The University of California in Berkeley was again the scene of violence recently, as protesters claimed license to silence those with whom they disagree. Their fight against “fascism” took the form of not just stopping a speech, but assaulting those who came to hear it.
For those of us at universities and colleges, these counter-demonstrators, and in particular the masked antifa protesters, are a troubling and growing presence on our campuses. They have been assaulting people and blocking speeches for years with relatively little condemnation. They flourish in an environment where any criticism is denounced as being reflective of racist or fascist sentiments.
However, as the latest violence in Berkeley vividly demonstrates, there is no distinction between these protesters and the fascists they claim to be resisting. They are all fascists in their use of fear and violence to silence others. What is particularly chilling is how some academics have given this anti-speech mob legitimacy through pseudo-philosophical rationalizations.
At Berkeley and other universities, protesters have held up signs saying “F–k Free Speech” and have threatened to beat up anyone taking their pictures, including journalists. They seem blissfully ignorant of the contradiction in using fascistic tactics as anti-fascist protesters. After all, a leading definition of fascism is “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.”
CNN recently interviewed antifa protesters who insist that violence is simply the language that their opponents understand. Leftist organizer Scott Crow endorsed illegal actions and said that antifa activists cover their faces to “avoid the ramifications of law enforcement.” Such violent logic is supported by some professors.
Last week, Clemson University Professor Bart Knijnenburg went on Facebook to call Trump supporters and Republicans “racist scum.” He added, “I admire anyone who stands up against white supremacy, violent or nonviolent. This needs to stop, by any means necessary. #PunchNazis.” He is not alone. Trinity College Professor Johnny Williams, who teaches classes on race, posted attacks on bigots and called on people to “let them f—–g die.”
These voices go beyond the troubling number of academics supporting speech codes and the curtailment of free speech. These are scholars who have embraced the antithesis of the life and values of academia. They justify violence to silence those who are deemed unworthy to be heard. Dartmouth Professor Mark Bray, the author of a book entitled “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook” is one of the chief enablers of these protesters. Bray defines antifa as “politics or an activity of social revolutionary self defense. It’s a pan-left radical politics uniting communists, socialists, anarchists and various different radical leftists together for the shared purpose of combating the far right.”
Bray speaks positively of the effort to supplant traditional views of free speech: “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase… that says I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He defines anti-fascists as “illiberal” who reject the notion that far right views deserve to “coexist” with opposing views.
Bray says that the protesters do not “see fascism or white supremacy as a view with which they disagree as a difference of opinion.” Their goal is not co-existence but “to end their politics.” Bray and other academics are liberating students from the confines of what they deem the false “allegiance to liberal democracy.” Once freed of the values of free speech and democratic values, violence becomes merely politics by other means.
When pushed, Bray’s rationalization for the antifa movement rapidly descends into intellectual gibberish: “There is a certain political lens that — agree or disagree with the lens — there is an element of continuity in terms of the types of groups targeted. I don’t know of any Democratic Party events that have been ‘no platformed,’ or shut down by anti-fascists. So there is a political lens, people will quibble about what the lens is, who designs the lens, but I don’t think the slippery slope is actually, in practice, nearly as much of a concern as people imagine it would be.”
There does not have to be a “lens.” Indeed, that it is the principle of the “liberal democracy” so casually cast aside by Bray and his braying followers. While Bray insists that he is not in favor of violent protests or even free speech, he insists that there is a duty to stop those who threaten the existence of others and the antifa protests are a form of “community self defense.”
Ironically, Bray and others have come to use the intellectual freedom of our universities to advance the most anti-intellectual movement in our history. They are destroying the very academic institutions that have protected their extreme views. Just as the father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, said that “physicists have known sin,” the antifa movement is the sin of academia in abandoning our core values.
These protesters believe that history shows the dangers of free speech and the need to deny it to those who would misuse it. It is a familiar sentiment that “all the experience… accumulated through several decades teaches us… to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right.” Those were the words of another early anti-fascist, China’s Communist Party leader Mao Zedong.