Heathenry and Paganism stands at a crossroad in our history and development, and this decision point hinges on the question of how we should organize and govern our communities.
There are many who argue, in Heathenry and the broader polytheist and Pagan communities, for vesting leadership and decision-making in an anointed elite who will guide the rest based on their wisdom and superior abilities. They claim these ideas are rooted in the practices of the pre-Christian ancients and natural hierarchies even though, in truth, the argument they make is far more recent than they assume.
The position advanced by these would-be theocrats is rooted in modern political theory. In the liberal democratic societies many such Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists live in there is the central assumption of an unceasing, ongoing clash between democratic governance and rule by the few. Those who argue from one position or the other accept, without question, that humanity’s base setting is one of endless violence, rule by the few, and oppression of the many. They further claim that democracy as we know it is only possible in modern society and is a very recent development. Examples like Athens are seen as flukes or exceptions rather than the rule. One of the most eloquent expressions of this idea in American political philosophy is a famous passage from the Federalist Papers which says:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
If this were true then it would be easy to assume that monarchic, strong-arm rule was the default for all pre-Christian, pre-modern societies making these arguments for new autocracies indisputable. Yet when one digs into the histories and lore of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples nothing could be further from the truth. Investigation into their past, their lives, and social organization shows the default mode of governance among these people was highly participatory and democratic. Power rested in the hands of all the people who made, enforced, and upheld the laws of society. The freedom of these peoples was maintained by them directly, not an external lawgiver or a benevolent state.
The best term for the form of governance used by the Germanic peoples is the Thing system, taking its name from the Old Norse word for these popular assemblies. Things were directly democratic assemblies where participants met under the open sky, debated great matters, passed laws, and resolved disputes. Every free person, man or woman, could speak before the Thing and seek redress of their grievances and in some cases even thralls were given voice and space before these assemblies. These Things were the bodies that made and deposed kings. The leaders of the Germanic world, quite contrary to the assumptions cultivated in popular culture, ruled at the behest of the Things.
This system was incredibly ancient and widespread among these peoples. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his famous Germania, wrote about the Things of the Germanic peoples living in the lands now known as Germany during the early 100s AD. According to Tacitus:
“In the election of kings they have regard to birth; in that of generals, 50 to valor. Their kings have not an absolute or unlimited power; 51 and their generals command less through the force of authority, than of example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests 52 are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”1
Tacitus makes it quite clear this is no system of elective monarchy or people choosing which absolutist ruler shall lord over them but is extremely participatory, especially when one compares it to the oligarchic government of Rome during the same period. He goes on to describe exactly how these assemblies functioned and what they held power over:
“On affairs of smaller moment, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community; yet with this circumstance, that what is referred to the decision of the people, is first maturely discussed by the chiefs… When they all think fit, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on this occasion a coercive power. Then the king, or chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displease, the assembly reject it by an inarticulate murmur; if it prove agreeable, they clash their javelins; for the most honorable expression of assent among them is the sound of arms.”2
They even held the power of judging crimes and assigning punishment:
“Before this council, it is likewise allowed to exhibit accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees: cowards, dastards, and those guilty of unnatural practices, are suffocated in mud under a hurdle.”3
He makes it clear those who administer such justice are chosen by and are accountable to the people:
“In the same assemblies chiefs are also elected, to administer justice through the cantons and districts. A hundred companions, chosen from the people, attended upon each of them, to assist them as well with their advice as their authority.”4
Such practices endured on the continent among Germanic peoples, like the Saxons who lived in northwestern Germany, who held true to the old ways. One description of these proceedings comes from the account of the Frankish Christian missionary St. Lebwin who reported the following on Saxon governance practices around 770AD:
“It was also the custom among the Saxons that once a year, they held an assembly by the river Weser on a place called Marklo. There come usually the chiefs from all the (twelve) different communities, as well as twelve chosen noblemen, an equal number of free men and unfree men. There they together renew their laws, pass verdicts on important matters of justice, and decided how to proceed in matters of peace or war that they had before them that year.”5
In the Scandinavian world the Things are an extremely well-documented phenomenon. One cannot go through the historical sagas of the region without tripping over Things at every turn. Great matters were resolved by these public assemblies and the people, not the kings, were the ones who held power. Two powerful examples from Scandinavian history are the cases of Hakon the Good and Torgny Lagman.
Hakon the Good became King of Norway during the early 10th century through rallying the support of the people of Norway for pressing his claim. Central to his campaign was promising to restore the land rights they’d lost under King Harald Fairhair’s rule.6 After making good on this promise he then went before the people of Norway at the Frosta-Thing, a major assembly in Norway, and asked they convert to Christianity. The response from those assembled was not positive:
“As soon as the king had proposed this to the bondes, great was the murmur and noise among the crowd. They complained that the king wanted to take away their labor and their old faith from them, and the land could not be cultivated in that way. The laboring men and slaves thought that they could not work if they did not get meat”7
The main voice of the opposition, Asbjorn of Medelhaus, rallied opposition to conversion with this speech:
“We bondes, King Hakon, when we elected thee to be our king, and got back our udal rights at the Thing held in Throndhjem, thought we had got into heaven; but now we don’t know whether we have really got back our freedom, or whether thou wishest to make vassals of us again by this extraordinary proposal that we should abandon the ancient faith which our fathers and forefathers have held from the oldest times, in the times when the dead were burn, as well as since that they are laid under mounds, and which, although they were braver than the people of our days, has served us as a faith to the present time.”8
He then warns Hakon what will happen if he refuses to back down:
“If, however, thou wilt take up this matter with a high hand, and wilt try thy power and strength against us, we bondes have resolved among ourselves to part with thee, and take to ourselves some other chief, who will so conduct himself towards us that we can freely and safely enjoy the faith that suits our own inclinations. Now, king, thou must choose one or other of these conditions before the Thing is ended.”9 (emphasis mine)
According to Snorri Sturluson, “The bondes gave loud applause to this speech, and said it expressed their will, and they would stand or fall by what had been spoken.”10 Hakon was forced to agree and remained king of Norway until his death in battle against an invading army from Denmark. Following his demise Eyvind Skaldaspiller composed the Hakonarmal which ends with Hakon being welcomed into Asgard by the Gods who, according to the skald, say:
Another example of the power of the Scandinavian Things occurs during a war between King Olaf Skotkonung of Sweden and Olaf Haraldson of Norway in 1018. The war between the two kings was going poorly and emissaries had arrived pleading for peace. When the matter was brought before the Thing of All Swedes in Uppsala King Olaf of Sweden angrily denounced the emissary and his foe, demanding the war go on.12 “When he sat down,” says Snorri, “not a sound was to be heard at first.”13 Torgny Lagman, a respected lawspeaker, then rose and delivered his response beginning with a recitation of the great deeds of Olaf’s ancestors before saying:
“But the king we have now got allows no man to presume to talk with him, unless it be what he desires to hear. On this alone he applies all his power, while he allows his scat-lands in other countries to go from him through laziness and weakness. He wants to have the Norway kingdom laid under him, which no Swedish king before him ever desired, and therewith bring war and distress on many a man. Now it is our will, we bondes, that thou King Olaf make peace with the Norway king, Olaf the Thick, and marry thy daughter Ingegard to him. Wilt thou, however, reconquer the kingdoms in the east countries which thy relations and forefathers had there, we will all for that purpose follow thee to war. But if thou wilt not do as we desire, we will now attack thee, and put thee to death; for we will no longer suffer law and peace to be disturbed. So our forefathers went to work when they drowned five kings in a morass at the Mula-thing, and they were filled with the same insupportable pride thou has shown towards us. Now tell us, in all haste, what resolution thou wilt take.”14 (emphasis mine)
“Then the whole public approved,” says Snorri, “with clash of arms and shouts, the lagman’s speech.”15 King Olaf, clearly bested, says, “he will let things go according to the desire of the bondes. ‘All Swedish kings,’ he said, ‘have done so, and have allowed the bondes to rule in all according to their will.’”16
This system of social organization is even present among the Gods. Along with the mention of the council of the Gods in the Hakonarmal there are direct references to the Gods working in council in the Voluspa. Every aspect of the creation of Midgard was handled by the Gods meeting in council to resolve critical matters. As it says in the saga:
Such methods of decision-making are so ingrained in the Gods they stay true to government by council even in the face of Ragnarok and their own demise. According to the Voluspa:
“Yggdrasil shakes, and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim does Odin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt shall slay him soon.
How fare the Gods? How fare the elves?
All Jotunheim groans, the Gods are at council;
Loud roar the dwarfs by the doors of stone,
The masters of the rocks: would you know yet more?”19
If the norm for these peoples was a system characterized by democracy, direct participation, and rule of the many how is it possible such norms were replaced by the autocracy of feudalism and monarchy? The first, kneejerk reaction of some would be to argue humanity’s base inclinations overtook their higher aspirations, bringing down the Things and their democratic norms. Yet this line of reasoning is one with no support from history.
The beginning of the end of the Things, such as those in Saxony, came not by internal decay and downfall but through sword and Cross. Beginning in the 770s Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, initiated a series of bloody, vicious wars against the people of Saxony to force their submission to his rule and Christianity. One of the many atrocities committed against the Saxons by Carolingian forces was the notorious Massacre of Verdunwhere an estimated 4,500 Saxon warriors and chiefs, who had converted to Christianity shortly before, were slaughtered without mercy. Frankish chroniclers claimed the Verdun River ran red with blood for weeks after the king’s cruel verdict. Just over a century later the Christian Emperor Otto would do the same in Denmark, forcing their conversion through invasion.20 Following conversion Denmark would be the only Scandinavian country where the people were forced under the yoke of serfdom. Many other ambitious warlords, like Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Thick, followed the same pattern of using Christianity to justify naked ambition, slaughter, and oppression, destroying all who stood against them.
There is little doubt the arguments for rule by the few and submission by the many have no weight or substance. As is shown in the history of the pre-Christian peoples Heathens draw our inspiration from power was widely shared and vested in the people, not crowns or thrones. As a new and developing religious movement we stand at a key turning point in our development where we can repeat the mistakes of the past by descending into clerical and personal autocracy or avert them through a bold, decisive stand for the ways of the ancients. It is clear those who seek to dominate others in the name of all that is holy do so at the expense of those they claim to guide and protect. Their arguments of natural orders have no basis in human history or behavior. Modern Heathens, Pagans, and polytheists should heed the example of the Things and live through methods, structures, and systems that reflect the needs & desires of all adherents, no matter who they are, instead of glorifying and elevating a self-appointed few at the expense of the rest.
17 Voluspa 6, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
18 Voluspa 24, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
19 Voluspa 47-48, Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Adams Bellows
20 24-27, King Olaf Trygvason’s Saga, Heimskringla, translated by Peter Laing
Ryan Smith is a Heathen devoted to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism, a founding member of Golden Gate Kindred, is active in the environmental justice and anti-police brutality movements, and recently completed his Masters in modern Middle East History and economics.
I’ve waded through some of the back-and-forth – are Pagans inexcusably blasé towards the extreme right? Does anti-fascist zeal suppress free speech? Is truly apolitical religion impossible, or does putting the Gods first imply leaving social concerns second? Reading these arguments, I started recalling a situation from several years ago, back in college in conservative small-town Texas.
Unsurprisingly, my school hosted a profoundly Christian social milieu, including a large evangelical Protestant contingent. I was the only open trans woman there, and one of only three or so Pagans. My friend, an aspiring goði, audaciously started holding semi-public blótar on Ásatrú holidays, and a community accrued around the celebrations.
Most of us weren’t even Pagan, let alone Ásatrú. However, we all shared a feeling of alienation from the college at large: most of us were disabled people, people of color, and/or queer, not to mention unsympathetic to the hegemonic religious culture. Passing the drinking horn, we built a sense of home.
We shared campus with a sect affiliated to theNew Apostolic Reformation, a theocratic Pentecostal Christian movement with a penchant for military imagery (famously documented in the film Jesus Camp). They taught that being disabled showed that God was punishing you for wrongdoing by not healing you, that LGBT identity indicated demonic possession, and that non-Christian religions represented a Satanic conspiracy. So, they chose to target us. Along with several of my friends, I found myself declared an unholy force, in public and by name, in a proclamation of “spiritual warfare.”
“Spiritual warfare,” it turned out, meant several months of organized harassment and stalking, eventually escalating to the point of death threats and (for some of my friends) physical assault. Our opposition to their divine political-religious order rendered us fair game.
I remember them whenever people downplay religious articulations of fascism.
“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”
Much of the outrage at the New Right essay has referred to McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, and notions of censorship and “enforced ideological conformity” in general. If the Pagan left is really against fascism, the critics claim, then why do they want witch hunts and political purges?
The article in question actually calls for none of those things. However, that line of thought still falls back on a central moral claim of classical liberalism, the Enlightenment political current associated with the West’s electoral-capitalist governing structures. As expressed by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, classical liberals asserted:
“[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.“
Mill and his 19th-century fellows mainly concerned themselves with state restrictions on religious meetings and political publications. Nonetheless, the broad acceptance of that ethic has led to its application well beyond public policy. Pagan anti-fascists say that racism has no place in our religions, but we all know that no one is about to get arrestedfor saying “Thor dislikes immigrants.”Censorship, properly defined, isn’t at stake. Rather, the classical liberal “live and let live” attitude has been expanded to suggest that Pagan organizations, events, and communities have no more right to treat certain ideas as unacceptable than the government itself does.
