The Corner

U.S.

On the Commodification of Street Violence

Members of various anti-fascist groups yell at police officers on the campus of Michigan State University outside of a Richard Spencer speech in East Lansing, Michigan on March 5, 2018. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

If you can tell a lot about a man by his enemies, Andy Ngo is an exemplary figure; the balaclava-wearing, milkshake-chucking creeps who play-act as foot soldiers in Antifaschistische Aktion on the streets of American cities absolutely loathe Ngo. They are, on the whole, a miserable bunch — and who could blame them? It must be hard work stemming the burgeoning Nazi threat in . . . Portland.

But all shallows are clear, as Dr. Johnson insists, and these kerfuffles between Antifa and their right-wing combatants are often murky and ambiguous affairs. A punch here, a milkshake there — the violence erupts with such rapidity that it’s difficult to determine who started it and when. And while one side has an entire ideological framework built to justify its violence as a sort of “collective self-defense,” their opponents often take the bait and partake.

Reading through Joseph Bernstein’s article in BuzzFeed about the now-famous assault of Ngo by some Antifa hoodlums, and I was struck by this bit:

As [the paramedics] loaded [Ngo] into the back of the ambulance, I noticed he was using Twitter. . . In the emergency room, Ngo was glued to Twitter.

There is a certain cynicism in the now-rote rubric of Antifa agitation and its attendant coverage. Antifa shows up to a right-wing demonstration angry–the day ends in “y” and the world remains unfair, alas– and the right-wing groups proceed to agitate them further. Before long, violence erupts. And while I’m not insisting that these right-wing groups are “asking” to be clubbed by masked, otherwise-unemployable adults, I’m merely noting the curious gambit at play here: “Look how badly I was hurt! Not badly enough that I can put my phone away, but look how badly I’m hurt!

It’s performance art.

I recognize the simultaneous need and desire to document the violence of Antifa. It is Andy Ngo’s right (duty!) to publicly detail and document an assault that caused “blood [to trickle] down behind his ears and onto his neck” and “his eye sockets [to swell] up with blood.” Antifa embodies everything it purports to despise, and embraces the worst forms of vigilantism. I was nevertheless struck by this sentiment from Bernstein:

Look out at Twitter, at YouTube, at cable news. Behold a whole precarious world of media hopefuls swarming every bitter inch of the culture war, filming angry Americans, filming each other, filming themselves, grimly determined to find or frame a few seconds of a reality to sell.

Andy Ngo shows up to these events with a camera — a bit of journalistic bravery, sure, but also one sustained by our national polarization. And that’s fine; it’s not Ngo’s fault that Antifa traffics in political violence, and that their opponents often respond in kind. But there’s something dispiriting in the commodification of these stupid fights, the ecosystem that thrives off of petty fisticuffs between right-wing meatheads and their effete liberal sparring partners. There’s no prescription here — I don’t mean to suggest Ngo stop filming these altercations — but his work could not exist without the cottage industry of outrage and discord that thrives off of these brawls.

Perhaps that’s good. Perhaps our country eventually will emerge united around a vague consensus that violence against people with whom you disagree with is a non-starter. But I am struck by the cynicism of that moment, of a bloodied Ngo rushing to Twitter to broadcast his misery to the world. None of this puts him in the same moral category of the lowlifes who assaulted him, of course. But it’s a telling anecdote.

And while Bernstein’s piece is interesting, it has its share of stupid tropes. In the closing paragraph of the article, Bernstein contemplates how, to members of Antifa, being videotaped “might feel like violence.” He also opines about the “preposterous” amount of coverage Fox gives to Antifa. Consider: If masked conservatives were organizing violent disruptions of lefty rallies and speeches, how long before we would be treated to an interminable “national conversation”? Ten minutes?

None of this is meant as a dig at Ngo. The image of a bloodied Ngo rushing to Twitter is more a symptom than a cause. There is a culture that thrives on bloodlust and violence, and it is self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating, soul-sucking. Even if Antifa is awful (which it is) and Andy Ngo is brave (which he is), there’s something in the commodification of street violence that speaks to a broken society.

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