Why Liberals Care About Russia

 

“On liberalism’s crisis and its nationalist solution.”

From Sophia Burns

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Neera Tanden, former policy director for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and president of the Center for American Progress

Trump and Putin gave a joint press conference last month. The #resistance is up in arms.

Supposedly, Trump’s conciliatory language makes him a traitor, “simpering and submissive” before Putin. Doesn’t he care that Putin hacked the election – an “act of war” comparable to Pearl Harbor and 9/11?

Now, Russian bots didn’t put Trump in office. Rather, Hillary Clinton focused her get-out-the-vote efforts on Republicans, misguidedly expecting them to vote for her (whom they’ve hated for decades) rather than their own candidate. That miscalculation narrowed her majority enough to make her vulnerable to a fluke of Electoral College math.

Even so, since the election anti-Trump progressives have become more and more bellicose, with a growing homophobic and anti-communist edge. Where is that coming from? Aren’t liberals supposed to oppose war and support gay rights?

What changed?

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Protest art: the Wall Street bull covered in rainbow dildos, straddled by “Putin.” Source

Liberalism is in crisis.

It started under Obama. Despite opening his administration with broad popularity and the only congressional super-majority in recent memory, Obama’s tenure saw the emergence of mass movements to the Democratic Party’s left, most prominently Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Combined with the lingering echo of the 2008 financial meltdown, that laid the conditions for a Democratic crisis of legitimacy. In 2016, it crystallized through Bernie Sanders challenging Clinton and Trump winning the presidency. The unthinkable had happened. Progressives couldn’t deliver what they promised. So, their credibility vanished.

How did they respond? There’s a logic to the accusations of treason, the saber-rattling, and the conspiracy theories. If you’ve lost your legitimacy, how better to get it back than to set yourself up as the defender of the homeland against a looming foreign menace?

That’s why liberals are also going after the Left. Supposedly, Russian hackers are behind not only right-wing fake news, but also oil pipeline protests and the Jill Stein campaign. Democrats are throwing accusations of disloyalty and collusion at all of their opponents, left as well as right.

So, it’s no surprise to see the kind of outright homophobia that they mostly avoided under Obama. Homophobia is a powerful weapon in the nationalist arsenal. Insinuations of “deviant” sexuality bring a visceral punch to the image of sinister, un-American outsiders, strengthening nationalists’ appeal. Joe McCarthy persecuted gays as well as Communists in the 50s, and Democrats are exploiting those same attitudes today. Will they officially recant their pro-gay rights platform? They don’t need to. They’re feeding an embryonic anti-LGBT backlash in spite of it.

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Liberals are fighting a war on two fronts.

On one side, they’re trying to beat down and discredit the Left. On the other, they’re competing against the Right on its own nationalistic turf.

Working in coalition with liberals is common sense for most leftists. But, the Democrats’ hard-nationalist turn means they’re starting to view radicals as enemies on par with Trump supporters. Government socialists and other activist leftists will doubtless keep trying to form progressive coalitions anyway. They’re donating volunteer hours to the political forces that will destroy them.

Progressives tolerate radicals when they can afford to. Right now, their crisis means they can’t. Working with Democrats, within their subculture, is no longer viable. So, without an infrastructure of independent revolutionary institutions, how will the Left survive? Revolutionaries can drop conventional activism and embrace the institution-building dual power strategy, or they can find themselves helpless as the liberal allies they depend on turn against them. The crisis of liberalism won’t be ending soon. Unless revolutionaries adapt, how can they withstand it?


Sophia Burns

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


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Assigned Faggot: Gender Roles, Sex, and the Division of Labor

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A boy in eighth-grade math class walks over and says, “You sit like a woman. What are you, a woman?” We both know there’s no right answer.


 

When I was born, the obstetrician said I was male. So, growing up, that was the role expected of me. People told me I’d become a heterosexually-married adult man. I shouldn’t have long hair, wear dresses, or cry “like a sissy.”

