I wrote this last week when it was topical, but by the time I was finished it seemed dated and I decided not to publish. The re-appearance of the black bloc at the recent Berkeley protests, however, made me think that there might still be some value in posting it. As something of a side note, it has come to my attention, via a comment, that some Nazis read my blog, which I assume is because one of my posts from January used the phrase “anti-white.” This post takes Natasha Lennard to task for, in response to the punching of Richard Spencer, making a very public and (in my opinion) dangerous case for why political violence should be not only tolerated but celebrated and encouraged. But on the broader philosophical question of whether, in some cosmic sense, Richard Spencer deserved to be punched, there is some wisdom in the joke, “Q: Why does Texas hang horse thieves and let murderers go free? A: Ain’t no horses that needed stealin’.”
Most people, left and right, agree that people should not be subjected to vigilante violence over their political views. The justification for this position can either be principled–one should not assault people over their views because it is wrong to do so–or prudential: if society allows people to attack each other over politics, bad things might happen, such as a downward spiral of violent escalation. And in fact, downward spirals of violent escalation–blood feuds–are a pretty standard feature of human societies. This makes intuitive sense. Your political tribe functions psychologically just like any other tribe. You perceive the enemy tribe as a threat, so you attack. Now that you’ve attacked, they see you as a threat and attack back. Now that they’ve attacked, you need revenge. And on and on ad infinitum.
Luckily, we live in a society that has come up with solutions to this problem, such as the state, the law, cultural norms against political violence, and social technologies like free speech. These are neither perfect nor perfectly applied, but they are generally better than most of the alternative dispute-settlement mechanisms that humans have tried over the years, such as witch-burning, trial by combat, or the liquidation of class enemies. I get to say and think and vote how I want, and while other people can call me names or maybe try to get me fired, only the state is allowed to physically coerce me. Most people appreciate this protection applied to themselves, but since we are tribal primates, we tend to come up with rationalizations as to why it shouldn’t apply to people we really really don’t like. Of course I respect free speech, but another Brady-Belichick Super Bowl will inflict psychic violence on the republic, and so punching this drunk Bostonian in the kidney is, in a way, justified.
Natasha Lennard disagrees. In two separate articles written for the Nation, Lennard, a journalist, activist, and Occupy veteran, positively revels in the idea of extra-legal violence against her political opponents. In the first, a January 19th call to arms entitled “Anti-Fascists Will Fight Trump’s Fascism in the Streets,” Lennard reports on the plans of “antifa” street fighters to save the nation from the imminent Trumpian Reich through the strategic deployment of “counter-violence,” of which the author, shifting to the first-person plural (“Those of us who long before Trump have defended counter-violence against oppression… know where we stand”), glowingly approves. In a second piece, January 22nd’s “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched–You Can Thank the Black Bloc,” the author provides a breathless, triumphalist account of her participation in an anarchist “black bloc” rioting as part of the #DisruptJ20 inauguration protests. The bloc, as the title suggests, punched at least one prominent white nationalist in the face.
Both pieces have their flaws, but the second verges on the unhinged. There is, first of all, an oddly erotic tinge of the language–the “kinetic beauty” (a phrase cribbed from David Foster Wallace) of bodies separating, melting, and reconciling as people split off the bloc to “take a rock to a Starbucks window” or set a limousine on fire. There is the compulsion to drive home the fact that yes, the author really did participate in all that cool mob violence stuff–bottle rockets, arson, smashing windows, etc.–a rhetorical tic that when combined with her contemptuous attitude for the mere liberals at the Women’s March, assumes the tone of a college student bragging about taking ecstasy to her square high-school sister.
