JVP Speaks: What is Civic Duty?

Project Civility is in full swing at Rutgers, whether you noticed it or not. The initiative’s aim is to get people to ask questions about what it means to be part of a community, about how people should treat one another, and what can be done to improve the quality of people’s treatment of others. Of course, the whole initiative is voluntary rather than mandatory, which means that, chances are, one likely won’t be prompted to participate in Project Civility in one’s day to day. At the very least, I’ve yet to be prompted, so I figured that I’d prompt myself and my fellow JVPers to participate in Project Civility with this week’s question: Should America have a notion of civic duty if it doesn’t already? Why or why not? If so, what should it entail?

Alex Giannattasio: Civic duty is the moral imperative that members of society actively protect the rights of society as a whole. There are many ways to fulfill this duty, one of which, for instance, is voting. By collectively engaging in the democratic process, our society as a group agrees to work out its differences peacefully in exchange for giving everyone a voice. This in turn sets a baseline for the group’s peaceful coexistence to stand upon, thus preserving the basic rights of every individual.

But voting is not the only way to engage one’s civic duty. Voting takes such a small effort that the possible impact per person is diluted anywhere from hundreds to millions of times over. A more active way to meet one’s civic duty is to work in one’s local community to improve the quality of life of the most needy, and to just improve it in some valuable way. We as a nation are in fact living up to this now: community engagement in America is at very high levels, with 111 million Americans volunteering their time in the past 12 months and 60 million volunteering on a regular basis. The Future of American Power by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 6, at 10. Community engagement bears a much bigger impact per person and improves the quality of the community in which you live. In the short term, this kind of civic participation can be much more valuable to a nation as a whole, because it translates into social improvement at an extremely efficient cost.

Michael Stuzynski: Americans have a sense of civic duty because after over 200 years people are still somewhat conscious of the concept of the Revolutionary War. The fact that people fought and died for your right to vote, among other things, is everywhere in culture, and is reiterated with every new war that our country fights. It’s less a sense of a duty and more a sense of a responsibility that is owed to the respectful remembrance of people from the past. But it’s also pretty cool that you can be responsible for firing the leader of the free world, and all of his oafish minions.

Jhoany Benitez: When I first read this question, I was immediately going to answer “Yes, definitely. It’s your right, so, why not? People in Cuba wish they could make a difference.” But then I opted to put some real thinking into my answer and ended up completely changing my mind. So my real answer is No. I think that the United States shouldn’t have a notion of civic duty. Why? Because people should not be forced to do something. Voting, to be exact. “It’s your right as a citizen!” Does this mean that I have to run out and vote—even if I don’t even know who I’m voting for? That’s why I changed my mind. Because I remembered hearing from friends who opted not to vote because they knew nothing about the people running.

Also, let’s say that you hate Republicans…but you don’t even know who’s running for either party. Does that mean that you’re going to vote for whoever’s representing the Democratic party even if you know nothing about them? This is where the notion of civic duty fails. I think it’s better to not vote than to shove down people’s throat the belief that it’s their “civic duty” to vote and have them vote blindly. So I say No to civic duty. Vote because you care, not because someone’s telling you to do so.

Dave Imbriaco: To me, civic duty is what is expected of a citizen in return for living within a system that allows them certain rights and freedoms – the RESPONSIBILITIES that come with those freedoms, if you will. There was a point in this country not too long ago when everyone who took high school social studies classes learn not only about how government works but how they must also actively participate in it. This seems to have all but died in our modern education, which is a tragedy of epic proportions. The mantra of a good social studies class went that it creates not only good students but good citizens. Also, it wouldn’t be called our “duty” if it was an easy thing to do. It sucks to choose between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, but you, as a citizen, still have the duty to make that choice because you live in a democracy. There are countless other ways you can get involved in a democracy but this is the most basic of all. /rambling.

Billal Ahmed: I find it interesting that while young people often have no problem condemning strict notions of what it means to be a good Muslim or Christian as a danger to global security, they hesitate to criticize civic duty for the same reasons. I have no problem with the idea of improving a nation through the idea of civic duty, whether through volunteering, teaching, building, etc. However, I blame civic duty for the prevalence of worrisome nationalism which inevitably begins to infringe on the rights of others. Civic duty easily leads to civic elitism, which reinforces the notion that a particular nation is special and requires extremely lamentable acts to be carried out in order to preserve that status. One could argue that civic duty is a fundamental motivation for the vigilante bands currently patrolling the United States border with Mexico. One could also argue that civic duty lead to the vengeance-fueled invasion of Afghanistan nine years ago with Operation Anaconda, which was blinded by passion and thus badly disorganized. Civic duty is excellent under the same conditions that religious zealotry can be considered excellent- when it is used to fuel the betterment of humanity rather than the suffering of others.

