Like A Moth To Flame, I Too Have Decided to Write About Punching Nazis

I advocate something of a swipe-thrice-then-read policy. While you are scrolling through your social-media qua RSS feed of your choice, ignore a seemingly random story when you first see it. Once you have seen three (or so) separate posts about the same story, do your civic duty and due diligence and click on something to actually read about it. And that it is how I came to read the first of many thinkpieces about punching a Nazi.

The reason to introduce this topic by way of the three-swipe policy is that it mirrors how I imagine much of the public came across the story of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. Or at least that portion of the public that was not primed to be outraged about alleged hypocritical values of the violent or “regressive” left. The first pass: “oh, someone punched a Nazi.” The second pass: “huh, people really seem to care about this Nazi getting punched.” The third pass: “Oh, FFS. I guess I have to read why, and why not, and then why again, it is, or is not ok to punch a Nazi.”*

That arc of awareness also mirrors the frankly frightening escalation of rhetoric and shaming that has accompanied this story on the left. Reaction went very quickly from “who cares if someone punches a Nazi” — a view which I fully endorse — to “we actually should punch Nazi’s” — a view which I am at least apathetic towards (I cannot in good faith say that the prospect of Nazis being harmed for their beliefs keeps me up at night). But from here the conversation seemed to shift to “it’s actually important that we are willing to use violence against those with abhorrent views” and finally to “how dare you suggest that we should not use violence against those with abhorrent views.” I had gotten off this train at least one stop before.

As the copious hyperlinking should demonstrate, much has been written on this apparently important issue, especially since violent protests erupted at UC Berkley after professional conversation frustrater Milo Yian-sour-puss was scheduled to speak.** I will not try to perform a full exigesis of the Spencer episode. That said I want to add three things to this conversation: a point and two analogies.

The point: I am again skeptical of the “liberal” strawperson. A fairly large percentage of the pontificating I saw about the punch heard around the internet came in the form of “ ‘liberals’ keep saying it’s not ok to punch Nazis but . . . .” This is almost certainly an indication of the online circles in which I move,^ but the noticeable majority of tweets and posts I saw was on the “it is very ok to punch a Nazi” side. I have seen this archetypal rhetoric, where you assume without evidence that large groups of people disagree with you and that you must therefore, Christlike in purpose, sacrifice your professional credibility and perhaps even safety to speak out against those large groups. You can see it too. The Sean Hannity Show airs weeknights at 10pm eastern on Fox News.

The analogies:

First, I am generally anti-prohibition. That is, I believe that legally banning in toto members of the public from accessing certain items is generally a poor way of governing. Toddlers should not walk around with assault rifles, and adults should not walk around with crack cocaine, but I would generally advocate that heavy amounts of regulation, as well as education and addressing root causes of need will work better than just telling people not to get the thing. As my administrative law professor said: if you ask someone not to think of a hippopotamus, they are going to think about a hippopotamus.

Many people assume that certain drugs are just so powerful, essentially so awesome, that we have to keep them completely illegal. Otherwise, doctors, police, and sanitation workers will all do heroin and our society will collapse (but not without a serious uptick in excellent hard-bop jazz records before the fiery end). I think this is a false narrative that a) obscures the root causes of need and b) concedes far too much power to these substances.

This is a very similar to the concern I have about rhetoric suggesting that some ideas are just too dangerous. I have not heard many people suggesting actual prohibition; arguing that certain types of speech, like Nazi propaganda, should be legally prohibited. But I have heard the contention that what Richard Spencer says is just so bad, we should be allowed to not only not listen, but physically hurt him and his ilk. Why? Is Naziism just that rad? Is it such a seductive idea that the only rational response is to slap it in the face? Call me a liberalish Jewish person, but I just don’t think that Mr. Spencer’s ideology is persuasive. And for those who are persuaded, we should probably be concerned about the reasons, not just the fact of persuasion. Again, this type of thinking obscures root causes. It also plays directly into the bad guy’s hands.

Hence the second analogy. Since George W. Bush Invaded Iraq or referred to the war on terror as a “crusade” a centerpiece of the liberal argument against conservative security policy has been that we are unwittingly becoming an excellent radical jihadist recruiting tool. This has been said over, and over, and over. And it’s true. ISIS and friends want all Muslim people to think that there is a war going on not between Americans and “terrorists,” but between “The West” and “Islam”. Pushing faulty intelligence to invade Iraq, advocating torture of enemy combatants, the existence of Guantanamo, covert drone operations in so many Muslim majority countries that most Americans can’t name them, and now a straight up “Muslim ban,” all enforce that worldview.

And so it is with the Nazis. Whether we are talking about Richard Spencer, or Milo Jeez-he’s-such-a-douche, or Sean Hannity, or Donald Trump, physically harming people who have political (or any kind of) views that you do not like or even find abhorrent is a central part of their late night campfire stories. Somewhere after your daughter is molested in a bathroom by a Trans person, but before the UN lands on our shores and sends you to a camp where you burn bibles, is the part where “snowflakes” on the left lash out because they can’t handle different viewpoints. They aren’t right of course. Trans people don’t molest children, the UN isn’t coming for your bibles, and there’s a big difference between allowing someone to debate about the flat tax on the Senate floor and saying we should have a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” But for all the problems I may have with punching a Nazi on theoretical grounds (e.g. liberal societies should permit radical free speech) there is a cost-benefit analysis here. What do the good guys gain from punching Nazis? Or protesting Milo Such-a-Silly-Goose? If that is how you prevent anyone in America from having those views, well then I may be on board. But I doubt it is (see discussion of prohibition above) and I know the cost. When I did the unnecessary due diligence to determine when Sean Hannity’s gripe-a-thon airs, I found this on his personal website (it’s a reference to his radio show, I think):

Trump’s Executive Order had caused chaos across the globe. Sally Yates had been fired. Steven Bannon had inserted himself onto the National Security Council,^^Rex Tillerson had been confirmed as Secretary of State the day before, Betsy DeVos’ nomination was up in the air. He led with: “Trump Supporter Pepper Sprayed by U.C. Berkeley Rioter.” They love this stuff.

There is much that this piece misses including a discussion of my privilege — that it may be easier for someone like me to advocate for the “let them speak” crowd when “Their” speech isn’t a direct challenge to my life (though I am Jewish, and somewhat soon to be a Jewish lawyer doing regulatory work in DC, so…). I don’t know exactly where I stand on this issue, and ultimately will not loose sleep over how Richard Spencer’s fashy haircut is fairing after taking one to the dome, or whether Milo Cheese-and-Applesauce will get his chance to say horrible things to college students. But I would suggest a general brake-pumping in regards to the rhetoric that proudly endorses violence against people who say horrible things. There is no reason to make Milo’s job any easier.


Endnotes

*This piece is already too long to explain what happened if you are confused. Click on a hyperlink for background. Something that also got cut because this piece is too long, and because I don’t really care, is that I don’t really think Richard Spencer is a “Nazi”. For one, he says he’s not a Nazi (he was actually saying as such before he was cold-cocked). While I certainly think a racist person, or a bigot, can still be a racist bigot while denying they are any such thing, I thought (and I may have missed this day in history class) that a prerequisite of being a Nazi was being absolutely psyched about being a Nazi. He may be a fascist, he’s definitely a white supremacist, and he essentially admits to being a “white nationalist.” But I don’t think he’s a “Nazi”. And for what it’s worth, that’s not a term that is particularly helpful to toss around (he writes whilst tossing said word around liberally).

**I wrote this piece a few weeks ago. There is now another round of Milo related furor (sic?) arising due to a scheduled appearance on Bill Maher.

^To this day, several of my law school friends think of me as the kid who claims he can do heroin and not get addicted. In practice I suggest no such fact. Please consult your doctor before starting heroin.

^^Which I still don’t understand why that doesn’t need Senate approval. See 50 U.S.C.§ 3021(c).

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