Water, water everywhere

I am currently sitting beside Lake Erie (Erielhonan), or in Ojibwe, Waabishkiigoo-gichigami (Neutrals’ Sea), or Aanikegamaa-gichigami (Chain of Lakes Sea).

Lake Erie is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. The surface area of the Great Lakes is about the same as the surface area of the British Isles (a statistic I’ve often quoted to impress the sheer size of Canada upon my fellow English people).

Despite Canada (1) possessing the largest body of fresh water in the world, a significant percentage of the original inhabitants of this northern area of Turtle Island (2) do not have running water in their homes.

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The Overton Window

I’m finding the concept of the Overton Window increasingly useful right now, as various sociopolitical ideas gain or lose ground, and debates change and morph.

The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, describes the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. The term is derived from its originator, Joseph P. Overton, a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who, in his description of his window, claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences.

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Gods and politics

Gods and Politics, Warp and Weft

The question of which comes first, gods or politics, is for me rather like the question of the chicken and the egg. The one exists in the context of the other, and they are inextricable. The deities we choose to worship (and even the deities who choose us to work with them) are influenced by our politics, because why would they choose to have a relationship with a human whose values and goals differed from theirs, and why would we choose to have a relationship with a deity whose values and goals differ from ours?

Let’s take a step back and talk about definitions.

What is a deity? A deity is a powerful entity or identity who has emerged from the complexity of the universe, and is shaped by social interactions (with humans, animals, their environment, other deities, and other spirit entities) just as humans are. Deities have agency, or at least they seem to. Often that agency involves influencing people to do their work for them. That’s what I believe anyway; you may have a different idea. It’s worth thinking, too, about what kind of person a deity might be. If they are advanced beings of great virtue, then one would expect that they have ethical values that are similar to the highest values we can imagine (unless they possess information about how the universe works that is simply unavailable to our finite perceptions, in which case they might have a different concept of what is ethical). But nevertheless any ideas they come up with have to work on the physical plane and be comprehensible to our finite perspective.

What is politics? Politics is any situation where a conflict of interest or a difference of power is resolved by negotiation (which could be a large-scale vote or a small-scale consensus process) instead of war. It has even been said that war is a continuation of politics by other means (which is true, as when negotiation breaks down, either the status quo or an outbreak of physical violence will follow).

Conflicts of values

If you believe that the gods come before politics (by which I mean the way humans negotiate living in community), what would you do if a deity commanded you to do something that was against your ethics? I imagine that, at the very least, you would do some practice of discernment (such as divination) to check that you had heard their message correctly and were not just deluding yourself. You might even refuse outright to do the task they have requested. In that case, you have (rightly in my view) put politics before gods.

If you are a person with a marginalised identity who wants to honour Pagan deities in community with others, and something about the way Pagan rituals are constructed excludes you from those rituals, then there is a conflict of interest (the existing members want to keep doing their rituals a certain way, but you want to join the group, which requires change). There is also a power differential, in that the existing members of the group hold the power to change their rituals or practices to be more inclusive (or not). So that’s politics, right there, as Ginger Drekisdottir pointed out.

So, if a disabled person, person of colour, or LGBT person is structurally excluded from your rituals but they were chosen by a deity you honour – your political decision to exclude them dishonours that deity – and you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods. Especially if your rituals are the only ones in town.

If your chosen deities command hospitality towards the stranger, but your politics and values demand that you turn refugees and migrants and the disabled and LGBT and PoC away… then you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods.

Many Pagan deities command hospitality, honour, and the exchange of gifts (reciprocity).

The politics of the gods

I think the deities are part of Pagan society, not separate from it, and therefore even the way we negotiate our relationships with deities is political. They may want one thing, we may want something else (a conflict of interest). They may have a different perspective; they also have greater – possibly infinite – power in a particular sphere of influence. They are part of a complex web of relationships which involves differences of power, conflicts of interest, and negotiations about how to resolve those conflicts. So your relationship with a deity is political, just as the personal and the interpersonal are political.

And rather than politics being a sphere that is separate from deities, it is the complex web of relationships between human and human, human and other-than-human, humans and deities, spirits and deities, spirits and spirits, deities and deities. So you can’t put one before the other – politics is the very stuff of our relationships with gods, the context in which those relationships happen.

I became a Pagan and a polytheist because I believe that all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable. My values informed my choice of religion and theology, and my values are political because they are about how I relate to other beings. It is impossible to consider the gods (or any other entities) outside of that context of interrelationship – and therefore, politics.

With Our Thoughts We Make The World

Paganisms are counter-cultural, like most religions. They present a critique of the status quo, and some alternative visions of how the world might be if it was re-enchanted; and they offer a variety of methods for bringing about the desired change. There are several overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, visions available from the Pagan dream factory. Some are benign, involving ways to cope with climate change, and promotion of social and environmental justice. Others are retrogressive, wanting to take us back to a (somewhat mythical) earlier era.

Religious and spiritual ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are intimately connected with politics. What you believe about how your religious group should be organised, and how ideas and information are verified and validated, and who gets to have authority and why, inevitably spill over into your ideas about how society as a whole should be organised. Ideas about culture and society are what is known as metapolitics:

A way of expressing and enacting political goals through cultural, spiritual, and societal change, rather than overt politics.

