DANIEL VAUGHAN: Moral relativism is the foundation of Portland’s Antifa violence

July 1, 2019

The alt-left, Antifa, or whatever else you want to call the far-flung progressive left hasn’t had their Charlottesville moment — yet — but they’re working toward it.

Of course, it shouldn’t be hard to condemn violence against or between political opponents. Yet here we are.

Police have arrested several people in Portland, Oregon after Antifa members lashed out against various right-wing demonstrators on the streets. According to police, while demonstrations started peacefully, things went downhill quickly, with Antifa members allegedly throwing milkshakes with a “quick-cement-like” substance in it, along with using bear and pepper spray on those they found among right-wing marchers.

Among those attacked was Andy Ngo, a writer and journalist for Quillette, the New York Post, and other sites. He posted a video showing injuries and talking about what happened, and shared video of third-party observers who filmed the attack.

While this was just one attack in a deep blue city, many liberal media journalists and pundits were willing to defend Antifa’s violence.

You could call this situation nutpicking, focusing on the most extreme figures within a movement to make a point. If that were the case, you could ignore this situation as just an extremist wing of the left and move on with your life. But this event wasn’t in isolation.

The Washington Post ran an editorial cheering on a waitress who spat on President Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump at a Chicago cocktail bar. The op-ed concluded: “In the meantime, the new rules apply. If you’re directly complicit in spreading hate or perpetuating suffering, maybe you should consider dining at home. For the rest, your table is waiting.”

The New York Times joined the fray with a different op-ed written by a former “human-rights lawyer,” who called for the doxxing of federal government employees charged with running various detention centers housing migrants. The author went out to ask the American Bar Association to target any lawyers who provided legal defense to these employees.

It’s hard to argue this is nutpicking when the mainstream arms of the left are pushing society in the same direction as Antifa. Followers of Antifa are, admittedly, a minority in even the Democratic Party — but they’re actively fighting for control of that bus.

As conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg observed on Twitter: “Antifa sucks. Alt-right torch boys suck. But neither works for the DNC or the RNC and neither should be nut-picked as the face of either. Both should be condemned and the media — right, left, and in between — should stop pretending this is complicated.”

And yet, that is hard for some on the left.

We’re in this place because we live in a culture that removed moral truth from the public sphere and replaced it with moral relativism. For decades, conservatives and classical liberals warned of the dangers of rebuilding society on the notion that no truth was absolute and held across all of society.

In his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, even liberal author Allan Bloom wrote of the dangers of moral relativism that students were being taught:

Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness — and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings — is the great insight of our times.

The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

And so we’ve marched into an era wherein relativism reigns free, but cultural enforcement still exists. Though they claim no moral or absolute truths remain, they insist that the world is still “sinful” — and deserves punishment.

What has replaced truth in the progressive mind is not morality or truth, but rather, tribalism. We know the truth by which side of the partisan aisle we fall on, and if anyone attacks anyone on our team, that transgression must be met with force.

This new morality is why it’s so hard for some on the left to forcefully denounce the Antifa movement — they’re on the progressive side, so those people must be defended. The same phenomenon explains the rise of firebrands like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez — she’ll make categorically false or stupid statements, and when the right attacks her, everyone on the left rushes in to defend her.

Neither AOC, Antifa, or anyone else gets held to an absolute standard, only the rules which are in vogue at that time on the left. “Woke” means understanding the exact social and moral cues of the moment, and obeying them. Everything flows out from this relativistic moral viewpoint, including the shame culture that enforces the new, moving, moral norms.

Bloom later wrote, “The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.” That’s the end goal for Antifa, and the overall woke cancel-culture — a cleansing society of the all the ills they see in it; no one can be left remaining.

Antifa hasn’t had their Charlottesville moment, where someone dies in the name of their ideology. But the dehumanization of their foes, the violence, and the moral justification for extremist actions are all set in place.

Condemning Antifa’s actions immediately — loudly and across the liberal sphere — is needed. People of good conscience on the left cannot allow this behavior to stand, because Antifa won’t listen to any warnings that come from the right.

Progressives have to police their own. I hope they find the moral truth to do so — and soon.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.