The language of those who want to dominate others is not what it used to be.
People who value freedom and equality may notice that those who oppose both around the world have, for a while, begun using words and ideas they once rejected. The right wing around the globe is as opposed to both as it has ever been. But it has found mileage in pretending to embrace them. And, as the DA posters in Phoenix, Durban, have reminded us, wrapping prejudices in words that do not fit them is common here too.
Decades ago, right-wingers would openly reject democracy, freedom of speech and non-racialism. Democracy gave a say to the ignorant; freedom of speech allowed people to say things that undermined the rich and powerful; non-racialism claimed that white Westerners were not better than others. But today, much of the Right embraces the language of all three.
Donald Trump, after losing an election because Black voters supported his rival, does not denounce democracy – he invents false claims that it was denied. His supporters pass laws to deny Black people the vote, but insist they are defending democracy by acting against “voter fraud”. Demagogues in Hungary and Poland insist that elected governments act “for the people” when they ride roughshod over freedoms. Brexiteers in Britain try to silence anyone who disagrees with them with claims that they are ignoring the will of the people.
Free speech is also a new favourite of those who believe they are better than others. “Thinkers” beloved on the Right never tire of claiming that their free speech is undermined because they are denied the right to insist that women are inferior to men, heterosexuals are superior beings and whites were right to dominate others.
They have invented a fantasy, “wokeness”, in which left-wing zealots comb the globe forcing their views on right-thinking folk who believe that statues honouring racists and colonisers are fine art and expressing prejudice is a human right. The fictional weapon of the woke is “cancel culture”, which is said to banish the prejudiced to society’s margins.
Although their racial prejudices run as deep as they ever did, they now insist that it is they who are the voices of non-racialism. Decades ago, the American Right insisted that measures which gave people suffocated by prejudice an equal opportunity were “racist” because they discriminated against whites. Today, voices of the dominated that challenge racism are denounced as racist for the same reason.
A bigoted agenda
A glaring example is a current campaign against “antisemitism” in Western Europe and the United States. Power holders who not so long ago were keeping Jews out of clubs and limiting their number at universities claim to be so angered at anti-Jewish prejudice that they have passed laws to prevent it. But this is not a newfound non-racialism. The campaign is really about protecting the Israeli state, which has become a favourite among the bigoted – including some who really are antisemites – because it discriminates against Palestinians. Conveniently, branding supporters of Palestinian rights as racists can also be used to hound left-wingers out of the British Labour Party. To oppose racist treatment of Palestinians is to be branded a racist.
If anyone has been subjected to “cancel culture” it is Palestinians, who are denied a hearing in the West. In countries that claim to be pillars of democracy, to support Palestinian rights is to risk dismissal if you are an academic or journalist; in France, a person was jailed for wearing a T-shirt supporting the campaign for sanctions against the Israeli state. Facebook censors pro-Palestinian voices while Zoom has barred meetings featuring Palestinian militants. The right wing are perpetrators, not victims, of “cancel culture”.
The Phoenix posters are part of this trend. As it has moved further to the Right after experimenting with Black leadership and finding it wanting, the DA’s leadership has echoed new Right themes. Helen Zille is given to denouncing “woke” conspiracies that exist only in her head and loudly opposes any Black person who thinks racism is a problem. In her tweets, whites are victims and Blacks who do not accept her view of the world are threats to freedom. While she has become the party’s chief ideologue, her view is shared by the current leadership, including federal leader John Steenhuisen. This is reflected in the posters and, perhaps even more clearly, in some reaction to them.
On the surface, the posters are a product of very old prejudices – in an area beset with racial tensions, they cheer on those who see African people as a threat. But there are also shades of the new. They imply that racism is evil but that those who are accused of it are victims.
Steenhuisen reinforced this when he claimed the ANC was the “real racist” because it had racially stigmatised the Phoenix community. This seems to refer to a statement by Minister of Police Bheki Cele that he understood the pain of the people of Phoenix, but agreed with “the community” that there is racism there. But he later said, “I refuse to take the situation here as a racial situation.” Whether or not we find Cele’s views on Phoenix useful, it’s hard to see why they are racist.
Untroubled by facts
But facts did not motivate Steenhuisen. In his world, people who allege racism are the racists; those whom they accuse are victims. His response, which he has not retracted, tells us that he sees racism as the Right elsewhere does – as something Black people do to others.
Another response came from DA former deputy chief whip in Parliament Mike Waters, who was so angry about the DA’s apology for the posters that he resigned as its campaign manager in Ekurhuleni. In his resignation letter, which denounces the apology in language that, if used on the Left, would be rejected as “extremist”, he said he would stay in the DA “as long as I and other muscular liberals can raise our voices about the sanctimonious wokerati”.
The term “wokerati” refers to “woke people”. It was coined by right-wingers who use terms like “cultural Marxism” to refer to people who champion basic decency. So, in Waters’ mind, posters inflaming racial tensions are not the problem – the fault lies with those who complain about it. The fact that this time the “wokerati” included most commentators who usually support the DA as well as members of the party, including its Johannesburg mayoral candidate, does nothing to minimise his righteous victimhood.
Waters sums up most current themes of the new Right. It is not clear whether he believes Trump and other right-wingers who clothe old prejudices in new language are “muscular liberals”, but he shares their view of the world. He is hardly a marginal figure in the DA and it seems likely that he is not the only “muscular liberal” in the party whose liberalism is an angry cloak for illiberal prejudices.
This time, the new Right language seems to have found no traction in this country: Steenhuisen and Waters have won little support. But this is so only because it was deployed to defend a grossly insensitive message. Using liberal language to mask right-wing prejudices remains widespread in this country too. It will take more than crass posters to end it.