Did The Village Voice’s Halloran Piece Cross the Line?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 30, 2011 — 180 Comments

Steven Thrasher at The Village Voice clearly isn’t a fan of Republican New York City Councilman Dan Halloran. Thrasher first did a critical piece on Halloran and his Heathen faith for the Village Voice back in October of 2009 that I dinged him on for inappropriately (in my opinion) sensationalizing the candidate’s beliefs.

“All-in-all it’s a well-executed and well-researched story (he even links to my blog), but there is one troubling element, which is Thrasher’s decision to interweave controversies about racist/racialist forms of Heathen religion into the narrative. The article at several points discusses the problem of racist Heathens/Odinists in prisons, mentions a violent racist killer, and describes the “trepidation” that non-Heathen Pagans have concerning “white nationalist elements” inside Asatru/Odinism/Heathenry. What he doesn’t do is convincingly justify examining this racist minority within the context of a story about Halloran’s faith and beliefs, especially when, at almost every turn, it is pointed out that you shouldn’t automatically connect Heathen symbols and religion with the racist elements who utilize the same symbols/beliefs.”

Thrasher ended up having to clarify his own writing when his article (surprise!) stirred up controversy.

“We did point out that there’s an alarming trend in the country’s prisons of white supremacists adopting neo-heathenism for their white nationalist agendas. Experts tell us that as much as 50 percent of the country’s tiny neo-heathenist movement has connections to white supremacy. But we also made it clear, several times, that we found no tie between Halloran’s New Normandy and those white supremacist groups. Yes, Halloran seems to have found some fans at the white nationalist forum Stormfront, but that’s something he can hardly control.”

The Village Voice would go on to praise Thrasher’s work and dub Halloran a “loser to watch” just before the election. However, Halloran did win, and Thrasher responded with some lame swipes at Heathenism, establishing that Thrasher won’t be volunteering for Halloran’s reelection campaign any time soon. Now, two years later, Thrasher writes about Halloran’s “strange career” as a city councilman, but does the piece cross the line from run-of-the-mill political take-down/expose into outright religious slur? The first thing that hits you is the illustration by Michael Marsicano, complete with dead sacrificed goat, ceremonial robe and runic cloak.

Village Voice illustration by Michael Marsicano.

Village Voice illustration by Michael Marsicano.

The funny thing is that back in 2009 Thrasher downplayed the issue of animal sacrifice in relation to Halloran’s Heathen beliefs, comparing it to Kosher butchering.

“…they made it sound like Dan’s oath-holders are slaying creatures left and right. As we reported, however, animal sacrifice is rare, and it’s pretty much like kosher butchering. The chicken or lamb or pig is consumed after it’s killed, not unusual for those of us who are carnivores.”

So if it wasn’t a big deal in 2009, why is it the centerpiece image of this new article? Is it because of (in Thrasher’s words) “Halloran’s hypocrisy?” If so, some Pagans and Heathens aren’t pleased with the illustration, or the way the article handles Heathen religion. David Carron, Ombudsman for Asatru organization The Troth, said that Thrasher’s “questioning of Halloran’s actions is quite appropriate,” but that his “slurring of Heathenry is not.” Carron wonders if “the religion have been Jewish and the picture being one of a large nosed profile, would your readers not rightfully ask for a retraction?” Also unhappy was PNC reporter Cara Schulz, who interviewed Halloran in 2010, and is calling for an apology from the Village Voice.

“The lurid cartoon you have at the top of this article is beyond bigoted. Contemporary Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists already face ridicule and violence for simply practicing our religion. Caricatures, especially ones showing animal sacrifice, further exacerbate the difficulties we face. Mockingly calling religious persons part of the “mead and mutton crowd” is an intentional slur.”

So did Thrasher go to far? Did it (and the illustration) cross the line from fair critiques into unfair slurs? The first comparison that popped into my head was the illustration by Victor Juhasz of Rep. Michele Bachmann for Rolling Stone.

Victor Juhasz's Michele Bachmann illustration.

Victor Juhasz's Michele Bachmann illustration.

Bachmann is portrayed as a violent crusader with bloody sword and people being burnt at the stake in the background. If that’s fair game, isn’t Halloran and the elements of his faith? Both, I think, are trying to convey the subject as religious extremists of one sort or another. Bachmann is inserted into the sins of her own faith, the violent crusader willing to destroy in order to save, while Halloran’s portrayal is simply meant to “other” him, to emphasize how he’s not “normal”.  While I think both illustrations are wrong-headed and undermine real discussion of the problems with both politicians, I think the Halloran piece commits the greater journalistic sin here. Christianity is politically, culturally, and morally dominant in the United States, and the images used within are go-to shorthand for that faith’s excesses, while Halloran’s faith is a tiny subset, of a smaller subset, of a very small religious movement. He is unique, as no other (admitted) Theodish Heathen has ever been elected to any political office of note. There’s an unacknowledged power differential at work here.

I think political hypocrisy is fair game for editorializing, and I have no issue with Thrasher being critical of Halloran and his career in office, but I do think too much is made of his faith, and in improper contexts. I also think that Marsicano’s illustration, whether intended or not, does the job of coloring the entire piece, reinforcing the idea that polytheists, Pagans, and Heathens shouldn’t be treated respectfully or fairly. That we, quote, look “like something from Dungeons & Dragons or a Renaissance fair.” That we are strange, and not part of the mainstream of American life. I fear that the ramifications of articles like this will reverberate beyond mere criticism of Halloran to affect any Pagan or Heathen political candidate, to further the meme that participation (or even dabbling) in Pagan religions opens you up to scrutiny beyond that of any Christian politician.

I anticipate there will be a lot of commentary and conversation on this in the coming weeks, and I’ll try to keep track of it. What do you think? Was the illustration and asides about Halloran’s Heathen faith fair? Or did the Village Voice cross a line?

Jason Pitzl-Waters