Sunday, June 4, 2017

Global Depression

Dear Readers,

I have never before let this blog fall silent for so long. It is a measure of how terribly dispirited I have been feeling, watching the Trump presidency unfold. Almost every day there is a new outrage, a new insult to intelligence, a new threat to either the fabric of American society, to our international relations, or to the health of the planet. It is simply overwhelming. Trump goes to Saudi Arabia and embraces the authoritarian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, not to mention the unelected rulers of the Saudi royal family, a monarchy straight out of the Middle Ages that exports a highly fundamentalist form of Islam that feeds into the Islamic extremism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, while hurling insults and threats at Iran, which despite its flaws, is a country where people actually get to vote for their leaders in relatively free elections, unlike Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Then he goes to Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, and criticizes the leaders of Europe for not paying more for the NATO alliance, even while refusing to reaffirm America's commitment to the basic principle of the NATO alliance, the "one-for-all and all-for-one" idea that any attack on any NATO country will be viewed as an attack on all NATO countries and mobilize the entire alliance to repel the aggression.

It is hard to contemplate Trump's eagerness to berate America's NATO allies and his unwillingness to restate America's commitment without feeling deeply worried that he is signaling to Russia that America is unconcerned about Russia's invasion of Crimea and intervention in Eastern Ukraine, which could embolden Putin and his generals to think about further actions to destabilize, weaken and possibly reclaim parts of the former Soviet Union, most crucially, the Baltic States. And now this week, his announcement that the US will pull out of the Paris Climate Accord is the most sickening moment of all. Like Hitler and Mussolini proudly denouncing international cooperation in the 1930s as Germany and Italy quit the League of Nations, Trump has expressed contempt for the nearly 200 countries that worked together to craft that finely-balanced, far-sighted accord, and proclaimed once more that "America First" is his guiding star, oblivious to the fact that rejecting  this agreement will mean America becoming marginalized or even irrelevant in further discussions on the single greatest issue facing mankind today: the fate of our planet and the conditions for all life on earth.

In explaining his decision to abandon the Paris treaty the other day, Trump said that he is tired of other countries laughing at America, and that they won't be laughing any more. I think this statement give us insight into a central paranoia within Trump World, the nagging suspicion that he is not properly respected by other people--"they're laughing at me''--which now, in his thinking, applies to America as well. While Trump is not America, it is true that for the next several years, he is the face America shows to the world, and to that extent, how other countries see Trump is how they will see America. However, I strongly doubt that people in other countries will now be laughing less at America with Trump as head of state. It may even be the opposite. The reactions, however, are not limited to laughter. I sense that people in Europe and elsewhere are shaking their heads in disgust, feeling sad about America's declining status as a leading country, and some may even be crying instead of laughing.

I also wonder what this does to Paganism.  Trump's continuing use of anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner rhetoric, his continuing push for a nonsensical ban on travel to America from a number of Muslim-majority countries,  and the stepped up raids and arrests of undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America,  are all sure to be received well by right-wing Americans who love to see non-white, non-Christian people harassed and demeaned, even if such actions do nothing to improve their lot in today's dysfunctional, winner-take-all economy, in which automation and corporate greed do as much to displace jobs as any foreign trade agreements. At least they can feel that they are "better" than "those people," those non-white, non-Christian Others who they enjoy scorning and/or hating and/or fearing. I assume that some right-wing Pagans will also enjoy this kind of elevation of white, European-descended Americans over non-white, non-European descended others. But what about the Christian element? Do right-wing Pagans ignore this aspect of Trumpism? Perhaps some ex-Christian, right wing Pagans will actually be persuaded to return to Christianity, seeing this as their best option for upholding their racialized sense of identity and their attachment to European heritage in this age of Trump. Others may take a more "a la carte" approach, embracing Trump's scorn for non-white, non-European people, especially Muslims, Mexicans and Latin Americans which is also expressed, more subtly, in his disinterest in any government action to aid African-Americans, while choosing to overlook Trump's appeals to Christian identity.

For Pagans who feel a strong connection to European culture and heritage, Trump's pro-Russian, anti-NATO, anti-EU leanings pose an interesting challenge. Most  European Pagans in formerly Soviet-controlled lands are pleased to be out of the Soviet Union--or in the case of Central European countries like Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia,out of the Soviet Bloc--and are are not eager to return to some Putinized mafia-state recreation of the Soviet Empire. Will they and their counterparts in America feel gratified by President Trump weakening European defenses against Russian aggression, whether this be outright invasion as in Crimea, borderland conflict as in Eastern Ukraine, cyber attacks against former Soviet states as happened in Estonia in 2007, or interference in election campaigns as was attempted in France and Germany this year, and seem to have played a role in the Brexit vote in the UK and the denigration of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential campaign last year? It could be that many American Pagans do not care or know enough about contemporary politics in Europe to take any stand at all. They may prefer to just stick to their European-derived traditions without thinking much about the current state of the Europe from which their traditions derive. My wish would be that Pagans would open their eyes to what is happening in the world and take a stand with European leaders, and European Pagan groups, in opposing Russian interference or domination of their countries, and in also opposing Trump's friendliness toward Russia until Russia ceases its interference in countries across Europe.

I would also hope that Pagans in America, all of whom claim to love nature and the gods of nature, would see Trump's cruel, ignorant and dangerous decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord as an affront to one of their primary religious values. Even if they are right-wing leaning, as I know some American Pagans are, I urge them to realize that Mother Earth--or whatever name the totality of our beautiful natural world has in any particular Pagan tradition or any particular Pagan's thinking--is calling out to us. I do believe that as Pagans, we have a duty to resist Trump to protect the Earth. This will be a test of whether Paganism in America is really a nature-based form of spirituality, as its followers have often asserted, or whether white tribalism is really the core value.

Right now, I find it hard to be optimistic.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking Inspiration in a Time of Exhaustion

Dear Friends, if, like me, you are a liberal, a leftist, or even just a compassionate person in America, or if you are somewhere else in the world looking in at this country, I am sure that you must find the non-stop barrage of insults, threats, aggression and intolerance issuing forth from the Trump White House mentally exhausting and spiritually depleting, as I do. I have been especially appalled by the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which disrupted so many people's lives for no good purpose, and which sets the tone for increased animosity and ill will between the USA and the Muslims of the world. It had become the norm in recent decades to hear U.S. presidents extol the virtues of diversity and inclusiveness, but Trump has turned his back on all this in order to push the country on a retrograde path back toward the worst moments in American history, the ones that cause intelligent Americans to hang their heads in shame, the times when blacks were enslaved, segregated and lynched, when native peoples were exterminated and dispossessed, when Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps, when artists and intellectuals were hounded for real or imagined communist sympathies, when Vietnamese were demonized as “gooks,” when Iraqi prisoners of war were tormented and humiliated in violation of the Geneva convention, when gays, lesbians and other non-heterosexuals had to live in constant fear of harassment, humiliation and beatings ranging from the frightening to the fatal. As we see with the Muslim Ban executive order—which in Trumpian terms is of course NOT a Muslim Ban even though it mainly affects Muslims and is the fulfillment of a campaign promise Trump made for months—Trump is obviously going to use “national security” as the justification for all manner of oppressive actions toward ethnic and religious minorities and any and all who dare to criticize or oppose him. I fear that we are living in a time not unlike 1930s Germany, where the storm cloud are gathering and the storm troopers are massing.

But I digress. There is much to say about the actions of the Trump regime and what we can and must do to fight back against them, but my main point today is to muse on how we must be careful to not let the constant din and doom of Trump and his minions so exhaust and deplete us that we are unable to do anything besides reflecting the darkness and dishonesty that is now emanating from the White House like radiation from Chernobyl. We need sources of solace and comfort, reassurance and inspiration. Different people will seek out different points of refuge and recharging. For me, this means turning toward Paganism.

