The marketing teams of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have been busy. Rather than give up their hateful views — misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism — they’re trying to scrub themselves clean of the stink by adopting another name — the “alt-right.”
As the New York Times reported Saturday, some groups are going so far as to change their symbol from the well-known swastika to a lesser known symbol — the othala rune — which was also used by the Nazis. It traces its origins to the runic alphabet system from pre-Roman Europe
Using the term “alternative-right” or the shortened “alt-right” to identify white supremacists and other hateful thinkers and writers has rightly come under more public scrutiny since President-elect Donald Trump nominated Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist less than a week after winning the election. Bannon, a former chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News, has been criticized for moving the website in a direction that caters to racist and sexist ideologies. Some headlines under his leadership included “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”
It is concerning that the euphemism “alt-right” is coming into wider use as a replacement for the clearer white supremacist or neo-Nazi monikers, names rightly associated with hate. Masking those associations with a cleaner-sounding name enables recruiters from hate groups to expand their influence while hiding a long history of atrocities arising from white supremacy — including slavery, the holocaust and apartheid.
Also troubling is the false news propagated by white supremacist, racist and misogynist sites operating under the banner of “alt-right.” Giving such outlets a name that hides their true nature not only masks their hate speech but provides credibility to the fake stories they create and pass along.
Among those was a story that has come to be known as “Pizzagate,” the unfounded conspiracy theory that a restaurant in Washington, D.C., was host to a child sex ring sanctioned by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. That widely circulated false news led a North Carolina man armed with an assault rifle to “self-investigate” the story, authorities say. He was arrested Dec. 4 after allegedly opening fire inside the restaurant. While no one was injured during that incident, it shows that legitimizing such false news and hate speech, which spreads quickly across social media, could have deadly consequences.
The media are responding accordingly. John Daniszewski, vice president for standards at the Associated Press encourages writers to avoid using the term “alt-right” generically and without definition. “It is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience,” Daniszewski wrote on the AP website. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.”
The New York Times last month wrote that while the newspaper is not banning the term, its staff has had many conversations about its use. Reporters are encouraged to explain what the term means rather than use it as a label, according to Phil Corbett, standards editor for the Times.
Journalists, political leaders and citizens — we all have an obligation to clearly understand and express what “alt-right” means. White supremacists who have adopted it include websites that espouse ideas such as “natural hierarchies” that put whites above other races and men above women, abhorrent ideas that stand opposed to basic premises in our nation and its founding document, including the equal protection clause contained in the 14th Amendment.
We must all do our part to avoid obscuring hate with a clean-sounding name, and hold groups and individuals accountable for the beliefs that they espouse and on which they too often act.
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