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The Spiritual Truths underlying Liberalism and Conservatism, Part II: What Paganism adds

        Part I of this essay was needed so we can know what liberalism and conservatism have meant historically and begin to grasp how they are changing. In addition, to understand their relations with one another and with the world I added a third pole, Power, and claimed we can understand neither liberalism nor conservatism without it.  We can now delve more deeply, and begin to appreciate how Paganism can deepen our understanding and appreciation of both liberalism and conservatism.

Despite its now being almost always defended in purely secular terms liberalism is more in keeping with Jesus’s teaching that all are equal in God’s eyes  than is any other modern ideology. John Locke derived human rights from his Christian belief that we were God’s creations and in His eyes equal. Consider Matthew 25:34-40.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The important difference between this teaching and liberalism is that liberalism stops at not aggressing against one another, but does not proclaim a duty to help them. But I think the similarity is more important: all are fundamentally equal in a moral sense.

By contrast, conservatism laid greater emphasis on how individuals differed in the social order rather than in how they were abstractly equal. Society had always been hierarchical, and it likely always would be. Efforts to abolish hierarchy ended in new hierarchies often more brutal than those they replaced. That social hierarchies had so long remained so was an argument why we should live with them rather than try and end them.

But traditional conservatism drew different conclusions from this fact than the currently fashionable infatuation with Ayn Rand’s image of an talented and able elite supporting the world. History taught conservatives elites were inevitable, but it also taught this inevitability did not mean elites were particularly wise, able, or deserving. A person’s place in the social hierarchy did not simply reflect his or her personal abilities, although they certainly mattered.  It also reflected where they had been born, who their family was, and the opportunities that came their way on account of their “station.”  

It followed that those blessed with a privileged place in society had a responsibility to preserve the society that had privileged them. Doing so meant helping those less privileged so as to make their position as bearable as possible. Wealth and status conferred responsibilities to act responsibly and with an eye to interests greater than simply one’s private desires. Society as a whole gained when all who comprised it flourished according to their station. Ideals of justice for individuals were subordinated to what was good for maintaining the social order, but having high status should require considerable responsibility for acting beyond narrow self-interest.

In a way, liberalism and conservatism divided the Christian ethical tradition in half.  Liberals argued for equal intrinsic value for all, but with no strong obligation to help others so long as one conducted oneself justly.  Conservatism saw everyone as immersed with a multi-generational web of humanity, each benefiting from his or her ancestors and having obligations to pass on their familial and social inheritance in at least as good a condition to those who came later.  Because our social positions reflected more than our own personal qualities, those most blessed were wise to assist those less blessed.

One emphasized equality of moral worth, the other the centrality of preserving good relationships across divisions of class and wealth.

Pagan perspectives

Both liberalism and conservatism have rough equivalents in the history of Pagan thought.  I have described how Aristotle was the first democratic theorist. In addition, in his The Peloponnesian War Thucydides’ depiction of Pericles’ funeral oration  was in many ways a affirmation of liberal values.  Conservative thinking has also been well represented in Pagan times, as in the works of Cato the Elder and Cicero.  

That said, Pagan societies of the past were so different from our own as to make cross-cultural comparisons very difficult and easily misleading. Instead I want to focus on modern Pagans and modern liberalism and conservatism. From a conservative perspective it is modern society that needs preservation, and modern men and women whose rights are important from a liberal one.

Returning to the world

From my perspective both liberalism and conservatism grasp something true about human life. But of the two, conservatism provides a broader foundation for understanding society. Conservative principles can be used to understand and explain any society, which is both its strength and its weakness.  Liberalism is more explicitly rooted in theory and abstract principles, Burke’s “metaphysical distinctions.” Many societies exist, and have long existed, that deny the validity of these principles. Liberals argue they are mistaken. But liberalism came to this conclusion from within a Western Christian worldview. As a consequence, liberalism separates us from the world.

For Locke the world is something God gave to us for our use, but the only part that is rightfully personally ours is what we use so long as “as much and as good” remains for others. The rest of the world is equally open to the use of others, and derives what value it has from that use.  

Further, we are each of us unique individuals separate from all others. Unlike Hobbes’ view of human nature as short sighted and anti-social, for Locke people are social. But like Hobbes, each is separate from all others. We are social atoms coming together to create the molecules and compounds we call society. It is symbolically fitting that Locke was a contemporary and friend of Sir Isaac Newton.  

