The Risks Of Normalizing The So-Called Alt-Right
LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
To get a different perspective on how to talk about the so-called alt-right, we reached out to Deborah Lipstadt. She's a historian at Emory University in Atlanta and a scholar who's spent much of her life discrediting Holocaust deniers. Lipstadt is best known for her fight against holocaust denier David Irving, who sued Lipstadt in the 1990s in a now famous international case that's even been made into a movie.
At the time, Lipstadt worried that defending her work so publicly would give David Irving and other Holocaust deniers a strong platform for their views. Lipstadt won her case. But years later, she's noticing troubling similarities between Holocaust deniers and the so-called alt-right, which many associate with white nationalism.
DEBORAH LIPSTADT: I observed something that actually has a lot of contemporary relevance in connection to alt-right and the groups around and individuals around alt-right. Holocaust deniers have been around for a long time. We saw them in the '50s. We saw them in the '60s, in the early '70s.
But generally they were neo-Nazis. They were people who when they gathered wore Nazi-like uniforms, gave the sieg heil salute. The switch came in the mid '70s when deniers got rid of the outer accouterments of neo-Nazis and instead presented themselves as what they called revisionists, people who want to revise mistakes in history.
Their arguments were exactly the same. But now if you happened to have stumbled into one of the meetings, you would have thought you were in a meeting of some scruffy academics, you know? Or if you picked up one of their journals, you would have thought it was an academic journal when in fact they were just doing the same Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic stuff that was being done earlier.
SINGH: And is this the stuff you're seeing in the current political climate in the...
SINGH: ...United States?
LIPSTADT: ...Exactly. That's why - I know Richard Spencer. I mean, I don't know him personally, but he's David Irving. He sounds - when you meet him, he's wearing - he looks very good. David Irving wears well-tailored suit. He sounds good.
SINGH: And we should note for our listeners Mr. Spencer heads up the National Policy Institute that has been widely viewed also as a proponent of white nationalism.
LIPSTADT: I would say white supremacism. I think white nationalism is just like Holocaust deniers calling themselves, you know, revisionists. To properly understand the danger, we should call them by what they really are, white supremacists.
And, you know, the National Policy Institute sounds very benign, sounds even positive. You look at some of the papers they put out, some of the points they take, you look at their spokespeople who manage sometimes to make it to television and you realize that what they're doing is really changing the outer garb. But what they're saying is the exact same thing as it was before.
SINGH: Professor Lipstadt, how do you view the media's responsibility in engaging with the so-called alt-right and other groups associated with white nationalism and white supremacy as you've mentioned?
LIPSTADT: Yeah, I think the media has a very big responsibility. I don't think the media alone, but the media is at the apex. And I think it's incumbent upon the media to understand who these people are and the kind of arguments they're making and not to treat them as a benign point of view.
You see, one of the things I discovered when I was working on Holocaust deniers was that what they wanted was to enter the conversation about the Holocaust as a point of view so that some say there were gas chambers, some say there weren't. Some say there was a plan to kill the Jews, others say there wasn't. They were taking lies, parading them as opinions in order to encroach on the facts.
SINGH: However, overall, you believe that the need to cover these groups in the news outweighs the risk of normalizing their beliefs or adding momentum to their cause. Is that right?
LIPSTADT: Yes. And I'll tell you where it changed. It changed when one of the people most responsible for bringing them into even the periphery of the mainstream - you know, it depends how you want to call Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, was appointed chief strategist to President-elect Trump. That means the person who facilitated this entering the mainstream in getting all this attention now is steps from the Oval Office. That's a game changer.
SINGH: What should people, in your opinion, look for in terms of a process of normalizing something that was unusual to bring up in mainstream conversation in the past?
LIPSTADT: One of the things that has elevated my level of concern over the past few months is watching people from alt-right suddenly appearing on the news not as examples - you know, here is a meeting that they had where they talked about people of color in a very derogatory fashion or talked about Jews in a derogatory fashion - but suddenly becoming commentators. That's mainstreaming. When their ideas are allowed to seep into the mainstream through the media, through becoming pundits, writing op-eds and having them published, then we're really in trouble.
SINGH: But there is something to be said for free speech. They would argue that they're entitled to that.
LIPSTADT: Absolutely, they're entitled to free speech. I'm not calling for their silencing because I believe in free speech. I don't want politicians deciding what we can and cannot say. But free speech and giving someone a platform are two separate things. Free speech means the government can't tell you what to say. Free speech doesn't mean the media is obligated to put you on and give you access. The airwaves are limited, and the media controls that and has to do it responsibly.
SINGH: Deborah Lipstadt is a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She joined us from there. Professor Lipstadt, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LIPSTADT: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.