THE SECRET POWER OF WHITE SUPREMACISTS – AND HOW ANTI-RACISTS CAN TAKE IT BACK. Black Lives Matter protesters should consider co-opting the language and trappings of chivalry and knighthood that motivate so many racists.
By CORD J. WHITAKER 10/29/2020
In June, while a large Black Lives Matter protest was staged in downtown Philadelphia, a much smaller one occurred in the Fishtown neighborhood to the north. As a counterprotest, a group of white men calling themselves “Old-time Fishtowners,” paraded through the streets carrying bats and antagonizing BLM protesters. At the end of the night, one Fishtowner boasted that, “We did our job.” Another claimed his aim had been “protecting the police.”
The language of white supremacists is full of such chivalric references to duty and protection. It was as if the police were medieval romance damsels, classic Disney princesses, imperiled and in need of defending. To these Fishtowners’ minds, their acts, which included beating a white BLM protester who passed by on his way home, were acts of valor.
I’m a medievalist, and for years now, I have researched and lectured about how the idea of chivalry motivates white supremacists. They apply it to multiple objects. They defend their families. They defend their neighborhoods. They defend their way of life. The flag. Western Civilization. The police. Always they use the language of honor. In their minds, they merely defend the defenseless. Never mind that some of the objects of their defense, such as the police and the United States at-large, are highly militarized and quite capable of effective offense, let alone defense. The object of defense does not matter so much. What matters is the act of defending.
Medievalism is the study and use of medieval Europe by modern people for ends ranging from education to entertainment to political ideology. White supremacists have used medievalism for a long time, from the pastoral pretensions of plantation owners in the antebellum South to the not fully understood relationship between the hooded vestments of Catholic penitents in Spain during Holy Week and the 20th century Ku Klux Klan’s hooded robes. Members of the KKK, after all, even refer to themselves as “knights.”
But the language of honor and chivalry can work two ways — even as it empowers white supremacists, it can be co-opted by their anti-racist antagonists. Anti-racists who understand the power that medievalist language and symbolism have on white supremacists, and figure out how to wield it themselves, will have a powerful weapon to combat the appeal of white supremacy.
You can clearly see the workings of white supremacist medievalism in today’s far-right extremist ideology.
Julius Evola, an early 20th century Italian philosopher, has been an important influence on Richard Spencer, luminary of the so-called alt-right, who was catapulted to fame by the “Unite the Right” rally of August 2017 (and who has recently disavowed his own movement on Twitter). Evola’s philosophies directly influenced Benito Mussolini and Italian fascism as well. Evola wrote significantly on honor, the value of a warrior’s commitment to proving his bravery by defending those in need, and his works were shot through with admiration for medieval knighthood.
A central tenet of Spencer’s alt-right and associated far-right extremist groups has been that the U.S. should be a white ethnostate, or a nation in which membership requires being white. This objective relies upon the erroneous notion that medieval European kingdoms offer the perfect all-white example. An all-white medieval Europe, however, is a fantasy. An ever-increasing body of evidence from scholars in fields such as bio-archaeology has shown that major European port cities were quite diverse. Take London, for example. Researchers have shown that people from the Middle East and Africa lived side by side with English whites in the Middle Ages. DNA evidence from 14th century bodies shows that some were newcomers, while some had lived in England for generations.
The myth of an all-white medieval Europe was peddled by European colonialists in Africa, Asia and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries. It taught colonized people of color that all the literature, history and culture that mattered belonged exclusively to whites. They were to learn it and emulate it, though they had no part in creating it, because, they were told, they had no worthwhile history of their own.