I breathe easier knowing my grandfather died before the age of Trump. My grandfather, a fiercely opinionated man, believed in people’s power and populism. He was the first person to breathe the word “communism” in my presence — then, in the early nineties, still a dirty word. His relationship with populism and fascism was complicated. His own father had been a soldier in Mussolini’s army, but taken prisoner for most the war in North Africa and presumed dead, leaving my grandfather’s family without a source of income, broken, and ostracized in their small Italian village.
My grandfather was still a young child when Canadian soldiers liberated his village from Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. I still remember my grandfather’s smile at that particular memory — from that point in his life, he would forever associate Canada with hope. When he emigrated to North America, he became a factory worker. Like most men of his age, class, and cultural origin, he had a difficult time with contemporary liberal politics. Decades later, by the time 2008 was said and done, he often felt a strong need to express his dislike for Obama and Obama-style politics. But towards the end of his life, as sickness and age eroded his ability to track world politics — and wage interminable, circular political arguments at the dinner table — he did not have to watch the rise of Trump-style American fascism as his children and grandchildren watched him die. Small mercies.
I’m thinking of that on Valentine’s Day. I’m twenty-six, and I just watched my family blow up in my face.
I’ve been here before.
We were always a family split along linguistic and cultural lines — I often joked that my parents’ dinner table was a Babel where three or four languages could be heard simultaneously. Even if bits were lost in translation, nothing could stop the signal of this beautiful cacophony.
As is often the case, there’s only so much difference that blood and habit account for. Eventually, something cracks. We lost our ability to speak to each other.
It ends this time, as it did last time, with an email from my father. This one contains only two words: “Fuck you.”
We are not Americans, but American-style politics have become, in the past decade, our common frame of reference despite ourselves. My brother, the youngest sibling, often wears a baseball cap mimicking those red ones we saw on television at the American Republican National Convention. He calls himself the most feminist person of the family, as he uses racially and sexually charged language to provoke anyone at the dinner table into a confrontation. He is a master of pivot-and-redirect argumentation. He loves to personalize everything. The moment I begin talking about patriarchy, or racism, or oppression in terms larger than any one individual person, he reframes the conversation to be all about him, about whether or not we think he is a bad person, whether we think he is acting like a white supremacist, whether we love him enough despite his faults.
My brother also fully admits to be trolling us at the dinner table. It’s all a joke: the baseball-cap-wearing-redneck attitude, the role of devil’s advocate, even the yelling out of racial epithets to shock us.
Nonetheless, my parents are fiercely protective of his right to say whatever he wants. Every argument with him happens the exact same way. I have tried arguing with him at the dinner table and on Facebook. I have tried being calm, taking him aside one-on-one to detangle this web of entitlement and rage that keeps its iron grip on my brother and won’t let go.
I have also tried, as I did just this last Valentine’s Day after another disastrous family dinner, to walk away. To walk away from his provocations, from this game he plays where he tries to get me to call him out for racist or sexist behaviours in front of our parents. Because he knows that the moment I do that, it’s game over. My father will rise from his chair and begin to scream. My mother will defend her son, throwing daggers with her eyes. As my brother knows well, the bulk of that rage is directed towards me. It’s the fault of feminists that my brother behaves this way. It’s our fault, as women, that my brother channels his insecurity as the youngest in this way.
I reach out to my father later that evening to apologize, again, that dinner was ruined, again. The response is: “Fuck you.”
Reading the email, somehow I am still capable of stupefaction. I am struck with the memory of my grandfather in tears when I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure my father loved me, let alone even liked me.
The problem likely isn’t a lack of love. My father shunned me when I was twenty years old, and I usually describe the year after as the worst of my short life. My life was split into a before and an after; the edges of that divide reached into my family, as certain members of my family no longer spoke to me and others still did, braving my father’s chilly wrath.
My grandfather never stopped speaking to me.
It was through his efforts, my grandmother’s, and eventually my mother’s, that after a long, frosty year, I reached out again towards my father and accepted his help on his terms.
I was dating my nonbinary ex-partner at the time, a relationship that disturbed the delicate heteronormativity my family adhered to religiously. My ex was furious I was speaking with my father again: in fact, it nearly broke us up right then and there. They kept asking me how I could do this to myself after everything that had happened. After all the work we had done to make it to that point, my ex believed that I was cracking under the financial pressure of trying to cope with being in university full-time, working full-time, and being without my family’s financial help. They were truly, completely furious with me. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that so much of that anger was fear — fear for me, fear for my fragilized mental health, and even fear for them.
While my dire financial straits certainly were a factor that encouraged me to reconcile with my father, the truth is that that doesn’t even come close to the full reason. The simple truth is: I love my father. I love my father even when he calls me a whore. Even when he calls me a liar. Even when he screams at me. Even when he tells my brother to go commit suicide. Even when he tells me that my mental illness, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, weren’t real. Even when he tells me that no one would ever love someone as screwed up as me. Even when he has never once apologized for saying these things. I love him even when he tells me, so simply: “Fuck you.”
My grandfather, when he was a young immigrant factory worker, asked my grandmother to dance on a Valentine’s Day. It was the very first time they met: star-crossed love between young immigrants separated by language, continents and race. The Day of Love has always had a mythic quality in my family. Somehow, the story of my grandparents falling in love and beating every single odd before them seemed a story too pure for the shallow claws of commercial capitalism and the cynical Hallmark-card-narrative reaffirming heterosexual gender roles. The story of their first date was a story my grandfather and grandmother adored telling, over and over, long after we had already memorized all the details.
It would be on a Valentine’s Day, in another century, in another world, that the very same family my grandfather built, could be so easily torn apart.
I am not alone. I may be walking away, but I am not alone. I reach out to a friend of mine, who works in the United States and has recently been disowned, financially and in all other ways, by her family because she would not support Trump.
We admit to ourselves that we don’t know, exactly, how to cope with this. We spent a day crying or staring at a wall, and then we rolled up our sleeves and threw ourselves back into work. We try not to worry about the fact that our futures have become dimmer. We try not to think of family reunions and dinners that we will miss. We try not to think of the holidays and vacations we will not be invited to. Funerals, weddings, births we might miss. These memories with loved ones are fleeting and ephemeral — I think of my grandfather dying last year. I don’t even remember the last proper dinner I had with him, when he was still completely lucid and there.
We try not to wonder about these things, and instead try to come to terms with the fact that this has happened at all. The usual suspects: the ever-present accident of our birth and bodies and gender; our queerness; our unapologetic commitment to a feminism that isn’t bullshit; our generational status as entitled millennials with terrible job and housing prospects. In my family, I consider the part language and culture have to play, and think of God confounding Babel until all its people scattered, no longer able to connect with one another. Trauma manifests, poisonous and inescapable. Can it really be that simple, that we are estranged, denigrated, or refused for these reasons? How have Trump-style politics and violence arrived at our dinner table and infected our conversations? How is it so easy for love to be corrupted as it is?
There will be a before, and an after, now. My friend in the United States admits that, just like with my own family, the tension in her family ran high for years, and while the results were usually explosive and terrible, she’d always been able to avoid the finality of this kind of confrontation in the past. Somehow, a few weeks into President Trump’s presidency, a dam broke somewhere — she was unable to escape this outcome.
We wonder about the stresses of “unconditional love” on children and on parents, how it broke us as proverbial lines were drawn in the sand. These cracks in the earth that separate children from their parents, or siblings from each other, don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things. If a political agenda is being served by all this interpersonal chaos and violence, it will probably be for posterity to name and trace its contours, though I have my theories.
After Valentine’s Day, I call my oldest friend. She is, coincidentally, also estranged from her father. I ask her why it seems like the whole world has become a nightmare, and why it feels like it is going to only get worse. She says that she feels it too. She tries to cheer me up as an afterthought, reminding me: “Things always seem darkest before dawn.” The platitude is one we’ve exchanged before. It hangs awkwardly between us in the phone static, as we both take a second to steel ourselves.
The “Fuck you.” echoes, viscerally. When I open my emails I have to reign in the urge to close my computer in panic. I need to go back to work. I take in a deep breath, find my father’s email, and delete it from my inbox.
This was an anonymous contribution to Gods and Radicals. A complete list of Gods and Radicals publications can be found here.
The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.
The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.
There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.
In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.
If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.
If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.
When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.
The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.
Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.
If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.
Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.
Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.
If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.
That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.
As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:
If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.
The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.
Christopher Scott Thompson
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.
Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.
The heart of Montana’s Flathead Valley has always been a cash-flushed vacation destination for those hitting the nearby mountains, perusing well-oiled ski resorts and the kitschy shops that live off of its financial success. Whitefish, a town with a population scarcely above 5,000, is one of the most traveled towns along the valley, with restaurants and antique shops littering its tourism district. It is along these streets that a procession of neo-Nazis promise to march against “Jewish power,” flooding in from out of state, automatic weapons in tow.
Andrew Anglin, the host of the neo-Nazi and Alt Right blog the Daily Stormer, has called for an armed march on Whitefish. The Daily Stormer mixes traditional genocidal Nazi ideas of racial superiority and anti-Semitism with the digital tirades so typical of the new Alt Right. In the world of contemporary white nationalism, the traditional “Stormfront” crowd of skinheads, Klansman, and other insurrectionary racialists has found their access to the more hip Alt Right through Anglin’s site.
Anglin had promised to ship in neo-Nazi skinheads from the San Francisco area, including a supposed Hamas member and vigilantes from the Soldiers of Odin, to descend on the town on January 16th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Anglin renamed it James Earl Ray Day after the man who assassinated King on his trip to visit striking sanitation workers. While Anglin came on strong with a promise of terrorism, it was exactly his exaggeration and the Alt Right’s pattern of creating smoke without fire that created the kernel of their failure. In a world where white nationalism has become commonplace, anti-fascism has grown by mammoth proportions. Anglin’s threat was a catalyzing event that allowed anti-fascist organizations, both community-based and more militant, to take the next step towards a united community that forced Anglin to finally concede defeat.
The Alt Right Mythology
While Alt Right people associated with the Daily Stormer and the surrounding constellations of podcasts, blogs, and busy Twitter accounts have always presented themselves as a movement that is new and intellectual rather than violent, this is a façade that has been cultivated to insulate them from the long history of opposition their movement has faced. While the branding, strategy, and talking points are new, this is traditional white nationalism repackaged for the smartphone generation. Almost every single prominent Alt Right organization, from the National Policy Institute to American Renaissance, can trace its roots back to earlier white nationalist projects that have had long histories of terrorism. American Renaissance, which built its reputation by arguing people of color have lower IQs and are more aggressive than whites, has hosted guests like former KKK leaders Don Black and David Duke, various Holocaust Deniers, and Aryan Nations members. At the National Policy Institute conference you will see former neo-Nazi skinheads, which is not so surprising after the recent video of stiffed-arm Seig Heils to round out their 2016 conference.
Andrew Anglin lies on the edges of this pack of open fascists, often trying to take their snarky memes and racialist talking points, and use them to bring along traditional neo-Nazism. While the Alt Right has relegated itself to podcasts and online word diarrhea, neo-Nazis have had a long tradition of stepping out into the streets in an effort to strike terror into their neighbors. What Anglin hoped to do was to return the Alt Right to its long tradition of American white nationalist organizing: the main street march. The Alt Right, with a more educated demeanor and dreams of Washington power never wanted to resort to the embarrassing role-playing so characteristic of the “revolutionary” white nationalist groups often from the rural South.
Anglin’s call was neither new nor arbitrary, but came at the end of years of escalation that began when Richard Spencer, the Director of the National Policy Institute and founder of the term Alternative Right, moved to Whitefish. When Whitefish became his parent’s vacation home away from their busy lives in Dallas, Spencer moved there with his new Georgian-Russian wife Nina Kouprianova. He centered the NPI there, listing his mother’s property as their headquarters, and hoped to live a quiet life there half the year working on the various racialist book, podcasts, and websites he produces.
Starting in 2014, the relationship he had with Whitefish began to crumble, first during a fated ride on a chairlift at the posh Whitefish Mountain ski resort. Seated by chance next to neoconservative GOP strategist and lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Spencer berated him for his foreign policy blunders. Spencer comes from an Old Right sensibility about foreign policy matters, one centered on an isolationist “America First” agenda. The confrontation quickly erupted into a controversy as Scheunemann spoke to the press about why a well-paid ski resort in Montana was allowing Spencer membership.
Spencer then headed to Hungary to hold a conference on white nationalism and “pan-European solidarity.” The conference was modeled after his NPI conferences, hosting an international audience and featuring speakers like American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Croatian New Rightist Tomislav Sunic, and Eurasianist nationalist mystic Alexandr Dugin. The Hungarian nationalist political party Jobbik eventually pulled out and Viktor Orban himself, under pressure from the socialist party, condemned the conference and declared Spencer persona non grata. Despite the advice of his fellow Alt Right consortium, Spencer continued his plans to host the conference and took a series of flights and train rides into Budapest to avoid arrest. Despite his Bond-like attempts at stealth, the Hungarian authorities descended on his pre-conference dinner and arrested Spencer, deporting him back to the U.S., banning him from entering the European Union.
When he returned his infamy had only grown and Whitefish had had enough. A local group named Love Lives Here had formed in 2009 in response to the showing of a Nazi film in the area, and they became an affiliate of the larger Montana Human Rights Network who had been known for countering the growth of the militia movement. A campaign was started to pass an “anti-hate” ordinance through the Whitefish city council to prevent Spencer from holding NPI events in the town. Spencer became irate, declaring that the town was trying to “make Richard Spencer illegal.” Spencer was even refused service at a local coffee shop as he waited for his drink with his then pregnant wife, and other business owners asked that he not return. City Councillor Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to solicit advice for how to build this ordinance at the time, noting that Spencer was creating his racialist media from their town. They ended up passing a more tepid “commitment to diversity,” one that Spencer tried to “troll” by publicly “endorsing” the call for inclusivity.
