Honoring Our Dead Means Acknowledging War’s Truths

It’s Memorial Day here in the United States.

In the resort town I live in, that means a return of the tourists (and their money), and the true beginning of summer. But of course, Memorial Day is about much more than the local supermarket going to longer hours, or a day off for school kids and bankers.

Memorial Day was created out of “Decoration Day,” during which people cleaned up and decorated military graves in a ritual that is almost pagan in nature. Unfortunately in my view, the 1968 move from observing Memorial Day on May 30th to doing so on “the last Monday in May” in order to create a three-day weekend may have done much to undermine the occasions traditional meaning.

As a shaman whose work includes the Dead, and for me specifically, the wandering Dead, I’m saddened at the diminishing of the day’s meaning. To be clear I’m not someone who would generally be considered a “patriot,” and for the most part, I don’t support our country’s wide ranging and ill-defined military activities around the world these days.

We are generally a society that seeks to sanitize death in a way that allows us to distance ourselves not only from the reality of death, but from the dead themselves. The days when loved ones would clean and dress a body, or have them in the home between death and burial, are quaint memories of a time past. For this reason, among others, I deeply wish there was a day when as a society we could stop and reflect on just what war means for all those involved.

In my view, this whole issue of understanding war and what it means, is particularly important, and at times challenging, for neo-pagans and modern polytheists. We glorify and honor warriors above others in many of our traditions, and I’m not arguing that that’s a bad thing per say. But faith and devotion should, if nothing else, be intellectually, spiritually, and historically honest. If we are going to truly honor warriors, we can’t ignore the reality of war.

In the words of WWII veteran Eugene Sledge:

As I looked at the stains on the coral, I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how “gallant” it is for a man to “shed his blood for his country,” and “to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,” and so on. The words seemed so ridiculous. Only the flies benefited. - With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Sledge, E.B.) p.144

If you think death is any gentler or prettier when it comes from a sword, arrow, mace, or pike, instead of an artillery shell or machine gun, you’re sadly mistaken.

Now more than ever it’s so important to try to understand the brutal, ugly truth of war.

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My Reply to Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek

Wintersong:

Education historian and analyst Diane Ravitch presents a detailed breakdown of the issues with Common Core standards in a refutation of Alexander Nazaryan’s vocal support of the program.

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

I received a tweet from Alexander Nazaryan, the author of the Newsweek piece rebuking Louis C.K. and defending the Common Core standards, asking me for a substantive critique of his article.

OK, here goes.

He begins by saying that Louis C.K. has a professional habit of being angry, which I suppose is meant to scoff at his anger and say that he should not be taken seriously.

But then we get into Alexander’s views about Common Core.

The Common Core is “loathed” by Left and Right alike, for different reasons. This is true.

Then he makes the claim that the teachers’ unions oppose the Common Core, which is untrue. Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints…

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My Summer’s Dawn

Summer's Dawn

The winter’s dark and cold have finally relinquished their hold on us, and not a moment too soon. Here in southern Maine, Beltane marks the turning point passed which snow, while not impossible, would at the least be a surprise, and wouldn’t last long.

We’re into the time between Beltane and Solstice, a fertile time for growth and beginnings. It’s a scary, but also exciting time in my own life right now. My day job, which I’m generally fond of doesn’t pay enough to cover my share of our bills. In six months, with my folks’ retirement, we will lose the generous financial support that has helped keep us afloat.

The pressure of needing to look for more income has forced me to finally actively pursue answers to some of my lifelong health issues, in the hope that new management strategies could make it easier for me to stay healthy enough for work.

It’s also led me to ask some of the really big and complex questions about who I am and where I want to go with my life and my Work. My Lady affords me quite a lot of freedom in many ways, and that freedom can be both heady and scary.

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Transcending Boundaries 2014 Keynote Address ‘Inclusion Is Not A Moonshot’

Below you’ll find my keynote address from Transcending Boundaries Conference 2014. The recording of the address didn’t work out, so I re-recorded it from my office. The text has been slightly modified to better suit print. 

 

 

Before I get going with the body of today’s address, I’d like to do a little exercise to help us look at how we think about inclusion in our community. And please, for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t try to read too much into the order as I go, sometimes a list is just a list. Here are some common generalizations people have about people in the queer and LGBT community:

  • Bi people are often perceived as not “really” part of our community since there’s a perception that they can could always be with someone of the opposite sex
  • Cis gay men are seen as having so many societal advantages as to no longer be subjects of oppression and bigotry.
  • Lesbian and gay women are expected to cleave to hetero-normative gender expressions in their relationships, in the form of having a mandatory butch and fem partner
  • Trans* people are often portrayed as having one universal narrative of what it means to be transgender transsexual, or genderqueer.
  • Queer people are associated with being young and college educated.
  • Asexual people are all too often assumed to be simply inexperienced or afraid of sex
  • People make all sorts of presumptions about intersex people’s bodies
  • Polyamorous people are thought to be impulsive, flighty, or incapable of commitment.
  • People who engage in kink or BDSM practices are seen as unhealthy, prone to abuse, or inherently misogynistic.
  • When it comes to “questioning” people, there’s the belief that the “question” will always resolve in one of the preceding categories.
  • And of course, there’s a widespread belief that allies must have family or friends who are queer/LGBT or secretly have queer/LGBT leanings of their own.

OK, now here’s the question I want you to ask yourself: how closely did you pay attention to the points on that list that weren’t directly applicable to your life? Did you really listen to the others, or were you too caught up in waiting to hear what I was going to say about the demographic or issue closest to your own personal experience?

If you’re really being honest with yourself, did you pretty much just look for your piece of the pie?

Or do you really feel like you took in the whole list.

On that note, did you weigh the relative severity of each of the scenarios listed to see who I was putting forth as having things the worst or best?

It’s not fun to think about is it? It’s easy to find ourselves feeling terribly defensive in moments like these. Furthering the conversation around inclusion is incredibly important, especially now, when the future of our community is more uncertain than ever, but you can already see why it’s a conversation we really struggle to have.

Speaking of: I was asked to give this address fourteen months ago, and it has absolutely kicked my ass that whole time.

A big part of that is that I haven’t been able to escape the idea that maybe it’s just not appropriate for me to give this keynote. I love TBC, and I was immensely honored to be asked. But the truth is, having a cisgender white guy talk about inclusion at a queer conference just doesn’t seem like the best idea.

There’s no escaping the fact that by virtue of my being a cis white guy, I am perceived by many people in this room as an embodiment of an oppressive system that robs people of power and agency. And I’ve struggled in crafting it, given that I’m coming from an undeniable place of privilege, to address people who struggle against forces of disempowerment driven by the very privileges I carry through life.

After all, I found myself asking, what was there for me to say?

That as a broad community queer/LGBTQ people kinda suck at inclusion? I’m pretty sure most of you already know that. And over the last year of work on this topic I’ve thought about many ways to say it, so some of what I will have to say is about us, and some of it is about me.

I actually wrote a version of this address with as little of myself in it as possible. Objectively, it wasn’t a bad keynote, but it wasn’t the right one for me to give. I’m not a speechwriter, I’m a storyteller and an educator. Inclusion, as we’ll see is not a moonshot, and I’m not JFK, and both of those things are just going to have to be OK, because that’s what we’ve got to work with.

Speaking of JFK, I’m both a science and a history nerd so I was aware of Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September of 1962. You may never have heard of the Rice University speech, but I’m sure you’ve heard this part of it:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

Think about this: less than three months earlier John Glenn had become the first American to complete an orbit our planet, and here the President was giving the nation little over seven years to set foot on another world. America’s “moonshot” was monumental task that we’d pledged ourselves to.

The following decade saw a series of clear milestones laid out and achieved as we raced to go from from cramming someone into the nosecone of a ballistic missile to traveling to the moon. And on July 24th 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth carrying the first humans to have set foot on celestial body.

The moment Apollo 11 splashed down in the ocean, everyone who would follow after in the pursuit of a goal were pretty screwed. President Kennedy and the people behind the space program had created impossibly big shoes to fill, and from there on out we’ve been trying to. After all, how many times have we heard “how is it that we can put a man on the moon but not… whatever?”

You’re probably wondering what the point of that little history lesson was.

You see, one side effect of stressing out about this address, was that ideas about inclusion would pop into my head at random times. For me, random times pretty much meant in the shower or falling asleep. I have significant OCD, and became somewhat obsessed with the idea that the perfect thought would occur to me, and I’d forget it. So I got a waterproof case for my phone for the shower-driven ideas, and kept a notepad by my bed. “Inclusion is not a moonshot” was one of the more puzzling thoughts my fatigue addled brain put out there at four AM. But for some reason, I found myself unable to dismiss it come morning. The process of trying to figure it out helped shape my understanding of how we as a community all too often fall short when it comes to inclusion.

Before I was a sex and kink educator, or an LGBT activist for that matter, I was a product designer. The methodological approach to problem solving that got us to the moon makes sense to that part of my brain. Identify a problem, break it down into manageable chunks, complete steps A to Z, and voila, you’ve landed on the moon. It’s a good way to address many problems, and it’s useful for everything from interplanetary travel to grocery shopping.

What it isn’t good at is dealing with soft, squishy, human problems. The moonshot model can’t describe love, or how to create art, and when push comes to shove, it doesn’t do very well when it comes to building community either.

And we really try.

When it comes to being inclusive, we persistently follow a top-down, systematic approach to being better at this whole thing. It does a pretty awesome job of making privileged people feel less guilty about their privilege, but that’s about it.

