Recently I finally gave up on the Wild Hunt Pagan blog (at least in terms of taking any notice). It’s a news blog and has been a strong part of an emerging “Pagan media”, and I have certainly got things from it in the past. For some time though I’ve been largely ignoring it, as I’ve found its discussion of topics, with its sense of the “issues” that by implication concern people like us is just not relevant to my life or world view. Then a few days ago there was a real college kid of a post. It had the words “Fascist”, “Liberal”, “Radical” and “against” in the title, and you can find it if you want, I’m sure. I don’t know where to begin with the groans, I’m sure it was well meant, but you know when you’ve been there and done that mistake decades ago (albeit in a different form), it makes it that much more of a face palm.
The author seemed to have a bit of a struggle reconciling fixation on ethnic identity with the avoidance of racist ideation. No shit sherlock, glad you noticed. He seemed to have a very romantic idea of the intertwining of Pagan revivals with ethnic nationalism (quite common in parts of neopaganism), but being a good radical, he wants to make it all ok, in fact the best thing possible. But that takes a little working around.
Our reporter is at pains to point out that while ethnic based right wing extremism is one evil, there is another evil called liberalism which tries to flatten and nullify all “ethnic and political difference”, like when daddy makes you all have the same hair cut and wear matching shorts. It’s too much to bear, truly. As Pagans as a generality tend to have liberal sympathies, Carl Bernstein is worried. Heck yes.
“One can be whatever one wishes to be, provided that identity does not challenge the Capitalist, Disenchanted order. Beliefs and practices which refer to narratives in conflict with the Disenchanted order become marginalized quickly. One can be Muslim provided one not believe it too authentically, be Queer as long as one not act upon such desires in the public sphere. Here, I’d refer also to recent backlash against polytheistic beliefs within Paganism–one can believe in gods, provided one does not really act as if they exist”*
Well, I love and work polytheistically with gods that I consider to actually exist, and I think Carl’s being silly. The world is not going to end just because the blogosphere says it never existed.
Anyway, Lois Lane continues by pointing out that liberalism is not the defender against racism that it claims to be, that “flattening difference” by getting all secular is in fact an evil plot of capitalist commodification. Lois goes really ’68 on us here. He’s read the books, he knows how to use them. Well the Tory government over here are going to be really pleased that their attempts to bolster things like religious schools, legal religious exemption clauses, and the maintenance of a state religion get his seal of approval. Oh wait, that wasn’t the kind of “difference” Lois wanted maintained. Unfortunately you don’t get that kind of choice in the real world of old fashioned political power.
Bob Woodward has quite a lot to say about “monomyths” and the kind of cross-cultural comparative mythology that people like Joseph Campbell did a lot to popularize. I understand the shortfall of Campbell’s kind of approach in coming into authentic relationship with any particular religious experience, but the political condemnation of it as a colonialist form of Western supremacy leaves out a really important thing; that it is part of a project of trying to understand human beings as one species with varied cultural manifestations, understand human beings as human beings. Are we rejecting humanism as well as secularism and liberalism here? Because if Joseph Campbell trying to understand human beings is your enemy, I’d really like to know what your friends are doing?
Oh, and just in case you felt, as a child of a modern capitalist culture, that you were not one of “the oppressed” tribes, not quite indigenous, Bob has an answer for you too (Pagans are good at this kind of thing, because we love telling ourselves stories about the past that make it “our” past). Part of that Western colonialist scam is that we are made to believe that our own ancestors, their lives, beliefs and cultures are a long way away, not completely recreatable, and well, essentially that they are not us.
“our ancestors are so far removed from our current existence that they exist almost in a pre-historic past, unreachable from our current position as “modern” peoples except as reconstruction or a sort of utterly different, new system of beliefs borrowing only the imagery of the past”
Well of course they are a long way away, their culture in the lived sense has been dead for a long time, notwithstanding that elements of culture always transmit, mutate and recombine. But Bob would have to say that, otherwise he might have to accuse himself of cultural appropriation. And I understand why American Pagans are so touchy about cultural appropriation. When you take another people’s land to make a new country, it’s a sore subject. I think it’s why Americans also tend to be so hung up on ethnic roots. But you know, if you feel bad, do something about it. Otherwise get over it. Denying that culture lives through transmission, recombination, hybridization and mutation, as a common human phenomenon pays off nobodies debts, real or imagined.
I agree though that a lot of us, in terms of modern culture and its terms of credibility are nut cases, heretics and weirdos. How about you just wear that badge with pride though? You know who else shares that badge? Artists, poets, questioners, creative people. It isn’t tribal, and it’s not meant to be tribal. The “myth of progress” isn’t just a myth for some of us. We depend on it. We always have in living memory, even if that progress is rather far from inevitable. It’s probably what drives our reporter to turn against it, ironically enough. I agree that when it devolves to absolutely having to update your smart phone then you have idiocy on wheels, but nothing done unintelligently turns out well.
Anyway, Carl eventually returns to his thorny issue of how we “recover” our Pagan spiritual and cultural heritage, reject the myth of progress, reject secular flattening (and humanist universalizing?) while avoiding the “danger in this project” ie the rise of right wing nationalist, ethnically based ideologies.
You know what my answer is? Stop pretending to be something that you are not. I don’t mean Star Trek geek pretending, or waft around with rainbows pretending, I mean the “I am my ancestors” bullshit that consciously circumvents present time and our unavoidable biological messiness, our full historical past, our cultural hybridization, and always, without fail, invites meatheads to play out their fantasy games.
It astonishes me how neopagans so often seem to imagine that they got their existence directly from the ancient past, without any kind of cultural mediation, as a kind of intentional deliverance. Like you would even be talking about this if it weren’t for secular humanist developments. It does not make any honest sense.
Let me sing you the song of my people.
A long time ago in a land far, far away …………
*All quotes credited to Rhyd Wildermuth at the Wild Hunt Blog, who is not actually Woodward and Bernstein, nor Lois Lane, in real life.