Category Archives: Culture

The Vast Impact of Legalizing Hemp

The Empire doesn’t understand yet what has happened. Legalizing hemp farming and hemp industries will have a profound impact on our local communities, our soil, our ecosystems and our culture at large. They don’t understand that legalizing hemp, part of the new Farm Bill enacted in December, is a tremendous catalyst for change. But we do.

Hemp was the first plant under human cultivation, some 10,000 years ago. Hemp farming and production was a staple of Europe and much of the world 1,000 years ago. Without hemp Europeans could not have colonized so much of the world, as hemp sails are durable and don’t rot. So we have some history with the plant.

William Hurst, the yellow news publisher from 100 years ago was quite the racist. He hated people of color, and while it was quite clear that hemp was a staple for poor folk, he intentionally confused hemp and marijuana, a favorite high of these minorities. He demonized both incessently in his papers until congress took the step of making production of hemp and manufacture of hemp products illegal, along with its cousin, ‘the heathen devil weed’. But why go after hemp?

Hearst happened to own millions of acres of forest that he wanted to leverage as paper for his ‘news’ empire. That would never happen as long as hemp was readily available and clearly a much wiser option. He removed that as a legal option, and caused unspeakable damage to our culture and country for nearly a century.

So that’s how we got here, and with this new Farm Bill, we reverse this travesty. And again, The Empire doesn’t yet know what it has allowed to happen.

First, a little clarity. There are hundreds of major strains of cannabis, the family’s latin name. They all share the ability to grow in less than ideal soils with minimal pesticide use. They have edible, oil rich seeds. Their stalks contain strong, durable fibers. They absorb heavy metals and radiation. Hemp has less than .03% of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Yet each strain has its unique characteristics. Hemp grown for fiber is planted closely together, with large, spindly patterns than can reach 15 feet. Hemp grown for oil has more widely spaced plants, with far more side branches to encourage bud and seed growth.

Cannibus varieties grown for THC also prefer wide spacing, to allow as many buds to form and develop as possible.

So why the big deal? Let’s start at 30,000 feet. Much of our current malaise is due to corporate globalism, a trade system developed for profit, not to fulfill human need. Shoes from China, shirts from the Philippines or Indonesia, food from South America, fossil fuels from the Middle East – we’ve been globalized, without really seeing the problem even as us older folk watched this process take place over decades. Here’s a good reference on our oldest cultivated plant.

With legal hemp we begin to reverse this trend, we start strengthening local production and hence our local communities. This will be tightly coupled with the local food movement, which is already gaining influence in many areas. A great blow against The Empire.

How? Here’s a bit of a list…

Hempcrete – the Roman Coliseum and viaducts were built with hempcrete, the hemp fibers adding centuries to the viable ‘life’ of the concrete. As we begin the huge task of rebuilding US infrastructure, hempcrete can be invaluable.

Fuel – biodiesel and ethanal/methanal – the seeds are pressed and processed for biodiesel, the stalks fermented to create ethanal/methanal fuels. Both are efficient and renewable.

Food – hemp seeds have a refreshing, nutty taste. They are a great addition to soups, salads, burgers and more. Hemp oil can be used in food as well.

Clothing – hemp fibers are strong and durable, and through processing can become quite soft. The material takes color dyes well too!

Shoes – slippers and sandals are easily fashioned. Heavy duty work boots will require more processed forms of help.

Composites – Any number of composites can be created from hemp parts. Indeed, many cars now have composites with a hemp base for dashboards and interior molds, just like the first Ford’s did 100 years ago.

Plastics – While our abusive relationship with disposable plastics requires a cultural shift, bioplastics made from hemp are far less damaging to our environments and oceans.

Medicines – CBDs (cannabinoids) are the current rage, able to help treat PTSD, arthritis and other conditions. The plant contains over a hundred cannabinoids, many with medicinal properties. CBDs are not psychoactive.

Even if you’re not stoned, this is an impressive list. Your mission, should you choose to join us, is to aid in our transition to local, hemp-based products. Farming, processing, distribution, new products, education and networking – there are tremendous opportunities. Fire logs, furniture, we don’t even know yet what we’re capable of being reunited with our old friend.

With hemp we gain a valuable resource for reducing the destruction of our already degraded home planet, Earth. We immediately reduce logging and its destructive footprint. The bleaching process to make paper from wood is eliminated as well. Imagine the boost we can bring to our communities with locally made clothes, fuel oils and food. Composites for the new 3D printing tech. It’s going to get wild, folks!

Curiously, the corrupt Trump administration has enabled the most substantial farm bill in decades. Now, the new congress can further policies which support hemp, which will surely support us.

Embracing hemp carries deeper overtones. Such work is healing and has us in intimate touch with the Earth and its natural cycles. It encourages us to embrace a radical new relationship with our natural world. It encourages us to be present to Life itself.

Now that the government is out of the way, the speed with which we reintroduce ourselves to our oldest plant friend is up to us. It will take a few years to re-find the knowledge and machinery used in the past, and to find our way forward with new ideas and technology. But the time when hemp is again pervasive in our culture is coming soon.

Looking for work or a new enterprise? Think hemp.

“Instagram Helped Kill My Daughter”: Censorship Tendencies in Social Media

It is all a rather sorry tale.  Molly Russell, another teenager gorged on social media content, sharing and darkly revelling, took her own life in 2017 supposedly after viewing what the BBC described as “disturbing content about suicide on social media.”  Causation is presumed, and the platform hosting the content is saddled with blame.

Molly’s father was not so much seeking answers as attributing culpability.  Instagram, claimed Ian Russell, “helped kill my daughter”.  He was also spoiling to challenge other platforms: “Pininterest has a huge amount to answer for.”  These platforms do, but not in quite the same way suggested by the aggrieved father.

The political classes were also quick to jump the gun.  Here was a chance to score a few moral points as a distraction from the messiness of Brexit negotiations.  UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was in combative mood on the Andrew Marr show: “If we think they need to do things they are refusing to do, then we can and we must legislate.”  Material dealing with self-harm and suicide would have to be purged.  As has become popular in this instance, the purging element would have to come from technology platforms themselves, helped along by the kindly legislators.

Any time the censor steps in as defender of morality, safety and whatever tawdry assertions of social control, citizens should be alarmed.  Such attitudes are precisely the sorts of things that empty libraries and lead to the burning of books, even if they host the nasty and the unfortunate.  Content deemed undesirable must be removed; offensive content must be expunged to make us safe.  The alarming thing here is that compelling the tech behemoths to undertake such a task has the effect of granting them even more powers of social control than before. Don’t they exert enough control as it is?

While social media giants can be accused, on a certain level, of faux humanitarianism and their own variant of sublimated sociopathic control (surveillance capitalism is alive and well), they are merely being hectored for the logical consequence of sharing information and content. This is set to become more concentrated, with Facebook, as Zak Doffman writes, planning to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp further to enable users “across all three platforms to share messages and information more easily”.  Given Facebook’s insatiable quest for advertising revenue, Instagram is being tasked with being the dominant force behind it.

The onus on production and exchange is on customers: the customers supply the material, and spectacle.  They are the users and the exploited.  This, in turn, enables the social media tech groups to monetise data, trading it, exploiting it and tanking privacy measures in the process.  The social media junkie is a modern, unreflective drone.

In doing so, an illusion of independent thinking is created, where debates can supposedly be had, and ideas formed.  The grand peripatetic walk can be pursued.  Often, the opposite takes place: groups assemble along lines of similar thought; material of like vein is bounced around under the impression it advances discussion when it merely provides filling for a cork-lined room or chamber of near-identical thinking.  All of this is assisted by the algorithmic functions performed by the social media entities, all in the name of making the “experience” you have a richer one.  Far be it in their interest to make sure you juggle two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Instagram’s own “Community Guidelines” have the aim of fostering and protecting “this amazing community” of users.  It suggests that photos and videos that are shared should only be done by those with a right to do so.  Featured photos and videos should be directed towards “a diverse audience”.  A reminder that the tech giant is already keen on promoting a degree of control is evident in restrictions on nudity – a point that landed the platform in some hot water last year.  “This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.”  That’s many an art period banished from viewing and discussion.

The suicide fraternity is evidently wide enough to garner interest, even if the cult of self-harm takes much ethical punishment from the safety lobby.  Material is still shared.  Self-harm advisories are distributed through the appropriate channels.

Instagram’s response to this is to try to nudge such individuals towards content and groups that might just as equally sport reassuring materials to discourage suicide and self-harm.  Facebook, through its recently appointed Vice-President of Global Affairs, Sir Nick Clegg, was even happy to point out that the company had prevented suicides: “Over the last year, 3,500 people who were displaying behaviour liable to lead to the taking of their own lives on Facebook were saved by early responders being pointed to those and people and intervening at the right time.”

This is all to the good, but such views fail in not understanding that social media is not used or engaged in to change ideas so much as create communities who only worship a select few.  The tyranny of the algorithm is a hard one to dislodge.

In engaging such content, we are dealing with narcotised dragoons of users, the unquestioning creating content for the unchallenged. That might prove to be the greatest social crime of all, the paradox of nipping curiosity rather than nurturing it, but instead of dealing with the complexities of information from this perspective, governments are going to make technology companies the chief censors.  It might well be argued that enough of that is already taking place as it is, this being the age of deplatforming.  Whether it be a government or a social media giant, the same shoddy principle is the same: others know better than you do, and you should be protected from yourself.

The CIA Then and Now: Old Wine in New Bottles

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

Don McLean, “American Pie”, 1971

The Nazis had a name for their propaganda and mind-control operations: weltanschauungskrieg – “world view warfare.”  As good students, they had learned many tricks of the trade from their American teachers, including Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who had honed his propagandistic skills for the United States during World War I and had subsequently started the public relations industry in New York City, an industry whose raison d’ȇtre from the start was to serve the interests of the elites in manipulating the public mind.

In 1941, U.S. Intelligence translated weltanschauungskrieg as “psychological warfare,” a phrase that fails to grasp the full dimensions of the growing power and penetration of U.S. propaganda, then and now.  Of course, the American propaganda apparatus was just then getting started on an enterprise that has become the epitome of successful world view warfare programs, a colossal beast whose tentacles have spread to every corner of the globe and whose fabrications have nestled deep within the psyches of many hundreds of millions of Americans and people around the world.  And true to form in this circle game of friends helping friends, this propaganda program was ably assisted after WW II by all the Nazis secreted into the U.S. (“Operation Paperclip”) by Allen Dulles and his henchmen in the OSS and then the CIA to make sure the U.S. had operatives to carry on the Nazi legacy (see David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, The CIA, and The Rise of America’s Secret Government, an extraordinary book that will make your skin crawl with disgust).

This went along quite smoothly until some people started to question the Warren Commission’s JFK assassination story.  The CIA then went on the offensive in 1967 and put out the word to all its people in the agency and throughout the media and academia to use the phrase “conspiracy theory” to ridicule these skeptics, which they have done up until the present day. This secret document – CIA Dispatch 1035-960 – was a propaganda success for many decades, marginalizing those researchers and writers who were uncovering the truth about not just President Kennedy’s murder by the national security state, but those of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.  Today, the tide is turning on this score, as recently more and more Americans are fed up with the lies and are demanding that the truth be told.  Even the Washington Post is noting this, and it is a wave of opposition that will only grow.

The CIA Exposed – Partially

But back in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, some covert propaganda programs run by the CIA were “exposed.”  First, the Agency’s sponsorship of the Congress of Cultural Freedom, through which it used magazines, prominent writers, academics, et al. to spread propaganda during the Cold War, was uncovered.  This was an era when Americans read serious literary books, writers and intellectuals had a certain cachet, and popular culture had not yet stupefied Americans. The CIA therefore secretly worked to influence American and world opinion through the literary and intellectual elites.  Frances Stonor Saunders comprehensively covers this in her 1999 book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA And The World Of Arts And Letters, and Joel Whitney followed this up in 2016 with Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, with particular emphasis on the complicity of the CIA and the famous literary journal The Paris Review.

Then in 1975 the Church Committee hearings resulted in the exposure of abuses by the CIA, NSA, FBI, etc.  In 1977 Carl Bernstein wrote a long piece for Esquire – “The CIA and the Media” – naming names of journalists and publications (The New York Times, CBS, etc.) that worked with and for the CIA in propagandizing the American people and the rest of the world.  (Conveniently, this article can be read on the CIA’s website since presumably the agency has come clean, or, if you are the suspicious type, or maybe a conspiracy theorist, it is covering its deeper tracks with a “limited hangout,” defined by former CIA agent Victor Marchetti, who went rogue, as “spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”)

Confess and Move On

By the late 1970s, it seemed as if the CIA had been caught in flagrante delicto and disgraced, had confessed its sins, done penance, and resolved to go and sin no more.  Seeming, however, is the nature of the CIA’s game.  Organized criminals learn to adapt to the changing times, and that is exactly what the intelligence operatives did.  Since the major revelations of the late sixties and seventies – MKUltra, engineered coups all around the world, assassinations of foreign leaders, spying on Americans, etc. – no major program of propaganda has been exposed in the mainstream media.  Revealing books about certain CIA programs have been written – e.g. Douglas Valentine’s important The Phoenix Program being one – and dissenting writers, journalists, researchers, and whistleblowers (Robert Parry, Gary Webb, Julian Assange, James W. Douglass, David Ray Griffin, Edward Snowden, et al.) have connected the U.S. intelligence services to dirty deeds and specific actions, such as the American engineered coup d’état in Ukraine in 2013-14, electronic spying, and the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But the propaganda has for the most part continued unabated at a powerful and esoteric cultural level, while illegal and criminal actions are carried out throughout the world in the most blatant manner imaginable, as if to say fuck you openly while insidiously infecting the general population through the mass electronic screen culture that has relegated intellectual and literary culture to a tiny minority.

Planning Ahead

Let me explain what I think has been happening.

Organizations like the CIA are obviously fallible and have made many mistakes and failed to anticipate world events.  But they are also very powerful, having great financial backing,  and do the bidding of their masters in banking, Wall St., finance, etc.  They are the action arm of these financial elites, and are, as Douglass Valentine has written, organized criminals.  They have their own military, are joined to all the armed forces, and are deeply involved in the drug trade. They control the politicians. They operate their own propaganda network in conjunction with the private mercenaries they hire for their operations.  The corporate mass media take their orders, orders that need not be direct, but sometimes are, because these media are structured to do the bidding of the same elites that formed the CIA and own the media.  And while their ostensible raison d’ȇtre is to provide intelligence to the nation’s civilian leaders, this is essentially a cover story for their real work that is propaganda, killing, and conducting coups d’états at home and abroad.

Because they have deep pockets, they can afford to buy all sorts of people, people who pimp for the elites. Some of these people do work that is usually done by honest academics and independent intellectuals, a dying breed, once called free-floating intellectuals. These pimps analyze political, economic, technological, and cultural trends.  They come from different fields: history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, cultural studies, linguistics, etc. They populate the think tanks and universities.  They are often intelligent but live in bad faith, knowing they are working for those who are doing the devil’s work. But they collect their pay and go their way straight to the bank, the devil’s bank.  They often belong to the Council of Foreign Relations or the Heritage Foundation. They are esteemed and esteem themselves.  But they are pimps.

El Diablo

Ah, the devil!  He’s their man. A man of many names, but always an impostor.  These pimps know his story and how he works his magic, and this is what their paymasters want from them: ways to use the old bastard’s bag of tricks to conjure confusion, and sow fear and paranoia.  And to do this slow and easy in ways no one will recognize until it is too late.

For like culture, propaganda relies on myths, symbols, and stories.  Some prefer to say narratives.  But nothing is more powerful.  Controlling the stories is the key to powerful propaganda. The pimps can spin many a tale.

Tell people endless tales of the good guys and the bad, of how the bad are out to get you and the good to save you. Think of the use of symbols in the telling of these stories.  They are crucial.  The word symbol comes from a Greek word to throw together.  Symbols that represent the in-group or the “good guys” are used to create social solidarity within the in-group.  Stories are told to accompany the symbols; stories, narratives, or myths tell of how the good guys are fighting to hold the group together and the bad guys are trying to rip the community apart.  The symbolic and its opposite – the diabolic (to throw apart) – the angels against the devils – el diablo.  Very simple, very old.  The aliens are out to get us.  And el diablo is always the ultimate other, the man in red, the reds, the commies, the Russians, the others, immigrants, the blacks who want to move next door, Muslims, gays  – take your pick.  Satanic rituals.  Black magic.  Witchcraft.

Methods of Propaganda

Infecting minds with such symbols and stories must be done directly and indirectly, as well as short-term and long-term.  Long term propaganda is like a slowly leaking water pipe that you are vaguely aware of but that rots the metal from within until the pipe can no longer resist the pressure.  Drip drop, drip drop, drip drop – and the inattentive recipients of the propaganda gradually lose their mettle to resist and don’t know it, and then when an event bursts into the news – e.g. the attacks of September 11, 2001 or Russia-gate – they have been so softened that their assent is automatically given.  They know without hesitation who the devil is and that he must be fought.

The purpose of the long-term propaganda is to create certain predispositions and weaknesses that can be exploited when needed.  Certain events can be the triggers to induce the victims to react to suggestions.  When the time is ripe, all that is needed is a slight suggestion, like a touch on the shoulder, and the hypnotized one acts in a trance.  The gun goes off, and the entranced one can’t remember why (see: Sirhan Sirhan). This is the goal of mass hypnotization through long-term propaganda: confusion, memory loss, and automatic reaction to suggestion.

Intelligence Pimps and Liquid Screen Culture

When the CIA’s dirty tricks were made public in the 1970s, it is not hard to imagine that the intellectual pimps who do their long-range thinking were asked to go back to the drawing board and paint a picture of the coming decades and how business as usual could be conducted without further embarrassment.  By that time it had become clear that intellectual or high culture was being swallowed by mass culture and the future belonged to electronic screen culture and images, not words.  What has come to be called “postmodernity” ensued, or what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity” and Guy Debord “the society of the spectacle.”  Such developments, rooted in what Frederic Jameson has termed “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” have resulted in the fragmentation of social and personal life into pointillistic moving pictures whose dots form incoherent images that sow mass confusion and do not cohere.  From the mid-1970s until today, this generalized disorientation with its flowing and eternal present of appearing and dissolving images has resulted in what is surely a transformed world, and with it, transformed worldviews.  The foundations have collapsed. Meaning and coherence have become difficult to discern.  Stable personality has been disassociated, memory downloaded, attention lost, the psyche materialized, sexual identity confused, the electronic mind-body interface established, and the electronic and pharmaceutical drugging of the population accomplished.  Really?  Yes.

Did not the intelligence agencies foresee all this?  Did not they see it and plan accordingly?  Did they not notice that about the time their old dirty deeds were being exposed, a movie burst onto the screen that introduced a theme familiar to them and their Nazi friends?  I mean the 1973 hit, The Exorcist, wherein Satan struts his stuff, four years after Mick Jagger strut his across the stage at Altamont, singing “Sympathy for the Devil,” while shortly after a killing took place down in front of him and the 1960s were laid to rest.  But during the 1970s The Exorcist and its theme of the devil’s hold on people came to life and was taken up with a religious fervor by the entertainment industry and promoted by Oprah Winfrey, Geraldo Rivera, and other media luminaries, who went about promoting el diablo’s hold on so many helpless victims.  Occult, magic, and satanic themes became pop staples and would remain so up until the present day.  I would suggest that readers put aside their reservations at what may seem sensational and watch this video.  Then ask yourself: what is going on here?

The CIA as Prophetic

But maybe a better question than did the CIA foresee these developments, would be to ask if it has been involved in the occult and satanic world itself, before and after the social developments of “liquid modernity.”   The answer is yes.  Indeed, all the characteristics of the social and cultural developments I mentioned previously in reference to postmodernity have been a major part of its work before this new world emerged: “the disassociation of stable personalities, memory erasure and the implanting of false memories, materializing the psyche, confusing sexual identity, establishing the electronic mind-body interface, and electronic, hallucinogenic (the CIA introduced and spread LSD in the 1960s), and pharmaceutical drugging,” to name but a few.  In anticipating these developments the CIA was at the very least predictive.  Disinformation, acts of terrorism,  coup d’états, assassinations flow out of a marriage to the Nazis made in hell – Talbot’s “devil’s chessboard” – but they are linked to much more.  Peter Levenda, in Sinister Forces: A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft, a trilogy on sinister forces in American history, puts it this way:

The CIA, satanic cults, and UFOs, the mythology of the late twentieth century is surprisingly coherent even though the masks change from case to case, from victim to alleged victim.  The CIA, of course, does exist; their mind control programs from BLUEBIRD to ARTICHOKE to MK-ULTRA are a matter of public record.  Their history of political assassinations and the overthrow of various foreign governments is also a matter of record.  Satanic cults – or perhaps we should qualify that and say ‘occult secret societies’ – also exist and are a matter of public record; their attempts to contact alien forces by means of ceremonial magic and arcane ritual (including the use of some of the same drugs and other techniques as the CIA used in its mind control programs) are also well-known and documented.  Some of these practitioners were – and are – well-known men and women who have not denied their involvement (such as rocket scientist Jack Parsons in the 1950s and Army Colonel and intelligence officer Michael Aquino in the 1990s).  The CIA also aggressively researched American cults and secret societies in an effort to discover the source of paranormal abilities and ancient mind control mechanisms. And while the jury is still out on the question of UFOs, there is no doubt that government agencies have attempted to track, to analyze them, and to explain them away.  Again this is a matter of public record, including FBI and CIA documents in addition to military records.

Skeptical readers may find this strange to consider.  That would be a mistake.  The web of connections is there for anyone who cares to look.  For more than fifty years occult themes and rituals have been part of world view warfare.  Drugs, shamanism, black magic, and the occult – staples of the CIA then and now.  It is well known that Hollywood, television, and the media in general have been working closely with the intelligence agencies for a long time. Especially since 2001, films and television programs have glorified the CIA, our “good” spies, and the military. The mystification of reality has found its best friend in the electronic and internet revolution as strange and “subversive” beliefs are dangled like candy for little children.  Good and evil move through the public consciousness like passing sun and shadows.  Weird conspiracy theories “pop up” to titillate and obsess, and to drive out the serious findings of dedicated and disciplined writers and researchers who have discovered the truth about real government conspiracies.  Sowing confusion is the name of this deadly game, and if you find yourself confused, you are in good company.

But many are catching on and realizing that what seems strange but innocent is part of a much larger effort to hypnotize the public to agree to their own destruction through the ingestion of what can only be called black magic.

The eloquent writer and brave American, Jim Garrison, the former District Attorney of New Orleans and the only person to bring a trial in the assassination of President Kennedy, put it this way in On The Trail of The Assassins, the story of his quest to solve the murder of JFK.

I knew by now that when a group of individuals gravitated toward one another for no apparent reason, or a group of individuals inexplicitly headed in the same directions as if drawn by a magnetic field, or coincidence piled upon coincidence too many times, as often as not the shadowy outlines of a covert intelligence operation were somehow becoming visible.

Rub Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the right way and the CIA emerges into the light.  You can see its shadowy outline with your eyes wide shut.  As it says on CIA headquarters: “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.”

Oaked Fires in Serbia

They set out early in the morning, men with axes, boys in tow and, for some, the odd girl champing at the bit.  The woods are some way from Bujanovac, but these columns of individuals resembled statues who have moved off their plinths, heading to the woods that call them with mesmerising force.  The groves seem to speak in this part of Europe, where the Serbs still commune with a spirit of past.  Industrialisation has yet to kill off this element, yet to estrange the citizens from the south from their magical ends.

The woods have, historically, served as links between the finitely mortal and timeless supernatural, a manifestation with roots in the earth, deeply grown and burrowed, and leaves in the canopy, a link pointing to the heavens.  The Norse peoples worshiped Yggdrasil, a great, worldly ash tree cosmically sustaining the mortal and immortal, whatever the form.

For the Slavs, the tree remains all central and bearing, the fecund creature that holds the seeds of all, the progenitor for the verdant world.  To down such a tree, or, in the tradition of the badnjak, to remove a sampling of oak covered in brown gold leafing, would require ceremonial preliminaries.  And so this cautionary note has survived, more in the context of communal gathering and pursuit, as it does on this day, the determined axemen of the village, fortified by wine and local brandy, making their way as if in a deep trance, towards the woods that call them with mesmerising calls.  There is a slow motion carnival feel to this, and this is topped by a horse plumed in red baubles, heading with a look of obedience, to the show.  To the woods, and there, you shall find yourself with a branch’s severance, a small tree’s beheading.

With the necessary badnjak samples gathered, religious authority is consulted.  At the local church in the village of Rakovac in the Preševo Valley, an area awash with mineral goodness from its waters, the priest is buzzing and busy, a man deluged with attention.  He is parachuted in to perform ceremonial duties after his previous counterpart committed adultery and fled for Austria with his new bride.  There, he keeps up a long Yugoslav mission of feeding other economies with the Gastarbeiter.

Contributions are made as each oak tree is blessed with a dip and a splash, and the icon kissed, all taking place in the church yard and a Christmas freeze.  The line of oak carrying devotees forms like a living forest, moving slowly through snow and frozen mud.  The fire in the church yard burns as welcome and promise, and here, the Christian message is tagged to the pagan, a feat of neat historical reconstruction: the heat brought from burning the badnjak suggests the three shepherds warming the stable of Jesus’s birth.

The music commences, wind meeting brass, the clarinet engaging the trumpet.  Vocal chords are exercised.  The procession to the village square commences with a noisy enthusiasm that drowns out the doubts of despair and dark thoughts.  Solemn celebration thatches with defiance.

At the village gathering, evident hierarchies seem to take shape.  The in-crowd is to be found in proximity to the brandy, or rakija, cooking away in a capacious stove overseen by two men whose teeth have seen better days.  The outers, hugging a local convenience shop like frozen sparrows, gaze on with a slightly menacing look, though this is merely temporary and marked more by curiosity than anything else.  They bide their time and will, when the moment comes, commit to the ring dance that is bound to eventuate.

There are old men, craggily faced and withered with memories and young men with short hair, some even shaved, with suspicions of the new age.  NATO, throbs the sentiment in this crowd, cannot be trusted over the mischief in Kosovo (the recent moves by that confused political entity to create its own army in defiance of the stationed troops from the alliance have released fears).  History remains a set of betrayals, missteps and misunderstandings, a vice that seemingly clamps on this region.  The next disaster is deemed as inevitable as the next tummy upset.

The bonfire gathers momentum in the village centre, the primeval lusty flame that lights hope and shreds fears.  It is all fire in this region: fire in the wood stove that delivers the distinctly flavoured food of immense quantity while warming houses; fire in the church yard that acts like a beacon for the faithful; fire to dance around; fire as life.  The inferno is sovereign, governs the soul, dictates the process of communing.  It is elemental.  To gaze at this promethean flame in the home stove or in the village square as it rises to consume is to be alive and feel the veins warmed, to embrace something atavistic and deep; to know that you can endure what is to come despite the calamities that might be faced and, truth be known, to deny.

Children release eardrum creasing crackers with irritating enthusiasm, some casting them into the mother flame; flare guns are released, usually by those yet to reach puberty.  (Where the gun speaks, whatever form it takes, the conversation may prove violent.) Earlier in the day, live guns were fired, a stutter in the wintry air softened by the snow-capped earth and the vegetation creamy white from heavy falls.  While celebratory, these have a sinister undertone, a promise from Serbs to counterparts – the Albanians, for the most part – that they are up for a fight in the demographic and political struggle for this region.

The rakija that heats in the stove overlooking the small centre in Rakovac – one can hardly call it a square, given the misshapen nature – is cooked for the masses, and the men who come to it are filled with its manna-giving properties.  The warming liquid is distributed in plastic cups, and are filled to their dripping brims.  The set of dances start to breakout, vigorous, energetic, even manic.  The gyration and jangling around the fire signals pagan tribute and affirmed living, for it is here, in this dance around the flames, that reassurance comes in abundance.  Then, a man of about forty raises a flaming sample of fireworks, an all glorious flare.  The entire audience is illuminated, faces in rapture. The fire, alive from the oak, continues to feed.

The People’s Christmas: Art, Tradition and Climate Change

COME, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.

Ceremonies for Christmas by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
(Psaltries: a kind of guitar, Teending: kindling)

No season has so much association with music as the mid-winter, Christmas celebrations. The aural pleasure associated with the tuneful music and carols of Christmas has been reduced in recent years by the over-playing of same in shopping malls, banks, airports etc.. yet it is still enjoyed and the popularity of choirs has not diminished.

However, the visual depictions of mid-winter, Christmas celebration have also been popular since the 19th century through books, cinema and television.

The depictions of Christmas range from religious iconography through to the highly commercialised red-suited, rosy-cheeked, rotund Santa Claus.

Yet, between these two extremes of the sombre sacred and the commercialised secular lies a popular iconography best expressed in the realm of fine art and illustration. Down through the centuries the pagan aspects of mid-winter celebration and Christmas such as the Christmas tree, the Yule log, wassailing and carol singing along with winter sports such as ice skating and skiing have been depicted by many different artists. These paintings and illustrations are also beloved for the visual pleasure they afford.

More importantly, they show aspects of Christmas which are becoming more important now in our time of climate change. That is, their depictions of our past respect for nature.

In recent times, as we gradually learned to harness nature for our own ends through developments in science we also became less and less worried about the vicissitudes of nature. Our forebears, however, knew all too well hunger and cold in the depths of winter and in their own religious and superstitious ways tried to attenuate the worst of winter hardship through traditions and practices which would ensure a bountiful proceeding year.

For example, the Christmas Tree is a descendant of the sacred tree which was respected as a powerful symbol of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees took on meanings associated with symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility (See my article on Christmas Trees here). Evergreen boughs and then eventually whole evergreen trees were brought into the house to ward off evil influences. Burning the Yule log was an important rite to help strengthen the weakened sun of midwinter.

The Christmas Tree (1911), Albert Chevallier

Wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, is also considered a form of tree worship and involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. Mumming has also been associated with the spirit of vegetation or the tree-spirit and is believed to have developed into the practice of caroling even though mumming is alive and well in many places in Ireland and England. All these nature-based practices seem to have been banned by the church at different times and then gradually integrated into church rituals (presumably because the church was not able to stop them).

Therefore our relationship with nature was demonstrated through winter activities both inside and outside the home. Outside activities consisted of ice skating, caroling, wassailing, bringing home the Yule log and the Christmas tree. Inside activities consisted of large gatherings of family and friends eating, drinking and parlour games. The indulgence of Christmas activities was balanced by an overriding concern that nature had been propitiated or appeased.

One aspect the many depictions of these activities have in common is the festive gathering of large groups of people. Modern depictions of Christmas tend to emphasise the nuclear family gathered around the Christmas tree with the focus on what Santa brought for the children. Thus Christmas today is experienced as a more isolated experience than in the past. The decline of the nuclear family in recent decades with single parent families, divorce, cohabitation, etc. has created extended family gatherings more akin to the past village groupings. Outdoor activities have also declined though one can still hear carollers singing on occasion, though still common in city streets.

Many artists of over the years have tried to depict the essence of Christmas and midwinter traditions (see my article on midwinter traditions here) and thus helped to keep them in our consciences.

Let’s look at some of the illustrations and paintings that depict mid-winter festivities over the centuries.

Carole

Carols

Poetry and song are our earliest records of Christmas celebrations. According to Clement Miles the word “‘carol’ had at first a secular or even pagan significance: in twelfth-century France it was used to describe the amorous song-dance which hailed the coming of spring; in Italian it meant a ring- or song-dance; while by English writers from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was used chiefly of singing joined with dancing, and had no necessary connection with religion.”1 The word carol itself comes from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers (Latin: choraula). Carols were very popular as dance songs and processional songs sung during festivals. In medieval times the Church referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and issued decrees against it in 1209 A.D. and 1435 A.D. According to Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore, “For seven centuries a formidable series of denunciations and prohibitions was fired forth by Catholic authorities, warning Everyman to ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancings, and leapings’” (p. 98). 

Mummers by Robert Seymour, 1836

Mumming

The processional aspects of caroling are linked to mumming, an ancient tradition which was mentioned in early ecclesiastical condemnations. During the Kalends of January a sermon ascribed to St Augustine of Hippo writes that the heathen reverses the order of things as some of these ‘miserable’ men “are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men … How vile further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.”2 The original idea of wearing the hides of animals, Miles writes, may have sprung “from the primitive man’s belief ‘that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them’.3 

Indeed, in Ireland, mumming is a tradition that is still going strong. In a recent article in The Fingal Independent, Sean McPhilibin notes that “In North County Dublin the masking would be traditionally made from straw and would have been big straw hats that cover the face and come down to the shoulders.” McPhilibin also states that mumming was “a mid-winter custom that in Ireland and North County Dublin and in parts of England as well, the masking element is accompanied by a play. So there’s a play in it with set characters. It’s a play where the principal action takes place between two protagonists – a hero and a villain. The hero slays the villain and the villain is revived by a doctor who has a magical cure and after that happens there’s a succession of other characters called in, each of whom has a rhyme. So every character has a rhyme, written in rhyming couplets.[…] The other thing to say about it is that you find these same type of characters all across Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, over into Slovenia and elsewhere.”

James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, discusses at length many international examples of people being completely covered in straw, branches or leaves as incarnations of the tree-spirit or the spirit of vegetation, such as Green George, Jack-in-the-Green, the Little Leaf Man, and the Leaf King.4

Wassail

The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting wes þú hál, meaning “be you hale”—i.e., “be healthful” or “be healthy”.

There are two variations of wassailing: going from house to house singing and sharing a wassail bowl containing a drink made from mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops or going from orchard to orchard blessing the fruit trees, drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. They sing, shout, bang pots and pans and fire shotguns to wake the tree spirits and frighten away evil demons.

The wassail itself “is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a ‘wassailing bowl’. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called ‘lambswool’ drunk on Lammas day, still known in Shakespeare’s time. Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl.” (See traditional wassail recipe here)

The Lord of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule was a common tradition that existed up to the early nineteenth century whereby a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, thus the normal societal roles where reversed temporarily. The Lord of Misrule “would invite traveling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.”

The Mount Vernon Yule Log
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

The Bean King

During the the Twelfth Night feast a cake or pie would be served which had a bean baked inside. The person who got the slice with the bean would be ‘crowned’ the Bean King with a paper crown and appointed various court officials. A mock respect would be shown when the king drank and all the party would shout “the king drinks”. Robert Herrick mentions this in his poem Twelfth Night: or, King and Queen:

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Twelfth-night (The King Drinks)
David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)

Daniel Maclise’s painting Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) contains many aspects of the traditional Christmas festivities. The Lord of Misrule stands in the centre holding his staff and leading the procession of musicians and carolers coming down the stairs. Father Christmas, ‘ivy crown’d’, sits in front of the wassail bowl and is surrounded by mummers (the Dragon and St George sit side by side) and local people. On the left side of the picture we see a group of people playing a parlour game called Hunt the Slipper.

Maclise was influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Marmion is a historical romance in verse of 16th-century Britain, ending with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Marmion has a section referring to Christmas festivities:

The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!

(See full text here)

It seems that Maclise was also taken enough by the poem to pen his own poem about his painting which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for May in 1838. The poem is titled: Christmas Revels: An Epic Rhapsody in Twelve Duans and was published under the pseudonym, Alfred Croquis, Esq. The painting includes over one hundred figures covering many different traditions of Christmas and in his poem Maclise describes most of the activities taking place as some these excerpts from the poem demonstrate:

Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
Misrule’s mock lordling takes his stand;
[…]
Drummers and pipers next appear,
And carollers in motley gear;
Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
Some sit apart from all the rest,
And these for merry masque are drest;
But now they play another part,
Distinct from any mumming art.
[…]
First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown’d,
With false beard white, and true paunch round,
Rules o’er the mighty wassail-bowl,
And brews a flood to stir the soul:
That bowl’s the source of all their pleasures,
That bowl supplies their lesser measures

(See full text here)

Winter Landscapes

Winter Landscape near a Village
Hendrick Avercamp (1585 (bapt.) – 1634 (buried))

 

The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1530–1569)

 

Outdoor Activities: Skating, Markets and Fairs

Patineurs au bois de Boulogne (1868)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

 

 

Russian Christmas
Leon Schulman Gaspard (1882-1964)

 

The Christmas Market in Berlin (1892)
Franz Skarbina (1849-1910)

 

Christmas Fair (1904)
Heinrich Matvejevich Maniser

Nature-Based vs Anti-Nature

Polydore Vergil (c.1470–1555), the Italian humanist scholar, historian, priest and diplomat, who spent most of his life in England, wrote this about Christmas:

Dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-plays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with the Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.5

However,  Clement Miles takes a more positive view of these traditions. He writes: “The heathen folk festivals absorbed by the Nativity feast were essentially life-affirming, they expressed the mind of men who said “yes” to this life, who valued earthly good things. On the other hand Christianity, at all events in its intensest form, the religion of the monks, was at bottom pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come; it was essentially a religion of renunciation that said “no” to the world.”6

Now we have a religion of consumerism and mass consumption with Santa Claus as its main protagonist. The one extreme of the sacred St Nicholas has flipped over to the other extreme of Santa, the corporate saint. Either way the pious and the consumer pose no threat to the status quo.

Catharsis

There is no doubt that the Christmas festivities were used by elites as a form of social catharsis. The Lord of Misrule and the Bean King, encouraged by raucous mummers and lively caroling, allowed the lowly to throw off pent-up aggression and feel what it was like to be in a position of power for a very short period of time. This brief social revolution was an important part of midwinter celebrations such as the Roman Kalends and the Feast of Fools. Libanius (c.314–392 or 393), the fourth century Greek philosopher, wrote:

The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom.7

The survivals of an ancient time when man and nature were at peace (see article here), and not enslaved and forced to overexploit our natural resources for the benefit of the few, were allowed to resurface briefly at the time of year when the labouring classes were mostly idle and, once sated, posed little threat. Yet, retaining the memory of past respectful attitudes towards nature and old traditions of social upheaval will go a long way towards healing our damaged home into the future.

  1. Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, Dover Publications, 2017,  p. 47.
  2. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 170.
  3. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 163.
  4. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Wordsworth, 1994. See: The tree-spirit p. 297, Green George p. 126, Jack-in-the-Green p. 128, the Little Leaf Man p. 128 and the Leaf King p. 130.
  5. Hazlitt, W. Carew, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, 2 vols, New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-119.
  6. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 25.
  7. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 168.

Inside Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem

Anonymous British street artist Banksy made headlines in October when his $1.4 million artwork Girl with Balloon self-destructed by passing through a shredder concealed in its frame at a London auction moments after it had been bought.

But in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, a much larger Banksy art project – a hotel boasting “the worst view in the world” – appears to be unexpectedly saving itself from similar, planned destruction.

When it opened in March last year, The Walled Off Hotel – hemmed in by the eight-metre-high concrete wall built by Israel to encage Bethlehem – was supposed to be operational for only a year. But nearly two years on, as I joined those staying in one of its nine Banksy-designed rooms, it was clearly going from strength to strength.

Originally, The Walled Off Hotel was intended as a temporary and provocative piece of installation art, turning the oppressive 700-kilometre-long wall that cuts through occupied Palestinian land into an improbable tourist attraction. Visitors drawn to Bethlehem by Banksy’s art – both inside the hotel and on the colossal wall outside – are given a brief, but potent, taste of Palestinian life in the shadow of Israel’s military infrastructure of confinement.

It proved, unexpectedly, so successful that it was soon competing as a top tourist attraction with the city’s traditional pilgrimage site, the reputed spot where Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity. “The hotel has attracted 140,000 visitors – local Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals – since it opened,” says Wisam Salsa, the hotel’s Palestinian co-founder and manager. “It’s given a massive boost to the Palestinian tourism industry.”

Exception to Banksy’s rule

The Walled Off Hotel was effectively a follow-up to Banksy’s “Dismaland Bemusement Park”, created in the more familiar and safer setting of a British seaside resort. For five weeks, that installation in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, offered holidaymakers a dystopian version of a Disney-style amusement park, featuring a nuclear mushroom-cloud, medical experiments gone wrong, boat people trapped on the high seas and the Cinderella story told as a car crash.

But unlike Girl with Balloon and Dismaland, Banksy appears uncharacteristically reluctant to follow through with the destruction of his Bethlehem creation. Some 21 months later, it seems to have become a permanent feature of this small city’s tourist landscape.

Given that Banksy is notoriously elusive, it is difficult to be sure why he has made an exception for The Walled Off Hotel. But given his well-known sympathy for the Palestinian cause, a few reasons suggest themselves. One is that, were he to abandon the hotel, it would delight the Israeli military authorities. They would love to see The Walled Off Hotel disappear – and with it, a major reason to focus on a particularly ugly aspect of Israel’s occupation. In addition, dismantling the hotel might echo rather uncomfortably Israel’s long-standing policy of clearing Palestinians off their land – invariably to free-up space for Jewish settlement.

Israel strenuously claims the wall was built to aid security by keeping out Palestinian “terrorists”. But the wall’s path outside The Walled Off Hotel seals off Bethlehem from one of its major holy sites, Rachel’s Tomb, and has allowed Jewish religious extremists to take it over.

A rare success story

In sticking by the hotel, Banksy appears to have been influenced by Palestinian “sumud”, Arabic for steadfastness, a commitment to staying put in the face of Israeli pressure and aggression. But significantly, there is a practical consideration: The Walled Off Hotel has rapidly become a rare success story in the occupied territories, boosting the struggling Palestinian economy. That has occurred in spite of Israel’s best efforts to curb tourism to Bethlehem, including by making a trip through the wall and an Israeli checkpoint a time-consuming and discomfiting experience.

Israel’s attitude was highlighted last year when the interior ministry issued a directive to travel agencies warning them not to take groups of pilgrims into Bethlehem to stay overnight. After an outcry, the government ­relented, but the message was clear.

Salsa notes that The Walled Off Hotel has not only attracted a new kind of visitor to Bethlehem, but has also persuaded many to spend time in other parts of the occupied West Bank, too.

Salsa understands the importance of tourism personally. He was an out-of-work guide when mutual friends first introduced him to Banksy in 2005, shortly after the wall cutting off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem had been completed. The city was economically dead, with tourists too fearful to visit its holy sites as armed uprisings raged across the occupied territories. The Second Intifada from 2000-2005 was the Palestinians’ response after Israel refused to grant them the viable state most observers had assumed was implicit in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

Banksy arrived in 2005 to spray-paint on what was then a largely pristine surface, creating a series of striking images. It unleashed a wave of local and foreign copycats. The wall in Bethlehem quickly became a giant canvas for artistic resistance, says Salsa.

Much later, in 2014, Banksy came up with the idea of the hotel. Salsa found a large residential building abandoned for more than a decade because of its proximity to the wall. In secret, The Walled Off was born. “It was a crazy spot for a hotel,” says Salsa. “It felt like divine intervention finding it. It was close to the main road from Jerusalem so no one could miss us.”

Palestinians’ reality

Importantly, the hotel was also in one of the few areas of Bethlehem inside “Area C”, parts of the West Bank classified in the temporary Oslo Accords as under full Israeli control. That meant the army could not bar Israelis from visiting. “Nowadays there are no channels open between Palestinians and Israelis. So The Walled Off Hotel is a rare space where Israelis can visit and taste the reality lived by Palestinians.

“True, Israelis mostly come to see the art. But they can’t help but learn a lot more while they are here.”

Salsa is happy that the Walled Off Hotel provides a good salary to 45 local employees and their families. His hope in setting up the hotel was to “encourage more tourists to stay in Bethlehem and for them to hear our story, our voice”.

But Banksy’s grander vision had been fully vindicated, he says. “The Walled Off Hotel gives tourists an experience of our reality.

“But it also emphasises other, creative ways to struggle and speak up. It offers art as a model of resistance.

“The hotel magnifies the Palestinian’s voice. And it makes the world hear us in a way that doesn’t depend on either us or the Israelis suffering more casualties.”

Global impact

The hotel’s continuing impact was underscored last month when it was featured for the first time at the Palestinian stand at the annual World Travel Market in London, the largest tourism trade show in the world. The event attracts 50,000 travel agents, who conduct more than $4 billion in deals over the course of the show.

Banksy had announced beforehand that he would bring a replica of one of his artworks on the wall just outside the Bethlehem hotel: cherubs trying to prise open two concrete slabs with a crowbar. He also promised a limited-edition poster showing children using one of Israel’s military watchtowers as a fairground ride. A slogan underneath reads: “Visit historic Palestine. The Israeli army liked it so much they never left!” As a result, there was a stampede to the Palestinian stand, one of the smallest, that caught the show’s organisers by surprise.

Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism minister, praised Banksy for changing the image of Palestinian tourism by diverting younger people into the West Bank, often during a visit to Israel. “He promotes Palestine and focuses on the occupation, but at the same time he is talking about the beauty of Palestine,” she said.

At the Walled Off Hotel, however, Israel has made it much harder to see the beauty. Most windows provide little more than a view of the wall, which dwarfs in both height and length the Berlin Wall to which it is most often compared. That is all part of the Walled Off “experience” that now attracts not only wealthier visitors keen to stay in one the hotel’s rooms, but a much larger audience of day trippers.

So successful has the Walled Off Hotel proved in such a short space of time that even some locals concede it upstages the Church of the Nativity – at least for a proportion of visitors. A local taxi driver who was guiding two French sisters along the wall outside the hotel said many independent tourists now prioritised it ahead of the church.

Only wanting to be identified as Nasser, he said: “We may not know who Banksy is, but the truth is, he has done us a huge favour with this hotel and his art.”

Sanctuary in a police state

If Dismaland created a dystopian amusement park in the midst of a fun-filled seaside resort, the Walled Off Hotel offers a small sanctuary of serenity – even if a politically charged one – in surroundings that look more like a post-apocalyptic police state.

Along the top of the wall, there are innumerable surveillance cameras, as well as looming watchtowers, where ever-present Israeli soldiers remain out of view behind darkened glass. They can emerge unexpectedly, usually to make raids on the homes of unsuspecting Palestinians.

When I made a trip to the Walled Off in October, I parked outside to find half a dozen armed Israeli soldiers on top of the hotel’s flat roof. When one waved to me, I was left wondering whether I had been caught up in another of Banksy’s famous art stunts. I hadn’t. They were real – there to watch over Jewish extremists celebrating a religious holiday nearby at Rachel’s Tomb.

The hotel’s lobby, though not the rooms, are readily accessible to the public. It is conceived as a puzzling mixture: part cheeky homage to the contrived gentility of British colonial life, part chaotic exhibition space for Banksy’s subversive street art. Visitors can enjoy a British cream tea, served in the finest china, sitting under a number of Israeli surveillance cameras wall-mounted like hunting trophies or alongside a portrait of Jesus with the red dot of a marksman’s laser-beam on his forehead.

A history of resistance

The lobby leads to a museum that is probably the most comprehensive ever to document Israel’s various methods of colonisation and control over Palestinians, and their history of resistance.

At its entrance sits a dummy of Lord Balfour, the foreign secretary who 101 years ago initiated Britain’s sponsorship of Palestine’s colonisation. He issued the infamous Balfour Declaration promising the Palestinians’ homeland to the Jewish people. Press a button and Balfour jerks into life to furiously sign the declaration on his desk. Upstairs is a large gallery exhibiting some of the best of Palestinian art, and the hotel reception organises twice-daily tours of the wall.

Entry to the rooms is hidden behind a secret door, disguised as a bookcase. Guests need to wave a room key, shaped like a section of the wall, in front of a small statue of Venus that makes her breasts glow red and the door open.

A stairway leads to the second and third floors, where the landings are decorated with more fading colonial splendour and Banksy art. Kitsch paintings of boats, landscapes and vases of flowers are hidden behind tight metal gauze of the kind Israel uses to protect its military Jeeps from stone-throwers.

A permanent “Sorry – out of service” sign hangs from a lift, its half-open doors revealing that it is, in fact, walled up.

No mementos

Although the rooms are designed thematically by Banksy, only a few contain original artworks, most significantly in the Presidential Suite.

Hotels may be used to customers taking shampoos and soaps, even the odd towel, as mementos of their stay. But at the Walled Off, the stakes are a little higher. Guests are issued with an inventory they must sign on departing, declaring that they have not pilfered any art from their room. But it is the wall itself that is the dominant presence, towering over guests as they come and go, trapping them in a narrow space between the hotel entrance and an expanse of solid grey.

A proportion visit the neighbouring graffiti shop, Wall Mart, where they can get help on how to leave their mark on the concrete. Most of the casual graffiti is short-lived, with space regularly cleared so that new visitors can scrawl their messages and use art as a tool of resistance.

Protest pieces

Banksy’s better-known artworks, however, are saved from the spray-paint pandemonium elsewhere.

The crowbar-armed cherubs he brought to London were painted in time for Christmas last year, when he recruited film director Danny Boyle – of Slumdog Millionaire fame – to stage an alternative nativity play for local families in the hotel car park. The “Alternativity”, featuring a real donkey and real snow produced by a machine on the Walled Off’s roof, became a BBC documentary. Banksy had once again found a way to persuade prime-time TV to shine a light on Israel’s oppressive wall.

Another artwork is his “Er sorry”, a leftover from the Walled Off’s “apologetic street party” of November last year, marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration’s signing. Children from two neighbouring refugee camps were invited to wear Union-Jack crash helmets and wave charred British flags. A person dressed as Queen Elizabeth II unveiled “Er Sorry” stencilled into the wall. It served both as a hesitant apology on behalf of Britain and as a play on the initials of the Queen’s official Latin title, Elizabeth Regina.

The event, however, illustrated that Banksy’s subversive message, directed chiefly at western audiences, does not always translate well to sections of the local Palestinian population. The party was hijacked by local activists who stuck a Palestinian flag into the Union Jack-adorned cake and chanted “Free Palestine”.

Is this ‘war tourism’?

Salsa outright rejects claims from some locals and foreign critics that the hotel is exploiting Palestinian misery and is an example of “war tourism”.

He points out: “The Balfour party got the media interested in a story they probably would not have covered otherwise, because it lacked violence and bloodshed.”

He adds that the area of Bethlehem in which the Walled Off is located would have been killed off by the wall were it not for Banksy investing his own money and time in the project. As well as the staff, it has brought work to tour guides, taxi drivers, neighbouring and cheaper hotels, shops and petrol stations. “That is a very important form of resistance,” he says.

It is also a rare example of Palestinians reclaiming land from the Israeli army. On the other side of the wall there had been a large army camp until the hotel started drawing significant numbers of visitors.

“The army didn’t like lots of tourists taking pictures nearby, so they moved further away, out of sight.”

Eternal memories

Canadian tourist Mike Seleski, 30, visited the hotel to see Banksy’s art before standing in front of the wall. He said he had heard about the Walled Off from an Israeli he befriended in Vietnam during a year of travelling.

This was a detour from his stay in Israel – his only stop in the occupied territories. “I don’t like the usual tourist experiences,” he said. “It is important to hear the other side of the story when you travel.”

In every one of the 32 countries he has visited, he has stood to be photographed before a famous local spot holding a cardboard sign with words to reassure his worried mother: “Mum – I’m OK.”

In Bethlehem, he said it was obvious he’d take the photo in front of Banksy’s art on the wall, rather than the Church of the Nativity. “You see the wall on TV and forget about it. You get on with your life. But when you stand here, you realise Palestinians don’t have a choice. They simply can’t ignore it.”

• First published at The National

Re-enchanting Socialism: How Not To Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Summary of Part I

In part I of this article Facing the Music I began by arguing that religion very skillfully uses propaganda to convince people they should behave in a docile way relative to elites. It uses architecture, statues, rites of passage, liturgy, sacred music, pilgrimages, holy days, visual symbols and techniques for altering states of consciousness as a means for introducing and sustaining this docility. Though nationalism and sports have different ends than religion, surprisingly the techniques used to induce loyalty are very similar. Nationalism and sports have been built on a religious foundation. The work of Anthony D. Smith is devoted to showing how nationalism has used religious techniques to start and sustain itself. Also, George Mosse’s book Nationalization of the Masses discusses similar themes.

In the case of sports, whether it is through the personal experience of participating in a team sport or following a professional team as a fan, these games often create “flashbulb memories” that are remembered, retold and spread to friends, acquaintances and workmates.

My claim in Part I was that:

  • The socialist movement has failed miserably to understand how religion, nationalism and sports inspire and sustain the interest of the Yankee population over months and years.
  • But even worse, it makes little attempt to use the techniques of religion, nationalism and sports to draw people to it.

In part, the failure of socialists to understand what religion, sports and nationalism give people has to do with whether the socialists are from Protestant or Catholic countries. Historically, Protestants condemned all image-making, singing, dancing and sensual gratification as degenerate Catholicism. Whether they are aware of it or not, I think socialists who live in Protestant countries have unconsciously internalized Protestant cynicism about pageantry and ritual. They think it is nothing but smoke and mirrors since it creates illusions.

On the other hand, Catholicism has been the mothership from which most of the religious techniques are derived. This impacts how people in Catholic countries relate to nationalism and sports in their countries. Furthermore, in Catholic countries, even socialists who are anti-clerical atheists have some appreciation of collective theatricality as being important to socialist gatherings. This can be seen in Spain or Italy on May Day.

I The Means By Which to Enchant Socialism

The importance of remembering the big picture

Religion at its very best invites people to remember the big picture. On a micro level that means that amidst the petty aggravations of the week-day world, there is Sunday, a time for reflection. What is the reflection designed to do? To answer three questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. Where have we been?
  3. Where are we going?

These questions are designed to encourage people to remember that:

  1. The whole (God) is greater than the sum of the parts (human individuals).
  2. The whole is in all the parts.

Optimally, at a micro level, on Sunday, religion is designed to guide people as we descend into the detail of another work-week. In temperate climates in the West, at a macro level, we have religious holidays throughout the year (rather than the week) which are ultimately grounded in the four seasons.

If as socialists, we want people to stay with us despite all distractions of capitalist commodities, despite all the distortions or marginalization of our work, despite the repression we have to deal with, doesn’t it make sense that we try to rejuvenate socialists? We remind them by answering the big questions in our own way:

  1. What are we? Socio-historical beings who shape and control our destiny for better or for worse.
  2. Where have we been? We are a young movement which has many proud moments – the French revolution, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution, to name a few.
  3. Where are we going? We are moving in a direction of communism where all resources are collectively owned.

Isn’t it worth reminding people of these questions and answers, if not weekly, at least seasonally? Why can’t socialists have quarterly seasonal celebrations just the way religion has various Catholic, Jewish or Muslim holy days?

Celebrating revolutionary holidays and socialist heroes

On average, there might be ten holy days per year for Catholics. Nationalism, at least in Yankeedom, has close to the same. Sports has opening day, the All-Star game and the World Series as temporal markers. Does socialism have any “holy days?” We have May Day. But we have many more days than that if we take the time to collect and display them. Recently we bought a 2019 calendar of radical labor history which is filled with labor strikes and revolutionary events every month throughout the year. Conservatively speaking, there are at least five major radical strikes and revolutionary dates per month. Why don’t socialists commit to a project of celebrating clusters of these holidays four times a year? Why aren’t these days celebrated the way May Day is celebrated?

What about socialist heroes and heroines? Baseball has Cooperstown. Musically, we have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Why is there no socialist Cooperstown Hall of Fame? Do we have no socialist heroines or heroes to put into this Hall of Fame? Just in Yankeedom alone, off the top of my head I can name a few – Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kate Richards O’Hare, Carlo Tresca, Mother Jones, Sacco and Vanzetti. Why hasn’t the socialist movement seen fit to celebrate their birthdays the way religion celebrates its saints days and nationalism has its presidents days? During the French Revolution, busts of Rousseau and Voltaire were paraded through the streets of Paris. Why then can’t we celebrate regularly and seasonally the birthdays of our heroes and heroines?

But isn’t this too costly?

One reasonable objection is the time and the cost of doing this. A sympathetic skeptic might say “You are not considering that religious institutions, political organizations and the owners of football teams are extremely wealthy. They have the money to pay people to work full time to create productions for these holy days and patron saints. Socialists do not have this kind of money.”

This is a good point. We know that it takes a great deal of effort to put on, say, a socialist conference on a national level. The cost of roundtrip plane fare alone makes this difficult. But is the same thing true at a local level? Celebrating socialist heroes and special days can be done locally in major cities. The important thing is to celebrate them all at the same time on a given day so that people living in big cities can see and share their presence in other cities.

We don’t have time

Another objection a socialist might make is to say, “look, it is enough to get people together to coordinate their efforts around a campaign like the fight for $15 dollars an hour” or a 35-hour workweek. We can’t afford to add to that these celebrations.

This way of looking at things separates content and form. It says specific campaigns (the content) and the celebrations (the form) are separate processes. But do they have to be? Whether or not people are pressed for time and money, the content and form should be part of the same process. It is true that at socialist conferences there is time for recreation, but recreation is not ritual.

If we are to make room for reenchanting rituals that means there is less time to discuss specific socialist current events. I would argue that it is worth it. We must consolidate and support other socialists through renewal and replenishment techniques. In fact, the content of various campaigns should be organized so that they are a sub categorical expression of the historical celebration of revolutionary memories and the celebrations of socialist heroes. I’ll discuss this more later in this article.

