The twisted history of guns and race

Hat tip to Chas Clifton for pointing out that in the last post I was remarkably unclear about the historical issues around guns and race. I neither summarized the linked pieces adequately nor presented my own thoughts with sufficient clarity. This is an attempt to rectify that.

Let me add a further caveat that I am acutely aware of my own ignorance surrounding this issue’s historical roots. I am only beginning to educate myself about it and apologize in advance for errors that I make. I invite further responses and constructive criticism.

As far as my limited understanding goes, in the Reconstruction period, free African-Americans armed themselves, particularly to defend themselves from whites who wanted to kill, terrorize, and control them. Thus ex-Confederates and parts of society that sympathized with them were interested in limiting access to guns as part of keeping African-Americans disempowered. At the time, the Democratic party was generally the party of southern whites and was more against African-American rights, while the Republicans were the party of the north and were more pro African-American rights.

Today, the typical political alignments are different. The parts of the country that see themselves as the inheritors of the Confederacy are the most vocally pro-gun-rights. The Republicans have southern whites as their core constituency, and are the party that opposes social programs to benefit minorities and hosts those who use racist dog-whistles. The Democrats are the party of urbanites, women, minorities, and socially progressive programs.

I linked to three separate things in the previous post and didn’t clarify which part of this each thing related to.

Most importantly, Winkler’s piece in the Atlantic begins to address some of this complicated history of guns, legislation, and attitudes.

Horowitz’s piece compares the ideologies of pro-slavery politicians before the Civil War and pro-gun politicians today, arguing that there are similarities in the uncompromising expansionism of their positions. He was not arguing that the Confederates were all about gun rights.

Today’s conservatives who see themselves as the inheritors of the Confederacy do tend to be the loudest proponents of gun rights. I get very, very sick of these and similar arguments that people are amassing guns in order to defend themselves against “tyranny” from the federal government. I linked to Goblinbooks’ sarcasm in order to reinforce the point that since the South couldn’t defeat the North way back in the 1800s, it is extremely unlikely that anybody today (black or white) could “defend themselves” against the federal government.

Then I tried to make a separate point in entirely too little space, and I think that’s where things got tangled up.

Given that in the Reconstruction period it was the ex-Confederate Democrats who were pro gun control, while today it is the Republicans (possibly neo-Confederates, or at least seeing themselves as the inheritors of that worldview) who are anti gun control, I wondered whether the transformation from Democratic allegiance to Republican allegiance and the transformation from anti-guns to pro-guns were at all related.

I am not saying there is something inherently linked about “Republicans love guns!”

I’m saying that as far as I understand it in relatively recent times the Republican party decided to transform itself by positioning itself as staunchly defending “tradition” – notably white hegemony. This is also known as the Southern strategy. The party of Lincoln became the home of Strom Thurmond.

I think it’s pretty clear that the way white hegemony has been questioned and challenged contributes to a segment of society feeling insecure and becoming afraid of persecution, especially by the federal government, which was part of what the Southern strategy capitalized on and encouraged. I’m wondering whether that same feeling has played a role in an increasing desire by these folks to arm themselves while support for gun control is fairly high among minorities and urban liberals. I have no idea if these things were causally connected. I’m still trying to figure out if they’re temporally connected.

Have I made things more clear, or hopelessly muddled?

Review: Gardner, High Magic’s Aid

Gardner, Gerald. High Magic’s Aid. Godolphin House, Hinton WV, revised edition 1996. Originally published 1949 under pen-name of Scire. Paperback, 238 pages.

(Please note: the version that I read is available online. It was typeset by and has a few pages of added material from Gavin and Yvonne Frost. A new edition was apparently released in 2010.)

This book is simply awful. If you don’t absolutely have to read it, don’t bother. I’m sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s true. It’s not an attack on Gardner or Gardnerian tradition, it’s an assessment of the book as a book.

This book is like a sausage: it reads as if Gardner ground up average inaccurate meso-pagan romanticisms mixed with the Key of Solomon, added naked women, flagellation, and “witchcraft” for spice, and encased it in a thin film of plot from a badly-written fanfic of Ivanhoe, tied off with a thin thread of fiction related to English Church history.

Because this is a work of fiction, my review is going to be a bit different; I’m not going to summarize the whole plot the way I summarize the contents of nonfiction works. It is unavoidable, however, that the rest of this review will contain some spoilers. Consider yourself warned. Additional trigger warnings for nudity and sexual assault.

Most of the action centers on Thur Peterson, an apothecary-magician, and two brothers who enlist his help in reclaiming their rightful inheritance. There’s even a beautiful “Jewess,” who is a brief distraction, although of course the elder brother ends up marrying the beautiful witch at the end, after they’ve retaken the castle etc etc. Happily ever after and all that.

I would have fewer problems with this book if it were presented as a fairy tale, although it would still be badly written. One thing is certain; it is wildly ahistorical. Two particular anachronisms stick out: although it’s explicitly set in the reign of King John, and more precisely in 1205 (p 17, p 200), there are references to “the spotted death” and many stories of Christian flagellants. The Black Death didn’t arrive until the 14th century. There’s a slight chance that he meant smallpox, which did indeed arrive in England during the Crusades, but other references to “plague” make me pretty sure he was thinking of the bubonic plague. The very first instances of Christian flagellants were not until 90 years after Lackland died, and then they were not in England. The association between extreme flagellant cults and the Black Death reinforces my impression of bad medieval fantasizing.

Aside from that, it’s oddly written in that sometimes it stops and addresses the reader in completely jarring ways. At one point, a brief recap of the previous chapter is given, as if the reader might have forgotten the previous 20 pages in the middle of a paragraph. At another point, Gardner writes:

It is the fashion today to laugh at the magus and his pretensions, to picture him as either a charlatan or a doddering old fool, and bearing the slightest resemblance to the men who were in fact the scientists of the day, who gave us alcohol, but not the atom bomb. (p 159)

And then he blithely goes back to detailing the placement of the incense burners and the procedures for the Solomonic workings under way. Trenchant though these observations may be, it is bad writing and a lack of editing. Instances like this make me wonder if the story was first told aloud, then transcribed and fleshed out without being fully rewritten as a coherent work of prose.

