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Alt-Right Academia?

"What is disturbing here is the tendency to collapse nuance into a Manichaean story of good and evil. The desire for slower immigration is equivalent to seeking repatriation to achieve a white ethnostate."

lead “Long live Reason!” in four language. Wikicommons/LiliCharlie. Some rights reserved.

Umut Özkirimli, in his recent piece in this publication, “White is the new black: populism and the academic alt-right”, levels the serious charge that alongside several colleagues I am, apparently, part of the ‘academic alt right’.

This represents little more than a shabby guilt-by-association attempt to smear the reputations of Professor Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and myself. This is doubly-disappointing as Professor Özkirimli, with whom I am professionally acquainted, has done serious academic work in nationalism studies. He also tries to associate himself with Ivan Krastev. This is somewhat disingenuous, as it turns out Krastev has read a version of the article but disagrees with the argument.

Özkirimli makes the outrageous schoolyard claim that we are alt-right and white nationalist. He should know that, as with the concept of ‘nation’, scholars must start by defining terms. ‘Alt right’ has a real meaning, as does white nationalism. Both are also catch-all insults used by the far left to shut down the arguments of classical liberals and conservatives.  

If we are to take these terms seriously, we need the author to specify what they mean. Drawing on works such as Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right, I define the alt-right as a white nationalist movement. White nationalism advocates for racially-pure ethnostates. As Özkirimli knows from the work of Hans Kohn, Rogers Brubaker and others, ethnic nationalists (such as white nationalists) limit citizenship rights to members of the ethnic majority, excluding others from membership. It would be nice to see evidence that any of us support this position rather than conspiracy theorising about how we are part of the anti-George Soros anti-Semitic crowd. Instead, Özkirimli has taken a leaf out of their notebook by clipping pieces of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book out of context and stitching them together to manufacture a gotcha! moment. He conveniently ignores their references to conspiracy theory that have a rich tradition in the world of populist movements.

If Özkirimli had actually read my book, he would realise that I am a writer of Chinese-Jewish-Latino extraction who predicts that in little more than a century western countries will have mixed-race majorities, and that this is to be welcomed. For this, the real alt-right has attacked me as a mongrel and Jew, both on twitter and on YouTube. As the Daily Stormer notes:

In his new book 'White Shift', Eric Kaufmann (Kaufmann literally means “merchant” in German) is trying to sell white folks on the idea that racial extinction isn’t really that bad. It doesn’t hurt a bit! Kaufmann has personal genetic investment in, and experience of, diversity.

I know the others mentioned here are similarly aligned: Goodhart also has part-Jewish background and is a Labour party member while at least two (maybe all of us?) voted Remain. But why bother with definitions and evidence when name-calling will do?

What is disturbing here is the tendency to collapse nuance into a Manichaean story of good and evil. The desire for slower immigration is equivalent to seeking repatriation to achieve a white ethnostate. The ‘good’ people want ‘openness’, the ‘bad’ are ‘closed’ and you are either with the us or against us. Wanting slower immigration, or not criticising those who do, is equivalent to being an alt right white nationalist.

The aim is to manipulate irrational fear (‘they want slower immigration now, but will go for repatriation tomorrow’), which is a similarly dishonest variant of the ‘slippery slope’ argument that granting legitimacy to any of the other side’s claims is to provide a stepping stone to Armageddon. I wonder what Özkirimli thinks about the right-wing trope that a bit more taxing and spending is a slippery slope to Stalinism and the gulag.

I’ve been very clear in my work that manipulating fear of Muslims and immigrants is racist, and have criticised right-wing populists accordingly. Professor Goodwin, for the record, has also worked for the UK government on tackling the very prejudice which he is now accused of encouraging. I don’t believe a moderate attachment to one’s own group – whether minority or majority – and the concomitant desire for slow change is similarly racist. The attempt to conflate these two positions to silence debate in elite circles is, in my view, one of the main reasons why mainstream parties were unable to respond to the wishes of an important section of the electorate, opening space for populist entrepreneurs.

Those who seek to expand the sway of antiracist norms to encompass cultural conservatism (or even classical liberalism) because it feels virtuous need to begin taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions, which are blowing back against the very aims (i.e. safeguarding liberal democracy) they profess to support.

It’s ironic that Özkirimli and others on the far left can decry the manipulation of emotion by the populist right, yet feel no compunction about engaging in the same politics of unreason. An academic who is serious about ‘reasoned argument’ needs to do much better.

About the author

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College. He is author of Changing Places: mapping the white British response to ethnic change (Demos 2014), Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth (Profile 2010), The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America (Harvard 2004) and two other books. He is co-editor, among others, of Political Demography (Oxford 2012) and editor of Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities (Routledge 2004). An editor of the journal Nations & Nationalism, he has written for Newsweek InternationalForeign Policy and Prospect magazines.

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