Antifa: a word on the rise
Short for ‘anti-fascist’, the word Antifa has had an unusual rise to prominence in the course of 2017. It refers, in essence, to anyone or anything opposed to fascism but is most typically used to refer to militant activists who have appeared at rallies and events across the United States to protest the racist and nationalist views held by many members of the so-called alt-right. Antifa activists are often willing to engage in violence or the destruction of property, making them controversial figures even in other parts of radical leftism. As a result, those on the far right will also sometimes use the word Antifa as a depreciative label meant to suggest that all left-wing protesters are violent militants.
One of the first questions people tend to have about Antifa is how to say the word itself. The simple, if disappointing, answer is that there are a few different well attested pronunciations, and no definitive consensus has formed. Many people say AN-tee-fa, stressing the first syllable as if the activists in question were opposed to the note that comes after mi in the do-re-mi scale memorably sung about in The Sound of Music. But, as this is an unlikely and somewhat awkward English pronunciation, the alternative an-TEE-fa has also emerged, placing stress on the second syllable as if the word were derived from a Romance language like Spanish or Italian.
While perhaps more sonorous to the ear, making Antifa sound as if it comes from Mexico, southern Europe, or somewhere else where Romance languages are spoken actually misrepresents the word’s real etymology considerably. It was coined in German prior to the beginning of the Second World War as an equivalent shortening of Antifaschistisch that was used to refer to opponents of the fascist Nazi Party. The word first entered English after the war, by which point it was also strongly associated with the Communist leanings of the German left wing, an association which, at the height of the Cold War, did not make Antifa a particularly desirable political label in the English-speaking world. But with the rise of neo-Nazism in Germany and elsewhere in the late twentieth century, that all changed. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the word has seen a sustained increase in usage, although increased mainstream media attention in the last year or so has brought an even greater and seemingly unprecedented degree of visibility to the Antifa movement.
The meaning and status of Antifa in the United States is especially complex. On the one hand, the possibility of a fascist political takeover has never been a real and immediate danger in America the way it has been in various parts of Europe. Because the ideas of democracy and individual liberty are so crucial to American self-identity, the idea of an explicitly authoritarian government coming to power does not seem very plausible. On the other hand, the country’s long history of racial and ethnic oppression and discrimination (along with the arrival of a presidential administration with demonstrated authoritarian tendencies) makes political fears about something very much like fascism not unreasonable. Preoccupied as it is with protecting the interests of a ‘white nation’, the alt-right’s simultaneous rise to prominence has of course made these fears all the more credible. But, for most Americans, there is still an enormous difference between the ‘white nation’ and the American nation. As long as that remains the case, political advocates of racist and xenophobic policies still very much have their work cut out for them.
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