The obviously obvious obvious.

Seen on Facebook:

Wasn’t John Brown ‘antifa’? Who today would object to his actions?

Here’s the reasoning as I understand it. Obviously, John Brown was cool. But John Brown was like antifas, and antifas are like John Brown. Therefore antifas are cool. QED. It’s obvious. Obviously obvious. Who would even think of denying it? Except racists, I mean?

Here is Wikipedia on the Pottawatomie massacre, one of John Brown’s ‘actions’:

Some time after dark, the party left their place of hiding and proceeded on their “secret expedition”. Late in the evening, they called at the house of James P. Doyle and ordered him and his two adult sons, William and Drury to go with them as prisoners. (Doyle’s 16-year-old son, John, who was not a member of the pro-slavery Law and Order Party, was spared after his mother pleaded for his life.) The three men were escorted by their captors out into the darkness, where Owen Brown and one of his brothers killed them with broadswords. John Brown, Sr. did not participate in the stabbing but fired a shot into the head of the fallen James Doyle to ensure he was dead.

Brown and his band then went to the house of Allen Wilkinson and ordered him out. He was slashed and stabbed to death by Henry Thompson and Theodore Winer, possibly with help from Brown’s sons.[6] From there, they crossed the Pottawatomie, and some time after midnight, forced their way into the cabin of James Harris at swordpoint. Harris had three house guests: John S. Wightman, Jerome Glanville, and William Sherman, the brother of Henry Sherman (“Dutch Henry”), a militant pro-slavery activist. Glanville and Harris were taken outside for interrogation and asked whether they had threatened Free State settlers, aided Border Ruffians from Missouri, or participated in the sack of Lawrence. Satisfied with their answers, Brown’s men let Glanville and Harris return to the cabin. William Sherman was led to the edge of the creek and hacked to death with the swords by Winer, Thompson, and Brown’s sons.

Who today would object to those actions? Except a racist, I mean? C’mon, people, let’s go punch some nazis.

(Warning: Irony)

9 thoughts on “The obviously obvious obvious.

  1. A high school American history teacher’s response: Antifa is pretty much doing street theater; John Brown wanted to start a civil war; so no, antifa is not John Brown.

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    • Michael and I had an email exchange on the events in Charlottesville (including antifa), but neither of us had the time at the time to translate that into blogging. I haven’t read enough about antifa to have firm opinions about it. Part of the problem is that the term “antifa” has now become a moving target to be used (as confusingly as possible) in a narrow and a broad sense–the narrow sense referring to a set of anarcho-communist street thugs, and the broad sense referring to any obstreperous set of left-leaning protesters who happen to be outside and yelling.

      On a side note, I’m covering definitions by genus and difference in a critical thinking class I teach for a cohort of “non-traditional” students, i.e., working adults in their late 20s, 30s and 40s wanting to get a bachelor’s degree in business. One of the terms I had them define for homework was “fascism” (along with “doxxing,” “ghosting,” “personal hotspot,” and “table.”) I found it both remarkable and dismaying that the term “fascism” meant absolutely nothing to them: neither historical associations, nor connotations, nor informative definitions. Having looked the word up online, it became clear to them that “fascism” had something to do with centralized political authority and repression, but that was about it. If you’d listed paradigmatically fascist regimes alongside non-fascist ones, they couldn’t reliably have picked out the fascist ones.

      After pressing them, they were content to associate “fascism” with “Hitler,” but they were equally content to associate fascism with Stalin, and at any rate, the inference from “Nazism” to “fascism” was far from immediate. As for the association of fascism with nationalism and racism; the traditional clash between fascists and communists; or Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy as paradigmatic fascist regimes: all of this was lost on them.

      In other words, they were operating with a conceptual scheme involving a very broad genus of “bad regimes” as contrasted with “good regimes,” with no sense of how to differentiate species within either genus–and no sense that anyone had ever thought to. Equally problematic: they had no sense of the criteria for differentiating good from bad regimes except the conventional one of relying on the distinction between “regimes like ours” and “regimes not like ours,” equating the first with “good” and the second with “bad.”

      I realize this is a long tangent from your original point, but I found myself wondering how people operating with this conceptual scheme and level of historical/political knowledge would process the debate about antifa (or antifa-in-Charlottesville, etc). Can you think cogently about “antifa” if you don’t know what fascism is? And what does it mean that a cohort of middle class adults doesn’t know what “fascism” is?

      On antifa and John Brown: whatever the similarities and differences involved here, I don’t think the distinction between “doing street theater” and “wanting to start a civil war” is a useful one. Yes, there is a distinction between doing political street theater and actually starting a civil war, but most civil wars begin with street theater that functions as a dress rehearsal for civil war. The Klan engaged in plenty of rural street theater, but went on to terrorize the South; the Nazis started as street theater buffoons before they took over the Weimar Republic. (The Beer Hall Putsch is a classic hybrid of street theater and prelude to civil war.) In a sense William Lloyd Garrison belonged to the street theater wing of the abolitionist movement, as John Brown belonged its military wing–but the point is, they belonged to the same movement, and the movement was responsible in part for starting the Civil War. What this specifically implies for antifa, however, I don’t know.

