As we face the public resurgence of a politics we long thought banished, the time has come again to ask ourselves exactly how we respond to the far right
I’ve said it in the title and I’ll say it again for the kids at the back of the class. Nazis are bad, m’kay. I use Mr Mackey of South Park‘s matter-of-fact turn of phrase in an attempt to return us to our senses, back from the crazy reality in which the moral certainty of ‘Nazis equals shitheads’ appears somewhat shaken in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Let me reiterate: Nazis are scum comparable to gastrointestinal parasites.
Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists, like the rest of us, have a right to free speech. Anyone is allowed to say anything they damn well please, no matter how morally deficient. I can take offence because offence is not harm. But we are under no obligation to tolerate what they say. We are also not under any obligation to let them speak without obstruction. This is the beauty of counter-protest and, on this occasion the anti-racism protesters who went to Charlottesville to confront vile bigots. A free exchange of ideas allows bad ideas to be seen for what they are: flawed. One of our fellow authors has already finely articulated the dangers presented by seeing free speech as a zero-sum game.
Let me tackle a few criticisms of the counter-protest head on. That the march for Lee’s statue held a permit whilst the counter-protest held none is a falsehood; the counter-protest did in fact have a permit for Saturday. As Politifact explains, neither side needed a permit for the Friday night march or counter-protest on the University of Virginia campus. Furthermore, legal permission to chant “Jews will not replace us”, “Blood and soil”, and “Hail victory”, does not make the march morally permissible. What is permissible under the law is not the same as what is morally defensible; an infant could have told President Trump this.
A far more pressing criticism is that to engage in violence with neo-Nazis makes you morally comparable to the neo-Nazi. I hope someone travels back in time to tell the Bielski partisans that they shouldn’t lower themselves to fighting their Nazi oppressors. I am sure Charles de Gaulle would be surprised as fuck to hear he was as morally reprehensible as Rudolf Hess and Martin Bormann.
I don’t care if not everyone marching to protest the removal of General Lee’s statue wasn’t an avowed white supremacist, white nationalist, anti-Semite, or a neo-Nazi. It doesn’t matter who you say you are if you march with them. You are marching with monsters and in doing so lend them your tacit support. It is not the same as there being kooky hardline communists at a leftist march, since communism doesn’t call for the wholesale extermination of other races.
I’ve heard on occasion the view that “I would rather fight for a Nazi’s right to speak than for a communist’s right to throw stones.” The trouble is that no matter how violent Antifa were towards the far right, the basis for their violence in Charlottesville was fundamentally different. I cannot overstate this: one side were actual, honest-to-goodness fascists and the others were anti-racist protesters.
The fighting in Charlottesville was characterised as retaliatory but people that have come out for a ‘peaceful protest’ do not come armed like extras from Mad Max. They do not bring mace and lighter fluid to blind genuinely peaceful protesters. And did I mention the throwing up of some tasty salutes and the flaming Tiki torches? The loving combination of National Socialist and Klansman optics should tell us that they’ve not come to sing hymns. Fascism can never be about peace when it holds at its heart the notion that violence and war are effective and justifiable routes to national rejuvenation.
If you place ethnic cleansing on the scales of justice, it is not balanced by hatred of that support. It is a false equivalence of the most egregious order to compare the retaliations of anti-fascist protesters with people whose ideologies literally call for the removal and/or destruction of other races. Any violence propagated by counter-protesters pales in comparison to the mowing down of multiple individuals, or to the beating of a black student with poles. This is not “violence on all sides”.
The more excuses we make for the extreme right, the more we equate them with their detractors, and the more normalised their aberrant ideology becomes.
Karl Popper articulated in The Open Society and its Enemies a sentiment I find myself returning to often this week: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” When the actual President of the United States of America reveals himself to be a Nazi apologist, it is now more vital than ever that we are Unapologists.