Updates below.


Here’s a quickly-assembled response to this interesting Twitter thread, by a Matthew A. Sears, professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick. When classics professors say the sorts of things he did early morning on April 28, I think a response is in order.

(I’m not responding on Twitter, because I don’t do politics on Twitter anymore, and that’s because it’s the wrong medium for long-form thinking. Political discourse is better when it is beyond tweet length.)

Dear Prof. Sears,

In this reply, I’m going to go tweet by tweet and unburden myself of some replies. Let’s get right to it.

We should name every white supremacist. Name every writer, blogger, YouTuber, and politician that inspires them. Plaster their faces in public. Fire them from their jobs. Hound them from restaurants. Expose them and those that fuel them for the hateful pathetic wretches they are.

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When you use the phrase “white supremacist,” I seriously have to wonder whether you mean, well, me. I’m a libertarian, and I defend free speech. The problem here is that the phrase “white supremacy,” which once was understood to mean the sick world view of bona fide KKK members and Nazis, has come to be applied to the mere fact that white people are unjustly “privileged” by their race. Actually, the phrase was “white supremacism,” referring to a set of beliefs (an -ism). As it became increasingly unacceptable to progressives that white people enjoy unjust advantages, this fact came to be called “white supremacy,” which is very close to “white supremacism.” Then the “clever” progressive idea was that anyone who isn’t as outraged by this unjust advantage is a white supremacist (the phrase you used).

When the left started saying, in 2015 or so, that white supremacy was suddenly once again a growing trend, I didn’t notice any such trend. I did notice the trend of talking about the trend, though. I thought it was weird, and I wondered what the left was up to. I don’t think there are more people today who seriously hold racist views than there were, say, 10 or 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 50 years ago. I think that on the left and the right, there is more actual racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance in the West than there ever has been in the history of the West. Perhaps this progress (and I agree: it really is progress) isn’t fast enough for the left. But more likely it is the case that the left saw the increasing consensus that bigotry really is an awful thing, and it struck them as a wonderful opening to accuse their opponents of being intransigent bigots.

Anyway, if it were true that there were massive numbers of white supremacists—say, all or half or even a quarter of the people who voted for Trump (in historical terms, that really would be a massive number of people)—then I might agree with you, Prof. Sears. Then I, too, might say, “My God, look at how prevalent bona fide white supremacy is becoming. We’ve got to do something about this. Let’s try shaming them!” I really hate racism, too, and, you know, shaming can work, at least if the shamer and the shamed have some values in common.

But it’s not true; there aren’t massive numbers of white supremacists out there. They remain probably less than 5% of the population (maybe less than 1%; what the percentage would be would, of course, depend on how you define and operationalize the term). Anyway, the only way you can conclude that the rise of “white supremacism” (that -ism again) is a problem is if the vast majority of the people you want to call “white supremacists” actually do deserve to be called “white supremacists.” Of course they don’t deserve that epithet, I think, and the vast majority of people outside of the radical left think so too. You make it sound as if most or all Trump voters are white supremacists; in other words, about 25% of eligible voters in the U.S. That probably sounds plausible to you. But again, it doesn’t to me, and it doesn’t to the vast majority of people outside of the radical left. The suggestion is just bizarre.

So maybe you can see why it would be alarming to me and to many other people who might find themselves lumped in, by you, with cross-burning, swastika-wearing fascists. This is utterly bizarre for a classics professor to say. If the classics professors, of all people, are now saying we need to shame Trump voters for being white supremacists, hound them from restaurants, and get them fired, then the real problem lies with unhinged leftist agitators, not with any white supremacists who actually deserve to be called that.

And that includes every vile little shitlord in a campus “free speech” club who spends his time platforming white supremacist trolls under the banner of “free speech,” and every grifting liar that goes on about campus “censorship” and the “marketplace of ideas.”

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What a thing to say. My first reaction is this. Sir, you are a professor. When I was teaching college, I would never, ever have called any of my students, singly or collectively, no matter what I thought of him, a “vile little shitlord.” What an appalling thing for a professor to say about his potential students. How dare you?

Like it or not, this reveals that you simply cannot be trusted to teach those students who would join free speech clubs. When I was a grad student, I was in a libertarian club. If I were a student today, I’m pretty damn sure I’d join a free speech club. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to take a class from you, though, after reading these tweets, even if your research interests and papers do look very unwoke and ideologically un-edgy.

Since the appearance of actual white supremacists on campus is a rare occurrence indeed, the person “who spends his time platforming white supremacist trolls” is, one can only conclude, simply any member of a conservative and libertarian club (that invites speakers).

This says far more about you than it does about any person you’re inclined to dismiss (and, indeed, dehumanize) as a “vile little shitlord” or “white supremacist troll” or “grifting liar.” What it says is that not only do you dislike the right, i.e., anyone who advocates for conservative or libertarian ideas you disapprove of; not only are you personally intolerant of them; not only are you willing to say so publicly; but, beyond all that, you are a classics professor at a state university who passionately urges every “woke” person to shame, fire, hound, insult, and probably drive away from your university pretty much everybody on the right. And that they deserve to be called “white supremacists,” which is pretty much the worst thing that you can think of to say about a person.

How on earth can a classics professor think this way?

Did you ever believe in free speech? If so, when did you stop believing that the right should have it? Don’t you see any connection at all between free speech and intellectual tolerance? How on earth can you be a teacher of classics and and fail to see the value in being confronted with ideas that are deeply antithetical to your own? After all, left-wing intellectuals study Mein Kampf and conservative intellectuals study Das Kapital; all intellectuals in liberal countries like Canada should be able to recognize the importance of remaining open to serious discussions of ideas opposed to their own. That’s precisely why many of us are wringing our hands about free speech and censorship on campus. People who called themselves liberals were not long ago the biggest defenders of free speech, and their ideological inheritors are now, amazingly, some of its biggest opponents.

(It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the thought that some of the censorious progressives might actually have been themselves open-minded, tolerant, free-speech advocating liberals not so long ago. How does that happen?)

And if there’s a political party that attracts the pepe the frog and “white genocide” crowd, that party should be called out – including by the mainstream press – as a white supremacist party that helps to create the environment in which Jews and Muslims are murdered.

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The people who fear a white genocide because they fear the white race being extinguished are, I’ll grant you, pretty damned problematic. Some of them really are white supremacists. But not everyone who worries about the decline of Western civilization—say, readers of National Review or students of Hillsdale College or, maybe, a few of your strangely quiet classics students—would feel comfortable couching their worries in terms of “the white race.”

Similarly, a lot of the young fools who think it’s funny to post memes featuring Pepe the Frog are not white supremacists. Some of them are black, or of other ethnicities. They post the memes to have some fun at your expense and get your goat, which they clearly have done. Young people really enjoy having fun at the expense of their self-important elders.

Now, you “wonder” if there’s a political party that goes in for Pepe and the “white genocide” theory; clearly, you think there is one, and it’s the Republicans; and “that party should be called out…as a white supremacist party”. This is weird, though. It’s like you’re in the middle of the religious wars in Europe, in a place where there are approximately equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, and you say it’s time to “call out” your religious enemies. What does that even mean? That everyone on your side should say everyone on the other side is the worst thing you can think of, a “white supremacist”? And say it over and over again? Is that what a mass calling-out of one side by the other side would look like? What effect do you suppose it could possibly have?

And you’re a classics professor, saying this. You will never live this down, Prof. Sears. Well, either that, or society will move inexorably toward some sort of weird, new kind of civil war, in which your views will become the new norm. That after all seems to be what you’re advocating.

Because if there really are such things as “Canadian values” or “civilized values” like these dog-whistlers keep blathering on about, those values should include calling out white supremacy and calling BS on claims of “irony” or “debate” regarding racist memes and ideas.

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“Dog-whistlers” indeed. The implication is that one can’t loudly and earnestly advocate for free speech sincerely, or to worry about the decline of things like, I don’t know, the classics, because it’s really just code (a “dog whistle” that the left seems particularly good at hearing; go figure) for white supremacism.

