In response to the Saturday, Aug. 12 happenings in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a woman was killed by a driver while protesting an “alt-right” rally, Richard Spencer, the American editor of Altright.com, issued a statement that laid out what it means to be “alt-right.” A friend of mine alerted my husband and I to this statement when my husband posted about the tragedy on Facebook. She liked or agreed with almost everything on their statement page.
I am an open-minded person, so I read Spencer’s statement in hopes of better understanding the mindset and belief system that drives the “alt-right” movement.
And after reading the statement, I can only say that I was even further dismayed and disturbed.
The problem, see, is that while Spencer appears to be an intelligent human being, he also appears to be well practiced in manipulation and rhetoric — which, unfortunately, those who are unpracticed in the art of writing and the training of rhetorical composition, will be unable to recognize. So this is my humble attempt to do it for them.
I’m a word person, so you’ll have to bear with me. Race, as defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary, is “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics; a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group; a group or set of people or things with common feature or features.”
Okay. Race is important, yes, as it pertains to a shared culture and history. Race as a determining factor of who is better than whom is not important. It is not a matter that defines us. My race is not a part of my identity insofar as it defines who I am at my core, what I can contribute to the world, or how important or unimportant that contribution is. Race may be important as a small piece of someone’s history and heritage, but it should not tell the whole story of a person’s value to the world. Therefore, race is NOT the foundation of identity and never will be.
Here’s the hard part about race: On my mother’s side, I am descended from a long line of Spaniards (who immigrated to America sometime in the 17th century). I also have Choctaw Indian in my blood. On my father’s side, I am descended from the World War II general George S. Patton. My race is convoluted, impure. Does that mean I’m not technically “white?”
In the words of the great James Baldwin: “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”
Spencer’s viewpoint about Jews is, in whole, a disturbing paradox of inclusiveness. He uses the term “European” and yet Jews are separate from that distinction, though they are, in actuality, a segment of European people (I read a lot of science. This is true genetically as well as locationally. Jews immigrated to Europe as early as the 3rd century BCE). So, by separating Europeans and Jews, Spencer is excluding a population of European people from the European distinction because of their religious ideology. Historically, the European people were all over the map—Celts believed in gods and goddesses (even into their Christian days), the Irish did as well, the Roman Catholic Church was something separate from Protestant religion. So it would be more fair to differentiate ALL of those religious ideologies, rather that just the Jewish one.
He also says, “The preservation of their identity as Jews was and is contingent on resistance to assimilation, sometimes expressed as hostility towards their hosts.”
a. I have never known a hostile Jew.
b. Who are the hosts of Jews? Again, let’s go back to the dictionary for a satisfactory definition of host: “a person who receives or entertains others as guests.” This word choice denotes that Jews, by their very being, are guests. Of whom? Of European Americans? The non-Jew European Americans? So we are, in essence, the owners of the land in which Jews find themselves? This inadvertently supposes that Jews do not belong here.
Well, I am not the hostess of anyone except, arguably, my children, who are here for a time and will fly from the nest after that time is finished. And even that hostess situation is a stretch.
3. The Ethno-State
Again, Spencer is very subtle with his erroneous thinking here. We can probably all agree with the first point: “Nations must secure their existence and uniqueness and promote their own development and flourishing. The state is an existential entity, and, at its best, a physical manifestation of a people’s being, order, and will to survive.”
And then comes this: “Racially or ethnically defined states are legitimate and necessary.”
I liken our country and all its many different races and ethnicities (which have been around for a very long time, most of them since at least the Industrial Revolution times, many of them well before then) to a human body. Each part is necessary to the whole. We don’t define our country by race or ethnic; we define it by humanity, and that is what has always been great about America.
We are a melting pot, and we have been since the very beginning (refresh your memory with some history books. If you need any recommendations, I have plenty). Each part needs the other to function and define the nation’s existence, uniqueness, and beauty.
Without the Lebanese, we would not have the word “Bible” (it comes from the name of their city BYBLOS). Without the Appalachian Americans the Appalachian Mountains would have been called by another name. Without the Irish Americans, we would likely not have labor unions protecting the rights of American workers. Without Mexican Americans we would not have the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. Without Black Americans, we would not have the desegregation of schools that began in 1946 and continues today. And on and on it goes.
We are creative, we are inventive, we are powerful, but we do not all share the same European heritage. This is the REAL ethno-state.
Spencer says, “Spirit is the wellspring of culture, and politics is downstream of that. The Alt-Right wages a situational and ideological war on those deconstructing European history and identity. The decrepit values of Woodstock and Wall Street mean nothing to us.”
We won’t go into all the ways this piece of the statement is vague and questionable.
But I will go into this: What does it mean to deconstruct European history and identity? Does Spencer refer to this deconstruction in the same way the European Americans deconstructed the history and identity of the Native American people who settled in this land before the Europeans immigrated here? What exactly is our history and identity? What is the acceptable version of it?
These are questions, I believe, that not enough people are asking. We have smoothed over many inconvenient parts of our history, such as the hostile stealing of land from the Mexican Americans and the Native Americans (read Cormac McCarthy; his novels provide a clear picture of it), the brutal treatment of slaves (Harriet Beecher Stowe can teach us a lot about this), the inhumane ways Europeans spread religion, ideology, and their rewritten version of history. We all want a history that doesn’t make us feel ashamed or guilty, and the more oppressed voices of history that emerge, the more likely they will be silenced in the face of “European history.”
“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
“The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”
I will not forget the voices of those who were silenced.
5. White America
Spencer says that “The founding population of the United States was primarily Anglo-Saxon and Protestant.”
Have we altogether forgotten the story of the Native Americans? Scholars estimate that by the time European explorers discovered America in the 15th century, there were already more than 50 million people living here. White people, despite what we like to think, were not the first ones here. We put people on reservations and told them not to bother us.
Spencer also says, “Other races inhabited the continent and were often set in conflict or subservience to Whites. Whites alone defined America as a European society and political order.” Spencer is perpetuating a dangerous assumption: that whites were entitled to be here, were entitled to rule over those who fought desperately for the preservation of their homes, land, and cultures, and, too, those whom the earliest settlers brought with them as slaves. This strikes me as a pompous, ridiculously flawed statement. White people staked their claim, and everyone else? Well, they lost their homes, their names, and their dignity.
I won’t even waste words on Spencer’s first statements. But this one gives me greater pause: “The so-called “refugee crisis” is an invasion, a war without bullets, taking place on the fields of race, religion, sex, and morality. At stake is Europe’s very identity—whether the continent will be the locus of our people’s shared story, or become just another Islamic outpost.”
There are several problems I have with this statement, but here are three things worth mentioning:
a. Since Spencer uses the words “another Islamic outpost,” perhaps it would behoove us to consider that, behind Christianity, Islam is the second largest religious belief system in Europe. It entered Europe as early as the 7th century. Let’s think about this for a minute. The first American colony (Jamestown, Virginia) was founded in 1607. That means Islam had 1,000 years to percolate into the European society before Europe sent its first settlers to the New World. Perhaps, from this, we can ascertain that Islam was as much part of the European population as Roman Catholicism and Christianity. Perhaps there was even a possibility that some of the early American settlers practiced the religion of Islam.
b. If the Islamic religion lived in the European culture for 1,000 years, isn’t it more accurate to say that an Islamic outpost should be included in Europe’s identity? That is, if we’re operating under the declaration that America is a manifestation of Europe’s identity, would Islam not be included within that umbrella as part of Europe’s history?
c. I won’t even delve deeply into the violent words Spencer uses to describe the refugee crisis and all the assumptions that play into it.
7. The family.
“The family—a man and woman in a loving relationship that produces offspring—is an essential, indispensable foundation for a healthy and functioning society” is what Spencer says.
Boy, this is hard to wrap my mind around. My mother was a single mother. So, by Spencer’s definition, my mother was not “an essential, indispensable foundation for a healthy and functioning society.” I have very good friends who are married but have chosen not to have children. By Spencer’s definition, these couples are not, “an essential, indispensable foundation for a healthy and functioning society.” Some of my favorite friends are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and by Spencer’s definition, they are not “an essential, indispensable foundation for a healthy and functioning society.”
I beg to differ.
8. Human nature.
“Man is not a blank slate on which to be written, nor was he born a guileless, noble savage. Human nature—the reality of race, sex, heritability, and innate endowments—is the most powerful force shaping individuals, families, societies, and nations,” Spencer says.
Once again, let’s turn to the good old dictionary for a definition of human nature. “The general psychological characteristics, feelings, and behavioral traits of humankind, regarded as shared by all humans.” By definition, human nature is not race, gender, heritability or, as Spencer calls them, “innate endowments.” Human nature is what we think, feel, and do. It is part of our psychology and neurology, not part of our biology. It’s a subtle difference, and one that will not be noticed by those who aren’t looking closely enough. So the very foundation of Spencer’s statement is moot.
What’s more, human nature is a copout. It’s an excuse, a rationality for the banality of violence, prejudice, and pomposity that has become a defining characteristic of certain populations within our country. Human nature is NOT the most powerful force shaping individuals, families, societies and nations. How we shape our human nature, the ways we subdue our human nature (which generally tends toward self-protection, self-rights, self-preservation), how we use our carefully shaped, lovingly informed human nature to accomplish things within the realm of human rights is what shapes individuals, families, societies and nations.
I believe it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who said, “We do not know what our nature permits us to be.” That is precisely why we actively, perhaps even obsessively, work to shape our human nature so that it remains pliable to truth, resistant to rhetoric, and sensitive to the multitude of human liberties. With much practice, our human nature can become, rather than self-focused, other-focused. It won’t happen without practice and work.
9. Women and sex
“Women, as mothers and caregivers, are key to the future of our race and civilization. We oppose feminism, deviancy, the futile denial of biological reality, and everything destructive to healthy relations between men and women,” Spencer says.
(Cue the screeching of a record, or maybe, more accurately, nails against a chalkboard.) Wait, wait, wait. Am I reading this wrong, or is Spencer implying that my value and worth as a woman is tied up in being a mother and a caregiver? What century are we living in?
I am a feminist. I will be a feminist until my dying day. I will fight for equal rights in the workplace, equal rights in the home, equal rights in society. I contribute just as much as a man does to both the future of civilization and the fabric of the American workplace. I’m happy doing both, but don’t pigeonhole me into a corner that says my only key to the future of this civilization (I won’t even use the term race) is my ability to be a mother and a caregiver. I’m not the least bit interested in that kind of civilization.
(And this comes from a mother of six children.)
I’m tired. I haven’t even made it through half of Spencer’s statements. I haven’t even gotten to his other points: foreign affairs, speech, firearms, globalization, the left, economics, urban life, the natural world, the ’68ers, education, and personal duties.
Like I said, I’m tired.
But maybe you’re getting my point, which is this: Question everything. Analyze everything. Think critically about what you’re reading and what you’re seeing. Filter it through your own beliefs and ideologies, yes, but look deeper into the nuances of rhetoric and language, which, clearly, not enough people do anymore. Take nothing at face value. See the whole picture. Don’t be content with blind spots. Rip them open, fill them with information, and work actively to change your own internal biases (and we all have them. If you think you don’t, go here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/).
Be a study of human nature. Learn your own psychology. Shape it for the better. You’ll be doing the world a favor. Be munificent (a word that is a step above generous) in your lack of assumptions. Respond, don’t react.
And as for Spencer and my friend, I can say, wholeheartedly, that I do not and will likely not ever identify with the alt-right movement, nor will I likely ever understand it. There are too many paradoxes, indignities, and blatant contradictions to what it means to be human, what it means to be in community, what it means to be LOVE.
The danger in not reading things as they are presented to us (and the world has a really hard time with this because attention spans are spastic), is that we don’t get the whole picture. I’d prescribe some other deep reading, including but not limited to:
And I’ll leave you with some of my favorite words from some of my favorite human beings, whose voices would have continued being silenced if not for the civil rights movement, one piece of what has made America the melting pot it is today.
“Goddamnit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like livin’ in jail.”
—Richard Wright, Native Son
“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
“Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”
—James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”