Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Wind that Tastes of Ashes

I'd meant to devote this month’s post here at The Well of Galabes to discussing some of the things that were part of the old Renaissance magical synthesis, and haven’t yet been hauled out of the rubble and dusted off for modern use. Still, the present has as much to say about the project of this blog as the past, and just at the moment there are patterns taking shape in the present that deserve close attention.

I’ve speculated more than once, in these essays as well as on my other blog, about the ways that the current Neopagan scene might wind down once it finishes up the thirty to forty year lifespan that’s normal for popular religious movements in American history. As I’ve noted, it might imitate the old soldier in the saying, and just fade away; it might also shed the mass following but keep enough of itself intact to allow one or more enduring religious denominations to come into being.

Those were never the only options, though. It’s at least as common for popular religious movements to end messily via some of self-induced disaster. The collapse of Spiritualism at the end of the nineteenth century in a torrent of blatant fraud and chicanery is one example of the type; the near-total implosion of Theosophy in 1929 after the failure of the messianic fantasies once reposed in Jiddu Krishnamurti is another, and a third is the catastrophic own goal the New Age movement scored against itself when December 21, 2012 turned out to be just another day. Still, it looks just now as though a somewhat different form of self-immolation is waiting in the wings.  With a fine if unconscious sense of historical irony, the Neopagan scene seems to be gearing up for its very own witch hunt.

You know the story already, dear reader.  It’s as old as the hills and as tacky as half-dried blood. You’ve got a community trying not to face the gap between cherished visions of a grand future and the gritty realities of decline in the present. You’ve got a few vulnerable minorities within the community, set apart by easily recognized differences in belief and behavior. You’ve got an aspiring demagogue who recognizes that a witch hunt directed against those minorities will not only distract the community from troubles it doesn’t want to face, but can also become a springboard to unearned power.

Then, of course, you get the inflammatory rhetoric, full of all the usual tropes of subversion and invisible evil, followed by a range of weasel-worded half-retractions intended to give the demagogue a semblance of plausible deniability. You get a brief burst of outrage from the community, followed by another set of weasel-worded half-retractions noting that, sure, the demagogue used language we should all deplore, but his intentions are no doubt good and the issues he’s raised ought to be taken seriously, blah blah blah. The rest of the story? That’s on its way, and will doubtless arrive in due time.

The community in question, of course, is the modern Neopagan scene. As I noted in the other blog this week, that’s a far more diverse community than most people outside it realize, united by certain details of history rather than by shared beliefs or practices. It’s also far less organized than most people outside it realize. There are organizations, but none of them can claim more than a tiny fraction of American Neopagans as members; there are specific systems of practice—“traditions” is the term used within the scene—but here again, no one of these accounts for more than a tiny fraction of the community. More influential than these are certain broad groupings with different historical origins.

The largest of these, the main current of modern popular Neopaganism, is the eclectic Pagan movement that sprang into being in the very early 1980s in the wake of two hugely influential books, Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. This isn’t the same thing as the Wicca Gerald Gardner invented in the late 1940s, and he and a range of followers and imitators publicized in the following decade; the differences between British traditional witchcraft as it’s now generally called, and modern eclectic Paganism are on a par with the differences between Judaism and Christianity.

Eclectic Paganism is the sort of thing you’ll find on display at most Pagan festivals, community Full Moon celebrations, and the like. Gendered ditheism—the worship of two deities, “the God” and “the Goddess”—provides the most common theological basis; . The eight festivals of the Wheel of the Year provide the religious calendar, celebrated by rituals freely pasted together from a mix of standard elements, local customs, and personal improvisations.

Organization in eclectic Paganism is egalitarian in theory and charismatic in practice—what this means is that formal organization is minimal, and it’s up to aspiring Pagan leaders amass as large a personal following as their talents for showmanship, leadership, and politics allow.  Membership is usually just a matter of showing up, though scraps of initiatory ritual appear now and then as a legacy from the past, and members move easily between one tradition and another. At its best, to borrow an acronym from Starhawk’s writings, it’s EIEIO: “eclectic, improvisational, ecstatic, inspired, organic,” features it shares with most other popular religious movements.  At its worst, it’s make-believe and faux-medieval dress-up games, festooned with some of the worst poetry in the history of English literature.

That’s the mainstream. Most of the minorities fall into two categories.The first consists of older initiatory traditions. British Traditional Wicca is the most important of these; some forms of Druidry belong here as well; then there’s a penumbra of initiatory orders such as the various Orders of the Golden Dawn, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), other kinds of Druidry, and so on, whose members aren’t really part of the Neopagan scene but shop at the same bookstores, attend some of the same events, and interface with the scene in various ways. The initiatory orders are structured, formal, and often rather fussy, with multiple levels of initiation that have to be earned by good old-fashioned hard work. That’s my spiritual home turf, and most of what’s discussed on this blog relates to it.

The other category is best understood through its history. Back in the early days of the Neopagan era, a good many people got involved in eclectic Paganism thinking that it was an ancient as it claimed, and then discovered that its roots were about as steady as those of Birnam Wood. Some went looking for a more historically authentic option, and many of those found it in the worship of gods and goddesses of Pagan religions from the past. The rise of polytheist Paganism is a story of its own, and one I should probably tell here one of these days, as it may just be a major turning point in the religious history of the West. The current stage in that story, though, is a movement as loose and unstructured as eclectic Paganism, but oriented to the very different traditions, customs, and vision of ancient polytheism.

Until fairly recently, all things considered, the eclectic Pagan mainstream didn’t greatly concern itself about the existence of the minority movements in its midst. There was a certain degree of animus back in the day toward old-fashioned occultists like me; I’ve mentioned before how a great deal of Pagan-themed fantasy from the 1980s and 1990s had all the good guys practicing eclectic Pagan magic and all the bad guys practicing ceremonial magic. Still, most of that got shaken off as eclectic Paganism found its feet as a significant presence in American popular culture, and its leaders began to dream of the day when they would be salaried clergypersons ministering to big congregations, leading prayers at city council meetings, and being taken seriously by the rest of society.

Unfortunately for those daydreams, and also for the relative tolerance of the turn-of-the-millennium Neopagan community, two major obstacles stood between eclectic Paganism and its supposed future as a large, respected, and profitable denomination. The first is simply that the central reason the eclectic Pagan scene was lacking in paid clergy was that the great majority of participants wanted it that way.  The model of religion to which many Pagan leaders aspired, in which parishioners handed over regular donations for the privilege of attending weekly services directed by paid clergy, was exactly the model that most participants in the Neopagan scene deliberately rejected when they walked away from the religious mainstream.  They weren’t interested in returning to it, much less on their nickel.

That obstacle was problematic enough. The other, though, was considerably worse: during the first decade of the 21st century, after several decades of steady growth, the Neopagan movement in the United States peaked and began an uneven but steady decline.

You can measure that decline by any number of variables. Sales of books on Neopagan subjects peaked in 2007, right about the time the New Age market peaked, and have been falling ever since. Attendance at Neopagan festivals, which swelled through the 1980s and 1990s and plateaued after that, began a ragged decline thereafter which has accelerated sharply in the last few years. People are starting to refer to themselves jokingly, or half-jokingly, as “recovering Pagans,” having dropped out of the scene and given away their Pagan books and trinkets, and high-profile defections have begun—those who follow the Pagan blogosphere will remember the flutter in an assortment of dovecotes a little while back when a rising star named Teo Bishop got a lavish profile in one of the few remaining Pagan magazines, and while that issue was still on the stands, announced that he was returning to Christianity.

There are doubtless any number of reasons why the Neopagan wave has crested and begun to flow back out to sea.  The most important may well be simply that popular culture has a short shelf life. That said, I’d like to propose another reason, which is the abandonment of the religious dimension. These days, a great many people in the eclectic Pagan scene have stopped believing in the existence of the God and the Goddess as divine beings. Atheist Pagans, Secular Pagans, Humanist Pagans—these are increasingly popular labels at this point, and many of those who embrace such labels have also embraced the denunciatory hostility of contemporary “angry atheism,” and fling spluttering tirades against those people in the Neopagan scene who still do take the gods and goddesses seriously.

History shows that when a religion discards its deities, politics fills the void that the gods leave behind. The result does not keep well. Liberal Christianity in the United States made that choice in the 1960s, discarding its faith in the Risen Christ in favor of agnosticism and social-justice activism, which is why churches that dominated the American religious scene in the middle of the 20th century are now selling their buildings, going to part-time unpaid clergy, and facing extinction once the remaining parishioners die off or get bored and wander away. That’s beginning to happen to eclectic Paganism right now. 

The result will be familiar to anyone who knows the dynamics of religious sects in decline. Demands for conformity, inevitably presented as calls for unity, have become common—I’m thinking especially of one prominent blogger who insisted that everyone in the Neopagan scene needed to be under one big tent, singing “We All Come From The Goddess”—an eclectic Pagan hymn, please note, and inevitably an eclectic Pagan tent as well. Meanwhile politics increasingly takes center stage, the former religious focus quietly gutters out, and the decline continues. It’s an explosive combination, waiting for a spark.

This is where our demagogue enters the tale. His name is Rhyd Wildermuth, and he’s a Pagan anarchist Marxist—yes, I have trouble parsing that one, too. Late last month, he put up an anonymous screed on a website he manages—he later acknowledged it as his—purporting to warn the Neopagan community about the threat of what he calls the New Right. Care to guess which parts of the Neopagan community he called out as potential vectors for New Right subversion?

Got it in one.  It’s the groups that deviate from the eclectic Pagan mainstream: initiatory traditions such as Druidry, Hermeticism, and British traditional witchcraft on the one hand, and Reconstructionist and devotional polytheism on the other.  He also targeted the Dianic movement, which originated alongside eclectic Paganism but is forthrightly woman-centered, goddess-worshipping, and—like the initiatory traditions—insists on its right to decide who to welcome to its circles and who to ask to leave. By contrast, eclectic Paganism gets a free pass; so does one Druid group, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which is the largest Druid order in the world today, and thus is probably too big a fish for Wildermuth to risk targeting this early in his campaign.

I encourage anyone interested in the future of the Neopagan movement to give Wildermuth’s screed a good close reading. Mind you, there’s a certain wry amusement to be taken from his sidelong muttering about “‘Long Descent’ druids”—ahem—who are insinuating Oswald Spengler’s ideas into Druidry.  Spengler is suspect, in turn, because he’s “a favorite among many New Right theorists.” I gather Wildermuth doesn’t happen to know that Spengler was also a favorite author of the Beat poets—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and their friends—who, by the same logic, ought to be suspect too. Guilt by association is a dangerous game to play, but Wildermuth is clearly willing to play it.

Beyond the amusement value, though, there’s much to be learned from Wildermuth’s tirade. It really is a fine piece of demagogy. Note how he wields the classic tropes of threat by subversion, painting the New Right as a malevolent influence worming its way into the heart of Paganism rather than, say, noticing that Pagans embrace as many different political options as they do spiritual ones, and leaving it at that. Pagan traditions, he claims, can be infected with New Right ideas even without knowing it—a claim that makes it easy for him to find those ideas anywhere he chooses, and just as easy to dismiss out of hand any disagreement with his accusations. Note also the way that he glides smoothly from “New Right ideas” to “New Right aligned Pagans,” who are “hiding their political goals behind claims that they’re ‘apolitical’.” It’s the logic of Stalin’s show trials and the witch burnings: deny that you’re influenced by the New Right and that just proves that you must be hiding your real agenda.

There’s very likely an agenda being hidden here, mind you, but I don’t think it belongs to sinister New Rightists out to pollute the precious bodily fluids of Paganism. The kind of rhetoric Rhyd Wildermuth deploys in his rant shows up over and over again in history:  it’s the classic tool of the demagogue. It’s interesting in this context that in here and in his other writings—you can find plenty of those on the Gods and Radicals website—he consistently identifies illegitimate power with hierarchy, and only with hierarchy. That’s a common evasion, and a telling one.

After all, there’s another kind of power that’s just as illegitimate and destructive, and that’s the power of demagogy:  the brute force of a frightened and furious mob whipped up into a frenzy by rhetoric of the sort we’re examining. Robespierre and Marat, who condemned thousands to the guillotine in the frenzies of France’s revolutionary Terror, didn’t get their immense and brutally wielded power from positions in a hierarchy; they got it from their ability to incite mob violence. Matthew Hopkins, the “Witch Finder Generall” who hanged three hundred women for witchcraft in England in the 1640s, had no official position at all. He owed his power to his ability to convince thousands of ordinary men and women that they were threatened by a creeping evil that only he could detect.

It’s thus of a piece with Wildermuth’s other thinking that when he gets around to telling his readers what to do, he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle.  The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, to be sure, and evidence for or against my take on Rhyd Wildermuth’s agenda will come only with time. If I’m right, it’s early days yet. denunciations of the New Right menace supposedly slithering through Paganism’s crawlspaces, innuendoes targeting this or that figure or organization on Wildermuth’s list of suspect traditions, veiled demands that leaders and organizations in the eclectic Pagan scene fall in line behind the witch hunt or risk being targeted themselves: those are likely to be the next steps. If those things happen, I trust those of my readers who belong to the Neopagan community will pay close attention, and act appropriately.

The next few years will also determine how the Neopagan community responds. Since that community has so little in the way of organization, that decision will be made one Pagan at a time, and will show whether the values publicly embraced by Pagans—values of tolerance, compassion, and unwillingness to harm—are more than skin deep. If most of the Neopagan community rejects the witch hunt being urged on it, then I think there’s good reason to hope that the twilight of the era of popular Neopaganism may see the best achievements of that era handed on to the future, embodied in traditions and organizations that have a good chance of surviving for the long haul.

If not—if enough Pagans join the hunt, and enough others shrug and do nothing to oppose it—the results will be nothing like so pleasant. Those of us of an age to recall the suicide of American Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s already know how this story ends. One demagogue inspires others, and the result is a vicious spiral of competitive heresy-hunting, in which anyone at any time can be accused of secretly harboring the Wrong Ideas. When that happens in a community that people must choose to join, and can leave whenever they wish, pretty soon the only people left are those who enjoy that particular blood sport, and finally even they get bored. That would be a sorry end for a movement that, whatever its failings, has inspired and delighted many people over the last three and a half decades.

While that decision is being made, I hope that the traditions and individuals currently being targeted by Rhyd Wildermuth’s attempted witch hunt will take appropriate steps. The old initiatory traditions will be fine; most have been through this sort of thing before, and many are already backing away from the Neopagan scene in response to its other problems. The Dianic movement, which has long had its own networks and infrastructure, is unlikely to be harmed much. The polytheists—well, I don’t belong to their community, though I share their belief in the real existence of many gods and goddesses, and their decisions are theirs to make, not mine. I hope it won’t be out of place, though, to suggest that the only way to win this game is not to play, and that completing the process of building their own networks, infrastructure, and events may well be a better way to ensure the future of polytheist religion in the West than continued dependence on a failing and increasingly hostile Neopagan scene.

There’s a cold wind blowing through the Pagan community these days, and it tastes of ashes. With luck, they’ll only be the ashes of failed dreams; they could be something rather grimmer, if things go as badly wrong as I fear they might. Still, we’ll see.