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Words are still relevant in politics

6 mins read

Until 1879, the German term for hatred of Jews was Judenhass, which literally translates to “hatred of Jews.” That year, a German agitator named Wilhelm Marr founded a new organization called the League of Antisemites. The term “anti-Semite” had existed before then, but it was not used to express an ideology. According to the late Israeli State Archivist Alex Bein, “[People] did not use the word as a special concept but only in a general way … such as ‘anti-capitalistic’ to designate those who fight against the rich.” Wilhelm Marr’s organization was the first to use “antisemitism” to refer to a specific ideology.
Similarly, the term “alt-right” was coined in 2008 by paleoconservative Paul Gottfried, but it did not begin to describe a white supremacist and nativist ideology until it was popularized by white nationalist Richard Spencer, who also claims to have coined the term.
Obviously, this is unfairly damning and one-sided juxtaposition. Many different groups on the left and right employ the technique of renaming as an ideological issue, like when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his top aide reframed the campaign for gay marriage – biographer Michael Shnayerson writes, “‘Same-sex marriage’ was now ‘marriage equality,’” or when the Bush administration used the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” in lieu of “torture.” Comparing the linguistic origins of “alt-right” to those of “antisemitism” on such a shallow level is perhaps the textbook example of Godwin’s Law, which states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.”
Who cares what an organization is called? Why should that matter? After all, that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—or in this case, racist. Well, unfortunately, it does matter. If the naming of an ideological group didn’t affect its perception, why wouldn’t members of the alt-right just keep calling themselves white supremacists as they have for decades? The simple truth is that renaming also served to sterilize the word and therefore normalize the ideology. This is another similarity that the term “alt-right” shares with that 137-year-old word of hate. In both cases, the Professor Yehuda Bauer writes, “The new term [antisemitism] sounded scientific, did not mention Jews, but everyone knew who and what was meant; it described a newly developed phenomenon of a nationalistic and racial biological approach.” The alt-right movement enjoys some of these same benefits—it sounds rather new and “hip,” it doesn’t mention that it believes in the elevation of one race over others, its definition is fairly well understood, and it describes a new, ethnocentric approach to politics. Because this term describes an ideology rather than a specific policy, the effects of its renaming are much farther reaching than, say, “marriage equality.”
This new label is accomplishing the exact goal that helps white supremacy spread—it makes it all too easy for media companies to normalize an ideological group. Simply put, it’s easier to be open-minded to someone who says he’s part of the alt-right than someone who calls himself a neo-Nazi. The result of this is clear: less than two weeks ago, CNN aired a chyron that read, “Alt-Right Founder Questions if Jews Are People.” Does anyone think this would have made it to air if that sentiment came from the mouth of a self-identified white supremacist?
But, you argue, Trump has spoken up against racist aggression by the alt-right. This is true; on Nov. 14, he said in an interview, “I will say right to the cameras: ‘Stop it.’” While this statement is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t even begin to help the violence that has been occurring against minorities. In fact, it further echoes sentiments expressed by the Nazis. In 1943, the Racial Policy Office issued a memorandum that said “’anti-Semitism,’ which has been used in Europe for decades, is incorrect since that movement is exclusively directed against the Jews … but not against other peoples with a Semitic language.” In other words, using that phrase was considered bad because it implied that Nazis hated more ethnicities than they actually did.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter if an official condones the use of specific language. The fact of the matter is that the use of the scientific-sounding “anti-semitism” helped the cause of the Nazis, and the cool-sounding “alt-right” is helping white supremacists. They say actions speak louder than words. If we want to ensure that racism doesn’t become further ingrained into American society, we have to make sure that it doesn’t get normalized just because it has a new name. For the sake of the millions who have suffered at the hands of bigotry and evil, we as students—and by many accounts, leaders of the next generation—cannot forget the hidden meanings behind words, no matter how neat those words sound.

2 Comments

  1. With Trump’s victory, the Alt-Right has gained legitimacy and power.
    Ann Coulter is the high priestess of the Alt-Right and she actively promotes and praises white supremacy, often denying she does so and claiming she only talking about (WASP) cultural supremacy.
    A new book, #NeverTrump: Coulter’s Alt-Right Utopia, examines the origins, worldview, and impact of the Alt-Right movement. It is now available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/2fzA9Mr.

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