At some point, though, that comprehensive set of expectations (that gender role) changed. By the time I hit adolescence, no one thought I’d marry a woman. Boys were supposed to like football and act tough, but nobody looked at me and thought I could ever do that. My classmates started calling me gay before I even knew what the word meant. More and more, people expected that I would behave different from my male peers.

Of course, their expectations carried a weight of moral condemnation. When they called me a “faggot,” they made it clear that it was a very bad thing to be. But, none of them seriously believed that someone who looked, moved, and sounded like me could be anything else. I was chastised and punished for filling it, but nevertheless “faggot” was the role I was pressured to fill.

Are gender and sexuality fundamentally personal identities, or are they imposed by a larger social system? How sharp is the line between them?


 

Walking down the hall in high school, it feels like every other word is “faggot.” An especially churchy classmate tells me that if I was a real Christian, I wouldn’t “want to be that way any more.”

In gym class, the coach sends the boys to one side of the room and the girls to the other to do different activities. No one looks surprised when I go with the girls.


 

On paper, US conservatism believes in a strict gender binary. You are male or female, birth to death. Men are naturally one way and women another. No one really falls in between. Men, of course, are naturally strong and unemotive. They sleep with women but socialize with each other.

And yet, people who embraced that ideology wholesale would meet me and assume that my friends were girls, that I was emotional and “sensitive,” that I’d defer to my male peers, and – perhaps most of all – that I was sexually available to men. But since they didn’t read me as cis female, why weren’t they bringing the usual male expectations?

When I had straight male friends, why did they expect me to be emotionally supportive and assume I had some special insight into “what women want?” They didn’t seek that from each other, and they’d have either laughed or gotten angry at anyone who asked it of them.

If their idea of gender was as binary as they believed it to be, why didn’t they place me into a male role?


 

Unfortunately, many women-particularly single women-are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and so they do not want to realise that they are housewives too…

We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us”.

Silvia Federici

 

Did those people believe in genders besides female and male?

With their ideas, they didn’t. With their actions, though, they did. After all, they created at least one gender role besides “man” and “woman” – I know because they assigned me to it! My social position was not authentically male. I was failed-male. In practice, my gender was “faggot.”

When they said “faggots aren’t real men,” that was an is, not an ought. “Faggot” is a socially-real gender category distinct from “male.” It is imposed (like all genders) by a social system beyond the control of any given individual. Gender, after all, is more than either individual identity or cultural beliefs. Each gender role corresponds to a particular place in the overall social division of labor.

To be given a feminized gender (like “woman” or “faggot”) means to be given feminized work: emotional, interpersonal, domestic, caregiving, and sexual. When you meet someone, they read a gender onto you. Practically speaking, that means they either expect you to take on those tasks or they expect others to take them on instead of you. There are, of course, plenty of signifiers that help people make that gender assignment (speech inflections, clothes, names, communication styles, inferred secondary sex characteristics, etc). But all that only makes up half of what a gender is – the rest is being expected to do specific kinds of work, and you can’t cleanly untangle the two halves. Being conventionally feminine means being expected to wear makeup, long hair, etc – but also to have a less aggressive conversation style, to step aside for men on the sidewalk, to be “nurturing,” and to sleep with men. On the ground, the division of labor and cultural norms are united. Each upholds the other.


 

I sit in a therapist’s office and talk about how since transitioning, I’ve felt less and less connection with any sort of sexuality and I don’t understand why. He tells me I just need to accept that I’m attracted to men – once I do that, he says, things will fall into place.


 

Radical feminism talks about “compulsory heterosexuality” – the idea that heterosexuality is more than a sexual preference some people happen to have. It’s a political institution built into the gender system itself, through which all women (including lesbians) are pressured to treat sex with men as inherent to womanhood. This approach to sexuality cares about the pleasure of men, but leaves non-male desires as (at best) an afterthought. Without it, feminized gender roles (woman and faggot alike) would bear little resemblance to their current forms.

I faced that imperative, just like my cis female peers. To be sure, people delivered it to me on different terms. Attraction to men was expected of me, but never treated as though it were positive. However, it was still part of the role I was assigned. Accepting my lesbianism still entailed a process of soul-searching to break through some deeply internalized messages; it tracked closely with the experiences of the cis lesbians I know.

