This is in no way a defense of any of Richard Spencer’s words or actions. I condemn him and his efforts. I also condemn violence.
Cross-posted on Steemit.
Like many people, to my own degree, I have felt threatened by Richard Spencer, the ‘Alt-Right’, and the whole situation rising with this election. Like many people, I must admit there was a bit of giddy catharsis in my immediate, subconscious reaction watching him being sucker punched during the chaos of election day.
No matter which tragic ideologies he believes, many negative words come to my mind trying to describe his personality and attitude (insert your ad hominem of choice). I tried my best to internally observe that, and took a few breaths…
I wasn’t too concerned about this sucker-punch until I realized how many of my beloved friends condoned and celebrated this violence. Then I attempted to push back on the basic grounds that this violence had been a counterproductive strategy.
With each new comment in my feed supporting the violence, there came more feelings of a threat from this wider situation. I tried my best to internally observe that, then took a few more breaths…
Next it was time to dive into clarifying my preferred relationship between speech and violence, to ensure I’m operating with logically consistent principles. While brainstorming hard on that, I also dove into fact-checking claims that Spencer is actually a literal Nazi (Neo-Nazi), which I presumed was a safe assumption based on The Atlantic’s video from November.
Finally, I will summarize the consequences for such acts of violence, which I think have already significantly helped their movement and escalated overall violence. A recent article on AlternativeRight.com was even titled “I’m Glad Richard Spencer Got Punched in the Face“.
To the best of my abilities, I am more focused on what is right and just, than what is technically legal. What follows may be an over-analysis of this issue, but I think our guts are already doing all this kind of math, and sometimes it is important to work through the details. I intend to be as literal as possible, and make nuance explicit, to address such a tragically sensitive and difficult discussion like this.
Speech As Violence
A strong opinion of mine is that a person who uses violence is solely responsibility for their own violence.
If someone directly coerces or forces a person to do violence with plausible, extreme, imminent threat (eg. pointing a loaded gun), then the situation is much more nuanced. But coercion aside, a person and only that person is responsible for the violence they perform, or directly physically facilitate (eg. driving a car others use to kidnap someone).
Another principle I would put forth is that people who use violence are responsible for their own violence, not people who might have spoken words they heard.
Unless we’re referring to situations of hypnotism or literal mind control, a speaker cannot be held responsible for all the decisions and actions of others who listen.
If the speaker is held responsible for any listener’s violence, then I think this opens a slippery slope to legitimizing the defense of “just following orders” (aka superior orders, often known as the Nuremberg defense). We are responsible for our own actions of our own free will. Every government and military oath is to uphold and defend the Constitution, not to follow orders.
Speech explicitly promoting violence should indeed be universally shamed and intellectually debunked, but not silenced by force. Appropriate physical defenses should also be established to minimize the possibility of any plausible violence resulting from the speech.
Speech is in no way equivalent to physical violence. Hate speech is disgusting, but also not physical violence.
Violence Against Speech
Punching people is not a form of protected speech. Expressed legally in a number of ways, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
– “Why It’s Not OK to Punch a Neo-Nazi in the Face”, Peter Van Buren, The Nation, 1/24/17
Nonetheless, the courts and many people think using violence against speech can be justified in the case of highly plausible and imminent violence.
Hate speech will not be defeated with other hate speech. Two wrongs simply do not make a right. People calling for violence against Nazis are vulnerable to reap what they sow. The Nazis can make an equally rational case of their likely, imminent threat of violence. And the cycle continues.
It’s always worth triple-checking that you are comfortable being held to the same standards you practice. #GoldenRule
“Imminent lawless action” is very difficult to identify. The argument for imminent threats in this case seems to look for proof in the historical record of a relationship between certain speech and violence. I perceive this to be the primary logical argument made when condoning this “self-defensive” violence against Spencer’s speech.
So, within this framework I’ve described, what is the clear and present danger needed to use, justify, celebrate, or incite violence against Spencer? For now, let’s assume that he is literally a Nazi, while wearing awkward faux sheep’s clothing as a leader of the Alt-Right.
It is not reasonable to hold someone personally responsible for random or disorganized violence at some indefinite future time (not imminent). I personally think that to ‘rationalize’ violence in response to his speech as an organizer of the Alt-Right movement, there would have to be an imminent shift to organized violence. Perhaps teases at a distinction between free speech which could potentially inspire violence, compared to conspiracy to commit violence or terrorism.
