What a world of difference lies between adopting your own moniker and having one thrust upon you. I had never heard the term alt-left before the president used it in his third iteration of comments on the horrific events in Charlottesville, Va. Figuring out what he meant wasn’t exactly rocket science: Just as the alt-right is not really some alternative to right-wing positions but rather an extreme, purist force on the right, so the alt-left would be considered an extreme and purist form of left-wing politics. As a corollary, any invective hurled at the alt-right — radical, violent, bigoted, dangerous — could boomerang, with equal effectiveness, on the so-called alt-left.
The key difference, as Emma Grey Ellis recently pointed out in Wired, is that “no left-wing group has ever called itself the alt-left.” The term may have been used, as Molly Roberts claimed in The Washington Post, by some supporters of Hillary Clinton to describe certain rigid Bernie Sanders fans (the evidence for this claim is scant), but in any case it uniformly labels a group of people with whom someone disagrees, with the intended effect of demeaning, not legitimizing, them. The same cannot be said of antifa, shorthand for antifascist, a term that traces its roots to bands of leftists in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as fascism rose and spread. Plenty of autonomous groups that consider themselves socialist, anti-capitalist, and possibly anarchist, like NYC Antifa, proudly claim the label along with preferring, as Peter Beinart observes in his forthcoming Atlantic essay, direct action: “They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.”
While the huge majority of counterprotestors in Charlottesville would not consider themselves antifa, one suspects that those who do are more concerned with the accurate portrayal of their goals and techniques than with how they are labeled. But the alt-left label, having been invented exclusively by the “other side,” can only be understood as a pejorative term. I was not in Charlottesville, but it would not surprise me if most protesters, hearing themselves described as alt-left, would respond that they are simply on the political left, or even in what we once knew as the political middle.
A strange thing happens, though, to some — not all — terms that get thrust upon others. First used derisively by Mitt Romney to delegitimize the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare became such a negative term that some people in Los Angeles, asked about federal health-insurance initiatives, responded that they hated Obamacare but were in favor of the Affordable Care Act. Rather than fighting the label, President Obama actually adopted it … and now the majority of Americans don’t want Obamacare taken away.
Similarly, after Trump referred to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman,” a slur too many women had heard when they tried to assert themselves, nasty-woman T-shirts and slogans sprang up overnight. Pretty soon, I expect, some individuals will begin pointing out that snowflakes are not only made of a malleable substance essential to life on earth, but are distinguished by a structure of infinite beauty and variety.
Already, we see some of the same coopting going on with alt-left. As one Twitter user put it, “WTF is #AltLeft? Opposite of #AltRight? Opposite of bigotry, hatred, violence, group supremacy? If so then COUNT ME IN!#ProudToBeAltLeft.” Given that, as several commentators have pointed out, the political struggles convulsing our country at the moment don’t break down readily into right-versus-left dichotomies, maybe the alt prefix will end up giving us a new way to express a set of opposing forces that conventional labels have failed to capture.
Not every term admits of cooptation. Rhetoric labeled politically correct, regardless of how often people observe its similarity to rhetoric that is kind, respectful, or sensitive, carries a stigma. Even though my friend Cathi Hanauer has edited collections of insightful, entertaining essays titled The Bitch in the House and The Bitch Is Back, I know no one who likes to be called a bitch. I suspect that most of the self-proclaimed alt-right protesters in Charlottesville abjure the term Nazi or even neo-Nazi: Even if those terms are accurate, they are employed largely by people opposed to what those folks were marching for. The term progressive rose in popularity largely out of the successful discrediting of the term liberal.
In other words, we cannot predict whether alt-left will stick at all, and if it does, whether it will remain an insult or become a new claim to identity. For right now, unsexy as it may be, I prefer what the University of Virginia professor Nicole Hemmer called the huge majority of counterprotesters in Virginia: good people.
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