Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Addendum: speech vs. war

I hadn't seen this op-ed before posting on Monday, but it's illustrative of the confusion underlying the broadly unified outrage. The main problem here seems to be that no one is sure whether we're opposed to white supremacists as fellow citizens with abhorrent ideas or as outright enemies in a war, and our conception of them vacillates with our rhetoric, never resulting in any coherent idea of what we're doing. Is this a speech question, or a war question? (You can see this confusion illustrated in the remarks of UVA students here as well.)

Vaidhyanathan starts out by describing them in the terms of the former:
Denying hate groups attention might work if everyone agreed to do so. But as long as television cameras — or even just regular people streaming on Facebook Live and posting to YouTube — were going to witness the events, and as long as others were committed to confronting the white supremacists, there would be oxygen.
On this view, white supremacists are a political affinity group pursuing strategic political aims by exploiting American media, including obviously social media. In that sense, they are just like BLM or the DSA or even the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which also used media strategies for political ends. This does not imply moral equivalency, just a reliance on the same kinds of strategies. The point is that marching around yelling and filming it is a popular way to conduct political activism in the US, regardless of what you're yelling for. Because we understand this as activism by citizens and not war by enemy combatants, we have a whole set of rules and procedures to make it possible to do, and spend a lot of time arguing about how to apply these rules fairly. The white supremacists were playing by these rules too, in applying for and litigating permits, and going through all the civic motions.

(I don't understand Vaidhyanathan's conclusion here that we are simply hostages to social media, which, unlike previous media, makes ignoring a white supremacist march impossible. If you don't show up, they will only be able to film themselves marching around aimlessly. Does that really strengthen their cause?)

But after this, Vaidhyanathan shifts his terms to describing the white supremacists as enemies in war:
Plus, as we had learned from previous such assaults on our community, the hate groups were not just after attention. They wanted conflict. They came to hear the sound of flesh being struck, bones being broken. So the idea of denying them attention seemed less significant as the event drew closer. Still, there were compelling reasons to avoid confrontation...
One could reasonably ask why the conclusion that these people want to break bones requires us to offer up our bones for breaking. Why not just deny them their desire for conflict? But, moving on:
I now believe we made the wrong choice. Does my status as a parent make me special? It shouldn’t. A young man named Dre Harris was ambushed in a parking lot and took dozens of blows by club-wielding thugs. He took them so I wouldn’t have to. Next time I will stand on the street with my neighbors, even at the risk of injury or death. It’s the least I can do to repay those who stood bravely this time....
They hurt us. But they did not defeat us. Local clergy locked arms to stare down the attackers. Volunteers dispensed water to counter-demonstrators. Black Lives Matter members put their bodies on the line for all of us...  
This is not about “free speech.” It never was. There is no “free speech” if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed.
Now the white supremacists are effectively enemy soldiers set on conquering our city, and in this context, it certainly does make sense to say that it is the responsibility of residents to come out in force and defend themselves. It is indeed unjust, not to mention ineffective, to rely on Dre Harris and BLM members to defend the entire city against an invading army. But if that's the case, then it's crazy to propose that our self-defense should take the form of "taking dozens of blows" and "staring down" our armed opponents. If this is really a war, and the enemy is really big and powerful and armed, we should take up arms ourselves and march on them. We immensely outnumber them; it would be a brief and probably fairly decisive battle (once we learned how to correctly discharge our weapons...). Or we call up the military to do this for us.

But Vaidhyanathan insists instead on nonviolent direct action, which is a strategy for domestic activism - a speech strategy, not a war strategy. This is the crux of the confusion. If we're fighting a war against white supremacists, if we understand them as organized domestic terrorists like White Power ISIS, then nonviolent direct action - "staring them down" - seems like an unbelievably naive response. If Vaidhyanathan were in Iraq, would he fight ISIS by "staring them down"? The obvious response to a domestic insurgency is to use the power of the government, which is on our side regardless of Trump's dithering, to outlaw and execute them for treason. We have certainly done that before.

