Responding to a Dysfunctional Society

what magic is being made behind these mundane doors?

What is the ethical response to a dysfunctional society?  What is the virtuous response?  What is the practical response?

If you’re paying the least bit of attention you know something is badly wrong:  a dragging economy, growing income and wealth inequality, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, resource depletion, endless war, domestic spying, a record prison population, and a Congress that refuses to govern.  You don’t need a master’s degree in divination to see that where ever this is headed, it isn’t any place good.

Seeing what’s wrong is easy.  Figuring out what to do about it is not.  Prophetic witness?  Political action?  Subverting the system?  Rebellion?  Withdrawal?

Earlier this month I reviewed Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey, a book that falls firmly into the rebellion category.  In the review, I said:

If there was any doubt of Grey’s disdain for contemporary society, it was ended when he said “It is time that witchcraft paid the Devil his due.”

I went on to say:

I swim in the same currents as Peter Grey and I’m inspired by Apocalyptic Witchcraft.  Ultimately, though, I’m unwilling to go as far as he suggests.

While at my core I realize that’s the right decision for me, it still bothers me.  It feels like selling out, like clinging to privilege, like collaborating with the enemy.

Last week, Jonathan Korman posted an excellent essay on his Miniver Cheevy blog for National Coming Out Day titled “Queer.”  He said:

I have to confess that I miss the more forcefully “conscious pariah” school of queer theory that I cut my teeth on in the 1990s.

That school argues that one should not say, “Relax, we are not a threat to society.” Rather, say “Hell yes, we are a threat to society, and we should be, because society is wrong.” One should not say, “We are just like you, quiet and monogamous and sweet and safe.” Instead say, “Our very existence is a challenge to a world which deserves to be challenged.”

From that point of view, having bourgeois monogamous married gay couples on sentimental sitcoms is the opposite of what one should be fighting for. That is tame, in every sense of the word.

To borrow a phrase from my Evangelical childhood, that post convicts me.  It’s hard to rebel against something you always wanted.

I think I sometimes paint a too-negative picture of my childhood.  My home life was stable, safe, and generally supportive.  I hated the isolation and the farm work, but I loved the woods.  While school could be stressful – bullying is not a new phenomenon – I was a very good student.  But I knew I was different, and I didn’t see “different” as a good thing.  Those differences were largely centered on where I lived and where I went to church, but there was more, even though I wouldn’t recognize it till much later.  The taunts of “queer!” were more accurate than either the bullies or I recognized, just not in the context they were intended.

I didn’t want to be queer in any sense of the term.  I wanted those differences to go away.  I wanted to live like my friends lived…  or at least like I thought they lived.  I wanted what I saw on TV.  The dream of building an upper middle class lifestyle was my strongest motivation in my teens and early twenties.

I frequently ridicule New Age thought but it has one thing right:  what you focus on you will manifest.  By age 25 my middle class lifestyle was well underway and by 35 I was living pretty much like I had imagined when I was 12.  And while it wasn’t enough to make me happy (that would require a spiritual approach and connecting to something bigger than myself) it certainly removed some old stress.

For all I rant against our dysfunctional mainstream society, I’m part of it, and I benefit from it.  Calls to dismantle it seem a little disingenuous… not to mention impractical, considering how large and entrenched it is.  At the same time, what I wrote in my last post is just as true:  you can dress up like anything you want, but you can only be who you are.  I can’t unsee what I’ve seen and the facts are what they are.  Jonathan Korman is right: this society deserves to be challenged.

A long time ago I was having an informal conversation with my boss.  He was talking about being “edgy” in a business sense, and at one point he said “you like to be around the edge but you don’t like to get too close to it.”  I thought about it, then agreed.  Getting right up on the edge is scary – you might fall off.  Or someone might push you.  I like to stay a safe distance back.

(To my friends and relatives who think I’ve already gone over the edge:  no insult intended, but if you think that you probably don’t know where the edge is.  Some days I’m not sure I do either.)

We need people at the edge: visionaries and radicals who challenge unhelpful and unethical social norms and power structures.  Some of them imagine a better society that can be, while others break the spell of glamoury and show this society in all its ugliness.  If I can’t be one of them, at least I can amplify their signal and spread their ideas to those who need to hear them.

