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An unfamiliar word is suddenly appearing in our public conversations -- antifa, short for anti-fascist. It's not a new word -- opposition to fascism is as old as fascism itself. And so is the discomfort that the American political establishment feels about people who strongly oppose fascism.
The white supremacy movement that showed itself openly in Charlottesville criticizes anti-fascists for, of all things, violence, always trying to distract attention from their own violence. Now the mainstream is helping to make antifa a cursed label. The "Atlantic" equates antifa with "the violent left" alongside a photo of a burning fire extinguisher, and CNN congratulates itself on "unmasking the leftist Antifa movement."
The real history of fascism and anti-fascism takes a beating. Fascism as a political idea originated in Italy in the early 20th century, and hundreds of fascist movements sprang up across the world in the 1930s. German National Socialism became the most powerful, but fascists also took control in Spain under Franco and in Portugal under Salazar. As Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe after 1939, fascist movements in Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and Albania exercised power under German domination. Excited fascists created parties in the oldest democracies in Great Britain and the US.
Fascism is much more than white supremacy, anti-semitism, waving swastikas and giving the Hitler salute. It is a theory of society and government that disdains democracy for dictatorship, crushes labor unions in favor of corporate capitalism under full government control of the economy, espouses militant nationalism and male power.
Although the abhorrent qualities of fascism were abundantly clear in the ideas and actions of Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s, opposing fascism made one suspect in America. Leaders of the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the resurgent KKK, and national leaders like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh attacked Jews and sympathized with Nazi ideas.
When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy attacked democratic Spain in 1936, the US and Great Britain remained neutral. Many Americans did not -- thousands, mainly from the left, took up the banner of anti-fascism and volunteered to defend the Spanish Republic. They were then tormented by the American establishment in the anti-communist rage of the 1950s. It was impossible to hate "red" too much, but hating American manifestations of brown racist violence was suspect.
Today there are very few real fascists in the US. Our home-grown far-right fringe movements combine white supremacy with extreme individualism against government control, wild interpretations of America's founding documents, but not one-man rule.
Unlike the proud fascists of the 1930s, right-wing ideologues today use "fascism" as a pejorative to attack liberals, fantasizing links between Nazis and Americans. When Sean Hannity characterizes the mainstream media as "fascist," it is clear that the word has lost any clear meaning.
When American racism was confronted in the 1960s, American historians, some of whom went into the streets, too, began to challenge the sanitized version of our bloody and brutal history of white supremacy that had become official history, universally taught to American schoolchildren, like me. They wrote a better history in the last 50 years, closer to what Americans experienced, freer of partisan politics, more attentive to the lives of average Americans. At the same time, conservatives promoted even more public veneration of Confederate leaders and their slave state, a second wave of Confederate monument building.
This better history corrects the image of American protesters that was so convenient for the conservative establishment. Instead of glorifying the KKK as true, if extreme, Americans, while striking workers, pacifists, and opponents of racism were dangerous law-breakers with foreign beliefs, the responsibility for violence in the service of anti-American ideas is laid where it belongs.
But it took Dylann Roof's demonstration about the connection among Confederacy, racism, and murder to end the run of Hollywood's and the FBI's and conservatives' Passion Play about the Lost Cause and bring this new history into public discussion. In just two years, universities, cities, organizations, corporations, legislatures, and political leaders have taken big steps toward facing their own histories.
The beginning of real change has brought out the howls of the far right, echoed too often in the mainstream. Some antifas are looking for violence. So are some Republican politicians, like Montana's Greg Gianforte. But neither Republicans as a whole nor antifas in general promote or participate in violence.
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