There’s a curious piece in today’s New York Times about the alt-right’s apparent and unexpected admiration for the works of Jane Austen. It discusses another article, written by English professor Nicole M. Wright, that chronicles its author’s experiences with exploring this unlikely Austen fanbase.
The white supremacists eulogizing Austen aren’t so much interested in the writer or her work as they are in what her name and aesthetic evoke for them: a whiter, purer, simpler time. Wright’s piece begins with Milo Yiannopoulos (remember that guy?), who started a speech on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour by paraphrasing Austen. In addition to misrepresenting Austen’s politics, he also mischaracterized her as a “Victorian novelist” — she died twenty years before Queen Victoria took the throne — but again, as we’ve seen over and over, facts are something for which the alt-right has very little time. Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian, whatever… they all blur into a sort of all-white pastoral, a time when men enjoyed social primacy, women were elegant and pretty and knew their place, and people of color — if they featured at all — were servants or slaves, to be seen occasionally and never heard.
Again, this has little to do with the actual contents of Austen’s novels, as Austen scholar Wright points out:
There is a reason that alt-right adherents claim Austen for themselves… By comparing their movement not to the nightmare Germany of Hitler and Goebbels, but instead to the cozy England of Austen — a much-beloved author with a centuries-long fandom and an unebbing academic following — the alt-right normalizes itself in the eyes of ordinary people. It also subtly panders to the nostalgia of the Brexiters, with their vision of a better, bygone Britain. Such references nudge readers who happen upon alt-right sites to think that perhaps white supremacists aren’t so different from mainstream folks.
This is one of the most pernicious aspects of the tactics employed by the white supremacists who’ve rebranded so successfully as the “alt-right” — presenting their politics as being motivated not by racism, but by a desire to return to a simpler time. Of course, you can’t have one without the other — Richard Spencer (remember that guy??) can talk about peaceful ethnic cleansing and self-deportation as much as he likes, but sooner or later, this warm, fuzzy fascism will revert to its true form: violence. Austen, one suspects, knew this as well as anyone — after all, she had little time for pride or prejudice, and white nationalists are pretty much the walking manifestation of both.