In my editorial of a week ago, I had this quote by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, from his 1943 book Philosophies at War: “Their conflict is not one of ideologies, for Communism and Naziism are both destructive of human freedom.” While plenty of attention has been given in the mainstream press and even Catholic press to the “alt-Right”, there has been much less focus on the “antifa” movement. Having now lived in western Oregon since 1991, I have seen several radical groups and movements of both the Left and Right at work—riots, rallies, gatherings, promotion, etc.—and have concluded many times over that, at the end of the day, they are lawless, bullying, violent, hateful, anarchist, destructive, ideologically-insane sides of the same secular, godless coin.
For example, the Torch Antifa website states that “We don’t rely on the cops or courts to do our work for us. This doesn’t mean we never go to court, but the cops uphold white supremacy and the status quo. They attack us and everyone who resists oppression. We must rely on ourselves to protect ourselves and stop the fascists.” That is anarchy; it is rule by mob; it is insanity. More:
We oppose all forms of oppression and exploitation. We intend to do the hard work necessary to build a broad, strong movement of oppressed people centered on the working class against racism, sexism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination against the disabled, the oldest, the youngest, and the most oppressed people. We support abortion rights and reproductive freedom. We want a classless, free society. We intend to win! … We hold ourselves accountable personally and collectively to live up to our ideals and values.
That, in sum, is a 21st-century form of socialist totalitarianism masked in utopian, maniacal nonsense.
Plenty of other examples could be given. But I recommend you read an article by Peter Beinart in the September issue of The Atlantic, titled “The Rise of the Violent Left”. Beinart’s liberal credentials are as solid as they come: he is the former editor of The New Republic, he has written for Time, The New York Times, and other lefty publications, and he is the author of several books, including The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror. But Beinart, to his credit, doesn’t flinch (unlike far too many in the mainstream left) from calling out the antifa movement for the semi-literate, nihilist thuggery it really is:
Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.
Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”
The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like Spencer: In June of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose, California. An article in It’s Going Down celebrated the “righteous beatings.” …
As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifascists don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent. With help from other left-wing activists, they’re already having some success at disrupting government. Demonstrators have interrupted so many city-council meetings that in February, the council met behind locked doors. In February and March, activists protesting police violence and the city’s investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline hounded Mayor Ted Wheeler so persistently at his home that he took refuge in a hotel. The fateful email to parade organizers warned, “The police cannot stop us from shutting down roads.” …
Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation. Unlike the politicians they revile, the men and women of antifa cannot be voted out of office. Generally, they don’t even disclose their names.
Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the government’s. Which is why, in the Trump era, the movement is growing like never before. As the president derides and subverts liberal-democratic norms, progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people.
Over at NRO, Ben Shapiro summarizes the situation very well:
And so here we stand: On the one side, a racist, identity-politics Left dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate beneficiaries of privilege and therefore must be excised from political power; on the other side, a reactionary, racist, identity-politics alt-right dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate victims of the social-justice class and therefore must regain political power through race-group solidarity.
None of this is new, of course. The Left has engaged in identity politics since the 1960s and engaged in heavy violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The white-supremacist movement has been with us since the founding of the republic. But both movements had been steadily shrinking until the last few years.
Now they’re growing. And they’re largely growing in opposition to one another. In fact, the growth of each side reinforces the growth of the other: The mainstream Left, convinced that the enemies of social-justice warriors are all alt-right Nazis, winks and nods at left-wing violence; the right, convinced that its SJW enemies are focused on racial polarization, embraces the alt-right as a form of resistance. Antifa becomes merely a radical adjunct to traditional Democratic-party politics; the alt-right becomes merely a useful tool for scurrilous Republican politicians and media figures.
Rod Dreher, at The American Conservative, asks the pressing question: “Where are the restraining forces against radicalization on both the Left and the Right?” For much of this country’s history, the center was held together by a general form of Protestant Christianity; there were plenty of disagreements about the details but there existed a vague and overarching awareness of God—or “America’s God”, as historian Mark A. Noll titled his 2002 study (Oxford University Press) of religious belief from Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. As Noll observes, in that first century or so of its existence, the unity of the U.S.—which of course was nearly destroyed in the Civil War—was situated on “commonsense moral reasoning, narratives of republican liberation, and the Bible.” Needless to say, those ships have not only sailed, they haven’t been seen in quite some time.
As Sheen noted many decades ago, “politics denies its divine foundation. Politics is today the supreme and absolute science. We once lived in the age of the Theological Man; then came the age of the Economic Man; now we are in the age of the Political Man.” But perhaps it is even worse now, as it’s clear both of these extreme movements are not interested in the political process—in fact, both view the current system with disdain and even hatred—but in raw power. Christianity is either co-opted (and perverted), ignored, or attacked. As Ross Douthat observes: “The decline of institutional Christianity means that we have no religious center apart from Oprah and Joel Osteen, the metaphysical gap between the secularist wing of liberalism and religious traditionalists is far wider than the intra-Christian divisions of the past, and on the fringes you can see hints of a fully post-Christian and post-liberal right and left.”
The way forward is difficult and murky, to put it mildly. But it cannot be down the path of the racist Right or the violent antifa Left, a path that is singular, hell-bent, and inhuman.