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.”)