COLONIZER: A POSTCOLONIAL READING OF CHRIS HEDGES
(ed. Originally published Feb. 6, 2012 – here. This blistering critique of Hedges’ brazen hypocrisy and shameless “orientalism” inspired him to pen a wholly unsubstantiated screed that included snitch-jacketing OLAASM, suggesting we: “infiltrated the movement to foster internal divisions and rivalries.”)
The sudden volte-face of famed Liberal destroyer Chris Hedges in his recent demonization of the Black Bloc, sinisterly entitled ‘The Cancer of Occupy’, is a wonderful introduction for North American activists to the field of Postcolonial Theory. Edward Said’s seminal text ‘Orientalism’ examines how Western study of ‘The Orient’ contributes to the functioning of colonial power. Representations of ‘The Orient’ in Western texts purporting to offer knowledge and insight into ‘other’ countries, actually perpetuate the dichotomy between the West and ‘Others’ – in so doing, reaffirming the colonial relationship, even long after postcolonialism has apparently been established following the decolonizing process. The role of former colonizer is adopted in the discourse by the white, educated Chris Hedges, who writes glowingly of Greece’s response to their economic crisis in an article from May 2010:
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.
The Greeks, here, take the liminal role of “other”. In Hedges’ terms, they mimic his intellectual, activist ideals, without ever becoming equal to him. They are the student: he the master, echoing Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Minutes on Indian Education’ printed in 1835, which set out an agenda to train ‘natives’ who were ‘Indian in blood and colour’ to become ‘English in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect’. These mimics would constitute a class who could protect British interests and help them in exerting rule over the empire. They would emulate, but never initiate or fully embody the ruling class values, in so doing ensuring their subjection and reliance on the colonizer. Hedges exhorts his ideal Occupiers to do the same, to denounce Diversity of Tactics, and to hurl their anarchist and Black Bloc comrades beneath the bus, by handing them over to the police. Hedges quotes indignant
former eco-terrorist Derrick Jensen struggling with the radical aversion to resorting to the representatives of militaristic rule, to deal with internal problems: “When I called the police after I received death threats, I became to Black Bloc anarchists ‘a pig lover.’”
This indignity alone, it seems, is enough to fuel Jensen and Hedge’s disturbing anti-anarchist rant.
Frantz Fanon writes in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, that:
… it is not the colonialist self or the colonized other, but the disturbing difference in between that constitutes the figure of colonial otherness – the white man’s artifice inscribed on the black man’s body.
Fanon’s works examine the psychological affects of colonialism upon people of color in a predominantly white world. His work remains salient, particularly in the context of the Western desire to appropriate, claim and ‘orientalize’ the revolutionary activities in ‘other’ countries, in order to inscribe their name upon the successful results. Egypt under Mubharak is characterized as bad and anti-American, anti-democratic, inhumane…. Egypt revolting in order to embrace democracy is appropriated, through Western discourse, as a prodigal student of Western ideals.
This can be seen clearly in Hedges’ ‘white man’s artifice’ – the approbation he gives to his students, the Greeks. “Riot. Shut down the city centers. Toss the bastards out”, Hedges’ exhorts Greece gloatingly. Compare this to his contradictory attitude to the “cancerous” anarchists of the Black Bloc, who, it seems, follow similar tactics to those Hedges admires in Greece – though the Black Bloc of Oakland have not yet come near to the violence and chaos of Greece. Despite this, Oakland’s Black Bloc has provoked the ire of a Master who finds himself discarded and bypassed – overtaken, unwanted, and left to struggle in their wake. Hedges does not recognize the autonomous discourse the Oakland Black Bloc utilize – or perhaps he feels slighted that they abandoned the “accepted” discourse, and appropriated another, before he, the patriarchal father, gave permission. The Oakland Black Bloc is not subject to Hedges, the colonizer, does not, therefore, have “the white man’s artifice inscribed on the black man’s body”, and so is rejected and penalized by Hedges:
Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism are justified, in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection.” These acts, the movement argues, can never be organized. Organization, in the thinking of the movement, implies hierarchy, which must always be opposed. There can be no restraints on “feral” or “spontaneous” acts of insurrection. Whoever gets hurt gets hurt. Whatever gets destroyed gets destroyed.
There is a word for this—“criminal.”
Greece: the underdogs of Europe, the European ‘other’, are allowed – even encouraged – to riot. Violence, looting and vandalism are approved when it is to cast out the Colonizer’s enemy, which could, perhaps, result in the strengthening of a new colonialist discourse, the ‘other’s’ continuing subjection to a new colonizer – that which Hedges represents. Fanon notes that “The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality”.
We see this at play in Hedge’s dark fear-mongering of the consequences of diversity of tactics in Oakland and the “Black Bloc”:
…the Occupy movement, through its steadfast refusal to respond to police provocation, resonated across the country. Losing this moral authority, this ability to show through nonviolent protest the corruption and decadence of the corporate state, would be crippling to the movement. It would reduce us to the moral degradation of our oppressors. And that is what our oppressors want.
Yet these are the same tactics – less violent, less widespread – that Hedges applauded in Greece.
Hedges is not alone in reproducing paradoxical colonialist discourse when talking of ‘other’ countries. Frequently, self-proclaimed ‘nonviolent’ participants in the Occupy movement talk in adoring terms of those in Tahrir Square and Syria, invoking the misty-eyed myth that their struggles with state oppression and police brutality in America, are somehow comparable to their comrades’ battles in the Middle East. Again, Said’s ‘Orientalism’ is worth invoking with the central tenet that knowledge is never innocent. Knowledge is always profoundly connected with the operations of power.
