I have walked among them since I first learned to walk. They surrounded me in blue-collar Utica, New York–an early capitol of Rust Belt America, back in the 1950s, where “nigger” was an all-purpose, white-on-white epithet on the Little League diamonds and basketball courts—though I never saw a black person in the flesh until I was eleven years old. I still remember how astonished I was by the sight of him: somehow a “Negro” kid, roughly my age, had strayed into our Italian/Irish/Polish neighborhood, and he was sprinting desperately to escape before he got caught and stomped. I was riding down Genessee Street with my friend Clark Battie in his dad’s pick-up truck. Old man Battie slowed down as we passed the terrified, wide-eyed kid and laughed quietly. “Look at that, Johnny. The things ya see when ya don’t have your gun, huh?”
At 18 I stood on the Boston Common with my girlfriend Connie and 20,000 other white people as George Wallace conducted the biggest rally of his presidential campaign.
Then, in 1993, as research for a screenplay, I had the monstrously foolish idea not only to go among them, but to become one of them. I spent three days as an undercover Klansman, ushered into the racist underworld by a legendary Nazi/Klan felon who served as my “rabbi.” Introducing me as one of his bodyguards, he took me to a weekend retreat in rural Pennsylvania, where rival Klan factions hooked up with American Nazis, Aryan Brothers, and members of The Posse Comitatus, the Michigan Militia, and—my favorite name of all—The Cross, the Sword, and the Covenant of the Lord. Hair slicked back into a rockabilly D.A. underneath an orange Florida Gators cap, loudly proclaiming my hatred for the national jews’-media, I drank the $3 champagne with them, popped their No-Doz, and smoked their cut-rate generic cigarettes. That adventure, which ended in a near-fatal stabbing–and with both my rabbi and me being held for three hours at (multiple) gun-point(s)–is a story for another day. But what I learned over that lost weekend has stuck with me for nearly 25 years. And of course it flared up over the weekend, a retrovirus coming back to haunt me.
Many of the Klan/Nazi leaders I met were much smarter than we’d like to think—thoughtful students of history and tactics. They had learned from the fratricide of the 1960s left, and that was the reason for the weekend convocation: they were determined to rise above petty factional differences. The footsoldiers, of course, are stone losers–so unloved by their fathers that they are forced to live out self-created images of manhood that constantly flicker and blur—I’m a killer! I’m a victim! I’m a defender! I’m a martyr!–and so loathed by women that they try to immunize themselves by loathing women in return. When they talk—and the first lesson I learned about hard-core racists, travelling 120 miles with them in a beat-to-crap station wagon daubed with Rust-O-Leum–is that everybody talks; you don’t join a racist group in order to keep silent—they keep crashing into the contradictions of their badly-cobbled-together world-view. The Holocaust never happened—but it was great. Black people are too stupid to do white people’s jobs—but black people are doing white people’s jobs.
The prevailing sense you get—the “wisdom of the (Klan/Nazi) crowd,” if you will–is that even though black people are simian, lust-maddened imbeciles, like other jungle creatures they are relatively harmless as long as they’re confined to their native habitat. Ah, but the Jew! Those hook-nosed mosquitos feasting on the blood of the goyim! (They say “good taste is timeless,” but so are antisemitic cartoons—the stuff floating around on the internet is indistinguishable from what you’d see on a 1930s German broadsheet.) The Hebrews are comic-book evil geniuses—every Jew a Lex Luthor—who mind-control black and white alike. Jews invented hip-hop, for example. Jews ghost-write all the raps, from Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur straight through to Kendrick Lamar. (“Hymie! Hurry up and finish that gangsta rap, ya big schlemiel!”) And by seducing white teens with its sinister beats, Jews infect them all with irrestistable urges for inter-racial sex. These super-Jews transcend time itself; the semites of 2017 are executing Talmudic plots dreamed up in the Middle Ages.
It’s enough to make Alan Dershowitz blush.
But, like those crude black-and-white mosquito-Jew cartoons, the Final Solution never changes. Hanging them from lamp-posts. Gassing them with Zyklon B. (Arcane debates about the efficacy of various gaseous poisons are common.) Rendering them into lampshades. It’s a nonstop tape-loop of race-hatred and genocide-dreams. And this is where the outsider—no matter how well-versed in the rhetoric, no matter how he steels himself against it—begins to falter. I was an eager infiltrator, but this is where I lost heart. Because to live through that ongoing conversation–and not just to endure it, but to be a laughing participant in it–is something that my nervous system was not wired for. The synapses of any faintly decent human being are wired to short out and shut down at this point. You have to keep kick-starting your brain. And in the end it’s too exhausting.
Hard-core genocide-talk is akin to hard-core pornography: the author has to keep upping the ante, super-charging every adjective, mercilessly slicing away any word that doesn’t make the reader hard. There is a dismal but very real art to it. I can only imagine that years of reading and speaking this porno-racist lingo permanently alter the brain.
How many of these fullblown psychos move among us? Probably no more now than there were in the Utica of my childhood. But no less—Bill Clinton made sure of that with NAFA and GATT, thus gutting whatever blue-collar jobs, and whatever chances for self-respect, were left in all of America’s many Uticas. What’s so strange about this moment is that—whatever the number of hard-core racists–now they have open sympathizers in the White House.
I once read an account of the Warsaw Ghetto in which a survivor, an old woman, said that at first the Nazis would kidnap Jews at night; you’d wake up to find that two of your neighbors had disappeared. But she could make a kind of queasy compact with that reality, because it happened in the night, when everyone was asleep. Then one morning she woke up to see bodies hanging from the lamp-posts, and her first thought was: oh, God—now they’re doing it in the daylight.
For myself, I’m not sure which is worse.