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Moats: Faith in Free Speech

Most people probably don’t remember George Lincoln Rockwell, who after World War II was the founder of the American Nazi Party. He used to strut and preen in a Nazi uniform, and in the mid-’60s, he spoke at the university where I was a student. He praised Hitler, denied the Holocaust, and promised that if he became president, he’d execute Jews he considered traitors.

There was a big debate about whether he should be allowed to speak, but in the end faith in free speech prevailed. Allowing him to speak would put his hateful ideas out there for all to see — and to reject.

He drew a large crowd, including me, who listened to a crude racist rant, prompting laughter from those who thought it was all a joke. Mostly, people thought he was a lunatic.

This was only 20 years or so from the end of World War II, and memories of its horrors were still fresh. At one appearance, Holocaust survivors and military veterans pummeled him with their umbrellas. A year after I saw him, a former follower assassinated him, and few were surprised.

At the time, people like Rockwell, occupied the narrowest political fringe, which included attention-seekers, haters, criminals, and the plainly delusional. Some, notably the Ku Klux Klan, were still actively doing harm. But mostly these extremists were not taken seriously.

I’m reminded of this history because of the new prominence in our politics of white supremacists and their rhetoric of hate. Poisonous ideas seem to be gaining ground.

This is possible partly because memories fade, and people forget the full dimension of the horror unleashed by ideas of ethnic and racial superiority.

Here in Vermont we are somewhat insulated from the most virulent of these trends. Elsewhere, racism is part of the landscape.

It is said that the best response to hate speech is not to silence it — but to answer it.

Instead of less speech, we need more speech — speech upholding the value of human dignity in a democratic society — so fringe characters like Rockwell can be kept on the fringe, where they can spout their nonsense to their heart’s content.

Democracy is strong enough to make room for people like him, even if their ideas are at war with the very principles that give them a platform.