EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (and particularly those among you who will be experiencing kalsarikännit over the holiday weekend),
Well, as Bob Menendez said when he walked through the door of a certain Hoboken “social club,” I’m home. And as the New Jersey senator said when the electronic cash-counting machine broke down, I’ve got a lot of work to do. So, as the former vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus said when the bed in his hotel suite was covered in various Las Vegas–area “hostesses,” I’m gonna jump right in.
As everyone should, I was reading the new essay by my old friend, Matt “Two-Drink Minimum” Labash. He writes about Antifa and all that jazz. One passage stuck out for me. Matt “I Only Carry Stacks of Single Dollar Bills” Labash profiles a couple of anti-Antifa activists who get called fascists and white supremacists, despite the fact one is half-Japanese and the other is Samoan and neither is a fascist nor white supremacist (more on that in a bit). The Samoan guy goes by the name “Tiny” and serves as a kind of bodyguard to Joey at various protests and counter-protests. Matt “If Only You Could See My Tattoos” Labash writes:
Tiny, 21, also came to politics through anger. Convinced all Trumpkins were racists, “I’d drive around and beat them up,” he says nonchalantly. When he couldn’t find any to sass him back in street encounters after he’d provoked them, he’d go home and watch other Trump supporters get pounded online. “It made me happy. F—in’ racists getting beaten up,” he said. While looking for more anti-Trumpkin-violence to enjoy, he clicked one day on video from one of Joey’s rallies. “He gave a speech” about love and unity, says Tiny. “Everything he said made me confused. I thought all these f—ers were violent and racist. So I kind of had a change of heart and reached out to Joey. If I had found out about antifa before finding out about him, I’d have been antifa, too.”
This reminded me of a passage from Michael Burleigh’s wonderful book, The Third Reich: A New History (which you can also find in my book). He recounts a story of a young Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British guy traveling around Germany in the early 1930s. One night, he made some drinking buddies in a Rhineland workers’ pub. They were still all wearing their nightshift overalls. One of the guys he met offered to let Fermor crash at his pad. Fermor climbed a ladder to the attic where the guest bed was, and he found “a shrine to Hitleriana”:
The walls were covered with flags, photographs, posters, slogans and emblems. His SA uniforms hung neatly ironed on a hanger . . . When I said that it must be rather claustrophobic with all that stuff on the walls, he laughed and sat down on the bed, and said: “Mensch! You should have seen it last year! You would have laughed! Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers, sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World Unite! . . . Then, suddenly when Hitler came to power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies. I realized Adolf was the man for me. All of a sudden!” He snapped his fingers in the air. “And here I am!” . . . Had a lot of people done the same, then? “Millions! I tell you, I was astonished how easily they all changed sides!”
Now, I don’t think a lot of Antifa types are poised to become Trumpers, never mind alt-righters or fascists or Nazis (all of these things are different, by the way). Nor do I think there will be lots of conversions the other way.
But I do think there’s a tendency to take all of these people too seriously. Put aside the question of whether Antifa is “morally indistinguishable” from neo-Nazis, as my friend and colleague Marc Thiessen writes. Also, leave aside whether they’re ideologically similar.
It seems to me the elephant in the room people that keep breezing past is whether or not these people are psychologically similar. I remember when Antifa types first started showing up on television breaking stuff, setting fires, punching people, and the like, my wife said, “Those are just idiot boys looking for an excuse to break stuff and get in fights.”
Can anyone really dispute that this is a huge part of what’s going on with all these radicals on the left and the alt-right? A big swathe of the bad things that have happened over the last 10,000 years can be attributed to hormonally charged young men pulling stupid crap. Yes, yes, before the feminists get mad at me, plenty of young women have done stupid crap, too (indeed, there’s a weird school of thought that thinks it’s a great triumph when women live down to the lowest standards of men, but that’s a subject for another time).
If you want to get all Darwinian about it, you could chalk it up the common behavior of male chimpanzees and humans alike of getting into fights to impress females. If you want to get all Moynihanny about it, you can blame the degradation of families and fatherhood. Or you can blame secularization, or the ennui that comes with late-stage capitalism, or the frick’n influence of Nietzsche or Mr. Rogers. The point is young people, particularly males, love to create drama, defy authority, and anoint themselves the heroic warriors of their tale.
In that passage from Matt “Those Aren’t Pillows” Labash’s essay, Tiny admits he would have joined Antifa if he had stumbled on a different YouTube video. That pretty much tells you all you need to know. Some people just want an excuse to act on impulses that have remarkably little, if anything, to do with ideology. Radicalism is better understood as a psychological drive than a serious intellectual position.
The best analogy is to criminal outfits. I’m sure if you talked to a Crip or a Blood, they’d be able to talk your ear off about how different Crips and Bloods are from each other. But I think all rational people understand the differences are smaller than those between Coke and Pepsi. My hunch is that if you held everything else constant, a Crip born in Blood territory would grow up to be a Blood. If Tony Soprano had been born a Lupertazzi instead, how much would change? And if Millhouse had been born in Shelbyville, he’d be saying those damn Springfieldians are the ones addicted to sweets.
Trying Too Hard
Intellectuals and ideologues of various stripes tend not to like these kinds of explanations, for the largely laudable reason that they make a living working with ideas (and partisans like to make hay wherever they can). This is why conservatives often place too much emphasis on bad left-wing ideas to explain the breakdown in morals, marriage, etc. As I’ve written many times before, the car and the birth-control pill have — for good and ill — done more to overturn settled institutions and customs than Nietzsche or Marx ever could. But pills and automobiles are hard to argue with, so like drunks searching for their car keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is good, intellectuals focus on the stuff they can argue with.
Take this fairly representative Twitter thread from a writer trying to insist that there are deep and profound ideological differences between Antifa and the alt-right, particularly this bit:
I don’t want to start cannibalizing my forthcoming book, but the simple fact is that most of these ideological rationalizations for why Antifa is so very different from the alt-right or “fascists” are morally obtuse distractions. Sure, the ideological arguments invoked by Antifa and the alt-right are different. Fine. Also, who cares? Let’s say for the sake of argument Antifa is “better” than the alt-right? Congrats! You’ve established that you’re better than Nazis. Good for you. The relevant question is whether Antifa’s behavior is morally or legally justifiable and the obvious answer is “Of course not.”
But as Irving Kristol once said, “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.” And so supposedly serious people expend enormous energy trying to explain why their pet goon squads are morally superior to other goon squads.
Never mind that the people exhausting themselves trying to justify Antifa’s antics consistently steal a base. As Matt “Smell My Fingers” Labash demonstrates, many of the people these self-styled Roter Frontkämpferbund are beating up aren’t fascists, save in the sense Orwell had in mind when he wrote that “the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Sure, Antifa will beat up fascists, and my dog will chase squirrels. But my dog will also chase chipmunks, rabbits, mice, crows, deer, and — given the chance — gnus. Antifa appears equally discriminating.
And, unlike conservatives who condemn the white supremacists and neo-nazis, the leftists defending Antifa are actually lending aid and comfort to them by crafting ridiculous rationalizations for their behavior. As we’ve seen, that’s all these shmucks need.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: The doggos were very happy to see me, almost as happy as I was to see them. Zoë’s neediness seems to have been exacerbated by my long absence. She demands a lot more scratching than even before I left on our West Coast trip. And while Pippa demanded an unusual amount of lap-dog time, she’s still more interested in tennis-ball retrieval. The problem is that, with the end of summer, lots of plants are shedding their burrs and seedlings, which, for some evolutionary reason, are perfectly suited for spaniel fur. And, according to Murphy’s Law, a thrown tennis ball must land in precisely the spot where such vegan hate-balls are densest. I spent the better part of an hour yanking them out of her ears and the tufts of hair on her head we call her toupee. The early fall weather also has them living with their mischief batteries overcharged.
Oh, since we’re on the topic of dogs, here’s my (latest) defense of my dog obsession. I gave a great shout out to the Dogist (and a lot of new Twitter followers). I didn’t get a thank you, which is weird. Still it’s a great account.
I am pretty much consumed with the final edits of the manuscript for the next two weeks, but I will be on Special Report either next Tuesday or Wednesday. I will also be giving a talk at Davidson College next Thursday.
Oh, and we recorded a new GLoP this week (Read the comments for images of Ricardo Montalban as a Japanese crime lord).
Here’s some other stuff I wrote recently:
And now, the weird stuff.