Facing hate

I love podcasts.

In fact, I don’t really remember what I did without them. I put my earbuds in my ears, put the leashes on my dogs, stow their treats in my pockets, and head out to walk and to listen.

There’s a wealth of podcasts available, all of them free. (Although it’s always good to support the ones you love financially, it’s not at all necessary.) Some tell stories, some explore science or history or biography or economics. And some, of course, in this extraordinarily political time, look at politics.

The New York Times has a daily podcast, released at about 6 each weekday morning, logically if unexcitingly called the Daily. It’s a not-quite-half-hour in-depth look at something in the news, created by the excellent reporter and interviewer Michael Barbaro.

The Daily has been out for maybe six months or so, and it’s been refined and polished and evolved until now it can be counted on to offer an unusual, and often unusually personal and therefore unusually moving, take on something you otherwise might or might not have heard about. It’s provided unforgettable insights — not always favorable, because people reveal themselves, and sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it’s not — into a coal miner who has black lung but said that if he had the choice he’d do it all over again; a woman who lives in Kentucky, has a medical condition, voted for Donald Trump, is on Obamacare, and now worries; and Chelsea Manning, who came across not as a selfless truth teller but as a self-obsessed, confused, not particularly admirable person.

Tuesday morning’s Daily was an interview with Derek Black, the son of one of the leading white supremacist families in the country, whose father started and runs the foul white supremacist website called Stormfront. He is the godson of David Duke, he was brought up in the movement, and until he first went off to college, about a decade ago, Derek knew no truths other than the lies with which he had been brought up.

This is not the first time I’ve heard about Derek, and it probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard of him either, but no matter how strong an impression stories about him have made, the effect of hearing his voice directly in your ears, early in the morning, is more powerful still.

The thing is, Derek no longer believes that stuff, so it’s a story of salvation. But he knows it cold. And the part that he most wants to get across, it seems, the part that he finds it hardest to explain, is the part that Jews play in this ideology, and also the part that Jews played in his redemption.

You have to understand, he says, that Jews are central to the white supremacists’ worldview. They believe that Jews run the world, and that belief is central to everything else, is connected to everything else, in ways that are not logical. There is no clear way to explain it, he says, because he doesn’t really understand it himself. He just knows it. We dismiss it at our peril.

And then there is the story of how he left his childhood. It really is a complicated story, because layered under the political is the deeply, painfully personal. In order to break with his ideology, Derek had to break with his family; his relationship with them now is distant, formal, and sad. It makes the drama of his break, and his rebuilding his life in ways he could not have imagined, even more potent; some people who cannot imagine being in or leaving the far-right racist world maybe can imagine betraying their families or being betrayed by them, and then having to live without them.

Derek said that he was invited to Shabbat dinners by another young man at college, an observant Jew who enjoyed bringing diverse people together and showing them the beauty of Shabbat. Slowly, slowly, he was made to realize exactly how untrue everything he’d believed really was. It was not the first step in his change — if he had not made many steps already, he would not have been at all welcome at that table, and he would not have been able to bring himself to sit at it anyway. But it was through the people he met there, the discussions that followed, that he was able to see past the hatred of his childhood to the love in the real outside world.

Derek Black now is in graduate school. On the Daily, he said that he’d hoped to fade into obscurity, to have a regular life, but he feels compelled to speak out now because he feels in part responsible for the hatred that’s been newly unleashed but had festered underground where we didn’t see it. We didn’t even smell it. But it was there, and now it’s been set free.

We should pay attention to Derek Black.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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