"To be fair, he is a journalist": a short response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc

"To be fair, he is a journalist": a short response to Chris Hedges on the Black Bloc

A short reply to Chris Hedges 'Black Bloc: The Cancer in Occupy' article.

It was a little weird to wake up today to an article by Chris Hedges on a website called “Truth-Out” when “truth” is in such short supply in the piece. Hedges was trained as a journalist and worked for years at such luminaries of lies like the New York Times, so it shouldn’t be a secret where he’s gotten his sensationalism, his tendency to lie, his hyperbole, and, most of all, his seeming inability to do rudimentary research. Nonetheless, when activist celebrities like Hedges (and his friend here, Derrick Jensen) write even complete nonsense like this, it tends to have a certain conceptual currency with people. And though I’d much rather be visiting with friends today (who promised me peanut butter cookies, no less!), I figured I’d take a few minutes to point out some of the more egregious distortions in Hedges’ terrible piece.

Definitions

First, we need to clear up some definitional problems. Now, as a journalist, I really don’t expect Hedges to be able to “research,”—it does seem to go against the prime directives of the profession, but let’s be clear: There’s no such thing as “The Black Bloc movement.” The black bloc is a tactic. It’s also not just a tactic used by anarchists, so “black bloc anarchists” is a bit of a misnomer—particularly because Hedges doesn’t know the identities of the people under those sexy, black masks. In fact, it was autonomists in the 80s who came up with the (often quite brilliant) idea in Germany. Protecting themselves against the repression of what Hedges calls “the security and surveillance state,” squatters, protesters, and other rabble rousers would dress in all black, covering up tattoos, their faces, and any other identifying features so they could act against this miserable world and, with some smarts and a sharp style, not get pinched by the pigs. This was true of resisters who were protecting marches (because the state never needs an excuse to incite violence and police are wont to riot and attack people), destroying property, or sometimes just marching en masse. That is, the black bloc has all kinds of uses. And in Oakland, where Hedges seems particularly upset by people actually having the gall to defend themselves against insane violent police thugs instead of just sit there idly by getting beaten, on Move-In Day the bloc looked mostly defensive—shielding themselves and other protesters from flash grenades and police mob violence with make-shift shields (and even one armchair). So, to be clear: The black bloc is a tactic used by lots of people, not just anarchists, and it has all kinds of uses. It’s not a “movement.”

Who Is This Straw Fankenstein?

And, importantly, people in black blocs don’t have “unity” with one another about politics. This is another bizarre part of Hedges’ hatchet job. He goes on this long diatribe about what “The Black Bloc Movement” (this weird straw Frankenstein he’s created) believes. We learn in his piece that this Frankenstein is “against organization” when members of the black bloc, anarchists included, have all kinds of ideas about organization (none of which are “against organization”). If Chris did a little research, he’d find that “The Black Bloc Papers,” for example, were edited and compiled by two members of a formal political organization. And while many anarchists do reject formal political organizations, no anarchists oppose “organization” as such. Rather, we have disagreements over organizational form, duration, formality, purpose, and so on. Not to state the obvious, but considering our collective failure to smash capitalism, the state, and all other manifestations of coercive power over others, uh, shouldn’t we be building those kinds of critiques? If Hedges were interested in honesty, he might know that’s also why many anarchists are critical of the Left (I imagine dishonest and divisive hatchet jobs by Leftist celebrities like this one is another reason why more and more anarchists reject the Left—among its many other shortcomings and failures).

He goes on to state that this Frankenstein he’s created is universally under the influence of John Zerzan, then attacks Zerzan. Again, this just shows how out of touch Hedges is and how he’s fooled himself into believing he knows what he’s talking about when he doesn’t (a very common trait for celebrity journalists). Apparently it needs repeating, the black bloc is not a unified “movement”—it’s a bunch of folks dressed similarly so they can’t be identified by the popo. There are all kinds of thoughts on Zerzan in such a grouping, some supportive, some not, some who, no doubt, have no idea who he is. But Zerzan doesn’t speak for the bloc—no one does. And so there’s this weird “guilt-by-association” in this piece which ends in blaming criticisms of the Zapatistas on this “Black Bloc Movement” that he’s created.

Gender Essentialism! It’s Not Just For the 70s Anymore!

Hedges also critiques the black bloc for its supposed “hypermasculinity,” engaging in a gender essentialism that belies his inability to keep up with contemporary radicalism. In Oakland, part of the militant march on Move-In Day was the “Feminist and Queer Bloc.” I’m sure they would be quite surprised to learn that self-defense against violent police thugs and petty vandalism is actually a man’s activity! Why, those poor, beleaguered women and queers are probably alienated from such militancy, along with the befuddled masses that Hedges seems to be writing for! Rather than a lengthy critique of this already-disposed-of pseudo objection, I’ll let Harsha Walia enlighten Hedges on the problems of wealthy white, men like himself attempting to speak for the alienated and frightened “victims” of such “masculine” activities as building a confrontational and militant movement against capitalism and the state. Check it out:

The Personal Is Antipolitical

Some of this is personal to me, in the interest of full disclosure. I have friends in Oakland. They’re brave and awesome. Seeing them stand up to police repression and attempt to take an empty building while people sleep in the streets was exciting and invigorating for me. It was a welcome sight in today’s age of non-violent fundamentalism, where so many are beset with the crippling belief that if we just get beat up badly enough we’ll attract “the masses” with our moral superiority and somehow the wealthy and powerful will recognize the error of their ways and give us the world back that they’ve so successfully turned into their nightmarish, authoritarian, and wasted playground. My friends were gassed, beaten, given broken faces, broken dreams, and locked in cages for their bravery. And now they’re being denounced by a comfortable journalist who wasn’t there who refers to them as a “cancer”.

I don’t want to suggest that they shouldn’t be critiqued. Self-critique is important for any improvement of practice—if it’s honest.

But here I feel betrayed. When Hedges wrote about the Greeks, notorious for their black blocs, he praised them for “getting it.” Indeed, according to Hedges, they knew what to do. In Hedges own words:

They know what to do when they are told their pensions, benefits and jobs have to be cut to pay corporate banks, which screwed them in the first place. Call a general strike. Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out. Do not be afraid of the language of class warfare—the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it.

Apparently for Hedges, that’s good enough for the Greeks. But, by God, don’t you dare bring this filthy resistance to his home! You might accidentally (horror of horrors!) break a window! Perhaps it might belong to Hedges! Well, I passed around his piece on Greece thinking that perhaps there was, in fact, a journalist that “gets it.” I was wrong and I feel betrayed.

So I am angry at Hedges. I know it shows and it will look ugly to some people, but at one point, I trusted his work. And now, I have broken and brave friends that he is denouncing in a movement that he is dividing and presuming to speak for.

After the Move-In Day, the Mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, asked the Occupy movement to “disown” Oakland because they were militant, uncompromising, and because they were willing to engage in the kinds of “class warfare” that Hedges once praised in Greece. Occupy groups quickly dismissed this as a divisive tactic, but Hedges and Derrick Jensen seem all too eager to help Mayor Quan out. We live in interesting times, but we need to see these kinds of attacks for what they are—forms of recuperating needed and justified rage. When rigid ideologues who think they have some kind of special access to “Truth” come in swinging like this, particularly right after being politely asked to by liberal Mayors like Quan to do so, it’s time to do some quick disowning. We should reject the attempts to divide us by the likes of Quan, Jensen, and Hedges and, more importantly, reject the lies and distortions embedded in these facile “critiques.” Shame on you, Chris. If you want to denounce “violence,” you might use your time to target the police and Mayor Quan instead of doing the work they’ve asked Occupy “leaders” to do for them.

[i]Originally posted: February 6, 2012 at spectres of the buried dead

Comments

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2012 11:12

While I sympathise with anyone who's victim of shitty reporting, as someone who works hard on radical publications as well as doing it as a day job I do take issue with your equally inaccurate tarring of all journalists with the same brush. If you're going to call someone out for accuracy and criticise them for characterising all anarchists as black bloccers, you might want to think about not going in with a "fact" about all journalists being lying unethical shites which is anything but.

Steven.
Feb 8 2012 11:13

I think the comments on journalists are meant to be taken with a pinch of salt.

In general, this article is totally right to call him on this ridiculous hypocrisy

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2012 11:25

It's a alright piece of myth-exploding, but the first line is "to be fair he's a journalist." Personally as a journalist I'd never write that kind of mendacious shit and joke or not it's unfair to imply every journalist would - kind of along the lines of saying "he's a lazy bastard, but to be fair he's a civil servant."

smokescreen
Feb 8 2012 12:15

every journalist you meet as an activist promises they'd never write any of those awful hatchet job articles. "i really get what you're trying to do here".

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2012 12:35

Yeah? Well I'll happily challenge anyone on this forum or off to find a hatchet job I've written about anyone on the left, let alone anarchists. I'm not saying journalists don't lie and cheat etc, I'm saying it's a fucking stupid approach to make out it's something we all do. And maybe you can take that line with Greg Palast, or Seymour Hersch, see how far it takes you. (edit: Steven the post above this is exactly why I get irritable - people repeat these mantras as though they're real).

