The Left must finally give us a workable definition of what a modern Nazi is

John Kirbow
Apr 27, 2017 · 12 min read

Why the open-ended use of the ‘Nazi’ label is dangerous, stupid, and hurful to the ability to actually fight Nazis

My “How Do You Label and Punch a Nazi?” Thinking Tool for the Left. Please share with your Antifa friends or with the nearest Student Government meeting.

I identify, politically, as a skeptic and nonpartisan freethinker. I think rigid ideology poisons the entire well of human conversation within social and political issues. My views traverse the Left-Right continuum, and even that divide itself is very subjective and varies across the country.

That said, consider this an honest letter and outreach to a particular segment of the Left. To anyone on the Left who supports the shutdown of campus speakers because they are deemed to be ‘Nazis’, I was wondering (not a pejorative question, but a genuine one) if you or someone you know could provide me with a workable definition. Explain to me how you think a modern ‘Nazi’ is best defined, in terms of ideas they support or actions they take.

Such definition need not be Webster quality, but at least something workable. Something reasonably consistent, rather than adaptable to anyone you disagree with.

Most on the Antifa-supporting wing of the Left I have talked to (with some refreshing exceptions) have glaringly failed to do this, even at times dismissing me as a Nazi sympathizer or privileged white asshole for even raising the issue or having the gall to ask this question. If you are one of those people, please understand that you share much in common with people who embrace obedience and conformity movements that suppress honest inquiry and suffocate individual thinking and the ability to ask questions. You are an enforcer of conformity and a suppressor for free inquiry. You are what you claim to hate. You are not ‘anti-establishment’; you are a guardian of an established ideology, and an enforcer of its dogmatic brand of obedient moral sanctimony. Revel in your hypocrisy with blindfolds comfortably secured around your eyes.

That said, please note that I’m not dismissing the need to fight White Nationalist ideology or to find the most effective and ethical ways to combat anything that is legitimately Nazi-like (quite the opposite! To be clear, I’m helping spearhead bigger projects to bring a variety of skills and tools into this fight, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans). But we need clarity on terms. This is a basic precondition we need to get right, sooner rather than later. Words need clear meaning if they are used to label and shut down the speech of other people. Or to label them as an Enemy. Period.

So please help me out. What is a modern ‘Nazi’?

**Give me specifics, not glaring generalities like “anyone who supports Nazi ideology”.**

Sadly and predictably, however, many of you will reflexively give me that talking point, saying ‘anyone who supports Nazi ideology”. Ok. Great. What is your idea of ‘Nazi ideology’? When a sizable chunk of the Left defines something like opposition to Federal Affirmative Action policy to be ‘Nazi ideology’, we have a fundamental breakdown of basic definition parameters.

So where is a sensible starting point, that even a sizable segment of the American population (who the Left might want to start engaging and trying to win over, if they want to drown out Nazi ideology) will likely agree with?

Here’s a possible hint: most (myself included) who join these discussions seem to think its fair to say that the White Nationalist Movement embodies Nazi ideology on some level, albeit with some important differences. Still, we can reasonably say, I think, that we can, at least in casual terms, call them ‘Nazis’. While they are obviously not literal Nazis from the Nazi era taken to us by the Captain America supervillain Hydra’s time capsule, they embody the modern version of much of what Nazis believed. While most of them don’t literally want to send minorities or ‘undesirables’ to the gas chambers or work camps, neither did most who joined the Nazi Party or identified with the Nazi Movement. The dangerous ideas are there, hidden beneath a smokescreen of suit-and-tie moderation, and they have potentially unsettling consequences. I think that’s a fair assessment, and something we can explore in future articles (I highly recommend this interview by White Nationalist leader Jared Taylor with the incredibly brave and admirably patient anchor/reporter — and American Muslim — Amna Nawaz, who stoically hears out his views in a revealing dialogue).

If this is the case — that is, if White Nationalists’ / Richard Spencer Types = “Nazi” — then the next step is to ask:

**what qualifies someone to be a White Nationalist?**

Perhaps we could start there. Let’s ask the Left to define what a White Nationalist is — and by proxy, to be able to understand what a White Nationalist isn’t. Some disagreement is fine, and expected. But let’s try to have a ballpark definition so as to not toss around the label like candy.

Image courtesy of: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/800/1*EHRoHi5EqlkpoY_CBwFXKg.png

I certainly have my general definition of what a White Nationalist is, and have a pretty good idea of what they believe and how they market themselves. As a trained propaganda analyst and psychological warfare expert, its not that difficult for me. But it seems quite elusive to much of the socially active campus-protesting Left, who cant seem to even peg down a workable, coherent definition without tying it to anyone who happens to disagree with certain political dogmas they themselves (coincidence! Orwell, anyone?) hold dear.

