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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

The “alt-left” – what my Independent article left out


My preferred title was “Confessions of a 1990s alt-leftist”

After Donald Trump condemned the role of the “alt-left” at Charlottesville, a flurry of articles appeared claiming “there’s no such thing as the alt-left” – that it’s a “myth” created by the right and/or “centrist liberals” to discredit the left.

That’s the opening sentence of my Independent article. My intention for that article was to point out some errors – historical and semantic – behind claims that “alt-left” is a recently-invented bogus label. I wouldn’t normally have bothered going to the length of writing an article about this, but everything I read – from the Washington Post to influential bloggers such as Glenn Greenwald – seemed to be telling me that it was wrong and bad to use the “alt-left” label. Here’s a typical example of what I mean, from Jill Stein, the US Green Party presidential nominee:

My article, as it turned out, contained only the historical point (origins and development of “alt-left”/”alt-right” usage). My related argument about semantic confusion was left out – so I’ll expand on that a bit here. For illustrative purposes I had included the above Jill Stein quote, contrasted with the following statement from Cynthia McKinney – a previous US Green Party nominee for president. (The editor at the Independent didn’t want me to include these quotes, unfortunately).

McKinney’s statement preceded Trump’s “alt-left” remark; Stein’s came after it – so these examples provided a striking “before and after” contrast, in terms of semantic usage. Stein’s statement (and the many others that echoed it in newspaper columns, political commentary websites, prominent social media accounts, etc) communicated the following logic:

1. ‘All uses of “alt-left” are pejorative/scurrilous.’
2. ‘All uses of “alt-left” are devoid of validity.’
3. ‘Ergo, you shouldn’t use the term “alt-left”.’

This doesn’t strike me as an accurate – or useful – mapping of the semantic territory, to say the least. The McKinney quote provided a recent example of non-pejorative use, and I provided others which go back to the 1990s. Furthermore, many uses of both “alt-left” and “alt-right” seem, to me, both pejorative and valid (again, I provided examples in my article).

Consider the possibility that the over-reaction over the “alt-left” label, although triggered by Trump’s use of the term, has little to do with any implied “equivalence” between “alt-left” and “Nazi”. I don’t imagine that figures such as Stein and Greenwald are really worried about being mistaken for white supremacists. I think their reaction possibly owes more to the valid uses of “alt-left” as a pejorative label for some of the views they express.

Wikileaks (ie Julian Assange), Greenwald, Stein and many others (loosely self-identified as “left” in some sense) are often criticised for reinforcing the talking points of Trump through framing, emphasis and selection of examples. This criticism seems important to me given the huge audience that these commentators reach through social media. Their particular anti-liberal/anti-Dem framing, which is often (as I mention in my article) combined with “establishment conspiracy”-type memes common to the so-called “alt-right” (as epitomised by Breitbart and Infowars) should, to my mind, be highlighted, given its prominence and media influence. “Alt-left” seems a valid descriptive label for this purpose.


Written by NewsFrames

August 31, 2017 at 8:42 am

3 Responses

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  1. For more insight into the semantic confusion that plagues these debates, I would recommend a couple of books that popularised some of Alfred Korzybski’s work on semantics:

    Language in Thought and Action – by S.I. Hayakawa
    The Tyranny of Words – by Stuart Chase

    Both books were written decades ago, but remain as relevant as ever – concise and enjoyable reads. Hayakawa’s explanation on how to distinguish between what words denote (their “extensional” meanings) and connote (with the further distinction of informative connotations vs affective connotations) seems lucid and essential to me. Chase writes about “unwarranted identifications and high-order abstractions” – and other things you need to know about!

    Also – I didn’t like the title assigned to my Indy piece (I let them know, but they said they had “editorial prerogative on headlines”). Contrary to the title, I didn’t claim to belong to “the original alt-left'” – nor do I claim the existence of one true “original”.


    August 31, 2017 at 9:49 am

  2. It’s a USA tribal thing which goes back to the Bernie vs Hillary battles. Glenn Greenwald is sore about that because some of the prominent social media Dems and assorted ‘liberals’ took to calling GG, Michael Tracey, Ben Norton, Adam Johnson and that crowd “alt-left” as a form of demeaning insult. GG sees himself as a socialist, and actually tweeted that the alt-left term conflates socialists with nazis. But you’re right that there is a similarity of emphasis (“Deep state” conspiracy and all that, and somewhat soft on Trump, whom GG said was “non-interventionist”) with the alt-right, which has nothing to do with socialism.

    See also: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/03/why-the-alt-left-is-a-problem


    August 31, 2017 at 10:40 am

  3. There were a lot of editorial pieces uncritically recycling “the alt-left is a myth – there’s no such thing” claims. I think it’s partly a problem of youth. It’s clear from their profile pics that many of these commentators are in their twenties. They grew up with Facebook. Not only does this partly explain why they have no earlier historical context for terms such as “alt-left” and “alt-right”, it probably also explains why many of them find the anti-establishment framing coming from the “Alt-right” conspiracy websites, and echoed by the slightly more respectable “alt-left” commentators, so appealing (as an alternative to the sneering “complacent” status-quo “centrist liberal” messaging). To them it’s new and contains undeniable and seductive truths (as all good propaganda does), it’s anti-elite, it’s promoted by people like Assange and Greenwald. The fact that it’s reinforcing the very messaging that’s put out by the likes of Trump and Farage doesn’t register so much. Or if it does it seems unimportant to them compared to their fight against the “liberal” establishment status-quo.

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