When is it OK to punch a Nazi in the throat?

Dear Good People,

I believe you when you say you are good people who do not condone violence or racial hatred. I believe you when you say you detest white nationalism and, as Tom Cotton put it, the “contemptible little men” who carry torches for trampled Reichs and Lost Causes.

I believe you when you say your motives are pure and that in November’s election you voted with the best interests of your country at heart. I understand that we sometimes have to choose between what we consider poor options and that there is much confusing and contradictory information loose in the world. It is hard to know who to trust and it is getting harder.

When people you look up to–like your governor and your congressman and your senators, like famous preachers–tell you the best thing for America is to vote for this man famous for playing a boss on television, that despite his crude manners and sometimes ugly rhetoric he represents the best way forward, I don’t blame you for weighing those words carefully. But seven months in, you probably understand the truth: Those people knew better but decided to support the ambitions of a corrupt and unfit candidate because they reasoned the harm his presidency would do America would be offset by what they personally attained.

That was a cynical calculation that those men and women will have to live with for the rest of their political lives. It will always be fair to remind Americans that they chose to support this nihilistic nonsense, that they calculated their short-term political gains worth more than America’s moral capital. They knew this president was a bad man, but they told you he was OK.

I can see how you might have discounted a lot of what was written and said about the man. Because capitalism is a rough sport, every businessman is liable to make enemies. Because sex makes a muddle of us all, some people lead messy personal lives. Most of us are willing to make allowances for human frailty and, contrasted with the sniffy hypocrisy of most would-be political leaders, his earthiness and apparent candor might have seemed refreshing. All of us are tired of grand but empty words.

I also understand some of you believe the only issue in any presidential race is the sort of Supreme Court appointments a candidate is likely to make. That was my chief criteria too, because I believed the larger part of our politics was an argument over which lobbyist got dibs on which ear. Most of the time we argue over small things, like the proper rate of the capital gains tax.

But things are different now. To abuse an idea offered by T Bone Burnett, who was talking about music at the time, people have figured out how to sell politics to people who don’t really like politics by making it a personality-driven sport, yet another form of entertainment.

So now, instead of arguing about things like when it’s appropriate to punch a Nazi in the throat, we’re arguing about whether some Nazis are “fine people” or not.

I never thought I’d have to declare myself on this point, but here goes: You cannot be a Nazi and a fine person. The two are mutually exclusive.

And you cannot march with–or stand with–Nazis and expect a nuanced parsing of your motives. If you’re with the Nazis, you’re a Nazi. If you defend the Nazis, you’re a Nazi defender. Captain America might punch you in the throat last, but he’d still punch you in the throat unless you got down on your knees and cried and promised that you weren’t really a hateful person but just concerned about the imminent erasure of your white heritage by the powerful forces of political correctness.

Who am I kidding? If you tried that, Cap would probably kick you in the head after he punched you in the throat.

Now some of you good people–who are definitely not Nazis, not at all–might be wondering if the president didn’t have the smallest little seed of a point when he said that “both sides” deserve some blame for the violence last weekend in Charlottesville. Well, maybe.

There is a left-wing movement that identifies as “antifa”–short for anti-fascist. Some of these folks were among the counter-protesters in Charlottesville, and some of them (probably) punched some Nazis in the throat. Which might not have been appropriate or nice, but given the leadership vacuum in the White House and among our elected officers might be understandable. I’m generally sympathetic to people who want to punch Nazis in the throat, even if, from a pragmatic point of view, I’m not sure it’s the best tactic.

Maybe it’s better to turn your back on the Nazis and ignore them. Maybe it’s better for public officials to say, “No, we’re sorry, we’re not going to issue a hate group a permit to march, and if you do march then we’re going to have the police arrest you for causing a public disturbance.”

On the other hand, maybe you can cure someone of Nazism by punching them in the throat. A whole lot of Nazis seem to regret that people noticed they were acting like Nazis. Maybe the best thing for a Nazi is the sort of tough love a short quick jab to the larnyx might provide.

I don’t know about that, good people. But I do think these are the sort of discussions Americans should be having.

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Editorial on 08/20/2017