I’m not, obviously, a Nazi. But you wouldn’t know that from my Twitter mentions.
A year ago, I wrote a column for the Forward entitled, “We Need to Start Befriending Neo-Nazis.” Over the course of the year, the headline has been screenshot and tweeted by actors with millions of followers, influential progressives like cartoonist Eli Valley and former Al Jazeera editor David Klion. Their intention wasn’t to spark a conversation about the content of my column, but to paint me as a Nazi-loving member of the alt-right.
And after I tweeted about darling of the left Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to debate Ben Shapiro, the whole rigmarole started again.
pic.twitter.com/oQJDZ8y1Pc— David Klion?? (@DavidKlion) August 10, 2018
The bad faith involved in this campaign is shocking. Far from a piece endorsing Nazism, my piece recounted the story of three individuals, two Jewish and one black, who were able to make neo-Nazis change their ways by responding to their terrible bigotry with kindness.
Of course, I acknowledged that this work is not easy, but also that “the only way we’re going to get our country back is to change minds.”
For this, I’ve been compared to a Nazi over and over again. The insinuation is always the same: For suggesting that instead of beating up Nazis, we try to change their minds, I am complicit in their despicable, hate-filled ideology.
Didn’t you write an article about how we have to befriend nazis? And now you’re suggesting a serious dem socialist candidate engage in a ‘debate’ with one of their propagandists? Please, just admit you love the taste of boots. We can see your tongue licking them. pic.twitter.com/d3BIZn1LFx— ? I k a t s u m e Octoling Extraordinaire (@ikatsume) August 10, 2018
I am no stranger to how dangerous the work of changing minds can be. I wrote about how being one of the writers most harassed by the alt-right led to my decision to obtain a gun permit and buy a handgun.
But the fact that ADL found me to be one of the worst victims of Nazi harassment doesn’t matter, because progressives have decided that posting the headline of my column is the perfect virtue signal to indicate how terrible conservatives are, even if doing so is a complete misrepresentation of me, my arguments and my beliefs.
This internet pile-on isn’t just shameful for those involved; it also totally misses the point of the original column, thereby losing an opportunity to root out the hatred they claim to abhor.
You’re an inspiration for birth control pic.twitter.com/bKWcwinHAQ— ℬ (@its_Brennan) August 10, 2018
What does it mean to become friends with a neo-Nazi, and what is the point of trying to do so? I argued, with numerous examples, that treating people with kindness has a way of changing hearts and minds filled with hatred.
Just this last week, two more stories emerged to support my thesis: Daryl Davis, a black R&B musician, contributed to the bail fund of a KKK imperial wizard, Richard Preston, who pulled a gun at the Charlottesville protests was arrested. In exchange, Davis asked Preston to come to the African American History and Culture museum with him.
Why is Davis spending his money and time on Preston? “It’s going to plant a seed,” Davis explained. “The seed may not blossom today, tomorrow, the next day, but eventually it will come out because the truth never can never be squashed.”
Preston isn’t turning in his robes quite yet, but the image of the two men embracing and smiling outside of the museum is powerful nonetheless.
Yet another marcher in Charlottesville last year, Ken Parker, denounced his hateful ways and was recently baptized by a black pastor. This, too, was the work of a good samaritan willing to see a neo-Nazi as a human in the hopes of achieving a deprogramming effect.
After the Charlottesville protests, Parker met a filmmaker, Deeyah Khan, who was filming a documentary. “I pretty much had heat exhaustion after the rally because we like to wear our black uniforms, and I drank a big Red Bull before the event,” Parker explained. “And I was hurting and she was trying to make sure I was OK.”
“She was completely respectful to me and my fiancée the whole time,” he says of Khan. “And so that kind of got me thinking: She’s a really nice lady. Just because she’s got darker skin and believes in a different god than the god I believe in, why am I hating these people?”
Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
A year after Charlottesville, it’s clear that punching people in the streets won’t end fascism and it won’t turn people away from hate. Gestures, big and small, of love and kindness, have a lot more power than those of hate and anger.
It may be a fun exercise to dunk on your political enemies online and in the streets, but for the long-term health of our political discourse, it’s much more effective to be kind.
Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.
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