Editorial: Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday May 25, 2004

A famous Celtic bard once wrote: 


“O wad some Power the giftie gie us  

To see oursels as ithers see us!  

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,  

An' foolish notion:  

What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,  

An' ev'n devotion! “ 


In modern English,  

“Oh would some Power give us the gift 

To see ourselves as others see us! 

It would free us from many a blunder 

And foolish notion. 

What airs in dress and gait would leave us, 

And even devotion!” 


That’s from Robert Burns’ poem “To a Louse,” in which the poet describes his reaction on seeing a louse crawling on the bonnet of a pretentious and well-dressed churchgoer.  

The Daily Planet has been deluged with letters from pagans around the world, as far away as South Africa, because our man Richard Brenneman dared to poke a little gentle fun at last week’s Interfaith Pagan Pride Parade. Or perhaps we should say from Pagans, since we got at least one letter saying that (contrary to the advice of our dictionaries and style books), the word should be capitalized, as is Christian, because Pagans have a real religion too. 

We certainly agree that they have a real religion. Which is precisely why they, like all other religions, are fair game for having fun poked at them by the irreligious. Making fun of religion is a tradition as old as some of the traditions which today’s neo-Pagans believe themselves to be reviving. Mark Twain practiced it. While the irate p/Pagans are web-surfing, they should check out, for example, his 1867-1869 letters to the San Francisco journal Alta California, in which he makes fun of both Mormons and Christian evangelicals. Today, Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion regularly ridicules Lutherans, Catholics, and any other representatives of mainstream religions who live in his fictional Lake Woebegon, Minnesota. (He never mentions p/Pagans, so there must not be any in Lake Woebegon.) We reprinted a long angry letter from the p/Pagan parade co-coordinators on the same page with our regular comic strip from Dan O’Neill, who chose on that very day to make fun of Christians, Jews and Muslims all in one strip.  

San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay guys, make fun of Catholic nuns. As someone who was educated by nuns, and who found them in the main to be women of kindness, intelligence and strong character, I might take offense at the parody. As a feminist, I might complain that the SPIs are secretly resentful of women who are in a position of power. But over the years I’ve noticed that, while seeming to mock nuns, they’ve also noted the good works nuns have done, and have imitated them by doing good works in their own community, the sincerest form of flattery.  

By the way, Brenneman’s description of the Christian group giving out free water at the event was also tongue-in-cheek, but the ironic tone he employed seems to have escaped many of the letter writers. Some of them, of course, admit that they didn’t read the piece, but are just responding to an alert broadcast on p/Pagan blogs on the Internet. 

A few of the letters we’ve received from the p/Pagans have threatened to sue the Planet for libel, and one cited the ACLU’s sponsorship of their parade as justification for that point of view. I’d check with the ACLU before taking that theory too far. If one wanted to get into a deep First Amendment analysis of the p/Pagan event, questions might be raised about whether or not fees paid to the city of Berkeley were 100 percent compensation for the cost to the city of policing and cleaning up, and if not, why not? Would the same courtesies have been extended to, for example, Lutherans on the Loose, as to p/Pagans on Parade? Under the U.S. Constitution, governments are not supposed to do special favors for any particular religion.  

And who’s going to compensate the farmer’s market vendors for lost business? One farmer told me that one might expect that events in Martin Luther King Civic Center Park would be good for business, but in fact the reverse is true: Big gatherings with blocked-off streets and amplified sound drive away food shoppers.  

In our book, people are welcome to hold any religious beliefs that they choose, but that doesn’t give them a free pass from criticism, whether it’s in the form of ridicule or as serious disagreement. Religious belief has always been used as justification for outrageous and intolerable actions, and that includes some of the beliefs and practices espoused by today’s new Pagans. Many people believe that the world would be a better place without religion, and a cursory look at today’s activities in the region which spawned the three desert monotheistic religions suggests that they might be right. 

—Becky O’MalleyZ