Since February’s violence in Berkeley, which stopped a scheduled speech on campus by Milo Yiannopoulos, the media and the political Left’s relationship with Antifa has been similar to that of your favorite codependent couple; they’re either publicly and passionately in love with each other or loudly breaking up for-the-very-last-time and taking out restraining orders.
At the time of the Milo controversy, politicians and the mainstream media were quick to point out that Antifa was not of the Left, but was, as reports went, a loose group of anarchist provocateurs engaging in black bloc tactics. Social media was replete with intimations that the protesters were actually agents provocateurs designed to make the Left look bad. Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor for Bill Clinton who is now a professor at Berkeley, wrote that the February riot: “…raises the possibility that Yiannopoulos and Brietbart [sic] were in cahoots with the agitators, in order to lay the groundwork for a Trump crackdown on universities and their federal funding.” The optics were bad, so Antifa had to be kept at arm’s length.
Charlottesville changed all that, as an overzealous and seemingly politically motivated media and an all too eager political class worked to recast Antifa as the heroes within an overly simplistic narrative. This gave the group and its philosophy of violent opposition to “offending” speech the daylight it needed to grow a fig-leaf of acceptability, which, in turn, emboldened its members to commit more brazen acts of intimidation and violence—the most recent example having occurred, again, in Berkeley.
Charlottesville proved once more that the media is unworthy of the trust the people want to place in it. Keen to pounce reflexively and at any opportunity on a president they abhor, the mainstream press provide cultural cover for Antifa’s political violence.
In a textbook example of psychological projection, they ascribed to the president actions and motivations which proved to be their own: making excuses for political violence. The claim that President Trump was too forgiving of neo-nazis and Klansmen turned out to be a more accurate description of their own assessments of Antifa. The media all but lionized the group, mitigated criticism of it, and allowed the political violence Antifa engages in to be swept under the rug of good intentions.
Instead of reporting honestly about the events and actors at Charlottesville and the clashes that followed, the media weaved a dramatic tale of good versus evil where narrative lorded over nuance and the drama couldn’t be bothered with the pedantry of details.
By framing the events of Charlottesville in almost infantile terms—Nazis-bad-everyone-against-Nazis-good—the media placed Antifa right alongside goodwill counterdemonstrators. This normalization of Antifa with the peaceful protesters at the rally may have yielded eyeballs and the short-term political gain of hurting President Trump, but this reductionistic narrative has also served to mainstream and embolden Antifa by playing into the group’s self-identification as the people’s revolutionaries.
Only One Kind of Evil
Despite his much criticized and maligned initial pronouncement on the events in Charlottesville, in noting the “violence on all sides” Trump was, in fact, more nuanced about the situation than all the journalism-school graduates sent to cover the event. On that day there were neo-nazis who rightly deserve scorn clashing violently with Antifa who likewise deserve scorn. But the media couldn’t be bothered to note such nuance. Their simple-minded narrative would only allow that Good and Evil needed to clash on that day. There could be only one kind of evil in Charlottesville. Seeing both a political opportunity and the ability to profit off strife, the media set about creating a mythos. So let it be written so let it be done.
More disappointing were the supposedly conservative politicians who piled on and, for whatever reason (personal hatred of Donald Trump?) appeared to buy into this reductionistic and politically expedient narrative. Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and John McCain all refused to acknowledge the distinction between good-faith demonstrators and Antifa, thus helping to normalize political violence. (One can only hope that now that Nancy Pelosi has denounced Antifa, McCain, Rubio, and Romney might summon the courage and find the political cover they need to denounce political violence regardless of ideological origins).
‘Peace Through Violence’
Meanwhile, mainstream outlets have bent over backward to publish the Antifa perspective justifying violence on the grounds that some speech—“hate speech” they call it— is violent and thus deserves violence to curb it.
Others went so far as to try and claim that even though political violence is wrong, the fact that Antifa’s stated goals are noble makes their violence less worthy of criticism than that of neo-nazis. I guess that when a victim knows they’re getting beat up by someone who’s doing it for sincere and earnest reasons, the victim’s pain and terror are somehow mitigated by the good intentions of the attacker. CNN went so far as to change headlines to diminish the perception that Antifa was violent—originally publishing an article under the stunningly newspeaky headline, “Unmasking the Leftist Antifa Movement: The Activists Seek Peace Through Violence,” which it later toned down to “Unmasking the Leftist Antifa Movement.”
The social media ecosystem (which I’m increasingly convinced is a gift from Eris, the goddess of discord) responded with by-the-numbers predictability. Nazi denunciation became the social media sexy. Badges, hashtags, memes, and other conspicuous signals of opposition to Nazism popped up everywhere. Apparently, the denizens of Twitter and Facebook needed to make sure that everyone knew how much they hated Nazis and fascism. Prior to Charlottesville, there must have been tremendous ambiguity with regards to how most Americans felt about Nazis and fascists that needed clearing up.
But it wasn’t just that the Nazis need to be hated. The Good versus Evil narrative required heroes as well as antagonists. And so anyone who ostensibly fought against fascism, regardless of methods, became a child-of-light and their actions, violence and all, were conveyed as always being for the greater good. CNN contributors gushingly compared Antifa and its actions to the landing at Normandy and suddenly the debate over whether or not it was OK to “punch a Nazi” for speech was settled in the loudest possible affirmative.
Also confronted the Nazis without a permit: pic.twitter.com/3c2f3X9slC
— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) August 16, 2017
This is dangerous business. Now that the most recent events in Berkeley, where Antifa violently attacked peaceful demonstrators (organized by a conservative transsexual with not a neo-nazi in sight), have forced the mainstream media and Left to once again publicly break up with Antifa, I can’t help but wonder whether this will be the final split or just more of the same, and that when political expedience allows, we will see them happily back together once again.