Let’s make the question that much more specific.
The question as it is more commonly posed is, ‘should you punch a Nazi?’
The people who answer this question with an unqualified yes in the UK are usually anarcho-syndicalists who haven’t ever punched anyone at all. But the American equivalent has been throwing punches. When it comes to Richard Spencer, they have my sympathies – I did enjoy watching that punch on repeat. However, the question of whether you should punch a Nazi isn’t simply about whether you should punch a man who half the time self-identifies as a Nazi and who all the time self-identifies as a white supremacist. Accusations of Nazism can be much more dubious than that.
There are two questions which must be answered before the brawl can begin.
Firstly, are they a real Nazi?
The operative word in this is not ‘Nazi’. The operative word is ‘real’. Even Richard Spencer, although he might secretly wish to claim the title, is not a real Nazi. He is, currently, only a Nazi in-waiting. Charlottesville was horrific, and it was not merely an issue of free speech, but it was nevertheless squashed by the state department (despite America’s proto-fascist president), and it produced no more casualties than a bad car crash. Yet one death is one more death than should be tolerated, so what should we do about them?
What we should not do is start the lederhosen rumour-mill. Overreacting like this churns media attention, builds fear, and ends with vigilante justice which perpetuates nothing but misjustice… and eventually you are landed with more problems than you started with… with ANTIFA. Before you know it, real Nazis have deniability, because you’ve accused everyone else of being a Nazi too.
Secondly, does punching change minds?
Because if it does, then ANTIFA might be worth it despite all the problems they create.
Unfortunately, punching a real Nazi is not going to change a real Nazis’ mind. The answer, therefore, to the question of whether you should punch a Nazi, is that you should not. Once a genuine Nazi has been ascertained, you should not punch them. Once a genuine Nazi has been ascertained, you should bomb them.
The term Neo-Nazi recognises the fact that in the world today the Nazis are not a force of power. They are the very furthest fringe of the right, more right even than the KKK, and as such they powerless. But if they could do harm, if they were causing harm, if they were a serious threat that we were losing sleep over, then we would have to destroy them just as they were destroyed in the 1940s. Either Nazism is there, in which case we are all in, or it is not, in which case we are not.
So, when it comes to being all in, should you punch a Hitler?
Theoretically, if you could go back in time and punch Hitler, of course you would, and you would do much more to Hitler besides. There would surely be no moral alternative to deadly violence when it comes to Hitler. But after you’ve rubbed his moustache out with your fist and snubbed the lights from his eyes, you might stop to wonder… what exactly have I done? What would happen if we went back in time and bludgeoned Hitler to death? Might there not simply have been another Hitler?
Some argue just this – that individuals have much less of a say on the course of history than we think – that Hitler was a demagogue, a crowd-reader who fed off an already maddened mob. I do not think this. Hitler remains an enigma. He is the historian’s juxtaposition – for although he was simply evil, the way his evilness manifested was something of a paradox.
At first glance he can be perceived as an evil but rational actor. He had a goal: to perpetuate the Aryan race and to destroy other supposedly ‘lesser’ races. To a shocking extent he executed on this plan. But does the ability to execute make him a rational actor? Maybe, but only as far as a myopically short sighted actor can ever be rational. Hitler is only rational if rational is playing a game of chess while thinking that the only moves which matters is the next one. Although it might seem easy to say with hindsight, Hitler was incredibly short-sighted. Hitler aimed big. His goal, after all, was to dominate an ethnically purified Europe. And while it seems that he got quite far in this objective, the total nature of his ambitions (he did not want to kill ‘some of the Jews’) meant that the victory could only be so-called if it was a total victory. Hitler needed to win WWII. And did the Nuremberg laws, invading the USSR, and diverting resources away from war effort and into the camps, help him achieve this? No, they did not. Hitler was incredibly organised and at the same time capable of incredible chaos. We’d be risking that, by changing history. For example, if the Nuremberg Laws hadn’t had been past, mightn’t the Nazi’s have gotten the A-bomb first? And even if the nuclear scientists hadn’t cracked the formulae at the same time as they did in the USA, mightn’t someone with more patience than Hitler have waited until they had? Going back in time and doing anything to Hitler might well endanger millions of lives more.
WWII had a happy ending. We won, and Nazism, the very idea of it, was bombed mostly to oblivion. This seems an immature and superficial thing to say given that millions of lives were lost and the Holocaust happened, but it is neither childish nor facile to point out that the alternative would have been a nightmare ending. Perhaps we could do better though. Perhaps we could hope that Goebbels, Göring, or Himmler, would not have possessed that same alien animus that Hitler had. Yes, I actually think we might risk knocking Hitler into centuries past because, unlike Stalin, Hitler does seem to be distinctly unique. By contrast, the risks of punching Richard Spencer, while ostensibly far lower because he’s a nobody, involve one of those much derided ‘slippery slopes’. By allowing people to punch Richard Spencer, we risk misdiagnosing Nazism, and we fail to identify the fascistic elements that really are gathering in the world; in the long term, after we have slipped far enough down the slope, we ultimately risk being blindsided by very real fascists because we were too busy virtue signalling.
This is a balancing act between the two famously competing virtues: Freedom and Justice. As time goes on, and technology too, these two virtues will be harder and harder to reconcile (the day will come when our contact lenses are capable of logging and recording every second of our day, of that I am sure, but would we want them to?). Freedom and Justice are two great virtues, but Justice is reliant on there being Freedom to begin with. Hitler represents the perfect anomaly in this equation, as he represents the point at which the interests of Freedom and Justice run absolutely parallel. Nazism thus embodied, as Churchill knew, casts even the Devil in the light. Other than this unique historical singularity, however, you should be prepared weigh up these two forces.
You do not have the freedom to be a Nasty, but you do have the freedom to say Nasty things.