Sexuality doesn’t neatly come apart from gender. Gender is an overarching system, a way of organizing certain types of work within class society’s overall division of labor. My socialization into a feminized role brought with it certain sexual expectations, just as it carried emotional and interpersonal ones.

Neither sexuality nor gender floats free, separate from each other or from the overall organization of society. They aren’t (just) individual identities, and they aren’t (just) cultural ideas. These roles exist physically: the interactions humans have with each other and with the world re-create them every day. If you ignore that context, you’ll misunderstand the relationship between them.

Cultural norms about gender receive institutional support from the government, businesses, religious congregations, etc. After all, gender is an efficient and elegant way to get some people to do certain kinds of work for free. Sure, some aspects of contemporary gender predate capitalism. However, this gender system is still capitalist to its essence. Why? Capitalism digested those older components and turned them into something qualitatively different (as the historical research of Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists shows).

Beliefs and practices aren’t merely ephemera. They aren’t fluff on top of an underlying economic reality. They’re part of economic reality because they’re part of how people carry out the daily work of existence. Their function within it is vital. Without them, it wouldn’t be easy to get anyone to do feminized work for free, but with them? People “spontaneously” enforce those roles on each other via social pressure, “common sense,” and violence. Why else do so many women punish each other for deviating from fundamentally-sexist norms?

Again, though, the ideas in people’s heads are only half the picture. The conservative Christians I grew up around believed wholeheartedly that only two genders existed. But when they couldn’t find a place in the male role for people like me, what did they do? They created another one for us (faggot). Did they call it a gender? Of course not, but ideology isn’t what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through what you do. And isn’t it telling that if you asked them about trans and nonbinary people, they’d say none of it was valid because “those people are just confused faggots?”


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Nearly all liberals (and more than a few leftists) arrive at their politics by first noticing an instance of oppression, then deciding to oppose it. They hear conservatives condemn gays, for instance, and think, “We’ve got to stop that prejudice. Gay people deserve respect!” That’s an understandable approach – disrespect, bigotry, and microaggressions are right there for all to see. Shouldn’t they be gotten rid of?

But when you remember that ideas and beliefs are only half of what’s going on, doesn’t something almost sinister emerge? We can remove the outward signs of oppression. But does that mean it’s gone, or just that it’s harder to see?

When you look at someone’s face, it doesn’t take its shape from the skin on the surface. It takes it from the bone underneath. If outright bigotry is the visible skin, the division of labor and the need to enforce it are the bone. Had I grown up in a liberal area rather than a conservative one, the people around me would have believed that women should be considered equal to men and that LGBT people deserved acceptance and respect. Those categories would have been enforced more gently – but they still would have been enforced. Since capitalism’s division of labor would have remained, feminized work would still have gotten assigned to feminized roles.

They wouldn’t have called me “faggot,” but they would have called me “fabulous” – and at the end of the day, the role expectations are the same either way. Respect and inclusion would have been nicer makeup, but the face beneath would have been no different.


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Radical politics should begin with the physical reality of class society and its division of labor.

The cultural half of the mechanism matters. It isn’t a question of “divisive social issues.” Norms and ideas are part of how the system works, and separating them from “economic class” just shows you’ve misunderstood both.

But because these roles are unified with the class system, the goal can’t simply be greater respect. Imposing them politely is still imposing them. The surface manifestations are an important part of the phenomenon, but they aren’t all of it. And ultimately, radical politics must seek to abolish the entire thing.

And if radicals forget that, then sure, they might find ways to make society look less oppressive.

But will anyone have actually gotten free?


 

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

An image of a wave cresting and beginning to break.

The Cresting Wave

“We’re all in a building that’s on fire, and most of us are wearing blindfolds. Spiritual practice helps us take the blindfold off. We’re still in the building, but if we can see, there’s more we can do.”

