The classic example of a moral panic involves a society losing its mind over witchcraft, as when more than twenty innocent people, mostly women, were hanged or otherwise killed following the Salem witch trials of 1692. In general, a moral panic concerns something that would be bad, perhaps horrific, if real, but whose reality is imagined or exaggerated to the point of social hysteria, and the popular reaction to which leads individuals and institutions to abandon reason, evidence, and common sense. We don’t fear witches anymore, and we don’t usually execute the targets of our panics; but we do still lose our minds. We have recently lived through, or are currently living through, panics involving drugs, youth violence, Satanism, child abduction, child molestation, and even Satanic child molestation.
With Donald Trump’s election, and especially with the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, we are seeing the beginnings of a new panic over white nationalism. White nationalism is no less real than drugs or youth violence, and when real ranges from bigoted to plain evil. At question, though, is whether we are capable of evaluating and responding to it rationally, or whether we will, instead, hype the threat to the detriment of our own values and interests. As is the case in such panics, the number of parlor experts on white nationalism has exploded. I am not an expert on white nationalism of any sort; but I recognize hysterical ignorance when I see it.
One example of the panic around white nationalism that has recirculated on social media in the last few weeks is a supposed “white power” hand gesture. The gesture in question has been known to all of us, for all our lives, and is used around the world, as a symbol for “okay.” The idea that this gesture has been redefined by white nationalists should have been put to rest months ago. Joseph Bernstein at BuzzFeed traced this idea back to a 4chan troll. 4chan is a website on which various narrow communities meet virtually. Trolling, in the original sense, is not saying something offensive, but a mischievous attempt to provoke offense or unrest, often ironically. So a group of provocateurs on a website decided to pretend that the familiar okay sign had been coopted by white nationalists; and since the okay sign is ubiquitous, there are many photographs of white nationalists using it — just as there are with every other kind of person. Fusion journalist Emma Roller stirred this panic in April while pointing to a reference guide from the Anti-Defamation League which depicted not the okay sign but a different, two-handed gesture in which one hand makes a “W” and the other a “P.” That the normal okay sign is a white-power gesture was debunked almost immediately by the ADL itself.
And yet the myth persists. MSNBC’s Joy Reid, boosted by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, called this out in a recent photograph from Little Green Footballs’ Charles Johnson, as did Johnson. Respondents to the photograph even pointed to Trump himself. While Trump more commonly uses the thumbs-up gesture (as employed by such notable neo-Nazis as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), social media users quickly identified him seeming to use the okay/“white power” gesture as well. But far from using a white power gesture, Trump is not even using the okay sign. Rather, Trump, like most public speakers, has hand tics as part of his repertoire of gestures, particular ways of holding and moving his hands while emphasizing points. For Trump, one of the most common is pinching his thumb and index finger together, with the others extended; as with all famous figures, this gesture might go unnoticed but is instantly recognizable as characteristic if demonstrated properly — think of Bill Clinton wagging his extended index finger, or Michael Dukakis with his thumb on top of his closed fist. Trump is ridiculous, but so is the idea that he is constantly signaling either “white power” or “okay” during his speeches.
In addition to his association with Trumpism, there are other good reasons to consider that just-resigned White House advisor Sebastian Gorka may be an extremist, such as his employment at Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, the nature and extent of his animus towards Islam, and his work with the far-right during his time in Hungarian politics. What is not a good reason to suspect him of extremism is that he wears the uniform of a Nazi affiliate, because he does not.
The Vitézi Rend — the “rend” (chivalric order) of the “vitéz” (“brave” or “knight”) — was first created in 1920 as a commendation by the Hungarian government of the time. As could be expected of a government/military group, many members of the original Vitézi Rend were implicated in the government’s eventual collaboration with the Nazis. The order was disbanded after the war because of that, and now exists only through several non-governmental organizations using its name and claiming its legacy. It was one of those NGOs that awarded the order to his father, according to Gorka, in 1979, for working against the Soviets; and as with the original governmental honor, this title of “vitéz” could be inherited, meaning Gorka would also be entitled to wear the order’s distinctive badge and use the marker “v” in his name, both of which he has sometimes done.
The Times of Israel has gone further, reporting that Gorka wore the “uniform” of the Vitézi Rend on several occasions, notably Trump’s inauguration. Business Insider political correspondent Natasha Bertrand, Democratic operative Scott Dworkin, and influential anonymous Twitter user @nycsouthpaw (on several occasions) have repeated the “uniform” claim, while tying the Vitézi Rend directly to the Nazis; web gadfly Bill Palmer flatly called Gorka’s outfit a “Nazi uniform.” (The Times piece contains several uncorrected errors; it says, for instance, that Gorka may have inherited the title from his grandfather, and that the “L. v.” in his dissertation signature represents the Vitézi Rend, when in fact, the member in question was Gorka’s father, and the “L” stands for Gorka’s middle name.)
