Friday, October 23, 2015

Covering Ásatrú: Reporting Rhetoric

For the second time this year, a mainstream news organization produced an ethically problematical piece on Ásatrú (“Æsir Faith,” a modern iteration of Old Norse religion). In February, Religion Dispatches posted an article on Icelandic Ásatrú that was rife with plagiarism and disrespect. Last Friday, Religion News Service released a deeply flawed report on American Ásatrú.

Religion News Service reporter Kimberly Winston tweeted on October 6 that she was visiting the building recently purchased by Stephen McNallen’s Asatru Folk Assembly, calling it “the first #Asatru ‘hof’ [Heathen temple] in the US.”

Since I had previously helped her cover Heathen soldiers pushing for recognition in the U.S. Army by bringing the story to her attention, providing background, introducing contacts, and verifying facts, I offered to help her with this new piece on Ásatrú.

What follows is the story of how a Religion News Service reporter resolutely insisted on giving a national platform to one controversial figure in American Heathenry while excluding any Heathen voice from outside of his non-profit organization and without quoting any source that challenged his statements and claims.

Ms. Winston has given me permission to quote from her emails for this article. Everyone quoted below in red is a Heathen whose contact information I provided to her; none of them were included in her post.

Note: Within a week of Religion News Service posting Winston's article, the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) website featuring McNallen’s essays on racial conflict was changed from public to members only.


In The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion, anthropologist Stephan Palmié makes a distinction between a discovery and a find, writing that “you can only discover what you already presume to be there. A find, in contrast, always needs to be subjected to laborious conceptual reworking, to turn it into a discovery.”

We can’t expect online journalists to act with academic rigor, but it seems fair to ask them to avoid discovering a story by first deciding what the reality is, accepting only data that fits a preconceived narrative, and rejecting any inconvenient truths that don’t match a predetermined conclusion. Honest journalism requires first finding as much information as possible, then writing a piece that connects the data.

Eric O. Scott (columnist at The Wild Hunt): The facts dictate the story; the story does not dictate the facts. This basic tenet of journalism applies especially to stories about minority religions, including Heathenry and other forms of modern Paganism, because reporters often lack grounding in the unique qualities and social dynamics of those religions. Reporters need to educate themselves about these subjects before publishing about them – and they need to confirm their findings with multiple sources, recognizing that any individual may hold views contradictory to the rest of the community.

In today's resource-stretched journalism environment, this kind of research may seem overly time-consuming and tedious, but it's necessary work. I understand that figuring out the complicated history of Heathenry and other Pagan religions is more complicated than writing another blog post about whatever the Pope said this week, but reporters owe it to their readers to present a full and nuanced account of minority religions.

Editors of mainstream media outlets continue to assign articles on Heathenry to writers with no prior knowledge of the tradition or contacts in the various communities. This usually leads to questionable stories with some variation on “religion of Thor” in the title.

Josh Heath (advocate for Heathens in the military): I've interacted with the media a lot over the last five to six years with the Open Halls Project. We've really tried to get some attention for what we've been doing with the goal of making people aware of what our mission is, but also to get some movement on the different actions we've undertaken.

Some of the media I've interacted with have been excellent at digging into a story, even asking for more time before publishing because they wanted to have all the information they could get. Those are the folks we want writing about Heathenry. They recognize that they are not experts, and that they need to truly hear the voices of a community before making a call on what they're going to write. They also understand that there is a real value to knowing when to use positive information, and when to dig deeper to see if there is more story to uncover.


After seeing her initial tweet, I notified Winston that the AFA building is not the “first standalone #Asatru ‘hof’” in the United States. She admitted that she had “not yet looked into other hofs” before publicly declaring the AFA to have the first in the nation, and she seemed to uncritically accept as true the AFA claim that the repurposed meeting hall is the first “temple, shrine, or other structure like this in almost a thousand years.”

She told me that the AFA “admitted there were other hofs, but characterized them to me as privately owned (like, in someone’s yard or on his/her property) or temporary.” Although I gave her the contact information for a Heathen group with its own permanent standalone hof – and at least one other Heathen contacted her to discuss this point – her article presents the AFA assertion as fact. Repeating the organization’s statement in her own voice, she writes that previous hofs have merely been “rooms in houses, backyard sheds, temporary structures or rented sites.”

Religion News Service administrators also promoted AFA claims as truth, publicly declaring that “Thor & followers of ancient Norse religion #Asatru build 1st US worship hall.” This goes even further than Winston in erasing existing Heathen spaces. To promote the AFA’s 4100-square-foot building as a “worship hall” while dismissing the 2800-square-feet Gladsheim Hof of Maryland as merely “a small house that serves as a hof” suggests that Winston and the Religion News Service are struggling to help McNallen create a news event where there is none.

Joe Marek (gothi [Heathen priest] of Gladsheim Kindred, which owns Gladsheim Hof): I was not contacted by her. Obviously she has not done any real research, and I have had others try to dismiss my building before. I was granted a conditional use of the property as a religious facility in 2005 by The Howard County, Maryland zoning board. It’s a matter of public record, and all of our rituals at the hof have been open to the public since the beginning. There is also another Hof – in Michigan, I believe – that is open to the public. But as I did get a permit from the county government, I do believe I had the first one in the US.

Winston insisted to me that “This is a story about news, not personalities.” The AFA building is neither the first American Heathen “worship hall,” the first standalone hof, the first free-standing hof, nor the first public hof. If the “news” is a fabrication, what is left but a promotional piece on a personality?


While writing her piece, Winston told me “I’ll be happy to reach out to anyone you suggest.” I supplied a list of Heathens, academics and journalists that included ten practicing Heathens, four leaders of Heathen organizations, and six academics (including four who have published major scholarly works on Heathens). I contacted people on the list, vouched for Winston’s trustworthiness, insisted that she would fairly represent their views, and reassured them that they would be quoted accurately. Mea máxima culpa.

Of the six academic contacts that I provided, the only one quoted in Winston’s piece is Jeffrey Kaplan, author of Radical Religion in America (1997). He minimizes McNallen’s contact with “racist subcultures” and the impact of his theory of metagenetics. Dr. Kaplan states that McNallen and other leaders of the AFA “really tried to redirect their anger to more positive directions,” but he does not specify what they are angry about or why the anger continues.

Dr. Michael Strmiska (editor of Modern Paganism in World Cultures): The treatment of a very important issue is sadly lacking. The connection of McNallen's form of Asatru with racist attitudes is a well-known controversy within the Asatru world, and for this reason many Norse Pagans who oppose racism disavow McNallen and his theory of “metagenetics” altogether. Though this is touched upon in the article, merely providing a link to a critical article without addressing the content of that criticism runs the risk of – no pun intended – "whitewashing" McNallen and the AFA.

Those who want to know more need to read serious scholars like Kaplan, whose words here do not reflect his generally much more critical scholarship, and Mattias Gardell, who did in-depth field work among American Norse Pagans/Asatruar and found a lot of racism there. Check out McNallen's attitude toward Mexican immigrants and the picture will become more clear.

Winston’s willingness to include defenses of McNallen was coupled with questionable treatment of Heathens who don’t belong to his non-profit organization.

Ryan Smith (co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism): I was contacted by Kimberly Winston by email. She failed to follow up with me after first getting in touch and rescheduled our phone interview so she could go to a basketball game. She later contacted me asking for more information, and after I provided it to her, she informed me she had already published the article. When I contacted her editor, she refused to retract the piece, claiming there were no factual errors justifying a retraction – in spite of multiple examples contrary to her assertion.

After receiving a formal complaint, what were the fact-checking methods used by the Religion News Service editor who confirmed the accuracy of Winston’s piece? Religion News Service promoted the false story of the AFA building being the “1st US worship hall.” Did they also “whitewash” McNallen’s statements on race?


Stephen McNallen promotional photo
When I raised the subject of McNallen’s positions on race with Winston, she told me, “I am well aware of who he is,” and “I raised the racial issue with them and got the standard ‘you can’t judge a religion by its worst adherents’ which is what I expected.” The following discussion examines what type of “adherent” McNallen is himself. No baseless accusations are made; evidence is examined and conclusions are drawn.

Winston’s article links to McNallen’s essay on metagenetics yet provides no response or criticism from other Heathens. It simply offers four words (“brought charges of racism”) hyperlinked to the Circle Ansuz series on “Stephen McNallen and Racialist Asatru.” Winston cites no information from the four-part series, but she does quote a one-paragraph summary of McNallen’s theory from a controversial Vice article followed by three paragraphs denying McNallen’s connections to racism. Relegating criticism of McNallen’s essay to four words while devoting four paragraphs to its explication and defense seems a bit unfair and unbalanced.

In her emails to me, Winston wrote that “the whole metagenetics thing” is “something perceived as racist.” Her article suggests that McNallen’s theories are merely portrayed as racist by his opponents and do not, in themselves, promote racism. However, reading the metagenetics essay itself quickly dispels any suggestion that something is being imposed on the piece by others, as opposed to being forwarded in the work by McNallen himself.

Despite Kaplan’s claim that “metagenetics is largely forgotten,” the new AFA website features both the original 1985 article and a 1999 “update” in which McNallen expands his theory to include crystals and “morphic resonance.” He claims that his updated theory “has incorporated new evidence” but declines to state what the evidence is, merely writing “I won’t go into it here.”

Metagenetics” (1985) begins with a challenge to “some” who “have attempted to label us as ‘racist.’” Echoing L. Ron Hubbard’s claims for “Dianetics,” McNallen calls metagenetics “a science for the next century.” He discusses the “special place” of “clan,” “the curious connection between twins,” ESP research, “psychic resonance,” LSD promoter Timothy Leary’s theory of the “nuerogenetic [sic] circuit,” “reincarnation phenomena,” “rebirth into the clan line,” Carl Jung’s criticism of “Jewish psychology,” and the “inborn temperament” of “each race.” All of this leads to his conclusion that “Asatru is an expression of the soul of our race” and that “we” must focus on “coming from our racial ‘center.’”

This is undeniably a racialist theory.
ra • cial • ism
: a theory that race determines human traits and capacities; also: racism
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
McNallen’s entire essay builds to the assertion that race determines “inborn attitudes” and “inborn religious predispositions.” This perfectly fits the definition of racialism. But is it racist?
rac • ism
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Tracing answers to two further questions will help determine whether McNallen’s work, in addition to espousing racialism, also promotes racism.
McNallen’s conclusion to “Metagenetics” states that his theory “does not mean that we are to behave negatively toward other peoples who have not harmed us.”

Question 1: Does McNallen claim that any “other peoples” have harmed white people?

While insisting that McNallen’s connection to “racist subcultures” is in the past, Kaplan mentioned the continuing “anger” of the AFA leader.

Question 2: What is the object of McNallen’s anger?
These questions are answered in articles McNallen has issued since the release of Kaplan’s book in 1997.

McNallen’s “A Down and Dirty Look at the ‘Browning of America’” (2010), also known as “Not Just Another Immigration Piece,” is featured on the website of European Americans United, a group claiming that “European-Americans are facing a challenge to our institutions, our way of life, and even our genetic continuity.” This sense of being threatened and emphasis on biology also appear in the AFA Declaration of Purpose, which states that “the survival and welfare of the Northern European peoples as a cultural and biological group is a religious imperative for the AFA.”

McNallen is one of the subjects of
Mattias Gardell's Gods of the Blood:
The Pagan Revival and White Separatism
McNallen discussed the idea of white people as an endangered species with historian of religion Mattias Gardell in 2000. He spoke about his personal views on the favorite numbers of white nationalists: 88 (referring to “Heil Hitler,” as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, or to the “88 Precepts” of white supremacist David Lane) and 14 (referring to Lane’s “14 Words,” “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children”). McNallen told Gardell, “Some like the number 88. Some like 14, as in ‘14 words.’ I like it shorter… eight words: ‘The existence of my people is not negotiable.’”

Who does McNallen think is threatening the existence of white people?

In his essay on the “browning of America,” McNallen writes of “the slow-motion tidal wave” of non-white immigration into the United States. His focus is explicitly on race as he uses the terms “white folks” and “European Americans” interchangeably and laments loss of “our political and cultural clout” as “European Americans face minority status, then marginalization, and eventually extinction.”

According to McNallen, this racial Ragnarök has already happened: “The country we knew has been destroyed, and another one is being put in its place.” Illegal immigrants, nonprofit organizations, liberal foundations, government grant-giving agencies, local political entities, and the federal government have worked together to implement “conquest,” “invasion” and “takeover” of America by non-whites.

This answers both of the above questions at once:
Answer 1: McNallen does claim that “other peoples” (non-white immigrants) have harmed white people.

Answer 2: The objects of McNallen’s anger are non-white immigrants.
These answers are confirmed by McNallen’s “Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca: The Spiritual War for California and the Southwest” (2000), an article featured on his organization’s website. It paints a picture of “barrio revolutionaries” who are “reviving Native Mexican religion” as part of a plan to take over California and the American Southwest and perpetrate the mass expulsion and killing of white people.

As in his metagenetics article, McNallen invokes Carl Jung and suggests that Catholic celebrations and rituals are “the way the archetype of Tonatzin manifests to the humble Mexican people” and that “Mexican-descended people” – although “solidly Christian, at least on the surface” – “manifest religious forces of which they’re not even consciously aware.”

