On Columbia

There have been several responses to the DC40 Prayer Initiative,(1) a spiritual assault intended to assert their "authority to take dominion [and] speak His will on Earth" in accordance with "the Biblical mandate to dominate the culture and transform all aspects of society."(2) One of the more popular has been rituals to Columbia (3) in Her role as protector of liberty and religious freedom.(4) As is not uncommon in the Pagan community, this has resulted in some controversy. Many have noted that Columbia's namesake didn't exactly bring liberty and religious freedom to the natives of the "New World." As one Wild Hunt commenter put it:

I am bothered by the invocation of America as being "founded" on freedom, without acknowledgment that America was also founded on genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans (to say nothing of ongoing exploitation and atrocities against these groups and the earth herself). Now, I am quite sure that no one in the Columbia project supports genocide or oppression! But it's hard for me to get on board with views of the US or the Founding Fathers, or pieces like the songs to Columbia, as simply being these shining beacons of freedom, without acknowledgement of the complicated history and present of the US. How does the Columbia movement acknowledge and incorporate the realities of colonialism into its views of the US? How can the symbol of a country that has meant oppression for many (as well as freedom to many, and often both at once) be reclaimed in a way that respects all these experiences?(5)

Even the most popular image of Columbia, the statue which stands atop the Capitol Dome, embodies many American contradictions.(6) The original design for "Lady Freedom" wore a Phrygian cap, otherwise known as a "liberty cap." By orders of then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, this was changed to a helmet to symbolize "victory over tyranny."  Davis, a Mississippi plantation owner (and future president of the Confederacy) objected to the use of what was at the time a popular symbol within the Abolitionist movement.

Later Lincoln would point to Lady Freedom as a symbol of the reunification of the United States.  We should not gloss over the various sins of the Confederacy, or of the various historical and contemporary dictators overthrown through overt or covert American intervention.  But the inconvenient fact remains that the majority of Confederate citizens favored secession and were brought back into the American fold only after a brutal war.  Whatever Lincoln's intentions, he started a trend which continues to this day. The violent and bloody suppression of a popular movement against the wishes of the people was presented as a victory for "Freedom."

Acknowledging these problems, Literata Hurley writes on the "Hail Columbia" site:

This project invites Pagans to participate as citizens in helping the country progress towards greater freedom for all people, and especially the religious liberty that Pagans are working so hard to gain and defend. We go forward with our eyes open to the problems of our past, including those embodied in Columbia, and we take her as a symbol of how we are unwilling to return to that past; we work instead to create a better future for our country and ourselves. 

Columbia represents the goal to which we are dedicated; she encourages us to protect what has been won and beckons us onward to expand freedoms, including religious liberty in a peaceful and pluralistic society. As we take steps in that journey, let us demonstrate that all acts of truth and justice are her rituals.(7)

I recognize Literata's goals and honor her good intentions. But I wonder if we might not be well-served to honor Lady Freedom by taking a closer look at the meaning(s) of "Freedom."  Martin Heidegger has spoken of the ways in which words can "conceal being," how they can become empty symbols which lead us away from the truth rather than towards it. "Freedom" has certainly suffered this fate: politicians and pundits recite it like a Sacred Name and present it as a justification for everything from waterboarding to depriving health insurance to the poor. But what is "Freedom?"(8)

For much of American history "Freedom" has been defined as the right to possessions.  Freedom meant the right to till the verdant, unspoiled plains and claim them as farmland. Freedom meant the right to grow wealthy through hard work and inventive thinking. Freedom meant the right to have one's material needs met, to be as prosperous as your neighbors and more prosperous than those people living on the other side of the tracks.  And since we identified freedom with things, it only stood to reason that sooner or later we'd identify it with stock markets and corporations. 

French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote "L'homme est condamné à être libre." (Man is condemned to be free). (9) For Sartre freedom is not something which can be given or taken by governments: it is the human condition. We are forced to choose, to decide, to create ourselves by our actions and our inactions.  The only meaning to be found in this vale of suffering and joy is that which we create: as Batman says in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, "The world only makes sense when you force it to."  But yet Sartre also realizes that the very thing which most limits us - our fellow human beings and the society in which we live - also serves to define us.  It may be true that "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is other people).  But "Pour se connaître soi-même, on a besoin des autres" (to know oneself, one needs other people).  

We are a work in progress, constantly involved in the act of creation and self-creation. Inevitably we will make mistakes. Sartre fought passionately for the liberation of the disempowered, yet in his efforts to overthrow their oppressors he became an apologist for Stalinism. (10) We will argue, we will disagree, we will seek easy answers and find only difficult questions. And in the end we will leave a new generation to build on our triumphs and rectify our errors. 

If we are going to honor Columbia as the protector of Freedom, let us honor Her à la mode du Sartre rather than à la mode du Milton Friedman.  Let us recognize that she means something more than a chicken in every pot and a flat screen TV in every heavily mortgaged home. Let us understand that She, like all Gods, is an inescapable part of our being. We cannot trade Her away for safety or comfort, nor can we escape the terrible responsibility which She lays on us. We use our freedom when we stand up against oppression, and we use our freedom when we acquiesce to it. 


