There’s a simple reason for the recurring pop-culture theme about being the last kid chosen for the sports team, or fearing dodgeball, or being called a cruel nickname: nearly everyone feels the weight of being an outcast, usually by the ninth grade.
Yes, some carry that weight much longer than others, and often for reasons beyond their control. But some outcasts speak with such frequency about being outcasts that it appears to become central to their identity and actions. That brings us to “The Rise of Progressive Occultism,” a deeply researched longform report by Tara Isabella Burton in The American Interest.
You may remember that some witches joined in a collective hex against Brett Kavanagh, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, when he was but a nominee. You win some and you lose some.
The most serious practitioners of the dark arts are not mere political dilettantes, but people who believe a counter-narrative to Christianity (which they consider patriarchal) and who call on their ancient spiritual forces for supernatural assistance. This being the age of Donald Trump, well of course the 45th president serves as the bête noire (or bête blanc, if you prefer) in all of this:
In one Brooklyn zine, author and non-binary witch Dakota Bracciale — co-owner of Catland Books, the occult store behind the Kavanaugh hexing — celebrates the potential of traditional “dark magic” and outright devil-worship as a levying force for social justice.
“There have been too many self-elected spokespersons for all of witchcraft,” Bracciale writes, “seeking to pander to the masses and desperately conform to larger mainstream religious tenets in order to curry legitimacy. Witchcraft has largely, if not exclusively, been a tool of resilience and resistance to oppressive power structures, not a plaything for bored, affluent fools. So if one must ride into battle under the banner of the Devil himself to do so then I say so be it. The reality is that you can be a witch and worship the devil and have sex with demons and cavort through the night stealing children and burning churches. One should really have goals.”
As with the denizens of The Satanic Temple, Bracciale uses the imagery of Satanism as a direct attack on what he perceives as Christian hegemony. So too Jex Blackmore, a self-proclaimed Satanic feminist (and former national spokesperson for the Satanic Temple) who appeared in the Hail Satan? documentary performing a Satanic ritual involving half-naked worshippers and pigs’ heads on spikes, announcing: “We are going to disrupt, distort, destroy. … We are going to storm press conferences, kidnap an executive, release snakes in the governor’s mansion, execute the president.”
Thank you for the heads up.
I cannot deny that Dakota Bracciale andJex Blackmore know how to wield the ax of language, and their fit-for-purpose names are only surpassed by the exquisite Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, the lead focus in “The Rise of Progressive Occultism,” to whom Astrology Twitter (a witty coinage by Burton) owes a debt for sharing the birth chart of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Burton says it was a canny move by AOC to reveal her birth time to Lipp-Bonewits, whom she calls “a self-described psychic and astrologer.”
It may indeed be canny politics, but here is a lost opportunity at a different spiritual angle: Ocasio-Cortez is Catholic. She’s written briefly about her faith in an essay for the Jesuit-edited America magazine, describing it in large part as concern for the downtrodden. The Catholic Church has addressed occultism — anyone care to guess what it says? — and is often cast as the darkest of any possible bête noire for satanists. What self-respecting transgressive performance artist could resist besmirching all those icons and crucifixes and statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary?
In a feature such as this, there are always scholars at hand to take the identity politics up several notches:
“Who, exactly, is the witch,” asks Kristin J. Sollee of the 2017 book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive — one of the many feminist witch texts to arise out of the Trump era. “She’s Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of the crossroads. She’s Lilith, the blood-drinking demoness of Jewish mythology who refused to submit sexually to her husband. … She’s Joan of Arc, the French military hero in white armor burned by her brethren for cross dressing and heresy. … She’s Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot for her feminist advocacy and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. … she’s every woman. … at once female divinity, female ferocity, and female transgression.”
In one online reaction to this piece, Rod Dreher raises a fair warning that it’s a mistake to dismiss these young occultists or not to take them seriously. My greater fear is that the occultists may not take their professed beliefs seriously enough. Similar to Spike, the comic apartment mate in Notting Hill, they tend to show up when they are called. Unlike Spike, they are malevolent rather than comic figures, and they are in charge of this macabre drama.
Art: “Satan fell like lightning” by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Flickr. Detail from a lacquer screen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.