No one can accuse Richard Spencer of being ignorant in the formal sense of the word.
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Spencer holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Chicago, and was on his way to a Ph.D. in European intellectual history at Duke before dropping out to become a professional racist. He must have picked up a modicum of history along the way, and certainly has the skills to learn what he doesn’t know.
Therefore, we have to assume that Spencer's outrageous ideas that have little or no connection with truth are crude political theatrics with the goal of attracting attention to himself. His truly ignorant supporters are happy to hear any assertion that confirms their prejudices and his horrified enemies broadcast his ideas more effectively than he ever could alone. It’s a strategy that worked for Trump.
Spencer’s public ignorance was on display last week at the University of Florida where he pointed to countries that are or once were “ethno-states,” like the early United States or present-day Russia. He also cited Israel as “the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state, the one that I turn to for guidance.”
We’ll get to Israel in a minute. But before we do, it would be useful to point to the stunning incorrectness of Spencer’s claims about the United States way back when, or Russia today.
America was never an ethno-state. In the 1790 census, the first taken after independence, the country was 19.3% African-American, a higher proportion than it is today. Nor were white Americans culturally or religiously homogenous. About 9% of the country spoke German as its first language and Congress briefly considered a proposal to issue official documents in German and English. America was a potpourri of religions and nationalities.
As for Russia, even shorn of most of the old Soviet empire, it's hardly an ethno-state either. Less than 78% of its population is Russian. The rest are Tatars, Ukrainians, Chechens and other minorities, many of them Asian. As much as 15% of the population is Muslim.
Vladimir Putin promotes Russian nationalism, but it’s both fake and a failure. By any standard of prosperity, power and pride, Russia fails dismally on the first two and passes on the third by behaving badly. Its economy is a Third World backwater, and its military strength is a smoke and mirrors act more than it is real prowess. National pride, as practiced by Putin, means curtailing basic freedoms, letting corruption run rampant and bullying your smaller and weaker neighbors.
And, just as Spencer is wrong about early America or modern Russia, he’s wrong about Israel.
Maybe, like others on the political right, Spencer is mesmerized by the symbols of state. Israel is the Jewish state, its flag features a Star of David and media coverage of Jewish nationalists is intense. But the reality is that Israel is 20% Palestinian, and, in many ways, is an exemplar of multiculturalism.
Israeli Arabs attend their own schools where they are taught in Arabic. Their personal status is governed by Muslim or Christian religious law and administered by a separate court system. Horror of horrors, there are sharia courts.
Israel has no official language, but Arabic appears in official documents and on product labels much as Spanish does in America. A walk through downtown Be'er Sheva would find more veiled women than in central Paris, but Israel has never passed legislation banning burkas.
There is also plenty of anti-Arab racism in Israel and Israeli Arabs are poorer, less educated and grossly underrepresented in the upper echelons of business, politics and culture. But given the unending wars between the State of Israel and the Arab world, it’s remarkable that the situation isn’t worse.
Spencer’s Jewish ethno-state is a figment of his imagination. The real Israel is a neo-Nazi nightmare.
Alas, Israel is also a lesson in how multiculturalism isn’t the answer to a multi-ethnic state.
Israeli Arabs are held back by underfunded schools and cities, official neglect as well as the racism of Jewish Israelis, but they are also held back by their very separateness.
Children who learn in Arabic and speak it as their first language have a harder time at Hebrew-speaking universities and succeeding in the Hebrew-speaking job market. In a country that values army service, not serving is a handicap. Living in separate communities and neighborhoods, consuming different media and celebrating your differentness exacerbate the difference.
Spencer’s solution is his fantasy ethno-state where everyone by virtue of the color of their skin or their family ancestry thinks and acts the same. But, as other ultranationalists have discovered, it doesn’t work that way. Hitler had to throw a lot of Germans into concentration camps to ensure the vision of lockstep society that he and presumably Spencer share.
Far from being fated to chaos or decline, a well-functioning democratic and free society has a great deal of latitude for differences. Indeed democracy, freedom and tolerance are all critical for a knowledge economy like Israel’s which demands innovative thinking, an openness to new ideas and unfettered debate. You can’t tell people to think out of the box at work and go back into it when they get home.
Israelis can ignore Spencer, but we can’t ignore the Spencerians in Israel who have convinced themselves that Israel is suffering from democratic malaise that can be cured by hyper-nationalism enforced by a little less democracy and rule of law. In fact, all the values they disparage have served Israel well in the last decades. To think otherwise is not just a fantasy, but a dangerous one.