From their chinos-and-polo-shirt uniform to the "okay" emoji, America's so-called alt-right are weaponising the everydayby Philip Seargeant / September 21, 2017 / Leave a comment
The photographs showed a flock of white men wearing polo shirts and well-ironed khakis, brandishing tiki torches. They became one of the enduring images from the far-right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, when the so-called ‘alt-right’ marched on a university campus.
Every movement needs its iconography, of course. And as the events in Charlottesville illustrated, symbols—be they flags or statues—can act as powerful surrogates for political views. But while traditional symbols such as the Confederate flag and the swastika are still a prominent part of white-supremacist iconography, another very different style of emblem is also emerging.
A succession of utterly banal objects, from the khaki chinos worn by the demonstrators to the music of Taylor Swift, have somehow come to represent an extremist ideology; all of them unexceptional elements of mainstream culture, weaponized by the alt-right as part of their political message.
One of the fundamental principles of communication theory is that symbols are always arbitrary. They don’t inherently ‘mean’ anything until a community imbues them with meaning. In other words, pretty much anything can stand as a symbol for pretty much anything else.
What usually happens, however, is that meaning is motivated by some sort of historical or cultural precedent. For example, Hitler designed the Nazi flag to represent different elements of the movement he was shaping. The red background, he wrote in Mein Kampf, alludes to the social element of the movement, the white circle to its nationalist ideals, and the black swastika to “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”
The Confederate flag similarly draws on a specific colour-symbolism to create its meaning. It’s had slightly different incarnations throughout its history, but the second official version had the red and blue cross on an otherwise white background. This, according to its designer, symbolised the “Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”
So how about this new set of symbols? Does a pair of chinos have the same sort of grandiose racist narrative woven into its aesthetic? As a style of political fashion, pale beige slacks seem a long way removed from more classic white supremacist uniforms. The KKK’s white robes and hoods, for example, were used both to hide the identity of…