Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reflections on Ted Kennedy and the Possibility of a Liberal Asatru

Watching the news coverage of the passing of Ted Kennedy and listening to the reflections upon his life and legacy, the author of this blog was struck by a reminiscence offered by the political columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, speaking on the PBS News Hour program. He recalled how Kennedy was a devout Catholic, and that his personal interpretation of Catholicism was one of the foundations of his concern for the poor and underprivileged. Traveling with Kennedy in the early 1980s, Dionne once asked Kennedy why he was so concerned about poverty in America. Kennedy replied, "Haven't you ever read the Gospels?," meaning that his spiritual faith and his political idealism were one and the same. In a time when most Christian political activism is associated with right-wing, conservative and evangelical versions of Christianity, it is good to remember that there are also liberal, compassionate, and progressive forms of Christian-inspired activism, even if we do not share their particular form of religious faith. Though we Pagans--certainly including the author--can work ourselves up into quite a froth of Christianity-bashing when we reflect on the past history of Christian suppression of native European religious traditions, or when we encounter fanatical and uncomprehending Christian fundamentalism, the example of Kennedy's generous and inclusive perspective and personality, grounded in his Catholic faith even when many Catholics scorned him, is a reminder to be careful to not tar all the members of a faith we may reject with only one narrow brush.

Another aspect of Kennedy's character repeatedly pointed out in today's stream of reflections and recollections was his ability to get along and work well with those on the other side of the political spectrum. That is not always easy to do, and the author has recently found himself in some nasty disputes with American Heathens/Asatru believers, brought about by the author's perhaps naive desire to raise the issue of different political perspectives within Asatru. A joking reference to left-wing and right-wing political perspectives brought down a hailstorm of angry denunciation, none from the left-wing but many from the right, and the author found himself forced to defend and explain himself, while provoking further denunciations requiring further explanations, and so on. Of course, mutual misunderstandings can easily erupt in cyberspace, as the medium does not always allow nuanced communication and matters of tone and attitude can often be misrepresented and misperceived.

Even making allowance for such lapses in communication and misunderstandings on both sides, the author remains shocked by the angry tone of the exchange. It reminded him of nothing so much as the recent health care forums held in various congressional districts, where furious, often badly misinformed mobs would not allow any kind of intelligent discussion to take place, but simply begin shouting angry abuse to shut down any possibility of such discussion. In the case of the health care forums, the shouters would not listen to any rational discussion of health care reform. In the case of the Heathenry forum, the mention of a left-wing perspective likewise unleashed a volley of abuse. The email exchange serves to verify what the author has found through past personal experience as well as the findings of scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan and Mattias Gardell, that Asatru/Heathenry in America generally tends toward the right-wing, conservative side of the American political spectrum, with limited tolerance for the left wing, liberal side of the spectrum.

Ironically, the author of this blog has often published articles and given speeches trying to defend Asatru against associations with extreme right-wing ideologies of racism and Nazism. He now feels a painful duty to reconsider his past perspective.
However, he does not want to make a false and misleading blanket statement that American Heathens are fascists, racists, neo-Nazis. None of the Heathens that the author knows fit that description, and most express clear opposition to such ideologies. In the author's view, most American Heathens are small-government, libertarian, pro-military conservatives, who tend to distrust large government programs and to be concerned with typical conservative issues like gun ownership rights. The author's point here is not to blame or vilify such views, but simply to say that these are conservative views and they do seem to be shared by many American Heathens.

American Heathens also tend to see their Nordic Pagan religion as totally apolitical, but this is where the author feels they are wrong. Their small government, libertarian, pro-military conservatism, or at least, their acceptance of the dominance of such a political perspective, is expressed in their organization of religious activities and their interpretation of mythology and tradition. Most Heathens form "kindreds," tight-knit groups sworn to mutual loyalty and protection, with the sense of a somewhat self-enclosed community. When you add in a general distrust of government coupled with a love of guns and the military, these kindreds might be seen as showing some similarities to anti-government militia groups. However, the author does not want to overstate this point, as Asatru and Heathen groups are not involved in any active or violent opposition to the government, unlike the militia groups and militia-inspired lone wolves that have carried out assassinations, including the recent attack on the Holocaust Museum, and bombed government buildings. The point the author wishes to make is only that there are certain areas of ideological overlap based on common conservative perspectives. If there were leftist militant groups in America carrying out violent attacks, and someone pointed out that there was some commonality between these groups' ideology and that of lefty-liberals like the author, the author would accept that point, while disavowing any similarity between the actions of such a violent group and any actions of his own.

However, according to the FBI report published in spring of 2009, the greatest threat of political violence in the USA today comes from right-wing, militia-type groups, not from anything happening among leftists and liberals, and several recent violent incidents such as what happened at the Holocaust Museum bear that out. In past communications, the author has encouraged Heathens of whatever political stripe to distance themselves from violent right-wingers who claim a relationship to Norse-Germanic tradition, and continues to urge them in this, to avoid Heathenry and Asatru being besmirched with such associations.

Many Heathens follow a set of ethical principles known as the "Nine Noble Virtues." These vary somewhat between Asatru groups, but are often listed as courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance. These moral values are not explicitly listed in any ancient text, but are a modern interpretation of Norse-Germanic ethics. The author would argue that these virtues are all in accord with right-wing, libertarian-to-conservative ideology. With the possible exception of hospitality, there is no encouragement of kindness, peace, gentleness, mercy or compassion, as might perhaps be found in a more leftist-liberal set of "soft" virtues. This is instead a rather macho set of tough, hard-as-nails, survival-of-the-fittest, take-care-of-your-own-and-never-mind-anyone-else values that fits in very well with a pro-military, small-town conservative viewpoint; and it is notable that many American Heathens prefer living in small towns and rural communities, which in America do generally tend to be more conservative than urban areas. Therefore the author of this blog would argue that the Nine Noble Virtues are not apolitical. They are, the author repeats, not based on the texts, directly; they come from a certain quite modern interpretation of the texts, which is a conservative, right-wing interpretation. Again, it is not the author's intention to insult or pass judgment, but to describe accurately what he sees as the underlying political viewpoint. The author believes that this is in keeping with the universal virtue of honesty.

This is where the author thinks again of Ted Kennedy and his liberal interpretation of Catholicism which motivated his concern for the poor and underprivileged. The author believes that Asatru is not inherently imbued with conservative political ideology but is open to interpretation and re-interpretation, like any other religion, and the author truly hopes to make common cause with those interested in a liberal-leftist interpretation. As opposed to thinking of Asatru in terms of closed communities and macho values, the author advocates creating an Asatru that celebrates the Norse gods, but reaches out to the larger society, and honors humble virtues like kindness, peace, compassion, and mercy. That is what Ted Kennedy did with his Catholicism, and this is what can be done with Asatru.

The author accepts that many American Heathens are happy with a somewhat conservative version of Asatru/Heathenry, and applauds them for forming communities that give them happiness, spiritual fulfillment and a sense of security, but he feels called in a different direction, and knows he is not alone. He hopes to someday have the wisdom, humor and generous personality of a Ted Kennedy that will make it possible to disagree but still be civil and friendly with Asatruar of the right, and hopes that they will also wish to interact in the same spirit.

The author would very much like to hear about other Pagan communities and their political viewpoints and debates.

Once again, the blogmeister calls on readers to remember that insulting, incoherent, unconstructive and abusive comments will not be published.


Matt BP said...

Maelstrom - I think that you have opened my eyes a little today. I consider myself quite liberal in outlook, which may surprise people who have read my previous posts - some of the time I am playing the Devil's advocate. I just hadn't really thought about how Paganism or Heathenism could be so conservative in the American sense. I've always thought of them as progressive religions exploring their own possibilities. Thanks for the insight.

Incidentally, Kennedy means black head, with connotations of ugliness and armour.

