Call me unromantic, but I disliked a lot about the fabled “Sixties” the first time around. Some of the music was good, but otherwise 1968 was among the worst years in American life. The center nearly failed to hold.
As if the Vietnam War were not bad enough, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy made it feel as if America’s democratic institutions might not survive. Eager for “revolution,” hothouse warriors in the SDS and Weather Underground did everything possible to promote anarchy — from rioting to setting off bombs. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, pitched battles between street fighters and Chicago police brought chaos and a massive voter backlash.
The most immediate result, brilliantly chronicled in historian Rick Perlstein’s book “Nixonland,” was the criminal presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
So I found it heartening to see Perlstein take to Facebook to scold the latter-day anarchists of “Antifa.” There was nothing subtle or scholarly about it.
“Stop destroying the left, you infantile (bleeps),” Perlstein wrote.
Can I get an amen?
In a subsequent post, the historian quoted an eyewitness account of Antifa goons assaulting KKK-style marchers at a “white power” demonstration in Berkeley, California, of all places.
“Yesterday, at the anti-Alt-Right rally in Berkeley,” Leighton Woodhouse wrote, “I watched groups of masked Antifa members in Black Bloc formation swarm individuals who were apparently antagonizing them, and pummel them with their fists, feet and flagpoles. When the victims tried to escape, they were run down, and in at least one case, cut off by the Antifa mob and beaten down some more.”
A similarly vivid account of Antifa bullying by photojournalist Mike Kessler appeared in The New Republic. The irony was that until the masked, black-clad social justice warriors appeared, the Berkeley crowd had decisively outnumbered, ridiculed and shamed “alt-right” marchers as the pathetic goobers that they are.
Much as thousands of peaceful citizens on Boston Common had so outnumbered white supremacists a week earlier that they took off their little bedsheets and went home without even trying to harangue the crowd.
That’s all that ever needs to happen.
But I don’t even need to turn on Fox News to know that Sean Hannity and the rest of the merry band of Trump apologists on right-wing media are playing up Antifa as the moral equivalent of Bolshevik revolutionaries.
Well-meaning journalists such as the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart are certainly correct to argue that there’s no real comparison between left- and right-wing political violence in the United States. The “alt-left” Trump described scarcely exists, and had almost no role in the Charlottesville tragedy.
Beinart cites Anti-Defamation League statistics showing that 74 percent of politically motivated murders in the U.S. since 2007 were committed by right-wing extremists, versus 2 percent by leftists.
The news media’s tendency to soft-pedal the far-right motives of killers from Timothy McVeigh to Dylan Roof has long been an instance of willful blindness.
Journalists on the left correctly fear that won’t be the case with Antifa.
Also on Facebook, journalist Lindsay Beyerstein explains that she’s covered many protests halfway sabotaged by Antifa antics: “I always thought of them as self-indulgent parasites because they’d show up at demonstrations organized by other people and capture the news cycle with petty property destruction.”
But when masked intruders quit breaking windows and start carrying weapons, things can change fast. “Paramilitaries facing off in the streets is god’s gift to fascism,” Beyerstein adds. “Not everyone likes racism and militarism, but everyone likes safety and order. If we’ve already got safety and order, fascists have nothing to offer casual supporters.”
But she predicts that if real “violence comes, the backlash is going to come down as hard against the entire left as it did against the alt-right after Charlottesville.”
That’s certainly what happened during the Sixties.
My late father taught me an oft-repeated expression I always took as the essence of Americanism. “You’re no better than anybody else,” he’d growl, “and NOBODY’S BETTER THAN YOU.” There was more than a little Irish nationalism in what he said, but he definitely meant it. So do I.
Most Americans do, too. Even under Donald Trump, the great majority remains deeply attached to the fundamental premises of democratic citizenship. They want to believe that we’re all in it together — America, that is — and they react against anybody threatening that belief.
So that when Alabama segregationists attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators with clubs, tear gas and dogs, the majority sympathized with the victims — and brought about the end of Jim Crow. But after rioting tore Chicago apart in 1968, they went the other way. Hard.
Nobody needs the help of Antifa militants and the idiot professors making excuses for them to reject the KKK.
But let them start real trouble, and we’ll all end up wishing we’d never heard of them.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.