Consider, for example, the enormous social difference between an American who embraces Communism and one who embraces Nazism. One of these is a tolerated eccentricity, and one of them is the lowest thing you can be…The real difference between an American Communist and an American Nazi is that American Communists historically have been intellectuals and American Nazis have been rednecks.
— Kevin D. Williamson, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics
It’s one of those things that I already knew, but I hadn’t thought of in precisely that way, so the succinctness made me laugh. Mark Forsyth, in his book The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, makes a similar claim about the original Nazis:
It’s a funny thing, but Hitler wouldn’t have called himself a Nazi. Indeed, he became quite offended when anyone did suggest he was a Nazi. He would have considered himself a National Socialist. Nazi is, and always has been, an insult.
Hitler was head of the catchily named Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). But, like the Cambridge University Netball Team, he hadn’t thought through the name properly. You see, his opponents realised that you could shorten Nationalsozialistische to Nazi. Why would they do this? Because Nazi was already an (utterly unrelated) term of abuse. It had been for years.
Every culture has a butt for its jokes. Americans have the Polacks, the English have the Irish, and the Irish have people from Cork. The standard butt of German jokes at the beginning of the twentieth century were stupid Bavarian peasants. And just as Irish jokes always involve a man called Paddy, so Bavarian jokes always involved a peasant called Nazi. That’s because Nazi was a shortening of the very common Bavarian name Ignatius.
This meant that Hitler’s opponents had an open goal. He had a party filled with Bavarian hicks and the name of that party could be shortened to the standard joke name for hicks. (Incidentally, hick was formed in exactly the same way as Nazi. Hick was a rural shortening of Richard and became a byword for uneducated farmers.)
Imagine if a right-winger from Alabama started a campaign called Red States for the Next America. That’s essentially what Hitler did.
That sounds almost too good to be true, especially as I’ve never heard this claim anywhere else. But either way, it speaks to the obvious truth of the omnipresent divide between urban and rural, sophisticated and rustic, educated and common-sense. We’re used to thinking this way in terms of consumption patterns — early-adopted gadgets and trends become uncool as soon as they become too popular, and the avant-garde head off in the opposite direction to spite the herd. Backyard breeders and puppy mills are concerned with papers and lineage; the conspicuously-compassionate start
adopting rescuing mutts from shelters. Trailer parks are the ultimate low-status household; affluent anti-consumers rebrand them as “tiny house communities.” Now that any troglodyte can afford a smartphone, the upper-class are all about screen-free living. It’s easy to get the impression that social life is one endless game of musical chairs, in which the joy is to laugh at the yokels and bumpkins who are too slow to grab a seat in time. I just find it darkly amusing to see the same frivolous dynamic at work in the realm of “serious” matters like politics. “Oh, yeah, I was really into one-party rule, contempt for liberal democracy, and mass murder of political opponents and other undesirables. Those early releases, from around 1917-1924, were so good. But then around 1933, they, like, sold out and went mainstream, and all these beer-swilling Ignatius-bros started coming to the shows…”