I’ve even had Leftists tell me, in unmistakable terms, that people like Dave Rubin and Sam Harris are Nazis (or ‘Nazi Sympathizers’, if the person is really classy) who should always be physically and violently prevented from speaking at our Universities. Considering that I am seeing Rubin at a University event this weekend, and was at Sam Harris’ dialogue with Maajid Nawaz at Harvard back in 2015, I suppose I should be given a Nazi label as well. Since I was Airborne while serving in the Active Army, you might even call me a Nazi Paratrooper. After all, that would be grammatically and technically correct, would it not? So please feel free to label me a fucking Nazi Paratrooper. Go for it! With the current state of Leftist Nazi-labeling, you probably stand a good chance of getting away with it with no reputation costs.

What Antifa sees when they look at a Ben Shapiro campus talk.

It seems that an increasingly common Leftist tactic is to try tying someone — either by way of one of their ideas, statements or interviews, no matter how loose, questionable, or erroneous the association — to the Alt Right / White Nationalists. Then used to tie them to Nazis, either as ‘sympathizers’ or as a direct embodiment of the label itself.

In other words, the attempt to bring public pressure, social disapproval and mass embarrassment on the White Nationalist movement (something that we certainly need to do) has unfortunately been weaponized by many as a tool to conduct ideological witch hunts and cast out heretics. It has become a means of closing the conversation to dissenting views, without trial or reasoned argument (If you think I’m being hyperbolic, just visit a far left Facebook, Twitter or chat forum and see for yourself. Try reasoning with some of these people as a Devils Advocate, and you’ll probably see quite quickly what I am referring to).

Take it from a PSYOP veteran: this tactic saturates the discussion space, pushes much of society away, and actually damages our ability to single out and put targeted social pressure on actual White Nationalists and their propaganda. As I’ve written and spoken extensively about, the Left needs to make serious adjustments to their playbook and reform much of their dogmas, if we are to effectively work with the wider American population to combat and root out extremism. This is Counterinsurgency 101, yet it is rarely followed by ideologues.

So once again, more on the Left need to openly and publicly tell the world, from the hilltops, where they draw the line on who is and is not a White Nationalist.

On That Note, here is an important logic disclaimer, which I explain in a moment: Sharing *some views in common* doesn’t **in and of itself** link someone to that ideology (I address that in my follow-up article, here).

In addition, someone supporting the free speech of other people (say, Ann Coulter, Ben Shapiro, etc) who the radical segment of the Left has already deemed to be a Nazi, does not make that person a Nazi too, when the very concept of ‘Nazi’ hasn’t even yet been defined - that is a circular argument.

Yes, I do get this kind of argument from some on the Left, and also rarely see their fellow leftists call it out.

It’s like someone asking “Why did you label John Kirbow a Schnookieputz? Who qualifies as a Schnookieputz? Please define what a Schnookieputz is”, and the other person saying “A Schnookieputz includes anyone who supports another Schnookieputz, which John did when he defended the free speech of that Schnookieputz at Yale”. Sorry, that argument doesn't count.

Back to Nazis. First we must define who a Nazi is (or at least who a White Nationalist is), and is not. I should make it clear that I am always willing to hear opposing viewpoints here, especially from descendants and survivors of the Nazi era, who are personally closest to the collective memory of that time. With that duly noted, I would personally argue that tacitly endorsing Nazi actions (such as saying “I don’t agree with their entire platform, but the Nazi Party isn’t as bad as people think”) in the actual Nazi era didn’t always necessarily ‘make someone a Nazi’. It made them an apologist, not a literal Nazi.

This difference matters. To deny it matters or erase the difference, in my view, cheapens the real meaning of someone donning that Nazi uniform or joining that horrible movement and carrying out its affairs (and as historians and narrators of the post-WW2 period know, a surprising number of people, especially children, joined the movement in a sweeping tidal wave of tragic ignorance to the evils they were taking part in. Such remains to be forever viewed in awe by us and our descendants as an immortalized display of human nature, perhaps the most frightening artifact left on display after the smoke cleared). It cheapens the ability of historians, survivors, and descendants of Nazi era victims to single out the horrific nature of that movement, and arguably robs the description of actual Nazis in that time period of real specificity.

Human nature and its often unknowing embrace of evil was perhaps the most frightening artifact seen by the world after the smoke of war cleared. Image courtesy of: https://www.thelocal.de/userdata/images/article/de/47313.jpg

When talking about “supporting or endorsing Nazis” in that era, as ethically atrocious and consequential as that was, the type and scope of support matters. In most cases, I would argue, it made them a Nazi sympathizer, and to varying degrees across a spectrum. While still very troubling, it more often that not didn't literally make the average German next door neighbor an actual Nazi, but a Nazi apologist. Would we tell every German descendant who wrongly spoke favorable at one point or another about the Nazi Party over family dinner that they should be put in Nazi Hunter cross-hairs and dragged into the same room as the Nuremberg Trials? Failing to adequately distance oneself from Nazis during the Hitler era, and actually being a full-time, self-aware Nazi, are two different things that deserve distinction. I think this difference matters, and I feel this way for strong ethical and logical reasons. Ultimately, however, I am most eager to hear, read and understand viewpoints and sentiments on this from people directly and indirectly closest to that horrible time period. In the end, I am willing to change my mind.

And secondly, degree matters. If you manage to loosely tie Milo Yiannopolis to the ‘Nazi’ definition, make the label stick, and convince others that it is fair to call him a Nazi, then you may be tempted to call anyone who supports Milo’s right to speak at Berkeley a ‘Nazi sympathizer’. This is a swampland of logical fallacy that a terrifying number of people on the far Left have sunk into and are drowning in, without even realizing they are wading through a swamp.

I certainly can see perspective in some of the more consequential arguments for preventing Milo to speak, on the grounds that he was a literal threat to vulnerable minorities (which would be about direct harm prevention, not ideology). He showed a willingness to essentially dox people (such as someone who identified as trans person, as I understand it) to a huge fan base, and these were people who were already arguably quite vulnerable. Incitement to violence is already well accepted as a reason to keep someone off the stage, so I see the argument there, though confess that I’m not as privy as I’d like to all the facts and details. But let’s set that aside for now, and look specifically at the Nazi label. Milo is probably one of the easiest targets, besides members of the Spencer movement, to go after, so I’m practically giving this one to the Left. They can have Milo for this thought experiment. Let’s assume the far Left is correct to label him a Nazi. Let’s explore that line of thought for a moment. Can we then label anyone who defends Milo’s right to campus speech, or who has a friendly dialogue with him, a ‘Nazi Sympathizer’?

The problem with the ‘Nazi Sympathizer’ argument

Let’s go ahead for argument’s sake and assume that Milo is fairly labeled as a White Nationalist (which is quite debatable), and therefore, as a Nazi. Let’s accept that we’re basing this merely on a shared set of ideas, not on literally equivocating today’s White Nationalists with someone killing people in the Death Camps (even among actual Nazi’s in the 1940s, closeness to atrocities differed greatly; it was the allegiance to a movement or, at minimum, a set of shared ideas, that tied them together). Let’s then imagine that you, by extension, label anyone who defends Milo’s right to speak on campus (or who disagrees with how you define and label him) as a ‘Nazi Sympathizer’, regardless of their motives and line of reasoning. They are, by simply default, Nazi sympathizers.

This is a false equivalence that needs to be exposed for what it is. First, the association of Milo with the Nazi label — even if assumed to be correct for argument’s sake — is very loose at best (and in reality, terribly misleading at worse). Saying that anyone who supports Milo’s right to not be shut down by riots is (and should be labeled) a literal ‘Nazi Sympathizer’, is a stretch too far, even if we assume the ‘Nazi’ label to be a fitting one. It is a stretch of absolutism and simplistic thinking that is sure to isolate and turn away many if not most Americans who join the conversation.

In short, here’s what this looks like, without the meme-like stick figure drawings:

Person 1. “I don’t agree with Antifa’s tactics to shut down Milo’s speech. I also think he should be heard by those who wish to hear him”.

Person 2. “Well, you’re a Nazi sympathizer!”

Let’s briefly unpack this for a moment. The moral difference between supporting Milo’s right to speak at the local college, and the German father sympathizing with the Nazi Party roundup of Jews while talking to his wife Gertrud at the family dinner table with little Hulmund and little Heidi listening over plates of mashed potatoes, should be obvious to even the most zealous anti-free speech warrior. Degree matters here. It really does. The degree of difference between someone collaborating with Nazi’s in 1942 to find Jews hiding in people’s private homes, and someone inviting Milo to their campus to speak, is the size of the Grand Canyon. If someone cannot see this, they are most likely plagued with a staggering level of moral confusion.

Most people I talk to, including those who self-identify on the Left, actually agree that this can become a very slippery slope to Orwellian abuse, slander and narrow-mindedness. If loosely tossing about the term ‘Nazi’ is a slippery slope, then tossing around the ‘Nazi Sympathizer’ label is an entire waterslide park.

Much of the Left has abandoned the idea that nuance and degree even matter, and instead imposed sweeping absolutist categories and labels. Most sensible people should see the danger of this: it leads to the Anakin Skywalker mode of thinking: if you are not with me, you are my enemy. Karl Rove re-branded for the Left.

And almost no one on the hard Left I have had to have this argument with seems even remotely willing to admit this, or even to see the potential danger. If you are a reasonable and skeptical person who identities as a Leftist, this should give you pause, and reason to help raise self-awareness within your own ideological camp.

The main point is, if you are going to throw around labels like Nazi, please try to use *specificity and integrity in your definition* of how we should define this term for the modern age. And try to get more of your Leftist friends to see the need for this as well. If they won’t listen to me because I’m an outsider ‘Enemy’, perhaps they’ll listen to you.