Brian Connolly: We pay taxes…so, we already all do have a notion of civic duty. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great outlet for people who have the time, energy, and willingness to help their fellow countrymen (and countrywomen, out). But, quite frankly, people have live’s to live. If you want to run a YMCA program for underprivileged youth–knock yourself out, you’ll probably feel great doing it. But in no way should America institute a mandatory system of community building exercises. That encroaches on the freedoms that we have. And, as an interesting reminder, historical precedents that include an overwhelmingly strong concept of national duty include Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Just a thought.

Rebecca Zandstein: Civic duty, being the responsibilities of a citizen are demanded by America to some extent. Citizen’s are required to pay taxes and obey all laws of the state in which they live or are traveling to and the federal laws. Aside from the latter give or take a few citizens are expected to follow other rules that are not necessarily obligatory or concrete: like voting and being morally just to one another. While America does provide citizens with a code that they must follow I believe that the “unspoken law” should be followed as well due to the positive effects it can have on society and the individual(s). Civic duty allows individuals to participate in activities that many would literally die for the opportunity to do. Civic duty can assist others, whether below or above you in the hierarchy, in a manner that no one else might necessarily have the capability of. Regardless of the latter, America can only enforce a limited amount of written code/rules on its citizens despite that it might be tempted to enact the “unwritten code” onto its citizens as well. Unwritten civic duties are optional and those who view them as mandated have the benefit of, at a minimum, being viewed in a brighter light than other citizens.

Marlana Moore: There are certain attributes that make a person a good, admirable human being, regardless of nationality. When I think of civic duty, I think of those things I can do to be a good and responsible person in context to my identity as an American. Civic duty includes voting, obviously, but voting entails some other duties as well. In order to vote responsibly, you have to be aware of the candidates and know what they stand for. Similarly, being a responsible American involves knowing what your government is doing, and telling them what you think about it. I think if more Americans really took this attitude of their civic duty seriously, our government would not feel so removed from us, and we might instead feel that they are helping us.

Ben Kharakh: I think that America lacks both a cohesive and shared vision of what it means to be a good citizen and the means by which the virtues of good citizenry are to be cultivated. Rather than wait, however, for the government to improve or for people to start discussing what it means to be a “good American”, it’s up to those people who desire reform and deliberation to be the change they wish to see. That means asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good citizen?”, which is the same as asking one’s self, “What can I do to be a good person?”

It’s important to be a good person for a number of reasons, one of which is that the way we treat others teaches them how to treat us, something that’s easier to discern on a micro scale with a family than on the macro scale with a nation. A nation, however, is just a family with a lot of people, which means that it simply takes longer for the treatment that we’ve taught others to come back around and affect us. But it will, it does, and we are seeing the affects of now more than ever. Not that this is anything new; we just didn’t have TV and Internet 2,000 years ago.

Who’s to blame for this? No one or everyone; take your pick. Personally, I find the question of, “Who’s responsible?” less useful than, “What do I do?” It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

Brendan Kaplan: By “sense” I think what you mean is cohesive whole, picture, or gestalt.

Any position on the matter, even one devoid of commitment to civic duty is nonetheless a sense. We HAVE a sense… is it the right one?

I think the question really is then, what type of sense of civic duty should individual Americans have? How does this sense impact the greater country as a whole?

Things tend to function fractally, and that means the the number one thing you can do to change the country is to change yourself. To determine what type of country we should have, is to contemplate what type of people we should be. In short, by asking if there is a proper type of civic orientation, we are asking ourselves if we think that there is a proper way to act or not.

I am of the mindset that there is. I guess then, that I believe that we as individuals, and therefore collectively as a country, should maintain a set of behavioral standards. Our question further suggests that those personal standards that I think we should maintain are relevant to the way the nation functions as a whole.

OK, so what standards should these be?

I think it is very difficult to predict how any process will manifest in any specific situation. The content may be different for different people. For example, to become more well rounded, a really rich arrogant kid might be well served by working in a field for a week and being treated with little importance, while an illegal day-worker might truly benefit from being prodded to act arrogant and demand Pellegrino sent to his table. The content of the process of balance is different depending on the direction any particular actor is coming from.

