Chris Hedges recently wrote a painfully ill-informed essay about black bloc tactics and violence in protest actions. It’s a shame, because I think he does have some valuable wisdom to impart to activists who find themselves engaged in confrontations with law enforcement (regardless of how the violence starts). Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that wisdom evident in his tirade. Here’s what I wish Hedges had spent some time writing about.
Hedges wrote about the effects of war and violence on the human psyche in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and I wish he’d applied some of his insights from that book to his critique of black bloc tactics. His book reflected on his years hopping from war zone to war zone as a journalist, and how those constant brushes with death turned him into a sort of adrenaline junkie, always needing a new fix of danger. He convinced himself that it was necessary to continue to expose himself to dangerous situations, arguing that he was doing it for a noble, greater good and not out of a desire to experience an emotional rush that proved his life held greater meaning. This constant exposure to violence and trauma took a toll on him, and caused him to rethink his work as a journalist. I think his experiences have some some definite parallels for activists to examine.
These are not easy to questions to bring up, but I think activists need to candidly and honestly examine what kind of meaning we each attach to violence, whether done to us or for some, done by us. For example, has it become the case that for some of us, violence can feel at once terrible and yet also exhilarating? Have we begun to judge our actions not by how much social transformation happens, but by how hard the police clamp down on a protest? Is there an unacknowledged desire to experience violence as a way to validate our cause, as proof that we are part of Something Important?
Again, these are questions that are difficult to raise, and they are even more difficult to talk about when folks are on the defensive because of condescending and inaccurate essays like the one Hedges wrote. The left is in serious need of inter-generational dialogue and frank discussion about tactics and long term goals, but rants like the one Hedges wrote are not going to help. We need to hear from veterans of protest movements and from those who have experienced trauma in their work to create a better world, we don’t need blame-tastic lectures on The Right Way to Protest. Chris Hedges, please try again. Folks pissed off at his rant, try to not dismiss him entirely.