Archive for June, 2013

Originally published in “Occupied Minds,” April 2013

 

The year 2011 saw massive uprisings and popular protests all over the world in the name of democracy and social justice. From October 2011 onward I was personally involved in these struggles as an activist for Occupy Minnesota. Given the reputation of Minneapolis as “Paganistan,” it’s not surprising that a few of my fellow Occupiers were pagans, but others were Christian and quite a few were atheists.

 

I remember being particularly moved at a foreclosure defense action when one of the scheduled speakers expressed his commitment to social justice with the phrase “The Earth is the Lord’s” and got a roar of appreciation from the blue-collar crowd. The Earth is the Lord’s- not just a commodity to be owned and controlled by a few powerful men, but a “common treasury” as the 17th century Christian radicals known as the Diggers put it. That’s how a Christian expressed his understanding of Occupy and what it stood for. So how would a pagan do the same?

 

In polytheistic religions, there’s hypothetically a deity for everything- but one would assume that the Iron Age Celts did not get around to naming a deity of social justice and radical activism. One would not be entirely correct, however, as several of the myths associated with Brighid have a radical theme.

 

Consider Brig Ambue- “Brighid of the Cowless.” Cows equaled wealth in ancient Celtic society, where your legal worth was officially measured by how many cattle a person had to pay your tribe if he killed you. To be ambue or “cowless” was to be worth absolutely nothing- the ambue were the dispossessed, and Brig Ambue was their protector. When desperate warriors of the ambue class staged cattle raids to support their families, Brig Ambue was invoked in cleansing rituals to absolve them of guilt and reintegrate them into community life.

 

Brig Briugu means “Brighid of Hospitality.” If a person of common origins acquired enough wealth in ancient Ireland, he could legally achieve noble status by becoming a briugu or Hosteler. Hostelers maintained roadside inns where any traveler could stable his horses, sleep in a warm bed, eat a hot meal, and drink his fill of the local beer- all absolutely free of charge. Hostelers were expected to have enough wealth of their own to set up shop, but the hostel was supported by the tribal king out of the cattle he was paid in tribute. In other words, they were socialized travel hotels. The purpose of all this was to facilitate trade by making travel easier, safer and less expensive- but also to fulfill the principle of unconditional hospitality, a central and sacred obligation in ancient Celtic society. Brig Briugu’s role as a mythical hosteler was reflected in the later legends of St. Brigit magically brewing limitless quantities of beer or giving away food to the poor.

 

Brig Brethach means “Brighid of Judgment,” and this Brighid was said to be the daughter of the great judge Sencha. It is said that the only false judgment Sencha ever made was when he denied women the right to inherit land in their own name. His daughter Brig Brethach denounced his judgment, and three blisters appeared on his face as soon as she spoke. They disappeared again only when he ruled in favor of the rights of women.

 

Brig Ambue, Brig Briugu and Brig Brethach are three of the more obscure avatars or manifestations of Brighid in ancient Ireland, but the themes they are concerned with are consistently radical in modern terms- justice for the dispossessed, food and shelter without charge for those in need, and the rights of women. One might assume that these themes would have been toned down or removed when the goddess Brighid became St. Brigit with the the introduction of Christianity, but in fact they were amplified.

 

According to the legend of St. Brigit, she was the daughter of a slave and the tribal chief who owned her—an implicit critique of the slave economy of the ancient world and of the sexual exploitation of slaves by their owners. She was not, however, a very meek or obedient slave. On the contrary, she made a habit of giving away her father’s food, drink and prized possessions to the poor at every opportunity. When he became so frustrated at her constant redistribution of his wealth that he tried to give her away to the king, she gave his sword to a passing beggar while waiting outside in his chariot. The king, perhaps wisely, refused to take her.

 

St. Brigit continued her policy of constant hospitality and wealth redistribution as the abbess of Kildare, although she usually used her saintly powers to restore whatever had been given away. A number of legends portray her tense relationship with Ailill, the king of Leinster, reflecting the earlier status of the goddess as the personified Sovereignty of that province. St. Brigit was willing to lend her powers to the king, but only on condition that he free his slave. In fact, she offered to guarantee him good children, a dynasty of his own, and entrance into Heaven for himself, but he refused all of it. The only thing Ailill cared about was victory in battle against the tribes of Ulster, but he was willing to free the slave if St. Brigit would promise him that. This is important in context because it once again confirms that St. Brigit had inherited the role of the goddess of the Land, whose duties in the ancient pagan religion included supporting the tribe in battle. Unlike the Morrigan, another Land goddess who is described as being downright bloodthirsty, St. Brigit is only portrayed as aiding the Leinster army when Leinster was being invaded by a hostile force. Brighid serves as a battle goddess only to defend the land and its people- not to engage in acts of aggression.

