As those who follow this column or my Twitter feed know, I’ve been hit with a massive amount of anti-Semitism, some of it threatening, since making clear my distaste for Donald Trump. For just a taste, view my piece here. One of my most ardent anti-Semitic detractors has been former KKK honcho David Duke.
Many of those tweeting such bile reside on what they call the “alt right.” This is a movement of online trolls, generally populists and nationalists, who revel in using taboo language. One of the great mouthpieces of the alt right is Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News, whom I consider a friend and with whom I occasionally engage in spirited bouts of insult-fighting.
Milo appeared on Dave Rubin’s podcast today to explain why people like me shouldn’t be bothered by the apparent bigotry of those on the alt right. Here was his explanation:
Generation Trump, the alt right people, the people who like me, they’re not anti-Semites. They don’t care about Jews. I mean, they may have some assumptions about things, how the Jews run everything; well, we do. How the Jews run the banks; well, we do. How the Jews run the media; well, we do. They’re right about all that stuff…It’s a fact, this is not in debate. It’s a statistical fact….Jews are vastly disproportionately represented in all of these professions. It’s just a fact. It’s not anti-Semitic to point out statistics….The anti-Semitism on the internet, which is really important, I want people to understand this because nobody seems to, when Jonah Goldberg of National Review is bombarded with these memes, and anti-Semitic “take a hike, kike” stuff, it’s not because there’s a spontaneous outpouring of anti-Semitism from 22-year-olds in this country. What it is is it’s a mischievous, dissident, trolly generation who do it because it gets a reaction. Right? That’s been the case for young people for generations....They can get to people in positions of power, and people in positions of power and keep biting, they keep taking the bait….It’s a direct response to the language policing, it’s a direct response to being told they can’t say things.
So Milo seems to be making two points here. The first: not all stereotypes are rooted in falsehood (true). The second: trolling people with viciously nasty language is a positive good because it rips away taboos surrounding language (false). Then Milo wraps all of this in the mantle of political incorrectness.
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's 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.
And it actually does the cause of political incorrectness a grave disservice to merge the two. It makes it easy to dismiss solid information and data by writing it all off as the work of bigots. The alt right isn’t tearing down taboos regarding language, if that’s really what they think they’re doing. All they’re doing is re-enshrining in the American mind a basic falsehood about the right itself: that we are bigots who use selective data-picking to back our political viewpoints. The self-aggrandizing belief that trolling Microsoft Artificial Intelligence bots on Twitter into tweeting about the wonders of Hitler somehow strikes a blow for free speech is sheer fantasy. It’s teenage puerility. It’s damn dumb.
There’s another problem, too: the alt right gives cover to actual anti-Semites and racists. I’m glad to grant Milo’s premise that there’s hardly any racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in America. I believe that. But when I can’t tell the difference between a David Duke tweet and a tweet from Milo’s biggest fans, that’s not my fault – that’s the fault of the person tweeting like David Duke. When I can’t tell the difference between a trolling tweet and a death threat, perhaps the author ought to be clearer in his verbiage.
Words have meanings. So do images. I don’t think it’s a worthwhile goal to remove the meaning of words so that all words are equally offensive or non-offensive. That just leaves us in a Kafka-esque (to use Milo’s word) world, in which we can’t even talk to each other because we have no common meanings. Discounting Der Sturmer cartoons to the level of Calvin and Hobbes may please the Beavis and Butthead 2.0 crowd, but it does nothing for actually changing things for the better. All it does is soft-pedal the anti-Semitism of Der Sturmer.
I don’t expect many people on the alt right to read this, and I expect fewer of them to take it seriously; they’re too busy trolling. So, when I’m hit with the next wave of anti-Semitic nonsense, I’ll give you Milo’s benefit of the doubt, and assume you’re mostly just childish dumbasses with a few bigots sprinkled in, rather than the other way around. Fair enough?