Barry’s Blog # 171: Cultural Appropriation? Part Four of Four

So, have Maya and I been engaging in cultural appropriation? And which cultural forms are we making use of? The terms we need to make peace with are calling, permission, authenticity and community.

After participating in several Dagara (West African) grief rituals led by Malidoma Some´at men’s conferences in the 1990s, it was quite clear to me that I was called to this important work. Maya speaks of her calling here.

By the way, even then, Malidoma was incorporating elements of grief work from other cultures that some of us were suggesting! Permission? Malidoma specifically blessed us and told us to take the work into our communities.

Next comes the question of authenticity, the issue over which our friend was challenging us. Like us, she’d been to Mexico, and clearly, to call our event a “Day of the Dead Ritual” was not entirely accurate. To respond, we have to speak of the fourth term, community.

Malidoma, whose elders had sent him to the West, and whose name means “”He who makes friends with the strangers,” taught us, no community without ritual and no ritual without community. In America who among us really has community – people who actually live near each other – willing to engage in these rituals? It’s a conundrum that, if followed literally, is a recipe for fumbling and indecisiveness. As Kenn Day writes in Part Three of this blog, tribal rituals are for healing the entire group. And although traditional Dagara grief rituals require the participation of the entire community and take three full days to complete, Malidoma was clear that neither of those factors should inhibit our attempts to offer the work to the public. It was simply too important to split hairs over.

In that context, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico also lasts for several days. And it is intimately associated with (Mexican) Catholicism. The dead visit their old homes, but the living spend the central night of the festival at their grave sites on consecrated ground. And it is a festival! The grieving is fundamental but not at all the sole emotion, as the people also party with their dead as only Mexicans can. Certainly there is no way to make a relatively short (one-day) event in a public hall for a group of non-Catholics, most of whom have never met each other, into a truly authentic Dia de los Muertos.

So first of all, we remember Michael Meade’s insight: To be honest, we never have real community in the old meaning of the term. The best we can do in this demythologized world is to invite like-minded people of deep intention to come together in brief periods of what he calls “ sudden community.” At our rituals, we encourage everyone to act (and speak) as if – as if we all really were members of a tribe who’d known each other all our lives. We make community for a few hours.

My research (see Chapter 12 of my book) shows that many if not most indigenous cultures knew the importance of setting aside a period during the year for inviting the dead to return, with terminology that translated as their own Days of the Dead. And they understood that certain liminal times were most appropriate. Cultures that use lunar calendars had (and in the far East, still have) these rituals a half year from the Lunar New Year (first full moon after the winter solstice): typically on the first full moon in August. This is what the Aztecs did before the Spanish invasion of the early 16th century.

Now this appropriation business gets really complicated. Once the padres finally realized that they couldn’t extinguish the ancient rites, scandalous as they were, they forced the Mexicas (as the Aztecs called themselves) to change the date of their festival from August to early November, the date of the Catholic festivals of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. But these festivals in turn had been created in the 10th and 11th centuries, when the (Roman Catholic) Church finally decided that it couldn’t wipe out the immensely old Celtic (primarily Irish) day of the dead.

Samhaim, the Celtic term, had always fallen on that liminal point in the solar calendar precisely between equinox and solstice. This was the day when the light half of the year switched to the dark half of the year and the veil between the worlds was the thinnest, when the boundaries between the seen and unseen worlds became permeable, and the spirits of the dead walked briefly among the living to eat the foods they loved when they were alive. To contemporary Neo-Pagans these are still times for loving remembrance. They are also sacred times, when great things are possible.

And they are dangerous times, since some spirits are hungry for more than physical food. Indigenous cultures from Bali to Guatemala agree that there is a reciprocal relationship between the worlds. What is damaged in one world can be repaired by the beings in the other. Such cultures affirm that many of our problems actually arise because we have not allowed the spirits of the dead to move completely to their final homes by not grieving them fully.

Maya and I had also been attending Spiral Dance,  San Francisco’s “Witch’s New Year,” at this time of year, because the Neo-Pagan calendar celebrations seemed to embody our sense that it was critical to attend to these times of transition.


Spiral Dance

Spiral Dance, now in its 31st year, is both a grief ritual that attends to the dead who briefly return to this side of the veil and a party that welcomes in both the darkness itself and the imagination necessary to move forward.

We’d also been marching in the Day of the Dead Procession. maxresdefault-1 Latinos in the Mission District had introduced this tradition back in the 1970s, but it soon grew into one of San Francisco’s major events, with thousands of participants, mostly young white artists and college students.

Talk about cultural appropriation/appreciation! Critics (who may not have ever been to Mexico) see it as another excuse for a public party before the rainy season drives everyone indoors, with its drumming, samba dancers and political slogans. But each year the procession passes many front-porch shrines and then concludes at a park where people have lovingly created dozens of illuminated shrines to their dead, and the mood shifts from party to profound mourning. dayofdead

At each shrine, its creators seem to be saying, “Look, I have sustained a deep loss. I must speak of it. I need you to see me. Come weep with me.” Appropriation? I don’t think so.

We couldn’t help but notice that Celtic New Year and Day of the Dead had far more in common than differences, and that both were completely consistent with the Dagara ritual imagination. How, I asked Malidoma, do people acknowledge seasonal transitions in an equatorial country such as his (Burkina Faso), where there is no difference between the light and dark halves of the year? He answered that the Dagara take note of daily transitional times, dawn and dusk, which are also fraught with significance.

We had also been learning some of Martín Prechtel’s teachings from Guatemala, where the ancestors require two basic things from us: beauty and our tears. The fullness of our grief, expressed in colorful, poetic, communal celebrations, feeds the dead when they visit, so that when they return to the other world they can be of help to us who remain in this one. And by feeding them with our grief, we may drop some of the emotional load we all carry simply by living in these times. The ancestors can aid the living. But they need our help to complete their transitions. Without enough people weeping for it on this side, say the Tzutujil Maya, a soul is forced to turn back. Taking up residence in the body of a youth, it may ruin his life through violence and alcoholism, until the community completes the appropriate rites. This is the essential teaching: when we starve the spirits by not dying to our false selves and embodying our authentic selves, the spirits take literal death as a substitute.

Here was yet another indigenous custom that seemed completely consistent with what we were doing. By the time we were able to travel to Bali and witness a traditional village cremation ritual, we were hardly surprised to see the cross-cultural parallels.


Balinese cremation ritual

It made perfect sense to us to respectfully incorporate them all into our rituals.

We recall Lupa Greenwolf’s words from Part Three:

So I very carefully reviewed what my practice entailed, did my best to claim that which I created myself while also being honest about how other cultures’ practices inspired me, and that’s where I drew my line, where I would back up no farther.

Pagan thinking appreciates diversity and encourages us to imagine. Myth is truth precisely because it refuses to reduce reality to one single perspective. We came to entertain the possibility that if there is such a thing as truth, it resides in many places. And we felt called to appreciate the wisdom from many indigenous cultures, rather than to follow one path exclusively.

Besides, we felt that the times are too painful and the need too strong to reject anything authentic. We have proceeded on the basic assumption that we need all the help we can get. Even Malidoma used to begin his invocations with a prayer to the ancestors acknowledging that so much wisdom had already been lost, that he was clumsily trying his best and hoping that the spirits would reciprocate.

Curiously, we also came to realize that whenever we encounter people of serious intention who are also attempting to revive a truly indigenous imagination on American soil, they seem to intuitively understand the basic principles of ritual. Radical ritual, that is, in Michael Meade’s terms.

1 – We all carry immense loads of unexpressed grief. Unfinished business keeps us from being present or from focusing on future goals.

2 – Beings on the other side of the veil call to us continually, but it is our responsibility to approach them through ritual, and this often implies creating beautiful shrines that visually represent that other side.

3 – Radical ritual implies creating a strong container, clarifying intentions, inviting the spirits to enter and not predicting the outcome. Radical ritual is by nature unpredictable. It is not liturgical but emotional.

4 – Radical ritual is always communal work.

5 – The purpose of radical ritual is always to restore balance.

6 – We must move the emotions. When ritual involves the body, the soul (and the ancestors) take notice. We dance our grief. Spontaneous, strong feeling indicates the presence of spirit.

7 – Ritual involves sacrifice. We attempt to release whatever holds us back, sabotages our relationships or keeps us stuck in unproductive patterns. In this imagination, the ancestors are eager for signs of our commitment and sincerity. What appears toxic to us, that which we wish to sacrifice becomes food to them, and they gladly feast upon both our tears and our beauty.

When we meet people with similar interests from other parts of the country, either we find that they have already intuited the same basic principles or are quite willing to learn them.

And – when we hear about what some other ritual teachers are offering, we can’t fail to notice the expensive rates they charge. Are we – who never refuse admission to our grief rituals to anyone for lack of funds – to judge them for their avaricious practices? Well, this is America after all, and perhaps such people are making a curious gesture of veneration for their Protestant ancestors! Perhaps Americans simply don’t value things if they don’t cost a lot. Indeed, as one friend tells us, “When my pots don’t sell, I simply raise the price.”

Moral inventory or self-justification?

In summary, after researching this appropriation/appreciation dispute, we feel that our work and our terminology – a Day of the Dead Grief Ritual – fall squarely on the side of deep appreciation, with emphasis on calling, permission, authenticity and community. May the ancestors hear our cry and bless our endeavors. What do you think?

This year we will hold our ritual, as always, in El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley, on November 5th. Details will be forthcoming.

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Barry’s Blog # 170: Cultural Appropriation? Part Three of Four


When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Dharma will come to the land of the red faces. — Tibetan Prophecy

S0 — What about those emissaries from Tibet and countless other cultures who have relocated to America and Western Europe specifically for the purpose of teaching their ways? All those Yogis and Sufis and shamans and Taoists and ayahuasca priests and Zen masters and gurus (the word “guru” is now used so commonly in American English that most people probably don’t realize its Hindu origin)?

