HARM Facebook page

Americans have nothing to learn from Nazis

Free speech exists to protect ideas worth discussing, not white supremacists

February 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 22, Jason Hammond accepted a noncooperating plea deal from prosecutors in Cook County, Illinois: He will serve 41 months for his role in an organized assault on a casual dining establishment in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park. On May 19, 2012, Hammond and 17 others stormed the Ashford House restaurant with bats and hammers, interrupting lunch and leaving 10 people injured. But instead of years in jail, America should perhaps consider sending Hammond a thank-you card.

He is not to be confused with his twin brother, Jeremy Hammond, who is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for hacking the security firm Stratfor. Jason Hammond is a member of the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement (HARM), an affiliation of Indiana militant anti-fascists. That day in May, the Ashford House was playing host to a meeting of the Illinois European Heritage Association, a not-so-subtle white nationalist group. Anti-fascist (antifa for short) groups like HARM are committed to disrupting neo-Nazis and organized white supremacists by any means necessary.

White supremacists have found a comfy home on Stormfront and other Internet forums, but a real movement requires in-person meetings. The Jason Hammonds of the world have made this very difficult for them. Whenever “race realists” plan to gather in public, the standard antifa operating procedure is to call the venues, inform them that the “heritage” groups they’re planning to host are actually bunches of neo-Nazis and give them the chance to cancel. Larger companies usually do; the 2010 American Renaissance national conference, for example, was forced out of the Sheraton and into a strip mall Bertucci’s. When venues agree to host despite the warning, antifascists find other ways to put a halt to white supremacist organizing.

Because of their militant tactics, antifa associations also end up doing a lot of prisoner support. Five other participants in the Tinley Park action agreed to similar pleas in January 2013, and all are now out on parole. When push comes to shove, the police are always willing to defend neo-Nazis in suits from anarchists in hoodies. You can host a fascist meet-up, but God forbid you try to stop it by breaking a window.

American liberalism prides itself on making space available for all, including white supremacists, as in the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg v. Ohio, which affirmed the Klan’s right to rally on public streets. But when liberalism protects white nationalists against those who seek to disrupt their vile, anti-liberal activities, what does our system hope to gain?

White nationalism has no kernel of truth for us to unearth through discussion and debate. In the marketplace of ideas, it’s strawberry-flavored rat poison.

The ostensible reason for this free speech for extremism is to keep the marketplace of ideas open. Any restrictions on the peaceful exchange of words leads to a chilling effect, and when we’re afraid to say what we think, the best ideas might die on cold tongues. Recent American history — especially the parts we’re proud of — is filled with unpopular ideas whose advocates struggled their way into the status quo. As prominent civil libertarian Cass Sunstein writes of free speech in his book “Why Societies Need Dissent,” “Better outcomes can be expected from any system that creates incentives for individuals to reveal information to the group.”

But liberals are making a category error: White supremacy isn’t a source of information; it’s among the most dangerous lies ever conceived. White nationalism has no kernel of truth for us to unearth through discussion and debate. In the marketplace of ideas, it’s strawberry-flavored rat poison. Fascism has nothing to offer, and we have zilch to gain from hearing out fascists. We may, however, have a lot to lose.

There’s no such thing as nonviolent Nazis. Their only role in a free society is planning to overthrow it. Liberalism asks that we treat speech the way the government does, remaining agnostic with regard to its content as long as it doesn’t incite imminent lawless action. The liberal argument goes that the answer to bad speech isn’t censorship or force but better speech. No matter that white nationalists are using the Constitution as cover to organize against the document’s declared values; the rules still protect them. There’s a lot of self-satisfaction in this pose, but it’s staggeringly vulnerable. Neo-Nazis pursuing an entryist strategy join the military and other state institutions, gaining access to training and recruitment opportunities and biding their time. In the event of social upheaval, white nationalists plan to be prepared.

Americans have no reason to be coy when it comes to white pride, yet we do act this way, as when 700 cops chaperoned 45 National Socialists on a 2005 walk through black neighborhoods in Toledo, Ohio. Is it too much to ask that our police — who aren’t given to such fits of liberalism when it comes to black people, Muslims and environmental activists — let the Nazis fight their own battles? If the famed slippery slope argument ends with the government monitoring everyone’s communication for hints of extremism, then we’re already at the bottom of the hill. There’s no liberty to be gained by dancing the public-sphere polka with white nationalists, whether they’re wearing loafers or jackboots. Anti-fascists like Jason Hammond don’t blind themselves to history or bind their hands with liberal tolerance. They know that now, as before, the swastika belongs under a hammer. As fascist elements organize, the violence required to confront and marginalize them only increases. As the antifa group One People’s Project puts it, “Hate has consequences.” Better to fight now.

So far, despite the heavy consequences for activists, the effort to isolate white nationalists is going well. As respectable European fascists wedge their way into the popular conversation (and occasionally The New York Times) their American comrades are floundering. Unable to hold their Bertucci’s territory, the 2015 American Renaissance conference will be in the middle of the Tennessee woods, at the only venue willing to host them: a state park.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter