A German election poster from the Social Democrats. The top text says, "Against Papen (the monarchist Chancellor), Hitler, and Thälmann (the Communist Party leader)"

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Why Did It Come To This?

by on 11 September 2019

I guess my first thought is: what the fuck?

Late Tuesday night, The Wonderwall announced that Minnesota United had chosen to ban the Iron Front symbol, an internationally recognized mark “representing resistance against Nazism, Communism and reactionary conservatism,” from appearing in any form at games. As a result, the unified supporters group has threatened to withhold support and has asked that the likeness of the team’s supporters not be used for marketing purposes.

The move by Minnesota follows a similar move that was made by the Portland Timbers, and has generated considerable protest. This past week, the club banned for three games several supporters who had displayed the Iron Front symbol regardless, including a small business owner and season ticket holder who appeared in the team’s inaugural marketing campaign. Ostensibly the reason for the ban was a reaction to its use by counter-protesters that rallied to confront an array of overly fascist groups who have repeatedly sought to demonstrate in Portland. These protests have been characterized by some violence and accusations of violence.

What is so astounding is why Minnesota’s front office saw the need to inject themselves into the conversation at all. The Twin Cities are not beset by street battles between masked hooligans. There is not a problem at Loons games of bellicose social democrats using the Iron Front logo to intimidate or harass other fans. Nobody wanted to know what the team thought about the controversy in Portland. It is brain-meltingly stupid that the club decided to create conflict where there was none. Before a critical game against the Houston Dynamo, the team has earned itself a round of media coverage that will baffle or alienate just about everyone who reads it.

I can’t believe I’m writing this piece, I really can’t.

Provoking a wholly unnecessary conflict with your fans over something that was—before the conflict—extraordinarily minor is dumb. But what’s worse is that of all the things for the club to crack down on, this ain’t it, chief. There are a lot of things on earth that do not require an opinion. Many people love One Direction, many people don’t, but the vast majority have no opinion, and that’s fine.

Fascism isn’t one of those things. Thanks to some stuff that happened roughly seventy-five years ago, most Americans haven’t had to spend a lot of time thinking about or condemning fascism. But when you decide to give your opinion about it, the are only two sides. There is not a middle about this. There’s fascist. There’s anti-fascist. You have to pick one.

The Iron Front logo, with its three arrows, was a statement of opposition not just to fascism, but other extreme ideologies. It is not a symbol of extremism, but a symbol of resistance to all forms of it. To the extent that it is associated with violence, it is only in reaction to the implicit violence of the systems of repression that it opposes. Banning the Iron Front logo is historically illiterate, and offensive to the values of the liberal democracy that Americans celebrate.

Is Minnesota United a fascist organization? Surely nobody thinks so. But the club is a corporation, and corporations are by their nature witless and risk adverse. I assumed the team was savvy enough to simply shut up and let the issues in Portland pass. I clearly gave them too much credit. In what was I imagine a thoughtless effort to head-off controversy, they have blundered into it instead.

MLS has long had a relationship with its most ardent fans that suffers from this kind of stress. To a far greater extent than any other American sport, soccer supporters are participants in the match experience. This is what makes these teams into clubs, a word that suggests a society, collective membership, and even ownership. The handshake agreement is that the league and clubs can use the atmosphere created by the supporters to market their product. In return, supporters are allowed to express themselves with a far greater liberty than is common in corporatist American sports.

MLS clubs can and do abuse supporters in a number of ways, and are not challenged for it. But interfering too heavy-handedly with the freedom of supporters to express themselves is the line that cannot be crossed without a fierce reaction. This inexplicable ban on the Iron Front symbol is an egregious incursion. At a time when governments in Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, (to pick some prominent examples) are governed by outright fascist sympathizers, and when concern in the United States about extreme right-wing violence and political ideology is increasingly salient, it is inevitable that organized soccer supporters will make themselves heard.

Many have pointed out that the league and its clubs are immensely hypocritical when adjudicating whether speech is problematic or not. In particular, the league claims exceptions for itself that it does not give others, especially when it alone can profit. The league has explicitly supported a message (and merchandise line) of inclusion, especially for LGBTQ+ civil rights, while demurring when neo-Nazis threaten the safety of non-white fans at New York City games. The league takes money to promote and celebrate the American armed forces—the most effective anti-fascist organization in human history—at the same time that it polices anti-fascist imagery among fans.

These are valid points, and speak to the legalese at the core of the protest; the fan’s code of conduct that prohibits ‘political’ displays. That makes sense in the realm of the tax code. Nobody needs soccer sectarian violence over the correct capital gains rate. But the definition of what is ‘political’ is constantly changing, as our liberal society advances. The right of women to vote was once a political question. Whether or not to entirely ban alcohol was once a political question. As the conciousness of our society expands to recognize new injustices, we leave behind old questions that have been resolved, nevermind the revanchists who remain.

And here’s the thing about those folks. They can be loud, but there aren’t many of them. You do not need to appease the tiki torch brigade to make weight in your crowds. There are vanishingly few attendees of Minnesota United games who would prefer a little more fascism with their soccer. The Iron Front logo is a symbol to extremists that their views are not welcomed. I understand why it makes a corporation squirm to turn away potential customers, but the good news is that once you lose all the people who are threatened by the Iron Front logo, you’re left with basically everyone. Moreover, when you allow a culture of broad-based inclusion and anti-extremism, you make the overwhelming majority of people more comfortable and safe. Its really a win-win.

It’s far from too late for Minnesota to fix this problem of their own making. The easiest solution would just be to forget about it and move on, pretend nothing happened, status quo ante bellum. Unfortunately, nobody apologizes easily these days, so another way to go about it would be to invite The Wonderwall over to the team offices, share each side’s views, and announce a lifting of the ban with some kind of extraordinarily reasonable and already obvious condition like “no Iron Front-related street violence in the stadium” and everyone can move on with their lives.

On the other hand, could the team really be dumb enough to dig their heels in, and force their most devoted fans into an escalating protest? That’s what the Timbers seem to be trying in Portland. Minnesota clearly haven’t learned from their counterparts over there so far, but maybe they can chart a more sensible course from here on out.

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