For many on the alt-right, every grievance is, at root, about Jews. Andrew Anglin, host of the most popular alt-right/neo-Nazi website, explains: “the only thing in our movement that really matters [is] anti-Semitism.” If only the Jews were gone, he argues, the white race, freed from bondage, would immediately overcome all of its problems. Where does this attitude come from?
Jews are a conspicuous people, small in number but large in footprint. As Mark Twain wrote in 1899:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race….Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk….What is the secret of his immortality?
For many people throughout history, the answer to Twain’s question was simple: Jews conspire among themselves to dominate and disadvantage gentiles. This answer fell out of fashion, at least in polite society, after World War II. Since the 1990s, however, the conspiratorial account of Jewish prominence has taken on a new, more meretricious form in the work of (now retired) California State University, Long Beach psychologist Kevin MacDonald, known affectionately among alt-righters as “KMac.” According to Richard Spencer, the inventor of the term “alt-right” and unofficial leader of the movement: “There is no man on the planet who has done more for the understanding of the pole around which the world revolves than Kevin MacDonald.” And: “KMac…may be the most essential man in our movement in terms of thought leader[ship].” To understand the alt-right’s anti-Semitism, we must understand MacDonald’s ideas, particularly as outlined in his most influential book, The Culture of Critique.
According to MacDonald, Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy.” Jews possess both genetic and cultural adaptations (including, on the genetic side, high IQ and ethnocentrism) that allow them to develop successful intellectual movements that undermine gentile society and promote their own group continuity. “Jewish intellectual movements,” MacDonald argues, are led by charismatic figures analogous to rabbis. They attack white nationalism while promoting Jewish nationalism, and use pseudoscience to “pathologize” anti-Semitism, which in reality is a justified response to “Jewish aggression.” According to MacDonald, Jewish intellectual movements include Freudianism, Frankfurt School critical theory, and multiculturalism. These movements, MacDonald claims, taught white gentiles to reject ethnocentrism and accept high levels of nonwhite immigration to their countries while tolerating Jewish ethnocentrism and racially restrictive immigration policies in Israel.
MacDonald’s theory and the anti-Semitism of many on the alt-right are largely reactions to the perceived liberalism of Jews. One of us (Cofnas) has just published an academic paper that examines MacDonald’s most influential book, The Culture of Critique, and finds that it is chock full of misrepresented sources, cherry-picked facts, and egregious distortions of history. MacDonald and the alt-righters are, nevertheless, correct that many liberal leaders over the last hundred years have been Jewish. We’d like to offer an explanation for this phenomenon, as well as determine whether Jewish liberalism is the cause or the result of anti-Semitism.
My analysis of Kevin MacDonald's pseudoscience: https://t.co/eRfp6B8g0e
— Nathan Cofnas (@nathancofnas) March 10, 2018
A Historical Perspective
People who learned everything they know about history from MacDonald’s books may be under the impression that traditional gentile society was marked by “hierarchic harmony” (his term) before Jews began their intellectual assault after the Enlightenment. This is a gross distortion of history. Gentile radicals have been around for centuries, doing exactly what MacDonald thinks is characteristic of Jews. Consider Edmund Burke’s comments on European (gentile) radicals at the time of the French Revolution:
Nor is it in these clubs alone that the public measures are deformed into monsters. They undergo a previous distortion in academies, intended as so many seminaries for these clubs, which are set up in all the places of public resort. In these meetings of all sorts every counsel, in proportion as it is daring and violent and perfidious, is taken for the mark of superior genius. Humanity and compassion are ridiculed as the fruits of superstition and ignorance. Tenderness to individuals is considered as treason to the public.
The French Revolution itself was an entirely successful movement to overturn whatever “hierarchic harmony” had existed in France, and it was led by gentiles and inspired by gentile philosophers. (Many of the gentile philosophers who laid the groundwork for the Revolution, such as Voltaire, were committed anti-Semites.) Radical French thinkers like Rousseau are completely ignored by MacDonald.
