So What Is the Alt-Right?
August 17, 2017 by 2 comments
This past weekend, protesters marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. The object of their protest was the removal of a statue of a man who led a violent insurrection against the very country in which his statue is placed for the purpose of protecting the institution of violent enslavement of people based on the color of their skin. Violence, in other words, is the legacy of the South; it is no surprise, then, that violence was the result of the protest
Protesters waved Nazi flags and chanted an old KKK chant: "You will not replace us!" Native Americans across the U.S. were presumably rolling their eyes, to say nothing of the protesters' grandfathers as they thought back to their days of fighting the very people their descendents are now emulating. There is nothing new under the sun, God warned us. We should have listened. Progress might not be an inherent virtue, but both are a two-way street
In any case, the disgusting display of white supremacism was useful in one way: it linked symbols of white supremacy -- Nazi flags and Confederate flags and KKK nostalgia -- with the statue they sought to maintain. How fitting that those proclaiming white preferentialism were doing so in support of the man who fought a war to keep blacks enslaved, and whose attempt to do so ended in utter, complete, resounding defeat. Enjoy your participation trophy, General Lee.
The display was also useful in that it brought to the forefront a movement that has had a depressing amount of influence over U.S. politics for the past two years: the so-called alt-right. So what is the alt-right?
The term "alt-right" was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer. Spencer is an atheist, pro-choice, and, most importantly, wishes to create a white ethno-state to protect what he considers to be European culture, and, to do so, supports peaceful ethnic cleansing. At it's core, the "alt-right" is the belief system that culture is inextricably linked to ethnicity. Said another way, culture is inseparable from ethnicity
There are, of course, a multitude of problems with this belief, but I'll just mention two of them briefly. First, it is antithetical to very notion of America. The core tenet of America is that it is a country based on ideals rather than ethnicity. The founders self-consciously rejected the "blood and soil" European belief systems. The alt-right, in other words is anti-American, and that's not a criticism so much as it's an acknowledgement
Second, it is antithetical to the Gospel. The radical message of the Gospel is that our covenantal unity, our status as image-bearers, and our command to love others in the same way that Jesus -- who showed no partiality -- loves us transcends our ethnic identity. That's not to say we shouldn't be cognizant of, or even proud of, our African heritage or our Irish culture or our Italian identity or our Japanese upbringing; but it is to say that our covenantal unity takes precedence. Claiming that culture is inseparable from ethnicity is to place more importance on our ethnic identity than on our identity in Christ.
What actually is impossible is to separate the alt-right from white panic. Immigration rates, interracial marriage and other factors have led us to where we are now: within 20 or so years, whites will no longer be a majority in this country. In addition to such empirical fact, over the past 50-odd years, we've begun to dismantle Jim Crow, fought mass incarceration, implemented affirmative action in fits and starts, elected a black president, elected the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, etc. To paraphrase BJ Thompson, when you're used to being in a position of power, equality feels like oppression
Thompson's quote serves as a poetic and insightful description of white panic. One of the ways over the past few decades that we've seen evidences of white panic is the existence of so much hand-wringing over "reverse racism." Whites used the oppression of people of color to prop themselves into positions of power and then created systemic levers to prevent people of color from ever joining them. Even assuming for a second that we've fully dismantled those prophylactic levers of oppression (we haven't), it facially illogical to argue that affirmatively helping people of color reach the same heights as white people is somehow unfair to white people. It's no different than the white kid who stood on the back of the black kid to get up into the treehouse, and then refused to give the black kid a hand to pull him up because that would be reverse racism
And so white people fight against that. White panic leads to the argument that the last few decades and the reduction of systemic injustice and the election of black politicians and the advancement of people of color have coincided with a decline in our culture and our country. It leads to an argument that we need to go back; back to a time with cultural norms and social values that we like better. We need, in other words, to Make America Great Again, and if the time that America was great also happens to be a time where people of color were oppressed and Jim Crow existed, well...I mean, we're not saying American culture was better back then *because* it was whiter, but I guess it's weird how that turned out, isn't it?
Over the past few years, the "alt-right" of course has broadened its horizons. It has joined disparate belief systems, from outright Neo-Nazis and wannabe Klansmen to virulent anti-immigration nationalist to your everyday internet trolls. It mostly remained in the dark corners of the internet -- 4chan and Reddit and Twitter -- for a while, and targeted prominent online personalities, often conservative and especially those who are Jewish. Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative and Jewish writer and podcaster, was tweeted 8000 virulently anti-semitic messages and memes -- a particularly nasty one was of his daughter being put into an oven -- in one stretch during the election cycle
That might have been where the alt-right stayed -- just a group of trolls with nothing better to do -- had it not been for a seminal moment. Steve Bannon, editor of one of the more prominent political websites on the internet, Brietbart, decided to make his website the "platform for the alt-right." He invited numerous alt-right writers to editorialize on his pages and spread their white nationalism to a broader audience. Brietbart exploded in popularity and the nasty corners of the internet became mainstream. To a horrific degree, right-leaning voters embraced them. And they, in turn, definitely embraced Donald Trump. His early embrace of "birtherism" -- the silly racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the U.S. -- along with his constant yammering about suspicious Mexicans and wily Asians, made him an alt-right hero.
That also might have been where it ended -- just a group of trolls somehow influencing a particular subset of Republican voters -- were it not for the next seminal moment. That moment was when Donald Trump hired Steve Bannon to be his advisor. The alt-right had made it all the way to the White (oh the irony) House.
That is the very reason so many prominent evangelicals have denounced Trump with such conviction, and why they have been so horrified to see him embraced by white evangelicals. Setting aside certain policies or judicial selections, it is important to remember that something more is at stake. Presidents do not simply influence politics; as any Christian who lived through or studied the 90's can tell you, presidents also influence culture. In fact, oftentimes their impact on culture lasts far longer than their impact on politics. Politics and the law, after all, are downstream from culture, and while nobody much cares anymore about policies of the 90's -- or if they do, it's to criticize them -- we are still reaping the cultural consequences of Bill Clinton's sexual prolicitivites and the army of people that disgraced themselves by defending them, and how they went about doing it
It matters, in other words, that President Trump looked at a movement of white nationalists and decided he wanted daily advice from the guy that thought they needed a broader platform to express their views on why we need to protect white culture from nonwhites. Such a decision has an effect on our national discourse and our national character, and we're already seeing the effects. We're already seeing a large group of evangelicals that spent an entire decade asserting (correctly) that the character of our political leaders matters suddenly deciding it no longer does. Having a President who sounds a lot like the Facebook comments on the average "But what about black-on-black crime?" status unsurprisingly has led to a rise in the amount of people who are willing to chant KKK chants in public and aren't even embarrassed enough to put a hood over their heads before they do
If you find yourself nodding in agreement with the statement that "culture is inseparable from ethnicity," then I strongly encourage you to repent and beg God for mercy. But most of us probably don't. In fact, too often I look at those who identify as alt-right and call for a white ethno-state to protect virtuous European culture and congratulate myself that I am not like those sinners. But then God, who in His mercy continues to both call me to holiness and give me the grace to make steps thereto, gently asks me another question: in what ways am I functionally asserting the importance of my own white culture? How am I valuing my own cultural norms over those of others? For those of us that are white, when people of color challenge our perspective, do we immediately become defensive and assume they just can't understand the reasons why we're just and correct? Do we center conversations with people of color around our experiences? As a church, do we expect people of color to conform to our preferences regarding worship music and style of teaching? Do we get offended by styles of communication because they don't conform to how *we* would communicate? Do we get defensive when our successes are attributed at all to white privilege? Do we turn to Jemar Tisby and Ekemini Uman and Thabiti Anyabwile and Tyler Burns and Dr. Perkins and Bryan Loritts and Leonce Crump only when we want to read and hear about race and justice, and immediately turn to Dr. Keller and Dr. Piper and Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther and Kevin DeYoung when it's time to learn "actual" theology? When a person of color says something we disagree with theologically, is our automatic assumption that they haven't read what [insert random white theologian] has said about the subject
If so, then while I might not believe we should start a white ethno-state because white culture is better, I might be functionally asserting that white culture is normative. I might not believe you have to adopt my preferences in order to live in harmony with me, but I might be functionally asserting that it's better if you do. And in doing so, I'm certainly not following the command to count others as more important than myself, a command given by a brown-skinned Man who spoke a language and came from a culture not my own.
So, what is the alt-right? It's a toxic, racist, anti-Christian damnable belief system. We should condemn it; we should preach against it; but, of course, that's the easy part, or should be. Just as importantly, we should examine our own hearts for any temptation towards cultural superiority or preference. The goal of white evangelicals shouldn't simply be to not wave Nazi flags or not call for ethnic cleansing. Our goal shouldn't simply be to include people of color; it should be to learn from them. Our goal shouldn't simply be to blithely state platitudes about being color-blind; our goal should be to see color, and see it as beautiful. The root of the problem with the alt-right isn't that they want a white ethno-state; that's the fruit of the problem. The root of the problem is that they assume their culture is normative, and if we don't see that as a chillingly familiar temptation, it's only because we are blind, but unlike the former slavetrader who wrote the song, we don't yet see.