Tuesday, September 27, 2016


David Pountney of the Welsh National Opera
On October 1, the Lyric Opera of Chicago debuts its new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four-opera, fifteen-hour spectacle inspired by Norse and Germanic mythology, legend, saga, and poetry.

This season will feature Das Rheingold, the first opera of the series, with a cast including Eric Owens (Wotan), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Stefan Margita (Loge), and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka). Subsequent seasons will see Die Walküre (2017-2018), Siegfried (2018-2019), and Götterdaämmerung (2019-2020). If that doesn’t sate your appetite for Wagnerian gods and heroes, the Lyric will then perform three complete Ring cycles beginning in April 2020.

The vision of this new Ring is shaped by director David Pountney, the English director and librettist who currently serves as artistic director of the Welsh National Opera. Although Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein writes that Pountney is “a stage director committed to returning the ‘Ring’ to the world of the theater, after decades of Wagner cycles driven by ideological and/or technological concepts often far removed from Wagner’s explicit intentions,” the director himself makes clear that his new production is centered around a Marxist reading of the libretto and new technology developed with the attitude that Wagner’s stage directions are impossible to realize.

There is little about Wagner and his work on which Mr. Pountney and I agree. The composer is a polarizing figure for both his music and his polemics. In my transcription below (with my questions and comments in bold), I try to convey the intense back-and-forth of what became less of an interview and more of a debate.

I make no secret in my writing and teaching of my belief that we must all confront Wagner’s disgusting anti-Semitism and racism. Whether we perform, direct, study, teach, or listen to his music, we must each face the foulness of the ideas he worked so hard to promote in both his writings and his art. Yes, he was an amazing genius of brilliant musical invention, but he was also one of the most extreme examples of the very worst elements of German culture before the Third Reich.

There are many approaches to Wagner. Here are two of them.

“It’s pure Karl Marx”

KS – In my favorite bit of “The Future of Opera,” your brilliant and barn-burning millennial manifesto on the necessity of new opera, you write:
Those who do nothing more than live like parasites off the past I cast into a particularly unpleasant circle of hell. There is no greater betrayal of custodianship than that. Therefore, the future of opera for me is not about how many more performances of La Bohème there will be in the next century and nor about whether this Bohème is dressed up as something else…

And God forbid that the needs of the present should be fobbed off for the next century with the idea that it is sufficient to re-locate La Bohème in Brixton to answer this point.
How does this new production of an opera first performed nearly 150 years ago address the needs of the present?

DP – I guess because the messages – particularly in this opera – political messages that Wagner encoded into his libretto – which reflected, of course, the political realities of the time when he wrote it – still have degrees of relevance to us today. He was so sublimely skillful as a distiller of perhaps grandiose ideas into very compelling stories. There is something of the Roald Dahl about Wagner, isn’t there? He’s able to take things and turn them into something that everybody wants to be on the next page on.

I think Rheingold is wonderful as a rather thrilling story, but each of the characters in the piece is treated with such sophistication. The fact that he bothers to touch on the personal, romantic yearning of the working-class giant for something of beauty in his life. That’s a very, very subtle thing to weave into the story. Lots of people would have charged through characterizing the giants without putting quite so much attention onto that psychological detail, that one of them is really yearning for something.

That, I think, also reflects the much more explicit, even quasi-socialist state of mind that he was in when he wrote Rheingold. This feeling doesn’t really come much to the fore in the rest of the Ring, but it’s definitely there in Rheingold. Mime’s speech about “once, we used to make toys for our families, and now we’re driven underground.”

This is Karl Marx , actually. It’s pure Karl Marx – the division of labor and all of this kind of thing. But he never loses site of the fact that he’s also telling a good yarn, so none of that philosophy overwhelms the storytelling process.

KS – Watching the rehearsal, I noticed that Freia was looking at the giant with a yearning for him. Is this something you personally put into the production, that she’s actually reciprocating his feelings?

DP – It’s not explicitly in Wagner, but it’s a legitimate interpretation. These days, we would call it Stockholm Syndrome.

Wotan as he will appear in the Lyric Opera's Rheingold
KS – You’ve written that the new production is “in clear contrast to many contemporary versions of the Ring which are acts of interpretation... the emphasis in our case will be to tell the story, rather than to tell you what the story means.”

You’ve also said that this version of “Rheingold deals with historical time when the gods were nomads but intent on walling themselves up in a pompous castle worthy of the Habsburgs, dressed to match, Alberich is turning from a clumsy, mocked seducer into an early industrialist, and Wotan is dreaming of Imperialist hegemony.”

This seems strongly reminiscent of Bernard Shaw’s allegorical interpretation of the Ring in The Perfect Wagnerite. How influential was his commentary on your conception?

DP – A bit. Clearly, that is one of the key texts, simply because when Shaw wrote that, nobody had thought of that. Lots of people have dealt with those aspects of the Ring, and they are undoubtedly part of what we know of Wagner’s thinking at the time. He was involved in the revolution of 1848 and knew Bakunin, who was an anarchist. He was locked into all that.

KS – He handed out grenades.

DP – Exactly. Obviously, because the whole thing took so long, he moved away from that as he went further along with the music. In the end, you could say that his libretto writing was a process towards the discovery of a modern music theater style.

He starts as a libretto writer with a grand opéra which could have easily been composed by Meyerbeer. The libretto of Götterdämmerung could have been designed as the follow-up to William Tell or Meyerbeer or one of those chaps. Gradually, the libretto writing advances in radical theater language. Rheingold is a tremendously original piece of stagecraft. No piece the like of that had ever been seen.

“A theatrical naïveté”

KS – You recently told Opera News that the new production is more naïve than minimalist, “because it’s theatrical techniques where you can see how it is done, but you still believe them.” The Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud told the magazine, “I very much want this to be identifiably a Lyric Ring.”

How does the production’s naïve approach and naked architecture create something specifically Chicagoan? 130 years after the birth of Mies van der Rohe, is this city’s aesthetic sense still defined by his “skin and bones” design concept?

DP – I don’t think this has any relevance to that.

KS – A lot of people were shocked when he showed the guts of the building on the outside. Your production shows the stage crew walking around the stage.

Fight of the giants Fasolt and Fafner at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – Yes, but I somehow think that’s a very different thing. Mies van der Rohe is doing something structurally exposing, which is very minimalist, in a way.

This is more like a Shakespearian theater in which you see the people in the room manipulating the scenery, and they’re part of the action, and they’re even part of the story, and they react to the story, and they are in the story, but they are also telling the story, in terms of operating the elements of scenery and figures and so on.

The fight of the giants is a typical point in question. It gives a wonderful illusion of a tremendous fight, but you see exactly how it’s done, but this doesn’t deter you from perceiving it as the fight of the giants.

KS – How is that a particularly Lyric Opera of Chicago production?

DP – I don’t know that that is. I think what he means by that is that it’s it an individual interpretation created for Lyric. I don’t think you could say that there’s anything particularly Chicagoan about it.