In a Facebook response to Jonathan Korman’s post, Niki Whiting said:

Yes. I am queer. To the casual observer my life looks looks pretty damn heteronormative-breeder-mainstream. Scratch just the tiniest bit below the surface and… oh hell no.

There is value in being a queer presence in a mainstream society.  There is value in being a magical presence in a mundane society.  There is value in being a Nature-worshipping presence in a Nature-exploiting society.  Even if all we can be is a silent presence, we make the world a better place than if we weren’t here.

Every time we make a choice for acceptance instead of exclusion, we make the world a little better.  Every time we make a choice for people instead of things, we make the world a little better.  Every time we make a choice for sustainability instead of extravagance, we make the world a little better.

We can challenge the power structures all we like, but in the end we have to make a living one way or another.  Some of us can live off the grid, but for most of us, a more practical option is Gordon White’s concept of a salvage mission to fund a rescue mission.  By successfully working a professional job, I have the resources to write and teach and travel.

By helping to build strong tribes, I prepare for the day when that professional job may no longer exist.

Is that enough?  Nothing any of us can do on our own is “enough.”  So we do what we can, and we cheer those who can do more, and we support those who can do less.  And in doing so, we make things a little better than they’d be otherwise.

I’m not a queer radical any more than I’m a celebrity-worshipping materialist.  But given a choice – and I do have a choice – I’m playing for the queer radical team.

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  • Dave Scriven

    In the midst of Apocalyptic Witchcraft, and am feeling much the same way, it is challenging. I can tell it tugged at you, and still is. As someone walking a Buddhist path with heavy druid leanings, Its tough to see where little steps like acceptance and sustainability are really going to turn any sort of tide, and I find myself worrying more about me and mine in the midst of what seems surely to come. Do you think you will offer your heirs any different message, or will they be able to conceive anything BUT rebellion and survival in the middle of a govt that is increasingly self absorbed and abusive, and local authorities that seem no longer to protect or serve?

    I think every page of that crazy book has had something of a challenge on it. We may have the luxury of walking within sight of the edge, but those coming after will surely be pushed to the brink of it. I really appreciate your call to amplify the voices of the radicals,but how can we encourage others into places we wont be going ourselves?

    • Dave, you ask very good, very hard questions. The Long Descent will be long, and I hope the slope will be gradual enough that we and our heirs will be able to cope without an inordinate amount of pain. I hope.

      All I can do is all I can do. If I do that, I can die in peace. I’m responsible for my actions, not for the wider results.

  • Mikal

    I’m going through this stage myself at the moment, questioning the usefulness of continuing my involvement in a system that is fundamentally broken by people with no intent to fix it, planning only to get what they can from it before it collapses under it’s own weight. While withdrawal highly resonates with me and I long to return to the life I had growing up on a isolated farm, going hunting and fishing, making all of our own tools, I also have two kids and a wife that need me to continue to keep providing them with a steady income and a stable lifestyle. I feel pulled in opposite directions on a daily basis, and this blog mirrors many of the same feelings I’m currently struggling with. Thank you for writing it.

  • Nathan Boutwell

    What are the Pagan equivalents of “Amen” and “Preach it?” I really needed to read this today. Being a social iconoclast (for many reasons) is tiring, and paddling upstream has made my shoulders ache. Today, I felt like quitting. Then, you posted this and I realized that I can hoist a sail just by changing a few little things in my tiny sphere of influence. Even if it doesn’t cause a ripple effect, it will encourage us to keep moving against the flow. Thank you, sir!

  • M.A.

    Yeah, what you said, and one of the issues I have with Paganism becoming an “accepted” religious path is: then where will the radicals feel welcome? I think, for those of us not willing or able to be really really close to the edge, we can at least provide a sanctuary right up next to it. And I don’t think that’ll get us “accepted” by the manstream.

  • Traci

    ” There is value in being a magical presence in a mundane society.”
    Indeed. This is exactly why I finally added my last name to my articles here at patheos. Here’s to being the change!