Politics & Policy

The Left Embraces Political Violence

Counter-protestors pepper spray a Trump supporter during a rally in Berkeley, Calif., April 15, 2017. (Reuters photo: Stephen Lam)
The Alexandria shooting is the continuation of the riots in Berkeley and Middlebury.

This is why the standard liberal motto — that violence is never legitimate, even though it may sometimes be necessary to resort to it — is insufficient. From a radical emancipatory perspective, this formula should be reversed: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate (since their very status is the result of the violence they are exposed to), but never necessary (it will always be a matter of strategy whether or not use violence against the enemy).

Slavoj Žižek, On Violence and Democracy

It did not take very long to get from “Punch a Nazi!” to “assassinate a congressman.”

A great deal of spittle has been deployed in the debate over whether or to what extent the Left’s recent indulgence of its penchant for violent rhetoric can be linked to the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise and other members of a Republican congressional baseball team by an angry Democratic activist and Bernie Sanders partisan. But the relevant question here is not violent rhetoric but violence itself. The violence at Berkeley and Middlebury did not lead to the shooting in Alexandria — they are part of the same phenomenon: The American Left has embraced political violence.

More precisely, the Left has embraced “anarcho-tyranny.” (Yes, I know what kind of man Sam Francis became; his phrase remains useful.) The anarcho part: Progressives including mainstream Democrats have embraced the sort of violence that has been directed against the likes of Charles Murray as an instrument of liberationist politics. Representative Val Demings, a Democratic congressman from Florida, shared her view that the riots greeting Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley were “a beautiful sight.” After a physical attack on white nationalist Richard Spencer, Jeremy Binckes of Salon wrote: “Maybe the question shouldn’t be, ‘Is it okay to punch a Nazi?’ but, ‘If you don’t want to be punched in the face, maybe you shouldn’t preach Nazi values to the public?’” A lively debate about the ethics of using violence to suppress certain political views ensued. Short version: Free speech did not experience a runaway victory.

Things are worse on campus. The editorial board of the Daily Californian defended blackshirt violence on the grounds that, without it, “neo-Nazis would be free to roam the streets of Berkeley.” The argument that people who hold unpopular political opinions should be physically unsafe — that they should be subject not to social exclusion or criticism but to violence, afraid to roam the streets — is textbook totalitarianism.

California’s political leaders did almost nothing in response to the violence at Berkeley, but when the Trump administration threatened to sanction California, they leapt to action. Nancy Pelosi claimed, with no evidence, that the violence in Berkeley was the result of peaceful protests being “infiltrated,” and insisted “the protesters have a right to free speech as well.” But what greeted Yiannopoulos in Berkeley was not free speech: It was political violence organized to suppress free speech. Representative Barbara Lee complained that the Trump administration’s insistence that Berkeley protect the safety and civil rights of its students and visitors was an attempt to “bully our university into silence” — but it was Yiannopoulos who had literally been bullied into silence — with firebombs and truncheons — along with Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, and others. A Middlebury professor had to be briefly hospitalized after being physically attacked for having invited Charles Murray to campus. That is not free speech. That is violence, and Democrats, judging by their non-response to these episodes, have more or less made their peace with it.

We have the modern answer to the beer-hall brawlers of the 1930s.

That’s the anarcho part. The tyranny part is that while the Left’s blackshirts are permitted to inflict actual physical violence on people who have political opinions they don’t like, the Left’s whiteshirts — respectable Democratic officeholders and media figures — are working feverishly to inflict civil and criminal penalties on individuals and institutions that hold and communicate unpopular political opinions: “Arrest climate deniers!” Adam Weinstein and Robert Kennedy Jr. demanded, and, soon enough, Democrats were cooking up fraud cases against oil companies that had criticized climate-change proposals, and then used subpoenas and other measures to harass conservative and free-market political groups affiliated with them. Every Democrat in the Senate voted with Harry Reid to repeal the First Amendment and allow Congress to regulate political speech. The Obama administration saw to it that no one in the IRS ever faced any real punishment for that agency’s targeting of conservative groups for persecution and harassment.

So, on the one hand, we have the modern answer to the beer-hall brawlers of the 1930s, and on the other hand, we have powerful political figures working to criminalize dissent. The same people who have spent the past 30 years cooking up ever-battier campus speech codes want to do the same thing for society at large in the form of so-called hate-speech regulation.

They do this partly because they intend to win and to rule. They also do it because they have convinced themselves that we are in a state of national crisis, and that the dark shadow of fascism in descending on the United States. In reality, the only thing resembling a genuine totalitarian movement in American politics is the progressive camp from which emerged the man who shot Steve Scalise.

Once you’ve accepted political violence as a legitimate tool in the context of American democracy — once you have concluded that the decision to use violence is only a matter of strategy, as Slavoj Žižek insists — then progress from pepper spray and bicycle locks to rifles and bombs is neither very long nor very difficult to anticipate.

And here we are.

READ MORE:

Editorial: How to Think about the Alexandria Attack

When Speech Inspires Violence, Protect Liberty While Restoring Virtue

Impassioned Political Speech Doesn’t Turn Anyone into a Killer

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