Against Liberals

THERE IS A LOADED GUN sitting on a table again.

A crowd has gathered around the table. They watched the man who had it before clean the gun, reload it, and place it there. Now, it’s time for them to decide who gets it next, as they wait for the dead bodies to be dragged from the room.

This last guy? He killed people pretty cleanly. Sure, some of them were innocent, some of them were kids. But he did it so politely that everyone could admit it wasn’t so bad this time. They’re all worried though–of the two people who might get the gun next, one of them is really inexperienced, hot-tempered. The people who want him to have the gun also want him to shoot a lot more people than that last guy. The other possible shooter, though–she’s pretty nice. Shifty, not very honest, but she’s got some good points. She warns everyone that if the other guy gets the gun this time, he’ll kill some of the really vulnerable people. He doesn’t like women or Blacks or trans people. He’s said some bad words about the Muslims and Mexicans in the room.

She promises that she’ll use the gun for good. He promises that he’ll shoot the gun well. He’ll make the whole room great again, keep strangers from getting in. She promises she’ll point it at some other countries who have guns too.

While most everyone in the room is arguing about which of them should get the gun, there are the wounded in the corners of the room, bleeding out from the last guy’s charismatic shooting spree. There are also the parents of those that got killed cursing the gun. And a small handful are talking in quick whispers, asking a question no one ever asks. They remember how the last guy broke his promises, how he made sure the gun was loaded before he put it back on the table, and how the two would-be shooters aren’t promising not to use the gun, only promising to use it well…

Liberalism vs. Leftism

If you had trouble following the analogy above, I’ll parse it clearly: The loaded gun is the nation-state, and the two primary camps are the Conservative and Liberal parties in every Western Capitalist Democracy. Those in the corner, of course, are what we generally call “The Left.”

If you live in an English-speaking country, Left and Liberal have probably become synonymous in your mind, but they are hardly the same. This confusion doesn’t occur so much in continental European countries like France, Spain, and Germany: in those countries, Leftist movements and groups (anarchists, communists) have more political power. The strikes last year in France, for instance, were instigated by Leftist trade-unions against a government led by a social-democrat (Hollande); likewise in France, Germany, Greece, and Italy, anarchists and communists fight street battles against fascists and liberal-state police forces simultaneously.

In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, there is no such clear division. At least some degree of this is on account of legislative actions and policing against labor unions and radical organizers: in the United States, the power of unions has been almost completely broken, and Democratic and Republican governments alike have engaged in infiltration, sabotage, and entrapment of anarchist groups for decades, particularly of the green (eco) and red (communal-ist) varieties.

What now passes for ‘Left’ in all these countries looks remarkably like the centre-right governments in Europe. Obama’s domestic and foreign policy was more pro-capitalist and pro-war then Nicolai Sarkozy’s government in France, and Hillary Clinton’s platform was more conservative (and imperialist) than Angela Merkel’s conservative government in Germany.

The Limits of “The Overton Window

This right-ward drift of American ‘leftism’ is usually explained by means of what is called the Overton Window. In this conceptual picture, politicians and elected leaders can only call upon a limited number of actions and legislation within what is considered an acceptable ‘window’ of ideology.

Those who use the Overton Window to explain why American ‘leftism’ seems ‘centrist’ compared to Europe make two errors. While cultural and societal norms definitely define what appears to the majority of the public as acceptable vs. extreme, political parties themselves wield the power to shift this window through police and legislative actions. By police actions I mean the long-standing suppression of anarchist, marxist, indigenous, and Black resistance groups by the FBI under both Liberal and Conservative governments in the United States, and by legislative I mean (at minimum) the collaborative suppression of so-called ‘third parties’ by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Likewise, the Overton Window assumes that politicians actually care what the majority of people who elect them want and that liberals would take stronger ‘leftist’ positions if only their people would accept. This is true only if we take into consideration the power of wealth in elections: corporations, banks, and the very wealthy have much more influence over getting politicians elected than community groups or individual electors.

And anyway, the Democratic party in the United States has repeatedly made clear where their own Overton Window is. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the US House of Representatives recently re-iterated what every Leftist has known forever about the Democratic party: “we are capitalists.” Hillary Clinton, likewise, made clear to her wealthy donors her support for capitalism against popular opposition to fracking and the Dakota Access Pipeline when she told those private bankers that those protesting such things should “get a life.”

Liberalism, particularly in America, is staunchly pro-capitalist and only cares about the environment when doing so doesn’t scare off political donors.

Liberal Nationalism

The Liberal parties in the United States and elsewhere have never been anti-capitalist. In fact, Liberalism is by definition capitalist, though so-called Social Democrats (such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the United States) or the British Labour Party offer select and relatively insignificant socialist policies to mitigate the damage done by capitalism. The programs they argue for — nationalized (so-called ‘universal) health care and direct income assistance (‘universal’ basic income) — do not directly challenge the capitalist system; rather, they merely modify it in order to keep it functioning.

Not only do Liberals not challenge the capitalist system, they are just as nationalist as the conservative ‘opposition.’ Nationalism takes myriad forms, but all instances of it hold one thing in common: the imagined community of the Nation is paramount to all other individual concerns.

We see this best regarding the militarization of Liberal Democratic states, particularly the United States. The US has the largest military in the world, and in 2014 (the latest available numbers) spent $610 billion dollars on it: three times the next highest budget (China) and 34% of the world’s total military spending. In case you need a reminder, Barack Obama was president in 2014. That’s right: that was the budget under a Democrat.

In comparison, the Russian Federation spent 84.5 billion that same year, or 14% of what the United States spent. I bring up Russian for a very good reason: currently, Liberals in the United States are obsessed over the threat Vladimir Putin poses to America, and Democratic Party politicians and operatives seem certain that Trump’s potential ties to Russian business deals and potential Russian involvement in the recent election constitute treason.

Treason is, of course, a betrayal of the state and the people it claims to represent on behalf of a foreign power. It’s a crime against a Nation, not against individuals. That many Liberals now hope Trump’s frightening rise to power can be thwarted by claiming he is a traitor to America might seem at first a mere political move, but it belies something much more frightening: Liberals are Nationalist, just like the conservatives and fascists they claim to oppose.

The Big Red Button

Pin by Margaret Killjoy, available here.

The Nationalist foundations of liberalism can be seen not just in the construction of Russia (a nation which spends 86% less than the US on its military) as a clear and present threat, nor just in the Democratic Party’s military appropriations, but also in the way Liberals have pushed for more government surveillance powers.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York at the beginning of the last decade, then-president George W. Bush presided over the creation of new state-policing powers. The Department of Homeland Security and its subsidiaries (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol), now the primary enforcement arm of Trump’s anti-immigrant (that is, anti-foreigner) orders, subsequently received increased funding under Obama.

But more insidious was the expansion of surveillance powers under a Democratic President, including a peculiar executive order signed just a few days before Obama left office. Executive Order 12333, signed by a president widely seen to be on the side of the people, made it possible for the National Security Administration (the NSA) to make all their domestic intercepts freely available to other police agencies:

The last-minute adoption of the procedures is one of many examples of the Obama administration making new executive powers established by the Bush administration permanent, on the assumption that the executive branch could be trusted to police itself.

Why would liberals, after Trump was elected and just days before he was to take office, give such an order?

Return to the analogy with which I began this editorial, and you have your answer. Liberals and Conservatives both increase the power of the state because they know they will eventually hold control of that state, just as much as the two camps in my analogy make sure to reload the gun before passing it off to the opposition.

Currently, we in the United States are urged by Liberals to oppose Trump because he has access to the ‘big red button’ of nuclear capabilities, of a massive surveillance state, of a militarized Department of Homeland Security, and all kinds of other “loaded guns.” What they politely fail to mention, however, is that Liberals helped build those nuclear capabilities, increased military spending, expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, and gave the government more surveillance powers.

That ‘big red button’ happens to be in the hands of someone quite terrifying at the moment. But what a Liberal will never allow to be asked is what Leftists — particularly anarchists — demand: why should anyone have access to the means of destruction? What good is a nation anyway, especially if it proves itself repeatedly to be a way of eliciting popular support for wars against others?

Vote For Us, or Your Friends Will Die

retrieved from Anarchist People of Color

Nationalist fears against weaker foreign powers do not constitute the only way that Liberals suppress leftist opposition to capitalism and the state. Their most insidious strategy has been wielding identity politics against the very people the social justice framework attempts to liberate.

