No, it's not OK to punch a Nazi

With his unerring knack for the offensive, President Trump responded to last week's Nazi rally in Charlottesville, in which a young woman was murdered, with a condemnation of the 'violence on many sides'.

Trump's unwillingness to condemn Swastika-bearing white supremacists shocked the world, and provoked condemnations from world leaders, his own party, even his own daughter and son-in-law. It also rapidly led to the mass resignation of his White House business council and arts council. Who doesn't condemn Nazis? As Tina Fey put it, 'I've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and I wasn't confused by it.'

The question that has been troubling me, however, is this: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Because it sounds from eye-witness reports like there genuinely was violence on both sides at Charlottesville. I'm not saying both sides were equally guilty, not at all. Only one side drove a car into protestors and killed a woman, and only one side was marching for the overthrow of multicultural democracy and the triumph of white supremacy.

But, if eye-witness accounts are to believed, some of the anti-fascist protestors went there for a fight, and they got one. Some have argued that their violence was justified and necessary - one side is defending liberal democracy and the rights of minorities, the other is trying to attacking them. Some have defended anti-fascist groups as the heroic defenders of liberal democracy. Michael Eric Dyson, sociology professor at Georgetown University, opined: 'when you go to cancer treatment, the radiation is tough treatment, but it is meant to remove the cancer.'

But is the best way to defend the rule of law really to punch a Nazi in the face?

In a later outburst, Trump condemned the 'alt-left', referring I think to the anti-fascist movement, Antifa. From what I've read, Antifa is comprised of small local groups, who turn up to disrupt right-wing and far-right events, sometimes violently. They often wear black, and they often wear masks. They sometimes smash property during their protests, as they did during Trump's inauguration. They are anti-capitalist, anarchist, and sometimes reject democratic politics in favour of direct action and revolution. Like white supremacists, they are a tiny movement that get a lot of publicity. 

Antifa are not morally equivalent to the alt-right. Far-right groups have been responsible for many more acts of terrorism in recent years than the far-left, which was more active in the 1970s. The far-right is also responsible for more deaths in the US than Islamic terrorism, over the last 15 years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, right-wing extremists committed 74% of the 372 politically motivated murders recorded in the United States between 2007 and 2016. Left-wing extremists committed less than 2%. The far-left is clearly not as racist, patriarchal or homophobic as the far-right, although the far-left in Europe can be so anti-Zionist as to be anti-semitic. And the far-left has never had anything like the same power or proximity to power that the far-right has often enjoyed (including now). 

Still, the two sides have a few things in common. Both sides are made up mainly of young men and women - particularly men - in their late teens and early 20s, looking for a heroic cause to commit to. Both sides enjoy the feeling of marching together with their fellow warriors in a crowd, possibly for a fight. Here's one Antifa protestor from Charlottesville: 'We were marching down one of the streets, and energy was ecstatic. We were marching and chanting and engaged in this huge act of solidarity.' And here's an alt-right protestor reflecting after their torch march: 'After the event and a long day of winning, we went back and threw an Alt-Right house party and celebrated our victory. We sang songs, laughed and most of all just enjoyed the mental high you feel after an incredible win.'  I imagine Antifa parties are a hell of a lot better, and might actually have some girls at them.

But here's the key point. Both sides see themselves as engaged in a heroic struggle against a demonic enemy (fascism / multiculturalism), a struggle for existential survival that is so cosmically important it justifies violence.  Both sides seek to normalize street violence as a political tactic - and are encouraged by leaders who have recently come from the political fringe to the centre of power, like Donald Trump, who encouraged his supporters to 'rough up' protestors, or John McDonnell (a leading ally of Jeremy Corbyn) who congratulated his young followers for 'kicking the shit' out of Westminster during a protest. Violence is a rite of passage, a moral test, a rush, an act of will necessary to smash the old corrupt system and forge the pure new world.

Some in Antifa have told journalists it's necessary to confront Nazis 'in a language they understand' - ie, violence. Perhaps you need a show of numbers, on the streets, to intimidate rather than allow Nazis to intimidate. Defenders of anti-fascist violence point to famous clashes like the Battle of Lewisham or the Battle of Cable Street (below is a mural celebrating it), where the far-right were supposedly beaten into submission.

I can totally see the argument for a show of numbers to prove there are more people opposed to fascism and racism than in favour. Numbers on the street matter - that's why Trump is so obsessed with how many people turned out for his inauguration. However, surely large groups of people can stand up to fascists without resorting to violence. The Battle of Cable Street - a street-fight between communists and Nazis - was not a great day for British politics, it was a descent into the sort of extremist street-fighting that led to the collapse of Weimar democracy in Germany.

It's not OK to punch a Nazi because it normalizes street violence as a political tactic, and when that happens, liberal democracy is real trouble.

I agree with Brian Levin, director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, who has studied extremism for decades and risked his own life at protests. He says: 'No, it's not OK to punch a Nazi. If white nationalists are sophisticated at anything, it's the ability to try to grasp some kind of moral high ground when they have no other opportunity, and that's provided when they appear to be violently victimized. That's the only moral thread that they can hang their hats on. And we're stupid if we give them that opportunity.'

Why let Nazis march at all? Are there not limits to what we should tolerate? Why should a liberal democracy allow extremist groups - Jihadis, Nazis - to preach violence against other groups and to call for the overthrow of liberal democracy? Perhaps - as Karl Popper argued - it shouldn't. 

It's a tricky one. It should be possible within a liberal democracy to consider and support alternative political systems, like communism, Islamic theocracy, or even ethno-states. In principle, one should also be allowed to put forward these ideas in public spaces. A famous legal case in the late 70s - National Socialists of America versus the village of Skokie - decided the American Nazi party had the right to march - a right the ACLU vigorously defended. But as soon as you're promoting violence against other groups, a march should be shut down.

In Germany, neo-Nazis are still allowed to march, but it's very carefully regulated - no Swastikas, no Nazi tattoos showing, no chanting, no military music, only one banner per 50 protestors, and no goddam assault rifles. 

When a neo-Nazi march is properly policed, you see the participants for the losers they are - two hundred pasty-faced nerds in polo shirts and chinos, carrying Roman shields. When it descends into a mass brawl, those 200 losers get the benefit of worldwide publicity, and it adds to the sense of liberal democracy breaking down - which is precisely what they want.

However, I don't think the far-right will necessarily consider Charlottesville a success, once their euphoria has died down. The rally gave their opponents a martyr, Heather Hayer. The 'Unite the Right' strategy allowed the entire alt-right to be lumped together as Nazis. Trump's apparent support for the Nazis has severely weakened him and may have led to the firing of his alt-right policy advisor Steve Bannon.

And it was a moment when far-right internet trolls finally showed their faces - they're now being identified, fired from their jobs, hounded from their neighbourhoods, and are hopefully on the FBI list of potential terrorists. Rough justice, but what did they expect, this isn't a game (although I think some of them think it is). 

If you recognize any of the Nazis marching in #Charlottesville, send me their names/profiles and I'll make them famous

— Yes, You're Racist (@YesYoureRacist) August 12, 2017

When young white supremacists sob online about their careers and lives being ruined after they've been exposed, liberal Twitter laughs. But it is a tragedy when young people are seduced by a toxic ideology, and ruin their own and other people's lives as a result. It's a tragedy that 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub was seduced by Islamic State, and destroyed his own and countless other lives in Barcelona this week. It's a waste of life, an increase in suffering, a failure of our society.

We can seek to control hate speech. We can shut down the accounts and internet sites where it's allowed to proliferate. We can turn out on the streets in greater number than the extremists. We can identify and shame those who hide behind masks and online pseudonyms. We can help intelligence services tracking and infiltrating violent extremist groups. We can refuse to normalize violence as a political tactic.

But we also need to think how to defeat the arguments of extremist ideologies (far-left, far-right, Islamist), in order to save young people from throwing away their lives. One of the greatest tasks for any civilization is to pass on its values to its young men as they make the dangerous transition to adulthood. These young men think they're defending western civilization. We need to explain they're at risk of destroying it.

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