Berlin notebook: Antifa, “Fascists,” and the Real Thing in the Streets of Warsaw

November 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Featured, Articles, The Column

Mon. 13 Nov.

Berlin — Last night ended with a perfectly sweet e-mail exchange with my Polish friend, D., about how nice it was (again) to see each other for lunch on Saturday (we drank Aperol Spritz and ate pasta at one of my neighborhood haunts, Toscana). Then I crawled into bed, read more of a new book (William Drozdiak’s Fractured Europe), and nodded off to visions of sugarplums and dancing gingerbread men. Except most of the gingerbread men have been accused of sexual assault, with incidents going back 3 and 4 decades in this new era of Harvey Weinstein, which began, when?, as recently as 3 or 4 weeks ago? (Note to archeologists: H.W. was a successful, powerful, liberal, physically ugly Hollywood movie producer until 70 or so women turned up on the sunset-drenched horizon of this Western to (justly) accuse Harvey of incidents of sexual assault, harassment, and perfidy too numerous to count. A plethora of comedians, actors, business and media types, as well as political candidates soon followed suit, appearing in quasi-judicial lineups across America.)

Fascist march in Warsaw, Nov. 11, 2017.

Then I woke to the unpleasant continuation of a Facebook debate that’s dragged on for a month now about the political tactics of a group known as “Antifa,” which believes in violently confronting right-wingers at public demonstrations (often “hijacking” otherwise peaceful marches, and generating headlines about “violent clashes” that successfully erase the original meaning of the political events under scrutiny). As a corollary, they also support and/or engage in silencing various campus speakers whom they’ve defined as fascists, racists and other sorts of miscreants. They’re part of what some of us now refer to as the “regressive Left.”

The antifa person who’s invaded my FB page is a guy (about 50, I think) named Matthew K. who insistently and nastily devotes far more of his energy to attacking “free speech liberals” than he does to punching wannabe Nazis in the nose (I guess free speech liberals are easier to find – and more willing to argue – than the comparatively rare “fascists”.) Oddly enough, K. “knows” me as a result of being taken by his mother a couple of times, when he was 15 or so, to classes I was teaching, in Squamish, B.C., sometime in the mid-1980s. Obviously, the “lessons,” whatever they were, didn’t take. He gets a belated “F,” and so does the teacher, for also failing. Ah well, can’t enlighten them all.

So, when I posted a comment one morning about a month ago saying I was tired of demos highjacked by violent antifa types, and tired of speakers being silenced on university campuses (universities designed to foster free speech and debate), a remark seconded by a surprising number of other FB readers in my network, Matthew turned up, and he hasn’t gone away, despite my encouragement. Got up early this morning, only to find this guy rattling away, unwilling to give it up (but, then, I seem somewhat unwilling to give up the argument either). This paragraph has been interrupted a couple, three times, now, even as I write, by Mr. K’s feeble rejoinders to my “reasonable” (ha ha) elucidations. Among the dramatis personnae appearing below are Paul D., an apparent antifa ally of Matthew K.;  Mark W., a sane New Yorker of the left liberal persuasion; the aforementioned Mistuh K., and moi, an elderly gent, trying to avoid resting on his accumulated laurels.

This is what it all sounds like:

Mark W. We’re not remotely likely to have a nazi takeover in the US. Best I think is simply to pay them as little mind as possible, and be careful who we vote for.

Paul D. …..american oligarchs have taken over the USA ! The only thing between you and american oligarch totalitarianism is Robert Mueller . But by all means close your eyes and they will all disappear when you vote …carefully .

Mark W. Hitler had oligarchs for allies after he took over, but they didn’t create him. We really don’t need to scare ourselves stupid.

Paul D. Not quite the full story as Hitler , Mussolini and Stalin had oligarch allies BEFORE , DURING AND AFTER their rise to power. The oligarch’s money is always necessary to grow political power. It’s always easier to make profits when that messy democracy is not in the way . What is it that you need to be fearful for a delicate and tenuous democracy ? I agree with you , stupidity and closing your eyes works .

Mark W. And voting stupid.

Paul D. ????????

Stan Persky Paul D. One doesn’t know where to start in unpacking your simplistic, distorted “theory of the oligarchs.” First, America has had oligarchic capitalism for a century and more before the contemporary rise of globalised corporate capitalism and the presence of Donald Trump: ever heard of the railroad robber barons and oil magnates of the 19th and early 20th centuries? (And maybe we ought to throw in some premature “antifa” anarchists tossing an occasional bomb to give this movie some sound and fury.)

And if you’re going to talk about Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all in one big breath, it helps to provide some historical context: Hitler comes out of a shattered society (defeat in World War I, the chaos of the Weimar Republic, etc). Do you see a parallel political condition in the pre-Trumpian U.S.? And Stalin, too? Oligarchic allies between 1917 and 1929 in the nascent Soviet Union??

You seem to be a walking, talking example of the old saw that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” As for your sneering, but feeble rhetoric — “it’s always easier to make profits when that messy democracy is not in the way” — that pseudo folksy style is less than persuasive. What are we s’posed to say: “Oh, gee, Mr. D. we didn’t know that! Thanks for explaining the universe!”