Thus, by realizing that individuals can attain balance by acting in seemingly divergent ways, and considering that a cohesive national “feeling of duty” would necessarily account for these diverse methods of balance, a true and proper sense of civic duty would have to connect and encompass all of these facets.

Our duty must be then to translate the experiences of individuals within the country into content that others can understand as of the same process as their own. Civic duty isn’t about symmetrization, as in what I call ‘the new diversity’ whose maxim reads “Nobody can be discriminated against, therefore everyone has to be exactly the same [when measured against pre-approved factors such as income, education, wealth, aptitude]” Instead, civic duty is about recognizing the differences in the individual stories that become aggregated into cultures and nations, and elevating those differences as the welcome product of a highly specialized humanity that has evolved traditions and customs that allow it to live in a variety of situations.

Interaction between these different cultures must be facilitated in such a way as to not allow the willful destruction of a culture simply for the sake of its destruction.

Civic duty, then, is about communication, accountability, and rights. These days, accountability is so often lost as people are reluctant to suggest that an individual’s perspective might be flawed for fear of offending a cultural perspective. To compensate, these same people often become overly concerned with communication or rights, and end up as misguided activists, protesting anyone and anything in their paths.

A further revision then: Civic duty is about a mediation of communication, accountability (consequences/ resolutions), and rights. Those concerned about their civic duty engage in processes that further these three ideals.

Way to go JVP!!

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JVP Speaks: Are you going to vote?

