In a Daily Inter Lake op-ed, Rand and Sherry Spencer, “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer’s parents, make clear that they do not support their son’s politics: “We are not racists. We have never been racists. We do not endorse the idea of white nationalism.” That’s good to hear! The story, alas, does not end there.
I was expecting to read (and tell!) the story of parents torn between the love of an adult child and the hatred of that child’s hateful beliefs. A story of parental affection in conflict with ideals of tolerance and acceptance. I wound up instead reading more than I thought about Montanan interior decor.
The Spencers’ opinion piece, much like Sherry Spencer’s remarkselsewhere, centers on how unfair it is that Sherry’s business, which seems to be an inn and office space combo built by “a visionary local architect, an exceptionally competent and ethical local builder, and numerous talented local artisans,” has been protested, enough so that Sherry’s selling the building:
“[O]ur building and the retail tenants have been targeted by some in the Flathead community because of Richard and the National Policy Institute. On Nov. 22, a distressed commercial tenant called stating that she had been warned that there would soon be up to 200 picketers and national news coverage at 22 Lupfer. Our tenants are innocent victims and their businesses are threatened with boycotts for something over which they have no control. There is no justification for their sustaining collateral damage. We, too, are victims, having no role in any of the events that have unfolded recently.”
I take the Spencers at their word, as I think any of us who have relatives with political beliefs we find offensive are obligated to. (While I personally take issue with the individual-innocence approach to discussing racism, I think it’s fair game to draw a line between racism as in what Richard Spencer’s promoting and the mere existence as a white person in a racist society.) If, as Sherry Spencer claims, she’s been pressured to sell her business, that’s… not good. She has every right to complain about misdirected protests; to be disappointed about a loss of income; and, most of all, to speak out if she believes her property is under some sort of threat.
But I think we, the outside observers, need to be careful not to conflate the financial setback his mother says she’s experiencing with the horror it would be right now to be a Jew in Whitefish, Montana, at a time when neo-Nazis are threatening the town’s few Jews, including children. She’s in a bad spot, yes, but not quite at the level of the young child being referred to (this is from the cached link in the Tablet post) as both “a creepy little faggot” and a “scamming little kike.”
Let me be clear: The chance fact of having an adult child who’s a white nationalist leader doesn’t make Sherry Spencer (or Rand, whose building it isn’t, and who therefore seems to be a bit less wrapped up in this) obligated to become White Gentile Ally of the Year, or otherwise engage in anti-racist activism. But she’d be let’s say a more likable protagonist if she spent a little less time holding forth on how attentively she’d decorated her “mixed-use building” and devoted, I don’t know, a sentence to acknowledging why her son has marginalized people, Jews especially in this case, so riled up. Or if she seemed even remotely aware of the comments from unabashed anti-Semites who have come out in her defense. “The apartments even include my original artwork, and the rooftop garden features my ceramic mural, which celebrates the Whitefish Winter Carnival,” writes Sherry Spencer on Medium, as if this were the issue.
Does Sherry Spencer’s apparent (that is, in these public statements) indifference to bigotry, apart from how it inconveniences her personally that her son is a high-profile bigot, make her, too, A Bigot, despite protests to the contrary? No. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Her public reaction is both understandable and emblematic of how racism and anti-Semitism operate.
And it’s not the end of the world if would-be white supremacists restrain themselves upon realizing that it would bring shame on their families if they did so. Yes, in a perfect world, shame would not extend to the relatives of the terrible, and we should strive to live in that world, and aim protests at white supremacists, not those who share their DNA. But we do not live in that world; let the silver lining of this be an “alt-right” sort or two thinking of his family and stopping before he gets in too deep.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at email@example.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.
‘Alt-Right’ Leader Richard Spencer’s Mother Speaks Out
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a former editor of the Sisterhood blog at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in several publications, including The New Republic and The Atlantic. Her book, “The Perils of ‘Privilege,’” was published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017. She has a PhD in French and French Studies from New York University, and has read a lot of 19th century French Jewish newspapers for a 21st century American.