Holding this classical liberal attitude implies little about anyone’s actual political program. Generally speaking, it represents the “common sense” consensus across most belief systems in electoral-capitalist countries. Left, right, or center, virtually everybody in these societies shares the classical liberal sensibility that people should be able to form and express their own particular opinions about things, and no one has any business stopping them. But what does this outlook have to do with the fascist presence in Paganism?
“To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.”
The goals of fascists and reactionaries of any sort (whether New Rightists or old-fashioned blackshirts) aren’t liberal in any sense. However, the Pagan far right knows that the classical liberal ethic can be manipulated for their benefit. When reactionaries invoke coexistence, the toleration of disagreement, and setting aside political differences in religious settings, don’t accept it on face value. The far right’s raison d’être is the disempowerment of social minorities. They might pursue this through racist theology in one place and street violence (or electoral politics) in another, but they never genuinely accept inclusivity or tolerance.
However, some currents – for instance, New Right-aligned Pagans – have wised up to the fact that few people who aren’t already reactionaries will accept those goals if they’re plainly stated. So, they get clever. Pagan far rightists know that most other Pagans would never agree with a policy of “whites only, no queers.” They also know that the Pagan left will never stop calling their ideas what they are: racist and misogynistic.
So, clever reactionaries triangulate. They suggest that they only want to coexist with non-fascist Pagans, but that those nasty left-wingers are trying to kick people out just for disagreeing. They invoke the classical liberal conscience of the majority and frame their practices as basically harmless, only a threat to people who can’t handle freedom of speech.
Of course, their practices are not harmless. Reactionaries aim to suppress social minoritieshowever they can. While, through calculated appeals to “free expression,” they use liberal largesse as cover and try to discredit their critics, they keep quietly carrying out their goals all the while. Let’s glance at a few examples:
Folkish Heathens don’t simply advocate for the exclusion of people of color – they practice it. There is nothing abstract about the way that Folkish Heathen groups turn away non-white seekers and tell Heathens of color that they should not practice their chosen religion. While they materially enact a program of racist exclusion, though,their mainline coreligionists shield them by behaving as if the issue at hand is merely one of belief and disagreement. So, for the sake of “tolerance,” racist discrimination continues – and meanwhile, Folkish Heathenry spills over into secular political racism.
Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) don’t limit themselves to rhetorical attacks on trans women. For decades, TERF factions of Dianic Witchcraft have actively turned away trans seekers and told trans women that we have no place in feminism, women’s spaces, or feminist-oriented Paganism. When theyhide behindclassical liberal notions of “reasonable people disagreeing reasonably,” they obscure the reality of discrimination behind their words. And, of course, this alsocontributes to larger public policy; Goddess Movement TERFs align with secular TERFs and even, sometimes, with right-wing Christiansto oppose trans rights. “Civility” is a red herring meant to obscure their actions’ destructive consequences.
As previously discussed on this site, the leadership of the Left Hand Path Consortium, in the name of “opposing censorship” and permitting “controversial” ideas to be expressed, invited a neo-fascist politician to speak at its conference. His graphic threats of violence eventually led them to withdraw the invitation for legal reasons, but they have already publicly equated “free expression” with their collaborating with someone who himself works with the swastika-sporting, sieg-heiling National Socialist Movement.
Each time, we see reactionaries invoking classical liberal ideas to deflect criticism, and successfully winning over large groups of non-fascist Pagans. While lauding tolerance and freedom as a defensive strategy, the reactionaries arealready implementing an agenda of exclusion, discrimination, and targeted disempowerment. Further, in each case, these far rightists are translating their bases of social support within parts of Paganism into larger, secular political projects aimed at imposing their beliefs on everybody.
Most of the people objecting to the New Right essay, like most Pagans generally, believe in free speech as a matter of principle. Intuitively comparing strident anti-fascism to censorship would seem to follow from that value. Fascists, however, don’t believe in free speech. They don’t believe in free and open participation, and their invocation of classical liberal values is purely opportunistic.
Whenever fascists are tolerated, they enact discrimination. When the rest of us put up with them, we become complicit. Who actually threatens free speech and diversity of opinion: the people who actively drive minority groups away, or the people who point out how wrong that is?
The far right is counting on you to pick the latter.
“I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practise & preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy. But this is not the case with regard to the communist.”
Pagan reactionaries may reject classical liberal values, but they’re canny enough to manipulate them. However, they know they can’t do the same with radicals who commit themselves to explicit anti-fascism. They know that for reactionary Paganism to flourish, the Pagan left needs to be pushed out.
So, they get shrewd: invoking freedom and pluralism, they mischaracterize the left as anti-liberty and (with no sense of irony) McCarthyite, then sit back. The well-intentioned liberal majority attacks the left for them. Suddenly, there’s no need to spend much time dealing with critics. Instead, they can get back to doing what they wanted all along – implementing their policies of exclusion and building support for racist and chauvinist politics. They outsource their fights to the liberal majority.
The notion that the far left is a uniquely dangerous threat retains enormous cultural resonance. After all, it’s not as if the capitalist-owned media has much inclination to portray socialists and communists as anything but spies and traitors, or anarchists as much besides domestic terrorists. The ownership class’s use of the schools, the government, and the mass media primes everyone to distrust the left. Capitalism would rather you not take its dissidents seriously. So, when far rightists evoke these images, they do so on purpose – they know it works. They don’t themselves enjoy a dominant position within Paganism (much as they’d like to), but they get by without one. They just count on high-minded liberals to punish anti-fascists for them.
Fascists don’t need you to be a fascist. They just need you to pick the same enemies.
“Opponents [of a bill dismantling anti-discrimination protections] would have condemned it, but in doing so confirmed that the modern secular left condemns all religious freedoms that impede their agenda, and that the RFRAtruly has nothing to do with hate or discrimination.”
Back in Texas, my friends and I didn’t take the New Apostolic Reformation harassment without protest. We implored our moderate and liberal Christian friends to speak out against their fellow Christians’ behavior, and even took the situation to the college administration. Every time, we got the same response: the sect espoused “offensive ideas,” but we should “respect their religious freedom” and not “punish them for their beliefs.”
But it was never a matter of belief.No one had to take it on faith that they were threatening us. After a while, the mix of stalking, occasional physical violence, and indifferent peers and administrators wore us down. Some of us dropped out of school entirely. At least one had a full-fledged psychiatric breakdown. I had to take a leave of absence halfway through one semester. And a couple of years later, I found out that most of the sects’ members had moved out of state together, where their group had finally collapsed, revealing rampant sexual abuse and even sparking a murder investigation. “Offensive ideas” indeed.
Most of us can quite happily “agree to disagree.” Reactionaries want you to take that attitude towards them, but they won’t extend it to the demographics they hate. Just as my school’s ignoring religiously-motivated violence allowed it to escalate, so does our tolerating ideologies of violence and discrimination enable their ongoing implementation. Sure, there will always be people with destructive worldviews, and we can’t expect to win them all over. But they can’t enact their agendas alone. Without a social climate that lets them flourish, they would find themselves entirely marginal and effectively too isolated to function.
If each one of us, far left or not, said, whenever we encountered reactionary ideas, “As your coreligionist and a fellow practitioner of our tradition, these notions don’t belong here,” then crypto-fascist groups would be unable to discriminate, unable to recruit, and eventually unable to survive. They need the tacit complicity of the non-fascist majority in order to keep existing (and recruiting). Among Pagans, they’ve been getting it. Of course, the majority retains the power to reject them.
We only need the will.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
The New Right is a particularly worrisome influence on many Pagan, Polytheist, and Magical communities. We are particularly pleased to host this long-form essay by Shane Burley on the ideas of the New Right and their relationship to Fascism as seen through the platform of Augustus Sol Invictus.
We’ve also included a special page on the New Right, their intersections with Paganism, and how a Pagan Anti-Capitalism can better address these same issues.
At about 9:00pm on Tuesday, March 1st, Rose City Antifa (RCA) sent out an alert that a neo-fascist politician from Florida was having an open “meet and greet” in Northeast Portland. Augustus Sol Invictus had begun his “Northwest tour,” and was publicly congregating at the Radio Room in the trendy Alberta neighborhood. RCA, it seems, had been monitoring his Facebook, which he leaves public so as to create a constant stream of contact with supporters and vague ideologues.[i]
After anti-fascists protesters began calling in, Augustus and friends were kicked out and went down the road to the Bye & Bye, which refused both to remove the growing crowd of Invictus supporters or to defend them against the roaring collection of protesters that were amassing just outside its doors. Augustus was not shy about what came next, posting on his Facebook at length.
First of all, fuck you to the piece of shit bartender at Bye & Bye who refused to call the cops, saying. “Not my problem, man.” When there is a woman in the bar about to be jumped, it “is” your fucking problem. The day you and a woman you’re with are about to get jumped by twenty people, I hope the bartender tells you the same thing. Second, fuck you to the antifa who hit one of my supporters with a 2×4 and smashed the windows out of the car of another supporter. One day you’re going to pull that shit on someone who is armed, and you will get what you deserve. Come to Florida with that, and see what happens to you. Third, fuck you to the manager at Radio Room who kicked us out because you were so offended at the fact of my mere presence in your bar. I can get a cheeseburger at a thousand different bars in my short stay in Portland: you will always be an idiot, no matter what bar you manage. Fourth, thank you to the score of antifa who came by to take me out. I didn’t take the death threats seriously until tonight. You could have just left me alone and let me make my speeches in peace, but you decided to make a movement to assassinate me. I have been waiting for a worthy enemy all my life, and you have given me the best gift a man could ask for. Fifth, thank you to the supporters who refuse to be intimidated by threats of blackmail and violence. Remember that this is what the Fasces means: As individuals we can be broken, but together we are invincible. [ii]
In RCA’s report backthey noted that Augustus’ phone had died, which actually may have decreased the number of supporters that came to clamor at his internet stardom. While Augustus was angry with certain Bye & Bye staff members, RCA also wrote that “the Bye and Bye bouncers went so far as to act as bodyguards for Augustus.”[iv]
Earlier that day I had walked into a Panera Bread on Holgate to find that Augustus was as early as I was.
A couple of months ago I wrote an article, “Imperium and the Sun,”looking at the neo-fascist politics of Augustus Invictus, his campaign and his associations. He wrote me back a letter outlining some problems he had with the article, but generally commending it for being a fair and biting critique of him. I followed it up with “Fascist Performance Art,” where I went deeper into his politics and aesthetics, as well as the ways that I think Augustus tries to insulate himself from criticism. In his letter, he referenced coming to Portland as a part of his Northwest tour, and mentioned he wanted to grab a cup of coffee if I was up to it. After a bit of mental pacing, I decided to do this, as I had more questions forming that I wanted direct answers to. At the end of “Fascist Performance Art,” I listed 14 questions for Augustus, all of which were designed to be straight forward and provide the kind of answers about his political ideas that had remained clouded behind a wispy ambiguity.
When I arrived, Augustus was reading Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men, a sort of manifesto of “male tribalism.” Jack, also living in Portland, has had his own infamy grow over recent years. His first book, Androphilia, was a call to other queer men to drop what he saw as the “gay identity,” and to instead reclaim their masculinity. He has gone on to write heavily about masculinity and male tribalism, now speaking at White Nationalist allied organizations like the National Policy Institute and American Renaissance. Most recently he has made news for joining the controversial group the Wolves of Vinland, a “folkish” heathen collective that combines many of the tribalist ideas of motorcycle gangs with Germanic neo-paganism.[v]
Augustus was on his way to get a tattoo from Donovan after our meeting, which was his campaign’s logo on his back. This is an eagle, wings outstretched, clutching a “fasces.” This, as I mentioned in the other articles, is a bundle of sticks bound together, the image for Mussolini’s Fascist Party. It is also the image above the Roman senate of antiquity, a move towards the plausible deniability of the Invictus campaign. In his comment on Facebook, he mentions this “fasces,” a motif he is happy to resurrect.vi
Past polite pleasantries, we jumped headfirst into the meat of it as I delved into pointed questions about his positions on race, gender, nationalism, and other topics that have made his “Fireside Chats” so controversial. For his part, Augustus not only answered honestly, but seemed to fight to do so. I have interviewed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people in my life, but almost none tried quite so hard to give an honest answer as he did across the table from me. Here he took time to analyze his own thoughts and to be as clear and as fair as possible, all of which is done to keep himself in line with some of the values that make up his own image of heroism.
I led with a question about race and IQ, asking if he believed that there were genetically defined racial difference in intelligence. This has been one of the most common edge arguments of White Nationalists over the last decade, creating a “field” known as “Human Biological Diversity.” This was formerly known as “race realism,” but HBD sounds even more innocuous and less likely to raise flags immediately to uninitiated onlookers. Augustus’ family is bi-racial, as he has bi-racial children with a woman from Puerto Rico.
He answered clearly that he thought that there was not enough evidence to make a determination one way or the other, and that IQ studies tended to be “political” and overly prejudiced. When I asked whether it gave him pause when thinking about his own children, he said no.
“No, I know my kids are smart,” he said, referencing that they were in the gifted program.
