Fear, American Style: What the Anarchist and Libertarian Don’t Understand about the US

Two Fridays ago, I attended an excellent panel discussion on Occupy Wall Street sponsored by Jacobin magazine. It featured Doug Henwood and Jodi Dean—representing a more state-centered, socialist-style left—and Malcolm Harris and Natasha Lennard, representing a more anarchist-inflected left.

Lennard is a freelance writer who’s been covering the OWS story for the New York Times. After a video of the panel was brought to the Times‘s attention, the paper reviewed it as well as Lennard’s reporting and decided to take her off the OWS beat.  Despite the fact, according to a spokeswoman for the Times, that “we have reviewed the past stories to which she contributed and have not found any reasons for concern over that reporting.”

Even more troubling, Lennard may not be hired by the Times again at all. Says the spokeswoman: “This freelancer, Natasha Lennard, has not been involved in our coverage of Occupy Wall Street in recent days, and we have no plans to use her for future coverage.”

This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has fired reporters for their political activities, even when there’s no hint of evidence that those activities have led to biased or skewed coverage. Even so, it’s worrisome, and ought to be protested and resisted.

Such political motivated firings fit into a much broader pattern in American history that— in my first book Fear: The History of a Political IdeaI call “Fear, American Style.” While people on the left and the right often focus on state repression—coercion and intimidation that comes from and is wielded by the government (politically driven prosecution and punishment, police violence, and the like)—the fact is that a great deal of political repression happens in civil society, outside the state.  More specifically, in the workplace.

Think about McCarthyism. We all remember the McCarthy hearings in the Senate, the Rosenbergs, HUAC, and so on. All of these incidents involve the state. But guess how many people ever went to prison for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era? Less than 200 people. In the grand scheme of things, not a lot. Guess how many workers were investigated or subjected to surveillance for their beliefs?  One to two out of every five. And while we don’t have exact statistics on how many of those workers were fired, it was somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand.

There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not.  The Bill of Rights, as any union organizer will tell you, does not apply to the workplace.  The federal government can’t convict and imprison you simply and transparently for your political speech; if it does, it has to paint that speech as something other than speech (incitement, say) or as somehow involved in or contributing to a crime (material support for terrorism, say). A newspaper—like any private employer in a non-union workplace—can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.

On this blog, I’ve talked a lot about what I call in The Reactionary Mind “the private life of power”: the domination and control we experience in our personal lives at the hands of employers, spouses, and so on. But we should always recall that that private life of power is often wielded for overtly political purposes: not simply for the benefit of an employer but also for the sake of maintaining larger political orthodoxies and suppressing political heresies. That was true during McCarthyism, in the 1960s, and today as well.

It was also true in the 19th century. Tocqueville noticed it while he was traveling here in the 1830s. Stopping off in Baltimore, he had a chat with a physician there. Tocqueville asked him why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.

If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.

After the Civil War, black Americans in the South became active political agents, mobilizing and agitating for education, political power, economic opportunity, and more. From the very beginning, they were attacked by white supremacists and unreconstructed former slaveholders. Often with the most terrible means of violence. But as W.E.B. DuBois pointed out in his magisterial Black Reconstruction, one of the most effective means of suppressing black citizens was through the workplace.

The decisive influence was the systematic and overwhelming economic pressure. Negroes who wanted work must not dabble in politics. Negroes who wanted to increase their income must not agitate the Negro problem. Positions of influence were only open to those Negroes who were certified as being ‘safe and sane,’ and their careers were closely scrutinized and passed upon. From 1880 onward, in order to earn a living, the American Negro was compelled to give up his political power.

In the last few months, I’ve had a fair number of arguments with both libertarians and anarchists about the state. What neither crew seems to get is what our most acute observers have long understood about the American scene: however much coercive power the state wields–and it’s considerable—it’s not, in the end, where and how many, perhaps even most, people in the United States have historically experienced the raw end of politically repressive power. Even force and violence: just think of black slaves and their descendants, confronting slaveholders, overseers, slave catchers, Klansmen, chain gangs, and more; or women confronting the violence of their husbands and supervisors; or workers confronting the Pinkertons and other private armies of capital.