To understand this, we need to look first at what is meant by identity politics. In an essay published on Vanity Fair, James Wolcott (a media critic and film reviewer, not a political theorist) warned against the so-called ‘alt-left’ (a constructed term) and an animosity they supposedly share with the fascist alt-right:

Disillusionment with Obama’s presidency, loathing of Hillary Clinton, disgust with “identity politics,” and a craving for a climactic reckoning that will clear the stage for a bold tomorrow have created a kinship between the “alt-right” and an alt-left.

Wolcott ends that essay, incidentally, by calling on the ‘deep state’ (the CIA) to end Trump’s regime, just as many other Liberals now do.

There is no alt-left, though. The term was first floated just after Clinton’s defeat by Liberals who put the blame for her loss on low Black voter turn-out and on leftists who refused to mobilize their groups to vote for a pro-capitalist, pro-war candidate (who’d previously called Black men “super-predators” and told environmentalists to “get a life.”)

The matter of identity politics requires more attention, though. In an incredible retort to Vanity Fair’s piece, Devyn Springer clarifies the leftist stance on identity (emphasis mine):

Because what Wolcott said was the “alt-left” has a “disgust” with identity politics, but what he meant to say was the left has dialectical analysis of the limits of identity politics. Lower the the proverbial fire into the gasoline puddle surrounding this paper-thin article, Wolcott conjures tired and recycled sentiments of ‘Bernie Bro’ leftists with a total disregard for identity politics, intersectional politics, and political theory surrounding the two. While these people do exist, they are but marginal voices among the left, a left largely compromised of people of color, women, disabled folks, queer and trans individuals, Muslims, immigrants, and other otherized individuals who’ve taken a class-analysis to approach the ways in which individuals of different identities are oppressed. It is not an end to identity politics we seek, rather a politic that encompasses the realities of different identities infused with class analysis and observation of power dynamics.

It’s probably important here for some readers to know that the author is in many of the identity groups for which Hillary Clinton was trotted-out as champion:

Let me explicitly say that, as a Black queer Muslim who is the child of immigrants living a low class life in the US south, to ‘loath’ someone both directly and indirectly responsible for millions of people’s oppression is a good decision. The left’s “loathing” of Clinton cannot, and should not, be equated to the right’s simply because they exist in completely different form.

It has been the practice of liberals in both the United States and in the United Kingdom to position themselves as the primary defenders of oppressed minorities within each nation. However, they do not position themselves as our champions against capitalism and state oppression, but rather against conservatives and foreign adversaries (particularly radical Islam, and now Russia). This was in sharp focus particularly during the recent US Election and the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom: in both countries, Liberals painted the vote as nothing less than a hostage situation.

Consider the rhetoric of the Democratic Party in the United States after Clinton was chosen as their presidential candidate. The same ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorists’ dichotomy which George W. Bush used to elicit support for the invasions of Iraq and Afganistan repeated: if you were not voting for Clinton, you were consigning Black, women, trans, disabled, queer, and other minorities to a brutal death. Likewise, the Remain camp in the UK warned of similar fates to oppressed minorities there.

Were such statements only warnings not to vote for Trump or not to vote “Leave,” we could perhaps forgive the rhetoric. After all, the rise of the fascist right in both countries would seem to prove their deep fears have come true. But these were not just arguments against voting for the opposing side: they were indictments of anyone who did not vote, or voted for a third party (in the US). That is: vote for Clinton/vote Remain…or else.

This is why leftists oppose so-called ‘identity politics,’ which can be better called Liberal Identity Politics. Liberals have become quite good at manipulating the competing identities of oppressed peoples for their own benefit. Clinton’s statement about “super predators,” for instance, manipulated [white] women’s fears of out-of-control Black bodies, pitting Black identity against [bourgeois] Feminist identity. Similarly, racism against Blacks was employed by Clinton in her failed bid against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, just as Barack Obama employed chauvinism against women to win that nomination. Anti-Semitic ‘red-baiting’ was used by the Clinton campaign in 2016 against Bernie Sanders, just as Bernie Sanders’ campaign tried to repeat Obama’s successful use of misogyny against her.

In all these cases, Liberals employed identity politics against other Liberals.

Those of us on the Left (no, Sanders was not a leftist) who watched this have more than enough reason to suspect that the once-liberatory social justice framework now serves the nationalist desires of politicians more than it serves us. Conservatives employ identity politics just as well, especially to drum up support for foreign invasions: the invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, was effectively framed as a war to liberate women from the patriarchal Taliban, regardless of whether or not those women were hoping to be liberated by bombs and occupation. And the fascist right (‘alt-right’ in the United States, ‘New Right’ in Europe) frames their politics now as “Identity Politics for Whites.”

In all cases (Liberal, Conservative, Fascist), identity is used as a weapon and method of control, cynically re-directing the self-description of people back into the machine of nationalist oppression.

The Return of the Left

The election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom points both to the rise of nationalism (and soon, fascism). Those events also, however, herald the end of Anglo-Liberalism in both of those countries.

We must see this as good news, and also as a warning.

The complete failure of the Democratic Party in the United States to manipulate identity politics in a way that could win them the presidency (against the most pathetic excuse of a demagogue the world has yet seen) means nothing less than this: the Democratic Party in the United States has little political power any longer.

Insofar as Liberals have set themselves up cynically as the party of the oppressed while building up the power of the state and protecting the interests of capitalism, Leftists in the United States can now build actual anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist movements.

Black Lives Matter and the NODAPL movement at Standing Rock are both signs that indigenous and oppressed peoples have begun reclaiming their own power rather than allowing Liberals to co-opt their revolutionary struggles. Similarly, antifascist organizing against alt-right groups and leaders — despite Liberal attacks against their actions — shows that the Left has finally made a real break from the nationalism of the Democratic Party, and the Democrats are pissed.

That’s where the warning comes in. In every significant Leftist populist movement in the United States, the Democratic Party has shown itself quite adept at co-opting the struggles of the poor and oppressed. Resistance is ‘in’ now, Liberals are already starting to realise their fashion is out of date and seeking new ways to update their image.

How might they co-op these movements? Re-branding our politics as anti-Trump movements, re-directing leftist anger at capitalism and the police-state into electoral and establishment politics. The police were militarized before Trump, the security state exploded in size under Obama, Clinton openly advocated for military engagement in the Middle East, but in our current moment of terror, it will be easy for many to forget this. If a charismatic new Liberal were to rise suddenly, promising an end to Trump, only our memory of Liberalism’s relentless betrayal could stop them.

We who seek a better world must become not just revolutionaries, but keepers of the memories of Liberal betrayal. While Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” Liberals will soon be promising the same thing, a return to the halcyon days where they had control over the military and police, where they got to be the ones holding the gun to our heads, smiling, telling us they were on our side.

When the Liberals try to co-opt us, we must be ready. We must not settle for anything less than the end of the American Empire, the end of Capitalism, and the end of any political system that would promise to point a gun at another’s head on our behalf.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He and Alley Valkyrie are currently raising funds to live in France — find out how to help them here.


Like this essay? You’ll probably really like Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism. It, and all our other books, is available here.

Witches in a Crumbling Empire: Conclusion

This is the third and final part of Rhyd Wildermuth’s speech, “Witches in a Crumbling Empire.”

The first part is here.

And the second part is here.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd WildermuthRhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.

Witches In A Crumbling Empire: Part Two

Below is the second part of Rhyd Wildermuth’s three-part presentation, Witches In A Crumbling Empire.

The first part is here.

The third part will be posted next week, or can be watched now on his Patreon (subscription required).

Rhyd Wildermuth

unnamedRhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.


We’re currently hosting release parties for A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred! Find information for our Portland, Seattle, and Baltimore events on our Facebook page, and order your copy (print or digital) here!

Witches In A Crumbling Empire

Below is a video recording of Rhyd Wildermuth’s presentation, “Witches In A Crumbling Empire.”

This is the first part. The second and third parts will be posted in the following months, or you can watch all three parts now on his Patreon (requires subscription).


Rhyd Wildermuth

rhyd-wildermuthRhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.


 

EDITORIAL: You’ll Scare the Middle-Class!

THE RESISTANCE HAS begun, and it looks pretty damn scary. Large crowds dressed in black shouting at cops, torching cars, shutting down fascist rallies, blocking streets, breaking windows. As in the massive Black Lives Matters protests, the actions of protesters can seem jarring, aggressive, ‘violent,’ even terrifying.

Some people are arguing they’ve gotten out of control, the tactics of Antifa, Black Bloc, and many other groups who are a topic of discussion for Liberal commentators and social justice advocates. They’re concerned, worried that civil, non-violent protest has given way to anger and destruction. They worry that the resistance will look scary, aggressive, that it will inspire fear, terror, and the potential of violent reprisal from those in power.

They especially worry that the we might alienate the middle-class.

Do You Even Resist, Bro?

We in Western Capitalist “Democracies” have an idea that there’s a certain balance of power between the people and the government. It goes like this:

The government exists because we need it. Laws keep us safe, police prevent crimes, courts sort out the innocent from the guilty, and the entire system functions well because we have the power to vote for those who control it. If the police ever get out of control, laws can be used to stop them, and if at any point the system stops working, we can select new people to run the government.

This has never been the case, but you might not have noticed until recently. Black and First Nations people in the United States know this better than anyone. Even the election of the first Black president couldn’t stop police murders of unarmed people, and the government repression of the water protectors at Standing Rock occurred under Obama.

When the poor attempt to resist the government, they are brutally punished. But so-called ‘middle class’ people don’t usually experience this direct violence when they resist. Why? The easiest answer to this is that the majority of the middle-class is white. This is true, and police are indisputably racist. This isn’t the full story though, since many poor people are also white.

People who make enough money to consider themselves ‘middle-class’ have more investment in the system of government than those who are poor, regardless of their race. A white suburban office manager and a Black suburban office manager both drive to work, pay mortgages on their homes, send their children to nice schools, and worry over things like retirement plans and their general security. While the Black woman in this example might also have to worry her male child might get shot by the police on his way home from a friend’s (a concern the white women need not fear for her own child), their economic lives are generally similar.

Even if both are liberal and hate Trump, neither will be willing to disrupt the entire system in order to show their displeasure. Instead, waving signs, calling senators, donating to election campaigns, and other ‘non-violent’ means of protest are the most they might be willing to risk. A night in jail because of a protest would be difficult to explain to their co-workers, a black eye from a police baton would raise eyebrows at the local Starbucks.

For the poor of any color, but especially for those who are not white, such considerations are generally irrelevant. There’s no mortgage to keep up, no 401k to worry about if the stock market collapses. The poor have no investment in the system, and thus have very little to lose.

The poor also know that the police aren’t there to protect them. Ask a homeless person what they think of the cops, and you’ll get a radically different answer from a home owner in a ‘nice’ neighborhood. Ask jobless Blacks on a street corner in a city if they think the cops are there to protect them, and they’ll give you a very different answer from the woman who doesn’t like them hanging out in front of her metaphysical store.

Non-Violence Is For The Middle-Classes

BECAUSE white and ‘middle-class’ people have more investment in the current system and different experiences with the police, many resistance movements adopted the tactic of non-violence in order to gain their alliance.

Non-violence as adopted by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. did not mean non-confrontational protest. Rather, it involved confronting the police with the bodies of protesters and forcing them to make a choice: beat or kill unarmed, passively-resisting people, or allow them to break the law. It forced police to look like the aggressors they already were, stealing from them the defense that they were only responding to violence with violence.

This tactic works well if you are attempting to gain the alliance of middle-class people whose investment in the system prevents them from seeing the violence which sustains it. In India, this meant changing the opinions of UK citizens regarding the occupation; in the civil rights movement, this meant getting white liberals to side with the Black victims of police violence.

In both cases, the assumption was that the middle-classes did not realise the system they were a part of was racist and brutal. Watching elderly Black women beaten by cops or impoverished Indian grandmothers gunned down by British soldiers would shock them into coming to this truth. Seeing this, they would stop supporting the police and government policies, perhaps even joining in the protests. Once they did so, the powerful would be forced to comply, because the middle classes are the primary consumers of Democracy and Capitalism.

Non-violence is a strategy that coddles the concerns of the middle-classes, especially their fears. They fear disruption of their security, loss of their wealth, and the potential of personal harm. Non-violent marches now are designed specifically with their concerns in mind, assuring them that they have nothing to fear from resisting oppression.

Insisting that any resistance must bring the middle-class along with it makes little sense, anyway — they are not a revolutionary class. If anything, Trump is precisely what one gets when we coddle middle-class fears: fear of immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, economic insecurity, terrorism… anything that might disrupt their security and peace.

Reclaiming An Aesthetic of Fear

baltimore-police-riot-gear
Dressed to Impress

THE TACTIC OF NON-VIOLENCE also has the unfortunate effect of strengthening the core justification for state violence: that only the state is capable of legitimate use of violence. So, even in a fully-permitted, completely ‘peaceful’ protest, police brutality against a lone protester can still seem justified. The protester must have done something wrong to merit pepper spray or a violent arrest.

Police function under an aura of legitimacy because they are the enforcers of the laws by which we measure whether something is legal or illegal. This aura only exists insofar as we believe laws are unquestionably good — that is, as long as we think laws should be obeyed.

That aura of legitimacy has been fading rapidly in the last decade. Unless you live under a rock, you can’t have escaped all the reports of brutal killings of unarmed Blacks, Natives, and others at the hands of cops. If there were only a few stories, we could dismiss these as isolated incidents, ‘bad cops’ acting outside their legitimate mandate. But the stories keep increasing, the courts continue to absolve the cops of their crimes (or even refuse to prosecute them in the first place), and it’s now impossible to ignore what minority, poor, and radical victims of police violence have always known:

The police exist to maintain the current order, and their brutality is actually part of their mandate. The more the order starts to collapse, the more violent the police will need to act in order to keep ‘the peace.’

To do so, they’ve needed to cultivate an aesthetic of fear. If you’ve been to a protest in any Western Capitalist nation lately, you’ve seen the results of this: armored and heavily-armed police resembling Roman Centurions or Robocops, standing in military formation, ready to stop any potential violence to bank windows or luxury cars.

Traipsing around like stormtroopers, murdering people in the name of the law, driving around in military-grade vehicles, wielding microwaves that can fry your skin and sound-cannons that can deafen you for life definitely makes the police something to be afraid of. But there aren’t actually enough police to control us all if we ever engage in active resistance against them.

Fortunately, they have our middle-class commitment to non-violence to protect them. We have worried so long over the questions of ‘legitimate violence’ that we’ve failed to notice that the police no longer rely on it. Instead, they rely on our non-violence and our fear of their violence to keep us in line.

Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta, “People should not be afraid of their government; government should be afraid of their people.” The truth is, they already are, otherwise they wouldn’t be militarizing the police. Perhaps, then, it’s time to reclaim our own aesthetic of fear.

This is what Antifa and Black Bloc groups have already been doing. By engaging in active, aggressive resistance against police, they are breaking the spell of police invulnerability. Likewise, in each action they win, they are proving to the rest of us that more resistance is possible.

Such actions might never convince the liberal middle classes to join any resistance against the government. Thing is, though, there are many more of us than there are of them.

The government we are fighting knows it cannot win by violence alone. It also knows that they lost the aura of legitimacy long ago. They will not be able to govern us by fear as long as we show we can fight back. They cannot convince us we are powerless when we seize our power back from them.  So all that is left to them will be the support of the insecure middle-classes.

It makes no sense for us to try to win them over. What good are allies too worried about what their neighbors might think if they risked arrest to change the world?


Rhyd Wildermuth

img_0967Rhyd’s the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch, Fur/Sweat/Flesh, and posts a near-daily “Friendly Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook.

His entire life is 100% crowdfunded by readers like you. Find out how to help him here.


Solidarity Beyond Bars: Pagans in Prison

The United States has 22% of the world’s prisoners but only 4.4% of the world’s population. Solidarity has always been a primary focus of radical and religious groups, but little is spoken of efforts to provide spiritual solidarity for Pagans and Heathens. So, I spoke with Donna Donovan, the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry to find out about her work and how others can help.


RHYD: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Could you tell me about yourself, and the work you do with the Appalachian Prison Ministry?

DONNA DONOVAN: Thank you for having us! My name is Donna Donovan, and I am the founder of Appalachian Pagan Ministry. We are a pan-Pagan ministry devoted to building an engaged, passionate, and spiritually fulfilled community of people from all backgrounds and faiths. We are devoted to engaging and impacting one another and others, believing it is our responsibility to set an example of service. This is where we come to “walk our talk” and educate by example.

Our main focus is our pan-Pagan prison ministry developed to serve the spiritual needs of our fellow Pagans currently incarcerated. Currently, we are the only Pagan ministry allowed in to West Virginia state prisons, serving monthly on-site at 5 facilities, along with monthly on-site services at 5 facilities in Ohio, including Death Row. We also serve, via correspondence, to several Kindreds and Covens in facilities across the United States.

RHYD: I’d like to ask you about the specific sorts of difficulties and needs of prisoners, but before that, can you talk about the barriers groups hoping to help prisoners face? What is certification like, what sorts of restrictions are you under, and how difficult is it to convince prison officials and state bodies to grant you access?

DONNA DONOVAN:  Since the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, followed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, inmates around the country of non-Abrahamic paths have been fighting to get their religious rights while incarcerated. The stigmas associated with the various “Pagan” groups in prison are really no different then the outside. Wiccans are considered evil, baby sacrificing, devil worshippers, and those of the Heathen paths are all a bunch of Nazi skinheads. As I tell the inmates I work with, many of these stigmas and attitudes did not just come out of thin air. There is a long history of violence perpetuated by various groups pushing their agendas through while trying to hide behind these religious paths. However, much like the outside, the fear is based on ignorance; a simple lack of understanding.

As with most States, in Ohio and West Virginia, volunteer programs such as ours, our what is considered “inmate driven” not “volunteer driven.” That means we have to be requested by the inmates. We can not solicit to go in. At that point, it is usually the prison Chaplain who contacts us. That’s when our battle begins.

So the first obstacle is approaching the administration and teaching them. Show them that we are not coming in there to start a race war, or to incite violence or anything else other than teaching folks about the faith of their choosing. Plain and simple. Wearing normal street clothes instead of prancing in there in festival garb and 10″ pentacles tends to help, too. [laughs] The point is that administration needs to understand that just because we do not worship the same does not mean we are not like them and everyone else walking.

Once you get past the door, then you have to fill out so much paperwork, you literally think you are buying a home. Background checks need to be done, recommendations sent, and so on. This process tends to take weeks, if not months. When you are finally approved, you then have to go through a volunteer training and orientation. All of this is for each and every facility. A few hours of videos and lectures, some questionnaires, tours, etc.. We then schedule a date to present to the inmates and go on to schedule our monthly meetings from there.

RHYD: Your prison work is in Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in the United States. And of course, poverty and incarceration are deeply linked in Capitalist societies: most crimes on the books are ‘property’ and economic crimes. From your vantage point, what are the struggles you see for the prisoners you work with? I’m wondering, also, about the matter of discrimination you encounter against prisoners by the rest of society.

DONNA DONOVAN: You are correct, this is one of the most poverty stricken areas, as well as being one of the hardest hit by the opiate epidemic. Huntington, WV, where APM is based, is the overdose capital per capita in the entire country.

donna-pullHowever, mass incarceration is a national problem, not just regional. Our “war on drugs” has obviously failed. The only success has been the profit margins of those in the privatized prisons business. Our nation’s prisons went from being rehabilitative to punitive in the late 80s/early 90s when private companies like CCA took over.

Which leads to the answer to your second question. When an inmate undergoes incarceration and spends that time doing absolutely nothing productive, nothing rehabilitative…of course they come out of prison with no skills, no socialization and they end up going right back to the lifestyle that led them there in the first place. 95% of those currently incarcerated WILL BE released. Within 3 years, 60-75% of those will re-offend. But that’s what these private prisons want; they want the recidivism rates to stay high so their profits stay up. Quite sad when you think about that. What people do not think about is where those profits come from. They come from you. They come from me. Your taxes pay so CCAs, CEOs, and managers can live their luxurious lifestyles. You’re also paying for all those families whose loved ones are incarcerated, as the majority end up being single parent households on welfare.

When I asked the inmates what could be done for them to help them before they were released, they overwhelmingly answered “programs that help us adapt into society, education, life skills, the ability to grow in body, mind and spirit.” Therapy through art is one program that has shown success, mentoring programs, and programs such as ours that help them to grow in the faith of their choosing.

What sort of discrimination do I encounter in regards to inmates? “They’re criminals, they’re degenerates, they don’t deserve help.” From the Heathen community I hear a great deal about dishonor. Really? These inmates, male and female alike, know the mistakes they have made in their lives. They are paying for those mistakes. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or continuing to blame outside sources for their current situation, they are holding themselves accountable and doing what they can to grow in body, mind and spirit to ensure they do not make those same mistakes again. Truly, how many of us really do that? These folks have made oaths to themselves, to their Gods, and to their ancestors to live honorably. They realize, and freely admit, they did not do so before…which is why they are in prison. How can we not help them be able to do that?

RHYD: It’s difficult to find current statistics on prison population, but the most recent I could find (2013) showed the US has 22% of the world’s inmates despite having only 4.4% of the world’s population. So there’s definitely something going on besides ‘dishonor’ and ‘degeneracy,’ and profit looks like a huge factor.

Moving away from the larger societal issues towards your work with prisoners themselves: what exactly does your work look like? Can you describe your on-site and correspondence work?

519px-thors_hammer_skaneDONNA DONOVAN: When we go into a facility for the first time, we hold a general presentation for all inmates of non-Abrahamic paths. Wiccans, Odinists, Druid, eclectic, and even Satanist/Luciferians. Whoever chooses to come. This has been quite historic, actually, as these groups in prison almost never mingle. At least not without violence. We have not had one incident occur. After the general presentation, which is basically an introduction to who we are, what we do, and what we hope to do, followed by a Q&A with the inmates, we then set schedules for the upcoming visits.

From then on when we go in, we normally separate in two groups. I take the Heathens and we basically hold a moot: small Blot, rune drawing and readings, study a lesson, read from the Lore, and discuss the Havamal a few stanzas at a time. The course I am working with them is the Elder Troth Lore Program. Teresa, my on-the-ground volunteer, takes the Wiccans and eclectics and works with them her own sort of Wicca 101 program. In WV, I am also working a program with the Satanists.

Our correspondence courses are handled by several volunteers. The courses we offer, on top of the ones we handle in the prisons (which are also done via correspondence) are Pagan Astrology, Chaos Magick, Developing Divine Relationships (a devotional polytheist course), and Perennial Lessons in Living–a Druidic course by Emma Restall-Orr reinterpreted by me (with her permission) to be a bit more generalized.

At this time there is about 20 Kindreds nationally doing courses with us.

RHYD: With the programs and courses that you present or develop, do you run into many problems with censorship? How helpful or difficult are the relationships with prison chaplains and supervisors?

Honestly I have not. Prior to going into facilities in either state, West Virginia and Ohio, I met with State Prison officials and submitted outlines of the courses we were offering. All were approved. Surprisingly we have had tremendous support from both chaplains and administrative staffing.

When I first formed APM, I sent an email to the Commissioner of the WV Dept of Corrections introducing us and explaining what we wanted to do. I honestly did not expect an answer. I received an email the very next day requesting to meet with us in Charleston. Two months later we were in our first facility.

I truly believe the tide is changing. People are starting to see that the status quo is not working, and seeking alternatives. Either that or I am just exceptionally charming, and I doubt that is it.

RHYD: Or perhaps both? [laughs]

I’m also curious about white nationalism within prisons. I wrote to queer prisoners 8 years ago, and started a correspondence with a gay Asatruar. Our conversations about race and Paganism seemed to be going well, but I stopped my correspondence with him after he sent me a shirtless photo of himself in front of a swastika. Basically, I freaked. I’m still uncertain that was the right decision, especially once I realised he had no other non-racist Pagan contacts.

So, I can see how your work is deeply important, especially since so many are quick to abandon Pagan and Heathen prisoners. How much influence have you seen on the Heathens you work with from more organised white nationalist groups?

DONNA DONOVAN: Oh my, that is a loaded question. [laughs.] There is a huge influence. Primarily because, up till now, those were, for the most part, the only folks willing to work with Heathens in prison. Just like the Christians who “find Jesus in jail,” it is no different with Pagans. Many come to their chosen faith after incarceration. And as there is such limited access and information, they learn from those already inside, who learned from those already inside, who learned from those (with agendas) willing to come inside. I’ve seen so-called leaders of Kindreds inside who can’t even name the Nine Worlds.

donna-pullThis is exactly what I say when I meet these inmates: “I personally do not care if you are the biggest racist homophobe walking the planet. Truly I don’t. Those are your personal beliefs; you have a right to them; own that shit. Hate everyone that is not a straight white male…fine by me. But do NOT come to me and say that hammer hanging around your neck is the reason why. Your personal biases have NOTHING to do with the religion you claim to follow, NOTHING to do with the Ancestors. And for the next however many months, I’m going to use your own myths, lores and history to show you that. “

There’s been a few death threats…not from inside the walls.

That’s why you’ve seen me all over Facebook saying, “If you’re so worried about the ‘alt-right’ and all the hate crimes, why don’t you all come out from behind your computers and help me in the trenches where this starts?” Stop talking and start doing.

RHYD: It strikes me that something significant changed in the last few decades around prison work. There was a long radical (anarchist, particularly) tradition of correspondence with inmates, but it has not been as strong as before. I have also seen some work to support queer and trans inmates. But it occurs to me that this is one place Christianity beats out all other religious or social groups: solidarity with prisoners is actually written into the Bible.

That brings me to probably the most important question of all: What is needed? Both for your particular work and the Appalachian Pagan Ministry, and also to build stronger networks of support for Pagan and Heathen prisoners from outside the prisons?

Bodies and money. Blunt enough? [laughs.] Truly, in all honesty, this is growing so fast, is such a need, and I have a hard time saying no. We are in ten facilities in two states, about to add four more facilities. There is only two of us going inside. We have another volunteer who, bless his heart, is our driver. We need people to help.

I understand this isn’t for everyone. I get that. I spent my own time behind those walls, so I know what to expect. But we truly do need folks to step up. This is not a volunteer job to take lightly. You have to be committed and consistent and able to follow through. And thick skinned along with compassionate. You have to leave your judgements at the gate.

Financially we need all the help we can get. This all comes strictly out of our pockets: the car rentals, fuel, printing costs, postage, etc.. It has been asked why I do not push for State funding to help with this ministry. The answer is a simple one: I did not apply for a position with the State. We are there to serve and minister to the inmates, not to receive a paycheck from the administration. We are there out of service, not for a job. I also feel that it would affect the trust between the inmates and our volunteers if they felt we were just another correctional employee.

We also feel the same as it comes to funding from organizations. We feel that the best way to keep from being linked to anyone’s ideologies is to not take funds from them. It is the same reason we do not sell advertising on our website. We serve the inmates we work with, not a state or federal entity, not any one group or organization.

I have a real problem with overextending because I can’t say no. When an inmate looks at me with tears in his eyes, literally sobbing, and thanking us for being there, saying, “We have fought for this for 20 years! Thank you so much for being here…” how can I not do this?

RHYD: How can people volunteer or financially support your work?

If they want to volunteer inside one or more of the facilities we go to, they can either contact me through the website at or on our Facebook page

Folks can also donate thru PayPal, purchase items from our online store or go to our “How You Can Help” for other ways to help.

Editorial: An Open Letter to Pagan Leaders

MAYBE YOU’RE the high priestess of a coven or the chief druid of a grove. Or you find yourself at the head of a Pagan seminary, a news site, a blog portal, a Pagan convention, a witch tradition. Maybe you’re the owner of a publishing house or a witch-shop, a teacher of seminars or on the board of a non-profit. Or maybe you’re just an activist or a well-known writer with a huge audience. Regardless of how you got there, whether or not you ever intended to find yourself in a position of ‘leadership,’ you’re there.

I won’t talk about the responsibility such influence comes with. You probably see it already. If you’re like me, it maybe even scares you a little. You maybe didn’t ask to be here, and definitely not during the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States.

Most of you tend to lean towards the liberal end of things, and probably don’t like the new president. Maybe you voted against him, or even protested against him last weekend. You’ve also probably noticed that the people who look up to you have some pretty strong opinions about him as well.

More than likely, you didn’t start out on your path with the goal of advising people about politics and have no desire to start. If you’re a teacher or founder of a tradition, you were probably thinking you’d mostly just show people how to learn magic or talk to the gods. Or maybe you just showed up to help out and suddenly find an entire group relies on you, or started writing and found thousands of people now read you.

I’m not suggesting you change that, but I do have some things I’d like you to consider.

I won’t pretend I’ve got answers to the nightmare sweeping across the United States, the same authoritarian and racist current threatening the stability of European countries as well. I don’t have answers, but I do have insights, as do the other writers here at Gods&Radicals, and I’d like to offer some of them to you in this letter.

First, though, I’d like to suggest we consider several ways in which Pagan leaders have previously related to the government in the last few decades, and the problematic way we’ve thought about religious freedom until now.

Religious Freedom and Government Alliance

THE UNITED STATES Constitution guarantees the right of religious practice and expression free from government interference. Of course, that guarantee has never really quite been true for minority religions, so Pagans have used several strategies for expanding these protections.

Anti-discrimination lawsuits, for instance, have been quite useful in expanding the rights of witches and Pagans to practice, not just for the plaintiffs. Creating legal precedent has a powerful effect on businesses and government institutions: it can change the way they hire and treat employees, because few ever want to be sued.

However, litigation can only do so much, and often comes with negative media attention. More so, courts often require proof that the practices in question are actually-documented or prescribed practices by clergy or other religious institutions. This requirement has led to a significant move to formalize and  institutionalize Pagan belief in such a way that it would meet the requirements of the courts.

A similar strategy has been employed to aid Pagan, Heathen, and witch prisoners in US jails, soldiers in the US military, as well as the clergy who hope to serve them.  Without official doctrines and federally-recognised religious institutions attached to the beliefs in question, the government (and the courts)  often refuse to extend protections to individuals requesting them.

One negative consequence of these strategies has been an increasing move of younger people away from established Pagan groups. Many practice witchcraft because of its embrace of individual will and history of anti-clericalism; as Pagan and witch groups have become more formalised, they begin to resemble the very thing that many of us came to Paganism to escape. If you are wondering why ‘solitary’ seems to be the most common Pagan affiliation, you need look no further than the institutionalization of Pagan and witch traditions.

Another consequence is more immediate with the change in government within the United States. Many of the moves to extend religious freedom to Pagan-aligned people have the effect of giving tacit support to government policies. This is seen most in the long campaigns to get Pagan, Heathen, and now Druidic symbols on the headstones of soldiers. While it certainly is a benefit to the families of dead military personnel to see that the deceased religious practices are honored in their death, Pagans in those same traditions who deeply disagree with American foreign policy and imperialist conquest now find their own beliefs associated with the military.

And finally, religious freedom arguments have been employed in the same way by Pagan-aligned groups as they are by Christian fundamentalists, seeking the ‘right’ to discriminate against others. One need only look at the actions of the Asatru Fellowship Assembly and the defense of fascist senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus in the name of religious freedom to see how this framework can often mirror the same Christian dominionism which now many fear in the form of Mike Pence.

The Choice Now

PAGANS HAVE BEEN AS TAKEN-IN by the belief in Liberal Democratic progress as the rest. Though some warned against trusting too much in the government for our protections and freedoms, it’s completely understandable that few of us heeded those Cassandras. Many signs seemed to point towards an increase in freedom and tolerance of all peoples and beliefs in the Western world; parallel victories such as the end of anti-sodomy laws, gay recognition in the military and gay marriage certainly suggested things might always be getting better for everyone.

And to be clear, all these strategies to increase the freedom to practice Pagan beliefs were based in good intentions. However, any good magic practioner knows that intention without discernment can lead to some unexpected–and often dangerous–consequences. Though there was likely some hubris involved in the decisions of Pagan leaders to use these strategies, I don’t intend to cast blame upon them. I’m more interested in what we can do instead, now that we find ourselves governed by a virulent strain of nationalist, dominionist, racist, and fascist ideology.

Pagans are likely in danger, some much more than others. Pagans of color, queer and trans witches, disabled and the politically-radical folks amongst us have the most reason to fear. If you are not already convinced of this, there’s little I can do to persuade you, but if you need more proof, ask them personally. They’re the most educated regarding the  sudden changes in the political climate in the United States, and I suspect some would be happy to teach you what they’ve learned.

While they will not be the first to experience suffering, white Pagans won’t be spared either, unless they choose to make certain alliances with the new government. It’s the same opportunistic option that exists for most whites; side with the powerful above you, claim the identity politics of whiteness, and you might survive. To do so, though, you’ll betray all the intersecting relationships you have with those for whom this isn’t an option.

For Pagan leaders, particularly, this would mean throwing vulnerable people under the oncoming fascist bus in order to save yourself and your groups. Such a decision might look like an attempt to preserve witch, Heathen, Druidic, and Pagan beliefs in the face of government repression, but it would also mean permanently transforming those beliefs into something none except perhaps Stephen McNallen might recognise.

