Monday, October 12, 2015

"Children of Odin" in Finland: anti-Muslim hysteria growing.

Dear Readers,

A friend in Latvia just forwarded to me a most upsetting news story from a Finnish newspaper, about an anti-Muslim group in Finland calling itself "The Children of Odin." I equally regret their ignorant opposition to a people they seem to know nothing about but fear due to ill-informed but inflammatory stereotypes, and their usage of the name Odin, thus again tarring Norse Paganism with the old brush of Nazi-esque intolerance and thuggery. Notice that nothing bad has happened in this town as a result of the Muslim refugees' arrival, and yet a certain segment of the local people is already mobilizing anti-Muslim militias. I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg...

Here is the link, with the article copied below.

Friday's papers: "Soldiers of Odin" patrol Kemi streets, paper claims "100s of Muslim extremists in Turku," Finland to cut UNICEF funding by 75%
Friday’s newspapers wrote about a group that calls themselves the Soldiers of Odin who patrol the streets of Kemi to "increase people's feeling of security." One paper claims there are "several hundred" Muslim extremists in Turku. Government plans to cut funding to the UNICEF children's fund by 15 million euros.

Unicefin koulu Bekaan laaksossa Libanonissa
UNICEF worker and schoolgirl in undated picture taken in Lebanon. File photo. Image: Nabil Mounzer / EPA

Aamulehti posted a story Thursday about a group that started patrolling the streets of the northern town of Kemi.

The paper writes that starting a few days ago a group of dark-clothed men, who call themselves the Soldiers of Odin, were patrolling the streets of Kemi.

Aamulehti interviewed the patrol's organiser, Mika Ranta, who said the reason behind the patrols was to "increase people's feeling of security."

The paper asked Ranta why he started the group.

"We woke up to a situation where many different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community. We started to gather a bunch of people," the paper quoted Ranta saying.

"The biggest issue was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were peering through the gates of primary schools, looking at young girls," Ranta told Aamulehti.

There is an asylum seeker reception centre based in the northern town Kemi, a town just under 30 km from the border town of Tornio, where the majority of asylum seekers have been arriving to the country recently.

Ranta was quoted claiming that there are hundreds of Soldiers of Odin members across the country.

He said that while he describes himself as a National Socialist on his Facebook page, he claims his "opinions are his own" and that there are all kinds of people in the "family friendly" group.

Aamulehti also published a photo of some members of the group, which appears to consist mostly of men clad in dark nylon bomber jackets, many of which appear to be embroidered with an acronym of the group.

Most of the members did not consent to be photographed, and turned their backs for the snapshot. But the five members in the foreground who agreed to the photo were all listed as having Finnish names in the caption.

Finnish police told the paper that it does not recommend patrols or actions like these "under any circumstances."
TS claimed: "Hundreds of Muslim extremists in Turku"

A brief in Turku’s daily Turun Sanomat* made an unattributed and problematic claim that there are "several hundred" Muslim extremists living in the city.

The claims are unattributed to anyone but the articles' reporter, however there is no writer’s name attached to the piece. The photo attached to the article features Muslims praying at a Turku mosque, but was apparently photographed in 2009.

The first four paragraphs of the article claim that there are "several hundred Muslim extremists" in Turku and that "the number is growing all the time. They are deeply religious Muslims."

The following paragraph goes on to explain that these Muslims belong to the ultra-conservative Salafi movement of Islam, but gives no actual evidence backing up the statements.

"The group has a lot of supporters in Saudi Arabia, but now also in Turku," the paper wrote.

The article later quotes Åbo Akademi University's associate professor of religious studies Tuomas Martikainen explaining the history of arriving Muslims to the country. In his opinion their religious identities were strengthened as more Muslims arrived, and has led to conflicts within the Muslim community.

Martikainen does not, however, appear to defend or refute a claim that there is an increase in the number of Muslim extremists in the city.

*It has come to the attention of Yle News that the referenced Turun Sanomat article was published in August 2013, however the article remains in circulation on social media and a link to the article was featured on their current web pages.
Finland to cut UNICEF support by 75 percent

The Finnish government is proposing to cut funding toward the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, by about 15 million euros, Finland's biggest daily Helsingin Sanomat reports.

Next year the government proposes allocating some five to six million euros to the international children's fund, which amounts to a 75 percent decrease compared to past years, the paper writes.

"Finland has been the world's eighth largest donor of assistance to the UNICEF children's fund," UNICEF's programming and advocacy director in Finland Inka Hetemäki said.

"The cuts to aid will have dramatic consequences for the world’s children," the paper quoted her saying.

Additionally, the paper writes, the Foreign Ministry is also proposing international aid cuts of around 300 million euros - apart from the UNICEF funding.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Crossing Boundaries, Combining Deities, Creating My Own Tradition

Lately I have noted two different spiritual impulses in myself that cannot seem to be satisfied by recourse to a single ethnically-based Pagan tradition. Though I realize this is heresy to some of my Pagan friends, I am feeling like the solution to my spiritual dilemma is to combine deities of two different traditions. I know full well that this goes against the principle followed by many ethnic Pagans of ONLY orienting themselves to god/desses of ONE ethnic tradition, and not mixing this devotion with any involvement with any other deities drawn form other traditions of Pagan Europe or elsewhere. Yet I feel this impulse. Let me explain further, and I would be happy to hear from readers if they have had similar issues in their own spiritual development, and how they deal with them.

