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Three New Books Illuminate the Rise of Violent White Extremism


Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America By Vegas Tenold 313 pp. Nation Books. $27.

Before Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston, before Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville while protesting the torch-wielding “alt-right” — before, in short, everyone suddenly felt an urgent need to understand violent white racism — a Norwegian journalist named Vegas Tenold was watching neo-Nazi street fights, attending a Klan wedding and learning the best way to burn a cross (first wrap it in old clothes, then finish with a ribbon of burlap to create a flaming spiral effect).

Tenold’s focus is not on the Richard Spencers of the world. He hangs out with the “boots,” not the “suits” segment of the movement, presenting a Mountain Dew and menthol-fueled loserfest of fizzled marches, cruddy hotel banquets and logically challenged monologues, all recounted with a dutiful dose of disapproval. At a National Socialist weekend, an Oklahoma man who identifies himself as a sergeant in the group’s SS says his son has been expelled from school for wearing a “White Power” T-shirt. “There are no rights left for whites in this country,” the man complains.

One of the main characters, Matthew Heimbach, an Amazon warehouse employee and devoted organizer of the extreme right, tries throughout the book to usher in a new, less overtly hateful era. At one rally, he cajoles Klansmen to ditch their white robes, arguing that they’ll be better able to fight without them.

Through Heimbach’s attempts to unite disparate white groups under one umbrella — which finally succeed in Charlottesville — we get a vivid tour of the most explicit and least devious forms of American extremism, with each sub-ideology curdling in its own sour shell.

While the book provides plenty of color, it lacks much insight. There is no narrative arc to lift long historical passages out of the bog of copious facts. In one of his rare moments of reflection, Tenold seems to discount the importance of his own subject, writing that the far right is “destined to fail,” because, he argues, America doesn’t need organized racism: It’s racist enough without it.

WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH My Descent Into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement — and How I Got Out By Christian Picciolini 275 pp. Hachette. Paper, $15.99.

The music came from a mail-order service called Romantic Violence. It was for “white people with guts.” Picciolini, then a punk rock kid in Chicago struggling against the assimilationist dreams of his immigrant Italian parents, was hooked.

He soon learned that skinhead trappings — Doc Martens, the skinny suspenders known as braces, Nazi insignias — made people automatically fear him, and he got hooked on that, too. Picciolini became an enterprising disciple. He shoplifted, and read, a copy of the only book he could find on skinheads. He diligently photocopied and disseminated racist literature. When his mentor went to prison, Picciolini was ready to step in, ultimately fronting Final Solution, one of the first American neo-Nazi bands to play in Europe.

He got expelled from school multiple times, once after beating a black kid who refused to move and hurling racial epithets at the principal. He presided over street fights and began to stockpile weapons for the race war he believed was looming.

He also grew up: He got married, had two sons and opened a record store that sold some white supremacist music, but also attracted anti-racist and nonwhite customers who turned out to be real human beings. A friend, a fellow band frontman and father, was killed in a fight. Picciolini began to realize that the movement was no longer for him.

But in the end, there is something unsatisfying about this redemption checklist. In Christian Picciolini’s story, the only character is Christian Picciolini. We don’t hear from anyone he hurt — other than a chance encounter with the former security guard at his high school, to whom he apologizes, he does not seek any of them out. By this time his wife has left him, and though Picciolini worries about what his new girlfriend, who “saw beyond my mistakes to the man I had become,” will have to say about his old tattoos, we don’t actually find out. When a tragedy befalls his family, Picciolini goes so far as to wonder if it isn’t divine payback for his own mistakes.

HEALING FROM HATE How Young Men Get Into — and Out of — Violent Extremism By Michael Kimmel 288 pp. University of California. $29.95.

There is a vintage piece of neo-Nazi propaganda that is a racist take on an old Charles Atlas ad. After the whiny young protagonist bulks up and punches out a black man who bullied him, beachgoers in bikinis coo and pat his biceps. The cartoon makes Kimmel’s point perfectly: Extremism is fueled by wounded masculinity.

In Kimmel’s astute and, yes, empathetic analysis, he argues that without understanding the gendered aspect of extremism (he looks mostly at white supremacist groups, but also jihadists), we will not be able to defuse it. The young men in this book are enticed not by ideology, but by the powerful draw of camaraderie, belonging and a moral code, not to mention access to women and sex (even if, in the case of jihadis, it’s in the afterlife). Having suffered trauma, abuse, the need to keep homosexuality closeted, loneliness, economic insult or more mundane indignities, they turn to violence to ward off shame, coming to the table with what Kimmel, a sociologist who has spent his career focused on masculinity, calls “aggrieved entitlement.” The racist framework that comes to explain their woes usually arrives later.

Kimmel looks at recovering extremists in four countries — Germany, Sweden, the United States and Britain — and the organizations that help them escape when they become disillusioned. Those groups — EXIT in Germany and Sweden, Life After Hate in America and Quilliam, which works with British jihadis — offer not just safety, as many “formers” face violence when they try to leave, but also counseling, job training and the rudiments of an alternative form of manhood. (Life After Hate was given a $400,000 grant by the Obama administration, but it was later rescinded by Trump.)

Kimmel makes it clear that any approach to recovery lacking in empathy will fail. These men, he argues, have in fact lost something — they have been passed by and overlooked. But, Kimmel writes, they have been delivering their hate mail to the wrong address.


(c) 2018 The New York Times

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