Home Sociology Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism
In the United States, whiteness has, for the vast majority of the nation’s history, been synonymous with citizenship and freedom. To be “American” has meant, first legally and now de facto, whiteness, and for many—as evidenced, for example, by the continuing questioning of our president’s citizenship status—it still does. Cognitively, these hierarchical structures are still in place and the snare of invisible imperial whiteness remains. The deep-seated prohibitions against discussing or thinking about one’s own whiteness are crucial to post-Civil Rights era colorblind racism (Bonilla-Silva 2003). Although discussions of race and ethnicity are widespread in Heathen writings, discussions of “whiteness” as such are rare, except in the most comfortably and explicitly white supremacist crowds. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem that Heathens face. So long as the identities they seek to reconstruct are unproblematically (and invisibly) synonymous with whiteness, they are perpetuating the categories, structures, and logics of imperialism. So long as they seek a “white indigeneity,” their claims to indigeneity, or their efforts to achieve it, are undermined and contradicted. Whiteness, as an artifact and tool of colonial control and imperial status, is inherently and definitively contrary to the category of indigenous. Until Heathens begin to actively emphasize that their reconstructed identities are pre-white, in the same way that they are emphasized as pre-Christian, any Heathen claims to be indigenous will continue to be ironic and troubling at best. The struggle to escape the legacy of Christianity, with which most Pagans are intimately familiar, is a long and difficult one; the struggle to escape whiteness, if it is to be taken up at all, will be even more so.
This ongoing focus on “the Folk” is a case in contra-cosmopolitanism, just as it was in the mid-twentieth century in Germany, in that it emphasizes the profound importance of the racially conceived “people” in contrast to a more cosmopolitan emphasis on interaction over and across borders of identification. In Jihad vs. McWorld, which deconstructs the struggle between consumer capitalism and tribal fundamentalism, Benjamin Barber (1995: 164) writes:
Today, the forces I identify with Jihad are impetuously demanding to know whether there will ever be a Serbia again, a Flanders again, a Quebec again, an Ossetia or Tsutsiland or Catalonia again, that is worth living in. Immigrants from old to New Orleans, from old to New England, from old to New Zealand, want to know whether the lands of origin that fire their imagination can be made real. And they gather, in isolation from one another but in common struggle against commerce and cosmopolitanism, around a variety of dimly remembered but sharply imagined ethnic, religious and racial identities meant to root the wandering postmodern soul and prepare it to do battle with its counterparts in McWorld.
Some Heathens frame cultural appreciation (as others frame “white pride”) as a matter of protecting the “survival” of various religious and ethnic traditions. “We” fight for our survival; “they” fight for their survival. Stephen McNallen makes it very clear on a number of occasions that he, at least, sees these differing peoples necessarily fighting against each other for their respective survival, and for geographical space in which to live. In “Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca: The Spiritual War for California and the Southwest,” McNallen (2000) outlines the immigration “crisis” that he perceives is going to rob those of European descent of the social and political privilege that their forebears in the United States fought for and earned. And although many Heathens actively challenge and reject McNallen as a leader and thinker, many do not. He echoes the sentiment of a segment of Heathenry for whom Heathen, white, and European are synonymous. He writes:
Mighty psychic forces, and powerful religious impulses, are on the move. The old Gods of Mexico, and the Gods of ancient Europe, are stirring their respective peoples. The spiritual descendants of the Aztecs are looking northward, coveting land which, they have convinced themselves, should be theirs—and, perhaps quite unconsciously, they are moving to conquer it by mass immigration, by language, by cultural influence. A dangerous few want to conquer by force of arms. (McNallen 2000)
While the importance of acknowledging different “peoples” is vital to folkish conceptions of Heathenry, it makes a great deal of difference how these differing peoples are conceived. Some view ethnic groups as bounded and essentially distinct species, which need to be kept distinct and separate in order to maintain their vitality and worth. Others, however, acknowledge that ethnic groups, diverse in culture, belief (and yes, phenotype) can benefit from interacting with, and maybe even learning from, those who are not like themselves. The first is an essentialist articulation of racial difference, the second a cosmopolitan understanding of cultural difference. Although these two projects seem similar in daily discourse, the real life conditions they work to promote are profoundly different and contradictory.
Heathenry responds well to the critique of the “identitylessness” of white Americans. We might, in fact, say that this is one of American Heathenry’s central projects: to locate white Heathens in a grounded ethnicity, an “exotic” identity comparable to the particular identities being reclaimed by American Indians and African Americans in contrast to the “normalcy” of mainstream white identification. Cosmopolitanism contributes to a postmodern condition in which ascribed identity withers, leaving us adrift—we are, in Melucci’s (1989) terms, “nomads of the present.” Though many Heathens do, certainly, continue to see themselves as part of a raceless and unlocated “normalcy,” the centrality and significance of contentious discourses of race and ethnicity force them to grapple with the issue in perpetuity.
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