Sunday, January 22, 2017

Punching Nazis

I am always fascinated by controversies around the border between speech and action – like the fracas about banning Moldbug from a conference, and the more recent punching of alt.right leader Richard Spencer that has been both celebrated and deplored across the internet. It made the front page of the freaking New York Times.

As with the earlier controversy, there are scads of people on both sides who are firmly convinced of their correctness. But to me, it՚s interesting precisely because I can՚t make up my mind about how to feel.

Basically I have two conflicting reactions. The immediate and primal one is: these people are simply fucking evil, they advocate violence to others, most definitely including me and mine, and thus they deserve whatever shit rains down on them. Punch away. It helps that Spencer is practically the Platonic ideal of backpfeifengesicht.

The second is: violence is bad, having a robust definition of free speech is good, and political speech should be defended even when it is vile. The paradigm case here is when the ACLU defended the rights of neonazis to march through Skokie (next door to where I grew up as it happens). The organization՚s devotion to its principles impressed me a lot at the time, especially since it cost them a lot of members and funding.

There՚s a lot to be said for the second reaction. It seems more principled, and based on a more abstract idea of human behavior and thus influenced by what David Chapman calls the systemic mode, whereas the first reaction is pretty visceral and tribal. In the more developed systemic way of thinking, we can recognize that the principle of free speech are more important than the particular uses, good or bad, to which it is put.

But I find myself unable to give myself wholeheartedly to this systemic stance. I can՚t bring myself to tell someone who wants to punch a Nazi that it՚s wrong, because of some abstraction. I wish I could, because the liberal model of political order and political discourse is very appealing. I wish I could be a free speech absolutist like the recently deceased Nat Hentoff, exemplar of the old-school liberal tradition.

Something about that stance strikes me as an obsolete fiction, one that maybe used to work fairly well but is crumbling at the edges these days. It՚s fundamental flaw is that it is based on a the idea that speech can be rigorously separable from action. While a useful fiction, it was never actually the truth, and in our postmodern condition it seems even less true than before.

The systemic rationalism that grounds out the idea of freedom speech is being eaten from the left by Foucauldian critical theory and anticolonialism, which reveals that discourse is never really a neutral player in power dynamics. It՚s being eaten from the right by the rise of ethno-nationalism (Trump, Brexit, etc) and their skillful manipulations of social media. And it՚s being eaten from the inside by the failure of global neoliberalism to control and channel the enormous energies of capitalism in a way that preserves the planet and human livelihood, and by ongoing failure of our institutions of discourse, such as congress and the press.

All of these factors combine to make the old model, of a separate sphere of discourse where ideas are rationally considered and debated, simply irrelevant. It was a nice idea, but the world has moved on. Speech isn՚t about rational discourse, it՚s about whoever can craft the best memes and capture people՚s attention long enough to sell them something.

Both the Nazis and the Nazi-punchers live in this new world. As kind of an old-fashioned liberal myself, I don՚t much like it but I have to acknowledge it. Politics is everywhere, and politics is a contest of strength, and the rules of combat are weak or nonexistent. Violent ideologies generate violent responses -- to wring hands about this fact, to attempt to sit on the sidelines, is a moral cop-out.

And to assume that your own life is somehow outside of and immune to the violence of political struggle is to be unforgivably naive; the worst form of privilege,


Veg said...

I support free speech enough that I like that government allows and protects free speech (and I just gave a donation to the ACLU in a recent tzedakah binge as personal offsets to the inauguration), yet I oppose fascism enough that I applaud the person who punched Spencer and am a bit jealous that I wasn't the one to do it.

Ferds said...

Always punch Nazis. Never stop punching Nazis.

What's amusing is that these Christian Republican extremists want a "race war," they try everything they can think of to incite their pals to launch a "race war" and yet when one of them actually gets punched in his Nazi face, these right wing idiots start crying about how "the left is sooooo intolerant, waaaaaah!"

Epic fun!

Lizatblackrose said...

I felt glad Spencer got punched, but would have objected if he'd gotten shot. This doesn't make sense -- if I really think he's a clear and present danger to many people, shooting should be justified too. I guess the punch seems more like an insult, and therefore a form of speech, than real injury.

Anonymous said...

"they advocate violence to others"
I'm sure some people do (just like in many other movements). But suggesting that this is the core ideology of alt-right/white nationalism is a lie.

Also, I'm not sold on the "white nationalist = nazi" idea.
Is every ethno-nationalist a Nazi or only a white person? Are all tribalisms bad or just white nationalism?

Your bullying and antagonising rhetoric does little to promote the kind of society you supposedly want. It only ensures that certain topics remain taboo and that at some point those pent up feelings erupt in conflict.

John Redford said...

Wearing a mask while punching someone and then running away sure looks more like assault than speech. If you believe in what you're doing, do it in the open. And if you do, I'd be appalled if, say, Paul Krugman were attacked this way.

Dain said...

I appreciate the honesty of this post.

Dain said...

It's of course easier to support punching a Nazi as they're universally despised and outnumbered. A pondering of the utility of violence on the part of neo-nazis themselves would almost certainly come down on the no violence side seeing as they could never win.

Dain said...

"Your bullying and antagonising rhetoric does little to promote the kind of society you supposedly want"

His bullying? How so? Nonsense.

Anonymous said...

"His bullying? How so?"

Like so: "If you're white and you care about the well-being of your ethnic group you deserve to be punched and be called a Nazi."

Dain said...

"If you're white and you care about the well-being of your ethnic group you deserve to be punched and be called a Nazi."

That's what's going on his gut. It's the honest, visceral reaction. He said as much. He didn't sign on to supporting that in actuality.

Scott said...

As John Redford wrote, wearing a mask while punching someone looks more like assault than speech.

When W.E.B. DuBois wrote that “The kind of thing that men are afraid or ashamed to do openly, and by day, they accomplish secretly, masked, and at night,” he was referring to the Ku Klux Klan.

Is such a tactic absolved of its evil by being used for a cause someone believes is righteous? This is dangerous thinking.