Am I Teaching Nazis?

This article was originally published at on 20 November 2019.

Not so long ago at an international school in Asia, an acquaintance of mine walked into his classroom after lunch to a mural of graffiti drawn by students on his whiteboard. Erasable markers, not such a big deal. When he began to clear his board, however, he discovered additional drawings underneath in permanent marker designed to appear only after the board had been erased like some prank palimpsest. Annoying but not unprecedented.

What was notable, though, was that the images were not the expected: crudely-rendered genitalia or assorted swear words, but something far more insidious: swastikas—three or four of them displayed prominently across the classroom’s whiteboard. Nazis! I hate these guys!

A recent incident at a school involving swastikas drawn under a mural of graffiti on a whiteboard promoted introspection: was the goal of this act shock value or political agitation?

Now, I’ll allow that this act of vandalism may not have been an explicit political statement. Young people are drawn to taboo, and the swastika represents one of the ultimate forbidden symbols. When I was young and growing up in the Midwest, I remember a kid at my middle school who once sang “Adolph the Jew-killing Nazi/Had a very shiny gun” at our lunch table to the tune of a particular well-known Christmas carol. I’m willing to accept that his goal was shock value (and general misanthropy) rather than political agitation.

The big difference between then and now is, of course, the big difference between everything then and now: the internet. In the realm of social media, file sharing, silly memes and online forums lurk an actual contagion: fascism. I realize I sound like some moral panic crusader talking about marijuana or the occult in comic books, but my metaphor is no exaggeration. Spend any time on 4chan’s /b/ board or Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit…or don’t. Maybe take my word for it. What you’ll find is reprehensible. Racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and, more than anything, just utter cruelty.

And, of course, some of our students are spending time there. They’re curious, and it’s taboo (unsurprisingly, the aforementioned sites also supply plenty of pornography for further enticement). Unfortunately, they’re also susceptible to the harmful rhetoric abounding on these sites that immigration is a plague upon the West, that “Hitler did nothing wrong”, that people of color neatly correspond to broad and harmful stereotypes and that liberal progressives are, more or less, the comic trope of a shrill, histrionic, triggered feminist.

Maybe my 1980s childhood and its antisemitic caroler provide a nice point of comparison, actually. The Reagan era represents a moment where conservative, even-reactionary values became mainstream discourse. Unions were corrupt, socialism was the great menace and the white, cis, straight, Christian hegemony reigned proudly and patriotically.

My own youthful embrace of progressivism came as a deliberate rejection of the mainstream and occurred via pop culture and mass media. I learned civil disobedience but also how not to be a bigot at the hands of the 1980s skate-punk bands like Minor Threat, 7 Seconds and the Dead Kennedys (whose memorable track “Nazi Punks F&$# Off” has become timely once again). I embraced nascent socialism and agnosticism as well as, I’m sure, an insufferable pretentiousness from reading authors like Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell.

Maybe something similar is at work today. Regardless of the political beliefs of individual people or a handful of outlier systems around the world, it’s clear that progressivism has largely won the day in recent decades and has become, to some extent, part of mainstream global values. Multiculturalism, greater diversity in industries, legalized gay marriage, etc. all speak to a world that has become significantly more liberal than it was in my far-off childhood.

As educators, we need to consider being aware of messages students receive online and understand how to counter them, if appropriate.

Is part of fascism’s draw for young people not only its taboo but also its defiant opposition to mainstream progressive values? Do today’s kids get online and form communities around their shared rejection of cosmopolitanism and social justice in the same way that I bonded with other skaters and fledgling punks over our disdain for conservative neoliberalism? It’s certainly possible.

As teachers, we need to give some thought to countering the messages our students receive online. Obviously, we don’t want our schools and classrooms to operate like social media and pillory anyone expressing deviant messages. That would reinforce every critique of the role of social justice warriors in our contemporary discourse and send students even further into the online world of fascist subcultures. Better yet to engage students in the issues of today respectfully and to ultimately tell a better story than the internet trolls. Unfortunately, that may require teachers to wade into some dark and deplorable corners of the internet to stay informed. Again, it’s not pleasant.

As an alternative, I’d suggest reading Whitney Phillips’s This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Danielle Keats Citron’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace or Ginger Gorman’s Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout. Or follow the glut of great online journalism out there on both the political left and right about the current state of online discourse.

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