Discipline, Strategy, and Morality

Or, why beating up unarmed writers is a poor way to advance left-wing ideas…

Here are the facts, as I understand them: Andy Ngo is an editor at conservative magazine Quillette, which is known as the “voice of the intellectual dark web” and sometimes publishes objectionable racist garbage. Ngo himself is most widely known for a piece he wrote in the Wall Street Journal called “A Visit To Islamic England,” which I and others mocked for portraying ordinary life among British Muslims as some kind of theocratic horror. (Ngo assumed that “alcohol free zone” signs were evidence of creeping Sharia law, and his paper had to issue a correction when it was pointed out that the ban had absolutely nothing to do with that.) Ngo’s writings are also highly critical of left-wing activists.

On June 29th, the far right “Proud Boys” group, which is known for both making threats of violence and initiating street fights, staged a demonstration in Portland, Oregon. Because it is Portland, they were outnumbered by left-wing counter-demonstrators, including Antifa. Andy Ngo attended to cover the counter-demonstration. According to Ngo, as soon as he arrived, he was set upon by Antifa members who threw multiple milkshakes on him, then later began to pummel him and throw stones and eggs at him. A video of the event shows a milkshake-drenched Ngo being attacked and sprayed with silly string, pursued as he leaves the protest. Ngo went to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. Conservatives quickly rallied to support Ngo, raising nearly $200,000 on GoFundMe

To me, violence is never satisfying. It’s always ugly and disturbing and feels wrong. There are circumstances, of course, where violence can become “morally necessary,” but I think those circumstances are few and far between, that violence should truly be a “last resort” deployed once all other means of conflict resolution have been tried and exhausted. I respect Malcolm X’s philosophy of violence: he did not initiate it, but said that he was prepared to defend himself and claimed the right to do so if attacked. Malcolm’s was a highly disciplined approach, one that understood that violence is to be avoided if possible.

The attack on Andy Ngo does not, to me, meet the criteria for justified violence. A Quillette writer with a GoPro is a nuisance. Punching him might be satisfying (to some, not me). But it is gratuitous and unjustified. It’s wrong. It does nothing helpful, and actually harms the cause of the left. 

It is worth distinguishing here between the milkshakes thrown at Ngo and the actual violence. (Conservatives spread a rumor that the milkshakes thrown at Ngo contained “quick-drying cement,” though there hasn’t been any evidence to substantiate this claim. It seems that they were just milkshakes.) A writer for this magazine has previously expressed the position that “milkshaking” is a justified act of humiliation—like a pie to the face, it is an act of relatively harmless, if silly, political theater. I don’t share the writer’s position that milkshaking is very useful, because ultimately I think it does little to explain left political ideas or persuade people that those ideas are correct. But I do agree that it’s much more like Nickelodeon’s “sliming” than it is like real “street violence.” Spraying someone with Silly String is even more innocuous. If instead of war and bloodshed, political disputes were resolved with food fights and Silly String, the world wouldn’t be half so bad a place to live in. 

So one of the problems I have with what happened to Ngo is that it wasn’t that. He was clocked in the skull and sent to the hospital. There’s nothing funny about that, unless you’re a sadist who likes to watch people get hurt. The part where he got covered in goo may have been amusing, but the part where he got a rock thrown at his head was not amusing in the least. And while I don’t know if it makes it worse that Ngo is a gay man of color (victims of violence are victims of violence), I can see why people might find a certain irony in teams of (mostly white, this was Portland) people in black shirts roaming the streets beating up an unarmed man of color and thinking this is the opposite of fascism. 

That said, I do not want to come across as one of those leftists who enjoys pointing out all the ways in which fellow leftists are bad and wrong. Before grandstanding and denouncing Antifa Violence it is worth bearing in mind a few important bits of context. First, “Antifa” is not a centralized organization. It’s largely composed of anarchists, and anarchists are not known for their institutional coordination. I hesitate to hold a highly differentiated, leaderless, localized group responsible for the actions of particular individuals within that group. (It’s been bizarre, running a magazine, realizing how many people hold me responsible for things that people who have written for us do and say, as if I have any control over that, and I have become more sympathetic to the members of groups who find themselves shocked when being asked to disown things they had no knowledge of and did not participate in.) I mention this because, while a few members of the Antifa in Portland behaved in a manner I find detestable, Antifa elsewhere has done important things—Cornel West credits them with saving his life in Charlottesville, by standing between him and violent far right paramilitaries. Keeping Cornel West safe from white supremacists is an accomplishment for the ages. Some members of Antifa undoubtedly show up to right-wing demonstrations looking for a fight, and there’s a macho element I strongly dislike, but others show up with the goal of protecting people. That’s brave, actually, because a lot of these Proud Boy types are downright nasty. 

