It’s a lot easier than you think for ordinary people to become Neo-Nazis. Here’s why.
Did you know that eating cheese before bedtime can give you weird dreams and nightmares?
“What the hell does this have to do with becoming a Neo Nazi”, you ask?
Hang on with me for a second here, I’ll explain.
Cheese dreams are the kind of dreams you wake up from and ask yourself: “What the f— just happened here. Is this real? Oh shit, this is real….. Nononono, wait – this could never happen in reality. This is TOO weird.”
Some weeks, global news and politics feel more like a really bad cheese dream than reality.
Like the week when “very stable genius” Donald Trump actually became president of the USA. Someone like him winning the elections was…. Unpresidented. (Haha!)
Or the week when the UK voted ‘yes’ to Brexit. (Followed by a countrywide “oh shit” moment the day after the referendum, when England went crazy googling “What is Brexit?” and “What is the EU?”).
Reasonable people everywhere thought there was no way that either of those things could happen in real life. They were just too far-fetched, too extreme. Too much of a cheese dream. But they did happen. The global cheese dream that’s called Brexit had come true. Trump is president.
And both examples followed a pattern that is, in a way, foreshadowed by another story: In March 2016, less than a year before Brexit or Trump, the UK public had the chance to, in an online poll, choose the name of a new vessel for exploring the Antarctic Ocean. A very prestigious project, of global relevance, and certainly with global news coverage.A BBC presenter joked that it should be called Boaty McBoatface. (A reference to an owl at the London zoo who’d been “adopted” by a sponsor and named Hooty McOwlface.)
The internet loved it, and in no time the votes were in. They turned that joke into a reality, and Boaty McBoatface had won by a landslide.
The owners of the vessel, the Natural Environment Research Council, scratched their heads in disbelief, vetoed the name and called it the RSS Sir David Attenborough instead – far more dignified, indeed.(They called a small research submarine on the vessel Boaty McBoatface though, to at least follow the public’s naming decision in some way).
But this proved two things (that we kind of already knew):
- People get carried away when they’re part of a large crowd. Especially when ideas seem too strange or dream-like to ever become reality.
- When that happens, it’s easy for people not to think about consequences: about reality, about what things will be like in 6 months’ time, when you wake up (or sober up) and that the cheese dream is in fact real.
Okay, okay, but what about the Neo Nazis, Rob?
So as part of my podcast series, I interviewed a fascinating guy named Christian Picciolini, who at only 22 years old found himself in an almost unbelievable situation. He had already spent 8 years in America’s first Neo-Nazi white power group – 6 of them as the group’s leader.
He was recruited at age 14 by a guy named Clark Martell, who saw in this lonely teenager a desire to belong. So Christian had essentially grown up in the movement, recruited others to it, committed countless acts of violence under the banner of the group.
And now he wanted out.
Christian described to me how incredibly difficult it was for him to remove himself from the white power skinhead movement – not only because this was the only community he had known, but also because of the serious threats of violence, and even death, faced by all who leave the movement.
He lost everything that really mattered to him because of his extremist ideology – and when he realized it, some things – like his marriage and his family – were irretrievable.
Now Christian is a peace advocate who helps people who want to leave hate organizations transition back into society.
It’s a long road for those who want to, and a difficult one. It’s often dangerous and always lonely. And that’s why having people like Christian there is so important for other young people who do decide to leave these movements before it’s too late.
Christian co-founded the organizations Life After Hate and the Free Radical Project – both non-profits dedicated to de-radicalizing people caught up in extremist movements. And today their schedules are busier than ever.
Now where cheese dreams and Ideology come together is this:
The really scary thing about Christian’s story, is how easy it was for him to become a Neo-Nazi, and how easy it was for him to recruit other teenagers as well.
This was BEFORE the internet. This was BEFORE Whatsapp. This was BEFORE Facebook.
To lure people into an extreme idea and get them to be carried away was easy enough in an “offline” world.
Now think about it – – how much easier must this be today, where we all live in a life in an algorithmically curated information bubble, all connected to each other?
In a bubble where cheese dreams like Donald Trump becoming president (“not in a million years!”), Brexit (“they would never do that”), or Boaty McBoatface (“it’s ridiculous… but funny! Let me just vote for it because it’ll never happen anyway”) get put in front of our faces so many times that they DO become reality?
That’s a sobering thought.
But surely we’re too smart to fall for REAL ideological scams, you say? And too woke not to miss evil when it’s right in front of our eyes?
Well, every day the cheese dream becomes a little more real.
Alt-right and hate groups are on the rise all over Europe and America – not only that, but they’re getting deeper political traction too.
This week it’s the EU parliamentary elections and far-right parties from Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Denmark have formed an alliance. Italy’s Matteo Salvini even used the word “axis” to describe it, bringing to mind Hitler and Mussolini’s invention of the Rome-Berlin axis, a fascist alliance in the mid-1930s.
At the same time, radical leftist and Muslim radicals are forming deadly oppositions and are planning and executing attacks all over the world.
We like to think people of today know better, that the world won’t make the same mistakes twice, or three times, or 83 times. But humans are very good at making the same mistakes – even more so when we live in a technological world where “stupid ideas” and “bad dreams” can become reality quicker than we thought.
Radicalization in this day and age is no longer about shaved heads and white shoelaces – both signals that you associate with the white power movement.
It’s happening in the open. It’s happening with everyone watching, and a lot of people participating.
And it works by getting people to follow an idea first, getting them to be “carried away” – and then stretching this idea little by little.
Today, the dynamics of the internet make it easy for bad dreams to become reality. Ordinary people get caught up in extreme ideologies because they almost don’t notice it happening – they think it will never happen to them.
This is exactly what ideologues count on, because they know that that’s exactly when it DOES happen.
If Christian’s story can teach us anything, it’s that it’s easier to prevent young people from being radicalized in the first place than to help them leave extremist groups
It’s time to think about how we can stop the cheese dreams becoming reality; because the Nazis, the radical leftist, the everyday terrorists they spit out ARE very much real.
The greatest weapon you and I have against this today is the ability to spread informed information. That’s one of the reasons it was so important to me to get the opportunity to speak to Christian – and to share that conversation with as many people as possible.
So head over to the podcast and listen to Christian’s story – or stream it on your favorite podcasting app – and share it, whether it’s with 1 person or 1000.
You might just be saving someone’s life.