I Shall Study Poetry and Music

I Shall Study Poetry and Music February 26, 2022

In a 1780 letter to his wife Abigail, future U.S. President John Adams famously said:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

Adams’ words are the prayer of a good parent and a good ancestor. They reflect a commitment to do what must be done to build a better world for those who come after him, a hope that his children will do the same, and a dream that the generations who follow will have lives that are easier, more secure, and ultimately, more fulfilling.

John Adams, 1735 – 1826. Painting by Asher B. Durand – public domain image

It took more than Adams’ three generations, and the work is not yet finished. But we have reached a point where we regularly tell our children – and ourselves – “follow your bliss.”

Some find their bliss in studying poetry and music. Some find it exploring the depths of who and what they are. And others find it in studying the systems and structures that diminish opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – so those systems and structures can be improved.

These pursuits anger some people. Not because there aren’t enough people left to study commerce and agriculture. Those fields are the bliss of many. Nor is there any shortage of those who wish to study politics and even war.

No, these people are angry that anyone would devote their lives to something as immaterial as poetry. They’re angry that some explore their depths and in doing so find something that doesn’t look like what they were always told things are supposed to be. And they get very angry when someone tells them the systems and structures that have supported them – more or less – need to change because they’re harming others.

And so they attack those who are following their bliss. Sometimes they attack with words. Sometimes they attack with laws. And sometimes they attack with guns and tanks.

Three different events – one common thread

Three things hit me hard last week. I suspect they hit most of you as well.

  • The Governor of Texas declared that providing gender affirming medical care to trans kids is child abuse, and he ordered state agencies to investigate it as such.
  • Russia, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, launched a military invasion of Ukraine.
  • Former President Donald Trump praised Putin, saying “this is genius … he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart. He’s taking over a country – really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.”

These three events are not remotely the same. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of unprovoked war that has already killed hundreds and will likely kill thousands, and will oppress millions of Ukrainians for years to come. So far Greg Abbott’s proclamation is campaign bluster, but it has the possibility to harm many. And while Trump’s words are inappropriate and offensive, that just means it’s a day ending in Y.

But there’s a thread running through all three, a thread that says studying poetry and music is decadent and weak and no one should be allowed to do it.

A would-be Holy Roman Emperor

I haven’t said much about the Ukraine situation so far. Mainly, that’s because I haven’t had anything to say about it, other than “Putin is evil” and “I’m not willing to sacrifice one American life to stop him.” Others have done a far better job than I can of explaining the geopolitical reasons why Putin did this. And make no mistake: this is primarily driven by geopolitics.

But as I was reading about Putin, I was reminded that he is a strong supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. This 2019 piece from the conservative Heritage Foundation is skeptical about Putin’s faith – they see it as a “charade” and “calculated for political effect.” But this piece from last week by Anglican priest and journalist Giles Fraser goes into more depth. Fraser says “Putin regards his spiritual destiny as the rebuilding of Christendom, based in Moscow.”

This has nothing to do with saving souls or with spreading the gospel. It has to do with promoting authoritarian culture and politics, and opposing the “decadent West.” Fraser quotes Putin:

We see many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.

A hero of the culture warriors

That makes Putin popular with some in this country. In the Heritage Foundation piece, writers Alexis Mrachek and Shane McCrum say:

Putin has cleverly cast himself as a belligerent in the culture war. In doing so, he has appealed to some conservatives in America who have grown skeptical of the liberal democratic tradition inherited from the Enlightenment, which they believe contains the seeds of America’s spiritual and cultural demise.

Putin has set himself up as a defender of traditional morality – for instance, by opposing homosexuality, penalizing divorce, and supporting the “traditional family.”

Putin wants to keep Ukraine out of Western influence in part because he doesn’t want “decadent Euro-Atlantic values” on his doorstep.

You can’t get much more decadent than Donald Trump, but Trump admires Putin as a strong leader – and he wishes he had Putin’s unchecked power.

Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump – the most un-Christ-like President in our history – because they saw him as the strong authoritarian leader they always wanted. And they liked his rhetoric of law, order, and conservative social positions. They expected he would keep people from studying poetry and music – and he would protect his Evangelical voters from having to see it or hear about it.

The right of states to force cultural conformity

Last week I expressed my frustration with people (like the Texas Governor) who want to take the country back to the 1950s – and in some cases, back to the 1850s. No, nobody’s advocating a return to slavery (though I’ve seen some in the past who have) but they are trying to return to a pre-Civil War understanding of “states’ rights.” As always, the real question is “the right of states to do what?”

The primary driver of this regressive movement is not that people are economically vulnerable. And it’s certainly not that they’re oppressed for their religion or culture. Christianity still dominates the culture – Christian holy days are government holidays. There is no forced abortion in this country. No one is forced to marry anyone, much less someone of the same sex. If your gender identity matches what you were assigned at birth, congratulations – the world is all set up for you.

But that’s not enough for the regressives in our society. They insist that everyone must look like them, speak like them, worship like them, and live like them. It’s not enough that they don’t have to study poetry and music – they think no one should study poetry and music.

The limits of our power

An old bumper sticker says “if you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” A more modern meme says “my desire to stay informed is at odds with my desire to stay sane.” Outrage is unhealthy. It is only useful if it motivates us to do something to change the situation.

But what can we do?

I can do nothing to stop Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. History has shown that when imperial powers involve themselves in local and regional conflicts, it usually makes things worse, not better. I do not argue that NATO should intervene militarily.

I can vote against Greg Abbott, Ken Paxson, and other regressive politicians. I can give money to their opponents (and I will once the primary and any runoffs are over). I can use my writing as a pulpit to encourage others to do the same. But I am one vote out of millions, my bank account is modest, and my influence on others is small.

Accepting reality means understanding that cultures change at their own pace, and that change is not always in the preferred direction. We cannot control change.

But we can influence it.

We can influence it simply by being who we are, and by helping others be who they are.

We can influence it by studying poetry and music.

Dispatches from the front

I don’t know how you can have a heart and not be impacted by the evils of the world. I’ve seen some people saying “millions die – what makes this special?” We care about what we care about – that’s part of what makes us human. By all means, raise awareness and inspire action where you think it needs to be. But don’t try to tell others they shouldn’t be impacted by these injustices and deaths.

And given that we’re impacted by them, we have to decide how to respond: what are we going to do, here and now?

At the same time, we are not the main characters in this story. Let’s hear from some of them.

Here’s a brief story about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He earned a law degree, but then became a comedian and TV producer. He played the President of Ukraine on TV for four years, then ran for the real office – and he won. And now he’s face to face with an invading superpower, stands a serious chance of death or imprisonment, and he’s leading his country with honor and dignity.

When 13 Ukrainian soldiers on a tiny island in the Black Sea were given an ultimatum by a Russian warship, their response was “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The Russians killed them They were captured after firing all their ammo but they have achieved immortality: they will be remembered forever.

Here’s a Twitter video of a Ukrainian woman telling Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets, so the Ukrainian national flower will grow “when you all lie down here.” She tells them “from this moment, you are cursed.” Witchcraft at its finest.

And from closer to home

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot joined four other Texas district attorneys in refusing to enforce Greg Abbott’s directive on medical care for trans kids. He called the pronouncement “un-American” and “a continued onslaught on personal freedoms.” He promised “we will enforce the Constitution and will not irrationally and unjustifiably interfere with medical decisions made between children, and their parents, and their medical physicians.”

And finally, here’s a local TV news report featuring Amber and Adam Briggle, parents of a trans boy, who are threatened by Governor Greg Abbott and State Attorney General Ken Paxson. In 2016 they invited Paxson to dinner in their home, to get to know them and to see for himself that they were doing the best for their son. The dinner was polite and pleasant – and then Paxson went back to harassing trans kids.

The Briggles are fellow Denton UUs. I’ve watched their son grow up. I know his story – he’s an ordinary kid who just wants to be the boy he is. When transphobes and other regressives call gender affirming care “child abuse” I know they’re wrong, because I’ve seen the results with my own eyes.

I shall study poetry and music

So here we are. Now what shall we do?

I’ve made a living studying mathematics and commerce. For the past 20 years I’ve built a life studying poetry and music. More literally, I’ve built a life practicing my Pagan and polytheist religion, and then writing about it for anyone who’s interested.

I’ve encountered surprisingly little resistance. I’m not naïve – much of that is because I’m a straight white cis man with a middle class job. And also, because Pagans are pretty far down the regressives’ enemies list. But we are on the list.

And I can’t get rid of the list, or erase any of the names on it.

Reality demands that I accept the limits of my power. Integrity demands that I not give in to the authoritarians and culture warriors, or the would-be Holy Roman Emperors.

And so I will defy them and study poetry and music, as deeply and authentically as I can. I’ll do my best to support others who do the same – whatever “poetry and music” means for them.

It’s not much. It’s not leading the defense of a country or raising a trans kid – or being a trans kid. But it’s what I can do, it’s what I’m called to do, so it’s what I will do.

And if that manages to annoy Vladimir Putin and Greg Abbott and their supporters, so much the better.

For another take on the religious side to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, see Next year in Kyiv? by Diana Butler Bass.

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