I am a student and practitioner of the martial arts.
I began taking self-defense classes at a young age. As I grew into maturity, I came to understand the arts as not solely a prescription for unarmed personal protection, or method for maintaining physical fitness, but as a philosophy and discipline of life. One of the core principles of its mastery is the commitment to non-violence except only in the face of imminent bodily harm.
It was imperative to disclaim this at the outset because the issue I wish to discuss here is as personal as it is intellectual. As a student and practitioner of martial arts, and lover of action in cinema, I abhor political violence and detest that it is quickly becoming the status quo. I dislike real-life violence in general but political violence – physically assaulting peaceable speakers – is a particular breed of social dystrophy. There are no accidental or unintentional acts of political violence. It is lawless, craven, and immoral. It spits in the face of republicanism. It represents a personal civic failure on behalf of both the perpetrator and those who cheer him on. It degrades minds, sullies men, and distracts from substance. It defies the social contract and escalates into a worse reprisal.
In any sane society, the above paragraphs would amount to dumping verbosity upon the obvious. But to my great sorrow, we no longer live in a wholly sane society. The malignant spirit of Preston Brooks’s South Carolina has, at last, been reincarnated in the modern American conscious. We live in a society where people preen themselves on their contempt for the political other. We live in a society where the State of North Dakota passes laws granting legal immunity (civil and criminal) to people who “unintentionally” strike protesting pedestrians on the road. We live in a society where cities such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston erupt into riots before the full reports of facts are issued as to shooting of black men by a police officer, or immediately after a grand jury refuses to indict said officer. We live in a society where hate crimes are initiated by deplorable people and their misguided overenthusiasm over the outcome of an election victory. We live in a society where campus fires rage, and windshields and windows are smashed and shattered by the tantrums of sore election losers, and where bystanders get accosted and threatened, oftentimes solely on the basis of their skin color.
And we live in a society where hordes of people circulate their self-flagellating laudation of a street thug and his sloppy sucker punch of a stupid-looking white nationalist with a cringe-inducing, Hitler Youth haircut.
Now, this is not a piece about Richard Spencer or his position (nor of Milo Yiannopoulos). I should not have to go to any length disclaiming the fact that I do not identify with, have no sympathies for, and have no inclination to entertain Spencer’s ideas, attitudes, and agenda items. I shouldn’t need to bother speaking derogatively about the man himself, or point out the fact that he is using his right to free speech for abominable purposes – contributing to the addition and normalization of rampant anti-Semitism in modern political attitudes. It should not be necessary for me to say that Spencer has quite clearly demonstrated himself to be a repellant voice, unworthy of the attention, publicity, and notoriety he now ironically enjoys thanks to that laughably-executed fist-slap to his jaw. And it should not be remarkable the fact that I do not believe that he deserves any generous sampling of grace or kindness in his travels and dealings.
Take my word for it that I have to say all that anyway. The base passions and white-hot tempers of undignified citizens have seen to it that the obvious is no longer obvious until it is given its due verbosity. I will even go so far as to say that Spencer has more than earned himself the wrath of karma. Some people deserve what they get, even a lame punch to the face.
And yet, when a most hated man – someone loathed and reviled by all – is physically harmed in cold blood, no orderly society would spare the perpetrator from due punishment, even if a net social gain has been achieved by the man’s injury. In essence there are two reasons. The first is that we hold as legally self-evident that for the State, two wrongs do not make a right. Justice is not a two-dimensional scale whose balance requires the suffering of someone who abuses and rudely treats his fellow men. Richard Spencer may deserve to be a lightning rod, but the man who “struck” him as such has neither valor nor virtue.
The second, and perhaps more important, reason is that as human beings we have in ourselves an innate capacity for doubt. Even though we don’t always act like it, we doubt the validity of our own base and violent nature. We doubt our propensity towards the extreme. We doubt that we ourselves, our systems and institutions, our morality and our judgment, can execute moral virtue when we do so violently.
I do not know how else to articulate this other than to say that I just feel it, and I have faith that somewhere you do too. There is something about us as people that nurtures our fear of finality and revulsion of violence. I am no pacifist, but this is where I come from. And although it may be ironic for someone trained in self-defense to think this way, there’s a common saying in martial arts that “it is better to be tried by twelve than carried by six” – as if to imply a basic and understood faith in human beings. This is a basic pillar of the Enlightenment. Yet with every act of violence we initiate upon one another over political differences, I fear we chew away at it, and in doing so chew away our own humanity overall. The point should be clear: political violence is not only wrong but also anathema to the American way.
This was always my fear from the beginning, and it spurs my urgency in this meek piece. It was not just that we had become too animated with aggression to speak calmly and candidly to one another as fellow citizens, but that such miscommunication would spiral us toward violence and animus. Part of what escalates the fray is the change in our reflexive reaction towards violence itself. At this point in the modern age, turning that hooded man-baby’s pathetic attempt at jaw realignment into a celebrated meme is just as irresponsible as the punch itself. It would be misleading to call this a contained, fringe sensation, especially when SAG-awarded television actors mouth off the same psychobabble and grandstanding as heroic oration. The violent sentiment is widespread and mainstream. It is a product of a confused and twisted understanding of public morals, where nonviolent expression is seen as violence but violence against the nonviolent speaker is seen as righteous expression. And it is destroying us in ways that I cannot and will not idly tolerate.
Say what you will about Richard Spencer (and there is much to say); he did not raise his fists. He did not physically impose himself upon another or call upon lackeys to do it for him right then and there. There was no imminence, no apparent intention to harm anyone in proximity, and as far as anyone can tell he possessed no other means to inflict it even if he wanted to. His vitriol may have been unwelcome and insufferable but it was not immediately threatening. In short, there is no definition of self-defense, legal or otherwise, that justifies that preemptive fist-flick to his cleft chin. The same is true of Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo is the fly Popeye blows down his house to swat away, the sand litter SpongeBob and Squidward destroy their neighborhood in trying to get rid of. He seeks out powder-keg campuses to draw out the modern Left’s army of Bull Connor youth, and goads them into aggressive reaction. He instigates with rhetoric and antics calculated to inflame their outrage, and he thrives upon the attention of the chaos. Not only is violence against him not a case of self-defense, it is encouraged by the troll himself in order to further deepen the very wounds that people keep thinking their violence will heal.
This is the poisonous condition we feed into when we let loose our inner wolves upon one another. This was never about Spencer or Milo or any other advocate of a degenerate, trash ideology. It is about ourselves and the preservation of order and justice we so claim to value. You may not believe all this jeopardized by your ovation for vigilante violence, but you need only look at the fires around you to see the result of everyone else thinking the same.
But okay, fine. Maybe you aren’t convinced at that conclusion, even when conveyed by someone who probably knows more about self-defense than you do, and who learned the Milo manifesto likely before you had even heard of him. Let’s give your position a closer look. The best argument I’ve heard in favor of going straight for the torches and pitchforks attempts to reflect today’s events against sinister history. The rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany was a slow creep that should have been nipped in the bud long before it bloomed. Thus, the preemptive violence here is merely in service of preventing that history’s repetition before it is too late. After all, far too many Jews naively disregarded the writing on the wall and submitted themselves willingly to the Third Reich. With vulnerable minorities in genuine fear for their lives because of President Trump and Steve Bannon’s agenda, giving the alt-right’s loudest zealots an on-camera clocking may be an appropriate showing of solidarity and a strong, necessary message to said zealots that they and their ideas are not tolerated.
That argument is disingenuous romantic fantasy that accomplishes nothing but to inflate your ego.
First of all, if there are any such signs that point towards the immediate approach of tyranny, we have been misreading them for years. Trump is many indefensible things but he is not totalitarian. He doesn’t care about you and your life decisions enough to seek control over it. Nor is he enabled even if he was. Whatever he might try to do to keep people away from the country (walls, bans, registries, etc.), there are still institutional and legal checks in place against him. Despite the efforts of Milo and others, he has not captured the youth culture to make himself a generational hero figure like Adolf Hitler was to his. So if you’re looking for an event that would tilt the moral scales to your violent favor, we are nowhere near anything close to a Kristallnacht or a Night of Long Knives. And if you believe yourself to be potentially endangered minority, you are also a far cry away from being systematically reported on and hunted by agents of the government or a public alt-right mob for the sheer crime of your existence.
Second, under the logic of this “Road to 1938” argument, the conclusion advocated for is a half-measure. If you really think that Spencer, Milo, and their ilk pose the kind of threat to our society that Joseph Goebbels, Leni Riefenstahl, and Bernhard Rust did in theirs, why stop at punching them? Why not kill them? Punching someone in the face does not make them retire. It turns them into crybabies on Twitter or emboldened to get louder. So if they truly are the second coming of Fascism, and your resolve is to truly crush them, a punch to the face won’t be enough. Your objective will require hitting them where they live, killing them and sending their families on the run, destroying their property and doing the same to any neighbors or sympathizers who shelter them.
But you’re not going to do that, are you. You’re not going to throw that punch. You’re not going to become a predator, hunter, mob enforcer, or murderer for this little jihad. You’re not going to get yourself arrested and imprisoned for life, or make yourself a martyr. You’re not going to expose yourself as someone willing to do what you keep cheering Spencer’s assailant for doing. You’re not even going to put yourself in a position to be potentially hit back by an equally impulsive foot soldier on the other side.
That connects to the final, and perhaps most important, point. If “preventing the reincarnation of Nazi Germany” really is the high ground you claim to have, your argument requires nothing less than that full commitment. So if you aren’t yourself willing to commit violence against contemptible civilians, your advocacy for it is a lie. You can huff, puff, and howl on social media all you like; I don’t believe you.
There’s another saying in martial arts: “Only action is action.” Anyone can be a keyboard warrior. Anyone can belch venom into their online echo chambers, act like an Aldo the Apache wannabe, and be called “brave” by the cohort rabble. Wear whatever mask you wish but the cowardly face bluffing beneath it won’t change. A person’s bloviating reveals only a base indulgence in his wettest fantasies where he is the protagonist of his own Wolfenstein story. All it amounts to are words. And in a violent society, to quote George R.R. Martin, “words are wind.” They are wind because these delusions of grandeur are untethered from human reality. Like The Dark Knight prisoners dilemma, people retain their doubt. You can wish for a time machine allowing you to travel to April 20, 1889 and do to baby Hitler what Emile Weaver did to her daughter, and it won’t matter because if somehow there, you wouldn’t actually do it. To do so would require you to overtake the most basic instincts of compassion that everyone has – higher truths and morals that go beyond what is concretely known. You can “know” that the child you’re holding will become one of the biggest mass murderers and warmongering maniacs in history, and you still won’t harm it even if you really want to believe that you would. The higher truth nurturing your doubts is that doing so would make you a monster. The kind of monster that has no true justification and can never be forgiven in a lawful society.
I maintain my faith that we have not forgotten this, and that we still live in that lawful society. I maintain my faith that words can save us. There is no victory to be attained through violence against your fellow citizens, and I believe that everyone, even the most vitriolic of advocates, instinctively knows this. And no one preaching it deserves to have their words or positions taken seriously, for until they prove otherwise none have the condition and guts to endure the climate of animalism they keep building. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I do not believe that we have yet become mere creatures in the jungle. But the further we press one another toward violence, the closer we will get to it.