This essay was adapted from a lecture titled Toward Progressive Magicks: Identifying Obstacles, Dismantling Frameworks delivered at the Towards a Progressive Magic evening, at the Horse Hospital in London, May 30, 2019 sponsored by Strange Attractor Press.
Make no mistake, there are reasons why new activists from the radical right are attracted to Paganism and the occult, and it is not only because of the mythic connections between historical Nazis and shadowy secret societies. It’s because there are uncomfortable structural compatibilities between some aspects of Pagan and occult culture and the ideals of some sectors of the radical right. I have been researching, speaking and writing about the relationship between the radical right and Pagan and occult subcultures for probably about a decade, in both academic and other, more accessible venues. A decade ago, this topic still felt a bit like the fringe of the fringe. And it was. Today, however, I am writing from a vastly different viewpoint, where the ideologies and methods of the radical right have been all but mainstreamed, and the intersections with Pagan and occult ideologies cannot be ignored. These days there are far more rallying cries of concern from within these linked subcultures, with people wanting to know the history of the movements in question, or lists of bad actors working to radicalize Pagan or occult groups. When mass shooters have Pagan symbols on their backpacks or refer to occult writers and ideas in their manifestos, people want to know why. The fact is that even given the strong, and often overstated historical relationship with the counterculture and leftist ideas, both Paganism and the occult have elements which have also been embedded in conservative and even radical right ideologies since, well, forever, and the connections extend far beyond the well-known tropes of esoteric Nazism. This essay is designed to explore some of the deep structures of these ideological confluences, understand the means by which radical right entryism occurs in these communities, and to propose a deep critique of some of the frameworks of Pagan and occult cultures which support these efforts.
Recent History of the Right
First, let’s look at the historical trajectory of the radical right that is most relevant to this conversation. The extreme right has changed dramatically in the last ten years. There are a number of factors which have coalesced to create the historical context for the emergence of the new radical right, and they mirror conditions we see generating radical activity all over the world. In my view, these factors are primarily situated in the decline of social mobility and the inequalities of wealth. First, critiques of Neoconservatism were already present in the broader right-wing landscape before the rise of the Alt Right in about 2010, and right-wing activists had been working for about a decade to gain wider cultural traction. Many on the radical edges of the right had been engaged in a smooth rebranding exercise for a new and more engaged generation. These guys didn’t want to look like KKK members, Christian Identitarians or Confederate flag waving rednecks, they wanted to be seen as part of an intellectual vanguard.
Specifically, however, I believe that the uptick in this particular type of radical right activity in the West starts to spread in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. It is at this point that we begin to see critiques of Neoconservative policies coming from the Right coalescing with a more generalized cultural focus on addressing globalization and corporate greed. In the UK, the critique of the Blair legacy combined with an increase in immigration from Eastern Europe and British intervention in unpopular wars ultimately caused a contraction around internationalist and globalist sensibilities. Of course, these are huge simplifications of history, but the result of these factors is that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century we start seeing a different sort of right-wing politics emerge which presented a fundamental challenge to the dominance of Neoconservatism, based in critiques that were coming from within the Right itself.
This rebranded Right wanted to promote a social and economic agenda that was not embedded in evangelical theocracy and capitalism. A new wave of activists started to actively critique globalism, capitalism, endless development, narratives of progress, and crass materialism in general. They found the agenda of the neocons to be spiritually bankrupt and disconnected from meaning and tradition. For many of us some of this platform may not sound too different from the objectives of the Occupy movement of 2011. However, many of these activists were also white nationalists, embracing an anti-immigrant and in the US an anti-affirmative action agenda. But explicit white nationalism still has a rather nasty image. So, to make it more attractive, white nationalism gets marketed by the emerging Right as pro-diversity, but anti-multiculturalism, paving the way for compassionate sounding anti-immigration arguments couched in the rhetoric of heritage, environmentalism, nationalism, protectionism, and small-scale local development. The result being that the revamped Right has embraced leftist discourses of social justice in order to present a white supremacist platform carefully shrouded in progressive sounding language, taking advantage of anti-immigration sentiments and using discourses that have previously been associated with progressive identity politics, including cultural preservation.