In this hypothetical situation, parts of the Alt-Right would systematically give up on the “peaceful” path to their desired ethnostate. They would shift their strategies to the systematically violent path of Neo-Nazis, and that path would actually have to be implemented or attempted.
Trump was elected by roughly 25% of the total U.S. population. I am not sure how large a subset were white nationalist ‘identitarians’ and white supremacists. In the foreseeable future, are the combined Neo-Nazi and Alt-Right minorities realistically capable of deporting (or violently removing) over 35% of the population (non-white, plus Hispanic)? It seems millions at the Women’s March have already physically gotten out and declared active support to this 35% too, dwarfing the numbers of active Trump supporters.
Comparatively, our historical precedent reports that Jews represented 0.75% of the German population in 1933. So this is just my subjective opinion, but I don’t think the U.S. demographics, trends, and current cultural breakdowns make the worst Neo-Nazi goals of their own ethnostate (via peace or violence) realistically likely in the foreseeable future.
Ethnostate Consistency Matters
If you insist that Richard Spencer is a clear and present danger for his most outrageous speech, the desire to form an ethnostate, then are you willing to be consistent with that position?
He explicitly claims he wants to create it via “peaceful ethnic cleansing“, but many presume that he lies about this, presuming that it might be code for genocide. He claims they just want ‘European Americans’ to have their own space to live by themselves, in their own way, and celebrate their ‘race’ together.
Whether or not he’s using code, it is likely that any attempt to peacefully relocate a significant percentage of any population will eventually escalate to violent removal. This happens as soon as people start saying, “No thanks, keep your money, I am staying in my home.”
If Spencer is honest about sticking to peaceful methods to form an ethnostate, then that dream of his is likely impossible. (Great!) If any group is truly committed to create an ethnostate, they will almost certainly have to switch over to strategies of violence.
One of the ways we know that an intention to peacefully create an ethnostate can quickly lead to extreme violence, is the state of Israel. This is crazy ironic, but not intended to be funny.
There is a huge difference in that Israel’s origin story does have truly horrific tragedies behind it’s formation. But this does not change the fact of violent systematic displacement. Two wrongs simply do not make a right. Arguing it’s OK for one group to do something, but not OK for another, suffers from the special pleading fallacy.
If you oppose ethnostates created using violence, and also a wide variety of speech which promotes them, then please triple-check that you are willing to have consistent principles in applying this to Israel too.
In other words… If you condone violence used against Spencer for his speech promoting a peaceful ethnostate, then you should also condone violence against speech in support of a peaceful state of Israel.
Consistently applying that logic once more, you should also condone violence against Muslim speech in support of a peacefully created caliphate. Would you condone violence against such speech even if they publicly, explicitly condemn what is happening now with ISIS? After all, they might be lying about their insistence on peace, or using code words.
As far as I can see, these are unavoidable consequences of supporting violence used against speech promoting an ethnostate.
I personally condemn violence against any speech, a principle I am very comfortable to apply consistently.
Is Richard Spencer A Neo-Nazi?
Maybe none of the above principles have convinced you to condemn violence against Spencer’s speech. Maybe you disagree with my above claim, and think that the Nazi goals to establish their ethnostate are realistically likely in the imminent future.
In that case, then we must ask the next question, “Is Richard Spencer A Neo-Nazi?” In this situation, this question is most equivalent to asking whether or not he is willing to escalate to violence for his ethnostate, contrary to his publicly stated position.
There’s no historical precedent of the Alt-Right actually attempting to form an ethnostate, so Spencer being a Nazi is central to claims that he poses a “clear and present danger”. The ‘Nazi’ (Neo-Nazi) label, and the group’s distinctive ideologies and methods, are very important because they they do have a firm history of white supremacy by means of systematic violence. Without this rationale, it becomes even harder to justify silencing free speech by force.
If one claims a blanket justification for violence against Nazi speech, that label had better be well defined, because it would be truly tragic to hastily generalize. By now, I hope reasonable minds are past the point of using “Nazi” figuratively, since we all have to take this as deadly serious as ever.
I personally think it is both strategic and safest to carefully study our ‘enemies’ to avoid attacking straw men, intellectually or physically. I think it is both strategic and safest to personally fact-check all the claims we find most compelling, or repelling.
Since he explicitly rejects that he is a Nazi, we have to prove it. That is an impressively difficult task, but reasonable due diligence before trying to rationalize violence against speech.
Claim: Spencer And His Audience Performed Sieg Heil Salutes
In studying the ‘enemy’, I first watched the full 30 minute speech. You know, the speech at the National Policy Institute (NPI) conference which The Atlantic edited into a 3 minute video which scare the shit out most of the country? At the end of his speech, he raises his glass, then I would estimate less than a dozen people out of 200 performed the roman salute.
Curious about Spencer’s reaction to The Atlantic piece, I listened to Spencer and his allies talk about it. They regret it being filmed, and they don’t really want to encourage that behavior in their circles.
But they also claim it has become an ironic act, and that some in the Alt-Right like to troll [liberals] with it. I still condemn that behavior, and don’t know if I believe them, but there does perhaps exist some context up for debate. People have playfully used the label ‘Nazi’ since the internet jumped the shark with it, and I condemn that too.
He also brought up a comparison between “Hail Trump” and “Hail to the Chief“, which is as American as apple pie. I think that’s an interesting and fairly reasonable counter-point.
But no, it is not a fact that Spencer performs a sieg heil salute during that speech, the imagery which brought him to the rest of the world’s radar.
Claim: Spencer Is A White Supremacist
If you have not yet watched the debate with Roland Martin, I strongly recommend it as the closest thing to a balanced discussion about Spencer’s views that I’ve found thus far.
In this interview (debate), Spencer says, “No I’m not a white supremacist, absolutely. White supremacy means a white person would want to rule over other people.” Roland Martin checks him, “So you don’t want to rule over people?” Spencer confirms, “I absolutely do not.”
When asked if he was racist during his Texas A&M speech, he said, “There is no ultimate objective standard whereby I would say that this race is cosmically better than the other ones. What I would say… The white race is mine, it is the most important thing to me, it is unique.” I might note that Darwin’s position was infinitely more racist and supremacist on this point.
I condone these statements. If these statements are not hugely significant contradictions with the values of Nazis and “white supremacy”, then maybe we need to clarify those definitions.
Claim: Spencer Questions “Is Black Genocide Right?”
From the popular screenshot, the article is easy to find on Archive.org. It is not “an actual quote from Richard Spencer”. But this article, written by Alt-Right co-creator Colin Liddell, did appear on their website for roughly three months in 2012.
Liddell wrote a followup article elsewhere in 2016. He tries explain the article’s deletion from the Alt-Right site, and he republishes the article, as well his sister article from 2014 titled, “Is White Genocide Right?”
I condemn these articles, but I also do not know enough about their primary context of the “Boer Genocide” in South Africa. Thus far, I’m not in their heads enough to judge exactly how to parse the rhetorical devices he is using. So I’m still unsure what to make of this one, you’ll have to make you own judgement (as always).
From what I’ve found, this is perhaps the strongest claimed evidence for [sort of] Spencer almost calling for violence or genocide. I am offended by these articles. But I struggle to see it as strong enough ‘smoking gun’ evidence to outweigh all the recent direct quotes above which explicitly contradict the positions in this article.
Claim: Spencer Questions If Jews Are People
A CNN segment discusses Spencer’s NPI speech with host Jim Sciutto and commentators Rebecca Berg of Real Clear Politics and Matt Viser of the Boston Globe. They claim that Spencer questions if Jews are people, and reiterate this with an on-screen graphic.
But listening to that quote in context, as I also first heard it studying the ‘enemy’, Spencer is clearly talking about the mainstream media, not Jews.
Even Snopes debunked this one, as searching for the quote itself returns that result immediately. This speaks to the level of fact-checking people are doing when we all get so emotionally triggered. Breathe.
It is indeed dehumanizing and ugly to question if any people are really people. Maybe I am also too bias and jaded against the mainstream media, and can resonate with a piece of the intended humor here, because I didn’t think his delivery was in any way as chilling, hateful, or genocidal as CNN suggests.
Divide and Consequences
I do find Spencer’s views offensive, potentially dangerous, and I do condemn them. Many of his words are truly ugly, and he frequently reveals the bankruptcy of his own views while describing the weaknesses and hate of his opponents. Richard Spencer, shame on you. But I don’t yet feel confident in labeling him a literal Neo-Nazi who calls for violence.