This back and forth allowed both sides to claim victory, but as they continued on, Spencer’s appeal was to a constituency of loud racists whom he had little evidence would support him in material ways. At the same time, this catalyst allowed for the Montana Human Rights Network to continue to organize in its highlighted relevancy, with a white nationalist neighbor showing exactly what was at stake.
The Year of the Alt Right?
Since 2014, Spencer’s profile has moved from Whitefish embarrassment to the national stage as scarcely a day goes by without an emerging story or profile on the most famous white nationalist in the country. 2016 became the “coming out party” for the Alt Right, taking their radical traditionalism into mainstream media discourse. During the post-election NPI conference, cameras from The Atlantic caught conference attendees using Roman Salutes as Spencer yelled “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!”
While Richard was riding a wave of attention, his parents Sherry and Dr. William Spencer continued their investment in Whitefish. Sherry owned a rental property at 22 Lupfer Avenue along Whitefish’s historic commercial district. A local activist named Tanya Gersh began raising the profile of Sherry’s property ownership in town; specifically that Spencer had been using much of it as a base for his operations. While the Spencers had made it their second home, the slow burn of the Alt Right and its growing opposition finally made the relationship between the Spencers and the town crumble. According to the Virginia state corporation commission, Sherry’s multi-million dollar Whitefish home is still listed as the headquarters for NPI. Sherry began to get pressure to sell the commercial building, a prospect she considered; yet after Gersh offered to list the property herself, Sherry became incensed and published a Medium.com post about it claiming Gersh was “extorting” her.
“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas — they are, after all, ideas — in what moral universe is it right for the “sins” of the son to be visited upon the mother?” said Sherry.
That is hard for many to believe given Sherry’s own right-wing connections to fringe political candidates and her close relationship to her radicalized son. Her Facebook even included photos of her and her husband attending the H.L. Menken Club conference, a white nationalist gathering that was a precursor to the NPI conference. Shortly thereafter, Richard began publishing videos and blog posts attacking Gersh and Love Lives Here, calling them a “local hate group.”
It was about this point that the Internet exploded, and Anglin jumped into the lead. He began organizing a doxxing campaign of Whitefish residents, posting pictures of Jewish neighbors with golden stars emblazoned atop and the word “Jude” inscribed. Several images were stacked in front of the Burkenwald concentration camp, where so many Jews were piled into mass graves after gassings. Calls, emails, death threats, Yelp reviews, and a stream of harassment fell on Whitefish, creating a culture of frozen fear. Special derision was given to Gersh, who had to go into hiding and had her 12-year-old child targeted.
What set off Anglin was not only that the Spencers were facing push back, but that anyone of Jewish descent could be involved. The essentialist nature of race is central to white nationalism, but also that there is a key actor in the international opera of racial conflict. This comes down to the “Jewish Question,” the belief that Jews are a tribal group who use a superior “verbal IQ” and ethnocentrism to destroy nations. Anglin hopes to reframe the issue as one of “powerful Jews” attacking plucky Alt Right heroes, and that he needs to re-live Kristallnacht, the night with the German SA burned and looted Jewish businesses. While some of those they harassed were in fact Jewish, most were not, but none of that mattered since they labeled the behavior as Jewish, as they do with anything associated with left-wing politics, feminism, or cosmopolitanism. Many on the left have argued, erroneously, that anti-Semitism is on the wane, but the Alt Right has worked hard to make the reality of anti-Jewish hatred explicit, and Anglin’s effort further politicized those he targeted.
Love Lives Here continued organizing in the Flathead Valley, first creating a “menorah card” giveaway so that residents could put the image of the menorah in their windows during Hanukah. This act of solidarity would send a message of the shared experience of this harassment, because, in this case, Anglin and his army have labeled them all as Jewish. On January 7th, Love Lives Here organized a massive diversity rally with speakers and music, including letters of support from around the country. All of this was meant to soft-peddle the opposition by creating a show of community support, and it has helped the Whitefish community to become unified in opposition to the Alt Right. While Anglin wanted to build divisions in the community, the strategy has been to simply forge bonds and to strengthen the wall against these ideas. Anglin took the bigotry from something ephemeral to a tangible threat, and now there was an imperative to come together.
Anglin’s next move was to call for an armed march in Whitefish to threaten the Jewish residents and assert power. While Anglin has posted a filled-out permit for the march, it was actually only partially completed; revealing his bluff. Love Lives Here refused to engage directly with the neo-Nazis, so other groups stepped in to build on the united community base and to develop a counter-demonstration that can block Anglin. Montana Antifa began a public call for the demonstration, along with fundraising to meet the logistics, and the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World and its General Defense Committee also organized a large contingent, just as they have against white nationalist projects in places like the Twin Cities. Montana Antifa asked supporters to contact the hospitality base of the Flathead Valley to warn them about Nazis trying to rent accommodations. At the same time, Columbus Anti-Racist Action in Columbus, Ohio staged a protest action along with Showing Up for Racial Justice against Greg Anglin, Andrew’s father who has been accused of supporting his neo-Nazi son. All of this happened with the kind of support that they never would have received only months before, but as Anglin overstated his own ability to create a gun-toting parade, he provided the agitation that created a broad support for Antifa.
The threat presented by much of the Alt Right, Anglin includes, is one that hovers between real and fake, but has consequences for the sense of security that many that many built on the absence of open extremism. While the Alt Right was often reported as “diet fascism,” they were instead the real deal, except this time using “dank memes” instead of swastika banners. For Anglin’s war on Whitefish, he showed the Alt Right’s hand, which was to threaten people into inaction. This time, Whitefish chose something else.
While the Alt Right claimed 2016 was their year, it was also the year of opposition. Anti-fascist groups have grown exponentially, and the result of the Whitefish harassment campaign was a unified state and the acceptance of radical anti-fascist organizations willing to defend against a racist contingent at all costs. While the Alt Right has been unable to move rhetoric into boots on the ground, the anti-fascist left has, and Anglin’s bluff could be the deathblow to a white nationalist movement fumbling its growing pains.
When the day actually arrived, the only people to show up were the dozens of anti-fascist supporters brought by Antifa organizations, the IWW, the Queer Insurrection Unit, the Alliance for Intersectional Power, and the surrounding community of Whitefish. Patrols were conducted on the surrounding streets to see if there was a contingent of nationalists who promised to arrive anyway, yet none came. Anglin pulled back entirely when he saw his few supporters would be dwarfed by a community united.
A State Unified in Resistance
Anglin’s “day of action” reversed the power by revealing that one side was ready for a fight. The region created a series of responses to the threat of an organized racist attack, from the civic alliance of Love Lives Here to the direct opposition of the IWW GDC. The two organizations together presented a spectrum of possibilities, from the strengthening of community to the direct opposition on the street corner. It is likely this final step, that antifascists were committing to “no platform” principles, is what forced the neo-Nazis to cancel their busses. This anti-fascist project was stronger by the end of the day than they were before anyone they heard of the Daily Stormer, and that anti-fascist opposition does not suddenly disappear after the Alt Right retreats. While there may have been tactical disagreements between some organizations, a few of which did not want to publicly antagonize the Nazi contingent, in the end they came together in a complex web of support, with the militant anti-fascist organizations building on the foundation laid by the Montana Human Rights Network.
The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.
The Montana Human Rights Network has been clear that they have received more hate threats and incidents since the election of Donald Trump than they had in years. But with this kind of behavior becoming commonplace, they have now created a model for how to unify a community and create an organized anti-fascist response that engages more and more residents, many of whom have no background in organizing.
What happens in Whitefish may provide a model for other small towns around the country. While Anglin has shown that the trolls can try to use traditional racist and anti-Semitic narratives to attack residents without a political backing, this climate of fear has also driven those same residents to action and to form a strong sense of community. As is happening around the country, the election of Donald Trump and rise of hate crimes has inspired new organizations to form and older ones to grow. In Whitefish, this has awakened the community and the entire state is becoming a veritable “no go” zone for the Alt Right that will have ramifications for Patriot and white nationalist groups across the state. As Anglin tries to scramble up his supporters, the anti-fascist opposition has become a wave that will make any further attempts at racialist organization fail before it begins.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1
Within my Druidic practice, there are three key properties that sit at its heart. Awen, the force of poetic inspiration, engenders creativity and nourishes charisma. Imbas, or life-force, brings health and prophetic vision. The third principle – Frith – is harmony and liberty. Each of these terms is rooted in a different language from my own ancestry; awen is Welsh, spoken by my mother’s family, imbas is from Irish, once spoken by my father’s family, while frith is from Old English – the language ancestral to that which I speak daily. Although the roots of Druidry in Welsh and Irish culture are well known, the ancient Druids practiced right across the British Isles, and the landscape and culture of England continues to speak to Druidic themes – frith being a part of this ongoing conversation. A conversation, I suggest, that speaks to our present duress.
Druids have a longstanding concern for peace. We have old stories of Druids striding out between opposing armies, helping them to reconcile, and during the Druid Revival in the 17th Century, Iolo Morganwg integrated a strong pacifist streak into druidic teaching. But there are certain problems with the concept of peace – and pacifism – as we understand them today. Pacifism is often used as a justification for inaction, or the condemnation of fellow activists. Althoughnotablepacifists are often extremely qualified in their advocacy of nonviolent resistance, such nuance is all-too-often ignored by those who believe that true pacifism means all violence is always wrong. Often coming from positions of class or racial privilege, such advocates of pacifism ignore the structural nature of violence, and instead use the principle as a stick to beat other activists of whom they disapprove, or as a prop for personal cowardice or self-interest. Making a principled stand not to fight back is one thing; ignoring the nature of the violence to which you are opposed is quite another.
It is helpful here to consider the origins of the word “peace” itself. Descended from the Latin pax, the meanings are what we’d expect – tranquility, reconciliation, silence, and agreement. However, such meanings cannot be disentangled easily from the broader social structure of the Roman Empire, under whose terms pax was sustained. The Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – was created and guaranteed through extreme and often genocidal violence; committed against any who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Senate and, later, its Emperors. Indeed, one can note that as soon as a Pax is invoked as a nation’s gift to the world – such as the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Pax Britannica that held from 1815 until 1914, or the Pax Americana under which we now live – it is more or less guaranteed that the nation concerned has achieved imperial hegemony, backed up with a vast military. “Peace” therefore has a history of concealing a backdrop of institutional violence; silent assent in the face of coercion.
FRITH IS A RADICALLY different sort of concept, because unlike pax, it directs our attention not just to the state of harmony itself, but to the wider sort of relationships that best engender it. Although frith has not survived into modern English as a synonym for harmony, the word does survive in both the words “friend” and “free”. Whereas peace is maintained through treaties, there is a sense with which frith is founded upon kinship – it is the state of harmony that should, ideally, exist between close relatives and friends. It is the active sense of safety that we work towards, ensuring that we are secure in each other’s company. It is only in such a state – wherein we are safe from harm or disturbance, due to our good relations with others – that we can be truly said to be free. It used to be the case that any enclosed sacred space would be termed friþgeard – “frith-guarded”; a place of sanctuary or asylum, where those within were free from attack. In this sense, frith is not just a social, but a sacred property – a blessed state that unites both humans and divine beings. While peace is always enforced with the stamp of a boot, frith can only be managed with friends.
The groundedness of frith in kinship and communal liberty reflects the fact that, in contrast to the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was a small-scale society; founded upon a clan-structure, and interpersonal relationships. But it would be a mistake to believe, because our society operates at a global scale, that we have nothing to learn from the concept of frith today. Indeed, I would suggest that frith transforms our understanding in two ways – both vital for the present moment.
The concept of frith points to the limitations of such a view. Being free is not simply a matter of being on your own; indeed, being abandoned to live on your own wits at the edge of the world is more akin to being an exile or an outlaw – the very opposite of frith. Frith acknowledges that true calm and equanimity emerges not when you are totally on your own, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, and hostile human beings, but when you are surrounded by those you love and trust, who can guarantee your safety and security in their company. Just as we are determined by our genes, our upbringing, and our experiences – in short, by our relationships with others – so it is through friendly relationships that peace of mind can be guaranteed. Living in a society with frith is king – a state of “freedom” in literal terms – means being able to trust, and be trusted by, all those whom you meet. In a truly free society, we are all one family.
Fr That’s your business, not theirs. Although you might be able to evade the State and other central authorities out there, you are constantly consumed by the struggle to preserve your own life, something that is your responsibility alone. Being an outlaw gives you individual autonomy, but that is not true freedom. This can only exist in the heart of the community.
In recent elections across the Anglophone world, people have voted to “take back control” from distant, sinister central government – be that in Brussels or Capital Hill. Support continues to be thrown behind right-wing parties like the Tories or the Republicans, who promise to cut taxes and restrict the reach of the state. Thinking of freedom more broadly – not simply as an absence of the state, but as freedom from fear, pain, and harm for everyone – demonstrates how hollow such rhetoric is. Though they promise freedom, what they will do is make us all into outlaws.
2 – The Importance of Friendship
Frith demonstrates another crucial consideration for the way ahead – the importance of friendship and empathy in sustaining freedom. With all the outrageous perpetrated by the Trump administration on a daily basis, any sense of harmony seems far away – and we have a long way to go to return to such a state. Getting there will be difficult, and will require a great deal of sacrifice and energy, put into building a social movement of many millions of people. Returning to a spirit of friendship and common cause will be a fundamental part of that movement’s success.
Alicia Garza, special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains this principle eloquently. Reflecting upon her own scepticism towards the Women’s March, she points out that the organisers were clearly inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge this – wrongly appropriating the work of black people. But despite this, and the many legitimate criticisms she has of white feminism, she participated in the March anyway. Anger has great power that must be acknowledged, Garza argues, but it is insufficient to take power. For that, we need a mass movement: She writes:
This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us…
…We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.
