Archives For journalism

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Mass grave for the dead Lakota after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

  • The historic site of Wounded Knee is now for sale on the open market. The current owner, James Czywczynski, makes some rather insulting claims about why he’s selling it. Quote: “For some reason, they cannot see economic development and they cannot see tourism and they cannot relate. They want everything for free is what it amounts to I guess.” The Oglala Sioux see the price as artificially inflated, trading on the massacre when the land itself is valued in the thousands, not millions. Quote: “We see that greed around here all the time with non-Indians. To me, you can’t put a price on the lives that were taken there.” What happens next is uncertain. There are claims that some buyers are interested in buying the land and giving it back to the tribe, but it’s just as possible someone will buy it in order to make money off someone else’s tragedy. 
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center shares the experiences of a lone Jew in a highly racially segregated prison. Quote: “It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you’ll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you’ll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the heads don’t have any play.” I think it’s important to share this after my story yesterday about Even Ebel. This is the toxic atmosphere in which Paganism behind bars is being practiced. 
  •  Jack Jenkins, a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, writes about how mainstream journalism still doesn’t do religion coverage very well. Quote: “Yet religion seems to be having an increasingly hard time getting a fair shake from another major player in American life: the media. The breadth and quality of religion reporting in the United States has atrophied in recent years, with once-robust religion sections now all but erased from the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers. Meanwhile, religion reporters have either been laid off or forced to re-shift their professional focus to covering religion ‘on the side.'” The truth is that it’s even worse if you’re a member of a religious minority. We just hope the new episode of “Wife Swap” treats us gently, and we scarcely dream of the coverage larger faiths get. 
  • Just thought you should know that being for gun control laws is very, very, Pagan. Quote: “Frankly, it almost would seem that animism won’t go away. The left, which is largely made up of people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ’s blood as being necessary for our salvation, view inanimate objects as possessing their own will. That’s animism, that’s a return to the most pagan of paganism and look at what nutty political views it ends up supporting.” That’s Larry Pratt, thexecutive director of Gun Owners of America, an organization that believes the NRA is too soft on protecting the 2nd Amendment. Here’s one Heathen’s response to Pratt’s animist ramblings. 
  • In response to a number of recent articles, Evangelical Christians Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead confront the issue of predatory proselytism. Quote: “Moreover, friendship is sometimes abused, when it is reduced to the end of evangelism. In one instance where an Evangelical has been involved in a high-profile relationship and dialogue with a Mormon scholar, many Evangelicals have called for an end to the relationship after a period of time because the Mormon has not converted. Aren’t relationships valuable in and of themselves without being used merely as a tool to convert others? For all our emphasis on personal relationships, one might be left to wonder how relational the Evangelical movement as a whole is.” For more on my personal interactions with Paul Louis Metzger, click here.
Kryja Withers reading to Peter Dybing at her home.

Kryja Withers reading to Peter Dybing at her home.

 

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Selena Fox's healing altar for the victims of the Boston attack.

Selena Fox’s healing altar for the victims of the Boston attack.

I’d like to begin by sending out my thoughts to all those who were affected by yesterday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. There have been many Pagan responses to this still-unresolved tragedy, but I think Ár nDraíocht Féin Archdruid Rev. Kirk Thomas’ statement may be the best:

“We in ADF participate in a public religion. The gatherings of the folk are important for our communal worship of the Kindreds. Terrorists, such as those who bombed the Boston Marathon today, are counting on the fear of the people to disrupt our sense of community, that we may be isolated from each other, and thus lose our way. I believe that it is our duty as civilized people to resist this impulse, to find our courage, and so defy these enemies of Good, that our relationships with the Kindreds and with each other will continue to thrive.”

May the perpetrators be caught, may justice be done, may the wounded find care, and may the grieved find comfort.

Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, 2010–2011 Charles Fréger, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Babugeri, Bansko, Bulgaria, 2010–2011
Charles Fréger, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I like to consider myself a pretty savvy guy when it comes to journalism. I’ve spoken to a range of local and national reporters about Paganism, I’ve been interviewed, and I’ve been used as a resource for reporters looking for sources. I’ve spent years of my life analyzing, and critiquing, journalism that covers our diverse faiths. Despite that savvy, or perhaps because of it, I allowed myself to get suckered by a sensationalist tabloid journalist looking for dirt.

M.L. Nestel

M.L. Nestel

I was contacted by a reporter from the New York Post who wanted to do a story about Republican City Councilman Dan Halloran, currently accused of fraud and bribery, and was looking for information about Halloran’s Theodish faith. I was justifiably skeptical, since I do know that the New York Post is a sensationalist rag, but after speaking to the reporter, a Matt Nestel, I agreed to put him in contact with a couple sources. Why did I do that? On the phone, he said the right things: He said he wasn’t out to do a hit job on our religions, he expressed how he wanted to learn about Theodism and modern Pagan/Heathen religions, he stressed how he had treated other minority religions sensitively, he even offered to let me vet the piece for accuracy before it went to print. So I put him in contact with Cara Schulz, Managing Editor of The Pagan Newswire Collective, who had interviewed Dan Halloran in 2010, and Nick Ritter, my trusted go-to source on Theodism, and someone who actually knew Dan’s religious history.

Needless to say, things didn’t work out so well…

“The city councilman who bungled his way into federal bribery charges is also a total bonehead in his kooky heathen religion — whose members wear medieval garb, make sacrifices to multiple gods and compete in combat games. Dan Halloran (R-Queens) — who was arrested Tuesday as the suspected bag man in state Sen. Malcolm Smith’s alleged plot to buy his way onto the mayoral ticket — has been publicly flogged and lost a spear-throwing contest as part of his Theodish punishments. Halloran converted in the 1980s from Catholicism to the pre-Christian Germanic religion, whose believers drink mead or whiskey from horns and dress like characters in a Renaissance fair.”

When I saw the article my stomach sank. I knew this was a tabloid, and I knew they’d be going after Dan Halloran, nothing could prevent that, but I thought that at the very least our faiths would be treated with some sensitivity since we had cooperated. How foolish I was. I got played. I never saw a draft, naturally, nor did I ever hear back from Mr. Nestel once he got what he wanted. That’s not entirely true, I did get a cryptic one-sentence reply when I expressed my disappointment at the published piece, but that was it. In an editorial published at PNC-Minnesota, Cara Schulz noted how much time was spent trying to provide good information to Mr. Nestel, only to have it thrown aside once a sensationalist scoop was found.

newyorkpost_screenshot

“To his credit, Nestel spent the better part of two days researching Theodism.  That’s a considerable amount of time in the news industry.  He asked intelligent questions, asked for more information on areas he still didn’t understand, and requested multiple sources to interview.  We spent just over 4 hour son the phone with him during the course of two days answering his questions.  We connected him to some really fantastic, knowledgeable people to interview.   Sources to read to learn more about the religion of Theodism.  Then we stepped back and hoped our assistance wasn’t in vain.  We can help, but we can’t write the article for the reporter.” 

Having settled on the “part of a kooky religion that whips people” angle, The New York Post’s piece quickly became fodder for a series of blog posts and like-minded tabloids across the pond.

  • “I’ve been following politics for 40 years and seen a lot of characters come and go who believed weird things, or acted in a bizarre manner. But Halloran’s beliefs and actions top the list. Not only is it bizarre, but kind of pathetic as well. He is obviously seeking something that he doesn’t get from mainstream Christianity. And hey! Who wouldn’t want to be a prince with their own cult?”Rick Moran, American Thinker
  • “And that’s what the Post gets down to today with an exclusive report on some of the more unsavory details about his religious beliefs. The most ‘juicy’ detail is that Halloran was once publicly flogged after he committed an undisclosed act against a female “thrall” (a follower). He was stripped to his waist, strapped to a tree and flogged with a belt 11 times. Meh, it’s not like he helped make Steve Guttenberg a star, or was shackled to a ‘stone of triumph.'”Ben Yakas, Gothamist
  • “But now he can be best remembered for something else: Halloran was voluntarily tied to a tree and flogged 11 times with a leather belt by the leaders of his pagan sect as punishment for an “undisclosed act” against a female “thrall” (probationary servant, in non-pagan-Religion-terms).”Peter Moskowitz, Gawker
  • “Formerly a Catholic, the First Atheling of New Normandy converted to Theodism in the 1980s. In those early days, Halloran was punished for committing an undisclosed act with one of his lady “thralls,” a probationary servant. He was stripped to his waist, tied to a tree, and flogged 11 times with a belt, a source told The Post.” – Sarah Rae Fruchtnicht, Opposing Views
  • “For Dan Halloran, being arrested was not the most memorable thing about him in the news this week. The Republican councilman in New York City was indicted Tuesday on bribery charges, which was newsworthy enough, until Friday’s New York Post revealed the bizarre rituals he engaged in while practicing the pagan faith of Theodism. According to the report, Halloran was once voluntarily flogged against a tree as punishment for unspecified acts against a female “thrall,” and participated in a spear-throwing duel with a religious rival, all while dressed like a Renaissance Faire employee. He remains innocent until proven guilty on the bribery charges, but the court of public opinion likely won’t be holding back on judging him for that spear-throwing duel.”msnNOW

The only clear-headed take on this was from The League of Ordinary Gentleman, who chided those engaged in merely mocking the Pagan, instead of sticking to the serious charges facing Halloran.

“Whether Halloran is or is not guilty of corruption is one thing. That’s not what these articles are about. What is shameful is the point-and-laugh articles pretty much openly mocking Halloran for embracing a restated version of ancient Germanic polytheism. He worships the old gods. And that’s his right as an American citizen. It’s our obligation as a people to disregard the apparent silliness of his religious beliefs and judge the man on the content of his character. Let us focus on the moral and legal merits of the man’s case. He’s only interesting to anyone outside of New York because of the corruption accusation. Is he guilty or not? If he is guilty, ought what he did be deemed a crime at all? His religion is irrelevant to such inquiries.”

Sadly, voices of reason in this renewed feeding frenzy are few.

All I wanted was for good information to overcome bad information. That a reporter would be brave enough to be accurate and fair, even if they worked for a tabloid. I was wrong, I was too liberal in my trust, and I exposed people I care about to an industry that only cares about grabbing as many page-views as possible. I was foolish, and I am sorry. My hope is that this unfortunate incident can be a learning moment for me, and for the wider community. Consider the source, even if the reporter seems nice, even if they say the right things. If someone writes for the New York Post, or any tabloid, they don’t care about what’s fair, they only care about finding more dirt. Work only with reporters who have proven themselves to be fair, to avoid sensationalism when writing about our faiths. Don’t talk to the news simply because you can, remember that sometimes silence is better.

I was suckered by a tabloid, and I’ll try to not let it happen again. I have failed my community in this moment, even if it was not me who decided to write that piece. Mea culpa.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Coilhouse Issue #6

Coilhouse Issue #6

  • Excellent alternative culture magazine and blog Coilhouse is shutting down, though the creators are promising that this is a mere hiatus and that Coilhouse will return in some form in the future. Quote: “We can’t tell you what exactly is coming next, or when; we just know we have no intention of quitting. Potential directions that Coilhouse may move in somewhere down the line: books, apps, limited edition print/art objects, video, fashion collaborations. Smaller, more manageable one-shot projects that don’t break our backs. But first, we will have to re-strategize our business and production plans. Nothing is set in stone at the moment because, simply put, we need a break. We need to rest.” For now, they’ve made the six print issues of Coilhouse magazine available as free PDF downloads, a token of affection to fans and supporters. I highly recommend checking them out. 
  • Is the famous Celtic warrior-queen Boudicca buried beneath a McDonalds restaurant? It is rumored to be so. Quote: “Dr Mike Heyworth, the director of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), said that experts are on the hunt for her burial place, at one point rumoured to be near what is now a McDonald’s restaurant in Birmingham, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she was unearthed in the next few years. There are contradictory but persistent tales (with “no element of truth”, according to the Museum of London) that she lies beneath either platform eight, nine or 10 at King’s Cross Station.” The big question is: what happens to her resting place once the bones are found? 
  • No, Easter was not originally the celebration of Ishtar. Let’s all be more critical of Facebook image memes, OK? 
  • At the Huffington Post Grove Harris discusses composting as a Springtime spiritual exercise. Quote: “Composting is in many ways one of the most spiritual of practices. It is the process that will feed the next cycle of life, which will take endings and serve new beginnings. It is powerfully renewing on many levels, and offers deep metaphoric guidance.”
  • Enforced celibacy doesn’t really work all that often, no matter what the religion/ideology is. The country of Bhutan is distributing condoms to Buddhist monasteries to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Quote: “Warning signs of risky behavior among monks first appeared in 2009, when a report on risks and vulnerabilities of adolescents revealed that monks were engaging in “thigh sex” (in which a man uses another man’s clenched thighs for intercourse), according to the state-owned Kuensel daily.” So remember, use protection, make it available, no matter what the official rules are. 
The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León.

The Joy of Sexus by Vicki León.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

We just a have a few quick (Pagan) news notes for you today, enjoy!

