Michael Shermer, in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, wrote about his workmanlike history of appearing on television chat shows to debate neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists. Some of his colleagues, he wrote — even ones with impeccable antifascist credentials — told him he was not just wasting his time, but actively bringing harm into the world: by debating these hateful individuals, he was giving them the audience and the attention they craved. Surely, they argued, the best way to deal with them is just to ignore them. Shermer’s response was simple, but then as now, I found it chillingly convincing: imagine, he said, if I was not there. The white supremacists and Holocaust deniers would have been booked anyway, television being what it is, and there would be no one on stage to counter the lies they’d surely tell. Better that someone represent the sane and human viewpoint than an audience of thousands receive a message of hate with no mitigation.
He wrote that in 1997, when, after a long period of relative silence from America’s homegrown fascist movements, we were just beginning to see the revival of open white supremacist organizing in the form of nativists, right-wing anti-government fanatics, and the militia movement. They were a different breed of domestic terrorist than I had encountered in my militant youth, brawling with neo-Nazi skinhead gangs in the 1980s: they came from the same origins, from the decaying stink of the white nationalist and American Nazi Party offshoots of the ’70s, and had many similar touchstones, but they had escalated the game. They had become more organized, more malignant, and more dangerous; Oklahoma City had proven that they had crossed an extremely bloody line from the dumb kids in Tom Metzger’s White Aryan Resistance I clashed with in Arizona and California.
Now, twenty years later — and it seems unfathomable that in my adult life I have had to deal with no less than four eructations of American Nazism — we have a new breed of fascists to contend with. The “alt-right” is even more distinct than the lager-swilling skins drunk on Race and Reason, or the camo-clad Posse Comitatus types clogging up the courts with sovereign-citizen tax exemption ploys. They are younger, bolder, and simultaneously more sophisticated and more laughable. They, too, have their own celebrities, but theirs are more media-savvy, and they’re careful to avoid open association with swastikas or broomhandles. They are gamers, shit-posters, juco dropouts with a whole new vocabulary, a new set of incoherent ideological markers, and a completely different set of reasons to hate women and minorities. But they also already have a body count. So the left is going to have to fight them again, as we always have, as we have been doing since before the War. And there arises an interesting aspect of the fascist project, one that people my age are shocked to have to revisit, while our younger comrades are learning to understand anew.
Another aspect of Holocaust denial (termed “historical revisionism” by its more genteel practitioners who, then as now, spent a lot of time practicing media management) that Shermer wrote about was its essential motivation. Very few of those who profited from the denial industry were brave enough to openly admit their admiration for the monsters who carried out the industrial slaughters of Nazi Germany; no, they were just ‘students of history’ who were trying to ‘set the record straight’ and dispel ‘outlandish rumors’ about the poor maligned Germans. Certainly Hitler went, let’s say, a bit too far, but in the interests of truth, couldn’t we reasonable people come together and ask important questions about what really happened in those so-called death camps? Their descendants on the alt-right have learned this lesson well: none of them are actual fascists, you see. They’re just interested in free speech, that’s all; their tools are not ones of terror and violence but of logic and rational thinking against all the political correctness that keeps us from asking whether it’s not just and fair, after all, to protect white identity the way every other race gets to protect their own.
Shermer wanted to know, back in 1997: What’s the endgame of all this? Why expend so much intellectual energy and emotional exertion to deny one of the most well-documented events in human history — one that was, for the most part, thus documented by the people who actually perpetrated it? He came to one conclusion: these people were fascists, and they were trying desperately to take the stink off of fascism. The Second World War had made openly advocating fascism as a practical ideology untenable, because it had become irrevocably associated with the Holocaust, one of the most unfathomably evil and horrific things ever carried out by the hand of man. But what if the Holocaust didn’t happen? If there was no Holocaust, then maybe fascism just got a bad rap over nothing; maybe it would be okay again to openly advocate for fascist rule, because it would no longer be tied to the worst mass murder that ever occurred.
Today, we are farther removed from World War II than we have ever been. Almost everyone who fought in it is dead, and even those who lived through it as children are becoming more scarce. Although it shaped our world in ways that we can never escape, it is so distant from the lived experience of most young Americans that it might as well be fiction. It is easy, now, to forget the legacy of horror and madness we inherited from fascist rule. It is easy to forget that it was the blood and bodies of Communists far more than capitalists that clogged the gears of the Nazi death machine. It is so very easy to forget that fascism is directly responsible for the worst catastrophe humanity has ever suffered. But there are those who remember that, until it was branded with the bones and the skulls of uncounted millions following the war, fascism was a robust and popular movement all over the world, with active parties in just about every country. And they know what they have to do to return to that situation.
In every attempt to rationalize away the crimes of the Third Reich; in every claim of infringement of free speech and every editorial about the violence on ‘both sides’; in every revision of the Holocaust, in ever diminution of the sins of fascism and every inflation of the sins of communism, there is this one single goal: to detoxify fascism, to scrub it clean of the historical inevitability of its blood-soaked demise in 1945. Why do people intelligent enough to know better continue to insist that the Nazis were, if you please, national socialists? It is not because they hate socialism alone. It is because they know that socialism is popular, that it is humane and decent, and that its tenets are held by millions of people. If the Nazis were socialists and not fascists, maybe they weren’t so bad! It’s the exact same mechanics as Holocaust revisionism, with the exact same goal: making fascism seem like a respectable and reasonable political position, and not a bullet in the brain of human decency.
Wherever we on the left fight them — and we should fight them everywhere we find them — we must always make sure that the message is clear: fascism is, has always been, and will always be a poison. It cannot be denatured, detoxified, or blanched clean: ingesting it is always fatal. It is an infection, and it must always be burned out.