Monday, August 14, 2017

White Nationalists Generate an Activist Response from the Left: Antifa

Peter Beinart produced an unusually timely article for The Atlantic: The Rise of the Violent Left.  It was written before what has been called “The Battle of Charlottesville,” but it arrived in the mailbox just as events there were unfolding.  In it, he introduces a growing movement that goes by the name Antifa, which is a shortening of some version of a label consisting of the term anti-fascism.

There were anti-fascist groups active in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as fascism became popular.  Anti-fascist activism came to the fore again when neo-Nazi movements sprouted in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Various other objectionable groups have appeared throughout Europe over the years and kept the antifa groups active.  It was inevitable with the candidacy and the presidency of Donald Trump that neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups would become more visible.  The equally inevitable response was that European-style activism would spread to the United States.  Beinart suggests that several widely reported events tinged with violence have already occurred and are likely associated with this movement.

“On Inauguration Day, a masked activist punched the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer. In February, protesters violently disrupted UC Berkeley’s plans to host a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor. In March, protesters pushed and shoved the controversial conservative political scientist Charles Murray when he spoke at Middlebury College, in Vermont.”

“The movement’s secrecy makes definitively cataloging its activities difficult, but this much is certain: Antifa’s power is growing. And how the rest of the activist left responds will help define its moral character in the Trump age.”

White nationalists have long resorted to violence.  The events in Charlottesville indicate there is no reason to expect that tendency to disappear.  There is also widespread concern among liberals that Donald Trump is an existential threat to our polity.

“For progressives, Donald Trump is not just another Republican president. Seventy-six percent of Democrats, according to a Suffolk poll from last September, consider him a racist. Last March, according to a YouGov survey, 71 percent of Democrats agreed that his campaign contained ‘fascist undertones’.”

So this is the question that progressives must ask themselves.

“….If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to stop it?”

The official position of the Democratic politicians is that the right to assembly and to express noxious opinions is sacrosanct.  They will counter Trump as best they can and plan for regaining control of government in future elections.  Is playing by the rules going to be enough?  The antifa crowd thinks not.

The purpose of antifa is to prevent the white nationalists from even having a forum to express their opinions and they are willing to use violence to make that happen.  Can this possibly work as a long-term strategy?

Beinart fears that the antifa activists will be counterproductive and encourage the growth of the very groups they are contending against.

“Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the government’s. Which is why, in the Trump era, the movement is growing like never before. As the president derides and subverts liberal-democratic norms, progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people.”

“Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”

Mark Bray is a visiting historian at Dartmouth College.  He has studied anarchy and anarchical movements in the past, a label that is probably appropriate for the antifa activists.  Bray has a book titled Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook coming out soon.  He seems somewhat sympathetic with need for activism and provides a perspective worth considering.  The following quotes are from Bray in an interview with Brooke Gladstone on WNYC (February 10, 2017).

When asked about the intention to prevent fascists from speaking, Bray replied:

“So, in your open you mentioned the popular slogan that liberals have adopted from Voltaire that, ‘I may disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Anti-fascists fundamentally disagree with that premise. They argue that, given the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka, the destruction that Nazis have caused, that fascists, white supremacists shouldn’t be granted the right to express their ideas in public, in part because, they argue, had that been done earlier in the 1920s, the 1930s, we might have been able to bypass what ended up happening.”

Is that restriction of a fundamental right consistent with a free society?

“Germany has a prohibition against advocating for Nazis publicly. That doesn’t mean that Germany is a closed society where people can’t say whatever they want to say. You can have some prohibitions against speech without going all the way. In the context of an increasing number of hate crimes — the Southern Poverty Law Center cited over 800 such crimes immediately following the election of President Trump — the idea is that the people who carry out these crimes are listening to Richard Spencer speeches, going on Stormfront websites, imbibing this hateful doctrine, and that, to the degree that we can shut it down, we will have fewer people copy-catting them into attacking vulnerable populations.”

Most people would agree that it was acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s to organize armed resistance to the Nazi regime. The question is: how terrible does it have to be before that becomes legitimate? And the anti-fascist answer is: you need to nip it in the bud from the beginning.

People don’t mind limiting the free speech of leftists, why not apply the same rules to extremists on the right?

“The liberal ideal is that the government is a referee in a game that all parties are invited to play. But, in actual fact, whenever left groups have become threatening, you get Red Scares, you get repression, you get COINTELPRO in the 1960s and 70s. And so, anti-fascists are arguing that we want a political content to how we look at speech and society which is drastically different from a liberal take, and that this entails shutting down the extreme manifestations of fascism and neo-Nazism.”

How does antifa operate?

“Under that specific banner, it is still relatively new and it’s finding its way. But a lot of anti-fascist or Antifa groups have formed in different cities around the United States. A lot of what they do is researching information on local white supremacists, who they are, where they live, where they work—sometimes pressuring their employers to get them fired, sometimes making sure that if they organize private events at local venues for white supremacists, they try to pressure the venue owner to try to cancel the event. So, that research and coalition-building with groups that are affected by various forms of fascist or white supremacist violence is a lot of what’s done. What gets more of the headlines is when the demonstrations come out onto the street. And so, as I’m sure you and a number of listeners are well aware, there have been high-profile incidences recently, such as in Berkeley, of trying to physically shut down events, that has raised the profile of antifascism.”

Can this be a viable strategy?

“The question is: if we want to prevent something along the lines of what happened in the 1930s and 40s from happening again, how do we do it? And the liberal prescription for doing it is, essentially, free and open debate and dialogue, and if Nazis do something illegal then hopefully the police will stop them. Antifascists recognize that in the 1930s, 1940s, the police supported fascism. The fascists didn’t actually stage a revolution to come to power; they worked within the political system. And all the reasonable dialogue and debate that one could muster did not do the job. The argument is that, if we want such a horrific crime to not reoccur, it needs to be nipped in the bud, through a variety of tactics, but one of which is through violently disrupting Klan rallies, neo-Nazi speeches, and so forth.”

Bray provides this insight into the long-term goals of the antifa activists.

“The other thing to remember is that anti-fascists identify as communists, as anarchists, as socialists, and want to organize for a revolutionary rupture with the prevailing political system, and that this is in-line with that. That’s also another reason why the two philosophies don’t quite jibe.”

That last revelation by Bray, if correct, indicates that antifa activists are not a bunch of angry Democrats, they are something else entirely—something the Democrats have little control over.  On the Republican side of the ledger, that party is dominated by a president who considers their politicians his personal servants who are to do as they’re told.  They own the government but have little control over it—or at least they have not yet chosen to exercise much control over their president.

If both the white nationalists and the antifa activists are propagating objectionable viewpoints and both are willing to resort to violence, can the future hold anything but escalation.  The extremists on the right would seem to have much more firepower when it comes to violence.  There are already moves afoot to call upon armed right-wing militia groups to provide protection instead of depending on police.  That cannot end well.

Perhaps the thing that needs to be nipped in the bud is the Trump presidency.  Perhaps the sight of armed battles occurring on our city streets might awaken Republican politicians from their reveries of massive tax cuts and arouse them sufficiently to finally do the honorable thing and send their president to history’s junkyard.  When white nationalist demonstrators are shouting “Heil Trump,” something has to happen.

We are certainly living in interesting times.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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