Antifa is good at throwing bottles and punches, even against people falsely maligned as white supremacists like the conservative Ben Shapiro, as it demonstrated last week in Berkeley. But while it deserves credit for also standing up to the real white supremacists and neo-Nazis, its dilettante style of “resistance” lacks the guts and vision to really defeat those ideologies or create positive social change.
The Antifa model of “resistance” suffers from two fundamental misconceptions. First, Antifa believes that small group “direct action” violence can achieve sustained political results. It cannot, and never has.
The Weathermen of the late 1960s and early 1970s accomplished nothing with their “direct action” violence, except to blow up a few buildings and ruin a few dozen lives (including their own). Can anyone point to a single positive change in law or society that resulted from Weathermen activity?
What about Antifa’s “direct action” forebears in the Communist Workers Party (CWP), who in 1979 staged a shootout with the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party in Greensboro, North Carolina? Who remembers the names of the five people killed? And what was accomplished, except to create the perception among much of the public that the gun-toting KKK fascists and gun-toting CWP anti-fascists were but mirror images of each other?
Their “direct action” violence certainly didn’t prevent the re-emergence a generation later of a new crop of rightwing extremists in the 1990s who carried out the bombings in Oklahoma City and Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. Nor did it forestall the emergence 20 years after that of today’s latest “alt-right” reincarnation of white supremacist ideology.
That’s because every 20 years or so, a new generation vomits up a little phlegm of alienated losers who find an outlet for their resentments in the embrace of Nazi and white supremacist ideology. If you live long enough, as I have, you’ll see that each of these crops of neo-Nazis always withers on the vine, starved in an American soil inhospitable to Nazi ideology and poisoned by its members’ own inner demons.
Take Frank Collins, the leader of the famous 1977 Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois. Three years after that march he was sent to prison for sexually molesting young boys. The only lasting legacy of his Nazi rally is Skokie’s new Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
So if Antifa-style “direct action” violence can’t defeat racism or create positive social change, what can? History provides an answer.
I was 15-years-old before they took down the “whites only” signs on restrooms and water fountains. The only career available to most women back then was a “pink collar” secretarial or sales job. There was no environmental movement to speak of. The first Earth Day was five years in the future. Gays were routinely arrested, beaten, and imprisoned simply for being gay. And newspaper help wanted ads still featured some that read “No Jews Need Apply.”
Today’s world is very different. We still have many grievous social ills, of course, and lately it has seemed as if society is even going backwards. But at least today there exists a clear majority consensus in this nation that civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental protections are good things. This was not the case 50 years ago.
So how did we get from there to here? The answer is that millions of us not only marched back then, we then went back to our families, communities, and workplaces and talked to people. We debated ideas. And most of all, we organized.
We organized civil rights sit-ins, teach-ins, voter registration drives, and resistance to the Vietnam War. We built unions and women’s caucuses and environmental organizations. We started free clinics in poor communities, fought for immigrant rights, won court victories against injustice, and wrote books like "The Feminine Mystique" and "Silent Spring" that changed hearts and minds.
And slowly but surely, we helped our fellow citizens embrace some very large social changes.
We succeeded first and foremost because our causes were just. But we also succeeded because we never engaged in the tactics or the violence of those who opposed us.We never used violence except in self-defense, which is every citizen’s right, because such violence only gives ammunition to those on the right, as Antifa’s assaults do today. Nor did we try to silence our opponents, as they tried to silence us by calling us “America haters.”
In fact, our advocacy for civil rights and gender equality was considered the “hate speech” of the day back in the 1960s. Many of us risked expulsion from school or loss of jobs merely for speaking out. It wasn’t until the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines School District that high school and college students gained the right to free speech.
This explains why so many from the "free speech" generation of the 1960s viscerally recoil at Antifa’s Orwellian attempts to silence speech it opposes.
And therein lies Antifa’s second misconception. You cannot defeat racist speech by trying to silence it. That only generates sympathy for their right to free speech — even from those opposed to their views — because this right is central to our identity as Americans.
History shows you can only defeat racist ideology by engaging and exposing it. That’s how we gained victories against Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. We won the battle of ideas.
But Antifa doesn’t have the fortitude for that kind of patient and protracted work. They prefer to dress up in masks and shields and play act at “revolution.”
Throwing punches and tantrums won’t create positive social change. You’ve got to win the battle of ideas, and that is something Antifa is singularly unable to do.
David Kline is a Pulitzer-Prize-nominated journalist and author of two books from Harvard Business Press, including "Rembrandts in the Attic."