By Jason Stanley, New York Times, March 13, 2018
The tactic of subverting language to turn vice into virtue has a very dark past.
In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”
On the face of it, Bannon’s advice is strange. After all, by any normative understanding, “racist,” “xenophobe” and “nativist” are negative words from both a moral and rational point of view. Their definitions, taken from any standard dictionary, will bear this out. Racism, xenophobia and nativism embody, in their very meanings, both irrationality and unfairness. Irrationality is considered to be a negative quality (except perhaps by Dadaists); so is unfairness.
For those of us to wish to understand the way Bannon is manipulating language here, and to what end, it is important to note what he is not doing. It is typical for far-right politicians who want to attract racist, xenophobic or nativist voters to attempt to provide at least the pretense of reasons, invariably shoddy ones, for animus against racial minorities, immigrants, or foreigners.
In the United States, President Trump regularly connects individual crimes or criminal gangs with immigration in an effort to more broadly establish a link between immigrants with crime in the public consciousness. Though studies have shown that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, Trump continues to make such claims (his statement that immigrants bring “tremendous amounts of crime” received a score of “four Pinocchios” from fact-checkers).
Similarly bizarre false claims are made by non-American far-right politicians, who also regularly engage in anti-Semitic innuendo. There is a natural next step to using innuendo and the manufacturing of reasons to justify racism and xenophobia — namely to drop the facade altogether. Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous.
Accepting Bannon’s advice requires rejecting empathy for already embattled groups. Some might view that as acceptable, preferring to weigh only statistical arguments in deciding what to do about, for example, immigration policy. But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.
Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” To be fanatical is, by definition, to be irrational. To be an anti-Semite is to have irrational prejudice against Jews. Hitler presents his transformation into a fanatical anti-Semite positively. It is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, not only a good thing to harbor irrational hatred of Jewish people. One should do so fanatically. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.
Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.
In the 20th-century scholar Victor Klemperer’s “Language of the Third Reich” there is a chapter titled “Fanatical.” In it, Klemperer reports that the Nazis regularly inverted the meanings of ordinary words, in just the way that Bannon recommends: by turning vices or negative ideals into virtues. (This point is well-known enough to have been the basis of a famous comedy sketch, “Are we the baddies?”) To be sure, it was not only the Nazis who chose to invert the valence of words that were negative because of their connection with unthinking irrationality; some American slavery abolitionists called their own beliefs in the moral wrongness of slavery fanatical. But it was the Nazis who most thoroughly and efficiently turned the ungrounded hatred and fear of minority groups into an explicit virtue.
Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.
At the end of his chapter, Klemperer assures us that even when the practice of treating negative ideals as if they were virtues becomes routine, people nevertheless retain a clear understanding that this is indeed an inversion. He notes that as soon as World War II ended, ordinary Germans returned to using the word “fanatical” as a negative. This observation is crucial. It means that we can remind even those inclined to take Bannon’s advice that while language can be manipulated, the attempt to change its meaning, and the shape of reality with it, is ultimately temporary.