The jacket Gorka wore to the inauguration was not the usual dress jacket in the West — but it should be familiar to almost anyone in the West. The design includes a standing collar and a series of horizontal braids with frogs on either end. This variation of the traditional central European cavalry jacket, known in Hungarian as a “bocskai,” is still quite popular in Western men’s formal wear, worn not only as a part of certain military dress uniforms, but also commonly by military cadets and by marching bands. An image search for marching band uniforms will show page after page of jacket in this exact configuration. Gorka’s all-black version is not common for band members, but your average sousaphonist would feel comfortable in it.
If Gorka’s formal dress were a uniform for the Vitézi Rend, though, it would be worn more… uniformly. An image search for the Vitézi Rend shows that, among persons wearing the order’s badge, there is nothing like uniformity of dress. Most of those depicted are men; there are men wearing an all-black cavalry jacket, like Gorka, but there are also men wearing normal Western dress jackets, as well as cavalry jackets in different colors, and in some cases, full military or paramilitary regalia.
As in other parts of the world, the conservative and reactionary strains in Hungarian politics contain many racists and a fair few neo-Nazis. The use of cavalry jackets by conservatives and reactionaries is incidental to any racism, though. As traditionalists, they embrace tradition, including traditional dress. As for Gorka, he might be a neo-Nazi; but anyone citing the “uniform” as evidence for that is self-exposing as a charlatan.
The firing of Jeffrey Lord by CNN falls into the same category of panic, while also being yet another example of social illiteracy — either on the part of CNN, or on the part of those CNN was trying to appease. Lord wrote an article calling Media Matters for America (MMFA) a group of fascists; thinking himself clever, he reinterpreted what he believed to be the group’s initials, “MMF,” as “Media Matters Fascists,” and then tweeted his article at the group’s president, Angelo Carusone. In response, Carusone pointed out a second mistake, the misspelling of Carusone’s name in the original headline, and asked how Lord expected to be taken seriously with such errors. This drew a reply from Lord: “Sieg Heil!” CNN then fired Lord, saying, “Nazi salutes are indefensible.”
Of course, many non-Trumpists have despaired that CNN employed Lord in the first place, wondering why a news network needed an “analyst” whose sole responsibility was to defend whatever stupid or offensive thing Trump did. (Indeed, CNN feels that it needs a dozen such analysts.) But CNN didn’t fire Lord for being a worthless analyst, or for any offensive views he actually holds. It fired him for using the Nazi salute. In other words, it fired him not for all the things he did, but for something he didn’t do.
With Lord having just called Media Matters a bunch of fascists, and then been corrected over a typo — an act frequently attributed on the internet to “grammar nazis” — the only literate reading of his “Sieg Heil!” is that he was suggesting that Carusone was saying it. Lord’s tweet was an abbreviated way of telling Carusone, “You’re the sort of person who says ‘Sieg heil!’” In other words, Lord was calling Carusone a Nazi. Calling someone a Nazi on the internet may not be the most imaginative thing to do, but it doesn’t make someone a Nazi.
Reporting on the tweet, Joe Concha at The Hill actually mistranslated “Sieg heil!” as “Hail, my leader!” meaning no one in the article’s editorial chain fact-checks foreign languages, or doubts his or her faulty knowledge of key historical phrases. “Sieg” is the German word for “victory.” The relevant German word for “leader” should be even more familiar: “Führer.”
The white supremacists in Charlottesville a day after Lord was fired carried actual Nazi flags and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” so there are, indeed, people who might say “Sieg heil” in earnest. Lord’s tweet didn’t show he was one of them, though. We thus have the fact that CNN cannot distinguish between an ironic or referential instance of a phrase and the intentional application of the phrase, or at least that CNN is willing to feign that it cannot make such a distinction. CNN felt no obligation, during the campaign, to educate its audience about Trump’s true nature, treating Trump as an entertaining phenomenon for which there was a valid defense, which it hired Lord to make. Now CNN feels no obligation to educate its audience about the difference between using a phrase in earnest and mentioning it at all.
It should be obvious from history that uninformed or illiterate attacks on odious people like Gorka or Lord lead inevitably to uninformed or illiterate attacks on good people. Perhaps CNN dismissed Lord on a pretext, or perhaps it finally just no longer thought he was worth the trouble. And the Vitézi Rend is an obscure bit of knowledge, easy for dilettantes to posture over because so few others are equipped to challenge their “expertise.” The okay sign is a different matter. It is familiar, common, mundane. What does it say that so many repeat the myth of the “white power” sign? One possibility is that people have no confidence in their own understanding of the sign; another is that they acknowledge that it used to mean “okay,” but are willing to surrender such a common expression to extremists instantly when challenged. Both possibilities are disturbing, because they suggest that we lack the mental tools and strength to respond to this phenomenon. When pressed, we will sacrifice our culture and our way of life. Charlottesville demonstrated, at least for the moment, that we are not willing to cede control of our streets to white nationalism. But if we cede control of our rhetoric, of our intellectual spaces, and even of our ordinary language, the real battle will be lost.