A year ago, I came across an article by Stephen Elliott, a writer I’d admired. There were plenty of disturbing things about the piece—a self-pitying attack on the MeToo movement by a man who’d recently been accused of abusing women—but what startled me was that he had chosen to publish it in an online magazine called Quillette.
Elliott had written a moving, tender book of fiction about kink, trauma, and consent that I’d enthusiastically reviewed in Salon, and he’d since become a star of the literary world, founding The Rumpus, an online publication that nurtured the careers of Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed. He’d also organized the Progressive Reading Series, which raised funds around the country for left candidates and issues like rent control. What was he doing in a magazine that publishes claims that black people are less smart than whites, feminism is harmful, and trans people are a threat to women and children?
But Elliott isn’t the only self-described liberal writing for Quillette. There, last May, was pro-gay legal scholar Cass Sunstein, Barack Obama’s regulatory czar, excerpting his new book, Conformity: The Power of Social Influence. He’d earlier praised the magazine on Twitter for its “independence of mind, concern with evidence, and (very important) wit & sense of humor.” Later, Sunstein said in a podcast interview that he’d “been admiring of” the magazine and how it tries “to be empirical.” (Sunstein declined a request for comment.) Also in Quillette, publishing a long piece on her anger at the women’s movement in June, was second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler, the author of Women and Madness and a cofounder of the National Women’s Health Network. (Chesler, alas, has been writing Islamophobic works since the early 2000s.)
Even Meghan Daum, the feminist memoirist and opinion writer, told me that she had joined a Facebook group for Quillette fans and attended the group’s meetup as part of what she wrote was an “affair” she’d been having with the “intellectual dark web,” the far-right grouping for which Quillette serves as the house organ. Daum, who recently excerpted her book The Problem with Everything in Quillette and appeared in the magazine’s podcast, told me that she didn’t consider herself a “particular fan” of the publication, but that she had read some articles she really likes there.
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So why are all these liberals stanning for Quillette, a magazine that normalizes the alt-right?
Quillette was founded in 2015 by Claire Lehmann, an Australian who in 2017 also served as an on-air contributor to the Canadian far-right, anti-Muslim network Rebel Media, where she once delivered a “report” titled “How feminism has fuelled obesity crisis.” Her Rebel Media colleagues included white nationalist Faith Goldy—who was fired shortly after participating in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—and Gavin McInnes, founder of the “Western chauvinist” group the Proud Boys, which rewards its members for committing violence against leftists.
Lehmann has said she started Quillette to counter what she calls “blank slate fundamentalism,” or the proposition that educational outcomes, career success, capacity for ethics, and economic class are determined more by environmental factors than genetic ones. That is to say, she believes that social status, morality or immorality, and, yes, income itself are all genetically based.
While Lehmann calls Quillette “independent,” “centrist,” and even “a community of liberal humanists,” the publication showcases racist pseudoscience purporting to show that people of color are intellectually and morally inferior to whites. Many of the writers of its race pieces are proponents of the Human Biodiversity Movement (HBD), a euphemistic name for a campaign to advance scientific racism launched in 1996 by Steve Sailer, a blogger for the white supremacist website VDare. (Sailer famously said that “in contrast to New Orleans, there was only minimal looting after the horrendous 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan—because, when you get down to it, Japanese aren’t blacks.”) Quillette contributors Ben Winegard, Bo Winegard, Brian Boutwell, and John Paul Wright have all either said they are part of the HBD movement or used the term to describe their own research. When asked to comment about why she publishes such writers, Lehmann said she rejected the premise of the question and did not elaborate further.
What Quillette is essentially doing is repackaging these white nationalist ideas in milder, pseudo-intellectual form and selling them to liberals who aren’t reading closely.
On Twitter, Lehmann has boasted that the left “hates Quillette because they all know that some of their friends are reading us Incognito,” and crowed that “the regions in which we are most read are US liberal hot spots: San Francisco, New York City, etc.” Both are large cities with wealthy tech and hedge fund employees, so the size of the magazine’s readerships in these places is hardly a clear indication of success with leftists, but her remarks signal her intentions of getting liberals and progressives to read Quillette.
Lehmann told Politico that Quillette’s goal is “to broaden the Overton window”—that is to say, expand the limits of acceptable discourse. She didn’t stipulate that she wants these limits broadened only to the right, but she didn’t have to. Writing in Quillette, Lehmann said the Overton window should be shifted so that people can more openly denounce “immigration,” for example by trumpeting the Muslim heritage of sex-crime suspects.
