Another week, and with it, another much-livestreamed battle between bandanna-clad antifascist protesters and Trump-supporting fascist sympathizers. (In Berkeley!) We all enjoy cheap fight videos, but please, I beg you, keep this in mind: this is not actually important.
I have absolutely nothing against wrapping a bandanna on your face and running through the streets hollering slurs at Republicans and once in a while throwing a rock through the window of a Bank of America branch. Sounds fun. The overlap between political action and young people has always produced a certain amount of trashcan-hurling, graffiti-scrawling, and theatrical setting of small fires to great cheers from the assembled crowd. Young people tend to possess great energy, great passion, and mediocre knowledge, all wrapped in a desperate search for identity and a yearning to be a part of something. (Old people are the same, but fatter and in some cases wiser.) Street protests amid wafting clouds of tear gas push all the buttons. The motivation of the anarchist antifa kids in the streets of Berkeley was not all that different from the motivation of the dumbass jock bro American-flag-shorts-wearing Trump-fascist guys who they were there to oppose: To fuck shit up for the cause! And we can all appreciate the appeal of this. Young people running around the streets acting insane in the name of a political cause is a grand tradition. It is fun to do. It is fun to watch. It is fun to cheer on. But it is not important. And it would be great if the hovering media hordes would stop treating it like it is.
Poverty is important. War is important. Tax policy is important. Extremely angry and self-righteous people chasing each other around Berkeley is entertaining, and perhaps it may even be noble at times, but it is not important. And it doesn’t need to be! Its existence is not the problem. It’s just that our present political situation would be much more tolerable if we saved the civil war rhetoric until the actual civil war.
If racists are going to march in the streets of American cities, it is good that people turn out to oppose them, if only as a visual illustration of the fact that racists are not considered normal. For this, we owe our thanks to the counter-protesters. That said, the all-black and the bandannas and the slogans and the flags and the general tendency of antifa types to conduct themselves as if they were trying out to be extras in an action movie can mostly be chalked up to kids playing dress-up. Which is fine!!! But it would be nice if the left would stop its self-conscious heroic mythologizing and the right would stop its “UNAMERICAN ANARCHISTS ARE STEALING MY COUNTRY” bit and—oh god, please—the Serious Sober Commentators on the right and the left would stop their insistence that the actions of a relative handful of kids who enjoy Fucking Shit Up amounts to a free speech crisis in our country. Do you know why college kids wild out and break shit to stop some conservative speaker from giving a boring speech on campus? Because it feels righteous and is fun and also because the political philosophies of college kids are not all that well developed, because they are fucking 20 years old. Is it technically wrong to start a mini-riot to stop a Republican from giving a speech that would have been boring anyhow? Yes. It’s also technically wrong to throw up on strangers’ lawns and drunkenly fight people and buy term papers off the internet and do lots of other things that college kids do. College kids are idiots! That is something to laugh at them for. It is not something to ponder.
I went to the Trump inauguration and the street protests that swept downtown DC afterwards. The clearest realization I had, as I stood on K street amid hundreds of antifa kids, was that the line of riot police on that street could have, if they so chose, waded through and wiped out the entire crowd of protesters, leaving nothing but a trail of broken bodies. It would not have been a close fight. The thing holding back the police was bad PR, not any physical power of an opposing force. I only mention this because if you are an antifa person it is important to have a clear understanding of what is happening out there in those streets. It is fun to wear a bandanna and scream at cops and punch Richard Spencer in the face, but the reality is that you are only able to do that because the state chooses not to exercise its power to stop you. And the reason for that is not that the state trembles at your mighty stick-wielding, but because our long and complex political history has produced a state that is to a certain degree held in check by civilian power. We don’t need our street protests to be nuanced discussions of political theory. That would be dull. But it is important to understand that inherent in the action of screaming “Fuck off, fascist!” in the face of a riot cop or a roided-out Nazi boy is the assumption that the person you are screaming at will not crack your head open. It only works in a context in which it requires no bravery at all; the more bravery it requires, the dumber it would be to do it. And anyhow, this fascination with Playskool-level pseudoviolence is tedious—a barely politicized version of kids kicking each other right after they watched a kung fu flick. It’s not that a Nazi getting punched in the face is the world’s greatest tragedy. It’s that when a bigger Nazi comes along afterwards and punches you in the face, you can’t complain about it. If you are unsure what your position on face-punching should be, try getting punched in the face a few times, then decide.
If these sorts of “street clashes” were actually a vital part of our nation’s politics, the first thing that would happen would be they would disappear from the streets. As every guerilla movement in history figured out, the last thing you want to do is have a toe-to-toe fight with someone who is guaranteed to kick your ass. If fascism actually does develop in America to the point that it requires an actual violent anti-fascist resistance force, the last thing you’d ever want to see would be the antifa lined up in the streets against riot police. They’d be wiped out in minutes! I would hope that our nation’s antifa has read enough Che Guevara to understand that you have to hide. Hit em when they’re asleep, and whatnot. This is certainly true of fighting the state, and it’s also true of fighting against Roid Nazis who are objectively bigger and stronger than you, because of the roids. And fighting against Roid Nazis is certainly amusing, but understand that your opponents are the absolute rock bottom goofball level of America’s right wing. Were you to just leave them alone, they would be nothing more than a confused bunch of bikers, frat boys, and conspiracy theorists shuffling around and looking ridiculous, trying with little luck to interest passersby in their incoherent cause. The really dangerous people in America don’t wear flags on their t-shirts. They wear nice suits.
The fact that our current level of development is “running around hollering at each other face to face with maybe five people punching while 97 people film them” is a definitive sign that this shit has not gotten real yet. If it ever does get real, I strongly recommend embracing nonviolence, because the U.S. Army really has a shocking number of guns.
The alarming creep of white nationalist fascist sympathies in America will ultimately be combated by determined educational efforts and economic policy shifts that spread prosperity and allay the sense of hopelessness and isolation that lead certain demographics into extremism, and also by the continuation of racial demographic trends that will make our country browner and more integrated as decades pass. It will not, for the most part, be combatted by running around Berkeley in a bandanna, hollering. Which is not to say there is anything wrong with running around in a bandanna hollering. I’m all for it. Just don’t take this shit so seriously. If we can’t laugh at this, then what’s the point?