17 February 2015

An open letter

To the Mysterious Author who writes the PantyCon schedule:

I have an unsolicited word of advice, in this moment when a lot of people are unhappy with you. I’m going to ask that you do something that probably runs counter to your instincts:


That's a strong suggestion, and both you and the community deserve a clear explanation for why I propose it. That means, I'm afraid, that I must get long-winded in the name of clarity.

(Update: PantyCon apologizes in the comments below this post.)

First, an important aside

As this is an open letter I have a responsibility not only to you but to the other people who may read this. So let me address them for a moment.

For the uninitiated: PantyCon is a faux convention schedule for the big indoor Pagan conference PantheaCon, which was just held last weekend. It is created not by the convention itself but rather by some unknown wag and consists mostly of listings for imaginary talks and classes in the same format as the real convention schedule. It's mostly composed of inside jokes about Pagan culture, ranging in tone from gentle teasing to biting criticism.

Also: I'm going to comment on the “class listing” which many Pagans of Color found hurtful. To do that properly I have to quote it and some other hurtful comments. So to be on the safe side, I want to flag that this means that this letter itself may be painful for People of Color to read. I believe in using trigger warnings sparingly, so much so that I have never used one on this blog before, but in this case I must say: trigger warning for racism.

Okay. That aside done, I return to addressing the Mysterious Author of PantyCon.

What I think you were doing

I’m pretty sure that the criticisms of PantyCon for being racist which some people have been making have surprised and frustrated you.

You’re an ironist, offering an exaggerated funhouse mirror version of Pagan culture’s moments of paradox and pomposity and hypocrisy. You're obviously hoping at least to wring a laugh out of these failings and at best to speak the unsaid, reminding us to try to do better. Irony is a magical technique, speaking words to create change. But it is a wild magic, and it can be hard to control who it burns.

It has slipped out of your control this week, Mysterious Author, and it burned the wrong people.

Let’s look at what you said:

Ignoring Racism: A Workshop for White Pagans
Large Umbrella Pagan Group

Isn’t all this talk of social justice and racism just tiring? Don’t you wish you could just ignore it and put out meaningless statements of pure pablum? We’ll discuss how to ignore requests for consideration by pagans of color, cover up racist actions of high-ranking members, and pretend that you don’t understand the resulting outrage. Remember, #AllLivesMatter, except when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Large Umbrella Pagan Group has been around for long enough that they think that they can get away with this stuff.

It is the ironist’s method not to say outright who they are criticizing. But I am not bound by that stricture, so when I read you mentioning “meaningless statements of pure pablum”, I think of the non-statement Perspectives on Racial Issues in the United States from The Troth and this bowl of mush from the Covenant of the Goddess, a large umbrella Pagan group who have been around for long enough:

We, the members of the Covenant, acknowledge and share the concern that many in our world and within our Pagan communities have voiced regarding inequalities in justice. We find that all life is sacred, and as such, all lives matter.

Today, we the members of the Covenant especially stand together with people who are not privileged by race and class and say to you: Your life matters. We stand with you and work alongside you in ending the systems that disenfranchise you. We encourage and support all efforts by those within our communities to explore the realities of racial inequality and to work to find ways to eliminate these injustices. We hope this will create a wave of introspection and reflection throughout our world, bringing about new levels of understanding and an appreciation for the unique expression of the Sacred we each embody. We stand together with communities seeking nonviolent means of safety and reform, for the unnecessary harm of any person is an affront to the Sacred and is in contrast to our central ethical tenet: An it harm none, do what ye will. May the work we do together today create a peaceful and just tomorrow.

CoG’s statement has received criticism from Pagan commentators like Terence P Ward and Caer for being a grossly inadequate response to the Black Lives Matter movement. I agree with those critics, and I imagine that you do too, Mysterious Author.

I read you as trying, in your “Ignoring Racism” faux talk listing, to add your voice to theirs, criticizing CoG and The Troth and other Pagans like them who have made anodyne statements “against racism” that are so inadequate for this moment that they are ignoring racism, not confronting it. But I'm a White guy, and that informs how I read it.

The problem

The faux class listing was hurtful to some Pagans of Color in several ways.

Whatever your intentions were, many didn't read you the way I did. In the context of a Pagan culture and a conference environment that is all too often unwelcoming at best and overtly hateful at worst, they were too raw and found your joking irony on the subject hurtfully insensitive to their situations and experiences. Some read you as making light of the need to stand up against racism, or mocking it outright.

Pagans of Color have cause to be wary of attention which creates chain reactions of overt racism, microaggressions, and other encounters that make the environment feel unsafe both physically and emotionally.

Some Pagans of Color (especially those new to PantheaCon) could all too easily stumble into reading the faux talk listing in a context that makes it look real.

And even for those who recognized the irony, we are in a moment when too many people have defended unfunny racist jokes as “ironic”, fatiguing patience with “irony” so much that even the clearest imaginable ironist simply cannot portray racism without participating in the machinery of racism themselves. I love the use of irony for critique, but in these times critics of racism must apply not irony but sincerity.

Having seen how deeply this pained people, I am heartbroken. Even if I am right that you intended to speak in the noble tradition of using humor to punch up (at the powerful like CoG and the Troth) rather than down (at Pagans of Color) the fact remains that you have wounded people in the Pagans of Color community, people who deserve a Pagan culture which is much more supportive than it is now.

Social justice practice rightly teaches us that we cannot dismiss responsibility for the effects of our words and actions by pointing to our good intentions.

What I ask of you

I dread a bizarre spectacle of the Pagan community engaged in a witch hunt, devoting more energy to looking for you than to examining the racism of people and institutions who have worse failings and a lot more power and influence than you do.

I doubly dread the prospect of White Pagans looking at what you said, reading it as I did, watching the reaction it has produced, seeing you criticized while CoG remains welcome at PantheaCon, and coming to the exact wrong conclusion — that they had best not engage in discussions of racism at all, lest a misstep make them a target of overwhelming criticism by the community. We need this moment not to chill White engagement in fighting racism in our community.

And worst of all, as someone who has fought to make PantheaCon a force for a more inclusive Pagan community both this year and in the past, I am horrified to see a lot of hard work being undone by your joke. There are a lot of Pagans of Color who see you as demonstrating that they are not welcome in Pagan spaces, demonstrating that their experiences of racism will not be taken seriously. We need in this moment to affirm that Pagans of Color are welcome and will receive the vigorous hospitality of a community dedicated to acting against racism.

You have the power to fix this, and thus you have a responsibility. Now is a moment when we have an opportunity to model the Pagan culture we want. So I encourage you to do the right thing:

Confess to writing the offending passage in PantyCon. Apologize to the community of Pagans of Color for having hurt some among them. Apologize to the Pagan community at large for having made it less welcoming to some among us.

I understand that it's counter to your instincts as an ironist to repudiate the joke, and that it's now risky for you to expose yourself. But you have an opportunity to take a mistake that has weakened our community and turn it into an example that will make us stronger.

Be brave.

My pledge to you

If you make a clear apology — accepting responsibility for harming Pagans of Color without dwelling on justifications — then I will be in your corner. Social justice activists have been clear that though we must work hard to avoid them, mistakes are inevitable, and so we must recover from them gracefully. Do that, and I will turn from your critic to your advocate.

Commentary on this blog post

I hope that other members of the Pagan community will co-sign this letter. Co-signatories need not agree with the letter in every particular, but should at least join me in my pledge. If any Pagans of Color co-sign, I ask that they identify themselves as such.

I am reserving the comment thread on this page for people to join me as co-signatories on this letter; any other comments on this page will be deleted.

But in the hope that this letter will garner comments and criticism, I have created a separate page on my blog for commentary and discussion. I will also try to index every discussion of the letter which I know about on that supplemental page. I encourage folks commenting elsewhere to contact me by email, so that my index can be as complete as possible.

I strongly encourage anyone to repost this letter, in whole and in part, but I ask that all re-posts link back to this page.

Commentary on my PantyCon open letter

I have reserved this page for comments on my long open letter to the author of the PantyCon faux convention schedule, so that the comment thread there can be a place for people to co-sign the letter if they wish. I invite comment here, and if commentators have posts elsewhere — in praise, comment, or criticism — they can email me and I will linkback to their comments on this page.


09 February 2015

Who owns your children?

In the course of a good article about why Republicans seem to be pandering to anti-vaccination people over at the Weekly Sift, I was struck by this little quote from Rand Paul:

The state doesn’t own your children.

At the risk of over-interpreting a short quote, I see a lot going on in that little comment.

First there's the expression “the state”. An ordinary Republican would be more likely to say “the government”. Distrust of the government has been standard issue Republican rhetoric since Ronald “government is the problem” Reagan. Referring to “the state” means the same thing, but Republican politicians tend not to speak that way because of the confusion it generates over how here in the United States of America we have provinces called “states”. Senator Paul is sounding a bit like a political science professor in saying “the state” instead of “the government”, which is a bit odd since it clashes with Republican anti-intellectualism.

What's going on there? Who, other than political science academics, talks like that?


Libertarians like to style themselves deep thinkers about the fundamentals of political theory. (I don't mean that as mockery; libertarians have an enthusiasm for thinking about the fundamentals behind their politics which I think is admirable. I'll get to the mockery in a moment.) So they talk a great deal about the state in the same way that thinkers like Locke and Hobbes talked about the state.

Senator Paul is commonly understood as a libertarian. Maybe he was deliberately trying to dog-whistle to his libertarian fans. But I imagine more likely that he's turned to this question at this fundamental level, using this language, because genuine libertarian thinking surfaces in the way he talks about any number of issues.

And we see that continued in what he says about the state here, that it doesn't “own your children”. There are a few things going on in there.

Who is saying that the state owns your children? Obviously it must be liberals, whom he opposes, suggesting that children should be vaccinated. How does he get there?

Libertarians talk a lot about property rights, who owns what. They generally hold that property rights are prior to government, and that government action is generally either unjustified violence or unjustified theft of something which someone else rightfully owns (which itself is another manifestation of violence, since if one refuses to give the government what it demands it will send people with guns to come get it). To most libertarians, as well as to many movement conservative Republicans influenced by libertarian ideas, “taxation is slavery” because it is the state stealing the fruit of your labor. By their lights, taxation makes us all slaves, owned by the state. So some imagined regulation compelling the vaccination of children is nothing other than slavery by the state advocated by liberals.

Anyone who has talked much with libertarians knows that they aren't just speaking metaphorically. They regard government taxation and regulation with the same moral disgust that chattel slavery deserves, because taxation and slavery are fundamentally the same. (That libertarians saying this have an overwhelming tendency to be White men has implications which I will leave as an exercise for the reader.)

But actually, all that that was not the thing that struck me. What got me was the next thing Senator Paul said.

The state doesn't own your children. Parents own their children.

Wait, what? Parents own their children?

Given what I just said about libertarian understanding of property rights and their horror of being “enslaved”, I would have found that turn surprising had I not read Corey Robin saying:

When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.

You will find Mr. Robin well-represented on my Understanding American Politics index, where there are links to a few of his articles expanding on this thesis that the conservative objection to exercise of power by the state in the public sphere ultimately reflects a protectiveness of the exercise of power in the private sphere.