Can anyone be a white supremacist? Honestly, I’m appalled to even be asking the question. After Hitler and the Holocaust, I don’t think any sensible person should be. There is no parallel to what pure evil occurred in Germany at the hands of real, serious, murderous white nationalists: the massacre of six million Jews. Yet somehow - somehow - after another speech in Berkeley on September 14th, some people are saying exactly that; that speaker Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, is somehow a white supremacist.
Tariq Nasheed calls Shapiro a “suspected white nationalist” who only “claims” to be Jewish and uses “anti-black, white supremacist rhetoric.” Refuse Fascism, a Facebook group with tens of thousands of followers, called Shapiro a “fascist” attempting to “spread ugly fascist views.” A sign hung in Zellerbach Hall, across from where Shapiro went to speak, decried his “white supremacist” language. Berkeleyside reported that a crown led by By All Means Necessary (BAMN) organizer Yvette Felarca chanted “Nazi scum off our streets.” All of this comes on top of what is already a massive burden for Shapiro; he was named the journalist most harassed by anti-semites in 2016 by the Anti-Defamation League.
Though it may be tempting to take the supposed moral high ground with others in the criticism of a ‘fascist’ ‘white supremacist’ it should be absolutely clear that Ben Shapiro is not a fascist, nor a white supremacist. He has done his part to disavow fascism in the past and present, remarking during his Berkeley speech: “I have been spending my entire career standing up against fascism…. I am not a fascist.” He also pointed out what should be an intuitive understanding, saying, “As far as the idea that I’m a white supremacist, you see the thing on the top of my head? This funny hat? It’s called a yarmulke. White supremacists aren’t that fond of it.”
Though Shapiro is closer to white nationalists on the left-right political spectrum than most leftists, I believe leftists should take his own word as to what his beliefs are. In an article titled “I Will Never Vote for Trump,” Shapiro states: “I will never vote for Donald Trump because I stand with certain principles. I stand with small government and free markets and religious freedom and personal responsibility.” These principles are not those of the alt-right, or fascists, or white nationalists, or white supremacists.
Not only, then, is the “fascist” description of Shapiro one that is wrong. It also is a grave moral and political mistake. I can imagine few greater insults than to equate someone with the thugs who murdered their family. It’s abhorrent. I know - we all know - that white supremacism is seeing a resurgence, and that we ought to oppose it in the most vocal manner. But when one crosses the line from principled, targeted criticism to emotional, widespread name-calling, they stand in the moral wrong. There is no excuse. Further, it is exactly this name-calling which contributes to the pitiful polarization of contemporary political dialogue and bolsters the arguments of the authoritarian-leaning right. Just like Trump has lost credibility by spouting nonsense about terrorists, losers, and fake news constantly, so has the left lost credibility by spouting nonsense about fascists and white supremacists. Not every muslim is a terrorist, and not every conservative is a racist. Likewise, just as islamophobia contributes to alienation of muslims, so does constant invocation of white supremacism and right-wing extremism contribute to alienation of conservatives.
This is not to draw a false equivalence, but to make a point about similar effect and human tendency. What does a principled conservative think of the left when one of their own is called a fascist for voicing fairly standard right-wing opinions on Berkeley’s campus? What do they think when it costs $600,000 in taxpayer dollars for police to physically defend Shapiro at his speech? I’ll tell you: the principled conservative finds anger in how the left has begun to demonize all on the right that oppose them. They see hostile college campuses - campuses where students and faculty are overwhelmingly left-leaning and ⅕ of students support responding to speech with physical violence. They see a media that openly calls Trump and his supporters racist. And they conclude that the blanket accusations of the left ought to be fought more extremely, and the cycle of polarization is perpetuated.What’s disheartening is that this pattern of behavior is nothing new.
Events at Berkeley have become normal flashpoints - events headlined by Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos have been shut down in the past due to safety concerns. Safety of conservative speakers is also in danger elsewhere around the country. In March of this year, Charles Murray entered Middlebury College for a debate to chants of “‘racist, sexist, anti-gay: Charles Murray, go away!’” After the event had to be cancelled for the debating professors’ safety, the professor who was debating in opposition to Murray was put in a neck brace for whiplash by students. The professor, Dr. Stanger, recalls getting her hair pulled, being shoved, and protesters climbing on her car, “hitting the windows and rocking the vehicle whenever we stopped to avoid harming them.” Unsurprisingly, Murray is no ‘racist;’ he is a Harvard- and MIT-educated “libertarian, social and political scientist, author, and columnist” who currently works at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The ‘racism’ that the mob was rioting over only concerns what Murray calls a complete misrepresentation of part of his book, The Bell Curve. He published a rebuttal and renunciation of white supremacism on AEI’s website. It also might be worth noting, humorously, that Murray recently called Milo Yiannopoulos “despicable”.
Accordingly, there is common ground between the left and right more often than activists would have you believe. And likewise, perhaps the answers to the 2016 election are hidden in both sides, not just in the ignorant right or militant alt-right that powered Trump to victory. They’re certainly not found in the oft-invoked white, middle-aged, xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, racist, privileged suburbanite; for these evil masters of privilege are so few and far between that they have essentially no impact on the actual vote. Yes, they can persuade, but people, real people, voted Trump into office. People who are insulted when they are called racists and sexists. People who are genuinely good people, and who believe that their ideas deserve to be heard. To say so may not be popular here in Boston, but it’s true. And if the people on the left want true change, they must stick to the truth. That means no calling Jews white supremacists.
The answers are in all of us. Let’s stop playing this game of excessive identity politics. Let’s stop trying to group individuals into evil movements before we genuinely listen to them. And when we criticise one another, do it with dignity. We all lose when we succumb to tribalism and name-calling. If we remember these principles, maybe we do have a chance of turning around the dark future our parents have given us.