Driving though Navajo country gives you a real sense of perspective. I’ve spend the last few days up near the Four Corners region to gear up for the rest of my travel and sort out my itineraries. It’s a fun route to take for a trip because you get to drive U.S. Route 491, which is numbered because of superstition.
Up until 2003 U.S. 491 was U.S. Route 666. It changed because much like the superstition that keeps 13th floors out of high-rise elevators, someone decided that was bad luck. This crazy notion was exacerbated by they high incidence of car accidents, causing people to believe the road was cursed. So to fix the problem … lawmakers changed the number on the road. That didn’t do anything to curb the high incidence of drunk driving that leads to all those accidents of course, but it made enough people feel better that the expense of changing all those signs and maps was worth the cost of re-election.
Terrestrial radio out here is almost entirely country music and Christian broadcasting. The reservation has some of it’s own channels too and depending where you are there’s NPR, but they don’t get the funding larger areas do so their news reporting is considerably more limited. During the day it’s all classical music because public domain licensing is free and if there were any political ramifications to classical they’ve long since been forgotten except by music history buffs. Even then, about halfway between Holbrook, AZ and the New Mexico boarder Flagstaff’s NPR station gives way to a Family Research Council backed outfit. There’s even an all Catholic station.
As a consequence there are at least 4 Crisis Pregnancy Centers within a couple miles where I was staying.
Of course all the religious programming is run under the auspices of a ministry, but even with the tax deduction there’s only so much you can do to keep a radio station viable these days. So there’s a lot of recycled content. The progressive left in America likes to say that the far right wants to roll back the clock to the 50s but in places like this they’re still airing radio plays that sound like they were recorded in the 50s. So it’s not really that these people want to return to those days, they’re genuinely surprised when they get out into the wider world and find out that everyone else has left it. My academic friends would seethe over how colonialist a radio play about missionaries going to Borneo to bring Jesus to the headhunters sounds. That’s a subject for preppy academics though. No room for that intellectual claptrap when there’s mines to be dug and oil to be sucked out of the ground. These people want someone to follow who will promise them that everything is going to be ok and whoever does that most convincingly wins the ticket.
My point is that nut job conspiracy theorists like to say that there’s some shadowy Satanic cabal running everything. But if that was the case you’d think there’d be enough of an operating budget to counter the kind of propaganda machine that Christianity has going in underserved markets. I have a suspicion that the real hucksters are the people running these small markets. You don’t buy a DVD there’s an ad for, you “make a donation of 19.95” and they’ll send you a free one. It’s easy to think that the people peddling this crap are in it for the money. They sound like carnival barkers to me. “Pay your admission, give it a go and you can win a prize.”
Unfortunately it’s impossible to prove they’re hucksters unless you catch them in a lie, or somehow get footage of them talking trash about their fanbase. You can present them facts and they can reject them out of hand by mumbling something about faith. They can dash any criticism by saying ‘but God told me you’re bad and I shouldn’t believe anything you say” and they’ve got a stronghold on the bedrock media of places like this all over the country.
There is the internet, but that’s a generational split. Parents and grandparents tuned into the radio out here are fed a steady diet of perspective that is a LOT different than what their kids getting, and it’s a lot more like what was on mainstream TV during the Satanic Panic. While many of us live in the throes of the 24-hour news cycle, we forget there are pockets all over the country where local politics and local media are still very much driving local culture. Fox News may be aimed at a particular demographic, but they didn’t create that market. Those people comes from places like this and they’re just latching on to any national media that conforms to their view of the world. Those biases were shaped by mid-day talk radio shows about why birth-control is somehow antifeminist.
I’m here because to the extent any kind of shadowy cabal of Satanists does exist it mostly involves a network of couches, futons, daybeds, spare rooms, borrowed rides, and occasional hotels. None of this happens with much of a budget and it’s really not all that mysterious. Most things aren’t when you get down to it. Just people doing people things. It’s the grand illusion of conspiracy theorists that someone, anyone, is really in control. Everyone has their favorite Boogie man though and they will attribute just about anything bad that happens to them as part of that Boogie’s nefarious plan to screw up their life. Yesterday the opposition party in Kosovo’s parliament set off tear gas canisters in their own meeting to delay a vote on a border dispute; it’s amazing how far some people are willing to go over something like that, downright frightening to think what someone who thinks god wants them to help bring about the tribulation is willing to do.
