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The Eugene Media Sensation

by Andrew Hedden


AUTHORS NOTE: This was recently distributed over email by A-Infos (an anarchist news listserv) without my permission. That's fine, but I'd like it to be known that my thinking has changed a lot since the article was published (nearly two years ago) when I was young (or younger than I am now) and in a haste to convince others of my ideological position. I now regret 1) blaming "Eugene anarchists" for their own gross media distortion and 2) going along with that false distortion to advance my own "anarchism." While I believe my critiques of the media distortion of anarchism in general still stands, I shouldn't have gone along with the constructed and superficial - not to mention false - "Eugene style of anarchism" to justify my "anarchism." However I may disagree with what truth there is to the "Eugene anarchists," they've got my support in the struggle - its time I focused my attention on the real enemies (say, corporate media). And it should be said: Bookchin is an asshole, no matter how relevent some of his ideas may be. My apologies for any frustration this piece has caused and/or will cause.

Originally appeared in Dovetail #2

Corporate media have always been, to varying degrees, sensationalist. Unfortunately, the "anarchists of Eugene" have always been up to the task of being the latest sensation: The Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes and Time magazine have done features about them, and so has Newsweek. On November 27th, the Seattle Times took it upon themselves to again feature Oregonís "black-clad mob," this time in the context of September 11th.

The front-page article, titled "Anarchists' muted applause: 'The big bully got a black eye,'" carried on the pattern seen in each preceding feature: a gross emphasis is placed on Eugeneís "black-bloc" property destruction, and Unabomber pal John Zerzan. Apparently, post September 11th, sympathy for mass murder has entered the mix. Of the World Trade Center attacks, "make no mistake," the Times asserts, "(anarchists) are applauding, if only among themselves." With such extreme examples on display, the term "anarchist" serves solely as an indictment of some sort.

What the Times has thoroughly failed to accomplish, as have the other media outlets, is to offer any definition, let alone accurate depiction, of the theories of anarchism. The theatrical extremes present in the infamous Eugene camp are apparently utterly enticing to a media who hardly cares to acknowledge that the mutant strain of anarchism these anarchists tout is a relatively recent development.

The brassy statement that anarchists' heralded a "muted applause" to the events of September 11th is fraudulent to an infinite degree: any anarchist lauding such a horrendous act is immediately in the minority. In the weeks following the 11th, an anarchist affinity to those outraged by the attacks, though careful to escape the temper of blind patriotism, had been unremittingly expressed in print. Two major examples include the Florida-based anarchist quarterly Onward, which condemned the attacks as both "indefensible," and "certainly careless in the brutality they inflicted;" and Cindy Milstein, a prominent anarchist at the Institute for Social Ecology college in Vermont, produced a lengthy essay furthering the assertion that "September 11 will always be a day to condemn."

A third example can be found in Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most well known anarchist in the world, who described the terrorist attacks as "a horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war."

To label Chomsky as the most well known anarchist, however, may mislead one to the assumption that he receives the furthermost media exposure. Though the New York Times has labeled him as "arguably the most important intellectual alive," and, according to the Chicago Tribune, he is "the most cited living author," Chomsky is inexplicably not the one the media runs to when in need of anarchist opinion.

What mainstream media demands is not only sensation, but also concision, meaning short quotable "sound bites," often void of content. In light of Chomskyís tendency towards in-depth rational explanations and long informational tracts, he fails on both demands. The Eugene anarchists' undercooked philosophies, on the other hand, cater instantly to the fussy appetite of the media.

As often as "anarchists" are mentioned in major media, an elaboration on the term is incredibly overdue. Going on the Times article alone, the only rational conclusion, it would seem, is that "breaking windows and starting fires" wholly comprises the "anarchist play book." In fact, any definition of anarchism is completely and unequivocally absent from the article.

So as long as this trend of exclusion persists, a sad myth will continue to be perpetuated: that anarchism is simply a nihilist's wish for disorder and chaos. However, as Alexander Berkman wrote at the turn of the last century, "Anarchism is the very opposite of all that." Berkman himself adhered to the most accurate definition of anarchism available: that which is found in it's history, theory, and revolutionary practice.

Applying these criteria, anarchism has always been, first and foremost, the conviction that authority, hierarchy and domination require the utmost justification, and that more often than not, this standard is not met. This does not end with the political sphere, but also extends to that of the economic, and personal arenas of life. In order to nurture such an inquisitive tendency in society, and avoid the negatives constrains of domination, anarchism aims to develop a more participatory and interactive elaboration of democracy built upon mutual aid and free association.

Anarchism promises utopia no more than any other serious insight: rather it proposes a more inclusive, decentralized social structure, where the tendency to dominate can be marginalized.

Such a model, in fact, is available for study. In 1936, amidst the Spanish Civil War, an estimated 3 million anarchists successfully established a bonafide grassroots democracy, not only collectivizing the political structure, but urban and rural means of production, police patrols, public services such as the phone system, and so on. A noteworthy account of this period is available in George Orwell's memoir of the war, Homage to Catalonia, including a discourse on the revolution's untimely demise. This was an ending not due to the weakness of the revolution's devices, but as a result of the strong opposition posed not only by Franco's Fascist forces, but also the Republican government and Soviet-directed Communist party.

Eugene anarchists owe little if any to the Spanish anarchists. Murray Bookchin, a scholar of the Spanish Revolution, co-founder of the Institute of Social Ecology, and perhaps Eugene's most vehement anarchist critic, observes that "This anarchism celebrates the notion of liberty from rather than a fleshed-out concept of freedom for." The Eugene style of anarchism seemingly denounces organization itself in exchange for a "liberal ideology that focuses overwhelmingly on the abstract individual, supports personal autonomy, and advances a negative rather than a substantive concept of liberty."

This extreme, in turn, manifests itself in the tactics of "breaking windows and starting fires." Add a little media exposure to the mix, and the end result is a mass overshadowing of anarchism's traditional and far more constructive elements.

This entire affair runs curiously analogous to the events of a hundred years ago, 1901, when a self-proclaimed anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated U.S. president William McKinley. Cries of an "anarchist conspiracy" swept through the press, contributing to the loss of a significant fact to the crevices of historical record: four months before he shot McKinley, the anarchist journal Free Society had issued a warning concerning Czolgosz, fearing he was a spy, "pretending to be greatly interested in the cause, asking for names, or soliciting aid for contemplated violence."

As was the case at the turn of the last century, the uncaring and unthinking words and actions of a few miscreants can be enlarged into a venerable spectacle, furthering the misunderstanding and perversion of true anarchist ideals. "Alas," laments Murray Bookchin, "we are witnessing the appalling desiccation of a great tradition..."

Bookchin's recommended solutions, and tactics, are a sober contrast to the prattle of the Eugene outfit. Through such organizations as community gardens, producer and consumer cooperatives, and study groups, Bookchin asserts, "we can become more socially responsible and more skilled at democratically discussing and deciding important social questions."

Unfortunately, even if such ventures as the above prove enormously successful, the chances are slim that they will ever overcome the public assumption that anarchism is simply a Loverís boutique of chaos, turmoil, and little else. That is, until media enters the business of objective, critical entertaining of ideas, and not simply the business of selling product and entertaining people. A pattern now more than a hundred years strong, it remains unlikely that it will ever be broken without a concentrated effort.