This week, Richard Spencer, prominent Alt-Right ideologue, was punched by an anti-fascist as he was being interviewed. Leftists cheered, because of their belief in direction action and, I think, because applauding violence from the comfort of their bedrooms makes them feel like they are not lily-livered liberals. Heirs of John Stuart Mill were appalled and condemned the violence – condemning being pretty much all they do nowadays. Spencer’s allies, most of whom are young, web-savvy foreign dwellers, promptly doxxed a hitherto obscure fetish pornographer they thought had thrown the punch. May you live in interesting times? Ours are downright bizarre.
My initial reaction was contempt – not so much contempt on seeing aggression but on seeing cowardice. The hooded, masked assailant ran off before Spencer could even recover his wits. If you are going to punch someone, I firmly believe, you should at least give them a chance to defend themselves. I am sure that he feared a life in prison and not Spencer’s uppercut but he looked, I think, to most people, gutless and sly.
But what of the moral issue? Let me separate this from the case of Spencer, who is less interesting than he seems, and consider acts of ideological vigilantism in general. I am neither a pacifist nor a free speech absolutist. Who is? I would be surprised if half the members of the Alt-Right, many of whom think it was the height of comedy for Pinochet to throw trade unionists out of helicopters, would extend unlimited freedom to the left. People are more pious about free speech, in general terms, when their own speech is unfashionable. It tends to be self-interested.
As a conservative, however, I believe that if speech is to be prohibited it should be in accordance with the rule of law. Anarchists and communists who tend to pick fights with Nazis, fascists and white nationalists believe the rule of law is merely a bourgeois defence of property and, thus, oppose it too. They are my enemies as well, then, in a real sense. I would no more trust the kind of ludicrous left wing ideologue who thinks all borders are tools of racist oppression to decide what is and is not a legitimate right wing opinion than I would trust a member of the John Birch Society to decide who is a communist. The least that they could do – the least – is to elucidate what they believe legitimises violence. Until then I would not feel at all safe from them myself – and, to some extent, I suspect that this is the point.
How would I deal with Nazis? First, to define my terms. Racial eliminationists (well, all elimationists) should be excluded from polite society. Happily, most people find them obnoxious enough that all one must do is expose their worst ideas, as well as the personal dysfunction that always accompanies such eccentric beliefs. (David Duke, for example, is a tax fraud with a bogus PhD. William Luther Pierce had six wives, some of them imported from Eastern Europe.)
This becomes, I will accept, harder to do as a society grows more divided. Liberalism thrives when it founded on group cohesion and social trust. As we grow apart, demographically, culturally and ideologically, it will be difficult to keep. We will have fewer shared assumptions beyond which we can debate. The best way to exclude extremists from society is to maintain a steady course that makes a radical change of direction seem absurd. We have failed to achieve this and are seeing the results.