White nationalists are trying to use “free speech” to control the terms of the conversation. Don’t let them.
This weekend — the day after a white nationalist plowed a car into a crowd of protesters, killing one and injuring many in Charlottesville, VA — a small, ragtag group of alt-right “patriots” descended on Westlake Park in Seattle for a rally on Free Speech. The rally was held by Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer. Gibson is a guy from Camas, WA who found his “calling” in activism during the election of Donald Trump.
Patriot Prayer recruits from across the conservative spectrum. As you might correctly guess, there were a fair share of beardos in MAGA hats at the rally yesterday, and also some rural folks holding signs about Jesus — the right’s stereotypical/historical “base.”
And then there’s this new thing: people who call themselves “Kekistanis,” residents of a fictional country created on 4Chan.
If you don’t know about “Kek,” please take a moment to familiarize yourself through the hyperlinks. Kek is a meme-based frog deity that helped get Trump elected. The whole thing is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but he’s also a *real* deity, in that he’s an object of attention and devotion for many, and this attention and devotion has manifest into action (things like voting for Trump en masse, for the lols.)
The flag of Kekistan is based on the Nazi War Ensign, with Ks for Kek. But there are 4 Ks, not 3, get it? And it’s NOT a Nazi flag. It’s green, get it?
I’d call it sleight of hand, if it wasn’t so obvious. Here we have classic Nazi design, dressed up an something absurdly nihilistic, designed to provoke and outrage (in a trolly, South Park sort of way that imagines itself an “equal-opportunity offender”). If you engage Kekistanis, they will insist that they’re not racist, and their point is reinforced by the fact that not all of them are even white. One young Hispanic guy draped in a Kekistan flag told me “why would I align myself with white nationalists who want to kill me?” Another attendee was wearing a Kekistan flag printed with the colors of the gay pride rainbow.
The “inclusiveness” of Kekistan and groups like Patriot Prayer works two ways. First, it lures people who might not have been traditionally part of the GOP into the welcoming man-bosom of far-right causes. The other, more important way it works is by mainstreaming the more extreme versions of white nationalism and overt racism by making them appear more friendly and just about “free speech.”
The contemporary alt-right, which has roots in online men’s rights groups, gaming communities, and semi-anonymous communities like 4-chan and Reddit, has recently been chronicled in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. But due to the real-time pace of online communities, a book like this is out of date almost as soon as it is printed. Consider this 4chan screengrab tweeted out by YouTube personality Contrapoints urging members of the movement to “disavow all Nazi/KKK edgelord LARPers” in the wake of Charlottesville, so as not to further alienate “normie” whites away from the ultimate aims of the alt-right, which are of course aligned with those of white nationalists, just not publicly so. Keep this in mind when you see the President and members of the alt-right “condemning” bigotry: they are fully aware of their own duplicity, and they expect “normies” to be too stupid to catch the cryptofascist “dog whistles.”
Let’s be clear on one thing: the “free speech” angle of these rallies couldn’t possibly be more disingenuous. These people give exactly zero shits about Trump’s attacks on journalism and its very real tendency toward Erdoğan-style jailing and purging of journalists and academics. If they were lured here by free speech, it’s in the most childish way possible, like not wanting so-called “social justice warriors” telling them they shouldn’t call their broken zipper “retarded.”
This combination of framing “free speech” as something that only douchebags stand up for, with the authoritarian tendencies of their God-Emperor Donald Trump (yes, really), creates a real and urgent threat to actual free speech by trolling the very foundations of liberal democracy.
In 1945, the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper—writing from New Zealand, where he had fled from the OG Nazis—identified what he terms the Paradox of Tolerance:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
Like playing a record designed to vibrate sonically at the very frequencies that would destroy a record player, this kind of “free speech” activism is aimed at destroying the machinery that gave it the right to exist in the first place.
We actually don’t need to tolerate Nazis. We don’t need to give them a platform at public universities or use the media to distribute their messaging. Any press is good press, so I hesitated even writing this post. But between becoming a target of the alt-right for something I wrote way back in May 2016 (an experience I talk about here) and having conversations with several of these people in person, I opted to make this a Medium post because I feel like I’ve developed some recommendations that might benefit others.
These insights are not set in stone, and may evolve as my understanding of these forces deepens, so please take my list as a work in progress and do your own homework. (In fact, that’s recommendation #1!)
- Do your homework.
As of this moment, I’ve talked to a lot of people who consider themselves part of the alt-right movement, but we all have work to do, including me. If you’re going to engage it at all, please, for the sake of those who are most impacted by this movement, first understand and recognize it for exactly what it is: a deliberate and concerted effort to shift the Overton Window to the far right.
Yesterday I talked to far too many people on our side who didn’t know what Patriot Prayer was, or who thought it was an overt white nationalist group. Even though they are most definitely aligned with white nationalist groups, Patriot Prayer goes to great lengths to “disown” white nationalism, and that’s actually a huge part of what’s so slippery about them. The problem with not knowing this is that then, when they start saying things that sound reasonable, we fall for it.
An addendum: I‘ve already had one person try to “correct” me, from the photo of the rainbow flag shirt loading in the post preview on Facebook (without reading the whole post), because the young man in my photo told them his rainbow Kekistan shirt was a harmless symbol of Pride and “some country’s flag” and so they automatically assumed I must be mistaken.
If you have time to argue on Facebook, you have time to click the links on this post at the very least, and start your own investigation into these things; I promise it will help you hone your tactics.
2. Stop being on their side.
This is a corollary of #1. The sooner we can all get on the same page about what’s actually happening, the faster we can plan our collective responses. Right now, I see far too many folks on the left buying into the “free speech” bullshit they’re peddling. This needs to stop right now. Learn about what is happening in Turkey right now; learn about how democracies can and do melt down via the erosion of free speech, free press and the freedom to peacefully assemble and how the alt-right is actually eroding free speech while it claims to defend it.
Don’t direct your frustrations about white nationalism at feminists/POCs who are justifiably angry because they are directly under attack. Offer comfort and assistance, and if someone’s lashing out at all white men, for instance, let them have their anger. Understand that it’s not about you unless you make it about you. Save your energy, and let others save theirs by not arguing with you. If you’re privileged enough to play devil’s advocate for the alt-right, you’re privileged enough to observe and confront them in spaces where it isn’t safe for the rest of us to go, and also to play an incredibly vital role in helping us build a culture where they can’t make inroads in the first place (more on that later).
3. Sit with your knee-jerk responses before acting.
This one’s tricky — the last thing I want to do is tone police anyone’s righteous anger. But if your response to direct confrontation is to lose your temper, please be aware that eliciting anger is their goal, so intentionally putting yourself in spaces where the alt-right might be, might not be the most effective tactical strategy, at least for now.
The alt-right like to show up wherever they are outnumbered by leftists. “When someone punches me, or gets in my face and yells, it only proves my point,” said one guy. Their goal is to get someone to punch them, so the media will frame it as leftist violence directed at the alt-right — (so they can counter with “the anti-fascists are the real fascists”) — or scream in their face so they can laugh about how predictably hysterical “SJWs” are (especially if those SJWs are women/nb folks). At least a dozen alt-righters have sent me videos of protesters at Evergreen and told me those videos are what inspired them to join the movement. Our outrage is their recruitment video.
Some members of the alt-right are entitled cis-het white college boys, for sure. But they are also actively recruiting women, POCs and LGBTQ people who are alienated by what they perceive as elitist “college culture” and find the expectation that they know the latest in social justice lingo (which they find insufferable and arcane), or whatever else they think the “thought police” are trying to get them to do next, classist and exclusionary.
The Kekistanis I spoke with are also obsessed with the idea that the left’s ideas are “emotional,” not “rational.” There is an obvious current of toxic masculinity to this notion—(exactly what kinds of emotions have you been forced to suppress your whole life, if “emotions” are the worst thing you can think of?)—but if you know this going into it, you can consciously try not to give them the emotional responses they want to elicit.
Remember that these are people who have chosen, out of all the things one can choose to do in life, to dress up in a frog flag and troll SJWs as a hobby. Keep that in mind while playing your hand.
Does this mean we shouldn’t punch Nazis? I mean, if you can find a way to do it that won’t ultimately serve their self-indulgent victim narrative, I certainly won’t lose any sleep over the ethics of it. But if your goal is to make Nazis uncomfortable, one thing I’ve found that does that very well is asking them to explain their views to you. Literally all of the alt-righters I spoke to walked away from me when my questions started getting too intense, because their understanding of the world is simplistic and meme-based, and above all, they are cowards. Hit them where their minds are. It’s a lot easier to take a punch to the face than a well-calculated bruise to the ego.
Another strategy is documenting the hell out of them. Go to their rallies with cameras. Catch the violence when it breaks out, and see who’s actually responsible. Tell their employers they’re Nazis. (That’s what some people have started doing with photos from Charlottesville and it seems to be working.)
4. Listen to what people who have been fighting white nationalism their whole lives have to say, especially people of color.
Consider this post by Ahjamu Umi, an organizer and activist with a masters degree in economics, who recently wrote on his blog:
Every time they have a rally, stop helping them publicize it. I mean, some people even make a news day out this ground scum simply showing up somewhere.
[Selectively, strategically] choosing to ignore white nationalists when your engagement might be playing into their narrative seems counterintuitive, but it’s aligned with everything I learned in behavioral psychology. Children who can’t get positive attention try to get negative attention, and the most effective ways to extinguish unwanted behaviors are through a combination of failing to reward negative behavior (i.e. don’t give them what they want) and rewarding the behavior you want to see more of instead.
(Am I suggesting we treat the alt-right like naughty children? Well, yeah. Basically.)
We have studied these people inside and out. We passed the phase of reacting emotionally to them decades ago. Now, we just organize to build power to either win them over or wipe them out. And the killer is they know this. That’s why you never see them coming after us although we openly challenge them. Openly taunt them. Openly question their courage. For those of you who are sincerely attempting to engage this fight, shouldn’t that tell you something? If nothing else it should tell you that these people really don’t want the so-called confrontation they keep clamoring about because if they did, they know exactly where to go to get it.
Umi suggests taking the energy you might spend trying to shout down white nationalists (or those who deny they’re white nationalists but drape themselves in Kek flags) to organize proactively to stop white nationalism before it starts:
So, consider a reality where wherever the white supremacists showed up we didn’t meet them there. If your fear is if they go unchallenged that will make it easier for them to recruit that wouldn’t be true if you are doing the necessary work with the communities they wish to recruit from. Just think about it. If you are white, you can do that work to a certain point where you can organize your communities enough where you can build capacity so that the communities themselves will start to refuse to permit this trash to stink up their environments.
This is the most important point, as far as I’m concerned. As Ijeoma Oluo wrote last November, we have to create a culture that won’t vote for Trump.
While it’s super cathartic to show up to counterprotests and yell at Nazis, and then pat ourselves on the back because we did a good thing, the reason those Nazis are there in the first place is because white culture has allowed it to get to this point, via the softer, gentler forms of white supremacy that breed complacency and status quo-enforcement.
Please note, I’m not saying protests aren’t important, because they are. I went to a protest yesterday and watched the police throw flashbangs into a crowd that included babies. When riot police are deployed to protect white nationalists from protesters, as they were yesterday in Seattle, showing them that there’s more of us and that we won’t be taken down easily is absolutely critical. So please don’t stop being a body in the streets. (More good info on what to do when organized supremacists plan a rally here.)
But we also need to be organizing to strengthen community ties and make it harder for them to get a foothold in the first place. Take care of your vulnerable friends, ask them how they’re doing and what you can do for them. Donate your time and money to organizations that are already helping immigrants and other people targeted by this regime. And if you’re white and you’re looking for a way to end white supremacy, #5 is for you.
Don’t worry about ruining Thanksgiving (it’s a racist holiday to begin with). White people created this problem, and we’re the only ones who can even begin to take the wind out of its sails. If there’s anyone in your life who would vote for Trump who cares enough about you to give you their time and attention, talk to them. Tell them about your friend who is worried about whether they’ll be able to get back into the country if they leave, or can’t get on the subway without being harassed. Use positive storytelling tactics to get their hearts and minds on your side. Be genuinely sympathetic to the human inside the hate, if you can. There are reasons they’ve chosen this path in the first place, and your job is to figure out what those reasons are, and help them find something constructive to do with their time.
This is easier said than done because it requires an ongoing commitment of time and energy. You can’t just pop into someone’s life after ignoring them for a decade to tell them they’re a racist idiot for voting for Trump. You have to maintain real, meaningful relationships and connections with people whose lives might look very different from your own so your point of view will be respected and you will be in a position to help hold them accountable.
(I’m just as guilty at failing at #5 as any of us, and this is a place where I have work to do. How about you?)
6. Work to actively dismantle the systems of white supremacy.
This is an addendum to my original post, because it’s important, and I shouldn’t assume it’s something we’re all already doing. Today Ijeoma Oluo wrote an essay on how foundational white supremacy is to our entire culture. If you’re a white American like me, realize that there have always been systems in place that benefit us at the expense of others, and that the difference between the white nationalists currently trying to commandeer the government and liberal white status-quo enforcing racism is a matter of degree, not kind. Her recommendations range from the necessity of getting involved with electoral politics—especially at the local level—and being willing to confront the constant examples of white supremacy in our daily lives. Engage yourself in the process of building a society that lives up to the ideals you’d actually be proud to defend, and don’t let up.
It’s not going to be comfortable. Get comfortable with discomfort.
I appreciate Ijeoma’s post because most of my recommendations are aimed at the short term problem, but of course the outbreaks that we are seeing now are the symptom of something much larger and deeper, and are going to keep happening unless we address white supremacy at its root.
Researching tactics for fighting white nationalism has got me thinking about an oil well that has caught fire. Putting out an oil well that’s on fire is harder than putting out a regular fire, because of the enormous fuel source behind the flame.
Effectively dealing with an oil well fire in the short term involves strategically cutting off its oxygen supply.
Effectively dealing with the problem of oil well fires, in general, involves questioning (and ultimately working to dismantle) why we ever thought it was ok to build an entire society that runs on pumping flammable poison out of the earth in the first place.