Review: Travels in Cultural Nihilism: Some Essays
Travels in Cultural Nihilism: Some Essays
Stephen Pax Leonard
“Many people advised me to write it under a pseudonym, for sailing too close to the wind is a dangerous business these days…It will perhaps mark my ‘swan song,’ academically speaking at least.” Thus begins Travels in Cultural Nihilism, a volume of twelve essays by the Oxford ethnographer Stephen Pax Leonard and one of the most eloquent and refreshing books I’ve had the recent pleasure to read. Perhaps overshadowed by the publication of Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, which touches the same overarching theme – the collapse of the West, Leonard’s book is significantly wider in scale, richer in detail, deeper in analysis, and more impassioned in its deliberations. While several essays concern the morbidity of post-modern Swedish culture (where the author has spent some time living as a fascinated and concerned observer), Leonard also offers robust and at times poignant meditations on Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the nature of the European Union project, same-sex marriage, feminism, Islam, the nature of pathological liberalism, and the insidious spread of Cultural Marxism. The author interacts effortlessly with the thought of Heidegger, Evola, Spengler, Scruton, Nietzsche, and Schmitt, while taking aim at Foucault, Gramsci, and a large cast of contemporary malevolent political actors. Leonard, a Fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, is a trained linguist. He has previously published books on Scandinavia and the Arctic regions, including a fascinating Guardian article on his time among the Arctic Inugguit. Possessed of these credentials, Leonard may be considered to have a lot to lose by breaking silence on the matters he discusses in Travels in Cultural Nihilism. As he himself anticipates, the book could represent his ‘swan song.’ He notes that he has already “lost (and made) friends over the views held here.” It is rare and difficult for someone in the belly of the beast to speak out like this, a fact which renders Travels in Cultural Nihilism a work of significant courage as well as one of admirable erudition.
Even in the introduction to his book, Leonard enters the world of forbidden thought not with tentative musings, but with gusto and strength of conviction. Words aren’t minced. Excuses aren’t provided. Apologies are nowhere to be seen. Multiculturalism, declares Leonard, “has been a disaster everywhere.” In Sweden, it has been “forced” on a “kind people that are liberal-managed with the aid of a mendacious, Government-subsidised media.” Its failures there “have been covered up time and again.” The wider implications for the rest of West represent nothing less than “cultural pathology and the regression of humanity.” This cultural pathology is demonstrated best in Germany, where the same “thick crowds of tearful Germans embracing ‘refugees’ on railway platforms were months later dealing with mass rapes, suicide bombers, machete wielding immigrants, lorries being driven into Christmas markets, and an axe-wielding asylum seeker whose actions were inspired by the brutal atrocities in southern France (Nice) a week earlier.” Of particular interest to Leonard, in all of his essays, is the nature of government involvement in enforcing the multicultural narrative, an involvement laid bare in its utter cynicism by the actions of French police in destroying CCTV footage of the Bastille Day massacre in Nice. Aside from government actions, Leonard sets his mind upon the mentality of the masses, and ponders Spengler’s discovery that nihilism is a feature of collapsing societies. The author remarks that European society/culture is now essentially divided between “those who want to preserve historical modalities of belonging, and those who wish to extirpate them; those who want continuity and identity, and those who aspire to Rousseauesque tabula rasa.”
Leonard is exceptional at highlighting the hypocrisy and sheer malevolence of cultural Marxists. The same people who claim to want to “integrate” immigrants into Western society are often the first to claim there is no indigenous culture to integrate into. Leonard points out that the aim of the cultural Marxist is not to integrate immigrants with the native population, but to recruit and incite the former against the latter: “one cannot begin to integrate people from very alien cultures into one’s Western society if one educates them by telling them that their European hosts (be it Swedes, Britons, or Germans) are collaborators, racists, colonialists and fascists.” While mass demographic change is being hailed as “progress,” Leonard points out that ‘progress’ is nothing more than an “oratorically persuasive way of saying ‘change.’” The duplicity of cultural Marxist language plays a key role in the advance of increasingly narrow and rigid ways of thinking throughout the West, and in his first essay, ‘Psychological Angst,’ Leonard dissects the mechanics and operation of ‘groupthink’ as it pertains to the multicultural project.
