McCartney the Pagan?

Dear readers: The political landscape in the United States is so disgusting right now, with my former state of Massachusetts electing as U.S. Senator a man who seems to have no credentials beyond good looks, a red pick-up truck, and an anti-government attitude, Obama deciding probably too late that it is time to actually put some brakes on the out-of-control banking industry and to perhaps also do something about the millions of people unemployed and losing their homes, CIA-directed drone attacks in Pakistan increasing, and the Supreme Court ruling that corporations have the right to unlimited financial contributions to political campaigns out of respect for the principle of "free speech". Ugh, what a mess. I can hardly stand to think about it just now, so I am going to take a different direction, which may seem totally apolitical at first, but will prove to have some political relevance in the end, and indeed some Pagan spiritual significance as well.

One of the things I did to celebrate the end of the 00 decade was to make song compilations of some of my favorite jazz and rock/pop artists. The one that proved most interesting was Paul McCartney. The very mention of his name may cause some of you to click away from this blog in annoyance, I know, because his reputation for some time has been of a once-great artist gone to seed, half-heartedly churning out sickeningly sweet musical pablum like "Silly Love Songs."

I beg to differ. Particularly since the death of his wife Linda in 1998, McCartney has been releasing a series of recordings which, while not perfect nor necessarily all up to the standards of his 1960s Beatles recording, contain a great deal of musical inventiveness and some occasionally quite moving lyrics, though admittedly his music is usually stronger than his words. It seems that with his hit-making days behind him, he has been feeling more free to be experimental and audacious, reminding listeners that John Lennon was not the only Beatle with avant-garde aspirations, and George Harrison not the only one to tinker with unusual instruments from other cultures. The arrangements on these records of the 2000s show a continuing curiosity with multi-layered sound textures and many intriguing contrasts.

Paul McCartney's most recent recording, made in partnership with another British musician known as "Youth," the two together calling themselves "The Fireman," is entitled "Electric Arguments" (2009), and was very well reviewed. With good reason: it is like a series of loose jam sessions with both high-energy and lyrical moments, freeing up McCartney to throw many different musical flavors and colors up in the air and see where they fall. Some of the lyrics are taken from a poetry anthology laying around the studio, and not all of the words necessarily make perfect linear sense. Not to worry: the whole is definitely greater than the parts, and the groove is definitely greater than the logic; or maybe it IS the logic here. The mood swings from exuberance on some tracks to wistfulness on others, but the overall feeling one gets from listening is definitely a sense of uplift and inspiration.

I do detect a certain Paganesque theme in many of these songs, one also to be found in earlier Mac songs all the way back to the 1960s. This is what brings me to the title of this piece, questioning whether it might be appropriate to consider McCartney a Pagan of sorts. There is an ongoing celebration of nature here, particularly of the sun and of birds, with one boisterously affirmative song entitled "Sun is Shining," and a beautiful, slightlty melancholy ballad called "Two Magpies." Obviously, this echoes Beatles songs associated with McCartney like "Good Day Sunshine" and "Blackbird," not to mention "Mother Nature's Son" and "I'll Follow the Sun."

Selecting songs for my personal compilation, I noted other songs from the 00 decade that also express a powerful love of the natural world. A 2001 song from the "Driving Rain" album called "Spinning an an Axis" talks about the earth spinning around the sun, and the wonder of the sun rising each day with new promise. That may sound a bit cliched and mundane, but the music adds a lot to this, and I find something else of some significance hidden in the song. There is an odd reference to "the day of the culture bat," which I only recently figured out may actually be a nod to the "culture battle" or "culture wars" that have embroiled and embittered political life in recent years in the USA and elsewhere. The song seems to find the cosmic reality of earth and sun more important than the transient problem of politically-motivated culture wars. I ask you, is that a Pagan perspective or what?

A fine 2005 acoustic ballad from the "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" album is "Jenny Wren," which tells the tale of a young woman driven to silence, like a bird that loses the power to sing, by the poverty and horrors of her life. The comparison of a young woman to a traumatized bird is highly effective, but again I would raise the question of whether the use of a metaphor derived from the natural world might again bespeak an essentially Pagan sensibility.

McCartney's 2007 album "Memory Almost Full" contains several poignant meditations on aging and death, which I believe is also implied in the title of the album. The most humorous is "Mister Bellamy," which seems to describe the situation of an old man suffering some mental malady, perhaps dementia, preferring to retreat into his "upstairs" rather than deal with other people, with careworkers intervening to talk him down. The song "You Tell Me" combines reminiscing about childhood experiences of happy times, most of which involve being out in the summer sun, naturally, with questioning whether one's memories are really to be trusted: "You Tell Me" if these things really happened or not. Let us note that songs about dementia and the unreliability of memory address some very adult concerns, a far cry from the "Silly Love Songs" stereotype. In another song from this album, "The End of the End," McCartney explains how he would like his funeral to be conducted in a joyous manner, while also expressing his hope that the afterlife will bring him to a place of even greater joy.

As the somewhat disquieting 2007 "Memory Almost Full" has been followed by the boisterous and inspiring 2009 "Electric Arguments," it would seem that McCartney has found his way back to the sunshine. As the tabloids have not told of any new great love in his life since his unfortunate divorce from his second wife, Heather Mills, it is tempting to speculate that he has tapped into some new spiritual inspiration of somewhat Pagan character, but this is of course just conjecture.

The exuberant tone of many of McCartney's various paens to nature brings me to reflect on how the last great surge of political liberalism, even radicalism, in the West was in the 1960s and 1970s, to the soundtrack of just such exuberant and idealistic music, often linked to a love of nature. That was a time when a massive wave of inspiration rose up to counter the grim realities of racial segregation and brutal war. It occurs to me that something similar is needed now. The right wing, reactionary side of society, is riding the wave of fear, anger and paranoia, telling people to put their trust in guns and the military, and to not look to any hope or beauty, just more "security," more punishment, more prisons, more invasions, more restrictions, a grim dog-eat-god, every-man-for-himself vision of the world that is perfectly reflected in apocalyptic films from "Mad Max" and "The Terminator" to the recent "Book of Eli." We need to hear the hippie voice again, the voice that sings of beauty and sharing in this world that we live in. We cannot reason with the right-wing fear-mongers, but we might be able to out-sing and out-dance them, and create an expanding space in the public consciousness for a different, less fearful, more loving and celebratory world view.

Sometime rationality is overvalued, and we need to tap into something greater, older, deeper--while not altogether rejecting rationality, let me be clear.

I raise my glass to Paul McCartney for his late-career outburst of Paganesque exuberance. It is a lesson to us all.

Terrorism and Tribalism

The recent near-terrorist incident involving the bungled attempt by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to cause an explosion on the Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, following the horrific shooting spree by the American soldier Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas in November, have brought forth responses in the media, the public and our politicians that again illustrate a general American inability to respond to these difficult situations with anything more thoughtful and probing than a knee-jerk reaction of seeking to punish the perpetrators of these actions and to blame those who did not stop these situations from progressing to where they nearly caused, or in the case of Nidal Hassan, actually did cause harm and tragedy. There is also the infantile desire for government to provide a guarantee of 100% security to all Americans at all times. This writer will concede that more could perhaps have been done to prevent these incidents from unfolding as they did--or nearly did--but what he finds sadly lacking from the discussion is any serious consideration of WHY these Muslim individuals are so willing to take up the cause of violence against the USA and/or the West, even at the cost of their own lives. The general discussion seems to assume that these "bad guys," as labeled by former President Bush, are beyond understanding. They are simply "bad." Or maybe crazy. Or maybe misled by bad, crazy ideology. Or all of the above.

Rarely will you hear any discussion of how the Islamic world in general has been suffering a long-burning sense of humiliation, frustration and anger since being unsettled, disabled, carved up into pieces and then rearranged this way and that by Western colonial powers from the British to the French to the Russians to us for the last several hundred years. The post-WW II creation of the state of Israel by non-Islamic powers from outside the Middle East is one particularly grating example of events that have often taken place against the will of Islamic countries and without their consultation or any serious consideration of their interests or sensitivities. To put it bluntly, the Muslims are tired of being pushed around. Americans may recall we had a similar feeling toward the British in our colonial days, a feeling which prompted us to undertake a certain war of independence. To our British rulers in that period, Americans seeking to break away from the British Empire must have seemed like crazy, evil terrorists, "the worst of the worst."

So, when Islamic radicals take up arms against American forces occupying their lands, their actions, however regrettable or horrific, are not really all that crazy or irrational, nor are they so impossible to understand. What is needed is to seriously and thoughtfully consider their own point of view--which is not the same thing as agreeing with it--and not simply condemn it as evil or insane. These radicals are responding to what they see as unfair American domination of their world, an "American empire," if you will, and this is their attempt to make it end, or die trying.

I would argue that we will never succeed in stopping these repeated attempts at destabilizing our world through terrorist violence until we seriously consider how past and present actions of America and other Western countries have destabilized others' worlds, particularly those of Islamic peoples who once lived in proud, powerful Islamic states that boasted an advanced sophisticated civilization. We tend to assume that the rest of the world should accept American dominance, including allowing our military forces to freely operate in or near their territories--though we would never allow others to bring their military forces onto American soil--and merrily join in with our economic system and form of government.

Consider how we would feel in the reverse situation. If Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth to construct a huge military and then, after some perceived humiliation of some Saudi citizens in the United States, demanded that we allow Saudi soldiers to set up military bases in say, upstate New York and the Florida coast, and to be allowed to occupy these bases for an indefinite period, we would think it crazy and never accept it. Yet we expect other countries around the world to acquiesce to exactly this kind of humiliating and infuriating arrangement. Our military presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia needs to be considered in this light.

But the kind of discussion I am calling for will probably not happen, certainly not in the mainstream USA media nor the halls of government. The media and the government prefer to hew to the party line of "American exceptionalism," believing that we are a particularly blessed and virtuous nation, beyond all criticism or objections, and that other countries should "naturally" accept our leadership--or else.

In a strange way, this is actually a very tribal point of view. Our tribe of the USA is incapable of seeing any other point of view other than that which glorifies and justifies our own greatness and entitlement. Any disruption of our tribal interests will be met with maximum harshness, without excuses or compassion. A one-day attack in 2001 that kills a small number of our total population but involves no disruption of our government nor any occupation of our territory becomes the justification for eight plus years of war in which we invade two other countries, overthrow their governments, kill tens of thousands, take prisoners that we ship to overseas prisons for indefinite detention, and ignite or re-kindle interminable civil wars. Our armies march through foreign lands with no apparent understanding of how frightening, disturbing and humiliating our presence may be, establishing fortress-like bases wherever we like, like crusader castles of old, giving orders and issuing demands to local rulers that make a mockery of our supposed belief in democracy, and killing those who dare stand up against our occupation of land that is not our own.

Once you take off the self-justifying, other-distorting glasses of American exceptionalism, this is not so hard to see. It also helps to travel and talk to non-Americans once in a while.

In my writings in this blog on Paganism, I have struggled a great deal with the relationship of tribalism to ethnically-based forms of Pagan revivalism, particularly Asatru/Heathenry. Now I see a new and disturbing connection with the world situation. It is my impression that the same American Heathens or Asatru followers who are most enthusiastic about the retro-ideal of a closed tribal community are the ones most likely to unquestioningly support the US military in carrying out its imperialistic duties in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It seems that they view the American military as the most wonderful tribe of all; a tribe beyond criticism, whose legitimacy or purpose cannot be questioned.

A few months ago, on a Yahoo Heathen group that I often peruse, I read many messages of congratulations to a young man going off to war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Not one voice was raised to question the wisdom of the war; there was just the simplistic, sentimental "support the troops" point of view. I didn't want to spoil the party, so I said nothing.

Does Norse Pagan tradition have anything to say about the current situation beyond the easy glorification of war that one may derive from the battle-scenes in the Eddas ans Sagas? This is obviously a matter of interpretation, but I believe there are several strands in Norse mythology and history that show something more complex and nuanced than a simplistic glorification of the tribe and exultation in war.

(1). In the account of the "first war in the world" between the Aesir and Vanir tribes of gods described in the poem Voluspa, the resolution of the conflict comes not from one side completely subduing the other, but through truce and compromise that results in a blending of the two tribes. Could this be applied to America's conflict with Muslim militants? It might save some money and lives if we tried to figure out what these "bad guys" wanted, instead of assuming that they are insane and should all be killed, and see if we could work out some kind of compromise. I have a feeling that they would first of all like to see our troops leaving. Guess what? So would many Americans, including this one.

(2) In the satirical poem Lokasenna, the suspicion is voiced that Odin, in his function as arbiter of war, often gave victory to the less deserving side on the battlefield. Other texts show Odin as being fickle in terms of his support of one side or the other. Does this apply to anything today? Well, it might give us a little humility in viewing the odds for American victory in Afghanistan and elsewhere (Yemen? Somalia? Iran? Sudan? Pakistan?), when we reflect on how the god of war does not guarantee victory to anyone.

(3) When the Norse explorers attempted to settle in North America, probably on the coast of Newfoundland at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, they were eventually driven off by the hostility of the Native Americans. Victory is not assured when occupying foreign lands.

(4) Both the Norse gods, in mythology, and the Norse peoples, in history, often blended with and assimilated with other beings/peoples/cultures. The Norse gods fight giants, but also mate with them. The Vikings fought the English, Irish and French, but also settled among them and in time became completely mixed with them. This suggests something that the American military is realizing about Afghanistan: it helps to get to know people and form relationships with them, not just order them around and bomb them when they become disagreeable. This is quite different from assuming that we Americans all have the answers and that the other side should become our obedient subjects.

(5) We also find, when we examine the course of Scandinavian history, that the Scandinavian countries became much more pleasant and prosperous places when they gave up their dreams of empire and conquest. That's the good news. The bad news is that no one gives up empire willingly. I imagine that American imperialism is in its final stages, because we are rapidly reaching the point where we simply cannot afford to keep all these troops trained, equipped, and deployed all around the world. Not if we want to preserve any kind of public services within the home base of the empire. I think the sun is starting to set on America as the dominant world power, but it will take a while. I look forward to the quiet day when we become a modest, medium-sized power, like Britain after World War II, when it gave up its African and Asian colonies. I also believe that when we stop trying to dominate the world, Islamic extremism will lose its raison d'etre and the Muslim world will calm down too. However, it is going to take a while.

This is all quite painful to ponder. I take none of this lightly. I seek solace in the spirits of nature, the quiet patience of trees and water and stones.