Monthly Archives: October 2011

Marginalia: Interviews on Politics and Culture From a Radical Bent: Douglas Lain

This interview is the first on a long series on culture and politics.  The focus is on radical and marginalized politics and the cross-section of culture. Sometimes the interviews are from the left, but some will be from libertarian or even certain kinds of the right-wing thought.   Most of those I interview consider themselves in some sort of radical tradition opposed to contemporary politics.   Some of these people, like Douglas Lain, have opinions close to mine. Some are diametrically opposed.

Douglas Lain and I have been in dialogue for about a month now. So here are a few caveats: I really enjoy what I have read of Douglas Lain’s writings and I strongly endorse his podcast.  I also disagree with him often on finer parts of Marxist theory and how much the current left should deviated from classical understandings of Marx. We are both on the socialist/communist left in the sense that we come out a Marxist tradition that is post-Leninist and not interested in restructing anything like a Soviet or Maoist state; however, which in a way makes us close to the anarchists we criticize in this interview.  The other touch point is that Doug and I are both writers primarily, although we have other jobs. I am interested in Doug’s fiction and non-fiction—I am even involved in coordinating a reading group on his new novella, “Wave of Mutilation” and his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging. So our interests and goals surprising overlap and I am very sympathetic to his view.  That those as caveats, and read Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast. 


Skepoet: Doug, I came to your work as a fellow writer and a vaguely left-leaning person, but about three years ago I started reading into Marxism again.   This led me to your blog and podcast.   So when you first started Diet Soap, what was your goal?

Douglas Lain: There are a couple of ways to answer your question about what I intended when I started the podcast of Diet Soap.  In fact it’s a somewhat overdetermined or elaborate story.

In 2007 I was laid off from a ten year stint as a sales rep for the Oregon Symphony and I sold a novel to Tor Books after  I pitched a high concept to an editor there.  The novel was to be a fantasy telling of Christopher Robin Milne’s fictional involvement with the events of Mai ’68 in Paris. I finished a first draft of the book in October of 2008, but did not get any rewrites back from Tor for quite a long time.

As a writer who had published short stories for many years but who had stopped consistently writing short stories in early 2006 in order to write novels, and as a former worker from the nonprofit sector who was slowly losing all sense of hope in a corporate call center, this delay in a response from my publisher seemed especially deadly.  So I was 37 years old, underemployed, waiting on my first novel to get published, feeling fairly sure that  I was evaporating as a known quantity in the tiny world of publishing where I felt I’d gained a slight toe hold, when I accidentally hit a sales goal and won an iPod from the company.  It was a nano.

I started listening to podcasts regularly on my commute to the Comcast call center.  I listened to stuff like Electric Politics, the Psychedelic Salon, Fresh Air, and occasionally conspiracy nut stuff like Alex Jones show.

When the economy tanked, when George Bush Jr came on television to announce the 2nd Great Depression, I’d already been listening to Alex Jones announcing how the world was ending for a couple of weeks. And I’d been listening to a podcast called the C-Realm already as well.  KMO is the host of that podcast, and he was interviewing guests about Peak Oil and what he was labeling collapse, and I found his story and his format compelling.  What was most interesting was that KMO was independent.  He was putting on this very eclectic but very professional podcast about stuff that obsessed him, he was interviewing interesting people who really seemed to know their stuff, and he was adding real insight to my understanding of the world.  And he was doing all of this without any institutional support.  It was a one man show.

So all of this stuff sort of coalesced into me trying my hand at podcast.  I had an iMac with a built in microphone, I had writer friends and acquaintances who’d be willing to be guests on my show, I had what I thought was a professional need for some exposure (but what might also be considered a narcissistic compulsion to get attention) and I had something pressing to talk about.

Skepoet: Would you like to go into your currnet writing projects?

Douglas Lain: I don’t have much in the way of current writing projects actually.  I have some books that are out or that are coming out, and one writing project that is firmly under way.

My books that are out include the short story collection Fall Into Time, the surrealist memoir Pick Your Battle, and the novella Wave of Mutilation, and that last title is the newest work and so it’s also the work I’m most proud of at the moment.

I am also working on co-writing another nonfiction book with the Rhetor and blogger Daniel Coffeen.  It’s titled “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think (How to Have Fun in the Late Capitalist Epoch.)” We’ll be co-writing the first 10,000 words or so of that for the highly trafficked blog Thought Catalog in the next month, and then hopefully we’ll find a publisher for the whole book.  Also, I’m hoping to write a inverted mystery novel sometime soon, but at the moment I’m working two jobs and find just keeping up with the podcast to be a challenge so I’m on a temporary hiatus from writing.

Skepoet: What do you accredit from moving you from the kind of nebulous left that most of us from MFA were to an emerging Marxist?

Douglas Lain: Well, I’ve considered myself to be an Anarchist since my early twenties, and usually of the commie variety.  Alexander Berkman’s ABC’s of Anarchism was for me what the Watch Tower or a Chick Publication hope to be for whack-job Christians.  So moving from that to being some kind of Marxist wasn’t really a huge leap.  However, I have shifted my perspective over the last few years.  I’m less interested in anarchism as a cultural trend than I have been in the past, and more inclined to listen to constructive critics of anarchism.  That is, while I’ve been enthralled with Guy Debord’s SI and his Society of the Spectacle for many years, I’ve only recently taken his statements on anarchism to heart…maybe only recently really understood his criticism.  Debord wrote, “[Anarchism's] critique of the political struggle has remained abstract, while its choice of economic struggle is affirmed only as a function of the illusion of a definitive solution brought about by one single blow on this terrain–on the day of the general strike or the insurrection.”

Without explaining that quote and what it means to me now as opposed as what it meant to me in, say, 1992, I’ll just point to the current economic crisis as a major factor for my increased interest in Marx.  Another factor would be doing a weekly podcast in reaction to what I think is really multi-dimensional crisis.

Skepoet: Funny, Doug, it was Debord and Zizek that got me to watch David Harvey’s Lectures on Kapital around 2008.   I was a struggling teacher at the time. I have given up trying to publish my poetry, and I had been reading Noam Chomsky recently. Prior to that I was on the right, actually, the far paleo-libertarian right in the “more reactionary than thou sense.”  I suppose it was because I found so much of the inconsistency of liberal Democrats unpalatable.  I remember in 2004, I was at an Iraq war protest and I remember hearing about how much more moral Clinton was about it and how Bosnia was a justified attack from a person wearing a t-shit with Che’s face on it.  My journey has been similar but different.  This brings me to question though, why were you listening to Alex Jones?

Douglas Lain: I was listening to Alex Jones because I’d gone down the rabbit hole on various conspiracy theories and discovered him online, and because the far right articulates the feeling of this late capitalist moment in a visceral way.  The unwinding of this system during this long crisis feels like a conspiracy being acted out by invisible forces, and in a sense it is. In fact, the trouble with guys like Alex Jones is that they aren’t paranoid enough.  That is, they don’t see how the very system of politics itself and what can be taken to be neutral and real is not only a part of the conspiracy but is generating the conspiracy.

Skepoet: Why do you think Debord is so popular among anarchists? I remember people who gave me Crimethinc books also raving about the Society of Spectacle.

Douglas Lain: Debord was a ultra-leftist coming out of the anti-Bolshevik group Soscialisme Ou Barbarie in Paris, and as a council-communist and anti-authoritarian Marxist it makes sense that he should be picked up by anarchists in the US.  Also, anarchists in the US mostly have no deep knowledge of Marx or philosophy in general (and I realize that many would raise an eyebrow and my labeling Marx as a philosopher) and this leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of Debord.  The concept of the Situation has been picked up as some sort of spontaneous or unmediated act, whereas I tend to interpret Debord as advocating a seizure of the mechanisms of mediation by worker’s councils so that the very act of mediation will no longer be alienated.  The workers will produce the structures of their lives directly under council communsim, but there will be structures, mediating technologies, etc…

Skepoet: Has the podcast help clarify any of your views?

Douglas Lain: It absolutely has helped me clarify my views.  The podcast works as a sort of personal crash course in radical philosophy in so much as I am contacting professors, writers, and thinkers on these subjects, reading of at least skimming their work, and discussing these subjects on a regular basis.  One reviewer compared the Diet Soap podcast to the kind of elective class you might take in college, one of those courses with titles like “Jazz and Existenstialism” or  “Star Trek and the Postmodern Condition.”  Well, if that’s true I’d just point out that I am the one student of Diet Soap who never misses a class.

Skepoet: You have recently interviewed some thinkers on your podcast who seem worried by Zizik’s Leninist turn. What your current take on Bolshevism?

Douglas Lain: I am ambivalent about the State as a tool for revolutionary change.  I basically believe that the Nation State is itself a product of Capitalist production and that destroying Capitalism will entail destroying the State just as much as it will mean destroying private property, production for exchange, the wage relation, and so on…

However, what I no longer believe is that destroying the State will mean that we will all participate in making all of the decisions currently made by the State, and it seems likely that some centralized planning of production will have to occur.  What kind of institutions or institution will be created in order to oversee these functions, what kind of authority will be exercised by these institutions, and what new mediating abstraction will be developed in order to replace Capitalist Value are my chief obsession these days. On that front your guess is probably as good as mine.

Skepoet: Both your recent novella, Wave of Mutilation, and your memoir, Pick Your Battles, deal with ideas about the development and history of space and objects.  Why do you find this so important aesthetically and philosophically?

Douglas Lain: Here’s a kind of round about answer to that question.  While recently discussing the archeological site Göbekli Tepe on the Electric Politics podcast a journalist for National Geographic named Charles Mann perhaps unknowingly argued that an 11,000 year old temple in Eastern Turkey may have resolved the long standing conflict between voluntarism and determinism in Marx.  While for many years it has been assumed that the shift away from hunting and gathering to agriculture was a forced decision (scientists argued that environmental factors forced our ancestors’ to work the land and change their social relationships) the excavation of these megaliths in Eastern Turkey and subsequent discoveries appear to be a challenge to that hypothesis.  Archaeologists are claiming that rather than being moved to change their social existence by forces outside themselves, our ancestors’ made a collective effort to build carved megaliths and in this way created a new social space.

“We are creatures of our own wishes and desires.  This is really an argument about the basis of human nature,” Mann said.

From my way of thinking the construction of a new social space is perhaps the main challenge facing us.  Currently we live in spaces defined by Capitalist production, but we might very well create new spaces, spaces with their own demands and contradictions, in the future.

What do you think of most conspiracy theories?   I am intrigued by your assertion that they aren’t paranoid enough.  My problem is that I have always seem them as attributing systemic competence to individuals that I don’t think anyone could consciously have, but these situations could develop from power laws and structural trends which transcend this sort of focus on the personal and governmental. How do you see it?

In my book Pick Your Battle I point out that the conspiracy theorist is a realist whereas I am a irrealist.

Consider the project Blue Beam conspiracy.  My friend Neil Kramer summed it up in his blog “the Cleaver” this way:  “In short, Project Blue Beam is a highly classified black-budget project that takes the application of holographic technology to another level. An integrated array of satellite mounted lasers and ground installations will be used to simulate large-scale religious manifestations and a hostile alien presence. Gods, messiahs, extra terrestrials, motherships – the whole shooting match. Truly a show tocapture the imagination.”

“What’s going on then is that the government (the real government mind you, not the puppets you see on television) is planning to stage a phony UFO event in order to foist a new religion onto the public and gain complete control of the population, however what’s most interesting about this story it how it relies on the presupposition that there have been real UFO landings already.  The late William Cooper, for example, was convinced that the government had made a secret pact with ETs, an agreement to allow the aliens to abduct humans in exchange for alien technology.  And at the same time he also believed that sometime after 2010 the government would stage a UFO landing on the White House lawn in order to brainwash the public that aliens were real.  In fact, Cooper thought that the government would use alien technology in order to pull off the fake UFO stunt, and that the aliens themselves were giving the orders.  That is, the big secret was that the fake UFO landing would in fact be orchestrated by real aliens.  It would be a fraud that would present a truth in a lie.

My problem here is not that I don’t believe in conspiracy theories (although in the case of project blue beam I don’t) but rather that I don’t believe that these conspiracy theorists go far enough.  They always need something real and solid to support their stories, but in reality these supposed solid truths are just more conspiracies.

For example, many people look to the Financial Sector and see a banking conspiracy designed to take down the real economy, but from my point of view there is no real economy. Further, it’s the contradictions in the fiction we call Main Street that compelled bankers to conspire to create the housing bubble, and not merely malicious intent on the part of the bankers.

To take another example, the assassination of JFK looks to me to be a CIA plot and I do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.  However, I do not believe that the fact of JFK’s assassination indicates any dramatic change in either foreign or domestic policy was afoot.  Instead, what conspiracy theories prove (when verified) is how corrupt and dysfunctional the system is all the time.

Skepoet: This may seem almost irrelevant, but it comes off of my thinking about the relationship between surrealist and Trotskyism and the Situationists and Left communism. Do you think avant-garde art really has much to say politically?

Douglas Lain: I do think avant-garde art could have something to say politically if it were to exist.  What we have today are marketing categories where writers and artists are picking the bones of previous movements and creating fragmented or metafictional works that are, at best, groping after some sort of new vision.  And I’ll include my own work in that category.

Having said that, I do believe that some of the ideas and lessons learned by previous movements are vitally important.  For instance, the difference between modernism and avant-garde work is well worth keeping in mind.  Modernist works, according to Peter Burger for instance, are usually focused on formal innovation alone, whereas avant-garde art attempts to fuse art with life, or to use art as part of a revolutionary project.

Skepoet: Do you see modernism as a reactionary project?

Douglas Lain: I don’t exactly see modernism as reactionary because I don’t think the cleave between modernism and the avant-garde can be easily found.  Courbet, for instance, both toppled the Vendome and believed in his own individual subjective powers as acted out on a canvass.  Also, I happen to enjoy a lot of modernist work.

On the other hand, I believe much postmodern work, especially in the realm of fine art, is utterly reactionary. Take Jeff Koons work.

In his three basketballs work Koons produces a horrible parody of Duchamp.  While Duchamp’s urinal was an attack upon the category of art as something alienated from life, Koon’s basketballs attack the common objects of everyday life by aestheticizing the alienation and attacking life and objects.  While Duchamp’s urinal risked evoking the smell of piss in the gallery, Koons’ basketballs sterilize and abstract lived experience.

What I hope is that, inadvertently, Koons will lead to people to a true avant-garde position as they attempt to explain why three basketballs in a fish tank can be so deadening and depressing.

Skepoet: Do you see slipstream and bizzaro work as part of an avante-garde literary movement?

Douglas Lain: I think slipstream work had the potential to be avant-garde but ended up being modernist instead, whereas Bizarro fiction is mostly self-consciously apolitical and tawdry.  Bizarro fiction aims at being a marketing category.  It’s whole purpose is to shock and titillate an audience numbed out on 4 Chan debauchery and first person shooter games. Still, it could end up producing avant garde work if counter intuitive thinking and struggling for change becomes the next big thrill.  Zizek might be thought of as a Bizarro philosopher.

Skepoet: Have you read lipstick traces by Griel Marcus?   One of the things that struck me about a lot of the post-war modernists in the 1920s is that many of them moved from far left to far right positions in a very short period of time. One can see this with the futurists.   It seems to have been a contention between one reading of the history involved against another.   I suppose I these as the sort of vulgar version of the debates against Adorno in the 1930s with  Lukács, Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht.  Anyway do you see the overlap?   I suppose there are both reactionary and revolutionary elements in modernism.     But where the focus is seems so very different from author to author.

Douglas Lain: I have read Lipstick Traces by Griel Marcus.  After Sadie Plant’s book The Most Radical Gesture Griel Marcus’s book was my introduction to the SI, but I haven’t spent a lot of time  trying to understand the Futurists.  However, it seems to me that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and especially Fascists, end up embracing traditional forms of art and opposing the innovations and dissonances found in modernism and amongst the avant garde.  The Nazis, for instance, called modernists “degenerates.”

Skepoet: You have been involved with Occupy Portland.  Has that changed your mind on any points of your politics?

Douglas Lain: Unfortunately I have recently shifted from being unemployed to working two part time jobs. This has meant that I’ve had far less time for creative and radical projects, including getting involved with Occupy Portland.

Still, the fact of Occupy Portland’s very existence is a hopeful sign, and I feel more positive about the future than I have since 1999 probably.

Skepoet: How has Pick Your Battle done as a project?  I heard you say on your podcast that you were going to give out the remaining few at Occupy Portland’s library tent.

Douglas Lain: My book Pick Your Battle was a major success for me because it was funded largely through the podcast as I ran a Kickstarter campaign to get the cash together to do it.  I actually started off to write about urban foraging in a fairly straight forward way, but by the time I’d raised the funds and started the project I was already well down the rabbit hole and looked at urban foraging and other permaculture projects as movements that, while technically interesting and personally rewarding, were mostly attempts to solve political problems by apolitical means.  The fact that my audience and donors read the book and seemed to largely follow my reasoning, or at least indulged my divergence from the usual approach to these issues, is another way the book was a success.

Beyond the initial donors to the project the readership for this book has been small. I still have many copies left after an initial small print run.  However, I do plan on pushing the book onto the denizens of Occupy Portland.  I’m a bit nervous about the reception I might receive as I try to pass out copies and leave them in the library tent, and yet the book was written precisely for the people who might participate in something like Occupy Portland or Occupy Wall Street.

Skepoet: What do you see as the limitations of classical Marxism?

Douglas Lain: I don’t feel that I’m qualified to pass judgement on classical Marxism as my exposure to Marx has been through Marxists and not much Marx. I’ve read a lot more Zizek, for instance, than Marx.

What I can speak to is the limits I’ve encountered in those that hold to what might be thought of as classically Marxist politics. For instance, in a future episode of the Diet Soap podcast I’ll be posting an interview with a man named Jehu, and he holds that classical Marxism is closer to anarchism than Statist Marxism, and what’s interesting about his perspective is how it correlates to somebody like Jodi Dean’s position.  Dean is a Statist while Jehu is not, but both of them seem to think that people can simply act directly to transcend class.  I guess the trouble I see revolves around ontological presuppositions having to do with some sort of natural need based or utilitarian foundation for politics. I think that any move to a pre-conceptual foundation for society is bound to fail.  However, I should admit, that I can end up contemplating the process wherein one takes the toe of a sock and shoves it into the opening at the top creating a sock version of a snake eating his or her own tail.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Douglas Lain: I don’t think so.  This was an interesting conversation and thanks for initiating it.

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 11

An interview with Scott Worley on solitary Heathenry.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Scott Worley: A long time ago on the fourth day of the forth month in the nineteen hundred & seventy first year of the Common Era I was born….

And life was grand, I had no questions to be answered cause everything was new and filled me with awe, and then it happened, I started to want to know the why of things but not the things that school taught so I started to ask questions of my mother and grandmother. I really didn’t get much from them but that they held a membership at West highland Baptist Church that was little more than a stone’s throw from the house so I started to hop the fence and walk there every Sunday morning and went there until just before my teenage years and in truth had fun and made many friends and felt that many of my questions were answered, but even so I still felt like something wasn’t meshing with the place so I stopped going and  quite frankly said screw religion for a few years. Sometime later in my late teen years  my older sister was dating or friends with (can’t remember which  it was) a youth minister at Cherokee Heights Baptist Church so I went the first time more or less to stop them from asking me each week. There I did fall in love with more than a few of the youth group and reconnected with my dearest and oldest friend and I felt like hey, this may be it , but truth be told I still felt the outsider even though I value all of the friends I made their dearly, and then I graduated high school. On a side note it was via my reading the youth ministers books that I first learned the terms Paganism, Occult, and my desire to study all religions for the common thread  was spurned.

So I left for College and well got into role playing and all and learned the D&D was not of the devil   and all those books were little more than fear mongering trash. Keep in mind this was a Christian college.

Well, anyways, when I left the college having gotten bored with being there and missing home  I came back  started visiting friends churches  one was a Church of God… to be honest the place was just too weird for me. So again for a while I stopped going anywhere.

Then I met a young lady whom I now harbor a deep seated hatred for (long story and not going into it now) and started visiting her church being Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and indeed it was to say my first introduction to the concept of ” Ancestor worship”   even though that’s technically not what honoring Saints is, it is a step in that direction. So for a while Christianity made sense to me, but after we were no longer a couple I stopped going there and started to look at the history of the religion kind of trying to connect all the dots so to speak. So for a few years after my divorce I had no faith to speak of, I mean I wasn’t truly an atheist nor an agnostic, I had simply given up caring one way or the other about anything spiritual.

Anyways, then an odd thing happened I got a job at the high school I went to as a security guard  and met a few people whom have endeared themselves to me as loyal and trustworthy friends, some of which had these unique religious beliefs. And so I started to look into their various faiths just to see what values they espoused. So I started looking into the modern day faith of Wicca mostly via books at first ( have a somewhat extensive library of Wiccan related books) and even joined the faith via the Correllian Nativist Tradition via their Witchschool.com website  even liked the  place so much I became a member of the inner court meaning I became a part of their priesthood  but after the tradition  went through a schism between the American  covens and those overseas, I left the tradition along with my mentor & all of our combined students, and all went our own ways spiritually speaking.

Roughly after I joined  the Correllian Nativist Tradition I became interested in modern Druidism as such following a suggestion from a gentleman I met at a Pagan gathering I looked up Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF) and switched up my focus so to speak via their dedicant program and online discussion groups I have learnt a great deal about  all the indo European traditions  and for some time I felt Celtic-recon was the thing for me (under the concepts espoused by ADF that is to say)

Anyways I keep an on and off again membership with them even tried and failed to start and help start local study group. At any rate while whole heartedly being a Modern Pagan I started looking into the Eastern faiths other than Christianity and will say they all have equal beauty to me, but none have really  felt right to me, on a visceral level. So  I have shelved my study of them. Which is not to say that all these various faiths don’t have their own beauty and value mind you, they just don’t feel like home,  and I feel a spiritual path should feel natural to a person, not like it is work to believe it and live it.

That being said I come looking into my ancestors  Native Pre-Christian  faiths & practices (with in the modern constructs of  sacrifice, etc) These things I learned via ADF, but  after  looking more into my family’s history and some UPG I felt drawn to the God’s of my Saxon and Norman ancestors. So for say 4 years give or take I have been studying Germanic Neopaganism with a bend towards Saxon Reconstructionism, however I am by far more familiar with the Nordic names for the God’s and tend to use them more often than the Saxon ones.

 

Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Scott Worley: I have some college but have as yet receive a degree other than a few technical certificates. I wish to return to get my  masters in History with a focus in European history some day but with having a limited income and more financial responsibilities than I care for it as many want to’s & need to’s will have to wait.

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Scott Worley: I sometimes find myself in awe of those who have been able to get the degrees I would prefer to have, but at the same time I do not feel a lesser person for not having a sheet of paper to tell the world I know what I know. However, at times being somewhat a reconstructionist where my spiritual path is concerned not having the college background makes getting s few who do to see me as an equal in discussions no matter how much non-college studying I have put into my faith systems lore.

Skepoet: How large are the heathen groups in your area?

Scott Worley: At present in my immediate area of Dothan, Alabama there are no Heathen groups. Seems I am the one and only Heathen in Dothan. I know of one Wiccan coven of the Unicorn Tradition nearby , and there is an Ecclectic “generic” Pagan Circle in the Wiregrass as well. As far as my search has indicated  Járnhallafélagið (Fellowship of Iron Hall)  is the largest organized Heathen  group in Alabama as a whole; however it is too far for me to visit having no transportation.

Skepoet: Do find there are a lot of resources for isolated Heathens?

Scott Worley: Outside of books and stuff one can find online for the sake of studying the lore & various web groups for the sake of “community” & the one national organization that allows for solitary memberships I would say no. Being somewhat isolated as a Heathen I know I often find myself skipping holiday celebrations and the like being as many of the rituals of this faith system are centered around a community dynamic, or at least that’s my take on them.  There are a few good resources but one must look for them as a isolated Heathen or luck up on internet friends whom will point them to where they can find resources. After all Asatru has been called the “religion with homework” .

Skepoet: Do have a relationship with a specific deity or several deities?

Scott Worley: I would say its a little of both. I know more about Thunor (Thor) so I find him more familiar and more like family so to speak so I tend to feel a closer bond with him. However I the UPG that brought me to Asatru from the Druidic path was from Woden, and I have had one bit of unverifiable personal gnosis that that could have come from only Vidarr. So I do honor them as well more often than the rest. But Thunor tends to get the lion’s share of my thought & worship truth be told.

Skepoet: What do you use as the primary sources of your worship textually speaking?

Scott Worley: The Edda’s, the Sagas, but for the sake of ease The Havamal…. but this would be only things I could see as being useful outside of history books that are helpful to me coming from a very loose Reconstructionist ideal.

Skepoet: What do you think of the criticism that the Eddas are corrupted by Christian influence since they are a very late document?

Scott Worley: Honestly I have not given that much thought to it. While I can see some influences  in say the creation myth part in the name similarity in the names Ask & Adam / Embla & Eve but such as influence could have easily been just the opposite the Germanic myth influencing the early Christian ones as far as naming goes.  However one would that the translators would have left their faith at the door when doing the work of translation, but one can never know. Indeed it is the main reason I tend to draw inspiration from multiple translations as I understand many Heathens do, some seem to be more popular than others in example would be The Havamal which I prefer the Bellows or Hollander translations for the language used, other would “swear by” Chisholm and so on. Quite thankful for having ran across that very good internet resource being the online library at the Temple of Our Heathen God’s website.

Skepoet: Some other pagans have noticed that many Heathens are of a formerly Protestant Christian background, but this is largely anecdotal as good records aren’t available. What are the backgrounds of most of the heathens you correspond with?

Scott Worley: I find that among those I know personally & online its a blend of the following former Catholics, former Protestants, Atheists, and Agnostics, and pretty well everything in between. I have even met the odd few who had no previous religious or spiritual beliefs.  As far as active correspondence’s go it seems to be a 50/50 split between the former Catholic & former Agnostic backgrounds. On a side note I have met two verifiable 2cd generation Wiccans and know a few 3rd gen teens as well.

Skepoet:  How could you separate spiritual Volkish heaven groups and information from people using Volkish ideas for ethnic nationalist or other political ends?

Scott Worley: For some groups it is as simple as noticing the language they use. For other groups its a matter of looking at the things they draw inspiration from example being someone say having David Lane as a hero listed in many of it members  list of inspirations. And others it often does boil down to just asking questions of its members and higher ups specifically. At least this is how I have done this so far.

Skepoet: Is there anything you would like to say in closing?

Scott Worley: I only have two thoughts to leave you and any who may read this interview with, both are other men’s words, but sum up the ideas of my personal faith.

My name is not my own.
It is borrowed from my ancestors
and I must return it unstained.
My honor is not my own.
It is on loan from my descendants
and I must give it to them unbroken.
Our blood is not our own.
It is a gift to generations yet unborn.
We should carry it with responsibility.
LIVE TRUE.
– Vincent Enlund

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, herehereherehere,  herehere, here, and here.

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 10

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

 Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: I practice traditional Cornish Wytchcraeft, which is an animist faith that draws upon the folk traditions of the British ‘Cunning Folk’ of south western England. Basically, in many ways it is a region based, reconstructionalist path that seeks to revive the religious beliefs and practices of my ancestors. Because of this ethnographic and historiographical texts play major role in the understanding of my ancestors and my faith.

For those who are not familiar with the term ‘Cunning Folk’ basically a cunning person is essentially a traditional folk-magic practitioner who draws their traditions from the rural practices of the United Kingdom. As whole the cunning folk work with the genuis loci, familiar spirits, and regional divinities.

Unlike modern traditions such as Neo-Paganism, Wicca-Craft, or other earth centered Goddess paths during our spirit work we  do not work with elemental spirits, watch towers, etc. but rather we focus on our shamanistic roots and work with animal totems, our ancestors, etc.

In the case of the Cornish cunning folk we focus our worship on a local deity called ‘The Bucca’. Also, the ancestors and local divinities play major role in worship.

In regards to how I came into my ‘craft’ it is simple. My mother and grandmother were both Pellars and by proxy I am a hereditary pellar and have practiced this faith all my life; However, as this is a reconstructionalist faith I am always learning and discovering new as historians bring new information to light.

Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: I attended Middle Tennessee State University for my Bachelors of Arts in Ethnographic History and did study abroad at Exeter University in Cornwall where I focused on researching church history and while at Exeter doing my own research on traditional Cornish wytchcraeft and pagan cults in Pre-Christian Ireland.

Currently, I am working on my PhD/Masters (dual program) in History at Vanderbilt and my thesis paper is “West Country Witchcraft: Pellars, Cunning Folk, and Charms 1400-1900

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: I believe as a heathen and historian it is my job to practice, record, and educate the public on the way my ancestors traditionally practiced. I believe there is a large amount of misinformation propagated by the social media. Basically, being a historian and heathen has no difference for me; I see the two as linked.

Skepoet: Can you tell me more about ‘The Bucca?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: From an ethnographic perspective, the term Bucca refers in Cornwall to several things. First of all it was common for the fisher folk of Newlyn, Moueshole and Penzance to set aside three fish from their catch to placate the Sea god Bucca Dhu who was said to be the herald and originator of storms, particularly violent storms. In Newlyn their were a number of sites that were associated with this spirits veneration including the Tolcarne, which was said to have where the Bucca foretold the Spanish Raid on Mount’s Bay in 1595.

Another place was the Park an Growse or field of the cross which was situated east of the now large Council estate gwavas. The Rev Lach-Szyrma of St Peters Newlyn considered the Bucca to be the remnant of ancient Cornish sea god a view shared by other antiquarians associated with the Cornish revival. The famous Cornish Folk Story “Duffy and the Bucca” or Duffy and the Devil is based on a different version of the Bucca who was seen riding the moors of Cornwall with a wild hunt of flame eyes dogs in attendance, sometimes known as the Devil and his Dandy Dog’s or East Cornwall, Dando and his dogs.

