Is the Populace Infantile?
Matsuda, in a typical move for critical race theorists, makes a special pleading on behalf of university students, who are said to be emotionally vulnerable, and deserving of special consideration when it comes to protection from the presumed epidemic of hate language because they need a safe community to experiment with their identities and passions.
It seems to me that it is this model of infantile protection that has been transposed from the academy and applied to the population at large in meeting the rise of the alt-right. The American populace too, like the subset of university students, must be defended against “lessons of cynicism and hate,” which replace “lessons in critical thought and inquiry.” Even if hate speech is directed at a group rather than an individual, the individual student feels personally attacked; using this logic, there is no such thing as group attack but only individual attack. Richard Delgado, in “Words That Wound: A Tort Action for Racial Insults, Epithets, and Name Calling,” rejects the counterarguments against tort liability for racial attacks stemming from the difficulty of assessing and allocating damages, and the wave of fraudulent claims that is likely to result, with such splintered logic that while one may demonstrate at City Hall in Skokie one may not disfigure a neighbor’s doors, or that racial insults can be analogized to obscenity (itself a notoriously difficult description), or that the perpetrators of racism are themselves in need of protection lest their civic participation be dulled.
It is precisely this self-identification of liberals as perpetually vulnerable and “at risk” that has provided the alt-right, and the current manifestation of white supremacy in general, one of its primary ballasts in the fight against liberal weakness. In fact, the greatest driver of resentment for the alt-right—and the element which allowed it to gain the most traction on virtual forums, as well as college campuses—was precisely the perception of liberals being against free speech because they can’t face up to hard truths.
White supremacy, according to the watchdog groups, is always making a big “comeback.” This seems to me the wrong perspective from which to view this phenomenon. Seeing it in terms of sharp ups and downs by renegade groups permits overlooking the structural foundations of white supremacy. There is always some technological trend being hyped up as the source of resurgent white supremacist strength, most lately the Internet, which technology is then targeted for suppression, leading to a later resurgence through another form of technology. In contrast to European countries, which in the postwar period have allowed dissolution of extremist groups, American strength lies in absolutist views of free speech, but this constitutional strength is always under pressure from those allied against so-called hate groups. Whereas in the past the watchdog groups have stepped in where government might have been reluctant to do so, owing to constitutional restrictions, most recently it is the technology firms that have filled the lacuna in enforcement capability. This raises the central question of placing enormous powers of censorship in the hands of these firms, which in turn creates a problem much bigger than the one designed to solve. Lately, “conspiracy” has almost taken over from “hate speech,” and it is a definition that keeps expanding, so that the lines between skeptical inquiry of government information and narratives and censorable conspiracy theory have become blurred.
The SPLC, under Morris Dees, has been criticized for its aggressive fundraising efforts, and for Dees’s showmanship and self-promotion in a way that gives a bad name to philanthropy. The SPLC pioneered aggressive civil lawsuits, against figures such as Tom Metzger of WAR, to bankrupt the perpetrators of hate crimes and to put them in such a tenuous financial and legal situation that they would be unable to continue their activities, which is the template that is being followed in the current round of aggression against the alt-right as well, with the usual rates of “success.” In essence, a political problem has been bypassed by being converted into a legal challenge, with the threat of being targeted for terrorist activity never far from the background. The only way the watchdog approach can work is if there is a particular narrative in place about white supremacy, namely that it is the error of a few mistaken souls to alienate themselves from the American political mainstream, and that political extremism is an anomaly that must be curtailed to the point of invisibility. The thrust of this narrative is to construct a rational, mentally sane, politically functional alternative to those who have lost their way to the point that they cannot be saved.
A great deal of energy is spent pondering the question of “leaders”—did a particular hate group inspire an act of violence, and to what extent can such proximity of inspiration hold up in a court of law?—and therefore the phenomenon of “leaderless resistance” which has been common since the 1990s onwards has posed particular problems in assigning blame, and therefore financial and legal culpability, to particular leaders. (The same problem occurs in pursuit of so-called Islamic terrorism, or any other form of terrorism, with disproportionate attention being fixed on the dilemma of so-called “lone wolves” versus officially recognized terrorist organizations.) The leader of the watchdog group, a legal eagle exploiting every possible technical angle, pits himself against the leader of a hate group, in a spectacular battle, receiving due coverage in the media. The newer model is to quietly terminate the hate leader’s public platform, a corporate anonymity like Twitter or YouTube performing its public obligation when someone doesn’t follow its “community standards.”
These are not new dilemmas. George Michael, in his excellent overview of the government’s response to far-right terrorism, has noted that the Reconstruction Era Klan, though it was curtailed by means of the 1870 Enforcement Act, succeeded in its primary aim, namely to weaken the Republican party in the South. The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 “sought to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and proscribed conspiracy and the use of disguises to deprive someone of the equal protection of the law.” In addition, however, the law allowed the use of the armed forces to suppress civil rights violations, and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, more problematic aspects of the legislation. As Michael summarizes, the Second Era Klan of the 1920s, though targeted both by the federal government’s Mann Act and the ADL’s model anti-intolerance acts (which were adopted by several states), imploded mainly due to internal problems, and because of its overreach in targeting not just African Americans, but also Jews, communists, Catholics, and others. It was almost as if it were the Klan against everyone else who didn’t hold up to the strict tests of white purity, which led to its demise—from which it has never really recovered.
These early federal government actions against the first and second era Klans established precedents and were the forerunners of much more problematic actions to come. In the 1930s and 1940s, the German American Bund was a principal target, as a worldwide fascist conspiracy was alleged between American rightists and their European counterparts. The culmination was the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, a much underappreciated episode of American history, where a band of loosely affiliated isolationists and rightists were prosecuted for being part of a global fascist conspiracy which was quite unprovable: Hitler and his associates were actually alleged as co-conspirators in that trial. As Michael has noted, “Many of the defendants had published literature that was highly critical of FDR, the New Deal, and U.S. intervention overseas while lauding American rightists and isolationists, European fascists, and the Japanese.” While their fascist inclinations were not in doubt, this case set a bad precedent whose effects we can see even today, in that disagreement with American foreign policy (today’s version might be to advocate retreat from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern entanglements) or domestic progressive initiatives becomes tantamount to treason, and prosecutable as such, mixed in with a blur of fascistic sentiment associated with foreign-influenced subversion. If today the government initiates a war in response to a foreign or domestic terrorist attack, protesting that war might be interpreted as denigrating the victims of terrorism, and could easily qualify as hate speech, and therefore subject to prosecution. We have already seen this with respect to victims of gun violence. To bring charges of treason by alleging far-fetched conspiratorial ties with Nazi groups around the world does little to increase confidence in the government’s prosecutorial methods.
The powers that the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, appropriated during the fight against international fascism were put to even more troublesome use during the civil rights movement, when Hoover targeted the third era Klan’s terrorism by entrapping them, with the help of informants provided by watchdog groups such as the ADL—the watchdogs were already involved in helping the government in the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1960s their involvement was more insidious. Michael notes a particularly scandalous instance in 1967, where the plan was to kill Klansmen working alongside an informant, but where the informant got killed instead. The FBI’s illegal targeting of extremist groups—which included the Black Panthers, the New Left, the Klan, and socialists and communists—reached a crescendo in the 1960s, with the notorious COINTELPRO program, targeting both right and left with equal venom, suggesting the same danger whenever resort to extra-constitutional repression is embarked upon. Whereas the FBI in the 1960s had to use various forms of psychological warfare to implement the “disruption of white hate groups,” in the more communicative arena provided by the Internet the hate groups seem to easily succumb to internal factionalism, leading to enervation and weakening, in full glare of the public view. The use of informants and provocateurs was so pervasive in that era that groups on both right and left were well aware of the problem, severely hampering their activities. The same kind of use of informants and provocateurs occurred during the 2000s in response to overblown fears of domestic Islamic terrorism, where the accumulated cases against various mental deviants and eccentrics amounted to a hill of beans in the end, though setting terrible models for civil rights violations.
Had the federal government not overreacted in the well-known Ruby Ridge and Waco conflagrations of the 1990s, in violation of the spirit of the legislative reforms of the preceding two decades, then it is an open question whether the patriot and militia movements—the direct forerunners of today’s alt-right—would ever have arisen in the manner that they did, leading to the Oklahoma City mayhem of 1995. That in turn led to Bill Clinton’s draconian 1996 anti-terrorism legislation, which—legitimately—inspired further rounds of fear and paranoia among the white nationalist community, and straightforward patriots as well, afraid of the loss of their liberties and pushed into a greater shell because of the fear of persecution under expanded penalties. The pursuit of the aggressive civil suit by the watchdog groups in the 1990s offers a parallel to the similar loosely defined rules of evidence and lack of legal counsel that was deployed in the next decade against alleged Muslim terrorists. What would have been the fate of the various New Left groups if an opportunist like Dees had been around in the 1960s to stretch civil law to the limits by converting it to criminal law, as some have alleged? Would the movements for liberation that we consider the most uplifting aspect of the 1960s ever have been able to take off? Likewise, what was the chilling effect on, say, environmental activism, as a result of the aggressive measures used against the patriot and militia movements in the 1990s? How have groups like Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) found their opposition to extreme free market ideology allied with racist repression curtailed by various anti-civil libertarian measures in place because of the alleged fear from Klansmen and other rightists in the decades since the 1960s? Finally, to what extent has freedom on the Internet already been compromised because of the fear associated with alt-right groups, and to what extent will the Internet continue to be converted into a space limited to expression of mainstream views?
None of these abuses are in the past. Many scholars have noted the horrendous case of the ADL spy scandal in San Francisco in the early 1990s, where the organization was caught with files on twelve thousand individuals and a thousand groups including not just the far right but Arabs and “pinkos” as well. It is shocking that a watchdog group should have been left with any credibility after an incident of such magnitude, particularly when information against Palestinian activists was being shared with the Israeli government. Again, the pattern is that whatever starts out being justified against the far right will eventually net in the left and progressive causes as well, including those just seeking to expose the truth about governmental duplicity. In part, the watchdog groups feel less of a need today to resort to questionable means to gather and share information because our standards of free speech have collapsed so greatly in recent decades—ironically in large part because of left-wing activism—that it becomes the first line of attack.
But to what extent does an uncensorable right-wing demagogue like Rush Limbaugh assimilate more extremist viewpoints because those advocating them openly are banned? I suggest that the patterns reflected by the alt-right show that the more such groups and individuals are banned, the more their views infiltrate the mainstream. The weakening of the ACLU’s defense of the free speech rights of the far right in recent years is a particularly lamentable development, as groups like the SPLC and ADL continue to succeed in propagandizing their standpoints as synonymous with the national interest. A regime of illegal surveillance, even if perpetrated by righteous watchdogs against the far right, is bound to hurt the polity in the long run.
The most noticeable effect of the decades-long implementation of countermeasures against the far right is that the essence of their ideas has become converted into mainstream right-wing populism of an authoritarian variety, with shades of strong neo-Nazi leanings that can’t be acknowledged by the mainstream press and liberal institutions because that is supposed to be the province of banned white supremacist groups. The gist of the neo-Nazis’ critique of globalism, multiculturalism, and interventionism abroad has already become the Republican party’s current embodiment to a large extent. There seems to be no evidence of successful organized collaboration among far-right groups and parties on either side of the Atlantic, so to overblow that fear is to codify another element of the narrative that depicts as enemies of the state those who are said to possess a grand narrative against globalism, thereby making it more possible that such a narrative will in fact emerge.
