Barry’s Blog # 176: Why Are We So Freaking Crazy? Part Three of Four

Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated. Do you remember the anthrax scare of 2001 – and how it disappeared from the news once Congress passed the Patriot Act?

Do you remember how the government took this lunacy to its logical extreme with its color-coded alert system, how we all awakened daily to a degree of anxiety that shifted according to government “findings?” t1larg-terror-alerts-gi





Who determined the nature of these “findings?” How – and why? terror_alert

Recall how this anxiety diminished once the invasion of Iraq began, and how, as in any addiction, the reduction in stress was only temporary, until the next “threat” arose? Do you remember when all three TV networks introduced series about alien invasions? Do you remember the “immanent” terrorist attacks that never happened, that six in ten people expected a terrorist attack in 2007, how fifty percent of us were not opposed to torturing suspected terrorists? Be very afraid.

And yet – and this is where Americans really are exceptional – studies showed that most people had the existential experience of nothing being particularly wrong in their personal lives, at least until the economic crash of 2008. It’s falling apart all around us, but I’m OK. It’s all good.

This is critical to understanding our American state of mind, so let’s explore the implications further. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarizes Google search rates for anxiety since 2008, noting that they have more than doubled (and are the highest in 2016) since they were first tracked in 2004. Surprisingly, “terrorism” and “Trump” are not major indicators of anxiety. And the places (Google can do that) where anxiety is highest are overwhelmingly concentrated in less educated, poorer parts of the country, particularly Appalachia and the South.

He sees two relevant factors. The first is the economy. Areas that were more deeply affected by the recession saw bigger increases in anxiety. The second:

I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal…The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks…(these) searches…have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.

These areas include, once again, the South, precisely the area where Trump’s support is the strongest, where white male identity is most under threat and where Republicans have been mining fear for forty years.

A helpful psychological concept is intermittent reinforcement, a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment is not administered every time the desired response is performed. Typically, the desired behavior lasts longer than with normal, predictable, continuous reinforcement. An example is gambling. One doesn’t win every time or with the same amount. The intermittent reinforcement (winning) causes a euphoric response that can lead to gambling addiction. Another example is how people remain in abusive relationships with narcissistic lovers whose unpredictable behavior convinces them to hope unrealistically for an unattainable ideal.

The double bind is a dilemma in which someone in authority gives conflicting messages. When a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, we are wrong either way. The double bind occurs when we cannot confront or resolve the dilemma. Gregory Bateson proposed that growing up amidst perpetual double binds produces anxiety and confused thinking. In extreme situations, the child experiences it continually and habitually within the family context from infancy on. By the time he is old enough to have identified the situation, it has already been internalized, and she may only be able to confront it by withdrawing into delusion and schizophrenia.

Or consider Marx’s idea of mystification:

… misrepresentation of what is going on…in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class…over or against another class…By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters, or into feeling gratitude…and, not least, into feeling bad or mad even to think of rebellion.

R. D.Laing extrapolated this idea from politics to the family:

…failure to see what is “really” being experienced…to distinguish or discriminate the actual issues…Thus, the mystified person is by definition confused, but may or may not feel confused…He may experience false peace, false calm, or inauthentic conflict and confusion over false issues.

For example, the parent or authority figure may tell the child, “it’s just your imagination” or “you must have dreamt it”. A deeper form of mystification happens when the authority figure disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and narcissistically replaces it with their own projection:

A child is playing noisily in the evening; his mother is tired and wants him to go to bed. A straight statement would be: “I am tired, I want you to go to bed.” Or “Go to bed, because I say so.” Or “Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.” A mystifying way to induce the child to go to bed would be: “I’m sure you feel tired, darling, and want to go to bed now, don’t you?”

Perhaps you heard this message from your own parents:

“But you can’t be unhappy. Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you be so ungrateful as to say you are unhappy after all that has been done for you, after all the sacrifices that have been made for you?”

Are these silly examples? I don’t think so. What if you heard them regularly throughout your childhood? They are wounds – ungrieved wounds – of the soul. I’m suggesting that most of us did experience those messages, that our loved ones conditioned us, if unconsciously, to become adults who would not perceive the nature of our own willing participation in the simultaneous denial and distrust that I’ve been describing.

The pathology of this condition is that the soul is subject to persistent messages that its emotional intelligence – its intuitive knowing of the sheer craziness of modern life – has been completely discounted. This happens every day to almost every one of us for our entire lives. And it carries an underlying, irresistible lesson: My ways of evaluating reality are failures.

But this is America, and we all carry the legacy of Puritanism, which tells us: If my ways of evaluation are failures, then so am I. And – since failure in America is always moral failure, then I am also bad – I am a sinner. This has contributed to a massive epidemic of depression, substance abuse (legal or otherwise) and retreat from political involvement – or the need to enter politics so as to identify and punish a scapegoat.

The scapegoat: what is the deeper meaning of police violence against unarmed people of color? When societies begin to collapse, they turn to human sacrifice. I covered this issue in depth in a previous blog series:

To deny something is to declare it taboo. And “taboo” (“kapu” in Hawaiian) means “too sacred to mention.” The sacred is a secret, and this is the secret: Americans are unified in their fear of the evil Other, and they (at least enough voting-age white Americans) will regularly declare their allegiance to a culture whose primary religious ritual is the sacrifice of this Other. He is sacred because for a while he takes our sins away.

But this mode of sacrifice – the “shock” of localized violence – cannot fully re-invigorate the “awe” of denial, because its scapegoat suffers only within the polis. Horrifying as it is, the function of racist violence is really to divert our attention from the deeper madness, the regular sacrifice to our god of nationalism. As Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle write:

The doctrine that provides the central experience of Christian faith is the sacrifice of an irreplaceable son by an all-powerful father whose will it was that the son should die violently…Sacrifice restores totem authority and reconsolidates the group. This is why we die for the flag and commit our children to do so. To resolve totem crisis, the totem must re-create its exclusive killing authority out of the very flesh of its members. Blood is the group bond. Blood sacrifice at the border, or war, is the holiest ritual of the nation-state…Our deepest secret, the collective group taboo, is the knowledge that society depends on the death of this sacrificial group at the hands of the group itself…But what keeps the group together and makes us feel unified is not the sacrifice of the enemy but the sacrifice of our own (my italics).

As more flaws appear in the fabric of our mythic narratives and as the crazy-making conditions of our lives make it more obvious that the old story is dying but no new story has yet arisen to replace it, watch for the next sacrificial ritual.

Watch how your fear of Trump motivates you to vote for Clinton (“I’m the last thing standing between you and the Apocalypse.”) even in California and the other 40 states that are safely Democratic.

Watch, 25 years after the fall of communism, how we fall back on the tired, old red-baiting, even without any reds! Watch how the Democrats invent the latest threat – Russians hacking our elections.


October 10th, 2016

Faith in the U.S. Election! This is religious language, and the gatekeepers would not be united in giving this sermon if they weren’t aware of how many of us need to be reminded. Fortunately, we can still find more nuanced reporting here:

Russkies at the Doorstep

If Russian Intelligence Did Hack the DNC, the NSA Would Know, Snowden Says

Generating Hate against Russia: The Absurd New Anti-Russian Propaganda From The New York Times

It’s all about the anxiety. And the situation really does demand of us that we stay awake and step back from our tendencies to reflexively parrot the liberal – yes, the liberal – media. Watch your willingness to see Clinton as a savior. Watch her willingness to  trash talk “the Russians” even as we celebrate the first woman President. Watch your need to remain innocent, to be reassured that it’s all good. Watch how much money you’ll be willing to spend to be ceaselessly told that it is. Christmas is coming.

In Part Four, we’ll think about what we can do about the dilemma we’re in.

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Barry’s Blog # 175: Why Are We So Freaking Crazy? Part Two of Four

The U.S. military coined the phrase “Shock and Awe” in the late 1990s and applied it to the invasion of Iraq a few years later. But I find it remarkably accurate in describing the American psyche.

Fear-mongering is the “shock” side. The “awe” side is represented by our old tradition of advertisers, real estate salesmen, stock brokers, hucksters, con-men and “public relations” specialists, as well as clergymen and politicians, who collude to reinforce our denial. Characteristic themes include: the market is always rising, “doom-and-gloomers” overrate our problems; global warming is a lie; unemployment is down; racism is history; history itself is a feel-good story of constant progress; the Iraqis and Afghans (and soon, the Syrians) welcome us – all translatable into “the system is working.”

An essential part of this message is visual images: idealized pictures of the America that Trump promises to make great (and white) again. You know what I’m talking about: green mountains, pristine coastlines, carefree drivers, youthful picnics, stylishly thin dancers, the family dinner, Sunday church, reunions at Grandma’s house and 718b1038be9c6031750af1ec9a1dfca3small-town July Fourth celebrations.

The speed and frivolity of the media charms us all and conveys our values primarily through two film and TV styles. In one – action and disaster films – the redemption hero intercedes to save the community from evil, traditionally in the last reel or just before the final commercial break. Since 1990, when Islam replaced communism as the external Other, a new generation has grown up watching literally dozens of movies and TV shows depicting this threat, but with a series of (usually white) American heroes eliminating the threat, and with Biblical ferocity. Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper are merely the latest and most honored of this genre. Disaster films work both sides of the fear/denial dichotomy by heightening anxiety (and perhaps anticipation) of apocalyptic punishment and then cleanly resolving the threat through the intercession of selfless heroes. It’s a world of crimson red, dark brown and black, with very little grey area (or grey matter). Guy stuff.

The other mode is the ubiquitous, cloying, Disney-style cartoons and children’s programming, in which, writes Todd Gitlin, “…characters are incarnations of an innocence that can never be dispelled,” where everyone talks out their problems, resolves them, hugs and remains friends. alice-alice-in-wonderland-cute-disney-ilustration-tea-favim-com-72133

It’s a pastel world of pinks and lavender. Gal stuff. And both films and TV continue to ignore demographic changes by portraying most positive characters as white.

TV news (FOX News aside) offers a parallel experience. Reassuringly calm, unemotional, authoritative newscasters place even bad news in the wider context of progress: It’s all good. Michael Ventura, however, measures how deeply “…people know that ‘it’ is not all right…by how much money they are willing to pay to be ceaselessly told it is.” Think positive or don’t watch at all.

Actually, even the calm Walter Cronkite father figures are now mostly long gone. What we have had instead for many years are actors such as Matt Lauer


Presidential Debate Moderator

who portray journalists and debate moderators, mixing in cornball humor and soft-core porn


Megyn Kelly

so things don’t get too boring. With Fox news “commentators”such as these, avyrz6u

no wonder the Trumpistas get their opinions there. Again, Fox is only the most extreme, as this list of the “25 Most Gorgeous News Anchors” attests.

Indeed, it has been clear since well before 9-11 that both politics (best seen in our embarrassingly crude and irrelevant Presidential debates) and news journalism have been so “dumbed-down” that we now perceive them as merely alternative forms of entertainment. This is laughable, as it was surely meant to be. But it also means that for many of us “reality” simply isn’t real any more, that it’s indistinguishable from anything else that appears on the screen – or that it’s all good.

Thus, in the midst of massive denial about a collapsing environment and the real economic and spiritual sources of terrorism, Americans fret about issues that TV chooses to present. Everyone can avoid discussing gun control when newspapers editorialize, “It’s Not Guns, It’s Killer Kids.” The most common source of our anxiety becomes the disturbed individual, the bad seed, rather than systemic inequities and corruption. In this fantasy, immigrants and home-grown thugs, rather than discriminatory housing patterns and long-term unemployment, cause domestic violence. And Islamic fundamentalism, rather than American military intervention, causes international terror.

Periodically, episodes of real terror evoke the old frontier paranoia. And we have plenty of evidence that many of these events have been contrived . Then, as Ben Franklin lamented long ago, we quickly exchange our freedoms for a dubious sense of security.

The gated community has become yet another potent symbol. Four centuries after defining themselves in contrast to the demonic forces of the wilderness, whites are once more circling the wagons. 40% of new California homes are in gated communities. Nationally, 8 million people live in them. Madness at the gates: as we enclose ourselves in racially homogeneous, suburban ghettoes or high-security high-rises, we simultaneously imprison more people than any nation in history and warehouse millions of others in nursing homes.

The condition of simultaneous denial and distrust leads to paradoxical connections. For years polls have commonly reflected our belief that things were better in the old days, that things are going downhill – even if our personal outlook is rosy.