The aim shouldn’t be to reject justified anger on moral grounds – the same error that lies at the root of the cod-pacifism I describe above – but a pragmatic acceptance of the need for all of us to demonstrate leadership and solidarity within the movement of which we’re part. As Garza points out, this does not mean letting privileged people off the hook; now is not the time for white, male, or upper-class fragility. If anything, this moment is an invitation to draw even more deeply on our reserves of empathy, and being prepared to shut up, listen, learn, to yield, to put ourselves on the line, and to be held to account. Part of being friends with someone, an alchemical combination of tolerance and honesty – an ability to speak the truth, while knowing that it is safe to do so. Maintaining this kind of friendship is a vital precondition for taking power.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
The following essay was written by the late Isaac Bonewits (1949-2010), the founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF). The original version of this essay was published in The Druid’s Progress #5 in 1989, and is reposted here with permission from Phaedra Bonewits and Arthur Lipp-Bonewits.
IT’S WELL PAST time to deal with some polytheological issues that most Neopagan groups have been ignoring—specifically those of violence, self-defense, and the ethics of being a cop or a soldier in modern times. Insofar as Neopaganism is going to develop doctrines (note that I did not say “dogmas”) about these issues, ones that Neopagans can take into a court of law, this essay is an attempt at articulating the arguments that seem relevant to me.
Like many members of the Neopagan community, I grew up as part of the 60’s counterculture. Our primary interactions with law enforcement officers and soldiers were generally of the negative sort. We saw them as the upholders of a corrupt status quo, mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy while they beat in our heads or napalmed little children. Yet, most of us grew up thrilling to the adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and other noble, idealistic warriors. In later years, some of us studied the martial arts, and watched television shows such as “Kung Fu,” where the emphasis was on the lone warrior who is a master of him/herself first, and of others only incidentally.
All of these experiences gave us conflicting ideas about the nature and role of violence in our lives. Those of our generation who suffered in Vietnam or in the ghettos are much less idealistic than those of us who have only been on the dojo floor or the medievalist tournament field. Yet our common “Nam era mentality” of cynicism towards governments and generals is perfectly appropriate as a base from which to begin articulating spiritual opinions.
As we create religions for the future, we must have a coherent body of polytheological opinions about violence. These opinions must reflect our ideals, while being fully informed about historical realities, if we hope to change the world enough so that future history will not simply be a bloody repetition of the past.
THE AWARENESS of this essential conflict between practical survival needs and ethical ideals is not new. The Paleopagan Indo-Europeans (like most other peoples of the past) spent a lot of time thinking about it, and preserved their wisdom in their myths, sagas, and folktales. So before I begin to express my own conclusions about the various issues involved, I’d like to quote from Jaan Puhvel’s excellent book on Indo-European myth and epic, Comparative Mythology (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987). After repeated tellings of the standard Indo-European warrior myth as it appears in the different cultures, he has this to say (in the chapter on “God and Warrior”) about it:
Basic to that [standard Indo-European warrior] myth is a profound anomic [lawlessness, social alienation] of the human and societal condition, rooted in the use and abuse of power. Order, security, peace—positive conditions all—tend to depend for their preservation on the readiness of something that is inherently destructive, such as “security forces” or a military machine with the attendant mentality. If boosters of law enforcement like to describe their favorite agents of public order as a thin phalanx protecting civilization from anarchy, there is an even thinner line separating champion from berserk, police action from police riot. Those trained as agents of aggression and repression may experience difficulty functioning as normal human beings under great stress, or conversely when the pressure is off. Such abnormality also induces clannishness vis-a-vis the general society, “fraternal orders,” “Protective” associations, gangs, juntas, and other forms of structured apartness.
This kind of perennial tension is reflected in the ancient myths. Warlike exaltation, martial ecstasy where fury gets out of hand, is displayed by the Third Horatius, by Cuchulainn, by the berserkir. The Maruts, sodalas, fiana, or einherjar constituted bands with their own inner structure and interactional dynamics, with a collective svadha or “ethos” (the two cognates meaning etymologically “self-law, autonomy”) that was only capriciously at the call of a commanding figure such as Indra, Publicola, Finn or Odin. The warlord himself could be an equally self-willed individualist and from inspired and inspiring leader shade over into a lone-wolf kind of martial toiler (Indra led the Maruts, and yet he was also eka- “one, alone, unique,” acted yathavasam “as he chose” and had a svadah of his own). The warrior thus had an ambivalent role as a single champion or part of a self-centered corps or coterie, both a society’s external defender and its potential internal menace.
After discussing the myths about warrior kings and warrior gods, Puhvel devotes the rest of the chapter to the stories about mythic heroes, of the sort that many Neopagans who perceive themselves to be warriors pattern themselves after. Here’s what he has to say (with my comments in the square brackets):
A third type was the warrior who was not divine but a saga hero manipulated by deity, not a king but merely in royal service. This is the kind most marked by a tense relationship to the environment where he operated, to his divine and human patrons and his social constituency at large. He had no agglomeration of transfunctional attributes to lose [as the warrior kings and warrior gods did], but he nevertheless managed to offend (or was perceived as offending) all segments of the social order by a structured set of misdeeds. With his flawed willfulness (or perhaps his “programmed,” predestined, predictable nature) he compromised his career by nadir episodes that involved impious/unjust/sacrilegious, cowardly/under-handed/unwarriorlike, and covetous/venal/adulterous acts respectively [the “three sins” against the three Indo-European social functions of legal and spiritual rulership, courageous defense of the community, and prosperity and fertility]. The varieties described are found in epic, saga and folklore, from the fells of Scandinavia to the jungles of India, from the Bay of Bengalk via the Gulf of Argos and the Tiber to Galaway Bay. These kinds are not extinct — they were spotted not long ago on both the Mekong and the Potomac [and in Central America, Afghanistan, Africa, Moscow, Iraq, etc.].
All of the points he makes are directly applicable to a discussion of Neopagans in the military. As I have said many times, “one of the primary tasks of the clergy has always been to ride herd on the warriors… Since the primary threat to life on this planet now comes from out-of-control warriors, it’s time we started taking that duty seriously again.” In this particular time and place, that riding herd process requires confronting some unpleasant and unpopular truths. We can no longer ignore the issues involved. Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts:
I perceive important distinctions between “warriors” and “soldiers,” with the former word having positive meanings for me and the later negative ones. In order to define my terms clearly, I will now oversimplify:
A “warrior” is a person who has been trained to use violence both effectively and selectively, but who refrains from doing so except when she/he perceives a genuine danger to her/himself or to others in the community whom she/he deems worthy of protection. She or he strives to use exactly the minimum amount of violence (if any) of whatever sort is necessary to defeat the danger, and is willing to risk her/his life in the process. A warrior prefers to see the face of his/her enemy, and takes personal responsibility for the ethics of his/her behavior. While she/he may enjoy her/his occupation and may experience and appreciate the thrill of battle, she/he does not enjoy or disregard the emotional and moral effects of killing. Warriors will compete with each other, not just to hone their combat skills, but to emphasize their individual identities. Courage, honor, integrity, and self-awareness are the ideals I associate with this image of the warrior.
A “soldier,” on the other hand, I perceive as a hired killer, whose primary task is not the defense of his/her community, although that claim is usually made, but rather the defense of that community’s political, social, religious, and economic rulers. A soldier enjoys being violent, especially when she/he has superior odds, and often becomes addicted to the battle frenzy (berserkirgang) experience—many to the point of receiving sexual satisfaction from the destruction they cause. He or she will kill any man, woman, or child that he/she is ordered to kill, simply because he/she was told to do so (as with the Russian airmen who shot down K.A.L. flight 007, or the American seamen who blew up that Iranian airliner). A soldier is perfectly willing to kill at a distance, without ever seeing the faces of his/her victims, and even when she/he sees them up close does not consider them to be “real” human beings (but “Huns,” or “Japs,” or “Gooks,” or “Micks,” etc.). A soldier considers rape and plunder to be a natural right in time of war, even if the war is against citizens of his/her own country. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this essay, a soldier takes no responsibility for the ethics of his/her actions, since she/he is “only following orders.”
To transform a person from a civilian into a soldier, it’s generally necessary to extinguish her/his individuality and integrity, and to replace them as much as possible with group identity and unthinking, machinelike obedience. (Robert Anton Wilson has an excellent, and somewhat terrifying analysis of military basic training as a classic “brainwashing” process in Prometheus Rising.) This obedience to authority, obsession with “winning,” and emotional insensitivity to the impact of his/her behavior on the lives of others, are the ideals of the soldier. Of course, most generals and admirals will tell the general public (and their soldiers whenever the public happens to be listening) that the warrior ideals are the ones that soldiers do and should have, but this publicly presentable official message is easily drowned out by the other messages delivered during basic training, and quickly vanishes in any real war zone.
These opinions come from growing up reading about Nazi war criminals, seeing films of soldiers dropping napalm on small children, studying the history of the European, American, and Russian Empires, going to high school near a major military base, reading reports of the Gulf War from foreign newspapers, etc. and comparing the data gained from these sources to the idealistic legends mentioned earlier.
BUT IN ORDER to avoid monotheistic dualism here, lets create a value spectrum with the above defined “warrior” on one end, and the “soldier” on the other. Most modern police officers, security guards, and members of the armed forces will fit somewhere along the line between the two extremes. About the only ones who will come close to being real warriors will be those individuals who have dedicated their lives to the Martial arts, and a few political, ecological, and social activists.
(Since some people like to play games with the phrase “martial arts,” saying that anything having to do with the Roman god Mars should be counted, including soldiering and C.I.A. assassinations, let me emphasize that when I say “martial arts,” I’m referring to Tai Chi, Akido, Karate, Kung Fu, etc. as well as similar practices from non-oriental sources, when followed as a philosophy and a way of life.)
Perhaps we need two more axes of polarity here, a vertical one for degree of sanity or insanity, and another going off at right angles to the first two, for ethicality and unethicality of character. Warriors going berserk or cops rioting against a group of [Editor’s note: The noun here was missing from the original essay; I believe it would have been “civilians.”] would go near the insane end of the sanity-insanity scale, while a C.I.A. hitman or the members of a S.W.A.T. team trying to eliminate a sniper might belong near the sane end. Of course, that hitman would probably belong on the Wrong side of the ethical-unethical spectrum (depending on his/her target?), as would a Mafia hitman, Nazi Storm trooper, or a Russian airman dropping napalm on children in Afghanistan. As American Neopagans, we might decide that the soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War were ethical to do so (English Neopagans might disagree) or those in the U.S. Cavalry during the “Indian Wars” (unless you’re part or all Native American, or have studied the history carefully, in which case those same soldiers become grossly unethical), etc.
Many of these judgments are difficult to make, especially if you belong to a multivalued, pluralistic religion such as Neopaganism. But it should be clear that, despite the conflicting ideals discussed earlier, not all warriors are ethical and sane, and not all soldiers are unethical and insane. Nonetheless, I will make the argument, for the rest of this essay, that in our time it is far more difficult for a soldier to remain both ethical and sane from a Neopagan point of view than it is for a warrior to do so (law enforcement officers wind up in the middle — as usual).
Let’s get down to some ethical/spiritual nitty-gritty:
It is wrong, under any and all circumstances, to drop napalm on kids, or to machine-gun women with babies, or to launch a missile towards a building full of elderly people.
It is wrong to kill a total stranger, simply because his/her politicians disagree with yours as to the best way the two of you should be swindled.
It is wrong to kill, maim, and torture people in order to maintain the wealth and power of multinational corporations, or of a dictator, or of the leader(s) of one’s religion.
It is wrong to defoliate thousands of acres of forests or jungles, or to poison rivers and wells, or to bury millions of land mines in areas where civilians will die from them for decades to come, or to disseminate new diseases.
It is wrong to teach dictators how to more effectively torture, rape, and enslave their own citizens (or those of neighboring countries), no matter what benefits our own political and economic masters might gain.
It is wrong, for any reason that a human is capable of inventing, to create, maintain, or use weapons that can kill every man, woman, child, plant, and animal on Earth, raping our Mother to death with nuclear fire. Our planet can survive a hundred or even a thousand years of domination by any “evil empire.” It won’t survive World War III. To assist in any way, shape or form in killing the entire biosphere (at this point the only one we know exists) is the ultimate blasphemy which a worshiper of Mother Earth could commit.
I could not live with myself if I did not know, on a gut-level basis, that these things are Wrong. All the metaphysical and theological and political excuses in the world cannot change these crimes into acts of virtue or heroism.
Yet each of them is an action that any member of most modern army, navy, or air forces (especially those of a “superpower”—what they used to call an “empire”) can expect to be ordered to commit, sooner or later. The excuses will be grandiose, the justifications noble, and the instructions quite clear: “Do as you’re told—that’s an order!”
EACH AND EVERY ONE of these actions is one that I expect a Neopagan (or a sane, ethical warrior of any other faith) to refuse to perform, even at the risk of court-martial and execution (that’s easy for me to say — all I have to worry about is execution, legally or illegally, for the “treason” of voicing these opinions). Thus, I believe that Neopagans, whether Wiccans, Druids, or members of any other variety of Neopaganism, have no place in a modern superpower’s military.
The Coast Guard or a state militia might be an exception to this basic principle, except when they are performing functions unconnected to actually defending the lives of the populace, but one would have to evaluate each such organization and situation individually. I know that the National Guard in California, for example, actually spends most of its time fighting forest fires, but I remember when it was used against antiwar demonstrators back in the 60’s. The kids who shot the kids at Kent State were members of the Ohio National Guard. And lately the Coast Guard has been spending most of its time busting drug smugglers (which gets us into the topic of Neopagans and law enforcement, to be discussed later in this essay).
As for those Neopagans who are currently in the military, and who are sensibly unwilling to risk death by firing squad (or by “accident”), I believe that you should attempt to get out, by any comparatively ethical means necessary, as soon as you can. If escaping really is impossible (and not just bloody inconvenient), you should try to get transferred to units where your activities will be only remotely connected (they can never be completely unconnected) to those of others actually committing the crimes of the sort mentioned.
