Saturday, March 31, 2012

Today's Hot Topic: Atheism

On his always excellent blog, Jason Miller posted an entertaining complaint about the behavior of the "New Atheists," then took it down for the reasons he describes in the linked post.  Since I had added a couple of my own thoughts to the deleted post - and since several of the "New Atheists" are still acting out in exactly the fashion he described him - I thought I'd touch upon the subject here.

First of all, let's talk about that favorite atheist slogan: "Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.  Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right."

Ted "the Unabomber" Kaczynski believed he was doing right despite what he was told.  So did Charles Manson.  So does every garden-variety sociopath.   Hell, I'd go so far as to say just about everyone does - or tries to do - what they believe is right. Outside of horror movies there are very few people who knowingly and willfully do evil for the sake of being evil.  Sure, there's often a whole lot of self-justification and reframing of events involved in the decision that "I was right to do that." But that's hardly confined to religious folks. You can certainly use your religious text of choice to assuage your conscience. But you can also use your troubled childhood, your political opinions, your end which justifies the means or any number of other excuses that have nothing to do with deities. 

Now let's take a look at some of those people doing repellent things in the name of "religion." The folks who bomb abortion clinics and shoot abortion providers believe they are doing right regardless of what they have been told.  Their actions aren't just illegal, they are strongly discouraged by the vast majority of Christian pastors.  Yet they decide that "God's law" - what they believe is right - trumps man's law and trumps the simpering milquetoast claims of all those self-proclaimed Christians who don't want to walk the walk.  Do people become monsters because of religion, or do they use religion to justify their monstrosity? Religion can become dangerous in the hands of dangerous people - but so can just about anything.  People kill each other in the name of various deities, but they also kill each other in the name of gang affiliation, ethnicity and favorite sports teams.

If religion is "doing what you are told regardless of what is right," what are we to make of Stalinism, Maoism and the various other Marxism-inspired political systems which place a premium on toeing the "Party Line?" If we're going to tar all Christians as potential inquisitioners and all Muslims as potential terrorists, then should we assume that inside every atheist there's a Kim Jong-Il waiting to get out?  What about groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or various other revolutionaries who were inspired to commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of a secular utopia-to-come?

And while we're on the subject: who is arrogant enough to think that they always know enough to "do right" without any input from others on the subject at hand?  Ethical questions are rarely clear-cut and frequently have enormous consequences at stake. Most people are happy to take expert advice on difficult topics. Everyone from Socrates to Tucker Max is consulted in the quest to a more ethical life: in the vast majority of cases they are given a vote but not a veto. And if we are capable of using Anthony Robbins or Jean-Paul Sartre as a guide toward rational decisions, why could we not use the Rig Vedas or the Q'uran in a similar fashion?

The answer, of course, is that most religious people do just that. Their religion shapes their worldview but doesn't trump their common sense.  But that's not what the Loud Atheists (i.e. strong atheists who won't shut up and stop waving their godless pee-pees in everyone's face) want to hear.  For all their talk about simple-minded religious mythologizing, they are desperately seeking a nice clean black-and-white world with clearly defined enemies and unquestionable answers.  Where their hated "Fundamentalists" divide the universe into "God's people" and "the Devil's servants," they see society as a battle of Enlightened Atheists vs. Silly Superstitious Religious Fanatics. 

Elf Sternberg commented that the mind is like a barrel of fine wine and religion is the teaspoonful of sewage that ruins said fine wine.  I note that Galileo was a devout Catholic, even after that unpleasantness with the Inquisition.  And while I remember some of Elf's contributions to the various* groups with fondness, I gotta say it: you, Mr. Sternberg, are no Galileo.  You are no Einstein.  You are no Olivier Messiaen, no Henryk Gorecki, no Shusaku Endo.  Hell, looking at your science fiction I'd say that you're not even up to filling Orson Scott Card's magic underwear.  Whatever one may think about the merits of Theism, only the most deluded dipshit would deny the contributions made to the world by people who believed in one deity or another.

Another anonymous atheist commented "We're assholes. Reality is an asshole. Get over it."  This is exactly the kind of behavior Jason was complaining about in his earlier post.  It's not exactly the height of rational argument - but then, the commenter wasn't interested in rational argument. He wants to scream his rage at Big Daddy God and the Sky Fairies into the abyss, hoping he can find other disgruntled unbelievers to share the emptiness with him.  Which is fine: we all make decisions based on emotion as well as logic. But don't kid yourself into believing that "the Bible said it, I don't believe it and that settles it" is more rational than any other ardent declaration of faith.

Do I have a particular problem with atheism in and of itself? Not at all. Like most other belief systems, it produces reasonably moral behavior when followed by reasonably moral people.  But neither do I see any particular evidence that its followers are in any way ethically or intellectually superior to those poor benighted believers they mock.  Believing in God/s doesn't automatically make one a sinner: neither does disbelieving in them automatically give the disbeliever any kind of special enlightenment. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fan Mail... I get Fan Mail. From Raving Anti-Semites, Even

Be quiet, Schulz!!!

In response to my Truthiness in Anti-Zionist Country: Henry Ford and Julius Evola, someone named "Dean the Destroyer" left this comment:
See how insane with power the "jews" have become? They're threatening to assassinate Obama - A FOREIGN NATION IS THREATENING TO ASSASSINATE AN AMERICAN PRESIDENT! - if he doesn't install a "jewish" central bank in Iran for them:

Right, then.  Let's have a look at that tinyURL link, shall we?  It leads to a January 22, 2012 article by Paul Koring in the Toronto Globe and Mail, entitled "Assassinate Obama if he won’t attack Iran for Israel, Jewish monthly suggests." That article opens with:
Musing openly about murdering President Barack Obama is certain to stir some attention.
So is publicly suggesting it’s a job for Mossad – Israel’s no-nonsense spy agency with its long record of assassinating enemies of the Jewish state.
Yet that’s just what the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, Andrew Adler, did in a column laying out the three options Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has when faced with Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to wage war on Iran.
For starters, it looks like "jews" would more precisely be "Jew," singular.  As in one Jewish editor and publisher of one Jewish newspaper with a circulation of approximately 3,000.  Who was complaining about Obama's inaction in the face of Iran's nuclear program, not ordering him to "install a 'jewish' central bank in Iran" for them.  (So far as I can tell, he wasn't even pushing to set up a Tehran edition of the Atlanta Jewish Times).

Now let's hear what some other Jews, plural, have to say about Adler's suggestion.

David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) says in the Jerusalem Post.
[T]he publisher of a Jewish newspaper in a major city actually put on the table the assassination of the president of the United States.
That in itself is simply beyond belief. In fact, language is inadequate to the challenge of describing the revulsion this evokes. Whether the Secret Service takes up the matter will, of course, be for them to decide, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me...
Owning a community newspaper and seeking to inform readers entails a larger responsibility, at least it should.   That’s not consistent, shall we say, with conjuring up scenarios for the assassination of the American president or seeking to implicate Israel in such utterly unimaginable schemes.
Clearly, Adler, for his sake and ours, ought to find a new line of work.
Over at the Jerusalem Post's competitor, Ha'aretz, Chemi Shelev says:

Like most of you, I have never met Andrew B. Adler, owner and publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that the man is spectacularly stupid. In his contorted apologies he has described himself, after all, as "an idiot."...
"A fool may throw a stone into a well which even a hundred wise men cannot pull out," the saying goes. It will indeed take a long time and a great effort to undo the damage that Adler has wrought: In one fell swoop, he has defamed Israel by implying that it might, in anyone's wildest dreams, consider such a kooky conspiracy. He has stained American Jews by appearing to supposedly represent their twisted way of thinking. He has even undermined the institution of Jewish journalism by exposing the fact that it harbors such birdbrained bozos in its midst. 
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League's national director Abraham Foxman told Fox 5 Atlanta:
There is absolutely no excuse, no justification, no rationalization for this kind of rhetoric…These are irresponsible and extremist words…an apology cannot possibly repair the damage.
And the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta said in a press release:
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta (JCRC) condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent irresponsible, morally wrong, and wholly indefensible statements of Andrew Adler in his January 13, 2012 column in The Jewish Times. The JCRC is committed to providing a forum for Jewish organizations and individuals to come together to discuss and take action on issues that affect the Jewish community in Atlanta, Israel, the Jewish people, and the general community. The JCRC supports peaceful and civil resolution of conflict. However, Adler’s statements are repugnant to Jewish values and to the values and mission of the JCRC. They undermine the Jewish community in Atlanta and beyond and gravely disserve the interests of the State of Israel and of the United States of America.
Ten days after the publication of that January 13, 2012 editorial, Andrew Adler resigned as editor and announced he was putting the paper up for sale.  So much for the "insane with power 'jews'" who occupy so much of the empty space between Dean's ears. From where I sit (the reality-based world, not to be confused with the Deaniverse), it looks like Jewish leaders were loud and unequivocal in their condemnation of Adler's editorial and pressured him to exit the newspaper business.