Understandably, you’re probably reluctant to become politically involved right now. In fact, if you head a non-profit religious organisation, you’re barred by law from getting involved in electoral politics through your position. You’ve probably already made a habit of steering clear of all other political engagements as well. However, if there was anything to be learned from the failure of the Democratic party to defeat an unqualified tyrant’s presidential ambitions, it’s that electoral politics are no longer even useful.

Traditional political engagement isn’t necessarily what is needed, anyway. Just as the last few decades of Pagan attempts to increase religious freedom came with some unfortunate consequences, openly urging your groups towards direct political struggle now could mean serious backlash.

The best leaders follow. They listen to the people who look to them, rather than accumulating authority and power. Those of you who find yourselves in positions of influence who haven’t come to this truth likely will soon, or find your influence and relevance diminishing quite quickly. I don’t mean that as a threat: it is an inevitable process, affecting politicians, bosses, activists, and religious leaders equally.

What Can We Do?

I have suggestions, informed by my understanding of our situation and the feedback I hear from the readers of Gods&Radicals. Take them as you will, leave them if you must. As you are no doubt aware, I’m an anarchist, so I won’t be telling you what to do. I do have some requests, though, and I hope you’ll consider them.

1. Support and Defend Vulnerable People in Your Groups 

AS I MENTIONED above, certain people are more likely to be in danger now than others. This is especially true for nonwhite, gender-variant, trans, queer, disabled, and politically-radical folks. They will be in danger not just from government policies and decisions, but from what appears to be a rising tide of far-right/fascist organising.

Supporting them may mean just listening to them as they try to work through the fear and terror of this new political order. It may also require physical support, help with access to medications, legal defense, and even safe-havens.

Supporting them may also require defending them. This hopefully will not mean physical defense (though it may), but it will definitely require defending them against ideological hatred. A floodgate opened with the recent electoral campaign: it’s become ‘okay’ to degrade women, Blacks, queer, disabled, and trans people in many social circles, and this may only increase. You can weigh in on the side of vulnerable people, using your influence against rising hate.

This may mean alienating some of your audience or members of your group, some who hold rather extreme opinions about minorities. The decisions you make regarding this are vital, and will reverberate far past private and personal interactions.

2. Be Secretive, But Don’t Go Silent

THE “BROOM CLOSET” is a thing in Paganism and witchcraft, one that’s helped protect people who face discrimination for their beliefs in jobs and communities. If you’re one of the leaders I’m talking to, you’re probably already out. Please resist the urge to go back in.

A brief Google search of my own name reveals quite a bit about my polytheist, druidic, and witch beliefs, as well as my political affiliation. That puts me in obvious danger if the tolerance of our beliefs changes in this new political climate, both from Christian dominionists and alt-right fascists. After all, I am the managing editor of a left-wing Pagan publisher. That’s not gonna make me lots of friends with fascists.

Your visibility and risk may be less. It might also be more. Either way, going silent, though it might give us some modicum of protection, will cause others to do the same. It will also mean isolation of those who are looking for guidance, wisdom, and hope at times they might need it most.

There are very good reasons to keep certain practices and beliefs quiet, and silence and secrecy are core values in many traditions. Those are important, and I do advise being more cautious about what we tell the world we do. In fact, the more gregarious and self-aggrandising marketing antics of some puts many people in danger.

We can be both secretive and visible at the same time. Those of us willing to risk public attention can help draw attention away from those who need to stay out of the public eye.

3. Avoid Alliances With The Government

THE PAST THREE decades of political and legal work to gain recognition for our beliefs and traditions has come at an unfortunate cost, and that cost will only increase under a hostile government. Beyond the institutionalization which chased thousands of people into solitary and isolationist practice, it has made many groups beholden to government policy.

The situation for non-profits and religious organisations is particularly dire. Groups (including Gods&Radicals) which rely on tax-exemption to raise funds for their work or to own land where they teach, meet, or practice could be pressured to comply with new laws. In many countries and in some jurisdictions within the United States, for instance, mosques have been pressured to report on the political activities of their members. It isn’t unreasonable to see such a thing extended to other minority religions in the United States, and the consequences should be obvious.

The strategy of securing government recognition for our beliefs in order to protect ourselves may have been useful in more tolerant times under more sympathetic governments. Those times no longer exist.

4. Build Networks of Support Across Traditions

WE’RE ALL an argumentative lot, and that’s one of our strengths. But where fighting between factions turns into extreme isolation or even hatred, our fractiousness will only endanger us.

Many attempts to create inter-faith or cross-tradition institutions have been made in the last few decades. They all failed spectacularly, often because they were top-down and attempted to codify doctrine and even speak on behalf and define entire beliefs. (You may remember: I’ve helped stop several such attempts myself.)

Instead of hierarchical groups claiming authority over Paganism, we need horizontal networks of communication and mutual support. We need this more than ever, particularly to support groups more likely to be targeted than others. Such networks would insist on the complete autonomy of each group and must be founded on the two principles of mutual aid: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” (For more on these principles and building solidarity networks, see this guide.)


AS WE WATCH the world we thought we knew begin to transform into a world where our beliefs are again no longer tolerated, where are fellow practioners are targeted for the color of their skin, the expression of their sexuality or gender, or their physical ability, we must take seriously the influence we’ve accumulated.

Whether you ever meant to be seen as a leader or a guide, you’re there now.  What you do with that influence will matter greatly, both to those who look to you for help and those outside looking to harm.

Imbolc comes upon us very soon. What is that Brighid teaches more than anything else, except that we need the light of others by which to see?

Be that light, please.


Rhyd Wildermuth

img_0967Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or see his oft-shirtless selfies and read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. You can also support him on Patreon. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.


Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

 

 

 

Editorial: Post-Truth Capitalism and Pre-Truth Revolution

You can’t miss either of the two operative buzz-words being bandied around like so much meaningless noise in the last few months. The media rails about it, politicians whine over it, activists shout it: we’re now in a ‘post-truth’ world, drowning in ‘fake news.’ The election of Trump was blamed on it, the rise of the alt/new/fascist right is a sign of it, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom happened because of it.

Really, though? Does no one care about truth any longer? Are lies suddenly masquerading as journalism? Is there some new scourge of deception and delusion sweeping across the Western world, making it impossible to tell what’s really going on around us?

Nah. This isn’t new. And it’s not what we’re told to think is happening, either.

Let’s look at some news stories of this last week in the United States, shall we?

  • A few nights ago, Meryl Streep criticized Trump and called herself and other Hollywood actors ‘the most vilified segment in America.’
  • Two days later, the new president of the United States engaged in this exchange with a reporter for a news company owned by the third largest media conglomerate in the world:

All these examples I mention were news stories, reporting on actual events which occurred. It’s true that Meryl Streep gave that speech, it’s true there are claims about that video, that Trump argued with that reporter. Tanks moved into Germany to protect against Russian invasion, and also C-Span’s live footage was interrupted by Russian Television.

But in each case, truth was utterly irrelevant to the stories. Let’s look at them all again.

Meryl Streep is currently worth $45 million dollars. While there are certainly some who probably think Hollywood is full of degenerate reprobates, unless she meant that rich people are the most vilified people, it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t just engaging in one of her award-winning performances.

The second of these stories is a bit more complex. Watch Trump’s exchange with the reporter again if you can (I’ve watched in over thirty times now, it’s so fascinating).  

The reporter is the chief White House correspondent for CNN. A couple of things you probably already know about CNN: they’re owned by the third largest media conglomerate in the world, are worth $10 billion dollars, likely turned a 1 billion dollar profit in 2016, and were the first media outlet to break a certain story Trump was understandably upset about.

That story, of course, was of the piss-video. Or, less sensational but potentially more-damning (c’mon, it’s just piss) is the dossier which claims such a video exists. That document, by the way, is available to you on Buzzfeed, the same quality news site that keeps you up-to-date on J.K. Rowling’s twitter feuds and quizzes about the Kardashians and whether or not you are devoted enough to chocolate. (I’m not, apparently).

Read the dossier if you like. You won’t find the video (and probably wouldn’t want to see it anyway) because no one’s certain there actually is one. The dossier suggests it, but before you go trusting that, there’s some stuff you should know about who wrote it.

It was written for a private intelligence firm by a private investigator originally commissioned by a rich Republican customer who wanted to stop Trump. But then, according to the New York Times:

 the Republican interest in financing the effort ended. But Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton were very interested, and Fusion GPS kept doing the same deep dives, but on behalf of new clients.

