Even in the world of academia, a punchy headline can be everything.
As subaltern analysis heads from the margins to the center of critical discourse, the kind of post-colonialism that was previously centered on a college campus has been popularized across the left. Within a popular culture shifting to decolonization ideas, someone at the Third World Quarterly likely knew a title like “The Case for Colonialism” was going to gain some traction. The paper, penned by controversial Portland State University faculty member Bruce Gilley, argued that Western colonial expansion into the Global South, specifically Africa, was a net positive, and that the 20th century liberation struggles were a catastrophe that should be reversed. Ignoring the mountains of scholarship that outlines the brutal cruelty of colonial exploitation, slavery and genocide, Gilley has taken an avenue that is popular amongst the academic segment of the radical right: transvaluation. With a mind towards defending white settler colonialism, Gilley did not deny the tragedies, he just decided they were worth it.
While it was shocking to many that a respected Routledge-published journal like Third World Quarterly would publish something so bizarrely angled, there is a precedent for this type of academic literature. While the academy is often viewed as the vanguard of intellectual leftism (a claim that has some merit), this perception hides the fact that far-right — and often openly fascist — political actors also have found a place in the classroom.
In the wake of World War II, and the advancements in the physical and social sciences, the idea of race as a meaningful category had not only been largely abolished, but the cruel consequences of racial pseudo-science were undeniable. This did not completely end this false scholarship, however, but it forced a certain coded language that justified racist thinking while abandoning the cultural baggage that open racialism often carries.
Started in 1937 when “racial hygiene” was still a popular concept, the Pioneer Fund was created by industrialist Wickliffe Draper to support scientific research that validated ideas on eugenics, racial segregation and immigration restriction. Their journal, the Mankind Quarterly, has been publishing this race-related research for decades now, and their grants continue to climb off their hefty endowment. In the 1960s, education psychologist Arthur Jensen made a name for himself by arguing racial differences in the capacity of young children to learn, with the term “Jensenism” being coined for his line of thinking. The Jensenist argument was that IQ was largely heritable, and that certain genes found in particular populations were correlative to higher IQs. It was exactly this “hereditarian” concept that drove Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 touchstone The Bell Curve, which mined Pioneer Fund research to support a radically anti-egalitarian vision of human intellect and wealth acquisition.
Evolutionary psychology was plagued by figures like these for decades, constructing the notion that human beings evolved into hierarchical social divisions, and that their abilities were fixed rather than socially malleable. J. Philippe Rushton became one of the most controversial figures in his field when he openly argued for racial differences in innate IQ, using “twin studies” to try and prove that IQ was highly heritable and, therefore, if he could find Black populations with low IQs, they would likewise be deficient as a group. He went on to argue bizarre theories, like Black people have a high predilection for aggression because of their dark skin color, and that penis size is correlative to IQ. Today, scientists like Richard Lynn continue to argue strict racial hierarchies using this logic, arguing that nations have developed more or less wealthy not because of colonial expansion and access to resources, but because of brain size and natural intelligence.
The Population Bomb
In the same vein of coded language, “population” has been doubly loaded to try and strike at liberal sentiments about the environment for radically illiberal conclusions. The fear of population growth is stationed in modernity by environmental movements that rightly see increased industrialism, development and civilizational expansion as potential for violence on the planet. In the 1970s, we began seeing books looking at the “population bomb,” the coming expansion in world populations that would overwhelm the Earth’s carrying capacity. While this could theoretically have a neutral tone, a large portion of the authors stoking population fears set their eyes on the “Third World,” countries still in the process of development and whose cultural features were looked down on by wealthy white nations.
Many radical environmentalists from movements like Earth First! went in the direction of the population restriction, with people like Dave Foreman settling in with anti-immigrant groups like Californians for Population Stabilization. The argument first sees non-white immigration as problematic for the sustainability of environmental reserves, suggesting that non-white people are less capable of sustaining the environment and, second, blaming the conditions of many highly polluted nations on their people rather than economic conditions.
Inside of the academy, many of these ideas flourished, so much so that when white nationalists took over the journal Population and Environment, few made headlines. From 1989 to 1999, the journal was edited by Virginia Abernethy, one of the most public white separatists in the country. Abernethy focused her career as a sociologist on “population politics,” using coded language about “fertility rates” to argue for both the restriction of non-white populations and for white social control. She served on the board of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, serving as their vice-presidential candidate in the 2012 election. Her main political work seemed to be in Arizona working on the anti-immigration Proposition 200 with Protect Arizona Now.
Kevin MacDonald, who would also join the board of the American Freedom Party, took up where Abernethy left off and edited Population and Environment from 1999 to 2004. MacDonald rocked evolutionary psychology when he released a series of books arguing that Jews used a “group evolutionary strategy” to infiltrate world systems to destabilize and attack white Western civilization. He has since become a prime figure in the world of white nationalism and the “alt-right,” editing the Occidental Observer and becoming a rabid advocate of “white identity.” Today, Population and Environment seems to have been taken back from its racialist contingent and appears to have no white nationalist content.
The world of medieval studies has not been the ripest for controversy historically, largely because its discoveries are often arcane to the general public. The slow progression of the far-right into this world would not have seemed obvious a few years ago, as few see the connection between the “Fuhrer” principle in Eurocentric fascism and the romanticism that some have for a pre-democratic era of European history. Medieval iconography has been a part of fascist movements since interwar Europe, in which fascists try to find heroic images of warriors beset on all sides by invaders who are not like themselves. Over the past several decades, medieval studies has been a stalwart against many deconstructivist trends in academia, focusing heavily on traditional analysis that sees medieval Europe as a place of chivalry, honor and identity.
