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White is the new black: populism and the academic alt-right

“It is our duty to expose this moral agenda for what it is, not by 'deplatforming' them – only adding victimisation to their already lavish arsenal – but through reasoned argument.”

Umut Ozkirimli
2 January 2019

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John Wayne as Ghengis Khan in poster for Hollwood film,'The Conqueror'(1956). Wikicommons/ Reynold Borwn. Some rights reserved. Whitewashing, or the habit of casting white actors for minority roles, might have a long pedigree in Hollywood (some outlandish examples include John Wayne playing the role of Genghis Khan in 1956 or Laurence Olivier performing as Othello in blackface in 1965), but the use of the term is by no means limited to American mainstream movie-making.

Tracing its origins to the early eighteenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary defines whitewashing as the “attempt to free from blame; to provide with a semblance of honesty, respectability, rectitude, etc.” In addition to this more familiar meaning, the term also refers to the practice of covering “(the face, etc.) with make-up or a similar substance intended to make the skin look lighter.” One of the quotations OED has chosen to exemplify this particular meaning is quite revealing: “‘Why do you whitewash your face like that?’ he queried. ‘It’s just talcum powder,’ I muttered abashedly.”

Calling a spade a spade

I argue that this is exactly how a spate of recent studies on populism work, as “talcum powder” to cover the worst excesses of an exclusionary white nationalism, to free nationalist-populist demagogues and various far right formations from blame, and to provide illiberal, anti-immigrant sentiments and discourses with a veneer of respectability.

It is indeed true that there is a dire need to fathom the grievances of the many who vote for far right parties or their mainstream copycats. But it is one thing to understand, and quite another to legitimize, accredit, even consecrate the latter as the academic alt-right does. This is exactly how a spate of recent studies on populism work, as “talcum powder”.

Let me be clear. By academic alt-right, I do not mean the likes of Jordan Peterson, a once obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto who skyrocketed to stardom with his lecture entitled “Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege”, or better-known figures of the white nationalist movement such as Jared Taylor, David Duke or Richard Spencer. I use ‘academic alt-right’ to denote a loose constellation of established academics and commentators like David Goodhart, Matthew Goodwin, and Eric Kaufmann – among several others.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Goodhart, Goodwin and Kaufmann are the triumvirate of the academic alt-right as their names are often bundled together by anyone who wants to make a case for populism and/or against a vaguely defined liberal left. Judging by the frequency of their invariably positive references to each other’s work, it seems happily so.

Is it far-fetched to employ the ideologically-loaded qualifier alt-right – a term associated with right-wing ideological movements “characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate provocative content, often expressing opposition to racial, religious, or gender equality” – to depict the work of such respected figures? I believe it is not, for two reasons.

First, the thread that runs through and connects all these writings is an aggressive, at times almost McCarthyesque, disdain for the left (liberal or otherwise) which is seen as the root cause of the White majority malaise. Polarization is caused, we are told, by “the perfectionist creed of multiculturalism, whose shock troops are the so-called Social Justice Warriors” (Kaufmann) or “an increasing fixation or near-total obsession among Democrats and the liberal left with race, gender and ‘diversity’” (Eatwell and Goodwin). Those "who see the world from Anywhere" attach little value to "group identity, tradition and national social contracts (faith, flag and family)", thus cannot understand the "popular hostility to needy newcomers jumping queues in social housing or the NHS" (Goodhart).

Second, the impact of the writings in question is no longer limited to a small nomenklatura of fellow academics. Studies on populism, the far right and (white) nationalism are now part of the wider public debate that rages around these issues, thanks to changing trends in academic publishing in favour of less jargon-laden trade books that are aimed at a wider readership, and more aggressive marketing strategies that make efficient use of conventional media and increasingly ubiquitous social media outlets.

Take Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, a recent, highly popular, addition to the academic alt-right corpus. Even though it is published in October 2018, the book has been reviewed in most major English-language newspapers and weekly magazines, including The Times, Financial Times, The Economist and The Guardian, and listed among the books of the year by The Sunday Times. The dedicated website of the book has a special section entitled “Events” and a calendar which includes 9 events to discuss the book between 15 October and 6 December 2018. With such visibility, I maintain, the claims of Eatwell and Goodwin and their cohort matter. White is “the new black” – the new “cool” of the academic industry.

A moral call to arms?

Yet this new trend is hardly innocuous. By legitimizing and ultimately promoting a conservative-reactionary agenda based on spurious arguments regarding ethnic/racial purity and “threatened (white) majorities”, it expands the bounds of acceptable public discourse on populism and the far right, and contributes to the creation of a cultural atmosphere wherein outright racism ceases to be an aberration.

A detailed critique of the vast academic alt-right corpus is far beyond the scope of this essay. But let me clarify what I mean by focusing on one example, Eatwell and Goodwin’s case for the “national populist” cause.

National populists, Eatwell and Goodwin tell us in their book, promise “to give voice to a people who feel that they have been neglected, even held in contempt, by distant and often corrupt elites”. Their challenge is not anti-democratic; rather, they are opposed to certain aspects of liberal democracy, and are driven by a deeper desire “to reassert the primacy of the nation over distant and unaccountable international organizations” and “cherished and rooted national identities over rootless and diffuse transnational ones”.

Eatwell and Goodwin disagree with their detractors who, they claim, dismiss national populist leaders and movements as a new form of fascism. “We do not see leaders like Trump, Le Pen or Wilders as fascist.” It would be wrong to refer to, say, Trump as racist, despite some of his “ill-considered” actions, including his “provocative statements about Mexican ‘rapists’, Muslim ‘terrorists’ and ‘shithole’ countries’”.

The same is true for the likes of Geert Wilders who may hold “xenophobic views about new Muslim immigration”, but “his party has never agitated against Chinese or Vietnamese minorities”. And Marine Le Pen anchors her hostility towards Islam and rapidly growing Muslim communities in a defense of women’s and LGBT rights, and she often presents herself “as a twice-divorced single mother who was successful in her own right as a lawyer”. In any case, the authors conclude, “their agenda is moral rather than a physical call to arms.”

Credibility

Even this cursory outline of some of Eatwell and Goodwin’s arguments is sufficient to reveal the pernicious nature of the morality tale propagated by the academic alt-right. In this tale, calling the members of a particular nation or religion “rapist” or “terrorist” becomes an ill-considered, provocative statement; sending troops to and building a wall at the Mexican border are considered to be part of a moral, not physical, call to arms (not to mention the forceful separation of kids from their families or the kicking out of protesters in political rallies); attacks on freedom of press or the judiciary are presented as opposition to “certain aspects” of liberal democracy.

More problematic cases, like Orbán and Kaczyński, are either ignored or presented as “outliers”. In fact, Kaufmann, another prominent member of the academic alt-right openly expresses his respect for “the way Eastern Europe has avoided the worst excesses of left-modernism” (while criticising “the lack of support for the rights of minorities like the Roma”). And for Goodhart, Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Democracy Party in Poland are mainstream parties which appeal the most to "decent populists".

The list could be extended endlessly. One final example – a hidden gem really – from Eatwell and Goodwin’s National Populism to hammer the point home. A common concern among critics of populism, the authors claim, is its penchant for conspiracy theories. Thus, “national populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán argue that liberal politicians within the EU, along with the billionaire Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros, are engaged in a plot to flood Hungary and ‘Christian’ Europe with Muslim immigrants and refugees, which they see as part of a quest to dismantle Western nations” (my emphasis).

This would have passed as a banal, almost matter-of-fact observation had it not been followed by another seemingly trite comment: “National populists today share these ideas, but it is also worth noting that some of their claims are not entirely without credence. For example, Soros does invest heavily in civil-society campaigns that tend to be pro-EU and anti-Brexit (original emphasis).”

What is the link between a belief in “a plot to flood Hungary and ‘Christian’ Europe with Muslim immigrants and refugees” and Soros’s investments in civil society campaigns? How responsible is it to hint at “shadowy” links between plain facts and unproven intentions at a time when a top Facebook executive admits to hiring a public relations firm to attack George Soros, when Soros’s Open Society Foundations have taken the decision to pull out of Turkey following the arrest of one of its founders Hakan Altınay (alongside 12 other academics and activists), and Erdoğan’s direct attacks on Soros whom he accuses of trying to divide and destroy nations or, indeed, when Central European University has decided to move its campus to Vienna under pressure from the Hungarian government? How responsible is it to hint at “shadowy” links between plain facts and unproven intentions?

Reasoned argument

The morality tale propagated by the academic alt-right is pernicious not only because it promotes some sort of populism – or even white nationalism-lite, but also because it does so in a subtle, sophisticated, hence at first glance credible way. It is our duty to expose this moral agenda for what it is, not by “deplatforming” them – which would only add victimisation to their already lavish arsenal – but through reasoned argument.

As Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, a leading character on the original Netflix series Orange is the New Black which inspired the title of this article, so wittily remarks, “I used to think you were a yellow dandelion, but you are all dried up with the puff blown off.” It is high time for us, "Everywheres", to blow off the puff of populism and nationalism and painstakingly craft a left universalist alternative more attuned to the needs of the gloomy times we live in.

* I would like to thank Ivan Krastev, Claus Offe and Ruth Wodak for their comments on an earlier version of this text. All the views expressed herein are my own.

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