As for the magic in the book, it is in fact nearly all “high magic,” as mentioned in the title, which is completely distinct from witchcraft. Rituals are led by Thur in the style of the Key of Solomon and other high medieval grimoires, complete with significant influences from the Kabbalah, writing in Hebrew, and the conjuring of spirits to materialize themselves in incense smoke. It’s worthwhile to note that the high medieval grimoires and the Key of Solomon in particular didn’t come into existence until the 14th or 15th centuries, so this kind of magic is also completely anachronistic to Gardner’s imaginary early medieval setting.

The witch, Morven, plays a subsidary role throughout. She is a gateway through which power flows, and her athame is absolutely necessary for Thur to make the magical sword with which he does his magical operations, but other than that her main purposes are to be naked and keep the incense burners filled while he does all the work.

Yes, there’s nakedness, a fair amount of it. The rules work sort of like this: common people like being naked, especially outside on an English night (season not specified). Witches have to be naked. People doing magic are naked, except when they’re not (more on this later), because nakedness is important to magic, as well as having fun, all of which are looked down upon by the Church, which goes to show how good they all are.

The other purpose, besides being naked, that Morven serves is to initiate all three central characters into the witch-cult, which is “an ancient brotherhood pledged to mutual aid.” If you think this sounds like the Masons, and that Gardner’s recensions of the rituals look an awful lot like Masonic rituals, you’re on the right track. The rituals that follow are very similar to what the Farrars lay out – the Five-fold Kiss, binding, oath taking, light flagellation, and so on. You’ll learn a lot more about the whole thing from the Farrars than from this work, in fact.

Then, far from being about “mutual aid,” it becomes totally and completely clear that the whole point of the men being initiated is to allow them to exercise power over the common people. Morven “agreed that it would give them greater power over the brethren, few of whom ever advanced beyond the triangle.” (p 187, see also p 180-1) The general idea of the witch-cult being about joy, nature, and fertility seems completely disconnected from the rituals of initiation, which are all about power and ceremonial-type magic.

Once they get the authority to force the commoners to support them in assaulting the castle, they take the castle, Thur dies, and the elder brother finally decides to marry Morven, remembering a saying:  “‘Women and castles are much the same.’ He seized her in his arms and his lips sought hers, she struggled a minute, then hers went on his, eagerly.” (p 209) After this romantic little assault, they are inescapably deeply in love, and she consents to marry him in a Christian ceremony.

Just before the end, there is an odd little side-plot appended. A local monk named Stephen realizes that Thur is doing magic, and blackmails Thur into doing magic on his behalf, so that he can get the power he wants. Stephen objects, however, to having Morven be naked while himself and Thur are robed during the rite. Thur proceeds to give Stephen a lecture about how witches have to work naked, but more importantly, she has to be naked in order for Thur and Stephen to learn to control their minds so they can’t be distracted. (p 197-8)

Thus, the whole book is in two minds about the entire subject of nudity. On the one hand, it’s natural and good because it is natural, but on the other hand, it is also a source of distraction – potentially very bad and dangerous! – that men must use to learn to discipline themselves, so that nakedness becomes of no importance whatsoever. In addition, the person who must be naked, and who does so to put forth power, is clearly in a subordinate position to the magus in all of the ceremonial magic situations. The initiation rituals are not exactly like that, but they’re not an instance of Morven taking control, either.

Morven also only speaks briefly about the witch-cult’s ideas of divinity, while Thur will go on and on about God, clearly the Judeo-Christian singular divinity. This deity is presented as the ultimate arbiter of what is good or not; on the whole, the witch-cult is never presented as a viable, coherent alternative system of belief or practice. They’re sort of animist Christians, or the poor oppressed people who show how evil the Church is, but they’re not some hidden survival that’s maintaining its independence in secrecy. This melding of beliefs may be one of the more reasonable things Gardner presents, historically, but there are so many incidents in the book that are directly contrary, and hence totally unreasonable, that the result is just absurd.

As the final example of the primacy of ceremonial magic, consider the ending, where Stephen says goodbye to Morven. He turns out to be Stephen Langton, a real figure in English Church history who was pivotal in resisting John Lackland and making the Magna Carta happen. He rides off into the sunset, “… to fulfil his destiny with the aid of magic’s high art as she had fulfilled hers.” (p 220)

So the real point of the book has been for Morven to be a tool for men and get married, and for Stephen to go off to become a famous Christian archbishop, all through ceremonial magic. If this was a murder mystery, witchcraft would be nothing more than a red herring. The book lives up to its title by being about ceremonial magic, but it has not retained any value in terms of relevance to Wicca.

There’s nothing of artistic value here that makes it worth reading for its own sake. If you’re an antiquarian or researching the roots of the Craft, you might be intrigued by it, but it is neither a foundational text for Wicca nor “a good yarn” as the Frosts dub it on the back cover. It’s a muddled meso-pagan mess.

Anger and courage

Today, I am an angry Witch. It’s the kind of anger that is born out of hope, the anger that is twin to courage. If you don’t want to join me in anger, I invite you to join me in courage.

Star Foster wrote an excellent piece with the title “I am not an angry Witch.” She tells a story of how a founder of her trad used anger – righteous anger over being the object of prejudice – to do strong, amazing work in founding the trad and changing those attitudes. Star rightly says:

Anger is not a bad thing. It is fuel, it is propulsion, it is spark. Used and expressed, anger can push us to accomplish great things. …

Getting angry didn’t make [the founder] an angry person. An expression of or acknowledgement of anger doesn’t make someone an angry person. Because when you say “angry person” you mean “bitter person” or “malicious person.” That’s not what Witchcraft is about. A Witch does not stew in bitterness or become malicious. Bitterness and malice are for those who feel helpless, and a Witch is never helpless. A Witch is conscious of his or her own power, is aware and respectful of the power in those around her, and when moved by a just anger, knows how to channel the power of others and their own to constructive means.

