- This Is Not Who We Are: The Baraboo High Nazi Salute and American Fascism
- Nazi Salute at Baraboo High: Freedom of Speech or History Education?
11-30-2018 Almost all the boys of the 2019 class of Baraboo High in Wisconsin posed for a picture doing the Nazi salute. Do the students have freedom of speech? Did they know what they were doing? If not, why not?
The Auschwitz Museum — yes, the museum at the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Auschwitz, Poland! — even responded to the Baraboo High Nazi salute in a tweet, which should be a deafening wake-up call: “We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred.”
Yes, we do, but here’s why explaining fascism is such a problem in America: freedom of speech. By November 23rd, Superintendent Mueller was already backtracking from her attempt at a strong statement about the incident at Baraboo High: “Because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions.” Right away the discussion was diverted from the horror of these kids apparently spontaneously shooting out their right arms in unison in a Nazi salute to nitpicking about freedom of speech, intent and responsibility. Because nobody wants to get stuck in the quagmire of free speech issues.
So schools have a dilemma in these situations: if they respond by changing their history education to focus more on the history of human behavior than on dates and locations of battles and which side won and how many soldiers died on both sides, if they focus on the dangers of demagoguery, indoctrination, propaganda, nationalism, hate speech, mob mentality, and the lack of independent, critical thought, that could be interpreted as criticism of the students’ freedom of speech, or even as an attempt to censor them. Parents and board members on the right would call it social engineering. American history textbooks avoid tackling anything controversial for this very reason; ‘controversial’ being anything that anyone could have any kind of opinion about.
This is the result. Sure, those kids at Baraboo High were just goofing around. Most of them probably truly don’t understand why others respond with horror. It’s just a gesture. According to this article, a 2005 poll found that over half of Americans didn’t know or responded incorrectly when asked what Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka were. It’s not hard to see why. Watch this video if you want to be truly horrified. Or motivated into educating yourself.
What are your thoughts? Do you think freedom of speech should be absolute? Do you think absolute freedom of speech and proper history education can coexist? Let me know in a comment.
- Foley, Devin. American students don’t know history. Intellectual Takeout. December 11, 2015. https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/american-students-dont-know-history?fbclid=IwAR2C2dLkE_VRmGOhblCT7YsF-xXqvgqMNFl0E2y0LTonT_c817d8r6PfxfA
- Hesse, Monica. ‘That’s not who we are’? Sixty Nazi-saluting Boys in Baraboo Suggest Otherwise. The Washington Post. November 13, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/thats-not-who-we-are-sixty-nazi-saluting-boys-in-baraboo-suggest-otherwise/2018/11/13/9b13ecbe-e6ac-11e8-bbdb-72fdbf9d4fed_story.html?utm_term=.36c196c59fcf
- Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. 1995
- Sullivan, Emily. Photo Of Students Giving Nazi Salute Being Investigated By Wis. School District. (National) NPR. November 13, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/11/13/667288781/photo-of-students-giving-nazi-salute-being-investigated-by-wisc-school-district
Header Image: Snopes.com