As my strongest affinity is for the Norse (Germanic) Pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Iceland, I look there first. I see first of all that the world of the Norse myths is a world of uncertainty, struggle and often great sorrow. It is one in which the god of wisdom and knowledge is tortured, first gaining wisdom in a painful, shamanistic self-sacrifice, second, seeing his own son killed and being unable to help him, third, preparing to lead the gods in battle against gigantic forces of destruction, all the time knowing, owing to his power of foresight, that his side is going to lose, despite their best and most valiant efforts, and the world is going to be ruined and burnt. We are told in the Eddic poem Voluspá that in the end, or rather, after the end, after all has been destroyed, there is the possibility that the world will re-emerge, and that the gods too will be restored; or maybe not.

Relating this to our own situation, I see that we who seek knowledge and wisdom in difficult times should not be surprised to find ourselves feeling tortured, psychologically speaking, when we see our society electing a dangerously ignorant, rage-driven buffoon who unleashes a maelstrom of chaos, confusion and brutality, cheered on by equally ignorant and rage-driven hordes. Obviously, this mental torture could even become a physical experience, should we internalize our anxiety and sorrow to where it causes bodily ailments like hypertension, ulcers, strokes or heart attacks. It could also become a physical reality if the Trump regime decides that “national security” requires the interrogation, detention, and/or public shaming of regime opponents, echoing the “Red Scare” tribunals and blacklists of the 1950s.

I also think of Yggdrasil, the “World Tree” in Norse mythology, which supports and connects all worlds but itself suffers daily from being continually gnawed and damaged by various beings who come to feed on its branches and shoots. This reminds me of how in our modern world, the kinds of institutional systems that support and connect the world and provide succor and aid to many are under constant threat from the right-wingers like Trump, Pence and Ryan who seek to cut off the branches of government and let the tree of international cooperation wither, so that all will be left to fend for themselves, the weak and poor having no recourse, the wealthy and powerful feeling no responsibility, and institutional supports that make life better for the disadvantaged and lessen animosity and inequality between the peoples of the world, degraded if not dismantled. I would not doubt that right-wing Pagans have different interpretations, perhaps viewing Norse mythology through the lens of Ayn Rand and thinking of the tree as the society of the "maker" elite whose wonderful works and wealth are unfairly drained and diminished by the parasitic class of unproductive "takers," the world's underclass, regarded here as the architects of their own infirmity through their laziness, stupidity and "poor choices," with Ragnarök as the necessary destruction of an evil, socialistic world order that caters to the demented underclass rather than their majestic overlords. Myths, like any texts, are of course open to interpretation, and I can only say that mine is the one that makes sense to me and meshes with my values and concerns. I would hope it resonates with some of you as well.

I feel a special connection to trees. Whenever I see them, they comfort me and seem pillars of natural health and vitality, rooted deep, reaching high, providing shade and shelter for all living beings, free of charge. I always lament when I see trees harmed or cut down when there seems no urgent necessity. The status of trees seems to me a bellwether of the state of society. A society that values trees and greenery, and does not feel the need to mow down trees to create a blankly utilitarian landscape, is a healthier, saner one, in my view, than that which sees trees as a nuisance and would prefer dead concrete or an artificially perfect, chemical-drenched green lawn.

The plight of the World Tree is reflected in so many situations that one sees everywhere, everyday, above all the horrendous threat to the world's weather systems posed by climate change and global warming, which echoes the disturbance of nature said to presage the final destruction in the prophecy of the Voluspá. The Tree suffers much but still sustains us all, and I think this is the right way to think of one's moral duty in society in troubled times such as ours. We may have to suffer with and from people whose ideas and intentions seem ill-informed, distorted, destructive and hateful, but we must never forget to support and sustain human AND humane society and the health and well-being of the natural order which in turn gives us our health and well-being. Like Odin, we must seek wisdom, even if the quest is torturous and painful, and we must muster all our strength, intelligence and courage, even if we sense that the forces arrayed against us are truly ferocious and horrifically powerful.

The ambiguous ending of the Ragnarök tale in Voluspá gives room for hope that the powers of destruction, whether Frost-Giants, Fire-Demons, or Fascistic American Presidents, will not prevail forever. Their day will pass and a new day will dawn. We just have to hold on as best we can and make sure that the things we hold in our hearts as true and valuable and life-enhancing are not forgotten or erased, so that they may rise up as beacons of hope after the floodwaters of darkness subside. Like the gods in Voluspá, we must keep in mind that while our own time is limited, the world will go on, and we should dedicate ourselves to giving what we can to make that future world better than the one that we now see engulfed in flames. Pagans tend to look to the past, to enjoy reliving and reviving traditions of many centuries ago, but we should not forget that those traditions also looked to the future. The Vikings didn't stay at home and remain passive when times were hard. They went out and created a new world, reaching toward the future.

The hour of Trump will pass. Remember that, and don't let him drag you down into his angry darkness. Find peace and courage in nature, which endures much, but always regenerates.... eventually. Even Chernobyl, site of one of the world's worst environmental calamities, has green plants growing and animals roaming.

When his son Baldur was dead and his body laid out for his cremation, Odin bent down to his corpse and whispered something into his ear. According to the myths, no one knows what it was that the All-Father said. As there would seem little point in speaking to someone truly dead and departed, it may be that Odin knew something about the future, a future in which Baldur--and the world--would be revived, as is indeed suggested in the final lines of Voluspá.

I like that idea just now.... Something beyond the darkness.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump Trends

The victory of Donald Trump shocked and dismayed me, as it did many other Americans and people around the world, which I know from the reactions of my friends in Europe. The prospect of what he may do as President is truly alarming and I find my psyche in a near-constant state of low level anxiety as I numbly await the new president's inauguration. I am, however, feeling greater clarity about how and why such a man could be elected. My thoughts are not comforting, except that there is always some small measure of comfort in being able to make sense of what otherwise seems senseless and incomprehensible.

I realize that there were quite a few social and cultural trends that led to Trump becoming president. First of all, ever since the Reagan years, if not earlier, American society has been filled with two opposite but in a sense, complementary messages about who and what is worthy of respect and who and what is not. Politicians and public servants, indeed, the public sector itself, indeed, the very concept of government, have been consistently denigrated and vilified, even as millionaire businessmen and billionaire entrepreneurs have been held up as the heroes of our world. Look at Trump vs. Clinton through that lens, and it is clear what an enormous tailwind of attitude and perception was boosting Trump's political fortunes, no pun intended, at every stage of the campaign.

Then there is the rise of reality television as a major genre of entertainment in America. I first mistyped this as entertaint-ment, but that may have been a Freudian slip expressing my dim view of this misbegotten genre. Reality TV aided Trump's rise in two ways. First of all, as the star of one of the most popular of all reality TV programs for 14 years, Trump became a familiar face to audiences across America, a major plus for his campaign. As a constant presence on people's TV screens, Trump became a trusted, comforting presence, however rude and unpleasant his TV persona. Secondly, as reality TV depends on the entertainment value of characters who are loud, abusive, argumentative and all-around obnoxious, Trump both got training in portraying the kind of personality that many Americans find interesting and entertaining, and America got training in relating to this kind of personality, so that when a person acting in this manner became a candidate in a political campaign, a considerable segment of the American population was primed and ready to find him fascinating and irresistible. This may have also helped protect Trump from criticism of his many faux pas, crude and mean behavior and outright contradictions, as the reality TV audience "knows" that this kind of behavior is the very secret of success for reality programs, not something to be objected to, but something to be applauded.

There have also been many different ways in which aggressiveness and just plain meanness have been championed in American popular culture and social mores for many years. "Nice guys finish last" is a cliche that expresses a widely shared view of human nature in our competitive society. On the international stage, diplomacy and humanitarian assistance are seen as "weak" and "wasteful." Armies, wars and weapons are praised as inherently virtuous and not only excused, but rewarded for their failures. In today's macho-aggressive America, no one wants to be a "wimp" or a "loser," the latter term being one of Trump's favorite terms of disparagement. Trump's vicious comments and cruel nick-names for "Lying' Ted," "Little Marco," "Low-energy" Jeb Bush, and "Crooked Hillary" are not unlike the snappy one-liners that action heroes utter as they dispatch villains with their karate-kicks and high-tech weapons. Hollywood action films have trained us to enjoy and expect this kind of behavior, this slaying with sarcasm, this trope of psychologically as well as physically beating on the bad guys, and Trump was in this regard acting out a role that Americans know and love. The fact that this has little to do with understanding complex issues, getting along with other people, or crafting intelligent policies to improve life in America mattered not a whit; entertainment value trumps all. Trump had little experience in government affairs, but considerable experience as an engaging television entertainer. Clinton had the opposite background, and the result of the election made clear which kind of experience was more meaningful to many voters.

Trump's admiration for Russia's "strong man" leader Vladimir Putin also fits in with this trend of high regard for cruelty and aggression. Trump has praised Putin as a "real leader," a praise that cannot be divorced from Putin's brutal track record as a leader who bullies, intimidates, arrests and even executes his critics, censors the press, and drops cluster bombs on civilian populations in Syria. In the worldview of Trump, and presumably his followers, this brutality is not condemned but condoned, even lauded as the essence of "leadership." I know another word for this style of leadership: Fascism.

Then there is social media's impact. Trump clearly loves Twitter, and Twitter clearly loves Trump. His inability to formulate complex thoughts in a coherent manner is not a liability in an age in which many people communicate through 140 character thought-belches. As thought-belcher-in-chief, Trump will either train the media and the public to love this style of communication from the office of the president, or he will make such mangled and childish communication so disreputable that he will bring down Twitter with him.

The rise of right-wing media was another factor, as angry, anti-liberal, anti-government, race-baiting talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly established a platform, a mode of discourse, and an angry white male persona that were ideal for Trump's anti-liberal, anti-elite, anti-"politically correct," perpetually pissed-off, and racially charged style of angry populism. The many years in which such right-wing media, especially FOX News, had endlessly trump-eted accusations of corruption and misconduct against Hillary Clinton and before her, Bill Clinton, created a cloud of mistrust around Hillary which made it impossible for her to reach segments of the population whose brains had long steeped in the anti-Hillary paranoia of the "tea party." The shooting incident in the Washington pizza parlor after "fake news" reports of Secretary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta operating a pedophilia ring among the pepperoni and pizza dough shows how effective that kind of paranoid internet propaganda can be in poisoning the minds of the mentally unprotected. The further evolution of far-right media into internet-based distortion fields like Alex Jones' program and Breitbart News also primed the population to follow a candidate who embraced such media, as Trump did.

Taken together, we can see that Trump's political success rests on many different pillars in our sick and troubled society. To resist Trump and what he represents, we must apply ourselves to counteracting and deconstructing the attitudes, perceptions and tastes that made his seemingly implausible rise to power so very plausible that we might even say it was inevitable. I hate to say it, but the preponderance of evidence, the logic of my argument, and the brutal reality of his electoral success all require it: Trump truly is a man of our times. However, to paraphrase Bob Dylan's words from 50+ years ago, the times are always a-changin,' and so there is hope.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Seeking the Light in the Darkness: Winter Solstice 2016

Tonight is the night of the winter solstice, the time of year when the earth is farthest from the sun and days are at their shortest and nights their most long and dark and cold. This is a time of year when ancient Pagan peoples would celebrate light in darkness and the hope of renewal to come in the new year. In America, after the election of a man who seems intent on raping and defiling Mother Earth to the maximum degree possible and devastating the natural environment for the sake of corporate profit, the solstice, with its echoes of ancient peoples who cultivated an earth-centered spirituality, has extra meaning to me. I say to my friends, embrace the light. Tend to that spark of truth and good will within yourself, and prepare for battle in the New Year.

