Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Big Lie About Small Government

Hello again. I have decided to address an issue that has been annoying me for some time; or rather, two closely related issues, one Pagan, one Political.

I have noticed that many American Pagans of the Asatru/Heathen persuasion but also some following other paths and traditions seem to share a common view of the Pagan past that they then relate to modern-day society. Now, I grant you that all Pagans, and particularly reconstructionist Pagans, tend to take a more or less rosy-tinted view of the past, and to romanticize it some degree as the "good old days" or a "golden age." On the face of it,I see nothing wrong with this, as most if not all religions have some kind of idea of a "golden age" that provides a reference point to life in the present day, which is typically viewed as lacking, inferior, "fallen," in relation to the idealized world of the past. (I will confess to listening to music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and continuing to regret the break-up of the Beatles.) Where I do see a problem is in some Pagans making the Pagan past into their personal or collective conservative paradise of small-scale tribal communities with families living in ecstatic independence, with little or no government getting in the way of their pioneer spirit and tax-free happiness. This strikes me as a very strongly biased interpretation of the past from the political perspective of late-twentieth century, early twenty-first century American conservatism of the anti-government type.

Why is this wrong? Well, it is obviously anyone's right to interpret or construct their mythical "golden age" anyway they like, in accordance with their own current-day political leanings, and to apply it to today's society as they feel the need or desire. It is also very true that our knowledge of the past social and government structures of much of Pagan Europe is incomplete and fragmentary and thus all the more open to interpretation. The thing I object to is the insistence or assumption by conservative Norse Pagans that their way of idealizing the past is the only legitimate view, AND, I object to their denial that their interpretation of Norse paganism is NOT informed by a political viewpoint. It seems to me that when they look at the Pagan past, they are definitely looking at it through highly politicized lenses, and I want to call them on this, not to say that they shouldn't do it, but that they should own up to it.

My conservative friends and loyal adversaries in the Asatru universe look back to the early centuries of Iceland, the period from 870- 1262 when Iceland was a kingless Republic or Commonwealth, as a golden age of small, limited government and wonderful personal freedom. Iceland then was divided into a number of districts, each presided over by a "godi" who was both the head priest and local magistrate. He would typically be the most powerful person in the area, often the largest landowner and richest person, with power of life and death over his family and even his clan, not to mention his slaves. Disputes would be settled and punishments meted out at a regional council called the Thing, with an all-Iceland annual version called the Althing. Various matters would be voted on, but only male landowners could vote, and the richest and most powerful Godar would dominate.

If this was a Golden Age of tribal democracy, as some seem to think, there are some aspects that might be less than golden if we actually had to live with them, and not just fantasize about them from the safety or our armchairs. The godis (godar)could be wise grandfather leaders looking out for the welfare of their communities or something like mafia godfathers, selfish, corrupt and cruel. The Icelandic sagas tell of legal wrangling that would often lead to the wealthy and powerful getting their way at the expense of the weak. Though there was customary law, the wealthy and powerful could often bribe and intimidate their way around the law. This small-government system lent itself to endless feuding between powerful godar and their clans, which finally exhausted the country and left it ripe for takeover by Norway in 1263. Factor in also second class status for women and close to zero rights for slaves, and you have something less than paradise. We can certainly look at this as a rough, early version of modern democracy, or at least an oligarchy with some elements of democracy, but it was far from ideal.

It was a "free" society insofar as there was no king, but the lack of a strong central government made it unable to control clan rivalries and feuds which became worse and worse through the 13th century, giving us a situation more like violence-torn regions of modern-day Africa or the Philippines than any modern industrial state with constitutional government and representative democracy. It was not a "free" society for slaves, and the poor had to watch their step to avoid falling afoul of those who had wealth and power. This is how I understand it, anyway, from reading scholars like Jesse Byock and Helga Kress, and from living one year in Iceland and hearing many discussions about Icelandic society in the days of old.

So why do many American Norse Pagans look back on this so fondly as some kind of "golden age"? Though I can not claim to be able to look inside the minds of my Asatruar and Heathen friends and know exactly what each and every one of them thinks and feels, I do have a hypothesis based on my past conversations and experiences with American Norse Pagans. I believe that for many American Norse Pagans who come to Paganism with a politically conservative mindset, early Iceland offers a kind of "tabula rasa" onto which they project their own idealized, libertarian-to-conservative vision of small-town, small government, family-centered, rugged-individual America, a world of manly men swinging axes and swords to defend their honor, an essentially mono-ethnic society devoid of all the complexities of modern multi-cultural America. Also, the isolation of medieval Iceland as a distant outpost of European civilization would seem to resonate with the desire of many American conservatives to be unrelated to the rest of the world and to assume that America need learn nothing from what other countries are doing in matters such as health care or environmental policies.

All of which is to say that I think that American Norse Pagans mix a lot of purely American myth into their visions of Viking-era Iceland, so that life in a medieval turf house on an Icelandic farm of the Middle Ages becomes something like a mash-up of the old TV programs "Little House on the Prairie" and "Gunsmoke" with Icelandic texts like "Njals Saga" and the "Havamal," the Old North re-imagined as the Old West, so to speak. And so, the American romanticized image of the tough pioneer who lives independently through his own wits, efforts and trusty six-shooter is merged with the image of the independent Icelandic settler cleaving skulls with a sword as gleaned from the Sagas and other medieval literature.

Since modern American conservatives and libertarians hate and distrust much if not all government, the limited government and rough justice of the Icelandic Republic strikes conservative and libertarian-leaning American Norse Pagans as eminently admirable. The inequitable, slave-based nature of society bothers them not a whit, just as many American conservatives today think that it is ridiculous to worry about social, racial or economic inequality in America, believing it is right and natural that society should be a "dog-eat-dog," "survival of the fittest" affair. Therefore, conservative and libertarian Norse Pagans can find in the Icelandic society of the Sagas a direct reflection of the kind of American society they would like to see today.

Furthermore, as a good number of American Norse Pagans--in my experience--either have military background or a great love of the military, and also place high value on gun ownership rights as a political issue, the violence-prone world of perpetually feuding medieval Iceland, the lurid descriptions of murderous battles given in the sagas, and the stereotyped image of the blood-soaked Viking warrior as the ideal medieval man, always equipped with a sword or other weapons the way some conservative believe that a good American man should always carry a gun, also bolster their political viewpoint, prioritizing the military over all other possible government functions, and seeing violent self-defense as an important social policy. Thus military service in Iraq and Afghanistan is seen as on a par with medieval Viking activities. American Norse Pagan homes and shrines are adorned with weapons in a way that is much less common in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.

Let me again emphasize I see nothing wrong in anyone creating whatever idealized version of the past that they please to suit their own purposes. Personally, I would prefer a more peaceful version of the Viking past, placing more emphasis on other dimensions of past Nordic life, a preference that I find I share with many Norse Pagans in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, but I know that is a particular, chosen version, a vision that comes from my own point of view and my own political mindset. I wish that conservative Norse Pagans in America would likewise own up and admit that their version of the past is likewise just one possible version, a version that rests upon a certain political perspective, and not an innocent, straightforward reading of the past that has no connection to any political ideology.

To repeat a point I have made in earlier postings, I also find it meaningful that in my experience, most modern Norse Pagans in Iceland, in Scandinavia, and in other parts of Northern Europe do not read the past as justification for conservative political ideology in the present day. Growing up in much more left-leaning societies with much more robust and supportive public services than in the USA, they read the Sagas and related literature with their main interest in recovering the spiritual practices of the past, NOT the political institutions or social attitudes. They do not see the kind of society in the Icelandic past as something that they want to recreate or return to. They love modern life. They do not denounce "Big Government" nor seek to discard the benefits of modern government in favor of a feudal or anarchic past, but advocate for the governments of their nations to recognize Norse Paganism as a legitimate form of religion and treat it fairly. They do not feel inspired by the Sagas and other sources to take up arms, glorify weapons, or cheer for military invasions in other parts of the world. That is to say, they have a Paganism informed by a quite different political viewpoint, and NOT informed by the American conservative point of view.

I think it is natural that over time, there will be different sects or denominations within Norse Paganism, as in other forms of Paganism, and that one of the dividing factors will be political perspective. Again, I do not begrudge the right of American conservatives and libertarians to form a type of Asatru or Heathenry which resonates with their anti-government, pro-gun, pro-military sentiments. All hail the Asatru of the right! But I say to them, you should not delude yourself into thinking that yours is the ONLY possible or legitimate form of Asatru.

There can also be Norse Paganism of the left, one that is pro-government, anti-gun, critical of the military, pro-peace, and so on. For us, Odin was not primarily a god of war, but a god of wisdom and a seeker of peace. We remember that the ancient Germans removed their weapons on entering sacred space. We read the feuds in the Sagas as a sad record of a great problem in medieval society, not anything to idealize or imitate. We value the heroes and heroines of the Sagas as amazing indviduals, but not do not seek to recreate their limited, medieval society with all its problems. We take note that Scandinavia today is a very pleasant place to live in because it has turned away from violence, social inequality, and militarism, and we think that this shows not a failure of the Viking spirit, but its further development and refinement.

All hail the god of wisdom, not of war.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article.

Being from Sweden, I can say that some of this phenomena you are focusing on, also exists in Sweden - pagans who believe that their standpoint is completely individual, with no connection to the actual political climate, which of course is an illusion.

We are all to a large extent products of our societies, in the sense that the culture we grow up and live in provides us with the oprative system as well as user interface from which we act in life.

Yes, we make individual choices, but if we don't recognize the extent to which we in fact are programmed by society, there is no way that we can "de-program" ourselves.

Souris Optique said...

"...the wealthy and powerful could often bribe and intimidate their way around the law." "...Factor in also second class status for women and close to zero rights for slaves..."

Isn't this the (at least in the U.S.) libertarian ideal though? They're all quite sure that _they_ would have the upper hand in a dog-eat-dog society and that only other, inferior people need the protection of the law.

Lhinelle said...

I agree that one's political and personal beliefs often color one's viewpoint of anything, especially an idealized "Golden Age" sometime in the far past. However, I doubt the rights given to American citizens by the 2nd amendment are as wacky as some folks imply.

I can see how those who support a "dog-eat-dog" society would be more in favor of pro-gun legislation and even perhaps see shooting as a cherished hobby or sport. However, the right to defend one's self by use of arms if need be does not just apply to them; often, those who train for and receive concealed-carry permits hone their skills at the range far more often than your average policeman.

On the other hand, the ban of weapons at a religious meeting shows that frith prevails: we are all members of a community, and we need to trust and depend on one another for both ourselves and the community to survive and thrive.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you don't have to be extremely conservative to appreciate an American's right to bear arms; then again, I view it through the lens of self-defense rather than aggression. If I were to conceal carry, it would be to defend my life and those of my loved ones in the direst of circumstances and nothing less. That choice carries a great deal of responsibility, and it saddens me to think that there are folks who don't treat these tools--guns--with the respect needed to use them wisely. (and here's my nod to Odinn--the wise use of force! oh, if only.)

Matthew said...

My experience with American Asatru tended to show that the most conservative adherents were also ones who self-identified as folkish, which kind of assumes that one's choice of religion is somehow encoded into your DNA. Based on your experience in Northern Europe and Scandinavia do you find this kind of philosophy present as well amongst Asatruars who were otherwise left/liberal in political leanings?

Maelstrom said...

Matt, I cannot give a definitive answer to your question, but I will report that on a trip to Sweden I made in recent years, an Asatruar in Stockholm expressed extreme displeasure with the "folkish" view of Viking DNA running through the veins. I believe that this issue fo ancestry and genetic background is less pronounced in Scandinavia and Europe than in the USA.

Maelstrom said...

This comment is from a Danish Asatruar friend. I have edited some small grammar and spelling problems. Readers will note that this gives a complex and nuanced view of the situation.

"I will have to correct you a little bit about Scandinavian Asatru. Where it is definitely true that the many Scandinavian asatruars are indeed what you could consider "left wing" they are usually not pro-government left wing. Scandinavian asatruar tends to be more anarchistic in their views. At least in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

My personal view (and interpretation of asatru) is that you can not change the way the world is. There will always be slaves and slave-owners. Today it is just called something different and the ways of enslavement is just more sophisticated than in medieval Scandinavia or 19'th century (christian) United States.

Our pagan ancestors did not think they lived in any golden age. In fact they believed in a golden age way back before destiny came into the world. That was before the burning-age and the mount-age in which they considered themselves to live.

Also It would not be fair to use 12th century Iceland as a prototype of what pagan (or germanic) societies was like. Simply because 12th century Iceland was a christian country with monks and bishops who at least to some degree had influenced peoples way of thinking. Especially in the field of sexuality and gender.

Today's society is even more influenced by christianity. Especially the idea of right and wrong. I would say that the political views of left and right is directly descended from the evil vs pious thinking of christianity. If you are left wing you think that the left is pious and the right is evil. If you are right wing you think that right is pious and the left wing is evil. "

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for posting this. A solid take on the issues surrounding reading-back into history.

We started These New Old Traditions in part because we just couldn't jive with the donning of romanticized readings of the past, "Golden Ages," and appropriations of "other" cultures. We're really trying to be honest about (all) the lenses we inevitably use to read our past, present, and futures. If anything, that's one of our main focuses, so to speak.

Your piece really highlights the trouble in grand narratives taken to be THE narrative (singular). We'll try and write a response soon.

Also, as an aside, we find it annoying and truly un-radical to use pagan(ism) and its stories as an excuse to prop up conservative (or libertarian) militarism as some sort of quasi-divine necessity. Pagans, and Heathens in particular, may have an internal struggle brewing the same way skinheads (originally race neutral) in the sixties/seventies had when White Power/White Nationalists co-opted the movement and imagery.

LilithsPriest said...

Many of the Icelandic sagas do deal with feuds where the customary law broke down and issues could not be settled at the Thing. Any rational view of Icelandic history will have to put these in perspective and acknowledge just how well the system DID work most of the time.

LilithsPriest said...

... and in general, I know that telling stone lies about what Libertarians advocate is very fashionable on the Left now, but it will not serve in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I liked it better when libertarian meant anarchist. That is, before it was co-opted by the fringe right. That is, before a two-party system became a normalized bore-fest which made it possible for nuanced ideas to take on an either-or position. Ho hum...

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