Dave Helling

Why violent antifa activists are in danger of losing the moral argument with white supremacists

In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators, right, clash with a counter-demonstrator as he throws a newspaper box at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.
In this Aug. 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators, right, clash with a counter-demonstrator as he throws a newspaper box at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va. AP

When you talk about destruction,” John Lennon once sang, “don’t you know you can count me out.”

In some versions of the song, Lennon, being Lennon, immediately added “in.”

“I wasn’t sure,” he said later.

I thought about that contradiction last week, after Charlottesville, and after I read and saw more reporting on the antifa movement, a loose coalition of leftists, activists and some anarchists who embrace violence, if necessary, to oppose white supremacists and others on the far right.

Antifa is a contraction of “anti-fascist.” Some of its adherents attend protest events in masks, sometimes in dark clothing, intimidating other protesters with yelling, pushing, confrontations.

“Attacking a Nazi is by definition never unprovoked and therefore entirely justified,” one person posted on a tumblr page titled “Anti-Fascist Action.”

Yet the goals of some antifa activists (don’t call them “members”) seem to extend beyond providing an aggressive counterbalance to bigots and Nazis. The aim is more fundamental.

“Antifascists don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering,” Peter Beinart writes in the Atlantic. “They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent.”

That kind of political nihilism isn’t really new. You can trace the antifa back, through parts of the Occupy movement of the 2000s, through protests in Seattle in the 1990s, to the Weather Underground and other violent leftists in the 1960s.

The goals are roughly the same: a leftist-libertarian state that limits the power of institutions (government, media, business, education).

The tactics aren’t new, either. The only way to smash the state, after all, is to really smash it: break windows, hurl rocks, take over streets, demand better politics.

Well, we all want to change the world. Bigotry and hate seldom succumb to appeals for reason.

But history teaches another lesson: Movements that devolve into violence and terror eventually fail because they distort moral arguments.

The anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s changed America, but not fast enough for some leaders in those days, who believed true revolution needed a push. They turned to bomb-building and kidnapping and shootouts to speed things up.

They failed. Some went into hiding. Some died. Most ruefully understood: Fighting violence with violence yields only violence, and disgust, and little real change.

To say this is not to equate the antifa with marching faux Nazis or silly Confederate wannabes. Those who work for equality and opportunity are on the right side of history; those who would make America into some imagined white European enclave are history’s losers.

But that truth will be lost if radical leftists adopt the tactics of the loony right. Americans won’t see the difference between the two. And that plays directly into the hands of the supremacists and the Klansmen, who feed on moral muddiness.

Better, perhaps, to adapt that old slogan: Think globally, act locally.

Each day in Kansas City thousands of people work to change their world — feeding the hungry, protecting the dispossessed and sick, educating those who need knowledge. They do so quietly, without recognition and without enough resources.

They don’t always succeed. There are still holes in Kansas City’s safety net, with too much violence and poverty and inequality. But they are trying to fix the net, not further shred it.

Antifa activists may want to emulate that approach, if — as they say — they want a revolution.