1. http://www.dc40.net/

2. http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/dc-40-take-dominion-over-america

3. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/liberty/origins.html

4. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2011/10/guest-post-the-hail-columbia-movement.html

5. http://ux.brookdalecc.edu/fac/history/Tangents/ARTICLESFORTANGENTS/Columbus's%20Genocide.htm

6. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/liberty/politics.html

7. http://hailcolumbia.us/about-us/about-columbia/

8. http://heideggerian.blogspot.com/2006/06/on-essence-of-truth-untruth-as.html

9. http://www.philo5.com/Les%20philosophes/Sartre.htm

10. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/egghead/2003/09/exit_pursued_by_a_lobster.html


kenaz filan
kenazfilan @ gmail.com | 917 267 7469

kenazfilan.blogspot.com | www.kenazfilan.com


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11/5/2011 06:52:01 pm

Thank you, Kenaz, for this post. I agree wholeheartedly with your challenging of the patent acceptance of the oversimplification of "Columbia" as symbol of freedom for all. I have looked at the above Columbia-related links and have yet to find one that grounds Columbia as a historical and grounded, experienced spiritual energetic beyond the political allegory that she actually seems to represent. As an African, I have numerous problems/issues with the engagement of Columbia as she is embodied in story and political history. It seems there are many other ways to resist the DC40 while allowing for more sensible points of unity and solidarity with African people and Native Americans on Turtle Island.

11/7/2011 03:55:04 am

I think that grounding Columbia as the patroness of our existential "Freedom" in the Sartrean and Kierkegaardian sense of the word will prove more useful than making her the Goddess of the Free Markets - or, even worse, the Goddess of Doing Whatever I Please With No Consequences. If She is the Goddess of our Freedom to Choose, then She is also the Goddess who reminds us that our choices have lasting consequences.

Too often "freedom" has been used as a warm and fuzzy word which deflects sound arguments. If we are going to avoid falling into the trap of "freedom' being used as a buzz word for "whatever belief happens to be most convenient for me at this moment," we're going to have to explore what it means to be "free" and what our "freedom" costs other people.

Ian O
11/7/2011 11:05:11 pm

This post seems well-meaning, but a little off-target. I am more than a little baffled at the blithe way you pass through the Civil War and the sloppy connection made between Sartre's existentialism and the crude willfulness of Miller's Batman.

That, somehow, this notion of freedom should then be attached to the image of Columbia, who is of a place and time...

Why call the Confederate movement 'popular'? They only form a comfortable 'popular' majority if you exclude the rest of the U.S. at the time *and* exclude the slaves they oppressed.

Let's keep in mind, that the number of 'popularly' elected officials representing the to-be-Confederate states at the national level were inflated on the basis of enslaved African populations who had no influence over their selection.

Calling Lincoln's refusal to acknowledge secession a brutal assault on freedom buys into the lies of Lost Cause history that pretends the Confederacy stood for anything else but slavery and expanding white supremacy.

Really, the Confederate elites made no bones about their desire to preserve slavery and, if they had their druthers, returning places like Haiti to it.

Miller and Sartre...just, ugh. Sartre would never stand behind that crude formulation. Meaning does pre-exist the individual, because the individual comes into their individuality in a society with a history and amongst people who are already operating within that meaningful world.

You are being led astray a little by your ready use of 'we'--for Sartre, the 'we' is never simple. It is frought and difficult. Our 'triumphs' and 'mistakes' are not something given, they are constantly at issue in the face of our freedom and the freedom of others. Seeing the way others see our triumphs as failures, for example, is one burden of freedom.

All of which is really something that doesn't sit well on a spiritual presence. Sartrean freedom is something that opens up in the heart of our being, our individuality with others, in ways too intimate for it to be something grounded in a spiritual presence called 'Columbia.'

Existential freedom separates us from other people and, also, separates us from other spirits. It puts us in touch with ourselves, and through that we can establish more authentic ways of being in the world with others, person and spirit.

This is something that is fairly consistent with many African-derived spiritualities. The person, the head, the sacred individuality, is what puts us in touch with others and the world. That sacred individuality does not reside in or derive from other spirits (except, perhaps, the most high creator), but is the basis for negotiation and life with them.

Our spiritual life is a series of negotiations with powers and principalities that lay upon us expectations and meanings which we must come to terms with. That 'coming to terms' is what defines our freedom, caught between what is and what we can make of what is.

Figures like Columbia (whether real or literary) are just part of this process. They may very well embody forms of freedom which we wish to transform and negotiate with, or ones we wish to struggle against and undo.

Better we face up to that, to her expression of American images of freedom, than, in bad faith, leap ahead to make her the tutor of existential freedom itself. That shifts the locus of existential freedom from our sacred personhood to Columbia so that we don't have to struggle with the actual, mixed, forms of freedom she actually represents.

11/7/2011 11:41:53 pm

Ian: I'm responding to your comments in more detail in my blog. Just a couple of brief pointers here.

1) Since Columbia is already being presented/served as a "Goddess of Freedom," I suggested we re-examine the word rather than re-examining the Goddess. We can get away from the images of Columbia easily enough. Getting away from the word "freedom" - and the various ways it is used and abused - is impossible in this society. And so if we're going to talk about a Goddess of Freedom let's get to the heart of the issue - Freedom and what it means.

2) I'm not trying to justify the Confederacy or slavery. Neither am I trying to justify the Taliban, Ho Chi Minh, or various other dictators the United States has attacked in the name of "freedom." But the inconvenient fact remains that the Confederate States chose to secede and were brought back into the fold through a brutal war. (You will note that the south didnt' exactly greet the Union Armies with flowers and hail them as liberators).

Was that war justified? Most would say that it was. What about the Soviet efforts to liberate Czechoslovakia and Hungary from popular uprisings - or the American efforts to liberate Chile from the Allende government? If you acknowledge that governments sometimes have the right and even the responsibility to wage war against popular movements, then you are stuck with a situation where one person's "freedom" is another person's "tyranny." I'm not sure I see any way around that. But I do see where we have engaged in a number of bloody wars using a similar justification. And I think we need at the very least to set up some guidelines as to when this is appropriate and to call a spade a spade rather than using warm fuzzy words to justify expansionist policies.


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