In 2017, a Portland State University lecturer, Alexander Reid Ross, coined the term “fascist creep” to refer to “the crossover space between right and left” through which, “at least in its early stages, fascists often utilize ‘broad front’ strategies…to gain access to mainstream political audiences.” One fact progressives ignore at their peril is that fascism is opposed to the democratic capitalist state. Many fascists use the slogan “neither left nor right” because they want to convey a deep antagonism to the current political structure without actually supporting left-wing ideas like popular democracy or a society without hierarchies. Instead, fascism courts liberals by defying norms while defending what it considers the natural hierarchies under which we should be ruled. (Whites, men, and other “natural” elites should dominate all others). When it comes to class, Quillette endorses a disturbing premise of fascism: The “best” wind up with the most wealth and social power if they are not otherwise constrained.
Quillette is Reid Ross’s fascist creep par excellence; it’s fascism creeping so close to liberalism that the radical ethicist Peter Singer was willing to write a short statement for the magazine condemning a protest against a racist professor, and erstwhile liberal Steven Pinker praised it as “a gust of fresh air.”
The constitutive ideology of Quillette comes out most clearly in the arena of race. At least five Quillette contributors—Kevin M. Beaver, Brian Boutwell, Adam Perkins, Jason Richwine, and John Paul Wright—have gone on white nationalist Stefan Molyneux’s show to discuss their “research” on topics like race, intelligence, and “criminality.” Richwine, who in the past wrote for white nationalist Richard Spencer’s website alternativeright.com, agreed with Molyneux’s assertion that there is a “hierarchy” of IQ extending from “Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians” on down in decreasing order to “the whites, and then the Hispanics, and then the blacks.” Boutwell declared, “It’s no secret…that there are differences that emerge across racial and ethnic groups for involvement in crime.” Wright has written that African Americans have a deficit in “executive function,” “self-control and IQ” that leads them to “commit more violent crime than any other group.” Perkins, who claims welfare recipients have a genetically based capacity to be “aggressive, antisocial,” and “unemployable,” has also appeared on the white nationalist show Reality Calls, which had a celebratory feature called “This Week on the Alt-Right.”
Quillette takes this racist HBD theory and launders it in lifeless prose. For example, one article declared its support for Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, and included the blandly articulated claim, “There are race differences in intelligence, with East Asians scoring roughly 103 on IQ tests, whites scoring 100, and Blacks scoring 85.” The Quillette authors themselves concluded, “There are, as yet, no good alternative explanations” for “racial differences in IQ scores” other than “genetics.” (Actually, there is a wealth of data showing that better education and higher incomes lead to higher IQ scores across racial groups.)
Lehmann, and her comrades at Quillette, insist that scientific racists are audaciously standing up for “open inquiry.” Quillette has published three editorials expressing outrage that a British researcher, Noah Carl, was criticized by a “mob” of scholars and then lost his fellowship at Cambridge for, among other things, co-authoring a paper with white supremacist non-scholar Emil Kirkegaard and publishing in his racist OpenPsych journals, which are not properly peer reviewed. (Kirkegaard has also defended the rape of children, as long as the children are drugged in advance.)
When they can avoid using the term “race,” Quillette writers are happy to get even bolder: “Crime is heritable,” one article informed the reader. In an essay arguing that white privilege does not exist, the authors matter-of-factly cite one study that concluded “large racial differences in criminal offending” were the cause of mass incarceration of African Americans, “not racism.”
Publishing racist pseudoscience—and getting scholars like Sunstein, Singer, and others to defend it—is bad enough. But Quillette goes farther, defending the white nationalist movement itself and seeking to delegitimize anyone who seeks to fight or expose it. After fascists killed 88 people in mass shootings in the past year, sparking calls to de-platform white nationalist websites, Quillette spoke out vigorously against these attempts, and even condemned progressive protests as “mob” attacks on “free speech.” Richwine wrote one such piece, going so far as to say that exposés that lead to white nationalists’ “losing [their] friends or…livelihood” are equivalent to the government’s deciding to imprison someone for racist speech.
It wasn’t Quillette’s first attack on the journalists who cover the white nationalist movement. The magazine published a bogus “study” by a far-right Twitter troll named Eoin Lenihan claiming that some of the best journalists covering white nationalism today—The Guardian’s Jason Wilson, HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias, and 13 others—are dangerous antifa-lovers because they follow antifa accounts on Twitter. (The Twitter accounts of some antifa organizations, such as Unicorn Riot, can be an excellent source of information on confidential white nationalist activities, such as chat logs planning violent demonstrations.) Lenihan’s article was circulated on the neo-Nazi website Stormfront, and the images of the 15 soon appeared on a “kill list” on YouTube titled “Sunset the Media,” which was created by a fan of Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi terrorist network. The journalists were harassed by neo-Nazis online, and several wrote that they feared for their lives.
