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The Political Orthodoxy of Folklore

This article presents an historical examination of the political orthodoxy of folklore from the middle of 19th century when the term “folklore” was first used and understood to the present day. The article selectively draws on different themes and geographies to illustrate examination of the themes of political orthodoxy.

 

What is political orthodoxy in the context of folklore?

On inception in the mid-19th century the term “folklore” applied only to rural, frequently poor and illiterate peasants. This notion gave limited scope to expressions of political orthodoxy in folklore. Poor illiterate peasants were unwitting, unpaid, stewards of rural practices, customs and rituals. At the time the more educated but discerning observers of rural societies were aware that the Industrial Revolution increased mobility, encouraged the rural poor to relocate to industrial towns with potential loss of the oral traditions reflected in rural practices, customs and rituals. Their practical response was to seek out, document and unconsciously archive through diaries, books, and illustrative material “rural folklore.” Some diarists, authors and illustrators deployed objective comparative and analytical historical methodologies; others adopted an antiquarian approach, where excessive value and veneration were as placed on the antiquity of practices, custom or ritual. Rural sentiment probably won the day, through the popularity of rural art, crafts and literature in the second half of the 19th century, in countries and regions where there was broad political and economic stability.

However, the term and scope to study evolved over the 19th century embrace a wider, more modern definition of a social group that includes two or more persons with common traits, who express their shared identity through distinctive traditions. This wider definition is more flexible and provides more oxygen for the examination of the influences of political orthodoxy within folklore.

 

How has folklore influenced or been influenced by political orthodoxy?

 Folklore in its various media visual, theatrical, musical, documented and published forms has always participated in the shaping and re‐shaping of human life. Oral forms have always been fashioned deployed for entertainment and for more practical purposes, which include the edification of  society by inculcating sound behavioural and moral practice.  Oral forms have acted as triggers for social commentary through praising “good” and condemning “bad” public behaviour .Oral and written folklore have chronicled history as the collective heritage of the people and continue as communal voice of the expression  of  group  solidarity, shared  spiritual and cultural identity. Sometimes those promoting folklore have assumed a role as custodians of these the oral and written forms by becoming the conscience of their community. Folklore has defined and refined communities and societies historically and in modern times.

Folk tales emerge in times of upheaval, and from societies’ grimmest moments. They enable us to process and assimilate extreme experience, and deal with our fears. Typically, folklore communicates powerful and uncompromising moral narratives. It’s not hard to draw a map of current major global problems with reference to them.

Some attempts have been made to categorise folklore:

  • The expressly political: fairy tales and collections intended to accomplish some sort of political purpose such as restoration and celebration of German culture after the humiliation of the Napoleonic Wars that argue for a unified Germany, for example, or stories that satirize current political structures. The Grimm collections, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Asbjørnsen and Moe collections, and the tales of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie.
  • The subversively political: fairy tales used to obliquely criticize repressive regimes, using fairy tale structures and motifs, usually in an attempt to avoid imprisonment or execution. Examples include: nearly all of the French salon fairy tales, James Thurber’s fables.
  • The accidentally political: fairy tales, which are not necessarily written with any political intent in mind but end in reflecting or reinforcing contemporary attitudes, or, by simply being collected, serving as incidental comments on what cultural elements the collector/translator felt was worth sharing and presenting—itself political. Examples include: many of the versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, some of Andersen’s tales, most of the Andrew Lang collections, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks.

By contrast, political groups have and continue to use folklore to achieve their objectives, principally, by means of social engineering to achieve societal objectives. Social engineering may be regarded as a specific branch of applied social science. It is a social science that uses applied social methods and practices, which derive knowledge from general sociologic theory, applied research as well as from production practice and other kinds of activity. Social engineering aims at perfection of control over social objects. Social engineering aims to take advantage of human emotions in a positive or negative way to achieve the goal of the attacker. The majority of human beings, consciously or unconsciously, seek be helpful and accepted. A social engineering can exploit this behaviour.

Social engineering methods such as creation of trust/distrust, quid pro quo, baiting and pretexting. A social engineer can exploit this behaviour using the methods, a good assessment of the target audience to ascertain whether their plan is working. Technologies available to attackers may change, the basic premise of these attacks stays the same and has done throughout history.

By way of illustration, rhetoric of social engineering is used in Russian narration on the Cossack nation. This social engineering has been served by historically-rooted slogans such as ‘the Cossack state’ and ‘registered Cossacks’. Terms such as ‘the Cossack state service’ and ‘the Cossack component’ are also functionally marked concepts. These appear in different contexts (the patriotic education of children and young people, the so-called civil society of Russia and its allegedly traditional conservative values, the creation of pro-defence attitudes, military reserves, a social factor combating the new threats posed by culture, information, illegal migration, etc.) Such concepts are the product of the Kremlin’s political technology – by shaping the military organisation of society and its confrontational attitude, it is not so much describing a reality as creating on.

 

What folklore themes have influenced or been influenced by political orthodoxy and why?

The folklore themes that have influenced or been influenced by political orthodoxy are obvious. I examine them in order of disruptive influence: 

Revolution

I can find no example of folklore directly contributing to revolution, a concept that is fraught with definitional challenges of terminology. Defining whether political change can be considered revolutionary are conceptual issues which involve examination of issues such as revolt, rebellion, and reform whereby the questions of the new, of liberty, and of the legitimacy of violence serve as the most relevant criteria for demarcation. Positions adopted within the three main schools of revolutionary thought (democratic, autocratic and anarchist) are formed by broader commitments to the underlying political philosophies. These political philosophies owe their adoption to other debates on matters such as war, shaping of society, equality and other matters. Given their breadth and significant conceptual and philosophical issues, they are best left to philosophers!

Nationalism

In the mid-19th century, liberal political orthodoxy saw nationalism as a form of political self-determination. Regions, often, represented by regions cultural and geographical sought to overthrow, sometimes unite to achieve political, economic and social change. Folklore played a significant role in shaping and coalescing nationalist aspirations through reference to music, song literature, poetry and other reflections of an historic way of life, thought and ritual. In some instances the contribution of folklore did contribute to “revolution” in social, economic and political order. Such forms of nationalism have occurred until recently. Have we entered an age of “good” and “bad nationalism”? For example some see “Brexit” as a “bad form of nationalism”. Spain sees Catalonian nationalism as a “bad form of nationalism”, as does the European Commission. Polish cultural nationalism is seen as “bad nationalism.” “Good nationalism” is where a group of people are trying to what is seen as an oppressive ruler – the Ukraine provides an example. Folklore will be used by both “good nationalists “and “bad nationalists.” Political philosophy determines its approval rating and the deployment of folklore in its armoury.

Social and cultural change

Folklore has provided its most profound influence in social and cultural change. Gorky, the Russian playwright and novelist provides a very profound insight into the cause and effect of folklore. In 1934 Gorky gave the keynote speech, which, among other matters discussed the relations between folklore and labour. Gorky stressed the close connection of folklore to the concrete life and working conditions of the people, for which reason its study should not be concerned with the abstract mythic-religious ideas, but must deal with concrete historical reality, work processes, and real inter human relations. He went on to observe the life optimism of folklore, which expresses the deepest moral and human aspirations of the masses. He concluded that folklore can have validity as the source of the world outlook of a people in its individual historical periods.

 

Does the Political Orthodoxy of historic folklore themes influence contemporary Political Orthodoxy? 

A simple answer is “yes” and “no.”

Yes in these sense that the political challenges of “folklore politics” continues exacerbated perhaps by the rise of successful populist political right movements in the USA and Western Europe. The rise of the alt-right has happened against the background of a profound political reorientation based on two parallel strategies. In the USA far right has effectively occupied established leftist countercultural territories, deploying the tactics of subversive humor and transgression while moving to replace the traditional conservative right, where “the fire-walls separating traditional conservatism and the new generation of far-right extremism have been all but burnt down as part of a larger tendency to effectively replace mainstream conservatism.”

Consider the following observation which sums up the current political in-fighting as articulated by someone from the left wing:

“2016 witnessed the revenge of “folk politics.” Of all the assumptions that were overturned by the success of the alt-right insurgency, one of the most surprising is the widespread belief on the left that we have outgrown grassroots media activism. Increasingly, activists have come to be seen as victims of communicative capitalism’s perfect lure in which subjects feel themselves to be active, even as their every action reinforces the status quo. A general assumption has taken root along the lines that if these interventions posed any genuine threat to the status quo, they would be immediately suppressed. However, the success of the alt-right in using the full armory of tactical media in the meme wars of 2016 not only repudiated this assumption but also reminded us that there is nothing intrinsically progressive about transgressive subcultures or the disruptive aesthetics of the avant-garde.”

The right seems to be gaining have the upper hand in political orthodoxy.

 

No in a number of senses:

  • Some new themes have been embraced by folklore , sexual and personal identity, “the BAME” and other equality agendas such as disabilities, mental and physical has emerged over the past decade in some instances assisted by legislation and regulation over the past decade. Folklorist adopted and adapted these themes to fit their folklore agendas themes around.
  • Social media through technological advances has supplanted much of the previous written form of communication. Short sharp anonymised messages are becoming the communication norm. The messages are less articulate, less explanatory and more direct. While regulation of social media is coming at a national level and through industry standards and norms, political orthodoxy for achieving societal changes can be direct, brutal and hard hitting. Social media has a global reach not just national-censor ship and restrain are difficult.
  • Political co-operation, costs and ease of coalescence and cohesion have enabled agendas to be established and distributed quickly and effectively. At the same time the velocity at which change can be postulated, lobbied and delivered against very defensive government and other public bodies may lead to a gadfly approach by folklorists to political orthodoxy by jumping quickly and randomly from one theme to another.  Social media has reduced consistency of political orthodoxy.

 

Some concluding remarks from this “canter “through the political orthodoxy of folklore:

  • Political orthodoxy of folklore is vibrant and changing.
  • Folklore has, is and will continue to be used by those of all political and social persuasions to support their causes,
  • Contemporarily folklore is subject to particularly possessive adoption by social and political causes.

 

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Bob McDowall is a former president of the Folkore Society, but is also engaged in the research and analysis of cryptocurrencies and the technology which supports their operation. He is a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) and is a member of the RAI Finance and Administration Committee.