This past August, I vacationed for three weeks with my girlfriend and her father. We traveled throughout England by rail, visiting mountains and coasts and monuments and seeing a lot of sheep. Sheep are to England what rats are to New York City and what abusers of power are to Hollywood. They kind of run the place.
We were a happy and nonobvious trio. My girlfriend and her father (I’ll refer to him as American Dad) are white. I’m black. These are relevant facts because this story involves a Nazi.
We were on the train to the town of Bath. American Dad was seated to my left. An Englishman was seated to my right. Tall can of beer in one hand, he was eager to talk.
The Englishman bragged (correctly) about how beautiful England was. He complained (correctly) that American beer left much to be desired. He divulged (unsolicitedly) that he had served time in prison for a violent offense and wasn’t allowed to leave the country, not even to visit Scotland or Ireland. What?
After finding out that American Dad was from Wisconsin, our quarantined Englishman exclaimed, “I wanna visit the Deep South!” which, for the record, is never something a black American wants to hear.
Perhaps, I naively hoped, he wanted to visit to see American backwardness for himself. “Ah, what do we have here? A bunch of white wankers cosplaying Jim Crow fantasies because they can’t accept that one out of 45 presidents was half black?”
But that was not his intention. He continued, “I want to go where the Klan is from, like Birmingham, Alabama.”
I still didn’t see where this was really going. Instead, I wanted to say to him, “Silly Englishman. The Klan’s history extends far beyond Birmingham to Portland, Oregon, and Detroit, Michigan, and, thanks to our dotard in the White House, Washington, D.C.!”
But I didn’t say any of this, and he wasn’t talking to me. In fact, the entire time his attention was focused on American Dad exclusively, and his interest in the terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan was not ironic. It was sincere.
Then American Dad asked about the man’s tattoos visible on his right forearm and hand. “Oh, you don’t know what this is?” he asked. “I got this in prison.”
He gestured to reveal the number 88 on his right hand. “The eight is for the eighth letter of the alphabet, which is an H. So it’s H.H. for Heil Hitler.”
And that’s when I realized I was sitting next to a Nazi.
Exactly two weeks prior to this moment, my own country played host to a white supremacist rally organized by a man angry because a woman once got a job he presumed was his. A racist supporter of this gathering used his car as a weapon and murdered Heather Heyer. The president went on national television and botched what should have been the easiest thing a post–World War II U.S. president could do: condemn Nazis.
Exactly four days prior to this moment, I had gone with my girlfriend and American Dad to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. At this miniature Arlington National Cemetery, thousands of Americans are buried or recognized on a Wall of the Missing for their efforts to defeat Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II, a war that claimed more than 60 million people worldwide. American Dad’s own father is on that wall, having disappeared during a bombing mission over Germany.
But in the moment the Englishman revealed himself to be a Nazi, I could find nothing to say or do. I remained quiet, fuming and exhausted. I also became fully alert, physically assessing this man as my mind recontextualized his comments and painted the picture of a very proximate threat.
I estimated him to be in his mid-fifties. He was drunk or nearly so, which could be useful, as his reaction times would be slower. And while I was feverish and tired, I was also confident I could muster the strength to disable this monster should the need arise. Would the need arise?
Would I be required to use violence against a man who had so casually volunteered his own history of violence? I mentally inventoried his weak spots: throat, nose, that tattooed wrist. Was he armed? It seemed unlikely, but then again, they wouldn’t even let this guy into Ireland, so who knew? Was I armed? My inner Jason Bourne thought “Yes!” as I imagined using my keys and stainless-steel water bottle as tools of combat. Would the people on the train help? Would police be involved? Would they believe me? Was I prepared for my girlfriend or her father or me to be injured or to die? No. Was I prepared to hurt or even kill? Yes.
Pro tip: When you find yourself contemplating inflicting mortal violence on a Nazi, you are no longer on vacation.
We made it off the train without further incident, and while I avoided physical conflict with the Nazi, it was at the expense of a mental conflict I bore alone, as I’ve wondered if I could or should have responded differently.
That moment and my inability to dislodge it from my mind colored the rest of the trip for me. When another Englishman in a curry shop in Penzance came at me rudely, I was prepared to confront and fight him, but my girlfriend physically intervened. When the hotel clerk rudely told me to wait my turn as I tried to check us all in for a reservation I had made and paid for, I nearly snapped. When I became convinced a baby was giving me undeserved side-eye, I glared at him. In my defense, the baby had a mean face. In the baby’s defense, it was a baby.
For days after, I saw heightened threats everywhere. I lost my patience, and for a while, I lost my smile. Instead of enjoying myself, I was suspicious of everything.
How was it that this tiny nation of bland fish and chips had adopted chicken tikka masala as a national dish? Where did all those crown jewels we saw at the Tower of London come from? Who labored to cut the sugar we saw celebrated in the Georgian houses of Bath? What kind of people was I visiting? What kind of people was I returning home to?
Racism isn’t new, and this wasn’t my first experience of it, nor will it be my last. But there is something about the comfort of a man on a public train flaunting his Nazi tattoos and openly desiring to celebrate the KKK that rattles me.
The Englishman had probably been radicalized in prison, possibly as a survival tactic. He may have picked his team under pressure and fallen prey to the literature and propaganda that explained his world better than any other available narrative. His life was likely very small and consisted of limited choices.
However, the men who organized Charlottesville weren’t radicalized in a penitentiary, but on the free and open internet that so many of us have celebrated. They live in a world of nearly infinite narrative choice, yet they have adopted and spread dangerous propaganda at very little reputational cost.
While women expressing opinions on the internet are regularly met with rape and death threats, the Englishman on the train, the men who took over the streets of Charlottesville, the U.S. president who defended them, none of these men feared any repercussions for their ideas or actions. They wore no masks. They were being their authentic selves. It turns out they are authentically assholes.
Many of us have placed our hopes for the future in youth, in technology, in the free flow of information, but youth and tech and information are not natural innoculations against oppression. In fact, they can enable it.
The same internet that offers a voice and community to a closeted gay teen and reminds him it gets better is also available to a bitter, alienated, misogynist white man who believes there’s a “white genocide” and systematic discrimination against men. That man now has support for his ideas and feels less alone than he once did. He can use technology to weaponize disinformation and set our political discourse and reality back several decades. That is not progress.
Like the return of eradicated diseases, we are living through a resurgence of previously rejected ways of thinking. This is not “technology’s fault” per se, but our tech platforms don’t just allow us to scale user growth and revenues and cat memes. They also allow us to scale bad ideas. They allow us to scale radicalism. They allow us to scale hate. They can reveal and amplify parts of us that have always been present, moving large numbers of people down the sales funnel toward being assholes. “Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a perfectly restored antebellum racist personality!”
There is a sort of cyclical, natural backlash occurring, but I think we can borrow lessons from nature on how to deal with it. Our bodies have immune systems designed to identify infections and fight them. We can do the same for this infection of bad ideas in society. We can identify our ideological infections, strengthen our immune response through support of institutions of compassion, understanding, and dialogue. We can emerge stronger from all this.
So here are my modest recommendations that I hope will reduce the odds you’ll end up on a train, or town square, or a Facebook feed with a Nazi.
Read the report on media manipulation produced by the Data and Society Research Institute. It’s long, and it’s worth it. The authors methodically map the online platforms and ideological movements that have given rise to this latest resurgence of white supremacy.
Support the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and calls out efforts that weaken our social cohesion. The current ugly debates in the United States about Muslim and Latino immigration are directly connected to the resurgence of white supremacist groups.
Join Operation Make Lemonade. This effort is inspired by Germans who were tired of Nazis gathering in their towns. Through creative protest, they funded anti-Nazi efforts based on the number of Nazis and their distance marched. Now Stephanie Frank is trying to bring this approach to the United States. Given the online nature of these groups, I would love to see some tech-powered creative response that scales with the hate. For every character posted in certain subreddits, a dollar goes to refugee resettlement? I don’t know. I’m riffing here.
I know we will never be completely free of hate and oppression and ugliness, but our efforts to combat them are overdue for an upgrade, both in our strategies and the tools we use.
Have you seen creative or effective ways of countering hate or promoting social cohesion? Please share your story in the comments.