Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Antisocialism

Socialism, even though it has yet to become a major political force in America, has manged in the last two years to dominate the political dialog. This is very ironic and surprising considering there is only one federal elected official who actually is a Socialist. In spite of that the backbone of the opposition to health care reform, a plan very similar to one proposed by no less than Richard Nixon, was cries of government takeover and socialism. Recently the Senate Minority Leader decried the recent health care reform, highly inadequate Net Neutrality rules, and financial reform as a government takeover of the economy. Some of the opposition to the First Lady's nutrition bill was on the grounds that it was government interference in private lives. We have seen elected officials go so far as to block a bill to provide for the health care of 9/11 first responders because the bill would be funded by closing a tax loophole exploited by outsourcing companies.

All of these actions show a much larger and far more worrying pattern. Consistently the cry of socialism has been taken up against any form of government action that does not favor entrenched interests. The message from these declarations has gone beyond opposing a specific political philosophy to railing against public or community action of any kind. In the minds of the proponents of this extreme philosophy action for the public good is an inherent threat to civil liberties regardless of what the action actually is or why. In this Ayn Randite worldview life is everyone for themselves and greed is enshrined as inherently virtuous. It is this philosophy that has shoved the political spectrum in Washington DC so far out of whack that Richard Nixon, the original Red fighter, would be an unrepentant big government liberal.

This entire line of thinking is fundamentally inhumane and immoral.

It says you should take the check from BP and waive right to suit because justice hurts profits.

It says enforcing fairness in the marketplace for all players, large and small, will wreck our economy.

It says heroes, in spite of great courage, do not deserve anything from the society they gave everything for.

It says good health is a commodity one must purchase even if the cost runs you out of house and home.

It says look out for number one and anything you step on while climbing the ladder of success deserved it.

It asks us, in exchange for promises of wealth, power, and security to cast aside obsolete ideas like honor, family, public good, and community.

This is not, by a long shot, principled opposition to communism and socialism. These people are not the glorious watchmen on the battlements of democracy. This is naked contempt for any act or idea that asks us to give of ourselves for the sake of others.

This philosophy is nothing less than the sanctification of antisocial behavior as virtuous.


Also published at Pagans+Politics

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mapping the Religious Right: Family Research Council

The Religious Right is a powerful force in American politics and society, tipping elections and making themselves one of the most influential voting blocs in the country. Their objectives are worn on their sleeves; their zeal unquestionable. Yet for everything that is known far more remains just out of common knowledge. In this series we will delve into this unknown tracking down more on their most powerful players, money, influence, and how they achieve their goals.

On Tuesday November 23rd the Southern Poverty Law Center added the Family Research Council to their list of hate groups. This recent bad press along with the FRC's response claiming the label is nothing more than a smear campaign has brought this influential fundamentalist group back into the public eye. Controversy is nothing new to the Family Research Council having been on the front lines of the Culture War since its inception. Far from being a fringe organization the Family Research Council is a multi-million dollar powerhouse spearheading the political efforts of the Religious Right.

The Family Research Council was founded in 1980 by James Dobson to “drive the national debate on family issues”. It was incorporated in 1983 as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to serve as advocates for the Christian Fundamentalist cause. In 1992 under the leadership of Gary Bauer created FRC Action, a 501(c)4 political action group as their lobbying arm. They declare their mission as the defense of marriage and family believing that “God is the author of life, liberty, and the family, FRC promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society.” This is re-affirmed by FRC Action's support for “A renewal of ethical monotheism and traditional Judeo-Christian standards of morality-the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God"-to which the founding fathers appealed in the Declaration of Independence.”

The FRC is an organization with considerable reach and power. With a donor base for their political arm cutting across economic and geographic lines the FRC has a large, mobilized, and well-coordinated body of supporters. They regularly post updates of action items on their site calling for action by good Christians often to great effect. In 2005 they flexed this muscle by helping organize Justice Sunday to rally support to end the filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. They declared the filibuster was an insult to people of faith and cried persecution, claiming the Democratic filibuster was covering for activist judges who were “working under the veil of the judiciary, like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms.” Alito received strong support from the FRC following his nomination airing ads in support and mobilizing supporters to contact their senators. In 2006 they organized the first Values Voters Summit to bring together social conservatives in Washington DC. Now in its fourth year the summit boasts an impressive list of sponsors including Liberty University and the American Family Association. Gary Bauer, Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schafly, and Sean Hannity have all addressed the Summit as a keynote guest speaker. The FRC has stayed on the front lines of the Culture War organizing or participating in campaigns nationwide and acting abroad. In 2008 the FRC through FRC Action was an active part of the election campaign spending large sums of money to defeat Barack Obama and in support of several socially conservative candidates. In June of 2010 they joined several other organizations in opposition to a Congressional resolution condemning an Ugandan anti-gay law. The law included provisions calling for the death penalty to “recidivists” and prison time for any who sheltered people suspected of “homosexual tendencies”. Their most recent victory was the 2010 unseating three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn the state's gay marriage ban.

The FRC shows no signs of slowing down any time soon with substantial revenue and assets on-hand. Their propaganda campaigns are broadcast nationwide with multiple local groups doing the boots on the ground work. Boasting connections with the most influential members of the movement and favors owed by powerful politicians the FRC is no minor fringe group but a potent force to be reckoned with in the vanguard of the Religious Right.


Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/12/02/mapping-the-religious-right-family-research-council/

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bigger Question

The publication of American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks has caused considerable uproar and controversy. A great deal of debate is going back and forth on the issue but much of the media and government attention is not on the most damning implications of the leaked cables. Instead they are chasing the much smaller story of the leak itself. This is hardly surprising; the mainstream media has consistently avoided embarrassing American government officials since 9/11. In the midst of all the chatter of the leak itself the bigger question has been ignored.

In government, business, and many other places privacy and secrecy have an important place. Whether they are trade secrets, military strategies, or medical information keeping confidence is a necessity in many facets of modern life. The situations when truly vital secrets should be exposed are very limited and in the eyes of the law dictated by necessity. One cannot, for example, have one's psychiatric records examined by the authorities without a warrant or probable cause. A business does not have the power to force another business to divulge trade secrets. A counselor cannot be forced to share their discussion with a client unless those discussions reveal a clear danger. Private information that is protected by law is by and large the kind of information whose access must be protected for reasons of need.

Secrecy in matters of government is much more complex. There are many pieces of information that government needs to keep quiet to do its job. We live in a dangerous world with people who would love to have access to truly valuable information so they can bring harm to the United States. Military operations are the most obvious as are any other activities like espionage that by necessity requires tight control of information. These necessary secrets are hidden because they must be, otherwise they become weapons others can use against us. The public does not have a right or need to know such necessary secrets. It is when government actively obfuscates public policy it has crossed a very dangerous line. For our representative government to function the citizens must be well-informed on matters of public policy including how our representatives are executing that policy. When government denies access to information central to issues of public interest they cut the voting public out of the discussion.

The real bombshell in the leaked cables was not the juicy tidbits of Foreign Service gossip, that several Arab leaders have been pushing the US to bomb Iran, or that China probably hacked Google. It is in the exposure of the stark divide between the administration's narrative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in public and what is in black and white in their own documents. Obama has said from the beginning of his campaign that the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity. We have been assured it is a war we must not leave prematurely or run the risk of destabilizing Central Asia. Our president also promised openness and transparency in his administration. He promised honest, adult discussion of the issues. Our government assures us in public that the mission is on track having given deadlines for withdrawal justifying each based on the “opinion of commanders on the ground” asking always for our patience in spite of declining support. In private they are agonizing over a deteriorating situation where their most crucial ally is a government they do not trust which is paralyzed by corruption at every level.

The leak of the State Department's private cables did more than confirm how dire the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan truly is. They have proven that our government does not trust we, the people to make informed decisions about our country's foreign policy. In refusing to honestly debate the issues these cables bring to light in Afghanistan this administration has crossed a line it should never approach. There is a place for secrets, but those secrets are ones that must be kept for the sake of matters of need. Saving face is definitely not one of them. Agree or disagree with the leak, the United States is not harmed by the administration admitting that the Afghan government is highly corrupt, the war is not going well, our contractors have made things worse, and the reconstruction money has virtually disappeared. Those are the facts not to mention public knowledge. Refusing to talk about these serious issues with the public and insisting we are making progress is not going to change that any more than positive thinking is going to make anyone a millionaire. Keeping up a good image when it is anything but true is not strength. Telling the public not to believe their lying eyes and to just trust them strikes at the foundations of representative government.

The question that has been batted around in the media has been what to think about WikiLeaks. In the midst of the 24-hour drone the bigger question has been lost: why does our government feel the need to lie to us about what is painfully obvious?


Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/30/the-bigger-question/

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mapping the Religious Right: the Arlington Group

The Religious Right is a powerful force in American politics and society, tipping elections and making themselves one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country. Their objectives are worn on their sleeves; their zeal unquestionable. Yet for everything that is known far more remains just out of common knowledge. In this series we will delve into this unknown tracking down more on their most powerful players, money, influence, and how they achieve their goals.


With a name so generic and mundane the Arlington Group would hardly be the first organization to come to one's mind when you think of the Religious Right. Organizations like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Focus on the Family are the ones out in front grabbing the headlines and making the power plays. These groups share many things in common on matters of politics and ideology. They also share a less publicly-known bond: they are all alleged members of the Arlington Group.


The Arlington Group was founded in 2002 thanks largely to the efforts of prominent New Right activist Paul Weyrich and Donald Wildmon, then President of the American Family Association. The Arlington Group was founded to coordinate the efforts and resources of social conservatives to oppose gay marriage. Aside from their membership and their public goals not much is known about the Arlington Group. It is not registered as a political action committee in any state. There is no record of an organization called the Arlington Group in the IRS database of non-profit organizations, churches, and charities. Membership in the Group is by invitation only and they do not keep any records of what is discussed at Group events. Yet the membership list of this incredibly obscure group, care of a fax to the Bush White House sent in 2005, is a literal who's who of the most powerful people and organizations in the Religious Right.


The Group has a history shrouded in secrecy. Following their founding in 2002 the first major announcement made by the Group relating to an election was their support for propositions banning gay marriage in 2004. They briefly had a website in 2006 which included a list of organizations willing to declare their membership but since then it has been shut down for reasons unknown. This has not seen an end to their activities, far from it.


Behind this wall of secrecy the Arlington Group exercises considerable political influence and power. In 2004 the Arlington Group made their first major coup by organizing the drives to bans gay marriage by Proposition in eleven states. In 2005 they threatened to withold support for Bush's push to privatize Social Security if he did not push their fundamentalist objectives. Further campaigns in 2006 and 2008, spearheaded by members of the Arlington Group, would see continued electoral successes for the Christian Right's anti-gay crusade. In 2008 they privately interviewed each of the Republican Presidential candidates to determine who would be the best to advance their cause. The eventual choice of Sarah Palin as Vice Presidential candidate was a decision that was supported by the members of the Arlington Group who had refused to throw their support to any of the candidates during the primaries. This act which many believe cost John McCain the presidency was done to appease this incredibly powerful organization.


The Arlington Group is unique among the broad coalitions in the Religious Right for its secrecy. Previous groups that filled a similar role, such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, were filed with the IRS as religious non-profit organizations. Even the similarly secretive Council for National Policy has a legal paper trail. Their secrecy begs the question: what do they have to hide? The members of the Arlington Group have long openly campaigned against the so-called gay agenda. If the official reason for their existence is all there is to the Group then why operate in the dark? Whatever the rest of the agenda of the Arlington Group is clearly it is one they do not want the American people to know about.


Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/11/mapping-the-religious-right-the-arlington-group/

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Looking Forward to 2012

The recent midterm elections have been a hard reversal for Obama and the Democratic Party. That is the media narrative and it is correct. While correct it is far from being the whole story. The current political climate in the United States is very volatile and the election was a very clear message sent by the voters. The voters were not just rejecting Obama and the Democratic Party's lackluster performance. They cast a vote of no confidence on the federal government and business as usual in DC.

Going into the election Obama and the Democrats were down in the polls across the board. Just as misery loves company the majority party was not alone in their lack of support. Congressional Republicans are in surprisingly enough a worse position in the polls in spite of their victories on November 2nd. A recent Rasmussen poll found 59% of all Americans believe that the new GOP Congress will disappoint them by 2012. This isn't a liberal front group of some kind saying this. Rasmussen is a polling group that has worked with the Republican Party and Fox News for decades. Congressional job approval is at record-setting lows casting the approval ratings of both parties into a harsher light. With voter turnout at 42% coming on the heels of the record-breaking turnout of the 2008 elections the majority cast their vote of not worth the effort. When you take a step back from the manufactured message it becomes clear that people no longer believe government or the political parties in Washington genuinely represent or care about their interests.

This lack of faith in federal government is not surprising. The past decade has been a serious rollercoaster regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum starting with 9/11 and ending with the financial market crash. During the first decade of the millennium partisan conflict became a much larger part of the business of government on both sides of the aisle. With the mediocre efforts of the Democrats providing little relief and Republican policies having been responsible for the crash in the first place the disapproval of both parties by the public is completely justified.

The circumstances that created the Tea Party and energized the Republican Party have their own consequences. Promises of investigations, confrontations on spending and the debt ceiling, and opposition to Obama could quickly backfire. As much as the Tea Party rails against government spending that same spending in R&D, the military, law enforcement, infrastructure, and basic bureaucracy leads to a lot of paychecks. If there was a serious disruption in the ability to pay these workers that would take more money out of an already fragile economy. The debt ceiling is an equally thorny issue; if the US were to fail to raise it and defaulted on our debt that would be an economic catastrophe. As the primary season and the defeat of Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell has shown the Tea Party is willing to go after Republicans who fall short on their expectations even if that means losing the seat in the general election. This is likely to encourage confrontation instead of negotiation leading to gridlock and continued federal impotence.

Ironically enough this federal gridlock will make it much easier for state and local elected officials to stand out if their methods are successful. With the federal government in all likelihood bogged down in partisan bickering lower levels of government will need to take on greater burdens and come up with new solutions to their problems. By necessity, and thanks to increasing access to information given by the Internet, the political center of gravity is going to shift away from Washington and to state and local governments. This is not to say some kind of new civil war is brewing on the horizon. More than anything else people are trying to get by and will take any port in a storm.

So what does this mean for our community? All in all its going to be pretty messy regardless of your political persuasion. An extended recession, one that might get worse, is going to be hard on our community. More than ever we need to turn to each other with open arms and leave petty partisan bickering to the professionals in Washington. We need to work together, find ways to help each other, and do what is best for our communities. Our shared spirituality and experiences are far greater ties that bind than any letter next to a candidate's name can cut. Times like these are ones where we need any who can do their part to step up and work together regardless of who they voted for. The road is rough ahead but as long as we stand together we'll be ok.


Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/04/looking-forward-to-2012/

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I'll Pass on the Tea

With the election today there's quite a few opinions shooting around the web particularly about the Tea Party. With all the rhetoric flying around the issues at stake have mostly flown under the radar. I think its time we really sat down to take a look at the Tea Party, some of its more well-known members, and their campaign platform.

First off let's take apart the platform the Tea Party has chosen to stand on. They have defined it by five broad slogans in the Contract From America that they will identify the constitutionality of every new law, demand a balanced federal budget, simplify the tax system, audit the federal government for constitutionality, and finally repeal Obamacare.

Now identifying the constitutionality of every new law is a great sounding idea and auditing the federal government for constitutionality dovetails with that perfectly. Who wouldn't like hearing that a party is promising to demonstrate where the constitutionality of their actions come from, on its face that stance is perfectly reasonable. This of course assumes this plank is only what it says on its face. The question not answered by this nice slogan is a pretty basic one: who determines constitutionality? There are multiple competing schools of thought as to what interpretations of the Constitution are the right ones. This plank practically begs the question of who is the final arbiter and by what measure are they determining something to be Constitutional. After all there is that pesky little "necessary and proper clause" which gives Congress the power to take any action that is deemed necessary for the United States.

Now most Tea Partiers will respond, "We'll interpret it exactly as written and not take anything out or put in things that aren't supposed to be there." If that is the case then why does Christine O'Donnell doubt the constitutionality of separation of Church and State which is clearly spelled out in Article VI section 3 and again in the First Amendment? If the Constitution is inviolate holy writ then why are there so many Tea Party candidates clamoring for an amendment to remove birthright citizenship? How can one claim on one hand the Constitution is sacred and untouchable one minute then the next start trotting out their plans to edit and rewrite very important parts of the allegedly untouchable document? It also leads me to question how consistent the Tea Party and its candidates really are on what is and is not a valid interpretation if they are so willing to break out the whiteout.

Now demanding a balance federal budget is one of those perfectly reasonable things to say on its face. In this one especially the devil is in the details. For all the shouts of "Cut spending!' and "the deficit is out of control!" or "People are tired of runaway federal spending!" there are very few that actually detail how this balanced budget is going to happen. When coupled with the cry against excessive taxes adds an additional element to the campaign for a balanced budget. Once you take one half of the budget process, namely raising revenue, off the table then all you are left with is cuts. Lots of cuts. Namely several hundred billion in cuts.

So what elements of the federal government are going to be rolled back that won't cause further pain and harm down the road? If you cut unemployment you are going to make several million people homeless in very short order. If you cut Medicare you'll end up with a lot of seniors going into bankruptcy thanks to medical expenses they can't afford. If you cut Social Security, the sacred cow of American politics, then you can bet those seniors who would have been badly off with the Medicare cuts are going to be even worse off now. "But we'll eliminate waste and pork!" the deficit hawks cry. The largest source of waste, the Pentagon, has been clearly made off-limits and never touched by the Tea Party. Once you take the Five Sided Pork Palace out of the equation then you're left with nowhere near enough waste to bring the budget close to balancing. Pork spending, for example, is estimated by the CBO to constitute maybe 5% of the federal budget. Cutting pork from the federal budget would have about the same effect for balancing the budget as repainting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Simplifying the tax system is another great slogan. When asked about how they would do it the common Tea Party response is to replace the allegedly unconstitutional income tax (which by the way is authorized by Constitutional amendment) with a nationwide flat tax. The biggest problem with this idea is that implementing it would kill any possibility of a balanced budget. A flat tax code, unless it had rates of at least 35%, would not be able to pay all of the federal government's outstanding obligations for basic things like the deficit, the interest payments on the national debt, or even keeping the lights on. For such a system to work most of the federal government would have to be eliminated. That includes things like funding for the Interstate highway system, the military, funding for already cash-strapped schools, veterans' benefits, money for food inspections to make sure that Oscar Meyer doesn't decide to slip sawdust into their hot dogs, federal law enforcement, and of course keeping federal prisons open and the lights on.

Now to get to the big ticket one: repealing Obamacare. First off this is an empty promise. There are no election projections that show the Tea Party as having any shot at capturing 2/3rds of both chambers of Congress, the number needed to override a presidential veto so the odds of this happening can be safely said at least for the next two years as being somewhere between slim and none. The blanket repeal of Obamacare ignores a lot of the details in the law in the drive to overrule what has been defined as a "socialist" program, little things like kids being able to be on their parent's coverage until they're 26, banning denial of care based on pre-existing conditions, excessive rate hikes, and other nasty practices that the insurance industry loves so much. Now I think the health care reform act falls far short of where it should be and didn't do enough to address the issue I DO like those provisions. I like them very much. Throwing out all of HCR would toss out what reform is worth mentioning in the bill.

What gets me most about the Tea Party is those five slogans is their entire list for how to fix the country. No concrete proposals, no specific ideas for actually addressing the issues in front of us, just lots of great marketing slogans. Running a government is far more complicated than just shouting, "protect the Constitution!" and "No new taxes!" until you're blue in the face. The claims of taking back government from a Marxist Fascist (two mutually contradictory ideas) dictatorship tend to ring hollow when you have candidates who refuse to speak to the press, have journalists arrested by private security, regularly allude to using "Second Amendment remedies" or that "violent uprising is on the table", and that we are a Christian nation regardless of little things like freedom of religion. When you have candidates who shout for freedom and stifle it on the campaign trail or worse yet call for open violence as an acceptable political option that makes me question if their stances are nothing more than a handy pose to get into power. Talk is cheap, action is not.

Now as far as Pagans are concerned I think the forces that brought the Tea Party to center stage are a serious danger to our community. The demagoguery of people like Glenn Beck has incited fear of America being taken over by invisible enemies, that the rats are in the walls and chewing their way in. They cry we must go back to our past, to being a truly Christian nation, and reclaim America from the alleged plotters. They encourage a naked us vs. them kind of thinking that is very good at excluding people from the public process, particularly those who are already on the fringes. People like us.

Whether the Tea Party calls for it or not, their us vs. them, all or nothing rhetoric, campaign stances, and actions have inflamed dangerous passions in our country. This kind of politics requires an Other to oppose. Unfortunately, given the relative poverty and lack of influence in our community, that makes us all too easy a target.

Also posted at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/11/02/ill-pass-on-the-tea/

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pagans, Politics, and Parties

Another election is coming up with all of the passion and intensity that comes with it. This election season has shaped up to be a particularly vicious one with partisans on both sides of the debate accusing the other of wanting to drive America off a cliff and into oblivion. Now by no stretch of the imagination am I anything approaching an objective observer in the process. Like any politically active Heathen I have a dog in this fight. That said there are things that are more important than my dog coming out on top.

This election season, at least in my limited life experience, has evolved into one of the ugliest in recent memory. Unfortunately this is hardly an anomaly, every election since 2002 seemed to be going for the gold in gutter politics and each successive election managed to find new and interesting ways to top the last. This has had a rather nasty effect on our community by forcing all political discussion through a highly partisan filter. The ugliness of political discourse coupled with the hyperpartisan atmosphere of American politics has effectively silenced the most important political conversation we should be having:

What do we, as a community, need to achieve through the political process for the sake of our communities and community?

Listening to the punditry politics has become a life-or-death fight to the finish. The partisans on both sides have consistently painted the other as a dire threat to the American way of life and that their way is THE way to fixing what ails our country. To cross the line, or work with, the other side has become anathema and finding a reasonable compromise is now ideological treason. Even with all the lip service given to “compromise” in reality the only compromise that happens is when one side forces the other to blink. The validity of an idea, based on its merits alone, has been replaced with an obsession with ideological correctness.

This thinking should have no place in our community. We are a polytheistic, pantheistic, animistic group of people. We have room for deity in many forms, not one limited by an old, heavily edited book. Dualistic, black and white theology and cosmology are ideas with very little following in our community. This thinking, a symptom of dualistic spirituality, is one of many things that should be considered incredibly stupid by Pagans and Heathens the world over.

Unlike Christianity we do not slot the world into two broad categories of good and evil. We have many Gods with many different personalities, aspects, and motivations. Instead of leading to internal tension and conflict this multiplicity of Gods has been a uniting force. Understanding these complex cosmologies is part and parcel of modern Paganism and Heathenry as is reconciling the old practices with modern day. If we are able to work with considerable differences in spirituality without a serious problem then politics shouldn't be any less taboo. With our spiritualities we are willing to be mature and respect well-founded opinions. We shouldn't be letting mainstream toxicity do the same with political discussion. It makes no sense on one hand to be willing to take a person for who they are regardless of faith on one hand and on another to make blanket decisions and assumptions about their politics. By making partisan assumptions about fellow Pagans and politics in general we divide and weaken ourselves.

Now I'm not expecting everyone to change their voter registration to the same party and vote in bloc. The odds of that happening are only slightly better than me flapping my arms and getting to the moon. What we can do is move beyond party labels, consider ideas on their merits instead of the sticker next to them, and remember that the Pagan activist on the other side of the party line stands beside you where it matters most. Reasonable people can agree to disagree on matters of opinion. Buying in to the life and death struggle narrative in the media only sets our most passionate, capable people against each other at the expense of our community. Accepting this big lie of black and white politics ensures our community, which neither party has the time of day for, will remain fighting itself instead of standing strong. Our spiritual world is open to many possibilities, why should our political world be cluttered with dualistic baggage?



Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/10/28/pagans-politics-and-parties/

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Sharia Smokescreen

In the United States today there is a growing fear of Sharia Law encroaching on our liberties. The loudest voice in the media on this subject in the US is Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. While the media reports his claims they have yet to look into the ties has with radical religious groups in America. By rallying the fear of foreign takeover he is effectively running a smokescreen for his fundamentalist Christian allies. While advocating for family values and against Sharia encroachment Gingrich works to advance an agenda every bit as radical as jihadi terrorism.


The start of these claims came with the increasing publicity surrounding the Park51 Muslim community center controversy. On July 28th Gingrich posted his condemnation of the project on his website. Part of his denunciation included his assertion that the project was part of a global effort to impose Islamic fundamentalism on the United States and the world. In his remarks he specifically noted, “Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand”. He continued to speak out against the Park51 center throughout the month of August. On September 12th Gingrich released a direct to DVD documentary called America at Risk, a film about the threat Islamic fundamentalism poses to the United States. He then followed up with his call at the Values Voter Summit on September 18th for a federal law banning Sharia law in the United States. Newt Gingrich has continued to put himself out in front on the issue of anti-Sharia efforts in the US with the media reporting his efforts at face value.


The irony is that his crusade against religious fundamentalism in America starts and stops when the threat is any form of religious extremism that isn't Christian. An excellent example of this selective approach can be found in the venue where he called for a ban on Sharia law. The sponsors for the Values Voters Summit include the Family Research Council's political action group, the American Family Association's action group, American Values, Liberty University, and the Heritage Foundation. The FRC and AFA are both groups that are fairly prominent in the Religious Right as major organizations that have long, established standing and reputations. Liberty University is an institution billed as the premier Christian university in America and was founded by the late Jerry Falwell to educate their students in a proper, Christian fashion. American Values was founded by Gary Bauer, President of the Family Research Council until 1999. With the exception of the Heritage Foundation, who attended only to provide issue education, each of these organizations stand for the flagship positions of the Religious Right. Each is highly active in organizing evangelical and fundamentalist Christian activists in and out of government. On the front page is a list of breakout sessions including highlights such as, “American Apocalypse--When Christians Do Nothing, Secularists Do Everything--The Case for Christian Activism”, “How to Reach the Online Generation (Without Losing Your Soul)”, and, “Establishing a Culture Impact Team In Your Church”. Among other things all of these groups are very vocal in their claim that separation of church and state is unconstitutional.


Gingrich is no stranger to Christian conservatives. He worked with social conservative groups extensively under the slogan of Family Values while he was Speaker of the House during the mid 90s. Since then he has remained an active professional speaker and author. One of the more prominent gigs was the 2007 commencement address at Liberty University. During his speech he praised the founder Jerry Falwell and called for the graduates to challenge, “radical secularism.” The themes he covered in his speech were the same that he argued for in his 2006 book Rediscovering God in America. In his book Gingrich argues that advancing secularism is working to drive God out of public life in America. At the Rediscovery of God in America Conference in June of 2009 Gingrich asserted that America is "surrounded by paganism". His next big splash in September of 2009 was the documentary Rediscovering God in America II: Our Heritage. Here Gingrich again claims that Christianity and God are under attack in America.


These claims, along with his recent call for a Federal gay marriage amendment, are all consistent with the rhetoric and positions of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. They have consistently campaigned for gay marriage bans in all fifty states and have proven successful in twenty-five. Evangelical efforts are not confined to just banning gay marriage. Candidates with their support in school boards across the country have fought for teaching a more Christian curriculum. Their most recent, and largest, success was in Texas. In May of this year the conservative faction on the school board succeeded in pushing for sweeping changes to the history curriculum. Some of these changes included the downplaying of the importance of Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution, the whitewashing of the work of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for religious liberty, and push the “fact” that America was founded as a Christian nation. In August the school board released a decree banning all textbooks that had pro-Muslim or anti-Christian content. Supporters of this measure claim it was necessary to protect Christianity.


Gingrich's claims of a Sharia takeover of the United States are rather ironic considering his own affiliations. If Gingrich and his allies in the Religious Right had their way Christianity, as it is according to them, would be the only religion allowed in the United States. They are not shy about their intentions; at their sites, conferences, and on the campaign trail they openly announce it to the world. Gingrich's campaign against Sharia law serves their purposes ideally. By rallying the public against Sharia law Gingrich provides a perfect cover while Christian fundamentalists quietly make their vision for America reality.



Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/10/14/the-sharia-smokescreen/

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Christine O'Donnell and Witchcraft

Christine O'Donnell's claim of dabbling in witchcraft in her college days has stirred up quite a bit of discussion in the Pagan community and the media at large. Most of the discussion in the mainstream media has been on if this statement hurts her credibility as a candidate, particularly if a candidate who admits to practicing witchcraft is fit for office. As has been mentioned earlier in Cara Schulz's recent article on Pagans and the Tea Party there have been quite a few rocks thrown over the perceived dabbling. What has been missed in the discussion is that her claim is not an isolated incident. There have been several other well-known activists in the Christian Fundamentalist movement who have made similar claims to heighten their visibility and take advantage of the central role the conversion experience plays in Evangelical Christianity. It plays a strong part in reinforcing the narrative of the saving power of Christ and by the same token is an effective way of making a name for yourself in the movement. Far from being a throw-away line to appear “hip” the story O'Donnell told MTV makes perfect sense considering its prior use by other Fundamentalist activists.


On its face, an Evangelical activist claiming that they had a previous history with alleged Satanic practices seems strange. Ironically making such a claim, taking into account the central nature of one's conversion experience to Evangelical Christianity, can bolster an ambitious activist's reputation. In Fundamentalist circles how one comes to Jesus is an important element in establishing one's faith. This is clearly outlined in this article from christianity.com:

So first, you must have your eyes opened. A spiritual blindness afflicts those who have not yet turned their lives over to Jesus Christ, because "Satan . . . has blinded the minds of those who don't believe . . ." (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT).

Second, you must turn from darkness to light. Satan loves darkness. Hell is referred to as outer darkness. If you want to really believe, then you need to come out of the darkness and into the light (Acts 26:18).

Third, you must turn from the power of Satan to God. A lot of people today want to live in two worlds. If you want to be a Christian on Sunday, but want to live the other way the rest of the week, it won't work (2 Corinthians 6:14). You must turn from Satan to God.

The emphasis on willingly turning from Satan to God is very central in how conversion works. If someone claims they were in the power of Satan and actively doing the Devil's work then being converted by salvation is proof of God's supremacy. In another article on the subject of conversion the first of three tests to prove the sincerity of one's conversion is the Lordship Test:

Is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life? Jesus said, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (Luke 6:46)” and goes on to say, “As a child of God, His commandments are the stars by which you navigate your life. Is keeping His commandments the burning desire of your heart? It is if you’ve met the Christ of Calvary.

Being saved from the enemy would be quite impressive proof of one's devotion to Christianity. In their mind anyone who does is effectively crossing a spiritual battlefield to join their brothers and sisters in Christ. The notoriety of such claims have been part of the reputation of established Evangelical leaders. These stories use witchcraft and Satanism interchangeably, seeing no difference between the two. O'Donnell, who converted in college in the late 80s and has a long history of evangelical activism, would have understood this and likely known of some more prominent ex-witches.


Two of the more infamous ex-witches are Mike Warnke and Dr. Rebecca Brown who were most prominent during the infamous Satanic Ritual Abuse craze of the 1980s. Both made grandiose claims of having participated and, in Warnke's case, became a high priest in allegedly massive Satanic cults consisting of thousands of people. While their claims were later debunked and the two discredited at the height of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare they were considered to be experts in Satanism. Both Warnke and Brown made appearances in the national media as respected experts in the subject fanning the flames of the Satanic panic. Warnke in particular was no stranger to evangelical activism; during his college years he was an active member of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Since their discrediting Warnke and Brown founded and currently run active ministries. Both relied heavily on their inflated and fraudulent claims of participation in non-existent cults to establish their reputations using similar stories of midnight meetings and blood-caked altars. The deliberate deception both participated in became part of the wider narrative of Satanic cults, a boogeyman common in evangelical and fundamentalist sermons. O'Donnell, in college and becoming active in evangelical Christianity, would have very likely been aware of these two and their history.


This narrative is pretty potent, having spread beyond the United States and in use in other parts of the world. Some of the people who do are influential members of the movement. One great example is Pastor Neville Goldman who has claimed he was once a practicing member of a Satanic cult. Pastor Goldman is a prominent figure. He is on the Executive Committee of SASOL, a South African sports association aimed at Christian youth and evangelism. Goldman and his organization would spearhead the the missionary efforts for the recent World Cup in South Africa. Unlike Warnke and Brown Goldman is not on the discredited fringe; in August he was part of a joint clerical call to end a labor strike in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Goldman's is not the only instance of such claims and is a prominent example of the pervasive nature of this myth in fundamentalist evangelical circles as well as the influence they hold.


Far from being a statement trotted out to pass off as “cool”, Christine O'Donnell's claim of dabbling in witchcraft was intentional. At the time when she made this claim O'Donnell was the head of an organization known as the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, a group that advocated abstinence before marriage and celibacy. She was also a lobbyist to Congress on other moral issues. As the head of an active evangelical political organization getting any kind of publicity would have been a huge win. She likely believed that claiming she had been active in the occult would make her more relate-able considering she was on MTV. Either way the claim would have helped her improve her profile as an evangelical activist which to a degree has been true. Since then her career has mostly gone up. In 2003 she went to work for a conservative educational group in Delaware. From there she stepped into the political area, winning the Delaware GOP Senate Primary in 2008 after a previous failed attempt in 2006. Now she is the GOP nominee for Senator and has drawn considerable attention as part of the current crop of Tea Party candidates. These past two victories have been thanks to considerable evangelical support in the primaries.


Christine O'Donnell's exploitation of a well-known evangelical trope certainly hasn't hurt her in her climb into the national spotlight. The media coverage of the MTV clip has given her considerable free publicity. The coverage, while giving national attention to Pagans, has been working under the assumption that dabbling itself is controversial. The media coverage, along with the negative reactions in the Pagan community, reinforce this fringe cult-like status for Wicca and Paganism. Instead of reinforcing old stereotypes the real issue is why a candidate for the United States Senate is pushing discredited fundamentalist propaganda.


Also published at http://politics.pagannewswirecollective.com/2010/10/07/christine-odonnell-and-witchcraft/

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No blog entry

So this last week with work has been busy and today was pretty crazy. I'll have something up next week on Christine O'Donnell.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Strength in Asatru

In Heathenry being a strong person is a major part of living in a Tru fashion. Standing against the challenges of life on your own two feet is a major virtue in Asatru with examples of such strength extolled in the sagas. A superficial reading would imply that machismo and physical prowess are most important but this misses the point relying on the commonly held stereotype instead of the true meaning. Real strength comes in many forms with some being less obvious than others as is very well-illustrated in the Lore. Many forms of strength show up throughout the Eddas and the heroic sagas like Beowulf and the Volsungsaga. In Asatru strength is seen as having the skill and ability to accomplish a task or overcome an obstacle.

The most common association people make with strength is that of physical prowess. The might of Gods and heroes tearing things into bloody pieces is an image that is hard to forget. Warriors were praised for their strength at arms and in battle for overcoming many of their foes. Tales of glorious battles and tests of might are common throughout the lore and the historical sources of the period. A superficial reading might convince one that the real strength on display is their physical power. Yet in some of the best demonstrations of heroes bringing down their enemies in battle it is not the strength of the warrior the saga emphasizes but their bravery in facing the foe. Thor charges ahead gladly into battle against many giants throughout the lore without fear of what is ahead. Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel in Heriot unarmed and unarmored, not flinching even as he sees the great monster tear one of his friends limb from limb. In the lore, while strength is the obvious thing being praised even more highly honored is the courage of the warriors facing their foes in spite of great danger.

Another form of strength not as commonly associated with the North in the popular imagination but just as important as courage to the ancients is that of wit and wisdom. It is through cunning and skill that many great triumphs are gained for both heroes and Gods alike. Wayland Smith, instead of seeking a rash escape from his island prison, instead waits and uses the tools available to him to fashion a set of wings to escape as well as take a brutal revenge on his captors. Sigurd, instead of charging ahead heedless of danger against the dragon Fafnir, sets a trap to spear the great beast from below in a pit. As one of the best displays of wit and cunning we have the theft of the Mead of Poetry by Odin through guile, trickery, and magical prowess. Wise men were just as important in the North as mighty ones. The number of verses in the Havamal extolling the virtues of wise counsel and keeping silent are many with heroes following similar examples of carefully thinking their way through problems instead of just bashing their way through.

Strength is not just having a keen mind or a brave heart but also having the courage of conviction to do what must be done. Following through with a necessary duty, performing a needed sacrifice, and putting what one has on the line for a higher purpose is an important form of strength that appears fairly regularly. While this may seem the same as courage there is an important distinction. Putting oneself in dangerous situations, while certainly a great risk to one's self, does not carry the same certainty of necessary sacrifice. To steel one against certain doom takes a strength of heart just as great as what is needed to charge into uncertain confrontations. The most famous sacrifice of all was Odin hanging Himself from the World-Tree for nine days and nights to win the wisdom of the runes. A sacrifice of Himself to Himself, Odin gave all He had for the sake of greater wisdom. Tyr's sacrifice of His right hand to bind the Wolf Fenris until Rangarok is in the same vein. Given the choice between Midgard's Doom and the loss of His hand Tyr willingly placed what was His in the jaws of the Wolf knowing it was for a greater purpose. Beowulf showed similar strength in facing the dragon that ravaged his kingdom in the twilight of his life going into certain doom for the sake of the Geats. Often what drew the line between heroes, Gods, and everyone else was being willing to press on in spite of potential loss or danger.

All these forms of strength share one common tie: they are all deeds performed by the individual and these deeds are ultimately theirs to do. All of these acts of strength are done standing on one's two feet and facing danger directly, not seeking others to do the job for them. While there are examples showing there is nothing wrong with seeking assistance or aid in the pursuit of an objective, Beowulf after all takes his bodyguard with him when he faces the dragon, it is that you as a person do your own deeds that matters. The deeds done are what define the Gods and heroes, not just their strengths. Even in the face of certain loss or defeat like that the Gods face at Ragnarok They still shoulder on, knowing that win or lose what matters is doing what you must and not shirking one's duty or place to let another do what is yours to make happen.

Ultimately strength in Asatru is anything but one-dimensional. Being a strong person is not just a matter of having the might, which can take many forms, but it is also doing right. Strength without integrity is the bluster of a bully and coward. Strength with honor is what defines the hero just as much as their deeds. Being strong is not just a matter of bulging biceps but staying true to who you really are and applying your strengths effectively. It is in this that true might lies.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Need for Paganism and Heathenry in the Modern World

There are many who would argue that the revival of long-dead belief systems in this modern day is nothing more than an exercise in escapism and anachronism, nothing more than LARPing given a philosophy. Some stand on more spiritual grounds, arguing from the belief that Christianity and modern monotheism is the right answer to the needs of humanity by addressing suffering and offering redemption and second chances. Others take the tack that its nothing more than superstition and the belief in some new set of imaginary sky-people that has no bearing on a modern, rational scientific age. Yet all three of these arguments are being made around the very large elephant in the room: Pagan and Heathen groups and belief systems, contrary to what our opponents would say, are growing quite steadily and rapidly with an estimated one million combined living in the United States today(1). If any of those arguments are correct then how is it that such allegedly anachronistic, irrelevant, primitive, and irrational beliefs are growing so steadily and quickly?

What the opponents, critics, and enemies of the modern revival forget in their arguments is that they've completely missed the point on all counts. Belief systems, ideas, and ideologies develop and grow because there is a need for them in society that must be filled. If there was no need in society for Pagan and Heathen ideas then they would not be finding the following they are. These arguments also forget that the current revival is one that was a long time coming. There have been upsurges throughout Western history of pre-Christian beliefs and ideas that, while limited in impact in their time, have ultimately been a part of the larger trends that are emerging now.

After all, if these ideas were no longer useful or relevant then the Illiad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf would not be part of high school English curriculums across the United States. The stories of the ancients would not be referenced or involved in books, movies, or plays. Great works like the Lord of the Rings, the numerous movies and shows about Greco-Roman Gods and heroes, or even in as mundane places as the Mighty Thor from Marvel Comics or roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons would not be the widely known cultural touchstones they are without these ideas and influences. Each, while not literal adaptations, draw on the same ideals as the pre-Christian sources they are based on or are inspired by. The heroes of these stories perform deeds and act in a fashion that would not be seen as out of place or unexpected in older times.

It isn't just in the stories that we see this influence. While there are plenty of people who are called to the revival by stories and ideas presented there it is when they get to the actual material itself that the real connection is found. Here you could again argue that the people seeking to reconstruct the ethical and philosophical ideas of the West's pre-Christian past are engaging in escapism and rebellion against modern society but this again is an argument that falls short. People who come to these ideas end up staying with them and remaining engaged in society. There are groups that do practice what is admitted to be roleplay and some degree of escape from society at large like the SCA or the Adrian Empire. These groups are also ones that have no particular religious ideas behind them and are left behind when the people who participate in them go back home. Pagan practices, on the other hand, don't stop when the ritual ends. There are Heathen and Pagan schoolteachcers, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and in the case of Dan Halloran of New York City elected officials active in society who live their ideals and beliefs on a day to day basis. A belief system that is irrelevant to the modern age, one that is nothing more than escapism, would not be one that would produce people who live those ideas on a day to day basis while participating in society in the same ways everyone else does.

The bottom line is that Pagan and Heathen groups, traditions, and organizations are here to stay not because they offer some kind of pacifier or easy escape but because they provide meaning and fulfill the needs of the people who come to them. That we are furthermore growing at the highest rate of any religious group in America and are on target to surpass Judaism in size if all of the Pagan and Heathen groups in the US were combined as one population by 2012 argues that we are anything but escapist primitives. The real question is not if this will be recognized by other religious groups in American and Western society but rather when and how it will come to pass.

References:

(1)http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations


Monday, August 30, 2010

The Importance of Grassroots Heathenry

As Asatru matures into a more established faith in society sooner or later the question is going to emerge of how exactly should Asatru as a faith and culture handle its affairs. There has been a lot of discussion flying around about how, where, and what form it should take as well as the issue of Universalist vs Folkish and all the shades of grey on that topic. With our festivals growing larger, kindreds sprouting up around the world, and awareness of Asatru steadily growing in society this question will likely need an answer some time soon before we're forced to come up with one on the spot.

This is not to say that the organizations that exist for Heathens in this day and age are unimportant or useless, far from it. They serve an invaluable function of forming bonds between Heathens and building the foundations of our community, without them we likely wouldn't be anywhere near where we stand now. That said, just as a child's clothes no longer serve the needs of a growing adolescent our organizations and community will have to adapt to what best serves the interests of the Folk. The best way to do that is to keep the center of balance in Asatru with the Kindreds and local groups ensuring that it is the needs of the Folk that are served first. Thankfully many of the national organizations active in the United States remember that without the Kindreds there is no foundation for the Folk to stand on. It is from the kindreds, study groups, and pub nights that new Heathens come into the fold and from there that our best emerge. This is why matters that as the number of Kindreds grows they continue to be the center of autonomy in Asatru.

Some would argue that the best way to advance the interests of Asatru and the Folk is to work through a strong, centralized hierarchy with an Asa-Pope or something similar setting the agenda and standards for all the rest. Those in favor would argue that in our current situation we need decisive, singular leadership. We need to define what Asatru REALLY means, and therefore the best way to do this is with a centralized authority. Unfortunately this argument shortchanges the needs of the future for the desires of those in the present. For the Folk to be led in such a fashion runs directly counter to the Lore, the ways of our ancestors, and what are the best working practices to prevent an unhealthy concentration of religious authority in one place. We have seen from the history of Christianity what came of having a strong, centralized ecclestiastical government and the fallout which echoes to this day. Why repeat an example we know would lead to the needs of the Folk being subordinated or ignored by those in the hierarchy in favor of what works best for that hierarchy? Putting all power in the hands of a central authority is a road that is certain to see our Folkway be twisted by others to their own purposes instead of keeping to that which makes Asatru what it is: a faith of strong, independent people who write their names with the deeds of their lives.

The best way to ensure Asatru stays true to itself is to put the power in the hands of the Kindreds, local and regional clans and tribes, and the Folk themselves first with larger organizations responding to the will of the Folk from the bottom up, not the top down especially when it comes to spiritual matters. Like in the old days, we should follow the example of our ancestors and keep the power and decision-making in the hands of the people who will be most impacted by the decisions made. While this may seem unwiedly we are not talking about building a government or a country. A system built on local autonomy and democratic rule is one that is often far more capable of acting on local or regional problems quickly especially compared to more centralized organizations where approval is often needed from somewhere in the hierarchy which can lead to delay or confusion. Not only does it best serve the Folk to keep the proverbial spiritual center of gravity at the bottom it also works more efficiently in dealing with day to day problems.

We must remember above all else that the decisions we make now are not just ones we must make for ourselves, but all those who follow in our footsteps. We have a duty to leave them the best possible situation we can give them. No matter what form Asatru takes we must be sure it is one that serves the Folk first.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Terrorists are Not Going to Take Over the Country

There's a particular line of thinking I've been seeing a lot more lately, and considering how much terrorism was brought up by the last administration this is saying something, that is ripped right out of Joe McCarthy's playbook. It is this whole notion that somehow, some way, Muslim terrorists are going to take over our country and impose Sharia law on everyone creating a tyrannical totalitarian state. I think this has really come to the forefront because of the recent New York City Park51 controversy bringing those very primal fears to the fore. The fear of invasion and loss of self-determination is a very basic one that goes back as far as the invention of writing and likely further than that. The idea of all of that happening in the dark of night is one that is especially potent by adding in the even more ancient fear of the unknown.

This is not to downplay the horror, tragedy, and loss that terrorists seek to sow in their wake, far from it. Such people who deal in fear and violence deserve to rot in a cold, dark cell for the rest of their lives while worrying about dropping the soap in the shower. People who seek to usurp our Constitution, civil liberties, and way of life need to be opposed in every legal way possible. That said the plausibility, even possibility, of terrorists "taking over" the United States of America when you really look at the ideas and arguments a step removed from the savagery and brutality is somewhere in the same neighborhood as me reaching the moon by flapping my arms really hard. When you look at the most plausible means the terrorists would exercise to take over the country the entire line of reasoning falls apart pretty quickly.

The first, and most obvious would be military takeover. This one is laughable on its face, simple as that. Yes, there are over a billion Muslims in the world and growing. Quite a few of the more fundamentalist Muslim nations also sit on a lot of oil giving them quite a bit of money. That said how exactly are jihadi terrorists, a movement that to this date has yet to actually successfully overthrow a working government anywhere in the world or launch a successful terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11, going to pull that off? We have the most heavily funded, technologically sophisticated, and powerful military machine in the history of the human race. We have a navy that is virtually impossible to challenge. Our army is the best in the world. We have enough nuclear warheads to destroy the planet many times over. How would a group that has to run and hide in caves when American troops show up and can't fight a pitched battle possibly pull that off? The possibility of jihadi radicals actually beating all of that in an open invasion is somewhere near zero. It simply would not happen.

So what about using violence in some other fashion like a ticking time bomb scenario of some kind like nuclear blackmail or something similar that could have been pulled from the pages of Tom Clancy or James Bond. Again, nothing like that has ever happened. For all our stories of supervillains and masterminds holding a country or the world at ransom with some kind of doomsday device such plots remain exactly what they are: stories. There has never been a single incident in the history of the world of a group actually coming close to pulling off such a plot. And again such a plan also would run headlong into the aforementioned most powerful military machine on the planet. Within five minutes of getting a feed of terrorists threatening to blow up DC with a nuke unless we surrender or something there would be Navy SEALS breaking in doors and taking out the would-be conquerors in less time than it would take for me to make a sandwich. Simple as that.

Even assuming somehow, some way, the terrorists are able to take over the country at gunpoint even considering how incredibly unlikely that would be they would not hold on to it for long. At most the American Muslim population is 8 million people in a nation whose population is in excess of 300 million people. That's barely more than 2% of the population and the bulk of the growth of the Muslim population comes through immigration, not conversion. I'm also willing to bet that, since people don't work in monolithic blocs, that most of said population are not necessarily supporters of jihadi terrorists. The terrorists would be working with a very tiny minority population as their potential base of support with another 300 million some odd people who would vary from apathy to hating their guts. This is also in the fourth largest country on the planet. A country where, not counting military and police hardware, there are more personal firearms than there are people. How exactly would a rag-tag group of terrorists who need years of planning to engage in ONE major attack occupy all of that? How would they keep a population and country that huge, armed, and hostile in line? Sooner or later such a regime would collapse and probably much sooner than later.

Now granted overt take over by force is not the only way that a secret invasion could happen but the other main method such a takeover could possibly happen is just as far-fetched. To legally remove the Constitution, religious liberty, and impose requirements to follow specific religious laws on the people of the United States would take a Constitutional amendment. To successfully amend the Constitution you would need either for two thirds of both chambers of Congress to vote for the amendment or two third of all state legislatures to pass resolutions calling for a Constitutional convention. After that you would need 3/4ths of the states either to have their legislatures approve the new amendment or have ratifying conventions in 3/4ths of the states approve the new amendment. Now look at those numbers. It would take a pretty huge shift in public opinion to elect enough politicians who all are in favor of such a change to the US government. Definitely far more than a group that is at most 2% of the US population could possibly swing in any situation.

Now some would argue that somehow, some way, enough radical Muslims are going to come to the United States, have more babies than everyone else, and become the new majority. This line of thought assumes that all Muslims are radical terrorists and that somehow a group that is only 2% of the population is going to have so many babies that they overwhelm the other 98% in a tide of jihadi babies. For that to happen you would need that 2% of the population to be dosed up on enough fertility drugs to pump out litters of kids at a time and for the other 98% to voluntarily neuter themselves. Even if the American Muslim birthrate were triple the birthrate of the rest of the country it would take at least a hundred years, if not longer, to even approach the numbers needed to pull off such a coup. This also assumes that over the course of this highly implausible demographic invasion the ideology is going to remain cohesive and the group remain in lock step and not assimilate into American culture. In fact more often than not the second and third generation children of immigrants in the United States tend to identify much more heavily with the ideas, culture, and beliefs of their new nation than that of their parents' homeland. For such a demographic and ideological shift to take place in our country would require a series of events, decisions, and actions that go completely counter to known human behavior.

This is not to say there is no threat of extremist groups taking over the country. This is always that possibility in a democracy. But there is such a thing as a plausible extremist threat and an implausible one. Ironically enough the groups shouting the loudest about Muslim takeovers often tend to be ones with close ties to Christian fundamentalists in the US. The same fundamentalists who have successfully written a specific tenet of their belief system into the Constitutions of 25 states by popular vote. The same movement that was able to bend President George W. Bush to interrupting his vacation to intervene in a family medical matter at a hospice in Florida. The same movement that regularly rails against the immorality, vice, and corruption of the country in a manner not all that dissimilar in nature than the rantings of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. The very same movement that has been able to derail the careers of aspiring politicians and play kingmaker in elections across the country. A movement that, if they were given their way, would impose Old Testament Biblical laws on the country and throw out the bulk of the US Constitution. A movement that has inspired radicals to bomb abortion clinics, shoot doctors, and call for the death of Supreme Court justices on national television while claiming to be the ultimate example of patriotism.

There are groups that have plans that are definitely a threat to liberty in the United States. Now I'm not so sure about other people, but I know for me I prefer to keep my eye on groups that are capable of and have in some places made their authoritarian ideas the law of the land and not groups that would require a series of lucky breaks that defy all sense. There is no use in jumping at shadows cast by trees when the real monsters are already inside the front door.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sacrifice in Norse Lore

The central idea behind Christianity is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by crucifixion in Jerusalem. The idea behind this sacrifice was that by dying He was washing away the sins of all mankind and saving them from the retribution of His Father. This is held up as an example of pure selflessness by an act of willing sacrifice; of a God who became a man to die for humanity. Yet Christianity is not the only place where sacrifice plays an essential role to the beliefs and practices of a people. In Asatru and Germanic Lore sacrifice plays an equally vital role. Willing sacrifice and accepting of loss and death for a greater purpose is as much a part of Heathen cosmology as the Wyrd. For some examples of the role of sacrifice by the Gods we will be examining the sacrifices of Odin and Tyr as well as the heroic example of Beowulf.

The most well-known sacrifices among the Aesir are those of Odin, the One-Eyed Allfather. He gave His left eye for the wisdom of the future from the Well of Mimir and hung Himself from the World Tree as a sacrifice of Himself to Himself for the wisdom of the runes. What we see in the examples of Odin are sacrifice for the sake of improving one's self. The example of Odin is one where we have to consider the lesson that to improve ourselves sometimes we have to leave something behind. In essence His sacrifices, willingly given and at great price, were sacrifices to Himself to elevate Himself to a higher level of understanding and skill. The price of both was great but in both cases the price was willingly paid. Without being ready to give up something of ourselves, those things that hold us back or the effort needed to truly go beyond what we are capable of, we can only go so far. Odin's example is one of giving what it takes of yourself to go above and beyond yourself to another level. It may not be as dramatic as a nine-day hanging or as graphic as plucking one's eye from your head but the example remains the same. Is it not a sacrifice to instead of seeking wealth go on to higher education and spend years in what is effectively an enforced vow of poverty sacrifice for knowledge or spending every day of the week engaging in serious physical exercise to grow stronger a sacrifice for strength?

