s most left-wing places have been adept at pointing out, the alt-Right uses political tactics usually manipulated by the Left. They quote Nietszsche, Foucault and critical theorists like half-baked campus agitators. They relish the language of identity-politics — as when Richard Spencer argued that the oppressed “white race” needs its “safe space.” They’re fans of Saul Alinksy’s methods of community organization — a recent Atlantic article listed his Rules for Radicals (along with Hitler’s Mein Kampf) as neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin’s primary political inspirations. But there’s another way the alt-Right are riffing on the Left’s success: they’re manipulating the tactics of normalization.
A campaign of normalization is a brilliant way to avoid the moral argument that is usually necessary to convince an opposed public that some act is right or wrong. One simply exposes the public to the morally ambiguous act for long enough that, whatever they think about it, they come to accept it as a valid opinion and a genuine option. The goal of these campaigns is not, in the end, for a citizen to sit back and say, “By golly, you’ve convinced me.” The goal is to inundate him with the constant presence of the morally questionable act until it fades into a background of several thousand other morally questionable facts of modern existence.
Consider abortion. Abortion was never cogently defended as a morally good act rather than a morally evil one. The few thinkers who still bother to justify the act itself make the pro-abortion position even more cringeworthy than it is in popular conception. Their thought is relegated to an uninspiring sideshow of “philosophy,” and gets little (if any) political airtime. Consider how silly it would be to actually use Peter Singer’s defense of infanticide up to the age of two in a debate, or how unhelpful it would be to ground a political argument in the perverse logic of retrospectively-endowed human dignity that recently puzzled James Franco. Outside of the work of such intellectual careerists, abortion has been left undefended in favor of being normalized — as one more choice that a free citizen can indulge. This is what the shift from “pro-abortion” to “pro-choice” means. We are all free to love it or hate it, to call it good, evil, whatever we like — so long as, at the end of the day, we allow it.
There is a great similarity between the pro-choice movement and the alt-right — and not just in the fact that many in the alt-right tend to be pro-abortion for eugenic purposes, as expressed in the infamous article, “The Pro-life Temptation” (currently scrubbed from its place on the alt-Right bog, Radix Journal). Both engage in this kind of campaign.
A recent NPR article pointed out that few people join marches or make arguments anymore, rather, “the long controversy about abortion rights is playing out in a different public square, a place most Americans visit. And that is primetime television.” Lauding the fact that abortion stories are growing increasingly diverse and accurate, Gretchen Sisson argued that “if you are in favor of abortion rights…then the cultural sphere including television offers something more to move forward with, to change the way people are thinking and talking about abortion in those spaces.”
The tactics of normalization never involve an active moral argument, but always some shift of “the conversation” by the large-scale, passive consumption of media. The self-professed tactics of the alt-Right have been to inundate the internet with the large-scale presence of racist images and slogans, gradually developing a strong presence and a brand in the “cultural sphere.” In both cases, leaders shift the conversation, not by bringing the core moral concern to the forefront of debate (where both abortion and racism look ugly, without nuance, and unembedded in some narrative), but by innuendo.
Both movements use coded language that avoids direct debate. Terminology that once referred to a definite viewpoint is shirked in favor of an intentionally vague, culturally sensitive language that rings pleasantly in the average ear and shelves the actual issues for later explication. “Pro-abortion” becoming “pro-choice” and “white nationalist” becoming “alt-Right;” “child” becoming “fetal tissue” and racism becoming “race realism.”
Both movements re-direct attention away from the victims of their own violence and towards an alternative victim. The pro-choice movement avoids discussion of the victims of abortion, not by any rigorous debate on why, precisely, the unborn child cannot be considered a victim, but by pointing out the victim-status of women who are denied abortion. The alt-Right — for all their puffed-up, pseudo-Nietzschean rhetoric about crushing slavish, Christian morality — follow the same playbook. Instead of confronting the question of what violence they consider appropriate in establishing their dream of an ethnostate, they manipulate the power of the victim, referring to the “white race” as the victims of a slow, steady genocide, perpetrated by the specters of multiculturalism and political correctness. Rene Girard describes this as a tactic of the Anti-Christ — the use of the power of the innocent victim as a means of continued victimizing.