 Secular liberals today have accepted this instrumental view of our world, and of our distance from it.  Thinking they have freed themselves from religion, they often simply substitute a secularized version of transcendental monotheism that divorces people from the social and natural world and denies its having any intrinsic value, and does so as completely as any Calvinist.

This separation of people from the world is why attempts to ground an ethical regard for nature on a liberal foundation has been so unimpressive, even to many who sympathize with their motivation. The liberal notion of rights does not apply very easily to animals existing in relationships requiring predation.  Nor does the utilitarian alternative of ‘animal liberation’ do any better. Tom Regan  and Peter Singer,advocates of animal rights and animal liberation respectively, both foundered when discussing predation.  From their perspective it was wrong, but nature requires it. That humans exist, including Tom Regan and Peter Singer, is the result of millions of years of predation. Without predation the world would consist of little beyond blue green algae.

With respect to liberal rights and preserving nature for its own sake, as the old Maine saying goes, “You can’t get there from here.”

Burkean conservatism returns us to the world, or, because it shares transcendental monotheism’s views about our unique status, at least to the social world. This opens conservatism to appreciating the importance of nature more deeply than can liberalism. A conservative argument would rest on prudence and on preserving values for future generations (whereas the liberal economist asks “what has the future ever done for me?”)  But it also lays the foundation for something deeper.

Burke’s arguments about the nature of society are ecological. There is no great step from seeing society as a great ecology of human relationships to seeing it as itself immersed within and dependent upon an even greater ecology of relationships of the other-than-human. Preserving the world then becomes as important as preserving society. To pick two examples , conservative reasoning would be very concerned about global warming and the over fishing of the oceans.  That today it is not is a fascinating question that Part III will discuss.

Crucially, this pro-conservation conservative perspective is compatible with a Pagan view that conceives the spiritual as immanent, as existing within and through the world.  

By contrast, the liberal view of the world as our tool to be used as we wish is harder to harmonize with a Pagan perspective. New Deal liberals long argued an undammed river’s water is “wasted” when it runs out to sea rather than being diverted for irrigating deserts.  Classical liberals sometimes argue the job could be better done by private enterprise, but agree the job should be done.  Liberals can and do learn from science that the reality is far more complex than this mid-20th century view comprehended, but the final standard is still what is most useful for us.   

The matter of rights

But liberalism has given us the transformative doctrine of human rights, which has been a powerful concept for improving human well being for billions.  Buttressed by Christians who took seriously the passage I cited from Matthew, liberals abolished slavery in the name of individual rights. The transformative impact of our Declaration so changed American thinking that a majority of states abolished slavery well before the Civil War.  Much that is best in our history reflects the influence of acting as if individual rights mattered while much that is worst in our history reflects when those motivated by fear or lust for power set human rights aside.

Can an immanent Pagan perspective find a place for individual rights? Pagan slave societies never did. Can we?

I believe we can.

Reversing the Relations: Respect and Rights

A simple reversal allows us to salvage the crucial idea of individual rights after giving up transcendental views of who we are.  The animal rights debates set the stage.   Tom Regan and others try and derive an ethical relation to the rest of the world, or at least to part of it, from building on the idea of human rights.  I suggest reversing this, and deriving human rights from a deeper appreciation of the ethical value of the world within which we live.

If we examine hunting and gathering Pagan cultures, which took seriously the insight their world was in some important sense alive, as well as those which while agricultural, preserved much of that sensibility, as with many Native Americans, we find a universal or near universal emphasis upon relating to the non-human world with respect.

        No culture perfectly exemplifies its highest values. Certainly ours does not. But so long as a people respected those values, they serve as important correctives when greed or fear or ambition tempt us towards different paths. If we are wise these ethics help keep us from being carried away by these temptations, temptations which always serve that third pole: Power.  The Pagan Naxi people of Southwest China have preserved their forests for primarily spiritual reasons even though they have been logged most everywhere else. If we are not wise these ethics serve as goads pushing future generations to correct the errors of their ancestors.  Our Declaration of Independence undermined slavery. Its words served as a constant reminder of work left unaccomplished, which was why the antebellum South repudiated it.  

I suggest basic liberal rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to own property are the form respect takes among equals who are strangers.  As such, liberal rights make it possible for people who know little or nothing about one another to cooperate, building networks of trust and so creating a world of unimaginable complexity and richness.  Liberalism helps us over come the worst abuses arising from always preferring the more concrete to the less concrete, our family to others, our tribe to other tribes, our people to people in general.  

