In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)
A week or so ago, shortly after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, I asked on my Facebook page: “Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Asking for a Virginian friend.” As might have been expected this semi-serious query sparked an interesting discussion in the course of which one of my friends asked me to clarify on when I thought the use of violence was justified–against the kinds of folks who marched in Charlottesville or against folks like Richard Spencer, who did indeed, get punched in the face. My reply went as follows:
I do think that Nazis create a greater threat than other instance of ideology on two legs, and will amplify and make that threat more manifest in a manner that will prompt violence directed at them – I’m OK with that violence. If I see a Nazi rally in my street, and a couple of goons screaming in my daughter’s face, I will fucking punch them. It it possible then that I will suffer Clanton’s fate, but I will plead in my defense, that I was protecting my daughter from ‘assault.’ And I will have a good legal case for doing so – Nazis, too often, behave in ways that constitute ‘assault’ – technically. They’re asking for punches.
My reply clarifies something about the nature of the so-called ‘violence’ directed at Nazis by Antifa, and responds to the various critiques directed at those who have ‘clashed’ with the various brands of white supremacists who have started to emerge, in increasing numbers, from the woodwork. The following points, I think, are salient, and build on it:
- Violence takes many forms; current critiques of Antifa fetishize physical violence, the actual meeting of flesh vs. flesh; they fail to address the violence present in a relentless pattern of intimidation and abuse and overt exertions of power. These critiques are blind in a crucial dimension; they take their eyes off the content and the history of Nazi/white supremacist speech and action; they do not examine their impact of those that bear the brunt of these. The legal definition of ‘assault’ is more catholic: it admits of more forms of violence, and allows for a greater range of actions in response.
- For many folks, the sight of Nazis marching in the streets, calling them sub-human, demanding they leave their homes and ‘go back’ to where ‘they came from,’ is already assault. Nazis don’t offer political critique: they reduce my humanity. (Read the Daily Stormer if you doubt this.) If they attempt to do that to my daughter, I will not wait for them to start swinging. I’ll start swinging first; there is, no, I repeat, no, talking with Nazis. I will not allow my daughter to be ‘assaulted’ by Nazis; more to the point, I will not rely on the goodwill of the police or the state to protect me. They have already made clear they will not defend my family or me. The daily news assures me of their non-cooperation in this matter. Indeed, I expect that they will stand by and let violence be done to me.
- Unsurprisingly most objections to the Antifa originate in ‘moderate whites’–the same folks that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as being the greatest barrier to the civil rights movement–these folks do not feel physically threatened in the same way that people of color are when Nazis and white supremacists march through their neighborhoods; they have not been subjected to the daily rituals of aggression that people of color are. They do not have their accent remarked on, they are not asked to repeat themselves, they are not subjected to relentless, ignorant queries that betray a lack of cultural sensitivity and an overwhelming ignorance that is anything but benign. Sexism, racism, misogyny, transphobia, Islamophobia; these all exert a daily toll that most ‘moderate whites’ do not experience or understand. As James Baldwin pointed out a long time ago, thanks to segregation, which continues today, most whites know nothing about their fellow black citizens; they do not know what they feel, how they feel, what they think or how they think. Offering political advice on how to conduct protests to this community is an act of political hubris. So is offering political advice to those who, by their actions, act to reduce the daily intimidation experienced by people of color.
- Every single call to denounce the Antifa and their tactics abdicates political agency: if the Antifa do X, then our political opponents will do Y, and we can do nothing about it. There the discussion stops; there is no talk of whether there are any substantive countermoves to Y. The propaganda countermeasures that say that violence on ‘both sides’ will be condemned cannot be combated; the state’s crackdown–now justified because of Antifa’s violence–cannot be resisted. Our only option is acquiescence in the face of precisely those some propaganda countermeasures and the same state crackdown that are already visible today. Here, the moderate white’s imagination breaks down. He cannot imagine a political move in response; all is lost. The ‘other’ will act, and ‘we’ will simply be subject to their actions. We, through our actions and speech, can do nothing in response. This is not political critique; this is surrender.