In order to solidify their pro-victim status, both movements single out an enemy. For the alt-Right, the enemy is the liberal status quo. For the pro-choice movement, the enemy is the oppressive, right-wing opponent of women’s health. This allows both movements to avoid the question of whether their particular acts are morally good or evil by the construction of a total narrative. Whether taking a suction tube to the brain of an unborn child is good or evil is besides the point when one has successfully established a narrative in which abortion is embedded: A victim (woman) is oppressed by an enemy (anti-abortion man/institution) and must be protected (by legal abortion). So too, for the alt-Right, a victim (whites/Europeans) are oppressed by an enemy (liberal multiculturalism) and must be protected (by an ethnostate, white identity politics, etc.). To bring up the niggling moral question is to undermine the narrative.
Every now and then some horrible incident will remind the public that, far from victims-oppressed-by-enemies, violence is structural to both of these movements (Gosnell for the pro-choice, Charlottesville for the alt-right) — but these instances are glossed over by Presidents and CEOs who point out the violence of the “other side” in order to maintain the oppressed-victim narrative. The movements, in short, become normal: pro-victim movements, run through non-profit organizations, free to organize and speak, a daily part of our consumption of internet and TV, hated by some, loved by others, but ultimately protected by the State as a genuine option in a country of free choice.
Obviously, there is something missing from this analysis. While the alt-right embrace a lack of compassion as a prerequisite for ideological membership, the pro-choice movement is full of loving, compassionate people who are firmly convinced that they are working for the good of the innocent. More importantly, the pro-choice movement is a normal, mainstream tradition of American politics — the alt-right is not. My point, then, is not simply that the two movements are alike, but that our normalization of the pro-choice position has rendered us increasingly weaponless against the normalization of racism in our country.
Racism is wrong? Many said abortion was wrong, and we told them you cannot legislate morality, that “you don’t have to have an abortion” — that it was the free choice of the individual. There’s strong moral consensus against racism? There was strong moral consensus against abortion prior to 1950. The current vitriol hurled at racists is tame compared to the critique of abortion performed by early feminists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or gynecologists like Dr. Mary Dixon-James who called abortion a “prostitution” of a woman’s “higher nature.” Racism hurts other people? The whole argument against abortion was that it hurts and kills an innocent person. We arrived at no answer to the question, but moved straight to normalization, arguing that whether the fetus is or is not a person is of no consequence to the question of the woman’s freedom to make her own choices. Even if it could be shown that abortion is morally fine and dandy, the fact that we have not shown this, and yet continue to abort, has set a dangerous precedent.
The alt-Right understand this precedent in their own fashion, and, just as they relish the use of identity-politics, they relish the tactics of normalization. They display themselves not as good, not as just, not even as not-evil, but simply as here — the genuine possibility of free men in a free country. It is no good for the liberal-minded to choose now as the moment to seal off the pastures of free choice, no good to argue, “but this morally-questionable minority action is not a matter of free choice, but of objective evil.” The alt-right manipulate the same language of freedom and choice over the question of good and bad that frames the abortion debate. If a populace learned, with great labor, to sidestep the moral question “is abortion wrong?” in favor of the power-question, “is it not an individual’s right to choose abortion for themselves?” why on earth would we expect them not to sidestep the moral question “is racism wrong?” with a gradual turn to the same answer: “Well no, I personally detest racism, but I understand that it is a free choice and I wouldn’t impose my beliefs etc.” This is one of the many reasons the alt-right delight in media-attention, good or bad. They may label their antics as bold, subversive media-baiting, but in reality, they are a basic part of the process of normalization, of shifting the public from a questioning state, to the blithe, tolerant state which has lost the moral wherewithal to call something evil and kick it out. Without a moral worldview, seeing something enough times is enough to take away the shock of its presence and make it just another opinion in the vast number of opinions that democratic liberalism tolerates. Without moral debate, the only hope the Left has of keeping racism out of the mainstream is to spew forth a constant stream of movies and celebrity affirmations that associate the “racist” with the “bad guy” — in the hopes that Americans keep watching.
Those who live by the sword die by the sword. We shirked moral debate for quick cultural gains; we will now watch the same gradual exposure of a tolerant populace to a morally odious act result in the undebated reception of the devil into the undiscriminating embrace of American liberalism. There will be a few who recognize that liberalism has painted itself into a corner, allowing the alt-Right to nestle into its bosom as snugly as any morally-suspected leftist cause, at the small cost of “enough airtime.” But those who evaded moral argument with the words “you can’t legislate morality” will watch, in horror, as racism becomes, not accepted, but normalized in culture, thought and public office.