The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics
.. “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.”
..Hillary Clinton devoted a speech in Nevada to deploring its influence on the election. “These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right,’” she charged.
.. Clinton could not name a single member of a movement that, she warned, imperiled American democracy
.. The movement exists almost entirely among anonymous users of the Internet. It has no institutions, no money, no political representation, and no traditional media.
.. It enjoys the close attention of the liberal establishment it seeks to discredit and the conservative movement it intends to displace.
.. “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”
.. The alt-right purports to defend the identity and interests of white people, who it believes are the compliant victims of a century-long swindle by liberal morality. Its goals are not conventionally conservative.
It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, abortion, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession.
.. Its creed, in the words of Richard Spencer, is “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.”
.. the alt-right represents something more nefarious, and frankly more interesting, than white identity politics.
.. The alt-right is anti-Christian.
.. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it.
.. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.”
.. it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West.
.. Its intellectual birth is marked by the 1918 publication of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
.. While the movement is often accused of advocating racial supremacy, its appeal is more often to cultural difference. A generation tired of multicultural pieties
.. A cultural relativist, Spengler rejects as a “ridiculous distortion” any view that privileges European thought or history.
.. “Each culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it.”
.. Spengler therefore sees the world as divided into fundamentally different cultures, whose identities he interprets in morphological terms. Cultures are like plants
.. They live through a determined cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. During its lifespan, a culture gives expression to the animating “form”
.. Spengler had no scholarly expertise in non-Western cultures (his advanced studies were in mathematics), and Decline of the West is frequently nonsense as both history and sociology. But its interpretations of cultural artifacts and their hidden symbolic meanings are often brilliant and have enchanted readers for a century.
.. All cultures are unique, but some are more unique than others. “We men of the Western culture are an exception,” Spengler claims. At the heart of his book is an interpretation of the culture he named “Faustian,” a term widely used in the intellectual circles of the alt-right.
.. a single idea permeates the arts and sciences of the West. Its distinctive mark is an intense striving for “infinity.”
.. our culture has uniquely sought to see all things in relation to the highest or most distant horizons, which, in turn, it seeks to surpass and extend.
- The vaults of medieval cathedrals, the
- discovery of perspective in painting, the
- exploration of the New World, the
- development of orchestral music, the
- invention of the telescope and
—in Spengler’s story, all express the Faustian drive toward transcendence.
.. He argues that there is no Christianity without Western civilization. He arrives at this conclusion by claiming the West begins not with ancient Greece or Rome, but with the high Middle Ages and the birth of scholasticism, Gothic architecture, and polyphony.
.. Its cultural achievements are not testimonies to faith in God. They are the monuments of Faustian man’s attempt—in speculation, stone, glass, and sound—to propel himself into infinity. Of this aspiration, Spengler maintains, “the Gospels know nothing.”
.. In the minds and hands of Europeans, Christianity became a religion that affirmed the unceasing expansion of human freedom, power, and knowledge.
.. There is no biblical god for Faustian man, but there is high Christian culture, which is a tribute to his identity.
.. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges.
.. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”
.. in his 1933 book Hour of Decision, he foresaw the rise of democratic “Caesars” and growing racial animosity. Who will give birth to the next great culture? Not Europeans
.. Spengler predicted the future would belong to the race that had preserved its “strength” in face of the rising “colored menace.”
- If Spengler is the alt-right’s cultural critic,
- Julius Evola is its political mystic.
- Umberto Eco mockingly called him “the magician,” and the
- future Pope Paul VI condemned his writings in a Vatican newspaper
- Evola is the most right-wing thinker possible in the modern world. There is nobody to his right, nor can there be. His influence on the alt-right is detectable in one of its most controversial features: its rejection of human equality.
- “We don’t belong to the liberal family,” writes popular blogger Hunter Wallace. “Nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.” Here is the movement’s clearest dispute with conventional conservatism
- The alt-right denies that constitutional democracy is worthy of principled veneration. For Evola, its popular acceptance is a sign we are living in a spiritual dark age.
The basic problem with modernity is “desacralization,” the collapse of spiritual meaning in daily life. Work, family, and citizenship are no longer saturated with spiritual importance, but are understood in functionally secular terms.
.. materialism “kills every possibility
.. Spengler’s fundamental flaw was that he “lacked any understanding of metaphysics and transcendence,” which led him to conclude that human cultures are irreducibly different.
.. Evola believed more or less the exact opposite, arguing that there are timeless and universal principles that have provided the foundation for every true civilization. He referred to these perennial truths as “Tradition,” and he traced the disorders of modernity to our loss of contact with it.
.. No, the world had been slouching into spiritual poverty ever since the eighth century b.c., when the world of Tradition began to disappear.
.. Revolt Against the Modern World, claimed that these primordial societies—whose existence can be accessed only by way of myth and legend, not critical scholarship—all operated on the same principles.
.. In a traditional culture, every aspect of human life, every social activity, role, and caste, was dedicated to the service of an otherworldly order; indeed, they were ritual pathways into it. “According to Tradition,” Evola imagines, “every authority is fraudulent, every law unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless . . . they are derived from above.”
.. His key claim is that traditional societies were hierarchically ordered under an absolute ruler, who embodied the sacral order itself.
.. Men Among the Ruins, he argued that political conservatism is intrinsically impossible in a democratic age. True political order can never come from below; it must always be imposed from above.
.. only a transformative leader could elevate humanity out of its degraded state. Such a leader could not appeal to the masses—this was the mistake of the vulgar fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler—but must inspire submission through lofty contempt for democratic norms and popular tastes.
“The presence of superior individuals bestows on a multitude . . . a meaning and a justification they previously lacked,” Evola wrote. “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.”
Evola was less clear about what this sacred authority looked like than what stood in the way of its realization.
.. The problem is that Catholicism forbids the sacred state. And a state without absolute spiritual unity is no state at all.
.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s
.. however, no return is necessary if we simply move beyond Christianity altogether. Evola did not believe in a personal deity, but his criticisms of Christianity were political rather than theological. With Benoist, the alt-right becomes explicitly and confessionally anti-Christian.
.. took its inspiration from the failed “conservative revolution” of Weimar Germany.
Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Spengler were its chief figures
.. Most of its members, including Spengler, took sides against the Nazi regime, but they also sought a path for the West beyond the twin evils of American democracy and Soviet communism. Benoist comes from this anti-liberal tradition
.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s
.. attempt to envision a post-Christian future for people of European descent.
.. his 1981 work On Being a Pagan
.. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.”
Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine.
.. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal.
.. Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality.
.. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient.
.. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead.
.. Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right.
.. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures.
.. Christianity is not our religion.
.. Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless.
.. its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties.
.. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.”
.. Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.
.. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.”
.. Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own.
.. Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it
.. we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics
.. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand.
.. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains.
.. invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds.
.. identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging.
.. we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation
.. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow.
.. A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance.
.. “The inheritance we receive from Christ,” the late pope argued, “orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal home land.”
.. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones
.. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement.
.. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.
.. The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict.
.. . For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals.
We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified.
Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.
Donald Trump is always trying to cure his loneliness by making friend/enemy distinctions; trying to unite his clan by declaring verbal war on other groups; trying to shrivel his life into a little box by building walls against anybody outside its categories.
.. Richard Reeves points out that in “On Liberty,” Mill used the words “energy,” “active” and “vital” nearly as many times as he used the word “freedom.” Freedom for him was a means, not an end. The end is moral excellence. Mill believed that all of us “are under a moral obligation to seek the improvement of our moral character.”
“At the heart of his liberalism,” Reeves writes, “was a clearly and repeatedly articulated vision of a flourishing human life — self-improving, passionate, truth-seeking, engaged and colorful.”
