If it was disturbing after Charlottesville when the media came out in support of the masked mobs of black-bloc “anti-fascists” who “seek peace through violence” (CNN), it was downright Orwellian when that support faded after yet another episode in Berkeley, where Antifa attacked random passers-by with an advantage of sometimes ten-to-one. But the weirdest part is how the group has been condemned.
Vox is worried that “deploy[ing] violence . . . could seriously backfire”; The New Yorker is concerned Antifa is “helping Donald Trump”; and the Guardian thinks the group is “undermin[ing] the Trump resistance.” A New Republic writer whose camera and phone were “jacked” “felt sorry” for his attackers, who had “real pain in [their] eyes” and seek “to stop [white supremacist] hate.” All across the funny papers, the message is clear: If there is a Trumpist rally in your town and you see a group of people with bats just whaling on somebody, their hearts are probably in the right place — they just haven’t thought hard enough about the “bad faith” right-wing arguments, based in “false equivalencies,” that their actions will legitimate.
This line is almost as disrespectful to Antifa itself as it is to the everyday reader or viewer wondering what to make of an angry mob beating the tar out of someone. After all, the group has kept neither its tactics nor its values a secret. Its members did in Berkeley what they always do. Last winter, when they attacked a crowd outside a Milo Yiannopoulos event, they took sticks to people passed out on the ground and spray-painted “Liberals get the bullet too” around town. Liberal journalists, refusing to take them at their word, happily shared videos of Richard Spencer getting punched in the face. All that’s changed is that Antifa’s message is finally starting to sink in, and liberal journalists are figuring out that they’re next.
But isn’t this a familiar pattern by now? For the most part, in American political discourse, we — whether we’re conservatives or liberals ourselves — condemn those to our left on strategic grounds and those to our right on moral grounds. Thus we are constantly trying to explain to those on our left that we share their values, that we have their best interests at heart when we express our strategic considerations; and to those on our right that we don’t share their values, that their strategic considerations have no bearing on our interests. With our right hands, we push (punch?); with our left hands, pull toward.
Take Conor Friedersdorf, a conservative libertarian at The Atlantic. He rightly calls Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio “a flagrant assault on civil rights,” but when it comes to leftist calls for violent censorship of white-supremacist groups — which would also be flagrant assaults on civil rights — his objection is that they’re “shortsighted.” Evan McMullin offered a characteristically lukewarm tweet, saying that “fighting racist ideas with violence . . . would be neither lawful nor effective.” Even Rod Dreher, in calling Antifa “the other evil political force,” felt the need to explicitly disavow the idea that they are “the equivalent of neo-Nazis.”
A left-wing case in point is Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson. A “libertarian socialist,” Robinson is quick to tell folks on the center-left — such as Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Jeet Heer — that politics is about the domination of some values over others, and that the patina of expertise and objectivity employed by “centrists” or “neoliberals” just shows that they don’t really share his. On the other hand, he exhorts Antifa and similarly violent and no-platforming types to think “strategically about free speech and violence.” When a confused further-leftist asks why he is even bothering with the strategic debate if he is always pro-free-speech in principle, Robinson’s answer is garbled, nigh incomprehensible.
But the truth about Antifa was told — approvingly — by Emmett Rensin, a left-anarchist, back in March. The “right” question to ask about political violence in America, for Rensin, is not ethical and it is not tactical; it is “phenomenological.” What does this mean? Pretty much that people feel angry and that that anger will, one way or another, come out. More recently, Rensin has called the liberalism of “all our wonk managers” a “blathering superego.” Under this view, the relation between violent protesters and their “but the tactics!” enablers in the media is not one of competing principles or of competing strategies, but consists simply in the struggle between the internal drive toward emotional expression (the id) and the external pressures toward emotional repression. Rensin was fired from Vox last summer for tweeting, “Advice: If Trump comes to your town, start a riot.”
We know what both groups want. They want to be angry and they want to find each other and they want to fight.
We should respect the honesty of people like Rensin and the spray-painters, deplore the media’s attempts at muddying the waters, and question the confused metapolitics of “principles” and “strategies” that leads to our two hands doing such different things. It is indeed a value of Antifa to punch not just Nazis, but people in red hats; not just Trump supporters, but centrists; and not just centrists, but even liberals, if their rage so dictates. The good news is that there are not many more of them than there are of the white supremacists whose cartoonish yells about being replaced by Jews sound dully, then fade, in the purple summer humidities of our febrile college campuses.
We know what both groups want. They want to be angry and they want to find each other and they want to fight. If they win, they want to come for the rest of us.
It’s not about the tactics. And the reporters who thought it was, who thought they were themselves being tactically clever first in supporting Antifa and then in insisting that “their cause is just” — for those reporters it soon won’t be about the tactics either, but about the broken cameras and broken bones and bodies that these groups leave in their wake.
I could be wrong, of course. Maybe the masks and bats will fall to the ground when these guys hear about your great tweetstorm about anti-fascism in the Weimar Republic or your ridiculous meme about alt-leftists storming Normandy Beach. I hope some enterprising cameraman captures your attempts to tell them about it.
— Oliver Traldi is a writer living in the United States. He has a bachelor’s degree in classics and a master’s degree in philosophy.