The intolerable events in Charlottesville bring new urgency to an old debate: Should we allow neo-Nazis a public platform? Every aspect of the Unite the Right rally—not only its bloody denouement—stands as grounds for a resounding “no.” With torches, swastikas, metal poles crashing into a black man’s skull, and a Dodge Charger plowing into defenseless bodies, the far right has made undeniable what was already clear: They are enemies, not political interlocutors. This makes it all the more crucial to delineate what we do or do not mean when we demand an end to according space for speech and assembly to far-right racists.
In the last year of Trump-emboldened white nationalism, the debate, largely shaped by the far right, has rested on a fulcrum of First Amendment rights. The right of anyone to speak publicly, the neo-fascists say, is the very freedom that actual fascism would see decimated. And it is a line that has found a comfortable home with the liberal commentariat. This view finds its best iteration in that old quote so regularly misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (It was actually written by British Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)
And it was on these grounds that the ACLU defended the Unite the Right rally’s right to demonstrate at Emancipation Park on Saturday—work for which the ur-liberal organization has received censure from anti-racist activists, especially in the wake of Saturday’s terror attack. In turn, liberal commentators have jumped to the defense of the civil-liberties group and the need to defend robust constitutional rights.
Much of the anger at the ACLU stems from an understandable desire that this champion of liberal and righteous causes not give time nor resources to hatemongers. Which is to misunderstand that defending neo-Nazi speech is profoundly liberal work, however unrighteous. In defending the civil liberties of neo-Nazi organizers, the ACLU was just doing what they say they do. The mistake is to conflate the defense of liberties with the struggle for social justice. They are not the same thing, and we stymie our efforts to crush the racist far right—which we must—if we remain confined to a rights discourse.
In The Intercept on Monday, Glenn Greenwald made a reasonable point in defense of the ACLU, that “the least effective tactic [in response to an event like Charlottesville] is to try to empower the state to suppress the expression of their views.” What Greenwald left conspicuously absent, however, is that most anti-fascist “no platformers” are asking for no such thing.
We could argue for a reconfiguration of constitutional rights such that they are denied to intolerable speech, beyond the already existing statutes against incitement. An expansion of hate-speech statutes aiming to render illegal events like Unite the Right would not entail an immediate spiral into authoritarian censorship—Germany, France, and Hungary, for example, all have laws against certain Nazistic displays; in Germany, swastikas are illegal. These countries are no less “free” than America by virtue of this. But all three countries also have flourishing neo-Nazi scenes who don’t struggle (much like the American alt-right) to operate with veiled symbolism and euphemism when traditional symbols and affiliations are banned. The curtailing of existing rights is unlikely to be an effective bulwark against neo-Nazi, fascist organizing.