Prepare to stand up and fight against lies, greed, intolerance, bullying, racism, and oppression. Remember that many who supported Trump were not well-informed or fully aware of what they were endorsing or empowering. Many were simply fed-up with the difficult conditions of life today, and hoping for reasons that I still do not fully understand that an orange-haired, celebrity-bully-billionaire would be the answer to their frustrations. Let us hope that in months to come they will see the light of truth and realize that this man is not their savior, and that his election represents not their salvation but a huge and harmful mistake that we will have to work very hard to resist, rectify and move beyond. Peace.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Living in a Foreign Country: America in the Age of Trump

On Tuesday night, November 8th, I went to sleep on an overnight flight to Europe for a conference taking place later in the week. While I was on my way to Helsinki, I assumed that America was on its way to electing Hillary Clinton as president. When the plane touched down Wednesday morning and people began to turn on their smart phones to check messages and get the latest news, a murmuring spread through the passengers. I began to hear "Trump... Trump..." and soon learned the truth: The impossible had happened. The catastrophe had arrived. The arrogant, loudmouthed, ridiculously boastful celebrity businessman with hateful views toward migrants and minorities, who had been caught on tape talking about how he used his celebrity status to take sexual advantage of women, who had zero experience in government and offered little more than vague promises to "make America great again," had narrowly edged Mrs. Clinton to become the new president-in-waiting.

I had had an awful dream on the flight. I saw angry mobs, fires, violence. I woke thinking the dream probably represented my anxieties about the election, but when I found that Trump had been not vanquished but elevated by the election, I now feared the dream was if anything prophetic, a grim premonition of what may lay ahead for country run by an ignorant, erratic, thin-skinned and hot-tempered, right-wing billionaire bully fueled by resentment and egotism.

She had won the popular vote, by a margin that has now proven substantial, but since America awards the presidency through its complicated system of the "electoral college," Trump had prevailed by winning almost all of the rural and less populated states, white majority areas where Hillary Clinton's greater appeal to more diverse populations was not only not an advantage, but actually a disadvantage. Donald Trump had signaled in many ways that he was sympathetic to the far-right, racist, white supremacist wing of American politics, not least by appointing Stephen Bannon, a leading light in the dark universe of the so-called "Alt Right" movement through the "Breitbart" news web site, to a top position in his campaign. Trump's triumph may, I fear, represent a chilling turning away from the social progress that American had painfully achieved through the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay rights movements from the 1960s through 2016, and particularly the advances, limited though they were, of the Obama years.

Going, going, gone: an educated, thoughtful President who cares about minorities, women's rights, the environment.... Gone, a Justice Department that looks into the killing by police of unarmed black people.... Gone, any consideration for the rights of Muslim-Americans.... Gone, the protection from deportation that President Obama had extended to the children of undocumented migrants.... Gone, compassion.... Gone, intelligence.... Gone respect for diversity.... Hello, belligerence, intolerance, crassness and braggadocio, implicit support for racism and xenophobia....Hello government by kleptocracy, Donald and his friends and family grabbing up goodies and making deals to enrich themselves....Hello to America as not the leader of the world but a diminished, puzzling "rogue nation," an erratic kleptocracy....

As a Pagan who sees respect for nature as a core, perhaps THE core spiritual value, I am most pained by the potential damage that will be done to the earth by a new government that scorns the threat of global warming and may withdraw from international agreements like the Paris Climate Treaty.... I will be looking for opportunities to join arms with other like-minded Pagans who support policies of protection for the environment rather than opening the door to all-out exploitation of nature and unrestricted extraction of carbon fuels as seem to be favored by our new president. I wonder how many Pagans will stand up for nature, and how many will instead support Trump because they like his nationalistic, tribalistic tendencies?

I do believe that in a democracy, it is important to allow a newly elected leader and government some time to establish their policies and programs before passing judgment. I just do not have much hope for the next four, or eight, years, based on who Donald Trump has been in the past, his inflammatory and ignorant statements during the campaign, and the kind of extreme right-wing people he is surrounding himself with, from appointing the right-wing, "white nationalist" (translation: racist and white supremacist) Stephen Bannon for the nebulous, and thus potentially extremely powerful because invisible and undefined role of untitled presidential "adviser" to selecting the anti-Muslim, Iran-hating, Michael T. Flynn as National Security Adviser to offering the top job in the Justice Department, that of Attorney General, Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions, a throwback to racist politics of the Old South who has in past expressed more sympathy for the KKK than the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the venerable civil rights group. I see growing evidence that Trump was not joking about wanting to undo many actions and policies of the Obama years.

Worse still, as I discuss election results with students and others, I am meeting more and more people who are belligerently pro-Trump and quickly turn to anger when this new American Fuhrer is subjected to any criticism or challenge. I have studied the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and I have to say Trump's supporters scare me, as they remind me of nothing so much as the kind of thugs and bullies that Mussolini and Hitler relied on to cement their grip in power. I fear that Trump is laying the groundwork for a new Fascism of the 21st century.

A train conductor on a route that I often use told me that he feels more hope for America now than he has in 16 years. When I told him that I pretty much felt the opposite, he told me that he knew Trump would win because "he harnessed the most powerful force in America...the pissed-off white guy vote!" When I complained that Trump had no government experience, which to me made it rather unlikely that he could work the miracles that his followers expected, he countered, "Well, what experience did Obama have...beside being black?" Though I would concede that Obama was not the most qualified candidate to ever run for President, he did have some important experience. Barack Obama had worked as a community organizer in poor sections of Chicago, had served as an Illinois State Senator and then a U.S. Senator, and had also taught constitutional law at the college level at one point. My trainman then said, "Maybe Obama did some good things for people on his side....I won't dispute that. But he did nothing for people like me." This despite the fact that Obama had rescued the country from the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

The reaction of this trainman and others that I have spoken to in my largely white, conservative area of New York State, including in my classes, suggest to me that there is a substantial white population in this country who are simmering with rage and varying degrees of animosity toward Muslims, immigrants, blacks, and anyone they see as different from themselves, and who are bursting with energy that Trump will give them a government that will celebrate their identity and uphold their priorities and proclivities, and also their prejudices, racial, religious or of other sorts. My made-in-the 1960s heart that beat proudly for the election of Obama as the necessary and positive breaking of a barrier that I thought would open the way for a country more able to handle racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity is now pounding with fear and anxiety about what America is going to be like in the 2010s and 2020s if Trump's backward-looking rhetoric about "making America great again," emphasis on AGAIN, means a rebirth of flagrant racism and white supremacy, as if George Wallace had risen from the grave and won the election. I am truly afraid that he has....

I feel myself a foreigner in this version of America. I actually take some small measure of cold comfort in that, remembering that when I came back to America after living abroad in the past, I always felt some strangeness in returning to "my" country, as being away had broadened me and changed me, and coming "home" did not always feel like "home." I saw myself then and see myself now as somewhat of a foreigner in America, among so many countrymen with such a radically different view of what a healthy and sane society is or should be. With my growing international connections to the Baltic States and elsewhere, I will now keep one eye on the possibility of relocating abroad if the situation here goes from bad to worse, from simmering to burning, from quasi-Fascist rhetoric to brutality in practice, presided over by an erratic, intellectually incoherent, ethically questionable, orange-headed celebrity-buffoon who has indeed accomplished an amazing thing, to convert a country that eight years ago seemed to be heading for a new more inclusive future into a country where a considerable number of people are calling for the building of walls to keep out foreigners, the use of prisons to torture suspected terrorists, and the rounding up of Muslims into 21st century concentration camps. I hope that each of these awful items that I just mentioned never comes to pass....but all of those ideas have been voiced by members or supporters of the Trump team.

I am afraid for my country....and do not think I will live along enough to see the damage likely to be done by this new president undone. I hope I am wrong.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Reflections on "Southside With You" and Racism in Paganism

