By Jonathon Van Maren
It may be one of the most frequently asked questions in conservative circles in this 2016 election cycle: Who is the alt-right? Who are these more-or-less previously unheard of Internet firebrands who skitter from Twitter to Internet comment sections throwing rhetorical Molotov cocktails, generating memes celebrating the orange Donald Trump as some sort of white savior, and accusing all traditional conservatives of being “cuckservatives”?
My friend J.J. McCullough described them in a column titled “All the angry young white men” as “folks who reject virtually every standard of conservative propriety and dwell on free-for-all message boards like 4chan and an archipelago of pseudonymous blogs,” and noted their obsession with racial differences. The alt-right’s online news microphone, Breitbart, published a long column explaining the intellectual origins of the alt-right and described them as politically incorrect pranksters who delight in trolling those with “respectable views” while offending everyone they can simply for the sake of doing so. From their perspective, the alt-righters are simply radical free speech activists who couldn’t care less about what anyone thinks.
If that was simply the case—that the alt-right was made up of jovial young men who enjoyed skewering the orthodoxies of both left and right while advocating for unfettered freedom of speech—there would really wouldn’t be much to discuss. The left is always collapsing onto the swooning couch at some recently-invented heresy, and stuffy conservatives should be able to take stinging jokes and harsh criticism, too. But there is a side to the alt-right that is dark and distinctly unfunny. For starters, their vicious anti-Semitism, which ranges from targeting Jewish commentators on Twitter to greeting the birth of Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro’s second child with comments like “Into the gas chamber with all 4 of you” and suggesting that the Shapiro family should be turned into lampshades. Yeah. You read that right.
Considering that his family had just been wished dead, Shapiro responded to all this with a critique of the alt-right that was extraordinarily calm:
As someone who despises political correctness with the fiery hatred of a thousand suns, I find this problematic. Here’s why: I believe there’s a difference between political incorrectness and bigotry, or political incorrectness and vulgarity. I have this problem with Trump, and I have this same problem with the alt right that simplistically embraces Trump because they mesh being a jackass with being politically incorrect. They’re not the same thing. It is politically incorrect to point out that black Americans commit a wildly disproportionate share of crime, or that Jews comprise an outsized percentage of successful media moguls, doctors, and lawyers. It is also politically incorrect to point out that cultural stereotypes are sometimes rooted in reality – Milo [Yiannopolous is] right about that. It is racist, however, to tweet the word “n*****” at a black person, and it is anti-Semitic to tweet a meme of a stereotypical hook-nosed Jew controlling the world or greedily collecting shekels. There is a difference between the two.
You’d think this was obvious, right? The sheer glee that alt-right trolls seem to derive from spreading hurt and pain on social media—not hurt feelings resulting from disagreement, mind you, but hurt resulting from adolescent name-calling and Twitter mobs—is disturbing. Breitbart might think these trolls are merry iconoclastic pranksters, but the simple fact is that racism isn’t funny. Anti-Semitism isn’t funny. Being a hateful jackass isn’t funny, either. There’s just something sad and ugly about people who enjoy causing other people pain just because they can. Yes, the alt-righters have the right to express themselves. Yes, free speech absolutely encompasses their right to spread the sort of bile they seem to find so hilarious. But that doesn’t change the fact that their views and actions should be treated with the contempt they deserve.
Some in the increasingly fractured conservative movement seem to find these folks amusing. Some even see a measure of value in their so-called advocacy of free speech. This defence of the so-called alt-right confuses me. Alt-righters and the secular progressives with which conservatives have been doing battle for decades have something enormous in common: they both reject the traditional moral order.
The argument between secular progressives and conservatives has never been whether or not we should eliminate all standards that delineate what is good and right. It was an argument about where to draw those lines. Progressives have been taking terrifying strides towards creating a new moral order, one constructed around the central tenets of the Sexual Revolution and specifically against Christianity. What those who defend the alt-right don’t seem to understand is that the trolls only assist the progressives in that task. They do a magnificent job of ensuring that the traditional progressive caricature of conservatives—racist, bigoted, and all the rest—is front and centre across social media.
What alt-righters actually do is inadvertently make the case that secular progressives have been making all along: that speech codes are necessary. By being so distasteful and vicious, it is actually ordinary, decent people who are shocked and appalled, rather than the tiny group of cosmopolitan elites who hit the swooning couches when someone uses the wrong pan-gender pronoun. Rather than exposing the fundamental frivolousness and transparent stupidity of the constantly evolving progressive speech codes, the alt-right is actually creating a radical duality in which one side is spouting repulsive, cruel and often racially-charged language across social media and the other is loudly attempting to enforce ridiculous and draconian speech codes that attempt to force biological realities into gender ideologies. Ordinary people would prefer to reject both, but most are more likely to be appalled by Holocaust jokes than they are by transgender pronouns. Perhaps some might find it shocking, but most people are going to find Caitlin Jenner’s gender-bending insistence on being referred to as a “her” less offensive than suggesting that a Jewish commentator’s children be thrust into an oven.
Now to be fair, I’m told by several watchers of the alt-right that the legions of trolls don’t actually believe what they’re saying, that they’re not actually racist, that they’re not actually attempting to invoke anti-Semitic Internet mobs by “outing” Jewish commentators and pundits, and that they are only using Holocaust jokes and other such vile trash-throwing to expose the ridiculousness of those who find these things to be vile in the first place. Who knows, maybe that’s true. I don’t find that a compelling defence. To say that we should not do these people the discourtesy of taking them seriously is simply to affirm that they should be condemned and ignored rather than engaged. If two groups of people are discussing how to renovate a building while a third group is simply trying its very best to burn it down, it seems like an exercise in futility to engage in a conversation with the arsonists.
The alt-right may contain many members who do not engage in the racist and anti-Semitic trolling that currently defines their public image. The alt-right intellectuals that Breitbart highlights may actually exist. If that’s the case, these folks should be out front and centre saying really obvious things like, “No. It is not acceptable or funny to suggest a Jewish family be turned into lampshades.” That wouldn’t be so hard, would it? And by the way, nothing I am saying should be misinterpreted as an attack on the freedom of speech that the alt-righters are exercising. Frankly, if there are people out there who think that it’s hilarious to suggest a newborn baby be put into a gas chamber, I’d like them to speak up so we all know who they are. As the conservative movement works to rebuild after Trump completes his implosion, it will be handy to know who these particular basement-dwellers are in order to ensure that their vitriol doesn’t poison more than their own Twitter accounts.