Update (1:45 pm)

Just got off the phone with my wife, who reminded me of this amazing quote from Leslie Gelb. Gelb, who was once the epitome of what used to be called the Establishment (Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times; former State and Defense Department official; former president of the Council on Foreign Relations), supported the Iraq War. Later, after the disaster of that war became plain, he explained why he  had initially lent his name to the cause:

My initial support for the war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common—often wrong—wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.

“To retain political and professional credibility.” We have another word for that: careerism.

I’ve long wanted—and still plan—to write my magnum opus Careerism: Prolegomena to a Political Theory. But since retirement is still a ways away, let me just say this for now. The official reason Lennard is getting canned—or whatever it is; it’s still unclear—from the Times is that the  her political activities could lend her reporting an air of impropriety or bias. In the words of a Times spokeswoman:

All our journalists, staff or freelance, are expected to adhere to our ethical rules and journalistic standards and to avoid doing anything that could call into question the impartiality of their work for the Times.

Yet what Gelb’s quote suggests—a while back I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books that went into this in some greater depth, with more evidence from the Iraq War—is that the real bias one sees in mainstream reporting doesn’t come from one’s involvement in outside political activities. It comes from the desire to do one’s job in accordance with the strictures of one’s supervisors and peers, for fear that should you break ranks, you’ll be fired or somehow blackballed from the profession. Most of the time, that internal policeman will keep you in line. But should he fall asleep on the job, the company’s real police will there to toss you out on your ass. Again, Fear, American Style: the state, bound by the First Amendment, does nothing; editors do the job instead.
Update (October 28, 6:30 pm)
Nearly 10 years ago to the day, there was a Dilbert cartoon that pretty much said it all (h/t John Quiggin).


  1. Stephen Cheng October 25, 2011 at 11:29 am | #

    Thanks for publishing this insightful entry. A lack of understanding about the fact that non-state repression occurs was a reason for the failure of a labor rights campaign at my college. The campaign was aimed at promoting a boycott of a company based in the United States that was responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the murders of trade unionists by right-wing paramilitary groups in Latin America. The reactions from some of the people in the student body amounted to hysteria over a supposedly tyrannical student government and a supposed cabal of “Communists” trying to take away the “freedom” of students to be consumers. Not one of those people seemed to understand that although the state can and does exercise repressive force, so too do non-state actors.

    BTW, I also saw the video on the OWS debate and I also thought the talk was excellent. It’s wrong for the New York Times to silence Natasha Lennard and I’d like to help in terms of speaking out on her behalf.

  2. Stephen Zielinski October 25, 2011 at 11:53 am | #

    Despite a lifelong career as a leftist of one sort or another, I cannot recall a moment when the state immediately and obviously oppressed me for my political beliefs or actions. The workplace, schools, etc. — the same cannot be said about them.

    In many respects, workplaces are schools of servitude. I sometimes suspect that the “get a job” refrain expresses more than just a demand that the jobless contribute in to the working of society or, for that matter, to fulfill her Christian duty to work. It also expresses the envy some feel for those spared the nonsense found in many — most, all — workplaces. The jobless, after all, are “masterless men,” and are to be feared because of it.

  3. nick October 25, 2011 at 11:56 am | #

    Thanks for this post; I’ve found myself having the same kind of debates at the Occupations that I have visited. I would only add that the Anarchists with whom I have found a lot of agreement are staunchly anti-capitalist, and support the infusion of consensus-decision making into workplaces and the myriad institutions of everyday life. Should that kind of movement take off — which is my highest hope for the Occupations — I think the Anarchist approach would be less likely to fall victim to your criticism. I suspect your point, however, is aimed simply at those who blame centralized government for our woes; in that case, I agree. I’m just pointing out that many Anarchists equally repudiate the authoritarian structure of the market and those corporate entities that bow before it.

