I have followed the exploits of the alt-right and identitarianism for over a year, and its various personalities and competing ideological perspectives continue to intrigue me. In fact, I have begun work on a book about the movement to better explain its foundations and objectives to those not affiliated or familiar with it. Hopefully, more on said book this summer.
While it would be wrong to say the alt-right is a single, coherent political movement, its assorted communities have shared a few characteristics: a rejection of modern liberalism, egalitarianism, and political correctness, coupled with assigning a premium to developing a European, white-centric identity within its adherents. As noted in the title of the National Policy Institute’s previous conference (“Become Who We Are”), the alt-right has been active in its pursuit of an “authentic” identity divorced from the pluralistic civic nationalism practiced in western societies.
Not everyone in the realms of the right supports this pursuit of an “authentic” ethnic identification. As the alt-right has expanded its influence, it has begun to generate challenges from conservatives and traditionalists in regards to its conception of race and identity. Chronicles Magazine, one of the bedrocks of paleo-conservative thought in America, has published a few exceptional pieces criticizing the alt-right’s racial foundations. Chilton Williamson Jr., discussing a debate between racial activists over whether Italians should be included in their “white” movement, writes:
This is why, not long after, I read with bemusement the statement on an American website that “the Italians are not really a white people.” Not a white people? What does that mean? What could it mean? The Italians are most obviously Europeans, and among the most illustrious of them to boot. For centuries, indeed—from even before the Renaissance—Italy has been regarded as the cradle of modern European civilization.
It is no good pretending, as some leftist academics and writers do, that “race is a social construct,” which empirically and biologically it demonstrably is not. But whiteness, at least as white nationalists imagine it, is largely an ideological construct rather than a biological one, based on a more or less arbitrary system of classification that includes Nordics, Celts, Germans, Caucasians, Aryans, and Pan-Aryans, all supposed to be genetically superior human beings.
I am reminded of a similar discussion started by Greg Johnson at Counter-Currents on whether Armenians were “white” and thus included in their movement. This type of hair-splitting in pursuit of identity feels arbitrary and inherently unconcerned with how organic communities are actually formed. While Carl Schmitt theorized that societies are created and maintained by clearly defining who is “in” said community and who is outside it as an “other,” the extreme to which white nationalists take this formation would only lead to more war and conflict between the “Europeans” they wish to unite. Schmitt argued that defining one’s enemy as something existentially different was “so that in the extreme case conflicts with [the other] are possible” (p.27). By making the “in” group ever smaller, and for reasons that are not political or social, identitarians put into action the eventual conflicts that have plagued Europe for centuries. Williamson goes on to argue:
Whiteness is one of those observable but otherwise indefinable characteristics wise men—politicians and political theorists, especially—will not examine too deeply, nor take with undue seriousness. Whiteness indeed is not a myth or a construct, but it is in part a subjective identity. It has to do with history, not political science, and it should not be regarded as a science, if only because there is about human beings something that science can neither understand nor explain, for the simple reason that it cannot touch it.
White nationalism further politicizes an already hyper-politicized culture dominated by mental abstractions and ideological thinking by encouraging people to accord priority to social and political concerns that are secondary or tertiary at best. Identity politics, whether for whites or for others, is a form of narcissism that focuses the mind almost exclusively on the self and its vanities, precluding a true apprehension of society, solid intellectual activity, and a true understanding of the proper nature and limited scope of political life.
Well said, and makes clear my own reservations about any political identity rooted solely in “whiteness.” I am of European ancestry and how we define and incorporate “whiteness” into that identity is important. Having said that, those inherently corporeal aspects are far less telling of one’s culture than the actions and practices of its members. Williamson is right to recognize that constructing an identity around complexion and melanin is unadulterated vanity at the expense of intellectual contemplation.
Aaron Wolfe, also in Chronicles, takes identitarians to task for the rootlessness of their identity and movement:
The white nationalist will tell you that his point of view is in fact a natural one. Like favors like. White, on one hand, might be a mere checkbox on a census form, but in another sense it is an extension of the natural family. The opposite point of view—the multicultural, multiracial, or for those who ought to know better but are craven or chicken, the “cuckservative” one—is not natural.
By white nationalist lights, then, a white man in his proper culture would see [the historical accomplishments of great] men and their achievements as belonging to him. This is the natural disposition of the white man. This is what it means to be rooted.
Actually, the opposite is true: White nationalism is in fact a very specific form of rootlessness, an ideology of alienation.
He elaborates on the true allure of white-nationalism as an identity:
The average temptee of identitarianism…in search of a form of therapy, a kind of topical salve for the muscle aches and sore joints that result from running in the rat race that is modern America. He is seeking a kind of comfort, a sense of belonging and a place to belong, and he finds it, thinly, ephemerally, fleetingly in the lists of black crime statistics, the praise of past European accomplishment, the bare scientific facts about the comparative sizes of brains and genitals among the races, and the ability to post controversial, career-ending comments pseudonymously. As he grows in his newfound faith, he seeks converts and potential fellow travelers in the outside world, looking for teachable moments in the face of tragedies and injustices that can be neatly framed in terms of anti-white, anti-European oppression.
White nationalism and identitarianism, while claiming to be authentic identities for Europeans, are but a diminished distinctiveness parceled for those lost in the modern world. By making the physical the most important element of their identity, these activists of the right construct an idealized vision of themselves and their culture that has no roots in the actual traditions with which they claim to associate. It is as real and authentic as the utopian egalitarianism they stand in opposition to. European white-identity is real, but the decidedly exclusive and limiting parameters used to measure and define it by the alt-right abridge said identity to one overly focused on the physical.
Inherently, we are forced to return to what defines a people and a culture. What defining characteristics place one within the European white identity? Nordic individuals have religious, social, economic, and political customs distinct from their Spanish and Italian brethren. Can they still be seen as belonging to a singular identity? A Coptic Egyptian and a French Catholic share countless cultural traditions and philosophical positions; should not those cultural elements make them a more authentic community than the mere shade of their complexion? More importantly, how is the communal bond between my commerce-minded, secular Flemish family with religious Slavs in Serbia more precious than the aforementioned Coptic and Catholic? On nearly all cultural fronts, they have very little in common. However, in the alt-right’s cultural calculation, they constitute a shared community due mainly to comparable skin color.
Defining “who we are,” as the NPI conference asked its participants, is imperative. Recognizing what connects us to our neighbors and finding kinship with our extended cultural family is comforting and worthwhile. Having a clearer sense of our culture, traditions and norms is also a valuable step in understanding differences and similarities with other nations and civilizations. Rather than assuming our norms regarding social, political and economic matters is the default position for all people, it can give us a richer understanding of human collaboration and community.
Yet, we must avoid the simplistic European identity crafted by the alt-right. Defining “who we are” must be grander than a base and simplistic obedience to appearance.
“We” are more than that.
(Image: The Chess Game, Sofonisba Anguissola)