World·Analysis

Why the alt-right can't be ignored, much less censored: Keith Boag

As Donald Trump transitions into the White House, the voices of the alt-right are being heard — and also censored. Twitter suspended a number of accounts this week. The timing is no coincidence, writes Keith Boag. The alt-right is skilled at social media, and social media had a role in Trump’s victory. So some of its owners see Trump’s success as their failure.

Twitter has banned several alt-right accounts, with a leading voice decrying the crackdown as 'a great purge'

People in Los Angeles protest the appointment of former Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon as Donald Trump's chief strategist. Under Bannon, Breitbart.com became the most mainstream media platform for voices of the alt-right. (David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

What blissful days these must be for the alt-right.

Their preferred candidate for president is transitioning into the White House.

Their champion, Steve Bannon, formerly CEO of the most mainstream media platform for alt-right voices on the internet, Breitbart.com, has secured a place in the West Wing at elbow's length from the new president.

And the conventional media seem to be stumbling around trying to decide whether to explain the alt-right, ignore it, censor it or refuse to even speak its name.   

Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, fears the very term "alt-right" is a sinister "branding move" to give cover to racists. Instead, he suggests journalists should use phrases such as "the alt-right, a white nationalist, anti-Semitic movement."

The alt-right abbreviation refers to the alternative right, a term most often attributed to Richard Spencer. You may have seen his name recently. He's a white nationalist about whom much has been written since Twitter suspended his and other supposed alt-right accounts on Tuesday in a crackdown on what it considers hate speech.

Was blocking a blunder?

There has been much discussion about whether that was a smart move and, indeed, so far it looks like a blunder. The only payoff seems to be for the alt-right who, predictably, is delighted to accuse Twitter of censorship. 

Spencer's thoughts can still be found all over social media, YouTube and even the established media. But now, we should presume he's also happily reveling in his new status as a victim of what he calls "corporate Stalinism."

"There is a great purge going on, and they are purging people based on their views," he says in a video posted after the Twitter ousting.

It's no coincidence this has happened in the wake of Trump's election. The alt-right is skilled at social media; social media had a role in Trump's victory, so some of its owners see Trump's success as their failure.

But to members of the alt-right, Twitter's attack on their voices only proves the argument that big corporate media always act to stifle dissent.

When media move in a different direction and try to unpack what the alt-right means — to understand and explain it — the result can be just as unsatisfying.

This week, NPR invited Breitbart.com senior editor Joel Pollak onto its morning program to share some of his insights about his former boss. When the host asked why Bannon made Breitbart.com, in Bannon's own words "the platform for the alt-right," Pollak seemed to deny the premise.

"The only alt-right article we have is a single article out of tens of thousands of articles, which is a journalistic article about the alt-right," he said. "[The article] basically went into this movement and tried to figure out what it was about. That's not racist. That's journalism."  

Bannon has acknowledged that the alt-right may attract some racists, homophobes and anti-Semites, but says he does not share those opinions. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

That answer is disingenuous in every respect.

The journalistic article he refers to, An establishment conservative's guide to the alt-right, is a smug and flattering defence of the movement — and a worthwhile read.

In a self-aggrandizing way (co-author Milo Yiannopoulos is one of the alt-right movement's most prominent proponents), the piece shines light on what it calls a "dangerously bright" and "fearsomely intelligent" mix of renegades, mostly white males, who object to "the established political consensus in some form or another."

Juvenile pranksters?

It's worth reading to understand why the alt-right can't be ignored and what the terms of engaging in battle with it are.

Its authors concede there are Nazi elements to the alt-right, but they argue Nazis are an unpopular minority in an amorphous group and aren't taken seriously by the vast majority of the movement.

What should be taken seriously, they say, are the intellectual arguments behind the alt-right that are a pushback against decades of what they consider to be the left's smothering of legitimate conversations about race, immigration and gender.

Some of those ideas come from familiar oldsters (H.L. Mencken, Pat Buchanan), but most of the alt-right seems to be youngsters. 

The alt-right includes a loose collection of juvenile pranksters out for a lark online, Yiannopoulos and his co-author, Allum Bokhari, argue. The little scamps like to provoke, and when they see boundaries around social and political taboos, their instinct is to cross those boundaries and strike a blow against political correctness. They might make jokes about the Holocaust, for instance.

Probably the article's most chilling insight is that the young people of the alt-right are not sincerely racist but they do think racism can be fun. Yes, fun.

"Millennials aren't old enough to remember the Second World War or the horrors of the Holocaust," the authors write. "They are barely old enough to remember Rwanda or 9/11. Racism for them is a monster under the bed, a story told by their parents to frighten them into being good little children."

Can that really be true?

If it is, then those who fear the alt-right is a slippery slope back to the worst horrors of the 20th century are only fooling themselves if they believe naming the threat makes any difference.

It can't be censored, ignored or wished away.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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