Thursday, July 24, 2014

What's Your Limit?

As humans, we dislike any limits on our way of life, our freedom of choice, and our range of options and so we rail and strain against them. However, the voice of wisdom tells us that some limits are necessary. When as a child you want to run as fast as you can and enjoy the vitality of your young body, that is a good thing. However, should you decide that in your enjoyment of limitlessness you want to race right off a cliff, not knowing or believing that there could be awful consequences, you may need someone to hold you back in order to save your young body from smashing to bloody bits on the rocks down below. This applies to so many things in our world today, most of all, our relationship to the natural environment, where human beings must learn to respect limits on our production and consumption of carbon-based energy and our usage of dangerous, poisonous chemicals, or we and the world are both going to be falling off a very steep cliff indeed.

In Norse mythology, there is an intriguing story of limits, the binding of the dangerous, demonic wolf Fenrir. As described in the text known as the Prose Edda, also known as the Snorri Edda, as it was written by the diplomat and poet Snorri Sturluson, Fenrir is one of the "trouble children" of the often-though-not-necessarily-always malevolent god Loki. From an early point in the life of young Fenrir, the gods realize that the wolfy child is trouble. They know that when he grows to full size, he will be immensely strong and dangerous, and pose a serious threat to the peace and order of the gods and the world. The gods decide they must find a way to bind Fenrir with a fetter strong enough to restrain him for all time. Lots are drawn and it falls to the brave god Tyr, a god of victory and justice, to persuade Fenrir to step into the seemingly frail rope loop that the gods have imbued with magic strength to hold the demon wolf fast. Fenrir, son of the trickster god, is not stupid, and only agrees to step into the rope circle if Tyr will put his hand into Fenrir's huge and horrible mouth as a guarantee that no trickery is involved. Tyr does this, and then loses his hand when the rope seizes Fenrir and he exacts his price by clamping down on Tyr. After this, Tyr is a one-handed god, and Fenrir is bound tight, for many ages. However, at the end of time, in the chaos of Ragnarok, he will break loose and wreak horror and havoc, finally devouring the leader of the gods and ending Odin's life.

What can we learn from this? That when a danger is great enough, a means must be found to keep it under control. If we were to say that the greatest threat to the world today is our addiction to carbon-based energy threatening life-threatening global warming, then means must be found to bring that threat under control. We must bind this Fenrir, but it will not be easy. The carbon fuel industries are as immense and powerful as the frost giants and fire demons and other ogres of the myths, and we may have to sacrifice much and suffer great pain and loss to bring them to heel. But this is our duty as guardians of the earth.

I am also moved to contemplate how so many things in our modern economy seem to revolve around promoting various kinds of addiction. These are other forms of Fenrir that we need to bind and resist. Our capitalist economy requires constant growth, with the corporate profit monster demanding endless feeding, like a young, growing Fenrir. Out of this need for limitless growth, our corporate magicians have learned to create many kinds of profitable mass addiction, because as any drug dealer knows, the best customer is the one who always needs and wants more. So how shall they addict thee? Let me count the ways....

Cigarettes...Casino gambling...Video gambling...Video games...Violent video games...E-Cigarettes (they're "e"! they're high-tech! wow, I want to try the heroin flavor!)...Junk food laced with salt, sugar, fat and chemicals...the list goes on, and on.

But one of the top prizes in the addiction competition has to go to the pharmaceutical industry. And you have to give them credit. They have really worked hard on this! They have pills to calm you down, pills to boost you up, pills to make you smarter, pills to make you sexier, pills to energize you, pills to stabilize you, pills to numb you. The government tells the young that "drugs are bad," especially ones that might help you relax and are not produced in corporate laboratories, like marijuana, or other types that might make you think thoughts that challenge the social order, like LSD, but then the children find that their school principals and psychiatrists, armed with helpful information provided by the pharmaceutical companies (aka Big Pharma, or is is Big Phenrir?) tell them that they really do need to take pills for the ADHD that keeps them from concentrating, unless they are depressed, in which case they need pills to obliterate their sorrow, and never mind the causes of that sorrow. Tinkering with brain chemistry and marketing magic in a bottle is ever so much more profitable than trying to change social conditions or provide support to people in difficult environments...

