Monday, November 6, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 7: Gatekeeping and Politics

Many years ago, I attended a conference in Portland, Oregon, put on by promoters of the Cascadia movement. Our family was fairly new to the Pacific Northwest, and I'd been interested in the idea of Cascadia since learning about it by chance, when I saw the Cascadia flag on a bumper sticker at a Seattle bookstore. I wanted to learn more, and I was excited to make connections with others who might share a similar worldview. 

In brief, Cascadia is an environmental movement in the Northwest that seeks to unite people not by artificial political borders but by a shared natural ecosystem -- or, to use the term the movement prefers, a bioregion. The driving force of the group, at least at that time, was to get people to think beyond state and national divisions to raise awareness of how our actions and choices affect ecological systems on a macro level. Whether you live in Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia, you're a resident of the same ecosystem, and therefore the actions you take -- or don't take -- in Seattle have a ripple effect on what happens in, say, Vancouver or Salem or Victoria.

The conference was moving along nicely. I learned a lot during the individual talks and workshops. But then near the end of the day, things suddenly paused. I noticed that people were huddling together in small groups and having what seemed like intense discussions with each other. There was a sense of uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety hanging in the air. 

Eventually, somebody announced that Portland Antifa was threatening to shut the entire conference down if a particular speaker wasn't immediately disinvited. This was way back before Antifa was nationally known. I had only the vaguest idea of what it was. But knowing what I do now about their extremist violent tactics, I'm not surprised in hindsight that the conference organizers capitulated and took away the speaker's slot. 

Turns out that this particular speaker had committed the sin of writing something for Attack the System, which I also knew nothing about at the time. I can tell you now that ATS is a group whose founder, Keith Preston, advocates for what he calls "pan-secessionism" and "anarcho-pluralism," which essentially amounts to saying that people should have the right to withdraw from authoritarian political systems and form local autonomous communities based around whatever organizing principles the group believes serves it best. 

What apparently got Portland Antifa's knickers in a twist is ATS's alleged ties to the national-anarchist movement. National-anarchists support the creation of what would essentially be hierarchical cooperatives organized around some agreed-upon rule of membership that creates in-groups and out-groups. It's the "nationalism" part that sets off its critics' alarm bells, inasmuch as support for nationalist ideologies often goes hand in hand with intolerance and violence toward the out-groups whom the controlling members want to remove from the society for the sake of preserving in-group purity. If you're thinking along the lines of Germany in the 1940s, you're on the right track. 

The part that gets overlooked in this discussion, however, is that if things worked out the way the national-anarchists envisioned, there would be no out-groups to ostracize, because the members of the in-group wouldn't invite them in to begin with. Critics therefore seem to be conflating our contemporary idea of the nation-state, where members of all different backgrounds and persuasions have to find ways to live harmoniously under a single unifying government, with the theoretical idea of having people who share some agreed-upon commonality hive off and live amongst themselves. The latter, best I can understand, is what national-anarchists actually want. They don't want to eliminate the out-groups; they just want an insular in-group where the out-groups don't live in the first place. The problem arises when you take a diverse nation of very different people and use force to impose your monolithic view on everyone else. That's when you get 1940s Germany. But if you want to go off and live someplace where everybody either thinks or looks like you and you shut the door on anyone who doesn't fit the bill, I say knock yourself out. Hippies have done it with their communes. The Amish do it with their insular communities. Early Christians did it. Even modern Christians invested in the Benedict Option want to do it. It's a legitimate way for people to organize around common interests.

That incident at the Cascadia conference taught me some lessons about politics that I've never forgotten. One of those lessons is that some people evidently have the right to self-organize and others don't -- and for those that don't, prepare to be harassed and possibly even attacked. Another lesson is that those who shout "tolerance" and "diversity" the loudest are quite often the most intolerant of all. 

Case in point: When some left-activist friends of ours underwent a shift in their political views, to my knowledge no one on the political right batted an eye. It was their former leftist allies, the ones who went around preaching "tolerance" 24/7, who first doxxed them and then posted a nutcase with a gun outside their apartment complex, essentially holding the couple and their young child hostage inside the building. The police were called, but that unfortunately didn't put an end to things. Eventually, our friends moved to another part of the country for their own safety. Remember, again, that this was coming from the people who go around all day telling you how openminded, tolerant, and inclusive they are. These people thrive on ruining reputations and lives. They're the same kind of people who would go on to light cities on fire in 2020.   

The reason I'm sharing this story is that as I delve deeper into pagan culture, the more I see this same kind of hypocritical gatekeeping taking place. At issue are the people who tend to call themselves "folkish" pagans. Lefty pagans appear to take exception to them because they want to organize their religious communities around their shared ethnicity. In essence, the folkish pagans say that unless you're of northern European ancestry, they're not going to welcome you into their group. To their minds, the Norse gods are for Norse people. 

To which I say: So what?

Look, I think obsessing over race and ethnicity is kind of a dumb thing to do. At the end of the day, we're all just human beings. And like most Americans, I'm a certified mutt, so I couldn't pick a particular "race" or ethnicity from my background to exalt even if I wanted to. But I also get that people are tribal animals, and if they want to self-select into whatever group they want and lock other people out, I couldn't really care less. As long as you aren't going around threatening and intimidating people who aren't part of your in-group -- like those "tolerant" leftists did to our friends -- what difference does it make to anyone? So this folkish pagan group says you can't join them. Big deal. There are a hundred other groups that will welcome you with open arms. Go join one and be with people whose company you're going to enjoy.

In the pagan community, this has apparently been such a hot-button issue that it led to the drafting of a statement called Declaration 127 a few years back. The declaration -- so named in reference to the 127th line of an Old Norse poem called the Havamal, which states that wrongdoing should be called out -- specifically condemns a group called the Asatru Folk Assembly. Their crime appears to be not letting anybody but straight white people into their club. Note that no one is claiming the AFA threatened violence against any out-group, just that the AFA limits who can join its group. That's it.

And my first impression, as I begin to navigate the pagan wilds, is that the spirit of this declaration has taken hold just about everywhere. Try to join some online pagan discussion group, and you'll probably be ordered to declare that you unequivocally denounce "folkish" paganism, lest you be tossed out on your ear before you can even begin to participate. In other words, the declaration has mutated from something that reasonably stated "we don't like this particular group" to proclaiming "we just assume you and everyone else are racists until you explicitly declare otherwise." The universalism and stridence with which this de facto oath is enforced reminds me of nothing so much as the Catholic baptism rite, during which the initiate must publicly declare, before being welcomed into the club, that you "renounce Satan, and all his evil works, and all his empty promises." In short: It's groupthink cult behavior. And it doesn't stop being so just because the demand for intellectual conformity comes from a pagan group instead of from institutional religion.

Are you now, or have you ever been, a folkish pagan? Yeah, that's the vibe that all this stuff throws off.

The part that galls me the most is the blatant hypocrisy of it all. You don't like it when some other group engages in gatekeeping, so you're going to engage in gatekeeping to make sure people don't support the specific kind of gatekeeping you disapprove of? In what universe does that even make any sense?

Then, of course, it's all downhill from there. If you've dealt with woke politics, and I have no doubt that you have, you know how this script plays out every single time. The only ones who impose strict ideological purity tests on people, amd then try to destroy you if you don't follow their ideology to the letter, are always, always the same ones who love to tell the world how openminded they are. I'm reminded of the time I friended somebody on Facebook who leaned left politically, only to have the person quickly inform me that he found some page or group that I'd liked to be problematic, and he demanded an explanation and an apology, along with expecting me to unlike the thing he took offense to. Suffice it to say we're no longer Facebook friends. My conservative and libertarian friends, meanwhile, know that we don't always agree on every issue, and they don't seem to be bothered by it at all. How's that "liberal" "tolerance" working out for everyone? Some folks claim to love diversity, but what they often mean is diversity of superficial outward characteristics. Diversity of thought? Not so much. The leftist hivemind is a real thing. They're like a real-life Borg.

Again, I don't care if you want to exclude people, for whatever reason you want. Doesn't matter if you lean left or right. As long as you're not denying people public services, threatening them, or attacking them, do whatever the hell you want. Just be above-board about what you're doing, and get off your sanctimonious, virtue-signaling high horse while you're doing it. The AFA "others" people and admits it does. You, pagan lefties, "other" people and claim you don't. Which one is the hypocrite? Which one, for that matter, openly threatens people for not following their script?

And please, for the love of God, lay off the double standards. In one Reddit pagan group that I quickly decided not to join, one of the moderators had pinned a message saying that even the slightest whiff of folkishness would not be tolerated under any circumstances and that the group respected all closed practices -- i.e., religious practices open only to specific groups of people. So, translated, this group is letting everyone know the following: "We respect all groups that want to keep their practices closed, but if you want to close your practice, you're a Nazi." I mean, at least they're open about it up front, so that you know to avoid them before you waste your time getting involved.

I can't emphasize enough that I think racism is dumb. But so are lots of ideas that people get in their heads. Thinking you can become the opposite sex is dumb, too, but people applaud that ridiculous idea -- and ostracize you if you disagree. To that end, there was another online pagan group that I decided to join, only to discover after signing up that the mods demand that you state your pronouns in your introduction to the group. They weren't requesting it; they demanded it. I just said I don't play that game and that I'd show myself out. Carry on with your ideological batshittery. More power to you. Count me out. And I'm guessing that despite all your respect for "closed practices," you'd be the first to cheer on some guy who takes a woman's place in an organization or wins an award meant only for women. 

Here's where I'm coming from, just to make it clear: My informal pagan practice has been pretty darned eclectic over the years. If you saw the meditation area in my Dad Loft, you'd encounter statuary and symbols from Catholicism, Hebrew myth, Taoism, esoteric Buddhism, and random strands of paganism. I incorporate what works for me and what makes sense to me, regardless of origin. And I think that's as it should be. If something from a particular practice speaks to you, then I think it's fair game to become a part of your personal practice. Anyone who tells you otherwise, frankly, can go take a flying leap. No one can own a religious or spiritual idea.

Yet at the same time, I would never go out of my way to try to force myself on any group that didn't want me around for its practices and services. A voodoo group, for example, would never admit me because I don't meet the necessary criteria, and I'd be perfectly fine with that. To use a real-life example, I used to belong to a Buddhist temple that was built for the Japanese-American community and led by a Japanese priest. I was one of a very small handful of white people who attended. The priest was always welcoming of us and insisted that he wanted to build a temple where everyone felt included and welcomed, not just people of Japanese ancestry. To his credit, I never felt unwelcomed. Yet I was still always extremely self-conscious of being there, as if I was intruding on something that didn't belong to me. And if someone had ever told me to leave, I would have, without question, hesitation, or argument. Same with the Shinto shrine I used to enjoy visiting. Shinto is Japan's indigenous religion, and if someone had told me, a person with zero Japanese ancestry, to go away, then that's exactly what I would have done.

I don't see any difference in what the AFA does. Now, do Asatru and other pagan groups attract white supremacists and neo-Nazis? The evidence suggests that these types have unfortunately adopted a good deal of pagan and Viking imagery and symbolism, but that's not the same thing as saying the groups themselves are teeming with racists. They may be or they may not. I don't know, because I don't associate with them. What I do know, even in the short time I've been researching and studying, is that lefty pagans keep harping on the idea that wanting to restrict a historically European practice to a particular demographic is in itself evil and bigoted, while claiming that this criterion alone makes someone a Nazi. And that argument just doesn't hold water. 

As far as the AFA goes, I might think you have your priorities wrong if skin color is your primary criterion in your religious practice, but the fact is that people self-segregate all the time. For better or worse, we're a tribal species, and that's what we do. For that matter, the same woke leftists that would condemn the AFA would also be the first to support their own brand of racial discrimination, from hiring quotas to college admission preferences to even segregated playtimes for schoolkids. So they can spare us all the self-righteous sanctimony. Woke people prove themselves time and again to be enormous racists. In their endless obsession with dividing people by racial characteristics, and favoring some racial and ethnic groups over others, they're ultimately no different from the white supremacists who want us to always see color first and foremost. The point being, I don't like woke ideology for exactly the same reason I don't like racial supremacists: They both assign value to people based on their racial and ethnic groups. The woke folks are, in the end, exactly what they claim to oppose.

Horseshoe theory is real.

I mean, show me that the AFA is actively promoting hatred, and I'll happily change my tune. I'm not going to defend bigots. But you're going to have to show me where they're explicitly calling for violence against some out-group. You're going to have to show me anything they do that even comes close to the blatant enmity for other races expressed by people like, for example, the black writer who prayed to God to help her hate white people. Then we can talk.

And just to be perfectly clear, I don't even care about the AFA. I don't gain anything by trying to defend them. And anyway, given that they most likely only welcome physically fit people who can be like the Viking warriors of old that they idolize, they'd toss this fat old guy with his poor health to the curb faster than you can say Thor. All I'm saying is I'm sick of the double-standards. And it's unfortunate to see that this nonsense has so deeply infiltrated the pagan world too. It's so bad that anyone who just wants to dig in and do some historical research, like me, is instead met with a bunch of political grandstanding and demands for people to take purity oaths before they'll even be let in the door. Sorry, but intolerant groupthink is exactly what I want to get away from. I thought the pagan subculture would have a lot more freethinkers in it than contemporary mainstream society does. Instead, it just serves up more of the same tired old cultural battles. 

It seems more and more likely that I'll end up as a solitary practitioner. But that's no different from how my spiritual life has always been. It would be nice to have someone to share the journey with, but I'm just too unlike everybody else out there. It may not sound very spiritually enlightened, but I'd ultimately rather go it alone than have to deal with nitwits at every turn.

[WC: 3.098 / TWC: 23,361]

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