The question of whether or not we should have Druid or other Neopagan chaplains for Neopagans who choose to join or remain in the military is a messy one. If, as I believe, you’re not supposed to be there in the first place, what role does a chaplain have other than to betray his/her faith by telling you it’s OK? Would the military allow a chaplain who went around persuading folks to quit? The suggestion that Neopagans, whether chaplains or laity, should be in the military in order to enlighten the armed forces from within is absurd — as soon as you got close to actually changing people’s minds, you’d be arrested for “subversion.” Offering more enlightened alternatives to a superior officer is as likely to get one branded a “bleeding-heart liberal” and ignored, as it is to change anyone’s opinions—not to mention destroying your military career. A discussion of Neopagan chaplains is quite moot, however. The U.S. military in 1987 commissioned its first non-Judeo-Christian chaplain (a Buddhist of all faiths!) and is in no rush to have chaplains from any other minority faiths. Besides, military chaplains are expected to have been ordained after a period of college level training in an accredited institution that would have prepared them for full-time, professional clergy work — and we don’t have any accredited Neopagan seminaries yet and are unlikely to for several years.
As for young people facing the draft, I say you should refuse to register, or emigrate elsewhere as soon as your government actually starts taking kids. If you do register, do it as a Conscientious Objector (and be prepared for a long, messy fight). If you don’t register because of your religious beliefs, expect to be discriminated against when applying for school loans, etc.
I CAN STILL HEAR THE screams from when I first published these thoughts, from Neopagans in the military: “How dare you tell us what to do!” “How can you make our ethical decisions for us!” “You commie-hippie-weirdo-freak!” “Your subversive and ‘unpatriotic’ stance is what undermines the strength and character of a country.” “Who made you the spokesperson for all Pagandom?!”
Well, nobody did. Nonetheless I have the same rights as anyone, polytheologian or not, to express my religious opinions. And as a “spiritual leader,” I have an obligation to be truthful about my beliefs. Every other major religion in the world has doctrines about these issues. It’s about time we started working ours out.
As for the Norse warrior types in our community, I can only say that the better (sane and ethical) old Norse heroes would have had nothing but contempt for modern military procedures (although I suppose some of the Vikings might have approved of the raping, looting, and pillaging parts).
“But what about national defense?” I hear some of you asking. Well, if the Chinese come swimming across the Pacific Ocean with atom bombs clenched between their teeth, or the Mexicans come charging over the border with their third-rate weaponry (we’ve never let them have more than they needed to keep their own people properly tyrannized), attacking San Diego and El Paso, I suppose even I might concede to a necessity for some sort of National Defense. But my response (“If I were King of the Forest!”) would not be to whip out weapons that can kill thousands or millions of innocent bystanders, but rather (if physical violence really were necessary) to unleash professional assassins against the individuals in the invading country’s government who are responsible. Of course, this sort of measured response, aimed directly at the genuinely guilty parties, is simply “not done.”
I’ve had several acquaintances, who used to be in military intelligence organizations, independently tell me that U.S. spies advised our government back in 1938 to assassinate Adolph Hitler before he got too dangerous. This plan was vetoed on the grounds that fighting a war by assassination was likely to get our politicians assassinated in retaliation. So to save the lives of a handful of politicians in the US and Europe, millions upon millions of men, women, and children died. A direct result of that war was the invention and use of the very weapons that threaten our planet’s survival today. Frankly, I would rather have lost twenty or thirty politicians.
None of this deals with the ethics of assassination, of course (which would require a full discussion of situational ethics). And so far, American government assassins have proven much more effective at eliminating democratically elected (but economically threatening) leaders (both foreign and domestic) than at killing genuine threats to world peace. Also, it’s been pointed out that making assassination the primary means of international conflict would lead to the creation of ever more fascist police states in order to protect the politicians. Nonetheless, I would far rather live in a world where wars were fought personally by the people who benefited most from them (the generals, the politicians, the dictators/kings, the billionaires, the commissars, etc.) than in what we have now: those folks pulling puppet strings to make the rest of us dance, and die, to their tunes.
But that’s a fantasy. We are stuck with what we have. The CIA and all their other alphabet comrades take their orders from the powers-that-be in each nation/corporation, not from ordinary citizens like us, despite the supposed oversight exercised by governmental committees composed of people we may elect. This may not change in our lifetime. So even if you could convince yourself that murder is sometimes ethically justifiable (a tricky proposition at best), a career in these agencies is going to be no more ethical than one in their associated armed forces.
BUT WHAT ABOUT the theory of the “just war”? That always comes up in these discussions. I say, it’s a just war if you defend yourself when the KKK attacks your farmhouse and tries to shoot your husband and kids, burn down your barn, and rape your cow. At that point you’re ethically, morally and even legally (outside of New York City) entitled to defend yourself and your family from “a clear and present danger.” But when the Front for the Liberation of XYZ attacks its country’s Gestapo in an effort to free prisoners who are being tortured for trying to organize labor unions, and the Russians or the Americans (or the British, the Israelis, the French, the Chinese, etc.) send in tanks, bombers, napalm, and experts to train the Gestapo in better torturing techniques—no, that’s not a “just war” for the invaders—no matter what impact the results might have on the President’s or the Chairman’s Swiss bank accounts, no matter what noninterference might do to the next quarter’s profit margin or the current five year plan, and no matter that the XYZ Liberation Front may be just as unethical as the folks they’re fighting.
The overwhelming majority of wars that have been fought in America’s brief history, like those of other nations, have had little to do with “preserving human freedom.” Our Revolution and the War of 1812 were fought so that a bunch of wealthy, slave-owning men (George Washington and friends) wouldn’t have to pay taxes to England, at least as much as they were for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of (male, land-owning) happiness.” The Civil War was an economically based battle between the Second Wave industrial North and the First Wave agricultural South, with the freeing of slaves an afterthought done more for its devastating economic impact than for any concern for human rights. The genocide campaigns against the Native Americans, the multiple invasions of Central America, the Spanish-American War, etc. were all done for the purpose of gaining physical territory and/or exclusive trading “rights” (“Hi, give us all your natural resources at dirt cheap prices or we’ll kill you!”). The First World War was for the benefit of the banks and the munitions manufacturers (who also had a hand in setting up W.W.II).
Even I have to admit that Hitler’s Germany needed stopping, although I’ve already indicated one way it could have been prevented—by all the Gods, it could have been prevented by the W.W.I victors simply not having been so nasty afterwards! While the Japanese in China and Korea were just as horrible as the Germans in Europe, the war in the Pacific was the direct result of the Japanese and American Empires disputing territory thousands of miles from either’s home turf (neither of them really had any “rights” to the Kingdom of Hawaii). The wars in Korea and Vietnam were also territorial grabs. We wanted to make sure that prime agricultural land (before defoliation, the Mekong Delta used to be called “the Bread Basket of Southeast Asia”), rubber plantations, tungsten mines, offshore oil deposits, etc., remained under our control (or that of our “friends”), rather than let the rival Chinese or Russian Empires have them. Not to mention the wonderful locations for air, land and naval bases close to our rivals (no “Monroe Doctrine” for our competitors, no-sir-ree, just for us).
The Persian Gulf War was fought for the benefit of multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royalty, the boys in the Pentagon who wanted to try out all their new toys (especially the desert warfare machines), and a President who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a wimp. A quarter of a million men, women, and children died—the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians—as a direct or indirect result of American and other Western European military actions. This was as many as died in the Burning Times (the Renaissance witch hunts) we Neopagans talk so much about as an archetypal atrocity. Yet the man we supposedly fought the war to dethrone is still running his country and only a fraction of his military personnel were killed.
None of this should be surprising, except for those who believe their high school history books, the stories in the mass media, or their old drill sergeants. Every Empire in history has acted this way: The Russian Empires (both Czarist and Communist), the Chinese ones, the British, etc., going all the way back to Mesopotamia, have all grabbed as much loot as they could and have made up whatever excuses, if any, their soldiers needed to hear. In most of the modern empires, however, it has become necessary to claim that one’s invading armies are not conquering turf, but are liberating toiling masses instead. China doesn’t commit genocide in Tibet, it “educates people away from their superstitions.” The American Empire doesn’t prop up sleazy dictators who are killing their own citizens, we just “help friendly governments to maintain a strong defense against communism/terrorism/international drug cartels.” The Russian Empire didn’t invade Afghanistan to gain access to the Middle East and create another buffer state around its former national borders, it was “helping a friendly government to maintain a strong defense against capitalism.”
The bottom line of all this political discussion is that governments—all governments—habitually lie to their citizens and the rest of the world, especially when planning and executing wars. The only thing that makes ours any better is that the U.S. was founded by a bunch of agnostic, skeptical Freemasons who didn’t trust governments very much—including the one they were founding—and who tried to see to it that intelligent people could keep the corruption and tyranny down to a dull roar. But that’s impossible if citizens naively believe whatever their government tells them is true, routinely obey whatever orders they are told have come down from on high, and object to essays like this one being published. I’m not the first to point out these unpleasant and “treasonous” truths—Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken, and other famous/infamous people repeatedly remarked on the gullibility of the general public when faced with official versions of reality.
PEOPLE NOT ONLY tend to believe what they’re told when governments are leading young men off to slaughter, they tend to actively disbelieve any evidence to the contrary. Historians now know that the Lusitania, supposedly an innocent cruise liner whose sinking by the German navy was one of the primary incidents that led the U.S. into entering W.W.I, was indeed carrying ammunition to the British, just as the Germans claimed. Evidence has accumulated that the U.S. Battleship Maine was blown up by American spies in order to create an incident to goad a reluctant public into the Spanish-American War. John F. Kennedy, who was beginning to de-escalate the Vietnam War, was “coincidentally” assassinated, then replaced with someone who was quite willing to keep the war going as long as it was profitable. All this has been published over and over again, in scholarly journals, in the back pages of newspapers, in obscure political magazines. The mass slaughter of civilians during the Persian Gulf War was broadcast live by CNN! But very few people read or view these unpopular facts, and most of those who do, don’t believe them, since they contradict the history books, the government, the press, and the military. Those who do believe them are so cynical that they don’t think it really matters—after all, what’s done is done.
In one sense they’re right. We can’t change the past. All we can try to do is to remember as many of its lessons as possible. Among those many lessons are (a) governments seldom are willing to pass up any opportunity to gain greater power, (b) governments always become more powerful in wartime, and therefore (c) there is a built-in incentive for governments to be in a constant state of war. So we not only have to watch the scoundrels in our own government, but those in all the others as well.
How does all this political skepticism tie into Neopagan ethical approaches to military service? Very simply. When our government tells us, or anybody else’s government tells its citizens, that a war is necessary for “national defense,” the odds are a thousand to one that the government is lying. For the individual member of the armed forces, murder, rape, and pillage, whether direct or by remote control, become even harder to excuse when you haven’t even a shred of hard evidence that the crimes you are being ordered to commit are actually going to protect your loved ones at home from whatever theoretical threat is being waved in your face. What you can be sure your crimes will do—up to the point where someone starts W.W.III—is to fatten several national leaders’ Swiss bank accounts, generate enormous profits for the arms industry in all the countries involved (the same companies in Europe sold weapons to all sides in both World Wars, and are still doing it today), get rid of a lot of surplus teenage males (always a threat to the inner stability of any culture), totally wreck whatever environment your war takes place in, and thoroughly mix the gene pools of the survivors.
None of these results, except the last, is one of which Neopagan polytheology can approve and there are plenty of other ethical (and much more pleasant) ways to mix genes.
A few folks have mentioned that military personnel have the “right” to disobey “unlawful” orders. While true, this ignores the fact that many unethical things are perfectly legal, under civilian or military law, and that refusing to obey a direct order based on this right is far more likely to get one court-martialed and/or shot than it is to prevent a crime being committed. Your superior officer will merely order your replacement to perform in your stead. As for an obligation for American military men and women to serve as “world peacekeepers,” (1) I don’t recall them being elected to or asked to fill that role by the rest of the world, and (2) the U.S. government has been extremely selective about where and when and how it fulfills that “duty.” By some odd coincidence, it always seems to depend on American political polls and corporate profits.
So I’m forced to repeat my earlier conclusions. Despite all the traditional arguments about “just wars” and “national defense” and making the world safe for democracy/capitalism/communism, etc., a soldier, sailor, marine, or air fighter in a modern superpower armed forces organization is holding down a job where he/she has agreed, by the very act of signing up or letting him/herself be drafted, to commit or support acts of a grossly unethical and immoral nature whenever he/she is ordered to commit or support them, for reasons that will usually be equally unethical and immoral. That makes superpower military service (and that in many smaller nations) a “wrong livelihood” for a Neopagan. Period.
What about other forms of “serving your country”? If the government decides that all citizens must spend a year or two working as firefighters, or conservation corps members, or hospital workers, or street pavers, etc., then such service may be perfectly ethical and moral. An argument can even be made that such community service is a genuine moral obligation (nobody, except absolute Libertarians, likes parasites very much). However, if such service becomes “alternative service,” meaning that you are filling a job position so that someone else can go commit crimes in your place, then you haven’t escaped the ethical and moral issues, however worthy the service you are performing might be.
I’d like to emphasize that I am not saying that Neopagans in the military are “bad people” or “lousy excuses for Pagans.” Many very good people join the military for reasons that have little to do with wanting to kill. They join because of various psychological goals they think the military will help them accomplish (though military service often makes personalities more dysfunctional, not less), to get specific job training (though they usually get cheated in this area), to earn tuition to pay for college later, to travel around the world (…”visit exotic places, meet fascinating people, and kill them”), or because they genuinely believe that they will be helping to “defend their country” or be “world peacekeepers” by becoming part of the military machine. If you grow up believing everything that the government and the mass media tell you, this sort of innocence is understandable. Neopagans, however, are usually far too intelligent and well-read to be that naive.
What I am saying is that Neopagans now in the military, or contemplating being there, should think long and hard about all the issues and arguments, official and unofficial, overt and covert, genuine and fraudulent, before they decide to stay or join — not just swallow whatever propaganda they’ve been fed by career military people or right-wing politicians.