- This is a country in the grip of an ongoing large-scale human rights violation and moral atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’; in this country, police can arrest, assault, harass, imprison, and kill people of color at whim with no accountability; this is the world in which ‘moderate whites’ want the antifa to be treated as morally equivalent to the marching Nazis and for those who seek to combat their violence. In this country, white supremacists control the government and its other branches; here, the moderate white would like the Antifa to keep on marching, keep on checking to see if the ‘moderate white’ approves of their tactics–the moderate white will continue to wait for the non-existent perfect protest, made at the right time, in the right place, in the right way.
- Here is a thought experiment concerning 1930s Germany: What would have happened if German Antifa had indeed come out swinging against the Nazis? What if every time the Nazis had held a rally, they had been greeted, not just with overwhelming numbers, but with a swift punch to the face every time one of them opened their mouths to pronounce their murderous ideology? What if that ‘violence’ had indeed overwhelmed the Nazis in Germany? Perhaps the problem with the violence directed against the Nazis in 1930s Germany was that there simply was not enough of it. Twelve years later, German cities had to be reduced to ashes.
I’ve been reading Garry Wills‘ Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994; a light and entertaining read this election season) over the past couple of days–on the subway, naturally. On Monday night, as I rode back to Brooklyn from Manhattan to pick up my daughter on daycare, I came to the chapter on Andrew Young (under the rubric ‘Diplomatic Leader’). In it, I read the following paragraph on page 75:
One of [Martin Luther] King’s tactics was to go around the police and politicians to ask businessmen if they did not want peace for their community. Young was especially helpful here. He played a key role in forming an accord with Birmingham businessmen. “As the night dragged on, both sides tended to credit the mild, unflappable Andrew Young with ideas that achieved overall balance by proceeding in mixed stages.” [citing Taylor Branch, Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon and Schuster, New York, pp. 781)].
As I read this paragraph I did a double-take. I thought I had seen a word, which in point of fact was not present in the passage I had just read. Now, I sometimes see, when I quickly glance at a portion of a text, a kind of verbal mash-up: words formed by running together the preliminary portion of a word in one below with the closing portion of a word in the line immediately below. Imagine for instance that I had run together the ‘gl’ of ‘glance’ above with the closing ‘ow’ of the ‘below’ which closes the sentence to form ‘glow.’ (A line intervenes between these two, but you catch my drift I hope.) When I look again, the word is gone.
But the ‘vision’ I had just had was of a different kind. For I had, disturbingly enough, seen that vile word, ‘nigger.’ Apparently, I had run together the ‘ni’ of ‘night’ with the ‘gge’ of ‘dragged’ (present in the quote from Taylor Branch’s book.) This was distinct from the kind described above, because I had ‘used’ words in the same line.
I think I have an explanation for why this happened. Look at the words that surround ‘night’ and ‘dragged’ in this passage: [Martin Luther] King, police, politicians, peace, Birmingham. When I see these words, especially in the context of the situation being described–the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South–images present themselves to me. They are iconic; they arise without conscious invocation–you might know the ones I mean (police dogs, water cannons, marches, truncheons). They bring with them other connotations and associations.
One of them is the unending racial abuse directed at those who went on sit-downs, marches, rallies, and university and school integrations. The most common word in that torrent of abuse was ‘nigger,’ hurled again and again, with venom and spite and anger, conveying an unconcealed hatred and violence, spat in the face of those who dared step into the front line. I’ve seen it in the pages of every book on the civil rights struggle; I’ve heard it in every documentary.
On Monday night, I looked at a reminder of the battle for Civil Rights, and I saw it again. Perhaps this election season has primed me for it.
Note: For a similar experience, do read this post related to the Vietnam War.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, New York, 2012, pp. 40-41), Michelle Alexander writes:
The rhetoric of “law and order” was first mobilized in the late 1950s Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights activists used direct-action tactics in an effort to force reluctant Southern states to desegregate public facilities. Southern governors and law enforcement officials often characterized these tactics as criminal and argued that the rise of the Civil Rights Movement was indicative of a breakdown of law and order. Support of civil rights legislation was derided by Southern conservatives as merely “rewarding lawbreakers.”
For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive lenience. thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then vice-president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.” Some segregationists went further, insisting that segregation causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary.
Sounds familiar, right?
When you want to make a ‘same as it ever was’ point, you are offered a choice: point to the present and then to the past, or point to the past and then to the present. As an added rhetorical flourish, you could mutter dark imprecations about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.
