I lived in Charlottesville in the early 1990s, working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and participating in the local theatre scene. While doing a bit of summer “Shakespeare in the Park” — an activity that was quintessential Charlottesville, involving some easy-going, low-key camaraderie between members of the community, looking for a lark on which to spend our hazy summer evenings — I met a young man from one of the area high schools.
He and I bonded over a shared love of music — mostly Fugazi, Washington, D.C.’s legendary, culture-rattling punk band — in part because he dreamed of playing punk rock himself. One evening, before rehearsal, he told me that he’d finally been asked to join a band. But there was a catch: it was a neo-Nazi, “white pride” outfit. He wanted to know what I thought about that, if I felt it was OK.
What followed was a difficult conversation that I had never prepared myself to have with another person, nor even wanted to; I’d have vastly preferred to concentrate on rehearsing The Merry Wives of Windsor. But it was time for me to do my bit.
I pointed out to him that if he felt he needed to ask me if it was the right thing to do, then he must have some doubts. He told me that he sort of generically understood that society at large deemed it an unworthy activity, but he didn’t understand why “white pride” was a bad thing. Why not be proud of being white?
That’s the toxic allure of white supremacy: Why not, indeed? There is a Black History month, after all. There are gay pride parades. There isn’t a similarly simplistic answer to such a short question; explaining how supremacy functions is not an easy thing to disentangle. I sputtered through an explanation about how various out-groups manifest demonstrations of pride because they’ve been historically oppressed in ways that white people, writ large, simply haven’t been. And I told him that, when you get sucked into this white supremacist subculture, the feelings of pride never really come: Instead, it’s a perpetual loop of resentment, anger and eventual ostracism.
I told him the truth as I understood it: He’d never genuinely feel good if he went down that path.
I don’t want anyone to think that, on that particular day, I was blessed with heroic gifts of rhetoric. I was stumbling and struggling to string together a sensible argument, and all the while, part of me was wondering, “Would it have been so bad if I’d just shrugged and said, ‘Ehh, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea to join this band?’” Nobody died and put me in charge of this kid’s life, right? I knew, even as I was talking, that I could have chosen a much easier way to cheaply discharge the obligations of my conscience.
But when someone tells you that they’re considering taking up with white supremacists, it’s the same thing as someone telling you they’re contemplating suicide, and you can’t avoid the longer, more difficult conversation. Because that’s what white supremacy is: a long, dark death of the soul that destroys everything in its path, up to and including the potential to do good in this world.
That’s what you saw in Charlottesville this weekend: Suicidal men, marching under the flag of the Nazis, espousing a philosophy that our brave forebears sacrificed their lives to defeat. For many years, it’s been easy enough to mock these types of people; from a more innocent vantage, they seem like antique losers playing dress-up.
But the Nazi banner stands for deranged violence, enslavement and genocide. If you want to know what Nazis dream of doing to the small towns that resist them, you should read about the 1942 massacre at Lidice, in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. There, the demented minions of the Third Reich killed the town’s able-bodied men and boys, sent women and children not deemed fit for “Germanization” to concentration camps, slaughtered every livestock animal and pet, dug up the graves of the dead and desecrated their corpses, and finally razed the town down to the charred earth, leaving no sign that it had ever existed.
This is what neo-Nazis celebrate.
And now, there are once again Nazis on the march. Yes, we should note with the appropriate level of anxiety that this crew is newly emboldened by the fact that President Donald Trump — perhaps out of an unspoken affinity for them, perhaps out of an innate gutlessness — can’t bring himself to disown them properly. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Julia Azari rightly noted, while “Trump’s comments are striking” in the way he refused to “denounce the white supremacist protesters specifically,” the simple fact of the matter is that there “is a long history of U.S. presidents proving reluctant to take strong stands in response to racial violence.”
Our legacy in this regard has been one in which our leaders have opted for the easy path.
But we — by which I mean white people — can’t take the easy way out any longer. We can’t keep burdening our fellow citizens —- by which I mean people of color and all of those who end up the target of this suicide cult — with this load to bear. We have to take a greater share of responsibility for ensuring that no one else falls victim to the bewilderingly seductive predations of Richard Spencer and his ilk, and we have to rededicate ourselves to building a more just and equitable society in which we can all live.
When violence broke out in Charlottesville this weekend, I hoped that I’d done enough all those years ago to keep that one young man from getting caught up in that garbage culture. I wanted to believe that I’d been convincing enough that I wouldn’t see his face in that contemptible crowd. I have faith that I succeeded. But it’s also all too clear that what little I or anyone has done since to fight this ideology has not been nearly enough. I’m asking for your help.