He Who Bans Nazis

There’s a lot that could be said about the Charlottesville tragedy1. The thing that strikes me the most is that people seem to have forgotten any sense of proportionality.

For example, several people in my social media circles posted this infographic, purporting to sketch an argument from Karl Popper2 that tolerant societies shouldn’t tolerate the intolerant:

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The cartoon is, well, cartoonish. It gets Popper’s argument mostly right, but leaves out some important nuance. When you see people quote Popper about this on the internet, you typically see this excerpt:

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Sometimes they will follow with this – from further down in the same paragraph:

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Obviously, Popper’s position on this is not mine – nor is it well aligned with American jurisprudence. Popper clearly thinks the government should be involved in policing opinions.

BUT – there’s an elided bit in the middle there that colors it a bit, and it reads like this:

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.

To me personally, this "but" doesn’t help – like at all – because I’m firmly of the conviction that policing people’s ideology is something the government should be forbidden to do – yes, even if they’re nazis or jihadists. But if you’re one of the people who shared the cartoon approvingly, or "like"d it when it was shared, this "but" is a big problem for you. What Popper is saying here, if I can paraphrase him fairly, is "an open society has this right (to ban expression of ideologies that pose a danger to it), but it should only exercise it as a last resort." Popper was not a cheerleader for banning dangerous opinions. This "but" is actually implicit in his name for the problem: "the paradox of tolerance." It’s a paradox in two ways – one stated, the other implied. Stated is "if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them." Which in turn implies that tolerance depends on a degree of intolerance for its survival; it must embrace its opposite to a degree. But to what degree?

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise.

"Only to the degree that is wise," in other words, where "wise" means something like "when tolerance itself is in danger."

It should be clear to everyone that the Alt-Reich marchers in Charlottesville do not constitute such a danger. They’re definitely "[kept] in check by public opinion." Even a lot of prominent voices in the Alt-Right have denounced them.

This is why it troubles me that so many people seem willing to pick this march as an excuse to sign off on banning naziism. I use the word "excuse" advisedly, because I think a part of them senses that they’re wrong. They need Popper’s words to legitimize what they’re doing, because the rational parts of their brains haven’t forgotten that intolerance in the name of tolerance is a contradiction in terms. Even to the extent they feel that reality demands a weakening in the principle of tolerance if that principle is to survive, they know that you can’t be tolerant by being enthusiastically intolerant. Put crudely, if the idea of banning nazis warms your heart and fills you with joy rather than regret and reluctance, you’re "doing tolerance wrong." The truly tolerant, in a situation like this, are more like a disappointed parent who has to discipline a misbehaving child, or like Travis shooting Old Yeller. In Popperian terms, you only pull the trigger of banning a group if you have to – never because you want to. Banning ideologies is never NOT a fascist impulse.

Antifa hasn’t killed anyone yet. Hopefully they never will. In that important sense, they’re better than the Nazis. But in another important sense, they’re worse – becuase unlike the couple hundred LARPers who showed up in Charlottesville to utterly fail to prevent the removal of the statue, Antifa has managed to shut down more than one lawful event this year alone. It’s fine to believe, as most people do, that Antifa is better than Nazis. But it’s really not fine to believe that Antifa is good, or that Antifa is helping. Like the "Democratic" in "German Democratic Republic," the "Anti-" in "Antifa" seems to be mostly ironic. These are people who dress in black, show up at events spoiling for a fight, and who decide unilaterally what speeches get held, who can participate in marches, etc. Whatever they are, they’re certianly not opposed to fascism.

If you find yourself cheering carve-outs in speech rights because one group of completely ineffective fascists got some press coverage that never would’ve happened if they hadn’t been ambushed by another somewhat more effective group of fascists, then whatever you are you’re not tolerant. You’re not reluctantly triggering the nuclear option because anyone had your back to the wall. Nope, you were looking for an excuse to do this, because at heart you’re the kind of person who likes to do this. And because it’s something you enjoy, it won’t stop with banning Nazis. Because sooner or later, you’re going to want that rush of dramatic righteousness again. And since we already know, from the fact that you’re willing to slap asterisks on the First Amendment for something as non-threatening as the lame-os in Charlottesville, that that rush is more important to you than legal rights, we have no reason to think you’ll ever stop. All the selective quoting of Karl Popper in the library isn’t ultimately going to hide what you are. We see you.


  1. By "tragedy" I mean specifically the death of Heather Heyer. This post, however, is about the larger context.

  2. In The Open Society and its Enemies vol. 1: The Spell of Plato.

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