Originally I wanted to critique a part of Ian Haney Lopez’s book Dog-Whistle Politics, though it was so long I decided that it would have to be an article in itself. I try to avoid distraction as much as possible in my articles, which I seek to make as clear and concise as possible, so I decided to incorporate it into an article about the malleability of fascism in political discourse.
A part that I did disagree on was when Lopez discussed how integration and affirmative action was discredited by conservatives who used the argument that white people were really just collections of ethnicities who were also discriminated against (the Irish, Italians, Jews, Poles, etc.). More specifically my issues were when he suggests that the use of this argument automatically discredits integration and affirmative action; and implied that the distinctive ethnic markers should no longer be relevant since their distinctiveness faded in the 1950’s.
The way people associate with their own ethnicity is completely different from associating with their own race, especially since earlier in the book, Lopez notes that there were also differences within Africans and Native Americans and that those racial labels were only relevant due to colonization. I would understand if Lopez argued that these prescriptions based on race were themselves the problem–as he also did earlier in the book when discussing colonialism–though he does not follow up on that, nor does he suggest that the people who have those ethnic markers that would have been discriminated against should historicize their own family histories in order to develop some level of sympathy for minorities.
Lopez even mentions that there were George Wallace voters of these ethnicities, who would have been viewed by George Wallace himself as being inferior within what he called the “Anglo-Saxon Southland.” Nonetheless, they were coalesced under him under the label of whiteness in order to provide legitimacy to his political campaign. It had less to do with the cultural identities that came with these ethnicities, rather the simple skin pigmentation they had.
Personally, I do not think that these ethnic markers are no longer relevant. Quite the opposite, because I think that they need to be made as relevant as possible, especially since there are–as Lopez himself noted–people who will associate those ethnic markers with white supremacy if no one speaks out. That would include re-appropriating history with the example of white nationalists and conspiracy theorists equating Irish indentured servitude with African slavery. As someone of Irish descent, I felt a sense of obligation to disprove that notion. So there was a powerful pathos involved in researching Caribbean history, because the article was my way of telling them “I will not let you monopolize my own history.”
As for how all of this pertains to the usage of subtlety within fascist rhetoric, it absolutely has to do with retaining a dignified appearance to white voters. Within the struggle for their support, a white voter’s entire being is at stake and put into question. Not only would the history of these different ethnicities be used, but also the symbols associated with them.
What Paul Sturtevant discusses in his article “Schrodinger’s Medievalisms” is the appropriation of symbols from the Viking era by white nationalists, even though they did not represent white nationalism, since that political concept was created long after the symbols were prevalent.
Though, in the case of the Vinland flag created by doom metal musician Peter Steele, it was not created during Leif Erikson’s exploration of Newfoundland, which was called Vinland. Instead, it was meant to represent Steele’s own Icelandic heritage.
Since the Vinland flag has been used by the alt-right, would that make anyone who unfurls it also alt-right? I strongly agree with Sturtevant that we should not consider the symbols themselves to be hate symbols, since turning them into hate symbols gives the alt-right the authority to alter the historical significance of those symbols. Just like Irish indentured servitude, silence would equate to indifference as the alt-right is given the license to willfully misinform people–more specifically the white voters they wish to recruit.
What really does need to be emphasized when it comes to these types of appropriations is that the far-right always relies on subtleties and will use any symbol or phrasing to advance their own agenda. If it means the subtle shift from ethnicity or culture to race is involved, they will do so. A sign as simple as the OK hand gesture is enough to be monopolized.
If blatant rhetoric associated with fascism is not used, then they will use words not associated with fascism at all in order to address their targeted audience under the guise of respectability. Far right British politician Nick Griffin, in front of white nationalist David Duke and the American Friends of the BNP (British National Party), made the case for “selling your ideas” rather than “selling out your ideas.”
In the case of American politics, there was a Republican strategy known as the Southern Strategy which sought to appeal to the race issue without making it blatantly obvious. In the much-quoted passage, Republican strategist Lee Atwater explains to journalist Jimmy Carter IV that dog-whistling rhetoric began with shifting away from derogatory words like the n-word and focused on abstractions such as forced integration, state’s rights, and tax cuts; just like in the case of Nick Griffin, who suggested words like democracy, security, identity, freedom. Later in modern American political discourse, mostly done by Republican politicians, there were constant associations between public assistance programs and laziness (while the far-right would interpret that temperament as being associated with minorities). It was done blatantly–like in Mitt Romney’s 47% speech–but it was mostly subtle and incrementally by both Republicans and Democrats.
As mentioned before in that Quintillion Ink-Strokes article, fascism is defined by its malleability, in other words it is not usually accepted in face value, rather it creeps into people’s acceptability. It can start as simple as white voters thinking that the tragic plight of minorities is simply the byproduct of genetic determinism. It would involve the indifference to those plights being conducted. A thing to keep in mind, as German YouTuber Three Arrows noted, that atrocities perpetuated by fascists do not happen ex nihilo, rather it is the natural consequence of a gradual process of tolerated marginalization.
This is exactly the type of method that the alt-right has started adopting in order to become accepted into broader society. An advantage that they have is that they can easily adapt their rhetoric in any way, whether they achieve acceptability or not. After the disastrous Unite the Right rally, where a protester, Heather Heyer, was killed, the alt-right started to recognize the importance of concealing their agenda in a form of linguistic camouflage. This would involve using labels like identitarian; and the deflection of arguments which Republican strategists and politicians have also used alongside dog-whistling.
In order to truly understand how fascist rhetoric is able to convert white voters into willful recruits, then the amalgamation of subtleties should be examined in order to see how far it would go and how much it should be challenged. It can begin with something as simple as one’s own identity.
Lopez, Ian Haney. “Dog Whistle Politics.” Oxford University Press. 2014.