Recent events invite me to recall my Nazi student.
Back in the late 1970s I taught college extension courses at military bases in the Pacific Northwest. I had some outstanding students, one of whom is still in touch with me and gives me lessons on close reading of political texts. One went to Duke law school. Another one went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago. She won tenure and teaching awards at a quite respectable institution but met an untimely demise due to complications following surgery.
Then I had the Nazi. The class was a comparative politics seminar, with a European focus and quite a bit of Winston Churchill, including his fine work, Great Contemporaries. The student didn’t stand out in any particular way, but along with the others making introductions, he introduced himself in an offhand way and mentioned that he was a Nazi. I wondered whether this was just a provocation. I guess I just stared at him. Later, some trusted students who had taken courses with me before told me they had spoken with him during the class break and said that he was a bit odd but shouldn’t prove to be a problem.
The thought crossed my mind that I should ask him to leave the course, that I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching him. Should I report him to proper military authorities? I thought it odd that he would submit to the classroom authority, at least, of a non-Aryan. As it turned out, he observed classroom decorum, so he stayed.
At the end of course, having completed a paper on Churchill’s My Early Life, he declared to the class that he no longer despised Jews—though he allowed that he retained a lot of other despicable judgments. Given the latter attitudes, I could not rejoice in his apparent partial conversion. I did wonder whether a Nazi who did not regard Jews as inferiors, perhaps as vermin even, had lost his raison d’etre.
Did my class, with some thoughtful students’ contributions, somehow enlighten him and perhaps even prevent him from committing reprehensible acts? Maybe it worked in this way: Another, older Army student of mine, a warrant officer, marveled at my classes, declaring that he had previously thought that a “liberal” arts course meant they were to be indoctrinated in Leftist ideology. To the contrary, in my courses, he was saying, manly people could talk about ideas in great books and still be manly and not necessarily even Leftists. In this, I wasn’t trying to be an advocate, just a teacher.
I believe I improved that Nazi’s life, though not to the extent that I would have wanted. Would his life, or the lives of those he encountered subsequent to our meeting, have been better had I expelled him, as my feelings then screamed?
To return to recent events, one wonders what goes through the minds of the marchers of whatever persuasion in Charlottesville. What are their souls like? To judge by Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-Right (I guess that’s the correct nomenclature) and a pro-Robert E. Lee statue march organizer, some do not lack academic credentials. He has degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago, and had studied for a Ph.D. in European intellectual history at Duke. One has to assume similar if not even greater credentials on the part of those who want to remove Confederate statues.
Would any of the marchers change their views if their “identity politics” were more vigorously affirmed, as it is on nearly every college campus today? But isn’t that the problem, at least with the neo-nazis and Black Lives Matter? Aren’t these just more cultures among the many of multiculturalism? Are the marchers moved by the old faiths, Protestant, Catholic, Jew? Perhaps, but paganism and atheism appear on the alt-Right and doubtless flourishes in its opponents as well. And Jefferson Davis’s Jewish secretary of war seems to have no purchase on them either. Faith traditions and historical facts have their limits, it seems, when they oppose the new faith.
Are the marchers in either cause moved by the Declaration of Independence or its principal author, Thomas Jefferson? Aren’t the founders derided (or hailed) as slave owners? Could the marchers agree with Jefferson: “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever….”
If anything unites the marchers of all stripes, it is the common rejection of Jefferson, Lincoln, and America altogether.
Or could any of the marchers take to heart the blunter words of Lincoln, who defined slavery as “you work and I eat….”
If anything unites the marchers of all stripes, it is the common rejection of Jefferson, Lincoln, and America altogether. Do any of them display Lincolnian charity? Did anyone propose raising a statue of Lincoln instead of razing one of Robert E. Lee? It is the victorious who can afford to be magnanimous and therewith charitable.
The marchers are people without a past and thus they are also people without a future. Persons in such a distressful situation may reject the political altogether and seek a different world. There is in fact a unity, a transcendent one: in a religion of peace and love that nonetheless commands with the force of law. In it all contradictions are resolved, the earthly and the transcendent; secular and sacred; master and slave; sensual and spiritual. But maybe they have already considered Islam. Mustapha Mond, here they come! But, alas, even there we find Sunni versus Shia.
Perhaps the spirited Charlottesville marchers and their comrades throughout the country might instead leave America, so to speak, and turn to Winston Churchill. My Early Life might inspire them to get a hold of themselves and live more flourishing lives.