23 February 2017

Old right vs. alt-right

Someone clearly sounded an alarm bell after Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to address CPAC, the big annual conference of movement conservatism. Days before the shindig got under way, Yiannopoulos was disinvited in the wake of the scandal over his recorded comments on the sexuality of 13 year olds. Today a great show was made of just about literally throwing out Richard Spencer, the self-styled "identitarian" nationalist regarded by many as a founding father of the "alt-right." Spencer is also credited with coining the term, though what he wrote in the 2008 article cited by Wikipedia is "alternate Right." Whoever came up with the abbreviated version possibly was clever than he or she knew, since "alt" is also German for "old." That makes sense, though, to the extent that the alt-right is an extension of the "paleoconservative" movement from which Spencer emerged. The "paleos" in turn opposed the "neoconservatives" who had come to dominate the Republican party at the turn of the century. They were distinguished above all by their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the great neocon project of the George W. Bush administration, and in the 2008 article, which is more a survey of the conservative publishing scene than a declaration of principles, Spencer appears to identify with anti-war conservatism. As an intrigued reader of The American Conservative, a sort of paleo organ, I noted a greater willingness on their part, compared to the Republican mainstream, to question the premises of an ideology that had been shaped if not warped by the Cold War. They anticipated Donald Trump by questioning free-market orthodoxy, and they appeared to appreciate that shouting "freedom" would not solve all problems of society or politics. They certainly saw themselves as more intellectually rigorous than the GOP establishment who were little more than dittoheads. In 2008 Spencer seemed sick and tired of conservative literature that did nothing but denounce the left, and part of his "alternate Right" idea seemed to be to promote a creative right. He called for an overhaul of the conservative intellectual tradition as it stood at the end of the Bush years:

Also due for some rethinking is the conservative intellectual canon, so dependent as it is on Kirk’s Conservative Mind as well as the “fusionism” (“liberty vs. virtue”) debates of the Cold War. To criticize the “save the world” messianism and leftward drift of much of the putatively “conservative” Religious Right, a non-movement thinker like Mencken is much more useful than Kirk or Meyer. As I mentioned in another context, William F. Buckley began his career planning a book called Revolt Against the Masses, a work based on Nietzsche and Ortega y Gasset. The fact that these two giants would be rejected and ignored, respectively, by the conservative movement reveals a lot about the kind of intellectual narrowing that’s taken place over the past 50 years.

So Spencer is not some know-nothing, at least in one sense of the term. I've listened to some remarks he gave after getting thrown out of CPAC, and now you can also, thanks to an account called "Peace One Love Kindness Evokes Kindness."

This confirms an impression I had that the alt-right actually hasn't much interest in many issues long important to the Republican party. Spencer says that gutting environmental regulations, for instance, isn't a high priority for him, if it's a priority at all. In keeping with his paleocon background, he warns against neocon warmongering, particularly against Russia but also against Iran. He denounces Russophobia as a politically correct form of racism, but given his own emphasis on race and culture he would have to concede that Russian culture is fair game. Addressing charges of anti-semitism, he makes clear a degree of discomfort with the concept of "Judeo-Christian" civilization while denying any race hatred. His focus on identity reminds me of The American Conservative's rejection of the concept, dear to neocons, of the U.S. as a "propositional nation," according to which American identity is defined by the values propounded in the Declaration, Constitution, etc. rather than cultural ties to ancestors, blood, soil, etc. The degree to which religion factors into ideas of essential American identity has always been a sticking point with me, but the degree varies from thinker to thinker. The fact that Spencer, in 2008, could recommend that scourge of religion, H. L. Mencken, as a "useful" thinker suggests that, however he differentiates Christians from Jews culturally he is not committed to an unconditional defense of conventional piety. Of course, if he has any idea that culture is racially (i.e. genetically) determined he'd be full of crap, but I don't know enough about the man to know his true position. For further research on that subject, and on the alt-right in general, Spencer's own website is a better point of reference than the Breitbart News site that critics want to link to Spencer and others of more virulent views. Breitbart's Steve Bannon will be speaking at CPAC while Spencer will only get to watch online. Spencer's views offend CPAC organizers who denounce the alt-right as "left-wing fascists," which I thought was a redundancy in GOP circles. The executive director of the American Conservative Union relegates Spencer to the left wing because he sees the alt-right as collectivist rather than individualist. Take that as fresh proof of the myopia of the Republican establishment -- the "old right" for our current purposes -- as few observers 200 years ago would have equated "conservatism" with individualism. As it happens, the current lead article at Spencer's website cites Alexander Tocqueville to argue exactly that an overcommitment to individualism has helped put the U.S. in its current predicament, and that alt-right style identity politics are a remedy. No really rational person can think it's the sole remedy, as humanity needs to be more forward-looking than ancestor worship can comfortably permit -- and in any event many libertarian ideologies are more collectivist than is readily appreciated, since they're always ready to sacrifice individuals for the good of the Economy or the purity of the Market -- but such thinking shows at least that those who take the alt-right for the knuckle-dragging contingent of the American right wing are probably underestimating them. That may include the Republican party itself.


Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, in Denmark, a man has been charged with blasphemy after recording himself burning the quran. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4252928/Man-charged-blasphemy-burning-Koran.html
Apparently the Danish have gone from being among the most feared warriors of old Europe to being effeminate weaklings who refuse to defend their own culture from the muslim incursion.

Samuel Wilson said...

Not sure of the relevance, but it's a scandal for any European country to have a blasphemy law on the books in the 21st century. Here's an English-language report from a Danish news source:http://www.thelocal.dk/20170222/danish-man-who-burned-koran-charged-for-blasphemy. The law has been invoked only four times in the last century, from what I've read, and this is the first case of anti-Mulsim expression to be prosecuted, while the notorious Muhammad cartoons, which first appeared in a Danish paper, were reported to authorities but not prosecuted. According to a 2012 poll, two-thirds of Danes opposed repeal of the blasphemy law; see http://cphpost.dk/news/national/danes-overwhelmingly-support-their-own-blasphemy-law.html. The UN and the Council of Europe are on record opposing blasphemy laws. In the US the 1952 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson decision confirmed that legislation against blasphemy would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment.