יום שלישי, 15 באוגוסט 2017

The Good News About the Nazis:America’s tolerance of fascist idiots is one of its greatest strengths



The neo-Nazis and their ilk churned their wretched wake through Charlottesville over the weekend, leaving one dead and nearly two dozen injured. Preaching white supremacism, Jew-hatred, the need for an “ethnically defined” state and opposition to feminism and sexual “deviancy,” the movement’s leader, Richard Spencer, has skunked the national discourse with his rancid scent.

He’s not finished with us—or with Charlottesville. On Saturday, after being pepper-sprayed, Spencer took to Periscope to promise that he and his forces will return to the city. As a man of his vile word, we can expect him to make good on the pledge, which makes the riot only a prelude to his next media event.

The good news about the Nazis—oh, hell, there is no good news about the Nazis. But if you can choke down your disgust and open your eyes, something flattering about America begins to spiral out of the weekend’s chaos. With our deeds and our actions, Americans have consistently held that in a just society nobody has the power to determine what constitutes allowable thought. Let a million flowers bloom—including fields of stinkweed—has been our reliable credo.

By extending and protecting First Amendment rights to speakers who express contemptible thoughts, America distinguishes itself. Many nations suppress ugly views by law. Germany bans Nazi symbols altogether, and wearing a Nazi symbol can earn you three years in prison. Germany also prohibits “hate speech” and insults against religions, and tech firms must delete such offending content. In France, you can’t “apologize” for terrorism, deny the Holocaust happened or disparage somebody for their ethnicity or religion without courting prosecution by the state.

America’s decades-long tolerance of Nazis and their retrograde political views goes back to at least the late 1930s, when hard-core Nazis could draw thousands for parades and once filled Madison Square Garden for a rally. Far from banning Nazi thought, the law protected it: A police force of 1,500 patrolled the streets outside the Garden in 1939 to prevent the Nazis and counterdemonstrators from clashing. White supremacist undercurrents resurfaced in the 1950s after George Lincoln Rockwell founded a high-profile but tiny American Nazi party that he ran out of an Arlington, Virginia, duplex. The Nazis’ ideological blood brothers, the Ku Klux Klan, enjoyed the support of millions in the 1920s and continued their racist, white supremacist ways into the contemporary era as David Duke abandoned the traditional sheets and hoods in an attempt to mainstream the group.

It may be no consolation to African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, women, gays and others on the receiving end of white supremacist and Nazi abuse, but allowing these racist scumbags to express themselves, full-throated, strikes a blow for freedom. Without a doubt, this anvil strike extracts a price. Words can wound. Words can menace. They have repercussions. But it’s almost always worse to prohibit expression than to adopt the default setting of allowing it. John Stuart Mill summed up the danger of stifling loathsome self-expression in On Liberty in 1859, writing that “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion” robs the human race more than it does the silenced speaker.

“If the opinion is right, [we] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, [we] lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error,” Mill wrote. In other words, we must do everything in our power to expose our ideas to scrutiny and potential falsification. To do otherwise is to run a rigged game, with us as the ultimate losers.

That Spencer and his collaborators would be the first to restrict First Amendment rights should they take power is no excuse to deny them their rights of speech and lawful assembly. As Ken White points out on Twitter, we don’t deny “criminals due process or trials because they don’t give them to their victims.” Nor do we deny fascists free speech because they oppose free speech for others. Free speech, to crib from Mill again, protects us from those who think themselves infallible, and the minute we curb speech, we start building the sort of oppressive world that people like Spencer would like to inhabit.

The suppression of free expression, as we’ve seen in places like Germany and France, does little to extinguish detestable thought. It merely drives it underground, where it survives and sometimes thrives because it escapes inspection and criticism by its most articulate critics. This is not a Valentine to the disinfectant powers of sunshine. Free speech can’t right every wrong. It can’t win every argument. But it can take credit for reversing or ending many of the shameful practices and episodes in our history—slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, race riots, discrimination, quotas, housing covenants, disenfranchisement of woman voters, etc. It’s folly to think America would have ever become the better place that it is had free speech in all its forms been given sway.

(I draw no moral equivalence between the white supremacists who swarmed Charlottesville and the antifa who battle them in the streets. But in the instances where they attacked Spencer’s people without provocation, they did real harm to everybody’s freedom of speech and assembly, and deserve our reprimand—and maybe even a future column.)

White supremacists have been with us since the beginning of the republic. We’ll probably never be rid of them. Our best hope for containing them is to deny them the victim- and martyr-status they covet. And the best way to do that is to smother them in First Amendment protections and hope that they suffocate on them.

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