“I would say that I have never seen the work of Charles Murray [The Bell Curve] or J. Philippe Rushton [One of the best known proponents of racial differences in intelligence] disproved. I have seen many people offended by their work—but I have never seen anyone disprove it….I am largely agnostic in this area. I try to keep an open mind to all studies, because I am inclined to believe that anyone working to prove something about race—whether proving equality or inequality—likely has some sort of agenda.” [vii]
Equality, however, is not something that Augustus approves of nor believes in, and when asked if he thought people were generally equal despite their own particular differences he replied, “absolutely not.”
In Augustus’ response to my first article, he took issue with my use of a source that said he had a “dim view of women.” His response included saying that he “worshiped the feminine,” which he meant to include Goddess worship as a part of his religious practice.
In my second article I wrote that this argument was essentially the “religious version of saying I have a female friend.” He told me that when he first saw this second article he was using LSD as a part of a religious ceremony and it made him incredibly angry. He later went on a White Nationalist podcast, Radio ThreeFourteen, and mentioned it, saying that my first article was fair and the second one was despicable trash.viii He re-read the article later on and, while taking great issue with that particular statement, found it reasonably fair.ix
I brought this issue back up. I said, both to him and in the article, that worshipping the “feminine” and believing that you respect women is not the same thing as being allied with feminism. “So, then, do you believe that men and women have different prescribed roles?”
He answered that they did, that they were fundamentally different, which I responded was certainly not a feminist or progressive reading of gender or women. He agreed:
“Men and women are biological compliments. To treat them as identical is to allow ideology to override common sense and thousands of years of historical evidence (“groundbreaking” studies of far-flung indigenous tribes aside).”
The “groundbreaking” work he is talking about, whether anthropological or socio-biological, is generally mainstream at this point, whereas the notion that there is a gendered “essence” specific to someone’s assigned birth gender has been largely discredited. This discourse is one of the last holds that the far-right has in modern culture, as the battles over gender identity form the hallmark of the fascist crossover into Evangelical ecstasticism or GOP punditry.
Much of the previous discussion brought in some of what seemed like a series of paradoxes about Augustus’ politics, which is not unusual when looking at the syncretic ideas in fascist movements. I assumed that the primary focus of his own right-wing ideas, and the reason he supported groups like the American Front even though he is in bi-racial relationships, is that he supports a general Will to Power and the use of categorical hierarchies to stratify society.
He confirmed this, saying that he believes that hierarchies are both natural and normal. We discussed this at length, where he used well traveled analogies, citing the differences in ability in certain skills and professions as examples of these hierarchies. He added that he and his family would do well in a “warrior” society that was heavily stratified, and that this fact is what is important to him rather than what the average person would experience. He made it clear that he would prefer his own vision of a warrior civilization, based on the will of strong men, which is why he allies with them despite the monoracial ideas of his colleagues.
This does not mean, however, that he believes in a multi-racial, multicultural society. He stood firmly as a nationalist, though he disagreed with “rigid” racial nationalists. To Augustus Invictus, racial nationalism was never a feature of past society, nor is it likely to be achieved. In his broader nationalism, Latino people may be allowed over the border.
“My view of nationalism is broader than racial or ethnic nationalism. But I do ally myself politically with racial and ethnic nationalists—whether white, black, Hispanic, or Chinese—because, as I see it, we all have the same goal of the self-determination of peoples.”
He often brought things back to how he sees his own family, where certain types of diversity may be allowed to be present—for example, someone dating his daughter. His nationalism was more cultural, and reminded me of the America First politics of far-right political parties in the ’60s and ’70s, or perhaps the positions of Pat Buchanan in 1992 or Donald Trump today. When asked if he would allow a Jew or African American person to date his daughter, he said he would be less likely, since they would be further from his own “culture.”
These racist politics are not cleanly defined as they would be in the American Front, and seem to require mental backflips at times. However, Augustus still has clearly put a lot of thought into them. He mentioned his affection for Malcolm X, stating that his Black Nationalism was not out of a “hatred of white people” but instead a “love of his own people.”
This is not an uncommon talking point, but one that seems to lack even a basic understanding of the differences between Black Nationalism and White Nationalism. The Black Nationalist movement was not simply an attempt to reclaim identity as some sort of essentialist tribal marker. Members of the Black Nationalist movement hoped to find a sense of personhood that had been robbed by white colonial enslavement, and to create a community so as to resist oppression. White Nationalism is, as best we can see, the last gasp of reactionary whites attempting to hold on to some sense of privilege, or the identity that was formed through the subjugation of other peoples.
He took a great deal of time to explain how he not only was not homophobic, but could not even understand how a person could be. He said several times that he “advocated bisexuality,” which could mean either that he condoned it or that he thought it was the preferred way of being. This is part of why he said he only dates bi-sexual woman and that it would be fine if his son dated a bi-sexual woman, but he was less likely to accept his daughter dating a bi-sexual man.
When asked about transgender people, he said that he did not like what seemed like the “blaming of heterosexual people” by transgender people, but he thought that he should not have any political control over them. He did, however, say that they made him personally uncomfortable, and that they would likely not be allowed in his own “tribe.”
He made this tribal distinction often, lacking political “universalism.” There were no answers about what was “right,” but what would be allowed in his own perfect social sphere—a culture where the weak are dominated by the strong (whatever that means). Certain types of queer relationships may be allowed, and certain ones not. Some types of racial communion would be acceptable, while others would undermine the national identity that he prefers. He sees his own nationalism as “concentric circles” similar to Jean-Marie Le Pen—first the family, then the neighbors, then the community, and so on. He feels that this is compatible with people like the American Front.
The only conversational point where he seemed a bit cagey was about the Jews. His law firm, Imperium, is named after the anti-Semitic fascist tome Imperium by Francis Parker Yockey, and he often goes on anti-Semitic programs to promote his campaign. He does not say much about Jews publicly, except a visceral opposition to AIPAC and all things Israel. He has been accused of Holocaust Denial in the past, so I asked him if he doubted the official numbers in the historical record of the Holocaust. He confirmed that he did, saying that while most Jews likely had no negative intentions towards “Western civilizations,” some certainly did. He later tried to clarify that he did not think blanketing Jews with a broad category made sense.
“I was trying to say is that grouping all Jews as “THE JEWS!” is fallacious, just as it is asinine to call all Scotsmen, Frenchmen, White Americans, and White Australians as “WHITE PEOPLE!” and ascribe to all “WHITE PEOPLE!” all the unjust treatment of all non-white people in the world. As I’m sure you are aware, there are many different Jewish groups, and none of them can agree on anything… Point being, trying to bait me on “THE JEWS!” is probably not productive.”
This does not undo what has been a deep relationship with anti-Semites, his public declaration of Holocaust Denial, and his sideline remarks about the Jews and their role in “Cultural Marxism.”
While he certainly answered in person that he did not believe the official reportage of the Holocaust, or found that the “numbers had changed,” he would not put that answer in print when answering the questions. Instead he focused on the person who had originally made this claim about him,which happened when they were traveling through The Netherlands.[x]
“So with all due respect, Mr. Burley, I won’t be put on the defensive for the dirty tricks of [He has been naming this woman in the press, but she would prefer to remain anonymous].”
“Health Over Sickness, Strength Over Weakness”
A lot has been said about his stated support for eugenics, which comes from an article he wrote in law school after working on philosophical papers as an undergrad. He later dropped his support for eugenics as a state policy, but only because he said that if the kinds of people that are in power today took control over it then it would become a “dysgenics program.” My written questions included asking what type of eugenics program he would want to see implemented in the U.S., if, for some reason, he had total control over it.
“I value health over sickness, strength over weakness, intelligence over stupidity. I would not, however, be so ambitious with any eugenics program that I would seek to promote these things, though my opponents would love to hear me say that. The only thing I ever promoted was the lessening of human suffering. For instance, if it is a certainty that a child will be born with AIDS or Huntington’s Disease or mental retardation or severe physical handicap if two people came together to create a life, that is an evil that should be prevented. I still believe that, but I doubt whether a state-sponsored eugenics program is the right mechanism for it. I also doubt that many people actually read the article I wrote in law school, but the aim was always to prevent unnecessary suffering, not to create the Nietzschean Superman; which, incidentally, I believe must be created outside of all human civilization. Still, I would reiterate that any eugenics program, no matter how modest in its ends or means, would likely be used for evil by the bureaucrats put in charge of it, and this is too likely a danger to justify that risk. This is why I have stated repeatedly and publicly and without qualification that I do not advocate state-sponsored eugenics programs.”
What he describes here is less of a eugenics program and more of a state-run form of sterilization and abortion based on the idea that allowing disabled people to be born would be a form of civilizational cruelty. The eugenics notion would be that this intervention would eventually rid the gene pool of certain “weaknesses,” such as genetically prescribed disabilities. It could then be taken to its next logical step by trying to isolate and breed in “positive qualities.” While he has suggested intelligence would be one of these, in past periods of “racial hygiene” this often included things we would today consider subjective and situational, such as attractiveness, racial purity, and criminality.
We do not oppose eugenics simply because it is racist (which it is), but because it is scientifically incorrect. There is little evidence (beyond “groundbreaking” studies on Human BioDiversity blogs) that you can control disability in this way, nor that controlling disability actually leads to human benefit. I can agree with Augustus about one thing in this however: if the state ran a eugenics program it certainly would be a tool of unprecedented human brutality.
Eugenics may be the most taboo part of the Human Biological Diversity movement, as this tends to be paired almost universally with their ideas about Asian superior intelligence and Kenyan superhuman running capabilities. Race scientists like Richard Lynn have continued to argue in this direction, while non-scientific, culturally-focused White Nationalists at places like the Radix Journal regularly make claims like homosexuality could be abolished through eugenic selective breeding programs.[xi]
The new focus on eugenics may seem like the revival of earlier periods of now discredited science, and it is, but the process of doing this is an essential and profound one for them. To do this, you make a few clear statements:
First, the qualities that eugenics programs favored are essentially valuable. This means, for example, intelligence, as it is very narrowly defined in this instance, is innately a sign of superiority, and must be preserved as such.
Second, the move away from these now-discredited racial and socio-biological sciences, which discussed the innate inferiority of the “lower classes” and the biologically defined roles of women, but also claim that we need to move backwards to old “truths.”
Third, eugenics means that we can now use ideology to drive evolution, and can craft a world that has been ideologically predicted by people like Friedrich Nietzsche and Ernst Junger. Invictus certainly mentions that he does not mean to use eugenics to build a “superman.” Instead, that happens outside of a state. This does not mean that he would oppose driving biological evolution in the direction of what he sees as superior qualities.
Much of the conversation traced through his experiences running his campaign, how he negotiated his libertarian politics, and what his intentions were after the fact. His relationship with the Libertarian Party of Florida is a complicated one, as are most libertarian political outposts. Rather than a location for coherent economic politics, they are often the stop-over spot for those on the radical right attempting to crossover into some part of mainstream discourse. The anti-tax movement on the 1990s was an entry point for KKK members, skinheads, and various neo-Nazis, as was paleoconservatism and paleolibertarianism a vessel for a coherent far-right politic boring into the GOP in the 80s.
The libertarian movement is often broken up today by those who align with socially liberal values, and were brought on to the Ron Paul campaign on 2007-8, often associated with the Caito Institute and Reason Magazine, and those on the further fringes who decry the slow creeping liberalism into their hardened anarcho-capitalism. Free market capitalism seems like the ideological foundation of the Libertarian Party, its entire reason for existence, but for Augustus, this is not all that important. Though he often says buzz lines about destroying the “social safety net,” he is also incredibly clear in calling for its maintenance to shelter those lower on the economic ladder. This seems to be in line with his own nationalism, where a “nation” should be served by its government. It is those that are outside of the nation, whether ethnically or by whatever vague dividing line Augustus claims for himself, that would be stricken from governmental aid.
This is not a libertarian distinction, nor are many of his policies beyond ending the drug war and destroying the Department of Education. Instead, the Libertarian Party seems like a place where he can enter into a semi-mainstream public discourse without being immediately flagged as outside a reasonable frame of debate. He told me he that he originally intended to run a few years into the future as a Democrat.
Paganism, Fascism, and Obscurantism
We went into his religious practice quite a bit, where he outlined his own interpretations of Thelema more deeply. This includes seeing most European pagan gods as being culturally interpreted versions of each other, which is to say that Heathen gods are somewhat the same as Roman gods, yet with different names and cultural stories. He did not say whether or not this included non-European traditions, though I’m sure he would have granted it some degree of universality, while saying that he would only respect the European ones. He was consistent in his support for traditional paganism, and promised to sanction human sacrifice if given full reigns of world affairs. According to Augustus, collective sacrifice our enemies to the gods would bring a great deal of national unity, since the gods gain their power from blood.
The difficulty to find coherence in Augustus’ politics by many trying to defend him against claims of fascism comes not from his own incoherence (though there is some of that), but from the lack of discourse about the evolution of fascist politics in America and Europe. Not only is fascism not a label that Augustus finds too offensive, he generally revels in the label as a medal in a war for offensive individuality.
He is a fascist in all the ways in which that political title is true, even if he does not share the raving white supremacist racism and homophobia that many have come to expect from the cartoonish buffoons that occasionally hide behind police protection in public. Instead, he believes in the innate inequality of people, the need for tribal nationalism based on in- and out-groups, the different prescribed roles for men and women, a conspiratorial view of certain ethnic groups, and that we need to restructure society along a heroic warrior model.
