Richard Spencer is stirring up trouble in both my native and adopted states.
Spencer, who created the term alt-right, is a resident of Whitefish. On Tuesday, he gave a speech in the Texas town where I used to live, at the university where I both taught and studied.
Spencer has been spouting the virtues of the white race for years, but last month he gained a dubious national reputation for shouting “Hail Trump” at a conference in Washington, drawing Nazi-like salutes from his white supremacist fans. Even for many hardcore racists, invoking Hitler was going too far.
In response to Spencer’s plans to speak at Texas A&M University, thousands of Texans signed petitions asking A&M to cancel his speech. According to news reports, hundreds of people faced off against riot police to protest his appearance Tuesday night in College Station, Texas. A counter event with music and speeches was scheduled at Kyle Field, where Aggies vent decades of football frustration on autumn weekends.
The Bryan-College Station Eagle, the newspaper I used to edit, did the right thing with an editorial endorsing free speech even for jerks like Spencer. The university did the right thing, too, even if not entirely willingly. In an email to former students like me, the dean of liberal arts and A&M President Michael Young pointed out that the university had nothing to do with scheduling the event and was obligated by state law to allow private parties to use its meeting rooms.
“Freedom of speech is a First Amendment right and a core value of this university, no matter how odious the views may be,” Young said.
It was a touchy situation for A&M, a conservative bulwark in a conservative state. In Texas, people are born either Aggies or Tea-Sips, the Aggies’ derogatory term for the liberal elites who attend the University of Texas. I was born into a Tea-Sip family but got my master’s degree by geographical accident at A&M.
Once insular, all-male, all-military and nearly mono racial (no black students or women were admitted before 1963), A&M has blossomed into a giant university where the Corps of Cadets remains a small but disproportionately important part of campus life. No college tries harder to retain its traditional conservative values.
Even when Texas was still largely a yellow-dog Democrat state, Aggies stood firmly by the Republican Party. Not even Democrat Garry Mauro, a Bryan native and former Aggie yell leader, could win their votes in a statewide race in 1982. This November, Donald Trump got 59 percent of the vote in Brazos County, despite Democratic strongholds in north Bryan and the college community.
Spencer breached that Aggie bulwark by giving his speech in A&M’s Memorial Student Center, where nobody wears a hat and plaques honor those who died fighting Hitler, not saluting him. Perhaps even worse, Spencer’s alt-right movement has connections to Breitbart.com, which in turn has connections to Steve Bannon, chief strategist for President-elect Trump.
Breitbart.com is noted for its inflammatory headlines and cesspool comments section. Among the recent highlights:
♦ “And so the new-age Joe Goebbels Zuckerburg begins his Ministry of Misinformation staffed by liberal Brownshirts and the Gestapo.”
♦ “Democrats are the True Racists!”
♦ “Listening to hate speech is what has these idiots all fired up. Listening to Obama and his daily dose of hate speech, hate Whitey, hate the cops, hate the rich, hate Republicans, hate America, and hate anyone who disagrees with you.”
♦ “I consider To Kill a Mockingbird a pile of steaming cultural marxism meant to solidify the racist white people trigger happy to judge and lynch the poor innocent black man meme.”
And that’s just from a quick dip into the comments. A stronger stomach than mine would be required to dig much more deeply.
Spencer himself is less crude but perhaps more terrifying. In September, Mother Jones magazine interviewed him over “togarashi-crusted ahi” at a restaurant in Whitefish, where Spencer has lived for several years. Spencer said, “In this weird way that Trump is trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to America, he’s also, like, bringing America to an end in the sense that he is a first step to white identity politics, which will bring about fragmentation.”
See what I mean? A scary ideology comes wrapped in anodyne prose.
Whitefish has tried to deal with Spencer in its own way. Mother Jones reported that some restaurants refuse to serve him, and the Missoula Independent has reported that Love Lives Here, a chapter of the Montana Human Rights Network, tried to pass a no-hate ordinance that would have kept Spencer’s National Policy Institute out of town. It had to settle for a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Montanans, as usual, remain calm. In a letter from six faculty and administrators, including the chancellor, Montana State University Billings distributed a letter last week calling for civility in “a time of significant stress for many people.”
“A call for civility does not mean that we cannot disagree with or challenge ideas; indeed, we expect members of the university to disagree and actively engage in discussions of ideas that challenge our perspectives and ways of thinking,” the letter said.
Characters like Spencer challenge all that is best in us, especially in our schools and colleges. A school district in Virginia has just pulled two classics of racial understanding, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” from classrooms and libraries while a committee determines if they are fit reading for tender students.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports on a study that finds that 82 percent of middle schoolers can’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and an actual news story.
I teach my freshmen students about logical fallacies, from straw man arguments to slippery slopes, always including the most picturesque, the post hoc ergo propter hoc, which I translate this way: Just because the lights go out when you sneeze does not prove that your sneeze made the lights go out.
But I always begin with the ad hominem attack, an obvious fallacy that remains effective because the natural reaction is to either respond in kind or cower, whether the attack comes from a professor, another student or a presidential candidate. This year, examples abounded.
In my journalism class, we discuss the challenges of reporting in a post-truth age. “Post-truth,” I point out, was the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year.
It all seems so little. And the Richard Spencers of the world keep looming larger.