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AntiFa’s Moral Superiority and the Potential for Left-Wing Unity

Photo by jaqian | CC BY 2.0

Following the tragedy at Charlottesville, Virginia, in which Heather Heyer was murdered by a White nationalist terrorist, President Donald Trump revealed his true self.

In his words:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time… What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives…”

“Many sides”, “not Donald Trump”, “law and order.”

False moral equivalency, no accountability, neofascism.

Coming from the leader of any country, not to mention the only global super power, these words are a recipe for disaster.

Many Sides

Donald Trump’s condemnation of violence on “many sides” is the quintessential false moral equivalency. It is a fallacy that is used to polarize groups and endorse the violence that is likely to follow.

Equating the long history of right-wing terrorism in the United States with the comparatively negligible violence carried out by some “black bloc” anti-fascists (AntiFa), i.e. shoving, property damage and the occasional punching of neo-Nazis is absurd and dangerous.

It is false to qualitatively compare an organization that explicitly seeks to exterminate certain ethnic groups with another whose goals are to protect those very people and their rights. Further, though AntiFa are stigmatized as activists whose sole purpose is violence, they are in reality engaged in a multitude of other tactics that are aimed at combatting fascism. Finally, a simple quantitative comparison of the violence perpetuated by these groups, their targets and results, proves the complete moral bankruptcy of drawing such an equivalency.

Let us examine Charlottesville as a case study. There, neo-Nazis marched with torches across the University of Virginia campus chanting “blood and soil” (a Nazi slogan), “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter”, paraded alongside militiamen in full combat gear and assault rifles, fired at counter protesters unimpeded by police, threatened clergymen and women, and finally drove a car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. What’s more, a recent article has shown that some of the fascists at Charlottesville were planning for murderous violence in advance.

In contrast, counter protesters were predominantly nonviolent and used defensive, not offensive tactics other than publicly shaming members of the other side. Cornel West went so far as to say that AntiFa activists saved his life as well as the lives of other clergymen and women trapped in a church.

A Response to Chris Hedges

Earlier this week, Chris Hedges chimed in with an extremely unfavorable analysis of AntiFa in a piece titled “How Antifa Mirrors the “Alt–Right” published by Truthdig. This is not new ground for Hedges, who has previously villainized anarchists as “the cancer of the Occupy movement”.

Straight off the bat, Hedges’ title conveys the gist of the piece – precisely reiterating Trump’s false moral equivalency. He then spells it out:

“Behind the rhetoric of the “alt-right” about white nativism and protecting American traditions, history and Christian values is the lust for violence. Behind the rhetoric of antifa, the Black Bloc and the so-called “alt-left” about capitalism, racism, state repression and corporate power is the same lust for violence.”

On to the crux of his argument:

“The two opposing groups, largely made up of people who have been cast aside by the cruelty of corporate capitalism, have embraced holy war.”

And later in the piece he writes:

“The white racists and neo-Nazis may be unsavory, but they too are victims. They too lost jobs and often live in poverty in deindustrialized wastelands. They too often are plagued by debt, foreclosures, bank repossessions and inability to repay student loans. They too often suffer from evictions, opioid addictions, domestic violence and despair. They too sometimes face bankruptcy because of medical bills. They too have seen social services gutted, public education degraded and privatized and the infrastructure around them decay. They too often suffer from police abuse and mass incarceration. They too are often in despair and suffer from hopelessness. And they too have the right to free speech, however repugnant their views.”

Here, Hedges relies and promotes a proven falsehood, one that implies that Trump won the presidency due to a disillusioned, poor/working-class base, which gravitated towards his “anti-free trade”, “anti-imperialist” and overall “anti-establishment” policies. Notably, this myth has been debunked again, again and again, showing that Trump’s support came predominantly from affluent white Americans.

Additionally, the “alt-right”, who took on a major part of the events at Charlottesville, is composed largely of educated millennials, not disparaged members of the working class.

Hedges relies on these myths because they support the horseshoe theory that validates the equivalency he promotes between the tactics of AntiFa and extreme right-wing violence, the very same immoral equivalency promoted by Donald Trump.

Hedges goes on to describe AntiFa activists thus:

“The protests by the radical left now sweeping America, as Aviva Chomsky points out, are too often little more than self-advertisements for moral purity. They are products of a social media culture in which each of us is the star of his or her own life movie.”

In contrast to Hedges’ claims here, black bloc tactics are about a collective not an individual, AntiFa and anarchist activists are often anonymous (wearing masks) not self-aggrandizing, and AntiFa’s history dates back to the early 19th century, well before our current self-obsessed culture of social media.

Accountability and Uniting the Left

The tragedy of Hedges’ arguments is that they fracture the left and whitewash those who are truly responsible for the hate and violence – fascists, the state and their representatives in the police force.

Instead of supporting members of AntiFa and their courageous efforts against the violence and racism of the right, Hedges feeds into the false and immoral equivalency between right- and left-wing violence and promotes myths regarding Trump’s populist appeal and working class base.

Now is the time for public intellectuals like Hedges to work at uniting the left, by applying pressure on police to do their jobs, not on activists to cease protecting communities against fascists.

The left is faced with the predicament of a looming fascism and oppression that requires a reassessment of strategy, which embraces all forms of resistance, defensive aggression included.

Activists in the streets need guidance and encouragement from intellectuals like Hedges, not beratement and villainization. Their energy should be harnessed alongside, not in contrast to, traditional movement building efforts on the left with the underlying goals of thwarting fascism and promoting a future of justice and equality in America.

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Yoav Litvin is a Doctor of Psychology/ Behavioral Neuroscience.  

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