    • Corey Robin October 25, 2011 at 9:12 pm | #

      I’ve heard that from lots of folks throughout the day. I have to say, that hasn’t been the impression I’ve gotten at all. But I take your point. That said, the question then becomes how one expects to put some restraints on the power of employers without the state. I’m a huge fan of social movements, but there’s a reason most social movements in the US have looked to the government to help them: it’s virtually impossible to do it on your own. Not for the long term, anyway.

      • Megan October 26, 2011 at 8:10 am | #

        Corey, you obviously do not know anything about anarchism or any of its forms. In an anarchist society, there would be no employers, no capitalism, no capital! The workers would run industry themselves. Therefore there’s no need to put “restraints on the power of employers.”

        Here’s a great primer about theoretical and practical concerns of anarchism: http://libcom.org/library/anarchism-daniel-guerin

      • Erik October 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm | #

        Have you read Chomsky on this point? The issue is subtle, but he has argued in favor of “expanding the cage” (the state), since he sees the state as more democratic than the workplace. (For that matter, the argument above about Leslie Gelb is yet another datapoint in support of the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model.)

        It is true that most anarchists don’t go out of their way to support state intervention to enact what we support. We are critical of these manouvers. But most anarchists would acknowledge that, e.g., the right of free speech in the workplace, enforced by the state, would not be a bad thing. But we tend to think that these rights are *won*, not granted by the state. And most anarchists would prefer what used to be called “extra-parliamentary” action to get those rights.

        There is a disconnect between the theory and practice on the ground, and I think that the OWS movement, amazing as it is, has attracted a lot of support from people who are coming to the movement from a strange sort of hybrid right/left-libertarian political point of view (think the Ron Paul supporters, conspiracists, gold-bugs, etc.) But you would be hard pressed to find serious anarchist thinkers who are not at least as critical, if not more critical, of the total hierarchy of the workplace as they are of the problems with our “democratic” state.

    • Bishop January 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm | #

      The article suggests that Government helped bring about change in slavery, womens rights, workers rights etc. Somewhat true. What it doesn’t say is that Government coercion was used to legitimize, slavery, abuse of women, theft, the use of Pinkertons, and a number of other immoral collectivist ideas. It wasn’t until a minority of people realized morality and decided to break the law to free slaves, stop men from beating women, or stop the church from burning witches etc. That’s what really sparked change and then Government History stepped in and took the credit.

      The people who advocated freedom and equality for all were considered criminals. The Founding Fathers were considered terrorists before the colonies and militias won the revolutionary war. A lot who fought in the revolution were Classical Liberals which is what has come to be known as Libertarianism. [See Murray Rothbards Libertarian Manifesto] Unfortunately the masses have been duped out of a liberated mind by way of a corrupt education system but that’s another subject. Now for a Libertarian perspective on the free of coercion market.

      If a person voluntarily submits his labor in an employers workplace and the employers business practices and standards are explicitly known to the person who agrees to work for the employer (say by way of signing an employment contract) who has the right to dictate the terms of that contract? They both do. It’s the terms of the agreement that each party accepts and operates under through the contract that makes up the worker employer relationship. Say the employee doesn’t like working a morning shift but the employer schedules the person to work mornings. If they agreed that the employer makes the schedule and the employee agrees to follow that schedule, is that the employers right? I think so.

      If they agreed that the workplace is not designated for political expression but rather for productive labor and that to do so would result in forfeiture of employment. Does the employer have the right to seek another employee who better conforms to his brand of business to replace the current employee? I think so. Libertarians and Anarchists believe in Free Market Choice. A human being must ensure its own survival and evolution has shown that humans can have better quality of life if they collaborate and maximise on resources. A free market provides people with the ability to collaborate in pursuit of ones own survival and happiness.

      To use State Coercion and Collectivism (which are illusions of the mind and have no place in reality) to regulate someones private business is immoral. If someone doesn’t like the way someone does business then that person can choose not to enter into contract or pass on doing business with that person and look for employment elsewhere. If someone does bad business, it is very likely that no smart good businessman will do business with that person as it would probably not be in the best interest of the good businessman to associate himself with the bad businessman as it could negatively impact his business and reputation. Thereby limiting the bad businessmans effectiveness in the free-market.

      If he mistreats employees and they leave, the business will fail or acquire a bad business reputation. Good smart employees won’t stand for misconduct, again limiting the bad businessmans effectiveness in the free market eventually forcing him to adapt to better business standards or risk being completely driven out by competition. It’s immoral for employees to use Government aggression to ensure they have jobs. For a businesses to use Government aggression to oppress employees or drive off competition is also immoral.

      In a truly free market such issues would resolve itself in a much better moral fashion. Point in simple terms, if you don’t like the way someone does business then don’t do business with them. If you don’t like the goods or services a certain business provides then don’t consume them. Sadly, it seems a lot of people are too busy being wage slaves and mindless consumers, or a combination of both to empower their minds and realize that freedom and morality go hand in hand. The more one infringes on freedom the less one can expect of morality. I think most people would choose morality if they realized they had a choice. Non-Aggression Principle!

      • Alto Berto (@AltoBerto) December 3, 2013 at 12:01 am | #

        This concept is based upon the flawed premise that there is some fundamental difference between coercion via social mechanisms and coercion by force, there isn’t. It’s the use of power to induce behaviors in others contrary to their will. Go ahead and play Rube Goldberg with Nozick all the day long, won’t change a thing.

  4. Paul Rosenberg October 25, 2011 at 12:01 pm | #

    Another example comes to mind, which is all too often forgotten: the post-WWI Red Scare, which was primarily driven by the private sector, particularly newspapers. As with McCarthyism, government repression–the Palmer Raids–swept up a relatively small number of people compared to the millions of workers whose strikes & strike threats were the primary object. The media hysteria continued after the Palmer Raids, but once the strike threat was safely broken, the media hysteria quickly cooled down.

    • Corey Robin October 25, 2011 at 9:15 pm | #

      True, though the number of victims of the state during the Red Scare was higher than under McCarthyism. I think it was something like 10,000 arrested and imprisoned, and I can’t remember the exact number of deportations, but I think it was about 600 or so. Again, compared to other forms of state repression elsewhere, not that high, but still not nothing.

  5. David October 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm | #

    Great piece, though one key omission: unions. Historically unions have an unfortunate history of coercion, from purging communists in the 1950s Red Scare to discriminating against Blacks, immigrants, and women. I support unions and think they are much less coercive today and generally a force for good, but I think the uglier side of their history needs to be acknowledged in a piece about non-state actor coercion in the United States.

    • Lily Mohammed October 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm | #

      During the 50’s and 60’s anarchists and left wing folks were obviously discriminated against. However, in spite of Ms. Leonard’s firing, for the most part in academic institutions and educational organizations any view that is not left-wing is ignored or disparaged without any legitimate debate. I am not a right wing person but I am disappointed by my left wing colleagues in their dismissal of anything that does not tow the left’s ‘party line.’ Freedom of speech is now more restricted by left wing institutions.

    • Corey Robin October 25, 2011 at 9:19 pm | #

      Absolutely. Good point. In my book I talk about the role of unions, but you’re right, I should have mentioned it here. Their role, of course, was complicated — not least b/c of Taft-Hartley — and there was a lot of resistance to them playing that role. But your point still stands.

  6. Will October 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm | #

    It’s long been routine for larger American newspapers to require their reporters to restrict their political advocacy to activities that are out of the limelight, if even that. Agree or disagree, it is Journalism 101 that a reporter shouldn’t cover stories in which he or she is involved. I highly doubt that Natasha Lennard was unaware of this. What she might have been unaware of, however, is the fact that this little bookstore meeting would become a highly visible and much-discussed Internet phenomenon. In light of this, I don’t think she violated any journalistic principle with her involvement. But I find it a stretch to charge the NYT of repression when it is adhering to a policy that is standard among American newspapers and most likely is spelled out for all those who work for the NYT.

    • Paul Rosenberg October 25, 2011 at 7:39 pm | #

      Will, the norms you refer to are ridiclously biased, as is perhaps best analyzed and described by Jeremy Iggers in _Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics And The Public Interest_. Iggers argues that the problem with journalism is not so much the failure to live up to the standards of journalism ethics as it is the nature and content of journalism ethics itself.

      The most prominent problem Iggers highlights in this regard is that individual reporters are held to standards supposedly to prevent bias, whereas news organizations themselves are deeply embedded in economic & political relations that systemically bias their coverage–not so much the content of individual stories (although this obviously can be quite problematic), but what even becomes a story in the first place.

      However, Iggers also looks at what are regarded as “classic” examples of bad journalism vs. what are not. Not surprisingly, he finds profound assymetries. The book was published in 1998, otherwise, Iggers would have had a field day with Iraq War reporting. None of the countless pro-war-biased reporters during that shameful extended episode were singled out the way Lennard has just been–because THAT bias reflected the bias of the poltical class as a whole.

      More subtly, but even more on point for comparison with Lennard, financial reporters are ROUTINELY treated as if their ideological commitments and personal relationships with interested parties on Wall Street & elsewhere are POSITIVE ASSETS. The fact that these are not seen as violating any professional norms speaks volumes about what the actual (not pretend) journalism “ethics” are. To wit: don’t cross the bosses.

      • Will October 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm | #

        I certainly won’t dispute the problem(s) you describe, but I would make some distinctions. Ideological commitments such as those you mention existing among financial reporters are not seen in the popular imagination as overtly political activism the way, for instance, participating in meetings that have to do with setting the course for a movement would be. Perhaps this is changing, especially with the rise in citizen and advocacy journalism on the Internet. As an aside, the pro-war kind of reporting that occurred with the Iraq war had less to do with institutional bias at newspapers and more to do with the government’s clever policy of embedding journalists with troops, thus largely limiting the journalists’ perspective to that of the American military, as well as establishing a kind of camaraderie between journalists and service members through their shared experience in harm’s way.

        But back to the case of Natasha Lennard: As a professional journalist, she could not have been ignorant of the fact that playing an active role in that which she was covering was likely to get her taken off the beat. Had this video not been as widely disseminated as it has been, she might have been off the hook with the NYT because it was fairly discreet. It’s the active role that is decisive in this case, not the bias. It’s interesting how Paul Krugman has been attempting to walk the line, and he has more leeway because he is a columnist rather than a reporter. Based on the quote above from the Times spokeswoman, it’s unclear if Lennard “may not be hired by the Times again at all” or if she just won’t be hired for the OWS beat. I still have a hard time characterizing this as “repression.” Nevertheless, you touch on genuine problems in institutional journalism, the sort of problems that working reporters by and large deplore among their managers. In my experience, however, most of them would not agree that the solution is to let participants in the story be in charge of covering the story. One of the reasons for the problems we see in America is the failure (or inability, in many situations) of journalists to do their jobs according to the standards that they profess to uphold, and the solution to this problem is not to further erode their credibility by further eroding those standards.

        • Paul Rosenberg October 25, 2011 at 11:48 pm | #

          Full disclosure, here: I’m an advocacy journalist. I work for an alternative biweekly that’s explicitly progressive, and takes as our model the 18th & 19th century style of US journalism. As I approach it, this entails a much HIGHER level of accountability for accurate reporting, since any failure to be accurate directly undermines our paper’s credibility, and damages the causes we advocate for.

          So-called “objective” reporters have no such skin in the game. They don’t have to worry about being factually accurate. Just being “balanced” is good enough for them–and, of course, that usually means balancing things that are inherently unbalanced. To my mind, this creates a fundamentally coercive condition for them to operate within–less so with things far removed from politics–such, as, say reviewing restaraunts. Which, BTW, is what Iggers did before he went back to school & got a PhD in philosophy.

      • Will October 26, 2011 at 7:33 am | #

        I certainly respect advocacy journalists such as yourself and the challenges you face as far as the scrupulousness necessary to avoid diminishing your effectiveness as advocates, but I wouldn’t agree that you have a higher level of accountability for accurate reporting. All journalists have a responsibility to be accurate in their reporting, and all render themselves ineffective if they don’t take this responsibility seriously. With flawed reporting, an advocacy journalist might hurt the cause he or she believes in, and so this might seem like more is at stake because what is at stake is more personally invested, but the fact is that any conscientious journalist is going to have “skin in the game” to the degree that his or her reputation and relationship with sources is at stake, particularly in sensitive stories. I believe you’ll find very few reporters at metro newspapers who do not worry about being factually accurate and who believe that being “balanced is good enough.” In any case, the balance required in “objective” reporting (note that I, too, use quotes around the term) is not simply giving equal time and space to every perspective and thus “balancing imbalances” (though, certainly, this happens). It has much more to do with allowing those subject to critique the opportunity to respond to the critique, or those found to be in a bad light at least some small opportunity to explain themselves. This is something that serious advocacy journalism also seems generally conscientious about. As for the fundamentally coercive conditions that a reporter has to operate within, this seems to vary based on the newsroom.

        My perspective about advocacy journalism and mainstream journalism is that the two live somewhat symbiotically. They have different objectives, and I see the benefits of both. I would hate to see “standard” journalism return to its former hegemony (little chance of that happening, I think), but I would also hate to see decently run “standard” journalism get swallowed up in a bazaar of persuasion. Strict objectivity is indeed a farce, but the ideal or pretense of such does require a newspaper to strive toward factual reporting. The main problem with many mainstream newspapers is not a lack of commitment to factual reporting on the part of the reporters, but the fact that editorial staffs, for a variety of reasons not all of which are political or advertising-related, will let some important stories just pass them by. This is less true for a newspaper like the NYT.

        Back to the Lennard case, she had to have known what sort of journalism the Times practices and that the Times and most other newspapers tend not to accept reporters being active participants in the events they are covering. There may be plenty that is repressive in corporate journalism today, but it’s not this.

    • Paul Rosenberg October 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm | #

      Will. Contrast Lennard’s treatment with NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Ethan Bronner, via Think Progress:


      NYT Bureau Chief To Appear On Panel For Islamophobic Organization’s Film
      By Eli Clifton on Oct 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm

      The New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Ethan Bronner, has stirred up controversy over recent speaking engagements. But an announcement on the 92nd St. Y’s website shows that Bronner is now scheduled to appear on a panel hosted by the Clarion Fund, an Islamophobic organization, to discuss the “threat of a nuclear Iran.”

      • Will October 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm | #

        That’s interesting. I think the Bronner and Lennard cases are not quite the same, but nevertheless your point is well taken. I’m sure the facts that Bronner is established with the NYT in a bureau that requires a specialist and that Lennard is a freelancer in the Times’ own backyard play into this.

    • Paul Rosenberg October 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm | #

      Will: Compare Lennard’s fate with ANOTHER NPR freelancer, ALSO axed:


      [Caitlin] Curran was canned after her boss found the now-famous photo of her (right) holding a sign with paraphrased text from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, from his post on the Occupy movement. She chronicles what happened after that in her post:

      My boyfriend, Will, and I decided to take Friedersdorf’s words and use them, perhaps more literally than he intended. We printed them out, taped them to poster board, and headed to the Occupy Wall Street march in Times Square, on October 15. The plan was for Will to hold the sign, and for me to observe what happened and post reports to my personal Twitter account … But, inevitably, Will developed sign-holding fatigue, and I took over momentarily.

      That’s when a photographer snapped the Occupy picture reblogged ’round the world. So she decided that all of this notoriety would make for great radio, so he pitched a segment idea on her experience on The Takeaway. But a day later, she got the boot from The Takeaway, which said she “violated every ethic of journalism,” according to Curran. All this of course echoes the firing of Lisa Simeone after she was found to be working as a spokesperson for Occupy D.C. Curran, like Simeone, offered a defense of her actions on Gawker:

      Note particularly NPR’s claim she “violated every ethic of journalism”–an utterly LUDICROUS claim, given how prominently NPR tells you every hour the identities of special interest funders who are biasing its coverage.

      “Standing on mountains. Obliterating molehills” — NPR’s new motto.

      • Will October 29, 2011 at 3:54 am | #

        Yes, the claim that she “violated every ethic of journalism” is ludicrous in its hyperbole, but Curran’s statement in her own defense is hideously weak. It sounds so much like a teenager who got a speeding ticket making excuses about how the speed limit on that stretch of road never should have been so low in the first place and there’s no traffic anyway so, “what’s the harm?” She exemplifies your own complaint about journalists who believe that being balanced is good enough when she points out that Occupy is a “non-partisan” and “party-less” movement so she should be able to participate. Yet she completely ignores (at least in the quotes provided — I haven’t delved further yet) the stated reason for her termination, which is that “she made the decision to … make herself part of the story” that her program has been covering. This general demand for detachment is a basic journalistic principle that’s been around a long time (even if not back in the more freewheeling 18th and 19th centuries). Certainly, advocacy reporting works differently, but Curran could not have been ignorant that she was not doing advocacy reporting in her work at “The Takeaway.” This stuff used to be beat into the heads of journalism students (I was one — that’s my disclosure). Maybe it isn’t anymore. Reading Curran gripe about what she should be able to do on her own “personal time” and how it was only her second time at an OWS event and that she didn’t even plan to hold the sign just reinforces my sense that her self-defense is juvenile and that she might have been dozing during some key lectures in journalism class.

        The article you link to references the firing of Lisa Simeone. Now that’s a firing that I do find truly lamentable. Simeone’s radio programs, from what I can tell, had to do with music and human-interest/documentary stories and did not do Occupy coverage at all.

        • Paul Rosenberg October 29, 2011 at 7:51 pm | #


          You still seem to be missing the main thrust of my argument, which I’ve taken up from Jeremy Iggers. To wit: Journalism ethics IS the problem.

          Criticizing Curran for a poor grasp of journalism ethics fundamentally assumes that journalism ethics is NOT the problem. Curran’s problem is not that she fails to grasp a sound ethical guideline. It’s that no such guideline actually exists.

          BTW, the best I can gather, what Curren was trying to do was conduct an experiment. Something there’s FAR too little of “mainstream” media. That was the nature of her “participation”. Shme on her for thinkiing more like an anthropoligist than a stenographer.

  7. Jake October 25, 2011 at 5:46 pm | #

    This is a great piece, but I think the title is clearly over-reaching. While US-style Libertarians certainly conveniently overlook/ignore the ability of the private sector/market to be equally if not more repressive than the state, there are few anarchists that I’ve encountered who make that mistake. I’m all in favor of sympathetic critiques of anarchism, but this is barking up the wrong tree a little bit.

  8. Mike October 25, 2011 at 9:00 pm | #

    It seems to me the drug war is pretty offensive and repressive, especially considering the socioeconomic groups affected by such policies… isnt that a state’s (nations) domain especially as it is orchestrated in the USA? How does that facrtor into your argument against libertarians?

    • Corey Robin October 25, 2011 at 9:25 pm | #

      Agreed. I’m not arguing that the state is not repressive or coercive; I’m saying that the coerciveness of the private sector has received insufficient attention and that it may — I’m less certain about this — constitute the most common form of repression that most Americans actually deal with.

  9. Yvette Carnell October 26, 2011 at 11:34 am | #

    This article would hold much more sway for me were its core supposition actually true. If I understand, you’re asserting that the State is less dangerous than the private sector because the State is constrained by the Constitution. While that may’ve been true long ago, it no longer holds. These days, the state violates the Constitution, almost with impunity, and it colludes with private enterprise in a way that strengthens private enterprise’s stronghold over the individual.

    And although it is true that post Civil War Negroes were suppressed after the Civil War by private industry, it is just as true that all of that would’ve been moot had the State either not allowed slavery within its bounds or taken a strong stand against it much earlier.

    • Corey Robin October 26, 2011 at 12:01 pm | #

      I’m not saying the state is less dangerous and your point re imprisonment in the next comment is well taken. I’m saying that while we have a well defined discourse of opposition to state coercion we don’t have a similar discourse for opposition to private coercion. And, while I’m less sure of this, I suspect the latter affects more people in a more consistent and pervasive way than does the former. As for the Constitution, you’re right that the state violates it, but the fact is — and this is not insignificant — there’s a Constitution that it must violate in order to do what it does. That means there are suits, trials, appeals, and all the rest — and again, I stress, as I did in my article, however imperfect these may be — that you’ll never find in the case of a private corporation. So, for example, your employer can fire you b/c you sport a bumper sticker on your car supporting a presidential candidate your employer doesn’t approve of. That’s perfectly legal and it’s perfectly constitutional. Try bringing a 1st Amendment lawsuit against your employer; it’ll be thrown out. The government cannot do that to you. And I could go on and on in that vein. (If you’re interested, in my book on fear, I detail all the things an employer can do to you that the government cannot. Or at least couldn’t without having to defend it in court, in which it would probably lose.) As for the Civil War, I totally agree with you. My whole point is that without a strong state intervening against these private acts of domination — slavery certainly preceded the state form — they will exist.

    • Erik October 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm | #

      The US government has never respected the constitution. What rights that we do have, have been hard won.

      For instance, in the US we probably have the least restrictions on free speech in the world. Court’s interpertation of the first amendment is very much on the side of civil libertarians. But the history of this right to free speech shows that it was not always so, that the right to free speech we currently have in the country was won after hard struggle. Of course there is more to do.

  10. Yvette Carnell October 26, 2011 at 11:41 am | #

    And it remains true that the state is still the only entity with the power to arrest and imprison. That remains the strongest form of coercion..

    • Ranjit Suresh October 26, 2011 at 4:03 pm | #

      Yes, but that’s countered by the fact that far greater numbers of people are affected by the coercive force of private powers, especially corporations. That’s the point that Corey Robin is making. More people were fired for alleged communist sympathies than were arrested and convicted for them.

      This is an important subject, because so much of political common sense in America either ignores or makes excuses for private wrongdoing. For example, we accept actions from corporations that would be considered antisocial if they came from individuals, because of the notion that as long as companies make a profit, it’s somehow ok. Even within the confines of capitalism, it is quite possible to set standards for corporations that exceed legal requirements and put limits upon what is socially acceptable. But many Americans have imbibed the point of view that, within the scope of the law, companies are entitled and indeed mandated to profit maximize at all costs.

      • Erik October 27, 2011 at 5:33 pm | #

        Why do I post replies to articles like this under my first name only? It’s not because I am afraid of the government. 🙂

  11. Dean Bowman October 29, 2011 at 11:41 pm | #

    Thanks for posting. Very interesting article. Since corporations and business require government legal framework and permission to operate, I don’t see the clear line between the state and private corporations that others do. And having worked the past 10 years in the public sector, there is much the ordinary American doesn’t know (and probably doesn’t want to know) about how federal and state agencies collude with profit and non-profit organizations just for the benefit of a very narcissistic elite. IMHO, private is public and public is private: http://wp.me/p1WQYm-2I

  12. Sam October 31, 2011 at 5:30 pm | #

    Good article, thought provoking – but I think you greatly underestimate the role of the state in repressing unions. Most unions are conservative, not because they represent a “boss” class with regard to their members, but because serious money lawsuits threaten some of the most effective tactics – importantly, sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts.

    The McCarthyism of the ’50s made a political point, the Taft-Hartley bill made an economic one. The fundamental techniques of class solidarity were effectively taken off the table for the major unions – at the same time as veteran “class struggle” unionists were purged.

  13. Cavoyo September 28, 2012 at 2:49 am | #

    Here’s a group that gets it: http://seattlefreepress.org/2012/08/17/seasol-and-the-sanctity-of-small-businesses/ Not only do they know that businesses can be coercive, but that small businesses are not an exception to this rule. Hopefully this realization will spread.

  14. robert February 17, 2013 at 8:03 am | #

    Which is why Libertarians are against things like right-to-work laws and for strong unions. The head of the LIO @ http://www.libertarianinternational.org thinks one should automatically belong to 4 of them.

    Not even progressives are behind the unrestricted right to unionize.

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