Editorial: The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

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Five months ago, we published a piece called, “Confronting the New Right,” an information page designed to supplement an essay about a Fascist candidate for elected office in Florida, Augustus Sol Invictus.

It caused a bit of controversy.

Though the article about Invictus was viewed only about 1000 times, the information page eclipsed that article by a factor of ten. “Confronting The New Right” was viewed 10,000 times, becoming the third most accessed essay on Gods&Radicals (behind Sean Donahue’s excellent essay, “The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment” and my review of Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America.)

Neither its extreme popularity or the controversy surrounding “Confronting the New Right” surprised me. What did take me aback, however, was the reaction some ‘leaders’ had to the piece, some of whom I’d worked closely with as the co-founder and co-organiser of the first Many Gods West.  Pagan and Polytheist figures who’d otherwise presented themselves as bulwarks against racism and fascist entryism became very quick to denounce Gods&Radicals and the page about the New Right. Some even joined in on personal attacks and physical threats against myself and other Gods&Radicals writers

While a few of these figures do hold racist, nationalist, or fascist views, none openly disagreed with the general thrust of my argument. Only a few suggested that the New Right shouldn’t be worried about, or that fascism was a non-existent threat. Rather, their primary arguments were on the matter of authority.

Respect Your Elders….

I provided four suggestions for those concerned with the New Right. The two involving spiritual leaders attracted the most rancor:

  • Demand clear stances from leaders: If a leader of any Pagan tradition seems to equivocate on questions of race, identity, or politics, or if they seem to have odd associations with New Right figures, ask them to clarify their stance, especially if they are ‘your’ leader.  Just because they are older or more experienced doesn’t mean they are beyond question; in fact, claiming ‘authority’ as an ‘elder’ or ‘priest’ leads to all manner of abuses, including spiritual abuse.
  • Challenge divine proclamations: While it’s certainly possible that a god may have told someone to do something awful, that’s hardly an excuse to do something awful.  The sacred has long been used by violent people to justify violence, by hateful people to justify hatred, and by authoritarian people to justify authoritarianism.  Just because someone is a ‘professional’ priest or diviner or witch doesn’t mean that their statements about the gods are true. Especially question commands that might grant the giver of the message power over you, or lead you to see a group of people as ‘an enemy.’

I presented both of these suggestions to help address a problem I’d noted in many Pagan-related groups. Many leaders seemed to equivocate on matters related to inclusion of minorities, or declined to criticize other groups who held racist, trans-exclusionist, or homophobic views. Asking leaders for clear stances seemed a common-sense approach to this problem–after all, if they’re ‘our’ leaders, they should be clear.

A common complaint to this suggestion was that I was attempting to ‘politicize’ Pagan groups. In such a view, though, being inclusive is political, while excluding people is not. Many of those who held such a view fell back upon their own perceived roles as priests to the gods, founders of traditions, or bearers of special knowledge. Suggesting that readers use their own discernment on such matters, rather than default to divine proclamations, challenged this strategy.

One essay by a Pagan leader became typical of the panic these two suggestions caused.  In his essay, A Wind That Tastes of Ashes, John Michael Greer accused me of demogoguery, warning:

…he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle. The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

I am, of course, a Marxist. And an Anarchist, a Feminist, a Pagan, and a Polytheist. And I did indeed suggest we challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders. But why, precisely? Because I was seeking unearned power? Or as he and others suggested elsewhere, I am a Marxist entryist looking to sabotage already-existing groups rather than build my own?

No.  Rather, it was because of stuff like the Asatru Folk Assembly’s announcement on the 21st of August:

AFA

The Asatru Folk Assembly, founded by Stephen McNallen and supported heavily by many people within the New (and old) Right, is not the only Pagan-aligned group to hold such views. But what I have long found worrisome is that such groups have rarely been so clear about their positions, nor are they often challenged by others.

For instance, Steve Abell, the former steersman of the Troth (the largest Heathen organisation in the world), refused to take strong stances against AFA’s rhetoric. Abell once even wrote an essay lauding Stephen McNallen’s civility while suggesting that a staunch anti-racist, Ryan Smith, was attempting to revive the “Inquisition” by confronting AFA’s racism.

Steve Abell was hardly the only leader to have painted the sort of white nationalist rhetoric that AFA uses as civil while insisting those who confront it are initiating “witchhunts.” More interesting, though, several AFA members led the charge against Gods&Radicals on this very point (many of the comments in Greer’s essay  and several blog posts shared by other critics are from one such member), framing the controversy around Confronting the New Right not as one of racism versus inclusion but rather innocent victims defending themselves from angry radicals.

Such a switch starts to sound like obfuscation, an attempt to silence critics who challenge the power of white (often male) leaders and elders who have long either ignored the political implications of their views, or actively attempted to hide them (as AFA often did).

