We Didn’t Start the Fire, But It’s Still Gonna Burn Us
The other day, I was standing in line at Chipotle behind a couple of L.A. archetypes: young ladies of apparent wealth who were making a constant, conspicuous effort to project hotness, both dressed in the revealing, distressed rags of Angeleno athleisurely fashion, speaking with a willfully limited vocabulary in that detached, Cher-Horowitz-as-Warhol-Superstar-on-quaaludes manner of which SoCal debutantes are so fond.
Just a year ago, these two would have been debating if Kylie is hotter than Kim was at her age, or comparing the respective BMW’s of the much older men they were sleeping with, or otherwise being a living episode of Vanderpump Rules. Instead, they were talking with each other about the ethics of punching a neo-Nazi in the face.
I can’t even remember any of the specifics of what they were saying, just that the depth of the argument fell well short of a Socratic dialog, and that the one who paid with a credit card labeled “Marc Goldstein, Goldstein Prod LLC” seemed a tad more blasé about Nazis than she probably should have been. I didn’t give the conversation much thought at the time, as I was distracted by the flagrant show of sideboob before me.
As soon as they left and my masculine frailty surrendered my consciousness back to my higher faculties, I gave their chat some thought, and the dismal fact of the matter crystallized: those girls, as ditzy as the manner they went about it was, were practicing what has sadly become a basic duty of citizenship. No matter how sheltered they were, or how rich, or how scant their intellectual engagement with the world they live in might be, they saw that they had to seriously consider how to confront fascism responsibly. Tragically, all of us must.
When he spoke at NaziCon DC 2016, Richard Spencer gave a Hitler salute, said the words “Heil Trump!” in total sincerity, referred to white people as “children of the sun” (the sun is an abusive parent if that’s true) and called nonwhites “the most vile creatures ever to walk the planet.” This is an objectively horrible set of sentiments. It’s socially intolerable speech that deserves aggressive social recrimination, intellectual ostracization, and vigrous refutation. However, until a Nazi takes the first step and invades Poland, you are still ceding the moral high ground if you punch him in the face. In the same way, you can’t shut down a professional bigot like Milo Yiannopoulos with violent civil unrest.
Conservatives have been doing this thing for awhile now, in which they invoke freedom of speech as their God-given right to say whatever they want without any consequences, criticism, or outrage of any kind (those snowflakes do love their safe spaces). That is, of course, total bullshit: freedom of speech is protection from legal and governmental recrimination for one’s speech, but you’re still responsible for the social consequences, because words would be meaningless without that power, thus the right to speech itself would be meaningless.
I should hope that right-thinking people would take peaceful action against a bottom-feeding, misogynist bomb-thrower like Yiannopolous, particularly in the context of his loathsome shtick being held up as an intellectually valuable perspective — that’s a case of free speech and free assembly being used to protest the abusive and hateful speech of another, a perfectly civic-spirited act. When the rioting enters the equation, though, the distinction becomes one between violent suppression and hateful speech. Between these two options, the otherwise-specious free speech argument of the bigot is rendered valid. An absolute shitheel is being held up as a first amendment hero by the Right as a result of this, and thanks to a few panes of broken glass, they’re in the same neighborhood as having a credible point. After all, dictatorships often use unofficial third parties to enforce de facto governmental censorship with extralegal violence, so the essential relationship between the rioters and state suppression is there.
In more purely emotional terms, the simple fact is that riots and rioters are scary. They provide a frightening glimpse of the human animal that a functioning society suppresses. Even though we all possess the impulses to animalistic rage and group hysteria that make riots possible, rioting still looks frigging crazy to anyone not currently in that emotional mind frame. It’s the same as how, despite the universal appeal of sex, a man’s bestial facial expressions during an orgasm still look patently ridiculous to anyone who’s not involved in the act. Anyway, when people are looking for any reason to justify their animosity towards people they dislike, the visceral reaction to the violence of rioting is the most potent form of emotional self-justification that they could ask for.
It’s unfair that the peaceful protestors who went out there with no intent to riot were tarred by the same brush as the rioters, and that the entire Democratic Party is being vilified for the actions of anarchists and radical Leftists, particularly since that crowd would never in a million years label themselves as “liberals.” However, as the Right now views all Democrats with roughly the same depth of contempt as it does black people (the two are practically synonymous as far as they’re concerned), we’re being held collectively responsible for the actions of anyone who can even be loosely associated with our side of the argument, same as black political activists have always been made to shoulder responsibility for every violent brown person. It’s deeply unfair, but it’s worked pretty well for our friends across the aisle thus far.
Even more unfair is that the opposite never holds true: even though Trump courted Neo-Nazis, capital-R Racists, and white supremacists in his campaign, and he is rather openly a racist, and [Good God, I lack the emotional strength to run down this list again], the majority of conservatives who are not actively and malevolently racist will never own the actions of their fringe. Even though, much like that girl at Chipotle’s shirt, the fringe is damn near half the garment these days, they still draw the ever-more-artificial difference between themselves and agents of racial and fascist violence. It’s how so many civilized Republicans could see thugs roughing people up at Trump’s rallies, and still believe they could vote for him without voting for the barbarity that made him a star.
After all, America has programmed white people to draw that artificial distinction as an immune response for systemic racism: white folks can proclaim that the day-to-day indignities and deeper injustices that Americans of color face aren’t real problems ’til we’re blue in the face, but as long as we don’t burn crosses or use the n-word in mixed company, no one has the right to call us racists, let alone bring the fairness of our totally-not-racist society into question.
In the 60’s, the reason the lynching of those three Freedom Summer activists by the Neshoba County Sheriff and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson by the Alabama State Police struck such a chord was that they weren’t dismissible as the work of random extremists; rather, they were a confluence of virulent white supremacist terrorism and the actions of agents of the state, and more demure racists were forced to reckon with their complicity as citizens of that system. However, as long as you can credibly keep the twain from meeting — which ain’t hard, given the contemporary reaction to the cops murdering black folks on video — virtually no conservatives will think that their ideological proximity to that hatred makes them in any way responsible for it. As the whole GOP becomes one big White Citizens Council, Republicans take heart in the knowledge that they ain’t the Klan.
On the other hand, we will continue to be progressives, as addled with self-doubt and prone to internecine bitchcraft as we must be by definition, and conservatives will live in a world without doubt — or at least in one where the only doubt is whether one of their own is “sufficiently conservative” — and a world in which all liberals are responsible for every anarchist, radical, and rioter. This belief will continue to grant them the spiritual conviction needed to continue marching lockstep in the intellectual and moral vacuum of the Trump-era GOP. That is the field we are playing on, like it or not. Even though the actions of a few shouldn’t be our responsibility, we have a duty to the Republic to deprive the Right of the succor they derive from every whiff of violence.
As frustrating and scary as these times are, as dangerous as our opponents might be, Malcolm X does not offer us the recipe for successful resistance. So in the future, if you want to avoid giving strength to Donald Trump, and talking points to Sean Hannity, don’t celebrate Nazi-punching on Facebook. Root for deplorable assholes to be scorned, never silenced. If you’re at a protest and you see shit-stirrers putting on masks and grabbing bricks, get a cop. If you hear any threats of violence other than an occasional fantasy about Trump’s death among friends (that we all need to get through the day), you need to engage and criticize the person saying it. If you see Madonna, tell her to shut up.
It’s tough to maintain the level of discipline we need to in these trying times, but we are honor-bound to try. We have to try because the stakes are real, and they are high, and we have a sacred duty to future generations that we cannot allow to be defeated by bad optics.