This is our condition, and all Americans aged thirty or so have experienced some version of it their entire lives. But more broadly, the awkward combination of fear, denial and electronic stimulation has ruled our consciousness during the 65 years of television, which was born amid both the new consumerism and McCarthyism. Lucille Ball diverted us while Richard Nixon admitted, “People react to fear, not love.” I have argued, however, that the roots of this madness go back to the original confrontation of Puritans and Indians. Ever since, we have held the contradictory notions of chosen people and eternal vigilance.

When our national self-image has no shadow, we imagine that our motivations have the purity of white sugar on white bread, washed down with milk. We dream a world in which we are so good, so generous, so caring that no one – except for Satan himself – could ever doubt us. And the fear? Doesn’t much of it spring not also from the media but also from our own subliminal guilt?

Then, when we are attacked, the release of disillusioned energy drives us to astonishingly violent extremes. Our lost innocence (We have done so much good! Why do they hate us so?) and denial of death justify the fear as well as the revenge fantasies that support or ignore reactionary and genocidal behavior. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Bad dreams constantly interrupt our 400-year sleep of denial. Waking exhausted, we reach for our devices. Denial and fear; fear and denial, all electronically mediated.

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Barry’s Blog # 174: Why Are We So Freaking Crazy? Part One

On its surface, the myth of American Innocence sings of a people who were – and remain – divinely inspired, manifestly destined, to spread freedom and opportunity across the world. As such, we have always celebrated ourselves for our optimism, our practical, positive, “can-do” approach, our willingness to take risks and our sunny dispositions as we pursue happiness and model our success for all others.

That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it, because we are increasingly desperate to ignore its shadow side: how we have always defined ourselves in terms of the Other; actually, fear of the Other. This most certainly did not begin after 9-11. As I describe the national emotions in those days in Chapter 8 of my book:

Hadn’t Americans feared Indian attacks for three centuries? Hadn’t they been terrorized for seventy years by red hordes from the east? Hadn’t every President since Truman managed a war economy that perpetuated itself on fear of the Other? Hadn’t politicians played the “race card” for two centuries? Hadn’t gun sales continued to rise even as crime rates had plummeted? Weren’t Americans already armed to the teeth?…Had they forgotten the missile gap, the domino theory, the window of vulnerability and the Evil Empire? Hadn’t AIDS ended the sexual revolution? Hadn’t they been stuffing themselves with anti-depressants, hormone replacements and potency drugs? Hadn’t fear of losing property, status, security, virility, youth, freedom – and innocence – always been at the core of the American experience? Hadn’t we bounced between denial and terror for our entire history?

This is who we are: not simply terrorized, but living, for generations, in constant movement between these two extremes.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of The Culture of Fear, makes a surprising claim: “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.” Crime is down, the air is cleaner and the odds of being injured in a terrorist attack are absurdly low. So why, asks Neil Strauss, are so many of us so afraid all the time?

Strauss summarizes the brain research and social science that explains the state of constant anxiety that so many Americans experience on a daily basis. He quotes a social psychologist:

What we’re talking about is anxiety, not fear…Where fear is a response to a present threat, anxiety is a more complex and highly manipulable response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future…It is a worry about something that hasn’t happened and may never happen.

But there’s a reason why anxiety gets converted into actual fear. Blame the media of course, especially Fox News and its ilk, which constantly reinforces this pattern that trumps our rational thought processes.

…political conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism and conservative shift were generally associated with the following: chronically elevated levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, desire for revenge and militarism, cynicism and decreased use of humor…(and) the number-one way in which Americans respond to their anxieties: voting.

When mythologies collapse, identity is threatened. This fear, along with legitimate economic worry, is the source of the rage that drives the Trumpistas. But this rage and the fear behind it are nothing new. To a very great extent, this has always characterized democracy in America: voting against welfare-coddlers, bootstep liberals, east-coast intellectuals, “feminazis,” miscegenators, polluters of racial purity and (let’s get real) “nigger-lovers.” And for hyper-masculine, authoritarian, reactionary, Indian-hating, pseudo-Christian, “put them back in their place,” climate-denying demagogues. Trump is only the latest in a long line stretching back centuries.

But this is why they love him: he says “exactly what he means” – exactly what the entire leadership of the Republican Party has been saying for 40 years, but sugar-coated with euphemisms – and before that, much of the Democratic Party. Be afraid, be very afraid. They are coming for your hard-earned taxes, your safe neighborhoods and your daughters.

And getting together to talk about our worries doesn’t help:

(This) is what social psychologists call the “law of group polarization,” which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together.

I recommend Strauss’s article as an excellent explanation of what drives many of Trump’s supporters to ignore his obvious deficiencies in favor of his “strong man” (read: fascist) approach to dealing with the nation’s current Others: Muslims, Mexicans, feminists and Black activists.

But ultimately Strauss lacks the broader perspective that we really need to understand the whole picture. Given, the fast pace of internet-based media and its impact on our emotional lives is something relatively new. But fear of the Other has always driven Americans to circle the wagons. And not just Americans: the origins of World War Two in Germany remind us that propaganda has always rested on creating anxiety about appropriate scapegoats. As Joseph Goebbels said, “If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.

So far, we are in the realm of universal explanations. But what Strauss misses, and what I’m more interested in, is what makes Americans exceptional in this regard. In other words, what makes us so freaking crazy? If I could engage him in a conversation (which I can’t), I’d tell him that he only has part of the picture. And for the rest, I refer to an earlier blog series of mine, Shock and Awe: Re-invigorating the Myth of American Innocence:

Re-invigorating our myth occurs in three major ways, and Strauss gets two of them. The first is obvious: the constant fear-mongering of the media and the political class – both major parties – that I trace all the way back through American history. In fact, it is so much a part of our history as we learn it that it is nearly indistinguishable from our mythology. It is the primary story we tell ourselves about ourselves: our fear of the Other that is solved only with the violent intercession by some hero figure, so that we can get on with the business of pursuing happiness and making money.

As such, this primary story is quite literally how we define our American identity. We constantly reconstruct that identity by experiencing the fear that the Other will somehow destroy it. And it shouldn’t require a degree in psychology to understand the addictive nature of this experience, which, like any drug, only satisfies us briefly, until we need it again. This is the “shock” side of our “shock and awe” American psyche.


Strauss gets the second factor as well, the pace of modern life and the instant nature of electronic news that reinforces our sense that bad things are happening constantly, regardless of our political leanings. I would add:

…the mania produced by our technologically enhanced environment. In most large, indoor public spaces (stores, shopping malls and sports arenas) we have gotten used to enduring the unrelenting onslaught of loud music, blinking lights and high-definition visual images. This is most certainly not accidental. Take restaurant design for example: open kitchens, hard floors and high walls that reflect and increase sound, forcing patrons to shout just to be heard (thereby increasing the noise)…In many places, especially those catering to adolescents, the atmosphere approaches that of gambling casinos, which are deliberately designed to create “altered states” of consciousness. The object is to heighten anxiety and encourage the sense that it can be reduced through consumerism. However, because the anxiety never fully dissipates, we continually acclimate to greater levels of it. Could we find a better clinical definition of addiction?

But what really makes us exceptional – exceptionally crazy – is a third factor that combines with the first two as it has done with no other people in world history. And I must stress again and again that I’m not talking about Trump supporters only. Indeed, each time liberals identify them or him as loony, they merely reinforce their own sense of innocence. I’m talking about Americans, all of us.

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Barry’s Blog # 173: Cultural Appropriation? Part Six of Six

I think I’ll just let the mystery be. – Iris Dement

Thea Faye’s nuanced approach to the subject of the Celtic Wheel of the Year is a breath of fresh air in an intellectual environment where accusations and stances of purity (“The blood of Albion flows in these veins,” boasts one stalwart) seem to be the norm. And this obsession with doing things right leads me to certain conclusions.

First, my own reading of the anthropological literature indicates that no indigenous person in his or her right mind would choose to become a “shaman.” That life is a calling, and it often seems to be fraught with loneliness, poverty, suffering and often madness. It is a role performed for the community, not the individual, and lived on the outskirts.

Second, consider what second-century Christianity looked like – a branch of Judaism focused on love – and what it became by the end of the fourth century – the official, universal and only religion of the Roman Empire, dedicated to wiping out all competition. I’m not suggesting that Neopaganism will move in that direction, only that all its branches are very young and are still evolving.

But there is a huge difference. Christianity was born in a pagan world and took (appropriated) much of its symbolism and practice from those traditions that still were connected to nature (paganus: people of the hills). Neopaganism has been reconstructed in the mid-to-late 20th century, after two millennia of Christian (and three millennia of monotheistic) thinking; that is, they and all modern people have all matured within and are all susceptible to literalized thinking.

We like to think that we can understand metaphors and tolerate nuance and ambiguity. To do this, however, is to resist a profoundly durable inheritance, and we easily slip into the default mode of literalism. James Hillman, speaking of American myth and culture, said that “…we are each… like it or not, children of the Biblical God. It is a fact, the essential American fact.” Our monotheistic heritage determines our thinking about identity, race, gender, body, war, time, sin, self and other. Historian Regina Schwartz wrote, “… if we do not think about the Bible, it will think (for) us.”

Since all modern people share this monotheistic consciousness to some degree, writes Hillman, we are all “psychologically Christian.” He saw this even in the sophisticated world of psychotherapy: “Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity,” writes Hillman, “its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.” This is our American condition: our ego psychology mirrors our economics, with their common assumption of the “heroic, isolated ego in a hostile world.”

This is a heritage of large, state-sponsored religion, or ideology. In this monotheistic world such systems of thought allow no alternative viewpoints. Michael Meade has argued that ideologies force us to think the same idea, while myth invites us to have our own ideas about the same thing.

Most of the time when we judge others as impure or not authentic enough, we are actually talking about identity – personal or group; we are struggling with the question of who we are, not who the outsider is. The Other exists in our imagination to enable us to define the boundaries, and when those boundaries become particularly hard to know – as in our current politics – our concern about otherness rises into racism and xenophobia.

As I have written in Chapter One of my book, when we reduce things from the symbolic to the literal, we are inside a myth and don’t know it. Unconsciously enacting such a narrative (or several at once), we are in mythical thinking and repeat unsatisfying behavior without any positive change. We see others in one-dimensional images and we reduce multi-layered mystery to the simplistic dualisms of monotheism: whatever isn’t aligned with our god must necessarily follow his opposite. Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking mythically or literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous. This is what Joseph Campbell was implying when he spoke of our “demythologized world.”

If we reduce a symbol to a single meaning, if we confuse a myth with historical truth, or if we allow dogma to determine the effect the symbol is supposed to have, the symbol dies. Since monotheism rejects ambiguity and diversity, it requires belief, which implies not merely a single set of truths but also the obligation to convert – or eliminate – others. In this context, many of the gatekeeping statements can be read as monotheistic, “either-or” statements, such as this one, by Larisa Pole: “To become fully Asatru,” writes one must accept Asatru as their own belief system.”



Granted, she isn’t claiming that this is the only, right belief system, but it’s still about believing, and Americans believe things within a Protestant lexicon that has taken that word very far from its Old German meaning: love. Statements such as hers beg for anarchistic and humorous responses, such as Hillman’s statement: “The Gods don’t require my belief for their existence, nor do I require belief for my experience of their existence.” Likewise, astrologer Caroline Casey encourages us to “believe nothing… entertain possibilities.”

Now of course, more than any spiritual approach to the Great Mystery, Neopagan thinking appreciates diversity, and it represents a long-overdue alternative to this heritage. The Goddess is returning! But here is where I found myself wondering about some of the basic, perhaps unconscious assumptions I saw throughout Talking about the Elephant, where the words “paganism,” “shamanistic faiths” and “shamanist” kept turning up along with “religion,” “worship” and “belief systems.” Those suffixes (word endings) – ism, ist – bother me. Granted, we are running up against the limits of the English language in this realm, but these words point toward ideologies, systems of thought, where we all too far familiar with narratives in which the only ways to deal with the Other is either to convert him or to exterminate him.

As with early Christianity, any spiritual system can begin in reaction against an old, outmoded, calcified ideology, then become obsessed with identifying the impure, devolve into a new fundamentalism and end as a crusade. crusades

I stress these concerns because I and, I assume, most of my readers are white Americans, and of all peoples, we have a special responsibility to remember our old tendency to identify – and devalue – other people, especially people of color, as impure and to deal with them with extreme prejudice. We are called to remember that America is still very much a Puritan nation, and that this has led us toward two extreme positions – hatred of our own bodies, and a rock-solid belief about the poor and the victims of capitalism, that their condition is their own fault. The first position makes us sick and the second keeps us innocent.

Am I being picky here, voicing my concerns about other people being picky? Again, the language itself channels us toward the old monotheistic assumptions. Why not utilize perfectly useful phrases such as “spiritual path,” or “tradition,” which Jenne Micale, with the humor I like to see, defines as “…we’ve done it for quite a while, and no one remembers when the first one was.”

In the long run – the very long run, and if we survive the environmental threats that our monotheistic, fundamentalist, disembodied ideologies have generated – the myths that undergird the myth of American innocence will have to collapse. And Neopaganism, with all its cultural appropriations, is precisely situated to be the environmentally-conscious tradition and practice that can facilitate this transition. But it must become conscious of its tendency toward monotheistic thinking. It must see through its own language and its own unconscious assumptions. It – we – must learn to see indigenous ways on their own terms, to stop appropriating them by viewing them through our own cultural prejudices, to stop making earth-based, radical ritual into High Church.

We can begin that work by accepting the mystery, by dropping our need to be right all the time, to realize that our judgments about the “purity” of other’s beliefs are really our own projections. So, for now, I conclude my own pilgrimage through this marvelously fascinating world by suggesting that literalizing may well be the ultimate – if not the worst – form of cultural appropriation.

Reminder: Our annual Day of the Dead Grief Ritual will take place in El Cerrito, CA on November 5th:





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Barry’s Blog # 172: Cultural Appropriation? Part Five of Six

I naively thought that I’d covered the entire range of issues related to the subject of cultural appropriation in the first four parts. I dealt with common themes of authenticity, ownership, privilege, gatekeeping (who gets to decide?), reconstruction, permission, appreciation, calling and community. And: complexity. Here, I have few new concepts to introduce, mainly my own further marveling at how bloody complex this whole issue is, and in no particular order.

As I mentioned in Part Four, the Mexicas (Aztecs) had long celebrated their Days of the Dead in August, before the Spaniards required them to conform to the Catholic calendar. For nearly 500 years, Dia de Los Muertos has occurred on November 2nd. But very recently, we are beginning to see Latinos in Southern California “re-appropriating” the holiday and moving it back to August.


There is a huge debate about the difference between “Folklore” and “Fakelore,”defined as “inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional.” This leads me to a rather stunning discovery about the “Apache Wedding Blessing” or “Navajo Prayer.” Who hasn’t heard these words read at a wedding:

Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other.

Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.

Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other.

Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.

May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years.

May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.

 They are undeniably beautiful, evocative and moving – and, from an indigenous point of view, totally fake.

They are “traditionalesque,” a phrase coined by Rebecca Mead to describe any tradition invented or refurbished more for the purpose of creating a market than for carrying on a culture. Its origins are not Native American, but from the imagination of Elliot Arnold, author of the 1947 novel Blood Brothers, which later became the 1950 film Broken Arrow.

Since then, the fictional ceremony has appeared in countless wedding planning resources, “presented with the authoritative tone and use of the ahistorical past tense people use when they believe there is no one around to correct them.”

The poem does pass as Native American (as did Espera Oscar de Corti, known as “Iron Eyes Cody,” the Sicilian-American actor who portrayed the famous “crying Indian” in the environmentalist TV commercial). iron_eyes

Is this a reason to stop using it in weddings? Does it make us feel more deeply about the wedding because we think it is Native American? What characteristics do we associate with native people that make us feel this way? Authenticity? Tragedy? Simplicity? Childishness?

And, as usual, it gets complicated. Lia Falk writes

 What’s remarkable about this particular invented text is how far from the original it has metastasized, transposing it from fakelore to true folklore: it’s succeeded in masquerading as an authorless text for long enough that individual authors feel permitted to put their own touches on it. Of course, the Internet only speeds up such folk processing. I counted at least seven versions of “Apache Wedding Blessing” besides Arnold’s — it seems that every wedding officiant who’s used it has modified it to make it seem either more ancient and traditional or more palatable to the modern couple.


The folklore/fakelore conversation is not limited to Native Americans. Some argue that the ancient Hawaiian spiritual tradition – Ho’oponopono – was actually invented by a white man in 1935.

Now I’ll offer further complexity, and for a specific reason. When it comes to issues of spiritual belief and practice, we modern people, despite our claims to being comfortable with nuance, are actually obsessed with reducing complex issues to the sound bites of simplicity and literalization.

After completing the first four essays I came across an absolutely fascinating book: Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation. The elephant, presumably, is the “elephant in the room” that no one will talk about. The editor brings together a dozen practitioners of various Neopagan paths to confront this issue and reveals some truly esoteric yet quite relevant debates within their communities.

One theme they all agree on is the inauthenticity of the large number of “Native American Tarot decks,”


which should remind us of the common projection of the “Noble Savage,” that “brave and self-sacrificing fellow” who originated not in the wilds of North America but in the imagination of French Romantic authors and colonialists. Kenaz Filan writes that the image

…combined the best of both worlds: they retained the innate decency of their primitive ancestors, combined with the best and most benevolent ideals of Christianity. They provided invaluable assistance to the colonists, and were content with their humble station. They were used to protest the expansionist social order, but also to reaffirm it.

There is a deep and justified anger here, and as I implied in earlier posts, it extends well into the area of modern appropriation. Several Native American websites warn (again, we ask, who decides?) against fraudulent teaching of their traditions – by both Indians and non-Indians:

Indeed, the accusations and lists of frauds and “plastic shamans” are so long they remind us of those endless medieval lists of saints and devils. It all may boil down to the statement that true native people would never charge money for spiritual teachings, nor would they ever say that the teachings of a lifetime can be learned in a weekend seminar (And yet, how does one survive in America without an income? It’s complicated).

This position boils down even further, to a decidedly non-native way of thinking: the Anglo emphasis on purity and sin. Complicated: for every accusation there seems to be a denial.

Caveat: I am in no way criticizing the Native American contributors to these websites, only pondering some broader temptations that white Americans often fall prey to, which I will address in Part Six. As always, I’m more interested in how myth determines motivation and action – and also in the old American tradition of con-men masking as religious leaders.

Meanwhile, the book brings up other issues. Neopagan reconstructionists, for example, struggle with the question of whether it’s even possible to appropriate ancient cultural forms that no longer exist (hint: some of them do think so). Some writers claim that even some Native American and indigenous Siberian (the only people, strictly speaking, who are entitled to use the word “Shaman”) people are consciously reconstructing their own traditions after the devastations of Christianity, capitalism and communism.

Many practitioners of Asatru, the reconstructed, “heathen” worship of the old gods of pre-Christian northern Europe, adamantly claim that admittance into their religion should be strictly limited to those with genealogical proof of Nordic or Teutonic “blood.” Some have taken their obsession with purity to the illogical extreme of “white pride” politics.

This is America in all its glorious contradictions: on the one hand, people making lots of money and on the other, accusations of fraud and charlatanism. After the Native Americans, the “Celticists” seem to be making the most noise, and perhaps rightly so. Phillip Berhnadt-House, who is both a pagan and a Celtic academic, gives as an example a person who gives workshops on “Druidry and Celtic Shamanism” and who calls himself an “ollamah” (note the spelling); then he lists the actual qualifications that such people needed to attain in ancient Ireland:

An ollamh is supposed to be the son of a poet for three generations, undergoing a period of scholarly training and practice for many years, knowing 350 compositions at the pinnacle of ascent through the seven grades of poet.

And how about Wiccans and the well-known “Celtic Wheel of the Year,” the system of major holidays (sabbats) falling on the solstices, equinoxes and the four calendar dates exactly in between them? For example, Samhain/Halloween is halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. wheel-of-the-year

Thea Faye writes that they celebrate a pattern of the annual “death and rebirth of the God in conjunction with the fertility and life cycle of the Goddess.”

Most practitioners now seem to have accepted the scholarly consensus that the tradition was more or less invented around 1940 by Gerald Gardner, who gave a strongly British cultural accent to it. So much so, in fact, that some argue that there is little historical evidence of connection to the broader Celtic heritage of continental Europe.

All well and good; but the Wheel and its holidays, as Gardner reconstructed them, are all very specifically shaped by the natural, historical and mythic worlds of the British Isles, at their northern latitude. So, asks Faye, what happens when Wiccans in the southern hemisphere want to celebrate the Wheel? Shouldn’t they simply “spin the Wheel on its head” and reverse the order of the sabbats? Why not observe Samhain, the Celtic New Year, on April 30th/May 1st? She doesn’t think so: “…stating that the veil is thin on a particular date when it clearly is not is a road to nowhere.” Instead, she recommends knowing – really knowing – the world you live in: “…the beauty of a Nature based spirituality is that it is possible to adapt it to whatever your local environment has to offer.”

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

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 Six


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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