In ‘Psychological Angst’ Leonard attempts to understand why Western populations remain silent as their access to free speech becomes increasingly restricted. He attributes this silence, in part, to the growth of ‘groupthink,’ a “psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.” In the context of groupthink, which is increasingly underpinned by hate speech legislation, “the power of peer pressure is such that any dissent is socially unacceptable, and would lead to alienation.” Groupthink members see themselves as part of an in-group working against an out-group. This leads to a series of broad assumptions about in-group members and out-group members. Using the example of academia, Leonard points out that there is a “false consensus that [other academics] subscribe to a full programme of post-modern liberal views on everything from multiculturalism, the EU, gay marriage, modern art, climate change and Shostakovich.” Failure to adhere to groupthink on any of these matters results in the offender being categorised with an almost limitless number of negative stereotypes, ranging from the assumption they must be of irrational and therefore somehow not really an academic after all, to accusations of fascism, racism, homophobia and Nazism. The intellectual and ideological narrowing of academic life is illustrated by the growing opinion that “everything that does not look or sound like democratic, globalist liberalism is fascist” while “it is considered normal for all Faculty members in a Humanities department to be liberal, and left of that.”
Since dissent is viewed as inherently offensive, we have witnessed the disappearance of debate from Western political life. Leonard points out that “the shocking thing about gay marriage is simply that legislation was introduced across the West in the almost complete absence of debate.” One could of course say the same about legislation concerning mass immigration, so-called ‘hate speech,’ and foreign aid. Through media and educational indoctrination, these subjects have been intensely imbued with what Leonard terms “coercive psychological barricades.” It therefore takes a tremendous break from established norms even to form oppositional ideas, let alone undertake oppositional action. Meanwhile cultural Marxists can operate with relative impunity, happy in the knowledge they will encounter little resistance: “The younger generation has unthinkingly incorporated closed thinking into their new cultural grammar as this is now implicit in the education curriculum…Geography students are asked why gay people move from the countryside to the cities. In mathematics, they are taught through census findings about the number of homosexuals in the population. In science, they are told about emperor penguins and sea horses where the males take the role in rearing its young.”
In discussions of ‘diversity,’ pathological groupthink reaches its zenith. In the popular, political, and cultural landscape, “diversity has assumed the mantle of some kind of irrefutable truth, a celebration of tolerance.” Leonard counters that it in fact means “cultural abandonment and ethnic dilution,” with much of the political elite complicit in a project designed to “destroy the notion that a nation represents one culture.” The diversity discourse is inherently intolerant, and seeks “to place every ethnicity and identity into the cauldron of global consumerism.” Globalisation is “a process which sets out to rule and dictate to a globalised, consumerism mass of people stripped of national identity, but endowed with secularism and a facade, of fake, humanistic, values.” In practical, localised terms, “diversity is played out as a sort of competition to prove who is most opposed to racism, sexism etc.” Diversity is “about bestowing a preferential value on minorities who are assumed to somehow be victims,” the end goal being “to make our nations as ‘multi-ethnic’ (i.e. non-white) as quickly as possible.” In Sweden, the programmatic goal of ethnic dilution has led to the rise of “a militant anti-racist cult.”
In his second essay, “Politicheskaya Pravil’nost,” Leonard moves into an exceptional exploration of political correctness. Carrying echoes of Jonathan Bowden, the chapter explores a grammar of self-intolerance which acts as a “mental and moral trap” and “operates as a form of emotional coercion.” Political correctness relies on a culture of over-labelling where “suddenly every statement or opinion has to be qualified adjectivally. Everything is -ist; nothing can escape description.” Speaking of his interactions with students, Leonard notes “the sense of herd morality is clearly apparent. Many are wholly unwilling to challenge or deconstruct the panoply of contemporary social truths regarding diversity, free speech, feminism, equality, tolerance, etc. For them, these have become the supreme moral principles.” Our education systems and wider society have been transformed by cultural Marxists, who abandoned the working class in order to find new ‘victims,’ to such an extent that “culture can only be discussed in terms of inequalities.” Leonard forthrightly condemns Women’s Studies and Gender Studies as “phony departments,” and is scathing of the “gender nihilism” they espouse. Political correctness, which indulges these departments and their discourses, thrives on a culture of hyper-sensitivity and reinforces itself with “masochistic syntax.” The most important aspect of this is a nurturing of “disrespect for the achievements of one’s own culture.” Post-modern morality in the West thus revolves around the extent to which Whites loathe their own culture and encourages its decline, and promote the achievements and immigration of foreign populations. Someone busily engaged in both is likely to be deemed a moral paragon. Much of Politicheskaya Pravil’nost is taken up with an exploration of how this masochistic culture operates in Sweden, and how it is taken advantage of by Islamists throughout Europe. For anyone interested in the nature of what has been termed ‘pathological altruism,’ Leonard’s essay is essential reading, particularly in its deliberations on Sweden’s historical focus on forming and maintaining a high consensus society.
