The Ugly American Goes to Chiapas: Correcting Hedges on the Zapatistas

Marcos bird

Subcomandante Galeano (formerly Marcos) gives a message to the “well-behaved left”

A lie not only deceives others, turning them into objects to be manipulated and used, but a lie erodes trust, the cement that holds communities and relationships together. Lies lead to cynicism. This cynicism spreads outward like a disease until it blights the landscape.
– Chris Hedges, “Decalogue VIII: Theft”, Losing Moses on the Freeway

If Hedges was found in a small matter to have further compounded his dishonesty, it makes you wonder about more important matters.
– Thomas Palaima, University of Texas classics professor and discoverer of Chris Hedges serial plagiarism

Well, we hate to say we told you so. Chris Hedges, pseudo-revolutionary, fire-and-brimstone pacifist, and left-liberal personality cultist, was exposed as a plagiarist this month by some of his own former media comrades. In spite of his radical posturing, one capitalist pillar that Hedges has always refused to denounce is the Protestant work ethic, so it’s rather grotesque to find that that he makes a living ripping off lesser-known and harder-working journalists. The cancer of plagiarism runs deep; this appears to be a modus operandi that stretched over a decade, a decade that ironically saw Hedges crafting a reputation as the great moral absolutist of the left.

Last year, we wrote that Hedges “represents a powerful network of liberal recuperators who have been undermining resistance in this country for years while claiming to promote it.” And, indeed, the network is circling its wagons around him, shamefully giving The Great Man a free pass on behavior that would’ve buried a less well-connected journalist. One of the more laughable claims we’ve seen from Hedges supporters is that there’s a government conspiracy against the writer because he brought a lawsuit against the feds for the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. In reality, this was one of several ways he undercut the Occupy movement—in the midst of the most sustained wave of direct action the U.S. had seen in years, Hedges assisted in pushing activists “into the courts and out of the streets” ( to use Robert Kennedy’s  description of his goal regarding black rioters and the Civil Rights Act of 1964).[1]  Predictably, the lawsuit was a failure.

Given that Hedges is so intertwined with the left establishment that they will indulge in a cover-up on his behalf, it’s worth looking at just what kind of man they’re covering for. This is a reporter who, unwittingly or not, assisted Iraqi defectors, trained by the CIA, in lying the public into the Iraq War ; a “fearless investigative journalist” who refuses to investigate substantial charges of media censorship by the Lannan Foundation because billionaire Patrick Lannan is a friend of his [2]; an armchair revolutionary who dismissed the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement as “parasites to popular protest”; And, as we’ve noted before, a blind ideologue who will falsify the history of classical anarchism—and more recently, of the Zapatistas—to promote his “nonviolent” agenda.

Hedges’ whitewash of the Zapatistas, published just this month, is a particularly shameful exercise that can’t go unchallenged. It’s one thing for a pacifist propaganda site like Waging Nonviolence to cover the Zapatistas without mentioning the group’s commitment to armed defense; it’s another to completely twist their politics and words to suit the author’s narrow ideology. Hedges charges into the breach though, writing that “The Zapatistas began by using violence, but they soon abandoned it for the slow, laborious work of building 32 autonomous, self-governing municipalities.”  He reiterates throughout the article the organization’s “shift from violence to nonviolence.”

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) abjures recklessness with its bullets and promotes mutual aid programs, to be sure. But the communiqué that the Zapatistas sent out last month in response to deadly attacks by right-wing paramilitaries doesn’t sound very Gandhian: “…it is pain and rage that now again makes us lace up our boots, put on our uniforms, strap on our guns, and cover our faces…”  In the same message they note with pride that the murdered companero named Galeano, though caught unarmed, refused to surrender and “challenged the aggressors to hand-to-hand combat…”

In truth, the EZLN has never seen community organization and the periodic use of violence as mutually exclusive; in fact they see them as mutually reinforcing. Chiapas correspondent Ginna Villarreal wrote of the participants in a Zapatista women’s forum of 2007, “They are members of the five Caracols and work in all areas of government, they are promoters of health and education. They are also insurgents and commanders of the army EZLN.”  Aid worker Hillary Klein writes that:

     As someone who worked in Zapatista communities for many years, my impression is that the people who make up the movement do not distinguish between the work they are doing in their communities and their military leadership; they see it as one integrated movement. Because the military aspect of the Zapatista movement is the most clandestine, perhaps it is the least understood… But there is no denying that without its political-military character, in other words, without its initial commitment to armed struggle and its guerrilla army, the Zapatista movement would not be what it is, 15 years ago or today.

EZLN Aug 2005

Those don’t look like wooden guns: EZLN photographed in August 2005

In his article, Hedges extensively quotes Subcomandante Marcos’ recent “farewell address” and its call for thoughtfulness when seeking justice, but he omits these words of the speech, which are a pointed rejection of Hedges’ entire thesis:

     Nothing that we’ve done, for better or for worse, would have been possible without an armed military, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation; without it we would not have risen up against the bad government exercising the right to legitimate violence. The violence of below in the face of the violence of above.

     We are warriors and as such we know our role and our moment

Diversity of tactics is about proportionate response, and that is what the EZLN practice; the US government—the power behind the corporations, the Mexican army, and the right-wing paramilitaries—has decreed “low-intensity conflict” as the strategy in Chiapas; thus the Zapatistas keep their responses low-intensity as well, but not, as Hedges would demand, no-intensity. And so the ball sits in the Empire’s court; the EZLN is never willing, but always ready, to go to war.

Mired in the pacifist binary of nonviolence/violence, the well-behaved left cannot make sense of this, yet it is a common view in revolutionary philosophy, particularly in Latin America. Paulo Friere writes that, “paradoxical though it may seem – [it is] precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love.”

If there are any genuine revolutionaries still aligned with the established left, they should understand very clearly that a defense of Hedges is not a defense of revolt; in fact it is the opposite. One of the best things we can do to restore the spirit of rebellion in this country is to cut ourselves loose of this shady albatross. But at the same time, take this much of his advice to heart: “We must all become Zapatistas”…Remember “the violence of below in the face of the violence of above.”…And as warriors, know your role, and know your moment…

1. Thomas F. Jackson, “Jobs and Freedom:  The Black Revolt of 1963 and the
Contested Meanings of the March on Washington” (Virginia Foundation of the Humanities) pg. 12 –

2. John Pilger, “The Censorship that Dare Not Speak Its Name: The Strange Silencing of Liberal America” [unabridged version]  in Project Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fateful Times, Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth, eds. (Seven Stories Press, 2013) –