Hello and welcome to JVP Speaks! In this soon-to-be-a-recurring-feature, contributors will kick-off a discussion on a particular topic by writing on a single prompt. This week the JVP asked itself: are you voting? Why or why not? Feel free to answer the question yourself, comment on any of our answers, and to generally get the ball rolling on this important topic! Here’s what we had to say: Jhoany Benetiz: I believe that this upcoming election is crucial. People are losing trust in our president and the Democratic Party, which I find very upsetting. I think that people need to learn to be patient and not expect drastic changes overnight. My family and I have been affected by the recession, so I totally understand why people are growing desperate and need things to improve. But, still, people should not lose hope like that. Obama’s doing what he can. I know that not everyone agrees with this. I constantly hear my professors urge us to vote on Tuesday and make a difference. But, unfortunately, I will not be voting. Why? Because I’m a permanent resident and only American citizens can vote. Isn’t that something? But I would vote if I could. Believe me! Brendan Kaplan: Yes, I will be voting. I’m more concerned with keeping my pulse on the local state of things rather than any of the other races. Also, I’m going to be voting in Princeton, my hometown community. I’ve heard a lot over the past few years about students needing to make a bigger difference in the political landscape of New Brunswick. I think that that is great, as long as one plans on staying in (or owning property in) this city. Aside from that, I think a more genuine way to give back to the community that more or less graciously provides us a place to study is through local community action rather that local community politics. True service can’t be put on a resume and should be undertaken as a means to an end, in this case hopefully a healthier community. Additionally, there are a number of issues that are important to me in good old P-town. My parents still live and own property there. There are also a number of changes happening downtown there, especially with the construction of the new hospital getting closer and closer to completion. I’m going to follow the progress there with a watchful eye, and hope everyone takes the time to lend their own personal expertise to their hometown races. We grew up there, we know the issues. Bilal Ahmed: This question does not entirely pertain to me because I am a Canadian citizen. However, I would advise people to register their dissent. I understand that voting sometimes appears to be a means of enabling a broken system, but I have watched enough news programs in the United States to know that most statistics are based on registered voters rather than eligible ones. The only way for your decision not to vote to have any effect on how party politics are conducted is to register before staying home on Election Day. I realize that some will argue that both parties are fundamentally flawed, but I have noticed that most objections to the American political process in this area of the country come from frustrations with the Democrat Party. They are labeled as spineless, cowardly, and unable to take a firm stance on issues such as Afghanistan. If I were able to vote in the 2010 election, I would register as a Democrat and remain at home in protest because of President Obama’s decision to escalate the war. I’d register in protest of the Afghan troop surge, as I believe it to be a political compromise that relegates bloodshed to an international theater rather than risking it in Congress. President Obama has decided to place life and human morality below American party politics, and in response I would register my disapproval. Matia Guardabascio: Yes. I will be voting in the election. I am voting because it is my civic duty to do so. I am voting because I want to make sure I did my part to help the country avoid the wrath of incompetent politicians. Voting in a state—Massachusetts— that is historically Democratic (except for Scott Brown), my voting day is less of a hot spot than most. Still, the gubernatorial race up here has been heated and I am anxious to cast my vote for a man who has done a good job as governor for the last four years. I am also anxious to remind Barney Frank that he will always win his district back home, in spite of the lies and propaganda spewing from the other side. And given the issues on the ballot this year (particularly the lowering of taxes), I feel obligated to go out and vote to make sure that the reasonable and responsible decision is made. Mike Stuzynski: I’m voting because, even though I have honestly lost faith in politics, a right un-exercised is a right lost. And my faith in politics will be restored only when everyone who voted for the bailout is no longer in office. Ask Alex G if he remembers how exciting it was last year when we found out that the House of Reps rejected it the first time. We had quite the celebration, and that was honestly the last time I really thought that the government was paying attention to my interests and wishes. The current health care law is a joke, but you’d only find that out if you read the entire thing (hint: it’s long). Listen to the media and they either criticize it for the wrong reasons (the asinine–but possibly true–notion that it’s an unconstitutional use of the commerce clause) or emphasize one or two talking points again and again. The bill failed to establish the goal of government run health care, but also did little to change the already highly structured and monopolistic private health insurance industry. Instead of using the natural force of private competition to drive costs of care down, the law allows insurance providers to divide up the market and keep prices artificially high. Because of all this, the law just does more harm than good. It’s like you sent your buddies out for beer, and they come back with a keg of O’Douls, and you still have to pay for it! Alex Draine: It was my intention to vote, but I will not be voting because the great state of New Jersey has failed to send me my absentee ballot in a timely fashion. Either that or the US postal service lost my application for an absentee ballot in its journey to Trenton. Dave Imbriaco: I plan on voting today and in every future election. Why? Because it’s the LEAST that a responsible citizen can do in a democracy. I know it’s a trite expression, but democracy is not a spectator sport. You can’t expect to have your interests represented in government if you don’t take the time one day a year to cast a ballot, and that is really the barest minimum that someone who considers themselves a responsible citizen can do. I would never expect for people to get as involved in politics as I do (doing what I do requires a bit of insanity), but I truly don’t understand why people don’t vote (well I do, I just tend to think their reasons for not doing so are stupid). It doesn’t matter if your choice is between a giant douche and a turd sandwich (credit: South Park), you still have a choice to make. If voting was always an easy thing to do, it wouldn’t be called a civic DUTY. You are lucky enough to be born in a country where you have the fucking chance to shape your own government, anyone who puts that down is an unappreciative asshole in my book. Moreso, it’s ESPECIALLY important that us young people get out to the polls. Do you all really expect our parents’ and grandparents’ to solve all the problems that they created? If the American youth doesn’t step up and assert themselves and demand their place in American politics, no one will give it to them and we’re fucked as a generation and a county. The day that I’m convinced that my vote doesn’t mean anything, you’ll find me on the front lines of the second revolution. Marlana Moore: I am going home to vote on Tuesday. My dad is running for council in my very small town, and he needs every vote he can get. I should have just voted by mail, but I forgot to get the ballot. I am not sure if my vote will matter all too much. In fact, I haven’t yet looked up the other candidates. The last two elections have been pretty big ones, and I guess I have seen the most aggressive campaigning in other states that are voting on senators. As a culture, we stress the gubernatorial and senatorial candidates so much more than local county positions even though that is the sphere where your vote has the most direct impact. But does anyone know who is on the Board of Freeholders, or even what they do? How about the County Sheriff? I don’t, and I think that I should. In Merchantville, I know that my vote will count, at least personally. I will probably continue to vote, just because I can. Rebecca Zandstein: I will be voting in the elections on November 2nd. I do not think I can complain about certain local legislation and actions being taken by our House representative if I did not at least vote. Voting is the minimum that is asked of us to do as out civic duty [as citizens]; voting is an easy way to go out and show that I care about what happens within my district. I do not approve of those who complain about budgets and taxes (cuts and increases) and free markets versus extensive restrictions on businesses when they did not even vote for a candidate who abides by their ideology. Furthermore, voting encourages education: one needs to know the core values behind each candidate and many times research is required for values that are not understood in depth. Educating oneself within society for the benefit of self and others is, in my opinion, a primary benefit to voting. Ben Kharakh: While I’m currently of the opinion that voting is less than the least that one can do, I also recognize that the government exists. A lot of times people get caught up in criticizing and theorizing without admitting that, hey, the world is a particular way right now. If you’re going to try to change anything in anyway, you’re better off taking the current state-of-affairs into consideration. So, I will vote. At first I was going to pick the candidates who seemed like they’d come closest to voting in the manner that I would vote, but they all fell short of that standard. And that’s based on websites designed with the purpose of making the candidates look good! So, rather than voting based on who I think will do the most good, I will vote based on who I think will do the least damage.

