Against Provocation: a Roundabout Response to John Sanford Friedrich
by Eric Kroczek
On Inauguration Day 2017, a meme was born. Actually many memes were born that day, but the ones I’m thinking of featured noted white supremacist Richard B. Spencer getting punched in the jaw as he was giving a typically oleaginous response to an interviewer’s question about his Pepe the Frog lapel pin. His attacker, a masked, black-clad individual, escaped on foot as quickly as he had entered the camera’s frame. The Internet went wild, or at least the left half of it did. Everyone suddenly had an opinion about the morality, ethics, aesthetics, and optics of punching a Nazi. Was it always wrong? Was it usually wrong, but sometimes tactically or strategically justified? Was it okay in most cases? Or was it always just totally fucking awesome?
I offer my mea culpa: My first reaction to the video was to laugh harder than I had laughed all week. Then I ran into the other room to show my wife, who attests that I said (or yelled) something along the lines of, “Oh my God! This is so fucking cathartic! I feel so much better!” So, in the case of this particular assault, I admit I was firmly and earnestly in the “fucking awesome” camp. Or maybe earnestly isn’t the right word: I am a natural-born iconoclast. My heroes include Paul Krassner and Noël Godin; nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see a pompous, hateful gasbag get a chuckle-worthy comeuppance. I was sure my enthusiasm for watching Spencer get clocked (and watching it again, and again, and again) wasn’t about the violence—I doubted I could have stomached watching him get shot, or stabbed, or stomped; in fact, I was sure I would have been horrified by it. It was the justice of it! I was taken up in the completely unexpected—that was what made it so funny!—humbling of an arrogant race-baiter who believes he is so superior, merely by virtue of his race, to so many people—entire classes and categories of people—that he gets to decide whether those people should be allowed to coexist with superior beings like himself. My laughter was the laughter of the just, watching justice get meted out to the unjust.
But within 24 hours I wasn’t so sure of myself anymore, and after another 24 I was deeply confused and conflicted, and in 24 more my mind had changed completely. I questioned my most basic motives and feelings. This had less to do with the attack on Spencer itself than on the dynamic that was occurring on the Internet, around the meme (or memes—there were dozens, hundreds of them now) of Richard B. Spencer getting punched. Richard B. Spencer was no longer Richard B. Spencer, tiresomely proselytizing neo-Nazi nobody, or Richard B. Spencer, hapless butt of a good prank, or even both of those things put together. Richard B. Spencer was now a celebrity. Richard B. Spencer was a symbol of our left-wing righteousness and victimhood (“We showed him!”), and of their right-wing righteousness and victimhood (“Leftist violence and censorship! The horror!”). Richard B. Spencer was, in other words, blood in the water, exciting everyone’s most antisocial instincts. All because three elements came together in one time and place: Provocateur A (Spencer), Provocateur B (his assailant), and, of course, a video camera. (The camera is, as always, important.)
This brings us back to that time and place: Inauguration Day, downtown Washington, D.C. This is where John Sandford Friedrich begins his essay “The New Age of Political Protest,” a defense of so-called “Black Bloc” protesters. It is incorrect, Friedrich informs us (and I take him at his word, as he has spent considerable time among some of them), to think of Black Bloc as an organized group, but rather as individuals sharing a common set of tactics and—perhaps—goals. The tactics he mentions include wearing bandanas or balaclavas to disguise identity and maintain anonymity, staying mobile and loose within the group to allow individuals to “leave the bloc and perform a direct action as they see fit” while evading capture, setting off fireworks, breaking windows and causing other types of property damage and destruction (video of the protest shows trash cans being set ablaze), and generally wreaking havoc and causing chaos. It’s probably reasonable to assume that the man who punched Richard B. Spencer identified as Black Bloc; he certainly used their tactics.
Friedrich is a bit hazy as to their goals, except insofar as those goals are coterminous with their tactics; he admits that “[p]erhaps the Black Bloc mentality has become detached from specific causes”. And a few lines earlier, he notes that “[t]o break the window of a corporate person as political theatre is to face multiple years of incarceration.” (I’ll come back to that last part.) I detect here the existential frustration of atomized, decontextualized individuals struggling to find meaning and agency, and isn’t that practically the definition of the human subject under neoliberal capitalism? (I could write another, much longer essay about that.) But I sense that insofar as there is a point to the mayhem—besides mere retaliatory spite against a machine that grinds societies into lonely naked particles—it is a cathartic and theatrical one. It is Art of the Spectacle, it is Theater of Cruelty.
Friedrich hints at this when he says that Black Bloc activists are less concerned with advancing a political agenda than committing acts of violence against property as “political theatre”; that they are “more akin to Civil War re-enactors” than political activists. He does cite a recent documented instance in which a Ku Klux Klan rally was cancelled due to the presence of several hundred Bloc counter-protesters—an interesting case of Left political theater preempting Right political theater before the curtain even rises. But that case seems to be the exception, not the rule.