I am of mixed Baltic and Slavic descent, and since visiting Lithuania in 1996 I have felt myself very connected to the Baltic Pagan tradition, through almost two decades of contacts with the late Jonas Trinkūnas and his wife Inija Trinkūnienė, respectively the past and current leaders of the Lithuanian Pagan movement Romuva, and also with Pagan friends in Latvia, among other things. However, I have a fascination with Norse mythology that goes back to childhood that pulls me to the Norse Pagan world as well. My first fumblings into Paganism were discussions with fellow Norse enthusiasts in the Boston area in the early 1990s, and my real introduction to a spiritually vibrant Pagan practice came in Iceland a few yeas later. Since then, I have found myself always feeling connected to both traditions, the Norse and the Baltic, and unable to choose between them or fully commit myself either way. Now I am thinking that perhaps, I do not have to.

I have long felt, through dreams and other ways, that Odin was the most important god for me. As someone who has lived in different countries and been deeply affected by all of them without ever being able to really settle down anywhere with a sense of satisfied finality, I relate strongly to Odin's aspect as the ever-wandering seeker of wisdom whose travels lead to knowledge and power but not necessarily happiness or contentment. Thinking in a Baltic way, I have tried to harness this sense of connection and focus it onto the approximate Lithuanian equivalent of Odin, Velnias, but Velnias has never seemed as vivid to me as Odin. This is partly no doubt because I have long been aware of Odin's myths as recorded in the Eddas, which I have read and reread and reflected on for many years, and I know of no Lithuanian texts that give as compelling an account of Velnias, at least in English translation. And so, I see the need for Odin to play an important part in my personal worship practice.

But then there is another spiritual impulse that has been growing in me, a voice inside calling me to revere and offer devotion to the earth-goddess. More than twenty years ago, I studied Marija Gimbutas' theories of a "Goddess Civilization" in Neolithic "Old Europe" between approximately 7000-3500 BCE, as laid out in books like "The Language of the Goddess." Like many academics of the time, I tended to dismiss her idea of a goddess-centered culture complex because it seemed that she had exaggerated certain points and perhaps gone overboard with her enthusiasm, writing more emotionally than scientifically. And yet I had never been able to decisively conclude that Gimbutas was completely wrong. It has always seemed to me that she was certainly correct on a very interesting and meaningful point, that there is a strong feminine component in many European mythological traditions that creates strange tensions with the male gods of those same traditions, and that this definite feminine power in the Pagan European mythology that has come down to us could be a vestige of even older traditions.

And then this last spring, teaching a course on "Neo-Paganism" at a college in the northeastern United States, I found myself again re-examining Gimbutas' goddess and Old Europe theories, and I discovered them resonating with me more deeply than ever before. I did not suddenly forget about all the criticisms and reservations expressed by archaeologists, Indo-Europeanists and others about possible inaccuracies and overstatements in Marija's work, but I was aware of another point of view as well. Modern academia and science tend to be very narrowly-focused, delving deeply into the most minute data, rather than stepping back to allow contemplation and speculation of larger connections and meanings. In such a situation, Gimbutas could not but come off badly and be viewed as a nutty old lady who went over the edge of reason, science and academic respectability. However, the narrowly-focused super-specialists who tend to dominate today may simply not be temperamentally or professionally equipped to evaluate writing and thinking that is as broad and visionary as the work of Gimbutas.

(As an aside, let me note that I have the same perception about modern-day psychological researchers who have in some ways reduced psychology to a biologically reductive "brain science" and are thus quick to dismiss the broader, more speculative thinking of early giants of their field like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, because if you can't open a brain stem or a nerve cluster and find a mother-complex or an archetype there, than these are obviously false and meaningless constructs to be relegated to the psychiatric scrap heap. Hmm, this may require further discussion in the blog another day...)

Returning to Gimbutas, it strikes me that those who dismiss her later publications have not always taken seriously the fact that she came to her "extravagant" goddess theories after not just many years, but many decades of immersion in exactly the kind of fine-pointed archaeological data that are considered the proper stuff of archaeology by those who now disdain her later work as unscientific and unsupported. I don't know about you, but I tend to take seriously the opinions of those who have spent a long time, especially a life-time, on a particular subject or skill.

