The Anti-Antifa Handbook (Review of Andy Ngo’s “Unmasked”)
A civilization which forgets or rewrites its unique past is a civilization doomed to succumb to the centrifugal forces cranked up by the extremists within its ranks.
Reading about Antifa, its modi operandi, its motives, and its insidious influences on our Western societies has been a long-time pre-occupation of yours truly. Growing up in Western Europe there was never any shortage of developments surrounding this topic. But, notwithstanding its dangers back there and then, Antifa’s European activities at the time couldn’t hold a candle to what happened in the United States in 2020.
Journalist Andy Ngo, a native of Portland, Oregon, has been covering this domestic terrorist organization closely for multiple years, being physically present at protests and riots and even spending a week in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in the summer of 2020. He was brutally assaulted in 2019 while covering a protest, leaving him hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage from which he has yet to fully recover. He’s been repeatedly harassed, beaten and “doxed” because of his efforts, not to mention called a “Nazi”, “fascist” and all the rest.
Ngo wrote a book about his multitudinous experiences, titled Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan To Destroy Democracy, which couldn’t be more timely.
The words “domestic terrorist organization” above were chosen carefully, for that label would be more than deserved even if half of Ngo’s book were fiction. Antifa is not a ragtag collection of “soy boys” and hooligans, as some on the Right would argue. Nor is it, as the Left would have it, a peaceful movement furthering noble goals or (in President Biden’s infamous words) a mere “idea”.
Ngo explains: “[V]iolence is a feature, not a bug, of antifa’s ideology. In fact, they venerate violence.” And behind all this violence the close observer can discern “a plan to destroy the nation-state, America in particular, to bring about a revolution that leads to their vision of utopia.” Moreover, Ngo argues that “antifa is a phantom movement by design. It is leaderless and structured to be functional through small, independent organizations, known as affinity groups, and individuals.”
Even if we leave aside the months-long mayhem in Portland, Seattle and other places last year, a few very serious incidents are documented in the book. Remember Connor Betts? I did. He was a mass shooter who killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio on August 4, 2019. Few knew at the time that Betts had extremely close ties to Antifa, and his killing spree was possibly politically motivated (he didn’t leave a manifesto). But, because it occurred a mere 24 hours after a right-wing extremist shot and killed 23 people in El Paso, Texas, turning the media and Twitter into an anti-Trump feeding frenzy, and because Betts held no such politically undesirable sympathies, “the Dayton shooting went down the memory hole.”
A few other notable incidents are the firebombing of the ICE detention center in Washington by Willem Van Spronsen and the Charlie Landeros shooting. On these occasions thankfully only the perpetrator died, though both could have ended in a lot of bloodshed. Landeros came to his daughter’s school armed and prepared to kill, and almost accidentally shot her during an altercation with police officers. Both he and Van Spronsen were Antifa figures.
The plethora of riots, shootings and other incidents would be horrible enough in and of itself. But one theme emerging throughout the book is that the perpetrators get free reign from sympathetic politicians and law enforcement to continue their mischief: “Portland’s left-wing political monoculture,” Ngo writes, “means that the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has to make politically calculated prosecutions that are favorable to the city’s vocal woke populace. Justice is not blind in Portland. Antifa and BLM rioters are let go almost as quickly as they can be processed through jail.”
Portland’s namby-pamby mayor, Ted Wheeler, tweeted after the first night of rioting and looting in his city: “We talked about agitation — yes even violent agitation and how it has historically occurred with purpose and resulted in change that has moved this country forward.” Mayor Wheeler is less supportive of firm resolve on the part of the authorities, however, and has no qualms publicly reprimanding his police chiefs for taking a common-sense approach to enforcing the law — like, say, using pepper spray to prevent their police stations from being looted and burned to the ground.
Ngo puts his finger on the sore spot: the fact that left-wing radicalism has been festering in academia for over half a century now. He devotes several pages to the origins of Critical Theory, and particularly to Herbert Marcuse’s infamous 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance, which laid the foundation for the idea that “we should not allow perceived intolerant ideas the space to be expressed and should be more accepting of extreme beliefs on the left.”
Ngo further writes: “For decades, American academe has been marinating in Marcuse’s ideas, spreading it to students who then form the next generation of politicians, leaders, and activists.” As a result, American Antifa differs from its European ancestors in that it “has the communist and anarchist origins of European antifa, but it has evolved to include contemporary social-justice politics from critical theory.”
