Charlottesville "Unite the Right" Rally

The National Review‘s Kevin Williamson witnessed 2016, like other conservative intellectuals, with dismay, and he has expressed that dismay with seething anger. Anger, in particular, towards a white America that is, in his words, dysfunctional, negligent, and incomprehensibly malicious. It is a culture that deserves to die as much as the rusted-out towns in which it festers, including ones in Williamson’s native West Texas.

So it was no surprise that Williamson’s lash was ready for the fascist goons who terrorized Charlottesville over the weekend, murdering one woman and injuring dozens of others. And apply it he did, in an essay published yesterday, where he thought it would hurt most.

“What does an angry white boy really want?” Williamson coos.

A great many of these young men have an interest in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary sociology — they like to think of themselves as “alpha males,” as though they were living in a chimpanzee troop — but it never occurs to them to consider their own status as rejects and failed men in that context…If we credit their own sociobiological model, they are the superfluous males who would have been discarded, along with their genetic material, by the pitiless state of nature. The fantasy of proving that they are something else is why they dream of violence and confrontation. They are the products of the soft liberal-democratic society they hold in contempt — and upon which they depend, utterly…

What does an angry white boy want? The fact that they get together to play dress-up — to engage in a large and sometimes murderous game of cowboys and Indians — may give us our answer. They want to be someone other than who they are. That’s the great irony of identity politics: They seek identity in the tribe because they are failed individuals. They are a chain composed exclusively of weak links.

Finding new and creative ways of emasculating fascists is a source of inexhaustible entertainment the whole family can enjoy. But it should not be done at the expense of logical argument and honest analysis. Much as I enjoy reading the talented Mr. Williamson wale on those “angry white boys,” I’m afraid that in the pursuit of inflicting pain he let good argumentation and analysis fall by the wayside in such a manner that is, ultimately, quite pernicious.

“The angry white boys do not have a serious political agenda,” Williamson writes.

“They don’t have any straightforward demands like the Teamsters or PETA do, and they do not have a well-developed ideological position like the Communists do, though it would be inaccurate to say that they lack an ideology entirely. Their agenda is their anger…”

This is empirically wrong and confused. Anger does have something to do with it, but it’s not the thing itself. The anger feeds the agenda and the agenda is, in its crudest terms, expressed by Williamson himself at the very end:

“James Alex Fields Jr. [the man charged with murdering Heather Heyer] has more than a little whiff of Dylann Roof about him, and we know what Dylann Roof wanted: to murder black people. Sometimes, it is worth taking angry white boys at their word.”

Yes, very good, but why did Dylann Roof want to murder black people? Williamson rather glibly dismisses a couple of slogans issued by the Charlottesville torch-wielders that have very real and well-documented ideological roots: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” “White genocide.” “You will not replaces us.” Williamson noticeably leaves out two of the mob’s favorite chants: “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us.”

The first is a translation, if not literal then in meaning, of lebensraum, an ideological pillar of the Nazis, who sought a “living space” for the master race to expand and thrive. That space must either be cleansed of undesirables (via ethnic cleansing or genocide) or the undesirables must be subjugated as slaves. “Blood and soil,” is an exact translation of a Nazi marching chant that encapsulates this vision of “The Nation.” Of course, such an undertaking cannot be rationalized without a motive, or rather a provocation, and the provocation expressed by the mob is precisely the same as that expressed by Hitler and other ideological racists: “White genocide!” Because the nation is culture, and culture is race, and race is biology (Williamson does well to mention the mob’s great interest in Darwin and evolutionary biology—too bad he doesn’t pursue it!), what happens to the biology is of the utmost importance. It is no coincidence that Andrew Anglin, who runs the fascist website Daily Stormer, which was the website that officially hosted the parade (again, Williamson fails to mention this!) is quoted as having written that any white woman who has mixed-race children is a traitor to her race and therefore her nation. “It’s OUR WOMB. It belongs to the males in her society,” he wrote. (It goes without saying that white males claiming other races’s wombs is certainly not verboten.) White genocide literally refers to the dilution of pure white biology, and therefore white culture and therefore the pure white nation. Political equality of different races achieves the latter, though without miscegenation, and is therefore as virulently opposed.

This is all very cohesive and has been carefully thought out and articulated by generations of thinkers and politicians across the West. Websites like Daily Stormer and the 4/chan/Reddit channels these guys hang out in are often crude, but nonetheless cogent. This is, at the most immediate level, why Dylann Roof wanted to murder black people, and why hundreds of torch-wielding fellow-travelers showed up at Charlottesville to defend the statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who would have made such a society possible had he and “the boys in gray” been victorious.

Now, the question of why did Dylan Roof and all the others in the mob come to believe such murderous things is well worth trying to understand. Williamson is right in recognizing that these boys want to be something they are not, and are suffering from a crisis of confidence in their own manhood. (I don’t think it can be over-stressed that the mob was, by and large, made up of rich spoiled brats.) But Williamson confuses these two distinct questions into one and seems to arrive at the conclusion that these boys were merely play-acting.

What they are engaged in isn’t politics, but theater: play-acting in the hopes of achieving catharsis. Their online personas — knights, Vikings, reincarnations of Charles Martel — will be familiar enough to anybody with a Dungeons and Dragons nerd in his life. But sometimes, role-playing around a card table isn’t enough: Sometimes, you need a stage and an audience. In the theater, actors and audience both can forget ourselves for an hour or two. Under the soft glow of the tiki torches, these angry white boys can be something else — for a night.

Of course demonstrations are theatrical and oftentimes a little silly—they’re demonstrations, a literal playing out of belief, grievance, resentment, or pride. But it’s the fact they are theatrical—and, at their best, aesthetically beautiful—that lends them their power. The Nazis of old understood this to the core (see nighttime parades, etc.) and the organizers of this event brought that same wisdom to bear. It is thrilling for a young man to be shoulder to shoulder with other young men, holding fire and lighting up the night and forcefully pledging solidarity to one another and uncompromising opposition to the enemy. (The best socialist demonstrations tap into this same thrill, but directs it towards a higher end: solidarity with all of humanity.) It was play-acting, but the play-act is the politics. The play-act steeled their minds for the ensuing violence: the ultimate expression of fascism. The play act is not make-believe, but part of a meticulous, ideologically-driven and inspired preparation.

These weren’t boys going through the motions, which brings me to what is perhaps Williamson’s biggest fault: his insistence on calling the mob “boys.” These were men, young, but men nonetheless. Men who made decisions and chose to forfeit their individual humanity to murderous delusions. Perhaps Williamson insisted on calling them boys because he wanted to deny what they seem to desire most: full-blooded vindication of their manhood. But Williamson does them a favor by calling them boys and it reminded me of an ugly strain in American, particularly Southern, parlance. It’s the strain Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at in this excerpt from Between the World and Me:

But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honor, and élan. This lie of the Civil War is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories. John Carter flees the broken Confederacy for Mars. We are not supposed to ask what, precisely, he was running from. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm”—a mantra for the Dreamers if there ever was one.

These are angry white boys, Williamson comes much too close to saying, doing some mindless harm and they should be punished for it, but pay no mind to the words they chant and the things they read and their stated reason for being there. They’re boys, after all.

Williamson should know better, and I suspect he does. But what Williamson’s piece amounts to is a dangerous flinch in the face of evil. Charlottesville is an inflection point in America’s ongoing political and moral crisis. What’s needed from talented intellectuals is to face this moment and identify the evil, to take it at its word and insist that the public—and public leaders—not look away, not rationalize it, not see it as an aberration that is best not talked about too seriously.

There’s an old leftist slogan that must be dusted off: Fascism Means War. It’s a double entendre—fascism desires war above all else and will stop at nothing to bring it on; for the sake of humanity fascism must be confronted and defeated, by war if necessary. It was oft-repeated in Europe and America at a time when conservatives and liberals did everything in their power to look away from the burgeoning evil in their midst.

But there’s a deeper wisdom to the slogan. Americans have an understandable aversion to notions of polarization—our system is dependent on finding consensus between one another. But Fascism Means War makes a crucial assertion: there is no room for compromise or negotiation with fascism. And in any case fascism is not interested in consensus-building or any liberal notions of compromise or moderation. There is no middle ground and any attempt at finding one is a foolish one that only yields ground that fascism will, at some point, wrest away along the path to total domination. (This, by the way, is the actual lesson of Neville Chamberlain, not, as the National Review perpetually insists, that he was an “appeaser.”)

Fascists insist upon picking a side, and Charlottesville was the moment America’s fascists forced that choice upon the country. President Trump and, by extension, the servants of his administration already made their decision. Intellectuals must see this choice for what it is and express it plainly to the public. Issuing clarity, more so than indirect rhetorical lacerations, is the duty of the intellectual at this hour.

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Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at