By RYAN THORPE
Richard Spencer took a right hook to the face and the internet exploded.
For those who haven’t seen the video, here’s a brief rundown: On Jan. 20, Spencer was giving a sidewalk interview during the presidential inauguration. All of a sudden, a member of the black bloc – an anarchist street tactic which allows for activist anonymity – bounces into the frame.
He cocks back his arm and acquaints Spencer’s jaw with his fist.
Just as soon as he appeared, he was gone, vanishing back into the streets.
Why did this happen? The answer is simple: The attack was an act of militant anti-fascism.
Spencer has risen to a certain degree of prominence concomitantly with the rise of Trump. He’s among a growing collection of individuals, along with the likes of David Duke, who have utilized the space created by Trump’s campaign to reassert white supremacist views into public discourse.
As the president of the National Policy Institute (NPI) – a white nationalist think-tank – Spencer has given speeches and written reports in favor of ethnic cleansing and the creation of a white ethno-state in the United States.
In November 2016, a video of Spencer giving a speech at an alternative-right conference in Washington, D.C., went viral. In it, Spencer gives a meandering monologue railing against Jews while quoting Nazi propaganda in German, before shouting: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” The crowd responded with cheers and Hitler salutes.
The attack has created a storm of controversy and is currently being discussed in publications like Maclean’s, The New York Times and The Nation, as well as various internet forums, discussion boards and on social media.
There is currently a bounty of more than $3,000 raised for anyone capable of identifying the individual responsible for the attack.
The argument against the attack generally boils down to this: despite the abhorrent nature of Spencer’s views, hate begets hate and violence begets violence.
Aside from engaging in a degree of circular reasoning, the argument also fails to address the fact that the attack worked.
In an interview the following day, Spencer said he no longer felt comfortable going out to political events like the inauguration. This is precisely the outcome anti-fascists set out to achieve with their actions; confronting fascists and removing their ability to effectively organize in public.
Spencer has a right to free speech. It cannot be argued otherwise. Activists, however, also have the right to confront people whose views are incompatible with civilized discussion.
Spencer is not someone capable of engaging in a reasonable exchange of ideas and political perspectives. Debate is only possible between rational actors acting in good faith.
He doesn’t seem interested in any discussion with racial minorities, immigrants or transgendered people.
The political program of people like Spencer is aimed at creating a white nation.
“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule,” wrote the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, who can be counted as one of the millions of casualties of Nazi rule.
“We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against fascism will thereby improve.”
If there was ever a signal alerting us to the “state of emergency” Benjamin felt was the rule, rather than the exception, it is the likes of Spencer and his ilk coming out of the woodwork like insects long hiding away under the floorboards of your home.
In a 1967 discussion on political violence, Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt stated that the only justification for violence was if its outcome would be the eradication of a greater violence or evil.
Under that rubric, the attack is justified if one feels the militant removal of fascists from public space is a lesser evil than public hate speech.
What happened to Richard Spencer was a violent act and romanticizing violence falls into the crass trappings of bombastic machismo.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to have much sympathy for him.