I heard a promotion on our local NPR station for a weekend report about the alt-right and their dual infatuation with Medieval Europe and pop star Taylor Swift. Gee, I wonder if they’ll also talk about neo-Nazis and their affection for evolutionary thinking. What do you think? The latter is a subject that historian Richard Weikart and I have discussed (here, here, and here) and that CSC associate director John West talked about the other day with World Magazine.
While I couldn’t off the top of my head tell you the names of any of her songs, the white nationalist infatuation with Taylor Swift surprised me. According to Wikipedia, her own philosophical and political interests, insofar as they’re known, are all exceedingly mild.
So what’s going on? An article for Pacific Standard, which I assume provided the material for the NPR report, explains. The author is Dominican University historian David M. Perry, who writes:
Nazis love Taylor Swift. She is thin, blonde, pale, and rich. She doesn’t talk politics much, which might be just a savvy marketing decision, but it also enables wild speculation about her views on Donald Trump, feminism, and whether black lives matter.
Uh huh. That speculation would have to be quite wild. The interest in medieval studies makes a little more sense:
White supremacists explicitly celebrate Europe in the Middle Ages because they imagine that it was a pure, white, Christian place organized wholesomely around military resistance to outside, non-white, non-Christian, forces. Marchers in Charlottesville held symbols of the medieval Holy Roman Empire and of the Knights Templar. The Portland murderer praised “Vinland,” a medieval Viking name for North America, in order to assert historical white ownership over the landmass: Vinlander racists like to claim that whites are “indigenous” here on the basis of medieval Scandinavian lore.
It also makes sense that Professor Perry, with his specialty in “medieval Mediterranean history, with a particular focus on Venice and the Crusades,” would take offense at neo-Nazis taking such a lively interest in his field.
Yet much as the alt-right’s doting on Taylor Swift is arbitrary, so, largely, is the obsession with the Middle Ages. The fringe of contemporary white nationalists is secular and focused on race. Medieval Europeans, on the other hand, had limited contact with non-whites, while the animus that drove the Crusades was religious, not racial. Anti-Jewish sentiment was also religious in nature – not exclusively, but on the whole.
The interest in evolution, by contrast, is not arbitrary at all. From Darwin to Hitler, evolutionary thinking has been tainted by a tendency to rank the human race on the basis of being, supposedly, more or less close to what the Tree of Life identifies as our ape cousins.
For this reason, as Dr. West told World Magazine, evolution and the alt-right go together naturally:
[West] notes the ideology of white supremacists is often rooted in another historical theory: evolution.
Evolutionary hero Charles Darwin offered his racial theory in The Descent of Man: “The Western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilization.” He added: “The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.”
West says Darwin’s writings make clear he thought African blacks and Australian Aborigines were lowest on the evolutionary scale of humans, and his notion of natural selection predicted races would be unequal: “In Darwin’s theory we are not the result of some beneficent plan or Creator, we’re really the result of this process of survival of the fittest.”
That theory fueled the eugenics movement in the early 20th century and led to dozens of U.S. states passing laws to allow the forced sterilization of citizens deemed unfit to reproduce. Other states passed laws forbidding mixed marriages.
Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger embraced eugenic ideas and thought birth control was the best way to prevent what she and other eugenicists considered undesirable populations (often the lower class, poor, or disabled).
After Adolf Hitler embraced eugenics and slaughtered millions of people he deemed undesirable, most scientists began rejecting the use of Darwin’s theory to promote racist ideas. But the seeds remain embedded in Darwin’s writings, and West says some modern-day supremacists have co-opted his theory as part of their own racist views.
Which, again, figures.
Did you wonder whether Professor Perry, in his article, mentions Darwin or evolution? Nope, he doesn’t. And I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the NPR story won’t either.