The Skinheads of My Youth

Image: Wikipedia

There were Nazis around when I was a kid. Skinheads, downtown, on the street near the university where the punk bands played. I don’t know how many there were. Their leader was older, too old, and I had the sense then that they were fading. I remember some anti-racist punks, a pair — one of them black, carrying a cane — announcing they’d spotted a couple of Nazi skins and running down the street to take care of business. It seemed like America was working. It was messy — I liked that — but good was triumphing.

The city, going downtown — even if it was the downtown of a marginal city — was everything to me growing up. It split my head open. I could not even believe that there were so many ways to live. There was the woman who ran the coffeehouse where we hid from our parents and smoked cigarettes. She had platinum blond hair, Frankenstein platforms, and a look like she did not care if we died. She seemed old, like our mothers (though she was probably thirty) and her life was an unthinkable mystery to me. She was as dangerous as Fabrice Colette’s frank sexuality on the cover of The Smith’s Hatful of Hollow or the ideas inside Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions — the edition with that waxy black cover and the meaningless, Paul Rand-style globe. These samizdat items changed the course of my life. The woman at the coffeehouse, I would see her later at the punk bar, far in the back, with the goth with the two-foot liberty spikes — an alternate-reality version of my parents.


It occurred to me recently, after two millennia, that I had made it, that I had become completely at home, here in Rome, the place of total possibility.

My taste was entirely formed by those first experiences of disbelief that there was a world outside, that almost everything had been thought and you could keep finding it, keep having your head split open, the light ever shining in.


I feel guilty that I didn’t take it more seriously. I see it clearly now. During the 2012 campaign, the politics desk would grab a scoop that didn’t make the Democrats look good — they were Dems themselves, at the very least, but a scoop is a scoop, traffic traffic — so we’d flip it to Drudge (via email or IM) and watch the traffic pour in. Everyone knows nothing pays off like a Drudge hit, though it comes with a cost. The flies swarmed all over our red meat. Once we had to break policy and go in and cleanup the racial epithets. Occasionally, stormfront.org would appear in our referral logs. Stormfront, to me, was a forum for the lunatic fringe — the place where’d you find the kinds of white supremacists who appear on Geraldo. To see it there, in the context of real politics, was jarring.

The feeling, I think, is related to the exhilaration that comes when encountering previously unavailable possibilities — the sensuality of The Smiths, say, or the dizzying freedom of Sartre — but this time it is a sinking feeling. A feeling that freedom has turned dark; that it always has that potential. That The Protocols of the Elders of Zion might titillate and, therefore, “liberate” as much as Naked Lunch.


I don’t want to be involved in politics. I do not think it is good for me. I think it will make me sick and crazy.

I had just settled in for the final third of my life and was planning to surrender to the next generation, read Montaigne, and learn to boast no more. That was not in the cards. For seven straight days, I have woken up in the middle of the night and started writing. This is the work now. It is all-consuming, even as it is effortless, driven by the love of the cities of possibility, which voted their consciences but were defeated by the forces of reaction.


The skinheads of my youth returned for real in April at a Trump rally in Louisville, where an avowed white nationalist can be seen pushing and shouting at a black woman. This is not in dispute. Matthew Heim­bach has confirmed his actions. He is proud of them.

Not only has Trump not distanced himself — or even expressed indifference toward nationalists like Heimbach — he has affirmatively named Steve Bannon to his cabinet, a move perceived as a gift to white nationalists by white nationalists themselves. As CNN reports.

Chairman of the American Nazi Party, Rocky J. Suhayda, who wrote a post after Trump’s election night victory celebrating it as a call to action, said he was surprised at the pick of Bannon, but said it showed him Trump could follow through on his campaign promises.
“I must admit that I was a wee bit surprised that Mr. Trump finally chose Mr. Bannon, I thought that his stable of Washington insiders would have objected too vociferously,” Suhayda wrote in an email. “Perhaps The Donald IS for ‘REAL’ and is not going to be another controlled puppet directed by the usual ‘Wire Pullers,’ and does indeed intend to ROCK the BOAT? Time will tell.”

Again, this is not in dispute. This is Suhayda’s statement.

Finally, here is how Bannon’s Breitbart describes the relationship of the “alt-right” movement to the skinheads of my youth, which have gone from the referrer logs to the White House in just four years:

There are many things that separate the alternative right from old-school racist skinheads (to whom they are often idiotically compared), but one thing stands out above all else: intelligence. Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred. The alternative right are a much smarter group of people — which perhaps suggests why the Left hates them so much. They’re dangerously bright.

This is the work now. Good morning.