Last week, we published an article “The Simple Morality of Punching Nazis: Counter the Extremist,” which explicitly called for violence. I almost did not allow it to be published, since we do not wish to promote violence. But I also did not want to suppress a viewpoint that I know is quite prevalent. A recent poll by the Brookings Institute revealed that almost 1 in 5 college students believe it is acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker. As a society, we need to openly engage with ideas that we disagree with. Thus I decided to publish it and immediately set about responding to the author’s points. That effort culminated in this article. In the future, however, The Hill News will not publish material that encourages violence.
In the article, the author makes a series of claims that need to be examined. The author defines Richard Spencer, the rest of his alt-right cohort, neo-confederate groups, and neo-nazis all as Nazis. He does so “for simplicity,” arguing that if you chant and march with Nazis, you’re a Nazi. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it homogenizes a heterogeneous group of frightening people. Richard Spencer and the alt-right have different aims than neo-confederates, the Ku Klux Klan, and the other groups the author mentions. They might share some views on race, but that does not mean they are the same group. We need to be able to tell them apart if we hope to counter them. A helpful analogy can be seen in how we talk about terrorism. We do not call all terrorist groups ISIS, but instead acknowledge there are different groups ranging from al-Qaeda to Boko Haram. They might have overlapping principles, but to speak of them as one group is wrong and unhelpful.
Moreover, Richard Spencer is not a Nazi. He holds some terrible views on race, but he is not of the same ilk as Hitler. The alt-right are not calling for the Fourth Reich. Richard Spencer is not obsessed with Lebensraum (Living Space) nor does he despise the Slavic people. While most people know about Hitler’s rabid anti-semitism, they often forget that he considered Slavic people to be inferior. He instructed the Wehrmacht to brutalize Soviet civilians during their invasion of the Soviet Union. Spencer and the alt-right do not share this ideology. They are actually somewhat supportive of Putin and some on the far right actually have ties to the Kremlin. While Spencer and his supporters might make explicit allusions to Nazis, that’s only to associate themselves with a powerful concept.
After providing a flawed definition of Nazism, the author then makes some questionable claims about the marketplace of ideas. He writes that we are taught in Western democracies to “just agree to disagree” with those who have different opinions. This is true for some matters, like if I encountered someone who believed that the Ticker has better music than Java. But in terms of the matter at hand, the author’s statement is wrong. When we confront the types of ideas perpetuated by Richard Spencer, we are taught to publicly and emphatically refute them. However, the author states that this strategy has not been working. He argues that despite society agreeing that Nazism is evil, “Charlottesville still happened. The marketplace of ideas has failed.”
This claim is astoundingly wrong. Sure, we still have neo-Nazi and KKK rallies, but that is because we allow freedom of speech. The existence of these rallies does not mean that as a society we are getting more racist or bigoted. In fact, the opposite is true. Data shows that we have been trending towards a more accepting society in almost all metrics. For example, in 1958, only 4 percent of Americans supported inter-racial marriages; now over 87 percent of Americans support it. Statistics from the FBI show that ethnically and racially motivated hate crimes fell 48 percent between 1998 and 2015 (but there has been a recent uptick). And only 8 percent of Americans support the white supremacy movement according to a Reuters poll. Racism still exists and we need to do more to stop it, but the situation is not as dire as the author makes it seem.
Finally, the author makes it seem like violence is necessary to stop Richard Spencer. He again cites Nazi Germany as proof, arguing that Hitler rose to power in a democracy and was only stopped by violence. But this claim is flawed. First, Hitler ran for president in 1932 and lost, receiving only 38 percent of the vote. He was thus not elected into office, but was instead appointed in 1933. Moreover, the Western world, including America, was extremely anti-semitic at that time, so Hitler’s rhetoric resonated with a receptive public. And violence was needed because Hitler started a war, possessed an army, and was actively murdering millions of people. Spencer fits none of those criteria; his message resonates with only a fraction of society, he does not have an army, and he is not actively killing people.
If everyone who holds a detestable viewpoint is a Nazi, then the term loses its descriptive power. It might be emotionally gratifying to label Richard Spencer as a Nazi— because that term is shorthand for pure evil— but it’s not accurate. If you want to reach those on the far right, violence will not help. In fact, the counter-protestors’ violence allowed Trump to create a false equivalency between both sides. If you doubt the power of dialogue to disabuse people of faulty notions, I implore you to look up the story of the former white-supremacist Derek Black in the Washington Post. It was not closed fists that caused him to reject his white-supremacist beliefs, but open arms and respectful dialogue.