Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

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.)

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Punching Nazis In The Face And Anti-Antifa Critiques

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

The Republicans Will Ride Out This Latest ‘He Can’t Survive This’ Moment

As usual, anxious liberals and American citizens all over the nation are waiting, with bated breath and a dollop of some old-fashioned American optimism, for the Great Abandonment: that crystalline moment when the Republican Party will decide that enough is enough, issue a condemnation–with teeth–of Donald Trump, begin scurrying away from his sinking ship, and for good measure, initiate impeachment proceedings. There’s been many moments like this: grab-their-pussy and the various bits of La Affaire Russia have served to provide the best examples of these in the recent past. Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and their usual brand of toxic racism and violence have now provided the latest instance of a possible ‘he can’t survive this’ moment–‘this is when the Republicans grow a vertebra, denounce Nazism–oh, how difficult!–and its sympathizers and enablers, and bring this particular Trump Tower crashing down.

Unfortunately this Godot-ish vigil will have to persist a little longer. Perhaps till the end of the Trump presidency. Condemnation of the President has been issued by some: Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio for instance. But there is no party-level move to censure; there is no sign that there is widespread movement among the Republicans to either distance themselves from Trump or do anything more than issue the easiest political statement of all regarding disapproval for Nazis.

The electoral calculus, the bottom-line politically, is that Republican voters care little about Trump’s being in bed with white supremacists, the KKK, and sundry other deplorables; they elected him to assuage their racial anxieties, and he continues to do that by standing up even for cross-burning, swastika tattooed, hooded folk. A Republican Congressman or Senator who denounces Trump risks electoral suicide; the Trump ‘base’ will turn on him or her with indecent haste. Under the circumstances, far better to issue generic denouncements and move on, hoping and knowing this storm will blow over. When private business corporations dump offensive employees–perhaps for racist, abusive speech or other kinds of socially offensive behavior–they do so on the basis of a calculus that determines the nature and extent of the economic loss they will have to bear if they persist in supporting their offending employee; when it is apparent that customers will not tolerate that behavior, the decision is made for the employer. That same calculus in the case of Republican voters suggests there is no loss forthcoming–the strategy suggested is precisely the one on display: a little bluster, a little obfuscation, some hemming and hawing, a few offensive suggestions that the offensive behavior was in response to other behavior ‘asking for it’ and so on. Still riding on S. S. Donald Trump, sailing right on over the edge to the depths below–even as the merry band of carpetbaggers on board keep their hands in the national till.

I’ve made this point before on this blog (here; here; here; here); I repeat myself. Repetition is neurotic; I should cease and desist. But it is not easy when neurotic repetition is visible elsewhere–in this case, in the American polity.

Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

Drexel University Should Uphold George Ciccariello-Maher’s Academic Freedom

On Christmas Eve, George Ciccariello-Maher, Associate Professor at Drexel University, sent out a tweet which read as follows:

All I want for Christmas is White Genocide

There were no scare quotes around ‘White Genocide’ but the upper-case spelling was an indication that something less straightforward than calling for the genocide of white people was on the cards. (After all, Ciccariello-Maher could have just tweeted “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.’ Think I’m reading too carefully? What can I do–it’s an old habit of mine.) A little investigation–i.e., googling ‘white genocide’–produces the following link as the first hit:

White genocide is a white nationalist conspiracy theory that mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion are being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.The phrase “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white”, coined by high-profile white nationalist Robert Whitaker, is commonly associated with the topic of white genocide. It has been spotted on billboards near Birmingham, Alabama and in Harrison, Arkansas. [citations removed]

Was Ciccariello-Maher calling for ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion‘ in particular communities as part of a strategy to render ‘white people…extinct’? I doubt it. (Though I don’t suppose he’d be unhappy with rights for immigrants,  the protection of abortion rights for women, etc.) Given the definition provided above, and given Ciccariello-Maher’s previous tweeting record, which includes many online spats with neo-Nazis, anti-semites, and an assorted army of trolls and deplorables, it is fair to surmise–indeed, it is an inference to the best explanation–that Ciccariello-Maher was cocking a snook at this army of trolls, throwing their term mockingly back in their face; he was, how you say, being satirical.

By way of related example, consider a Facebook status that I put up a a week or so ago:

Our campus safety officer sent us some ‘Holiday Safety Tips’ – you know, the usual, watch your purse and package etc. But no warnings about wearing earplugs for Christmas caroling, or avoiding wassailers like the plague. You may, if you like, consider this the opening salvo or broadside of the War on Christmas. By air, by land, by sea, and sometimes, by social network.

