What do a frog, a swastika, and a Confederate flag have in common? Answer: they are all on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of hate symbols. As are the numbers 12, 18, 511, 737, and 100%. * What? Wait a minute. Isn’t 737 the name of an airplane? And 100% … I use that all the time! What is going on here? And a frog?
The frog is Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that has become a popular Internet meme. The Pepe the Frog character did not originally have racist or anti-Semitic connotations. Internet users appropriated the character and turned him into a meme, placing the frog in a variety of circumstances and saying many different things. But then, as the meme proliferated in on-line venues such as 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, which have many users who delight in creating racist memes and imagery, a subset of Pepe memes came into existence that centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes.
“In recent years, with the growth of the “alt right” segment of the white supremacist movement, a segment that draws some of its support from some of the above-mentioned Internet sites, the number of “alt right” Pepe memes has grown, a tendency exacerbated by the controversial and contentious 2016 presidential election. Though Pepe memes have many defenders, not least the character’s creator, Matt Furie, who has called the alt right appropriation of the meme merely a “phase,” the use of racist and bigoted versions of Pepe memes seems to be increasing, not decreasing.” – Anti-Defamation League
So who, we might ask, is this alt-right that is to blame for turning an innocent cartoon into a symbol of hate? The alt-right has no official ideology, although various sources have said that it is associated with white nationalism, white supremacism, anti-Islamism, antisemitism, antifeminism, right-wing populism, nativism, and the neo-reactionary movement. That sure as heck is a lot of “anti”! Here is what some journalists and analysts have to say about alt-right:
- David A. French, writing for National Review, called alt-right proponents “wanna-be fascists”
- Benjamin Welton, writing for The Weekly Standard: ” … turns the left’s moralism on its head and makes it a badge of honor to be called ‘racist,’ ‘homophobic,’ and ‘sexist.”
- Cathy Young, writing in The Federalist, called the alt-right “a nest of anti-Semitism” inhabited by “white supremacists” who regularly use “repulsive bigotry”.
- According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Breitbart News has become a popular outlet for alt-right views.
A good article in The Economist begins:
“UNTIL August this year, the Alt- (short for alternative) Right did not matter much. Two things happened to change that. First, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon, a former executive-chairman of Breitbart, as CEO of his campaign. Breitbart is a website that has published stories praising the Alt-Right. Then Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Reno, Nevada, in which she denounced Mr Trump for bringing the Alt-Right and its admirers into the mainstream of American politics. Many hundreds of thousands of Google searches followed. People claiming to speak for the Alt-Right were delighted by the attention. What is this Alt-Right thing? And why does it matter, if indeed it does?”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines the alt-right as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.”
Alt-right appears to be loosely organized, primarily an internet group, and there are undoubtedly far more dangerous groups out there at this time. But I am concerned when there are so many haters of everything that is not in strict accordance with their own philosophy. Their “ideology” combines the worst of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neo-Nazis, the white nationalist, anti-Semitic and Christian identity groups all rolled into one. I am concerned that this group, along with several others, including the KKK, have endorsed presidential candidate Donald Trump who has not disavowed their endorsement(s). I am concerned, and more than a little angry, when a perfectly harmless cartoon frog suddenly becomes a symbol of hatred, when perfectly harmless numbers and keyboard characters that we all use every day, suddenly represent evil.
Symbols are powerful communication tools. They convey considerable meaning in an immediately recognizable form, and the power they can have is tremendous. Consider the reverence or passion that the American flag, the Star of David, and the Christian cross evoke, and the impact of symbols is readily apparent. The alt-right’s use of Internet memes to advance or express its beliefs, often on websites such as 4chan, has been widely reported. What is next? Will we soon see Sonic the Hedgehog sporting a Hitler moustach, or Bugs Bunny with a white hood over his head? Pikachu with a Star of David with a red slash through it? The possibilities are limitless.
This, then, is the legacy of the Trump campaign. The obvious intent being to reverse all the good that has been done by such honourable figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, John F. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, President Barack Obama and many others too numerous to name here. The obvious intent being to undermine the strides toward “all men are created equal” that we have struggled for since the inception of our democracy. Make no mistake, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT … they are ugly. People who support any of these -isms or identify with groups who support them are ugly. That is a universal truth, make of it what you will. Donald Trump has brought about this toxic environment and it is gaining momentum. We must stop it, but I fear it will take time and in the interim, lives will be lost. This is about more than just a cartoon frog. Think about it.
* For a complete list of the ADL’s hate symbols with explanations of each, click here.