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The Social Myth of Mushroom-Shamanism

Psychoactive, or “magic,” mushrooms are the most ubiquitous of the known entheogenic plant hallucinogens.  They can be found on six out of seven continents, and require no pieces of complicated paraphernalia or preparation to be ingested.  Building on these assumptions, the conventional wisdom of the psychedelic movement in the 1960’s held that ritualistic mushroom use must have been a common practice in the shamanic traditions of many, if not most, of the prehistoric and ancient cultures ranging from Siberia and Northern Europe to the Americas and even Australia.  Self-described prophets such as Timothy Leary along with popular writers like Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner, and Terrence McKenna helped perpetuate the cultural myth of a lost golden age of shamanic communion with the spirit realm via the use of hallucinogenic fungi, followed by a decline in use commonly ascribed to the oppressive spread of Christianity and growing disenchantment after the development of agriculture.  The mythologies generated by these individuals remain influential to this day in many circles of dedicated mushroom aficionados, or myconauts.

Andy Lechter addresses the often dogmatic adherence to this ideology among mushroom users in his book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.

With great certainty [mushroom users] will detail how mushrooms were used in prehistoric religious ceremonies, inspiring the building of the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan.  They will tell you how Plato, amongst others, drank mushroom tea at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis; how mushrooms were eaten by the shadowy Celts and their Druidic priests, by the Vikings to access their jingoistic rages, and then later by the medieval witches in their secretive moonlit sabbats.  They will happily explain that folk memories of Siberian mushroom-shamanism gave us the figure of Father Christmas, who is, in fact, a magic mushroom in disguise.  They will blame a blinkered patriarchal and nature-hating Christianity, or perhaps the scientific machinations of the industrial revolution, for the severance of this unbroken tradition and the willful oppression of this throwback to the stoned age.  And they will claim that by reviving mushroom use they are reinstating an ancient shamanic heritage, a heritage that is their natural birthright (4-5).

In order to corroborate his claim, I interviewed eight individuals in a close circle of psychedelic mushroom users at Rutgers, and found their opinions on the history of mushroom use to be closely accordant with this narrative.  Due to ideological concerns, all of these individuals have asked to remain anonymous—though among them references to the mushroom’s prehistoric origin, Plato, and Siberian shamanism were unanimous, and every piece of Lechter’s chronicle was reproduced by at least two individuals.  The singular exception was the Avebury and Stonehenge myths, which were mentioned by only one interviewee, although this can easily be ascribed to a more general lack of cultural knowledge in America pertaining to ancient British history.

If nothing else, we can take the cohesiveness of this cultural mythology as evidence that psychedelic mushroom aficionados can be thought of as constituting their own mnemonic community.  Aside from mode of dress, political views, and cultural tastes, members of the community can be said to share a distinctive set of memories pertaining to the origins and history of the mushrooms they hold to be sacred.  They are an especially interesting subject for analysis because their remembered historical system is predicated on a distinct lack of citable evidence.  Lechter notes that because “mushrooms are delicate, evanescent and highly putrescible, often rotting away within hours of appearance . . . fungi of all kinds appear extremely rarely in the archaeological record” (32).  The few mushrooms that have been preserved have been of the more practicable Fomes fomentarius variety, more commonly referred to as tinder fungus because the plant’s dry, brittle constitution makes it an effective fire starting tool.  Lechter prominently declares that “there is not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere” (33).

In comparison to some of the other mnemonic communities we have discussed in class, there is a distinct lack of solid “history” for mushroom enthusiasts to point to in support of their mythology.  Whereas Zionists may correctly or incorrectly recall narratives such as the Bar Kokhba revolt or the death of Trumpledor, they are nevertheless referring back to accessible and agreed upon past events.  But in my interviews, I found that proponents of the mushroom mythology rely almost exclusively on their own personal experiences with the drug, colloquially called “trips,” to which they have assigned a high degree of ontological significance.  One particular subject nicely summarized the general opinion pertaining to the importance of the mushroom trip itself: “It’s like going to another world.  The mushroom takes you there and blows your mind.  It shows you things about the past and gives you insight into it, your own life, and even the future.  When it’s over, wherever you come back from, you come back knowing.”  Though individual descriptions of the ineffable trip experience differ radically, not one of my subjects doubted that it constitutes a distinctly spiritual, even Gnostic, event.

The unanimous belief in the intrinsic spirituality of the mushroom experience, coupled with a near unanimous recollection of the golden age/decline narrative suggests the best evidence for the normative aspect of memory in regards to this particular mnemonic community.  And though past events are plotted without much regard to chronological continuity (stories of the Aztec mushroom ceremonies and Indo-European Soma ceremonies were mentioned by one interviewed subject in the same breath as if they happened in sequential order), chronicles of mushroom lore are painstakingly separated into three distinct time periods: the prehistoric golden age, the decline brought on by Christianity, and the resurgence of the shamanic tradition in the second half of the 20th Century.  Events before the spread of Christianity are remembered in an idealized light (one subject longingly mused that “life must have been simpler then.”), whereas events pertaining to possible instances of mushroom prohibition in the Christian era—the medieval witch hunts being the most commonly mis-remembered—are demonized, evidence of humanity’s decline since organized monotheism resulted in a disenchanted break with the natural, shamanistic state.  Members of the mushroom community also tend to idealize the 1960’s as being akin to a psychedelic Renaissance, or a time of reconnection with humanity’s indigenous, spiritual roots.

But ask any modern myconaut to cite specific textual evidence in support of their claims, and, to the extent that you are given any worthwhile response at all, you will be directed claims derived from the theories of Carlos Castaneda, Terrence McKenna, and most prominently, Aldous Huxley, who has acceded to the position of unofficial godfather of the modern psychedelic movement.  None of these figures could be classically defined as historians or anthropologists—Castaneda was studying anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, but abandoned the science after the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge—they are purveyors of fiction and metaphysics, and must be regarded as such for the purpose of this assignment.  Huxley’s 1954 publication of The Doors of Perception, and subsequent Heaven and Hell have become the standard against which all psychedelic literature are measured.   His claim toward the middle of Doors of Perception, that “the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots—all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings since time immemorial” (24-5), is one of the first documented allegations of a prehistoric entheogenic shamanism, from the cultural movement that would eventually give rise to the age of the magic mushroom (Lechter, 26).

Huxley’s further insistence that “the urge to transcend self-consciousness is … a principle appetite of the soul” (Perception, 67), prompted writers to look for historical proof of this phenomenon in ancient cultures, and it was not long before an abundance of theories began cropping up about the supposed psychedelic origins of many of the world’s ancient religions and systems of spirituality.  The Hindu Rig Veda hymns frequently reference a liquid intoxicant called Soma.  Though the exact composition of the beverage remains an enigma, the amateur anthropologist and avid mushroom enthusiast Gordon Wasson, inspired by Huxley’s text, believed the active ingredient must have been a hallucinogenic fungus (Lechter, 143-4).  His 1968 publication of SOMA: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, spread his theory throughout the psychedelic underground, and the tenets of his book are still indisputably accepted by myconauts in the modern era.  Though none of the subjects I interviewed had heard of Gordon Wasson, the consensus that magic mushrooms were being consumed by the ancient Indo-Europeans has not faded.  Of the eight subjects interviewed, five identified Soma as being a mushroom derivative without being prompted, and the remaining three recalled the pseudo-scientific myth after being asked about it specifically.

There is one key difference between the remembered myth of Soma’s composition and Gordon Wasson’s original theory that only one interviewed subject was able to identify.  In the fungal kingdom, there are two known types of hallucinogenic mushroom.  The Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has a characteristic red cap with white specks, and the more common species belonging to the genusPsylocibe, which produces less distinctive looking brown or golden capped fruit (Lechter, 12-13).  The Amanita muscaria is almost never used in the modern era, as it is composed of a multiplicity of active alkaloids, the contents of which vary greatly between mushrooms growing under different conditions.  Because of this, theAmanita muscaria has never been widely used spiritually or medicinally outside two regions in Siberia, where soil conditions favor a consistent degree of potency.  The great majority of mushrooms cultivated and sold in the United States belong to thePsylocibe genus, of which the active alkaloids, psilocybin and psilocin, are found in more stable quantities, making for a more predictable experience once ingested (Lechter, 118-130).

