By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Some of the nastiest items on Facebook, Twitter and web comment threads come to us via pseudonym. Equally reticent are the masked figures in black who blemish peaceful demonstrations, the ones with the sticks and stones, the ones who tip over cars and break windows. In one case, hurtful words. In the other, hurtful actions. The weaponry differs, but the motto is the same: Hide and smash. Reputations. Store fronts. Whatever.
Remember the visual coverage of those powerful Black Lives Matter demonstrations and marches? Black Americans and their non-Black supporters came in droves, in hundreds, in thousands, to publicize and protest a legitimate grievance—and to demand reform. They carried signs. They chanted. They gave the raised fist salute. They were entirely peaceful.
Cowards in Black
Then darkness fell, and the anarchists arrived, faceless figures wearing balaclavas to hide their identity. At this point the window-smashing and looting began, leading casual observers to conflate the orderly marchers with the spoilers, the nihilists in love with destruction. It didn’t help that police officers often made no distinction between the window-smashers and the marchers armed only with angry words, as was their First Amendment right, thus confirming the suspicion that too many American cops have it in for Blacks just because they’re black. And so, once again, an important, legitimate movement was almost irreparably besmirched, while the anarchists, having created confusion and chaos, slipped away under cover of darkness.
Here is a short definition of anarchism: it’s the theory that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable—and should be abolished. To put it romantically, anarchists disrupt in the naive belief that a fresh, unconstrained society will spring up like mushrooms after rain. No laws. No hierarchies. Pure paradise—or not, realistically speaking, for most people. Meanwhile, running around and breaking windows is fun, and looting isn’t looting when ownership has been disowned. Eluding the police is fun, too. Every night is Mischief Night! Whoo-ee!
Breaking Isn't Building
This is not grown up stuff, folks. Even two year olds can knock down a tower. What fun! But a two year old can’t build an earthquake-proof skyscraper—and, human greed being all too pervasive, no structure is guaranteed to be safe where strict building regulations aren’t strictly enforced. (Think of the London flats that turned into torches.)
Meanwhile, a new element addicted to political violence has arisen, a somewhat amorphous collection of thugs known as the “antifa.” Representing themselves as a counterweight to the white supremacists, NAZI sympathizers and heavily armed right wing militias who flocked to Charlottesville to protest the removal of monuments to the Confederacy, they waded in, fists flying, sticks flailing, ready for a fight, which they got, thus bringing discredit to the orderly supporters of equal justice for all.
Unfortunately there seems to be some reluctance among otherwise sensible liberals to wholly disavow this fearsome new phenomenon, as if armed gangs of any persuasion should ever be countenanced on American streets—or in American nature preserves, for that matter. Black shirts. Brown shirts. Black balaclavas. Ten gallon hats. It doesn’t matter. Fired or not, weapons imply coercion, and they always inspire fear, neither conducive to democratic discourse.
Kowtowing to the Idol of Disruption
It might be useful to put this increasing toleration for political violence into a broader context: the tendency to worship the gods of disruption. Everything we know and trust and love is ripe for disruption, according to the self-anointed Seers of Silicone Valley. So get with the program, folks, and kick down those tottery old towers! At a time when some of our supposedly best brains ridicule painstaking, incremental change as timid and unexciting, it’s hardly surprising that smash-and-burn anarchism might appeal to people sick to death of political stalemate. What’s more, the bent toward anarchy as a useful tool in the combat against exploitative capitalism is not exactly foreign to the progressive tradition. Why go through the slog of persuasion, when the kiddies are happy to do the quick and dirty work of demolition?
The answer is simple: short cuts via delusion and opportunism make flimsy foundations for building a just society.
Caving in to Hate Speech
Hate speech, meanwhile, is giving free speech a bad name, and there are many, especially among the younger generation, who are ready to ban offensive speech, especially on college campuses. This, too, is a dead end, when it comes to preserving the freedoms on which democracy depends. At this point I’d like to defer to David Cole whose excellent article “Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech” appeared recently in The New York Review of Books. The ACLU will defend hateful speech before a court of law, he writes, but will “not represent marches who seek to brandish weapons while protesting....Free speech allows us to resolve our differences through public reason; violence is its antithesis. The first Amendment protects the exchange of words, not the exchange of bullets.”
In short, there is no acceptable reason to legitimize a violent “alt-left, ” but muzzling foul-mouthed racists will bring on a regime of censorship that will hurt even more than ugly words can. As for those who cower behind masks and pseudonyms, the more they mask their identity the more fully they acknowledge their shame.