Singing and dancing

Of course, the mighty Internationale heads any list of music. Any of you who have seen the movie Reds will remember the scene of Jack Reed talking to Russian workers as the Internationale swelled in the background and the red flags flew. However, we have much more than this song. Some of the best radical songs in the world came out of the Industrial Workers of the World songbook. Why aren’t these songs sung on a regular basis throughout the year by socialists, not just Wobblies? Do socialists dance? Well, of course we do, but not as much as we could. As Red Emma Goldman once said “If I can’t dance to it, its not my revolution”

Rites of passage

The socialist and communist movements used to have youth groups which initiated them into socialism. People of different ages were given very specific tasks to do relative to up-coming campaigns. There were socialist children’s magazines and books. In his book Ritual, Politics and Power, David Kertzer points out that the communist party in Italy once competed with the Catholic Church over the right to baptize. They did something similar at funerals, according to Kertzer:

“Comrades carry bright red flags, baring the name of the deceased’s party section as well as those of neighboring sections…A local party official delivers the eulogy which, rather than extolling the deceased Christian virtues, pays tribute to his or her dedication to the Communist cause.” (Ritual, Politics and Power, 118)

Socialists badly need to get re-involved in rites of passage once again: socialist births and baptism, coming of age rituals, socialist marriages and socialist deaths. We can’t cede this to religious traditions.

Making pilgrimages

In San Francisco, once a year in July there is something called “Laborfest”. This is a month-long series of movies, talks, panels and plays held at various locations around the city. A comrade of mine would give a walking tour of downtown Oakland and revisit some of the various scenes of the General Strike in San Francisco. Between 50 and 100 people attend this walk every year. Most major cities in the United States have their version of special places connected to labor strikes. Why aren’t they celebrated? There could be Laborfests in every major city in Yankeedom.

Sacred sites and new calendars

In her book Romance of the Communist Party, Vivian Gornick reports that one of her interviewees told her of a cooperative housing development called United Workers Coop Association consisting of two five-story buildings, each a block square. There were club rooms, meeting halls, a library, nursery schools, a community center, a print shop and an auditorium. People read, talked, held meetings, danced and flirted. It was a little city within a city. Janet Biehl, Murray Bookchin’s biographer, tells a story of how these places were a substitute home away from home for Murray. The buildings stayed open to the wee small hours of the morning. Why can’t we have these kinds of sacred sites again?

During and after the French Revolution, the leaders created a revolutionary calendar to symbolize the breaking with the old world. Capitalism is failing badly. Don’t we need to get busy with drafts of a new world socialist calendar?

We can’t afford to own these buildings

One objection to this “sacred site” renewal might he the cost of owning, let alone renting a building in a downtown metropolitan area. It is true that the cost of renting or owning city buildings is much higher than fifty or seventy years ago before the gentrification of cities drove out working-class people to the periphery. Still, there are liberal fellow travelers or even upper middle-class socialists who might be in a position to buy buildings through a joint pooling of funds. If these socialists withdrew their money from “socially responsible investments” for the project of building at least semi-permanent socialist centers, it would be a huge advance. With the newfound sympathy and support for socialism in the US among people under 30, those upper middle-class socialists could really make a difference by investing their money or their inheritance in a sacred home for socialists. Is that too far-fetched? I hope not. It is hard to sustain a movement when you don’t have a home you can call your own.

Bringing it on home

To summarize, what we need is designated times of the year, perhaps every season, in which socialists in every major city come together, sing and dance across generations, celebrating “holy days”, the birthdays of the great socialists. At the same gatherings, there is time allotted to celebrate rites of passage and make pilgrimages to the scenes of the great labor struggles in that city.

II Fertile Ground: The Unexplored Relationship Between Materialists and Pagans

Cranky materialists, dry as sawdust

A number of years ago I joined the Humanist community of San Jose. This was an organization for people who hated religion and were either agnostics or atheists and met every Sunday morning for a lecture, discussion and lunch. They were classical left-wing Enlightenment people: pro-science and pro-technology. They looked at religion as deception by religious authorities, errors in human cognition and ignorance or emotional insecurity of the population. For Humanists, as for the Protestants, all music, dance, ritual and imagery would lead you down the road to religious enslavement. It was difficult to have any kind of ceremony – lighting a candle or burning incense – that was not dismissed as superstition.

Unfortunately, many Marxists are cranky materialists as well. While denouncing all the religious holidays, they find themselves isolated and lonely around Christmas time. They see through the commercial side of Christmas, they might not even like Christ, but they haven’t built the institutions to replace it. The winter solstice has meaning for human beings and we must give it up. Marxists need neo-paganism, only they don’t know it.

While neo-paganism is a diverse movement, it is safe to say that what it shares with materialists includes:

  • A belief that the material world and matter is good, rather than an illusion or a reform school for sinners;
  • An appreciation of this life, rather than an afterlife;
  • A sense that nature is self-regulating and not in need of divine intervention; and,
  • A belief that nature and society are evolving as opposed to being created once and for all.

What pagans have that most materialist Marxists, at least the Protestant ones, lack is a sense that ritual, singing, dancing rites of passage and all the rest are not superstitious illusions but important ingredients in what makes us human.

Greek mythology in the service of re-enchanting socialism

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses all had strengths and weaknesses. In addition, they were in charge of a specific domain of human life. So, for example, Aphrodite was the goddess to go to in matters of love. Hermes was the god of travel and he would be consulted before taking a dangerous journey. If a socialist group wanted to get behind a campaign around building mass transit or lowering the cost of public transportation, if they were operating within the Greek mythology, there would be a celebration or a ritual around the god Hermes. All the major areas of human life were covered by the various gods or goddesses: agriculture, industry, family life, friendships, the arts, sciences, physical health, everything. Pagans would have rituals before and after these activities.

Typical areas socialists are interested in are democracy in the work place, harnessing energy, technological innovation, transportation, city life, food production, housing, water, education, circulation of products (money, wages, financial planning), child care, health care and mental health. Every one of these areas can easily be connected to the 10 or 12 gods and goddesses that exist in Greece or in other parts of the world. In the case of May Day, there is a clear relationship with the pagan spring festival and International Workers Day. We can easily connect up the other areas of socialists’ interests to the gods and goddesses.

The same thing could be done with socialist heroes. The characteristics of socialist heroines and heroes can be mapped onto the gods and goddesses of Greece. The value of using an already built-up pagan system is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I am intentionally drawing on Greek mythology because many socialists may object to using any of the symbols and artifacts of Catholicism. Pagan traditions are full of rich history and they can be easily connected to the wiccan feminism that began in the early 1970’s. Relatively speaking, socialism is a very young movement, not even 200 years old. We should take an existing system which has been in place for thousands of years and use it as our skeleton.

I have no doubt many pagan socialists like Starhawk have already stepped forward to connect political activity with pagan rituals. There are many more processes to be connected and many more people are needed. Any socialists who have an appreciation for theatre, interior design and social psychology should step forward. Socialists rightly have no need of God, but we do need the gods and goddesses. More earth, less air; more water, less air; more fire, less air.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Singing The Internationale

Capitalism, Empire, and the Infernal Gloom Machine

Depression is built into this machine and the evidence is plastered on the morose faces of people caught in the clutches of its business as usual activities. Depression is found in the insurmountable debts we owe for spending a lifetime of preparation and labor to serve the machine. In addition to debt, the machine awards us for our servitude with trinkets, gadgets, doodads and gizmos that provide a moment of hollow amusement and then sit on shelves in garages and decay. They represent the planned obsolescence of the human heart. The sacrifice paid for our fetish with materialism is the actual quality of our lives.

The gloom machine tells us the quality of our lives is defined by the machine in the driveway, and the machine that flushes away our excrement, and the machine that chills the tortured slaughtered animal flesh for later consumption, and the machine that flashes pornographic images and supplies numbers detailing how much we are liked by our so called friends. But to us humans it seems that quality of life is more appropriately measured in the amount of disposable time we have to pursue that which we want, and the quality of the community around us, and living without being chronically stressed with threats of being displaced from the land upon which we live for not working hard enough for the machine.

Depression is waking up at 6 in the morning in darkness to sit in traffic for an hour to arrive at a job that we don’t want to be at, only to serve the machinations of people with nothing but greed in their overstuffed bellies. And we go to these jobs so that we can pay rents that are unaffordable, and to service debt we’ll never escape, and we go home in darkness to our lonely lives in places where community is absent with a view of an equally lonely tree or a man-made retention pond which is an upgrade over the view of staring directly at your neighbor’s domicile. Depression is the realization there is no vacation on the horizon, no respite, just more of the same. Depression is knowing that such a life is better than many others have it.

Depression is recognizing the cynics were right about this society, that Cohen spoke truth when he sullenly moaned:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Depression is watching art die. The surrealist, the bohemian, the rock ’n roll, and the anti-authoritarian soul has lain down and pledged fealty to the dollar. For money, they’re now all willing to become ready made predictable cubes to be packaged and sold in plastic wrap placed in cleverly designed boxes which deliver to the depressed public what they want, more of something that’s pretty on the outside and vacant within. We are left with monthly subscriptions of more tales of self aggrandizement for the throngs of temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Depression is watching the worst of us rise to legitimacy and awarded iniquitous riches for it. The popular is depressive, musical hack Cardi B sings about her money money money and she is loved. Jordan Peterson sells cheap self help stolen from better written material decades ago amalgamated with misogyny and dictates of hierarchal subjugation and becomes wildly popular. Trump purveys hatred of people of color and a love of authoritarianism and the depressive people, oh do they eat it up. This is sickness, depressive sickness.

Depression is acceptance of the violent now. The grossly unhappy men with their armaments spread their gloom and horror across the planet and claim righteousness for doing so. Depression is watching society applaud murderous hearts for their crimes who don badges and camouflage and have holidays to celebrate their violent history, while villains are made of those who simply don’t want to stand up for songs of oppression. Thank you for your service to the machine.

Depression is watching notions of resistance and revolution take form in slightly altered subservience. The great reformation desired now is for a “green new deal” that doesn’t come close to mitigating the impending culling of humanity from soon to be ecological catastrophes. Their plans offer only more endless work at the behest of the gloom machine while promising healthcare that will never happen, less debt it will also never deliver, and affordable housing that still won’t solve homelessness. They don’t want to break the machine, just tweak it, and they lack the ability to do that even. Never have I borne witness to such eager slaves and such depressive aspirations. The people seem to adore their cubicle lives, their environmental destruction, their corporations, their debts, their corrupt leaders, their prisons, their banks, and their taxes.

They want to continue to be put to work under the thumb of the status quo western civilization authoritarian mind and this is all the depressed mentally dominated masses can think of as a possible improvement. Instead of wanting to taste real liberty and be actual equals, their dreams are limited to being better treated servants. The gloom machine chugs along fueled with dimwitted ideas sold by boxed-in thinkers without any possibility of escaping the darkness, rather simply offering a more cushy seat for viewing the end of everything.

The machine bellows out demanding more, more, you owe me more, and somehow those wearing red, white, and blue agree and celebrate the demands of the machine. These debts we owe are servitude. The numbers held in digital machines are immoral which demand one must wake up to a dreary existence to do more of what is killing our souls along with the flora and fauna around us.

Depression is the downtrodden plebs who celebrate their corrupt democracy, which is in reality a thinly veiled oligarchy that should be obvious to all. They prop up a system of voting that allows the election of the presidency, a position that shouldn’t exist in the first place in an egalitarian society, to be awarded to candidates who don’t capture the most votes. What little democracy there is in a representative system is lost in totality when the winner of elections need not win the majority of votes. The gloom machine is straight up tyranny.

A non-depressed society would reject being served faux democracy. They’d reject a system absent of reason or compassion and disdain would be for ideas of continuing to support such a destructive way of being. But instead, within the gloom machine shame is reserved for those who don’t want to take part in the busted system, and it venerates those who cast votes for imperialist conquerers and planet destroyers, and those voters are lauded as doing their civic duty for taking part in open public corruption.

Depression is the insincere know it all crowd who are incapable of honest debate and have rarely endeavored to open a book of substance or engage in critical thought, but they know trivialities which they mistake as facts and wisdom. They know arrogance well and emanate it with aplomb. They know how to believe all they see in the corporatized media, but thinking without boundaries or limitations is beyond their capacity. This is not even depression, this is tragedy.

Depression is watching the trees be plowed down for more tract housing, a portion of which will sit empty for years because no one can afford to move there, and even if they could it’s a heinous boring life that awaits which is only significantly better compared to being homeless. Depression is knowing this is the reason why we are rapidly destroying our habitable environment and commencing a 6th mass extinction event which is now accelerating.

Depression is to know there is nothing we can do to stop the country we live in from mercilessly killing innocent people all over the world for no reason other than more economic expansion and our sadistic ideas of exceptionalism that entail spreading pain and hardship so a few elites can have more of what they already have more than enough of.

Depression is the powerlessness to change anything of significance. There is no other way they say other than the desolate gloom machine, they say this is how it must be. And so we remain here waiting for the horror that is soon to approach us all as the gloom descends in ever quickening waves.

A zombified indoctrinated populace can see no other way than capitalism and beating each other over the heads to satiate egos in needless competition that is unnecessary for survival and deleterious to the common good. Capitalism is the primary tool of empire, and a word that should be synonymous with depression. It’s the accumulation of resources in an effort to gain more power in man-made markets to leverage that power over other people and get them to do what the person with the most power desires. Capitalism’s depressing ideology is defined by the lecherous desire for more for the sake of it so the winner can pound their simian chest in victorious celebration of the devastation they’ve created.

Capitalism is inherently unsustainable due the way it allows power to coalesce via the leveraging abilities given to money to buy land, the means of production, elections, and advertising. It allows the whims of the few to overrun the needs of the many where those with the worst intentions aspire to gain more than others because they will attempt to fill the void in their hearts with self importance expressed via power over others. This is why it cannot be used.

If there is no central currency or advantage to collecting huge amounts of resources then the motivation to hoard would evaporate, as those resources would simply rot or become a burden to maintain. There’s no fun in that kind of hoarding. The “fun” comes to the simpleton power seeker when they acquire power to make others do what they want and thus gain the ephemeral validation they so desperately seek.

If one runs the math on players competing for money at different rates of gain over a certain amount of time, there will be a doubling effect which becomes exponential. And this effect will accelerate as it plunders along due to gains in leverage which allows for ever greater amounts of money to be made at faster rates. Eventually it always ends the way a game of monopoly ends, someone has all the power and everyone else is subservient to that entity/person.

These dour thoughts manifest from the recognition of the stranglehold empire has over our lives. The depression is the result of the myriad of expectations I can’t let go of that wants to see a kinder more egalitarian and sustainable world emerge while knowing how unlikely it is. Our collective depression is rooted in the foundations of social hierarchy and its economic tools of control, and understanding what a perfect trap it is, and so it goes, and everyone doesn’t know, but they feel it, though.

Facing the music: religion, nationalism, and sports have enchanted the working class; socialism hasn’t

Orientation

Religion, nationalism and sports as propaganda for the ruling class.

In the closing section of my course Brainwashing Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th Century, I ask my students to compare organized religion, nationalism and sports, not only to determine the kind of propaganda they are (black, gray or white), but also the devices and artifacts that are used. This includes the use of architecture, statues, rites of passage, liturgy, sacred music, pilgrimages, holy days, use of visual symbols, language manipulation and techniques for altering states of consciousness. The world religions have used these processes for at least 3,500 years to exploit, control and distract people from their misery on earth and direct us instead to variations of ‘you’ll get pie in sky when you die’.

The history of nationalism over the last 400-500 years has closely followed the techniques of organized religion. In fact, I think it is fair to say that nationalism is more powerful than moderate and liberal religion in motivating people. I doubt whether most people of liberal or moderate religion in the West would sacrifice their life for their religion. But at least among the working class who sign up for the military, nationalism can motivate people to fight and die to kill strangers in other countries who share the same social class.

Sports, as opposed to religion or nationalism, is a more joyous escape from the difficulties of life. If I were a betting person, I would bet most Americans might go to the barricades if the AFC and NFC championships were not televised. A championship playoff game such as the World Series could certainly outdraw any religious or patriotic ceremony in TV ratings. And what is the result? Who wins the game ultimately has little effect on the lives of the fans. Yet they continue to watch. This is some mighty potion going’ on. Do the socialists understand it? Do we use similar techniques to win the working classes to socialism? Not on your life!

Qualification

I am certainly not claiming that religion or nationalism has the same hold on people in the 21st century that they did in the 20th century. At least in the western countries, there has been a steady decline of interest in religion. Nationalism certainly does not have the grip on Europe that it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, in spite of this decline, both carry enormous power.

I   Socialists’ Failures to Come to Grips With Enchantment

It’s not enough for socialists to simply claim that religion, nationalism and sports are examples of “false consciousness” for the working class.

I would think that socialists, being social, would be hip to what is going on with these propaganda techniques. Sure, you may find cultural critics beginning with the Frankfurt School who will bemoan the lack of taste among the masses and state how all religion, nationalism and sports produce false consciousness. But this is a very mechanical and unnecessarily bleak understanding of the potential of the techniques used in these areas to light a fire under the working class. We must not only point out the manipulative nature of enchantment, but we need to be dialectical and ask how we could use these techniques to promote socialism. After all, the construction of a sacred space (whether a church or a ballpark), a dramatized story, ritualized gestures, and the use of music and the arts to alter consciousness is not just naïve superstition. It is part of our bio-evolutionary heritage to be interested in these things. The alternative to the alienated enchantment of sports, religion and nationalism is not de-enchantment, as so many dry-as-dust socialists seem to think. We must build a “this-worldly” pagan enchantment that is a foundation for socialism.

Socialists’ failures against nationalism and religion

Three examples should give you the picture. The first is the famous one of socialists before World War I. The socialist parties in Europe and, to a lesser extent in the United States, were very confident that the workers of the world would unite to oppose the war. After all, the workers understood that they had no fatherland, right? Wrong. Not only did working class people kill each other after being whipped up to mass hysteria, but most of the socialist ministers, some of them great intellectuals like Kautsky, Plekhanov and Kropotkin got emotionally caught up in defending the fatherland. Socialism as a political movement of internationalism was no match for nationalism.

The second example is of Germany in 1933. During the depression in that country, the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest socialist party in the whole world. Economic conditions were bad. Great time for a revolution, right? What did the socialists do? According to the mass psychologist Wilhelm Reich, they simply fed the masses boring statistics about their condition. However, the Nazis understood that there is a charismatic side to people, a side that likes mythology, drama, pomp and circumstance, doomsday scenarios, scapegoats, black and white answers and promises of redemption. Goebbels and the Nazi brass understood mass psychology while the socialists were buried in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

My last example is about the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is one of the most horrendous institutions in the West in the last 800 years. Its officials committed every one of the “seven deadly sins” time after time as they tortured heretics and witches. They’ve made deals with royalists and military dictatorships and they have made peace with capitalists long ago. The Catholic Church has a record of child abuse that spans centuries. Yet many U.S., Italian, Spanish, French and all the other people in Catholic countries continue to attend mass and support the Church financially. At the same time, the socialist parties that actually do want to create heaven on earth with workers could not ever get masses of people to come to meetings once a week. People are too busy for that. But they are not too busy for church. How can this be?

The issue here is not that the working-class is stupid or that they are victims of false consciousness. Rather, I believe the issue to be:

The Church must be doing many things right to continue to collect their revenues and get people to attend in spite of being seen as the world’s first international terrorist organization.
Do the socialists understand this mass psychology? No, they do not.
Do the socialists think that the techniques of religion, nationalism and sports could be used to mobilize people for socialism? Ah, what?

Marx did not understand religion and nationalism

Marx said some very riveting things about religion. Among other things he saw the construction of “god” as an alienation of human creativity. But at the same time he believed that religion would wither away under communism as people’s material conditions got better. Clearly this has not been the case. Neither was Marx very dialectical about how religion could be used by socialists. With the exception of liberation theology, socialists have not understood how to transform all the ingredients that go into “cooking” a religious experience and mythologize a socialist story complete with music, ritual, mythology and patron saints. The closest instance of socialists doing something like this is May Day in southern European countries. It used to be that people made costumes for May Day and gathered together while wearing those costumes, sharing food and singing The International. All these things gave it some of the sweep and drama of religion.

The extent to which the Communist Party tried to outlaw religion is revealing in how little they understood it. All this did was to make it more attractive by burying it underground. Socialists also did not understand that nationalism would not disappear under socialism. During World War II Stalin needed to refer to the “Great Russian Fatherland” (hardly a call to socialist internationalism) in order to inspire and join people together through hardship.

Neither did socialists understand that race cannot be reduced to social class.

Again, Marxists’ general approach is that race will only preoccupy people when capitalists use race to keep people from uniting as a class. But once workers gain class consciousness, the issue of skin color will dissolve in people minds. This has not been born out in experience. In addition, because of Marxists’ cynical attitude towards evolutionary psychology they have yet to make current in their theory the fact that ethnocentrism goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers. While ethnocentrism and racism are not the same thing, ethnocentrism is present enough to see that the skin color of people does matter around the world and that this was present long before capitalism existed.

Marxists cannot explain how sports have charmed the working class

A number of years ago, Noam Chomsky commented on how amazed he was by the intelligence of working class people when they called into a sports talk program the Monday after Sunday’s NFL games. Their analysis of what plays didn’t work, what plays could have worked along with the strengths and weaknesses of the players was astounding. But then he pointed out how all this intelligence goes away when the same people are then asked to make a political analysis of the current events in their lives – working conditions, wages, war. The working class is mute when asked to explain how and why capitalism is failing. The question is not why working class people have cognitive compartmentalization, separating sporting events from their everyday life. The question is what does sports offer people that makes them so involved? Have socialists asked themselves what would have to happen to make working class people be carried away by socialism the way they are by sports?

As many of you know, a number of years ago the Seattle Seahawks played the New England Patriots in the Superbowl. The Seahawks were losing but had a great drive going at the end of the game. With about 90 seconds left and the ball on the New England one-yard line, the Seahawks quarterback decided to pass the ball rather than hand it off to Marshawn Lynch who had a great game. The pass was intercepted. I knew the next day in my brainwashing class, this was what they wanted to talk about. It wouldn’t have mattered if the stock market crashed. Why is this? Unless students were betting on the game, they had no material stake in the outcome. Still – most of the men in the class were very involved.

II  Bad Taste: A Communist is Swept Away By Baseball

Flashbulb memories of my performance as a baseball player

When I was about 7 years old I used to play a ‘let’s pretend’ game. I laid out 4 rags I’d gotten from the garage and placed them in a diamond form which represented the bases. The bases were about 45 feet apart. Then I looked at our house and took my batting stand and let my imagination take over. The scene is no doubt familiar to many of you. It is the last of the 9th inning, we are losing by three runs. The bases are loaded and there are two outs. Then I swing and hit the ball – tsssssch! “ As Mel Allen was saying in my head “there is a high fly ball deep to right center. The centerfielder is at the track. It is going, going, gone”. Then I would trot around the bases. As I got older I played a great deal of hardball and I hit home runs, but never quite experienced the situation I imagined when I was seven until my last year of playing.

In 1968 our team from Brooklyn got into a playoff game at Victory Field which was one of the fanciest fields around. My girlfriend Rose Nuccio let it be known to me that this was the last time she was coming to my games. Sunday was her only day to sleep in. “Besides” she said, “you are 0-8” (referring to my performance in the last two games.) She brought her sister Miriam along with her for this game. In the top of the first inning I am up with two guys on base and two outs. The left-handed pitcher, Rick Honeycutt, throws me a high inside curve ball.

“Tshrush”! I tomahawk the pitch and the ball really does head for the right centerfield fence just like in my fantasy 13 years ago. As I watch the ball head for the fence time and space seem to contract. It’s as if I were in my backyard 13 years ago. The ball lands on the tennis courts on the other side of the fence scattering everyone. I am so out of it that as I make my rounds of the bases I miss first base. The coach has to get me to touch the base. As I round second I see Rosie and Miriam jumping up and down screaming like two young Italian gals will. The look on Rosie’s face as our eyes met was like a melting ray of sunlight that united our eyes. I missed third base too. Finally as I headed for home most everyone on our team came out to home plate to meet me. It was as if we won the World Series. I disappear in a mass of teammates at the plate.

I have told this story in my psychology classes as an example of a peak experience. I also use it in my brainwashing class to show how powerful sports can be in moving people. Virtually every time I tell the story I cannot help but become teary. I’ve seen students cry even though they know nothing about sports. Unless socialists can find a way to create this kind of drama, not occasionally but as part of a regular seasonal sequence, we will continue to be marginalized.

The lure of professional baseball: the return of the hero Ken Griffey Jr. to Seattle

My last example is about a baseball player many of you know. Ken Griffey Jr. was a great home run hitter for the Seattle Mariners for about 10 years. For whatever reasons, I believe he asked to be traded to Cincinnati, where he played for about another seven years. Probably because he was a left-handed hitting center fielder like I was, and because of his grace I liked him and followed his career. Then I heard he was traded back to the American League, to the White Sox. The following year he was traded back to Seattle. How would the fans feel? Would they hold a grudge because he left? I knew they wouldn’t. I wanted to see the homecoming so I watched the game when he came back to Seattle. The fans made signs and were screaming for him. They must have given him a 5-10 minute standing ovation. Tears streamed down my face. I wasn’t even a Seattle fan! What was going on was not a baseball game. It was the return of a god to his home ground.

Movie stars, musicians and sports figures are our gods and goddesses. These celebrities have happily replaced priests and military generals as our heroes. Like gods and goddesses, they enter into sports mythology complete with the stories of great World Series, great stories of betrayal (by playing for another team) drug scandals and homecomings. The people of Seattle understood that when they came to this game they were participating in the final days of a great sports god, and this mattered more than who won this particular game. If socialists cannot figure out that this is what is going on with sports fans and, even more importantly, how to use this energy for our purposes, we will continue to be marginalized.

III Socialist enchantment needs to happen before the revolution

Socialism has certainly had its events that could be claimed as peak experiences or even religious experiences. Anyone who had participated in a revolution knows these moments are euphoric and unforgettable. Anyone who participated in the Occupy Movement will not soon forget it. And those centrists fools who think that Occupy “is over” will be in for a rude awakening as their spastic, decaying capitalist system will continue to undergo more nervous breakdowns. These breakdowns will only produce more “Occupies”.

But what about budding socialists who have never had revolutionary experiences? What do we have to offer them in the way of inspiring collective experiences before a revolutionary process begins? Throughout the year baseball has its opening day in April; the All Star game is in July; the World Series in October. Religion has its holy days peppered throughout the year. Nationalism has its holidays – President’s day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. What is missing under socialism is a similar pageantry of rituals, joining in song and dance along with regular places to meet and celebrate. All of these things build a theatrical stage scaffolding for extraordinary revolutionary events. I am not talking about practical, political meetings. Theatrical stage sets might inform the practical but they are the celebration of the socialist tradition regardless of specific political or economic events that might be happening.

Socialists understand enchantment during and after revolutions, but before the revolution too many socialists are disenchanted crab apples. In part, this is because of a sad lack of yearly seasonal rituals that keep the fires burning between one revolutionary generation and the next.

Lastly, religion, nationalism and sports all have ways of linking the important events of the year to the lifetime of the individual. Catholics have confirmation at roughly the age of nine; Hispanic Catholics have quinceañera around a girl’s 15th birthday. In sports an individual might visit Cooperstown (Baseball’s Hall of Fame) for their birthday. Nationalism has its pilgrimages to the Washington monuments in the summer. What does socialism have to offer? Is it possible to have something like my baseball flashbulb memory tapped into some systematic experience that could be given to socialist children or adolescents? Would it be possible to have an experience of socialism before the revolution, which is similar to whatever it takes to make the fans wave their signs, scream for 10 minutes and become emotionally spent when their hero comes home and is paraded through the streets? Boy, does socialism need some of that potion. We need some Love Potion Number 9.

In Part Two we’ll explore in more detail what this might look like.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds

I’ve often wondered about the limits of activist’s reach and the lack of coherent, organized progressive social movements in the US. Does it come down to the precarious nature of our jobs, the stress, strain, and exhaustion caused by the realization of being a paycheck away from penury? Or is it all the fault of our monopolistic media, with the puppet strings controlled by their advertisers, the corporate giants and multinationals? Is it geographic distance from Europe where socialism advanced far broader and deeper into society? Could it be the anti-communist Red Scare that dominated the binary and delusional cold war mindset? Was it the very real threat and use of violence via COINTELPRO, and overseas with Operations Gladio, Condor, etc? Is it deeper psychological issues stemming from the trauma of having to grow up in a cold capitalist world which leads to false consciousness?

It would seem to be a mixture of all of the above. Yet millions of citizens still are able to see through the mendacities inherent in our empire, in our collective cultural death-wish, and many millions more would be able to if provided the education, tools, and resources to see through the lies of our global system of capital.

