Last semester, a Columbia University undergraduate named Julian von Abele gained notoriety when a video posted to Twitter by a classmate showed him lavishing praise on white people. The clip, which quickly went viral, starts in medias res.
“We built the modern world!” von Abele declares.
“Who?” someone asks.
“Europeans!” he exclaims. “We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because we’re so baaad. We invented the modern world. We saved billions of people from starvation. We built modern civilization. White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world. We are so amazing! I love myself! And I love white people! Fuck yeah, white people! Fuck yeah, white men! We did everything! I don’t hate other people. I just love white men.”
Viral outrage was swift, spreading from Twitter to the media. The Columbia Spectator noted that the rant occurred amid “a string of hate crimes targeted at students of color at Ivy League institutions.” An NBC writer likened von Abele to the murderer in Charlottesville, Virginia. A university statement declared, “At Columbia, we stand firmly against white supremacist language and violence.”
“White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world” does sound like the sort of rhetoric a white supremacist might use. But then AP got a quote from von Abele.
“I am not a white supremacist or racist, nor do I subscribe to any views that support that ideology,” he said. “I unequivocally denounce all groups that support racism.” It wasn’t the response one would expect from a Richard Spencer follower or an edge-lord provocateur trying to troll like Milo Yiannopoulos.
That piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know why this Ivy League undergrad embraced the rhetoric of white identitarianism, if only to better understand its rise and perhaps how to arrest its spread. The news media’s lack of reporting on that question left others feeling the same way. “I’m curious what led him to be the person he is right now,” a Redditor posted. “He has information all over the Internet, Facebook, and his own website about physics: no political polemic, no ideological rambling, no outward sign of bigotry, and yet all of a sudden he comes out and snaps I guess in front of random people outside of Butler. What led him to be like this? 4chan? Breitbart? His studies? Trump’s Twitter?”
After a wide-ranging, three-hour interview with von Abele last month, I have some answers.
Julian von Abele comes across as a curious, well-read, and well-rounded person. He grew up in a Philadelphia-area suburb, where he excelled in math, finding in it what he described as an outlet for creative, quasi-artistic expression. He chose Columbia rather than Caltech or MIT because it seemed better suited to his interest in theoretical rather than experimental physics. On arriving in Morningside Heights, however, he was disappointed to find a culture that he judged less tolerant of right-leaning beliefs than anything he had known before.
That isn’t to say he was a lifelong conservative.
Von Abele told me that ever since he was “really young,” he has reacted “against whatever the prevailing conformity is.” He recalls experiencing the aughts, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in the White House and he was in middle school, as a time of reactionary nationalism––he says that he spoke up in opposition to the Iraq War and recalls saying that America was “an evil empire.”
He liked that Barack Obama had been opposed to the Iraq War. But as Obama’s presidency wore on, he turned against it over hawkish foreign-policy decisions in Libya and Syria. In 2016, he believed that Hillary Clinton embodied continuity with “a neoconservative establishment that led us into Iraq.”
Donald Trump struck him as less likely to start new wars of choice.
When he arrived at Columbia, a freshman orientation session felt, to him, like an anti-Trump indoctrination session. In his telling, white men were presented as “the source for most of the problems in American society,” and anyone who voiced objections to the prevailing “identitarian” framework was attacked. “I admire a meritocratic society that is built on principles of equality of opportunity,” he said. “My issue is with the left-wing ideology that seems to be emerging that focuses on identifying people with groups rather than as individuals.”
His viral rant still ringing in my ears, I pressed him to tell me more about what he called “identitarianism” at Columbia. What kind of critique was he offering? Was he coming from the same place as the Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who opposes what he calls “identity politics”? Or was he closer to the reactionary populism of Steve Bannon? Or the white nationalism of Richard Spencer?
“Well, I mean, mentioning Richard Spencer––I’m afraid of the identitarian right as well,” he said. “I just don’t think that they have the same level of political or cultural power as the identitarian left. If groups with the views of Richard Spencer or David Duke were running university administrations or large parts of the internal structure of the federal government or the media, then I would be terrified. I absolutely do not align myself with the identitarian right.”
Mostly, von Abele told me, he worries that the values that made Western civilization great are under attack by the faction in the academy that exalts group identity rather than “the principles of personalism and individualism,” undermining “a culture that views individuals as the most important element rather than groups.” (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes personalism as an approach that “always underscores the centrality of the person as the primary locus of investigation for philosophical, theological, and humanistic studies.”)
On a historical timescale, treating persons rather than tribes, races, or religions as the unit of political or moral significance is not normal, von Abele said. He believes the West’s abnormal approach enabled the prosperity that Steven Pinker writes about in his work on human progress. And he sees what he calls left-identitarianism as a force urging a rejection of personalism and a return to group identity, abetted by an academy that doesn’t appreciate the loss that would entail.
Attentive readers will feel the same cognitive dissonance that I did. In our interview, von Abele extolled individualism as a great civilizational advance—yet he’d ranted about the virtues of white people as a group, using identitarian language. If his dissent from Columbia’s culture was rooted in a desire to defend “personalism,” why did he express pride in the achievements of white males, as if sharing that group identity connected him to the advances of ancient Greeks, Catholic philosophers, or Caucasian scientists?
“I understand what you’re saying,” he acknowledged. “On the one hand, I value personalism. I say that each individual should be judged on their own merits. On the other hand, I’m claiming I’m proud of the achievements of a culture that my ancestors helped to build, when I really had nothing to do with its construction. And yeah, I agree with you. In isolation, my remarks would be really inconsistent with my general philosophy of personalism. But the context of my words is a reaction against the demonization of me for an identity.”
In his telling, he overheard a group of fellow Columbia students asserting that Trump supporters favor sexual violence. He interjected that he was a Trump supporter who very much opposed sexual violence––and was castigated, he says, for offering an opinion on attacks against women as a privileged white male.
That’s when his viral monologue began.
“If you insult someone for their identity, then a reaction that you can expect is for them to say that they’re proud of it,” he said. “That video clip shows a reaction to an insult––not genuine belief of being proud of the achievements of a culture in which I live. I reacted to being insulted for my identity by claiming that identity.”
He says he intended to communicate only that he rejected the notion that there is something wrong or shameful or intellectually disqualifying about being white or male.
“I don’t think it makes sense as an individual to be proud of the achievements of a culture that was perhaps built by your ancestors,” he said. “But if somebody’s going to demonize you for your identity, then I’m going to play this game too. If you’re going to spout off about how and why white men ruined the world, I can spout off the cultural achievements that have been built by white men. So it’s a reaction. It’s not a belief conveyed in isolation. I didn’t bring up race. The group of students around me brought up my race. I talked about it to defend my identity. These words are being seen in isolation, when really they were a reaction to what people were immediately saying to me and, more broadly, a reaction against a campus culture that demonizes white men––that says whiteness is evil. White men are evil. White men are colonizers.”
In my view, reacting in that manner is both wrongheaded and very common. The same mechanism of reflexive reaction to hostility fuels left-identity politics under Trump: Lots of people understandably respond to the president’s attacks on their group identity––whether they’re Mexican or Muslim, or said to come from “shithole countries” or belong to “the fake media”––by rallying around that identity more than they otherwise would. Whites differ in their racial privilege and group history but not in human psychology. Many will react the same way, whether or not doing so is morally equivalent.
“The general spirit of what I was conveying was essentially, ‘Look, I’m tired of my identity being demonized for all of these terrible things throughout history and the ills of contemporary American culture,’” von Abele said. “But when I was overenthusiastically, you know, describing the virtues of white men, I can see how people would take that the wrong way. Looking back on it, a moment when a crowd was gathered around and a lot of people were shouting at me, I wish I had used different words and wasn’t so, let’s say, overzealous in my argumentation.”
That’s consistent with what he wrote in an apology letter, which declared, in part:
I regret that I subsequently engaged in an exchange that was admittedly overzealous and was not the right venue to discuss the value of identity politics. The rhetoric I used to prove a point sounded as if I feel that whites are better than other races, while really, I was theatrically and sarcastic
ally demonstrating that whites are not allowed to embrace their cultural achievements.
The out-of-context video was not representative of my general argument that evening, which was not that white men were solely responsible for the scientific accomplishments of the world, but instead that the great things western culture has accomplished throughout history should not be ignored to accommodate identity politics.
It is unfortunate that his apology appeared in so little coverage of the controversy. It is useful to everyone from students of color at Columbia to faraway newspaper and magazine readers to distinguish between people who hate others, or believe that the immutable characteristics of others render them inferior, or want to physically hurt, disenfranchise, segregate, or discriminate against others, or believe themselves superior by virtue of their own immutable characteristics … and people who don’t harbor any of those beliefs, even if they once indulged in rhetoric that is wrong, offensive, or regrettable.
Over the course of my conversation with von Abele, I probed his beliefs in a dozen different ways to gauge his commitment, if any, to white identitarianism. Does he believe that an American of Chinese ancestry has as much claim to the U.S. and Western culture as a white person? Yes. If he doesn’t like Richard Spencer, what political thinker does he align himself with? Sir Roger Scruton, the philosopher, writer, and traditionalist conservative.
Von Abele readily and unreservedly condemned the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the slave trade, and European colonialism, characterizing them as tribalist holdovers before personalism took hold. He also argued that if all Western atrocities were put on one side of a scale, awful as they were, with Western contributions put on the other side, humanity was in the aggregate better off. Did I realize how many lives were saved by the Haber-Bosch process alone? That without it, half of today’s population would not be alive?
When I argued that Trump was part of the identitarian right––that it was neither accident nor coincidence that the Charlottesville marchers were enthusiastic about his candidacy—von Abele rejected that analysis, saying that enthusiasm for Trump waned on the identitarian right after they saw his actual policies.
As for Trump’s attacks on Muslims or the judge with Mexican ancestry? “Yeah, I disagree with the content of those comments, but I don’t think that they are strongly reflective of his character as a person, or that they are integrated into his policies,” he said. “All people occasionally say things that they’d like to take back or that they could have articulated better. If you have a media machine that hates somebody, it’s easy to take out individual sound bites out of all the quotes that they’ve said and make it seem like they’re a bigot or a racist.”
I think Trump’s bigoted words are indeed “strongly reflective of his character” and that von Abele is oblivious to the identitarian streak that informs Trump’s policies. But I also think that portrayals of von Abele as a dangerous racist were inaccurate and misleading, and stoked needless fear in the young people who share his campus. He’s a college kid who displayed poor judgment while reacting to an insult, apologized, and disavowed the most offensive parts of his rant. His worst moment should not define his life. And insofar as it does, the effect might be counterproductive.
The more I talked to von Abele, the more I perceived a young man most inclined to remain a classical liberal or a universalist conservative, but more likely to ally with the identitarian right than to genuflect to the identitarian left. I do not believe anyone must choose between those options and would not excuse the choice, but the fact remains that some respond to woke criticism (and ensuing typecasting or notoriety) by apologizing for their white-male privilege, while others stridently defend their immutable traits. Presented with that false binary, lots of young people lack the wisdom to choose a third way. And if ensuing missteps trigger a pile-on, a sympathetic counteraction often follows.
“I had a lot of students emailing me who are pretty supportive,” von Abele said. “Overall, I received more supportive mail than hate mail, actually. From the emails that I got, it seems like the general environment on campus is that no one really feels like they can openly support me, but they sort of can secretly support me.”
Emails to firstname.lastname@example.org are encouraged on any aspect of this matter, including from critics of my approach or analysis. Tell me if you don’t want your name shared.