From Anthony Rella

An image of a wave cresting and beginning to break.My sitting practice had gone slack. I mean, I did it. I physically sat there. For twenty minutes, most days. But “I” wasn’t there. I’d be entranced with the fantasies and thoughts of my mind for much of the time. Each thought approached with its own urgency, its own need to be resolved NOW! None of which is new, it is the same tendency that has always needed tending. Yet I was not engaging with the practice of returning to presence as vigorously.

I’d withdrawn. I hadn’t fully realized it. First it was simply not watching the president speak. Then it was being selective about what articles I read. It was picking my battles, picking the causes I supported, and then noticing I’d not picked any in a few months. The eases of my privilege softened the urgency of it.

I was at a party of upper-middle class white people, culturally and demographically the same kind of people I’d grown up with in my adolescence, but most of who I’d never met before. We watched a slideshow presentation of the host’s recent trip to Dachau. She told us about all the different patches the incarcerated wore—including the Pink Triangle for homosexuals.

“There were gays back then?” asked an upper-middle class heterosexually married white woman. “I mean, people were openly gay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “There were transgender people too, but they were suppressed. Back then, there were openly queer people in the United States, too. But after an economic downturn there was a reactionary rightward turn, just like what’s happening today. They suppressed those people and erased our memories of them.”

She didn’t respond to that. This same weekend, the United States president’s administration sent instructions to the Center for Disease Control to not use seven terms. One of the words to be forbidden—people to be erased from memory—was “transgender.” “Fetus” was another, to erode sexual freedom and women’s autonomy.

It was a party. I was terrified. I felt another wave of this same historical movement cresting and these folks didn’t seem terrified and they didn’t know their history. They didn’t know the pattern to recognize it. Or maybe they knew it would break over someone else’s bodies.

The terror had been a slow heartbeat all year, coming into sharp focus and then fading into the background. After the election, the gods told me war was coming. I had dreams of violence and guns. Being fully unready to learn to use a gun myself, I decided to do some self-defense training. When I touched the tender edge of that terror, I would take a courageous leap forward and then back slowly into safety. A safety that isn’t really safe. A safety that is numbness and disengagement. But the party woke me up again. I wasn’t safe. People I love aren’t safe.

In my early days of taking up the Pagan path, so many of the books I read expressed an urgency with hope. Our modern lives were steering humanity toward destruction, they often said, but we have an opportunity to pull back, and these tools can help. Today, I almost feel a nostalgia for the moment when I still believed that. I don’t think humanity is doomed, but in my heart I feel we’ve passed the point when we could draw back. The fire has begun.

Now I think the work of humanity is to pass through the destruction and see if we can allow it to burn away what is sick and toxic and make room for that which is worth saving. Now my mind turns toward the descendants who will inherit the time of The Star, after the Tower has collapsed, where open space and fertile soil await. Those children will need much, and have great promise.

45’s presidency has definitely been an economic boon to psychotherapists. More than the president, however, the entire country’s political climate has woken up childhood defenses with a vengeance. It is absolutely about the people and events in charge, and you can also see the ways the client as a young person learned to deal with uncertainty, conflict, or problems in the family.

My own is that terror, reaching back to a childhood fear that if I didn’t “hold it together” and act as the emotional “rock” for my family, “everything would fall apart.” I wouldn’t be cared for, I’d be unloved. Being this “rock” meant being in some ways invisible, making sure others felt comfortable and at ease, especially at the expense of my own wants and needs. When there was a problem, I learned how to contort and bend myself rather than risk confronting the other people. This matured into a pattern of emotional self-denial, guilt, putting other peoples’ needs and comfort ahead of my own, feeling like nothing I ever did was “enough,” and then working myself until I felt total resentment.

This year I’ve been actively working to unravel that. Allowing this to run unchecked set me up for burnout and cynical withdrawal, which helps no one. Yet to unravel means reacquainting myself with the terror, facing it squarely, and not trying to “fix it.”

I need presence. I need practice to keep me returning to the world as it is. I picked up an old practice—counting my breaths, noticing the thoughts that rose between breaths, but staying with the count. Starting over if I got so caught up in a thought that I lost the count.

