If you know me, likely you’ve heard this story. I’ve told it a lot. Yes, despite occasional vows to the contrary, I am finally writing it down. This seemed like the moment. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Maybe now that I have, I can stop.
This is the story of that time I didn’t punch a Nazi in the face, and its consequences.
I joined chess club late in my freshman year of high school. The team captain was only a year older, a pale, skinny, intimidatingly brilliant, terminally aloof kid named Britt Greenbaum. Initially he refused to even play against me. Until I formally tried out for the team, I wasn’t worth his time. Even then, he took pains to make it clear he didn’t consider me a worthy opponent. He played the whole, painfully brief game with headphones on and his walkman turned up loud, barely looking at the board, making split-second moves.
In three years, I never saw him lose a game. My senior year, after he graduated and I took over as captain, kids at chess meets in neighboring towns would shake in their sneakers when they saw us coming. “Is Greenbaum still with you?”
I found out he was a white supremacist in my sophomore year, when we shared a free period. (Britt Greenbaum, Nazi. His dad was Jewish; he hated his dad.) He came up to me in the library, his sidekick, a Pakistani kid smaller than he was whose name has escaped me because I never heard him say a word except to agree with Britt, at his heels. No doubt he’d noticed I was reading one of Zelazny’s Amber novels, in which flamboyantly dressed, flamboyantly heterosexual white dudes battle for the secret order of the universe and no people of color appear anywhere. (At the time, this was invisible to me–practically all the SF and fantasy I’d read fit that description.) I had my discman; politely, I took off my headphones. He asked what I was listening to: Queen’s A Kind of Magic. “Princes of the Universe is a great song,” he said, as enthusiastically as I’d heard him say anything. Princes of the Universe: the theme from Highlander, those movies about a secret order of white dudes battling for ultimate power over the human race. (Yes, he was about to employ the music of a band called Queen fronted by a guy named Farrokh Bulsara as a springboard for his argument for a white master race.)
As the above is in this day and age perhaps no longer enough to indicate, I was an outsider, a weird kid without a lot of friends. So was he. A reasonable guess, from his perspective, that I might be wondering why women and power weren’t falling into my lap they way they did for Connor MacLeod and Corwin of Amber, harboring a grudge against the world he could exploit to mold me to his will. So he launched into the spiel: about how white men had valiantly made everything good in this world despite the tenacious resistance of everybody who wasn’t. About the white man’s burden specifically, it being our responsibility to keep everybody else on the right path. About the secret conspiracy of Jews. Thinking back, it all was incredibly, painfully obvious. At the time, I’d never heard it before, but still it took less than a minute for me to start arguing.
In even less time, he shrugged his disinterest and took off with his posse of one. He never bothered me about it again.
I don’t know how many other kids he tried this on. Not many, I suspect. Nobody I’ve asked since. My high school wasn’t exactly the ideal breeding ground for Nazism. Tiny graduating classes, rich kids of educated parents, a fair number of them Jewish, fewer Indian and Pakistani, fewer Latinx, Chinese. A handful of Black kids who took a Metco bus in from Boston every morning. Plus, we’d all already been through a Holocaust unit in seventh grade social studies. We’d read Elie Wiesel’s Night and looked at pictures of concentration camps. We’d been taught about the Third Wave, this terrifying experiment a history teacher in California performed on his students, subtly indoctrinating them in fascist principles to demonstrate how easy it was. Did kids in other places learn that stuff? I’d always thought so. What did I know, entrenched in white privilege? As a result, without many obviously vulnerable targets around for him to oppress or try to delude, it was easy not to worry about the presence of this tactically brilliant, socially isolated baby fascist in our midst. Britt wasn’t an idiot: he had to be incredibly careful what he said to who, or he’d get the shit kicked out of him.
He did, in fact, get the shit kicked out of him, in the summer before my senior year. He’d made sure everybody knew he had a double black belt in taekwondo, but he was a hundred and forty pounds soaking wet, fat lot of good it was going to do against six jocks worked up into a righteous anger. When I found out about it I felt bad for him, honestly. A couple of those jocks had bullied me too, back before I figured out how to operate under their very limited radar. Which also gave me an excuse to think he wasn’t as smart as his chess record would otherwise indicate. It certainly seemed to confirm he never posed much of a threat.
I’m afraid I was wrong about that.
I know what happened to Britt Greenbaum after high school only from the internet.
He changed his name legally to Davis Hawke.
He went to a small, private Christian college in the rural South, where he joined a campus white supremacist group and climbed precipitously through the ranks, eventually breaking off and founding his own organization, until some of his fellow neo-Nazis figured out his real name and his Jewish ancestry and kicked him out. He dropped out of school.
He then became a major figure in the early days of the spam email wars. He supposedly made millions selling penile enhancement products to the sad and gullible. Apparently the FBI monitored him for awhile, afraid he was going to interfere in the 2004 elections. AOL sued him on behalf of its subscribers and won $12.8 million dollars in damages, which they never collected, because he disappeared. Last I heard, AOL was getting ready to dig up his parents’ lawn looking for gold bullion, and Britt had purportedly fled to South America, where I imagine him whiling away his days shooting coke, playing chess, trolling 4chan for the lulz, and paying people to pretend like they’re his friends.
I’m not trying to promote conspiracy theories here, I’m not interested in blaming Britt for Trump or for Charlottesville. Fuck I really hope he’s not the secret mastermind behind all of it. For years I have tried not to think much about him. Suddenly I can’t help it. I lie awake at night thinking about him. Hence this post. I’m just trying to get it out of my head, to find something to take away from it that doesn’t leave me feeling helpless and fatalistic.
Since Charlottesville, I’ve been asking myself what I would do differently if he reappeared in my life, as Davis Hawke or whoever, and tried to recruit me now. The difference between a sad, powerless white supremacist laughingstock in 1995, a rich, morally bankrupt asshole exploiter of his fellow sadsacks in 2003, and a terrifying wielder of paranoid, nationalist hate in 2017, it’s been pointed out to me, is the internet. In 1995, he was alone, except for one deluded toady. He had to change his name, hide his heritage, pick up and move hundreds of miles to find people who agreed with him, who’d listen to him. In 2017, identity doesn’t matter. Geographic limitations don’t matter. With a thousand gibbering anonymous redditors at his back, suddenly he’s a fucking internet boogeyman.
Back then, I had a chance to punch Britt Greenbaum in the face. Instead, out of cowardice or naïveté, a failure to understand or engage with the threat someone of his intelligence and hateful agenda posed to the world, I argued with him civilly for a minute before he lost interest, wandered away and kept on being an asshole.
And it’s only now that he scares me.
So what if it happened again? Would I punch him in the face?
I don’t think it would have helped. I don’t think it would have changed his mind, then or now. After all, he did get the shit kicked out of him, and he stayed an asshole, arguably became an even bigger asshole. I don’t think punching him in the face would even make me feel better. In fact, I’d feel worse. Because I’d be afraid I’d given him fuel for his misanthropy and rage and superiority complex. I’d be afraid he’d read it as follows: Once again DeLuca demonstrates his inability to contend with me at my own level, what a fucking waste of time.
Given another chance, I guess I’d rather try to play at his level. Maybe I could hatch some plot against him. Trying to outsmart him, to…use the internet against him, somehow? Fool him into banking on inherent human selfishness in such a way as to reveal the inherent human capacity for empathy, thereby undoing him forever? But that sounds like a Star Trek plot. A fairy tale, in other words. I’m pretty sure what would really happen, based on experience: he’d wipe the floor with me, because he’s capable of deliberate, premeditated evil and I’m not, because he’s a hell of a lot better at tactics.
But I guess Britt himself isn’t the point. None of my experience of him is relevant to this, to how I’m feeling right now, except that he’s the white supremacist I know, and I can put his face on the awfulness I’m seeing and try to understand it through him. Only I can’t. it’s not like I could predict his actions anyway, it’s not like I ever understood him. I can’t extrapolate from any of this to what is to be done, except maybe in the broadest and simplest of terms. Because I’m not actually pitting myself against a hypothetical Nazi supergenius boogeyman, a Red Skull, but rather against a great unwashed of faceless, generic, socially ostracized, downtrodden, hateful wimps. Who I couldn’t punch in the face anyway except metaphorically, by posting pictures of Captain America (non-Nazi edition) punching Red Skull in the face on the internet, to even less effect than actually punching anybody ever.
If that makes anybody feel better, fine. But it’s not working that way for me.
Individually, white supremacists are pitiful–not worthy of empathy or sympathy, but pathetic, tiny of mind, tiny of heart, miserable little self-pitying shits. I don’t think anybody could come to those beliefs from other than a very sad and lonely place. As such, I think it’s not worth punching them–not until they’re in a position of power, anyway. Are you an Indiana Jones, and will punching this Nazi prevent him from gaining access to a divine weapon of mass destruction? Then punch him. Will it, on the other hand, only make his jaw hurt, and you feel a little better for a minute, and then worse because you’ve been reduced to his level? Then maybe don’t punch him.
The trouble is, whiteness is already a position of power, affording thousands of ways to hurt people even without malicious intent. Ways I completely failed to accommodate for or anticipate back when I was given the opportunity to punch Britt in 1995. I never saw or heard of him threatening or oppressing anyone, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t. If I’d been standing there when he did, and punching him might stop him, that one time, I’d like to think I’d have fucking punched him. But I don’t get to second-guess, I don’t get to go back. I get to go forward. I don’t get to make the decision whether or not to punch Britt or anyone in the face until the opportunity presents itself. This is what I have to keep reminding myself.
I don’t want to punch Britt in the face; what I want is to get way the hell out in front of ever needing to punch him or those like him and prevent them from coming into existence in the first place. I want to go back in time and kill Hitler. But failing that, I want to take what action I can, now, to prevent people around me from turning into new Britts and Hitlers. Which means talking about it. Talking about fascism, talking about Nazis and what they did and what happened to them and what’s happening now. Trying to get kids in school to read Night and Anne Frank’s diary and read history, and talk about it, and pay attention to the world and employ critical thinking skills to figure out what’s the same and what’s different, and not to oversimplify any of it down to matters of good vs. evil, to fairytales. It’s not that simple, it’s never that simple. People are still people, not faceless fascist boogeymen, and it’s my responsibility to treat them as such. Britt Greenbaum and everybody else. It’s frustrating, it isn’t easy, but that’s what there is, that’s what I get. I get to go forward.
And eventually, if I keep at it, I feel better.