In recent weeks American Neo-Nazis have experienced a cultural moment after the protest and counter-protest in Charlottesville, Virginia and the violence and loss of life that resulted. The national exposure of the white supremacist menace is long overdue. Neo-Nazis and their ilk have made inroads into mainstream society over the past decade but they have been largely ignored until now. We can speculate on the reasons why but what concerns me at this moment is how the rest of us respond to fascists so that we preserve free speech and liberty while combating fascism and racism.
The ascendency of contemporary fascism comes at a time when we seem least able to confront it. Right wing and conservative institutions have capitulated to the alt-right (which is to say Neo-Nazis who chew with their mouths closed) and liberals and the political left are increasingly hostile to ideas that don’t fit within their matrix of belief. This has created a tense political environment. In the past year or so, leftist protesters have lashed out violently against their opposition, so much so that extremism experts are starting to worry about America’s political left. Protests against speakers at Middleburry College and UC Berkeley have turned violent and college campuses are now hostile to the marketplace of ideas. And yes, the Charlottesville counter-protesters were violent. Granted, the violence was not symmetrical; none of the anti-fascists opened fire into a crowd nor did they murder members of the opposition with a car. However, the Vice report on the events of that day shows the organizer of the “Unite the Right” march being chased from a city hall press statement by counter-protesters who clearly had violent intent.
Admitting that the anti-Nazi protesters were violent is not apologizing for fascism nor is it equivocating between the different philosophies they represent. But it is possible to fight fascism and lose the moral high ground.
Counter protest is good—that’s the marketplace of ideas at work—but that’s not what’s being advocated by some on the political left. This cartoon from the website #drawninpowerpoint is widely circulating through social media and it neatly summarizes the argument of the pro-violence left. It is also legally and philosophically wrong.
The cartoon claims that Nazi flags are “incitement” and that the United States Supreme Court has decreed that incitement is not legally protected speech. Therefore, anti-fascist protestors have the right to physically assault Nazi demonstrators. While it is true that incitement is not legally protected speech, Nazi flags do not qualify. As determined in Brandenberg v. Ohio, incitement must inspire “imminent lawless action.” This does not include agitating or offending the audience or the possibility of inspiring violence at some point in the future. A political cartoon that directs the audience to punch a racist but nonviolent demonstrator is much closer to incitement than carrying a swastika flag although this particular cartoon isn’t specific enough to qualify as incitement either.
The matter of white supremacist banners was also addressed by the Supreme Court and not in the way that this cartoon claims. National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie determined that the swastika did not constitute “fighting words” and that Nazis had the right to march through a largely Jewish neighborhood with their flags on display.
But let’s set aside the legal arguments for a moment and consider this from a philosophical point of view. The argument that Nazi and white supremacist banners should not be afforded the same tolerance as other symbols is rooted in our revulsion of what those symbols represent. Nazism and white supremacy are so offensive to so many because they represent the antithesis of American and democratic ideals. The conceit that we are all equal under the law and deserving of equal protection underscores all contemporary ideas of freedom and human dignity. The alt-right, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or whatever you want to call them, represent an affront to that idea. Despite extolling the virtues of Western civilization and demanding credit for it, they want to tear the whole thing down. Because white supremacists have no respect for democratic values, so the argument goes, they should not be afforded the protection of democratic rules and institutions.
But just as tolerance of diversity distinguishes anti-fascists from their opposition, so does a commitment to free speech and the marketplace ideas. Make no mistake—fascists do not believe in freedom, especially of speech. Fascists detest the marketplace of ideas because their ideology can’t survive it. They would much rather express themselves in a street brawl because that at least gives them a fighting chance. And a physical confrontation represents the breakdown of the marketplace of ideas and of civil society, which is what fascists ultimately want.
Attempts to cordon off racist ideas with speech codes and other restrictions aren’t helpful either. At best, these measures only drive Neo-Nazis underground and shield their ideology from criticism. Isolated white supremacy festers like mold in a damp basement. It surreptitiously gains a foothold in young people who are susceptible to these ideologies and don't have the critical faculties to combat them. At worst, speech restrictions enable fascist violence. Censorship plays right into the victim complex at the heart of contemporary white supremacy and once pushed out of the marketplace of ideas, fascists are no longer bound by the nonviolent expectations of civil society.
The anti-fascist protesters who demonstrate for freedom, equality, and justice do so heroically in the face of a movement that would just as soon see them dead. But our emotional reaction against white supremacists must not obfuscate the values that we are defending. Free speech and an open discourse of opinions and information—the marketplace of ideas—is a prerequisite of democracy and civil society. If we start carving out exceptions and making excuses to preemptively respond with violence then we risk betraying the very ideals that we are fighting for and do the fascist’s work for them.