Another contender for top Wolf in the Addiction Olympics has to be the electronics industry. They really know how to make people psychologically dependent on having the latest device, the latest technology, the latest app. Do you remember ten year ago, when the consumer electronics titans were pushing the idea that you had to have a really, Really REALLY big TV in your home, or you weren't really a hip, happy, modern consumer? Well, nowadays they have flipped this around and the "in" thing is to watch your video on really, Really REALLY small screens on your favorite "smart" phone. What is so smart about watching tiny figures on a two inch screen? Never mind that! Shut up and buy Buy BUY what we tell you to. And what about Fecebook? How many times a day do the poor addicted Fece Folk have to update their profiles and share their exciting news about their cat's indigestion, the improperly buttered toast served to them at the chain restaurant, or their silly new sunglasses? What could be better for our society's well-being than people spending hours in idiotic states of distraction? After all, it is not like there were any problems outside our technological gadgets that require our urgent attention... If there was something we should do besides enjoy inane updates and endless streams of advertising, FeceBook and Gluegle would tell us, wouldn't they? After all, high tech companies know everything and care only for our welfare and the planet's well-being.

No...no....no!

We need limits. Limits on consumption, limits on advertising, limits on carbon, limits on chemicals, limits on mindless entertainment, limits on technology that takes us away from reality. But how can we bind our multiple Fenrirs? That is something we must continue to discuss and put into action where and when we can.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Patheos Forum on Paganism and the Environment

On the Pagan section of the multi-religion web site Patheos, there is a Public Forum on Paganism and the Environment, entitled "Has Pagan Environmentalism failed? Responses to Climate Change." There are articles written from a variety of Pagan perspectives, from Druidry to Wicca to Asatru, that may be of interest to readers of this blog, especially since the author of this blog submitted one of the essays. See http://www.patheos.com/Public-Square.html

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Solstice Meditations on the Fragility of Nature

Today, the day of the summer solstice, is a time to celebrate the beauty and vitality of nature, to bask in the rays of light and warmth reaching out to us all around the earth. In the Lithuanian Pagan solstice observance known as Rasos or Jonines, paralleled in the Latvian holiday of Ligo, and other similar festivities across Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia, the peak of the nightlong celebration is the setting on fire of wagon wheels coated in pitch, which are rolled down hills to mimic the rolling or turning of the sun across the seasons. As there is only a brief time of darkness on the night of the summer solstice, owing to the phenomenon of the White Nights in the Northern European summer, the lighting of the wheel is meant to re-awaken the sun when it seems to have disappeared, however briefly, threatening darkness, chaos and death. Happily, the sun is soon again shining, and the cycle is complete.

The lighting of the wheel is a reminder that the ancients understood nature to be not only sacred and vital, but also fragile, in perpetual risk of destruction or disappearance. Whether you go out today or tonight to celebrate the solstice, or stay home due to the endless round of task and obligations that consume our lives like the darkness that swallows the sun each night, say a prayer or take a moment to contemplate how our modern way of life has threatened the continued vitality of nature like never before in human history. Let's take a note from the wisdom of the ancients, and remember that life is not just a quest for material consumption and social status. Life is also to be lived in, and with, nature, and that imposes a sacred obligation on us to not allow nature to be destroyed. Not by choking our air with automobile exhaust, not by blowing up mountains to burn more coal, not by ripping open the depths of the earth and ruining the water supply to scrape out more oil and gas, not by mining uranium to fuel unsafe nuclear power plants, not by islands of plastic garbage stifling the sea, and not by mountains of discarded electronics that poor children in Africa and elsewhere burn to separate the valuable bits to make more electronics to be discarded next year.

