One of the downsides of living in a world of unabashed racists is living in a world of unabashed anti-racists. It is difficult to imagine an easier banner to wave, a lighter ideology to shoulder, and a more readily cheered set of slogans than “f*ck fascism!” and “no racists in Charlottesville!” One begins to suspect a secret love for fascists nestled in the glee with which counter-protesters protest, in the excitement with which anti-racists rally — in the veritable party atmosphere in which good liberals tweet out their moral truisms. The alt-right saves a vague and watery Left from their own mediocrity; they don skulls, whip up Nazi logos, and zig heil with quasi-liturgical buffoonery. They take on the costume of The Bad Guys, freeing an apathetic, unradical Left to become The Good Guys. Liberals wake to find themselves crowned and canonized into the Resistance, the Rebellion, and all the heroes of the Star Wars franchise.
We all know the most effective means of annihilating a social movement fueled on tiki-oil and constant media attention — resist within yourself the blossoming urge for retaliation. Let the rallies of rage convene on squares and parks so empty that their epithets echo off indifferent walls, returning to their makers like shamefaced children crawling back to their mothers, having found in the real world a cold, uncaring place. The enemy quite literally dresses up and dances to pyrotechnics. They could no more survive an onslaught of being-ignored than a glam rock band could survive without ticket sales.
But the ethics of non-retaliation is a way of overcoming violence and evil that brings no earthly glory — no likes, no points, and no public recognition of righteousness. Media companies make no cash and would-be radicals get no online-affirmation. No one hears or knows that the KKK stood on this or that lawn, because all of those who passed them turned the other cheek, muttering those horrible words of St. Paul:
Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For in so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
The coals of non-retaliation would melt away the theatrics of our racist, click-dependent neighbors faster than any violent counter-protest. These are not the klan members of the past, with widespread support and practical, unjust goals that need to be brought to the light and staunched by a street brawl. These are mixed bag of racists lead by self-described “white nationalists” who want to make a “safe space” for Europeans — a vicious, whiny micro-minority who want nothing more than the eyes of the nation glued to their antics. Their victory is in their display. It normalizes their presence to a populace trained to accept the morally odious as another segment of opinion, a part of the “open public square” of tolerant, democratic liberalism — if only we become used to seeing it on TV. If we wanted the actual, practical outcome that our slogans suggest — “no racists in Charlottesville” — we would not lend them our attention and the attention of the world, in whose eager gaze they puff with pride.
“Righteous anger” seeks justice for the oppressed. I have no doubt that counter protesters carried this virtue through the streets of Charlottesville, my high-school home-town. But “righteous anger” is usually soaked through with an anger that seeks, not justice, but recognition. This anger needs an enemy, finding in him a perverse source of meaning, affirmation, and identity. This anger wants a fight. I wasn’t there, but this is what I saw in the videos and pictures spiraling out of the tragedy in Charlottesville: in the face of the enemy, we do not turn the other cheek — we imitate. The fascists have their shirts — the anti-fascists have their own. The racists chant “f*ck you faggots” — the anti-racists chant “f*ck you racists.” We say we are against them, but we attend their parties with devotion, match their screams with passion. We enter into what Rene Girard called the process of mimetic violence, in which we slowly become like unto our enemies, descending into that final sameness that wrath always produces — two animals with the same snarling face, trying to punch the other guy.
We give our enemies the anger they need to survive; they give us the anger we want in order to be someone. Even the less violent counter-protesters stand around and film them, spreading the violent spectacle for gossipy, excited, horrified participation the world round. Is it any surprise that the events’ organizers are excited to come back to Charlottesville for a bigger round? Is it any surprise that the antifa heroes of our age are salivating at the possibility? An Atlantic article about America’s new “politicized fight culture” quoted an antifa journal editor who about sums up the problem: “this shit is fun,” he said. One assumes that the organized brawlers of the Unite the Right campaign thought the same. This mutual enjoyment was noted by an onlooker in Charlottesville: “Both sides are hoping for a confrontation.”
If justice is “fun,” you’re probably not practicing justice. If works of justice fulfill elemental passions within you, then your works of justice probably don’t precede according to reason and universal politics.
There is a time for fighting in the streets. If we are no longer talking about display and identity-politics; no longer fueling the process of media attention and normalization; if, that is, the enemy approaches our city with some practical, evil end, then justice demands you stop them — with fist and firearm, sure. But a self-indulgent love of violence which grants attention to the attention-seeking, money to the media companies, and satisfaction to our passions — it isn’t even radical. It supports the position of the State as what Max Weber called the “monopoly on legitimate violence,” that is, as the referee who always stands ready to step in when things get too scary; the parent whose violence is a sovereign violence. This was the legitimate complaint out of Charlottesville — that the police stood by. But is this the kind of world we want? A world in which it falls on a police state to protect us from the outcomes of our own violence?
If radicals wanted to hurt the white nationalists in a practical, lasting way they would, at every racist “march,” protest and shut down the local operations of the big media corporations who milk hate for cash, impose a self-inflicted social-media blackout on themselves, and protect the poor and weak — vigilant for any plans of injustice that require violent defense. They would organize quietly, locally, in and through their actual communities, and long before any particular “march,” rather than descending upon whichever town has been marked out as the current “battle ground.” As it stands, the racist right is energized by the current tactics of their opposition, and sees them an overall gain to their cause; the radical left seems to be enjoying the opportunity for unambiguous, violent heroism. An escalating, violent TV special is all but assured.
This is American politics once Christianity is really dead and buried. The worst part about being Christian is that you have to give up being cool. When I am honest with myself, I am often disappointed with the message of the Gospel, which so clearly bans a love of violence and saps the “fun” out of self-righteous reaction. There is no detestable slice of humanity “bad enough” for me to wreak vengeance upon. But there is a wisdom here, a wisdom growing increasingly obscure in a post-Christian age: Be radically unlike the enemy. Refuse to imitate their violence. Burn down your gleeful passions and serve as a stop-gap and a fire-road against the escalating spread of violence that always produces sacrificial victims. “Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14) “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing” (1 Peter 3:9) “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the LORD, and he shall save thee.” (Proverbs 20:22) There is a program for practical action here, one which nips the aspirations of racists and fascists in the bud. May we cease ignoring it.