The rant, caught on tape, went something like this:
“Europeans! We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because we’re so baaad. We invented the modern world. We saved billions of people from starvation. We built modern civilization. White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world. We are so amazing! I love myself! And I love white people! Fuck yeah, white people! Fuck yeah, white men! We did everything! I don’t hate other people. I just love white men.”
The reaction to Columbia University’s Julian von Abele verbal screed was swift and dramatic. The school called it “hate speech.” Columbia’s Black Students’ Organization released a set of demands over it that called for revisions to the Core Curriculum to include more black authors, for President Bollinger to clearly define the distinction between free speech and hate speech, an increase in funding for black faculty recruitment initiatives, revised student workshops to more adequately address issues of racism and anti-blackness, mandatory online training for racial inclusivity, and much more.
But was the young man at the heart of this incident a white supremacist racist? Turns out, he’s not.
In a lengthy profile in The Atlantic, staff writer Conor Friedersdorf took the time to get to know von Abele. He came to find out that not only has the student apologized for the rant and put it in context, but that he is actually a thoughtful young man whose nuanced views are a far cry from that of David Duke or Richard Spencer, and whose outburst had come from deep-seeded frustration built up at the Ivy League institution over the destructive forces of identity politics pushed by the school.
When he arrived at Columbia, a freshman orientation session felt, to him, like an anti-Trump indoctrination session. In his telling, white men were presented as “the source for most of the problems in American society,” and anyone who voiced objections to the prevailing “identitarian” framework was attacked. “I admire a meritocratic society that is built on principles of equality of opportunity,” he said. “My issue is with the left-wing ideology that seems to be emerging that focuses on identifying people with groups rather than as individuals.”
His viral rant still ringing in my ears, I pressed him to tell me more about what he called “identitarianism” at Columbia. What kind of critique was he offering? Was he coming from the same place as the Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who opposes what he calls “identity politics”? Or was he closer to the reactionary populism of Steve Bannon? Or the white nationalism of Richard Spencer?
“Well, I mean, mentioning Richard Spencer––I’m afraid of the identitarian right as well,” he said. “I just don’t think that they have the same level of political or cultural power as the identitarian left. If groups with the views of Richard Spencer or David Duke were running university administrations or large parts of the internal structure of the federal government or the media, then I would be terrified. I absolutely do not align myself with the identitarian right.”
Mostly, von Abele told me, he worries that the values that made Western civilization great are under attack by the faction in the academy that exalts group identity rather than “the principles of personalism and individualism,” undermining “a culture that views individuals as the most important element rather than groups.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes personalism as an approach that “always underscores the centrality of the person as the primary locus of investigation for philosophical, theological, and humanistic studies.”)
On a historical timescale, treating persons rather than tribes, races, or religions as the unit of political or moral significance is not normal, von Abele said. He believes the West’s abnormal approach enabled the prosperity that Steven Pinker writes about in his work on human progress. And he sees what he calls left-identitarianism as a force urging a rejection of personalism and a return to group identity, abetted by an academy that doesn’t appreciate the loss that would entail.
Attentive readers will feel the same cognitive dissonance that I did. In our interview, von Abele extolled individualism as a great civilizational advance—yet he’d ranted about the virtues of white people as a group, using identitarian language. If his dissent from Columbia’s culture was rooted in a desire to defend “personalism,” why did he express pride in the achievements of white males, as if sharing that group identity connected him to the advances of ancient Greeks, Catholic philosophers, or Caucasian scientists?
“I understand what you’re saying,” he acknowledged. “On the one hand, I value personalism. I say that each individual should be judged on their own merits. On the other hand, I’m claiming I’m proud of the achievements of a culture that my ancestors helped to build, when I really had nothing to do with its construction. And yeah, I agree with you. In isolation, my remarks would be really inconsistent with my general philosophy of personalism. But the context of my words is a reaction against the demonization of me for an identity.”
In his telling, he overheard a group of fellow Columbia students asserting that Trump supporters favor sexual violence. He interjected that he was a Trump supporter who very much opposed sexual violence––and was castigated, he says, for offering an opinion on attacks against women as a privileged white male.
That’s when his viral monologue began.
“If you insult someone for their identity, then a reaction that you can expect is for them to say that they’re proud of it,” he said. “That video clip shows a reaction to an insult––not genuine belief of being proud of the achievements of a culture in which I live. I reacted to being insulted for my identity by claiming that identity.”
The article later reprints a portion of von Abele’s apology letter to the campus community, which stated in part:
I regret that I subsequently engaged in an exchange that was admittedly overzealous and was not the right venue to discuss the value of identity politics. The rhetoric I used to prove a point sounded as if I feel that whites are better than other races, while really, I was theatrically and sarcastic
ally demonstrating that whites are not allowed to embrace their cultural achievements.
The out-of-context video was not representative of my general argument that evening, which was not that white men were solely responsible for the scientific accomplishments of the world, but instead that the great things western culture has accomplished throughout history should not be ignored to accommodate identity politics.
Read the full piece in The Atlantic.