Those who are hunting the neo-Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville may be their unwitting allies.
The neo-Nazis rallied for a variant of a philosophy that has killed millions. Richard Spencer’s manifesto isn’t clear as to whether Jews like me should be killed, but it does affirm several essential elements of the philosophy Hitler set out in Mein Kampf, and we know where that can lead: Mein Kampf doesn’t explicitly call for mass murder either. Even on the most optimistic reading I can give Spencer’s manifesto, it gives Jews an inferior status in this country. And at least one chant during his rally at the Rotunda was against the Jews. More importantly, this country is grounded in the human mind and the inalienable rights of all persons; Spencer would replace the nation conceived in liberty with a fascist state based on race, in which people of many races would not fully belong.
Spencer’s movement must be defeated. The question is how.
Fear is the enemy of thought. And working to get people fired for expressing their views conveys a clear warning: If you are caught expressing these views, you will pay a heavy price.
Some will say: Of course Nazis should pay a heavy price! They are evil, they want others to suffer and die, and we should visit the same on them — if only to protect ourselves! Should we permit this stupid, dangerous idea to spread?
Well, if it’s a stupid idea, we ought to be able to answer it. We ought to be able to say: Here’s why it’s wrong — and rebut any argument in its defense. Doing that is a matter of treating other human beings as human beings. What makes us unlike every other organism on earth is our ability to think, discuss ideas, and reach reasonably well-supported conclusions.
When we say instead, don’t say these things lest we ruin your life, we are saying: When you come up against these questions, stop thinking, and make your choice based on fear — or, if you do think and you get the wrong answers (or even come to have doubts), hide what you’re thinking. And we are saying that, not just to the people who are already neo-Nazis, but to anyone who even considers their ideas.
That means, since it’s generally a good rule to presume that people telling you not to ask a question are hiding the truth, we are giving them reason to think that these destructive ideas are true.
But even if they don’t think that, the threat is a barrier to clear thinking — not just about neo-Nazi ideas, but, to a greater or lesser extent, a variety of ideas on race and ethnicity that make people unpopular. It discourages people from fully and honestly examining the issues. And if they don’t do that, they can never conclude, with the kind of confidence that comes from facing the arguments, that discrimination is wrong and race is a bad basis for society. Instead, they may remember that they are scared to think about or discuss anything to do with race — making those who defy the taboos, such as Richard Spencer, look brave and honest.
We’ve had deterrents against openly expressing racial prejudice for years. We largely drove it into hiding. But it continued to be practiced when people thought they could get away with it. It continued to exist at a subconscious level even in many who opposed it consciously. And now white nationalism is the basis of a movement.
To defeat it, we must take up the argument and show that the essential principles of Nazism — that race is the fundamental aspect of a person (the first principle of Spencer’s manifesto), that the state ought to be based on it (basically its third principle), and that everything ought to be organized by the state for the sake of the race (see its 15th principle) — are wrong. We must show those who might be tempted by Spencer’s movement that it is based on false principles. If they know the principles are false, they will be less tempted to rally to them. It’s not the whole solution, but it’s a vital part.
To be very blunt: We must argue for our right to exist and to be full citizens.
Some will accuse me of being a moderate when the time has come to choose sides. But what I am is an extremist for the very thing that makes racism wrong: the human essence we all have in common — the human mind. Inscribed on the walls of the University of Virginia, and on the minds of many who have studied there, are these words from Mr. Jefferson: “Here we are not afraid … to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
On the battlefield of ideas, scaring your enemy into hiding is not victory; only convincing him is. A dangerous error has risen again. Let us combat it with reason.
A version of this commentary was posted to Facebook on August 15, 2017.