There was something rather chilling about the ease with which the young woman justified political violence.
“We don’t rely on the cops or the courts to do the work for us,” she told a CNN reporter in the news network’s recent “Unmasking Antifa” report.
The woman – masked, dressed in black and flanked by other antifa members in the same uniform – described her movement’s willingness to use violence for political ends with the same comfort one might use when talking about a favourite flavour of ice cream.
That violence has taken the form of riots on university campuses to silence right-wing speakers in the United States, threats of violence used to silence similar speakers on campuses in Canada, and several violent protests across the US. Recently, that violence extended to attacking a journalist in Virgina.
“Antifa is any group that’s willing to stand up against fascists by any means necessary,” the woman said to CNN. “You have to make it so unpalatable to be doing white supremacist organizing they no longer want to do that.”
There is an obvious conclusion that can be drawn about antifa from the CNN interview. If its cause is to combat fascism or racism, then its cause is just, but its methods are repulsively anti-democratic and, perhaps unknowingly, mimics the very ideology it claims to oppose.
When asked about whether she believes people have a right to free speech, for instance, the antifa woman said: “We do feel communities have the right to step in and say ‘No, this is not acceptable in our community, we will not stand for this.'”
From this point of view, “not standing for it” includes the use of violence.
This is not how democracy and civil liberties work. In a free society, we do not cede our right to speak, to organize or to associate to masked gangs of crusaders.
Those who respect civil liberties do not riot or assault others to prevent their voices from being heard, even if those voices transmit a message so ugly that our natural inclination to rise up to oppose it.
We can argue against that message. We can organize and protest. We can march. We can write articles and books, create art and music and we do not give up our ground.
But we do not use threats and violence to incubate a climate of fear designed to silence others. The solution to ugly and hateful speech is, and always will be, more and better speech. Never violence.
It is easy to sympathize with a band of self-styled Nazi-fighters. Nazism, or any related racist dogma, is so vile and so indefensible that to even engage in a debate on its merits is to abandon a slice of one’s own humanity. Fascism is a species of ideology that can be dismissed outright. Whenever and wherever such ideas arise, they ought to be directly opposed.
But if we do not find our backs against that hard wall of necessity where violence is the only means left to protect and preserve life – in the case of self-defense or actual war – then we fight our battles with words and actions that do not extend to bloodshed.
To engage in violence when opposing something as disgusting as a white power march is to cede the argument to the racists. It is to say in effect, “We surrender the life blood of civil liberties to take up the trucheon.”
What antifa fails to grasp is that there are only two positions on freedom of speech. To borrow from Noam Chomsky, it’s easy to be in favour of free speech for views you like. Dictators and tyrants always are. So if you are in favour of free speech then you are in favour of free speech for those views you despise. Otherwise, you are not in favour of free speech.
Antifa, it seems, has picked its side on the matter. Only the view regarded as acceptable is the one it permits. Riots or outright assault is can await those who don’t conform.
This permutation of antifa philosophy isn’t just undemocratic. It is utterly ineffective.
To date, antifa violence hasn’t protected anyone or blunted the reemergence of white supremacists. It hasn’t stopped the rise of the alt-right, or the election of Donald Trump. Certainly, antifa violence of the last few years did not frighten white supremacists away from that march in Virgina. It did not stop a white supremacist from slamming a car into peaceful protesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.
In short, if the stated goal of antifa violence is to stop white supremacists, then antifa is a complete failure.
As I have argued before, when those on the far left – call them antifa, alt-left, ctrl-left, or something else entirely – engage in violence, they feed into the white-supremacist, alt-right mythology of being “oppressed.” Rather than make them afraid, the violence emboldens those who harbour Nazi sympathies.
Undoubtedly, there are those who fly the antifa flag who are not violent and if they respect civil liberties they ought to distance themselves from those who are.
For as it turns out, there is a historical precedent of uniformed gangs bound together by a singular ideological vision using violence to intimidate and silence those who do not conform to their politics. You need only look back less than 100 years to find it.
Their uniforms were not black hoodies and bandannas. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, they wore brown shirts and they played an instrumental role in the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. You may know them better as the Nazis.
Antifa may claim to oppose fascists, but in their violence, they look a lot like the thing they claim to hate.