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If only Martin Luther King Jr. had started knocking heads, imagine how much he would have accomplished.

Or so seems to be much of the most joyous thinking on the left in the wake of a viral video that grew out of the anti-Trump protests on Jan. 20.

If you haven’t seen it, a television reporter was interviewing Richard Spencer — who leads a white supremacist movement and not long ago headlined a conference in Washington, D.C., that ended with those assembled giving a classic Nazi “heil” salute — when suddenly someone lunged at Spencer from his right and sucker-punched him. Spencer staggered away, the attacker leaped back, and that was the end of it.

That brief video has been circulated widely and applauded. That celebration drew quick, but not wide, condemnation by others on both the left and right, which led to a question that also spread in a viral manner on social media:

Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

Those asking the question often answered it themselves in the affirmative, and most others chiming in said essentially that the answer was not only yes but hell yes. Those answers sometimes came attached to images of comic book hero Captain America punching Hitler and movie hero Indiana Jones punching a Nazi.

Those giving a contrary answer included Newsweek, which called ethicists and posed the question to them, prompting one, Randy Cohen, to say, “Do you really not know if it’s ethical to punch someone even though they have odious politics? I mean, should we call your mother?”

Apparently we should call a lot of people’s mothers. One response on Twitter that captured the overall sentiment was this:

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One hopes that if the person who wrote that thought about it a while she would change her position because she could easily find herself targeted by it.

The problem with saying you support punching Nazis is you take a step onto a slippery slope. For one thing, Spencer does not belong to the Nazi party; the label of “Nazi” has been applied to him because of his racist views. If it’s OK to punch someone who isn’t a Nazi but is labeled one, who then who determines what other people get that label applied to them?

Regardless of whether he is a Nazi, Spencer has not engaged in violence or called for it. Who gets to decide that a person’s views go far beyond what the person states and actually encompass “eradication” of other people? Spencer’s views are extreme, but who gets to decide that someone’s views are extreme enough to warrant violence? President Obama was labeled a socialist and extremist with long-term goals described at times in nearly apocolyptic terms. Would it be OK to punch Obama?

If it’s OK to punch someone, what is the goal of the punch? To change his mind? To punish him? If punching him won’t change his mind or change his ways, then what? Should he be killed?

The American Civil Liberties Union is perceived by many on the right as the ultimate liberal special interest group, but many liberals can’t stand that the ACLU will stand up for the free-speech rights of right-wing extremists. On both the left and the right, people want free speech for their own views, but any views that stray too far from theirs make them uneasy. Unfortunately, the First Amendment doesn’t come with an asterisk and a footnote saying that it doesn’t apply to racists, thugs and religious extremists.

The First Amendment right of free speech has repeatedly and frequently been interpreted by the courts as guaranteeing anyone the right to espouse even horrific views — not the right to do horrific things, but to talk about them. In other words, the First Amendment provides everyone a forum to talk about anything they wish.

Of course, the First Amendment says only that the government may not censor your views. It does not say that there will not be non-government repercussions for your views. What you say may, for instance, anger others enough that they want to punch you. That’s where we are now.

The irony is that this all happened less than a week after the day America remembers King, who met hate with love and met violence with peace and in 1964 won the Nobel Peace Prize. Spencer is a milk-fed, baby-faced poser compared to the people King had to deal with, vicious thugs with a badge such as Eugene “Bull” Connor, whose Birmingham police turned high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on African Americans. We don’t have to imagine how King would have answered the question “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” because he answered it over and over. Just a few of those answers:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

“Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.”

“Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Is it OK to punch someone hateful? I understand the impulse, but the answer is not just no, but hell no.

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I don’t usually post here the opinion pieces I write, but this is not just local and in many ways not even just a state issue.

It’s a fact that boycotts are blunt instruments, particularly when aimed at an entire state. Allies as well as foes get hurt.

South Carolina businesses learned that during boycotts over display of the Confederate flag. Indiana businesses learned that during boycotts over that state’s short-lived “religious freedom” law that allowed businesses to refuse service to homosexuals.