There are two big trends in Ring stagings over the last twenty years. One is “what is the biggest machine you can think of that’s going to do everything.” Covent Garden had that revolving platform, and of course the Met had its dysfunctional hydraulic device. That’s one way of doing it. The other big trend is the parallel commentary. You don’t actually stage the Ring. You stage a parallel commentary to the Ring, which is what the recent Bayreuth productions have mostly done.

We’re not doing either of those. We’re doing something that is much more focused on the story and the telling of the story and a theatrical naïveté.

“His sources are not very significant”

KS – Wagner’s appropriation and Germanization of Icelandic literature as part of his völkisch project produced the enduring popular misconception that the Ring is largely based on the Nibelungenlied, even after Arni Bjórnsson demonstrated that 80% of the Ring’s literary motifs are unique to Icelandic literature and only 5% unique to German literature.

Rheingold centers on pagan deities and myths that never appear in the Christian German poem, but are lifted directly from thirteenth-century Icelandic poetry and prose. The two middle operas also rely heavily on works written by Icelanders. Even Götterdämmerung, which contains elements from four “adventures” of the Nibelungenlied, includes major Icelandic elements completely absent from the German, including Valhalla, Ragnarök, the Norns, and the World Tree.

In the interest of foregrounding the narrative and “naked” narration as a director, how did you engage with the pagan Icelandic elements that form 80% of Wagner’s text?

Zachary Nelson as Donner (Thor) at the Lyric Opera
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – I didn’t. I’m telling the story that Wagner wrote down. We’re not involved in an exercise of historical analysis. We’re involved in an exercise of theater.

We’re telling the story that Wagner wrote down. Where Wagner got that story from is of some interest to me, but not really influential on how I tell the story that he ultimately came up with. His sources are not very significant, in that sense, to me.

KS – But Wagner’s audience of his time were familiar with the sources. They were reading German translations of the Eddas and the sagas.

DP – But we’re not of his time, and nobody knows these things now.

KS – So the sources are lost, and that’s it?

DP – No. They have contributed to his assimilation of various sources into the story that he wanted to tell, for whatever reason, so they’re still there, in a way.

That’s exactly the kind of theater I don’t want to do, is a theater of footnotes, where you constantly have to say, “By the way, you do realize that these are all Icelandic” or “these are pre-Christian.”

Tangibly, on the stage, what you have with Wotan, Fricka, and Loge are, actually, essentially contemporary nineteenth-century political characters. You have a man and his wife who behave exactly like Herr von Bülow and his wife or whoever in Wagner’s circle, and we have a political discussion which could have happened in the Reichstag. We’re not actually setting it there, either, but you could say that those things are just as important as the sources he went back to.

“There is no authenticity involved

KS – Wagner conceived of his Gesamtkunstwerk [“total work of art”] as combining all the arts into a unified whole, he viewed his own libretti as publishable works of literature worthy of recitation as poetry, he was meticulous to the point of fussiness over fully notating stage directions and design elements, and he was happy to tell anyone that he was a genius composer.

No major Ring production would dispense with the score or the sung text of the libretti, yet the visual and theatrical elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk are often completely discarded.

Was Wagner wrong about the unique cohesiveness of his work? Can the theatrical conceptions of a composer who constructed his own theater for a specific audience experience be tossed aside with no impact on the work itself? Why is the theatrical element changeable when we won’t change the other components?

Stefan Margita (Loge), Eric Owens (Wotan) and David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – That’s a very, very simple answer. First of all, if you read the instruction, the action takes place on a mountainside. There is no such thing as any mountainside that will fit on any theater stage. The first thing that a director and a designer have to do when actually looking at the first stage direction they come to is to start interpreting. They have to find a way of representing a mountainside, if that’s what they choose to do.

[Note: Mr. Pountney seems to be referring to the second scene of Das Rheingold, which takes place on “an open space on a mountain summit.” In the opera’s first scene, the setting is “on the bed of the Rhine.”]

From the get-go, there is no authenticity involved anywhere, and there’s no reason why the solution of Wagner’s time – which is representing a mountainside as a flat piece of painting – there’s no way why that is any more convincing than by representing the mountainside as a giant sheet of Perpsex or whatever.

I think the important thing there is to be aware of the fact that, in a page of music, above which perhaps sits this instruction which is unrealizable, there will be, let’s say, a thousand detailed instructions to every single musical participant about every single detail of what they’re going to do. Their first job is to reach a technical degree of excellence which enables them to realize accurately those instructions. So their first goal is accuracy and correctness. They may, if they’re lucky, add on to that – at some point miles down the line, and they’ve achieved all that – a degree of interpretation.

Whereas the standpoint of the designer and the director – not because they’re arrogant, but because they have no other choice – is that they start from the opposite end, and they start with an interpretation, because what is written down in the stage direction is not something that could ever actually exist on a stage.

That doesn’t dislocate Wagner’s concept. All he’s really saying is that the artwork which he envisages – which is all our jobs to create new – also in musical terms, but not so new in musical terms – is to bind all those elements together and to respect their integrity and the way in which they play off one another.

If you listen to Wagner interpretations – let’s say, over a century – you will be aware of small changes, relatively small changes, in the style and interpretation that have gone on in the music. Obviously, if you were able to look at pictures, you’d be aware of massive differences in visual representation.

That’s because the visual representation is something which is, for example, partly dictated by fashion. Imagery and visual representation are things that are very strongly influenced by fashion. Fashion moves very fast. Music moves very slowly. So it’s not surprising that those two things will diverge colossally over time, and they have done so. That is a proof.

“The sacred pact”

KS – At Bayreuth, Wagner hoped to create an experience in which the audience was taken from the outside world – which he viewed as the great illusion – and immersed completely in his overwhelming total artwork.

By breaking the fourth wall – which has really been repeatedly broken for centuries – with continuous onstage revelations of how the illusion is created, the new production prevents the audience from total immersion in the overwhelming opiate sea of the Wagnerian experience.

Given that the theatrical moment has long been demystified, what’s the goal of such an approach when producing the Ring?

Choreographer Denni Sayers with David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – No, I don’t think you’re correct to say that it prevents that. What it does is that it places great emphasis on, if you like, the sacred pact between the storyteller and his listeners. His listeners know the story is a story, but they submerge themselves in it, nonetheless. I think the same applies to this.

Rheingold is, after all, not a piece in which this narcotic subservience, if you like, of the audience is particularly required. Rheingold is not that kind of a piece. It moves so fast, and it’s so detailed and sometimes humorous. It’s not in the same kind of world as parts of Götterdämmerung or Tristan or something like that, which has this kind of overwhelming effect.

KS – I would argue the opposite of that. One of my students told me of attending a production in which they had ten minutes of darkness in the theater before the overture began, and then they started the E-flat chord. Clearly, you’re meant to drown in the music of this piece.

DP – Well, the introduction to Rheingold is an overwhelming musical moment, but then it’s rapidly followed by detailed and very un-narcotic storytelling. You have the three Rhinemaidens and Alberich. I don’t see how you can dream your way through that.

KS – But they’re also singing non-linguistically. They’re singing leialalei, wallala, and these nonsense words.

DP – Yeah, for about two percent of the time. The rest of the percent of the time, they’re being very specific and very funny and detailed, realistic.

KS – I have a question about whether it’s funny or not.

DP – Well, the way they describe Alberich as a lover is funny. They think it’s funny.

“Maybe Wagner was motivated
by anti-Semitism”

KS – Let’s discuss that question. In “The Future of Opera,” you write of the relationship between democracy and the theater:
The audience which enters the theatre must no longer be nobles but should be, in however slender a sense, ennobled when they leave even, or perhaps especially, if they have only been made to laugh together.
If we read Wagner’s other works – his grossly anti-Semitic essays and newspaper articles – and if we accept Bernard Shaw’s idea that the work is allegorical, then the humor in the Rheingold’s opening scene (such as it is) comes at the expense of a wicked dwarf as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Here and in Siegfried, Wagner uses dwarves to portray offensive stereotypes of a conniving Jewish capitalist and a Jewish composer who steals from the German creative artist. In both Rheingold and Siegfried, the opening scenes feature the base humiliation of dwarf by, respectively, German genii loci and an Aryan Superman.

The argument of Alberich and Mime in Siegfried
Detail of 1911 illustration by Arthur Rackham
We know that Wagner wrote his essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” [“Jewishness in Music”] just before he wrote the Siegfried libretto. The imagery and the terminology of the essay and the two opening scenes are very closely parallel. In Rheingold, the Rhinemaiden’s description of Alberich contains anti-Semitic elements from Wagner’s most notorious publication. In Siegfried, it’s clear that the hero is Wagner, the Germanic artist of the future, and Mime is the Jewish Mendelssohn figure from the essay who is unable to create on his own, but can only copy.

In an age when we have a presidential candidate who has questioned whether the first black president is actually American, who wants to build walls against Mexicans, and who advocates a ban on Middle-Eastern Muslims entering the country, can we still say that Wagner’s work ennobles the audience?

DP – I think the Ring ennobles an audience, actually, because it leads you through such a huge range of political, emotional issues which is described in extraordinary, rich, inventive, emotional language.

Rheingold, as I’ve always said, is essentially a kind of political cartoon. It’s not designed to be an ennobling experience. Clearly, for example, the end of Rheingold is intended to be ironic, is a description of ludicrous bombast. I think that balances the opening.

Maybe Wagner was motivated by anti-Semitism, but actually the message about Alberich, I would say, is ultimately not really readable as anti-Semitic. Mime is a slightly different case.

I would say it, principally, because what’s being shown here is a class scene. It’s a scene in which careless aristocratic girls of great desirability mock and treat disdainfully a kind of working-class… Remember, he’s not an industrialist at this point. He’s a guy from the underworld. He’s a working class guy who’s dirty and smelly and unpleasant.

Later, when he’s got the gold, he has truly megalomaniac delusions, which are – I would think – utterly disconnected from anything to do with Jewishness. I mean, he has this whole illusion about how, when he’s ruling the world, the whole world is gonna have to give up love, because he had to give up love. He has this whole illusion about having all the beautiful women he wants and ruling the world.

It’s a kind of Hitlerian dream of world domination.

KS – I would say it goes exactly with Wagner’s essays and with this new resurgence of what they now call the alt-right here in America – a new name for white supremacists. Both Wagner and the alt-right forward the anti-Semitic theory that the Jews invisibly control the world, and that’s what is talked about in that section of the opera.

DP – He doesn’t talk about it in this… I mean this is… He doesn’t…

KS – There’s a very telling speech in which Alberich puts on the helmet and is torturing Mime. He says, wherever you look, I will be there. It’s a sort of Panopticon image, that you never know if you’re being watched. In Wagner’s and in the modern anti-Semite’s mind, there’s an international conspiracy, and you never know where they are. I think it’s pretty clear that that’s what Wagner intends at that moment.

DP – I don’t think it’s clear, at all. I think it’s clear that what is implied is some kind of mighty industrialist power. I think it’s much more connected to the whole Marxian thing, as we talked about earlier.

I don’t think you can say that it’s specifically anti-Semitic, at all. I don’t think there’s any detail in that scene. You may be able to extrapolate that by going back to what Wagner also published, but that’s not available in the piece that is, as it’s performed in the theater.

There’s nothing about Alberich’s music that makes you think that this is meant to be some kind of Jewish take-off. I’m not convinced by that, at all.

KS – So the fact that it’s the same vocabulary in “Jewishness in Music” and in the libretto –

DP – Yes, but you’re being much too naïve about the creative process.

“The Israelis won’t play his music,
which I think is ridiculous”

KS – When I mentioned on social media that I was interviewing you, the reaction was, “Are you going to ask him about producing an anti-Semitic opera?” It’s very clear to a lot of people – for instance, Jewish people who don’t want to patronize a theater that would play his works. We know that’s a historical thing. This has been obvious to a lot of people. It’s not a wild idea that I just had yesterday.

Wotan (Eric Owens) and Loge (Stefan Margita)
put a knife to the throat of Alberich (Samuel Youn)
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – No, no, no. I realize that, and that the Israelis won’t play his music, which I think is ridiculous.

What happens with these pieces that are works of genius, and I would say the same about Merchant of Venice, which actually we happen to be performing in my company in Wales tomorrow… It’s a wonderful opera, actually.

KS – I don’t deny he’s a genius. I teach classes on him, but what I do with my students – I face the issues head-on, I show them the parallels with the essays, and –

DP – And I have nothing against you doing that, but, again, I’m not doing footnote theater.

KS – If you are going to bring out the allegory, which you said you are –

DP – The allegory, to my mind, is very clear. It’s about capitalism. It’s about industrialists. It’s about the Marxist division of labor. It’s about driving people underground to dig and produce gold for somebody else who’s controlling them.

There are lots of industrialists of all different nations and races and so on. They’re not all Jews. If you’re saying that the only industrialist is a Jew, this is ridiculous.

KS – I’m not saying that, at all. I’m saying that Wagner specifically wrote the characters that way.

DP – Yes, but the way they emerge in the piece that he wrote, as we now see it, and as we can now perform it, it doesn’t actually have any unavoidable connection with Jewishness.

It has, to my mind, a very clear connection with industrialism, and capitalism, and the power of money – and that’s fundamentally what it’s about.

I don’t think you can link that inextricably with Jewishness. If you do, you’re falling into the same trap yourself, because you’re saying the only bad capitalists are all Jews. That’s not true.

KS – That is actually what the alt-right has been saying – that if you point out racism and anti-Semitism, by pointing it out in someone who’s promoting it, that means that you accept it, which is what you seem to be saying.

DP – No, I’m saying that I don’t think that there is anything in the text that Wagner that ultimately left behind as his opera, which is the only thing I’m concerned with.

KS – So you’re having a hermeneutic moment where you push aside all his other writings and focus only on the text.

DP – Because that’s what we’re performing. We’re not performing his articles. We’re performing his opera.

That’s a bit like saying I won’t look at a Degas painting, because I now know that Degas was a virulent anti-Semite – but you can’t tell that when you look at a Degas painting.