Anonymous said...

Ted Kennedy will be missed in the coming days. I am a liberal Heathen and your words reverberate strongly with me. My wife and I avoid kindreds and most other Heathens. I serve in the Army and it blows me away that so many heathens are so conservative, I think they need to reread the Havalmal and lose the Rydberg.

Anonymous said...

Since when is "racism" a right-wing ideology?

Maelstrom said...

I am flabbergasted at the question. While it is certainly possible to find racism in all communities, political, religious and otherwise, right-wing ideology such as Nazism, fascism, and neo-Nazism have promoted notions of white or Aryan or Germanic supremacy in a way that you will not find among left-wing political perspectives and movements. In American politics, there is a long history of conservative politicians opposing any government action to benefit non-white people, including the current hostility toward Hispanic immigrants. The record is VERY clear.

Katrina Ostrander said...

I've noticed this too, and my own left-wingedness is probably the primary factor behind my hesitancy to join the Asatru/Heathen community at large.

A liberal devotee of Tyr (perhaps not as much an oxymoron as you might think), I have always seen the story of Fenris and Tyr's hand as a parable of painful sacrifice for the common good. Hmmm, does that have any modern-day connections? Paying taxes, perhaps, and the progressive tax scale? Giving of yourself (time and money) to serve a greater good (underpriviledged society)?

Have you heard of the 12 Aetheling Thews? Though a part of Theodism as opposed to Asatru proper, they seem to be much more community oriented. Geférscipe, in particular, or community mindness, putting the good of the community
above one's self, and efnes, or equality, equal justice for all, seem perhaps more left wing than they do right.

Maelstrom said...

I would like to hear more about the 12 Aetheling Thews. I know a little about Theodism and respect the scholarly attitude of a number of Theodish Heathens that I have known. Could you write a bit more about this, perhaps provide a link or two?

Anonymous said...

That's true enough, but NeoNazis and fascists are not representative of or even in the mainstream of the American right anymore than the Black Panthers or revolutionary socialists are of the American left.

And the record is not so clear. For example, many opposers to slavery and its spread in the mid-19th century, who might be identified with the left today, did so out of concern for white labor; eugenics was a popular "science" among many Progressives in the early 20th century; and throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries nationalists and anti-semites were a coalition of the left in both the U.S and Europe.

Maelstrom said...

You can split hairs if you like, but I would still argue that if you look at who has opposed racism and who has either embraced it or enabled it, it is the left that has more often and more clearly opposed racism, and the right which has more often embraced and enabled it. In American politics, there are numerous examples of political campaigns where Republicans have "played the race cards" to exploit white fears of minority groups.

Strider said...

I think that Asatrú and some Gaelic Traditionalism are very much alike in this regard. Many in Asatrú and Gaelic Traditionalism are drawn to the faith based on the warrior archetype. They also are far more influenced by American culture than Irish or Scandinavian. Hence the clear difference between their political ideas and the modern societies of Ireland and Scandinavia that are the true inheritors of the cultural traditions they take inspiration from.

I should point out, however, that Nazism is actually the *extreme* Left of the political spectrum (total government control) whereas Anarchism would be the *extreme* Right (no government at all).

These facts aside, my personal view is this. We are in the midst of global change right now, moving more towards a pluralistic and democratic "world society". This makes extreme conservatives like the Taliban, the Shah of Iran, American Militiamen and Minutemen, very nervous that the ideals they value are slipping away into the past, which in fact they are. There is no stopping the tide of history, no matter how hard you may try.

The health care debate is not about health care. it is about Black presidents, Hindu congressman, Gay governors, and so on. The White Christian America of the 1950s and earlier is gone forever. That fact is driving some people out of their minds with fear.

I support your stance within Asatrú and hope that you stay the course. Have you talked to Asatrú folks in Scandinavia about their stance on politics to get a broader perspective?

Katrina Ostrander said...

Virtues and Thews from a Theodish Perspective

Maelstrom said...

To Strider: Yes, I have many contacts with Asatru/Nordic Pagan groups and individuals in Scandinavia and Germany, which is one reason I am confident that a less conservative, more liberal style of Asatru is possible, because my Scandinavian and German Heathen friends are much more on the liberal side of the spectrum, and generally disdain the "Viking warrior" image. I am going to give this topic of American vs European contrasts a fuller treatment in a future posting.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see more about what your fellow European Asatrúar think on politics and social issues. Perhaps you might be able to have some of them guest blog?

I must admit, I look forward to the response from some American Asatrúar with some delight.

Maelstrom said...

Katrina, thanks for the link to the site with Theodish thews and virtues. I do not find these to be very different from those noted in my entry, which were as formulated by Edred Thorsson. I see both sets of virtues as inadequate to life in modern society, where we do not live in closed tribal units, but have to interact with a much larger and more complex and varied society than was ever imagined in the 10th century. I respect these virtues but see the need for interpretation to keep up with the actual conditions of modern life, and not cling to a fossilized vision of tribal life from a millennium ago. This of course is the basic dilemma of reconstructionist Paganism: how much to faithfully recreate versus how much to adapt, and whether and where to add new elements. I think the Vikings were highly adaptable and not opposed to change, but this matter is obviously something where there will always be different interpretations. To me the idea of only caring for and maintaining bonds with a small, tribal community is out of date. I know others may have other views.

Maelstrom said...

Colorado Celt, you may be hoping for a wild verbal slugfest, but I am not interested in having any such thing splattered across this blog. If anyone with an opposing view wants to post a thoughtful exposition of their perspective, that will be welcomed and gladly posted, but rude one-liners and insulting, incoherent, unconstructive and abusive comments will never see the light of day here. I am not interested in bloodsport, but constructive dialogue and debate. This is not WWF!

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more, I just want to see what the difference in cultural perspectives will be, *not* looking for a slug fest, there are plenty of those in the blogosphere already.

Jim Clare's Blogspace said...

I am an American who is interested in Asatru. I have also experienced the abundance of right-wing viewpoints online.

My perspective stems from my interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Northern European culture and it's Pre Christian past.

For me its like the relationship between Confucianism and Buddhism. One was community/religious based and the other scientific. I'm sure that is debatable but it is how I see it and I respect other ideas so no need.

My point is the difficult thing is achieving balance. How to not go to far in one direction. Extremism of any flavour is not built to last. It serves its purpose then learns and changes or it dies.

I enjoy the writing here very much. I am not a writer or scholar but do share and appreciate those who get it. I agree with 99% of the ideas I've read.

Thanks for being our political pagan and getting the word out there.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Maelstrom, I have awarded you the Honest Blog Award.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I found that there was a lacking of Compassion within the Heathen Community I interacted with. It was harsh. And as someone who has lived long enough in a harsh world, I find that purposefully recreating harshness for its own sake, or for "toughening" people up is tiring, boring, been there done that in bootcamp among other places, what more is there to say.

But what attracted me to the Heathen Community was the fact that there was a kernel of normalcy in there. At the time, they made an effort to interact with the rest of America, not just as Heathens but as simple Americans. When you saw them on the street, you could rarely tell them from anyone else. No silver Lame`, no tons of symbolic jewelry dripping off of them like oh so much psuedo-paleo-Pagan-Bling.

Sometimes the left side of the fence was just so weird and outre that the Heathen community was a relief to be around, of their social conservatism.

I never had to worry about illegal drugs at Heathen gatherings for one. That is a big deal if you are active duty military or still associated with the military or law enforcement.

Left Pagans were often Anti-Gun. And not very tolerant of military folk or gun owners or even hunters. So where else would we go? But to the Heathens at that point?

I felt like an ideological ping pong ball. Too progressive for Heathens, too conservative for Pagans, and not generally impressed with the arguments that each group used, to justify their own idiosyncratic versions of extremism.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks, Seeing Eye Chick, for your comment about your mixed experiences with both left- and right-wing Pagans and Heathens. Since the author of this blog leans to the left side, and naturally favors that viewpoint, your comment serves as an important reminder that the left side can be intolerant and narrow in its own way. That is worth reflecting on.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

It wasnt that either was inherently bad, just that each group has their own "warts," to deal with, conceal, or otherwise deny.

I have found plenty of anti-government sentiments on both sides, but these feelings seemed to stem from different places.

Going back to the left, looking at Starhawk's writings, and the anti-military sentiments--and the feeling that drug laws in this country are draconian, and not worthy of adhering to. That its okay to vandalize hunter stands on posted land, or grow pot on state or federal lands, or "The People's shrooms," Its not an outright assault on our government, but it is an attempt to undermine the law and the authority of our appointed and elected law enforcement people, and the legislature that writes/formulates those laws and the judicial branch that enforces those laws.

Sometimes the envelope pushing was for a good cause. Feminism certainly benefitted me personally to some degree, but sometimes the militant attitude and hostility towards our *Patriarchal culture, or attitudes caused more problems than it solved. And there were attempts to define who was authentically feminist and who is just there to find a husband.

Eating Meat, I have confronted that sort of militancy, pro and con. Just stupid if you ask me.

The Gun Owning thing--Second Amendment Rights--there are very few on either side of that issue who will allow a moderate the privilege of breathing, because it must be black or white to many people.

As you pointed out, Racism and Ethnicity seems to be a grey area, not just because of its controversial issues surrounding it, but also due to the shallow and inconsistent manner in which we treat these topics and a fundamental lack of aggreement as to what those words mean ultimately. I have met Wiccans who invoke the N-word more often that Asatru truth be told. But I can also count those people on one hand. The Racism in Asatru seemed to be more subtle at the time and had more to do with religious ideology than out and out race--{color of skin/genetic phenotype}

Environmentalism--I have met a lot of people who talk big in the Pagan Community but not that many who really work at it. That may be due to my location in the middle of the country though. Regional behaviors differ. Met more than a few Heathens who recycled and reused though. The didnt talk about it, they just did it.

Mostly I found that Heathens sort of had that sort of Pioneer Mentality. Pagans were of the Hippie Commune/Hitchhiking the Galaxy mentality.

I saw a lot of survivors of addiction and abuse on both sides of the fence though. And I believe that explains a lot.

Matt BP said...

SEC - It is interesting to see your views on American Heathens and Pagans. I have travelled a bit but only met Pagans or Heathens here in Oz and when I was travelling in Europe. The feelings I got between here and there were quite different, some similar to your experiences, but some not. Firstly there is an elitist air to the Paganism in West Australia, where unless you know/sleep with/perform rites with the right kind of people, you are not a real Pagan. The Heathens I have met her are less serious and more scholarly in their approach. I know one who semi-jokingly describes himself as a pantheistic Catholic-Heathen. In Europe the feeling was quite different. In the south of England, there was a feeling that everybody was a Pagan, without using the word. Ironically, when you consider the south of England is the birthplace of Wicca, that the population there are uncomfortable with the word Pagan, not because it denotes an unbeliever to some, but because it is a Latin word. Heathen is not really any better in their eyes because it has negative associations too. Northern Portugal had a Pagan air similar to the South of England, although the people in northern Portugal consider themselves Celts. There was the same scholarly air to their Paganism as to the Heathenism here in West Oz, but it was far more serious minded. Perhaps the Portuguese attitude that led to the bloodless Carnation Revolution was at work? I'm not sure. I don't really have a huge rambling point to this comment, more that its interesting to note the ways that Paganism and Heathenism are progressing in the different countries it has been accommodated into.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Your comment on Wiccans, as far as how much one adheres to ritual mentality, lineage, bed partners--more common on the coasts.

Personally I have no time for that. I left Christianity because I was sick of people telling me who I could sleep with and when, and how to think.

Heathenry and Wicca failed miserably in that respect, in modifying or ending those particular expectations.

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