While Kate McInnes raises a compelling argument in her article, “You’re using the term “Nazi” wrong,” I find her conclusion — that the Charlottesville protesters should not be referred to as Nazis — to be harmful to the anti-racism movement she hopes to protect.
McInnes argues that by “othering” domestic racists as Nazis, American commentators create the illusion that violent racism is not endemic to the U.S. She concludes that we must “tackle the root of the problem” of racism in America by avoiding terminology that obscures the “real nature” of the protesters.
Yes, Charlottesville has a Confederate history. Yes, the protests had something to do with protecting the statue of a Confederate general. However, while “old-stock” representatives of American white supremacy such as the KKK were present in Charlottesville, the actual “Unite the Right” organizers and protesters represent a very different group in several ways.
Firstly, the demographic does not quite match. These are mostly young men, many of whom are in universities or colleges. Their white supremacist radicalization was shaped on these campuses, and not necessarily within a family legacy of Confederacy, slave ownership, and “whiteness” as self-identity.
Next, the ideology itself has a different flavour. The American alt-right, of which the most vocal and radical proponents showed themselves at Charlottesville, is a mishmash of white nationalists, men’s rights activists, Infowars conspiracy theorists, 4chan edgelords, and Third Reich role-players. These groups bond over a mutual dislike of American liberalism, “PC culture”, and, basically, people different from them. Their ideologies stem from a small contingent of blatant neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer who skip the whole segregation bit and call for, as Spencer puts it, “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
Finally, the protest needs to be examined in the greater context of xenophobic movements spreading throughout the western world. The American alt-right bears striking resemblance to European factions that espouse white supremacy, ultranationalism, and Nazi symbolism; this phenomenon is bigger than America’s historic racism and nationalism.
A distinct ideological background and connection to international fascism make it perfectly reasonable to apply the Nazi label in this case. That said, McInnes is not wrong to note the intersection between the Unite the Right’s pointed ideology and America’s homegrown systemic racism. The protesters were radicalized within the deep acceptance of racism in America, and these roots are well worth examining. Unfortunately, we are now looking at ideologies that reach beyond the racist status quo, and there is an urgency to act. McInnes’ proposal that we dig down to the roots, while admirable, is unpragmatic and intellectualizing.
Calling this movement Nazism is more likely to compel liberals and even conservatives to take action.