It is excruciating. And as I sit, bringing my focus to center and counting the breath, it occurs to me that when I practice, I must practice as though this is the most important thing in the world. More important than the thoughts that clamor for attention is this practice, making my awareness one with my breath.

After the election, an old friend and I had a conversation about her spiritual path. She had returned after a hiatus, experiencing profound and exciting openings while processing painful family trauma. We wondered about the value of spiritual practice in a time of political upheaval.

At the time, what I thought and said was: “We’re all in a building that’s on fire, and most of us are wearing blindfolds. Spiritual practice helps us take the blindfold off. We’re still in the building, but if we can see, there’s more we can do.”

There were gays back then?

For every god I worship, there is at least one person from every political orientation who will tell me why I shouldn’t worship them. The gods I worship are contested. People who care nothing about cultural appropriation, who would gladly extinguish all nonwhite people and strip their cultures for parts, also court these gods. I do not live in a world of clean rules and simple answers. I mistrust anyone who does. The gods come to me, and I give them offerings and praise, and we grow closer to each other. My service to them includes supporting the people of their lands of origin, in whatever ways I can. 

The Rider-Waite-Smith Five of Pentacles used to trouble me. The art of this card often contrasts opulent religiosity with violent poverty. Having grown up learning the history of the Catholic Church, I associated this card with religious plutocracy, exploiting the religiosity of the people to gild their lavish churches.

Having read the work of Dr. Bones and Sophia Burns, I have come to sense another facet. The Five of Pentacles is the relationship between philosophical belief and material practice. If that church is worth a damn, those people in the snow should know they can find warmth and shelter inside of it. It’s the Black Panthers serving free breakfast for children.

What material result does my spiritual practice offer? When is it about bypassing, and when is it about service?

I was marching with a group of Black Lives Matter activists. Hearing the call-and-response chants, I thought about ritual artistry. The march needed people willing to take the lead in the calls. Anyone could respond, and most people did, but only a few loud voices started the next call, ideally people who were leading the march. Without those callers, the energy of the group would grow slack. If the callers weren’t listening to each other, the chants fell out of sync, or different chants competed.

No one called in my little cluster, so I took a risk. I discovered, to my surprise, that I had a big voice. Knowing I was a white male taking up space in a Black Lives Matter march, I listened to what the other callers were doing and decided my service would be to amplify what they did. When my voice got tired, someone else took up the role. When their voice got tired, I took up the role.

“No justice!”

No peace!”

“No racist—“

Police!”

We marched in front of the police station. The cops were a few yards away, watching. All of my childhood defenses and middle class, Midwestern cultural training came to the fore. Don’t make them uncomfortable. Don’t draw attention to yourself. And that clearly conflicted with the role I’d taken on in support, to shout out “No justice!” and “No racist police!”

That was a moment when I had my practices to keep me in service. What we were doing was larger and more important than my individual comfort, and if I was unwilling to let the cops be uncomfortable I might as well stop marching altogether. I’d spent years developing my skills in setting aside the reactions of the moment and keep to the task.

In the early days of my meditation practice, a Christian acquaintance challenged me. “So, what, if your grandmother was dying you would just sit there and meditate and it would all be okay?”

“Well, I mean, if my grandmother was dying I would probably sit and talk to her. I might meditate on my own, but the whole point is so I can be there for her.”

Spiritual bypassing would be sitting in meditation while my grandmother dies. It would be taking off my blindfold and leaving the enflamed building while others burn, or saying, “The flames are all illusion!”

I love the gods, and I desire access to a deeper wisdom than the collective mind that created our dilemma. I need the tools that calm nervous systems, that build and sustain the bonds of beloved community. I crave the rituals that align us with the powers of the earth and nature. I want us to have the skills and powers that can’t be bought or sold.

As a child, the ocean was a place of play and relaxation. In my early days of Paganism, the ocean became a symbol of the powers of Water, Daring, Passion, and Emotion. Lately, it has become once again simply the ocean. Its ongoing cresting, breaking, and receding is the manifestation of the deep cycles that govern many things, including the spiral of history. I feel the mystery of the waves in my body.

My practice immerses me in the living world, in the time I have been given. To be here more fully than I ever knew I could be. To not shy away from the flames or the terror. To know deeply that there is something in me that will not be burnt.


Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.


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How “Gods Before Politics” Perpetuates Privilege

(A version of this essay was previously published at allergicpagan.com.)

“Ever and always, the Gods come before politics.” — John Beckett

What does “political” mean?

There’s been a lot of argument on the Pagan internet lately about whether Paganism and Polytheism are political, per se, or whether we need to have political-free zones in Paganism.

Some of the confusion has to do with definitions.  When people hear “politics”, they tend to think of political candidates, elections, and voting.  And they think about people arguing about political candidates, elections, and voting.  And, really, who wants to have that at your next Lughnasadh ritual or in your devotional ritual to Lugh?

But politics is a lot more than elections and voting.  It’s even more than signing petitions, boycotting products, and marching in the streets.  Politics is about power: who gets to use it and when and how.  Politics is how we decide who has power … and who doesn’t.  Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.”  If we flip that around, we see that politics is how we peacefully (more or less) resolve the question of who gets to exercise power over whom.

When politics is understood in this way, then it’s easier to see that there is really no place or zone that is free of politics.  Not the marketplace.  Not school.  Not church.  And not your Pagan and Polytheist circles.

Why?  Because all of these places are permeated by complex power relationships, and in all of these places, we are either working to reform these power relationships or we are reinforcing the status quo by our passivity.  You’re either doing one or the other.  There’s no escaping it.  And if you’re not doing it consciously, then it’s happening implicitly, in the background of all your words and actions.

Privilege makes politics invisible

And this is why statements like “Gods before politics” reinforce white, male, hetero-, and cis- privilege.  And this is why the notion that there should be non-political spaces in Paganism is so insidious.  The idea can sound very reasonable — especially when it is delivered in a calm and equanimous fashion to others similarly situated.   So much of privileged talk is like this.  While those who are less privileged seem to be railing about invisible powers.

It’s easy to say there should be non-political spaces when your existence is not perpetually under threat by virtue of your difference, by virtue of your conformity to white, male, hetero-, cis-normativity.  But if you are female, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, or gay, or lesbian, or if you are trans, or if you are disabled, then there is no such thing as a non-political space for you.  Because almost everywhere you go, you are being told implicitly, if not explicitly, that you do not belong, that you do not have the same rights as others, that the exercise of power over you by privileged others is right and justified and deity-sanctioned.

Ginger Drekisdottir explained this well in an article here on G&R entitled, “Paganism is Personal, and that’s what makes it Political”:

“There are groups in Western society which are systematically oppressed: women, people of colour, LGBT people, disabled people, the list sadly goes on and on. These groups are […] oppressed through the very structures which make up our society […]

“For members of these oppressed groups, our daily lives can often be a struggle just to survive, a struggle to carve out a space to live, a constant fight to demand that our lives have just as much value as others. We live these fights just through carrying on with our normal lives, every time we go out to the shops or to see friends, through carrying on breathing; as well as through our activism.

“[…] for oppressed people it is these continued struggles in the face of systems of oppression which make our personal lives political. Yes many of us do activism, engage in demonstrations, engage in direct actions or even the dreaded party politics I mentioned above; but continuing to exist in the light of a system saying that you are lesser, that your life is worth less than others simply because of who you are is just as political. We can’t just shed these aspects of our identities when we step into a space, even a Pagan space.”

In a recent post, entitled “Why the Gods Come Before Politics”, John Beckett responded to Drekisdottir, arguing for the possibility of non-political spaces in Pagan and Polytheist circles.  Interestingly, in the process of trying to make his point, Beckett actually disproves it when he says that “there are limits”.  He writes:

“There is no place for racism in Paganism and polytheism – Stephen McNallen is not welcome at any circle I lead. There is no place for transphobia in Paganism and polytheism – Ruth Barrett is not welcome at any circle I lead.”

That is a political position, an explicit one.  And every time Beckett holds a circle and explicitly or implicitly communicates that racism and transphobia are not welcome in his circle, he is being political.

Consider another recent example, when the Pagan Federation of Ireland was recently asked by a couple of Odinists for help finding a Pagan clergy member to marry them “who only performs heterosexual ceremonies and refrains from marrying those of mixed races,” and the Pagan Federation responded:

“We are most happy to report that none of our clergy subscribe to your views on mixed race or gay marriage, and so we cannot assist you in your upcoming visit to Ireland.
“F**k off.
“Yours very sincerely, Everyone at Pagan Federation Ireland.”

That was a political action.  If the Pagan Federation had helped the Odinists find a racist, homophobic clergy-person to conduct their wedding, that would have been a political action too.  And (pay attention now) if the Pagan Federation had just ignored the request, that would have been a political action too.

The next time someone tells you their Paganism is not political (or the next time you think it yourself), ask whether they would welcome a Neo-Nazi to their ritual or place a swastika on their altar.  If the answer is “no”, then ask them why.  Their answer will inevitably be political — because it has to do with who has power and who does not.  If they say “yes”, then ask how they think a Black person would feel at their ritual or standing before their altar, and whether they care, and why or why not.  That answer will inevitably be political too.  We are being political whether we are conscious of it or not.

Is your Pagan circle explicitly open to LGBTs?  Is so, congratulations, your circle is political.  If not, shame on you, but your circle is political too — it’s implicitly political.  Has your Polytheist group declared that Black Lives Matter?  If so, good job, your group is political.  If not, you need to wake up, but your group is still political.

The luxury of being “non-political”

Only a white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied person like me, or like John Beckett, could really believe that such non-political spaces exist.  As Kiya Nicoll wrote in the comments to Drekisdottir’s essay:

“When I observe someone saying ‘This is not a political space’ what I hear is ‘I have never had to think about whether or not my sort of person is welcome to show up.'”

Only people like Beckett and me have the privilege or the luxury of being (or seeming to be) non-political.  We have that luxury because every aspect of society is structured so as to make us feel empowered and diminish our discomfort.  We have that privilege because the people who exercise power in our society look like us, and act like us, and love like us.  And because of that, we can believe in the myth of non-political spaces.  Other people don’t have that privilege.  What I perceive as politically neutral spaces are in fact highly adversarial spaces for people who do not look like me or love like me.

(Not to mention, we have the luxury of being “non-political” only because two generations of Pagans have fought for our political right to be Pagan and openly so.  We still have a lot of work to do to secure our rights as Pagans, but we’ve come a long way.  If we we couldn’t hold open Pagan circles or if Christianity were the national religion, I wonder how “non-political” Pagans would be then!)

It’s true that there is no political test for Paganism.  There are Pagans who Democrats and Republicans and Greens.  There are liberal and progressive Pagans and conservative and right-wing Pagans.  There are anarchist Pagans and there are libertarian Pagans.  But saying there is no political test for Paganism is not the same thing as saying Paganism is not political.  Your Pagan tradition may not tell you how to answer specific political questions of the day, but there is no escaping those questions.

If you’re not being consciously and intentionally political, then you being unconsciously and non-intentionally political.  And I think there are good reason, good Pagan reasons, for favoring the former over the latter, for favoring conscious activism over unconscious conformity to the status quo.  In fact, I think the definition of an “activist” is simply someone who performs their politics actively and explicitly, rather than passively and implicitly.

Beckett writes, “Good religion has both an internal focus (becoming better people) and an external focus (building a better world).”  He’s right about that.  Where he’s wrong is thinking that one of these is political and the other isn’t.  Both inner work and external activism are political.  Being political isn’t just about working to change the world; it’s also about working to change ourselves too.  And some of that work has to do with recognizing our privilege and learning how to use it for good, rather than perpetuating the status quo.

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The politics of the gods

Beckett is right that we all need to do spiritual work, to stay connected to our source.  If activists don’t engage in self-care, if we don’t stay connected to the source of our inspiration and energy, then we burn out.  But it’s not a question of whether to perform devotions to our gods or get out in the street and march.  We need both, obviously.  But if you think you’re not being political when your praying to your gods, then you’re deluding yourself.  Think about it … What are you praying for?  Are you asking for help to make the world a more just and peaceful place?  Or are you only praying for more divine favors for yourself, to keep what you have, and get more for yourself?  If it’s the former, then you’re being political.  If it’s the latter, you’re being political, too — just in a bad way.

And what about our gods?  Do your gods bear an uncanny resemblance to you?  If your gods are Black or queer, then your choice of gods is political, because it is a challenge to the status quo.  And if you’re white, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied, and your gods are too, well then, your choice of gods is also political.  If it’s because you’re avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s political.  But if it’s because it’s what you were drawn to, then that’s political too, implicitly.  And if you tell me your gods chose you, not the other way around, and that their resemblance to you is purely coincidental … well, I would invite you to look more closely at that.

Consider these images, which were among the first that came up when I Googled “Pagan god” …

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Consider the implicit sexism of this image. (Source: “The Council Of Cernunnos” by Emily Ballet)
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Why are images like the one on the left ubiquitous in Paganism, but not images like the one on the right? (Sources: Left: “The Tree of Life” by Laura Zollar; Right: “Pagan Gods – Wincest” by Milla1990)

Our choice of gods is a highly political act.  I wonder why so many Pagans can be critical of the actions of the Abrahamic god, and yet seemingly uncritical when it comes to Pagan gods.  As “timberwraith” wrote in response to Beckett’s post, just because a god is more powerful than us, does not make it more virtuous or more just:

“[…] the Abrahamic god is deeply flawed at best. So, that begs the question of how many other gods are questionable in their values and conduct, the degree to which they value human life, and their preference in followers. […]

“The Abrahamic god has been a source of active and violent oppression of queer people for ages. I’m not about to give any other deity automatic respect as a divine guru of awesomeness. Just because people label an aware, non-biological entity as a ‘god’ doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically kiss their supposedly divine bottom. […]

“If the gods are truly individuals, some will behave like complete rotters, some will behave with care and empathy, and a large swath will fall between those possible modes of conduct. Respect should only be applied to those individuals who deserve such consideration. That means one must actively evaluate the nature and persona of said individuals…and that inevitably involves politics, for politics, by definition, concerns the flow and conduct of power, and allegiances formed in the context of power. If god-like entities hold greater power than those of an embodied existence, then said power differential indicates that the realm of the political applies.”

Beckett quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” to support his argument for putting the Gods before politics.  But — and this is critical — Lincoln’s conception of “God” was of an infallibly just and virtuous being.  The pagan gods, in contrast, are not described in this way.  In fact, they are often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic to human cares.  As I’ve written before:

“If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings — they just have more power.  Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?”

The notion that the pagan gods are embodiments of virtue seems like a very Christian conception of deity.  Compare Beckett’s statement, “Ever and always, the Gods come before politics”, with the one below:

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Now, if one of these statements bothers you and the other doesn’t, you have to ask: What it is about the Pagan gods that you think puts them, and not Jesus, above politics?

I admit, I’m just starting to understand how privileged the statements like “gods before politics” is.  And when I first read Drekisdottir’s essay, I didn’t really get it.  So I shouldn’t be too hard to Beckett.  But people like him and me need to get this.  We need to see that when we are supposedly being “non-political” we are nevertheless reinforcing structures of power that privilege us and hurt others — and that is political.  The myth of non-political Pagan spaces acts as a blindfold for many of us in the Pagan community — especially those of us Pagans who are privileged.  It perpetuates implicit racism, patriarchy, and hetero- and cis-normativity — all of which continue to exist in our Pagan spaces, whether we see it or not (especially if we don’t).  And if we’re not consciously and actively working to see it and deal with it, then we’re passively helping to sweep it back under the rug.