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Monday, August 14, 2017

Utopia, VA has a dystopian moment

- Thanks for all your messages of concern, peeps. The Self-Importants are all fine, having determined in advance that this event would not end well and concluding that Saturday would be a good time to take in the sights of Lynchburg, VA rather than stay in town. I actually thought there would be all-out rioting, so my paranoia was excessive, but not by much.

- What can be done to diffuse violence while still defending First Amendment rights in these situations, because surely these situations will recur? The reason we left town was because it seemed to me that, after the July rally ended with tear gas, a bigger confrontation in August, for which both white supremacists and anti-white supremacist protestors were streaming in from out of town, was inevitably going to degenerate into violence. And it did, within minutes. What else could possibly happen on a hot day when hundreds of people so devoted to their cause that they flew in just for this march around yelling about their desire to eliminate everyone, and hundreds of other people equally devoted to their cause show up to yell the opposite? The only way to prevent physical confrontation is to prevent any physical contact between the groups, which means either dispersing counter-protesters who try to approach while pushing the marchers through town as quickly as possible, or containing both sides within enforced cordons.

I think both of these approaches are technically possible, though both would require a much larger policing effort than Charlottesville can muster or afford on its own. But even if the next march here or anywhere else is greeted by a veritable army of state troopers in riot gear, this will require a huge diversion of resources to defend the speech rights of terrible people. I wonder if there is a kind of strategy at play here too: if marches like this are insufficiently policed, violence is inevitable and the white supremacists either get to complain that their speech rights have been denied, or they get to kill people and blame the (lack of) police for it, and both outcomes help them. But by being able to call up a huge police presence just by being white supremacists, they suck up public resources and force everyone to indirectly support their activities.

This seems to be the conundrum. We have to defend free speech, but we also have to be able to defend ourselves, and I don't know how we can effectively do both at once. The only response to white supremacist assemblies that would do both is to allow them to proceed without any counter-protest. That is to say, would-be counter-protestors would have to voluntarily ignore them. That way, the white supremacists get their speech and we get to use our lives and public resources for more worthwhile purposes. (Surely there are other solutions too? The problem of defending offensive speech is old enough.)

Of course, I understand that we will never get enough would-be counter-protestors to agree to this because, as I have been informed, the mere suggestion that we should not show up in force to confront a white supremacist mob is a sign of moral cowardice, and probably also secret white supremacist sympathies. All sensible people may agree that mobs are dangerous, that chaos and violence resulting from them is fairly predictable, and that they should be avoided. At least they agree on this until the mob is comprised of Nazis. Once Nazis come into the picture, then apparently we are morally obligated to run toward them with fists in the air, carrying our children on our shoulders (for this is a useful civics lesson). Because Nazis are clearly bad, the baddest of the bad, and expressing that matters more than the laws of group behavior. And I agree. Nazis are the worst! But even when all right-thinking people agree on that, they won't defeat a Nazi mob with a counter-mob, not even a counter-mob comprised entirely of those with pure moral convictions. Instead, they will exacerbate the pathologies of mobs by enlarging them, and increasing the likelihood and reach of their chaos and violence. Is that morally courageous, or foolish?

- Frequent social media refrain: "Silence is complicity." Not unless the inverse, in this context, is also true: "Copy-and-paste is resistance."

- Versions of the claim that Charlottesville must be an especially racist place to be hosting a white supremacist march or that the march exemplifies Charlottesville's essential Southern-ness have the thing precisely backwards. The only reason Charlottesville has been targeted is because it's very liberal and stands out quite starkly against the counties surrounding it on every electoral map. The city resolved to remove its Confederate statues, and that resolution inspired the white supremacists' ire. The problem is that Charlottesville is not, or is no longer and hasn't been for several decades, essentially Southern, if by that is meant something like "full of genteel covert racists." If it were, what would the white supremacists have to march against here?

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