Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, January 21, 2019

A rebuttal to Richard Spencer’s hate speech and ‘ethnostates’

Spencer’s statements on Poland and Israel were both dangerous and ahistorical

A rebuttal to Richard Spencer’s hate speech and ‘ethnostates’

As a former University of Florida student, a former Gainesville, Florida, resident and Polish-American, I was very disappointed when I heard white supremacist Richard Spencer would be speaking on campus at the University of Florida. I feared for the safety and peace of my friends and the community I love. Gainesville is truly a beautiful place and this intrusion is not something any community deserves to endure. Although upset by the announcement, I was encouraged by the students and the community’s reaction to Spencer’s event. Individuals of varying backgrounds, interests and values together protested Spencer and his hateful rhetoric, demonstrating the love and power of Gainesville’s anti-racist community.

Ultimately, Spencer’s event was so consumed by protest and resistance that he could barely speak. Numerous protestors attended Spencer’s talk and shouted over him. Clearly shaken, Spencer spent most of his talk arguing, attacking and insulting protesters for interrupting while simultaneously espousing empty rhetoric of “free speech” or more accurately in Spencer’s case, hate speech.

When Spencer did actually have the opportunity to speak, he shared his ideas on “ethnostates.” Here, he posited Poland and Israel as his quintessential examples of “ethnostates,” or states with singular, homogenous identities. These examples are both highly problematic, but for different reasons.

As a Polish-American, I found Spencer’s comments on Poland both offensive and ahistorical. Spencer argued that Poland was an “ethnostate” which was amongst “European states that want to uphold their identities” through “peaceful ethnic redistribution.” White supremacists like Richard Spencer do not represent Poland or Polish people around the globe. Poland and its history do not deserve the title of an “ethnostate.” Spencer argues nations like Poland are “ethnostates” because they currently have large, white, homogeneous populations, but he neglects to mention how Poland tragically became this way in the first place, with approximately 3,000,000 Polish Jews (90 percent of Poland’s Jewish population) killed under white supremacist, Nazi German occupation. This is far from a “peaceful ethnic redistribution.”

Spencer also neglects to recognize the many historic examples of successful multiethnic support and cooperation between Polish Jews and Polish Catholics. Throughout and before WWII, the Catholic Church was critiqued by fascists for its anti-racist ideas and policies. Many Polish Catholics also faced persecution from Nazi Germany and, in many instances, supported, housed and stood with Polish Jews in the face of this persecution. Historian Christopher Garbowski argues, “The basis for national identity from this perspective (Polish) is not ethnicity, but culture, which is more inclusive.”

This is not to say Poland is perfect. As many scholars have demonstrated, some ethnic Poles committed atrocities against Jews during WWII, but there is also evidence of widespread resistance and dissatisfaction with the Nazis (only .1 percent of Poles supported the Nazis, about 7,000 of 20 million). Poles also sheltered and supported more Jews than any other nation or ethnic group during Nazi occupation, with some estimates ranging as high as 450,000 Jewish lives saved. Therefore, Spencer’s argument is narrow, ahistorical and anti-Polish. It is not accurate or fair to deem Poland an “ethnostate.” In reality, many Polish people have argued for and provided opportunities for tolerance over the course of centuries (including Poland’s most famous figure, Pope John Paul II).

Spencer’s Israel argument is also flawed, but for different reasons. Yes, Israel is a Jewish state guided by Jewish policies, but holding it as an ideal or symbol of perfection is both dangerous and negligible. Israel has been a sanctuary for persecuted Jews for decades, but it has also been responsible for the persecution and isolation of Arab Muslim Palestinians. In reality, Israel demonstrates how the type of singular, homogenous state Spencer envisions is at the detriment of humanity, not its advantage. The oppression of Arab Muslim Palestinians by Israel is one of the great human crises of our time. If Spencer had his way, non-white Americans would be subjected to the same type of mistreatment.

Although the community of Gainesville’s resistance to these arguments was indeed encouraging, there is much work to be done. Unfortunately, people do believe these dangerous things; there were white supremacists in attendance and Spencer has conscientiously been given platforms to espouse his hate speech. This must stop. A potential solution to this problem is calling Spencer’s and his organization’s rhetoric what it truly is: hate speech, not “free speech.” His words hurt. His words insight terror and his words hold humanity back.

We must also depict Spencer as he truly is. His talk at the University of Florida was filled with insults, degradation and overt expressions of hate. Richard Spencer is and should be depicted as the personification of hate in America. I suggest we use pictures found in the livestream above when discussing or referencing Spencer. Spencer likes to be seen as a clean-cut, smiling example of white America. He does not represent the majority of “white” Americans or America. He does not represent anything good, peaceful or righteous. He represents hate. These pictures are the real him: An angry, historically misguided man, who should no longer be given the time of day by the intellectual community or any community.

Michael T. Barry Jr. is an award-winning filmmaker and doctoral student in modern American history at American University. His films “The Universal Soldier: Vietnam” and “Sincerity: From X to El-Shabazz” have screened at film festivals across the country. He has also contributed writings to outlets like Black Perspectives, The Gainesville Sun, TruthOut and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Follow him on Twitter @MTBarryJr.

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