On Saturday, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer led a protest in Charlottesville—described by some as a "torch-wielding mob," since protesters carried tiki torches—against the city council's decision to remove a statue of Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee.
"You will not replace us," Spencer said at one of the rallies, according to The Washington Post. "You will not destroy us."
Some protesters denied that they were motivated by white supremacy.
"We're not white supremacists, we are simply just white people that love our heritage, our culture, our European identity," said protester Orry Von Dize, giving the textbook definition of white supremacy.
A couple things. First, whether or not the city decides to honor Lee with a statue in a public park is up to the council. A park is not the same thing as a public university, where removing statues of important people smacks of erasing history and being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Furthermore, Lee isn't Thomas Jefferson or George Washington: deeply flawed, slave-owning men who are nevertheless rightly remembered for their great achievements. Lee is best known for commanding the army that fought to preserve slavery. I agree with The Washington Post's Ilya Somin that there is a clear difference between honoring someone like Lee or Jefferson Davis, and honoring Jefferson.
So getting rid of the Lee statute does not seem like political-correctness-run-amok to me. In any case, it doesn't matter, because the city council has the right to remove it.
At the same time, people have the right to advocate against this change, which is what Spencer's gang was doing on Saturday: engaging in constitutionally protected political speech. The content of the speech is deeply sinister, and indeed, racist. The University of Virginia students who interpreted the protest as an attempt "to intimidate minority members of our community" are not wrong to view it that way. But even so, Spencer's actions fall within the bounds of the First Amendment, and we ought to support the preservation of broad free speech protections, even for people whose speech we rightly despise.
That's the standard, ACLU-approved, civil libertarian position on free speech, but it seems to be losing currency with the left these days. Why should we extend political rights to people whose political goals are opposed to ours? is, as far as I can tell, an increasingly popular notion among the antifascist, anti-Trump resistance movement. So here's an additional reason to support free speech, even for people like Spencer: taking away his free speech proves you're in agreement with him about something.
Let me explain. Spencer was recently profiled (again) by a national news outlet—this time, it was The Atlantic. The interview, conducted by a former high school classmate of Spencer's, is a fascinating study of his evolution from a mediocre, uninterested student into the intellectual leader of an online far-right troll community. But Spencer's most revealing comment came in response to a question about a familiar subject: taking a punch in the face on Inauguration Day.
"I have a right as a citizen to walk the streets and not be attacked, and I have the right to be protected," he complained.
Spencer was obviously right when he said he should not be assaulted. But we both could taste the irony in the situation. If he hadn't caught himself, he might have started talking about his "human right" not to be brutalized with impunity. Instead he recovered, and used the irony to his advantage. "The fact that they are excusing violence against Richard Spencer inherently means that they believe that there's a state of exception, where we can use violence," he said. "I think they're actually kind of right."
Maybe they're right: it is okay to use violence against people solely because they disagree with you. That was Spencer's takeaway. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. According to the tenets of fascism—the political viewpoint with which the alt-right clearly has the most in common—dissenting opinions should be ground into dust.
So don't let Spencer hold ridiculous protest events just because of the First Amendment. Let him do it because if you punch Spencer, rather than letting him speak, you're really sort of agreeing with him—and he with you.
Photo Credit: Zach D. Roberts/NurPhoto/TNS/Newscom