William Bottrell in 1890 described the Bucca.”The old people spoke of a Bucka Gwidden and a Bucka Dhu – by the former they meant good god, and by the latter an evil one, now known as Bucka boo. I have been told, by persons of credit, that within the last forty years it was a usual practice with Newlyn and Mousehole fishermen to leave on the sand at night a portion of their catch for Bucka.

From a heathen perspective, the Horned One is held as the chief Witch-divinitie in most old cunning traditions and is the vary Initiator of the cunning path.To the traditional witches and cunning folk of Cornwall ‘The Horned One’ is known as Bucca or Buckie in west Devon. ‘The Horned one’ is also ‘ The Horned two’ in the mystic duality of Bucca dhu and Bucca Widden.

Bucca Widden,is the fair god, and may be invoked by the cunning folk for workings of genertive magic,protection,fair weather and nourshing rains. The White Bucca is also associated with the full moon .The White Bucca rules over the ‘light’ part of the year from May’s Eve to Allentide, Bucca white is also associated with the full moon.

Bucca dhu , is the dark god, and my be referred to as Bucca Boo and as Devil. The Black Bucca is associated with all of the workings of spirit communication,blasting,inner worlds,emotions, mind control and dark defensive magic. Much of the Witchs magick involves working with spirits,controling magick,and the inner world,  so thus Bucca dhu appears to be more connected to witchcraft.Bucca dhu rules the ‘dark’ part of the year form Allentide to May Eve, Bucca black is also associated with the dark side of the moon

Now not only is The Bucca ‘The Horned One’ and ‘The Horned Two’ The Bucca is also ‘The Horned Three’ for Bucca dhu and Bucca widden is just two faces of the same deity called Bucca Gam or , The Grand Bucca . Bucca gam is the sabbatic goat of the witches, the resolver of dualities between male and female ,Light and dark, life and death and so on , and a divine androgyne/hermephadite .

Skepoet: As a historian are you familiar with Ronald Hutton’s work on Druidism and Wicca? If you are, how do you feel about it?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: Yes, I am familiar with it but yo be honest as I am working intensely on my own research regarding the heathen practices of the Cornish I haven’t read much on it. Typically speaking I don’t read much about modern pagan traditions. If we are speaking about historians of interest when it comes to witchcraft, folk-magic, and lore or even church history when speaking about the cunning-craft Owen Davies is much better.

When reading about the cunning-craft I focus mostly on reading books from Owen Davies, Emma Wilby, Gemma Gary, and Nigel Jackson. Also, reading books on wortcunning, the ‘farms alamanc’, and herbalism plays a even larger role in my approach to the traditional craft.

Skepoet: As a reconstructionist, what do you see as a valid philosophical or religious grounding for justifying a pagan practice?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: In my opinion we have to have some evidence from folklore, primary documentation, or interviews that are affirmed by research that say a particular practice or belief was common amongst a group of people. Without this we are practicing what I term as ‘fake-lore’, which is a common problem found in most books on the market.

Skepoet: Why do you think reconstructing such views are important?

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: Well,  I believe a connection to our ancestors is essential and the only way to do so is to practice the way they did. This requires reconstruction, research, and documentation. If there are gaps I don’t believe in substituting as it defeats the purpose of reconstructionalist faiths.

Skepoet: How do you see people getting involved in a craft if they are not scholars? 

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: You don’t have to be a scholar but just do your own research and use common sense (i.e. comparative analysis) when coming to conclusions about historical practices. In our modern society there is a whole plethora of forums, databases, and online scans of reading material. We also have inter-library loans and many, many scholars who are just a e-mail away to answer your questions. So, no you don’t have to be a scholar but you do have to be honest. Again, without honesty it’s merely ‘fake-lore’.

Skepoet: Do you see some traditions are being nearly un-reconstructable due to lack of sources? 

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: Yes, there are many cultures that have merely died out or didn’t have a writing system to keep records. From the perspective of a historian the practices of so-called neo-lithic peoples worldwide are unreconstructable. Even within our own culture its hard to say. In the case of south west England at one time we had the people of Devon, or Devonians, and I can only assume that their heathen practices much like their language have disappeared and are able to be reconstructed. However, again without good research the issue of fake-lore.

Other examples are shamanistic practices from Metis societies, Indo-Arabic pagan practices, etc.

Skepoet: Do what do you think of using say other Indo-European religions such as Vedic hinduism as a way to fill in knowledge camps in Recon religions? (The ADF does this a good deal).

Dárroçh Dubhghlas Greagoir: Well, as I said before I don’t think substituting for lack of information is beneficial for reconstructionalist religions. If we fall into that pitfall we are only a step away from substituting folklore for ‘fake-lore’.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, herehereherehere,  herehere, and here

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 9

Skepoet:  What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Jennifer Lawrence: I was brought up Roman Catholic by a very strict Irish Catholic father and stepmother.  I knew I wasn’t comfortable from that faith from a fairly early age, and had neopagan leanings as early as second or third grade, including a deep love of mythology and a lot of time spent wandering in the woods.  I left home at the age of 18 in 1985 to attend college for the first time and left Catholicism behind at the same time, starting a slow and not always deliberate search for a religion that was a better match for me.  Without knowing much of anything about modern paganism at the time, I drifted to a sort of Greek mythology-influenced pantheism that laid heavy emphasis on certain gods — Hermes, Demeter, Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Dionysos, and Hestia — and the nymphs and nature spirits.  In 1994 or so, a former friend introduced me to Wicca; I hadn’t realized there was anyone out there that thought in similar lines.  I was living way out in the country on a farm in Wisconsin at the time, 30 miles from the nearest town, which made it hard to look for like-minded people. From there, with the help of the internet and the local Borders (and eventually, Amazon.com), I educated myself toward a more historically-accurate mostly-recon set of beliefs that honor the three pantheons that my ancestors (most of my family background comes from Ireland, Scotland, and England) would have honored: Irish Celtic (the Tuatha de Danann), Greek, and Norse (plenty of Greek and Roman pagans among the legions that conquered England, and then the Anglo-Saxon beliefs of the people from Germany and the northlands that came after them).

Skepoet:  What is your academic background?

Jennifer Lawrence: I have a Bachelor of Arts in English (concentration in Literature, with a specialization on Classical and Medieval European Literature), a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, and some post-graduate coursework in Medieval Latin.  (All these come from a small Catholic liberal arts college in Indiana, Calumet College of St. Joseph, plus a few English classes from when I was 18, at Truman State University in Missouri, before I dropped out – no self-discipline at that age.)

Skepoet:  How do you see these interacting with each other?

Jennifer Lawrence: The English degree introduced me to stories, plays, and poetry from a time period spanning the works of the early Greeks all the way through the time of Shakespeare.  Plenty of books that form the core of several Recon faiths are encompassed by this time period: the Homeric Hymns, the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece; Beowulf and the sagas for the Norse; and the Tain, the Dindshenchas, and the Cath Maige Tuired of Ireland.

The Criminal Justice degree gave me a good footing in law (the combination of the two degrees was meant to be a Pre-Law basis, but I never went on to law school) and a better understanding of how society functions within the laws and what happens when they are ignored.

Ironically, it’s generally said that the druids in early England spent up to twenty years in training, and that the training included both ‘verses and oral literature’ and the laws of the tribes they belonged to, so without consciously realizing it, I chose an overall course of study that somewhat mimicked that.

I’d also add that college in general gave me a better understanding of research methods and critical thinking, both of which I use a lot in my day-to-day reading on pagan topics.

Skepoet:  The relationship between Wicca and the reconstructionist pagan groups can be complicated.   How did your introduction to Wicca affect your practice?

Jennifer Lawrence: Well, to be specific, what I was introduced to is the eclectic American Wicca that’s very popular these days, rather than any form of traditional Wicca (i.e. Gardnerian, Alexandrian, etc.)  It was reassuring to realize that there *were* people out there believing in similar lines to what I believed, but at the same time, even then it was becoming apparent that Gerald Gardner had created, rather than preserved, most of the teachings he spread.  I wanted something with a more historically accurate practice (I’ve always had a love for archaeology and ancient cultures, although I have no formal teaching in it, just a LOT of books).  Metaphorically, learning about Wicca, and that forms of modern paganism existed, was the warm-up before a race; learning about Recon paganism — and choosing to practice it — was the marathon itself.

I don’t disdain Wicca for what it is; it obviously works for a lot of people.  But it’s not for me.  Nonetheless, if I hadn’t found out about it, I might never have discovered the Recon paths, so in a sense, I’m grateful for it.

Skepoet:  How do you see the various Recon faiths interacting? What principles do you see guiding that interaction?

Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I can’t speak to anything officially, of course; but I do see the occasional bit of interfaith work between recon faiths.  The Celts and the Norse have a lot of similarities in certain customs and practices; likewise there are points where the Celts and the Romans interacted, historically, that provides a basis for interaction.  Most of my interaction with other recons comes solely online, unfortunately; I would love to see, and be able to attend, a large, Recon-oriented pagan festival some day.  I think Pantheacon is the closest to something of that sort currently, although it’s not specifically recon-oriented.

Some of the principles you see guiding this sort of interaction are a recognition of common custom similarities (hospitality, historical accuracy, honor, etc.); there is not just temporal overlap between faiths, but also areas in the world where the original historical faiths were practiced at the same time, or almost the same time.  That provides a sort of common stomping ground to consider during such interactions.

Skepoet:  What problem do you think recon faiths deal with with trying to balance traditional practices with the modern world?

Jennifer Lawrence: here are a number of problems that recons must deal with in balancing traditional practices in the modern world.

First and foremost is the situation that colors and affects all the rest:  the amount of information on traditional practices is definitely limited in varying degrees, depending on which pagan culture is being practiced, because so much information on those practices — writings, statues, temples, etc. — was destroyed by the adherents of the conquering monotheistic culture (the Christian Church) — as they came to a pagan culture and became the dominant faith there.  It happened first in Rome, thanks to Paul of Tarsus; Christians were persecuted for their failure to take part in government-supported activities (which is what the sacrifices to the ancient Roman gods were, a means for all citizen to support the Roman empire and do their bare minimum to bring about its continued success by pleasing the gods) until the Edict of Milan in C.E. 313 granted religious tolerance toward the Christians. Christianity slowly moved from a tolerated minority faith in the Roman Empire to the official state religion, and after Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it spread outward to all the reaches of the Empire — Britain, the northern lands (what is today Norway and Denmark and Sweden), the lands of the Germanic tribes, and so on. Evan after Rome fell, Christianity continued to spread. In some cultures, almost all traces of the previous pagan faiths were utterly eradicated; in others, traces were preserved but Christianized by the invaders. In places where the previous culture had been a literate one, like Greece and Rome itself, a relatively large amount of information was preserved, enough to give a reasonably complete look at the beliefs and practices of the pagan culture; in other places, where everything was passed on orally (such as the Druidic practices of the British Isles), very little was preserved, and what is available is mostly reconstructed from fragments, and thus, subject to uncertainty about the interpretations provided.

Because the information on these older cultures that we have is incomplete and possibly (in some cases, definitely) tainted by the influence of monotheistic religious cultures, there will always be the question of whether the practices we are following are correct. The eternal question of whether we are reconstructing a practice, restoring it, or making it up in part or entirely is something that each pagan traditionalist has to consider and solve for him- or herself. Most of the recons I know are avid archaeology buffs because of this; every new find we locate from the past helps to clarify the cultures we are interested in, and may add significant new pieces formerly missing from that puzzle.

Most of the other problems regarding traditional practices in the modern world deal with moral issues. For example, it cannot be denied that pagans from older cultures kept slaves, treated women and children in a way that is generally considered wrong today, and practiced (in some, but not all cases) human sacrifices.

The evolution of our beliefs on these things today reflects a general evolution of human consciousness on moral matters in general, although there are still a number of very conservative non-pagan faiths that tend to treat women and children (and GLBT persons) as second-class citizens at best.  However, regarding human — and animal — sacrifice, which were practiced by many different pagan faiths (more of which sacrificed animals than people), all modern recons agree that human sacrifice is taboo, and most modern recons believe that the gods are just as satisfied with non-living sacrifices (incense, candles, grain, fruit, libations of wine, honey, etc.) as they were with animal sacrifices.  There is a very small minority of recon faiths that still practice animal sacrifice, although not often; there is also a small number of recon practitioners who will offer up sacrifices of commercially-acquired meat (steak, etc.) without sacrificing the animal themselves.  (This is most common, at least to my knowledge, with Hellenic Recons, although I know of a couple of Heathens who do it, also.)

In all the cases I can think of, recon pagans have adapted traditional practices that conflict with modern moral values to blend with the standards of our current time and culture, taking into account facts and principles that earlier pagan cultures would not have known or did not see in that light, given the practices of their times.

Skepoet:  Do you think one must separate between spiritual practices of paleo-cultures with say superstitious ones? For example, deciding if a practice was part of necessary cultus or was sort of pragmatically inclined but entirely pre-scientific. Many ancient medical practices around say Asclepius come to mind

Jennifer Lawrence: I suppose that depends on whether you’re giving the term “pre-scientific” negative or neutral connotations.

Skepoet: I wouldn’t say negative; however, I also wouldn’t say that going that, for example, we should adopt Galen’s medical practices because priests used them either.  The line seems hard to parse in some areas. You, however, may disagree.

Jennifer Lawrence: My impression is that there is a certain amount of separation going on, especially in dealing with things of a scientific or medical background.  In some cases, recon pagans such as myself with augment scientific practices with spiritual ones, as folk of most religions do; for example, making an offering to Apollo or Asclepius when dealing with medical troubles, but this would be done in *addition* to visiting a doctor, taking medicine, or having surgery, rather than *instead* of those things.  I think, in the end, there are very few “fundamentalist” pagans of any stripe who believe the myths of their faiths as literal truth.  I am a “hard” polytheist, in that I believe in the gods on a literal basis, not as metaphor meant to explain scientific truths that earlier cultures didn’t understand; however, I believe that the gods work within the boundaries of the universe.

I hope that answered the question; I’m not sure if I accurately understood your difference between spiritual practices and superstitious ones.  As I understand it, all spiritual practices are considered superstitious by some people; the rituals of pagans are considered superstitious by Jews and Christians, but the prayers of Jews and Christians are considered superstitious by atheists, so it’s all a matter of perspective.

Skepoet: Yes, I wanted to get your logic on the dividing line.   What do you think of soft polytheism within the Reconstructionist community?

Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I think it may happen, but not very often.  The whole point of being Reconstructionist is historical accuracy, and conflating deities with other deities isn’t much on historical accuracy.  Now, I see *syncretism* happening all the time, and that IS historically accurate — the Romans in particular “adopted” the gods of the lands they conquered, seeing them as their own gods under different names.  Greek, Celtic, Egyptian deities all were subsumed or brought into the Roman imperial religion, one way or another.  There are a lot of statuary fragments and inscriptions all over Britain with inscriptions to “Lugus-Mercury” or “Lugus-Mars”, “Sulis-Minerva”, etc.

I know a lot of recons (mostly online, not IRL, but…), and AFAIK, all of them are hard polytheist, not soft.  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I just tend to think that folks who are drawn to the recon form of polytheism aren’t likely to be soft polytheists in the first place.

Skepoet : Interestingly, actually, most Kemetic and a good deal of Hellenic are semi-soft polytheists pulling from Neo-Platonic and Hermetic thinking historically legitimately, but I also use the term semi-soft for reasons that are obvious as I don’t know anyone who would say Dionysus is also Tyr or something akin to it.  But I may understand “soft” polytheist differently than you.  How do you understand the terms?

Jennifer Lawrence:  y understanding of “soft” polytheism is that there are folks who are polytheist, but believe there are only one set of gods, and each culture had different names for them.  For example, Zeus, Thor, Taranis are all storm gods; a soft polytheist would see them all as the *same* god, just under different names.  The same for Aphrodite, Aife, and Freya (beauty/love), or Poseidon, Manannan, and Njörðr (ocean gods), to give a couple of examples.  I have generally seen this mostly among pagans who follow gods from European cultures, but I’ve heard of at least one person who extended it to cover all the gods in the world — Egyptian, Hindu, Aztec, Shinto, the orisha/loa, etc.

As a hard (really hard) polytheist, technically I even believe in the existences of Yahweh, Satan, and Jesus Christ.  They’re just not MY gods.

Skepoet : We are close to the same page.   I think that would be varying in commonality from culture to culture. Semi-Soft Polytheism would definitely be a descriptor.   Are there any pantheons that you think are un-reconstruct-able?

Jennifer Lawrence:  Honestly?  The ones that have left no (or next to no) historical traces behind whatsoever.  That doesn’t happen very often, and by definition, if cultures have vanished from history, we’re not going to know about them to reconstruct them.

I think that cultures with very little historical traces are definitely *harder* to reconstruct, and the people who wish to do so should probably take a hard look at how much effort will be involved and whether it’s worth the work…but it’s hard to tell the gods NO, and we have no real control over the ones who call us, do we?

I think there are aspects to certain religious rites that shouldn’t be reconstructed no matter how much historical evidence of; we were talking about human sacrifice awhile back, and that’s the primary example I can think of.  But that’s more or less a whole different ball of wax, I suppose.

Skepoet : What organizations do you think are doing a good job helping getting things established for Reconstructionists that you have worked either directly or indirectly?

Jennifer Lawrence:  Well, I’m affiliated with the Troth (Asatru); my husband, in fact, is their steward for Northern Illinois.  I’m also affiliated with Hellenion, and sit on the Boule for that org as of last September (the Boule is the advisory group to their Council).  There is also Neos Alexandria, a group devoted to Hellenic/Egyptian syncretism, whose aim is to be as historically accurate as possible; they’ve started publishing a line of devotional anthologies to the gods with their publishing line, Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  (Disclosure: I have poetry and/or stories published in a number of those works.)

Other orgs I’m part of are Ord Brigideach, a flametending group for Brigid, and Ár nDraíocht Féin, the Druid organization, but neither are specifically recon, although ADF does encourage rigorous academic pursuit by its members.

I also highly recommend the Celtic Recon group Imbas; they do excellent work and have a number of very stringent scholars amongst their ranks.  Unfortunately, last I checked, I think they were going through a period of reorganization, and may be closed to new members until such time as they finish.  I am hoping to join them when they re-open, but I haven’t checked if they’d re-opened in some time (at least a couple of months).

I hear good things about Ord na Darach Gile, the Druid Order of White Oak, but I haven’t had a chance to look into it much.  However, I know a couple recons I respect very highly are a part of it.

I’m less aware of other recon organizations, especially for those faiths that have smaller numbers: Babylonian/Sumerian/Assyrian faiths, Egyptian, Aztec/Mayan/Incan, etc.  There may be groups for those religions, but if there are, I’ve never heard of them.

Skepoet : Do you think the is need for larger local chapters to do festivals and rituals, or do you think that much of the communities involved are too geographically spread out?
Jennifer Lawrence:  Well, I’m largely unaware that this is an issue; then again, I live 15 minutes from downtown Chicago and about 3 hours from Indianapolis; there are plenty of festivals and the like in this area (Pagan Spirit Gathering and Pan-Pagan Gathering both recently, and then local Pagan Pride Days every year by plenty of local communities, even the small one for our Indiana county).  I can imagine that it’s a problem in very rural areas; then again, I don’t know if there is a large number of pagans in very rural areas.  When I was living in VERY rural southwestern Wisconsin, during my vaguely-Greek-themed animist/pantheist phase, before I discovered organized Wicca and then the Recon faiths, I didn’t know of any other pagans at all (granted, this was in the early 90s, before Hollywood started using Wiccans and pagans as characters or concepts).

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Jennifer Lawrence:  .I really can’t think of anything.  I’m not much of one for grand, sweeping statements; I just hope what I said made sense and may turn out to be helpful, even for one person.  Thank you for letting me take part in this!

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, herehereherehere,  here, and here

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 8

Jessica G. is a pagan Reconstructionist from the United States

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Jessica G.: I was raised in a very conservative Methodist family, and I was the church’s “guinea pig” child for experimenting with teaching tools and programs. They would try out different books and movies and songs on me, then based on my reaction decide whether to roll them out into the Sunday School programs. (Ironically, this didn’t have much effect on increasing my belief – I stopped believing in Christian doctrines at a very early age, other than a residual baseless fear that the Divine was an angry otherworldy judge who punished every little thing.)

My parents encouraged me to read, and didn’t seem to much care or pay attention to what I was reading, so from about age five I started devouring mythology and folklore books. I also had a fascination with books about other religions. At one point, about age 8, I became aware that Wicca existed and, because I didn’t know of the existence of any other pagan religions, I became Wiccan. As I grew older I learned about other branches of the Pagan family, but while the Norse branch caught my interest I was frightened off by the reputation and stereotypes of Asatruar/Heathens. Eventually I met friends who were majoring in Scandinavian Studies, went to a school affiliated with Sweden and met a bunch of exchange students (including some Saami), Loki took an interest in me, and the dam broke. I still have a distaste for and distrust of a lot of Asatruar and Heathens, however, for various reasons. (And they for me, as Lokeans are pretty widely discriminated against in that community and regarded something like how Christians regard Satanists.)
Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Jessica G.: I was in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs all through K-12, then was a Physics and Spanish major at college, with a side focus on business, other languages (I love learning languages as a hobby) and several world religion and (Christian) theology courses.

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Jessica G.: My language skills help me translate and read research documents I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and my background in math and science causes me to think about many things logically. That said, at some point there is always that “suspension” of logic and cynicism when you come across experiences that cannot be rationally proven or measured and recorded. Religion and spirituality dips into a realm where we have no empirical tools – when confronted with unexplainable experiences, the individual comes to a choice of trusting their gut feeling about it, or clinging to cynicism and disregarding it as a bunch off fluke happenstances. My personal experiences would be very difficult to ignore, and so I choose to suspend the scientific way of thinking in that area and deal with them the only other way that I can: within the realm of belief and intuition, with a side of historical research.

Skepoet: Can you explain the strange relationship to Lokians and Asutaurs a bit more?

Jessica G.: This is a complicated situation. It’s a conglomeration of a number of different factors – the average personality type that is attracted to Asatru/Heathenry, the background and culture said people tend to come from, the saturation of dualism throughout Western culture overall… many things.

Many Asatruar/Heathens tend to come from Christian upbringing and absorb both the dualism and the tendency to rely on texts as the ultimate authority. When they convert, they keep this reliance on texts and tend to regard “The Lore” as a sort of Heathen Holy Bible. Being as most of the surviving texts counted as Lore were put down in the dying/dead years of the old faith by Christians who had a vested interest in portraying things in certain ways, there is a certain amount of “Christianization” and corruption in the texts. The converts swallow the texts wholesale and interpret  things according to their background (usually Christianity), and you get Judgement Day/Ragnarok with God/Odin/Good on one side and the Devil/Loki/Evil on the other, black and white. (This is the simplest explanation, which is USUALLY the reason there is such opposition to Lokeans.)

Lokeans, of course, feel close to Loki, tend to read the texts differently, and have a very different worldview. Because the original texts have to be closely examined for Christian slanting and corruption and, as it’s poetry, a variety of interpretations are possible, Lokeans are not simply “choosing the evil side because they think it’s goth/badass/etc”. The opposition is so uniform, however, that Lokeans are always dismissed as angst-ridden goth rebellious teenagers, crazy dangerous fringe people, Heathen Satanists, cult leaders, or the like. It’s not even accepted that Lokeans have a different interpretation and worldview so that, to them, they AREN’T picking the “obviously evil” side… but other Heathens tend not to be interested in learning about what their interpretations ACTUALLY ARE.

Lokeans are often banned from live events, ridiculed or banned from online communities, and in some cases recieve threats of violence or death if they don’t stay hidden and quiet. Lokeans tend to also be very Liberal-leaning and include a lot of people from the LGBTQA community, which adds two more tension points in contrast to the makeup of mainstream Heathenry.

Skepoet: Heathenry and Astru seems to have a mixed reputation, maybe not entirely earned, for being the somewhat reactionary politically compared to the rest of the Neo-pagan movement.   Well this is honestly not entirely fair, what do you think has led to this
stereotype?

Jessica G.: It’s not undeserved – it is, quite sadly, a result of the population base Asatru tends to attract. Despite the fact that Norse/Germanic culture and Celtic culture were “kissing cousins” and experts have trouble sorting out what names and archeological finds apply to which culture… the Celtic branches of Neopaganism tend to attract more Liberal-leaning people, and Asatru/Heathenry more conservative-leaning people. This is not entirely uniform – there are pockets who are moderate or liberal, and Lokeans as a sub-group tend to be VERY liberal. Overall, however, the stereotype is there for a reason.

I’m not entirely certain of why certain types of people are attracted to Asatru/Heathenry over other Neo-pagan branches. I think it has something to do with the (incorrect) notion that the Norse gods are the most “badass and masculine” of the gods, just like to fight and kill things a lot, and that the women were the keyholders and kept house and cooked and did weaving and “traditional womanly arts”. Asatru is perceived as having a social structure much like conservative Protestant branches, and so it attracts people who favor that structure. They take that framework and slap Heathen wallpaper over the top – the Bible becomes the Lore, God is Odin or Thor, Balder is Jesus, Loki is the Devil, women need to marry a Good Heathen Man and Propagate The Race With Lots of Kiddos. (The racism stereotype is also, sadly, deserved, as much as people are working within Heathenry to try to fix that problem.)
Skepoet: Was it one experience or a slow built up that led you to Loki?

Jessica G.: It wasn’t a slow buildup. He was the first god to actually answer me and manifest changes in my life. Despite the idea people seem to have that calling Loki is like calling a hurricane, every single thing he’s done has taught me a crucial skill, positioned me in the right place at the right time, networked me to crucial people, healed me of something… the net effect is always positive, even if it doesn’t appear like it at the time. I’ve also experienced freak bursts of luck that “pull the bacon out of the fire”, so to speak. The key to him seems to be whether you treat him with respect and what you’re expecting. If all you can mentally fathom from him is “horrible troublemaker”, that’s the only doorway you are giving him, so that’s the way he’ll manifest.

Loki and Odin are both very responsive gods, more like each other than the followers of Odin perhaps like to admit, and both gods are interacting quite a bit with humanity now and recruiting people to Heathenry. (This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone claiming to be a Lokean or Odinsman actually is one. Some do just like the concept of Bad Boy Trickster or Warleader Gallows God. My litmus test for whether an Odinsman has actually interacted with Odin is whether or not they accept Lokeans. Not whether they like them or are friends with them, but whether they just plain accept them and are at least neutral towards them. If they aren’t, I doubt they’ve really had experiences with Loki’s blood brother.)

Skepoet: There are many even within Asatru that admit that Asatru’s source material, such as the Eddas, were already corrupted by exposure to Christian ideology.  Do you think there is a lot of truth to this?

Jessica G.: There’s more than a lot of truth to this. There have been multiple papers written on it by non-Heathen scholars. As a direct result of reading said papers, along with my personal experiences (which are often called UPG, Unverified Personal Gnosis, and disgustedly dismissed in Heathen communities), I don’t believe in a Linear End-times Ragnarok as it’s written in the surviving texts. I believe that that interpretation is a result of Christian corruption and that, previously, everything was cyclical. I think Heathenry as a whole would be much improved if people would work past the Christian framework and interpretations they carry with them.

Skepoet:  Do you think such scholarly issues complicate pagan Reconstructionist movements?

Jessica G.: Yes and no. It certainly fills in the gaps and helps people understand pieces of the ancient worldview. It gives some guidance for how to practice the faith. At the same time, people take such findings and scholarly theories as rock-solid proof and build their entire faith core around things, then are shattered when certain theories are disproven. (This is exacerbated by the fact that most easily available scholarly documents are VERY out of date, so people tend to be working with things that were disproven 50+ years ago…)

Good example of this – a lot of people build core pieces of their belief on the idea that the Vanir are a different tribe than the Aesir, were defeated, and are now dominated by the more warlike clan. There is even a separate branch of Heathenry called Vanatru which focuses ONLY on Vanir-tribe gods and goddesses. Rudolf Simek recently came out with some findings and a theory that tries to show that there was no separate Vanir tribe, and he’s very convincing. Despite the fact that all his other works have been lauded, many people have been ignoring the hell out of his Vanir paper because they don’t want to reconsider what they’ve constructed.

Skepoet: Do you think the lack of access to scholarly material easily has led to a lag in the pagan community?   For example, many Wiccans held up to many theories of Robert Graves and Frazer for about three more decades than the scholarly community, but now the problematic issues of those texts is pretty readily accepted.

Jessica G.: Yes, that’s a very apt comparison.

Skepoet: Do you think the educational level of those involved with pagan reconstruction and other craft/occult movements has changed recently?

Jessica G.: I cannot really speak for all branches of Neo-paganism, but I’ve noticed many general Neopagans and Wiccan-leaning pagans getting relevant degrees and starting to research and write (as with Triumph of the Moon), and there has certainly been an increase in people interested in pursuing higher education levels in Heathenry. Archeology, linguistics, Norse or German cultural studies, psychology, divinity… we seem to have a growing base of people willing to take on the role and work of the scholar or informed researcher, and to me this seems to be showing as current scholarly works and papers are becoming more accessible in the community.

Skepoet: Are there any other demographic shifts you’ve observed in recent years since becoming involved in the various pagan communities?

Jessica G.: This could be regional, and it’s based upon limited personal experience… but I’m seeing more of a shift towards gender balance (more women getting into Heathenry, more men getting into women-dominated branches of Neo-paganism) and a surge in interest in recon forms of Neo-paganism. Celtic recon, recon Hellenismos, recon Kemeticism, and recon Heathenry have all seen a boost of activity and interest and/or increased publicity.