A column in the New York Times by Linda-Marie Barrett of Malaprops Bookstore/Café in Asheville illustrates the collateral damage being done now to North Carolina businesses over House Bill 2’s repeal of anti-discrimination protections in various cities and its explicit allowance, by omission from the list of protected classes, of any kind of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Barrett complains that despite her business’s stance against HB2, “Customers from other states tell us they won’t visit until the law is no more. More threatening to us financially and to our community culturally is the cancellation of events by authors.”

In her column she asks authors to reconsider boycotting North Carolina bookstores because the stores need the revenue that author visits bring, and their local customers need to be lifted up.

She has a point, but the whole point of a statewide boycott is the economic havoc it can wreak, ultimately impacting as many legislators’ districts as possible and the entire state economy as a whole to create a sense of urgency that otherwise would be missing. Appeals to compassion have limited effects, but the power of the purse is strong, which is why boycotts are so often effective.

Senate President Phil Berger, a living blunt instrument who is the ultimate force that would have to be overcome to repeal HB2, is a lawyer from the tiny town of Eden, in Rockingham County. What exactly could anyone boycott that he would care about? Not much. Even if there were something, Berger has proven to be a “my way or the highway” kind of fellow.

That means his political allies in the legislature have to be convinced to change their minds and risk Berger’s wrath. Without a boycott, how would anyone do that? Protests? Sit-ins? The “Moral Mondays” protests have well established that the legislators are utterly immune to such appeals. But many of them are businesspeople or live in districts with businesses that are being affected by the boycott, or else their pet projects will be affected by a decline in state revenue needed to support them.

The question is how many millions of dollars the state’s economy will have to lose — how many hundreds or thousands of new jobs have to be withdrawn by companies canceling plans to grow here — before enough of HB2’s backers are willing to admit the whole thing is a sham.

And that’s what the law is, a sham. There was no enforcement mechanism written into the feature of the law that its backers most vocally defend, the requirement for people to use the public restrooms that correspond with the sex identified on their birth certificate. Politicians have raised the false specter of sexual predation in the restroom, ironically by heterosexual men posing as women, to justify all the rest of the bill’s discriminatory elements (and its completely unrelated prohibition of local minimum-wage rules). Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told the Washington Post, “Moms want to be able to send their 11-year-old daughters into the bathroom and not worry about grown men being in there.”

Woodhouse is right, mothers do want that — but HB2 does not a single thing to make sure no grown men are in the women’s room. The law puts no police in the restroom and takes no steps to actually control who uses which room. There was no way before HB2 to prevent a sexual predator from entering any restroom, and there remains no way under HB2 to prevent it. There also is no new punishment in HB2 for anyone caught in the act.

In other words, HB2 does nothing more than shout angrily into the wind. That’s why the outside world has heard only anger in its passage.

Passing the law had only one point: Creating passion in a voter base that is perceived as dispirited by the presidential campaign and that may not turn out in large numbers this fall.

But that backfired and made the state the target of national scorn, as did Gov. Pat McCrory’s ham-fisted executive order last week that left all of HB2’s major features intact even as he insisted, falsely, that he was acting to remove the reason for the boycott. All his executive order did was gift-wrap a reason for the national media to do more stories about the boycott, what prompted it and illustrate that McCrory’s order did nothing to change it.

It’s not fair that Malaprops and other businesses are being made to pay the price for a cynical election-year strategy, and it’s not fair that hundreds or thousands of North Carolinians will not be able to seek high-paying jobs with PayPal or Deutsche Bank or any of the other companies canceling their plans here.

But fairness was never the point behind HB2. Damage was. And damage it has wrought.

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A column earlier this week by Eric Frazier of the Charlotte Observer raised the idea of moderates banding together to form a third major political party based on their shared interests “in safe, incremental social change, protecting business and the economy, a strong defense and pragmatism in foreign affairs. They want the trains to run on time and the stock market to rise while everybody more or less gets along.”

I can see them now, gathering for their first national convention in Peoria, or perhaps Omaha, a place the party leadership feels is representative of middle America. Some perhaps suggested St. Louis, but that has been too much in the news for all the wrong reasons. Why remind people of all that? Phoenix would have been out because others feel that its vast sprawl and congested freeways seem a bit too much California Lite. Indianapolis would be too urban and gritty.