And then there is what can only be described as a deluded assessment of how effective rioting really is. Lennard describes it as an “opening salvo of resistance in the era of Trump,” which, in order to perceived as a threat (which is the goal), must be “followed up again and again with unrelenting force.” Even aside from the odd fact of an anti-fascist paean to romantic, irrational violence (Mussolini did start as a syndicalist!), most Americans, as a practical matter, don’t actually like rioting, and tend to turn against the people who do it. Waves of riots, such as the race riots of the 1960s or the more recent unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore–which Lennard cites as predecessors in her January 19 article–tend to provoke right-wing law-and-order reactions of the sort we are currently living through. According to polling from Rasmussen, for instance, not only a majority of whites, but 64 percent of non-black minorities saw the unrest in Baltimore as “mostly criminals taking advantage of the situation.” Maybe they need to check their privilege.
The most interesting nugget from both pieces, however, is not the odd self-mythologizing but Lennard’s desire to defend the legitimate use of violence–sorry, “counter-violence”–against certain classes of person. Notably, “neo-Nazis” such as the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who was socked in the face by an anarchist while roaming through the streets of the district with his black-shirted squadristi, savagely beating women and minorities with canes. Counter-violence, in such a situation, had to be justified. Of course, one might object that Richard Spencer wasn’t, in fact, engaged in violence at the time he was assaulted. One might actually get the impression, watching the video, that he was just peacefully standing in a public space, talking to a journalist, and was the victim of aggravated assault at the hands of some anonymous goon. One might even start to think that the term “counter-violence” is a laughable instance of doublespeak, in which unprovoked aggression is rationalized as the justified response to an invented injury. Well, liberal, it’s time for some crit theory!
You see, Spencer is a fascist. So although he may look like he’s just standing there, talking to a journalist, he’s doing so fascistly. And, as we all know from M.Testa, author of Militant Anti-Fascism: A Hundred Years of Resistance, “fascism is imbued with violence and secures itself politically through the use or threat of it, so it is inevitable that anti-fascists have to countenance some involvement in violence themselves.” That is, some very smart theorists–and when have left-wing theorists ever been wrong?–have already determined that some ideas are already violent without the people holding them having to do anything so vulgar as to actually, you know, commit any violence. It’s like TSA pre-screening, but for punching people! What could go wrong?
Now, a liberal–a term for which Lennard, curiously for an author at the Nation, reserves all the venom that an anti-Semite does for “Jew”–might raise objections about, oh, I don’t know, freedom of speech. But such liberals, Lennard argues, ignore the fact that a legal nicety like the First Amendment “has no bearing on neo-fascists having the right to be heard or countenanced by the rest of us.” Faced with such cutting-edge legal theorizing, said liberal might then ask, well, how do we decide who counts as a “neo-fascist” or “neo-Nazi” whose “right to be countenanced” should be forfeit on pain of face-punching? I mean, it’s not as if we live in a society where epithets like “fascist” and “communist” have been abused to the point of meaninglessness. Surely there must be some neutral way of deciding who counts as an enemy of the people. Maybe we could ask Natasha Lennard? M.Testa? Bueller?
Richard Spencer is not a pleasant individual, and most Americans find his views–which he himself describes as white nationalist–distasteful. Not coincidentally, his recent alt-right conference, of “hail victory” fame, had fewer attendees than counter-protestors. But Americans also, I imagine, feel some aversion to Louis Farrakhan’s theories of who runs the Fed (it rhymes with “blues”), radical ecologists’ desire to undo modern industrial civilization, or black bloc anarchists’ plans to abolish capitalist society by burning trash cans and “disrupting” your local McDonalds. It’s a big country, with a lot of weird people, many of whom find each others’ ideas strange, evil, or repugnant. Yet somehow, despite the abundance of deplorables, or people who think other people are deplorables, most Americans are capable of refraining from random physical violence against their political opponents. That’s an achievement, not, as Lennard seems to think, an instance of liberal cowardice.
Now, for many people on the radical left, American society as currently constituted is already so oppressive, violent, and yes, fascist, that even relatively neutral appeals to the common rules we are expected to live by (don’t attack people over their political views) are themselves something akin to fascism. For many, Trump is a fascist, and so, by extension, must be 63 million Americans. That may be true, but if it is, it would appear that our advocates of “counter-violence” are ready to spill a lot of blood.