The nothing in the white robe

Paul Constant

August 14, 2018

Over the weekend, somewhere between twelve and twenty white supremacists marched on Washington DC. They intentionally gathered on the anniversary weekend of last year's Unite the Right Nazi rally in Charlottesville, which ended with a crazed Nazi driving his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer.

Not even two dozen Nazis got together this weekend to whine about perceived slights against the so-called white race. And the whole city twisted itself into a pretzel to accommodate the Nazis. They were surrounded at all times by a phalanx of police officers. They had their own special train car to transport them to the rally. Once they left public transit they were greeted by an estimated 100 photojournalists. The media followed them around all afternoon, until the organizer decided to end the rally early due to a lack of attendance.

In a lot of ways, that Sunday afternoon rally exemplified America: a small gathering of failed white men were attended to, even doted on, by virtually every branch of society. Their incoherent yelps of aggravation were tolerated and even amplified by onlookers. And then they disappeared into the world again, pining over a past that never was and planning for a future that will never be.

I haven't seen Spike Lee's film BlacKkKlansman, but I'm happy to report that the memoir on which the film is based — more typically titled Black Klansman — is a wildly entertaining read. Hell, I'd go so far as to call it an ideal beach book. And if the themes and characters in the book weren't so unfortunately relevant to the world today, I'd call it the most fun I've had reading non-fiction in a good long while.

In case you've missed the movie trailers, Black Klansman is the story of Ron Stallworth, a Black Colorado Springs policeman who, with the help of a telephone and a white body double, managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s. Stallworth's narration has the simple cause-and-effect cadence of a police report, which places the unadulterated weirdness of his story into stark relief.

Stallworth begins by describing his experiences as a Black police officer in a time when many, if not most, departments were entirely white. For him, every day was a parade of casual racism observed from underneath the incalculable burden of representing all Black people to his white coworkers. Some days, his experiences were intolerable. Other days, they were merely excruciating. And all the aggression Stallworth faced from his fellow officers proved to be great training for his phone calls to Klan leaders, including a charismatic young man named David Duke.

The anemic Colorado Springs chapter of the Klan was preparing for a visit from Duke, and Stallworth wanted to bust the organization for domestic terrorism.

The notion of a hundred white-robed Klansmen marching in formation reported on by heavy media scrutiny would do just that — incite terror in the citizens, especially the black southern-based citizens of Colorado Springs and their young children, unaccustomed to such terrible actions.

Stallworth instinctually understands how to ingratiate himself with Klan leadership. Every time he speaks to a Klansman over the phone, he vigorously strokes their ego and talks about how much he hates the so-called "inferior" races. Here he is, talking about a local Klan leader:

Ken had proven himself to be less than believable in our interactions. He was constantly making up facts to make himself seem more important than he was, pulling member numbers out of thin air, and bragging about plans he had no way of seeing to fruition. As frustrating and unreliable as he was, he was still a tremendous asset and entry into the world of the Klan.

The best parts of the book come when Stallworth realizes how dumb the Klansmen are, and so starts playing mind games with them for his own amusement. I don't want to ruin the fun, but I will say that watching Duke get his comeuppance is a thrill akin to watching modern-day Duke cosplayer Richard Spencer get punched in the face by a counter-protester at Donald Trump's inauguration. Watching Nazis eat shit, it turns out, is a timeless entertainment.

Immediately after finishing Black Klansman, I picked up Norwegian journalist Vegan Tenold's nonfiction account of modern American white nationalist movements, Everything You Love Will Burn. Tenold's well-reported account of the various neo-Nazi, Klan, and skinhead movements in America is about as timely as a book can get — it ends with the march on Charlottesville — and it provided some context for the tiny little Charlottesville sequel that was dominating the news cycle all day on Sunday.

Like Stallworth, Tenold finds that none of these Nazis are what you'd call smart — or even of average intelligence. "I heard that the government puts some sort of chemical in our meat that makes men more feminine," one of them says at a meeting, concluding, "I don't necessarily believe that, but you have to wonder sometimes." Uh, indeed.

But here's the thing: as I was reading Tenold's account of the face of the modern white supremacist movement, I was continually wracked with a sensation of boredom. Every time the perennially aggrieved white men tried to reason with Tenold about economic anxiety, or presented some phony statistics they read on the internet somewhere, or offered some anecdotal evidence that they used to persecute anyone not like them, I had to focus to keep my eyes on the page. Because, really, who the fuck cares what they think?

Ultimately, I think Stallworth's approach to the Nazis is more useful than Tenold's. I don't think there's any value in trying to understand the Nazi state of mind. If you've twisted yourself through ignorance into believing that arguing for the murder of entire races of people is an intelligent thing to do in public, you're not worth anyone's time. You're only worthy of scorn and ridicule and punishment.

Nazis do not deserve our empathy. They are villains. When we hear someone in public announcing that they want to murder someone, we call the police. Nazis are publicly announcing their intent to murder people — our neighbors, ourselves — and their threats are credible. People die at the hands of Nazis all the time. We have to take them seriously, but that doesn't mean we must understand them. No, we have to fight them.

Because the truth is, I think everyone understands what Nazis think. They're idiots, caught up in a narrative that casts them as heroes in a long-destined battle. They think they know something that everyone else does not. They believe they're right, and everyone else is wrong. They're arrogant, and they're dumb, and they're genuinely bad human beings.

In Everything You Love Will Burn, Tenold gets uncomfortably close to the Nazis. He admits to feeling warmly toward one of the major white supremacist characters in the book, and his portrait of Richard Spencer has way too many positive adjectives for my liking. While Tenold obviously doesn't fall for their ludicrous and self-aggrandizing tales, he does go out of his way to find the humanity in the men he writes about.

That's a huge mistake.

You may notice that at many points in this review I've referred to various groups in these books — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, white supremacists, skinheads — as, simply, "Nazis." That's because I'm not interested in splitting hairs, or playing their game of drawing distinctions where none exist. A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi, and Nazis are all enemies of the people, to be fought and defeated and shamed.

If you allow a Nazi even a minute's worth of conversation, you're playing into their trap. Nazis aren't interested in winning debates. They want to speak to as wide an audience as possible so they can infect one or two listeners with their poison ideologies. It's our job to keep them from doing that, to stop them from seizing a platform and spreading their word-viruses any further.

I've been saying this for a long time now, and finally we have proof. Look at the handful of Nazis who came out for the rally in DC over the weekend. Their numbers weren't so small because they had been defeated in the free market of ideas. Their display on Sunday was so pathetic because we have demonstrated time and again an eagerness to punch Nazis in the face, to track down their real names and contact their employers and force them into unemployment.

Whatever other horrible things we've done in this country over the last few years, we've at least proven that we're still eager to mock and destroy Nazis wherever they may appear. Their ideas deserve to be chased back into the shadows, and we should track them down and stomp on them until they're gone forever.

Books in this review:
  • Black Klansman
    by Ron Stallworth
    Flatiron Books
    June 05, 2018
    178 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Everything You Love Will Burn
    by Vegas Tenold
    Nation Books
    February 20, 2018
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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