Shouting Theater in a Crowded Fire

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville this past weekend—a neo-Nazi rally, a counter-protest, violence between the two factions, and ultimately an apparent vehicular homicide by a white nationalist against the counter-protesters themselves—I am struck by how quickly and how easily a society can begin to shed its civil norms and civic protections in favor of something worse. I am not speaking of the man who drove his car into the crowd, killing one person and injuring a few dozen; so far as I know his behavior is more or less universally condemned, even by the neo-Nazis. Nor do I mean the petty and stupid squabbling violence that took place between the Nazis and the counter-protesors, which seems to be kind of par for the course whenever the Left shows up to an even mildly contentious political event. I am speaking of something deeper and more troubling, a kind of eroding of the presumptions of the American civic fabric.

For instance: there appears to be a small but rapidly-growing effort underway to legitimize violence against people engaging in protected speech. “Punch Nazis” seemed to be the phrase of the day yesterday. One fellow on Twitter summed up the sentiment quite aptly:

He later emphatically reiterated this idea. Now, this is just one guy with less than six hundred Twitter followers. But the sentiment was also echoed by people with a lot more prominence: Rob Delaney, for instance, a world-famous actor with nearly a million and a half followers, and Jake Tapper, a CNN host with almost as many. This is actually sort of a continuation of the “punch Nazis” campaign that began in January, when white nationalist Richard Spencer was violently assaulted on camera, leading many people to celebrate the optics of violent assault; the Guardian, for instance, openly mused over “the ethics of punching Nazis.” One of Obama’s former speechwriters publicly admitted that he found the video of the assault to be hilarious.

There is, to be sure, a kind of grating middle school moral preening going on here: everyone knows that Nazis are bad, but some dudes desperately want you to know that they think Nazis are super bad—bad enough to be preemptively punched! When I was 7th grade my twelve-year-old friends used to say this kind of stuff too: “Hitler was a jerk, I’d like to kick his ass!” “Racist people are assholes!” It’s a kind of an exaggerated public playacting of a belief that everyone already holds, i.e. Nazis, and bigotry more generally, are bad.

But at its heart this growing impulse is a horrifying one: it is apparently gaining currency—in public, among prominent public figures and publications—that punching innocent people is an acceptable form of public discourse. (The obvious rejoinder—“They’re not innocent, they’re Nazis!”—is just stupid enough to not merit a response.) I am not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, the Left is, and has been for a long time, prone to violent behavior. This is nothing new. On the other hand, that violence has, at least in recent decades, tended to be clandestine, at least insofar as nobody with much sense wanted to be associated with it. That seems to be changing. And that is very troubling.

It would appear that this is not really an academic exercise so much as a practical public campaign: at a rally in Charlottesville yesterday, somebody did indeed assault a white supremacist, punching him in the face as he was giving a press conference. Maybe the “Punch a Nazi” liberals are okay with the possibility that their violent rhetoric might have contributed to this assault. I don’t know. I know I wouldn’t be comfortable with it, but then again I am not very comfortable with violence.

It is worth pointing out how easily “Punch a Nazi!” could and probably will transform into “Punch a Trump supporter!” or “Punch a pro-lifer!” or “Punch [insert a person disfavored by the Left]!” Progressives can rarely keep their violent tendencies confined to one class or group, as the Kulaks would tell you if they weren’t all dead. But even if this violent ethic never shifts to cover additional socio-political demographics, it is still something of a mild horror to watch this play out in real time. Yes, nobody wants to listen to a Nazi (aside from other Nazis, I guess). But the small yet growing public acceptance of punching Nazis in order to shut them up suggests something new and profoundly concerning, a degradation of our public discourse in a way that is uniquely dangerous. “Punching Nazis sounds like a great idea!” say a bunch of idiots, giggling at the idea of playing Indiana Jones for an afternoon. It never seems to occur to these childlike adults that punching a Nazi might, in the end, be worse than just walking away from the Nazi.

It is, in any case, rather amusing, in a dark kind of way, to see the political faction that once fainted over so-called violent rhetoric on the Right (“Sarah Palin put crosshairs on a map!!!”) begin to cheerfully embrace literal violence in an eager and public fashion.

The other takeaway from the Charlottesville affair is that there seems to be a sizable number of Americans that is opposed to free speech and would like to see it significantly attenuated. Leading up to the white supremacist march, for instance, a great many liberals were starkly horrified to learn that the ACLU supported the neo-Nazis’ freedom to hold the march. CNN host Eugene Scott claimed that “vocalizing white supremacy isn’t about exercising free-speech.” California GOP representative Kevin McCarthy appeared to suggest that “free speech…does not include hatred [or] bigotry.” The sentiment was echoed thousands of times on social media.

One friend texted me to say: “We don’t have to protect all speech if it’s clearly evil.” Which is kind of crazy, because that’s exactly the opposite of what the Supreme Court has held for nearly five decades—and as recently as a few months ago! In any event, I’m not quite sure what that would look like: would we send police in to arrest white supremacist speakers? Would we throw people in jail for giving Nazi salutes? This would be a sick affront to free expression and a gross perversion of what republican constitutional government is supposed to look like.

It is something of a wonder that people believe you can divorce unpleasant or hateful speech from civil protection and still have a “free speech” regime on which to fall back: if you’re opposed to neo-Nazis’ freedom to march in a park, then you’re opposed to free speech and in favor of censorship. It cannot be boiled down any simpler than that, nor can the fundamental hollowness of the censorious impulse be more clearly exposed. “I’m for free speech except for the really offensive stuff” is not a sentence that makes any sense at all, nor is it a position that can be defended without at least tacitly admitting the authoritarian compulsion that underwrites it.

In the end there will always be people uncomfortable with free speech and eager to stifle it. That is, of course, a worthwhile public debate to be had, if only so that the anti-free-speech position can be cleanly and publicly eviscerated. But if folks are still uncomfortable with the neo-Nazis’ First Amendment rights, I guess they can always try punching them and seeing how that works out: responding to constitutionally protected speech with violence isn’t a good look for anyone, but then again many liberals don’t seem all that concerned with optics these days.

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