Column: The Backlash to Antifa  Misses the Real Threat

For the Valley News
Saturday, September 02, 2017

Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon sure stepped in it recently. His disavowal of visiting lecturer Mark Bray’s remarks about antifa drew a sharp rebuke from Dartmouth faculty in a letter signed by more than 100 members. Hanlon wrote, “Recent statements made by Lecturer in History Mark Bray supporting violent protest do not represent the views of Dartmouth.” Faculty members found Hanlon’s disavowal a disturbing and gratuitous attack on a colleague.

Bravo to the faculty and boo to Hanlon. It hardly bears stating that Bray never claimed to be representing “the views of Dartmouth.” It is also worth noting that by any fair reading or hearing, Bray did not “support violent protest.” I listened to several of Bray’s news appearances and found nothing particularly radical about his views. Even if he had declared support for violent protest, Hanlon’s disavowal would have been somewhat chilling in an academic environment.

Antifa, a recent phenomenon, is certainly providing fodder for the news. A shorthand for anti-fascist, the term describes a loosely associated group of activists who have arisen in response to the neo-Nazi/white supremacist thugs who marauded through Charlottesville and elsewhere to protect the glory of the Confederacy. This has led to a flurry of tut-tuts in the commentariat, including the use of “alt-left” as an equal partner to “alt-right” and a widespread condemnation of antifa’s tactics.

It’s not just Hanlon. Liberal backlash to antifa is disturbing and intellectually dishonest. I am ambivalent about violent responses to neo-Nazism and white supremacy, but ambivalence isn’t the same as false equivalence.

For example, in a widely praised essay, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges claimed that the “lust for violence” was essentially the same on both sides. He wrote: “Behind the rhetoric of the “alt-right” about white nativism and protecting American traditions, history and Christian values is the lust for violence. Behind the rhetoric of antifa, the “Black Bloc” and the so-called “alt-left” about capitalism, racism, state repression and corporate power is the same lust for violence.”

Really? The lust for violence is the problem and the issues “behind the rhetoric” are merely incidental? Hedges is charitably revisionist in characterizing “the rhetoric” of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. They are not waxing rhetorical about “protecting American traditions, history and Christian values.” They believe Jews and black folks are inferior and at least some of them believe in genocide. The “nice” ones just want to send them somewhere else. Behind the antifa movement is, as Hedges acknowledges, a passionate disdain for racism, state repression and corporate power.

Tactics and appearances aside, I might suggest that racism, state repression and corporate power that exploits humans and despoils the Earth are reasonable things to disdain. I suggest that Jewish people, gay people, Muslims and folks of color are not reasonable things to disdain, much less exterminate.

Among the concerns Bray addressed in his television appearances is the extraordinary risks associated with normalizing the neo-Nazi/white supremacist element in our nation. Donald Trump did that with his disgusting response to Charlottesville. There were “some very fine people” marching side-by-side with the swastikas, “blood and soil” chants, automatic weapons and racial slurs. He blamed hatred, bigotry and violence on “many sides.” When Hedges tacitly equates the beliefs and declares these groups as equally lustful for violence, he is guilty of Trumpism lite. The entire backlash to antifa is normalizing the vile beliefs of fascists by numbering them as just one among groups who are not behaving well.

As to violent tactics ...

I lean toward peace and nonviolence. I love one response in the Netherlands, where neo-Nazis are greeted with flowers and balloons. Their marches are treated as races and they are showered with confetti and granted little trophies for finishing at the front. But I also understand Bray’s point that it may sometimes be necessary to be prepared to defend oneself, especially when and if the police won’t. In America there are certainly reasons that black people, for example, might not feel fully confident that the police will protect them.

In the midst of this national debate about the neo-Nazis and antifa, one elephant stands in the room unnoticed. Our citizens are armed and allowed to menace others with impunity. Antifa would not have arisen as force against force if we had sensible gun laws and neo-Nazis and white supremacists weren’t allowed to march around like swat teams with bandoleers, automatic weapons, bayonets and clubs.

I don’t own a gun and I abhor violence. But if this crazy, dysfunctional nation continues to allow unfettered gun rights, open carry and public intimidation, I might change my mind. I’m a pacifist, not a masochist.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.