Violent clashes between political factions have become so frequent in Berkeley that they have a Wikipedia page — "2017 Berkeley protests" — at least as detailed as that for several minor European wars. This weekend, that Wikipedia page will be updated, as right-wing troublemakers converge on the famously liberal Northern California college town for the fifth time in the last year, for an event billed as "No to Marxism in America."
I didn't know that economic collectivism posed an imminent danger to Chez Panisse and its environs, but that's beside the point. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists will glom on to the demonstration, and no appeals to Berkeley's plainly less-than-Marxist present-day sensibilities is going to keep them away.
But the nature of the Wikipedia update is a matter yet unsettled. The subheading for Sunday, Aug. 27, could offer gruesome detail of violent clashes between right-wingers and leftist counter-protesters, in particular the black-clad, semi-organized brigade of anti-fascists known as Antifa. Or it could be a three-sentence summary of a silly provocation that the good citizens of Berkeley ignored. The choice is up to my fellow liberals.
So far in Berkeley, nobody has died. Charlottesville, Va., was not so lucky. But in Berkeley, as nowhere else, the invigorated left has too eagerly played into the right's hands, supplying the kind of imagery that must make Fox News host Sean Hannity salivate. There was, to mark the start of a chaotic year, the counter-protest to a scheduled campus appearance by right-wing celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos last winter. Antifa destroyed property (both on campus and in the city of Berkeley), set fires and attacked Donald Trump supporters. The nation watched as Berkeley burned for the sake of, well, I am not sure what. The morning after, Trump mused about cutting off federal funds to the university, which he said "practices violence on innocent people."
I doubt that seminars on "Das Kapital" are on the schedule for this weekend's anti-Marxism gathering. The single purpose of these rallies is to goad the left into a response, which then allows the right to claim moral superiority — and to thereby perpetuate its campaign of incitement, as if there were urgent points to be made about the Confederacy and Jewish control of the media.
My message to those who might protest in Berkeley: Forget about it. Read a book. Take your kids to the park. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Visit a museum you haven't gone to before. Take a nap. But whatever you do, don't give the extremists the one thing they so desperately want: A response.
I've witnessed the far right's loudest voices stir up real-life crowds and legions of online trolls. I know all too well the writings and social media musings of Lauren Southern, Kyle "Based Stickman" Chapman, Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, Brittany Pettibone, Nathan Damigo, Jack Posobiec. If you don't know who these people are, good for you. If you can't identify the flag of Kekistan, you've spared a valuable neuron from death by inanity. If you've never spent an hour on 4chan, you probably have a sunnier view of humanity than I do.
Although I'd never portray myself as an expert on right-wing extremism, I am confident that these are not Hitler's willing executioners, imbued with a blazing vision of a Thousand Year Reich. They are hateful, but their hate is disorganized and juvenile, their diatribes against free trade tweeted from Chinese-made iPhones.
They can cause real damage. They can take real lives. But they do not represent a real threat to the republic. They are a virus that has infected the body politic. Troubling, yes, but not dangerous until it can bind to the host protein that is the militant left.
The neo-Nazis in our midst are outcasts who do not deserve the attention of reasonable citizens who seek measured debate in the public sphere. Dressed in their helmets and capes, wielding sticks, they are like the extras of a bad dystopian staging of one of Shakespeare's war plays. They are looking for their fellow actors, the anarchists dressed in black. Without them, this is a dull show with a repetitive script, a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.
President Trump's condemnation of the violent right would have vitiated their movement, but he is unwilling to distance himself from the forces that helped him defeat more than a dozen Republicans in the presidential primary. So he will call them decent, even if they are anything but. And as soon as a single leftist in a balaclava throws a punch, the video will be splashed across the front page of Breitbart News for days.
You can be certain that the "No Marxism" marchers are hoping for chaos. Let's give them peace instead.
Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national politics.