A few thoughts in defense of antifa and the moral imperative to bash the fash: There are those on both the right and the left who, fond of blindly quoting Jefferson and Voltaire, will defend the right of Nazi scum, white supremacists, fascists, and Republicans—apologies for the poetic redundancy there—to spew the sort of despicable vitriol we all saw yesterday in Virginia under the banner of free speech. “There can be no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech,” as Cato wrote, a line repeated by Benjamin Franklin, and which has been inscribed in the U.S. House of Representatives—yet the very next sentence in Cato’s letter is too oft ignored: Free speech “is the right of every man [sic], as far as by it, he [sic] does not hurt or control the right of another.”
It is the latter part of the quotation that matters today. It is the second part that was tested yesterday in Charlottesville: Not the free speech of individuals who we (should and most do) disagree with, but the effort by them to curtail the liberty of the oppressed. There is no such thing as a free society without freedom of speech—for good reason, it is the first article protected in our Bill of Rights—yet without freedom among citizens, without that fundamental equality of people that supposedly is self-evident, there can be no free speech, either.
What is made plain as day by the relatively peaceful police response yesterday when compared to the horrible treatment of demonstrators at Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock, and elsewhere, is how PoC still today, in 2017, lack the essential liberties, the basic rights of speech and assembly, that white folk enjoy and take for granted every day. Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, Queer Americans: Our fellow Americans, burdened by the long history of oppression and disenfranchisement that characterizes our country’s history, as well as it’s current political cesspool, simply do not possess the same right to free speech as white (and male) Americans like myself. This is an structural inequality rooted deep within our country. To quote another of our illustrious founders, John Adams: “When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.”
Well it has been a couple hundred years since Adams wrote those words to Jefferson, and we have certainly inched closer in many respects to the ideals of true democracy, liberty, and equality. Yet, as was on display yesterday, our country and our citizens still have great distances to go till we reach those dreams. That is why the hatred and ignorance in Virginia is not simply a matter of free speech. That is why the impotent rage of white supremacists to protect their social position are not even remotely comparable to the real struggle of minorities and the oppressed to gain their equal footing. That is why this is not a many-sided issue, as our idiotic and traitorous pumpkin-headed POTUS claims. The racist ideologues who have long been in power and who still today maintain control of our so-called democratic republic should never be allowed to denounce or deny or decry the rights of the powerless and vulnerable.
To use one’s own privilege to refuse the political and social equality of the disadvantaged is immoral in the extreme. That is not free speech; that is mere violence, and should be met with its equal and opposite reaction (to stick with the Newtonian episteme of our founders). Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, writing during the infant years of our nation: “Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.”