Next in fame is the sacrifice of Tyr the One-Handed to Fenris so it could be bound and all the Nine Worlds kept safe from the great wolf's ravening jaws. The crux of this sacrifice, like Odin's, is that it is both willing and one that was of great value. Tyr gave His word of honor to the wolf that if Fenris should be bound by the Gods then he could take Tyr's right hand which rested in Fenris' maw. Now Tyr is a mighty and powerful warrior. If He truly wanted He could have plucked His right hand from the wolf's jaws in a moment and cheated the loss. Instead He willingly kept His word of honor and let Fenris have His hand. In this case Tyr is giving up of Himself to stay true to Himself. By letting the wolf take His hand to stand by His oath Tyr was placing His honor above the price of a hand. The sacrifice of Tyr is one that is a sacrifice of yourself to others to stay true to who you really are. There are many times in our lives where we are faced with hard choices to either stand true to what we believe and suffer loss or make the easy choice and leave behind who we really are. The example of Tyr is to willingly accept the losses and tough decisions we must face to stay true to what our conscience tells us is the right thing to do. While we may not be facing literal wolves we all have our wolves to face and times when we must place our hand in the jaws of hardship to remain true to ourselves.

Another example of sacrifice is not that of a God but of a man, albeit a mighty and heroic one. In the sage of Beowulf our hero at the end of his life, old and waning in strength, must face a dragon that is ravaging his kingdom and threatening his people. He knows that he goes to his death, at his advanced age there is little doubt that he will not be able to walk away from this fight as he did from the battles of his younger years against sea serpents, Grendel, and Grendel's mother. Yet he goes off to war personally to defend his people and realm from the ravening monster in spite of the knowledge of certain death. In doing so Beowulf is putting the good of his people and land above personal good willingly and accepting the inevitable nature of death. He knows that either way he is going to die, either from a slow death of age or a swift one in battle. He chooses battle instead because it is a sacrifice that as king he must make for the sake of his people. Beowulf's sacrifice is one of a person in a position of responsibility putting the good of the people ahead of himself. Either way he knows he will die, by going into battle he is choosing to both make his death be one that matters and live up to the life he had led. Beowulf going out to challenge the dragon is a sacrifice of the self for the sake of kin and folk. While not as dramatic as Odin's hanging or Tyr's maiming Beowulf shows to us the simple courage of giving up of ourselves for the needs of the many.

Sacrifice is as much an element of the Norse lore as Christianity but as I have shown is different in its essential nature. Sacrifice by the heroes and Gods is not of the grand sweep on the cosmic level but the sacrifices necessary for the sake of the here and now. Odin gave of Himself to Himself for wisdom that He could apply practically and immediately. Tyr let His hand be taken to stand true to His honor and to keep the wolf at bay. Beowulf went gladly to his death in battle to defend his folk from immediate danger. The sacrifices asked for and given willingly were ones of the sort of the here and now, of life in the immediate sense. This is not to say they were not grand in scale or purpose, but rather the purpose is concrete and practical in nature. By sacrificing of ourselves to go beyond what we can do, to stay true to who we are, or for the sake of others in the hour of greatest need we look to better our lives in the living world. Unlike the sacrifice of Christ to transcend the suffering of the world the sacrifices of Odin, Tyr, and Beowulf were ones to better themselves and the world around them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Education Modernization Proposal

Here is my idea for a comprehensive program for education reform that would save money for our schools and help stimulate our economy in the long-term. This proposal would be easy to pay for, reinvest in itself, and open up real opportunities equally to all Americans.

This program would be easy to pay for. It would be funded by a small tax on hedge fund trading and by closing tax loopholes. The cost of tuition, course materials for required classes, and books for all public universities, community colleges, and trade schools would be covered by the this tax. Students would still have to apply and make the cut to get in but they would not have to worry about costs not associated with cost of living. Assistance programs like the Pell Grant program and the money used to fund student loans currently by the government would be pooled into a special grant program to help pay for the basic cost of living (ie housing, food, utilities all basic) for students proportional to what they can pay and where they are going to school. To prevent waste all universities would be required to conduct a yearly report into waste and fraud that would have to be completed three months before the new budget is due. As part of the program all university applications for public university can only consider coursework and required tests in the application process in a blind process. All personal data, including what school the applicant graduated from, would be removed and not made available to those who handle the applications process.

Cost for covering tuition, books, and course materials is estimated to be around 50 to 100 billion dollars yearly so the tax wouldn't have to be that big and the actual cost isn't much. It would also be a huge boon to the economy and society as a whole for multiple reasons. First, new college graduates would be coming out of school debt-free. This allows for any money they make after graduation to immediately go into helping new production and growth as opposed to sinking into paying off old debts. Second, a more educated workforce is a highly productive one. At the article previously mentioned a Congressional study into the GI Bill done in 1988 determined that for every dollar the Bill spent on education and other benefits for the World War II generation of recipients $6.90 were put back into the economy. That's some pretty serious bang for the buck. Now you would have a work force who would be well educated, able to compete for the jobs of the future thanks to college educations or specialized training in useful trades, and better able to engage in the political process. Third, by making college as cheap as possible and limiting it only by ability we ensure that the best and brightest can get an education and improve themselves regardless of their socioeconomic background.

For such a system to work you would need to seriously re-assess educational standards and who is handling the textbook industry. Most importantly you would need a set golden mean for all of it to work and students gain access to the best opportunity available.

Educational standards would not be based on standardized testing. Standardized tests have done little to improve education in this country and No Child Left Behind, which has enshrined those as the metric to use for school success or failure, has gutted schools across the country. They also cost money that schools can better spend on other things. Instead standards for education would be based on a national minimum curriculum standard. This would require that certain types of classes be taught for a set amount of time similar to admissions requirements for universities. Graduation would be tied in high schools to meeting this standard with two tracks available: one for trade schools and one for higher education. These would also be the baseline for standards for public universities which would be required to meet the minimum standard but could add whatever in particular they like to it for example specific requirements to be admitted to specialized degree programs or taking a particular entrance exam. The specific content of the courses would be determined by the local school boards and universities would still be free to require specific classes and course content. This standard would be set by a panel consisting of representatives from every public university system in the country to ensure that it is educators, not politicians, who are setting the bar and putting the experts in charge.

This would relieve several burdens from the teachers. They would now be required to teach to the course, not to the test. This allows for a more in-depth education into the subject matter instead of a cursory examination and encourages student achievement. Time spent prepping for or taking standardized tests would now be usable as class time for instruction. With all schools required to meet a basic standard teachers' credentials would also be more portable. With every school needing to teach a basic curriculum that is universal in terms of general content. This would also be a major boon for students in terms of their options for university or trade schools. Any student anywhere in the country, provided they are accepted to the particular university, could apply to any public university in the country.

For textbooks I would put in a very simple reform: public universities and primary schools can only purchase textbooks printed by university presses and the contracts for said books must be awarded by open bidding sessions instead of closed negotiations. The modern textbook industry and what are considered to be textbooks are a joke and hideously expensive. They are loaded with unnecessary content that courses often gloss over and are not worth the massive price tags attached.

By requiring they be produced by universities alone this puts the academics instead of big textbook publishing houses in charge of the content and production reducing editorial control and allowing better material to be produced. Competition in terms of content and cost would still be very firmly in place with multiple university presses in operation around the world providing sources of textbooks. The money would also directly benefit education instead of being funneled into publishing houses allowing the universities that produce the best educational materials to have more money to invest into their facilities and courses. This also does not limit the course materials schools would have access to. Professors and departments would still be free to add other sources outside of textbooks to the curriculum. There is also nothing stopping particular schools and departments from asking for multiple textbooks per subject if there are concerns of bias in the materials available. The cost savings for the school system would also be considerable. By increasing the size of the field and making the contracts competitive schools would be spending much less money on textbooks and able to use those savings in a fashion that is more beneficial to the school.

In closing I believe that if this whole program is implemented it would greatly improve our economy, our educational system, and our society as a whole with no real downsides. Previous comprehensive investments in education such as those provided by the GI Bill and during the 1950s had tangible benefits to our economy and society. By ensuring that ability and merit are the only factors that determine if you go on to higher education the best in our society will be able to truly fulfill their potential and rise to the top.