Culture

Not Okay

White nationalists march in Charlottesville, Va., August 12, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
How an urban legend was born from a longing for identity.

The American Express black card, formally known as the Centurion card, began its career as an urban legend. In the 1990s, rumors circulated of an ultra-exclusive, black American Express card available only to the smashingly wealthy — a card with no spending limit. People would sometimes call the American Express offices to inquire about it, and, eventually, some genius at American Express — in a eureka! moment of so-obvious-nobody-saw-it clarity — decided to give the market what the market wanted: the black card, the ridiculous initiation fee and annual charges, and the arrangement so exclusive that you cannot apply for it — like a country club, you have to be invited.

(American Express offers many cards with no spending limit as such; if you get froggy and try to put a 100-foot Riva Corsaro on your card without any obvious means of paying for it, then AmEx simply declines the transaction. They have a little feature on their website where you can check beforehand if your purchase will be approved. That tab should be labeled “Am I Being a Complete Jackass?” which is, after all, a pretty common financial question: I’ve always thought that Chase or somebody should rig their bank cards so that when you try to make a $600 ATM withdrawal at 3:41 a.m. you’d get a little video message from Joel Osteen asking, “Is this really your best life now?”)

The moral of the Centurion-card story: When consumers want something badly enough to invent it in their minds, take their money.

But urban legends can be bad business: In Umberto Eco’s wonderful novel Foucault’s Pendulum, three forlorn editors at a vanity press decide, after suffering through one too many cracked manuscripts claiming to expose occult conspiracy theories, to invent a ridiculous conspiracy theory of their own — and, in the process, they accidentally bring that conspiracy into existence. Something similar (if just about inverted) happened in the real world during a U.S. Navy investigation of gay sailors, back when the Navy was obliged to pretend there were no homosexuals in its ranks. For years, gay men had referred to themselves as “friends of Dorothy,” a discrete way of communicating their sexual tastes. The naval investigators kept hearing that term and concluded that there was somewhere in the world a woman called “Dorothy” who was somehow at the center of a vast network of gay sailors. This was life before Wikipedia.

A bunch of 4chan idjits pulled a related prank by inventing a rumor that the familiar “okay” gesture — thumb and forefinger forming a circle, the other three fingers extended, suggesting the letters o and k — had been adopted as a white-power signifier, with the three fingers forming a w and the thumb and forefinger suggesting the top part of a p. They made graphics and everything — people are suckers for a neatly presented visual aid. A few media outlets fell for the prank, which, of course, will never die, even though the white-power significance of the okay gesture has been exposed as a witless media confabulation born of a prank. During the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, one of his law clerks was accused of making a furtive white-power gesture: “Did Zina Bash Flash a White Supremacist Sign During Kavanaugh Hearing?” Newsweek asked. The usual doofi on social media did the usual thing. Bash is an unlikely white-power thug: She is Mexican on her mother’s side and a descendent of Holocaust survivors on her father’s.

As with the case of Foucault’s Pendulum (not to be confused with Foucault’s pabulum, which is what you got in your undergraduate lit-crit classes in the 1990s; whole ’nother Foucault, in fact), the fabrication became a reality, with certain alt-right types adopting it with varying degrees of irony.

The okay sign may have found purchase among alt-right knuckleheads because President Trump makes the gesture when speaking, a weird little tic like the way all politicians surnamed “Clinton” do that odd thing with the thumb. It may be related to an earlier 4chan project, deploying the slogan “It’s okay to be white” to show that even superficially innocuous messages can provoke outrage among the social-justice warriors and their media megaphones.

The relationship between its use among alt-righters and the 4chan prank is lost to the mists of history. In that, it is like the word “okay” itself, the origin of which is the subject of endless etymological debate among the people who debate that sort of thing professionally or recreationally. “Okay” may be a product of a strange humorous fad from the middle 19th century, in which playful misspellings of common expressions were sometimes abbreviated; hence “all correct,” “oll kurreck,” “O.K.” But it may be an English borrowing from Bantu or Choctaw. It might be the evolution of the Scots “och aye.” These things have unpredictable lives of their own: The Hindi equivalent of “okay” is “theek hai,” which, because it is used almost exactly as the English “okay,” has led to the abbreviation TK.

Okay, then.

Like the AmEx Centurion card, the politically repurposed okay gesture fills a niche in the market, one that has more to do with fortifying a consumer’s sense of identity than with utility. The so-called alt-right is desperate to think of itself as cool, speaking a language of memes and catchphrases that the squares (“normies,” in alt-rightish) just don’t get. It’s like the beatniks, minus the beats. The longing for a sense of community is impossible to miss.

The kids aren’t alright. They aren’t even okay.

IN THE NEWS: ‘[WATCH] Democrats Protest as Hearing for Kavanaugh Begins’

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