Gordon Wasson’s book proposed that it was the Amanita muscaria that must have been the active ingredient in Soma, brought down from the Caucus Mountains by Aryan invaders (Lechter, 147).  From the modern standpoint, this conclusion seems unlikely, as the Amanita muscaria, which grows most commonly in symbiosis with fir trees, is not common in India.  Psylocibe species, in contrast, are found in many of the world’s tropical regions, including India, where they flourish in the warm, moist environment of dung fields and other regions of decay (150).  But this point proved purely academic—I was surprised to discover in the course of my interviews that modern mushroom enthusiasts are for the most part ignorant of the difference between Amanita muscaria and species of the Psylocibe genus (only one individual successfully identified the distinction).  Far from simply conflating the two types of mushroom—which would be a convenient way of revising Wasson’s assumption—Rutgers’ community of myconauts has essentially remembered the Amanita muscaria out of existence in their conventionalized history of psychoactive fungal use.

Another interesting conflation made by modern mushroom enthusiasts occurs in the recollection of history of Psylocibe cubensis use in South and Central America.  There is a great amount of documented evidence to suggest that mushroom use was common among the Aztecs and certain other inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula (Lechter, 88-113), and while all of the interviewed subjects correctly asserted that the indigenous people of what is now Mexico knew about the substance, they also unanimously subscribed to the theory that the mushroom was widely used throughout South America as a whole.  But though Psylocibe cubensisgrow prominently in many South American countries, they were not widely used outside of the Aztec and Mayan empires.  The indigenous tribes populating modern day Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia were no strangers to psychoactive shamanism, but they were largely ignorant or even wary of Psylocibe cubensis (Lechter, 193).Anthropologists now believe that Ayahuasca, or Yage, a psychoactive brew prepared from the admixture of certain plants and seeds, was the hallucinogen of choice for indigenous peoples south of the Yucatan, though this belief has only recently begun to gather popular support within the lay psychedelic community.

In the Rutgers’ psychedelic community, only the more experienced members have a proper working understanding of Ayahuasca—which is surprising, as it boasts a prominent Wikipedia entry to its name—but even those who do know about it, often subscribe to the belief that it was used interchangeably with the Psylocibe cubensis by the people of South America.  This conflation is almost certainly due to the influence of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s fictional shaman from A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, who allegedly used a preparation of Psylocibe cubensis to rock Castaneda’s empirical world-view.  After its publication in 1968,  the book caused many psychedelic travelers to journey to Mexico and other South American destinations in search of deeper metaphysical understanding  (Lechter, 214-16).  And though Castaneda’s Don Juan books are universally regarded as fiction among serious intellectuals, members of the Rutgers psychedelic community still perpetuate the myth of Don Juan.

The interviewed subjects recognized Don Juan as a famous Mexican (in some cases Peruvian) shaman—as an archetypal Indian teacher to outsiders, similar to the popular perception of Squanto, the Native American who helped the first European settlers.  His name was not connected to Carlos Castaneda, however, nor was it easily recognized as being connected with a book.  Psychedelic culture has apparently assimilated the fictional figure of Don Juan Mathus into its mythology as a modern day relic of an assumed ancient history of shamanic practice.  He has paradoxically become living proof of the prehistoric beginnings of humanity’s relationship with entheogenic substances in general, and magic mushrooms in particular.

As Lechter points out, “one of the reasons that invented histories, supposed lineages of mushroom use stretching back to the dawn of time, are so readily believed and so trenchantly defended by aficionados is that they serve to legitimate this illicit hobby” (23).  It supports the implication that the recreational and spiritual use of hallucinogens is not morally wrong, as it has been deemed by straight society in reaction to the permissive atmosphere of the 1960’s psychedelic revolution, but part of our own mystical ancestry, and therefore natural.  The figure of Don Juan fulfills the important function of bridging the gap between the lost golden age of psychedelic acceptance and its resurgence in the 20th Century.  If the hippies of the acid movement wanted to claim solidarity with a chain of hallucinogenic spirituality with prehistoric roots, they needed to grasp onto some piece of evidence in the non-Western world to corroborate it.  The case is similar with modern mushroom enthusiasts, who want to claim solidarity with past traditions as a way of justifying their life choices.  They undoubtedly cling to the Soma myth, among others for the same reason.

