Antifa chants at Berkeley: "No Trump, no wall, no USA at all"

It’s exceptionally stupid to proclaim yourself literally anti-American when some of your fellow travelers on the left are working hard to portray you as defending American values from the alt-right. But then, most radicals are exceptionally stupid.

The majority of liberal defenses of Antifa thus far are of the “anti-anti” rather than “pro” variety. You don’t see much in the “Antifa is great!” vein but you do see some in the “alt-right is awful, therefore Antifa blah blah” vein. But maybe that’s changing. “Heroic” sounds pretty pro to me:

Right, right, Toure’s just one guy, but when someone mainstream enough to have hosted a show on MSNBC is making apologies for Antifa head-cracking, that’s a hint that the movement has a foothold among garden-variety liberals. There are still plenty of lefties who denounce the violence, of course, although their reasoning can be creative. Beating someone up for saying something foul is wrong only because … the speaker wants you to?

I believe that if you look both historically and in practice, when you have widespread street brawling between “good” groups and “bad” groups it almost always ends up being a victory for the fascist groups. This is for a number of reasons. First is that these groups have historically used the presence of civil violence to justify “law and order” crackdowns which usually empower and propagate authoritarian politics. You can already see this, tendentiously, in those hideous NRA video hate screeds. Again, history tells us this and I think it’s close to intuitive: breakdowns of civil peace lead to authoritarian crackdowns, which almost always have a right-wing and often racist valence.

In a related but more general sense, it is precisely the aim of fascistic groups to shift the basis of civic dialog, space and politics from law to violence. To put it another way, they are trying to shift the basis of society and power from law, voting, equality to force, violence and the domination of the most powerful. And in this case we mean power as expressed by the superior ability to wield violence. Once we’ve moved from one to the other, fascists have to a significant degree already won. The Nazis and white supremacists are literally trying to create a “both sides” situation. We should not help them.

As Alex Griswold says, this argument boils down to the idea that anti-fascist violence is bad simply because it’s counterproductive. Presumably all you’d need to do to flip the calculus from bad to good is convince the left that it isn’t. Make them believe that they can make the alt-right, and eventually the mainstream right (whom they frequently dismiss as thinly veiled racists or fascists), go away by cracking enough heads and the case against violence would evaporate. The morality of silencing ideas through force seemingly isn’t relevant. “Nazis deserve to get punched,” Josh Marshall goes on to say in the piece quoted above, matter of factly. Whether the Nazis are speaking, demonstrating, or actually attacking people apparently isn’t a material distinction.

Another problem: Who’s a “Nazi” isn’t always, or usually, clear.

Their faces hidden behind black bandannas and hoodies, about 100 anarchists and antifa— “anti-fascist” — members barreled into a protest Sunday afternoon in Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.

Jumping over plastic and concrete barriers, the group melted into a larger crowd of around 2,000 that had marched peacefully throughout the sunny afternoon for a “Rally Against Hate” gathering.

Shortly after, violence began to flare. A pepper-spray-wielding Trump supporter was smacked to the ground with homemade shields. Another was attacked by five black-clad antifa members, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself. A conservative group leader retreated for safety behind a line of riot police as marchers chucked water bottles, shot off pepper spray and screamed, “Fascist go home!”

“Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley,” WaPo’s arresting headline runs. By Marshall’s logic, whether that attack was warranted or not depends on whether it made the right-wingers who got stomped more or less susceptible to believing in white supremacy. If they were “scared straight” into not associating with the alt-right going forward, mission accomplished.

At Reason, Nick Gillespie makes a sharp point not just about Antifa but about the broader left: “Any group that claims ‘hate speech is not free speech’ is going to become not just censorious but violent pretty quickly.” In theory neo-Nazis and white supremacists are a special case that deserve to be met with violence since they’ve practiced violence themselves on an enormous scale in the past, but it requires only the tiniest logical step to extend that reasoning to “hate speech” of any sort. After all, today’s run-of-the-mill bigot risks becoming tomorrow’s Klansman if he isn’t disabused of his beliefs by whatever means necessary. Some polls will tell you that more than half of all Democrats believe “hate speech” should be illegal; the more mainstream the defenses of Antifa become, the more support for criminal action against “haters” will bleed into support for vigilante action. You already see it with Antifa itself. Without a strong ethic that political violence is always wrong when directed at people behaving nonviolently, you’ll see it break out of the fringe.