“Bern the Witch” slogan angers voters

Heather Greene —  March 13, 2016 — 37 Comments

The month of October is notoriously famous for eliciting kitschy slogans and glossy advertising inspired by Halloween. So it might not be that peculiar for a New Jersey pizzeria owner to use a Halloween-inspired theme for a political event supporting Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. While that “debate watch” party, titled “Bern the Witch,” was considered successful and well-received, the slogan itself has generated an entirely different, and perhaps unexpected, reaction.

[Photo Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Phil Roeder / Flickr]

“As a witch, I find this form of supporting Bernie particularly outrageous. Do they not know the history of the witch killings? How is this remotely acceptable? […] This slogan promotes hatred and ignorance towards women and their history. As if women did not struggle enough with this already, ” wrote MysticRaven publicly on Facebook.

In a message to The Wild Hunt, pizzeria owner Joe Smith did confirm reports that it was his event that used the slogan first. As he explained to a Vocativ reporter,”I’m not criticizing [Hillary Clinton] because she’s a woman, her policies and her career are disastrous for working people. […] If people wanna look at it one way or another they can. I’m looking to win.[…] I think we need to be on the offensive.”

The debate watch party, held at Smith’s PieZano Pizza Kitchen, was to kick-off a “3 1/2 month victory effort to win the Iowa Caucus.” That party was advertised on the Bernie Sanders official website as an event, along with other independently-sponsored listings.

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The slogan itself was first used on social media in relation to Sanders campaign on Oct 13.

The Thrill Society capitalized on Smith’s slogan by launching a corresponding line of products at Zazzle. The logo contains a witch flying across a yellow circle, or the moon, with Clinton’s face.

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Protests and complaints were not published until nearly five months after the initial event. In early February, The Huffington Post published an article titled “Bern the Witch Hunters.” It reads: “Even the beloved chorus of ‘Feel the Bern’ has been warped and twisted from its original context, abrogated to the more violent and misogynistic chant of “Bern the witch!”

The first Twitter complaint did not appear until March 1.

A second complaint followed March 11, after which the proverbial flood gates opened. Most of those protests use words like misogynistic, misguided and viciously sexist. Some Clinton supporters are demanding an apology.

Kenya Coviak, a journalist and Witch living in Michigan, told The Wild Hunt:

The tone and historical bigotry, casually used as humor, show a callous and ignorant misogyny and pathology systemically present in the very fabric of the cloth of our electorate that his platform rallies against. I do not have any indication that [Sanders] endorsed this misguided fringe concept. I base this on the fact that many Pagans here in Michigan are very active in supporting him, and if it were part of the color of his campaign culture in truth, this would not be so. It also is drastically out of line with his track record of social justice for everyone, and acceptance of everyone as equal humanity.

Since the protests began, the Sanders campaign has officially disavowed the slogan and the event page was removed. Campaign managers have made it clear that the original event was created independently, and was not officially endorsed like many of those listed on that portion of his site. Nor does the Sanders campaign endorse the Zazzle products and the logo. According to Vortiv, campaign manager Mike Casca said, “We have a team of people who scan and delete any events that are deemed inappropriate.This event was removed immediately from our system after its discovery and the user has been banned.” 

Smith did confirm that he was banned. However, maintaining his political position, he added, “The ban is a formality because Clinton folks are marshmallows. “Bern the Witch” as a theme in the Halloween spirit is nothing compared to here policy attacks on women. If voters are claiming they are standing for women’s rights, then they must align with the sanders campaign to defeat Clinton.”

Regardless of intention and endorsement, the very creation and existence of the logo and slogan have left many feeling uncomfortable. Questions linger, such as why it took so long for a Sanders representative to notice and respond. Coviak said, “… Sanders’ campaign should have caught this […] It is clear that the front line people who are in charge of oversight had a distinct moment of totally not getting it.”

The Sanders campaign has not yet responded to our request for a statement.

While there are various theories attributing the slogan’s creation to any one of the many political groups currently campaigning both Democrat and Republican, the issue does appear to rest squarely on the shoulders of exuberant Sanders supporters. And this is not the first time.

In preparation for the Mississippi primary on March 8, Sanders supporters began using the hashtag #MississippiBerning, and that slogan has generated its own protests and social media backlash. Like “Bern the Witch,” the Mississippi slogan has been lingering quietly for quite some time. It was first used in July 2015 by Josh Telson, and has appeared sporadically over the past 8 months. The first complaint didn’t show up until Mar 8, when one user said, “#MississippiBerning is perhaps not the best hashtag to use me thinks.”

tumblr_o3p5m4B1QK1ugmkf5o1_500Huffington Post writer David Trumble concluded, “The equation seems to be that the nicer Bernie Sanders is, the more his supporters feel entitled to be mean in his name.”

