I want to talk about one rather overlooked aspect of the Alt-Right vs Counterprotesters + Antifa demonstrations which roiled Charlottesville, Virigina last weekend and left one young woman dead as the result of a far right domestic terrorist attack.
To listen to Donald Trump and his cheerleaders on one hand and the arrayed forces of the mainstream media on the other, one would be forgiven for thinking that ideology and conduct are one and the same thing.
On the Left, a strong insinuation has been made that because neo-nazis hold abhorrent views their violence is to be condemned while those who oppose them should get a free pass whenever they breach the peace – as evidenced by the fact that the “is it okay to punch a Nazi?” conversations and articles are bubbling up again. Meanwhile, on the Right, too many apologists are claiming that because both sets of protesters committed atrocities there is some kind of exculpatory moral equivalence, overlooking the fact that the AltRight saw Antifa’s standard street brawling tactics and raised them an Islamist-style car terror attack.
Let’s be clear – ideology and conduct are in fact separate, a fact which is particularly important in a country like the United States which at least nominally respects the right to free speech. Violent actions are unlawful and punishable. Provocative speech is not.
Most decent people should be able to agree that neo-nazis hold repugnant and immoral views which humankind really should have transcended by this point. Whatever the president says, there were no “fine” people at this Unite the Right rally – any decent person would have taken one look at the company around them and either gone home or rapidly joined the counterprotest. But nonetheless, free speech means that these far-right activists have every right to express their views and peaceably gather to protest if they wish to do so.
The counterprotesters, on the other hand, were not a homogenous bloc of people. Many were decent, upstanding citizens outraged at the resurgence of neo-Nazism in their hometown and determined to express their opposing view. But a significant contingent were Antifa troublemakers – Antifa being anarchist at best, communist at worst and always inclined to use their fists (and baseball bats) rather than their words in either case. These people do not have the right to silence the expression of any idea, however abhorrent and immoral, by force. There is no rioter’s veto over free speech, and nor should there be – though craven authorities too frequently allow violent leftist groups to enforce one.
The neo-Nazis who assembled in Charlottesville clearly lose the ideological argument. Their political ideas are bad, and so are the acts of violence they committed – particularly the act of domestic terror carried out by James Fields. But the fact that the Antifa elements of the counterprotest oppose the racist views of the neo-Nazis does not excuse the violent acts committed on their own side, including more than one attack against journalists.
One would think this would be a simple concept to grasp, but numerous partisan commentators on Right and Left prefer to engage in whataboutism, pointing to the sins of the opposing side while exonerating their own. This is asinine. The counterprotesters clearly win the moral argument insofar as they oppose white supremacy. The identity politics which many of them peddle may be supremely unhelpful and damaging to the fabric of American society – Lord knows that this blog spends enough time analysing and criticising it – but it doesn’t hold a candle to the very real and tangible damage wrought by white supremacy in America’s history.
Pretending otherwise is stupid, and only diminishes the moral authority of the Right, opening conservatives up to criticism that they are complicit in the white nationalist Alt-Right agenda.
That’s not to say that conservatives should engage in self-flagellation or admit any responsibility for the violent actions of Alt-Left extremists when these odious people inhabit an entirely lower moral plane. But neither should we shower undue blanket praise on all of the people who opposed the neo-nazis in Charlottesville – many of the violent Antifa contingent in particular hold abhorrent and totalitarian ideas of their own, a fact overlooked by some conservative apologists such as Mitt Romney:
Doubling down and allowing the Left to claim the moral high ground – either by furiously denying that the Alt-Right is a problem or by overcompensating and suggesting that the Right has a monopoly on evil – is political suicide for conservatives, reputationally speaking. People will not listen to our valid complaints about identity politics and leftist intolerance if we fail to clear the very low bar of unequivocally condemning the odious Alt-Right infiltrators who seek to piggyback on the wider conservative movement.
As I wrote the other day, when the devil is in our house – as it is right now – conservatives of conscience should spend less time pointing out the flaws of the Left (however real) and more time getting our house in order.
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