Last night I saw photos of swastikas that had been spray painted onto Wilbur Cross High School’s athletic complex, accompanied by the (misspelled) word “Trump.” This happened in the same town where I went to high school and college. It wasn’t surprising, but unnerving to see so close to home. No one knows who did it. This could be the work of committed Neo Nazis, and an unsettling indication that they’re operating in Connecticut. However, I have a strong inkling that it was the work of wannabe-edgy kids who thought it would be a funny prank.
The latter would not, in any way, be excusable. But here on the left, some of us have a tendency to say that everyone drawing swastikas is the same. While not justifying the behavior, I think it’s helpful to examine the different motives so we can dismantle its foundation, wherever it comes from.
I believe there are two groups of people defacing public property with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti. One group consists of adult Neo Nazis who are dedicated, zealous, and possibly physically violent. The other group consists of a distinct subset of nihilistic young people who want to be rebels. The second demographic can easily grow into the first.
I was one of those teenagers. I personally didn't do all of the following things, but this was our general demeanor: We were the kids who called others “sheeple.” Our attitude was, “Caring about stuff isn’t cool. Nothing really matters, and committing yourself to ideals is lame” (not acknowledging that spray painting graffiti or spending hours trolling online forums is commitment). We generally saw efforts to be culturally sensitive as self-righteous “political correctness,” and thought it was disingenuous. That being said, we didn’t consider ourselves the traditionally conservative right. We disliked patriotism, Christianity, police, and the military, but our reasons differed from why many liberals may distrust those institutions. Our objections were based on resentment of authority and disdain for anything impassioned. Back in the early 2000s, we hated Bush just as much as we liked Eric Cartman. We didn’t think homosexuality was immoral, but we thought it was funny to call straight people "fags" as a general term for "annoying person." And we saw this mentality as unique and independent, despite the fact that popular TV shows and entire lines of merchandize catered to us.
An ironic aspect was that while many of us tried to echo Nietzsche, we fundamentally misunderstood what he was about. Nietzsche may have believed life to be meaningless, but not worthless. He thought we could ascribe our own meanings. He may have stared into the abyss, but he didn’t romanticize it.
Although these kids scoff at enthusiastic ideals, they can be recruited into the Alt-Right if convinced that it’s countercultural and will offend the perceived rigid morality of the left. It appeals to their bitterness, as they see themselves as dispassionate but deny that bitterness is emotional. It appeals to their hatred of the more authoritarian branches of the left. In order to make any headway with this young crowd, we have to acknowledge that such a type of authoritarianism exists. It’s not the majority of liberals, but it does manifest in those who promote heavy censorship and want people arrested for expressing regressive beliefs. It exists in those who defend Communist dictators (whether or not they view them as true Communists), and those who think it’s useless to be liberal unless you’re radicalized. The Alt-Right reaches out to people with resentments of those things, and molds them from cynics to ardent zealots.
While I was never a KKK or Neo Nazi sympathizer, I was certainly a cynic. I thought being offended was worse than being offensive. I thought it made me look tough to flippantly joke about suicide, self-mutilation, and rape, namely because those things had impacted my life. At the same time, this demeanor was something I aspired to more than something I actually was. In my eyes, it was armor more so than a weapon, although in practice it was both. It was a defense against trauma and severe depression, but the “nothing matters” stance made my depression a lot worse.
At that point in life I would occasionally see swastikas drawn on walls, usually accompanied by pentagrams and a hastily scrawled “Hail Satan.” I never did this myself, but I didn’t take it seriously. It seemed like a parody. I regarded Nazis as equally alien and mythical as Satan. Some of the offenders who defaced walls with these symbols probably saw it the same way. While the "edgy" kids' brand of so-called humor and graffiti mimics that of self-proclaimed Nazis, I think this is the difference: People who define themselves as Nazis and are adamant about that cause are more likely to commit physical violence and to run for public office so they can enforce those ideas. People who see it as a joke are behaving terribly, but it may be easier to change their minds.
One person who didn’t see this as a parody was my grandmother, Kiki, a child of Russian immigrants who came to the US to escape pogroms. She was not a Holocaust survivor, but she was a survivor of the Holocaust era. This happened in her most formative years. Kiki remembered that when news of the Holocaust first broke out, many Americans disbelieved it. They thought it was a paranoid conspiracy theory or a grand-scale tasteless joke. Then the photos and the interviews came out. Then the survivors started talking.
My grandpa, Harold, recalled that many of the WWII servicemen didn’t consider their fight a noble defense of the Jews. A great deal were anti-Semitic themselves. When he first joined the Air Force at seventeen, an interviewer asked if he would defend the United States no matter what. He responded with “Not if it becomes fascist,” and was given two weeks of extra training for that answer. As a Depression-era Jew, he couldn’t afford the naïve jingoism that the government and media were selling.
When I was very small, Kiki told me, “If somebody ever asks you what your religion is, never say that you’re Jewish. They will hate you for it, and they can put you on a list.” At the time, I thought that sounded crazy. Growing up, I was sometimes called a Jew as an insult. It used to just confuse me because it seemed so outdated, and because I didn’t even observe the religion. But to an anti-Semite, simply having Jewish heritage is enough to label you an enemy. I was largely ignorant about oppression because although I was recognized as Jewish, I was also white and upper middle class.
Back in high school, Kiki and I had discussed affirmative action. I thought it was unnecessary, believing that systemic racism no longer existed. Kiki told me it was a way to level the playing field. She had witnessed so much discrimination toward other races during her youth that it was impossible for her to think that would disappear over one lifetime. She relayed stories of competition and hierarchies. Some of the Jewish people she’d known had ostracized other races because they wanted a group to socially one-up. They saw it in terms like, “We’re Jewish, but at least we’re not black.” Others were afraid to socially engage with other targeted groups because they didn’t want to be further persecuted by proxy. Kiki always hated this, and said that pitting marginalized groups against one another was one of the worst crimes of the elite. She believed all disenfranchised people should support each other. I didn’t know the concept at the time, but she was talking about intersectionality.
Kiki and Harold influenced me more than they knew. I disagreed throughout my childhood and adolescence, but came around to their way of thinking in later years. I decided to make an effort to listen to the experiences of marginalized people, rather than dismiss their concerns as paranoia. I took classes on the intersections of gender, race, and class. My beliefs are not perfect, but I’m learning and unlearning. The things my grandparents said have been confirmed time and time again. In the wake of a Trump presidency, their words continue to resonate.
After moving to Milford in 2008, I noticed anti-Semitic graffiti in the train station bathroom. Someone had written “Fuck Jews.” I took out a Sharpie and added, “Consensually.” Another time I was in a local diner and overheard a slew of teenagers making loud, bigoted jokes. One of them shouted out, “Yo, let’s get a bunch of Jews and throw them in a gas chamber and make them fuck each other in the ass!” I called out, “You’d like that, motherfuhrers.” They didn’t get the joke. Sometimes it works to deflect the situation with humor, to show how absurd the bigotry is. Other times, different approaches are in order.
The kids in the diner seemed a lot farther gone than nihilistic. But kids who are nihilistic can change. Essentially, they are at a crossroad. They can be steered in the direction of passion; either the kind that’s progressive or that leaves a legacy of damage. To grow, they need to learn that opposing bigotry is subversive. They have to see that oppression is real and not an expression of tongue-in-cheek irony. They need to know people of the groups that are affected. They can grow by reading history and knowing it’s not restricted to the past. And they need to know that even if they believe ignorant things now, they’re not a hopeless case.
Life, after all, isn’t pointless. Even Nietzsche didn’t think so.