A couple of years ago I published an essay to this blog titled “The Culture War: One Heathen’s Perspective.” Events in the last couple of years have pushed me to revisit the topic, and take up some of the points I discussed there from a different perspective.
Two things have been bugging me lately. One is a growing thing that I can only refer to as a form of cultural imperialism in the larger pagan community. What do I mean by this? I mean a point of view that functions as a way of creating and maintaining an unequal relationship between the dominant pagan culture and all other pagan cultures. I mean a refusal to understand things as people mean them, and an insistence on interpreting all other things, all other beliefs and cultures, through the narrow lens of one’s own, and an insistence that all people, all members of other cultures, must adopt and conform to their beliefs.
Take, for example, the recent hysterical idiocy over the Sanders’ campaign’s “Bern the Witch” slogan. A bunch of people got very upset over the fact that this slogan was used as part of a Halloween theme last October. Seriously, people?
There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. Firstly, “witch” is an astonishingly broad term. It does not mean “pagan.” It does not mean “woman.” It has been used by both pagan and Christian cultures for many hundreds of years to basically refer to a stock boogeyman of fairy tales: the creepy outsider who traffics with dark forces. Yes, there was a period when it was often used to persecute those with pagan beliefs, or at least vaguely pagany-sorta-looking beliefs. It was sometimes used as a cover for discrimination against women. More often than either of these, it was used to disguise naked seizures of one’s neighbor’s land or to justify harsh political measures that would be less palatable without a scapegoat.
Pretending ownership of the word in order to pursue your own agenda is pretty lame. Dirty pool, even. Pagans do not own the word. Just because it was sometimes applied to them does not let them ignore all of the other uses of the word. Just because it was sometimes applied to women does not mean that somebody can claim the word to mean “woman,” and ignore the far longer history of different uses.
“Witch” is a popular culture term that has, these days, far more to do with cheesy costumes and candy than anything else. Being so myopic as to insist that only the way you use the word is proper, and that all other uses of the word must be judged by the standards of your own beliefs and political agenda is plain old cultural imperialism, wearing a new mask.
Then there is something even more disturbing. The best example of it is the recent post on Gods & Radicals on “Confronting the New Right.” The author, Rhyd Wildermuth, basically drew up a list of all of the kinds of paganism that don’t “think correctly,” and need to be viewed with suspicion because of their supposed tendency to go fascist. This list includes devotional polytheism, reconstructionist paganism, druidry, heathenry, and any tradition with a hierarchy or secret mystery traditions. He declares that “hierarchies are artificial,” and that they are a warning sign of New Rightist tendencies. Egalitarianism, he rapturously declares, is the One True Path. Just like in nature, he effervesces, where there are no hierarchies at all, and all plants and animals help each other out of a sense of friendly brotherhood.
Gag me with a spoon.
Mr. Wildermuth, and his devoted followers, are astonishingly blind to hypocrisy, irony, and the definition of fascism.
So let me provide it for you, Mr. Wildermuth. “Fascism” comes from the old Roman symbol of the fasces, a bundle of sticks. You see, each stick alone is weak, and can be broken. But tied together in a bundle, they are strong. In other words, Mr. Wildermuth, fascism is all about enforcing uniformity of belief and behavior in order to be strong, and to advance your particular set of beliefs and ideals.
Mr. Wildermuth, you and your supporters in the Gods & Radicals crowd have started a McCarthyist witch hunt, an attempt to ferret out the “wrong elements” from our culture, and enforce your astonishingly limited perspective onto paganism as a whole.
Do you condemn traditional Chinese folk religion? It is BASED on hierarchy. Its core belief is that the world takes the form that it does because the Celestial Bureaucracy has ordered it to take that form. Do you condemn Kemeticism? It is based in hierarchy, too. Much of the religion, both ancient and modern, is centered around its own divine hierarchy, as mediated in the person of the pharaoh.
You are not the popes of paganism. Your view of paganism is not one held by many historical forms of paganism. Your declaration that people who put the gods first, or believe in hierarchies, are to be looked at with distrust and suspicion is downright insulting.
I am a neo-tribalist, Wildermuth. I am a heathen. I have fought long and hard against the racist, Folkist elements of my faith. I do not need people like you coming along and declaring that I and all people who believe like me practice what is “generally considered the most problematic” form of paganism. Mr. Wildermuth, can you guess which finger I am holding up?
Hierarchies abound in nature, Wildermuth. Wolf packs. Chimpanzee social groups. Ants. Chickens. Have you seriously never heard the term “pecking order” before? Anyone practicing a traditional, pagan, nature-oriented religion has every right to respect, honor, and benefit from such natural constructs. You have no right to claim that these are signs of right wing activity. You have no right to dismiss our beliefs.
And you know what? Hierarchies and anarchy are not mutually exclusive. I am an anarchist. And I believe that hierarchies are useful, necessary, and have their place. What, are you king of the anarchists, now, too?
The wonderful thing about polytheism is all the variety. There are many paths, many beliefs. There are many ways of knowing. This makes us strong, because alloys are strongest. You want to talk about “real” pagan thought, Wildermuth? Let me share with you what real polytheism looks like. I helped organize and moderate a group of berserkers for many years. For those of you who do not know what a berserker is, which is most of you, a berserker is a person who practices a martial art that is much like Shaolin: a combination of martial art and spiritual tradition. Berserkers tend to be heathen, and use heathen spiritual practices.
Over the decade plus our group was together, we got all sorts of members. Some were hard core conservatives. Some went to the point of holding beliefs that I found repugnant. One even insulted both of my grandfathers, accusing them of being part of the “moon landing conspiracy,” because they worked on the Apollo program. Some were serious left wing types. Some of these held beliefs I found idiotic, or even repugnant. Many of these people did not hold similar beliefs to each other, and did not get along.
You know what, though? We believed that the gods were not sock puppets who held the same political beliefs that we did. We believed that the gods are vast, and beyond human comprehension, and that each of us only had a corner of the truth, not the whole thing. We acted respectfully to each other, so that we could be about the business that we came together for. We learned things from each other. We all benefitted from this. This is why polytheism is awesome. We are many, who can work together at need, and go our own ways at other times. None of us sets himself up above the others, saying that he has The Truth.
You know what, Wildermuth? I believe a lot of the same things that you do. I think that fascism is a bad thing. I think that the New Right is indeed a danger. I am an anarchist. But, unlike you, I do not blindly assume that the gods think as I do. I am a devoted Odinist, and you know what? The Old Man and I disagree about a number of things. I do not, for example, approve of his support of waging war for glory, or power. But I can disagree with him without rejecting him, and without pretending that he really agrees with me.
This is the other thing that has been bugging me over the last couple of years: an increasing tendency to put the gods last. Wildermuth’s group at Gods & Radicals seem to be putting politics first, and using the gods only as a means of furthering their own political agenda. They are trying to open up a new front on the culture war: setting up their form of pagan belief as the One True Way, and purging all wrong-thinking elements from pagan society. They are pagan cultural imperialists. This kind of blind, unthinking, pagan cultural imperialism is privileged bullshit. This kind of pagan crypto-fascism needs to be stopped.
PS The subtitle to this post is a joke that probably only members of my own Generation X will get.