Shafer: Let's smother neo-Nazi idiots with ... free speech

If the best cure to bad speech is more speech, then Jack Shafer argues that we need to produce the antidote in overwhelming quantities. America’s superior approach to political speech acknowledges that we will always have hateful idiots making use of the First Amendment, but ensures that better minds and ideas prevail. When it comes to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, the very usage of free political speech refutes their ideas and their goals:

The good news about the Nazis—oh, hell, there is no good news about the Nazis. But if you can choke down your disgust and open your eyes, something flattering about America begins to spiral out the weekend’s chaos. With our deeds and our actions, Americans have consistently held that in a just society nobody has the power to determine what constitutes allowable thought. Let a million flowers bloom—including fields of stinkweed—has been our reliable credo. …

The suppression of free expression, as we’ve seen in places like Germany and France, does little to extinguish detestable thought. It merely drives it underground, where it survives and sometimes thrives because it escapes inspection and criticism by its most articulate critics. This is not a Valentine to the disinfectant powers of sunshine. Free speech can’t right every wrong. It can’t win every argument. But it can take credit for reversing or ending many of the shameful practices and episodes in our history—slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, race riots, discrimination, quotas, housing covenants, disenfranchisement of woman voters, etc. It’s folly to think America would have ever become the better place that it is had free speech in all its forms had not been given sway.

Driving them underground gives them a cultural cachet that their ideas hardly deserve. It also doesn’t work, as neo-Nazi movements in Europe attest. They’re on the fringe, but that’s as true here, if not more so. Their use of the First Amendment to argue for a fascist government makes the contradiction all too clear:

White supremacists have been with us since the beginning of the republic. We’ll probably never be rid of them. Our best hope for containing them is to deny them the victim- and martyr-status they covet. And the best way to do that is to smother them in First Amendment protections and hope that they suffocate on them.

For the most part, I agree entirely with Shafer, except with his parenthetical near the end. He declines to draw a moral equivalency between white supremacists and the Antifa movement, which is supportable, but their tactics and goals are not all that far apart either. Both movements want to use the right to assemble as a means of imposing fascist boundaries on speech. The overt racism of the former makes them obviously more morally objectionable, but both intend to pervert and undermine liberty, and both are dangerous enough to blur the moral distinctions between them.

Also, the power of sunshine does work in the long run, which Shafer acknowledges. For instance, this weekend’s chants of “blood and soil” demonstrate the nonsensical nature of the American neo-Nazi movement, as I point out in my column at the Week. It also shows just how antithetical a racist/determinist philosophy is to authentic American identity:

The slogan voiced this week by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville this weekend, “Blood and Soil,” is an entirely different kettle of fish. It describes a racist, determinist point of view entirely antithetical to the American experience, and in complete opposition to the core of American exceptionalism.

This phrase originates in Germany in reference to the German people, but it predated the Nazis. It started off as a philosophy of the German peasant as the authentic core of German nationalism, and arose after Otto von Bismarck’s 1871 creation of the modern German nation, when the cultural definition of what it meant to be German in an industrializing society became acute. “Blood and soil” advocates insisted that the peasantry held the most pure stock of German ethnicity. Therefore, public policy should protect the bloodlines of Germanic stock by keeping it linked to the land, rather than polluted in the cities. “Blood and soil” directly influenced Hitlerian policies such as the conquest of eastern Europe and Russia for Lebensraum, as well as the grotesque pseudo-Darwinian eugenics programs aimed at producing the “master race,” and the horrors Nazis inflicted on the Jews and other peoples. …

There is no such thing as an American ethnicity, nor an American blood line, especially not as the neo-Nazis predecessors would have defined it. The United States grew from a primarily British series of coastal colonies to a continental nation by waves of immigration by some of the same peoples the original Nazis attempted to enslave and wipe out — Slavs, Poles, and others. The “white” ethnicities of today’s benighted supremacists would in some cases have qualified them for sterilization or worse under the regime they admire. The idea of a pure “Aryan” bloodline in Germany was an obvious fallacy in the late 19th century but still sold by demagogues in the Nazi era to grab power. In the U.S., the concept is utterly idiotic, a barely considered phrase parroted purely for effect. …

What makes us American as a whole is true American exceptionalism: our identity as a nation based on the rule of law rather than blood, soil, language, or any physical or external factor.

Shafer’s right. Let’s make good use of free speech to combat the canards and fallacies of those who reject liberty.

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