Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared at J. J. McCullough’s personal blog. It is reprinted here with permission.
Ezra Levant’s renunciation of the alt-right (a popular activity at the moment) has been predictably scorned as disingenuous, but one passage struck me as entirely believable:
When I first heard of the alt-right a year ago, I thought it simply meant the insurgent right, the politically incorrect right, the grassroots right, the nationalistic right, the right that was a counterweight to the establishment of the GOP, the right that backed Trump and his “Make America Great Again” style over Jeb Bush and the swamp. It was unashamed right-wingedness, with a sense of humour.
I’ve been observing the alt-right long before Donald Trump — or more specifically, Hillary Clinton — made it a household term on the 2016 campaign trail. Way back in 2014, I even wrote an answer to a question on Quora, “What is the American alternative right?” (note the quaint formality) that became, for a time, a fairly widely shared source on the matter.
In those days, as I noted, the “alternative right” was a “diverse assortment of people, mostly online, who identify as right-wingers but consider themselves either opposed to, or profoundly alienated from mainstream American conservatism — usually because they view it as being too liberal, or preoccupied with the wrong issues.” This community, I noted, thrived on a “archipelago of blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts” and I knew this because, in those days, I consumed some of them. I honestly doubt there’s a young conservative alive who can profess zero engagement with the alt-right, at least in this phase of its existence, since many of these blogs, podcasts, and social-media accounts seemed to engage freely and frankly with issues like immigration, gender relations, and economic inequality that are front-of-mind for a lot of young people these days.
But of course the alt-right changed, or perhaps simply solidified around one faction. Over the course of a few years it stopped being something creative and diverse, and congealed into something with stricter rules and a more grotesque culture, which in turn made it easier to have a firm opinion on, and reject. The evolution I observed was a sharp shift away from the world of adult politics and political commentary, and into a much more psychological, therapeutic thing, wherein a lot of young men with anxiety about various changes in society were retreating into radical, conspiratorial, hate-fueled mantras that made them feel powerful and dangerous. I wrote about this phenomenon, which, as I noted, is a very standard trend of radical movements throughout history, in a July 2016 essay for C2C Journal called “All the angry young white men.”
Even that article now reads as excessively tempered. There comes a point where taking the aloof, sociological approach to documenting an unpleasant fad reaches its useful limit, and a point where its partisans simply deserve to be judged for their personal choices. The Charlottesville episode proved that mainstream alt-rightism wishes to define itself primarily through racist performance art and “unity” with any and every faction of the self-proclaimed “right” that respectable society has agreed, over the course of centuries, to scorn and marginalize. The leadership of this movement, such as it is, clearly comprises an enormous amount of delusional, ignorant, self-obsessed people content to embrace all the discredited ideas of the 20th century’s leading crackpots in a pained effort to seem, ironically enough, relevant.
When one seeks an identity out of insecurity, one will inevitably seek shortcuts to knowledge. To be genuinely contrarian is impressive, as it usually reflects a mind full of independent thoughts and creative insights, but today far too many of us rush toward eccentric and unpopular opinions because they promise a quick identity as someone edgy and interesting, and are delivered in forms that are easy to consume and regurgitate — conspiracy theories, tautological slogans, memes. Such things offer the dopamine thrill of being contrary but are actually just unconvincing masks of ignorance.
What I’ve come to realize is that the ideology that’s truly needed among young people and young men these days is an agenda of conformity. Conformity gets a bad rap in an age when “everyone wants to be the golden crocodile,” as my father used to say, but conformity doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your specialness and merging into some great grey blob of sameness. A dignified conformity simply means respecting and upholding what your society is all about, its traditions, history, hierarchies, and mores, and not waging active war against them. In other words, pretty much the complete opposite agenda of both the far left and alt-right.
What both extremes share is a common loathing of America, and American civilization. We know how anti-Americanism manifests on the far left, but the alt-right has never been particularly patriotic, either. They have created an alternate, pseudo-patriotism of their own based on worshiping themselves, and their dogmas, all of which frame the United States of America, by design, as a problem to be solved. They rally behind symbols of America’s foreign enemies, like the German National Socialist Party or Putin’s Russia, and American traitors like the Confederate States of America. Their foreign-policy views are often explicitly Chomskyite, and frame all of the world’s violence and chaos — up to and including 9/11 — as America’s conscious doing.
In the face of this, the cure is a revived Americanism, a renewed interest, celebration, and, yes, conformity around the American country that exists — not the imaginary utopia some dissident faction seeks to build in its place — and the unique culture it has produced, shaped by its history, achievements, heroes, and symbols. This can come off as a cliché, but only because we’re used to processing rhetoric like this as an empty slogan, not an actionable agenda. It’s been a long while since Americanism of this sort was honestly attempted.
White supremacy is incompatible with America. America was founded as a multi-ethnic state by virtue of occupying lands populated by whites, Indians, African slaves, and, later, Hispanics from annexed Mexican territories. Since the American Constitution was written in universalist language, one of the major storylines of the American democratic experiment has been broadening definitions of citizenship and civil rights to make the multi-ethnic reality of the United States synchronize with its founding promises — an often bloody and difficult challenge. Immigration is a distinct debate, as it involves broadening and diversifying the American population further through government policy — and like all government policies, this can be done well or poorly. Conformity with America requires acknowledging and respecting all of these realities.
Simultaneously, America has another storyline, the story of the most accomplished country in the history of the world, full of citizens who have done incredible things in virtually every realm of human achievement — science, technology, art, music, food, architecture, literature, sport, space exploration, etc. — that have made the world such an infinitely better place. Every life lived on this planet is a life that’s been made easier and more pleasurable thanks to something an American did.
To love and conform with American civilization is to find something attractive in a country whose greatness comes from the consequences of its existence, the principles of its constitution, and difficulty of its survival. Today, many lack the capacity to love America because they are ignorant of America’s effect, cynical about its principles, and view its difficulties as vindication that the whole project is either doomed or pointless. The spread of this mindset is the only thing that will ultimately ruin a country that, more than most others, requires a conscious, active, conformist patriotism to be held together. The most useful tools to this end will be a dramatic improvement in the teaching and celebration of American history and biography, with far more time spent telling, learning, and sharing the great American stories — not just in educational institutions, but within cultural-political spaces in general.
My own humble contribution to date has been my site about American biography, called “Americans That Matter.” I plan to do more in the future.
A final note to fellow Canadians:
Canadians are part of the American civilization, and we have equal onus to appreciate the American heritage that has defined our society, history, and culture. Insecurity over our shared continental identity means Canadians are constantly trying to invent distractions to avoid respecting America, be it postmodern leftist nihilism or forced nostalgia for some made-up British past, like Gavin McInnes’s “Proud Boys” did last month when they went around waving the Red Ensign flag and declaring “this is a British colony” (present tense).
Because the United States is a larger country with a politics more fearless, democratic, and responsive than our own, the U.S. is often the stage on which our own societal dramas play out, which we are privileged to be able to follow so closely. Canadians can calibrate their reactions and responses to a host of trends shaping our shared American experience through case studies in the United States, which, due mostly to the comparative largeness and freedom of the U.S., are simply richer and more varied than those Canada will reliably produce.
The correct response to this is humility, and I give the prime minister credit for stating in the wake of Charlottesville, before anything else, that “Canada isn’t immune.” But in other contexts, our leaders — in all realms — should offer more open appreciation and acknowledgment for the infinite assortment of other ways in which Canada is not different from the United States, much to our benefit.