A Dis, of Course

Hey, why are you reading the interwebs, you grimy little appeaser? You could be punching Nazis right now.

I finally caught up with Freddie deBoer’s posts on the Spencer punch incident. (See this among others.) I’m not sure why I bothered, since I’ve been reading Freddie long enough that there were no real surprises. His characteristic maneuver on politic subjects is to make pragmatism into a form of purism. Success becomes the ultimate measure of morality, in a way that at times eerily echoes Donald Trump. Trump promises that his followers will eventually get tired of winning; Freddie laments that his fellow leftists never tire of losing.

Naturally, Freddie’s response to the Nazi Punch harps on tactics. Will violence help the left beat the right? Is this a good long-term plan? Why, Freddie asks, isn’t anyone talking about efficacy?

Curiously, the discussions I’ve seen–if snide jokes and shouting matches can be called “discussions”–have mostly been about efficacy. Those in favor of violence argue that it will suppress hateful speakers, and since hateful speakers themselves incite violence, this will eventually lead to a more peaceful society. In their view, the mechanisms that normally curb hateful speech, like the media and the law, have become corrupt or incompetent, leaving violence as a necessary resort.

They also argue that violence has symbolic or inspirational value. A given act of violence may not accomplish much in itself, but it attracts a lot of commentary, gives people something to cheer about, and thereby draws attention to important issues and spurs others to collective action. (I think this argument implies that punching white supremacists is a good use of violence, in that it gets people excited without doing much actual harm. While assassinating Congressmen, say, would be a bad use of violence, in that it would horrify people without meaningfully changing the system.)

Those opposed to the use of violence argue that it begets more violence, which leads to an escalation of hostilities, which ends up giving more power to strongmen and demagogues. They also argue that violence drives away the moderates and everyday citizens needed for a broad coalition, in that every act of violence undermines ethical ideals, like equal rights and the golden rule, that most Americans hold dear.

The point is that these arguments about strategy depend on beliefs about morality, because everyone now assumes that political action is largely a matter of effective messaging. If most citizens think violence is admirable, then the use of violence will attract and inspire new followers. If most citizens think violence is reprehensible, then the use of violence will repel potential sympathizers.

Freddie–along with every other sensible person who has written on this issue–makes the valid and vital point that most ethicists, most moralists, and most ordinary people see violence as justified only as a form of defense. That’s why champions of The Punch have been so eager to frame it as an act of defense, arguing that Spencer’s speech is itself a form of violence that terrorizes the oppressed.

I find that argument sophistic, but beyond that, I found the tone of the ensuing conversation almost inexpressibly repugnant. The problem, as always, isn’t that people on the left want to debate morality versus strategy, but that the most vocal partisans now treat “strategy” and “morality” and “debate” as equally dirty words. To the extent that such words have any meaning, they refer to ideas and ideals, and every right-thinking radical on the internet already knows that ideas and ideals are only flimsy pretexts for the abuse of power.

As cathartic as people may have found the black-bloc punch and its violent import, I notice that it hasn’t yet inspired a popular revolution. The real story, as always, was one of wounded feelings. The people initially cheering the punch included  folks who had been suffering alt-right harassment for years. They understandably took satisfaction in seeing one of their tormentors get his comeuppance. When moralists started wagging fingers, their natural reaction was to think, “Really? With all that’s happening, you’re scolding me? ME?” So they responded by dismissing the moralizers as frauds and cowards and appeasers. Others were dragooned into showing emotional support. And so most of the energy, as always, went into humiliating and jeering at people who showed themselves to be insufficiently zealous, who dared to speak of strategies OR morals OR beliefs, who suggested with their actions or words or even their conspicuous silence that there was a conversation to be had. The controversy over abstract ideas became a proxy war for human passions.

So it goes on social media. I have to say, a movement so invested in sneering at people who presume to advocate for nonviolence is one with which I have no spiritual affinity. But this alone leads me to wonder whether all the talk of strategy and coalition-building, at least as it relates to messaging, matters very much at all. The Spencer Punch furor, which began so innocuously, has left me alienated from the political movement to which I notionally belong. Yet I can’t see myself doing anything but going to the same marches, voting for the same politicians, sending out the same letters and donations–doing more or less what I’ve done before, but in a spirit of grim compliance rather than one of hopeful solidarity.

To the extent that the left has a strategy, then, it’s one that has utterly failed to win my sympathy. But I can only go on being leftist in practice if not in spirit, because the very same values–I would even call them “old-fashioned values”–that leave me appalled by leftist strategy have made me horrified by rightist policy. I find myself in the perplexed position of belonging to a coalition that I would say has bad morals, bad ideas, bad habits, and bad strategies, but is ultimately fighting for good causes.

Is this simply the nature of politics? I wonder how many other people feel the same.

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