Monday, August 21, 2017

Nazis. I hate these guys. Part 2: How Did We Get Here?

As much as I love sociology, and read the occasional book and article concerning same, I am not, and never have been, a sociologist. However, as a writer, I have made a lifetime's habit of watching people and trends and taking note of situations that interest me, particularly when it comes to people changing the way in which they behave and interact with other people. Understanding that is important if you are writing fiction or doing anything that relies on interpersonal relationships.

How great is it that the makers of the Tiki Torches have
condemned the actions of everyone at the Luau?
That means what I'm about to do is go back through my own head and try to put together for myself how we ended up in a world of people who don't vaccinate their kids and people who think the Earth is flat and people who think they are better than other people based solely on their skin color, in America, in 2017. In this meandering discussion, I'm not purporting that what I say is necessarily factually true, in that I may be mis-remembering dates and times and maybe even incidents. I'm going to do this quickly, before I lose the threads of my thesis. If there's corrections to be made, let's do it in the comments, because while I may get some particular details wrong, I feel that my larger conclusions will still have merit. We'll see.

In other words, this is me talking out of my ass, okay?

I'm not sure when my awareness of Nazis morphed from "those bad guys in the war movies" to "skinheads and clansmen." I remember Raiders of the Lost Ark and the profound influence it had on me, a few years before I discovered punk rock and started watching movies like Repo Man. There were pictures of these guys on the news, right? Shaved heads, swastikas, and so forth, power-skanking around bonfires and moshing in clubs, and this footage was trucked out on the news whenever some square in a Brooks Brothers suit needed to "tsk tsk" about these kids today with their weird haircuts and their wild ideas.

I didn't take it too seriously back then, because (a) I had a healthy distrust of anything the news said was dangerous and related to youth, because (b) they did the same thing with Dungeons and Dragons and Heavy Metal music, and later on, Warner Brothers cartoons, and video games, and anything and everything else that we were into at the time. I thought that the skinheads were using the swastika in the same way that the metalheads were using Satanic imagery--as something to frighten parents with. But they weren't really into it, right? I mean, come on, who does that?

Then Geraldo Rivera let some of those guys onto his program, and it ended in a brawl. November 11, 1988. Geraldo got his nose broken from a sucker punch, and without realizing it, ushered in the next wave of daytime live television by putting intentionally combustible elements in the same space and acting outraged and shocked when those elements blew up.

As the 80s gave way to the 90s, there would be the occasional think-piece about White Power groups, usually a "special report" where reporters would trek out into the woods to the collection of run-down mobile homes and dilapidated shacks where these people would gather to talk about White Power and genocide. It was always the same report, too: the walk to the woods, shots of the camp or compound, pictures of poor white people sitting on picnic tables, holding forth about how "we're just like everbody else, only 'cept we see this country going to hell, is all." Then the cross would get lit up and maybe the KKK hoods would come out, or maybe not.

For anyone not living in the woods, or the deep south, it must have felt like a real relief. Whew! We don't have back woods around here. We're safe from Nazis! Well, except for David Duke. He kept running for political office until he eventually got in somewhere, but the press was always dutiful to point out his ties to the KKK (the former grand dragon, don'tcha know) whenever they mentioned him. But even he was a joke, not to be taken seriously, right? I mean, come on, these are NAZIS we're talking about. when the band GWAR makes fun of you, alongside hippies and goths, it's hard for anyone to take you seriously, amiright?

Okay, so, bear with me, because we have to back up a bit.

I don't know exactly when I first became aware of the phrase "political correctness," but I'm pretty sure it was in the early 1990s. There were court cases and some legislation being thrown about, and I can't recall if Affirmative Action happened first, or the Women in the Workforce initiative. But they were real close to one another. My memory is hazy, but what I DO remember was the sudden backlash that went something like this: "What? We can't slap our own secretaries on the ass, anymore? What's the point of living? Why hire a good-looking broad in the first place?"

The Affirmative Action push back was worse: "You mean we have to hire THEM, now? What if they just aren't qualified? They could be criminals!"

"Oh," the next comment went, "and if it's a Black WOMAN..." Pause for knowing guffaws.

Classy stuff. It sounded just as bad then, in the less-sensitive 90s, as it does now, I assure you.

Political Correctness came in with those legislative changes, and the initial idea was well-intentioned, if not well-implemented. After all, we'd already been doing it to some degree for years, right? African-American was the preferred term, and it took a little futzing to get everyone on board, but as long as no slurs were being used, this was a cordial, civilized step forward. If we are going to have these conversations, let's all agree on the terms, right?

I'm surprised this book is currently
out of print. Maybe it's coming back.
Well, it only took a couple of comedians to highlight the ridiculous extremes that, to be fair, were never on the table in the first place. Who remembers "Sanitation Engineer" for "Garbage Man?" And when the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories came out, it sold like wildfire, because it was genuinely amusing, but it also shined a light on a perceived problem that people felt on an intuitive level: they weren't allowed to talk about certain things anymore. They weren't allowed to use the words they'd always used. Politically Correct speech became a band-aid to be applied to a specific situation that covered up a slur, or an unconscious bias, but it didn't teach the controversy.  It didn't explain why these old things were bad. It just said that they were bad, and didn't offer any context. People all over the country started using the phrase Asian-American, because they were told to, but no one explained to them why "Oriental" was now off-limits and horrible. This was, according to President Bush, all part of our Kinder, Gentler Nation, our Shining City on the Hill, and our first Gulf War.

In the wake of all that came Multiculturalism, an educational initiative that, alongside of everything else, was designed to expose white children in the suburbs to things that weren't white, in the hopes of making them better citizens and not White Supremacists. Its detractors were many, and of course, the first thing they seized upon was the idea that there was more than one way to celebrate the Winter Solstice. This was where the first "War on Christmas" bullshit started, in the Mid-90s, right up against the howls of outrage that Christian children were learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in schools! Right alongside other children, some of whom weren't even white! Horrors upon horrors!

Of course, by the time South Park got around to lampooning it, the outrage was a fixed condition, and the annual running of the angry Fox commentators was a given. That was largely unimportant, because there was a bigger take-away message from all of these efforts, even if the execution and implementation left something to be desired: Acceptance. We were being asked, sometimes forcibly, to accept people who were different from us. Skin color, culture, education, whatever the difference--the message here was acceptance.

I was slow to come around. A lot of people were. Oh, not on the big things, mind you. Women should earn the same dollar that men earn. I've always believed that. Also, women that want to serve in the military in active combat? Go with my blessing. That was never the issue. Nor was Affirmative Action or changing my language--out of respect for my friends who were people of color--and why wouldn't you? "No, listen, I know you want to be called an African-American now, but honestly, I think I prefer to call you a Negro. So, now that that's settled, you want to come over and play Dungeons and Dragons on Friday?"  You'd have to be a nickel-plated asshole to not respect other people's wishes in that way.

I had, and continue to have, no problem with that. And, once Multiculturalism was explained to me, I thought it was okay, too. It had merits. It's good for white kids in this country to understand that they aren't the center of the universe.

But that whole "you've got to accept everyone" thing...

See, there was a lot of "expose" shows in the 1990s on cable news. There were also a lot of "extreme lifestyle" shows on daytime TV. Thanks to Geraldo and the Nazis, it was suddenly all right to parade any given clutch of people that the producers dug up from under some rock and show them off on the Jerry Springer show. Or have some CNN Special Report on, for example, Vampires in New Orleans, a special investigative report. An hour-long show about twenty-somethings who were living "as vampires" in New Orleans. With interviews of Rubenesque women in Victorian dresses, saying out loud and being completely serious, "I'm more of a psychic vampire. I take energy from people, but I don't drink blood." Oh, you're a drain, all right. And then, they'd cut to the bumper for the next segment, and show a pale young man with stringy hair sitting in a wooden throne and the voice-over would say, "Up Next, meet a vampire who drinks blood."

The daytime television nascent-reality TV shows were much more sensationalistic. "Meet Adults who prefer to live as Babies!" The audience would gasp and boo, and just when it was about to turn into an angry mob, they'd put a psychologist on to explain how this was just another way to cope with stress or abuse or whatever, and it's Okay. It's Normal. It's not hurting anyone. Therefore, we need to accept it.

We need to accept it.

And that tone was carried through in every single one of these documentaries. I remember getting into a huge fight with my girlfriend over the vampire documentary. She couldn't understand why I was so hostile. "Because vampires don't exist!" I yelled.

"But they aren't hurting anyone!" she yelled back.

"Bullshit," I said. "They come into the comic shop, in broad daylight, I might add, wearing their vampire fangs that aren't their real teeth because they aren't real," I said.


"So? So, commit to the bit, I say. If you're a real vampire, you don't get to go out in broad fucking daylight every Wednesday to pick up your comics. Your servants should do that for you. If you're really a vampire, I shouldn't have to see you. And moreover, take those damn fangs out of your mouth."

"What's wrong with them wearing fangs?" she asked. "Why are you so judgmental?"

"It's a desperate cry for attention, is all that it is," I said. "They are looking for a reaction. They want to freak people out so they can feel superior to them. Well, I don't want to give them that satisfaction, but I also don't want to ignore the fangs, because it makes it seem like I'm accepting of their stupid-ass lifestyle choice."

"They aren't hurting anyone! You're being an asshole!" she stormed out of the room.

I was an asshole a lot in the 1990s, it seemed. Because I didn't understand. I didn't know why I suddenly had to accept people who called themselves vampires, but didn't turn into mist and float under doors. It wasn't fair. But I got tired of being called an asshole, and so I learned to keep my mouth shut.

So, when the preppers and the survivalists started showing up in the documentaries and the exposes and the Special Reports, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren't hurting anyone, right? They were just off in the woods, doing their thing, and not bothering anyone. The reports were always quick to show how these people had families with kids...hell, I know families who like to go camping. This can't be that much different, right?