Much more often, violence erupts, although as Friedrich points out, it is usually violence against property, not persons. And he gives a fair argument in favor of this approach: peaceful protesters (who Friedrich characterizes—with a hint of derision—as “overtly feminine”) who do things like chain themselves to pipelines, fences, and earth-moving equipment to make a point are often charged with serious crimes and go to prison; if you’re risking imprisonment no matter how you protest, why not make a spectacle and have some fun? It is a slightly more humane version what conservative thinker Allan Bloom characterized as “joy of the knife” logic: when the deracinated, disfranchised individual is faced with a conundrum whose only solutions are forbidden by social norms—like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, like Nietzsche’s “Pale Criminal,” like Brecht’s Mackie Messer—his only way out is “to see what the volcano of the id will spew forth.” Act disruptively, and—if you want to be noticed at all—act bigly, and in front of a camera. Provocation becomes violence, becomes self-actualization, becomes a kind of meaning, becomes art.
This all sounds a lot to me like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, which, if I remember correctly, was about a mild-mannered fellow whose self-alienation ran so deep that his psyche constructed another, more “masculine” persona around his id, a persona who built a fascistic army of atomized individuals who went around sowing very dramatic, very telegenic mayhem. And that didn’t end well. As Susan Sontag wrote, quoting Genet in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism”: “Fascism is theater.” It is certainly theater of a particular species, and that species bears a remarkable resemblance to Black Bloc.
So it’s obvious that my initial response to the video of the assault on Richard B. Spencer was not rational or considered. What’s less obvious, but became clear to me with time, is that it wasn’t even fully emotional—by which I mean it contained no curiosity, no sympathy, no empathy. Oddly, I think it contained little real hate, at least at first—by which I mean that to feel hatred toward someone there needs to be an emotional context, a history. When I first saw the video, Richard B. Spencer was nothing to me other than “Oh, yeah, that idiot who elicited Nazi salutes by saying ‘Hail Trump!’ in a video I saw two months ago.” He was a provocateur, and what I felt was more simple than hatred. It was sensational, reactive, a reptilian-brain response to sudden, violent spectacle. I laughed because I was provoked; I partook of a vicarious joy of the knife.
A different kind of theater happened the day after Inauguration Day, a “peaceful, overtly feminine” theater, Friedrich would say: the spectacle of millions of women in solidarity all over the world, crowding city squares and parks in protest. Unlike Black Bloc, they came openly, making no attempt to conceal their identity. No property was damaged. No one was hurt. Not a single arrest was made. But a point was made—This will not stand—and the world took notice. Whereas the D.C. Black Bloc disruptions of the previous day seemed to consist mostly of handfuls of protesters knocking over newspaper vending machines, shattering the windows of a few businesses, and standing around trying to ignite trash cans, while far larger groups of police, National Guardsmen, legal observers, and reporters stood around waiting for something truly newsworthy to happen—Sad!—the Women’s March protests were remarkable for their dignity and self-possession. Maybe more to the point, they were noteworthy for their sheer numbers, the brute fact that such a large portion of our polity (and even large numbers of people in other countries!) participated in or supported an act of explicitly political protest. They said: This is what democracy looks like. This is what the citizenry in solidarity looks like. We are watching our government. Take notice. Whoa.
The United States is a profoundly conservative polity. By “conservative” I don’t mean in the sense of Red State conservative or Fox News conservative, but in the sense that our most venerated and salient traditions can be found in the text of two documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and we fiercely believe in and defend those texts, or think we do. We have no state religion. We have few legends or myths that transcend a particular region of the country or a certain ethnicity, aside from the idea that anyone is welcome here who comes in goodwill, that one can prosper here. These universal myths have worn thin, certainly, but they are still held as true by most Americans. It is difficult, probably impossible, to convince a majority of voting-age Americans that it is in their best interest to align themselves with the aims of anonymous and often violent provocateurs who break windows, even if those windows belong to corporations that do public harm. Another of our handful of universal myths is that everyone has the right to own property and hold it safe.
Black Bloc tactics may convince some of the young and the dispossessed, but ultimately, unfortunately, it is the older, propertied class that holds the majority, that votes in numbers, that needs convincing of whatever of the Left’s aims they might be willing to accept. This requires slow work, a gradual warming of the water, for they are deeply skeptical of the new. The vast Center of the country is not amused by political spectacle, by joy-of-the-knife-by-proxy, by the politics of provocation. They see it as an existential threat to their version of the American founding myths. Yet they might still be convinced by knowing that we are their neighbors, that we are legion, that we come in peace and empathy, but we stand firm by our principles.