Prior to Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s speech last week, I’d barely heard the term “alt-right.” Seems I am not a part of it, if for no other reason than that I am too old. What it appears to be is an unorganized collection of bloggers, editors of and writers for online-only newssites (she named Breitbart.com, probably because the Donald Trump campaign’s new CEO Stephen Bannon was editor there), a few other agitators, and trolls on “establishment” sites, perhaps, defined more by what they are against than what they are for. What they are against: political correctness, radical feminism, multiculturalism, academic cliches like “diversity is our strength,” and other staples of the current so-called progressive left (the “alt-left”?). They do not share the mainstream’s hostility to what it dismisses as “conspiracy theories.” “Alt-right” bloggers and writers appear to favor nationalism over globalism, and white identity over other kinds of identities for no other reason than because they are white. Whether this commits them to some kind of racism is unclear. It is rare to find a clear definition of a term almost everyone uses as the linguistic equivalent of club-swinging. To someone trying to engage in analysis instead of ideological club-swinging, this makes it difficult to know when the term should be applied and when it should be withheld pending further inquiry.
These eight theses, assuming anyone reads them, might help us better understand the appeal the “alt-right” has to certain populations, either at present or in the near-future, as the “movement” seems likely to be around well past Election 2016.
(1) Enlightenment philosophers created the concept of universal human rights (UHR) back in the 1700s, as a central component of universal reason (UR), the idea best exemplified in Kant that we all have the same categories (moral as well as epistemological). The culmination of UR and UHR, as civilization moved forward, was a world based on science as the key to discovering truth that was the same for all, technology as the key to material advance, commerce within the confines of sensible regulations, public education to communicate achievements to the next generation, and universal human progress. However the specifics of these are cashed out, UR and UHR was the product of white European men. Some were Christian, and others were attempting to have a fundamentally Christian morality substituting Reason for God.
The result was modernity, whatever its various strengths and perceived weaknesses.
(2) No other people anywhere in the world developed such an ethos. If peoples of other cultures developed anything on the order of a concept of rights, it applied only to their own.
(3) The Enlightenment ethos worked where it was embraced & applied. It brought about material improvements on a scale never before seen. These improvements were extended to minorities within the dominant culture of the U.S. Slavery was abolished. Immigrants willing to assimilate were welcomed. Women’s status was elevated. Cultures elsewhere in the world improved their status materially to the extent they embraced modernity, intended to include UHR.
(4) To be sure, not every culture values material progress. There were peoples who resented Western valuation (exemplified as, e.g., “democracy”) as unwarranted interference, especially when it was pushed on them at gunpoint, while Western corporations exploited their resources and removed the profits from their countries. Some of these other peoples do have legitimate gripes against modernity.
(5) Western purveyors of what became postmodernity provided the basis for a de facto rejection of UR and UHR when they invented Difference and Identity Politics — e.g., the politics of preferential favors for minorities and women, however justified, implemented by bureaucrats, very quickly at the expense of white men few of whom had been born when the bulk of the events described under (4) were taking place. Difference, no less than UR, had its roots in Western philosophy: specifically, in Hegel’s concept of the different perceptions of the world as experienced by the master versus that of the slave. Hegel’s concept has been taken and generalized. Straight white Christian males are seen within the contemporary academic universe as “privileged” while everyone else is seen as “victim.”
(6) Did anyone really expect that white men would simply accept this, and not eventually embrace the same Identity Politics and demand that it be applied consistently? Did anyone expect that they would not begun using Difference and Identity Politics to defend their interests just as other races / ethnic groups have been doing? The embrace of, e.g., “men’s rights” reflects this as a presumed valid response to radical feminism. Why, moreover, is the white male’s denial of “privilege” deemed automatically illegitimate while the supposed experience of “racism” by the black male is deemed automatically legitimate based on his identity as a black male? (Donald Trump, incidentally, was invoking the application of Identity Politics across the board when he questioned whether a federal judge’s Mexican ancestry would detract from his capacity to judge a white male’s case objectively.)
(7) The “alt-right” is demanding, in this case, a consistent application of Difference and Identity Politics. If there is a black identity, then there is a white identity, even if this makes the worlds they inhabit incommensurable.
(8) What the “alt-right” misses … I think (I could be wrong about this) … is that the losses of UR and UHR are losses of some magnitude, with potentially disastrous consequences for civilization as they continue to work themselves out.
Unless, that is, a “remnant” is able to revisit and revive some version of them.