They were still occasionally featuring Neo-Nazis in their special reports, but these days, it looked more and more like preppers and survivalists and those folks with the little churches who dance with snakes. It all had the same tone. The same feel. And the same implicit message: They aren't hurting anyone. We need to accept it.

What we should have been doing instead is questioning it. Why are they doing this? To what end? How does this impact the rest of us, the vast majority of American Society and Culture? Why weren't those questions asked by the reporters? (Insert rant here about how cable news' number one goal is to make money by selling you stuff, and not by actually educating the public, and since everyone likes the Freak Show best of all at the county fair, they truck out the vampires and preppers so we'll be sure to watch.)

Before I go any further, I want to say this: if someone needs something to bring them back up to baseline functionality, and it's legitimate therapy, I have no problem at all with it. There's some really wacky therapy solutions for real trauma and damage and I get that, I really do. But...and this is a big BUT, here...even IF we were to extend that courtesy to, say, fringe behavior, such as dressing and acting like a vampire...I think my acceptance of that, and you're expecting the rest of society to accept that, stops at your front door. This is a larger version of "the right to swing your fist ends at the end of my nose," right? You can think you are whatever you are, in the privacy of your own home, but as soon as you leave your home and get on the bus and queue up in line at Chipotle and go to work everyone else, you are part of society at large, and we've got a fairly generous set of do's and don'ts to make it easier for everyone to get along, all right? If this makes me a monster, then I'll take that hit.

I think we got lulled into a false sense of security by how the media chose to cover all of these fringe groups. I think we watched the Neo-Nazi documentaries and saw how they were being treated the exact same way as the survivalists and the vampires and the Amish and the Heavy Metal fans. Sure, they are different, but they are also just like us, see? They have jobs and kids and eat dinner with forks, just like regular Americans. And so, we should accept it. "If vampires are okay, then surely my White Power group is all right, right? I mean, I just hate people who aren't the same skin color as me, never mind the decades of genetic studies and mountains of evidence that states there is not, and never was, an "Aryan Race," okay? I'm not nearly as bad as the guy who thinks the Earth is flat! That guy's nuts!"

This is my long-winded way of saying the media normalized crazy.

I may have lost some of you there. I understand. For those of you still hanging on, here's my final point about all of this:

It's hard to find pictures of Alex Jones from the 1990s on his
Austin Cable Access show. Those things are gold. And also
scrubbed from the Internet, for some strange reason. 
Alex Jones was a staple of Austin Cable Access TV in the 1990s. If you lived in Austin, Texas, at that time, and you were ever drunk or stoned on a Friday night around 11:30, then you watched him. You watched him scream into the void; a much younger, thinner, and ironically, more sincere man, yelling about the New World Order and Black Helicopters and the police state and oh, brother, it was a cornucopia of paranoid delights. We didn't think he was hurting anyone, either. Live and let live. And besides, who is going to take this guy seriously? I mean, just look at him. He looked like an angry Jehovah's Witness in his suit, yelling in front of a Chroma Key display with weird blinking messages scrawling across.  He's batshit crazy, but he's not hurting anyone.

Then 9/11 happened. And suddenly, in a world looking for answers, in a world shattered by unspeakable tragedy, and for a nation who had never been asked to look at a complex situation and think and reason and have an informed opinion about Sixty Years of American Middle East Policy, the only person who had all the answers was Alex Jones. It's what he'd been waiting for his whole life. "Nine-Eleven was an inside job." That was his message. It was easy, simple, it fed into his pre-existing narrative, and for a large number of people who didn't go running back to church as fast as they could go (a topic for a whole other blog), this answer seemed to make the most sense.

Now he's a global brand, with a media empire. Millions of people are checking out his bullshit and, in the absence of anything else that helps explain why things are the way they are, they are drinking some, if not all, of his Kool-Aid.

I've written before about Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories, and this link is a great examination of that topic. But anyone who really thinks that our government would fly planes into buildings so they can take away our guns is deranged. And we should have stamped that weird, stupid thought out a while ago.

"But Mark," you say, "That's horrible! You can't 'stamp out' an idea, no matter how repellent."

No? Look at the number of conspiracy theories out there right now. The "field" has mushroomed into an encyclopedic array of topics. Among them? Anti-vaccinators. A clear public health risk. Flat-Earthers: science-deniers who now have a growing number of converts thanks to YouTube. Hmm, let's see, I wonder what other theories and contrarian thoughts and socially-abhorrent agendas could be found online, easily searchable and accessible to everyone?

What about these hate groups and these White Supremacists and these disenfranchised loners who have been isolated in the woods and operating out of dilapidated trailers? They're online, looking for answers, because they aren't in control of their lives, and don't really know how they lost it. Desperate for answers, any answers, they will seek out and find whatever makes the most sense to them. Anything but the truth. Conspiracy Theories, floated out there by Fringe Groups, sound way better than the reality, than the truth. Surely not...but's not hurting anyone, right? We have to accept it, right?

This is how we get Golf Shirt Nazis in 2017. We never needed to accept them. We just didn't need to give them the airtime.

No comments: