Picture an anarchist in your head. What do you see?
For most people the image is of a black clad, pubescent boy throwing rocks through a store window or spray painting an anarchist symbol. People with a better sense of history might picture a slightly older, wild-bearded man making assassination plans.
And it is true that those images have some reality behind them.
There have been anarchists who have participated in violence. Anarchists fought in the Spanish civil war. Anarchists have claimed responsibility for political assassinations and other “propaganda of the deed.” And there are certainly anarchists who have participated in symbolic acts of property destruction.
But does that make anarchists especially violent?
How many philosophies have not been used as an excuse for violence? We fight wars in the name of democracy. Assassinations are committed in the name of democracy. Entire cities have been leveled in the name of democracy. And yet few supporters of democracy believe their philosophy is particularly violent.
It makes little sense that a few violent acts and some (arguably) violent property destruction warrant anarchists getting such a bad rap.
Then, of course, there are the many anarchists who are/were also pacifists. Some, like Tolstoy, derived their pacifist anarchism from Christianity. Gandhi, who was inspired by Tolstoy, meshed his philosophical anarchism with Hinduism. Anarchists from Howard Zinn to Alex Comfort were pacifists. Even Emma Goldman, who once supported “propaganda of the deed,” changed her mind after seeing the effects of violence.
Clearly, we have a case of selective, collective memory. How did that happen? Why are people only associating anarchists with violence?
Perhaps it has something to do with the way media selectively covers anarchism. The coverage of Howard Zinn’s death is instructive. An Associated Press story picked up by the New York Times and Washington Post says that Howard Zinn wrote about anarchist Emma Goldman, but doesn’t describe Howard Zinn as an anarchist. Bob Herbert’s New York Times op-ed doesn’t mention “anarchist” once. In article after article he is referred to as “left” or “radical,” but not as an anarchist.
Lest you get the idea that the media are loathe to use the word anarchist or anarchy, just try to search news coverage with those words. The New York Times is happy to associate anarchists with al-Qaida or with Lenin. Even if no anarchist claims responsibility for a bombing, they are almost certain to get credit for it. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the times that newspapers try to scare the crap out of their readers by labeling catastrophes as scary anarchy.
Newspapers like the Times and Post are staunch defenders of the establishment. And the establishment has every reason to try and make anarchists look bad. As Howard Zinn said,
No doubt that anarchist ideas are frightening to those in power. People in power can tolerate liberal ideas. They can tolerate ideas that call for reforms, but they cannot tolerate the idea that there will be no state, no central authority. So it is very important for them to ridicule the idea of anarchism to create this impression of anarchism as violent and chaotic. It is useful for them, yes.
That doesn’t mean that every lowly reporter is consciously trying to to vilify us. As a former media person told me, “they have a script” and they are playing it out. They are writing the narrative that they have been brought up to write, the narrative that will get them promoted, even if that means conjuring up imaginary conflicts while ignoring real ones.
So the question is, what can we do to make it more difficult for the media to vilify us?