On The Punching of Nazis

Everyone and their mom seems to be debating whether or not it’s okay to punch Nazis. There’s funny memes, clever flowcharts, and all kinds of brave talk floating around.

Some of the brave talk is about “Hey, Nazis just won’t respond to logic or polite talk — punching them is the only way to get your point across, and they’re bad, bad people, so it’s okay.”

Some of the equally brave talk is about “Violence is wrong, punching people other than in self-defense is wrong, and beating up Nazis is un-American and goes against our core principles of free speech, and I’m not gonna do it. I will use peaceful means to resist and work for change through dialogue and collaboration.”

I have a number of friends who I genuinely admire, like and trust who are ready to start swinging on Nazis at any given moment, no questions asked.

I have a number of friends who I genuinely admire, like and trust who are vehemently opposed to using person-to-person, non-state-sanctioned violence to deal with Nazis.

So which is “right” and which is “wrong”?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m not (anymore, not for a long time) the kind of person who punches people. Even when I was that kind of person, I wasn’t really that kind of person. I can count on two hands (with several fingers just standing around and not even getting involved) the number of times in my life I’ve gotten into an actual throwing-punches-to-try-to-hurt-someone situation.

I’m also not a tough guy, I don’t think. I may have pretended to be one in college when I was a bouncer at my neighborhood bar (which also happened to be the music venue and watering hole of choice for all manner of punk rockers, skinheads, hardcore kids, druggies and bikers) but that was long ago. Mostly, my attempts at tough-guying were about trying to demonstrate some semblance of authority over the rowdy drinkers and violent dancers, and trying not to get beat up by actual tough guys, many of whom thought sissified college boys from the burbs like myself were the problem. Given this admission of non-toughness and non-punchiness, I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t really solved all that many problems with my fists.

So I guess you can take my opinions on violence with a grain of salt; but, the way I see it, sometimes you can’t avoid getting physical.

Sometimes the only thing the other guy will respond to is an application of fists, knees or boots. Sometimes one can only establish a boundary of acceptable behavior and enforce that boundary by using force, or at the very least, demonstrating that one is willing to stand and fight when the other guys act up, even if you know you’re likely to lose.

Pretty much all the time, unprovoked / non-self-defense physicality is illegal and you can get arrested and go to jail. Conversely, people don’t get into arrested-and-going-to-jail kind of trouble with the law for just standing by and doing nothing.

That said, sometimes doing the safe, legal thing is wrong. Sometimes doing the right thing is illegal.

Life ain’t easy, and it’s full of hard choices. Most of the time, people don’t find themselves confronting this particular hard choice (legal-but-wrong vs. illegal-but-right), or if they do, they err on the side of not going to jail, which is entirely reasonable.

But our heroes, the people we think we want to emulate, are people of action. They do stuff. They stand tall and deliver beat-downs for truth, justice, and apple pie. Captain America punches Nazis in comic books and we cheer. Indiana Jones pummels multiple Nazis and shoves them into airplane propellers and we cheer. Some dude runs up on Richard Spencer and clocks him, and many of us cheer.

We LOVE that shit here in America. John Wayne, Jason Bourne, the Boondock Saints, Mighty Mouse, Rambo, Arnold, Murtagh & Riggs, Clint Eastwood and so many more have time and time again shown us that non-sanctioned violence is a good solution for dealing with bad guys. Violence against badguys even finds its way into musical comedies.

Everything good and bad about America, summed up in 31 seconds.

Based on consumption of all these morality fables, we all say to ourself, “well shit, if I saw some Nazi motherfucker harassing an innocent person, I’d walk up to that Nazi motherfucker and bicycle-lock him right in the face!” because that’s the RIGHT thing to do — in America, the good guys protect the innocent, even if it means breaking the law a teensy bit.

Sounds like I’m advocating the punching of Nazis, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe a little. But the problem is… what’s a Nazi, really? All the real, actual National Socialists are probably dead at this point, or extremely old and out of the game. These days, the people we casually lump into the “Nazi” category are really a mash-up of Neo-Nazis, most of the Alt-Right, brown-person-disliking fascists, self-proclaimed pure Aryans, confused/misled White Power kids (skins or otherwise), White Nationalists (whatever the hell that means), Klan members, anti-immigrant Far Right Wing Militias and… you know, people like that.

Focus on the “people like that” part for a minute, if you will.

The problem there is that our “Nazis” don’t all have a single manifesto, don’t all wear clearly identifying uniforms and don’t all have obvious facial tattoos. They’re not all in white hoods or flight jackets with swastika pins, at least not all the time. They may identify themselves with loud public speech and action — like Richard Spencer, David Duke, Don Black, Jared Taylor— but many of them look and sound a lot like anyone else most of the time. They keep their opinions fairly quiet and act surreptitiously, on the down low… at least until the Great Racial Cleansing starts and they can come out and respectably carry out their pogroms on people who aren’t straight, white protestant Christians.

Most of the time, you really gotta watch a fellow and listen to them pretty closely to figure out if they’re an actual Nazi, intent on removing the Jewish problem and Making America White Again, or if they’re just somebody’s casually homophobic / bigoted drunk uncle spewing angry talk fueled by booze, bitterness and economic dissatisfaction.

Are you gonna run up on someone’s casually homophobic / bigoted drunk uncle on the street or in the bar and start throwing hammers? Jesus, I fucking hope not.

Because that’s how the whole damn thing falls apart. Once the “good guys” start running around beating up “bad guys” simply on the basis of hurtful words or ideas we disagree with, then basically we’re just declaring open season for vicious beatings of whoever says irritating things we don’t like. Whoever doesn’t look “right.” Whoever looks like they’re up to no good. Whoever looks different. Whoever has a different opinion. They suddenly become “people like that” and, of course, “people like that” are the bad guys.

But this ain’t the movies. Good and bad aren’t black and white. Real life is gray as fuck.

There’s a ton of nuance in American society. Not all the conservative voters who went for Trump are misogynist homophobic racists (not by a longshot). Not all the liberal voters who went for Bernie or Clinton are sissified pro-jihadist liberal elites who don’t care a whit for the plight of the working man (not by a longshot).

Those, like so many other nonsense stereotypes, are simplistic tropes used by propagandists on each side to rally their troops using appeals to base emotions. We, the people, hear the tropes, our emotions kick in, and we get riled up. We get motivated. We get invested in the message. We start to really believe that the other guys are truly the “bad guys” and because we’re all patriots, nothing’s off the table when it comes to Saving America From it’s Own Damn Self. WE THE PEOPLE will fight for what’s right!

And when I say “we” I mean everyfuckingbody, because everyone naturally thinks they themselves are the good guys, and the people they oppose on moral grounds on any issue are clearly the “bad guys.” (After all, they must be bad guys, because otherwise we wouldn’t be beating the shit out of them with this tire iron, now would we? We’re the good guys!)

This is how neighbor turns on neighbor, the social fabric unravels, and we go from slightly-on-edge to all-out civil unrest. Think it can’t happen here in America? Ha. No. It’s happened here dozens of times. And it always starts with one group of Americans getting all high and mighty and morally righteous and deciding, whether they are actually justified or not, that it’s time to lose their shit and get violent against other Americans who believe something different, with all the predictably ugly, tragic, depressing results.

There ain’t no soundbite, meme or clever two-step flowchart that’s going to legitimately help you decide when to open the Pandora’s Box of solving problems with violence. Not even this one:

This flow chart does not explain the social costs of punching Nazis. Use at your own risk.

I dislike Nazis intensely. They represent everything I stand against. I sure would like to punch them, but I know that’s a slippery damn slope — because I also like the rule of law, and I’d like to preserve that. I don’t want the streets of our nation to be suddenly full of folks looking to beat people up simply on the basis of their own prejudices. Vigilante “justice” would not be an effective, long-term sustainable solution for the problems that ail us.

Sounds like now I’m advocating non-violence and peaceful approaches, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe a little. Except, as anyone who’s dealt with actual white power folk can tell you, the Nazis are not going to respond to polite, logical, educational talking. They might, certainly, over time and repeated exposure to the people they dislike realize the error of their ways and walk away from their hatred — but while it’s a great long-term strategy, it’s not really an immediate solution to an immediate problem.

So what’s a good American boy or girl with love in their heart and a taped-up roll of quarters in their hand supposed to do? Blast a Nazi right in the grill, or buy him a Coke and teach him to sing?

Over the next few years, we’re gonna find out. Richard Spencer and his ilk — the smooth-talking, educated-sounding, tie-wearing hate mongers and racial purists disguising themselves as respectable “thinkers” — are bringing all the white power kids and their white nationalist dads out from under their rocks and into the light of day. They see this as the moment they’ve all been waiting for and they’re ready to live out their agenda of hate and twisted ideas.

And if you think an unprecedented, 3.x million-person simultaneous peaceful march in hundreds of cities around the world (as truly awesome and inspiring as that was) is going to slow them down, you’re wrong. They don’t give a fuck what you think and they don’t subscribe to the “facts” as you see them. Hell, when even the hard-core Trumpers that aren’t actual Nazis are so far gone that they can’t recognize the damn Wall Street Journal as a legit purveyor of fact, you think the actual Nazis are going to listen to any words you care to share with them?

Truly inspiring and absolutely worth it — but not going to convince any Nazis they should give up.

Pink hats and cleverly-worded slogans on artfully-made signs don’t really scare people who have government and social institutions built to favor them, an administration that is unwittingly legitimizing them, rural white juries that acquit them, and harassment, beatings, lynchings, pipe bombs, AR-15s, and pickup-truck-draggings to back up their big talk.

And while the progressive, liberal and neo-liberal wings of the political left basically eat their movement to death from the inside, worrying about whose particular brand of leftiness is best, the Nazis are consolidating their power and earning more and more legitimacy every day.

Add to that the fact that the lying, narcissistic, totally unprepared poltroon who’s recently gotten himself into the White House is almost certainly going to continue to blame his failures (real or perceived) on the very people these newly-emboldened White Pride crusaders hate so very much — because that’s what weak politicians do — and shit is going to get very interesting, very fast.

Sooner or later, people who’ve never really had to worry about making a choice between legal-but-wrong and illegal-but-right are going to have to start worrying about making that choice.

If you like historical metaphors, try this on for size: for everyone who claims to hate Nazis, we are right now witnessing our own personal Czechoslovakia. We, like Chamberlain, know that our society is just not yet ready for this fight, and if we start it now, things will go very badly very quickly… but we also have a pretty good idea what will happen if we don’t.

This isn’t a quandary that only sissified coastal liberal elites have to face, either. There are many, many people who think of themselves as conservatives who know, deep down, that Nazis are bad, bad motherfuckers who can’t be allowed to gain real power or voice.

Yes, to be sure, we all have different ideas about how to solve immigration or what our stance on foreign policy should be, or how to balance the budget or deal with healthcare. But at the end of the day, if we truly believe that all men and women are created equal, that the Bill of Rights and our Constitution mean anything at all, that if we believe in the ideals of loving one’s neighbor, doing good deeds simply for the sake of doing good, and being righteous in the eyes of our peers, the universe, or whatever divine power we may believe in, we know we must at some point probably break down and start punching Nazis. Good must fight evil, right?

Like Brad Pitt in “Se7en,” if we truly want to be the “good” guys, there’s no easy choices.

So I guess we all better start trying to decide for ourselves, deep down inside in the part of the soul we search only at three in the morning when we can’t sleep, whether or not it’s a good idea to punch Nazis. Whether or not we can countenance unsanctioned violence against “evil” in the name of “good.”

We all better start trying to decide when we think this is going to happen, too. When is enough enough with this Nazi bullshit? When do we drop the gloves and start swinging?

Because if we all just started punching “Nazis” tomorrow, we’d better be prepared for what comes next, particularly when the definition of “Nazi” expands beyond its already somewhat amorphous form and the “good guys” suddenly become the “morally ambiguous guys.”

The punching of Nazis might very well end up being necessary, whether it’s sooner or later. Either way, it’ll be pretty damn ugly for a whole lot of people once it all starts happening, and we might not be too proud of who we are as a nation on the other side of it.

Damn, we live in interesting times.

Hug your children, gang. Teach them well.

We may start the fight between “good” and “evil” but they’ll probably end up having to finish it.

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Hoptimus Brine is the pseudonym for some guy living in the Northeast who drinks beer and likes to cook and has fucking had it with Nazis, but also generally prefers the rule of law and hopes we don’t end up doing battle with each other in the streets. He may or may not monitor and/or respond to comments on the twitter handle @hoptimusbrine.