In the past I have generally taken on two key positions – one is an absolute right to free speech and the other is an opposition to violence. However, in the last few weeks with the events at Charlottesville, the rise of the alt-right and neo-Nazis, and the confrontation between those forces and antifa, I have spent considerable time reconsidering my views.
As I have explained on these pages many times, while I tend to be situated somewhere on the left portion of the spectrum, my thinking on specific issues is constantly re-evaluated and often shifts and even changes over time.
I will often use social media to help me vet my thinking; one advantage I have is that my friends on social media are actually quite diverse, ranging from the far left and even radical parts of the spectrum to hard-core Trump supporters – much perhaps to the chagrin of unsuspecting Facebook friends.
My concern is this: the rise of the alt-right to levers of power backed by the official state is real. That has given even more fringe groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis the belief that they have an ally in the presidency (see the comments by David Duke following Trump’s various iterations of his Charlottesville speech).
In the weeks that have followed Charlottesville, we have now seen, in both Boston and San Francisco, successful strategies for thwarting the forces of hate.
The left will argue that engaging the forces of hate with violence plays into the narrative of “extremists on both sides,” with the fear that it will simply alienate moderates and create more chaos and violence.
The other problem we face when talking about antifa is that antifa itself really does not exist as a cohesive entity. Instead, it refers to what you might consider to be a loose network of left-wing and militant activists, sometimes anarchists, who seek to physically engage against the far right and attempt to prevent them from speaking.
They are sometimes considered synonymous with black bloc anarchists, but, while the movements overlap, they’re not identical.
Many on the right, and even some of the left, have attempted to paint antifa as the moral equivalent of the violent white supremacists. As an article in Slate Magazine points out, the left “don’t like antifa much more.” They tend to see the activists’ “tactics as counterproductive at best, and worry that they’re ceding the moral high ground to the right.”
Indeed, In “The Rise of the Violent Left,” a recent Atlantic piece, Peter Beinart related the actions of antifa in Portland, which ended up causing an annual parade to be shut down because it included Trump supporters.
“The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right,” wrote Mr. Beinart. “In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”
Critics are right to point out, “antifa refuses to eschew violence.”
The question I pondered this week is whether violence has a place in the current battle.
The ACLU’s position on free speech has generally been very consistent. However, they drew heavy criticism from the far left for litigating on behalf of the neo-Nazis to be able to protest in Charlottesville. As a result of this pressure, we see, for the first time, the ACLU retreat slightly.
In a statement they point out, “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
This has drawn heavy criticism from those such as Eugene Volokh, a more right-leaning and libertarian-leaning civil liberties advocate. In a piece a week ago, Mr. Volokh argued, “[A]s I understand the traditional position of the ACLU, it is that speech and assembly must be allowed, even if violence and unprotected incitement (or threats) at the event are punished.”
All of this suggests perhaps the need to re-think prior stances that I have taken, where the lines of free speech need to be drawn.
For some liberals, however, antifa’s willingness to attempt to use violence in order to shut down right-wing speech appears to go too far, with many considering it “both morally wrong and strategically obtuse.” Some worry that the tactics of antifa play into their enemies’ hands.
Slate cites the Southern Poverty Law Center, which released a guide for college students “about how to deal with alt-right figures on campus. It urges students to avoid confrontation with visiting right-wing speakers, and to instead hold separate, alternative events.
“When an alt-right personality is scheduled to speak on campus, the most effective course of action is to deprive the speaker of the thing he or she wants most—a spectacle,” says the guide. “Alt-right personalities know their cause is helped by news footage of large jeering crowds, heated confrontations and outright violence at their events.”
But, if that’s the case, even the so-called non-violent solutions in Boston and San Francisco ultimately resulted in the neo-Nazis backing down from their demonstrations.
On the other hand, for antifa, Charlottesville proves that confrontational tactics are necessary.
But the situation becomes more ambiguous when you look at what happened on the ground. As Slate reports, “On Saturday in Charlottesville, when antifa did turn out, many of the peaceful progressive protesters credit it with defending them.”
Cornel West credited antifa: “[W]e would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists.”
But it wasn’t just Cornel West, but also Charlottesville Pastor Seth Wispelwey. He told Slate that “at one point the clergy were charged by a ‘battalion’ of armed white supremacists, with the police nowhere to be seen. The clergy regrouped, linking arms and preparing to risk being assaulted, but more than 200 antifa activists massed between them and 100 or so Nazis.”
Seth Wispelwey told Slate, that, without antifa, “[w]e would have just been trampled and beaten.”
Mr. Wispelwey is committed to nonviolence and civil disobedience and thus has philosophical and strategic differences with antifa, “but he doesn’t condemn it.”
“I have different tactics, but overall I say, as a clergy person, it’s dangerous to wait for the perfect at the expense of the good when actual bodily safety is on the line,” he said.
In Peter Beinart’s piece on antifa, he writes, “Trump is right that, in Charlottesville and beyond, the violence of some leftist activists constitutes a real problem. Where he’s wrong is in suggesting that it’s a problem in any way comparable to white supremacism.”
Mr. Beinart continues, “Antifa is not a figment of the conservative imagination. It’s a moral problem that liberals need to confront.”
But I think his position is probably too unequivocal. Certainly there are times when antifa – again, not a real organized group to begin with – has caused more problems than it has solved, but, as the stories out of Charlottesville attest, there are times when it can be useful.
The world has seemingly changed, in even the last six months. Last year, for the most part antifa was dealing with theoretical neo-Nazis and fascists. Even early this year, we were talking about Milo and Ann Coulter, not people carrying actual swastikas, guns and waving torches.
If that world continues to evolve, there may become more of a place for a group willing to physically confront the alt-right. I worry in particular that one of the lessons of Nazi Germany was that the left basically backed down in the face of physical threats of violence and ceded the stage to the Nazis.
The events out of Charlottesville paint a much more nuanced picture than some wish to acknowledge. There are those who believe that the police literally ceded the scene to the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and, in that absence, the present of antifa might have prevented more innocent people from being overrun.
After a lot of pondering this week I have decided I cannot embrace a fully violent response to the alt-right, as that does play into the conservative playbook and allows for moral equivalency comparisons to come into play.
—David M. Greenwald reporting