If you believe in freedom of speech, you might be a fascist.
Okay, okay, give me a second to explain. The thing about 2017-era fascism — a term I’m using to encompass white supremacy, anti-feminism, ethno-nationalism and other fun ideas that are finding a home alarmingly close to mainstream politics — is that it’s very hard to prove to the modern day fascist that their ideas are, well, actually fascist. This is a marked difference from earlier periods in American history — in the 1950s and ‘60s, for example, the KKK generally knew, and openly admitted, that it was white supremacist. Now, though, fascist ideas are spread in codes — that is, dog whistles, the most powerful of which is “freedom of speech.”
For some context: a dog whistle is a type of rhetorical strategy in which hidden meanings are only heard by a certain group within the audience, the same way an actual dog whistle is only heard by — well, dogs. It’s not just the 2017-era fascist who uses this strategy. The dog whistle is a hallmark of American political discourse, historically used to appeal to white Americans by, often, subtly communicating racist messages. The strategy is perhaps best understood coming from those who’ve utilized it — like the notoriously brutal Republican campaign manager Lee Atwater, who worked on both the Nixon and Reagan campaigns. He explained the use of dog whistles most lucidly in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n*****’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Atwater’s words are horrifying and brutal, but cleanly explain the use and purpose of a dog whistle, with a candidness that is almost impossible to find in white supremacists today. For example, many historians — like Ian Haney-Lopez at the University of California, Berkeley — agree that when Reagan referred to “states’ rights” in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was really appealing to Southern states by quietly affirming their right to not uphold such regulations.
But in general, it’s quite difficult to measure the impact or power of a dog whistle, or to argue that a dog whistle is even there, because there’s no way to really measure implicit meaning. Though many historians agree with Haney-Lopez on the meaning of “states’ rights,” including the writers of DV’s AP U.S. History textbook, there are many that disagree — and that’s the genius of the dog whistle. It’s impossible to prove that the hidden meaning is actually there precisely because it’s hidden.
Tracking the development and use of dog whistles in 2017 is especially impossible, then, because it all happens imperceptibly in the debris of Internet chatter — in Facebook comments, Twitter fights and, most crucially, posts on message boards like 4chan. (To make matters worse, 4chan archives are deleted within days.) So when I tell you that “freedom of speech” is being used as a dog whistle, I can’t prove it to you in any of the traditional ways.
But I can tell you that people like Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute and advocate for America to become an “ethnostate” comprised solely of white people, have been near-constantly using freedom of speech as a defense for their ideas for some time now. When speakers like him or, say, Milo Yiannopoulos were banned from speaking at universities like UC Berkeley, they repeatedly invoked the ideal of “freedom of speech” and how it was violated for them. But make no mistake — “freedom of speech,” in this case, is only about the freedom for white supremacists to speak freely.
“Real diversity includes thinking differently,” Spencer said in 2014, at a Whitefish City, Mont. city council meeting where he defended the right for his National Policy Institute to set up shop there. The statement sounds innocuous enough — cleverly, Spencer reframes “freedom of speech” as “diversity of thought,” appealing to the tolerance implied by the word “diversity.” But really, that “diversity of thought” is about opening up the common discourse to the ideas of people like Richard Spencer — establishing a homeland for white people.
Again, it’s quite hard to prove this without being immersed deep enough within fascist circles so that you can hear them talk candidly. Most of this talk happens anonymously on 4chan — which, thankfully, the YouTuber ContraPoints has archived threads from ever since the events in Charlottesville, Va. One damning thread entitled “Fixing the Alt-Right” shows the end goal of constantly using a “freedom of speech” defense.
“Keep the long term goals covert … talking openly about a white ethnostate will only push the average white person away … leftists will recognize dog whistles and know [the truth] … but [the average person] won’t listen to them.”
It might seem ridiculous for me to use a 4chan post as evidence, but this anonymous poster gets to the heart of the matter. Fascist strategy in 2017 is all about incrementalism, “keeping the long term goals covert” and offering up ideas that are only slightly controversial, all while defending them under the guise of “freedom of speech.” It’s the same way Atwater explained the use of words like “states’ rights” and “forced busing”: “you’re getting so abstract … and a byproduct is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Precisely. “Freedom of speech” is just the newest generality that sounds pretty and agreeable to everyone. But it gives a subsection of the audience — usually, but not always, white people — implicit permission to entertain ideas about how it is they who are disenfranchised, and how “if countries like Japan and India can be majority Asian, why can’t America be majority white?” Entertain the idea. It’s just an exercise of your “freedom of speech.”
The particular brilliance of the fascist dog whistle in 2017, though, is how subconsciously it is operating. Many people who either hold or are communicating fascist ideas, like I said before, don’t actually realize that the ideas they’re peddling are fascist. That fascist talking point about America “not being majority native like all other countries” I alluded to earlier — which, very literally, derives from the KKK’s website — is often discussed by centrist or even liberal political voices online, like YouTubers Chris Ray Gun or Sargon of Akkad, as a valid talking point. People like them, who just make videos on YouTube, might seem petty or unimportant compared to a politician — but the fact is that their videos and other activity are viewed by hundreds of thousands of people a day. That’s how fascism slowly took hold. The ideas were germinating quietly on the Internet until — suddenly, we’ve got the president we’ve got.
The funniest part is that if you’re a fascist in 2017 — or, at the very least, are entertaining those ideas — it’s probably because you’re missing out on fascist dog whistles. The ideology took hold without the brain even registering it, because that’s how powerful the dog whistle is — it’s not something to miss out on. If you’ve read this up to now and seen viewpoints you previously held attacked and explicitly called “fascist” for the first time, well — this column isn’t going to change your mind. All I can ask is that you consider what you’re missing out on, and how the ideas you hold today came to be.
If you’re not happy with me framing “freedom of speech” as a tool of modern day white supremacy, then — briefly, consider the issue in a different light.
Take any racial slur. In the spirit of inclusivity, I won’t specify which — just leave it to the imagination. Most slurs are, in normal society, seen as deeply offensive, and some may even go so far as to say that “you can’t say” a given slur if you are not of the given race it refers to. But the thing is that you can. (Please don’t — just bear with me.) You know how to spell the slur. You know how to pronounce it. If you said or wrote it, people would understand it based on a common meaning, and have some sort of reaction. You can say it in the sense that the word exists and has a common meaning, which is highly charged for many people.
Now think of an equivalent for white people. It doesn’t compute. It doesn’t exist. I could say “redneck” or “hillbilly,” I suppose, but those register as laughable more than anything, and are really more about class than race. The language is already tilted towards white supremacy in this way.
Many people — especially white supremacists — argue that the limits impinged on the use of racial slurs violate their freedom of speech. The question I always ask is this: if I want to slur white people with a word that is commonly understood and tied to histories of violence and subjugation, I can’t. Where’s my freedom?