Dan Arel continues to defend the punching of Nazis (read: “any white supremacist”), tweeting a link to one of the most misguided articles I’ve seen in the past year:
Yes, go have a read at The Establishment of “Why punching Nazis is not only ethical, but imperative,” by Katherine Cross (identified as “Sociologist, Transfeminist, Gaming Critic, Opera-loving slug matron, itinerant Valkyrie, and @Feministing columnist.” She’s also a grad student in sociology at the City University of New York) Her argument, as the title states, is that it’s our moral duty to punch Nazis because of what they did during World War II, because they’re fundamentally antidemocratic, and because they would destroy this country if they were allowed to speak freely (which, she says, they shouldn’t be).
This is the scary kind of violent rhetoric that we predicted from Trump supporters, but is actually coming almost exclusively from the Regressive Left—that group of people who now think that civil disobedience should involve physical assault on people they disagree with. And this attitude appears to be spreading, as we see not only from Arel, who once was sane, but also from the Berkeley anarchists who shut down Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk. (There are more; just Google “punching Nazis,” and you’ll find other apologists like this one.)
Cross is of course referring to Richard Spencer, an odious white supremacist who, while giving an interview on January 20 in Washington (Inauguration Day), was punched in the face by what looks to be a hooded anarchist. Here’s the video:
First of all, is Spencer a Nazi? He denies it, and he’s not a member of the American Nazi Party, but he certain aligns with much of the ideology behind neo-Nazism. As Wikipedia notes:
Spencer has repeatedly quoted from Nazi propaganda and denounced Jews, and has on several occasions refused to denounce Adolf Hitler.
Spencer and his organization drew considerable media attention in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election, where, in response to his cry “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”, a number of his supporters gave the Nazi salute and chanted in a similar fashion to the Sieg heil chant used at the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies. Spencer has defended their conduct, stating that the Nazi salute was given in a spirit of “irony and exuberance”.
So he’s an anti-Semitic white supremacist who seems to knowingly co-opt aspects of Nazi behavior. But he’s not a Nazi per se, and we shouldn’t call all white supremacists Nazis, which immediately aligns them with the Hitlerian ideology that may not be appropriate.
Even so, did Spencer deserve to get punched? Cross says “yes,” and that it’s our obligation to punch him. Why? Cross gives several reasons (her words are indented):
1). Spencer should be punched because he conjures up the Holocaust. Cross says this:
For the mainline liberals and conservatives who lament the punching of Richard Spencer, the young white supremacist activist who coined the term “alt-right,” Nazism remains a theoretical construct, an “idea” that can be debated and defeated without a shot being fired in anger. For the rest of us — for many Jews, for ethnic and religious minorities, for queer people — Nazism is an empirical fact with the solidity of iron roads leading to walled death camps.
The camps are Nazism’s endpoint; it is what Nazism is for. Nazism serves as a refuge for whites dislocated by mass society and modernity, who seek someone to blame for their anomic dread. With that in mind, we must be very explicit about what Nazism’s relationship to democracy must be, and refuse dangerous, whitewashing euphemisms when discussing it (e.g. “you support punching someone who disagrees with you”).
Not all white supremacists are calling for concentration camps for Jews—in fact, I know of none who are. But even if they did, they have the right to say it under the First Amendment, for it doesn’t inspire immediate violence. Of course I’d oppose that call with every atom of my being, and I’m confident enough in today’s world that reminding people of the Holocaust is sufficient to ensure that rational people won’t fall under Spencer’s sway. As for that “whitewashing euphemism,” well, it’s not as euphemistic as you think given the recent political violence we’ve seen. Milo Yiannopoulos, for instance, is not a Nazi, regardless of what you think about him.
2.) Spencer should be punched because his words may actually create a Holocaust of either Jews or African-Americans.
Yes, it could be said that I “disagree” with Spencer that a genocide of Black Americans is desirable, but I believe he should be punched because of the very real risk that he could galvanize such an event into actually happening. This is a fear supported by the tremendous weight of our history, and by the fact that we had to fight the bloodiest war of our species’ existence the last time Nazism came into conflict with modern democracy. To call this a “disagreement” is an unspeakable slight against millions of dead.