      The most obvious historical parallels to antifa, however, are not comparisons to the abolitionists, but comparisons to communist attempts to co-opt liberal resistance to fascism. The communists often claim (and get) credit for civil rights successes in the American South and in apartheid South Africa–successes that they chalk up in part to their working class ideology, and in part to their willingness to smash racist-fascist heads, mere liberals being too squishy and squeamish for this sort of thing. (My first political theory professor in college, a Marxist, used to take this line.)

      Something similar is true of Communist resistance to the Free Corps in Weimar Germany; the point (the Communists’ point) was that the Social Democrats were ineffective (i.e., insufficiently brutal and/or antifascist) by comparison with the Communists at dealing with fascists. I guess the epitome of this attitude is the view that the Red Army was more anti-fascist than the Allied Armies in World War II. And it is true that they suffered more casualties and did more fighting. Granted, they helped the Nazis start the war, and eventually rivaled the Nazis in mass murder and repression, but I mean, you can’t have everything.

      The point of this meandering history lesson is that while I’m unsatisfied by just about everything I’ve read and heard about antifa, I don’t know enough about them to say anything more specific than I have.

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      • In the circles I move in, the understanding is that ‘antifa’ names a specific kind of opposition to fascism and other right-wing ideologies: the kind of opposition that explicitly condones and actually adopts violence, especially (but not only) coordinated violence, and especially (but not only) coordinated violence in response to demonstrations, protests, and other public gatherings of fascists/right-wing ideologues. That might be pretty vague, but it’s not too vague.

        I don’t think arguments of the following form are worth much: X’s usually start out as Y’s; therefore the distinction between X’s and Y’s is not useful. That seems to be the reasoning behind your judgment, unless I’ve misunderstood it. But just consider: radical Islamists usually start out as ordinary Muslim believers; therefore the distinction between radical Islamists and ordinary Muslim believers is not useful. Not a conclusion I’m willing to draw on that basis.

        In the particular case, too, I think the distinction between antifa as street theater and John Brown as an agitator for civil war more or less hits the mark. The express goal of most antifas is to defend people against attacks by fascists and their cousins and intimidate them so that they shut up, go away, and are afraid to express their fascist ideas. Though antifas engage in plenty of non-violent opposition to fascists, their endorsement of violence is what distinguishes them from other sorts of opposition: see the analysis here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/08/16/who-are-the-antifa/?utm_term=.574dc097baa6

        Now, you’re of course perfectly right that antifas could turn into agitators for civil war. But they’re not, right now, agitators for civil war. This isn’t their goal, and even when we can’t ask them to find out, the methods they use aren’t the methods by which one intentionally starts a civil war. John Brown’s, by contrast, were: murdering pro-slavery people and seizing control of a federal military arsenal in order to lead a revolt are. So far as I know, antifa groups haven’t pulled any fascists of their houses at night and slaughtered them and haven’t tried to seize control of instruments of the federal government. Describing them as engaged in “street theater” is — by the intention of my colleague, I think — a bit dismissive, and we might prefer the kinds of descriptions that self-proclaimed antifas give (e.g., defending people against fascist violence, preemptively if necessary). But so far, at least, what antifas do is quite different in severity, in methods, and in aims. The similarity is: using violence, even preemptively, to fight racists. I think even from a pro-antifa perspective, the differences are at least equally important.

        For what it’s worth, I think the most important historical parallel to antifa is antifa: the people calling themselves antifa here and now in the U.S. are explicitly appropriating the language and methods of European anti-fascist groups, as Bray’s article details. This is, of course, the same parallel you cited; it’s just that what today’s self-identified antifas would have us believe is that they are just the contemporary representatives of the same movement.

        My view on this is straightforward, predictable, and boring: self-defense is great, but initiating violence against people for publicly endorsing racist and other noxious political views is not self-defense, it’s (at best) pre-emptive strike, and while there may be some circumstances in which pre-emptive strike is justified, and justified on something broadly like self-defense (preventing harm to oneself), I don’t see any reason to think that Charlottesville or other recent white supremacist demonstrations come anywhere close to such cases.

        But of course I’m not going to defend that assertion, because I’m supposed to be working. Whoops.

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        • I finally have the chance to respond to this. I disagree, so I’m going to quote and respond.

          In the circles I move in, the understanding is that ‘antifa’ names a specific kind of opposition to fascism and other right-wing ideologies: the kind of opposition that explicitly condones and actually adopts violence, especially (but not only) coordinated violence, and especially (but not only) coordinated violence in response to demonstrations, protests, and other public gatherings of fascists/right-wing ideologues. That might be pretty vague, but it’s not too vague.

          That is too vague, and it’s also not adequate to the phenomena.

          Not adequate to the phenomena: your characterization doesn’t capture activities like that of HOPE Not Hate, which has been described (and describes itself) as an antifa organization. Nothing about your characterization would lead anyone to believe that investigative reporting was central to antifa, but it clearly is.

