If someone had told me two weeks ago that hundreds of self-proclaimed Nazis and white supremacists would show up for a public demonstration in an American city, I would not have believed it. And yet, 10 days ago, that is what happened.
I am not going to weigh in on the politics here. Reasonable people already understand that Nazism and white supremacy are bad ideas, and this point has been made, repeatedly, already.
Let’s just talk about one guy instead.
At right is the mug shot of the fellow who “allegedly” drove the car into a crowd at Charlottesville, killing a peaceful demonstrator. The event seems to have been taped, and so the only question is how he will be punished.
This guy is 20 years old. He was raised and schooled in the United States and, except for a four-month stint in the military, hasn’t done much since high school.
Since his early teens, he has been a self-described Nazi and white supremacist. Here is what I have read:
1) In freshman year, he wrote an essay so full of neo-Nazi themes that it was shared with the school principal. The young man wore a belt decorated with swastikas to school and was observed drawing swastikas on various occasions.
2) He harassed a fellow student, a Muslim, and called her a terrorist.
3) On a two-week class trip to France and Germany, his traveling roommate flew home after only four days because he was so offended by the young man’s praise of Hitler, by his description of the French as “inferior” and by his eagerness to get to Germany, which he called the “Fatherland.” (Interestingly, the accused man’s father died before his son was born.)
4) By senior year, he was known as “the Nazi of the school.”
It is not unusual to find contrarian young people who go against the grain. It is also legal in this country to believe what you wish.
On the other hand, let’s consider some of the things adults said after the incident:
— His mother said that she and her son did not talk about politics. She thought he was going to Charlottesville because of “something about Trump.”
— A history teacher said the young man was smart, argumentative, adamant and not particularly receptive to the idea that his beliefs might be wrong.
— His high school principal said, “This (he) is one outlier. That’s not who we are.”
— The school board chairman said he’d never heard of the young man because the board only dealt with students who were facing expulsion.
— A man from his neighborhood said he did not know the young man but, “If he’s a racist, I don’t want to know him.”
One adult, quoted in a news report, said the event in Charlottesville presented a “teachable moment.” I would argue that many, many teachable moments were not seized as this young man curdled his brain with stale ideas and vile delusions.
1) Was his mother called to visit the principal after that first freshman paper, and then after the young man was spotted wearing Nazi garb, and then he after bullied the Muslim student? Was he referred to the school counselor and, from there, to a psychologist or a college ethics professor or perhaps even a clergyman?
2) Did anyone show him photographs of the dead bodies and skeletal remains found in 1945 when Nazi prison camps were liberated by Allied forces? Did anyone challenge him to explain, after 300,000 Americans died fighting in World War II, how he squared being a Nazi with his US citizenship?
3) When he went on that school trip to Germany, did no one think to call ahead to a German school to ask for someone to speak with the guy? Germany has spent more than 70 years stamping out the traces of Nazi ideology, and it has no shortage of people who have spent careers on the project. It wouldn’t have been difficult to find one of those people.
I wonder sometimes how people derive their ethical values. For many, it comes from religion. Christianity teaches that “All men are brothers,” and other faiths all preach some variation of the “Do unto others” idea. For non-believers, philosophy reasons its way to the same conclusion.
(We also have many people now who scorn religion and metaphysics and claim to be driven by “science.” Personally, I find this amusing. By and large, Americans are scientific illiterates, and our current political discussions are largely emotion-driven and boil down to name-calling and finger-pointing. I wish it were better, but this is reality.)
Even if you have none of the above, there is American history. I hope every high school student still learns the line, “All men are created equal,” one of the self-evident truths enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.
This young man has turned himself into a pretty twisted person, and he will be held responsible. But I wish the adults who witnessed his decline had been a lot more “pro-active,” as we say, in his formative years. His failure is not just his but also that of his community.
Maybe this is the ultimate teachable moment.