I know that this was the subject of my last piece and I apologise if I’m going to bore you. However, this is something I’ve been brooding upon to the last couple of days. I have seen a number of friends and colleagues posting and writing about this on Facebook and I have got engaged in a couple of conversations. Some of these conversations have become quite heated, and here’s for why. The more I think about this, the more my reasoning and analysis become nuanced. However, is this just an example of increased layers of cognitive dissonance? Am I just getting deeper and deeper into defending my initial intuitive reactions by creating more complicated layers of thought? Comments below, please…
First of all, let’s talk about Antifa. Who are they? Well, in the broadest and simplest sense, they are a loosely organised, far-left group of people counter-demonstrating against fascists and far-right rallies. In order for them to call themselves anti-fascists, there must be some fascists to react against (or people they perceive as fascists). They are admittedly a very reactionary group of people, often resorting to violence against the people with whom they disagree. What is most unfortunate for their cause is that they often target people on the periphery or even innocent bystanders, and are prone to violent mistakes. And their mistakes cost political ground as well as being immediately horrible for the vuictims.
The situation has recently become that, when this does happen, people rightfully shout loudly about the unnecessary violence taken against such third parties. Some of the causality here can be quite complicated and difficult to untangle, which was what I was discussing in my last piece; there is arguably some provocation or perceived provocation that leads to some of this violence. The problem, as mentioned, is that this behaviour doesn’t do Antifa any favours at all; nor does it do any favours to the left in general since Antifa are often conflated with the left. Indeed, the right-wing press have been salivating over this latest incident with Andy Ngo. Sadly, as far as I am concerned, this (and a good many other things in the media over the last few years) has also drawn in many people from the centre and centre-left and caused them to move more to the centre and more to the right in reaction to this perception of violence and intolerance from the left.
But what gets me is that some of these people (but not all) are often ignoring, either implicitly or explicitly, the violent behaviour of the people against which Antifa are counter-protesting. This almost becomes a gotcha moment for the right against the left, the prologue of which has been the rise of centre-right commentators and thinkers such as Jordan Peterson. “Aha, look, Antifa have been unnecessarily violent! Look how terrible the left is!” In reality, this statement should more properly read, “Aha, look how equally violent the radical left can be when compared to the radical right!”
Antifa no more represents the political left as a whole than the Proud Boys represents the political right as a whole. I think what gets me are two things: the conflation of Antifa with “The Left”, whether implicit or explicit, and the apparent, and this could be my skewed perspective, letting off the hook of the people against whom Antifa were counter-protesting. And no, you simply can’t go around beating people up. But I am amazed that people are surprised the radical left do it. Of course they do. They are radical. The radical left and the radical right are, generally speaking, nutjobs. But I weary of this being used as a hammer to hit “The Left” with.
That said, and this is where I do some soul searching, do I do this when attacking the right? Do we all take straw men extreme versions of the position we attack to make our arguments more forceful? That is something I now need to be wary of.
Which brings me onto my next point. The Proud Boys. Who are they? See here and here (a very revealing Vox article) as I don’t have the space to expand. One such Facebook comment defending them was as follows:
“[Who] are the racists, the mob of masked white people attacking minorities or the pro constitution multiethnic drinking group with the Cuban president that likes defending minorities from assault?
They are apparently a multiethnic drinking group. Wow, I would love to join them. They sound fun! Oh, no, that’s one of the grossest misrepresentations of all time.
A much more accurate comment was this:
This is what dumbass political gang wars do. They get innocent people like Heather Heyer and Andy Ngo hurt. These assholes need to stop their stupid fights and go do something productive with their lives, and that goes for all of them, Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, and the Antifascist Action folks.
I’m sure Portland’s got a lot to offer and a lot of good times to be had, and it fucks over everyone when folks want to use public spaces as battlegrounds for their idiotic purposeless conflicts. These gangs contribute nothing and protect nothing.
I won’t stand for this incident allowing people to morally defend the Proud Boys. Any look into the history and antics will tell you that they are racist and sexist, amongst other things. For example:
And yes, that is the white power sign that seems to be en vogue for white supremacists. And I know there is a man of Asian descent there. Anyone can be racist (and he makes the sign too).
