The Safety Pin and the Swastika

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Pho­to Cred­it: Karen Knorr and Olivi­er Richon

If you had read in ear­ly 2016 about a Nation­al Pol­i­cy Insti­tute con­fer­ence on the theme of “Iden­ti­ty Pol­i­tics,” you might have assumed it was an inno­cent gath­er­ing of pro­gres­sives. If you had attend­ed, you would have been in for an unpleas­ant sur­prise. The Nation­al Pol­i­cy Insti­tute is an orga­ni­za­tion of white nation­al­ists, over­seen by neo-Nazi media dar­ling Richard Spencer.

Spencer, who pop­u­lar­ized the now com­mon euphemism “alt-right,” is fond of describ­ing his plat­form as “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics for white peo­ple.” He takes pains to cor­rect those who refer to him as a white suprema­cist, insist­ing that he is mere­ly a “nation­al­ist,” or a “tra­di­tion­al­ist,” or, bet­ter yet, an “iden­ti­tar­i­an.” He wants to bring about what he calls a “white eth­no-state,” a place where the pop­u­la­tion is deter­mined by her­i­tabil­i­ty. In a know­ing inver­sion of social jus­tice vocab­u­lary, he describes it as “a safe space for Euro­peans.”

Spencer has an advanced degree in human­i­ties, spent time in the famous­ly left-wing grad­u­ate pro­gram at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty, and wrote an anti­se­mit­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of Theodor Adorno’s music crit­i­cism for his master’s the­sis. His polit­i­cal men­tor, Paul Got­tfried, was a stu­dent of Her­bert Mar­cuse. Spencer is clear­ly inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with both aca­d­e­m­ic left phi­los­o­phy and cam­pus social jus­tice activism.

It was only a mat­ter of time before the right iden­ti­fied lib­er­al and left­ist strate­gies that they them­selves could adopt, as a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian Duke fresh­man por­tend­ed in 2015. Amid wide­spread debate over trig­ger warn­ings, he refused to read Ali­son Bechdel’s graph­ic nov­el Fun Home, a mem­oir that includ­ed depic­tions of les­bian sex. Also in 2015, Yale stu­dent activists cam­paigned for the dis­missal of Eri­ka Chris­takis, a lec­tur­er who had writ­ten an email argu­ing that the admin­is­tra­tion shouldn’t enforce poli­cies regard­ing the cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty of stu­dent Hal­loween cos­tumes. In late 2016, alt-right trolls formed an online mob ded­i­cat­ed to oust­ing George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher, a Drex­el pro­fes­sor who iron­i­cal­ly used the phrase “white geno­cide” on Twit­ter – a phrase that also appeared uniron­i­cal­ly on Don­ald Trump’s Twit­ter feed, when he retweet­ed an alt-right account.

Until recent­ly, the phrase “white iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” was a trap pro­gres­sives tried to set for the right. A rhetor­i­cal flour­ish could under­state the whole bru­tal his­to­ry of racism in Amer­i­ca as 400 years of “white iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” in order to demon­strate that the right was guilty of the same tac­tics as the left.

The right now acknowl­edges the cor­re­la­tion with a smirk. “So long as we avoid and deny our iden­ti­ties, at a time when every oth­er peo­ple is assert­ing its own, we will have no chance to resist our dis­pos­ses­sion, no chance to make our future, no chance to find anoth­er hori­zon,” says Richard Spencer, in an intro­duc­to­ry video on the Nation­al Pol­i­cy Institute’s web­site titled “Who Are We?”

It doesn’t both­er Spencer to be told that his claims to eth­nic pride and auton­o­my sound like those some­times made by peo­ple of col­or. Accord­ing to The New York Times, he open­ly acknowl­edges it. Spencer can seem like a char­ac­ter from a Philip K. Dick nov­el, some­how embody­ing his own oppo­site.

How does a racist man­age to argue his cause with the lan­guage of antiracism? A recent arti­cle on Bre­it­bart, coau­thored by reac­tionary provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los, may show where the alt-right found a point of entry.

Yiannopou­los cheer­ful­ly argues for the inclu­sion of alt-right ideas in “estab­lish­ment con­ser­vatism,” doing a care­ful dance around clas­si­cal­ly racist rhetoric. “As com­mu­ni­ties become com­prised of dif­fer­ent peo­ples, the cul­ture and pol­i­tics of those com­mu­ni­ties become an expres­sion of their con­stituent peo­ples,” he says vague­ly, in lan­guage that strains for neu­tral­i­ty. He goes on to make his point more specif­i­cal­ly:

The alt-right’s intel­lec­tu­als would also argue that cul­ture is insep­a­ra­ble from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of sep­a­ra­tion between peo­ples is nec­es­sary for a cul­ture to be pre­served. A Mosque next to an Eng­lish street full of hous­es bear­ing the flag of St. George, accord­ing to alt-righters, is nei­ther an Eng­lish street nor a Mus­lim street – sep­a­ra­tion is nec­es­sary for dis­tinc­tive­ness.

Some alt-righters make a more sub­tle argu­ment. They say that when dif­fer­ent groups are brought togeth­er, the com­mon cul­ture starts to appeal to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor. Instead of mosques or Eng­lish hous­es, you get athe­ism and stuc­co.

Iron­i­cal­ly, it’s a posi­tion that has much in com­mon with left­ist oppo­si­tion to so-called “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion,” a sim­i­lar­i­ty open­ly acknowl­edged by the alt-right.

There is some­thing new about the alt-right’s eager­ness to claim com­mon cause with the left. Estab­lish­ment con­ser­vatism still con­sid­ers the oppo­si­tion to “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” to be one of the left-lib­er­al caus­es most wor­thy of ridicule.

***

“Among the many sil­ly ideas of young left­ists who want to appear good with­out the has­sle of doing good, ‘cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion’ stands alone,” says Nation­al Review. When activists or crit­ics have tak­en excep­tion to banh mi served on cia­bat­ta at Oberlin’s din­ing halls, Lionel Shriver’s call for nov­el­ists to depict char­ac­ters from eth­nic groups they don’t belong to, Victoria’s Secret lin­gerie based on tra­di­tion­al cer­e­mo­ni­al dress, and so on, con­ser­v­a­tive mouths begin to water. To their minds, there is hard­ly a bet­ter exam­ple of the friv­o­li­ty and tyran­ny of those they call “social jus­tice war­riors.”

The decep­tive­ly ano­dyne term “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion,” bor­rowed from aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon, doesn’t in itself con­vey the grav­i­ty it holds in cer­tain cir­cles. Accord­ing to the online mag­a­zine Every­day Fem­i­nism, it describes “a par­tic­u­lar pow­er dynam­ic in which mem­bers of a dom­i­nant cul­ture take ele­ments from a cul­ture of peo­ple who have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly oppressed by that dom­i­nant group.” The idea results in a rubric that deter­mines who is and is not allowed to engage in par­tic­u­lar behav­iors. Can you cook pho? Can you teach yoga? Can you wear your hair in corn­rows? It depends on which cul­ture you belong to. If you belong to a “dom­i­nant cul­ture,” you real­ly shouldn’t do any of that. Doing so would be theft at best, and vio­lence at worst.

It may come as some sur­prise on both sides of the bat­tle­field, but the left has not always under­stood “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” as a form of oppres­sion. This con­no­ta­tion of the term has become ubiq­ui­tous in today’s social media-dri­ven polit­i­cal cli­mate. But when it first came into use, “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” denot­ed very near­ly the oppo­site of its con­tem­po­rary mean­ing.

The idea pre­ced­ed the term, as a prod­uct of the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tur­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Birm­ing­ham. For thinkers like Stu­art Hall, cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion described the way sub­cul­tures were cre­at­ed. The con­tem­po­rary objects of inquiry, in stud­ies like 1975’s Resis­tance Through Rit­u­als, were youth cul­tures in Eng­land: ted­dy boys, mods, skin­heads and so on. But the prece­dents ran deep­er. Indi­an food in Eng­land, Negro spir­i­tu­als in Amer­i­ca, bath­hous­es in 19th-cen­tu­ry France – these were all con­texts in which mem­bers of what we might now call “mar­gin­al­ized groups” used ele­ments of a dom­i­nant cul­ture in altered forms, gen­er­at­ing their own com­mu­ni­ties that could hide in plain sight.

The phrase “cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion” became typ­i­cal of aca­d­e­m­ic cul­tur­al stud­ies in the 1990’s, though by then its impli­ca­tions were already con­test­ed. It was a cor­ner­stone of the work of schol­ars like his­to­ri­an James Sid­bury, who used it to describe the “cre­ative acts” of African slaves in 18th-cen­tu­ry Vir­ginia in the for­ma­tion of an “oppo­si­tion­al cul­ture.” George Lip­sitz made sim­i­lar use of the con­cept in his stud­ies on African-Amer­i­can music, using his own, and less loaded term, “strate­gic anti-essen­tial­ism” – a nod to post­colo­nial the­o­ry. But the idea had been the­o­rized in exten­sive detail in 1979, in Dick Hebdige’s foun­da­tion­al study, Sub­cul­ture.

Heb­di­ge, once a stu­dent at Birm­ing­ham, described mass-pro­duced com­modi­ties as being “open to a dou­ble inflec­tion.” As he elab­o­rat­ed:

These “hum­ble objects” can be mag­i­cal­ly appro­pri­at­ed; “stolen” by sub­or­di­nate groups and made to car­ry “secret” mean­ings: mean­ings which express, in code, a form of resis­tance to the order which guar­an­tees their con­tin­ued sub­or­di­na­tion.

Hebdige’s pri­ma­ry infor­mants were punks in late-sev­en­ties Lon­don, a group that was con­sti­tut­ed not by eth­nic­i­ty, but by vol­un­tary par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Sub­cul­ture traces the spec­trum of appro­pri­a­tion prac­ticed by Lon­don punks, begin­ning with their most mun­dane sym­bol, safe­ty pins. These inno­cent imple­ments were “tak­en out of their domes­tic ‘util­i­ty’ con­text and worn as grue­some orna­ments.” The book con­cludes with the most charged sym­bol the punks adopt­ed, pos­si­bly the most charged sym­bol in west­ern cul­ture: the swasti­ka.

Hebdige’s claim was that punks didn’t wear the swasti­ka in rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a right-wing ide­ol­o­gy. Instead, it was a naive method of dis­tanc­ing them­selves from the cul­ture of their par­ents, a British gen­er­a­tion for whom the swasti­ka “sig­ni­fied ‘ene­my.’” Heb­di­ge quotes a young punk, inter­viewed by a mag­a­zine dur­ing Lon­don punk’s 1977 hey­day, as explain­ing that she wore a swasti­ka sim­ply because “punks just like to be hat­ed.”

The pas­sage of time allows us to draw some con­clu­sions about poten­tial out­comes of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion. For many years, safe­ty pins became inex­tri­ca­bly asso­ci­at­ed with punks, per­haps even more so than with seam­stress­es. As for the swasti­ka, it’s prob­a­bly safe to say most for­mer punks are not all that proud of hav­ing once worn one – its pre­vi­ous con­no­ta­tions were not so eas­i­ly over­writ­ten.

But forty years lat­er, safe­ty pins and swastikas are appear­ing again, for entire­ly dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

***

It all start­ed when Alli­son, an Amer­i­can expa­tri­ate liv­ing in Lon­don, began to notice reports of racist vio­lence across the coun­try. In the days after the Brex­it vote, immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties had come under attack, in a dis­turb­ing echo of the Lon­don riots of the late 1970s. As an immi­grant her­self, Alli­son hadn’t been able to vote in the ref­er­en­dum, but she want­ed to come up with some imme­di­ate way to show mem­bers of tar­get­ed groups that she wasn’t a threat – that they were safe in her pres­ence.

It was her husband’s idea to do it by wear­ing a safe­ty pin. “He likes puns,” she told The Guardian. Alli­son took to Twit­ter, post­ing a call to action. She added that the pin shouldn’t be thought of as an “emp­ty ges­ture,” but a pledge to inter­vene on behalf of those in dan­ger. The sym­bol­ism brought to mind the activist prac­tice of pro­vid­ing a “safe space,” an area where oppressed peo­ple could seek solace from a trau­ma­tiz­ing envi­ron­ment. The safe­ty pin allowed sym­pa­thet­ic white peo­ple – “allies,” in Allison’s words – to car­ry a safe space with them every­where they went. Two days lat­er, #safe­typin was trend­ing.

When the shock of elec­toral upheaval crossed the Atlantic, the safe­ty pin fol­lowed. Two days after the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Michelle Gold­berg wrote a col­umn at Slate advo­cat­ing its use, in an Amer­i­ca where “the deplorables are embold­ened.” But her adop­tion of the sym­bol altered its pur­pose. Gold­berg wor­ried that, as a white woman, she would be mis­tak­en for a Trump vot­er. “We need an out­ward sign of sym­pa­thy, a way for the major­i­ty of us who vot­ed against fas­cism to rec­og­nize one anoth­er,” she wrote. Instead of Allison’s pledge to take action, the safe­ty pin would func­tion as a sig­nal of affin­i­ty between defeat­ed sup­port­ers of Hillary Clin­ton.

The next day, Fash­ion­ista pub­lished a lis­ti­cle of “13 Safe­ty Pin Brooches to Wear Now and for the Next Four Years,” promis­ing “an easy way to show your sol­i­dar­i­ty.” Vogue fol­lowed suit, with a selec­tion that includ­ed dia­mond and gold safe­ty pin ear­rings for $1065 apiece. “Put your mon­ey where your mouth is and take real action against the forces of hate,” the arti­cle con­clud­ed.

This new role made the safe­ty pin all the more vul­ner­a­ble to crit­i­cism. At Mic, Phillip Hen­ry described it as no bet­ter than “a self-admin­is­tered pat on the back.” Soon enough, the safe­ty pin became a sym­bol not of proac­tiv­i­ty or sol­i­dar­i­ty, but of super­fi­cial­i­ty. It was the epit­o­me of what Hen­ry called “per­for­ma­tive wok­e­ness,” a pithy short­hand for the game of one­up­man­ship played by white lib­er­als on the inter­net to deter­mine who is the best ally.

As a result, being crit­i­cal of the safe­ty pin was an even wok­er posi­tion to take. This led to con­fused treat­ments of the issue like Christo­pher Keelty’s Huff­in­g­ton Post col­umn, “Dear White Peo­ple, Your Safe­ty Pins Are Embar­rass­ing.” Keelty’s prose awk­ward­ly lurch­es back and forth between first and sec­ond per­son, both iden­ti­fy­ing as white and address­ing white peo­ple as a group exter­nal to him­self. It implies two com­pet­ing def­i­n­i­tions of white­ness: one, as a state of cor­rupt deca­dence that Keel­ty has hero­ical­ly tran­scend­ed, and the oth­er, as a bio­log­i­cal­ly deter­mined char­ac­ter­is­tic that remains immutable.

Among oth­er things, this con­fu­sion pre­sent­ed a busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty. Enter Maris­sa Jenae John­son and Leslie Mac, with Safe­ty Pin Box.

***

Maris­sa Jenae John­son has some­thing of a his­to­ry in the pub­lic eye, which began when she and anoth­er activist inter­rupt­ed a Bernie Sanders ral­ly in Seat­tle. In an impromp­tu speech, she took Sanders to task for insuf­fi­cient atten­tion to black com­mu­ni­ties, intro­duc­ing her­self as a cofounder of Black Lives Mat­ter Seat­tle. But anoth­er local Black Lives Mat­ter activist, Mohawk Kuz­ma, told The Seat­tle Times that the event was not col­lec­tive­ly orga­nized, but “two indi­vid­u­als doing their own inde­pen­dent action.”

Johnson’s ini­tia­tive trans­lat­ed eas­i­ly into an entre­pre­neur­ial spir­it when she formed “Safe­ty Pin Box” with friend and fel­low activist Leslie Mac. The idea came to them when they were on vaca­tion togeth­er in Jamaica, short­ly after the elec­tion. It’s a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice for a month­ly mail­er, at prices of up to $100 a month – the web­site clar­i­fies that it’s “a busi­ness, not a char­i­ty.” The box con­tains not safe­ty pins, but an itin­er­ary of activist tasks for “allies,” which the site defines as “some­one from a priv­i­leged group who sup­ports the efforts of oppressed peo­ple.” Their sup­port should be “demon­strat­ed finan­cial­ly, phys­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, and spir­i­tu­al­ly.” The site’s pitch takes a stern but opti­mistic tone: “Whether you are new to ‘ally work,’ or were astute enough to know that the orig­i­nal safe­ty pin show of sol­i­dar­i­ty was mis­guid­ed, the Safe­ty Pin Box is for you!”