MacDonald analyzes the Frankfurt School in great detail and argues that the ideology of the school was constructed to advance Jewish interests by promoting nonwhite immigration and in general undermining white culture. (MacDonald does not mention that, incidentally, many of the Frankfurt School’s fiercest critics were Jews, like Karl Popper, who mocked their work as pseudoscience.) But French existentialism was a movement that was analogous to the Frankfurt School in every important respect…except that the leaders—Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus—were white gentiles.
Sartre was a leading critic of France and America, and strongly supported nonwhite immigrants in France. The French existentialists produced radical critiques of traditional gentile society and, like the Frankfurt School, advanced pseudoscientific ideas (making demonstrably false claims about human nature and refusing to subject these claims to any test).
It is easy to find gentiles independently developing ideas virtually identical to those promoted by “Jewish intellectual movements.” MacDonald quotes Foucault’s statement: “If I had known about the Frankfurt School in time, I would have been saved a great deal of work. I would not have said a certain amount of nonsense and would not have taken so many false trails trying not to get lost, when the Frankfurt School had already cleared the way.” For MacDonald, this shows how influential the Jewish-dominated Frankfurt School was. But it also reflects the fact that, while the gentile Foucault was influenced by the Frankfurt School, he was independently thinking along the same tracks.
Still, in the past hundred years or so Jews have clearly been overrepresented among the leaders of liberal movements. They were overrepresented among communist leaders and revolutionaries, among prominent immigration advocates, and so on. Even if liberalism is not the Jewish invention that MacDonald claims it is, we still should explain why Jews appear to be disproportionately attracted to it. And is anti-Semitism a response to Jewish liberalism?—or could it be the other way around?
IQ, Persecution, and Political Identity
Mark Twain’s explanation for Jewish intellectual prominence was that “Jews have the best average brain of any people in the world.” Though they make up far less than one percent of the world’s population, Jews have comprised more than half of all world chess champions, about a quarter of Fields medalists in mathematics, and more than a fifth of all Nobel Prize winners. Social scientists have found that Ashkenazi Jews score, on average, around 110-112 on IQ tests (compared to a mean of 100).
Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending argue that high Ashkenazi IQ evolved during the Middle Ages in Europe due to gene-culture co-evolution. Prohibited from entering many blue-collar occupations like farming, Jews turned to finance, particularly money lending, to survive. Records from around the year 1270, for example, report that almost 80 percent of adult male Jews in Roussillon (what is today southern France) made their living as money lenders. Finance requires a relatively high level of verbal and mathematical intelligence, and the hypothesis is that Jews who could not cut it in business tended to drop out of the community or starve.
On Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending’s thesis, these restrictive conditions selected for verbal and mathematical intelligence, not for the ability to engage in the sort of conspiracy against gentiles described by MacDonald. If Cochran et al. are right, we would expect Jews to be overrepresented in science and in the leadership of political movements, as these are both cognitively demanding activities. There is no particular reason to expect Jews to be overrepresented only in liberal movements.
Indeed, MacDonald and his followers largely ignore the fact that Jews have been conspicuously overrepresented among the leadership of all sorts of right-wing movements: anti-communists like Herman Kahn, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller; libertarians like Milton and David Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Robert Nozick, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Israel Kirzner; traditional conservatives like Allan Bloom, David Horowitz, and Richard Posner; and Donald Trump’s senior policy advisor and perhaps the most influential anti-immigration activist in the United States, Stephen Miller.
But MacDonald seems to be right that Jews were disproportionately involved in radical leftist political movements in the twentieth century, and in the US Jews tend to vote Democrat. We think this can be explained by the high average IQ of Jews in combination with their being a persecuted minority, which has tended to push them toward political views that emphasize social toleration and the free movement of people. In other words, MacDonald reverses the correct order of causation: rather than Jews inviting persecution by advocating cosmopolitan policies that thwart the interests of Europeans, Jews advocated cosmopolitanism as a predictable response to persecution.
Persecution of Jews began for religious reasons in the Middle Ages and morphed into political persecution as Jews began to climb the social ladder, and political leaders saw them as a useful out-group to use as a scapegoat for people’s economic and social woes. For example, when Italian traders inadvertently brought the Black Plague from Asia to Europe, thousands of Jews were murdered in retaliation when Christian peasants decided that the Jews had deliberately infected them.
George Orwell understood the psychological benefits of directing disdain toward an out-group in order to foster social cohesion among an in-group. In his great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he gives the character who would receive “two minutes of hate” every day among the proletarians a Jewish name: Goldstein. It is obvious why. Orwell’s implication was that the Soviet Union and other regimes were capitalizing on a human need to have some group to hate in order to foster loyalty and obedience to the leader of the in-group.
There is some evidence in political psychology for a correlation between high IQ and liberal political beliefs. So we might suspect that Ashkenazi Jews, with the highest average IQ in the world, would lean liberal. Interestingly, though, IQ correlates positively with classical liberalism, which emphasizes both social and economic liberty. This seems to be because those with higher intelligence tend to exhibit personality traits like openness to experience and tolerance for different ways of living. But those with higher IQ are more likely to support free-market economic policies (“liberalism” in the old sense of the word). Intelligence is required to understand how trade can be a positive sum game, and how order can emerge from individuals freely interacting with one another.
There are also obvious historical reasons why Jews would tend to gravitate toward liberal and cosmopolitan political philosophies that emphasize the protection of minority rights. In the early twentieth century, socialists rejected natural human hierarchies and urged persecuted minorities to overthrow their oppressors. To many Jews, socialism meant doing away with the legal and social barriers they had faced for more than a millennium. While socialist societies didn’t live up to their promises in practice, the values they espoused were easy for Jews to identify with. The Holocaust reinforced the feeling among Jews that nationalistic movements were dangerous, and that salvation lay in liberal cosmopolitanism.
Can MacDonald Save His Theory?
Popper’s famous criterion to distinguish science from non-science was “falsifiability.” Any legitimate scientific theory, he said, should specify some state of the world which, if it is observed, would make us logically compelled to reject the theory. One of the problems with Popper’s criterion is that there is no such thing as falsification in the strong sense that he envisaged. Any theory can be salvaged in the face of any evidence, though this may require some fanciful theorizing. In practice, we just have to use our judgement to decide which of the competing theories we are considering explains our observations in the most sensible way. As far as MacDonald goes, no single one of the numerous factual errors documented in Cofnas’s paper can be said to “falsify” his theory. Nor can any single example of right-wing Jews or radical gentiles. We just have to use our judgment to decide whether his conspiracy theory is a better explanation of Jewish liberalism than the simpler high-IQ-plus-persecution theory that we advocate.
No amount of evidence can disprove a theory. But as the influential Jewish philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos argued, eventually the number of ad hoc assumptions we have to make in order to sustain a theory in the face of counterexamples becomes so large that the theory shows itself to have no predictive or explanatory value. Maybe MacDonald has an ad hoc explanation for why the most liberal countries in Europe, which in the past few years accepted the largest number of immigrants relative to their population—Sweden and Germany—have a very small number of Jews. Maybe he has another ad hoc explanation for why Jews like Noam Chomsky are the world’s leading critics of Israel. And for why gentiles who were not under the influence of Jews, like Rousseau and Sartre and countless others over the past couple thousand years, have been political radicals. As to whether these ad hoc explanations are convincing, we will have to use our judgment.
We don’t think MacDonald will be able to rescue his hypothesis, built as it is on misrepresented sources and distortions. But for some dishonest alt-right leaders, the literal truth of his ideas is probably not that important. They need an enemy to unify their movement. There is no more convenient a people to play this role than Jews.
Jonathan Anomaly is a core faculty member of the Department of Political Economy, and Assistant Professor in the PPEL Program, at the University of Arizona.
Nathan Cofnas is reading for a DPhil in philosophy at the University of Oxford.