Sunday, August 29, 2010

randy fakefeather and the fakefeather path

Molecular biologist/physical anthropologist Jonathan Karpf has given a talk for me in MSR over the years, part of which examines the principles of Creation Myths. He gives this lecture to his own classes as well. It's a delicious bit in which he tells the tales of the Cherokee, Gond, Yao and Biblical Creation Myths and elicits some hypotheses out of these. Some of his key points are:

First, he says, Creation myths tell of the local origins of a local population.

Second, Creation myths demonstrate why one's own population is better than others — ie. Creation myths are ethnocentric.

Third, that from the outside, these tales seem fantastical and ridiculous, and

Fourth, that from the inside, one's own tale is considered neither fantastical nor ridiculous, nor a myth: People take their own Creation story to be the (gospel) (large 'T') Truth.

He then posits the possibilities.

Maybe they're all right. And each population was created quite separately, and according to radically different cosmological rules, gods and spirits.

Or maybe only one is correct, and that all the rest are crap. (my word, not his).

Or just maybe they're all a load of crap.

Of course, the way Jonathan puts it, with practiced cultural sensitivity, is that each explanation is pre-scientific, and therefore that each population was doing the best that it could in the cosmology department at the time.

He leads up to, of course, that now we have science.

And that science is the best means that humanity has devised to seek understanding of the natural world (which includes us and our origins). He assumes, again, of course, that we humans are part of the natural world. And his point is that science can get to a (small 't') truth that can be independently verified and universally applied.

Every semester that I have him speak, at least some students have a very hard time with his talk in MSR. I've even had students drop the class after he gave his presentation, and come back another semester asking me for warning when he might appear.

The students seem to be fine with the witches, psychics, voudou priestesses, UFO channels, tantric practitioners, martial artists, shape-shifters, shamans, and neo-shamans I bring to class. But the physicists and other scientists sometimes just give them the willies.

We were speaking a post or two ago about Peter Pan playing indigene shaman supreme, and the glorious Tina must be given credit for dubbing him 'Randy Fakefeather', which is absolutely deliciously perfect — a Peter by any other name smells just as fake.

But that's not really fair.

What is the difference between Randy Fakefeather and any other seeker walking that spiritual path? Why do we save our wrath for his inauthenticity, accuse him of insincerity, and then lap it up when the feathers feel a touch more real? Fakefeather's crap, but Harner's okay? Harner's crap but Castaneda's okay? Castaneda's crap, but Starhawk's okay? Starhawk's crap, but the Pope's okay? The Pope's crap, but how can you say no to Peter Pan?

Applying Jonathan's measure, we can say perhaps that all the paths are equally true, authentic and spiritually rewarding.

Or we can say that there is only the One True God (pick one) and that all the rest are crap. This conflict is portrayed deliciously in the BSG/Caprica battle between monotheistic tyranny and terrorism on the one hand, and the tolerance of polytheistic cosmologies on the other.

Or we can say that they're all wrong. And that their adherents are all on the Fakefeather Path.

Why single out Peter Pan of our tale for such reprobation? Why does he anger us so? Especially when he gets the job done.

Now, I feel quite bad defending him in this regard, because my allegiance is clearly on the other side of the tale (see two posts back). And because I so identify with pure-blood systems the same way our Indian friend does, and for exactly the same reasons.

But I'm not sure those reasons are really valid.

This is my song, my land, my ritual, etc. causes terrible strife, and I'm a collectivist at heart. While I too would be offended at the singing of my song in some made-up ritual, I would also be quite pleased that the practitioner bothered to learn it, sings it so well, has found new meaning, uses it in a way that moves people.

And at the same time, I'm cringing inside.

If I believe that all spiritual seekers are on the Fakefeather Path, I have no cause to single out and take offense at one misguided ritual alone.

If I believe in a One True Path/God/Whatever, I give myself cause to take up arms, invade territory, perpetrate genocide and mobilize my own righteous indignation.

If I believe in nothing at all but empiricism, I can (if I don't have a problem with curses) say, a plague upon both their houses. Say, as Jonathan does, that they're all equally wrong, cosmologically speaking. And that they're probably all equally satisfying for their respective practitioners.

From this point of view, I think we should embrace the Fakefeather Path (not for ourselves, of course — we're still purist and empiricist snobs) but for the gentle masses, who take pleasure in the delights of new age ritual, feel good sweating a stolen sweat and singing a stolen song.

We can nod, know the (little 't') truth, stay smug, and maybe just maybe be big enough to let it go.

Right. I know. Not gonna happen, is it?


  1. Bring on any and all small 't' truths, just don't ever capitalize, especially don't capitalize with capitalism.

  2. One might argue that singing your song in a made-up ritual is exactly my role in our collaboration.