Category Archives: Education

Polytheistic Voices: Interview with Dr. Edward Butler

s200_edward.butler

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.

GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?

Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.

But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.

The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.

Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.

GK: How did you come to polytheism?

Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.

GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?

Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.

GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?

Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.

Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.

Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.

GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?

Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.

With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.

GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?

Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.

In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.

Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.

GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

My amazon author page.

Walking the Worlds Journal

My art blog at Krasskova Creations

My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.

Wow…Just…Wow: talk about missing the point

Someone emailed a colleague of mine out of the blue with the following question (he shared it largely out of shock at the utter obliviousness of it all):

-” What does the shaman who horses (1) deities get in return for all the sacrifice, hard work & suffering they had to endure to become a shaman in the first place?… Can the shaman expect to be a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer whose (sic) able to bring about change in his life & this world through sorcery, after horsing deities for years? Or is it dependent on the relationship that is forged with the deity?”

The question is offensive on many levels and oblivious on many others, so much so that I was left quite literally speechless when my friend emailed me. (I think I said something to the effect of ‘I don’t know quite what to say here but you do get the best questions. Damn!’).(2)

Even writing this, I’m still pretty boggled by the question. First of all, what do you get? You get a job. You get the honor and privilege of serving the Gods, a particular privilege that most people never even conceive of let alone experience.

But more to the point, it’s not about us. A shaman provides service to the Gods and to the community. It’s not self-serving. No one in their right mind would want this job and yet, it is an honor and a privilege to be taken up in this way.

I just am so boggled by the incorrect attitude displayed in the email, not just to the idea of a shaman’s work being for personal empowerment, but the idea that we can use relationships with the Gods for personal greed. It is so incredibly wrong. If you ever wanted a primer on how not to approach the Holy Powers, this is it.

There are many ways to approach the Gods but first and foremost there is a foundational commonality on those that are appropriate and that commonality is respect. These are Holy Powers. They are the Movers and Shapers of the Cosmos. We were created to exist in right relationship with Them. They do not exist to pander to the worst of our instincts and desires.

Part of regaining right relationship with the Powers involves understanding that everything is not about us. We are not the super-center of the cosmos. The universe does not exist to cater to our whims and to stroke our egos.

So to answer this fool’s question, you get to be of service. You get to go to your grave knowing you did your part to restore right relationship communally with the Gods. You get to experience specific Deities more closely than can ever be imagined. That is both a grace and a blessing. No, you cannot, as a result of horsing (or anything else we do) expect to be “a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer” capable of bending the world to his will (and if you want to study magic, that too is a lifetime’s commitment and takes sacrifice). This is not a D&D game. And everything, everything is always dependent on the relationships we forge with our Gods, and those relationships that we nurture? They’re the reward for the work.

Notes:

1. To horse a Deity is to carry that Deity via possession. It’s terminology drawn from the Afro-Caribbean traditions. The Deity “rides” the devotee as one might ride a horse.

2. I asked my colleague’s permission to share the question for this post.

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Be sure to check out my other sites:

Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy

My academia.edu page

My amazon author page.

Walking the Worlds Journal

My art blog at Krasskova Creations

My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.

No Fear

kindlyI’m reading a book right now that I think ought to be required reading for anyone concerned over the censorship on college campuses and on the way the liberal left attacks and dogpiles on anyone who dares to disagree with their one-dimensional view of the world. It shows what happens when we become afraid of different opinions, wrapped in the self righteous sense that we should be immune from the horror of being offended. The book is called “Kindly Inquisitors” by J. Rausch and I’m about a third of the way through.

I’m reading this in tandem with a documentary called “Can we take a joke,” about the way the illiberal left are ruining comedy and shutting down discourse on campuses. It was actually quite horrifying, especially when the producers interviewed Jon Ronson, who wrote a book about the twitter inspired attacks on Justine Sacco, and others who have been publicly shamed. It really brings home the fact that (and I say this being someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy comedy) our comedians and satirists are often the first warning sign of a society out of true. They’re the ones holding the line against well meaning incursions against our freedom of speech.

Growing up I never thought about what it meant to have freedom of speech. I took my classes in US History, Government, Civics and it was an assumed right in this country. We have a right to freedom of speech, not freedom from being offended. I think in the wake of our various well meaning (?) outrage mobs, that is slowly – and perhaps not so slowly—changing. Now, conservative speakers on college campuses risk assault. Artists and comedians risk getting shot.

If you want free speech, you don’t get to decide who has the right to speak. You don’t get to shut down opinions with which you might disagree. Free speech means free speech. I detest, absolutely detest much of what comes out of the Pagan left. I would never presume to tell them they don’t have the right to say those things. Instead, I’ll take them on head on and carefully dissect their rhetoric for those who haven’t the time or courage to do so for themselves.

Hate speech laws…the idea that we could be arrested for our words…are a terrifying reality today, and a clear violation of our freedom of speech. They’re the legislative acts of cowards, the new McCarthys. Our community is not immune.

 

 

The People We Travel With…

courage cs lewis

I tell my students to avoid tumblr. I tell those who come to me to learn about the gods or for initiation and/or spiritual training to avoid people who don’t take their Gods seriously. I tell them to take care with whom they spend their time. I tell them to take care with what they pollute their eyes and hearts and minds. This is important. We inevitably become like that with which we associate. The choice of course, whether or not to take my advice is always left with the student, but I lay out my case early on.

Pollution is an actual thing and I don’t think that there’s enough discussion of it in our communities. As human beings, we are affected by those things with which we associate, by what we watch, by the character and conversation of our friends. If a person is serious about developing good devotional habits (and good devotional character), then early on, one learns to avoid those situations that diminish our spiritual worth.

Instead, it’s important to learn to cultivate the people, hobbies, habits, and things that encourage and nourish right relationship with the Gods. If you’re surrounding yourself by people steeped in piety, it will rub off! You’ll be influenced to likewise treat the Gods with respect. You’ll observe good habits and absorb them almost by osmosis. When everyone around you is modeling right behavior it’s a thousand times easier to cultivate that in yourself. The opposite is also true. Peer pressure, as it were, can work both ways.

Now I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. If you like a particular pop culture TV show, for instance, go ahead and watch it, but be aware of the message it sends. Understand that you’re doing yourself no favors. You’ll have to take extra care to ensure that you don’t unconsciously (subliminally?) start copying the behavior and attitudes you’re seeing. That’s the problem with so much of this. It’s not that any person or thing is bad in and of itself (usually), but that we pick up unconscious messages from what we’re around. We imitate and often do so unthinkingly. We do things on auto-pilot, unmindfully and it’s mindfulness that is called for here. We cannot afford to assume that the structures of our lives automatically support devotion. Generally they don’t and very little in our immediate environments do.

I’ll admit that I find this sobering. It has, however, made me very selective about how I spend my time. We each have a great deal of power over our spiritual lives. We have the power to carefully choose that which will nourish our relationship with our Holy Powers or to choose that which does not. We can choose our companions. We can choose our associations, our hobbies, how much and what we allow in. We should choose—even if one takes away the spiritual imperative, we should always be selective about those influences that enter our personal orbits. I always encourage my students to ask: “What attitudes does this thing or person encourage? What is its/their message? Is this making me better as a human being? How does this further my spiritual goals? What does this contribute to my overall life? My character? What is it telling me about devotion? What does it cultivate in psyche and soul?”

It takes a great deal of personal integrity to do this work. It takes a great deal of personal integrity and commitment and yes, courage to resist the pressure to confirm and to water down our devotions to the silliest common denominator imaginable. We are charged, I very firmly believe, with being better.

Before our traditions were destroyed, we’d have all grown up in polytheistic households and communities. We’d have had ample opportunity to see right behavior modeled and we’d have been surrounded by numerous people and factors that would likewise reinforce it. We’d have had plenty of people to go to if we had questions and plenty of good models not just for how to do devotion well but how to become mature, engaged, mindful human beings. We don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, most of us are not surrounded by a community or family that models and reinforces right behavior. We have to learn to do it for ourselves.

