The "OK" Sign - A Hate Symbol?
During yesterday’s hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh, a member of his transition team, Zina Bash, was seen behind him with her arms folded and the fingers of her right hand making up something that looked like the “OK” sign for approximately sixteen minutes.
Pretty soon, Twitter was abuzz with claims that she had made a white power symbol:
Bash's husband John Bash III, a West Texas attorney, called these allegations "repulsive" and added that "Everyone tweeting this vicious conspiracy theory should be ashamed of themselves." Bash herself is part Mexican, part Jewish, and has no links to white supremacy hate groups. So why did people start accusing her of this?
In April 2017, alt-right figure Mike Cernovich and Trump-supporting journalist Cassandra Fairbanks stepped up to the podium of the White House Briefing Room and made the "OK" sign. Fusion reporter Emma Roller tweeted, "just two people doing a white power hand gesture in the White House," leading others to ask what this meant.
A 4chan thread from that February provided some context. Called "Introducing Operation O-KKK," the anonymous poster announced a plan to "flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy." Another poster said it would "convince people on twitter that the 'ok' hand sign has been co-opted by neo-nazis." The "OK" sign was chosen because according to 4chan users, the three raised fingers make up a "W" and the closed index and thumb a "P," standing for "White Power."
According to the American Defamation League, this was:
"Just the most recent in a recent series of hoaxes in which 4channers…have tried to take innocuous items, symbols or gestures and falsely attribute white supremacist meanings to them in order to fool liberals and get them to spread such false messages...[and] a response to the willingness of many on the left in the US to believe that the Trump administration is full of hardcore white supremacists."
Even 4channers admitted as much, with one writing, "HAHAHAHA…THESE FUCKING RETARDS FALL FOR IT EVERY TIME." Cernovich admitted it was a reference to the conspiracy theory that one of Jay-Z's hand gestures meant he was in the Illuminati. Fairbanks attempted to sue Emma Roller for defamation, but the lawsuit was thrown out of court last June.
Given that the ADL debunking of the theory and Cernovich's admission, the case of should be closed and Zina Bash let off the hook. But the "OK" sign's emergence and new symbolism go deeper than that.
In 2006, cartoonist Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog, an anthropomorphic cartoon frog whose pants are pulled down while in a bathroom stall and says, "Feels good, man!" Pepe had been a 4chan meme since at least 2007, but Trump supporters on that website turned him into their avatar. The candidate himself even tweeted a video which contained an image of himself as Pepe, complete with a blonde hairdo. How did this innocent character become a symbol of hate?
In his brilliant essay "4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump," author Dale Beran writes how the use of Pepe revealed much about Trump supporters' ideology:
"The grotesque, frowning, sleepy eyed, out of shape, swamp dweller, peeing with his pants pulled down because-it-feels-good-man frog is an ideology, one which steers into the skid of its ownpatheticness [italics his.] Pepe symbolizes embracing your loserdom...For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank."
Pepe may have started out as a joke, but the people who use it as their avatar have imbued it with a new meaning, thus believing in the ideology it represents. This is what Urban Dictionary defines as "irony poisoning," a term for "people so deeply enthralled in a culture of ironic ‘humor’ that they find themselves mouthing odious sentiments merely to be provocative." That's how Chris Cantwell went from performing standup in the early 2010s to becoming the "Crying Nazi" of Charlottesville last year.
And the "OK" sign's proliferation among the alt-right's ranks does not go back to that 4chan thread, but to Pepe himself:
Its Usage Among Trump Supporters
This may explain why, prior not only to Fairbanks and Cernovich's appearance in the Briefing Room and the 4chan thread that supposedly started it all but also the 2016 election, several of Trump's most outspoken advocates flashed it in their photographs. For example, here is Milo Yiannopoulos doing it outside the White House in March 2016: And here is Richard Spencer flashing it on election night: Before the Fairbanks/Cernovich fracas, in February 2017, Stephen Miller reportedly flashed it: And at the end of 2017, White House staffer and former Miller intern Jack Breuer used it in a group photo where everyone else did thumbs-up: Not every one of these instances is conscious, or even real - Miller is just fixing his tie, and Bash probably just rests her arms that way. And it does sound conspiratorial to suggest Trumpers use a secret code to spread white power. Why would they need a code if they already support Trump, whose policies attack people of color? And why would people with Jewish heritage, like Miller and Bash, engage in it? To quote the director King Vidor, "A tree is a tree," and maybe it's just an "OK" sign. But even though a symbol may look like a joke and sound like a joke, jokes have meaning. As Lifehacker wrote after Kanye West was seen wearing a MAGA hat next to someone making the sign, it may not mean "white power" specifically, but it does mean, “I’m OK with you thinking I’m a white supremacist for the sake of a joke.” And this symbol has real-life consequences, too. In Jasper, Alabama, four police officers were suspended after their chief found them making the sign in a group photo. Symbols become corrupt when hate groups adopt them, like Pepe, or most famously, the swastika, and it's a losing battle to return them to their original, non-violent context. Whether or not the "OK" sign becomes as ubiquitous as those two remains to be seen, but the countless examples above show that the irony poisoning of it may force us to reconsider its future usage.