Monday, August 28, 2017

Endless War

According to the Associated Press, about a hundred self-identified anarchists entered an anti-racist rally in Berkeley, California, where they proceeded to beat up several people.
The group of more than 100 hooded protesters, with shields emblazoned with the words "no hate" and waving a flag identifying themselves as anarchists, busted through police lines, avoiding security checks by officers to take away possible weapons. Then the anarchists blended with a crowd of 2,000 largely peaceful protesters who turned up to demonstrate in a "Rally Against Hate" opposed to a much smaller gathering of right-wing protesters.
"No hate" -- don't you just love that?  The hypocritical piety is practically Christian.  Even better, these goons went after isolated individuals they could gang up on with minimal risk to themselves.  Better still: the first guy they attacked is Japanese-American, which makes their assault a racist attack -- a hate crime.  (Or a "no hate" crime, which makes a big difference, I suppose.)  Luckily, almost miraculously, the police didn't seize the opportunity to attack the rest of the crowd, which is the normal police response to such incidents.

It has been educational to watch liberal and left reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As I've noticed before, many of them are blurring the already vexed line between speech and violence, and eager to give the Trump administration the authority to decide what speech is acceptable and what isn't.  (I'm being slightly disingenuous there, since of course they fantasize that they themselves will make that decision; which shows that they're delusional, given existing historical and political realities in the US.)  They also exploit an ambiguity in the word "fighting," which can refer metaphorically to any kind of organized effort (including sports) against something, or to actual literal violence.

So, for example, I've often heard it said that Heather Heyer was fighting hate (or fascism or racism or Nazism, or fighting for what she believed in, whatever) in Charlottesville when she was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into the crowd of people she was in.  Fighting (literal) doesn't seem to have been Heyer's style.  In any case, she was killed as she crossed a street at an intersection during (I think -- the chronology is muddled) the counter-protest.  I don't say this to minimize her death or its significance, only for clarity's sake.  That she wasn't clubbing down neo-Nazis makes her murderer even more cowardly and despicable.  While simply pepper-spraying and chasing a non-resisting individual isn't in the same class of evil (except perhaps metaphorically) as driving a car into an unarmed and nonviolent crowd, it's also cowardly and despicable.  Like this.

So when Ted Rall posted on Facebook last weekend that, "Considering the history of fascism, the debate over whether the antifa movement should resort to violence seems, well, quaint", I wasn't terribly surprised, though I was a bit disappointed.  I generally like his cartoons, and thought his book on Afghanistan, After We Kill You We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests (Hill & Wang, 2014), was excellent and important.  But he got things wrong this time, starting with the cartoon itself, which depicts a French couple at a cafe as Nazi troops march by in the street.  The Frenchman says, "Violence? But that would make us as bad as them!"

This is disingenous.  First of all, it's not as if the centrist liberals in Trump's America who call themselves The Resistance have renounced the use of violence in advance: the name they've chosen for themselves deliberately invokes those who fought against the Nazis in occupied France, though so far they haven't done anything much more strenuous than wear pink pussy hats and make memes mocking Trump.  Second, the situation in occupied France was not about whether or not to counter "free speech" with violence -- Germany didn't occupy France through free speech.  (Plus, the actual French Resistance was dominated by Communists, and if there's anyone liberal Democrats hate more than Trump, it's a leftist.  Unless it's a Jewish leftist.)

Second, debates in the US over the use of violence by minorities and dissidents have always been inadequate at best, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that things have changed.  The increasing boldness of white racists since Trump's ascendancy has been met with a lot of chest-thumping rhetoric about fighting Nazis in the streets.  I'm not objecting to the use of violence myself; I am, however, concerned with other questions, such as: Who's going to fight the Nazis?  When and where?  Who will lead?  Who will choose the leaders?  Who will determine strategy and tactics?  The neo-Nazis are organized and armed; how will "antifa" (a term I find about as annoying as The Resistance) violence be armed and organized?  These are not idle questions.

This weekend a video began to circulate online, which showed a white supremacist in Charlottesville trying to shoot a black counterprotester who'd made himself an impromptu flamethrower by igniting the spray from an aerosol can and aiming it at the racists.  By amazing luck, the kind of luck that convinces me there is no god, the would-be shooter had forgotten to disable the safety on his weapon, which slowed him down, and when he did fire, nobody was hurt.  The guy with the gun is being sought by the authorities, as they say.

What I find interesting about this scene is that ever since Trump made it clear he was appealing to a white-racist base -- hell, ever since Obama attracted racist hatred as a candidate and as President -- there has been a lot of agitation about how extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland.  I don't dismiss these concerns, but I find it extremely interesting and significant that many of these same alarmists nevertheless seem to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air.  There were many warnings about armed neo-Nazis, with heavy-duty weapons, gathering in Charlottesville, intent on mayhem.  It appears that even so, the Antifa mostly didn't consider them a real, serious threat, and those who did brought some homemade weaponry that would have been useless if the threat turned real.  Since we're not pacifists here, I can say that I wouldn't have been felt much sympathy if the guy with the aerosol can had gotten shot, because he was putting his unarmed anti-fascist comrades in danger, presumably without their consent or planning.

