Who’s Not Listening

The Los Angeles Times article “Masked Marxist, With Marimbas” (January 23, 2006) describes the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign like a bizarre provincial circus. By excluding information, using delegitimizing descriptive terms, and creating inaccurate and false characterizations, the Los Angeles Times reporters and editors strip the politics from the Other Campaign and convert it into a cartoonish spectacle.

The distortion begins with the headline. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is not a Marxist army; it is a Zapatista army. The Zapatistas use some of the analytical tools of Marxism, but they take them in other directions, as Zapatista thought stems from and seeks to address the particular affronts—racism, economic, cultural and linguistic exclusion, land and water expropriations—that indigenous communities face in Chiapas and across Mexico. After twelve years of producing reams of declarations and communiqués developing their political and social thought, there is no excuse for this mistake. Reporters call Marcos a Marxist to discredit him in the mainstream, to say that his ideas are outdated and unrealistic.

The Los Angeles Times does not so much as mention the over two hundred thousand indigenous people who make up the EZLN and the Zapatista communities and whom Marcos represents on his six-month trip across Mexico as the first phase of the Other Campaign. The word ‘indigenous’ is used in the article only when referring to poverty and music, exhibiting the ingrained belief that indigenous peoples are either recipients of charity or producers of ethnic cultural merchandise, but never leaders of a national political movement.

Boiling down the EZLN and the Zapatista communities to their eloquent spokesperson is yet another way of ignoring the Zapatistas’ political arguments by erasing the indigenous Zapatistas from the picture. By leaving out the indigenous communities, their concrete demand for constitutional reforms to protect indigenous rights and culture, and their denouncement of the persistent racism of the Mexican political class, the Los Angeles Times avoids the politics of the Other Campaign, condenses the entire Zapatista movement to Marcos, and characterizes his thinking as generically “leftist.”

Perhaps the greatest misrepresentation comes in the sub-headline, and is then repeated throughout the article. The sub-headline reads: “Mexico’s Delegate Zero, aka Subcomandante Marcos, brings his nationwide political speaking tour and festival to the Yucatan.” Describing the Other Campaign as a “speaking tour” is simply false, and shows either the reporters’ utter oblivion to the subject of their article, or their willing intent to misrepresent.

The entire purpose of the Other Campaign is to listen, to listen to the experiences of the social struggles of the indigenous and working class, the marginalized and the excluded. And this is not just spin, seven days a week Marcos listens to hours of spontaneous testimony in small and large meetings in cities and isolated rural villages. Marcos does not speak in the meetings until all of those who wish to share their experiences have spoken. When he gives speeches in open plazas, like those in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it is to encourage people to participate in the Other Campaign, that is, to read the Sixth Declaration and to attend and speak at the public meetings. It would be one thing for a reporter to express skepticism about the impact or sincerity of the public listening sessions, but the Los Angeles Times does not even mention that they take place. Calling the Other Campaign a Marcos “nationwide speaking tour” is either colossal misreporting or simple anti-Zapatista propaganda.  

The article’s dateline, “Cancun, Mexico,” yet again belies the exclusion of information in the article. By January 23, when the article was published, Marcos and the Other Campaign had traveled through three states, making several stops a day. The Los Angeles Times did not report on any of the rural indigenous communities and working class neighborhoods where the campaign stopped. Instead,  Los Angeles Times reporters parachuted into Cancun, the city, with its abundance of five-star hotels and restaurants, that is the emblem of the exclusion of most Mexicans from the riches of transnational capitalism. And in Cancun, the Los Angeles Times still did not report on the five-hour meeting with grassroots activists and working class residents on the outskirts of town.

The body of the article reproduces the false and misleading characterizations contained in the headline, sub-headline and dateline with the overall impact of depoliticizing the Other Campaign. The opening paragraph reads:

“With giant drawings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin as their backdrop, dancers twirled giant puppets and jugglers tossed lighted torches. The black-masked rebel leader formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos had come to town, and he was putting on a marimba and Marxism extravaganza.”

First, the annoying drawings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin belong to a group of young activists from the Popular Revolutionary Front, an alliance socialist party, and have nothing to do with the EZLN. Second, the “extravaganza” mentioned was organized by the local collective who put together the agenda for the Other Campaign visit to the state of Quintana Roo, not the EZLN. In fact, every leg of the Other Campaign is set up by the local organizations, collectives and individuals who have invited the EZLN commission led by Marcos. Third, there is no novelty in finding artists and musicians at left political events in Mexico, nor in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times harps on the artists to belittle the political analysis and demands of the Other Campaign.  

Out of countless hours of meetings where indigenous and working class people spoke before Marcos and a panel of local social movement leaders, the Los Angeles Times chose to exclusively report on a two-hour concert that took place before Marcos spoke in Playa del Carmen and Cancun. This is how they purport to get away with calling the Other Campaign a “1960s-style show and lecture” and a “six-month speaking tour” in the following paragraphs.

Reporters love detail and precise description. But in the Los Angeles Times article, the desire for such description completely supplants accurate and in-depth reporting. Thus the reporters write “it’s hard to resist a masked guy in a natty cap and black-and-brown fatigues who smokes a pipe through the hole of his balaclava and rides a black motorcycle” and yet fail to quote or even paraphrase from a single of his daily talks. In fact, the reporters even complain later in the article that: “It’s difficult to know what Marcos means exactly because he refuses interviews and doesn’t take questions from the audience.” This is absurd. More accurately, the Los Angeles Times reporters find it difficult to understand what exactly Marcos means because they do not read or listen.

The Other Campaign is founded on a short document called the Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle (http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/SixthDeclaration.html). The Sixth Declaration lays out the Zapatistas’ political analysis and plans in the simplest of language. The Los Angeles Times does not mention the Sixth Declaration or the ideas expressed within it. Moreover, Marcos explains the objectives of the Other Campaign at every stop—recall that the Los Angeles Times calls the Other Campaign a speaking tour. Yet the reporters do not include a single quote or paraphrased summary of his talks. Regardless of the subject matter, how could a reporter set out to cover a speaking tour without including a single quote? It boggles the mind.

The Zapatistas’ Other Campaign calls to do away with capitalism in Mexico along with the entire political machinery that sustains it. The ambition is quixotic in the extreme. The social change proposed by the Other Campaign is so sweeping it pushes, uncomfortably, at the boundaries of our political imagination, our ability to think of different ways of doing politics. Skepticism is thus an expected response, especially for those who like capitalism and its political machinery.

But skepticism relies upon investigation and reflection to articulate doubts. The Los Angeles Times article lacks such investigation or reflection, and is instead composed entirely of mischaracterizations and errors. I do not think that this is because the reporters are poorly trained, quite the opposite, the Los Angeles Times employs some of the most capable reporters in the United States. I know and respect several of them. I also do not believe that the total misrepresentation of the Other Campaign is a result of some conspiracy directed by a man in shadows stroking a cat.

Rather, it seems that the reporters and editors assigned to cover politics on Mexico are simply unable to think of life outside of capitalism and are thus unable to take critiques of capitalism seriously. Their political imagination stops at the cash register and the electronic voting machine. In fact, the reporters are not even capable—twelve years after the armed Zapatista uprising—of seeing the faces or hearing the voices of the indigenous Zapatistas who have been locked out of capitalism. They see only the masked rebel whom they must call a Marxist in order to understand what to make of him: an idealist from two centuries past. 

If the Los Angeles Times reporters had been present in Guelatao, Oaxaca on February 8—the last meeting I attended before writing this article—and had they listened, they would have heard Belisario Maximiano, a 44-year old Mixe subsistence farmer, denounce the forced sterilization operations in his community, saying “this is something the government plans: to go minimizing the number of indigenous people, to do away with us.”

And if the reporters still did not understand what exactly Marcos means, and had they listened, they would have heard him say, “The advance of the capitalist system means the total—total—destruction of indigenous peoples. We are indigenous people, and we are ready to do anything—anything—so that we may continue to be so.”

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