Language, the Alt-Right, and History

Sacred Caves, Nicholas Roerich (1932).

Sacred Caves, Nicholas Roerich (1932).

What is the difference between “heritage,” “tradition,” and “history”?

You could think of these three terms as a kind of Russian nesting doll. Each term fits inside the other. Heritage, you could argue, relates to direct descent; tradition, a cultural lineage; and history, an objectively determined sequence of events, determinative of the other two.

But I’ve been reading a lot lately about the far-right and a movement called Traditionalism, and these terms are no longer so simple. For one, tradition, to a Traditionalist, supercedes history (as you might expect). Tradition, not history, is the power by which all past knowledge reaches us -- it is the primordial truth that underlies our attempts to craft a narrative of history.

Heritage, perhaps, is next in importance, because it more accurately describes the individual’s interpretation of history within their tradition. Heritage is how we communicate with members of our own community and differentiate ourselves from those outside it. Traditions may be primordial and shared; they may have overlapping elements or common truths; but heritages cannot. To a Traditionalist, this is perhaps as close as you get to “Blut und Boden.” *

What does that make history? To some extent, it is a Leftist fiction. History, as modernity understands it, is a critical enterprise. It distinguishes between myth and fact. It’s positivist in orientation, empirical (or close to it) in practice.

At its worst, History is the arch-enemy, the product of a global Marxist conspiracy to sacrifice the once unchallenged world of mystic truth to the materialistic god of Progress. History is not to be trusted; history is a lie. History is the usurper to the throne of Myth.

To watch an Alt-Right protest and hear the rhetoric of a “Lost Cause” neo-Confederate or a holocaust denier is to witness Myth’s attempted reconquest of history. Certain far right groups have long believed that by simply positing a new, totalitarian vision of the past, it will make it so -- that historical materialist fact is an illusion anyway and that only blood or “spirit” can communicate the truth.

According to one reading by religious historian Olav Hammer, this philosophy actually emerged as a response to the wide availability of critical history -- not, as it might initially seem, from ignorance of it. This explains why Traditionalism is such a well-read movement; it also reveals that Traditionalists’ objections to historical fact are less to do with history and all to do with History -- e.g., the cosmic significance of the past.

In an earlier blog post, I commented on the urgency of invention to preserving a progressive meaning to history. I was responding to the work of Roger Griffin, who suggested that critical historians are indeed to blame for dismissing and ignoring the genre of “metahistory”, which offers free-thinkers a chance to reinterpret the meaning of historical time and their place in it.

If we think about our present moment, it is profoundly metahistorical. The once widely accepted ideology of neoliberalism, birthed from post-war internationalism, is gravely threatened. Like classical liberalism and Marxism before it, neoliberalism offered a metahistory of inevitable material and spiritual progress. Successive revolutionary ruptures with tradition would bring ever greater unity of purpose among mankind.

That vision was, indeed, a fiction -- but a fiction can also be a myth, and this cultural myth held a vision of progress together even as it was successively exploited by ruling classes to the detriment of many of its most religious adherents.

Now, neo-Traditionalism (fourth wave Traditionalism?) and other far-right ideologies are offering to release power over metahistory to these disenfranchised masses once again. They can imagine themselves the rightful heirs of southern aristocrats; initiates in nihilistic continental philosophy; or descendants of a proud and ancient Nordic race. But the point is, they can imagine where progressives cannot.

There is some talk about the resurgence of socialism in America, and indeed international socialism seems to be having a moment. This might be a glimmer of hope for the rebirth of a progressive metahistory. But Corbynite and Sanderista socialism shares something profoundly unsettling with the far right that has deep implications for its early attempts at mythmaking.

Both Corbyn and Sanders received much of their momentum from the Occupy movement, which blamed the world’s ills on the cabalistic control of the 1%. It is a Manichean vision of history: the neoliberal elites exploited the masses’ innocent belief in self-betterment to keep them in a place of servitude. The moral and ethical pronouncements of liberalism were always a lie -- a means of reserving wealth and freedom for the few and drafting noose-like loopholes in the social contract for the rest. Mass incarceration, wage slavery, and debt are used to punish aspirants and social climbers, preserving privilege for the uppermost tier of society while the opiate of social (not economic) progress is continually fed in carefully measured doses.

This is not altogether opposed to the Traditionalist vision and, in fact, the far right and far left have a tradition of intellectual mimicry. In the 1970s, as the New Left gained a nearly unchallenged cultural status, Traditionalists and other “New Right” groups explicitly copied the methods of the left, from teach-ins to woodland communes to transreligious relativism.

Contemporary Traditionalism’s opposition to the deconstruction of gender and race has some kind of parallel in the socialist defense of the modern nation-state in opposition to the transnational, globalizing forces of the neoliberal elite -- both resist a certain kind of post-modern erosion of modern and pre-modern categories. Perhaps most importantly, both movements assess existing political structures to be flawed, corrupt, and unfixable, necessitating “political revolution” and the dawn of a new social order.

I am not dealing in false equivalencies here -- socialism has no parallel in neo-Nazism or the Alt-Right. It can’t be lost in all this that New Right groups use these critiques to advocate for prejudice, hate, and exclusion; at worst, the New New Left’s prejudice is against the “privileged” in its most broadly defined form. But when two political movements with deeply entrenched Manichean views of history are converging in the mainstream, there is some serious reckoning to be done.

I began this post with language, and I’ll end it there. One consequence of these movements’ Manicheanism is the simplicity and malleability of their language, a chink in their rhetorical armour. In-group slang is forever reinventing itself on the further fringes, but towards the centre, broader, vaguer terms prevail. Words like “heritage”, “honor”, “storytelling”, “community” -- they carry with them a very faint ideological coding from their pervasive use among one or the other of these groups in a deeply polarized society.

I’ve been thinking and talking about this a lot as a person who deals in these words as an radio producer. How can I invert these words or swap them for their ideological counterparts to recode and decode my language? When I talk about “hate”, should I call it “cowardice”? When I talk about “history”, should I say “heritage”?

Liberals are fond of saying banal things like, “If we want to fix things, we have to learn to talk and listen to each other.” In a certain sense, it may be as simple as that. But whereas the liberal myth demands we start on the premise of liberal values, our new reality leaves us with no middle ground at all. Perhaps it’s time we don linguistic sheep’s clothing and wander among the sheep -- perhaps it’s time we talk “tradition” after all.

* I haven’t noted with any diligence the Traditionalist use of the term “heritage”, but in the southern American context, this certainly seems to be its meaning. For Traditionalists, multiple cultures can have valid “traditions” (or, in some more esoteric schools of thought, they may access the one, valid, primordial tradition), but they should not mix -- I think this maps on to certain contemporary forms of white nationalism that use the term “heritage” frequently and defensively, and I think it is not a bad way of defining the quasi-nationalist element in Traditionalism.