What is difficult when we look at Augustus is that many people, who no one would describe as having National Socialist leanings, have found him attractive. Inside of individualist pagan circles, especially those allied with the Left Hand Path, critiques of Augustus as being on the radical right have gained little traction. Part of this comes from the penchant that many in those circles have for offensive and iconoclastic rhetoric, as well as a philosophical ethos to move outside of conventional moral strictures.
Augustus’s own rhetoric, of destroying the system and abolishing conventional politics (both right and left) has also been taken up by the less discerning elements of the left that find any kind of revolutionary character a plus. When people went through the lists of supporters in Portland there were a lot of personalities you would expect, as well as many you wouldn’t.
Known left-wing activists have been traveled on his page, as well as progressive pagans who know far less about his problematic politics than that he is the most public pagan politician in America currently. Without a keen lens as to the history of Third Positionist and esoteric fascist politics, and with a definition of fascism that only reveals a shaved head and a Klan robe, how would people even know without taking up a research project?
When talking with Augustus a quote from Steven Weinberg, a 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, came echoing through my mind. This particular quote is often used by problematic New Atheists and is meant to deride the religious, but I think it could be used for political orientations of this type as well.
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.xii
Augustus was courteous and friendly throughout our entire conversation. He was both sincere and open to criticism, genuine in his demeanor. It sounds as if he is likely kind to his family and friends and generous in the circles he runs in. In a different world, he could likely be a friend. In this world, however, he was holed up in the Bye & Bye. In this world, he organizes a political movement that continues to found itself in xenophobic racism, sexism, nationalism, oppression, and violence. His politics, to him, are good natured and logical, but they also have consequences, ones that are very real for those who have been the target of these fascist movements, both in outbursts of violence and in the few cases when they are able to take political power.
Intersections with Libertarians & Confrontations with Antifa
What brought Augustus out here were some American Front events, starting across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington. Augustus first raised eyebrows by defending American Front members against criminal charges in Florida, and eventually helping them formally disband the organization. He has said many times that he is friends with AF members, and lives with one currently. However, he would not be allowed to be a member, because of his bi-racial relationships.
After his private speech to the American Front, it was posted online as one of his “Fireside Chats.” Here he used the talking points one might expect, such as the fact that the AF deserves fair representation, yet in reality they could not get an attorney besides himself. Groups like the ACLU regularly represent neo-Nazis, and while many oppose this, nobody assumes that they share in their politics. That is likely because they do not publicly call themselves nationalists or fascists, nor do they speak at their events.
It was this very connection that eventually put a dramatic, and public, hold on Augustus’s Northwest tour. The primary purpose for him coming out was to speak at an additional American Front event in Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver Against Racism then started a campaign calling for the venue, The Railway Club, to cancel the event, which they did. Vancouver Against Racism also pushed for a counter-demonstration that would dwarf the original political event. Counter-organizers in the area had discussed a “creeping fascism” in their subcultural space, a term that is often used for the way that fascist ideas can seep into left-associated spaces through shared counter-cultural roots. They mention bands like The Night Profound, with fascist and skinhead connections, using their fan base to promote Augustus’ event. The band had previously turned heads when they brought in controversial bands like Death in June. [xiii]
Augustus was determined not to be influenced by increasing numbers of fingers pointed at him, making jokes about the growing anti-fascist contingent that saw him as a public target. As he went to cross over into Canada from Washington, he was detained by the border authority, who asked him questions several hours before essentially denying him entry. He was technically allowed to reconsider his application for entry, but this was likely semantics at this point.
In a press release put out several days later, which seems likely written by Augustus in the third person, it notes that his interrogation was about his “affiliation with neo-Nazis, about the charges of Fascism, and about allegations of racism:”
“I was a politician traveling to give a speech and yet they treated me like a gang member trying to run guns across the border. They said that no good could come of my entry into the country because violence would certainly ensue…There is no question my expulsion from Canada was due to political reasons.” [xiv]
He tried to tell the border guard that it was not him issuing threats of violence, but the “communists” instead—but to no avail. The Canadian government stated that he had no legitimate purpose to enter Canada except “to cause trouble.” Augustus alleged that they went through his text messages and emails, asked personal questions about his girlfriend and ex-wife, and got much of their information from the Antifa organizers blocking the Vancouver event. [xv]
He almost immediately went on Facebook to say that Antifa had “won the battle,” and posted the “Allowed to Leave Canada” paperwork that he had to sign as he was forced back stateside. Grandeur seemed to be the reserved place for Augustus to lick his wounds after this set-back as he took to social media in long, angry tirades referring to himself as a “leader” and providing advice for those that have to deal with Antifa:
Advice for those who are not professional street brawlers:
– Do not travel to or from the event alone. Antifa are cowards without honor. They travel in numbers, and they attack only when the numbers are asymmetrical.
– Assume an ambush. Antifa are cowards without honor. They will hide in the shadows to jump unsuspecting passersby.
– Keep your head on a swivel. Antifa are cowards without honor. They are sucker punching bitches who wouldn’t know a fair fight if they saw it on pay-per-view.
– Film everything. Antifa are cowards without honor. They will hit you and run to the police when you hit them back. It would be a good idea to have proof that you acted only in self-defense.
ASSUME DEADLY FORCE WILL BE USED. The antifa have openly declared their intent to assassinate me and to begin a civil war at this event. Take them at their word. If you are attacked, do not hold back.” xvi
He continues to focus on the bi-racial ethnicity of his children, his relationships with non-straight people, and his worship of the goddess as a protection against many of the allegations of bigotry that were leveled against him.
The news of his removal from Canada exploded like a social media frag grenade, heading to places like Gawker, Vice, and Raw Story, where they did not go much further than mentioning that a fascist who “drinks goat’s blood” has been blocked from entry. His own press was as equally outraged as he was, with right-libertarian and “race realist” Christopher Cantwell coming to his defense with anger.
“Speaking of liberal idiocy, Senate Candidate Augustus Invictus was refused entry to Canada this week because he has ‘no legitimate reason to enter the country and will just cause trouble’. That is quite odd since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to think open borders are such a fantastic idea, at least when it comes to Syrian “refugees.” Perhaps the leftist immigration agenda has nothing to do with freedom at all, and is rather about flooding countries with welfare dependent non-white voters who will perpetually favor the expansion of government.” [xvii]
This story revealed the uncomfortable relationship that libertarians, and, by strained association, Invictus, have to mainstream conservatism. As the anti-fascist contingents swelled in response to Augustus’s upcoming speech, libertarian internet press continued to push forward to support the event. Lauren Southern, a right-wing libertarian with Rebel Media and Press for Truth, came out to cover the event and bait protesters.
After yelling at the crowd that there were “only two genders” and mocking rape allegations, a protester came by and threw urine on her. Press for Truth then dug their heels in to focus on the story, calling the protesters feminists and “SJWs [Social Justice Warriors].” xviii
They never mention any details about who Augustus Sol Invictus is, or why the protesters are there. Organizers refer to Southern as their “local Ann Coulter,” saying that the protest was a “smaller crowd of wing-nut conspiracy theorists, and other right-wing weirdo[s].”xix
Drawing together the subcultural elements of Augustus’ campaign that allowed him to be invited to Vancouver in the first place, as well as the reaction by the right wing to Antifa’s policy of “no platform,” organizers used this as a temperature check.
By not engaging critically with ideas, and preferring subcultural markers to a personal and political affinity with one another, people are leaving an open door to anyone who’s critiques of capitalism, “communism”, “corporatism” and “international financiers” is just subliminal messaging meaning Jews. By refusing to look into or take seriously pre-and-non-christian(sic) religions and occultism, just because it is not clearly associated with what they see as conservative capitalist values, people are leaving the door open to right-wing interpretations of Odinism, Satanism, etc, that reinforce racial hierarchies and create fear and hatred of immigrants on the basis of being “other” and not being “western”.
Disallowing fascism doesn’t mean being exclusive. It means being invested in an idea, and open with more intention. Not only would this be a serious thorn in the side to any fascist movement attempting to grow in sub-cultures, it might create an even more vibrant, creative, and interesting culture in which to mingle.
Another interesting quality to the right-wing mobilization around Augustus is the extreme reaction to ‘callout’ and anti-oppression culture. We see this in Lauren Southern’s rhetoric, and it was quite apparent in many of the Facebook memes and comments of Augustus himself and his supporters…The caricature of the spoiled brat university kid demanding a safe space (which can at times be embarrassingly accurate) is now being evoked, even by fascists, to justify the most disgusting misogyny and white-supremacy.xx
This story was then uncritically picked up in Tea Party allied sources like Breitbart News, continuing to be echoed throughout the right-wing press as Southern being assaulted for her views on transgender people. What she was doing, coming out to favorably cover an event hosted by the American Front, seemed beyond the purview of BigGovernment.com. The rest of the coverage turned Augustus into the side-show that they have generally made of him, making sure to focus first on the internet famous goat-head and his stream-of-consciousness “LSD journals,” rather than the nationalist content of his speeches.[xxi]
Media Sensationalism = Media Complicity?
It was exactly this vapidity, the focus on the sensation of Augustus rather than the real story, that led to us casually talking over medium-roast in a Portland Panera. He reached out for me not because he had affection for my politics, but because there had been no one on the opposition that had been able to see his presentation as anything other than Live-Action Role Playing. It is exactly this paradox that kept him off the radar of anti-racists for months, largely because the dearth of coverage he garnered showed him as an insane creature clamoring for internet stardom rather than a dangerous fascist.
Instead, a real ideologue was proposing a growing base of far-right ideas that drew on subcultural fascist notions that had reshaped and been repackaged over the decades of anti-fascist organizing. For months, no one saw Augustus because the image of him climbing through the desert, preparing goat sacrifice for the camera was only enough to inspire trendy Twitter hashtags rather than an opposition. While this was happening, he was amassing supporters, not to get him elected, but to further a movement of Will to Power dissension that may continue to see its ranks swell as disaffection continues to flow through the country.
When asked if he opposes mass democracy as a concept, he said “absolutely.” This is unique for a candidate in a representative system, but that is because elections are simply a canvas on which he can paint with his own mix of spirit, water, and blood. He enjoys references to his movement as a “weird sect,” making fun in jokes about its cult status.
The support of the American Front is no fluke. Augustus has now accepted an invitation by the National Socialist Movement to speak at a Rome, Georgia, event on April 23rd. The event, which is co-sponsored by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was actually taken down from his campaign’s Facebook after it was first put up. The post was then archived over at the American Third Party Report, where he posted a multi-page explanation. He resurrected the analysis that nationalists, including both himself and the NSM, were challenging “McCulture” and the oppressive state.
“And this is all one can ask for in an ally. The question is why this is so difficult for so many. As I have said in several of my speeches & interviews, I have never been attacked by a white nationalist or black nationalist—physically, verbally, or otherwise – for having an [sic] Hispanic family or for tolerating homosexuality or for drug use or for anything else; but I *have* been attacked—physically, verbally, and otherwise – by leftists for exactly those things, and for my refusal to denounce white nationalists as the Devil’s spawn. The willingness of the NSM to have someone like me speak at their event, combined with the willingness of the Antifa to stop me by any means necessary, should be a glaring demonstration of where the true intolerance lies.
So I will speak in Rome. And I will make it the best speech I have ever given. And I will speak to the Nation of Islam if they ever get around to asking. And I will speak to the Cuban nationalists in Miami and the Puerto Rican nationalists in San Juan. We are all in this together, no matter our race or ethnicity, against the special interests that would destroy our respective cultures for their own profit under the guise of humanitarianism. “xxii
This shift to the right, if not in rhetoric at least in relationship, is a telling point for the direction of Invictus, further pushing outside of acceptable discourse and away from anything the Libertarian Party would publicly associate with. His previous stop over at the more “respectable” neo-fascist milieu was short-lived, and now even those Alt Right depositories where he has done many interviews would likely find his most recent announcement politically toxic.
This turn may seem logical when looking at the most recent reactions to Augustus, which put him in a long history of antagonism between the shape-shifting far-right and the increasingly militant anti-fascist left. Before Rose City Antifa’s sharp confrontation and the organized response to his event in Vancouver, there was little conversation that discussed him exactly within the fascist context that he spoke. Now his connections and ideas have been placed front and center, putting all of his more moderate connections into question.
Part of this is done through the singling out of Augustus by the anti-fascist left, which has hardened his resolve to abandon most leftist appeasements and allies. This could useful to anti-fascist organizers who need to shed his false allegiances and clouded discourse in order to cleanly identify him as a dangerous right-wing revolutionary. If the Canadian libertarian press tried to redeem him through vilification of the “SJWs,” this was entirely undone as he announced an event with cartoonish neo-Nazis who cover their blackshirts with swastika patches.
In a certain sense, Augustus has cemented opposition to him while closing the door on any of the political crossover that he was hoping for with the Libertarian Party of Florida. Roger Stone, former Donald Trump lobbyist and right-wing ideologue, was rumored to be brought in to run against him simply to save the name of the party. Augustus did not see this happening since the Invictus campaign had “nothing to lose,” and Stone was in poor health. At this point, no one would be surprised if LFP Chairman Adrian Wylie would pull a “hail Mary” in a desperate attempt to save the party from the only person who could fundamentally destroy it. The destruction of the LFP would close that bridge between the far-right and the GOP, as well as the neoliberal economic cover that seeks to influence beltway conservatism.
