I want to say that this week has been insane, but honestly the last twelve months have been such a tsunami of what-the-fuck-ness that I don’t even know what “insane” means anymore.
I mean, even before Japan deployed robotic demon wolves to fight off a plague bear invasion, the front page of CNN read less like news headlines and more like a list of role-playing game adventure “seeds” crafted by a particularly demented dungeon master.
At this point in the timeline, seeing a man wearing a whole-ass dead cow presiding over the United States Senate just doesn’t hit as hard as it might have last February.
And don’t think I’m making light of the miserable, shitass situation we’re in.
I’m definitely not trying to minimize the violence that’s already happened, nor am I ignoring the fact that more violence is likely to follow. Rather, I’m taking note of its effects on even the seemingly-unaffected among us.
At least as far back as the first lockdowns, and probably as far back as the 2016 election, most of the people I know and love have had their anxiety levels up around an eleven out of ten. We’ve been doomscrolling a seemingly endless feed of hideous events and even more hideous responses from not only our elected officials but also from popular, public figures.
How many of us lost complete respect for at least one celebrity or artist whose work we once admired?
How many of us now reflexively cringe whenever we see the name of one of our childhood “heroes” on the trending topics.
How many of us have started Googling for an author’s name before buying a book just to be sure we aren’t giving money to a known douche-canoe?
And I’m not even going to try to mention all of the explosions, fires, public executions, protests, or the straight-out-of-Ed-Wood murder hornets. Or the hundreds of thousands of dead people and the millions upon millions of unemployed.
It’s simply impossible for the human mind to function under the amount of stress and fear which not only results from this constant barrage, but is actively built into our social media networks in order to drive “engagement.”
The anxiety is by design, for the same reason that “if it bleeds, it leads” has been the mantra of traditional newsrooms since at least the days of William Randolph Hearst.
This is why I have a very difficult time posting on sites like Twitter, and all but abandoned Facebook years ago. What do you even say to half the shit that boils up in your feed from hour to hour?
I follow a pretty carefully-cultivated list of mostly-occult-oriented accounts on Twitter, and just in the past week I’ve seen no less than two-dozen arguments about whether or not white supremacy even exists, whether it’s a bad thing, and whether or not it’s okay to read and promote some of the books of known white supremacists, so long as the specific books promoted don’t include white supremacist stuff.
And that’s not even getting into the “adjacency” issues now under debate.
Is it okay to listen to a podcast hosted by the friend of another podcaster who was once a guest on still another podcast which once platformed a holocaust denier?
It’s easy to write this sort of question off with an edgy remark about “wokescolds playing Six Degrees of Hitler,” but that minimizes the damage being done by the more overtly putrid people involved.
It also creates a veil of plausible deniability for the crypto-taintstains out there who are a little more careful about showing their whole asses in public.
Which brings us to the real point of this already-too-long, much-hyphenated post: how to navigate the Venn diagram of the far right, the occult, and conspiracy theories.
First, I have to be honest. I say that I’m talking about “the occult,” but really I’m talking about magic and magicians here. I’ll leave the messiness of the UFO and ghost hunting communities to the full-timers in those fields.
And since I’m talking about magic and magicians, let’s admit that it’s not even remotely surprising that we’re seeing “alternative takes” on the events unfolding around us. In the “West,” if you believe in magic, you are definitionally rejecting the Official Explanation of Reality.
Astrology, tarot, spirits, and spells? Not a one of those things is permissible in the Authorized Version of the universe.
By engaging with magic in anything but the most superficial of ways—like reading your horoscope, or using daily affirmations to “boost your confidence”—you are automatically in the “out-group” as far as conventional, “Western” thinking is concerned.
And out-groups are not only going to find each other, they’re often going to cross-pollinate.
I’m not saying that by reading tarot cards, you must necessarily believe the Earth is flat, but I am saying that you’re more likely to find flat-Earthers on a tarot discussion board than on an astrophysics one. You’re also more likely to find someone who says “the virus is fake” among proponents of alternative medicine then you are to find one at an AMA convention.
As a magician, you don’t have to like being “othered” into the same basket as people who think the Moon landings were faked, but you do need to both come to terms with it, and find a way to navigate the terrain. Partly because this is a common criticism raised by so-called skeptics when they tear into the spiritual or metaphysical community.
The standard claim is that to believe one “irrational thing” leads you to believe in others. And while this “argument” is just the slippery slope fallacy we all know and love, there is a ring of truth here, and it deserves some attention.
If we find a magical teacher, author, or podcaster we admire, it’s fairly easy to get swept up in every idea or theory they espouse. It’s not inevitable, but it is possible, and it can sometimes take a lot of effort to not get carried out to sea. One thing which can help? A completely random food analogy which definitely doesn’t have any subtext at all.
Recognize that magical instruction isn’t always best characterized as a “soup,” but rather as a “buffet.”
Certain established traditions and organized spiritual systems aside, it’s entirely fine to pick and choose those concepts and techniques which seem sound to you and leave the rest on the table.
To be clear, I’m not talking about rifling through the pockets of other cultures looking for the “good bits” like so much spare change. I’m talking about learning how to read the works of Victorian occultists without becoming a giant racist. Or cribbing a lunar ritual from a certain, popular witchcraft author without becoming an unapologetic TERF.
With that aforementioned “appropriation” caveat, it’s perfectly OK (and sometimes even necessary) to take a “smash and grab” approach when dealing with magicians and their creative output. And this is true whether or not that creative output is best described as magical instruction, or socio-political commentary.
Just because someone is very good at magic, doesn’t mean they’re good at economics, or epidemiology, or auto repair.
In fact, being good at magic doesn’t even mean you’re a good person.
There’s a dangerous, naïve sort of belief among the more “new agey” of the occult world, which says in order to be an effective magician you also have to be “spiritually developed” or “enlightened” in some other way. In their view, a person can’t be a “real” practitioner if they’re a racist, or a homophobe, or even if they simply aren’t relentlessly positive every minute of every day.
This just isn’t the case.
I’ve known plenty of skilled magicians who have some seriously unenlightened ideas about their fellow human beings. (And I’ve also known some pretty powerful magicians who struggle with mental illness or addiction. The whole “spiritually evolved” nonsense is just terrible from every direction, but that’s a whole other rant that I’m not getting into today.)
Knowing how to do magic doesn’t “fix” you. It doesn’t make you a “better” person. All magic really does, at least in the broad strokes, is make you more effective at changing the world to match your design, whatever that design might be.
And yes, it is possible to learn good magical practice from utterly shitty people.
Which brings me to the final point I wanted to make in this endless brain-dump of a post: How and when is it okay to learn from someone you believe is a bad person, especially when money changes hands?
The only answer I have for you is the answer I use myself.
Any time I buy a book, or I drop some cash on a paywalled course, I spend a long time thinking it through. And while I’m thinking it through, I keep two things in mind.
First, I remember something I wrote above: I’m buying a ticket to a buffet. My options aren’t to take it all or leave it all. I can eat what I want, and leave the rest in the trough.
And second, I recognize that when I hand over my money to someone in this context, it’s not a donation to their cause for which I get nothing in return. Instead, I’m taking part in an exchange. They get my money, and I get the knowledge or information I’m looking for.
Whether or not this exchange has a net positive effect on the universe comes down to whether or not the information I receive is something which I can put to work for the benefit of myself and others.
Let me write that last sentence again, in a slightly different way.
If the knowledge I get from someone allows me to do good in the world, and if that good outweighs the harm they can cause with the money I give them, then the world is a better place because of our transaction.
If I don’t or can’t make good use of the knowledge I receive—or if I only use that knowledge for my own benefit—that’s a problem, and it’s my responsibility to solve it.
But then again, that’s how I think of magic in general.