Juan Conatz
Feb 8 2012 12:43

Yeah, I agree, as a seemingly blanket statement it probably isn't smart. Those of us who have had to deal with media in our organizing know there are bad ones and good ones. I'm assuming the author more wrote this to vent and didn't expect it to be so widely distributed though. It did start as the only post on a new tumblr blog before being reposted on AK Press'blog and now here. Knowing him, he'd probably be the first to say it was a mistake to go with that title, I think.

EDIT: ok, it was posted on someone's wordpress first. Took me a second to track down origin. Updated source link in article.

rat
Feb 8 2012 12:58
Rob Ray wrote:
Seymour Hersch

Error or inaccuracy?

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2012 13:09
Quote:
Error or inaccuracy?

Hatchet job on activists (Jesus imagine an entire career in writing without any errors...).

rat
Feb 8 2012 13:23

Or 'inaccuracies'.

lettersjournal
Feb 8 2012 21:40

The problem with journalists is not that they lie or distort things (after all, this criticism of lies in reporting is one of the main functions of journalism). Their culpability lies only in the structural distortion of communication.

The structure of media makes individual principles meaningless.

Juan Conatz
Feb 8 2012 22:31

Hasn't this discussion happened before recently in a several hundred post thread? Or am I confusing that with the academics/teachers one?

wojtek
Feb 9 2012 00:44

Yes, see Rob Ray's response to me here and I bet he's repeating himself lol.

lettersjournal
Feb 9 2012 04:03

Curious why any communist would want to defend the industry that employs them.

Ed
Feb 9 2012 09:42

letters, he's obviously not defending his industry. He's defending fellow workers in his industry and their right to be accepted as part of the working class movement.

You might disagree, but please don't just make things up just to score political points. It's sad.

rooieravotr
Feb 9 2012 19:46

A sensible piece by Bill Weinbergon ww4report on the debate on the Back Bloc/ Occupy debate. He also comments on the journalism thing that is being discussed here. He does not like the title of the above piece either, he says, in confrontational language he uses (too?) often:

Quote:
Spare us the kneejerk anti-intellectualism, Black Blockheads.

. And also, sensibly:

Quote:
the problem is assuredly not that he is a journalist! On the contrary, it's that he has abandoned journalism to become a Leftist Talking Head.

, and

Quote:
the problem isn't that Hedges is a journalist. It's that he isn't.

. On the issue itself, he basically - and rightly - agrees that Hedges does a dishonest, bad job.

revoltingmass
Feb 9 2012 21:23

Issues of the title aside-- the fact is, MAINSTREAM journalists are guilty of exactly what this author is saying. Hedges wrote for NYT! That's like writing for the "paper of record" of any nation-state... their practices rub off on you (i.e., not researching or caring about anything just wanting to publish, talk, and fill up time and space and make money)

Also, I actually think the title is an attempt to mollify the urge to say "WHAT A FUCKING IDIOT"... well, he is a (mainstream) journalist who is gonna practice journalism the way he learned, he is etc etc... it's a way of explaining his behavior instead of saying: WOW that article pissed me off with it's wild inaccuracies! Chris Hedges = idiot scum. Well, no, he's just a journalist and certain elements of that sector (or industry for US folks) have extremely bad practices when it comes to things like "research".

Also the practices of any sector/industry vary nation-by-nation. I know for US Media the facts are as briefly outlined above (investigation is just another cost that'll lower profit).

knotwho
Feb 9 2012 22:11

David Graeber's open letter to Hedges.

tastybrain
Feb 9 2012 23:14
Ed wrote:
letters, he's obviously not defending his industry. He's defending fellow workers in his industry and their right to be accepted as part of the working class movement.

You might disagree, but please don't just make things up just to score political points. It's sad.

Yeah he's not defending his industry, he's defending himself and other workers from the ridiculous line that you pimp that people like journos are "social managers" and therefore class enemies.

Rob Ray
Feb 10 2012 08:39
Quote:
Curious why any communist would want to defend the industry that employs them.

As people have said, I'm not defending the industry, I'm defending some of the people who work in the industry - I'm curious why any communist would be unable to tell the difference.

agentorangefai
Feb 11 2012 01:13

As a journalism student that has been quite interested in participating in the larger independent media world during and after college, it is a bit disheartening to see stories like the one posted above characterise me pre-"career" as something that I'm not. It's especially disheartening to see that there's not really been any distinction made between mainstream and independent media (except in the comments here).

It really should be pointed out that journalism, like the black bloc, is a tool - it can be used for both good and "bad" ends and not everyone who uses it is a sod.