The divi­sion orig­i­nal­ly gen­er­at­ed by Allison’s safe­ty pin, between oppressed peo­ple and their allies, becomes sharp­er here. There are strict dis­tinc­tions regard­ing who should per­form the tasks, and toward whose ben­e­fit these tasks should be ori­ent­ed. One of the ques­tions in the site’s FAQ asks, “Why is the Safe­ty Pin Box focused on Black peo­ple and not all mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple?” It’s a fair point, in light of the threats to Latin and Mus­lim Amer­i­cans pre­sent­ed by the Trump Pres­i­den­cy. The answer puts forth a tax­on­o­my of polit­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty and agency.

Safe­ty Pin Box was cre­at­ed by Black women for Black women/femmes. Often Black peo­ple, and espe­cial­ly Black women/femmes are expect­ed to labor for every­one but them­selves. Safe­ty Pin Box is an act of rad­i­cal col­lec­tive self-preser­va­tion and we open­ly declare we are #NotY­our­Mule. There are many oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and efforts that sup­port oth­er iden­ti­ties and you are wel­come to sup­port them as well.

Addi­tion­al acces­sories are avail­able, such as a t-shirt that reads, “I pay repa­ra­tions.” It should come as good news to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that repa­ra­tions are no longer its respon­si­bil­i­ty, but will be paid by guilt-strick­en mid­dle-class white peo­ple.

Accord­ing to a Vice News broad­cast, a few hun­dred peo­ple have signed up for the ser­vice so far. That num­ber includes an earnest Park Slope res­i­dent inter­viewed by Vice, who aspires to be ful­ly “sen­si­tized” after a year’s worth of box­es. But the idea of mon­e­tiz­ing “ally­ship” has been met with some skep­ti­cism – though the site indi­cates some por­tion of the prof­its will be giv­en to black women activists, some of it will also go to the founders. “I’m not will­ing to say on the air that I’m not going to get a new car,” Mac jok­ing­ly tells the Vice cor­re­spon­dent.

One of the ear­li­est crit­i­cisms came from inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Lee Fang, who ques­tioned the motives behind the busi­ness. In a series of tren­chant tweets, he called it “Herbal­ife for per­for­ma­tive woke peo­ple.” The reac­tion to Fang revealed a pat­tern in the social jus­tice prac­tice of the “call-out.” The ques­tion was not whether Fang’s com­ment was fair, but whether he was enti­tled to make it. A since-delet­ed tweet put it suc­cinct­ly: “Lee Fang is every­thing wrong with white mil­len­ni­al men.”

There was a prob­lem with tak­ing this posi­tion, which was that Lee Fang isn’t white. An alter­nate tac­tic dis­missed his “self-hat­ing racist ass” for sub­servience to “white dad­dies,” and at its worst invoked bananas and Twinkies – yel­low on the out­side, white on the inside. “Lee Fang is the Asian guy who makes his liv­ing by dump­ing on black peo­ple in order to impress white peo­ple,” anoth­er tweet con­clud­ed. Fail­ing attempts to ques­tion his cre­den­tials as a per­son of col­or, the posi­tion of Asian-Amer­i­cans as a group could be impli­cat­ed: Fang and oth­ers like him “fit into the mod­el minor­i­ty myth where they do the work of white suprema­cists.”

Though the facts remained hazy by the time woke Twitter’s atten­tions shift­ed, there was a clear prin­ci­ple at work, one that has become char­ac­ter­is­tic of con­tem­po­rary social jus­tice advo­ca­cy. The eli­gi­bil­i­ty of peo­ple to make cer­tain kinds of claims is depen­dent on the set of cri­te­ria that fall into the cat­e­go­ry of “iden­ti­ty.” Your right to polit­i­cal agency is deter­mined by your descrip­tion.

We’re left with a sim­ple hermeneu­tic for deter­min­ing the truth-val­ue of a state­ment. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are mem­bers of that group enti­tled to say?

***

If the safe­ty pin has been a con­tro­ver­sial sym­bol on the left, the swasti­ka has been equal­ly con­test­ed on the right. In the week after Trump’s elec­tion, as the safe­ty pin began to gain trac­tion, the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter record­ed at least 60 instances of swasti­ka graf­fi­ti across the Unit­ed States. But the ide­o­logues of the alt-right have start­ed to avoid using the sym­bol. The New York Times report­ed that in Novem­ber, the Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment, one of America’s lead­ing neo-Nazi groups, dis­con­tin­ued its use of the sym­bol, in what the organization’s leader called “an attempt to become more inte­grat­ed and more main­stream.”

