Of all the things that came to my mind when watching footage of Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend chanting about blood and soil and how they won’t be replaced by Jews, I thought about pins.
One particular pin, in fact. One I haven’t seen in nearly 30 years, but one that suddenly seems sadly relevant given the recent events.
I first became aware of this particular pin in 1988, during the Winter Olympic Games in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta.
I’m not the most ardent fan of the Olympics these days. The corruption, the bankrupting of nations and the displacing of poor people to make way for multi-million dollar stadiums that never get used again has soured me on them. That said, it’s impossible to ignore the magic that still comes with the Olympics. And you’ll only really understand that if you have been in an Olympic city during the Games.
As a boy, it was overwhelming. I hadn’t really traveled much at that age, but the Olympics brought the entire world to my doorstep. To walk through the Olympic Plaza downtown was to move through a makeshift United Nations. It was an amazing cultural kaleidoscope. All you needed to do was turn around and you’d bump into someone from a country you’d never been to, speaking a language you’d never heard before.
One of the major occupations for locals, tourists and even athletes was pin trading. It was everywhere. At the C-Train stations and the Olympic Plaza downtown, you could swap pins with folks from every corner of the planet. Many traders had vests and caps covered in pins or carried beach towels filled with them. Language was never a barrier. Two people could share the experience with just a smile and a gesture.
But as with any bunch, there is always one rotten apple. Among the symbols of sport and nationality, there was one wretched bit of plastic and metal making the rounds.
This pin featured a white man surrounded by a small group of minstrel-like caricatures of people of colour – an African, a Hindu, an Asian and so on. Above them were the words: “Who is the minority now?”
The pin, which was also sold in British Columbia as I recall, made headlines for a few days, drawing rapid condemnation from many quarters. It was the first time I became aware of the existence of white supremacy as an idea and it seems as vile and alien to me then as it does now.
More than anything else that pin seemed to me to be a symbol of the deep inferiority complex that must reside in the hearts of white supremacists. How fragile must their world view be to believe they are looking into the abyss of extinction merely because other people have a different skin tone?
From that ugly pin to the hate filled marches in Charlottesville some 30 years later, it seems little has changed for this variety of moral pygmy. Like an insect trapped in amber, these racists are frozen in time, their world view a fossilized remnant of an evolutionary dead end.
It’s amazing really. Three decades on white power junkies from the KKK to neo-nazis and other assorted alt-right misfits are still preaching the same vapid fantasy of Caucasians as an endangered species that must fight – nay conquer – other people as a means of survival.
Their shriveled ideology may not have changed over time, but there is something markedly different about the white supremacists hawking that pin and the dullstones in Charlottesville carrying homemade shields and marching in phalanx formation like demented Spartan cosplayers – the racists of 2017 feel no fear in showing their faces. They feel no need to dress up in sheets or wear masks.
They feel this is their time.
Thirty years ago, the weight of social progress had tamped down this sort of thing. Racism was still alive, sure, but white supremacy seemed so fringe as to be barely worth anyone’s notice. The occasional outburst from Ernst Zundel, or a KKK member appearing on the Jerry Springer Show was about as serious as it got. Neo-Nazis and their ilk were considered less a threat than the garish targets of easy jokes.
Beyond isolated incidents, few took them seriously. Certainly, no one would have thought hundreds of racists, some members of armed militias, would answer the call to join a white power march, much less predict one of them would fatally hit a peaceful counter protester with a car.
But that is what happened, and no one is laughing anymore.
In 1988, no one would have dared march through the Olympic Plaza in Calgary proclaiming the superiority of a pale skin tone. That pin had to be circulated quietly, more or less under the radar. But in today’s climate, it is not impossible to imagine someone selling it proudly in public as a white power march souvenir.
The election of Donald Trump to the U.S presidency did not result in a swastika being raised over the White House, but it did signal to racists that now – after years of lurking in the background while the political culture descended into partisan extremes – was the time to rise.
Trump, the purveyor of the racist “birther” lie about former President Barack Obama, didn’t have to click his heels and make a Nazi salute to pave the way. He only needed to maintain his strange reluctance to condemn the white nationalists who were openly saying he was their president.
(It is no coincidence that while in Charlottesville, David Duke claimed the white power thugs were going to fulfil the promises made by Trump. He, and many like him, clearly believes Trump to be his ally even if the president may not be one in reality. Trump did finally condemn white nationalists, but only after several days of pressure to do so.)
The insistence by Trump and others that the violence in Charlottesville is the fault of “many sides” is an act of willful ignorance that refuses to acknowledge the racists at the center of the storm. Had they never felt it was safe to walk once again in the light, it is likely the march would not have happened, meaning there would have been no counter protests and no Nazi behind the wheel of a car with murder in his eye.
We live in an age of political apathy, where insults framed in 140 characters are considered clever discourse. We live in the time of Trump – a spawn of reality TV – of Mayweather vs. McGregor, of “safe zones” on university campuses and of fake news. It is only in such climate that white supremacists can feel secure enough to spread their hatreds openly.
Vigilance and the willingness to engage in the war of ideas is the price we must all be willing to pay to prevent the loss of more innocent lives, to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate any permutation of Nazism and to ensure that the worst white supremacists can do is skulk in the shadows to pawn a pitiful pin.