“The Will To Power”
The toxic hand of Invictus now seems as though it will poison all who touch it, and that is not reserved simply for party politics. Augustus had been long listed as a speaker at the upcoming International Left Hand Path (LHP) Consortium in Atlanta, Georgia, taking place from April 8th to 10th. The event’s website is ornamented with the expected pictures of greasy ponytails, leather trench coats, and pastel drawings of naked women with dragons. It pledges to bring together Satanists, Thelemites, tribal religionists, and other people who “eschew conventional morality” and have a rough individualism in their occultism. Anti-racists have brought concerns to the organizers of the event, including Atlanta Antifa.The convention organizers posted a response in a snidely made “Critics Corner” on their website.
Their amateurish understanding of neo-fascism is one that seems to only see fascism as being synonymous with the political structures it used during WWII. Instead of being able to see that fascism’s nationalism and anti-egalitarianism has used a variety of political forms, they parrot back tired caricatures and clichés about the far-right that should have been dispelled with a simple Google search. They begin by going through references to the fasces on Augustus’ campaign images, which they find examples of just about everywhere. They then go on to defend Augustus’ eugenics paper, saying “Can you name one person who has not written or said something in their youth who later regretted it?” This is lukewarm as they then not only voice their support for eugenics in the same way Augustus had, but also to note that the LHP tradition would as well.
While we, at the LHP Consortium do not in any way, shape or form condone racism, neo-Nazism, or eugenics programs, we do strongly feel that the United States government has favored a decadent ideology that rejects the beauty of strength. And we also strongly believe that this country has enabled and even encouraged the exponential growth of weakness and ignorance by dumbing down the populace through disinformation campaigns, fear mongering, and defunding education programs in favor of feeding billions into the military industrial complex as well as funding corporate and foreign welfare. Our government habitually bails out corporations and banks while cutting funding for education and wounded veterans. The country has transformed the movie ‘Idiocracy” from a comedy into a documentary by encouraging and rewarding ubiquitous weakness and ignorance. [xxiii]
They continued to mock allegations that Augustus is “both a fascist and an anarchist,” without even a cursory understanding of the anti-state fascist trend. Fascism has not been synonomous with authoritarian political forms, which were in fashion during the interwar period far beyond their fascist implementations. Instead, fascism defines itself through its exclusionary ultranationalism, its enforced hierarchy, heroic mythos, elitism, anti-democracy, and anti-egalitarianism. They went on to define the LHP as a uniquely opposed to the “self-deception” and “false morality” of the conventional Right-Hand Path religions.
Left Hand Path philosophy often sees altruism as a form of self-deception that is created and promoted by Right Hand Path religions. This is because most altruistic actions reap some sort of benefit or reward for the person or organization who is accomplishing the deed. For instance, if you donate money to Planned Parenthood to make birth control available to indigent and homeless women, you help to reduce society’s financial burden of caring for unwanted, sick, and drug addicted children, which in turn, should keep your taxes from going up and help to maintain a stronger, healthier community in which the altruist lives. [xxiv]
These right wing sentiments are not modern addendums to the LHP tradition. The ideas of a egoist “self-worship” and a kind of Might is Right “overcoming” was central to LaVey’s notions of morality in the Satanic Bible, aligning itself with the kind of “strongman” politics that fails to be universalistic, egalitarian, or democratic. That being said, the LHP Consortium is also going to be filled by edge spiritual and occult practitioners who would be horrified by this discourse, and whose idea of ego-worship does not include the notion of the biological inferiority of entire groups of people. Their rough libertarian talking points attempt to insulate them from criticism for including someone whose behavior would be considered publicly abhorrent, but this superficial rage is only a veiled reference to the same “Will to Power” that Augustus has made his own life’s law. The work that many would want to do to undermine the right-wing contingencies inside of the LHP Consortium has already been done through their unwavering support of Augustus, which, after the NSM announcement, rippled through participants, shrinking their numbers and further breaking the LHP community from broader occult, New Age, and pagan contingents.
The irony of the Consortium’s response became apparent as they led two other pagan/occult organizations in dropping Augustus after the pressure mounted. Taylor Ellwood and Ken Henson, both presenters at the event, said that they would “not take part with Invictus.” It was actually Invictus’ own behavior that got him the final boot as the organizers were clearly going to side with him against Antifa. On a private forum, which was later deleted, Augustus went after the protesters with explicit language that insinuated violence.
You “protesters” are swine. I will not go out of my way to placate or sweet talk cowards, fools, & hypocrites. You claim to be practioners of the Left Hand Path. No member of the Left Hand Path that I have ever in my life met has been a soft, moralizing ninnie like the lot of you “protesters.” You call yourselves men and women. Some of you even dare to call yourself gods. All I see are keyboard warriors with SJW dicks so far up their asses they have their brains scrambled…You say I am a fascist. It is hilarious that your fear of Fascists far exceeds the fear Christians have of LHP practitioners. If only they knew how pathetic you really were. If only they could see the pitiful, pudgy face of Rufus Opus, claiming to be a representative of the occult community, worried to death that his delicate reputation is going to be smeared by association with a right-wing politician. You call yourselves fearsome, but I smell the fear on you from 2,000 miles away. You call yourselves individuals, but anyone else with eyes can see your sheepish conformity to society’s values. You call yourselves freethinkers, but look at what slaves you are to the reigning political dogma.xxv
The Consortium’s website has now taken down the Critic’s Corner page, and the original statement in defense of Invictus.
Augustus’ rage has become expected at this point as his response has just been a heart beat of increased anger, spewing out without restraint at any objection to him and his program. His response is quite telling for what this wing of those communities think about this type of leftist moral anger.
Modern attempts to whitewash the occult are a desecration of the sacred. In our line of inquiry, the more mainstream the discipline becomes, the more profane. To blacklist a speaker for voicing unpopular beliefs is not only outrageously hypocritical; it is self-defeating. And if this is the road we are going down, I thank you for counting me out. [xxvi]
The War for the Past & The War for the Future
The injection of his ideas into paganism is both modern and recent, which is true both for racialist heathens and for ultra-liberal Wiccans. The argument that these modern political ideas were absolutely present in ancient pagan religions is more than hyperbolic, both for the far right and the far left. To a large part, this requires contemporary pagans to acknowledge the actual modern role that their religions have, even if reconstructed from incomplete records of the past. These religions do not have continuity to their original implementations, and are instead just as subject to contemporary understandings of philosophy, politics, and theology.
The battle over values is happening inside of Goddess worship just as it is happening in mainstream Christian churches, and both sides of those agreements turn to practice and lore as justification. Augustus’ arguments in favor of animal sacrifice are also intended to make the argument that he is resurrecting the “real” pagan tradition of the past, which mainstream American paganism abhors, and is likely the direction he goes in when voicing support for human sacrifice.
Augustus himself seems only energized, at least publicly, by this increase in oppositional attention. There has to be something personally hurtful for him during this as he continues to state publicly that people are simply misreading his positions and that their accusations are baseless. Though much of his rhetoric has been a smokescreen to make his previously unconscionable ideas palatable to a larger audience, the veil is dropping and his fascism is becoming known. The movement that he had been cultivating, a sort of “para” campaign to his public political one, now faces a challenge of opposition that it lacked for many months. The real questions are how Augustus is going to change, how far to the right he is going to shift, and how those “border agents” who enjoy straddling the line between mainstream occultism or GOP politics and the radical right are going to negotiate someone whose political orientation is becoming more and more plain.
After our meeting I sent an email to Augustus thanking him for talking with me and answering my questions, which is something I noted that he really had no obligation to do. He offered me several compliments in his reply, something that I have to note he likely intends to see reflected in the way I talk about him. Many people would criticize even having this level of back and forth with him, but I think that being open to listen closely allows us to better understand exactly what creeping fascism looks like today. Beyond headlines about blood letting and dropping acid during ceremonies, a certain media vacancy has permeated the discussion around the Invictus campaign—a trend that seems to be ending as the laughter turns serious. Rose City Antifa transformed the ephemeral into something concrete: a movement that is unwilling to grant his politics any showing in the public sphere.
The real question is less of intention and more of pragmatic politics, and how a senatorial campaign can continue once its façade has all but burned away.
vii The cited conversations come directly from either the conversation between Augustus and I on March 2nd, 2016, and a private email that Augustus send to me with the answer to the questions listed in Fascist Performance Art on March 5, 2016.
Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. His work as appeared in places such as In These Times, Truth-Out, Labor Notes, Waging Nonviolence, CounterPunch, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He contributed a chapter on housing justice movements to the recent AK Press release The End of the World As We Know It?, and has work in upcoming volumes on social movements. His most recent documentary Expect Resistance chronicles the intersection of the housing justice and Occupy Wallstreet movement. His work can be found at ShaneBurley.net, or reach him on Twitter at @shane_burley1.
I wrote most of this article weeks ago, but I stumbled on this business just yesterday and I thought it illustrated the problems I’m discussing here brilliantly. Apparently the New York Times edited an online article for content after it was posted to completely change the tone.
Since the Public Editor is supposed to be a watchdog for the public trust to insure honesty in media, I guess it’s okay to completely manipulate a story like this. This is an acceptable standard for our most trusted sources in mainstream media. And this is how they’re handling the move to get online.*
In my article from two weeks ago I discussed how the internet is threatening the supremacy of corporate media, particularly broadcast media, along with how this is forever altering the way we do politics. But the halcyon days of net neutrality are already over. There are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage.
The process of media convergence is resulting in a small handful of very large companies being able to control not only what you can watch or read, but your internet access and your phone and cell phone services as well. Not only that; they are learning how to manipulate search engine results, public perceptions, and social media to their advantage. Only by being aware of these tactics, and in some cases fighting their lobbyists in the political and legal arenas, can we hope to maintain this precious resource.
Let’s point out some of the problems and discuss solutions:
Problem: Favouritism in search engines
Search engines list the most frequented sites on a given topic first. In these situations, corporate media still has the advantage because they still have a reputation that encourages a lot of people to go to them first. Most of us glance at the first five or six listings (because the human brain can only count five objects at once in a glance) and then choose the one we like the sound of best. If we’re really literate or really interested maybe we read two or three.
Solution: Make sure you skim down the rest of the page, maybe a couple of pages, and try to read at least one differing opinion from your own with an open mind. And never forget that Google is a large corporation.
Problem: News aggregates
Most of us get our internet news from aggregates such as Huffington Post. They use software that selects the most popular articles from the most-visited sources. As a result, they give you the same information that the first six links on Google give you; and they have their biases as well.
Solution: Same as above. Try to find an opposing viewpoint to the one your favourite news aggregate offers you.
Problem: Information overload
Because there’s so much information out there we often don’t spend the time we should to use our discernment. Furthermore, knowing this, media outlets, corporations and political parties flood the internet with articles and links that support their bias, which makes it look as though their bias is the most prevalent opinion. The more money available to a given group, the better they are at this.
Solution: Don’t fall for it. Even if the opinion in question is the prevailing one, that doesn’t make it the “correct” opinion anyway. Double check the data and decide for yourself.
Problem: Expert opinions
Groups with political motivations will try to lend their viewpoint legitimacy by enlisting experts to support that viewpoint. But money talks even among “experts,” as anyone who has ever been through a civil lawsuit could tell you.
Solution: Consider the source. A scientist working for Exxon is not going to support the climate change data. An avowed atheist is going to ignore any information that supports divine powers. Pharmaceutical companies are going to discredit any medicinal source that they can’t manufacture and patent. Economists of the Koch Brothers sponsored Fraser Institute are not going to support economic models that don’t benefit the Koch brothers and their ilk.
Problem: Misleading and clickbait headlines
Most of us don’t read whole articles. We read the headlines and then skim the text. As a result we acquire an oversimplified version of the facts, and we miss subtle caveats or even contradictory information contained in the rest of the article. Journalists writing to the direction of company heads with particular political viewpoints sometimes know this and use it to deliberately downplay facts that contradict those viewpoints, while at the same time claiming a lack of bias because their articles do contain those facts; they’re just written in the internet equivalent of small print at the end.
Solution: If you’re going to read an article, read all of it before casting judgment.
Problem: Siloing and polarization
Because there are so many choices available to us in internet media we often only read the information that supports our pre-existing viewpoints, rather than trying to get a whole picture. As a result we often find ourselves in echo chambers that gradually lose touch with the big picture. Also, journalists supporting a bias often deliberately write articles to encourage us to divide into camps without considering individual issues and situations.
Solution: Again, read contradictory articles. Or find an online friend who supports political views that you don’t that you can have a respectful debate with.
Problem: Copyright laws
Did you know that when an American article posted a clip from the Daily Show, no Canadian could watch it unless we wanted to watch the whole episode? Copyright laws are applied unequally, depending on the desires of certain groups. “Fair Use” is actually subject to individual interpretation, so corporations will often enforce their copyright when a site uses their clip or photos in a way that doesn’t support their viewpoint when they wouldn’t if it did; or governments with particular agendas (such as the right wing Harper administration) will make it more difficult for media that disagrees with their preferred narrative to circulate opposing viewpoints by unequally applying copyright claims.
Solution: This is a tricky one because it’s so hard to prove. A copyright holder has every legal right to enforce their copyright however they wish. But perhaps small copyright holders should consider the broader implications of draconian copyright enforcement with a view to the long term, rather than buying into the narrative that claims that such laws protect small artists as much as it does big business.
Solution: There are only three; petition, protest, and politicize.
Problem: Corporate internet marketing and privacy
Most major internet and social media companies now collect demographic data on us whether we want them to or not. So do our cell phone providers. They claim that they do this to provide us with information and advertising suited to our preferences. In reality this simply increases the siloing and also allows corporations and governments to routinely violate our privacy, even if that’s not exactly what it was intended for.
Solution: Fight this uninvited snooping any way that you can. Protest, lobby, and always edit your privacy options, no matter how complicated that is.
Problem: Obsessive, rude and professional commentors
Did you know that political parties have begun paying people who (at least say that they) share their views to comment on news stories online? This, along with some genuinely focused people, is why you can’t read an article about sexism in politics without someone ranting about political correctness and feminists, and why you can’t read an article on climate change without some hothead sputtering their defense of oil production. This makes it sound like more people support such opinions than actually do, which gives said viewpoints the appearance of greater legitimacy.
Also, the toxic nature of internet commentary, fueled by a human tendency to be nastier and more rude to anonymous people they don’t know than they would be to someone they were speaking to in person, creates a confrontational environment where people become more concerned about arguing with people than the issue at hand.
Solution: Don’t comment to engage with commentors. Better yet, don’t read the comments section at all. If you wish to engage with the article’s author in any way, be it positive, negative, to ask a question or to provide information, read quickly through all of the comments to see if your issue has already been addressed and then post what you need to post.
Problem: Pretty does not equal accurate
It is human nature to listen to people we find attractive more than people we don’t, and we tend to believe that a more professional look to a site means that the site is more legitimate. But of course that’s utter nonsense.
Solution: Read between the lines and don’t dismiss something, or someone, just because it isn’t visually appealing.
Problem: Opinions are like . . .
Anybody can say anything they want on the internet. But often the opinions offered are unsubstantiated, backed by logical fallacies, or unsupported by real data.
Solution: This problem obviously affects other forms of media too so don’t let that stop you. But look for logical fallacies and patronize sites that cite their sources over ones that don’t. Also, consider who is doing the speaking. Obviously if someone works for the oil industry they probably want to downplay information about the receding ice caps or pollution in Beijing.
Looking to the Future
We have no idea of our own power. We need to take the information we’re learning online and do the only three things we really have the power to do with it; petition, protest, and politicize. We are the hope of the future.
The internet is changing the game and providing great freedom of information. But we have to be willing and able to use it, and we have to use our discernment in order to benefit from it. Politicians who want public support in the future will have to learn how to navigate the internet with aplomb; and we will have to learn how not to be manipulated if we want to reap its benefits.
*Please note: I include this information only to illustrate my point. I tend to follow stories on Bernie Sanders because I like him and I am disturbed by how the media is treating him, but I would not presume to endorse any Presidential candidate. I’m not from the US and it’s not my right to tell US citizens who they should vote for as their President.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– The Princess Bride
When the Inconceivable Happens
In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:
The United States was destined to reach the stars.
The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.
Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:
The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.
My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.
Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.
On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said would never happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.” The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.
The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way
It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.
Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be.
This thought struck me as I watched the movie, Interstellar, for the first time. The movie is set in a near-future, where the earth can no longer sustain humanity. The population has been decimated by famine. The good old US of A still exists, but it is no longer what it once was. And a combination of blight and dust storms seems intent on wiping out what remains of a struggling humanity. We’ve seen many such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions in the past, from Road Warrior and Terminator to The Postman and The Book of Eli. But what was disturbing about Interstellar to me was not the changes, but the similarities, of the near-future depicted in the movie to the present day. Many post-apocalyptic stories describe a future that is unrecognizable to present-day Americans. But the future of Interstellar, a future of environmental disaster and only partial social collapse, seems very real.
It occurred to me that humanity’s paralysis over the impending environmental (and corresponding economic) collapse is a function of the psychological strength of the myth that things will always be the same. The sun always rises in the morning, and winter predictably (less predictably now) follows autumn which is followed by spring, and I, here in the U.S. go to work during the week, and rest on the weekend, and go on being a good consumer, largely unperturbed by war and famine and plague. So it’s easy to believe that things have always been this way and always will be …
… but they won’t.
It is likely that my children or grandchildren will live to see a day when our everyday experience, living in the United States today at the beginning of the 21st century, will be entirely foreign to the children being born at that time. This is not apocalyptic catastrophizing. It is simply a recognition that things will not always be as they are. And I think realizing this may be the first step toward making the system-level changes which are needed to address the environmental disaster which is already happening.
Certain things which we take as inevitable … things like capitalism, for example … are not inevitable. As Naomi Kline explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, our economic system and life on earth are incompatible. Our economic system demands unfettered growth of consumption, but our survival and that of many other species requires a contraction of humanity’s growth and consumption. One of these must give way. Our choice, according to Kline, is to fundamentally change our economic system, or to allow nature to change it for us. The first will be hard, but the second even harder. But it is possible: If “the Wall” can fall, then the “Invisible Hand” can be severed.
One way or another, capitalism — at least capitalism as we know it, built on a model of infinite growth — will no longer be. My hope, is that we humans are around to see that day, and that the demise of this particular economic system does not correspond with the demise of our species. What we need is the courage to imagine a different future — the courage to imagine both a future where we have committed collective suicide through our desecration of the environment and a better future where we have escaped that fate by creating a new kind of society.
Paganism: A Religion of the Imagination
Where does Paganism come in? Well, if our problem is really a failure of imagination, then Paganism is uniquely suited to the task. Imagination is at the core of the Neo-Pagan paradigm. Reconstructing an ancient pagan past requires imagination, as much as it does scholarship. And much of the Neo-Pagan revival was inspired by fantasy. Dion Fortune’s fiction was an important influence on British Traditional Wicca, as was Robert Graves’ White Goddess (which is a work of imagination in the guise of philology). The American Neo-Pagan revival was also inspired by works of imagination, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
The early founders of the Neo-Pagan religions drew from myriad sources for inspiration – both ancient and modern – and where gaps existed, they improvised – following Monique Wittig’s injunction to“Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.” Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism. More recently we have seen the emergence of so-called “pop-culture Paganism,” which includes the worship of comic book and movie characters.
Imagination has been long been denigrated as mere fancy in our post-Enlightenment culture. But imagination is more than fancy. As Sabina Magliocco explains in Witching Culture (2004), imagination refers to “a broad spectrum of thought processes, from memory to creative problem-solving to artistic expression, that rely primarily on internal imaging, rather than on discursive verbal expression or lineal logic.” She argues that rather than being irrational, “the imagination possesses its own internal logic that complements or enhances linear thought.” It is this part of ourselves which is awakened by Pagan ritual and magic. And it is to this part of ourselves which me must look to begin the transformation of our society. As Lawrence of Arabia wrote:
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
We Pagans are uniquely capable of imagining things being different than they are. After all, we are Pagans in (predominately) Christian America! (or, as the case may be, the increasingly secular English-speaking world) More than any other religious group in the West, perhaps, Pagans can imaginatively “remember” a time when Christianity was not the dominant mode of religious discourse. And we can imagine a future which is not only post-Christian, but post-monotheistic. And to the extent that our pathological relationship with the environment is bound up with a monotheistic paradigm, we are uniquely situated to help imagine a society which has a radically different relationship with the environment.
Indeed, much of Pagan ritual and practice is designed to help us realize just that possibility. Starhawk calls this the “radical imagination,” which she describes as “refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world”:
“All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”
(The Fifth Sacred Thing)
We can lead the way in effecting this paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. One way we do that is through rituals which connect us to nature, and by creating new myths (like the myth of Gaia).
Imagination gets a bad rap in our contemporary scientistic culture, which fetishizes objectivity and rationality and denigrates subjectivity and non-rational ways of knowing. But imagination has been behind every major revolution in human history, whether technological, social, or religious. The environmental crisis is a result of a failure of imagination — a failure to imagine the disastrous consequences of our current economic system and a failure to imagine that our economic system could be different. What we need is the courage and creative resources to imagine things can be different, and Paganism can help us fight that future by imagining new possibilities … and then creating them.
Come Dreamers of Day, come and act your dreams with open eyes.
I think that since September 2015 it’s going rather well. There have been a lot of interesting shifts in the way things are going in the world. For one thing, in October, the Liberal Party of Canada, headed by Justin Trudeau, finally toppled the Conservative Harper Regime, which was well on its way to transforming Canada from its social democratic roots into a Corporatist paradise. Those who support an anti-capitalist (or anti-corporatist) viewpoint can’t be as happy with that as we would be about an NDP victory in Canada, but it’s definitely an improvement.
For another thing, the American Presidential primaries have never been so interesting! It’s fascinating to see how Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who’s been speaking from the same place since the 1960s is suddenly a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Not that you’d ever know this if you only followed the mainstream media! Their deliberately misleading coverage in their desperate desire to preserve the status quo has been even more interesting, and it inspired my last article.
But it’s a truth that in magick one must be especially careful of what one wants to accomplish, because you may end up with unintended consequences. Donald Trump may be one of those unintended consequences. Those of us working magick for change were not very specific about what form the change should take, were we? Clearly Trump is setting out to destroy the modern Republican party, which is clearly either our foe or a powerful ally thereof, but perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. It scares me a little that Americans seem ready to elect the 21st century equivalent of Mussolini.
So what’s to be done? Well, perhaps more magick is called for. Nature abhors a vacuum, and when you use magick to break down, you must also use magick to build up.
So it’s time now, I think, to call upon the growing and healing spirits of transformation. With spring (and March 15) just around the corner, it’s time to call upon that energy of renewal. When the system comes apart, what will replace it? Let’s all lend our energy to the United States right now, where much of the world’s future is about to be decided (like it or not,) and then let’s spread that power out into our own lands:
Use whatever your usual procedures are to enter into a Journeyworking (spirit travel.)
Visualize a bald eagle flying high over the land. See it flying high above you, searching. It cries as it finds what it seeks and it lands on the shoulder of Lady Liberty, who is bearing Her torch of freedom. She smiles and nods Her greeting to you.
Who is Lady Liberty? Is She just a symbol, a statue? Or is She something more? She bears a strong resemblance to Athena to me. I think perhaps She is a new goddess. And as an American goddess, the fate of Americans matters to Her.
Ask Her to lend Her support to those working for the cause of liberty, freedom, and justice in the upcoming Presidential election process. Ask Her to withdraw Her support from those who are not working in the interests of those causes. Ask Her not to take a side in personal political preferences, but to keep in mind the personal motivations of candidates that we cannot see and the long-term consequences that we may not be able to predict.
If you, like me, are not an American, then reach out to impress upon Lady Liberty how the American Empire affects the entire world, and why we who are not U.S. citizens care about the future of American politics.
As when dealing with the Wild Hunt, be aware Lady Liberty may ask you to perform a task in return. Listen for guidance. If you are willing to agree to the task, do so.
Visualize the torch of freedom illuminating those who are doing the work of freedom with a glowing spotlight or halo. Hear their words being amplified to spread to those who need to hear it. See that light spreading out over the United States, and then the whole world. And where it touches the yokes of the ones who would enslave us, let those yokes be burnt to a crisp.
The eagle takes flight over the illuminated landscape and lets out a cry of joy. Lady Liberty smiles.
Return to your body and make whatever offering you feel is appropriate.
And let’s cross our fingers!
* I deferred my intended subject for the next article because I felt that this was a little more urgent. My article on the pitfalls of internet media will follow next week.
I have been a practicing Witch for more than 20 years, and an active organizer and facilitator in the Pagan community since 1993. I am a third degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions, and an ordained Priestess and recognized Religious Representative in the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of British Columbia. I was the first Local Coordinator in the Okanagan Valley for the Pagan Pride Project. I am a practicing herbalist (Dominion Herbal College) and a Reiki Master/Teacher.
We’re currently in the editing process of the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance! Pre-order, subscription, and underwriting information is here.
Right now in the United States, Super Tuesday is just a couple of days away. It’s pretty amazing that I know that. I have never paid such close attention to American politics before. I never cared that much; not until it came down to the actual Republican vs. Democrat. In general we, your neighbours to the North, breathe more easily when it’s the latter.
But right now there’s a political revolution going on that has broad implications in both of our countries. There’s a huge generational divide. It’s the generation we call the Millennials. They’re changing how everything works. In current North American politics, both in the recent Canadian federal election and in the upcoming American Presidential election, there has been a visible, undeniable generational split in opinions at the polls, and it has made, and is making, a significant difference. Millennials are the reason that the Conservative Harper regime in Canadian government was finally overthrown, and Millennials are changing the face of American politics even as you read this. Nothing in national democratic politics is ever going to be the same again.
Why? Is it that Millennials are creative and innovative? Well, to some degree that’s true; the younger generation is almost always more flexible and more willing to try new things than the older generation. Is it that they realize how fixed the system is and they are desperate for change? Well, that’s partially true too.
But more than anything, I think it comes down to one simple thing: Boomers watch TV. And Millennials don’t.
The Problem with Corporate Media
We in democratic capitalist societies labour under the delusion that the media is the Fifth Estate, which exists as an independent watchdog to inform us on the benevolence, and abuses, of those in power. The media, we believe, reports on events in a way that delivers the news with forethought, expert consultation, and a fair, if not entirely unbiased, lens. My parents still share this subconscious assumption. But it’s not true. It’s never been true.
Corporate media is, of course, interested in furthering the interests of things that benefit corporations. In general, they support right wing policies because right wing governments support bigger corporate tax breaks, trickle-down economics, low wages, and lack of regulation. It’s only common sense, really. These things benefit any large corporation, and I don’t think there’s any denying that broadcast media is entirely ruled by large corporations. What you may not know is just how large they are.
You would think that print media would be different; the last bastion of the independent journalist. But again, you would be mistaken. Almost every major newspaper in Canada is owned by two companies. That’s right, just two. They are Sun Media and Postmedia. How big do you think a corporation has to be to own so many newspapers?
It didn’t used to be that way. There was the CBC, and then there were mostly local private companies. Until our broadcast media was partially deregulated in 2008, and again in 2011, by the Conservative government of the time. Is it any wonder that the news seems to be favouring the right wing view more and more all the time?
Sometimes the bias is so blatant that it’s a suitable subject for ridicule. But most of the time it is subtle; so subtle I know most people don’t notice it. Watching coverage of the Bill C-51 protests here in Canada was most instructional for me, because I had just caught on to the tricks and so I really noticed them:
Two very different stories may be observed in the Vancouver Sun, which is a major corporate newspaper, and the Vancouver Observer, which is a somewhat respected but smaller and decidedly more left wing “alternative” media source. Both papers are reporting on the exact same protest in the same city. If you’d like to play along at home, I urge you to fire both of those links up in separate tabs and compare them as you read.
Our first clues as to the tack of the stories can be found in the headlines. The editor of a paper is the one who chooses the headlines. The Vancouver Sun headlines their story with “Vancouver protesters rally against Tories’ Bill C-51.” Seems innocuous enough, right? But let’s break it down a little. First, limiting the story to Vancouver divorces it from the national movement in the minds of the readers. Vancouver has a reputation for being a sort of “San Francisco of Canada,” and is regarded as a haven for what the right wing sees as “leftist nutbars.” So this makes it sound like the protest is a local phenomenon. Note, also, that the Sun is quick to call it “The Tories’ Bill.” This demands polarization. It makes it personal. It suggests that anyone who might disagree with the bill is only taking exception to the then-unpopular Tories, rather than objecting to legislation which gives unsettling powers to the government. It trivializes it as “party politics.” It’s a “nothing to see here” tactic.
In the meanwhile, the Vancouver Observer tells us that “Thousands protest Bill C-51 across Canada.” We are meant to be alarmed. Thousands? What is horrible enough to get “thousands” to protest? And “across Canada?” What could be causing such a sweeping concern?
Our next big clue is image. The Observer has chosen an image that shows a vast sea of protesters, standing politely with their signs and listening to a speaker on a stage. I am sure that they were trying to get as many people as possible in the shot to display how widespread the opposition to the bill is.
In the meantime, the Sun has chosen a much closer angle, so that you really have no idea how many people are at the event. And they have also chosen a picture intended to make the protesters look as stupid as possible. The big sign in the center of the image says, “Harper Darper,” which sounds like a child making fun of someone in the schoolyard. If that weren’t bad enough, the most clearly-visible sign other than that one says, “Honk to defeat Happer!” Obviously it’s a misprint, and the protester tried to correct it – you can see a black Sharpie line turning that first P into an R if you squint – but it’s difficult to see and obviously your first impression is meant to be “what a bunch of buffoons!” You are supposed to dismiss them as “stupid left wing crazies.”
Now let’s break down the articles themselves. Our first paragraphs set the stage nicely. In the Sun we are told that “more than a thousand people” gathered to protest “Harper” in particular, and “the new anti-terror bill” by extension. Okay, yes, there were more than a thousand people. The Observer tells us that there were actually about a thousand more people than a thousand people, which is a total of two thousand. So the Sun was telling the truth, but the implication minimizes things just a little. Also, the Sun is letting us know that the protesters are protesting Harper because they don’t like him; not the proposed legislation because it’s objectionable.
In the Observer, our first paragraph tells us that about two thousand people “descended on the streets” to “express frustration with the federal government’s proposed anti-terror bill.” So in this key sentence we are told a) there are a lot more people out there than the Sun was saying there were; b) they are frustrated with the federal government, not any party or person in particular; and c) that the bill is still a proposed bill, not something that is already law.
It seems like it’s a conspiracy. But it really isn’t. It’s the natural result of the corporate system of ownership; reporters making subtle changes to their pitched articles to make them palatable to their editors, who must then make them palatable to the company management, usually passing through several layers of bureaucratic stratification in between. And ultimately, the paper is printed to please the boss, who likes things that benefit corporations just fine.
Most of Canada’s newspapers endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the last election despite plummeting popularity; the ones who didn’t supported mostly the Conservative Party with Harper’s resignation as a caveat. People couldn’t understand it. But Postmedia ordered all of their subsidiaries to endorse the Conservatives; which is actually a traditional owner’s prerogative. In other words, every media company that has ever existed has a bias. And they are expected to.
This is where publicly-owned media, run properly, can provide an alternative view and thus widen the lens we are given to look at the state of things; but even that has its problems. Because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is a Crown Corporation, meaning that the Canadian government is the primary shareholder, there are limits to the powers of the CEO and the Board of Directors. As a result, a significant faction within the CBC, angered by the Conservative appointments and the reduced budget, supported – almost downright campaigned for – the Liberal Party and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But we need to understand their bias as well; the Liberal Party promised all kinds of things to the CBC as part of their campaign platform, including a lot more funding. Thus, even in Canada’s nominally non-partisan public media company, every time we heard about the New Democratic Party or its leader Tom Mulcair, it was to deride and discredit their campaign promises and to make Mulcair look as foolish as possible, with photos seemingly selected for the purpose. And that was regardless of which mainstream media company was reporting on the election.
But even publicly-owned broadcasting is not safe. The CBC, long regarded as a public resource with a decidedly left-wing approach (and it used to be) was gutted completely by Stephen Harper in his last couple of years as Prime Minister. He cut its funding, fired most of its executives, and appointed a whole bunch of his Conservative cronies to significant positions. Justin Trudeau’s attempt to fix some of this has been actively stymied by tactics from these appointees that look a lot like crazy Republican stunts to me. (Incidentally, when a government changes hands, requests for appointees to step down like this are a normal, expected part of the system; which of course, the current CBC isn’t telling us.)
Things like this have already been done to the BBC several years ago and are now firmly entrenched.
It’s an interesting point because I see the American media doing the exact same thing to Senator Bernie Sanders that the Canadian media did to the New Democrats, for the exact same reason; corporations hate social democracy. Social democracies limit corporate powers and increase wages. Social democracies believe in what’s best for all of the people, not just a select few. I think it’s a safe bet that the mainstream media will never show us an unbiased view of policies that might put more limits on corporations; which is why so many people seem to think that Mr. Sanders’ “socialist” policies are “unrealistic.” Even my parents. The funny thing about this is that most of Sanders’ platform is the way Canada did things, from the 60s right up to the Harper administration, and it worked just fine.
There’s another concern with corporate media. The media makes a lot of money on political campaign ads, as politicians try to make their messages heard; and also on election coverage, as corporations backing particular parties or candidates sponsor programs that feature those candidates. And the more political tension they create, the more money they make; which is probably why every political campaign is portrayed as a horse race, even when it’s not.
How the Internet is Transforming Politics
In the early days of media, there were newsletters and newspapers. Media was a lot less centralized and thus, people read what they wanted to read. Since there were a couple of dozen New York papers, you just read the one you preferred; or maybe a handful, if you were really well informed. When it came to politics, you read the papers that supported your political view; for instance, if you were a socialist, you read the socialist papers.
Slowly, larger papers began buying up the smaller papers, and so your options of what to read, and thus the viewpoint you were shown, gradually diminished. Why did the New York Times become so respected? Because everybody read it.
We have seen how that sort of centralization reduces the scope of the information lens so that we only hear what the corporate media wants us to hear. But that’s changing. There are alternative sources of media emerging; blogs and journals like ours, for example. And the reason is – you guessed it – the internet.
Right now, political blogging is in its early growing stages. We are graduating from a few random commentors to semi-professional small blogs and YouTube channels. And the Millennials, having realized that the food that they’re being fed is (un)liberally flavoured with Corporatist propaganda and always tastes the same, have started seeking out those alternate sources.
Or so it would seem. The truth is actually simpler than that, if I might cast a pall of cynicism on this ray of hope with an intention of helping us to make use of it in the most efficient possible way.
Millennials don’t watch TV anymore. They don’t read newspapers. Between their computers and their cell phones they go online for everything; their information, their entertainment, their social outlets.
So the fact that they’re discovering the alternate media is a cosmic accident, really. And the only reason why the alternate sources are doing so well is that we’ve been here longer. Fortunately the large media corporations were initially more interested in fighting or discrediting internet media than they were in using it. But that’s changing too.
Before you dismiss this as a fad, it’s clear that this has changed the way Millennials think. They are perhaps the most literate generation that has ever existed. Because they surf the web they know things that previous generations do not. Because of Google Translate they can talk to people in other countries even if they don’t understand a word of the language. And thus, it has never been so easy to find like-minded individuals and organize along ideological lines as opposed to geography.
More than that, most Millennials have probably experienced a situation in which they were humiliated on social media for not fact-checking a link or a meme. Whether this or something else is the reason, Millennials who are politically aware check their facts. They look up the definition of “social democracy” on Wikipedia. They Google any statistics they are offered. They use Snopes to confirm or denounce rumours and scandals. You can’t just give them the facts you want them to hear, cherry-picked for your convenience. They will double check.
As a result, we are beginning to see huge ideological divides between generations and it’s starting to make a difference. Why did Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party win the Canadian federal election? Because two significant demographics supported him almost unilaterally; First Nations Canadians, and young voters.
Note that these are both traditionally underrepresented groups in the political landscape. But this time they overcame their reluctance to engage with a system so obviously stacked against them and came to the polls. This, despite deliberate changes in election laws, such as gerrymandering electoral ridings and requiring proper picture ID as well as a voter registration card to vote – a tactic almost never done in Canadian history and obviously disadvantaging the young and the poor. And as a result, our First Nations and our youth changed the course of Canadian history.
We are seeing this in American politics as well. Would Bernie Sanders be doing so well against the likes of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton if it weren’t for the massive support he’s receiving from America’s youth? Millennials hear Sanders using the language of the Occupy Movement and his call to fight the 1%, and they are protesting the system with their ballots. It is even starting to affect demographics that were believed to be unassailable, such as creating a generational divide in the black vote.
Will this factor change the course of this American election? It already has. Even among the Republican voters, nobody expected Donald Trump to do as well as he has. In a way he’s the right wing equivalent of Bernie Sanders; he sounds like a rebel against the system. He’s just going about it in a way that openly reveals the fascist heart of Corporatism.
Either way, this is likely the last U.S. Presidential campaign that will be so strongly influenced by the mainstream media. It’s a whole new world out here.
But the battle isn’t over yet. The halcyon days of net neutrality are already behind us, and there are ways in which large corporations are manipulating the internet to their advantage. Also, the way in which we access the internet and social media corrals us into echo chambers which entirely lose touch with anyone who doesn’t share our views. I will address these issues in my next article.
*I have chosen to use the gender-inclusive singular “they” as my default general pronoun in this article.
When I found a first hint of my Goddess, I was twenty and alone.
No one else at my small-town-South, church-affiliated college was openly trans. I wasn’t just socially stigmatized – I lacked spiritual tools with which to understand my alienation. Then one professor, a lesbian feminist with a goddess-symbol pendant, gave me a book: Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. Daly’s post-Catholic thealogy taught me that a male authority figure wasn’t the only sort of God. Soon, I found a sacred place under an oleander tree and prayed to “the goddess;” within a few years, I’d gone through the Goddess Movement to the Meter Theon’s devotional service and the vows I’m under today.
In large part, Mary Daly set me free.
However, had I actually met her, she would’ve wanted nothing to do with me. Daly helped found what today we call the TERF movement: Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, a strain of feminism for cisgender (that is, non-transgender) women who believe trans women shouldn’t exist. Some of them follow through with harassment or even physical violence.
I thought of this paradox — that a TERF’s book could set in motion a trans woman’s religious feminism — when the cis Pagans in my social media sphere recently discovered that certain Pagan leaders have TERF ideas. A professor at Cherry Hill Seminary, Ruth Barrett, signed a petition denouncing trans people’s involvement in gay rights; Cherry Hill stood beside her in a subsequent press release.
Of course, this is no one’s first rodeo. In 2012, similar criticisms emerged when the founder of Dianic Witchcraft, Z. Budapest, excluded trans women from a ritual at PantheaCon that had been advertised as a rite for women. Trans exclusion has been a fact for decades in many Pagan communities.
But where does this sentiment come from? Trans women exist and many of us are polytheists and/or Pagans; why should anybody mind?
“All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves…Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.”
– Janice Raymond, author of The Transsexual Empire
When TERFs and right-wing Christians talk about trans women, they agree that everything comes down to sex. Take a few examples:
Last November, Houston, TX (my hometown) voted to repeal an antidiscrimination ordinance that included protections for trans people. After months of TV ads slandering trans women as rapist men lurking in the bathroom, the final count was 2 to 1 against the ordinance.
Right now, in Washington State (my adopted home), lawmakers have written six different bills, all intended to deny trans people the right to use the bathroom that best matches their gender. All of these politicians (and their supporters) have endorsed that same bathroom-rapist lie.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ran annually until last year, maintained a blanket no-trans-women-allowed policy. One year, a Lesbian Avengers chapter with a trans woman member did attend, and the trans teenager found herself surrounded by a hostile crowd of adults, some of whom threatened her with knives. The festival claimed that trans attendees would somehow pose a special danger to rape survivors.
Janice Raymond, who wrote the anti-trans manifesto The Transsexual Empire, explicitly equated the existence of trans women with rape, and claimed that trans lesbians who had consensual sex were actually, somehow, committing rape. When she developed these ideas as a grad student, her thesis adviser was Mary Daly.
No trans woman has ever been found sexually harassing people in public restrooms. The figure of the bathroom-rapist trans woman is like Hookman or Bloody Mary: an urban legend, not an actual person. But politicians don’t write bills cracking down on the cursed monkey paw market. So, whence this particular urban myth’s political credibility?
On Catcalling, Good Sex, and Nonconsensual Work
As I discussed in my last article, capitalist patriarchy runs on women’s unreciprocated social labor. I didn’t, however, much talk about the way that sex, sexuality, and sexual desire fit into this system.
In heterosexual settings, women generally put much more effort into sexually satisfying their partners than their men reciprocate. We see this in everything from the deeply-gendered nature of sexy underwear (lingerie for women is an industry, lingerie for men is comedy fodder) to the juxtaposition of normalized fellatio and stigmatized cunnilingus. Rape is simply the extension of this one-sided approach to sexual pleasure past the line of consent. Obviously, male-centric but consensual straight sex qualitatively and morally differs from rape. Nevertheless, both exist within a gender system that makes the work of good sex something that women generally perform both for ourselves and for men, but that men usually perform quite a bit less.
This happens outside of straight encounters, too. “Straight guys think lesbians are hot” is practically a proverb. Plus, the ubiquity of catcalling shows that no public space excludes what feminist theory calls the male gaze. When a woman goes down the sidewalk, puts on clothes in the morning, or wears makeup, her goal is rarely to give male strangers a moment of sexualized entertainment. However, when they catcall her, those men have just gotten their entertainment from the work she’s performed (even if existing in public is the only work she’s done).
She didn’t put together a public presentation in order to give men a show, but they got a show anyway by ogling and heckling. They’ve extracted benefit (entertainment) from her labor (wearing clothes and walking down the street) without her consent, and without reciprocation; they certainly aren’t likely to try to amuse her in return! In short, they’ve just exploited her work.
Every bit of this applies both to cis women and to trans women. All women, trans and cis, run the risk of rape and sexual harassment; all women who date men, trans and cis, deal with partners who demand that their own pleasure must always come first.
However, the exploited sexual labor of trans women goes past that of cis women. Patriarchy tries to reduce trans women’s entire existence to sex. Supposedly, we only transition to satisfy a sexual fetish; supposedly, the only people who sleep with us have a fetish of their own. We go into sex work much more frequently than cis women because hiring discrimination is so rampant. Mainstream cultural depictions of trans women at work rarely include jobs other than sex work and hairdressing. (And remember, patriarchy believes that women groom and get haircuts solely to attract straight men.) Without letters of approval from self-appointed psychiatric “experts,” it’s extremely difficult to access trans-specific medical care (mostly hormone therapy and various surgeries). Those gatekeepers have traditionally denied that healthcare to trans women they deemed insufficiently feminine, attractive, or heterosexual.
This extra layer of sexualization brings an extra layer of gendered violence. A majority of trans women have been raped and/or sexually abused, and anti-trans violence gets overwhelmingly committed by men who sleep with us. (Throw in race and occupation to the mix, and you’ll find that not only are most anti-LGBT hate murder victims trans women, but a large majority of those women are Black and/or Latina, with a substantial number of sex workers in the mix. When bigotry kills LGBT people, that bigotry is usually racism plus sexism plus transphobia.)
So patriarchy disproportionately sexualizes trans women, while disproportionately punishing us for it. Why? When that happens, what’s in it for patriarchy? It gets a class of women who perform extra sexual labor, while facing too much brutalization to easily challenge that. More exploitation, less resistance.
Anti-trans ideas only make sense in terms of that social situation.
Prejudice and stigma occur so that trans women stay in that extra-exploited situation. People who say that trans women are really men don’t mean that literally; after all, when most people say “you really are a man!” to an actual man, it’s a compliment. Those same words to a trans woman are an insult and a threat (and often precede physical violence). However, the combination of stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence that gets thrown at trans women keeps us easier to exploit. In sociological lingo, that’s transphobia’s social function.
And plenty of trans women have stories about getting hit on by TERFs and conservative transphobes. As often as not, the people who rail the loudest in public about how we’re sexually disgusting are the ones who sleep with us in private. No surprise that those who most directly benefit from our sexual labor also most want us kept in line!
However, anti-trans politics does more than that. By campaigning against a hated and nearly defenseless minority, both right-wingers and TERFs gain visibility, prestige, and clout within their communities: conservative Christianity and majority-cis feminism, respectively. Pagan TERFs like Ruth Barrett bolster their position within feminist witchcraft and the broader Pagan scene. If the benefits transphobic actions accrued were to stop, so would those actions.
If TERFism hurt rather than enhanced someone’s position within Pagandom, then anti-trans practices would wither.
“An injury to one is an injury to all!”
– The Industrial Workers of the World
I don’t write this article for other trans people.
Trans Pagans and polytheists have already spent decades attempting to undo the power of anti-trans leaders within our communities. We already know just how dangerous and spiritually deadly transphobia gets.
Cisgender fellow Pagans,I’m writing for you. I don’t want to make yet another moral appeal to support us because it’s just and virtuous to do so (although it surely is); instead, I want us to consider, together, what anti-trans Paganism means for us all. If you’re a cis woman, I have as much a stake in ending patriarchy as you – andtransphobia only exists because it’s part of patriarchy. If you support full inclusion for trans women as women, you’re helping to reject one of patriarchy’s more violent ongoing projects! And if you’re a cis man, I have the same message. Transphobia is patriarchy, and patriarchy is capitalism, ishomophobia, is racism, andisevery other structure of exploitation that keeps the ruling classes on top. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is a statement not of moral solidarity, but of sociological fact. Propping up discrimination against someone else just strengthens the powers that oppress you.
So, together, let’s make the Pagan subculture a place where hating trans women destroys reputations instead of growing them. Let’s make our traditions islands of pro-trans feminism; let’s say “you’re being divisive”to transphobes, not to their critics.
After all, I know firsthand the power and intoxication of feminist self-embrace that people like Mary Daly offer at their best. If some of them fell short in their attempts to wash away patriarchy’s values, the strength of the Pagan feminist lifestance is surely enough to survive if we acknowledge that transphobia is patriarchy, and choose to do better than our precursors. Affirming trans women as women makes that feminism more powerful, not less.
And besides – if we can’t even reject patriarchy’s marching orders within feminist Paganism, how can we expect to do so anywhere else?
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.
I don’t just mean easing my client to the ground and checking for stroke. As I wait for the charge nurse, I focus on my smile. Other residents have visitors, after all; they’re liable to complain about a caregiver who lets it show that she’s had too little sleep for a 12-hour shift. Nursing resembles customer service, waitstaffing, and retail: most of the work does not involve the specific set of tasks listed in the job description. 80% of the time, nursing means presenting cheerfulness, politeness, deference, and a willingness to handle other people’s interpersonal tension no matter how they treat you.
And as I push through the minor crisis on the emotional momentum of my devotional prayer that morning, I wonder, “Why should my employer care about my facial expression as much as my ability to cushion this client’s fall?”
Of course, it’s gender.
Two sociologists in particular have defined the ways we approach the connections between gender, emotions, and work. Emerging from the Second Wave of Western feminism in the 60s and 70s, Louise Kapp Howe wondered whether increased access to paid work had, in fact, much improved women’s lives. She found that women overwhelmingly got shunted into low-wage, majority-women, service-sector occupations; for these she coined the term “pink-collar” (as opposed to still-male-dominated blue- and white-collar jobs).
Later, Arlie Hochschild’s book The Managed Heart showed us what those pink-collar jobs disproportionately involve: she termed it emotional labor. Emotional labor is a waitress smiling and laughing even when a customer is rude. Emotional labor is a retail clerk greeting everyone who walks in with a smile, no matter how she actually feels. Emotional labor is a nurse aide acting pleasant even under deeply unpleasant conditions.
Emotional labor is the work of acting like you feel a certain way because the boss and customers demand it. And emotional labor, above all, is “women’s work.”
She tells me everyone thinks I’m disgusting and I know what to do.
This time it’s not a client, but a partner. Relationship abuse, though often not discussed, is as much a reality for LGBT people as for straights. By this point, she’d quite effectively isolated me with a move across the country, and I wouldn’t get away from her for several more months. So I smile, and I draw on whatever emotional strength I can find – from the Meter Theon, from myself, from the ability to do emotional labor on demand that women under patriarchy have to develop. The skill set here didn’t differ from the one I use at work. And in principle, it doesn’t differ from the work of listening-with-empathy that I do for female and nonbinary friends (who reciprocate it), and for male friends (who perform it neither for me nor for each other, getting it from women instead).
Women who’ve survived abuse often have people asking us why we put up with it, why we stayed even after it became “really” bad. There’s plenty of answers – lack of financial resources, absence of crucial support networks, nowhere to leave to – but I rarely hear the biggest reason of all. Satisfying other people’s desires without expecting reciprocation is what women do; under patriarchy, that’s what “women’s work” means.
Much of the emotional labor required of pink collar workers involves smiling and apologizing at people targeting you with abusive behaviors. Tell an angry, verbally-violent customer, “don’t talk to me like that. I deserve basic respect,” and you’ll likely get fired. Submitting to an abusive partner or family member involves precisely the same work, and it’s work forced on most of us by the power structure of capitalism. The requirements of paid pink-collar work reinforce abusive dynamics at home, while the emotional conditioning of unpaid abuse makes women better at putting up with it on the job.
Capitalism runs on the abuse of women.
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
– Karl Marx
When faking happiness at work is more than my depressive brain can bear, I pray for strength and find that the Mother of the Gods answers. When tolerating my abuser without melting down became more than was possible, I also prayed for strength, and also found that the Mother answered. Sure, Marx may have opposed religion on principle. But I wouldn’t have lasted this long without the power my goddess gives me. Patriarchy is the system growing on women’s unpaid, unreciprocated work (emotional, domestic, and social). And like all exploitation, patriarchy harms its victims. Women are consistently more religious than men across many different traditions. This holds even truer for Paganism than for the Abrahamic religions Marx had in mind. We seek so much divine support because we can’t keep going without it.
Many of us are used to getting through on the strength our deities give us, and many of our deities are used to “giving a portion of power to women” because women need it. But part of our work as anticapitalists involves removing the need for religion to act as a stopgap for exploited, struggling people. We humans deserve better, and our gods do too.
“Everybody wants a revolution, but nobody wants to do the dishes.”
– Shane Claiborne
In the left-wing subculture, certain roles and political strategies get glory. Everyone wants to admire the building occupier who stands firm when they get pepper sprayed, or the leader whose oratory whips a crowd of demonstrators into ecstasy, or the organizer who founded six organizations and sits on the steering committee for five more. And confrontation and “speaking truth to power” surely do take courage and express the righteous fury of the activist community; sometimes, they even get material results. But there’s more to revolution than challenging the old (including the often-unsung behind-the-scenes work that allows confrontation to occur. While this work is disproportionately done by women, the visible glory-winning roles still tend to go to men). You also need to build the new.
During the Indian independence struggle, Gandhi developed a theoretical distinction between an “obstructive program” and a “constructive program.” The former means challenging existing unjust systems and demanding they change (by whatever tactics one chooses; virtually everything activists in the US currently do falls into this category). The latter, however, means building something better now, so that when the old system falls, something will be ready to take its place. While we need both, Gandhi rightly prioritized the latter, saying:
“My real politics is constructive work.”
Patriarchy is about labor. Patriarchy is about exploitation. And without doing away with patriarchy, we won’t really be able to undo capitalism; like all structures of exploitation, they’re too mutually reinforcing to get rid of just one by itself. The type of work exploited through patriarchy is generally women’s unwaged and unnamed domestic and/or emotional labor (be it in a pink-collar job or just informally, between friends, families, and lovers). Until you start looking for it, it’s hard to notice; so is abuse, of course, and abuse exists on a spectrum with unreciprocated emotional work. We can’t get rid of abuse without getting rid of the entire spectrum. Our constructive program must involve men doing this labor for each other and doing it for women. Even our male revolutionaries need to start doing the dishes.
Otherwise, women won’t find our communities sharing power and support together. We’ll only have what strength our gods can give.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.