Last Friday, after the inauguration, Richard Spencer, a self-described proponent of white supremacy (note: Jews aren’t white, at least according to Spencer), and founder of the alt-right, was being interviewed. He was describing a lapel pin he proudly wears. It’s an image of a frog named Pepe. According to Wikipedia, “Beginning in 2016, this image has increasingly been appropriated as a symbol of the controversial alt-right movement. Because of the use of Pepe by the alt-right, the Anti-Defamation League added Pepe the Frog to their database of hate symbols in 2016, adding that not all Pepe memes are racist…”
Spencer was opining in his usual smug style. He talks in code words and innuendoes. He doesn’t raise his arm in the fascist salute when he’s in a mixed crowd. He keeps his act very sanitized in front of the general public. But make no mistake, this guy is dangerous. He manipulates the press and attempts to make his racist, antisemitic ideology seem, well, not that bad… Unless you’re a Moslem or a Jew or a person of color.
As Spencer went on with his interview, an anarchist dressed in black (they love to dress in black), walked over and punched Spencer upside his head. Spencer staggered as his assailant ran off. The whole thing was over in 5 seconds.
A short video of Spencer’s interview captured the punch. As of Wednesday, over 21/2 million people have watched it on Youtube. It has spawned remixes, setting the punch sequence to music.
I will admit to you that I am one of the people who clicked on the video. A few times. And I will further admit to you that I had no small amount of satisfaction watching this purveyor of hate get nailed. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I know only too well the lessons of what happens when there is not a serious resistance to hatred. I know what can happen when people say things like, “Oh please: Spencer is an aberration, a goof ball. You can’t take him seriously.”
I take Spencer at this word. I have no doubt that he is earnest in his desire to further the cause of white supremacy. The alt-right movement is not to be taken lightly. We are one of their prime targets.
Which leads to the ultimate question: is it okay, is it kosher, to punch a hatemonger, neo-Nazi? The calm, rational answer is that of course it’s not okay to attack anyone. After all, if you want to feel safe on the streets, you depend on a social contract stipulating that you can do or say anything as long as you’re not trespassing on someone’s property or physically threatening them.
But then the less rational side of me emerges. I watch this self-congratulatory white man speaking as if we don’t know the subtext of his remarks. I see images of those who stood silent as my grandparents were paraded down the streets of Berlin to the trains bound for Auschwitz. I see white crowds standing around a tree in the South, staring at a lynched black man’s tortured body hangs from a branch. I see a Moslem lawyer who graduated from Harvard being spat on because she wears a hijab as a statement of her faith.
It can’t be okay to see a hatemonger and do nothing. So maybe physical violence is the wrong way to respond. I know that is true. And yet… if someone had punched Hitler a few times, maybe he would’ve thought twice before speaking as he did. Not that Spencer is Hitler… He is, however, the putrid spawn of Naziism.
In the end, I cannot condone vigilante justice. I cannot bear the thought of an escalation of this event, from one anarchist punching one alt-right agitator in the head, to showdowns in the streets between the forces of good versus the forces of evil.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying turn the other cheek or it will all blow over. I am suggesting that we remain vigilant. I am suggesting that the alt-right is more than a flash in the pan. They and their racism are very real. I am not suggesting that a Holocaust is coming. I am explicitly saying that the phrase “never again” has become way too relevant. We must pay attention and speak out loudly and clearly lest a punch become our only alternative.