Challenge Gender Essentialism

My friend Theo has a new blog called Queerwitch, which is well worth checking out. A recent post is a rant (of sorts) against gender essentialism. I whole-heartedly agree with this critique.

If you’re a little lost on what the term means, there’s actually a nice write up here. That author has some great insights about how it affects sexuality and relationships, but gender essentialism can creep into almost everything.


There are so many examples of needless stress on gender identification that we encounter in our daily life. One subject that has gotten a lot of attention lately is the “boys’ toys” vs. “girls’ toys”. It seems pretty obvious to me that you should let your child play with whatever toy interests them, regardless of gender assignment.


Here’s a helpful meme that I stole from somewhere


Why is it that on so many forms, from the vital to the mundane, one of the first questions asked is “M/F”, with no opportunity to avoid answering, or to provide any nuance? I can understand why your doctor’s office may ask – it may be relevant to certain medical conditions – but they should be ready to accommodate an answer that is more nuanced than these two simple categories. But why exactly is this important for a Drivers License or a Sweepstakes entry? Why is it the first question that people ask when someone has a new baby? How exactly is sex/gender important in those situations?


There is a vegan author of some note. I have met her and she is a very pleasant person. I own one of her books. I love that her work is to make veganism more mainstream and accessible. She has a podcast that I started listening to, but I had to stop. Virtually every guest, every person that she spoke about was praised as “a perfect Lady” or “a real man’s man”, or some such gender-based compliment and descriptor. It began to really annoy me. This constant refrain of praise of people because they manifest some type of gendered ideal began to wear on me. If that is so praiseworthy, then isn’t the implication that people who don’t fit into her nice gender roles are somehow less praiseworthy? I’m fairly sure that wasn’t her conscious intent, but the messaging around gender was so persistent.


Even people who should be more aware of gender issues – LGB people, self-described Feminists – do this kind of gender coding and shaming. There’s a horrible meme going around now showing a bearded, plaid-wearing man (a “lumbersexual” in certain circles). The punchline includes something like “if you don’t know how to change a tire, then you have to shave”.


Is Conchita going to change a tire?

I don’t even think that people realize how ridiculous it is that they are somehow offended that some guy with a beard may not fit their expectations of “manly” skills. A skill like changing a tire has absolutely nothing to do with gender and it definitely has nothing to do with facial hair (and frankly it has nothing to do with being a lumberjack). What is the point in policing this?


I have already written about respecting people’s self identity around gender and sexual identity. This is a closely related topic. Trans people frequently deal with gender based shaming and harassment. Some people feel the need to police gender identities and frankly, there’s no real justification other than the harasser’s preconceived ideas and invasive sense of entitlement to pass judgment on others. The issue of public bathrooms can be huge – and not because trans people are causing trouble in any way.


If you are tempted to tell someone to be more “ladylike” or to “man up”. Stop yourself and think. If you are correcting this person, does it have to be about policing their gender? Would that behavior be acceptable in a person of a different gender identity? If the problem really is about behavior and not a gender expectation, then frame the comment appropriately – and fairly. If you are making decisions for yourself or others and you are basing it on “women like this activity” or “men like this activity”, stop for a moment and think. Isn’t it possible that people may have broader interests that aren’t just defined by sex and gender? Do yourself and those around you a favor and let go of those narrow confines.

We Are More than Just “Consumers”

Let me be honest. I may be counterculture in some ways (being Pagan, vegan, etc.), but in some ways I have many of the pitfalls of being a typical American. I don’t exercise enough. I weigh too much. I spend too much. I’m too far in debt. I’m too dependent on electronic gizmos.

I am trying to move my life toward some more sustainable practices. I don’t drive much (I work from home part time and take public transit frequently). I try to recycle trash as much as possible. I had a garden in a neighbor’s yard to start in some way to eat from a very local source and learn the craft of gardening. These are all small steps.

The debt part, sadly, is a big part of the trap. My debt, both consumer credit card debt and my underwater mortgage, means I have very limited opportunities to move, take a lower-paying but more rewarding job, go back to school. I am deep into it in many ways, and every time I succeed in scaling back certain areas of expenses, others go up or I am hit with unexpected expenses, and I have made no progress at all in getting out of debt. This year I will have thousands of dollars in dental costs and car repairs, and those are just the ones I know about.

