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The ‘alt-right’s’ relationship with American History X

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Edward Norton in American History X (New Line Cinema photo)

If there’s one line most moviegoers remember from American History X, it’s the famous one in its final act: “Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time.”

That line is not, however, what viewers from the “alt-right” remember.

The movie, directed by Tony Kaye (who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Britain) and released two decades ago this year, casts then–rising star Edward Norton as proud skinhead Derek Vinyard. Nazi paraphernalia adorns his room, and he has a thick black swastika tattooed across his chest. But after getting released from jail, Derek starts looking for ways to escape.

Most people realize the film is a cogent analysis of modern hatred, skeptical of the logic behind racially incited violence but giving it credence by representing it fairly. White nationalists, however, see that representation as an endorsement of their mentality.

“Derek’s arguments in favour of a race realist perspective are sound, informed, and quite frankly excellent,” writes Spencer Quinn in Counter Currents Publishing, a white-nationalist blog. “In the same way that all American country boys carry a Huckleberry Finn in their hearts, everyone on the ‘alt-right’ should carry a Derek Vinyard.”

Folks on the Reddit web forum “Debate the ‘Alt-Right’” agree, with one member saying it “does give somewhat a fair voice to some of our ideas.”

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Perhaps the most incisive argument for American History X being a pro neo-Nazi film comes from one commenter on Quinn’s essay, who notes that the film “failed at being anti-racist because it gave the whites the best argument and only combats this logic with muh feels.” (That’s slang for “my feelings,” a pejorative that”alt-righters” use to dismiss any arguments hinging on emotions.) 

I am loath to ever agree with neo-Nazis, but regarding this film, they have a point. Vinyard’s speeches are eloquent, stemming from (myopic) reason and (limited) lived experience, and other white nationalists in the film – such as his father, who rails against affirmative action because he believes in true equal opportunity – are drawn out like intellectuals. Nobody in the movie makes a strong verbal argument for multiculturalism.

Most viewers, of course, do not need a strong verbal argument for multiculturalism, because the film exists in a world of moral objectivity, where there is right and wrong, and neo-Nazis are so profoundly, obviously wrong that it literally goes without saying. But if you happen to be a neo-Nazi, and you believe you are crusading toward a glistening “white ethnostate” inexplicably cleansed of Jews and visible minorities, you wouldn’t necessarily catch on to that.

And therein lies the problem: modern society is ignoring the “alt-right,” and that’s not working. By banning folks like Faith Goldy from speaking on campuses, by petitioning web hosts like GoDaddy to take down neo-Nazi websites, we are refusing to engage with them in debate. We prefer to roll our eyes and brush them off because their ideas are needless to refute – they’re just patently morally wrong.

But to the “alt-right,” that isn’t convincing. It’s not even just censorship – it’s an admission of defeat. When opponents refuse to engage, “alt-righters” hear, “We don’t have a good enough argument, so just shut up, please.” They see Elliott Gould in American History X walking away in pained silence after Derek, who just dominated an aggressive argument over Rodney King that escalated into physical violence, threatened to “cut your Shylock nose off and stick it up your ass.”

These people claim they want a “debate.” They want to prove they’re right in a battle of ideas. Whatever that debate looks like, we’re not having it.