When the white supremacists assembled on the pleasant greens of Charlottesville were not spluttering racial invective and inciting violence, they occasionally tried to explain their ideology—which, admittedly, does not differ greatly from spluttering racial invective and inciting violence. Yet there is a sliver of argument amid all that hate.
Some have taken to wearing T-shirts urging us to “Defend Europe” or “Defend the West.” These statements imitate conservative arguments about preserving Western civilization against decline, while contradicting the meaning of those arguments and tarnishing them with racist associations. The insights of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Sappho and Leo Tolstoy are not valuable because of their association with an identity. They are valuable because they represent the mind discerning Truth.
The white supremacist pose towards cultural “defense” is a shame and a sham, while the project of defending Western, Eastern, and African civilization against ignorance and decadence is well worth pursuing. By yoking the idea of civilization to racial collectivism, white supremacists do immense violence to the very idea of culture.
Dead White Males and Their Ignorant Champions
Consider the phrase “Dead white males,” often used by campus leftists to disparage and dismiss the Western canon (particularly, collegiate “Great Books” courses) by implying that “The Divine Comedy,” “Hamlet,” and the rest are simply the stale work of lame, boring, white guys trying to mansplain the human condition. Eager to reflect the worst possible version of an argument for the West, the white identity-obsessed embrace only the supposed whiteness and maleness of Western culture.
In response, the identity-obsessed wing of the Left rejects Western culture based on that same white identity. The white nationalists praise Richard Wagner’s music and credit the white race with “great literature,” as white supremacist leader Richard Spencer did in a recent interview, which insults the individuality of genius, something wholly unrelated to race. As for the campus Left, the woke millennial of today has no need for such literary intrusions on the urgent crises of the moment: Frat guy X wore a sombrero to the Cinco de Mayo cookout. What penetrating light can John Donne shine on such violations?
Here is Emerson expressing an important idea now in jeopardy from white nationalists and the campus Left: “It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. Is not a man better than a town?” A racial collectivist cannot grasp this principle, common to classical liberalism and modern conservatism. The group does not attract our sympathy as directly as the individual.
While not yet great in numbers, racial collectivists are poisoning the national discourse by associating any defense of a Western thinker with a defense of white identity. Of course, in the trite phrase “Dead white males,” it isn’t the whiteness or maleness that matters. African-American writers like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston are part of the Western canon, and so are Latin Americans like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, to name just a few. What matters, solely, is the “dead” part of the formulation: the fact that the “dead” past can still speak to the living present.
The specter of Charlottesville will only shore up the far Left’s argument that the canon consists of useless, oppressive white people knowledge. But between the pages of Homer and Dante, we actually encounter universal truths—not just moral advice, but eternally valid observations about the way people are. Archetypes of character. The landscape of the soul. Explorations of identity that go beyond race and sex and focus on inward identity. As T.S. Eliot once put it, “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Through their books, the dead are still relevant. In fact, they’re still alive.
Both Identity Groups Are Arguing about Time
Look at the effects of identity politics of a different stripe. A quick note, first: I want to make it clear that I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the campus Left and white supremacists. Identity-driven thinking fuels both movements, but I assume highly misguided positive intentions from the former and actively evil intentions from the latter.
This example isn’t anything new. We’ve seen it played out over and over again on college campuses as students call for the removal of a revered “dead white male.” In 2016, students at the University of Pennsylvania stormed the English Department and replaced a portrait of Shakespeare with one of Audre Lorde, a black feminist whose influence on the English language has been decidedly less extensive.
To her supporters, it is Lorde’s identity that matters, not her ideas, literary merits, or insights into character. Those weren’t part of the debate. No one bothered to dispute Shakespeare’s literary eminence. They simply shrugged it aside. After all, what could this dead, wordy lame-wad possibly tell us about racism? (cough, “Othello,” cough). Today, 400 years of influence are hopelessly outclassed by the academic cred that comes from being non-white and a lesbian. Would Lorde appreciate having her literary significance based entirely on these non-literary criteria?
The racial collectivist element from white supremacists and the campus Left are both arguing about how we interpret time. The supremacists want to return to an idealized past. The worst form this takes in America is nostalgia for the slave-owning South. They want to abolish the present in favor of a past that never really was, nor could be.
This is a dark mirror image of the campus Left’s desire to eliminate the past (and present) in favor of an idealized future. Both sides refuse to seek meaning in the living present. They want to make an entirely fresh start and begin again at “Year Zero” like the Khmer Rouge, erasing all of history.
Yet history will remain stubbornly there, in its unchangeable pattern, whether acknowledged or not. The French Revolutionaries too, in their war against the Christian past, attempted to rewrite the days of the week, eliminating the Sabbath and changing the number of weekdays from seven to ten. Instead of naming the days in the Greek and Roman tradition, as in most romance languages, they boringly reduced the names to “primidi,” “duodi,” “tridi,” etc.—meaning “first day,” “second day,” “third day,” and so on.
In China, the Cultural Revolution demolished vast numbers of priceless statues and artifacts spanning thousands of years of history, and destroyed nearly all the monasteries in Tibet. This was in the name of rooting out “old ways of thinking.”
To give a smaller and less lethal example: although a witty and brilliant writer, the socialist George Bernard Shaw wanted to reform English spelling to be entirely phonetic (you would spell “enough” as “enuf”). This would have had a similar effect to altering the calendar—changing all words to pure phonetic spelling destroys the sense of their root meanings and linguistic background. While a seemingly eccentric example, the impact of such a change would be huge. It would leach history out of the words.
The Past Is a Different and Horrible Place
The erasure of the names “Jefferson” and “Jackson” from the Democratic Party’s former Jefferson and Jackson dinners is an infinitely milder example than Pol Pot’s killing fields, but it evidences the creeping influence of a mentality that thinks the way to get to the future is by making war on the past. Along similar lines, Al Sharpton called for abandoning the Jefferson Memorial during a Charlie Rose interview on August 15. Both presidents were too compromised by their historical context to have their present-day relevance noted, let alone proclaimed.
Jefferson’s moral failings receive more attention than the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, even though those ideas have had a much greater impact on history than the man’s flaws. If Jefferson had lived up to his ideals, he would not have had those failings, but he still possessed valor in stating a vision that was ahead of its time.
Sadly, in their fervor for identity, these fringe movements have shuffled aside words like “wisdom,” “insight,” “character,” “personality,” and “human nature.” (“Ideas” isn’t doing well, either.) Consequently, the far Left can’t look to the past for anything—it can barely even summon the effort to look to FDR. Too “problematic.” Even Karl Marx and Eugene Debs are likely “problematic” by their standards.
The campus Left unfortunately can’t see history as a crucible of pain that gives birth to enduring ideas and beauty. It only sees the waste and shame of oppression and victimization. Neo-Nazis revel in oppressing and victimizing people, which provides ammunition to the campus Left’s arguments. From there, it’s a short leap to assume that everything that has ever happened has been a sorry mistake. The only hope is to erase the past and replace it with a perfect present, unrelated to all that went before it.
What Abolishing the Past Means for Us
Of course, to create an ideal present you have to abolish the actual present—as the Khmer Rouge attempted to do with their genocidal “Year Zero” schemes. Pol Pot’s minions are an obviously extreme example: the campus Left lacks the martial spirit of Communism and prefers to wage its war on time through higher education and the media. But in both cases, it’s the future, the golden future, that truly matters. Yet the future has one major demerit: it never arrives.
We are confronted instead by this strange, concrete, irritating, obstinate thing: reality. Frustratingly, it turns out that the peasants aren’t entirely keen on having their farms and markets collectivized. But if we cut off a few more heads, build a few more piles of skulls, we’ll get to that Never Never Land. A similar kind of arrogance is present in erasing the cultural past and in filling mass graves. Both activities put too much faith in the human ego and its ability to build an entirely new culture from scratch. It needs a stronger foundation.
An enlightened person of any political persuasion can take the best approach: turning to the past’s accumulated wisdom and using it to enliven and refresh the present. He or she approaches it as a source of strength.
After all, that’s the fatal flaw in the campus Left and white nationalist designs. They think they can deny the wealth of mental and spiritual resources provided by individual genius (distinct from race and gender) and turn to some new set of resources. Yet, judging by the increasingly shrill and anxious tone of discourse, they are desperately short on real thoughts.
Refusing acquaintance with ideas, since they were formed in the nasty old past or conceived by Jews, does not seem like a sturdy program for generating new ones: if innovative thinkers stand on the shoulders of giants, identity-based collectivists are trying to kill the giant. In the end, they will be left trying to re-invent the wheel. The task of recovering past wisdom will remain, as always, for the solitary individual, who seeks out the wisdom of the dead and makes it live again. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”