Telson has since had to defend his original usage. In a Tweet, he said that he was just “making a film reference.” He added that it is the Sanders people using the hashtag to support Sanders that are the problem. As for Joe Smith, he has not received any personal attacks over the “Bern the Witch” slogan. He said that he has only gotten a few press calls and “a few phone calls from confused voters.”

Despite any frustrations with the slogan or hashtag, some voters are keeping things in a broader perspective with respect to their own political beliefs. Dana D. Eilers, author of Pagans and the Law, told the The Wild Hunt, “The Sanders Campaign disavowed this attempt to hijack one of the Sanders campaign slogans. We are Democrats, not Republicans.”

Both slogans, “Bern the Witch” and “#MississippiBerning,” have received more attention over the past two weeks through the protests than they ever did in their original usage. Without social media, the slogans might have died out in the halls of obscurity. However, this fact does not erase or trivialize the larger concerns expressed by many voters, who, like Coviak, see this as an example of the “misogyny and pathology” underlying the “fabric of the system.”

Still others are left wondering how far Sanders’ supporters will push and play with the official “Feel the Bern” concept, before it’s all over. As for Joe Smith, he did not confirm or deny if he’d use the “Bern the Witch” slogan again for a local October event. However, he did say that he likes to be “creative,” but at that point he’ll be preparing to take on the Republican candidate.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Isabel Hagar

    “Bern the witch” may be a poorly thought out slogan but misogynistic it is not as witches can be both male and female.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      It is if, as is the case, the “witch” is a clearly identified woman.

    • Witches in folklore are stereotypically female, as the Halloween imagery used displays. It is obviously misogynistic, but since misogyny is so embedded in our culture as to be invisible, jokes like these can be perceived as fun. What they do is perpetuate and support that underlying, pervasive misogyny, rather than challenge and seek to heal it.

    • Members of the general public who would use “witch” this way are unlikely to know much about the way we use it. In political discourse, this is very much a gendered attack. It’s always applied to women and rarely, if ever, to men. In the media, it’s usually used as a more acceptable substitute for “bitch”.

      • And why witch is more acceptable than bitch, I have never been sure. They’re both misogynist putdowns. Highminded persons might use ‘wretch’ instead, but perhaps such persons wouldn’t use that language at all, due to better vocabulary.

        Clearly in this case, the opponent, Hillary Clinton, is the person to whom they refer, and not J. Random Person of a political nature.

        The mental health community is none too happy about Sanders’ remarks in a recent debate, regarding the need for more mental health care funding–his quip about either of them would increase it, as all one has to do is to look at the Republican candidates. I happen to think it apt, but many in that community feel it belittles the mentally ill. This bipolar happens to think that, as out of touch with consensual reality as the are, the remark is spot on, and it further dismays me that there are so many following so many delusions and spiteful behavior.

    • Ariadne Schulz

      That’s not at all true. Most people executed or imprissonned for for witchcraft were female. The official book dealing with the identification capture and torture of “witches” the Malleous Malcificarum has been refered to as one of the most misogynistic writings in history. This may have been meant in good fun, but it refers jokingly to several sets of genocides. It’s not funny, it’s not appropriate, and it points to a great deal of thinly veiled misogyny.

  • Deborah Bender

    “Bern the witch” is hate speech.

  • The ‘bern’ slogans mentioned in this article make light of misogyny and
    racism. If they were both designed by white males, then one might make
    the case that male and white privileges distance them from the felt
    effects women and people of color endure due to misogyny and racism,
    even when tacitly condoned as a ‘joke.’ If they were written by young
    people, the one might consider that they are too far removed from the
    dangerous times women and blacks endured in the Civil Rights era to
    understand what they are making light of. I can’t think that a
    candidate like Sanders who champions women’s equality and the Black
    Lives Matter movement would generate or condone these slogans, and
    considering he does hold these in high regard, his supporters should
    both know better, and not seek to tarnish his campaign with such
    contradictory slogans which fail to uphold his political platform, and
    could even undermine it. He already has enough to fight as an open
    socialist in a nation still largely hostile to the idea, even in the
    democratic form he is promoting. Let’s help him out rather than trip
    him up.

    • My father, when challenged, would always claim the hurtful things he said as “sarcasm” or “just a joke”. One example–in front of his daughters–was, I’d say/suspect they weren’t mine, except for the fact that they bear so much resemblance to me.

      Nice man. His first wife and both children eventually divorced him. I’m sure it’s because we “couldn’t take a joke”.

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    If Secretary Clinton’s supporters were to make jokes about burning Senator Sanders, a Jew, in an oven, or if, in 2008, her supporters had made jokes about lynching then-Senator Obama, a black man, I would have expected her to denounce them, forcefully, and I would not expect to read sensible people making excuses for them. This is no different.

  • Sarah

    Um… are you sure that first tweet from @ahab99 is a complaint and not just a pun?

