Today is July Fourth, which in the United States of America is celebrated as Independence Day. It is the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.
Today is also the culmination of “A Spell for Justice”, a two week spellworking written by Starhawk that began on the Summer Solstice. Many of my beloveds are sharing this spell on Facebook today, and I share their hopes for “justice, justice now for all!”
This spell involves working with symbols of liberty and justice. Starhawk suggests the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and encourages the singing of patriotic songs like God Bless America. The spells timing takes advantage of the energy of the July 4th holiday to seal and release the spell. When Starhawk first shared this spell, she reminded everyone that “you are your own spiritual authority” (the closest thing Reclaiming has to a rule) and encouraged people to change what doesn’t work for them. I want to thank Starhawk for setting this example. I appreciate the spaciousness and flexibility that Reclaiming brings to the expression of political magic. In this post, I want to dig into why, for me, spells involving patriotic symbols such as the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the Flag feel so tricky, and why I don’t do them. I am not suggesting that others do not do them: they may work really well for you. Your mileage may vary. This post simply represents my own process around why this type of magic repels me so strongly.
Here’s a question: Is our current political system broken, or working exactly as designed? Some people would say that the United States (which I am going to refer to as “America” in the rest of this post) really does stand for equality, justice, fairness, and liberty, and our system’s failure to deliver those things is because it is broken (and we need to fix it by taking the House and Senate in the midterms and voting in a progressive Democrat in 2020!). Others might say, the American system was never designed to promote or provide those things, but was specifically designed to advantage specific classes of people over others and relies on inequality to function. So, when the American system is failing to provide things like equality, justice, liberty for all, etc, it is actually PERFECTLY - just as designed. In this case, it can’t be fixed, because it isn’t broken. It can only be destroyed.
Whether or not you feel comfortable using patriotic images and songs in your political magic probably has a lot to do with which scenario you think is true. Like many others, including many who I love and respect, I used to think that the American system stood for the ideals of truth, justice, liberty, equality, and when it didn’t deliver it was because something was wrong. I was a classic liberal, pretty progressive. Then, I experienced the Baltimore Uprising. I saw my city rise up around me and I began to listen to a wider array of people and really hearing what they were saying. I got an education in radical politics. After what I experienced, I saw the system very differently. I saw the ways in which it was designed to exploit, to divide, to prioritize corporate interests over collective, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, to keep people from developing class consciousness, to protect and prolong institutional racism and sexism, and to always, always keep cops from being held responsible. Crucially, I came to understand that these things were a feature of the system, not a bug. And the story about what America is - well that’s just a smokescreen, a collective opiate that helps us feel ownership in something that is really robbing us blind.
Empire and its Symbols
These symbols that some people talk of reclaiming - the flag and the Statue of Liberty for example - are powerful cultural egregores. They are like spells, that have been cast over many years by powerful people, movements, institutions, corporations, and of course the government. They assist in the creation of a monolithic “American culture” that aids the State in the process of everything from quelling criticism to discouraging class consciousness to suppressing domestic uprisings to invading foreign countries. They have been a powerful part of the invention and codification of ‘whiteness’ in the United States, a critical tool for racial oppression. As the monoculture becomes more powerful and pervasive, it stamps out individuality and divergence. Compliance is assured. These symbols belong to the myth and story of America, and I cannot work with them without working within this mythos and lending energy to this two hundred year old spell.
To me, the idea that these symbols are something that “belong to me” or that they can be “reclaimed” is something that doesn’t add up- they are abstract agents of the state working culturally to ensnare me into not giving up my commitment to the idea that the system can be reformed. As long as I remain committed to the idea of reforming the system, I will prolong its survival. If you are a person who thinks the system is basically good and needs to be fixed, it makes sense to work with these symbols. If you think the system is bad and must be destroyed, working with these symbols magically makes no sense (unless you are binding or hexing them). They will work at cross purposes to your intention and degrade your magic.
My friend once told me about a conversation he had with a European. The European commented on the manner my friend had of always saying “we” when he meant the U.S. “Why do you do that?” the European asked. “You say ‘We invaded that country’ or ‘We probably assassinated that South American leader.’ Did you do those things? No. So why do you say ‘We?' ” His European friend was curious about the way Americans seem to take collective ownership of everything the American government does, no matter how much they loathed the action. For me, hearing about this exchange was really freeing. It helped me understand that the way Americans personally identify with the actions of their government is a cultural phenomena, and that I could make a choice to disidentify. It didn’t mean I was freed from doing everything I could to fight against actions I found reprehensible, but it freed me from feeling personally morally tainted by it. Maybe you will find this exchange freeing as well.
Similarly, as I release the idea that “America” is a system worth saving, that is where I feel real liberty and freedom blooming. Out there beyond the symbols of the settler state is something that wants to lead us forth to respond to the future we are facing. I feel this power emerging. I feel the breeze coming through the uncertainty and fear of the present moment; I hear it calling. The future is going to look very different. It’s almost certain that we cannot avoid climate collapse. Even if I thought reform was the best option to avoid the pain and suffering that destruction brings, it seems like the system is bent on destroying itself. What will come next? What do we want to turn our attention, magical and otherwise, to building for our descendants? As we ask this question, I remember the archetype of the witch, the one who walks the edge, who is not afraid of the Other because she is the Other. Peter Gray said “You will find the witch at the end of a pointed finger.” He also writes, “As populations are displaced by war, flood, fire and famine, we will see many more strangers in a strange land. To the witch, they are Kindred.”
I know there is no one as zealous (or annoying) as the newly converted. I hardly think my elders like Starhawk haven’t considered these thoughts, and they still find value in working with these symbols. I honor their wisdom and experience and will continue to learn from it. I am glad to have a chance to share when I am at my point in this process. I am grateful for the privilege of being in community with with so many who are finding ways to respond creatively and meaningfully to the times we are in. May we continue to do so.