Watch Your Language

On the Misuses of Phrases Like “Alt-Right” and “White Nationalist”

I will not use the phrase “alt-right” to describe this latest iteration of Nazis. I will not use the phrase “white nationalist” to describe this most recent racists. To do so lends credence not only to the perverse cognitive acrobatics required to hold sacred the so-called philosophy that undergirds this guild of whey-faced and frothing Radio-Shack-manager-looking assholes who claim to speak on my behalf, and on behalf of my children, and on behalf of a fractured sense of history that seeks the continued glorification of a failed insurrection 150 years ago.

To hope that the use of such phrases by the media might one day soon be discontinued is too much, obviously, to expect. The media has largely been cowed by the false balance demanded by the polarizing drift into zealotry, or at least deference to zealotry as a legitimized form of political discourse, that has brought this fucking country to ruin. Media will continue calling Nazis “the alt-right” because that’s what they’ve cadged from the press releases and the pundits they will persist in inviting on their shows; media will carry on calling racists “white nationalists” because that is the softened branding profile racists have settled upon, one that allows them the affirming-if-empty rhetoric of love and pride and heritage, not hate and exclusion and violence.

Just some fellas gathering in a park, apparently.

So I’m not talking to the media. I’m talking to you. Individual person. With, presumably, your own set of critical faculties behind those eyes. And even more particularly I’m talking to white people — by which I mean thoughtful, rational, well-intended white people. I’m writing to you — directly to you — to request that you do not succumb to the eliding linguistic trickery being perpetrated by racists and Nazis. Each time you or I succumb to this trickery by using the monikers they have chosen for themselves, we grow more complicit in their inching crawl toward normality, we cede more conceptual territory in the public mind for the brand of cognitive duplicity they wish to instill.

Because racists and Nazis are at LEAST savvy enough about managing perceptions that they know they have a deep-running problem — because every time we use the names “racist” and “Nazi” these RIGHTLY conjure images of police dogs and water cannons unleashed on people of color, of emaciated corpses thrust into chimneys. And, as recruitment material, such images are mostly ineffective (to you, rational white person, I would hope you find them repellent and worth preventing their reemergence in our public square at any cost.) So, in addition to adopting coded rhetoric that skews toward the economic, toward the pride in one’s lineage, toward the preservation of some (largely imagined) way of life — the Nazi and the racist know to call themselves something else.

It’s like a cannibal, knowing of the deep-rooted taboos and prohibitions surrounding his dietary proclivities and wishing to side-step the scrutiny that might interrupt procuring his next meal, referring to himself as a Foodie Disruptor or some equally evocative-yet-vague phrase. I hope, rational white person, you would join me in condemning the Rebranded Cannibal in the same fashion I expect you to with do the Nazi and the racist. — in the same way that there can be no Cannibal 2.0, the freshening of the racist and the Nazi can only take place if we allow it to. Because if you’re visiting your grandma’s grave, and you happen upon a necrophiliac pounding away on a leathery corpse in a pried-open casket, your sense of decency will prevent lending even your tacit endorsement. If the necrophiliac, desperately yanking his pants up and tripping over his shovel protests to you that he is a misunderstood sexual adventurer, that he is a Post-Respiratory Coitus Aficionado and that your dialing 911 is oppressive and quashing his expressions of intimacy, however outré they may be.

“Alt right” is short, apparently, for “alternative right,” which I guess means they fancy themselves as the ideological equivalent of, say, Smashing Pumpkins to the, say, Aerosmith that is mainstream conservatism. But listen, though: they both suck. They’re both self-indulgent horse shit made my insufferable white dudes in the thrall of jaw-dropping and unwarranted self regard. I mean, you can slap a little more eyeliner on it, but conservatism as practiced in this country is a rancid and shit-scared form of short-sighted harm inflicted upon vulnerable people and the planet we inhabit. To attempt to foist upon us the belief that your racialized Klan-retread is in any way new or novel or “alt” is like claiming that the petrified ribbon candy sun-welded into the bowl on your grandma’s coffee table that’s still there weeks after her funeral is an exciting new treat that all the kids are sure to love. But the kids don’t fucking love it. They have no fucking idea what it is. And are rightfully wary when you offer it to them.

Let’s look at “white nationalist” — the paradox here is that in an effort at spin control, they have upon two things that, from a historical standpoint, are disastrously shitty. Whiteness is, from a genetic standpoint, a piss-poor adaptation that renders people well-suited to living in a comparatively tiny portion of the world’s temperate geography. That’s why the population of Portland looks the way it does. Culturally, it is flatly ludicrous to claim anything like a cogent monolithic shared language or worldview or faith tradition or artistic life or agriculture or goddamn any of it. If you doubt this, look at the history of Europe, where the ground remains spongy with the spilled blood of white people who can’t fucking stand each other.

Nationhood, with its fealty to a patch of ground and some tenuous sense of obligation to a linguistic and cultural legacy we are encouraged to reckon is fixed and immutable — if it is not, we must therefore develop an evolving sense of our language and culture and place which grows and morphs in concert with the natural transformations that must take place over time to any language or culture or place. In order for us to reasonably be expected to defend jealously the borders of a language or culture or place, its cartography must be certain — which entails the perpetual vigilance to police any incursion of change and snuff it out where we find it. Which means we as a citizenry must always cast our gaze backward, toward a time of greater purity and homogeneity — in other words, the past is the only refuge we are granted in the face of the changes to our imagined map, since change is both inevitable and constant.

So if we as citizens are exhorted to look backward, by say, an opportunistic simpleton who pledges to make America great again, to a past gilded by goodness and bounty, it is guaranteed that we will be terror-stricken by the even the most barely perceptible variation from this imagined map of our language and culture and place — in other words, we are asked to patrol and defend a fiction, to secure the borders of a shimmering mirage, a shared fever dream. And then we as citizens fail to adapt and are overtaken by the forces of change. And we lash out like the baffled and traumatized children we have been remade by rigid and thoughtless patriotism to become. We become entrenched and paranoid, aggrieved and shrill.

So. A “white” “nation” is no place I wish to occupy. As such a place is, at its core, a fraudulent and unimaginative falsehood. I seek to behold and remake myself in response to the truth, and the truth is that this world and my nation are in a constant state of flux, and any failure to incorporate new spurs and whorls and offshoots of reality into my conception of things would be mine. I do not blame and lash out at the shifting map of my language and culture and place, since to do so would be as laughable as it is pitiable — it is the concrete of a sidewalk bitching about getting pierced by the stems of the flowers growing up through its cracks.

So in conclusion, rational white person — do not use their terms. Doing so implies consent and constitutes complicity. Call them racists. Call them Nazis. Call them sad, lumpy nut jobs. Call them anything but what they wish to be called. They deserve our contempt. They deserve to be cast out from the our colony, exiled from the nation of our affinity. They deserve to be shunned and shamed and shut down.

And, if you are inclined to make weak-willed demurrals about their free speech rights, let me be plain: I have no designs on curtailing or quashing their idiot speech. Like you, I believe that the right of citizens to assemble and express themselves is an absolute. But I further recognize that the guarantee is that this right be safeguarded from restriction by the state, that it is the government who shall not abridge the rights of individual citizens in this regard. I, though, as an individual citizen and rational white person, have an obligation to dismiss and destroy and degrade and destroy the attempts of racists and Nazis to redraw the map of my language.

No greater champion of the First goddamn Amendment than this guy. Which is actually from Tucson, not Charlottesville, as has been frequently claimed. Just part of our nation’s rich racist tapestry.

I am obliged as a citizen and as a writer to remain clear on the meanings of things, and to stay cognizant of the power inherent in language and to resist any who seek to seize its territory, because our understanding of this confounding world is built brick by linguistic brick and wherever we permit the removal of even a handful of bricks, the integrity of our construction grows more precarious. I am obliged to withstand (fleeting) discomfort and difficulty where I find white people whom I take to be rational and thoughtful and well-intended falling prey to the use of their terms. I must persuade them where I can that even where it seems petty or picayune, it remains nonetheless worthwhile to retain and reinforce the inherently transient solidity of the meaning we make in this world; I must convince them that permitting this colonization of even some small piece of the map or our language by racists and Nazis confers an incremental gain in legitimacy upon them and their futile grab for their paltry conception of glory.

More stuff at ianbelknap.com, including info on creative writing workshops. Twitter: @writeclubrules

Founder of WRITE CLUB. Essays, satire, criticism in The Rumpus, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, American Theatre Magazine, etc. writerianbelknap.com