Oct/Nov 2016 Nonfiction

The Will to Devolution

by Vic Sizemore

Image courtesy of the British Library Online Photo Collection

It was the first Pi party I'd ever attended, thrown for the daughter of nerdy friends; she was turning 3.14 years old. The house was decorated and festive, with hats for the guests on the entryway table that looked like Green Bay Cheesehead hats, except they were slices of pie—and tiaras for those who wanted to be princesses. The house was full of stereotypical academics—highly educated, opinionated, liberal—and their children. Though it was not on anyone's mind, the ethnicities present were white, Latino, and Jewish—Melungeon, too, if I claim my own ethnic heritage—but no one who was black. Kids ran playing through the house, parents stood around having drinks and grazing at the dining room table, spread full as it was with pies both savory and sweet.

Then the new neighbor from across the street walked in wearing a shirt that said on the back, "Better a wolf of Odin than a Lamb of God."

Here's what I knew about the neighbor at this point: He has a son who plays well with our friends' daughter and is apparently a sweet and lovely child. I'd had a conversation with the man before and found him to be perfectly pleasant, though the Donald Trump sign in his front yard and Confederate flag spread across his garage door windows told me we would not be friends. He was from West Virginia, had spent time in Germany as an army brat, and returned there to live as an adult for a while.

Several months ago, a new basketball hoop went up at the end of his driveway with a backboard that was a flag—the black, white, and red striped flag that Germany used from 1866 to the end of WWI. The Nazi party used this flag, too, from 1933 until 1935, until Hitler made the swastika flag their one official flag.

I knew very little about wolves of Odin. An acquaintance of mine, a man who is an orthodox priest but was once a hardcore fundamentalist, has two sons who are known around town for having left Christianity and started a cult called the Wolves of Vinland, which practices ancient European paganism as they understand it and calls for, among other things, animal sacrifice. They move among the 20- and 30-somethings here in town, and are generally looked upon with bemused curiosity. They call themselves a "tribe of folkish heathen." Part of their rituals, and what seems a necessity of membership, is a fight club.

Jack Donovan, a proponent of "masculinity and tribalism," writes in a blog post, "The Wolves of Vinland are becoming barbarians. They're leaving behind attachments to the state, to enforced egalitarianism, to desperate commercialism, to this grotesque modern world of synthetic beauty and dead gods. They're building an autonomous zone, a community defined by face-to-face and fist-to-face connections where manliness and honor matter again." If the tribe were only a bunch of Luddites playing fight club in the woods, we could think about it in terms of the crisis of masculinity, or the effects of technology; there is, however, something deeper and more sinister going on.

Writing about the Wolves of Vinland for The Daily Beast, Betsy Woodruff reports she asked them some questions on their Facebook page and "the group didn't dispute being characterized as white nationalist." She also reports that throughout the pictures of the tribe are "T-shirts that read 'Free Hjalti,' a reference to Wolves of Vinland member Maurice Michaely who was sentenced to spend two and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to burning a historic black church." In a podcast at ThePreassureProject.com, Paul Waggener, one of the Wolves' two founding brothers, said, "All this talk of equal living, equal rights, coexistence—fuck that shit." They have made the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of hate groups (one of almost 900 active hate groups in the US, as listed on the SPLC website).

At the Pi party that day, no one asked this man about his Wolf-of-Odin shirt. Everyone was too polite, or too busy keeping free-playing toddlers from accidental harm. Has he found his way to these local Wolves of Vinland boys, or is he striking out on his own religious path? At one point, explaining why he liked lager beer, he said, "I'm German," in a strong West Virginia accent. I don't know if he has linked up to this local tribe or not, but there's no room to doubt his belief in white supremacy.

A piece about grazing mammals out west called pronghorns who are second only to cheetahs in running speed was on National Public Radio a year or so ago. Though pronghorns are slightly slower than cheetahs, they can race across the prairie for 20 miles, while cheetahs only have a burst of a few hundred feet. No predator on the prairies today can come anywhere near their amazing speed and endurance; when they settle into their pace at 40 miles per hour, they are no longer being chased by anything with a remote chance of keeping up even for the first half mile of their marathon, but by "ghost predators" remembered in their DNA from an earlier stage in their evolution. Although the pronghorns' running speed is no longer necessary for survival, it doesn't appear to be detrimental in any way.

We humans are responsible for the rapid demise of the pronghorns' primary predators. We have, in our ever-forward rush into progress, outpaced our own physical evolution as well. We, too, have holdover traits that once aided in our health and survival but are no longer necessary. Not all of them are as benign as the ability to blaze across the grassland.

The most obvious example of this is our love for sugar. Daniel Lieberman, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard University, tells Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview, "We evolved to crave sweet foods... Most wild fruits are about as sweet as a carrot. So we love sweetness, but until recently, pretty much the only food that we got that was sweet was honey..." He continues, "But now we have access to abundant quantities of sugar and simple carbohydrates, which we evolved to love because they're full of energy, but we don't have the metabolism. We don't have the bodies that are able to cope with those kinds of levels of sugar, and the result is that we get sick."

Consuming all this readily available sugar causes numerous health problems, from tooth decay and obesity to liver and heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. Take diabetes alone from this list: citing a study published in JAMA, medical doctor Robert Glatter writes in Forbes magazine that half of adults in the US have diabetes or pre-diabetes. The disease costs an estimated two and a half billion dollars annually, and kills around 71,000 people. The National Institute of Health has declared diabetes an epidemic. Our love for sugar has led to a bona fide public health crisis.

The 2016 platform of the Republican Party declared pornography a "public health crisis." Along with this declaration, the GOP platform also came out publically against national parks, abortion, endangered species, action on climate change, the IRS, unmarried cohabitation, same-sex marriage—they are generally against homosexuality period, but have retreated and redrawn their battle line at same-sex marriage. What they are for is a massive wall along our southern border to keep dark-skinned immigrants out.

This is, of course, a list of the concerns of conservative, white, Christian America. Calls for action to stem the tide of ungodliness and un-whiteness ring out from pulpits across the US. Looking at the changing demographics of the nation—which is growing both more liberal and more non-white—Fundamentalist cries for resistance have become more radical, even to the point of calling for violence in the name of Christ. They call up images of the Black Robe Regiment who, in their revision of history, were preachers during the American Revolution who wore combat uniforms under their vestments so they could burst like Colonial Rambos out of their churches with muskets blazing in defense of religious freedom.

I am puzzled by this call for violence in the name of Christ. I am puzzled when my father applauds one of his preacher friends who ascends to the pulpit dressed in the character of Patrick Henry and booms out a speech, ending with a resounding, "Give me liberty or give me death," his arms spread beneath the huge cross on the back wall.

How is it that we have come to see this fighting spirit as part of our Christian heritage? Where does it come from?

Not Jesus.

As Tolstoy rightly observes, when Jesus says to turn the other cheek, he is calling for a radically different way of facing the enemy. As a matter of fact, taking up arms—even to defend your freedom—doesn't appear to be anywhere on Jesus's list of priorities. Though not Christian, Gandhi managed to use this principle to drive the British out of India. Martin Luther King Jr. lived it in the American South.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s story illustrates the problem with this approach to the enemy: turning the other cheek to take another blow is not only counterintuitive, it is unpleasant. It hurts. It hurts, and it feels like defeat, like a shameful admission of weakness. But is this not what Jesus says Christians must do? If they take your coat, give them your shirt also, Christ says. Do not strike back. Is Nietzsche right when he sneers at the soldier who rattles his sword with one hand and swears allegiance to Jesus with the other? Is he not right to say the only person with a right to claim the name Christian is one who models their life after the Galilean himself?

Every year at this time I teach the Old English epic poem Beowulf. I always enjoy teaching the stories of Beowulf's battles with Grendel of course, but also Grendel's dam and the dragon. The inserted episodes of blood feud are also interesting, giving us a glimpse into that brutal and bloody world, mediated by the Anglo-Saxon poet, as Christianity moves in and mixes with—to eventually overtake—those harsh pagan beliefs.

The poet bemoans the "pagan shrines," where the Geats and the Danes "vowed offerings to idols," but insists, "That was their way ... The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God ... was unknown to them."

His Christianity is mixed with those old pagan beliefs, however. When he writes that Grendel is of "Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts..." he adds, "out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms, and giants who strove with God..."

We might overlook beliefs from the so-called dark ages, ones we have left behind. But what about the poet's sympathy for the heroic way of life? When asked why he thinks he can kill the monster, Beowulf brags of rising from battle boltered (a great poetic term Seamus Heaney uses in his translation, which means clotted and sticky) in the blood of his enemies. The poet approves, while he also seems to sense that this warrior life is the very thing Christianity has arrived to destroy. Christianity replaced endless retaliation and blood feud with the astonishing and counter-intuitive "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

Did Christianity destroy that old way of life? After all, Christians in my hometown are putting snake flags on their cars, declaring, "Don't Tread On Me." They are packing pistols so when the Muslims come around, as Jerry Falwell Jr. admonished Liberty University students in a chapel service, they can "end them."

The fighting spirit goes way back. It is without a doubt part of Northern Europe's—hence much of America's—heritage. It just isn't the part that comes from the clear teachings of Jesus Christ. Of the SPLC's list of hate groups in the United States, a good portion of them identify in some way as Christian, which requires the flouting of Jesus's clear command to nonviolence. In this regard, these local Wolves of Vinland boys who abandoned their Christian upbringing for the heroic tenets of a bygone Europe are at least trying to bring their beliefs in line with their longing to run in a violent and pure white tribe.

"At some point in the last million years," Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind, "a small group of our ancestors developed the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more of them were pursuing together." He continues, "For example, while foraging, one person pulls down a branch while the other plucks the fruit, and they both share the meal. Chimps never do this." And with this, our evolution moves into the stage of "shared intentionality."

When we transitioned from selfish individuals to members of a group who shared intentionality, our, "ability to hunt, gather, raise children, and raid [our] neighbors increased exponentially." Haidt writes that we gathered into tribes like bees in a hive, and, also like bees, "humans began building ever more elaborate nests, and in just a few thousand years, a new kind of vehicle appeared on Earth—the nation-state, able to raise walls and armies."

In our ideal America, we are supposed to hand in our tribalism for nationalism—whatever else we are, we are all Americans, right? We stand up for each other. We thank our troops for traveling across the world to protect us, we honor the flag, and we stand up when high school bands play patriotic songs. But what happens to this nationalism before the onslaught of globalism? In Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism, Paul James observes that globalism "has been developing at an unprecedented pace through the end of the 20th century and into the new millennium. A rough, uneven blanketing of capital and commercialized culture crosses and connects the world in unprecedented ways."

Pat Buchanan, writing in The American Conservative, complains that America is "globalist," when it should be, "nationalist" as China is. He laments that "we now happily predict the year, 2042, when Americans of European ancestry become a minority in a country whose Founding Fathers declared it set aside for 'ourselves and our posterity.'"

And here's the true problem for Buchanan: in his America, "ourselves and our posterity" is a set consisting of "Americans of European ancestry" and no one else. He further laments this demographic change: "Without the assent of her people, America is being converted from a Christian country, nine in 10 of whose people traced their roots to Europe as late as the time of JFK, into a multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural Tower of Babel not seen since the late Roman Empire."

To Pat Buchanan—and 712 of the 892 groups listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website as active hate groups—this demographic shift is too much. It is unacceptable. Something must be done. Enter Donald Trump with his promise to wall off Mexico, kick out illegal immigrants, and ban Muslims from entry. The growth of the non-white population of America is tantamount to the death of true America. Writing for The New Yorker in 2015, Evan Osnos quotes white nationalist Richard Spencer explaining the appeal of The Donald: "Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We're moving into a new America..." and Trump understands the "unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us."

James is clear though that globalization is not simply the next step, replacing nationalism and tribalism; instead, they are "recurrent formations with rough-knotted intertwined histories." While globalism roars on, at the same time, "there is an intense fragmenting and reconfiguring of social relations at the level of the community and locality." Which isn't necessarily bad. Shop local, eat local—and free-range, non-hormone, non-chemical, grass-fed, organic, etc.—"Think globally, act locally," as the bumper sticker instructs.

The desire of these wolf boys to be connected on this level is only human. Their leaving Christianity is no more than an admission that Conservative American Christianity has lost its soul, is a painted grave with dead bones inside. They're looking for the authentic experience of connection with other human beings. And the truth is, among the white tribe I grew up in, because real America is white America, nationalism and tribalism are one.

The problem is, as Haidt points out in Righteous Mind, "Genes and cultures coevolve." He explains, citing anthropologists Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd, that "cultural innovations (such as spears, cooking techniques, and religions) evolve in much the same way that biological innovations evolve, and the two streams are so intertwined that you cannot study one without studying both."

For example, the ability to digest lactose into adulthood evolved in our species alongside the domestication of cattle. "If cultural innovations," he writes, "(such as keeping cattle) can lead to genetic responses (such as adult lactose tolerance), then might cultural innovations related to morality have led to genetic responses as well?" His unequivocal answer is "Yes." This gene-culture coevolution "helped to move humanity up from the small-group sociability of other primates to the tribal ultrasociality that is found today in all human societies."

This gathering into tribes, and competing with other tribes, is a part of human evolution and lives in our genes. Gather into a larger group and mark the membership by geographical borders, and you have nationalism. What then becomes of this instinct to gather into tribes when the nation-state is ever more challenged by globalism? What becomes of the tribe in ascendancy for all of a nation's history—the tribe who defined what it meant to be a legitimate citizen of the nation—when demographic changes erode the foundations of their pedestal?

You get the modern Republican Party, the Tea Party, and the Freedom Caucus. You get the burgeoning of white nationalist and right wing militias across the United States. You get the orange-faced racist Donald Trump, who rose to prominence with the help of white Evangelical Christians, whose support of him pushed 80 percent as his general election campaign crashed and burned. And you get white fight clubs like the Wolves of Vinland.

Just as our evolutionary love for sugar can be a source of pleasure, so our evolutionary need to gather into tribes can be, and is, positive. We need to live in community. However, not kept in check, our evolutionary love of sugar wrecks our health and kills us; so, too, our desire to be tribal drives us to join hate groups.

If Jonathan Haidt is correct—and I hope he is—that genes and cultures coevolve, in a world moving ever more into globalism, these white supremacist tribes are trying to turn back the tide of human evolution, make a cultural U-turn. Maybe we can set our sights on a universal humanism, and take comfort in knowing that racial tribalists have set their course down a genetic runnel that flows to nowhere, peters out, and dies.


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