No free speech for fascists!: “What’s Left?” August 2012, MRR #351

Is it just me, or have an inordinate number of well-known people died in 2012? Perhaps I’m just being overly sensitive to my own mortality, now that I’m 60, but damn, the names are racking up. And there seems to be more than your fair share of dead musicians on that list. There was Etta James, Whitney Houston, Michael Davis, Davy Jones, Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Adam Yauch, Kindred McCune, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Doc Watson, Bob Welch, Jef Leppard. and Pete Hayes (as of 6/27/12).

I’d like to focus on a particular individual who died recently, and this one wasn’t a musician. British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon died on May 9. His was an unusual and provocative life.

Vidal Sassoon was born on January 17, 1928 in the London borough of Hammersmith of Sephardic Jewish parents. His father died when he was three, and his mother was so poor that she put Vidal in a Jewish orphanage for seven years until she remarried and could afford to raise him. He apprenticed as a hairdresser as a teen, but was too young to serve in the second World War. Instead, he joined a secret association originally of Jewish combat veterans, the 43 Group, after the war. The founding forty-three British ex-servicemen had returned from fighting in Europe, often having witnessed the consequences of the Nazi Holocaust in the form of Jewish refugees and extermination camp survivors, only to encounter British fascists running rampant in England’s streets. Oswald Mosley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists had been banned by the government in 1940, with Mosley himself interned after 1943, but fascism returned after the war in the form of Jeffrey Hamm’s British League of Ex-Servicemen and Mosley’s reformed Union Movement. Both organizations engaged in provocative public meetings highlighted by antisemitic speeches inciting race hatred, not to mention violent physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property, primarily in London.

The members of the underground 43 Group eventually numbered in the hundreds, veteran and non-veteran, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. They attacked the public meetings of these fascist groups and broke them up, actively infiltrated these organizations and their chapters, and confronted the fascist rank-and-file in running street battles. Voluntarily disbanded in 1950, the 43 Group was succeeded in 1962 by the unrelated 62 Group, which carried on the former’s anti-fascist resistance, and in particular its tactic of anti-fascist street fighting. Thus, street-level resistance to fascism in Britain has a long and quite honorable tradition.

Vidal Sassoon battled the fash in London’s streets at 17, his weapon of choice, a pair of hair styling scissors. He went on to join, first the Zionist Haganah, and then the elite Palmach at age 20 to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948. Then he founded his international hairdressing empire, based on the success of his famous wedge bob haircut in the 1960s.

Before getting to the political point I wish to make, I need to discard a lot of ephemeral political junk. First off, let me say I’m no friend of Zionism or the State of Israel, nor will I take on Sassoon’s contribution to the displacement of the Palestinian people. In his later years he would express opposition to discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but he never openly expressed criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Also, let me state that I’m not going to have much to say about the left communist critique of anti-fascism, along the lines of Gilles Dauvé and others, which maintains that liberal democracy and totalitarian fascism are merely two faces of capitalism, and that instead of fighting fascism, we need to overthrow capitalism. This line of reasoning, as the example of Dauvé amply illustrates, can have the uncomfortable consequence of providing a circuitous back door into holocaust denial. My concern here will be the role of free speech in an ostensibly liberal democracy when confronted by internal totalitarian threats.

The 43 Group provides the initial dilemma. These were British Jews, initially all veterans, who had fought against fascism in Europe, and who had witnessed first-hand Nazism’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in the Final Solution. Upon returning home, these British Jewish veterans encountered individuals and organizations espousing a fascism and antisemitism no different from what they had fought against in Europe, and which they perceived to be a threat to their country’s democratic liberties as well as to their own lives and the lives of their fellow Jews. They decided that such political beliefs and political organizing would not stand, so they organized themselves to confront, to fight, and wherever possible, to smash these politics in the form of the individuals and organizations that proclaimed those politics. In so doing, the 43 Group clearly denied those fascist individuals and organizations their right to free speech.

One side claims that, in some cases, free speech must be denied in order to preserve freedom of speech, and that to allow totalitarian fascists who would destroy democracy to democratically organize is tantamount to suicide. The other side claims that these arguments are the equivalent of fucking for chastity, and that this is an expression of Orwellian doublespeak in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. Both sides have had their adherents on the American scene. William F. Buckley, arguably the founder of modern conservatism, once argued that, in a democracy, it was proper to ban those political organizations like the Communist Party that advocated totalitarianism and that, once in power by democratic means, would overthrow the very democracy it had used to gain power in the first place. However, Buckley’s anti-communism was so strident that he came to support various far right, anti-communist regimes, including Franco’s Spain and South Africa’s apartheid government, and formulated a sickening apology for Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The American Civil Liberties Union, by contrast, is an example of a free speech absolutism that broaches no abridgment of the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The ACLU has legally defended both the Communist Party (in flying the red flag in Stromberg v California) and the Nazi Party (in their march through Skokie, Illinois in Smith v Collin). But the ACLU has also defended the principle that money is speech in American politics, and subsequently sided with the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic Citizens United ruling overturning campaign finance regulation.

If I were to advance arguments from an ultraleft perspective, I might contend that free speech does not exist apart from the moment you struggle to assert your freedom of speech, or that action also equates to speech, or that it is necessary to go beyond democracy and democratic liberties. All of this can come off as pretty abstract and intellectual, when the underlying argument to the 43 Group is anything but. What if a group of people in society is openly advocating your murder, and the murder of people like you (Jews, blacks, women, punk rockers, whoever)? What’s more, what if wherever in the world people like those who want you dead have been allowed to organize and then have gotten into power, they have been true to their word and gone about executing people like you in campaigns of mass murder? What do you do? Do you allow them their free speech? Or do you stop them from speaking freely?

American jurisprudence makes a clear distinction between freedom of speech, which is guaranteed with varying degrees of regulation, and assault, of assault and battery, which is a crime. Assault, contrary to what the name implies, is the threat of violence, whereas battery is the actual, physical violence. Speech that threatens physical violence can be considered a crime, to be criminally prosecuted. Matters get complicated, however, when no direct threat of violence is made. In Britain after the second World War, Hamm and Mosley never openly said Hitler was right and that all the Jews should be exterminated. What they said, no doubt, was that the Jews run the media, own the banks and secretly rule the country; that the Jews are inherently evil, deceitful and predatory; that the Jews killed Jesus; that the Jews are responsible for capitalism’s blood sucking excesses, or Communism’s red terror, or both; that the Jews lied about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps; that the Jews are behind an international conspiracy bent on world domination. Hamm’s thugs and Mosley’s goons took their cue from their masters’ hateful diatribes, went on rampage after rampage, attacked Jewish shops and synagogues, and assaulted Jews in London’s streets. There is no direct threat of physical violence in the speech, but the speech invariably results in physical violence. There is a code imbedded in the speech, easily denied in public, but also easily understood by its followers.

Members of the 43 Group, Vidal Sassoon included, also understood the code. They didn’t bother to wait for overt expressions threatening physical violence. They took action intended to silence the British League of Ex-Servicemen and the Union Movement. Were they justified? An august MRR columnist and free speech absolutist like Mykel Board would probably say no. I say yes.

The floor is open. What do you say?

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