Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, an alumnus of St. Mark’s School in Dallas, is a native son of our city, after all, whether we like it or … well, we don’t like it much, do we? But there you have it. He’s from here. So what does that mean?
You know who I mean. He’s the one who made the anti-Semitic speech in Washington last month where people in the audience gave Hitler salutes, as seen in a video released by The Atlantic magazine. He says his white nationalist cause has been strengthened and advanced by the Trump victory. The Trump people say they want no part of him.
But what part does he have of us? Is there anything identifiably or significantly Dallas about him? Obviously we hope not. But what about it? He’s not not from here.
A week before the salute affair, Spencer’s name popped up on our own pages at the Observer at the bottom of a story by Stephen Young. Writing about fliers distributed in dorms at Southern Methodist University urging white women not to date black men, Young noted that the fliers carried the logo of Radix Journal, an online publication edited by Spencer. (For a comprehensive account of Spencer’s life and the political path that took him to Radix, see Mother Jones, “Meet the white nationalist trying to ride the Trump train to lasting power.”)
Before I go another inch, I’d better also get it written and on the page in black and white (no pun intended) that Spencer has been roundly denounced and repudiated by the student body at St. Mark’s and also has been denounced a little more obliquely by the school’s principal.
So, there. Now we have washed our hands. Back to my question. What does he have to do with us? I think maybe something.
Because the underlying issues here are so terrible, tied as they are to slavery, the KKK, lynching, Jim Crow and the Nazi Holocaust, I offer one more caveat before jumping in. The big danger in trying to explain somebody like Spencer in terms of normal life is that we wind up normalizing a person or thing that isn’t normal.
Presumably you could time-machine me back to Vienna in 1905 and I could write an article pooh-poohing Hitler as a pissed-off house painter suffering from envy and deranged ideation. Bring that story forward 30 years, and my story would be not merely stupid but part of the problem — a failure to take the danger seriously enough soon enough.
So I get that. I do understand that danger. On the other hand, I do also have to try to understand Spencer in the context of the normal world around me, specifically the city around me, since this is the city that produced him. And when I do that, I’m sorry, I can’t get as excited as maybe I should.
First hint: He won’t even take head-on responsibility for the Nazi salutes. He keeps telling people the salutes were ironic. Can you imagine Hitler telling people the salutes were ironic? Can you even imagine Hitler using the word ironic?
At the core of Spencer’s version of white supremacy, right where the bombast should be, there lies a certain cringe, instead, a smirk, a quality of too clever by half. Even when he talks about supremacy, he doesn’t sound supreme.
In the Mother Jones piece he calls himself an identitarian, linking him to the European white identity movements like the Nouvelle Droite Génération Identitaire in France and the Identitäre Bewegung Österreichs in Germany. Peel away the verbal flash from what those movements have to say about themselves, and they express not a sense of superiority but anger and resentment sparked by economic and social competition with immigrants.
I’m not saying there’s any great comfort to be taken from that. The Germans were angry and self-pitying between the world wars. I’m just saying that this new white identity movement is not exactly a confident or persuasive expression of superiority. It’s more like the old saw that if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em: if everybody else has an identity of their own that earns them all sorts of sympathy and legitimacy from the mainstream culture, maybe envious white people should get one, too.
That seems like a step down from assumed white privilege, not a step up. In the world I grew up in, white people didn’t even know they were privileged, because they didn’t know anybody else was supposed to have a privilege. White privilege was assumed, taken for granted. White people thought everybody was dreaming of a white Christmas, even people of color, because what other kind of Christmas was there?
So here is the very strange point I find myself wanting to make about Spencer, also about the European white identifiers and about the whole thing with some of the Trump-voting white people in our own country these days: Is the fact that white people feel threatened not a good thing?
When white people start trying to form an identity as an oppressed minority, when they start cloaking themselves in the raiment of self-pity and paranoia, does that not mean that assumed white privilege is suffering some serious form of erosion? And wouldn’t that erosion be a good thing? White people having to form an identity group feels like England’s royal family having to take out ads for themselves, a step down, not up.
Look at Dallas, the whole thing, from downtown to the far suburban perimeter if there even is a perimeter any more. Dallas proper is still a kind of sealed box representing the past, still divided into traditional ethnic enclaves. Now lift your gaze to the close-in suburbs, it’s everybody from everywhere in the world.
For the last 25 years immigrants from all over the world have been pouring into the Dallas suburbs in such numbers that they have totally changed the human landscape. A suburban friend tells me it’s not cool where he lives for a white guy to ask anybody else where they come from originally, because everybody is from everywhere, and there are only bad reasons for white people to ask.
From the perspective of those of us who live in the city proper, then, the effects of globalization are all around us — thousands of eyes peering in from just outside the campfire ring. In my own social experience, I find that the sense of increased competition and general unease wrought by this new reality doesn’t only affect white people. I talk to lots of black people who feel the push of it as well, maybe less so among Hispanics for some reason. Of course, they’re part of the push.
The Mother Jones piece does a great job exposing Spencer’s intellectual superficiality, narcissism and opportunism, but I’m not sure how much any of that really counts. I could find those same qualities in most of the politicians I have known.
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He also touches something real. He can cause some kind of social electricity to arc above his head, and that’s the thing to focus on. Comforting ourselves with an inventory of his personal shortcomings might trick us into that failure I was talking about before, the failure to take the danger seriously enough. Let’s just concentrate on the fact that the guy’s got something going and try to figure out what it is.
If our region had any identifiable role in producing Richard Spencer, it might be a role of which we should be proud. He may be the product of the collision of social realities at our city limits, where the old world of hardened identity is relentlessly eroded by a surging global sea.
I’m not not taking him seriously. The mentality he represents can do us all a lot of harm before mankind’s better nature is able to wrestle it to the ground. But I do look back a long ways at this point in my life, and the unmistakable long and true arc of the history that I can see is toward the world of our suburbs, away from the old world of our city.
So we turned out a Nazi. Not good. But he’s a Nazi who jams his salute hand into his pocket and says he was just being ironic. Now there’s a guy who would be afraid to open his mouth at a Tom Thumb grocery store in Richardson. I can’t help feeling some pride in that.