Substack's Nazi Problem
I'm moving off Substack. Here's why.
I really did not want to have to write about this.
You likely already know what I’m about to discuss but for those who don’t, let me give you a short recap.
On November 28, The Atlantic’s Jonathan Katz published an article titled Substack Has A Nazi Problem. He wrote:
At least 16 of the newsletters that I reviewed have overt Nazi symbols, including the swastika and the sonnenrad, in their logos or in prominent graphics. Andkon’s Reich Press, for example, calls itself “a National Socialist newsletter”; its logo shows Nazi banners on Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and one recent post features a racist caricature of a Chinese person. A Substack called White-Papers, bearing the tagline “Your pro-White policy destination,” is one of several that openly promote the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that inspired deadly mass shootings at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue; two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques; an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; and a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Other newsletters make prominent references to the “Jewish Question.” Several are run by nationally prominent white nationalists; at least four are run by organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—including the rally’s most notorious organizer, Richard Spencer.
Katz points out that such newsletters violate Substack’s own terms of service but more importantly, that Substack allows the Nazis who run them to earn revenue from subscriptions and Substack in turn takes a cut of that revenue.
In response to Katz’s article, approximately 250 Substack publishers wrote an open letter to Substack’s founders asking why they “are platforming and monetizing Nazis.”
I had begun to pay attention to this issue without really wanting to know for what it might mean for this newsletter on Substack.
But then the must-read Platformer by Casey Newton started reporting on the Nazi problem and gave Substack’s founders an opportunity to review the offending newsletters and formulate a response. The company’s response was lacking, as Newton explained in detail and why he is moving his newsletter to another platform. He also discussed his rationale on his Hard Fork podcast.
I waited for Substack’s response to Casey Newton, hoping that the founders would sufficiently address the issue so I wouldn’t have to leave. Their response is insufficient and there is nothing in Newton’s rationale for leaving that I can disagree with.
Nazis are bad. Funding them is worse. I want nothing to do with any platform that abides them. It is why I left Twitter and it is why I will leave Substack.
My Personal Context
Let me give you greater context for why I feel as passionately as I do about this issue.
Personal Experiences With Nazis
I am a Gen Xer. Like many Xers, I grew up with little parental supervision, or, in retrospect and by today’s standards, little parental thought about raising a free-range kid.
One early example: I remember sitting alongside my father as he watched the World At War documentary series about WWII on television. I don’t know if my father thought he was teaching me a lesson by allowing me to watch the explicit horrors of World War II and the Holocaust or if he just didn’t give it consideration at all.
Whether or not the lesson was intended, I did learn it.
I have a fairly complete understanding of the history of World War II and the Holocaust, starting as a kid watching those documentaries continuing to this day through my own reading.
I was born and raised in Minnesota but for about a year and a half during high-school, my family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The Nazi Trophy Case
One time, I was hanging out with some kids and for whatever reason we decided to go to the home of one of them. As we walked in the front door, in the living area, was a large flat table, the top of which was encased in glass.
Inside that glass was a collection of Nazi “memorabilia,” actual artifacts from Germany’s fascist Nazi regime, replete with swastikas and skulls and crossbones. It had all the trappings of a proud trophy case.
In the basement of this kid’s home was an armaments factory. Guns of all varieties hung on the walls. Shell-making equipment sat on tables. It had the mundane appearance of a tinkerer’s workshop except that the tinkerer made weapons of war.
When I asked what all this was for, the kid matter-of-factly said “It’s for when the Blacks take over.” Except he didn’t use the word “blacks,” of course. To him, this was obvious and normal.
That boy had been raised to fear and hate. The entire experience freaked me out and I steered well clear of that kid for the remainder of my time in Fort Wayne.
The Terrorist Cop
I played in a band in high school with a guy who was the most talented drummer I’ve played with. I’m sure he wasn’t actually as good as Neil Peart, but seemed that way to me at the time.
Anyway, for the entire time I knew him, he seemed like a normal guy.
After moving back to Minnesota and graduating from high school, I made a return trip to Fort Wayne to visit friends I’d made there.
We went to visit this drummer, who in the intervening time between high school and my return trip had become a Fort Wayne police officer.
He must’ve just gotten off a shift because he was still wearing his uniform when we arrived. We sat around his kitchen table to chat and I asked him what his job was like as a cop.
He pulled his service revolver from his holster, set it on the table before us, and began to explain how he would hang out at the city border in his squad car, pull over any Black people coming into town, and terrorize them to force them to turn around and leave.
I had no idea he was like this when we were playing together. The rumor was that he caught his fiance in bed with a Black man and that is what motivated him to join Fort Wayne’s “finest.”
Fascists in the police force. Great.
Our Political Trajectory
I basically started my career by starting an online publication that covered Minnesota politics. Obviously, that meant I spent a lot of time around people involved in politics.
I remember young progressives at that time referring to Republicans as Nazis.
It rubbed me the wrong way because I’ve always believed it is important to be careful with your word choice. At that time, Republicans were in no way, shape, or form, Nazis.
They were simply conservatives with whom I mostly disagreed with on policy prescriptions but they had the same fidelity as I to our democratic system. Tossing around the word Nazi and applying where it clearly did not apply betrayed either ignorance or carelessness.
This is a long way of saying that I’ve never used the word to describe political opponents until the rise of MAGA, which is a fascist movement of which many of its members are clearly Nazis.
Our Crisis Era
We are currently living in a crisis era of history. As authors William Strauss and Neil Howe have detailed, the American experiment has experienced several crisis eras in our history, starting with the Revolutionary War, then the Civil War, followed by the Depression and WWII, and now this current crisis era.
Each era is separated by about the span of a human lifetime, 80-100 years. The reason these crisis eras recur is that there is no-one left to warn us of the last crisis era. Think about it, the members of the GI generation that defeated fascism in WWII have almost entirely died out.
Nazis, the fascist ideology they represent, and authoritarianism in all its forms have inflicted staggering pain and suffering in the societies in which they take hold and on the world at large.
What we are seeing during this crisis era is a wholesale assault on all of the institutions of democratic society. The objective is to weaken and replace our democratic system with authoritarianism.
You see it in the news every day, from literally attempting a violent coup on January 6, to attacking the prosecutors and judges of our legal system, to paralyzing the House of Representatives, to banning books in schools and libraries, to doxxing and swatting those who raise their voices in opposition to fascism.
Republicans are in the process of stripping away our rights, from our rights to have our votes counted, to abortion, to read what we wish, and to live without the threat of political violence. The Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln has been hijacked by extremists, cultists, and yes, Nazis.
Trump has declared he will be a dictator, terminate the Constitution, assassinate his opponents, and create concentration camps. He’s said all these things.
Politics is supposed to be an alternative to war and violence, not a precursor to it.
--Sen. Brian Schatz
We are facing an existential crisis as a nation. As President Biden has said, we’ve never fully lived up to our ideals, but we have never walked away from them either.
And that’s what Trump and MAGA are proposing, that we abandon the notion that we are all created equal and that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights and that among those are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
We haven’t really been a fully representative democracy until the Civil Rights era led by Martin Luther King, Jr. ushered in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Progress in democracies is slow, deliberately and sometimes maddeningly slow but it is a system that allows for us to strive to create a more just society and a “more perfect union,” despite our differences.
Our system is the only political system that has proven it can do just that. And we are at risk of losing it, so whatever way I can mitigate that risk, I will do.
Contributing to the funding of Nazis—however unintentional—is something I refuse to do.
So on this day that we celebrate one of America’s better angels, I want to tell you that I will be moving this newsletter to a place that doesn’t fund Nazis.
You’ve just heard why. This won’t happen overnight but in subsequent posts, I’ll explain how.
In the meantime, I want to thank each and every one of you for the support that your subscription represents and implore you to do whatever you can between now and November to defeat this vile ideology that has taken root in our country and maintain this amazing gift of democracy that we all enjoy.