All those who came to teach Tai Chi, Aikido, Judo, Kung Fu, Jujitso, acupuncture, Chinese herbalism, Qi Gung, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Capoeira, I Ching, Vodoun, Santeria, Candomble, bagpipe, gamelan, didgeridoo, tango, hora, carnival, samba, klezmer, nigun, rebetika, kirtan, raga, sitar, koto, oud, ney, kalimba, belly dance, hula, slack key guitar, ho’oponopono, mariarchi, Cuban Jazz, Balkan choral chant, Flamenco, West African dance, drum and divination, Irish fiddle, Tuvan throat singing, Roma violin, Aztec dance, Oaxacan weaving, Greek dance, Andean pan pipe? How about all that fashion? Those exotic crafts and jewelry? All that food?

Is America really a “melting pot” or is it more of a mosaic? And in the other direction: what about all that enthusiasm for American Blues in Japan? And, yes, Americans traveling to India to teach meditation?

Or how about the curious case of the Mardi Gras Indians, those African-Americans who have been creating and dancing in astonishingly creative yet seemingly caricature “Indian” outfits in New Orleans at least since the 1880s? Is this not the most depressing depth of cultural appropriation? Is it any different from sports mascots such as “Cleveland Indians” or “Washington Redskins”?


It turns out, however, that the Mardi Gras Indians have given considerable thought to the meaning and origins of their masking. They named themselves after Native Americans to pay them respect for their assistance in escaping the tyranny of slavery. Often, local Indian tribes accepted slaves into their society when they made a break for freedom and intermarried with them. Ronald Lewis, former Council Chief of the Choctaw Hunters and curator of New Orleans’ “House of Dance and Feathers,” writes:

Coming out of slavery, being African American wasn’t socially acceptable. By masking like Native Americans, it created an identity of strength. Native Americans under all the pressure and duress would not concede. These people were almost driven into extinction, and the same kind of feeling came out of slavery, “You’re not going to give us a place here in society, we’ll create our own.” In masking, they paid respect and homage to the Native American by using their identity and making a social statement that despite the odds, they’re not going to stop.

The difference between this and those dreadful sports mascots takes us back to the questions of power and privilege: billionaire owners of sports teams vs. two equally disenfranchised ethnic minorities.

And this example gets more complicated. The tale is told that when Allison “Tootie” Montana, the oldest and most famous of the maskers, came to New York City to view an exhibition of ancient West African ceremonial art, he exclaimed that it looked exactly like many of the costumes his people had been designing for years. These Africans, he said, had been copying him! Perhaps Montana, who had never been exposed to the art of his ancestors across the water, had intuited these art forms directly from the collective unconscious.


Tootie Montana (1922-2005)



Congolese king in regalia

How does this fit into the appropriation/appreciation debate? Perhaps we need a third concept: cultural aprocreation.

Back to the Tibetans, etc: Aren’t these teachers asking for Americans to appropriate/appreciate their spiritual traditions? And what about those many teachers who have come here because they know that if Americans don’t help introduce those ways into our culture, then – as Martin Prechtel’s teacher told him – those traditions would disappear in their indigenous lands?

Or, like the Kogi people of Colombia, who teach that if modern people don’t learn their ways, the whole world might not survive? As one wise friend tells me in an ironic twist on the old missionary statement, “We must live among them in order to save them!”

I’ll conclude this rant soon with Part Four.

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Barry’s Blog # 169: Cultural Appropriation? Part Two of Four

I find myself ironically posting Part Two of this essay on what we may eventually call Interdependence Day.

The alternative to cultural appropriation is cultural appreciation: learning about another culture with respect and courtesy. Some prefer the term “cultural exchange.” It is appreciating a certain culture enough to take time to learn about it, interact (or study with) with members of its community, and receive a certain blessing to carry its wisdom forward. The operative word here is permission.

Universalist-Unitarians, who proudly but sensitively use many cultural forms, offer us a poem (appropriated from an unknown author) on their website:

Our first task in approaching
Another people, another culture, another religion
Is to take off our shoes
For the place we are approaching is holy.
Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream.
More serious still, we may forget…that God
Was there before our arrival.

The site suggests questions that “borrowers” need to ask themselves:

1 – How much do I know about this particular tradition; how do I respect it and not misrepresent it?

2 – What do I know of the history and experience of the people from whom I am borrowing?

3 – Is this borrowing distorting, watering down, or misinterpreting the tradition?

4 – Is the meaning changed?

5 – Is this overgeneralizing this culture?

6 – What is the motivation for cultural borrowing? What is being sought and why?

7 – How do the “owners” of the tradition feel about pieces of the tradition being borrowed?

8 – If artifacts and/or rituals are being sold, who profits?

9 – Is this really spiritually healthy for Unitarian Universalists?

10 – How can we acknowledge rather than exploit the contributions of all people?


Chrystal Blanton, in “Culture and Community: Appropriation, Exchange and Modern Paganism” writes:

As the frameworks of culture continue to evolve and change, so does the black and white definition of what constitutes appropriation. The context of how something is regarded, shared, explored or used may vary within different cultures and different time frames. This means there is not a clear definition of what is and is not an acceptable with regards to the use of elements from another culture. Context is everything.