I am not bitter. I am not malicious. I am angry.

I am angry that the NAR wants to take away my rights, my freedoms, my religion. I am angry that they have found politicians who will work with them to undermine these fundamental tenets of American democracy. How dare they?

And I am also angry at those who would deny or diminish the importance of this movement’s efforts. Are you waiting to see the whites of their eyes?

I am not trying to make people afraid; I am trying to make them aware. If I turn out to be wrong about all this, and the Christian Dominionists are cuddly little pluralists who support my right to my religion (and several other crucial aspects of my life), I will be the first one to celebrate. I will eat my words, gladly and joyfully.

But the problem is that this isn’t primarily about my words: it’s about the Christian Dominionists’ words. I am taking them at their word that they want to convert all Americans to Christianity, that they want to institute a theocracy (even if they don’t want to call it theocracy), up to and including the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath.

I am taking them at their word because when forced-birthers say that abortion is murder, they have been true to their word by supporting bills that would charge not just the doctor but the woman who has an abortion. In fact, some of them would make each and every miscarriage the scene of a criminal investigation – potentially punishable by death – until proven otherwise.

Do the majority of anti-choicers support this? No. But the smaller minority has been extremely successful in making coalitions with and coopting the larger movement. And as a result, a much larger part of the anti-choice movement has become radicalized in ways that I would never have imagined ten years ago.

Although draconian bills like the above have been defeated, measures like the “Heartbeat bill,” which will result in serious illness for many women and death for some, even when there is no question of “saving” a fetus, have a serious chance of being passed. Anti-choice groups have also said that where they can’t make abortion illegal, they’ll make it impossible to get. They have been as bad as their word in that area, too.

The fight for women’s rights has become a real battleground with a very real chance of death. I can see the whites of the eyes of those who would take my life. I don’t want to get any closer.

The struggle for freedom of religion has not yet become a battleground in the same way. But when conservative Christians with increasing amounts of political power and influence declare war, and adopt warfare metaphors, I take them at their word. When they announce that they will revolutionize American society and convert everyone to Christianity, I take them at their word that they will use all their power to do so.

Do I think I am in danger from a new American Inquisition? No. But I do think that the tenuous gains of religious liberty for minority religions in the last thirty years are at risk of being rolled back, all the way back to the 1950s or earlier. When I look at how much has been accomplished in rolling back women’s rights to reproductive freedom, and I see that minority religions are much less politically aware and organized than pro-choice women, I am afraid.

But I am also hopeful. And as a result, I am angry, and I am courageous. Even when I am angry at those who should be my natural allies, I strive to channel that anger into actions that are just, that are courageous, and that will help all of us protect the freedoms we hold so dear.

Today, I am an angry Witch, and that anger is fuel for my courage. I think that’s a good thing, and I invite you to join me. Even if your hope does not give birth to anger, let it create the courage to be aware, to participate in the political process, and to be ready to become more active in protecting those freedoms.

It is only through her beautiful daughters, anger and courage, that hope is able to overcome fear.

Review: Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess: A symbol for our time. HarperCollins, 1989. Paperback, 405 pages.

The effort to recognize and restore the place of female power, authority, and divinity, especially in areas of study like archaeology, prehistory, and history, is deeply important to women’s empowerment and our reimagining of the possibilities of Western culture. But there is good reason to think that in the first blush of excitement over the possibilities, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. Gadon, like many others, fell prey to the myth of matriarchal prehistory which Cynthia Eller has so capably exposed as not just inaccurate but an unstable foundation for women’s spirituality.

Let me say up front that I largely agree with Gadon’s descriptions of the dehumanization of women through modernity and patriarchal societies as documented in the historical record. But Gadon is determined to read that narrative back in an unbroken arc to prehistory, where the silent evidence of artifacts rather than texts is more accommodating of Gadon’s reinterpretations. By the end of the work it becomes obvious that Gadon really wanted to write about contemporary female artists and their reenvisioning and reclaiming of women’s bodies and women’s meaning. Those chapters may be valuable, but the majority of the book is devoted to pseudo-historical imaginings that have great potential to do harm.

Gadon’s historical errors and problems are pervasive. She cites Maria Gimbutas as an inspiration and takes Gimbutas’ often-discredited interpretations as authoritative. Gadon then presents these to the reader as if they were the predominant archaeological position. Similarly, Gadon bases an entire chapter on the theories of an archaeologist since disgraced for potentially smuggling antiquities and whose evidence for “the Great Goddess” and a matriarchal society was wholly discredited. Gadon’s reliance on these sources might have been barely excusable for a non-scholar twenty years ago, when she was writing, but our understandings of history and archaeology have developed significantly since then. Today’s readers need to be aware of these issues and look elsewhere for their information.

She also plays a neat shell game with visual evidence, asserting that similarly-described patterns in three different places have distinct meanings related to the goddesses she wants to identify: on page 43, diamonds and chevrons represent water, on page 49, diamonds are a sign of the vegetation goddess, and on page 53, bands of dots and zigzags are snakeskin designs. Similarly, bull horns are both symbols of masculinity and a representation of the lunar crescent – so is the moon a male symbol, too? In later chapters, Gadon slides from one goddess-figure into another, the snake and bird goddess(es) being sometimes separate and sometimes the same, but regardless, Gadon presents all evidence as supporting the pan-Goddess hypothesis.

This kind of sloppy scholarship does nothing more than convince me that interpreting prehistoric artifacts is an extremely difficult field in which it is easy to pick the possible interpretation that supports preexisting assumptions. She also conveniently ignores other possible interpretations. For example, rather than goddess figures, archaeologists might be unearthing Neolithic erotica, which does not necessarily mean that women were valued or powerful. I guarantee that an archaeologist digging up my current culture would find lots of representations of women, but that doesn’t mean women are running an idyllic goddess-worshipping matriarchy.

For someone who wants to imagine herself back in time, Gadon’s disconnection from any physical realities of the period is sometimes annoying and sometimes laughable. Her penchant for inappropriately syncretizing everything leads her to try to unify the rhythms of agricultural food production and those of hunter-gatherer production – in every bioregion and climate! – to support the idea of universal spring sacrifices. She has also apparently never seen winter wheat. (72) This is one more symptom of how she slides back and forth between the symbolic and the actual much too easily.

Gadon’s inaccuracies are not merely symbolic, though: she asserts that people’s “material life improved” as they moved into agricultural communities, when in fact, nearly all the extant evidence shows the exact opposite. (45) Every time a large enough population of humans concentrated, “herd” or “crowd” diseases cropped up, and in fact, even when they survived childhood, farmers were less well nourished and in poorer health overall than their predecessors.

Even in discussing the presence and role of the Goddess in the very society from which she comes, Gadon is sloppy with her evidence, giving incorrect Biblical citations for her quotes, ignoring the Old Testament, and failing to differentiate between popular Catholicism and the Church’s actual teachings. She also wanders through the ideas in her typical scatterbrained way, tossing off odd comments like the idea that the moon brought menstruation into Mary’s iconography by association. (204) Huh?

Most problematic for me was  Gadon’s unremitting gender essentialism. The tactic of valorizing things previously derided for being “female” is an important part of changing patriarchy, but unquestioningly accepting the patriarchal framing of what women are is a major strategic error. Gadon argues that women’s wombs are the source of their power. (289) Reducing women to their reproductive systems is dehumanizing and wrong no matter who does it.

The idea that some of the Goddess images are also phallic, and thus incorporate men, is as backhanded a way of justifying the Goddess as a universal representation of deity as the idea that the Christian god is neither male nor female. The “coincidental” connection to Christianity suggested on page 44 is frankly insulting to Christians in tone and verges on spiritual-cultural imperialism. Replacing the “default male” assumption with a “default female” assumption may help break down patriarchy, but it still defines some people as normal and some as Other.

Ultimately, Gadon’s fascination with visual representations means I should not be surprised by her finally stating bluntly that “the sacred image is not an illusion of reality, but reality itself.” (200) But Gadon does not realize that this willingness to valorize iconography – whether theological or visual, whether life-affirming or otherworldly – is a major root of much of the damage done by patriarchal systems that she decries. The kind of interpretation of the world that deliberately, knowingly, prefers its ideas, or theology, or goddess worship, over reality, and insists that reality will simply have to conform itself to those ideas is the same kind of interpretation that supports refusing women abortion as a life-saving medical treatment, because the reality of the woman’s death isn’t nearly as important as the invisible spiritual interpretation someone else has imposed.

What’s really valuable in this book is the material on contemporary culture, art, and the idea of the goddess. She could have written a perfectly good book about that without doing violence to prehistory and archaeology along the way. Her chapter on the artist as prophet of the Goddess’ reemergence offers a variety of visions of the Goddess in contemporary life and can be read as an invitation to the reader to join that process. I would think that knowing where that journey is headed would make the deep delving of the beginning of Gadon more relevant, more inspiring, and more worthwhile for women who haven’t yet encountered the reemergence of the Goddess, or haven’t encountered it as fully. She concentrates, as usual, on visual imagery, and runs the risk of making women who are not artists or whose artistry occurs in different media feel as if they are not as fully participating in the reemergence of the Goddess, but even for that, this material is uplifting and inspiring.

Towards the end of the book, Gadon acknowledges that there is no real evidence for the kind of society she spent so much time imagining, and mentions the fact that the mother goddess archetype puts too much emphasis on women’s reproductive capacity, but this two-page slice of reality does little to outweigh her first several chapters. (303-304)

Similarly, Gadon’s comment that “sacred narrative often preserves memories of how people experience cultural changes,” is very true and a much better statement of that fact than the overused trivialization that victors write history. (117) But her excellent suggestions about things like women reclaiming the process of birth from an overly-medicalized approach don’t have to be grounded in imaginary ancient sacred narrative to give them truth and power.

I disagree with Gadon’s essentialist take on femininity, but I agree that we – as part of the women’s spirituality movement and as part of the earth-centered spirituality movement – are participating in reconstructing the mythology and cultural consciousness of our time. I think we should try to do so on a stable and sustainable basis, rather than on fancies mistaken for fact. As a result, for a casual reader, I strongly recommend only engaging with the last part of the book and ignoring the prehistorical sections, if you read it at all.

How CS Lewis Taught Me Astrology

CS Lewis’ fictional descriptions helped me understand the qualities of the five classical planets because he retained pagan elements in the Medieval worldview that he studied and loved.

I have written before about why I prefer other forms of divination over astrology, but for some of my recent lessons in the Order of the White Moon, astrology became important, so I set out to become at least minimally more familiar with it. In the process of doing so, I made a strange discovery: some of my deepest visceral understanding of astrology draws on the work of Christian apologist CS Lewis.

Specifically, it comes from the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, an attempt at a sort of sci-fi Christian allegory. At heart, though, Lewis is a medievalist, and like Dante, he has to make space for those virtuous pagans and their ideas that he could not bear to leave behind. (Please note that I use lowercase for classical paganism or what Bonewits described as paleo-paganisms.)

In The Discarded Image, Lewis’ book on medieval cosmology, he says, “Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.” (203) He goes on to admit: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.” (216) While he admits that there is a tiny problem in that the old cosmology was scientifically inaccurate, but being well aware of the changes in scientific ontology and epistemology around the turn of the 20th century, he feels free to use the fall of positivism as a defense for his romantic fascination.