Holding up Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King as fuzzy and politically correct (because brown) proponents of nonviolence, Western nonviolent pacifists conveniently slide over the white lauding of both Gandhi and MLK precisely because both these figures failed to threaten the hegemony of the ruling classes by participating in the colonialist discourse in the language of the colonizer. Both Gandhi and MLK were, in a sense, “different” in blood and color, but “western” in taste, in opinions, in morals, in intellect, and in perpetuating the moral and ethical superiority of the nonviolence both individuals had appropriated from the western discourse itself. Gandhi’s notion of nonviolence was forged as a hybrid between Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy and ‘Ram Rajya’. King’s was formed predominantly by Gandhi’s influence, and a trip to postcolonial India in 1957.
The translation which occurs in Western colonial discourse mythologizes these Middle-Eastern struggles as somehow equal to North American struggles, and yet different to them. Such myths either promote the idea that the Egyptian revolution has been ‘nonviolent’ and ‘non-violent’, or that the violence on the side of the oppressed in, for example, Tahrir Square, is accepted and acceptable, without acknowledging or explaining the contradiction that it is never acceptable in North America.
This promotes and sustains the idea that those in Western countries are, again, the same but different. They are different because they are better. North Americans and Europeans cannot expect revolutionaries in foreign lands to adhere to the same moral and ethical superiority as themselves, the true practitioners of nonviolence and pacifism. The Egyptian revolutionaries protesting in Tahrir Square get a free pass to throw stones because they are ‘less than’ North American protestors, and it sustains North American superiority to characterize our struggle in the West as a struggle which takes place on a higher moral and ethical plain. Despite the fact police brutality is a common and everyday occurrence for many Americans, particularly those living in poverty and homelessness, middle-class educated Occupiers such as Hedges decry the notion of violence as daily routine, because it occurs mainly to uneducated, socially, economically and racially ‘inferior’ sections of the American population. Revolutions on American soil must therefore adhere to a puritanical notion of nonviolence that brings the terminology under the Hegemonic control of those privileged few such as Hedges, who manipulate the discourse to give themselves the advantage, and discredit those who are ‘other’:
This is exactly what pacifists have done in phrasing the disagreement as violence vs. nonviolence. Critics of nonviolence typically use this dichotomy, with which most of us fundamentally disagree, and push to expand the boundaries of nonviolence so that tactics we support, such as property destruction, may be supported within a nonviolent framework, indicating how disempowered and delegitimized we are.
– Peter Gelderloos
This emphasis on creating clear, defined dichotomies in order to “delegitimize” thinkers is another tool favored by the colonizer to oppress. The conflation between violence and diversity of tactics is thus another method of controlling and subjugating difference through language. The colonizer creates “the other” in order to define themselves by the perceived deficiency. Hedges’ draws the Black Bloc as the “other”, using colonizing language to create a fantastical, faceless bogeyman against which he can define himself and the “good” members of the Occupy movement, not these fakers, these hooligans, these “Black” bloc anarchists. The binary opposition of black/white bad/good is never explicitly stated, but played upon through Hedge’s powerful, derogatory language. Language is power. In deliberately misappropriating the tactical term ‘black bloc’ as an adjective, and in some cases even a noun, Hedges, perhaps intentionally, creates a mythical, frightening, all-powerful and wholly evil enemy… which does not actually exist:
The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects. Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant. They hear only their own voices. They heed only their own thoughts. They believe only their own clichés. And this makes them not only deeply intolerant but stupid.
The struggle for the power to name oneself is enacted within words – to remove that power of naming is a specifically colonial, patriarchal act. No matter to Hedges that the diversity of tactics advocated by the anarchists he quotes and praises in the article on Greece, pushes not towards the replacement of hegemonic nonviolence with an “absolutist sect”, but rather towards a coalition of thought and action which represents the broadest spectrum of thinking and action by which to challenge the structures of oppression. To Hedges, preaching the exclusion of these faceless ‘black bloc’ individuals (which he later clarifies, somewhat disparagingly, given their impressive build up, as “a handful of hooligans”) there is no apparent contradiction. All who approve of violence in Egypt / Greece / Syria by the revolting masses, cannot ever hope to introduce it into their actions in North America. To do so is tantamount to a revolution – against the white, educated face of Hedges and his reformist sect. In a patriarchal twist of breathtaking hypocrisy, Hedges justifies his bigotry by claiming to be speaking “for” segments of the Oakland activist population who apparently cannot speak for themselves, presumably, in Hedges’ eyes, because of their race:
These anarchists represent no one but themselves. Those in Oakland, although most are white and many are not from the city, arrogantly dismiss Oakland’s African-American leaders, who, along with other local community organizers, should be determining the forms of resistance.
The contradictions of colonialism lie in its attempt to “civilize” its “other” – in this case, the Black Bloc anarchists – and simultaneously to fix them into perpetual otherness. We see this clearly in the apparent acceptable face of Diversity of Tactics in Syria, Greece and Egypt – but it’s abhorrence in North America and Europe.
In the process of decolonization, intellectuals and activists in the immediate political fall out of the deconstruction of empire, must still fight with its continuing legacy. In order to succeed in successfully destroying the dominant definitions of race, class, language and culture, they must offer an alternative to the old colonialist discourse, a new form which establishes itself as a formidable, powerful and distinct identity. This is what Oakland’s Black Bloc, the anarchists and the radicals of the Occupy movement are doing. The fact that they face resistance from the colonizer, represented by the white, educated face of Hedges, is only evidence that they are succeeding in challenging the old hegemonic ways of thinking. In the meantime, they leave Chris Hedges and his ilk struggling with the internal contradictions faced by their role as former colonizer, striving vainly to justify and sustain their old methods of control in the face of tumultuous revolution.
Like Sisyphus, we must imagine them happy.