Substack Boys: I hope you're Proud
This isn't about theory, it's about very real violence
I don’t want to talk about Nazis anymore, so I won’t. I’ll talk about Proud Boys.
In December, 2020 I was in Washington, D.C. to cover a rally. A number of far-right influencers and groups were gathering to deny the election results and insist that their fearless leader Donald Trump should remain President another four years. And there was a rally, with speeches from some horrendous people saying horrendous things. I know because I was in the middle of the crowd, filming, reluctantly wearing a Trump hat to blend in with my surroundings. But for the Proud Boys the real action wasn’t boring speeches, it was the opportunity for violence. The first assault I saw was in broad daylight.
1 p.m. on the National Mall, in the center of the nation’s capital. A man approached, seemingly a veteran, and said something akin to disagreement with fascists coming to his town. He was then jumped by a group of them. That was the start of 10 hours of constant violence.
The worst came after dark, of course. Swarms of Proud Boys roamed the streets, looking for the anti-fascists, who were much more likely to actually be from D.C., and who didn’t want violent mobs terrorizing their home. The police often tried to stand between the groups, sometimes whole-heartedly and sometime half-heartedly, but regardless it didn’t always work. Fights broke out, and dozens of people, such as myself, were maced and pepper sprayed by the roving fascists, who are never really interested in a fair fight but rather in doing as much violence as possible. There’s probably a lesson there.
Four churches were attacked that night. They were vandalized, and one had a Black Lives Matter flag ripped off. It’s hard to miss the symbolism of white men marching through the streets burning that flag, which is exactly what they did. And when they couldn’t find “Antifa” or BLM flags, the Proud Boys found a Black man unaffiliated with any of the counter-protests. They cornered him and harassed him, and then when they began to assault him he pulled out his knife and stabbed one of them. This is the very, very real violence perpetrated by fascists in this country. And it’s just one example out of hundreds. Across the United States these men are rallying, waving Nazi flags, assaulting, shooting, and hitting people with their cars. None of this is hypothetical.
We all know that the far-right rallies in Washington that December (there was more than one) led up to January 6th. Regardless of your exact hypothesis about the day the Capitol was stormed, it’s very clear that the fascist elements of this country were emboldened. Emboldened by the President, by their various leaders and influencers and the rhetoric used to rile them up and legitimize their ideas and actions, and by the fact that they weren’t stopped in their tracks earlier.
If they had been overwhelmed and crushed in D.C. just a month prior, by masses of people outnumbering them and shutting them down, things might have looked different. It’s hard to know, and it’s certainly not just about one rally, but what’s clear is that instead of feeling cowed or frightened the Proud Boys and others felt free to roam, to attack, and ultimately to storm the Capitol.
So again I tell you this stuff is not theoretical. Fascists’ ability to spread their message on a mass scale is not an academic question. We see, far too often, a theoretical free-speech discussion that holds up an ideal while refusing to engage with the real. And there is no divider, there is no magical separation between millions of people being exposed to genocidal ideas and the promotion of violence on a large scale, and people enacting that violence. We know that the right has an alarmingly powerful radicalization pipeline. We know that people see seemingly innocuous memes or videos or articles and that before long they can be led down a path of real danger and real fascism. We know that numerous mass shooters, for example, have gone down this path.
So no, I do not place the idealized virtue of universal free speech ahead of preventing all-out fascism and the violence that entails. I do not think anyone should be able to espouse Nazism without consequence, let alone be able to profit from it. I’m sure you’ve heard about the paradox of tolerance recently, but if you haven’t the 101 is that if we tolerate those who would, if they could, enact all-out fascism and squash all of us who object, we could soon find that our tolerance of Nazis has opened the door to a deeply intolerant society. This too is not simply theoretical, we know that the fascists who rallied in D.C., the Proud Boys and the even more overt Neo-Nazis, would readily dismantle any semblance of a liberal society and of a left if they could, and we should not allow that world to come into existence.
Just as the violence of the far-right is real, so too is the alliance of capital and fascism. More specifically, we are currently witnessing how, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg to the owners of Substack, several billionaires and other assorted tech capitalists want to allow and enable the right. Musk is no doubt the clearest, with his constant promotion of once fringe fascist influencers. Every day he interacts with them and every day he makes Twitter more of an engine for the promotion of their ideas. I turned to Substack partially to escape him and his embrace of the far-right, and now I find the owners here being explicit about their hospitality to Nazi ideas, propagandists, and profits.
I, for one, don’t know what my next move is. I want it to be well thought-out, and slightly more permanent than the frantic leap I made when I started this newsletter. I left one sinking ship and I will leave another if necessary. But first I want to make clear, to the owners of this platform and to as many people as I can, that your free speech ideals should not come before the violence that has rocked this country. Some have sought to make January 6th into an anomaly, a one-time event, but there was violence leading up to it and there is surely more to come. The choice to allow the ideas that fuel and underpin fascism is a dangerous one, one that should not be looked upon as merely neutral.
So, whatever I do next, it will be guided by a desire to meaningfully combat this fascist surge in our country, both online and in three dimensions. It will be guided by a desire to be a little freer and more independent from the whims of this platform’s owners, and from the owners of other platforms. When I’m ready and that plan is hatched, you’ll be the first to know. But in the meantime, I hope we can agree that we are not dealing with hypotheticals. We are dealing with men profiting from and enabling very real violence. This site could be a place that is relatively free from Nazism, or it could be a hub, a vector that furthers the fascist project in this country and leads to real, severe damage and mass harm. The owners have chosen the latter. They can couch it in the exchange and free flow of ideas all they want, but fascists only understand power and violence. So they use violence to gain power, and they do so wherever they are permitted. We can either oppose fascism right here and now, in practice and not just in theory, or we can enable it. There’s no standing still on a moving train, and the train we’re on happens to be moving quite fast. So whatever you do, I hope you get in motion.
Thank you for reading. I hope you’ll support this writing. Your support allows me to spend more time researching and drafting this newsletter for you. In gratitude - Josh