The New Yorker’s Daniel Penny recently reviewed Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. If you’re like me, and you’ve only heard bits here and there about Antifa, this is a great primer on the international history and philosophy of these violent protestors.
I found this bit most interesting:
[Antifa] believe that Fascists forfeit their rights to speak and assemble when they deny those same rights to others through violence and intimidation. For instance, last week, the North Dakota newspaper The Forum published a letter from Pearce Tefft in which he recalled a chilling exchange about free speech with his son, Peter, shortly before Peter headed to the rally in Charlottesville. “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech,” the younger Tefft reportedly said to his father. “You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.”
For Bray and his subjects, the horror of this history and the threat of its return demands that citizens, in the absence of state suppression of Fascism, take action themselves. Bray notes that state-based protections failed in Italy and Germany, where Fascists were able to take over governments through legal rather than revolutionary means—much as the alt-right frames its activities as a defense of free speech, Fascists were able to spread their ideology under the aegis of liberal tolerance. Antifa does not abide by John Milton’s dictum that, “in a free and open encounter,” truthful ideas will prevail. “After Auschwitz and Treblinka,” Bray writes, “anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death the ability of organized Nazis to say anything.”
On the one hand, that’s not a bad point. As Bray says, fascism came to power in Germany via the ballot, not the bayonet. I began reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reichin December, and while I’m only up to about 1938 (nobody tell me how it ends!), in 1923 Hitler led a coup to overthrow the democratic government and install his Alt Reich. The coup failed, and Hitler was imprisoned for high treason. After being released from prison in 1924, Hitler was briefly banned from politics; by 1933, the coalition government appointed Hitler as Chancellor.
If you’re a democracy, why should you passively allow anti-democratic groups to use your institutions and mechanisms to end you?
On the other hand, if you’re a democracy, the alternative to the previous paragraph is to prop up democracy by undermining the values of your democracy. Banning some speech in defense of a government that will defend free speech seems hypocritical at best and self-defeating at worst. If you profess to be committed to the rule of law, you probably ought to follow the law. And look, assault is assault no matter how many Pepe the Frog signs the other guy has. Punching a Nazi is best left to Captain America in the movies.
Here’s software engineer Yonatan Zunger on being intolerant of intolerance:
Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.
Zunger wrote this essay on January 2, 2017. While the bulk of his essay deals with intolerance of other religions, there’s a reason this essay went viral after Charlottesville:
The antisocial member of the group, who harms other people in the group on a regular basis, need not be accepted; the purpose of your group’s acceptance is to let people feel that they have a home, and someone who actively tries to thwart this is incompatible with the broader purpose of that acceptance. Prejudice against Nazis is not the same as prejudice against Blacks, because one is based on people’s stated opposition to their neighbors’ lives and safety, the other on a characteristic that has nothing to do with whether they’ll live in peace with you or not.
I’m still not convinced the best way to combat fascists is to literally combat them, but after reading both of these, I think I understand the philosophy of Antifa a little better.