The party chooses a medium-sized convention hall, nothing grandiose, and fills it with beige banners emblazoned with the party’s interim motto — a temporary selection made as a compromise — printed in a plain, unadorned font, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The first day’s convention action item: Choose a party symbol.

Suggestions for the party symbol, the iconic image that would be the party’s visual counter to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, range from the mythic phoenix and griffin to the more prosaic bald eagle.

As sensible moderates, party delegates agree to hold a series of votes to winnow the selection. Eliminated in the first round are all mythical animals, which are deemed to carry an implication that the party is not realistic, which is, if nothing else, the main thing moderates are all about.

Eliminated in the second are such African animals as the hippo, which many feel would appear to be just a blob when reduced to red-and-blue iconography at the presidential debates, and the rhino, which the moderate former Democrats object is too reminiscent of a Republican elephant. The moderate former Republicans don’t quite agree but want to be reasonable.

Everyone kind of likes the eagle, but the eagle is everywhere already. It adorns sales flyers as much as political pamphlets. Stephen Colbert has helped cement it as the symbol of pistachio nuts, and the moderates agree they should avoid that association.

A large plurality then backs choosing an American wild stallion reared up on its hind legs.

But the moderate former Republicans object that a horse is awfully close to the Democratic donkey. If you reject the rhino, it’s only fair to sideline the stallion. The stallion-backers mildly try to make the case to keep it, but then others also object about the stallion being wild. The party is supposed to be for moderates who favor reason and practicality. “Wild” is another thing. Let the Republicans and Democrats be wild.

Finally the voting narrows to the only proposal not eliminated: a black lab. No one’s particularly enthused about it, but no one hates it either, and isn’t that the essence of compromise? Plus, black labs are tremendously loyal and reliable dogs, and unfailingly friendly to everyone – no decent person would hate a black lab.

That settled, the delegates break for the day and head for an evening at Applebee’s to toss back a few light beers and prepare for the second day’s action item: considering an alternative to the temporary motto. Among the options: “Half a loaf is better than none,” and “If no one ever settled, your mother would still be single.”

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The Confederate memorial in downtown Lenoir was erected in May 1910, though originally it sat at the middle of the intersection of Main Street and West Avenue. It was paid for by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Confederate memorial in downtown Lenoir was erected in May 1910, though originally it sat at the middle of the intersection of Main Street and West Avenue. It was paid for by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.


No version of the Confederate flag appears on the memorial obelisk that the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have erected at downtown Lenoir’s main intersection in May 1910.

In many ways, it resembles a cemetery memorial. Near the top on the side facing the intersection are the letters CSA, for Confederate States of America, above a bas relief image of a cloth or shroud similar to depictions on many decorative headstones from the early 20th century, and on either side are 1861 and 1865, the short-lived nation’s year of birth and year of death.

On the front of the base of the memorial are four lines from Theodore O’Hara’s poem “Bivouac of the Dead,” written in 1847 in honor of troops killed in the U.S. war with Mexico. Excerpts from that poem appear on both Union and Confederate memorials around the nation, as well as throughout Arlington National Cemetery. Below that it says, “In honor of the men who wore gray.”

On the back of the base are listed the regiments where men from Caldwell County served, and below that is “Erected by the Vance Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Caldwell County, N.C. May 1910” — the only place where either “Confederate” or “Confederacy” appears.

The obelisk is surrounded by a flat lawn and hidden a bit from West Avenue by a row of crape myrtles. It is a small but park-like setting, quiet, spartan and even a bit funereal.

Directly south of that is Lenoir’s veterans memorial, which has a larger obelisk, an eternal flame within a sleek, dark pyramid, the flags of all services with a plaque at the base of each, the state and U.S. flags, and pavers with individual names. This corner commands attention, calling passersby to investigate, and yet it is solumn and stately. It is not just a memorial marker but a tribute to all the generations who helped ensure the survival of the United States of America.

In that context, the Confederate memorial had always struck me as a historical marker honoring the dead, not celebrating the cause for which they fought. Whatever their beliefs or motivation, these were fathers, sons, brothers and neighbors. They had lives before the battlefield, and that is the loss the monument mourns.

