Was it Kristallnacht or Citronellanacht?
For those who saw this as proof that 1939 was back, it’s been notably quiet since then, but for the talk about who these preppie-wannabes really are. Having already challenged the epithet “Nazis” as being a ridiculous characterization, and by kismet finding the word “Naxos” instead, I’ve answered the Goldilocks question: is it too harsh, too lenient or just right?
In the New York Times Magazine, Sasha Chapin parses the word choice, though it’s not at all clear why his values should be taken any more seriously than anyone else’s.
Ignatius became the common name Ignatz, or in its abbreviated form, Nazi. In the early 20th century, Bavarian peasants were frequent subjects of German mockery, and “Nazi” became the archetypal name for a comic figure: a bumbling, dimwitted yokel…When Adolf Hitler’s party emerged from Bavaria with a philosophy called “Nationalsozialismus,” two of that word’s syllables were quickly repurposed by Hitler’s cosmopolitan opponents. They started calling the new party Nazis — implying, to the Nazis’ great displeasure, that they were all backward rubes.
That original, taunting meaning of “Nazi” is now long gone, replaced forever by the image of history’s most despised regime. This is precisely why the word has resurfaced in American conversation, aimed at the white supremacist arm of the so-called alt-right: It is perhaps the single most potent condemnation in our language, a word that provides instant moral clarity. Not everyone, though, is entirely comfortable with this new usage.
Etymology is always an exciting bit of background, but doesn’t necessarily provide much to our modern understanding of a word. On the one hand, the use of the word “Nazi” is intended to conflate these proud boys with those who put Jews, Gypsies and Catholics in ovens. To those inclined to believe, this allows them to skip over the details that gave rise to Hitler and his regime and go directly to the end result, the final solution.
But others take issue with the word.
The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb finds “Nazi” insufficient as a label for American racists, because when we use it, he writes, “we summon the idea of the United States’ moral victories, and military ones” — references that make little sense when we’re talking about American-made moral failures.
We beat the Nazis in World War II, and so its use makes them come off as losers, thus diminishing the seriousness of the threat.
Lindsey E. Jones, a Ph.D. student of history in Charlottesville, tweeted that a long history of American racism is “conveniently erased” when figures like the white nationalist Richard Spencer are reduced to “Nazis.”
One might finding it surprising to learn that Richard Spencer is reduced to being called a “Nazi,” given the potency of the word. Then again, Jones is a Ph.D. student of history, so she still has things to learn.
But the word itself had been co-opted for other, less potent, uses over time.
Not so long ago, it seemed as though “Nazi” had lost much of its frightening power. A person with an abiding fervor for flawless syntax could quite casually be labeled a “grammar Nazi.” A comically exacting chef on “Seinfeld” could be called a “soup Nazi.” On right-wing radio, any woman with a challenging opinion could be called a “feminazi.” Some of these were jokes, others pointed accusations. But in each case, what the word described was a kind of outsize zealotry — a person who was too stern, too demanding, like an order-barking villain in a World War II movie.
Had the word Nazi been reduced to a casual suffix, to be attached to any one or group someone wanted to ridicule? Or were people able to appreciate Mike Godwin’s law?
One problem with calling American extremists Nazis is that the word carries an inevitable outlandishness. Nazis have a unique place in the cultural imagination; their image is a singularly terrifying and ridiculous thing. Applying that label to the alt-right runs the risk of making them seem like exotic cartoon villains. But the men and women marching in Charlottesville weren’t exotic; they were people’s neighbors, colleagues and study buddies.
And this is where Chapin lays his values on the line. These aren’t “exotic” cartoon villains. They may be our neighbors, assuming a few thousand people can live next door to more than 300 million people, but does this “erase” their horror in outlandishness or create the horror that a relative handful of malcontents in khakis could never achieve without hysteria?
Assuming that there are ten thousand people in the United States who would be proud to come out as white nationalists, there remain a couple foundational questions unanswered. If they could, would they actually engage in the conduct suggested by their rhetoric? It’s easy to chant nonsense, but would they really put anyone in the oven?
The second question is whether there is any support for white nationalism outside this group of proud boys pretending to be relevant. To the woke, everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, white supremacist, waiting for the opportunity to assert their supremacy and return to the days of Jim Crow. For some, believing that everyone who didn’t do as they did is evil is hardly a baby step, no less a leap. For most, this is a nonsensical belief.
But the few see themselves as the vanguard to protect us from the Fourth Reich, taking the word “Nazis” to its literal conclusion. Since little has been done by these pimples since they bought out the torches at Pier One, it’s hard to know whether the word helps, hurts or doesn’t matter, except to undermine the language in furtherance of a cause.