In “Parrhesia,” the author offers a cutting critique of the theory and practice of so-called ‘hate speech’ legislation. Leonard argues the concept of hate speech has been ingested and regurgitated by authoritarian liberalism and has become synonymous with mere “insult.” Almost every example of national hate speech legislation contains arbitrary and subjective legal boundaries that allow for the imprisonment of anyone disagreeing with (and therefore insulting) liberal norms. Leonard argues that the fact hate speech legislation is so subjective “probably means the legislation should not exist in the first place.” An excellent example is the wording of Sweden’s hate speech laws, in which misaktning (‘disrespect’) is made criminal. A curious anomaly, of course, is the fact that Muslims appear immune to prosecution no matter how incendiary the sermons of some imams. Leonard offers examples of legal hypocrisy in this regard which are nothing less than infuriating. No less infuriating is the psychological impact of hate speech legislation, which not only has a gagging effect on free speech, but also leads to a culture of mutual denunciation among Whites. Leonard recounts the following story:
In the UK, Paul Weston, Chairman of Liberty GB was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of religious harassment for reading a passage from Winston Churchill’s book The River War (1899) about Islam…The interesting point here is Weston was arrested because he was standing in front of the Winchester Crown Court reading out a passage and a passerby heard the word Islam, and called the police…A passerby assumed that a white person holding a tannoy in public talking about Islam must amount to hate-speech.
Once a group establishes itself with liberal authoritarianism as a victimised minority, it can exert power over other groups at risk of being accused of hate speech. Leonard points to the activism of homosexuals against Churches, and cites instances in Sweden where homosexual groups have routinely monitored sermons. Otherwise weak in their own right, these bona fide ‘victims’ are beneficiaries of lavish funding from globalist entities like the European Union. Leonard points out “the EU is funding homosexual activists groups that have controversial and radical social agendas, some of which have links with paedophiles. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association Europe (ILGA), an organisation that has a history of promoting paedophilia, received more than two-thirds of its funding directly from taxpayers through the European Commission.” ILGA is of course ring-fenced from criticism because opposition would be deemed inherently ‘homophobic’ and therefore a criminal act. In England, notes Leonard, a plan was developed by the Minister for Women and Equalities which would “force teachers to report children who disapprove of homosexuality to police and social services under the guise of ‘fighting extremism.’”
In the short essay “Liberalist Fancies; Disconnectedness,” Leonard meditates with virtuosity on the concept of White guilt, cultural relativism, and the “consumerist frenzy of disconnectedness” which has come to consume much of Western post-modernity. Leonard’s observations on liberalism in this essay are magnificent. Crucially, liberalism ‘purports to be as much a moral doctrine as a political doctrine.” It is a “negative anthropology which holds that man’s social constructs are malevolent and biased.” Liberal ideology is “centred on an ill-defined, putative guilt for Western cultural domination,” while “the liberal psyche much prefers guilt to responsibility.” Leonard rejects guilt, asserting “we are not all equal and it is not morally wrong to say so: there is hierarchy in every group of individuals, and in a hierarchical society everybody has their place…Egalitarianism means in contemporary Western society at least, that everybody has to stoop down to the lowest common denominator.”
In “The Swedish Topos,” one of the best and longest essays in the volume, Leonard offers an excellent examination of Sweden’s decline into multicultural madness, with a focus on the years 2014-17. Commenting on the 2014 general election, during which the Sweden Democrats (SD) were subjected to legally questionable opposition (the removal or vandalism of election posters, the refusal of postal services to distribute party literature, physical attacks on party members, the systematic hacking of the party website, and the arson of the party election hut to name a few) Leonard argues that it is “legitimate to ask whether Swedish elections are in fact free and democratic.” He is scathing of Swedish reactions to the migrant crisis, noting that many Swedish notables were found “crying in public, they looked as pathetic as the Germans who applauded the ‘refugees’ who arrived in streams only to discover subsequently some of them were illegal immigrants and gangs of radical mobs looking to rape and pillage.” The result of this pathological response to the trigger propaganda of the mass media has been that migrants from Syria and Iraq now make up half the population of some Swedish towns. As havoc unfolds, “the weak, tolerant Swede not only welcomes mass Muslim immigration, he blames himself when it goes wrong.” As well as providing a long (and necessarily depressing) account of how multiculturalism has collapsed Swedish culture, Leonard remarks that “it is this Nietzschean ‘imperative of herd timidity’ that has smashed the European consciousness, and left us like sitting ducks for a ‘strong’ Islamic culture based on honour, conformity, and total submission. This will supersede our guilt-based culture…We must learn again to rise above this; we must regain our sense of honour, the ethos of social honour.”
While Leonard is excellent at fleshing out the history and mechanics of pathological altruism among the Swedes, he admirably makes clear that this is a revolution (“bringing about the biggest ever demographic and cultural change the country has ever known”) imposed from above. Much of what has unfolded in the last several decades has suggested “there is some kind of ‘invisible hand’ at work here.” The uniformity of media production in Sweden strongly suggests that “editors are being ‘controlled to some degree; journalists are being told they cannot report on certain issues.” Swedish spending on Afghan child migrants alone ($2.5 billion), which in 2016 surpassed its entire defence budget “surely implies that there is a much broader agenda here.” What exactly that agenda is may be surmised from the results of multiculturalism – Sweden is now a less White, less intelligent (48% of migrant children can’t pass Swedish maths exams), less safe (80% of rapes are committed by North Africans and migrants from the Middle East), and less free country than at any time in its history. As Leonard says, “as far as Sweden is concerned, it is difficult to see if there is any grand conspiracy at work, but one might not want to rule it out.”
In “Totalitarian Air Waves,” Leonard further explores the claustrophobic atmosphere of ‘liberal authoritarian’ Sweden. Opening with reference to Gramsci’s goal that the State should fall into the hands of the Left once it captured the commanding organs of culture and media, the author explores a typical day’s fare from Swedish radio where “there is an obsession with gay rights and feminism…topics which should have marginal value at best at a time of economic crisis, war and burgeoning extremist movements.” The topics chosen are “peripheral, trivial, often perverse (female cartoonists discussing their orgasms), and the conversations are one-sided and lack substance.” Leonard notes that while listeners are spoon-fed a diet of rhetoric on radical feminism and mass immigration, “it is noticeable that they can only introduce the information in a way that intellectualises it. The information provided on national radio programmes is packaged in often very conceptual ways, sometimes quite abstract, but seldom factual…It is perhaps easier to undermine multiculturalism with facts than concepts.” Swedish radio “also has a tendency to select radio plays that invite a sense of self-loathing, and nurturing of some kind of collective guilt.” There is a steady diet of documentaries and reflections on “Nazi concentration camps,” and “radio dramas feature invariably an immigrant who is always cast as the ‘victim,’ bullied at school, denied opportunities etc.” The latter half of this excellent essay concerns the extraordinarily oppressive government surveillance culture in Sweden (“the Swedish state keeps a record of everything said in telephone conversations, surfed on the web or written on the Internet”), where home schooling has been effectively banned, debates have recently been held on whether private citizens should even be able to own satellite dishes, and where one “cannot even order a bathtub without an ID number.”
Of the remaining, shorter, essays, my favorite is “No Jihad Here,” an account of the great pains to which Western media and political elites have gone to deny the fact jihad is being waged against us by Muslim populations. In almost every instance we are told that massacres perpetrated by Muslims are merely “the work of a mentally unbalanced man whose motivations were vague and ‘hardly coherent.’” Euphemisms are ubiquitous. In one of the most egregious examples cited by Leonard, an Eritrean migrant killed a 55 year old Swedish woman and her 28 year old son in an IKEA store. The woman was partially beheaded in what the Swedish media generically termed a “knife attack” – “which has become something of a ritualised term.” After the murder “IKEA closed the shop and put up a notice saying the store was closed because of a ‘technical error.’”
Travels in Cultural Nihilism is a volume that is engaging in style and incendiary in content. There are few works on the market that match the range of topics under discussion with the level of intellectual and philosophical insight that Leonard offers here. That being said, this is also a volume that, in the starkness of its selected anecdotes, can and should reach the average reader. The subjects under discussion are of crucial importance for all Europeans and European-descended peoples. Perhaps the best feature of the volume is that, despite many of its grim and necessary revelations, it retains a thread of optimism throughout. This is, ultimately, not a ‘black pill’ in the manner of Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe. Leonard suggests that we can claw our way out of the abyss, and back into the light. Doing so will require courage and sacrifice – both of which Leonard has demonstrated by publishing this important collection.
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