.. He championed the labor movement, was the first member of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, was the leading British philosopher of the 19th century and served as a loving son, husband and friend.
.. Mill had an optimistic view of human nature and probably an insufficient appreciation of human depravity
.. Mill was living in a Victorian moment when the chief problem was claustrophobia — the individual being smothered by society. He emphasized individual liberation. His emphases probably would have been different if he had lived today, when our problem is agoraphobia — too much freedom, too little cohesion, meaning and direction.
.. His example cures us from the weakness of our age — the belief that we can achieve democracy on the cheap; the belief that all we have to do to fulfill our democratic duties is be nice, vote occasionally and have opinions.
.. Mill showed that real citizenship is a life-transforming vocation. It involves, at base, cultivating the ability to discern good from evil, developing the intellectual virtues required to separate the rigorous from the sloppy, living an adventurous life so that you are rooting yourself among and serving those who are completely unlike yourself.
The demands of democracy are clear — the elevation and transformation of your very self. If you are not transformed, you’re just skating by.
But the idea is that, the way the Talmud puts it is that somebody who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.
.. There’s one place I think in Survival in Auschwitz where Primo Levi talks about a bricklayer, that the Nazis asked him to build a wall, and he couldn’t persuade himself to build it badly. He just couldn’t because that was his pride. And it reminded me that there’s this great — that I haven’t read for years and I’m sure I could find it — but there’s a [Guy de] Maupassant story about a guy who’s a circus performer, and what he does is he fires arrows into an apple on his wife’s head, and that’s their circus act, and he starts to hate his wife and he wants to kill her, but he can’t bring himself to do it wrong.
.. Look, there is going back to Yehudah ha-Levi and going through the Tanya, and woven through Hasidism, is the question of whether Jews have different souls from non-Jews in some essential way. That I don’t think you’d be particularly comfortable with, nor am I. It’s what a great American rabbi who passed away not so long away, Harold Schulweis, used to call metaphysical racism.
.. “Well, I wrote an article that ended up on Facebook in a very different setting than how I intended it to be read.” And you can say all you want — all the hyperlinks are there, but people don’t click through.
What do you think is the intellectual future of a belief system based on commentary on commentary on commentary, now injected into a world with this technology that so strips away context and just gives you some bald statement of something?
WOLPE: I think that Judaism has the same problem that any thick civilization has in a world in which, as you say, context is stripped away. And not only is context stripped away, but attention to any one thing is scanter and less than it used to be.
So, for example, a lot of Jewish commentary is based on your recognizing the reference that I make. Who recognizes references anymore? Because people don’t spend years studying books.
.. So what I would say, the quick answer to the very end of it is, not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitism, but anti-Israel sentiment is now the respectable guise for anti-Semitism. Very few people, only the most fringy fringers, will stand up and say “I’m an anti-Semite.” But you can say “I’m anti-Israel” and be an anti-Semite and that’s respectable. . . . And I think there are lots of tests that you can apply to the way people criticize Israel and the way they criticize other places that will let you know what’s behind it.
.. The Koran is — and this you should excuse me, for the home team, I like Judaism much better — the Koran is very unwilling to allow any sinfulness in its heroes.
COWEN: He’s much more heroic, David; as is Moses.
WOLPE: Much more, as is Moses, as is everyone in the story.
COWEN: Never so hesitant.
WOLPE: Right, exactly. I like the idea of flawed heroes. I like the notion that there isn’t this whitewashing. And I feel the Quran does that. But obviously, I’m not a Muslim.
.. I would say, if I had to pick one thing that is at the heart of Islam that is antidemocratic, it is the concept that’s very deep — that is, in the very name of the religion — of submission. Because a population that is trained essentially to submit is a population that will create authoritarians.