But not all racists are as eas­i­ly iden­ti­fi­able as neo-Nazi skin­heads. One of the old­est out­lets for the polite racism that the alt-right has brought to the fore­front of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics is Amer­i­can Renais­sance, a white nation­al­ist pub­li­ca­tion start­ed by patri­cian buf­foon Jared Tay­lor. The euphemistic lan­guage of “race real­ism” dress­es their extrem­ism up in a suit and tie, and not with­out some suc­cess. Taylor’s think tank, The New Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion, was just grant­ed non­prof­it sta­tus by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, along with Spencer’s Nation­al Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and two oth­er white nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tions.

Some­what unex­pect­ed­ly, Chris Roberts, an Amer­i­can Renais­sance staff writer, recent­ly wrote a blog post sug­gest­ing a new recruit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty.

An inter­est­ing niche in the polit­i­cal Left has appeared over the last 18 months. They are a seg­ment of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Left, social­ists who oppose racial iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics gen­er­al­ly and the sham­ing of poor whites in par­tic­u­lar. I call them the anti-anti-white Left.

Roberts goes on to cite a num­ber of arti­cles at Jacobin Mag­a­zine as evi­dence, includ­ing one writ­ten by this author. He hopes that “Left­ist oppo­si­tion to anti-white think­ing could be the first step for young whites towards devel­op­ing a racial con­scious­ness.”

But Roberts over­looks a hole in his log­ic. If white nation­al­ism is a form of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, then “social­ists who oppose iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics gen­er­al­ly” would, by def­i­n­i­tion, oppose it. Roberts and his cohort can’t con­ceive of a pol­i­tics based on a uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ple, rather than on the oppo­si­tion of iden­ti­ties. What they fear most is a way of think­ing about peo­ple that is indif­fer­ent to race.

Less refined racists than those at Amer­i­can Renais­sance refer to any prac­tice that groups peo­ple across eth­nic­i­ties as “white geno­cide,” the para­noid fan­ta­sy invoked by Cic­cariel­lo-Maher. “White geno­cide” describes not the mass killing of white peo­ple, but the advent of a world in which peo­ple can no longer be divid­ed into strict racial cat­e­gories. The phrase was coined by white suprema­cist David Lane, also the writer of the slo­gan known as the “14 Words”: “We must secure the exis­tence of our peo­ple and a future for white chil­dren.”

White nation­al­ists aren’t too both­ered by protests of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, giv­en their claim that, as Yiannopou­los puts it, “cul­ture is insep­a­ra­ble from race.” When that under­ly­ing assump­tion remains unques­tioned, the rhetoric of main­stream antiracism is itself sus­cep­ti­ble to appro­pri­a­tion by the right. This is what leads some­one like Richard Spencer to voice approval for inci­dents like one at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa, when a free yoga class for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties was shut down for “cul­tur­al issues of impli­ca­tion.” A Stu­dent Fed­er­a­tion state­ment on the mat­ter went as far as to link it to the threat of “cul­tur­al geno­cide.” At the blog for Radix Jour­nal, an alt-right pub­li­ca­tion he found­ed, Spencer could bare­ly con­tain his excite­ment. He cit­ed the inci­dent as an exam­ple of “racial con­scious­ness for­ma­tion,” and applaud­ed stu­dent activists for “engag­ing in the kind of ide­o­log­i­cal project that tra­di­tion­al­ists should be hard at work on.”

It should go with­out say­ing that left-lib­er­al iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and alt-right white nation­al­ism are not com­pa­ra­ble. The prob­lem is that they are com­pat­i­ble.

***

In late 2016, MTV News released a video called “2017 Res­o­lu­tions for White Guys.” The video fea­tures sev­er­al young peo­ple, some of whom are them­selves white and male, address­ing “white guys” in the sec­ond per­son. “There’s a few things we think you could do a lit­tle bit bet­ter in 2017,” says one of the speak­ers. “White guys” are held respon­si­ble for Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can racial inequal­i­ty, police bru­tal­i­ty, and a host of oth­er soci­etal ills. They are col­lec­tive­ly blamed for the lenient sen­tence Cal­i­for­nia Supe­ri­or Court Judge Aaron Per­sky gave Brock Turn­er for sex­u­al assault.

Cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fy­ing white men with pow­er­ful, cor­rupt fig­ures like Per­sky isn’t just an accu­sa­tion – it’s also an exemp­tion. Tak­ing the log­ic of ally­ship to an even fur­ther extreme, it calls for their pas­siv­i­ty rather than their par­tic­i­pa­tion.

This tac­tic can be use­ful in win­ning argu­ments on the inter­net, but has less val­ue for real-world orga­niz­ing. On the con­trary, alliances between move­ments, like coali­tions between local chap­ters of Black Lives Mat­ter and Fight for $15, require par­tic­i­pants to take a role beyond ally­ship. As Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor points out in her book on the his­to­ry of Black Lives Mat­ter, there is a “log­i­cal con­nec­tion” between these caus­es: “the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of African Amer­i­cans in the ranks of the poor and work­ing class has made them tar­gets of police, who prey on those with low incomes.” With more than half of black work­ers mak­ing less than $15 an hour, the fight for a liv­ing wage has become part of a call for racial jus­tice. It also makes a demand on behalf of every­one.

Vir­ginia Waf­fle House work­er and Fight for $15 activist Nic Smith wrote about this kind of col­lab­o­ra­tion at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

In the run-up to the elec­tion and its after­math, politi­cians, ana­lysts, poll­sters and pun­dits tried to divide the work­ing class along the lines of race. Grow­ing up in Dick­en­son Coun­ty, in a com­mu­ni­ty that is 98 per­cent white, all I knew was the strug­gle white work­ing-class fam­i­lies faced. But when I joined the Fight for $15, I met peo­ple who work in restau­rants in oth­er parts of this state and learned how jobs that pay this lit­tle are tak­ing a toll on work­ing peo­ple in big­ger cities, too. And many fam­i­lies in those larg­er cities face addi­tion­al threats, like police vio­lence and the risk of depor­ta­tion.

White, black, brown – we’re all in this togeth­er – fight­ing for a bet­ter life for our fam­i­lies.

For Smith, as for groups like the Young Patri­ots before him, the fight against police vio­lence and depor­ta­tion is his fight. It’s part of a col­lec­tive demand issued by “for­got­ten com­mu­ni­ties through­out our nation.” Build­ing a move­ment based on uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples hasn’t always worked – the trap­pings of iden­ti­ty have long haunt­ed even the earnest uni­ver­sal­ism of Amer­i­can social­ists. But even when this kind of coali­tion isn’t suc­cess­ful, it has at least one great virtue: it’s the oppo­site of the “ide­o­log­i­cal project” Richard Spencer hopes the left will car­ry out for him.

In con­trast, the “2017 Res­o­lu­tions” video doesn’t present much of a threat to the alt-right. The back­lash to it was so severe that MTV removed it with­in 48 hours of post­ing it. But the state­ment it makes isn’t just inef­fec­tive as polit­i­cal strat­e­gy – it also fails as polit­i­cal analy­sis. While the video names the object (”white guys”) it address­es, effec­tive­ly align­ing them with the right, it doesn’t artic­u­late the iden­ti­ty of the sub­ject mak­ing the state­ment.

The speak­ing sub­ject is “we.” What’s left unan­swered is, who does that pro­noun rep­re­sent? Who does it include? This is the ques­tion Richard Spencer has put front and cen­ter in Nation­al Pol­i­cy Insti­tute pro­pa­gan­da: “who are we?”

The alt-right has an answer – one that is con­sis­tent with the long his­to­ry of impe­ri­al­ism and white suprema­cy. As their adop­tion of the lan­guage of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics shows, the right takes com­fort when the left’s answer mere­ly inverts the one gen­er­at­ed by this his­to­ry. It allows the right to draw the bat­tle lines, mark­ing the ter­ri­to­ry of their white nation­al fan­ta­sy. But if they were con­front­ed by a uni­fied “we” – a sub­ject that refused to rec­og­nize the bor­ders, divi­sions, and hier­ar­chies that are reg­u­lat­ed by the log­ic of iden­ti­ty – the alt-right would be left with nowhere to plant its flag. White nation­al­ists would find them­selves in the worst pos­si­ble posi­tion for a nation at war: being unable to iden­ti­fy the ene­my.

Author of the article

is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn.