The Inalienable Right to Persecute

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

-Evelyn Beatrice Hall

A piece on this site about the uncomfortable fact that some neo-fascists recruit through Paganism has stirred up quite some resentment.

I’ve waded through some of the back-and-forth – are Pagans inexcusably blasé towards the extreme right? Does anti-fascist zeal suppress free speech? Is truly apolitical religion impossible, or does putting the Gods first imply leaving social concerns second? Reading these arguments, I started recalling a situation from several years ago, back in college in conservative small-town Texas.

Unsurprisingly, my school hosted a profoundly Christian social milieu, including a large evangelical Protestant contingent. I was the only open trans woman there, and one of only three or so Pagans. My friend, an aspiring goði, audaciously started holding semi-public blótar on Ásatrú holidays, and a community accrued around the celebrations.

Most of us weren’t even Pagan, let alone Ásatrú. However, we all shared a feeling of alienation from the college at large: most of us were disabled people, people of color, and/or queer, not to mention unsympathetic to the hegemonic religious culture. Passing the drinking horn, we built a sense of home.

We shared campus with a sect affiliated to the New Apostolic Reformation, a theocratic Pentecostal Christian movement with a penchant for military imagery (famously documented in the film Jesus Camp). They taught that being disabled showed that God was punishing you for wrongdoing by not healing you, that LGBT identity indicated demonic possession, and that non-Christian religions represented a Satanic conspiracy. So, they chose to target us. Along with several of my friends, I found myself declared an unholy force, in public and by name, in a proclamation of “spiritual warfare.”

“Spiritual warfare,” it turned out, meant several months of organized harassment and stalking, eventually escalating to the point of death threats and (for some of my friends) physical assault. Our opposition to their divine political-religious order rendered us fair game.

I remember them whenever people downplay religious articulations of fascism.

 


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“Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.”

-Neil Gaiman

Much of the outrage at the New Right essay has referred to McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, and notions of censorship and “enforced ideological conformity” in general. If the Pagan left is really against fascism, the critics claim, then why do they want witch hunts and political purges?

The article in question actually calls for none of those things. However, that line of thought still falls back on a central moral claim of classical liberalism, the Enlightenment political current associated with the West’s electoral-capitalist governing structures. As expressed by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, classical liberals asserted:

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[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.

Mill and his 19th-century fellows mainly concerned themselves with state restrictions on religious meetings and political publications. Nonetheless, the broad acceptance of that ethic has led to its application well beyond public policy. Pagan anti-fascists say that racism has no place in our religions, but we all know that no one is about to get arrested for saying “Thor dislikes immigrants.” Censorship, properly defined, isn’t at stake. Rather, the classical liberal “live and let live” attitude has been expanded to suggest that Pagan organizations, events, and communities have no more right to treat certain ideas as unacceptable than the government itself does.

Holding this classical liberal attitude implies little about anyone’s actual political program. Generally speaking, it represents the “common sense” consensus across most belief systems in electoral-capitalist countries. Left, right, or center, virtually everybody in these societies shares the classical liberal sensibility that people should be able to form and express their own particular opinions about things, and no one has any business stopping them. But what does this outlook have to do with the fascist presence in Paganism?

 


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“To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.”

-Barry Goldwater

The goals of fascists and reactionaries of any sort (whether New Rightists or old-fashioned blackshirts) aren’t liberal in any sense. However, the Pagan far right knows that the classical liberal ethic can be manipulated for their benefit. When reactionaries invoke coexistence, the toleration of disagreement, and setting aside political differences in religious settings, don’t accept it on face value. The far right’s raison d’être is the disempowerment of social minorities. They might pursue this through racist theology in one place and street violence (or electoral politics) in another, but they never genuinely accept inclusivity or tolerance.

However, some currents – for instance, New Right-aligned Pagans – have wised up to the fact that few people who aren’t already reactionaries will accept those goals if they’re plainly stated. So, they get clever. Pagan far rightists know that most other Pagans would never agree with a policy of “whites only, no queers.” They also know that the Pagan left will never stop calling their ideas what they are: racist and misogynistic.

So, clever reactionaries triangulate. They suggest that they only want to coexist with non-fascist Pagans, but that those nasty left-wingers are trying to kick people out just for disagreeing. They invoke the classical liberal conscience of the majority and frame their practices as basically harmless, only a threat to people who can’t handle freedom of speech.

Of course, their practices are not harmless. Reactionaries aim to suppress social minorities however they can. While, through calculated appeals to “free expression,” they use liberal largesse as cover and try to discredit their critics, they keep quietly carrying out their goals all the while. Let’s glance at a few examples:

  • Folkish Heathens don’t simply advocate for the exclusion of people of color – they practice it. There is nothing abstract about the way that Folkish Heathen groups turn away non-white seekers and tell Heathens of color that they should not practice their chosen religion. While they materially enact a program of racist exclusion, though, their mainline coreligionists shield them by behaving as if the issue at hand is merely one of belief and disagreement. So, for the sake of “tolerance,” racist discrimination continues – and meanwhile, Folkish Heathenry spills over into secular political racism.
  • Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) don’t limit themselves to rhetorical attacks on trans women. For decades, TERF factions of Dianic Witchcraft have actively turned away trans seekers and told trans women that we have no place in feminism, women’s spaces, or feminist-oriented Paganism. When they hide behind classical liberal notions of “reasonable people disagreeing reasonably,” they obscure the reality of discrimination behind their words. And, of course, this also contributes to larger public policy; Goddess Movement TERFs align with secular TERFs and even, sometimes, with right-wing Christians to oppose trans rights. “Civility” is a red herring meant to obscure their actions’ destructive consequences.
  • As previously discussed on this site, the leadership of the Left Hand Path Consortium, in the name of “opposing censorship” and permitting “controversial” ideas to be expressed, invited a neo-fascist politician to speak at its conference. His graphic threats of violence eventually led them to withdraw the invitation for legal reasons, but they have already publicly equated “free expression” with their collaborating with someone who himself works with the swastika-sporting, sieg-heiling National Socialist Movement.

Each time, we see reactionaries invoking classical liberal ideas to deflect criticism, and successfully winning over large groups of non-fascist Pagans. While lauding tolerance and freedom as a defensive strategy, the reactionaries are already implementing an agenda of exclusion, discrimination, and targeted disempowerment. Further, in each case, these far rightists are translating their bases of social support within parts of Paganism into larger, secular political projects aimed at imposing their beliefs on everybody.

Most of the people objecting to the New Right essay, like most Pagans generally, believe in free speech as a matter of principle. Intuitively comparing strident anti-fascism to censorship would seem to follow from that value. Fascists, however, don’t believe in free speech. They don’t believe in free and open participation, and their invocation of classical liberal values is purely opportunistic.

Whenever fascists are tolerated, they enact discrimination. When the rest of us put up with them, we become complicit. Who actually threatens free speech and diversity of opinion: the people who actively drive minority groups away, or the people who point out how wrong that is?

The far right is counting on you to pick the latter.

 


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“I, like you, will defend the right of any American to openly practise & preach any political philosophy from monarchy to anarchy. But this is not the case with regard to the communist.”

-Ronald Reagan on the Hollywood Blacklist

Pagan reactionaries may reject classical liberal values, but they’re canny enough to manipulate them. However, they know they can’t do the same with radicals who commit themselves to explicit anti-fascism. They know that for reactionary Paganism to flourish, the Pagan left needs to be pushed out.

So, they get shrewd: invoking freedom and pluralism, they mischaracterize the left as anti-liberty and (with no sense of irony) McCarthyite, then sit back. The well-intentioned liberal majority attacks the left for them. Suddenly, there’s no need to spend much time dealing with critics. Instead, they can get back to doing what they wanted all along – implementing their policies of exclusion and building support for racist and chauvinist politics. They outsource their fights to the liberal majority.

The notion that the far left is a uniquely dangerous threat retains enormous cultural resonance. After all, it’s not as if the capitalist-owned media has much inclination to portray socialists and communists as anything but spies and traitors, or anarchists as much besides domestic terrorists. The ownership class’s use of the schools, the government, and the mass media primes everyone to distrust the left. Capitalism would rather you not take its dissidents seriously. So, when far rightists evoke these images, they do so on purpose – they know it works. They don’t themselves enjoy a dominant position within Paganism (much as they’d like to), but they get by without one. They just count on high-minded liberals to punish anti-fascists for them.

Fascists don’t need you to be a fascist. They just need you to pick the same enemies.

 


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“Opponents [of a bill dismantling anti-discrimination protections] would have condemned it, but in doing so confirmed that the modern secular left condemns all religious freedoms that impede their agenda, and that the RFRA truly has nothing to do with hate or discrimination.”

-Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow, Family Research Council

Back in Texas, my friends and I didn’t take the New Apostolic Reformation harassment without protest. We implored our moderate and liberal Christian friends to speak out against their fellow Christians’ behavior, and even took the situation to the college administration. Every time, we got the same response: the sect espoused “offensive ideas,” but we should “respect their religious freedom” and not “punish them for their beliefs.

But it was never a matter of belief. No one had to take it on faith that they were threatening us. After a while, the mix of stalking, occasional physical violence, and indifferent peers and administrators wore us down. Some of us dropped out of school entirely. At least one had a full-fledged psychiatric breakdown. I had to take a leave of absence halfway through one semester. And a couple of years later, I found out that most of the sects’ members had moved out of state together, where their group had finally collapsed, revealing rampant sexual abuse and even sparking a murder investigation. “Offensive ideas” indeed.

Most of us can quite happily “agree to disagree.” Reactionaries want you to take that attitude towards them, but they won’t extend it to the demographics they hate. Just as my school’s ignoring religiously-motivated violence allowed it to escalate, so does our tolerating ideologies of violence and discrimination enable their ongoing implementation. Sure, there will always be people with destructive worldviews, and we can’t expect to win them all over. But they can’t enact their agendas alone. Without a social climate that lets them flourish, they would find themselves entirely marginal and effectively too isolated to function.

If each one of us, far left or not, said, whenever we encountered reactionary ideas, As your coreligionist and a fellow practitioner of our tradition, these notions don’t belong here,” then crypto-fascist groups would be unable to discriminate, unable to recruit, and eventually unable to survive. They need the tacit complicity of the non-fascist majority in order to keep existing (and recruiting). Among Pagans, they’ve been getting it. Of course, the majority retains the power to reject them.

We only need the will.

 


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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.

Sophia Burns is one of the authors who will appear in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.

The Gods Don’t Give Us Meaning

 

 

What makes a god a weapon?

In front of Planned Parenthood across the street, they’re displaying neon yellow posters with Photoshopped fetuses. Standing in a semicircle, they read from their Bible, and they pray. Sometimes, they walk across the intersection to our side — glaring at our signs saying “Tacoma is a Pro-Choice Town” and “Pro-Health Pro-Choice,” blaring YouTube sermons from portable speakers, or asking us to talk. It’s like talking to cops, my Clinic Defense friends tell me; they want to get under your skin, get you upset, rile you up. Give them your story and you give them power.

I nod. I know the type: “prayer warriors,” living for the struggle. In their hands, the biblical “sword of the spirit” gets as close to literal violence as the law permits (and sometimes goes even further, as a string of assassinated doctors testifies). But today, they stick to their corner and we stick to ours. Eventually, they get bored, say one final prayer together, and pack up their signs and leave. As we start to do the same, I recite the Orphic Hymn to the Meter Theon (Mother of the Gods, Kybele), and the bearded man on my right says “blessed be.”

Every time the anti-choicers protest, they pray. Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz, “war is politics by other means” — and in their spiritual war, Jesus serves as both casus belli and favorite weapon. The sense of purpose driving their mix of legislative lobbying and personal intimidation may strike a secular progressive as nothing but patriarchy in motion, but for them? It’s transcendental. They don’t do politics (or, for that matter, patriarchy) for the sake of reforms or social classes, or for the game itself. The intoxication of divine mission overwhelms everything — including the specific imperatives that such a mission contains.

I spend a lot of time at protests and at each one, I pray to the Meter Theon. I feel deep, exhilarating joy at seeing polytheist anticapitalism become a proper movement, not just a rare and private preoccupation. But the fact that we’re here at all begs the question:

Do our gods agree with our politics? Are we, like the militants in front of the clinic, applying a feeling of divine energy to a social cause?

Now, I could observe that just as gods are diverse and individual, so too are their social demands. I could speculate that housing Syrian refugees enacts piety toward Zeus, defender of guests, or that Artemis Eileithyia, helper in childbirth, surely demands that prenatal healthcare be accessible. However, that strikes me as somehow disingenuous — shouldn’t politics and ethics fundamentally attend to the people whose needs they address, rather than to gods whom we couldn’t endanger even if we tried?

So, while my worship of the Theoi may not cleanly untangle from left-wing organizing, at the root, I don’t look to them to provide me with a social agenda. Movements aren’t made of gods. The sidewalk by Planned Parenthood isn’t the Trojan plain; we aren’t armed with Olympian gifts. Our causes matter because they matter to mortals. But across the street, they don’t agree. Ask them why they’re out there shouting at strangers; they’ll tell you it’s because they believe that the imperative to do so comes as a package deal with the sense of meaning that, they claim, only Jesus can provide.

But why should finding meaning for mortals be a god’s job?


 

 

 

“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.”

– Rev. Rick Warren, Saddleback Church

Whether we polytheists like it or not, the societies in which most of us live remain ideologically Christian. This hegemonic worldview seeps out of religious participation and trickles down into every part of our sense of the world. Christian theology dictates common sense, “normal” emotional response, and the pre-conscious attitudes and assumptions that structure every Western culture and nearly every psyche living within them.

However, dominant Christianity is itself dominated. The capitalist system — economic and political control by the business class — exercises even more power over Christianity than Christianity does over everything else. If Jesus serves a political agenda, an economist will find it faster than a theologian. So, what does a religious basis for meaning in life mean in practice?

According to the seminal sociologist Max Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” means valorizing exertion, discipline, and frugality as inherently good things themselves, rather than just as the means to an end; it’s the theology of putting in extra overtime and thinking, “I should be saving more money.” Further, he claims that this attitude could never have become widespread without the emergence of capitalism from the collapse of the medieval system.

As Weber writes,

“Calvinist believers were psychologically isolated. Their distance from God could only be precariously bridged, and their inner tensions only partially relieved, by unstinting, purposeful labor.”

Getting religion meant getting a job. From this angle, it’s no coincidence that a career path became a “vocation” — from the Latin “vocatio,” a calling. Just as a clergyperson is called to receive ordination, so is a truck driver divinely called to deliver on time, or a factory worker to stand at the assembly line, or a grocery clerk to take inventory (even to the point of using the same word!). Existential meaning, Christ, and work all melt into one.

Who, I wonder, might want to promote such an attitude?


 

 

“There is nothing in this world that can compare with the Christian fellowship; nothing that can satisfy but Christ.”

– John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil Company

As in all social matters, we should first ask: who benefits? When a worker believes that all meaning comes from Christ, and Christ says “go to work,” the boss isn’t complaining. Since the business class is currently the most powerful class, their philosophy is the most powerful philosophy, and their religion the most powerful religion. Collapsing deity, work, and purpose all together provides them with one of the weapons they use to keep things that way. And, like every ruling class, they gladly affirm Alexander Pope’s dictum (from an explicitly theological poem, no less), hoping you’ll believe it, too:

“Whatever is, is right.”

So, what makes a god a weapon? The political strength of a social class.


 

 

“On the other hand, that man is a weakling and a degenerate who struggles and maligns the order of the universe and would rather reform the gods than reform himself.”

– Seneca the Younger, Stoic philosopher

The gods with whom I relate are just as real as any human I’ve met. However, the shared characteristic of existing does not render deities and mortals interchangeable! As Seneca reminds us, while the gods may run the universe at large, human affairs stay a human concern. And what’s more human than to need to make meaning out of a finite life? In politics, as in our everyday lives, we mortals bear the first responsibility for how we conduct ourselves — the ways in which we look for purpose included. Could anything be more hubristic than demanding that the gods handle that for us? When I protest, I pray, but I don’t expect Kybele to dial in for a conference call, goals and strategy in hand. (I don’t have that sort of “godphone.”) Healthy polytheism synthesizes piety to the deities with an ethical embrace of human responsibility and freedom.

As the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declares, “I am condemned to be free.” To weaponize a god, to invoke a divine political mandate, is to deny that. So when we do politics, let’s organize for, as well as with, each other — honoring the gods is no excuse to act as if our lives, and all the meaningfulness therein, aren’t still ours.

[Image: “The Industrious ‘Prentice Alderman of London, the Idle one brought before him & Impeach’d by his Accomplice,” plate 10 of “Industry and Idleness,” engraving by William Hogarth]


 

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Sophia Burns

Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than polytheism, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, writing for Gods&Radicals, nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family.