          Too vague: the phrase “coordinated violence in response to X” doesn’t distinguish between “responses to X that are defensive” and “responses to X that are other-than-defensive.” Maybe one problem with antifa is that it fails consistently to distinguish these things (or has a problematic account of the distinction, or of self-defense), but if we take antifa the first way (responds to demonstrations defensively), would you regard them as objectionable? I wouldn’t.

          I certainly prefer that the police handle the “trouble” that takes place at demonstrations. But if fascists show up armed and ready to fight, is it wrong for anyone (antifa or otherwise) to show up armed and ready to fight if one (correctly) suspects that the police will not defend one’s rights? My answer is “no, it’s not wrong.”

          If antifa held the preceding view, and left it at that, I would have no objections to them at all. On the contrary: I’d find them laudable. Granted, (defensive) street fighting with fascists may be a suboptimal use of one’s time, but it’s not unjust to fascists.

          I don’t think arguments of the following form are worth much: X’s usually start out as Y’s; therefore the distinction between X’s and Y’s is not useful. That seems to be the reasoning behind your judgment, unless I’ve misunderstood it. But just consider: radical Islamists usually start out as ordinary Muslim believers; therefore the distinction between radical Islamists and ordinary Muslim believers is not useful. Not a conclusion I’m willing to draw on that basis.

          I wasn’t making an argument intended to generalize to any X and any Y; I was making a claim about the the terms at hand, street theater and the production of civil war. And I wasn’t invalidating the distinction entirely; I was saying it had limited explanatory utility. My point was that street theater is very often a dress rehearsal and prelude to civil war, so that the distinction between “street theater” and “prelude to civil war” is not a useful one if applied to an ongoing event that could become a civil war. Would you disagree?

          In any case, the distinction between “radical Islamists” and “ordinary Muslim believers” is itself unclear because the phrase “ordinary Muslim believer” is vague (or equivocal, or an amphiboly: one of those). There’s a distinction to be drawn between “radical Islamists” and “Muslim believers with ordinary liberal beliefs about politics.” But there’s no clear distinction to be drawn between “radical Islamists” and “Muslims of ordinary piety who lack ordinary liberal beliefs about politics.” In other words, it’s not clear what “ordinary” modifies in “ordinary Muslim,” and there’s nothing extraordinarily Muslim about radical Islamists. If membership in Hamas qualifies as making someone a “radical Islamist,” then the ranks of Hamas are full of “ordinary Muslims.” The distinction you have in mind may seem plausible in the U.S., but that’s because Americans take every “ordinary Muslim” to be a liberal. That tends to be true in the US, but isn’t ubiquitously true even here, and isn’t true at all elsewhere.

          Back to “street theater” versus “civil war”: consider another paradigm example of how the distinction collapses in practice. This passage is about the Boston Tea Party:

          “The dye [sic] is now cast,” wrote the king to Lord North. “The Colonies must either submit or triumph.” That is why this comic stage-Indian business of the Boston Tea Party was important. It goaded John Bull into a showdown, which was exactly what Sam Adams and the other radical leaders wanted. (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, vol. 1, p. 274).

          This is a case where street theater was a prelude to civil war (or revolutionary war: however one puts it). So was the Boston Tea Party street theater, or did it mark the beginnings of war? The question is illegitimate because it did both more or less simultaneously. The point is that the radicals wanted and predicted war, something not true of the non-radicals, who neither wanted nor predicted war even when they engaged in activities like the Tea Party.

          Unless someone knew that we were not going to descend into a civil war, I don’t see the point of applying the distinction between “street theater” and “civil war” to antifa in September 2017. Yes, the distinction applies to, say, William Lloyd Garrison versus John Brown–Garrison being street theater dramatist, Brown being civil warrior. Yes, I suppose the distinction “applies” to John Brown versus antifa-right-now-bracketing-the-future-altogether-and-ignoring-outlying-cases-of-antifa-who-regard-us-as-drifting-into-war.

          But though I grant that the distinction can be applied, it seems a quibbling and pointless distinction to draw. It starts by applying one half of the distinction to an event in the nineteenth century, then applies the other half to an event 160 years later. It then ignores the fact that the first event (the Civil War) is over, while the second (the outcome of antifa confrontations of fascists) is not. In doing that, it fails to acknowledge that the second event is not just ongoing but unpredictable. Given that unpredictability, the attempt to treat antifa as mere street theater is as premature and dismissive as an attempt to treat the Boston Tea Party as nothing more than a dramatic act of littering.

          Now, you’re of course perfectly right that antifas could turn into agitators for civil war. But they’re not, right now, agitators for civil war. This isn’t their goal, and even when we can’t ask them to find out, the methods they use aren’t the methods by which one intentionally starts a civil war. John Brown’s, by contrast, were: murdering pro-slavery people and seizing control of a federal military arsenal in order to lead a revolt are. So far as I know, antifa groups haven’t pulled any fascists of their houses at night and slaughtered them and haven’t tried to seize control of instruments of the federal government.