She quotes three persons who’ve struggled deeply with these questions. The first is anthropologist Sabina Magliocco:

… while on paper one can try to distinguish appropriation from exchange, in practice, it’s much more complicated. Cultures come into contact with one another in many different ways, and some of those involve violence. Nonetheless, cultural exchanges do emerge from those contacts — all the time. Think of cultural exchange as a crossroads. In folklore, the crossroads is a liminal place of magic, but it’s also a dangerous place, a place where death and destruction can happen. Crossroads deities are tricky (Eshu, Loki, Odin) and fierce (Hekate). Yet from that destruction and trickery, new life arises. It’s kind of the same with cultural contact and exchange.

Usually, when defining cultural exchange, the premise is that the two cultures entering into the exchange are on equal terms: neither is more powerful than the other. Cultural material — narratives, verbal lore, music, material culture, foodways, magical techniques — are shared as part of the process of intercultural contact. Appropriation happens when one culture conquers another, destroys or damages their culture and substitutes its own as the dominant culture, then borrows elements of the subjugated culture, re-contextualizing them for their symbolic value…avoiding blatant cultural appropriation is about respecting the feelings and rights of other cultures with which you co-exist. It’s about recognizing when there’s a history of power-over, exploitation, and cultural destruction, and being mindful of that…

Lupa Greenwolf, author and artist, speaks of her shamanic path:

…in the U.S. at least, there is no established shamanic path in the dominant culture, and so people who come from that culture (like me) have to choose either to try to shoehorn ourselves into an indigenous culture that we may not be welcome in let alone be trained in, or research cultures of our genetic ancestors and find that we are no more “culturally” German, or Slavic, or Russian than we are Cherokee or Dine’. Or we take a third road, which is to try to piece together from scratch some tradition that carries the same basic function as a shamanic practice in another culture, but which is informed by our own experiences growing up in the culture we happened to be born into.

I think the biggest problem is when non-indigenous people wholesale take indigenous practices, and then claim to be indigenous themselves. That’s part of what makes it tougher for people who are genuinely trying to create a practice for themselves while remaining as culturally sensitive as possible, because we get lumped in with those who outright lie about who they are. So you need to be honest and clear about where your practices come from and what inspired them…

I’ve had people tell me everything from “You shouldn’t use the word ‘shaman’” to “You shouldn’t use a drum with a real hide head” to “You shouldn’t work with hides and bones at all”, all because I’m a European mutt. For a while I kept backing up and backing up and acquiescing to whoever criticized me –and then I realized that if I gave in to every criticism, I’d have no practice left at all. So I very carefully reviewed what my practice entailed, did my best to claim that which I created myself while also being honest about how other cultures’ practices inspired me, and that’s where I drew my line, where I would back up no farther.

Kenn Day, author of several books on post-tribal shamanism, adds further insight:

… the term “post-tribal shamanism”…differentiate(s) between the teachings I received and those of tribal cultures. However, many people make the assumption that, if you are practicing ceremony with ancestor spirits, then you have taken your practice from a native tradition…The call to practice shamanism is found in every culture. Just like everything else, it appears differently in each culture, yet it is still recognizable. The most important difference I see between the shamanism practiced in tribal cultures and what I teach and practice is that the tribal practices are focused on supporting, healing and maintaining the most import unit of that culture: the tribe itself. Our situation is dramatically different, in that the most important unit of our culture is the individual. This is where our practices need to be directed. Too many traditional practices are simply not appropriate for use with individuals, just as what I do would not be appropriate for tribal people.

And we are Americans, the tribe defined as those who have no tribe. What does it mean to have no tribe, to not have ancestors of countless generations whose bones enrich the actual soil that we inhabit? Is there any relation between our lack of rootedness, our desperate need to keep moving around and our genocidal violence?

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Barry’s Blog # 168: Cultural Appropriation? Part One

When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found. — West Africa

Over the years I have written extensively about grief: cross-cultural grieving traditions, the lack of such rituals in American life, the consequences of our inability to grieve and the absolute necessity of restoring a relationship with, as Francis Weller says, an apprenticeship with grief. I have addressed this critical subject in previous blogs here, here and here.

For six years I’ve been leading grief rituals at men’s conferences, and for eighteen years my wife Maya and I have been leading similar events at the beginning of November, in what we call our annual Day of the Dead Ritual. So we were bewildered when a good friend challenged us: had we been engaging in “cultural appropriation” in referencing the Mexican holiday but not celebrating it precisely the way Mexicans do, and of course, by not being Mexican ourselves?

Fair enough. It’s an important question, and in the interest of getting as clear as possible about what we do and why, I discovered that there is a vast debate on this topic.

Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission…(including the)…unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

Cultural Appropriation occurs when members of a dominant culture use aesthetic forms or artifacts from other cultures – or worse, profit from them – but don’t show any respect for their deeper meaning. In its extreme, it is a form of racism that perpetuates the old message that Third-World cultures are free for the taking. Kloss

“By dressing up as a fake Indian”, one Native American told white students, “you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us.” It comes down to yet another aspect of (white or economic) privilege.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of cultural appropriation is an imbalance of power. When people from privileged cultures or backgrounds attempt to dictate what is and is not cultural appropriation, they are reinforcing the imbalance of power that has continued to steal the voice from people of color throughout history.6bd083cb402443a7b7e05112ded6619f_18

And it gets complicated. Tamara Winfrey Harris writes:

 A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme – powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African, and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.

Very complicated. The African-American community itself struggles with these questions. Is it cultural appropriation for an American Black person to wear a dashiki? Some native Africans think so. Even contemporary, eclectic Neo-Paganism (a pretty good description of my views) is full of argument about what they may be appropriating, to which John Halstead answers, “We’re all appropriating dead pagan cultures.”

So it all comes down to permission, right? Well, it gets even more complicated. Kenan Malik asks, what does it mean for knowledge or an object to “belong” to a culture? Who gives permission for someone from another culture to use that knowledge and those objects? And what authority has given them permission to announce themselves as gatekeepers?

After all, to suggest that it is “authentic” for blacks to wear locks, or for Native Americans to wear a headdress, but not for whites to do so, is itself to stereotype those cultures…The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation – of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming. Nor does preventing whites from wearing locks or practicing yoga challenge racism in any meaningful way. What the campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal is the disintegration of the meaning of “anti-racism”. Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.

Indeed, those who attempt to keep their own culture “pure” and free of any borrowed elements may well fall into a kind of cultural fascism, something that appears to be developing among certain kinds of right-wing, nationalist Paganisms in Eastern Europe, Russia and Britain. soldiers-odin

In America religion, business and empire have been intertwined almost since the beginning. This situation created a longing for authentic spiritual traditions among a minority who were attracted to the first wave of Eastern teachers and a much larger population who rediscovered Native American religion in the 1960s. The New Age was born, and along with many authentic teachers and movements have come the usual crop of con-men, who see the possibilities in appropriation and take it to its logical extreme.

“Selling the Sacred: Get Your Master’s in Native American Shamanism?” – The Native American journal Indian Country, complains of

…what New Agers are doing in Indian country…they have made a popular culture of the sacred invisible, and are selling it to the highest bidder. A case in point is the Divine Blessings Academy, which objectifies and quantifies spirituality as a product for sale. Though an Internet outcry quickly forced the academy to take down its “Native American Shaman” program from its website, it had offered a four-year degree, a master’s program, and post graduate degree in Native American Shamanism.

A perusal of the course catalogue, which was obtained before it was deleted, shows that Divine Blessings Academy offers courses in: The Hopi Prophecy Stone, Smudging and Basic Tools, Finding Your Power Animal, A Form of Reiki Using Native American Principles, Creating and Using Feather Fans, Native American Mantras and Prayers, receiving a Magikal name, and dozens more. Graduation entitles the student to join the Native American Shamanism Society and to receive “a personalized full-color certificate, which will be mailed directly to the student’s home.” (Where else would they mail it?)…All of these courses are offered through downloadable PDF files.


I’m getting a headache.

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Barry’s Blog # 167: Did the South Win the Civil War? Part Four


I wrote the first three parts of this essay (here, here and here) almost a year ago, and now I perceive an aspect of this theme I couldn’t have seen prior to the presidential primary season. Nicholas Lemann writes:

…the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics. During the past half century, the country has had more Presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union.

The South has become for the Republicans what it had previously been for the Democrats, the essential core of a national coalition. In the early 1980s a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department wrote a series of memos that passionately opposed aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. Three decades later, that lawyer, now Chief Justice John Roberts, led a Supreme Court majority that struck down the major enforcement provision of the act. In the short time since that decision, seventeen states have put voting suppression into law. So clearly, Southern racist values are the primary backdrop to both the Republican Presidential race as well as the broader question of voter suppression.

Now we can see how the South has impacted the Democrats as well. Of course we remember the “Solid South” of the Democrats that lasted roughly from 1890 to 1980 and that is now just as solidly Republican. But I’m talking about the lamentable trends that have been on full public display in the Democratic primaries.

The count of pledged delegates (not counting super delegates) through April 27th showed Hillary Clinton with 1,644 (including 761 from the former Confederate states) and Bernie Sanders with 1,316 (352 from those states). Without including them, Sanders was actually leading by 964 to 883. Of course, it’s silly and unrealistic to theoretically eliminate the Southern votes, but these numbers do show their overwhelming influence.

Clearly, Sanders all-but conceded most Southern primaries because they occurred too early for him to increase his name recognition, and indeed voter turnout in those states turned out to be 45 percent lower than it was in the party’s last competitive presidential primary in 2008. Certainly, Clinton’s victories had much to do with the high percentages of African-Americans in those states who supported the Clinton brand. But does this really explain her 44 – 10 delegate margin in Alabama? I’ve tried but cannot find any voting patterns by white democrats (who remain the great majority) in these primaries, but I doubt if those voters supported Sanders either. Was it actually conservative, white Southern Democrats who gave Clinton her victory margins rather than non-white voters?

And what about this pattern of having all the Southern primaries early (except for Kentucky)? David V. Johnson argues that the South has had too large a say too early in the primaries and that this is no accident:

The effect of the Southern-leaning calendar is far more profound than the straight delegate numbers, because of what psychologists and political scientists call the bandwagon effect — the proven tendency individuals have to follow the beliefs and behaviors of what is seen as popular. The more the voting public appears to favor Clinton, the more voters will tend to do so in the future…This effect is likely even more pronounced due to the influence of superdelegates…This year’s Southern-fried scheduling is profoundly undemocratic.

As the primary season continued and Sanders’ name recognition increased, that bandwagon effect predictably decreased. When Kentucky finally voted on May 17, Hillary won exactly one more delegate than Bernie did (28-27). We might well ask what if the entire south had waited until that date, and why the Democratic National Committee annually determines such a time sequence that inevitably gives its most conservative candidate early momentum.

In any event, and for whatever combination of factors, Clinton will almost certainly win the nomination because she swept these states – none of which the Democrats have the slightest hope of winning in November. So her Southern support will prove to be crucial to her nomination but useless in the general election, where Republicans will continue to sweep the South.

This bears repeating: Hillary swept the Old South in the primaries, but she has no hope of getting any of their votes in the Electoral College. Partially because of voter suppression made possible by the Supreme Court majority – most of whom were appointed after elections determined by the same Southern Strategy) and partially because of old-fashioned racism and misogyny, these states will all go to Donald Trump.

Let’s be clear about this issue. Corrupt voting patterns are as American as bad food. But legalized voter suppression – segregating those who are allowed to vote from those who are prevented from doing so – is a Southern legacy, stemming from three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow. And the Democratic establishment’s willingness to engage in both suppression as well as widespread corruption (think Nevada, New York, California) in the primaries may also be useless against the acknowledged masters of the art, the Republicans, in the general election.


Clinton’s negative numbers are now as low as Trump’s, and each will have little to say beyond demonizing each other. The campaign will certainly be the most negative in history. Most Americans, right or left, will be voting for the lesser of two evils, and millions of young voters who have so enthusiastically supported Sanders will stay home. This means that countless progressive candidates, from the Senate to the local dogcatcher, will lose for lack of interest. Clinton may prevail in the general election, but with no mandate and no Democratic Senate. The American Empire – with its heritage of Southern militarism – will endure undisturbed and unquestioned. And the obstructionist Republican Congress will be happy to destroy even the mildest of liberal legislation, just as they have for the last eight years, and blame the mess on her.

What are the deeper lessons here? One aspect of the myth of innocence is the narrative of an America that put aside its differences, resolved its racial problems, unified after the Civil War and then turned its face outward to become the savior of the world (read: join the other white European empires in their frenzy to divide up the Third World for capitalism). From the mythological perspective, next January will see the next installment of our four-year cycle in which the political establishment and most middle class Americans come together in the great ceremony of re-affirming America’s divinely-inspired purpose.

Yes, yes, I know there are differences. Tell that to a child in Palestine. Neither a Trump nor a Clinton presidency will change these aspects of our national myth. Indeed, it will solidify them further and lay the groundwork for further imperial atrocities, further divisions between rich and poor and irreversible environmental decline.

But it may well destroy – perhaps forever – the notion that our political system has the built-in capacity to inspire millions of new, young voters to work for real change, and that they might see their idealism reflected back at them by their elders.

As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South. – Malcolm X

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Barry’s Blog # 166: Kind of a Circle, Part Four

Part Four – 1999 to the Present

The man who crawled under a hail of bullets in 1992 to save the Sarajevo Haggadah is profoundly sad. He says Bosnian culture survived the war, but he’s not sure it can survive the peace. Enver Imamovic doesn’t know what the fate of the Haggadah will be, and he knows that the government doesn’t care.

The 1995 peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war split the nation along ethnic lines into two semi-autonomous parts linked by a weak central government and guided by a constitution that left Sarajevo’s cultural institutions no guardian and little funding.

Still, the Bosniaks of Sarajevo managed to rebuild their National Museum, which the Serbs had tried so hard to erase from memory, and the Haggadah went on display in 2002. The imagination of another time when diversity was respected survived because some people in our time could still appreciate – and celebrate – difference. srajevo_2906541b

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting nearly four years, more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Twelve thousand died, including nearly 600 children. But culture had been “a form of resistance,” says an art history professor. “Women were wearing high heels and running from snipers to get to openings.” Another woman, a long time employee of the museum (whose director was killed in the bombardment) adds that despite it all, “we even put on two exhibits during the siege.”

In the rebuilding stage, the Museum equipped a special vault with a bulletproof glass door to protect its most valuable artifact. Only with special permission could one enter, and no one but a curator could touch this richly decorated medieval manuscript. Several copies were made of the Haggadah and the original 660-year-old manuscript, symbol of such a unique legacy, was insured for 700 million dollars. The literary world became aware of it in 2008 when Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book became a bestseller.



But post-war Sarajevo is a very different place. The peace agreement that was supposed to help the country heal enshrined its ethnic differences in a constitution and created a hydra-headed government that allows (perhaps even forces) people to cleave to their bloodline. Only institutions that speak to each group’s national identity receive any financial support. There was no agreement on funding for the upkeep of a multicultural legacy. For years, the museum survived on grants and donations until those funds dried up.

In 2011 the Muslim Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina presented a copy of the Haggadah to a representative of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as a symbol of interfaith cooperation and respect.

But in 2012, the Museum shuttered its doors after going bankrupt and not paying its employees for almost a year, leaving future exhibition of the Haggadah in limbo. Two years later, many employees were still working without pay to maintain the collection and the library, which still holds some 162,000 volumes.

closed-museumIn 2013, the year that Servet Korkut died at age 88, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art attempted to arrange for a loan of the Haggadah, but because of ongoing internal political battles, Bosnia’s National Monuments Preservation Commission eventually refused the loan.

Unresolved ethnic hatred still bubbles below the surface of the Balkan states, and that situation is mirrored in Israel, where, nearly seventy years after the creation of the state and 500 years after they were forced out of Spain, many Sephardic Jews still claim that the dominant Ashkenazi (from Eastern Europe) group still treats them as second-class citizens. As in America, racial/ethnic identity still trumps human compassion and solidarity. Everywhere, as Yeats wrote a hundred years ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But the descendants of the two families whose fates have been so intertwined have prospered. And, while the Haggadah is safe if unavailable for viewing, you can see its pages online here.

The little book has lived through a story where myth and history come together, a story (like all the great stories) that has no happy ending, indeed has no ending at all but simply invites us into an imagination of where it might go from here. Has it arrived at an impasse, or it is merely taking a breather?

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Barry’s Blog # 165: Kind of a Circle, Part Three

PART THREE: 1994 to 1999

Mira Papo, now an Israeli citizen, had been wracked by guilt ever since 1946 for not having appeared at the show trial of the man who had saved her life, Dervis Korkut. During the breakup of Yugoslavia and the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, Israel offered temporary shelter to Bosnian refugees. It was likely one of them who left behind an out-of-date newsletter that she came across in Jerusalem. It was printed in Serbo-Croatian with items of interest to Jews in the former Yugoslavia. It featured an article commemorating Korkut. Spellbound, Mira read about the good deeds of the man she had failed, including his role in saving the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Stunned to discover that he had not been executed in 1946, but had died an elderly man from natural causes in 1969, she wrote, “It was as if a stone fell from my heart.” Her daughter-in-law remembers Mira, after finding the article, weeping and murmuring to herself in Serbo-Croatian. It was the first she or Mira’s son Davor had heard of Dervis Korkut.

The teenager Korkut had rescued in 1942 was now seventy-two years old. Hoping to make some amends by giving the testimony she had failed to deliver at his trial, Mira sat down to write a three-page, single-spaced letter to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center.


Mira Papo

The letter states that what follows is “my true story, how Dervis Efendi Korkut saved me from certain death.” By describing what really happened, Mira wrote, she hoped to make amends: “Perhaps this modest material will help to clarify his identity as a great friend of the Jews of Bosnia long before World War II. I remain as a solitary witness that Dervis was indeed so, even in a time when we had few true friends.”

At the time that Mira was writing her account, Dervis’ widow Servet was in reluctant exile from the new horrors of Sarajevo, living with her son Munib in Paris. She was astonished when an Israeli diplomat called to tell her that she and Dervis had just been named Righteous Among Nations. Their names were to be inscribed in the gardens of Yad Vashem, not far from the trees planted in memory of famous rescuers of Jews, such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.

Servet was unable to travel to Israel to see their names inscribed. So Yad Vashem came to her and held a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Paris. She was presented with a certificate of honor and a medal, and told that she had the right to Israeli citizenship. She was also awarded a monthly stipend from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based organization that provides material support to some thirteen hundred elderly rescuers.


Servet Korkut

Then she received a phone call from Mira, who explained why she had failed to appear at the trial, and how tormented she had been by that failure. Servet tried to soothe her old friend, telling her that, even if she had testified, it would have made no difference, because the court was just a tool of the regime, which had already made its decision. “Mira said that ever since she left Yugoslavia she had wanted to get in touch with me, to apologize, but that she wasn’t able. ‘It’s O.K.,’ I said to her. ‘I understand.’’’

Mira died in 1998, just a year too soon to see how completely her belated testimony would accomplish the restitution she desired.

Servet’s daughter Lamija had grown up to become an economist. She’d married an Albanian man (changing her last name to Jaha) and settled in Pristina, in the Serbian region of Kosovo. The Jahas had two children. At some point, Servet gave a copy of the certificate to her. Apparently, Lamija, who could not read Hebrew, had no idea of its significance, only that it had something to do with her father.


The certificate of honor

By 1999, however, this region also started to slide toward war when the Serbian government began yet another ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing. This time they were determined to rid themselves of Albanians, who were Muslims, as well as the majority in Kosovo.

In March 1999, NATO began bombing Serbia. Servet was in Pristina visiting Lamija, who says, “My mother left on the last bus to Bosnia. I said to her, ‘I don’t want you to go through another war.’” After Servet’s departure, Lamija and her husband tried to obtain exit visas for themselves and their children. While her husband called relatives in Sweden, Lamija contacted Munib, who requested help from friends in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, but to no avail. Somehow, she was able to evacuate her teenage daughter and son.

Soon after the children left, Lamija’s apartment lost electrical power. Then their phone lines went down. Through a wall, she could hear the phone next door ringing. The neighbors were Serbs, and she realized that the lines were being cut on the basis of ethnicity.

One day an armed soldier knocked on their door and told them that everyone must leave and head for the train station. They were each allowed two suitcases. Everyone in their building was frantically trying to decide which things to take with them, with the sounds of boots and guns in the background. Somehow in the rush, it occurred to Lamija’s husband to fold up the certificate from Yad Vashem and put it in his jacket pocket. Neither he nor Lamija could read Hebrew, and neither could remember what it was about, but somehow it seemed significant.

It was yet another experience of exile – and how can these images fail to make us think of that earlier holocaust? The Jahas joined a massive crowd of refugees surging toward the train station. Soldiers packed them aboard an overcrowded train—“twenty-seven people in a carriage made for six,” Lamija recalls – and did not tell them where they were going.

Late in the day they were discharged in the vicinity of the Macedonian border. In the chaos, they lost the small bags they’d managed to carry from their apartment. But they still had the photocopy of the certificate.

They found themselves among thousands of refugees in a stinking field with no proper latrines. “People were fighting for water,” she says. “There was no food, no blankets, no shelter. People were sick. Some were already dying.” There were rumors, too, of meningitis in the camp—the disease that had killed her sister after the war. As night fell, the temperature dropped sharply. When a few food packs arrived, the distribution turned into a riot.

At three in the morning the Jahas decided that staying in the camp was too dangerous. They crept out of the muddy field and walked all night toward the Macedonian border, carrying nothing but her pocketbook. Encountering a border guard, they concocted a story about having left a car on the other side. They lied about the direction they’d come from and denied having been anywhere near the refugee camp. Whether he believed the unlikely tale or took pity on them, the guard let them cross.

The Jahas were safe, if temporarily. Finding shelter with a relative in the town of Kumanovo, Lamija resumed the desperate phone calls and discovered that her children were safe in Budapest. But she and her husband – only two of almost a million refugees from Kosovo – were refused admission at all foreign embassies. His family could do nothing for them in Sweden, and, from Paris, Munib also reported no hope. All this Muslim could suggest, curiously, was that they ask for help from the Jews of Skopje.

On a whim, they found the head of the local Jewish community and produced the crumpled photocopy. They were astonished to discover that it honored her parents as “righteous among the nations.” It bears a Biblical epigraph: “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.” The Macedonian Jews, delighted by the opportunity to repay a debt from the Second World War, went into a frenzy of lobbying and organizing.

Four days later, Lamija and her husband flew to Tel Aviv, where they received the news that their children Fitore, 20, and Fatos, 16, would soon join them. The two sudden celebrities found themselves blinking in the harsh Mediterranean sunlight and the flash of reporters’ cameras.

The story of how Dervis, a Muslim, had saved Mira, and Mira, a Jew, had saved Dervis’s child proved irresistible to the Israeli media, and to its politicians. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the unrelenting persecutor of the Palestinians – remember those keys from Part One of this story? – could not resist the photo opportunity and was there to welcome them. “Today,” he pontificated, “the state of Israel, which emerged from the ashes, gives refuge to the daughter of those who saved Jews.” The exhausted Lamija was speechless.

Then, in the midst of all the chaos, someone pushed through the crowd and addressed her in Serbo-Croatian. “It was a good feeling, to have someone speaking your language,” she says. But she had no idea who the man greeting her so warmly was. Opening his arms, he introduced himself, and Lamija fell into the embrace of Mira Papo’s son Davor Bakovic, who took them home as long-lost relatives.

Earlier, Davor had traveled to France to present the award to Munib, but he had been unaware of Lamija’s existence. Late at night before the day of her impending arrival a reporter called and woke him up, shocking him with the news that this woman was another Korkut child, and he hurried to greet her.


Lamija (Korkut) Jaha and Davor Bakovic

After their miraculous escape and welcome, the Jahas stayed in Israel for four years. Eventually they moved to Canada, but they and their children remain very close – family, they say – with the Bakovic clan. ”It was an amazing discovery,” he recalls. ”I felt as if a sister had appeared from a faraway place. I felt close to these people even though I didn’t know them at all. The circle of my life had become linked with Lamija and her family. To me it proved that people can’t be divided up into nations and sects. They’re human beings who can touch each other.”

The meeting was also a revelation for Lamija. Her father died when she was 14 and had never told her that he had sheltered Jews. Servet (who would die in 2013) had told her briefly about it only a few years before. “My father did what he did with all his heart, not to get anything in return. Fifty years later, it returns somehow. It’s a kind of a circle.”

Well, we all love a happy ending, but this story is still not over.

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