Why Even Nazis Get Free Speech and Why the ACLU and Glenn Greenwald Were in the Right
The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have brought about national news as the Unite the Right rally ended up being declared an unlawful assembly shortly before noon despite a permit and this event later led to Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, declaring a state of emergency. The rally had a dual purpose: first it was protesting the removal of a statue of the treasonous general, Robert E. Lee, from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville; second, it was a general gathering of reactionary, Counter Enlightenment white supremacists prominently including Neo-Nazis, Confederates and Ku Klux Klan members. The event was organized by Jason Kessler, a member of the Proud Boys white supremacist group and former journalist.
It is of note that despite non-Nazi reactionaries love claiming the Ku Klux Klan are purely Democrats and that Nazis are socialists, they both very much self identify as being of the right, hence the event’s name. The white supremacists considered the event to be a call to take their country back as President Donald Trump promised them.
The event notably was marked with a nighttime march with tiki torches in an attempt to intimidate the city, chanting, among other slogans, “white lives matter” and “blood and soil.” The white lives matter remark is based off of the Black Lives Matter movement, which not only is perhaps better as Black Lives Matter Too – society already accepts that white lives matter – but was also the movement that came out to call foul on the murder of a white woman, Justine Damond, by a black officer, Mohammed Noor, while the #bluelivesmatter crowd remained silent. “Blood and soil” is an idea of Richard Walther Darré, a Hitler-era Nazi, who wrote a book called A New Nobility Based on Blood and Soil which promoted the idea of a eugenics program based upon Nazi racial theory.
According to Democracy Now, it also included the slogans “you will not replace us” and “jew will not replace us.”
The marchers then engaged in classic fascist strategy when they surrounded a group of counter protesters – as in the anti-racist, anti fascists – and beat them in the street (video in the link). This is the street violence that fascist thugs have been known for since their first appearance about a century ago, specifically targeted at those on the left and the minorities they target.
Violence was also quite notable when James Fields, one of the white supremacists, drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter protesters in an act of terrorism, injuring 19 and killing 32 year old Heather Heyer. Remembering back a few months, there was a push for this exact behavior to be indemnified by Republican led legislatures across the country. While Fields was charged with murder, he would have been legally considered within his right if Virginia had passed such a law.
Throughout the day, there were reports of white supremacist attacks on communities of color. I came across testimony from a community member who would not put her name to the statement out of fear of reprisal – I, myself, only know that one person in the discussion of the statement stated they knew who it was and they would not come out publicly because of that fear:
A car plowed into a huge group of people. I’m sure you saw that on the newsfeeds. What you probably didn’t see is that some of those people were on their way back from helping to repel a white supremacist march to predominately black housing development a few blocks away where they were attempting home invasions. I guess they were unfamiliar with the neighborhood. The residents repelled that one before antifa got there but there is some video of the alt-right folks getting run off on the daily progress twitter feed, if you’re interested.
Throughout the protest, various skirmishes broke out between the white supremacists and Antifa counter protesters, with videos available seeming to show a recurring theme of an organized and planned instigation by white supremacists on each occasion. Dr. Cornell West relays a point where he does not believe he would have made it out safely if it weren’t for a group of twenty Antifa counter protesters being nearby (see Democracy Now link earlier).
Following the events, many in leftist circles were dismayed by the news that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had been involved in the legal battle to have the rally held at Emancipation Park instead of a different park in the city on the side of the Nazis. The ACLU has a long history of defending the civil liberties of individuals on both the far left and far right without placing a moral judgement on the group in their decision to fulfill their mission of protecting civil liberties. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept also came out to defend the ACLU in this – making good points though not quite understanding the reason for the outrage.
A good example of this comes from the 2016 Socialist Party USA presidential candidate, Emidio “Mimi” Soltysik. I know Mimi Soltysik well – I met him for the first time in 2011 and worked with him on Stewart Alexander’s 2012 presidential campaign and within the Socialist Party USA. I received an invite to his wedding, though I could not afford flying out to California at the time to attend. Mimi Soltysik is not simply opposed to Nazis having free speech out of political gain and demonization of his opponents – he is a natural moderator who tries to relieve tension and ensure that everyone is heard, even those he disagrees with. His opponents are not limited to Nazis, but to Republicans and Democrats and anarchocapitalists and he certainly doesn’t seek to limit the free speech of any of those others. Nazis are certainly a special case to Mimi. It would be incredibly unfair to label him or the wide swaths on the left with an “anti-free speech mindset” as Greenwald has done.
Nazis and the other fascists – and I admit I am painting them with a broader brush than perfect precision would demand because the differences here are minimal – are a special case. They are the spawn of the Counter Enlightenment – an old reactionary movement that is opposed to the ideas of Enlightenment such as individuality, freedom, civil discourse, and democracy. They are fundamentally an irrational movement. When they rose to power in Italy and Germany they got their start by mobs beating their opponents in the streets, just as we saw happen this past weekend.
They are not prepared for civil political discourse; rather they are prepared for violence and intimidation. They came armed with melee weapons and shields, apparently 80% of them with semi-automatic rifles, and they at least used the first half of that in violence in an organized and premeditated manner. This was not far from their standard organization. Initiation rites often include a beating by current members to prepare them for conflict – by contrast, the initiation rites I saw in the Socialist Party USA tended to be the member stating they read and agreed to the statement of principles and then the membership voted to waive dues for economic hardship.
The history of the rise to power of fascist forces is violence, not reason. When Nazis were in power in Germany, they killed 12 million people in the Holocaust whom they thought genetically inferior for reasons from race to religion or politics to disability. Remember the calls of “blood and soil.” I know that Mimi, along with many others on the left, are concerned with acts of terrorism against people of color, homosexuals, bisexuals, trans people, non-Christians, and other minorities – something they should not have to endure. They are concerned about recruitment to hate groups that will only increase these acts of terror. Right wing extremists like this are the largest source of terrorism in the United States.
There is validity to their calls of “no free speech for Nazis.” It does not come from antidemocratic notions, but of a real and valid threat. Nazis, much as the Ancient Spartans of Greece were reported to have done, have culturally shed their very humanity – being biologically human but being so consumed with violence and horror to have shed what separates us philosophically from beasts by their own will. There is a reason so much enjoyment is gained from watching Richard Spencer punched in the face or the climactic scene of Inglorious Basterds where Nazis get their due.
To be blunt: Nazis don’t deserve free speech. They deserve physical torment, they deserve a slow and painful death, they deserve to all get genetic testing and have it read off to them as they’re dying that they have ancestry from the groups that they hate. But, despite this, it isn’t about what Nazis deserve – fuck Nazis and what they deserve – I side with the ACLU and Greenwald on the issue of free speech for Nazis.
One could go back to the writings of John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty wrote:
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be question because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is anyone who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
However, the writings of Mill happened not horribly after the advent of the Enlightenment and before the rise of the modern Counter-Enlightenment as we saw in the early 20th century. These words are from 1859. I would agree wholeheartedly with his words in the realm of the logical, rational thought he assumes is the background in these debates. Yet, there is a inherent exception in the discussion of an idea that not only is the fundamental rejection of logic and rationale with open hostility to the same, but which has a historic effect of preventing such rational discourse on a much greater scale. The argument is not convincing in this case.
This does bring us to an important concept in understanding the proper way to proceed in the matter, however: civil discourse. As an Enlightenment ideal, it is a means to resolve conflict within society without using shows of force and violence, but instead appealing to reason and logic and make decisions personally where it affects the person and societally, based upon the predominant conclusion of society, when it affects the society as a whole. For thousands of years mankind has used violence and coercion to shape society: heretics were burned at the stake, inconvenient voices were silenced, people were imprisoned for saying the wrong things. This didn’t always work flawlessly: Christianity overtook Rome after being outlawed, kings have been forced into concessions and even ultimately overthrown, especially ultimately in many cases by the Enlightenment itself. But the Enlightenment provided something better if not fully fleshed out: peaceful discussion which relies upon reason.
There is no doubt that this is flawed at times, and the United States has many institutional factors that aggravate this ideal. We have our parties, which now are clearly inevitable, which call for conformity and taking sides. We have a winner-take-all system designed with an assumption these would not exist which lead people to excessive compromise in their views and which introduce a sort of ideological subnationalism which discourages open minds. We have an economic imbalance of power when it comes to having the utility to communicate your arguments to sufficient audiences. We have a media which is owned by powerful individuals who rely on their income from other powerful individuals (advertisers) who have a common agenda separate from society as a whole to construct narratives that maintain their power. These all impede the free discourse of ideas.
