By Amelia Irvine
Critics have savaged New York Times writer and editor Bari Weiss for her latest opinion piece, “We’re All Fascists Now.” In it, she criticizes campus liberals for calling “demonstrably non-fascist” speakers like feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers and Cambridge classicist Mary Beard fascists, racists, and misogynists. Weiss argues that accusing mainstream speakers of fascism strips the label of any meaning and makes it more difficult in the future to identify actual fascists.
Rather than respond to the ideas of Weiss’s article, Salon writer Amanda Marcotte called Weiss an alt-righter. She tweeted, “Remember: Bari Weiss calls herself a ‘classic liberal’, the favorite term of alt-righters who mistakenly think they’re cleverly fooling you.” Marcotte thus does the exact thing that Weiss warned against––she accuses all classical liberals of being secret members of the alt-right. By calling people who believe in things like free speech and free trade alt-righters, Marcotte is calling them racists, misogynists, and ethno-nationalists. Perhaps Marcotte has no desire to engage charitably with her political opponents. Or Marcotte has no understanding of what classical liberalism is. If she did, she would know that it shares very little with the alt-right’s ideology.
Classical liberals believe that the best society is a free society and that the free market is the key to prosperity and better standards of living for everyone. They are indisputably pro-capitalism, while the alt-right is becoming increasingly anti-capitalism. Richard Spencer, the notorious white supremacist who provides a guise of intellectualism to the alt-right, recently said he is in favor of socialist policies such as national health care and universal basic income, while railing against the GOP tax cuts as “stupid.…Reaganite nostalgia.” Spencer’s white nation is also a socialist nation. Economics are just one important area in which the alt-right and the classical liberals are diametrically opposed.
Another is the free movement of people. Though diversity of viewpoint exists amongst classical liberals and libertarians regarding immigration, the tenets of classical liberalism suggest that people should be able to move in search of better economic opportunities and safer neighborhoods. Sure, some libertarians favor open borders, while others, like Charles Koch, believe that “If you’re here, gainfully employed, and adding value in society then you ought to stay. If you’re not contributing—and particularly if you’re creating trouble, making people’s lives worse—you need to be sent out of the country.” Other libertarians may even favor more restrictive immigration laws due to concerns about the rule of law and an already overburdened welfare system.
But the alt-right views immigration with a completely different lens. They are not concerned with economics or safety—instead they believe that “immigration is a kind a proxy war—and maybe a last stand—for White Americans, who are undergoing a painful recognition that, unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country that is alien and hostile,” per Richard Spencer. Immigration is about race to members of the alt-right. It is not about drug trafficking, welfare spending, or job losses. To the Richard Spencers of the world, immigration threatens the purity of the white race and makes a white nation an ever more distant dream.
It is somewhat understandable that Marcotte believes there are similarities between the alt-right and classical liberals, because both rhetorically uphold freedom of speech and freedom of association. But alt-righters like Milo Yiannopoulos have a shallow concept of free speech—he is not speaking to advance his ideas, but to prove that he can say whatever he wants. He wants to laugh at “triggered snowflakes” and collect jars full of “liberal tears.” He relishes freedom of speech without appreciating the free exchange of ideas. Classical liberals want Yiannopoulos to have the right to free speech because they understand that his listeners also have the right to respond. They understand that if Yiannopoulos is disinvited to campus, he becomes a sympathetic figure who was denied a fundamental right. If he is allowed to speak and be questioned openly, students will be able to decide what they think of Yiannopoulos’s ideas themselves—and they trust that students are smart enough to recognize most of his ideas are outrageously silly.
Believing in free speech and freedom of association does not make someone an alt-righter. If you believe that people are capable of forming their own opinions, then you have nothing to fear from free speech. You also need not fear the alt-right; their loathsome ideas, when addressed head-on, will not last long in a society with strong speech rights. But challenging the alt-right means accurately identifying who is actually part of the alt-right, rather than accusing people willy-nilly of racism and fascism.
Amelia Irvine is a Young Voices Advocate studying government and economics at Georgetown University. You can follow her on Twitter here.