500 Quatloos says Dean (or one of his brothers in arms) responds by claiming the 'jews' only did this because Adler was too honest. He was saying what they all REALLY wanted to say, but because he got the goyim stirred up they had to throw him to the wolves. Because that's the nature of this particular psychopathology. Much as a paranoid schizophrenic might see messages in alphabet soup or in songs played on the radio, a bigot sees evidence of Jewish/black/etc. collusion where everyone else sees the actions of a lone wingnut. And when countering evidence is presented, the bigot takes that evidence and turns it into still more proof of the Great Conspiracy.

William Blake said "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."  Obviously he doesn't read the same newspapers either...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

From Melancholia - Herbs: Cannabis

The Babylonians [Chapter 1] used cannabis as an analgesic and antidepressant. A 2010 study at the University of Mississippi suggests they were on to something. The trials used the "forced swim test," a common animal test for antidepressant activity. Rats are placed in a cylinder filled with water for 15 minutes. After 24-hours, a second 5-minute trial is performed. The time that the test animal spends without moving in the second trial is measured. This immobility time is decreased by antidepressants. Rats given Δ9-THC, the most well-known psychoactive cannabinoid, showed a significant decrease in immobility times. CBC and CBD, non-psychoactive compounds also found in cannabis, produced a similar effect. While the precise mechanisms by which each compound works are still unclear, it appears that several compounds within the cannabis plant have antidepressant effects and contribute to its mood-altering properties.

The FST showed a U-shaped curve on the response: after a certain point the antidepressant effect of these cannabinoid compounds appears to vanish. This is in keeping with the results of a 2007 study at McGill University using the synthetic cannabinoid WIN55,212-2. Says Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, who headed the study, "Low doses had a potent anti-depressant effect, but when we increased the dose, the serotonin in the rats' brains actually dropped below the level of those in the control group. So we actually demonstrated a double effect: At low doses it increases serotonin, but at higher doses the effect is devastating, completely reversed."

This suggests depressed people should use cannabis with caution. The levels of various cannabinoids can vary widely among different batches: a dose that lightens the mood one day might, with a different strain, plunge you deeper into depression. But it also suggests an untapped new field of exploration for pharmacology. Dr. Gobbi is also doing research has begun on compounds like URB597, a drug which produces noticeable antidepressant effects by raising the levels of endogenous cannabinoids in the brain.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From Melancholia - Herbs: Ashwagandha

Also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, ashwagandha is a small woody shrub and a member of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family. While it is found in an area ranging from the Canary Islands to the Middle East, Africa and China ashwagandha is most commonly associated with India, where it is an important ingredient in many Ayurvedic preparations. In Sanskrit its name means "smell of a horse," as its stout, fleshy root is said to smell like a sweaty horse. This root is considered effective against musculo-skeletal conditions like arthritis and rheumatism, and is taken as a general tonic to improve health, increase longevity, prevent impotence and fight disease.

Ashwagandha is considered by many practitioners of alternative medicine to be an adaptogen – a substance which exerts effects on both healthy and diseased organisms, normalizes dysfunctions, enhances adaptability to a range of environmental and physical stressors and increases resistance against non-specific stressors. Despite many studies in the USSR and Europe on adaptogens, the concept is still met with considerable skepticism in Western medicine, where it is seen as uncomfortably close to the snake oil "cure alls" of patent medicine.

But despite those concerns, ashwagandha appears to have beneficial effects across a wide spectrum. In addition to potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects, it also appears to have a pronounced calming and mood elevating effect. A 2000 study found that oral administration of ashwagandha for five days suggested anxiety-relieving effects similar to those achieved by the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam (Ativan™), and antidepressant effects similar to those of the prescription antidepressant drug imipramine (Tofranil™).

Ashwagandha has been shown to be active on the brain's GABA receptors, and can potentiate other GABA agonists prescribed for anti-anxiety like benzodiazepenes, as well as hypnotic/sedatives like barbituates and recreational drugs like alcohol. It also appears to increase thyroid activity and may also interact with many commonly prescribed antidepressants. As with all herbal supplements and alternative therapies, be sure to consult your physician if you are currently on prescribed medications.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

From Melancholia: Egypt

One of the oldest Egyptian medical papyri, the Kahun Papyrus, dates back to approximately 1900 BCE. The papyrus, which survives only in fragments, deals with a number of gynecological complaints: particularly noteworthy is the case of the "woman who loves bed" and who refuses to rise. The author believed this (and several other complaints) were caused by "starvation" of the uterus, or by the womb wandering from its proper place. 1,500 years later Greek scientists would call this "wandering womb" hysteria, after the Greek hystera (uterus) – a disease that would persist in clinical texts for many centuries even after our knowledge of anatomy improved.

Written in or around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus is believed to be a copy of an earlier document. Based on some of the archaic terms used therein many scholars believe it dates back to between 3000 and 2500 BCE: some think it may have originated with the legendary Egyptian physician and architect Imhotep. Among the diseases it describes in the section entitled "Treatises of the Heart" are conditions we now would recognize as mental disorders.
As to "the mind's kneeling (breakdown?)": this means that his mind is constricted, and his heart in its place in the blood of the lung. becomes small through it. It is (due to the fact) that the heart is hot, and then his mind becomes weary through it; he eats little and is fastidious.

As to "drying up of the mind": it is (due to the fact) that the blood dm3 (coagulates?) in the heart.


As to "his mind is dark (melancholic?), and he tastes his heart": this means that his mind is contracted, there being darkness in his, interior (lit. belly) through dnwd, and he makes the deed to consume his mind (i.e. he repents).

As to "his entire flesh (i.e. the muscles) is ddnw like the tiredness of a man whom the way has found": this means that his flesh is tired through it, as the flesh of a man is tired through long going.

As to "raving (?) through something entering from above": this means that his mind raves (?) through something entering from above.
As to "his mind is drowned": this means that his mind is forgetful like one who is thinking of something else.
Perhaps the most intriguing example of Pharaonic Egypt's views on depression comes from a XII Dynasty (ca.1938 - 1759 BCE) text entitled Discourse of a Man with his Ba [part of the human soul]. As the surviving fragment of the tale begins, the man wishes to end his own life and is seeking the approval of his Ba. Without that approval he faces total annihilation in the Afterlife, while his Ba will be forced to wander the world without offerings and ultimately perish. The Ba tries to dissuade him, saying " Follow the happy day and forget worry!" but the man is adamant in his desire, saying:
 Death is in front of my face today,
{like} health to the sick,
like deliverance from detention.
Death is in front of my face today,
like the fragrance of myrrh,
like a shelter on a windy day.
Death is in front of my face today,
like the fragrance of lotus,
like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.
* * *
Death is in front of my face today,
like a man's longing to see his home,
having spent many years in captivity.
The Ba continues with its efforts to cheer the man up: alas, the surviving manuscript ends here. We do not know how this tale ended, but we do know that the writer was most certainly aware of  - if not personally familiar with – the terrible craving for death that so often accompanies depression

Friday, March 23, 2012

Threefold Bitchslapping: for Fern Bernstein-Miller

Over on Fern's Fronds, Fern Bernstein-Miller has a fantastic post on the "Threefold Law of Returns." You need to check this out.  Especially if you're thinking "isn't that the rule that says everything you do comes back to you threefold?" Because, well, it's not.  And while Fern has much more to say on the topic, perhaps the most salient point she makes is this: "[The Threefold Law] means that you are expected to take an active, involved role in creating Justice right here on Earth."

It should be pointedly obvious to anyone with a double-digit IQ that evil is not always punished threefold -- hell, often it's not even punished at all. There are plenty of thoroughly nasty people who get rewarded for their nastiness: the rise and continuing rise of Goldman Sachs would be one good case in point. And good behavior doesn't always result in benefits. Sometimes it even results in martyrdom. It could be said that these Goldman bigwigs and slaughtered Syrian dissidents will all get what they have coming in a future life. But that's rather a large leap of faith, and one that can bring us to some truly noxious conclusions.  Is every victim of gang rape or repeated sexual abuse working off karma for a past life as a rapist?  Are birth defects a punishment for misdeeds in your last incarnation? What kind of crimes warrant childhood cancer? Is inherited wealth a sign of higher spiritual evolution, while birth into poverty is a sign of corresponding spiritual inferiority? 

A morality which runs on "I do good things because I get rewarded for them, and avoid doing bad things in fear of punishment" is hardly a great achievement. It's easy enough to train flatworms by means of reward and punishment.  The trick is getting people to do moral things when it would be easier and more profitable to break the rules, or to avoid the issue altogether.  And while the common interpretation of the "Threefold Law" may work at stopping sins of commission - at least as well as the "you'll burn in hell if Jesus catches you masturbating" line works, anyway  - it's horribly likely to encourage sins of omission.  Why bother engaging with evil if karma (or the Western misunderstanding of karma) is going to take care of the issue for you? I much prefer Orion Foxwood's concept of "co-creators."  We are spiritual beings walking a human path: we have incarnated not only to avoid evil but to do good. And when we shirk that duty - when we avoid calling out injustice and tolerate unrighteousness - we have failed in our mission.  That places a tremendous burden of responsibility on our shoulders.

Following the prohibition "you should never do magic to harm another" is relatively easy. What about "you should use magic - and any other tool in your kit - against those who willfully and wantonly harm others?" That is far more difficult. It requires a great deal of thought and careful consideration. It leaves you open to making a wrong choice and hurting those who need healing, or to taking the wrong side in a fight. It forces you to choose your battles carefully, and to understand and accept the possible consequences. But nobody ever said magical traditions - or ethical questions - were easy. Sometimes a morally ambiguous world demands a morally ambiguous response: there are times when inaction is no longer a tenable option.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Still more on African "Witch Hunts:" For Yvonne Chireau

In response to my earlier post, Yvonne Chireau wrote:
Good stuff you write here. One thing that observers of "traditional" African religions neglect to understand is the historical role of iconoclasm as a vehicle of spiritual expression and power. This can express itself in African religious cultures as social (or sexual) repression, anti-witchcraft purges, and perennial revivalism, most often manifested in Africa's indigenous prophet movements. This is the ugly face of religious renewal in a transforming culture, and any anthropologist will tell you that it's not just in Africa, and its not just Christianity.
Given that I've been writing about Omar Khayyam recently, I definitely agree with Yvonne on this one.  Iran is a perfect example of a society in transition redefining itself by purging "decadent" Western ideas and implementing a government organized around a very Persian vision of Islam.  In the Arabic-speaking world we see reactionary movements against corrupt, despotic secular rulers which favors a society based on shari'ah rather than a Western economic and political model.  (Is anyone surprised to see that Egypt's Coptic Christians have come under increasing attack with the fall of the secular Mubarek government: will anyone be surprised when a similar fate befalls Syria's Christian, Alawite and Druze minorities after the fall of the Assad regime?)

A classic secular example might be Germany's reaction to its World War I defeat and subsequent economic collapse. In that case a country which was known for its tolerance of Jews - at least as compared to places like Poland and Russia - had a notorious spasm of anti-Semitic violence which was also aimed at homosexuals, communists and others who were presented as a threat to a truly "German" way of life.  Closer to home, although not nearly so bloody, I might point to the rise of Evangelical Christianity as a political force in America.  One hundred years ago the idea that politicians would take "Holy rollers" seriously was laughable. While mainstream Protestant churches wielded an inordinate amount of power, "speaking in tongues" and suchlike was generally reserved for the downtrodden and dispossessed. But since the 1970s we've seen people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell - guys who would have been tent preachers at best in the Depression era - become kingmakers for the Republican party. And it's no coincidence that this rise started in the era of stagflation, Watergate, the Vietnam defeat and the rise of various civil rights movements. 

I don't want to come across as an apologist for Christianity or the various excesses of missionaries in the developing world.  I've written critically about monotheism in general: I acknowledge that there are Christians who would like to see an American theocracy and who are happy to push their vision of a "Christian government" in the developing world. But I also acknowledge a tendency among many Neopagans to yammer on at length about the "Burning Times" and "Christian persecution" as part of an extended live-action role playing game. These are the people who want to recast the deaths of the heretics killed during Europe's witch craze - people who overwhelmingly viewed themselves as Christian and who died praying to Jesus - as part of a great conspiracy against the followers of the Rede and the Threefold Law. And from where I stand it looks like they are fixating on the word "witch" - a word which means something very different to an African than to an American or European Neopagan - and trying to claim Africa's "witch killings" as part of the Great Conspiracy against them.  I find this, frankly, as distasteful as talking about the six million witches who went to their deaths wearing yellow pentagrams and singing "we all come from the Goddess." It cheapens the very real suffering of innocent people and reduces them to props in a Harry Potter v. Voldemort LARP.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Child Witches, Evangelical Missionaries and African Traditional Religions

Sorry, Apuleius,
but you're no King Chuck.

On Wild Hunt, Apuleius Platonicus and I had a discussion about the relationship between American missionaries and the epidemic of "witch killings" in Africa.  AP, who has a rather intense hate-hate relationship with all things Christian, is convinced that this is all part of some Evangelical plot. (He also claimed that I called him "King of the Butthurt Pagans." If I did, I sincerely apologize. While Apuleius is certainly capable of huffy whining, he's got a long way to go before he claims that crown from Charlton "Chuck" Hall). And AP and I even agree on things every other blue moon or so: we recently came to a consensus that readily available birth control and sex education are the safest and most effective ways to prevent abortion and that A.C. Fisher Aldag, who thinks otherwise, is a reactionary wingnut.

In this case, though, we are of differing opinions. I believe the "Revivalist" churches which are behind much of this panic are inspired as much by traditional African beliefs as by Pentecostal Christianity and are as "Fundamentalist Christian" as Haitian Vodou is Roman Catholic.  What we are dealing with here, in my not entirely uninformed opinion, is an organic crisis which has roots in Africa and which is practiced by churches and groups that are at some remove from American missionaries.  The Revivalists are practicing something that is a gumbo of traditional practices and ideas combined with a veneer of Pentecostal Christianity.  (Yes, I know they "renounce and condemn" traditional practices. Lots of American Pagans loudly renounce and condemn Christianity while maintaining an essentially Christian moral code and metaphysics with a minor change of imagery and names).

