I’m not going to lie: I can’t see a time in the immediate future where I won’t have a browser tab open at all times to a looping GIF of Richard Spencer getting punched. As such, I’ve noticed things about the video that you only start to pay attention to on the umpteenth viewing. Like, say, Spencer’s reaction. Before he’s hustled into a cab, tears in his eyes, Spencer looks shocked. Not shocked by the actual impact of the punch, although I’m sure that played a part — look at him, though, and the impression you get is that he’s shocked that anyone would do this.
It’s strange to think that a white supremacist might not fully appreciate the import of his own views, but what the much-memed video shows was the reaction of a man who’s being brought face-to-face, for the first time, with the reality of what his words mean. Spencer is a man who has spoken openly of how his “dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans,” who has explained how his movement “opposes the basic ideas behind the Civil Rights Act,” and who has wondered if leftists “are people at all.” If you advocate for the literal extermination of people, then those people very well may punch you.
Spencer was clearly shaken by his experience — once back home, “in a safe space” (oh, the irony), he recorded a video wherein he suggested that “I’m going to have to start really thinking about operational security.” He noted, “We need to take very seriously the notion that anti-fascists are going to just scream at us, they’re going to physically attack us,” and, most notably, complained that U.S. activists have turned to “European-style anti-fascism… the kind with baseball bats.”
And indeed, the idea of fighting back — literally, physically fighting back — is one that’s so anathema to mainstream American political discourse that we’re as shocked to see it play out on video as Spencer was to be on the receiving end. Much of this, of course, is due to the way we’ve been raised on ideas of nonviolence: that the only legitimate way to protest is to sit peacefully and sing kumbaya, that nonviolence always wins, that love Trumps hate. If you do things the “right” way, then nothing bad will happen to you. If you get violent, then you’re a nasty anarchist who is no better than the people you’re protesting against, and you can damn well expect to get beaten up by the police. This idea comes at us from both the left and right; liberals are uncomfortable with violence, and conservatives are uncomfortable with violence not meted out by them.
As I’ve written here before, the idea of nonviolence as political panacea is nonsense. Nonviolence was a very deliberate political strategy composed to achieve a specific political objective in a specific context. The last point is the most important: Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence arose as a way of shaming an opponent whose military power — the power to inflict violence — was overwhelming. Violent resistance to the Raj would — and did — result in massacres. Clearly, Gandhi himself was deeply devoted to the belief that one should never commit violence, but he never proposed nonviolence as a universal solution.
And yet today, if you suggest anything other than nonviolence in response to a political situation, you’re looked at as if you’re a savage. It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea that problems can only, and should only, be solved without violence — it’s neat, it seems civilized, and it’s far removed from the endless violent conflicts in which our race has involved itself for thousands of years. But venerating it is also something that benefits those in power. You can see this in how disingenuously conservatives propose the likes of Martin Luther King as examples of “how to protest properly,” when in reality — who, let’s remember, was the victim of the ultimate act of violent oppression — King had a far more nuanced view on the nature and role of violence in the fight for civil rights. Where once it was used to shame power into submission, now nonviolence is used to police the nature of outcry against power.
But there are times when passive resistance is not enough (and, let’s be honest, it’s not like nonviolence has a great record of defeating fascism.) Perhaps, when you’re protesting a question of politics, your aims can be achieved with peaceful sit-ins and chants and avowed pacifism. (That, of course, doesn’t shield you from the state visiting violence upon you.) But anti-fascism is not a question of politics; it’s a matter of simple human decency. Repudiating fascism doesn’t mean repudiating the politics of fascists; it means repudiating their very existence, because they pose an existential threat to the rest of us. Richard Spencer is an advocate for genocide. His presence on our televisions, on our internet, in our lives, is an act of violence.
This is not to say that the only way to combat violence is with violence or that violence is a prerogative. Rather, it means that if you are assaulted violently, you have every right to use violence to defend yourself. Noone wants violence, but noone should ever quail at the sight of a Nazi being assaulted because their ethos is violence. Spencer shouldn’t be shocked at being punched; instead, he should expect it every time he steps out onto the street. A man who advocates for ethnic cleansing, “peaceful” or otherwise, should not feel like he has the right to walk the streets of a liberal democracy unaccosted. Would anyone tolerate any of the German Nazis of the Second World War happily wandering the streets of New York?
And, in fact, there is a greater question here. Even if Richard Spencer isn’t attacking you personally, he is attacking the basis of your society, he is attacking your fellow citizens, and there is no guarantee that you won’t be next on his list. He is the advocate of a philosophy that has its basis and its fulfillment in murder. Even in a land so beloved of its First Amendment, his freedom of speech is not worth protecting, because his speech is an act of violence. Fascists would purge this country of the “freedoms” of which Americans are so enamored: the freedom to live your life in any way you want, the freedom to live without being harassed by the state, the freedom to speak and associate with whom you choose. Fascists have no time for pluralism or diversity or individual rights. Fascists sent millions to the gas chambers: Jews, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people. So if you can’t stop laughing at the Spencer memes and you don’t understand why, it’s because what you’re seeing is the satisfying thwack of justice.