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Have anti-fascists become "the most reasonable people in America"?


Writing for Pacific Standard, Malcolm Harris pushes back against critics of last week’s confrontational protest at UC Berkeley that forced the cancellation of a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent “alt-right” author and provocateur. While critics suggest that the confrontational tactics of “antifa” (anti-fascist) demonstrators only alienate average people and feed support for the “alt-right,” Harris argues that in the current US political climate, where bona fide fascists exercise real political power (e.g., Steve Bannon), there is evidence for broad support of antifa tactics. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is entitled “Meet Antifa, the Most Reasonable People in America”:

The most aggressive edge of the resistance marches under the banner of anti-fascism, or “antifa.” While most Americans would likely agree that “fascism is bad,” anti-fascism is a more specific set of politics. The antifa banner features black and red flags, signifying an alliance between anarchists and communists. What unites these two groups (who have been known to kill one another from time to time) is a commitment to confront and defeat fascists and white supremacists by whatever means necessary. It’s a coalition that has existed for as long as fascism has; the Italian Arditi del Popolo (People’s Squads) rose to fight Mussolini in 1921, even when the Socialist and Communist Parties refused to support them. In 1924, anarchist lumberjacks allied with the Industrial Workers of the World waged a “drawn battle” with a Ku Klux Klan recruitment drive in Greenville, Maine. American anti-fascists have been fighting a mostly quiet conflict with domestic Nazis at punk rock venues and small white-nationalist gatherings for decades, but, as fascists have snuck their collective jackboot into the curved door of the Oval Office, the struggle has reached the mainstream.

Antifa hit the big-time in 2017 when an as-yet-unidentified inauguration protester punched 38-year-old professional fascist cheerleader Richard Spencer in the face on camera. The clip went viral, and the Internet memed it to death—now you can even punch Spencer in a mobile game! As the video spread, interest in anti-fascism spiked, and I can say, based on personal experience, that the attitude at demonstrations has changed. Where masked and black-clad antifa used to get wary glares, now it’s thumbs-up and “right on!” from kid-toting parents. Former congressman and Michigan institution John Dingell tweeted “When I was a pup, punching Nazis was encouraged. Hell, some of my Army buddies won medals for it.” For Democrats and liberals who aren’t nonagenarian retired veterans, however, all this anti-fascism can feel like a threat.

A “concern troll” is someone who pretends to share a group’s goals, for the sole purpose of complaining about their tactics. Faced with anti-fascists in the streets breaking windows and Nazi faces, liberal pundits have gone full concern-troll. “Destroying D.C. businesses is absolutely the wrong way to protest Donald Trump,” wrote the New Republic’s Graham Vyse before the glass at the first Starbucks had hit the ground. At the New York Times, Frank Bruni claimed, bizarrely, that punching Spencer in the head “does more to help him than to hurt him.” As far as these folks are concerned, the problem is twofold: There’s no excuse, they say, for extralegal violence or property destruction (which they often confuse with violence), and anyway (they claim), the tactics are ineffective. That’s all a little rich coming from die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters, people who don’t have a lot of credibility when it comes to knowing how to beat Trump and his merry band of racist garbage. But liberals don’t share a strategic agenda with people who march under red and black flags anyway; what the pundits think about radical tactics is moot.

Image via Pacific Standard.


This is only the most instrumental criticism. It focuses on strategy. Notice that both it and the article provide no convincing evidence so as to judge either way, including when citing historical anecdotes. This is conjecture covered over by rhetoric – on both sides of the issue.

The (much) more powerful criticisms can be grouped into the following:

Moral criticism – the antifa actions discussed in the article are themselves abusive and reckless.

Democratic criticism – the antifa actions discussed in the article are undemocratic (cf. “Neoliberal Radicals” for the communitarian and civic republican sense of “democratic” involved in this criticism).

Historical criticism – the use of “fascism” in the article and frequently in antifa press – e.g., Lennard’s – is not historically accurate. #MAGA, for instance, is not para-military.

Aesthetic criticism – the appearance of resistance and the view of the way that appearance is perceived -e.g., through “disruption,” “attention gathering,” “viral social media transmission,” etc. – are thin and superficial; they foreclose or deflect from more creative responses.

Epistemological criticism – the claims made by antifa advocates in this article and many others are poorly reasoned, lacking in convincing evidential claims, and convenient conjectures. So here, too:

There is no clear evidence of “broad support” (the term is vague and the evidence given is anecdotal and piecemeal with no attempt to figure out how to gather evidence for the claim). But even if everyone but one person jumped on the bandwagon, this wouldn’t affect the other criticisms, which aren’t about what people will want to do when they are outraged and scared, but about what we ought to do.

Just some push-back to the “push back” in this slam pit.