Peter Beinart has an interesting piece at the Atlantic today looking at the recent rise of far-left protests and why, in his view, they don’t live up to the standards set by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. At the outset, I’ll say I don’t think Beinart goes nearly far enough in his criticism, but I can’t help but hope some of what he says will sink into some of the thicker skulls in the media who have been defending Antifa at every turn. Beinart starts be recalling some of the recent incidents he’s focused on in this piece, starting with running Fox News contributor Kat Timpf out of a bar.
Last Saturday night, a Fox News contributor named Kat Timpf was at a bar in Brooklyn. As she recounted the incident to National Review, a man asked her where she worked. A while later, she said, a woman began “screaming at me to get out.” Timpf walked away, but the woman followed her around the bar while other patrons laughed. Fearing physical attack, Timpf left…
The Wednesday before Timpf’s experience at the Brooklyn bar, a dozen or so protesters associated with an anti-fascist group called Smash Racism DC assembled in front of the Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s home. While some of what transpired is disputed, this much is not. The protesters chanted, among other things, “We know where you sleep at night.”…
In June, roughly a dozen protesters chanted “shame” and “end family separation” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen while she ate dinner with a companion at Washington restaurant. Later that week, health-care protesters confronted Florida Attorney General Pam Biondi after she left a movie in Tampa Bay. In August, according to the conservative activist Candace Owen, protesters began “harassing and throwing things” at her and a fellow conservative activist, Charlie Kirk, while they ate breakfast in a restaurant in Philadelphia. In September, demonstrators chanting “we believe survivors” chased Ted Cruz and his wife from an Italian restaurant near the Senate.
We’ve covered all of these stories here at Hot Air. This behavior is so common now that it’s fair to call it the far-left’s new normal. In fact, there are at least a couple of incidents like this which Beinart has left out of his summary. But he goes on to make a sustained case that the reason these incidents are troubling is that they fail to meet the high standards set for civil disobedience in at least two specific ways:
The problem is that they are not sufficiently “public” and “conscientious.” By public, Rawls meant that civil disobedience is a form of political argument. Normal criminals try to break the law without anyone knowing about it. People who commit civil disobedience, by contrast, publicize their infractions to dramatize the injustice they seek to change…
The people who protested Carlson at his home, and Nielsen and Cruz at restaurants, did convey a message. They filmed videos and posted social-media statements that conveyed their objections to Carlson’s views on race, Nielsen’s policies towards migrants and Cruz’s support for Kavanaugh. But they failed in another respect: By obscuring their identities, they refused to take individual responsibility for their actions. When people tried to film them, the demonstrators outside Carlson’s house covered their faces.
Secondly, Beinart says the protesters weren’t properly “conscientious” meaning principled in their approach. Specifically, he says protests should be tied to the places where decisions are being made, not to the places where they aren’t.
There’s no good argument for protesting outside Carlson’s home rather than in front of Fox News, or at a restaurant where Nielsen is eating rather than immigrant detention centers or the Department of Homeland Security. For one thing, it clouds the message. When sexual-assault survivors descended on the Senate, they were targeting the people empowered to confirm Brett Kavanaugh in the place where they would do it. Their location highlighted their moral appeal. But Ted Cruz doesn’t confirm judges while eating dinner with his wife.
What’s more, protesting in private and semi-private spaces increases the risk of collateral damage. It’s one thing to inconvenience and embarrass Cruz and his staffers or Carlson and his employees, who have chosen to participate in his public actions. It’s another to inconvenience and embarrass their families. The Smash Racism DC protesters didn’t even make sure Carlson would be home when they gathered outside his house. So their most immediate victim was his wife.
If this article serves to make some on the left rethink their tacit (or explicit) support for Antifa and the new wave of far-left protesters, then I’m all for it. But I think the article falls short for an obvious reason: The people engaging in these activities aren’t doing this by accident. Antifa members are not covering their faces and hounding people in public because they’re confused about where the boundaries for civil disobedience have been set. They literally have training for this. They embrace it. After much consideration, they’ve decided that instilling fear through threats, arson, and violence is appropriate and even just.
If you look at video of Antifa marches (in the northwest, for instance) you’ll see signs that say things like “Make Nazis Afraid Again.” That really does sum up their considered approach to public debate. And because it does, they probably aren’t going to feel much shame about their behavior when it’s compared to Gandhi. If they’ve terrorized their opponents (or their families) that’s a win in their book. That was their goal all along.
And that has been my problem with the defenses of Antifa from people like CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon. Antifa are not a group of nice liberals who accidentally get drawn into fist fights and vandalism. They are not trying to be the successors of Martin Luther King Jr. They have no such aspirations. What they want is to beat and terrorize those they consider fascists and prevent them from having a voice, something they call no-platforming.
So if you want to explain why Antifa is wrong, that’s fine. But the problem with Antifa isn’t just how they behave. The real problem is what they believe. What they believe about the right and what they believe about their role in opposing the right. When the left starts talking about why Antifa’s entire outlook is a problem, then we’ll have made some progress.