Antifa, punching Nazis, accepting violence, and forcing greatness upon us
As a lifelong pacifist, I abhor violence. All of it. But a long time ago, I gave my friends one exception: vampires.
At the time, the movie Blade had come out and I found a way to make an exception for my pacifism. If I were a vampire I would hunt other vampires.
It was crucial that the victim of my violence not be alive: so obviously the undead fits the bill.
But there’s a problem with making a simple exception for the undead. Killing vampires, or zombies for that matter, dances on a slippery slope. Because there’s a time when the living become dead and then become undead. And the fearful stop waiting for the whole process to play out. Preventative killing starts to make sense as the undead exception develops exceptions of its own.
Therefore I needed to be a vampire too. When killing for survival was already part of the equation and was inescapable. And in our modern world violence is always escapable. So this harder rule made sense for me.
Until I become a vampire who is forced to kill for life or to hunt the hunters, I will remain committed to nonviolence.
Nazis on the other hand…
Of course, if we’re talking about Nazis, it also starts to sound tempting to make a new exception. Not for me to go all Captain America, but to go searching for justification. To make an exception for the patriotic duty to take a swing at a Nazi.
Is it OK to punch a Nazi?
This question gets at the root of our anxiety around violence. We want to preach nonviolence and we expect it from each other. We condemn acts of violence and write laws to restrict violence.
But we’re always looking for exceptions.
And somehow, this universal condemnation of violence doesn’t sit right. There’s something itchy about it. Not as the blanket statement and the forever declaration, anyway. Like free speech, there’s a problem with our conversation around violence and protest. Like it’s not the idea of condemning it, but something in the way.
Something’s missing or unaccounted for.
The story I always heard growing up around World War II was that it wasn’t a sudden war. Not like the Great War was. The Nazis rose to power years before. And they enacted a campaign to systematically roll back liberty and democratic rule and discriminate against, and ultimately murder, non-white, non-cisgendered, and non-Christian persons. I learned the build up to the war and the Holocaust was visible with eyes to see.
The message I received loud and clear was: if only “good” Germans stood up to prevent it.
The evils of World War II led to a mantra for the postwar period: “never again”. It led us to build an international court and a global community to preserve the peace. And ultimately, it inspired us to protect those groups the Nazis targeted. We wanted to protect the vulnerable from authoritarian hatred.
Godwin’s Law is the embodiment of our fear that fascism is actually possible. Our real fear that someone very much might be a new Hitler. His rise to power was sudden, but it was a long game from his aspirations to Final Solution. None of us wants to see another Hitler, so we actively protect ourselves from it.
But the real questions become obvious the more we think about it.
When do we know when a ruler is as dangerous as Hitler?
When do we spot fascism and despotic authoritarianism? And how do we protect ourselves from it?
How do we protect our country from fascism?
The United States is a people governed by laws and mores. We use these laws and mores to set boundaries and preserve the peace. And they ultimately work.
But when the mores fail, so do our laws. Because our laws are based on our willingness to participate in the system. When the unspoken commitments fail to restrain us, we discover there are often no legal barriers to restrain us either. In those cases, abuse is not only likely, but assured.
So without anti-fascist mores, our laws won’t protect us from fascism. Because fascists love to take advantage of free speech to eliminate it.
So again, questions:
Where is the line? How do we know when we’ve crossed it?
And what will we do about it?
The trouble with “never again” and the myth of the good german is that we believe they should’ve known what would happen and that we’ll know in our time. As if fascists announce themselves as such or somehow the timing will be obvious for when we need to stand up. But it wasn’t.
The timing isn’t ever obvious.
The questions of knowing the when and the who and the what of defending ourselves, of crossing that line, of declaring “never again” are legion. What do we do? Who is the “we”?
We keep saying we don’t want fascists and dictatorships. So how do we prove it?
If we think about the oath elected officials make to uphold and protect the Constitution. Like the one our soldiers swear to protect our country, the question is only now begged. “How?”.
What are we supposed to do when an internal threat corrupts our ability to protect ourselves? How can we make a real “never again” when we excuse our protection systems from doing so? If we can’t agree that the line has been crossed, how can we prevent the fascist from offering his Final Solution?
Mores protect us before the line was crossed. Like corruption: it’s easier to prevent than prosecute.
All along, we assumed our laws and mores would be enough. This only proves how important both of them are to protecting us.
Which gives us a new question:
What if we’re in such a moment? How do we know and what are we to do? If we’ve made exceptions for our mores and given them away, is there anything to uphold? Is exercising the excepted mores like rearranging the deck chairs as the ship is already sinking? Is it enough to save us?
If we’ve made exceptions for our mores and given them away, is upholding them now too late? Is exercising the excepted mores like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Is it enough to save us?
One response to this anxiety is to fight back and resist the rise of fascism. Antifa is a modern resistance effort based heavily on the resistance effort anti-fascists used in Germany in the 1930s.
Of course, the trouble with such an effort, then as now, is that a democracy compromised by fascism is ill-prepared to evaluate such a movement. When mores have been compromised, we’re reduced to the he said/she said of partisanship. The Left is split over the nature of Antifa, while it seems much of the Right is processing it as Leftist, and are therefore politically opposed to it.
But the seeds for what justifies Antifa is not hard left ideology, but libertarian.
Antifa is about civilian resistance to a problem in their community. It bypasses the role for government and provides a local, on the ground solution to a presenting problem for the community. It’s ideological kin are both the Black Panthers and Michigan Militia where the focus is on claiming a right to self-defense and defense of family and friends.
This kind of thinking can only take place when a government is weak to respond to the needs of a specific community or demonstrates an unwillingness to defend itself from an existential threat. In other words, it’s born, not out of an interest in bringing violence but eliminating violence.
In a society in which the government is seen as inept, the most logical conclusion a person would come to is that “we” aren’t up to the task.
We’ve seen the movies. If you can’t trust the government or police to protect you, what choice do you have?
Exceptions to the rule become far more likely. Like vampire vampire-hunters.
It is precisely because our partisan dualism is incapable of sorting the problems that fascism becomes even more powerful. While we argue over tactics for the resistance of fascism or ignoring the danger of broken mores for the sake of free speech absolutism, another axis develops to try to sort out our problems outside of the Left/Right divide.
While Left and Right account for the horizontal, a vertical axis develops around a balance of power between the people and the state.
The most logical opposition to fascism is the opposition we’ve always relied on: a balance between a strong liberal democracy and the preservation of community and personal liberty.
But as personal liberty has risen at the expense of liberal democracy, a stronger state response becomes inevitable. And given our asymmetric polarization, this divide is likely to get absorbed back into our partisan lens. Armed resistance by the people will be seen as necessary for the preservation of liberal democracy and an authoritarian government will rise with a central despot at the tippy top of the pyramid so the buck will stop somewhere.
Excepting/Accepting violence will naturally lead to more violence. Doing nothing will naturally lead to more violence. And non-violent resistance will naturally lead to more violence. For violence is the language of fascism and when facing fascists, violence becomes inevitable. The question is how and with whom.
If violence is inevitable, we might wonder “then what’s the point?” Looking only at the violence is evaluating a moment in history/present without regard to the bigger picture.
Anti-fascists in Germany didn’t prevent the Holocaust. So it might seem as if it were a failure. It also exposed the evil of the Nazis. Those who nonviolently resisted did as well. It was those who did nothing, however, that protected the Nazis. Their sense of powerlessness, fear of reprisal, or tremendous confusion about what it actually meant to bring Germany’s greatness back today seem only like cowardice.
Greatness isn’t forced upon us by paramilitary shock troops, protecting the freedom of hate speech or encouraging the people to spy on one another. It isn’t found in ridding society of its diversity and protecting the privilege of a single race.
That doesn’t make greatness. That’s how fascism comes.
Fascism doesn’t come when free speech is actually strong. Not only protected, but enforced in a way which actually protects speech. It only shows up when hate is proliferated, silencing other forms. Or when weapons are brandished to protect one people and silence the other.
Fascism doesn’t come when democracy is healthy and our government is working well for all of its people. It comes only when it’s broken. Only when the wealthy extort and the poor contort themselves to survive.
Fascism comes when we are innately skeptical of government and the community’s ability to protect itself from particular forms of violence. When we don’t trust each other or our institutions to protect us. When we are willing to make our common society a war zone.
And that’s the catch-22.
Fending off fascism requires active resistance.
But it seems as if the physical confrontation with fascists is actually the fuel of fascism. It inspires supporters to see a final solution as their only solution.
This, however, lets the majority of people off the hook. The very situation we claimed would never happen again. This is to unlearn the lesson we were supposed to learn from Nazi Germany.
Relying on the already broken social mores for a government of which we are innately skeptical while impugning the resistance efforts of others is the kindling for fascism. If physical confrontation fuels the fire, this passive going with the flow is the wood which keeps the fire burning.
We know what the solution is, of course. But we resist it because of fear. Or certainty in our cause. But really, its the simplistic partisan Left/Right sorting machine which trivializes our real problems and discourages solutions. It’s preordained Calvinistic ritual of neatly bifurcating our problems into confrontational stances. So we feel good rejecting the necessary compromise of civil society. The very thing which stitches those mores back together.
Trust. But don’t sit on your hands.
Trash the Left/Right sorter, the teams and tribalism. Ditch the ideological purity which rewrites our questions into riddles with no good solutions and gotcha wins.
Instead restitch those mores.
Encourage honest people to run for government and expect competent people to do the work of government.
Rein in the skepticism of government enough to let it function, but make sure that it does right by all people, not just the privileged or the white.
Fatalism, hyper-individualism, and fear gives rise to fascism. Actively resist those impulses with hope, community, and generosity with others and expect the same from your community and we’ll see fascism fade into the dustbin again.