But, having said this, I don’t want to be accused of whataboutery in distracting the conversation away from the moral infractions of Antifa by pointing out the moral infractions of another group. However, it is more complicated than that because this other group, the Proud Boys, are the very group that Antifa are reacting against. It isn’t a completely unconnected whataboutism.
Barts, for the record, in case there is a lack of clarity, I condemn Antifa’s actions against Andy Ngo. I also condemn the actions of the Proud Boys. work towards namely anti-fascism. The difference is that I uphold the cause that Antifa work towards, namely the negation of fascism (if not their methodology), but I do not uphold the cause of the Proud Boys, nor their methodology. That is an important distinction.
Firstly, if you want a really good analysis of the way that the left, the rights and the centre have reported this, check out the awesome AllSides analysis. The left doesn’t come out smelling of roses, not by a long shot.
So one side will report violence from the other, and the other side will report violence from the first. And no one actually seems to report the whole picture, presumably because they will get attacked for such, but presumably by both sides. So an objective commentator will be vilified as both far right and far left for criticising both!
The nub of this was stated by a friend of mine:
“The reason I respond to the excesses and crimes of antifa is that I am a liberal. So people in my sociopolitical sector are trying to legitimate their use of violence. You just saw people doing so on my own wall, JP. Of course I am more like to respond to things going on in the realm where I am a member and participant. I could talk all day every day about how the Proud Boys are horrible bastards and what good would it do? Would I persuade the zero people in my FB who support their violent tendencies? Would any of them give the slightest shit what a liberal like me thought about them, even if they did somehow see my writing? “
And I get this. It is eminently reasonable.
In other words, the argument here would be that not commenting or reporting on violence from far-right groups is understood in the context of expecting such behaviour from those groups and from being in the political camp that opposes those groups. When violence from within your own camp hits the news, you have to shout about it and hold them to account in a way that you wouldn’t to your political adversaries (to that extent). What is good for the goose is good for the gander should actually become what is good for the goose should be stepped up a few levels and applied to the gander.
I think this probably applies more to people in the centre than on the left because you could argue that the mainstream media on the left has not reported the Ngo incident or shouted about it as much as they might have done (rather than shout louder, they’ve been coincidentally silent…).
When it comes to Andy Ngo, he seems to be singularly intent on reporting the violence of Antifa to the exclusion of reporting anything, as far as I’m aware, about the far-right activists against whom Antifa protest. But is this not valid? I can be singularly intent on criticising left-wing economic policy. But that does not necessarily mean that I condone or agree with right-wing economic policy. Of course, he can, constitutionally, report on violence coming from the left. And these things should be reported. It’s not like we should ignore such violence because we (if you are like me) generally associate with the left.The Stranger has a really good article that concludes:
The reason for condemning threats against the media from the left as well as the right isn’t just because moral consistency is a virtue (although I still think it is); it’s also because when the left threatens the media or Trump supporters themselves, it benefits the right.
This happens over and over. Antifa turns a protest into a brawl, students deplatform conservative speakers, liberals harass people in MAGA hats, and Fox News starts to salivate. The majority of movements and protests (outside of Portland) are peaceful, but Fox News doesn’t show families and kids and old people singing protest songs and peacefully marching; they show white people dressed like militants screaming at a gay, Asian-American man that he’s homophobic and racist. It makes the left look violent, and it’s counter-productive.
We can’t stop Fox News from covering Antifa instead of, say, corporate welfare or climate change. Activists could, however, give them less material to work with. So instead of attacking journalists—even those whose politics you disagree with—perhaps the cause will be better served if protestors on the left turn around and focus on the people they’re actually there to counter.
Conclusions so far
So my interim conclusions so far on this are as follows:
- Don’t conflate Antifa with The Left. I should be aware of doing the same with the far-right and right.
- Groups such as the Proud Boys are easily as disreputable as Antifa.
- When certain people don’t shout or report about violence on the right, about which Antifa are protesting, this is potentially because people hold their own camp to higher expectations than they do their adversaries.
- But there are also people and media outlets who are shouting about this and capitalising to gain huge moral victory as well as people and media outlets who are silent because it is embarrassing for them in some way.
Now for the next part. A bit of philosophy and psychology.
Marie Colvin and Motivations
For those of you who are not aware of Marie Colvin, she was a celebrated American war journalist. Writing for The Times, she and her photographer went to report on and illustrate to the world the horrors that were taking place in Homs in Syria at the hands of the Assad regime. The more I think about it, the more her case is a perfect analogy for Andy Ngo. Let’s see how they compare.
A hero to their causes, they go to dangerous places to document things they find bad. They do this fully knowing the probable outcomes, and they are targetted for who they are and the provocations they have caused in their writing and photography of the moral perpetrators.
Ngo was violently beaten for what he was doing in a premeditated attack and Marie Colvin (and other journalists) was killed for what she was doing in a premeditated attack.
What I found really interesting is that Ngo has been targetted at a number of rallies, increasingly so. As in, the aggression towards him has increased. And he keeps going back to take photos. Now, the question is, what is his motivation to go back again with an almost certain probability of being more aggressively attacked than before by people who he has publicly criticised? For Colvin, it was to show the world the terrible injustices of war and to seek international action to make change. The same could be argued for Ngo, just in a different context/scale.
This isn’t about moral responsibility (I don’t believe in that term) – let’s say it’s a given that Antifa are morally bad. What did Ngo expect from this? I would love to know what he was really expecting to happen. This doesn’t excuse violence towards him, of course.
Okay. But when Colvin died, we were all very sad, and there was a moral outrage, but there was also this idea that if you’re going to go into the lion’s den with a camera and dictaphone, after having written about these people disparagingly, this is sadly what has a great chance of happening. Almost a case of, well what do you expect?
Here comes, now, a piece of self-analysis. I want to be thoroughly aware of my own motivations for reasoning as I do and concluding as I do. Do my motivations cloud my judgements? Help me out here as I might need some third party input that would hopefully be more objective.
I, as an observer, think that the organisation against which Marie Colvin wrote (the Assad regime in Syria) was and is morally bad. But what happens when those views are messed around with? How does this affect my analysis? Here, I don’t have any sympathy for Antifa per se (their actions) for many of the methods they use, but I have sympathy for the cause – the negation of fascism.
So when Andy Ngo is criticising this group, am I conflating this with criticising anti-fascism? Is it, then, that Andy Ngo is criticising anti-fascism? The answer is, I’m not sure. I just don’t know enough about him and his motivations and second-guessing might be dangerous here. There is enough mud being thrown from both sides to thoroughly confuse the matter and trying to work out truth from spin is particularly difficult. I documented some instances in the last post where Ngo had done things and said things that I find problematic. But does this account for fascist apologetics? Gay people can certainly be right wing – have a look at my Milo Yiannopoulos – and Vietnamese people can certainly be anti-left (those emigrating away from communist Vietnam might have good reason to be) and even racist. But me saying this doesn’t at all mean that Andy Ngo is all or any of these things. I would argue that he certainly has elements of right-wing politics, but past that, I simply don’t know enough.
Am I trying to victim blame? In trying to untangle the causal responsibility here, am I trying to excuse the violence against him because Antifa in some way represent my left leanings, albeit tenuously? If Ngo can be found to have stoked the fires of resentment against him a number of times so that this incident appeared to be an inevitability, what can we then say? Does this change anything? Is this simply negated by saying that such violence is always bad? And did this active or passive provocation actually happen in ay meaningful way, anyway? There are conspiracy theories abound about him doing this for journalistic status, and though this will probably do his status a lot of good, it may well be pushing it to claim it was intentional.
In the AllSides article linked above, one of the subheadings is “The Left Says Ngo Is Not a Journalist and Should Have Known Portland Rallies Are Violent” – these are both things I have said in various places. The latter part is pertinent here. The question is whether he simply and merely knew about the violence or actively/passively provoked attacks on him. I honestly don’t know enough to comment more on this without again second-guessing motivations and intentions and probably getting myself into trouble.
The final conclusion to make here is:
- Um, not sure. I may or may not have been biased in my desire to defend the left as a whole in talking about this case and trying to better understand ideas of causality and responsibility.
- I seem to prefer to ask more questions than I answer.
Was the amount of time, then, that I have spent writing these two articles worth it?
Er, don’t know. Pass. Ask we one on sport.
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