As Aryeh Neier notes, on the one hand, “Freedom is no certain protection. The risks are clear. If the Nazis are free to speak, they may win converts. It is possible that they will win so many adherents that they will attain the power to abolish freedom and to destroy me.” On the other hand, it is argued that “the state must act to restrain the Nazis while they are weak and before they have a chance to repeat their slurs so often that it is impossible to stop the violence they incite.” This essay has grappled with the question of what happens when the state itself may be the biggest fomenter of hatred, and whether restrictions on freedom of speech are beneficial or harmful when this may be the case. I have argued for an absolutist position, and moreover, to want us to think beyond the present moment to create the conditions where freedom of speech is absolute in reality for all spectrums of thought, right and left, and to concentrate on the ways monopoly in media communications can be overcome. Otherwise, as Neieir notes with reference to Thomas Jefferson and John Milton, self-government itself is compromised, and that is too high a price to pay for some momentary fear that an impassioned minority is about to take over all power for itself. In the case of the alt-right, it was monopolistic media companies which took it upon themselves to decide when a “clear and present danger” had arisen, and combatted it forthwith by ending access to communications for the unwanted ones.
Widespread complicity with this action has left future aspirants to communication, perhaps from the opposite side of political opinion, just as subject to censorship. Again, to repeat Neieir’s contention with respect to Skokie, “the best consequence of the Nazis’ proposal to march in Skokie [read Charlottesville] is that it produced more speech, a great deal more.” Whereas, since the onset of the recent censorship, there has been less speech, a great deal less, as white supremacy has quietly shifted to powerful, unchecked, executive actions in the White House. Which is the greater danger, individuals (of however immoral persuasions) or government? Both the #MeToo movement and the alt-right censors have frequently resorted to a similar argument: You are free to propagate your ideas, but you just can’t use x, y, z platform (a university campus, a magazine or newspaper, a conference or seminar, a book or TV show), which is absurd on its face.
What has been established, as I see it, in the last four years of heated debate over the ethics of allowing platforms to white supremacists, is the principle of censorship: we may not have exterminated white supremacy in the minds of haters, but we have progressed much farther along the lines of establishing preemptive censorship as a doctrine, based on the loudest and most powerful among establishment voices (frequently supported by the government) as to what is worthy of being censored. Had the alt-right continued openly voicing its argument that there needed to be a separate homeland for minorities within the United States (perhaps as a prelude to eventual repatriation of all colored people), while the whites, an allegedly endangered species, reclaimed the United States for their own nationalist homeland, perhaps the ideology would have petered out because of its own absurdity; but we will never know now, even as the fundamental claim is transformed into more palatable policy (the border wall, drastic cuts to legal migration, restrictions on asylum and refugee claims, etc.).
The percentage of hate crimes in comparison to overall crimes of any sort remains shockingly low by any measurement. In 1990, hate crimes constituted .003 percent of personal crimes of violence reported in New York City, and the situation hasn’t changed much in thirty years. On the other hand, is the U.S.’s unprecedented spree of deportations, destroying the lives of millions of residents in the last two decades, an example of hate crimes? If not, why not? By what criteria, already established in the hate crime literature, are such actions excludable? Mari J. Matsuda’s criteria for racist speech (as a prelude to racist action with respect to immigrants) would seem to be fully met by recent government opinion, endorsed by both major political parties.
But by setting up a special category of white supremacy, practiced by organized hate groups, we refuse to set our sights on the true nature of white supremacy (buttressed by particular forms of political economy) throughout our society, in the workplace, in the classroom, in the court system, in domestic relations, and everywhere else. Levin and McDevitt, for example, in advocating for rehabilitation of hate crime offenders, offer this naïve suggestion: “Offender programs should attempt to identify and confront…misconceptions [false stereotypes about minorities]. In addition, such programs should seek to promote cultural diversity by identifying and emphasizing the positive contributions made by the members of different minority groups.” The offender should give something back to the minority community, and the legal consequences of hate crime should be explained. The presumption is that both diagnosis and prescription of the problem must occur within liberal educative parameters, as though the world were an extension of the college campus.
Ten years after writing their book, in a new edition Levin and McDevitt face considerable difficulty in correlating the presumed rise of hate crimes with economic conditions: there seems to be no correlation of declining hate crimes with rising economic prosperity, or even the reverse correlation that we would expect in the 1990s. Hence, to explain the resurgence of hate crimes in the late 1990s, at least according to watchdog groups, they must resort to the Internet as an explanation. The 1999 Columbine shooters are now presented as responding to hate-motivated bullying, and September 11, 2001 is also seen as the greatest incident of “hate-motivated violence.” For nearly twenty years now, it has been official bipartisan policy to racially profile travelers, and indeed all Americans in any situation whatsoever, in the service of protection from hate crimes: what has that done, in these two decades, to inflame alt-right and other violent hate-filled passions? Yet no liberal dare question the presumption of non-innocence upon which racial profiling, following September 11, 2001, embodies security procedures.
It was the official policy of the United States—not of some renegade powerless neo-Nazis—to declare war against the Muslim world (or to not call it such, even while implementing it in practice, in order to maintain innocence with regard to diversity and pluralism), with unjustifiable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, to set in motion patterns of hate and stereotypical fear that overwhelm, to an astronomical magnitude, anything the alt-right is capable of generating; in fact, without this governmental assault on reality, the contemporary alt-right would never even have arisen in its most recent incarnation. It was bipartisan political consensus that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under whose auspices Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been executing a reign of terror against immigrants, reinforcing the worst stereotypes among the general population, with power to harm and inflict injury exponentially greater than a handful of alleged alt-right perpetrators could ever be capable of.
In the end, the entire liberal discourse directed against the alt-right is little more than yet another attempt to preserve American exceptionalism, a grab at an innocence that no longer exists, by separating the pure from the impure, the filthy from the clean, the virtuous from the deplorables. Until someone takes organized government violence against vulnerable groups (of which immigrants are currently the most exposed) as the paradigm case of the worst form of hate crimes (because of the infinitely greater power of the government, versus that of individuals), the discourse around white supremacy remains a cover for more such crimes, not a way to end them. The alt-right caught on because democracy has been weakened in America, and to the extent that countermeasures further weaken democracy the alt-right is likely to reemerge in a more virulent form in the future than as denizens of 4chan boards, producers of Internet memes, and rabble-rousers on college campuses.
In the last couple of years the alt-right would seem to have been easily dethroned, even as white supremacist policies set the agenda in the halls of government more than ever. That’s the disjuncture this essay has tried to explore, leaving little room for complacency.
George Michael, Confronting Right-wing Extremism and Terrorism in the U.S.A. (Routledge, 2003), pp. 131-132.
ii Ibid., p. 131. Note that after Charlottesville, a civil lawsuit against twenty-five groups and individuals relies on the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871: https://www.integrityfirstforamerica.org/sites/default/files/First%20Amended%20Complaint%20-%20AS%20FILED.pdf. Richard Spencer, a defendant in the civil lawsuit, has sought help from the public, claiming that he is the victim of what he calls “lawfare,” warfare by other means directed at ideologies like his: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/29/charlottesville-lawsuits-heather-heyer-richard-spencer-alt-right.
iii Ibid., p. 131.
iv Would the antiwar movement in response to the Iraq invasion ever have been able to get off the ground in today’s more censorious conditions with respect to venerating the sensibilities of the victims of violence?
vi Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt, Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed (Plenum, 1993), p. 196.
vii Ibid., p. 215.
viii Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt, Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War Against Those Who Are Different (Westview, 2002).