But on Thursday a woman from somewhere else in North Carolina — if she gave her name and where she was, it was so briefly that it never registered, but her accent was familiar — asking whether the News-Topic had reported on whether Lenoir was going to dismantle and remove what she called the city’s “Confederate statue.”

I surmised she meant that, in light of the sharp shift of attitudes against the Confederate battle flag since the shootings in Charleston, S.C., all things Confederate may be considered suspect.

I told her that no one to my knowledge had raised the suggestion, that since there is no depiction of the “Stars and Bars” on the monument I had not made a connection with the flag controversy, and that the monument is an obelisk, not a statue depicting a soldier defiantly standing ready to fight, as exist in many other towns.

She then insisted that, yes, the memorial actually is connected to the controversy “because the word Confederate is on it,” and she launched into an explanation of why, “soon,” people “all across the state” will be calling for such monuments to be removed. Without pausing, she said she would put my response “in my paper. Thank you,” and hung up.

I reeled a bit. “My paper”? Had I just been the victim of drive-by advocacy journalism? Or was she writing a research paper on the topic as an academic exercise?

I suppose I’ll find out sooner or later, Google help me.

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The Brookings Institution thinks the local community college where I live is doing a great job.

At least I think it does.

But it’s really hard to tell.

Brookings – a Washington, D.C., think tank – evaluated data from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and came up with Beyond College Rankings, a report only a statistician could love, as hinted at by the secondary headline of the report, “A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

One thing I have always been proud of as a reporter and editor is my ability to read any report, no matter how dense, understand it and translate the main points into plain English for the average reader.

But Brookings has stumped me.

I understand what “value-added” is. That part the report does well enough to explain: “the difference between actual alumni outcomes (like salaries) and the outcomes one would expect given a student’s characteristics and the type of institution.”

In other words, Brookings decided to look into how well graduates of different schools do, compare that to the cost, and see whether the students are getting a good deal. Fair enough.

But this is where things start to fly apart.

Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute earned a score of 92 on its graduates’ mid-career earnings, tied for 21st best in the country and the best of all colleges and universities in North Carolina. Awesome, right? Brookings explains that the number means CCC&TI students go on to earn about 10 percent more in the middle of their careers than would be expected based on their characteristics – including their “academic preparation,” ethnicity and family income – and the college’s location and level of degrees offered.

But the college scored only 35 for its graduates’ “occupational earning power,” the average salary of graduates as reported by the website LinkedIn.com, and only 24 for the percentage of graduates repaying their student loans.

So graduates’ mid-career earnings are more than expected, but their average salary is less than expected, and the percentage of students who fail to repay their loans is much worse than expected?

What does all that mean? The college’s graduates earn more but don’t really?

I downloaded the Excel spreadsheet to see whether I could make better sense of that than I could of the summary on the Brookings website.

Big mistake.

I’ve never seen a spreadsheet like it. If you were to try to print the spreadsheet at a normal type size, just the width of each line would go clear across the average office desk and spill down to the floor. With the spreadsheet up on my computer screen, I kept scrolling right, scrolling right, scrolling right, and there were ever more fields. Scores and scores and scores, numbers, percentages, factors, and then I finally hit some fields that had the word “RANK” in the title. But there were so many ranks. Brookings measured and ranked everything, it seemed. And the rankings were all over the map. Good, bad, high, low.

Lex Menz, the reporter who covers CCC&TI, wants to write a story about the Brookings report, but it’s hard to know where to start when you don’t understand what you’re writing about. It’s hard even to come up with questions to help you figure it out.

She called Edward Terry, CCC&TI’s public information officer. He couldn’t translate the report either.

She hopes to interview someone at Brookings who can translate it.

It’s clear, especially from looking at the data in spreadsheet form, that a tremendous amount of work went into this study and the report. It’s equally clear that the report’s findings seem likely to be wasted if no one can drill through the numbers and put them into plain English.

The clearest sentence in the Brookings report may be this: “The choice of whether and where to attend college is among the most important investment decisions individuals and families make, yet people know little about how institutions of higher learning compare along important dimensions of quality.”

And if those people read this report, they will still know little.

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