Sunday, 13 August 2017

Reaction to Nazism, political whataboutery and attacks on free speech

Originally I had intended to stay away from this blog in order to rest up and focus on my mental health, but I now realise the former will not achieve or equal the latter. Writing is what I love and know, and remains the only talent I have. Ceasing to exercise it has only made me more restless and frustrated. The best advice for young writers came, I think, from Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that it ought to be something you feel you have to do, not just something you are interested in doing. I rather relate to this. 

But not just that. I have been encouraged to return by yesterday's White Supremacist, Nazi rally in Virginia, which I was utterly appalled by (though not especially surprised). I thought western societies had moved swiftly on from intense anti-Semitism, but clearly I was wrong and there is still quite a lot of work to be done. I hate witnessing such things. Hateful protests staged by those on the fringes of politics, no matter the subject, are always festivals of embarrassment. 

I think there is a tendency to overrate the importance of events like this. Bad news and controversy sell, hence the heightened press coverage and extended conversation, but for the most part, the white Right are entirely unrepresented by rancid, Swastika-stamped demonstrators. But that isn't to say that I think we should just tolerate and forgive. This is why the President's calamitous response yesterday evening was so important. Trump's failure to denounce actions appropriately and proportionately highlight just why I was sceptical of him as conservative flag bearer in the United States upon his election. He said in his press conference:

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides." 

This was a massive error in judgement. Nazism isn't ordinary hatred or bigotry, the kind rife in some parts of America. It is especially nasty and aimed at specific kinds of people. History shows what can happen when it is given free reign in a society. And here there is an important distinction. 

Pockets of the Left, ever adamant that free speech ought to be demonised and left the real victim of bigotry, claim that Nazis cannot go unpunished for their speech and expression. I understand why they say it. Many who remember the Nazi holocaust are still alive to recount its many, terrible tales. But Nazism has, thankfully, been rendered a sidelined (if not slightly energised) cult and protest movement. It is not a feature of government, so violence and harnessing the force of the state need not be options we explore.

Just like there is an important distinction between not tolerating and using state power against opponents, there too is a distinction between Nazism as a political force and Nazism as a lingering annoyance, adhered to by a troubled minority of society. So violence is not the answer here. You can't beat good into people like this. Public debate can work against these people precisely because they wield no real power. Anybody who remembers the shambles known as Nick Griffin and the power of intellectual exposure can appreciate this. Conservatives like myself principally oppose restrictions on free speech not because we routinely like what is said, but because we are acutely aware that limitations on what is said can just as easily be imposed upon us as they can our enemies. 

When President Trump responded to yesterday's march with sweeping generalisation ('on many sides'), instead of rigorous, targeted condemnation, he did two things: shift blame inappropriately and engage in the tedium of political whataboutery. The former is dangerous: it means those culpable are more likely to escape sufficient criticism for their behaviour. The latter is conducive only to shutting down debate and is regularly relied upon by politicians unwilling to condemn those in their base of voters. 

I don't mean to suggest that Trump is a Nazi, but I do think he helped to mobilise many such far-Right groups. The politics of whataboutery is a get-out-of-jail free card which allows the user to avoid necessary confrontation of political allies. Don't worry about what's happening here, look over there! It is often much more difficult to stand up to friends than it is one's enemies. Mr Corbyn found this out fairly recently when he failed to identify the cause of ongoing tension in Venezuela. It is obvious why. To do so means admitting that much of what he is recommending to the British electorate is fundamentally flawed. 

Trump should have plucked up the courage to attack yesterday's marchers more directly, even at the risk of unsettling some of his voters. He is no longer a running candidate, he is the president. Being presidential means more than standing up solely for party interests. I'd have thought this would be obvious. His scurrying out of that press conference was symbolic: the man is cowardly and unprofessional. Perhaps this is the real reason he won't publish his tax returns. 

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