KS – So Wagner’s writings don’t inform don’t inform how you view the piece, at all.

DP – No. I’m very aware of them, obviously. I’ve been studying these things for many, many years.

Ultimately, when I come to do the production, I’m not directing a footnote. I’m directing what’s there, written to be performed on the stage. The message that that carries is not the message you’re describing to me.

“What the author himself privately thought”

U.S. Marshals accompany James Meredith to class
at the University of Mississippi in 1962
KS – Let’s talk about the message that you had in one of your operas. Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!), your 2011 opera written with Peter Maxwell Davies, features the story of James Meredith, who faced immense white supremacist opposition when he became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.

You wrote for The Guardian on your opera, “If we are to recover a sense of public participation in politics, then the students, among others, should also lift their sights above the parapet of mere self-interest. Maybe our little opera will inspire some of them to do just that.”

This new production is with an opera company that clashed with African-American composer Anthony Davis over his insistence that a white choir not be used to portray the slaves on the slave-ship in his Amistad opera – in a city that is one-third African-American.

Given this history and given the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism of Wagner himself, what would you tell black students in Chicago who are marching against police violence to convince them to come into the opera house for this production?

DP – I’d tell them, “Wotan, the king of the gods, Zeus is a black man.”

KS – Okay. Other than casting, what about the artwork itself?

DP – The artwork itself is a profound message to humanity about humanity of all colors, creeds.

It’s a piece so way beyond that kind of particular issue. It’s about humanity. Love and gold and money. Fathers and daughters.

KS – When they know that he was a nationalist anti-Semite, would you tell black students to forget all that and come to see it, anyway?

DP – I think they should look at the piece. If they can seriously – looking at the piece – find anything racist about it, I’d be very surprised. In the piece.

I’m not sure why we would be very interested.

KS – In what? In having black people come?

DP – No, no, no, no. Don’t be silly, now. In what the author himself privately thought.

KS – It wasn’t private. You know that. He had a newspaper that featured Gobineau’s racist and anti-Semitic theories. This was not private. This was what he was known for in his lifetime and what his work was known for.

DP – There are lots of people who are very kind-of mixed up. Ezra Pound is another one. I have very divergent views and so on. But what do they leave behind? That’s what you go and see.

I go back to the Degas thing. Degas was a virulent anti-Semite in that whole Dreyfus affair and all of that. You look at those chocolate-box pictures, and it’s the last thing you would think about. In a way, you shouldn’t think about it, because it’s not in the picture. The man was an asshole.

Janáček was, to my mind, one of the greatest humanist composers, ever. Treated his wife abominably, was a racist towards his wife, because she was German-speaking – and treated her badly for thirty years. But when you listen to the music, you’re listening to the genius of a great humanist who may also have been a very flawed human being with whom I don’t feel obliged to agree, simply because I love his music.

I think this kind of overemphasis on the biography, on the backstory, on the footnote…

KS – I don’t think it’s that, at all. If you’re going to say that Wagner is expressing himself through his work, because he does… A lot of people, when they discuss Wagner, say that the Schopenhauer comes through, the Feuerbach, all these wonderful, deep ideas about humanity, about power, love. Okay, but we’re going to pretend that his anti-Semitism doesn’t come through?

We know that, the older he got, the more overwhelming of an obsession it became. It is clear from letters and testimonies from the time that it became his overwhelming obsession. It was not just a private thing he had on the side.

DP – That, I would certainly question. Overwhelming. I think you’re exaggerating.

KS – He published Gobineau’s racist theories in his own newspaper, and he went further than Gobineau in his own articles. We know this. This was not just a little thing on the side.

DP – I think his obsession was writing his pieces. It’s what he spent twenty-five years doing – writing this piece. That’s an obsession, if you like. I think that tells you where his…

We know that he was an absolute asshole, in all kinds of ways – a very deeply unpleasant man, demanding and petulant and foolish and arrogant – but he created wonderful things.

What do you want to say with this? Only somebody who’s flawless as a person creates art that should be looked at and admired?

KS – Absolutely not, but I think we should acknowledge –

DP – We’d probably be horrified if we met Shakespeare today and had a conversation.

“It’s not a Marxist-socialist interpretation”

KS – You’ve read these biographies of Wagner where they say, “Oh, thank God it doesn’t come through in his artwork!” And, of course, it does.

That’s what I think is the naïve part, to pretend – when it’s the same language in the essay and the libretto, and the opening of Siegfried is a dramatization of the essay written at the same time – to pretend that it’s not there, I think it denies the experience of a large proportion of humanity, rather than deal with it head-on.

Alberich and the Rhinemaidens
1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham
DP – What would that actually mean, for me as a director, for example? I mean, of course, I could do it. To me, it would just completely distort the entire story, and it would limit the story in a very, very regrettable way.

I think the story starts – the first scene of Rheingold – it starts being about a kind of primeval class conflict between gorgeous, careless, aristocratic girls and a fumbling, ugly, stinky, working-class bloke who is ultimately so outraged by their disdain for him that he turns into a violent and evil person.

KS – You don’t think that’s overemphasizing this socialist interpretation and making that the one interpretation?

DP – That, to my mind, is still a kind of taking a huge segment of human nature. It’s not limiting it to Jews.

KS – But it’s limiting it to a Marxist-socialist interpretation of a text that is literally about dwarves and giants.

DP – It’s not a Marxist-socialist interpretation.

KS – When you talk about the working class and the capitalist, of course it is. There’s nothing in the text literally about capitalists and the working class. That’s an interpretation.

DP – No, but when he becomes an industrialist who’s assembling profit and driving people underground…

KS – He’s not an industrialist. That’s a Marxist interpretation. There were no industrialists in the Long Ago, in illo tempore, when the dwarves were building mountains of gold. That’s definitely an interpretation.

DP – No, but we also know when it was written and what that means.

KS – But it’s not in the text, if you’re going to engage with the text.

DP – No.

KS – I’m not sure if we completely disagree, then. I’m saying there is no socialism in the text, and you’re saying there’s no anti-Semitism in the text.

My interpretation – knowing Wagner’s writings – is that there is anti-Semitism. Your interpretation – knowing the politics of the time – is that there’s socialism. So those are both interpretations with footnotes.

Students today who have not read Marx or studied nineteenth-century history would never see industrialization while reading the libretto.

DP – Industrialization is, actually, not necessarily… Again, you’re being much too narrow. Industrialization is a massive economic change in the order of the world which took place in the early nineteenth century.

KS – Nothing in the libretto takes place in the nineteenth century.

DP – I think everything in the libretto is nineteenth century. It was written…

“Obviously, that’s my thinking about it”

KS – If we’re talking about engaging only with the text – and you had said not using all these essays and things around it – you’re saying, “Footnote: At this point, Wagner was involved in the 1848 revolutions and had socialist ideas.” That’s a footnote.

Those coming new to the next with none of that in the background – someone not educated in a leftist perspective – the text is about gods and dwarves and Thor and all these wonderful things.

It’s clearly a footnoted interpretation to say it’s about the working class and capitalism.

DP – I wouldn’t necessarily… I mean… Let’s see how much you think of a socialist interpretation comes out in what we’re actually doing.

Obviously, that’s my thinking about it, but I’m not holding up big flags saying…

The giants of Germanic mythology in the Lyric Opera's Rheingold
KS – Are the giant heads on the scaffolding representing Fasolt and Fafner meant to look like English working-class guys with caps?

DP – I don’t know about English. They look like laborers. Yes.

KS – So they’re supposed to look like laborers.

DP – Yeah. Well, that’s what they are, isn’t it? They’re building laborers.

KS – Not if you read the myths. It’s a whole different thing.

DP – In this piece, they are builders. That’s what they say.

KS – But a giant builder is different from the lumpenproletariat.

DP – Well they’re pretty – aren’t they? – are pretty different. They’re twenty-five feet high, for a start.

KS – So you do have some footnotes.

DP – Maybe.

KS – Wagner said he would only perform the Ring on the banks of the Mississippi, because only Americans would understand the revolution of his piece – but that’s a footnote. The text is an adventure with gods and heroes.

DP – If you say so.

KS – If you have a hermeneutic moment with the text – with no footnotes – it’s literally about gods. There’s not one line in it that says the capitalist is exploiting the proletariat.

DP – Mime’s speech comes pretty damn close.

KS – I would say that Mime’s treatment by Siegfried comes pretty close to torturing Jews, which we know happened historically. Those are both interpretations, and you’ve made a choice as a director which interpretation to take.

DP – Of course. I say very clearly – although I’m not emphasizing the act of interpretation – nobody’s objective, as you’re busy proving.

KS – The other Ring operas won’t be so political, in your production?

DP – No, no, no.

KS – Alright.

DP – Good!

At this point, Mr. Pountney walked out of the room and called from the hallway, “Farewell, Herr Siegfried!” – using the name of Wagner’s hero in place of my own name, Seigfried.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Dr. Jill Stein before our interview in Chicago
Dr. Jill Stein is the Green Party presidential candidate for 2016. Her campaign has seen a surge of support since the defeat of Bernie Sanders by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary, yet she remains shut out of the presidential debates and largely ignored by the media.

On September 9, I sat down with her for a private interview in Chicago the day after her high-energy rally at the landmark Preston Bradley Center. The event was a homecoming of sorts, since she was born in Chicago and grew up in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park.

What follows is a brief introduction to her career in medicine and politics, followed by the full text of our in-depth interview.

A Life in Science

Dr. Stein graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1973 with a triple degree in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1979, she served as Instructor in Medicine at the institution from 1982 to 2005.

In addition to her teaching career, she spent twenty-five years as a practicing physician at Harvard Community Health Plan, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Simmons College Health Center.

She is co-founder and past Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, a non-profit organization working on environmental, economic, and democratic issues.

She has served on the board of organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Clean Water Action, and Alternatives for Community and the Environment. She has also worked with a wide array of medical and environmental groups such as Physicians for a National Health Program, Clean Water Action, and Global Climate Convergence.

She has co-authored reports that identified community drivers of chronic disease and offered environment-friendly policies to promote health while boosting employment. One of these reports – “In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development” (2000) – has served as the core text for medical center education conferences nationwide.

Accepting scientific consensus on the danger of climate change, her core concerns include promoting renewable energy, moving away from fossil fuels, and a instituting a national ban on fracking.

She recently told NBC News, “What we are calling for is an emergency transition to green energy, food and transportation, a wartime-level mobilization that will turn the tide of climate change and make the wars for oil obsolete.”

A Second Career in Politics

In 2012, Dr. Stein became the most successful female presidential candidate in history when she received nearly half of a million votes in the general election. Her vice presidential candidate was Cheri Honkala, a dedicated human rights activist of mixed Finnish and Cheyenne ancestry.

Before running for president, she twice won elections for the Lexington Town Meeting, the governing body of her home in Massachusetts. She has since run four unsuccessful campaigns for statewide office.

Her move from medicine to political activism began in 1998, when she worked to close the most-polluting coal plants in Massachusetts after her experience as a doctor led her to investigate connections between health issues, environmental factors, and the corporations whose pollution was causing the greatest detrimental effects on community health.

She moved from the Democratic Party to the Green Party after her successful advocacy for the Clean Elections Law resulted in the campaign finance reform legislation being passed by voter referendum – a popular victory that was then repealed by a Democrat-controlled state legislature. She has remained dedicated to fighting the power of money in public elections.

Ajamu Baraka speaks at the Chicago rally on September 8
In 2016, Stein's running mate is Ajamu Baraka, the only African-American on the ticket of any main party in this presidential election. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he has taught political science at Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and elsewhere.

Mr. Baraka was the founding Executive Director of the U.S. Human Rights Network and served on the boards of Amnesty International, the National Center for Human Rights Education, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is now Associate Fellow for Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A full transcription of my interview with Dr. Stein is below, with my questions in bold.

A Family of Refugees

KS – You’re descended on both sides of your family from immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Russia. When you were a child, was there still living memory of those experiences in your family?

JS – Yes. Not much. My grandparents had come over as very young children.

I had a great-grandmother who was part of that refugee process, but I was so young when she was around. I didn’t learn that from her, but I certainly learned from my grandparents the sense of… It wasn’t specifics, but it was more a mindset of feeling frightened, and feeling like they were a community under attack.

I grew up seeing that from them, but not feeling it myself, at all. It was kind of a curiosity to me that I didn’t quite understand at that time. I grew up feeling incredibly safe and incredibly well cared for.

To some extent, my awakening happened as much around the civil rights movement and understanding that struggle for justice before I understood what the Jewish struggle for justice was.

KS – Did you have any family members still in Europe during the Holocaust?

JS – Not that I’m aware of, but that was certainly a big issue for my family and for my parents, in the sense that we are all responsible for each other. That was kind of my parents’ watchword, that we cannot allow injustices to take place and do nothing about it.

I think that was how they came to terms with the sense of the Holocaust. That was their hope for the future, that we would develop such a sense of responsibility for each other.

And that wasn’t just Jews. It was we, as human beings, would stand up for all oppressed people.

KS – My dad’s experience in death camps during the war – being in them and then rescuing his entire family from multiple camps as a child – led him to dedicate his whole life as a philosopher to working on human rights issues. How did your family history influence your own work on these issues?

JS – Wow. Tell me again. That was your dad?

KS – Yes, as a kid. He was born in 1933. They were actually anti-German camps in Yugoslavia against people who come down in the 1700s to settle colonies that were basically Hungarian, but ethnically German. Marshall Tito’s Communist Partisans came through and killed the men and put the women and children in camps.

JS – Oh, incredible.

Karl E. H. Seigfried and Jill Stein during the interview
Photo by Meleiza Figueroa
KS – As a kid, he escaped and eventually learned the route up to the British zone in Austria before going back to rescue other family members and lead them across Eastern Europe by foot.

JS – Amazing. Wow. That’s incredible.

My family experience was remote enough – it was my grandparents who were brought over fleeing pogroms in Russia – so that family experience was so far away, and it was a generation that I didn’t really know.

I knew my grandparents, but they came here as little children, so they only had the vaguest recollection of what was going on and why they fled. Their struggle was more about how did you work your way up in a new country as an immigrant not speaking the language. It was more that struggle to survive in a new society and to assimilate, which was really their goal.

I attended a religious school, and I was actually the most religious person in my family. As a kid, I loved ritual, and I sang in the children’s choir and just thought the whole thing with the candles and the music was just so magical. I brought Jewish tradition into my family – brought the candle-lighting, and the challa bread, and the Sabbath ceremony – which lasted for a few years.

The little tales of the Old Testament, as a kid going to religious school, meant a lot to me and helped frame my sense of social justice.

In a very broad way, that was the sense of the community that I grew up with in Highland Park, a very Jewish town that was also trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. It was a community that was assimilating and actually becoming quite wealthy but sort of schizophrenic, because it was focused on its own security at the same time that it was focused on how do we prevent future Holocausts. We have to have a sense of caring for each other as a community.

There was a very strong progressive contingent in that community at that time. Some of us who began becoming anti-war activists who were active in the civil rights movement, who went to the projects in Chicago, to Cabrini Green to tutor kids who didn’t have the education that we had.

It was built into my sense of community and my upbringing that it’s important for us to be responsible for each other. I didn’t think about that as an issue. It just was natural what we’re supposed to be doing as people on the planet.

Values and Beliefs

KS – When you were growing up as a member of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, was the synagogue directly involved in social issues?

JS – If they were, I didn’t know it. When I was involved with them, it actually preceded my activism in high school. I was confirmed at the age of fifteen or something like that, and you really did not... As I became more socially and politically aware, I grew away from my religious traditions.

KS – How do Old Testament values still resonate with your work today? What are Old Testament values?

JS – I can tell you what they are to me, which is pretty basic, pretty simple.

It’s to do justice, to love mercy, to be holy unto your god. Justice and compassion are core existential values. It is the commandment to do unto others, the Golden Rule. It’s the tales of Solomon, and the baby, and the two moms, and how one strives for justice and to solve disputes in a just way. Perhaps the Jewish Talmud traditions, which are all about debate and dialogue.

Maybe it’s also the sense of a Jewish society, which was always a diaspora. After the temple was destroyed in Israel, it was diaspora. It was independent communities that were not taking orders from a king and sort of had democratic traditions.

I think those were just parts of the culture that became imbued into my thinking.

Jill Stein addresses the Chicago audience
KS – You told Forbes that you still feel culturally Jewish, but you’re no longer “actively a practicing Jew,” and your family is “predominantly agnostic.” How would you describe your relationship to belief and spirituality at this point in your life?

JS – I’m very grounded in spiritual values and have great appreciation for religions and religious ritual. I practice physical yoga, used to do a lot of meditation.

I think it’s fair to characterize my vision of the world and social responsibility in metaphysical terms that you could call spiritual – my sense of what is our existential purpose here. I feel a very strong identification with forces of compassion and social responsibility.

I don’t have a label that I put on this, but it is very much a part of my daily life, and how I see things, and my tolerance for adversity and for struggle. I see this as part of our condition, and how we make choices as human beings to affirm our existence, and to choose a world of justice and compassion, and our power to create that world.

Sanders and Stein

KS – One of the revelations from the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee emails was that DNC Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall suggested making political capital of Bernie Sanders’ Jewish background and supposed lack of faith. Given the similarity of your background to that of Senator Sanders, how do you respond to such campaign tactics?

JS – They’re reprehensible, and they are symptomatic of a very abusive and corrupt campaign coming out of the Democratic National Committee, coming out of the Clinton campaign. This is politics as usual, and that’s how it’s played, and it was absolutely no surprise to see the sabotage that’s going on behind closed doors against Bernie’s campaign.

That’s why a campaign that really had more traction than any other was pushed back by these sort of backstabbing maneuvers, and they did it in all kinds of ways – related to his religion, smearing him as a campaign that was a mess, planting adverse stories in the media about violence at the Nevada convention.

This is something that, shall we say, is not hidden and has been part of establishment politics for quite a long time.

KS – For many years, there has been an insistence by Democrats on social media that any criticism of President Obama’s policies is racist. Now, any criticism of Secretary Clinton’s policies is called sexist. My stock response is to ask whether any criticism of Sanders and Stein is therefore anti-Semitic. I immediately get blocked.

JS – Ha!

KS – Do you feel that anti-Semitism has been a factor in media coverage of Senator Sanders and yourself?

JS – That’s an interesting question. It’s hard to sort out, because there are many reasons that media has to shut us out. And certainly, Bernie was far less shut out than my campaign.

A New York Times analysis – maybe four or five months ago – was that he had received about half as much in free media as Hillary Clinton, who at the time had a billion, and he had about half a billion.

I think, in my case, it’s not just being Jewish, but particularly it’s because I represent a political opposition, and we live in two-party tyranny – which is not democracy – that survives only because it can silence opposition while it throws people under the bus.

KS – We’re supposedly in a post-racial society. Are we in a post-anti-Semitic society?

JS – You know, you don’t see as much anti-Semitic hate crime. Certainly, we see loads of anti-Latino, African-American, Muslim hate crimes. I’m not aware of many [anti-Semitic] hate crimes in this country.

Certainly there are in Europe, with the radical right-wing extremism – which we could be heading towards. I think there’s no reason… one shouldn’t be too confident that anti-Semitism is over and done with in this country, by any means.

I think that underscores all the more reason why we have to really stand up for a human rights agenda for everyone.


Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka listen to a firebrand speech
by Sarah Chambers of the Chicago Teachers Union
KS – Given your education, medical practice, teaching, non-profit work, board service, reports published, support for renewable energy, and so on, why do you think the media is pushing the narrative that you’re anti-science?

JS – I think they are grasping at straws. This is like the swift-boat nonsense or the birther campaign. This is an effort to take my campaign off-message and get me in a defensive position arguing that, which is pathetic, ridiculous, irrelevant, and baseless.

To call for getting money out of our regulatory institutions is not pandering, and this has been something I’ve been a part of as a physician working with Physicians for Social Responsibility to try to clean up our regulatory institutions, because we’ve been locked in battle with them around regulating mercury in fish, around regulating pesticides, around cleaning up our incinerators and our coal plants.

I’ve been involved in regulatory battles for a long time – not just around the mercury in vaccines, which I think is where people are coming from in trying to find some connection here.

But that battle to get mercury out of vaccines was successful. That doesn’t mean we’re rejecting vaccines as a public health institution, but rather saying we can insure greater confidence in our regulatory institutions if we shut down the revolving door and stop the money.

Our campaign is the pro-science campaign. We’re talking about going forward with studies that need to be done, and that includes of Wi-Fi. I’m not making an issue out of Wi-Fi. It’s pretty low on the priority scale here, but for people who are concerned about protecting children’s health, that should be looked into. In fact, Europe has seen fit to protect young children from routine exposures in schools, largely. This is not anti-Wi-Fi. It’s not anti-science. This is pro-health.

Our regulatory institutions need to ask these questions about all new potential threats. They should do them in the interest of science and not allow profits to trump science, which is why we have a lead problem today, why we have lead in our pipes, in our soil, in our buildings – because, for decades, profit trumped people in our regulatory institutions.

Getting Arrested

KS – In 2012, you and Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala were arrested while protesting housing foreclosures in Philadelphia. You were both arrested again while attempting to enter the presidential debate at Hofstra University. In Texas, you were arrested a third time for attempting to deliver food and supplies to protestors of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Just this week, North Dakota authorities issued an arrest warrant after you and Mr. Baraka were charged with criminal trespassing and mischief when you joined protesters from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe attempting to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Why are authorities so determined to arrest you for participating in protests, yet they let major party candidates slide on crimes such as repeated violation of federal campaign laws?

JS – Yes, exactly! And to hold Hillary Clinton accountable for breaking laws on national security around the use of her private server. Essentially, what the FBI said there was that she was too big to jail, that no attorney would go after her. That’s why they said they weren’t going to prosecute her – because she was too big to jail.

Or in the Clinton Foundation, the favors that were done for donors, like the Russian corporation that now owns twenty percent of U.S. uranium. There are real things that have happened with real consequences. The sale of weapons to human rights abusers like the prince of Bahrain or the Saudis. There are real issues here.

Donald Trump’s abuse of the students who he basically cheated out of their tuition at Trump University. There are real things out there that law enforcement should be going after.

Obviously, they don’t like it when people with a political voice are standing up on behalf of human rights struggles, like what’s going on at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Sacred Land

Jill Stein gives the final speech of the Chicago rally
KS – In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Tribe have stated that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has already destroyed ancestral burial grounds and stone prayer rings. How can members of minority religious traditions successfully resist the might of powerful corporate interests?

JS – It’s not over, by any means. There are more religious sites that could still be desecrated, and the water is not yet jeopardized – but their water supply will be jeopardized.

All they’ve done is prepare an access road. That’s all they’ve done so far. They haven’t yet begun to dig the trenches, they haven’t laid the pipeline, etc. So most damage can be prevented.

This is a human rights emergency for Native Americans, but it’s a real teaching moment because that human rights emergency is converging now with a climate emergency and a water emergency, as well as a democracy emergency.

Innocent protestors are being attacked by vicious attack dogs and being sprayed with pepper spray in the face simply for asserting our rights of protest and for redress of grievances. And as the National Guard is being brought out now in North Dakota and drones have now been weaponized, a law was just passed in North Dakota, the first state in the country that allows weaponized drones.

This is a terrifying and drastic development. It’s really important that we stand up now in solidarity across the country for indigenous human rights and for our climate and our water supplies. It’s very exciting that a day of solidarity has been declared on September 13, and we’re beginning to see solidarity protests already. There was a big one last night.

The banks that are funding this are being unveiled as the ones who are providing the funding, so there’s going to be, I think, a massive movement here that’s going to be like the KXL [Keystone XL Pipeline] resistance. It’s now going to be amplified and intensified to stop this – basically, this end run around KXL.

Minority Religions

KS – You have long fought for environmental action and policy that protects the planet. At your rally last night, the row of Heathens that I brought all looked at each other when you talked about Mother Earth and told a legend of indigenous American peoples coming together to lead us all in a time of great crisis.

JS – Yes! Ha!

KS – Aside from standing with the Sioux, how have you engaged with practitioners of Earth-centered and non-Abrahamic religious traditions? Non-Abrahamic meaning not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Have you engaged other groups?

JS – Not in a formal way, but I’m certainly very familiar with these ideas.

When I hear Native Americans talk about their legends, they just ring true to me. Maybe it’s growing up in a culture that had great respect for Indians, and the beauty and the majesty of their traditions, and their courage and their nobility in standing up to the onslaught of Western civilization.

While indigenous people have been victimized, and had their land stolen, and all the rest – in a strange way, they’ve also become icons of our culture. To hear their religious stories, they just feel so natural to me. Like they’re part of… They’re a heritage now that has been adopted by us all.

I think that sense of Earth religion has permeated the environmental movement. It’s permeated the justice movement. It’s certainly there in the Black Nationalist traditions, as well. I think it’s really important to be embracing of all these traditions and to find our common ground and our common humanism.

One of their myths is so compelling to me, about how the Rainbow Warriors will come together at a time when Mother Earth is imperiled, and that we will save the planet and humanity by finding our common humanity.

I feel like that is the challenge of our age right now. It’s to find our common humanity and overcome the sense of fear, otherness, and divisions by embracing each other as members of the same human family.

We may tell different stories, but that’s okay. Different stories are enriching the traditions of us all.

Ásatrú and Heathenry

Thor's hammer & uniform photo by soldier Daniel Head
Click here for more on Heathens in the military
KS – Over the past seven years, practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry – modern iterations of pre-Christian northern European polytheism – have struggled to have their faith added to the U.S. Army’s religious preference list. Without such recognition, it is difficult for Heathen soldiers to exercise basic religious rights granted to members of other religions: time off to attend worship, keeping religious items or books, and so on.

For seven years, Army chaplains have given Heathen soldiers the runaround and refused to approve multiple requests – even as they declared humanism a religion. So even people who are anti-religion now get the religious rights that members of this minority religion are denied. What message would you send to the chaplains on their denial of equal rights to members of this minority faith who serve their country at home and abroad?

JS – At the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, I heard from many indigenous members who were talking about the military service in their families and about how proud they were of all the wars that their families had fought in – and it’s true. Native Americans, immigrants, people of all different faiths and backgrounds – in particular, in this case, indigenous people – who do not subscribe to the certified list of religions.

It’s really unfair, unjust, and undemocratic in this democracy that they are defending for their human rights not to be respected. I would strongly urge that all religions – whether they are Judeo-Christian or not – all religions should be given the seal of approval there, in order to sustain those people who have put their lives on the line for our country.

They deserve the benefits of real democracy, and real democracy means we do not discriminate according to religion, creed, race, ethnic background, or gender. Period.

Facing Racism

KS – You have spoken against structural racism in the judicial-prison system, stated that the “war on drugs” has disproportionately targeted people of color, and called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “to acknowledge the enormous debt owed to the African American community.” How would you actually make good on your call for “reparations for the sins of slavery”? How can it happen?

JS – At this point, what I’m calling for is passing the legislation in Congress sponsored by John Conyers that would establish a commission to study the various forms of reparations to decide how it should be done – because it’s not straightforward. It’s going to take discussion, and it should go hand in hand with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people can actually…

So many people are just oblivious to what this historic burden of what slavery and racism is. It’s not something that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. This is a cumulative and staggering burden. We need to be able to tell our stories to understand this.

In the same way that some of the recent videotaped murders in Louisiana and in Minnesota, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, these were stories that were on videotape that just stopped the hearts of America, these gut-wrenching stories that really brought home to people what police brutality is, in all of its overwhelming detail.

Stories are really powerful. They stop us, and they force us to listen and rethink. There is just a world of these stories that need to be told that are not a part of our history, that are not a part of our culture. It’s really buried.

The dominant Caucasian culture is really quite protected against this history of privilege and devastating racism. We need to package this in stories and music and in art to enable us to come together and affirm our common humanity – through, basically, the arts – to do that.

Dr. Stein has left the building.
KS – Awesome. Thank you.

JS – Thank you! That’s great work that you’re doing, very exciting. It’s an honor to be on the team with you. I really appreciate it.

All photographs in this article taken by and © 2016 by Karl E. H. Seigfried unless noted otherwise.

Saturday, September 3, 2016


On Thursday, a journalist from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis contacted me with questions about Ásatrú and Heathenry, modern iterations of Norse and Germanic polytheistic religions. John Reinan was writing a local-focus piece involving the traditions and was researching background on the religions to give context to his article.

The core of Mr. Reinan's story was Camp Courage's cancellation of a booking by the Asatru Folk Assembly, an extremist organization that planned to use the Minnesota campground for what was presented as "a harvest-type festival." The AFA's reservation was cancelled when Camp Courage management determined that the group's "mission and areas of focus significantly conflict with [our] core values."

Logo of the Asatru Folk Assembly
Mr. Reinan did due diligence on the subject, speaking to practitioners of Ásatrú within and without the AFA, and wrote a piece that leaves no doubts about the racialist views of this particular organization. His article, "Minnesota camp cancels booking of Nordic heritage group with white supremacist bent," rises above past reporting on Ásatrú by Religion Dispatches and Religion News Service.

Across the globe, Heathens come from a wide variety of nationalities, ethnicities, economic circumstances, educational levels, and gender identities. There are African-American Heathens, Latinx Heathens, transgender Heathens, and Heathens who are members of LGBTQ+ communities. Ásatrú and Heathen organizations and individuals have repeatedly and publicly denounced the AFA as a fringe group that does not represent the overwhelming majority of those who practice the various associated traditions.

The questions that Mr. Reinan asked me were more insightful and interesting than many I have been asked by mainstream journalists on the topic of Ásatrú. Due to the space limitations of his article, he didn't use most of my answers. He has kindly given me permission to post his questions (in bold) along with my full replies.

In general, what is your view on the current state of Norse-focused religions? Are they gaining adherents in the United States? I’ve seen your 2013 census – do you still think that’s accurate?

Worldwide Heathen Census was conducted in 2013
Ásatrú and Heathenry are definitely growing in the United States. The results of the Worldwide Heathen Census I conducted in 2013 led me to estimate the number of adherents in the U.S. at nearly 20,000. The number has surely grown since then, and I am planning a follow-up census to reflect this growth.

My original study was designed to complement works like the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Research Center, which disappear members of minority religions into categories like "New Age" or "No Religious Preference." Such erasure distorts the rich web of small religions in the United States.

To what do you attribute the appeal of Nordic heritage religions?

The various revivals, reconstructions, and re-imaginings of pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religions appeal to a wide base of people for a wide variety of reasons.

In Iceland, members of the Ásatrúarfélagið ("Ásatrú Fellowship") can trace their family trees directly back to the pagan heroes of the sagas, so they are literally returning to the religion of their ancestors. This connection cannot be claimed by those who practice Heathenry in the other ninety-seven countries in which adherents have self-reported.

Bronze Age rock carving in Sweden
Some are attracted by the powerful pagan poetry of Iceland from the Viking age, some by the magnificent myths of the gods and heroes that have survived. Some people are drawn to the mystery of archeological finds documenting religious practices dating to nearly 2000 BCE – practices as old as the earliest beginnings of Judaism.

What makes Heathenry different from the majority of world religions is that the vast majority of its followers today choose to participate in the religion. This distinguishes the tradition from so many faiths – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in which one basically continues the religion in which one was raised.

Through such a lens, Heathenry is a religion of free will and adult choice, and the others are based on family practice and ancestry.

What makes a group a religion rather than a cultural enterprise?

What makes any group a religion rather than a cultural enterprise? If we define "religious practice" to mean only a sacred moment in which one is engaged with the numinous, then Heathenry qualifies just as much as Christianity or any other better-known faith.

But the lines between religion and cultural enterprise are blurred for all of us. How often do we hear that a friend is "culturally Catholic" or "culturally Jewish"?

There is more to belonging to a tradition than that moment when one eats the communion wafer or raises the horn to Odin.

How accurate or authentic are the religious beliefs and practices observed by these religions? In other words, do you think they’re some actual approximation of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, or are they more a wishful re-creation in modern terms of what people hope or guess they were like?

There is a variety of approach to ritual and belief in worldwide Heathenry, just as there is for any religious tradition.

First-century ritual of the goddess Nerthus (Emil Doepler, 1900)
Like Christians who insist that today's practice must approximate as closely as possible the rituals of the first century of Christianity, there are Heathen reconstructionists who insist that ritual and worldview must be based on rigorous study of primary and academic sources.

Like liberal Jewish practitioners, there are Heathens who believe that their religion must change with the times and incorporate modern developments in science, human rights, and so forth.

Is it fair to ask a Muslim today how "accurate or authentic" her religious beliefs and practices are? Religious traditions are very complex and interesting things.

Do you consider the Asatru Folk Assembly to be a white supremacist group?

Since its inception, the leaders of the Asatru Folk Assembly have defined the organization in opposition to the tolerant mainstream of Heathenry.

McNallen is profiled in Gods of the Blood
Stephen McNallen, the organization's founder, told religious historian Mattias Gardell that the founding of the group was in reaction to "liberals, affirmative-action Asatrúers, black goðar [priests], and New Agers" populating American Ásatrú.

For decades, McNallen and prominent members have issued screeds against racial minorities, claimed that religious affiliation is determined by DNA, and insisted that their version of the religion is only for white people.

The group's tactic has long been to use dog-whistle terms while simultaneously engaging in activities such as recruiting at white-power conventions, as reported by Media Matters and confirmed by sociologist Dr. Jennifer Snook. Recently, the new leadership has abandoned the old caution and openly used white nationalist rhetoric in public statements.

At this point, with decades of history and documentation, it is difficult to see the AFA as anything other than a hate group on the extreme fringe of Heathenry.

In your view, how widespread are supremacists in the Nordic folk religions versus those who are involved for benign cultural reasons?

White nationalists vs. regular Heathens as % of total Heathen
community, based on research of sociologist Jennifer Snook
Every religion has an extremist fringe. Many groups have racists that appropriate their traditions to promote far-right ideologies.

Heathenry is no different, yet the coverage of Heathenry is different. Almost without exception, journalists and academics will only cover the racist element. This is quite different from treatment of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The tiny percentage of extremist Heathens is repeatedly held up for public scrutiny while the mainstream of everyday Heathens is completely ignored. This is a shameful practice, and I hope that – with the growth of the Heathen population in the United States – this will change.
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