Viewing rights as the form respect takes with regard to strangers who are our equals also sheds light on a problem with arguments made by some liberals, libertarians in particular, that liberal rights apply easily to all human relations.  They do not translate well into intimate relations because they are impersonal.  They work best when relating with others whom we do not know, or have no interest in becoming involved with beyond simple exchanges. A comparison of prostitution and a loving relationship makes this point clear.

Prostitution is an example of the liberal right to voluntary exchange. Both parties believe they will be better off because of it, and often they are correct.  So long as neither party is victimized, I have no ethical problem with prostitution.

           But prostitution is not the same as a loving relationship.  In the latter case I limit myself in ways not considered necessary within more purely contractual relations.  I do not have to of course, but my not doing so usually leads to ending an intimate relationship. While prostitution and loving relationships are exceptionally clear examples, there are many others where we accept necessary limitations  on our liberal rights in order to preserve valued relationships. There are even cases where I might violate another’s liberal rights because they are a person for whom I care deeply, as when I take a drunken friend’s keys, his property, to prevent his driving home.

To maintain relations of love and friendship, let alone raising children, I will not rely solely on respecting liberal rights and sometimes might even ignore them.

Liberal rights are crucially important, but they apply to only a portion of human relations. As the form respect takes among equal strangers, they limit the abuses of tribalism and nationalism, and make trust and cooperation among strangers easier. They exist within what I suggest we think of as a larger moral ecology of appropriate relationships, all ultimately rooted in the value of respect.

The symbiotic relation of liberalism and conservatism

Earlier I mentioned conservatism had a fatal weakness that liberalism could heal. When reform is called for  conservatism’s insights do not give any guidance on what to do. Conservatism is biased towards maintaining the status quo, but society, like an ecosystem, is constantly changing.  When a subordinate class objects to their subordination, conservatism too easily tilts towards suppressing them to preserve that status quo because those who are in positions of power will weigh their advantages of the moment more heavily than another group’s disadvantages.  Empathy towards those unlike us is always a challenge, and without empathy the rich and powerful always feel superior.

Past a certain point maintaining the status requires  more and more power imposed on the world to preserve what is superficially the status quo. But because increasing amounts of power are needed to accomplish this, at a deeper level the status quo is still changed. Power concentrates ever more completely into tyranny in the name of preserving order.

Liberalism teaches that when reforms become possible they should seek as best they can to move a social order towards greater practical respect for rights, and never away from it.  This is an important corrective to the temptation to give ever more control over to Power when it promises to restore “stability.” In a sense, wise liberalism in a conservative context is a genuinely conservative principle.

From another perspective, the conservative ecological approach is needed to know when it is wise to make changes, and liberalism is needed to know what general direction those changes need to go.  Conservatism originated in relatively liberal England, and used reason and evidence rather than simple appeals to faith or unexamined tradition to make its case. Burke thought the French should build greater liberty based on their traditional institutions, not suppress liberty in the name of the monarchy. The changes he felt were necessary would have gone in a liberal direction, but not nearly as far and as fast as what was attempted, and eventually failed.

          Liberalism sets the direction, conservatism determines the speed.  There is no simple privileging of one perspective over the other and no way to tell how fast to go without considering the details of each case.

Or so it seems to me.

A Pagan Summing Up

Pagan spiritual insights root conservative social insights in the all embracing world that sustains us and root liberal rights in the primordial insight that in a world filled with life and meaning our dealings with all our relations should be governed by respect.  Pagan insights free conservatism from an amoral preference for the status quo and readiness to use power in its preservation, a readiness that transforms that status quo in very unconservative directions.   Pagan insights free liberalism from its basic inability to appreciate and value the non human world, and solidly grounds liberal rights in the larger ethical world within which we live.  It does so in a way giving full appreciation to the important human relations that are not able to be maintained through purely liberal rights.  Perhaps these tasks can be accomplished by other means, but Pagan spirituality is an exceptionally clear way to do so.

It cannot come too quickly because, as Part III will show, in America both conservatism and liberalism are in advanced stages of decay, and in both cases the third pole, Power, is successfully turning their rhetoric against themselves, depriving words of meaning, and threatening to create a hideous world of tyranny and oppression.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Tuesday, 03 September 2013

    In today's culture its hard to see where liberals support individual rights or that conservatives oppose individual rights. In many ways what is now being conserved is individual rights, while liberals advocate government eradication of individual rights. Maybe Section III will clarify all that.

