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Racism Is Not a Sin on the American Right, Wokeism Is
That so many right-wingers missed the red flags about Richard Hanania, their rising intellectual star, is deeply troubling
Earlier this month, the world of online punditry was shaken by the startling news that the blogger, scholar, podcaster and think-tank founder Richard Hanania, a heterodox conservative and vocal critic of “woke” progressivism who was funded by tech titans, had a past far more than simply “unwoke.”A bombshell exposé by Huffington Post’s Chris Mathias revealed that from about 2008 to 2013, Hanania, a rising star in the conservative intellectual firmament whose work had appeared in major mainstream publications, had been a regular contributor to several leading white supremacist and “alternative right” websites under the byline “Richard Hoste.”
In those posts, Hoste deplored the evils of race-mixing, extolled the superiority and unique value of the white race, and called for the forced sterilization of people with low IQs, a category into which he lumped most Blacks and Hispanics. He also denounced women’s liberation and female participation in politics but made an exception for 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, gloating that “the attractive, religious and fertile White woman drove the ugly, secular and barren White self-hating and Jewish elite absolutely mad.” And so forth.
The revelations obviously posed a problem for Hanania’s career just as he was on the cusp of publishing his first book, The Origins of Woke (which promises a “stunning new theory about the culture war”). His response, two days after the Huffington Post piece, was ostensibly a mea culpa in a Substack post titled “Why I Used to Suck, and (Hopefully) No Longer Do”—subtitled “My road to small-l liberalism.”
The gist of the “apology” was that Hanania’s “Richard Hoste” posts were written when he was an angry young man with a poor career outlook and equally dim romantic prospects; bitterness, he says, that led him to despise minorities and women. As a result, he believed in bad things like collective blame based on group averages and statistical differences. Now, with the wisdom of age and experience and the more generous outlook conferred by success, he appreciates the boons of an open liberal society and believes that, group differences notwithstanding, people must be treated as individuals.
Hanania’s self-rehabilitation seems to be working, to some extent at least. Though the University of Texas, Austin, where he had an (apparently expiring) visiting research fellowship, has removed his name from its website, HarperCollins does not plan to drop his book. Quillette republished his semi-apology under the title “My Journey Out of Extremism,” and Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy is still retweeting Hanania’s praise for his campaign strategy for dealing with LGBT activists.
When the Hanania story broke, I initially decided, after some internal debate, not to write about it. I found Hanania’s account of his journey less than convincing. But, having clashed with him before, I thought there would be something unseemly about doing a victory dance over his troubles. Then I saw that Hanania was actively trying to parlay the exposure of his unsavory past into book promotions—basically, “Wanna fight cancel culture? Buy this book!”—and I changed my mind. This isn’t just about Hanania; it’s a case study in how easily the right’s crusade against the left and its “woke” excesses can become a vehicle for reintroducing long-banished, odious views into respectable company.
From Extremism to Inauthenticity
Honest accounts of past extremism, and of evolving away from it, deserve charitable treatment. Nonetheless, in Hanania’s case, several serious caveats are in order. For one, he did not admit to his past activities until he got caught. He never leveled with numerous people who had professional associations with him and were placed, at the very least, in an embarrassing position. His mea culpa was more of an ex culpa, less contrite and more self-forgiving. He admits that his old blog posts and comments expressed “repugnant views” and “encouraged racism, misogyny, misanthropy, trolling, and overall bad faith”—but then goes on to attack the author of the exposé as an antifa sympathizer engaged in “unpersoning” him. (For the record, I myself have criticized a 2019 Mathias report on a clash between antifa protesters and far-right activists in Portland, Oregon, for downplaying unprovoked violence by some antifa members; but this has nothing to do with the factual accuracy of the Hanania exposé, or whether this exposé is a legitimate topic.) He obfuscates when portraying Richard Hoste postings as ancient history, at one point referring to them as “embarrassing takes in my early 20s about the 2008 election.” In fact, he was a regular contributor to the white supremacist website CounterCurrents until December 2011, when he was 26 years old. One of his pieces for the site argued for the forcible sterilization of people with an IQ under 90.
The self-serving nature of Hanania’s statement becomes especially laughable when he cites the fact that he recently “argued against anonymity in writing about political and social issues” on Twitter as a “veiled form of self-criticism.” Even the fact that he stresses his own nonwhite ethnic identity—he is of Arab background—as evidence of his confusion during his “Richard Hoste” period has a strong scent of self-exculpation.
