My skepticism of media narratives has reached (possibly) an all-time high, so lately I’ve been trying all the more to read about a given topic from multiple sources, including those I disagree with, just to have an idea of what all sides are saying. There have been plenty of cases where I’ve found information that paints a different picture than current conventional wisdom does. But I have to say, so far, the topic of the alt-right isn’t one of those cases.
I realized pretty much the extent of my knowledge on the alt-right were the angry statuses from Facebook friends and headlines from (mostly left-wing) media that I skimmed. Even right-wing sources have spoken against them, so I’ve really only heard one narrative about this group: they’re racists, white nationalists, and probably Nazis.
But I know there are people out there who don’t agree. Steve Bannon, former chief editor of Breitbart and Trump’s incoming chief strategist, has specifically rejected the idea that he’s a white nationalist, but simultaneously explains Breitbart is the platform for the alt-right. These two ideas aren’t technically incompatible–for example, he could be against white nationalism but pro-free speech. Still it seems incongruous that someone who says he rejects white nationalism would be proud of hosting a platform for white nationalists, so to my mind these two statements implied that Bannon does not think the alt-right are white nationalists.
So what’s the other narrative here?
I got a lot more information by reading “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right” by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos (Breitbart). They break the alt-right into four groups (their labels, my paraphrases):
- The Intellectuals – people who pride themselves on thinking only rationally, which in this case means stripping away “self-censorship, concern for one’s social standing, concern for other people’s feelings, and any other inhibitors to rational thought.”
- Natural Conservatives – people primarily concerned with preserving their homogeneity, stability, and hierarchy, specifically with preserving their own tribe and culture (western European culture).
- The Meme Team – trolls. People who take great joy in being as offensive as possible, getting media to write articles about their offensiveness, and laughing about it.
- The 1488RS – Nazis. “14” for the 14 words “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children” and 88 because the 8th letter of the alphabet is “H” so it’s “HH” which is “Heil Hitler.” Yes, I’m serious.
I expect these four categories crossover, but that’s how the authors compartmentalized the movement.
While this article gave me a much more detailed picture of what “alt-right” is supposed to mean, I can’t say it did much to undermine the narrative that the alt-right is comprised of racists and Nazis. I’m sure not literally everyone who associates with the alt-right is a racist, but that’s a pretty low standard. Anyway, brief thoughts on three of the four groups:
The Intellectuals: I’ve spoken with plenty of people who make no distinction between honest/blunt/direct and rude/cruel/offensive. That’s what the description of The Intellectuals sounded like to me. I understand the argument that we shouldn’t be so concerned with offending people that we become unclear or even dishonest. We shouldn’t sacrifice truth in the name of deference. I agree with that. But I firmly believe it is possible and preferable to express our views both honestly and kindly. It’s hard to be patient with people who try to excuse cruelty in the name of truth telling.
The Meme Team: Society should ignore The Meme Team entirely. Don’t feed the trolls. …But I know we won’t ignore them. It seems like trolls always get fed.
The 1488RS: They sound awful. So awful, in fact, that the rest of the alt-right (according to this article) also wishes they would go away, and feels they give the alt-right a bad name (not wrong there). In a sense I feel about the 1488RS the same way I feel about The Meme Team. The former aren’t trolls in that they are apparently sincere, but either way I worry that giving them attention gives them strength. As of right now there are very few Nazis in the country, and I’d like it to stay that way.
To some extent I feel that way about the whole alt-right movement: I’m worried that we (the rest of society) are growing and sustaining them by giving them such disproportionate attention.1 When Hillary Clinton decided to do a speech condemning how Trump has been embraced by the alt-right, they were thrilled. The WSJ quotes Richard Spencer, alt-right founder, saying,
“When your movement is going to be mentioned by name by the presidential candidate leading in the polls, you can safely say that we’ve made it. Our fundamental obstacle was people having no idea who we are.”
The Natural Conservatives: I saved this group for last because it’s the only one I found interesting. A lot of the description sounded exactly like white nationalism to me, but I was struck by this passage:
The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved. A Mosque next to an English street full of houses bearing the flag of St. George, according to alt-righters, is neither an English street nor a Muslim street — separation is necessary for distinctiveness.
Some alt-righters make a more subtle argument. They say that when different groups are brought together, the common culture starts to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Instead of mosques or English houses, you get atheism and stucco.
Ironically, it’s a position that has much in common with leftist opposition to so-called “cultural appropriation,” a similarity openly acknowledged by the alt-right.
This passage caught my eye because I wondered if there really is a parallel here between the left’s condemnation of cultural appropriation and the alt-right’s desire to keep western European culture separate from other cultures.
First of all, to be fair, I have a lot of left-wing friends who have turned a skeptical eye toward the concept of cultural appropriation, wondering if it goes too far. For example, they generally do frown upon white people dressing as nonwhite caricatures for Halloween, but they aren’t convinced it’s wrong to do yoga as a form of exercise. They reject mocking and taking credit for aspects of other people’s cultures, but they embrace enjoying and appreciating those same aspects. I don’t think that’s inconsistent.
At the same time, there are voices on the left that take a much broader approach to cultural appropriation, such that the concept includes actions such as eating Mexican food without being interested in Mexican people as a whole, wearing cornrows or dreadlocks, or buying into Disney’s version of Pocahontas. This understanding of cultural appropriation doesn’t require purposefully mocking or taking credit for aspects of other peoples’ cultures; it includes any time the dominant culture (usually white people) can enjoy aspects of other cultures without having to understand, acknowledge, or navigate the more complicated realities those peoples have lived with or currently live with.
It seems to me that even this broadly applied definition of cultural appropriation is distinct from the cultural preservation the alt-right’s Natural Conservatives are talking about. The left is concerned about embracing aspects of other peoples’ cultures without realizing how that embrace can affect those people. This isn’t about trying to ban yoga–it’s about yoga becoming so ubiquitous people don’t even realize where it originally came from. In contrast, the Natural Conservatives are concerned with their culture being condemned and erased. As the article puts it:
[The regressive left] is currently intent on tearing down statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria in the UK, and erasing the name of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton in the U.S. These attempts to scrub western history of its great figures are particularly galling to the alt-right, who in addition to the preservation of western culture, care deeply about heroes and heroic virtues.2
Here the examples are about specific icons, but there are other factors that play into this fear of cultural erasure. For example, both the alt-right and the right generally are concerned about the rise of secularism and the anti-religion (especially anti-Christian) sentiments that accompany it. Steve Bannon talks about that a lot in this extensive 2014 interview, Glenn Beck does too in this 2012 piece, and here is The Federalist talking about the issue this year, 2016. Related but perhaps more specific examples include the now taboo views that marriage is between a man and a woman, that there are only two genders, and that those genders are different in meaningful and predictable ways.
To be clear: I’m a pro-gay marriage secularist, so, even though I am a conservative, I personally don’t share the feeling that my culture is under attack in these specific ways, because I don’t share those particular views. But I can empathize with how those who have held those views their entire lives would feel that way, especially with how relatively rapidly some of these changes have happened and how aggressively (conservative) dissenters are berated. Charles Camosey, a #NeverTrump conservative, expressed the sentiment well:
People like this fellow are tired of those who think they are better than the great religious unwashed, putting “religious liberty” in derogatory scare quotes. They are tired of being reduced to a lazy caricature, particularly when it involves historical references to the supposed inherently violent nature of religious traditions. They are tired of being called bigots and homophobes for having a position on marriage that President Obama had in 2012.
However, much as I empathize with the desire by many to preserve cultural conservatism, and much as I reject the equivocation of any such desire as inherently racist, I do think the description of Natural Conservatives sounds bigoted, and I find it alarming. For example:
While eschewing bigotry on a personal level, the movement is frightened by the prospect of demographic displacement represented by immigration.
If I’m understanding right, this argument against immigration is not about national security or economics–it’s about culture, and not wanting immigrant culture to mix with western European (or American conservative white) culture. Is that not the definition of white nationalism?
The really interesting members of the alt-right though, and the most numerous, are the natural conservatives. They are perhaps psychologically inclined to be unsettled by threats to western culture from mass immigration and maybe by non-straight relationships. Yet, unlike the 1488ers, the presence of such doesn’t send them into fits of rage. They want to build their homogeneous communities, sure — but they don’t want to commit any pogroms along the way. Indeed, they would prefer non-violent solutions.
I would hope nonviolence would be more than a mere preference. I did not find that passage at all comforting, especially since the authors later suggest that if the Natural Conservatives can’t find a compromise with the left, they will turn to the 1488RS for “solutions.”
Moreover, this Breitbart article is easily the gentlest description I’ve seen of the alt-right. The piece came under fire for underplaying the nastiness of the movement, drawing criticism from not only anti-racists but also neo-Nazis who likewise felt they were being whitewashed. It says a lot that a piece that favorable is still unnerving.