So if you find yourself suddenly become flippant about the Gods when you generally know better, look around and see what might be influencing you. Take stock of your company and surroundings. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to cut jokes about the sacred, when normally you would quietly go about the business of devotion, as yourself why? Take a good, long look at the people with whom you’re surrounding yourself. Take a good long estimate of the media influences in which you are willingly steeped and ask yourself if it’s doing your devotion any good. Ask yourself if it’s beneficial or worth it. Then make your choice.

That’s what all solid devotion comes down to: learning to make the right choices, the most beneficial ones day after day, and that is something within all our reach.

Upcoming Classes

In the fall, several people contacted me about doing another round of online classes. At the time, I couldn’t do it. My academic teaching load was just too heavy (very writing intensive, and hence, grading intensive) for me to add anything more to my schedule but now that school is out for the summer, I’ve decided to offer a couple of classes.

These classes will be interactive: we will meet one day a week for an hour and a half via interactive video-conference for six weeks. There will also be an email list where we can communicate and discuss the material throughout the week.

Upcoming classes are as follows:

Class: Homer’s Iliad
Date and Time: Class begins Friday June 17 from 7pm-8:30pm and meets each Friday for six weeks (June 17, 24, July 1, 8, 15, 22)
Cost: $70

Class: Euripides’ Bacchae
Date and Time: Class begins Thursday June 16 from 7pm -8:30pm and meets each Thursday for six weeks (June 16, 23, 30, July 7, 14, 21).
Cost: $70

There are  seven spots still available in the “Iliad” class and six spots in “Bacchae.” 

Future classes will include Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Vergil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a little Catullus thrown in for good measure.

Each course will offer an intensive introduction to the mythic tales – our sacred stories in many respects – of ancient Greece and Rome as presented in epic poetry and, in the case of Euripides, tragedy. We’ll focus on ideas of heroism and fate, how the cosmology is reflected in each of these works, and what these works show us about the cultures in which they were written. We’ll talk about hero cultus, ancestor cultus in the ancient world, syncretism, miasma, and the development of ritual and how we can engage with these stories to deepen our understanding and engagement with the Gods in our practice today. We’ll focus on violent transformation: through war, through initiation, through the workings of Gods and Fate and explore what these stories can teach us about our traditions and our faith today.

These were essential, foundational stories for ancient Greek and Roman polytheists (and for many of our own ancestors up until about 1950! Every school child would have learned them). They defined their community’s identity and understanding of the world. They helped our ancestors better comprehend how the Gods could act in our world. These stories were their own language, a lens that shaped everything and through which people learned to face the dangers, fears, and exigencies of their own life and fate.

I’ve taught for six years as a teaching assistant and then senior teaching fellow in the Classics department at Fordham U. I’ve spent the last year exploring these works with my academic classes and I’m delighted to be able to offer them to our communities too.

If you’re interested in taking either of these classes that I’m offering now, please contact me at Krasskova at gmail.com.

I will be offering two online classes in June

Triumph_of_Achilles_in_Corfu_Achilleion

In the fall, several people contacted me about doing another round of online classes. At the time, I couldn’t do it. My academic teaching load was just too heavy (very writing intensive, and hence, grading intensive) for me to add anything more to my schedule but now that school is out for the summer, I’ve decided to offer a couple of classes.

These classes will be interactive: we will meet one day a week for an hour and a half via interactive video-conference for six weeks. There will also be an email list where we can communicate and discuss the material throughout the week.

Upcoming classes are as follows:

Class: Homer’s Iliad
Date and Time: Class begins Friday June 17 from 7pm-8:30pm and meets each Friday for six weeks (June 17, 24, July 1, 8, 15, 22)
Cost: $70

Class: Euripides’ Bacchae
Date and Time: Class begins Thursday June 16 from 7pm -8:30pm and meets each Thursday for six weeks (June 16, 23, 30, July 7, 14, 21).
Cost: $70

There are eight seven spots available in each class.

Future classes will include Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Vergil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a little Catullus thrown in for good measure.

Each course will offer an intensive introduction to the mythic tales – our sacred stories in many respects – of ancient Greece and Rome as presented in epic poetry and, in the case of Euripides, tragedy. We’ll focus on ideas of heroism and fate, how the cosmology is reflected in each of these works, and what these works show us about the cultures in which they were written. We’ll talk about hero cultus, ancestor cultus in the ancient world, syncretism, miasma, and the development of ritual and how we can engage with these stories to deepen our understanding and engagement with the Gods in our practice today. We’ll focus on violent transformation: through war, through initiation, through the workings of Gods and Fate and explore what these stories can teach us about our traditions and our faith today.

These were essential, foundational stories for ancient Greek and Roman polytheists (and for many of our own ancestors up until about 1950! Every school child would have learned them). They defined their community’s identity and understanding of the world. They helped our ancestors better comprehend how the Gods could act in our world. These stories were their own language, a lens that shaped everything and through which people learned to face the dangers, fears, and exigencies of their own life and fate.

I’ve taught for six years as a teaching assistant and then senior teaching fellow in the Classics department at Fordham U. I’ve spent the last year exploring these works with my academic classes and I’m delighted to be able to offer them to our communities too.

If you’re interested in taking either of these classes that I’m offering now, please contact me at Krasskova at gmail.com.

The Dumbing Down of American Education Continues…

I usually don’t write about political things on this blog. I save that for my facebook page. I’ve decided to make an exception in this particular case however, because as an educator I am so incredibly concerned about the trend I see in education in the States.

Yesterday, I read a news story (you can read it here and here) about a high school teacher in CT. This teacher, Mr. David Olio has long received accolades for being an amazing English teacher, capable of inspiring his students to a noteworthy degree. His trouble began during an AP Poetry class. For those outside the US, an AP course means ‘advanced placement’ and it is typically taught to 17 and 18 year olds as a college prep course. High School students here typically graduate at 18. Sometimes one can even gain college credit through taking these courses. I’d also like to point out that I teach college freshmen and sophomores and that’s the precise age that I’m dealing with in many of my own freshmen college classes.

During the course of the class, one of the students brought in a poem he’d read by Allen Ginsburg. The poem was “Please, Master”, a very graphic poem about a BDSM charged interaction between two men. The student asked if it could be discussed in class and the teacher agreed. The result of that discussion, within days, is that this teacher was suspended, parents were up in arms, and despite both student and community support, this award-winning teacher was forced to resign.

Articles covering this are saying things like “one mistake shouldn’t ruin a good teacher’s career.” I agree that his career shouldn’t be ruined, but I don’t think he made a mistake. A student brought a piece of poetry to an advanced, college prep poetry course and asked to discuss it. As a teacher, I would have made the same decision Mr. Olio did. I might have talked to the students about the origins of Beat Poetry, and the social milieu that birthed it, a world filled with growing racial and class tensions not unlike our own. I might have discussed why Ginsburg chose to craft powerful poems around subjects that were generally considered taboo for poetry. I might have told them that he had been brought up on obscenity charges and taken to court for his brilliant, fucking brilliant poem “Howl,” and that the judge ruled it had ‘redeeming social value’ and Ginsburg won the case. I might have pointed out that before writing “Please, Master,” Ginsburg had been locked up in a psych ward for being gay and had been subjected, against his will, to electroshock therapy and that perhaps a poem like this was his fucking declaration of independence. I might have asked them how LGBTQI people are treated socially today, and Gods know there are enough news articles about discrimination and death that I could have brought to the table with just a cursory internet search to bolster the discussion. Hell, a comparison of contemporary Russia and the US would have filled a class. I might have asked if the poem would be considered quite as problematic or objectionable were it depicting a heterosexual couple (and it might be…despite the popularity of such badly written crap as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Americans still tend to go crazy at any hint of kink or even sex in media. Puritanism dies hard, folks). For all we know, Mr. Olio discussed all those things and more.

Ginsburg, as a friend of mine pointed out recently, can be a difficult poet to read. His work is graphic, raw, and disturbing and I think it’s meant to be. I also think that’s precisely why we should read him. Higher education isn’t about having your own possibly provincial worldview reinforced. It’s about learning. Part of that is learning how to engage with ideas and concepts that one might find different, disturbing, and highly charged. If education doesn’t challenge and make one uncomfortable than it isn’t education. Part of becoming a thinking adult capable of dealing respectfully with divergent worldviews is also being exposed to a diversity of perspectives early on. Part of becoming an adult is also learning how to cope with ideas that offend and upset. Every day of my life, as a woman, a polytheist, as someone with an invisible disability (chronic pain), I face things in our popular culture, our over-culture that offend me terribly and that dehumanize me as a person. And every day I’m faced with examples of humanity with whom I really don’t want to share a planet (Daesh, the Duggars, etc. etc). Part of being an adult is facing that and how we choose to deal with situations that offend us to our core, or that make us uncomfortable, that hurt us is what determines our character as human beings.

Just last week I read several articles about students at an Ivy League school complaining in their literature classes because material was ‘triggering.’ It evoked an emotional response. It made them uncomfortable. It demonstrated values at odds with their own contemporary world. The case involved a college professor teaching a class on Ovid. One of the students didn’t “feel safe” in the class because many of the stories Ovid describes involve rape (Hades abducting Persephone for instance). I’ve read other articles in which students expect a pass while skipping “triggering” material. Leaving aside the question of how this bullshit waters down and misuses the psychological term “trigger”, let’s consider at the potential effect on education of bowing to such overactive sensitivities. How much of classic world lit is going to be discarded if we remove everything that is possibly disturbing? What is going to happen to a generation of students who have insulated themselves from anything remotely challenging or disturbing when they encounter life? If someone is legitimately disturbed to the point of feeling unsafe by reading “Ovid” in an environment filled with critical analysis and discussion then perhaps that person ought to engage in a bit of personal responsibility and seek out therapy and perhaps he or she is not ready for college. The last thing professors and institutions should do is bow to emotional manipulation, blackmail, and censorship. Better they close their doors first.

I was discussing all of this over breakfast today with my partner and he pointed out something else that I knew, but had not taken into consideration here. Christian fundamentalists (notably utter nutcases like Dominionists and Quiverfull families) have, since the rise of the New Conservatism, made it a point to get themselves on schoolboards. It’s part of their policy of attacking society at a local level. There are various areas on which they particularly focus (and I don’t’ have the stomach this morning to pollute my mind by hunting down requisite articles. I just can’t reread that garbage right now), areas including education, military, finance, entertainment industry, and politics. Many Americans don’t come out in droves to vote in local elections and don’t’ follow that quite as assiduously as the election of our president. We should. The real power is at the local level. The President may be the leader of our nation but powerful political currents start on the local level: school boards, city councils, and the like and what’s happening there is, as one of the articles on Mr. Olio called it, “a creeping social conservatism.”

I very much believe that we need to break the stranglehold and crush the back of the Christian right. Utterly and without mercy. These people believe they are warriors for their God and will stop at nothing to suck the life and freedom out of our nation, our educational system, our society, and our children. They are very bit as dangerous as Daesh, more so in many ways since they are here, among us, acting slowly and insidiously to gain control of the next generation, acting on a local level. There’s already enough in our society alone working against our students. For this and oh so many more reasons, we should be keeping a keen and eagle eye on trends just like what we’re seeing here with the dumbing down of education and the attack of good teachers. We need to be getting involved in our communities at a grassroots level. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in our schools, our school boards even if we don’t have children. We need to awake and aware and maybe, just maybe, fiercely involved.

I hope sincerely that Mr. Olio is able to move on from this debacle with his reputation intact. I hope he is able to find another good teaching position. I hope that his school and community realize what a valuable asset they have lost in allowing his resignation to go through. I fear for the pressures being put on our teachers not to teach. I fear for a generation of students being raised with no emotional resiliency, and no ability to engage insightfully with opinions different from their own. Most of all I fear for those of us who will have to live in the society this will create.