Know Who Likes Nazi-Punching? The Nazi.

Rebecca:

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.

—Joel

* He doesn’t like to be called a Nazi, but as The Atlantic notes, his ideas are pretty Nazi-ish. And Jesus, that haircut.

Hateful Campus Visitors and the Challenges of Empathy

Joel:

For a good portion of most of my days, I listen to hate speech, transcribing and analyzing it. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to this kind of work; there is a risk of harm involved, of losing faith in humanity, of becoming too familiar with the basest language, of numbing out and forgetting that these words kill people’s spirits and contribute to violence.

But there is value in listening, too. We need to know—not merely so we never forget history but also so that we don’t deny the present state of things, which, right now in particular, is pretty hateful.

So you are right—when Heather MacDonald is invited to campus, she should speak and those who can learn from her should listen. Not merely because of the First Amendment but because we can learn from even very poor thinkers—not to mimic their thinking but to understand it. And, perhaps we can sometimes even appreciate the good work that often-hateful people do, as Tablet does in its “My Favorite Anti-Semite” column. Their stories remind us that good people can do bad things—a larger reminder to be on guard against our sense of our own goodness.

As a college educator, I want to be sure that my students are critically-minded enough to listen to MacDonald, if they chose to. If I’ve done my job well, they will be skeptical of her process and reject her conclusions, not because, as Betsy DeVos says, I’ve” indoctrinated” them but because they can listen across lines of difference with compassion and still see the weaknesses in her argument. And I hope that, when they do that, they respond by, first caring for those who are being harmed by her arguments, then by building better ones.

But this issue is only peripherally about MacDonald.  It’s perhaps more about universities—students, faculty, and administrators—who bring such figures to campus. As an African American student, how do you go to class the next day and sit by peers who cheer on someone who makes racist arguments? How do you entrust your education to professors who cheer on that position? (It’s very much akin to how I feel about Donald Trump voters. He’s bad enough. The fact that 60 million + people voted for him, in large part because they are racist, is what is really upsetting. That would be disheartening if he’d won or lost. And remember, from paragraph 1, that I study hate all day long. So it’s not like I’m not prepared for people to be awful.)

How do we ask black students or international students to learn alongside those who invited Richard “peaceful ethnic cleansing” Spencer to Auburn University? (Spencer’s invitation was rescinded after the university decided it could not insure the safety of campus. A federal court has weighed in, saying that Spencer has the right to speak on campus. Spencer plans on speaking on campus tonight and has said that he is prepared for potential violence.)

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A different story: Last week at Washington State University, students who were part of an anti-abortion group staked 300 pink crosses in the ground in a “Cemetery for the Unborn,” a display drawing attention to the 3000 abortion performed in the US each day, according to the WHO. Later in the day, a student passing by grew agitated by the display and began to dismantle it, and others joined in. Eventually, campus police were called to address the dispute. My gut response (as with the call to destroy Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till) was a big “No, nope, nope.” The student who led the attempt to dismantle the display said his concern was for women who have had abortions who walked by it and were harmed by it. Another student who participated in vandalism of the display said, ““If I were a person that had an abortion and I saw this, I would be heartbroken.”

Their concern for their peers is real. Their empathy is admirable.

But empathy is at the heart of a lot of hateful activity, too. It’s why the content of speech would be a very bad way to decide if it deserves the protections of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps and elsewhere, has noted. What one person hears as speakers advocating for inclusivity, respect, and kindness another will hear as an assault on religious freedom and the foundations of Western Civilization.To paraphrase the scholar Janice Radway, “listening is not eating“; we get to choose what we do with what we hear.