NOW, ABOUT THOSE PAGAN COPS: As I see it, the major polytheological point in evaluating the morality and ethicality of law enforcement has to do with the nature of the laws that are being enforced. This requires a discussion of two terms from the field of criminology, “crimes with victims” and “crimes without victims.” The former are the obvious ones: murder, rape, arson, theft, fraud, most traffic laws, etc. and some subtler ones such as bribery, graft, etc. The latter are activities in which there either is no victim at all or in which the primary “victim” is the criminal: the vast majority of sex, drug, and gambling crimes fall under this classification. In essence, Judeo-Christian preachers who have been unable to convince their congregations to stop “sinning” have used their political power to get the civil governments to declare various sins to be “crimes.”
It seems clear to me that no culture can survive for long if it allows crimes with victims to take place without efforts to prevent the crimes and/or punish the criminals. It seems equally clear that the legal creation of “crimes without victims” is a complete violation of the principle of separation of church and state, but such is not unusual. A Neopagan cop who is devoting his/her career to working on a homicide squad, or investigating arson, or solving rapes, etc., is behaving in a perfectly appropriate fashion for a Neopagan. Contrariwise, if she or he is arresting prostitutes, or busting gay couples for sodomy, or destroying pot fields, then she/he is not acting in keeping with Neopagan beliefs, but is instead using the force of the civil government to impose Judeo-Christian (and corporate) values on the general populace. That’s not only immoral and unethical, it’s unconstitutional as well. Unfortunately, in order to get promoted to a position where you can concentrate on crimes-with-victims, you usually have to spend several years enforcing victimless crimes.
The other major sorts of crimes without victims are the political ones. In these “crimes,” generally useful laws are reinterpreted to forbid what are supposed to be constitutionally protected protest activities. And this is where we get into gray areas of interpretation. If a hundred thousand people are marching down a street protesting a government policy (i.e., exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances), it’s immoral and unethical to attack them with billy clubs and police dogs, even if you think their opinions stupid, ignorant, or “subversive.”
These distinctions can be fairly clear. But if someone from an ecological action group has decided to destroy bulldozers, or sink whaling ships, or dump bags of red paint on members of a government commission who are neglecting their duties to protect endangered species — then we have a problem. Their activities are clearly illegal, and are indeed crimes that have victims (the developers, the whalers, the bureaucrats), yet they are being done to prevent even greater crimes, ones that many Neopagans would also oppose. Personally I cheered when I heard about the “eco-guerrillas” who sank the (empty) whaling vessel in Iceland, wrecked the whalers’ mainframe computer, and destroyed their freezing units. By committing crimes against property, they saved the lives of scores of whales who would have been slaughtered by that machinery. But approving of people “taking the law into their own hands” for “a greater good” gets us, as I was swiftly reminded when this essay first saw print, into yet another moral quagmire—one that opens the door to all sorts of abuse by special interest groups, such as “pro-lifers” murdering doctors, or right-wing Christians persecuting Neopagans, or anti-pornography feminists forcing bookstores out of business.
Unfortunately, when one becomes a law enforcement officer one swears an oath to uphold the law as written. One isn’t (officially) allowed to pick and choose which laws she/he will enforce and which she/he will ignore. Of course, every cop I’ve ever known did, in fact, pick and choose on a daily basis, simply as a matter of necessity in big cities (where there’s too much crime going on for the police to stop all of it), and of tradition in small towns (where the local cop or sheriff is often judge, jury, and punisher as well). However, as a law enforcement officer, one is supposed to enforce every law as it currently exists, no matter how unjust, stupid, immoral, or ecocidal it might be. If a Neopagan takes that oath, she or he is going to be in spiritual trouble sooner or later.
Yet, unlike the average member of a superpower military force, a cop routinely acts in a genuinely heroic way. The highway patrol keeps the drunks and crazies from killing the rest of us on the roads. Homicide detectives try to find murderers and stop them. SWAT teams capture or kill insane people who are shooting passersby. Cops pull people from burning cars and buildings, rescue drowning children, give mouth-to-mouth and CPR to collapsed victims of heart attacks, and risk their lives every day they go out onto big city streets.
If we had a legal system that was sane, rational, and upheld the separation of church and state, and a political system that was not terrified of its own citizens, then the career of law enforcement might be a completely honorable one, all the time, for a Neopagan. As it is, Neopagan cops must constantly be making complex ethical and moral decisions about their own behavior as cops. If one can find a section of his/her law enforcement agency where he/she can be exclusively involved in solving and/or preventing genuine crimes with victims, then one could have a long and honorable career. But if one is a general duty officer, then sooner or later he/she is going to be ordered to arrest people he/she thinks are harmless, simply because they’ve violated some Judeo-Christian taboo. Thus, being a cop can be a right livelihood for a Neopagan, but its a hard road to walk.
Nonetheless, there are advantages to the Neopagan community as a whole, in having cops around who know that Neopagans aren’t baby-killing monsters. Certainly the fundamentalist cops are working really hard to convince the rest of their colleges that Neopagans are no different from the “sincere sociopath” Satanists who do commit atrocities. Having some knowledgeable members of our community be also part of the law enforcement community can only improve communications between all of us.
HAVING SAID ALL THESE negative things about soldiers and cops, just what sorts if warriors do I approve of? Well it should be obvious from my earlier remarks that I believe that martial artists are worthy of admiration, as are spiritual warriors in the Native American style (though that phrase, like “shaman,” has been badly abused by New Agers and Neopagans alike). I also approve of Earth Warriors or “eco-guerrillas,” such as the members of Earth First! and the Sea Shepherd Society, who are willing to risk their own lives to protect our Mother, as long as they remain careful not to kill people in the process of their monkey-wrenching. I think that private citizens who fight for freedom and our constitutional rights, through such groups as Common Cause, People for the America Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, etc. are heroes (if not necessarily warriors) worthy of our admiration.
What all these warriors and heroes have in common, and what I think is fully in keeping with the warrior ideals of our Paleopagan ancestors, is a belief that process is as important as results. To a martial artist a dishonorable victory is not a victory. Eco-guerrillas try very hard to avoid endangering human and animal life while they are destroying ecocidal machinery. The legal action groups mentioned use constitutional means to defend the constitution, even though they know that their enemies will not.
And let us not forget the heroism of many people who do not think of themselves as warriors. The woman who pulls a plow because her children are hungry and the horse died, is a hero. The man who stays awake night after night nursing a sick child, is a hero. The nonviolent activist who lays her body down in front of a bulldozer or a truck carrying toxic waste, is a hero. The antinuclear protester who is willing to go to jail for his or her beliefs, such as Starhawk, is a hero. Many of these people are, in their own ways, warriors of whom we can be proud, albeit their opponents may be either abstracts (such as hunger or death) or specific corporate or governmental individuals.
A genuine warrior confronts her or his enemy as another human being, not as a faceless stranger or a nonhuman “thing.” A genuine warrior is willing to risk his or her own life, job, reputation, family relationships, and more, to fight for what he or she believes is morally and ethically right. A genuine warrior does not push a button to kill hundreds of civilians ten miles away, just because some bloody politician told him/her to—because that is terrorism (violence being used against someone who can’t fight back, showing a wanton disregard for human life), not heroism. A genuine warrior knows that her or his greatest challenge is internal, rather than external.
If any of us wish to call ourselves “Warriors for the Gods” or “Defenders of Our Mother,” then we must be willing to pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to the causes we claim to believe in. Anything less may be good on its own merits, but is not true warriorship.
Thor, Indra, Athena, and Kali are not impressed by fancy costumes, expensive weapons, or self-serving excuses. They are the ones who will judge whether someone is really a Neopagan warrior or a blowhard—not me, not the Druids, and not the Neopagan Community. So if we are going to have Neopagan warrior cults, their organizers are going to have to have their acts together. Each of them should select a cause with which most Neopagans can agree, then train themselves to fight for it effectively (not just romantically—but that’s another whole essay), and begin the process of fighting. Just sitting around drinking beer and swapping war stories/myths is not going to be enough to gain them any respect or support from the rest of us. Putting their bodies on the line for Our Mother will.
Isaac Bonewits was one of North America’s leading experts on Druidism, Witchcraft, and the Earth Religions movement. A practicing Neopagan priest, scholar, teacher, bard and polytheologian for forty years, he coined much of the vocabulary and articulated many of the issues that have shaped the Neopagan community in the United States and Canada. He is the author of the classic Real Magic (1971, 1989), as well as Authentic Thaumaturgy (1979, 1989), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca (2006), Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism (2006), The Pagan Man (2005), Real Energy (co-authored with Phaedra Bonewits) (2007), and Neopagan Rites (2007). He is survived by his wife, Phaedra Bonewits, and his son, Arthur Lipp-Bonewits. His collected writings are archived at Neopagan.net.
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MAYBE YOU’RE the high priestess of a coven or the chief druid of a grove. Or you find yourself at the head of a Pagan seminary, a news site, a blog portal, a Pagan convention, a witch tradition. Maybe you’re the owner of a publishing house or a witch-shop, a teacher of seminars or on the board of a non-profit. Or maybe you’re just an activist or a well-known writer with a huge audience. Regardless of how you got there, whether or not you ever intended to find yourself in a position of ‘leadership,’ you’re there.
I won’t talk about the responsibility such influence comes with. You probably see it already. If you’re like me, it maybe even scares you a little. You maybe didn’t ask to be here, and definitely not during the rise of far-right nationalism in the United States.
Most of you tend to lean towards the liberal end of things, and probably don’t like the new president. Maybe you voted against him, or even protested against him last weekend. You’ve also probably noticed that the people who look up to you have some pretty strong opinions about him as well.
More than likely, you didn’t start out on your path with the goal of advising people about politics and have no desire to start. If you’re a teacher or founder of a tradition, you were probably thinking you’d mostly just show people how to learn magic or talk to the gods. Or maybe you just showed up to help out and suddenly find an entire group relies on you, or started writing and found thousands of people now read you.
I’m not suggesting you change that, but I do have some things I’d like you to consider.
I won’t pretend I’ve got answers to the nightmare sweeping across the United States, the same authoritarian and racist current threatening the stability of European countries as well. I don’t have answers, but I do have insights, as do the other writers here at Gods&Radicals, and I’d like to offer some of them to you in this letter.
First, though, I’d like to suggest we consider several ways in which Pagan leaders have previously related to the government in the last few decades, and the problematic way we’ve thought about religious freedom until now.
Religious Freedom and Government Alliance
THE UNITED STATES Constitution guarantees the right of religious practice and expression free from government interference. Of course, that guarantee has never really quite been true for minority religions, so Pagans have used several strategies for expanding these protections.
Anti-discrimination lawsuits, for instance, have been quite useful in expanding the rights of witches and Pagans to practice, not just for the plaintiffs. Creating legal precedent has a powerful effect on businesses and government institutions: it can change the way they hire and treat employees, because few ever want to be sued.
However, litigation can only do so much, and often comes with negative media attention. More so, courts often require proof that the practices in question are actually-documented or prescribed practices by clergy or other religious institutions. This requirement has led to a significant move to formalize and institutionalize Pagan belief in such a way that it would meet the requirements of the courts.
A similar strategy has been employed to aid Pagan, Heathen, and witch prisoners in US jails, soldiers in the US military, as well as the clergy who hope to serve them. Without official doctrines and federally-recognised religious institutions attached to the beliefs in question, the government (and the courts) often refuse to extend protections to individuals requesting them.
One negative consequence of these strategies has been an increasing move of younger people away from established Pagan groups. Many practice witchcraft because of its embrace of individual will and history of anti-clericalism; as Pagan and witch groups have become more formalised, they begin to resemble the very thing that many of us came to Paganism to escape. If you are wondering why ‘solitary’ seems to be the most common Pagan affiliation, you need look no further than the institutionalization of Pagan and witch traditions.
Another consequence is more immediate with the change in government within the United States. Many of the moves to extend religious freedom to Pagan-aligned people have the effect of giving tacit support to government policies. This is seen most in the long campaigns to get Pagan, Heathen, and now Druidic symbols on the headstones of soldiers. While it certainly is a benefit to the families of dead military personnel to see that the deceased religious practices are honored in their death, Pagans in those same traditions who deeply disagree with American foreign policy and imperialist conquest now find their own beliefs associated with the military.
PAGANS HAVE BEEN AS TAKEN-IN by the belief in Liberal Democratic progress as the rest. Though some warned against trusting too much in the government for our protections and freedoms, it’s completely understandable that few of us heeded those Cassandras. Many signs seemed to point towards an increase in freedom and tolerance of all peoples and beliefs in the Western world; parallel victories such as the end of anti-sodomy laws, gay recognition in the military and gay marriage certainly suggested things might always be getting better for everyone.
And to be clear, all these strategies to increase the freedom to practice Pagan beliefs were based in good intentions. However, any good magic practioner knows that intention without discernment can lead to some unexpected–and often dangerous–consequences. Though there was likely some hubris involved in the decisions of Pagan leaders to use these strategies, I don’t intend to cast blame upon them. I’m more interested in what we can do instead, now that we find ourselves governed by a virulent strain of nationalist, dominionist, racist, and fascist ideology.
Pagans are likely in danger, some much more than others. Pagans of color, queer and trans witches, disabled and the politically-radical folks amongst us have the most reason to fear. If you are not already convinced of this, there’s little I can do to persuade you, but if you need more proof, ask them personally. They’re the most educated regarding the sudden changes in the political climate in the United States, and I suspect some would be happy to teach you what they’ve learned.
While they will not be the first to experience suffering, white Pagans won’t be spared either, unless they choose to make certain alliances with the new government. It’s the same opportunistic option that exists for most whites; side with the powerful above you, claim the identity politics of whiteness, and you might survive. To do so, though, you’ll betray all the intersecting relationships you have with those for whom this isn’t an option.
For Pagan leaders, particularly, this would mean throwing vulnerable people under the oncoming fascist bus in order to save yourself and your groups. Such a decision might look like an attempt to preserve witch, Heathen, Druidic, and Pagan beliefs in the face of government repression, but it would also mean permanently transforming those beliefs into something none except perhaps Stephen McNallen might recognise.
