Fighting Fire with FIRE

No matter how bad the news is these days, the most dispiriting part of every story is usually the comment sections. It’s not just the depressing proof of how very illiterate are the products of our public schools, but the constant reminders of how very rude and red-hot angry and ready to rumble our politics have become.
On Saturday we came across a short item in National Review’s “The Corner” section about how a group clad in “Make America Great Again” ball caps and similarly opinionated t-shirts had shouted down a pair of liberal speakers speakers at California’s Whittier College with chants of “lock him up,” “build that wall,” and “respect our president.” It wasn’t the scariest story we read over a weekend of dreary news, but it did strike us as a disturbing development. Such thuggishness has long been common on the left, which has all too frequently resorted to even more violent behavior to deny the free speech rights of conservative speakers and those who would like to hear them, but it has also long been a point of pride on the right that our side doesn’t stoop so low, and it’s hard to admit it now does.
Our fellow old-fashioned conservatives at the venerable National Review had the same reaction, as did the invaluable conservatives at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which first reported the story. FIRE usually reports on the more common attempts by the left to stifle free speech on campuses, and the all too frequent violence that occurs, but they’re principled enough to have document the same sort of thuggishness on the right. We’d like to think that most of our fellow Republicans are also offended, but the comments sections make clear that some are quite ready to fight it out in the streets with full late-Weimar Republic gusto.
By now we’re inured to hearing such sentiments from the callers on the more histrionic talk radio shows, but it’s still unsettling to see them in the comments section of such a high-brow right-wing rag as National Review.
Some of the commenters hopefully speculated that it was actually left-wingers shutting down the liberals in a “false flag” operation to discredit the right. Although most right wing speculation about “false flag” mass shootings and such is pure crazy talk, there have been documented cases of occasional lefties stirring up trouble at otherwise peaceable conservative gatherings while dressed as Nazis, but in this case FIRE has videotape showing some pretty convincingly middle-aged angry white guys even Hollywood’s best casting agent would have been hard-pressed to find, and few were buying that line.
More common were the comments that it’s about time the right started to resorting to the left lowest tactics. “Fight fire with fire” was a recurring cliche, and the more recently popular “punch back twice as hard” came up. Some thuggish leftists have been doing the same thing and even worse for quite a while now, the argument goes, and the left seems to be winning everything lately except for the White House and the Senate and the House of Representatives of most of the statehouses, ergo the right should do the same. This is most unconvincing to such old-fashioned Republican sensibilities as ours, which at our age have no taste for street-brawling, but certain segments of both the left and the right are itching for an escalation.
We’d like to think that most of the Democrats would also prefer a maximum of free speech and a minimum of street-brawling, and the more venerable liberal news sources seem to agree, so the problem of giving a controversial speech in a public square is probably for now manageable, but a certain combativeness as already infected the mainstream of politics. Democrats who look back wistfully on President Barack should acknowledge his rhetoric about bringing guns to knife fights and jump-starting that “punch back twice as hard” cliche, and all those conservative speakers who have shut down, but Republicans should acknowledged by the abandoned the high ground with President Donald Trump cease from all assaults on free speech.
Except for that unpleasantness in the early 1860s and a few notable labor disputes and race riots, America always has almost always worked out even its most heated arguments with maximal free speech and minimal street brawls, and what with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down we should be able to keep that streak going. For now, at least, let us fight with water.

— Bud Norman