The latest tempest-in-a-teapot to emerge off the CNN website is a picture (with faces strangely blurred) of a graduating class of corrections officers (prison guards) from West Virginia all giving the Nazi salute to their class instructor.
On the surface, without context, this is all deeply disturbing. White nationalism is resurgent in our country, and it’s something that I’m concerned about. And the outcome of that photo is already known. Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, has ordered the whole class fired, along with the instructors who didn’t report the photo, as well as the lead instructor.
Case closed. Or should it be? Reading about the actual circumstance indicates that it was really a joke. The students didn’t say “Heil Hitler!” – instead, they said “Hail, Byrd!” Byrd is the name of the instructor that ordered them to do it. When interviewed in the investigation of the photo, which was printed and placed with their graduation certificates, the grads expressed discomfort and fear that they wouldn’t graduate if they didn’t comply.
They went along with an admittedly inappropriate action because likely they needed a job. Being a prison guard may be a necessary function of society, but it’s not exactly an aspirational position. I’m sure all of you at this last round of holiday parties didn’t tell your friends your greatest hope was for your kid to grow up to be one.
And West Virginia, like all states, tends to locate its prisons in economically disadvantaged areas. I know, because I grew up in one – and getting a job at the prison was the job of last resort. It was a “max” correction facility, and they did executions there. Not exactly a ray of sunshine kind of place.
As far as the Hitler reference goes, we live in a society that basically glorifies him. Don’t believe me? Forget Richard Spencer. Tune into the History Channel, for an endless diet of dark Nazi glorification as a failed experiment of the ubermensch, instead of a hopped up nation addicted to methamphetamines. I gasp watching some of the chronic depictions of Nazism as some crusade that failed – like our own Confederacy. It galls me. I had relatives that served in World War II, and it messed them up. And as far as humor goes, there’s even a movie out this Christmas – Jojo Rabbit – that deals with Hitler in darkly comedic terms.
And the guy doing the firing? Though the investigation bubbled up from below, Gov. Jim Justice pulled the proverbial trigger. He’s one of the most corrupt governors in the U.S. He’s the richest man in West Virginia, and manipulates the entire state government around squeezing regulatory relief for his coal mines. And just like Donald Trump, he owns his own luxury resort – The Greenbrier – booked by cronies courting favors happy to stuff cash in his pocket.
I don’t condone this kind of stuff. I’d fire the teacher, who is supposed to know better. Or more importantly, know stuff, and appreciate broader context of actions. But we’ve got to do better than waging war on people on the poverty line, which prison guards in rural WV certainly are. I’d send the class to another week of school on Nazism, which will serve them in good stead in dealing with white nationalist gangs inside our prisons. And maybe throw in a little restorative justice helping local synagogues as well.
But economic death over the holidays? I think that’s pretty easy for a rich governor to pronounce, and to me is a classic case of “virtue signaling.” In a country where economic precarity – everyone being worried about getting tossed to the street if they lose their job – is a feature, this kind of punishment must be saved for truly extreme crimes.
We’re moving into a new decade. If we’re going to make it, we’ve got to double down on compassion, nuance, education and empathy. Give those officers their jobs back.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.