On one reading of my Facebook status, I seem to be declaring–by way of my suggestion that Chrismas carolers and wassailers require safety tips to be sent to those in their vicinity–a ‘War on Christmas’. Inquiring into the provenance of that phrase–which I have capitalized above–shows that it is a favorite of FOX News. I appear to be having a little gentle fun at those who would bemoan the secularization of the holiday season.

I provide this bordering-on-pedantic analyses of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, because the investigation I carry out above is in point of fact an elementary one; anyone with a modicum of intelligence would arrive at the same conclusion I did: Ciccariello-Maher was being satirical. But not Ciccariello-Maher’s employers, Drexel University, who in response to a predictable chorus of bleating complaints from a Breitbart-led army of trolls–who also sent many death threats to Ciccariello-Maher–issued a statement of reprimand and concern; disciplinary action might yet be taken against Ciccariello-Maher.

This is a familiar situation: an academic makes an extra-mural political statement; complaints from the butt-hurt issue; university employers, their commitment to academic freedom always shaky, overreact. (The American Association of University Professors operative standards of academic freedom protect precisely the kind of political speech that is at play here.) Moreover, Drexel, by condemning the content of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet, seems to be taking on the position that it is ‘against’ ‘white genocide’–that is, it is against ‘mass immigration, integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion…being promoted in predominantly white countries to deliberately turn them minority-white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.’ I doubt Drexel has any such position–so why is it making such a claim?

The larger trend, on display here, is worrying too: as a new administration takes office, and installs Breitbart types in its administration, its faithful crack down on political speech they deem offensive. Drexel University should hold the line and protect the academic freedom of its employees, and not cave in as shamefully as they have here.

Note: The following is Ciccariello-Maher’s statement: Continue reading

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’: The Holocaust Brought To The Present

One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.

Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.

The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.

Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.

Even ‘Degenerate Art’ Can Tempt: The 1937 Entartete Kunst Exhibitions

In July 1937, in Munich, the Nazi Party mounted the Entartete Kunst exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art.’.  The exhibit featured over six hundred paintings, sculptures, prints, and books, a collection put together by a six-man commission that had confiscated–from the collections of thirty-two German museums–art deemed ‘modern, degenerate, or subversive.’ The exhibition remained in Munich till November–and was then staged in eleven cities in Germany and Austria. (Paul Schultze-Naumburg’s condemnation of modern art and architecture, suggesting pure-race artists produced art infused with classical ideals of beauty while mixed-race artists produced monstrosities, had already underwritten Hitler’s views on the relationship between classical Greek and Middle-Ages art and Aryan art. Schultze-Naumburg, by juxtaposing samples of modern art with photographs of people with deformities and diseases, had even suggested modernism was a malignancy.)

The Entartete Kunst exhibition, roughly organized into themes, was staged in shabby, crowded, cramped rooms–presumably, the chaos of the curated organization meant to amplify and provoke the supposedly inchoate visions on display–and surrounded by polemical paraphernalia to hammer home associated propaganda points (such as the exaggerated prices paid by the museums that originally housed the art works).

I have always been intrigued by the Nazi decision to display the ‘degenerate’ art as opposed to destroying the art pieces (perhaps accompanied with a printed reproduction of an image of the artwork destroyed). While the Nazi exhibit was meant to show the art as ugly and to hold it up for ridicule, derision, and eventual rejection, they did mount a comprehensive exhibition of potentially subversive art, collected and put up for display in one venue, available to the population at large. Indeed, by mounting a parallel exhibit of German art that met with the Nazi Party’s approval the risk they took was great; they were able to provide for comparison samples of ‘classical’ art and ‘modern’ art, and ask those who visited the exhibits to ‘make up their mind’ about what they found offensive, ugly, timid, or revolutionary. While the Nazi propaganda  pointed accusatory fingers at the art works, the potential for the art to stake its own claims was never lost.  Viewed from an alternate, subversive perspective, the Nazis provided a great service; they put together a collection panel that traveled the German nation, collected its best modern art and put it on display in major German cities: a large, state-sponsored exhibition of art that most modern nations would be happy to put together.

The artists and art ‘featured’ in the Entartete Kunst exhibitions suffered; artists met the fates of exile, imprisonment, bans, death; art was condemned and destroyed. But even if framed by ridicule and condemnation, the artists and their art met the minds and sensibilities of Germans; their art was talked about, discussed, and possibly subverted a mind or two. The Nazis intended for ‘Degenerate Art’ to serve as a bad example, one to be avoided in the future; but in picking the tactic of prominent, curated, collective display they also took the risk art could have served the exact opposite function.