    Note: The abolition of slavery had more to do with the economics of steam engines (technology) vs. the high cost of human labor than it did with moral or philosophical agendas. Its easy to object to slavery when you can employ a steam engine to do your work. The cotton farms and tobacco plantations of the antebellum south had not yet learned to harness engine power. Slavery still exists in some remote places where engine power does not.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 03 September 2013

    Greybeard- I noticed I did not respond to your point about some plantations not having steam engines. So I want to. To be sure alternative power sources make freeing slaves easier. This was likely a major reason it lasted so long- it was a cornerstone of elite rule. But elite rule was what was at stake. Lack of steam engines in remote plantations cannot explain why laws over slaves often got harsher over time nor can it justify banning anti slavery speech, jailing people who were against it, or banning importation of Northern literature against slavery. All of this suggests slavery might have become unpopular in the South had Southerners been able to access the arguments against it. Southerners would not have suffered so much as Southern elites would have if slavery were challenged successfully.

    If there was no alternative, why the felt need to ban discussion? Why the need to make property qualifications for holding state offices so high that in a Southern context you almost had to own slaves to be prosperous enough to run?

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    Many political decisions are fueled by economic realities. Slavery was an economic reality in pagan, Christian, and Muslim lands throughout history until the industrial revolution created non-human power to do our work. The northern US states never had the large scale plantation economy that southern states had. The northern economy was mostly small shops and family farms. Shortly after the US was established, steam engines began replacing slave powered bellows in the blacksmith shop, sawing logs into lumber, and replacing oars in boats. Opposing slavery was easy for the northern mill owners who now used steam rather than slaves. Steam engines did more work and were less expensive for industry in the North and in England.

    Steam engines had not begun replacing human labor in cotton fields of large scale farming that was the source of big money in the South. By the middle of the 19th century steam engines were replacing horses for transportation (trains) but the invention of an engine powered cotton picker would take another century. Of course big money planters would worry about outsiders trying to kill their economic success. Of course they would try to reject moves to outlaw the only source of farm labor available on a large scale. The industrial revolution would have eventually made slavery uneconomical there too, by inventing an engine powered cotton picker, but that would take a while longer.

    As for owning property. As a wise man once observed, "The masses always vote for bread and circuses." Owning property to vote would still be better for any democracy. Many bankrupt cities and nations are finding out about the down side of allowing universal suffrage. Land owners have a vested interest in the future of their town/city/nation.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    I have granted mechanical power made it vastly easier to abolish slavery. I also argued ideas, especially the liberal idea of human rights, vastly speeded the process up. How ideas and economic forces interpenetrate is something many books have been written about and I suggest you expand your knowledge of the field. It is not accidental that slavery was abolished in the very non-industrial north right after the country was founded largely for two reasons- it was not crucial to their economies and ideas convinced people to change. Read the link I gave. It is to John Jay, an American Revolutionary leader writing to an English anti-slavery society. There were no steam engines.

    You don’t like the power of ideas? Why are you wasting your time arguing about them? But thank you for demonstrating your knowledge of steam power on Southern plantations without any apparent awareness as to how slavery retarded Southern industrialization.

    “The masses” is a construct developed by elites who had made the rise of civil society impossible in their countries by preventing freedom– the freedom you sometimes say you believe in - at the popular level. Blaming the “masses” in such a case is blaming the victim while snuggling up to the perpetrator. Interestingly the term was also a favorite of Marxist-Leninists who denied to people any major creative power and reduced all significant change to economic determinism and elite leadership.

    Where civil society exists there are no ‘masses.’ Civil society, such as we have, is an intricate network of clubs, organizations, friendships, sports associations and teams, business connections, and religious groups. It is the opposite of a ‘mass.’ And acts quite differently.

    If you want to read a good study of how civil society differs from fragmented societies prone to mass behavior at times, read Robert Putnam's "Making Democracy Work" - a fascinating comparative study of southern Italy, long ruled by property owning elites, and northern Italy, a land where civil society has been unusually strong for centuries.

    Where elites destroy or prevent civil society, there are, at times, “masses" as was the Paris mob during the first French Revolution. South Korea is an excellent example of how once civil society came to exist, full democracy could come peacefully and prosperously. South Korea never had a history of democracy, never had a revolution, and for most of its history never had a civil society, yet the transition was very peaceful and successful.

    If you look at how Americans react during times of terrible crisis, they do not act as ‘masses.’ Rebecca Solnit has written an excellent book on it-“A Paradise Built in Hell.” She carries her conclusions too far, but it is a wonderful corrective to the stuff you are saying. And yes, my Part III will deal with the nihilism masquerading today as conservatism.

    You do not seem to know much about the history of universal suffrage. But what you write says volumes about your sense of who you are compared to every one else. Here is one fact you cannot account for with your views- no popular democracy with even just universal manhood suffrage, and no matter how otherwise flawed, so long as parties changed power due to elections and basic political liberties existed, has EVER fought a war with another such polity.

    In this country most ‘bread and circuses’ are for the elite, as in the obscene profits that come from perpetual war against small and insignificant powers. I doubt that you care, but the people without enough ‘property’ in your eyes fight in the wars, pay the taxes, have children about whose futures they acre, and are under the law as much as anyone else. Indeed, often more, because the laws are often written to make property holders richer and keep everyone else under foot.

    But quote your supposedly ‘wise’ source by name, otherwise why should we take it seriously? I can find similar quotes among drunks in a bar.

    Part III which will deal with people who have views harmonious with yours and who masquerade as ‘conservatives’ rather than reactionary nihilists.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    My reference about "bread and circuses" is usually attributed to Juvenal, a Roman satirist. I assumed that a man who asserts himself as educated in history and philosophy would be conversant with such a common quote. My mistake. Sorry.

    iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli
    uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim
    imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se
    continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
    panem et circenses.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    Thanks for the response, Gus. We obviously have some areas of disagreement in perspective. An insightful History Professor I studied with while in college said, "if you want to know the real reason history happened the way it did, follow the money." In the years since, I've found that wisdom also very accurate in understanding current events.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Tuesday, 03 September 2013

    Two quick responses. First, most members of the ACLU are liberals and the others are libertarians. Conservatives on balance dislike it. Conservatives tended to support the Patriot Act, the most liberal among Democrats opposed it. A simple dichotomy does not explain this.

    Second, if the steam engine were all that was required perhaps you can tell us why the South fought a war to preserve it. a war where they had steam engines. And many northern states abolished it within a few years of the Revolution, when most were almost entirely agricultural. No one denies that technology helped immensely by offering alternatives, but any one who gives a pure economic/technological explanation has a lot of explaining to do.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    The thread has ended so I will pick it up here as a new one should you wish to continue the discussion. I suspected the source, but the phrase has become so common on the right these days that I wanted you to say where you got the idea. As I said, it and ideas like it is heard in bars often enough these days. You used a Roman source from a society radically different from our own, and you used it to describe our own.

    We may degenerate to the level of the Roman Empire. Certainly the Neoconservatives are doing their best to hasten that process. But we started in a very different spot, have developed in a very different way and at the moment have many things Rome never did, including a deep and complex civil society that makes comparisons such as you gave rather misleading.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    The Roman Empire was a very successful PAGAN culture that lasted for hundreds of years. Many modern Pagans still worship Roman Gods. A classic Pagan culture is indeed radically different from the Christian biased culture that Pagans find ourselves surrounded by today. Nevertheless, human nature is much the same, and many truths of classical philosophy and politics are still quite useful. I would hesitate to call a reference to a successful classical Pagan culture "degenerate." We obviously disagree on some of the basics, Gus, but its been an interesting discussion.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    It was successful. But as you once said, Paganism is a big tent. It had room for the Aztecs, another successful Pagan culture I do not want to emulate.

    Rome had many good qualities that became progressively corrupted by Power until it became a despotism subsisting on endless wars to capture slaves. This degraded the culture. As Tacitus once critically said of Rome:" Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant."

    "To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace."

    Not for me. We can do a lot better.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    Corrupt despotism has returned to popularity lately, especially among those who vote for bread and circuses.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    By this you must mean the corporate and banking military industrial complex. Yes?

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    LOLOL :-)

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    Mr. diZerega,

    Thank you for writing a Pagan political manifesto of such depth. Frankly, I agree with every word. It was well worth the time it took me to read and understand it.

    I very much appreciate this series.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 04 September 2013

    Thank you Jamie. When I began writing a manifesto was pretty far from my mind, but as I puzzle the pieces together I think one is emerging, one that is a very big tent. I am glad you like it.

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