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Culture war profiteering

Another bomb has gone off in the culture wars. Gillette, the razor manufacturer, has sparked outrage – OUTRAGE! – with its advert suggesting men can and should do better. It’s been watched 19 million times on YouTube, rapidly attracting a million dislikes, as well as half a million likes.

Like it or hate it, people are talking about it. It’s generated a huge amount of publicity for Gillette, just like Nike’s advert featuring NFL refusenik Colin Kaapernick.

It’s a marketing tactic that goes all the way back to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and father of public relations. He formulated shocking, attention-grabbing marketing tactics, like arranging a march of suffragettes in New York, who all lit cigarettes at the same time. A press release announced they were lighting ‘torches of freedom’. The campaign was intentionally provocative. Bernays obviously didn’t really give a damn about the suffragettes. He was making waves, then riding those waves to get attention.

This is what’s known as culture war profiteering. War profiteers don’t care who’s winning, they see any war as an opportunity to make money. The last thing they want is for the war to stop, so they stoke it to continue cashing in.

Piers Morgan understands the game better than most. He obviously weighed in on the major issue of the day – the Gillette advert – declaring it ‘the worst ever betrayal of men’. Does he really believe that? It doesn’t matter. He seeks confrontations, so the media can report on his ‘furious row with Carol Vorderman’, or ‘Twitter feud with Ariana Grande’. It’s the Trump playbook. Provoke outrage. Get attention. Get clicks.

Milo Yiannopolous was a very successful culture war profiteer, for a while. Did he really believe that ‘feminism is cancer’? Who cares. It got a lot of attention. And hundreds of thousands of angry online men bought into his stage-managed provocations. Ghostbusters is being re-made with a female cast? Who gives a shit. But any incident can be stoked up by culture war profiteers. Here’s a riot, and I’m selling bricks.

Even a well-meaning intellectual like Jordan Peterson can’t resist but profit off the culture wars. It’s just too easy money. There’s the Jordan Peterson who writes earnest but mediocre books like 12 Rules for Living, and there’s the online Jordan Peterson, who goes into extraordinary paroxysms about post-modernism and social justice warriors. And it’s this latter Jordan Peterson who is truly raking it in.

On the Left, the same rules of the attention economy apply. Hone your message into the most simplistic polarising headline you can. ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. That will really get the white people talking. Genius.

Politics and culture have become a Punch and Judy show, and internet giants like Google, Facebook and YouTube are the puppeteers. They’re the ones who really profit off all this outrage and polarisation. Perhaps they didn’t plan it like this. But they created an economy based on attention and clicks, and it rapidly became obvious that the more obnoxious and polarising you are, the more you get clicks. Oh no you don’t! Oh yes you do!

It’s so easy to get drawn into the Punch and Judy show and find yourself screaming at the puppets.

There is Punch, the great villain of the culture wars – the straight white male.

This week, the American Psychological Association has announced that traditional masculinity – ‘marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” It urges therapists to help men “identify how they have been harmed by discrimination against those who are gender nonconforming”.

Stoicism is bad? Stoicism inspired the most successful form of therapy we have – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Competitiveness is confined to ‘traditional men’ and is pathological? What a simplistic, ideological and silly statement. How OUTRAGEOUS! OH NO IT ISN’T!

It’s also easy to get triggered by the leftist ideology of intersectionality, in which your moral value is defined by your identity – black is good, white is bad, female is good, male is bad, LGBTQ is good, cis is bad. Black female lesbian is very very good. Straight white male is very very bad. Bad Mr Punch!

Morality is messier than that. I have male friends who’ve been beaten up by their female partners. I have male friends whose girlfriends got pregnant to try and keep them, and who then used the child as an emotional hostage in their campaign. I have a lot of male friends who happily accept non-traditional gender roles, and embrace being stay-at-home dads.

Yes, male mental health could be better, and male suicide is a problem. But is there really a crisis in male mental health? The statistics suggest the real crisis is in the mental health of women and girls. The rates for hospitalisation for self-harm among teenage girls has gone up 189% in the last decade in the US, and nearly that much in the UK.

Why? Psychologists think it’s mainly because of social media. Girls are more socially intelligent than boys, and this natural, biological social sensitivity has been heightened and wrecked by social media. It’s not men that’s fucking young women up. It’s Instagram and Twitter – exactly the technologies that fired up #metoo.

All sides of the culture wars buy their ammo in the same gun shops. We are all being played.

There is a genuine issue with anti-social masculinity, but it’s biological as well as cultural. Testosterone makes us men prone to aggression and it makes us horny. One of the main challenges of civilization over the millennia has been what to do about young men when they’re at their most aggressive and most horny.

Different cultures cope with this issue in different ways. The West has shifted from a culture of religious prohibition towards a culture of permissiveness and tolerance – creating several outlets for male horniness, such as pornography, prostitution, the toleration of sex before marriage, and the toleration of homosexual sex. I think that’s probably worked better than religious prohibition, judging by how Islamic and Hindu men treat women in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh or Rotherham.

What’s interesting is the interaction between culture and biology. Apparently, male testosterone levels have been declining for the last thirty years, as muscle men become less necessary for manual labour and war. Our chemistry is evolving in real time in response to cultural changes.

But that is too nuanced to get me any clicks. How’s this: THE GILLETTE ADVERT MAKES ME WANT TO SLASH MY WRISTS.

The era of magical thinking

Instagram witch Harmony Nice

Recently, I’ve noticed several friends and acquaintances – mainly millennials – getting into magick.  A 30-year-old successful professional woman who pays to consult a globe-trotting voodoo-priestess about her love life. A 33-year-old musician who’s left a humanist community and joined a coven. Stephen Reid, formerly a leader of UK Uncut, who then set up The Psychedelic Society and now runs magick rituals. 

I get the sense our culture, and particularly millennial culture, is having a magickal moment. But why is now the witching hour?

Several possible reasons – these are just guesses. 

Millennial women are attracted to magick perhaps because it offers a form of spirituality that empowers young women, rather than subjugating them. The image of magick has gone from middle-aged bangly suburban women to hip young urban influencers like Lana Del Rey, or ‘witches of Instagram’ stars like Harmony Nice. Witches, says Cosmopolitan, are ‘the new social media influencers’. Magickal symbols increasingly show up on the catwalk, in music videos, or Netflix shows like the re-boot of Sabrina. Young women sign up to astrology apps, read Sabat magazine, and swap copies of Women Who Run With Wolves. There’s a networking aspect to it – covens are the contemporary equivalent of the 70s feminist circle, or the female equivalent of Masonic lodges. 

Magick has also flourished thanks to the internet, both as a medium for dissemination (wicca forums, astrology and tarot apps), and as an ethos. As the writer Erik Davis has explored, Silicon Valley tech-heads have been drawn to magick since the 1990s – it fits well with the idea that one can use tools or algorithms to conjure up virtual worlds, which in turn alter material reality and make you powerful and rich. Think of the opening scene of The Social Network. Eduardo writes an algorithm on his dormitory window and – abracadabra! – the whole of Harvard is in uproar within an hour.

 

More broadly, the rise of magick is part of the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic, particularly among millennials. Contemporary spirituality is decentralized and anti-hierarchical. We’re suspicious of gurus and priests, we’re not even sure we’re into a monotheistic God. We want our spirituality close to the Earth and nature, we prefer local spirits to transcendent principles. We want rituals, but prefer to make up our own rather than fit into crusty established ceremonies. Magick fits well with this DIY, bricolage spirituality.

Both shamanism and tantric Buddhism have proved popular in Western spirituality, and both incorporate the magickal idea that you can use your imagination and intention to channel divine energies and change your reality. In some ways, it’s a ritualized version of the Law of Attraction – visualize the future you want, and it will happen. Both promise quick results. 

And who knows, maybe millennials are particularly drawn to magick because they grew up on Harry Potter. My generation grew up on Star Wars so we’re more drawn to eastern wisdom (Yoda). 

Magical politics

I also wonder if we’re having a magick moment because of our desperate political situation. It strikes me that both Amazon shamanism and Tibetan tantric Buddhism are religions of the oppressed. These cultures, both at the mercy of foreign invaders for centuries, turned to magic out of despair, when they are outnumbered and the facts of material reality are against them. Are young Westerners also drawn to magick today out of political despair?

I’ve been reading, this week, about the Kalachakra ritual, one of the highest tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s favourite ritual – he’s conducted the three-day ceremony 11 times in public, twice in the West, and once, in 1985, to 200,000 people in India.

The ritual has different levels, open to different levels of initiate. The highest level apparently involves a male initiate having sex with one or more mudras, or female consorts. The male adept then takes on the female’s energy and becomes highly empowered by balancing male and female energies within him (the woman is typically an accessory to male empowerment in Tibetan tantra).The Dalai Lama has hinted he’s taken part in this highest-level sex magick – it’s curious to think this kindly old man, global symbol of inoffensive spirituality, is also a high-level sex magician. Hey, if he can still do it at 83, good luck to him.

The lower levels of the Kalachakra ritual are more open to the lay-person, and the Dalai Lama has authorized the English translation of the ritual. It’s basically a very long and extremely complicated visualization process. The initiate imagines entering a palace shaped like a mandala, then imagines seeing various deities and spirits, and becoming one with them. It’s a feat of both imagination and memory to keep this extremely complicated picture in your mind. I took part in a Tara tantric empowerment once, and I was lost after five minutes.

The Kalachakra mandala, painted onto sand, is then visualized by initiates as a magickal, reality-altering symbol

It’s interesting to consider, in passing, how important the imagination is to Tantra, to shamanism, to Sufism, and to Christian meditative traditions like the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In all of these traditions, the imagination is a divine power which can transform the psyche and also transform the body (meditate on the Passion intensely enough and you will receive the stigmata). Modern psychology has learned a certain amount from these wisdom traditions, but I don’t think it has a deep appreciation of imagination – what it is, what it can do, how we can use it to change ourselves.

But these traditions don’t think the imagination can just change the mind and body. They also think it can change the world.

The Kalachakra ritual, for example, is more than just a ritual of personal transformation. It’s a magickal rite of political transformation, a weapon of war for a dispossessed people. The text mentions the myth of the magical hidden kingdom of Shambhala. Supposedly, in the future, the world will descend into chaos and barbarism. The armies of darkness – described in the text as mlecchas – will come together under a world-emperor. At that point, the magical kingdom of Shambhala will reveal itself, and its king will ride out with his armies and magical weapons,and utterly rout the enemies. Then Tibetan Buddhism will be established as the world religion, and the Earth will enter a golden age of peace and prosperity.

This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of Jihad. The mlecchas are identified as the followers of Mohammad and Jesus. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, naturally, say the jihad is just a metaphor for an inner revolution, but that was not the case historically – the myth seems to have arisen when Buddhist communities were being attacked by Muslims in Afghanistan and north India, and pushed back into the Himalaya. This grand fantasy of revenge was born out of historical defeat and despair. I wonder – does the Dalai Lama think that initiating hundreds of thousands into the Kalachakra today will help save Tibet from Chinese occupation?

Perhaps millennials are also drawn to magick out of a need for sense of control amid bewildering global change. The Atlantic asked earlier this year why millennials are so into astrology and came to a similar conclusion – they’re an anxious generation at a difficult historical moment, and astrology gives them something to hold onto (even if they don’t totally believe in it). Certainly I find myself paying more attention to astrology in times when I feel stuck and unsure what to do. 

Perhaps the turn to magick expresses this sort of political despair and hope for a miracle. I noticed Stephen Reid, formerly of UK Uncut and now director of the Psychedelic Society, organized a magickal ritual in Parliament Square as part of Extinction Rebellion – in eight years he’s gone from traditional socialist activism, to psychedelics, to magick. Myths of the apocalypse or golden age are also coming back into the mainstream – the myth of Shambhala has struck a chord with some environmental activists like Joanna Macy (here she is talking about it). Friends warn me of the astrological turbulence set to hit the world in 2019, or the Maian prophecy, or the end-time warning of some Amazon elders. 

This is exactly what you’d expect to see happening now, when we’re going through a historical crisis comparable to the birth of modernity in the 15th to 17th-centuries. Back then, as the historian Norman Cohn explored, Europe was filled with end-time prophecies and sudden millenarian movements – the prospect of apocalypse propelled many unlikely prophets to temporary prominence. They would inspire their followers with their incredible certainty, seize control of the historical moment, proclaim the coming of a Golden Age, and then inevitably, be routed as their dream failed to materialize.

I see contemporary western politics as increasingly prone to magical thinking. Like medieval peasants, we suspect our enemies have access to secret occult powers. We blame the rise of Donald Trump on chaos magick, and try to use our own magick against him. We try to concoct the magical spell, formula or symbol that will galvanize the masses and save the world. We rely on imagination to save us from the present quagmire. ‘What’s money really?’ asks Russell Brand. ‘It’s just an imaginary concept. We can just stop believing in it.’

It’s true that, in the short-term, magickal techniques – stories, symbols, mantras, ceremonies – can have surprisingly large political impacts, because politics is partly a question of trying to seize the public’s imagination. This is what scholar of the occult Gary Lachman calls ‘meme magic’. You come up with a mantra like Take Back Control, or Make America Great Again, and see if it spreads in the imagination of the masses. You come up with a symbol like the Guy Fawkes mask beloved of the Occupy movement, which was created by comic magician Alan Moore. Or you conjure a utopia to aim for, like the Shambhala myth, or a dystopia to avoid, like the Tory party’s Project Fear.

The comic writer and magician Alan Moore goes to Occupy London and sees the magickal symbol of rebellion he created (in V for Vendetta) playing out in this world

So in that sense, political magick does work. But if it isn’t backed up by effective policies in the material world, the city in the sky dissipates into thin air.  Look at Trump’s magical MAGA spell, for example. He very effectively conjured a dream into his followers’ fevered imaginations. Hillary is a crook, a Satanic witch. The elite are evil, possibly demonic. He is going to save America, drain the swamp. He’s going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it. But, two years into power, the intoxication is wearing off, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious, there’s no wall. Where’s the magic wall? The more Trump and his government insist the wall is a reality,the more they sound like Hitler in his bunker in 1944, insisting the war is nearly won. The magic trick is exposed.   

I expect we will turn to increasingly far-out forms of magical politics this century, in our desperation to avoid the grim facts of material reality.  Still, we do need a miracle. We need hope. At the very least, we need to be able to imagine a future beyond the collapse of the status quo.

If that’s magical thinking, pass me a wand.