I favor small government and individual liberty because I believe it confers benefits across the socioeconomic spectrum. But some would actually say that means I share responsibility for the appearance of a mob of white supremacists, Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville, VA. Not only that: I share responsibility for the very existence of those groups and any atrocities performed in their name! Even as I condemn them.
Here’s another strange thing: many of my old peacenik friends on the Left now believe that violence is an acceptable response to speech. Apparently not just abhorrent speech from white supremacists. They are willing to forgive, if not endorse, violence perpetrated in the name of “social justice”, whatever that concept’s currently fashionable expanse.
It’s also strange that these former champions of nonviolence now fail to distinguish between violence and speech they find offensive. It’s not just acceptable to confront racists. Whether or not it occurred this way in Charlottesville, it’s now acceptable to start a physical altercation with racists. And it’s worse than that: the “wrong” policy position on anything from immigration to public aid to the minimum wage may be characterized as violence (and racism), and that justifies violent opposition.
Many members of the so-called “Unite the Right” (UtR) coalition came to Charlottesville prepared for a fight. They engaged in racist hate speech (protected by the U.S. Constitution) and they were ready to provoke and threaten their enemies (not protected). Physical aggression can be prosecuted as assault, but racism itself cannot unless it motivates a crime. The young Ohio racist responsible for the death of the counter-protester is certain to be charged with a hate crime.
There are claims that the UtR racists arrived with better weapons for the occasion, including guns (open-carry is legal in VA), than the large crowd of counter-protestors. It’s a noteworthy blessing that not a single shot was fired.
Yes, we should all be eager to denounce the rhetoric of white supremacy, but the role of the leftist groups in the violence that took place in Charlottesville cannot be dismissed. The counter-protest coalition, which was organized over the weeks prior to the UtR demonstration, included Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa, both groups responsible for a number of violent protests in recent memory (and see here). Snopes, the leftist “fact-checking” organization, claims that Antifa is not as violent as the so-called alt-right. If one confines “alt-right” to members of KKK, Neo-Nazi, skinhead, and white supremacist organizations, that might be right. Many members of these groups are undoubtedly dangerous even as individuals. The media, of course, defines alt-right much more broadly.
One can reasonably categorize Antifa and BLM as hate groups in their own right. For example, Antifa has advocated physical violence against Trump supporters, a group constituting almost half of the voting public. BLM marches have featured eliminationist rhetoric toward police: “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”, and “What do we want? Dead cops!” Furthermore, BLM supporters have not been shy about expressing racist views, and a few (aberrant?) BLM supporters have been charged in a number of recent police killings. Nevertheless, if not explicitly violent or threatening imminent violence, I support their right to speak freely.
Thankfully, white racist organizations today do not represent a significant number of Americans. For example, KKK membership ranged from 3 to 6 million during the first half of the 20th century, but today its numbers are estimated at less than 10,000. The other groups certainly make up some of the difference, but while the number of those organizations has grown recently, they tend to be smaller groups than in the past. In total and as a reflection of modern sentiments among caucasians, they are truly fringe, though you might not know it from media reports.
These groups are entitled to express their hateful views as long as it is speech, not violence or an threat of imminent violence. The leadership of the racists obtained a permit for their demonstration in Charlottesville only after the city was sued on their behalf by the ACLU, much to that organization’s credit. Again, like it or not, hate speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that right must be defended. Nevertheless, the ACLU has been attacked for this principled stance. I think the ACLU would also agree that acceptance of violence in opposition to speech is more dangerous to freedom than the speech rights of the fringe racist population. It will not stop with opposition to racism. Instead, it will metastasize into violence in opposition to a broad range of rhetoric, including legitimate policy positions, and it already has.
Whatever you may think of the relative “merits” and demerits of the antagonists in Charlottesville, there is one fascinating similarity between them: both sides trade in victimhood and advocate statist solutions to the problems they perceive. Jeff Goldstein riffs on this point on Facebook:
“Antifa, BLM, CAIR, the New Black Panthers, La Raza, the Pussy Hatters, the KKK — these are all identity movements and all formed and animated by the kind of identity politics championed by the left… The alt-right is only ‘right wing’ in the continental sense. The American conservative is classically liberal, while the American progressive is Fabian socialist.
Don’t listen to labels; follow the assumptions made by each movement — the alt right, the prog left — and you’ll soon recognize that they are the same. This is tribalism, no more and no less. … You should reject this archaic collectivism from whatever group espouses it, because in the end it is simply anti-individualism dressed in mob attire to bolster cowardice and bigotry in numbers.“
Similar points are made by Brendan O’Neill:
Both [sides] are obsessed with race, SJWs demanding white shame, the alt-right responding with white pride. Both view everyday life and culture through a highly racialised filter. SJWs can’t even watch a movie without counting how many lines the black actor has in comparison with the white actor so that they can rush home and tumblr about the injustice of it all. Both have a seemingly boundless capacity for self-pity. Both are convinced they’re under siege, whether by patriarchy, transphobia and the Daily Mail (SJWs) or by pinkos and blacks (white nationalists). Both have a deep censorious strain. And both crave recognition of their victimhood and flattery of their feelings. This is really what they’re fighting over — not principles or visions but who should get the coveted title of the most hard-done-by identity. They’re auditioning for social pity.“
Finally, this piece, “The Curse of Identity Politics” by Rod Dreher, attributes the dysfunctions of white supremacy and violent social-justice advocacy to a failure of religious leaders and their followers to address inconvenient realities head-on. Some of his argument is persuasive, but a more interesting aspect of his essay relates to actions he believes inspire an awakening of racism and racist action. Here are a few of Dreher’s points:
“When the Left indulges in rhetoric that demonizes whites — especially white males — it summons the demons of white nationalism.
When the Left punishes white males who violate its own delicate speech taboos, while tolerating the same kind of rhetoric on its own side, it summons the demons of white nationalism.
When the Left attributes moral status, and moral goodness, to persons based on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, or any such thing, it summons up the demons of white nationalism.
When the Left refuses to condemn the violent antifa protesters, and treats their behavior as no big deal, it summons the demons of white nationalism.“
These things summon not just racism and white nationalism. They also inflame a broader opposition to radical intervention from people of good faith. These people believe in the righteousness of neutral public policy with respect to race, faith, sexual preference, and other dimensions along which the Left demands both ex ante and ex post equality.