I also see why those who call this incident a “distraction” do so (though I think this Huffington Post writer is rather slippery in going further and suggesting that the right were responsible for what happened to Ngo). Far right violence is too often downplayed while “far left violence” of a far less extreme type is amplified by Fox News types. Heather Heyer is dead while the Antifa have killed nobody, and there is a very real danger that conservative exaggerations about Antifa will lead to a government crackdown and the kind of outrageously unfair prosecutions of activists that occurred around the Trump inauguration protests. But leftists should know at this point that anything they do will be ludicrously exaggerated in the right-wing press—that milkshakes will become “concrete milkshakes,” that a dozen chanters with tambourines making noise outside Tucker Carlson’s house will become a menacing paramilitary group. This is why it’s important to be disciplined, and not to commit “own goals” by doing things that are actually indefensible like hospitalizing unarmed people. 

Antifa does have a philosophical justification for what it does, though it is one that—as a pacifistic Libertarian Socialist—I ultimately find unpersuasive. It’s quite simple: because the far right tries to use the liberal norm of free speech in order to build power and then destroy the liberal norm of free speech, one is justified in stopping the far right from speaking. The value of open discourse is not so important that it necessitates allowing people to organize a political project that, if carried through to completion, would result in mass murder. The right don’t say that’s what they want—white nationalist Richard Spencer, for instance, advocates what he calls “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” But of course, there’s no such thing, as anyone who realizes what the gruesome plan would entail—to “ethnically cleanse” any one of the United States’ many ethnically diverse cities would require a Nazi-like government empowered to enforce apartheid. 

I say I find the “philosophy of Antifa” ultimately unpersuasive, because as I laid out in my review of Mark Bray’s Antifa (which appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2017 issue, available to subscribers), there are not very satisfactory answers to what, to me, are the most obvious questions, like “even if violence against ‘fascists’ is justified, under what particular circumstances?” “How much is too much?” “If the theory is that ‘any means necessary’ are justified to ‘stop’ fascism, then how do we keep our theory from justifying attacking any unarmed people who hold right-wing beliefs?” I pointed out in my review that Bray’s book rather disturbingly evades the question of whether it would be permissible to, say, assassinate Bill O’Reilly or Tucker Carlson, and if not, why not. The Philosophy Tube video on Antifa points out that all politics involves violence, which is true, and that state violence is usually ignored or downplayed, which is also true, but which doesn’t get us close to an answer to the question: “How, if we begin to justify violent acts against those who further the cause of Fascism, are we going to make sure we don’t go from ‘punching a Nazi’ to ‘giving a Quillette writer a brain hemorrhage’ to the perhaps logical next step of ‘knocking out an elderly veteran with a Trump sign’?” I don’t hear good or thoughtful responses to quite basic concerns about the limitations on violence, even from thoughtful commentators like Bray and Philosophy Tube. All I hear are explanations of why fascism is bad, violence is inevitable, free speech for fascists will destroy free speech, and any means necessary are justified to keep fascists from doing their fascism. I can agree with all that, but it requires deeper contemplation of what we should think of as permissible versus impermissible, and how many other tactics need to be exhausted before violent means are employed. Without taking those questions seriously, it’s easy to see how you can end up adopting “Robespierre logic” and permitting nearly any means toward the pursuit of just ends. 

I tend to have pacifistic instincts in part because of how easily violence gets out of hand once you begin to justify it, and how quickly you lose sight of any possible alternatives and start to think that because violence is a way to stop the thing you’re trying to stop, it’s the way. We can all agree that violence is justified in “self defense,” but then it’s very easy to say that “self defense” means protecting your community in the long term, rather than just protecting yourself from immediate threats, and that the offensive “violence” you’re protecting yourself from could be something like “gentrification.” (X has a similar effect to violence, therefore X is violence, therefore violence is justified to address X is a common form of reasoning, one that can easily help you justify using any amount of violence to deal with any political problem.) 

I think liberalism endorses more violence than Antifa, and that the prison system and immigration system deserve about a million times more attention than Ngo. But as someone in the business of trying to persuade people that left ideas are good, I would like to see avoidable mistakes avoided. That means selecting targets for action in a careful and restrained manner, using violence only as an absolute last resort. I do not want leftists furthering Andy Ngo’s career. He is not an honest journalist. (In fact, I don’t know whether one should even call him a “journalist” at all.) His work is harmful to the world. I am not part of the civility police, I don’t object to swears or even pie-throwing. But I have a horror of committing unjustified acts of aggression on unarmed people, however toxic their beliefs may be. I do not want to have to defend Andy Ngo. I do not want to write about Andy Ngo. I would like him to go away. Unfortunately, because a few activists do not have the disciplined approach to revolutionary philosophy that Malcolm X has, the left now has a PR incident that could have been avoided. I’d like to think this is an aberration. I hope it is. But without some concern for discipline and strategy, I can quite easily see it, or something worse, happening again. I do not think any leftist should feel good about that. 

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