The Nazis who are most dangerous to society would not admit it (I might be looking at you, Prescott Bush and Operation Paperclip). My gut says the most physically dangerous Neo-Nazis on the streets, who are responsible for nearly all the existing (disorganized) violence, would proudly admit they are Neo-Nazis or Klan members. How we handle the most clever Neo-Nazis and the Alt-Right is absolutely critical.
Battling specific characters like Spencer with violence puts us all in more danger. It escalates overall violence, escalates their legitimate rationalization for initiating future violence, and gives them a way to pretend they are victims. It may seem illegitimate, but if both sides take turns initiating violence, then both sides do have victims and rational fear of an imminent threat.
Maybe the guy who punched Spencer should’ve just pantsed him instead. Public shaming can be more effective than violence.
Better yet, I would honestly love to see him and his ‘think tank’ pressured into an Intelligence Squared debate. It’s true that any increase in his platform does include risk, but he’s already got a huge national platform. The Atlantic made sure of it.
In a formal debate, all his claims can be publicly destroyed, along with the alleged “intellectual” ground atop which they layer their emotional arguments, which bait everyone to play their game. Expose him for the fool he is, and meme the fuck out of that, not some cheap sucker punch.
By celebrating this video, ‘anti-fascists’ also celebrate a significant victory for the Alt-Right and the Neo-Nazis. Hours after the punch, Spencer tweeted, “Every sucker punch, every tossed egg, every chased white Trump supporters red pills a generation. We are winning without even fighting.” (Retweeted over 850. Hearted over 2,500.)
Spencer explicitly says in the full NPI speech that the lack of “empathy” in the left’s (reactionary) response to their movement is “really opening up the door” for them to succeed.
It is so helpful to their movement, that it is reasonable to wonder if the moment was staged by Spencer, like a WWF fight. He does explicitly say that he likes to use “meme magic” by creating self-fulfilling prophecies for his desired realities.
It’s possible that his strategies might be far more cunning and thought-out that most of us can imagine. It seems like he’s been a step or two ahead in trolling the popular narrative for a while, working it in a similar way to Trump. If so, even more reason not to use violence.
Here is are two excerpts which predictably echoed my concerns from the AlternativeRight.com article titled, “I’m Glad Richard Spencer Got Punched in the Face”:
It’s a good thing, though, that the threat of real risk, real pain, and real sacrifice hovers over our movement. The only men we need leading and speaking for this movement are men who can take and bounce back from a sucker punch. The overwhelming majority of men would have never placed themselves at risk of that. The overwhelming majority of men would have second-guessed their project in light of that risk. But the very real threat of violence guarantees an authenticity, integrity, and virility in our movement which will pay dividends as our movement scales up from here.
I’m not glad that Richard Spencer got punched, per se. But the incident is of huge benefit to the nationalist cause. Having it on record that it’s the Left that is instigating the aggression—with the mainstream Left fully endorsing it—is a priceless long-term propaganda victory. This will help frame what’s in store in the years to come.
Those sentiments are a direct consequence on this specific use of violence against speech. Thanks a lot, sucker puncher, for increasing the danger for all of us.
Every war requires ‘the other’ to be thoroughly dehumanized. Perhaps to avoid wars, of all scales, we need work harder to humanize everyone.
You can’t even have a real conversation with someone you consider “Nazi scum”, let alone a peace treaty. According to Spencer’s own statements, a strategy of humanizing just might close the dangerous door that’s been opening.
I find hope and inspiration hearing that the “man who was shot in the stomach while protesting at a Seattle speech by [a] rightwing provocateur wants ‘dialogue and a restorative justice’ instead” of pressing charges. I think this is a great move to combat this scary game on Spencer’s strategic level.
For 15 years now, I’ve been following and trying to figure out how to prevent full-blown American fascism. I personally do not think there is nearly enough imminent or realistic risk by these groups to make it worth empowering them further with escalations of violence.
If this right-wing fringe is really the biggest threat, they will only succeed using the violence they are fed.
In my humble opinion, fascism has been coming from the top-down, not the bottom-up. It’s been slowly happening in the Oval Office, Congress, and the Supreme Court. It’s been happening with or without racial tensions in the streets.
Fascism is all about the [existing] absolute authority of the state. I think creating excuses for this tragic fringe to harness any more state power puts us all in more danger.
I love you.