AP suggested that the UNICEF report on Children Accused of Witchcraft in Africa supported his contention that this epidemic had been fueled, funded and encouraged by American missionaries.  Upon reading the PDF in question (which is an excellent summary of the problem), I noted these passages:

Vulnerable children accused of an act of witchcraft can be divided into three categories. The first category, which includes thousands of children, refers to the urban phenomenon of “child witches”. These children are typically orphans who have lost one or both natural parents; children with a physical disability (or any physical abnormality, including a large head, swollen belly, red eyes, etc.); those with a physical illness (epilepsy, tuberculosis, etc.) or disability (autism, Down Syndrome, etc., or even those who stutter); or especially gifted children. Children showing any unusual behaviour, for example children who are stubborn, aggressive, thoughtful, withdrawn or lazy, also make up this category.
The second category covers children whose birth is considered abnormal, such as the “bad birth” children from the Bight of Benin region. These children may be premature (in the eighth month), or presentation may be in any variety of breech positions, or in the posterior, face‐up position during delivery. Also included are twins, who are sometimes associated with the occult, their birth symbolizing the evil or anger of the gods.
The third and final category concerns children with albinism who are killed because of the magic powers supposedly contained in parts of their bodies, including their organs, hair, skin and limbs.
I was not aware that American missionaries preached against the evil of disabled children, twins, or albinos.  I am, however, aware that in many African cultures all these things are seen as signs that the child might be touched by evil or have a special contact with the "second world" - the invisible reality which lies contemporaneously with our own and which can have a (typically detrimental) effect on those living in this world.

American Pentecostal and Evangelical churches don't teach that albinos are inherently evil, that Down Syndrome is a sign of Satanic possession, or that one should throw pepper in a child's eyes, make the child drink noxious substances or play drums for hours on end while engaging in rites designed to "exorcise" the witch-spirit from the "second world" from the child. I am also noting that the "Revivialist" Churches which are most strongly connected with these "exorcisms" are in fact African with roots in Africa and generally have only tenuous connections to Evangelical and Pentecostal missionaries, if they have any at all. What we see here is more akin to the Lord's Resistance Army than to Pentecostal Christianity: it's a horrible cultural misunderstanding fueled by poverty and by social upheaval, not a Christian plot.

Desiree Arceneaux noted:
 For the most part, fundamentalist Christian churches moderate their behavior in the West because they know they can only get away with so much. That's why organizations like James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" would never dare call for death camps for LGBT people in America, but in Uganda they explicitly sponsor laws that make being LGBT a capital crime.
So no, the lack of comparable action in the West is in no way proof that these churches aren't substantially responsible for the situation in Africa. We know for a fact that missionaries whom they sponsor and local churches which they collaborate with are the principal actors in actively encouraging violence against LGBT people and against pagans. That makes them responsible.

I don't think the Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches are without sin in their dealings with Africa.  Desiree has hit upon a situation wherein American missionaries have actually gone out of their way to advocate murder and intolerance against an "other" who is demonized in many African cultures.  The role of American Evangelical and Fundamentalist pastors and churches in stirring up anti-gay hatred in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa is shameful and deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.  (In the case of fundamentalist and loudly anti-gay minister Scott Lively, it looks like a Ugandan gay rights group is taking him to court in an effort to hold him accountable.  It's a pity he hasn't yet been dragged before an international court and be charged with inciting violence and genocide like some of the major instigators of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and Burundi).

And there is no question that missionaries have encouraged and continue to encourage converts to destroy their "idols" - which are often irreplaceable art objects that have been venerated for centuries and constitute a valuable cultural heritage.  They have definitely egged on violence against traditional priests and practitioners, and should be held accountable for that as well. But for the most part this has been aimed at leaders within African traditional religions, not street children. Frankly, in many parts of the world evangelical missionaries are the only reason why a lot of those street children aren't starving to death.  You may disagree with their theology and their methods: I certainly do. But I don't see too many of the Pagans whimpering about Ye Burning Times doing much to feed orphans or protect the cultures they seem so concerned about.  Other than using them as a convenient photo opportunity and a stick with which to beat the Eeeevil Christians, they seem singularly disinterested in actually contributing to their physical well-being.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy Fet Damballah, and a Shout-Out to St. Patrick

Top o' the mornin', me arse...
What was in Ireland a somber memorial to British oppression and the survival of the Irish spirit has become an American celebration of debauchery. Streets across the country become public vomitoria as revelers gorge themselves on green beer while wearing plastic hats and shamrock glasses  imported from China.  The country which gave us James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats is honored instead with stumbling drunkenness. 

In Haiti St. Patrick's Day is the feast of Damballah, the great white serpent who is one of the oldest and wisest of the lwa - a spirit who demands that onlookers put out their cigarettes and cap their alcoholic beverages before his salute.

As they used to say on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the other." Attend ye now to a wee tale o' floatin' signifiers. 

In Haiti Catholic lithographs and statues are frequently used to represent the lwa. Legba, the lame old man at the crossroads, is represented by St. Lazarus leaning on his crutch.  St. Jacques Majeur, the charging crusader, is used to honor Ogou San Jak: the Mater Salvatoris with her scarred face is immediately recognized by Vodouisants as Ezili Danto, mother of the Petwo nation.  And one of the most common images for Damballah is St. Patrick casting out the snakes.

(Alternately, a Vodouisant might point out that he is showing the snakes the way to Gineh, the undersea home of the lwa and the ancestors.  The lithographs have spawned many of their own stories. They are not just "masks" for African spirits but symbols which can be used to reveal, access and convey their aspects and their power).

Because of this connection with St. Patrick, Damballah's fet is traditionally held on or around March 17.  This is very close to the feast day (March 19) of another important figure in Vodou, St. Joseph.  Joseph is also associated with Loko, the lwa who gives the asson in the asogwe ceremony, and so this party is invariably a Fet Damballah et Loko.  To honor one without the other would be seen as an insult to both.  This is an excellent example of the way that Catholicism and African beliefs mix and match in Haiti to form new and unique traditions and practices which partake of both roots.  To scorn this as a "corruption" of some "pure" ur-African belief is to miss the point. 

Those seeking to honor Papa Damballah today can do so by offering him a white egg (well-washed beforehand, ideally with rose water or Lotion Pompeia) placed atop a mound of flour and a white candle.  Put these before a St. Patrick image: you should have no problem finding one today, and can print out the picture given above if all else fails.  Amidst all the noise and revelry, Damballah will help you find your peaceful center - and help you maintain that place after the celebration ends.

Friday, March 16, 2012

From Melancholia: Edward FitzGerald and Khayyam's Rubiyat

The life that it is here proposed to depict was a life singularly devoid of incident. It was the career of a lonely, secluded, fastidious and affectionate man; it was a life not rich in results, not fruitful in example. It is the history of a few great friendshps, much quiet benevolence, tender loyalty, wistful enjoyment. The tangible results are a single small volume of imperishable quality… 
Arthur Christopher Benson, Edward FitzGerald
While he was friendly with Cambridge schoolmates Alfred Lord Tennyson and novelist William Makepeace Thackery (Vanity Fair), Edward FitzGerald lacked their creative spirit and mourned that he was not a "masculine" poet but a mere "feminine" man of taste. The son of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, FitzGerald had no need to seek gainful employment but little taste for the ostentatious living enjoyed by his peers. While his family owned several manor houses, he generally preferred living in rented rooms or modest cottages and hated the flashy dinner parties thrown by his socialite mother.

To keep himself occupied, FitzGerald engaged in voluminous correspondence, occasional writing and a series of friendships with virile young men. His homosexuality caused him no small degree of turmoil – not surprising, given the Victorian stigma against "sexual inversion." While his biographers have noted several intense emotional relationships (and FitzGerald himself said late in life, "my friendships are more like loves, I think") it is unclear whether FitzGerald ever actually had sexual relations.

But one of those friends, Edward Byles Cowell. would introduce him to the work that would make his fame. Seventeen years younger than FitzGerald, Cowell had a natural gift for language: at 16 he had published a translation of a poem by the Persian poet and mystic Hafez. At first Cowell taught FitzGerald Spanish: in 1852, they began studying Persian together. The two worked together on a translation of Salaman and Absal, an allegory by the Sufi scholar Jami. Then, in 1856, Cowell left England to take an academic post in India. As a parting gift, he gave Fitzgerald a copy of Khayyam's quatrains taken from a manuscript in Oxford's Bodleian library: later he would send a copy of more quatrains from Calcutta. Reeling from his friend's departure and the 1855 death of his mother, FitzGerald married Lucy Barton, the daughter of a late friend. The marriage lasted only a few months: his ex-wife later complained of his penchant for becoming infatuated with "any embryo Apollo." But his correspondence with Cowell continued, as did his work on the Rubaiyat.

FitzGerald's translation held to the a-a-b-a rhyme scheme of the Persian quatrains, but he frequently made departures from the literal meaning of the text in order to capture what he felt was the spirit of Khayyam's poems. While the poems were originally written as discrete works, FitzGerald strung quatrains together into a narrative describing the day of a skeptical intellectual seeking solace in wine and the comforts of the world. Devoutly agnostic with atheist leanings, he emphasized Khayyam's doubts about the nature of fate and the afterlife and downplayed any mystical interpretations.

Later scholars have found that FitzGerald's translation could best be termed an interpretation. Of the 101 quatrains included in the first edition, Edward Heron-Allen concluded that 49 were faithful paraphrases of quatrains to be found in the Bodleian or Calcutta manuscripts; 44 could be traced to more than one quatrain; two were actually poems by Hafez and two by the Persian poet Attar; three (dropped after the second edition) appeared to be FitzGerald's original work with no Persian source. But while his accuracy may have left something to be desired, the influence his translation of the Rubaiyat had on a generation was undeniable.

Printed in 1859 as a pamphlet, his first edition languished for two years at Bernard Quaritch's Bookshop. Then someone gave a copy to poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti: he bought copies for several of his friends, all of whom were impressed by Khayyam's Orlentalist melancholy and spread word of this brilliant new poet. By the time of FitzGerald's death in 1883 the Rubaiyat was the talk of England and later America: Omar Khayyam clubs sprung up to celebrate the work's timeless and yet oh-so-contemporary Epicurean agnosticism.

Interpreting Self through the Exotic Other

Exploring our painful emotions and coming to terms with our dark side can be enormously painful and difficult. It is often easier to do so by looking to the lives and tales of strangers, particularly those at some cultural remove. We can identify with them while maintaining a comfortable distance: we can learn from their story – or the parts we find useful – without triggering our defenses or our personal and social taboos.

At the time FitzGerald was first exposed to the Rubaiyat, the Victorian craze for "Orientalism" was already beginning. The stolid, conservative philosophy of a fast-expanding imperial power had little appeal to those of a more aesthetic and artistic temperament. They looked to the East, or to a lushly sensual and idyllic "East" that bore little resemblance to any Asian culture past or present. Harems offered sexual pleasures which were denied to proper European men: Asiatic villains could perform acts of titillating evil that not even the most debased Englishman would contemplate. And emotional reveries and depths of passion and despair that would be unseemly for a well-bred gentleman could be explored in a foreign setting.

Sending a copy of the Rubaiyat to a friend in 1877, FitzGerald wrote "I know you will thank me (for the book) and I think you will feel a sort of triste Plaisir as others beside myself have felt. It is a desperate sort of thing, unfortunately at the bottom of all thinking men's minds; but made Music of." At a time when doctors were beginning to classify melancholic temperaments not as superior but as neurotic, Khayyam's Rubiyat allowed readers to explore their own impulses from the viewpoint of a far-away (and far superior, if not nearly so colorful) time and space. Some used it as a template for rebellion against the dominant culture: others saw it as a new Ecclesiastes reminding us that all is vanity and that even the mightiest empires must someday crumble.

Persian poetry also gave FitzGerald an opportunity to explore his homosexual desires. Speaking aloud his love for another European man would have been unthinkable: twelve years after FitzGerald's death, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for the crime of sodomy. But catamite cup-bearers and convivial companionship among male friends was part and parcel of the decadent East. For Victorian men, one of the temptations of the Orient was its easy acceptance of le vice contre nature, where one could explore the pleasures of doe-eyed girls and beardless boys alike.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yep, You Guessed It: More Conversations with Wade

In response to my earlier post, Wade said:
"I've written a few times on "authenticity" as it relates to the way many European-Americans (let's skip that pesky "white" thing for now)"

No, let's not skip the "pesky white thing". That was the entire premise of this line of conversation - that white people can't practice African magic-using traditions unless they have a brown person to make it "authentic".
No, Wade, that's been the premise of the conversation you have been having. The one most of the other readers have been reading and commenting on - has discussed a number of issues relating to race, culture, initiation, religion . You're the one who seems to be stuck on brown people and skin color.  But just to humor you, let's try a definition everyone can get behind:

Someone practicing a cultural tradition does so "authentically" insofar as they practice that tradition using the tools and techniques of that culture.  

In other words, a person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Shinto should be doing so using the techniques and tools which a Japanese practitioner of Shinto would use. A person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Judaism should be using the tools and techniques which members of the Jewish community would use.  (I realize there are several different forms of Judaism, just as there are several different forms of Shinto: a person who claims to be practicing "authentic" Judaism should be able to point to other "authentic" Jews who do things the way sie does).  And a person who claims to be practicing Haitian Vodou should be able to point to other Haitian Vodou practitioners who do things the way sie does them using the tools sie uses.

If you don't think that it is important to do things in an authentic fashion, this question is meaningless. You can buy a skeleton from a Halloween supply store, drape her in a white shroud, call her "Santa Muerte" and feed her a steady supply of tequila and 7-11 bean burritos.  And that practice might prove useful to you and put you in touch with a powerful magical current. Or it might be a colossal waste of your time and make you look exceedingly silly.  I'd be inclined to bet on Door #2 but having never performed this experiment I'm open to being surprised.

If you are interested in practicing these traditions as they are practiced in their culture of origin - if you feel those tools and those techniques may have power in and of themselves rather than being mere accidents which can be taken up or put aside as convenient - then learning from representatives of that culture would seem to be a sensible thing to do.  It's not an absolute requirement, but given i.e. the extreme paucity of non-Haitian practitioners of Haitian Vodou it would make your life a whole lot easier.
"The question of fear actually makes perfect sense. These traditions are seen as powerful because they are frightening and because the people who practice them are "dangerous."

Maybe to some, but it's disingenuous to say all white people are afraid of African magic because black people are dangerous. First of all, not all white people are AFRAID of blacks. Furthermore, even the ones who are don't necessarily deal with that by getting into African magic.

So far, your excuse seems to be hinging on a lot of racial stereotypes, but let's continue.
Dunno about all white people, but I see one white guy who has spent several weeks and many comments trying desperately to prove that he can do African magic without actually having to engage with any African people.  If you don't have some kind of emotional investment in this question, I'd hate to see how you responded to an issue that was near and dear to your heart.

I didn't say that idea was universal, just that I had run into many European-American middle-class Pagan types who found African magic intriguing, powerful and "edgy" but who didn't actually want to deal with representatives of that culture.  Other people seem to have reported my findings as well.  Not sure why I would lie about it: hell, given that I've written a few books on the topic if I were going to lie it would be far more profitable for me to downplay the problem.

"As I said, there are several solid, legitimate Vodouisants who are white as the driven snow and who can provide an interested person with an introduction to the lwa."

And how do they make their magic "authentic"?
They make their magic (more precisely, their religion) authentic by doing it the way they were taught.  Because this is Haitian Vodou, that means doing it in the ways that originated in Haiti, using the tools and techniques which originated in Haiti or the modifications which have been put in place for logistical reasons (i.e. certain materials available in Haiti cannot be found in the United States or France) by the Haitian community.
And this brings us all the way back around to the question I asked originally, all the way back in the beginning.

"But if you're going to practice Vodou seriously, sooner or later you are going to have to engage with Haitian people"


Never mind that you changed the premise of your argument again, from the requirement to have a brown person to sign off on you, to specifying someone who's Haitian in particular. What if the Haitian is white though?

"if you are going to practice Lukumi, you're going to have to talk to a Cuban at some point"

Even a white Cuban?

"if you're going to explore the Cults of Santa Muerte or Maximon, you'll inevitably find yourself talking with someone from Mexico or Central America."

Even a white Mexican?

"They believe there is a tangible charge and change in one's energy signature, ethereal body or what have you when the initiation process is completed - and that this can only come from somebody who already has that connection to the root."

Even if that somebody is white?
I can explain it to you but I can't understand it for you.  That being said, here goes nothing.

Right now there is a small community of non-Haitians practicing Haitian Vodou: if there are 100 white non-Haitians who have the knowledge and experience to put on a traditional Haitian fet lwa I'd be very surprised.  A century from now there could well be a thriving community of non-Haitian Vodouisants practicing Haitian Vodou and one will be able to throw together a fet lwa without calling on a single Haitian.  In the here and now doing that would require buying a lot of airplane tickets and searching frantically for people who knew what they were doing enough to actually fulfill the required roles.  Or I could just talk to the Haitian people who initiated me and go to the party they're holding.  Dunno about you, but I'm lazy and cheap: I'd rather do things the easy way than spend a lot of time and money on a theoretical exercise.

The non-Cuban Lukumi community has been around a bit longer and is considerably larger.  There are also a good number of white (or at least light-skinned) Cubans who practice Lukumi and Ifa. So if you wanted to be spared the indignity of working with Cubans - or at least with dark-skinned Cubans - you might be able to do so in the Lukumi community.  That being said, if you regularly attend bembes and public ceremonies for the Orishas you're going to, inevitably, run into Cubans light and swarthy.  In fact, you're going to run into situations where you're one of the only Anglophone people in the room and where most of the conversations are being held in Spanish.  You can avoid this by staying in your non-Cuban house and only learning from non-Cuban people and attending their parties -- although I'd caution you that a good number of those non-Cubans are Hispanic, so you're still likely to have to deal with Spanish-speaking people and maybe even learn a fair bit of another language.  It will be easier to honor the Orishas exclusively with and among white folks than to serve the lwa, but it will by no means be easy.

As far as Santa Muerte or Maximon go, I don't know anyone who is not from Central America working with these spirits - seriously or otherwise.  If you want to learn about them, you're going to have to go to the source.  Or, in a few years, you're going to have to buy a book from some white people who went to the source.  Maybe in a few decades or a couple of centuries there will be lots of non-Mexicans or non-Central Americans working with these spirits.  Here and now you're going to have to find a representative of the culture -- and most likely a non-white representative of the culture, being as how these are folk traditions which are largely practiced among people with indigenous roots.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Thread Ends, Another Begins: Wrapping Up Things with Wade

And Wade said:
Okay, maybe I just wasn't clear what you meant when you wrote "They wanted something more "authentic" than the One-Size-Fits-All reductionist monotheism which uses deities like ethnic decor. But they didn't actually want to deal with brown people to get that authenticity."

What type of authenticity is it that you only get when "dealing with brown people"?

That might be the sticking point we've been hung up on.
I've written a few times on "authenticity" as it relates to the way many European-Americans (let's skip that pesky "white" thing for now) approach African Diaspora religions. They see these traditions as more powerful than their own Neopagan/Hermetic practices. Like Romantics from Rousseau onward, they believe there is a great strength and purity in the ways of the "noble savage." As Norman Mailer said of mid-20th century hipster jazz culture in his essay, "The White Negro:"  

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.
To get in touch with these "existential synapses," they affect the outward trappings of these spooky, exotic outsider magical practices.  It's not enough just to hold a Pagan circle for La Sirene or honor Legba alongside Hermes as an Opener of the Way. They want the Authentic Vodou Experience, the Real Brujeria, the Straight-Up Santeria the way the natives practice it. Like Mailer's hipsters who sought to be "white Negroes," they want to be white Vodou priests and Caucasian curanderos. They want the street cred which comes from working with exotic and spooky magical systems the way the brown people do.

Sorry about bringing in that pesky race and culture thing again, but there's really no way around it.  Because in this case the brownness, blackness, or general "otherness" is part of the appeal: it's what attracts these people to the traditions.  And no, not every outsider drawn to these practices is driven by this - but I've found a pretty fair number who are, and who didn't want to question those motivations and move beyond them.

Speaking further, Wade asked:
"And we would not be particularly sympathetic to those who treated our friends with disrespect and wanted us to create a ceremony which adhered to Haitian protocols but protected their delicate sensibilities from coming in contact with our "scary" or "threatening" Haitian co-congregants. "

What makes you think white people get into African magic-using traditions because they're afraid of black people? That doesn't make any sense.

Doesn't it stand to reason that someone interested in these traditions is going to work with whoever's handy and is willing to work with them? Doesn't it stand to reason that sometimes the most available person might happen to be white? Is it ALWAYS racist?
The question of fear actually makes perfect sense. These traditions are seen as powerful because they are frightening and because the people who practice them are "dangerous."  And for some people their fear of that "danger" outweighs their curiosity about the culture.  (More precisely, they have little or no curiosity about that culture: they just want to get their hands on its magic).  They want to be hip and scary like the brown folks (by which I mean "folks of outsider culture - black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc." The term "people of color" is frequently used as shorthand for these groups but I don't want to get back into that semantic discussion about race, culture, etc. again).

As far as "ALWAYS racist," of course not. As I said, there are several solid, legitimate Vodouisants who are white as the driven snow and who can provide an interested person with an introduction to the lwa.  There are lots of people of non-Haitian descent who are sincerely interested in the lwa and come to the religion with an attitude of reverence and respect.  But if you're going to practice Vodou seriously, sooner or later you are going to have to engage with Haitian people; if you are going to practice Lukumi, you're going to have to talk to a Cuban at some point; if you're going to explore the Cults of Santa Muerte or Maximon, you'll inevitably find yourself talking with someone from Mexico or Central America. 

This is due to several factors, not the least of which being that a lot of the information about these practices is not available in books.  Another is because these initiatory traditions require that one be connected to them at the "root."  They believe there is a tangible charge and change in one's energy signature, ethereal body or what have you when the initiation process is completed - and that this can only come from somebody who already has that connection to the root.  This isn't unique to African Diaspora trads, by the way -- in Christianity it's called "apostolic succession," and similar ideas can be found in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism among other practices.

(And as an added bonus: I've seen quite a few people who approached these spirits with no intention of getting drawn into the culture or into serious work with the tradition discover that the spirits had other plans for them.  When you're dealing with real albeit discarnate beings who have their own ideas and agendas, you can often find they throw you a curve ball. I've seen a few people wind up getting initiated into Vodou, Lukumi or Umbanda because the spirits chose them.  In fact, that's a common occurrence within the cultures in which these traditions originate).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Authentic Vodou and White *ahem* Middle-Class College-Educated European-American Practitioners

On Facebook, the ever-persistent Wade Long said:
Right now I'm just trying to clarify HIS argument. So far he has been unable to convincingly explain why the magic is only "authentic" when nonwhites do it.
I'm also unable to convincingly explain how one can swallow rocket fuel and fart his way to the moon.  Which is why I'd never make such an absurd statement as "[Vodou] is only "authentic" when nonwhites do it." 

Let's look at a quote from "Why I am not a Professional White Vodouisant,"

Since I wrote The Haitian Vodou HandbookMambo Chita Tann and Mambo Vye Zo Kommande la Menfo have also written excellent guidebooks for aspiring Vodouisants. We have all made it clear that while it is possible to honor the lwa and ancestors on your own, you will not be able to get to the heart of Vodou practice without actually joining a société and becoming an initiate (or, at the very least, a regular attendee at fets and public ceremonies for the lwa).
Anyone can serve the lwa and the ancestors privately, regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation.  But there is also a public and communal aspect to Vodou as there is with every other religion.  And to understand that public aspect you're going to have to attend public services. There's nothing saying those services must be thrown by Haitians, or even that any Haitians must attend those services.  But as a practical matter, the vast majority of fets being thrown in the United States today are thrown by Haitians and attended predominantly by Haitians.

Does it have to be that way? Not at all.  It's entirely possible that a non-Haitian Houngan and Mambo Asogwe could hold a fet attended by their non-Haitian initiates and other interested non-Haitians.  The excerpt above mentions two non-Haitian Mambos Asogwe: I'd also point you in the direction of Houngan Asogwe Matt Deos and Houngan Aboudja, both of whom are just as non-Haitian as a certain Houngan si Pwen who has written a few books on the subject. (For that matter, all five of the people I've mentioned above would likely be considered "white" by your average New York cabdriver).  If Houngan Tim Landry is back from Benin, we could add another European-American practitioner of "authentic Vodou" to the mix - so there go any claims of Vodou "only being authentic if non-whites" -- or even non-Haitians -- practice it.

We would need to find a Houngenikon who knew the songs and drummers who knew the appropriate rhythms.  Again, the vast majority of people with these qualifications in the United States are Haitian - but that is by no means a requirement. And while we'd probably have to wind up going to a Haitian marche (market) to pick up some of the necessary supplies, we could definitely use materials purchased on the Internet so long as they were the correct ones.  I've seen Lotion Pompeia, Palma Christi Oil, and various other materials sold online, so that shouldn't be a problem.  So there is nothing stopping us from holding a fet which hewed to the reglamen and served the spirits without so much as a single Haitian or Haitian-American crossing our threshold.

But here's the thing: none of the people I mentioned above would be particularly interested in going through the hoops required to hold this theoretical non-Haitian Vodou ceremony. We would all be more inclined to go to our initiators in the Haitian community and attend services there.  While there is a non-Haitian Vodouisant community, it is still too small to offer the kind of knowledgeable and skilled people we could find by going to our Haitian friends and co-congregants.   And we would not be particularly sympathetic to those who treated our friends with disrespect and wanted us to create a ceremony which adhered to Haitian protocols but protected their delicate sensibilities from coming in contact with our "scary" or "threatening" Haitian co-congregants.  I wouldn't disinvite an African-American friend from my party to mollify a bigot who wanted to attend.  Why would I treat my Haitian friends with any less respect?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wade just keeps on going, and going, and going...

Responding to the several examples of organizations I provided which dedicate themselves to "Black Culture," Wade says:

Wade, Wade, Baby...
"It appears that the phrase "Black Culture" has some meaning to Americans (of color and otherwise) living around the continental United States."

You actually sat down and composed that sentence, and didn't get the hilarious irony of how you essentially just proved my point.

America isn't a skin color. There are black people all over the world who aren't "African American" because they're NOT AMERICAN.

Do you see what I'm saying yet? There might be "Black New England Culture" or "Black Cuban" culture, but there is no such thing as one single monolithic culture that encompasses all human beings with black skin.

I see.  So the Schomburg Center for Black Culture is dedicated to something which doesn't exist. As are the several other organizations I linked to.  Because Wade Long says that "Black Culture" doesn't exist and that "black" is a skin color rather than a culture.  Well then, I guess that clears things up and we can all go home now.

This reminds me of those glorious days in the 1990s when Temple of Set representatives repeatedly claimed that the Church of Satan had been "legally dissolved" by Anton LaVey's Chapter 7 bankruptcy, despite the fact that several representatives from the Church of Satan were posting to the newsgroup where they were making that claim.  Or that Michael Aquino wasn't thrown out of the Army despite losing a lawsuit wherein he sought reinstatement and wherein West's Federal Reporter claimed "he was processed out of the Army."

Apparently if you spend enough time in the ToS you get the idea that you can change objective reality just by repeating things over and over until the universe warps itself to fit your claims.  Seeing as how the Church of Satan hasn't "legally dissolved" yet after going on 20 years, and seeing how Aquino never got reinstated into the Army Reserves, I think we can all see how well that works.  Perhaps next Wade can try holding his breath until he turns blue and see if that will make these various groups change their names to better fit his Subjective Universe.
For example, even your "white knight link" the Schomberg Center, *by its own definition* doesn't even acknowledge that there is any such thing as "black culture". From its page:
"The Schomburg Center promotes the study of the histories and cultures of peoples of African descent and interprets its collections through exhibitions, publications, and educational, scholarly and cultural programs."

"African Descent". No mention of skin color. All races, creeds and skin colors are represented in Africa, K. And they're all different. It's not one single culture. I suppose you just googled "black culture" and took whatever came up, focusing on the nomenclature rather than the spirit of what I last wrote.
ITYM, "doesn't acknowledge that there is any such thing as 'black culture' other than in naming itself  'The Schomburg Center for Research in BLACK CULTURE.'" [emphasis added].
Every single link you posted goes to some reference to black people WITHIN a larger culture. This pretty much underlines exactly what I've been saying.

Thanks for doing the legwork for me.
The definition of "culture" to which I linked in the earlier post also includes this useful paragraph:
The second layer of culture that may be part of your identity is a subculture. In complex, diverse societies in which people have come from many different parts of the world, they often retain much of their original cultural traditions. As a result, they are likely to be part of an identifiable subculture in their new society. The shared cultural traits of subcultures set them apart from the rest of their society. Examples of easily identifiable subcultures in the United States include ethnic groups such as Vietnamese Americans, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. Members of each of these subcultures share a common identity, food tradition, dialect or language, and other cultural traits that come from their common ancestral background and experience. As the cultural differences between members of a subculture and the dominant national culture blur and eventually disappear, the subculture ceases to exist except as a group of people who claim a common ancestry. That is generally the case with German Americans and Irish Americans in the United States today. Most of them identify themselves as Americans first. They also see themselves as being part of the cultural mainstream of the nation.
Red Diaper Jews and Hasidic Jews are both subcultures within a larger "Jewish culture."  Mr. Long seems to have trouble grasping this, but I trust my other readers (with the possible exception of Sith Lord Sean the Vampire Sorcerer) will have no problem with what appears to me to be a relatively simple concept.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From "Melancholia" - the Birth of Electroconvulsive Therapy

Upon seeing the facilities in Ugo Cerletti's Roman laboratory, German histopathologist Franz Nissl reportedly broke into tears and said "Impossible! Why don't you come work with us?" His multilingual former student had studied with some of Europe's finest medical luminaries, including Emil Krepelin (who was the first to describe manic depression) and dementia specialist Alois Alzheimer. But despite offers to work in better conditions, the brilliant neurologist stayed in his home country. His decision paid off. In 1935, after a series of promotions, Cerletti became professor of psychiatry and director of the Clinic for Nervous and Mental Diseases at the University of Rome.

There he continued his research on epilepsy, using electroshock to induce seizures in dogs and then examining their brains for signs of damage. As he read papers on Meduna's convulsive therapy, Cerletti wondered if it might not be possible to use electricity in place of PTZ. Having shocked many dogs, he knew that unconsciousness came almost instantly upon application of current, unlike the horrors of a PTZ seizure. But Cerletti was not sure of the duration and intensity of electricity required to induce a therapeutic seizure in a human patient. The only information available on the subject was less than helpful. The United States had for some time been using an "electric chair" for executions, but the current used was far above anything a doctor might find useful.