Tonight I saw "Southside With You," the film about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. It is a poignant study of the beginning of a relationship and an interesting time-capsule of American life 25 or so years ago, with the future Obamas going to see the Spike Lee film, "Do the Right Thing." At several points the two lead characters reflect on the divided, almost split-screen reality they live in, shuttling between the predominantly black American neighborhoods of the South Side of Chicago that they live in and the white-dominated corporate America in the downtown of the city that they go to work in each day. When the Michelle character reflects on how she has to continually perform and achieve at an extra-high level to win respect and status while being black and a woman in America, it made me think of how that has been true for Barack Obama as President. No white President was ever put through the kind of unrelenting scrutiny and vilification that he had to endure. Many people give him no credit at all for major achievements like stabilizing a downward-spiraling economy and not only restoring the stock market but bringing it to record heights, restoring economic growth and rising employment, putting in place regulations that will improve the safety of our air and water for generations to come, reorganizing Federal Student Loans to make it possible for borrowers to pay back on an income-contingent basis--truly a life-saver for those, like your author, with massive educational debt--and improving American's international reputation after the embarrassments of the Bush years. This is not to say the Obama record is perfect; far from it. In fact, I voted for the Green Party in 2012, but that does not mean I do not realize that things could have been much worse and that Obama did make many things better, despite incredible Republican obstruction. There are many disappointing things about his presidency, but to write it off as a nation-wrecking disaster when it was really more of a national Heimlich maneuver is to look at the last eight years through a terribly distorted lens.

Donald Trump is banking on millions of Americans endorsing that twisted view, and he may succeed. Why? There are multiple reasons, one of the foremost being that many economically struggling white Americans are responding to the old, old Pied Piper's tune of racial resentment, which provides scapegoats and rationalizations that many find comforting and reassuring. It is not the increasing power of global capitalism and massive, inhumane business corporations that are causing your declining income, status and job security; it is those nasty Mexicans and Muslims and Chinese. And all of this started when America went down the suicidal road of "political correctness" and voted a black man into the White House, a black man who is probably not even a real American, and who is probably a "Secret Muslim" though he claims to be a Christian. Don't forget that the Dunce-ald got his start in politics by gleefully endorsing the "birther" conspiracy theory that questioned the legitimacy of Barack Obama's presidency by casting doubt on the authenticity of his birth certificate. The birther show was quite a media circus, for a time, but in the end it produced nothing of value and only wasted America's time and attention. If the Golden One were elected, I expect that his presidency would achieve similar results.

The longer I live, the more people I know, the more classes I teach and students I work with, the more clearly I see how the real "birther" problem of America is how this country was founded in racial hostility, economic exploitation and bitter injustice, a nightmarish and haunted legacy from the extermination to the enslavement to the continuing disadvantaging and disrespecting of non-white people, and the more this sickens, saddens and angers me. This is the "original sin" of American life, and it never goes away. It affects all of us who breathe the air and walk the streets and make our homes in America.

And to turn to my own chosen spiritual home in the evolving religious framework of contemporary Paganism, I see how this haunted legacy poisons modern American Paganism too. The recent controversy over statements made by the new leaders of the AFA, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, that suggest a desire to perpetuate Ásatrú/Heathenry/Norse Paganism for the sake of "our beautiful white children" is repugnant but unsurprising, as this has always been one of the threads women into contemporary Norse Paganism, especially, though not exclusively, in America. As I see it, the desire of these people to employ Norse spirituality in the service of creating a lovely all-white world for their darling pure-gene children is just the old racist American story all over again, if one that is charmingly decorated with runes and eddas.

I do believe that there are well-meaning, generally kind-hearted people who are not deeply or overtly racist who fall into this unawares, not realizing that lore is being used as a lure for the unwary, to gradually indoctrinate them with a racist view of the world. A deeper understanding of American history, including its ugly chapters of racial injustice and brutalized and terrorized populations, would serve them well, as would a visit to the cinema to see "Southside With You."

Hopefully, over time, as they explore more deeply and gain greater experience, at least some who have been lured into more racist forms of Heathenry will come to see that Yggdrasil, that mythical Ash tree that links together different worlds in Norse mythology, is the WORLD tree, not the WHITE tree! Hopefully, they will come to understand that just as the mythology envisions different "races" or types of beings living together in one interlinked universe, interacting and intermingling, combining and creating, so too can we humans of different ethnic hues and backgrounds, and that together, we can breathe new energy into originally Norse-based traditions to make them more vibrant and beautiful than ever.

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