In the development of the radical right as we currently see it, we are dealing with several intersecting historical strands of right-wing thought and activity. We hear a lot about the development of the Alt Right (which has been until recently a mostly American phenomenon) because they adopted many of the philosophical ideas from other right-wing and reactionary movements and then, with the help of highly targeted internet news sites and cultural spaces such as 4 chan and 8 chan, a particularly virulent, dangerous and influential radical right-wing emerged. The Alt Right has been deeply ideologically influenced by Paleoconservatism and the European New Right, which is the most relevant movement to this particular conversation. The European New Right, or Nouvelle Droite, has been around since 1968, emerging from French intellectuals who were responding to the global left-wing movements of that year. It is still a highly influential force in shaping the radical right landscape. The New Right, is deeply inspired by the philosophical school called Traditionalism, which has made itself explicitly Pagan and occult friendly.
I am not going to explore the philosophical school of Traditionalism in any depth here. It’s a deeply complicated topic and although some Traditionalists like Julius Evola have deeply impacted the radical right, not all Traditionalists want to be tarred with that brush. If you are interested in learning more about Traditionalism, I would highly recommend Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century by Mark Sedgwick. What I want to focus on in this essay are a few concrete ways that right-wing activists have repackaged Traditionalism to support an actionable political program. The New Right has from the start characterized itself as a deviation from mainstream Conservatism, leveling a critique against the liberalism of the West, which they believe is characterized by individuality, materialism, globalism, progress and Enlightenment, rationalist ideals. A key organizing concept of the New Right is the belief that ethnically homogeneous grounded communities, organized around natural hierarchies will restore meaning and connectedness to Europe, and European diaspora communities. Notably, these groups tend to be very invested in protecting “European heritage”, so when you see that phrase be on alert for white nationalist rhetoric.
Here are some primary characteristics of New Right thought:
- The belief in a perennial, universal traditional society and religion
- The belief in a Golden Age to which we have the ability to return
- A dislike of capitalism
- A critique of the modern condition
- A distrust of rational thought
- Small, culturally homogeneous political units.
- The restoration of “natural” social hierarchies and cultural or racial division
- Virile, masculine leadership
- Traditional gender roles
- Advocating the divine right of kings and theocracy
- A dislike of multiculturalism
It’s not so hard to see in this list why there are so many potential points of entry into religious subcultures that also frequently hold some subset of these values.
Points of Intersection with Esoteric Subcultures
The New Right has explicitly fashioned itself as a movement where Paganism and esotericism is accepted, championed and seen as a legitimate critique of the system. Alain De Benoist is one of the primary theorists of the European New Right. His book On Being a Pagan from 1981 is a New Right manifesto based in Traditionalist philosophy that sets the rhetorical groundwork for the compatibility of Paganism and New Right thought. Some New Right thinkers challenge the cultural impact and dominance of Abrahamic religions on the West and believe Abrahamic values to be culturally incompatible with the nature of Western peoples. However, de Benoist’s Paganism differs from most conceptions of contemporary Paganism as practiced today. De Benoist’s Paganism is characterized by a return to a European caste system which he believes replicates “natural” hierarchies. He is not actually advocating any form of polytheism. However, prominent New Right publishers such as Arktos, Counter Currents and Arcana Europa are all explicitly aligned with wider Pagan and esoteric or occult publishing efforts, fashioning indigenous Paganisms as an imagined spiritual basis for ideal small-scale, non-democratic societies, often focusing on Asatru or German spiritualities which have a rather unfortunate relationship with extreme right-wing thought.
Unfortunately, there are a number of broad ideological frameworks within contemporary Paganism in particular which make it very compatible with many New Right philosophies. Interestingly, a number of these cultural foci initially emerged from the relationship between Paganism and the counterculture of the left in the 1960s. Perhaps most important of these are:
- The embrace of a socially marginalized identity
- Discourses of indigeneity
- An interest in the preservation of folk traditions and nativism
- Environmental preservation
We tend to associate these values with progressives and “hippies”, but it’s useful to understand that they aren’t ideas which emerged specifically from the counter cultural Left, and never have been. Within the philosophical paradigm of the New Right, these features work together to produce an idealized vision of separate isolated ethnically pure political and social units, working in close relationship with the land, embracing folk traditions, and promoting handicraft over industrial labor.
Many of us forget that contemporary Paganism developed in a milieu that was culturally conservative — Wicca and Druidry are two obvious examples. Although these traditions tend to be exemplified by discourses of marginality, both of these groups’ identities rely on a narrative of tradition, nativism to varying degrees, and cultural preservation, which are inherently conservative values. At their cores, Pagan and esoteric cultures can be characterized as, with few exceptions, driven by Romantic aesthetics and sensibilities, which create the space for what are essentially conservative discourses.
Both modern Paganism and occult culture have been characterized as a response to modernity, both simultaneously engaging with and resisting modernity. For many Pagans in particular, part of their radical response to societal and cultural pressures, is an embrace of antimodernism, tradition, and the notion of an imagined past. In reality this position is not actually antimodern, but alternatively modern. Contemporary Pagan religions are absolutely a modern phenomenon, yet nearly all Paganisms today, despite the creativity of many of their rituals and celebrations, draw upon the ideals of a pre-Christian past as part of their origin myth. Even esotericists and occultists who may or may not identify culturally as Pagans, generally believe in the inherent traditionality and continuity of their practices and beliefs, frequently situating their origins in an imagined pre-Christian Western Hermetic tradition, with varying degrees of narratives regarding secret knowledge transmitted through generations of initiates.
Given these structural issues, one might ask if esoteric and occult subcultures cultures can be genuinely progressive or is some form of conservatism inherent to their identities and values? Now I will not argue as some have, that occult practice and culture is essentially right-wing. Especially in the occult milieu, some would easily claim that truly progressive magical cultures cannot exist, primarily because of the supposition that occult secrets are the domain of an initiated elite. A strict Platonic view of the world where everything needs to be in its right place can, unfortunately, encourage fantasies of strict universal social orders that need to be undemocratically enforced. However, I don’t believe this has always been the case and I don’t think it needs to be going forward. There are plenty of examples of occult engagement with progressive positions throughout the modern period, and I think it’s important to keep that history in mind as well.
The Problem of “Nature”
The big underlying problematic hook, the main organizing principle that links the platform of the radical right with a Pagan and occultist world view is the idea of returning to or being in harmony with the natural state of things. I assure you, not everyone agrees on what the natural state of things is. In a Pagan context this can refer to how we live our lives. In a broader occult context this reflects how we do our magic. Belief in an idealized state of human nature, often drawing on Edenic language about returning to a state of purity, guides both spiritual and political models about what ideal human states should look like. For many people the imagined perfected human state is small scale, rural, tribal, maybe naked, maybe vegetarian, but these have historically been just as likely to be right-wing visions as Leftist.
A lot of occultists who use a broadly Neoplatonic framework in their magic, who rely on correspondences and ideas of sympathy in magical operations, have a fairly ordered model of the universe, and there is a belief that correspondences reflect an underlying universal organizational principle. For some it is not a stretch that this order should also apply to human systems, hierarchies, castes, gender roles, suggesting what sorts of esoteric practice are appropriate for which people. As ridiculous as it sounds to many of us to make that cognitive leap, that is exactly what happens. The idea that the transmission of occult knowledge is not for everyone and should only be confined to an elite has been foundational to many occult orders. Here is one example out of many of this type of thought from P.D. Oupensky’s Tertium Organum:
In men capable of development, new faculties are stirring into life, though not as yet manifest, because for their manifestation they require a special culture, a special education. The new conception of humanity disposes of the idea of equality, which after all does not exist, and it tries to establish the signs and facts of the differences between men, because humanity will need soon to divide the “progressing” from the “incapable of progress” — the wheat from the tares, for the tares are growing too fast, and choke the growth of the wheat.
— — — -P.D. Oupensky, Tertium Organum, 1922
Of course, many occultists in the modern era have also been more than open about the fact that only specific people should do the sorts of magic that are appropriate to their particular racial or ethnic makeup. Different types of practices are considered appropriate for different “races”. Obviously, I could go on at length about this, and it has not been easy for various orders to exorcise this sort of thinking from their teachings. The Society of the Inner Light, for example, still uses a lot of rhetoric about the appropriateness of their curriculum for British people on their website, certainly inspired by Dion Fortune’s ideas about what should constitute “Western Magic”, and broader notions about the mystical connections around peoples and landscapes.
To improve a part necessarily improves the whole. We seek to work with the Group Mind of our race and national community, and to do so each must be imbued with the cultural heritage of every Briton, or be part of the Western Heritage. Therefore, we expect our members to be familiar with the British and European myths and legends, our fairy tales and our nursery rhymes, for these are the ancient expressions of the visions and desires of the people of the Western Heritage.
Returning to a strictly Pagan context, many definitions of Paganism include the idea that Paganism is to be defined as an earth-based spirituality, with a special reverence for nature, and promoting the understanding that divinity is inherent in nature. For many Pagans, natural preservation, the privileging of the rural and the emphasis on conducting religious ceremonies in non-urban environments, directly demonstrates for them the human relationship and care for the earth as a living sacred system, and a desire to work in harmony with the planet rather than destroy it.
Given that people on the Left don’t often associate the Right with environmental protection, it surprises people that the New Right generally embraces and promotes a form of radical environmentalism and environmental preservation that is consistent with their views of anti-modernity, anti-capitalism and anti-industrialism. In its most extreme form, it’s known as ecofacism, and yes, this is an actual movement. In short, this is a part of a rebranded Right’s wider endorsement of “natural” organically defined ecosystems which are preserved and maintained free from outside intrusion. Ecofascists in particular have adopted Pagan symbols and ideologies and unsurprisingly take a strong interest in Germanic religion, including adopting the “Algiz” rune, which means “life”, as an emblem. New Right publishers Counter Currents and Arktos Publishing, publish and distribute radical environmental texts such as the works of esoteric Hitlerist Savatri Devi. Interestingly, some texts initially distributed by Arktos, but which seem to no longer be available through them, were originally not at all right-wing, such as influential 1975 utopian work of “green fiction” Ecotopia, possibly hoping to attract a crossover readership. However, most ecofascist activity occurs within various internet spaces such as Reddit and Twitter. The ultimate aim is to coalesce a right-wing environmental position that would appeal to the Left, but which would also promote anti-immigration and white nationalist positions. This is done by playing on a common theoretical framework of the deep connection of people to their environment. This perceived relationship between people and land, blood and soil, wrapped in the discourses of both cultural and environmental preservation, then becomes the justification for radical ethnic separatist politics and anti-immigration platforms.
In short, the radical right has very strong views on what is “natural”, and these views dictate their entire political platform. Many Pagans and occultists without even knowing it, share some of these key views on natural orders and the human relationship with the rest of the planet. I am not suggesting that all of these ideas are inherently bad, but what we need to do is look at the contexts in which they are being used and how people are coopting them to make arguments that are pretty unappealing.
So now that we know the crossover values and areas of interest, what are the mechanisms by which right-wing activists are building constituencies within Pagan and occult subcultures? As a right-wing tactic, metapolitics refers to any sort of activity that shapes or spreads ideas and values rather than explicitly addressing political platforms and electoral activity. The means by which this occurs is to work within or create cultural institutions, products and media to spread ideas with the ultimate intention of impacting and influencing political activity. Today we are rather inundated with metapolitical activity, from You Tube channels to podcasts, but many activists prefer to be more subtle about the environment they are creating in which to spread their values. These cultural engineers are engaging in what they would call “apolitical” cultural activity, working to change perceptions in order to shift the nature of society from the ground up. It is not a call to arms, but a call to intellectual engagement and culture change. This is strictly a “hearts and minds strategy”. Many metapolitical activists deny any direct political involvement, and this allows them to not be identified with more overtly revolutionary right-wing activists. In short, it’s a strategy of plausible deniability which has worked rather well.
Part of the metapolitical program involves creating markets and spaces for the production and dissemination of radical right ideas. The cultural vision here is all encompassing, involving the production of books on theory and tactics, lifestyle concerns such as diet, fitness, music, spirituality and even fashion. For Pagans and those involved in esoteric subcultures, metapolitical approaches create a variety of cultural spaces which can present attractive “lifestyle options” without claiming to be promoting any direct political affiliation. These are the places where entryism happens.
Entryism occurs when people promoting particular political or cultural values infiltrate an organization with the express objective of spreading that position to other members. Now, this is obviously done by both the Right and the Left. It’s a popular tactic. Within Pagan and occult subcultures, the ways in which it tends to be most successfully done is through infiltrating markets and producing goods that will be of interest to Pagans and occultists as a way of introducing them to more radical political thought. Most commonly we see work on Germanic religion or the occult writings of right-wing esotericists such as Julius Evola or Savitri Devi as a gateway to pushing other ideas about the purity of race or antidemocratic views.
The Australian esoteric website New Dawn is an excellent example of entryism in esoteric publishing. After a number of ringing testimonials from well-respected esoteric writers such as Richard Smoley of Gnosis magazine on their front page, we seen an endorsement from Putin advisor Alexander Dugin, who is responsible for promoting Eurasianism within the Putin regime and who is also published by Arktos press. New Dawn regularly publishes New Right material and pro-Russian Eurasian politics in with a lot of other standard esoteric fare, such as alternative medicine, paranormal and conspiracy theories. New Zealand fascist Kerry Bolton is listed as a frequent contributor. However, many esoteric readers or contributors to this site may not be aware of its political orientation.
There is a slight distinction to be made between creating right-wing markets and institutions and entryism, although one functions for the other. Publishers like Arcana Europa make their political position evident, albeit subtly, but they produce texts, like the journal TYR that are not explicit about their political position and which combine a range of material for a general audience with more radical political texts. This is where the idea of dog whistles is relevant. “Dog whistles” refers to fascist and right-wing signaling which conveys a fascist position to insiders, but which passes over the heads of those who don’t. It’s also useful to remember that right-wing content producers and authors will also actively approach or work with politically non-aligned publishers to help get a foothold into their broader list or market. This is a very, very common occurrence with esoteric publishers, who may wish to be vigilant about this issue when being approached by new authors.
Taking Practical Action
What are some practical actions we can take to identify entryist efforts and take some steps toward inoculating our shared communities against the radical right? I want to give you two concrete takeaways and then present some challenges for you to consider.
1. Understand the rhetorical use of “free speech”
First, I believe that the single most practical thing we can do to combat entryism is to maintain the distinction between securing free speech and refusing to give certain perspectives a platform. In my view, the “promoting all voices” is the most significant way in which entryism is promoted and justified. A number of publishers and culture promoters will produce fairly radical right-wing material and provide a disclaimer that the views of the authors in their list do not represent the views of the publisher. They maintain that they are promoting a diversity of voices and views, therefore they, as publishers, do not necessarily endorse particular platforms. But, in fact, they are completely promoting these views, and they must know it. They are not only providing a platform and a market for radical views, but they are profiting from them. The idea that these publishers or cultural promoters are merely providing access to a range of views without actually having a stake in their spread, especially when they have made an investment in promoting a market segment, is completely disingenuous and it certainly makes no sense from a strict economic standpoint. If I take the financial risk on a product and an author, I have a vested interest in making it succeed. At least publishing houses like Arktos and Counter Currents are clear and honest about their positions. Others are not, and this is the danger. If you see this happening and you don’t like it, let the publisher know why.
But it is a reasonable point to ask about the degree to which this has always been the case within esoteric publishing, and publishers with a heavily mixed catalog have been eyed with a bit of suspicion as to their motives. Some publishers of esoteric and edgy material, Feral House, for example, existed well before the excesses of the internet, and their founders may have genuinely believed that they were promoting access to controversial material that was not easily available at that time. The argument ran that the banning or suppression of controversial texts did not allow for the critical assessment of them, and that readers were therefore not cultivating the critical faculties that would allow them to understand how, frankly, terrible ideas were formed. Now, of course, even in these early stages people were using the rhetoric of “free speech” to genuinely promote and build a market for disseminating radical right-wing thought, and this “building a market” piece is crucial. In my view, Feral House was certainly being used for these ends by some of their authors, even if the publisher himself did not intend to be used in such a way. Even though at the end of the day there was certainly a profit motive inherent in selling these sorts of books, if I am going to give Adam Parfrey and others like him the benefit of the doubt, twenty years ago it may well have been the case for many readers that the works of Charles Manson and some quirky little known writings by Hitler were genuinely being produced for the intellectually curious in a very small market. Just maybe, for these small eclectic publishers the thought of the political tides turning in such a way that radical right ideas would become popular manifestos was unthinkable. Likely this was also the motive of many of the bands and artists such as Siouxie Sioux and David Bowie who embraced fascist aesthetics decades ago. I might be painting the past with an overly rosy glow, and I am very open to the critique of those who may well have known the context and intentions better than I do, but these ideas were provocative within a very different political and cultural moment than the one we are currently living in. I am not at all justifying the use of these artists’ usage of fascist aesthetics, I’m just trying to help us understand that it is possible that no one saw this tide coming.
But more common today is the deployment of the rhetoric of the open mind and promotion of “all sides of an issue” as an open door to start building a constituency, one that moves far beyond the intellectual dissection of a topic, and into practical, radicalized action. One of the reasons that this rhetorical strategy works is because a lot of us are genuinely dedicated to free speech and we abhor censorship. Many of us who hold unorthodox ideas, operate from the margins or have spiritual practices that are societally challenging see any attempt to restrict dangerous voices as a case of “there by the grace of God go I”. We don’t want to be censored or censured, so why, by our very principles, would we ever want to restrict the rights of other to be heard? A particularly American position about the merits of free speech might run that in the free marketplace of ideas, the ones which are the truest and best and those which survive rational scrutiny will naturally win out. But we know now that this is not true. It’s been shown that Progressives generally believe that the inherent goodness and rationality of their ideas will be seen as superior. But alas, this does not occur. Goodness and rationality are playing little part in winning the day.
2. Encourage a plurality of voices and approaches
A second practical thing we need to do is to genuinely encourage and support the voices of ethnic and gender diversity in our communities as well as a plurality of opinions. Let the publishers you love know that you want to see more women and People of Color in their lists and then buy those works. Support diversity at the conferences, festivals and events that you attend and the music labels you support.
Also, try to be tolerant when you encounter approaches to magic and practice that are different than yours. Orthodoxies and authenticity carry a lot of codes that only seek to exclude. When you promote “One True Way” approaches you reduce the opportunities for other voices to be heard and we need those voices. If you don’t like their approaches, don’t adopt them. But if you are overly combative about how you talk about practice, people will be put off from entering the conversation.
Now I can imagine some of you may think it odd or hypocritical that I just followed a deep critique about the rhetoric of diversity of opinion with a call for more diversity of opinion. Discernment is key to combating this problem. I am not interested in giving my money to publishers or events that are promoting white supremacy and I don’t want to share a stage with them either. Period. That sort of “diversity” is exploiting all of us and our best, most tolerant impulses.
I also believe that it is imperative that we actively challenge some ideas that are often considered foundational to our worldviews and spiritual practices and learn to spot when they may be being used to promote values that we don’t hold or endorse. The fact is, sometimes white supremacist or fascist and undemocratic positions end up being a logical conclusion of some world views, and we need to be able to identify when a position can potentially go down that road. Perennialism and Traditionalism are two philosophies that can end up supporting fascist thought. They don’t always, but you need to recognize when they do. We would do well to start becoming much more critical about key ideas such as “nature”, “tradition”, and “authenticity”, three concepts that most people take for granted.
3. Banishing ideas of “Cultural Purity”
The way in which we perceive nature has a lot to do with how we understand “the folk” and the ways in which culture is shared or transmitted. This is a huge problem, especially for Pagans who might be seeking examples of cultural authenticity to legitimize their practices. Historically there has been a belief that indigenous and rural peoples live closer to “natural” cycles and are less likely to have cultures marked by change or innovation. For those of us existing in a perceived alienated state marked by industry, urbanization and modernization, a return to the “natural” state of humanity ends up being a prescription to return to the authentic and the enchanted. And this has been a selling point for people wanting to find easy scapegoats for many of the hardships of modern life and damaged economies. A return to that which is “natural”, or rural becomes a way for us to find meaning, and people yearn to strongly identify with their roots.
The ultimate implications of these popular understandings of the relationship between cultures, peoples and homelands is that blood and soil arguments and ideas of cultural purity become the assumed norm. They are embedded in all of our political and spiritual discourses and end up as weapons of both restriction and liberation at the same time. We need to dismiss entirely the notion that culture is passed genetically. It isn’t. The problem is that the idea of culture passing from person to person through ethnicity or biological inheritance sounds like it makes a lot of sense. It sounds good. It seems natural that peoples and cultures exist in a one to one equation and that distinctive peoples come from original homelands where they may be most comfortable. But it’s not true. Folklorists and anthropologists know that culture doesn’t work that way. People and ideas move and influence each other all the time and always have.
Although Folklorists are often associated with establishing standards of cultural authenticity, Folklorists have also long realized that the way we talk about culture impacts our understanding of peoples and the barriers we use to separate each other. Folklorists know that cultural purity and authenticity are, in reality, imaginary yardsticks that we use to evaluate insiders and outsiders. They are entirely artificial measurements and things, peoples, and practices slip across those “boundaries”, and change in the process. Folklorist Regina Bendix is very clear about ways in which cultural authenticity itself is a problematic and sometimes unhelpful concept:
Removing authenticity and its allied vocabulary is one useful step toward conceptualizing the study of culture in the age of transculturation.
…[I]dentifying some cultural expressions or artifacts as authentic, genuine, trustworthy, or legitimate simultaneously implies that other manifestations are fake, spurious, and even illegitimate…
— — -Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. 1997, p. 9.
Consider, for a moment, the possibility of talking about culture, tradition and practice without resorting to assessments of authenticity and cultural purity. What might that look like? In accepting this challenge we need to also remember that for many people the discourses of cultural distinctiveness become powerful weapons in legitimizing self-determination strategies. The folk, the indigenous, have always been always been seen as too close to nature to govern themselves and to manage their resources. As such, the division between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized” lives at the heart of entire systems of oppression. This is why critiquing these ideas around culture, borrowing, and population shift has some challenging implications, especially when we are talking about colonialism, cultural appropriation and the great oppressions that have faced and that continue to face indigenous peoples all around the globe. Discernment and education is critical.
Challenging Deeper Structures
I am going to leave you with some challenging questions that we need to start to consider in order to begin rich conversations around inclusivity and identifying the deep issues of problematic compatibility between these linked esoteric subcultures and radical right agendas. These questions have no firm answers. Think about them, play with them, use them to develop your own discernment.
Question how the idea of “tradition” is being used in your practice.
- Is the tradition in question is the province of an elite? Is it characterized as supra rational?
- Are these traditions perceived of as belonging to only one group of people? How are they defined?
- How do you distinguish between borrowing and appropriation?
What sorts of language do we use around people, culture, transmission and geography?
- Is a practice being promoted as “appropriate for certain types of people” or are there suggestions about restrictions on the basis of heritage or birthplace?
- How do we talk about and understand cultural context in relation to our spiritual practices?
- How do particular groups or individuals use phrases like “our ancestors” in relation to place and practice? How can we promote inclusivity within the concept of ancestor practice?
What is “nature” to you and what does it mean to “be in touch with it”? What informs your ideas about “the natural”?
Refuse to live an unenchanted life!
To quote from the amazing David Southwell’s guide to the haunted fictional English county of Hookland, “Reenchantment is resistance!” I believe in that strategy with every fiber of my being. In the battle for meaning we have created all these conditions that we must have to live a magical life instead of acknowledging the enchantment that exists all around us if we only look. I invite you to be creative and inventive and think about all the ways you can find magic in this dark and dirty world, because we need it now more than ever.
Regina Bendix. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
Mark Sedgwick. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Amy Hale, PhD is an Anthropological Folklorist who writes about Pagan and Occult cultures in the US and UK. She is the Co-Chair of the Contemporary Pagan Studies Unit of the American Academy of Religion. Her book Ithell Colquhoun: Genius of the Fern-Loved Gully is forthcoming from Strange Attractor Press. Find out more at www.amyhale.me