Yesterday, a young racist attacked a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, shooting thirteen people in a targeted attack on an African American community.
Ben Collins, a reporter covering domestic extremism and disinformation for NBC News, has published an assessment of the accused Buffalo terrorist’s manifesto. (As a matter of principle, I will not name the accused terrorist or directly address his manifesto here.) The attack is part of a string of white-power terror attacks around the world and in the United States since 2018. But it has a couple of specific elements worth noting. According to Collins, the attack appears to be related to high school education in at least two ways.
First, the accused terrorist, who is now eighteen years old, “claims that he was radicalized on 4chan”—a known breeding ground for Internet extremists, including the earliest participants in the QAnon hoax—“while he was ‘bored’ at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.” Presumably, that would be the period when his high school was closed for in-person instruction.
Second, the accused terrorist “claims ‘critical race theory,’ a recent right-wing talking point that has come to generally encompass teaching about race in school, is part of a Jewish plot, and a reason to justify mass killings of Jews.”
Assuming the manifesto is authentic, as it appears to be, this is how paranoia and political lies spill over.
Xenophobia, treated as a useful tool and amusing plaything by cynical politicians and media personalities, finds new targets, over and over again. That’s its job. But people who know better will continue finding excuses for it.
I posed a question here almost two years ago: Do humanities teachers know how to deradicalize their students? I was responding to reports about an alleged neo-Nazi terrorist who had received an expensive liberal arts education. (A New York magazine profile subsequently labeled him “the prep-school Nazi.” It also showed, however, that his involvement in the far right probably began only several years after he left college.)
I argued that the evidence for education’s effectiveness in combating extremism is, at best, mixed. We cannot assume education reliably prevents or reverses radicalization. However, this doesn’t mean education has no role to play in the deradicalization process. As I wrote a year ago, “People have to be given the tools to challenge and rebuild their own beliefs.” Thus, the question I was raising was really this: Do humanities teachers know what practices will give students those tools?
This month, I have been revisiting a 2018 book that shows, as a case study, why the answer is complicated. Deradicalization, this book suggests, simultaneously is and is not about education.
At the end of a year when American educators came under fierce attack for their efforts to fight racism, thinking clearly about this paradox seems more important than ever. So let’s talk about this book.
Continue reading “Leaving Extremism: What’s College Got to Do with It?”
This week, the Guardian and the BBC claimed to have uncovered the identity of an apparent neo-Nazi who may be responsible for some recent alleged terrorist plots inside the United States.
For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which “offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.
I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme right—including the man’s background in the humanities.
That’s what I want to focus on.
Continue reading “Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?”
Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:
I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.
Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …
Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019
On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.
“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”
It’s a good question.
Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.
(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)
Work of the imagination is required.
In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”
But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.
Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”
Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:
Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.
‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’
Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.
“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.
The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.
Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.
In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.