    • The original tweet was *not* meant as a pun. Although it could easily be perceived that way considering the wording.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The only reason the complaints were even made is that they were made against the Sanders’ campaign. If it were a Republican they would be a waste of breath because a Republican would just laugh.

  • So the new standard is that if it offends, you are not allowed to say or write it?

    I think that’s silly. And totally unenforceable.

    You can’t make a better world by controlling how other people think. All you do is make yourself vulnerable to control by others.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      You’re allowed to say it and we’re allowed to respond.

      • But it wasn’t about me, was it?

        Does “taking offense” make the world a better place? Or does it just increase the list of things we aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company?

        • zormpas

          Nowhere in our constitution does it say that we have the right to NOT be offended. Sorry – people need to grow some skin. That’s the world. I have no use whatsoever for Bernie or Hillary – but that’s neither here nor there.

        • Hecate_Demetersdatter

          People are allowed to respond. If the statement is offensive, and this one was, people are allowed to make that clear. You can say it or write it, but be prepared for others to respond. Simple.

        • Yes, taking grave offense with misogyny makes the world a much better place.

  • Unfortunately some of Bernie’s supporters in 2016 are engaging in the same kind of hate-mongering against Hillary that worked so well for Obama 8 years ago.

    • Pardon, but perhaps Hillary just isn’t that likable.

  • Sophonisba

    By limiting the words we use, we limit the range of effective discourse, an especially dangerous path to follow in public policy.

    The regressive left’s continuous attempts to bully others and demonize certain concepts eliminates them from them from the public sphere, thus preventing the polity from addressing them. This form of bullying is as oppressive as the right’s attempts to do the same through physical intimidation.

    Gods know that I’m no fan of Trump, but I will say with some certainty that all those getting their underwear in a twist due to a ham-handed pizza parlor slogan likely don’t bat an eye when they see a Hitler = Trump meme. Equally as offensive, equally as worthless, but because Trump is a man and you don’t like his politics, well, it’s ok.

    Yes, your outrage is just poorly disguised sexism.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “Hitler = Trump meme”Probably because I was born during WWII, grew up with living imagery of that then-recent conflict, and developed an interest later on in early Twentieth Century history — oh, yeah, and being half-Jewish — I’m sensitive to details that make a pattern. Trump’s broadsides against Mexicans and Muslims, and the way he glosses over anti-protester violence at his rallies, are straight out of Hitler’s playbook. It’s not just a politically motivated meme.

      • While Trump repulses me as long as I’ve known him, and while much of his campaign rhetoric uses “Hitler’s playbook”, as you say, I have long agreed with those believe that anyone who compares someone or something to Hitler or Nazis has automatically lost the argument or their claim to rational thought.

        You have not lost it–you’re not using ad hominem statements. You have delineated tactics used by each man.

        Baruch–you, half Jewish? I’d never know it from your name! Sorry, not that oblivious. I was born not long after, myself. I paid attention to history, and current events, apparently more than usual for an average Yank.

        A Vietnamese plumber came to our house. I asked how long he’d been here (I’m always social, and always curious). He was 10 when he came with his father. I asked if he was one of the “boat people”, and he was surprised that I knew about them. I said I was happy he’d made it over, to which he muttered not everyone was. I said those people were mean, and not worth the air to retrain them.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Dad was Jewish and Mom Methodist. I got exposed to a wide variety of sacred practices before my parents made an executive decision for Unitarian Universalism. Part of that exposure was Hannukah at my paternal grandparents’. Grand-dad was a cantor and sang the prayers. The first one started with “Baruch.” When it came time to pick my Craft name I chose the first word of living-room religion I’d ever heard.

          • Baruch hatta adonai eluhenu–I hung out with the Hebrew section of the language dorm I was in, and other Jews of a humorous or sfnal bent, and have been to many services then and since. “Blessing”, yes? Great choice!

            My maternal gma was a Mubarak, which is pretty much the same thing. As a belly dancer, one hears a lot of Egyptian and other Arabic-language music. Everyone’s on about Habibi this, or habibi that–“beloved”, in general, although I’ve also heard it in reference to a gay male. Her husband was Habib, and I can’t help but think of him when I hear the word. My grandfather had a certain resemblance to Boris Karloff. My mom was 30, the youngest of four, so when I met him around 5… So I hear these passionate voices singing of Habibi, and up pops the image of my grandfather’s face, and I chuckle every time.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Thank you very much for explaining your choice of craft name. My mother abandoned Judaism as a teenager — the late 1930s in Zagreb, you’d recognize the stories I’m sure — and I didn’t know much about my heritage until I was sort of adopted as a young adult by a Jewish friend and his family. Later, my wife and I chose to raise our children as Jews, and I’m very grateful for how that has enriched my own spiritual path.

