I am struck with how the debate over whether or not abortion is morally acceptable has become a battle of slogans rather than of reason. I think the major culprits are on the so-called ‘pro life’ side, but at this point there is little rational discussion on either side. This paper seeks to correct that shortcoming, and will argue there is NO good reason for opposing abortion as murder, or anything like it. Because I give reasons for this claim, the anti-abortion folks have an opportunity to rebut me.
A few years ago I had been on the road attending weddings, a memorial service for an old friend who recently died, and seeing various friends along the way. During this time I received an email from a woman taking exception to some remarks she had heard me give regarding the legitimacy of abortion. She wrote me “Life is sacred. I have rarely had the courage to say that I think abortion is wrong. Life is so beautiful and mysterious and at the core full of love.”
I replied to her that regarding the basic insight that life is sacred, we agree. Life is sacred. It is also beautiful, mysterious, and I believe is at its core rooted in love. But I do not believe these truths lead to opposing abortion as always wrong.
I. Life, Death, and Ethics
Let’s begin with the question of life and death, for most of the argument against abortion involves the legitimacy of killing a fetus or a fertilized egg. If life is sacred what are we to make of death? And of causing death?
Life’s marvelous abundance is intimately connected to the presence of physical death. Without carnivores who kill to survive we would have not evolved beyond the level of blue green algae. From the coming into being of the first multi-celled beings, death has been an inevitable outcome, even if we escape predation. Life is a process of going through a series of cycles of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and ultimately death. Everyone dies, and that is a part of their having lived.
Imagine a world where beings could reproduce but never died. Most beings reproduce far more individuals than are needed or desirable to carry on the species. In time, and not much time, such a world would become a Hell of malnourished suffering.
Immortality for all would be no blessing to beings that reproduced. As it is, most young plants and animals are eaten, but by their being eaten enables other beings to flourish. Most adults eventually suffer a similar fate, or succumb to disease, the elements, or just bad luck.
With respect to this reality, I have always liked Gary Snyder’s observation: “‘What a big potlatch we are all members of!’ To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic.’ It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporal personal being.” (19)
Physical death is inescapably a part of life, not an assault on it. As such, if life is sacred, in its own way death is sacred. What lies beyond death is mystery, but those who love life have no reason to regard death as a sign something is amiss with the world, something that needs ‘fixing.’
This point sets the broader context for discussing abortion.
Of mice and aliens
Despite death’s ubiquity, we reasonably seek ways to improve and prolong human life. I agree with this priority. As such, we confront the question “Does abortion end human life?”
To answer this question, we need to be clear about what we mean by “human,” and this meaning is contextual. The anti-choice crowd combines two different aspects of being human in an arbitrary and confused way: the biological and the moral.
If it survives to birth and after, the embryo will become a caring human being. The embryo is indisputably biologically human. So, the critical issue here is Does being biologically human provide the qualities that give people the moral standing appropriate to human beings?
I argue no.
To see why, let’s start with mice.
Why does a mouse lack human moral standing? Killing a mouse is not murder. When we prepare land for building a home we strive to make sure no human is injured in the process. We feel no equivalent duty to mice. Why? Is this difference in attitude simply an un-examined habit? I think not.
We cannot enter into human style relationships with mice. So far as we know, mice do not know what it means to promise, they do not dream of their futures and the futures of their young, love others of no utility to them, or take personal responsibility for their actions. If we were to learn mice had the above qualities, our relationships with them would change, becoming far more complex because we would recognize they were more like us than we have any current reason for thinking.
I am not saying mice have no moral standing, but they do not have the same kind of standing as human beings. A mouse is a sentient being, able to feel fear, pain, and doubtless many positive states as well. A good person will not go out of his or her way to injure a mouse, and indeed will go out of their way not to do so.
In my view, we have a responsibility to treat other beings with respect. But this is not the same as treating them as moral equals. I think it follows that the deeper a potential relationship becomes, the stronger ethical considerations become as modifications of what we might regard as our personal utility.
Now consider a hypothetical intelligent alien. Let us grant that such an alien can make promises, dream of its future and the futures of its offspring, love others for themselves, and take responsibility for its actions. Science fiction is filled with examples of such beings, and perhaps the universe is as well. Such an alien will not have our biology. We are more related biologically to mice, or even to an earthworm or algae, than to such an alien. So any moral obligations we have with such a being are unconnected to a common biology, which need not exist.
If such an alien entered into friendly relations with us, treating us as moral equals, and evidenced a capacity to put our shared mental qualities above biological ones in determining its actions, to my mind such an alien would have ethical standing equal to a human being. Killing a peaceful alien of this sort would be immoral. It would be committing murder.
If my distinction between aliens and mice is reasonable, it is the relative capacity to enter into ethical relationships that determines moral standing. The issue is the quality of possible relationships, real or potential, and not biology.
The moral standing of a fetus
A fetus gains in moral standing the more it possesses human capacities, not human biology. It seems obvious that a zygote or a early term fetus has these qualities only as distant potentials. A fertilized egg cannot promise, cannot make plans, and has no self-awareness. Future mothers care for their fetuses because of what they might become, not for what they are. If a fertilized egg fails to implant itself in the uterine lining, as is often the case, we do not bewail the death of a human being.
Most of us who love babies, and I am one, love them because of what they are as well as for what they might become. Babies can enter into relationships with us, relationships that deepen daily before our eyes, until they become relationships between equals. But from the very beginning, babies relate.
From the fertilized egg to a baby we observe a developing capacity to move from potential human characteristics with moral weight to actual ones. New-born babies still cannot enter into as many complex mutual relationships as can adults, but they interact in ways a fertilized egg never can. We are observing a continuum. There are legitimate grounds for arguing over how and when the moral standing of a fetus changes as it develops. But, at least at most stages, there is no reasonable argument that it enjoys anything approaching equality with a human being.
Given this simple fact, it seems to me throughout most of the process leading towards giving birth it should be entirely the woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus to term. A woman who gives birth should be honored for doing so, and not considered simply a container whose life must be subordinated to another’s. Rather than being a fetus’s slave, that is, a slave of something not morally human, a mother should be free to make and receive credit for taking one of the most powerful actions a human being is capable: bringing another into the world and taking responsibility for seeing that it is raised to adulthood, either by herself and her family, or by giving it up for adoption. A mother who abandons her baby to die is not analogous to a pregnant woman who has an abortion.
If we elevate biology above the moral qualities that give ethical standing on this issue we turn the mother into a means to others’ ends, and in so doing destroy the only powerful case for ethics: that at a minimum, beings such as humans are never properly simply means to others’ ends. They possess intrinsic qualities that forever separate them from objects.
We become fully human only through our relation with the world and with other human beings. Even the most advanced fetuses have taken only the first steps along this path. They are not fully human in any way that counts morally.
I hope this argument of mine shows there is no tension between honoring life and regarding it as sacred and fervently supporting a woman’s decision as to whether or not to participate in bringing another life into the world. I believe it establishes a powerful case for women being able to choose for themselves whether to carry a fetus to term or not, at least until very late in the pregnancy.
II: The spiritual dimension: Christianity
But abortion is opposed not just because of a category error confusing the biological with the moral. In addition, for many there are religious reasons to oppose it. As such, there are two dimensions to the issue. First, what, in my own heart and judgement, is it right for me to do? Second, when is it right for me to expect others to adhere to my moral standards? The more arbitrary these standards are, the weaker any case I might have that they should apply to others as well as myself.
Let me give an uncontroversial example. Many Americans are vegetarians. Some are vegans. Many of these positions are buttressed by rational arguments with respect to health, environmental sustainability, or our moral relations with the other-than-human world. Some religions enjoin vegetarianism for their adherents. Lives are lived in accordance with these principles, and complex economic activities serve their adherents. And yet, hardly anyone thinks vegetarianism or veganism should be enforced by law. It is a personal ethical decision, often of great importance to the adherent, and nearly everyone is OK with that.
The reason, I suggest, is that everyone recognizes there is an irreducible element of personal judgment in the decision to refrain from eating meat or using animal products of any sort. No widely recognized universal argument enjoys enough support to lead to more demanding claims.
I will argue here that abortion is on the same plane: it is and should always remain a matter of personal judgement, at least until the final phases of pregnancy where the fetus is far enough advanced in development that for most purposes it is arguably reasonable to error on the side of caution.
Taken as a whole, Christianity supports me, and not the anti-choice position. There are very reasonable interpretations of the Old and New Testaments that do not lead one to think of a fetus as a morally considerable human being.
Let’s start with the Old Testament. We are not at the mercy of rival modern scholars debating what Hebraic words meant more than 2000 years ago. A community exists with an unbroken record of studying these texts since they were written. Many are quite conversant with ancient Hebrew. Of course, I am talking about the Jews.The Old Testament is not regarded by Jews as condemning abortion. And Jews should know their own literature better than others- they have had thousands of years to study it. The Torah and, indeed the entire Hebrew Bible, says nothing about abortion. A passage in the Torah, however, does discuss the implications of killing a fetus.
And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Ex. 21:22-25.)
This passage treats the fetus as more like personal property than a human being. Penalties for a woman’s physical injuries are harsher than for causing the death of a fetus.
While Jewish law explicitly recognizes a fetus’ potential for becoming human, it is not considered a complete human being. Rabbis Raymon Zwerin and Richard Shapiro write “Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible and Talmud, states clearly of the fetus ’av nefesh hu – it is not a person.’ The Talmud contains the expression ‘ubar yerech imo – the fetus is as the thigh of its mother,’ i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman’s body.” Rashi (1040-1105) used the passage above to justify his interpretation of the scriptures. Maimonides (1135-1204) took a different view. When considering a threat to the mother’s life, he compared the fetus to a rodef, or pursuer, for whom one was not to have pity. Abortion was justified because the fetus actively endangered the mother.
In 2012 the Public Religion Research Institute published a survey of Jewish values. As one might expect, Jews varied widely in their political, economic, and religious opinions, with one exception. Fully 93% of all American Jews support making abortion legal in at least some cases, and 49% argued it should be legal in all cases. 77% of Jewish Republicans supported making abortion legal for at least some cases. Jews are the only religious group surveyed where a plurality supported abortion in all cases. Only 1% of American Jews supported completely outlawing abortion. Jews, who have studied their scripture since long before there were Christians, have not considered the fetus human in the moral sense.
Delving further, many Jews and some Christians believe the Bible indicates we become human upon drawing our first breath after birth. Many Biblical passages support this interpretation. For example, in Genesis 2:7, after God formed Adam, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became a living being”. Man was not a living being until he took his first breath. Job 33:4, it states: “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Ezekiel 37:5&6, states “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Numbers 5:22 even reports that God ordered an abortion: “May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
Abortion was well-known in Biblical times and the Old Testament is filled with detailed descriptions as to what behavior was acceptable, and what was not. Clothes of different materials were not to be worn, hair was to be cut in certain ways, and shellfish were abominations. The absence of discussions of abortion as wrong, when tattoos were identified as wrong, is powerful evidence it was not rejected as wrong at the time.
My point in raising these points is not to enter into the complexities of Biblical interpretation other than to say the Bible is exceedingly ambiguous as to the acceptability of abortion. The large bulk of passages relevant to the issue indicate full humanness arrives only with the first breath, a position with long roots in Judaism as well as Christianity.
That condemning abortion is given greater emphasis than condemning behavior explicitly denounced in scripture, such as selfishness with wealth or not turning the other cheek, is a sign of something deeply pathological about much American Christianity. But that’s another article.
III: Abortion and the issue of pre-existing spirits seeking birth
Selective use of the Bible does not constitute the only, or even the most powerful, criticisms of abortion. Within a broadly spiritual perspective another is worthy of serious examination.
Does abortion murder spirits?
Recently I received an email from a woman who wrote me: “. . . you don’t have to be Christian to have found out that abortion does in fact feel like murder – those fetuses’ spirits were already talking to me and yes I feel duped by the feminists and like a murderess.”
She is not alone.
I have spoken with many women convinced they had communication with the spirits that intended to become their babies. One woman I know tells me the spirit told her the name she wanted to be known as when born, a rather unusual name. Her daughter lives up to her name. It’s perfect.
For those of us who believe this happens, and I am one, this reality raises a further dimension to the abortion issue: the fate of the spirits of future babies.
I have no trouble believing that some, maybe all, births have a reincarnational dimension. I think there is considerable evidence this is so. (Wikipedia has an excellent overview of research on the issue. ) Having an abortion would most definitely deprive a spirit of incarnation in that particular instance. But what is the moral weight of this fact?
What is murder?
Would an abortion “murder” that spirit? In my view, no, it would not.
The spirits involved in the accounts women have described to me evidenced far more sentience and awareness than one could expect from a tiny bunch of cells that had just came into existence. These spirits were already centers of awareness, relationship, and future plans. They did not just come into being, to be snuffed out for all time in an abortion.
If this latter possibility were true, and spirits came into being instantaneously with fertilization, consider the millions upon millions of miscarriages that have occurred, and continue to do so. All destroy a life. For anti-choice Christians with this view, their own God is the greatest murderer of all, putting Moloch at Carthage to shame (if the stories about Moloch are actually true).
If spirits can communicate with potential future mothers, it makes sense only if they pre-exist the fertilization of the egg. Given that they do not have a body, and they continue afterwards as they had previously, there is no reason to think what happened was murder.
Murder is of a human being, or as my alien example argued, of the moral equivalent of a human being. Whatever else it might be, a zygote is not a human being in that sense, any more than a seed with its first inkling of root is a walnut tree. I am not a logger when I break open a walnut.
The difference between that discussion and this one is I then focused on the biological entity, here I focus on the spirit. Because something has the same genome as a human being does not make it a human being. In this present case the spirit exists separately from the body and preceded it.
Do such spirits have a right to being birthed by the woman of their choice?
An Illuminating analogy
A woman is approached by a man who tells her he cannot live without her. She simply must enter into a relationship with him. She is that important to him. She does not know this man.
Perhaps he tells her in a previous life they agreed to become lovers. She cannot remember this previous life.
Does she have an ethical duty to heed his desires?
I can’t imagine anyone saying she does.
If, in despair over he rejection, the man then killed himself, it would be a misfortune, but few if any of us would hold the woman responsible. She might feel badly for him, but we would regard her as foolish if she then told herself she should have acceded to his wishes.
In my opinion arguing a woman must give birth to a pre-existing spirit because it has chosen her to be its mother is yet one more example of turning women into being primarily servants of others out of a sense of duty or fear. Among other things this prevents them from choosing to enter into relationships with other people out of affection and love.
In my view nothing is more important than the relationship between a child and its parents, and loved children are vastly better off than those who do not experience love, or experience it intermittently. For there to be solid love the relationship between a mother and child must be consensual. Of course, love could develop even when it is initially absent. This was the case in some arranged marriages of the past and I am confident remains true for some today. Fortunate couples developed loving and satisfying relationships. However, I cannot imagine this happy outcome constitutes a justification for forcing marriages on couples who otherwise would not have gotten married.
Given that the spirit that would have entered the fetus continues to exist, and hopefully will find a willing mom, or may even have done so already, I do not think the woman who wrote me committed murder in any sense. The child who embodied that spirit after being born to a future and more willing woman would never have come into existence if the first woman had been forced to give birth. One possible human being came into existence, and another did not, no matter which choice was made. But one outcome also enabled a woman to exercise control over her life whereas the other would have demeaned her to a womb with legs and a brain.
Not giving birth to a child with that spirit constituted a road not traveled and perhaps it would have been a good one. Or perhaps not. Or perhaps the one the woman ultimately traveled was better for her, either in terms of this life, or spiritual lessons, or both. In this life we will never know.
Our lives are filled to the brim with such forks in the road, with paths not taken quickly disappearing over a hill or around a bend. Giving birth or not is one of the larger forks, but it is not uniquely large. Life is filled with many “What ifs….”
We could easily argue a spirit needs to make sure it is welcome before choosing a potential body. Why should its desire for being born be more important than the woman’s? The desire should be mutual.
Someone might argue I am ignoring possible karmic relationships between a spirit and its potential mother. However, if they exist, neither I nor anyone else has the slightest idea what they are. We do know the woman has a life to live. The choice should therefore be hers, and no one else has more than an advisory status. Including the spirit.
To conclude this discussion of the spiritual issues raised by abortion, I want to examine what I think gives maximum weight to the spirit’s side of things.
It MIGHT be true…
Perhaps spirits are on a kind of other-dimensional conveyer belt, each getting one chance at birth before going to the end of the line again, to start a long wait over. This might be.
But if so we return to the issue of miscarriages. In such a case it is a misfortune to be aborted, but no more a misfortune than to be expelled in a miscarriage. I have a difficult time thinking the universe is as messed up as such a possibility suggests, but if it is, spirits seeking birth play the odds. Further, in such a case there is no karmic connection between them and a prospective parent. One will do as well as another.
In addition, if this grim possibility is true, the mother’s life is her equally rare chance to live in a body, and as such, as much as any man, she deserves a chance to live her life as fully as she is capable. No other being should be able to overrule her concerning decisions such as whether or not to risk her life to bring a child into the world, and perhaps devote much of her life to raising it.
Women who choose to give birth should be honored for doing so rather than regarded as fulfilling their earthly function as defined by some men, some women, or some spirit. In a very real sense those who oppose a woman’s right to choose dishonor motherhood, turning it into a fate to endure rather than a choice from the heart to give birth to and raise a child.
Summing up so far
With this third column on abortion I have made several points. First, those who equate the biologically human and the morally human confuse two different categories, one of which clearly lacks the moral weight to override a pregnant woman’s choice and the other of which is not linked to biological humanness. Those arguing a fetus is morally a human being because it is biologically human are arguing nonsense.
Second, there is no strong Biblical case against abortion. At the most, the Bible is ambiguous on the subject. For most of history the so-called ‘pro-life’ position has been a minority one and remains a tiny minority among Jews to this day.
Third, other common spiritually based arguments against abortion do not support banning it either. There is no reason to privilege the desires of a spirit that once incarnated will be a human being over an existing human being.
Fourth, women who become mothers are not obedient vessels doing their biological or spiritual duty, they are choosing to make on one of the most important responsibilities a human being can manage: bringing another person into the world. For this they risk their lives, undergo months of suffering, and limit their future lifetime possibilities by subordinating them to that of serving the needs of another. Euripides caught the seriousness of this choice when he wrote “I had rather stand my ground three times with a shield in battle than face a childbirth once.” Perhaps most impressively, few see it in those terms, but have great fulfillment in motherhood. They should be honored when they make such a choice rather than condemned when they do not.
So far I have argued as a man for whom abortion is an issue that affects other people. But for me this is not the full story. It has a very personal dimension, and describing it is how I will close this essay.
IV. A very personal note on abortion
Abortion is anything but abstract and theoretical. A potential human being is expelled from the world. A woman’s life is profoundly affected as she makes one of the weightiest decisions a woman can make. How we approach instances where abortion is a possibility is not just a matter for theoretical arguments. Each case is profoundly personal and profoundly concrete. And so I think I should end my discussion with a very personal instance from my own life. For me, although I am a man, this issue is not just theoretical.
About 17 years ago a dear friend of mine got pregnant. She was unmarried and felt her biological clock ticking. She had long wanted a child, but her partner of many years did not. They had ultimately broken up over the issue. She had moved away, and was supporting herself in a large city. After she became pregnant by another, the father told her he would provide no aid in rearing a child and would have nothing to do with it.
She asked me, among others, what she should do.
I counseled her to get an abortion.
After a while she told me she had decided to keep the fetus and eventually begin her life as a single mom. I and other friends of hers supported her in her decision and hoped everything would turn out OK for them both. We helped as we could.
She moved to the east coast to be close to her parents and have near-by family support, In time she gave birth to a healthy son.
Shortly thereafter she asked me to be his Godfather.
I happily accepted. I was and remain utterly delighted to have him as my Godson, and do all I can to support him. In a way he is the son I will never have as, at 69, I am childless. He is growing up to be a wonderful human being and his mother is doing a wonderful job aiding him along that path. Her life has been hard at times, but I have never heard her question her decision. And she deeply loves her son.
Knowing what I know now, if asked, would I counsel another woman in a similar situation to have an abortion?
Yes, I would.
Equally important, I would be supportive of her no matter what her decision.
Am I contradicting myself or am I in denial?
I do not think so.
The young man I love did not exist in any sense when she asked me that question so many years ago. He was an unknown potential. Had she had an abortion, in time she would almost certainly have gotten pregnant again and given birth to a different child, a child who because of her decision to come to term this time, never existed. I would also have loved that child as hers and, if asked to be his or her Godfather, I would have happily accepted.
Every pregnancy not only creates a potential human being, it also prevents other potential human beings from coming into existence that might have existed had that pregnancy not taken place. And, on balance, those beings would also have developed into (different) lovable children and hopefully (different) loving adults.
There are countless millions of potential children who never came into being because their prospective mothers were already pregnant or their prospective parents met other mates, or an egg accepted one sperm and not another, or for many other reasons. Had they come into being they would be as worthy of love and care as any of those who did. But they did not and they never will. They will never exist, but had things been different they would have.
Throughout life we are surrounded by roads forking into mutually exclusive directions, some probably fulfilling and wonderful, others likely leading to disaster. To have or not have a child, and when to do so, are choices available only to women. But women and men are both often confronted by choices of similarly great importance. What will I choose to do to support myself? Who, if anyone, will be my life partner? Where will I live? Where will I go to college, if I go at all? Even choices that seemed minor at the time can ultimately have major effects, such that our lives would be profoundly different had we made them differently. Many a marriage had its roots when two young people who otherwise never would have met attended a wedding. Had one or the other caught a cold and stayed home, there would have been different weddings – and different children.
All of these options left unexplored would have shaped human lives. But we owe nothing to choices not made, roads not taken, potentials we chose not to pursue. Responsibility exists and potential obligations arise only when we are called upon to make a choice, and then only for the consequences of that choice.
Were a similar woman to ask me a similar question today I would give her a similar answer because I am aware the path a single mom walks is almost always a tough and demanding one. If she is to do a good job as a mother another person’s needs will often take precedence over her personal hopes and dreams. Her health might suffer as well, and she could even die during childbirth, as nearly happened to a woman I know.
By contrast should she keep the fetus and all turn out OK, the child who will exist is an unknown, a hypothetical, one possible fork in the road of her life. It could be a girl or a boy, healthy or with serious birth defects, live a short life or a long one, and so on. If she keeps the fetus, doing so almost certainly will make her life more difficult as well as possibly more fulfilling. She will choose to keep it, if she does, for a still hypothetical human being.
It is appropriate for us to answer her question in terms of what we believe is best for her, a person we know and for whom we care. For the same reason, it is important for us to respect and support her decision, whatever it is. I am not her and I do not walk in her shoes. If we care for her, we respect and honor her decision.
To my mind it is vitally important that a woman make this choice from her heart as well as her mind, so that if she chooses motherhood she does so motivated only by a desire to have a child and raise him or her to adulthood. This heart dimension of her choice is hers and hers alone. Love cannot be commanded, but a child must be loved if it is to be raised well.
Of course, her choice affected many other lives. Because she did not do as I suggested, her decision ultimately changed mine, very much for the better. All my life I will be grateful she chose otherwise. But, no matter what how her choice affected me, that impact was of no ethical weight to override her decision. It was entirely her choice.
 Rabbis Raymond A. Zwerin and Richard J. Shapiro, Abortion: Perspectives from Jewish Traditions, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, http://abortion.procon.org/sourcefiles/abortion-perspectives-from-jewish-traditions.pdf
 Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, Chosen For What? Jewish Values in 2012, Public Religion Research Institute, Washington, DC, April 3, 2012. https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Jewish-Values-Report.compressed.pdf
 See for example The Bible Tells Us When A Fetus Becomes A Human Being, The Christian Left, October 31,2012. http://www.thechristianleftblog.org/blog-home/the-bible-tells-us-when-a-fetus-becomes-a-living-being; Abortion and Jude-Christian Religion, Emerald, May 22, 2012. https://emerald7tfb.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/abortion-and-judeo-christian-religion/
 Euripides, Medea line 214.
Social institutions viewed from a Hayekian perspective closely match evolutionary and ecological perspectives in biology. All rely on the same systemic relationships of variation, selection, and inheritance. What Hayek called spontaneous orders are variations of a larger range of related phenomena. Concepts developed in one such field can enrich our understanding of analogous phenomena in others. Among the most important concepts explored here are individuals, organisms, species, and ecosystems. This integration carries important implications for how human societies can exist sustainably on the earth.
To read more, find the article here.
The common academic issue of whether or not one engages in ‘cultural appropriation’ has divided the Pagan community. I have been very explicit in my dislike of the idea, but in working out just why I dislike the concept I have been led to a very different understanding of just what culture is and what our place in it amounts to. Exploring this issue transformed my understanding of culture- and in a way deeply enriched with some common magickal and Pagans insights.
The Charge of ‘cultural appropriation’
Some people within the Pagan community object to practices such as smudging with sage, seeking a power animal, and celebrating Day of the Dead, as somehow stealing another culture’s practices or other values. I will argue here they are confused about culture, confused about appropriation, and even confused about what it is to be a human being. I am not criticizing their motives in this paper, but rather arguing that by misunderstanding these issues, they are misdiagnosing the problem. They are like those who thought ‘night air’ caused malaria.
No NeoPagans practice traditions with an unbroken connection to pre-Christian times. Almost all old Pagan traditions have been overwhelmingly oral, and the core of those teachings have long been lost. The most respected mystery tradition in the Classical world, the Eleusinian Mysteries, remains a mystery despite having been practiced for over 1000 years and described by highly literate people. When once-Pagan practices have survived, their interpretation has changed, as Sabina Magliocco has described from her research in rural Italy.
To more deeply develop NeoPagan practices some of us have studied living Pagan traditions, hoping to learn from others what may be useful for ourselves. Many of us have sought to fill gaps in our own knowledge and traditions with what we have learned from teachers or books, about other non-Western traditions. Sometimes we have adopted common indigenous practices as a way of bringing our Euro-based practices into greater harmony with the energies of this continent. Consequently, when we smudge with sage or seek out spirit animals, integrate decorative skulls from Day of the Dead into Samhain, or even meet in circles, some claim we are supposedly engaged in “cultural appropriation.”
Most contemporary NeoPagans are citizens of countries that long subjugated most of the world to their will. During the centuries of Western domination, other ways of life were often attacked and undermined and religious traditions other than certain kinds of Christianity were suppressed, often violently. Places with viable Pagan practices are also places that in nearly every case were subjected to Western domination, exploitation, and oppression. And sometimes far worse.
Today, people within cultures once subjugated and still dominated by Western powers seek to preserve as much as they can from their former ways of life, either by adapting it to the modern world or trying to safeguard it from Western modernity’s homogenizing and secularizing impact. Theirs is not an easy task.
What is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is said to consist of two basic traits. For example, Jarune Uwujaren defines cultural appropriation as “when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” In addition, a “power dynamic” exists because “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Maisha Z. Johnson agrees, writing “Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” Cultural appropriation also “refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Cultural appropriation, then, is said to be a continuation of an exploitive and dominating relationship over a weaker culture. This sounds clear enough, but only when not carefully examined.
Let me offer a few very different counter examples.
The Romans conquered and sometimes enslaved Greeks, and in the process ultimately incorporated much of Greek philosophy and art into their own culture. The Roman writer, Horace, said Rome’s military dominance was ultimately second to Greece’s influence: “Greece, the captive, took her savage victor captive and brought the arts into rustic Latium.”
The Romans practiced “cultural appropriation.” However, by adopting so much Greek culture, Rome strengthened Greek cultural influence in the Western world. It was not Rome’s adopting elements of Greek culture within their own culture that was bad, it was their military conquest of Greece. One could easily argue the Renaissance might never have happened had not Rome preserved important elements of Greek culture.
Another very different example is Christian Rome and the Catholic Church. They destroyed Pagan temples and statues and then appropriated many Pagan sites and practices, Christianizing them. Where did the date Dec, 25 come from? It was not when Jesus was born. Magnificent churches were built on the sites of destroyed Pagan temples or places of veneration. It is not just by chance Easter and Ostara are similar names. Ostara was a Pagan goddess. St. Brigit was an appropriation of Bhride, a wonderful Irish Goddess. Christmas trees play no role in Christian practice before conquering Pagan Europe, where such trees did play a role. As mentioned above, old Pagan folk rituals have been wrapped in Christian terminology while otherwise remaining the same.
Are we worse off as Pagans today because the Church and its political allies did not simply suppress all Pagan practices and symbols rather than appropriating them? I know of no Pagan who would say yes.
At another level, some of Classical Paganism’s greatest philosophical works survived the monotheistic holocaust that destroyed so much of the older culture and knowledge. To name the most important, Plato and Aristotle were reinterpreted to fit Christian priorities. In the process, much of their work was also preserved, and even made more generally available. Now some of us can refer to their writings both for what leading Pagan intellectuals of the time thought and also for hints to taken-for-granted practices that Christian and secular philosophers ignore, such as Socrates going into trance with a Dryad, no one being at all surprised, and then their sitting around criticizing her words.
Our history would be much different if all Classical Pagan writings had been consigned to the flames, as so much was.
If the Christian world was to dominate the Pagan one, as it did, we are glad it appropriated so much and wish it had appropriated more. In doing so, it preserved seeds from the past we could study, water, nourish, and sometimes revive. Had the Christian West utterly destroyed these remnants we would have far less to work with, and that they survived speaks to the power and magic in our heritage.
These are not trivial examples.
What is appropriation?
To appropriate something from someone is to take what does not belong to me. If I appropriate your car, I have it, and you don’t. When Christians appropriated Pagan sites, they stole them. I can also appropriate your identity, as happened to me once when my wallet was stolen. You may have my ID and credit cards, but you are not me. The first kind of appropriation is theft, the second kind is fraud aided by theft. I can also appropriate your practices, but in doing so, I take them away from you by outlawing your own actions. If I copy them, that word grasps what happened far better than “appropriation.” I can also lie about it, and say I originated them on my own.
I can appropriate music or teachings or writings not my own, but that description works best if I claim to have created them, or do not give credit to those who did.
But if I have truly made these ideas, tastes, and beliefs my own, I am not pretending to have incorporated a cultural element from elsewhere, I have in fact done so. If I also give credit to my sources, I am not committing fraud or lying. If anything, I am praising those who introduced me to something I find valuable.
By adopting these ideas I have not deprived others of them, in fact I have expanded their scope and made them more available to others. If ideas were life forms, (an issue I will return to), they would be pleased at this expansion. The language of possessing things does not fit regarding ideas, tastes, beliefs, and other contents of our minds once they enter into the public.
Ideas once they enter the public on their own are far more complex and interesting than things. Even our legal attempts to treat ideas as property recognize this. A specific creation can be copyrighted for a period of time and a discovery can be patented, again for a limited period. The reasoning behind doing so is different from the reasoning to protect physical property, which can in principle be owned privately forever. Copyrights and patents exist to reward the creator for their contribution to the larger community. Once the copyright expires they are part of humanity’s common-wealth. Whatever ideas are, they are not property.
There is one example where the term “cultural appropriation” might make sense, and it is related to these examples. In some cultures, songs and stories are the recognized property of a family or other group. They are shared with others outside the group as gifts. In such cultures, using these stories and songs without permission is akin to stealing another’s story or song in the West. In such cases I agree the legitimate owners should have legal protection, just as creators and inventers have in the West with copyrights. Further, a trademark can be owned indefinitely. It is not an idea but a symbol of identification. However, in these cases the stealing is not from ‘a culture,’ it is from a specific person or group of people. Without their permission, no one else in their culture would know of it.
An idea can be either yours, someone else’s, or culturally embedded so we have no idea where it originated. Within a culture, most ideas are the latter. It makes sense to say I stole your idea, if I do not give you credit. But it makes no sense to say I stole a culture’s idea. Cultures do not have ideas. They are, in part, composed of ideas in relationship with one another in ways independent of anyone’s control. These relationships shape ideas in the same way an environment shapes the organisms living within it. Cultures are ecosystems.
II: Cultures as Ecosystems
Jarume Uwujaren writes, ideally cultures should relate as equals when they take something from another, and contribute something to the other in return. This statement is like someone confusing ecosystems with the organisms within them. And while the difference between ecosystems and organisms is no longer as clear as scientists once thought, one distinction that matters is that organisms are centers of action, ecosystems are networks of patterns arising with no such center needed. The same is true of people in cultures.
I think we all can agree people can and should have equal rights, but, when we look carefully, we see it makes no sense to say cultures should have equal rights. For exchanges between people, if I have what you want, we are not equal unless you also have what I want, and want it with about the same intensity. Ideally we exchange different things but with equal need to make the exchange. Equality here has a crucial subjective element.
To be sure, a formal equality exists if we voluntarily decide to make an exchange/ But as every reasonable person knows, this equality is modified, sometimes drastically, by differences in the intensity each feels to make the exchange. The more desperate one party is compared to the other, the greater an important kind of inequality.
This way of looking at exchanges works for understanding people, but not cultures. Cultures do not make exchanges, people do.
If I see a fashion I like in Italy, Mexico, or Botswana, and I buy the clothes there, I have exchanged with the seller, not the culture. If they wear out when I get home, and I make replacements, I have exchanged with no one. Similarly, if upon getting home I copy what I remember seeing in these places, no exchange took place.
According to cultural appropriations advocates, what I did with Italian fashions after my clothes wore out, or if I later copied what I saw, is not cultural appropriation because Italy is in some sense our equal. But for Mexico and Botswana, I am guilty of “cultural appropriation,” because they have been colonized or otherwise exploited. Rights to voluntary action are distributed unequally among people in thr name of a fanciful cultural equality.
Cultures are contexts that shape the relationships arising within them, rather than themselves participating in exchanges. They do not own anything, nor do they create anything, although they shape the context within which creation happens. Their members do the owning and creating.
So what is a culture?
They are a kind of ecosystem.
Culture as ecosystem
Our cultures provide most of the concepts we use as well as the ways of seeing how they relate with one another. The richness of our cultural environment plays an important role in enabling and enriching our own creativity. In this sense cultures support and shape our mental environment in ways like the physical and biological world supports and shapes our bodily environment. Absent either, we would not exist.
A culture is defined by the networks of commonality shared among its members. But even if they share the same ones, individual members of a culture often weigh these commonalities differently. There are American Christians who put being American ahead of being Christian, and American Christians who put being Christian ahead of being American, and yet all would call themselves both Americans and Christians. The same is true for we Pagans.
Cultures can overlap with other cultures (not all Pagans are Americans and not all Americans are Pagans) and a culture can also exist within another culture. These are called “subcultures,” but what counts as a subculture depends on what counts as a culture, which varies with the observer. From the perspective of people analyzing Western or Anglophone culture, American culture is a subculture. If American culture is the inclusive one, the unique culture of Taos, New Mexico, where I live, with its combining Hispanic, Anglo, and Indian cultures, none of who constitute a majority, exists as a subculture. Within American culture some subcultures are more based on belief than location. There are Mormon subcultures, NeoPagan subculture, subcultures of mountain climbers and chess players, and many more. If we consider American Indians, the Hopi constitute a subculture and within them there are traditional Hopi and Christian Hopi, with very different outlooks, and often values.
Additionally, when we define people as members of a culture, we are rarely surprised when, in some circumstances, they regard their membership in another culture as more important in a particular context. Are we Americans? New Englanders? Small farmers or business-people? New arrivals or long-time residents for many generations? And so on.
We are often members of many culture whose importance can vary with context. For example, my NeoPagan subculture in some ways shares more in common with non-Western Pagan cultures than with mainstream American and European cultures, and in other ways shares more in common with mainstream American and European cultures than with any non-western culture. Which set of identifications should matter most, and who makes that decision?
The ecosystem model helps us to understand these intricate patterns of distinction and inclusion. Like cultures, a biological ecosystem is also a network, all of whose components are engaged in a complex process of mutual adaptation that creates a discernible pattern even though no one planned it that way and every element in it is changing.
As within a culture, a biological ecosystem’s identifying pattern emerges from the relationships among its parts, and while the parts are always changing, the pattern persists. A oak savanna remains an oak savanna even if every plant living there at one time has passed away, to be replaced by others. Aspen on the Eastern side of the Cascades exist within a different ecosystem than do aspen within the Colorado Rockies. We recognize ourselves as fellow Americans when we read Alexis deTocqueville’s Democracy in America, even though no one living then has been alive for well over a century and many details about American life have changed dramatically: slavery existed, women did not have the vote, the economy was overwhelmingly agricultural, and communication across distances was slow. But, especially for Euro-Americans, many of us recognize ourselves when we read him.
The only complete ecosystem we know of is earth. But within it are rain forest ecosystems, some of which are tropical and some temperate. Within a rain forest we can examine the ecosystem of a river, such as the Amazon. The Amazon also extends above rainforests into the high alpine ecosystems of the Andes. The Amazon rainforest is maintained in significant part by Saharan dust, which supplies important nutrients carried by wind across the Atlantic. Ecosystems overlap and interweave. The ecosystem we focus on is defined by our interests and other than the earth itself, has no truly independent existence. Like cultures.
Some non-native species fit easily into established ecosystems, others are very disruptive. In time the ecosystem’s patterns adapt to include newcomers, transform or extirpate them, or they change into a different ecosystem. The same holds for cultures. Pueblo people, Hispanics, and Anglos have all influenced one another in Taos.
Cultures are no more without stresses and tensions that are ecosystems. Cultures are not seamless wholes, and the bigger the cultural unit we are describing the more this is the case. While they share common histories of subjugation and exploitation by European invaders, Native Americans cultures at least as distinct as Italians and Danes, often more so. Many have long histories of mutual animosities. For example, conflict between the Lakota and Blackfeet was so intense many outside observers thought the smaller Crow would be annihilated. (19-20)
Within particular tribes there will be groups nearly as opposed. The more traditional Native American differ from those who have adapted Christianity to their needs. And within these groups there will be further divisions. In his history of the Crow Indians, Rodney Frey writes
Because the Sun Dance religion recognizes, and even encourages, individual interpretation and realization within the spiritual, no dissonance generally arises when individuals hold contrasting understandings of the nature of the cosmos . . . .the need for a consensus on cosmology is subordinate to the function of the religion as a means to the spiritual. (67)
So far as I know, this characteristic applies to most traditional Native American spiritual traditions. Some traditionals, believe it is fine to teach Whites, and others disagree.
Asking who ‘speaks for’ a culture is like asking who speaks for an ecosystem. No one does. To say those who are most powerful speak for their culture privileges power and would be rejected if said of our society. The same holds in others as well. If someone claims to, there will be other cultural members who think that person lacks authority to do so.
To summarize my conclusions to this point, culture is a label we apply to incredibly complex networks of relationships between people sharing certain identifying commonalities, but doing so in individually distinct ways. Unlike people, cultures are not centers of action, but rather provide contexts within which many such centers act. Cultures are very real, but they are real in a very tricky way for Western culture to grasp. Richard Dawkins’ concept of a meme helps get us on firmer ground and leads us to some very surprising discoveries.
III. Memes as organisms in cultural ecosystems
I used to think Richard Dawkin’s term, “meme,” was simply a fancy word for “idea.” I now realize I was mistaken. Memes are ideas or actions in their social context, and never private thoughts that live or die with me. Broadly defined, a meme is any mental creation, considered in its capacity as an independent entity that survives, declines, adapts or mutates over time depending on the mental energy people supply them as part of a culture.
As I have come to understand them, they open us to the venerable occult concept of a thought form, and, especially when considered together, memes and thought forms transform how we might think of ourselves and societies. But before taking that step, I need to explain what a meme is from a secular context, and why it is important.
Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ from ‘gene,’ the basic building block from which complex life emerged through evolutionary processes. Genes have been described as ‘selfish,’ but, catchy as that phrase is, it has led to misunderstanding Dawkins’ meaning. A gene does not have a self, but if it did, and wanted to replicate, it would act as successful genes do, because genes that replicate more prolifically are the ones that produce evolution. Unselfish behavior such altruism and parental care, can evolve via this process through kin selection or reciprocal altruism.
Many major biologists today argue that there is more to evolution than this, but at least the ones I have read say Dawkins’ describes a central part of the evolutionary process. Some major figures such as E. O. Wilson and Richard Prum modify Dawkins’ original formulation in exciting ways,but not in ways influencing my argument here.
Now, on to memes.
Ideas in their social context, such as democracy, justice, equality, god, and marriage, are memes. But some memes are not words and may lack any identifiable clear meaning at all, such as the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th. So is shaking hands. Symbols, such as our flag, are also memes, and their meanings here can be contradictory. Memes are patterns of mental energy that influence our behavior and are sustained within cultural networks existing independently of any particular individual.
A meme is not a physical thing, though it can shape what physical things do. Nor is it mental in the sense of existing solely within our heads. It exists independently of each of us, but not from all of us. In return, while we can separate ourselves from some memes, we can never separate from all of them. A cultural ecology provides a coherent pattern of meanings and practices within which we live, most of which we accept. We are as much its creation as they are ours.
Memes populate the cultural ecosystem, enabling us to be social beings with a language sharing mutually understandable meanings so we can communicate beyond simple signals. When we uncritically accept them, as we usually must, from a meme’s perspective we are their tools, giving them mental energy and helping them replicate. For us, they are just a part of the reality within which we live, and in the process of living, we reproduce some of them.
Memes as organisms
From this perspective, memes are mental organisms that, along with us, exist within a cultural ecology. Within this ecology memes can replicate, adapt, mutate, go extinct or simply go dormant for a time, using our minds as the means for their preservation and dissemination. Memes replicate by attracting the mental attention they need to survive and increase. They do this within individual minds that then spread them to other minds through words or other actions. A meme’s success or failure rests on the degree it is picked up by many people. But memes are independent from any particular individual mind.
Is a meme “alive?” Their frequent comparison with viruses is a useful guide here. Viruses exist on the borderline of life and not-life, as they depend on cells to reproduce. By themselves they are not considered alive. A meme is the same in the mental realm. And like viruses, to persist they must ‘infect’ hosts and adapt to overcome barriers to their spread.
The common language regarding viruses is mostly negative, but the reality is more complex. Scientists have discovered while some viruses cause illnesses, others play an important positive role in biological evolution. Memes play such a role in human evolution- and like viruses, they can also cause ‘infections’ that threaten a culture’s survival.
Necessary as they are for a complex society to arise, a meme might have a number of meanings, depending on its particular context. Think of “bad” and “wicked,” which still have their traditional meanings, but in a different context have the opposite meaning. Even so, the impact of that meaning is connected to the traditional one. Otherwise we would just say “good.” Over time, a meme rarely used in its once common form, like “wicked,” could in time come to be a synonym for “very good” as its use in different contexts changes. Translators can be driven crazy by this kind of thing, but it is also why we describe a language as “alive.”
When we repeat a meme, it may not mean to others what we mean when use it. But the more it is used, the greater its memetic success. It possesses a field of meanings and, like “wicked,” its dominant meaning can evolve within that field. Consider how the meaning of marriage has changed over time to become a celebration of loving commitment- the organism had evolved, and as it did it influenced the larger cultural ecosystem, so that interracial and later gay marriages became possible, neither of which played a role in its original change.
We are not merely replication agents for memes. We can also evaluate particular memes, even if always in the context of the others, and decide to accept, change, or reject them. Here is the point where human creativity enters in, leading to a meme changing or even abandoning one of its meanings. It is also where new memes arise: we give them birth and they are then set free to flourish or not, independently from us.
Our ability to change, empower, or dis-empower memes at the individual level frees us from being simply their vehicles for expression. When we step outside a meme and consider it critically, or creatively if we continue to use it, the meme becomes our vehicle replicating our influence and contribution throughout society rather we theirs. We have changed it, like a mutation, and that change might help it spread more widely, generate another meme, or cause it to go extinct, if people reject it. As individuals, our independence is real but partial, and we each play a role in how a meme maintains or changes its meaning. We and memes are interactive agents powered by our mental energy, and over time both they and we coevolve together.
Far from being centers of society, we are organisms sharing a mental realm with memes, and society is the collective creation of people and memes. Again, this is like a biological ecosystem. (As a Pagan I know more is going on, but we don’t need to go there now.)
Most of the time, we flow pretty effortlessly within a network of meanings, without really thinking about them. For example, in normal conversation we rarely if ever pause to choose our words – they emerge pretty automatically. If you want to experience the force of a powerful meme, refuse to shake someone’s hand when they extend it to you. For most of us, it takes a major act of will not to extend ours in return.
As ecosystems neither culture nor the memes within them are static. American culture is relatively patriarchal, has grappled for centuries with an entrenched racism, and, when convenient, from Indians to Iraqis and Afghans, has consistently acted aggressively towards militarily weaker peoples. As a young boy, I initially imbibed the memes that contained these values largely unnoticed, and experienced them as linked with other dimensions of our culture which I had learned to admire. For example, our military preserved “freedom.” But like all cultures, ours is not monolithic. As we grow up we encounter competing memes, or see contradictions between different memes that once seemed in harmony.
I still consider myself an American but now support feminism, oppose racism, and have a long record demonstrating, speaking, and writing against American military aggression. These changes emerged from my encountering and noticing contradictions and deciding between them. The mix of memes that contribute to my self-identification as an American has changed in some respects though not in others. If the same happens in enough Americans, the culture will have changed, but still be American.
Consider the triumph of gay marriage. The meme ‘marriage’ is complex, containing different cultural meanings involved in the term. In the West, at one time, marriage was usually for creating a family, making an alliance, or assuring security in old age. Love didn’t matter. Montesquieu observed, a “husband who loves his wife is a man who has not enough merit to engage the affections of some other woman.” In such a context, gay marriage was unthinkable.
Once the meme, ‘marriage,’ incorporated love as a reason for its existence, the stage was set for a transformation. In our culture, ‘love’ quickly came to dominate all other reasons for marriage. A meme thousands of years old shifted in its characteristics. As it did, the unthinkable became thinkable. As this happened it began to transform other basic memes, and therefore the institutions expressing them. First, marriage as being for love legitimized interracial marriage in a racist society. Now it has legitimized gay marriage as well. This was a kind of mutation that changed the meme’s ideational ecosystem and the cultural institutions that arose from it. Because so much is linked, the evolution of a single meme can be a powerful force in a society.
IV: A living world: language, memes, and thought forms
Many memes are communicated through language, and, like any tool, language shapes how we look at the world when using it. Language facilitates some memes’ replication and makes the survival of others more difficult by shaping what relations are easy to notice and what relations require more effort. Different languages have different biases in this regard. One linguistic feature is particularly relevant here: do we experience our world primarily as objects, or primarily as processes and relations? Clearly there is value in both perspectives, but which gets emphasis is in no small part shaped by language.
For example, English and most other Western languages are noun heavy and verb light compared to many, perhaps all, Native American languages. These languages possess fewer nouns but many more verbs. Nouns are things, verbs are processes. Our basic sense of a thing is it needs an outside force to act. This bias once encouraged scientists to think of animals and the human body as machines. Most people have grown beyond this today, but the bias remains, as in the perpetual debate among scientists as to whether consciousness is really real.
By contrast, a verb is action. In the Potawatomie language 70% of the words are verbs whereas in English 30% are. This difference shapes how they and we see and experience the world. As Robin Kimmerer explains in Braiding Sweetgrass: “A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun it is defined by humans, trapped between shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa – to be a bay – releases the water from bondage and lets it live.” (55) Kimmerer describes Potawatomie and similar languages as languages of animacy.
Some might say this Native American approach is simply a subjective judgement importing human traits into the wider world. It is nice for writing poetry, but bad for understanding reality. However, this view ignores, or evades, how language shapes perceptions. We all have heard the saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is seen in terms of its potential for being a nail. The same applies more subtly with language. When everything is described in terms of being a noun, everything is a thing.
Kimmerer explains “Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has grey hair.’ . . . In English we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as an it. . . . So it is with Potawatomie and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.” (55) Indeed, from an animist perspective such as theirs, (or mine), the dichotomy subjective/objective is a cultural meme that very imperfectly describes the world and has led to much mischief.
We have a hint of how this transforms our vision when we consider that Buckminister Fuller received considerable attention during my college years when he titled a book I Seem to Be a Verb. At the time, Fuller’s title impressed many of us as profoundly mind-stretching, but he simply recognized a dimension of who we are that our language tends to hide. We are more process than thing.
Native languages such as Potawatomie recognize this dimension as more basic to reality than beings’ “thing-hood.” Many Pagans will have sympathy with this perspective, and it certainly frees us from making errors such as treating ideas as things.
Thought forms and memes
As I came to a better understanding of how very secular scientists talk about memes, their similarity with the occult idea of thought forms and many Wiccan’s ideas about how magick is frequently linked to intensity and focus of will grabbed my attention. The objection many have to treating memes as real is the claim they are simply subjective imaginings. But we know from some of our more successful magickal practices that they have very real impact on our most tangible actions. Those of us who have done much healing work with energy also know that intention and focus can influence not only our actions, they can influence what takes place in others’ bodies.
In magickal terms, thought forms are usually described as deliberately created centers of focused mental energy possessing existence independent from any particular person. One fascinating account us Conjuring Up Philip. They exist so long as they possess sufficient mental energy. If they are to last they must be able to renew the energy that gives them power- and often this is through being ‘fed’ by those who created them. But not all such phenomena are deliberate creations.
A meme is a center of mental energy with independent existence from any particular person, which exists so long as it is fed mental energy, but memes are not deliberate creations. They arise through a selective process that incorporates many minds in their maintenance. However if a meme attracts considerable emotional attention from a large number of people, and there is truth to occult understandings of thought forms, as I believe there is, then powerful memes will share important characteristics with thought forms. I am not the first to notice the similarities between a key concept in magickal traditions and an increasingly important concept in the social sciences. Two discussions I have found useful are here and here.
In occult terminology an egregore is also a mental field with certain qualities that arises from the more diffused focus of many people in a common context, whether it be a football game, a Nazi Party rally, or the energetic feel of a city or neighborhood. Like a meme it can exist independently of particular people and influence them. I have described how they are able to put those influenced by them into a kind of hypnotic trance.
Darth Vader is most certainly a meme. Very early in my study of magickal realities I was a close but somewhat outside observer of a person afflicted by the thought form Darth Vader. No one deliberately created such a thing, and yet it had the power to cause very physical damage to people.
Appreciating the subtle psychic dimensions of memes, particularly powerful ones, deepens our understanding not only of memes, it transforms our view of ourselves in society to an even deeper degree than did memes considered in purely secular terms.
We live within a natural ecosystem and we live within an ideational ecosystem. In both cases we and the contexts that shape us influence one another. Our freedom as human beings is in significant degree rooted in our ability to actively and deliberately understand and manipulate our natural ecosystem. Exactly the same point applies to the memetic ecosystem that provides us the tools by which and through which to think.
Our unique freedom comes when we do NOT identify with these memes. When we do identify with them, we become their tools, not they ours.
Memes and cultural appropriation
Here I will integrate these concerns into the debate over cultural appropriation.
We get into trouble when we subordinate ourselves to memes, and so blind ourselves to what might not fit them, as those who emphasize the wrongs of ‘cultural appropriation’ do.
A culture is not a thing. It is an ecosystem of memes and their co-evolutionary impact on the people who comprise it. Cultures are not monocultures. Their members will see many issues differently, even issues important to their cultural identity. Cultural identities are always dynamic in their details. For example, some people argue the term ”Indian” is a word imposed upon the people who inhabited this hemisphere before Europeans invaded. But many of these people have no problem with the term, and use it to assert their distinct identity from Euro-America. In Lawrence, Kansas, the most important university for ‘our’ indigenous peoples proudly proclaims itself as Haskell Indian Nations University.
Indian Nations. I find this a powerful statement affirming the worth of these peoples and their culture, not seeking assimilation or demonstrating cultural weakness. Note also the depiction of an eagle feather headdress. It was not a feature of significance for many tribes, for example, the Cherokee, and Mohawk, both of whom were major tribes and are still important. However, it was iconic in the popular eye for those plains tribes that were among the last to be conquered. The headdress has become a meme connected with its original cultural role among the Lakota and other peoples, but now it is also a universal symbol depicting Indians- in the eyes of many Indians as well as other Americans. In some contexts it no longer has the narrower cultural meaning it had for plains tribes, even for the plains tribes. The meme has a life of its own.
The headdress as symbol for Indians has broadened even farther. It includes the long-time celebrations of New Orleans’ “Black Indians,” with their roots in slavery and gratitude to tribes for having sheltered runaway slaves. To call this centuries old practice ‘cultural appropriation” demonstrates the toxicity of the term as a description of any social or cultural reality. On the other hand, to say it is an example of the progressive development of the meme of feathered headdresses as a symbol connecting with Indians is pretty obvious.
We live in a living world of multiple dimensions. In both biological and ideational dimensions, we are important but not controlling members. We share the ideational ecosystem with memes/thought forms, and they as much as we survive by acquiring energy from within the relevant ecosystem. We seek to flourish, and so do memes. And each does so through the other.
If we look at human history, people have always borrowed from cultures, regardless of whether one group was stronger than another. In the process the ideational environment for all people has been enriched. At the same time the boundaries of specific cultures always interpenetrate others, possibly excluding very small isolated tribes. Given porous boundaries it is only natural to expect some memes to replicate across them, and in the process of doing so, sometimes change. Just as happens with organisms in ecosystems.
In short the language of cultural appropriation is inadequate to understanding either cultures or the relations people enter in to with members of other cultures. Identifying people with, and subordinating them to, “culture” disempowers them for it is in our ability to separate ourselves from a meme that we have some agency with respect to it. It is sad that many good people are losing sight of the desirability of empowering people wisely, preferring instead to subordinate them to a rigid conception of culture that cannot adequately understand culture, ideas, or the people involved.
V: Replacing ‘Cultural Appropriation’ with Clear Thinking
I have argued culture is a network of living processes best understood as an ideational ecosystem. We are inhabitants of this ecosystem, as we are inhabitants of a biological one. As in biological ones, we are neither alone nor in charge. We share our cultural ecosystem at least with memes, and as minds, we coevolve with them. With this brief summary, let’s look again at the argument for ‘cultural appropriation.’
Flawed key assumptions of cultural appropriation arguments
The cultural appropriation model views the cultural world as objects that can be owned, controlled, given away, or stolen. Cultures are human creations and are valuable to their owners. Their value is lessened or lost when ‘appropriated’ or ‘stolen’ by others without their consent. However, these cultural possessions can be given to others, becoming their possessions as well. Our language biases us to see culture this way, a bias reinforced by our living within a capitalist society. Indeed, the closest modern analogy to ‘cultural appropriation’ is a copyright or patent, and when ownership is clear, whether it be an individual, family, or group, these tools offer a viable way to address those concerned about appropriation. But copyrights and patents are always temporary because people recognize that their justification is to enrich society as a whole, and so creators need to be supported in their efforts.
Ironically, perhaps, corporate capitalist enterprises are the only major modern institution actively seeking to turn copyrights and patents into permanently owned and controlled property. To the extent they succeed they impoverish us all. No concept could be farther from any traditional society’s outlook.
At the same time, people concerned with ‘cultural appropriation’ treat cultures as if they were unitary things. There is “Black culture,” a “Navajo culture,” and a “Mexican culture,” and what makes a culture Black, Navajo, or Mexican is what it possesses that other cultures do not. A style of music, a kind of sand painting, or celebrating Day of the Dead, are examples. When people within White American culture make use of these things they are ‘stealing.’ However, when a Black, Navajo, or Mexican, makes use of something unique to a dominant culture, let us say blue jeans or classical music, they are not stealing.
If mine is a fair description, this view contains four serious errors.
First, cultures have blurry edges, with memes flowing in both directions. As they enter another culture memes can change both it and themselves. Shinto influenced how Buddhism was practiced in Japan and in turn influenced by Buddhism. Encountering Bon changed how Buddhism was practiced in Tibet, and Bon was itself changed. While Zen and Tibet’s practices are both Buddhist, they are very different from one another.
Second, within a single culture different members will attach differing degrees of significance to the same practices. Consider the war bonnet symbol for Haskell Indian Nations University as an example. Cultures are not monocultures.
In response to this second issue, those concerned about ‘cultural appropriation’ often say a culture’s proper leaders should make those decisions. But anyone knowing much about any human group knows most of the time there are many divisions within them. The cultural elite at any moment will have its challengers, some of whom may become future elites. Again, a culture is not a thing, it is a process. On balance, the bigger the group the more this is true. Close to home: who speaks for Wicca? For Gardnerian Wicca? For Christianity? Outsiders privileging one elite over another impose a set of values that might be quite alien to many within that culture.
Third, and related to this issue, cultures are often comprised of many sub-cultures, and what counts as a subculture is not an objective category. An extraterrestrial anthropologist might first distinguish human culture from that of chimpanzees or ants. It might then differentiate human culture into many subcultures based on geography or whether they are foragers, agricultural or industrial. Or by some other externally applied criteria. Those with tribal identities can split as the Cheyenne did or combine, as the Haudenosaune (Iroquois) did, Through conquest many smaller groups can become one, as happened in Italy. Alternatively, what was once more or less one culture might fragment along existing lines that become more important to identity than a larger identity that once unified those lines. Consider the fragmentation taking place in the U.S. before the Civil War, or even today as an example.
Smaller subcultures can exist within a larger one, or overlap with several, such as the Pagan subculture of which we are all a part. We share some larger identities with the U.S. or other nation in which we live, but also share important identities with other Pagan societies, identities that we do not share with Christians or atheists in the U.S. or wherever else we live. Cultures are at least intertwined patterns of relationships of people and memes, and relationships are dynamic.
Fourth, while copyright and patent protections make sense for cultural practices which have recognized specifiable owners as individuals or organizations, the culture itself is not an organization let alone an individual.
By contrast my alternative description of cultures as human/mimetic ecosystems has no difficulties at all with any of these issues.
Taking memes seriously.
A meme has a life independent of those individuals making use of it, and so can develop in unpredictable ways, as with my discussion of ‘wicked’ becoming in some contexts a term of praise. Pepe the frog was created by an artist who is deeply opposed to how it was used by the fascist and racist right.
The same is true for terms like “culture” as a thing, a collectivity distinct from the individuals who comprise it. In actuality the language of cultural appropriation has reinvigorated this dimension of the term, but not in the way expected by those initially using it.
Ironically, White supremacists would agree cultures are discrete units and people from one do not have legitimate access to another without permission. They would be delighted if African cultural influences were eliminated from Euro-American culture (except perhaps barbecue and the banjo). Consider Peter Cvjetanovic, a White supremacist who traveled to Charlottesville from Reno. He explained:
I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture.“ He told Channel 2 News “It is not perfect; there are flaws to it, of course. However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland.
Cvjetanovic, and those like him, use the same frame of reference to ‘cultural integrity’, and same logic of dividing cultures sharply from one another, but with a different set of collectivist values. Their reasoning is that we are better off free of lesser cultures and their members. Unlike those concerned with cultural appropriation, they believe the superior culture should dominate the inferior. The language of cultural war and domination is the preferred terrain of the fascist right
This point illustrates the importance of understanding memes as independent from us. Treating cultures as independent things constitutes a meme, a very destructive one for human well-being. The idea might be created or emphasized by people for one reason, but once created, it has a logic of its own, and this meme emphasizes separation, and separation is easily shaped by ideas of purity and infection.
David Marcus, a conservative writing for The Federalist, an outfit I normally strongly disagree with, makes the same basic point.
Treating people equally has given way to making all of us ambassadors for our race. This is a classic theme in critical race theory, that people of color carry a burden of representation that white people do not. But foisting the baggage of representation onto white people doesn’t solve that problem. It makes it worse.
White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. The result of this tribalism will not be a catharsis of white identity, improving equality for non-whites. It will be resentment towards being the only tribe not given the special treatment bestowed by victimhood.
That we have come from different political, and probably other perspectives, to the same conclusion essentially proves my point:
Charlottesville has given us a taste of where this leads.
VI: Addressing the Real Issue: Power
What appeals to many people about the cultural appropriations model is its seeming sensitivity to the crimes committed against militarily weaker peoples by various Western nations, particularly by the United States. Once a people is subjugated, it is usually looked down upon by their conquerors. They and their customs are treated as inferior and best suppressed, or maintained as colorful curiosities for entertaining the more powerful. These are serious problems facing indigenous peoples and descendants of slaves today.
There are two separate dimensions to understanding these issues today. The first in itself is not bad: the growing ease of travel and communication allowing people even from the most far removed cultures to communicate and get to know one another. This is a massive increase in a millennia-long process. By encouraging cross-pollination between different cultures, it enriches human well-being.
The second issue is power. The abuse of power led to genocide, terror, robbery, destruction of families, and totalitarian efforts to destroy a people’s language, religion, and sense of themselves as a people. Sadly, the record of this country is no better and often worse than that of many other peoples.
BUT, and this ‘but’ is important, virtually every culture that has enjoyed a significant power advantage over its neighbors has abused that power and oppressed its neighbors. Abusing power is not a European trait or a White trait, or even a Christian trait, it is a human trait. The Lakota abused their power when they were top dog in their region. So did the Japanese, Aztecs, Incas, Iroquois, Zulu, Assyrians, and Chinese.
The solution is not to fight over who is entitled to what cultural values, nor to obsess over privilege, (an intimately related concept I addressed in a three part piece on Patheos: Part I, Part II, and Part III but rather to address the inequalities of power that lead to these abuses.
These issues can best be addressed in the language of rights and respect, not appropriation. Human rights are universal values that, however inconsistently, our Founders claimed should apply to all. Rather than carving humanity up into ever smaller tribes, recognizing the universality of rights welcomes all on a common ground of peaceful relations. The cynics will say this was never achieved, and they are correct, but to the degree it was achieved, here and elsewhere, the results have been good, and the best moments in our history have been when Americans sought to make them apply even better. The cynics are mentally lazy and morally obtuse.
These universal values provide a framework that, when honored, limits the damage differences among us can generate while maximizing safe spaces for cooperation. In this respect, they are like the rules of a game that prevent it from degenerating into a brawl among competing players. Thinking in terms of rights provides a foundation on which genuine conservatives, genuine liberals, and genuine progressives can find common framework, within which to argue and struggle for the superiority of our views. When that common ground of agreed upon rules is eliminated, differences degenerate into civil war, as we are witnessing around us today.
Ironically, they are also the chief protection for whoever is weakest. I am defending genuine liberalism, the belief that individuals are the fundamental moral unit in society, from which all its other dimensions get their value. As Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1932, during the years of growing fascism in the last century,
Liberalism—it is well to recall this today—is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural.
Rights and Respect
Both the rights we all have as human beings and the rights we have as members of a society are important. In the first case are rights applying equally to everyone, such as the right to speak freely and enter into voluntary cooperation with whomever we wish. In the second case, these rights should apply equally to everyone as a member of a common community, such as, for Americans, the right to trial by a jury of peers or the right to Medicare.
It is at this level that many of the issues so inadequately addressed by ‘cultural appropriation’ can be addressed. If a practice, such as a song, can be connected to ownership by specific individuals or membership groups, it can be trademarked or copyrighted. Others cannot use it without their permission, and there is legal enforcement available.
But once they enter the public realm and become memes, ideas cannot be owned. It they are copyrighted their owners can continue to seek to enforce them, but they almost immediately begin transforming and at some point the copyright becomes useless. The creator can copyright a song, but not the new approach to music that song embodies. At most the original sources if those memes can offer a seal of approval for those using them in their name, or bring charges against them for fraud.
There us another dimension here, one I believe is deeper than rights: that of respect. Respect is vitally important and difficult to define in the abstract. At its best respect must flow both ways. In a human context, respect is a relationship recognizing intrinsic value in another. In practice this means that if something matters to individual A, that carries weight for all who respect that person. It may or may not be enough to determine what I do, but it is not nothing. It means I will not treat religious and cultural symbols of great importance to someone disrespectfully in their presence – without good cause. That people within a culture value something is not what gives it value worthy of respect, it is its impact on rights, both universal and membership. Suttee and cliterectomies are not worthy of respectful treatment even if some people believe they are religiously required, because they violate individual rights.
Combined with a focus on eliminating the abuse of power, this ethical approach, focused on individuals and their actions, gives us all we need to address the legitimate complaints people have about how a cultures values are most appropriately treated by others.
The attempted murder of several Congressmen and shooting of one marks another step in the progressive dissolution of the U.S. occurring before our eyes. That the shooter could have been either from the right or the left indicates how close we have come to widespread political violence. more »
In an inexplicably naïve article Brendan Gauthier at Salon argued that Russia was the only country that seemed to want Donald Trump to be president. But rather than asking why this is so, or wondering what Russia might reasonably do to promote that outcome given that it is so, Gauthier simply repeated a conclusion from a NYT article that referred to unnamed FBI sources saying there was no Russian connection to Trump, at a time when the FBI is obviously seriously partisan. The Times did no more to offer reasoning for its conclusions than he did. Perhaps pride at being scooped by Slate and Mother Jones is the explanation for their openness to claims a careful reporter would want backed up.
What’s in it for Russia?
In fact Russia’s interest in Trump makes plenty of sense and does not involve Trump being a knowing conspirator serving Putin. It simply involves Trump being Trump- an exceptionally vain man who responds to flattery and with a fairly well established record of very poor business judgment. Further, what has already been uncovered makes perfect sense. Here’s why and how. However, it requires taking a Russian point of view.
Russia has a vested interest in weakening the US. more »
I was started along this line of thought while reading Kent Nerburn’s powerful, moving, painful and hauntingly beautiful The Wolf at Twilight: An Indian Elder’s Journey through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows. There are many levels to this book, perhaps more even than the author intended, for one that lies within the narrative throughout is the difficulty of people entering into and understanding other cultures from both sides. But for us Pagans it is particularly insightful in its depiction of the profound differences between a deeply Pagan view of life and the modern view. One of the most central of these distinctions is captured in the images of a line and a circle. more »
I have been both fascinated and appalled at how quickly mostly the political right has abandoned reason and evidence in favor of assertion and arrogance in discussing issues. Here is what I think is going on. I published it in Patheos.
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The Trance of Belief: Part I.
Most of the otherwise reasonably competent people we know who are global warming deniers will say science is a great force for good, but in this case scientists are in thrall to those seeking to enlarge government’s power over us. Most deniers are sincere in saying this. They are blind to the irrationality they demonstrate. Let me demonstrate this with an analogy.
A friend tells you worrisome symptoms you are showing indicate you might have something serious. You visit a physician and he explains you are seriously sick and need an operation. Not wanting an operation, you seek a second opinion, and see another doctor. She also tells you to get an operation. Desperate and fearful, you visit 8 more physicians. Seven echo the first two’s recommendations. However the tenth tells you the science is still out on interpreting those symptoms, and you might have nothing to worry about.
Does a reasonable person give the 10th opinion more weight than the other 9? Especially if the symptoms continue to increase?
The deniers’ logic supports arguing the 9 physicians advising an operation have bad motives. They are doing it for the money. But their claims are stranger than this. Atmospheric scientists distort their scientific work for the money but oil and coal corporations with billions at stake fund deniers from concern for the public good.
The complete irrationality is obvious to any sane person not in a trance.
And that is a clue I think to what has happened.
Some stage magicians are well known for their ability to put people in trance, where they subsequently act in ways they normally wouldn’t and see things that are not there. They can even do this in front of large numbers of people. Not every one is equally susceptible, but as the video demonstrates, many who are not even the magician’s targets are impacted.
Hypnosis is resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted as true. The person’s attention is removed from normal awareness, and encouraged to passively accept what it is told as true. As such hypnosis shares much in common with socialization.
When we are socialized into our culture we initially accept much as unquestioned and often we do so without even knowing we are. In a sense we are hypnotized to see the world a certain way. Unlike hypnotism, our early socialization does not have to override much, the message is usually less focused than the stage magician’s demonstrations, and importantly, societies contain enough contradictions that when we notice one we begin being able to make a space of freedom for ourselves.
The more the socialization consistently conforms to a specific message, the harder it is to free oneself from it. As a saying attributed to the Jesuits goes “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Particularly if the child accepts a worldview carrying powerful emotional energy, it is very difficult for that child to outgrow it later in life.
I want to suggest many global warming deniers are in a hypnotic trance. And that the issue goes well beyond denying the scientific consensus for no good reason.
Of tools and ideas
We usually think of our ideas as ways in which we try and understand our world. They are our tools.
But ideas are more than tools.
A tool can shape our perceptions, like the old adage when the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. But if a better hammer comes to our attention, or maybe a screw driver, we generally quickly exchange the first for the second if it will work better for us. We do not identify ourselves with our tools. With few exceptions they are simply our instruments, and that is why they are valuable to us. I have a hammer, but I am not a hammer. It makes no sense to say I am loyal to my hammer. But my meaning is clear when I say I am loyal to an idea or when I am a “conservative,” “liberal,” “Pagan,” or “Christian.” We identify with an idea, but not with our tools.
There is something subtle but important going on here.
Ideas are fueled by mental energy, and any Witch or other Pagan with much training in these matters knows mental energy plus intent is at the core of magick. Somehow focused mental energy interacts with more subtle realms to bring our normal experience into greater harmony with what our working sought to accomplish. Such workings take on added power when a coven or other small group adds several minds and more mental energy to the project.
If you have followed me this far the rest shakes out in a pretty straightforward fashion.
When we adopt an idea we can either regard it as the best approximation we have so far for understanding something, which keeps it our tool, or we put mental and emotional energy into it, particularly when we identify ourselves with it. The more emphatically we do this the more that idea has a “hold” on us and the more firmly we become attached to it. We enter into a trance.
Trance is a important term most of us don’t know much about. Trance is often defined as focus or immersion in a dissociated plane where at least some normal cognitive functions, such as reason or volition, are temporarily disabled. It is usually thought of as a negative state, which is not my meaning. For example, we are in a trance when we are so deeply immersed in doing art that the outside world disappears or becomes negligible. But whatever the trance, it separates us for a time from our immersion in normal consensus reality. In a hypnotic trance we are subject to the idea implanted in us by the hypnotist. As that Youtube video demonstrated, that idea shapes our perceptions to fit its message.
When we begun to identify with an idea we begin to perform a kind of magickal working, but unintentionally and on ourselves. We are subject to the idea rather than the idea being subject to us. We are its tool, it is not ours.
When we become the tool of an idea our capacities are devoted to defending the idea, and when the idea is seriously challenged, or even exposed to the possibility of a serious challenge, the mind turns off. Some excuse is always given. The subject is changed, the point raised is ignored, or the person making the challenging point is criticized rather than the point refuted. Whatever the excuse, it always means the idea will not be exposed to a serious challenge.
Ideologues, whatever their views, are people in a trance. This is why evidence and rational arguments make so little headway in discussions with them. I am not saying all ideologies are the same in content, only that they are the same in how they shape their adherents’ stand towards them. In all these cases the person has become the idea’s tool for manifesting rather than the idea becoming the person’s tool for understanding.
When we adopt an ideology and identify with it we voluntarily enter into a hypnotic trance where our mental energy goes to feed the idea rather than the idea serving us. The world looks different to us than it did before. Like a hypnotized person we do not see arguments against our position and interpret our experience to fit what our ideology says is the case. Facts appear unimportant or somehow distorted. If a moral failing is pointed out the answer is either to deny it or claim the other side does it too.
Consider Dennis Hastert, once a powerful Speaker of the House and third in line for the Presidency. Hastert is now known to have sexually abused some of his male students. When one later blackmailed him, Hastert violated banking laws when he paid him $900,000. Now that Hastert has pleaded guilty to all this, prominent right wing supporters are writing letters to the judge asking for leniency.
Reportedly none actually discuss what Hastert did both long ago and recently, but instead seek to change the subject. For example, Tom Delay, himself a former Speaker, wrote
I have observed him in many different and difficult situations, . . . He has never disappointed me in any way. He is a man of strong faith that guides him. He is a man of great integrity. He loves and respects his fellow man. I have never witnessed a time when he was unkind to anyone. He is always giving to others and helping anyone including me so many times.
DeLay closed saying “We all have our flaws, but Dennis Hastert has very few. He is a good man that loves the lord. He gets his integrity and values from Him. He doesn’t deserve what he is going through. I ask that you consider the man that is before you and give him leniency where you can,”
The judge was unmoved and gave Hastert 15 months, considerably above the six-months recommended by prosecutors. He said “Nothing is worse than using serial child molester and speaker of the house in the same sentence,”
One could argue DeLay’ss letter was just evidence of his cynicism and hypocrisy. I think it is more interesting than that.
I suspect DeLay did not really see Hastert’s crimes, either the early ones or the later ones. Their moral and legal significance did not penetrate his understanding. That he so often invoked religion and the Lord in his letter tells me this is the hypnotic prism through which DeLay views the world. Hastert is a fellow battler for the Lord. Given the contents of that prism, acting ruthlessly against God’s ‘enemies’ is as legitimate as not really seeing crimes by God’s allies.
Jeff Sharlet has written careful studies of “The Family” a powerful secretive theocratic organization in Washington with many Congressmen and Senators as members. It’s leader is Doug Coe. Sharlet describes how Coe’s son and heir apparent, David, explained what it meant to be a divinely chosen leader
[David Coe] asked a young man who’d put himself, body and soul, under The Family’s authority, “Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think he was a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because as a member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the “new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.
Humanity has always had sociopaths, but when we see a great many people involved in an organization with such views sociopathy alone can not explain it. Trance can. And the term does not apply just to elites. It underlies tribalism, the collective trance people enter into when they feel their society or way of life is attacked.
Most Americans who endorse torture despite the proven fact it does not provide the information it is supposed to. They are blind to the evidence. In debates I have seen on line torture supporters either ignore the evidence or change the subject. They do not analyze it. Ever.
A weapon of control and domination
Our natural susceptibility to trance makes us vulnerable to manipulation. If we accept someone’s framing of an issue, and accept an identity they offer us, and those pushing this message have the resources to immerse us in the message, a bubble of reinforcement arises that continually strengthens the trance. Movements that subordinate truth and reason to the power of an idea continually seek to create walls of distrust between their members and alternative communities and views.
Global warming deniers exist within such a bubble. This is why they are in so many cases impervious to the evidence. Scientists are not mistaken, they are ill-intentioned. Since scientists are clearly not in control of the world, they must be servants of those who are. The spreading of fear or disdain of all outside the deniers’ bubble is essential to maintaining it, and those with plenty of money at stake are happy to fund what it takes.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Part II will discuss how we can better appreciate the strengths as well as the weaknesses of trance, and how not to become the tool of an idea.
Spontaneous orders are natural outgrowths of liberal principles and a better understanding of them sheds light on a fateful split between nineteenth-century American and European liberal traditions that remains very relevant today. This essay is my most complete discussion of liberalism, political theory, and spontaneous orders to date.
From The Independent Review, v. 16, no. 2, Fall, 2011, 173-197 Download
On January 23, 2016, I gave this paper as the keynote speaker at the Conference of Current Pagan Studies, in Claremont, California. It was well received and I want to make it available to anyone who is interested.
Social Justice from a Pagan perspective
What is Social Justice?
Writings on social justice comprise a small intellectual industry, and my paper does not pretend to cover even its leading edge. Instead I will give an abstract working definition I think most of you will find reasonable, setting the stage to explore how Pagan religions might add additional insight to this much discussed concept.
Briefly, justice is fairness and social justice is fairness towards all in society. Unfairness is being treated worse than another without an appropriate reason. This is unjust.
Fairness is not simply a subjective construct even if its outer limits are contestable. Fairness emerges from the reality of what it is to be a social being. Non-human social animals have been shown to have a strong sense of fairness, at least when it is they who are treated unfairly. (Bekoff, 2009, 127-8) We have no trouble understanding why they reacted as they did. If there is anything unique about the human sense of fairness, it is that it extends beyond where our self-interest and relationships connect, to embrace strangers we have never met, including future generations and those in the past, acknowledging and even trying to address previously unfair situations.
Social justice exists when equal people are treated equally and fairly. In the modern world fairness is linked to equality. All people are considered equal in legal status. On the other hand, as fair rules for games demonstrate, people can be treated fairly and some still do better than others. Among individuals or in society, justice need not include equal outcomes.
Assuming general agreement so far, can a contemporary Pagan perspective shed additional light on what constitutes a more just state of affairs and how to approach it more closely? I believe so. A Pagan perspective illuminates issues often lost within monotheist or secular ones, However any arguments we make must be in universal terms if we expect others to take them seriously. more »