17 april 2019


I have never been to Paris. I've never been in a financial position that would allow me to visit Europe. Still, the photographs I saw of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris even as it continued to burn on Monday gave me the feeling that I was watching a portal into human history collapse. An acquaintance noted on Facebook that Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem had caught fire as well, and I said:

Fortunately it sounds like this fire was more contained / caused less structural damage. Both of these incidents make me think of everything that was lost in the fire at Brazil's National Museum, though, and of Palmyra, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, the extensive theft of Egyptian antiquities… Humanity keeps burning down the library of Alexandria all over again

But today I feel a little differently. after listening to Oberlin College medieval art history professor Erik Inglis talk about the history of the cathedral for WBUR's On Point. It's not that I feel that the potential losses in this fire are any less important than they seemed on Monday. Inglis understands very well the historical importance of the historical artifacts involved. And yet in his voice I did not here the same quavering grief I heard in the voices of onlookers interviewed outside the cathedral as it burned. Inglis does not seem to view the fire as an ending, but as just another event in the unending and ever more convoluted story of Notre-Dame. The cathedral, Inglis says, is more "Process" than place. The original construction is said to have taken about two hundred years, but it has never been static for long. The beloved stained glass windows feared lost in the fire already had their panes replaced with lighter, more in-vogue glass in the 1800s. Statues of kings once considered integral to the cathedral were decapitated, or removed for their safety, during the Revolution. The spire that collapsed on Monday to the horror of the world was not "original" to the structure. We have arrived at another episode in the life of the cathedral, but there is always another episode ahead. The process of the cathedral continues, and this is more than we can say of many of humanity's worthiest endeavors. The purpose of building the cathedral in the first place was to raise the prestige of the Bishop of Paris. What it is today is something vastly different; that is history at work.


"It's all relative to what your community expects of you, and what your family expects of you, and what you expect of yourself… And they’re sitting at their mom’s house with everyone laughing at them, and it’s a toxic thing."

This could have described me a few short years ago. I'm intimately familiar with this situation. What's alarming is who is describing it. The above quote comes from a co-founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, cited a year ago in a Washington Post piece about how one recruit decided to join, published a year ago. Unlike many superficial profiles of "alt-right" leaders like Richard Spencer that we saw in 2016-2017, this piece does not focus exclusively on its subject's clean-cut, presentable side. It shows the ugly reality of his all-consuming obsession with white-supremacist ideology and how that weighs daily on his vocally disgusted mother.

When someone becomes a neo-Nazi, that doesn't render them deserving of pity, or uniquely deserving of understanding. We don't owe it to Nazis to understand why they became Nazis. But to some degree, we owe it to ourselves, because if there is a critical point where people who "fall through the gaps" become more susceptible to this kind of ideology, we must take action to ensure fewer people end up there.

I was once "humiliated," as the TWP recruiter said, by my inability to become financially independent and fulfill the expectations that my community had for me, that my family had for me, and that I had for myself. I was never drawn to white nationalism; I couldn't describe from experience why it appeals to anyone. But I was just the sort of person that recruiter described, humiliated, white, and tenuously identified as male at the time.

The period of several months between when I first dropped out of college in 2012 and when I got my first non-work-study job near the end of that same year was a very volatile and vulnerable time in my life. I was housed, and adequately fed, and convinced that I did not deserve it. Unlike the neo-Nazi unflinchingly depicted in the Washington Post piece, I didn't hold back from applying at local fast food restaurants that advertised they were hiring. I frustrated my father by using all the gas in his minivan driving around local commerical areas, filling out applications at any store with a hiring sign. I let him drive me to ill-reputed temp agencies that never got back to me. I had dropped out of school because of a looming mental health crisis, but in the short term, the thoughts I had, that I didn't deserve to live, &c, only got worse.

Back in 2013-2014, when I was working at an unprofitable Target store in central Massachusetts, begging to pick up unwanted shifts in an often futile attempt to maintain more than 12 hours of work per week, constantly terrified that I'd lose my job (in employee reviews I was told first that I was working too slowly, and not covering enough ground, then that I had improved my pace but I wasn't accurate enough, and eventually told that they couldn't give me a higher rating because the store couldn't afford the pay raise that would accompany it), or that I'd lose our appartment and my partners would become homeless while I moved back in with my parents, or just worried that if I decided to buy a McChicken on the way home from work my debit card would be declined -- under those circumstances my mental health was still probably better, overall, than it was when I first dropped out of college and was living unemployed in my father's house. Because even as I struggled with my job, I had the sense that I had something to live for. I didn't have that when I first dropped out of college.

Alienated, unemployed youth of all genders and ethnic backgrounds are caught in a psychological crisis, a social crisis, and it is one of capitalism's many failures of humanity that we allow this crisis to prevail. When those youth also happen to be white and male, this crisis is also a tinderbox feeding fascism and mass murder.