Sympathy For the Devil
Guess his name
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“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
I’m thinking about Lewis’s wisdom as I watch the unfolding saga of the Target Wars. Target’s newly dropped Pride Month partner, Abprallen, insists that he/she/they isn’t/aren’t, in fact, a Satanist. Yes, they realize one might get the wrong idea from browsing their Instagram and seeing designs like a demon head with the slogan “Satan Respects Pronouns,” or a slogan like “Trans Witches For Abortion,” but it’s all just for shock. Just like the people running the Temple of Satan are quick to assure you that of course they don’t believe in an actual devil who actually does devilish things. We’re all sensible 21st-century people here, with our humanism and our enlightenment rationalism and our oddly specific ideas about Baphomet’s gender identity. (“I went with a variation of Baphomet for this design,” Abprallen explains about the “Satan Respects Pronouns” logo, “a deity who themself is a mixture of genders, beings, ideas, and existences. They reject binary stereotypes and expectations.” Right then.)
Most of Abprallen’s Insta-offerings, which included among other things an adorable little guillotine with the slogan “Homophobe Headrest,” weren’t on the shelves at Target. Target mainly limited itself to the designer’s more blandly nauseating rainbow fare (though one T-shirt with a bronze serpent saying “Cure transphobia, not trans people” felt more symbolically apt than intended—as icon carver Jonathan Pageau likes to say, “Symbolism happens.”) But Abprallen’s more devilish work quickly circulated around social media, causing Target shoppers to ask perfectly reasonable questions and make perfectly reasonable decisions with their wallets. Meanwhile, the store has also been feeling the heat over a new line of “tuck-friendly” bathing suits — now claimed to be adult-only, though one shopper notes that some are oddly small, and oddly placed next to a child mannequin. All this and more has fueled a boycott effective enough to send the company into a tailspin. As part of the damage control, they’ve chosen to officially cut ties with Erik Carnell, the designer behind Abprallen. I’ll refer to Carnell as “she” going forward, since she’s a woman who presents male, and I don’t make a habit of living by lies.
Carnell predictably complains that this is all the fault of bad-faith right-wingers who “spun a narrative” out of her Satanic artwork. All she wants to do with her art, she claims, is send a message of hope and positivity to queer people like her younger self. It doesn’t have to be all sadness. It doesn’t have to be all “bleak.” It gets better!
Well, perhaps I found the wrong Instagram, because “bleak” was the first word that came to mind as I browsed Carnell’s catalogue. Indeed, a hallmark of her work is that whatever looks lovely or hopeful must be surrounded by whatever looks ugly, dark, and ghoulish. Literally—each heart in a collection of heart-shaped preferred pronoun pins is surrounded by barbed wire. She must really like the “heart in barbed wire” motif, because it comes up again in a pin where barbed wire sets off the message, “Transitioning is an Act of Self-Love”. This design adds the additionally hopeful note of a skeleton hand clutching a human heart. There’s a rose in there too, but it’s kind of hiding behind the bony thumb.
Skeletons make repeat appearances. Another design features one grinning over a collection of potions and pills, captioned “Transitioning is Alchemy.” Carnell explains, “Taking potions, lotions, pills, having your body altered under the knife or with injections, cutting or growing your hair, and choosing to adjust the very makeup of what makes your body is witchcraft and alchemy, and that’s an incredible achievement.”
I can’t think of a more apt design to encapsulate what feminist social critic Mary Harrington calls “the Meat Lego Matrix” (bold emphasis added):
This is a world where digital simulacra are used to push a fantasy of radical self-creation, that re-envisages human selfhood as online identity and our bodies as meat avatars.
In this worldview, human bodies are not sacred, let alone inseparable from consciousness. They’re inert meat we’re entitled to enclose for profit, instrumentalise at will, and rearrange like toy building-blocks to suit our sense of self. And because we’re entering an age where this is increasingly possible, with a moral framework inherited from a time when limits were still a thing, this is all being framed as a civil rights and social justice issue.
But hello, what’s this? An Abprallen pin saying “Trans bodies are holy.”
On one hand, Harrington is not wrong. On the other hand, designers like Carnell still do very much want to appropriate words like “holy” and “sacred” as it suits their purposes. The description for this particular pin is worth quoting in full. I’ve bolded every word and phrase that borrows from religious grammar:
The trans body is a holy thing, it’s a vessel that carries you through a life that tries to deny your existence or put you in peril, but through it all you show such resilience. It’s hard to feel holy sometimes, I know, but you get to create a body that feels like home - whether it’s through hormones, surgery, tattoos, working out, clothes, any number of things - you’re designing your temple and living righteously.
It’s hard sometimes to treat ourselves with love, care, and compassion, but we deserve it. Being trans is a thing of beauty, it’s a miraculous existence to defy all odds and still come out shining like the sun through stained glass. Tell yourself today that you love your trans body, even if you don’t. Tell yourself tomorrow that you love your trans body, even if you don’t believe it. Tell yourself you love your trans body over and over like a prayer until you recognise it for the fact it is. Trans bodies are holy and so is the soul within.
In fact, not only does Carnell want to copy from Christianity’s homework, she wants to borrow Jesus himself for a hot second. Here’s the description for her “Jesus Loves Trans Kids” pin:
There’s a lot of trans kids in Christian religions who are being fed lies that God would reject them for being trans, or they’re told that to transition is to deny the role they were created for. But if we’re made in God’s image then the easiest conclusion to come to is that God made us trans, or gay, or bi, or any other sexuality or gender you can imagine.
Jesus loves trans kids just as they are, however they present, whatever they wanna call themselves, no matter how they want to adjust their physical form. Anyone who says otherwise is a godforsaken liar. 💖
Any other sexuality, really? But I digress. The key take-home here is that both Jesus and Satan respect pronouns. Never mind that Jesus is on record as not being Satan’s biggest fanboy. He doesn’t get along famously with devils in general. He famously doesn’t get along with them, in fact.
Still, the fact that Carnell would like some version of Jesus on her team would probably have historian Tom Holland doing an “I told you so.” Holland’s major thesis is that all humanist social justice movements find their roots in Christianity, whether they acknowledge it or not. The very idea of caring for a marginalized group, or inverting power imbalances, or fighting for the notion of “dignity” or “rights,” is inescapably Christian. This is even true of people fighting for abortion rights, he argues. Granted, the people advocating for babies outside abortion clinics do bear a rather stronger resemblance to the early Christians who rescued baby girls from rubbish bins. But the language of “women’s choice,” by focusing on the importance of respecting female bodies, is also “Christian” — kinda. So really, even the abortion debate is its own “Christian civil war” — sorta.
I find this strained, needless to say, and I find it equally strained when Holland tries to apply this thesis to the LGBT wars. For all that he intends to honor Christianity and its profound ripple effects through time, his interpretive framework actually reduces history to a fundamentally secular Rorschach blot. The question of whether there is an actual God who might be on one side and an actual devil who might be on the other side never enters the discussion. My friend Ben Sixsmith, though not a Christian, reached much the same conclusion in his review of Holland’s Dominion:
Permit me to analogize: if two sons are influenced by their fathers’ hard work, dedication, and willingness to learn, who is more like him, the son who follows him into the building trade or the son who makes use of these qualities as a bank robber? That different phenomena have Christian influences does not make them equally or even comparably Christian.
And, indeed, when one side is loudly and repeatedly claiming anti-Christian influences of the Satanic variety, this should be a signpost to the secular historian that it’s time to consider a, well, alternative interpretive framework. Let’s revisit the explanation for that Baphomet pin:
Satan loves you and respects who you are; you’re important and valuable in this world and you deserve to treat yourself with love and respect. LGBT+ people are so often referred to as being a product of Satan or going against God’s will, so fine. We’ll hang with Satan instead.
Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan, he is merely used as a symbol of passion, pride, and liberty. He means to you what you need him to mean. So for me, Satan is hope, compassion, equality, and love.
So, naturally, Satan respects pronouns. He loves all LGBT+ people.
Remember, Satan doesn’t exist. But if he did, he’d be pretty damned cool.