Interestingly, while this isn’t a demographic shift per se… the popular cultures to appropriate ideas from no longer seems to be Native American cultures. I’m noticing a huge influx of people borrowing from the African Traditional Religions and African Diaspora Traditions and folklore.

Skepoet: Do you see this appropriation as problematic in any way?

Jessica G.: It depends on how it is done (respectfully or not), whether it’s fullscale appropriation or gathering inspiration for developing one’s own practices, and whether people are trying to pass said new or appropriated practices and ideas off to others as being old, authentic traditions.

Good examples of this: Norse cultures were historically VERY close to the Saami tribes and both of them borrowed heavily from one another, so looking to Saami practices to try to understand Norse Seidhr and shamanic practices isn’t too far of a stretch, and as far as I know the individuals who have done this sort of research (like Yngona) have been respectful when visiting and learning from the Saami.

Poor examples of this: wholesale borrowing of the Vodou, Santeria, Candomble, and other North American African Traditional Religions and then pasting new god names in. Not only can the practices in these traditions be very dangerous for someone who isn’t properly trained, it’s often steeped in false information (such as trying to pass it off as historically authentic) and accompanied by a lot of drama and accusations of plagiarism and theft. Heathens swiping the Dakota Sun Dance ordeal wholesale and certain Kemetic branches swiping ideas and practices from completely different areas of Africa are samples of this that I find troubling, especially when they vehemently deny what they are doing.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, hereherehere, here, and here.

On Populism: Interview with Jamie McAfee

Jamie McAfee is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a long-time friend and former colleague of mine.  Lately he and I have been talking about populism: its definition, uses, and abuses.  Starting the ideas of Ernesto LaClau and working forward, he and I talked about the developing idea of populism in American.   Jamie’s take is interesting and his studies on the uses of rhetoric make populism all the more complicated to deal with.

Skepoet: You and I have been discussing populism and variant definitions of it, particularly LaClau’s definition.  What do you see as a viable definition of populism?

Jamie McAfee : Thanks for asking. I’m flattered by the invitation, and it’s a chance for me to spill out some thoughts that I need to spill out anyway.

I like Laclau’s definition, which as I understand (meaning “I think that Laclau means” but admittedly “as I interpret him through my own filter”) it is something like the following: “Populism is a political practice that involves the deployment of anti-authoritarian symbols that are associated with some kind of class and/or national identity. For Laclau, deploying symbols is how classes are articulated together, and so understanding populism is intimately connected to understanding how class struggle could be constructed, even though populism usually serves the status quo and often rejects socialist goals.”

“Populism” does not imply any particular political program. Central to his theory (or my version of it) is that populist symbols float from one place to another (his essay ends with this as the conclusion), and the strategy we’re labeling “populism” isn’t the province of anybody in particular. Populism can be left wing,right wing, racist, social justice oriented, etc. National Socialism began as a populist movement. Occupy Wall Street has aspects of becoming a populist movement. The labor movement in the U.S. was a populist movement. Part of Laclau’s argument is that populism is a symptom of the contradictions inherent to being a political subject living under a state capitalism regime. We are going to feel some animosity against “authority” on behalf of our “group.” Populism is the strategy of trying to define and exploit this animosity, often by associating our group with traditional, pre-industrial iconography and associating whatever we are opposing as the machine. Populist tropes are kinda like memes that get picked up by different people every so often (more like lolcats than the stuff Dawkins meant by the term). Populism is often understood as a rhetorical style- when you claim you are representing “the people” and opposing “the elites”- and Laclau means something that can be crudely understood as being that. What makes populism populism is that it is what rhetoricians call epideictic rhetoric- rhetoric that is meant to define the audience in a certain way through appeals to values and identity. Laclau puts a lot of weight on the meme thing also, which seems useful.

People (including me) sometimes use the word pejoratively to refer to anti-intellectual lizard brain politics or they use it in opposition to “rational,” much as people use the word “rhetoric” pejoratively. And like “rhetoric,” I think a legitimate issue one might introduce into talking about populism is where to draw the boundary around what we include. A very broad definition of populism would include pretty much anything done to get people to participate in either political dissent or representative democracy. I don’t think that’s useful, and it isn’t what Laclau probably meant, but one could use the theory as a lens for lots of stuff. I’m not advocating throwing the word all over the place, but it’s provocative enough to suggest ways to discuss a lot of things we don’t usually mean when we say “populism.” (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy theorize “hegemony” as a much richer all purpose term for political discussion, and before I let a populism discussion get out of hand, I’d advocate jumping over to that book instead of getting all carried away.)

The “purest” and most instructive example of populism in action that we’ve got going in the U.S. at the moment is the (post-Republican base infiltrated version of the) tea party. They are really overt in how they appropriate symbols- American revolutionary war stuff in this case. They are articulating their politics to anti-authoritarian, “revolutionary” symbols. They romanticize the 18th century. All those memes of tension with modern advanced capitalism, and the big state that goes along with it, are in service of a rhetoric that puts “the people” against the “elites.”  That rhetoric, however, is in service of a political project that is very, very conservative, even regressive, and it is a project that is overtly hostile to the left and very friendly to capitalism. (Since we’re talking about Marx stuff here, “revolutionary” for the American rebellion against the British Empire is problematic, but that’s kind of how populism works.) The right has been winning the battle for claiming populism as their own in the U.S. for some time now, which is one reason they keep moving those goalposts on us. They’ve got a good chunk of “the people” invested in defining left wing, or even classical liberal, ideas as oppression imposed by a class of elites. They are sort of pro-free market, but they seem to be a lot more anti-liberal.

Best things about this theory: it’s not essentialist and it offers some symmetry in discussing how politics works in the service of different goals. Worst thing about it: it seems to permanently displace any hope of a theory for political consciousness that isn’t rooted in partisanship.

One last thought and I’ll shut up. . . .

One thing I’ve been thinking about that complicates this whole business is how media culture has displaced the kind of “folk” culture that LaClau talks about as the populist meme generator. Anonymous might be understood as using a kind of populist rhetoric since they dress up like a comic book character. Since they are more interested in constructing a particular counter culture identity than in enrolling people into a class identity, it’s not really populism at all, but it seems like the strategies they use and their relationship to cultural memes is analogous. I think the future of populism is going to get a lot less rooted in particular real geographies and a lot more hyperreal. In a way, the symbolic nature of populism means that it’s already a bit like that. Who uses hammers or cycles anymore?

(One of the reasons for my negative gut reaction to Anonymous is that I find their comic book fantasy rhetoric to be stupid. “V” has its moments, but in it was kind of the start of Alan Moore’s thinking about superheroes rather than the best thinking Alan Moore did about superheroes.)

Skepoet: Would you say that a lot of American politics right now is adopting a populist posture?  For example, you and I discussed how this applied to both Chomsky and Herman Cain.  Perhaps even the vague “Change” campaign message of Obama was a populist message.

Jamie McAfee: I do think that, particularly on the right. I tend to think that liberal (Dems, I mean) appeals to “the people” are often more appeals to democratic idealism or something like a social contract than real populism, although that kind of move is certainly epideictic rhetoric. I tend to think that we need to draw boundaries around “populism” so that the word refers to some sense of class struggle, although “class struggle” in this case may or may not be well informed, self reflexive class struggle. “Change” and “Hope” do have populist overtones, but in a pretty vague way that didn’t really leave the kind of imprint that really effective populism leaves. There was, I think, an element of a Rorschach test in some of his campaigning, which is kind of related to how populism functions, but he didn’t really go very far in narrowing the possibilities for articulation. Obama got himself elected, but I don’t think he did much to realign how we talk about anything. As it turns out, he’s just tacked toward a more traditional kind of conservatism than what our sometimes loony right endorses.

The American right is so overtly populist that it’s going to stop being interesting soon. Stuff that sounds like common sense (that’s the definition of hegemony, of course) is stuff the right likes. Herman Cain wants to simplify the tax code into something that can be a slogan. Down to the point even of living up to Laclau’s theory about using romantic nationalistic symbols of pre-industrial life as symbols of rebellion. George W. Bush made political hay out of owning a “ranch” for God’s sake. (I don’t know if it’s a working ranch, but I’d be surprised if that were the case.)

I’m troubled by the populist tenancies (or at least, the knee jerk animosity that feels to me like populism) I see in some of the dissident rhetoric floating around right now. When you building your theory around simple animosity, you are not really being responsive to the particularities of specific cases. Populism as a strategy for mobilizing people may be necessary, and it may be a way to think about how classes are constructed and coalitions are built, but it’s not a stance for analysis. When I see idealistic young people who inadvertently sound exactly like Glenn Beck, I’m bugged, particularly when these guys are some of the more outspoken activists coming along. I understand that anarchism, in theory, is not the same thing as right libertarianism, but when I see a lot of the stuff I see among some of the idealistic young people I know online, I’m bugged. One of the defining things about populist rhetoric is it’s “meme-likeness,” and when people cultivate ideas that seem so related to right wing rhetoric, I’m not very comfortable.

Skepoet: How do you think Chomsky fits into this? You were speaking about counter-propaganda on the left being problematic in a way?

Jamie McAfee: I think that left wing counter propaganda can be problematic because of that meme likeness that Laclau identifies as a feature of populist discourse. I’m certainly not going to condemn anti-authoritarianism, but it seems counterproductive to me when left wing people overreach and oversimplify in their claims about corporatism or imperialism because they are shoring up anti-authority ideas that aren’t carefully positioned within the specificity of a situation and carefully articulated to a particular enough worldview.

Obviously, people should be able to have political preferences and to advocate for them, but the problematically consistent take on American foreign policy that Chomsky espouses, presumably as a strategic choice, means that the conclusions he gets to are predictable anti authoritarianism, which can be articulated to a wide array of political positions. So, as you noted, Lew Rockwell is a fan. I don’t know if Pat Buchanan is, but if he’s not I don’t understand why. Since Chomsky’s not drawing on popular discourses, I wouldn’t say he’s using populist rhetoric, but I think my ambivalence about him stem from the similarity of what he does to populist discourse. He’s made a deliberate choice to be so consistent (and he’s said it is a choice) in blaming everything on American hegemony so that he can agitate through his writing.

Where I’m being really problematic here is that I seem to be suggesting that analysis and agitation should be separate, which is a stupid position. I think what I mean to say (and I’m kind of getting to the edge of how far I’ve thought this out) is that I’m not sure he’s as useful a thinker as he could have been because some of his work ends up being simplistic empire bashing. Empires need to be bashed, but why are you bashing it? What direction would you have us move? What about dis-confirming evidence? From what I know of him, he’s not strong on those questions. I remember reading some of Christopher Hitchens bashing of Chomsky and thinking Hitch was right on, even though I strongly disagreed (that’s an understatement) with his support of the invasion of Iraq. It was unnecessary to defend Saddam to oppose the invasion. Just as, in the example you mentioned in a blog post, it was unnecessary to minimize the Khmer Rouge to oppose that war. Some kind of moral pragmatism would be preferable to the Manichean perspective I’ve seen in some of his work.

I’m not complaining, by the way, about his specific complaints about specific actions the U.S. has taken or to his complaint about empire. He’s perfectly right, and perfectly wonderful, for worrying over our bad behavior so consistently for so long.

Of course, a perfectly good counterargument is that since his complaints are so unambiguous, and since there are factions on the right who agree with him, it’s great for him to do things that might empower those parts of the right. Of course, I’m not the kind of guy who can imagine ever planning to vote for Ron Paul, so that doesn’t get very far with me, but I can’t really take too much issue with that. I don’t like Paleo-conservatism, but it’s a lot better than neo -conservatism.

(I’m not, by the way, all that deeply knowledgeable about Chomsky’s work, and I’d be prepared to concede to counterarguments that are specific to the rhetorical moves he uses.)

 

Skepoet: You and I both joke about how Fascism has moved from a specific right-wing movement out of far left politics such as national syndicalism to “anything that involves corporations” to “anything that I don’t like.”  We have observed that Imperialism moved from its historical terminology which is a mercentilists Imperial policy to capitalism extraction of resources to any attempt to have political influence.  Do you see these kinds of hollowing out of ideological terms as part of populism?  For example, the confusion with liberal and left?  Or is something else going on?

Jamie McAfee: I don’t think there something else is going on, although this might be where I’d jump from populism to the broader idea of hegemony. “Hollowing out” is a fair way of putting it, since words just end up being pejoratives or banners, but I’d instead say “rearticulated.” In the body of theory I’m leaning on here, fighting about definitions of words is fighting about how social classes are constructed and about worldviews, and so these competing definitions are what the political sphere is.

I’m not arguing that we can’t remind people of the “original” meaning of a world, or the history of a word, and in fact, I’d say that’s exactly what we should do. One reason I like Andrew Sullivan, in spite of his flakiness and his failure to get serious about some civil liberties stuff and empire stuff that he should be more serious about, is that he fights hard for a definition of the word “conservative” that I find appealing. I’m not really a Sullivan conservative, but that’s a point of view that’s reasonable, and it’s a strong counterweight to the right populist goonism that we call “conservatism” right now. (Most people would call what he means Burkean conservatism, although he leans of Oakeshott, who he wrote his thesis about.) Sullivan’s version of conservatism is not the “truer” one, but it’s a better one, and the way he advocates for it is to argue about the word. I’m aware of the argument that conservatism always has a hostile, reactionary core, and that’s a perfectly fine observation, but it doesn’t mean that people can’t fight for a sane definition of the word.

“Meritocracy” is a great example. The word was coined as a negative thing- it was a satire of a social Darwinist dystopia. Now it’s either an unreachable goal, an organizational strategy, or a cultural myth, depending on who you ask.

Certainly this re-articulation stuff is how populism works, although I’m not sure every worthwhile example is really that. Same underlying notion of politics though. I think the “left/liberal” thing is certainly that, as it’s just lumping together all the baddies who seek to oppress god fearing Americans.

By conflating the cultural enemies of the right (the new left), the communist boogieman, and the institutions of government and academia (liberals) together discursively, right populism is easier. So that particular word trick seems to be exactly a function of populism to me.

Skepoet: Interesting. I am reading a book on conservatism and counter-revolutionary thought by Cobin Robins.   He has some stuff to say to Sullivan about how Sullivan’s history is flawed.  Here’s the link if you’re interested.

I feel like this fits into the discussion.

Jamie McAfee: Yeah, I’ve read the reviews of the book, but not the book. It’s certainly relevant, although I think any claim about what “real conservatism” is problematic. I think of it as being kind of like DNA. Some genes can be switched on and off depending on how a political perspective is articulated, but they are still there. I think I’m thinking of Christophe Hitchen’s argument about violence being inherent to religion because it’s in the texts. I’d respond that those genes aren’t going away, but it’s a mistake to say they have to be expressed. The church with the gay pride flag where we pick up our share of local produce every week isn’t going to burn any heretics, but they are certainly Christians.

From what I gather, Robins has a very good point to make for people who want to describe post-neo con conservatism as an aberration. From what I’ve read, I wonder if he isn’t essentializing a bit though. (Or maybe not. I haven’t read it.)We’re talking about discourses here, and Burke might have advocated some reactionary violence at times, but his political theory offers a vision of Sulli conservatism also. All those things are in play, and it’s up to political actors to articulate them. The “best” opponents of the left, in my opinion, deserve some support. I’d rather the right look like Sullivan (well, less flakey, but of that political persuasion) than like Rick Perry. I do probably need to read Robins soon.

I disagree with the complaint that his book “flatters” liberals, if only because the “those guys aren’t even real conservatives” trope is one that liberals like to make when complaining about right populism, which isn’t rigorous like libertarianism or as historically grounded as Burkean conservatism. Yes, right populists are real conservatives.

Skepoet: Do you think either form of populism has the possibility of sincerity?

Jamie McAfee Like personal sincerity or some kind of authenticity? I tend to think that people who work in politics are sincere, even the scheming panderers, if for no other reason than the fact that people invest themselves in what they do, even when there’s some cognitive dissonance involved. Right now I’m teaching business writing, and although I try to do it in a way that draws attention to how value laden workplace communication is (the first thing we read is the classic Katz essay about expediency and the holocaust), I’m aware of the discrepancy between my humanities oriented concept of what I do and the purposes that my student and my institution have for it.  I don’t like agribusiness, but that’s what I’m participating in through some of my students. So personal sincerity, certainly, I tend to think is involved.

As for the issue of whether populist strategies, because people are consciously crafting rhetoric rather than speaking their minds, is sincere, is a good question that cuts to the heart of what politics is, and it places us squarely within the wheelhouse of rhetorical theory. I’ve got two answers, a flippant one and a more knotty one. The first is that rhetoric doesn’t really “believe” in that kind of personal sincerity. It’s a performance. It is important that a performer can maintain the necessary ethos for the job. That’s a flippant, but kind of true, answer. It’s problematic because one claim rhetoric makes is that language is value laden and is articulated to “the good,” and so the Machiavellian attitude that efficacy is what counts kind of fucks up our identities as humanists. There have been efforts to deal with this, but it’s not something I’m going to claim to be able to really resolve. Richard Lanham has a chapter about “The Q Question” – named after Quintillian who said rhetoric was “a good man speaking well- that lays out the problem well. The weak response is that the good guys have to arm themselves. A stronger response is that language, identity, and values are so intertwined that you can’t really separate out efficacy from context. A very strong affirmation of Quintillian is impossible.

The second answer, which might be more on point to the Laclau stuff and Marxism, is that discrepancies and disruptions are a part of subjectivity, and so the presence of inconsistencies and deliberate strategizing that go into using populist rhetoric are just inherent to politics. You can’t smooth out the disruptions except through using a hegemonic strategy, and populism is such a strategy. If you DON’T deliberately use a strategy, I think you are going to be interpolated into one. Such is ideology. If we, at this point, return to personal sincerity, then yeah, people can be true believers who don’t really think they are contriving something. I’m convinced that Sarah Palin means what she says, as self serving, inconsistent, and absurd as it is. I really am. She reminds of people I grew up around.

Skepoet: And what do you think of the idea of populist elitism explaining people like Ayn Rand?

Jamie McAfee:I think it exactly explains Ayn Rand’s popularity, although I don’t know if it explains her writing. She certainly would recoil at being labeled a populist. (The irony is some comfort.) I tend to personally think that her amateurish efforts at philosophy and bombastic literature reflect a very smart mind that had no interest in the discipline of formal training, so there’s a germ of populism there. “Precocious” is a good description of her. That’s my not-interested-enough-to-read-Ayn-Rand-very-deeply-and-I-have-graduate-training-as-a-literary-critic opinion, which is pretty undisciplined also.

I don’t think we should understand Rand’s popularity in a vacuum though. She “fits” into the anti-elite narrative and into the definition of negative freedom as liberty that the right uses in their version of populism. Here you’ve got an actual philosopher-type person who thinks that liberalism as corrupt, self serving, and hostile to liberty as the most cynical banker is an anarchist’s imagination could ever be. Add to that the conflation of liberal institutions with “the left” that right populism does so well, and you’ve got a recipe for Paul Ryan to make his staff read Atlas Shrugged as a condition of working for him.

I think of Frank Meyer’s advocacy of fusionism, which is pretty much a battle plan that anticipates Laclau’s work. Rand fits the libertarian part of the coalition Meyer was talking about. There’s a good book called The Right Nation by a couple of guys from The Economist that traces the evolution of fusionism and argues that Reagan was it’s fulfillment. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is, of course, specifically about Reagan.

I think her broader popularity is a populist thing as well, as she can be the strongest possible version of really obvious hegemonicdiscourse. “Work hard and capitalism will take care of you. Death to parasites.” The egalitarian way she’s understood by many of her fans is at odds with her extreme elitism, but there you go. Hegemony does strange things.

I’d personally toss in that the hyperreal business I mentioned about Anon is relevant to her also because of the kind of narrative her novels are. It’s curious that polemic speculative fiction is so important to populist imagination. Orwell, who was a socialist, is often appropriated by the right as well.

I just thought I’d toss in that a really simplistic version of what I think right populism in the U.S. is right now is that it’s fusionism gone to seed. That’s how I understand the recent history of the right-that they’ve managed to amplify certain “common commonsensical” hegemonic aspects of that project, and it’s become disarticulated from its original cold war context and from any coherent notion of public policy. Well, it’s internally coherent I guess, but it doesn’t respond to the facts of the case very often. Some have pointed to Karl Rove as a tipping point of policy being used to enhance partisanship becoming the norm rather than partisanship being used to make gains for particular policy positions.

I think the think I was just saying about Karl Rove kind of makes the right function like terrorism, which uses violence as a strategy for recruitment rather than using recruitment as a way to become capable of strategic violence. (There’s an essay by a political scientist, Idon’t remember who as it doesn’t apply to much of anything I work on,that describes terrorism as “new war,” defining the term in this way.)
That reversal is a danger, obviously of partisanship in general, and maybe populist strategy in particular.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Jamie McAfee: Thanks again for quizzing me. This has been helpful to spill out a bunch of text about some of the ideas I’ve been pondering, and to tie together some of the stuff I’ve been reading during the past few months. You tricked me into beginning some work I needed to do.

I would close by reiterating a caveat I made up front, that I’m expanding and exploring, in some ways, this populism business in ways that Laclau, who’s my lean to, might or might not have intended. The populisms he discusses are more straightforward, unproblematic movements, while I’m fusing the idea with his later work about hegemony, with certain rhetorical concepts, and with a few bits of literary criticism. I think those move is important and useful for discussing what’s happening in American politics, but I’d emphasize that I’m adapting him for my own purposes and for my own contexts. I think I’m being fair, but I want to emphasize that I’m deviating somewhat from perhaps what the texts are intended as. I think synthesis and adaptation are important, and I want to emphasize that I see what I did there. A problem with people in English departments is that people take little snippets of this or that and use it out of context. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing, but my loyalties aren’t to Laclau’s intentions either.

Thanks again. See you round.

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 7

Chris Clement is a minister with Summerland Grove Pagan Church, based in Memphis, TN.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Chris Clement: I am a minister with Summerland Grove Pagan Church. Part of my duties include teaching parts of our training system which we refer to as the realm system after the typically recognized 5 elements. The first three, while they do not teach a specific path, last about a year each and will teach everything one needs to have a solid foundation and a dynamic spirituality. Our fourth realm is our minister training and lasts a minimum of two years. The last realm is basically OJT for those ordained as ministers. Over the years we have been refining our training system with the eventual goal of getting our training program accredited so that we might offer bachelors of divinity.
When referring to my particular spiritual path, I refer to it as a Path of Chaos. This is because, in the balance of the elements, as I see them, (7 elements: earth, air, fire, water, spirit/will, law, and chaos), I find myself typically aligned with chaos. For a more accurate, and slightly more precise answer, my path is eclectically based shamanism; though I am normally hesitant to admit to that based on my general opinion of how modern paganism utilizes eclecticism.
I can’t specifically tell you when I came to my path, but I can point at most of the things that led to it. My father was something of a cross between agnostic and atheist, but certain…attitudes were ingrained in me: a love and respect for nature, a habit for recycling, not bowing before someone just because they think they are your spiritual superior. In grade and middle school, I went to a small Episcopal church, and the father there encouraged my questions and didn’t think my age should have any influence on my desire to learn and to serve. In high school, I had a “Born Again” experience. The church I went to initially focused upon having the most dynamic and personal spirituality possible. At the time, I was also on the speech and debate team…so certain “habits” and “skills” were learned. At one point, I toured over the summer with the Continental Singers, a Christian ministry group. Their training program had me memorizing over a thousand bible verses…the verse, the context it was taken from in the passage, and the general “counseling” category it fit into. Their training also taught me about other faiths, and how to witness my faith with honesty, respect, and questions, much like if you were simply having a conversation with a friend. When my home church shifted its focus towards “simply” converting the masses/winning over numbers, I left because of the hypocrisy but maintained my faith. Over the next couple of years after graduating, I continued to pursue and question my beliefs and path. If I found something that worked, it was incorporated. If something no longer worked, it was discarded. One day a friend brought me into a pagan book store in New York and I came to the realization that I was pagan. I was rather surprised and had (and have) no clue when specifically it happened. That realization was in late ’89. My love of theology has only increased since then.

Skepoet What is your academic background?

Chris Clement:   I attended the University of Memphis in pursuit of a Psychology Degree. However, tho I had completed far more course credits than normally required (mostly in Psychology, Sociology, and Philosophy courses), I did not graduate. Certain, complications, occurred in my life, and my focus shifted to being a computer tech. I’ve recently returned to school, Ashford University, to complete my Psych degree. My goal is to attain my counseling credentials. I still thoroughly enjoy philosophy, theology and a good debate.

Skepoet How do you see these interacting with each other?

  Chris Clement: I see these as inextricably linked. My training and experience with debate, philosophy, theology, and even the social sciences of psychology and sociology have taught me how not just to create logical, reasoned arguments for those things that I find myself believing in, but also in how to do the exact same for the opposite point of view. This has allowed me to develop an ability to see both sides of practically any circumstance and to make my decisions, or leaps of faith, based upon that. My classwork in psychology and sociology have also given me insights to the nature and reasoning behind beliefs and mythology, as well as the how and why of the average “religiosity”.

Skepoet Do you consider the elements to be physical or metaphysical concepts or both?

Chris Clement:   A bit of both. For all of their assumed properties, representations and alignments, they are most definitely metaphysical concepts. That said, there is a basic physical, pragmatic, and even psychological aspect to them as well. The “primary” ones (earth, air, fire and water) are easy enough to identify because they are so frequently extremely literal in their representation. The others, not so much.

As I see it, the other 3 each have 3 distinct aspects to themselves which are very practically, and pragmatically, evident in the physical world.
For instance, Will or Spirit is seen as an absolute base, animistic instinct, and reasoned or distinct thought.  A rock is. It reacts a certain way to various forces, and will change appropriate to certain influences. It will and can do nothing less or more. An animal has the basic will to act and survive, to learn and adapt, but not to reason or make arbitrary decisions that are not based on meeting some basic need. People can decide a flying spaghetti monster exists, come up with the mythology around it, and then not only believe it, but come up with reasoned and rational arguments in that beliefs defense.
Order has pattern, structure, and stagnation. The pattern is the blue prints the thing will follow in development and decay. The structure holds its pattern and provides stability and strength to the thing. Stagnation is when it has been held within a part of the pattern, or a singular structure maintained pristinely against change. Like a pool of water deep in a cavern, that lack of change makes it stagnant and tepid, unusable “as is” for any significant purpose.
Chaos is change and growth, entropic destruction, and the very substance from which everything is made…infinite possibility. The base substance/possibility of everything I think needs no example. Change and growth occur for as long as something exists and either grows, evolves, learns, or develops. A child into an adult, a seeker into a master, stellar dust into a star. Entropy gets a bad rap. It’s not just destruction, it is the necessary wear and tear that allow for growth and change. It is the necessity to balance pattern and structure so that stagnation does not occur. It is the necessity that ensures something new can come along.
So yeah, I see all of these elements as having both definitive and literal physical as well as metaphysical properties.

Skepoet How do your tradition view deities?

Chris Clement:   I’m a polytheist. (Technically, a soft polytheist.)  I believe there are multiple gods, but a limited number of them; as opposed to nigh unlimited. I believe that the various core aspects that the gods represent are represented by the same god, regardless of pantheon/culture; however, their appearance, demeanor, and methodology vary by historical period, culture, and geographic region. For instance, “the trickster” is the same, regardless of name: Bacchus, Coyote, Raven, Loki, ect. Where the culture was more “intellectual”, he was a drunkard and sex fiend, where the culture was nomadic and strove to live in balance with the land, he is an animal spirit, where the culture is war like, aggressive, and naturally stubborn, Loki is willing to injure or kill to get his point across.

It’s similar with the other gods and the aspects they represent.

Skepoet In a way you sound like you are describing archetypes. Would this be an over-psychological way of reading your statement?

Chris Clement:   Nope. Archetypes are exactly the way to describe my statement. Considering my (almost complete) degree is in Psychology, my love of debate, philosophy and theology, it would be foolish to think that these things would not have some (significant) influence upon my spirituality and my perception of deity.

Perhaps two things will help elucidate my perspective.
On the hand, whenever faced with that age old question: Which came first? (Chicken or the egg? The Gods or mankind?) I’ve always tended to answer “Yes.”  Why? Because when both are inextricably linked, a specific causality doesn’t matter to anyone except those who prefer the exact letter of the law to the spirit of it. As I see it, we would not exist were it not for the gods, however, the gods would not exist were it not for our belief and myths. Sort of a theological perpetual motion machine without any real beginning or end. It, we, they, simply are.
On the other hand, I know several different creation stories from several cultures. I also know those same cultures flood myths. Does this commonality give credence to “creation” (as opposed to Big Bang-evolution) or to some “world wide flood?” Only to a limited extent. It’s more that these are stories with lessons upon lessons within their words. From a more scientific bent, these stories represent a commonality (and argument in support) of the universal unconsciousness. From a spiritual perspective, they are simply stories to explain a time long before we were around to ask about or observe these things. Take the story, and their lessons, and the point, the “why”, is attained.

Skepoet  How does your tradition relate to other pagan traditions?

Chris Clement:   Not sure I get the jist of that question, but I’ll go with what I think you mean.

My tradition/beliefs do not “rate” other paths as either superior or inferior; at least for the most part. There are many ways to perceive and understand truth without requiring everyone to follow the same path. For instance, consider the color green. There are many shades and varieties, but they are all “green”. Now, I’ll pretty much guarantee that the type of green you were envisioning was different than mine (I had in mind a blended lime and forest green that’s surrounding a picture not far from me right now), but it is no less green than mine. Now, if you were to try and tell me that candy apple red, fuscha, or hot pink were the same as “green”, then we’d have a problem.
When it comes to others paths, I learned and hold people to 3 basic rules. If they follow these rules, then everything is good. If they don’t, then…well, I guess you could say, we don’t “relate” well….
Rule 1:  Know WHAT you believe.  Doesn’t matter if you’re christian, heathen, shaman, wiccan, whatever. If you claim to believe something, know (or be learning) fully what it is and all that that entails.
Rule 2: Know WHY you believe.  “All my friends are.” “My parents were/are and I’ve always been as well.” “I never gave it any thought, this is just so much easier than actually having to put thought into my faith.”  These, and similar responses are NOT acceptable answers. Belief and faith require a certain understanding and deliberate forethought.
Rule 3: Possibly the most important:  WALK your (m/f’n) talk!   If you aren’t practicing what you are preaching, you have less value to me than the average politician or garden slug.
It doesn’t matter if your answers to these might be Science, or Athiest/humanist, or even “I don’t know yet…I’m still seeking”. These at least are honest answers, and demonstrate you are treating your beliefs with the gravity they deserve.

Skepoet Have you seen any demographic shifts in the The Summarland Grove Pagan Church?

Chris Clement: Could you be a bit more specific. that’s kind of overly vague.

Skepoet What, if any, changes have you seen in the make-up of people attending
Summerland?

Chris Clement:   Technically, the demographic of our members has remained fairly consistent over the last 10-15 years. I think this has more to do with the what and why of Summerland Grove, rather than any flux of newbies starting to explore paganism (or folks leaving it for the “big 3″).

Summerland Grove Pagan Church is designed to be a resource for the entire Community. As such, we’ve ministers with many varied paths (from BTW to Asatru to my shamanistic path. We never intended for SG to take the place of individual groups/covens/kindreds, more to be a networking and training hub. So, we have regular meetings, and we get together to celebrate the 8 “standard” sabbats, but otherwise we don’t do regular rituals as a church function. Our training program, however, will provide someone with all the tools they need to discover and develop a vibrant path of their own. (Focus is more on the theological and practical makeup of the spirituality, not any specific path’s theology.) The advanced level of our training is for those seeking to become clergy, regardless of their individual path. Our aim/goal is to have our Realm System accredited as a full Bachelors program.
The down side, a lot of the “newbies” don’t come to us. At least, not initially. Those who are set on their path or whom are looking for a coven/group to celebrate esbats and sabbats with, generally gravitate to one of the local covens or the ATC wiccan church here in Memphis. When, or if they decide they want to explore the “meat” of their spiritual path, then that’s when they generally come to us at SG.

Did that explain it well enough?

Skepoet:  Yes, thank you. 

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, here  here, and here. 

Interviewed and Occupied: Nik Zalesky on Occupy Philly and Pan-Leftism

Nik Zalesky is a fine fellow I met through the glory of the internet when I was beginning to study various left groups like the Socialist Party of America.   Nik was one of the initial organizers for Occupy Philadelphia.  Note some critical things are said about Anonymous, but we acknowledge that no experience with anyone who is part of Anonymous speaks for the whole.   We talk about Occupy Philly, pan-leftism, and hope for the left that has felt lost and disillusioned for a long time.

Skepoet: How did you get involved with Occupy Philly?

Nik Zalesky: After hearing from my comrade up at Occupy Wall Street, I realized that this movement had a chance to spread in major cities. The reason I thought Philly would be great was because we house the oldest stock market in the United States, so where better to start another event against the capitalist system? I knew that social media was how Tahir Square and OWS both grew, so I did a Facebook search for Occupy Philadelphia. I found a page had been started with about 32 people liking it. I liked it and started conversing with people. I realized that the first thing to do was contact any groups who could be interested. I started finding contact info for various political, academic, social, and environmental activist groups to tell them about Occupy Philadelphia. I spent most nights up till 3-4 a.m. just finding groups, people, blogs, and anything else I can think of and letting them know about Occupy Philadelphia.
Skepoet: How would you compare to some of the other Occupy protests that youbmay know people involved with?

Nik Zalesky:  Occupy Philadelphia became a lot less organic than the other Occupations very quickly. Though the Occupation inspired a lot of first-time activists, who fortunately kept it from being completely overtaken. Unfortunately, Philadelphia has a lot of established activists, who quickly tried to organize it how they were used to. A lot of people tried to fit Occupy Philadelphia into a mold, instead of adapting their tactics to the movement. The biggest difference; however, was the immediate cooperation with the city. Despite a vote already taken not to get a permit, the organizers on the ground decided we needed a permit. They pushed this, including threats that there was a counter-protest who could claim right to City Hall if we didn’t get a permit. The mayor came to the Occupation. Since then, we’ve run all of our plans by the city. We’ve marched, but practiced no real civil disobedience. Instead of focusing on the banks, Wall Street, and corporate money in politics, we’ve had marches against Trader Joe’s and photo-ops with the commissioner of police. Also, the people who have been involved since day 1 have been excluded. The people on the ground have said we use consensus, which is originally a Philadelphia Quaker technique of discussion and problem-solving, but instead have used direct democracy, and even some representative democracy. It is still a growing event, but a lot of people are concerned and withdrawing their support with the way things are going.

Skepoet:  Was there a formal move from consensus to direct democracy at the assemblies?

Nik Zalesky: No, we started with the framework of consensus, but just ran it as direct democracy. Real consensus continues till it’s unanimous. This only required an eye test for an overwhelming majority. Once that was achieved, the decision was made…until someone wanted to reintroduce the votes.

Skepoet:  Do you know anything about the Occupy Philly “blackout” that was pushed around the internet briefly?

Nik Zalesky: No.

Skepoet : Are you still supporting Occupy Philly?

Nik Zalesky: I know Anonymous has rejected Occupy Philadelphia. I was told that they told Occupy Together and the FBI about issues happening there, but I can’t verify that and it’s not like you can go to them to get a direct answer. I’m still supporting Occupy Philly where I can, but it involves a lot less time and energy that I put in before. I changed my focus to building our new SPUSA local and organizing another solidarity event, but I still keep in touch with people who are there, and I help out where I can.

Skepoet : Why would the FBI be involved?

Nik Zalesky: Our local members of Anonymous seem to be under the impression that the local anarchists are domestic terrorists. They are also surprisingly into the Fed conspiracy stuff and Zeitgeist to a lesser extent.

Skepoet: That’s an odd stance coming from Anonymous who happen to be the only group in OWS who has been attributed with a threat. Would you like to go into more about your work with broad left coalition and SPUSA?

Nik Zalesky:  Anonymous really is just an immature cyberactivist group. The only reason they seem threatening is because countries have instituted excessive punishment for computer-related crimes. If they did what they did in the real world, they’d get citations and move on, for the most part. As far as the SPUSA goes, I wound up there by accident. I’ve considered myself a socialist since high school. I’ve been registered to vote Socialist since the day I turned 18. As I aged, I mellowed a lot. I wanted to find a party, but navigating through the various leftist ideologies without anyone who is more familiar with the various organizations is nearly impossible. I decided working in the Democratic party would be the way to go when Obama ran for president. By the time 2011 dawned, I realized that was a mistake. I followed the DSA because I knew they had a local and kept an ear out for what groups were doing around Philadelphia. Somehow, I was invited to the Greater Philadelphia Socialist Organizing committee which was attempting to organize a local for the SPUSA. That led me to research the SPUSA more in depth, and I realized that they, if anyone, carried on the legacy of Debs. I saved up for two weeks so I could pay my dues and joined.

That’s what led to the idea of the broad left coalition. Since navigating my way through the parties had me so confused, I realized the best way to get things done and increase membership for all the left parties was to work together. From talking to locals, I realized that the religious disputes between parties mostly led to people not even reaching out to everyone. I vowed that when our local was formed, I wouldn’t let disagreements keep me from supporting the work of my comrades, no matter what party they belonged to. I signed up for and followed all the local leftist groups that I could find. I participated in conversations, met people who were interested, and contributed where I could. Occupy Philly gave me the perfect opportunity to bring people together. Usually, if we wanted groups to come together here, we’d have to wait for a neutral, single-issue activist group to organize an event, then each party would come out and stick to their own corner, cordial but cold for the most part. The Occupy movement, since it was leaderless, allowed everyone to show up, speak, and work together. I have had the luck to talk to people from most of the major leftist groups in Philadelphia since it started, and most of them were grateful for the work I did getting it together and in reaching out to them to involve them. I’m hoping this continues as I’m pushing for teach-ins at the Occupy movement, and I’m getting invited to events from all the parties around here. If nothing else, I’ll just show up and listen. The biggest things I’ve noticed about groups on the left is they very rarely listen, but they want to talk often. My job, in coalition building, is listening and seeing where we can help each other. 

Skepoet: Are you finding a lot of reception to this idea?

Nik Zalesky:  So far, yes. That could be do to the feel-good nature of the Occupy event though. Actually, everyone of the leftist local groups saw this as a chance to work together and spread an anti-capitalist message whenever we could. They also saw we’d have to work together to get that done. Thanks to this being a leaderless movement, every one of us realized that if we tried to take over, it would drive some people away who had potential to be radicalized. Unfortunately for us, this did happen to an extent (as evidenced by the almost daily anarchist education by one particular group), and we did lose people. The people on the left, though, continue to support the event and build networks. I’m lucky to be in a unique situation. Major city founded by Quakers, so we still have a left legacy that involves working together. Tons of colleges all over, and of a lot of different variations. The birthplace of “freedom.” I don’t know how it would work in other cities.

Skepoet: What issues to you see Occupy as getting into the media?

Nik Zalesky:  The media is interesting. A lot of people simply say we are our own media, thanks to social media and new independent sources. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as we don’t control social media, and for every friendly, fair source of independent media, there are those who will misrepresent or use false information to discredit the movement. The local media has split among pretty much normal lines for now. The networks are mostly favorably, notably NBC which is owned by Comcast which is headquartered here. We haven’t marched on them, so I think they’ll hold off on being harsh due to the fact that they like to stay under the radar. Fox’s local affiliate has spent most of their time reporting things that people find negative, i.e. cost of police overtime, people urinating on the streets (which wasn’t any Occupiers, but instead the local homeless population who were feeding and sheltering.), and trash on the ground. The print media has been mostly positive, except for a few business articles talking about the money spent. Even the moderate reporters have been generally positive, though slightly condescending. The local NPR has been positive, the local conservative talk radio has been inflammatory.

Skepoet: And do you see your part in a worldwide movement, sometimes I think
all the locals forget that this is happening in Europe, Asia, and parts of the Middle East too?

Nik Zalesky:  We who ran the social media aspect of the Occupation never forgot we were part of a world-wide movement. The people on the ground pretty much considered themselves the center of the universe as soon as they got there. They think of OWS and the cities when police crackdowns occur, but they forget to look around at what else is happening, not only in the world, but in politics and economics in general. They also tend to forget that people outside the Occupation are still scared, angry, and hurting.

Skepoet:  What do you think of the idea of a general strike and boycott coming out of this? Likely? Unlikely? 

Nik Zalesky:  I’ve brought up a general strike every single chance I get. The support isn’t there, even among labor. Boycotts are possible, but, at least in Philly, people keep trying to boycott the extremely large corporations for human rights abuses. That muddles the message. Now as far as smaller strikes go, I think labor feels empowered with this movement. In Philadelphia alone, we’ve had 4 unions strike in the last 3 months. That’s amazing for us. I’m on the labor commission in our Occupation, and labor is energized, and it’s the rank-and-file, not the leadership, which is amazing. The only way I could see a general strike happening is if Occupy Wall Street starts it. Most people will follow what they do, and as they have had numbers in the 6 figures there, that would probably spur a domino effect.

Skepoet: Why do you think the message gets muddled so much?

Nik Zalesky:  As it is a “leaderless” movement, the people who took the ball and ran with it initially are given deference. If the message crystallized, they would lose some of their influence, so it’s better to keep the message from gaining singular focus. I know that’s a cynical way to look at it, but that’s what I experienced here. The Occupation became about the occupation instead of about change.

Skepoet: I don’t want to sound cynical myself but isn’t that kind of a pattern with left-wing activism?

Nik Zalesky:  I think it’s a pattern of political activism in general. I talked to a lot of people who were with the original pre-Koch brothers Tea Party, and they explained how a small, well-funded group took over all the meetings. It’s especially vulnerable in a movement like this because the two parties need to co-opt it before it becomes dangerous.

Skepoet: You’re going to laugh but my involvement with paleo-conservatives and the anti-state libertarians led me to same conclusion.   Many of those guys left early when Koch family and Palin got on board. But many of them were also Birch Society and ignored Koch money in that, so I suppose one doesn’t have to be consistent.   Still it seems like there is a higher degree of fractionation in the left. You seem to have hope that Occupy may have made that somewhat irrelevant. Am I reading you correctly?

Nik Zalesky:  The only real hope I have for Occupy is that it can cause a generational shift where people don’t look for a solution in the two party system. I think most people who truly read economic theory can see where Marx was right, so I’m hoping it gets people reading. I’m hoping it makes people think about why 3rd parties don’t have access. I think Occupy will burn itself out at some point, and when nothing’s changed, people will start to look for solutions, and socialism is the solution I see. That’s why I tried to get as many people involved as possible, whether I agreed with their politics, tactics, or analysis of theory. I do think the factional divides in this movement become irrelevant during the Occupations, but afterwards, I want people to know that the Socialists were out there in the streets, and we offer the sense of activism and camaraderie every day of every year, not just during the occupation, and that we can build a mass movement like this, and have it set towards goals such as a general strike.

Skepoet: Any final thoughts?

Nik Zalesky:  I’m still really excited about this and glad I am part of it. Major leftist issues can still be brought to light via this movement.

 

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 6

Born in rural Iowa, Tannen Van Horn now resides in Memphis, TN where she is a member of Summerland Grove Pagan Church.  While studying to become legally ordained clergy through this esteemed organization, she is also the gythia (and founding member) of Ulfar Kindred of Memphis, a heathen group open to all who walk the paths of the Northern Traditions.  I did this interview in August after the failure of borders. Also I am sick of writing on politics every fifteen seconds so I  am publishing another interview.

Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Tannen Van Horn: I grew up in a largely non-religious home, though I was often taken to church (of varying denominations) by family members and friends.  I was led to a pagan group when I was 13 that was a Wiccan/Celtic Reconstructionist…something.  I knew it wasn’t quite right, so I began studying on my own and connecting to various pagans via the precursor to the internet, bbs.  I’ve studied Celtic Recon, Hellenic Recon, Kemeticism (briefly, mostly for curiosity’s sake), and Wicca before finding my home in heathenry in 2007.

Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Tannen Van Horn: I am a high-school graduate, but I will be going to college starting in the spring semester to obtain my degree in meteorology.  Even though I haven’t been in school all this time, various skills in studying and researching gained in high school have served me well in my quest to find my religio-spirituality.
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Tannen Van Horn: They already do.  I’ve always been curious about how mythology explains various phenomena that we now have a scientific answer for.  And this isn’t relegated to my personal path, either, but to all mythologies.  It’s been a pet hobby of mine for years, starting in grade-school.  I mentioned in the second question that skills I was taught in school have helped immensely throughout my spiritual growth.  Most of what I learned about the various gods I have served over the years (as well as how to serve them) started with several teachers fostering my love of studious research and pointing me in the directions I would need to go, even if they weren’t aware of my religious leanings or why I really wanted that information. I was also taught to question everything until I got the answers I sought, so it was pretty early on that I learned that Christianity wasn’t for me.

Skepoet: What was it that enabled you to settle in with heathenry?  What called you about it?

Tannen Van Horn: Answering the second question first, what called to me was the gods themselves. In working with them, I learned that, for the most part, they’re pretty relaxed and easy to relate to compared to deities of other pantheons. My experience, especially in the beginning, was/is that they won’t task you with anything that you cannot handle and they feel like a part of your family pretty quickly.

What allowed me to settle into my path was that I had found someone who shared my faith, even if it was slightly dissimilar.  The man who is now my oath-brother was invaluable in providing for me the resources I lacked in regards to heathenry/Asatrú, shared his own experience with me, and yet didn’t judge me when I shared my own experiences with my gods, no matter how we differed. Further, he and I shared a few friends who also walked a Northern Tradition path, each markedly different but remaining similar enough at the heart to share our experiences and become a Kindred. Another point was that I had been feeling a need to connect with certain parts of my ancestry (notably German/Austrian), and heathenry, in its sundry forms of practice, has a virtually universal acceptance of ancestor veneration that strongly appealed to me. Of course, the short answer to both of these questions can be summed up as “it felt like coming home.”

Skepoet: Often it seems like Wicca is often treated by many Reconstructions as a metaphorical “gateway drug” into paganism.  Do you think this is a fair metaphor?

Tannen Van Horn: It’s more than fair, I think, to consider Wicca a “gateway drug” to paganism, though with today’s technology and proliferation of publishing I think it’s becoming less so. In my beginning days, it was so much easier to acquire information on Wicca versus any other pagan path. These days we have the internet and all of its vastness to plunder for information on ANY religion one wishes to learn about.

Skepoet: Do you think there has been a shift in publishing in Pagan circles?

 Tannen Van Horn: I don’t believe there has been a shift in publishing in Pagan circles. The shift that has occurred has been in publishing in general. We have a level of convenience as both writers and consumers that were unheard of even ten years ago.  If one finds traditional means of publishing unavailable, now they could self-publish, both by print-on-demand and digitally.

Skepoet: But outlets for purchasing those books seem to be decreasing.  Do you  think Border’s closing will have the effect that many think?

Tannen Van Horn: Ultimately, no, at least when it comes to books on Paganism. Personally, I’ve had issues finding the books that I want at hard-site book stores. Especially here in the Bible Belt, the Alternative Religion sections have always been very, very small. Online book stores became my prefered way of purchasing what I’m after.

Skepoet: Are there any particularly ancestral deities you feel more attracted to than others?

Tannen Van Horn: Like most Americans, I’m kind of a mutt; my heritage is Germanic/Austrian, Danish, & Scots-Irish. I have more of a kinship with the Norse gods (particularly Odin and Freyja) than with others. Though, the Celtic pantheon is still an attractant.

Skepoet: Do you think there is a clear relationship between the two pantheons historically?

Tannen Van Horn: It’s pretty well known that the Celts traveled far and wide throughout the European continent, but I don’t think there’s a clear relationship. My personal studies show that both cultures tended to have a “your gods are your gods” type of mentality, even during the Viking surge on the British Isles. It is possible there were, in some areas, a blending of culture/pantheon, but I have yet to see anything to confirm this.

Skepoet: Are there any rituals that you find not useful in a modern context that there is archaeological evidence for?

Tannen Van Horn: I wouldn’t declare any ritual “not useful.” Impractical, yes. The only one that I have found that is largely impractical is the rite for declaring Oath Siblings. It’s basically a “rebirth from the earth” type of ritual that requires those pledging their oath to walk/crawl under a strip of unbroken sod that’s been pried up. (There’s more to it than that, but this is the example of what makes it impractical.) The others (blót & sumble) work extremely well in a modern context.

Skepoet: Are there any positive changes you’d seen in heathenry since you got involved?

 Tannen Van Horn: More groups (kindreds/hoffs/etc.) and individuals are getting more involved in both their communities and in the greater, online community. This goes a long way towards dispelling the notion that all heathens/Asatrú are white-supremacist,  insular folk. As a collective group, there is a lot that we can both share as well as learn from the world of Paganism.

Skepoet: Anything you would like to say in closing?

 Tannen Van Horn: I would like to remind folks (especially reconstructionists) that what writings we have had handed down to us from the ancients are not the be-all/end-all of our paths. Doing so can leave us vulnerable to schisms/fracturing when we should be attempting to come together in the name of community.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, herehere and here.  

Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 5

Chris Travers is a Master in the Rune Gild and have been a Heathen most of his life.

Skepoet:  What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Chris Travers : I was raised in a Quaker family.  As I approached my teenage years, I became frustrated with the lack of structure of Quakerism.  It seemed to me at the time that history was not important to Quakers in the sense of a tradition of ideas and practice (a misunderstanding on my part because this is in fact a very well-kept secret in the Quaker community).  In retrospect I realize that it was a lack of formality that bothered me.

I began to meet people in the Quaker community who also identified as pagans and began to study various new-age approaches, from Neodruidry to Wicca.  I never really found what I was looking for until I picked up a cheap book called “A Practical Guide to the Runes” by Lisa
Peschel.  Immediately things worked for me and I became drawn into the Runic tradition further through Thorsson’s books and the like.

In 1995 I joined the Rune Gild and was accepted as a Learner.  My fellowship paper was a 10 page paper on Fehu, accepted in 1997.  My master project was accepted in 2000 and was slightly revised and substantially edited to produce my book (“The Serpent and the Eagle”).
Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Chris Travers: BA in general studies with an emphasis in history.  However, even out of college I read quite a bit and have averaged about a hundred books a year (usually academic books) for the last four years or so.  Topics of study have included ancient and medieval Europe, anthropology,cross-historical studies of ritual (for example “Readings in Ritual Studies” or “Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage” by Ronald Grimes), as well as some contemporary thought regarding paganism, magic, etc.

 

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Chris Travers : My academic training has prepared me for the self-study my path requires of me.

Skepoet: Many Reconstructions have backgrounds in history and in a way this seems obvious, but sometimes seems to put Heathens and other Reconstructions at odds with Neo-Pagans.   What do you think about the discipline of history would cause this?

Chris Travers : I think these feed on each other.  People looking for history are more likely to be recons and more likely to study history.  The study of history tends to make one less tolerant of blatant historical errors.

I don’t consider myself a real recon though.  Reconstructionism (as I have pointed out on Facebook) is a methodology which must eventually collide with itself, and the very approach of reconstructionism is non-traditional and is incompatible with traditional ways of thinking.
I think it is very helpful to know how to be a reconstructionist sometimes though.

This isn’t to say anything goes either.  Like all things balance is important.
Skepoet: I have often wondered if any a total reconstruction of a pagan tradition is both possible and positive since so much of that mind-set is foreign to us for cultural and technological reasons.  Strangely, it seems like Neo-paganism has really sort of benefited from internet  technology.  Do you find this to be true and if so, why do think that is?

Chris Travers: As I say, reconstructionism eventually collides with itself.  It is an extremely useful toolkit but should be a toolkit, not a whole approach, IMO.  No, a total reconstruction is impossible and not just because of cultural and technological issues.  Additionally, a perfect
reconstruction is *fundamentally* impossible for the simple reason that we cannot reconstruct something without interpreting it through the eyes of an outsider.  Even in physics, Werner Heisenberg said that data does not imply theory, and that theory is as much a projection of
the theoretician as it is the data.  The same thing is true here as well.

As for the internet, like all tools, it is useful in many ways, and less helpful in others.  The fact that it can be helpful (and we have benefited from it) does not absolve us of the responsibility to use it wisely.

Skepoet: More than a few people I have interviewed have mentioned a increasing rigidity within the pagan movement mention a turn towards more rigidity in ritual over time.  Do you see this or you think this might be a misreading?

Chris Travers: I can’t speak about “the pagan movement” as that seems very broad.  I
will say I have seen more formalization but no more rigidity in groups I am directly involved with.

Skepoet:  The term is awfully broad.  Actually, I have a question about that:  why do you think paganism is often treated as one “movement” or a bunch of related religions but both insiders and outsiders given the differences between groups can be far more dramatic than between other linked religious belief systems.

Chris Travers: Pagan religions are similarly situated to society and so it makes sense for us to be lumped together.  There is also something of a common heritage and this also strengthens the case for us to be “a movement” in relation to general society.

We can also talk about a Free/Open Source Movement even though factions there disagree and constant holy wars between the Church of EMACS folks and the rest of us who accept VIM as the one true editor. Joking aside, though, even within free/open source software different
projects may strongly disagree with each other even to the point of being at each others’ throats.  It’s healthy and productive though. And like the pagan movement, the Free/Open Source movement is a movement aimed to some extent on rebelling from the systems of central
control in either industry or religion.

Skepoet:  Can you go into more detail about your work with the Rune Gild?
Chris Travers: First some background: The Rune Gild is an initiatory organization which bases our work on the Elder Futhark.  The members are divided into really three grades (with an outer court of associates who are not really members) along traditional lines:  learner, fellow, and master.  Some masters are recognized as having attained greater levels of self-initiation but
that’s pretty rare.

Learners spend their time trying to learn our tradition, studying the lore, and mastering as it exists in a somewhat rigid framework.  As learners become fellows, this opens up a lot and a lot more exploration is encouraged.  This exploration ranges from being somewhat structured to being rather free-form.  Eventually the fellow is supposed to demonstrate that they have made the tradition their own through a masterwork, and that they have achieved a certain level of
self-initiation in this process, and when this is accepted, they are recognized as a master.    Masters write, research, and teach. Learners, as well as mentor Fellows.  A certain amount of individualism is required of the mastery.  Consequently Masters range from fairly traditionalist to ones who attempt to combine our tradition with others.  Yet we share a common methodology and tradition.

I currently teach four learners, two of whom are in the process of researching fellowship projects.  I am also in the process of revising my book based on how my understanding has evolved.  Ritually I get together with some of the Rune-Gild folks from my state from time to
time and we engage in our own rituals.   Entry into the group is fairly carefully controlled both on a local and non-local level.    We do not see ourselves as trying to bring our group to the masses, but many of us are involved in trying to grow the larger Germanic Neopagan movement around us.

Does this answer your question?  Is there something more specific you’d like to know about us?

Skepoet: That is useful.  How has the Gild grown since your involvement and
have you seen any more changes.

Chris Travers: Yes, the Gild has grown dramatically since I have been involved.  New
Masters have been recognized.  And the fact that we now allow virtually anyone to associate with us means that there is now a stable pool of people to choose apprentices from.

The Gild has also changed in ways favoring decentralization.  While all training used to be centralized when we were much smaller, it is now the case that the Masters instruct Learners directly and offer apprenticeships.  The diversity of thought in the Mastery also allows
us to be more selective about our own apprentices.  If I think someone needs instruction that is less traditionalist, I can send them to one of the folks who, for example, integrates Chaos Magic ideas with their work.  I might do this if someone seems too traditionalist and needs a
counterbalance.  Similarly someone who needs a more strict traditionalist approach might get bounced to me.

Additionally, the growth has lead to more local activity.  In Washington State I now have three people I am actively working with, and two are fairly new to the Gild.

Skepoet: Oh you the Gild is definitely working across traditions?  Do you find that any Reconstructionists that take an exclusivist view about the legitimacy of Chaos magic or anything?

Chris Travers: No, you misunderstand. The Gild is specifically focused on Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, and the Elder Futhark is our focus.  We have a single common tradition.

This being said there are Masters who find other traditions more informative and tend to utilize cross-over references in their teaching and work more than others.    So within this, individuality
is expected.  Of someone wants to be inspired by something another tradition is doing and recreate it in our own one, that’s not only accepted but, if it is done well, encouraged.  For example, if you read my book, it’s very limited to Germanic and Indo-European cross-references.  Waldo Thompson’s book however approaches the questions from a very mathematical approach.

So we have a common tradition of practice and lore.  However what we*do* with that tradition is up to each Master.  In general, though I insist my Learners stick to the lore and practice for a while in a narrow focus and most Masters do the same.  However, after that point, how each of us approaches it depends on our own individual understanding of the tradition.  So a strict reconstructionist might get sent to someone who is definitely not one so as to help crack open the perspective.  On the other hand, I am inclined to take less grounded students in the hope that a more narrow focus will provide that grounding.

There have been a few people who have terminated apprenticeships because they felt that the Gild wasn’t reconstructionist enough. However, this has been rare.  Most of the time people end up seeing that reconstructionism has a place within the Gild and that the Gild can support reconstructionist work to a point.  The larger thing is that we aren’t limited by it, and so while Master such as myself explore the past relatively rigorously, some others apply our findings
in more contemporary ways.

Skepoet: That is an helpful and thanks for clearing that up.   Are there any trends in the Heathenry right now that you find particularly positive?

 

Chris Travers: I am following the greater acceptance of animal sacrifice with a lot of hope for the future.  I think that such rites done well help emphasize the relationship between life and death, and between what we eat and where it comes from.  I think it also fills a number of social
roles perhaps too numerous to list here.   Finally, eating together is the ultimate act of community so inviting the gods to a sacred meal of this sort is a reaffirmation of their place with us in a way that nothing else can take the place of it.

I have watched animal sacrifice go from something very controversial to something where there is little controversy and the obstacles are ones of competence, confidence, and logistics.  The fact that the controversy has largely fallen away and yet people are choosing to be cautious and responsible is a very positive thing, in my opinion.

Skepoet: Have you noticed any more or any less involvement with families? It seems like Heathenry in the US would be long standing enough to have multiple generations involved and people born into the tradition.

Chris Travers: I haven’t noticed a difference.  There have always been a minority group of heathens with kids in all groups I have been involved in.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Chris Travers; I’d like to address what I see as the great challenge ahead of the pagan traditions: economics.

Right now, we are seeing local groups become more widespread and stronger, but recapturing the solidarity of our tribal ancestors requires more than getting together for rituals.  It requires economic interdependence. One of the social functions the gatherings probably held in the past was as a venue for people to get together on a commercial as well as a religious basis, and enter into contracts, sell goods and services, etc.  For example the use of merchant booths
at the Allthing is well attested, and the Disthing may also have provided opportunities to trade materials etc, regarding the upcoming agricultural season.

We need to *do business with* other members of our local groups.  This need not be actual purchases.  It could be barter (I help you out with your house project and you help me out with something else), etc. Building these sorts of cooperative and economic interdependencies are
going to be important in ensuring stable, tightly knit pagan groups. Places and times to arrange these I think should be built into any get-together.  If we want to offer an alternative to going to
Christian Church, we should offer a real alternative, deeply tied to how we choose to live, not just a ritual club where members get together to worship.

By extension I think this also means cultivating a small business culture within our heathen and pagan groups.  These might not officially be small businesses because individuals may have employment contracts which forbid moonlighting.  But heathens should be encouraged to own their own means of production and to produce things for others in the community whether by barter or for fee.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, here and here.  

 

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