A computer program designed by a twenty-five year-old researcher might produce an analysis of classical music that "scientifically" ranks the great composers of the past in such a way that Beethoven is placed at #54, Mozart at #21 and Tchaikovsky at #88, according to some mathematical formula or algorithm, and this "brilliant scientific research" might be all the rage for a time, and certainly be attractive to corporations looking to classify and market music according to numerical values as with online services like Pandora, but I would be more inclined to listen to the views of a seasoned, dedicated 70 or 80 year old virtuoso musician or conductor who has been playing this music all their life and speaks from deep familiarity and personal experience. Similarly, it may be quite easy for someone with certain kinds of academic training to locate weaknesses or errors in Gimbutas' work and then proceed to rip down the whole edifice, thereby quickly advancing a few professional levels in the academic demolition-derby, but has that person actually spent as much time as Gimbutas did in working with the actual archaeological data and artifacts from Neolithic Europe? She may have been wrong on particular points, and even exaggerated or distorted this or that along the very long road that she traversed, but her overall thesis that there were very strong elements of feminine symbolism in Southeastern-Central Eastern Neolithic Europe that seem suggestive of goddess worship is something that I think must be taken seriously, and I do.

I have been finding that the kinds of Neolithic goddess images highlighted by Gimbutas, the "Venus of Willendorf" type figures of superabundant proportions with all feminine attributes heightened and magnified speak to me on some very deep level. The spiral motif often associated with these figures, which according to Gimbutas symbolizes not only the life and pleasure-giving contours of vulva, vagina and womb, but birth and death and infinite plenitude and regeneration as an all-encompassing feminine mystery, has also captivated me. Perhaps it is that I still feel the loss of my mother, who passed on some eleven years ago, or like most men, the need of a female partner in love and in life, that feed this fascination, but I don't think that this can be simply reduced to these personal, psychological factors. I interpret it as a need to be connected to the earth as mother, the ultimate feminine, and so I have been seeking a proper form through which to develop this devotion.

To complement Odin in my personal devotion, it would be convenient and culturally congruent to select a Norse goddess, but here I cannot seem to find the right fit. The fertility goddess from Norse myth that is most vivid to me is Freyja, but I am conscious that she is not specifically an EARTH goddess in the Norse tradition, but is just as much a warrior queen and a death-goddess. The "earth-mother" position in Norse myth is filled by the mother of Thor, Fjörgyn, also sometimes known as Jörð and described as Odin's partner. However, she is not well-represented in the surviving mythological texts, and I find my spiritual focus gravitating instead to the Lithuanian goddess of earth and fertility, Žemyna. I do not know any myths of Žemyna, but I know that she was worshipped in the past in a humble but evocative manner by offerings of drink poured onto the ground and that she is highly regarded in the Romuva movement. She has in these different ways been impressed on my psyche,and become a dear and familiar figure to me. And so, Žemyna it is.

I will now be groping and experimenting to find my own way to focus devotion onto these two figures, from separate Pagan traditions, who I now combine into a new Pagan tradition--my own. My first thought is that I should meditate on Odin at night, as I associate him with wisdom and mystery tinged with darkness, and focus on Žemyna in the morning, as the bearer of new life in each new day on this earth--HER earth. And so I begin.

As noted earlier, I am interested to hear from others who have similarly experimented with combining deities from different traditions and from across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

One Pagan's Perspective on the European Migration Crisis

Dear Readers,

This will be my first blog post composed in the Czech Republic, where I am living for the fall, teaching at Masaryk University in the charming Moravian capital city of Brno. Even as I enjoy strolling the picturesque, Old European streets, sampling Czech beer and cuisine and falling in love with a very stylish cafe in Dominikánské náměstí called Skøg Urban Hub, where I now sit writing this, I am aware of gathering storm clouds looming over not only the Czech Republic but all of Europe. This is the migration crisis occasioned by the flight of tens, soon to be hundreds, of thousands of refugees seeking to escape the very real threats of devastation and death that they face in war-torn, economically and socially collapsing countries of the Middle East and North Africa, particularly but not only Syria. The four-year old Syrian civil war that grew out of Arab Spring protests and then spawned the violent, fanatical ISIS movement has now reached a stage where more and more people are simply giving up and leaving. Similarly unbearable situations are drawing people out of North Africa, Yemen and as far east as Afghanistan.

As these desperate masses stream into Europe, hoping for a better life in more prosperous and stable countries like Germany and Sweden, they encounter varying responses from the governments and peoples of Europe. Some Europeans are moved by empathy and compassion for these traumatized refugees, and are bringing them donations of food, water and clothing, while others resent the arrival of foreigners with different customs and complexions, and fear that their societies will be overwhelmed by these ethnic and religious Others. Leaders like the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán are playing to this sentiment with actions like erecting barbed-wire fences, herding migrants into barely livable camps, some into the main Budapest train station, encouraging or at the very least not denouncing harsh police and border guard treatment of migrants including beatings and tear gas dispersal and so on. Still more extreme right-wing anti-immigrant groups are seeking to intimidate and terrorize these migrants by various methods from chanting anti-foreigner slogans outside refugee camps to firebombing places of asylum. The leaders of Germany and Sweden have distinguished themselves as standard-bearers for conscience and compassion by standing by their open-door policies toward refugees and migrants, while other countries and governments, not only Hungary but others as well even supposedly ultra-progressive Denmark, have taken delight in turning a cold, hard shoulder toward the new arrivals.

In a nutshell, Europe as a whole is split down the middle about whether to welcome and offer assistance to the incoming foreigners, or to resist their movement into their lands and seek to expel them by any means necessary.

As an American Pagan who has spent a fair amount of time researching European Pagan groups, I would expect that European Pagans share the same range of reactions to this migration crisis as do other Europeans. It is the same in the USA where the general population as well as the much smaller but still quite diverse Pagan population display a range of attitudes about incoming immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere. In the following, I will attempt to make a case for why European Pagans should welcome the migrants, not oppose or vilify them. I am sure that some, perhaps many European Pagans will disagree with what I have to say, but I believe I am standing on firm and principled ground, ground we can build on for the future.

First, a historical argument. Europe has a long history of receiving migrants from other regions, who added elements to each country's character and traditions without which each recipient society would have been poorer, economically, culturally, spiritually and otherwise. Without the migrations of the Anglo-Saxons (more specifically the Angles and the Saxons), there would be no England and no English language. Without the migrations of the Magyars from the Ural Mountains region into Central Europe, there would be no Hungary and no Hungarian language. Without Celts migrating from Central Europe to the British Isles, there would be nothing Celtic about Ireland, Wales or Scotland. Without Viking migrations, Ireland and Britain would not be what they are today, and Iceland would have neither Elves, nor sheep, nor people, and precious little Scandinavian mythology would have been written down and preserved, as most of this happened in medieval Iceland. Classical Greece and Rome were formed by migrants as well. That is to say, without a very long list of migrants and migrations that flowed into Europe at different points in time, Europe as we know it today would never have come into existence. To those who say, "we must protect our European traditions against foreign intrusion," I would answer with two points worth pondering: (1) European traditions were often formed by foreign intrusions, leading to this seemingly paradoxical, but historically supportable conclusion that (2) foreign intrusion is itself a very old European tradition.

But, some Pagans would say, these migrants today are different. They bring nothing positive, only an alternate form of Abrahamic monotheism that Pagans reject completely. But wait... might we be having this argument in a cafe over a couple of cappucinos? Ah, European coffeehouses, such a fine old tradition... but is coffee really European? It has been a popular beverage for many centuries, quite so, but it did not actually originate in Europe. The custom of drinking coffee and the social institution of the coffeehouse were creations of the Muslim world, transmitted to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. If you struggled as a child to learn mathematics, know that algebra was first created by Arabs. If you go to a hospital for surgery, be aware that the first hospitals were Muslim institutions, and that Arab-Muslim anatomy textbooks were a major part of European medical training up to the modern period. And take your foot off that Ottoman and stop watching TV lying on that sofa! And stop eating those kebabs and that hummus!

So, as these examples illustrate in a hopefully light-hearted way, Muslims and Arabs of the past contributed quite a lot to European civilization. Welcomed into Europe today, who knows what peoples from Syria and Yemen and Afghanistan and other such lands might contribute today that would eventually become well-loved "European traditions." The fear, of course, is that they will contribute Islamic militancy and terrorism. I would answer to that fear that how a people respond to a new social environment depends greatly on how they are received. That is to say, if xenophobic, right-wing Europeans do all that they can to make 21st century Muslim migrants feel unwelcome, distrusted, excluded,and even hated, then you can expect that some such immigrants may well be attracted to radical movements that offer them some measure of pride and dignity, even if in a suicidal, destructive form. On the other hand, if Muslims are sincerely welcomed and treated with respect for their traditions, beliefs and customs, and not shunted into ghettos devoid of economic and social opportunity, many will be able to adjust to life in Europe quite happily, as millions of Muslims have already done.

When non-Muslim Europeans engage in overheated fantasies about the supposed "menace" of Muslim immigration, they often fail to note that Many Muslims are already living in Europe so quietly and successfully that their presence often goes unnoticed, while the incidents of violence and terrorism perpetrated by Muslim-Europeans are unusual, sensational events committed by a very small percentage of European Muslims. If the same out-of-proportion standard of judgment were applied against violent incidents perpetrated by white Europeans, might not the argument be made that Europe is facing a "white menace" that requires urgent action, such as deporting all white Europeans to the Caucasus mountain region?

Let us not fail to note that similar arguments about the "Jewish menace" and the need to expel European Jews from Europe were once quite popular among non-Jewish Europeans, and that the application of this prejudiced viewpoint to political life led to one of the most shameful episodes in European history. Let us also keep in mind that the Roma (gypsies) were another target of persecution of the Nazis, and that, proportionately speaking, as many Roma as Jews died in the Holocaust. This is poignantly described in Brno's Museum of Romany Culture (, the only Museum of Roma culture and history in all of Europe). Sadly for the Roma, their days of persecution are not yet over, but I will leave this topic for another day. It will suffice to say that the mass persecution of Jews and Roma did nothing to improve European life or preserve "European traditions and identity," but only led to untold suffering and everlasting shame. Shall the Muslim migrants be treated as were the Jews and Roma, or have we really learned nothing from Nazism and the Holocaust?

