“My dear Mr. Douthat,” said the internet one day. “Have you heard that the alt-right has laid claim to Jane Austen?”
I replied that I had not.
“But they have,” returned she; “for The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times have told me all about it.”
I made no answer.
Never miss a local story.
“Do you want to know how they have taken possession of her?” cried the internet impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
That was invitation enough.
“Why my dear, you must know, it seems that certain young men of dubious character, not content with seizing ‘The Matrix' and Taylor Swift and Pepe the Frog for their own, have taken to citing Austen’s novels in support of their racist and gender-essentialist beliefs; indeed one of the most celebrated of these bounders even quoted her words in some sort of anti-feminist diatribe.”
“What is his name?”
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; with many admirers and speaking engagements!”
Now the internet is a creature of mean understanding, too much information and uncertain temper. But the experience of 20 years online has enabled me to understand something of her character. And in this case she has fastened on something genuinely interesting, a truth increasingly fretted over: many aspects of culture, high and low, that once seemed securely in liberalism’s possession appear to be vulnerable to appropriation by the alt-right.
Before the Bennets, Dashwoods and Woodhouses, it was the ancient Greeks and Romans. In November, a classicist named Donna Zuckerberg fired off an anguished piece about the alt-right’s affection for her discipline and urged her fellow classicists to watch for lurking reactionary sentiments among would-be students of the ancient world.
The Austen-and-the-alt-right discussion has been a touch less apocalyptic, perhaps because Austen herself is less directly political than Plato or Plutarch. Instead it mostly has a self-reassuring air, in which Austen’s academic admirers promise one another that no true Jane-ite could ever be anything except “rational, compassionate, liberal-minded.”
This is an idea with a powerful hold on the liberal mind – that great literature and art inoculate against illiberalism, that high culture properly interpreted offers a natural rebuke to all that is cruel, hierarchical and unwoke. The idea that if Mike Pence really listened to “Hamilton” he would stand up to Donald Trump … that Barack Obama’s humanistic reading list was somehow in deep tension with his drone strikes … that had George W. Bush only discovered his talent for painting earlier he might not have invaded Iraq … these are conceits that can be rebutted (with Wagner or Céline or Nazis-at-the-symphony references) but always seem to rise again.
In part they endure because contemporary liberalism has substituted aestheticism for religion, dreaming of a universal empathy sealed through reading rather than revelation. But they are also powerful because the last few generations have produced very few major artists or movements that are not liberal or left-wing. The defeat and moral disgrace of fascism, the eclipse of traditional religion, the philistinism of American conservatism and the narrowing of post-1989 political debates have all helped forge a political monoculture in the arts and the academy, making the link between literature and liberalism seem natural, inevitable, permanent.
But it isn’t. Even our age has a Naipaul, a Houellebecq, and meanwhile the whole deep human past is still there, and every age before ours is littered with aesthetic and philosophic visions that in no way conform to contemporary left-of-center pieties.
So from the point of view of liberalism’s present cultural position, its belief in aesthetic-political unity, the past can be a very dangerous place indeed. (Something that the campus left understands quite well; hence its zeal to abolish canons and police certain forms of memory.) And when a movement like the alt-right tries to appropriate that past for crankish, racist purposes, it’s understandable that people would be jolted – not by the intellectual power of that appropriation, but simply by the reminder that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the way we think about aesthetics and politics today.
Austen would not be my first example of how the past can threaten liberalism (the Greeks do offer rather clearer case studies), but she is not a terrible one either. Only a certain kind of racist idiot would read her novels as a brief for white supremacy. But amid all the academic arguments about whether she was a Tory or a crypto-radical, much of her popular appeal clearly rests on the contrast between her social world and ours – the sense that hers was more romantic and more civilized, and that in becoming more liberal and egalitarian we have maybe also sunk a bit toward barbarism.
This feeling, common to many Jane-ites of my acquaintance, is a reactionary frisson, not a real step away from liberalism. Nor is the overt misogyny and racism of alt-right Austenites likely to woo many normal Austen readers down that particular rabbit hole.
Unless someday illiberalism comes as a Darcy rather than a Wickham.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.