A couple weeks ago in Friday links, we embarrassed ourselves by announcing that Pepe the Frog—an internet meme originating in an image by cartoonist Matt Furie and subsequently popularized on 4chan—had been co-opted by white supremacists. It turned out the Daily Beast article on which that claim was based was poorly sourced. Yet today brings sweet albeit deeply complicated vindication: Pepe the Frog has been declared a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Speaking as a person whose mentions have recently been overrun, I can confirm that Pepe seems extremely popular among Twitter Nazis.
Due to circumstances I will not describe here, because I have pitched them elsewhere, I recently attracted the attention of a lot of white nationalists on Twitter. From this limited yet broad sample of assholes, I gleaned two observations. First, race is an idea popular because anyone can understand it. Second, those people are just awash in memes.
Consider this basement-white motherfucker right here. For sheer density of symbols, his avatar and cover image beat the Bible. There’s Mt. Rushmore with the faces of Hitler, David Duke, and a third guy I guess I’m glad I don’t recognize. There’s Pepe in the upper right-hand corner, and there he is peeking out from a basket labeled “deplorables.” It probably means something that he’s orange, but who knows? I can’t figure out whether the crows are important, either. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I recognize the provenance of that SS. Kombat! Kids: Can you find the swastika? It’s in there, too.
This guy also seems to be a superfan of Naruto, a Japanese animated series made in Asia by people who are not white. Once you start picking apart these people’s value systems, you begin to suspect virulent racism just doesn’t make sense. Anywhom, this guy definitely seems to be using Pepe alongside symbols of white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean Pepe is a symbol of white supremacy. The basket of deplorables, after all, is just a symbol of support for Donald Trump. To paraphrase geometry, all white supremacists are Trump supporters, but not all Trump supporters are white supremacists. We should be careful not to mistake concurrent symbols for synonyms. Pepe is in bad company, here, but maybe he is a symbol of, for example, trolling people on the internet.
Problems like this draw attention to a peculiar aspect of the Anti-Defamation League’s project. I’m for the ADL, and I think they do good and important work. But what does it mean to declare something a hate symbol? With the swastika, it seems pretty unambiguous. The swastika symbolizes the worst evil of the 20th century—an evil connived in by the people who saw it developing but didn’t stamp it out. When you see a swastika, fuck with the guy who’s wearing it. Make him afraid to show that thing outdoors. But what should you do if you see a guy who’s got an 88 tattooed on his neck? The ADL confirms that often stands for HH or “heil Hitler,” H being the eighth letter of the alphabet. But you don’t want to arm yourself with that knowledge and accidentally lay into a piano player.
Some of the ADL’s other symbols of hate have cleanly established non-hateful uses. Taylor Swift, the Betsy Ross flag, and “100%” may mean something special to white supremacists, but these connotations are far less popular than their primary meanings. So whither Pepe? Now that I’ve seen him in dozens of white supremacy memes, I think of him as the mark of the Twitter Nazi. But what if those people are outnumbered by people who find white supremacy repugnant, and who just like him as a piece of internet culture?
The only solution is to destroy the internet, I guess. All it does is make awful people famous, in a way that makes famous people/frogs seems awful. I hereby retract my previous retraction: Combat! blog was never wrong, and Pepe the Frog is a symbol of hate again. But he is also a symbol of confusion. In the end, aren’t the two conditions really the same thing? Nope—hate is worse. Stop being Nazis, you guys, even on Twitter.