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Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Calling Them Nazis
There’s an increasingly common argument online against referring to the alt-right by its chosen name. “Call them Nazis” is the refrain. If you haven’t said it yourself, you’ve probably seen other people saying it.
While this approach may be understandable and may suit certain rhetorical purposes, it’s a grave mistake for journalists and experts who substantively study and cover the movement to embrace this approach.
The alt-right category is extremely important to understanding what’s happening in this movement. Nazis are only part of this movement, or more correctly neo-Nazis, since most of them aren't German nationalists. If neo-Nazis were America’s only problem, it would be a much smaller problem.
The alt-right encompasses a variety of right-wing and white supremacist movements, from conspiracists to the KKK. No single movement under the alt-right umbrella is especially large or effectively mobilized. No single movement under the alt-right umbrella can turn out the hundreds of adherents necessary to command headlines with an action short of terrorism.
Rejecting the alt-right label might make you feel better, but it unproductively obscures the primary element that makes it work as a movement—its ability to unite disparate radical groups with differing beliefs and tactics into a single amorphous community that is capable of coordinated action. Understand this: If the alt-right movement consisted only of neo-Nazis, we would not be talking about it.
In the fight against the Islamic State, the semantics of “what to call them” dominated a lot of policy discussion in stupid ways. The Obama administration generally argued that using the group’s self-appointed name somehow legitimized its aspiration. Opponents of the group spent years referring to it as ISIL or Daesh, with no quantifiable impact on the group’s success or failure.
You can call the alt-right whatever names you like. Express your disdain, it's fine. But those of us who are doing serious work on this issue need to use a label with more analytical utility. The alt-right is meaningfully different from the right-wing movements that preceded it. To understand its appeal and counter its influence, we need to understand it as a distinct category and acknowledge those differences.
Books by J.M. Berger:
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.
Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam
Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.
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"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times
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