What’s more, it’s fairly obvious when looking at Hanania’s recent output on a number of issues that his views haven’t changed much. They’ve just found a more presentable expression. (Ironically, this point has been made both by his foes on the left, such as blogger Jonathan Katz, and by his former buddies at CounterCurrents.) While he takes umbrage at Mathias’s assertion that he has “a creepy obsession with so-called race science,” it’s not difficult to find recent tweets that bear this out—such as the one from last May that cites a table of IQ scores for children from different racial and ethnic groups with the clear innuendo that Black kids, even ones with well-educated parents, are not as smart as others. Hanania’s Twitter history also has a fair amount of nasty trolling about race and crime of fairly recent vintage. And this from May, after Daniel Penny was charged with manslaughter in the fatal choking of Jordan Neely, the mentally ill homeless man who was reportedly harassing passengers on the New York subway, seems pretty straightforward (and, yes, repugnant):
“Walking around in suits” presumably refers to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who, like Neely, is Black. So much for “redemption.”
Hanania suggests in his not-quite-mea-culpa that, while he still believes in the reality (and perhaps innateness) of group differences, he has concluded that they should not be used to assign collective blame or to judge individuals. But that’s not how his recent postings on race come across. Consider this one, also from May:
This doesn’t sounds like “small-l liberalism,” unless liberalism means an aggressive police state that consciously profiles and targets some racial minorities.
Fascination With Dictators
What’s more, until about a year ago, Hanania’s evolution toward liberalism was still at a stage that allowed membership in the Kremlin fan club. In January and February 2022, Hanania was arguing that Putin’s Russia was morally superior to the United States and that Western liberals were demonizing Vladimir Putin because of their obsession with LGBT rights. “Russian opposition to LGBT triggers American elites more than anti-gay laws and practices elsewhere because Russia is a white nation that justifies its policies based on an appeal to Christian values,” he wrote in January 2022, predicting a quick capitulation of Ukraine to Russia.
In the war’s early days, Hanania’s cheerleading for the aggressor was so enthusiastic that he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the arrival of the notoriously brutal Chechen death squads in Ukraine as part of Putin’s invading force. Nor was his attraction to autocrats limited to Russia’s Putin: at that point, he was also digging People’s Republic of China. Writing about COVID-19 in May 2021, he complained, “We have a bias where the Chinese system is blamed for unleashing the virus, but not given credit for how well they’ve handled the disease.” He also contemptuously dismissed as a “bipartisan cope” the claim that China could not outcompete liberal democracies.
Hanania did seem to have a “small l-liberal” epiphany after China’s plunge into repression and anti-capitalism (along with the disaster of its COVID policies) and Ukraine’s strong resistance against the Russian invasion. In late 2022 he proclaimed that Francis Fukuyama’s famous claim that there was no true ideological alternative to liberal democracy in the modern world had been vindicated. Discussing this conversion to the “normie theories of democracy” he once despised, he admitted that that Russia’s failure to be the “Great White Christian Hope”—and China opting for totalitarian control over economic growth—meant that America was still the dominant power, exhibiting impressive adaptability and resiliency. The conversion was rapid enough that Hanania himself commented on its abruptness in a tongue-in-cheek post last April on “how to be an intellectual.”
Anti-Wokism: The Ticket to the Right’s Heart
The post-conversion Hanania could on occasion be a genuinely interesting commentator—as liberal pundit Matt Yglesias has gotten some flak for saying. He has written, for instance, a good defense of the “mainstream media” as mostly conscientious and accurate, with good suggestions on how to critique biased coverage without hurtling into nihilistic assumptions that everything the “MSM” say must be distrusted. Ditto for his critique of the “oppositional culture” of the modern populist right with its paranoia, addiction to lib-hating, and gullibility toward grifters. To a large extent, these posts are interesting because they come from someone who is seen as embedded in the right. But does this mean Hanania should be treated as a legitimate voice in mainstream discourse?
Cancel culture that punishes innocent transgressions and labels as “problematic” anything that deviates from progressive sensitivities is a problem deserving our attention. But that does not mean “anything goes” is an acceptable attitude. Truly and indisputably repugnant views should be grounds for affixing an asterisk to someone’s punditry and approaching their other opinions—especially on related issues—with suspicion. Sometimes, even denial of access to high-reputation platforms is appropriate—not to punish but to maintain a cordon sanitaire around things that, by overwhelming consensus, are beyond the pale because they are connected to historical atrocities.
It is thus entirely appropriate then that the “Richard Hoste” exposé—and the attention it has brought to Hanania’s much more recent ugly moments—has discredited Hanania as a critic of so-called “wokeness.” A critique of progressive views on racial issues coming from a guy who used to be a white supremacist blogger and who still posts stuff like “These people are animals” where “these people” clearly means Black people ought to have zero credibility among “normies”—meaning those with a normal moral constitution.
This is not to suggest that progressive views on identity politics and other social issues don’t deserve scrutiny and criticism. But this critique should be mounted by someone who shares the basic principles of fairness and equal human worth, not someone with a history of responding to the left’s excesses with a different, reactionary, and virulent brand of identity politics.
That’s the main lesson of the Hanania fiasco.
© The UnPopulist 2023