Activists and educators must reconsider their approaches in light of the repeated failures of international progressive organizations. In short, part of the failure lies with the leadership of non-profits, NGOs, community leaders, and the type of worldview they adhere to. For one, unstable vertical hierarchies are reproduced, with not enough feedback from concerned citizens and community-based, small-scale pressure groups. Also, technocrats and lawyers are relied far too heavily upon to perform band-aid, stopgap procedures in the social and environmental justice fields. Endless petitions and protests are planned which do not lead to fundamental change.

Organization in the majority of so-called progressive movements mimics the neoliberal order. Pedestals and soapboxes are lined up for the official learned classes, who are offered cushy positions to run vote campaigns, to lobby (beg) a corrupt Congress or Parliament to do the right thing. This is turn creates a new split between the middle-class non-profit lawyers, campaigners, and managers; and the working class constituencies, which only fuels social division and alienation.

These maladies contribute to the false consciousness of the mostly liberal, white, middle-class, urbane, college-educated non-profit and social justice managerial class, as well as progressive activists. All of the racist, sexist, and classist baggage is carried alongside these organizations, as we can see so clearly in the faux “progressive” areas like Silicon Valley.

Let us take this line of thought further. I believe the lack of rigor and effectiveness also shows up with so-called radical activists and intellectuals who believe they are sincerely committed to revolution. It works in a few ways: radicals take on the feelings of others in unhealthy ways, bottling up anger and sadness that legitimately occurs and is expressed in subaltern groups. Another point involves the expectation of success, the attachment to pet projects and the personal rage that spills out when failure occurs.

US progressive and radicals are, for the most part, not versed in modern scientific advancements, ecology, or Eastern traditions. There is no tolerance for balance, paradox, and contradiction. Most are stuck on treadmills and attached to their egos and personas. Then there is the problem of speed: trying to catch up with every travesty the establishment and corporations impose on us (playing defense), as if one could bail out a sinking Titanic with a bucket. There is the notion of taking on social justice burdens as a very Christian-like type of “work”, instead of blending work and play into a post-modern, post-coercive labor environment that could put humankind on a type of threshold, a liminal state, towards a saner society of free association and mutual aid which could end much unnecessary suffering.

Running in Circles

There is most likely an inverse relationship between how seriously one takes oneself and one’s wisdom. The most serious among us are almost undoubtedly the least wise. The vast majority of the endless running around from protests or events or conferences or speaking engagements are just a series of distractions.

There are appropriate times for all those things, to be sure. Yet it must be noted that the predominant mode of liberals, leftists, and progressives is predicated on constantly reacting to and diagnosing mainstream culture, rather than arriving at any original prescriptions for changing society.

Many people in the US of all political persuasions are quite aware of the near terminal nature of politics: and many are looking for a model that works. The diagnosis has been made countless times. People are ready for an alternative to our broken system.  Obviously, with no capital this is nearly impossible for poor and marginalized communities.  An international network of direct action, worker co-ops, and communal agriculture must begin as soon as possible to fight neoliberal economics and the looming challenges of climate change.

Brecht’s Stance

A few years ago, I stumbled across Bertolt Brecht’s Stories of Mr. Keuner. The first passage is entitled “What’s wise about the wise man is his stance.” Here is the full passage:

A philosophy professor came to see Mr. K and told him about his wisdom. After a while Mr. K said to him: ‘You sit uncomfortably, you talk uncomfortably, you think uncomfortably.’ The philosophy professor became angry and said: ‘I didn’t want to hear anything about myself but about the substance of what I was talking about.’ ‘It has no substance,’ said Mr. K. ‘I see you walking clumsily and, as far as I can see, you’re not getting anywhere. You talk obscurely, and you create no light with your talking. Seeing your stance, I’m not interested in what you’re getting at.’

Now we’re getting somewhere! As Sean Carney explains in Brecht and Critical Theory: Dialectics and Contemporary Aesthetics:

The most important thing to draw from Brecht’s play, then, is the attitude it displays, which Brecht also calls a kind of wisdom that is performed or staged for us. It seems important here to distinguish between the form of wisdom, and the content of wisdom. Brecht, for his part, is concerned only with the former, the posture of wisdom, wisdom as an action. The form of this wisdom is dialectical and historical.

There is no space to flesh out all the implications here. A few thoughts will have to suffice.

When Western activists scream, “Rise up!” they should be reminded: “Sit down.” Always consider the antithesis. Slowing down, sitting: calling for nationwide wildcat general strikes would do much greater good than marching around with placards along predetermined protest routes.

When others shout “Speak out,” we can remind them: be silent (just imagine kids in school refusing to speak the pledge of allegiance or taking a knee in high school sports in solidarity with Kaepernick). When protestors implore: “Wake up,” they can also be chided and reminded: “Keep dreaming!” (of a genuine revolution, not stopping the imagination at some milquetoast progressive reforms led by the DSA or other pseudo-leftists, which, while helpful, do not go nearly far enough). I am not advocating not speaking truth to power here, or any escapism, only that in certain cases we should ignore the constant dramas and tragedies engendered by the corporate ruling-class and focus on building parallel structures and intentional communities to bust an escape hatch from global tyranny.

Non-striving

It should be recognized that many so-called “radicals” mimic the striving, combative, and authoritarian nature of the neoliberal order. Raised in an ultra-competitive society, some proponents of revolution refuse the inner work necessary while clinging to whatever social capital or insignificant platform one can muster up.

We live in a culture of constant striving, clinging, petty jealousness and egomaniacal childishness. It is no wonder that it shows up on many outlets of progressive outlets as well as on social media, and in activist circles.

Instead, we should begin the work of instilling a radical patience. Not because we have a lot to time left to act (we assuredly don’t), but because attaching oneself to unobtainable goals in the very short term only has the effect of tiring out and disillusioning many sincere people. Western activists could learn something by practicing non-attachment.

Only by giving up hope can we become present in the moment. This has continually been best expressed among Buddhists. As Pema Chodron writes:

As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot. In a non-theistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put ‘Abandon Hope’ on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like ‘Everyday in everyway, I’m getting better and better.’ We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.

Thus, this brutally honest reflection (on our individual lives, but also on the fate of our civilization as we hurtle into the Anthropocene) leads to self-love, joy, and to vulnerability. This is a baseline for giving our collective culture what Rollo May called The Courage to Create. May contrasts happiness (in this sense a cessation of wants, a sense of security) with basic joy (quoted here):

Happiness is related to security, to being reassured, to doing things as one is used to and as our fathers did them. Joy is a revelation of what was unknown before. Happiness often ends up in a placidity on the edge of boredom. Happiness is success. But joy is stimulating, it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself…Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.

One cannot understand joy without noting the sense of timelessness: the past, present, and future all converging into the present moment. Athletes, artists, scientists, and others call this “flow” or “being in the zone.” Time moves more slowly, certainly everyone has experienced this phenomenon at one point or another. Relativity has proven that this is possible, as well as studies in consciousness, meditation, and psychedelics.

Is any of this useful as a guide towards activism today? I will leave it to you to decide. Is it possible to “create light” when you speak, or be in tune with “higher harmonies?”

Time

Regarding time, we can turn to Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin, and his notion of the Jetztzeit. In order to break free from “homogenous, empty time,” which, notably, Francis Fukuyama unintentionally expressed so well as the ever-looming backdrop to the neoliberal era in The End of History, Benjamin writes that society must struggle towards “the messianic zero-hour of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for a suppressed past.”

That is to say, only by looking backwards in time can we assess the damages of the present age, even as the storm of progress pushes us further away from mending the wreckage, as Benjamin explains Klee’s Angelus Novus. Only in the zero-hour, the ever-present moment, can we blast open a historic event. This explains Benjamin’s concept of the monad, a “constellation overflowing with tensions.”

On the Horizon

Does any modern science conform to these ideas of reality as a constellation of energy and matter, something like Benjamin’s monad, influenced by Leibniz, overflowing with possibilities, tensions, and constant flux? Put another way, are there are empirical/scientific fields which show a healthy stance or posture of wisdom?

Here we turn to some of the modern science that corroborates what people like Benjamin, the German Idealists, process philosophy, Leibniz, and before him, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Lao Tzu, and various Eastern traditions have contributed to: a systems view of life and the universe that explains phenomena holistically. In a nurturing system such as this, cross-discipline studies would expand, converge, and enrich social life and ecosystem health.

In many ways, modern science shows a return to the old ways of knowing: concepts in relativity and quantum mechanics were foreseen millennia ago, such as in Buddhism’s principle of dependent co-arising, for example.

Chaos Theory

Some of the greatest 20th century scientists were: Einstein, Watson and Crick, Margulis and Lovelock. Yet the most influential of all may turn out to be the little known meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, pioneer of chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and the strange attractor.

For a thorough introduction, James Gleick’s Chaos is a great start. For those mathematically inclined, I recommend Manfred Schroeder’s Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws.

It is this system-view approach that can explain, even, the formation of life on this planet: self-organizing proto-nucleotides and amino acids along with fatty membranes and mitochondria/chloroplasts which gave rise to the first unicellular organisms. It is these non-linear dynamics which do, in fact, create higher harmonies- Poincare’s three body problem being the first modern example.

In non-linear systems based on power laws, when the variable in the function passes a certain limit (dependent upon the initial conditions), the function starts to behave chaotically. The next figure cannot be predicted from previous answers. Eventually, a bifurcation will occur: this simply means that further on in the progression, the function bounces back between two figures, back and forth. If the parameter is pushed higher, period-doubling occurs: this simply means that instead of bouncing between two numbers, the function doubles to bounce between four, then eight, 16, etc. This applies to many dynamic systems and can start with any integer, so depending upon the function, you could have period doubling of 3, 6, twelve; four, eight, 16, etc. Period halving is possible, too.

The scientist Robert May was the first to prove this in population biology, and many fields have found it a useful tool for studying dynamic systems since. The point I want to make clear is in regard to climate and weather: all climate scientists and meteorologists accept weather cannot be predicted after 3 weeks, weather is inherently chaotic, yet climate, for now, is stable.

Without significant changes, the positive feedback loops currently warming the planet will eventually push the relatively stable, homeostatic climate model into the “Hot house Earth” model. Wild changes in weather are more likely to occur. Not only that, but much higher-level droughts and flooding will occur more frequently; i.e., climatic normality may switch into an non-linear, chaotic state.

In the US, the Southwest in particular will be hit hard. Consider central Arizona, where the ancient Hokoham population could have reached 80,000 around 1300 CE. The area around Phoenix could have provided for 10,000 people. You make think, well, that was before modern irrigation and food transportation. You would be wrong. The Hokoham were masterful farmers with over 500 miles of canals and estimates of over 100,000 acres of cultivated, irrigated land. Today, metro Phoenix has approximately 4.7 million people. This won’t end well. By 2050, much of Arizona and the wider region could be ghost towns.

The second point: self-similarity is inherent in nature at many scales, as observed in fractals. How does this apply to culture? Direct democracy can be implemented at all scales (local, from worker councils to communal town meetings; to international, with a trans-national body such as a re-imagined UN.)

Chaos theory applies to the brain as well: there is evidence that psychedelics reform and rearrange new connections of neurons, changing the “criticality” of its structural firings. This is what is able to cure patients of depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., by changing the flow of thoughts and giving a wider expression, to get your mind out of a rut or a bad habit of harmful/fearful thinking.

There is plenty of sociological and anthropological evidence that mimetic theory (pioneered by Rene Girard) has some merit. Mostly, this is studied cross-culturally (horizontally), but we should consider the vertical dimension of hierarchies: at levels of coercion and exploitation are imitated at all scales of the socio-economic pyramid. The ruthless hierarchy was not that different between the mind-numbing conformity and bureaucratic chicanery of state-capitalist countries, contrasted with the crushing alienation and faux-competitive crony capitalism of neoliberal nations. If the structure is rotten at the top, most state and local governments mimic and take their cue from the power relations above them.

This played out very clearly on the international level after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Once the Patriot Act, NDAA, and AUMF were passed, once NATO and ISAF forces invaded Afghanistan, with troops and spooks using “rendition”, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, with nighttime raids on civilians, and outright drone murder was rolled out by the US, other nations followed suit, with a rash of authoritarian copycat legislation, as well as police and military brutality playing out around the globe. For instance, the uptick in violence by Israel in 2002-2003 during the second Intifada is telling. Without the September 11 attacks and the relentless anti-Muslim propaganda coming from the US, there is little doubt that the IDF would have been so emboldened.

On a positive note, it’s quite telling, and appropriate, that the self-similar snail shell (caracol) became the emblem of the Zapatistas, and the model for their communities. Rebecca Solnit explains this well, and quotes a wonderful passage from Marcos, who draws from his folk hero, “Old Antonio”:

The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women are in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents exiting from the heart to walk the world…. The caracoles will be like doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside; like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to hear the words from the one who is far away.

Contradiction, Paradox, Nuance

There is a great passage in an old Marcos communiqué, “The retreat is making us almost scratch at the sky.” As the echo chambers, petty infighting, and silos build up on the Left, I thought it’d be appropriate to share his thoughts on how to respond to those fearful of heterodox-postmodern-non-ideological-anarchic stances:

After these confessions, he of the voice was exhorted to spontaneously declare himself innocent or guilty of the following series of accusations. To each accusation, he of the voice responded:

The whites accuse him of being dark. Guilty

The dark ones accuse him of being white. Guilty

The authentics accuse him of being indigenous. Guilty

The treasonous indigenous accuse him of being mestizo. Guilty

The machos accuse him of being feminine. Guilty

The feminists accuse him of being macho. Guilty

The communists accuse him of being anarchist. Guilty

The anarchists accuse him of being orthodox. Guilty

The Anglos accuse him of being Chicano. Guilty

The antisemitics accuse him of being in favor of the Jews. Guilty

The Jews accuse him of being pro-Arab. Guilty

The Europeans accuse him of being Asiatic. Guilty

The government officials accuse him of being oppositionist. Guilty

The reformists accuse him of being ultra. Guilty

The ultras accuse him of being reformist. Guilty

The “historical vanguard” accuses him of calling to the civic society and not to the proletariat. Guilty

The civic society accuses him of disturbing their tranquility. Guilty

The Stock Exchange accuses him of ruining their breakfast. Guilty

The government accuses him of increasing the consumption of antiacids in the government’s Departments. Guilty

The serious ones accuse of being a jokester. Guilty

The adults accuse him of being a child. Guilty

The children accuse him of being an adult. Guilty

The orthodox leftists accuse him of not condemning the homosexuals and lesbians. Guilty

The theoreticians accuse of being a practitioner. Guilty

The practicioners accuse of being a theorist. Guilty

Everyone accuses him of everything bad that has happened. Guilty”

I take inspiration from this; I see a sort of playfulness, a glimpse of his “inner child”. Today, we could also say: to those who, without nuance, accuse others of being heretics or dogmatic; to those who would accuse us of rather having a messy, non-violent, and imperfect revolution on the streets rather than continue to perpetuate a self-congratulatory, alienating, bloviating, insular, suffocating, and self-defeating movement in substance and style, we must reply: we are Guilty.