Who do you think you’re talking to on this thread? Most of us present (especially on this thread) are aware that we’re in the midst of a theoretical-strategic-tactical debate about how liberals and those to the left (including your far left antifa) ought to respond to the rise of a globalised populism (represented in the U.S. by the Trump election), one that feeds off mass ignorance, xenophobia, sexism, racism and the rest of the isms rightists hold close to their hearts and holsters. That’s what we’re arguing about here. Part of this debate involves the possibilities of electoral politics in the present conjuncture. In U.S. state and civic elections last week, in Virginia and elsewhere, in what was widely regarded as a sort of first referendum on Trump after a year in office, Democratic Party candidates won, and by significant margins. Of course, it’s only a small sign, but not to be discounted, that there may be electoral strategies to counter the current wave of American populism. But the polarisation in the U.S. didn’t begin with Trump — presidential elections in the last 25 years in the U.S. have split roughly 52-48, and there’s been a “cultural war” ever since the Reagan period and end of American “affluence,” c. 1975. But wait, why go on ad nauseum? By now you’ve probably grown so restless that you’re itching to rush out into the streets and punch a Nazi. GLWT.

Mathew K. Ohai Stan Persky, we’ve been responding to global neoliberal Capatalism and the populist rise of the right, starting with mainstream media since the Occupy movement of 2011, where I was on the ground with my ‘medic pack’ saving lives. Get out of your ivory tower, get into the streets. Life looks different on the front line.

Stan Persky Mathew K.  NWRB. (That’s “Not Worth Replying to Bullshit.”)

Mathew K. That’s because you can’t. So you won’t. “drops mic”

Stan Persky Mathew K.  And I hope after you’ve dropped the mic, the voiceover will soon announce, “Elvis has left the building” (or at least, this page).

Mathew K.  I’m no Elvis. But I will continue to rail against your defence of Nazi free speech. Nazis don’t stand up for free speech, they hide behind it. Given the opportunity, they will remove yours at the drop of a hat, any hat. Stop defending those who seek your destruction.

Stan Persky Yeah, I’ve definitely stopped defending you. I used to explain that you’re a guy with your heart in the right place who’s a little over-enthusiastic about punching wannabe Nazis in the nose. If you were a 19 or 20-year-old student, I would be more patient with you (and hope that you would eventually develop some depth and nuance, and a bit less aggressiveness against people you disagree with). But you’re not a developing mind, you’re a guy, what?, pushing 50? and your mind is, to coin a Trumpism, a swamp. You have just enough intelligence and mis-education to be not naive, but truly stupid, and a bully… Do I have to roll out more ways to say FO or are you able to take a hint?

*   *   *

Usually, I’m not quite this rude, but this less-than-pleasant conversation has dragged on for weeks, and isn’t going anywhere. And Mr. K. is not shy about insulting actual friends of mine who innocently joined the conversation. Once I get to the annual Xmas clean-up of FB “friends” I can do without, I’ll have to remember to “unfriend” this guy.

Right-wing demo in Warsaw, Poland, Nov. 11, 2017.

Meanwhile, in the real world, where there are real fascists (mixed in with ignorant populists), there was a 60,000-strong march in Warsaw the day before yesterday. Those real fascists, calling for the elimination of Jews and Muslims (neither of which categories exist in any numbers in nationalist Poland), clomped through the streets of Warsaw on Saturday (while I was having lunch in Berlin with my favourite Pole), marking Poland’s Independence Day (a holiday commemorating a date in 1918 or thereabouts when the long divided country was reconstituted, as a result of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I).

Not to demean the ugliness of the recent U.S. white nationalist demo in Charlottesville, Virginia last August, in which some 500 rightwing extremists and a thousand counterdemonstrators faced off in the city’s streets for a day of sporadic violence (including the death of a young woman counter-protester), the events in Warsaw on November 11 were massive and far more disturbing than what’s happened in the U.S. to date. As the Wall Street Journal described it, “Tens of thousands of Poles marched across downtown Warsaw on Saturday, in an independence-day procession organized by a nationalist youth movement that seeks an ethnically pure Poland with fewer Jews or Muslims.

“The largely young crowd shot off roman candles and many chanted “fatherland,” carrying banners that read “White Europe,” “Europe Will Be White” and “Clean Blood.” Some of the marchers flew in from Hungary, Slovakia and Spain and waved flags and symbols that those countries used during their wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany.” The crowd was estimated at 60,000, and the manifestations appeared to receive the blessing of the current far right “Law and Justice” (PiS) Polish government. “It was a beautiful sight,” the interior minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, said. “We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday.” (For a full account, see Drew Hinshaw, “Polish Nationalist Youth March Draws Thousands in Capital,”Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 2017,  and Matthew Taylor, “‘White Europe’: 60,000 nationalists march on Poland’s independence day,” The Guardian, Nov. 12, 2017.)

Okay, enough gloom:  time to start thinking about walking down Zille Strasse to my neighbourhood grocery store. If only I could get my Antifa soon-to-be-unfriended FB pals to fly over to Warsaw and deal with — when it comes to fascism — the Real Thing.

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Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).