Bret Weinstein, a prominent member of the Intellectual Dark Web and critic of “identity politics,” recently released a video arguing that “demonizing ‘whiteness’ spreads white nationalism.” He contends that “intersectionalists,” by telling straight white men they are bad, have made the return of genocidal white supremacy more likely. He says:
They are going to back straight white males against the wall [and] white nationalism will emerge from that cohort… [These straight white males] have been accused, by bigots, of oppressing others, and been told that they are not entitled to well-being no matter how they individually have behaved. So what do they have to lose by cooperating together against the intersectionalists, essentially creating the world that the intersectionalists claim already exists.
Weinstein later cited a comment left on his video as an example of the tendency. The commenter wrote:
I have never been interested in white ethnonationalism until I started being told I was somehow unworthy of being a part of society by the media/the left. I do not feel superior to anyone based off of my race, but I also will not be told I am inferior. I don’t want to be involved in hateful subcultures, but when the message I’m overwhelmingly receiving from the common culture in general is ‘fuck you for being a straight white man,’ white nationalism starts looking much more appealing. If the rest of society has formed race-based gangs as in a prison, I’m going to start sitting with the other whites for group protection.
I am not naturally sympathetic to the “Black Studies made me become a Nazi” position. Partly this is because, as a straight white male myself (and a college Black Studies major), I have no idea what these guys are even talking about. I’ve never been told “fuck you for being a straight white man.” Nothing of the kind. The closest thing I’ve ever gotten is “perhaps as a straight white male you should exercise a bit of caution and restraint before loudly giving your opinion on matters that other people may have somewhat more personal experience with.” But when people insist they “won’t apologize for being white,” I still wonder who has been asking them, because nobody has ever asked me to do anything but show respect for marginalized people’s perspective and critically examine my own assumptions and advantages. Which seems a fairly modest ask.
I don’t know what “common culture” this guy inhabits, but it must be far more left-wing than my own. The common culture of the United States is The Bachelor and The Big Bang Theory and Judge Judy and Let’s Make a Deal. Even our liberal late-night hosts (Colbert, Kimmel, Fallon) are all straight white men! Most of the common culture seems pretty apolitical to me, and as I have wandered through American cities I have hardly ever encountered intersectional feminist theory. Weinstein and the reluctant white nationalist must be living in a totally different country to me. The media are anti-straight white men? Which media? The New York Times? If only they were, perhaps we wouldn’t hear so regularly from David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Bret Stephens, Ross Douthat, Nicholas Kristof, Roger Cohen, and the one I always forget. [edit: David Leonhardt! It’s David Leonhardt.] CNN? White male privilege is the only explanation I have ever come up with for the career of Wolf Blitzer. Maybe it’s MSNBC, where Joe Scarborough is on for three hours a day. And let’s not forget, when we talk about “the media,” that FOX News is a giant propaganda apparatus that, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, spews precisely the perspective that the IDW thinks is being suppressed by the Dominant Culture.
Sam Adler-Bell had a similar reaction to Weinstein, saying that as someone very immersed in culture, he thinks he would probably have discovered by this point if “fuck off for being white” was indeed the “overwhelming message.” Adler-Bell makes a very good point, which is that the people saying this don’t actually seem very familiar with the people that they’re accusing of sending the anti-white, anti-male message:
These people are not getting the message “everyone hates white straight males” from left wing media. They’re not watching left wing media!! It’s absurd. They’re getting that message from right wing media *interpreting* left wing media for them.
I’ve pointed out before that critics of social justice politics rarely seem very familiar with the arguments being made or the people making them. (For a whole book on what they get wrong about social justice, see The Current Affairs Rules For Life: On Social Justice and Its Critics.) If you watch, for example, the Rubin Report, you’ll see a lot of people talking about what the bizarre crazy social justice people say, but you won’t hear from the people themselves. Bret Weinstein and the YouTube commenter aren’t really listening to what is being said on the left. “So you’re saying I’m irredeemably bad? That being born Caucasian is a crime? That I have to apologize? That I should be put on trial?” It’s like their ears are clogged.
(An interesting related anecdote: A while back, we commissioned the wonderful artist Chelsea Saunders to draw a cartoon depicting the absurd conservative view of American universities, complete with literal pronoun police and privilege-checking stations. The image was originally called “The Campus, In The Mind Of A U.S. Conservative.” Somebody reposted it on the pro-Trump subreddit, with all of the title except “The Campus” removed. The right-wingers loved it, commenting on what an accurate depiction of universities it was, not realizing that the image was spoofing absurd conservative beliefs about universities. They simply cannot believe that we are not actually like their absurd imagined caricature of us.)
I am dubious about the idea that people are pushed into becoming white nationalists by feminist and anti-racist culture. But even if it were empirically correct, it’s worth noting that it’s a kind of “See what you made me do” defense. If white people react to having injustice pointed out to them by becoming extremely defensive to the point of considering white nationalism, that does not mean there’s something wrong with those pointing out the injustice. There’s a book called White Fragility about the kind of anger that bubbles up in many white people when they are made uncomfortable on racial issues. It’s also explored by Reni Eddo-Lodge in Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, one of the reasons for not talking to white people about race being that they say things like “SO YOU’RE SAYING BEING WHITE IS A CRIME?” and tell you you’re forcing them to be a Nazi even though they never would have been a Nazi otherwise.
In fact, sometimes we get letters at Current Affairs from white men, telling us that while they would be sympathetic to left opinions, they were put off by something we said. One of my colleagues, for instance, has a tendency to joke that all men should be fired into the sun. (At least, I believe she is joking.) Men sometimes email to complain, saying they do not feel “welcomed” into the left and that these jokes are hurtful because they imply that all men are bad. I am not very sympathetic to the men who write these notes, because I am of their gender and I do not feel wounded about remarks advising that men be fired into the sun. (In fact, some days when I look at my inbox I begin to fantasize about it myself.) They’re somewhat like the white people who think that the word “honky” is as offensive as the n-word. It strikes me as a kind of, well, “snowflakery,” a gratuitous offense-taking at something you should have a thicker skin about. The irony, of course, is that the male critics of social justice politics are the ones who think people get upset too easily. Nobody gets angrier faster than a man who has received the tiniest bruise to his pride.
It is true that if you engage with left ideas as an apolitical straight white man, you may become a little uncomfortable. I have had moments where I realized that I was doing sexist things without having noticed it. It is very easy to react to those realizations defensively. Nobody wants to be a racist, and we’d all like to think we Don’t Have A Racist Bone In Our Bodies, but everyone is a bit racist, and when you notice it it doesn’t feel good. Alas, introspection and self-improvement are necessities if we’re going to flush out our prejudices.
I do wish there was a little more open-mindedness from people like Weinstein, Rubin, and the white nationalist who didn’t want to be a white nationalist but felt compelled to once he encountered the writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw. Read a book like So You Want To Talk About Race. Read it all the way through, interpret it charitably, and try not to just get mad when you hear a thing you think is wrong. Pay attention to some actual left media. Get subscriptions to Jacobin and Current Affairs. Don’t get your understanding of left concepts from Prager University videos. Get them from books! Or from leftists. Go to a DSA meeting and meet some people and listen to what they have to say. I recently wrote about the National Review‘s “Against Socialism” issue, which mostly didn’t pay attention to the writings of actual socialists. The one contributor to the issue who had listened to some socialists ended up finding them quite reasonable!
Now, I don’t doubt that you can find plenty of examples of silly things people on the left have said and done. I am sure you’ll find columns in Salon that make ludicrous arguments, and that you can present plenty of tweets to support your contention that The Left thinks a thing. I am hesitant to say “Nobody believes X” because for any given X there are always some people who believe it. But for the love of God try to understand why people find intersectionality useful before dismissing it as reverse racism. Try looking at the culture as a whole, not just the culture in certain academic departments at certain universities, when you’re going to make grand statements about The Culture. Then you can come and join the perfectly reasonable socialist left, which is feminist and anti-racist but has never told you to “fuck off” because you’re white. (As I say, though, it might ask you to take a moment to critically examine your own opinions before shouting them at everyone.) If you haven’t given the literature of the left a chance, if you haven’t spoken with us and purchased our magazine, then I’m going to assume the reason you’re drifting toward white nationalism is not that we pushed you into it, but that you were kind of a racist all along and just needed someone to blame for it.
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