). If you currently go to moots that host both Odinists and Universalists together, request that another moot be created (or actively work with other Kindreds and do it yourself) and exclude those individuals and groups from the new event(s). Keeping Frith is no longer acceptable. We don’t keep Frith with domestic terrorists!

• Examine your group’s origins. If you are modeled after another group, and, if you don’t know, inquire where they got their organizational model. Look at the titles of your organizational officers and clergy. If you are using terms that originate from an Odinic or similar group, consider changing them. As the Wiccan’s say, “Lineage is important!” Know the lineage of your group.

• Examine your ritual material; where did it come from? Simply saying “The internet.” or “Out of some book.”, is not the correct answer. It is incumbent upon all of us to sift through everything we are reading and doing, including the words that come out of our mouths to ensure that they don’t originate from an Odinist group. This includes how you celebrate your Sumbels, your Blots and your holidays. If you decide that nothing needs to change, make that a conscious decision and know why you are not making the change; be able to articulate that to your Kindred and guests.

• To circumvent supporting McNallen, his successors and his / their organization(s), (when purchasing material from author Edred Thorsson / Stephen Flowers), consider buying your material from used booksellers since the profits generally go to the bookseller, not the author.

This is something that I have wrestled with as a magickal practitioner. It’s not easy to just “not buy his books” and purchase something from a more current author. If you look in the bibliography of most books on the Northern Mystery Tradition, they reference Thorsson. Part of the reason that Runic magick works is that the people who are using the Runes (for writing and magickal purposes) have all agreed that they mean what they mean. (This is the Magickal Law of Names.) To make a shift away from Thorsson will take time, if that is indeed what we must do. Just sit with that for a moment…

• Consider stripping out any words or language of Odinist origin and further personalize each of your Blots by adding readings, poetry, meditations that are centric to the agricultural calendar. Look to modern England, Germany, and Scandinavia to see what holidays they celebrate and borrow some ideas from them. All of them center on family, food, and alcohol! Look around you and take seasonal cues from your own “backyard”.

The beauty of practicing a “living religion” is that the Gods and Goddesses we worship speak through us and we are FREE to create ritual and liturgy that resonates with us. That includes allowing our gods to inspire us to create something that is uniquely ours.

• Depending on your comfort level with magickal rituals, consider creating recurring rituals in your tradition (perhaps the same months as Yule, Summer Finding, Mid-Summer and Winter Finding) that explicitly focus on banishing whatever protection that these Odinist individuals and groups enjoy by working with Tyr and “binding” them; much as Tyr bound the embodiment chaos, the wolf Fenris. By focusing solely on the groups within your state or locale, Heathens as a whole can be more effective on a larger level [40]. Do this quietly and with only the most trusted members of your Kindreds. In the spirit of a gift for a gift, be prepared to offer copious amounts of ale, mead and other suitable sacrifices as part of this ritual. At the same time, TAKE BACK OUR WORDS, OUR SYMBOLS, and OUR GODS! Where ever possible and safe to do so, find ways to use our sacred language, symbols, and gods. Conduct cleansing rituals to free them from hate. Share those rituals with others. Collaborate with other Kindreds and do similar rituals around the same time that focus on the same things.

• If people confront you about your jewelry, tattoos, mode of dress, gently tell them that you, your ancestors and your gods don’t support terrorists and that your gods are working on a solution. Have a short elevator speech ready with a few talking points about what you do believe and a little bit about your Kindred (if you have one) and invite them to a Blot. Open your heart and try not to be defensive. Seek to understand that they don’t understand and that some people, based on their personal experience may be fearful.

• If practical and you feel comfortable, “do the work” within your community; work with a disadvantaged school, a shelter, or other collaborative projects with your local Unitarian Church as a Heathen. Wear your hammer and be proud. Talk about yourself and your group’s ideology and share something about your religious traditions. Host a coffee or a workshop at your local pagan bookstore to talk a little bit about your religion.

If enough people take these 12 Steps to Bind the Wolf, we will prevail. Together we are stronger than when we are standing alone as rugged individualists. By talking to one another, organically the movement will catch fire (the rune Kenaz) and we will prevail. When we prevail, our Gods and Goddesses and our Symbols will also prevail and we can bind the wolf with ice (the rune Isa).


  1. von Schnurbein, Stefanie (2016); Norse Revival – Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism.
  2. ibid. p. 2.
  3. Gardell, Matthias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. p. 2.
  4. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism; Research Brief, Key Concepts To Understand Violent White Supremacy.
  5. During, Simon; Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction; Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005; ISBN 0-203-01758-7; p. 163.
  6. L. Frank Baum’s Editorials on the Sioux Nation”. Archived from the original on December 9, 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-09. Full text of both, with commentary by professor A. Waller Hastings.
  7. Gardell, Matthias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  8. Mish, Frederic C., Editor in Chief Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A.:1994–Merriam-Webster See original definition (definition #1) of “Aryan” in English–Page 66.
  9. Gardell, Matthias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  10. Ibid. p. 172-173.
  11. “A racist brand of neo-Paganism, related to Odinism, spreads among white supremacists”; Splcenter.org. Archived from the original on April 18, 2014.
  12. Gardell, Matthias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, page 261.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Pagan Resurrection by Richard Rudgley (2006) p.240
  15. Osred, “A multi-faceted life”, obituary originally (2010) published in the Friends of Oswald Mosley newsletter, re-published in This is Odinism,
    Renewal Publications (2016), p. 105.
  16. “Odinism – A Defining Moment”. A talk by Hengest Thorsson, later published in Odinic Rite Briefing, issue 113, 2009.
  17. Chisholm, James Allen; Appendix A, The Awakening of a Runemaster: The Life of Edred Thorsson, from Thorsson, Edred; Green Rûna – The Runemaster’s Notebook: Shorter Works of Edred Thorsson Volume I (1978-1985), 1993, second improved and expanded edition 1996.
  18. Thorsson, Edred; A Book of Troth, Runa-Raven Yrmin Edition, 2003.p. xii.
  19. Kaplan, Jeffrey (1996). “The Reconstruction of the Ásatrú and Odinist Traditions”. In Lewis, James R. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. New York: State University of New York. pp. 193–236.
  20. Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, page 262.
  21. “World Tree Publications: Valgard Murray Biography”; worldtreepublications.org; 2014-02-20.
  22. “World Tree Publications: History”; worldtreepublications.org; 2014-02-09.
  23. Kaplan, Jeffrey (1996). “The Reconstruction of the Ásatrú and Odinist Traditions”. In James R. Lewis (ed.). Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. New York: State University of New York. pp. 193–236.
  24. Thorsson, Edred; A Book of Troth, Runa-Raven Yrmin Edition, 2003.p. xii
  25. Ibid.
  26. “Extremism in America: David Lane”. Anti-Defamation League. 2007.
  27. Gardell, Mattias (2004). “White Racist Religions in the United States: From Christian Identity to Wolf Age Pagans”. In Lewis, James R.; Petersen, Jesper Aagaard. Controversial New Religions. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 387–422.
  28. Dunbar, Edward; Blanco, Amalio; CrËvecoeur-MacPhail, Desirée A. (2016-11-21). The Psychology of Hate Crimes as Domestic Terrorism: U.S. and Global Issues. ABC-CLIO. pp. 91.
  29. Back of Book Jacket Cover.
  30. Gardell 2004, p. 205–206.
  31. Hesser, Charles F (7 Dec 1967), “Wallace Men Feud in Florida”, The Miami News, p.6-A.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Gardell, Mattias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism.
  34. Gardell 2004, pp. 208, 210–212.
  35. Anti-Defamation League: Dangerous Convictions – An Introduction to Extremist Activities in Prisons; 2002. p 33.
  36. Ibid. p. 34.
  37. Gardell, Mattias (2003). Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism.
  38. “New Brand of Racist Odinist Religion on the March” Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center. Winter 1998.
  39. “About Stephen A. McNallen”. Asatru Folk Assembly. (Archive link is broken.)
  40. The most current list state by state can be found here.

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A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.

FirstDayOnHopHill-ByRobertoMonge

Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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A Standing Rock Story Part 1

“I’ve owed Rhyd a post for well over a year. Not just one post. Lots of posts. I’m sorry this has taken so long. I hope that you’ll understand why it’s been so hard to get this first one written…”

From Lisha Sterling

TimYakaitis-TheRevolutionWillNotBeTelevised
Photo by Tim Yakaitis

It’s been a year and a half since I packed my van for a camping trip and headed east to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. There were thousands of people camped there to stand up for indigenous treaty rights and to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL) through sacred grounds and across the Missouri River. In a matter of months, an empty field between the 1806 highway and the Missouri river had turned into a bustling village of tents, RVs and tipis. There was no mains electricity, no running water save for the cannonball river and the Missouri herself, no Internet fiber, and precious little cell phone reception. People from over 300 tribes across the Americas and beyond were gathered there in this perfect example of a “low resource situation” and I was headed there to see how the community of Geeks Without Bounds could help the community in the #NoDAPL camps with their infrastructure needs.

The funniest thing of all is that one year ago, just a month after returning to my apartment in Washington state after two seasons in the land of The Great Sioux Nation, I thought that the experience hadn’t really changed me much. It wasn’t until May when I met up with fellow Water Protectors at UC Santa Barbara’s “Standing Rock in Santa Barbara” event that I realized how much I’d been reshaped by the fires of Oceti Sakowin.

It’s hard to write about those changes now, hard to know where to start and how to organize all the pieces so that they will make sense to someone who wasn’t there. I don’t want it to seem like I’m telling “the story” of anything. I’m telling my story. I’m sharing the things that I learned. When we were exiled from the camps by the colonialist government authorities, the Native elders told us to go back to our communities and continue the work. They told us to remember to keep praying. They told us to tell the stories of what happened. They told us to keep fighting for our Mother Earth and for the Water and for All Our Relations.

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

From the outside, the world saw Standing Rock as a protest. From the inside it was a community and a family. While many people who spent time in that village would call themselves capitalists or might tell you that they believe in the rightness of capitalism, I will tell you that the very existence of the camps and the way they functioned was anti-capitalist, anti-extractivist, and anti-colonial. Money and goods were tranvested from the capitalist over-culture and absorbed into a space where human needs were met simply because they were needs and where work was done because we cared about each other and because we cared about the Earth we live on.

This would-be idyllic existence was marred by the fact that we were in the middle of a war. It was a surreal war, completely asymetric, where the capitalists tried to prove how right they were through the use of intimidation, misinformation, guns, pepper spray, water cannons, airplanes, helicopters, and an assortment of illegal activity. Meanwhile, the local newspapers and the conservative press called us “law breakers” and sometimes even “terrorists”. We had to pass through road blocks manned by the National Guard or drive more than an hour around them. Law enforcement mobile command centers sat by the side of the road near by, sometimes two or even three together.

Our side of this war was not fought with guns. It was fought with prayer and Facebook livefeeds. There was prayer every morning and every night. There was prayer before every meal. There were sweat lodges every day, and sacred fires that burned without stop. The outside world heard about us through social media and they flooded us with support. People showed up by the thousands and those who couldn’t come sent donations.

I keep talking about “us” and “we”, identifying myself as one of the Water Protectors, but it didn’t start out that way. I was certainly moved to help the NoDAPL movement, but when I arrived I did not see myself as part of the community. I was just there to assist with the tools and resources I had available. I thought I was just going for two weeks to set up an Internet connection in collaboration with a member of the Lenca Nation of Central America. By the time I had been there two weeks I discovered that I wasn’t there just for “them”. I was there for “us”.

I was at Standing Rock for all the people who drink water that has been poisoned by industry and for those whose water we hope to protect from such a fate. I was there for all the people who have had their land and livelihood taken away from them, whether through the enclosures in Europe, the settlers and Manifest Destiny in America, or by banks and governments today. I was there for people who have been told that clean water is not a right, that medical care is for those who can afford it, that housing is something you must pay a third or half of your income for monthly, that healthy food is the most expensive kind, and that your neighbors are dangerous criminals who will steal your things and abuse your children. I am one of those people, so like it or not, I was there for myself.

I didn’t come to that conclusion by myself, though. All of us who were there were invited. The elders knew that we are all bound together on this Earth. They knew that we all drink the same water. They knew that by standing together on sacred ground, joining the prayers of all our peoples together, we would effect a change inside ourselves and in the world around us. There were many times when I heard an elder say, “We even invite the infiltrators to be here with us. Let them come! Let them see what’s happening here! Even if they are against us now, they will be changed. This is their water, too.” And they were right. Some of the infiltrators from those days have become whistleblowers. The power of all that prayer moved things in everyone.

Photo By Lisha Sterling. October 2016

Oceti Sakowin

Oceti (say oh-CHEH-tee) means “camp fire” in the Lakhota language. Sakowin (say shock-oh-WEEN) means “seven”. Together, they are the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people. The Lakota are one of the three parts of what is known as the Great Sioux Nation in English today. The other two parts are the Nakota and the Dakota. All three names mean “friend” or “ally” in their respective dialects.

When the first Water Protector camp started up at Standing Rock in April 2016, it was at Sacred Stone which is located on the Standing Rock (Hunkpapa) reservation, just south of the Cannonball River and west of the Missouri. By June of 2016 some people had moved out of Sacred Stone and onto a large open field to the north of Cannonball river. This was not in the modern boundaries of the Standing Rock reservation, but it was part of the original treaty territory that was to belong to The Great Sioux Nation. This new camp was on land where the Seven Council Fires had met 140 years before. They came together once again for the matter of their sovereignty and protecting the sacred land and water, and so the camp was named Oceti Sakowin in respect of that historic gathering.

After December 5th, some people started calling the camp “Oceti Oyate”, which was meant to mean “Council Fire of the People”. In modern usage, Oceti can also mean “stove” in some dialects, and so one elder declared that this name actually fit the camp pretty well since we were the “People of the woodstove” that winter.

Many of us who were at camp for a long time now simply call the camp “Oceti” unless we are speaking specifically of the section of the camp where the Seven Councils met (called The Horn), the sacred fire that was in that place, or the continuing work of that joint council.

There was another camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river called Rosebud or Sičangu (say See-CHAN-goo). That camp was organized by the Sičangu band of the Lakota from South Dakota, and it had it’s own kitchen, sacred fire, sweat lodge, tent sites, security detail, and so on. In discussions of coordination and internal politics it was considered to be part of Oceti Sakowin or completely its own camp depending on context.

For many months at Oceti, there was a meeting every morning at 9am where people could learn about what was happening around camp, voice their concerns, and coordinate working teams throughout the camps. That meeting was facilitated by Johnny Aseron from the Cheyenne River reservation, but for one week in November when he was sick, I had the privilege of facilitating the 9am meetings at the Dome. By that time there were literally hundreds of new people showing up to the camp every single day. Some would stay for just a few days, but most would show up at the Dome on the morning after they arrived for the 9am meeting and orientation.

When Johnny led the meeting, he would take a few moments before sending the newbies off to orientation to say hello and give them a few words about where they were. On the days that I led the morning meeting, I had my own spiel for the newcomers:

“This camp is called Oceti Sakowin. Oceti means camp fire. Sakowin means seven. This refers to the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota people, and it is also the name for the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota Nation, what the US government calls ‘The Great Sioux Nation’, in their own language. You are on treaty territory. You are in the land of The Great Sioux Nation. If you’ve never been outside the United States before, congratulations! You, like me, are here on a special visa waiver program. We have all been invited by the Lakota people to be here with them at this historic moment, but do not forget that you are not in the United States any more. You are in a foreign country. Treat the people and the culture with the respect that you would do in any other country that you visited.”

Photo by Lisha Sterling October 2016

Arrival

Before I even got to camp, the Oceti Synchronicities had begun. My friend Roberto Monge had some friends from his town who had just been at camp and were heading back home at the same time I was heading towards Standing Rock. He introduced us via email and text message and suggested we should meet up somewhere on the road. They contacted me and suggested we meet up for dinner in Billings, Montana. My day got off to a bumpy start, though, and I didn’t even get on the road until about 3 in the afternoon. It turned out that they also didn’t get into Billings when they expected, so at 11pm we all agreed to meet up for breakfast in the morning.

As I rolled into Billings at 3 in the morning, I wondered where they had gotten off the highway for the night. There are three highway exits, and I had no way of knowing which one they were closest to. I picked one at random and began to look for a safe place to park my van, make my bed and go to sleep. As I turned a corner I saw an outdoor sports chain store that is known to let people in campers and RVs sleep in their parking lots. I pulled into the parking lot, climbed into the back of my van, set up my bed, set my phone alarm for 6am, and caught 3 hour’s of sleep. When my alarm went off, I sent a text message to the people I was trying to meet up with. A moment later they texted me back with their hotel address. It was a directly across the street from where I was parked.

I pulled into the hotel parking lot, went in to the breakfast room, and sat with my new friends. They drew me a map of the camps and told me how to get there. They showed me where they had been camping, tucked back into a grove of trees which protected it from the harsh winds. They gave me names of people that they had met, and suggested other people that I should contact when I arrived. Their 30 minute orientation between bites of waffle gave me everything I needed to know before Roberto showed up with the equipment to set up the Internet a few days after me.

That evening I got to Bismark, North Dakota about an hour before dusk. There was a conference call with Roberto and some other friends of his to discuss their arrivals, things they would bring, and what we each needed to do. I knew that there was no cell coverage in the camps, so I pulled over into a parking lot for the call before heading south on 1806.

About 10 minutes south of Bismark I arrived at the police check point. I say police, but it was really manned by several national guardsmen in army uniforms and carrying their rifles. I say checkpoint, but it was more of a road block, or like an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank. There were concrete dividers that went all the way out to the property fences on each side of the road and that came together in such a way that only one car could go through at a time. This was the first time that the reality of the war zone hit me. This was part of a classic military low intensity conflict strategy.

At the check point a guardsman asked me, “Have you been down this road recently?”

I said, “No.”

“Well, we’re just here to let you know that there are some people camping down the road a little ways here. They may be out walking on the side of the road, so it’s important for you to slow down and watch out for pedestrians, ok?” The soldier was cheerful and friendly.

My complexion is fairly pale, my hair sort of auburn where it isn’t dyed purple, blue or pink. I knew already from reports online that I would not have been allowed to go down this road at all if my skin and hair had been darker.

About 25 minutes later I had arrived at Oceti Sakowin, but it was dark and the driveway entrances were a bit confusing. I was trying to get to the Sičangu camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river, but I missed the turn off in the dark, drove into the town of Cannonball, following some signs for what seemed like an eternity, and then finally ended up at the Sacred Stone camp way to the east of where I’d meant to be. But it was getting late at that point, and I hadn’t had much sleep. I pulled up to the security gate, told the guards that I had meant to go to Sičangu, but it’s dark and could I sleep there for the night? They said “Welcome!” and pointed the way to a good place to park for the night.

Despite being very tired, I was not quite ready to sleep. I needed to greet the land and the spirits there. I pulled some tobacco out of a large pouch in the back of my van, and put it carefully into a smaller pouch that would fit into my pocket. Then I walked down the hill toward the Cannonball river. There is a path that leads from Sacred Stone over to Sičangu along the river, but it was very dark and the path is shrouded in trees that make it even darker.

I think that night it must have been somewhat overcast, because I don’t remember the stars that night at all. I just remember the river and the muddy path and the trees. I remember walking about halfway between the two camps to a lonesome place where I couldn’t see another human. I felt a bit afraid, like I was going to get lost or trip and fall into the river or like I was going to walk into some place I wasn’t supposed to be. So I stopped right there.

The tobacco in my pocket was for praying. I put my hand in the baggy in my pocket and pulled some out. I stood there with the tobacco in my hand and began to pray. I said thanks for the sun, the moon, land, the sky, the water, the trees, the other plants, the animals, the humans gathered there, for bringing me safely to that place, for making things work out just right that morning in Billings. And then, I took a few breaths and I began to greet the Land and the spirits on that land. I told them who I was and why I was there.

Normally, at this point, I should feel some response from spirit. There should be some sense that I have not been talking to myself, that the spirits I am talking to have heard me. But there was just silence. And darkness. And cold.

I assured the spirits that I would follow the requests and requirements of the people whose land I was on, and that I would also listen to the voices of the the spirits themselves.

I felt cold and fear. I felt distrust aimed at me.

I knew that the spirits didn’t believe what I’d said.

I gave the tobacco to the ground and to the plants. I prayed again, this time telling the spirits that if they were willing to teach and to guide me in the way that I should behave in their land that I was willing to learn. And if they were not willing, I promised to do my bumbling best to be a good guest and a good friend. I said a few words in Lakota, which I had been studying for a few weeks before my trip. I waited in the silence. The spirits were not terribly impressed.

At last, I thanked the spirits and walked back to my van.

As I prepared for bed, I turned my phone to airplane mode and unplugged it from the charger. The battery was at 100%. It should last me for two or three days like that. I set my alarm for 7am and went to sleep.

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Roberto Monge with antenna for long distance wireless Internet. Photo By Lisha Sterling October 2016

This Is (Cyber) War

The next morning I woke up. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was bright in the sky. I pulled up my phone to check the time and see what happened with my alarm. The screen was black. The phone would not turn on. The battery was completely dead.

If the checkpoint had been my first realization that we were in a war zone, this was the moment that I realized that the government was using cyber warfare on us alongside the more traditional fare. This was the moment that it hit me that someone could be using a Stingray device against the Water Protectors.

At first, I wasn’t sure what had caused my battery to drain. The idea that it might be a fake cell tower – also known as an IMSI Catcher, a cell-site emulator, or by the brand name Stingray – was in the back of my head, but one dead phone is not enough to say that was the culprit. These devices are used by law enforcement all over the United States under shady circumstances with questionable legality. At that point I was thinking that maybe my phone had been compromised before I had even arrived at the camps. If I’d gotten some malware onto my phone in the days leading up to my trip, that app could have been trying to ping home over the network even though the network was turned off.

I walked around Sacred Stone that morning, found someone who could tell me what time it was, and mentioned what had happened to my phone. They said that was a common problem. They figured it was because of the lack of cell towers in the area, and I had to agree that for most people, that probably was the cause of their phone going dead. But then someone else overheard the conversation and jumped in. They had also turned their phone to airplane mode and had it die on them.

After breakfast, I headed over to the legal tent on Media Hill (aka Facebook Hill) at Oceti. When I introduced myself, they knew who I was and had been expecting me. I waited for a bit while they handled more urgent matters, and then a few lawyers, a paralegal or two and I sat down to have a chat. Before we even got into the topic of the Internet set up, I mentioned what had happened to my phone and asked if they’d heard of anything like that. They had. That and much more.

Not only had people been complaining about phones going dead overnight, but they said that phones often went dead suddenly as one of the planes flew by overhead. But that wasn’t all. One person at the table had an almost unbelievable story about a car battery dying at night when a plane flew over. And then there were the reports of malware on people’s phones. The most prominent one was Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals. His iPhone would start the voice recording function at seemingly random moments. It wasn’t even secretive. The phone would announce that it was recording, and then the record app would be on the screen.

I listened to these stories and then I asked, “Has anyone called the EFF?”

They hadn’t called the Electronic Frontier Foundation yet, but that day they did. The EFF is a nonprofit organization that defends civil liberties in the digital world. They are like the ACLU for the Internet. The EFF sent a researcher and a lawyer up to the camps a few weeks later, and we worked together to try to determine what exactly was going on. The fact of the matter is that none of us knew exactly.

By the time the EFF researcher arrived, I was convinced that one of the weapons being used against us was an IMSI catcher. I had installed an application called AIMSICD onto my phone to track what cell sites my phone could see and connect to. There were patterns in the database that I believe suggest that there was an IMSI catcher on at least one of the aircraft that flew over the camps day in and day out as well as several other IMSI catchers at specific locations in the vicinity of the camps.

I am nearly certain that a short cell phone tower that was erected just to the south of the camp known as “1861 Camp”, “Treaty Camp”, or “North Camp” was there for the specific purpose of surveilling the people at that location because that camp was directly in the path of the pipeline construction, and immediately across the highway from a section of land that had already been dug up. That tower was only reachable if you were in the vicinity of the Treaty Camp, where only about 10 people were living but where many demonstrations were staged. The tower was completely invisible to the more populous camps a mile further south. Furthermore, that tower identified itself to some phones, including mine, as an AT&T tower, but other phones showed the tower belonged to Verizon. When I asked my contacts at the Standing Rock Telecom, a tribe-owned mobile phone company, they told me that tower was a legitimate Verizon tower. As time went on, there was more evidence that tower was there for surveillance purposes, but the clincher is that the tower was removed entirely by the time everything was over and the authorities had cleared out the camps.

Research into the capabilities of different models of IMSI catchers showed us that it was possible that, in addition to tracking our numbers and movements with the devices, they could also have captured voice, text and data transmissions and they could even install malware on phones through more than one method. It is also well known that IMSI catchers can drain a phone battery quickly by sending messages to the phone to disconnect from a tower over and over again. Each time the phone tries to reconnect to a tower, the battery usage spikes. But that doesn’t explain the incidents with the car batteries.

LRADwMilPolice-ByTimYakaitis
Photo By Tim Yakaitis

We still don’t know what happened with the cars. When I first started talking publicly about the various cyber warfare incidents that happened at Standing Rock, the car batteries dying is the one incident that induced the most rolling of eyes and declarations of my professional incompetence. Obviously, the critics said, the car batteries died because of the cold. Everyone knows that the temperatures at the camps got below -20F (-29C) in December and January, but these car battery incidents happened starting in September! One incident in late October involved 5 cars in one parking area all having drained batteries at the same time. Another incident in November involved several cars and a couple of pick up trucks.

In April or May of 2017, after asking everyone I could think of what might have done that to the cars, an Iraq vet suggested that I go look up the word “Warlock”. He said that he thought that might be responsible for what we saw. What I found seems like an unlikely culprit since the Warlock series are just radio jammers of different sorts. However, there are other weapons that were created and tested in Iraq, such as the Blow Torch which is a high powered microwave emitter intended to fry the circuitry in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). That’s probably not what they used, but the sheer number of devices that have been created and tested in battlefields by the US military in recent years is suggestive.

More than suggestive, actually. Over and over again Native Americans from different tribes across the US told me the same thing, “They’re testing things on us before they use them on the rest of the population.” A common historical understanding among the Native community is that the US government tests different methods of population control on the reservations before using the most effective ones on other Americans. As the tech team struggled to understand exactly what tools were being used against us online, on our phones, and in physical space, we couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion. Despite a collective knowledge that covered many areas of cyber security and digital offense, there were still many things we found that were completely new to us.

This Is (Low Intensity) War

“Low intensity conflict is a political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war and above the routine, peaceful competition among states. It frequently involves protracted struggles of competing principles and ideologies. Low-intensity conflict ranges from subversion to the use of the armed forces. It is waged by a combination of means, employing political, economic, informational, and military instruments. Low-intensity conflicts are often localized, generally in the Third World, but contain regional and global security implications”

GlobalSecurity.org

The U.S. military doctrine of low intensity conflict has its roots in the counterinsurgency tactics developed during the Vietnam War. During the Reagan administration, in the 1980s, low intensity operations were used in a number of conflict areas throughout what was then called the Third World. The first International Conference on Low Intensity Conflict was held in 1986 at Fort McNair in Washington, DC where the methods of suppressing and subverting guerrilla fighters were discussed and codified.

In the context of guerrilla warfare, the dominant nation state actors will use various tactics to 1) turn the public against the insurgency, 2) break down morale within the guerrilla movement, 3) set individuals or groups within the movement against each other, and 4) sabotage the material support systems for both the insurgent groups and anyone who provides them assistance. Much of this effort comes in the form of psychological warfare which may include propaganda, infiltrators who plant rumors and conflicts, and consistent harassment of guerrillas and their supporters. Harassment includes but is not limited to checkpoints on roads, police stop and search actions against people who fit a certain visual description, aircraft constantly flying over the areas controlled by the guerrillas, the use of constant noise such as loud music or machines, and bright flood lights at night.

Once you know that the peaceful Water Protectors were considered terrorists by the government and Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is not surprising to learn that all of these tactics were used against the movement.

Planes and helicopters flew overhead nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as long as weather permitted. At night, aircraft would often fly without lights so that you could hear them but not see them easily, despite the fact that this is illegal. Sometimes a helicopter would follow the car of a high profile Water Protector when they left the camps.

Multiple mobile police command centers were parked near the camps at any given time. There were often one or two of the giant trucks to the north of the main camp and as many as three to the south. On many occasions there would be a mobile command vehicle parked ten miles south of the camps at the Prairie Knights Hotel and Casino, where Water Protectors would go to take showers, spend a night indoors, charge phones, use the Internet, and meet with journalists.

When Water Protectors needed to purchase supplies, we traveled north to Bismarck, where we were recognized by the layered clothing we needed to survive in the camps and by our distinct campfire scent. Some stores, restaurants and hotels refused service to anyone they suspected was a Water Protector. Police would see a vehicle with out of state license plates and trail them for miles, often pulling the vehicle over on false pretenses. People of Native American descent, or anyone whose complexion was more brown then peach colored, was at greater risk of citation or arrest during a trip to the city.

For days before the raid of Treaty Camp on October 27, 2016 there were rumors about what was about to happen. We knew that National Guard troops were gathering at a site north of us, off of highway 1806 between Standing Rock and Bismarck. Rumors were that they might raid Oceti Sakowin, and we created safety plans for everyone that included running across the Cannonball River to the Sičangu and Sacred Stone camps. A few days before the raid, many people moved tents and tipis north to the Treaty Camp in hopes of holding the line away from the most populated camp. The tension was incredible, and elders warned us that we needed to stay calm if we wanted to have energy and our wits when the soldiers and police finally came. Those with experience made sure that as many people as possible understood that this tension and uncertainty was part of the psychological war.

The day of the Treaty Camp raid finally came, but one of the longer term attacks against us came after the mercenaries, law enforcement and National Guard pulled people out of a sweat lodge during a prayer ceremony, destroyed tipis, threw sacred items into giant piles, stole personal items, and arrested 142 people. The night after they took Treaty Camp away from us, they took away the stars. From that night onward, the ridge just north of Oceti Sakowin was lined with massive lights pointed towards the camp. They said it was for security, but they knew full well that it also obliterated the view of the night sky.

TimYakaitis-NightSky-andTipi
Photo by Tim Yakaitis

Inside the camps we had to be constantly aware of the risk of infiltrators. Some infiltrators encouraged people to use violent methods at actions so that the peaceful unity of the movement could be broken and images of “dangerous terrorists” could be displayed on TV, newspapers, and social media. There were people who came into camp just to spread rumors. The more confusion that could be spread, the harder it was for the community to stay united. And then there were people who intentionally created fights between different sub-camps or workgroups.

One infiltrator managed to break down the very good relationship that Tech Warrior Camp had with the camp of the Medic and Healer Council. After members of our team had set up a mini electric grid for the camp with the yurts and tipis where medical doctors and traditional healers from around the world cared for the Water Protector community, one infiltrator managed to create a fight between our two groups over the control and ownership of certain equipment. He told them that we had stolen some of their windmills (we had not), and told us that they were sending some of our equipment which had been stored in a utility yurt at their camp off to other Water Protector camps in Florida when we clearly still needed that equipment in North Dakota. I had to present receipts for every piece of equipment we had to representatives of the Medic And Healer Council, and still there was mistrust between our teams throughout January and February because of that incident.

Other infiltrators did physical damage to our camps. On one occasion, the Internet in the Dome was sabotaged when an infiltrator cut the wires from the network router to the deep cycle battery it ran off, and walked away with the battery. On another occasion, the entire solar system outside the Dome was was sabotaged before an infiltrator dressed as a utility worker cut the Ethernet cord leading to a small communications dish which he removed from the pole and took with him.

Only after the camps were closed did we have proof positive of some of the counterinsurgency tactics used against us. The Intercept published a series of articles along with leaked documents from TigerSwan, the private military contractor that provided “security” for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which showed that the mercenaries were working in close partnership with Morton County Sheriffs and the FBI. Those documents also showed that some of us where specifically targeted for surveillance both at camp and away from it, and that the mercenaries put special emphasis on creating divisions along racial lines at the camps to separate the Native community and their non-Native allies.

Some of the facts about what happened at Standing Rock won’t be known for decades. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information on some of the police and military tactics have been denied for various reasons. The FOIA requests sent out to Morton County Sheriffs, North Dakota State Police, and the North Dakota National Guard asking for information about possible IMSI Catcher use, for instance, were not just denied but “rejected on grounds of national security”. Such a rejection will not be overcome until the classification of that information is changed at some future date. In the meantime, we have to take what lessons we can from Standing Rock so that we can resist capitalist destruction of the planet and colonialist theft of human and community rights everywhere.

Next Time…

We haven’t even begun to talk about the community at the Water Protector camps at Standing Rock. I haven’t begun to share the spiritual impact the place had on me and so many other people there. In my next installment of my Standing Rock Story, I’ll tell you about what it was like to be a temporary immigrant on Lakota land for six months. See you in two weeks!


Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.


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A New Luddite Rebellion

We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction.

This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?

A manifesto from Rhyd Wildermuth

“Welcome to the modern world. It’s just like the old world, except it doesn’t work.”

–Peter Grey

My friend and I were both hungry; me perhaps a bit more so since I’d been traveling all day, hadn’t eaten that morning and it was now mid-evening.

“I’ll take you to dinner,” I told him. “Somewhere close–maybe pizza.”

“Okay,” he answered, and then started looking at his phone. “This place has really good reviews. Just need to take two trains.”

I was really hungry. “How long will that take?” I asked.

“45 minutes, maybe an hour.”

I shook my head. “Seems far and will cost a lot to get there. Isn’t there a place nearby?”

It was his turn to shake his head. “None with good reviews.”

“I don’t care,” I answered, probably a bit too curtly. The hunger was irritating me greatly. “Let’s just walk to one of them.”

So we did, set out into the cold city night, finally coming to an Italian restaurant. I looked at the menu, the prices were decent. “Perfect,” I said, turning to him.

“I can’t find any reviews on Trip Advisor though,” he answered. “But there’s one about a mile from here with a lot of reviews…”

Exhausted and frustrated, I snapped back: “Food’s food. I’m buying anyway…let’s go in.”

“But it might not be good,” he replied, until suddenly seeing something on his phone that made him excited. “Nevermind, I found it. Good reviews, we can go in.”

I’ve thought about this interaction very often since it happened a few months ago. My friend isn’t stupid; in fact, he’s very intelligent, and his magical insights into the world are often quite profound. Nor is he hardly alone in succumbing to the peculiar sort of paralysis of inaction I’ve recounted here. In fact, I suffer from it often too, as no doubt you likely do.

The desire to know if something is good before you try it, to want certainty about the uncertain–that’s hardly a new thing. But what is new, deeply radically new, is our reliance on social media (and the corporations which run them) and technological devices to give us that certainty, to tell us it’s going to be okay, to remove the risk that an action might not result in the absolute best conditions.

As with a night out at a restaurant or a date with a person met online, so too with any of the actions we might take towards revolution. We look to Tumblr and Twitter to gauge the sentiment of others, to divine if our groups and theories and plans are popular enough, have all the required sign-off’s from every possible identity focus-group, and nod sagely when told ‘that won’t work’ by whichever correctly-branded social justice personality happened to come through our feed that particular minute.

We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction. This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?

Those Satanic Mills

If you feel this way of critiquing technology seems bizarre, anti-modern, ‘primitive,’ or appears to ignore all the ‘good’ that technology has done, you might be tempted to describe all this as ‘luddite.’ And you’d be correct, and not in the ways most moderns have come to understand what the Luddites fought for.

The Luddites have always fascinated me. Men and women, sometimes cross-dressing, stealing into oppressive factories in the middle of the night to smash looms to stop production: that’s quite hardcore, regardless of why they did it. Besides the awesome acts of industrial sabotage, however, two other aspects of what the followers of King (or Ned, or Captain) Ludd did two hundred years ago are extremely relevant to us now.

The first aspect is their anarcho-paganism. They all claimed to follow a ghostly captain or leader who urged them on their night-time strikes against the industrialists. The stories they told about exactly who He was varied just as often as their actions: Ludd lived under a hill, or in a well, or under a church, all three places not ironically located “somewhere” in Sherwood forest, where Robin of Locksley and his fellow rogues were said to hide. Ludd was a spirit, a king, or a general (“No General But Ludd/Means The Poor Any Good” went one of their chants), or just a captain amongst them, or even the ghost of a man named Ned Ludd (killed after sabotaging a factory, goes the stories).  Like other similar groups such as the Whiteboys and Molly Maguires and Rebeccas, the Luddites invoked the mythic against capitalists and the State to great effect, at least while their resistance lasted.

And that brings me to the third aspect of the Luddite resistance, the part which I find most haunting as another year on this earth passes for me (I’m 41 today, it seems). To explain this aspect, though, we need to step back a bit and look not just at the Luddites themselves but at the era in which they fought and the strange (and eerily familiar) historical circumstances which created the world around them.

If industrial capitalism has a specific birthdate and birthplace, it was 1769 in Derbyshire, England. It was in that year and in that place the very first modern factory was built by Richard Arkwright. The sound of the factory was compared to “the devil’s bagpipes,” a fact memorialized in this poem by Lorna Smithers:

When Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.

You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.

Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth…

It took forty years for Arkwright’s new terror, “those Satanic mills” as William Blake called them in 1804, to finally spark the resistance movement known as the Luddites. In that space of time, Arkwright’s first mill multiplied into 2400 similar factories spread throughout England (mostly in the major cities), an average of 60 a year.

So, in two generations, Britain had gone from a place where there was no such thing as a factory to a place where there were several thousands. In four decades, an entire society which had started out knowing nothing about industrialization appeared to become irrevocably industrialised, and it was at that point the Luddites struck.

But why then? Why not before? And why fight what appeared to be inevitable?

Against the Modern World

A Foxconn factory (maker of most smartphones) in Wisconsin.

We must first ignore the modern interpretation of what a Luddite is. They weren’t ‘anti-technology’ or slow-to-adapt old people hopelessly left behind in a new world. Nor where they only concerned with fighting for better wages for weavers (who, before the factories, were able to support themselves and large families on the income from their specialized trade).