A much more serious concern for him is that the truly classical worldview, rediscovered in the medieval period, was not Christian. He integrates his beloved Model with Christianity by, among other things, characterizing the spirits of the planets as a kind of angel, fitting them neatly into the Great Chain of Being without disrupting its hierarchical structure, following the lead of many thinkers both medieval and modern who concluded that they had found in Christianity the name of the Aristotelian Prime Mover.

The Space Trilogy reads to me as an extended series of musings on how the hybrid vigor of this revitalized (and redeemed?) medieval mythology might play out in today’s world(s). It starts out with establishing the cosmos and Earth’s place in it; the second book reimagines a new creation-redemption myth; the third brings the consequences back to Earth with a quasi-apocalyptic tale that fuses the trippy imagery of Arthur C. Clarke with the assurance of epic meaning through spiritual warfare of Frank Peretti.

Lewis was trying to work with sci-fi, but the result reads more like fantasy kludged with his contemporary technology. Since his protagonist, like himself, is a scholar of languages and liberal arts, neither of them has any interest in the science and the narrative takes pains to spare the reader any potentially boringly-detailed discussions of the technology. Much more interesting are his interpretations of the angelic beings of different orders; he dwells lovingly on the sensations of being near them and speculates about how they might exist, using all the best medieval metaphors, such as “vibrations.”

Throughout it all runs the deep certainty of the apologist and the massively kyriarchical assumptions of the utterly privileged. To me, there is also a whisper of the sense that readers can vicariously enjoy the protagonist’s place at the center of universe-shaking action in lieu of their own frustrated desires to have a more important role in the epic narrative their theology lays out for them. With all of this in mind, I should point out that That Hideous Strength, the third in the trilogy, is a deeply weird book and not one I recommend to the casual reader – but…

For me, Lewis certainly succeeded in his project to bring a deeper understanding of the Medieval cosmology to the modern mind. Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the powers that inhabit the five classical planets descend to Earth, and Lewis chronicles the effects each of them has on a core group of characters. Those accounts stuck in my mind as the most vivid ways of understanding the influences of each of these planets, much more clearly than any information gleaned from the original myths, perhaps because Lewis does write from the human perspective.

Mercury brings puns and “plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced yet (on consideration) well worth taking seriously…skyrockets of metaphor and allusion.” (318) Lewis’ own allusions to the qualities of literal mercury lead to him describing how “all the fragments – needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts – went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves,” much as is experienced when poetry brings “the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.” (319)

Lewis is more sparing in his descriptions of Venus’ effects, sparing the delicate sensibilities of his English readers. We do see that Venus brings warmth, comfort, and sweetness; good scents and a feeling of being rocked on the ocean touch “the inconsolable wound with which man is born.” (320) The effect is one of desire, but holy desire, which can never be fully satisfied in the sublunar realm.

The arrival of Mars stirs discussion of courage in terms that are the essence of British masculinity in the World Wars. The people are unafraid to die, and the martial splendor overwhelms any petty concern with dangers. Interestingly, here Lewis also alludes to Northern European mythology by syncretizing Mars with “Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth.” (322)

Saturn comes next, with cold, the cold of the depths of space where even stars fizzle themselves out into the heat-death of the universe. It is the embodiment of time, “more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.” (323) This mastery of the depths gives Saturn a kind of immovable strength, but all its power is suffused with sorrow.

Last, in Lewis’ descent of the gods, is Jove. I get the impression that he is placed there because he is the only spirit which can overmaster Saturn, and Lewis is too much of a storyteller to leave readers on the ending without a conclusion that Saturn creates.

Lewis first describes Jove as “one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.”

The further account was the first to make me understand how the adjective “jovial” was originally meant to combine kingly dignity and hearty revelry; Lewis says that under Jove’s influence, “Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously,” (323) and that all the characters feel as if they are at some royal festival.

The vividness and human perspective of these interpretations was what helped most as I was trying to make sense of different planets’ roles in astrology, so I can honestly say that Lewis, bless his Christian medievalist heart, was the first to teach me astrology, and his lessons remain with me today.

This sort of connection through preservation of earlier knowledge is an example of how Neo-Paganism can justifiably count paleo-paganism among its spiritual ancestors; what it means today is what we have to create for ourselves – not even the stars can tell us that.

Supporting Columbia, and Lady Liberty

Some conservative Christians are planning on “laying siege” to the District of Columbia from October 3rd to November 11th, and I’m going to spend that time praying that this country preserves religious liberty as one of its foundational principles and most valuable ideals.

According to Right Wing Watch, the “spiritual warfare” effort is headed by John Benefiel, Cindy Jacobs, and others. Benefiel announced in August 2010 that the fact that Washington DC draws its name from Columbia, a personification of Liberty or Freedom, “gives her a legal right to mess things up in our nation’s capital,” and that this is why elected legislators “go crazy” when they get to DC.

To counter this influence, he declared that he had used his spiritual authority to “divorce Baal” (apparently the country was married to him in some sense). He proudly recounted that when someone asked, “How can you do that?” his response was, “Well, we just did it. … I have more authority than the US Congress does.” He added that [Christians are] “the real spiritual authority.” He also announced that he had repudiated the name “District of Columbia” and renamed the area the “District of Christ.” Hecate has the links and the legal commentary; check her out!

Now Benefiel is taking this attack on supposedly evil influences a step further by coordinating a nationwide prayer effort to “releas[e] the light and sound of eternal worship over the District of Christ.” This effort is variously named DC40, Forty Days of Light Over D.C., and 51 Days of Reformation Intercession. (It’s apparently 40 days in DC and the last 11 in Philadelphia.)

