Wednesday 7 August 2019

Neopagans, Neoreactionaries and Folk Horror

We know that the neofolk movement has a problem with the far right; we know that paganism, specifically white paganism, has also long had a problem with the far right. Neither of these things are things I’m going to write about much. Many more interesting and proficient and knowledgeable people than me have tackled those things.

But they’re related to Folk Horror fandom, and it has a problem with the far right too. So this is about that problem, and about how the (specifically) pagan far right problem intersects with that.

For example. For about a year, I was an admin of the biggest Facebook group dealing with folk horror (and you probably know which one that is, but I don’t think it’s fair anyway to name names because frankly those guys get enough strife from this corner, so let’s leave them out of this). That group, rightly, has an explicit zero tolerance rule for white supremacists. If you try to join and you have white supremacist stuff in your profile, you’ll be denied. If you start coming on ethnonationalist or banging on about (favourite rightist dogwhistle) “cultural Marxism” in comments or posts, you’ll be banned. No question, no excuses, no appeal. OK, you were innocent until proven fash, but when the proof came, buh-bye. It is a good policy. I support it. And I can’t speak for it right now, but when I was an admin, it was like whack-a-mole. I think I personally either banned or denied entry to at least one hardline racist every couple of days, and I was part of a big team of admins, who all worked pretty hard on that. It was endless, and part of the reason I couldn’t bear the admin job in the end was because seeing these awful people sitting on things I love, like a genital wart, was sucking the joy out of my work.

But, as appalling as it is for those of us who are actually, you know, culturally literate, fascists do love their folk horror. The far right are often more vocal than the rest of us. They are a minority. They’re a loud one though.

They do love their divinity lessons
Let’s talk about The Wicker Man. Everyone loves The Wicker Man. Everyone should love The Wicker Man. It is a great film, and I think it has something important to say in our era. Now, the traditional take on The Wicker Man is, ironically, a contrarian one. That is, it is usual to be on the side of the inhabitants of Summerisle, who are cuddly and sex-positive, and not on the side of the kill-joy Christian copper.

Fascists adore The Wicker Man. Because the islanders are essentially perfect, idealised neoreactionaries.

Their paganism is patriarchal and paternalistic; there are priestesses but it’s Lord Summerisle, the hereditary scion of the island religion’s founder who rules both the temporal and spiritual community. Women are notionally worshipped, but it’s the man who is in charge. Class-based hierarchy, born of a recent “tradition”, is made a religious good on Summerisle.

And they abuse children.

That’s a hell of a take, right? But here’s a thing. I have worked professionally with vulnerable teenagers in the past, and that includes victims of abuse. You get training on how to spot the signs of abuse; you get to become sensitive to red flags.

In Summerisle, the kids are taught in school to dance naked in fertility rites and get frank discussions of penis imagery. And that all seems sex-positive. It seems healthy? But the way it’s framed, the way Lord Summerisle watches the naked girl children dancing around the fire, the way that the frank sexual lessons in the classroom are not framed around agency but about the penis, those are red flags. In the extended versions of the film, it’s even explicit as a clearly underaged boy is delivered to Willow MacGregor to be deflowered, or, to put it in American legal parlance, subjected to statutory rape.

I remember joking about how the naked dance scene is a “safeguarding issue”, but any professional in child protection who found themselves on Summerisle would probably wind up calling in an investigation. There’s no question of it.

And it comes from an era where this sort of language and imagery was used to abuse children in “free love” circles.

Consider the famous case of pagan fantasy novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley and the dreadful abuses she and her husband Walter Breen are reported to have inflicted on many children, including their daughter, and the pagan ideology behind it (here's one of many decent blog posts about this).

But the islanders are delightful and engaging and colourful! Their utopia is so apparent!

In fact, in a lot of ways it’s that libertarian holy grail, what Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) called the Temporary Autonomous Zone.
Reverting to a “state of Nature” paradoxically seems to allow for the practice of every “unnatural” act; or so it would appear if we believe the Puritans and Eugenicists. And since many people in repressed moralistic racist societies secretly desire exactly these licentious acts, they project them outwards onto the marginalized, and thereby convince themselves that they themselves remain civilized and pure. And in fact some marginalized communities do really reject consensus morality — the pirates certainly did!
Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson, Temporary Autonomous Zone

Interesting story. I used to be in a philosophy book club, and Temporary Autonomous Zone came up one month. One of the guys is a probation officer, and he, without having read anything about Wilson’s biography, came back, having read it, and said, “This person is a paedophile.” He could just tell. He was of course on the money. Wilson is indeed an unapologetic paedophile.

You can spot it, you see. It’s the coded language paedophiles use to find each other and argue their case. These are the weasel words of men who would justify raping children. And that rationalisation of children’s sexuality, that’s in the way the islanders treat their children in The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man is fun to watch, actual fun. It is one of my favourite folk horror films. It is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

It is a horror film. Lord Summerisle is the sort of iconic horror character that you’d put on a T-shirt or mug, like Freddy Krueger or the Cenobites from Hellraiser. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Having Lord Summerisle on a T-Shirt (or a kickass illustration of him on my book) isn’t a sign that you’re on his side. Thrilling at Christopher Lee’s amazing performance is entirely normal. Loving the film is quite right. It deserves your love.

The problem is – and this is ironic, given that the film actually reflects evangelical scares about pagan institutional abuse – when you unironically and uncritically take the islanders as the goodies.

Not in spite of the fact that they engage on a complex and wide-ranging conspiracy to murder a man based on the desire to claw back some economic stability. Because of it. The idea of an idealised white neofeudalism murdering the outsider to remain pure and stable is so incredibly attractive to the right. Never mind that it’s supposed to be an act of horror. Never mind that the entire axis of the horror is about ordinary people being hoodwinked into a pagan murder conspiracy where children are groomed. Because the pagan right want this.

A heathen, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one
There is no accident in the fact that folk horror, popular expressions of occultism and the populist right all arise in the same conditions. Folk horror becomes popular when we’re aware that the state of things is bad, and we become haunted by unresolved history, in the shape of societal tensions, and folk horror is the horror of folk. But right-wing extremism also rises in those same conditions. Rightist thinking has a strong “back to nature” sense to it, a fetishisation of healthy outdoorsiness to which the sun-drenched vistas of so many folk horrors appeals. The back-to-nature paganism of folk horror attracts fascists.

And also, crucially, folk horror’s inherent tension between humanity and misanthropy is part of this: folk horror is the horror of folk, and the hard right does not respect Christian ideas of charity, kindness and mercy, and is suspicious of humane ideas of government (of course the Christian right also has no respect for these ideas, only more so, because they're the ones in power, and that's because it's about the right more than the religion).

When things are bad, the hard right’s solution is to say “Wouldn’t it be better if things were how they used to be?” And so, Brexit is about “Take Back Control” and Trumpism is about “Make America Great Again” and both of those statements are vague, almost meaningless. How is control being taken back? Control of what? When was America great? How do you make it great again? In what way was it great? It doesn’t matter. That’s irrelevant.

The postchristian, pagan right in the present day are not, on the other hand, what we would think of as puritanical. I asked pagan writer Misha Magdalene, who’s written persuasively and at length about sexual abuse in pagan circles in the past, about this, about why they feel that this sort of abuse comes up in pagan circles. They wrote back:
 Modern esoteric spiritual movements are frequently attractive to people who want power. This tends to be because they feel powerless, possibly because they've been hurt in some way. This means that, say, neo-Paganism attracts a whole lot of wounded, broken people looking for the power to heal themselves, fix themselves, or at least stop feeling so powerless.

This also makes these movements and the communities that coalesce around them incredibly attractive to predators.

I'm not an expert on abnormal psych, but I am an adult survivor of child abuse, and I've been around the neo-Pagan world since I was in my teens, so I've seen a few things. One of the consistent dynamics I've seen is charismatic people who thrive on other people's power ingratiating themselves into communities, who turn a blind eye to those abusers and predators for all the usual reasons communities ignore abuse: they're afraid of the shame and opprobrium outside scrutiny would bring to the community, and of how that would affect them, their families, their jobs, their lives. This is exacerbated by a fear of persecution which, in the present political moment, is sadly more of a reasonable point of debate than we might wish.

This is also complicated by a sort of quasi-libertarian post-hippie attitude in much of the Pagan movement which suggests that everyone is pursuing their own path and their own truth, which means that no one has the right to tell anyone else how they should live, practice, worship, believe, have sex, and so on. That's harmless enough on its surface, but followed past a certain point, it becomes license to do all sorts of things that you and I would rightly be horrified by. Like, for instance, sexually abusing children.

The thing that galls me, as someone who's studied this stuff, is that it's entirely possible to teach sex positivity in ways that not only aren't abusive and horrible, but which actually help to protect kids from sexual abuse. But that kind of education is difficult, nuanced, and sometimes doesn't play nicely with many Pagans' notions of Shiny Happy Naturalist Fun Times.
The right hates children. Sure, they might pretend to idolise children, but they hate them. The far right despises powerlessness and vulnerability and children can only be those things. In the UK, one of the favourite accusations of the hard right is to accuse people of being or supporting paedophiles, while at the same idolising literal child abusers on a personal and industrial scale. In the US, this contempt for the child leads the press to call Jeffrey Epstein’s victims “underage women”; it means that nothing realistically will be done about the school shootings that happen so often (and why would it be? These things are not to do with the right to own assault rifles, they’re to do with hating women and children). We are living in an age where people justify putting children in concentration camps by saying that the immigrants are just using them to garner sympathy.

Ironically, none of this checks out if you’re actually literate, but then, the point is largely that the far right don’t want to be the good guys in folk horror movies. They want to be the people who murder outsiders for the sake of apples. They want their neofeudal Temporary Autonomous Zone.

A man who has come here as a fool
I get the occasional review of We Don’t Go Back that criticises it on the grounds that my unashamedly left-wing politics are front and centre, that I include content warnings, that I’m a sort of person they clearly don’t approve of.

The best bad review of We Don’t Go Back, from the UK Amazon site, which took specific issue with my take on The Wicker Man, is a hell of a thing. I unironically love it. It is a gift that keeps on giving. It is by someone who I would be 100% certain is pagan, white, straight, and a man, and who I am 75% sure is over 40. I love it. I love it because bad reviews like this serve the purpose of deterring similarly terrible people from buying my book. I also love it because it is a piece of spectacular word salad by someone who clearly has a bad case of Dunning-Kruger with regards to how literate and erudite he is. Don’t get me wrong: I want this review to stay there. It’s an honest review. It is even a fair review. I’m not being ironic. It is a hundred percent honest, a hundred percent fair. It is also an unintentionally hilarious review. It’s a gem, made of turds compressed and crystallised in the fists of mighty Thor into a gleaming diamond, and you need to go to the UK page for my book and read the whole thing because it is beautiful. I want to hug this man. And then shower for a good two hours afterwards.

I’m going to quote a paragraph from it. For the sake of fairness to this guy, I’m not changing anything; there will be no misquoting here.
Firstly I do not care for the reviewers personal sensation of 'ickyness' that he refers to in many of the entries. He seems to have an issue with sexualised females, of questionable age ranges, of exploitation of themes, of rape, of bodily manipulations. In short, he concentrates on what concerns some abstract parent might have a reflex action toward, in empathy with children. Despite the fact that most of these films are not engineered solely with immature children in mind. This follows through with his Warning symbols. These delineate the dangerous adult themes inherent in the film in question. Again, despite the claim that this is not censorship, this need to patronize a thinking adult reader is lost on him. In addition there is the occasional need to indicate a political persuasion in the arguement. Pointing out the class system inherent is one thing, but the high moralizing that teems throughout the text is somewhat irksome. As though the morality of the reviewer was of the 19th century, the film of the 20th, the specious literal liberal attitude of the 21st.
Aside from the hilarious idea that I’m a liberal, and the issue that if you don’t think content warnings are worthwhile, you’re not who they’re for, and that they are literally the opposite of patronising since they are there to inform you enough for you to make your own fucking choice (I’d ask how hard that is to get past some people, but it’s a sign of the way these people despise vulnerability, that they would hold being kind to the vulnerability of others in contempt), what does come out of this is that this man is clearly one of these right wing pagans I’ve been talking about.

First, note the use of the word “females”. That, straight away, is a far right dog-whistle. An American friend (who’s more politically clued than most) pointed out to me the morning I started writing this about how those mass shootings in the US that happen literally every day have one thing in common, and it’s not even white supremacy, it’s that every single perpetrator hates women. And more often than not they call them “females”. It's a trademark of the incel movement, a red pill signifier.

This man does not like women. He does not respect them. You reflexively call them “females”, you are making them, in your head, animals. You are dehumanising them. “Women” is the word. “Women” and, if you’re talking about children, “girls”.

Which leads to the second thing. So this man writes that I seem to have an issue with the exploitation of children, that I take things from a standpoint of having empathy with children. This is fair. This is entirely true. I do have that standpoint. Because there is not something fucking wrong with me.

If child abuse doesn’t distress you, you are deficient. If you don’t empathise with children, you are missing a part of your humanity. This is not the same as not wanting children, and it's not even the same as not liking children: plenty of people don’t want kids, and for very good reasons, and plenty of people don’t like kids and can’t help that, and fine. I don't understand it, but OK. But if you can’t empathise with the innocent, you are broken. If you would harm a child without a qualm of conscience, if you can’t see why it’s unjustifiable, you are not a person I can respect. I don’t get a medal for this stance. I don’t pretend it makes me better. This is not specious liberal morality. It is baseline human.

But baseline human is a thing that the far right doesn't have the space to reach. I keep thinking of the scene in Battle for Sevastopol where (real life) Soviet sniper Lyudmilla Pavlichenko meets Eleanor Roosevelt, and the President’s wife asks the war hero how many men she’s killed, and Pavlichenko says, “Not men. Fascists.”
Fascism is a deficiency. Fascism is a failing. 

It is a truism repeated by the far right that they’re the political standpoint that has the backbone, the ones who make the hard decisions, the ones with the intellectual rigour, the moral authority. And of course all of these things are fallacies. The far right appeals to traditionalism, but is ahistorical, depends on ersatz myths.

Far right thinking is weak, it is born of fear, it is deficient, it is fuzzy and ill-informed and treats illiteracy as a virtue. It is ahistorical, because it only has very recent history – if it has any at all – to appeal to. None of the decisions that far-right groups make are difficult ones. None of them. They are always the ones that travel on easiest path, the safest, or at least what it defined as the safest if you consider “safe” to be the opposite of “in contact with things that you are afraid of”. The far right cannot cope with complexity. They mistake physical violence and the capacity for physical violence with moral strength, when it is all too often the opposite. The far right cannot imagine that anyone can be better than them (which is why so often they assign motives as vile as their own to people who simply promote baseline human levels of decent behaviour – altruism as a good is an alien concept). And they are here. And they are more powerful now than at any time since 1944.

I don’t know what the solution is. I could use buzzwords and such, but in the end, it’s down to recognising it for what it is in our communities and not taking this lying down. Blank faced refusal to engage or accept is all I have. Refuse. Resist. Say no. And be, for the love of whatever gods you do or don’t believe in, at the very least a baseline human.