The debate on the Irish Times publication of a ‘glossary’ on the far-right-posing-as-alt-right prompts questions about the engagement of mainstream media of reputation with the ideas, language and leaders of the movement. Here I try to engage with some of these, understanding the key issues for media outlets, their readership and anti-racists in addressing this new challenge.
Stylish racists and the problem of irony
The mainstream media’s fascination with the exposure (not rise) of the far-right’s new branding is understandable, but not acceptable. It is not new either. For decades there has been a willingness to accommodate and admire racists in nice suits or trending new styles.
If you can wear a jacket well, and speak eloquently, you’re on the first rung of the acceptable racists ladder. Because some styles might go in and out of fashion, but looking and sounding successful middle-class (I’m looking at you Nigel, Katie, et al) allows you access to ‘respectable’ media outlets who like a nicely turned phrase and a familiar class accent. Even if you have been denounced by the United Nations for ‘pre-genocidal’ language (Katie, again), or exposed as a serial liar and hypocrite (Nigel).
Movements that combine new styles with old ideologies are not less persistent or dangerous. Lester Bangs, writing in 1979 on young American racists appropriating punk style and the hate crimes committed by them, noted
“after a while this casual, even ironic, embrace of the totems of bigotry crosses over into total poison”. (cited in “Tweedy racists and “ironic” anti-Semites: the alt-right fits a historical pattern“, Vox)
Richard Spencer, self-proclaimed leader of the so-called ‘alt-right’, and overt white nationalist, described the Nazi-style salutes by a crowd at a recent event as being in the ‘spirit of irony and exuberance’. Forgive me for saying, but when I’m feeling exuberant, the last thing I think to do (or anyone around me to do) is to make a nazi-style salute. Perhaps if I was a fan of white nationalism the sentiment might come more easily. But then it wouldn’t be ironic, would it?
If everything is ‘ironic’, it cannot be argued with. All statements can be made, repeated, used to harass and used to condone vile acts, all without any responsibility being taken for the harms they do or the beliefs they represent. Irony is the strongest tool in the post-truth pushers toolbox.
Why the tendency to be enamoured of repackaged racists? Accessing the media
The best explanation for the heightened media exposure of the far-right under the guise of ‘alt-right’ is the access to new and multiple media platforms which the social media age has facilitated. This is the age of the #hashtag and 140 character assertions designed to shock, intrigue, and ultimately produce clicks. And if there’s one reason for the current fascination of mainstream media with the far-right, in the age of online advertising, it’s clickbait.
If you can shock, if you can awe, if you can make people irate enough with a headline, you can produce clicks. And clicks mean money for media outlets, and kudos and continuing contracts for the would-be celebrity racists behind them. Opinion columns are the favoured outlets of such would-be celebrity racists, because they are not subjected to the same standards of fact-checking or evidence as ‘news’ articles. This is why Katie Hopkins and Ian O’Doherty enjoy their ‘honest’ discussions about ethnic minorities, immigration, Islam, and the working class in their respective papers without being held to account by their Editors.
The same explanation is implied by the Irish Times in explanation of its publication of the ‘everything you need to know’ article about the so-called ‘alt-right’: its Opinions Editor writes: “the purpose of the Opinion and Analysis section is to inform readers about the issues of the day, offer insights and give them something to think about.” He goes on, “Ultimately we trust in the ability of our readers to make their own minds up.” The implication is that the same standards of research which are expected in other parts of the paper are not expected in the Opinions column. The same point was relied on in Paddy Smyth’s explanation on Newstalk Drive: “we should not be concerned about protecting our readers”. Yet when I pointed out that the Opinions piece is designed to inform readers about the issues of the day first, and then stimulate debate, he was not interested at all in debating the first part, which is about the standards of ‘truth’ or evidence which are expected in an Opinions piece.
When is a racist not a racist? When he says so.
The question which I think, and you are of course free to disagree, is most important is the extent to which we accept and use in daily discussion the terms which are offered to us by the far-right. Mainstreaming those terms, and most importantly how they are defined by the far-right, shuts down debate, because they seek to delegitimise and dehumanise those who they disagree with. This is not about whether terms are ‘offensive’ or not. Offense is relative.
The problem I identify is with terms which refer to racist stereotypes being mainstreamed and treated as anything other than the terms of racists. Definitions which deny widely-evidenced racism in the criminal justice system or policing, which are bigoted, misogynistic and transphobic, which equate income inequality and job insecurity with historical experiences of slavery and genocide – these are not objective ‘definitions’ by any means, but passionately-held beliefs. That doesn’t mean that I want them shut down. It does mean that I expect more of a highly-regarded national newspaper like the Irish Times than to lend their status and reputation to such ‘definitions’.
It also importantly means exercising editorial judgement over how to title an Opinion piece. This phrase “everything you need to know” is probably over-used in most mainstream media, but in the Irish Times, it usually refers to well-informed reviews written by IT journalists, and sometimes humorous comment on recent trends, such as the new obsession with cosiness or ‘hygge‘. Never before has it been used to represent a one-sided view of an extremist movement by an admirer of that movement.
There are alternative primers. You can try the Anti-Defamation League’s primer which reminds us that ‘Alt-right’ is a rebranding project above all. ” The term “Alt Right” originated with extremists but increasingly has found its way into the mainstream media. Alt Right is short for “alternative right.” This vague term actually encompasses a range of people on the extreme right who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy.”
Or you might prefer the CBS article ‘Steve Bannon and the alt-right: a primer‘, which describes how “conservative suspicions of diversity, inclusion, feminism, and political correctness had metastasized into something much darker.” […] “This was the alt-right, a collection of racists, pick-up artists, men’s rights activists, and other noxious trolls of the internet.”
None of this is flattering to the rebrand. Good research on the part of the Irish Times Opinions Editor might have turned up such primers and taken cognisance of their content. A really good primer on the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ (the kind of thing you might hope for from the IT given the strength of its journalistic talent) would perhaps have produced less clicks though.
It is key for any movement to define itself, and not be defined by others. The rebrand is an attempt to do exactly this, making racism and bigotry fashionable and politically relevant. A tried and tested method of the far-right-posing-as-alt-right is to offer a ‘primer’ to their own language, presenting definitions which delegitimise other groups and perspectives, and dehumanising. Milos Yannopoulos and Allum Bukhari posted one on Breitbart last year – less an explainer for the masses, and more a manifesto. This earlier primer offers a description of “youthful energy and jarring, taboo-defying rhetoric” (sound familiar?). It suggests that there is little to be afraid of from those who follow the rebranded far-right. After all, it’s all just a bit of irony.
“Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide.”
It’s not the only ‘primer’ to the ‘alt-right’ written by the far-right. You can look to “An Alt-Right Primer, Sans Media Lies and Cherry-Picking” on Unbowed, Unbent, Uncucked, or “A Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right” on neo-nazi website Daily Stormer.
So when the Irish Times publishes a ‘glossary’ or primer of the rebranded far-right, the question really is not of free speech, or difference of opinion, but the extent to which a newspaper of repute is willing to lend that reputation to Opinion writers who willingly mislead and misinform readers, in a section designed (in the IT’s words) “to inform readers about the issues of the day”. There is no question that the publication has stimulated debate, another purpose of the Opinions section, but there is an ambiguity in the Irish Times defense which on the one hand says that “someone reading the piece would be better informed abou the Alt-right movement and what it stands for” and that readers are already sufficiently informed about the movement to “make their own minds up”. If I have to go to the Washington Post to get accurate information about the far-right’s narrative in order to inform my reading of the Irish Times’ publication of a piece of far-right misinformation, what does that say about the reputation of the latter for informing its readership?
Update: I was invited on Newstalk FM to discuss the issue with Patrick Smith of the Irish Times. You can read a brief summary and access the full recording here.