The main video for this effort calls on the country to “arise as one,” and uses explicit warfare imagery such as interlocked shields and each state taking a turn as “point man” in an effort to “change the spiritual atmosphere … forever.”

Additional videos, such as “What Is DC40?” say that Americans should “come as one people,” explicitly a Christian people, to “release the same spirit as the men who met in Philadelphia had once again.” The goal is to elect leaders who “find that compromise is not the way” because it is impossible to “compromise with unrigheousness” or immorality or what is not holy. These are supposed to be “leaders once again who have a fear of [the Christian] God.”

Another video announces that “The cry of the American Revolution was, ‘No King but Jesus!'” Historians would be amazed to discover that.

The “overview” page on the website is rather confusing, with mentions of “End-Time Handmaidens” and others involved in the effort, apparently praying for or against such things as “Islam” and particular people, but hopefully the forthcooming prayer guide will clear all that up, especially since it is produced by someone who has had “foundational truths of liberty burn[ing] in her heart for years.”

As someone who has a strong devotion to religious liberty, I find this “siege” dangerous and disgusting. It fundamentally misunderstands the nature of religious liberty which was built into our country at its founding. Whether one sees liberty as an idealization or as a personification, Liberty is a very strange creature: she says right up front, “Of course you have other gods besides me.”

Her law is to allow others their reverence so long as it harms no one. In direct contravention of that principle, these people are actively seeking to change the government of the United States so that my religion – indeed, any religion except their specific sub-sect of Christianity- would be disallowed, and public laws would compel private adherence to their interpretations of their spiritual directives, at the specific expense of religious liberty, and even personal liberty, for all who disagree.

In response to this, I have made a commitment to the personification of Liberty. You may call her Freedom, as in the statue crowning the dome of the Capitol building, or you may call her Columbia, patron goddess of the district, or you may know her as the ideal of religious toleration that Thomas Jefferson worked so tirelessly to embed in Virginia’s laws and which became part of America’s Bill of Rights, the very fabric of our legal existence.

I will be spending this time making a daily devotion to her, not against these conservative Christians, but in hopes that they and I might find ways to live peaceably together in a nation that values religious pluralism. I will also be reinforcing my personal and home wardings against those who would attack me and mine, and I will follow Hecate’s suggestion of writing to my legislators, with intent embedded, to importune them not to betray the foundational ideals of our country by working with those who would see me destroyed simply because I worship a different god(dess/es) than they do. If you value these ideas or have any reverence for the principle of religious Liberty, I encourage you to take similar action.

H/t Right Wing Watch (additional links can be found from there).

Loving v. Virginia, 44 years on

Last night, LitSpouse and I attended a viewing of the documentary The Loving Story and a panel discussion afterwards about the Supreme Court case that ended miscegenation laws. It was eye-opening in many ways; I encourage people to become familiar with Loving v. Virginia and to see the movie if they enjoy documentaries. The most interesting parts were comments made by the panelists about the relevance of the same ideas and arguments in many of today’s discourses about marriage, equality, rights, and liberties.

In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were convicted of being in an interracial marriage (to which they pled guilty, because they were) and sentenced to one year in jail, with the sentence suspended if they left Virginia for the next 25 years. They were from a very rural part of Virginia and had a hard time adapting to living in urban DC; they wanted to live near their families. The film does an excellent job of describing the legal wrangling that followed, using film footage from the early 1960s of the Lovings, their lawyers, and contemporary news broadcasts about the issue. When the case went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Virginia’s law against interracial marriage was declared unconstitutional, along with similar laws in 15 other states.

Some of the details in the film are really amazing; I had no idea this case, and the subsequent elimination of these laws, was so recent. (I first learned the word “miscegenation” in ninth grade when my high school was doing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Showboat. I had to ask my mother why the mixed-race family had to move away when their background was discovered. I suppose that’s progress of a sort, although ignorance of history is not the coin with which I would buy that kind of progress.)

The film really focuses on Mildred Loving, as she is the most moving character of the whole story, and manages to be emotionally engaging and present relevant information at the same time. If documentary films aren’t your cup of tea, the Wikipedia article linked above has some of the same details, including the breathtakingly racist opinion rendered by the Virginia court, but to see Mildred Loving as a person, the film is your best bet.

The panel discussion afterwards included Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Phip Hirschkop, one of the original attorneys to argue Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court, and Nancy Buirsky, filmmaker.

Ms. Buirsky said openly that one of the goals of the film was to create empathy through a personal connection between the viewer and Mildred Loving. (It’s not that her husband wasn’t an empathetic figure; it’s that he was extremely laconic, so most of the commentary on how they just wanted to live a quiet life together came from Mildred. Some of the photos of the two of them helped me connect with him, but he was manifestly uncomfortable in front of video cameras.) Ms. Buirsky’s explicit acknowledgment of the role empathy plays in our social discourse and changing attitudes was refreshingly realistic.

Rep. Scott spoke about the spirit of the times in the late 1960s and how much change there has – and has not – been since then on matters of discrimination. He said that many people misread Brown v. Board of Education as implying that equal provision in separated circumstances would be permissible; he emphasized that Brown v. Board found separation itself to be unconstitutional. He said that he thought civil rights legislation was being undermined by “faith-based” initiatives today: the government tells private business owners that they can’t discriminate in hiring employees who they’ll pay with their own money, while the government gives money to organizations who are legally allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Rep. Nadler spoke movingly about how he saw a lot of the history of this country as an expansion of the phrase “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, especially expansions like including women and people of all races as “equal,” or at least trying to.

Mr. Hirschkop followed that up by saying that he found the next phrase even more important, “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those rights, he argued, are not granted by society, they are ours at birth, and society has to learn to protect them.