There are so many problems to be addressed in our unhealthy use of nature's resources, but the sun, who we Pagans salute on the solstice, contains one key to our planet's survival. The sun offers boundless energy that we can tap without destroying or desecrating our environment. Solar power is not a panacea to all that ails the earth and our relationship to it, but it is at least a partial solution to one piece of our environmental dilemma. Let's embrace that full-force and encourage our politicians to do the same!

May all hail the beauty, warmth and power of the sun.....!

May all remember our dependence on, and the fragility, of nature.....!

May all find the wisdom in their hearts to respect true and enduring values....!

Peace and plenty to you and yours on the solstice!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Rites of Spring, Then and Now

Sacrifice and Revolution...are these the Rites of Spring?

I was listening tonight to a radio program featuring a discussion of Stravinsky's composition "The Rites of Spring," a ballet inspired by Slavic Paganism and the notion of human sacrifice. The music and dancing in "The Rites" were so radical, so jarring, so unlike anything that had gone before in European classical music that this ballet actually caused riots in Paris when it was first performed in 1913. The discussion I listened to was on Chris Lydon's Boston NPR program "Open Source," which replayed a discussion of Stravinsky from the year 2000 on "The Connection," the program Lydon hosted on WBUR at that time. You can hear it at http://radioopensource.org/rite-of-spring-revival .

I am moved to reflect upon sacrifice, spring and revolution. We are just a few days in from May Day, once a worldwide day of tribute to workers and socialism, and more recently, a date on the calendar when modern-day Pagans often celebrate Beltane or other "rites of spring." In Stravinsky's vision, the Rites of Spring means the selection of a young maiden to be offered in human sacrifice in order to bring on the life-giving renewal of spring. The maiden is then driven to dance until she dies, which the frantic, driving music of the composition renders both hypnotic and frightening. Stravinsky's, and not only Stravinsky's view of sacrifice is that it is a very basic spiritual mystery, a primal bargain in which death pays for life, in which something must be given, wasted, killed, destroyed--sacrificed--by one, or by some, so that new abundance can be obtained for the many, or even for all of us. There is a similar logic in Christ's crucifixion and in Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Old Testament.

In Norse myth, the world itself is created by the sacrificial killing and dismemberment of the primal being Ymir, and wisdom, poetry, writing and more are made possible for mankind by Odin's agonizing self-sacrifice on the world tree Yggdrasil. The apocalyptic vision of the end of the world in the poem Voluspa is also in a sense a story of sacrifice, as the destruction of the existing world is the prelude to the revitalization and re-creation of the world, rising up from the depths of the ocean, "fresh and green."

With our retrospective knowledge of what would happen in Europe and Russia in the years immediately following the debut of the "Rites of Spring," Stravinsky's ballet now seems not only a powerful reflection on sacrifice and death, but an artistic prophecy of the huge changes about to occur in Europe through WW I and the Russian Revolution. I find its message still entirely relevant, still full of jarring, even frightening resonance, in our own time. Our society has become dominated by a corporate and economic elite as corrupt, self-serving and unresponsive to human needs and aspirations as was the Tsarist regime of Stravinsky's time. Are we perhaps building up to the point when a revolution--a massive, horrific, collective sacrifice--is again required to make this society a more promising place for all of its citizens, not just a privileged elite? Will we need to rise up and accept the necessity of risk, loss, ruin, danger, and even death, to break the death-grip of the corporate oligarchy that now controls the parameters of our lives?

It is a tired refrain of American political thought that in a democracy such as ours, we must work through the political system, with all its flaws and contradictions, to achieve improvements in society, and that we should accept the reality that change comes slowly, and may take many generations. There is no need for drastic action, so this thinking goes, no reason to imagine anything as violent and radical as a revolution. America had a revolution once, it is true, but that was long ago, and we now have a constitutional democracy designed to accommodate public demands and to foster change and adjustments in our society, however slowly. All things in good time, you see.

Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" reminds us of other, darker chords that can be played on the strings of the collective social orchestra. We are not in a time of social and political progress. The system is not working, or if it is, it is only working for those with massive financial power to bring about the results that they desire. Thus, when we have a financial Ragnarok as in 2008, it is only the oligarchic elite that gets much help from the government that is supposed to be "by the people, of the people, and for the people." Thus, when the world is threatened by massive climate disruption, when the icecaps are melting and increasingly violent storms and droughts rock one country after another, the carbon fuel industry is able to manipulate the media and cloud the public discourse in the United States to such a degree that most people doubt the need for any decisive action, and the profits of the carbon companies go up and up and up, just like the earth's temperature, with all the great danger that entails. Whatever happens in our world now is assimilated, adapted and repackaged by the forces of international finance and corporate power into a way for them to gather greater wealth and influence. What chance do the rest of us have?

In our world of dazzling, digital distractions, where our concerns about pressing social and political issues and our desires for real and meaningful change can be so easily dissipated, neutered and anesthetized by ever-proliferating forms of mind-crippling entertainment, it is hard to imagine a massive uprising such as the French, Russian or American revolutions. Furthermore, in a world where the economy has been transformed into an ever-more competitive, ever-less supportive, ever-more frightening zone of total insecurity for the vast majority of wage-earners, more and more of whom fear that at any moment they might be replaced by the latest "labor-saving" technology, which offers vast profits to the corporate and financial elite and the prospect of unemployment or progressively lower-wage work to many, most people are rightfully terrified to embark on any course of action that could endanger what little economic and occupational security they have managed to hold onto against the powerful techno-capital forces rumbling in the background like Tyrannosaurus Rex monsters looking to devour any and every creature that they can force into their perpetually ravenous mouths.

And yet... and yet, the brutal lesson of history, and of the "Rites of Spring," is that there can be no real spring, no true renewal, no large-scale social progress, without sacrifice and loss. The time may come when people will rise up to demand this, and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the welfare of future generations. It is my hope that as the threat of such uprising and revolution begins to take on shape and form and momentum, as began to happen with the "Occupy Wall Street" protests of 2011 and 2012, that the people with great power in government and the corporate and financial sectors will finally realize t the need for a thorough renegotiation of the basic social contract, and then our society can be renewed on a better basis for all. But if they are unable or unwilling to accept the need for such change... if they are so blinded by their own narcissism and the delusional belief that they have a right to perpetuate the order that is of such service to them and such disservice to others... then all bets are off, and the "Rites of Spring" may again need to be performed.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fighting the Darkness

This seems to me such a dark time in America, with a darkness that is only growing. At every turn, the forces of conservatism, inequality and oligarchy are racking up victories, with little or no or only the most pale and weak-kneed opposition from the more "liberal" or socially progressive voices in our political structure. Though some see rays of hope in such accomplishments as the increasing acceptance of the right of homosexuals to enter into marriage, I see this as only a very small drop in the bucket when we consider the larger problems of stagnant wages for the many and ever-expanding fortunes for the few, the increasing dominance of the wealthy elite and large corporations in many areas of our life. Even the supposedly ultra-liberal cable news network MSNBC runs the self-congratulatory and pro-fracking advertisements of the carbon fuel industry, and the supposedly liberal New York Times increasingly caters to the Wall Street-financial services crowd that now dominates New York City as well as the American economy.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest international body of climate scientists in the world, released a new report on March 31st detailing how the climate is already changing with catastrophic effect, and how the dangers and crises now occurring will only be magnified if the world is unwilling to take action. As an educator, I see the trend toward increasingly standardized and regulated education only gaining strength, as influential figures from the President on down seem to be abandoning the ideals of liberal arts education in favor of increasingly vocational, job skills oriented education. When people are no longer allowed to think freely and openly, to freely explore the riches of cultural heritage and to freely experiment with ideas and activities that are freed from the stifling grip of monetary evaluation, but when the education system only trains the bulk of people to perform the tasks and functions deemed valuable by the high priests of the high-tech companies and the corporate economy, an economy organized around the maximization of corporate profits and stock market dividends, not the fulfillment of human needs, I shudder to think of the cold, heartless, fearful, high-tech prison of a society that we are building for ourselves, digital brick by dividend brick. Profits will increase but human freedom and happiness? I doubt it.

I am starting to reach the conclusion that others before me have, a conclusion that I have always resisted; the feeling that there may be no hope for saving America from its drift and decline. I actually sympathize to some extent with the right-wingers and Tea Partiers who range and rant about our country going wrong; I agree that our society is sick, but I disagree with them about the nature of the malady and the treatment to be administered. Many on the right seem to think that the root of the problem is Big Bad Government; I disagree completely. I would grant that our government can do stupid things, that some policies, regulations and programs may be misguided and counterproductive, but that calls for fixing and improving the policies, regulations and programs, not abolishing them all in favor of an unregulated libertarian utopia. I think that vision, if ever achieved, would only result in a dog-eat-dog, every-gun-for-himself, zero compassion dystopia. I see the problem lying in the power of large corporate business interests to manipulate everything to their advantage, without caring enough about the suffering of the poor or the desecration of the planet. If corporations were able to function as good public citizens and be effective stewards of society and the environment, I would be all in favor of total free market capitalism, but I do not see that being the case at all.

Without pressure from the government with its pesky rules, regulations, policies and taxation, many companies and wealthy individuals would do nothing for the benefit of others or of the world in general, but only seek to further enrich themselves and increase their plunder and power. That's what happened in such periods of economic "freedom" as the "robber baron" era of the late 1800s, in the Roaring Twenties, and in our recent period of financial deregulation and financial collapse. You may have noticed that since the bleakest days of the 2008 downturn, the stock market has recovered, big banks and financial companies are running up great profits, but many people are now working for lower wages than before the crash, many others cannot find work at all, and many people have lost their homes and had their lives ruined. In this case, the government functioned effectively to rescue the financial elite, but not the rest of us. What I conclude from that is not that we need to abolish the government, but need to radically reform it to make it more responsive to human needs. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling in the McCutcheon case this week will only make our politicians more dependent on big-money, fat-cat donors, so the situation is not likely to improve anytime soon.

I do see a ray of hope in my little corner of the Pagan world. Recent communications with a number of Norse Pagans in America have again demonstrated that I am not alone in wishing to develop a new form of American Asatru that would be politically progressive, environmentally concerned, anti-racist, anti-military, and pro-social justice. I think there are enough of us to do it. So, please do get in touch with me if you are on this wavelength. Send me a message to this blog including your email address, and note that you do NOT want this published on the blog. I will contact you off-blog and we can start networking, sharing ideas and planning. This may be a dark time, but we can do our best to be a source of light and vision, love for the earth and caring for humanity--ALL humanity and ALL the earth. A universal Paganism based in Norse traditions but not limited to them. If this resonates with you, please communicate with me.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We Are All West Virginians Now

The January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia that has deprived some 300,000 people of safe drinking water for the last week is a horrible tragedy. What is even worse is the larger problem of corporate irresponsibility and disregard for mankind and and nature alike that this catastrophe brings into focus. Many large corporations can cause massive damage to the natural environment, to local communities, and/or to ordinary people's lives, health and jobs and get away with it. Oh, they may be slapped with a small or even a very large fine here and there, as recently happened with Goldman Sachs when it was punished for trading irregularities with a $550m penalty, or be required to pay some kind of compensation to victims of corporate malfeasance, as with BP (British Petroleum) and the 2010 oil spill that wreaked havoc with the Gulf of Mexico, killed or sickened marine life, downgraded the health of Gulf waters, and wrecked the lives of local fishermen and others whose livelihood depended on the Gulf of Mexico being a healthy ecosystem and not a toxic cesspool. None of these fines or penalties are ever large or severe enough to actually pose a serious threat to the continued survival of the corporations in question; they are more like additional business expenses that may reduce profits for a time, but can gradually be absorbed and forgotten, without the companies involved having to make any fundamental changes in how they do business. It was calculated that the seemingly huge fine imposed on Goldman Sachs would only cost the financial behemoth about 24 minutes worth of its usual profits. Most of us suffer more financial hardship from traffic fines or parking tickets than do these monstrous companies from billion dollar penalties.

Furthermore, corporations are often able to greatly reduce their fines or wriggle out of paying anything at all through fancy legal maneuvering. When it's big government versus big business in the courtroom, large corporations can often afford more and better lawyers than can the government, and they can also opt to run out the clock, keeping the matter spinning in legal limbo for so long that the government either agrees to a settlement far less costly than the original proposed penalty, or simply gives up. Beyond that, when the government tries to create new regulations or even new government agencies to fight back against corporate greed and malfeasance, corporations are able to bribe, threaten and otherwise influence many legislators and regulators into either halting the new legislation or agency in its tracks or watering it down with loopholes, exclusions and exceptions that essentially thwart the original intent of the legislation or agency. In addition, corporations and their legal teams are able to recruit former politicians and regulators to work for them to circumvent laws and regulations, creating a revolving door situation in which government officials take corporate jobs working against the very laws and agencies that these officials once were in charge of. Another strategy is to leave the laws in place but cut the funding so that the regulatory agencies involved will not be able to enforce or implement the policies they are charged with. Conservatives love to claim that big government regulations are strangling our economy, but I think the truth is more that powerful corporations are strangling our government and leaving the American people with little protection from the depredations and abuses of the corporate elite.

On the night of January 14th, the late-night comedians and political commentators Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made the trenchant point that if the poisoning of public drinking water in West Virginia had been caused by Islamic terrorists, Americans would be up in arms and screaming for our military forces to attack, invade and obliterate the "bad guy" terrorist in retribution. However, since the toxic spill was perpetrated by American corporations rather than foreign militants, there are only muted and muffled calls for investigations of what went wrong and aid to those affected. This double-standard says volumes about the privileged position occupied by business and corporations in our culture, society, system of government and sense of morality. Business is sacred and given deferential treatment, even when it causes terrible harm to us.

It hasn't always been this bad. The environmental movement was able to gain traction in our political culture in the 1960s and 1970s and scored some notable successes such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cleaning up many polluted sites, such as the Ohio River, which used to be flammable, so thick was it with pollutants. In recent years, though anti-government conservatives have been waging a tireless campaign to reduce what they cynically label "job-killing" environmental regulations and to reduce the funding for the EPA.which some have pronounced Public Enemy #1.

Well, capitalism, corporations and big business may be sacred to anti-government conservatives and Free Market Fundamentalists, but what does all this mean to Pagans?

I know there are a fair number of American Pagans, including Heathens and/or Asatru members among others, who consider themselves conservatives and/or libertarians. They take a very negative view of government authority, which they see as infringing on individual liberty. However, the sacredness of nature is usually considered to be a core component of Pagan beliefs and worldview. I would think it pretty obvious that this puts Pagans on the side of protecting nature, not defending its despoilers. To put it another way, I would think that a true conservative should try to conserve nature, not ally him or herself with "conservatives" who care more for corporate profits than environmental purity. In mythology, there are gods like Thor that protect the earth, but such gods were nowhere in sight when industrial pollution struck the Gulf or West Virginia. In our reality of the present day, it is the government--yes, the big, bad liberal government--that strives to protect nature from corruption and degradation through such agencies as the EPA and by passing and enforcing laws that restrict and punish industrial and corporate pollution. It therefore seems to me that you CANNOT be a self-respecting Pagan of any sort and be in favor of letting businesses and corporations freely pollute our world and destroy our natural environment and be opposed to the government protecting what is supposed to be sacred to you. You should support the government in being the caretaker of our environment, and pray for more and better laws, regulations, policies and agencies to protect nature, NOT less and fewer.

Pagans, stand up for nature! And let's welcome people of other faiths and traditions who also care about the future health of this planet that we all share.



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