Discerning Sources and Authors

I have a master’s degree and several undergraduate degrees. I do a lot of research on ancient ritual technology, as well as the history and anthropology of religious movements. I’m not trying to flex on anyone or brag about my extra special academic credentials, but to emphasize how important accurate and vetted source material and strong scholarship are to me and to my religious and magical practice. Discernment is important when considering any source, as well as the biases and training of the author presenting that source.

And sometimes I make mistakes and but shitty material from shitty people.

History Lesson

One of my research interests is holiday practices, their origins, and how different traditions influence each other. There are several traditions common to Christian religious holidays that are derives from practices that predate Christianity or come from non-Christian cultural traditions, and there are many traditions that developed in already Christian cultural contexts, and there is a lot of misinformation and confusion between those categories.

If you share this unironically, I am judging you. In a world where Google and Wikipedia exist there is no excuse for this fuckery.

Accurate, well sourced information on the origins of the holidays is available, but is usually scattered about through various disciplines. So when I found a book that promoted itself as detailing the pagan origins of Christian holiday traditions, I was hopeful that it contained what it said it did: actual evidence for the pagan origins of Christian holiday traditions. And in my eagerness to acquire such a text, I missed a few things.

  • Low Price Point: I don’t like to admit it, but a thoroughly researched and sourced  book on a subject like that will probably not be cheap. No necessarily expensive, but not cheap. The book I got was really cheap, and honestly that was why I picked it up so readily, because why not?
  • Low Page Count: I should have noticed how short the book was. That in itself isn’t too much of a red flag, but a decent book on a topic like this should have cleared 150 pages at least, and combined with other factors I should have seen indicates a lack of thoroughness.
  • Publisher: I have no problem with self-published books: my own poetry books are self-published. But academic material should probably be backed by a reputable publisher. If it isn’t, it is likely not to have been peer reviewed or vetted, which brings its quality and methodology into question.
  • Author Bio: A lot of author bios on Amazon are pretty brief and pump up the author to be an expert in whatever they’re selling. A lot of them also link to other sources or websites that the author runs. I should have Googled this author. It is a good idea to Google any author you’re not already familiar with, and see what else they have written. (This is a recurring theme.)
  • Read the Reviews: I am really bad about skipping reviews, and I have no excuse. The reviews will often tell not just what the book is about, but what the reviewer was looking for and found in the book. Oh, and if the book is self-published and has only 5 star reviews, that is also a red flag: that’s the kind of thing that happens when a book is published and circulated within an echo chamber or very small group of people who know the author and share their biases.

So in short, I was hoping for an academic discussion of the origins of holiday traditions, and what I got what a jumble of bible quotes, conspiracy theories, and occasional references to sources that are almost 100 years out of date, written by a Protestant minister as a way to discredit Catholic traditions, and purchased and reviewed glowingly by their congregation. Sure, I’m only out $7, but all of the signs were there, had I bothered to look. A quick search on the author, or even a perusal of the reviews, and I would have passed on this book.

Edgelords Gotta Edge

edgelord: A poster on an Internet forum, (particularly 4chan) who expresses opinions which are either strongly nihilistic, (“life has no meaning,” or Tyler Durden’s special snowflake speech from the film Fight Club being probably the two main examples) or contain references to Hitler, Nazism, fascism, or other taboo topics which are deliberately intended to shock or offend readers.

A while back I was adding some grimoires to my library, when I noticed several short books that offered public domain translations of old grimoires for not many dollars. I already had a few in digital format, and I have newer translations of a few more, but I’m a sucker for hard copies, and thought it would be nice to have separate copies of these old translations just as references. They were obviously self-published, and the formatting wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad to have them on the shelf, and they were really cheap.

Eventually I looked up the author, and noticed they had some political essays available, and also ran a YouTube channel. I’m a Libertarian, and some of their material was libertarian-ish, so I gave it a read, and it was amateurish but not overly unsettling. But it was their older material, and when I encountered their newer material I had to step back.

I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories: they all rely upon logical and rhetorical fallacies and ignoring evidence that often easily disproves the conspiracy, and almost all of them reduce down to some for of “the Jews did it.” So when I’m looking for quality material, I tend to shy away from conspiracy theorists, as their standards are usually compromised in some way.

I’m also not a fan of Holocaust deniers.

So in this case, the material I purchased wasn’t questionable, but the source was, and I’m not sure what to make of that. All of your faves are problematic, and your sources probably are too. What obligation do I have to reject good information because the person that presented it is suspect? In this instance, the material I obtained was not the source’s original material, and I can get that material from less suspect sources. They already has my money, so I suppose I may as well keep the books, but I’m not going to support them any more. And I think that “I can acquire the same information from someone else” is a good starting point when dealing with problematic sources.

But I was I supposed to know how problematic this author was, especially since the initial material he presented wasn’t questionable? Perhaps a Google search of any new author I find is warranted. Sure, I may not catch everyone, but making sure they at least don’t have a RationalWiki page outlining their extremist positions will probably suffice for most cases.

Punch Nazis

As a poet and a pagan, I have an interest in pagan poetry, and I don’t see it too often (devotional or otherwise). So when I found a book on pagan poetry I was naturally drawn to it.

Unlike the instance above, a low price and short page count are typical for poetry books. It’s also common for them to be self-published. And the author bio simply said that the author was a pagan and a poet, which is what I wanted. So things didn’t seem too off, and I bought the book.

For some reason I had it in my head that this book was a collection of many poets, so I was a little thrown off when I got the book and it was only one author. The poetry was pretty good: formal, introspective, romantic. If I buy poetry books from people, I often follow them on Instagram or Twitter, and see what else they’ve written. I should have looked into their other works sooner, for reasons that are obvious if you read the header for this section.

I want to state very clearly that Norse or Heathen traditions are not inherently racist. But for some reason, a lot of racists are drawn to them. The use of terms like “European folk traditions” should inspire caution, and the term “volkish” is a giant red flag with a full marching band accompaniment. This author had several giant red flags, which were pretty apparent as soon as I saw their other written works.

So in this particular case the initial bio wasn’t too worrisome, but a brief glance at the author’s other material was enough to turn me off. A further Google search showed me how disgusting this person actually was, having been banned from Twitter for praising Hitler, and proudly declaring themself to be a neonazi. I don’t even think I finished reading the RationalWiki article.

Due Diligence

Everyone’s fave is problematic, and there is a lot of questionable material out there. What due diligence is required when vetting sources? I shouldn’t have to do a Google search on a poet to make sure they’re not a Literal Nazi, but it looks like I do have to do just that. It’s unfortunate that we as readers need to develop such habits as making sure the author of a interesting book isn’t a Nazi, but it’s also satisfying that the very tools that make it easy for such people to disseminate such material also makes it easy to identify them. Taking an extra minute or two to review an author doesn’t really seem to hard in the long run.

The more complicated question is what to make of the art created by problematic people? If a Nazi writes poems about finding peace in nature, how complicit am I if I enjoy their poetry? Do I have an ethical obligation to never watch a film produced my Miramax because of Harvey Weinstein’s actions? Do we allow people time or chances to chance their positions and redeem themselves, and what gestures or behavior demonstrate that they have done so? I don’t know all the answers, but I welcome consideration and discussion of how to handle non-offensive material that is produced by people who also produce harmful material.

Bad scholarship is a much easier solution: counter it with good scholarship. Unfortunately identifying bad scholarship can be harder, and a lot of people prefer to dismiss solid evidence in support of their particular pet theory. For all its flaws, Wikipedia is a great resource to start from, and a lot of outlandish and unsupported claims can be dismissed with a quick review of the relevant Wikipedia article (some of which actively address false claims and conspiracies).

At any rate, it ultimately falls upon us to be critical of any sources and material we consume. I place a great importance of quality sources, and yet even I got lazy and failed to vet my own materials. The most I can do at this point is share my experiences (and offer accurate reviews).



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