Ironically, this blind devotion to a shaky history blinds most from realizing that the issue behind the use psychedelic substances is not inherently a moral one.  All of the subjects interviewed rated psychedelic substances, and mushrooms in particular, as intrinsically positive agents of spiritual discovery.[1] The extent the Christian Era is used to symbolize the decline of the first psychedelic golden age is most likely based upon the lack of any hard evidence of hallucinogen use after the proliferation Latin made historical records more uniform and accessible.  To the skeptic, a lack of available evidence during a time of growing literacy and written documentation only strengthen the claims as to the mythological nature of humanity’s ancient shamanic tradition.  Attempts at locating evidence of the establishment’s oppression of mushroom use in the Old World, particularly within this period have proven fruitless, the best example being Michael Harner’s publication of Hallucinogens and Shamanism in the 1970’s.  In the book, Harner posited that the victims of the Medieval witch hunts were not devil worshippers, but secretive users of psychoactive substances which they ingested via the application of magic flying ointments.  From this unsubstantiated claim, it was not long before hallucinogenic mushrooms were proposed as a possible agent in these mysterious ointments  (Lechter, 47).  Lechter repeatedly argues in his book that most cultures feared mushrooms because of their relationship with decay and because some were known to be poisonous, stressing that psychedelic experiences were commonly viewed as evidence of the body’s rejection of the ingested substance and therefore something to be explicitly avoided.

But if die-hard myconauts rely on this narrative of Christian oppression to explain why no indisputable documented instances of ritualistic mushroom use existed until the 20th Century, they force the question of morality to the forefront.  This distinction is commonly drawn by the emphasis given to the autonomous agency of the mushroom as a spiritual tool.  In regards to the impersonal rites and places in which shared memories of mnemonic communities are stored, one need look no further than the mushroom itself, which is colloquially referred to by myconauts as the golden teacher or occasionally, philosopher’s stone.  To those who take the idea of shamanism seriously, the mushroom is a kind of conscious being.  This theory was proliferated by Terrence McKenna throughout the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  During his rhapsodical lectures, he occasionally related stories of the mushrooms speaking to him, and said they claimed to be of alien descent (Lechter, 263), and many myconauts in the modern era make similar contentions about having actually communed with the mushrooms during the psychedelic experience.

The degree of personal insight that one can acquire during a mushroom experience is astounding, so it is not difficult to understand why some groups of people choose to subscribe in the mushroom consciousness theory.  However, to an enthusiast with a critical eye, it becomes clear that the entirety of the experience is internally generated, the product of specific brain functions.  It is interesting then that so many individuals should subscribe to a point of view that is inherently normalized in the scope of its world view, though I believe this says a great deal less about the function of the mushroom than it does about the individuals themselves.  Though they generally mistrust Christianity, they are by no means atheists.  They regard themselves as seekers, psychedelic pioneers ushering in a new era of spirituality, and as such, one can’t help but wonder if their argument would not be more convincing coming from a professed atheist who had never heard any of the urban legends and pseudo-histories proliferated by psychedelic culture.

But in this case, that the normative memories of a shamanic past are directly influencing the mushroom community’s views about the future.  Judging from the anger generated by the publication of Lechter’s book on psychedelic internet message boards, it seems unlikely that these entrenched mythologies will change quickly, and die-hard adherents to the conventional wisdom are already at work trying to disprove his claims.  Their prejudices ring through in their unsung motto: from whence we come, we shall again return.

 

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.

Lechter, Andy.  Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. New York: Harper

Perennial, 2007.

Below is a reproduction of the interview questionnaire I used in this paper.  Interviewees were asked to type in their answers and examples to the following nine questions:

1)   What do you believe are the origins of magic mushroom use?

2) What does the experience, or trip, mean to you?

3) Describe an average trip or experience.  In your opinion, is there an innately spiritual quality to it?

4) Do you believe organized religion was influenced by mushroom use?  Provide examples of specific areas if you can think of any.

5) What do you think of Christianity’s relationship with psychedelic mushrooms?  Provide examples if you can.

6) Can you name any prominent figures associated with shamanism in general or magic mushroom use in particular?

7) What is Ayahuasca?

8 ) What is the importance of the mushroom itself?

9) What is the modern consensus about magic mushrooms as opposed to other classified “drugs?”

[1] To be fair, I am also aware of several “fringe” mushroom enthusiasts who do not subscribe to this ideology, though they are generally not accepted as being true members of the close-knit psychedelic community.

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