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Article Specs

VxAcct: 1

Article ID: 4506

Section: wrenwalker

Age Group: Adult

Posted: April 9th. 2001

Views: 10675

Damned if you do and Damned if you don't

by Wren

Greetings Witches, Wiccans and Pagans,

After reading The New Romantics this past week, a lot of things came to mind. While most of them are unprintable on a family-friendly site, some musings may be worth a few moments of reflection. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Spring 2001 'Intelligence Report" features a somewhat garbled interview with author and Professor of Religious History, Mattias Gardell. In this interview, "which focused heavily on the rise of neo-Paganism on the radical right", the terms 'Pagan' and 'Neo-Pagan' are used throughout the article. Unfortunately, either because of bad research or bias (on the part of the author-update:see note below) or bad editing or misquotes (on the part of the SPLC), these terms are also used so broadly that a reading of this article would lead the otherwise uninformed person to think that ALL Pagans and Neo-Pagans are racist, prone to violent anti-social and anti-establishment behavior, are radical environmentalists, and in fact, that as far as Pagans go, 'everyone supports the Unabomber'. While many far right Christian Identity movements also happen to be anti-government, we doubt that a paragraph such as, " So christians tend to be radically anti-government. Everybody supports Tim McVeigh." would get by the editors or (if it did) that it would remain there long after the public outcry that would surely follow.

The Southern Poverty Law Center knows better. We know that SPLC has received many letters on this subject over the past few days-and yet the article remains as it is. So now we have to ask ourselves why. If SPLC doesn't want to mess with the author's words, a short disclaimer at the beginning of the article should certainly not be out of the realm of possible solutions. A simple suggestion might read: Editor's Note- "The terms, 'Pagan' and 'Neo-Pagan' where they appear in this article refer only to the target group, "several hundred white American racist activists, " who self-identify as members of Asatru or Odinism in its most radical form. Most of the adherents of Asatru and Odinism do not consider themselves 'Pagans" but rather use the terms 'Heathen' or "Folk'. The vast majority of those who do identify themselves as Neo-Pagans and Pagans practice earth-based religions/belief systems which are inherently non-violent, non-racist and tolerant of other religions and practices."

{Wren Note: TWV was just cc'd in on an email from Mattias Gardell. In it, he states: ('I was NOT talking about the whole neo-pagan community in the United States. The interview focused on the racist interpretation of Asatrś often referred to as Odinism. I also tried to make clear the distinction between the racist and ethnic positions as these two very different interpretations of Norse traditions often are confused. (The wider non-racial non-folkish pan-pagan milieu was hardly mentioned at all. There is a growing body of studies concerning the wider pagan revival but that was not the topic of the interview and will not be the focus of my forthcoming study. However, I will make the distinctions clear.) The line 'everybody supports the Unambomber' is somewhat taken out of context. It should have been made much clearer that I here talked about the radical environmentalist subsection of racist Odinism where one does find considerable support for the Unabomber. The word 'everybody' was a casual metaphor that I would never use in writing. It came in the course of a 4 hours and something transatlantic interview over the phone and I am sorry for having made that slip.)} So the ball is now squarely in SPLC's court on this one.

Correct terminology does matter and in this case, it matters more than a simple letter to the editor might in another venue. The 'Intelligence Report' goes out to law enforcement agencies, schools, government security watchdogs and to many others that are in a position to make public policy decisions. The erroneous impression of all Pagans that may emerge from this careless use of language could have serious and potentially dangerous results for the Pagan communities. We are not 'white-lighters' here. We do not deny that- as occurs in all religions- there are factions that lay claim to the name 'Pagan' or 'Neo-Pagan' that the majority of adherents may disavow as being representative of the religion(s) and the message of that religion. The fact that no effort was expended by SPLC to clearly denote the differences between 'Pagans' and the target group of the author's study ("several hundred white American racist activists") consistently throughout the article makes the entire report suspect. The credibility of the SPLC is clearly in danger here.

However, this article did bring another issue to mind and here is where we get into the 'damned if we do, damned if we don't' position. Pagans have been roundly criticized for 'not believing in much of anything and willing to believe in anything' in some recent scholarly works and press reports. Yet here we find ourselves attacked from the opposite direction. Because some- and not just a few- Pagan traditions (such as Reconstructionists, Celtic Spirituality, Family Traditions, Strega and the Northern groups) are adopting a cultural/ethnic base of myths, stories or elements of regional history in the formulation of their group practices, the charge of 'racist' or 'elitist' is now rearing its ugly head. If we don't clearly define ourselves, it seems that we're damned to frivolous role-playing and if we do attempt to define ourselves, we are damned to be the precursors of another Neo-Nazi regime.

The problem as we see it here is two-fold. The first is that modern Paganism is a very complex religious and social movement. It cannot be summed up in twenty-five words or less and still encompass the vast and diverse sets of beliefs held by all those who identify themselves as Pagan. This spells trouble for news reporters and some scholars who are not writing a book, but simply trying to get out a human interest story of fifteen hundred words for the Sunday edition or academic magazine. Here at TWV, we have heard many times that reporters and writers have had to extend their deadlines because they just 'had no idea how complicated the Pagan communities and beliefs were'. Some of them have done better than others at communicating the richness that indeed flows through Paganism. Many have simply surrendered to the deadline and whipped up another fluff piece on a Pagan holiday celebration. Too bad. They missed the real story.

The second problem is that we are struggling with the same issues ourselves. This used to bother us until we began looking beyond the Pagan communities into the other religions of the world. We discovered that Pagans are not that much different in our search for identity than any other religious group. It is just perceived that way because we are the new kids on the spiritual block. For example, if a newspaper article on Christianity happens to have a quote from a Catholic priest speaking of some of the beliefs of that religion, do the Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter Day Saints always agree that the Catholic priest's statement is reflective of all of Christianity? Probably not. Indeed, these groups may not even believe that some of the other groups are really 'Christian'. Sound familiar?

But do the reporters of that story then go around writing that 'Christians just can't get it together! What they say that they believe differs so much from group to group as to make the entire religion seem one of just individual convenience"? Not hardly.

Differences of dogma, doctrine, religious practice and belief are the NORM in religious group identities, not the exception. It's just that most outsiders see Paganism as some sort of aberration and not for what it is: A new set of religions that, for now, all fall under the umbrella phrase known as "Paganism".

If we could make one thing perfectly clear to all of our detractors who would like to dismiss us, are wont to criticize us or will further attempt to categorize us in some convenient AP Stylebook manner, it would be this:

We uphold our right to define ourselves. The power to determine who we are and what we will become is in our hands, not yours. We will not stand idle waiting for you to decide who we really are. We have too much to do, too much for reach for, too much to determine and claim for ourselves. And if someone-whether it be a reporter, scholar, religious detractor or hate-monger- is bound and determined to try to make us stumble along the way, we believe that it is better that it come because we are marching forward rather than because we are dragging our feet waiting for you to catch up.

Wren Walker
Sunday, April 8, 2001




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