Some discussion followed about how the Loving case is and isn’t a precedent for the fight for marriage equality for QUILTBAG people today. The most telling point on that front, for me, was when the film played a recording of the attorney general for Virginia in the Loving case arguing that the state needed to prevent interracial marriage to protect the children. [1]

When I hear conservatives fighting a rearguard action against marriage equality using the same arguments today, and being eloquently refuted by the children they purport to protect, I am certain, in a way I never have been before, that marriage equality will come to pass. [2]

As we left the screening, which was held in the US Capitol Visitors’ Center, the setting sun made the Supreme Court building positively seem to glow. You can’t read it in the photo, but that frieze on top of the Supreme Court building reads “Equal Justice Under Law.” May it be so!

[1] One of the justices asked him if that wasn’t similar to the argument made in Brown v. Board, and he said it was. Brown had been decided 13 years earlier, so aligning one’s position with the losing arguments in a previous case is what I believe lawyers refer to as “not a wise move.”

[2] For more on the historical changes in state and religious regulation of marriage, see Stephanie Coontz’ excellent article.

Edited for clarity and flow and to add link in endnotes.

Review: Rodda, Liars for Jesus

Rodda, Chris. Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History. Kindle edition.

When you need this book, you need it badly. When you don’t, it’s possible to find Rodda’s detailed investigation into the politics and religion of the early American republic bogged down in minutiae. But what Rodda has actually done here is a talented investigation of history, especially for someone not trained as an historian, and this work is an outstanding contribution to the fight against religious extremism in this country.

I became aware of this book when, in response to more of David Barton’s ingenious lies, Rodda made it available for free download. The book is matched by an excellent website that features not only Rodda’s rebuttals but also detailed, extensive citation material. Barton often claims that he uses images of his original sources – well, Rodda does him one better by putting up images of her sources in their entirety instead of trimmed to fit misquotes.

Rodda uses primary sources (the original documents) in the way that professional historians do: she approaches each document in its entirety, and does extra work to put it into context. It’s not just about who wrote this; when did he (and they were mostly all men) write it? Why? Was he answering a letter? Was he being sarcastic? Were there behind-the-scenes political maneuvers taking place that affected what was said or how it was meant? (Answer: yes, almost always.) Barton fails each of these criteria and abuses primary sources in almost exactly the same way conservative Christians abuse the Bible in their misreadings of it.

Seeing that pattern of misuse and abuse of texts and sources was the single most interesting thing to me about this book. The way that pseudo-historians like Barton are willing to lie – not just make mistakes, not just misconstrue, not just misread, but lie, and then mangle the sources to seem to back up what they have to know is a lie – is demonstrated over and over and over again. You don’t have to absorb the details of the political wrangling around establishing the University of Virginia to understand this.

Barton and co. learned this kind of eisegesis and prevarication by doing it to the Bible. This goes beyond taking quotes out of context. It goes beyond accidentally taking seriously a passage that is meant sarcastically. It is a systematic reconstruction of the text to support a desired outcome, and it’s how extremely conservative Christians have learned to treat all “sacred texts,” starting with the Bible. Reading this book should also make you suspicious of the kind of simple Biblical allusions used willy-nilly by the far right.

It also reveals some fascinating insights into conservatives’ ideas about authority. As near as I can figure out, the conservative attitude is that if something happened while so-and-so was in charge, especially if so-and-so consented to it or was notified of it, then so-and-so must have actively wanted it to happen, must have desired it, intended it, designed it, and been in full accord with the results. (Except when that’s a bad thing that happened to a good person, of course, which counter-examples only they can spot.) If half of Barton’s bunk gets blown away by misquotes and simple lies, another quarter of it gets trashed by this misconstruction of intent, power, and authority. The remainder is more complex lies, and Rodda tackles those as well.

The one weakness in this book is that Rodda has gotten so familiar with her material that sometimes she forgets to pull back and provide a quick overview or summary for those of us who haven’t been living with the Rockfish Report and the correspondence about Central College for the last few years. Some sharp recapitulations, especially at the ends of chapters, would do wonders for providing easy-to-quote refutations. The other thing readers should be aware of is that this is the first volume in a projected trilogy. It takes much more time and effort to counter lies than it does to propagate them, and Rodda has done a spectacular job of it here, but she realized in the process of writing that she had taken on a larger task than she originally thought.

When I realized how important this book was for me to have, and how grateful I was that someone had tackled this necessary but disgusting task, I bought the book, although I had already downloaded it for free. I plan to buy the next two volumes and will be glad to have them as reference material. If you don’t find it important for you to have the details, you should still have the Liars for Jesus website bookmarked just in case: think of it as being Snopes to Barton’s urban legends. If you do decide that this is an important cause, and you find all the information you need for free, then please consider donating $5 or $10 (the cost of the Kindle edition) to a charity of your choice that supports these causes such as the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, where Ms. Rodda is Senior Research Director.

Real history

David Barton is the Religious Right’s premier pseudo-historian. His claims that the Founders were evangelical Christians and that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation are often touted as academic proof. As a result, I’m thrilled to see psychology professor Warren Throckmorton debunking several of Barton’s claims. In case anyone was still confused, this is what real history looks like. Using original documents doesn’t automatically make something history. Using context, understanding what’s not on the page, and even just being honest about the difference between preprinted words in a fill-in-the-blanks legal document and what was actually written by Thomas Jefferson, that’s real history.

Edited to add: Yet another example has emerged of Barton using a fake quote attributed to John Quincy Adams. There is no excuse for Barton not having checked his sources on this. Using an encyclopedia of quotations without further back-checking is an undergrad mistake, and it belies his supposed interest in primary sources and original documents. He’s not a historian, and he’s not even a particularly good propagandist. Don’t shame my profession by associating him with it, please.

On a similar note, Slacktivist explains why Oklahoma residents who proudly claim the title of “Sooners” can’t criticize illegal immigrants. Or, to put it more simply:

Review: Horne, Witch, A magickal journey

Horne, Fiona. Witch: A magickal journey a hip guide to modern witchcraft. (Harper Collins, 2000.) Hardback, 358 pages. Originally published as Witch: A personal journey and Witch: A magical year in 1998 and 1999 by Random House, Australia.

