Living as Loki, friendship before Ragnarok

In Norse mythology Loki is a trickster frost giant who also plays a god. His relationship to the Aesir is complicated, but at the end of days when the world is nearing its final hours he is fated to stand against his erstwhile companions. I do not know much about the Marvel comics adaptation of Loki, though I have seen the films, and this element of alternating between good and evil is evident onscreen.

Does the fact that Loki is destined to stand against Odin negate all their experiences together? Is the full measure of a life the final act? I don’t think so.

Today we live in an age when he center is not holding. Politics and public life are polarizing. Apocalyptic language is in the air. Barack Obama was a socialist, a Communist, a Muslim. Now Donald J. Trump is the worst, thing, ever. And so on. There are two teams, and if you do not choose a team, you have lost the game before it is played. My pessimism about the possibility for a reinvigoration of a broadly liberal democratic order are for another post.

Recently my friend Heather Mac Donald wrote about her experience with protesters at Claremont McKenna. Her description of the student body’s hysterics are almost anodyne in how predictable they behaved. Rather, I was struck by how much invective Heather directed toward the silent faculty:

…Those professors also maintain that to challenge that claim of ubiquitous bigotry is to engage in “hate speech,” and that such speech is tantamount to a physical assault on minorities and females. As such, it can rightly be suppressed and punished. To those faculty, I am indeed a fascist, and a white supremacist, with the attendant loss of communication rights.

Of course not all faculty have abandoned classical liberal ideals. Nicholas Christakis and Alice Dreger are by any definition progressive liberals, but also adhere stridently to ideals of freedom of thought and speech. But both have been subject to abuse and personal attacks. They clearly fight on not because they are assured of victory, but because they believe in the justness of their cause.

Many of my liberal friends express some exasperation that I identify as conservative. But the fact of the matter is that the far Left writes off much of this country, and many of my friends, and arguably me, as a white supremacist and a fascist. Ours are not thoughts worth having in the eyes of the heirs of repressive tolerance. My liberal friends, being broad minded an of a tolerant bent, do not have sympathy with repression of thought. But at the end of the days when sides are taken what side will they choose?

I think here of an academic who is jaded and contemptuous of the infantile antics of the campus Left. He is worried that their provocations will result in the academy being targeted by the political Right. He does not relish conflict. Like me, he wants to be left alone to explore the topics which interest him. We share a mutual interest in evolutionary genetics. But, when and if the fight comes he does admit he must march with his colleagues, no matter how loony, and defend his side.

We both wish the world were not this polarized. But what we wish is not always what is. But until Ragnarok we can continue to drink beer and fight our battles shoulder to shoulder as friends. Neither of us want the Ragnarok of this liberal democratic republic to come, and I still hope it doesn’t. But we both understand that on that day we’ll be on different sides. And I’m OK with that. Life is not perfect, we do the best we can.

Addendum: Cool trailer:

When the gods come crashing down

Sometimes the old gods slowly fade into oblivion. Contrary to popular perception this seems likely the case for ancient paganism. The conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion began the process of a hand-off and the commanding heights of classical culture that took over a century to complete. There were punctuating moments, such as the apostasy of Julian in the 360s, or the mostly symbolic ban on public paganism by Theodosius in the 390s (the Serapeum was destroyed by a vigilante mob). But pagans in the form of the Neoplatonic school persisted into the 6th century, while elite pagans such as Marcellinus maintained power and influence deep into the second half of the 5th century.

Call this “normal” cultural evolution. Antiquity evolved from being predominantly pagan to predominantly Christian (though a small cultured pagan minority persisted even until the Islamic conquest in the Near East, such as the Sabians of Haran).

The Reformation period was different. In a single generation one thousand years of a coherent and unified Western Christian ideology collapsed, and was replaced by something very different.

Note here that I said Western Christian ideology. The reality is that Western Christianity was never as unified or coherent as Western Christians themselves envisaged themselves to be (or aspired to be). There were episodes of hostility between particular kingdoms and the Roman papacy. Heresies such as that of the Cathars, and popular revolts with a religious tinge such as that of the Hussites. And finally, there were periods of multiple popes, which undermined the credibility of the institution of the Church in the medieval period.

But all this pales next to the magnitude and scope of the revolt against the establishment of the Western Christian church that occurred in the 1520s. Martin Luther went from being a Christian cleric within the established Church to declaring the pope the anti-Christian! Previously devout peasants in Switzerland turned on the relics and churches which they had only recently venerated, and engaged in mob iconoclasm. Whereas monarchs, such as Henry IV, ultimately compromised with the clerical estate (or, submitted), Henry VIII of England managed to destroy or subordinate the institutions of the church to his own will and pleasure.

There are many theories for why the Reformation occurred when it did. Some of them are rooted in technology, in particular the printing press. Others point to the development of proto-national identities, such as the rise of German nationalism and its leveraging by Luther against his “Roman” persecutors.

These specific issues are not interesting to me. Rather, what they point out to us that there can be cultural revolutions that occur very rapidly. One can point to the pacific post-World War II Japanese, and contrast them with the militaristic Japanese of the first half of the 20th century. Or the shift of Russia from being a conservative autocracy in the 1910s to a revolutionary society in the 1920s. But these are modern events, and moderns are liable to suggest that our own epoch is sui generis in these sorts of turnovers of values. But the Reformation shows that revolutionary changes in whole societies can occur rather rapidly even in a pre-modern context.

In other words, cultural revolution is not a derived characteristic of our species, but perhaps a very old one. The rapid expansion of the Austronesians. Or the radiation of non-African humanity. These come out of a vacuum, a cultural-demographic analog to the inflationary universe. But given enough time perhaps our species is simply subject to these sorts of explosions of creative change and innovation.