But We’re Not Political…

Religious claims have political implications, especially those arguing for exclusion or strict hierarchy. Consider AFA’s claim that gender is ‘a gift from the holy powers and our ancestors,’ rather than a social construct. Something coming from ‘the holy powers’ (gods) is no different from claiming it to be ‘divinely ordained,’ just as some polytheists claim authority and hierarchy to be.

If the gods declared it, then any person faithful to the gods must accept this, lest they go against their will.

In such a view, the divine order (gender and sexual orientation, in the case of the AFA, or authority and hierarchy, in the case of some polytheists) is apolitical; any attempt to alter it is a politicization of something that should instead be sacred. Thus, on one hand there is the will of the gods, and against it stands radicals, ‘cultural marxists,’ or demagogues.

But who declares what is sacred? Who tells us what the will of the gods is?

Why, of course, the priests. The elders. The leaders. People who have a vested interest in hierarchy and a respect for authority, because they are at the top of it.

We are told merely to trust that devoted priests of the gods, founders or leaders of spiritual traditions, and elders who have accumulated years of influence have a better grasp of what the gods want than we do. Their experience, their ‘professional’ roles, their expertise should unquestioningly give more weight to their words than those of others, especially when the question arises as to what the gods will for humans.

There are some leaders I trust, some elders whose words I heed much sooner than others, some priests whose insights into the divine has proven repeatedly to be sound. But the trust I grant them comes not from their position as leader, or elder, or priest, but from my own experience with them.

Also, they each have something in common: they never pull rank.  Rather than relying upon a divine order of hierarchy or a sense of innate authority, they speak as fellow humans, themselves sharply aware of the possibility they might be wrong.

None demand I listen to them. None suggest they possess special powers or specific expertise that others cannot possess. None demand I follow them, nor are they surrounded by people who believe them to be any different from themselves.

Whether those who would claim the ability to speak on behalf of the gods (yet rely upon claims of divinely-ordained hierarchies and authority) are just deluded or seeking more power is impossible to know. Does the current AFA Alsherjargothi, Matt Flavel, really have the ability to know what the ‘holy powers’ have ordained regarding gender and sex?

We can’t answer this, and it’s maybe not even the right question.  Instead, we should be asking why anyone would accept such a claim, and why other Pagans and Polytheists–themselves leaders–insist that questioning authority and hierarchy is equivalent to a witch hunt.

The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Witches, of course, were not people in power. They were not leaders, large land holders or rich aristocrats. They were not bishops and priests, leaders of churches or even their community.

Instead, they were women, often those who did not conform to ‘divinely ordained’ standards of gender expression and sexual activity. The charges against them included dressing like men, having sex with other women and with the devil. They were often accused of undermining the authority of rulers, going against the strictures God ordained and priests declared. They refused the authority of man in favor of their own wills and desires.

They were disobedient, unruly and unruled. Just as the heretics the Catholic Church hunted claimed their own ability to hear God was equal to that of the priests, witches refused to settle for the divine order dictated to them.

Witch pullIt is not–and never has been–the leaderless, the self-ruled, and the self-possessed who hunted down innocents because they disagreed with their opinions. There is a reason history is not full of stories of racists or white nationalists finding burning crosses in their yards or being lynched. Likewise,  we do not hear of homophobes dragged behind trucks for miles, or burned alive, or slaughtered en-masse at a night club.

There has been no great ‘witch-hunt’ against fascist and authoritarian Polytheists by leftist neopagans. No leaders were strung up by the readers of Gods&Radicals, violently purged and shoved into ghettos or camps.

But some leaders have been challenged, and that’s what they fear most.

Those who claim that I or any other critic of authoritarian or New Right Paganism are attempting to initiate a witch-hunt know full well they have no such thing to fear. What they do have to lose, though, is their influence and power.

If I suggest you might be able to speak to the gods yourself, or if I and others (as in the recent My Polytheism series) assert you might be able to craft your own relationship with the divine rather than relying on self-proclaimed priests, then self-appointed leaders will have to find other ways of gaining our respect.

If people start questioning artificial ideas of hierarchy or divinely-ordained authority, leaders will have to earn our respect the way the rest of us do, step down from their pedestals and thrones and learn alongside us. They’ll have to find their own power and their own place within our varied traditions, and do the real work of building community, rather than authoritarian structures based on hierarchy.

In such a Paganism, statements about ‘the holy powers’ ordaining gender and sexuality will be seen as what they are–political opinions of racist, sexist, and anti-gay leaders who have too long hidden their ideas behind authority and the gods, expecting the faithful to fall in line.

I’m proud to help build such a Paganism.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd manyis the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals.