Sunday, November 2, 2008

I call the spirits of the American Dead

For Halloween, I decided to the invoke spirits of dead folks that I thought represented the America to me: I suspect this that their help is needed. I made a list, finally amounting to 108 names. I deliberately avoided generals, successful politicians and wealthy magnates, but there’s a few. My list may be criticized, I recognize, for over representing white, straight males – that would probably apply to 55 of the 108, although for some of those, their sexuality is complicated. If you have other suggestions, I’m open to them. If you don’t know who some of these folks are, educate yourself. You can find information on the internet about all of them. They are very American to me.

R. Buckminster Fuller • Lysander Spooner • Malvina Reynolds
Timothy Leary • Djuna Barnes • Von Dutch
Frank Zappa • John Lyon Burnside III • Gwydion Pennderwen
Frank Herbert • Marvin Gaye • Susan B. Anthony
Ed “Big Daddy” Roth • Humphrey Bogart • H.P. Lovecraft
Joey Ramone • Patsy Cline • Eudora Welty
Jeannette Rankin • Ella Fitzgerald • Frank Capra
Z. Budapest • Flannery O’Connor • Neal Cassaday
Dalton Trumbo • Charles Beard • Donella Meadows
Edward Hopper • Robert Anton Wilson • Thomas Paine
Sojourner Truth • Ralph Waldo Emerson • Edgar Allan Poe
Henry David Thoreau • Marie Laveau • Victoria C. Woodhull
Clara Barton • Mark Twain • P.B. Randolph
George Washington Carver • Emma Lazarus • Voltairine De Cleyre
Upton Sinclair • Thomas Edison • Alfred Corning Clark
Gertrude Stein • Isadore Duncan • Duke Ellington
Langston Hughes • Jelly Roll Morton • Eleanor Roosevelt
Samuel Barber • Josef C. Hofmann • Jack Parsons
Ezra Pound • Robert Heinlein • John Coltrane
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn • Woody Guthrie • Charles Ives
Dashiell Hammett • Margaret Sanger • Nellie Bly
Mary Cassatt • Jack London • Benjamin Franklin
Phyllis Wheatley • Josiah Randall • Maria Zapata
Jerry Garcia • Elizabeth Cady Stanton • John Cage
Marion Zimmer Bradley • Margaret Fuller • Johnny Thunders
Leonard Bernstein • Phillip K. Dick • Studs Turkel
Louis Zukofsky • Miles Davis • Aaron Copland
Harry Houdini • Aldo Leopold • Claude Shannon
Ansel Adams • John Huston • Rex Stout
Leo Fender • I.F. Stone • Bella Abzug
Janis Joplin • Vincent Anderson • Robinson Jeffers
William Burroughs • Ida B. Wells • Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In Regard to Barack Obama

I don’t really want to write about politics. I deal with politics and I write about politics in my mundane life, and the subject has become tedious to me. For the most part, political contests are territorial scrimmages between factions of the oligarchy. It’s not that the stakes aren’t high, but most of us won’t collect any part of those stakes: a few crumbs of the table, some party favors, but nothing of substance.
This is not to say that I don’t vote: I always vote, for somebody. I go to rallies, write polemics, sometimes even contribute money or time. But I always remind myself not to get carried away. Government power is like a tornado or an earthquake: it’s going to happen and it’s going to cause trouble. The only purpose in participating in politics is to try to limit the damage.
U.S. politics of the past few decades has been about a dispute between two factions. On the one hand, there are the oligarchs who believe that the general population of the country needs to be kept fairly well fed and a happy – happy sheep -- lest the oligarchs’ interests will be threatened. These use the Democratic Party as their front.
On the other side, there are the oligarchs who believe that their class can live indefinitely in a kind of free-floating cocoon of electronic representations of wealth (controlled by their “expertise”) and that they can always manipulate the rest of us into doing what they want. This faction uses the Republican Party as its front.
What is striking about the work of both of factions is how stupid and ineffective they are, even in pursuing their own interests. Both and all will sacrifice a chance to create anything of real value for a momentary advantage, and neither side is able to see twenty feet down the road in front of them.
But however incompetent they may be in pursuing their own interests, they wreak enormous mayhem on the rest of us while they try.
But I want to talk about Barack Obama. I will vote for him, not because I think he is “The One” or because I think he is a “lightworker.” (I’ve seen him called both on line.) I do find him more engaging than any important politician in a long time, but I can’t kid myself that he is not a willing agent of the interests that put him the position to be elected president. No one can raise that kind of money but by giving those who control that kind of money good reason to believe you can be managed.
In fact, for all the talk about hope and change, the program Obama proposes is pretty limited. Of course, after eight years of almost unimaginable social and economic destruction, anything less than actual malice on the part of a president might seem like the blessing of all the gods.
But that’s who Obama is: a basically conservative hustler who is no way interested in ending the basic injustices in the world, just moving them around.
In this case, though, I’ve come to think that who Barack Obama is doesn’t matter much: what he is matters a lot.
It’s not just that he’s a black man: his father was black Kenyan ex-Muslim agnostic and his mother was a white atheist academic from Kansas. He was raised partly in Indonesia by a man name Lolo, who was nominally Muslim, but was obsessed by the god Hanuman. Obama carries an amulet of Hanuman with him at all times.
He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia and became a man in Chicago, hog butcher to the world.
He may want to be just like the men in the penthouse suites with the expensive suits who play with the world like jacks, but they are afraid of him because he is the product of an America they don’t know, the messy, smelly, colorful America that I, and probably you, really live in. And if he is elected, something profound will change in America, just because of that.
The political spectacle rarely means as much as it should, but sometimes it is informed by forces that are beyond anything the pundits and fixers and moneymen can conceive. Sometimes politicians are just hack actors speaking bad dialogue, sometimes they’re being by something outside themselves.
John Kennedy was like that. If you study the life of JFK, it’s hard to discern the great liberal hero of myth. But the myth has been far more important than the man.
When you hear Obama’s supporters chanting “Yes, We Can,” you’re hearing the voice of something more than a slick Chicago lawyer.
There are weird signs and omens all about. It’s worth noting that Election Day will occur under a lunar void, moving from Capricorn to Aquarius, while Mercury enters Scorpio at 11 a.m. EST.
We’re driving up to a cross road with the wind rising, all the needles on the dashboard spinning around.
I think this one really matters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The gods are anarchists

One of the old Taoist sages said that the perfect Emperor would be one who, at the beginning of his reign, seated himself facing in an auspicious direction and a never spoke another word.
That is certainly my idea of the proper use of sovereignty and I find that I believe the gods, or those gods whom I find worthy of honor, understand this wisdom, and, therefore, do not strive to rule anything.
The gods I have cultivate the acquaintance of are fundamentally anarchists. True, they may cause events to happen because it is their nature to do so, but they have no lust to control other beings. They will guide those who asked to be guided, they will teach those who ask to learn, but they do not demand that anyone follow them or do things their way.
They will visit bad luck on those who deal with them without proper manners. And the gods kill, of course, because death is part of what they are. Some gods will visit us with horrible pain, but not because they are punishing us or attempting to control us, but because to do such things is their nature.
The real gods, those who deserve our honor and devotion, are not rulers or bosses: they are masters.
“Master,” though, in the sense of a Japanese sensei, rather than in the sense of a master of slaves. This word “master” is one of many English words that betrays itself. It has been used to mean “despot” or “overlord,” but it also means one who is superbly skilled or deeply learned.
Fans of Lord of the Rings – the book, this isn’t in the movie – may recall the scene where the hobbits are in the house of Tom Bombadil. Frodo asks Goldberry “Who is Tom Bombadil?” She replies “He is Master. No one has ever caught him by field or stream.”
While Tom may seem a ridiculous figure to some with his feather hat, yellow boots and nursery-rhyme songs, but one could do worse as an image of God of Forest and Field and the Wild Free Things. The identity of Goldberry seems obvious also.
But if you want a harder-edged image of divine liberation than Tom Bombadil, consider Nietsche’s Superman.
A lot of nonsense has been written and spoken about Nietzsche and his vision of the superman, mostly because of his purported Nazi admirers. This is nonsense: Nietzsche would have despised the Nazi project, not because of its cruelty and violence, but because the Nazis necessarily devoted their lives to running the lives of weaklings, as he would have considered them.
The Superman, as conceived by Nietzsche, does not seek office, lead movements, command armies, rule nations or own slaves, because to do so would be weakness, and to control others is to be controlled by the need to maintain control.
The gods I know understand that, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Thoughts after the Solstice

Of my solstice poem, posted here last week, my best friend and most useful critic (because she never lies just to be nice) said “I think the image of a dying sun gushing fire onto us is a little unsettling, but only a little.”
I agree; I find it unsettling, and meant it to be unsettling.
There are several ideas lying behind that poem which admittedly couldn’t be extracted from the text.
There was the thought of the Taurobolium, the sacrifice to the Great Mother made in old Rome in which the communicant stood under a perforated platform so that the blood of the sacrificed bull poured down upon him.
I also was thinking about Longleaf Pines, the huge pines that once dominated much of Georgia. Longleaf forests require fires: the mature trees survive the fires, and the seeds germinate only in fire-scorched soil.
But also though about global warming. I’ve been concerned about the greenhouse effect since I first read about it while preparing a sixth-grade science project, long before it was a popular topic of conversation.
In fact I think we – by “we” I mean our human “civilization” in the form it now exists – are screwed. The climate is destabilizing and at some point it will snap. The system will got out of control, and many bad things will happen before it reaches some new equilibrium – and it will reach that equilibrium, but by then the world will be a very different one in which humans have lived through our recorded history (an eyeblink in geological time.)
The disaster is upon us and I doubt that anything our great nation-states and corporations and leaders can do will stop it happening.
And maybe that means humans will get another chance, to start over again and maybe not screw up so bad. Which is the other thought behind the poem; that the head of the sun is burning off our botched civilization.
I wrote some of this thought to BF&MUC, who has heard me say such things before. She replied: “I'm not fond of the thought if ‘starting over’" means lots of pain and/or mortality for many humans. If it means we have a chance to avert such suffering by changing ourselves a bit, that's ok -- of course I realize that we might all have differing ideas about how we need to change.”
She’s right, of course. I don’t hope for the disaster; I just think it’s inevitable. The point to hope for, work for, strive a way of salvaging something from the disaster.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lines for the Summer Solstice

High has he risen, radiant and Holy.
Call him Bel, Attis, Tammuz or Balder.
Beautiful and proud, his heart draws the shadow’s blow.
From his death-wound, let the Fire pour down.
Let the Sun’s heart-blood burn the Earth clean.
Let the buried seeds of old Magic be wakened.
Let the Sun’s sacrifice set us free.

Friday, May 30, 2008


In my last entry, I talked about dealing with people who want to know “Do you believe in [G]od?” but I realize I did give an answer to the question itself, not the answer I would give if I weren’t being deliberately evasive, or just being a smart ass.
The simple answer, of course, is “no, I don’t believe in your Capital-G God.”
Or “I do not believe that the universe has or needs a king, a boss, an owner, a dictator, or a big daddy, or a chief disciplinarian.”
I really have a tough time with the idea of “belief,” anyway, and I have told people (sort of quoting Robert Anton Wilson) that I don’t believe anything. Which is true: I’m unwilling to regard any question as utterly settled, or to agree to any statement simply because of someone says it is true or because I am afraid of not believing it.
That seems to be what most people mean by believing.
But, as anyone whose read this must realize, I constantly refer to gods and spirits, and so on. So what’s that all about?
All I can say is that the gods I refer to are the one’s I know. I know them like I know the members of my family.
My upbringing and training is such that I feel a need to rationalize my experience, and I used to devote a lot of time to trying to explain what the gods were, how spirits or daimons or elves could exist, trying to resolve their existence with a sort of mechanistic idea of the universe.
But I can’t, and I’ve finally come to realize that it doesn’t really matter. Anything that has consequences is real and the gods have had great consequence in my life, whether they are understood to be webs of ether, powerful extraterrestrial time travelers, or fragments of my own mind, it doesn’t matter. Knowing them makes my life better and understanding the present colors my perception. Real religion, as the ancients understood, is not about what you believe, but about what you do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I believe in more Gods than you do

In my former life as a defense attorney, I was once sitting court waiting to enter a pretty good plea deal for a client who had behaved stupidly, as is usually the case. My client, Jerry, was whispering excitedly to me of his latest experience: he had been Saved.
I don’t suppose it will come as any surprise that small-town Georgia boys facing third DUI charge often find Jesus between arrest and trial. Jerry’s sudden enthusiasm for church going was not knew, nor was what came next, the invitation to come to his church next Sunday.
“I’m not much of a churchgoer,” I said. As a small-town southern lawyer and a small-town southern newspaperman, I usually stay quietly in my broom closet. Of course, when you are a middle-aged white man from a known “good” family and hold socially important jobs like lawyer or editor, it’s not hard to pass as a good Christian: as long as I don’t do anything extraordinarily weird, it’s taken for granted that I am of the tribe.
(Once a woman whose grandchildren I had just extracted from the machinery of the State threw her arms around me in the courtroom shouting “you’re such a good Christian Man.” I just patted her on the shoulder.
(Of course, she KNEW I was a Christian because I had accomplished a good thing and brought justice. She KNEW that only a real Christian could do that or would even try.)
Anyway back in Judge Campbell’s crowded courtroom, Jerry and I exchanged a few more muttered phrases as he tried to probe the state of my soul. Finally, he fixed me with a solemn glare and asked “You DO believe in GOD, don’t you?”
Just at that point, the bailiff hollered “All rise,” and that was the end of that. Possibly, this proves that some god -- my buddy, Hermes? -- was paying attention. I took care of Jerry, but he left without further discussion, and also without further payment. In the end he stiffed me for about $500.
But what about Jerry’s question: do I believe in “God?”
Notice that it’s a trick question, because the word “God” is being used both an abstract concept of deity, and, at the same time, as a proper name, the name of the Christian God, in fact. If you answer “yes,” you seem to be affirming a very specific and Abrahamic idea of what deity can be. If you say “no,” you seem to be denying any spiritual or religious truth at all.
This is approximately the same question asked by the much-publicized poll of last year that concluded that some huge percentage Americans “ believe in God.” But in that poll, as someone commented at the time, the only alternative to "God" was "None of the Above."
There is no room any god that is less than the unchallenged boss of the universe. No room pagans, polytheists and other weird types.
I used to answer people like Jerry by saying things like “I believe in at least as many gods as you do.” That made me feel very clever, but just baffled the Jerrys of the world; sometimes it made them angry.
Because what they really mean when they asking you is “Are you afraid of what God is going to do to you if you don’t do right?” and “Do you believe that my God is the Big Boss, the one who’s going to come and justify all of the things that are important to me?”
And the only answer I can give them is “No.” So usually I don’t say anything at all.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Morality? What morality?

Continuing some thoughts spinning off from my correspondence with Kate, who was writing a term paper on Pagans and conversion. Again, Kate plans to publish the paper and I think she should (with a few reservations I have expressed), so I’m not trying to steal her thoughts. She can speak to herself.
But responding her thoughts focused my own thoughts on some topics – including the question of what constitutes Pagan “morality.”
This is an important question and one I’ve wrestled with a good bit.
To Kate’s question in her questionnaire “How do you [as a Pagan] decide what is moral behavior?” I first answered, “How do you know I do?”
That was too flippant, of course, but I don’t think I am unique among refugees from Christianity in having a somewhat uneasy relationship with the word “morality.” I have too often heard the word used to bludgeon people were doing naught but what comes – or ought to come – naturally.
That said, I think of myself as a “good” guy: that is, I think that, by and large, I treat other people as well or better than they deserve. In practice, I’m comfortable with the idea that good behavior is like Potter Stewart’s opinion of pornography: I know it when I see it.
But that’s not entirely satisfactory, because history, recent and ancient, is filled with people who were sure they know good from bad and, acting on their intuition, created horrors.
At one point, Kate suggested that the golden rule might justly represent the basis of most Pagans’ view of morality to outsiders. I replied as follows:

“ The Wiccan Rede is ‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt.’
“The Law of Thelema is ‘Do as Thou Wilt shall be the Whole of the Law; Love is the Law, Love under Will.’
“The law of three-fold return is simply that whatever you send returns thrice. If you will indulge my quoting myself, from my response to your survey:
“’ I don’t think the universe counts on its fingers, but obviously, if you make the world an uglier, harder place, then you live in an uglier, harder world; if you make the world a more beautiful and happy place, then you live in a more beautiful and happy place.’
“These are the principle sources of guidance I see used in by pagans.
“Xtians tend to think that the golden rule – ‘Do unto others as thou wouldst have others do unto you.’ – is uniquely Xtian, but actually it had been around in one form or another long before Yeshua cribbed it from Rabbi Hillel. Confucius had a version 500 years early: ‘Do not do to someone else that which you would not want done to you.’
“But Christian morality is inevitably a counsel of fear: instructions to helpless mortals as to what they must do to avoid angering their irresistible and bad-tempered god. The golden rule, even understood as rule of prudence, still emphasizes the individual’s dependence on the community.
“Modern pagan ‘morality’ as represented by the principles I’ve mentioned, is far more individualistic: it emphasizes the actor’s power to change the world s/he lives in, rather hir helplessness and dependence, either on gods or other people, and seeks its reasonable and prudent limits. It is aimed toward defining the most that an individual can do rather than curtailing his power.
“In this, modern Paganism is different from the religions of the Classical urban civilization, which emphasized duty to the community, but I think that is a necessary outcome of the means by which our ways have been transmitted: by occultists, outsiders and rebels. And I think this a good thing.”
I’m fairly happy with that as a beginning point for seeking a kernel of modern Pagan “morality” or ethics or what you would call it. But it’s only a beginning.

Friday, May 2, 2008

the Vision of Wholeness

I’m back, blogging again after giving up the effort 13 months ago in the face of complication, depression and technological cussedness. I think – I think – I will be blogging at least once a week, maybe more. I have a backlog of potential material.
This is largely inspired by a correspondence with a young lady named Kate who is writing a paper on Paganism for her college philosophy class. Her paper is quite good, she will undoubtedly publish it herself and I’m not trying to steal her thunder.
But, as often happens with me, trying to explain myself to other people, I came to understand more clearly just what I was thinking. So, although I am indebted for Kate for helping me clarify my thoughts, she is in no way to be blamed for any foolishness that maybe detected here in.
The question is this: are all the gods and goddesses but aspects of one central principle, or are they distinct entities existing within the multiverse along with the rest of us entities, phenomena and things.
The unity of the godhead is a widely held belief among Pagans and many others who would not be at all interested in calling themselves Pagans. It is, as I understand, a major line of thought in Hinduism.
It’s a tenable position and one that I adopted at one point in my explorations. However, I have come to reject it, mostly because it simply seems alien to my personal experience of the gods. To me the gods are in no sense abstract, but real, distinct, and, in Richard Eberhardt’s phrase, “as sensual as tears or dreams.”
(Not to the say that all the gods and goddesses don’t sometime bleed into each other, but then I think most human are blurrier around the edges than they imagine themselves to be. We are, after all, only a set of more or less high probabilities.)
Of course, it sort of attractive when one is among dominant monotheists to be able to say “I really am like you guys because all the gods are just one god.” It makes small talk less complicated.
But I think there is a real metaphysical experience that lies at the root of this feeling of the oneness of the gods and of oneness with the gods.
Anyone who has gone very far in any mystical practice will have had a vision of the wholeness of the universe/multiverse, which is very comforting. I believe this vision is that which is called Ain Soph Aur in Kabala, Brahaman in Hinduism, or the Tao of Lao-Tse. When mystics confuse this with their local war god, the monotheistic error arises.
As it happens, just after I started thinking about this, I watched an episode of “Battlestar Galactica” in which the sometimes-treacherous Gaius Balthar, now prophet of the “one god” told his follower “something loves me.” I understand what he means: I’ve had that feeling myself, and I think the ease with which people who have been raised to believe that there is either “God” or nothing confuse this vision with the local war god who operates the Abrahamic religions, accounts largely for the continued credibility of those churches.
But to my mind it is a mistake to understand this wholeness, however harmonious and comforting it may be, as “God” or “the Gods.” The gods are part of it, but so are you and I and so are the cockroaches and viruses and clouds of gas in space.
More importantly, this “wholeness” doesn’t DO anything, because every action and all of its consequences are already complete in it.
It may love you, but not anymore than it loves itself or your opposite. It may be some creator god staring at itself from each end of time, like Narcissus enthralled by its inflection. But it cannot be your guide or your companion or your protector or your lover. This is what the real gods are like.