Friday, October 2, 2015

Interview with Jennifer Snook (American Heathens), Part Three

Click links for Part One and Part Two of the interview with sociologist Jennifer Snook, author of American Heathens: The Politics of Identity in a Pagan Religious Movement.

Jennifer Snook in Alaska

KS – In the book, you introduce Ásatrú Folk Assembly leader Stephen McNallen by saying he created an early Heathen organization while “[s]idestepping [Else] Christensen’s focus on racial ideology.” In 2003, Mattias Gardell also contrasted McNallen’s approach with the overt racism of Christensen’s Odinism, quoting Wyatt Kaldenberg’s portrayal of McNallen as non-racist: “He said folkish a little now and then, but when you said race, he’d turn pink.” Jeffrey Kaplan’s 1997 description of McNallen as occupying a “middle ground” between liberalism and white nationalism is echoed by Michael Strmiska’s 2005 portrayal of McNallen as “carefully screen[ing] potential members to keep out people with extreme political or racial views.”

However, you go on to describe the Ásatrú Folk Assembly’s “seemingly most important and all-consuming focus” on (in the organization’s words) “the preservation of the Peoples of the North,” the “cultural and biological” survival of “Northern European peoples.” This sounds quite close to the infamous “Fourteen Words” of white nationalist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.” You also cite McNallen’s essay on the “browning of America” and state that he uses the rhetorical tactics of white supremacists.

How would you reconcile these conflicting academic portrayals of McNallen as (1) non-racist, (2) neither non-racist nor racist, and (3) racist?

JS – I don’t know if there’s anything to reconcile. I would love to have interviewed McNallen. I’m sure he’s a very interesting and kind person, and I’ve heard as much from others. I’ve also read and gathered information from people that suggests that his attitudes toward race are complex and evolving.

I spoke to many people over the years that believe that he is becoming more extreme in his political and racial outlooks, and there is some evidence for this. His 2010 anti-immigration article “On The Down and Dirty Browning of America,” in which he freaks out about the racial take-over by brown people that he believes will rob white people of their political power and dominance, lead to their marginalization, and impending cultural extinction. In “Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca” he frames it as a “spiritual war.” I’ve spoken to people close to him that have grown deeply concerned, and his reputation is certainly troubling – outlined by Circle Anzus in their break-down of McNallen’s work over the years.

Having said that, I don’t feel qualified to label him an outright racist. People are complex. Rather, he expresses some ideas that are racist in nature and has some interaction with known white supremacists, and his publications are very popular with white supremacists. So while I have no doubt about his sincerity regarding his passion for European heritage and culture, there’s much to critique about the way in which he expresses these thoughts and with whom he keeps company.

There is also, perhaps, something to be said about the creeping increase in political ideological messages coming off of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly blog and Facebook page, leading me (as an outside observer) to wonder whether his organization is religious or political, though as a sociologist I recognize that there is no such thing as religion without politics.

KS – In 2011, you joined McNallen’s Ásatrú Folk Assembly. Within months you were the subject of an investigation by the organization that included interviews of your friends, parsing of your writings, and asking you to explain your political beliefs. As a sociologist whose work is based on interviewing individual members of social groups, performing close readings of their written statements, and asking questions about their political views, how did this experience affect your own subsequent methodology?

JS – It did put me in the position of being the subject of investigation, but it was fundamentally different than what sociologists do. We don’t dig, and needle, accuse and parse words – and I am only one person. I am hardly a good sample.

Difficult crossing: Snook fording a river in Iceland

When sociologists do this work, we collect, we ask, and we observe a lot of people over time and space, and then we analyze. We don’t go in trying to confirm an answer we already had, which is what the AFA was doing when they questioned me. We refer to this method as “grounded theory,” which allows patterns to emerge from the data itself, from the ground up. I am always very reflective about the researcher-subject relationship, which is part of the feminist methodology I mentioned earlier.

In regards to how this affected my research, it was eye-opening. When I joined, I told them up-front on the application form about my work and how I was hoping to include the AFA as part of my sample. It came as great surprise to me when I was then accused of being an infiltrator with subversive intentions. I told them what I was doing! That would make me a terrible spy. The rigmarole I went through with the Q&A to justify myself was intense but ultimately productive, though it seems the positive recommendation of my inquisitor to the board was ignored.

In regards to my research, it was a huge loss for the membership of the AFA, as they were robbed of an active voice in my work. It would have been fun and helpful to visit AFA gatherings and chat with folks, and get to know Steve, but alas.

What it left me with was McNallen’s personal statements and Facebook updates, articles and blog posts – many of which may or may not have reflected the beliefs of the AFA membership. The comments that people left in response were likely skewed toward those who agreed, making it look like McNallen was speaking for them. I cannot know how many of them disagree with his ideas, nor can I know how many of them simply don’t care. It was the reason for my joining, but I was unfortunately unable to fill in that piece of the puzzle.

What I was able to do was find those AFA members who attended other events and chat with them there, and that made up somewhat for the loss. Yet, I can’t know to what extent it affected my data, because I simply don’t have the data.

KS – Aside from Stephen McNallen, the figure who arguably looms largest in your book is Mark Stinson. Lightning Across the Plains, Stinson’s annual Heathen gathering, is repeatedly referred to in your book as a model event. You write that it represents “the possibilities of a strong regional community” that values face-to-face camaraderie over internet bickering, and you describe Heathens coming to the event from a very large geographical area “to cement bonds of community, reinvigorate their Heathen identities, and join together in spiritual expression.”

You argue that national organizations like McNallen’s are “losing their importance as regional efforts in the Midwest render them redundant” and laud Lightning Across the Plains for the “success of the tribal model” over the “steady, grinding bureaucracy” of the national organizations. You refer to McNallen’s group as “a political organization with religious overtones” while presenting Stinson’s ideas on “productive real-world, practical concerns, such as growing the faith through cooperative local and regional relationships with other tribes,” asserting that his “arrival to American Heathenry in 2006 has reshaped its landscape in the Midwest.”

Since the publication of your book, both men have made news. Only three weeks before it was due to start, Stinson announced the cancellation of the 2015 Lightning Across the Plains. Nearly simultaneously, McNallen raised well over $50,000 in one month of an online campaign to fund a place of worship and community center for the Ásatrú Free Assembly.

Given Stinson’s emphasis on his gathering as a place where real-world relationships trump online arguments, it is striking that the cancellation announcement effectively blames “those who come to the event, enjoy the fruits of our labor, interact with us face to face, eat our food, drink our mead, enjoy all the benefits of our hospitality and then, after leaving, assassinate our characters both collectively and individually.”

Given the description in your work of Heathens criticizing the bureaucracy, infighting and diffuse nature of the national organizations, it is interesting that McNallen’s organization – one of the oldest and arguably least democratic Heathen groups – has been able to so quickly raise such a large amount of donated cash and to purchase a dedicated property.

If you were still working on your book, how would you cover these two events?

JS – Boy, am I glad that I’m not still working on my book! I spent a lot of time as I was writing thinking hard about what to include and what not to include, for fear of hurting people or violating their privacy. It was likewise difficult to clearly describe people when I thought that it might out them, unless they had already made themselves public.

Taking a breather after a long slog: Snook in Alaska

In regards to the first, I would likely use McNallen’s fundraising as another example of how national organizations can be successful, and as evidence of the power of collective identity. How the money gets used, and how people participate in and experience the outcome is something I’m quite curious to see. I’m totally rooting for the AFA to make this contribution meaningful and useful to people.

The fact that he’s managed to fundraise online speaks as well to the power of social media – which I also discuss as influential in how Heathenry has changed over time. I don’t think that national orgs are useless, by the way, simply that they didn’t factor in to the daily practice and local culture of a majority of the people I came into contact with. In the cases where they were important, they provided networking and a feeling of like-mindedness with other members, particularly of The Troth, which is the only organization with which I spent any time.

In regards to the canceling of LATP, that’s complicated. First, there was a kerfluffle at LATP last year prompted by a group of men who hadn’t attended before. I noticed that at least one of them had an SS pin on his lapel. They broke a number of rules of etiquette that many people found offensive. The matter wasn’t dealt with in a way that some people thought it should be, and a few vowed not to return.

Second, LATP got so big, it became harder to vet the people that attended, and it began to attract people who weren’t part of the region, and extremists who some viewed as predatory. This created quite a bit of unrest. Recently, I spent some time with people who expressed the sentiment that LATP had gotten too big for its britches, far beyond the initial focus of regional alliances and community building. They’ve instead decided, like Mark expressed as well, to refocus on their own local and smaller regional events.

So, what happened at LATP would support Mark’s own assertion that big organizations become too unwieldy and are no longer functional – yet this time it was the fruit of his own labor that collapsed under its own weight, hoist by its own petard.

KS – You discuss reconstructionism as “a method for understanding historical Heathenry” that seeks “to piece together Heathenry in what they view as its most authentic form, unadulterated by modern influence and interpretation.” You quote Bil Linzie: “To be a good reconstructionist, one must be able to step away from one’s cultural background as well as spiritual background.” As a sociologist, how do you respond to the idea that a modern individual can avoid “modern influence and interpretation” and shed their “cultural background”?

JS – As I lay bare in the chapter, I don’t think this is something that we can do. I think most scholars agree, and I think most people who practice reconstructionism understand their limitations.

Skeptical sociologist Snook

We are socialized into particular realities that limit us in ways that are unimaginable. It’s not impossible for us to break free, for sure, but unless you’re off the grid in a commune the way that the Amish live, and socialize your kids outside of mainstream society, I think the influence of social structural arrangements and cultural, political and economic realities are simply too constraining.

Of course, I look forward to being proven wrong, because I think it could really be cool.

KS – You write that “American Heathenry has developed apart from its Icelandic and European cousins into a cultural system that is wholly and uniquely American, inseparable from its sociohistorical, economic, and political context.” However, the vast majority of your informants are provided with Icelandic names as pseudonyms (although spelled without Icelandic letters such as ð, þ, or ö). You introduce us to Americans with a dizzying array of assumed names from Icelandic literature, including Alfdis, Alvis, Aud, Brand, Egil, Einar, Gunnthra, Hallgerd, Herdis, Kveldulf, Leif, Mani, Signy, Sunna and Thrain. Notably, the Heathens you mention without pseudonyms tend to have Biblical names such as Elizabeth, John, Joshua, Mark, Michael and Stephen.

In addition to this swapping of Icelandic names for American Christian names, the study of Icelandic saga as source of ritual practice, the use of Icelandic mythology for theological conceptions, and the equation of figures from the settlement of Iceland with “ancestors” seems to point to a construction of (some) American Heathenry as Icelandic – or, to use the language of your work, a “performance of Icelandicity.” How does this appropriation of Icelandic cultural heritage by those with no actual family connection to Iceland fit with the Heathen emphasis on ancestry?

JS – I discuss in my book that there’s a heavy romanticism involved in how many Heathens imagine their European ancestry. The focus on ancient “Northern Europe” is an appeal to the “epic past,” in which life and culture are idealized, valorized, and somehow superior to the present.

Many American Heathens idealize Iceland because of the influence of Icelandic literature and history on our understandings of what Old Norse Heathens believed and practiced. There is a distinct pattern of American Heathens idealizing Iceland as a Heathen Mecca. Heathens do understand that they don’t have direct ancestry to Iceland. They know, however, that Icelanders themselves are descendants of the “Vikings” and other “Elder Heathens.” So in this way, Iceland is just a repository of Heathen lore, culture and religion that is available for consumption. It’s a fairy tale.

When American Heathens imagine the “Elder Heathen” ancestor, I think many times they are imagining a general Northern European-ness, lumping Germanic cultures together. There is of course some resistance to this, and many Heathens for whom Iceland is irrelevant outside of what texts are situated there. For them, it is German, Norman, Anglo-Saxon, or other Germanic tribal peoples that inspire them.

KS – American Heathens opens with your self-identification as someone who both practices and studies Heathenry. You write, “I not only research, write about, and teach about paganisms; I have been a practicing Pagan since my early teen years and a Heathen since age eighteen.”

Describing your work as a college student on an assignment for a course on American Paganism, you write, “I wanted to meet and interview a Heathen whose experience would lend insight into my assignment and perhaps even inform my new faith.” Your first forays into meeting other Heathens occurred in graduate school, when a “cheerful young man” you met on a Yahoo forum became your “first Heathen friend and research participant.” You also state that your “first experiences with Heathen ritual and community” were private gatherings in Heathen homes at which you “recorded field notes with feverish enthusiasm.” You write, “As I observed them and worshipped with them, I discovered my own way of being,” stating that “I have been a member, a friend, and a confidant, but my training as a sociologist was most salient, making me ever an outsider, critic, and distant observer.”

At the very end of the book, you discuss how the end of your research coincided with the end of your engagement with “the group itself,” relating that you no longer identify with the Heathen community – aside from a few personal relationships and a sense of connection to “collective memories created and recounted from the epic past.” Your active engagement with the Heathen community coincided with your academic study of it, yet you still state that you are a Heathen. In what ways does your religious belief and practice continue today?

JS – It continues in a way that is internal. I practice my Heathenry through my spinning, felted land spirit sculptures, archery and gardening. I’m planning on landscaping a portion of my back yard as a Vé [enclosed holy area], as a way to get my daughters involved.

Snook with Odin & Ravens, one of her felt creations

I am in regular contact with a bunch of amazing people who have helped with my work, but have also been inspirational in their friendship, generosity, kindness and ability to think critically about the world around them. I plan on continuing to attend smaller, more local gatherings to spend time with these great friends.

My separation from larger community and dialing down my use of social media isn’t just because I’m done and it’s no longer useful. It’s because, as fantastic as this journey has been, it’s also been a rather significant buzzkill.

The positive reaction to my work has been motivational, helpful, thoughtful and will produce helpful conversations and discussions for many people engaged in their own Heathen projects around the country, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to be part of that with some of these groups, Skyping in or doing talks at moots.

The negative reactions, however, in tone and lack of intellectual rigor, have reinforced my inward focus. My conclusions weren’t entirely flattering, and the work that it took for me to analyze and interpret the data, and then write things that I felt might make my friends look bad was extremely difficult. The work that it took for me to internalize these conclusions was sometimes heartbreaking.

Now, I’ll focus on what so many of my Heathen friends have suggested is important in their own lives – a focus on the innangard [inner circle], on loved ones, on personal spiritual growth, and less worry about the disabling negativity of eHeathenry.

KS – As we discussed earlier, your first steps towards religion sprang from your youthful interest in heavy metal, vampires, fantasy fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and the Society for Creative Anachronism. At the very end of the book, you write that “[t]o be Heathen is, to me, a connection to the epic past, to Tolkien’s Middle Earth [sic], which itself is a product of his love for Germanic mythology.” After your many years participating in and studying Wicca and Heathenry, why do you think your religious sense of self has landed in a place so similar to where it was when you started your exploration?

JS – Interesting insight. This is where I feel safest, where I have always been. Being a huge nerd, but allowing that nerd energy to merge with the sacred.

It doesn’t involve the acceptance or permission of others. It’s simply and deeply part of who I am.

Dr. Snook eagerly awaits your comments.

KS – Okay, that's it! Thank you for doing this interview.

JS – Thank you for the opportunity, Karl.

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