Alt-Right Primer

Last week, the New York Times ran a suggestively titled story Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists. The “Italian Thinker” in question, is Julius Evola, who did indeed find an audience among fascists–which is something I learned in college, when I too “cited” the Italian thinker. I was interested in political and philosophical critiques of Modernity because, among other reasons, political and philosophical celebrations of Modernity were commonplace. If anyone plans on punching me, please give me a second to remove my glasses.

Back to the story. I had a hunch the Times was referring to Evola both because I was familiar with Evola and because I had already read the transcript of Bannon’s talk that I assumed the story was referring to. But I took the bait anyway and clicked through.

After a review of the objectionable political movements that currently admire Evola (e.g., The Golden Dawn, Richard Spencer), followed by a summary of the objectionable political movements that previously admired Evola (e.g., Mussolini and the Italian Fascists), the New York Times finally arrives at Bannon’s cite at the very end of the story:

As Mr. Bannon expounded on the intellectual motivations of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, he mentioned “Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the Traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian Fascism.”

OK, so Bannon pointed out that Evola inspired a movement that “eventually metastasized into Italian Fascism.” I take it that Bannon regards Italian Fascism as something akin to cancer. Good to know. Sounds very sensible. POTUS has chosen a wise adviser. Why I had to read to the end of the story to learn that, I’m not sure. But reading to the end is always a good practice.

In any event – and more to the point – buried within the story is a link to Milo Yiannopolous’s (and Allum Bokhari’s) An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right from March of 2016. That piqued my curiosity.

When it comes to political and cultural outliers (like the Alt-Right), it’s always best to start with what the outliers have to say for themselves. If you never get past the commentary . . . then you will never get past the commentary. [Note: Milo and Bokhari do not identify as members of the Alt-Right, but they are closer to a first-person voice than what’s generally available.]

The guide is refreshingly lucid. It ought to be read in full, but I’ll endeavor to summarize the highlights:

The short version is that if the Alt-Right stands for anything, it’s a willingness to challenge consensus. Principled provocation, but mostly provocation. Since there are parts of the consensus that variously offend the various component parts of the GOP coalition, the Alt-Right offers a little something for everyone–what Milo and Bokari call the thinkers, the natural conservatives, and the youthful hellraisers. But the Alt-Right does not itself represent a consensus and frankly shits on everyone–shitting on everyone is kind of the point–so there’s that. Plus, it’s hard to tell the difference between provocation and sincerely held beliefs.

I. Milo and Bokhari first situate the Alt-Right within its central aesthetic motif: provocation and transgression:

The alt-right is a movement born out of the youthful, subversive, underground edges of the internet. 4chan and 8chan are hubs of alt-right activity. For years, members of these forums – political and non-political – have delighted in attention-grabbing, juvenile pranks. Long before the alt-right, 4channers turned trolling the national media into an in-house sport.

It’s actually something the establishment Left can relate to:

Were this the 1960s, the meme team would probably be the most hellraising members of the New Left: swearing on TV, mocking Christianity, and preaching the virtues of drugs and free love . . .

Young people perhaps aren’t primarily attracted to the alt-right because they’re instinctively drawn to its ideology: they’re drawn to it because it seems fresh, daring and funny, while the doctrines of their parents and grandparents seem unexciting, overly-controlling and overly-serious. Of course, there is plenty of overlap. Some true believers like to meme too.

If you’re a Buzzfeed writer or a Commentary editor reading this and thinking… how childish, well. You only have yourself to blame for pompously stomping on free expression and giving in to the worst and most authoritarian instincts of the progressive left. This new outburst of creativity and taboo-shattering is the result.

Trashing the previous generations sacred cows is an American tradition. Particularly if you weren’t around for the original consecration. Y’know, like the anti-war hippies that couldn’t relate to storming the beaches of Normandy.

Of course, just as was the case in history, the parents and grandparents just won’t understand, man. That’s down to the age difference. Millennials aren’t old enough to remember the Second World War or the horrors of the Holocaust. They are barely old enough to remember Rwanda or 9/11. Racism, for them, is a monster under the bed, a story told by their parents to frighten them into being good little children.

First and foremost the Alt-Right isn’t one thing. There are some themes and strains, but the most unifying aspect of the Alt-Right is a massive middle finger to anyone that scolds them for flipping the bird.

When anyone speaks of the Alt-Right in the singular [like me in this post], it’s misleading. Its members think and argue many things with varying degrees of sincerity, but they are generally reactionary, provocative and unconventional. Sometimes they mean what they say and sometimes they just want to break the rules about what’s allowed to be said. Usually, it’s a bit of both.

Still, Milo and Bokhari intended to write a guide, which means unpacking the substance of the messages and styles. They explain why transgression – particularly reactionary transgression – has parts appeal and appall for both parts of the GOP coalition: the traditional conservatives and the [classical] liberals (what Milo and Bokhari call “The Thinkers”). Not to worry, they also discuss the Alt-Right’s appeal for the skinheads.

II. For [Classical] Liberals, undermining authority (especially the thought-police kind) is itself a virtue. Again, similar to the George Carlins of yesteryear, the Alt-Right thumbs its nose at any attempt to police the boundaries of permissible discourse–quite the contrary, it encourages open revolt on boundaries of any kind. Milo and Bokhari offer the example of LessWrong.com:

Neoreactionaries appeared quite by accident, growing from debates on LessWrong.com, a community blog set up by Silicon Valley machine intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky. The purpose of the blog was to explore ways to apply the latest research on cognitive science to overcome human bias, including bias in political thought and philosophy.

LessWrong urged its community members to think like machines rather than humans. Contributors were encouraged to strip away self-censorship, concern for one’s social standing, concern for other people’s feelings, and any other inhibitors to rational thought. It’s not hard to see how a group of heretical, piety-destroying thinkers emerged from this environment — nor how their rational approach might clash with the feelings-first mentality of much contemporary journalism and even academic writing.

For the most part, Stickin’ it to The Man involves butting heads with Progressives, who are, by and large, The Man in contemporary society. That’s something the GOP establishment can support.

I’m generalizing, but thought-policing, monoculture and telling people what to do have become part and parcel with Progressive policy. Naturally, they don’t see it that way, but if you set out to destroy the (ever-expanding) ‘isms and phobias by forcibly intervening at all levels of society, and you define the ‘ists and ‘phobes as non-Progressives, then that’s what you’re doing.

[Classical] liberals don’t like that. They like free speech and free association and freedom generally. They think telling people what to do, how to think, what to say, or who to hang with is always bad. Ergo, [classical] liberals laugh along with the Alt-Right, just like they laugh along with South Park. Take your diversity homogeneity training and shove it.

Plus, much of the thought-policing is both stupid and bigoted, which makes the ‘woke’ anti-bigots easy targets for the irreverent:

To young people and the politically disengaged, debate in the public square today appears topsy-turvy. The regressive Left loudly insists that it stands for equality and racial justice while praising acts of racial violence and forcing white people to sit at the back of the bus (or, more accurately, the back of the campus — or in another campus altogether). It defends absurd feminist positions with no basis in fact and ridicules and demeans people on the basis of their skin colour, sexual orientation and gender.

To be clear, Milo and Bokhari point out, [classical] liberal pieties about equality and freedom are not spared Alt-Right critique. All consensus is fair game, including consensus views on the relative (de)merits of monarchy, ethnocentrism and gender equality, to name a few:

Led by philosopher Nick Land and computer scientist Curtis Yarvin, this group began a gleeful demolition of the age-old biases of western political discourse. Liberalism, democracy and egalitarianism were all put under the microscope of the neoreactionaries, who found them wanting.

Liberal democracy, they argued, had no better a historical track record than monarchy, while egalitarianism flew in the face of every piece of research on hereditary intelligence. Asking people to see each other as human beings rather than members of a demographic in-group, meanwhile, ignored every piece of research on tribal psychology.

Similarly, to the extent those liberal pieties have been internalized by the establishment GOP to support more robust and interventionist foreign policy, the Alt-Right is not a friend:

Isolationists, pro-Russians and ex-Ron Paul supporters frustrated with continued neoconservative domination of the Republican party were also drawn to the alt-right, who are almost as likely as the anti-war left to object to overseas entanglements.

Still, for the most part, [classical] liberals aren’t scared of ideas (with some exceptions discussed below). Bad ideas tend to collapse under close scrutiny if you let them, so it’s best to let close scrutiny reign. Indeed, when bad ideas succeed, they are often accompanied by diligent thought-policing, which is why liberals have something to root for when it comes to the Alt-Right (i.e. their crusade against Progressive thought-police).

There’s a subtler point as well. There are surely “principled” objections to certain views expressed by members of the Alt-Right, but those views might be bundled together with other valid criticisms of the consensus (and provocation generally). More broadly, if you’re objecting to thought-policing and an overly rigid consensus, then you embrace a strong presumption against drawing lines in the sand.

III. Conservatives (like their [Classical] Liberal allies) also appreciate the Alt-Right’s willingness to stick it to the Man, but for different reasons. First and foremost, Conservatives like it because they are no longer the Man, having been run off campuses, Hollywood, media and government years ago by the prior generation of hellraisers. Now that Progressives run The Culture and relentlessly crap on everything Conservatives hold dear, e.g. Western Civilization, Conservatives appreciate the Alt-Right’s efforts to (a) crap back; and (b) stand up for traditional values, institutions and cultural myths. (Again, liberals like Western Civ too, but they value McCloskey’s bourgeois virtues, i.e. the process, more than the output.)

When Lena Dunham trolls White Men, the Alt-Right trolls back harder:

For natural conservatives, culture . . . is the paramount value. More specifically, they value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe . . .  symphonies, basilicas and Old Masters. The natural conservative tendency within the alt-right points to these apotheoses of western European culture and declares them valuable and worth preserving and protecting.

Needless to say, natural conservatives’ concern with the flourishing of their own culture comes up against an intractable nemesis in the regressive left, which is currently intent on tearing down statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria in the UK, and erasing the name of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton in the U.S. These attempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues.

Conservatives can also appreciate that the Alt-Right unabashedly embraces the view that Western culture is in fact better than other cultures. Not only that, but other cultures are hardly the doe-eyed eager-beavers that Team Cosmopolitan, including the [classically] liberal-oriented Cuckservatives, would have you believe:

The alt-right do not hold a utopian view of the human condition: just as they are inclined to prioritise the interests of their tribe, they recognise that other groups – Mexicans, African-Americans or Muslims – are likely to do the same. As communities become comprised of different peoples, the culture and politics of those communities become an expression of their constituent peoples.

Conservatives also like some of the things that make some of their [classically] liberal allies a bit uncomfortable. Particularly the rise of White identity politics in reaction to non-White identity politics:

For decades – since the 1960s, in fact – the media and political establishment have held a consensus over what’s acceptable and unacceptable to discuss in polite society. The politics of identity, when it comes from women, LGBT people, blacks and other non-white, non-straight, non-male demographics is seen as acceptable — even when it descends into outright hatred.

Any discussion of white identity, or white interests, is seen as a heretical offence.

As mentioned above, the Neo-Conservatives, a.k.a. Neo-Cohens are a favorite target of the Alt-Right. The conspicuously Mosaic tradition of Kristol, Podhoretz, Goldberg, Shapiro, Wolfowitz, Kissinger, Indyk, Foxman etc. reminds the West “Never Again” on all manners of cultural and political life. That includes foreign policy, but it also touches on questions of identity, particularly “White” identity. As Milo and Bokhari point out, on this question, the governing consensus from both the Left and the Right, is that White identity is a big no-no.

At some level, resistance to White identity is a principled commitment to colorblindness. But at a more visceral level, it’s fear: [Classical] liberals like jokes, but the Jew-jokes and White race stuff make them wonder if everyone is still joking. That’s when they start to sidestep to their Left (but increasingly to the [classically] Liberal Right, given the Left’s increasing fondness for non-White ethnocentrism).

To the Alt-Right and Conservatives, identity for me, but not for thee is a bit hypocritical. “You can have your whole Jew country, but we can’t have our own damn country club?!”

Pointing out that hypocrisy – indeed, pointing out hypocrisy generally – is one of the Alt-Right’s favorite things to do. Particularly when there is evidence that not all is rosy for straight white males:

As minority advocates on college campuses raised Hell about offensive Halloween costumes and demanded safe spaces in which they could be insulated from differing points of view, working-class white males became the least likely group to attend university in the U.K. To politically alert Millennials, the contrast between the truly marginalized and those merely claiming victim status has become stark.

The GOP establishment though stood its anti-indentitarian ground, at least when it came to its own team:

[T]hey turned a blind eye to the rise of tribal, identitarian movements on the Left while mercilessly suppressing any hint of them on the Right. It was this double standard, more than anything else, that gave rise to the alternative right. It’s also responsible, at least in part, for the rise of Donald Trump.

So along with the anti-PC crusade and the defense of Western Culture, comes Pepe the Frog, the full gamut of holocaust-related jokes, and skin-headed provocation generally. No self-righteousness is spared.

Whether any particular member of the Alt-Right is venerating Whiteness only, venerating Whiteness also, or simply calling bullshit, is really hard to tell. The same goes for Maleness, or straightness, or Christianness and all the other unjust attributes in the Progressive catalog. What annoys the Alt-Right most (and where Conservatives sympathize) is that [classical] Liberals (especially the Jewish kind) stopped trying to tell the difference and just put the whole “whiteness” thing off-limits.

Again, Milo and Bokhari, reiterate provocation:

Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. These caricatures are often spliced together with Millennial pop culture references, from old 4chan memes like pepe the frog, to anime and My Little Pony references.

Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents.

IV. To be clear, Milo and Bokhari don’t shy away from the bigots. They devote a whole section to the 1488ers [a Hitler reference] that they describe as:

[T]he people that the alt-right’s opponents wish constituted the entire movement. They’re less concerned with the welfare of their own tribe than their fantasies of destroying others. 1488ers would likely denounce this article as the product of a degenerate homosexual and an ethnic mongrel.

OK, so they don’t shy away from the fact of skinheads, but they do diminish them. It’s a hard claim to evaluate, but if you take their word for it, the neo-Nazis just aren’t that big a deal:

Those looking for Nazis under the bed can rest assured that they do exist. On the other hand, there’s just not very many of them, no-one really likes them, and they’re unlikely to achieve anything significant in the alt-right . . .

[T]he alt-right openly crack jokes about the Holocaust, loudly — albeit almost entirely satirically — expresses its horror at “race-mixing,” and denounces the “degeneracy” of homosexuals… while inviting Jewish gays and mixed-race Breitbart reporters to their secret dinner parties. What gives?

. . . For the meme brigade, it’s just about having fun. They have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies: it’s just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked. These younger mischief-makers instinctively understand who the authoritarians are and why and how to poke fun at them.

Personally, I’m persuaded by the anecdote (as well as more quantitative analyses like Scott Alexander’s). For all the hatred that’s supposedly out there, it sure seems to be biding its time. There certainly have been demonstrations of violence and intimidation, but they are overwhelmingly perpetrated by the far left, not the far right. Anonymous tweeting and even anonymous graffiti – with at least as many false flags as real ones – just isn’t the same as beating people in broad daylight.

Provoking authority, however? That’s out there in spades.

V. What do Milo and Bokhari make of it all? They’re most interested in the Natural Conservatives.

The conservatives (in their view) are the most numerous of the Alt-Right, and while they may be a bit tribal, they’re not necessarily bad neighbors:

They want to build their homogeneous communities, sure — but they don’t want to commit any pogroms along the way.

In fact, their desire for homogeneity isn’t all that unusual:

The bulk of their demands, after all, are not so audacious: they want their own communities, populated by their own people, and governed by their own values.

In short, they want what every people fighting for self-determination in history have ever wanted, and what progressives are always telling us people should be allowed — unless those people are white.

So the question (for the authors) is whether the Liberal coalition — that dominates both the left and the right – ought to “deal” with the Conservatives. While they don’t come out and say it, Milo and Bokhari suggest the answer is “yes,” if only because the Conservatives aren’t going anywhere and there is downside to saying “no”:

[T]he risk otherwise is that the 1488ers start persuading people that their solution to natural conservatives’ problems is the only viable one.

I’m not quite as convinced that the peaceful segregationists are as numerous as Milo and Bokhari suggest. I agree that the desire for sameness is fairly ubiquitous — and that sameness for me, but not for thee broadly rankles — but I don’t think it falls along color lines, so much as cultural ones. If you look at the global picture, there are far more non-white cultural conservatives than there are white ones.

To my mind (and consistent with my biases), “dealing” with the Alt-Right isn’t dealing with the Richard Spencers, or Jared Taylors of the world. For the same reason that I had no difficulty believing America could elect a Black president (because it had no difficulty making Michael Jordan a hero), I find it hard to believe that many people actually believe in White Power. Plus, liberal fairness and cultural conservatism are deeply intertwined–the Protestant Ethic and all that stuff. Finally, conservatives may be slow to change, but they do in fact change, and while their notions of “sameness” may have previously required anti-miscegenation, that notion has faded with time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and going back is relatively more culturally jarring. Just ask the Syrians, the Iranians and the Saudis where the Richard Spencers of the world are in charge and anti-miscegenation never really went out of style.

Dealing with the Alt-Right is about a genuine commitment to live-and-let-live liberalism. A reactionary movement reacts – in this case to the hypocrisy and double-standards of an autocratic cultural (and legal and political) force that has elevated the stature of some groups and diminished the stature of others . . . all in the name of equality and fairness and non-discrimination. Dealing with the Alt-Right means giving them less to react to. Be a little less autocratic. You might find that all those flag-waving dudes with guns talking about freedom actually mean it.

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