Jeffrey C. Isaac, John McCain and Me
Thinking about a Democratic Antifa
Jeffrey C. Isaac has been busily contributing to Public Seminar recently. Three cogent rapidly fired posts in a week. He is worried, as am I, about the direct threat of Trumpism to democracy, and he offers some wise observations and judgments that get me thinking about how we think about politics and how we should act in the face of the very real authoritarian threats of the day.
Isaac documents the danger that is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. General Kelley’s disciplined authoritarianism may be more “adult” than that of his boss. Yet, as Isaac observes, it is enabling and not controlling the threat Trump presents to American democracy.
Analyzing the interactive context of Trump’s telephone conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, killed this month in Niger, Isaac demonstrates how authoritarianism is becoming an American reality, in which domination based on race, class and gender is becoming ever more hegemonic.
And then he considers how to oppose this trend, in a subtle post welcoming John McCain’s Liberty Medal Speech in Philadelphia last week. Isaac comes to the following critical conclusion:
“…liberal democracy is something worth defending. For most of my personal and professional life as a political scientist, this did not seem like much. For I, like most of my peers, took it for granted. It was the premise of our strenuous criticism of virtually everything existing. But it is a premise no longer. It is, instead, a value under siege. John McCain is neither the only nor the best representative of this value. But he defends it nonetheless. And that is something worth welcoming.”
Even though McCain on just about all partisan issues is Isaac’s opponent (and mine), McCain is now defending democracy as it is under attack by Trump, Kelly and company. For this, Isaac welcomes McCain’s speech.
I agree, wholeheartedly, as I believe all sorts of anti-fascists of the left, right, and center should. Isaac: “McCain is a neoconservative. But he is not a neo-fascist. And that difference matters, especially now.”
Given that democracy is now under a frontal attack from within the White House, we find ourselves in a unique situation. Because the political ground on which we stand has fundamentally changed, how we think and act between past and future should change.
I appreciate recent posts in our “Power and Crisis” vertical in this light, particularly in the debate coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia, addressing both the critical evaluation of the white supremacist rally in August, as well as its consequences, and of the longer history of the founding of the nation and the University of Virginia. The debate illuminates the power and dangers of critical interpretation and suggests the importance of political context. Observing the gap between ideal and practice “when defending liberal democracy didn’t seem like much” sensibly lead to radical criticism.
But when the defense of democracy with a free, open and inclusive public life is where the action is, radical criticism should be professed with care, considering its limitations and qualifications. It becomes especially important to defend democratic ideals, both as the realities are criticized and as the ideals are not used to conceal realities. Confront harsh realities, clearly. Keep alive ideals. The form of debate is what presents the democratic alternative.
Keval Bhatt, following Malcolm X, observes hypocrisy and sees liberal foxes such as Jefferson, “one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the university I attend, the slave-master and colonizer,” as simply that: slave-master and colonizer. But now such radical critique, especially when the claim is made that it presents the true alternative to fascism is especially problematic.
The Declaration of Independence was “the document so useful to Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others” fighting white supremacy, as Isaac Reed underscores. We cannot now lose sight of this. I share Michael Weinman’s concern that conflating the overt white supremacy of someone like Thomas Jefferson with the limitations of democratic commitments endangers those commitments.
Thomas Jefferson and other founders were slave owners, but not all slave owners were founders of a democratic republic.
Now is the time to make such distinctions and build on them. Now is the time for anti-fascists of the world to unite, to create a broad and deep democratic front. I, of course, don’t think we should now all agree, rather I judge that it is important to explore how we can work together. Observe the agreements we have with our opponents, so that we can forge a common course against our anti-democratic enemies. Debate our differences with mutual respect, even as we may still maintain our positions.
I have been thinking about the Antifa movement lately, and the difference between its professed ideals and the way it is enacting them. There may be ways to philosophically demonstrate that punching Nazis in the face and violently resisting the new authoritarians is justified. But as a student of Hannah Arendt, I know that in politics the means are ends. The way we act politically constitutes the character of our politics. So on theoretical grounds, and also importantly on pragmatic ones, I think violent resistance to the new fascism in still-surviving democracies makes no sense. It gives the apologists for white supremacists, fascists and neo-Nazis, such as President Trump, justification to equate Nazis and their opponents, and it also sustains the fascist conflation of violence with politics.
There is a democratic alternative. It starts with welcoming the democratic, anti-fascist words of one’s democratic adversary, as Isaac and I welcome McCain’s.
A personal postscript: I come from a family of anti-fascists. Recently I found the obituary of my father’s brother, George Goldfarb, who died when I was eleven years old. (see page 4 of this) My Uncle Geshy (his Yiddish name used by the family) was a militant labor organizer, a member of the Socialist Workers Party. I note that he became a member of the party through attending a demonstration of fifty thousand protesters against a rally of the Nazi Bund inside Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. I observe that my uncle did not work against fascism through armed resistance, but as an organizer, teacher and party activist. He was a militant and a democrat: a position that still make most makes sense to me.