There’s been a bit of talk the last few months about “Nazi-punching,” whether there are forms of politics so evil that the correct response is not debate but, rather, pre-emptive violence. I’ve not been comfortable with that line of thought — I think as liberals we should lean to the “talk” side of politics than the war, and as folks with Mennonite leanings and heritages, we should be more cautious yet.
But there’s one person, it turns out, who really likes Nazi-punching: Richard Spencer.
You know, the Nazi-punchee*.
He’s profiled in the latest Atlantic by a former high school classmate. Toward the end of the article, he reflects on the punching incident.
He sounded vulnerable, for the first time since he’d said the St. Mark’s campaign had wounded him. “I have a right as a citizen to walk the streets and not be attacked, and I have the right to be protected,” he complained.
Spencer was obviously right when he said he should not be assaulted. But we both could taste the irony in the situation. If he hadn’t caught himself, he might have started talking about his “human right” not to be brutalized with impunity. Instead he recovered, and used the irony to his advantage. “The fact that they are excusing violence against Richard Spencer inherently means that they believe that there’s a state of exception, where we can use violence,” he said. “I think they’re actually kind of right.”
“War is politics by other means and politics is war by other means,” he said. “We don’t all want the same thing. And that’s why I think there is a kind of state of war going on.”
Not to put too fine a point on it: The Nazi-puncher accepts Spencer’s idea that liberalism has failed, and our politics is now eat-or-be-eaten. He makes this idea clear elsewhere in the article:
The other German forerunner Spencer claims is Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), who was, for a time, the court political philosopher of the Third Reich. Schmitt’s work has enjoyed a renaissance recently, and even liberals have found it useful, in part as a worthy oppositional philosophy that has forced them to improve their own. Spencer is hardly Schmitt’s heir. But his reading of Schmitt is fair and reasonably nuanced.
“There’s this notion of parliament as an ‘endless debate,’ ” Spencer explained over lunch. Liberalism accepts that disagreement is part of the political process, and that people who disagree profoundly can live together. [Emphasis added: Joel] But eventually, Schmitt argued, the parliamentary debate does end, and someone gets his way while someone else does not. The state’s job is to provide not the coffeehouse for the debate, but the threat of a beating to compel the loser to accept the result. “Politics is inherently brutal,” Spencer told me. “It’s nonconsensual by its very nature. The state is crystallized violence.”
If he’s right, if the Nazi-punchers who have accepted that logic is right, then we’ve already lost a great deal of what we’re supposedly trying to preserve in this country.
And listen: He might be right. We seem to have lost our ability to disagree profoundly and live together. Maybe that ability was an illusion that served the power and control of the people in charge. Probably.
If so, I can’t help but think it was a slightly useful illusion. Not always, and not for everybody, but we’ve survived some cataclysmic politics over the centuries and have only one Civil War to show for it. Me? I’d rather keep testing ideas and debating them than see which side has the best set of punchers. The best ideas don’t win that fight, just the best punchers.
We can’t let the Spencers of the world take charge. The danger – the danger I keep railing against – is that in resisting that prospect, we become the thing we said we hate. In this case, it couldn’t be more true: When you punch Richard Spencer, you’re acting in accordance with his philosophy. Not the race part, certainly, but the rest of it.
That would give me pause.
* He doesn’t like to be called a Nazi, but as The Atlantic notes, his ideas are pretty Nazi-ish. And Jesus, that haircut.