When Richard Spencer, a controversial figure of the “Alt-Right,” was punched in the face during a television interview earlier this year, the Left cheered the assault, and turned video of the attack into gleeful memes. “The only good thing that happened [at Donald Trump’s Inauguration] was when suit-owner and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was socked in the head by the new masked hero of Gotham,” wrote Jordan Sargent at Billboard Music’s Spin.com. For a movement populated by pacifists and peaceniks, the Left’s justification of the violence against Spencer came surprisingly easy.
Then, last Friday, when two protestors disrupted a disturbing production in Central Park of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which a Trump look-alike is assassinated, the Right rushed to defend the hecklers’ actions. Opponents of the play also threatened other producers of Shakespeare summer plays (which were unrelated to the New York production), wishing them “the worst possible life,” hoped they “all get sick and die” and that they should be “sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.” Apparently, it made no difference to conservative protestors that the offending play, disgusting as it might be, represents speech protected by the Constitution, or that only weeks before those same conservatives were criticizing U.C. Berkeley for shutting down offensive speakers.
Between two sides growing increasingly less rational in responding to all manner of political and social issues, last week’s shooting spree by a single, hate-filled individual against Republican congressmen and staff personnel came not so much as a shock as a sad commentary on the state of politics in America.
Following the attack on Republican members of Congress, pundits and politicians quickly rushed to blame “hate” and “vitriol” for the toxic environment in which an individual would be motivated to use violence for political purposes. This was the very same “analysis” offered to explain the attempted assassination of Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011.
While there certainly is far too much incivility in today’s political discourse, pinning political violence on inflammatory speech misses the forest for the trees. The root problem is not hate, or even emotion, but the abandonment of logic and reason as underpinnings of American society, which leaves only violence to fill the vacuum.
But it goes far deeper than politics. Everywhere you look today, from flying on planes, to ordering coffee, violence has supplanted rational behavior in our interpersonal dealings. A major factor underlying this phenomenon is social media, which inflates the self-importance of its users, and provides them convenient cover from having to actually explain their views on any particular issue. This process is made worse as social media encourages the use of over-the-top rhetoric, with people “virtue signaling” to others about how much they care, rather than using logical arguments that may be less passionate but more substantive.
Combine this phenomenon with the waning respect for constitutional rule of law, and we are left with groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum who believe their views are correct, their actions are justifiable if not moral, and that nothing else – not logic, reason, or even the rule of law – should stand in their way of achieving their perception of the public good. It is why Leftist “Antifa” thugs use fascist tactics to shut down enemies they call “fascist.” It is why conservatives who decry speech suppression on college campuses defend shutting down public theater performances with which they disagree. And, it is why a man would think a killing spree of congressmen is a reasonable act when letters to the editor failed to elicit the response he desired.
Philosopher and renowned writer Ayn Rand, who witnessed first-hand the brutality of Communism, understood well this terrifying balance between reason and violence. “There are only two means by which men can deal with one another,” wrote Rand. “Guns or logic. Force or persuasion. Those who know that they cannot win by means of logic, have always resorted to guns.” We saw her prescient warning come true on a practice ball field in Alexandria just one week ago. There will be more.
Either we seize this moment of recognition, and consciously do all we can to return reason to center stage in America’s culture; or we enter what promises to be a very long, dark night – the “darkness” of which Ronald Reagan spoke in 1964, and at which time he launched the Twentieth Century’s fight for the “last best hope of man on earth.” Thankfully back then we had Reagan to identify the problem and lead us out of the darkness, at least for a period of time; where might today’s Ronald Reagan be found is not at all clear.