In a post here a few days ago, I had made note of how the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration had reported that the Black Lives Matter movement and its concomitant Ferguson Effect had resulted in an increase in lawlessness and crime rates. (The New York Times had dutifully convened one of its Room for Debate segments to conduct a serious investigation of this ‘report.’)
These ideological tactics–responding to political protests with accusations of criminality–are exceedingly transparent; their pedigree and historical provenance is well-established. Their deployment by reactionary law-enforcement agencies should not be surprising; they possess an established record of success in these political climes. What should be is the credulity of those who should know better–like for instance, esteemed members of our national media, who, apparently devoid of any historical consciousness whatsoever, faithfully parrot these claims without making note of their deployment in the past.
As the recent Mall of America protests in Minneapolis show, Black Lives Matter shows no sign of flagging in its efforts; we should expect accusations like the ones above to continue apace.
You, sir, are a knave and a hypocrite. You protest and fulminate when X assaults–or otherwise inflicts harms on–Y, but not when A assaults–or otherwise inflicts harm on–B. Yet the crime is the same in each case. Your outrage is selective. I do not, therefore, trust your motives, and will ignore your crocodile tears, your faux expressions of concern. They must not be sincere, for if they were, you would visibly and vocally demonstrate the same deep moral concern for the assault in both cases. I suspect you have some animus against X, some deep-rooted hostility that you are covering up with your morally inflected bluster.
I presume this litany of accusations, this suggestion of intellectual dishonesty, sounds familiar. In most cases, the accuser is sympathetic to X‘s stated reasons for harming Y; his accusations of selective outrage–made against those who do not find X‘s stated reasons convincing or persuasive–are intended to constitute a rhetorical disarming of their critique of X.
About the crowds on Friday in Paris chanting “Palestine will overcome” and “Israel, assassin”: Where were they a few days earlier when news broke that over the previous weekend Syria’s civil war had produced 720 more dead, adding to the 150,000 others who have not had the honor of demonstrations in France?
Why did the protesters not pour into the streets when, a few days before that, the well-informed Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed that so far this year Damascus’s army, which was supposed to have destroyed its supply of chemical weapons, carried out at least 17 gas attacks around Kafrzyta, Talmanas, Atshan and elsewhere?
Prima facie, accusations of this kind have no force whatsoever. A smoker who tells me to quit smoking because it would cause me lung cancer is presumably a hypocrite, but that does not affect the content of his argument in the least. Does smoking cause lung cancer? Are the reasons provided by the smoker for not smoking good reasons? If they are, you should consider quitting. If they aren’t, don’t. The smoker’s continuation of his smoking habit, his continued patronage of the modern-day merchants of death, should be irrelevant to your evaluation of his argument. The argument above should proceed along similar lines: Are X‘s reasons for assaulting Y good ones? Are they morally justified? If they are, X is justified in continuing with the assault; if not, then X should cease and desist. The person accused of selective outrage might be accused of inconsistency, and perhaps of hypocrisy, but that has no bearing on our evaluation of X‘s conduct.
But we do not always evaluate arguments in such purely logical fashion. We often accept them because we find them persuasive or convincing on non-logical, rhetorical grounds. And in such cases, the context surrounding the argument can make a crucial difference to the argument’s persuasive force. An accusation of selective outrage can thus be quite damaging, and deserves a response that does justice to its non-logical, rhetorical, force as well.
Here is one response, especially relevant to the American context, and perhaps also in those cases where protests are taking places in the cities of other Western allies of Israel. To wit, I am expending my limited political energies in protesting Israel’s policies, because my government, which actively funds and supports Israel, does not appear to share my concern; it does not seem to think Israel’s behavior needs emendation; its inactivity results in aiding and abetting Israel’s actions. In the other cases you mention, I know that my government joins me in my critique, in my condemnation: it is engaged, on perhaps the diplomatic front, or perhaps via sanctions or other punitive actions, to condemn and punish the perpetrators of the outrages taking place elsewhere.
Bernard-Henri Lévy has a response to this defense, which I’m afraid I do not quite understand:
Will the protesters claim that they were rallying against French President François Hollande and a policy of unilateral support for Israel that they do not wish to see conducted “in their name”? Perhaps. But conducting outward politics for inner reasons—converting a large cause into a small instrument designed to salve one’s conscience at little cost—reflects little genuine concern for the fate of the victims.
