After a weeklong vacation, Trial of the Century resumes its normal publication schedule today. We thank you for your patience as we recreated.
There is a great scene in the movie Jurassic Park, a genuinely fine work of science fiction, in which Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, mildly embarrassed at the rising body count his dino-park-gone-wrong has engendered, explains to Laura Dern’s paleobotanist Ellie Sattler why he created it in the first place: “I wanted to show [people] something that wasn’t an illusion.” He is heartened, however, looking forward, knowing that all can be put right “when we have control again,” to which Ellie responds: “You never had control, that was the illusion!”
I think about this great natural-philosophical commentary in light of recent political developments surrounding “antifa,” the so-called antifascist movement that has arisen and found its violent voice alongside the rise of Donald Trump. You may be aware that, over the past several weeks, liberal Americans, liberal politicians and a great many members of the media have spent a lot of time at least tacitly justifying antifa’s violent behavior: many people made public statements advocating violence against neo-Nazis, for instance, while the media had a collective hysterical meltdown at Donald Trump’s utterly factual and uncontroversial statement that both neo-Nazis and antifa protesters were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, many Democrats (and a few Republicans!) condemned white supremacist hate while steadfastly ignoring the growing problem of progressive violence. Some, like this Dartmouth professor, explicitly argued in favor of political violence, with his fellow faculty members defending him.
This widespread intellectual cowardice and moral degeneracy carries with it an unstated assumption, namely that, because antifa protesters were beating up white nationalists, the violence was thus acceptable: who among us, after all (other than a few lousy Supreme Court justices and four or five decades of unambiguous American case law and anyone with a shred of political decency) objects to Nazis getting punched in the face? I am not a mind reader, but I would imagine many liberals’ inner monologues went something like this: so long as antifa keeps its violent tactics fixated on white racists, it will be acceptable!
But they never had control—that was the illusion. At the Weekly Standard, Matt LaBash has an indispensable account of “a beating in Berkeley,” an astonishing review of how, once liberated from the shackles of societal opprobrium, political violence invariably, even quickly, spreads from its original target to encompass a more generalized game. In Berkeley recently, a “Liberty Weekend” event was targeted by antifa on the grounds that it was, well, fascist. But it wasn’t; indeed, the organizers of the event—which include a half-Japanese activist and a fat Samoan—explicitly barred any white racists or Nazis from attending. No matter: antifa showed up to counter-protest and crack skulls. They probably weren’t helped by Nancy Pelosi, who termed the affair a “white supremacist rally,” or by Dianne Feinstein, who denounced the event’s “incitement, hate and intimidation,” even though none of these classifications were, you know, true.
Labash describes the stunning scene at a “No to Marxism” rally when the organizers arrive (with their hands held up in the air, no less):
First [Joey] catches a slap in the head, then someone gashes him with something in his ribs. He keeps his hands up, as though that will save him, while he keeps getting dragged backwards by his shirt, Tiny trying to pull him away from the bloodthirsty ninjas. Someone crashes a flagpole smack on Joey’s head, which will leave a welt so big that Tiny later calls him “the Unicorn.” Not wishing to turn his back on the crowd, a half-speed backwards chase ensues, as Joey and Tiny are blasted with shots of bear spray and pepper spray. They hurdle a jersey barrier, crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Way while antifa continue throwing bottles at them. The mob stalks Joey and Tiny all the way to an Alameda County police line, which the two bull their way through, though the cops initially look like they’re going to play Red Rover and keep them out. No arrests are made. Except for Joey and Tiny, who are cuffed…
I wheel around on some protesters, asking them if they think it’s right to beat people down in the street. “Hell yeah,” says one. I ask them to cite anything Joey has said that offends them, as though being offended justifies this. A coward in a black mask says: “They’re f—ing Nazis. There’s nothing they have to say to offend us.”
Joey Gibson himself said at a recent event, “Fuck neo-Nazis!” and “Fuck white supremacists,” and he has explicitly affirmed that he is not a white supremacist. So I’m not quite sure how such an astonishing charge can stand up to scrutiny—unless he’s taking on that time-honored Nazi tradition of denouncing the murderous ideology to which he’s ascribed. Hitler did it all the time! Nazis, you know, are super-sensitive about their public image.
So antifa mercilessly beat a bunch of people who have denounced Nazism and white supremacism, guys who showed up with their hands literally raised in the air. Is this surprising? Maybe to some people it is. Yet it should have been obvious from the start—if you give vigilantes carte blanche to hit certain people with which they disagree, then it is entirely probable that at least some of them will start hitting everyone with which they disagree. Indeed, this isn’t the first act of violence antifa has leveled against non-fascists—they put a CBS reporter in the hospital a few weeks ago, and one of them assaulted an older woman in Boston late last month.
Hey, why not? What, after all, is the limiting principle? “Um, I didn’t want you to hit those people?” You can’t say such things—not to dinosaurs that have busted out of their cages, or to idiot children who have been encouraged by reckless public figures that violence is an acceptable response to speech they do not like.
Maybe pro-violence liberals do not care—perhaps they see incidents like that in Berkeley as acceptable collateral damage within a moral and political framework that allows for their political opponents to be beaten in the streets. I suppose if I felt it was acceptable to punch people simply for saying things I didn’t like, I wouldn’t mind if a few innocent folks got caught up in the melee. But I don’t think it’s acceptable, no matter who is getting punched. And it is strange to me that such a case has to be made in modern American political life—that one must now argue why political violence is a bad thing that people shouldn’t do. But that is where we are—a landscape in which a violent factional movement has been loosed upon the American political scene with countless people cheering it on.
Likely the violence will grow in the days and weeks and months ahead, expanding to encompass an ever-more-diverse amount of the population. Probably some Nazis will get punched. Probably more than a few non-Nazis will get punched, too. In either case we will be dealing with a truly volatile and unstable political and social landscape, one to which much of our political and media classes have already given their assent. We are not in a good place, and we will be here for some time.