First of all, punching people like Spencer merely gets them sympathy; it doesn’t stop them from promulgating their ideas. And to suppose that our country is on the verge of creating Auschwitz-like camps for anyone is simply unjustified hysteria. But of course the Regressive Left, of which Cross appears to be the type specimen, likes to whip up such hysteria by branding their opponents with the worst names possible: racist, misogynist, Nazi.
3.) Spencer should be punched because his views abuse democracy. We should not let these people speak, and we should beat them up, too.
Fascism is a cancer that turns democracy against itself unto death. There is no reasoning with it. It was specifically engineered to attack the weaknesses of democracy and use them to bring down the entire system, arrogating a right to free speech for itself just long enough to take power and wrench it away from everyone else. Simply allowing Nazis onto a stage, as the BBC did when it let British National Party leader Nick Griffin sit and debate with political luminaries on its Question Time program, is to give them an invaluable moral victory. Like creationists who debate evolutionary biologists, the former benefit mightily from the prestige of the latter.
In using this tactic, Nazis abuse the democratic forum to illegitimately lend credence to something that is otherwise indefensible, the equality of the stage giving the unforgivable appearance of “two sides” to a position that is anathema to public decency. This is not because Nazis love democracy or free speech, but because they know how to use this strategy to unravel them.
Yes, allowing odious speech is “abusing the democratic forum.” In other words, we can’t allow people like Spencer the rights of other citizens in a democracy, like free speech, because they will use those rights to destroy democracy. Now I don’t think Spencer has the inalienable right to a platform in a university, but if he’s legitimately invited, then yes, he should be allowed to speak. Opponents should be allowed to protest peacefully, ask questions in the Q&A session, and engage in counterspeech. And yes, Spencer should be allowed to get a permit to stand on a soapbox in the park and bawl his hatred out to high heaven.
In fact, people like Cross herself are the ones who endanger democracy. As far as I know, Spencer hasn’t called for censoring or physically assaulting anyone. In a country run by Cross, that would not only be legal, but encouraged, and people like Spencer wouldn’t be allowed to speak. (Presumably Cross would be The Decider.) Free speech? Only for those with acceptable views! Further, the “credibility” argument doesn’t hold for me. While I won’t myself debate creationists because that gives them the cachet of having a real scientist think they’re worth debating, I wouldn’t for a moment try to censor them in public talks simply because they’re wrong. (Public schools, of course, are a different matter: teaching creationism is teaching lies to children, and at the same time pushing unconstitutional religious views on them.)
4.) Spencer should be punched because hurting him reveals “the shared humanity that Nazis deny.” With this argument Cross takes herself to Cloud-Cuckoo Land, for in what sense is hurting people you don’t like a form of “shared humanity”? Perhaps in a just war, but surely not among citizens in a democratic land. But listen to Ms. Cross (my emphasis):
As I noted earlier, Nazism is democracy’s anti-matter; coming into contact with it is often destructive for our institutions because it is the personification of bad faith with malice aforethought. The only nonviolent solution is to marginalize Nazism from public life in our society — one may be free to hold these views, but not to try and spread them at the highest echelons of our public fora. When, however, someone like Spencer does come along and is being feted in the mainstream, there are no other options available to us.
The vulnerability of Nazis cannot be revealed through debate — many thinkers who lived through the Second World War, from Karl Popper, to Hannah Arendt, to Jean Paul Sartre, have been quite clear about why dispassionate discourse with men like Richard Spencer is not only pointless, but actively dangerous.
It is this kind of stuff that scares me about the Regressive Left. They not only twist language out of its normal meaning to justify violence—something that Orwell warned about repeatedly, but use their new language to justify hurting other human beings. Indeed, it’s not just ethical to hurt them, but required. You know what this leads to: people punching Muslims for their “noncompliance” with the tenets of Western society, Jews for being exponents of occupation and promoting an “apartheid” state, and people like Milo (not a Nazi!) being punched for promoting “hate speech.”
This is not a road that progressives want to travel. I’m far more scared of an authoritarian like Cross than of a white supremacist like Spencer. Spencer will never achieve anything, but Cross, along with Arel and others, is rapidly convincing many progressives that it’s okay to hurt the bodies of people who hurt your feelings. And that is fundamentally antidemocratic.