There is further complications from what we’re learning about the human mind: it is not as rational as the early Enlightenment thinkers thought. It doesn’t mean rationalism and the Enlightenment are unworkable, but rather that they require institutional support. What those necessary supports are we still have to put much work into discovering and debating.
What the Nazis and closely related Counter Enlightenment, white supremacist forces want is precisely the end of civil discourse and a return to the more primal principle of might makes right. They don’t have reason; they don’t have logic; they don’t have facts; but they do have training, arms, and heartless demeanor stemming from the rage of hate that makes violence ideal for them. The Independent reports that the police officially stood down because they were less well equipped than the white supremacists. That source is where the 80% armed with semi-automatic rifles figure comes from as well.
That is frighteningly cheerful news for the Nazis – in order for municipalities to deal with them in the future, either martial law will have to be imposed, or police forces, whom have already been infiltrated by their ilk en masse according to the FBI, will have to be more heavily militarized – one of the major problems in the United States to begin with. Given the potential for unrest elsewhere, there is a good chance that police may stand down much more.
It is not the Nazis alone to be contended with, but the neoliberal establishment of both parties which has allowed this to happen in the first place. While the term alt-right was a politically correct term designed by Nazis themselves, a rebranding of a sort, it is the neoliberals who have been anxious to brand the large swath of political activity to the left of the Democrats as alt-left – a term socialists and anarchists reject outright. Oddly, the New York Times, a bastion of neoliberalism, lays it out clearly:
Researchers who study extremist groups in the United States say there is no such thing as the “alt-left.” Mark Pitcavage, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, said the word had been made up to create a false equivalence between the far right and “anything vaguely left-seeming that they didn’t like.”
Some centrist liberals have taken to using this term.
The reason for this branding should be quite clear and chilling. As they said, it creates a false equivalence. We are facing a time when the public at large may very well call for clamping down on the civil liberties of Nazis because of the terrorism that comes in its wake; making opposition to the Democrats on the left equivalent to them in the well-known Middle Ground Fallacy’s pattern of equating both “extremes.” What follows is what Greenwald mentions, the calls to clamp down on the civil liberties of their opposition to the left.
In the event of a breakdown of civil discourse, where we may enter a period of armed ideological violence as an overarching theme, this very false equivalence is no different than Nazi sympathizing. Holding them off will require community support and if those falling between the two sides see both as equivalent, they aren’t going to want to intervene when Nazi thugs go about murdering leftists – the Nazis win because of neoliberal opportunistic lies.
The state isn’t all that threatened by the Nazis, though they may not necessarily approve of them. Fascists have protected property rights of the bourgeoisie; the Nazis had the factories of American companies run in trust during the war and let them keep all the profits, as notoriously with Coca Cola. Nazis do not challenge their primary interests, but we do – whether it is scaling back their exploitation as with Berniecrats and Greens or fundamentally replacing capitalism as with socialist groups. Once civil discourse is rolled back or God forbid removed, the primary victims are on the left, not the right.
Civil discourse must be preserved as much as possible in these turbulent times.
What the ACLU defended was purely the free speech rights of the Nazis, not their intimidation, their violence, their terrorism. They have a right to the first, not the following three. Knowing Nazis, you know terrorism is around the corner when they start speaking and thus it is hard to separate their exercise of free speech from the inevitable mayhem that comes after, but doing so is key to defeating them. Attacking their valid rights is self defeating, but focusing on their invalid actions is means to victory.
What is needed is massive community organizing and policing – not your local police department, but the community policing itself – particularly when Nazis are about. Let them speak, they have nothing to convince anyone with speech. The community must be out en masse and armed, peacefully monitoring. Either they will be intimidated and bugger off or they will inevitably start shit and the entire community will be there to respond with much greater numbers. Allow them their free speech, but not their terror. They don’t want the speech and it won’t be worth them bothering to come out if that is all they can get.
Moreover, it is vital to stay true to our principles. One part I really liked about the Socialist Party USA’s Statement of Principles was:
The process of struggle profoundly shapes the ends achieved. Our tactics in the struggle for radical democratic change reflect our ultimate goal of a society founded on principles of egalitarian, non-exploitative and non-violent relations among all people and between all peoples.
If we believe in freedom of thought and freedom of speech, in a society that allows personal empowerment and encourages critical thinking, we cannot reasonably expect to create it by denying anyone speech – not intimidation or violence – but speech. Nazis or not, we have to allow them the nonviolent speech however nasty it is. Failing to do so leads us to being the types of “socialists” which one would have to seriously question whether they are socialist or even on the left at all – the type that has rejected the Enlightenment as bourgeois: Stalinists, Maoists, and the like. Once you decide that Nazis should not be allowed to speak, you then it is but a small step until you fret about counterrevolutionaries that must be silenced, and those who just disagree mildly with the ruling ideology become foreign agents trying to disrupt unity. You become the type of person who thinks socialism doesn’t require democracy because all you need is a small, unaccountable group stating they are ruling in the interest of the people as monarchs have in the past and the bourgeois claim to do now.
This also brings us to issues that have arisen with the left adopting the right’s practice of doxxing, actively trying to get these Nazis fired from their jobs – not specific jobs where that poses a great threat such as police officer or legislator, but any job and usually not knowing what job they might have. For a group that holds an ideology that gainful employment is an inalienable human right and everyone has the right to provide for their own survival this amounts to nothing short of betrayal of their core principles. And beyond this, it creates a precedent that it is socially acceptable to make people unemployable for their political beliefs – and those who own the means of production are going to be much friendlier to white supremacists than those whose ideology is to take their concentrations of economic power away from them. This is outright ideological suicide.
Social shunning would be fine, even ideal. Doing it to target for violence would be wrong, but less harmful than the economic route. Socialists do not seek destitution for anyone.
In the Great Depression, capitalism failed. The disaffected split into two camps: fascist and socialist, and there was a strong chance that the United States may go one way or another. Along came Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Maynard Keynes who attempted to rein in capitalism and make it livable so that the exploitation could continue. The result was the New Deal, much to the left of where Roosevelt was previously, which tried to water down socialist ideas to keep capitalism afloat and prevent the social breakdown. We had our collapse and bared Obama’s administration since, the recovery went to the rich, not to the poor, and with the work of Hillary Clinton and the DNC, the second coming of FDR, a man who moved to the right to get to that same New Deal liberalism, Bernie Sanders, was kept from being there to rein in capitalism again and perhaps save it. There is a good chance we are going to face that collapse the New Deal once prevented and fascists will face of with socialists and anarchists in the streets.
Many people will die whether it be standing up to the Nazis or being trampled underfoot. It is important to not be fighting the neoliberal state allied with the Nazis if it comes down to this. If civil discourse breaks down, they will do just what they did in Germany – ally with the Nazis and we will lose.
With that said, it is important to not initiate the violence – but rather be prepared for when it starts. If they leave without initiating violence, then we have won and they will feel they wasted their time. If they get violent, we quell it ourselves, not as the state but as the communities they target and it will send a strong message that their hate is not accepted. We send the message that we will let you make a fool of yourself, but we will not be bullied. We are many and you are few. We are not white communities and Asian communities and black communities and Latino/Hispanic communities and American Indian communities, but we are one community of the working class.
The state loves its agents provacateurs who incite us to violence so they can justify arresting us or even to push the neoliberal agenda of equating us with the fascists. We of course also have the Black Bloc anarchists who have invaluable knowledge about how to handle the violence when it breaks out, how to counteract chemical agents and managed to save many lives, but who also are quick to act and can at times initiate violence. We must engage in community policing to ensure that it is not us who initiate the violence, because it only takes a spark provided by a few run by punches to set the whole setting into a frenzy. We are all affected by that and so we must all develop the proper rules of engagement – something that any serious anarchist should be able to understand and embrace.
Nazis cannot be accepted and their claims to want a peaceful assembly is in no way a true statement. But it is self defeating to silence them by force and dangerous to ignore them. It is only through controlled confrontation, prepared for violence but without the goal of violence, that they can be driven back and defeated.
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I basically agree
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