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How is this Even a Thing?


A neo-Nazi gives an interview. Someone leaps in, punches him, and runs away. And there’s an actual debate about whether this is appropriate behavior. What?

As far as I can tell, there are two major category errors here. These ‘it’s American to punch a Nazi’ tweets and posts might have begun as a joke, but it seems people are actually taking them seriously.


Okay, can anyone tell me which one of these pictures doesn’t belong?

Is it the one where Captain America is punching Hitler during a war? Or the one where Indiana Jones is fighting Nazi soldiers in a race to recover a priceless artifact that could tip the balance in favor of Nazi Germany?

No, it’s the one where some dude sucker-punched an asshole racist neo-Nazi (or post-Nazi or whatever) who was giving an interview.

If you can’t see the contextual differences here, let me suggest you think a bit about the relationship between context and the morality of violence.

But, you say, this guy is evil. His rhetoric is just a way of rebranding and dog-whistling good old fashioned Nazism. Yes, you are right. But you know what else is evil? Marxist-Leninism. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were all mass murderers. You know who beat up communists? Captain America.


So I guess it’s okay to sucker punch American Trotskyites too? And don’t let’s get started on all those people who sincerely believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is terroristic.

The second is to confuse a debate about the limits of liberal tolerance with violence.

After a pretty good discussion of how violent extremism can turn the norms of liberal democracy against liberal democracy itself, he notes:

Punching a Nazi is a supreme act of democracy if you’re in an actual existential struggle with Nazis. Under some understanding of democracy—and the invocation of Schmitt here might have a whiff of irony—it can be a supreme act of illiberal democracy.

But let’s not get confused here. There’s a real debate about whether liberal democracy can survive—or even do better—with restriction of speech and expression that target political ideologies that are, on face, incompatible with liberal democracy. Many advanced industrialized democracies seem to get along just fine with bans on holocaust denial and the like. In the United States, we don’t do this. But it’s a pretty big leap from here to there, with “there” being advocating violence. If it’s okay to punch Spencer, is it okay to bomb his “institute”?

There are also, of course, many pragmatic reasons to reject this kind of tactic. For example, it seems… counterproductive in the context of someone trying to forward neo-Nazi ideas by representing himself as a legitimate voice within the conservative right. Spencer got a nice ‘young-ish Republican’ photo in the New York Times out of this. Doesn’t strike me as much of a win.

PS: there’s a longer post to be written about this incident and Moore’s critique—illustrated in Watchmen—of the fascist tint of superheroes. Perhaps another time.

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