If you think about it, most religions are a form of metapolitics: their goal is exactly to transform society and individuals (which is the purpose of politics) through cultural and spiritual means. (Christianity’s goal is and has always been to transform society, for example.)  Pagan religions are no different: we also desire the transformation of society, but our visions of a transformed society are rather different from theirs.

The key thing about metapolitical processes and shifts is that they prepare the ground for political change. If you consider the changes wrought by feminism, LGBT liberation, and the civil rights movement, it takes about fifty years of preparation and social change before any legal rights are gained. Take feminism for example: the first attempt to bring a bill before the UK Parliament to give women the right to vote was greeted with derision and laughter. It took fifty years to win the vote for women. It has taken forty years from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to get same-sex marriage in the UK. And there has been a massive shift in attitudes towards women and LGBT people that prepared the ground for those political changes. Retrograde steps (such as placing limits on immigration, threatening to deport Muslims, etc) also require metapolitical changes, such as an increase in xenophobia, in order to create the political momentum to successfully bring in legislation.

In an article I wrote about a decade ago, News from Nowhere, I noted the links between science fiction and Pagan thought. Both offer alternative visions of society, both utopian and dystopian; and both include egalitarian and hierarchical possible futures or alternatives. In that essay, I glossed over some of the more right-wing science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, who has also had a significant influence on the Pagan revival, and focused more on left-wing writers and their visions. But science fiction and fantasy, by presenting plausible visions of different societies, are important drivers of social change, and they present alternative societies that might appeal to all parts of the political spectrum. Fantasy in particular enables the leap of imagination required to re-enchant the world. As John Halstead writes:

A work of fiction may open a person up to having a very real experience to which they were not open before.

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Thomas Cole, 1834. Public Domain

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, Thomas Cole (1834). Public Domain.

This painting by Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, was painted as part of a series called The Course of Empire. It was part of a cultural or metapolitical conversation about how society should be organised, and how it was likely to evolve. Cole was influenced by Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s PilgrimageThe series of paintings reflected popular American views of the day, when many regarded pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, as they feared that empire would inevitably lead to  overconsumption and decay.

The metapolitics of Pagan traditions

Recently, an excellent analysis of the spread of the ideas of the New Right and how far they may overlap with some of the ideas of Pagan traditions appeared on Gods & Radicals. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it. I agree with the analysis presented by the article: we must guard against retrogressive ideas becoming unexamined norms within Pagan traditions. It is worth mentioning (as the article itself notes) that just because someone’s ideas overlap with those of the New Right, doesn’t mean they are necessarily an adherent of the crypto-fascist ideas of that movement. But it does suggest that it would be a good idea to carefully examine where their ideas might lead if carried to their logical conclusion, precisely because these ideas prepare the ground for political and social change.

With that in mind, let’s examine some of the ideas that are popular in some corners of Pagan & polytheist communities.

Sacred kingship

Apparently some people are rather fascinated by sacral kingship and aristocracy. I think I can safely say that such notions are not very popular in England, where we still experience the inequalities of the class system, the monarchy that sits on top of the pinnacle like the visible part of a pimple, and where a study of our history reveals the disastrous instability introduced by the vagaries of succession in a hereditary monarchy (I am referring to the war of Stephen and Maud, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, the “Glorious Revolution”, and so on). That’s why you don’t get Wiccans in the UK adopting titles like Lord this and Lady that. And people with pretensions to be a reincarnated Dark Age king are not taken particularly seriously by most people either.

The idea of the sacral king was popularised in the early 20th century by Margaret Murray, who wrote that William Rufus (famously killed by an arrow in the New Forest) may have been England’s last sacral king, and that his death was a sacrifice. Apparently there are people who are regarded as monarchs in their particular spiritual tradition. I’m fine with that, as long as we get to revive the tradition of sacral kingship in its full form: where the sacred monarch gets sacrificed after their year in office. I somehow think the whole idea would suddenly be a lot less popular if it was revived in its full form.

But really, honestly, the whole notion of kingship just doesn’t work. This should be completely obvious to anyone who has studied the history of monarchy wherever it has been tried. The only time monarchy worked was when the king was elected (and nowadays we call that office a president). The only way that an absolute ruler can maintain their authority is through fear, as Machiavelli pointed out.

Messages from deities

So you received a message from a deity. Great. That’s nice for you. But how do I know whether it was really a message from a deity, or just another aspect of your psyche trying to shore up your fragile ego? I would evaluate a purported revelation from a deity the way I would evaluate a purported message from anyone else, by asking questions:

  • is it consistent with what I know of reality?
  • is it consistent with what I know of that person/deity?
  • is it consistent with my ethics?

If the answer to any of these is no, then either I won’t believe that the message came from the deity, or I won’t believe that the message was intended for me.

“A deity told me to do it” is never a sufficient justification for any action. If a deity tells a group of people to slaughter another group of people, we rightly regard that deity as deeply immoral (or alternatively, we deny that the commandment came from that deity). All communications from deities have to be evaluated against common standards of ethical behaviour.

That’s not to say that no-one ever receives valid and interesting messages from deities: of course they do. It just means that we need to be aware that messages from deities might just be our own ego talking, rather than a genuine divine communication.

Folkish tendencies

Another disturbing tendency that has been rearing its head of late is the view that you can only work within your own culture, worshipping the gods of your ancestors. This ‘folkish’ view is being used to exclude people of colour from traditions based on European culture. It takes a monolithic and essentialist view of culture, regarding cultural themes as being predetermined by genetics. For those of us who are of mixed descent (which is most people these days, especially in North America), this approach literally makes no sense. I’m an English person with some Cornish ancestry, and as I grew up in Hampshire, probably Saxon ancestry too – maybe even some Norman. Should my Paganism consist of Cornish practices, Saxon practices, or Norse practices according to this view?

This folkish/genetic essentialism uses the concept of cultural appropriation to justify its racist discourse, which is ironic as they are appropriating the real struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their culture and life-ways against the depredations of colonialism. But resisting cultural appropriation is about resisting power; it is not about keeping culture ‘pure’. Cultures and traditions are not monolithic and unchanging silos: they are discourses. You can’t just lift a practice from one culture to another in a superficial way without radically changing its meaning; but this does not mean that no-one can ever do anything inspired by another culture.

The problem with folkish views is that they assume that races and cultures are monolithic, unchanging, never influence each other, and that people from different ethnicities never intermarry. It constructs different cultures as different races, so it is certainly racialised, which in my book is basically racist.

What are your goals?

You may have noticed that the Harry Potter books are a political fable. (This becomes particularly apparent with the appearance of Dolores Umbridge, who is an extended satire upon the activities of OFSTED in the British education system.) As with any good fable, the ideas are generally applicable. The adherents of Voldemort (the Death Eaters and their hangers-on) are ruled by fear. No dissent is allowed, and their group is strongly hierarchical. The witches and wizards who are allied with Dumbledore, on the other hand, are much more egalitarian. Diversity of views and discussion of tactics are welcomed. Both sides live their values, because it is by embodying their values that they create the society they want to live in.

If you desire to create a society where conflict is the norm and the weakest go to the wall, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. And creating hierarchical structures where outsiders are scapegoated and disagreement cannot be tolerated, will take you a long way towards that goal. Fetishising power-over and symbols of power-over will also lead you towards that goal.

If your goal is to create a sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful society, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. As A J Muste wrote, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way”. The structures we need to create in order to realise this goal should be democratic, egalitarian, and non-hierarchical, and there should be room for differences of opinion and for diversity.

If you are creating a new religious movement that is characterised by fear of difference, distrust of outsiders, the crushing of dissent, the insistence on only one right way to do things, then you will sow the seeds of perpetual conflict and division.

That’s why I am happy that John Halstead and others are part of Paganism: because I welcome a diversity of views, and I want my ideas to be challenged and tested. The only way that theories are strengthened is if they are tested against other theories.

That’s why I am delighted by the ideas of Rhyd Wildermuth about worlding the gods, because the way we world the gods into the earth reflects the sort of society we want to create:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

I want the Pagan movement to be diverse and inclusive, because a diverse and inclusive movement is stronger, more interesting, and more viable. I want to create a world where it is safe to be me. A theocracy run by people who want power over others might be fine for the people at the top (as long as they succeeded in staying at the top) but it wouldn’t be very pleasant for anyone else.

That is why the only viable vision of a sustainable and just future is one where social and environmental justice prevails. One where the rapacious greed and over-consumption promoted by capitalism has been replaced by a more sustainable and equal distribution of wealth.  One that values the gods as the consciousnesses of the natural world, not as beings who desire to lord it over humanity. One that doesn’t appropriate other cultures’ practices, but doesn’t treat cultures as monolithic silos either.

As the Buddha once said, with our thoughts we make the world. We are all co-creating the future of the Pagan movement now. Let us be careful to lay the foundations of a world that those who come after us can be happy and fulfilled in.

 

Combinations of Difficult Questions #PinkOut

What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?

What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?

What if Persephone eats that pomegranate on purpose?

What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?

What if sexuality isn’t a wound?

What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?

What if Black lives matter?

What if a question mark is a fish hook?

What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?

What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?

What if men do that too?

What if you could say how unhappy you are?

What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?

 

What if women’s voices weave another forest?

 

Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut

Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie

 

Few topics have stirred as much passionate response

now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place

in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and

for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know

although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color

it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,

and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,

building for a year now. A year when

I was surprised by the emotional and political

terms such as “birth control”

connotations it carries

“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about

for so many of us and disturbed by the way

we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to

pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith

the act of rape.

when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.

What other qualifiers shall we hear?

My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive

At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,

avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations

never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable

that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,

sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago

although I don’t like the pale variety by  itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic

when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,

looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,

my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was

attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted

the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards

my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived

and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but

in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,

for a number of days I had been wrestling with

patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of

difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the

fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and

sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get

lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those

pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.

in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.

 

This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.Busse and Vardaman 2012 - 1