The military imposes standards of conduct on its members that are more restrictive than what’s tolerated by the civilian population, but the desire of some House members to exclude neo-Nazis from the military raises difficult questions. Accepting the exclusion of neo-Nazis may be as dangerous as accepting them into the military.
Are neo-Nazis advocating the violent overthrow of the government? That’s a variant of the question I was asked when I filled out the application for an Air Force security clearance. Did I belong to a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government? No, I did not. Since I served during the Cold War, there may have been a specific question about Communist organizations, but there were none about neo-Nazis, who were, after all, anti-Communists. Some neo-Nazis have occasionally express a desire to overthrow the government, usually because a Democrat (and especially a Black Democrat) is president. Right now, though, most neo-Nazis seem content with the current Republican regime. Certainly, they have murderous intentions towards Muslims, Jews, People of Color, immigrants, and Buddhist- Liberation Theology-Socialists like me, but have we, as a free society, decided that neo-Nazis are such a grave danger that the mere presence of their ideas can’t be tolerated?
Many nations in Europe did have that discussion, and neo-Nazis are banned as a matter of law, even if they exist as a matter of fact, in many countries. I don’t think Americans have confronted the question yet, but perhaps we need to, and for more urgent reasons than allowing neo-Nazis serve in the military.
The current Republican regime, to rephrase the Chinese, exhibits fascism with American characteristics. So we have fascism in the military, fascism in the legislative branch, fascism in the judicial branch, and, most dangerously, fascism in the executive branch. Our foreign policy is imperialist with fascist tendencies. Our treatment of migrants and refugees on our southern border and elsewhere relies on fascist notions of Blut und Boden, blood and soil.
What, exactly, are we excluding neo-Nazis from?
In 1962, Bertrand Russell famously refused to debate Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. In a letter rejecting a debate, Russell wrote:
“It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.
“I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.”
I certainly agree with Russell’s points and his vehemence, but he wasn’t establishing government policy, which is much trickier. Which ideologies are acceptable, and which are not? Are socialists or members of the Green Party acceptable to the military? What about a member of Black Lives Matter? Can they receive a security clearance?
Obviously, neo-Nazis/white supremacists are despicable, but, short of advocating violence, is it illegal to be a neo-Nazi? No, it is not. Is it dangerous to have neo-Nazis in the military? Potentially, yes, because a neo-Nazi takeover of the military could lead to all sorts of mayhem. They could reject civilian control, stage a coup d’etat, and seize power for themselves. Or they could ally with a president who lost an election, stepping in to nullify the results, so the president could remain in power.
Republic-destroying horrors, to be sure, but does the potential for such violence warrant a ban? And how consistent should we be? It’s inimical to religious freedom, among other aspects of freedom, to have conservative Christian fascists in the military, yet they are welcomed and allowed to aggressively proselytize. Why one but not the other?
We need, I think, to have a “Come to Jesus” meeting about fascism in America.
As a socialist, I’m acutely aware that Americans are frequently intolerant of my beliefs. Socialists opposed the entry of the U.S. into World War I and many were arrested, including Eugene Debs, who campaigned for president as a socialist from a federal prison. Socialists led unionization efforts in the 1920s and 1930s, which were often brutally repressed by capitalists and the U.S. government. During the Palmer raids of the 1920s, socialists were arrested and deported to their countries of origin or to the Soviet Union.
According to the government, socialists were, prima facie, disloyal to the government and the greater American experiment.
For a brief period after World War II, socialists were tolerated and some became mayors of cities, including, most famously, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Despite the preferences of many voters, though, the establishment’s response was swift and vicious: McCarthyism, a vulgar and virulent form of anti-communism, attacked and destroyed the lives of real and imagined socialists and tainted American perceptions of socialists for decades.
So as a socialist, I’m more than a little concerned when the government determines loyalties and defines acceptable ideologies.
There certainly were socialists who supported the Soviet Union in its heyday, but then, so did the U.S. government during the Second World War. Some socialist groups still advertise themselves as “sympathetic” to the former Soviet Union, but that’s hardly true of all socialists. Many, including me, consider the Soviet era Communist Party repugnant. The Soviet Union itself was an anti-democratic form of state capitalism — in effect, it was a fascist state. I can reject Soviet and Putin totalitarianism while expressing solidarity with the people of Russia. I can also recognize that at least some of the former Soviet Union’s (and current Putin’s) aggressiveness was less concerned with the global spread of communism than with an attempt to counter a paranoid and aggressive U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) political and military offensive, which crowded the Soviet Union’s doorstep with a vast, bristling array of diplomatic, clandestine, and military forces.
The same is true of China, another former World War II ally. Reading Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse Tung (colloquially known as Mao’s Little Red Book), as I did in college, might generate some enthusiasm for socialism with Chinese characteristics . . . Until you read about the Great Leap Forward, various other Five-Year Plans, and the Cultural Revolution. The romance of Mao is short-lived.
There are non-Marxist sources of socialism (since Marx is a sinister bugaboo to True American Patriotsᵀᴹ), although Marx remains valuable as a historian and critic of capitalism. There are Christian, Fabian, and utopian variants that don’t involve violent revolution, murderous development plans, or totalitarian states. Democratic socialism, in fact, is more democratic than American-style government and its free market economic system, because democratic socialism extends democracy into the last redoubt of authoritarianism in America: the corporate workplace.
Why is this history important? Because the ban against neo-Nazis that I approve of today can easily become an excuse to attack me tomorrow. It’s a characteristic of free speech that once the government begins to pick and choose what’s acceptable everyone’s freedoms are at risk.
The military and the rest of us also need to do a certain amount of perplexed mirror gazing before we, willy-nilly, begin to ban ideas. Neo-Nazis are possessed of an ideology of violence, intolerance, and conformity . . . Much like the military itself, which is intolerant of dissent, demands conformity, and which schools its members in the use of violence against whomever the state declares an enemy. Theoretically, of course, enemies are identified by elected representatives in Congress, but as a practical matter one person, the president, is the “decider,” and the power to “choose enemies” has been abused over and over again.
Americans have accepted this. We’ve also accepted that the U.S. has the self-assumed right to invade other nations and kill people we disagree with, even though most of them present no danger to us. The War on Terror is, at its root, a war on ideas that we don’t like. Yes, some of the people advocating certain ideas are dangerous to Americans — the Wahhabists of our Saudi Arabian ally are a good example — but they’re dangerous primarily because we’re in their space, their nation, where we have no right to be.
So, should the military and, by extension, American society, ban neo-Nazis? I think, first, we need to have a conversation about who we really are. The conversation needs to include not only our ideals, the image we have of ourselves, but our behavior. Because the neo-Nazis just may be a clumsy, stilted exaggeration of the people and nation we’ve allowed ourselves to become.