Henri-Lévy mysteriously concedes the point with a grudging ‘Perhaps’ but then goes on to suggest that ‘outward politics for inner reasons’ does not reflect ‘genuine concern.’ This is incoherent. I do not know what ‘inner reasons’ are when the only reasons being stated are ‘outer’ ones, manifest in speech and action. The suggestion that this political action is being taken merely to provide some healing balm to a guilt-stricken conscience–for having elected our leaders, I presume, or perhaps for not protesting elsewhere too in the shape or fashion Lévy desires–is an ad-hominem claim, one grounded in some mysterious mind-reading ability.
He then goes on to say:
Even more pointedly, should not the same reasoning have filled the same streets 10 or 100 times to protest the same president’s decision, likewise taken in their name, not to intervene in Syria?
As for intervening in Syria, Henri-Lévy conveniently ignores an entire Middle Eastern context, the history of Western military intervention in that domain, and its unpredictable side-effects. But that is another topic altogether. (But see this post on Syria, written in response to the call for bombing in response to chemical weapon use.)
Bernard-Henri Lévy then concludes, a little predictably, by leveling charges of anti-semitism against those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza. The presence of anti-semitism in anti-Israel protests is reprehensible and outrageous, and has rightly been called out by many; it has no place there. But Lévy’s brush tars a little too broadly and carelessly. I suspect that were he around in the 1960s, Lévy might have accused American civil rights activists of being hypocritical, white-hating fanatics. After all, they weren’t agitating on behalf of India’s untouchables, the Dalits; they weren’t conducting sit-ins, and marching in giant rallies in support of their cause. That must be it. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hypocrite too. He only put his body on the line for American blacks and not for colored people everywhere else.
As a callow boy, I used to confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. Fortunately, that ignorant conflation didn’t last too long and I soon got the two of them sorted out. The first one complicated my understanding of Christianity, the second that of my home for twenty-five years, the United States of America, the nation whose passport I carry, and whose citizenship my daughter has acquired by birth.
I have written on this blog about events that modified my relationship with the US: a viewing of Tora, Tora, Tora!, and my reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The first brought down the US from a pedestal of invincibility, the second from one of moral superiority. A third event did the same as the second. A solitary viewing of a documentary on the US civil rights movement, one that exposed me to the spoken words of Dr. King, and one searing visual after another of the slow, painful, and as yet incomplete, fight against institutionalized racism. (While I cannot remember precisely which documentary I am referring to, Mukul Kesavan, in his essay ‘On Watching Documentaries’ remembers watching one titled King in approximately the same time period; I have, however, not been able to track that title down.)
I watched the documentary alone, late at night in New Delhi, at my grandparent’s residence. For some reason, the national television station had decided the best time to show it was at a time when most folks would have turned in for the night. I do not know why I was spending the night at my grandmother’s and I do not know how and why I had the run of the roost as far the television room was concerned. (It was my grandparent’s bedroom.) Be that as it may, I was alone, and I was curious.
The documentary began with the speech given by Dr. King on April 3rd 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The words of the speech, in white, scrolled up the screen against a black background, while Dr. King’s voice played on the soundtrack. It was the first time I had heard him speak; it was the first time I had heard any speech from the civil rights movement; it was the first time I was exposed to that potent combination of preacher, professor and politician. I had never heard a speech like that before in that cadence and rhythm, with that passion and eloquence. By the time it ended, I was primed for the spectacle–composed wholly of archival footage–that followed. When that was over, a cavalcade of impressions ending with King’s assassination, the hapless women on the Memphis motel balcony pointing in the direction the assassin had gone, I was stunned, speechless, and heartbroken.
Water cannons, feral Southern policemen, brave schoolchildren, angry racist women and children screaming obscenities, devious politicians grimly determined to not let their racist citadels fall, snarling dogs, grim, composed, determined marchers for freedom and dignity, the abuse of those asking for a chance to exercise adult franchise; these are the components of the by-now-iconic set of images that we associate with those points in time. They are familiar now, but they have not bred contempt. Perhaps all of us can remember when we were first exposed to them; perhaps we can remember the effect they had. This is my very partial attempt to do so.