They were people close to my age and somewhat younger, the oldest people alive in Britain who could still remember the old world before factories, but still also young enough to actually work in them. They were a generation that stood on a threshold between the pre-industrial world and the new industrial capitalist order.

Imagine if you will what it must have been like to see your parents and the older people in your villages, towns, and cities starving because they could not or would not adapt to this brave new world. Many of them were too old, feeble, or weak-sighted to work in the factories, and anyway the factory owners preferred children as young as five to do much of the nimble work (and they couldn’t fight back). So while you see the older generation starving and destitute, you also see your own children or younger siblings coming home from the mills with broken fingers, strange bruises, and unmentionable wounds from their 14-hour day crawling under machinery to tie broken threads or retrieve loose bobbins.

And then there’s you, you and others your age, still young enough to work in many of the mills yet old enough to remember when the world wasn’t like this at all.

Now, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world before factories, even as in many modern liberal democratic countries very few of us have actually stepped foot in one. That’s not because they aren’t around anymore: they’ve moved mostly to Asia and Africa, where exhausted workers are crammed up like cattle in a slaughterhouse to make the phone and laptops you’re probably reading this on (as well as the clothes you’re wearing, possibly the chair you’re sitting on, and most of the stuff inside the home where you lay your head at night) for little or no wages.

And it is almost impossible to imagine what society was like before the factory. What was it like to only wear clothes made by yourself or people who lived nearby? What was life like before the cities swelled with displaced peasants blinking in the light of dawn before the gates of textile and steel mills, hungry and exhausted but jostling each other in line for a job that day to feed their family? What did the streets and town squares look like at night before everyone had to wake up at dawn to go to work? How did we relate to each other before wages became the only way to survive? And what did society look like before mass-production, when no one ever wore the same thing, when ‘pre-packaged experiences,’ monoculture, and conformity were literally impossible?

It is almost impossible to imagine the world before factories.

Almost, but not completely.

Because we are living in a similar world to what the Luddites experienced.

“All that is sacred is profaned…”*

(* from The Communist Manifesto)

If you can pinpoint any places in western history where technology severely altered the way human society functioned, I suspect there are three. The most obvious one is the industrial revolution, which was also the birth of capitalism. The one before that changed the world as well (but much more slowly) was the invention of the printing press, which gave to early merchants and the bourgeoisie the power to disseminate literature outside the strictures of religious and royal decree. And while we tend to see that invention as a net gain for humanity, we must remember that mass-printing and distribution has always been primarily in the hands of the rich, with the rest of us merely passive consumers.

The third–well, that’s the era we’re in now, the computer/internet ‘revolution.’

The first ‘node-to-node’ digital communication happened in 1969, 200 years after from the birth of Richard Arkwright’s steam-powered looming frame. But being military technology, it took more than a decade for that technology to filter out to non-military capitalists and become the ‘World Wide Web.’ In the following decades, we’ve gone from a world where random (“risky”) human interactions occurred only in public spaces to one where most such interactions now occur ‘online.’ Here’s some other stuff that has changed:

  • 30 years ago, there were no smartphones or texting; in 2015, 98% of all Americans 18-29 years old had a cellphone.
  • 17 years ago there was no Wikipedia, 14 years ago there was no such thing as Facebook, 12 years ago no Twitter, 11 years ago no Tumblr, and 7 years ago no Instagram.
  • In 1984 only 8% of US homes had a computer of any sort; in 2010, 77% did.

These are all merely statistics about technological saturation; they tell us only as much as the figures about factories in England between 1769 and 1810 told us. But we don’t need to dig very far to understand that this technological change has radically altered what it means to be a human in a capitalist society.

For instance: before cellphones, you could only be reached at home. That meant if you needed to wait for a call you had to stay by the phone, but it also meant that your life was less likely to revolve around the ability of someone to get a hold of you immediately. There was no expectation that your attention could be gotten at any hour of the day because such a thing was impossible.

Before texting and email there were letters. You had to take the time to decide what you were going to say to someone, write it out on paper, post it in the mail, and then wait some amount of time for a reply. Thus human interactions were slower and more ponderous and most of all more intentional. Even the angriest of letters wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and this slowness meant there was always at least a little time to rethink your immediate fury, unlike now with our instantaneous ‘send’ buttons.

Social media, however, probably represents the largest shift in how we relate to each other and also how we see ourselves. To have large groups of friends you had to do stuff for them, and with them, call them on weekends or send them letters, catch up with them for coffee or go to their parties or invite them for dinner, take vacations to see them or host them in your home. Now you need only post an update and read theirs to feel you’ve performed acts of friendship.

Accompanying that shift has been an increasing feeling of isolation and alienation. So many people now self-diagnose with introversion (as with trauma, or social anxiety, or many other ailments) that one wonders how humans ever managed to talk to each other before the internet.

The general response to this apparent increase in alienation is to state it has always been there, that being connected to each other more via the internet has helped us talk about it more, and that anyway we are #Blessed the internet came around to let us all be social despite our fear and misanthropy.

But in this case particularly, those of us who stand on the same threshold of change that the Luddites also stood upon cannot help but remember–we all did fine without social media. Better, even. We got over our shyness and anxiety because we had to, and the internet appears to have merely enabled us to not get over such things, to not address our social anxiety and fear of rejection and instead hide safely behind a screen.

Before the internet, binge-watching television (“Netflix and chill”) or staring at a screen for hours a day was a sign you’d given up on yourself and the world around you, were depressed and really just needed a friendly face or to go for a walk. They were symptoms of serious depression, indications that some large issue in your life has been unaddressed for too long and the things to ‘get you through’ had become addictions which prevented you from seeking help.

Now those things are all proud marks of ‘self-care’ enabled by technology without which we’d all surely be miserable, lonely humans. Nevermind that we are still miserable, lonely humans, and probably more so now.

Non-Binary Poly Radical #Blessed Vegan Cruelty-Free #Resister Queer Theorist Influencers Unite!™

Less controversial but even more unaddressed is what this new ‘technological revolution’ has done to our ability to survive, to earn enough money to eat and pay rent. The much-vaunted and ridiculous ‘internet of things’ has made it so we rarely get to ‘own’ the things we pay capitalists for, and must re-sell parts of ourselves constantly in order to compensate for dwindling wages and no savings. This is the curse of the ‘millenial’ (a marketing term that, like so much else, somehow became a ‘fact’ in capitalist society)–to have no steady income but to have thousands of Instagram followers in the hopes of one day having enough to be an ‘influencer’. To face insurmountable college debt and no way to secure housing but to get thousands of retweets on Twitter.

It is not just the fate of millenials. I’ve had two posts shared over 100,000 times and one seen by 1.5 million people. And yet I haven’t been able to afford eating more than twice a day in years, and have been nomadic for the last five years because 1.5 million views doesn’t pay rent.

The answer to the poverty experienced by more and more people (again–not just millenials) is to ‘monetize’ your life. Or as put in a rather brilliant essay about nomads like myself at It’s Going Down (“Living In A Van Down By The Instagram”):

The point here is not to whine about how we all can’t be special snowflakes or social media super-stars; the point is to state that capital is colonizing all aspects of our lives, including online worlds, and attempting to make us in turn generate profit, content, and value during all waking moments, either online or off. And, there’s no better backdrop to do this than when we are constantly traveling, as we in turn are utilizing and activating our social networks for the sake of monetizing them. Thus, we are pushed to take photos and tag corporations in the hopes that maybe one day we could get $50 for a sponsored post. To fundamentally turn ourselves, and our lives, into brands.

As was pointed out in the new book, Now, by the Invisible Committee, this has become both the economic baseline as well as central anxiety of our time. We aren’t just driving somewhere and enjoying a podcast or randomly picking up a hitch hiker, we are instead missing out on an opportunity to sell our labor power for Uber or Lyft. We aren’t taking photos to share with loved ones, we are building up our brand and trying to gain followers, which we will then sell to multinational corporations. This is the logic of the gig economy applied to all aspects of our lives, at all times, and in all scenarios.

To monetize yourself, though, requires you make yourself more sell-able, becoming a brand, a product, constantly adapting to market demands. Or as Badean wrote in “Identity In Crisis:”, in the Journal of Queer Nihilism:

“The collapse of traditional subject positions is managed through the proliferation of a new positions: app designers, graphic designers, cyber sex workers, queer theorists, feminist publishers, social network engineers, trend hunters, eBay sellers, social justice activists, performance artists, porn directors, spammers, party promoters, award winning baristas.

We are forced to continually define ourselves, to enact countless operations upon ourselves so as to produce ourselves anew each day as someone worth taking to market — our basic survival depends on the ceaseless deployment of increasingly discreet technologies of the self.

Everything is for sale: our sex appeal, our fetishes, our tattoos, our radicalism, our fashion sense, our queerness, our androgyny, our fitness, our fluidity, our abnormality, our sociability. Facebook and Twitter function as the new resume.

We are caught in the unending necessity to be continually educating, training, exploring, perfecting, and fine-tuning ourselves. Our continual self-invention is both economic imperative and economic engine.”

No doubt this seems dire enough, but one more dark truth emerges from this constant race. Because if we are constructing our identities in order to become more sale-able to people (be that for money or Facebook likes or even just to be noticed in this new hyper-gendered micro-radical hierarchy of new identities), how do we even know who we are anymore?

To be honest, I don’t always know. I am a radical queer anarchist pagan nomad punk fag brother boyfriend theorist bard druid, but none of that actually tells me what I am, only the hashtags people might use to define me on a social media post. Labels that once gave meaning now become indelible brandings. Try to shift any of those identities and the world (or the social media world, anyway) pushes back…hard. And just as often, those labels themselves are fiercely contested: I cannot count how many times I’ve been told I’m too ‘masculine-presenting’ to be allowed to use the term queer.

So who am I? Who gets to decide? And why are we using capitalist tools to mediate those discussions in the first place? Or is it possible it’s those very tools which have triggered these crises in the first place?

Not All Revolutions Are Good

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

(The Communist Manifesto)

The shift wrought by internet technology wherein identity is now the very battlefield of our ability to survive in the world may seem utterly different from any other struggle which has come before. In context of the struggle the Luddites and the early communists and anarchists fought, however, not much has really changed.

The rise of industrial capitalism triggered vast shifts in social relations which are to this day still being constantly disrupted. It should thus be no surprise to us that ‘disruptive technology’ is a statement of pride for many of the new architects of this current upheaval, an upheaval in which we also take part when we celebrate the destruction of older forms of relating (binary gender, hetero-normative society, class-based politics). What ‘good’ comes from these disruptions unfortunately seems fleeting and probably is. Because while it is a beautiful thing that acceptance of gender variance and queer sexuality have become so prominent, it’s a sick joke to say a poor queer or trans person desperately trying to pay rent by sleeping on a friend’s couch while letting out their bedroom on AirBnb, turning tricks on TaskRabbit or bareback hookup apps, and desperately looking for the perfect filter to get their Instagram account another 100 followers has somehow had their life ‘improved’ by these disruptions.

Yet, to this current horror in which we all find ourselves, perhaps the Luddites might shrug and say, “at least you didn’t have time forced upon you.” Because along with ‘disruption’ of the factory from hand-craft and laborer to factory and wage-slave came the beginning of an oppressive order of time.

Clocks became no longer curiosities but requirements. Suddenly, knowing if it was half-past eight or just ‘morning’ became the crucial difference between feeding your family for a day or starving on the street. Time literally had to be disciplined into us during the birth of industrialization, often times by christian moralists like John Wesley working on behalf of the factory owners.  Time became something that you “spent” rather than something that passed, work became measured not by what needed doing according to the season but what the factory boss demanded you do within a set number of hours.

Before industrialization, work was task-oriented. You planted at some times of the year, harvested at others, ground wheat and fixed carts, wove cloth and made clothes not when an arbitrary number declared it was ‘time’ to do so but when the thing itself needed doing. And work itself was determined by how long you wanted to take doing the task, not how many hours the boss said you needed to stand at a counter or else be fired.

When attempting to imagine what that world was like (not very long ago), we tend to imagine it for ourselves, what our own life might have been like. Harder to imagine, however, is what all of society itself was like without clocks as over-seers. Imagine then what life would be like if not just you but all your friends and all the people in your town lived life without clocks, and you get a little closer to understanding precisely what the Luddites were fighting for.

A New Luddite Rebellion

It was against such radical, world-altering shifts that the Luddites broke into factories at night, smashing looms. One imagines they wanted their time back, they wanted their children and parents back, wanted the ability to survive without working in factories back. They wanted back the rich texture of a society where you knew the people who made your clothes, talked to the people who grew your food, or were those people themselves.

We are living in another such time. People older than me lived most of their childhoods without the internet and do not (or cannot) adapt to a world where everything about them is on display, sold piecemeal through Facebook updates and Instagram photos.

Those much younger than me do not know a world without cellphones, do not remember that it was possible to make new friends and meet amazing lovers without connecting first to an always-on device in your pocket. How many of them know you can arrive by train to a foreign city with just a paper map and a notebook and have the best trip of your life?  How many will ever get a chance to experience what it was like to not just survive but actually have a pretty decent life in a city on less than full-time, barely-above minimum wage as I did in Seattle 15 years ago? And most of all, how many of them will ever know that risk and uncertainty is not something to be avoided at all costs but very often the thing which makes life worth living in the first place?

I barely remember what that was like.

I also barely remember what it was like to be anonymous, to have hours and hours of free time without devices I felt like I needed always to be looking at, constantly notifying me that emails and texts and retweets and messages are coming in. To have long conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus, to make new friends on the walk to work or find an awesome lover by chance while whiling away the day at a cafe. And most of all, I barely remember what it was like to know who I am without labels–to not need to call myself anything but my name, and have that be enough.

I want that all back. If you are close in age to me, you probably do to. If you are younger than me and don’t know what that was like, perhaps my telling of it is enough to entice you to want it also, and if you are older than me you might be shaking your head, having already mourned what’s been lost.

More than anything, we need this all back. Not just our time (consumed constantly by always-on devices and relentless updates). Not just our Selves (boxed in, categorized, labeled and shelved by any number of ‘identities.’). Not just our ability to pay rent and eat and still have enough money left over to enjoy the ever-dwindling number of months and days we have on this earth. Not just all that, but we need our will back, our reckless desire to act in the face of risk and uncertainty, the chaotic and unscripted interactions between ourselves and the world which make our lives not just exciting, but mythic.

And therein’s the key to the ritual invocation we must perform to take back what we’ve watched slowly sold off of our lives with each new screech of the devil’s bagpipes. There are spirits, gods, and ancestors who keep the memory of the old worlds even as we forget. Ludd was one, and though his followers failed to stop the horror born of the factories in England, some of us still remember their attempt. Be it Ludd or the Raven King, Brighid or Dionysos, or perhaps all the old gods and heroes summoned together, we can make another go at stopping this new horror waking upon the world. From the shattered remains of the past we can reconstruct a new resistance against this increasingly senseless drive towards self-as-product.

And if we fail, we will no doubt be smeared by many for being ‘anti-modern’ just as the Luddites were, dismissed and forgotten by many others, but definitely remembered by some, just as the Luddites are still remembered now.

We may indeed fail. The risks are very, very great, and there’s no Trip Advisor listing to assure us that there will be good food and pleasant ambiance after our uprising. Perhaps our failures will be re-tweeted across the world, Facebook Live videos streaming our defeat to countless millions using greasy thumbs to scroll through the comments. We’ll lose Instagram followers and potential Influencer sponsorships while the rich and powerful of the world destroy more forests, gun down more poor people, and start more wars.

We probably won’t win. But I’m gonna try anyway, because I want my life back.

And maybe you do, too.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.


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Is It Any Wonder?

These are my gods—my scorned gods, my shunned gods, my forgotten gods, gods whose continued breath pulsates in my own lungs and courses through my own veins, gods whose myths are like fires in my belly and my head.

From Tahni J. Nikitins, first published in A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing

Fenrir

Fenrir today is a shapeshifter: once a furious hurricane drowning a city, then the unchecked wrath of an entitled boy with an arsenal in his father’s closet, next the rage of a long overdue earthquake, and closely following, the hungry tsunami consuming coastal village after village. He knows all the shapes destruction takes, from the balled-up fist and the clenched jaw of a horrible husband to open fire in a tightly packed club to the howling tornado.

He is everywhere fear is bred: on reservations where people are fenced like cattle, where white men come to rape and murder and walk away free; where untold anger simmers under the surface of burning alcohol, numbing opioids, and therapeutic overdoses. He is the one who’s had too much but has nowhere to unleash. He is the woman in tears in her room with a pistol in her lap waiting for the police to crash like bullets through the door—who knows the color of her skin and the presence of her legally obtained weapon will be enough to ensure white cops kill her so she doesn’t have to pull the trigger herself. He is the last straw that snaps and breaks and leaves a widow in black—he is the breath that hisses, “You shouldn’t have fucked with us first,” with fists pumping like hearts behind bars.

Down where Katrina tore through—he’s there, too, bunking in the moldering ruins of buildings the city has no interest in repairing. It’s on the wrong side of the bridge, brother, and that’s where the wolf lives—the wolf in pants sagging on hips made narrow by hunger, by resentment, by hate. He watches shimmering skyscrapers rise on the skyline from a district where the pavement cracks and gives way to dandelions and grass and he knows, he knows that high up there is a man looking down and smirking at the people like ants below. He is the fury that is born from the loins of slaves—from the genetic rage imprinted deep in the marrow. He is the gunpowder that ignites in the weekly firefight on the corner where the cops clash again with the hood—he is the rush of adrenaline in the child’s brain as her mother wrestles her from the window. “Don’t look! Close your eyes, sweetie—don’t look.”

In the hearts of men whose fear overruns them with red—that’s where he thrives, in the hearts of cops who think they’re the last line of defense; in the hearts of white men who think they’re the only ones with the balls to lay down the law; in the hearts of those who are ready to lay waste to a family unlike their own. He grows strong when crucial protocol is skipped—warning shot, shoot to incapacitate—nah, straight for the kill. That’s where he’s at. In despising eyes who see the other as less than human and bare their teeth like ravening hounds thirsting for arterial blood—

He’s the heat that will wipe it all out. He’s the oil spill and the carbon emission and the rising tide—he’ll swallow the coasts and lick his lips and hunger for more. He’ll kick up another tantrum—a hurricane, a blizzard, a tsunami and more—he’ll tear it all down, with fire, with fangs, with blood.

Below Yellowstone he rumbles and yawns. Someday when the shores have been gobbled up and humanity has rushed inland, he’ll have them there, too—with a plunging earth, a gaping maw. He’ll be in the eruption, in the roar that will split the sky. He’ll be in the chaotic magma, in the stone and the ash—he’ll turn the skies black and circle the earth a dozen times more—hungry, always hungry. He’ll drown those the seas did not claim, in an instant—it’ll be gone, and in that moment, he will shine brighter than he’s ever shone before.

It will be his own glorious Ragnarok—the moment of destruction when his flame and his ash and his soot swallow moon and sun; when his magma blood drowns worlds and worlds and those who are left to cower in cracks and crevasses to wait out the storm.

In the chaos of it—in the midst of divine destruction—he’ll leave them one thing: from his slavering jaws runs red the river called Ván, the river named hope. But oh—oh what ruin there must be to make way for such a pretty thing.

Is it any wonder they turn away from him in terror?