Fiona Horne is a former lead singer for a band. This is the single most important fact that you need to know about her in order to understand what her writing is like. Thankfully, she lets you know this early on and never lets you forget it. Horne’s approach to Witchcraft is that it’s very cool, too, and that you too, can be very cool and Witchy and stuff. Especially if you buy more of Horne’s products.

She uses the terms Wicca and Witchcraft interchangeably, probably because she’s not terribly interested in Wicca as a religion. In fact, she doesn’t believe the gods and goddesses have any independent existence; they’re “projections of our consciousness.” (4) Now, the Jungian archetypes view of deity is a reasonable approach, but Horne isn’t going to bother with the messy business of understanding her own theaology; she’s just not going to let it slow her down.

The next chapter is “Witches’ Britches: Witchy Style and When to Take Your Clothes Off!” It is exactly as superficial as the subtitle suggests. She attempts to deal with the idea of skyclad, but mostly she talks about how she feels, gives suggestions for how to change one’s own attitude through how one presents oneself to others, and basically says, do whatever makes you feel good. She also gives the reader an up-close and personal view into her tattoos and her lip labret, and how cool and spiritually meaningful each and every one of them is. But she does this without actually grappling with any of the issues that people who aren’t comfortable with themselves deal with. As she once posed nude for Playboy with her snake familiar, I feel safe saying that she probably doesn’t understand the body issues of someone overweight, scarred, transgendered, or otherwise not a rock star. That’s my first problem with her.

My second problem is with her total disregard of history, or “herstory,” as she calls it. Okay, reclaiming history in a feminist fashion is important, but that’s not what Horne is about here. She gives a little bit of the Gardner-era history of Wicca, but really what she cares about is that “Lots of present day individuals will make up an ancient history that fits their current view of the Craft. I like this: the stories people fabricate of the past are fascinating insights into the structure of the present.” (17) Did you get that? It doesn’t matter to her whether our stories are true or not, because they’re fascinating insights into ourselves.

She doesn’t care about the distinction between myth and history, and she doesn’t care about our grasp on reality. Insight into ourselves is what’s most important. This fits with Horne’s own entirely inward-focused gaze. The rest of her work is driven by her narcissism and is an account of how she expands herself outwards to make herself more important and all-encompassing. Her disregard for reality may also be a lingering effect of the New Age ideas she says she was briefly fascinated by in her teens. These ideas sound a lot like the Law of Attraction and positive thought and other such nonsense. Horne says she became skeptical when she realized that sometimes bad things happen and that we don’t have perfect control over our universe, but the rest of her writing conveys a strong undertone of New Thought assumptions that she hasn’t discarded. (3)

Her personal stories about ancient history that support her view of the Craft come through in statements made perfectly factually, such as: “It was a tradition among the ancient Druids to wear crowns with open-set jewels in the centre of the forehead for similar reasons,” that is, to stimulate the third eye, and “The infamous isle of Lesbos was colonized by Amazons in the 6th century BC.” (29, 240) That’s my second problem with her work.

My third problem is that this is very simply a badly-written spell book. It’s a grimoire that’s all out of order – correspondences before you have any idea what they are or how to use them, familiars right after correspondences and before any other elements of spell work, and a strange and inconsistent approach to the difficult ethical issues of magic.

She has an entire chapter, “Flying High,” on magical drugs, which alternates between the idea that controlled use of well-understood substances in carefully-constructed settings with appropriate training can be beneficial, and a vague awareness that drugs are dangerous and possibly bad, and definitely hard to use well. She tells about a bad trip that two friends had, says that drugs aren’t to be used as a shortcut, and discusses in some detail the use of alcohol, without exactly saying why or what for. It’s so strange that I have difficulty conveying it.

Another chapter recounts a friend’s use of poppet magic to attack an enemy, but she leaves out specific aspects of the ritual, saying that she doesn’t believe in specific demonic forces. She also includes warnings about the backlash of manipulative, negative magic, and seems to be trying to tell a cautionary tale, but most of the details are about how to stick the pins in the poppet and what to say when doing so. It’s extremely bizarre, and doesn’t seem to be backed up by a consistent philosophy of either “don’t manipulate,” or “take what you want but pay the price.”

She has suggestions for an entire week of magical ritual where one doesn’t go in to work or do any real-world concerns (no washing the dishes?) which is extremely self indulgent, to a degree that seems to ignore the very real constraints on the vast majority of people who will read her book. Looking at her other published works, it looks like this chapter has been extracted and expanded to be published as a book on its own. Similarly, her chapter on magical sex has apparently been published independently as its own work as well. This book is itself a combination of her first two publications, so it has a chapter on the Wheel of the Year in the back, but it is really a tacked-on vestigial approach to what should be a central Wiccan topic.

Horne also has a very odd chapter on “Cyber-Sorcery.” She opens it with the statement “the Internet is the closest humans have come so far to creating psychic thought-transference via technology. Much of the Internet is connected via fibre optic cables along which information is transmitted as light, and mystics have predicted throughout time that humans are evolving to a point where we can exist as pure light: pure consciousness.” (253) Then she goes on to describe how to construct a spell-file, which is a written statement of intention with some symbology worked in, and tells the reader that opening and resaving the file every day resends the energy of the spell. Maybe I’m too much younger, maybe I’ve been around computers so much of my life that they’re just mundane to me, but it just sounds silly.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that Horne also has a website with more self-aggrandizement, and a spell book, with such gems as “Triple fast acting jinx removing bath and floor wash.” No word on whether it’s a dessert topping as well. Given all this and further information such as this review of her works and products, I am left with no other conclusion than that Fiona Horne is trying to get attention and is harming Wicca’s reputation in the process. I strongly discourage buying her books or products.