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.
Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.
In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)
Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.
Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.
These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’ The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.
These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.
If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.
A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims, then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)
Before the elections of 2016 we were informed at every step of the way that Donald Trump was a fascist, one to be stopped by any means necessary; we were urged to stop this greatest danger to the American republic ever by throwing our bodies into the breach, by manning the barricades, by storming them. The skies were falling and we were urged to put down whatever it is we were doing and to run out to hold it up in the company of our fellow citizens. Great crises demanded appropriately pitched responses.
Then the elections happened. Many Americans did not hear the call. Some urged the sky to fall. It did.
Now that a fascist has been elected, magically purified and sanctified by something called an ‘election,’ an ‘expression of the people’s will,’ because ‘the people have spoken,’ fascism is no longer so. Outgoing presidents who spent months mocking and villifying the orange harbinger of doom now welcome him, wish him the best, and make known their willingness to support him at every step; defeated opponents urge gracious acceptance of defeat and future cooperation on joint endeavors; the commentariat and the joint orders of the journalistic pundit class unite in describing any protests at this stage as strategically and tactically misguided, as ungracious failures to accept that democracy is working. (Unsurprisingly, that cabal of gangsters, the Republican Party, has already made nice, and is looking forward to the spoils of power.)
The water grew muddied for a while; it must be bade settle down, calm itself, and cease its restlessness. There is work to be done, money to be made, stock exchanges to be placated. There is talk of ‘coming together’ and being ‘stronger’–all the better to calmly, quietly, quiescently, accept and reconcile ourselves to the presence of Donald Trump as president.
The language used in describing Trump spoke of dark, dangerous, radical thoughts threatening to roll over America; they spoke of how deeply held political convictions were to be laid aside for the sake of rolling them back, back over the dark horizon that had produced them. The language used to describe our supposed interactions with Trump seems animated by entirely disparate sentiments: don’t rock the boat, all hands on board, the ship is sailing onward and we must lend our efforts to Captain Trump of the USS US.
America needs to make up its mind. Is this man a danger to the American republic or not? If he is, then let us not speak of biding our time for protest, or of extending him the usual courtesies extended to this nation’s leaders. Conventions of courtesy are dangerous luxuries when dealing with existential dangers; and my desire to preserve the wild and extend a lending hand to wildlife stewards will take a rapid backward step when confronted with a wild animal threatening my family.
If Donald Trump is truly a racist fascist with his hands on the nuclear button, if he does intend to implement a racist and xenophobic police state, he is going to need to be greeted with more than a protest march at the inauguration, a banner drop at the State of the Union address.
Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:
Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)
Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.
Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:
First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following: Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.
Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies. To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.
Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.
David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.” This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:
We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….
Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”
Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.
The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.