Angrboda

Angrboda today is dressed in faded blue jeans—faded not by aesthetic washings and acids but by the sheer wear of the things; years of wear that has loosed the dye from the thread and pulled loose the fabric so it doesn’t cling to her thighs like it once did. They are patched at the knees and torn around the ankles, stained with the mud of a million marches and protests and riots. She is wearing a black leather jacket cropped above her waist and zipping at an angle, stitched across the back with a roughly hewn tree with branches and roots that expand into an encompassing circle. Patches that read “Protect the Sacred” and “No War But Class War” mark her shoulders like a soldier’s rank. The leather, zippers, and thread were bought with labor from friends of friends in gatherings across the nations and stitched together with her own coarse, callused paws. The patches were gifts offered up to her by drifters gassed out of protests in DC and Flint and in return she blessed them with the strength and fortitude to keep fighting through the tears and burnout and abuse.

She hides her ambiguous face, scarred by the battles she’s fought through the millennium, behind a bandana painted with gleaming sharp fangs. None will capture her face as she marches in solidarity behind the leaders of Black Lives Matter protestors, or as she hauls wheelbarrows full of canned food and clean water into sacred camps erected on stolen land where war will be waged against snaking oil pipelines and the warriors must be fed. Her auburn hair is a tangle of pseudo-curls and braids knotted along her scalp like a crest, a stray wisp tickling her high cheekbones as she works, as she lunges into the dog-lines of paramilitary contractors hired by corporations to protect their interests against the will of the people, taking the fangs of the dogs before the children and their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers—not to take, but to shield. Her eyes above the toothed bandana glimmer a fierce auburn to match her hair, sitting at a gentle slant above those pocked cheekbones, one of her thick eyebrows sliced through with two, thick white scars.

Under the bandana her skin is ruddy in a way that suggests her foremothers loved and danced and dreamed with the akka of the Saami. Perhaps they traded in magick and ritual and with it came a trading of blood and alliances and culture—a sometimes turbulent but often fruitful flow between the people of the icy tundra and reindeer and the people of the Ironwood. But who’s to say? Their stories lost to the ravages of time and the shredding wrath of the Christian empire—so much has become dust, but Angrboda of the Ironwood, Chief of Chieftains, völva of the trees and of the bones of giants, refuses to be lost to such dust and decay. She wears steel-toed boots for breaking the shins of imperial soldiers in riot-gear who take a stab at knocking her to the ground with bullet-proof shields or putting her in her place with rubber bullets and batons.

“I know my place well,” snarl her broken teeth as her refusal to yield strikes that vital primal cord in the bellies of hungry warriors and the hearts of overpowered police. “Know you your place so well as I know mine?”

For she fights beside the downtrodden, the weary who will not be broken, and she marches among the queer folks whose spirits push at the boundaries of their flesh, with the ones who love outside conventions and the ones waging war for the right to an identity. She who has birthed magick mystery and holy destruction and sacred death—she who will not settle with the dust, she comes out with tape on her knuckles and tattoos of the magick of the ancient gods engraved into her flesh and a battleax inked into her arm.

Is it any wonder they spit her name and reject her?

Sigyn

Sigyn today wears gray shades of blue with purple flowers braided in her ebony-brown curls. Her favorite jacket is a woven sweater bought for two silver coins from a young man and his mother at a flea market in Uppsala, Sweden—a young man and his mother with thick, dark hair, eyes deep and brown, skin dark and soft, and voices rich and heavily accented by their torn homeland of Syria. She touched the coins to the two small runes tattooed like tears on her cheekbone before offering them a smile and the money. They had lost like she has lost, and she blessed them that their grief might be eased, for she recalls the rending horror of holding her child’s mangled corpse in her arms—how she screamed into the ice-laden forest, screamed to shake the very walls of Asgard, to crumble the very halls that housed the privileged who dropped bombs without feeling the havoc they wreaked. After she handed them the coins, she extended her lithe pale hand to them. She took the mother’s weathered hand and leaned into her, to kiss her cheek and hug her tight, and she offered the same to the grateful son.

The jacket trails her like the robe of a priestess of grief, pulled over a loose-fitting gown of pale blue cinched the waist. She wanders bare-footed through the grass—through parks and the forest, through orchards and fields. Wherever she goes it is common to find her at the food pantry helping visitors collect what they need, or at the soup kitchen serving the hungry and the homeless. She rolls the sleeves of her knitted jacket up to her elbows so the inked, pre-Vikings Vendel key on the inside of her forearm is bared for all to see. She delicately fits a hairnet over her hair braided into a crown—flowers and all—and snaps on the blue latex gloves before serving up heaps of dinner to the unfortunate and the downtrodden. For those who reach out to her she removes her gloves to hold their hands while she speaks to them, to offer them smiles and sweet words.

These are not the only places she can be found: Sometimes she might be found tending to the elderly who have outlived their families, serving them hot tea and listening to their stories in the homes they’ve been confined to, her long legs crossed and her bare foot bobbing to the rhythm of their voices. Quite often she can be found playing with children without families, the wards of the state in orphanages waiting for a home—reading them stories, playing tag and hide-and-go-seek and whatever games the minds of children dream up; showing them the gentle kindness they’ve been so deprived of with hugs and snuggles and praise upon praise for every small goodness, every little accomplishment. She lets them adorn her hair with flowers and clovers and grasses and beads and when they’ve done her up she takes smiling selfies with them before teaching them to paint and draw and write out their feelings, their memories, their traumas. She brings to them worn soft toys and clothes from thrift stores so they always have enough to call their own.

Her neck is long and slender, her arms loose. She walks like a breeze through the door, down the street, past the store—a silver chain about her throat the binding to her husband and her sacrifice, the pitcher dangling from it collecting the venom of humanity’s fear, cruelty, and hatred as she goes. She is oh-so familiar with such venom.

And how much venom there is, these days—running freely in the streets, coursing through the veins of subways and trains. Racing like razors, shedding blood as it goes.

She, the gentlest—the lady of the staying power—has seen and tasted and been stung by too much venom to recall. She works it out through her breath, finds herself in the quietest corner of the forest she can and stretches to work out the pain of such venom in her muscles—tosses her knitted jacket over the branch of a thin tree and, in her white tank top and blue harem pants, does a salute to the sun at the tree’s base.

Her resistance is her active choice of gentleness, of kindness, and of charity. It is quiet and unassuming. It does not wage wars or pick fights or light Molotov cocktails or break windows with bricks. It cares for the self, too, so the flame does not dwindle and die.

Is it any wonder they have forgotten her?

Loki

Loki today wears his flaming red hair shaved on the right side and sweeping to the left. He keeps his shapely eyebrows thick but carefully plucked and he applies a sharp black wing to his eyes and blackens his long, long eyelashes with mascara. He brushes hot red lipstick onto his cat-curl lips, but doesn’t hide his galaxy of freckles under any foundation or blush. His clean-shaven jaw is strong, his nose hooked, his chin cleft, but his throat is slender, his Adam’s apple sharp.

The street is his own personal catwalk and all eyes follow him as he saunters past, a destroyer of monarchies in a delicate six-feet with his head held high and his body slender and waiflike. He is fond of tank tops that show off the tattoos of gleaming chains and binding runes that wrap his wrists and coil like serpents up his leanly muscled arms. He prefers a plunging V-neck to show off the serpent coiled around a heart on his chest, its fangs prominent and dripping. He wears skinny jeans and laced-up black boots, and he paints his fingernails the color of bruises.

His stride is a challenge to all he passes: try to bind me. When he catches the eyes of uncomfortably suited men with square jaws and traditional gold wedding bands he holds their gaze and bites his lip as he passes. The self-hatred their arousal ignites in them feed him like slow cooked pork loin and he goes on, proudly defiant in the face of this world’s lack of hospitality.

He issues all challenges equally: try to erase me. Those too fabulous for their own good cannot be erased and he seeks to prove it with his every move—his every glance a provocation of the unbound ethereal, a check in no box but his own, unmovable, untouchable by the mere hands of Man who seeks to contort and to control. No, any contorting he does will be on his own terms, and for his own pleasure.

Try to box me, he says with the sway of his hips and the toss of his hair as he smooths his lipstick with a tenderly manicured finger: any box anyone tried to fit him into he would tear through with his talons and teeth. Shredded cardboard—he’d burn it, he’d swallow it, he’d paint it and make it confetti and rain it down on his would-be jailers.

He is the one bound by his slaughtered love, forced to bear witness to the withering of his beloved in sacrifice to their union. He is the one who felt the burn of a thousand years of human putrefaction gnawing away at his flesh until he could no longer sense the pain—chewing away at his eyes until he could no longer see the horror. He is the one who was bound tight in a cave, in a prison fashioned by his once-allies, his once-brothers. He is the one who remembers the crime for which he was chained was not a murder, but wounding the egos of the ruling class.

Chained, he will not remain bound. Imprisoned, he will not remain confined. Shunned, he will not remain unseen: he bursts gloriously into the world, a flame too hot to simmer.

In a world that would see him erased, he will be all the bolder. In the face of those that would see him submit, he will bring his own whip. When those who would see him rigidly defined come for him, he will be as elusive as smoke—as slippery as water, a shapeshifting trickster laughing in the face of the prison of patriarchy, of capital, of empire, of dominion. In the face of it all, he’ll wield his own self as his greatest weapon.

Is it any wonder they shy away from him?

Gerdr

Gerdr today is wearing flowing pants of thin linen sourced from friends who grow flax and weave their own fabrics. She wears these with a green tank top of the same make. It lets through the calming breeze which carries with it the scent of the fields, farms, and the mill beyond her garden—a small patch of lovingly tended earth enclosed by a wooden fence she herself built. The wood she refused to pay for, but scavenged by the out-of-use railroad tracks by the mill for planks discarded for being misshapen. What waste, she thought, as she collected the wood and built with it a fence made multi-colored by the mill’s orderly marks.

Never does she wear shoes within the confines of her garden. Her feet, all callused and stained by the earth, are freely connected to the soil as she goes about her business—pruning her strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries; collecting their fruits. Plucking pests from her tomatoes and chilis, she takes leaves from her herbs to hang to dry in the kitchen window. There are cucumbers for salads and pickling, lettuce and kale, sweet peppers, and more. She even has a fig tree which she climbs every other day during its fruiting season, collecting what she can.

She erects a small fence around her garden beds to keep the chickens from scraping up the roots. When the chickens are unleashed they peck up every little insect and slug and snail they can find—pest control which turns the pests into fertilizer. It is a hazard when wearing bare feet, but a hazard she gladly accepts, for the chickens also turn out eggs, and when they cease to do so they make a hearty soup.

Out back where she hopes to expand her garden she has goats clearing the worst of the brush and the weeds. These will give her milk. She has almost all the necessities to sustain her household and what she doesn’t have readily available in her own garden she purchases from the farms down the way: lamb, steak, pork. She has her fishing license available for when the craving strikes.

Every year for the vårblot she and her husband Freyr bless and consecrate the garden, not caring how much the neighbors see: they fuck on the blessed soil, stripped naked so the sun can kiss them, so the inked panthers that prowl her arms and legs can bask in it. Her hair the color of the turned soil spreads out on the ground, long and immense, while his shines golden and curling in the sun. When they are done, he spills his seed on the earth for the blessing, and besides, theirs is an infertile home—what purpose is there in bringing forth a child that will only die in one of a thousand endless wars?

Knowing what she knows about the slavery behind the food in the store, she does well to keep her distance. Rather than turn her pockets out for capitalistic greed she turns her pockets out for friends and when the coins come up short, she patches the gap with a barter or two. Better to feed the community than to feed the hungry monsters squatting over them, masturbating over the squalor of poverty with their filthy dollar bills.

She knows the value of a good garden and a few chickens. She knows the value of commerce between individuals and friends. Oh, how she loves the farmer’s market—where she can often be found when not in the garden or volunteering to support victims of stalking and to educate young men and women on the very real dangers thereof. At the farmer’s market she tests the fruits, leaves, stalks, and roots of the various kinds which she doesn’t have in her own garden. She lovingly selects her items, breathing them in and touching them gently to her cheek before making her purchases. Because she knows the power of a simple garden, of a simple farm—of a simple vote with a dollar.

Is it any wonder she is so overlooked?

Jörmungandr

Jörmungandr today is wearing snake leather boots and pearls, simmering cigarette perched on naturally fair lips, existing on the fringes of society—the liminal and the unknown. The serpent is unseen only insofar as society has allowed its erasure—from the reaches of 1420 to Chatīsgaṛh, those unseemly women, children, men, and others lingering on the edges, those impoverished, disabled, mad, and simple outcasts are called witches and punished. Those hanged, burned, decapitated, drowned, stoned, flayed, flogged, raped, and beaten for the indiscretion of failing to fall in line—every injury done to them, the serpent today bears. Oh how its tail has been whittled down to the finest strands—but still the serpent swims.

The serpent is wherever empire seeks to extinguish that which might undermine it: with healers, with witches, with women who freely exercise the power of their yes’s and their no’s, with men who don’t fall in line, with those who don’t fit inside the box. The serpent is with those whose subversion is their liminality, in the way they ride the borderlands between the wild and civilization, in the free-flow of their spirituality, their sexuality, their survival.

Scarred from the many injuries done to those othered by the driving empires of patriarchy, hegemony, and authoritarian religions, the serpent keeps on keeping on—seeking out space with those who retreat quietly into the forest, to listen, to work their peace or their vengeance. The serpent cares for those learning and tending in secret to the needs of the world weary—bringing the right herbs and right dosages to deal with unwanted ailments, to throw off curses and ills.

So often the serpent has been found with those who slip and slither just out of reach of domination and repression, those living in the nooks and crannies of the world, only just slipping under the gaze of dictators and priests. These days the serpent does an ecstatic dance in bars where there are no men and women, only vibrant bodies overflowing with spirit and soul that answer to the call of music and dance and passion. The serpent thrives among those outcasts to whom society has denied existence and identity—the serpent understands. The serpent knows.

But this is only where the serpent goes to burn off steam. The serpent is also found, still in snake-skin boots, wearing a lab coat and goggles and overseeing the Large Hadron Collider—accused of playing with black holes, tempting a wink out of existence, interrupting time streams, cross-fading with alternate dimensions, universes, realities. Pastors and priests and ministers world-wide have condemned the serpent’s work here as they have condemned it elsewhere: it will open a portal to Hell, they say, or it will attract the wrath of God.

Wherever there are those that are unwanted, or work done that is scorned, the serpent will be there, diligent in snake-skin boots and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

And where else would one of such liminality and mystery be if not at the very heart of mystery-work? Tampering with the particles of reality—seeking them, discovering them, unlocking them. It is not play, no—the very substance of all that is, all that has been, all that can ever be is no game. The serpent takes this work seriously, calmly, and meditatively—uncovering that which strikes terror into the hearts of god-fearing men and women, spawning whispers of the death of god and the crossing of realities. Really, at the end of the day, where is there greater majesty than in the unraveling mysteries of reality? Where else could a greater sense of the mystic and deafening awe be found than here?

A very serious work indeed. Of course, the serpent must seek out those liminal places of ecstatic dance and thrash in worship of it all—a dance that could crumble all the world to ash and dust.

Is it any wonder that they close their eyes and try to wish the serpent away?

Hela

Hela today is wearing a curt white button-up blouse and smart black slacks with a crisp seam and sharp heels that click on the floor. Her makeup is as clean and crisp as her clothes, each eye—the blue one and the brown one—sporting an expert and subtle black wing, mascara making her eyelashes full and long. Though her cleft lip has never been surgically corrected, she paints her lips a red that shocks in contrast to her fair skin.

She runs a business which puts people in the ground, or burns them, though she typically recommends the former. She does not embalm, but encourages the deceased to be given directly to the earth after the funeral—which she organizes quickly and efficiently while bodies are kept cold. She advises the grieving that the funeral is not for the dead, but for them—a ritual of closure and release, and she consults with them on how to most effectively achieve this ritual.

Her consultations are surprisingly touching. She holds the hands of the bereaved while they weep, she touches their shoulders and offers words of wisdom and reassurance. She has been in the business of death for untold ages through untold lifetimes and has become quite good at this. The grieving accept her condolences and somehow manage to find comfort in her words, touch, and gestures, despite her uncanny appearance. They never notice that through it all she maintains her reserved, upright demeanor—never fully investing in these energetic and emotional exchanges.

Once the plans have been settled and offerings have been accepted, the mourners return to their homes for a period of respite while she attends to her real work: preparing the dead.

Still in her crisp and professional dress, she pulls on her gloves and slides on a mask to protect her nose and mouth. She cleans the corpses with water that she has personally seen purified and sprinkled with lemon juice and grapefruit seed extract. She combs and arranges their hair beautifully, if they have any, and she meticulously trims their finger and toenails, collecting the trimmings in jars that she stores in her basement cabinets for later. She dresses them in fine, biodegradable clothing—or wraps them in thin biodegradable linens, according to the wishes of the mourners—and lays them in their simple, untreated wooden caskets or out on a table adorned with flowers. She treats all the bodies with the same reverence and duty as a priestess would treat an idol, even those that are going to be burned.

She does not inter anything in the ground that would not be a fit and suitable offering for the hungry earth. No formaldehyde, no wax, no chemicals. She is not in the business of dirtying the earth to comfort the living—and besides, such frivolities interfere with the true beauty and the true ritual of death: decay.

This is her truth, the truth of the artistic ritual that is death. For a corpse to be a suitable offering the earth must be able to reclaim it in a natural and timely fashion, without also consuming poison. She has no interest in jacking up the price of her services over something as petty as preserving a corpse for the sake of false calm in the face of death. Death, she knows, when corporatized and sanitized for consumption, is bastardized. It ought to be retained in all its grotesque glory: the consumption of the flesh, of the fluids, by brilliant fungi and bacterial cultures, by creeping insects and worms and creatures of the earth. There is an artistry in death which she hails, the wonder of desiccation which humanity has forgotten. And death, which lays even the greatest of empires low, is the highest of life’s rituals, not to be tainted by such simpering whims as Capitalism or contrived beauty standards. It is to be given over fully to the consumption of the hungry earth.

Is it any wonder they reject her?

At last there is I—simple, burning and burned out, exhausted, hoping to catch glimpses of myself in gods and knowing I should only hope to be so lucky. How I try to emulate my gods—and consistently, acutely fail.

I look for myself in them and find them nestled in me—dark gods, shunned gods, gods of the forces of nature and gods of subversion and inversion, gods that would see fit to see the world burn. I can’t help but agree—have you read the news lately? Sometimes my rage flares like a chemical burn that cannot be eased, a pain that has no direction, no outlet.

Small as I am, what can I do in the face of such a world? What can I do but resist, but offer kindness and comfort where I can and slashing fangs and swinging fists where I must? How can I not scream to burn it all to ashes, and how can I not flinch away from such violence? Every day I tend to the children of poverty and trauma and through me I feel Sigyn moving—and I come home with my vicarious trauma and toil in the garden at Gerdr’s feet and for a while I am able to let it go.

But Fenrir is carved into my flesh and my bones and my heart—I remember every fight, every rage—and I cannot or will not let him go. The rage is righteous. It is purposeful. But where does it go? Where can such a rage go—I try to fight where I can, meet my monsters with squared shoulders and clenched fists and I fight my fights with fierce Angrboda in mind. How does a warrior keep her steam? How does she not burn too quickly, or burn at both ends and become nothing more than ash and soot?

