I’m not a person who ever feels “nostalgic” for a simpler time in history. But lately I’ve been wondering how it must have felt in 1945, right after the soldiers came home from Europe.
Back then, Americans were largely racist and sexist, but from sea to shining sea, everyone had at least one thing in common — a passionate hatred for the Nazis. It wasn’t a very positive unifier, but it was effective, and I envy that.
Today, white Aryan sentiment has been reborn and popularized by a few very loud voices.
One of the loudest is Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and leads the modern white nationalist movement. Spencer quickly became a household name during Trump’s inauguration, when he was sucker punched in the face on live TV, twice.
And just last week, riots broke out at UC Berkeley where prominent Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, was scheduled to speak.
The sum of these events brings us to one essential question: Is it okay, ethically, to punch a Nazi?
Kicking Nazi ass is as American as apple pie. Our movies, videogames and even comic books all depict the badass heroism that comes with winning World War II again and again. But history alone doesn’t provide justification for punching Nazis.
There’s an Italian proverb that goes, “It is no time to be playing chess when the house is on fire.” This saying has been used many a time to describe politics, commonly in some variation of: “Democrats are still playing chess while the Republicans burn the house down.”
But this is bigger than a two-party system no longer capable of accurately representing 318 million Americans. This is not Democrat versus Republican, this is Americans versus Nazis.
Nazism is the equivalent of setting the house on fire. Those of us who were playing chess, who were doing our best to play by the rules and believe that the democratic system will protect us are now sitting in a smoldering house.
I do not think we can afford to keep playing chess. If we as a society continue to ignore the fires the white nationalists are setting, we all know exactly how this will end. So how do we stand up and stop it before it gets too far? That brings us back to the original question.
On the one hand, some might justify punching Nazis because they (in many literal and nonliteral ways) have set our house on fire, and so the rules of chess are of little concern right now. There’s that.
But then I remember another quote, spoken by a woman who had practically as much impact on my childhood as my mother, J.K. Rowling.
In 2015, a petition was signed in England to ban Trump from the country on the (solid) grounds that his politics were hateful and unwelcome.
Rowling, an active (albeit not very radical) advocate for women’s rights, spoke out against this petition. She said that while she considers Trump offensive, he should not be banned from the country because, “His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot.”
Those words hit me like a brick.
Rowling continues, “If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand along tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.”
If I prevent someone from speaking because I think they are being hateful and offensive, they have every right to do the same to me, on the same premise.
The nation has become so deeply divided that we often offend each other before we have the chance to communicate. The left is offended by discriminatory speech, and the right is offended by the left’s desire to be politically correct.
Our freedom of speech is the solitary stitch holding this mess of a nation together. Without it, we would have been reduced to a violent, post-apocalyptic wasteland by now.
So on the other hand, we can’t punch Nazis because we have no defense when they punch us back and we risk cutting that last stitch.
Ultimately, I can’t say I have the answer here. I’m not sure there is one.
What I know is that we can’t simply wait for neo-Nazism to go away, because it won’t. And so I’d like to encourage everyone to make 2017 the new 1945.
The government is a mess, but we don’t have to be. Settling our differences is not going to be easy, so let’s start with our most basic common ground: No one likes Nazis. Deal?