Book Review: White American Youth

304 PP.; $15.99 (PAPERBACK), $11.99 (KINDLE)

For some reason, de-Nazification is different from other political conversions. After a liberal denounces his younger self as well-intended but naïve, he becomes a conservative. After a conservative condemns the right’s bigotry and cult of violence, she becomes a liberal. After a socialist boasts that she is finally really standing up for the working class, she becomes a fascist. But after a Nazi stops hating Jews, immigrants, and leftists, he very rarely takes on another political identity. Instead he becomes a sort of moral prophet. Content with no longer offering a promised land, he spends his days just trying to help others escape the desert.

Christian Picciolini, a former Nazi skinhead, is now one of those prophets—and like all prophets, his story is perhaps too momentous to be wholly true.

White American Youth is Picciolini’s memoir of his time as a Nazi skinhead in Chicago in the late eighties and early nineties. He came from a family of Italian immigrants. His grandfather flew planes for Mussolini. His parents, desperate for security and respectability, opened a hair salon and moved the family from the Italian neighborhood (Blue Island) that offered a sense of community but little else into a middle-class suburb (Oak Forest, Illinois) .

Picciolini attended a private Catholic school and resented his parents for how much attention they gave to the salon instead of to him or his younger brother, Buddy. While Picciolini’s home and school were in Oak Forest, he spent most of his time with his grandparents in Blue Island. That was his “real world.” “No matter how comfortable I became in Oak Forest,” Picciolini recalls, “my heart…remained in Blue Island.”

At fourteen, Picciolini was already recruited into the local skinhead group. Its initial appeals were non-ideological.

Picciolini was impressed by the charisma and force of the group’s leader, Clark Mitchell. Unlike Picciolini’s parents or teachers, when Mitchell told Picciolini not to do something he also gave him an explanation of why he shouldn’t. For example, the first time the two met, Picciolini was smoking weed with a neighborhood friend. Mitchell told Picciolini that was exactly what the “Jews and Communists” wanted him to do, because weed made him “docile” and therefore easier to control and manipulate. Picciolini stopped smoking.

Another appeal was skinhead music. Picciolini had been a fan of punk rock (the Clash, the Ramones, Joan Jett) and then “fell in love” with the British Nazi band Skrewdriver. Like all British fascists, Skrewdriver’s lyricist was pro-Empire and anti-Commonwealth, “I stand and watch my country going down the drain/We are all at fault. We are all to blame/We’re letting them take over. We just let ’em come/Once we had an empire and now we’ve got a slum.” The idea that racial hierarchy and cheap labor for capitalists are codependent has always dumbfounded Anglo-American fascists. To his credit, Mussolini knew Italy wouldn’t survive a day without African workers.

Skrewdriver’s songs filled Picciolini with “purpose and pride instead of childish, nihilistic impulses like punk rock music did.” He became a leader in his Chicago skinhead group and even started his own white-pride band (first called White American Youth, then Final Solution). He traveled the country attending Nazi and KKK rallies and by eighteen was playing shows for skinheads in Germany, shouting “Heil Hitler” in Weimar.

Picciolini never had a come-to-Jesus moment—no epiphany about anti-Semitism and racism being opulent nonsense.  His abandonment of white supremacy was as non-ideological as his initial embrace.

The once charming and authoritative Clark was now in prison for beating up a female “race traitor,” slowly losing his mind, first sending Picciolini sexual-sadistic drawings of skinhead women, then claiming in letters to have smeared shit all over himself to get special treatment for being black. Skinheads in Picciolini’s group claimed to venerate white women and western civilization, but the behavior he saw conveyed the opposite. At one point, Picciolini opened a record store and found himself forced to interact with non-racist skinheads, who, to his surprise, he got along with quite well.

Some of Picciolini’s renditions of his life are so fantastic—so cinematic in form and presentation—that, even if true to events, probably should’ve been left out for credibility’s sake.

It’s one thing to beat up the school bully; it’s another thing to be cheered on while doing it and to deliver a witty one-liner after the fight’s over. The same goes for his anecdotes about getting the highest score on the military-entrance exam his recruiter had ever seen; or him and his high school skinhead buddies beating up “half the University of Illinois football team’s offensive line.” College parties rarely have bouncers. But when they do, the bouncers aren’t giant Samoans named “Gator” and “King Kong.”

Ex-skinhead memoirs have been so commodified over the years they’re now a genre unto themselves. And like all genres, it has specific obligations and priorities. Readers expect to be disturbed by the repentant individual’s past violence and obscenities. Racial slurs and street fights are great, but bomb plots and political assassinations really push sales.

White American Youth has plenty of slurs and street fights—and even a failed frame-up by Canada’s secret police that involved fake liaisons between American “anti-Israel militants” and Muammar Gaddafi (most Nazis actually like Israel because it’s an “ethnocracy”). What it doesn’t deliver is a clear way out of Nazism.

Picciolini has said in interviews for the book that no argument or bit of rhetoric would’ve convinced him to stop being a Nazi. Ex-skinheads typically say spending time with the targets of their animosity (Jews, blacks, Hispanics) is what snapped them out of their fascist daze. Outside of work, however, such situations are contrived; and how reasonable it is to ask such families and communities to prove their humanity to white racists just so white racists can belatedly develop theirs is dubious at best.

“We were fighting battles other whites whispered about but were too complacent to take up,” Picciolini writes on the relationship between his extreme racism and the more moderate, subdued racism of white society and of the United States.

You won’t learn anything new about fascist indoctrination from reading White American Youth. Proselytizers target young men that are “confused or lonely, angry or broke”—especially the ones at cultural events on the border of the fringe and the mainstream (punk concerts, monster truck rallies, etc). Recruitment may require economic preconditions but its success depends on the proselytizer’s force of personality. The best method for initial persuasion is to find out what afflicts the susceptible person, then offer them someone or something external to blame while simultaneously invigorating a phony sense of agency or a fraudulent basis of pride. Messaging should be positive (e.g. “pro-white” not “anti-immigrant”).

So long as philistinism, hierarchy, and compliance are the default settings of polite society, counterfeits of culture, masculinity, and patriotism will attract followers. White American Youth is a tragic story told in tabloid form. What should’ve been written for beleaguered loved ones was instead written for consumer readers of a particular genre. Prophetic confessions should be for a people—not a market.