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Opinion: Serpents in Our Midst

"If our president is too much a political coward to denounce American Nazism openly and clearly, the burden for doing so falls to the states and their residents."



For years, at gun shows while I hunted around for deals on ammo, I saw it lurking in the shadows at the edges of displays of firearms and gear. For decades, it slept in the very heart of our nation and perhaps in the hearts of many people you know well. If you listen carefully enough you might hear old echoes of drums guiding hobnailed boots, old shadows cast by torches held aloft proudly at Nuremberg, as thousands sang in the service of twisted ideas. You might, in the faces of those shouting in rage, glimpse again from old newsreels the spittle flying from the mouth of an absolute leader proclaiming “blut und boden” — blood and soil — then hurtling his nation to a destiny he promised would last a thousand years. That it lasted a little more than a decade testifies both to his madness and the resolve of his enemies — our parents and grandparents.

All my life I’ve been obsessive about World War II. My father, the fathers of my friends, and most of my uncles served. One never came back from Okinawa, and another shot himself a decade before I was born, haunted by what he did and what he saw as a bomber crewman over Europe. So, in their memory, in honor of the many Holocaust survivors I’ve met, and in rebuke to those who deny that the Holocaust occurred, I’ve watched for Nazism to rear its ugly head again.

Now it has, in the shadow of our troubled and apparently still troublesome Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson. I’m glad I wasn’t there when white-supremacist louts carried torches to Jefferson’s statue near the Rotunda. I would have hurt one of them if I could have gotten my hands on him. I see red and lose all reason when I encounter Nazism, beyond what gets displayed in a case of relics, carved into the action of an old Mauser rifle or recorded in the pages of a book.

And Nazism is what was marching through the streets of Charlottesville. Those of you who are not obsessives with a shelf of books about the conflict, including a now-rare Ballantine title called “Nazi Regalia,” won’t recognize what was painted on some of the riot shields held by the white-power marchers. As I heard “blood and soil” chanted, I saw the wolfsangel of Heinrich Himmler’s SS and well as the odal rune, associated with an SS division and South African apartheid. Having lived in Spain not long after dictator Francisco Franco’s demise, I saw other emblems that recalled the clutched arrows of the Falange and the fasces of Benito Mussolini’s Italy.

I’ve gotten into some fierce arguments when I claim that Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan should be outlawed — their members arrested as domestic terrorists. My claim comes from the very nature of the groups. They were born of and for violence, and their credos are fighting words not protected by the First Amendment. Following a riot in Rochester, New York, under a unanimous 1942 ruling, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court of the United States decreed that “the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances” and that for speech not protected by the Constitution, “the test is what men of common intelligence would understand would be words likely to cause an average addressee to fight.”

When I see Nazi iconography used outside of a museum, I want to fight. I hope you do, too, for fight we must, it seems. Perhaps not with guns and bombs this time, but with words, solidarity with those targeted by the haters, and, yes, compassion, if not love. I would rather see these young white men renounce their hatred than see them dead. Their deaths, too, are not America.

And now at last, after a lifetime of seeing the Confederate battle flag, I understand why so many African Americans see also red when it flies in marches and is placed on monuments. After a lifetime of revering the prowess of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in battle, I wonder if it is not indeed time to remove their statues to our museums. That would mean everywhere, including Monument Avenue, though I’ve always loved those monuments for reasons I don’t quite understand. I wish we could find a way to keep them in place while respecting the wishes of our African-American brothers and sisters. Reportedly, Lee himself told a woman clinging to the ideals of the Confederacy and secession, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.” That is a Lee chastened by the deaths of young men and the misery of his beloved state. Put that quotation on a marker near his monuments, if you want to understand the man and keep his images in place.

We Virginians have been chastened again, chastised into action. If our president is too much a political coward to denounce American Nazism openly and clearly, the burden for doing so falls to the states and their residents. I call upon more of my fellow academics to stop theorizing to impress their cloistered colleagues. Instead, we need to write for a broader public again, as the generation of our peers did during and after the Second World War — to engage in work as public intellectuals.

We must never allow a new generation of serpents to breed in our midst. S

Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.

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