Anyway, no. It isn’t a civilized or Western value (by now, maybe it’s a Canadian value, eh?) to agitate for what amounts to civil war, putting everyone from one ideological camp at the throats of everyone from the other. That’s not a Western value. The Enlightenment values that you, Prof. Sears, ought to stand for as a professor of liberal arts, definitely include such things as free speech, intellectual tolerance, and a little thing you might have learned once as an undergraduate but have clearly long since forgotten, namely, the principle of charity.

People are dying. And if opposing the environment in which people are dying means that some MAGA-hat- wearing wanker doesn’t feel “comfortable” on campus or out in public, then so be it. Because that wanker makes it his life’s work to make the marginalized feel unsafe.

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Look. I don’t know if there have been more attacks on Jews (by Christians) or on Muslims (by Westerners) than there were, say, four years ago, before Trump. I’d like to know, but coming to a fair judgment on such a freighted question would be difficult indeed. Let’s suppose the attacks have increased; even then, I still wouldn’t know if any part of the cause of such a problem is the election of Donald Trump. I wouldn’t rule it out. But, again, coming to a fair, unbiased judgment would be very hard.

Here’s something I do know. It is extremely unconstructive to tar people who are merely, as they have for generations, defending Christian and Western values, and who really are capable of loving people of all races and religions, with the brush of “white supremacism,” or to blame them for and lump them in with mass murderers. I would of course say the same thing to any right-winger who attempted to smear all of the left with crimes committed by leftists. In both cases, I would say that’s a ridiculously bigoted and actually dangerous thing to say. It’s very similar to the sort of thing we used to take bigots to task for, when we were growing up in the 1970s or 1980s, when those bigots implied that black men were all bloodthirsty killers. It’s profoundly unjust to blame all members of a group for the crimes of some unhinged members of the group. Don’t you agree, Prof. Sears?

The problem here is that somebody wearing a MAGA hat, or complaining about campus censorship, inspires two extremely different reactions. To the Trump voter, the hat is a declaration of allegiance to Trump’s outlook, candidacy, and policies. For them, it’s not unlike a bumper sticker or a yard sign or a political protest—it ought to be fairly innocent. But to the left, owing to breathless screeds such as yours, it has become a symbol almost as bad as a swastika or a burning cross.

When a conservative sports the hat, not only do you conclude the person is a “white supremacist,” it really freaks you out that the person actually feels empowered to wear the hat. He shouldn’t feel comfortable wearing it, you say, because it means—well, it means exactly what you say it means. It means he’s a wanker who is a white supremacist. You don’t take his self-interpretation seriously. It’s like Pepe—it can’t possibly be ironic because it means what you say it means.

Don’t be a useful idiot. And don’t think for a second that these people are actually interested in “debate.”

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In other words, don’t practice political tolerance. Doing so makes you a “useful idiot.” The smart people are all intolerant, like Prof. Sears.

Of course, if you actually sit down with plenty people outside of the radical left and talk to them about the issues of the day, from immigration to free speech to socialism, you’ll find that they really are interested in debate. Many of us actually thirst for good debate, because honest, fair-minded, charitable political debate is so goddamn rare today.

Prof. Sears, you are clearly projecting when you say these people aren’t interested in debate. You just got done with an unhinged rant in which your main point is that these people aren’t worthy of the respect needed to have a sensible debate. It’s true of you, not them, that you aren’t actually interested in a debate with your opponents. You want to shut them down, shame them, get them fired, and probably get them expelled. After all, why on earth would you want to debate anyone so inhuman as a “white supremacist”?

–Larry Sanger


UPDATES (5/3): Matthew Sears has since removed the tweets, which makes me rather glad I quoted them rather than embedded them below. Newsweeknoticed the tweets, and even quotes me in response. By the way, the tweets of mine that Newsweek quoted are gone, mainly because I’ve vowed not to use Twitter for politics other than to support and defend my blog posts. I removed them myself. Who knows, maybe Matthew Sears felt the same. Or maybe he was shamed into removing them. I doubt we’ll ever know.