The Fault in our Tongues: Tablet, Spencer, and Political Deafness

Tablet Magazine recently ran an article about Richard Spencer’s slightly less recent interview on Israel’s Channel 2: Richard Spencer Says He Just Wants ‘White Zionism.’ Here’s Why That’s Malicious Nonsense.

Spencer I regard as somewhat like the Boogeyman: journalists like to pull him out when they want to scare someone. He doesn’t represent the Alt-Right inasmuch as the Alt-Right is mostly a vague collection of people/groups on the internet who don’t fall into mainstream conservatism, rather than a coherent entity with a single leader.

I am not personally well-acquainted with Spencer’s work–if I’ve read any of it, I’ve forgotten it–but he is famous enough that I am familiar with the gist of it.

According to Tablet:

…alt-right luminary Richard Spencer declared himself to be a “white Zionist.” Just as Jews want a state of their own, the Charlottesville far-right organizer argued, he merely seeks a state for white people.

“…you could say that I am a white Zionist in the sense that I care about my people. I want us to have a secure homeland that’s for us and ourselves just like you want a secure homeland in Israel.”

So far, so good: this sounds a lot like things Spencer has said elsewhere, eg, Wikipedia says:

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Spencer has advocated for a white homeland for a “dispossessed white race” and called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of European culture.[19][20][58] To this end he has supported what he has called “the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent”, an “ideal” that he has regarded as a “reconstitution of the Roman Empire.”[59][60]

The white nationalist wants a white nation. Sounds tautological. But this is where Tablet gets interesting:

It’s an analogy with superficial plausibility. It’s also a malicious lie, and a deliberate one. …

Essentially, the alt-right maliciously appropriates the deeply held values of liberals and minorities in order to attack them. This is not because the alt-right shares those values, but because it wants to troll those who do.

This is quite the claim! It’s one thing to claim that someone has appropriated a cultural item, such as a white person performing a style of music invented by black people or an Asian person wearing a Mexican hat. “Cultural appropriation” is a logical mess in practice, but at least it rests on the somewhat coherent idea of “this is my culture, we do and make these things, therefore these things belong to us.”

What does it mean to appropriate someone’s values? “You can’t be an environmentalist, only people whose ancestors were environmentalists are allowed to care about the environment?” “I’m sorry, but since Freedom of Speech was not originally enshrined in your country’s laws, you’re not allowed to want it.”

But if we read the paragraph again, it becomes clear that Tablet doesn’t really want to accuse Spencer of appropriating liberal values, (which it thinks he does not hold) but instead the logical arguments used to support liberal positions.

And for what purpose? Here Tablet’s answer is simple: to troll them:

This disingenuous dynamic of using liberal values to troll liberals has been documented elsewhere by journalists who have followed the alt-right. … As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his 1946 treatise Anti-Semite and Jew:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. … they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

Spencer’s doing it for the shits and giggles, folks.

To be fair, the alt-right is full of trolls and jokers, and many of them are anti-Semitic. Spencer himself is probably anti-Semitic, or at least anti-people-who-write-for-Tablet, but anti-Semitic trolling of the frogs-and-gas-chamber-memes-variety doesn’t appear to be his primary concern. He seems to be primarily concerned with promoting white nationalism. (It’s almost as though “alt-right” were a vague, poorly-defined term that includes a lot of people who might not even believe in the same stuff besides a general dislike of both the mainstream left and right.)

If Spencer is just trolling you, then what is his real intention? In this case, we have nothing–nothing but sound and fury, blustering for no reason. What’s the point? Does Spencer have secret reasons for promoting white nationalism other than white nationalism?

In my many years of trying to figure out why people believe and advocate for the politics they do, I have observed two things:

  1. People often ignore each others’ arguments, respond to arguments their opponents didn’t make, assume their opponents are lying, or lie themselves about their opponents’ arguments
  2. People I disagree with make more sense if I assume they are generally trying to be truthful

For example, in a debate about abortion, one side might argue, “We think women should have the right to control their own bodies,” and the other side might argue, “murdering babies is immoral,” and then side A responds, “You hate women and want to force them to be breeding cows,” and side B shoots back, “You hate babies and want to murder them.”

But it actually makes more sense to assume the anti-abortion side is opposed to baby-murder than that they’re interested in using women like cattle, and it makes more sense to assume the pro-abortion side is more interested in controlling whether or not they are pregnant than in maliciously murdering people.

Interestingly, conservatives tend to understand liberals’ motivations and reasons for their political beliefs better than liberals understand conservatives’. As Haidt reports in The Righteous Mind, (quoted on The Independent Whig):

In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right.)’ …

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

I find this holds among people I know in real life: the conservatives tend to understand what liberals believe, while the liberals tend to despair that they live in a country full of evil psychopaths who voted for Trump.

There has been a lot of debate (and public marching) lately about Free Speech, especially whether people like Richard Spencer should have free speech. It seems that some people see even their political opponents as basically honest and well-meaning, their political opinions therefore something a good person might believe if they had different life experiences or were just working with different information.

By contrast, some people see other people as fundamentally dishonest and malicious, their “opinions” as just justifications or deflective cover for being a bad person. (Would you debate the ethics of murder with a serial killer?)

If you fall into the first camp, then the principle of Free Speech makes sense, because knowledge and experiences can be conveyed. But if you fall into the second camp, then there are positions that you think are not honestly argued nor susceptible to logic or debate–in which case, there’s no point to extending “free speech” to such ideas.

For example, Donna Zuckerberg, (yes, sister of Mark Zuckerberg,) recently announced some changes to her Classics Magazine Eidolon’s mission statement (h/t Steve Sailer):

Will this shift lead to a less diverse Eidolon? Our writers always have been, and will continue to be, a diverse group. Our writer pool has excellent diversity of race, age, gender, professional status, and sexuality. … we’ve been accused of not being “ideologically diverse.” This charge is a common one, but I think it is misguided, in addition to being morally bankrupt. Making ideological diversity a primary objective is fundamentally incompatible with fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression, and we choose to prioritize the latter.

In other words: liberals don’t think conservatives deserve free speech because they assume conservatives are basically lying to cover up their real agenda of hurting various minorities.

But why are liberals more susceptible to misunderstanding their opponents than liberals? Let’s return to Tablet, which makes two interesting arguments. First:

Thus, [the alt-right] wrenches causes like affirmative action, black pride, and Zionism from their historical and moral context—as defenses of minorities against long-standing majority oppression—and inverts them to serve white supremacist aims against minorities.

Well, I don’t think Spencer mentioned affirmative action in this article, but the rest is sensible.

In general, American conservatives tend to believe that moral principles should be applied universally–to quote Kant’s categorical imperative:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.[1]

Tablet is in effect saying that nationalism is not meant to be a universal political value, but particular to specific groups in specific contexts. The universalizable principle is not nationalism, but, “Nationalism for minority groups in order to protect them from majority groups.”

By this logic, American whites shouldn’t be nationalist vis American non-whites, but South African whites would be perfectly justified in nationalism against South Africa’s black majority. This rule does not tell us, however, whether a group that expects to become a minority in the future is justified in pre-emptively trying to prevent this or look out for their future interests.

When does the right to nationalism kick in?

(Incidentally, US infants are already majority non-white, and the entire US will be majority non-white around 2050. NPR also estimates that about 20% of the 2060 US population will be foreigners. By contrast, the nation was 84% white back in 1965, before passage of LBJ’s immigration act.)

“Nationalism for everyone” is at least a clear principle that doesn’t get hung up on such nuances as “Are we a minority yet?” or “Are we sufficiently oppressed?” Unfortunately, it leads to other questions, like “Should Basques have their own country?” or “What about Northern Ireland?”

But to return to Spencer and Tablet, it appears that Spencer is working under the assumption that “nationalism is good” is a universal principle applicable to all peoples, while Tablet is working on the assumption that “nationalism is a defense for minority populations against oppression.”

Tablet unnecessarily muddles the waters by adding:

In this manner, the return of Jews to their indigenous homeland is recast by white nationalists, who are not indigenous to America, to justify kicking Jews and other minorities out of the country.

Whoa whoa whoa. “Indigeneity” is a whole different argument. If anyone gets to be called “indigenous” in Israel, it’s the Palestinians. Genetically speaking, claiming indigeneity based on having lived somewhere 2,000 years ago is nonsense–during the 1,900 years of diaspora, pretty much all Jewish groups intermarried with their neighbors and are now about 50% “non Jew” by DNA (most of that on their mothers’ side, as men are nigh universally more likely than women to travel long distances and then take local wives.) Ashkenazim–the majority of Jews–are about 50% Italian, having taken wives from among the Romans after their expulsion from Judea following the destruction of the Second Temple.

For that matter, I would like to point out that the majority of Jews are genetically “white” and that Jewish culture has been part of European culture for almost 2,000 years. (I don’t know how to politely express just how dumb I think two different groups of whites arguing about “white nationalism” is.) Jews have been living in parts of Germany for almost as long as the ethnic Germans, having been officially invited in during the Ostsiedlung. If Jews are indigenous to anywhere, they have a much better argument for Germany and Poland than Israel.

Luckily for me, I think “indigeneity” is a stupid argument and that countries should exist because there exists some entity with the military power to secure the area. By my logic, Israel gets to exist because it does exist: Israel is the only entity with the military strength to control the area, and denying this would just destabilize the area and lead to more deaths.

Likewise, Americans (whites included) have a right to their country because they are already here and controlling it.

Tablet’s justification for why it thinks Spencer (and the alt-right generally) is lying about being interested in white nationalism, or perhaps that white nationalism is comparable to Zionism, is that alt-righters tend not to like Israel or Jews:

That the alt-right does not genuinely support Israel or Zionism—that “they delight in acting in bad faith” on the topic—is readily apparent from how its members talk about Israel when they are not engaged in trolling.

(Here the article quotes several people from Twitter saying negative things about Zionism or Israel, none of whom, I note, are Spencer.)

But I don’t think Spencer (or any other alt-right spokesman) ever claimed to care about Israel. Just because someone believes in the generalized concept of “nationalism” does not mean they care personally about the national ambitions of all peoples. In fact, I wager a Serbian nationalist and a Kosovar nationalist take pretty dim views of each other. Kurdish nationalists have difficulties with Iraqi nationalists; Northern Irish Catholic nationalists don’t get along with Northern Irish Protestant nationalists. An American nationalist may not care one way or another about nationalist ambitions in Guatemala or Indonesia. And white nationalists are under no obligation to care about Jewish nationalism, nor Jews to care about white nationalism.

Here, I think, is the crux of the matter: the point of Zionism is to benefit Jews; the point of white nationalism is to benefit whites. If white nationalism results in Jews getting hurt, then that’s a pretty big practical difference (from the Jewish POV) between the two ideologies. And this, of course, is why Tablet would prefer that you not use Zionism as a justification for an ideology that is–at the very least–filled with people who are anti-Zionist.

“Nationalism for everyone” is a clear principle, but “nationalism for me but not for you,” benefits me much more. This is true for everyone. The only reason whites probably don’t generally think this way is that we’ve been the majority for so long.

But what’s best for the whole of society? It’s easy to say, “Hey, let’s do what’s best for the whole of society” when your group already is most of society. What about minority groups in that same society? Should they–as in the Prisoner’s Dilemma–cooperate with others for the greater good? Or should they look out preferentially for their own good? And what happens in a multi-ethnic society where no group has a clear majority? Can you convince people to cooperate for the greater good, or does the inevitable presence of some people who prefer to cooperate only with co-ethnics and defect on strangers inevitably drive everyone apart?

Long term, how does a multi-ethnic democracy prevent itself from breaking down into everyone voting for their own tribal self-interest?


To be honest, I’m not feeling very optimistic.