It's hard to dispute anymore that the culture of cruelty, shamelessness, and provocation for its own sake that now dominates our political culture is trickling down to the kids. The trolls have broken out of your computer, and they're smirking through the halls of high schools across this country. The latest example comes to us from Baraboo, Wisconsin, where a group of 50-plus white kids decided to throw up Nazi salutes for a junior prom picture. It blew up Sunday night, and the controversy continued into well into Monday:
According to the journalist who shared the original photo, Jules Suzdaltsev, the students are actually members of the class of 2019, meaning they're seniors this year. The incident sits on the troubling line between the rise of a genuine ethno-nationalist movement in this country and the tendency for teenagers—especially teenage boys—to do things just to get a rise out of people. But in our current context—it's a year and change after neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marched the streets of Charlottesville, and one of them murdered a counter-protester, Heather Heyer, with his car—the rapid normalization of hate speech and right-wing extremism is dangerous no matter what the original motive.
The Auschwitz Memorial said as much in a response Monday:
Kids did a lot of stupid shit at my high school, but nobody would have thought it was funny—or conscionable—to engage in Nazi symbolism with a smile twisted across your face. That wasn't very long ago. Remember kids: the Nazis are the bad guys. We all used to agree that the United States was on the right side of World War II. Now you can find neo-Nazis marching armed through the streets of an American city, chanting the president's name.
Suzdaltsev has already started to compile stories from other students who attended the Baraboo school. If those are anything to go on, then loud, vicious racism is a longstanding problem in the system because the administration does nothing to combat it. But the real problem with these kinds of demonstrations is that not everyone needs to be a True Believer to become part of a serious problem. It's enough for this big group of kids to just all be doing this.
Like in that famous photo from a Nazi shipyard in 1936, not everyone mindlessly followed the group. Here's an account from Jordan Blue, the kid in the top right of the photo who isn't grinning and Sieg Heiling like a complete moron.
You've got to be taught to hate, and it seems the Baraboo school system might be allowing a few too many to get lessons. But this is now a larger cultural problem. The gap between trollism and Trumpism online is increasingly hard to distinguish, particularly among the kind of young people who joined the movement through 4chan or Reddit. But when the president speaks, the kids are listening.