.. “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”
.. What I would say is that the problem with the case is it doesn’t take into account two parts of the calculus that are important pieces of this. One is that it is an element of security to allow your neighbors to feel a certain way about their neighbors. And therefore, if you build in total disregard of the people in the neighborhood, that’s not going to encourage goodwill. That’s the first part of the case that I would urge. And, by the way, this works in extending circles around the world that Israel is not an island, and the opinion of the world also matters in this.
And the second part of the case is that the idea that ultimately the population around you will be reconciled to this in one way or another — in other words the endgame — doesn’t work for me. I don’t think that eventually the Palestinians will be absorbed into Israel and will feel OK about it if their standard of living is high enough
.. what did we lose with Maimonides’s aggregation of Jewish law with the Mishneh Torah? What Maimonides wanted to do was take all of this messy giant Talmudic and other tradition and make it simple. And one of the things that he did that he later said he regretted but didn’t have the chance to fix was, he didn’t add footnotes. So we don’t know.
.. Hermann Cohen said very beautifully, “In the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born.”
.. Given how many literally billions of people have been elevated from poverty by, what is mostly in my account, capitalism, not only capitalism, Milton Friedman saw this, but still the weight of Jewish intellectual opinion in the United States has mostly been on the Left. I think that’s a well-established regularity. What’s the intellectual or sociological reason for that underlying . . . ?
WOLPE: Well, I’ll say why that is and then one thing about capitalism that I think is profoundly Jewish that most people don’t realize, seriously.
I think the reason is because they came from Eastern Europe, and that tradition, like the FDR tradition in America, is very . . . the only way that you could see out of the morass of the civilizations they were in, the only thing that gave them hope other than Zionism, was a kind of Bundist, Marxist, socialist . . . there wasn’t really a living capitalist alternative. To the very first glance, it looked like the humanistic face of economics as opposed to . . . what is capitalism — competition. Well, that doesn’t look like a humanistic face.
.. “A real capitalist has to have empathy.” Because if you’re building a business or a product and you don’t know what other people want, you’ll fail. The only way you can succeed is if you actually understand what it is that other people want and/or need. And both that combined with what you said, which is that it is the great engine of wealth that lifts people out of poverty, I think that a Jewish thinker today, and certainly many in Israel would argue this too, that you would have to be a capitalist of some stripe.
.. So Conservative Judaism, the dilemma that Conservative Judaism had was that it tried to hold on to a serious Jewish observance with modern scholarship that didn’t consistently say, “God told you, you have to do this.” And modern Jewish observance is a very hard thing to hold on to. And so people who had grown up with the traditional observance lived that out, but as the motivational piece of it weakened, so did that lifestyle that would maintain them as Conservative Jews.
Unless and until — not only Conservative Judaism by the way, but liberal religion in general — unless and until . . .
But the problem is worse in Judaism because it makes greater demands than other religions. Christianity doesn’t make such lifestyle demands on Christians as Judaism does on Jews. Unless and until there is a compelling nonfundamentalist rationale for why I should eat a certain way and why I shouldn’t go out on Saturday, in other words, the ritual behaviors that maintain the cohesion of the tradition. Until that is created — and many philosophers have tried to and many rabbis have tried — till that’s created, Conservative Judaism is going to face a huge uphill battle. That’s the short answer.
.. AUDIENCE MEMBER: The United States Supreme Court is currently comprised only of Catholics and Jews. Do you think that these groups naturally produce better jurists?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If so why, and if not, why is that the composition of the court?
WOLPE: I defer here to an answer that I heard given by my sociologist brother at a session we did together in South Africa last summer. Which is probably a sentence you’ve never heard uttered before, right? I defer to my sociologist brother in a session we did together in South Africa. [laughs]
Because Catholicism has a natural law tradition, Judaism has a strong legal tradition, and Protestantism is antinomian: it’s anti-law. That’s the essence of Protestantism, right? So who around here is trained in law? Oh, the Catholics and the Jews. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be individual Protestants, but if you’re looking for a deep tradition, well, we got one.