Quantum Theory

Our understanding of reality and consciousness has grown by leaps and bounds with advances in quantum physics. The parallels between Eastern thought and quantum mechanics are uncanny, and no one has explained this better than Fritjof Capra in his bestseller The Tao of Physics. Exploring connections between the sub-atomic world and Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist philosophy, Capra takes the reader on a tour-de-force. Of course, it was the early physicists who worked on the uncertainty principle, double-slit experiment (wave-particle duality), complementarity, and quantum superpositioning who originally noted the connections between Eastern philosophies. Thus, consciousness and the observer effect somehow influences these experimental designs in ways science currently has no answer for.

Capra synthesizes this and builds upon these models: he insists on the interrelationship operating at certain scales of reality, and calls it a holistic/ecological worldview in his afterword to the 3rd edition.

There has been lots of push-back from other physicists since 1975 when the first edition appeared. The science is not in debate at the sub-atomic scale, rather, how it applies to the macroscopic world is what is at stake. There are plenty of scientists that dismiss Capra completely without acknowledging the very qualified, modest theory he put forward.

The new revelations about quantum entanglement push this line of thought further. The basic idea is: two electrons become “entangled” where the spin of one is connected with the other regardless of distance. When one electron’s spin is measured, the second spin correlates instantaneously, faster than the speed of light. This is what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Non-locality is another name. This flies in the face of the fundamentals laws of physics.

So what does this mean? The best analogy I can come up with (paraphrasing from someone, somewhere) is that when measuring (observing) the first particle, you are pushing through the fabric of space-time with your finger to “touch” the second particle at the same time, bypassing the physical distance between the two.

What are the implications here? Physicists insist this phenomenon doesn’t “scale up” to the macroscopic level. If we look at today’s level of scientific knowledge in physics, they’re right. There is little evidence to suggest this.

Yet, the simple fact that this can occur on sub-atomic levels is staggering. No one knows where these new teachings will take us.  Certainly, though, there are parallels with shamanic/animistic ways of thinking, or, to put it in the words of Stephen Hawking: “every particle and every force in the universe contains information, an implicit answer to a yes-no question.”

However, this interpenetration of levels/worlds in the social and mental realms, is quite pronounced, say, in medical facts. The higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, in poor and working class communities as well as for minorities is tied to the mental strain and stress of living in substandard housing without proper nutrition, lack of access to education, etc. African American women are 3-4 times more likely to lose children in childbirth compared to white women, due to lack of pre-natal care, and sometimes because their doctors won’t listen to them. Women who’ve suffered a heart attack are more likely to survive if their doctor is a woman, rather than a man. Again, because women doctors are generally: more competent, listen to patients’ symptoms better, and show higher emotional intelligence and compassion.

Gaia Theory

Turning to Earth systems, it was the pioneering work of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock who together formulated Gaia theory. Thinking of the Earth as a self-regulating super-organism is helpful in many fields, from geology to climate science to evolutionary biology. From the simple-programming of Lovelock’s Daisyworld, today we can model ecosystem resiliency, albedo effects in the Arctic Sea, and deforestation in tropical rain forests, the lungs of the Earth, all in terms of feedback loops which can tie into trends such as global warming, species extinction, desertification, and declining biodiversity.

Scientists are now willing to combine the shocking implications of chaos theory within Gaia: in the journal Nature Barnosky et al. write of “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.” The authors write that “the plausibility of a future planetary state shift seems high” and they acknowledge the uncertainty about when it may happen. They also point out: “it is extremely unlikely or impossible for the system to return to its previous state.” Thus, if a hothouse Earth scenario becomes a reality, there will be no going back. Real estate speculation on Antarctica could be a thing in 100 years.

There are reasons to be hopeful. One line of thought was taken up recently by Bruno Latour, who along with a co-author, postulate what they call Gaia 2.0. Simply put, they are referring to a global system where:

…deliberate self-regulation—from personal action to global geoengineering schemes—is either happening or imminently possible. Making such conscious choices to operate within Gaia constitutes a fundamental new state of Gaia, which we call Gaia 2.0. By emphasizing the agency of life-forms and their ability to set goals, Gaia 2.0 may be an effective framework for fostering global sustainability.

While they posit this self-conscious biomimetic planning of bioregions as new, because they see it as the first chance to endeavor to perform this on a global scale, the novelty only really applies to a certain brand of Eurocentric/anthropocentric materialists, anti-intellectual monotheists, and other deniers of common sense and basic ecology. Indigenous groups have used bioregional eco-friendly practices for millennia, with First Nations sustainably caretaking land from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle.

Consider terra preta in Amazonia, the miraculous change from teosinte to maize which many estimate domestication circa 9000 years ago, mountain terracing in the Andes, super-high productivity with Central American milpas, multiyear field rotation for fallow lands to rejuvenate nutrients, seasonal burns throughout North America which increased deer and upland game bird populations, with agroforestry “forest farming” of chestnut (Chestnut Trees could produce over a ton per acre in vast portions of America before the die-off occurred), hickory, butternut, oak (acorns are used as a food source removing tannins with water) and more. Not to mention the thousands of uses of native plants and fungi for herbal/traditional medicine, preventive/holistic care, and shamanic/spiritual uses.

I would say one of the most interesting debates about what Gaia 2.0 could look like is mostly ignored, because it is occurring on the far side of the globe: Aotearoa, aka New Zealand. Their government has already launched a “Predator Free” program for 2050, where all mammalian predators are hoping to be eliminated with a variety of programs forming in the near future. Intense debate surrounds the gene drive approach, some techniques using CRISPR and some using other gene editing technology, to in effect, using genetic manipulation, create all male future generations of predators and thus, lead to localized extinction of these mammals in Aotearoa and its small outlying islands.

The bioethics are being debated by UN and national groups and many conservation groups are totally against the idea. Some Maori are open to the possibilities of gene-drive technology, yet they understandably critique the bad faith of the scientists involved, citing:

[An] increasing lack of cultural accountability in academic journals who seem happy to publish anything without thought, consideration, or commentary from the communities those papers have extracted from, taken swipe at, or made promises to… The second issue is what I deem bad research-dating behaviour, or rather how to build respectful relationships with indigenous peoples/communities… Relatively few, however, are actually committed to investing their time into building long-term relationships, despite being continually told that that is what is required… However, some researchers by-and-large continue to push an extractive model whereby they attempt to take intellectual property from communities in return for ‘the greater research good’. This model is naïve to the political situations that indigenous communities are operating in, and often places those communities in culturally unsafe positions.

Fritjof Capra notably calls the first step in transitioning to such a state of ecological awareness and cultural sensitivity “eco-literacy” and the next step eco-design. He’s on point. The funny, sad, and tragic thing (to me at least) is that exposes the orthodox technophile Western Left (seemingly the majority) as supporters of what many like to call Industrialism, the over-arching system, including capitalism and state socialism, of fossil fuel exploitation which is killing the planet.

According to the technophile proponents of unrestrained instrumental reason, many of us, well, sane and sensible people, who, in advocating for appropriate-scale technology, have the basic common sense to understand that Small is Beautiful, are a bunch of Luddites, crazy hippies, anti-civ, lifestylists, primitivists, nihilists, and/or misanthropes.

This type of thinking exposes the narrowness and superficiality of many “Leftists” who espouse all the right mantras, yet never bothered to take Marx’s example and actually study and stay abreast with key scientific and ecological advances.

I try my best to remain calm, patient, and equanimous, yet it is difficult with unabashed technophiles- again, possibly the majority of what qualifies as what’s left of the Left. There is a discomfort from listening to the droning on of progressives, and also many banal Leftist economists and historians who pay lip service to sustainability, while not even giving token acknowledgment of the nature of spiritual transformation required.

Many of these people, even on “progressive” alternative media, are unaware of their own immiseration via lack of engagement with the natural world, which I take no pleasure in pointing out, so my queasiness doesn’t qualify as schadenfraude, but apparently, there is another German word for what I’ve been feeling: Fremdschämen: “‘exterior shame’, for those of you who cringe in phantom pain when others make a fool of themselves, this is your word. It describes the feeling of shame when seeing someone else in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation.” Perhaps Mr. Keuner was feeling this, as well.

Planting Seeds

Well, there is no high note to end this on. Most of activism goes towards wasting time attempting to change the minds of adults whose conditioning and social infantilization have already reached epic proportions. There is no systemic, global plan for engaging the youth in ecological-cultural restorative practices. This is absolutely ridiculous and a severe oversight of academia, including lackadaisical teachers and administrators, as well as conservatives and liberal-progressives who insist on vote-campaigns and the wonders of traditional higher education which indoctrinates and obfuscates class issues: yet the idea of revolutionizing public education never crosses their minds.

Revolutionary artists have always understood this, as well as indigenous tribal societies and many poor and working class communities. Yet today, the hungry ghosts of global capitalism are here to consume the sustenance and life force of future generations in an era where information is at our fingertips as never before.

The current education model effectively imprisons children in unsafe and unhealthy schools, with psychotropic drugs, authoritarian teachers, mind-numbing boredom and ennui functioning as social conditioning for a future hellscape with billions in poverty worldwide, no decent jobs, benefits, or forms of belonging; alongside a crushing tyranny of corporate rule, oligarchy, global war, climate chaos, and a culture ruled by a principle of “repressive tolerance.”

Thus, it is inevitable that the most important thing to do is raise our children in a healthy way. This will require social engagement on a spiritual, intellectual, communal, emotional and material basis (i.e., sharing extra housing for homeless and low-income families, paying child-rearing adults a living wage for their time and labor, equal pay for women, ending oppression against the LGBTQ community, serious environmental education, etc.). Patriarchy and racism will not be solved, until youth are gifted the freedom and opportunity to pursue their passions unencumbered by structurally racist and sexist policies which enforce hierarchy, capitalism, and war, until pathetic guidelines advocating rote memorization in school are abandoned, and crippling conformity fueled by vapid pop culture and the psychically numbing effect of social media is no longer glorified. Poverty, war, and disease cannot be significantly lowered or eliminated without a fundamentally redistributive model.

Furthermore, some sort of restorative healing measures, including some sort of reparations for minorities, including but not limited to redistributing money, property, land, and the means of production, via a process truth and reconciliation in the public sphere, is absolutely crucial. This would necessarily coincide with the dissolving of corporate and state power.

Public and private land must be given back to citizens: we are only free when given the ability to use the means of production to transform corporate agriculture into communal, appropriately-scaled endeavors where communities can directly and deliberatively interact, and transform as need be, to the world-historical changes (climatically, ecologically, and socially) on the immediate horizon.

This would seem to entail relaxing the grip of the Apollonian style of “emotionless” pure logic (techne/episteme), and instrumental reason; and coming to terms with the obverse: the Dionysian, where the shamanic/animistic, nomadic, and anarchic ways of being are accepted. This shift, with the science to back it up, is seen in a many counter-culture belief systems: the push for radical intersubjectivity, expanding studies of the realms of consciousness, a hylozoic belief system, and formulating a new model of recognition (see Taylor, Fraser, Honneth, Butler, among others) which does not re-invigorate the power of capital.

There is no hope of this happening in today’s 24/7 mainstream media, driven by fear and sensationalism. Only a world-historical process, a paradigm shift, can overturn this momentum, which would require inner work to be done on a mass scale in the Western world alongside collective general strikes, debt jubilees, a bit of carnivalesque (Bakhtin)/festival/regional cultural appreciation/in the spirit of a Communitas, and a counter-cultural force which does not overly privilege the economic at the expense of other social struggles.

This critical way of teaching is a sort of “stance”: a tendency towards what Aristotle called eudaimonia, “the good life,” informed by virtue, areté. Another way of phrasing it would be “human flourishing,” and here this referred to a moral sensibility, but also an aesthetic, a form of posture or “stance” if you will, an art of living, a way of (Hölderlin-esque) dwelling poetically upon the Earth.

From another angle, we could consider this a search for The Ethics of Authenticity. As Charles Taylor describes, what is structurally called for is:

…a many leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and its relation to the cosmos.

Yet, again, this type of work should get started by educating children, because under the current conditions of liberal democracy, there is no acknowledgment of “interlinking”. There is only the autonomous individual: at least understood by most adults, whose notion of civic duty is voting, or volunteer work, or donating to charity. Rather, youth could be asked to inquire, as Rudy Rucker wondered:

One might also ask whether a person is best thought of as a distinct individual or as a nexus in the web of social interaction. No person exists wholly distinct from human society, so it might seem best to say that the space of society is fundamental. On the other hand, each person can feel like an isolated individual, so maybe the number-like individuals are fundamental. Complementarity says that a person is both individual and social component, and that there is no need to try to separate the two. Reality is one, and language introduces impossible distinctions that need not be made.

We can imagine a single cell in our body asking itself the same question: am I an individual or just part of a wider integrated whole? We can shift the scale but the self-similarity always follows: it’s turtles all the way down. This famous saying, of course, echoes what we know about fractals, and the possibility that we’re in a multiverse. There are also the First Nation stories about Spider Woman, or Grandmother Spider, who created the world. Again, we find the notion of the web- the basis of our bio/psycho/social being, and also a connection to string theory: spider-woman’s creation song; i.e. vibrations held by interconnected threads.

My preferred analogy to the individual/social false binary is mycological (or rhizomatic, though I’ll save D+G for another day): our conception of ourselves (ego) is the mushroom, the fruiting body which rises above the soil, while the unconscious mycelium sustains us below the surface. Although we stand above the detritus (wreckage, as Benjamin says) we are deeply enmeshed in it, history “is not even past” and it feeds, and thus can warp, our consciousness and sensibilities.

Thus we must tend to the soil, nurture the sprouts and green shoots of this new culture. The meager results of our efforts can be depressing (April really can be the cruelest month) yet we must move on, without clinging to hope.

As for the problem of language which Rucker mentioned, it’s worth reminding our sisters and brothers that propaganda is all around us today. As Malcolm X said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Now is the time for the “revaluation of all values.” The struggle continues.