 

In the Celtic lore of the Land or Sovereignty goddess, the goddess grants the kingship to the tribal king by offering him a drink of mead from Her own hands. Only when he drinks from the hands of the goddess who personifies the tribal territory does he become the king. In one of the legends of St. Brigit, she gives away all of the mead intended for the king’s visit to entertain the common people of the tribe. This has always been interpreted as another story about the saint’s tender concern for the poor, but if we interpret it in context with her role as a stand-in for the Leinster goddess, it has a clear political implication—the saint or goddess takes the drink of Sovereignty away from the king and gives it to the common people.

 

She later magically restores the mead to the king, but the warning message is still implicit. The Sovereignty of the land belongs to the goddess, not the king. “The Earth is the Lady’s.” If he proves to be an unjust ruler, She has it within Her power to take his authority away and give it directly to the common people.

 

This legend, above all others, is why I think of Brighid as a goddess for Occupiers.

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A Speech Given to the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers

November 2012

 

The theme of our gathering tonight is “Building a world that works for all.” This phrase is not just a nice thought or a hopeful intention; it’s the whole spirit of Occupy condensed down into a single sentence.

 

The name “Occupy” might have been coined by activists planning the first camp in New York City, but the movement is actually a global one and always has been. It began- depending on how you count these things- either with the brave actions of activists in places Tahrir Square in Egypt occupying public space in defiance of their unelected governments, or with the 15M movement in Spain or the Syntagma Square movement in Greece, doing the same thing in defiance of governments corrupted by the power of big banks and multinational corporations.

 

The thing that set movements like 15M and Syntagma Square apart from traditional models of political advocacy was their commitment to direct democracy, their practice of consensus decision-making, and the symbolic power of occupying public space. This act set them in direct opposition to the political and economic model in which everything from the ground we stand on to the water we drink is a commodity to be divided up, privately owned and disposed of for the profit of a few without consulting the many who will inevitably be affected.

 

It seems that regardless of which political party is in power, today’s normal model of doing things tends to pit people against each other in the pursuit of private interest. It presents life as a zero-sum game in which only a few can be winners and the vast majority of people are condemned to be losers. Not only is it NOT a world that works for all, it is designed not to be. It’s a world defined by scarcity and conflict, a world in which war over limited resources will always be the norm rather than the exception- and yet we’re constantly told that it’s the best we can do. All the variations on the Occupy movement are united by the fact that we reject this model; we reject the idea that it’s not possible to build a world that works for all.

 

When Occupy Wall Street officially began in Zuccotti Park, they weren’t so much creating a new movement as joining a global movement already in progress. For some reason, the name “Occupy” struck a spark, and hundreds of Occupy camps sprang up in cities and small towns all over the world, including here in Minnesota.

 

Initially given tremendous amounts of attention by mainstream media bent on sensationalism, Occupy managed to worry the governments of the world, of our cities, and of the corporate boardrooms, just enough that they decided to break up our camps.

 

Then a coordinated series of raids by heavily armored riot police destroyed camps in New York City and Oakland and elsewhere, followed by a sudden and almost total media blackout of our ongoing activities…with the exception of an occasional story either wondering why we had proven so ineffective ( in the face of police violence!), or demonizing us as terrorists, extremists or common criminals. For many of us who had believed in the promises of American democracy, this was a brutal wake-up call. But it didn’t stop us- despite incessant and sometime illegal police harassment in our own community.

 

As Occupy enters its second year, the intoxicating energy and optimism of those early few months in the camps has been transformed into a sober understanding that building a world that works for all will take years, decades or even generations of ongoing work by many, many people if that world is ever to become a reality. The different Occupy groups you will hear from tonight have committed to that hard but very rewarding work in its many facets. And as we do so, we must face our own challenges as a community… in regard to internal dynamics related to race, class, gender and ways of thinking and comunicating we might not have thought to question until we saw how they affected our interactions with each other. Ultimately, Occupy will fail if we attempt to build new systems based on old models. We address these issues every day. We will also fail if we work too hard, and neglect to nurture ourselves and our community.

 

In the world as we now know it , people often have no sense of community. They enter into business relationships with powerful entities such as banks, without any leverage to guarantee their rights. If banks lie, forge paperwork, or commit fraud on a massive scale, the government bends over backwards to make sure no banker is held accountable. But if a borrower misses just one payment, the bank can evict, with the sheriff’s department as its enforcer. In a world that worked for everyone, people would know each other. They could stand in solidarity, and create the leverage to ensure their rights through unity and and shared courage. Occupy Homes is working to create that world with their newly developed concept of Foreclosure Free Zones.

 

In the world as we know it now, most people know little about how their food is grown, or what goes into it. They have no control over what it costs or how healthy it is. Many people around the world have no control over whether they get any food in the first place. Control of the food supply is one of many issues related to control of public space, or what used to be called “the commons.” In a world designed for the benefit of a few, every inch of the earth can be owned and rented and fenced off and privatized. In a world that worked for everyone, people could have food by growing it themselves, in communities dedicated to reverence for the earth and for each other. The Whealthy Human Village is working to create that world.

 

In the world as we know it now, the word “democracy” has been perverted to mean the freedom of hypothetical corporations to buy and sell entire governments to suit their needs, making laws for the benefit of a tiny minority, without even a pretense of concern for the will or needs of the people. In a supposedly democratic society, a government that ignores the wishes and needs of its people in order to serve the corporate interest, simply proves that democracy is no longer a reality in that country. In a world that worked for everyone, all voices would be heard. Occupy Minneapolis is working to create that world, through direct public activism and educational outreach through leafleting, demonstrations, and weekly open meetings.

 

I often hear the opinion expressed that what Occupy needs is to adopt a more traditional organizational structure, with leaders and clearly-defined goals, and political candidates. In other words, business as usual. But business as usual has not, and will not Build a World that Works for All.

 

On the other hand, our allies in the Quebec student movement won a sweeping victory on every single one of their major points, by staging a highly targeted protest campaign designed to get specific and tangible policy changes. While Occupy works to build a better world on a number of different and broad fronts, we need to be able to point to specific victories like the one in Quebec, both for purposes of our morale, and for the public perception of our ability to make change that benefits people’s lives.

 

For this reason, I believe that Occupy’s next step must be to take on smaller-scale, winnable struggles which we can learn from and repeat. As we start to point to a growing list of victories, our clout and leverage will increase in every area. Occupy Homes with its always- expanding list of successful foreclosure defenses is a nationally regarded pioneer in this regard. The recent decision of Occupy Minneapolis to focus on the Tarsands blockade is another good example. Like the Occupy Sandy hurricane relief efforts going on out east right now, Occupy is poised to get the job done!

 

Sometimes people say that they are interested in Occupy, and would like to HELP get the job done, but don’t know how to access it or fit in, or if they would be welcome. I have been involved in Occupy from day one, and I am no more Occupy than you or or anyone else. If you show up tomorrow with your sleeves rolled up, ready to help us build this world, we will welcome you! In fact we can’t wait to work with you!

 

Autonomy and Solidarity

Posted: June 8, 2013 in Uncategorized
Originally published in “Occupied Minds,” July 2012

According to social scientist Geert Hofstede, culture is the “collective programming” that leads members of a group to see the world in certain ways. Cultural programming determines how people think about issues such as authority, group membership and decision-making processes.


Hofstede describes culture in terms of four dimensions or aspects. Some cultures treat inequality as an accepted fact of life while others have a more fluid view of power distribution. Some cultures try to avoid uncertainty and differences of belief or opinion while others are more comfortable with ambiguity and diversity. Some cultures treat the individual as more important than the group while other cultures treat the group as more important than the individual. Some cultures place a higher value on competition and self-assertion, while others put more emphasis on empathy and compassion.


Understanding these differences can help with understanding other people. For example, Hofstede found that people from cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance tended to be much more emotionally expressive and anxious. Understanding this as an aspect of culture rather than a behavior issue or personality trait could be very helpful.


