While it doesn’t exactly say so, the New York Times op-ed by Columbia journalism and sociology prof Todd Gitlin gives the clear impression that the Antifa arose to deal with the Naxos in Charlottesville. There is no mention of them existing before, and every reference relates to their fight against the fascism of white supremacy.
Were they not the same Antifa that trashed Berkeley last February to prevent Milo from speaking, pepper-sprayed a female Trump supporter, hit a guy on the head with a bike lock? Not if one reads Gitlin’s description.
In Mr. Trump’s telling, the presence of antifa activists during the violence in Charlottesville, Va., this month was evidence that the far left is just as violent as the far right: “You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything.”
Surrogates have aped Mr. Trump’s “blame both sides” rhetoric; overnight, antifa — and its assumed synonym, “alt-left” — have become right-wing shibboleths, right there with “social justice warrior” and “liberal snowflake.” In truth, there is no symmetry between either “alt-right” and either “antifa” or “alt-left.” Antifa is the backlash to the backlash, a defensive response to the growing presence of right-wing extremism.
While it may well be true that the effort to create an equivalency between the Antifa and the Naxos is false, it is similarly false to “explain” their existence as “a defensive response” to right-wing extremism. Charles Murray threatened no harm to anyone. Milo, Shapiro and Coulter may be despicable people, but they were only there to speak. And what about Christina Hoff Sommers? Yet, the Antifa were out to silence them. Defensive? Hardly.
Who are the antifa, then? They do not advocate a positive doctrine, racial or otherwise. Some supporters consider themselves (as Mr. Trump accurately said) anarchists, some Marxists of different stripes; others don’t care much what you call them. There is no national antifa organization; most organized groups are local, concentrated in Texas and the Northwest. There’s not even a consensus among adherents as to whether to pronounce the term AN-tee-fah or an-TEE-fah. They aim to confront, expose, shame — and sometimes convert — white supremacists.
Few antifa groups wear masks or carry firearms, though in a street confrontation, especially in an open-carry state like Virginia, where the Charlottesville police did not separate rival groups, a few firearms go a long way. One group calling itself Redneck Revolt (“Putting the Red Back in Redneck”) displayed rifles in Charlottesville and took credit — witnesses agree — for protecting the larger crowd of antifa demonstrators.
Cite? No matter. If it’s in the newspaper, it must be true, as is the rationale comparing the Antifa with the forces opposing the rise of the Third Reich. So what if stories in the old Grey Lady about the Antifa appeared long before anyone talked about Charlottesville or the Naxos. One might think an editor there would read this op-ed and respond, “well, the stories in this very paper disprove the tacit assertion that this group arose to fight white supremacy, but in fact was busily silencing wrongthinking academics through violence,” so this shouldn’t be published to create this obviously false impression.
Yet, published it is. It’s not that he tries to create a kinder, gentler Antifa, so much as he sanitizes its purpose to pretend that it wasn’t out there cracking heads to silence speech, but just saving us from the Naxos, who are more hateful and violent. It’s not that it makes the Antifa wonderful, but it makes them far less awful. Using violence to silence speech isn’t the sort of thing that warms people to the group, few of whom wear masks (cite?).
Having cleansed their souls, Gitlin goes on to separate them from the progressive seekers of truth and justice. The Antifa may exist, but are not the armed voices of the righteous tolerant.
But many antifa activists do not think strategically about whom they alienate. They are convinced that the hour for normal politics has passed, and let the chips fall where they may.
What happens now? Antifa, riding a vastly larger anti-Trump wave, will probably grow. So does the potential for armed clashes, especially in open-carry states. If the police do not act astutely, armed showdowns could develop.
Wild and crazy kids with arms, a tiny corps of well-intended if strategically foolish kids. This may be true, though no evidence is offered in support, but on a college campus, they can do a lot of harm. This is particularly true if your kid happens to be anywhere near a stray bullet. But you wouldn’t mind sacrificing your child for the cause, right?
Many liberals and leftists think they taint the overwhelmingly nonviolent anti-Trump resistance movement and play into Mr. Trump’s hands. No less a left-wing eminence than Noam Chomsky calls the antifa “a minuscule fringe of the left” and “a major gift to the right.” Mr. Chomsky considers them unprincipled, outnumbered and outgunned, as well as a distraction from practical tasks.
This is the Bill Murray theory of an all-girl army so that if you win, the other side was beaten by girls. If you lose, so what, all you did was beat a bunch of girls. The Antifa are disavowed by the peace-loving, “overwhelmingly nonviolent anti-Trump resistance movement,” and so whatever they do can’t come back to spank progressives. At the same time, they extol their good intentions to fight the Naxos, ignoring that what they’ve been up to all along is silencing wrongthinkers with force and violence.
Will one op-ed be sufficient to cleanse the Antifa of its pre-Naxos violence? Will it be enough to distance progressives from the false equivalence? By providing the real estate to create this new myth, the New York Times is giving it a shot, even if it means ignoring its own stories. But then, the cause is so important that it’s worthy of being accomplished by any means necessary. Even reinventing the Antifa.
Update: Nick Gillespie at Reason offers a great deal more about the antifa (he doesn’t capitalize it):
That’s the most-charitable explanation for antifa’s readiness to commit violence in public, that its members want to deny racists a public forum (in fact, it’s not exactly clear what the original organizers of yesterday’s march in Berkeley were all about; in any case, it’s clear from press reports that the vast majority of people assembled were against any sort of neo-Nazi or alt-right beliefs). Any group that claims “hate speech is not free speech” is going to become not just censorious but violent pretty quickly.
Not everyone is ready to fall for the new improved Antifa.
Update 2: A view from the mean streets of Berkeley on getting beaten with the best of intentions. For those who want to pretend this is just a couple of random kids who are into cosplay, this might be very enlightening.