When I sleep I dream of Jormungandr, twirling and swirling in the ocean of my heart and my mind and I pray that the serpent goes out from me—out to those girls I see crushed under the weight of religious tyranny and social dogma, whittling themselves out of existence. I speak humbly and softly to them but when they look away I am pleading, screaming that they not let themselves be extinguished—and I am helpless to help them.

Then there is Hela. To take comfort, or to take fear? I do not know if she will meet me when it is my time—and the more I read the news the more I suspect all our time will come too soon—but I pray that she does. Some warrior I am, longing for rest in quiet dim Helheim, but who would wish to keep fighting after a lifetime at war?

These are my gods—my scorned gods, my shunned gods, my forgotten gods, gods whose continued breath pulsates in my own lungs and courses through my own veins, gods whose myths are like fires in my belly and my head.

Their mere continuation in the face of revulsion, of fear, of hate, is subversion. In the quiet and roaring rebellion of the universe and before it, I stand in utter, perfect, serene, and inescapable awe.


Tahni J. Nikitins

Tahni J. Nikitins is a long-time Pagan and a democratic socialist who studied in Sweden, traveled Europe, and majored in literature and creative writing.


This piece was first published in our journal, A Beautiful Resistance: The Crossing. You can get a copy (print or digital) by going here.

Do Trees Have Rights? Toward an Ecological Politics

“[I]t turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.”

from John Halstead

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“The world is full of persons (people if you prefer), but few of them are human.” — Graham Harvey, “An Animist Manifesto”

When I first encountered contemporary animism, it boggled my mind. Animism posits a world full of persons: human persons, yes, but also hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons…and yes, tree persons. Those whose circle of friends includes many animists, pagans, and polytheists may easily forget just how radical the idea of “tree persons” is.

Hedgehog persons? Salmon persons? Mushroom persons? Even rock persons? When I first heard this, it caused me to wonder what exactly a “person” is. To the animist, a person is a being that exists in relationship. Personhood, in this sense, is an ontological statement. But I didn’t get that right away.

I’m a lawyer, so personhood for me is primarily a legal distinction. In the legal and political context, a person is a being that has rights. What would it mean, then, for a salmon, not to mention a rock, to have rights?

Personhood, in this legal context, is not an ontological distinction, but a cultural one. For that reason, it is more or less arbitrary. That’s why human beings could recognize personhood, and hence rights, of fictional entities like corporations and limited liability companies, trusts and estates, sovereign political entities and even ships, while at the same time denying rights to women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Now, you might think that, if we can give rights to corporations and states, which are legal fictions, then we should be able to give rights to living beings like trees and natural beings like rocks, which at least exist in the physical world and, in the case of trees, share DNA with humans. But it turns out that extending rights to other-than-human beings is much harder for most people to imagine than giving rights to a corporation. The reason is that we’ve all been indoctrinated in a particular theory of rights: classical liberalism.

In the essay, I want to highlight some of the problems with classical liberalism, and then propose an alternative, holistic theory of rights, one in which we can ground the rights of nature.

The Standing of Mineral King Valley

As strange as it may seem to grant rights to corporations and ships, but not trees, there is an internal logic to that choice. Corporations and ships are human creations, and they have something that rocks and trees lack–human agents. These human agents can, for example, bring lawsuits to enforce the rights of their “principal”, whether it be a corporation or a ship.

Now it has been suggested that human beings might act as agents for other-than-human beings, just like they do for corporations. In 1972, the Sierra Club filed suit to prevent the development of a Walt Disney resort at Mineral King valley in the Sequoia National Forest. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue in Sierra Club v. Morton was whether the Sierra Club had “standing”, that is, the right to sue. Although the majority technically decided that Sierra Club did not have standing, in a footnote, the court helpfully suggested that the Sierra Club could amend its complaint to allege that Sierra Club made regular camping trips to Mineral King Valley, and the problem of standing would be resolved. The Sierra Club did so and, ultimately Mineral King Valley was saved from the developers.

(It is significant that the fate of the valley effectively turned on how frequently the Sierra Club camped there. More on that in a bit.)

But the case of Sierra Club v. Morton is perhaps most notable for Justice Douglas’ dissent 1, in which he made the case for recognizing the legal standing of

“valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it.”2

As a result, Douglas believed the case should have been entitled “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”. (Morton was Secretary of the Interior.)

But who would speak for the river and its inhabitants? Douglas argued that human beings could be spokespersons for the “inanimate” natural “objects”, if they had a “meaningful relation” or “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. In the case of the Mineral King Valley, the spokesperson might “hike it, fish it, hunt it, camp in it, frequent it, or visit it merely to sit in solitude and wonderment.” Douglas concluded that such a relation would enable them the person to speak for “the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well as the trout in the streams.”

Who Speaks for the Water Ouzel?

CC-BY-2.0 Ron Knight

As much as I would have rejoiced to see legal standing granted to the Mineral King Valley or the Kaweah River which runs through the valley, Justice Douglas’ reasoning gives me pause. By what right do human beings speak for a valley or river? I think Douglas was on the right track when he references the human being’s “intimate relation” to the natural “object”. But then he proceeded to speak merely in terms of the usefulness of the “object” to humans–hiking, fishing, hunting, enjoying the solitude and wonder it offers to humans. Consider the list of types of human beings that Douglas says might speak for a river: “a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger”. Of these, the zoologist at least might have a sense of the inherent worth of the valley–but the logger?!3

Douglas argued that the rivers and valleys themselves could have standing, just as ships and corporations can have standing. But there is an important distinction between ships and corporations, on the one hand, and rivers and valleys, on the other. Ships and corporations are human creations. They have no life or meaning apart from the human beings who constitute them (the crew in the case of ships). The same is not true of rivers and valleys. The latter have a life of their own. The claim to speak for them cannot be so readily justified. And the notion that a logger might speak for all the life that a valley sustains seems presumptuous at best, and dangerous in fact.

Consider also how Douglas described rivers etc. as “environmental objects” and even “inanimate objects”. Because he was unable to see the river, or even the fish in the river, as subjects, rather than objects, he was unable to appreciate the inherent value of the river or the fish beyond their usefulness to human beings. Despite his reference to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic at the end of his dissent, Douglas didn’t quite manage to escape the anthropocentrism which gave rise to the lawsuit in the first place. While he tried to make a case for the rights of valleys and rivers, these remained “objects” in his view, the value of which was determined by human beings.

In the end, Douglas’ approach would have led to more or less to the same place as the majority opinion, with rights of the valley being determined by how often a group of human beings camped there. And this is significant, because it’s not really the interest of the valley that is being protected in such cases, but the interest of humans who want to use the valley.

A State of “Nature”

Even if rocks and trees had agents to speak for them, there is a deeper philosophical problem with granting them rights. Rocks and trees cannot recognize the rights of others. Rights are a human convention. Corporations and states are made up of human beings, so they can recognize other humans’ rights. The same is not true of other-than-human beings. If we decided to grant rights to trees, the trees would not be able to reciprocate the gesture. In short, trees cannot have rights, because trees cannot recognize rights.

What I’ve describe above is the social contract theory of rights, and it is grounded in the classical liberal political philosophy of John Locke. (Note: Classical liberalism should not be confused with the contemporary partisan label of “liberal”, which is commonly contrasted with “conservative”. Most conservative and liberal political discourse today take classical liberalism as the starting point.)

The classical liberal worldview is based on certain assumptions about the nature of human beings and society. In this view, the basic unit of existence is the individual. Individuals exist prior to their relationships. It is a kind of social atomism. According to Locke, society arises when individuals form a social contract wherein they recognize the rights of one another. This can happen implicitly, even unconsciously, or explicitly, through constitutions and laws.

In the classical liberal view of society, other human beings are perceived primarily as obstacles to the individual’s freedom. Individuals enter into the social contract out of necessity, in order to escape the “state of nature”, the war of all against all. Through the social contract, an individual agrees to recognize the rights of others in exchange for a corresponding agreement that others will recognize their rights. This recognition of the rights of others is given begrudgingly, as it were. This is, at its core, an adversarial, rather than a cooperative, view of society.

The purpose of government, in classical liberal view, then, is to enforce this social contract. It serves primarily a negative function–preventing individuals from infringing on the rights of others. The danger of government, in the classical liberal view, is that it will overstep its bounds and begin imposing obligations or duties on individuals.

In order to enter into a contact, a person has to be legally “competent”. This means that they have to be an adult and of “sound mind”. It also means, though it is usually implied, that they have to be a human being. In the classical liberal view, trees cannot have rights. Trees cannot contract with human beings, so trees cannot be part of the social contract. Human beings don’t recognize the rights of trees, because trees cannot recognize the rights of human beings.

The Air that I Breathe

This is the view of rights that I was indoctrinated with, from childhood on. It is why I had so much trouble understanding animism and the animistic conception of personhood.

I was raised by Reaganites, in a religion (Mormonism) which viewed voting Democrat as tantamount to apostasy. I went to a conservative religious university (Brigham Young University), where I was spoon-fed the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who inspired the growth of neoliberalism in the late 20th century, the notion that all social problems should be solved through laissez-faire capitalism.

I then went on to law school. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the standard law school curriculum is deeply rooted in the classical liberal paradigm. Just look at the required substantive courses for first year law students: torts (injury to person or property), contacts, property, constitutional law, criminal law. This curriculum takes for granted the concepts of individual liberty, personal property, the right to contract, limited government, and the state’s monopoly on use of force–the basic tenets of classical liberalism.

But even if I hadn’t been raised in a conservative family and religion and then gone to law school, I would still have absorbed the classical liberal worldview from the American cultural milieu. It’s pervasive–from the public school curriculum to NPR. It’s the political air that we breathe today. And though we take it for granted, the classical liberal paradigm has very real consequences, both for the other-than-human beings who inhabit our shared world, as well as for many human beings who have been categorized as less than fully human at one time or another.

Alienable Rights

“Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” — Jeremy Bentham

The classical liberal understanding of rights is justified in terms of so-called “natural rights”, a reference not to nature, but to what philosophers called the “state of nature”, the imagined state of human beings prior to the advent of society.

Natural rights were originally said to derive from human beings’ purported special relationship with the divine Creator–specifically Yahweh of Judeo-Christian scripture. This is significant, because Yahweh is god of divisions, and the nature of the deity determined the nature of the rights at issue. Unlike the dying-and-reviving vegetation gods he supplanted, Yahweh believed himself to be separate from nature. Creation, in first chapter of Genesis, is also described as a process of separation: light from dark, sky from sea, etc.

Similarly, the natural state of human beings, as describe in the book of Genesis, is also one of separation. Human beings enter the world as individuals, not as a community. We are then separated from God and “fall” into the natural world, which is not our real home. Human beings can overcome the separation from God and escape nature by entering into a covenant–a contract–with Yahweh. All of the basic elements of Locke’s social contract theory can be found here: the special nature of human being, the separation of human beings from each other and from nature, and the formation of society through through voluntary contracts.

As society became secularized, so did the justification for rights. But belief in the supposedly unique nature of human beings remained among humanists. Human beings, we are told, are born with “unalienable rights”. The “self-evident” character of these rights depends upon a belief in humankind’s exceptionalism. As evolutionary biology has chipped away at the belief in our exceptionalism, the justification for natural rights been weakened. If human beings aren’t special, just one species among millions, then where do our special rights come from?

Not only is natural rights theory weak philosophically, when we look at history, it’s revealed to be a farce–a facade for the exercise of power. Humans who have had the power to do so have always withheld so-called “natural rights” from certain classes of human beings: usually including women, people of color, and LGBT folk.

Personhood and natural rights exist in a tautological relationship. We define a person as a being that has rights, and then we extend rights only to those whom we recognize as persons. As Christopher Stone explained in his 1972 law review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?”, “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time.” As a result, people with power can grant rights to anyone or anything they want, and they can withhold rights from anyone or anything, as well. This is why human societies can, for example, extend rights to corporations, while denying rights to people of color.

When we ground rights in social contract theory, human beings will tend recognize the rights of only two classes of people: (1) those that appear like themselves and (2) those who have power. We recognize the rights of those that are like us, because it is logically consistent with our desire that our own rights be recognized. And we recognize the rights of those in power, in the hopes that they will recognize our own rights. Hence, we tend to be blind to the rights of those who are different and/or have little or no power. Trees, for example, are other-than-human and have no political power. So human beings have no reason to recognize the rights of trees–at least as long as rights are based in the social contract.

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness More Property

Historically, political rights in the West have been connected to property ownership. While Jefferson invoked the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, Locke, who had inspired Jefferson, wrote about the rights to “life, liberty, and property“. Four years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Samuel Adams wrote, in “The Rights of the Colonists,” “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property.” And shortly before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Virginia Declaration of Rights recognized the rights to the “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Rights were first extended to property owners–nobles, and then landed gentry–and those property owners sought to extend those rights as a way of protecting their property. The rallying cry of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation,” was the cry of White male property owners–not Native Americans, slaves, women, or unlanded men. Given the close connection of rights and property in history, it should come as no surprise that, today, the freedom of the market has trumped all other freedoms, and the right to acquire property has trumped all other rights.

This is important for understanding why rights are withheld from some classes of people. If people are beings who have rights, and property rights are preeminent among rights, then people, it may be said, are beings who own property. Anything or anyone that is not a person, is therefore property, and anyone who does not own property, is not a person. Enslaved people, for example, were considered to be things that were owned, not people that owned things, so it made no sense for slaves to have rights. The same was true of women and children for a long time–if a woman was raped or if child was killed, it was the father or husband who had a legal right to sue, and the nature of the suit was damage to property, not injury to person.

Similarly, trees today are considered to be things that are owned, not persons who own things. Therefore, they cannot have rights. While property ownership was eventually extended to former slaves, it is difficult to imagine how a tree might ever be said to own property. As a result, it’s unlikely rights will ever be extended to trees, so long as we are operating within the classical liberal view of rights.

Blue Rights, Negative Rights

In the 1970s, the Czech jurist, Karel Vasak, described three “generations” of rights–later called “blue,” “red,” and “green” rights. In this section, I’ll discuss the first two–blue and red rights.

Blue rights are “negative” rights, the right to pursue one’s own self-interest without interference from other people or from government–essentially, your right to be left alone. These include political rights like freedom of speech and the freedom to contract and to acquire (more) property.

Red rights refer to “positive” rights. Rather than the freedom from interference, they represent a person’s entitlement to something, Red rights create the obligations of others to you and you to them. These include economic and social rights, like the right to employment, housing, health care, and social security.

Negative rights are often described as protecting “freedom from” something, whereas positive rights are described as protecting “freedom to” do something. This can be misleading, though. In one sense, negative rights may be thought of as embodying a person’s “freedom from”, i.e., freedom from interference by others. In another sense, negative rights may be thought of as a “freedoms to”, i.e., freedom to speak, to exercise religion, and to acquire property–in the space left by the non-interference of other people and government. Similarly, positive rights can be thought of as freedoms to, i.e., freedom to work, obtain heath care, acquire an education, etc., but also as freedoms from, i.e., freedom from want, fear, ignorance, etc., which result from work, health care, education, and so on.

The classical liberal view lends itself to the recognition of negative rights, but not positive rights . Prior to the New Deal, most Americans understood rights primarily in negative terms. The role of government was to keep people from interfering with other people’s person or property. Social Darwinism was the prevailing social theory and laissez-faire capitalism, which touted competition over cooperation, was the prevailing economic theory. Little wonder, then, that an adversarial theory of rights would dominate public discourse.

The United States’ Bill of Rights is an example of negative rights. Though many Americans today speak of the First Amendment as securing their “freedom of speech”, i.e., the freedom to speak, the First Amendment actually freedom from government abridging speech. This is a negative right, not a positive one. It is freedom from government interference which the First Amendment protects, and it is only the freedom to speak in the space created by the absence of government interference.

Red Right, Positive Rights

Red (positive) rights came to be more recognized through the efforts of FDR. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt proposed that people everywhere should enjoy the freedom of speech and worship (blue rights), to which he added freedom from want and fear (red rights). Two years later, in his 1941 State of the Union address, he stated that the political rights identified in the Bill of Rights were “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness,” because “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security”. Roosevelt identified several red rights, among them:

  • The right to job
  • The right to earn enough for adequate food, clothing, and recreation
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education.

These are rights which would be incomprehensible for someone operating wholly within the context of a classical liberal paradigm. The reason is this–from the perspective of classical liberalism, you cannot recognize a red or positive right of one person without creating a corresponding obligation or duty on another person to fulfill that right, and when you create such an obligation, you violate the second person’s blue or negative rights. Where there is a conflict between positive and negative rights, classical liberalism demands that the negative right trump the positive right. Classical liberalism favors negative rights because it takes for granted that free human beings exist prior to forming social relationships.

To use an example from recent news, according to the classical liberal, you cannot guarantee a LGBT’s person’s right to purchase a wedding cake at a particular establishment, without violating the wedding cake maker’s right to be free from indirect participation in LGBT weddings. When conservatives today make this argument, unfortunately many progressives have difficulty articulate a refutation, because they too are starting with classical liberal assumptions.

To contemporary liberals and conservatives alike, the wedding cake case is simply a question of deciding whose rights to give preference to: the LGBT customer’s right to be free from discrimination or the wedding cake maker’s free exercise of his religion. Progressives tend to give preference to the freedom from discrimination over the freedom of religious expression, so they will usually favor the rights of the LGBT customer. But they don’t really question the classical liberal assumptions behind the choice. When we begin with the classical liberal assumption that human beings exist prior to their relationships, then it is difficult to defense the choice of the LGBT customer’s rights over the rights of the wedding cake maker in a principled way.

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Rights of Individuals-in-Community

But that is not the only way to see the world. Rather than trying to defend positive (red) rights in the individualistic terms of the classical liberal paradigm, we can start with a more communitarian4 or holistic paradigm. Rather than seeing the individuals as existing prior to society, a holistic view sees society as constitutive of individuals.

We are born into community, and we work out our individual identity through our relationships with other human beings and with the more-than-human world. There’s no such thing as “state of nature”, in which human beings lived before forming social relationships. We born into relation and there is no way to opt-out. In short, individuals do not exist apart from their relationships.

Therefore, there is no such thing as “natural rights”. Rights are social constructions, and they only can be created in society. And they always create corresponding obligations on other people. Rather than separating people, as the classical liberal imagines, rights bind people together, into communities. (This seems to be the view taken by Kadmus in his article here, entitled “Nature’s Rights”.) In this view, a person who has liberty, but no community, can hardly be called a person.

A person only really has freedom if the material and social conditions are present for them to exercise that freedom. We cannot can really pursue happiness without food, education, work, health care, etc. What use is it to tell a person they are free to fish if they don’t have a fishing pole or the knowledge of how to use it? As Adlai Stevenson succinctly put it, “A hungry man is not a free man.” Or, as someone said in the documentary Whose Streets? (about the Ferguson rebellion), “If you can’t read, you’re a slave.”

The goal of rights, in this perspective, is not primarily to protect the atomistic individual from other people, but to enable individuals to realize their potential together, through community. This does not mean that positive (red) rights will always trump negative (blue) rights, but if all other things are equal, then positive rights will be given greater weight, because negative rights are a function of positive rights.

This is not to say that community takes precedence over individuals. Red rights are still individual rights, not communal rights; but they are rights of individuals-in-community. In this holistic view, rights arise, not from the nature of the solitary individual, but from the nature of the individual in society. The ability of people to exercise their liberties depends on other people.

Recall that the classical liberal understanding of rights was rooted in the desire of capitalists to protect their property (and acquire more). But the capitalist’s ability to acquire more property is only made possible through the labor of others (which is exploited). What’s more, the capitalist’s profits depend upon infrastructure, markets, and so on, which are built by other people’s hands. While the capitalist may pay taxes, the taxes any single capitalist pays would be insufficient to create the infrastructure that capitalist needs. In short, they need other people.

As then-candidate for Senate, Elizabeth Warren, explained in 2011:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for.”

Let Them Eat Wedding Cake

Let’s apply this perspective to the case of the wedding cake maker and the LGBT customer. Rather than starting with two separate individuals with competing rights claims, we start with two individuals who are part of a larger community. The wedding cake maker’s demand for “freedom from interference” in the exercise of their religion makes less sense when looked at from this more holistic perspective. As much as the wedding cake maker might want to deny it, they are already in community with the LGBT customer, even before the customer walks through the door.

To begin with, even if the wedding cake maker does not have employees, they nevertheless did not build their business on their own. Their business was created within a community that provides roads for delivery of cake ingredients, police to maintain a safe marketplace, and so on. Maybe the LGBT customer was even one of the people that helped build those roads or a police officer patrolling the neighborhood of the wedding cake business.

What’s more, the wedding cake maker’s right to exercise their religion in public spaces5 is only possible in the context of a culture of tolerance which is created and maintained by the community. The wedding cake maker only has freedom to exercise their religion, if they are if they are free from fear of discrimination from others. It is hypocritical, therefore, for the cake maker to insist on his freedom from one type of discrimination, while insisting on the right to discriminate against others on other grounds. So, the rights of the LGBT customer should trump those of the wedding cake maker in that case.

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Green Rights

“Environmental law is failing. And it will continue to fail because it comes from the same paradigm that created the problem.” — Mumta Ito

At this point, I would forgive the reader for having lost sight of tree persons that I started this essay with, but I intend now to return to them. Blue rights and red rights only apply to human beings, but Karel Vasak described three kinds of rights. So far, we have only talked about two. The third kind of rights is “green rights.” Vasek’s divisions corresponded roughly to the three words of the French motto: “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Green rights extend both blue and red rights to other-than-human beings and ecosystems, recognizing our “fraternity”–or “kinship” to use a non-patriarchal term–with the other-than-human inhabitants of our world.

The justification for extending rights to other-than-human beings is consistent with the logic of red rights, but simply recognizes that the community of which we are a part includes the more-than-human world–in fact, there’s much more of them than there are of us: hedgehog persons, salmon persons, rock persons, mushroom persons, tree persons and so on. To borrow from Aldo Leopold’s description of the “land ethic”, green rights “simply enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Recall that red rights were justified by pointing out that the capitalist’s freedom to acquire more property is only made possible through the (exploited) labor of others. And their business relies upon public goods for which they did not pay, like roads. But the capitalist’s freedom is also only made possible through the (even more exploited) natural world: air, water, soil, and the other-than-human beings who inhabit it. The roads upon which the capitalist relies run through land that used to be (and may still be) occupied by streams and prairies and inhabited by myriad living beings. And both the roads and the goods which the business produces are made from materials which come from the natural world.

Mumta It, founder of the NGO, Nature’s Rights, observes that the classical liberal political paradigm is based on a 17th century scientific paradigm–not surprising since Locke lived in the 17th century–which she describes as:

  • mechanistic (i.e., viewing the world as made up of separate, unconnected objects interacting in a predicable way);
  • anthropocentric (i.e., viewing the world as existing solely for the use of human beings – this is where ideas about ‘natural resources’ and ‘natural capital’ derive, basing nature’s value on its utility to humanity rather than on its intrinsic value); and
  • adversarial (competitive/retributive model, where one party wins at the expense of another)

In contrast, the holistic perspective is an ecological view of rights. Unlike more reductive forms of biology, ecology seeks to understand organisms in context of their relationships. The environment is not a backdrop to individual action, but a web of relations that constitute the individual. Therefore, an ecological view of rights is one which views worlds as interconnected, biocentric, and cooperative, rather than mechanistic, anthropocentic, and adversarial.

In the classical liberal view, based on social contract theory, people only have a motivation to recognize the rights of other who or like them (or those who have greater power than them). In the holistic view, based on ecology, people would recognize the rights of those with whom they are in relationship. And since we are ultimately in relationship with everyone, people would recognize the rights of every person and every thing–in fact, every thing would be recognized as a person, which is the foundation of an animistic worldview.

There are only a few examples of green rights in existence, but there appears to be a trend (albeit limited in scope so far) toward recognizing the rights of nature:

In 2008, the Ecuadorian constitution, recognized the right of nature (or “Pacha Mama”) to “integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Among other obligations, the constitution required the state to apply preventive and restrictive measures on activities that might lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles.

In 2010, Bolivia passed the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” (Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra), which recognizes Mother Earth as a “collective interest” which includes all its component communities, human and other-than. The law recognizes the rights of Mother Earth to life, diversity of life, equilibrium, clean water, clean air, pollution-free life, and restoration where living systems have been affected by human activities. The law also imposes duties on the state and on the people to realize these rights.

In 2016, a court in Colombia recognized the rights of the Atrato River basin. In negotiations with an indigenous Maori tribe of New Zealand, the government recognized the Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River as legal persons in 2014 and 2017, respectively. This was followed by the Indian court recognizing the personhood of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in 2017. Several municipalities in the United States have also recognized the rights of nature, beginning with Tamaqua Borough, in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in 2006.

Nestled Rights

Blue rights, red rights, and green rights are not equivalent and competing kinds of rights. Nor are they exactly hierarchical. Red (positive) rights, in a sense, encompass blue (negative) rights, because the latter are only possible in the context of the former, just as the individual only exists in the context of society.

Similarly, blue and red rights are encompassed within green rights, because both individuals and human communities only exist within the context the natural world–the former could not exist without the latter. To look at it another way, individual human beings cannot harm their human community without harming themselves, and likewise, a human community cannot harm the more-than-human community without also harming itself.

We can think of blue, red, and green rights as nestled within each other, as depicted in the image on the right in diagram below.

Nestled Rights

Mumta Ito has written about two model of sustainability and the relationship between nature, human society, and the economy using a similar diagram:

“The diagram on the left is the usual model for sustainability. The problem with this model is that it assumes that each circle can exist independently of the others. In reality the only one that can exist without the others – is nature.

The diagram on the right is therefore more accurate. It shows a natural hierarchy of systems because without nature there’s no people and without people there’s no economy.

This then leads to a natural hierarchy of rights with nature’s rights as our most fundamental rights because our life depends on it, then human rights as a subsystem of nature’s rights – and then property or corporate rights as a subsystem of human rights.

In the model on the right, the rights are in service of each other rather than in conflict – working synergistically to protect the integrity of the whole. In this model human activities have to be beneficial for humans as well as nature – or its not viable in the long run.”

Therefore, rather than attempting to balancing the interests of individual humans, human society, and the environment, as if they were equal and competing, the holistic model of rights acknowledges that blue rights are derivative of red rights and that both blue and red rights are derivative of green rights. This does not mean that green rights will trump blue rights in every instance, but it would mean that, all other things being equal–a caveat which conceals a great deal of nuance–green rights would be given greater weight than red or blue rights.

“The Rights of Nature”

The holistic view of rights, in contrast to classical liberalism, provides a basis for recognizing the rights of nature. To say that other-than-human beings should have rights, though, is not to say that no one should be allowed to cut down a tree. Human beings have rights, but they can be incarcerated and even executed under the law. So rights can recognized, and yet withdrawn under some circumstances.

Nor does it say what kind of rights would be extended to the more-than-human world. Not every right holder holds all rights. Corporations have the right to contract, but they cannot plead the Fifth. Children have certain rights, but not the right to vote.

Nor does it say anything about the weight to be given those rights in any given case. U.S. law recognizes that humans have a right to life and also a right to a driver’s license (at least adults). But we can be legally deprived of the latter much easier than the former.

Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this essay. But, following Christopher Stone, I would propose that an acknowledgement of the rights of nature would, at a minimum, mean that other-than-human beings have legal standing in human courts, beyond any public or private human interest in them. So, in the case of Mineral King Valley, discussed above, the caption of the lawsuit would indeed, as Justice Douglas proposed, read “Mineral King Valley v. Morton”.

Merely recognizing such a thing as the “rights of nature” would be profound. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann writes about how, in 1948, with the publication of Road to Survival, William Vogt introduced the world to the idea of “the environment”, not just as a particular place, but as a global totality: “Defining a word on a new sense seems academic and abstract,” writes Mann, but its consequences are not. Until something has a name, it can’t be discussed or acted upon it. … Without ‘the environment,’ there would be no environmental movement.”

The same, it could be hoped, would be true of the “rights of nature”. As Christopher Stone observed,

“Introducing the notion of something having a ‘right’ (simply speaking that way), brings into the legal system a flexibility and open-endedness … [T]he vocabulary and expressions that are available to us influence and even steer our thought. …[J]udges who could unabashedley refer to the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be encouraged to develop a viable body of law–in part simply through the availability and force of the expression. Besides, such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the ‘legal rights of the environment’ would be inclined to legislate for environment-protecting rules …”

It is not impossible that general acceptance of the phrase, “the rights of nature”, could trigger a paradigm shift in Western consciousness, a shift from viewing nature instrumentally–as having value only for humans–to viewing nature as inherently valuable–as having value in its own right. And that could have profound consequences for human behavior and our impact on the more-than-human world.

Animistic Afterthought

But who would speak for the rights of nature in human courts? To answer this, I would return to Justice Douglas’ idea that a spokesperson for the rights of other-than-human beings should have a “intimate relation” with those beings. And who better to fill that function than those human beings who already recognize the personhood of those beings–animists!

Who better to speak for nature in human courts that those humans who not only see, but cherish, their own relationships with the more-than human world and the beings who inhabit it? Perhaps, rather than the Sierra Club or a regulatory agency that has been co-opted by industry, nature would be better represented by a kind of legally-recognized priesthood. I leave it to people more imaginative than me to work out what such a world might look like.

374o_s


Notes

Douglas’ dissent was influenced by a law review article published earlier that year by Christopher Stone, cleverly titled, “Should Trees Have Standing?-Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”.

It’s worth noting that Douglas did not propose granting rights to the fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, etc., but to a “living symbol” of the ecosystem which included them.

There are governmental bodies that are tasked with acting as nature’s guardians, but their history inspires even more skepticism about the ability of humans to speak for nature. Justice Douglas himself observed how regulatory agencies come to be captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. For example, The Forest Service — one of the federal agencies behind the scheme to despoil Mineral King — has been notorious for its alignment with lumber companies.” Ironic, then, that he would propose a logger as a spokesperson for Mineral King.

Unfortunately, the word “communitarianism” has acquired the status of an epithet in contemporary American culture, so deeply have we drunk from the well of classical liberalism. This is true of many words which share common roots with the word “community”, like “commune”, “communal”, “communalism”, and of course, “communism”.

While the theoretical wedding cake business is on “private” property, it is open to the public, and therefore a public space, to my mind.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. He is also one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community. He is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.


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In the Terreiro of Old Black Iaiá, Let’s Saravá

English Translation Here

Foto de Laura Cantal

No Terreiro de Preto Velho Iaiá, Vamos Saravá

Aproximadamente no segundo semestre de 2017, os escandalosos ataques sofridos pelas religiões de matriz africana na região metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro ganharam espaços em diferentes mídias. Foram cerca de três meses de noticiamento, em que representantes de diversas frentes políticas, sociais e intelectuais discutiram em torno do acontecimento. Houve, inclusive, a cobertura da 10ª Caminhada em Defesa da Liberdade Religiosa, na qual membros e líderes de diferentes religiões deram as mãos contra a opressão sofrida. Até que, com o correr do tempo, outras informações aterraram a causa e os efeitos desse fenômeno. Não é à toa que, em vista do desenvolvimento do jornalismo moderno, a notícia seja compreendida como ícone do tempo presente e desapareça como fumaça no vento. Mas, convenhamos, não há novidade tampouco efemeridade nos ataques sofridos às religiões de matriz africana. É um acontecimento histórico e que, atualmente, ganha magnitude e feições assustadoras.

O Rio de Janeiro, entre as mais de três décadas de comércio escravagista, recebeu cerca de 3 milhões de africanos escravizados, dentre os quais aproximadamente 1/3 deles desembarcaram no Cais do Valongo na região portuária da cidade – espaço que, em virtude de muita luta, recebeu o título de Patrimônio Mundial pela UNESCO em 2017. Isto precisa ser dito, para início de conversa, porque não há como se conceber o Rio de Janeiro sem se levar em consideração a presença e as manifestações culturais desses 3 milhões de negros africanos escravizados. O Rio de Janeiro é uma cidade maravilhosa também graças ao contributo desses homens e mulheres, sem os quais o samba carioca não haveria existido. Assim como o samba, as chamadas religiões afro-brasileiras são manifestações culturais de matriz africana que, ao longo do tempo e das articulações culturais, construíram uma cara própria: a cara do Rio. Pixinguinha, grande compositor carioca do nosso passado e a quem devemos a chamada deste artigo, é resultado do caldeirão rítmico apenas encontrado nos morros e terreiros cariocas como a lendária Casa da Tia Ciata, terreiro de candomblé frequentado por ele e outras personalidades do samba como Donga e João da Baiana.

Infelizmente, Pixinguinha, Donga e muitos outros homens e mulheres negros e anônimos sofreram e sofrem opressões que remontam a história da cidade. Desde início do século XX, os espaços de sociabilidade e as manifestações culturais de matriz africana são atacados, homens e mulheres negras são expropriadas de seus direitos e de suas condições mais básicas de existência. Não há um intervalo de tempo dentro da linha dos acontecimentos na história do Rio de Janeiro em que os negros e a suas manifestações culturais não tenham sofrido com o poder público. De acordo com a pesquisa realizada pelo historiador Nireu Cavalcanti, entre 1910 e 1918, 66 terreiros espalhados pela cidade foram perseguidos e posteriormente tiveram suas portas fechadas. E isto é uma constante ao longo das décadas seguintes. A interface entre intolerância religiosa e tráfico – esse poder supostamente paralelo e que de paralelo não tem nada – é atualmente a nova forma de opressão que os terreiros têm sofrido, especialmente no estado do Rio de Janeiro.

De acordo com as notícias que temos, nesta década os primeiros casos neste perfil remontam o ano de 2013, quando traficantes evangelizados proibiram que líderes religiosos praticassem os seus rituais, expulsando-os de suas comunidades na Zona Norte da cidade. Segundo as informações do Ministério dos Direitos Humanos, o número de denúncias de injúrias por preconceito religioso subiu de 15, no ano de 2011, para 759 em 2016. Apenas entre agosto e outubro de 2016, foram registradas 42 denúncias de intolerância religiosa no estado fluminense, dentre as quais 38 referem-se às religiões de matriz africana[1]. Para além das imprecisões estatísticas, ainda de acordo com as declarações fornecidas pelo secretário estadual de Direitos Humanos, Átila Nunes, há uma lacuna no código penal, não permitindo uma tipificação clara sobre o que seria considerado preconceito religioso, permitindo que qualquer tipo de agressão aos terreiros possa ser entendido, por exemplo, como um simples desentendimento entre vizinhos.

Respeitar as diferenças e permitir a livre manifestação dessa diferença não se trata apenas de um princípio constitucional, muito menos de algo que deva ser concedido por alguém. É um principio humano. É e sempre deverá ser muito maior do que as determinações de um Estado e de qualquer poder público. No entanto, no sentido contrário desta liberdade inerente ao ser humano, temos acompanhado uma associação nefasta entre o poder político e a bancada evangélica no Congresso Nacional. E este diálogo não deve ser visto como alheio à essas perseguições religiosas ocorridas não apenas no Rio de Janeiro, mas em diversos outros estados brasileiros como a Bahia e Minas Gerais. Atualmente, a Frente Parlamentar Evangélica (FPE) agrega mais de 100 parlamentares, com expectativa de que em 2018 cerca de 165 parlamentares evangélicos sejam eleitos entre Câmara dos Deputados e Senado.[2]

Suas últimas legislaturas estão envolvidas com projetos como o “Estatuto da Família” (PL. 6.583/2013) que, através de regras jurídicas conservadoras, convenciona a definição de família; também contribuíram com Propostas de Emenda Constitucional como a PEC 171/1993 que justifica a redução da maioridade penal a partir de passagens bíblicas; e têm envolvimento com Projetos de Lei como o PL 4931/2016 do deputado João Campos (PSDB-GO) – vulgarmente conhecido como “Cura Gay” -, cujo o relator é o mesmo do Estatuto da Família, o pastor Ezequiel Teixeira (PTN-RJ), assim como o PL 5.069/2013 que ataca o direito constitucional de mulheres vítimas de violência sexual a terem o devido acesso ao aborto – projeto este encabeçado por Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ), ex-presidente da Câmara dos Deputados recentemente preso por corrupção ativa e passiva, prevaricação e lavagem de dinheiro e que, de acordo com o pedido do Ministério Público Federal, pode vir a cumprir 386 anos de prisão.

Note-se que a maior parte dos parlamentares da FPE advém das igrejas pentecostais, como a Assembléia de Deus e a Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus – cujo um dos mais destacados membros é o atual prefeito da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella (PRB-RJ). Este que, entre silenciamentos e medidas conservadoras, não apenas desconsidera a redemocratização do nosso Maraca, como também negligencia a expressão do samba e do próprio carnaval, alma da cidade, uma típica comemoração arduamente construída pelas comunidades e terreiros dos morros cariocas. Outros “grandes” nomes avultam esse relacionamento amoral entre política e religião, como o deputado federal Marco Feliciano (PSC-SP) e o deputado federal Jair Bolsonaro (PP-SP), pré-candidato às eleições presidenciais de 2018.

Ainda que os parlamentares evangélicos pentecostais se afigurem como maioria, não podemos ignorar que há outros atrelados a diferentes vertentes da religião cristã, como os protestantes históricos e os batistas. No entanto, ainda que respeitemos as diferenças entre uns e outros, isto não minimiza o quão inconcebível é que um Estado constitucionalmente laico permita a simbiose entre política e religião tal como temos visto no Brasil. Como anteriormente dito, religião é uma manifestação cultural, própria de uma cultura específica e o direito ao culto, seja ele qual for, deve ser preservado em um Estado Democrático de Direito. Sob nenhuma hipótese pode uma religião ter os seus princípios fundamentais como norteadores das deliberações do poder público, muito menos subverter esses mesmos princípios e cooptar uma massa majoritariamente negra que vive há séculos no abandono, submetida aos mandos de um poder “paralelo” que é igualmente subproduto das artimanhas desse projeto Universal.

A Origem Desse “Big Bang”

A gênese de todo esse enredo, ao meu ver, parte da ideia de que os princípios de liberdade e igualdade foram há muito tempo adulterados em função da orquestração do poder entre os homens. Não encontro absurdo algum em afirmar categoricamente que o entendimento de mundo e de relação com o outro que nos foi introjetado tem direta conexão com a lógica de uma parcela de homens que, partindo de seus interesses políticos e econômicos, quis imperar. Sim, faz parte de um projeto ambicioso. E, pior, faz parte de um projeto maléfico e que, infelizmente, segue vigente até os dias de hoje, assumindo formas variadas ao longo da história.

Poderíamos aqui discorrer sobre as suas origens em um movimento de reconstrução histórica, mas é provável que nos percamos em tantas idas e vindas. De qualquer forma, importa expor a sua pedra angular, uma vez que ela ainda hoje limita a nossa existência enquanto sociedade e, acredito eu, seja essa a pedra no sapato que causa grande parte das atrocidades no mundo. O modelo de construção desse mundo particular pode ser entendido como “paradigma da simplificação”[3]. E ele traz em sua gênese o princípio da disjunção e da redução da realidade humana a partir de uma perspectiva eurocêntrica, falocêntrica e colonialista.

A igualdade entre os homens foi abstratamente construída através de um suporte jurídico-moral baseado nesse paradigma. O direito a existência da multidiversidade cultural da espécie humana é automaticamente negado, sendo a nossa natural diferença cultural enquadrada em noções hierarquizantes. Aqueles que não são considerados iguais passam a ser considerados como passíveis de opressão. O conservadorismo que esse modo de ver o mundo instaura, enquanto filosofia política e social, é portanto necessariamente racista e misógino. Ele é contrário a prática democrática de coexistência das diferenças.

Em sua evolução, de forma ainda mais cruel, esse paradigma serviu de base para um sistema econômico que, devido a sua própria natureza, compreende o mundo como um produto. Ou seja, o capitalismo – que hoje se embrenha e rege a lógica das relações humanas – é um sistema que compreende o mundo e os seres humanos como produtos a partir de uma ótica disjuntiva e inerentemente racista e misógina. Mulheres, homossexuais, crianças, idosos, negros e uma série de outras categorias são vistas como subprodutos. É essa a base do sistema vigente que é responsável pelo desmantelamento dos vínculos sociais que garantiriam a nossa existência.[4]

Ele desconsidera todas as variadas formas de existir, todas as formas de auto-reconhecimento e de valorização da essência própria de cada ser humano no mundo. No meu entendimento – que também se constrói a partir da minha vivência e experiência de vida – o candomblé e todas as religiões de matriz africana são mais uma forma de existência e de compreensão do mundo. Mas não se trata apenas de uma representação a partir de uma cosmogonia sui generis, cujas bases históricas encontramos em diversas comunidades infelizmente desmanteladas em toda a África. As religiões de matriz africana são um meio de se compreender a vida social de maneira mais elevada, assim como toda religião deveria ser e ser exercida. Elas são um modo de vida e de entendimento dessa existência. Elas permitem que, ao reconhecer a sua ancestralidade e sua história, seus fiéis valorizem a sua essência e compreendam o valor da cultura que as originou.

Tendo sido nascida e criada em um terreiro de Candomblé da família do Axe Pantanal cujas origens nos levam à Bahia, atesto 30 anos de vivência em uma comunidade que, como outra qualquer, tem seus rituais e sentidos particulares, mas que em nenhum momento deixou de exercer a função de acolhimento e de auxílio na integração social de seus membros. Há mais de 20 anos que as insígnias do terreiro da minha casa foram retiradas, assim como seus atabaques – responsáveis pelo ritmo e pelos ensinamentos ancestrais que palavras não traduzem – foram guardados por medo de possíveis perseguições. Minha mãe pediu que seus filhos não trafeguem vestidos com as roupas brancas e expondo seus fios de conta – colares feitos de missança e pedras específicas que representam os Orixás – por medo de qualquer tipo de agressão por parte dos vizinhos que são, como em quase toda comunidade do subúrbio carioca, majoritariamente evangélicos.

Mas minha casa continua sendo a casa de uma família que ultrapassa a dimensão normativa imposta pelo pensamento propalado pelo paradigma da simplificação. A minha casa não compactua com a intolerância, muito pelo contrário, ela carrega ensinamentos ancestralísticos que afastam a ignorância – moeda muito valiosa entre os pentecostais que estão no Congresso. Minha casa é organizada – e não dominada – por uma matriarca, por uma mulher que recebe, aceita e orienta qualquer ser humano que entre portão adentro, independentemente de qualquer padrão imposto pela sociedade e os dignifica, fazendo com que eles acreditem em seu potencial. É uma casa soberana. É uma família não convencional que professa uma fé e independe do poder público. Observando-se como se estrutura o poder, não é difícil entender o “perigo” que, assim como outros tantos terreiros, minha casa representa para um mundo em que a carne mais barata é a carne negra.

Rodapé:

[1] Fonte: Secretaria de Estado de Direitos Humanos Políticas para Mulheres e Idosos (SEDHMI). Informações obtidas em reportagem do Jornal O Globo, 05/11/2017.
[2] Informações obtidas aqui.
[3] O conceito é elaborado pelo antropólogo Edgar Morin. Seu estudo epistemológico compreende a relação dos pressupostos da ciência com a sociedade, relação esta que teria o poder de influenciar a construção do mundo social a partir do paradigma da simplificação. Ver M ORIN. Edgar. Introdução ao pensamento complexo. Lisboa: Instituto Piaget, 1992.
[4] De acordo com os relatórios da Oxfam, a riqueza acumulada pelo 1% mais rico do mundo corresponde a riqueza dos outros 99% restantes. E 9 entre cada 10 indivíduos mais ricos são homens e caucasianos. Para mais, ver Oxfam.

Nota da editora: Imagens não creditadas são cortesias da escritora, e pertencem ao seu acervo pessoal. Por favor, não reproduzir ou apropriar antes de pedir permissão.


Karina Ramos

Nascida e criada em um terreiro de Candomblé na Zona Oeste do Rio de Janeiro, Karina Ramos é historiadora, especialista em história da África contemporânea.


ENGLISH TRANSLATION

Term Index at the bottom

Photo by Laura Cantal

In the Shrine of Old Black Iaiá, Let’s Hail

Approximately in the second half of 2017, the scandalous attacks suffered by ancestral-African religions in the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro gained much space in the media. It was about three months of reporting, in which representatives from various political, social and intellectual fronts discussed the event. There was even the coverage of the 10th Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom, in which members and leaders of different religions joined hands against the oppression. Until, over time, more information appalled the cause and effects of this phenomenon. It’s no wonder that, in view of the development of modern journalism, the news is understood as an icon of the present time, and disappears like smoke in the wind. But, let’s face it, there is neither novelty nor ephemerality in the attacks on ancestral-African religions. It is a historical event and it is now gaining magnitude and scary features.

Rio de Janeiro, among more than three decades of slave trade, received about 3 million enslaved Africans, of whom about 1/3 of them landed at the Valongo Pier in the port area of the city – a space that, because of much struggle, received the title of World Heritage by UNESCO in 2017. This needs to be said in the first place because there is no way to conceive Rio de Janeiro without taking into account the presence and cultural manifestations of these 3 million enslaved black Africans. Rio de Janeiro is a wonderful city also thanks to the contribution of these men and women, without whom Rio’s samba would not have existed. Like samba, so-called Afro-Brazilian religions are African cultural manifestations that, over time and from cultural articulations, have built their own face: the face of Rio. Pixinguinha, the great Rio de Janeiro composer of our past and to whom we owe the title of this article, is the result of the rhythmic cauldron only found in Rio’s morros (hills where there are favelas) and terreiros (yard-like shrines) such as the legendary Casa da Tia Ciata, a Candomblé terreiro frequented by him and other samba personalities like Donga and João da Baiana.

Unfortunately, Pixinguinha, Donga, and many other black and anonymous men and women have suffered, and still suffer oppression that dates back to the city’s history. Since the beginning of the 20th century, spaces of sociability and cultural manifestations of African matrix are attacked, black men and women are expropriated of their rights and their most basic conditions of existence. There is not an interval of time within the line of events in the history of Rio de Janeiro where blacks and their cultural manifestations have not suffered with public power. According to research conducted by the historian Nireu Cavalcanti, between 1910 and 1918, 66 terreiros scattered throughout the city were persecuted and later had their doors closed. And this is a constant throughout the following decades. The interface between religious intolerance and trafficking – this supposedly parallel power that has nothing at all – is currently the new form of oppression that the terreiros have suffered, especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

According to the news that we have, in this decade the first cases in this profile go back to the year 2013, when evangelized traffickers prohibited religious leaders from practicing their rituals, expelling them from their communities in the North Zone of the city. According to information from the Ministry of Human Rights, the number of complaints of religious prejudice increased from 15 in 2011 to 759 in 2016. Only between August and October 2016, 42 complaints of religious intolerance were registered in the state of Rio de Janeiro, of which 38 refer to religions of African origin. In addition to the statistical inaccuracies, still according to the statements provided by the state secretary of Human Rights, Attila Nunes, there is a gap in the penal code, not allowing a clear definition of what would be considered religious prejudice, allowing that any type of aggression to terreiros can be understood, for example, as a simple misunderstanding between neighbors.

Respecting differences and allowing the free expression of this difference is not only a constitutional principle, much less something that should be granted by someone. It is a human principle. It is and always should be much greater than the determinations of a State and of any public power. However, in the opposite sense of this freedom inherent to the human being, we have accompanied a nefarious association between political power and the evangelical bench in the National Congress. And this dialogue should not be seen as alien to these religious persecutions that occurred not only in Rio de Janeiro, but in several other Brazilian states, such as Bahia and Minas Gerais. Currently, the Evangelical Parliamentary Front (FPE) brings together more than 100 parliamentarians, with the expectation that in 2018 about 165 evangelical parliamentarians will be elected between the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Their last legislatures are involved with projects such as the “Family Statute” (PL 6.583/2013), which, through conservative legal rules, convenes the definition of family; also contributed with Proposals of Constitutional Amendment like the PEC 171/1993 that justifies the reduction of the criminal adulthood based on biblical passages; and have involvement with Law Projects such as PL 4931/2016 by Rep. João Campos (PSDB-GO) – commonly known as the “Gay Cure” – whose rapporteur is the same as the Family Statute, Pastor Ezequiel Teixeira (PTN- RJ), as well as PL 5.069/2013 that attacks the constitutional right of women victims of sexual violence to have adequate access to abortion – a project headed by Eduardo Cunha (PMDB-RJ), the former president of the Chamber of Deputies who was recently imprisoned for active and passive corruption, prevarication, and money laundering. All of which, according to the request of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, earned him a 386 year sentence.

It should be noted that most FPE parliamentarians come from Pentecostal churches, such as the Assembly of God and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God – one of the most prominent members being the current mayor of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella (PRB-RJ). This, which, amid silence and conservative measures, not only disregards the redemocratization of our Maracanã (the football stadium where the televised carnaval happens), but also neglects the expression of samba and carnaval themselves, the soul of the city, a typical celebration arduously built by the communities and terreiros of Rio’s morros. Other “big” names add to this amoral relationship between politics and religion, such as federal deputy Marco Feliciano (PSC-SP) and federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro (PP-SP), pre-candidate for the 2018 presidential elections.

Although Pentecostal evangelical parliamentarians seem like a majority, we can not ignore the fact that there are others tied to different strands of the Christian religion, such as the historical Protestants and the Baptists. However, even though we respect the differences between them, this does not minimize how inconceivable it is that a constitutionally secular state allows the symbiosis between politics and religion as we have seen in Brazil. As previously stated, religion is a cultural manifestation, proper to a specific culture and the right to worship, whatever it may be, must be preserved in a democratic state of law. Under no circumstances can a religion have its fundamental principles guiding the deliberations of public power, much less subvert those same principles and co-opt a majority black mass that has lived for centuries in abandonment, under the control of a “parallel” power that is equally a by-product of the tricks of this Universal project.

The Origin of This “Big Bang”

The genesis of this whole plot, in my opinion, starts from the idea that the principles of freedom and equality have long been adulterated by the orchestration of power among men. I find no absurdity to assert categorically that the understanding of the world and of the relation to the other that has been introjected to us has a direct connection with the logic of a portion of men who, from their political and economic interests, wanted to rule. Yes, it’s part of an ambitious project. And, worse, it is part of an evil project and, unfortunately, it is still in force until today, taking on varied forms throughout history.

We might here dig into its origins in a movement of historical reconstruction, but we are likely to lose ourselves in so many comings and goings. In any case, it is important to expose its cornerstone, since it still limits our existence as a society and, I believe, is the stone in the shoe that causes much of the world’s atrocities. The construction model of this particular world can be understood as the “simplification paradigm”. And it brings in its genesis the principle of disjunction and the reduction of human reality from a Eurocentric, phallocentric and colonialist perspective.

Equality between men was abstractly constructed through a legal-moral support based on this paradigm. The right to existence of the cultural multidiversity of the human species is automatically denied, and our natural cultural difference is framed in hierarchical notions. Those who are not considered equal are now considered as oppressive. The conservatism that this way of seeing the world establishes, as a political and social philosophy, is therefore necessarily racist and misogynist. It is contrary to the democratic practice of coexistence of differences.

In its evolution, even more cruelly, this paradigm served as the basis for an economic system that, by its very nature, understands the world as a product. That is to say, capitalism – which today stands and governs the logic of human relations – is a system that understands the world and human beings as products from a disjunctive and inherently racist and misogynistic perspective. Women, homosexuals, children, the elderly, blacks and a host of other categories are seen as by-products. This is the basis of the current system that is responsible for dismantling the social bonds that would guarantee our existence.

He disregards all the various forms of existence, all forms of self-recognition and appreciation of the essence of each human being in the world. In my understanding – which is also built from my experience and experience of life – Candomblé and all religions of the African matrix are more of a way of existence and understanding of the world. But it’s not just a representation from a cosmogony sui generis, whose historical basis we find in various communities unfortunately dismantled throughout Africa. African-born religions are a way of understanding social life in a higher way, just as every religion should be and be exercised. They are a way of life and understanding of this existence. They allow, in recognizing their ancestry and their history, their believers to value their essence and understand the value of the culture that originated them.

Having been born and raised in a Candomblé terreiro of the family of Axe Pantanal, whose origins take us to Bahia, I attest to 30 years of living in a community that, like any other, has its own particular rituals and senses, but that at no time stopped exercising the function of reception and assistance in the social integration of its members. For more than 20 years, the insignia of the terreiro of my house have been removed, just as their atabaques – the percussion responsible for the rhythm and for the ancestral teachings that words do not translate – were kept for fear of possible persecution. My mother asked her children not to wear white clothes and expose their fios de conta – necklaces made of beads and specific stones representing the Orixás – for fear of any kind of aggression on the part of the neighbors, who are, as in most of Rio’s suburban communities, predominantly evangelical.

But my house remains the home of a family that goes beyond the normative dimension imposed by the thinking propounded by the simplification paradigm. My house does not cope with intolerance, on the contrary, it carries ancestralistic teachings that drive away ignorance – a very valuable coin among the Pentecostals in Congress. My house is organized – not dominated – by a matriarch, by a woman who receives, accepts and directs any human being who enters the gate, regardless of any standard imposed by society, and dignifies them so that they believe in their potential. It is a sovereign house. It is an unconventional family that professes a faith and is independent of the public power. Observing how power is structured, it is not difficult to understand the “danger” that, like so many terreiros, my house represents for a world in which the cheapest meat is the black meat.

Footnotes:

[1] Source: Secretariat of State for Human Rights policies for women and the Elderly (SEDHMI). Information obtained in report of the newspaper O Globo, 05/11/2017.
[2] Information obtained here.
[3] The concept is drawn up by anthropologist Edgar Morin. His epistemological study understands the relationship of the assumptions of science with society, this relationship that would have the power to influence the construction of the social world from the paradigm of simplification. See M ORIN. Edgar. Introduction to complex thinking. Lisbon: Piaget Institute, 1992.
[4] According to Oxfam’s reports, the wealth accumulated by the world’s richest 1% corresponds to the richness of the remaining 99%. And nine out of ten richest individuals are men and Caucasians. For more, see Oxfam.


Editor’s note: Non-credited images are courtesy of the writer, and part of her personal collection. Please do not reproduce or appropriate without permission.

Translator’s note: Words in italic are left untranslated due to the inadequacy of its closest English counterparts. By leaving them as is, we hope to introduce them into the English linguistic repertoire.

Term Index

Atabaque: A holy percussion instrument used in the ceremonies, where the rhythm and dance are vessels to divine ancestors.

Bahia: A state in the Northeast region of Brazil. It was the first point of contact the Portuguese had with what became the Brazilian colony. Its capital, Salvador, was Brazil’s first capital. It’s now the city with the most African descendants outside of Africa (an estimated 80% of the population). Though difficult to cite precisely, Salvador’s port was one to receive the most enslaved Africans (Rio de Janeiro being second). Only in the second half of the 1700’s, almost one million Africans came to Brazil, half of which came to Salvador (the others to Rio and other parts of the coast). Of the almost 5 million total enslaved Africans that came to Brazil during the nearly 500 years of Colonialism, Salvador is undoubtedly the city most affected by this horrific event in history, a legacy and a reality that is still very much alive today.

Candomblé: An ancestral African Religion of the African Diaspora, worshippers of Orixás.

Carnaval: A Christian festival celebrated in February. A particularly epic event in Brazil, where people drink excessively, hook up, and watch Samba “schools” (teams/groups) perform and compete against each other in massive moving trucks with dancers, musicians, props, and costumes.

Favela: A type of slum formed in response to rural exodus (into large cities e.g. Rio and São Paulo), and to over-population, homelessness, lack of infrastructure and social services. Favelas developed into well organized autonomous regions that operate in parallel to the governmental system. They have a parallel economy, infrastructure and security systems, often maintained by trafficking/traffickers.

Fios de conta: Necklaces representative of the Orixás, made of beads and stones of the symbolic color of each divine ancestor, held together by a cotton thread (never by synthetic nylon threads).

Maracanã: Was once the largest football stadium in the world, site of legendary World Cups and football history moments. It is also where the televised Carnaval parade happens.

Morro: A hill where there is a favela. Favelas first started forming in hills because they were a sort of terrain unaccounted for by the State or land owners.

Samba: A Brazilian musical genre bred in Rio de Janeiro, with rhythm and dance deriving from African roots in Bahia.

Orixás: Divine African ancestors. They represent Nature’s forces and have human-like characteristics such as personality, image and emotions. They are also expressed through color symbolism. Due to Colonial oppression, these Orixás were in some instances merged with the figures of Catholic saints as a self-preservation and disguise strategy.

Terreiro: Where Afro-Brazilian Religious cerimonies happen, and where offerings are given to Orixás. It can be described as a sort of shrine, except there is not construction, only an enclosed open space.


Karina Ramos

Born and raised in a Candomblé terreiro in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, Karina Ramos is a historian, an expert on the history of contemporary Africa.

Before & After I Became a Social Justice Vampire

“In today’s age of haphazard integration between trauma and discrete identity politics, the performance of solidarity on the right or left is rarely about actual healing.”

From Pat Mosley

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Photo by Todd Cravens

Since publishing my essay Un-Identity: Climbing Down the Other Side of Peak Liberalism, I’ve connected with dozens of other leftists around the world burned out on the hypocrisy and stagnancy of liberal identity politics. Many of us share common experiences of trauma and oppression, some of which fit liberal identity narratives and others of which don’t. Each of us has come to this place of knowing that we cannot live our lives any longer in a state of perpetual outrage, evasion, false confidence, and reactionary, shame-driven, mob politics.

The title of that essay described a sort of mountain, which is what I see when I picture social justice in my mind. At the top, we’re promised this egalitarian utopian paradise, but the way there is constantly obstructed by one thing or another. Sooner or later—and this is where so much connectivity is happening now—we realize that no one has actually seen the mountaintop yet. We’re just believing in stories that other people have told us, or that we’ve overheard them reassuring themselves with. Upon further examination, we realize that this truth—that no one has seen the mountaintop—explains all the conflicting stories we’ve been hearing all along.

Climbing down is a choice I believe more and more of us are making. It’s a humbling process of admitting that we’ve spent a good chunk of our lives fumbling through a quasi-mythic landscape we still have trouble mapping. And along the way down, as we verbalize our political and personal changes, we start uncovering this person we used to be and begin to see more clearly how deeply affected our sense of self and power had become while on the mountain.

This piece is about the vampires many of us became in our quest for the mountaintop, but it’s also about another world beyond that landscape, where our utopian visions might actually still be grown.

How Social Media, Identity Politics, & Trauma Created Social Acceptance of Vampirism

The kind of liberal identity politics I describe in Un-Identity and join countless other marginalized peoples in critiquing have in fact been critiqued by leftists for generations. This particular social conflict between leftist unity and liberal divisiveness is nothing new. Nevertheless, I believe that in the 2000s with the advent and centralization of social media platforms, we entered a new period in this dialogue. This period has so far enabled unhealthy relationships between people played out in politicized terms and revamped social justice movements.

Both internet forums and sociopolitical movements have always had their toxic personalities. Social media cannot be blamed for producing them. However, it is my belief that popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have inadvertently encouraged toxicity, although I do not believe this was their intention. Instead, I think the promises of social media—the promises of connecting people across the world, providing a platform to raise awareness of injustice, and amplifying a voice of the oppressed—were intended as an answer to the relative isolation, limits, and ineptitude of earlier internet forums and social movements hoping to accomplish the same.

I first joined Facebook in 2005 as a way to keep in touch with high school friends as we graduated and moved away from home. Beyond known friends, Facebook groups offered a means of connecting with broader social groups, like GLBT people, Pagans, Deaf people, etc. from around the country, and eventually the world. This masterfully resolved the scarcity of brick and mortar community spaces or dispersion of demographic groups by permitting even the most isolated person the possibility of connecting with others like them through simply creating an account and joining a group.

I think Facebook recognized its role in this niche too. In 2006, the social media platform was one of the few places where gay marriage was permitted. We could indicate on our profiles what gender(s) we were interested in, and even list our same-sex partners as spouses. Add-on apps allowed us to expand on this information with an earlier, 2000s-era version of the dozens of genders now recognized by many social media outlets. Additional developments, such as the “like” button, the news feed, and the ability for individual users to share or up-vote links to articles, videos, and blogs to and from all their connections through it, created a platform with extraordinary potential for facilitating social awareness and change.

With this potential, however, are several drawbacks. Concern over “fake news” has only recently become an issue people expect social media to resolve. And concern over how the instant feedback of “likes” and other reactions affect our communication styles and content choices is yet to reach the same level of alarm in social media ethics. Perhaps most relevant to political discourse aided by social media though should be recognition that microblogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter indirectly discourage nuance either through character limits to posts or the instant feedback culture which seems to reward reactive, short, invective posts over long-form, more emotionally moderated content.

More than simply rewarding sometimes toxic behavior with a sea of likes and shares, microblogging platforms encourage a specific type of political analysis. This analysis avoids logical, constructive, contextual, or critical thinking in favor of emotional, destructive, selective, and reductive narratives which complement or reproduce classically politicized identity narratives.

For example, consider reactions to the recent wave of sexual assault survivors publicly describing their ordeals and in some cases also identifying people in power who perpetrated them. Almost immediately this phenomenon was absorbed into the classic feminist identity narrative of powerful men abusing powerless women. Experiences outside of this narrative, particularly those involving trans victims, were critiqued for “erasing” the experiences of women. Likewise, women sharing stories about being raped by trans people were critiqued for “transphobia,” and many men who shared stories of sexual assault by women were also shut down for the “sexism” of taking this moment away from women collectively and for “distracting” from the evidently more important issue of men assaulting women. After a few weeks of this, an additional layer of public shaming was added, and that was the apparent transgression of not naming the specific creator of the hashtag #MeToo when describing one’s sexual assault.

I’ve identified three major takeaways from observing these reactions. First, they were a reminder that liberal identity politics care more about preserving a specific narrative (e.g. men over women, white over black, straight over queer, etc.) than with actually acknowledging and ending the violent or oppressive acts themselves. Second, the microblogging structure of the social media platforms this movement took place on enabled a viral spreading of shame and guilt directed at survivors for the sake of preserving these narratives and an irrational set of social hierarchies or expected checkboxes (e.g. naming the creator of a hashtag, not acknowledging that minorities can be rapists, etc.). Lastly, the trauma of human existence is widespread and so far failed by the narrow-mindedness of identity-dominant thinking.

Older leftists I have worked with have often related their burnout in decades past from previous iterations of feminist and social justice movements. Their stories communicate a similarly observed irrational preoccupation with identity-based narratives to the detriment of resolution on the issues they aim to address. Where I believe my generation differs is that we are additionally dealing with a degree of instantaneous global connectivity previously unknown. Social media is not simply informing us about issues halfway around the world, it is enabling a cultural expectation that we will immediately and continuously offer the correct opinion and precise amount of properly constructed outrage regarding each and every one of them, or risk public shaming, guilt pressure, and accusations of all manner of -isms and -phobias. And while these politics may conceptualize themselves as radical, revolutionary, or far to the left, the reference points they consistently cite rarely predate post-modern liberal identity discourse.

Take for instance the romanticized image of the Stonewall Uprising regularly conjured up in contemporary political debates internal to LGBT+ folks. Many of today’s activists are utterly convinced of the “fact” that either trans women of color uniquely led the riots, or that their alleged presence at a New York bar in the 1960s is somehow relevant or obvious justification for trans inclusion in political movements today. References to the social advances enjoyed by Soviet trans people or the relative periods and regions of social acceptance enjoyed by pre-modern or ancient crossdressing and binary-defying people are even rarer than references to protests or uprisings only slightly earlier than Stonewall, such as Compton’s or Dewey’s. This selective history is indicative of the political context the narrative complements. The departure of mid-century liberal discourse from earlier leftist movements is the start of liberal identity histories.

My criticism of these politics is not coming from a place of purity or superiority. Rather, I have been the exact type of person I am criticizing. Before I left Facebook, my news feed was routinely swallowed by similar demands—for trans people to account for rapists who happen to be transgender, for Jews of the diaspora to account for the actions of the state of Israel, for Muslims to account for the actions of ISIL, for Wiccans to account for incidents of homophobia or transphobia in individual covens, for liberals and leftists to account for how the federal government spends our taxes, etc. Like many people my age, I engaged in these tactics and likely helped teach their art to those performing them today.

Late economist Mark Fisher described this form of social media based activism as vampirism in his 2013 essay Exiting the Vampire Castle.

“The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if – and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought – that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.”

Prior to Fisher, however, Anton LaVey also correlated guilt as an influence tactic with what he called “psychic vampires,” or people who feed off the labor (emotional, physical, or otherwise) of others.

“Often the psychic vampire will use reverse psychology, saying: ‘Oh, I couldn’t ask you to do that’—and you, in turn, insist upon doing it. The psychic vampire never demands anything of you. That would be far too presumptuous. They simply let their wishes be known in subtle ways which will prevent them from being considered pests. They ‘wouldn’t think of imposing’ and are always content and willingly accept their lot, without the slightest complaint—outwardly!” (p. 75, The Satanic Bible)

Where LaVey observes reverse psychology employed by psychic vampires of his day, however, I would argue that today’s vamps are keen to make direct demands of other people, and that doing so is even now considered an acceptable moral standard or virtue we should oblige.

Responsibility for this cultural shift towards acceptable vampirism I believe does not rest solely on Facebook, Twitter, or social media in general. Rather, it is the perfect storm of these impersonal platforms combined with the failures of liberal identity politics and the continuation of trauma on new generations.

A Stab At Why We Become Vampires

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’ And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” Junot Diaz

Like Diaz and many other marginalized people, I grew up in a world where no mirror held my reflection. I was keenly aware of my queerness and troubled by gender at a very early age. Disability, sexuality, mental un-wellness, trauma, and pursuit of spiritual alternatives to the insular Christianity I grew up in added additional dimensions to my self-perception as a weirdo and clear deviant from the norm. Navigating a world where these things provoke violent outbursts and social punishments has pretty well defined my relationship to other people since before I was a teenager, and continues in many ways to define my (anti-)sociability to this day.

As I’d wager many people torn between presenting as one thing but being another have discovered, writing has always helped me bridge the fractures of my existence. And coming of age in the era of MySpace, Livejournal, and then Facebook, social media specifically offered me an impersonal means of experimental self-expression for the self that wasn’t always immediately apparent to people I wasn’t sure if I could trust. I think it’s on that bridge—having a means of saying something without actually saying it to someone, knowing you can read reactions before having to deal with them, and even having the option to delete and block people or feedback you don’t like—that the vampire started to take hold.

My vampire was an early-adopter of social media activist strategies, frequently sharing numerous articles and generating political commentary throughout every single day as soon as the possibility to do so became an option. Doing so gave me a sense of power and self-worth. Sharing political articles I agreed with reassured me that I had always been right all those years in communities that deny climate change and (at least from 1999-2002) wholeheartedly believed in an imminent apocalypse. Sharing in the outrage of communities beyond myself made me feel like I was part of something big, part of a family, part of a voice, real. More than educating others or raising awareness—the promises social media is justified through—I dove into the queer callout culture of the early 2000s, and reveled in the opportunity to publicly tear down others, finally part of a clique in power somewhere.

It was punishment for trauma I had endured. It was punishment my targets usually didn’t deserve. And it was punishment not only politically protected by the liberal ethics my generation inherited from previous identity movements, but it was punishment bizarrely accepted and even encouraged by many outsiders and some recipients, eager to demonstrate their submissive status and dutiful liberal loyalty to the most sadistic and vampiric among us.

My addictive engagement in this style of activism paralleled my descent into drug abuse, as it did with many of the other activists I surrounded myself with. We used drugs and activism as a cover for the frozen, traumatized state we found ourselves in. Objective or subjective but real enough either way, we perceived oppression and -phobia like walls of jagged glass shards closing in on us everywhere. Everything was wrong. Everything hurt. And there seemed no way out of either. Too poor, too traumatized, too addicted, too…everything to either seek or receive psychological help, we became a generation of social justice vampires, temporarily sated on a lifetime full of outrage typed out at lightning speed, sent without regret, and protected by the constant threat of publicly shaming anyone who would challenge us.

Importantly, we got here through being wounded, and not because of some innate character flaw or natural predisposition towards psychic manipulation. Wounded people are susceptible to vampirism. We give empathy to people who appear to be in need because we know what it is like to be in need and to be ignored. The guilty world that makes us needs no accuser, and in its shame rewards our social outbursts with whatever we demand of it. Vampirism is taught this way. It is made and rewarded by the same guilty culture yet to abandon the monstrous process it has initiated.

And our politics are not helping. Take for instance, popular insistence that the average lifespan of trans women (variously further distinguished as “trans women of color” or “Latina trans women”) is between 30 to 35 years (I have also heard 25) or that 1 in 8 (I have also encountered “1 in 7” or “1 in 12”) will be murdered that are routinely cited by alleged trans community advocates to justify trans political inclusion. Leaving aside the dramatic leap from murder rates and lifespan to non-discrimination ordinances, to my knowledge, no study has ever been conducted which could produce an average lifespan or murder rate for trans people of any variety (please correct me if I’m wrong). The closest data I can find would be a 2016 study by the Williams Institute which suggests there are 1.4 million trans people in the U.S. So then, for the 1 in 12 statistic to be true, that would suggest that around 117,000 trans people in the U.S. were murdered in 2016. GLAAD, on the other hand, reported 27.

These statistical fictions provide a free channel of criticism for conservatives whose research into the origins of this alleged data will not begin and end at “it must be true because a trans activist said it is.” Furthermore, this alleged data amounts to not only an expression of psychic vampirism when used to garner movement support, but also a form of psychological terrorism against trans youth, who I have witnessed falling into mental un-wellness upon internalizing the message that their lives will soon be ending. It is fitting then, that so many trans people find themselves attracted to vampiric relationships with the world considering the undeath our politics relegate us to.

Additionally, for those whose trauma aligns to classical identity narratives, liberal politics encourage this anger and sense of powerlessness. And for the traumatized who fall outside these narratives, right-wing identity politics are ready to pick up what liberals discard. The wickedness of our neoliberal state, however, is in the diversity it has assumed into its machinery and oppressive institutions. Failing to be universal under scrutiny, such identity narratives tunnel into analysis of increasingly micro-aggressive and interpersonal slights, paralleling a drive away from institutional changes and into cultural warfare for both right- and left-wingers. Yet at the height of my vampiric identity sectarianism, every woman and queer along with most of the men I knew had a sexual assault story. We are a generation of kids the world has touched and terrorized, gaslit and disowned. But our politics are yet to become as universal as our trauma.

For instance, concurrent to the recent #MeToo movement has been insistence on generalizations like “believe women” rather than “believe survivors,” which in turn politicize specific narratives that certainly help many women and girls, but don’t address the problem of sexual violence beneath the particular vehicle of sexist dynamics. These narratives become a form of gaslighting. We tell men and boys (and often by extension, many trans folks) that they didn’t grow up in a culture that sexualized them from a young age, subjected them to violently enforced, abusive gender expectations, or positioned them to be exploited later in life.

Collectively, we are tasked with accountability for the same system we have struggled against to survive. The first time I can remember being penetrated was by two boys in kindergarten—also the first time I remember girls (following the example of adults) ruthlessly teasing me for not being manly enough. As a student massage therapist, both men and women inappropriately asked (or grabbed) me to perform sex acts for them during our sessions. I started wearing loose long pants when I walk at the park alone on days I don’t feel like being catcalled by old men eager to tell me how great my body looks. I spent several years of my life putting on weight and ignoring my hygiene in hopes of being less attractive. A lifetime of being spit on, teased, excluded, and threatened for failing (or succeeding) to meet gendered expectations for masculinity have left me with a voice that changes pitch as a defensive mechanism, a heart rate and blood pressure which register specific traumatic triggers I am still too ashamed to name, an internal sense of self so dissociated sometimes that I’ve had nightmares based around not knowing how to gender myself, as well as a seemingly insurmountable compulsion to be in control, in charge, and completely severed from financial interdependence or dependence on others (along with a deep sense of shame when I fail at these things).

I personally didn’t realize the prevalence of male struggles under gender until I uncharacteristically made the radical decision to get a drink with a homophobe instead of yelling at him on the internet. I learned that he had been repeatedly molested by a gay uncle for most of his childhood, and even he admitted that his hatred of gay men now was projection of his uncle’s crimes onto others. He didn’t know another way to recover. Whereas liberal identity politics offered me the opportunity to perform my traumatized outrage as a reaction to homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity, conservative identity politics offered him the opportunity to perform his traumatized outraged as a reaction to the homosexual agenda and liberal destruction of the family. No politics offer us the opportunity to be outraged at sexual violence itself.

I’ve met others like him since then—male sexual abuse survivors relegated to the sidelines of popular feminist rhetoric and so taking refuge in vampiric conservative politics for the same reasons we do on the left too. Our traumas are politicized by culture wars in need of proxies. And none of us seem particularly better off or healed by their narratives.

Perhaps that is because in today’s age of haphazard integration between trauma and discrete identity politics, the performance of solidarity on the right or left is rarely about actual healing. Instead it is about reinforcing a politicized social generalization, that in turn justifies continued mistrust and separation. For those of us who fall outside these narratives, there is no mass movement of help coming. But like our friends who are narratively included, we fall onto a path with two main trails: be angry about how much the world has failed us, or learn to move the fuck on from it. All social pressure is towards vampiric anger, not resolution.

Back From the Grave

Coming down off the mountain, exiting the castle, returning from the grave, or whatever metaphorical landscape we define the vampiric phenomenon by, another world is possible.

And I am not just telling you that to reassure either of us that there is a mountaintop we’ll eventually get to if we keep trying. You know this truth too. Everyone who has not spent a chunk of their lives consumed by political narratives is out living in this world along with all those social media dropouts, post-leftist burnouts, and post-vamps who have already done exactly what you and I are doing now.

I believe a defining difference between this world and the world of the vampiric mountain is an actual embrace of human and planetary diversity. Whereas vampires are obsessively concerned with maintaining strict separation among equally discrete identity groups further organized hierarchically by victimhood/worth, the post-vampiric world acknowledges the messy and flawed, mixed race, mixed gender, mixed religion world we inhabit. This other world is a space to perceive one another from a horizontal power potential, where all are potentially comrades and equals, especially in the vulnerability necessary to see this world. Whereas identity politics patrol these sorts of hobbled together, impersonal communities that seek to define vastly different people by a common denominator, and then at least on some level, the shared victimhood of that label, in another world, we are already living, working, and loving side by side without the arbitrary division of these politics.

Freeing ourselves from vampirism necessitates also freeing ourselves from the thrall of identity politics. These politics rely on a perpetual powerlessness in order to maintain their boundaries. They assert that we are so weak without one another that we must face the world behind the shield of a larger group. The idea of healing or moving on from trauma, choosing not to be bothered by interpersonal drama or institutional issues beyond our control are direct affronts to this system because doing these things is to claim strength and sovereignty as an individual.

Alternative to vampirism is the choice to make ourselves vulnerable to the physical communities around us, where we connect to food systems, where we connect to healthcare, where we connect mutually to what was once the commons. This choice requires us to find the strength to refrain from taking personally the flaws in others we may have grown accustomed to attacking. This choice is about growing enough good faith to keep trying to work together. We will fail, often and messily. And we will offend and hurt one another in the learning process. But—and I believe those of you who have also dropped out of the vampiric system know this too—if we honestly want to see a world that is different, that is better, that is healed, then we must try something new until we get it right. I think exiting our vampiric landscapes requires more than the political re-attunement towards class unity rather than binary thinking that Fisher suggests, and more than the ah-ha moment of gaining the upper hand against vampires that LaVey suggests. I think we need more than reflections in the mirrors we create. We need a world to live in too. We have to change the very way we relate to one another.

Our survival is common. Our desire to heal from trauma is common. Recognizing those common conditions seems like a good place to start to me.


Pat Mosley

jan18Pat is making magic in the Carolina Piedmont. His blog can be found at patmosley.wordpress.com