While I'm sure there are people who would like to do just that to any participants in or sympathizers with white nationalism, I suspect that not even most liberals would be willing to go that far. Even doxxing the men in the photos from the Cville rally in order to get them fired from their jobs has produced unease among them. Why? There is general agreement that the guy who plowed his car into pedestrians ought to be understood as a terrorist. But most people seem to be very hesitant to apply this label to those who profess white supremacist beliefs online, and even those who assemble in their name so long as they do so peacefully. The reason, I suspect, is that, contra Vaidhyanathan, this is still about free speech. We basically do see white supremacists as fellow citizens engaged in speech (hateful speech, dangerous speech, but still speech), not enemy combatants engaged in war. That's precisely why protestors and armchair-commentators alike turn to nonviolent direct action instead of counter-terrorism to fight them. They're concerned to denounce and persuade, not to capture and kill them. So, evidently, you can argue with the armed, because if you really thought you couldn't, you'd arm yourself against them.

Maybe the mood will shift now, and we will begin to treat white supremacism more like treason than repulsive speech. That will of course raise all sorts of difficulties of distinction that no one participating in the present frenzy of righteous outrage seems interested in considering. But the transition will be made somewhat easier by all the domestic counter-terrorism infrastructure we've already established and which we can now extend to surveil a much broader range of speech activities. Or we can hope to split the difference by strengthening the legal scope and consequences of "hate speech," leaving it to judges to surgically separate out white supremacist speech from other kinds of speech. Or maybe we will double down on preventing violence while protecting expression, with all the municipal costs that this will clearly impose. Or maybe we'll just sidestep all this law-and-government stuff and continue indulging in Lincoln's "mobocratic spirit."


educatedwhinge said...

There's been an interesting shift. In the 90s, even groups like the SPLC would denounce violent antifa. Not anymore. A similar shift happened with the Ferguson riots. Whereas previously liberals and journalists would denounce rioting and reflexively support police once the violent started (Clinton's "sista souljah moment"), this time they offered critical support for the rioters. The continued support for BLM after the assassinations in Houston also surprised me.

If this goes like the 90s after the OKC bombing, the FBI will riddle the white power movement with informants and call some grand juries, and it will collapse in on itself. Counter-intelligence seems like a nice halfway point between the speech/war choices.

As for the treason route, if we don't treat Islamist speech as treason, hard to see how white supremacist speech could be treated so.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, this is why I'm alarmed by the arguments that rules, forms, procedures don't matter in this case, b/c Nazis. Once there are Nazis in the mix, nothing matters except defeating them.

I raise treason b/c it's so stark, and so apparently difficult to apply to this situation. But if you think that white supremacists marching through your town constitutes a violent attack on it, then it should be treason. As for Islamist speech, I don't know - there is written speech, which I assume few are serious about shutting down, and there is assembled speech. Generally, Islamists seem disinclined to assemble in public... But if they did request to hold a nonviolent rally to promote (but not materially, since that's a crime) the aims ISIS, what would happen?

educatedwhinge said...

If the liberal rabbis rallying around the "kill the Jews" Imam in California are any indication, I imagine there would be a lot of people linking arms to protect the pro-ISIS rally from right wing counter-protestors. Thankfully we don't have many Islamists here, but they do rally and march in Europe.

Miss Self-Important said...

Really? I though Europe largely has less speech protection than we do. People just tolerate Islamist demonstrations for their interesting substance?

educatedwhinge said...

The BBC documentary "Jihadist Next Door" is eye-opening. One of the young men who appears in it would later blow himself up at the Ariana Grande concert.

Of interest:

educatedwhinge said...

I've now watched a video from inside the gazebo at the Boston free speech rally (somehow framed as a continuation of the unpleasantness in your town):

It's a few mild-mannered cranks and a fringe candidate looking for publicity.

Meanwhile, the gazebo is surrounded by 30k angry protesters and must be protected by rings of metal fencing a hundreds (?) of police. This is collective insanity.

Miss Self-Important said...

I saw a lot of "we sure smashed the fascists!" in the days after this event, but now some, "wait, where were the fascists we smashed?"