Understandably, you’re probably reluctant to become politically involved right now. In fact, if you head a non-profit religious organisation, you’re barred by law from getting involved in electoral politics through your position. You’ve probably already made a habit of steering clear of all other political engagements as well. However, if there was anything to be learned from the failure of the Democratic party to defeat an unqualified tyrant’s presidential ambitions, it’s that electoral politics are no longer even useful.
Traditional political engagement isn’t necessarily what is needed, anyway. Just as the last few decades of Pagan attempts to increase religious freedom came with some unfortunate consequences, openly urging your groups towards direct political struggle now could mean serious backlash.
The best leaders follow. They listen to the people who look to them, rather than accumulating authority and power. Those of you who find yourselves in positions of influence who haven’t come to this truth likely will soon, or find your influence and relevance diminishing quite quickly. I don’t mean that as a threat: it is an inevitable process, affecting politicians, bosses, activists, and religious leaders equally.
What Can We Do?
I have suggestions, informed by my understanding of our situation and the feedback I hear from the readers of Gods&Radicals. Take them as you will, leave them if you must. As you are no doubt aware, I’m an anarchist, so I won’t be telling you what to do. I do have some requests, though, and I hope you’ll consider them.
1. Support and Defend Vulnerable People in Your Groups
AS I MENTIONED above, certain people are more likely to be in danger now than others. This is especially true for nonwhite, gender-variant, trans, queer, disabled, and politically-radical folks. They will be in danger not just from government policies and decisions, but from what appears to be a rising tide of far-right/fascist organising.
Supporting them may mean just listening to them as they try to work through the fear and terror of this new political order. It may also require physical support, help with access to medications, legal defense, and even safe-havens.
Supporting them may also require defending them. This hopefully will not mean physical defense (though it may), but it will definitely require defending them against ideological hatred. A floodgate opened with the recent electoral campaign: it’s become ‘okay’ to degrade women, Blacks, queer, disabled, and trans people in many social circles, and this may only increase. You can weigh in on the side of vulnerable people, using your influence against rising hate.
This may mean alienating some of your audience or members of your group, some who hold rather extreme opinions about minorities. The decisions you make regarding this are vital, and will reverberate far past private and personal interactions.
2. Be Secretive, But Don’t Go Silent
THE “BROOM CLOSET” is a thing in Paganism and witchcraft, one that’s helped protect people who face discrimination for their beliefs in jobs and communities. If you’re one of the leaders I’m talking to, you’re probably already out. Please resist the urge to go back in.
A brief Google search of my own name reveals quite a bit about my polytheist, druidic, and witch beliefs, as well as my political affiliation. That puts me in obvious danger if the tolerance of our beliefs changes in this new political climate, both from Christian dominionists and alt-right fascists. After all, I am the managing editor of a left-wing Pagan publisher. That’s not gonna make me lots of friends with fascists.
Your visibility and risk may be less. It might also be more. Either way, going silent, though it might give us some modicum of protection, will cause others to do the same. It will also mean isolation of those who are looking for guidance, wisdom, and hope at times they might need it most.
There are very good reasons to keep certain practices and beliefs quiet, and silence and secrecy are core values in many traditions. Those are important, and I do advise being more cautious about what we tell the world we do. In fact, the more gregarious and self-aggrandising marketing antics of some puts many people in danger.
We can be both secretive and visible at the same time. Those of us willing to risk public attention can help draw attention away from those who need to stay out of the public eye.
3. Avoid Alliances With The Government
THE PAST THREE decades of political and legal work to gain recognition for our beliefs and traditions has come at an unfortunate cost, and that cost will only increase under a hostile government. Beyond the institutionalization which chased thousands of people into solitary and isolationist practice, it has made many groups beholden to government policy.
The situation for non-profits and religious organisations is particularly dire. Groups (including Gods&Radicals) which rely on tax-exemption to raise funds for their work or to own land where they teach, meet, or practice could be pressured to comply with new laws. In many countries and in some jurisdictions within the United States, for instance, mosques have been pressured to report on the political activities of their members. It isn’t unreasonable to see such a thing extended to other minority religions in the United States, and the consequences should be obvious.
The strategy of securing government recognition for our beliefs in order to protect ourselves may have been useful in more tolerant times under more sympathetic governments. Those times no longer exist.
4. Build Networks of Support Across Traditions
WE’RE ALL an argumentative lot, and that’s one of our strengths. But where fighting between factions turns into extreme isolation or even hatred, our fractiousness will only endanger us.
Many attempts to create inter-faith or cross-tradition institutions have been made in the last few decades. They all failed spectacularly, often because they were top-down and attempted to codify doctrine and even speak on behalf and define entire beliefs. (You may remember: I’ve helped stop several such attempts myself.)
Instead of hierarchical groups claiming authority over Paganism, we need horizontal networks of communication and mutual support. We need this more than ever, particularly to support groups more likely to be targeted than others. Such networks would insist on the complete autonomy of each group and must be founded on the two principles of mutual aid: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” (For more on these principles and building solidarity networks, see this guide.)
AS WE WATCH the world we thought we knew begin to transform into a world where our beliefs are again no longer tolerated, where are fellow practioners are targeted for the color of their skin, the expression of their sexuality or gender, or their physical ability, we must take seriously the influence we’ve accumulated.
Whether you ever meant to be seen as a leader or a guide, you’re there now. What you do with that influence will matter greatly, both to those who look to you for help and those outside looking to harm.
Imbolc comes upon us very soon. What is that Brighid teaches more than anything else, except that we need the light of others by which to see?
Be that light, please.
Rhyd’s a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He writes here and at Paganarch, or you can also read about his sex life on Fur/Sweat/Flesh, or see his oft-shirtless selfies and read his near-daily “Anarchist Thought of the Day” on Facebook. You can also support him on Patreon. He lives nomadically, likes tea, and probably really likes you, too.
Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.
I’M SITTING IN a gay bar in Austin. We’ve just ended a planning session for an LGBT rights action by a group that claims to be independent, non-partisan, and strictly focused on queer and trans equality. Someone there is from the soft-Trotskyist International Socialist Organization. They commit the ISO as an co-endorser on the spot. Someone else talks about how they just paid their first month’s ISO dues. The website for the LGBT organization has bios for many of the leaders; most of them just happen to contain the phrase “…is a member of the International Socialist Organization.”
Not everyone in the set of organizational networks and social scenes we call “the US activist community” calls themselves revolutionary. However, those that do have a rainbow of radical organizations to join, with more shades of anarchism, socialism, and communism than most people will ever hear of. Given the radical population’s limited size, competition is fierce, both for already-converted leftists and the as-yet-uninitiated.
However, these organizations are faced with a problem. Few people get involved with activism because they want to be recruited by an ideological formation; issue-based work is what draws the crowds. So what is an ambitious, forward-looking sect to do?
I’m sitting in a meeting with the leaders of a left-wing transgender group I’ve been working with for months. In theory, it welcomes adherents of any philosophy, so long as they’re for socialism. However, I’ve noticed that the group seems to be focusing an enormous amount of time on projects initiated by a tiny Maoist sect. A few weeks earlier, the trans organization had denounced an anarchist bookstore (and anarchism in general) when the bookstore told the Maoists they couldn’t recruit there. The Maoist group and the trans group seem to be co-sponsoring all of each other’s events, too. I ask what’s up with that – aren’t we supposed to be non-sectarian? I’m told that any trans radical, Maoist or not, can join and “struggle their line” (Maoist jargon for “advocate for a political position”). However, they claim, anarchists who join “tend to stop being anarchists,” and they admit they’d sanction any member who publicly disagreed with their official positions for being “unprincipled.”
The nature of a sect is to treat its own existence as self-justifying. The opinions of its members are uniquely true, and that qualifies them to lead the people. It doesn’t matter whether the ideology is vanguardist or anarchist, communist or liberal. A sect is a sociological phenomenon, regardless of the particular jargon it uses. Instead of emerging from the real-life struggles of working-class communities against business and government oppression, sects work out in advance how things are “supposed” to go. When real life doesn’t cooperate, they become marginal. Sometimes that’s self-imposed: they might ignore causes they deem impure. More often, though, it’s because most people can smell bullshit. They don’t appreciate the self-appointed “leadership” of a groupuscule with a messiah complex. By themselves, few sects would be able to attract enough support to sustain themselves for any length of time. At the same time, they’re often astute enough to notice the radical potential of movements not of their own making (not to mention those movements’ often-substantial popular support).
So, a solution begins to present itself.
It’s 2005 and I’m talking with someone who wants to organize a high school walkout. The call is from what’s ostensibly a big-tent movement to “drive out the Bush regime.” Of course, the anti-Bush flyers and walkout information aren’t all this person has – they’re also passing out materials that explain that to really beat the Bush agenda, the only solution is revolution. And serious revolutionaries know, of course, that we need serious revolutionary leadership. Luckily, the organizer has found that leader: a dorky-looking white guy from Berkeley who likes it when you call him “the Chairman.”
Most activists get involved in the scene because they want to do work on one or another specific cause. The bulk of that work happens under the auspices of narrowly-focused, single-issue nonprofits. Logically enough, it’s therefore to those that activists generally look. Tight-knit ideological sects can rarely fill a room. So, they imitate the NGOs that can. A front group is independent in form and subordinate in practice. Because of that subordination, it necessarily has little internal democracy. Luckily for their parent groups, though, neither do other nonprofits – a well-organized front looks at first glance like any other activist campaign. From a rank-and-file activist’s perspective, there are only a few meaningful differences.
Every nonprofit is, in practice, a profit-generating capitalist company. Sectarian fronts are no exception. However, their parent organizations’ ostensible commitment to revolution (not reform) creates a unique internal contradiction: where most NGOs pay lip service to “deep and systemic change” and try to sell you the notion that their work is directly contributing to that, for the front group “radical change” comes from joining the parent organization. They simultaneously hawk reform and the belief that reform is, at best, inadequate. Of course, if they said that too openly, they wouldn’t be able to do their job. Imagine if Refuse Fascism were to say outright: “to really oppose Trump, you need to join the Revolutionary Communist Party”—how long do you think the flow of recruits and foot soldiers would last?
And so, these groups end up in a position where their purpose (recruiting for the parent organization) and their methods (agitating, liberal-style, for specific reforms) are ultimately at odds. If one should join the Party (or anarchist anti-party) and reject reformism, then why get involved with a single-issue reform project? If reform campaigns are correct political practice, why sign up with the would-be revolutionary leaders?
Clearly, something has to give. Usually, it’s honesty.
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told.”
IF MOST revolutionary groups could successfully appeal to the general public under their own banner, they would not bother creating front groups. While front groups do attract many more people than their sponsors, simple membership in a front is not generally enough to get most people comfortable with the “leadership” of (say) Maoists or Trotskyists. Were the front’s leaders to entirely conceal their affiliation with the sponsor, however, they wouldn’t be able to use the front for recruiting. So, what do they do?
When one asks, it’s always an innocent coincidence that the front’s officers all just happen to be members of whichever party—there’s nothing dishonest or undemocratic if members of that party, by chance, are the same ones who are doing the front’s wonderful work, because they’re just so selflessly committed to the cause. Without that ambient mendacity, the entire sect/front scheme would collapse. Deniability only works if it seems plausible.
And that has a broader effect on the organized Left. Why should revolutionary politics mean zero transparency, no public dissent from within a group, and general evasiveness when asked for too many details (like what the actual membership numbers are for any of the self-described “largest revolutionary organizations in the US”)? The use of front groups helps normalize the sects’ loose attitude towards the truth.
Through their fronts, supposedly anti-capitalist organizations enter the fundamentally capitalist NGO world. They compete in a literal marketplace, selling their political work to consumers in exchange for donations and volunteer hours. Why does everyone pay lip service to “left unity,” then split and squabble in practice? Well, how much unity would you expect between Pepsi and Coke? They’re fighting for each other’s customers. Sure, this disrupts the movement the sects all claim to want. But as any socialist should know, material interests have a way of edging out subjective beliefs. For instance, working-class people have a material interest in collective empowerment through solidarity. Because that inherently puts them into conflict with capitalist businesses, business and the state must spend astronomical sums each year on propaganda, miseducation, union-busting, and advertising to convince them otherwise. Since Left sects operate as businesses in spite of their intentions, reality pits them against their own stated goals.
Actually-existing revolutionary activism is profoundly counter-revolutionary.
“For them the sect is not an unfortunate necessity due to the absence of a real movement: it is their movement…they are not inhibited by the prejudice that a ‘party’ needs much of a rank and file.”
It won’t be controversial to admit that the activist subculture is not very appealing for most people outside of it. Even those of us in it know how deeply off-putting it is when the newspaper-hawkers or urban guerrilla wannabes show up. Now, there’s plenty going on there – the “movement’s” subculturalism and middle-class, anti-worker orientation have many sources. Most of those were not caused by the behavior of revolutionaries. After all, it’s not socialists who invented the politics of insularity and performance, or who put academia at the activist world’s center (although they’ve certainly come to embrace those phenomena).
But that’s not good enough. Revolutionaries need a higher standard than being only second-tier offenders. If conduct across the activist community turns people away from progressive politics in general, then bad revolutionary behavior not only contributes to the overall problem, but also undermines socialism in particular. The self-serving dishonesty of front groups provides one particular example. Others follow from the culture of dissimulation and sectarianism that the front group model helps create and reproduce.
The consequences of sectism extend beyond the sects themselves, too. Currently, the sects maintain a functional monopoly on the ideas of socialism, communism, and anarchism. When they drive away people who should be natural comrades (and everyone who’s ever been screwed over by the boss should be a natural comrade), they don’t just discredit themselves. They discredit revolution. They make it even harder than it needs to be to create a mass socialist movement. And while plenty of them will agree that the organized Left is rife with bad behavior, few of them see the problem as sectism and frontism per se. Rather, they blame it on all those other sects, whose particular shibboleths about Russia, China, and the best forms of socialist heraldry are just so wrong. As David Rovics sings:
“I am not sectarian. It’s all the rest who are. I work fine in coalitions – as long as I’m the shining star.”
So what’s the way out? Should revolutionaries just sit mass movements out? Should we quit organizing?
