Over the past few weeks, Macalester security has found swastikas and anti-Arab hate speech around campus. These were found in residence halls as well as in an academic building, leading to the belief that the person or persons who wrote and drew these things are not from outside our community, but are members of the Macalester community themselves.
As a famously left-leaning institution, the fact that this happened in the first place might be shocking. Macalester’s reputation for liberal politics is so salient that it is something of a joke even for those of us who perpetuate that reputation.
The response to the drawings has been both predictable and commendable: a community discussion, a letter from the president of the college as well as an open letter signed by hundreds of students and staff, a well-researched and well-written op-ed on the racist legacy of Edward Neill and who knows how many classroom and personal discussions on the matter. Macalester is nothing if not involved, and for that we should be proud.
Yet as we show our support for our community members in the face of these acts, we must not make the drawer into the supervillain of the day which they seem to want to be.
I see two possible motives for the drawings. First, we might have an honest-to-God neo-Nazi within our student body. This person clearly hasn’t taken Comparative Social Movements with Paul Dosh yet, and somehow believes that these drawings count as organizing. However, I find this highly unlikely. A swastika drawing is certainly political speech, but it is rather absurd to imagine it as a serious effort to start a Nazi or other far-right movement at Macalester. The second, much more likely possibility is that the perpetrator wants to play a weird version of poke-the-bear with our famously liberal community. The fact that the number of drawings increased as they gained campus-wide attention further suggests this conclusion.
These drawings are echoes of an ugly and despicable history, but they are less about resurfacing that history than they are about getting a reaction out of the student body.
This puts us in a difficult situation.
While an unequivocal denunciation of the drawings is appropriate given what they were, we must consider that grand responses were probably exactly the intent behind the swastikas in the first place. After all, what would the drawings be if they were never seen and responded to? It is the response that brings them into the mainstream and makes them part of a campus-wide discussion.
Even as we continue to support and show support for our community members, we should be clear that what we face is not a wave of fascism and racism, but one supremely lame person making a poor attempt at criticizing campus culture.
The swastikas themselves are not the audacious commentary on outrage politics which the drawer most likely imagines them as, nor are they the coming flood of alt-right politics that a strong response might inadvertently imply.
They are the result of someone who has managed to combine the bone-crushingly sad isolation of Richard Spencer with the complete intellectual vacuity of Milo Yiannopoulos and put it into the laziest, most underdeveloped attempt at political speech since someone first chanted, “Build that wall.” It is a student with neither the bravery to voice controversial opinions in public nor the social intelligence to realize that being edgy by drawing swastikas doesn’t make you cool.
If that is the case, we must of course first come together to unequivocally voice our support for people who are threatened by the ideas that the swastikas represent. But we should keep in mind that whoever is doing this is by no means a serious political agitator. They are simply one more in a long line of idiot trolls who get off on being annoying. They are foolish, immature and just plain dumb.