Philosophy and the Far Right—3
How can teachers of political philosophy prevent their students from taking the plunge into the radical right?
As I explained in Part 1 of this post, students of Leo Strauss are known for treating old books of political philosophy as potentially containing the truth about “the whole”—the human world of politics as well as the natural / theological / cosmological context in which it unfolds. That can make the study of political philosophy with students of Strauss a heady experience.
But what happens when an advanced student of these texts comes to be powerfully attracted to the account of human existence and politics found in the work of a figure of the far right?
That appears to describe what happened with Michael Millerman and Darren Beattie, two figures I briefly profiled in Part 2. The same could be said of the two men I examine below in Part 3. If anything, the views of the latter are even more toxic—and more directly tracible to close encounters with some of the most radical figures in the history of political philosophy.
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Costin Vlad Alamariu (also known as Bronze Age Pervert)
Alamariu earned his Ph.D. in 2015 from Yale University, studying with Straussian Steven Smith and writing a dissertation on the concept of tyranny in Plato and Nietzsche. This is noteworthy in two respects: first, because Smith is the author of a warmly received book on Strauss that portrays him as a liberal in the mold of Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Trilling, Walter Lippman, Raymond Aron, and Judith Shklar, making Smith an exceedingly unlikely pedagogical bridge to his student’s antiliberalism; second, because, to judge from Alamariu’s activity since completing his Ph.D., his study of tyranny served less as a vehicle for scholarly illumination than as a personal instruction manual for political engagement.
In addition to contributing a handful of pieces to Panagiotis “Taki” Theodoracopulos’ paleoconservative and frequently racist online magazine, Alamariu spent the years immediately following his graduate education writing a manifesto of sorts under the pseudonym Bronze Age Pervert (BAP). The resulting self-published book, Bronze-Age Mindset (2018), became a sensation on the intellectual right, including among staffers in the Trump administration, who reportedly passed it around like samizdat. That’s no doubt one reason why former member of the Trump National Security Council Michael Anton wrote a very respectful review of it in the Claremont Review of Books a year or so after stepping down from his position in the administration.
Those who look at the book will find a sloppily composed, semi-coherent mélange of classical history, political philosophy, deranged ranting, curt dismissals of ethics, and hyperbolic insults directed a various people and groups in the contemporary world. BAP is above all disgusted by “bugmen” (a transparent stand-in for Nietzsche’s “Last Man”), the teeming hordes who exemplify mediocrity and drag down all forms of human greatness to their pitiful level. All of it builds toward an “exhortation” to masculine strength and courage—an ideal that Alamariu promoted on his now-banned Twitter feed, with far-right memes interspersed with homoerotic photographs of jacked-up half-naked men.
Far more than anything you will find in the writings of Millerman and Beattie, Alamariu comes off as a genuine fascist. Author Luke Turner has done an excellent job of highlighting fascistic, and even neo-Nazi, ideas in the book. He’s also taken note of the disturbing fact that a mass shooter who murdered five people in Denver in late 2021 was powerfully influenced by BAP’s ideas.
But it’s not just the vitalistic contempt for weakness and valorization of violence and strength that makes BAP an aspiring fascist. It’s also the off-color humor, embrace of absurdity, eagerness to subvert logic, and cheerful deployment of exaggerated mockery blended with obscure pedantry. Those who study the history of fascist movements are well aware that this incongruous mix of joyous revelry and intense indignation is often a hallmark of far-right ideology.
The intermingling of seriousness and slapstick is also present in BAP’s latest venture, the comically surreal subscription podcast bizarrely titled Caribbean Rhythms. Alamariu hosts it himself, his thick Romanian accent adding an extra note of Bond-villain menace to his free-form, post-ironic tirades and digressions about Trump, Putin, great men of past, classical politics, military history, migration patterns down through the ages, and assorted other topics.
Johnson earned his Ph.D. in 2001 from the Catholic University of America with a dissertation on Immanuel Kant and the Swedish theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. He stands out among the figures highlighted in this and the previous post in several respects. For one thing, the subject of Johnson’s dissertation is far removed from those of the others, focusing on 18th-century philosophy and theology instead of more modern and politically explosive topics. Johnson also completed his graduate work more than a decade before Millerman, Beattie, and Alamariu, making him much closer to my generation than theirs. (I’ll come back below to the significance of this difference.)
Johnson’s ties to Straussian scholars is also more tenuous. Richard Velkley, author of the excellent book on Strauss and Heidegger that Beattie and I debated on Twitter in June 2021, joined the faculty at CUA when Johnson’s coursework was already complete and signed on to his dissertation committee when his research and writing was nearly done. Johnson may have taken classes with Straussian Richard Kennington, who taught at CUA in the years prior to his death in 1999, but that is uncertain. (There were non-Straussian experts on Nietzsche and Heidegger at CUA at the time.)
Johnson is distinctive, finally, because within two years of completing his graduate studies, he revealed himself to be a bona fide Nazi. Think I’m exaggerating? Spend some time on the extensive page devoted to Johnson at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here are some highlights.
Johnson (writing under the pseudonym T.C. Lynch), in 2003, on race and immigration:
America would be improved by fewer Blacks, Asians, and Mestizos, not more of them. America would be improved by fewer Muslims, not more of them. And of course this country would be vastly improved by fewer Jews. (I think America would be improved by fewer Christians too, but that's another essay.) …. White America is a mixture of people from all over Europe, slowly being submerged in a rising tide of mud.
Johnson (writing again as T.C. Lynch), also in 2003, on Jews and the “kindness” of Hitler:
As for the Jews … At the very least, all their property should be confiscated. At the very least. There are two reasons for this. First, we should consider it reparations. Second, if they were allowed to keep their wealth, they would immediately use it to stir up trouble against us. Just look at what happened when Adolf Hitler, with the typical excess of kindness that was his greatest flaw, allowed the Jews of Germany to emigrate with their fortunes.
Johnson, in 2010, on American decline:
If in the next national election, everybody who voted Republican dropped dead in the voting booth, the country would be finished. You can’t have a functioning society consisting of bureaucrats, academics, welfare parasites, Jews, coloreds, feminists, fruit juice drinkers, and assorted busybodies.
Johnson, in 2014, once again on Jews:
The organized Jewish community is the principal enemy—not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy—of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction. One cannot defeat an enemy one will not name. Therefore, White nationalism is inescapably anti-Semitic.
There is much, much more. It’s ugly stuff. But why is it here in this post about “Philosophy and the Far Right”?
Because Johnson’s own account of his radicalization places philosophy pretty close to the core. Early on in his graduate education, he considered himself an Objectivist following the lead of Ayn Rand. But at some point, his views shifted in the direction of paleoconservatism, and then to white nationalism. The closest Johnson comes to spelling out the impetus for the change is a statement in which he recounts arguments in graduate school with Jewish students about Heidegger. “That’s when I knew this guy [Hitler] was telling the truth.”
Anyone who doubts the importance of Heidegger for Johnson’s intellectual development should consider his 2020 book, Graduate School with Heidegger, which, like his other books, was published by Counter-Currents Publishing, the white nationalist imprint he co-founded and for which he serves as editor-in-chief. Despite what its title might lead one to expect, the book is not a memoir of his days at CUA, but rather a promotional volume that lays out the basics of Heidegger’s thought, including, in the words of an “Anonymous Heidegger Scholar” who blurbs the book, a “bold, open-minded, and honest treatment of all matters related to Heidegger's politics.” Another blurb, by a retired foreign service officer named Colin Cleary, declares that the book “makes an important contribution to Heidegger scholarship by showing that Heidegger's ethnic nationalism is grounded in his philosophy and that Heidegger's later thought is the template for the European New Right.”
The Imperative of Self-Knowledge
Johnson received his education far enough in the past to undermine my initial hypothesis, advanced in Part 1, about the radicalization of political philosophy graduate students. I suggested there that fewer students were drawn to the far right during the 1990s because of the triumphant liberalism of the moment, just as the comparative weakness of liberalism today, combined with the ascendence of right-wing anti-liberalism, successfully lures more recent students to radicalism.
But the case of Johnson, studying political philosophy through the latter half of the 1990s, calls this theory into question. Context could still, of course, be one factor in radicalization, making some eras more prone to it than in others. But clearly there are other causes at work.
The reality is that Nietzsche, Heidegger, and many of the far-right theorists inspired by them are incredibly powerful thinkers and writers. When study of them is combined with a pedagogy that emphasizes the possibility that they may well have grasped the comprehensive truth about the human condition and “the whole” in which it plays out, their texts can become as intensely seductive as any holy book. Attempting to cordon off or dismiss passages that clash harshly with liberal-democratic conventional wisdom is a responsible instinct, but it may well prove inadequate to the task.
What determines whether students opt to take a leap into political extremism may be, more than anything else, a matter of personal character and how it is shaped (or not shaped) by education. If that’s the case, it will matter enormously whether students are encouraged to combine the seeking of knowledge and truth in the study of great books with the rigorous pursuit of self-knowledge, including an ongoing, bracing examination of their often half-hidden motives for studying political philosophy in the first place.
What am I seeking in the philosophic study of politics? What longings do I hope to satisfy? What is it about certain passages of these books that excite me? Why do I find certain questions alluring and specific answers compelling? Why do I think I will find fulfillment or completion in contributing to the political project proposed in these pages? Are such expectations sound? What in me rebels against or draws back in disgust from certain modern trends? Is that reaction reasonable? What are its sources in my soul? Is my intensely negative response proportionate to the provocation?
An education in political philosophy that’s true to the example of Socrates will encourage such intense self-questioning every step of the way.
The Limits of Politics and the Ends of Philosophy
There is a tension in Strauss’ thought and pedagogy, and in the thought and pedagogy of many of those who follow his example. Is the point to expose students to a range of possible political truths and then encourage them to plunge into one or another, with some contributing to the flourishing of liberalism (through its defense or reform) and others taking leaps into antiliberal political projects?
Or is the point, instead, to follow Strauss himself when he writes that the philosopher “is ultimately compelled to transcend not merely the dimension of common opinion, of political opinion, but the dimension of political life as such; for he is left to realize that the ultimate aim of political life cannot be reached by political life, but only by a life devoted to contemplation, to philosophy”?
None of the teachers I’ve named in this and the previous two posts deserve blame for the actions of their wayward students. Still, as someone who has learned from and taught Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other radical thinkers, I can’t help but be prompted by observing those actions to reflect on the ultimate ends of philosophic education—and on the genuine puzzle of how best to prevent future generations of students from losing their way, as some of their peers in the present so obviously have.
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Lots of people study and are influenced by Heidegger and never become right wing authoritarians. Being and Time isn’t likely to turn you into a fascist if you are not already predisposed to that sort of politics.
Damon -- I was wondering what you make of the quote below from a letter Strauss sent to German philosopher Karl Lowith (of Jewish descent) in 1933:
"the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme to protest against the shabby abomination."
How do you understand this?