Over the past several years, as the “alt-right” and “identitarian” strains of white nationalism developed, an obsession with medievalist scholarship abounded. In the circles that celebrated pre-Christian European paganism as a way of essentializing spirituality into race, there was a heavy focus on the social and religious structures that made up Europe. As “traditionalist” forms of Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity gained some traction, veneration of medieval Christian institutions, long thought to be an ugly history laced with repression and witch burnings, found an appeal. Some medieval studies professors were even making their way into open romantic nationalism, with white nationalist cultural journals like Mjolnir appearing under the pseudo-anonymous tutelage of a medieval history academic.
These issues came to a head when the 2017 International Medieval Congress took place and a discussion on “otherness” in the Middle Ages was run by a panel of all white men. After a joke about its monoracial nature, the discussion about the lack of diversity in the discipline and its Eurocentric focus began. The singular lens of the Middle Ages that sees the era as exclusively white and Christian has attracted some from the far right to these departments, which further influences the direction of the scholarship. The presentation of the Middle Ages as a monoracial set of glorious empires is ahistorical: It erases both the horrors of the dominant powers and the actual multicultural diversity that was explicit even in those periods. This is especially true given the late development of race as an essential concept, birthing out of “pre-Adamic” theories about non-white people that did not dominate until after the feudal periods were largely over.
The primary arguments that are made from far-right scholars honing in on particular disciplines is that their work is intellectual and for inquiry, not politics. This is essentially the “apolitical” argument that fascist cultural figures have made since the Second World War, where the traditional model of fascist party violence was proven a losing formula. Instead, many fascist ideologues abandoned orthodox fascist organizing in favor of cultural struggle as a necessary precondition for politics. This model was coined by French fascist academic Alain de Benoist, who labeled them “Gramscians of the right” after the imprisoned Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who theorized a cultural revolution on the left. De Benoist and his Nouvelle Droite movement looked at reshaping cultural attitudes to make their ethnic politics possible in the future, forcing the white public to see themselves and their society differently so they would be able to shift the Overton Window. For many artists and musicians on the right, this meant developing genres like neofolk as a vessel for romantic nationalism and the veneration of a mythological European past — one that could fill them with the motivating emotions that drive separatist political movements.
This shift was a focus on “metapolitics,” the cultural modalities that are pre-political in orientation, and the academy is a perfect fit for this strategy of influence. Inside the hard sciences, focusing on items like IQ difference can reframe cultural and economic explanations for IQ scores to ones of fixed essential categories, re-establishing the idea that humans are unequal and that races are biologically defined and profoundly different. In the population restrictionist sector, this has been to reframe legitimate fears about climate change and ecological catastrophe to cast blame on poor communities of color, shifting views of “universal human rights” to instead seeing people as suspect and expendable. Medievalism also presents its own pathway to fascist metapolitics, using a mythological reading of Europe’s past as a model for a racialized authoritarian dystopia that creates strictly regulated vertical caste systems. While each of these disciplines is radically different, the motivation that pushed certain far-right people into the classroom was that they found some tract in the study that validated their baser instincts, whether it meant blaming people of color or resurrecting a warrior past that never truly was.
The fascist creep into academia is not a recent development, especially for Europeans, but without a conscious response it will only metastasize unchallenged. The strain of thinking that goes along with these far-right interpretations is fundamentally pseudo-intellectualism: They make spurious claims without meeting the burden of proof, choosing ideology over evidence. The counter to this is, in part, to reinforce the factual consensus while also undoing their argumentation by taking those disciplines further into critical analysis. The European Middle Ages was hardly a bastion of “Ethnostates,” and was instead much more multiracial than many have imagined. At the same time, the reality of those monarchies was brutal feudal enslavement, a fact that is erased in the reconstruction of these empires in the imaginations of white nationalists. Overpopulation may be an issue in some areas of environmental preservation, but that comes from the overproduction wrought in capitalism, not in the families surviving on few resources in the Global South. If population is a concern, then the proven solution is to increase access to education for women and marginalized members of the community, not closing the border and scapegoating the most vulnerable. The ability of fascists to reframe the academic discourse in these disciplines comes from the absence of these facts being disseminated and made useful in political and social work, the disconnect that academia often has from real world application.
The Battle Over Ideas
The threat presented by fascist ideologues hijacking academic courses is more than just the dissolution of facts, it’s the weaponization of educational authority to push their own political vision. Fascist public speech is not just discourse, it is the use of demonstrably untrue narratives under the guise of intellectual rigor in an attempt at expanding a nationalist project. As organizations like Vanguard America, Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker Party double down on campus recruitment, this only becomes more critical as academics who mobilize these distortions are opening up the space for an explosion of racialist activism.
As “The Case for Colonialism” created a public backlash, 15 members of the editorial board of the Third World Quarterly stepped down in protest of the article’s publication. Though the Editor-in-Chief Shahid Qadir insisted that the article had been through a double-blind peer-review process, it was later discovered that it had been rejected by reviewers and the board members who requested copies were not given them. Gilley officially requested to have the article withdrawn as public pressure for him to be fired mounted, though he later rescinded this request and declared that he wanted the article to remain. Gilley’s public CV was updated on September 25, well after the controversy had begun, where he placed “The Case for Colonialism” at the top of his list of peer-reviewed articles. While Gilley may leave academia for a cushy life at a conservative think tank, it will be campus anti-racist organizations that will really determine whether or not the Portland State University community will be supportive of work that voluntarily erases the genocide of colonialism in favor of a white supremacist vision of history.