          As it happens, I have pro-antifa Facebook friends who pretty insistently think that we’re on the cusp of a civil war, and who think of antifa as the vanguard of that war. In other words, they have something like the beliefs that Morison attributes to the “radicals” in the Tea Party passage above. I don’t think there are any particular methods of starting a war, especially if one expects the other side to start the war. Dumping tea in a harbor is not an obvious method of starting a war, but it not only started one, but was viewed by some as a good way of doing so. The first Palestinian intifada was similar in the severity and method of its tactics to antifa, but arguably led to something like a civil war (or a mini-civil-war). And it contained a large quotient of street drama in the completely literal sense.

          Anyway, the relevant point is not whether antifa are “agitators” for civil war (even if some may be) but whether their activities are plausibly seen as a prelude to civil war, so that the supposed distinction between “street theater” and “prelude to war” is rendered (relatively) pointless. This piece correctly stresses the unpredictable and path-dependent quality of the beginnings of civil war, and asks inconclusively whether we’re in one.

          I found the Bray piece you linked to almost completely unhelpful. This passage is central to his account, but makes no sense at all:

          There are antifa groups around the world, but antifa is not itself an interconnected organization, any more than an ideology like socialism or a tactic like the picket line is a specific group. Antifa are autonomous anti-racist groups that monitor and track the activities of local neo-Nazis. They expose them to their neighbors and employers, they conduct public education campaigns, they support migrants and refugees and they pressure venues to cancel white power events.

          The vast majority of anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. But their willingness to physically defend themselves and others from white supremacist violence and preemptively shut down fascist organizing efforts before they turn deadly distinguishes them from liberal anti-racists.

          Antifascists argue that after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late. As Cornel West explained after surviving neo-Nazi attacks in Charlottesville, “If it hadn’t been for the antifascists protecting us from the neo-fascists, we would have been crushed like cockroaches.”

          The first paragraph says that it’s not clear how to define antifa, because it’s not a well-defined, ideologically coherent movement. It then lists a set of non-violent activities (to my mind, completely unobjectionable activities) in which antifa engages.

          The second paragraph tells us that most anti-fascist organizing is nonviolent. Does Bray mean that most antifa activity is nonviolent? Or does “anti-fascist” here refer to a generic form of anti-fascist activity that excludes antifa? Or a generic form that includes antifa? Or a generic form that partially overlaps with parts of antifa?

          The next sentence tells us that readiness to resort to violence is what distinguishes antifa from liberal anti-racists, but what does that sentence have to do with the sentence that came before it? Don’t (or doesn’t) antifa precisely engage in the anti-fascist organizing referred to in the first sentence? In that case, the bulk of antifa activity could well turn out to be nonviolent. And don’t liberals defend themselves when attacked? In that case, maybe some of the people engaging in anti-fascist violence aren’t precisely (or always) best described as “antifa.” By the time we get to the end of the second paragraph, it seems to me that Bray has produced a muddle that clarifies nothing.

          And by the time he quotes Cornel West in the last paragraph, I’m totally mystified, not just at Bray but at the later comment you make about Charlottesville. If West’s claim is true, shouldn’t we infer that antifa’s readiness to resort to violence has conclusively been vindicated? Indeed, if West is to be believed, far from doing anything eyebrow-raising, all that antifa did was the job the police didn’t do. But then I’m baffled by what you say in your last paragraph:

          My view on this is straightforward, predictable, and boring: self-defense is great, but initiating violence against people for publicly endorsing racist and other noxious political views is not self-defense, it’s (at best) pre-emptive strike, and while there may be some circumstances in which pre-emptive strike is justified, and justified on something broadly like self-defense (preventing harm to oneself), I don’t see any reason to think that Charlottesville or other recent white supremacist demonstrations come anywhere close to such cases.

          What you say about Charlottesville can only be correct if we assume that Cornel West and everyone telling the same story as him was mistaken or lying. Well, maybe they were, but how could anyone at hundreds of miles’ distance from the events know that? On the other hand, if West et al were telling the truth, then I’d say that we’re all in antifa’s debt. But to say that you see “no reason” why Charlottesville came “anywhere close” to a case where self-defense was required or justified is a bit mind-boggling. How could self-defense not be justified in a case in which a bunch of Nazis are about to crush you (or an innocent bystander) like a cockroach? Even if West is lying or mistaken, your view doesn’t end up being straightforward. We at least have to consider the possibility that the scenario West describes really happened.

          On a related note, I’m inclined to think that the concept of “pre-emptive strikes” is widely being misused in discussions of this topic (not necessarily in your comment specifically, but generally). We tend to forget that the common law definition of “assault” holds that assault is a speech act, not a physical act of battery. So a sufficient condition of X’s assaulting me is X’s verbally threatening me in the legally specified way. It is not “pre-emptive” violence for me to physically attack X in a case where X has assaulted me. It follows that I can, with complete justification (both legally and morally), inflict severe physical damage on X when X engages in a threatening speech act of the relevant sort.

          This (legally) obvious fact seems to have been lost in the shuffle of discussions of “free speech” not being “violent,” but it affects how we evaluate antifa, whether in Charlottesville or elsewhere. I see nothing unjust about antifa’s confronting fascists at demonstrations, lying in wait for them to commit assault (even in the narrow sense of “assault”)–and then smashing their heads in when they do (within the limits of the law of self-defense). Head-smashing may not be the most productive use of one’s time, and it may not be the best political strategy to adopt, but I don’t think that the targets are wronged when their heads are smashed in. They assumed that risk when they became such loud, confrontational fascists as they are.

          Yes, pre-emptive strikes are wrong: you can’t just punch someone for being a Nazi in the privacy of his own mind, or even for saying Nazi things out loud, or wearing a Nazi arm-band, or whatever. But violence deployed against assault (whether on the broad or the narrow definition of assault) is not pre-emptive violence. And organized, well-coordinated violence that lies in wait against narrow assault isn’t pre-emptive, either. It’s the justifiable activity of the contemporary equivalent of a citizen militia. If this were antifa’s self-conception, antifa would simply be the Minutemen of the twenty-first century–using violence with more justification than the original Minutemen.

          My problem with antifa is that I don’t know how far the preceding description of them really generalizes. And my problem with Charlottesville is that unlike people who claim to know what happened, I not only don’t claim to know, I don’t know how anyone could claim to know (which is essentially what I said about the riots in Jerusalem, despite having been there).

          Here’s part of an email I wrote Michael, which I see as entirely consistent with what I said above, but clarifies my view on Charlottesville.

          Incidentally, I don’t know where you stand on Charlottesville, but I now despair of hearing common sense expressed any longer in a public setting. Having seen what I saw in Jerusalem, it seems to me patently obvious that we need to distinguish at least two considerations:

          1. Are the two groups in question of morally equivalent character?
          2. Who initiated the violence on the day in question?

          An answer to (1) is not an answer to (2), and an answer to (2) is not an answer to (1).

          But beyond that, both (1) and (2) are complex questions.

          Question (1) presupposes that each group was morally unified and can be judged and compared with the other by analogy with a moral agent. But that’s a huge oversimplification.

          Question (2) presupposes that the micro-events that gave rise to the most reprehensible scenes we saw on TV were relatively centralized. But that’s not how riots work. If a riot breaks out via 15 dispersed micro-events initiated in the heat of the moment by people on both sides, there is no determinate answer to question (2) except to go through a tedious analysis of each micro-event–which no one can do, in practice.

          I found Trump’s response to Charlottesville reprehensible, but I also found the misrepresentations of his words by the press reprehensible and dishonest. What he said was that there was violence on both sides. If you look carefully at the reporting, you’ll find that that claim is not contradicted by any on-the-ground reporting. Without really dealing with that, the press then fixated on the rest of what he said. But the inability to deal with the force-initiation issue is a major evasion, and I guarantee that it will come back to haunt them.

          People often assume that for any altercation, we ought to presume that “the bad guy” initiated the violence at the micro level, and the “good guys” were merely responding. What they really mean is “I don’t know what happened at the micro level, but I don’t care, because the point is that the violence operated against a moral background that puts the bad guys permanently in the wrong.” Maybe the latter thought is justified, and maybe not, but if it’s not made explicit, we’re operating in an ideological dream world. Which is where we currently appear to be. Nobody actually seems to know what happened in Charlottesville, any more than anyone reported on what really happened in Jerusalem. Having covered the Paterson rumors in micro-detail, all I can say is: this is how rumors get started. Rumors are parasitic on widespread dishonesty and evasion in the face of uncertainty. We’ve basically set ourselves up for it.

          At the end of the day, I still have no worked-out view on antifa (as a single, unified phenomenon), and doubt it’s possible (or worthwhile) to do so. Antifa might turn out to be too protean and inchoate an “object” to justify a single univocal verdict. Some of the things that antifa-types have done have been stupid and reprehensible. Some of the things that their defenders say are likewise stupid and reprehensible. I particularly loathe the loose talk that the more verbally belligerent keyboard antifarriors aim at liberals, as though liberals had never done anything to fight fascism.

          That said, I think liberals would do well to note that right now, whatever its flaws, antifa and the farther reaches of the left are taking the lead both in noting the threat of fascism, and in responding appropriately to it. It’s leftist activists who are infiltrating white nationalist groups, and leftist academics and journalists who are doing fieldwork in fucked-up places like West Bank settlements (along with this and this).

          Ultimately, there’s a division of labor at work here: liberalism at its best needs antifa at its best; in fact, at their best, liberalism and antifa are just different political tendencies within the same fundamental camp. Complacent liberals and antifa fanatics may deride that formulation, but at some level, I think they realize that they’re made better off by the existence of the other side.

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          • That was an awful lot of words avoiding the fairly obvious fact that the claim I reported and am at least loosely defending distinguishes between antifa and John Brown on the basis of intentions. You acknowledge this point, of course, but you brush it aside with, for all I can see, a mere assertion that it doesn’t matter, peppered with a repetition of the earlier claim that because some violent acts and groups that begin without the intention to foment war end up fomenting war, the distinction is irrelevant. I of course didn’t imagine that you were seriously proposing your earlier version of this argument as one that applies to all X’s and Y’s; but you haven’t said anything that makes apparent to me why you think the difference is irrelevant here. What you say about your pro-antifa Facebook friends’ views about civil war strikes me as a muddle that, ironically enough, mirrors the problem I see with much pro-antifa rhetoric. Somehow the fact that some pro-antifa folk think we’re on the brink of a civil war is supposed to tell against the characterization of them as not out to start a civil war (and hence as un-John-Brown-ish); but of course the original claim isn’t that they don’t think we’re on the brink of civil war, it’s that they aren’t trying to start a civil war. The funny thing about this is that it muddies considerations of intention in a similar way to defenses of antifa violence (including some of yours in the post): just as their violence is ‘self-defense’ even when they’re the ones who went up to people and started beating them, they’re not relevantly dissimilar from John Brown because expecting someone else to start a civil war and being prepared for it is somehow not significantly different from trying to start a civil war by coordinated acts of violence.

            I don’t claim to have any deep knowledge of what went on in Charlottesville; I just know that unless things were very different from what I’ve read, it wasn’t — initially, anyway — a situation that called for self-defense. If Cornel West’s description, and your more generalized descriptions, are true, then sure, it’s self-defense. But what’s at issue here is whether it was, and whether the sorts of acts that pro-antifa folks embrace under the concept of ‘self-defense’ really deserve to be put there. No doubt most people would agree that “organized, well-coordinated violence that lies in wait against narrow assault isn’t pre-emptive”; but I shouldn’t have to tell you that the real issue here is whether the particular acts in question, and the specific acts that antifa-sympathizers of various stripes defend, fit this description.

            Of course, if Bray (who has studied antifa more than either of us) is just totally wrong about this, and the endorsement of more-than-purely-defensive violence isn’t a distinguishing feature of antifa, then ‘antifa’ is a vague, meaningless term and neither my colleague’s remark nor my defense of it will apply to antifa qua antifa. Ultimately, it’s people claiming the antifa mantle who will determine what antifa as such is or isn’t. I’m just telling you how I and the people I’ve spoken to most about the issue think of the distinguishing feature of antifa — a way of thinking echoed by at least one academic expert on the subject. But, you know, the down-side of academic research on contemporary topics is that stuff changes so quickly; at least Aristotle remains Aristotle, more or less.

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          • I didn’t write all that to “avoid” a “fairly obvious fact,” but to point out that the distinction you made, however obvious, was relatively pointless and trivial. The correct response to something pointless and trivial is to brush it aside and explain why, which is what I did. Yes, John Brown and antifa are different. Yes, John Brown started a civil war, and the antifa-who-are-engaging-in-street-theater are engaging in street theater, therefore not starting a civil war, and therefore not John Brown. Yes, if you resolutely insist on restricting the scope of discussion about these issues to that small set of facts, you will see nothing beyond it, have little of substance to say about anything just beyond it, insist that no one else venture beyond the facts you’re focused on, and regard any such venturing as “lots of words” avoiding the point you’re making.

            But none of this changes an obvious fact: if the street violence we’ve seen really marks the beginnings of a civil war, the distinction you’ve drawn, however obvious, will not help us negotiate what happens next. We will be able to say that at the outset of this civil war, things began with street theater, which was decidedly not a civil war–and then note that the street theater descended into a civil war, as it so often has in the past. What great victory is won–or insight is vouchsafed–by making this point, I don’t know. But I’ll let you have it.

            What I would insist on is this: if street theater is frequently the prelude to civil war, and we are seeing street theater that may be the prelude to civil war, it makes sense to prepare for the real possibility that the street theater we are seeing is a prelude to civil war–even if it turns out not to be. This point is too commonsensical and “obvious” to require a huge amount of elaboration, except to someone who just adamantly refuses to see the point.

            I don’t see that you’ve dealt with the point I made about self-defense. Everyone agrees that it’s justifiable to defend oneself against assault, but assault has a definition in the law that permits defensive violence against those who issue threats of force, even if they don’t engage in physical battery. If antifa sees such a threat from fascists, and claims that the police don’t deal with it in a sufficiently pro-active way, it makes good sense for them to claim to defend protesters against fascists. If these fascists are coming to demonstrations with weapons, it makes sense for antifa meet them with weapons. If these fascists engage in assault, it makes good sense to respond to their assaults with defensive violence. Do you see anything wrong with this reasoning? I don’t, but I get the impression you do. “Impression” is about as far as I can go, however, because you haven’t clearly explained what the problem is supposed to be.

            According to Cornel West et al, the preceding is exactly what happened at Charlottesville–or is one of the things that happened there: the fascists assaulted protesters who were not themselves attacking the fascists, and the police stood by and did nothing. Now maybe it isn’t what happened in Charlottesville. I don’t know, and don’t claim to know. But West does; he was there. And though I wasn’t there, I have been in a few riots, and have done street-level fieldwork on rumor propagation, so I know that media coverage of an “event” tends to be a lot more porous than is realized by people who don’t attend chaotic, decentralized events of this kind. Surely it’s possible (I’d conclude) that he is right, in which case, those antifa actions–the ones that prevented those demonstrators from being “crushed like cockroaches”–seem entirely justifiable. In fact, that understates things. It’s more straightforward to say that on that construal, what they did was laudable–and that their critics are engaged in the worst kind of Monday night quarterbacking.

            You weren’t there, but you originally claimed that antifa’s actions were obviously not defensive in nature. This is what you said, verbatim:

            My view on this is straightforward, predictable, and boring: self-defense is great, but initiating violence against people for publicly endorsing racist and other noxious political views is not self-defense, it’s (at best) pre-emptive strike, and while there may be some circumstances in which pre-emptive strike is justified, and justified on something broadly like self-defense (preventing harm to oneself), I don’t see any reason to think that Charlottesville or other recent white supremacist demonstrations come anywhere close to such cases.

            No reason to think that Charlottesville or any other similar event comes anywhere close to justified self-defense? How could a person who now claims not to have any “deep knowledge of what went on in Charlottesville” so confidently know that the claims of a participant in the event were wrong? You say that “unless things were very different from what I’ve read, it wasn’t–initially, anyway, a situation that called for self-defense.” Well, a situation that “later” calls for self-defense is still a situation that calls for self-defense, isn’t it? Such a situation is not quite the same as one that doesn’t come “anywhere close” to a situation of self-defense. You were the one who reproduced the passage (from the Bray article) with the Cornel West quotation in it. So that claim of his is part of what you read. In that light, I can’t make sense of your claim that what you read didn’t justify self-defense: it’s precisely what you read that did.

            Either you know what happened in Charlottesville, and you’re claiming on that basis to know that antifa’s violence was not defensive, or you don’t know, but you’re insisting for whatever reason that it couldn’t have been. The best that we (non-participants) can know is that if people like West are to be believed, antifa may well have been doing the defensive job that the police should have been doing, but didn’t do–in which case they deserve credit for doing it while others watched (or: watched and criticized). (More testimony along the same lines. Again, I make no guarantees that what they’re saying is entirely correct, and they’re often vague on what they mean by “defense,” but there’s enough there to lend credence to West’s claims.)

            As for the Bray article, my criticisms stand: I don’t care what his academic credentials are, his claims in that article make no sense at all. In any case, as it happens (and for whatever it’s worth), the position for which he’s now famous or notorious is a lot closer to mine than it is to yours: he’s more pro-antifa than I am. I’ve offered only the most cautious, qualified, mostly hypothetical defense of antifa; meanwhile, he’s the author of a book that “offers a road map for putting the movement’s principles into practice.”

            “Antifa’s numbers are almost impossible to determine because the movement is decentralized and leaderless,” says the preceding article, on Bray. The irony is that it’s Bray who wants to become their leader. Let’s just hope that his leadership and scholarship are less confused than his journalism.

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          • For what it’s worth, though, I agree (I think) with most of your email to Michael. Perhaps I should be more skeptical of media reporting; the reports I read and the impression I had were certainly not that the white nationalist protestors initiated violence against a bunch of peaceful antifascists. Nor, I hasten to add, was the impression I had that the antifascist protestors initiated violence against a bunch of peaceful white nationalist protestors. I want no part of any moral theory on which there has to be one and only one group to blame for the violence (or even only one group who ‘initiated’ it). In that respect, Trump’s comments were not entirely wrong. But as you nicely emphasize, the question of who initiated or is to blame for the violence is separate from the question of moral equivalence, and Trump’s comments were pretty clearly aimed mainly at asserting moral equivalence (or, if not aimed at it, very poorly constructed to avoid that connotation).

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          • I don’t see how it was possible to follow media reporting on Charlottesville and miss items like this one. It’s one thing to have been skeptical about it, and another just to dismiss it as nonsense or lies. I’m skeptical of it, but that very skepticism entails that I grant the possibility that it happened in just the way that the protesters say it did.

            I’ve seen things like this–what’s discussed in the preceding article–happen with my own eyes in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and had to deal with the self-induced myopia of “mainstream” reporters who lack the curiosity or initiative or imagination (or whatever) to report it: to ask the right questions, or go where one needs to go to get a fuller picture than the one that the “mainstream” would like to hear. Reporting about Charlottesville was slightly better than reporting about Jerusalem only because the alternative press had a stake in the issue (I mean both the far left and far right press) and had access to the event. But you didn’t have to go that far to hear claims that gave credence to the antifa side of the story.

