U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An intellectual genealogy of a punch

To those who might not know, I lived most of my life in Israel/Palestine. Thus I am quite familiar with how a seemingly marginal site of conflict can become worldwide news. I have also often had to explain this dynamic to people, both in the US and Israel/Palestine and elaborate why I do not buy the all-too-easy anti-Semitism argument—that a ubiquitous hatred for Jews leads the world to scrutinize the Jewish state far beyond the attention it really warrants. The answer once you think about is quite simple: context. To understand why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict attracts more attention than many other larger or more bloody conflicts we need to appreciate its symbolism; the “work” that it does for people still engaged with the struggle over colonialism and its heritage. It has become a flashpoint for the billions still reeling from or still under colonialism, on the one hand, and for the hundreds of millions attempting to legitimize their positions of power in the West, on the other hand. It’s not only that many in the West cultivate an affinity to Israel as a settler-colonial society, and many who oppose colonialism share strong affinities with Palestinians, it is also that Israel/Palestine is in some ways a well-worn issue for which the two sides have dug deep trenches and find it compelling for symbolic reasons to take to these trenches every time the opportunity arises. And of course that three different religions find the land itself sacred adds much fuel to the fire.

A similar thing happened just the other week when an anarchist punched the suddenly infamous white supremacist, Richard Spencer, in the face. Caught well by cameras, it quickly became a cause célèbre for many, while raising deep concern and even disgust for others (I should confess that I was part of the former). When compared to the news of burnt mosques, drone bombings in Yemen, or mass protests, it seems like a very minor affair, but it quickly became a hot topic for debate on a national scale. As someone who bounced around several activist communities, I immediately knew what the line of significant portions of the activist community would be regarding the punch. The trenches have been dug long ago and most activists knew exactly—by instinct even before they intellectualized it—where they fit in, what the symbolism meant, and what the stakes were. In this vein, I thought it would be worthwhile—and hopefully even interesting to some—to lay out the intellectual milieu of the “the punch.” For as much as the punch really happened to Spencer, its more crucial existence surely lies in the realm of the meme it became and the signifiers under which it has been organized.

As I see it there are two often-merging axes of contention that the punch seems to invoke for so many. The first is the question of the role of the state in society and the second—and related—contested issue is of course the fraught problem of violence. Another way to put these two focal points of disagreement is: where one stands on the role of police in our society and the second and related question is best captured by where one stands on the teachings of Franz Fanon. Those who have no faith whatsoever in the police usually exhibit a broader tendency to regard the state, as we know it, as illegitimate. Any collaboration with the state in this case should be highly scrutinized, and though perhaps at some point your political analysis will suggest to you that employing the avenues set forth by the state proves more useful than not using them, you certainly steer clear of the police, which are the de-facto state apparatus of repression and the shock troops of the ruling classes who control the state.

The second question of the role of violence in struggle is certainly linked with the first question, but it adds more nuance to these positions and evokes even stronger feelings on both sides of the divide. Indeed the place of violence, both as an abstraction and in discussions of protests’ tactics, has been hotly contested as many on both sides seem to fetishize either nonviolence or violence. What I have noticed over the years is that many of these arguments seem to revolve around the work of Franz Fanon. I want to make clear, that I don’t think Fanon fetishized violence, but many who do have been influenced by his texts, tending to apply them to most given situations.

A few years ago for example when a group of students here at UC Davis—following the success of the Occupy movement and the famous pepper spray incident—decided to occupy a university building things soon unraveled after the more radical subgroup of them decided to hang a banner boasting a pro-violence Fanon quote off the building. There was no real discussion of any action and there was no reason to think that violence would be required, but a community I thought had become tight-knit over the last few months quickly frayed into, for lack of better terms, opposing groups of “hippies” and “anarchists.” While the former group decided that they could not occupy the building so long as the banner remained up there, the latter group insisted that anyone who denied the legitimacy of violence was counterrevolutionary and hacks of the bourgeoisie. What saddened me most about this incident was that it was wholly unnecessary given that the discussion and disagreement were about abstract principles rather than specific practical discussions of tactics.

Though it lends itself to a much more concrete discussion of tactics, the disagreement over the punch usually also invokes abstract principles. Indeed, that is why it has become such a focal point for debate in the first place. Those who oppose it express general faith in the democratic system and an abhorrence for violence in general—certainly when it is outside of the law. They also usually fetishize freedom of speech as an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. By contrast, many supporters of the punch have organized their very subjectivity around opposition to what they regard as a liberal schema. To them the state as we know it—a formulation that allows both statists and anti-statist leftists to unite on this front—had been compromised from its very inception. Thus many have no qualms about working outside the contours of legal legitimacy. Furthermore, since many of them fetishize violent resistance, they rally to the cause of violence regardless of other considerations.

Put in this light there is a curious symmetry between the two oppositional types of fetish. Between certain strands of the left and mainstream liberal convictions. On the one hand stand those who fetishize both not using the state under any circumstances and violent resistance, and on the other hand we find a much larger group that fetishize both non-violence and free speech. I would like to suggest that from this perspective the Aristotelian golden mean, the reasonable, middle way, position is not the one usually instinctively assumed by liberals, but a position that regards both violence and non-violence, as well as free speech and the apparatus of the state, as legitimate tactics insofar as the end it produces is a more just society. Liberals have for too long claimed to be the reasonable adults, and certain groups of leftists have developed a knee jerk response to anything that smacks of liberalism. Instead, it is the practical leftists in the mode of Antonio Gramsci that tend to be the most reasonable. Perhaps the best spokesperson in the United States for this form of leftist activism is Frances Fox-Piven, who has long called for a combination pragmatism and radicalism (this recent piece is a good example of her notion of praxis).

Finally, I would like to argue that punching an avowed white supremacist in an unrelenting effort to undermine the legitimacy of fascism in public discourse seems both tactically useful and reasonable.