Twitter, as it is entitled to do, has suspended the prominent accounts of the Alternative Right movement. The Alternative Right (alt-right), is of course, a loosely affiliated group of populist, nationalist, and according to most mainstream media, racist, voters who are credited with propelling Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States on November 8, 2016. Perhaps most prominent of the accounts suspended was that of Richard Spencer, who at the helm of the National Policy Institute, advocates for the “heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States” (see here).
Already, my friends in the academy are calling this election a reaction to the failure of neoliberalism. The globalized policies of economic liberalization, privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation and free trade, it is argued, only served to widen the gap between the haves and have nots, and this failed experiment has, in turn, led to the rise of neo-fascism in America.
Philosopher Richard Rorty describes this moment, more accurately, as a moment of awakening for populations that were formerly protected by organized labour and labour unions. He predicted a “strong man” would emerge that would appeal to a population that is animated by populism and hatred towards classes of people that were seeing progress in post-civil rights America – women, visible minorities, immigrants, and LBGTQ2 communities, for example (see Richard Rorty, 'Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America' 1998. The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, 1997).
Upon the election of Trump, we have seen mass protests break out in the USA and increases in reported hate crimes. Even Canada appears to be experiencing an uptick in racist and targeted graffiti and anti-Semitic property vandalism.
Plenty of blame is being placed on Donald Trump’s divisive campaign strategies, and more recently his appointment, as senior counselor and chief strategist , of Steve Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart News Network. Bannon is described by many in the mainstream media to be a purveyor of platforms (safe spaces) for the alt-right, and in some cases, he is described as an anti-Semite, bigot and misogynist.
It is a mistake to reduce this election to a mere reaction - it is more than a gag reflex in response to neoliberalism's failures. Neoliberalism is one of the failed contexts which sent rust belt labour unionists into the arms of a welcoming and burgeoning new right movement. Without labour to advocate for their interests, this captive populace sought hope in Trump's message. The driving force in this populist movement are, surprisingly, college educated millennials who have been on the receiving end of left leaning slogans and platitudes, for much of their lives: they rebelled!
They used social media and chat rooms to parody the left and ridicule it, using racist, and misogynist memes to send up the left, looking to get a rise out of them. They view themselves as a counter cultural social movement and they represent a weird dystopian analog to the free love movement of the 60s. They are a rebelling youth class who, in many cases, with college degrees, find themselves hard up and searching for a place in the economy; they feel out of step with the prevailing social context. And yes, they believe in the civilizing effect of some opaque vision of their utopian ideations of European culture.
In recent days Twitter has deactivated some of their accounts which is sure to embolden them. Unsurprisingly, some of them are good old fashioned Nazis, but remember, some of the left of the 60s were affiliated with the Black nationalist movement also. It is good to be wary, but it's also good to try to understand this phenomenon for what it is. Van Jones called it a whitelash, and it is (!), but we shouldn't mistake that for a Nazi-lash.
Others are blaming the results of the election and incidentally, the hate crimes of the last weeks, on the mainstream media, who used misleading polling data to lure the public into a safe space in respect of an anticipated Hillary Clinton win. Dana Boyd writes that:
"I believe in data, but data itself has become spectacle. I cannot believe that it has become acceptable for media entities to throw around polling data without any critique of the limits of that data, to produce fancy visualizations which suggest that numbers are magical information. Every pollster got it wrong. And there’s a reason. They weren’t paying attention to the various structural forces that made their sample flawed, the various reasons why a disgusted nation wasn’t going to contribute useful information to inform a media spectacle. This abuse of data has to stop. We need data to be responsible, not entertainment"
I disagree. The data was actually pretty good. It was the speculation about what the data meant that was not. Hillary Clinton received her share of the vote as predicted and it would seem that the undecideds broke 2:1 for Donald Trump.
I wouldn't throw away science just yet. One can blame the media, but I think it is better to understand that the media, like any corporation, is seeking to claim higher market share (through advertising). The left leaning audience watching most mainstream media simply would not feel warm and fuzzy if they were being told that the numbers pointed to anarchy, or worse, defeat.
For years, we, on the academic left, have been clinging to left leaning ideas that seem self-evident. People are equal and entitled to equal opportunity, for example. During the civil rights movement, such facts spoke for themselves. It didn’t take a team of lawyers and experts to see that African Americans had less opportunities than white Americans in between the eras of emancipation of the slave population and the civil rights movement. And as the left had promoted cause after cause, in reaction to the conservative right, we, in the academic community, called for evidence-based practice. Indeed it was one of the clarion calls of the left during the Harper era in Canada and his perceived war on science.
Yet, on many different social fronts, we have made significant tactical errors by simply promoting policy positions and by mistaking identity politics for progress. For example, claims such as “look at how progressive the United States has become” in the wake of the election of President Obama are emblematic of the category errors of the left. A simple evaluation of the the state of impoverishment and criminalization of African American communities in the United States shows a less compelling picture of progress.
The flip side of these sorts of presumptions is that they justify the academic left in its censorial actions. In Canada, I have personally witnessed this censorship when conservative and Zionist speakers have had campus appearances postponed, and in some cases cancelled.
Indeed, in many cases, the academic left would prefer not to hear from its enemies. Using the same logic of Canada's infamous hate speech cases, we have argued that shining light on such dangerous speech is too risky, and we worry of the incipient effects of dangerous speech; we fret about giving precious airtime to the criminal speaker. Perhaps though, we should leave the criminalization to law enforcement and instead get back in the business of debating and debunking dangerous expression and ideas?
To bring this conversation full circle, the Twitter ban on some alt-right thinkers is another example of the common leftist phenomenon (reflex?) of silencing. There are already signs that we recognize the need to challenge difficult ideas with passionate and evidence-based defence. In this regard, the public debate between professors Jordan Peterson and Brenda Cossman over the compulsory use of trans-friendly pronouns on the University of Toronto campus, seems to be a beacon of the way forward out of the censorial morass. It is time to speak loudly, with evidence, in favour of progressive and emancipatory agendas.
It is up to the academic and activist left to speak out using evidence and, yes, perhaps, even science. Indeed, it is in the translation from principle to policy that we all too often ignore social science and evidence. There is a terrible equivalency here with the far right, where sloganeering trumps reason and logic (for example, some conservatives value the right to life and assume abortion criminalization fosters that right, despite evidence that forced pregnancies can be damaging to the life of women).
During my time as a university professor, the activist left has been successful in tapping into the excitement of youth. I have seen marches for labour rights, protests for inclusion, mass social mobilization for investigation into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and cause after cause has been championed through the actions of youthful exuberance- enthusiasm for doing justice.
However, now, after the Trump election, the academic and activist left is confronted with the intuition of the governing right; we seem paralyzed. It is not too late. We need to reexamine free and open debate and we need to recommit to buttressing our arguments with evidence-based argument. For years some on the left have favoured censorship over expression of objectionable ideas. Now we are learning that we better be willing to prove the case against these objectionable ideas. We have asked to silence speech in the name of equality. We have covered our ears and closed our eyes in order to imagine justice. But maybe we have had it backwards. Maybe the road to equality is through speaking out loudly with the wind of sound evidence and logic at our backs. We must prioritize expression as a means of achieving equality rather than the reverse.
(with thanks to Professor Helmut Harry Loewen and his Facebook reflections on the rise of American fascism).