It would have been so easy for Samantha Bee to not punch left in this Full Frontal segment about Life After Hate, an organization that rehabilitates white supremacists. But here she is, punching left.
She throws the first swing in her conversation with Christian Picciolini, the nonprofit’s co-founder. Life After Hate, to be clear, has the eminently reasonable and necessary mission of helping far-right extremists leave their far-right extremist groups and abandon their far-right extremist ideologies. It was awarded a $400,000 grant by the Obama administration in its final days, a grant that was rescinded by the Trump administration. Picciolini explains how Life After Hate aims to help (ex-?) extremists develop the social and professional skills necessary to, you know, stop being violent racist Nazis, and Bee asks: “So your solution is to show them a way out with love and support, not just a nationwide game of whack-a-Nazi?”
To which Picciolini responds: “I would imagine in the history of the world, nobody’s changed their opinion because they got punched in the face. Because it now makes them the victim. So, hug a Nazi.”
It’s just very disappointing that the comedian-pundits who make these jokes—Bee and Trevor Noah, most recently—don’t even make the scantest effort to understand what they’re talking about. The “nationwide game” she’s referring to is leftist protestors (or counter-protestors) taking direct action against extremists, often armed extremists, who are literally trying to hurt and/or kill people. In Charlottesville, whose specter hangs heavy over this segment, they murdered a woman and brutally assaulted others. One white nationalist fired a gun at a black man and police did nothing. It’s not a game; it’s not about changing minds; it’s about stopping violence.
This doesn’t negate Life After Hate’s mission. Both responses to extremism can and should coexist. But love and support wouldn’t have done shit in Charlottesville. (And this is all setting aside the little detail where Piccolini says that Life After Hate has helped de-radicalize a grand total of “over a hundred people.” Encouraging!)
Bee punches left again at the end of the segment, when she calls up Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to, no lie, tell people to hug Nazis:
ARMISEN: Look we all know that there are violent white people.
BROWNSTEIN: But what can you do, aside from just meaning well?
ARMISEN: Donate to groups that combat white extremism.
BROWNSTEIN: Also, this might sound confusing, but just try not to punch anyone in the face.
ARMISEN: Don’t do that.
Here’s what’s truly nuts about this segment: There is no mention of the victims of white supremacy. As far as it’s concerned, the victims are the white supremacists themselves. It has been less than a month since a Nazi murdered Heather Heyer and here are Samantha Bee, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein on national television telling people to help the Nazis.
One of the defining tactics of American government over the last, I don’t know, forever, has been the rhetorical divorcing of white supremacy from public policy. Extremist groups are useful to the ruling class—Democrats and Republicans alike—because they provide a bright, shiny foil: The system can’t be racist because these guys are the real racists. But the carceral state is racist. Mass deportation is racist. Voter suppression is racist, climate policy is racist, labor policy and on and on and on. The rot is in the system.
Telling people to hug Nazis is such a flaccid, facile response to extremism both because it pretends that violent white supremacists are a bug in the system, not one of its defining features. Oh, and also it won’t work. But Samantha Bee will never tell you that.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.