Or he was giving the police, who everyone assumed were on the racists' side, an excuse to stomp some hippies. (In a real Resistance situation, he'd likely have been court-martialed and shot by his own organization for such stupid criminal recklessness.)  Emptywheel pointed out last weekend that Trump's pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio was intended to send a message to his real base, the police, who supported him during his election campaign and support him still.
So while feeding his explicitly racist base with hateful rhetoric is important, it’s even more important to ensure that the cops remain with him, even as he fosters violence.

There is no better way to do that than to convey to police that they can target brown people, that they can ignore all federal checks on their power, with impunity (this is probably one key reason why Trump has given up his efforts to oust Sessions, because on policing they remain in perfect accord).
There is no better way to keep the support of cops who support Trump because he encourages their abuses then by pardoning Arpaio for the most spectacular case of such abuses.
The history Rall appealed to isn't reassuring.  There were street battles between Communists and Nazis in Germany during the 1930s; they didn't impede Hitler's rise to power.  Historians can probably explain why; I confess I haven't read enough about the period to have an opinion.  But whatever the reasons, street fighting didn't work for the Left; only for the Nazis.  In general, that has been true in the US as well.  In principle I fully endorse and support the right of African-Americans to defend themselves against police and government violence; but those who did, in the 1960s, seriously underestimated the power and ruthlessness of their adversaries.  And that leaves aside intra-movement violence, among the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example.  And yet many antifa sympathizers, in between attacking the police (sometimes justly), believe that when push comes to shove the police will protect them from that Bad Ol' Nazis.  They should, of course; but the historical precedents indicate that they won't.

As you can see, I don't mean to suggest that violence never works.  After its defeat in 1865, for example, the Confederacy used violence very successfully to establish white supremacy all over the South, and eventually managed to sell most white Americans on their Lost Cause myth of elegant Southern heritage violated by the brutish Union.  As with the successful use of violence by the Nazis, I don't know the history well enough to explain why with any certainty, but I feel sure it's at least partly because most white Americans in the North (including educated elites) were racist, and weren't at all uncomfortable with white supremacy as ideology or practice.  There was a brief blip of anti-racist action in the 1950s and 1960s, and though some gains were made, white-supremacist resistance, violent and nonviolent, never ceased, and many of those gains are in danger of being lost again.

But this reminds me of an anecdote in a book I read a week ago, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press, 2017).  It's about the popularity of violence against children by African-American parents, and it's flawed but overall very valuable.  Many black parents, like many white parents, believe that beating children is the only way to keep them out of trouble and turn them into responsible adults.  There's an anecdote toward the end, told by an African-American woman, a single mother and a parent trainer:
Alvarez says she gets the "usual bullshit" from other parents who criticize her for not hitting her son.  "Spare the rod ... yada, yada, yada ... ain't nobody here for that.  My son, my rules.  As a parent trainer, when I hear parents swear by whupping kids, I ask, "How many here were whupped by parents?" Most will raise their hands.  Then I ask, "How many were whupped twice?" Most raise their hands.  Then I say, "So then maybe it's not that effective.  If it were, we'd only have to get beaten once to get the message" [214].
I feel the same way about violence aimed at stopping white racism: the most horrific war in history up to that point didn't stop it -- it barely slowed it down, and only briefly at that.  Maybe other avenues need to be considered.

I've also been thinking of something Noam Chomsky wrote about political violence about fifty years ago, and published in American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1969, pp. 398-399):
It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism.  To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect.  Such tactics may seem "radical" and, in a narrow sense, justified by the magnitude of the infamy and evil that they seek to overcome.  They are not.

In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions are being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary."  In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all.  It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms.  But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression. Consider the Reichstag fire, to return to a day that is less remote than one would wish. Or consider the act of a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee from Poland just thirty years ago -- of Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a German official in Paris in November 1938.  It is difficult to condemn this desperate act, which set off violent pogroms throughout Germany and helped entrench more deeply the Nazi regime of terror; but the victims of Nazi terror would offer no thanks to Herschel Grynszpan.  We must not abandon the victims of American power, or play games with their fate.  We must not consent to have the same repression imposed on still further helpless victims or the same blind fury unleashed against them.
It seems to me that those who want to use violent tactics against the racist Right need to make very clear how they intend to use those tactics, why those tactics and not others.  So far I've seen a lot of grandstanding and posturing by people I wouldn't follow ... well, anywhere.  It's not as if there isn't a long history of political violence from which to learn, but I haven't seen any indication that the advocates of violence today have paid any attention to it.  Advocating violence, even or especially against fascists, without showing that you know what you're talking about doesn't establish your gravitas; it makes me suspect that you've played too many video games, or watched too many action movies, and mistaken them for reality.  I don't have the answers myself, and I'm not ruling out violence altogether; but I need better rationales for violent action than I've been hearing so far.  The burden of argument lies not on those oppose the use of violence, or starting a war, but on those who want to initiate it.  It's certainly interesting to hear nominal leftists using the rhetoric of the Bush administration when it insisted that we must invade the existential threat of Iraq now.  They are trifling with human lives, and if (or more likely when) it blows up their face, they won't accept responsibility, let alone accountability.