And from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept (a reporter hated by both Democrats and Republicans alike for his whistleblowing activities:)

ALMOST IMMEDIATELY AFTER it was published, the farcical nature of the “dossier” manifested. Not only was its author anonymous, but he was paid by Democrats (and, before that, by Trump’s GOP adversaries) to dig up dirt on Trump. Worse, he himself cited no evidence of any kind but instead relied on a string of other anonymous people in Russia he claims told him these things. Worse still, the document was filled with amateur errors.

So the dossier exists, but the tapes probably don’t, and the whole thing is likely false and was paid for by people who wanted to prove that Trump is being manipulated by Russia.

Which brings us to the last two news stories. The report of the tanks rolling into Bremerhaven, Germany was short but chilling:

The deployment — which also includes 3,500 U.S. Troops — is to protect Eastern Europe against a potential Russian invasion.

In the dock area of the German city of Bremerhaven all around is American military hardware just off the boat — everything from Humvees to tanks. The official name for this display of military muscle is Operation Atlantic Resolve. 

Its purpose is to reassure America’s nervous European allies that the U.S. military will stand with them against any aggressive moves by Russia.

Sounds scary, huh? And it should be a bit scary. But what the report doesn’t mention is that Operation Atlantic Resolve was initiated in 2014 and started its primary roll-out in April 2015. That is, the tanks rolling in to Germany from the US are definitely an escalation in military tensions, but not a spontaneous one. In fact, they happened before the Russians were accused of meddling in the US election, and might even help explain a Russian motive for hacking the pro-war Democratic campaign of Hillary Clinton.

The last story is the easiest to resolve. RT (which is, again, a Russian-funded media organisation fully doing the government’s bidding, just like American news companies usually do) didn’t hijack C-Span. According to C-Span, they themselves made the error.


Guardians at the Gate of Truth

IF YOU’RE feeling a bit dizzy with all this, don’t worry. I’m done deconstructing news stories. But it’s worth returning Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech. After the bit about being vilified, just before talking about what a privilege it is to be the voice of empathy to the world, she urged everyone to support the Committee to Protect Journalists because, as she said,

“they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”

Need who, though? Not actors. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really like Meryl Streep. But I don’t get my truth from her. And anyway, she was talking about the media.

But what truth is possible in such a world where both political parties pay private investigators to come up with a story about piss-play to stop Trump? What truth is possible in a world where a company worth $10 billion dollars is seen as a victim against another billionaire? That same news company, by the way, who made $1 billion partially due to election coverage and campaign advertisements? Truth probably isn’t going to come from Buzzfeed either, though according to Dan Rather, Teen Vogue seems to be doing some cutting-edge reporting of late. (omg #couplegoals!)

All this is to suggest that yeah, we are in a fake-news, post-truth world. But the problem isn’t Trump or the rise of the alt/new/fascist-right, or Russian meddling in elections. If anything, they’re symptoms, and the real problem’s not even new.

We’ve mostly been taught to think of news companies as some sort of independent check upon the government and corporations. They’re supposed to investigate things, to bring stuff to light that the powerful don’t want to see, report things to us, inform us.

It’s a pretty story, sure, and it happens that way sometimes. And perhaps it happened more like that in the past, though with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the legacy of ‘yellow journalism,‘ it’s a bit hard to prove such a nostalgic idea is any less propagandistic than Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

News shapes the way we see the world. We call it ‘the media’ as a shorthand (the news ‘media’: that is, newspapers, television, etc.) but it’s more accurate to employ the other meaning of that world, ‘middle.’ News is the mediator between the world and our understanding of it, the narrative which shapes how we view politics and power. What it tells us about a story determines how we understand not just that story, but the sorts of people it reports on and what is relevant.

Need an example? Consider the relationship to race and crime in news reporting. Black suspects are almost always described by their race; white suspects very rarely are. Decades of news stories where a murder or rape suspect’s race is only included in a story if they happen not to be white has the obvious affect of associating Blackness with criminality. Worse, because we are told to think of journalists as ‘objective,’ we tend to see the facts they report as objectively-selected facts. It’s easy to forget that it’s actually the reporter, and the editor, and the publisher who decide what’s relevant to a story, not the story itself.

We naturally omit details we think are irrelevant and emphasize things we think are important. If you ask me what I’m doing right at this moment, I’ll tell you that I’m writing an essay for God&Radicals. I wouldn’t mention that I’m also waiting for tea water to boil or happen to be shirtless, because that seems irrelevant.  But now that I’ve mentioned I’m shirtless, you might have just envisioned me as such while reading this.

The point, then, is that narrative is selective, and what gets included or excluded shapes the experience of truth. I’m shirtless, waiting for tea water to boil while writing an essay. I’ve just shaped how you experience me.

Expand that on a large scale, and throw in two things we very often forget about news. The first? Well, capitalism. CNN, Buzzfeed, the New York Times, etc. etc., they’re capitalist enterprises. They need to make money. They are in the business of shaping narrative, telling you stories, giving you ‘news’ (or telling you how many times you’ll get married according to your choices in cheese–in my case, three). To make money, they need your attention–they need you checking back, seeing them as reliable or entertaining, the place you look to when you want to find out about the world.

Capitalism isn’t the whole story, though. Because news shapes how you see the world, because media outlets are the fastest way to get a narration out into the world, and because we have a desire to understand things, the media is in a position of immense power over our behavior. Advertising is an obvious example, but every facet of our relationships to government and each other is an open playground to their whims. As in the example of racialized crime reporting, journalists shape the way we see Black folk, or Muslims, or immigrants. But more so, they shape the way we relate to the government and to other countries. They often act in the service of the government, but always act in their own interest.

Whether or not Russia is really actively meddling in the political affairs of the United States is quite impossible to tell. What’s more important is whether or not we think they are, and some political powers have more interest in us believing this than others. For a different example, consider the lead-up to the war in Iraq: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, but every capitalist media company in the United States reported the government’s story as if there were.

Were they then and are they now merely trying to keep our attention? Or did the rich who ran those media companies have an interest in seeing the US go to war then and possibly go to war now? Are they being manipulated by the government, or are they trying to manipulate the government? Do some want us to go to war with Russia, or are they trying to fight off foreign intrusion?

These are questions we can’t really answer, but that brings us anyway to an even more important question:

Why are we letting capitalists decide what’s true for us?


Post-Truth Capitalism and Pre-Truth Revolution

MAYBE you’re feeling what I’ve been feeling. It’s like quakes shuddering through our pysches, the ground slipping beneath us. A friend described it as ‘giants throwing rocks at each other.’ When I was a kid, I watched my baby-sitter’s boyfriend fight with another guy, and I hid with my sisters behind the couch until the fighting was over. It feels like that.

Something does seem to have happened to the truth, but it’s not that it disappeared. The truth was never actually there in the first place, and we’re only now just starting to see this. Everything we thought was solid seems to be melting into air. Everything we held sacred seems like it is being profaned.

There’s a war for truth being fought, the same war that has always occurred between priests and kings. Who gets to decide what the people believe, who gets to hold ultimate power over the minds and souls of millions?

If it seems like this is a new war, it’s probably that one side won for awhile. The truth was occupied, colonized, an imperial subject too beaten down to throw off its oppressors. But now? Now the empire’s starting to crumble. The capitalists are fighting each other, political alliance against political alliance, media conglomerate against media conglomerate, government against government. Liberals or Conservatives, Russia or US, CNN or Breitbart, it’s impossible to tell who’s going to win, who will capture the throne of meaning and truth.

Maybe they’ll all lose, and that’s actually the best thing we could possibly hope for. In fact, this is the opening we need, the opportunity we’ve been waiting for, the potential for a revolutionary change in the entire realm of truth-creation.

While they fight each other for dominance over the truth, the rest of us can see more clearly how subjective truth really is. When news companies publish fake news and teen style magazines publish in-depth analysis, everything’s gone into flux, the truth is slipping, going where it wants to go, and might just escape back into our hands.

Because in all those battles, certain things aren’t said. None talk about the environment, climate collapse, extinction. There are natural limits to capitalism, and we’ve probably hit them. Dwindling resources, melting ice-caps, degraded soil, economic collapse–these are the truths we see in front of us, things those closest to the earth don’t need a screen or smartphone to tell them. The truth is in front of us, under our feet, in the eyes of the panicked people around us.

Everything else is just distraction for the profit of the rich, the same people causing this crisis in the first place.  Fortunately, they’re pretty distracted themselves at the moment. They won’t be for long, and they might even try their greatest weapon against us to hold onto truth–an actual war.

In capitalism’s post-truth moment, our chance has arrived. The revolution is not yet a truth, but it can be. The same media who tells us it’s impossible told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a video of Trump covered in urine:  they’re losing their grip on our narrative. The same politicians who assure us that empire will last forever are fighting as we speak to keep their thrones from toppling under the weight of capitalist in-fighting.

Anarchists and Marxists both insist on seizing the means of production back from the capitalists. It’s time to expand this: we must seize the production of meaning back from them, too.

How?

By no longer believing their stories about the world while also creating our own. By ignoring their narrative while crafting a new one. Be it newspapers or books, radio shows or podcasts, we can must tell our stories against theirs, make ours more beautiful, more compelling, more intoxicating than their flashy yet shallow truths.

Most of all, we must refuse to take either side in the war the rich are fighting against each other. Neither Liberals nor Conservatives, neither the media nor the president, neither Russia or the United States. They depend on us to fight these wars for them, to take one side or another.

If we withdraw, they will have to fight these wars themselves, and while they’re distracted, we’ll make our own truth and build our own world without them.


Rhyd Wildermuth

img_0967Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.


Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

Editorial: The Prison

THEY STAND together, shivering in the damp, dark cell. Well, most stand; some cannot–some of them are too tired, too weak, too frail, too maimed to stand. Those people huddle in corners, shunted away from the anticipation of the standing ones.

There’s little light, just a small window set into one wall, too high to peer out. A little illumination also peeks out from the crack in the door across from the large cell, the door which will open in a little while. No one’s sure when, but they think it will be soon, and those that can stand are pushed together against the bars, jostling each other, jockeying for a position closer to the door.

How long they’ve all been in there, none remember. They all came separately, found themselves imprisoned together against their will. Some have convinced themselves they did something wrong; more are certain they didn’t but the others certainly must have.

The people huddled on the ground in the corner, for instance–people in the cell think there must be something wrong with them. Some are too sick to stand, some are malformed and unable to use their legs. Some are blind, some talk loudly to unseen voices. Some have illnesses and disease, and some complain of pain no one can actually see.

But the others–why are they there? A few of them are quite healthy, have bodies obviously taken care-of, well-fed and groomed. Some seem just naturally hale, endowed with great skin, good looks, perfect bone-structure.  They don’t really look like they belong with the rest of prisoners, but they’re here, too.

Some of them also look really healthy, but different. Their skin color’s different, dark and light browns. A few of their fellow prisoners are certain they must have done something to get themselves in here, something criminal, maybe drugs or theft. Those same prisoners of course couldn’t have done anything wrong to be in here with them, though, right?

The commonalities across skin color aren’t complete, though. Some of those with white skin were obviously really poor before they came to the prison, much poorer than the really healthy looking ones. And the same with the other groups; some had more money, went to college, had ‘real’ jobs, while others never finished school, never could get a job, grew up without shoes.

There are other differences, here in this cell. Some of the people who say they are women have penises, some of the people who say they are men have vaginas. A few arguments happened over this, ending in one of those woman being killed. It reminded people a lot of the arguments that happened when a guy told another guy he was attracted to him–he ended up dead too.

Those dead people? No one knows what their names were. But that’s not so strange, because no one actually uses their own name in the cell. Instead, they go by what’s sewn on their shirt, the little patches they made to identify themselves. No one really remembers who came up with that idea, whether they’re supposed to wear them or they decided to wear them. Some wear them proudly, others not so much. Some tear them off or hide them, at least until others make them sew them back on. Everyone’s got them, some of them have several.

The only person who actually has a name is Bill.

THEY HEAR Bill coming before he’s at the door. They’ve all learned how to listen for his footsteps, to divine from the changing shadows under the outer door that he’s nearby. Everyone gets excited, and nervous. Some get aggressive, push closer to the bars, while others back away.

The handle of the outer door turns slowly, and Bill enters clumsily, weighed down with the heavy white buckets of food he’s hauling. There’s a clamour in the cell, he sets them down, shuts the door behind him, and turns to face the prisoners.

Everyone’s got an opinion about Bill. Some like him–he’s a nice guy to them, doesn’t hurt them. They made up stories about Bill. They think he might have been one of them, a prisoner from way back. Or maybe a jailer who took pity on them and makes sure they don’t starve. Others really don’t like him at all, hate him actually, suspect he might be the reason why they’re all in there in the first place.

Bill is staring at them all from the other side of the bars of the cell. They stare back. No one says anything for a little while, until Bill finally speaks. He doesn’t talk to everyone, though, just a few of them, all of them wearing the same patches. The cell’s so crowded that no one really hears what Bill says to them, but they know what happens next. There’s a sudden push, a moment of force and violence, and only the people to whom Bill was talking are close to the cell door.

Bill opens the door, passes the buckets through, says a few words, and leaves.

What follows is always messy, and long, and very contentious. Bill gave the buckets to a small group of men and women, and it’s their job to pass out the food to everyone else.

Why is it their job? No one’s really sure, but it probably has a lot to do with Bill. Some of the guardians of the food think it’s because they’re special, or not as criminal as the others. Some believe them, some don’t. A few think that it’s just Bill playing favorites. Bill looks a lot like the people who gave the food to, after all, and always gives it to them to distribute. They think he might be related to them.

There’s never quite enough food to go around to begin with, but the way it gets distributed is really unfair. Most of it immediately goes to the people in the group that got the buckets; they take a lot, more than they can eat. They can’t store the food, though–it goes bad quickly, and is already close to rotten.

Why they take extra is pretty cunning, once you think about it. Everyone’s hungry, and hungry people want food, and so they can get other people to do stuff for them in return for food. Often, this goes to people who look like them, but not always, and the stuff they have to do to get to earn the food is rather insidious.

Some women who want food have to perform sexual favors, or clean up the cell and take care of the guardians of the food. Other women have to do the same thing, but not for the original people, but the people they gave it to. The people wearing certain patches often have to work a lot harder for the food than those wearing other patches.

Really, the worst of it all goes to the people in the corner; they can’t really do the same things for food, and are almost always forgotten or even abused by the others, even the ones who have it pretty bad already.

Occasionally, people try to change the way the food is doled out. It never really works the way anyone hoped, though. Whenever people try to make things more fair by pointing out that some people with certain symbols get more than others, there are fights. People with one color of symbol tried to convince the people with another color symbol that they were being unfair; some of them agreed, but the guardians of the food didn’t. They didn’t want to lose their extra food privileges.

Other groups tried, made alliances. Some of these worked for a little while, but never for very long, because the well-fed group was really good at dividing people. Worse, so too were those other groups: some of the people who tried to make things more fair wore the same symbols as the people who got all the food, and no matter how much they showed how they fared no better, people couldn’t get past the symbols.

In fact, what began to matter more than anything were the symbols, those patches on their prison outfits. They’d all been in that cell for so long that it was the only thing they knew, the only way to understand each other, the only way to distribute food.

To fix this, some tried adding extra symbols. That didn’t work. Some tried removing their symbols so they could all be treated equally, but this made people in all the groups really angry. The patch is who you are, they’d argue. The patches matter. And some even say, the patches are all we’ve got.

Cave gateNOTHING EVER changes, really, in the cell. They eat, they shit in buckets, some starve, some die, some get beaten, some get more than they need to eat, some get to enjoy being taken care of by the other prisoners.

Occasionally, some prisoners will get an idea in their heads. Why not kill Bill and leave the prison? This is always shouted down angrily, though. Usually, no one likes the idea because Bill is the one that brings them all food–what would they do without him? How do they even know there will be food outside the prison, or even anything out there?  The people who get the food directly from Bill are the most adamant about not hurting him. They sometimes even tell Bill when another prisoner suggests leaving, or kill the person themselves.

Just as often, though, the arguments don’t even get that far. They devolve into fights about the patches. Sometimes it’s because the person suggesting escape wasn’t wearing the right patch, sometimes it’s because the people suggesting it think the whole matter of the patches is a sham. They don’t trust those people, because they don’t respect the patches. No one’s allowed to leave until we get these patches sorted, many say in return. The patches are who we are.

Meanwhile, Bill comes every day with his buckets of food, talks to the people he always talks to, hauls out the dead bodies, brings some fabric to make more patches, and leaves. His job is pretty easy, when you think about it. He even recently stopped locking the cell door. He doesn’t need to, now that the prisoners are too busy arguing about the patches.


Rhyd Wildermuth

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Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.


Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

Rhyd is one of the co-editors of A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred.