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The Leftist, Anti-Humanist New Right – The (Confusing) Present Political Moment

Power is not just brute force, and it is certainly not unjustified aggression, but a plain and accepted way to start change in society.
Dr. Tomer Persico is a Research Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was the Koret Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish and Israel Studies at U.C. Berkeley, where he was also a Senior Research Scholar in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Dr. Persico is a social activist advocating for freedom of religion in Israel. A leading thinker about secularization, Jewish Renewal and forms of contemporary spirituality, Persico writes the most popular blog in Hebrew

The Leftist, Anti-Humanist New Right – Notes on the (Confusing) Present Political Moment

Original Hebrew

Do not deviate from what they dictate you, neither rightwards nor leftwards. (Deut. 17:11) – Rashi: Even if he tells you that the right is left.

Western political thought shifted sharply in the last decade. Many in the right-wing adopted stances, values, and concepts that belonged in the past to the Left. This shift has multiple dimensions and expressions. It includes, among others, the acceptance, either gladly or out of a bitter capitulation, of the legitimacy of homosexuality and equal rights for the LGBTQ community. It includes all but deserting the “war on drugs” and even adopting the claim to legalization of cannabis. It further includes the strengthening of certain trends that had already began, such as abandoning organized religion and incorporating liberal feminism.

Despite these developments, which have in common an intensifying focus on the rights and freedoms of the individual, there developed also a more complex right-wing movement. This movement both accompanies the mainstream right and subverts it. It is a movement that embraces the strong individualism that the right now exhibits, but undermines the humanism which traditionally comes with it. Such is the new, radical right that in part is called “alt-right.” This movement, which claimed notoriety after Donald Trump’s election, began its life on the web long before its practical expressions were seen, and Trump became its celebrated champion. This right wing has also adopted a leftist ethos, though it engages in it in a different, partial, and destructive way.

The Web as a Womb

The modern radical right didn’t grow on anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi websites, but on Internet forums such as chan4 and blog sites like Tumblr. In her book Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle describes how the Internet, which had been lauded by left-wing theoreticians in the late ’90s as being the anonymous universal cloud enabling everybody to get rid of his or her own characteristics and express their monadic freedom, also enabled everyone to free their most base inclinations. Not only did pornography experience impressive growth and diversification, but also racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny.

Moreover, the web not only enabled anonymity, but also cooperation. For the first time, white racists could create wide alliances with those bearing a similar Weltanschauung. Individuals holding rejected or outcast ideas could now find others like them, unite forces, and develop an ongoing internal dialogue. This dialogue wasn’t limited to words, but included images. The distribution of offending memes – illustrations promoting simple, usually ironic, messages – became a central practice of this kind of operation.

Undoubtedly, the web had also enabled the Left to create separate groups that took pride both in promoting progressive goals and in social action (though many times action meant simply clicking like). These groups fought for LGBTQ rights, against animal killing, and toward environmental protection. The struggle against sexual harassment was also helped by this wave.

There was, however, a crucial difference among these groups. While the Left enjoyed an encouraging atmosphere from both the social and political spheres, the Right went against the grain. Radical left approaches were legitimate, even when eccentric; radical right ones were taboo. The public arena adopted a progressive vision (especially during Barack Obama’s presidency, but even before that), while the extreme Right, both religious and conservative-secular, was pushed back. We may forget that some Christian groups in the US confessed having been defeated in the culture war and declared they should abandon the struggle and withdraw into closed, homogeneous communities (See the polemics around Ron Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.).

Many sectors on the Right felt displaced from the mainstream and developed honest concerns for their worldview and identity. The Internet made it possible for young people to find solidarity, as well as to defy the consensus. As Nagle writes, the stress in right-wing Internet groups was defiance of convention, rage, and resentment against the liberal mainstream and the expressions of the “politically correct.” The discourse fixed on trying to dismantle what was held to be normative, like LGBTQ rights or the denouncement of anti-Semitism. They used memes and Internet rowdiness to attack personalities and issues, aiming to upend the liberal consensus. The possibility of finding partners for these escapades, as well of course, for their general worldview, was relished on the radical right with relief and satisfaction.

The Subversive Right-Wing

The movement’s characteristics developed so. It associated itself with transgression, breaching boundaries, and subversion. The new Right – incorporating under this name the phenomenon of the modern radical right, including the American alt-right – is proud of being seditious. Whereas the radical Left tries to extend the boundaries of liberalism, while attacking those who don’t align with them, the radical Right the undertakes the defiance of conventions, the breaking of the “politically correct,” and “courageous” speech against the consensus.

To be sure, the overused term “politically correct” isn’t naïve. Not denying the ridiculous radicalization in liberal discourse that transformed practical words into moral abomination, it is important to note that for the new Right, “politically correct” is often code for the basic humanistic worldview which holds that all humans are equal. The struggle against the sometimes-silly expressions of the purist Left isn’t more than a whimsical cover of the central effort, namely the undermining of the basic liberal discourse.

Examples abound. From Milo Yiannopoulos, who celebrated transgression as “fun,” and who promoted racism and anti-Semitism (while being Jewish and gay), through Mike Cernovich, who endorses conspiracy theories, such as the claim that Hillary Clinton is the head of a pedophile ring operating from a pizzeria in Washington, DC, to Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and upholds a racial theory which claims that white people are a superior race and that all other races (including Jews, considered a race) must leave “white” countries.

As the website became, under Steve Bannon, the home of the alt-right on the web, Ben Shapiro, a conservative Jewish intellectual, resigned from its writing staff, referring to the site’s “pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist meme-makers.” Shapiro’s words highlight the alt-right’s venomous cocktail: Internet, memes, and white racism. Extreme Right politics are mingled here with the excitement of saying what is forbidden and advancing statements that have no factual base. The truth falls victim to the passion of destroying the established order, with the new Right resembling the anarchism of the radical Left.

Indeed, subversion and defiance of the consensus have been the ethos of the radical Left since the 1960s, and became a significant cultural phenomenon during the second half of the Twentieth century, with seditious actions against any hierarchy rank, cultural structure, or authority being lauded as liberating. Emphasizing the individual and his or her needs and self-fulfillment, just as basking in a bohemian eccentricity, celebrating an original and authentic life that goes against the “bourgeois” structure of society, favoring the ironic to the presentation of serious arguments, sporting sarcasm toward the mainstream, the normal, the established, the “uncool” – all these were the emblems of the Left, now adopted by the new Right.

Opposition to “power” was a central ethos within the Left, with the resulting identification of “power structures” in every social and theoretical domain, and the following condemnation and “dismantling” endeavors. Twentieth century right-wing conservatism developed in opposition to these views, eager to preserve hierarchy and traditional social structures. Something has changed now. As Angela Nagle points out wonderfully in her book, the new Right has diverged from classical conservatism and has adopted the radical Left’s ethos.

It is the political and social reality, i.e., the present hegemony of secular liberalism in Western culture, which has pushed the new Right to adopt the subversive stand of the Left. One of the most effective tools the alt-right has been using to formulate its views is identity politics, another old tool of the radical Left. The stress on a particular identity, undermining universal standards and even factual truth, construing any establishment of facts as ideologically charged and biased – these enable the new Right both to challenge the consensual truths (“Evolution is only a theory.”) and to gain legitimacy in the struggle for racist, patriarchal, and nationalist groups (“If Black people can fight for their rights, why can’t whites?”).

This is done while actively challenging what is obviously normative. Good manners, justice, and mutual respect are “political correctness” worth of disdain. Equal opportunity, non-discrimination, and the rule of the law are all non-compelling, middle-class values, or even a liberal and “globalist” (anti-Semitic code for “Jewish”) plot. At any rate, they aren’t binding for “our” group.

Diverting from Conservatism

It is important to realize how much this process differs from classical conservatism. William F. Buckley, an incomparable personality in the modern history of American conservatism, criticized liberals for having adopted a moral relativism, in which “what is good for you may not be good for me.” Irving Kristol, known as the “godfather of neo-conservatism,” said it is dangerous for man and society to exist with no “transcendent meaning” that only exists within a “moral consensus.” Leo Strauss, one of the greatest philosophers of American conservatism in the Twentieth century, warned against the “permissive egalitarianism” typical of liberal democracies that have forgotten the moral principles of their founders and relate equally to every private instinct and lust as legitimate. The term “moral clarity” served American Republicans as a motto in the fight against the “relativism” and the “lack of ethical strength” of so-called progressives. Ronald Reagan, their hero, had such moral clarity, which enabled him, according to their view, to fight the Soviet Empire – and beat it.

The alt-right not only nullifies the importance of universal morality, but it attacks basic norms in the public arena, in the name of interests (whites, patriarchy, etc.). It has no “moral clarity,” and it undermines any attempt to show one. Buckley understood that modern conservatism would have to disassociate itself from racism and anti-Semitism, yet the alt-right expresses them loudly. Buckley is known for having said, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Yet the new Right specializes in taking advantage of different tools to speed up the dismantling of the present society and rejoices at any challenge to the established order.

Modern American conservatism dealt from its beginning with the unsolvable tension between libertarians who stressed extreme individualism and economic freedom, and traditionalists who emphasized religious traditions and community. Unifying these two positions is virtually impossible, though those who held them enjoyed long-term cooperation fighting a common enemy, i.e. progressive ideologies.

The alt-right stands on the side of the libertarians, but takes their views a step further, explicitly scorning classical conservatism. The alt-right mocks conservatives (they are named “cuckservatives,” presenting them as naive and hapless), and views old conservatism as an impotent force, soon to disappear. Richard Spencer explicitly announced more than once the death of conservatism and his wish to replace it. The alt-right doesn’t mark a conservative victory, but rather the confirmation of radical Left subversion and identity politics as the most vibrant and vigorous political discourse.

The radical Left, immersed in internal accusations of “micro-aggressions,” busy drawing “safe zones” on university campuses, and meandering in a bizarre fight against the Western intellectual tradition, seams in comparison an opaque, spent force that has lost its way in the labyrinths of the theory and criticism.

A New Right-Wing in Israel

It is not difficult to find parallels in Israel to the new Right discourse in the US. The struggle against “political correctness” is common to the rising stars of Israel’s Right. Like their American counterparts, they are also young and display impressive media savvy. Yinon Magal, a former Knesset member for the Jewish Home party, proclaimed in his opening address at the Knesset in May 2015, that “there’s a new religion: political correctness […] I’m an apostate of this religion.”

Shimon Riklin, a host on Channel 20 and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pet journalist, explained that he is one of those who think that “we must change the political correctness discourse, because it emasculates our thinking.” Erel Segal, one of the prominent voices of the religious right, calls PC an “illness,” while Erez Tadmor, co-founder of the right-wing movement Im Tirtzu, warns against “the perverted villains of European political correctness.”

The political field offers a good example of the new Right, with Minister of Culture Miri (“tight-asses,” “cut the bullshit”) Regev, who shows vacuity of values, cold opportunism, and a dizzying populist appeal.

These and others specialize, in diverse ways, in noisy, scornful, shallow discourse, in which factual truth is at best one of many options. The struggle against PC is the flag under which they fight to dismantle the humanistic consensus. In the name of this struggle, they also avoid taking responsibility for basic norms, their own mistakes, or the consequences of the process they promote.

At the end of this path we find the Yair Netanyahu, son of our Prime Minister, publishing online a blatant anti-Semitic caricature and winning the immediate sympathy of neo-Nazis. Without examining young Netanyahu’s motives or views, his action holds a clear expression of the transformation of the Right. Netanyahu adopted the thinking and ways of the American alt-right. Undermining any obvious manner of tact, responsibility, and morality he enjoyed promoting conspiracy theories and flirting with anti-Semitism.

It would be too easy to accuse Tadmor, Magal, and their like of opportunism or moral corruption. Obviously, there is something appealing in being part of the majority and on power’s side. But their attitude, as well as that of the other voices coming from the right-wing, points to a positive passion that enjoys vitality and force. This is not only about being on the winning team, but inherently involves a constant and basic criticism on all that was left behind. It is a circular, shrieking, recurrent cry, whose practical object may be summarized in one word: subversion.

It seems that these figures are in love with the role of the rebel, the disrupter, the enfant terrible. They style themselves as the “cool” dissidents undermining the hegemonic order, while the radical Left is no more than a conformist army of nervous, stressed-out nerds who police the public sphere in depressing circles of PC. They are the prophets standing fearlessly against progressive “power,” in order to knock sense into it. However, the power they want to subdue is not the government (in Israel, at least, they are the government), but the humanist-liberal framework.

Like the evangelicals in the US animated by holy rage regarding the extramarital sexual relations of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, who are now validating a president who has confessed having regularly assaulted women sexually, here in Israel the same people who cried out about the police investigations of Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, demanding their resignation, are now protesting the “lynching” or the “attempted coup d’état” against Benjamin Netanyahu, simply because he is under several investigations, not dreaming, of course, of demanding his resignation.

It is important to understand that it is not only about double standards, but about an absolute disdain for fair discourse, for standards of civilized dialogue, and for integrity. It’s not only hypocrisy, but the uprooting of the principles of humanistic discourse and accountability. The new Right turns its back on the classical conservatism of the Right and adopts the individualistic logic of liberalism and the subversion of the radical Left. This, of course, is also the reason why the breach between the two flanks of the Republican Party, the conservative and the “Tea Party” cum alt-right, is insurmountable.

In Israel we don’t feel the same tension, because there’s no organized community of classic conservatism. The admiration for Netanyahu and the ongoing drama around him, either for or against, are another curtain that hides political reality. We must realize, though, that the right-wing is shedding its ideological and traditional assets. It not only re-embraces racism, chauvinism, and anti-Semitism. It becomes a movement promoting demolition instead of construction. It undermines basic normative frameworks, instead of trying to preserve them. The promotion of an anti-Semitic caricature by the son of the Israeli prime minister is the single clearest example of that.

The Essentialist Point and The Internal Contradiction

The similarities between the new Right and the radical Left are deep, and it is easy to get confused by them. Therefore, we see increasing numbers of people on the radical Left thrilled by clearly right-wing personalities. Miri Regev has gained sympathy among leftist activists of Jewish Mizrachi origin; Moshe Feiglin, former MK of the Likud and current head of the right-wing libertarian Zehut party, attracts leftist libertarians. The hyper-nationalism of the Balad party, the “National Democratic Alliance” Palestinian party in the Knesset, is also perceived as legitimate by certain left-wing activists, having been purified by baptism in the waters of oppressed Palestinian rights. Then there was the tendency of radical Left activists to vote for the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the last election, out of identification with the call of Aryeh Deri to Mizrachi Jews’ pride and equality, even as they ignored its discrimination against women and gays.

And it is exactly this sort of discrimination that must be noted. Despite the similarities between the new Right and the Left, there is a large difference: among the alt-right in particular and the new Right in general, there will always be a reactionary point that will not be surrendered to deconstruction. These circles will preserve and fight for an essentialist foundation, be it the heterosexual patriarchy, the white “race,” an anti-Semitic worldview, or nationalist chauvinism.

When the radical Left seeks to dismantle the old world, it will try to do so out of a universalist stand, be it anarchist, communist, or liberal cosmopolitan – one that views every person as a human being. The new Right preserves a particular group, for whose sake it seeks to destroy the old order. That class, club, or clique, defined in essentialist terms, stays superior.

While in the US the alt-right focuses on white supremacy and the patriarchy, in Israel it is the Jewish ethnos that the new Right takes as the core of group identity. In both cases not only is universalism abandoned, but also civic republicanism, the national framework for which the essential part is the citizen. Instead of these, schemes of racial and ethnic particularity are promoted.

Contrary to the fascist movements of the 1930s, there is no immediate requirement toward collectivism and conformism. Nobody is expected to wear a uniform or become religiously observant. No actual change in regular lifestyle is expected. Quite the opposite, it is individuality that is celebrated, while the collectivity of the race and peoplehood is left for the far future. But in presenting a libertarian version of ultra-nationalist, völkisch beliefs, they take the worst of two worlds: the social fragmentation of liberalism and the discriminatory racism of fascism, all the while undermining the established order, and aiming to dismantle it. Now we dismantle, later we shall build.

But there will be no building. The extreme individualism promoted by the new Right cannot become a steady base for the collectivism presented by their vision. The Right that surrendered to the liberal Left and adopted individualism cannot throw it away once the battle will be finished and political correctness (again, a code name for the specific humanistic virtue which bothers them) will be eliminated. Collectivist values such as shared ethos, solidarity, brotherhood, and even mutual respect will not grow in a society that was torn apart, will not be preserved in a society which has undercut humanism, will not be nurtured by people who internalized extreme individualism.

We shouldn’t be deceived by collectivist declarations about their specific peer group (Jewishness, nation, white race, heterosexual men, etc.). As Georg Simmel said at the beginning of the Twentieth century, these are groups so wide that the commitment of the individual to them has no practical expression. On the contrary, their abstraction encourages autonomy, and the fidelity toward them comes at the expense of solidarity with narrower intermediate communities.

The Left-Wing Response

Facing this phenomenon, the Left is still searching an answer. The use of its own old tools has thrown it off balance, and part of it is thrilled by the new Right. If we try to offer action facing the present situation, we can list several preliminary proposals.

First, we must be careful about childish enthusiasm for right-wing representatives suddenly speaking in leftist terms. True, the Right has changed, and it is not what it used to be. Part of it got rid of classical conservatism and adopted, in many ways, ideas and thinking models of the Left. In certain areas, such as women’s and LGTBQ rights, the victory is significant. In other areas the struggle continues.

But because of its hybrid style and its casual attitude toward the truth, the situation in the new Right is more complex. We must investigate and discover to which specific group every leader of the new Right pledges allegiance. To use ready examples, for Feiglin, the wider rights of the Jewish people limit individual liberties, and certainly Palestinian rights. For Regev, Mizrachi Jews’ struggles for equality are limited by nationalism. For Magal, Segal, or Riklin, dismantling the consensus is a tool to build a narrower consensus, one that is right-wing and only Jewish. According to Bezalel Smotrich, halakha prevails over democracy. We will not find any force on the new Right that does not favor a specific group to the point of undermining humanistic values.

Let’s stress: loyalty toward a particular group, national or religious, is not negative. The problem, as always, is measure and balance. In the new Right, the particular group will always win ascendance over equality of rights, human dignity, and basic fairness.

Second, the Left must internalize that it cannot expect to display natural and effortless charisma, simply because it stands on the “correct” side of history, the one which struggles for progress and its fruits, nor because it is “rebellious” or “subversive,” and fights the hegemonic power structures. In many cases the hegemony is already liberal, and even “progress” is not what it used to be. The radical Left cannot expect the masses to join in its identity games and stylish theoretical-critical analysis of “power,” because the Right has taken the aura of rebels, and we must concede that the fight against the current (liberal) intellectual elite fits them better. We must also stop, for heaven’s sake, expecting the masses to develop “class consciousness.” It has never happened, and it won’t.

In sum, the classical Left cannot expect the public to unite and adopt the ideals it presents, because by doing so they will be on the correct side of history. History and its sides aren’t what they used to be.

Third, and because of this, the Left must present positive values. These cannot be limited to a deep and continuous snuggling into identity politics or toward internal purges of anyone who deviates from the official line. These values must be based on the classical roots of the center-left: humanism and liberalism. They must stress human life, human dignity, equality among all human beings, and the freedom we seek and to which all human beings are entitled. These values must be stressed time after time. Fluctuations toward narrow paths of identity politics and cultural relativism must be avoided.

We mustn’t ignore social structures such as nationalism and tradition. On the contrary, the Left must adopt them, understanding they are necessary for any human society. Nationalism is in this era the only social scheme that defends human and citizen rights. That’s a simple fact. Tradition is a cultural treasure, and abandoning it will debilitate society, making it shallow and tasteless. National and religious cultures aren’t a burden, but an asset. They are dimensions of identity that for most of us cannot be replaced. Rejecting them means rejecting the majority. Adopting them anew is the way to recharge the Left with the enthusiasm that it lacks.

Fourth, the Left must learn anew how to motivate action. And here the meaning is first psychological. It must drop the fear of power that theoretical social criticism has installed in it. It must understand that not every action is “violence,” not every hierarchy is injustice, and that authority can do many good things. Power is not just brute force, and it is certainly not unjustified aggression, but a plain and accepted way to start change in society. And change will come. The question is in what direction. We must take care that it takes the best direction possible.

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