The other day the president of the United States told a violent group of “Western chauvinists”– the Proud Boys – to “stand by.” This has ignited several conversations in my circles about whether the Proud Boys are white supremacists, what it means to champion “Western culture,” and whether such a view implies an animosity towards other ethnicities.
I happen to be a third-generation Croatian, ethnically, but when I was growing up in California we considered ourselves Yugoslavian – because that’s what the old country was back then. We would occasionally attend events at a local Yugoslav group – a picnic, or what have you – and I was even a member of the Yugoslav choir for a bit, singing traditional Croatian songs.
In 1990, I visited Jugoslavia for the first time. This was right before the war between Croatia and Serbia broke out, and during my visit we were constantly paying attention to the news, aware that if the shooting started we might have to high-tail it to the airport to get out of the country.
Soon after I arrived, I was drinking with some locals in a pub, and I mentioned to them that I was Yugoslavian, and my family was from the area. They quickly corrected me. I was not a Yugoslav. I was a Croatian. And they welcomed me warmly because I was a Croatian.
We were brothers, children of the same nation. I was not a Yugoslav, because I was not a Serbian. Yugoslavia didn’t actually exist – you’re either a Croatian or a Serbian. You’re either with us or against us. You’re either family, or the enemy.
I think of this when I engage in these conversations about whether “white nationalists” and “Western chauvinists” are evil, or whether they’re simply proud of their ethnicity – like the “Kiss me I’m Irish,” on St. Patty’s day and the French on le quatorze Juillet.
It’s fine to be proud of America (though we shouldn’t ignore its shortcomings) and treasure one’s European heritage. I view this like my childhood experience as someone with Yugoslavian roots born and raised in the United States. I was Croatian, I was Yugoslav, I was American. There was no conflict. And, of course, there were many people of different ethnic backgrounds who were just as American as I was.
But that sort of pride is very different from white nationalism. That is more like my experience before the Croatian war of independence. There the categories are exclusive. You’re not a Yugoslav. You’re either a Croatian or a Serbian. This is nationalism. Only certain people are welcome in our nation. It’s not just pride in what I am. It’s a rejection of those who are different.
That’s what I see with the Proud Boys and their ilk. They’re not simply proud of having German or Danish roots. They think people of other ethnicities are not “real Americans.” They’re chauvinists. Male chauvinists and ethnic chauvinists.
That sort of nationalism is extremely heady and exciting; as a Croatian I belonged, and I could feel the pride and the revolutionary fever (and the slivovitz) flowing through my veins. It’s easy to see how it leads to war, and death, and fascism.
And that’s what we’re facing now in the United States.