Nevertheless, Cerletti continued pondering the idea. When he presented a paper on the possible uses of electricity in convulsive therapy at a 1937 Milan conference, his ideas met little interest. Discouraged but not yet ready to give up, Cerletti and his assistants visited a nearby slaugherhouse which used electricity to kill pigs for butchering. They hoped to determine what it took to kill a pig. But when they saw the electrodes applied to the pig's ears and the switch thrown, they realized that the pig was not dead but merely stunned. When the butcher was delayed in cutting the throat, the pig exhibited all the signs of a grand mal seizure: left alone for a few minutes, it would get up and rejoin its porcine companions.

There was no shortage of pigs at the abattoir, and so Cerletti and his colleague Lucio Bini experimented with exactly how much electricity it would take to kill a pig. In Cerletti's words:
It turned out that the more serious results (prolonged apnea sometimes lasting many minutes and, exceptionally, death) appeared when the current crossed the chest; that this application was not mortal for durations of some tenths of a second; and, finally, that passage of the current across the head, even for long durations, did not have serious consequences. It was found that pigs, even when treated in this last way several times, 'came to' gradually, after a fairly long interval (five to six minutes), then started moving, next made various attempts to get shakily to their feet, and finally ran rapidly to mix with their mates in the pen.
These clear proofs, certain and oft repeated, caused all my doubts to vanish, and without more ado I gave instructions in the clinic to undertake, next day, the experiment upon man.
On April 11, 1938 Cerletti and several assistants attached electrodes to the head of a 39 year-old man. The patient had been arrested at the Rome railway station for boarding the train from Milan without a ticket. When he arrived at the hospital he spoke only in neologisms and incoherent gibberish, making it impossible to determine his identity. Cerletti and his assistants first shocked him for 0.2 seconds with a 70 volt charge: he tensed and began singing but did not convulse. Cerletti ordered a second shock of 110 volts for 0.5 seconds. At this the patient said suddenly, in a low voice, "Not a second. Deadly!" The observers urged Cerletti to reconsider, but he went ahead with the second shock.
The immediate, very brief cramping of all the muscles was again seen; after a slight pause, the most typical epileptic fit began to take place. True it is that all had their hearts in their mouths and were truly oppressed during the tonic phase with apnea, ashy paleness, and cadaverous facial cyanosis - an apnea which, if it be awe-inspiring in a spontaneous epileptic fit, now seemed painfully never-ending - until at the first deep, stertorous inhalation, and first clonic shudders, the blood ran more freely in the bystanders' veins as well; and, lastly, to the immense relief of all concerned, was witnessed a characteristic, gradual awakening 'by steps'. The patient sat up of his own accord, looked about him calmly with a vague smile, as though asking what was expected of him. I asked him: 'What has been happening to you?' He answered, with no more gibberish: 'I don't know; perhaps I have been asleep.'
Medical Experiments Then and Now

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study– where hundreds of poor blacks were given placebos without their knowledge so that doctors could chart the course of untreated syphilitic infection from 1932 to 1972 – have become one of the most infamous and shameful chapters in the history of American medicine. But medical experimentation on human subjects, with and without informed consent, is still being practiced today. No medication can be put on the market without clinical trials to ascertain its efficacy and its safety. Finding test subjects remains a challenge for researchers, and one which they have met in many different – if not always entirely ethical – ways.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, American doctors regularly performed medical experiments on prison inmates. Prisoners were infected with diseases like cholera, syphilis, malaria, ringworm and typhoid fever, then given unproven treatments. By 1972 the American pharmaceutical industry was doing more than 90% of its testing on prisoners. The majority of these plaintiffs were black men who were paid between $2 and $3 a day for "volunteering" for these tests.

Since 1978, Title 45 (the "Protection of Human Subjects" Act) has strictly regulated research on prisoners. But despite this experimentation continues. Between 2006 and 2008, a drug company called Hythian contracted with jurisdictions in at least five different states including Indiana, Washington, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia to enroll criminal defendants in an experimental drug addiction treatment program. As part of this program, state judges “divert” drug court participants, who have been found in possession of drugs, into an experimental treatment program. called Prometa. The program involves thirty days of treatment with three different drugs, none of which has been approved for use in addiction treatment by the FDA.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies have begun outsourcing their research to foreign facilities. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 80 percent of drug approvals in 2008 were based in part on data from outside the U.S: 8% of drugs approved for use in the U.S. were only tested using subjects in foreign nations. In 1997 a series of experiments in 15 African countries tested the effectiveness of the drug AZT in preventing transmission of HIV from a pregnant mother to her child. In this experiment, a "control group" of women were given placebos and the rates of infant infection were compared to those women given AZT. In a highly critical editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Marcia Angell charged "The fact remains that many studies are done in the Third World that simply could not be done in the countries sponsoring the work. It seems as if we have not come very far from Tuskegee after all."

Getting Back to Wade: On Culture

Getting back to our definitions, let's talk about culture.  According to Dr. Dennis O'Neill of Palomar College
[C]ulture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871. Tylor said that culture is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Of course, it is not limited to men. Women possess and create it as well. Since Tylor's time, the concept of culture has become the central focus of anthropology.

In a comment on Google Plus, Wade Long said:
Take all the time you need, K. But it won't change the facts - there is no such thing as "White Culture" or "Black Culture". Those are skin colors.
Allow me to present one of the New York Public Library System's most prestigious collections, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Named after Afro-Puerto Rican scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Schomburg Center contains over 150,000 volumes, 85,000 microforms, 6,000 serials (including 400 black newspapers and 1,000 current periodicals) and over 500,000 photographs, prints and graphics
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research unit of The New York Public Library, is generally recognized as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. For over 80 years the Center has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life, and promoted the study and interpretation of the history and culture of peoples of African descent.
Moving west to Pittsburgh, we have the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture, while the University of Chicago offers A Celebration of Black Culture in Chicago and the University of Southern California has the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs. Going to Amazon, we find (among others) Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to FreedomBlack Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America and The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs, and Stories.

It appears that the phrase "Black Culture" has some meaning to Americans (of color and otherwise) living around the continental United States. Wade may stamp his feet and insist that "there is no such thing as... 'Black Culture,'" until he wears out his shoes, but it would appear that many disagree with his conclusion.

Wade also said:
There IS no such thing as "White Culture", in the sense that all white people are the same in some particular way. Not even here in America.
Whether or not that is true in America, one could question whether it was true of the people at Pantheacon.  They are not only overwhelmingly white, but overwhelmingly middle to upper-middle class, politically liberal and college-educated.  For all Pantheacon's soothing talk about "Unity in Diversity," their attendees are more diverse than a typical fraternity only insofar as they didn't all attend the same college.

Despite claims to the contrary,
Wade is down with cultural diversity.
When I pointed this out I also provided input from some pagans of color as to why they feel shut out of Pagan gatherings. This appears to have struck a nerve with Wade, who seems to think that pointing out the cultural, class and racial homogeneity of the Pagan community - and suggesting that we might use the Pagan interest in various practices like Santeria, Hoodoo, etc. as a way of building bridges between disparate communities rather than simply treating them like a natural resource we can exploit for our own benefit - is somehow "racist." 

Let us assume that a culture is the acquired "knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits" of a particular society or subculture (Dr. O'Neill makes that distinction on his webpage, which is well worth reading).  In doing so we will be in the academic and intellectual mainstream. Should Wade (or anyone else) propose an alternate definition, he would have to provide some compelling reasons why his use of the term was more accurate and compelling than the common use.

Using that common definition, it would only stand to reason that the best way to learn about a culture - and a culture's magic - would be from a member of that culture.  There's nothing racist, classist or ethnocentrist about that claim. If I wanted to learn about ballet, I'd do much better learning from a person who had spent decades practicing the art rather than reading books about the subject or watching Black Swan.  If I wanted to learn how to cook like an Italian grandmother, who could teach me better than an Italian grandmother? And if I wanted to learn how to most properly and effectively work with Santa Muerte, why would I not want to study with a Mexican whose grandmother and great-great grandmother had served her? Why, that is, unless I was frightened or contemptuous of people of color and wanted to practice their cool and spooky forms of magic without actually engaging with them?