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And so we come to the end...

This post shall be my last post to this blog. After today, I will be blogging on my new web site,

RSS feeds, comments, and the like, will be installed soon, so that the blog will be easy to follow. There is already a forum installed, so that people who have enjoyed talking with me and with each other through this Livejournal blog can continue to do so.

I have decided that integrating my web presence a little bit, and also cutting down the number of social networking tools I use, will free up some time for me to write my books. After all, writing is my calling, and has been since I was a teenager.

Also, by moving my blog to my web site, you won't have to see any of Livejournal's banner ads anymore.

It seems appropriate to end the blog with the very topic that began it: the North West Passage. Which makes the news every day, it seems. Climate change is opening it up, and soon it may remain ice-free all year. Who will win the race to claim all the oil and minerals? At least five countries, including my own, have territorial claims to the passage: some claim it is international and therefore free to any country's ships. Here are some recent news articles:

- Climate change intersects with Inuit land claims.

- Some northern residents feel the government is sending mixed messages about Lanaster Sound: on the one hand the government plans to create a conservation area, and on the other they are permitting some oil and gas exploration.

- And the various exploration missions are finding that the arctic is actually full of wildlife, which will probably be threatened by the increase of shipping and development.

But finally, consider this photo of a Canadian icebreaker, sailing through the passage:

Something about images like this have always stood out in my imagination. This picture seems to me like the very image of human life on earth. The ship is like our human colony on our planet, and the ice is like interstellar space. This picture represents to me a lot of what I think we are, and what it is to be alive on earth.

In philosophical circles it is sometimes explained that religion and spirituality is a response to problems. in Islam, the problem is hubris and pride, the solution is submission (the meaning of the word Islam) to God and to peace. In Christianity, the problem is sin and original sin, the solution is Christ's saving grace. In Hinduism, the problem is suffering (samsara) and illusion (maya), the solution is liberation.

In ancient European pagan cultures, the problem on the surface level is tribal competition and the solution is to fight and win a war against the other tribe. But the deeper problems are fate and transience, and the solution is honour. Thus those who would use the mythology of the Celts or the Norse or the Germans or the Greeks, to "prove" some kind of racist political or religious program, in the name of "culture" and "heritage", are simply wrong. Such people dwell only on the surface still, and have not yet seen the depth, where their own priviliged existence hangs by a thread, just like everyone else's.

Yet it was the image of the icebreaker, the Inukshuk, and also the Irish portal dolmen, which got me thinking about the existential problems at that depth, and the solutions that it offers.

In my third book, the problems were three: the earth, other people, and death. And the solutions were three: a life of humanity, integrity, and wonder.

And in my fifth, I added to the list of immensities the problem of loneliness. I now suspect that loneliness may be a deeper problem than the other three. In fact I suspect that it is a problem that can never truly be overcome. But I also see ways it can be transformed, and how lives of worth and meaning can be lived nonetheless.

These are the questions that matter. As I explore that great northern sea of my life -- as I explore interstellar space from the deck of the good ship Planet Earth -- I search for a meaningful way to explore it, which will uplift me and any others who are on the same ship with me. Out there is everlasting loneliness. Here, all I have is my relationship with all of you. And all you have are all your relations with each other. And that is all any of us truly has.

New CHS Course: Nietzsche

In the Summer 2010, I will be teaching a new online course: Nietzsche and Paganism. Here's the info:

Perhaps the most misunderstood, difficult, and notorious philosopher of the modern age is Friedrich Nietzsche, creator of such powerful ideas as the Will to Power. Accused of promoting a kind of paganism, even within his own lifetime, he certainly mounted the most powerful critique of all religious thinking ever written in the Western philosophical tradition. In this course we will examine three of his most important books very closely, and we will learn why his work remains important for the study of ethics, religion, and culture, and also why it remains dangerous.

Required Texts:
- Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, (Penguin Classics edition).
- Beyond Good and Evil, (trans. W. Kaufmann)
- The Gay Science trans. W. Kaufmann)

Recommended (but not required):
- The Portable Nietzsche (ed. W. Kaufmann).

This course is a 12-week Masters' level course, offered through the Cherry Hill Seminary. Although it is a graduate level course, it may be audited by anyone (with my approval). Click here to find out more, or to register.

The double-edged sword which is reason

After teaching two lectures on Libertarianism to the students of my Theories of Social Justice class, with John Hospers' "Libertarian Manifesto" as my text, I could not help but be reminded of these words from Rousseau:

"It is reason that engenders amour-propre, and reflection that confirms it: it is reason which turns man's mind back upon itself, and divides him from everything that would disturb or afflict him. It is philosophy that isolates him, and bids him say, at sight of the misfortunes of others, "Perish if you will, I am secure". Nothing but such general evils as threaten the whole community can disturb the tranquil sleep of the philosopher, or tear him from his bed. A murder may with impunity be committed under his window; he has only to put his hands to his ears and argue a little with himself, to prevent nature, which is shocked within him, from identifying itself with the unfortunate sufferer."

-- Jean Jacques Rousseau, On the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind.

"New" Web Site!

May I welcome all of you to the completely re-designed, refreshed edition of!

The new site restores some of the popular parts of the old site which were missing: a guide to Druidry and Celtic Spirituality, for instance. It also adds some new features, such as a photo gallery, and a public forum.

I have a few further plans for the site as well: a comprehensive index for all my books, samples of audio and video, and a means to download PDF editions of some of my essays and out-of-print works. These will all be added in the weeks to come. I will also soon be transporting this blog out of Livejournal and over to the new web site.* As this blog is already being used by many people to talk to each other, not just to me, the forum (which is already up) and the new blog page (which is soon to come) will make this a lot easier for everyone. I hope that the site will be used not only as a book-promotion tool for me, but also as a community centre for many people.

The reason for the new change: up until now, I had been hand-coding the html myself, and uploading via ftp. This is a highly time-consuming and boring way to build a web site, which is why updates were few and far between. At Juniper's suggestion, I am now using a freeware package called Joomla for design, layout, and content. It looks a lot more professional now, and it will now be a lot easier for me to maintain, change, and update things. Indeed I will now be able to make updates and changes to the site from any computer in the world, not just my own here at home.

My thanks go to my web hostess Lynna Landstreet, for technical matters, and especially to my girlfriend Juniper for helping me learn Joomla, and for much of the graphic design of the site.

* This blog, here on Livejournal, will not be deleted, but in about a week or so I will stop updating it. I will also place a "best of northwestpass" archive on the new site.

The author asks his readers for advice

Dear readers of my books, and friends,

Should I divide the book I'm working on in half, (again!) such that the (mostly) complete first nine chapters may be released sooner? Then the rest would be published separately, perhaps three years from now. (Let's call this the short book option).


Should I continue on course, and publish the whole work when complete? It will run to perhaps as much as 120,000 words, and not be published for two years, and possibly cost less than the price of two shorter books combined. (Let's call this the long book option.)

Here is the background which may help you understand what I am asking.
behind the cutCollapse )

Just for fun: Zombie ethics

Recently, I was asked, "As a professor of ethics, what moral duties might people owe to zombies?"

Well, most moral systems assume that a being who is entitled to moral rights is either: (1) A being that can experience pain, or (2) A being that has interests which it pursues in accordance with its (2a) nature, or (2b) existential purpose.

Zombies, according to all experiments so far conducted, do not feel pain. Some put on a good show of feeling pain when attacked. But we've found zombies still able to lift heavy objects, walk, groan, eat brains, etc., even while shot with a dozen arrows and even while bleeding from the stump of a recently severed arm. So we can conclude that either they feel no pain at all, or that they are constantly in pain and nothing that others do can either worsen or improve their lot. So we can rule out moral duties to zombies based on premise (1).

As for moral duties based on interests (2), it seems that they have none. For they have no 'nature' (2a), since, being dead bodies that still inexplicably walk, their very existence is contrary to nature. They also seem to have no existential purpose (2b) (or not 2b) except, so it seems, to eat brains. That seems to be all they want to do.

The trouble with this claim is that for a zombie to eat a brain, someone else must lose his brain. Now, being alive is an interest everyone (who is not a zombie) possesses, and the depravation of one's brain is contrary to that interest. It follows that to offer a zombie your brain is to subvert your moral duties to yourself. It further follows that if zombies have rights based on their interest in brain-eating, then that is a right which cannot be fulfilled without violating another person's rights.

One could voluntarily give up one's right to live, and offer a zombie your brain. We have lots of practice here, since many people regularly offer their brains to new-age gurus and conservative politicians. But I would think twice before doing so; after all, that second thought would likely be the last thought in your life.

Herr Doktor Expert, professor of zombie ethics, recommends that you barricade your home in preparation for the zombie apocalypse. And should your loved ones suddenly become zombies, proceed to your basement, take up the patented anti-zombie 2x4 (which I will happily sell you) and bash the bugger's skull.


My guitar

For the last two years or so, I have very rarely played my guitar.

She stayed in her case most of the time. Once a month or so I would bring her out and look at her, strum her a bit, then put her back. But I haven't done that at all since the summer of last year. This guitar didn't take well to the humidity of the Irish climate, so ever since then the neck has been slowly bending forward, until I about two years ago when I had to tighten the neck bolt to get the action back to where it should be. (The action is the name for the distance between the strings and the fretboard beneath them.) But the neck slowly bent forward again, and now the bridge is slightly turning inward too. This makes it impossible to keep the guitar properly in tune. Because of these problems, I was beginning to think that I was turning into a bad guitarist. There is some scuffing on the top of the neck where the finish is coming off, and there is also one spot of impact damage on the back, probably from the last time that she went through an airport baggage system. So after months of ignoring the problem, and not playing her, today I finally put her into the hands of a local artisan who is going to repair her.

This guitar has been with me for all of my adult life. This was the guitar I used almost every time I performed at the Bardic Competitions at WiccanFest and Kaleidoscope Gathering. Even the case still contains sand from my very first WiccanFest fire pit. All of my own original music was composed with this guitar. The music I made with this guitar helped bring me together with people who subsequently became some of my closest friends. Through the music of my guitar I even met the first woman with whom I ever fell in love. I've taken it with me while traveling in at least four Canadian provinces and three American states, and three European countries. I've played it for an audience of hundreds; and I've played it for no one and nothing but the sand and wash of the sea. And to top it off: this guitar was a gift to me from my mother!

Although I hardly ever touched her in many months, now that she is out of my hands I find I really miss her.

There's something ironic in this. Aren't human relationships surprisingly similar!

Singing: Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone...

For those who live local to me: I've given her to Brad McDonald, who understands the personal relationship that a musician can develop with his instruments, and how an instrument can become the embodiment of someone's history and identity. Brad also gave me one of his guitars to play in the meanwhile. Interestingly, there was a different guitar he was going to loan me, and which I have played a few times over the last few months. When he was tuning it, a string broke, so he had to hand me a different one. Now, I'm not overly given to superstition, but being something of an animist I could not help but feel as if the guitar broke one of its own strings so that Brad wouldn't give him to me, or so that Brad would be compelled to give me another guitar. (Both of those guitars are male, by the way: Brad carved a green man face into each of them.)

In a few months time, I'll get my own guitar back, and everything will be fine again. But until that day, I'll be thinking of all the good times I had with my guitar, and all the places where I've been with her.

Photo: playing my guitar at my clann's Lughnasa gathering, London Ontario, in the summer of 1995.

Audio: here on YouTube is a recording of me playing one of my own songs on this guitar, at Kaleidoscope Gathering, many years ago.

Controversy, anyone?

In the six years since my first book was published, I have occasionally provoked small controversies in the pagan community. The mere fact that I study and teach ethics in the pagan community is controversial enough, aside from any of the things I actually say: for as most pagans are surely aware, there is a large and influential sector of the community which denies the validity of any kind of moral reasoning at all. I generated controversy when I suggested that the sugar maple should be "the" Canadian pagan world tree; that consistent volunteers and effective leaders should be honoured in a particularly conspicuous way; that the pagan movement could adopt a set of flags and symbols; and that reason should play a greater role in people's spiritual lives. I was rather fond of those ideas, and at the time fairly sure they would benefit the community, but they were thought of by most people (so it seemed) as rather stupid. So I stopped pursuing some of them.

I've even generated controversy by using female pronouns in the text of my books, and using female icons on my blog entries! Sometimes it can be very surprising what will get people's gander up. So you will notice which icon appears on this blog entry.

Most recently, I endorsed the idea that Canada should repeal its anti-Witchcraft laws: again, this position is generating controversy, as comments on my Facebook page (where this blog is automatically imported) will attest.

Communities often benefit from the people who declare their commitment to an unpopular cause and stick to it under fire. (Well, they benefit when the cause is just. Some unpopular causes are also idiotic causes and that is precisely why they are unpopular). But I sometimes wonder, might there be a limit to the usefulness of controversy as a tool for social change? Controversies often get people arguing with each other in an overtly passionate, confrontational way. The point of the debate, whether in support or in opposition to some proposition, tends to get lost. And friendships can be strained or even poisoned. Sometimes one interlocutor makes it his purpose to defeat and humiliate the person who asserts the controversial view, not because he believes the contrary view but because he feels a need to demonstrate superiority. This can spoil the matter for everyone.

Some might say, "At least the controversy is getting people talking about the issues". But I think there comes a point when mere talking about an issue is no longer enough. We should also want the talking to be productive and progressive too. Also, debate should eventually give way to action: we should want to do things, not just talk about them. Even Aristotle affirmed that there comes a moment in public affairs when the emphasis must shift from deliberation to action.

Some might say, "All publicity is good publicity". But this, too, can go wrong for the person who seeks attention by generating controversy. Such a person may do damage to his reputation, for instance by giving others reason to judge him as a grandstanding loudmouth, instead of as an intelligent and progressive trailblazer. Your sense of self worth should come from your own rational judgment of your own life, of course: but your reputation is an enormously valuable asset too. Those who deliberately court controversy risk damaging their reputations, and that doesn't help their cause.

The point of a rational debate is that people who disagree at first eventually find agreement among each other: and that the agreement is reached by everyone's collaborative, clear-minded, and good-hearted pursuit of the good, the real, the true, and the beautiful. In a rational debate, no one wins unless everyone wins. I am deeply committed to the idea that our most important spiritual ideas are the ones which emerge from our relationships with each other, and that rational debate is one of the many vehicles for those relationships. But debates about controversial topics are not always rational or spiritually productive in that sense. People are quick to get angry, and interpret the controversial proposition as an attack on their lives and identities. Or, they ignore the controversy completely, in order to avoid getting involved in anything that may require them to do something. Controversies are often concluded when the debaters give up and concede victory to the loudest braggart.

And so I put the question: to those who wish to initiate social changes, either in their own small communities or in their wider, national-level communities, how useful is controversy, really? How much is too much? Is a certain amount of controversy necessary? Under what circumstances should someone deliberately stir the pot?

Some of Bren's critics: You're just worried about how your controversies might affect your book sales.

Bren: Well, yes, but if you knew how little money there really is in pagan publishing...

Canada's Anti-Witchcraft Law

A friend of mine down in London Ontario, who is the branch manager of a paralegal company, recently drew my attention to section 365 of the Criminal Code of Canada. This is the section which deals with the practice of witchcraft. It reads as follows:

365. Every one who fraudulently
(a) pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration,
(b) undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes, or
(c) pretends from his skill in or knowledge of an occult or crafty science to discover where or in what manner anything that is supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found,
is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

R.S., c. C-34, s. 323.

It's been in the news recently due to the case of Vishwantee Persaud, a woman charged with witchcraft after bilking a Toronto lawyer of more than ten thousand dollars by posing as the embodiment of his dead sister. As part of the article goes:

"She said she came from a long line of witches and could do tarot-card readings," says Detective Constable Corey Jones, who investigated the case. "It was through this that she cemented [the lawyer's] trust," setting the stage for the fraud to follow, which, according to Det. Constable Jones, included claiming fictitious expenses such as law-school tuition and cancer treatments.

Det. Constable Jones says it’s rare to charge someone under Section 365, but the circumstances of this case fit.

"It’s a historical quirk," says Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Some sections of the Canadian criminal code reflect offences that were more prevalent centuries ago. When the code was enacted in 1892, witchcraft per se was no longer a punishable offence, he says, but lawmakers wanted to ensure witchcraft wasn’t used as a cover for fraud.

Read the whole article here.

My friend down in London is lobbying the government to get that law repealed. His letters to the Attourney General are posted to the discussion board of a Facebook group, and you can read them here.

When he described this lobbying work to the pagan community (via that Facebook group), some of the local pagans argued for the preservation of this law. The most widely circulated statement of support for the law from the pagan community came from an acquaintance of mine who works at The Occult Shop, in Toronto. In her view, the law is necessary in order to clamp down on those who claim to possess magic powers and who advise their clients poorly, and (again) bilk them of many thousands of dollars. Here's a portion of her note:

As someone who works in the Occult business, there are hundreds of so-called psychics out there who make their pitiful livings by preying on the confused, hurt and weak. They will do a $10 dollar reading for you, and then charge you hundreds or thousands-or TENS of thousands- to remove your 'curse' for you, or bring back your straying other half.

Read the whole note here.

There are a few things I don't like about this debate. The first one I'll mention only in passing: I don't like the way certain people from the "opposition" camp have solicited my support for their point of view, before I had a chance to find out for myself what the issue was. One person even telephoned me at home asking for my help. I don't like this because I would rather make up my own mind, rather than be roped on to a bandwagon. And at any rate, my word on this matter is less influential than such people may think. I'm a fairly well known pagan writer, but I don't have "followers" in the sense of people who will agree with anything I happen to say.

But more to the point: the more that I study the law, and the case of Vishwantee Persaud, and the debate taking place on the Facebook group and following NC's note, the more I agree with the proposition that the anti-witchcraft law should be repealed, and the more I find arguments against this proposition unsatisfactory. Here are some of my reasons why.

For the purpose of protecting people from hucksters and frauds who would prey upon the vulnerable, it seems clear to me that the existing fraud laws already suffice in this case. I think it redundant and unnecessary to include a special mention for witchcraft. At any rate, the law as stated now declares witchcraft punishable "on summary conviction", so the punishment here is not necessarily any worse than the punishment for ordinary fraud.

The key word in the legislation is the word "pretending" (in subsections (a) and (c).) As pointed out to me by my friend in London via private correspondence: the word "pretending" here suggests that the State does not believe that witchcraft could be real: anyone who says they are practicing witchcraft is only pretending. That can potentially include those who say that they are practicing the religion. With this in mind, it's not difficult to imagine a religiously conservative or puritan judge ruling that anyone who practices the religion of Wicca is "pretending" to practice witchcraft.

Our religious practices are already protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution and thus trumps the Criminal Code. But a lot will depend on the eye of the beholder here. It is not difficult to imagine a future government much more conservative than our present one, declaring that witchcraft and wicca is not a religion, and that anyone who practices it is "pretending". Remember, it doesn't matter if you think it's a religion: it matters if the law thinks so. I do not know if any judicial precedents have established wicca and witchcraft as a religion in the eyes of the law. So I've written to a lawyer that I know, and I await his response.

Another thing pointed out to me by my friend in London: someone charged with witchcraft would soon find his or her culture and deepest religious beliefs on trial. I find this argument very persuasive. Imagine if you were arrested and charged with witchcraft for doing a Tarot reading and charging only $10 for it. Is the reading part of your religion, or is it pretend-witchcraft? The court, and not you, will decide. Again, a lot will depend on the eye of the beholder here. Many of the things that witches do are not much different from things that other people in other religions do: light a candle and lay out an offering before an icon or representation of a deity, for instance. This is not much different than what Catholics, Hindus, Santarians, some Aboriginal persons, and the like, regularly do. That relativism gives the courts and the police enough flexibility to come down hard on 'legitimate' practitioners of Wicca, if they should so wish, without coming down on the Catholic next door who dons a scapular, and lights a candle, blessed by his local bishop.

But the psychic huckster next door to that Catholic, charged with witchcraft after having extorted huge sums of money from vulnerable clients, could use that very relativism to get the charges dismissed. By claiming that what he does is religion, and not pretend-witchcraft, he can exercise his Charter rights and have the charges dropped. Thus, instead of protecting the victim, the law might protect the predator. Charge these people with fraud instead, so that they can't use the religion angle in their defence. Tighten up the fraud laws if necessary. But let's not mix religion with it. The psychic huckster can probably afford a better lawyer than you. After all, the fees he charges to his clients are higher.

(With thanks to G.C.)

March break - writing!

It's March Break at my new college.

March Break for my students means working on their essays, due on the first day back; and for me, it means ten whole days of uninterrupted writing the next book! This makes me very happy.

In honour of ten blissful days of solid philosophical thinking and writing, I bring you a few music videos of pieces that inspired me while I was writing Loneliness and Revelation.

Karl Jenkins (composer) - Adiemus. The fact that the lyrics are nonlexical phonemes is I think what got the mind moving.

Lise Olden - The Path. Something about the lyric of the chorus also got me thinking. And the video reminds me of what it was like when I started on the path.

The Waterboys - Too Close to Heaven. Possibly one of the finest love songs ever written.

Bobbi McFerrin - Circlesong Six

Christopher Tin - Baba Yetu. Yes, it's a video game song. Suck it up.

Bob Geldoff - This Is The World Calling.

The Beatles - Eleanor Rigby.

Roberto Alagna (tenor) - E Lucevan Le Stelle (Tosca, by Puccini). If you are going to be a prisoner of conscience somewhere, why not on the roof of Castell Di Angelo?

Philip Glass - Powaqqatsi

Beethoven - Symphony no.9, "Ode to Joy". With translation of Schiller's poem.

KMFDM - Juke Joint Jezebel. In case you think I only listen to "nice" music.

And finally: Harry Belafonte and the Muppets - We Come From the Mountain.

More of them later, maybe. :-)