The antifa issue
Antifa is a gift to the alt-right and its fellow travelers, from Donald Trump on down the line. The antifascist cadres could hardly do more to advance the agenda of their adversaries if they were funded by the Koch bros. and directed by Steve Bannon. Their rhetoric and actions are a treasure trove of propaganda boilerplate ready off the shelf to be gleefully spattered about the twit-o-sphere by all manner of deplorable characters eager to portray themselves as victims and thereby distract the public gaze from their own unsavory deeds.
This is one reason to be clear about where we stand on the antifa issue. There are also matters of principle. It gets messy because circumstances are complicated. Practical considerations and moral imperatives refuse to dovetail neatly. People of good will disagree. Compromise is a painfully incremental way to proceed. Sometimes we just have to take a stand.
It should not be difficult to reject the fetishization of violence, vigilante justice, vandalism, mob bullying, and intimidation. It should not be difficult to look askance at a faction that anoints itself to decide who will be allowed public speech. It should not be difficult to question an ideology openly disdainful of liberal democracy, conventional norms, and "the liberal aversion to political violence."
Yet calling antifa out clearly and unequivocally poses a challenge not only for comrades on the far left but also for some commentators who come at it from the NPRish current of the media stream. Critique of the group gets buried in what an author may view as a good-faith effort to provide balance and context. Readers are treated to charges and countercharges about who provoked whom. Fascists initiate the violence if only by making an appearance in the first place because "(f)ailing to stop fascists from speaking...makes you as bad as them" (Rose City Antifa FAQ). The police attack peaceful demonstrators and favor the fascists. Any threat to public order posed by antifa is overblown by right-wing polemicists. Spokespersons from all sides are cited wrangling about false equivalency and who really represents a threat to the public. While these issues warrant examination, too often the analysis comes off too much like an apologia for antifa, which after all "has not committed a single murder, as least that we're aware of" (Beauchamp).
On June 29 Portland's antifa chapter and their Patriot Prayer/Proud Boys doppelgängers staged the first brawl of the season. The highlights video featured a mob assault on Andy Ngo, a conservative, intellectual dark webster, journalist, and editor at Quillette. The video shows an ugly scene. My first thought was of adolescent bullies singling out their hapless victim for torment. Think of obnoxious jocks going after the gay kid in the locker room while the coach is sequestered in his office watching game film.
I had never heard of Andy Ngo prior to reports about the incident. It turns out that he has a history of confrontation with antifa. Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp describes Ngo as "the closest thing the intellectual dark web has to a gonzo journalist, someone who goes into allegedly hostile places and documents them for his more than 200,000 Twitter followers to illustrate that the IDW is right about the threat from multiculturalism and the left." If Beauchamp is going to invoke the gonzo tag, he might do well to remind his readers that Hunter S. Thompson got stomped by members of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club in the end. This is what gangs do to people who run afoul of them. It is a risk run by people who practice this brand of journalism, more so when one is as much provocateur as journalist, as seems to be the case with Ngo. This too is part of the context. That does not make it okay.
Beauchamp states categorically that beating people up is reprehensible and whoever punched Ngo, "antifa or otherwise," committed a crime, adding a few paragraphs down, "We don’t yet have proof that the people who assaulted Ngo were antifa members (though it seems likely given their history)." This half-hearted admission that antifa may bear responsibility for unacceptable conduct is typical of these good-faith efforts to be fair and impartial. For its part, Rose City Antifa celebrates the assault in its Statement about June 29, 2019:
"On June 29, 2019, Andy Ngo tried a repeat of his actions on May 1, 2019– to film the actions of armed men on a mission to attack activists, to be used for propaganda purposes. As on May Day, this past weekend he and the far-right mob were stopped, physically. The events of this weekend are what we mean by community defense. The entire community came together, using multiple tactics, and sent a premeditated attack by the far-right packing. This is exactly what should happen when the far-right attempts to invade our town."
The mob has antifa's endorsement. Whether they were bona fide, card-carrying antifa members or merely allies, hangers on, &c., is not a difference that makes a difference.
This kind of thing prompts even sagacious observers like Bulwark editor Charlie Sykes to opine about "the left's antifa problem." An outspoken, never-Trump conservative from the beginning, Sykes is forthright about the Republican Party's abject capitulation to Trump, and he minces no words when he writes about "the toxicity of our political divide...the madness on the right...or the very real danger (and body count) of resurgent white nationalism."
"But," he says, "while the problems may not be equivalent, the left has a very real Antifa problem and it has been on vivid display over the last few days: not just the masked group of violent thugs, but also the reflexive rationalization of violence that it seems to inspire."
Sykes is right. There is a regrettable tradition among liberals and progressives of a certain bent to rationalize and romanticize political violence committed on behalf of causes they wish to further. Compound that with an all-too-human reluctance to renounce the enemy of my enemy and you have the miserable state of affairs in which we find ourselves. The threat posed by fascists, white nationalists, the alt-right, &c., is real and serious. Antifa's response is a dead end. Far from offering effective resistance, it serves as a bogeyperson around which its adversaries can rally their troops. Brawling in the streets begets more brawling in the streets.
The responsibility to provide a fair account and to make a sober assessment as to the relative menace represented by each side should not deter or distract us from condemning unacceptable conduct, under whatever guise and whatever rationalization. Those who engage in violence, vandalism, vigilantism, and intimidation should be arrested and prosecuted in accordance with the law. Those of us who are neither revolutionists nor fascists should be clear about where we stand. This is about who we are.
Memo from the Editorial Desk
The subject calls for an extended scholarly treatise. A blog post is doomed to inadequacy. I offer it anyway as a preliminary statement of my thinking, subject ot change upon further reflection. The antifa issue might not make me so agitato if I did not live in Portland where the group is a visceral presence. There are many things to like, indeed, love, about the Pacific Northwest. The region's disparate heritages of militant anarchism and white supremacy are not among them. Each is tinged with strains of a facile, libertarian ethos whose appeal to a twelve-year-old science fiction buff could be understood, with the hope the young person would grow out of it with maturity and exposure to more intellectually rigorous fare. Not everyone does.
Antifa and Proud Boys are dance partners at the tip of a dark, ugly iceberg. The US is infected with right-wing militias who share antifa's antipathy toward liberal democracy and its determination to impose its will by any means necessary, as exemplified by the Bundy standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge insurrection of 2016, and the Oregon state capitol shutdown on June 22 of this year. Leftist groups are now taking up arms to defend the community from fascists. References to the community are made where their predecessors might have spoken of the workers, the proletariat, the people, some oppressed group whose interests are represented by them and them alone.
Armed militias accountable to no one but themselves do not make us one whit safer. To the contrary, as the Adam Driver character in The Dead Don't Die puts it, this isn't going to end well.
Zack Beauchamp, The assault on conservative journalist Andy Ngo, explained, Vox, July 3, 2019
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, What Is Antifa? Explaining the Movement to Confront the Far Right, The New York Times, July 2, 2019
Mark Bray website (Bray is a "a political organizer and historian of human rights, terrorism, and politics in Modern Europe" and a lecturer at Dartmouth College who seems to have established himself as the go-to authority on antifa.)
Diana Cruzman, Milkshake-makers in Portland protests say they got death threats after police warned of 'quick-drying cement,' OregonLive/The Oregonian, updated July 4, 2019
Justin Evans, Why Is It So Hard to Be Anti-Fascist?, The Point, 2019
Sean Illing, Fascism: a warning from Madeleine Albright, Vox, February 14, 2019
Sean Illing interview w/ Mark Bray, "They have no allegiance to liberal democracy": an expert on antifa explains the group, Vox, August 25, 2017
Kim Kelly, ‘If others have rifles, we’ll have rifles’: why US leftist groups are taking up arms, The Guardian, July 22, 2019
Kim Kelly, I’m a left-wing anarchist. Guns aren’t just for right-wingers, Vox, July 1, 2019
Natasha Lennard, How to live an anti-fascist life (excerpt from Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life), Verso, July 3, 2019
Mark Stuchbery, The right want to make the Andy Ngo Antifa violence a reason to stop confronting fascists. Don't ever let it happen, The Independent, July 2, 2019
Anisa Subedar and Mike Wendling, Seven things you need to know about Antifa, BBC
Charlie Sykes, The Left’s Antifa Problem, The Bulwark, July 2, 2019
Cecilia Saixue Watt, Redneck Revolt: the armed leftwing group that wants to stamp out fascism, The Guardian, July 11, 2017
Jason Wilson, Portland police clash with protesters and make ‘cement milkshake’ claim, The Guardian, June 30, 2019
Cathy Young, The Very Real Dangers of "Speech Equals Violence, The Bulwark, July 9, 2019