Sarah Pike on Studying Religion, Paganism, and Spiritual Festivals: The always-excellent Religion in American History blog interviews religion scholar Sarah Pike, perhaps best known to modern Pagans as the author of “Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community” and “New Age and Neopagan Religions in America.” In a fascinating interview, Pike talks about how she got into studying religion, the “internal revolutions” of young people, and the current state of Paganism in the mainstream media (among other things).

Sarah Pike

Sarah Pike

In a chapter I wrote recently on “Wicca in the News” about changing representations of Witches in American news media since the 1960s (Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media, 2012), I argue that reporters today rarely depict Witches as evil or satanic, even though stereotypes from the 1960s and 1970s of sexy young female Witches or cuddly cookie-baking elderly Witches-next-door still remain. In the past 25 years since I entered my first occult shop and started asking questions, the boundaries between categories like religion and magic and the differences between “folk,” “popular,” and “institutional” religion are treated with more nuance. And scholars of American religions are more likely to take traditions like Wicca seriously than they did when I was a graduate student, because Neopaganism has become firmly established across North America and formally recognized in government branches and institutions such as the military and prisons.”

The whole thing is worth a read, I’m particularly intrigued by her upcoming focus on “the lineage of twenty-first century spiritual festivals,” which seems to intersect with recent work on “transformational” festival culture.

James Arthur Ray Still Trying to Evade Responsibility: “Secret”-peddler and New Age guru James Arthur Ray, currently in prison after being convicted of negligent homicide in three 2009 sweat-lodge ceremony deaths, is still in the process of trying to get that conviction overturned despite asking the families for forgiveness and saying that “I’m disappointed in myself and I don’t have any excuses.”

James Arthur Ray

James Arthur Ray

“Attorneys for a self-help author imprisoned in the deaths of three people say the prosecution has done little to show the case wasn’t plagued by error. James Arthur Ray wants his conviction on three counts of negligent homicide and his 2-year prison sentenced overturned. His attorneys have called into question some jury instructions and the conduct of prosecutors from Yavapai County in briefings to the Arizona Court of Appeals. [...] In a cross-appeal, the attorney general’s office says jurors should have been told that Ray had a duty to aid participants in distress and to avoid creating a situation that put them at unreasonable risk of harm.”

If Ray were truly the spiritual visionary he claims to be, he would bear the paltry sentence given him (just over two years for three deaths) and work to re-build himself once free.  Reaching out to the families he’s harmed, and speaking out on the dangers of appropriating cultures one doesn’t understand. The reverberations from this case are still being felt, and it remains to be seen if the right lessons have been learned. We’ll keep you posted on his appeal.

Orion Foxwood Heads to Paganicon, Talks About His Personal Journey: Spiritual teacher, conjurer, and seer Orion Foxwood, author of “The Candle and the Crossroads: A Book of Appalachian Conjure and Southern Root-Work” and “The Faery Teachings” is headed to Paganicon in Minnesota this week, and PNC-Minnesota interviews him before the event.

Orion Foxwood (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

Orion Foxwood (Photo: Tony Mierzwicki)

 “I have three major streams I work with. There is my Pagan witchcraft, Faery Seership, and Southern conjure. The Faery Seership grew along a parallel path with my craft work. I was influenced in a major way by R.J. Stewart in my Faery work, and through his work attained a contact in the spirit world named Brigh.  Brigh and I have continued to develop that work over the years. I teach much of that, it is more of an integrated, co-created practice working with the more invisible side of nature. All three streams of practices really come together with their own unique insights. They all have a way of speaking as to how my soul has grown; spiritually, magically, and mystically. They all support my work in the world, and within myself. They give me a broader set of language to often say the same things. It makes it easier to reach many kinds of “ears”, including people with different types of spirit work.”

The entire interview is interesting reading if you’re unfamiliar with Orion’s background and practice. I’m hoping to hear a lot more from Paganicon this weekend, where Orion Foxwood will be joined by Brandy Williams, author of “The Woman Magician: Revisioning Western Metaphysics from a Woman’s Perspective and Experience” as featured guests.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Wiccans and the larger Pagan community had a major victory lately. We got a talking head on the Fox News network, Tucker Carlson, to apologize on-air for sensationalist, distorted, and false remarks involving Pagan religions. A mix of quick-moving Pagan advocacy organizations and a groundswell of outrage from the community as a whole made them (or at least Carlson) re-think their earlier comments. We should feel good about this. We got an apology, and Fox News now knows that pushing that particular outrage button might have negative PR consequences (and no matter what you think of Fox News, they are in the business of adding viewers, not subtracting them).

