I read Ben Shapiro only occasionally. He has a facile understanding of the intellectual Right, and he doesn’t treat his adversaries the way he wants to be treated. But last week he gave an interview in which, among other things, he had a go at defining the alt-right. Not by who’s in it, but by what it believes. Here’s the result.
Basically, the alt-right is a group of thinkers who believe that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously. It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization. As you may notice, this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and Vox Day. Those kind of folks will openly acknowledge that this is their thought process.
The rest of the interview is not very interesting. Shapiro gets to talking about his personal feuds with various right-of-center characters, and I don’t want to talk about that. But his description of “what the alt-right believes” is intriguing.
For now, let’s take the alt-right as a sphere of thinkers (mostly online) who dissent in some way from the constantly-shifting National Review-approved tenets of movement conservatism. John Derbyshire calls it the “dissident right,” which I think is a better term.
Shapiro is very clear that he believes there is a strict dividing line between conservatism (around these parts we’d call it “Conservatism, Inc.”) and the alt-right (or dissident right) as he defines it. So one thing that might be helpful is to check whether past conservative thinkers, especially those who were well within the mainstream of conservative thought, held what Ben Shapiro says the alt-right believes (“which is racist, obviously”) to be outside the bounds of reasonable conservatism.
We don’t even need to go back that far. Let’s take Robert Bork—who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan—in his book, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” originally published in 1996, only 20 years ago, and republished in 2003. My impression is that Bork’s jeremiad against “modern liberalism” was greeted with much acclaim in conservative circles. And see what Ben Shapiro has had to say about Bork. He complains, e.g., about the left’s “full-scale destruction of Robert Bork.”
Delving into “Slouching,” we eventually come to Chapter 15, “The Wistful Hope for Fraternity,” which is Bork’s attack on multiculturalism. I’ve scanned it in full, but I’ll quote the important bit. “What needs to be said,” Bork contends,
is that American culture is Eurocentric, and it must remain Eurocentric or collapse into meaninglessness. Standards of European and American origin are the only possible standards that can hold our society together and keep us a competent nation. If the legitimacy of Eurocentric standards is denied, there is nothing else. There are no standards from any other quarter of the globe that we can agree upon. Islam cannot provide standards for us, nor can Africa or the Far East. Yet a single set of standards is essential to a sense of what authority is legitimate, what ideals must be maintained. The alternative to Eurocentrism, then, is fragmentation and chaos.
The attack on Eurocentrism is ignorant and perverse in an additional way. Europe made the modern world. Europe and America made the world that people from around the globe desperately desire to enter. It is insane to say that they should enter this world in order to reject the culture that made it. European-American culture is the best the world has to offer, if one judges by where the people of the world want to immigrate. It is not hard to see what makes this culture superior. Europe was the originator of individualism, representative democracy, free-market capitalism, the rule of law, theoretical and experimental science, applied science or advanced technology, and so on through a list of achievements that have made the life of mankind much more free and prosperous. The static societies of Asia and Africa finally achieved dynamism, or varying degrees of it, only under the influence of European culture.
Bork is no longer around to speak for himself, but it seems to me he thinks there is a very consequential, even “inseparable,” link between Europe and America. I’d argue that the more important and definite link is between America and the governing traditions of Anglo-Saxon England. H. P. Lovecraft wrote that, “‘Americanism’ is expanded Anglo-Saxonism,” and I’m inclined to agree. But certainly Bork wouldn’t so carelessly write off the broader claim that “Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity,” i.e. from European peoples and their manifest ways of life, as “racist, obviously.” Moreover, does Bork sound like he would reject the specific claim that “if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve [its] interior collapse”? I am confident that Bork would not reject this claim—especially with Shapiro’s “too many” qualifier. Some would, but not Bork, and not American conservatism as understood until at least the 1960s, if not much later. Bork would find risible the notion that 800 million sub-Saharan Africans could be brought to America or to Europe without resulting in the “interior collapse” of these societies.
I don’t bring up Bork because he is the last word on what’s true. He isn’t. Rather, his chapter on multiculturalism is useful because it demonstrates just how far people like Ben Shapiro have warped “conservatism” toward utopian equalitarianism. The point is that, only 20 years ago, someone at the heart of conservatism, who is still widely admired, was willing to defend Eurocentrism.
We can go further: In that chapter on multiculturalism, Bork barely brings up the Constitution. Not once does he bring up the Declaration. That’s because Bork, although a great admirer of both documents, knew that Western ways are much more important than Western principles. The late Justice Antonin Scalia frequently liked to remark that, “Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights. Every president-for-life has a bill of rights.” Indeed, anyone and any country can give lip service to values and principles, to documents and to pieces of parchment. It’s much harder to live those values: to abide by the rule of law; to abstain from sloth; to eschew corruption; to avoid criminality; etc., etc., etc. Which is to say, principles are easy, and ways are hard.
There are people on the dissident right who would agree that it is possible for certain, select ethnic non-Europeans to become Western-civilized. One need not agree with Richard Spencer about everything. But Ben Shapiro is basically correct. Most of us do not believe that “anybody can involve him or herself in civilized values,” believing instead that a mass influx of non-Europeans, which dramatically altered Western demography, would be incompatible with Western ways. One might think, for example, that it would have been a better idea (and would still be a better idea, although the hour is late) to try to maintain a strong European supermajority in America—the better to uphold Bork’s “Eurocentrism”—than to continue merrily plodding along toward majority-minority status. We also reject the idea that Shapiro’s naive universalism—his belief that “anybody can involve him or herself in civilized values”—is the “whole principle of Western civilization.” Rather the dissident right holds to a realistic understanding that there are limits to how many people from very different cultures can become Western-civilized. To quote Derb on matters of race and demography, “Yes, [we] think it’s very important, and [we] think the current taboo on talking about it is silly and counter-productive.”
Ben Shapiro seems to understand how and where the alt-right dissents from modern conservatism. He’s merely wrong that the alt-right’s realism about human nature and human difference is foreign to the conservative tradition or is a corruption of it; you can find this realism in Aristotle, Hume, the Founders, Tocqueville, Kirk, Bork, etc., indeed in basically any conservative thinker before 1960.
In other words, the alt-right didn’t abandon modern conservatism; modern conservatism abandoned the alt-right.