Copy editors around the world are struggling to write headlines that are accurate in a rapidly changing political landscape, and many are getting flak for calling white racists and anti-Semites what they are now calling themselves: “the alt-right.” Normally, calling someone what they call themselves — such as “environmental activist” — is reasonable, and if it is not, an editor might add “self-styled” or “so-called” to the description, and that would be enough. But we are living in an era when the ugly and the hateful is being rebranded and more to the point, renamed.
Yesterday, the AP Stylebook issued guidelines on using the term “alt-right,” including “avoid using it generically and without definition.” The stylebook, which guides writers, editors, and students in correct usage, and which is widely used by reporters around the globe, took the unusual step of defining “alt-right” — something that might be the territory of a dictionary editor as opposed to a style guide. Here’s the AP definition:
“alt-right” — An offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism; a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States in addition to, or over, other traditional conservative positions such as limited government, low taxes and strict law-and-order.
Interestingly, the AP does not include “anti-Semitism” in its definition or in its guidelines, which go on for several paragraphs. The closest it comes to acknowledging anti-Semitism is when it states that the alt-right can be neo-Nazi, and by defining neo-Nazism this way:
neo-Nazism — Combines racist and white supremacist beliefs with admiration for an authoritarian, totalitarian style of government such as the German Third Reich to enforce its beliefs.
It is certainly astonishing to see a definition of neo-Nazism that does not include any mention of the Jewish people, a primary target of a massive extermination effort under the Third Reich. As for “alt-right,” the man who claims to have coined the term, Richard Spencer, infamously wondered “whether Jews are even human.” If that’s not anti-Semitism, I don’t know what is.
The AP omits something else, something crucial: the unease with the term “alt-right” is part of a larger battle of what to call a lie. Is it that the President-elect “falsely claims,” or is it “alleges,” or “tweeted without providing any corroboration for the allegation,” the last of which is how The Wall Street Journal referred, in its Twitter feed on Sunday, to Donald Trump’s claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants had voted in the election.
The way back to a standard of truth is to reclaim the language, word by word. With a term like “alt-right,” the first step is to fact-check what “alt-right” is the alternative of. It’s an “alternative” to empirical reality, replacing it with the conspiracy theory that those “other” people, who are simultaneously less than you, are also sufficiently powerful to ruin your economy and disorient your culture.
But beyond the absurd intimation that racism and anti-Semitism are somehow new ideas, it’s also interesting to break down the term “alt-right” and think about the evolution of the word “alternative” and why its usage in this particular context is dangerous.
In the 90’s, “alternative” meant a form of rock music that was not the classic version; in other words, alternative was a kind of cool. In the aughts, “alternative medicine” meant herbs, massage, oils, and usually, some sort of non-Western pathway to physical and spiritual good health; that “alternative” was a kind of healing. But the musical and healthful connotations of “alternative” have nothing to do with what is going on when a group of white racists raise their arms in Nazi salute as they recite “Hail Trump” in downtown Washington, DC, as The New York Times reported — and quote from Nazi propaganda in the original German.
Make no mistake: the “alt-right” certainly is an alternative to democracy and the cherished American idea that “all men are created equal.” What is happening is political, but it is also linguistic. As the U.S. Holocaust Museum warned: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”
It’s an essential warning, but I’d narrow it further. What matters right now is not just words but names. Jews of all people should be very alert and aware of the power of a name, because the story of the Jewish people is in part a story of naming and renaming. Consider the book of Genesis, in which God renames Avram, making him Avraham; and eventually we read of Avraham’s grandson Yaakov, who comes into the world holding onto his brother’s heel through the birth canal, becomes Yisrael, or Israel, which is a combination of a verb that means “to rule” in the future tense — yisrah — and el, a noun that means God. Jacob (Yaakov) didn’t just fight with the angel, he overcame him, and so ruled over a creature more powerful than he. What transformed the patriarchs was their encounter with God, giving their lives a new resonance.
By contrast, what has transformed disturbing elements in society was their encounter with irrelevance. The KKK had been discredited, with its membership dwindling from the millions it boasted ninety years ago, when governors and judges and legislators were eager for their support. “White supremacist” was too obvious; it was time for a new look — young and fresh, with a better haircut — and above all, a new name. It’s a strategy as old as the Bible, an idea used by Jacob as he wrestled to become Israel.
Jews, of all people, must be especially conscious of the role of names in survival. The rabbis suggest that one of the reasons the Jews managed to leave slavery in Egypt is that they held onto their names. The Book of Isaiah includes God himself saying that he will leave the people of Israel yad vashem — a monument and a name. That is the source of the name of the famed Holocaust museum in Israel.
One of the first ways to destroy identity is to deny a person his or her given name, as in slavery; we must never forget that the Nazis replaced names with numbers. But we also must remember that the way to build identity is to name — and rename. That is the true danger of letting racists and anti-Semites name themselves, and to let them dictate the headlines. We must take a cue from the God of the Bible, from Sarah and from Jacob, and hold onto our power to name.
It’s not just the AP that can get into this arena. I give the AP credit for recognizing the damaging possibilities of using a term dreamed up by a man who questions whether Jews are people. But we need to insist on truth. Instead of “alt-right” in a headline, I suggest “racists.” For those with more space than a tight headline, elaboration is a good thing, as the AP points out. Certainly, “white racists who declare Jews and gays threats to society” is appropriate when that is what interviewees are actually saying. We should insist that reporters report the facts.
We should also be honest with ourselves. We’re dealing with racists and anti-Semites, and occasionally racist anti-Semite thugs who have defaced cemeteries, playgrounds, and private homes in recent weeks. We have to admit that the ugly is not experiencing a rebranding; it is also, as I write this, relocating, and showing up in places that certainly thought they were immune to this stuff; my high-school classmate discovered a swastika in a playground on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and posted photos of it on Facebook; meanwhile, a Constitutional law scholar received hate mail — “you must got your kike ass kicked…Juden Raus!” and an Oberlin College computer-science professor came home to a door that said “Gas Jews die.” Jewish journalists have been harassed on Twitter for the duration of the Trump campaign, with many receiving images of ovens.
We need a term for this stuff, and we need it soon: I’m open to suggestions. Some possibilities to consider: “hate plague,” or perhaps “jerkification,” instead of that other subject we used to talk about pre-election in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side or Cambridge, Massachusetts—“gentrification.”
My mother sees it more starkly. She says we have a large neighbor we didn’t know we had, called hatred.
Hatred definitely covers it, but so does racist anti-Semite or racist anti-Semite thug. It might be time for a nice, concise acronym — hopefully something that will become widely used. We can make use of the first letters of “racist” “anti-Semite” and “thug,” and play with the order. RAT, for Racist Anti-Semitic Thug, has possibilities, and so does RASH — Racist Anti-Semitic Hater. What’s nice about RAT is that it can also be used for Racist Anti-Gay Thug or Racist Anti-Woman Thug, though RAWT isn’t bad either, since it’s close to rot, said with a heavy accent.
The neighbor we did not know was there, hatred, is benefiting from our linguistic confusion as well as our general shock. Whether it’s a word or an acronym, I hope the Jewish community leads the way in guarding the honesty and accuracy of text. Let’s join the AP in making style a question of substance—because when it comes to rebranding hatred, words certainly hide truth. Orwell warned us that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Whatever we do, let’s do our part to make sure lies sound like lies and truth sound like truth. Let’s name what we see, and let’s not let others name us.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist. She is the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Follow her on Twitter, @aviyakushner