Brown: On Replacing Nazis
Americans are many things. Fascist is not one of them.
What is an American? This question might not even make sense. Rarely do we argue about any fundamental qualities that define Americans, because there are so few. However, roughly once in a generation, Americans are forced to interrogate our national project and decide who may partake in it. The moment in which we live demands that we grapple with such questions.
This past weekend, thousands of white supremacists and neo-fascists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s democratically-reached decision to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. What ensued was an upwelling of this nation’s perennial evils. Raw, caustic racism and a hateful anxiety culminated in terrorism, violence and murder. Chants of “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil” and “one people, one nation, end immigration” sent a clear message about where we are as a country — and where some fellow citizens wish to take us.
Americans should be familiar with the racism we witnessed, as it has been a feature of our history since before colonization. The anxiety of the white supremacists, however, is not new, and strikes me as more frenzied than we have seen in living memory. There is a frightened suspicion in the American Klansmen that this country is no longer theirs. Cursory forays into the realm of so-called “alt-right” Twitter accounts and neo-fascist publications such as The Daily Stormer reveal a deep anxiety about the supposed decline of white America. White supremacists feel that current demographic trends will “dispossess” white Americans from “their land,” and in turn destroy the country. Or something.
What is sad about this anxiety is that it is not entirely isolated to the pages of Nazi forums and the backwaters of Reddit. It is the same anxiety that instigates white flight in cities across the nation; that motivates policies that marginalize, oppress and terrify minority communities; that won Donald Trump the White House. One of the many infuriating things about this anxiety is that it is simply wrong, rooted in an idea that Nazi-defined “whiteness” is a fundamental aspect of American identity. As we again grapple with what it means to be an American, it is imperative that we do not allow the xenophobia, bigotry and fascism displayed in Charlottesville to creep any deeper into our collective consciousness. An affirmative conception of what an American is will be integral to ensuring that.
Again, what is an American? Americans are people who believe in democracy. We believe in the civic rights of our fellow citizens and the inalienable rights of our fellow humans. Americans are a hopeful people. No matter how bleak our present condition, we have an audacity to work toward better days. We believe in ourselves and in better prospects for our children. While current events underscore that America consistently fails to uphold ideals of diversity, justice and equality, my naïve American spirit hopes that our ever more perfect union will one day fully incorporate these values into our national soul.
Critically, Americans are not defined by our birthplace or lineage. Americans are not defined by any class, race, creed or orientation. The superfluity of our cultural quirks is what makes this country unique. Americans can, ideally, eat apple pie, collard greens, jollof rice, sushi, pho and flour tortillas while listening to jazz, K-pop, hip-hop and country music without their nationality being questioned. I would not even consider citizenship a requisite for participation in our national project. An undocumented immigrant who comes to this country looking for a better life, who lives and works toward the ideals of this country, has more of a claim to the American identity than a neo-fascist gang member with a passport. This inclusivity is a precious quality we must nurture and expand.
America is, effectively, an idea. It is an idea that transcends the demographics of its people and the power of its government, that affirms the liberty and equality of its citizens. It is an idea that can and has been indiscriminately carried by people of all backgrounds. It is for this reason that I only draw my dividing line for who can be American to exclude a very distinct group. Americans are not Nazis. Americans are not Confederates. Americans are not Klansmen.
These people are the enemy of the American project, and must be opposed at every step. As imperfect as America was and is, we managed to understand the horrors of the Confederacy and Nazi Germany when confronted with them at their heights. To succumb to their cancer decades and centuries later would be pathetic. Their intolerance, illiberalism, racism and fascism mean they have forfeited the American ideal. Our laws and morals mean we cannot treat them like the cockroaches they regard so many of their fellow citizens to be, but this does not mean that we must tolerate their ideas or actions in civil society.
Hate will fail. It will fail because we will stand against it, refusing to allow notions of white supremacy to re-infect our culture and fascism to overtake our government. Eventually, these hateful individuals and their ideas will be lost to history, studied as disgraces alongside the Confederate monuments to which they desperately cling. The American spirit is a resilient one, primarily because it can be evoked by any person courageous enough to partake in the challenge. This is our modern task, and just as many generations of Americans before us, we shall overcome.