So this January, being a time for starting anew and establishing new habits, I decided to purchase as little as possible and instead use what I have. This is not as much about self-denial as that may first seem. I have slightly hoarder-ish tendencies around certain things, particularly food. I have a huge amount of food in my freezer and cupboard that have been there too long. Why am I spending money on food when I have plenty at home? I never can go to the store just to pick up the staples, the items on the list. I always walk out with more – an item that’s on sale, or something new I haven’t tried, an ingredient for a recipe that just popped into my head. The stores are designed to make you buy more, and I definitely fall for it.

So a big part of this is that when I ran out of things that seemed like staples, I challenged myself to use a substitute or even rethink my need. I ran out of bread, and instead of buying more, I started baking. I don’t tend to bake yeast bread, so I’ve made muffins and cornbread and various other things. It has all been good – and I like baking. Anything fresh baked in my kitchen is so much tastier and more wholesome than something that I would buy at the store.

On one level, this is a tiny thing – I need to use the perfectly good food that I have instead of buying something else. It betrays my privilege – I have a stockpile of delicious and nourishing food and I feel the urge to buy more – for novelty, for impulse, for some strange satisfaction. But the challenge is the re-training of my impulse, my habit. I must break the habit that tells me that I must constantly buy more. And breaking habits is never an easy process.

A friend of mine recently shared a video by the author and doctor Gabor Maté. He covered a number of topics in the talk, but one part jumped out at me. Here’s a similar quote from him on this topic from the Toronto Standard.

People have a need for meaning and for belonging. But this society defines the value of a human being by how much they can either produce or consume. For all our talk about human values, we don’t really value humans for who they are. We value them for what they either give or purchase.

In other cultures, elders are considered to be people with wisdom, with experience, with a contribution to make. In our society, we don’t talk about elders, we talk about ‘the elderly’ — in other words, we define them by their age. And once they’re no longer either producers or consumers, they lose their value.

That idea that we are valued only for what we consume or what we make to be consumed is a powerful truth that is also repellent – why should that be the definition of our value? But that’s definitely a mindset that we are taught in our culture, and one that I will have to fight against within myself in order to break this habit of just buying – even when I don’t have the money and I don’t need the product. On some level, I see my value as tied up with what I buy. It’s even a common Liberal theme – activist consumerism – buying or not buying things for political reasons. It has a validity, absolutely – it’s better to buy from a company with ethical standards than one that does not. But it can also be a trap that causes unhealthy pressure to spend money we don’t have thinking that somehow we are going to change the world by buying more stuff.

This also goes hand in hand with a thought I have been pondering for a while. I think our current consumer culture is unsustainable, and it will come crashing down. Influenced by the thinking of John Michael Greer, I think about “collapsing now to avoid the rush”. This involves a radical simplification and learning more practical skills for an age when our consumer culture falls apart. I think cooking and gardening definitely fall into this category and I’m glad to be learning more about these all the time. At the same time, I know I’m far too dependent on certain technologies that may become rare and inaccessible when the finite resources and unsustainable processes that prop up our current prosperity fall away.

Of course there’s a strong environmental argument for cutting down on consumption, too. This article appeared recently and has made me think even more about ways to use less and waste less.
“Yes, you recycle. But until you start reducing, you’re still killing the planet”.

So, these different arguments – the environmental, the spiritual value idea from Dr. Maté, and the education for survival ideas from John Michael Greer – they all add up to making me back away from consumerism. They are strong arguments against impulse buying and for making it yourself, being creative and yes, sometimes just doing without. Now to let this all sink in and figure out how to restructure my life with the realization that I am not just a Consumer.

Some thoughts about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix

Between writing about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix on my blog (and dealing with the questions and comments) and meeting some of the Seekers looking at our tradition with their questions, I wanted to address a few misconceptions about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix.

Keep in mind, I am not one of the leaders or founders of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. I am speaking for myself here, and according to my observations. This is not an official Brotherhood statement. I have run these thoughts past some of the other Brothers and they agreed with the ideas presented here.


Is the Brotherhood an ancient tradition?

We are influenced by various traditions and histories. We look to certain spiritual heroes and ancestors. But we do not claim to be inheritors of any ancient lineage. To us, in this time and space, what it means to be a man who loves men is the result of a certain set of cultural circumstances that form our gender and sexual identities. The cultural advantages and limitations of being a “man” do not necessarily translate to other cultures and other times. The cultural meanings of being “homosexual”, “gay”, “bisexual” or “queer” are also specific to this time and this place.

We are an emergent tradition – one that fits a need to serve a specific population. We feel that the binary male-female fertility rites that formed the centerpiece of certain Neopagan traditions do not feel central to our experience. We seek out (and have found) powers and deities that resonate with our own experiences and stages of life.  We are not a Reconstructionist tradition – we realize that those from the past, and particularly those in ancient cultures, would not see or experience deity through the particular lens that we have.


Does the Brotherhood limit member participation in other religious traditions?

I personally know of Brothers who have personal practices that includes Norse, Kemetic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. We have Ceremonial Magicians and those who practice traditional Witchcraft and Hoodoo. We even have those who come to our rituals who consider themselves practicing Christians. Nothing in the Brotherhood requires our participants to renounce or abandon their own beliefs or practices. Since our celebrations don’t tend to coincide with other Neopagan observances, we don’t usually force Brothers to choose between commitments.


Does the Brotherhood exclude participation from friends and visitors?

Yes, we do limit many of our events and membership to the Brotherhood to self-defined “men who love men”. A couple years ago, I discussed my own thought process about this limitation here.

At least twice per year (and likely more often in the future), we invite all people aged 18 and over to participate in our public rituals, regardless of gender or sexual identity, and these rituals are some of our most well attended events. We also do outreach to the larger community. For example, we will be leading one of the public rituals at Chicagoland Pagan Pride this year. We do reach out to a larger community and we are glad to engage in a constructive way with those outside of our group.


Are Brotherhood events a place to hook up?

Brothers and seekers at our events come together for spiritual teaching and experience. We also offer fellowship and some social time – particularly during our potlucks that happen after our public rituals. We offer a place to meet others that you may not encounter otherwise. But the goal is not specifically about dating or sexual encounters. In fact, one of the core values of this organization is that we see value in one another beyond dating and outside of the often competitive and objectifying world of sexual desirability.

This is not to say that dating and sexual partnering doesn’t happen – it does and we don’t have any rules against it. We don’t exclude it. But it is not the purpose of the gatherings or the Brotherhood.


Will the Brotherhood be my new best friends?

You will probably meet some people at Brotherhood events that are not like people you would meet in other contexts. They are interested, or at least open to, Neopagan spirituality. Some of them will be free-spirited and quick to encourage and show affection. Some of them may have quirky commonalities with you. But remember that here, just like anywhere else, true friendship must be earned.

If you approach with an open heart and a willingness to be honest and share, you will be in a better place to allow bonding to flourish. But remember that we are all individuals with our own interests, tastes, commitments, tolerances, and sets of existing friends. Friendship bonding outside of Brotherhood events may not happen.


If you want to see what the Brotherhood is, please visit our website, our Facebook page, attend one of our events, and check out our blog posts featuring writing by Brothers. Feel free to reach out to us with questions. But mostly, we encourage you to come to one of our public rituals, if you are able (posted on the webpage and Facebook). The experience that we create will be the most powerful statement about who we are and what we do.

Manifesting the Elder – Brotherhood of the Phoenix

A feature of the public rituals of the Brotherhood of the Phoenix is when one of the Brothers manifests one of the eight faces of the Queer God. Earlier this month, for the first time, I was the one who took this role. It was a big step for me, and one that only came after training and preparation. Eight months ago, I said it was something that scared me – both in terms of having the God speak through me and being the center of attention in that context. As it turned out, the former was a great help with the latter, since the presentation was not entirely “me”. I felt suffused with the calm energy of the Elder, which guided me through it.

The whole thing went surprisingly well and the message was well received by those who attended. I wrote up some of the presentation, which is now shared on the Brotherhood’s website.

Reflections of the Elder

A Year of Moving Forward – 2015 in Review

2015 brought many new experiences and growth in my spiritual path. I waded into new territory in many ways, and in a few cases, I waded back out again. For the most part, it was a year of growth and accomplishment.

I have continued to grow in my involvement in the Brotherhood of the Phoenix. In March, I joined the Council of Guardians for the Chicago Temple, specifically in the role of Warder. I am a part of the decision-making body for our local group and it gave me a role in rituals as well. I am the contact for those seeking initiation to become Brothers, and while I did not complete any initiations yet, I will be handling my first group soon.

I also took two different classes to learn new roles in Brotherhood rituals. I am a Celebrant and I have also been studying to manifest the Gods of our order. Every step of these processes has been fascinating and challenging and have brought me growth.

In my role as a volunteer at my alma mater Macalester College, I was the spark some time ago that caused our second Scots Pride LGBTQ Reunion, the first to take place as part of the regular Reunion. I was so thrilled that it came together and that it will be a periodic part of the Reunion, probably on a 4-year cycle. We had Andrea Jenkins, a poet, powerful speaker, and Trans woman of color activist, as our keynote speaker. We also had several panels and social outlets.

One of the panels was an interfaith panel about LGBTQ spirituality. This was the first time I ever spoke publicly about being Pagan to a group consisting primarily of non-Pagans. It was really ground-breaking for me in this way. It was a very supportive and open audience to my story and perspective, so it was a good experience.

Just this past week was another breakthrough in being on Magick Radio Chicago, talking about Veganism and Spirituality. Again, this was a kind of speaking that is not at all familiar to me. I think it went well. (You can judge for yourself by listening here)

Speaking of veganism, I started a vegan food blog in January called Hearty Vegan Cooking. “What’s this, you say? You never talk about that.” Well, I did it, and after a few months of working pretty hard on it and getting a tiny number of views, I realized that what I was doing there was not worth my time and effort. I was taking a lot of photos during the cooking and baking process to try to make it visually interesting and informative for those who may not be experienced cooks. This meant a lot of managing a camera while cooking, as well as editing and posting the photos themselves as part of the blog. I began to realize that what I was doing was somewhat unique, but not in a way that was going to drive a lot of viewers.

I write this Looking for Wisdom blog for myself, in a way (although I’m always glad to have readers), but that blog was meant specifically to attract viewers and it just wasn’t happening among all the other interesting vegan food blogs already out there. So, I have basically abandoned Hearty Vegan Cooking. The content I created is still there and will be for a while, but I haven’t added new content for months. Frankly, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

So, finally, this blog! I think I have created some interesting content over the past year. Some has attracted some attention. Some of it has succeeded in being the kind of thoughtful commentary that I strive for. Some of it may have fallen short. I am glad that it has given me discipline about writing regularly. It has allowed me to think through some topics that may be of interest. I hope that you, as readers have enjoyed some of it. I’m going to count it as a success.

As we, Janus-like, look both backward and forward, I want to thank you for reading my thoughts in 2015 and wish you all the best in 2016.

On the Radio, talking Veganism and Spirituality

Hello, friends

I just wanted to share with you that I was on Magick Radio Chicago on Saturday evening, talking about Veganism and Spirituality and covering some of the themes I have discussed here on this blog.

I was very pleased to be invited to join the show by Bishop Lainie Peterson, a local Gnostic bishop. I think it was a good conversation, even if I am not really used to speaking in this sort of context.

It is available in podcast form now. Just click on the link below:

Magick Radio Chicago Episode #62

Terra Mysterium’s A Midwinter’s Mummers Tale

I have just returned from another marvelous show by my friends at Terra Mysterium. I have written before about how much I love this company, which makes theatre based on Earth mysteries, often with a Steampunk edge.

The play, which only ran this weekend, is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with a number of transformations. This is not a historical version of Victorian England. The names have been changed and some genders have been switched. Women own successful businesses and same-sex couples don’t merit any particular comment. And Christianity is not the dominant religion of the land. English folk traditions and pre-Christian religion is more the norm in this version of the 19th century.

This kind of revision is perfectly in keeping with my thoughts about Paganism and Steampunk – we don’t need to “follow the book” and we are free to take the parts of history that create a new culture and reject the prejudices and close-mindedness of the past.

Esmerelda Pennywise is our transformed Scrooge, and Deb Miller plays this complex character wonderfully. She is the anchor to the show. Miller is an accomplished actor, who plays 19th century women including Mary Todd Lincoln, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott to groups at libraries, schools and historical societies throughout the year. She has an imposing stage presence and voice, perfect for portraying both the bitter and miserly character at the beginning and the expansive, transformed version of Esmerelda at the end.

Keith Green, a founder, writer and regular on the Terra Mysterium stage, plays the cunning man Thomas Owen Morgan, who seems to set the ghostly visitations in motion after Pennywise’s hard-hearted response to a plea for help to those in need. Following the model of Dickens’ original, the first visitor is her former business partner, bound by the chains of his missed opportunities to help others. The next three have a flavor of pagan divinity.

The Trickster reveals Pennywise’s past – showing times when money was scarce, but joy abounded. We also glimpse a love match that ultimately couldn’t compete with her business ambitions. The ebullient Holly King shows Pennywise a peek inside the vivid lives that are going on around her – the happiness and the sorrow – that she may reach out and experience. The Dark Mother shows a grim future – a gravestone and an unmourned passing of a difficult woman.

Of course, Esmerelda awakens a transformed woman, and rushes to make right some of her wrongs and connect to those who would welcome her into their fold. The story is full of charming and heartfelt moments. The breakup scene from her past and her clerk’s family struggling with a child’s illness should bring a tear to the eye of nearly every audience member.

Woven into the storytelling are music and wonderful folk traditions based on wassailing and mumming traditions from the British Isles, including the appearance of the Mari Lwyd. Some songs were familiar (like the Gloucestershire Wassail) and others less so. The set was minimal, with projections and a few pieces of furniture helping to establish the scenes, but the costumes brought a reality flavored with history and a bit of magic.

You may wonder why I am writing up a full review of a show that just closed. Well, there’s some good news there. The company plans to mount the show again in future years, making it a kind of Yuletide tradition.  It is well worth a re-staging, and deserves a larger audience. My friends at Terra Mysterium have succeeded again at creating entertainment laced with Pagan content, but accessible to a general audience.


A Dark Goddess in the Trees

It was the Winter Solstice, I was home on winter break during my sophomore year in college. I was still learning to create a life that was different than the one my family and schools had dictated. I had become more open about who I was, created a life that had nothing to do with my childhood home.

I went for a walk alone in the neighborhood where I grew up. A few blocks from our home, there was a cemetery called Valhalla. It was a modest affair, in spite of the rather grand associations of the name. It is the kind of cemetery where most of the headstones are flat to the ground so they can just mow right over them. There was a section in the back that was undeveloped and unused. It was an empty field with a chain link fence on 2 sides and a line of trees separating it from the main part of the cemetery. The ground was rutted and uneven, the grass was scrubby and there were a few scattered trees and shrubs. Since it was December, it was all brown and leafless.

As I walked into the field and farther from the streetlights, I began to feel a presence in the trees. There was a woman – an older woman in a dark, hooded cloak. She didn’t speak, but I understood that she was communicating with me. She was letting me know that she was there. That she would always be there. Always watching. Always knowing. Always waiting.

I did not know her name. I did not know what she was there to show me. She was a presence in the dark, just beyond my reach. She felt like a strange dark comfort, a point of knowledge of something hidden, a fascinating mystery. With the Pagan readings I had done at the time, I thought of her as The Crone – one of the faces of the three-fold Goddess archetype. But in retrospect, and to my current way of thinking, she seemed more real, more concrete than an archetype. She was a Goddess, but one I wasn’t ready to know.


For my first year and a half in college, things had gone pretty well. I had come out as gay and felt the support of my college community. I had kept up well in classes, and I was fascinated by the study of eco-feminist philosophy under my first-year advisor Karen J. Warren. I had a number of great friends there.

But I was cracking, and I knew it. I had a desperate restlessness. I had begged my parents to help me take a semester to move to the UK and work. I had found a program where I could get a short-term work visa. I just needed them spend some of the money that they would have spent on my college expenses to get a plane ticket and some initial living expenses. They were against it entirely, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But they didn’t know that I was cracking. Something was going wrong in my head, and I wanted to try something radical to try to shake it off. In retrospect, traveling to a different country and being in unfamiliar surroundings probably wouldn’t have helped, but I wanted to try something, anything to shake it up.

What was coming was that I was about to have the first of several deep depressive episodes that I experienced during my college years. It was the kind of depression that caused me to sleep 20 hours a day for a month, lose touch with friends, and fall disastrously behind in my classes. I had no idea at the time, of course. I had never experienced anything like that before that time. I still have no idea why it happened then, and several more times over the next few years. I have a couple theories, but they are really only guesses.

As you may know, depression is not “feeling sad”. In the depths of it, it’s not feeling anything. Music isn’t enjoyable. Food is not interesting. Friends don’t seem important. Friends who desperately try to “cheer you up” seem irritating. And for me, I was tired, overwhelmingly tired. I slept long hours, got up, showered, unenthusiastically ate a little something, and then went back to bed. Nothing engaged me. Nothing brought me out of it.

When I finally started getting myself back, I realized everything that I had neglected had turned into a serious problem. I was in trouble in all my classes. Many of my friends were angry with me for my neglect and rude avoidance. Fortunately, I was living in college housing, so paying bills and such weren’t an immediate problem. I was still not quite right, and not feeling capable of digging myself out of the hole I had dug. I tried to reengage in my classes, but didn’t have much experience with being a struggling student. I had always been a good student, or at least a competent one. I really didn’t know how to recover when I had messed up. I tried to revive friendships, but some relationships never recovered.


Before that time, I thought I knew darkness. I even thought of it sometimes as friendly, useful. I had lived so much of my life not revealing myself, allowing myself to be a mystery to people. I knew cynicism, I knew that the world was full of lies and betrayals. I knew that people’s generosity had a limit, and even those who seem kindhearted could harbor prejudices. I thought I understood the world.

Of course there was so much more to learn, and much of it through painful experiences. The bouts of depression were bad. It took me a couple years of delay and some significant maneuvering to finish my degree after the academic challenges it created. Then, my parents began to experience health problems. My father had a heart attack and bypass surgery. My mother began her slow steady slide which eventually ended with her death. Financial setbacks and some unlucky choices also have challenged me.

I have come through it transformed in many ways. I have gone from being an extrovert to being very introverted, or put differently, from being dependent on the presence of others to being happy with my own company. I have rediscovered my spirituality, and as this blog attests, I have been growing and exploring that path. I have been shaped by dark forces, as I think we all are.


I still wonder what that Goddess wanted, what she wanted me to hear that I was not ready to hear. Perhaps she appeared as a warning of things to come, a warning that I could not understand. Perhaps she was trying to see if I was someone who could do her a service. Perhaps I was just randomly stumbling upon a place of the dead on the darkest of dark nights and I glimpsed a rare gift from the divine.

She touched me, though, in ways I don’t entirely understand. Until a few years ago, that night was one of the closest brushes I had with a divine presence, and it opened a door within me. It took me years to walk through it, though, and accept my relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. Perhaps I still don’t truly understand what it brought and what it will mean.

I am not really interested in Islam, however…

I am a polytheist. Not all people under the “Pagan Tent” are, but I am. The idea of a unified godhead seems intuitively wrong to me. There is nothing that I can see or have experienced that implies a single intelligence that controls the universe, the earth, or even the project of being a human. There are multiple powers that are greater than humans, and they may or may not work together. I see the spiritual world as a complex swirl of interactions between powers, large and small. Think of one of those giant dynamic weather maps of the world, where storm systems and pressure cells interact and combine to form constantly changing conditions. Some areas get slammed and others stay calm, and tiny variables can set off a whole chain of events. No one is “in charge”. Everything is in flux.

The idea of an all-powerful, beneficent God is fraught with major logical contradictions to anyone who is paying attention. The idea of a single book, or set of books, as “the word of God” is deeply problematic. Books in particular, and language in general, are culturally specific. Without negating the power of a message given by a particular writer or prophet to their audience, they can hardly be expected to provide precise advice and messaging to people in other cultures and in other times, facing specific problems the prophet couldn’t even imagine.

As someone who was raised in a monotheistic religion, namely Christianity, and who moved away from it, I really have no interest in spending time learning about any monotheistic religion at this point in my life, particularly not one that 1.) is based on everyone following one text, 2.) compels people to proselytize, 3.) rejects my identity as a man who loves men, and 4.) treats women as a secondary class, prohibited from equal opportunity with men.

Further, I will not put myself in the position of defining or defending Islam, whether to Christians or Atheists. It is not my place to inform people that “Islam is about peace” as the decidedly non-Muslim President George Bush once did. I am not the person to define the purpose of Islam or the goals of Muslims, whether in this country or in another.


I do not think that Islam is significantly worse or more dangerous than other forms of monotheism. It includes a broad range of people with a broad range of beliefs, most of whom are simply interested in pursuing their own interests with their own families and friends. In terms of proselytizing, they are far less aggressive around here than the Christians. Within the last week I had two different people attempt to engage me in conversations about the Bible. I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen with Muslims and the Koran, and yes, there are Muslims in the area where I live.

Islam is traditionally hostile to LGBTQ people, treats women unequally, allows slavery, and has aggressively converted people, even with the threat of death. Every single one of these is also true of Christianity. Of course, many self-professed Christians today in America don’t endorse any of these traditional views. The same can be said of many Muslims.

If Islamic groups from around the world consider the United States and Western European powers evil, that has everything to do with our foreign policy and very little to do with religion. For many decades, the United States has been playing chess games in the Middle East, supporting oppressive and unpopular regimes, toppling other regimes and leaving power vacuums filled by warring factions that destabilize areas. We are pulling strings and sending bombs and then we’re surprised when the people on the ground living with the results resent us.

But for those living here, one of this country’s greatest strengths is the Freedom of Religion. As a member of a small minority religion, it is extremely important to me that this freedom applies to all, and not only to certain Christian sects. The rights to believe in varied religious traditions (or none at all) and practice religious rites within the confines of the private spaces are and should remain protected. No government, Federal or local, should favor one religion or exclude any one religion in terms of participation or benefits.

We should be free to display religious symbols on private property and wear religious symbols and dress on our bodies without being harassed or attacked. No books should be banned based on religious beliefs.

And specific to recent proposals that are being discussed in our political sphere, there should be no religious test for immigration or asylum seekers into this country. There should be no religious registry based simply on religious belief.

I am not interested in Islam for myself, but I will defend the rights of Muslim Americans and those of any tradition to live without any extra restrictions and persecutions in this country. The increase in harassment and physical violence against Muslims (or people perceived as Muslim, even if they aren’t) in the country is alarming and should be confronted wherever it happens.

Nostalgia and the Problems of the Past

I don’t recall where I first heard it, but there is an idea that all nostalgia is basically racism. As someone who indulges in various forms of what may be called nostalgia, I took this personally and had to ask myself some serious questions. I dress in neo-Victorian/Steampunk style with several groups of friends. I read a lot of “classics” – set in the 18th and 19th century. I am endlessly fascinated with ancient Rome and love to read about Roman religion and daily life. I listen mostly to classical music and opera, much of which was written over 100 years ago. And yes, I love “period dramas” in film and television with gorgeous costumes and sets from another era.

So yes, I was a bit touchy when many of my interests were all called racist.

A recent poll sparked some particularly topical versions of this question about nostalgia. This piece in the Washington Post by Janell Ross hit some of the themes that I am talking about. Another piece by Kali Holloway of Alternet hit many of the same themes.

The nostalgia part is a poll question asking if American culture had changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950’s. Around half of Americans, and 57% of white Americans believe that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950’s.

Taken on its own, the ways in which American culture has changed are myriad, and some of these are definitely not for the better. I don’t personally think of the 1950’s as an ideal time by any means, but I can think of a number of ways in which our culture is worse.

Since the 1980’s, news sources no longer have a legal obligation to tell the truth, which has caused a proliferation of opinion sold as news and downright lies in the mass media. Our food culture is dependent on fast food, packaged food, and junk food – packed with sugar and sodium and lacking in many healthy nutrients. Americans cook very little and are not well informed about nutrition. Compared to the 1950’s, the last few decades have shown increasing violence in much of America. It has varied – spiking in the 1980’s, declining somewhat in the 1990’s, and increasing again in recent years.

And this doesn’t even touch on cultural things like taste in music, film or television, where some people’s preferences may run toward those popular in the 1950’s. That is largely personal taste, though.

But there has been obvious and huge improvements in American culture – racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation that was the rule of the land in the 1950’s changed, through the Civil Rights movement, the legal changes of the 1960’s and the gradual, but significant moves of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans into greater visibility and power in our cultural life. I am not saying that there is true equality – certainly there isn’t – but as an example, African American visibility in politics, media, sports, and many other areas has increased dramatically for the better. There is greater gender equality in employment and in many areas of culture. There has been a dramatic improvement in the legal status and cultural attitudes around LGBTQ people.

So, how the question is answered really depends on what aspects of culture are foremost in the minds of the person answering the question.

Janell Ross links this question to another question on the poll and uses this link to indict white American’s nostalgia. The other question whether discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against other blacks and other minorities. Around 60% of white Americans said yes.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this one. There is no widespread discrimination against white Americans. I think that the American middle and working classes have seen a disintegration of opportunity overall in the past couple decades. Well paid manufacturing jobs are very difficult to come by due to a combination of products being manufactured in other countries and the erosion of the power of labor unions. Median household income has slid downward in the last decade, even as the politicians and media are touting the economic recovery. The stock markets are high and unemployment is down, but the quality and pay of jobs is lower. The recovery has been for the rich and not for the middle or working class. So the pie, so to speak, has been shrinking, and yes the proportion of opportunities for African Americans and other minority groups have improved. But this doesn’t add up to discrimination against whites. It means white Americans are getting a more equitable share of a shrinking set of opportunities.

I have seen this nostalgic link that Janell Ross is making. Even in the mid-1990’s, when I was newly graduated from college and it seemed like 90% of my friends were working at temp jobs with no benefits and no security, I had older people tell me “there was a time when a bright young man like you could write his own ticket, but not anymore.” Implied was that I was a young WHITE man, and that I had to compete with women and people of different racial and ethnic minorities. But I do not long for a time when things would be given to me simply because of my race and sex. That is just discrimination.

So yes, I agree that there’s a kind of racist nostalgia that happens among white Americans. I also see that certain troubling populist politicians are using themes like “make America great again!” play into this and have a racist undercurrent. When Donald Trump is talking about making America great, he’s also calling for a registry of Muslims and calling Mexican immigrants rapists. He is not appealing to some ideal of American pluralism. He’s appealing playing on white American fears of those different from them and linking it to the real experience of loss of economic opportunity.

But I don’t think that nostalgia necessarily comes with that baggage. Janell Ross states something that points to where nostalgia and racism can split and don’t necessarily mean the same thing. She states:

Yes, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that life in America before the advent of the cassette tape, the ATM, IVF, the hand-held calculator and the bar code was better than it is today. Apparently life was very good for these Americans, when segregated public facilities were a legal requirement in the South and Southeast and a social norm in many other places. Most people of color could not obtain credit or a loan from most “mainstream” banks.

And here we have a link being made between the technology or fashions of an era and its moral failings. This is a common habit, and it’s completely nonsensical. Somehow cassette tapes and bar codes furthered the cause of racial equality? Of course not. Are poodle skirts and cars with tail fins necessarily linked to segregated drinking fountains? The question is absurd.

John Michael Greer, one of my favorite bloggers addressed this sort of question recently in a couple blog posts here and here where he brings up how inflamed people become when someone chooses to opt out of some currently popular technology.

Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today?

John Michael Greer advocates specifically for all of us to step back from our dependence on every new and energy intensive gadget and to learn skills and habits that will help us in a coming period of energy scarcity. I agree with this thinking and I am trying to move my life in this direction (which I am finding a challenge in many ways).

But I also am a fan of taking inspirations from the past and recognizing in a clear-eyed way that we don’t need to adopt the social attitudes and blind spots of prior eras along with their technology or styles. I wrote about that with regard to Steampunk a couple years ago and I firmly believe it today. If we want to learn to bake like our great grandmother or retell grandpa’s stories, that doesn’t mean that we need to agree with the social attitudes of their day. Racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ attitudes, intolerance of those who have different languages or religions – these are all things that don’t deserve our nostalgia and we can leave them in the past.