The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable.

Some will be afraid of this knowledge; witchcraft should be liberated by it, liberated from petty concerns to pursue lives of beauty, liberated from the sleepwalking into death that our culture has made for us and our children. So I counsel, confront death. For witchcraft to be anything other than the empty escapism of the socially dysfunctional or nostalgia for bygone ages, it needs to feel the shape of its skull, venerate the dead and the sacred art of living and dying with meaning. We are all on the fierce path now.

One thing I am really liking lately, I mean *really* liking a lot, that actually makes me hopeful that there might be something worthwhile in the remainder of my lifetime to which I may contribute some small impetus or insight, is the suddent resurgence, dating largely to Peter Grey’s widely-reprinted essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” (see intro quote), of a strain of intellectual-political paganism.

My friends have had to endure my rants against the forms, seemingly borrowed from the labor movement back when foot-traffic and mass-employment ruled the economy, of protest and dissent, and the supposedly intellectual critique that has grown up around them. To wit, the concept of a “movement,” defined in reference to large crowds publicly endorsing a minority point of view, at some risk of violating, if not laws against heresy and wrong ideas, at least those against blocking sidewalks and dispersing when called upon, and structuring, to some extent, their lives around the internal consistencies that a rational investigation of that point of view would seem to require, while still allowing for the pursuit of material self-interest and progress as defined by enlightenment and post-enlightenment understandings of human well being and quality of life.

And yet, the political landscape does not fit this material any more than the physical landscape. Few in the west protest for what Walter Benjamin called “the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual.” Those fights have long been drowned in the rising flood of the personal, little stories of failure and why-didn’t-you-study-harder popping to the surface where union halls and churches once stood. When we gather, if we gather, it is because we are bereft of meaning and narrative, and, though tender and caveblind, we hope that in struggle we might find our tribe.

There doesn’t seem to be, for nearly anyone, a sense of place, reliable and secure, to which we can retire where our relationship to the world seems unshakable, or where permission to continue our lives, as we understand they *should* be, is readily available. Instead, we as a society behave like the children and other primates in the early studies of “attachment” before that term became code for baby bjorns, who are deprived of a steady social relationship with a supportive and comforting caregiver- frightened, angry, insecure, and dangerous. Yet, our “politics”- by which I mean the semi-organized leftist belief in membership, protest, “shutting down the system” etc, education as key, and the idea of enlightened self-interest- still seems baffled by this, like the reviewers of Harlow’s monkey studies who couldn’t understand why a baby monkey would choose a soft, snuggly yet barren mama monkey doll over a cold wire facsimile that provided milk- or safe drinking water, or affordable health care. Humans (and monkeys) will give up virtually anything to be part of a comforting story, and that story right now is best being told by some of the worst people we’ve seen in our lives.

This is why ISIS is recruiting middle-class Belgians, or why upper-class kids in the Columbus suburbs sell pills for the lulz. This is why people would rather see a party punch Mexicans in the face, than negotiate successfully with Iran. Adventure, daring, winning, the smug pleasure of seeing an adversary cringing or bloody, these are more potent than reducing the suicide rate, and “the left” has nothing going in the story department. The left continues to think, Jon Stewart-style, that providing facts and exposing hypocrisy will somehow triumph over alienation, rage, and winning. This is despite the understanding, articulated in an NPR interview last week with anthropologist Scott Atran, that appeals to moderation and rationality simply play into the fears of the global 99% that they will never have anything better to live for than a newer phone, or a job at a better call center.

With an eye to that gap, I give you one of the most interesting essays
I’ve read this month. Here we have not only Walter Benjamin, Margaret Mead, and James Baldwin, from whom I lifted the subject line of this post, but also Solon and Herodotus. The theme is that “progress” is a lie, and that time is not as important as you may think- those things that happened long ago are still happening, or quite capable of happening again, and the assumption that things are different this time is one of the most dangerous mistakes ever deployed in the service of dismissing the irrational, the bloodied, the furious, or the dead. And yes, it comes from a pagan website:

The Fire Is Here

This isn’t a one-off either. Two prominent bay area pagans were recently arrested in support of BLM’s Black Friday Protest in Oakland, and the folks at Gods and Radicals are doing a damned good job condensing the ethics of social justice around a hard, ancient core of community belief and faith. Look also to the poetic rituals of the Dark Mountain Project, look to the inexplicably weird refulgence of Die Krampus. If this goes anywhere, and I hope it does, it will be fascinating and beautiful to see what we now think of as the left flying banners of irrational mysticism, danger, adventure and attractive madness. I suggest you keep watching.

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6 thoughts on “The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable.

  1. Thank you, I’m glad you liked the essay. I very much enjoyed reading your eloquent thoughts here about the irrelevance of the concept of the “movement,” the search for tribe that underlies so many people’s participation in political struggles and the overwhelming power of a comforting story (and ironically, narratives of danger and adventure and heroism prove to be some of the most psychologically comforting ones).

    I also appreciate that you allude to “what we now think of as the left,” since I don’t consider myself to be part of “the left.” Which I know sounds dangerously third-positionist/neo-fascist if taken out of context, but I think you probably got a sense of some of my context from the essay.

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    • Okay, I’m flattered. The political pagan thing is clearly very appealing to me, but other than a few brief online exchanges I don’t really know anyone. This essay is adapted from an email I sent to a group of friends whose inclination is perhaps overly materialist (in the historical-materialism sense, not the buy-lots-of-stuff sense) and I’m glad you like it!

      I think the fascism question deserves more attention than it gets. Pretty obviously, historical and current fascist/neofascist movements have been racist and anti-democratic, and the pagan community (such-as-it-is) has been pretty good about responding to racism and creepy power dynamics when these have been exposed, but I’m still never sure that I have a handle on the definition of fascism. Nationalism seems easier to define, and relevant after the Paris attacks. France was one of the first countries to consolidate around a nationalist idea, and then later after the revolution to substitute an explicitly cosmopolitan citizenship based on loyalty and ideology, and yet once again we hear calls of “France for the French” as if there weren’t two centuries of “The French” meaning a diverse and multinational republic. While the ties between nationalism and fascism, or at least between nationalism and exclusivist power, seem durable, the moral status of nationalist ideology seems vaguer, more susceptible to multiple readings.

      I don’t know, I always get a twinge of worry when I invoke tribalism as a form of organization. Descriptively it seems to capture how people want to, and try to live, but stare too closely and it starts to dissolve into something much more dangerous. My family has a standing offer from one of the most sophisticated militaries in history to come honor my tribe and my ancestors by seizing land they once walked, and a fleet of armored bulldozers are ready to knock over any inconvenient olive groves, houses, or people who stand in the way. At the same time, there are countless people who stand waiting, with more or less patience, for the empires that oppress them to recede or fall; should I fault them all for making similar plans?

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      • You are more than welcome to email me here, I would be interested in corresponding more.

        I hope you don’t mind if I respond here with more links and quotations. 😉

        The best analysis I’ve read of fascism and the problem of any anti-fascism that “consists [of] resisting fascism by defending democracy” is Gilles Dauvé’s essay “When insurrections die.” He defines fascism as “an effort of the bourgeoisie to forcibly tame its own contradictions, to turn working-class methods of mass mobilization to its own advantage, and to deploy all the resources of the modern state, first against an internal enemy, then against an external one,” and says that it arises from a “two-fold failure: the failure of the revolutionaries after World War I [and] the failure of the democrats and Social Democrats in managing capital.”

        Nationalism speaks directly to, and fosters, people’s deep desire for community and “tribe.” Part of the problem with nationalism is that the “community” is defined to include both oppressors and oppressed, and the oppressed are expected to collaborate in their own oppression in the name of the “community.” The best critiques of (leftist as well as rightist) nationalism I’ve seen are Fredy Perlman’s essay “The continuing appeal of nationalism,” the 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley and the novel A Star Called Henry.

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      • Don’t mind at all! If I do email you I may include a few CC’s of people with whom I have similar discussions often. That’s a fair historical view of fascism, but I won’t comment too much further until I’ve read the essay, except to say that the turn to external enemies is the aspect I find least compelling (Spain? Cambodia?). I absolutely loved A Star Called Henry. I think actually it contains the contradiction pretty well- Doyle is clearly madly in love with Henry and with the history he lets us watch through Henry’s eyes, which makes it compelling as a story and complicates the critique of thuggery and betrayal that he seems to want to expose. As I’ve never read the sequels, I can’t say whether he follows up on this, but the little “flash-forwards” in the text (“later, when they shot me in Chicago…”) imply a moral bildungsroman, in which nationalist heroism is either the ground on which Henry builds his adulthood, or the prelapsarian innocence he never quite reclaims, or both. I like this ambiguity too.

        Nonetheless, returning to political paganism for a minute, at least in this country the idea of a reconstructed religion, when it isn’t just an individual reaction against nationalised American christianity, often seems to huddle in the vegetation of a precolonial or preimperial ancestor nation with presumed stable, domestic and internally consistent beliefs. Everybody puts their disclaimers right out front, that you don’t have to “be” Celtic to practice Celtic Religion, or whatever, but the longing is still there, and sometimes snaps out in frustrating internecine conflicts about “inclusion”- the etymology of which makes the tensions clear. You’re right that this lumps together oppressors with oppressed (oppression, like murder, tends to be a family affair) but it also creates difficulties for people who either can’t claim a single ethnicity, or who feel uncomfortable about the heritage they’ve been assigned, or whose family tree really does lead back to problematic traditions that are difficult to reclaim in light of modern ethics, or even forgive. This overlaps massively with race and identity politics, obviously.

        Okay, I have my reading list for the day! Thanks!

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  2. I think Dauve is also emphasizing that the “turn towards an external enemy” is not the origin or the most essential element of fascism, but rather that (if it happens) it happens after the suppression and liquidation of internal enemies. To me, the part that stands out is that it uses “working-class methods” for goals counter to working class interests. I think that it does the same thing to “tradition” and “ancestry” as well.

    Fascism is full of contradictions: it glorifies a mythologized past, but uses “all the resources of the modern state” and overturns or breaks many traditions; it is populist and even sometimes claims to be “anti-capitalist,” but serves the interests of capital; it uses parliamentary tactics, but is inherently anti-democratic.

    The sequels to A Star Called Henry went off in a pretty different direction.

    I agree with your assessment of the tensions within the discourse around reconstructed religions. My primary practice is Chinese polytheism, which is a set of living traditions which don’t need to be reconstructed, but which have taught me that trying to find “stable, domestic or internally consistent beliefs” is not a realistic goal. I think there’s a few ideas that are useful here:
    1. The emphasis on cultivating relationships with gods, and on networks of relationships: this actually highlights the importance of learning about the cultures gods are a part of, because it recognizes that the gods already have certain established ways of relating to humans, and that those dead (and living) humans are important too.
    2. Reconstruction as a methodology to learn how people of specific cultures related to their gods in the past, not as an “end goal.” Trying to understand ancient world views is an important part of this, however.
    3. “Relationship” as the basis of ancestry. One always has certain relationships with one’s biological ancestors, but it’s really about how one engages those relationships: one can try to change those problematic traditions or heal ancestral wounds. I think of my biological ancestors as “ancestors of spirit” as well.
    ⁃ Especially as highlighted by the case of people of mixed ethnicity, the idea of cultural/spiritual/mythical ancestors is important, but it’s also not a free-for-all where anyone can claim anyone else as their ancestor: there’s still a need for something to have been “passed down,” and for consideration of context. As I see it, paganism sails between the Charybdis of racism and the Scylla of cultural appropriation, and plenty of people fall into one trap or the other. I don’t actually call myself “pagan,” but all of these questions still need to be considered.

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