Lenihan, who’d been banned from Twitter for abuse and harassment, turned out to have invented fake credentials for himself as a researcher on “online extremism,” which Quillette included in his author bio. Both the Tony Blair Institute and the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, for which he claimed to work investigating the far right, said they had no relationship with him. (Both organizations briefly corresponded with Lenihan, but never entered a formal working relationship with him.) Quillette refused to remove the article or edit his author bio, even after it was revealed that Lenihan had given an appreciative interview with the neo-Nazi congressional candidate Paul Nehlen in an online video. In his piece, Lenihan castigated journalists who cruelly expose the identities of active white nationalists, including those employed as police officers and teachers in public schools.
In another piece, Quillette again seemed to link its cause with that of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It claimed that Twitter showed bias against conservatives in its decisions about whom to ban. Quillette was outraged that in the cherrypicked “study” of 22 individuals and organizations barred from Twitter since 2006, 21 were what it called “conservatives.” But, startlingly, all but five of those 21 were actual neo-Nazi and white power accounts, which included handles for the American Nazi Party and a former “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke.
Perhaps the most important weapon Quillette uses is applying pressure on a few specific fault lines that divide liberal audiences, such as the MeToo movement. Quillette has recruited liberal men accused of sexual harassment or assault, like Elliott, and empowered them as experts on feminism. In his first Quillette piece, Elliott blasted the desire to “believe women,” and blamed one accuser for his poor book sales and his television agent’s not returning his calls. Elliott has since written three more pieces for the magazine and become one of its strongest partisans on Twitter, joking about a “Quillette Hot American Summer” and frequently retweeting the magazine’s diatribes against feminism. “Wow, Quillette has been killing it recently,” he said in one tweet.
Despite his public defense of the magazine, Elliott told me, “People say, ‘Oh they published this or that,’ and I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t read most of the articles in Quillette.” Asked about the magazine’s repeated promotion of racist pseudoscience, Elliott said, “I don’t agree with that, obviously. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal.… The articles you’re talking about, I haven’t read. Maybe if I read one, it would be so offensive that I would say I can’t write for them anymore.”
Asked whether he didn’t think he had a responsibility to read these articles in the publication he’s now championing, Elliott said, “That would take, like, real research on my part.”
Another fault line on which Quillette is pushing hard is lingering anti-trans views among the left. Like much of the right, Quillette has eagerly welcomed anti-trans feminists. Kathleen Stock, a British anti-trans feminist philosophy professor, has published two articles in Quillette claiming, among other things, that trans women will attack cisgender women if they are allowed into women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, and prisons. Honoring trans women’s self-identification “puts females in those spaces at risk,” she declared. Quillette has also published other articles hostile to both feminism and trans people, warning, “If society denies biological differences and does not rigidly enforce gender roles, then the way is cleared for transgenderism.” Stock told me by e-mail that she was willing to publish in Quillette despite its racist and antifeminist articles, because “few of the left-wing publications toward which I would normally gravitate will touch such issues.”
But it is on the subject of class that Quillette’s creep toward fascism emerges most suggestively. Fascism, as Reid Ross and others have noted, promotes the myth that solidarity (and socialism) can come only at the expense of an ever-expanding group of “others.” From one corner of its mouth, Quillette says rich people are rich, because they are genetically superior to the poor: One article insisted that there was “high [genetic] heritability of school achievement…occupational status, and income.” But from the other corner, the magazine tries to divide those disempowered economically by insisting that efforts to promote women, people of color, and queer and trans people somehow hurt the fight for socialism.
In August, Quillette published an article purportedly written by a white Marxist-Leninist construction worker from Queens named Archie Carter, who was horrified by his visits to the Democratic Socialists of America, where “norms of inclusivity” encouraged women and people of color to speak first. “White men were expected to sit in obedient silence as matters of importance were discussed,” the piece complained. Carter was appalled at the activists’ green hair and “obsession with race and gender.” The article was headlined, “DSA Is Doomed.” But, as it turned out, DSA had no record of anyone named “Archie Carter” ever attending their meetings, and there were many telling inconsistencies in the piece, like a supposed Marxist-Leninist’s enthusiasm for Saul Alinsky, a community organizer who had little interest in communist theory. The next day, the real author revealed himself: an anonymous 24-year-old leftist man from Illinois, who told me he wanted to see if he could trick Quillette into publishing it. But the construction of a fake, aggrieved white working-class man—a man who would create a successful white socialism if only all those women and people of color didn’t hold him back—is at the heart of Quillette’s mission: to stand anti-elitism on its head by casting the most disempowered people in society as an elite somehow constraining the most worthy. It shouldn’t be surprising that even the magazine’s idea of socialism hews closely to the economic vision of white nationalism.