Apart from the basic humanitarian consideration of helping fellow human beings find safety and succor, there are other reasons too why Pagans should endeavor to receive these Muslim migrants kindly. Modern Paganism is only possible because of a general respect for the principle of diversity. Whatever can strengthen the rule of diversity in European--and other--societies will be good for Pagans and for the continuing development of the different forms of Paganism now arising or reviving in Europe; whatever weakens the rule of diversity will open the door to persecution and disadvantagement not only for Muslims--but also for Pagans among other religious "Others." It should sound alarm bells for European Pagans that some of the loudest voices opposing the current wave of Muslim migration are characterizing the situation as a defense of "Christian Europe" against the invasion of Muslims from the East, as if this were the 1683 Siege of Vienna all over again. See .

Some ethnically-oriented Pagans may initially feel they can happily whistle along with right-wing European nationalist leaders when they sing of protecting and upholding European ethnic heritage by blocking Muslim immigration, but they may start to find this cheerful political tune less joyful and melodious when they realize that right-wing leaders like our dear friend Mr. Orbán equate European heritage and identity with Christianity, that is, European = Christian, meaning there is "no space at the inn," to use a suitable Christian turn of phrase, for Pagans in a Europe so defined. As non-Christians, Pagans therefore have very practical, self-interested reasons to make common cause with Muslims in standing up for religious diversity in Europe, a diversity that embraces Christians, Jews, Muslims, AND Pagans (along with Buddhists and Hindus and Sufis and Krishnaites and Cthulu-followers and many others). When any non-Christian is threatened, Pagans are threatened too, and so by protecting the rights of Muslims to live in Europe and freely practice their religion, Pagans protect their own rights too.

Though these words are perhaps overused, and though I know I risk descending into cliché by quoting them, I do find the warning of the German Protestant minister Martin Niemöller very pertinent in this regard:

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

Shall we update and adapt Herr Niemöller's message to suit our current situation?

"First they came for the terrorists, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a terrorist.

Then they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a immigrant.

Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out--
because I am not a Muslim.

Then they came for the cultists, and I did not speak out--
because I do not consider my religion a "cult."

Then they came for the Pagans--and there was no one left to speak for me."

Protect your religious rights. Defend religious freedom for all!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism No End? Sickening Tales of White Supremacist America

Dear Friends,

There have been many ugly violent incidents and cold-blooded killings in the last several years that have illustrated again and again how deeply and sickly racist America is. There have been many heart-breaking, stomach-turning examples of African-Americans killed by policemen or others posing as policemen. It seems the police in too many cases and places in America regard African-American men as a dangerous species of vermin to be exterminated at the slightest provocation without overmuch concern for their right to breathe and walk the earth. For an overview as well as a deeper look at the numbers of African American dying from police-inflicted killings in the USA, see the BBC news article "Why do US police keep killing unarmed black men?" at

The most well-known incidents--and keep in mind that many others have never received the benefit of media attention--range from the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida on February 26, 2012, who was walking home from buying a few items at a convenience store, by the police wannabe shooter George Zimmerman to the slaying of 12 year old Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio on November 22, 2014 by two shots from a policeman's gun to the killing of 53 year old Eric Garner on July 17, 2014 on the streets of Staten Island from the effects of a chokehold administered by NYC policemen who then allowed him to die on the sidewalk, gasping for air, without administering any first aid or medical services, even though they are supposedly trained to do so.

All of these individuals were unarmed, except Tamir Rice, who was holding a toy gun, a pellet gun. Somehow I don't think a white boy with a pellet gun would be judged a threat by police and executed in this same manner. Like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice died on the pavement with no attempt at medical assistance, showing the same callous disregard for the preservation of African-American life. In fact, when his sister came screaming with horror at what had happened to her brother, she was treated like a criminal and rudely tossed into the back of the killer policeman's car.

It seems that "shoot first and ask questions later" has become standard operating procedure for many American cops, along with an assumption that if any black male resists arrest or is in any way uncooperative with police requests, he essentially signs his own death warrant, and it is not the policeman's fault if a death results. Really. Any black man who does not behave toward police like a happy puppy greeting his owner is asking to be killed; That is the sick and sorry status quo we have arrived at. A sad irony is that since police so often kill African-American males, it makes it entirely rational for black men and boys to want to run away from police who approach them. If you knew that many people like yourself had been killed by police with only minimal provocation or justification, wouldn't you run for your life if a cop stopped you? Sadly, if your skin is black and you feel afraid of a cop, or dare to speak back to a police officer who you feel is treating you wrongly, it might just get you killed. That is one ugly truth of African-American life in the USA today.

2015 has shown no letup in the procession of police-administered deaths of unarmed African Americans. I am particularly saddened and sickened by the case of Walter Scott, slain in Charlotte, South Carolina, on April 4th of this year. His crime? He was stopped for a broken tail light and ran from the police, of whom he was quite rightfully fearful. Mr. Scott ran when confronted by a policeman in a parking lot, and was first tasered, and then, when he ran again, was shot to death. He was a former Coast Guard member, with a checkered past, who had recently been trying to better himself by studying Massage Therapy in a local college. I shudder to think how many African-American students I have known like Mr. Scott, who have had their ups and downs and tried to chart a new course through education. To think that any one of them could end up like Mr. Scott, gunned down for the most minor of offenses and for failing to behave as policemen like black people to behave, ties my stomach in a knot, and makes me ashamed to live in a country where this is not only possible, but predictable.

This was followed this year by the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police on April 19, 2015. Freddie Gray was a 25 year old African-American man with a past history of arrests, which may explain why, when a police officer made contact with him that morning on the street, he panicked and ran away, the police then pursuing him, handcuffing him, and placing him in a police van, where he would meet his death. It should be pointed out that running away from police is not a crime, and might even be considered rational for someone like Freddy Gray in a place like Baltimore, where local people often perceive the police as a hostile force. This perception proved to be entirely justified in this case. When the police finally caught up with Mr. Gray, he was found to be in possession of a knife, though he was not threatening anyone and it is not illegal to carry such a knife in Baltimore. Gray was handcuffed and thrown into a police van, then driven around for several minutes without being secured with a safety belt, with the result that he was tossed around the van at each sudden turn or stop, resulting in injuries to his neck and spine that soon caused his death. This way of placing prisoners in a police van in a way guaranteed to cause them pain and injury was known in Baltimore as a "rough ride." The very fact that this practice had a name, that it was a known thing, suggests that Freddie Gray was not the first African-American to suffer this kind of injury-inducing treatment at the hands of the police. Note too that the practice is designed to inflict harm without the police having to raise a fist or fire a shot; it "just happens" in the course of a ride around the city, helping the police dodge any culpability for the death of individuals under their power. Mr. Gray was right to run from the police, because when they did catch up with him, they killed him. He was brought to a hospital for treatment, but he was already beyond help.

Freddy Gray's death came about as the result of police practices that seem to have been designed for no other purpose than to cause harm and terror to African-Americans in a cynical, sadistic manner, as if watching a black prisoner helplessly tossed around in the back of a van with no way for him to escape injury or even death was someone's idea of good fun, a happy time for the Baltimore boys in blue.

And now comes a new racist killing, not the execution of an single individual by police, like the ones mentioned above*, but a mass murder carried out by a young man with explicitly racist and white supremacist affiliations and motivations. Twenty-one year old Dylann Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the evening of June 17th and joined a Bible Study meeting in progress that evening. After an hour, Mr. Roof pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and began shooting, not stopping until nine African-Americans were dead, including the church pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also a Democratic state senator with a bright future as an inspiring African-American political leader. Mr. Roof was arrested the following evening, and it has since emerged from multiple sources ranging from photos of Dylann Roof proudly displaying symbols of white supremacy such as the flags of the racist regimes of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa in its Apartheid days along with the Confederate flag to blog postings by Mr. Roof spouting standard issue white supremacist ideology to statements by friends and relatives that Dylann Roof had been voicing increasingly hostile racist comments in recent years.

Dylann Roof is a standard issue white supremacist zealot of the sort that the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking for years. In fact, I wonder if his "storm" middle name is anything other than a tribute to the racist organization and web site "Storm Front." The only different thing about young Mr. "Storm" is the degree to which he was willing to put his racist animosity and white supremacist principles into practice. On Roof's blog, he explains that he felt a need to take action as he did not see the KKK (the Ku Klux Klan, formerly the leading organization for white supremacist terrorism against black Americans, I will note for younger readers) or anyone else doing what needed to be done to stem what he believed was a rising tide of African-American dispossession and disadvantagement of white Americans and to strike the first blow in what he hoped would inaugurate a race war of white against black. Though some have tried, predictably in cases like this, to put his murderous rampage, his politically driven act of racial terrorism, down to mental illness and to sidestep his ideological associations and motivations, which are quite strongly stated and unequivocal, anyone who looks at the facts I have cited above should have no doubt that Dylann Roof was acting out a plan that was rooted in a long history of American racism, including organized racist terrorism such as that purveyed by the KKK, and which is only explicable in relation to that deep-rooted, widespread and continuing racism, a racism with different forms, degrees and levels, from the unacknowledged, implicit and structurally embedded varieties to the more flagrant, confrontational and openly genocidal type espoused by Dylann Roof and others of his ilk.

His crime is horrible and will sadly win him the place in history that Mr. Roof sought, as a white man willing to stand up for white America and slay black Americans. It is sobering to consider that if Mr. Dylan Roof had approached his mission a little differently, he could have joined the police force in any number of American cities, done even more damage to black Americans over a longer period of time than he did that sickening night in Charleston, and have very likely escaped arrest or punishment. As we mourn the deaths in Charleston and grind our teeth in anger and sorrow over the actions of young Mr. Roof, let us not forget the bigger picture. Sensational crimes and mass murders like the one carried out by the racist terrorist Dylann Roof can actually blind us to the more mundane but cumulatively greater harms, including not only violent deaths but stunted lives, wounded families and broken communities engendered on a regular basis by the less obvious and more insidious forces and faces of racism in this disturbed and violent nation called America.

In future I will speak more about how the continuing reality of racist terrorism in America presents a special obligation and a promising opportunity to Pagans of today.

*granted, George Zimmerman was not a police officer, but he saw himself as a self-appointed public safety officer, and to that extent, Trayvon Martin was also slain by police, albeit a fake, wannabe police man.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cape Cod Contemplations

Dear Readers,

It has been four months since I have had the time and energy to write in this blog. The spring semester was an insanely busy time for me. First of all, in addition to my busy teaching schedule at my NY state college, I also took advantage of an opportunity to teach a Religious Studies course one evening a week at another college in a different state, which required nearly 4 hours drive each way and an overnight stay--quite exhausting physically even if delightfully refreshing and stimulating intellectually. Then I also got involved in protesting a frack-related power plant that is on the road to being built in my corner of New York. It will provide few benefits to people in my area, but many harms, from air and water pollution to destruction of historical heritage sites, landscape and environment, all the while posing a constant risk of explosion from large tanks of chemicals that the plant will need in order to function. Resisting this petrochemical juggernaut has been a terrible uphill struggle, and a real education for me in seeing how hard it is to stop something like this when big money is involved, big corporations are pushing the thing forward, and the public is too apathetic, ill-informed or simply stupid to resist. On top of that, I organized a trip to Lithuania and Latvia that required much more attention that I expected, with constant uncertainty about size of group and cost of travel that made the whole thing very difficult and stressful. In the end, the trip did take place in May and went fairly well...but afterwards I was about ready to collapse, and so here I am.

I am visiting Cape Cod over this long June weekend, a place I have vacationed in since childhood, first with family in my youth and teens, then with friends and girlfriends in my twenties and thirties, then on a farewell trip with my mother as she was dying in my forties, and more recently by myself. This place has always been a refuge to me across many years and relationships and all the inevitable ups and downs of one man's life. Over-built and over-commercialized as some of the Cape may be, there remains a magical combination of natural beauty and Old New England charm that touches something deep inside of me. Route 6A...Sandy Neck Beach and Barnstable Village...Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown....these are my touchstones, my old friends who greet me with a warm and silent smile that I prefer to many conversations each time I come. I used to enjoy long walks on the beach to feel the sand beneath my feet, looking to one side to see scrubby pines beyond the sand dunes, while on the other side beckoned the endlessly crashing, draining and replenishing ocean, but on this trip, I find my old bones too tired to do very much walking. Instead I have enjoyed sitting in a chair on the sand and watching the waves dance back and forth on the shore, while I read a book or write in my journal or watch the gulls circling the water, the people strolling by, or the seals popping up out of the waves. When not on the beach, driving or walking around towns from Barnstable to Provincetown and seeing the weathered old traditional grey shingle houses, the old fences and trees all likewise provides a welcome balm to my weary and worn-down little self. The combination of the natural and the old....that's what does it.

The reason I find this worth sharing in this blog is that I see the same set of factors at work in the appeal of Modern Paganism. Gods of nature, rites of old. Nothing manufactured or marketed, owned, operated or controlled by a corporation. Ritual behavior with no obvious economic value, simply because it feels good to honor that which cannot be bought in Walmart or sold on Wall Street. Our modern life is so frantic with buying and selling and consumption that the whole "business" of living becomes more and more frantic and stressful, as we dance to a consumerist tune that grows ever more hectic and hollow. In a similar way, Paganism allows us to get at least a temporary break from the mindless rush into a mechanized, robotically efficient and number-driven future that the masters of technology are insisting is the only possible reality for the human race. With Paganism, we touch other notes in the symphony of the universe, we look backwards as well as forwards, and we embrace what we feel to be eternal rather than the latest mass-marketed trend. We turn off You Tube and the boob tube, disable the chatter of endless advertising, reject the frantic claims and sly seductions of the New... and seek refuge in the Old, like a gull diving into seawater without relying on GPS or a beach plum blossoming on a sand dune without permission from Microsoft or Monsanto.

The tree grows as trees have done forever, the tree is real as trees have been forever, and so we hold the tree sacred. The sand dissolves and returns as the shoreline sings and dances and sky and sea rejoice. This is our religion. This is our truth. This is our Paganism: a search for fundamentals beyond the buzz and chatter of modern distractions.

Thank you, Cape Cod, for this chance to reconnect on many the ocean of eternity, riding waves of memory, knowing that the seemingly random order of stones on the beach is the truth beyond our arrogance.

To my late mother, you were right, this place indeed has magic.

To the gods that whisper in the trees and illuminate the silence, I hear you and I breathe you.

May all be well....even if we cannot see the way, may there be a way to follow.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Needed: A REAL Sharing Economy

Consider these two statements: The economy is working just fine. The economy is not working at all. Which of these statements rings more true to you probably depends a lot on your socio-economic position in our society. If you are in the privileged class that has been raking in enormous piles of money from tech-company expansions, stock investments or high-level financial maneuverings like mergers and acquisitions, you probably feel we are living in a wonderful time, as you are practically swimming in wealth. However, if you are a member of this privileged class, you are not at all representative of the vast majority of people in our society who are finding it increasingly difficult to get ahead, or even feel comfortable, not only financially,but generally, because the stress of financial insecurity is chipping away at their general well-being, making it hard for them either to plan ahead for a better tomorrow or to enjoy the here and now.

