Notes On The Antifa Movement

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Free Speech For Fascists?

Al Jazeera

Do fascists have free speech rights? That is one key question that has emerged in the wake of the brutal display of right-wing chauvinism and violence seen across the country and the world this month in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last week, the president of the United States declared to hundreds of his supporters in Phoenix, Arizona, that the real threat to society are the so-called “Antifa,” shorthand for anti-fascists, who “show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything.” What they do not appear to have are arsenals of firearms.

Conversely, the right-wing paramilitary people who associate as the so-called “alt-right” — in addition to the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi groups — are armed to the teeth.

Todd Gitlin, a former 1960s radical and current sociology and journalism professor at Columbia University, observes that the people calling themselves Antifa “aim to confront, expose, shame — and sometimes convert — white supremacists.” Gitlin adds, “Many liberals and leftists think that they taint the overwhelmingly nonviolent anti-Trump resistance movement… No less a left-wing eminence than Noam Chomsky calls the antifa ‘a miniscule fringe of the left’ and ‘a major gift to the right.’” Chomsky, Gitlin says, “considers them unprincipled, outnumbered and outgunned, as well as a distraction from practical tasks.” Gitlin comments that “many antifa activists do not think strategically about whom they alienate,” as they “are convinced that the hour for normal politics has passed, and let the chips fall where they may.”

In an email to this reporter, Chomsky wrote that while defensive force is a legitimate principle, whether it is a good tactic depends on the circumstances. He added that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights activists were faced against much more serious violence. The difference with Antifa, he said, is their propensity to initiate force, not only against fascists, but also against right-wing people in general. What matters, Chomsky continued, is galvanizing the broader public to condemn fascists.

Returning to the question of fascism and freedom of speech, it appears obvious that fascists are exploiting a loophole in a democratic society, namely that all views have a right to be expressed, including views nearly everyone finds odious and repulsive. The current events podcaster and sharp commentator Allison Kilkenny wrote a couple of days after the events of Charlottesville that “fascism is a virus.” Kilkenny writes,

Fascists are very clever in inverting the well-intentioned aspects of tolerance to suit their own needs, namely invading communities of tolerance, comforted in the knowledge that they will be tolerated and permitted to spread their message of hate. This is sometimes difficult for progressives to digest because we have been raised to believe that a democracy requires egalitarian platforming, meaning that “there are no bad ideas.”

Ideas have consequences, and the consequences of fascist and/or racist thought should be self-evident, to anyone who has ever paid attention to history. In the traditional sense, free speech means that even speech that is not only controversial or offensive, but also vile and disgusting, is to be protected. No one has the right to be protected from offense.

Likewise, no one has the right to advocate, in a public space, a viewpoint of which its only logical conclusion is to call for the exclusion or the extermination of groups of people — and not expect a reaction that meets the violence inherent in such speech. There are ideas, such as white supremacy and extreme nationalism, that are dangerous — and must be countered. This is not about the government censoring anyone for political views, because the issue centers around public space and who uses it to push for ideologies that divide and conquer versus those who resist them.

Fritz Stern, the late emeritus historian at Columbia who fled the Nazis and moved to Jackson Heights, wrote in 2005: “In the late 1920s, a group of intellectuals known as conservative revolutionaries demanded new volkish authoritarianism, a third Reich.” Stern continued,

Richly financed by corporate interests, they denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality, and cosmopolitan culture. These conservative revolutionaries were proud of being prophets of the Third Reich — at least until some of them were exiled or murdered by the Nazis when the latter came to power. Throughout, the Nazis vilified liberalism as a Marxist-Jewish conspiracy, and, with Germany in the midst of unprecedented depression and impoverishment, they promised a national rebirth.

In other words, “Make America Great Again.” In January, Fintan O’Toole wrote that calling “the self-styled ‘alt-right’ neo-fascist is a bit of an exaggeration. But the overstatement doesn’t lie in the fascist part,” O’Toole said. “It’s the neo that is a bit of a stretch. Like most viruses, fascism adapts itself to changing environments. ... History is a zero sum game – either we subjugate them or they will subjugate us. The alt-right takes this social Darwinist mindset directly from classic fascism.” He adds, “Its logic, now as in the 1930s, is eliminationist: they must go and if they won’t go we have to get rid of them.”

One has the right to express a viewpoint like that in the affirmative, that such an ugly course of action is right and good, but such a speaker should anticipate that he will get punched in the face. Fascists must not feel safe in public society. The ultimate tragedy would be the norms of liberal democracy being exploited in order to subvert and destroy it. Suffice it to say that the American Republic must not go the way of Weimar Germany.

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