THERE ARE healthy, helpful, and honest ways to do revolutionary organizing. You don’t have to be an inward-looking, deceptive sect to do radical work. Instead, we can do things to build institutions that empower the people without hurting our cause more than we hurt capitalism:
Tell the truth. If a supposedly independent organization is actually a front, say so! Don’t humor its leaders (and sponsor). If a group is acting badly, acknowledge it, even if you’re a member. Don’t go along to get along. Organizational secrecy isn’t always a matter of security culture. Don’t pretend it is. Lying and tolerating lying are never radical. Sure, most groups that fetishize their own lack of transparency likely don’t have skeletons quite as horrific as the rape scandals that have torn through the Socialist Workers Party (UK), the International Socialist Organization, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back). Even so, the underlying logic of deception is the same, and there are many shades of destructive misconduct.
Don’t confuse ideology, identity, morality, and class. What’s the point of being a revolutionary? It’s to build up power and freedom for the exploited through participatory democracy, in the economy and everywhere else. The point isn’t to get your ideas perfectly right and denigrate anyone who disagrees. If someone’s ideas are the same as yours, it doesn’t automatically mean their conduct isn’t harmful. If someone has a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean their ideas are necessarily correct. If someone disagrees with you, they may still be a good and ethical person. And class—one’s position within the economy, in which only those who own businesses have real power and exploit everyone else—is something else entirely. We can’t afford to try for a movement of the insightful and correct. Instead, we need to organize the working class (broadly defined) because that’s what has the structural ability to change the system. Now, if that is to happen, then all types of bigotry and oppression within the class must be challenged and uprooted, or else the revolution will never succeed. Working to break down racism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia/transphobia are central forms of class struggle. However, you don’t have to understand that to be part of the working class. You just have to be someone who does waged (and/or unwaged) labor and lacks the structural power of business ownership. The basic question is always: “Do you have power over business, or does business have power over you?”
Class beats subculture. The ability to challenge the ruling class does not come from suffering or being marginalized. It comes from collectively doing the work that creates everything. (That includes not just goods and services sold on the market, but also the everyday work of reproducing the social fabric. Even unemployed and unemployable people do that. You don’t have to have a job to be a worker.) Conversely, the ruling class – the business owners – has power over that work and the people who do it. Therefore, the working class has a material stake in changing the system (it currently does everything and controls nothing). Further, it has the ability to actually do so if it acts collectively: by starting to do that work in a democratically self-determined way, ignoring the ruling class’s orders, and defending itself when the ruling class tries to force it to obey. We should be in this to win, not to perform righteousness. That means we must be ethically upright, but without confusing morality with anything but itself. That also means that while organized revolutionary groups may or may not serve a useful purpose in a given situation, they’re never the point. They aren’t inherently valuable (and what matters is whether you treat them as ends in themselves in practice, not whether you affirm it in words). Frontism, naturally, implies the latter. That helps kill movements before they can be properly born (or worse, twists them into something actively dangerous). After all, the activist subculture fixates on correctness of ideas rather than working-class power for a reason. It’s dominated by professors, students, and nonprofits. Academia is capitalism’s idea factory, and obsessing over rightness makes perfect sense for professional academics. After all, their job is literally to prove themselves right and their competitors wrong! Their market share, their career success, depends on it. So, it’s only natural that they act as if staking out your one and only truth and trying to exile everyone else is a sensible strategy. But in real life, it’s not. Don’t buy it when someone claims it is.
Participatory democracy beats being right. Don’t mistake radical words for authentic radicalism. A shibboleth is never helpful. A sect is just a shibboleth with an organization as its body. A project is useful only to the extent that it’s controlled by the people who benefit from it and by the rank-and-file people who do the ground-level work. Sure, express your revolutionary beliefs while you build institutions like that. You can even (if the circumstances warrant) establish a formal group with others. But you’re one participant among many, not a vanguard. Your ideas don’t give you the right to take over.
Don’t tolerate entryism. What is entryism? A working definition is the way some ideological sects infiltrate larger organizations with an eye towards taking them over. Entryism means turning a pre-existing campaign into a front group, instead of starting one from scratch. It’s rampant – the entire socialist, communist, and anarchist spectrum is rife with it. It’s also inherently dishonest and antidemocratic. Those who engage in it are revolutionary in words and reactionary in deeds. And seeing it happen without publicly naming it and working to stop makes you complicit.
Pluralism is revolutionary. When everyone working on something agrees with each other, or shares a limited personal background, the project is weaker for lack of dissent and experimentation. Front groups and sectarianism inherently incline towards that weakness, as does the toleration of racism, sexism, and chauvinism in general. Don’t engage in those. Don’t accept them. And conversely, don’t turn your particular ways of opposing them into shibboleths that lead to exclusionary moralism, either. As Pagans, we know how sterile narrow orthodoxy is. The Left needs to learn it too.
Do you want a revolution?
Be honest. Be ethical. Be pluralist and democratic. Don’t put up with front groups or sectarian nonsense – unless you’re fine with an insular, hostile, and elitist subculture. As we can see, that state of affairs is only good for perpetuating itself. Of course, that suits the ruling class just fine. They want an opposition that undermines itself.
We can do better. After all, we have a duty to win. So let’s get our act together – the coming years under President Trump will give us much less leeway to screw around than we’re used to.
We can’t afford to wait.
Sophia Burns is a polytheist, Kybele devotee, and communist organizer in the US Pacific Northwest.
Sopia Burns was published in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. That issue is available here.
Like this piece? You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.
How An Occult Metaphor Can Help Us Understand this Decaying Landscape
DURING THIS STRANGE and difficult time, I have, as a spirit worker, attempted to draw connections between the past, present, and future, connections which could shed light on how things got this way. In the process I came across the following reflections. I would like to share with you my thoughts on how occult forces can emerge in the human psyche , and how that can have political implications.
There is something eerily familiar about Donald Trump. When I watch him I feel a lot of things…fear, rage, sadness, anger….and something like déja vu.
How could he seem familiar?
I have never met him, and though I have known countless assholes in my life, there is something unique about Trump when it comes to vileness. But what is this elusive quality? There are countless blogs and rants about this vileness, and all are justified, but I feel we need to look deeper, and ask hard questions about where this vileness comes from.
The problem is that everyone already seems to know how vile Donald Trump is, even his supporters, and yet none of that stops him. He has made every error, every mistake. He has had every embarrassment, every misstep. He has every flaw a politician could have. Huge parts of the Republican Party hate him. With all this, how does this man keep going forward like an armored car?
That brings me back to why he is so familiar.
I am a 30 year old transgender Occultist who was initiated by spirits 9 years ago. My path involves Scandinavian magick, Spirit Work, Ordeal, and my devotion to the Thelemic goddess Babalon. As a result of how these currents have shaped me, apocalypse–and the behaviors its various babbling illusionists–has become a lifelong study. And throughout that journey I have encountered another being like Trump.
A creature that is fragile yet indestructible: harmless yet containing the worst venom that exists, narcissistic and yet containing no singular self. A creature that says the most offensive things, and yet makes himself seem authentic. Who makes every mistake and yet seems perfect, who disregards all wisdom and knowledge and yet seems to have some strange elusive genius. A brutal method to the madness, a terrifying mesmerizing dance of order and chaos….but with the positive parts of order and chaos neutralized, leaving only a colorless entropy that atrophies and decays everything it touches. A being that you could argue with for hours using flawless debate skills only to find you have accomplished nothing because the whole debate was a distraction.
The dweller in the abyss, Choronzon.
BUT PLEASE LET me be clear, this is not a conspiracy theory rant. This is not about the illuminati or how Trump deliberately invokes this being in secret. I do not think he is part of some vast plot involving the antichrist, or that he is a distant relative of (name of random Occultist), blah blah. Such thinking is problematic and is often based on seeing connections where none actually exist. (Douglas Rushkoff called this “fractalnoia” )
I instead prefer adopting Terrance Mckenna’s attitude: no one is in control. But if we stop there, we may be missing the point.
The biggest missing piece in this dizzying hailstorm of false flags, fake news, and misleading theories is an actual understanding of chaos itself. Chaos is not an unfortunate accident caused by bad apples of Eris thrown into congress, it is a force of nature, like any element. It is the margin of error lying slyly in the periphery of every well-made plan. Chaos is the mad tumbling out of every factor we can’t calculate. Nevertheless, there are steps a magician, or an activist, could take to revere, respect, and dance with this force. Unfortunately, many activists and magicians do not revere, respect, or dance with this force, and instead take it for granted, underestimate its power, and pretend to have mastered it.
It is exactly this kind of hubris that makes one vulnerable to infection by creatures like Choronzon.
I hope you will forgive me a personal gnosis or two, and trust that I speak from real experience, when I say the following: Choronzon is not a being that needs to be summoned in order to manifest. If we look for him only in ritual actions and ancient tomes, we will completely miss the dark carnival of his other manifestations.
He can be seen in mania, crystal meth comedowns, schizophrenic states, hallucinogenic panics, and, yes, he can very much be seen in the empty-headed blathering which fills CNN day in and day out. You can see him in monkey dust and emergency rooms, in television commercials and hear him in stupid radio jingles. To borrow some phrasing from a chaos magician I have always deeply admired…Choronzon is the ego eating out its own brains, interrogating itself endlessly in an internal monologue with no end.
Choronzon is a self-obsessed entropy which seeks to form a perfect circuit, and a perfect prison. Choronzon is a demon, yes, but dealing with him forces one to throw out the entire playbook of classic demonology, because he’s not about seals, or summoning, or glyphs, or rituals, or reductionist psychology. You may, after an entire day of preparatory rituals, finally decide to confront him, only to realize he has been watching you the entire time. It is my deep conviction that our very culture is infected with this force, and that that is what makes it monoculture.
So the question of the hour is, what makes my personal gnosis so special? What proves that I am not just another ‘guru’ cluttering up the already troubled landscape of occultism with unproved theories? Well, true to my form as a spirit worker, I can only answer this challenge with a story.
I had a psychotic break in my early 20s, due to a number of issues. Some of these were ritual cult abuse, hormone problems, initiators with hidden agendas, a recently discovered patrilineal demon, extreme stress, and high priestess disease.
In other words, I was unstable to begin with, thought I would explore occultism, and fell down a rabbit hole. But rather than my breakdown being the logical sum of a series of quantitative ‘bad things’, it was more like a discordant orchestra under a hailstorm. The worst thing was not the discordant noise, but the fact that something was conducting it, and how relentless and persistent the conductor was. One way of framing this is that it was the beginning of my walk onto the madness road of northern tradition shamanism. That is very true, though putting it that way, ironically, makes it sound like a heroic epic quest that made some sort of linear sense…. A sort of Oddessey.
Yes and no.
Where the conductor took me, a story would have been a luxury. Emotions, actions, meaning, boundaries, form, dreams, icons, symbols, all these things became distant luxuries in the conductor’s meaningless discordant world. During much of the 8 year ordeal that followed, politics was little more than an ambient noise. My endless desire for healing, for answers, consumed me utterly. It was only through my experiences with Madre Ayahuasca in 2011, and through the enormous generosity and wisdom of her healers, that I exist at all.
Throughout the integration of this story, I have had no choice but to build an intricate map of the Dweller in the Abyss, written in the scar tissue of my stitched-together psychic body. Written in diaries of runes, collages of mental hospital paperwork, and countless cathartic therapy sessions. Through this, I have concluded that, though Choronzon is real in every possible sense, he is also an essential component of the human psyche, and an unavoidable challenger to anyone who seeks enlightenment. I will not insult this beautiful monster with reductionist western psychology and its “archetypes,” nor will I treat him as something which sits neatly contained in some Occult ritual instructions. He is in us all, and he is out there too.
CHORONZON is a temporary personification of the raving forces that occupy the abyss. They are impossible to define because their behaviors almost completely depend on the content of the magicians mind. And we cannot remove Da’ath from ourselves anymore than we can live without throats. If a zen master encounters Choronzon, he will see Maya, the lord of illusion, but is likely to remain calm. If a meth addict sees Choronzon, he will see the most horrifying devil imagineable.
In this regard it’s important to not see Choronzon as essentially evil, because such a label would imply attachment to a static identity and thus a kind of predictable order. That being said, the vast number of experiences with him, in spite of their variation, have one common thread: he challenges. He tests. He demands payment for entrance to his realm and he demands tolls for the crossing of his bridges. And by challenging, he initiates and offers a path to enlightenment. But keep in mind, this path is the most brutal, painful and difficult way to become enlightened.
Mocking this being would not harm it, as it had no ego to defend. But as long as I had an ego it could mock me. It was not egoless, because all its poisons pushed me away from enlightenment. I could easily prove it wrong, in fact proving it wrong was the easiest thing to do, and yet every time I proved it wrong it changed the subject, snuck around and mixed up the whole paradigm. This always gave me a sense that no matter how good my argument was, I would realize halfway through that it didn’t matter. Then I realized that following its train of thought was missing the point: it wasn’t about whether it was right or wrong, it was about how I chose to interact with its babbling. Eventually I realized that all its babbling was a distraction and a device to exploit my attachments, anxieties, and fears.
Above all, this being’s strongest tendency was towards extreme, polarizing chaos. But all that chaos concealed a group of core tendencies which remained constant and strangely orderly. Those core tendencies served the purpose of driving my psyche to extremes: I would either be utterly destroyed or I would gain a power greater than I ever imagined. In Choronzon’s realm they could make anything possible, except enlightenment, healing, or freedom, because Choronzon is incapable of imagining anything outside of themselves. This is why detachment, unconditional love, and surrender always defeat them. They are not just chaos, they are entropy and negative disorder, as opposed to positive disorder which I define as healthy rebellion and creative inspiration. None of the chaos of Choronzon nourishes the creative impulse, it destroys it ( unless you win the jackpot of passing through the abyss.)
When I went from mental health peer support to Thelemic study, I found writings on Choronzon and felt chilled to the bone. Words like decay, entropy, babbling, madness, jumped out at me. I devoured every bit of info I could find and everything resonated. Its modus operandi in literature was an exact match to what I thought had been my personal schizoid tormentor.
The crucial point was that the only way to beat this thing was to focus on what was real, true, sacred, and good in yourself while knowing that whatever Ch said was just a distraction . Ch would say vile things, hoping the mage would take them personally, or engage in passionate argument, or otherwise stray from the path. eventually Ch would, like a virus, run its course, run out of energy, and disappear.
It has been said that when there is no way out, there is often a way through. Surrender was my way through. I took the approach that when choronzon started saying vile things, I would focus on what was sacred and good about myself while holding space for the vileness to just Be. I loved Choronzon unconditionally as my sacred inner monster. This healed me.
HOW THIS RELATESto Trump is tricky. I dont want to take the most painful divisive issue of the decade and apply some generic new age wisdom to it. Admittedly, there are huge ways these beings are different. The only way to overcome Choronzon is to hold space for his vileness to run its course while holding on to everything true and sacred within oneself. This is a kind of surrender. In the case of Trump, such a strategy would seem irrelevant and pointlessly sentimental. However, I dont think this is because of a lack of connection between the two. I think it’s because the Occult world and Matter based world have very different rules.
If Choronzon somehow incarnated in a physical body, the practice of surrender would have to be re-evaluated and physical self defense would be a vital concern. That being said…there are many martial arts which take spiritual disciplines such as surrender and give them kinetic form. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, for example, often counsels yielding to the opponent’s momentum in order to throw them off balance, almost as if they are harming themselves. The form taught to me focused on conflict resolution, de-escalation, and using an opponent’s aggression against them. Japanese jiu-jitsu uses leverage, physics, and a strong understanding of human anatomy to neutralize an opponent’s rage. All of this is done without sacrificing any component of effective self defense.
It is a complex issue. We should be angry, should engage in argument, should fight Trump with everything we have. On the other hand, Trump rallies are like an abyss…and like Choronzon, he stands as a temporary personification of its raving forces. It is thus important to keep in mind that defeating Trump would not slay the monster, as it is much larger than him. In order to kill the hydra we must go for its heart. We must understand on a deep level who and what he is and where his power is coming from. When he speaks he is legion, and that legion is an ocean of ignorance, desperation, reaction, and fear. It has all of the markers of a cult…but its not a conspiracy. its far more simple, and far more awful.
Choronzon gives shape and form to the ugliest, most poisonous side of the human psyche. Choronzon babbles endlessly but never says anything, values nothing but is always wealthy, commits atrocities and perversions but makes himself appear traditional and honest. The ultimate shapeshifter, a paradox. Those infected by him rapidly lose sight of what is real, truth begins to seem relative and all that is left is helplessness, desperation, and empty reaction.
This is not an argument for pacifism. Trump is racist scum and if he died tomorrow the world would be a better place. That being said…the body of humanity is poisoned and Trump is just the most obvious symbol of that sickness…just as Choronzon is just a name in a book describing an ocean of monsters whispering in the dark.
I theorize that Trump and Choronzon are similar and different because they both are central characters in two different abysses. Terrance Mckenna believed that there were four abysses within a fifth. The four are:
the biological abyss, represented by death
The historical abyss, represented by the apocalypse and ‘end of history’
the psychological abyss, represented by visionary experience
the physical abyss of outer space.
The above four are within a fifth abyss, which Mckenna described as “unspeakable.”
In other words, Trump is a kind of Choronzon of the historical abyss, and whereas surrender is an extraordinarily effective technique in dealing with the psychological abyss, the historical abyss requires a different approach. At this stage though, it is very hard to be sure what that approach would be. Every act of violence against racism is always necessary and always sacred.
But I would also say that that sacred battle could be made stronger by way of a deeper understanding of what this monster is and how it can be destroyed on a deeper level.
Choronzon and Trump, these “conductors of discord” …rule over realms with very different rules, thus a weapon used against one may not work against the other. But there is a link between them and understanding that link may, perhaps, shed some light on how we are to defeat Trump.
Just as a individual soul is in crisis when crossing the psychological abyss while being tortured by Choronzon, this country’s soul is in crisis trying to come to terms with what has been done and what must be done. Trump appears as a Choronzonic figure because in a perverse way he has mastered the divisive, polarizing language of the historical abyss. (Thus it is no accident that he is often seen as a despotic figure). I theorize that this is why those politicians who debate him based on an outdated playbook end up frustrated and confused.
We must recognize that we are not dealing with a politician. We are dealing with a warlord, and we are at war. The historical abyss is also a very hard thing to accept, and scapegoating and denial are much easier routes for the morally irresponsible. Those who are in denial want to stay in denial and like Choronzon block the country’s (in this case, metaphorically, the magician or fool’s) journey toward healing, accountability and reconciliation. America’s institutions and privileged groups have committed horrible crimes and are slowly collectively realizing they must show accountability in order to heal.
Like death, the first stage is denial, and many want to stay there. My suspicion, however, is that most of that group are of the older generation who are deeply set in their ways. Choronzon’s job is always that of blocking enlightenment and healing…so that the soul can be driven back in terror. As a Lord in the historical abyss, Trump seems to be taking the same role.
Thus it becomes clear where America’s soul finds itself: on a perilous rickety bridge over a vast abyss. An abyss filled with fracked gas, racist murdering cops, ecological collapse, and economic devastation. Can this country find its way to the other side, or are we doomed to fall into the void where Choronzon, or Trump, will rule?
I have never had much of a sense of where I belong in this landscape, but I know that I cannot allow that to happen anymore than Icould allow the abyss to destroy me for good so many years ago. Something had to change, and it did.
GG Irkalla is a 30 year old transgender spirit worker who is devoted to the goddess Babalon. She founded the collective “oly witch crew” and manages the zine “Up the Witchpunx.” She lives with her girlfriend in Olympia Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org & through www.upthewitchpunx.com
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One of my personal heroes is a bard named Barry Patterson. A blue-eyed Geordie with a magnificent grey beard and a mean turn of phrase, Barry is an animist, a poet, a drummer and a piper, a Green Man in every sense, and he is very wise. He often says to me “Jonathan, you know people always talk about the Mabinogion, the Tales of Ancient Eire, and fairy tales, and call them myths. They are not myths. They are stories. If you read Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss, they explain that myths are uniquely powerful, in a way that not all stories are – they define our ideas, our hopes, our choices: and so, they define the way our world works. Does the Mabinogion do that? Does the Tain? No. Our myths are different now. Nationalism, Freedom, Romance, The Market – most of all the Market – these are the myths according to which the modern world is run.”
Barry is, of course, quite right. These things do not have a life apart from those who believe in them – they exist only and because we say they do. They are, to use the parlance of my discipline “social constructs”: to quote Clifford Geertz, they are “webs of significance that [man] himself has spun”. This doesn’t stop them from being immensely powerful or important, of course, but we must remember that their continued existence is not natural, or necessary either.
The first and hardest step, though, is spotting these myths. Their power and pervasiveness is their cover; the fact that we rely on them so completely makes them invisible, as through their supposed obviousness they become the intellectual furniture of the societies in which we live. And the fact that these myths are so hard to spot, makes them very useful for those in power – as the Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained, the rich use their influence to promote their ideas amongst the wider population. The rich create stories to suit only their purposes, before making them into myths shared by everyone. By controlling what is “common sense” in society as a whole, the rich keep society under tight control. It is this process, Gramsci points out, that prevented the otherwise inevitable collapse of capitalist societies, and stalled revolutions throughout the 20th century – the rich ensure the intellectual furniture upon which we all sit blocks all available exits. We see this same process active in society today. When a radical challenge to fossil capitalism is considered – involving rapid cuts in carbon emissions, the redistribution of wealth, a debt jubilee, or any alternative to growth-based economics – the myths forged by the capitalist elite are used by the rest of society to defend the status quo.
One such myth is the Myth of Progress. It states that human history unfolds in something approaching a long, upward curve – with quality of life, technological sophistication, tolerance, and global harmony gradually increasing over time. Superficially, it seems quite convincing – if we compare the clean streets of present-day uptown Amsterdam, to the squalor of the Medieval city, it certainly looks as though progress has been made. Some public intellectuals, such as Steven Pinker, and Niall Ferguson, propound this view with tremendous verve, extolling the virtues of modern Western civilization while neglecting its many failings. Although there are problems all over the planet, they say, these are being dealt with and, if we just stay the course, the system we have now will solve them. Tweaks may be needed, but the fundamentals are settled. We just need to keep calm, and carry on.
This view of the past – known as the Whig Theory of History – is not given any credence by academic historians. Technological, social, moral, and emotional progress is not inevitable, nor is “progress” in each of these areas easy to define. As Ronald Wright persuasively argues, this myth tirelessly simplifies the messy complexity that underpins our present state; the pain and suffering that got us here, and the patchiness of our achievements. Furthermore, implicit in Myth of Progress is a kind of complacency – it is “we” who are the most advanced, out of all humanity – who that “we” is, always depends upon who is doing the talking. This risks inviting in a kind of hubris – it is short step to go from claiming to be the best so far, to claiming to be the best possible. It’s not so very hard to move from a Whiggish confidence in continual, unimpeded progress, to claiming – as political scientist Francis Fukuyama once did – that neoliberal democracy represents the end of history. But despite all the problems with this myth, people still believe it. Indeed, it suits the rich to tell us this – how can we oppose their beneficent rule, if we’ve never had it so good?
Of course, few people today – after the financial crisis, the many catastrophic threats of climate change, the swing towards the populist right – would claim that progress is inevitable, or that Western civilisation is the best of all possible worlds, or that Neoliberalism represents the peak of what we can achieve. The Myth of Progress has been unmasked as mere sophistry. Although this process is frightening and there are very real dangers tied to recent events: what has happened also represents an opportunity to shift the common sense of our society, and look again at the very nuts and bolts of how our world works.
Now, considering this, it seems that the shift in the past 100 years isn’t so positive. We might be growing more, but the food we’re growing is less nourishing, and the way we’re growing it is destroying the planet. If we are to protect our soils, and truly maintain a healthy population of billions of people, the key isn’t producing more food, but better food. And by this standard, global agriculture has actually gone backward since the 1930s.
Now, many of the big reasons why older, healthier varieties – tastier, more nutritious, more resilient to pests – fell out of favour was that they required careful tending, took longer to grow, were tricky to harvest mechanically, or they had a very short self-life. The number of varieties in use has gone down significantly as well. This represents a very significant risk on its own, as it means the gene pool of vital crop species is now becoming dangerously narrow – simply because everyone is using KWS Siskin wheat or Resistafly carrots. The reason why so many regional varieties or landraces have been abandoned and are now endangered is not because of their inherent value; but simply because it is more profitable for industrial producers – and seed suppliers – to limit cultivation to a small number of fast-growing, good-looking varieties; sacrificing taste, nourishment, and genetic diversity in the process.
If we care about the nourishment we get from what we eat, rather than the mere amount of stuff we consume, the current food producing regimen is not feeding the world very well. It creates vast surpluses of a small number of plant varieties that are low in nutrients, dependent on artificial fertilisers and pesticides, deplete soil and ruin agricultural productivity. So much for progress.
If we revived older crop varieties – that grow more slowly, can’t be transported long distances, but are more nutritious, tastier food – and integrated them into a highly localised, high-tech food-production system, with every city carpeted and covered with food forests and gardens, we’d be well on our way. Certain crops would still need to be grown in the countryside, but rather than ship grain from Russia all the way to San Francisco merely because it’s cheaper, we’d keep supply chains short as possible to reduce emissions, and use a varieties of crops best suited to their local climate and the nutritional needs to the local population
Crucially, this would bring people back to the soil. The “Green Revolution” has been so profitable, because it has increased agricultural outputs while reducing the number of people working the land, thus reducing the labour costs for agricultural businesses. Those who once worked the land have been corralled into cities, where they have joined the ranks of the urban poor – in the developed world, these people end up engaged in mindless, bullshit jobs; in the developing world, they slave away in factories, as in China, or struggle to scrape a living until the tension boils over, as it has in Syria. If we turned our cities into places where food was grown, new jobs would be created that produced healthy food and supported local economies, and everyone would feel, and actually be closer to the cycles of life and growth that sustain our lives – rather than believing falsely that vegetables materialise on supermarket shelves. People need to take up the fork and trowel, and return to doing what we’ve done since the Natufians: growing things.
The fact is, in Britain, we’ve been here before. During WWII, the pressure of German raids on Allied merchant shipping meant that food security became a major issue. So the government encouraged people to grow their own food under the “Dig for Victory” campaign. Although this took place under rationing, the direct intervention by the government in managing the diet of its citizens, and encouraging home-grown produce actually improved public health during the period. The problem was that it created an association in the hearts and minds of the British public between self-sufficiency, and all the hardship of war, and the interference of the state. So as soon as the war was over, people abandoned all the good habits they had acquired, and embraced the orgiastic mass-consumption that was imported to the UK by the Ad-men of the 1950s. “Dig for Victory”, as a top-down initiative unmoored from broader political and economic reform was doomed to fail. So to successfully restore our soils, we must also restore society. Nonetheless, the “Dig for Victory” campaign indicates that it is possible to place agriculture at the heart of everyday life, even for urban people, and to put the welfare of people at the heart of agriculture.
The collapse of the Myth of Progress allows us to reconsider many old certainties. For some of us, this collapse happened long before 2016 – we lost our faith in the myths of capital either through education, or through bitter personal experience, or both. But in the wake of Brexit, Trump’s election, and many other crises, it has become necessary to reconsider some of our most accepted views about the world – and look for better ones.
As Pagans, myths and stories are our bread and butter. Many people in the West are crying out for new, better stories to make sense of their lives, and to shed light on how we might move forward, into an uncertain future. In such an environment, our traditions are, therefore, necessarily political. But the stories we cast into society cannot be mere fabrications; the failure of the Myth of Progress should ward us off such abstractions. Our stories must be rooted in the Land itself, in its moods and matter. Tending the soils; making them full of life again; is but one practical step pregnant with narrative potential.
As for how that potential should manifest; I leave that to you.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.