The New Atheists and the Alt-Right
I’ve never liked the so-called “New Atheists,” those inspired by the “Four Horsemen” of Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. When writing about atheism, those four have never impressed me as particularly deep thinkers. My co-author and I have a new book coming out soon that takes exception to the version of Darwinism put forth by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. I lost a great deal of respect for the late Christopher Hitchens when he embraced Bush’s Iraq war. And Sam Harris is, in my opinion, a shallow and unimpressive thinker who feeds the bigotry of thinkers who are even shallower and unimpressiver then he is.
I mostly never liked them because of Jennifer Michael Hecht. I got to know Jennifer a bit when I reprinted an essay of her’s in a volume I edited. About the time those men in the previous paragraph started making waves, Jennifer published Doubt: A History a deeply-researched, wonderfully-written study of the history of those who have doubted the existence of God. While Hitchens and Harris were repackaging David Hume for the umpteenth time, and Dennett and Dawkins were offering their cramped understanding of Darwinism (as if it had anything to do with the existence of God), Jennifer’s wonderfully original contribution to atheism was swept aside, perhaps because she was a woman (which would not be surprising, given the misogyny in the movement), perhaps because she doesn’t call her intellectual opponents irrational or stupid. Whatever the reason, I always thought the movement chose third-rate thinkers when they could have chosen a first-rate one.
Phil Torres, in a recent post over at Salon, notes the unsettling similarities between the views of some of the so-called “New Atheists,” and the Alt-Right. His drophead nicely summarized the piece: “A movement supposedly committed to science and reason has decayed into racism, misogyny and intolerance.” Torres documents the increasing hostility the movement has towards feminism and the embrace of the “scientific” proof of an innate difference in intelligence between white and black people. All of this with a heaping dose of Islamaphobia that would make any alt-rightist happy.
When can we say a libertarian was a racist?
I’m afraid my engagement with Nancy MacLean’s critics generated more heat than light. Some things I wrote were misunderstood which must mean I did not state them clearly enough. This post is to engage some issues about how we can make inferences on the basis of historical evidence, and perhaps throw some reflected light on the ongoing debate about Democracy in Chains.
Here is the basic argument I hope to make in the book I am writing:
My book will explore how two groups, which for convenience I will call the “libertarian right” and the “racist right”, grew in the postwar U.S. This is a story of mirror-image twins. Both libertarians and the racist right shared the same values but held them in a reversed hierarchy. Libertarians wanted a society free of all government coercion: one consequence of such a society would be that “racially pure” enclaves would arise as people exercised their free individual choices. For them, the libertarian society was the goal; racial enclaves were simply byproducts. The racist right, by contrast, desired “racially pure” enclaves and found the libertarian voice the most effective in pushing their political agenda. Forming racial enclaves was the goal; the libertarian society was simply a byproduct.
A couple of caveats: I certainly do not mean to include all libertarians; I realize that libertarians come in all stripes. I am looking at specific people, not the varied ideologies and movements that claim the title “Libertarian.” Second, by “racist right” I refer to those folks usually too noxious for William F. Buckley and National Review. They were usually funded by, or somehow associated with, Willis Carto. A good example of this is Revilo P. Oliver and his gradual march out of respectability in these years. My work is motivated by the idea that, with the rise of the “alt-right,” we see those racist ideologies marching back into some kind of respectability, usually using libertarian language, and sometimes aided by people who claim to be libertarians.
My dear wife (married 31 years this coming August!) told me that as a child she used to love to be in a bookstore or a library and just walk down the aisles and read the book titles. Not open the books. Not read the books. She just enjoyed reading the titles. If you are person who just enjoys reading book titles it is hard to go wrong reading libertarian titles. They may offer extremely questionable answers to society’s problems, they may have morally suspect fellow-travelers, they may show a near-complete insensitivity to the most vulnerable among us, but damn they can write a nice book title. As one who struggles with writing even a passable title, I can only gaze in wonder. There are Mozarts in the world and I will always be Salieri. You know the old saying: “Those who can compose a great book titles compose great book titles; those who can’t compose lists of other people’s great book titles.” What? It is too a saying! Shut up.
Libertarians have great titles because they manage to evoke the core of their ideology in very few words. The language they use is evocative, stirring up emotions while, somehow, simultaneously giving the appearance of cold rationality.
A couple things to keep in mind: first, this is not a list of great libertarian books (are there any?), it is a list of great libertarian book titles. I’m hardly qualified to give you a list of the books you should read to become a libertarian, but I love these titles. Second, no Ayn Rand titles. Atlas Shrugged may or may not be a good title, but I’m kicking her out of the competition because I’m arbitrary and capricious and narrow-minded.
With all that in mind, I offer to you a Top Ten List of great libertarian book titles.
Well, this has been exciting. My post on Nancy MacLean’s new book (Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America)—what a friend of mine has dubbed “the libertarian kerfuffle”—has brought new readers to this normally quiet space, for which I’m grateful. I’ve been dubbed “not particularly compelling” by Jonathan H. Adler at the Washington Post! As wonderful as that is (I’m thinking of making it the new tagline for my blog) I feel we ended up spinning our wheels in the comments. So, I’ll try again here and perhaps we can make better headway.
To defend Buchanan, and to defend themselves as inheritors of his intellectual program, many have reacted with accusations that MacLean is a bad scholar, that her citation practices are shoddy, and that she should be sued for libel. It is all very exciting. Well, as exciting as academic arguments get anyway. I’m not saying this is Game 7 of the World Series or anything.
Let’s pick up the argument with the accusation that MacLean imagined a link between southern writer Donald Davidson and James. N. Buchanan.
Note: if you are here because of my discussions of Nancy Maclean’s book, I have several follow-up posts to this one:
This is the cover a new book by Duke historian Nancy MacLean. I was dreading reading it because MacLean is a terrific historian; I’ve long admired her history of the twentieth-century Ku Klux Klan, Behind the Mask of Chivalry. This new book appeared to be the history I am working on: its thesis is that the white south’s program of Massive Resistance to Brown v. Board of Education was the start of the right wing’s current attempts to disenfranchise voters and to undermine democracy in order to let the free market operate.
MacLean’s book turns out to be much different from the one I hope to write; her focus is on economist James M. Buchanan who moved easily in the corridors of power in Virginia and beyond. The folks I’m interested in consider Buchanan a pseudo-libertarian for these very reasons. In many ways, MacLean’s book is a story of the straightforward successes of libertarians and I hope my work can complement her achievement.
Needless to say, the libertarians, particularly those of Buchanan’s “Public Choice” school, are not happy. Not at all. They feel MacLean has misrepresented Buchanan and public choice theory and, worse, committed historical malfeasance by altering quotations and quoting out of context. There is a lot of dust in the air right now, and a lot of charges being thrown around. Rather than trying to sort out everything going on, I’ll focus on one particular question:
Was James M. Buchanan a Racist?
My mom told me a story once about being a little girl when she and my grandparents drove from their home in South Dakota to California. It was sometime in the 1940s, after the war, and she might have been ten years old or so. Lord knows how long that must have taken in those pre-Interstate Highway days. Obeying some rules of travel known only to her, my grandmother insisted that my mom sit in the front seat between the two adults for the entirety of the trip. My grandmother, with the reasonable patience for which the German people are known, spent a lot of time criticizing her daughter for not having Sitzfleisch.
As difficult (and boring for any normal 10-year-old girl) that trip must have been, it must have been immeasurably more difficult for African American travelers of the time. The South, of course, was legally segregated, but things were not any better in the North or the West. The law allowed any private business to refuse service to African Americans simply because they were African Americans. When travelling, African Americans could never be sure if they would be refused service at the restaurant they stopped at for lunch, the gas station they stopped to refuel, or the motel they stopped in to rest. One resource they had was the Green Book, a guide that showed them the places where they would be welcome. As the introduction stated:
With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.
The legend on the cover has a rather ominous warning: “You may need it.” It was not even a matter of your kids going hungry because you can’t find dinner or sleeping in the car because you can’t find lodging. It was also a matter of avoiding a violent reception in an area where the police could not be counted on to enforce the law.
This just in: the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of the Trump administration on the Muslim ban. Over at Breitbart, this news was greeted with the headline: “The Supreme Court Reinstates Trump Travel Ban from Muslim-Majority Countries!” Well, not quite. First, calling it a “travel ban” is what got Trump into trouble with the Courts in the first place and the Administration tries hard to reign in The Donald when he foolishly tells the truth about it. Second, the Court did not “reinstate” the entire ban, indeed, they upheld parts the stay.. Finally, by the time this gets sorted out, the ban will have expired, the Administration will have to start all over again with a new order without passing GO and without collecting their 200 refugees at the border. In summation: apart from being wrong in nearly every single particular, Breitbart nailed it.
Let’s think about the line of reasoning the makes the Muslim ban so popular among the Alt-Right. The basic argument looks pretty much like this:
Stop the illegal tide of immigration. Despite the secrecy of our Immigration Service and cooperating agencies on this subject—a secrecy utterly without justification and which could be desired only for concealing enormous irregularities—some of our Congressional spokesmen now claim that hundreds of thousands of immigrants, largely Muslim, are coming across our borders, legally and illegally. From my own studies of immigrants, I know that among them are many pro-Jihad. But all Muslim immigrants, Jihad and anti-Jihad, immediately after arrival are under strong pressure to side with the radical Muslim groups, and most of them will have to yield.
What can the history of the Alt-Right tell us about this line of reasoning?