Must we defend Nazis?

Must we defend Nazis?

Well, the esteemed New Yorker magazine stepped in it big time.

The editors thought it would be a great idea to have Steve Bannon onstage at their festival for a tête-à-tête.

Now, those of us who spend our filthy lucre subscribing to the New Yorker and supporting its reportage are fine with the magazine writing a piece on Bannon. We’re fine with them interviewing him, as we are certain that the reporter will hold him to account.

But this was The New Yorker’s yearly festival. This was different. This was giving this vile man a forum he didn’t deserve. This was giving him a platform which elevated him to a serious thinker whose ideas needed to be taken seriously.

Bannon is not a serious thinker. I hesitate to even call him a “thinker” of any sort. He is a proponent of an ideology whose express purpose is to do away with liberal democracy. His “thinking”, such as it is, is a threat to the very freedoms The New Yorker embodies. Debating such a person elevates his thoughts to a par with the ideals of this republic. It serves us nothing, but burnishes him in the glow of acceptability.

Must we defend Nazis? Must we, as good civil libertarians, now excoriate The New Yorker for cowardice in the face of a backlash against its invitation to Bannon?

This is a two-part answer.

Even Nazis, just as Communists, just as vanilla racists, have First Amendment rights. They have the right to spew their ideas without fear of government reprisal. As odious as Nazis marching down the streets of predominantly Jewish Skokie, IL, was, a government cannot deny such a permit to a political group. Likewise, a public university shouldn’t be able to deny its space to speakers some of its students deem to be offensive or illegitimate. If Ann Coulter wishes to speak at UC Berkeley, and meets all the requirements for an on-campus event, then the university, as a public entity, should not be able to ban her.

However, this doesn’t mean that these people should be free of the consequences of their free speech rights. So many on the right seem to believe that freedom of speech means freedom from consequences. That they can march with their tiki torches down a city street and not have to be confronted with righteous indignation and counter-demonstrations. That they can march in public and not face opprobrium from the society at large, including loss of employment when that employer wishes to not be identified with hatred. Ann Coulter can speak at Berkeley, and those who oppose her can organize to make her appearance as miserable as it can be.

Some speech is so vile, so antithetical to the foundations of a liberal democracy, that the tenets of a Socratic dialogue do not obtain. To debate a Nazi is to accord him an esteem he does not deserve. In his perfect world, open debate would be a distant memory. The same applies to a Communist. There are ideologies which use the openness of liberal democracies to subvert them. Ann Coulter can be offered a speaking engagement at Berkeley; and her opponents can organize to make her decide that such an engagement is not worth the bother.

And, of course, we now return to whether the New Yorker should have offered the invitation to Steve Bannon in the first place. Notice the examples I’ve cited: public institutions, which are bound by the broad parameters of the First Amendment. The New Yorker is under no such strictures. While such a journal should foster open debate of issues, it is under no obligation to give time at its signature festival to a man who wants to do away with such debate. Ideologies which wish to subvert the very freedoms they exploit should be denied oxygen as much as possible. If they want to mount a soap box in Central Park, that’s their right. They should have no expectation that they have a right to a rostrum on CNN.

Must we defend Nazis? Only to the extent that we defend our own freedom from government proscriptions on our speech. But as those who believe in a free and open society, metaphorically punching them is not only our right, but our duty.

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