Antifa and the Moral Obscurity of Resistance
In the tense buildup to Mike Cernovich’s speech on campus in October, the Columbia University College Republican board was “doxxed,” their faces and names plastered around campus with an invitation to “let them know what you think” about the club’s invitation of white supremacists like Cernovitch. The doxxing—public exposure meant to shame someone with hateful views—was carried out by the New York chapter of Antifa, the loose coalition of antifascist and leftist activist groups that has been galvanized since Trump’s election last fall. In a liberal enclave like Columbia, far-right thought is anathema; it’s no wonder why the CUCR executive board members (save for the club’s president, who capitalized on the incident to land some screen time with Tucker Carlson) omit their last names on their official website.
Tracing its history back to resisting European Fascist ideologies in the 1930s, Antifa has emerged from relative obscurity following high-profile clashes with the galvanized alt-right like the one in Charlottsville, yet many struggle to define or classify it––and for good reason. The historian Mark Bray, in his recent book on Antifa, wrote that it “can variously be described as a kind of ideology, an identity, a tendency or milieu, or an activity of self-defense.” Right-wing news outlets have seized upon this ambiguity to fearmonger, labelling Antifa as an organized militia bent on fomenting a civil war.
Antifa, often condemned for their willingness to resort to violence, is probably the closest thing to an “alt-left” in American politics. Photos of them clad in all-black garb, including face masks, are formidable. Yet, drawing such a clear dichotomy is exactly what Trump and his Bannonist base desire: an invidious moral equivalency to mitigate the very real and frightening vitriol that right-wing hate groups espouse.
Antifa demonstrates the complex position of definition through opposition. The organization’s modus operandi, as far as one exists, is to counteract neo-Nazism, racism, and white supremacy wherever pockets of hate spring up in America. Antifa in the United States first gained traction with the Anti-Racist Action Network, a movement started in the 1980s to combat the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi.
While Antifa’s stated end of opposing fascism is morally laudable, its means are far from irreproachable. Since its stated goal is to fight fascism, Antifa views incidental violence as a necessary byproduct of preemptive self-defense: dismantling systems of oppression before they can strip citizens of their power to resist. Back in August, Antifa protesters in Berkeley assaulted several right-wing demonstrators with homemade shields, water bottles, and pepper spray.
Antifa’s growing pulpit in political intercourse raises a slew of moral and ideological dilemmas. How do we oppose prejudice and hate? When is forceful resistance justified? How much leniency do we give to those on “the right side?”
In the era of thermonuclear tweets and hyperactive news cycles, nuance and moral ambiguity consistently lose to bluster and bloviation in the battle for America’s attention. The reason being it’s easier to see your political opponents as monsters than it is to imagine them as complex, possibly even benevolent, if flawed, human beings.
The main problem with Antifa is its presupposition that it’s too late for traditional modes of discourse, that Trump’s election has foreclosed any possibility of making progress through the system rather than against it. If their political vision offers any intrigue or idealism, it is because their vision is one of escapism and destruction. In some ways the movement is correct: America is in crisis, with a volatile demagogue at its helm. Yet it is not a crisis of our political institutions so much as it is one of our nation’s moral and psychic fabric. What separates Antifa from the liberal wing of the Democratic party is its disposition towards authority. While grassroots organizers and congressional progressives are doing the patient work of taking control of the country back from those who tacitly endorse hate groups, Antifa seeks instant gratification and are willing to go outside the system to obtain it.
This destructive proclivity is perhaps the natural result of defining yourself against something: you end up standing for nothing––or, rather, nothing that can effect concrete, meaningful change.
How the left responds to Antifa will be as revealing as Trump’s response (or lack thereof) to the alt-right’s Charlottesville rally was indicative of his moral compass (or lack thereof). The onus of judgment may lie with the hate groups who provoke social disarray, but that doesn’t absolve those bent on opposing these groups from any moral consequence
Outside Cernovich’s speech on campus, some protesters held signs that declared “Hate speech = violence.” While it’s certainly true that vitriol and dog whistle rhetoric can incite violence, hate speech per se is not an act of violence or even unlawfulness, given its protection under the First Amendment. What is violence is violence itself.
Antifa’s doxxing posters identifying CUCR board members and urging students to “let them know what you think” straddles the line between peaceful resistance and incitement of violence, which is obviously not protected speech. While not quite a call to arms, it’s hard to imagine Antifa had only civil discourse in mind. Interpreting hate speech as an unfettered mandate to resist through whatever means one deems fit is potentially more dangerous than hate speech itself. Vigilantism only creates a feedback loop of violence, each side alleging the other threw the first stone.
When the next provocateur comes to town promulgating a creed of hatred and division, specious values that strike at the very core of our educational mission to understand and empathize with those that are cast off as Other, when he appeals to the lesser angels of our nature, leave the black masks at home; let him speak and betray his ignorance. Then speak back.