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          • Well, you were the one who presented your criticisms as somehow contrary to my initial comments. Yet you presented nothing aside from slippery slope arguments and mere assertions to cast doubt on my initial comments. You now complain that my initial comments were “trivial and pointless” because they didn’t satisfactorily account for the full variety of issues that I hadn’t been commenting on but are related to what I had been commenting on and that you deem more important. I’m happy to concede that my initial comments were “trivial and pointless” compared to some of the issues you want to discuss; I will not concede that you have said anything to undermine my initial comments until you give me a good reason to do so. If it looks like I’m “restricting the scope of discussion” to a few points, perhaps that’s because I posted about a few points, you attacked a few points with unconvincing arguments before moving on to what you regard as less trivial and pointless and seem to think is inconsistent with my initial comments, and I thought it worth pointing out that your arguments didn’t actually count against my initial comments and that your further reflections aren’t obviously inconsistent with my initial comments. This seems to be becoming a pattern with you and me: I say P, you attack P and then say Q and R and S and T; I defend P, you then get worked up over Q and R and S and T (which I wasn’t attacking and to which I may even be sympathetic, or have even already supported) in a way that purports to be a further attack on P, even though it casts no doubt on P (witness the series of comments about interpretation in response to my post about Pliny the Younger, in which I concede in an early comment all the important points that you go on to make in subsequent comments as though they were somehow inconsistent with my view).

            So, for instance, you complain that the distinction I reported and defended “will not help us negotiate what happens next.” I didn’t claim that it would help us negotiate what happens next. Perhaps you think it is some sort of sin on my part to have commented on these issues without having an account of things that will help us to negotiate what happens next; if so, I hope you will forgive me for pointing out that your voluminous commentary on social and political issues is pretty thin on proposals for how to negotiate what happens next. If the criticism of me is that I’m talking about important socio-political problems without offering any productive solutions, then you’re as guilty as I am, or rather more so, since you have a lot more to say about important socio-political problems than I do, and yet you have no productive solutions to offer either.

            I tried to respond to your point about self-defense, but I can see why my response isn’t clear. Here’s the point: hardly anybody is going to attempt to justify their violence except by presenting it as somehow defensive; at least some self-identified antifa activists describe their aims as disrupting certain forms of public demonstration by their ideological enemies by violent means; of course they claim that these violent means are justified as a source of self-defense and present their opponents as the aggressors; the question is why we should believe them just because they say so, particularly when some of the folks claiming the antifa mantle make pretty clear that their conception of self-defense embraces attacking people simply for trying to organize a public demonstration on the grounds that merely expressing certain sentiments is itself a form of harming others. Antifa protestors who have just beaten somebody up will obviously claim that they were protecting somebody and that the other guy started it; why should we believe that coming from proponents of a movement whose members call for “uncompromising militancy” against their opponents to “force their hate out of public spaces by any means necessary”?

            To be as clear as I can, I’m happy to concede that what various people call ‘antifa’ is or may not be one coherent thing. But my initial comments use ‘antifa’ to refer to groups that advocate disrupting public demonstrations by means of physical violence without regard for whether those demonstrators are in fact doing physical violence to anyone or issuing an imminent threat of such violence, not to groups that merely insist on defending themselves and others against physical violence or the imminent threat of physical violence. I don’t have patience for semantic quibbling, so edit my claims to read ‘antifa*,’ where ‘antifa*’ = antifascist groups that condone the use of violence to disrupt public demonstrations by doing physical violence without regard for whether those demonstrators are in fact doing physical violence to anyone (if ‘antifa*’ bothers you, call them ‘asfljsf-ists’). My initial comments on Charlottesville were directed at groups of this sort: from everything I’ve read, the white nationalist protestors in Charlottesville were not, prior to confrontation with counter-protestors, obviously out to do physical violence to anyone, and hence, as I see it, it was not reasonable to set out to do physical violence to them simply because they were organizing a demonstration in favor of some noxious ideas. That is what my initial claim about Charlottesville was. My claim was not that no violence against the white nationalist protestors was justified because none of them in fact did anything to merit such a response; for that judgment, I’d need to know more than I am in a position to know. What I take myself to be in a position to know is whether or not the public demonstration itself set out to commit violence against people. I don’t claim to know that, because I don’t know enough, but I don’t see any reason to think that it was. My initial objection was to the idea that the sheer ideological content of the demonstration justified violence against the demonstrators; I did not claim, and do not now claim, that none of the demonstrators did anything that justified self-defensive acts on the part of counter-protestors (indeed, from what I’ve read, it seems likely that plenty such things happened, though I don’t regard Cornel West as a credible witness to much of anything).

            I don’t see that your reflections on self-defense have any bearing on my actual point. As I said, I agree with at least most of your general claims in your email to Michael, which encapsulate a lot of what you’ve had to say ostensibly in objection to what I’ve said. But nothing you’ve said presents any reason why I should change or retract anything I’ve said. I think if we are disagreed about issues of substance here, it is that you think it appropriate to extend an extreme skepticism to journalists while embracing a very generous degree of credibility to activists. That might be an interesting disagreement, but it isn’t what you spend most of your time on in the posts above.

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