Get In or Get Out: Side-Line Commentators Do More To Hinder Than Help
Since the beginning, Heathenry has had to grapple with racism. This isn’t something up for debate, but contemporary fact. Are all Heathens racist? Absolutely and unequivocally not. To make that assumption is to be ignorant and prejudiced in its own right. However, this fact does not diminish that the history of Heathenry and proto-Heathen philosophy is intrinsically tied to and conflated with ethnic romanticism. Ethnic romanticism, part of the wonderful leavings of the 19th century, lends itself quite well to racialist and racially-supremacist ethos. The process of divestiture is a long, arduous process, and it is not one that we in our holier-than-thou religious society have successfully managed to do. I am confident that we will do this, eventually, but it will continue to be a painful path.
Religious identity of any sort, but most especially ethnic religious identity, has problems with nationalist and right-wing ideological appropriation. Heathenry absolutely qualifies as an ethnic religious identity, but it is hardly alone in this incidence. Italian fascists make use of Roman symbols, to the point where Italian practitioners of Roman revivalist religion are forced to reference their gods with foreign (in this case Greek) names. The Greek Hellenic Dawn political party taps into a pre-Christian Hellenic romanticism in Greece. Red Ice Radio in Sweden is an ultra-Right Wing initiative that often features anti-Islamic, anti-Jewish, and Nordic-power voices which conflate their history with hate. There are Danish Forn Sed groups which absolutely believe that if one speaks English as a first language, they are not eligible or worthy of their religion. Anglo-Saxon history and religion has been twisted to suit the purposes of British nationalists, and the history of that conflation goes back to the 16th century. History, faith, and identity, have all been bent and twisted to the purpose of these ideological demagogues.
This isn’t a new thing. This is not a Heathen thing. This is not an American thing. This is not an European thing.
And, most importantly, this is not a thing which can be ignored, or silenced. I absolutely believe in confronting racism and racialist doctrine. I absolutely try to confront superiority complexes and logically undermine them when and where they are found. But, in doing this, I do not believe in silencing people for their views. That very tactic, the forced ignorance and silencing of dissenting ideological views, has failed utterly, and will continue to fail. Take post-Nazi Germany for example. Speaking of that period of history was banned out of fearful reaction, and it has permitted a culture of Neonazi ideological views to grow and spread under the guise of ‘progress’. The denial of this growth is a major issue in a country where people felt that banning overt displays of Nazism made the problem disappear.
Ignoring the problem by silencing it has never helped, and that seems to be the preferred method in dealing with this.
I’m not going to critique Stephen McNallen’s use of the term Freikorps. I’m not going to speak to his leadership of the AFA, or of previous racist and race-based statements he’s made or viewpoints he’s had. He’s known as Racist Uncle Steve for a reason in non-AFA Heathen circles, and it’s not just because he isn’t liked. His Freikorps subject has been beaten to death, and the fight which arose from that caused serious ideological spats to break out between Heathens, as well as between Heathens and non-Heathen observers. I’m not even going to critique Ryan Smith personally in this, despite the fact that I view his actions and words as the ideological equivalent of McNallen’s own style of rhetoric, and my larger problems with the regressive leftist approach which similarly silences dissenting views.
Jason Mankey said in a blog post on his personal Patheos blog that he does “not want to share an umbrella with someone like Stephen McNallen”. I will say it thus: I would not want to share an umbrella with either McNallen or Smith. For the record.
Who I am criticizing are the people who are not Heathens, who do not want anything to do with Heathenry, yet seek to either influence Heathen organizations or otherwise condemn the actions of a minority as representative of the majority. These people, whether Pagans or not, whether reconstructionists or Wiccans, or anyone else, who sit behind their keyboards on the Internet, spewing self-righteous vitriol and condemnation, lamenting the lack of action over this endemic issue while offering absolutely no reasonable alternatives and no initiative established to work against these ideologies are the people who I am critiquing. The ones who would come into a space, imperiously declare that all Folkish Heathens are racist or the Troth is racist because Stephen Abell’s views weren’t harsh enough. The ones who would characterize very appropriate criticism against them, against their torch-and-pitchforks methodology, as “attacking allies”.
Yes, Jan. That means you, you adorable clown. Those are your own words of course. I have no desire to engage with someone who insults another person simply because they disagree.
I’m going to criticize the people who took what Stephen Abell, the Steermsan of the Troth, had to say, and twist it into some kind of defense of Stephen McNallen at the expense of Ryan Smith. Instead of what it was: a calling out of Ryan Smith’s characteristic bullying that was irrespective of the views of McNallen.
So let us speak frankly. A person, any person, who shuts down reasonable dialogue and discourse (provided respect, non-threats, etc. are followed), whether they are right or left-wing, are absolutely no allies of mine. Any organization which silences criticism under the mantle of “safe-space/all are welcome” is not a healthy organization. These actions are symptomatic of the same innate problem, and they all operate within the same rhetorical conventions to silence opposing views and position one viewpoint as unassailable. This is what Ryan Smith was doing in his first HUAR release against McNallen. This is what HUAR has gained a reputation for doing. And this is what they have fractured over doing – launching inquisitions driven not by logic or an earnest desire to rectify a situation through educational understanding, but by moral superiority and a black-and-white dichotomy of belief.
John Beckett wrote “Racism Cannot Be Tolerated”. In that piece he made the claim that he was not trying to shut down and silence Abell’s voice by calling for his removal from Patheos Pagan. That he felt Abell was not representative of the ethos of Patheos Pagan and the mandate of the interfaith blogging service. We should be clear here. John Beckett was absolutely trying to silence an unpopular opinion by voicing the call to remove Abell. Abell’s view that Ryan Smith was a bully, his reticence to adopt a hardline, extreme viewpoint was this unpopular opinion. Beckett found it to be easier to try to silence an unpopular opinion, ignore the problem by hiding behind the pretenses of blogging service’s goals and mission statement, than it was to admit that the issue of racism in Heathenry is a lot more nuanced and convoluted than people would prefer it to be. He was effectively trying to force Patheos Pagan’s adoption of Smith’s viewpoint by silencing criticism, giving Smith an unopposed voice on their service.
I criticized John Beckett in the comments of his article because I did not find one instance in his blog’s posting history where he found himself at all remotely concerned with racism in Heathenry, not until he could safely do so from his blog without searching it out. There are multiple initiatives organized to combat hatred and racism within Heathenry. Some of these are sponsored and supported by the Troth, the very same organization that Abell is the Steersman of, which have long histories standing against hate, against the spread of Aryan Nation-style prison belief, and otherwise not being a racialist-oriented religious identity.
Instead of having a history of concern with the likes of Odinia, the Wolves of Vinland, and even McNallen’s own criticism, Beckett found it easier to focus on the ill-words spoken between two people about McNallen. There have been no calls for awareness for Heathens Against Hate. There have been no shares to Beckett’s readers of InReach, or calls to support education in Heathenry.
When I attempted to ask Beckett why he didn’t approach these subjects I was attacked for attempting to “divert attention” away from this supposedly immeasurably important incident, because it was “something that could be handled”. This was not done by Beckett, of course, but by people who characterize themselves as supposed allies. People whom I had never seen around the Heathen sphere.
I’ll be the first to admit that communities within Heathenry, especially online Heathenry, can be a toxic place at times. There are several important concepts which are misunderstood, misused in much the same way as the religion as a whole is misused, to support bullying, or undue shaming cultures, or any other manner of ill-will. But I assert, vociferously, that Heathenry is none of these things as a religious expression. I also assert that other religious communities, especially the ones online, are any less hostile. After all, the Witch Wars of the 1990s come to mind.
But I see this time after time – Non-Heathens commenting on Heathenry as observers, or even as semi-participant-observers. I see Celtic Reconstructionists commenting on Heathenry. I see Wiccans commenting on Heathenry. I see non-Pagans commenting on Heathenry. I see these people criticizing the members within the Heathen religion for not doing enough. I see them supplying anecdotal evidence as proof positive of how Heathenry is a bastion of abusive jerks, and that the entire religious perspective is a waste of time, and a lost cause. The failings of Heathenry in regards to racism opens an inundation of previous grievances and past slights, all of which build up to an illogical fallacy that Heathenry must be racist and bully-prone.
We need to be clear: racism in Heathenry is not an issue which can be solved by kicking people out of the “Pagan Umbrella”. This is not the Pagan convention circuit. This is not like the Z Budapest transphobia/bigotry scandal at PantheaCon, where shutting her workshops down determined a moral victory for that event. There, reaffirming the inclusive nature of the convention was of paramount importance. This is not the same as a fight about virtual ritual, and drawing a line in the sand and saying whether or not it is appropriate or has any measure of efficacy. This is not as easy as that – this is a debate between ideologies.
To these critics, I say “Get in, or get out.”
Jumping into the fight when it is convenient, or when it filters through your quiet corner of the Pagan blogosphere, or as something as trivial as one man calling another a bully, does nothing but serve your own egos. How can I say this? Because I’m someone out there who is attempting to lead by example, has put in the effort in correcting behavior and belief to people who may have fallen under the early sway of someone like Varg Vikernes, or who is involved in initiatives to get the information out there (See: Heathen Talk’s episode on InReach). I’ll accept the help of well-meaning allies. But I’m not going to accept undue condemnation that my methodology is not fast enough for angry rectionaries.
Characterizing wide swaths of Heathens as racist or as racist-enablers is doing one thing: driving the moderate ones away from your viewpoint. Nobody is going to change the mind of people like Stephen McNallen or Ryan Smith. They are zealots to their belief systems. The minds which need to be reached are the people in between the two camps. There are non-racist Folkish Heathens who feel personally attacked when people claim Folkish Heathenry is nothing but a smoke screen for racism. There are members of the Troth who want a middle-ground and a moderate way of doing things, but will dig in when unwarranted views and accusations are levied against their entire organization. These people will square their shoulders, lower their heads, and they will not move from their belief.
There will be no progress. It is easier to be an ideological demagogue than it is to be a moderate mediator. It is easier to remain an outsider and pass judgment on a group embroiled in a fight that has defined much of the foundation of modern Heathenry. But it does not do anyone any good.
Is this an unpopular opinion? Yes, it is. It isn’t a quick fix for today’s instant-gratification seekers. It necessitates hard work, and blood, sweat, and tears. It’s not a fix that can be made in a month, a year, or even a decade. It may not even be one which can be made in a generation. But it’s the realistic position. Heathenry is a religion based around right action, not right belief. So we all need to go and do in order to see the Heathenry that we wish to realize come to pass.
If you can’t actually assist Heathenry other than flinging negatively and toxicity around on the Internet, save us, and yourselves, the effort of bothering. Because the only thing you’re doing is making it difficult for those of us who are trying to progress beyond this to do so. If you cannot conceptualize anything other than an immediate, knee-jerk reaction and “solution” to the problem, you are part of the problem, because you’re just flooding and drowning out the opportunity for honest dialogue.
There is a sickness in modern culture as it exists at this moment, and that sickness is ideological demagogy. This sickness is overly represented within online discourses, and Paganism is no stranger to it. That sickness is being unable to meet people in the middle for intelligent discussion. “But”, you say, “Racism isn’t an intelligent position. It doesn’t deserve to be given an equal chance for discussion.” No, it isn’t, and no it doesn’t. But by shutting down and blatantly mischaracterizing, or misrepresenting either position, we’re disenfranchising the people who need to be reached in order to make progress. Claiming that I, or Stephen Abell, or anyone else who would criticize one man’s actions and words because they don’t align with some quick, hardline, black-and-white mentality, a racist-enabler is not beneficial or helpful to anyone or anything.
My religion will be free of racist bigots one day. And I’m going to work towards that end.
Wyrd bið ful aræd.