By now word is out that Lucien Grieves and Sarah Ponto Rivera gave a talk at the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Chicago and have announced that there will be TST Grey Faction people attending the ISST-D conference. Grey Faction is one of TST’s more difficult to describe initiatives. Last week I managed to get into a pretty in-depth conversation about it with Chalice Blythe on my podcast but it never pulls the same kind of attention that their other campaigns do. The after school and anti-corporal punishment campaigns make big media splashes because they deal with kids, and people freak out when they think Satanists might be putting any sensible ideas in their impressionable young minds. Yet somehow Grey Faction’s campaign against a bunch of licensed therapists running around talking about CIA mind control and some imagined cabal of demon worshipers doesn’t get much attention. It’s not the kind of thing that fits easily into a soundbite.
One thing that can be said for this place is the way that the people on the reservation keep their traditions alive. Now there’s a lesson in resiliency. Native Americans are a group that Western culture has done it’s absolute worst to, and through community and tradition they’ve managed to keep that going against really despicable odds. It’s good fun for Satanists to run around telling each other what is and isn’t Satanic, but what are we really working with here? Fifty-some years of the disaffected of their generation rallying around the most loathed character in Western fiction as a way to express their frustration?
“Do you think CoS would ever accuse TST of cultural appropriation?” I’m asked.
“How would that even work?” I say. “In fact didn’t they do a whole campaign mocking the idea of cultural appropriation? According to Gilmore there is no such thing as a Satanic community so how could they even say what is being appropriated? They’d have to do a whole 180 on that.”
“Well they certainly think TST isn’t Satanic,” my friend says. “I’d imagine they’d argue that groups like FFRF or American Atheists are more Satanic than TST because a Satanist who was a member of one of those groups would hide their association if it helped further their personal goals.”
“Sounds about right,” I reply.
Of course that would start a whole other fight. Not among Satanists, but from Atheist activists who would stalwartly reject that they’re secretly Satanic because that would mean they have a religion. It’d be like a mini-Secular red scare. There’s a difference between Atheist activists and Skeptics. Atheists that want a strong separation of church and state are ubiquitous; they tend to champion TST because of shared goals, but spend enough time at a hotel bar at an atheist convention and you’ll inevitably find those who insist that their goal (lofty as it may be) is for everyone to just abandon religion altogether. Never mind the literally thousands of years of people trying to no avail, or that secular groups can’t hope to raise the money kind of deliciously tax-free money that funnels into religious broadcasting.
Speaking of ‘among Satanists’ though, those Order of the Nine Angles people are in the news because, get this, white nationalists are disavowing their association with a British neo-Nazi group, not because they’ve been implicated in murders, no no, because of their association with the ONA. Nazis … goddamned Nazis … have vowed to “purge the Noctulian scum from our [sic] ranks”.
There’s a bunch of different groups hoisting the Satanist mantle who are completely unaffiliated with either CoS or TST. Some, like the ONA lean decidedly hard right. Others like United Aspects of Satan, founded by a former TST chapter head, lean firmly socially progressive. Of course whenever one of them comes up in the news CoS denounces them. If you’re reading a news story about Satanists doing any kind of political anything be well aware that it’s not the CoS, they have nothing to do with it, and whoever did it definitely was not one of them. The exception being listicle articles about how funny their twitter feed is, that’s totally them. For all the other groups it’s kind of a hodgepodge of different manifestoes since they generally get confused for each other. It seems like there’s a Satan group for everybody these days, most are atheistic but they’re divided up amongst the entire political spectrum.
Make of that what you will. But much like every other community knit together by a label and not much else it’s hard to get anything done when no one can agree on anything.
Anyway, I’m on my way to Chicago. Technology may mean that we can work from anywhere, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for fieldwork and that’s where things are happening this week.