This is the way of thinking that says “if we put a trans* person on our board then we’re inclusive” or “it’s not our fault that people of color just aren’t interested in our community” or to be personal for a moment “we’ve never had a cis guy give one of our keynotes and figured it was time.” The underlying idea is that leadership decisions can effectively bring about organic change to a whole community or demographic, and on the balance it just doesn’t work.

I’m not trying to say that way of doing things never leads to positive outcomes, it absolutely does, and it sure beats the living hell out of not doing anything at all. But when change comes, it does so because of the strength and determination of a few dedicated individuals who carve out a place for themselves and hold space for more people like them.

I have the utmost respect for those folks, but I also feel sorry for them. Down that road lies burnout and bitterness for too many, and even more tragically, it’s not unheard of for the departure of one or two critical people in a community to render it no longer as comfortable or safe for the those they were holding space for. In time those people drift away, rendering all the hard work that went into giving them a voice or a place in the community for naught.

Screw all of that, we can to do better.

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LGBT People Aren’t Nazis and Christian Extremists Aren’t 1930s & 40s Jews

I rarely talk about my milk-religion, although on the balance my experience growing up in Judaism was a positive one, because these days I am about as bad a Jew as is possible in 2014.

Being a surgically sterilized polytheistic pagan who regrew his foreskin, I’m pretty much the embodiment of a broken link in a chair of ancestry going back hundreds or even thousands of years. There are likely people out there who do greater disservice to the faith, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one on short notice.

However, while I may have betrayed the faith of my forebears, racially my background is purely Eastern European Jew.

Given that it’s an identity I generally reject, you might imagine that it takes a staggaringly grievous offense to fill me with anger as a Jew. But in the last few weeks, right-wing Christianity has been doing a bang-up job of it.

I am thirty-three years old, and thus belong to the last generation to be raised surrounded by survivors of the Nazi concentration, work, and death camps. From a young age I was told the stories of my people’s systematic dehumanization and mechanized extermination.

Before my thirteenth birthday I’d seen photos and read accounts of the world’s first factory-based genocide: the piles of corpses, mounds of ash, death chambers build for efficient wholesale slaughter, and the emaciated frames of hopeless survivors being liberated by the advancing American and Soviet militaries/ These are all part of my racial memory, and central to the experience of what it meant to be a late 20th-century Jew.

For a long time, I believed that Scott Lively’s disgraceful book The Pink Swastika, which asserts that…the Nazi party was entirely controlled by militaristic male homosexuals throughout its short history and is often touted or referenced by Christian extremists, was the lowest the right could sink.

The last few weeks have proven that belief to be tragically incorrect.

I’m going to draw on the excellent Right Wing Watch for these links, since I don’t want to drive traffic to the original sources (most often Matt Barber’s vile website), but those sources are all cited within the posts I’ve linked to:

  • Far-right columnist John Biver said that “…full capitulation to the homosexual agenda… or it will be re-education, incarceration, bankruptcy, marginalization, and state-sanctioned ridicule… or worse… are there any available cattle cars around?” He was alluding to the cattle cars in which millions of Jews were shipped to extermination camp.
  • Pat Fagan, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, criticized a United Nations report on child sex abuse in the Catholic Church by comparing it to Kristallnacht, the pogrom against German Jews in 1938 seen by many as the true beginning of the Jewish experience of the Nazi Holocaust (as distinct from the Nazi oppression and extermination of other populations such as the Roma, the disabled, and homosexuals)
  • Christian extremist Matt Barber said, “Christians are going to have to start wearing a yellow cross. Are we in 1939 Germany here?” He was referring to the yellow Star of David worn by Jews in the ghettoes and later the camps. Gay men wore a pink triangle, lesbians wore a black one (which was multipurpose), and Roma a brown one.
  • Indiana pastor Jeff Allen, writing (again) on Matt Barber’s website, said of gay and liberal activists: “Many of them really do console themselves with fantasies of their own Kristallnacht, in which Christians are euphemistically “taken out of the way” as part of the ‘gay’-stapo’s ‘final solution’ to the ‘Christian problem.'”

And that’s just the last few weeks! However, lest you feel I’m unfairly picking on Matt Barber, going back further we find:

  • Bryan Fischer on the Supreme Court’s marriage equality rulings: “…doing to [Christians] what the Nazis did to the Jews”
  • And one more classic from Fischer: “Ladies and gentlemen, they are Nazis. Do not be under any illusions about what homosexual activists will do with your freedoms and your religion if they have the opportunity. They’ll do the same thing to you that the Nazis did to their opponents in Nazi Germany.”

And so, for all the Christians, homophobes, and right-wing activists who don’t seem to get it, speaking as someone who is racially, if not spiritually Jewish, allow me to make something abundantly clear:

Not being allowed to discriminate against LGBT people, have prayers to your particular god read at state-funded functions/institutions, or have the government make legal policies based on your particular holy book, is most emphatically not the same as being torn from your homes and families, and then systematically exterminated.

If you think that it is, your life has been so blessed with social privilege that you have become disconnected from reality.