The Alt-Right's Jew-Hating Pseudoscience Is Not New

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In Focus

Anti-Semitic Pseudoscience Isn't New

Paul Nehlen is in a long line of anti-Semites who use fake science to prove that Jews are inferior.
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That U.S. House candidate Paul Nehlen is an anti-Semite is not surprising. That the Wisconsin Republican, trounced by House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2016, was outed by puffing the retired psychologist Kevin MacDonald’s latest bit of pseudoscience, The Culture of Critique, shouldn’t be either.

MacDonald’s claim is that Jews use anti-Semitism as a means to further their own advancement—indeed, that anti-Semitism is a Jewish tool to advance a society that is in competition with white, Christian culture. There is little need to explore MacDonald’s rather dreary work, as I have done so in much greater detail in my 2016 co-authored book, Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism, and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity. What interests me much more is that MacDonald (and Nehlen) stand in a long line of anti-Semites who invented, and then reinvented, a new science to prove the inequities and corruption of those people that they label “Jews.”

Indeed, the very term anti-Semitism was made popular in the 1880s by the journalist Wilhelm Marr in his widely read pamphlet attacking “the Jews,” titled, The Way to Victory of Germanic Spirit Over the Jewish Spirit. Marr wanted anti-Semitism in the new German state, with its heavy investment in science, to sound, well, scientific.

But the history of such pseudoscience in the service of anti-Semitism is long and remarkably inconsistent. The socialist economist and philosopher Eugen Dühring, for example, argued in 1881, that the Jews were a duplicitous and stupid race, for “the Jews’ skull is certainly not that of a thinker.” In contrast, Charles Murray, of recent Middlebury College fame, argued in 2007 that Jews “are smarter” than everyone else; in 1994, he co-authored a book titled The Bell Curve, in which he and Richard Herrnstein argued the intellectual superiority of “Ashkenasic Jews of European origins,” who “test higher than any other ethnic group.” Of course, if the Jews are smarter, says the pseudo-scientist, it is a trade-off because they are pathetically weak and corrupt: In 2005, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending—anthropologists at the University of Utah—made quite a splash with a study suggesting that superior Jewish intelligence was the inadvertent result of “inbreeding,” and was balanced by Jewish genetic diseases.

01_03_18_nazis suck Protesters demonstrate against a Confederate monument in Fort Sanders on August 26, 2017 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Getty

Jews as they appear in this world of pseudoscience are an invented group of ill, stupid or stupidly smart people who use science to their own nefarious ends. Other groups, too, are painted similarly in “race science,” as it used to call itself: African-Americans, the Irish, the Chinese and, well, any and all groups that you want to prove inferior to yourself. 

Sadly, such pseudoscience is crude and transparent. MacDonald, for example, was the sole “scientific” witness speaking for David Irving in the 1996 case against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, whom he accused of libel for labeling him a “Holocaust denier.” Irving was nevertheless convicted in spite of (or perhaps, because of) MacDonald’s testimony, and was labeled “an active Holocaust denier ... anti-Semitic and racist ... [and someone who] associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo- Nazism.”

Truth can prevail against such pseudoscience, but its insidiousness is still with us today. The alt-right seems no longer content to march with Tiki torches in a mimicry of a Nazi rally: They are now resuscitating the racist science that led directly to those rallies, and to the horrors that followed, in an attempt to legitimize hate.

Sander L. Gilman is distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences and professor of psychiatry at Emory University, Atlanta.

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