Critical Theory has become so bon ton these days that it’s hardly a surprise that Antifa finds many a supporter among left-wing politicians. “The mainstream left’s retreat from liberal values of free speech,” Ngo argues, “has worked to the benefit of antifa in every way imaginable. Now, not only are large factions of the left sympathetic to antifa violence, some are actively working to suppress their opponents through getting corporate businesses and Big Tech to ban them.”
Antifa has been able to foster this process by employing its large network in academia, politics, media and the legal world. Through these tentacles it aims to further its goals peacefully as much as violently. Lawyers belonging to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), “a legal group with historical ties to the Communist Party,” wage continuous “lawfare” against the authorities. The Southern Poverty Law Center “has establishment liberal and media legitimacy as an arbiter of ‘hate groups,’ but too often it actually serves to launder antifa’s ideology into the mainstream.”
Furthermore, Antifa groups are able to spread falsehoods about every violent police action against them or Black Lives Matter, or every police shooting of a black person, conveying the narrative that “fascist” authorities committed gross and unnecessary violence against innocent and unarmed folks. One group sends out social media posts about an incident, sometimes paired with manipulatively edited video footage, which are then shared by Antifa chapters around the country. Before long, they make their way into the mainstream media, which all too often swallow this propaganda whole without any prior scrutiny.
Unmasked, then, is damning not just of Antifa, but especially of our relativist political and media culture, which has effectively cultivated Antifa’s shenanigans from coast to coast. One is reminded of Mark Steyn’s observations on the inroads Islam has been able to make into the West: “A big chunk of Western civilization, consciously or otherwise, has given the impression that it’s dying to surrender to somebody, anybody.” When cultural confidence makes place for existential doubt and relativism, some third party or other will swoop in to put its boot on our throats, be it Islam or Antifa.
Ngo’s book is admittedly not perfect. Firstly, it would have benefited from a better editor. A few syntactically questionable sentences can be found on its pages, and the formation of paragraphs is often not very logical. Ngo is a better journalist than a writer. (Perhaps the same can be said of yours truly, but he’s not a native speaker and is his own editor!)
Furthermore, Ngo presents his readers with a superfluous history of pre-WWII Germany which reads like a high school paper and contains some factual errors to boot. For example, he writes: “The country’s monetary hyperinflation, caused by reparation payments it couldn’t pay, was further exacerbated by the global Great Depression.” Well, hyperinflation in Germany came to an end with the establishment of the Rentenmark in late 1923, while the Great Depression wasn’t kicked off until 1929. This is sloppy writing, and, since the book’s audience may be expected to possess at least a basic knowledge of the Weimar years, the whole section could have been reduced to a paragraph or two.
That said, Ngo does draw the correct conclusion from this dark episode in history, a conclusion which has been highlighted before by myself. “While the Brownshirts are well remembered in contemporary Western society,” he writes, “the history of far-left paramilitaries in the German interwar years has faded to memory. Like the Nazis, the Communist Party of Germany … had its own paramilitaries.” Indeed, pace the modern Left’s revisionist fantasies, the history of Germany during the Interbellum was not a one-dimensional picture of an angelic Left versus an evil Right, and the groundwork for “anti-fascist” violence and intimidation was laid there and then. We would do well to heed this lesson.
Unmasked ends on a touching personal note. Andy Ngo’s parents fled Communist Vietnam after having spent four brutal years in one of its “re-education” camps. They met while “cramped with dozens of others in a small boat that departed from the southern coast of the country.” They ultimately reached the West Coast of the United States at the end of 1979. While they “never achieved the wealth status associated with the American dream, they achieved the greatest dream they could hope for: freedom.”
This moving family tale raises an important question: Upon which country will tomorrow’s boat people fix their gaze if the far Left succeeds in turning the United States into a tyrannical hellhole? A civilization which forgets or rewrites its unique past — a past that surely was, on balance, a force for good in the world — is a civilization doomed to succumb to the centrifugal forces cranked up by the extremists within its ranks. And we can be guaranteed that these people don’t read history books or understand how the shelves in the supermarket are filled every day.
No self-respecting people can tolerate the levels of unrest we saw in 2020. While you and I get up at 6AM five or six days a week to support our families and build a decent future for ourselves, the members of Antifa and their political allies are trying with all their might to destroy the country we love. Andy Ngo is to be commended for his brave efforts to study these thugs, at great personal risk.