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Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Despite their seeming unimportance in the larger scheme of things, the events in Charlottesville may well prove a seminal moment in recent American public life, for at least three reasons.  First, Trump’s clearly expressed sympathy with the neo-Nazi demonstrators is an indelible stain on his presidency that may have significant consequences.  Second, the decision of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to go unmasked, lit by their own torches, and eager to be interviewed on television personalizes them and makes it increasingly difficult for apologists and temporizers to claim, as Trump did, that there were “many good people” in their ranks.  Third, the neo-Nazis were openly and vocally anti-Jewish, not merely anti-Black, and that rather old-fashioned obsession puts a number of people in Trump’s administration, including his son-in-law and daughter, in a rather difficult position, to put it as delicately as I can.

A news outlet called Vice produced a more than 20 minute report on the affair, including a brilliant interview with one of its organizers, Christopher Cantwell.  I understand that there is ferocious competition for your attention, but I strongly urge you to watch this lengthy report.  Don’t miss Cantwell’s little exchange with the interviewer at roughly 3:40 – 4:00.  You can be sure that Jared and Ivanka have seen that.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when Ivanka asks her daddy whether this is one of the good people there to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

There is a great deal to be said about the so called alt-right, its emergence into the sunlight, its integration into the Republican Party, the cowardly timidity of Republicans in continuing to support Trump, and the question whether this will provoke defections from the White House staff.  Others with bigger megaphones than mine have been shouting about this for six days now.  I should like to make just one point that has not, so far as I know, been a part of the commentary.

The alt-right, it is said over and over again, is fueled by hatred and anger.  What struck me most forcefully about the interview with Cantwell was that he did not seem consumed with anger.  He seemed cheerful, happy, pleased with himself and with how the protest unfolded.  He was having a very good time.  I was reminded of the films I have seen of the Hitlerjugend, their eyes glowing, their faces lit with happiness.  To be sure, they had hatred in their hearts, but it was, if I may put it this way, a cheerful hatred, an intense pleasure at expressing openly, in accord with their fellows, their contempt for inferior humans, for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, foreigners – for anyone not blond and blue-eyed [like Hitler or Goering or Goebbels, hem hem.]

The mostly young men marching in Charlottesville with Nazi paraphernalia were clearly on a high, exultant, happy, pleased with themselves and with what they were doing.

That is worth thinking about.


Tom Cathcart said...

Bob, this may be a good moment for one of your thoughtful analyses of the distinction between your type of anarchism and the type of anti-statism espoused by people like Cantwell. I think we all have a sense of that difference, but I for one would appreciate your analysis.

howard b said...

Professor Wolff:

Why do you suppose the alt-right played their hand so quickly? It's odd. Either they're overconfident or we're in big trouble.
This is more a hope than an analysis, but this may divide the cultural conservatives from what's left of the Republican business oriented establishment, with long run if not immediate ramifications.
There are too many people against him, for Trump to be a dictator.
Trump is scary, but he's no Hitler. he's not nearly as cunning and charismatic as Hitler, and there are too many of us for him to conquer without a fight.
If just one thing goes wrong for him, he's history

s. wallerstein said...

Would shouldn't they be enjoying themselves?

We all have a sadistic or cruel streak, some more than others, at times tempered by a superego which makes us feel guilty about that, at times not.

In fact, I'd enjoy inflicting a bit of pain on the neo-nazis and KKK myself.

Jordan said...

Prof. Wolff, I've noticed this too, and thought a lot about it. I've seen that kind of joyous look on Richard Spencer's face, too.

I think there's something more going on here than just repressed aggressive instincts, though I'm sure some of that is present as well. The joy is not just garden variety enjoyment of flouting social convention ("political correctness"), but also the joy of being determined, of having a purpose, of having a vision for where things are headed and of the role one can play in bringing it about.

An overwhelmingly moralized response to all this, though I've taken part in it too, is very dangerous. Moralizing in itself is not particularly inspiring, especially since it's so often framed negatively ("Nazis are bad. Don't be a Nazi. Duh. Didn't we cover this 60 years ago?"). It's more likely to bore people than make them act. Now more than ever we need a fresh, positive vision for the future, something a little bit meatier than "love not hate" or "don't let the Nazis win." What are our values? What ideals are we trying to realize? I don't know what this vision is, but I do know that people want inspiration and purpose, that they lack it right now, and that "white nationalism" is throwing its hat in the ring. (Remember that quote from the old classic, The Big Lebowski, which used to be merely funny:"say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism; at least it's an ethos.")

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I give my vote to the ideals of Captain America.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

TheDudeDiogenes, I followed the link and read the story about Captain America, none of which I knew. It is wonderful. By the time I was done reading, I was feeling quite nostalgic for my childhood and early youth. Thank you.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Check out Cantwell's response to learning that there is a warrant out for his arrest:

Not so happy now.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing the Vice documentary, an excellent production and piece of historical record by them.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

If you haven't yet, you should watch the three Captain America movies from Marvel. Besides being a pleasant diversion, I think they do a solid job adapting/creating a character consistent with the values Dr. Attewell discusses.

Unknown said...

Could you say more about the distinction between slavery and chattel slavery? What do you mean by traditional European slavery? My impression is that slavery was an hereditary status under Roman law. I am not at all certain about, however. Just looking for clarification of the distinction.

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