People acquire their most fundamental values from the culture they are born and raised in, and the fact that these fundamental values come from cultural programming is something most people simply don’t realize. To the far majority of human beings around the world, their cultural values are objectively valid and the values of other cultures are just obviously wrong. Very few people can step outside of this cultural bias even if they’re aware of it, and not many are even aware of it.


Why is this relevant to the Occupy movement? For two main reasons. One is that we need to understand the fierce opposition some people feel toward our core principles if we are to have any hope of prevailing. The other is that we need to understand the Occupy movement as a “revolutionary culture.” In other words, the culture of our movement exists as a critique of the mainstream culture as well as an alternative to it.


Occupy is a global movement, so Occupiers all over the world are trying to establish this revolutionary culture in contrast with a wide variety of different regional or national cultures. Here in the United States, the culture to which we are an alternative has certain characteristics that can be defined in the terms described by Hofstede.


The first is that American culture traditionally has what Hofstede calls “low power distance.” This means that Americans are not particularly accepting of power inequalities, even though inequality is still a fact of life. That’s why the slogan “we are the 99%” resonates so strongly with so many people. Americans are well aware that there are class inequalities, but our deepest cultural values tell us that “all men are created equal”. That’s why our opponents don’t even try to claim that the 1% has an inherent right to its disproportionate wealth and power. Instead they present the inequality as having been somehow earned by the 1% through hard work and virtuous living, and they tell us that we can all have the same wealth if we just imitate their good example. They have to phrase it that way, even though it’s an increasingly absurd argument, because otherwise they would have to admit that the game is rigged- and that would violate their own core values. In effect, if they stopped lying to themselves they would have no choice but to become revolutionaries.


The second point is that some segments of American society have a much higher tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty while others have a much lower tolerance. Cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity tolerate diversity in many areas of life. Cultures with a low tolerance for ambiguity do not, because their cultural programming has effectively brainwashed them to feel intensely anxious in the presence of anything new and different. That’s why so many cultural conservatives see Occupy as being filled with repellant and terrifying “freaks.” Where you or I would just see a room full of different types of people, a cultural conservative sees an existential threat.


The third point is that American culture traditionally places a very high value on competition and self-assertion, and a relatively low value on empathy and compassion. Occupy deliberately privileges the voices of the disempowered and discourages aggressive self-assertion through the “step up, step back” concept. This seems bizarre and upsetting to many Americans whether liberal or conservative. Our decision-making process is a radical critique of traditional American values. That’s why the media obsessively harps on the idea that we need to ditch the consensus process and appoint some strong leaders. If you accept the idea that Occupy is a kind of “revolutionary culture,” it becomes clear that whatever the mainstream culture criticizes most fiercely about us must also be what is most genuinely revolutionary about us. They want us to focus on reducing inequality and not on these other aspects, because our position on inequality is much closer to core American values and is thus a lot less threatening to them. That’s why we’re seeing the creation of “liberal alternatives” to Occupy such as 99% Spring. 99% Spring emphasizes the inequality issue, not the concept of consensus, so it’s a lot less frightening to the mainstream.


The most revolutionary aspect of Occupy culture, in my opinion, is in the area of the individual versus the group. American culture is traditionally highly individualistic. Collectivism is seen as a terrifying, faceless, conformist mediocrity where there is no space for individual talent, expression or genius. That’s why Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is so appealing to the American right wing. It fits our national mythology of the larger-than-life self-reliant individual hero. Collectivist left-wing philosophies are perceived by most Americans as being so deeply un-American that all you have to do to discredit such a philosophy is to tag it with the label of “socialism.”


But Occupy cannot so easily be discredited in that way. Occupy culture places a lot of emphasis on autonomous action. The General Assembly can decide whether or not a particular action receives the blessing of the whole Occupation, but it cannot tell any affinity group or individual that they must or must not do a certain thing. No one gives orders, because no one has such authority.


We come from so many different subsections of American society that there would be no way to draw an honest caricature of the “typical Occupier.” At any given action, you’ll see tattooed Anarchist punks standing side by side with gray-haired veterans of the Sixties anti-war movement, clean-shaven young men wearing ties, moms and dads holding kids, different races and sexual identities and cultural backgrounds.


We live our lives in autonomy, but we stand together in solidarity. We are neither the faceless collectivist automatons our opponents fear, nor the self-serving conqueror-heroes they idolize. We are free, autonomous and individual human beings, who freely choose to stand by each other, to help each other and to refuse to exploit each other.


By marrying the concepts of autonomy and solidarity, the revolutionary culture of Occupy transcends the categories described by Hofstede. In every other area of Occupy culture, our positions and principles can be described by reference to Hofstede’s scales. In the area of the individual versus the group, we don’t fit into his schema.


Autonomy combined with solidarity is something new, a way for individuals to remain truly individual without having to be alone and powerless and without needing to prey on each other in order to survive. Autonomy and solidarity is revolutionary culture.

 

Alienation and Solidarity

Posted: June 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Previously published in “Occupied Minds,” July 2012


Alienation is the defining feature of our whole civilization, and it operates on multiple levels- the mind is alienated from the body, both are alienated from the spirit, people are alienated from the natural world, races and classes and subcultures are alienated from each other, neighbors are alienated from neighbors and family members from other family members. Everything and everyone is atomized, split into discrete pieces, objectified and analyzed, exploited and manipulated.


A world like that is a dead world, a world where everything is just an object, a piece of property or a resource or a useful tool. A world like that has no humanity. So it’s no surprise that in a world like that, many people would define freedom in strictly negative terms, the freedom to not be interfered with while you are trying to acquire more property and resources.


When you play “Monopoly,” just one person wins. When you play “Risk,” just one person wins. The problem with seeing the whole world as a competitive game is that almost everyone is going to lose. A tiny elite will end up with almost everything, a larger number will have enough to be comfortable only if they devote their entire lives to maintaining the status quo and defending a system that defines them as losers just because they didn’t succeed in clawing their way to the top. The vast majority of people in the world will be left with little or nothing, struggling for mere survival and viciously blamed for their own poverty.


This imbalance is what we fight against, but it’s just a symptom. The cause of the problem is alienation, the multifaceted alienation that defines our culture. Just try to imagine a society where people weren’t alienated from other people or from the planet they live on or from their own bodies or from their spirits. Wouldn’t it look almost completely different than what we have now?


The word “radical” comes from Latin, and it originally implied getting to the roots of a matter. If the root of what is wrong with our world is alienation, then the most radical thing we can possibly do is to refuse to be alienated, the most revolutionary thing we can do is to challenge the alienation all around us, and the one thing we can do that most deeply and directly challenges the status quo is to stand together in solidarity.


The defining worldview of any culture is invisible to most of the people in that culture; it’s like water to a fish. That’s why Occupy confuses people. They think of us as a protest movement when protest is actually just one part of what we do and not really the defining part. They ask us why we don’t have a leadership structure because they mistake us for an organization and think we’re just a poorly-organized activist group. They ask us why we don’t have a list of demands because they don’t realize that such a thing wouldn’t really be possible- there’s no orthodoxy or uniformity of opinion among us that would allow us to issue such a convenient list.


They miss the central point of what we’re doing, which is right there in the name: we’re Occupying space together, in multiple different ways. Sometimes in an encampment, sometimes in an abandoned building, sometimes in a house threatened by foreclosure, sometimes in a library or a cafe, and sometimes on the street. We’re Occupying space together so that we can hear each other talk, so we can share a meal or exchange ideas or stand together to resist a wrong.


We’re Occupying space together, and it’s changing all of us. Never in my entire life have I spent time with such a wide range of different people as I have in Occupy. People of different classes and races and ages and sexual identities. Most of the people I work with in Occupy are people I would never have had a reason to socialize with outside of it. Their life experiences are different from mine. They don’t read the same books I read or listen to the same music I listen to. They don’t look like I do.


When I spend time with people who do listen to the music I listen to or read the same books I read, it’s a fun experience. When I stand side by side in solidarity with people who don’t have these obvious and superficial things in common with me, it’s a life-changing experience. When I link arms with a person I don’t even know so that we can help another person we don’t know to stay in his or her home, it’s a revolutionary experience, because it’s a shared refusal to be alienated.


We’re not always that good at solidarity; we still have a lot to learn about how to hear each other and how to treat each other respectfully. But let’s not forget what we’re here for and what makes Occupy so promising and so exhilarating. We could make a list of our ten favorite reforms and win them all, but if we failed to address the alienation at the core of our culture then we would not have fixed anything. In the end, we would just end up creating the same mess all over again. Let’s dare to be radical in the original sense of the word, let’s dare to look deep enough to see the roots of the problem.


Let’s refuse alienation.