That story had its genesis in a bit of good news, the University of Missouri recognizing the validity of Wiccan/Pagan holidays. Likewise, another bit of good news, a challenge to California’s “Five Faiths” prison chaplaincy policy being revived by the 9th Circuit Court, inspired a newspaper columnist to take aim and set phasers to “offend.”

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders: You mad bro?

“In its wisdom – and yes, I am being ironic – the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a ruling Tuesday that revives a California inmate lawsuit to force the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain. [...] When I read the complaint that Wiccans aren’t treated the same as adherents to mainstream religions, I figure that’s what you get when you join what for some is a do-it-yourself theology. It’s like atheists suing because they aren’t welcome in church.”

That’s Debra J. Saunders, a conservative columnist for the generally center-left oriented San Francisco Chronicle. She plays a role, the conservative gadfly for the lefty media outlet she inhabits (conservative-oriented outlets often do the same thing, running a “token” liberal, it’s a well-worn method to engage/inflame readers). Just like Fox News, Saunders saw a story that she could frame as an outrage, distorted the facts just a bit, then let fire.

“If I turn into a frog over the weekend, I take back this column. Until then, I’m just a chump who pays taxes so the Ninth Circuit can pull rabbits out of hats.”

Ms. Saunders is a professional, and she knows what she is doing. She welcomes your ire, she feeds on it. She uses your angry e-mails and letters as confirmation that she’s doing her job correctly. Her job isn’t to win more readers by appealing to a broad base, her job is to make you mad. Then, when you do get mad, she uses your angry letters as further fuel for her antics.

you-mad-bro-

“I thought I would share this letter because it does three interesting things. First, it wrongly argues that editors would reject any opinion piece that is derogatory toward a religion. That’s ridiculous. Just ask the Catholic church. Second, it demonstrates a special brand of tolerance — a brand that wants to censure dissenting opinions, without even noticing that its demand for censorship is in itself intolerant. Third, it is anonymous. So much for the force of one’s convictions.”

What she’s doing is trolling. Professional-grade trolling, and we shouldn’t feed into it. Unlike Fox News, there’s little to be gained from her apology, and getting angry at her is exactly what she wants. WIth trolls all you can do is ignore them, and refuse to engage with them. As members of a minority religion we have to be savvy about which battles we pick, and we have to realize when someone is goading us into a conflict because they want that conflict, because it actually benefits them to have us mad at them. Debra J. Saunders is a bottom-feeding troll who wants Pagans to be mad at her, but the best thing we can do is simply encourage people to not read, support, or interact with her. We gain little from acting against her, and we have much bigger battles to fight, so leave the troll alone.

Today I’ll be away with the Faeries in Seattle (along with T. Thorn Coyle, Raven Grimassi, Stephanie Taylor- Grimassi, Lupa, and several other Pagan-friendly folk) but I didn’t want to leave you empty handed in my absence! So, since I’m at a convention, it seems appropriate that I share a panel from the convention I just participated in last weekend. So here’s a panel discussion from PantheaCon 2013 entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner, and featuring Eric Colon (a Mayombero and Santero), Mike Aldax (crime reporter for the San Francisco Examiner), Nagasiva Yronwode (a Satanist), and myself.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013.

Setting the Record Straight panel at PantheaCon 2013. Photo: Greg Harder

“Most reporters aren’t experts in Paganism, Satanism, or African Diaspora faiths. When these topics come up, especially in connection with violent crime, news articles often suggest that these religions are violent. In this panel, experts from a variety of faiths will discuss how their beliefs have been misrepresented or sensationalized, a local crime reporter will share how he does his job, and we’ll come up with strategies for Pagans and the press to work together.”

I think it’s a thought-provoking a useful panel, especially considering recent events in the mainstream media. I don’t have a transcript of the talk yet, but I’m looking into seeing how quickly I can have one made. In the meantime, feel free to download it and listen at your convenience.

That’s all I have for now, I hope to bring you more material from PantheaCon 2013 soon, and some images and interviews from this weekend’s FaerieCon West. Have a great day!

As Heather Greene reported yesterday here at The Wild Hunt, the Pagan community has been reacting to inflammatory and offensive statements made by Fox News and Fox & Friends Weekend personalities regarding the University of Missouri adding the eight Wiccan Sabbats to its “Guide to Religion.”

Since then, the response from Wiccans and other modern Pagans on social media sites like Facebook have been heavy and sustained. More than 25,000 individuals have signed a Causes petition demanding an apology, and over 4000 have signed a Change.org petition demanding the same.

“Fox and Friends on February 17, 2013 decided to belittle women, make fun of a Federally recognized religion, present inaccurate information as “facts” concerning the religion of Wicca, and decide that religious freedom and respect is ONLY for the mainstream or “traditional” religions rather than for EVERY American Citizen regardless of their spirituality. [...] They are also doing a lot of damage control by removing this video from the public record due to the backlash it is receiving but I, and many others in the Pagan community will not allow them to hide their bigotry and pretend it didn’t happen.”

In addition, Pagan and Wiccan advocacy organizations have been stepping forward to make statements on the coverage, starting with the Lady Liberty League.

“The Lady Liberty League denounces the ignorant and unprofessional statements made by Fox News commentators this weekend.  The statements, made by Fox personalities including Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce were in regards to the University of Missouri’s 2011 decision to include Wiccan and other holidays, along with the holidays of other many other faiths, in that university’s “Guide to Religion.”

We are deeply disappointed that Fox’s leadership would chose to allow such ill-informed statements on the air.  The commentary of the Fox News personalities over the weekend betrayed not only deep ignorance about Paganism and Wicca but also a fundamental distain for the nature of religious diversity in the United States and the establishment clause in the US constitution.”

This was quickly followed by a statement from the Covenant of the Goddess.

“In the case of Fox News, the Fox & Friends Weekend commentators, Anna Kooiman, Clayton Morris, Tucker Carlson, and Tammy Bruce, spent Sunday morning, February 17th, mocking Wicca as it relates to the University of Missouri’s “Guide to Religion.” Not only were their comments irreverent, they were factually incorrect. They turned the University’s sincere attempt at diversity awareness into a three-ring circus act.

The Covenant of the Goddess recognizes and respects the opinions and beliefs of all people, of faith or no faith.  We applaud the University of Missouri and any other organization that strives for community awareness and interfaith peace.  We do not expect special treatment for Wiccans or Witches on campus or otherwise. However, we do expect the national media to report with reasonable accuracy and to offer a modicum of respect to people of all faiths and all practices.”

In addition, COG also sent a letter to the University of Missouri thanking them for their inclusivity.

Of course, it wasn’t only Pagans who were pointing out the bizarre and distorted coverage of this issue, NewsHounds (a Fox News watchdog site) said that the network’s “hypocrisy is truly astounding” while The Raw Story recounted the espeically inflammatory statements of commentator Tucker Carlson.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

An e-card on the subject being shared around social media sites.

“Except any religion whose most sacred day is Halloween, I just can’t take seriously,” Carlson added. “I mean, call me a bigot. And I’m not, you know, not offering an editorial against Wiccanism.” Carlson later added that every Wiccan was either a “compulsive Dungeons & Dragons player or is a middle-aged, twice-divorced older woman living in a rural area who works as a midwife.”

These led the site Opposing Views to simply state: “Tucker Carlson Really Hates Wiccans.” That’s actually not that unfair of an assessment, Carlson has a long history of insulting and baiting Wiccans on his various television programs. In the past he’s called Wicca “Satanic,” and given airtime to Christian criticisms of Wicca and modern Paganism without airing any competing viewpoint. It’s a well he returns to because he knows it will excite the conservative Christian viewers of his programs, and garner him a bit of attention when progressive (and Pagan) sites call him out for it.

This weekend at PantheaCon I was honored to participate in a panel entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Pagans and the Press,” moderated by journalist Beth Winegarner (audio and hopefully video coming soon). During the panel, I noted that coverage of Wiccans has largely evolved from fear and intimations of “dark” practices hidden from view to seeing us a jokes, and that this evolution should be seen as part of how effective Wiccans and Witches have been at changing the narrative. Even those who want to sensationalize and attack us largely admit we aren’t evil, that we are, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless.” The challenge now is correcting the record when these distortions appear, and working towards making Pagan media an ever-more vibrant and responsive tool for influencing the mainstream narratives of our religions.

ADDENDUM: Tucker Carlson has apologized on Twitter.

This past Friday I linked to a story, and subsequent follow-ups, concerning a Santa Muerte statue placed in a cemetery in San Benito, Texas. The San Benito News went to Dr. Antonio N. Zavaleta, whom they called a “renowned expert on the occult,” for context and he said that the statue was “probably a spell to harm or kill someone.”  This prompted a response from Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” who said that there was no evidence that this statue was placed there to harm or kill anyone. Ultimately, someone went and destroyed the statue before authorities could remove it, and I dinged the reporters for going with the “death spell” angle without seeking alternate perspectives. 

Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

All that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

“I think there’s a lesson here, primarily for the journalists who went with the “death spell” angle without finding a second opinion.”

Since then, San Benito News Managing Editor Michael Rodriguez has publicly and privately defended his paper’s coverage, sending The Wild Hunt (and I assume others) an explanation for why they only got one source, and why he trusted Dr. Zavaleta’s input. Quote: “If there are those who would discredit Dr. Zavaleta’s conclusions based on his religious practice, then by the same token I should dismiss their remarks as biased [...] the original article was not an attempt to spark an argument about religious freedoms but merely to present the concerns of a community, the actions of a city administration in response to such concerns, and the opinion of a doctor/professor/published author with expertise in this field.”

The paper then went on to do the right thing (in my opinion) and interview both Dr. Zavaleta and Dr. Chesnut about the statue, its purpose, and how it should have been dealt with.

Dr. Chestnut: The destruction of the statue was most likely perpetrated by an individual or group who had seen the media coverage featuring a local anthropologist who asserted that the effigy had been placed in the cemetery as part of a black magic hex intended to kill someone. I seriously doubt that it was the owner of the statue who destroyed it, but without the presence of cameras in the cemetery we can’t be certain. I imagine the perpetrator(s) smashed the effigy instead of burning it because they were in a hurry. You would need to ask the anthropologist why he specifically recommended burning the image, but I would imagine he did because of the historical use of fire in Christianity as an agent of destructive purification. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, had “heretics” and “witches” burned at the stake on a regular basis.

Dr. Zavaleta: There are no accidents or haphazard events in this world of U.S.-Mexico witchcraft (brujeria). Therefore the statue was placed in the cemetery deliberately and for a specific act of witchcraft. I doubt that its destruction could ever be a random act. First of all it was not committed by the person who put it there in the first place. That is out of the question. Secondly, no passerby destroyed it either. The most probable explanation for its destruction is by a person of religious faith who felt it so offensive that they had to take action. Within the context of the believer, the fact that the statue was not burned but broken up does not in any way negate the effect, in other words it’s still active. Just as it was created ritually it would have to be destroyed by fire ritually in order to nullify its intended effect.”

At this point I’d like to add a few things, first, I’d like to commend Michael Rodriguez for actually being responsive and communicating with me privately, and for posting an explanation/defense of his paper’s reporting. I don’t necessarily agree with his reasoning, or his conclusions, but I admire the fact that he took our concerns seriously enough to respond. Most papers don’t bother, and being accountable to your audience is good journalism. Secondly, I’d like to talk briefly about Dr. Zavaleta and “renowned” occult experts.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Zavaleta is well-educated, nor do I doubt that he’s made a study of Brujeria. Let’s accept that right off that bat. However, when I read that someone is a “renowned expert on the occult” and that he has, quote, “aided authorities from all over the country in identifying and understanding ritualistic crimes,” alarm bells go off. First off, most “occult experts” aren’t actually experts in all forms of the occult (a broad term indeed), and many of them have a religio-political agenda. Our community (and many of our allies) have had years of trouble from “occult experts” who misrepresent occult beliefs, and Pagan faiths, viewing everything through a single lens of interpretation. Often, this lens will be informed by a conservative Christian worldview, and driven by a sensationalist idea of what “magic” and “ritual” are. One “occult expert” helped put three innocent teenagers in prison for nearly twenty years.

Finally, Dr. Zavaleta wasn’t simply acting as a scholar, offering conjecture based on his research. He made assertions that came from his role as an “occult expert” and that should have set off red flags for any journalist covering minority religions in America, especially minority religions that utilize magic.

“Someone, a man or woman, is doing witchcraft for pay,” Zavaleta said. “Somebody has paid the witch; they don’t do it for free and it (witchcraft) could easily go for a couple thousand dollars. So it definitely needs to be removed. The city should remove it, and that should be the end of it.” Actually, Zavaleta said the best course of action may even be to burn the sculpture.

Scholars don’t tell you to burn a sculpture, they don’t make definitive statements about the origin of the statue without verifying it. “Occult experts” with agendas do that. This is why I think the initial story needed more than one perspective, and why I’m glad they went and published a follow-up.

The Wild Hunt is partially an exercise in advocacy journalism. I make no bones about the fact that I have a pro-Pagan point of view, but papers that want to service an entire town, or city, can’t afford such a bias. This time, the assertions about “death spells” led someone to smash the Santa Muerte statue instead of letting the authorities deal with it, but next time it could lead to something worse. It could lead to accusations towards a community member, it could lead to mistrust and fear, and it could lead to the wrong people getting accused of a crime. So I hope the next time something ritualistic, something outside the ordinary happens, local journalists reach further afield for everyone’s sake.

ADDENDUM: Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut weighs in on this story at The Huffington Post. Quote: “Given the depiction of the folk saint by the media, at times reinforced by my fellow academics, it is not surprising that the presence of her Grim Reapress image in the cemetery quickly ignited a firestorm of controversy. For those in San Benito who already viewed the Bony Lady (one of her common monikers) as malevolent the unsubstantiated allegation of murderous sorcery made by a well-known anthropologist in the region simply reinforced their opinion and apparently emboldened at least one to deliver a mortal blow to Saint Death in the graveyard.”

Yesterday I laid out the initial 2011 British Census religion numbers, which showed a big jump in Pagan numbers from 2001, which of course means that the British press wants to talk about the Jedi.

Jedi knight Obe Wan Kenob 007

“I was also very good in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.'”

“The new figures reveal that the lightsabre-wielding disciples are only behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism in the popularity stakes, excluding non-religious people and people who did not answer. Following a nationwide campaign, Jedi made it onto the 2001 census, with 390,127 people identifying themselves a decade ago as followers of the fictional Star Wars creed. Although the number of Jedis has dropped by more than 50 per cent over the past 10 years, they are still the most selected “alternative” faith on the Census, and constitute 0.31% of all people’s stated religious affiliation in England and Wales.”

The Huffington Post’s UK branch also couldn’t resist leading with the Jedi.

“The Sith Lord has been hard at work in England and Wales since the rise of the Jedis in 2001, with the Jedi population declining by more than half in the last decade.”

Also a popular topic of conversation: Metal Hammer’s campaign to get people to list “Heavy Metal” as their religion, which over 6000 people did.

biff

“A further 65 people declared their religion as “heavy metal” – making Norwich the heavy metal religion hotspot of England and Wales.”

Metal Hammer would go on to brag that “it turns out that more people put Heavy Metal down as their religion of choice than Scientology, Druidism, Shamanism, and a shit-ton of others we haven’t heard of.” 

As much as I sympathize with newspaper editors who know that leading with “data on religion reveals Jedi Knights are in decline” is Google page-views gold I believe there’s some serious religion-beat malpractice going on here. While I have absolutely no doubt that there are sincere believers in a faith based around the Star Wars Jedi mythos, everyone also knows that this census phenomenon, like the Metal Hammer campaign, is something of a laugh for most, a fandom-generated prank on the governments who ask questions about religion on their census. So when a reporter says that Jedi “are still the largest “other religion” by far named by participants in the 2011 census” there needs to be a giant asterisk next to that statement. Otherwise, you are playing into the prank, and burying the actual “other religions” lede, which is that modern Pagan faiths have grown, and that they are, in fact (and still), the 7th largest faith grouping in the UK behind Sikhism, Judaism, and Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

Indeed, modern Paganism has not only held on to 7th place (if you disqualify Jediism), but has grown considerably in the official census count, and will no doubt gain in numbers when the results for Scotland and Northern Ireland are released. If you lump the Pagan faiths together, you’re around, or over, 80,000 adherents (depending on who you include or don’t include). This is significant because Pagan faiths in the UK are still waging battles for equal treatment, and organizations like the Pagan Federation are still working on getting charity status. If the headlines had all read: Paganism growing, remains 7th largest faith, it could have had a positive effect on our treatment. It could have given Pagan leaders in the UK a new moment to establish themselves as an integral part of British society.

As for the declining Jedi, it wasn’t the Sith, it was the atheists and humanists, who launched a campaign to increase the number of people who checked “no religion,” and it seems to have worked.

sctrfigure1 tcm77 290493

“The British Humanist Association spoke of a “significant cultural shift” in a society where “[r]eligious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline… and non-religious identities are on the rise”. The number of people with no religion at all  in the UK has doubled since 2001.”

So here’s hoping for some better coverage of all the “other religions” in Britain in the weeks ahead, and maybe some better attention paid to the growth of Pagan faiths, and if these numbers are (still) only a fraction of our true presence in the UK.