McNallen asserts that Aztec gods are secretly inspiring
Mexican Catholics to kill white people in America
Using the same conspiratorial rhetoric as the “browning of America” article, McNallen claims that a “widespread” and “powerful movement” seeking to implement a “program of ethnic cleansing” by “killing or deporting European-Americans” has infiltrated “today’s college campuses” and is “encouraged, somewhat covertly, by the Mexican government.” He compares “the Mexican nation” to the Third Reich, suggesting that “the bloodthirsty deities of the Aztecs, renowned for their warlike ways and human sacrifice on a mass scale” will drive Mexicans to “turmoil and war.”

In the worldview presented by McNallen, “this dangerous situation” will lead to “a subordinate role” for white people unless whites undergo a “cultural rebirth” and refuse to submit to “disempowerment and death” on the “cultural battlegrounds.” His concluding “challenge to Asatruar” is to “sink down roots in the soil, and insist on our right to be here.” In this context, the AFA’s purchase of a permanent home may be a belated response to that challenge – a response that seeks to send the message to “the Mexican nation” that the essay calls for: white people “are here to stay.”

I drew Winston’s attention to the metagenetics essay, the “browning of America” article, and the Gardell book with the discussion of white supremacist code-numbers. The Circle Ansuz series her article links to quotes and discusses the “Wotan” article. The extent to which Winston seems to have uncritically accepted McNallen’s representation of his views on race is reflected in her statement to me that “the context of the story” is that “the community out here is now big enough that they’ve bought their own building and are setting down roots.” Notably, she repeats the concluding rhetoric of the McNallen’s “Wotan” essay. By defending McNallen from “charges of racism,” her article supports McNallen’s message of racial conflict.

Dr. Jennifer Snook (author of American Heathens): McNallen's expressions of anti-immigrant fever and fear about white folks' loss of land, privilege, and political power, that he has vocalized publicly, have marked his organization as one for whom politics are a leading factor. I spoke to many Heathens across the country over the course of my research and asked a lot of them about the AFA (and other organizations). Most of them were not members of national organizations, and were alarmed, or at least suspicious, of McNallen's political motivations. It would be naive for us to think that this hof is open to anyone, regardless of racial classification, or that the AFA represents more than a fraction of American Heathenry, politically and spiritually.


In terms of the definition of racism cited above, McNallen’s essay on metagenetics indicates “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities.” His more recent articles claim that “the Mexican nation” (“a much more fundamental entity than the Mexican state”) is determined to exterminate white Americans, thus reducing millions of individuals to a monolithic, faceless and terrifying racial Other. This clearly shows “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

McNallen’s articles thus match two-thirds of the definition; the only element not clearly shown so far is a belief that “racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Is there any evidence that McNallen promotes this idea, as well?

In 2011, John Powell of Media Matters for America posted “The Supremacy Cause: Inside the White Nationalist Movement.” It details his visit to “Towards a New Nationalism: Immigration and the Future of Western Nations,” that year’s annual conference of the National Policy Institute, “an independent think-tank and publishing firm dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” This self-description of the organization lines up exactly with McNallen’s rhetoric throughout his career.

Powell calls the event as “a gathering of white supremacists” representative of “the white nationalist movement.” Describing the worldview of the attendees, he writes,
It's through this prism of tribal heritage and racial pride that the white nationalists seemed to view nearly every aspect of the rest of the world. The white race, which they know to be genetically superior to non-white lineages, is threatened by massive non-white immigration movements and widespread political liberalism promoting a universal egalitarian moral code that shuns conversations about race.
Everything in this statement accurately describes McNallen’s writings, except the sense of superiority. Does McNallen also believe this, the final piece of the racism definition?

Powell describes his interactions at the conference with a group of AFA members who were in attendance: “There were at least 7-10 AFA members at this event, maybe more, and with their jewelry [Thor’s hammer amulets] displayed, they could not have been unnoticed by the conference organizers.” The AFA members shared “their plans to recruit others to the white nationalist cause by use of racist humor” and “expressed frustration with a culture and government that they feel ignores and looks down upon the interests of the white race.” Believing that the reporter shared their views, “They were relieved that they had finally found a place where they didn’t have to ‘feel out’ the conversation before navigating it into the straits of white supremacy.”

National Policy Institute's latest conference event features
Robert Taylor, another one of the subjects of Mattias Gardell's
Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism
McNallen has accused Media Matters of defamation and claimed that the AFA members attended the conference as “private citizens,” not as representatives of his organization. His denial of responsibility is undercut by his simultaneous endorsement of the event as a gathering of “people of European descent to quietly discuss issues of concern to them as a group.” The issue of common interest he cites is “white extinction,” exactly the subject of his own essays discussed above.

McNallen’s denial that the conference attendees were sent by the AFA is dismissed by sociologist Jennifer Snook, who writes in American Heathens that Powell’s account was “corroborated by AFA members with close ties to McNallen.” Discussing McNallen’s claim that the AFA members were not at the conference on behalf of his organization, she writes, “Heathens with connections to McNallen and those in his inner circle have reported the opposite, citing the presence of the AFA attendees as a deliberate attempt at recruitment.”

When McNallen’s close associates declare the dishonesty of McNallen’s refusal to take responsibility for the recruitment effort at “a gathering of white supremacists,” they provide the final evidence that he is promoting a racist worldview. The clear congruence of his published rhetoric with the stated focus of the National Policy Institute is underscored by his public defense of a conference dedicated to discussing responses to a supposed “white extinction” threatened by non-white immigrants.

This removes any doubt that McNallen’s work fits every aspect of the definition of racism, including belief in “inherent superiority of a particular race.” It also shows that the repeated denials of racism with which he peppers his writings are merely part of a public relations campaign capable of luring a journalist of the Religion News Service into posting positive press promoting his projects.


Locking the hof doors: most of AFA website
went private after Winston posted her article
In an email sent to Winston eight days before she posted her piece, I wrote:
Given that Mr. McNallen founded the Asatru Folk Assembly due to his disgust at "liberals, affirmative-action Asatrúers, black goðar, and New Agers" in American Heathenry, it's difficult to see his purchase of an agricultural advocacy group's meeting hall as relevant to anyone outside his own non-profit organization for "the northern European folk."

To view American Heathenry through a Catholic lens – to look for an "Asa-pope" who speaks for Heathens, to see the headquarters of one non-profit organization as a spiritual center for the greater community – is to fundamentally misunderstand and misrepresent a set of related religions that has no central authority and no central meeting place, but does have a complicated network of local groups and places of worship.
She replied by telling me that the AFA’s building “is a sign of the maturity of newly revived ancient religion on American soil” – apparently even if the vast majority of that religion’s practitioners deny that their faith has anything to do with McNallen’s racialized version of it.

Lonnie Scott (member of Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Troth): The Tree and Well at the center of Heathenism connects all of us. Our fates are intertwined regardless of politics or skin. Our myths recognize this in adventures of the gods seeking knowledge and heroes exploring beyond known borders. Our ancestors stretch back to the first humans all the way through the continuing expansion of mankind's migrations. I honor my ancestors for their challenges, skills, and the life they gave to me regardless of their culture, religion, or skin color. My values and deeds are color-blind. Heathenism may not be for everyone, but let that be their own personal decision free from twisted politics.

Winston’s article for Religion News Service cites my Worldwide Heathen Census 2013, stating that it “put the number [of American Heathens] at a little under 8,000.” Unfortunately, this confuses data and analysis. There were 7,878 responses from Heathens in the United States. In the census results post that she links to, the method suggested for interpreting the data would “put the number” of Heathens in America at 17,119. If we accept AFA claims regarding its own membership numbers, as Winston seems to do in the article, AFA members would make up only 4% of American Heathens.

Different standards for covering pagans and popes?
In 2014, Religion News Service ran a piece titled “Pope Francis raises eyebrows by saying pedophile priests include ‘bishops and cardinals.’” It quotes the pope saying, “Many of my advisers who are fighting it with me are giving me reliable data that estimates pedophilia inside the church at a level of 2 percent.”

If a building bought by a non-profit whose membership is only 4% of the American Heathen population represents the religion as a whole, does the child-rape perpetrated by 2% of priests, bishops and cardinals in the Catholic Church represent all of Catholicism? More to the point, since the AFA is only one organization led by one charismatic leader, to equate it with all of American Heathenry is like equating the rapist priests with all of Christianity.

Josh Heath (advocate for Heathens in the military): I've been a Heathen for twenty-plus years now. In that time I've seen organizations, kindreds, and people come and go. Heathenry has been moving away from large organizations. The large majority of Heathens in the US are not part of national or international organizations. They are focused on understanding and developing local manifestations of their regional Heathenism.

No one group or person represents all of Heathenry, and no single group building a hof means anything for Heathenry at large. If it did, all of the other hofs that predate the AFA's purchase of this grange building would have meant more than they do. Instead, they are local places of worship and that is what we should be striving for. The AFA's hof means nothing to me, nor does it mean anything to the large majority of US Heathens. It's an organizational holy site for members of that organization. It means as little to me as a new church going up in Alabama does.

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