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Who's Right? What's Left?

This week's shooting at the Holocaust Museum has sparked some discussion about whether it's accurate to describe the raving anti-Semite who opened fire at the museum (James Von Brunn) as a "right-wing extremist." That discussion has now taken an odd turn by the news that Von Brunn may have also targeted the offices of The Weekly Standard, a magazine associated with the neoconservative movement. How could Von Brunn be a right-winger, extreme or otherwise, when the Weekly Standard is a magazine of the right? Shouldn't we just call him a deranged all-purpose hater and be done with it?

For the sake of political and intellectual clarity, it's crucially important that we don't do anything of the sort.

The American political spectrum is extremely narrow. For all the seriousness of the differences that separate Democrats and Republicans, both parties are thoroughly persuaded of the legitimacy of liberal democratic government. That's a wonderful thing, since it's produced long-lasting civil peace and stability.

But that very peace and stability, and the ideological narrowness that makes it possible, can also lead us to forget the persistent character of the anti-liberal left and anti-liberal right, with which we (unlike citizens in less fortunate regions of the world) have very little acquaintance. The anti-liberal left has historically been defined by the radical universalism of its principles, the anti-liberal right by its exclusionary (racial, ethnic, national) particularism. That is the primary difference between them. And that's why Von Brunn is unmistakably a man of the anti-liberal right: he believes in a particularistic vision of the world in which Jews, blacks, neocons, people with low IQs, and sundry other classes and groups of people have been eliminated; on Wednesday, he made a small contribution to realizing this distinctively right-wing ideal.

This is also why I think Jamie Kirchick confuses matters by invoking the anti-Semitism of the left, which (though it may have similar psychological sources) is linked to very different ideas. For the far-left, Judaism (and especially Zionism) is offensive because of its particularism, its affirmation of ties to family, tradition, heritage, and nation. I'd say that this is even true for most of the anti-liberal leftists who have embraced the pseudo-particularism of radical multiculturalism. In the end, they take the side of the "other" mainly for the sake of undermining the authority of those currently in positions of political, economic, and military power -- not because they actually want to "go native" and affirm the particularism of the downtrodden as if it were their own. (How many admirers of Edward Said actually go off and become strictly observant Muslims?) On the contrary, the ideal world of the radical multiculturalist would be one of complete cosmopolitan egalitarianism in which every group affirms its own beliefs while (somehow) equally affirming everyone else's too. As for the few who take these ideas so far that they actually do "go native," well, they've moved so far left that they've ended up on the right.

This analysis also helps us to understand some of our confusion in placing neoconservatives on the political spectrum. Neocons tend to be staunch American nationalists (making them right-wing), but their vision of Americanism consists of universalistic ideals and principles (placing them somewhere on the left -- which is why left-leaning writers like Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens have expressed sympathy for some neocon ideas and policies). In this, and perhaps only in this, neoconservatism resembles the ideology of French republicanism, which also asserts the universalism of a particular nation's ideals. 

So, yes: Von Brunn is unambiguously a right-wing extremist. 

Jonathan Chait Responds: "Liberal Fascism Reductio Ad Absurdum"