The alt-right: Engage, but do so warily

Yesterday, I was pleased to speak at an event on the alt-right sponsored by the journal Millennial and the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. (See video from Millennial below or here). Here is the text of my remarks:

I have been asked to speak about the alt-right and, specifically, how we, as Catholics should respond to it. And, given that this is an academic setting, I would add that the question is how we who are in some sense engaged in the intellectual apostolate of the church should engage this movement. I should note, as well, that I do not normally engage in manifestoes, in "we musts" and "we shall," but the times are not normal, are they?

What is the alt-right, and why should we view responding to it differently from other social or political movements? Rosie Gray, now at The Atlantic but at the time at Buzzfeed, cites one of the movement's founders, Richard Spencer, and it is interesting to see how he views the year 2015 when Trump began his campaign. Gray has tracked the alt-right about as well as anyone. She writes:

Spencer himself can claim credit for coining the term "alt right"; in 2010, he founded, which is now RadixJournal. But he says the term has gotten a second life in the past year due to a confluence of external factors. "I think it has a lot to do with Trump," he said. "I think the refugee crisis is also an inspiration. I just think things have gotten so real."

What Spencer terms the "refugee crisis" was always real for the refugees. But it was never "real" as a problem facing Americans, except and only insofar as we have done too little to help those poor suffering souls displaced by violence and poverty. This is one of the hallmarks of a propagandistic enterprise: The manipulation of information and fabrication of false crises to stir emotions. Think of the German-speaking Czechs in the Sudetenland.

Another example of their manipulation of information is their belief that political correctness is a big problem. Mind you, anyone can abhor politically correct thinking. It was appalling to see Democratic presidential candidates unwilling to state that "all lives matter" for fear of being shout down by activists from the Black Lives Matter movement. The pattern of suppressing speech on college campuses is abhorrent, too. And, Lord help the person who can't keep track of the ever-expanding acronym LBTQIA, and Lord knows what other letters have been added.

But political correctness is silly, nothing more. It starts with a humane instinct, not to offend, and takes it too far. The response is to educate. For example, unless all lives matter, at any given time, any particular group's lives are in danger of not mattering. Put differently, unless all lives matter, black lives do not matter, and unless black lives matter, all lives do not matter. The response is not to create a political movement whose principal object is to be offensive.

Here, let me make a correction to the left. If you do not call out silliness in constructive ways, others, like those who subscribe to the alt-right, will find pernicious ways to call out that silliness. One of the prices of any fruitful dialogue is the willingness to call out your own side, and the left must be persistent in distancing itself from its own extremes if it does not want to be tagged as extreme.

If there had been no Black Lives Matter activism, the alt-right would have invented it. They are profoundly committed to a belief in the importance of the tribe, and they define tribe in racial terms. Reading some of their articles, I could not help thinking of the concern for purity of blood that characterized the Spanish Inquisition. Last week, at NCR, I reviewed a book about the CYO in Chicago and Bishop Bernard Sheil's insistence that the CYO be interracial. Sheil spoke bluntly about racism:

If there is any one thing which modern anthropology has utterly exploded by severely critical methods, it is the vain pretension of superior and inferior races. There are no superior races; there are only superior opportunities. Granted equal opportunities over a sufficient period of time, every race is equal to every other race. The Negro people are living, tangible refutation of the un-Christian, unscientific, philosophy of racism. In proportion to their numbers, and considering the grievous handicaps under which they have labored, they have contributed as much to the well-being and happiness of the [human] race as any other people whatsoever.

Sheil spoke those words in 1943, when the death camps were in operation in Europe and Jim Crow was alive and well. They are yet more obviously true today because of what we know about the Shoah and segregation. If there was nothing else reprehensible about the alt-right besides their racism, that would be enough for Catholic Christians to oppose them.

There are some who frequent the alt-right websites who claim they are not really white nationalists. They just say things to be provocative. Gray asked Ken White, a blogger at the happily named Popehat website, about this:

"It's really hard to tease out the genuine white nationalists from the trolls," White told BuzzFeed News, but, "at a certain point, the distinction isn't meaningful. If you spend all day saying white nationalist things online but you claim you're doing it ironically, it's not clear to me what the difference really is."

White is correct but incomplete. Those who claim not to be racists, but who nonetheless espouse racism, are in a certain sense more reprehensible. They help to normalize evil, in this case racism, or misogyny, or nativism, yet try to dodge the charge that they are racists, or sexists, or nativists. At the forefront of this group of fellow travelers is, of course, our president, which is another reason we cannot merely ignore the movement.

This also points to what is, for me, one of the most disturbing and significant characteristics about the alt-right movement: It is as much about a method as any particular content. Disruption is engaged for its own sake. Apart from the hideous, if amorphous, ideology they embrace, one gets the sense watching or listening to them that they are primarily interested in acting out. Last week, Bill Maher had Milo Yiannopoulos on his show. Yiannopoulos is a self-proclaimed leader of the alt-right movement. Watching him, I could not repress the sensation that he was, first and foremost, a spoiled brat, desperately trying to say anything that might shock his audience and, so, garner their attention. No thought came from his lips that would warrant such attention, to be sure. If he were a one-off, we could dismiss him, hopeful that the less attention paid to him, the sooner he would exit stage alt-right.

But Yiannopoulos is not a one-off. This is a movement we are talking about. It may be small. It may be known mostly for living on the internet. But it is trafficking in a set of ideas and attitudes that are deeply dangerous. It cannot be ignored.

They claim to be inspired by a set of ridiculous and meandering thoughts collected under the title "Dark Enlightenment." They believe democracy is hollow and should be replaced by an authoritarian state. They denounce egalitarianism as a false principle of social life. There is a lot of jargon about data-driven analysis and the great potentialities of the internet. But, at root, they are opposed to the Enlightenment and its most illustrious child, liberal democracy.

They are not the first, although it would be a slur to [Joseph] de Maistre to compare these intellectual dilettantes to him. But we in the Catholic intellectual world need to brush up our understanding of the Enlightenment, including a close study of its critics, its real critics. I would submit that the first book on everyone's reading list should be Isaiah Berlin's Three Critics of the Enlightenment. Your copy of it should be well dog-eared. Berlin looked at Hamann, Herder and Vico, who were genuine scholars with important reservations about the Enlightenment. Berlin deals with those reservations sympathetically, but not uncritically, and fashions a defense of liberal democracy which has its limits from the standpoint of Catholic social doctrine. But, if nothing else, familiarity with their work will show what a real critic of the Enlightenment looks and sounds like, instead of these ingénues pretending to hold serious ideas.

I need not recapitulate for this learned audience the developments in Catholic social doctrine in the past 50 years, in which we see an ever greater appreciation for the value of democracy. At Vatican II, with both Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes, the church's commitment to human rights and democracy was worked out in terms of doctrine.

This development began at the practical level even before it took root at the doctrinal level. At the website of our archives here at Catholic University, you will find issues of the "Treasure Chest," a comic book series begun in 1946 and developed by the U.S. bishops at the behest of the Vatican, which was concerned that young Catholics come to appreciate the value of democracy. I especially commend a series of strips from the early 1960s called "Pettigrew for President" in which there was a groundswell of opposition, none of it openly stated, about this candidate. In the final strip, it was revealed that Pettigrew was black. My colleague, the late Joe Feuerherd, did a wonderful story about that series when Barack Obama was running in 2008.

The church's commitment to egalitarianism is even older and more basic: The common brotherhood of humankind is a necessary consequence of the common fatherhood of God. Of course, in the long history of the church, we have observed that commitment as often in the breach as not, though it should also be noted that the church lives in history, and in those historical moments we now view as inhumane, the church was less inhumane than the ambient culture.

We must confront this anti-democratic commitment and anti-egalitarianism of the alt-right head-on. It is often joked that Catholic social doctrine is the "best kept secret" in the Catholic church. Let it be secret no more. The most sophisticated response to both these alt-right haters, and to the ever-present difficulties of democracy, is found in that doctrine. I often say and shall say again: There is no problem facing the political life of this country that is not leavened by an encounter with Catholic social doctrine.

The main difficulty in engaging the alt-right as if it were just another political movement is found precisely in its anti-democratic stance. Normally, when we as Catholics engage those with whom we disagree, both sides accept democratic norms to shape that engagement. The alt-right derides democracy and openly states its desire to undermine democracy. How then to engage?

Pope Francis likes to say that in the political and social realms, and even in the ecclesiastical, we need dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. But, as if he knew I had to give this talk, two weeks back the Holy Father issued a warning. Citing the biblical story of the fall, he said, "The serpent, the devil, is astute, but you cannot dialogue with the devil."

I believe that there is real evil in the beliefs espoused by the alt-right, but I also believe that we cannot allow them to frighten us out of our commitment to free and open debate, just as we cannot let terrorists frighten us into abandoning our commitment to privacy rights. We certainly can't ignore them nor minimize the threat they pose. I have been reading The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon, a history of the 1930s, and it is frightening to see how well-intentioned politicians, acting on the basis of sound values and respectful of democratic norms, failed to perceive the threat posed by the rise of fascism, and by the time they decided to take action, it was too late.

In confronting the alt-right, then, we must stipulate each and every time that there is an imbalance in the discussion, that they do not share our commitment to democratic processes or values, and that this imbalance is the frame in which each and every particular discussion takes place. We must state, clearly, and each and every time, that debate presumes equal partners to the debate, and that we are committed to the belief in the essential equality of all, even while our interlocutors from the alt-right are not. When they traffic in lies, we must state, "That's a lie" and demand evidence for the claim. We must beware of the tricky way they fabricate evidence. We must, each and every time, make sure that we do nothing to normalize their views, but identify just how hateful and beneath contempt those views are. We must, in short, be on our guard. Engage, but do so warily, and only when repeatedly noting the fact that the positions the alt-right espouses are not just wrong, but contemptuous of the means by which a liberal democracy sorts out the complexities of public policy, means that we value and celebrate, and which we accord to these provocateurs even if they wish not to accord them to anyone else.

In the Buzzfeed article I cited previously, Rosie Gray also makes an important point about the group, one that cannot be overlooked when thinking about how to respond. "The alt-right's real objective, if one can be identified, is to challenge and dismantle mainstream conservatism," she notes. It is especially incumbent upon our conservative Catholic friends to stand up to these racist, misogynist nativists. There is precedent, and conservatives like precedents: In 1962, William Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and convinced most mainstream conservatives to do likewise. He was willing to confront this part of the conservative base because he knew it was a cancer on the conservative movement. Today's conservatives, especially Catholic conservatives, can do no less. If they do not excise this group, if they pander to it and coddle it and refuse to risk alienating it, they will be consumed by its cancer.

So let those of us who are charged with exercising the Catholic intellectual apostolate get to work. Let's study not only the church's teachings to the point of fluency, but study, too, the Enlightenment and the real critics of the Enlightenment. Let us pay attention to our words and our actions lest we allow this cancer to grow. Let us make sure we never, ever do anything that normalizes the alt-right or its positions. Let us call out falsehood when we find and refute fabrications with facts. Let those of us in the Catholic left help some of our more extreme colleagues on the left see how their antics provide kindling for the alt-right and let our conservative Catholic friends do their best to take away the alt-right's matches. Let us all, in a word, prove ourselves to be good citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man at this critical moment in the history of our nation which needs such citizens today more than ever.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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