            I should disclose that my friend’s family were all humorists (amateur, of course) and my first seder included several minutes on the floor trying to breathe. 😀

            Edit: Left that phrase hanging: I was as much a student as my children, and the rabbi was generous, patient and sincerely curious about my path. He performed the wedding ceremony for my eldest daughter, she and I wouldn’t have considered any alternative.

          • I fondly recall Purim celebrations in college. After one pun-filled Purim play, e. g., Haman waxes Roth, as if Roth were a brand of metal carriage, I had returned to my room. After a while I heard off-key singing accompanied by occasional thumps. When I looked out, there were two very tall slender young men who’d been at the celebration earlier. They were teetering from wall to wall (not a great distance, as tall as they were), clearly “fragrant in their wine”, unable to tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai”, having had either very large cups, or certainly more than the four prescribed.

            Over 40 years later, I still have that image in my mind.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            My paternal grandparents came from different parts of Eastern Europe in the 19-noughts and met in Montreal. The only language they had in common was Yiddish, and took great pains to learn English. Meanwhile my dad was born and immersed in a French-speaking environment outside the home, where he learned the scurrility the Quebecois kids hurled at Jewish kids, and what to yell back (also in French). He was good at languages all his life. After moving to the States he sought French teachers to translate the taunts he’d learned. None of his high school teachers would touch it; he had to get into college to find a language professor who would unpack the phrases for him.

    • Deborah Bender

      Political discourse that dehumanizes people is “an especially dangerous path to follow in public policy”. If you don’t like Hillary Clinton, attack her motives, her past behavior, her stands on issues, or the company she keeps. Don’t call her a witch. I’m a witch. Hillary Clinton is not.

      I dislike the Hitler=Trump meme because it isn’t remotely true (Mussolini=Trump is closer to the mark) and mentioning Hitler in this context is crying wolf. I was against the Vietnam War, but I didn’t like the over the top insults that the left aimed at LBJ during the Vietnam War either. I object to “Bern the witch” on three grounds: 1) It suggests lynching a politician that the speaker dislikes, 2) “Witch” is never used as an insult against men; it’s always used as an insult against a powerful woman that the speaker dislikes and is therefore an expression of misogyny, and 3) it’s hate speech directed against witches, and witches are actual people.

      You clearly don’t understand what sexism is.

      • Franklin_Evans

        Thank you. I also dislike the Hitler comparison, and while I’m willing to stipulate the Mussolini comparison, I believe both are marks of lazy analysis. Naming a scapegoat and manipulating one’s followers to focus on it is about as old as human civilization. Every nation bent on conquest or in a state of war for any reason used it. The United States’ early expansions made the indigenous tribes scapegoats, and the Trail of Tears was not the only result; actual citizens of Japanese descent were not just scapegoats, they were made victims of criminal violations of their legal rights, and citizens of with German-sounding names changed them during WWI out of fear for their livelihoods; our own history is as stained as that of any other nation.

        The simple fact is the easier it is to name the scapegoat, the more often it will be named. Witches are right at the top of the list. Reclaiming the dignity of the term and the role is not going to happen any time soon, a grievous observation to be sure.

        • Scapegoating and dehumanizing a person or a group is the easist propaganda, and makes inhumanity against them so much easier.

  • Carolyn Berry

    Bern the Witch applies to one woman directly, Hillary Clinton. I don’t know how it flew over everyone’s head that she was being called a witch, or that it has been use as a negative term for women for years….change one letter, which I’m sure everyone is aware of, and witch is euphemistically used for, and its even worse. Its rude and childish, and yes, misogynistic. That’s what we women are, right? (B)Witches.

  • Angel Satarose

    Wow… this was a seriously stupid idea for a slogan. It is not only misogynistic but in such poor taste!

  • I’ve been a Bernie supporter since long before this campaign was a gleam in the Senator’s eye–he’s been my dream candidate since the late 1980s, in truth… and I’ve been a feminist at least a decade longer than that.

    And yes, “Bern the Witch” is misogynistic. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

    Whoever uses that slogan is revealing themselves to be a misogynist and ham-handed troll… but analysis does not support the notion that there is anything particularly troll-ish or sexist among Sanders’ supporters.

    Furthermore, when we begin to hold a campaigns responsible for every mean-spirited thing said or done by a pizzeria owner on their behalf–despite the campaign itself immediately disavowing it–we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted from the genuine differences between political candidates.

    (An exception to that rule would be Donald Trump’s campaign, which not only has failed to repudiate the racism, misogyny, and violence of it’s supporters–a key difference with Sanders’ campaign–but has appeared to actively be working to incite it. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that Trump’s essential platform is racism and an appeal to violence.)

    I think the connection to Pagan Witches is too tenuous to make this an important story for our community. But I won’t for a moment pretend the comment itself was in any way excusable; Joe Smith and the Thrill Society are assholes.