Perhaps you dream that by some lucky stroke of fortune, you will find a way to join the techno-financial elite, and live a life of privileged splendor like a feudal baron of old, comfortable in your castle, well-fed, well-positioned, expensively equipped, and surrounded by fawning subordinates, separate from the suffering masses, who you will now feel free to scorn as lazy losers, even though your own business ventures very likely depend both on the labor of such people and your capacity to deny them a decent paycheck and any measure of security. However, you probably realize on some level that you are highly unlikely to ever attain such a privileged position. For you and most Americans, and an increasing number of people in other places as well, in places like Greece and Spain, for example, the economy is not working very well at all.

Furthermore, you may feel quite powerless to do anything about this situation other than moan and grumble, work harder and harder at your current job to make sure you do not lose it, and seek to pick up extra money at a second or third job, because that is, quote, "the way it is." However, this "way that it is" is not some sort of basic structure of reality that has been in place on earth forever like the periodic table of basic elements or the law of gravity. The aggregate of buying, selling, banking, working, living and legal and financial arrangements that structure our lives, as well as the underlying understandings, expectations and beliefs that together constitute what we term "The Economy" is a totally man-made thing that is entirely subject to fluctuation and transformation due to pressure from any number of factors... including human will and collective pressure.

There are, after all, many more of "us" poor and working people than there are of "them" in the techno-financial elite. One of the main hurdles that prevents our current economy from changing for the better for the majority is the sad truth that too many people have accepted that the current kind of economy that we have is in fact "the way it is," something natural and immutable, as far beyond human analysis,control, question or challenge as an asteroid, an earthquake or a hurricane. If ordinary people do not conceive of the possibility of change to the current economy and undertake to pressure the current arrangement to become more conducive to a more secure and happy life for ALL people, not just the fortunate elite, then there really is no hope for the future. The majority of people will increasingly live their lives as hard-laboring serfs with little hope of security or advancement, while the fortunate, greedy few will live lives of privilege and splendor--a brave new world of techno-financial feudalism.

One of the key differences between those in the techno-financial elite and the rest of us is one of attitude toward the current reality. Those in the elite, with the most obvious example being the carbon-based, anti-environmentalist, ultra- conservative life forms known as the Koch Bros., expect to be allowed to control and shape the future of economic arrangements in ways that will continually improve their level of wealth, degree of personal and political power, and quality of life, like the right to own multiple expensive residences while many others go homeless or live in constant fear of losing their homes, and make every effort to maintain or even increase their influence and control over future economic structures and conditions. The suffering masses do not expect to have any influence on the shape of things to come, and make no efforts to achieve any control or influence. And so one group ends up with all the power, influence and control, and the other does not.

This "way that it is" is not democratic at all. It is economic oligarchy. It is not a "free" market. It is a market shaped and controlled for the elite, for the few, not the many. For the many, the main "freedoms" in our supposedly "free" society and "free" market economy are the freedoms to toil increasingly long hours at increasingly less secure employment, to worry with good reason about the future, to fall into debt for basic needs like housing, education and health care, and to experience unending stress and anxiety, which many are only able to imperfectly escape from through activities and products, from Hollywood films, sports competitions, Reality TV programs and ultra-violent video games to pharmaceutical concoctions, that are largely owned and operated by the techno-financial elite, who encourage dependence on such escapism and mind-dulling pursuits and discourage any challenge to the existing order, which works so very well.... FOR THEM.

We who are the majority of humanity need a NEW economy, one that better distributes the proceeds of economic activity for the benefit of all. The response of those in the elite and of conservatives, libertarians and free-market fundamentalists is to scream, "Impossible!" "Heresy!" "Communism!" and of course, "That's not the way it is!" However, we can look around the world and into societies of the past and discover that there are indeed other models for how to structure the economy, how much power to allow to corporations and wealthy elites, how much power to give workers and citizens to make decisions about pay, benefits, location of business facilities, like whether a factory should be in Buffalo or Beijing, how much executives should be paid compared to what workers are paid, and many other such factors. If we raised the pay of workers in huge companies and lowered the pay of executives, the executives would bitch and moan, and the businesses might have to reorganize, but guess what: businesses are constantly having to adapt to new conditions and reorganize. Having to adapt and reorganize to treat their workers better might be a real "challenge" and might cause some serious "disruption" in the way things now work, but I believe it is quite common in techno-financial circles to talk about adapting to changing conditions and "challenges" and "disrupting" the status quo.

OK, business geniuses, you supermen and superwomen, darlings of the stock market, deity-like entrepreneurs and CEOs and CFOs. You are so smart, so wise, so techno-savvy. Here is a "challenge" to you, an invitation to "disrupt" current conditions. Let's see if you can find ways to employ MORE people, not fewer, provide better pay and MORE security, not less, to the greatest number of people, not the fewest, not just you and your techno-elite friends. Are you up to the challenge? Or do we have to hire someone else?

To be continued, with reflections on how the attitudes and values of ancient Pagan traditions can be applied to this situation, to clarify the kind of economy that would be better for the human race and better for the natural environment as well. It's funny how taking care of the one often involves taking care of the other too. Perhaps they are related... :)
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