Becoming the Media: An Interview with Joshua Stephens

Becoming the Media: An Interview with Joshua Stephens

Joshua Stephens
Joshua Stephens

Joshua Stephens is a well-known and beloved anarchist and activist. Among many things, he serves on the board of The Institute of Anarchist Studies and writes for a large assortment of publications, including but not limited to: Truthout, Waging Nonviolence, Jadaliyya, NOW Lebanon, Alternet, and our very own Indypendent Reader. When Stephens heard about Indyreader shutting down shop, he immediately contacted us to send his condolences and offer his media contributions/thoughts one last time. As we come to a close, we're very honored to feature this interview with Joshua Stephens about making social justice media today.

Corey Reidy (for Indyreader): Could you introduce yourself, please? In doing so, please describe how you view yourself as an activist and as a journalist?

Joshua Stephens: I've been involved in social movements in some way or another going back about twenty years now. So, while it seems a term that's been stretched to the point of meaninglessness, I'm comfortable with being identified as an activist. I'm much less comfortable with describing what I do as journalism; that discipline involves a specific skill set, a particular training, even. I don't think I've earned that designation, really. It also involves an investment I'm disinclined to make in any concerted, formal way -- because there's so little return on that, these days. I have friends who are journalists, and I would never draw an equivalency between my work thus far and what they do.

Reidy: What inspired you to be an activist?To be a journalist? To be an activist journalist? How do you think those identities/vocations intertwine and how they differentiate? As activists should we view journalism always as a form of activism? 

Stephens: I was radicalized by the first Gulf War. When it kicked off, I was thirteen, and my mom's office was about a football field's distance from the airstrip from which the sorties into Baghdad were being launched, and I was going to school with kids whose parents were directly involved. Negotiating my relationship with that, and my relationship with the US military community thereafter, left me seeking out social struggles -- in part just for refuge. I've had a sort of pinball existence since, ricocheting off of various movements, mentors, and other learning opportunities.

I'm not even entirely sure anything in particular moved me to write. I just like telling stories, really, and conditions materialized in which it became possible for me to get published. People's lives are usually so much more rich with instruction than we tend to notice; our own lives, too. And what we live is more often than not the product of the very social forces we're indicting at any given moment. So, there's almost always some way to draw critique or reflection out of what's right in front of us. We just have to put it in conversation with those broader forces or themes. 

What journalism, as a discipline, offers struggle is (in my view, anyway) less about what most people see as the act of writing. It's about the technical craft of storytelling. And that's just as much a matter of timing, assessing scope, and learning how to meet an audience --not just where they're at-- but at the level of what they feel. Those are, in my experience, technical and tactical skills. They can produce effective messaging in organizing, or they can yield meaningfully compelling writing. But like any other skill, they have to be cultivated, and for most people the practice of writing draws these into relief and sharpens them more efficiently.

Reidy: Do you believe that journalism and writing should be valued more within today's activist circles/social movements? And vice versa? If so or not, please explain.

Stephens: It's hard to say. In some ways, I think journalism and writing are valued in ways I've never seen in social movements, prior. I mean, just here in New York City, the work of people like Allison Kilkenny, John Knefel, Sarah Jaffe -- to say nothing of folks like Jeremy Scahill; their work isdevoured by activists, and they have what I would argue are devoted followings. You also have writers like Andrea Smith, Kenyon Farrow, Will Potter, and staggeringly well-done news programs like Faultlines, bottom-lined by the likes of Jordan Flaherty and Anjali Kamat. Investigative journalism is central to movements against authority in ways I'm not sure it has been since the Vietnam era. And all the aforementioned writers are veterans of social movements, as well. I feel like that's reflected in the conversations happening on the ground.

I don't think the problem is that these things are undervalued. I think the problem is that the market is a terrible mechanism for producing socially useful or valuable things. That's not what it's engineered to do.

Reidy: After having struggled to sustain Indyreader over these numerous years, I'm coming to the personal conclusion of pursuing a sustainably paying job that I feel makes change while also doing independent social justice journalism... not anticipating pay. Is it true that you primarily sustain yourself as an independent journalist? How is this possible? Do you think it is possible? How do we make independent social justice journalism more sustainable? Not just financially (though that is a critical part of my question) but also functionally, ethically, and whilst caring for ourselves. 

Stephens: Yeah, I'm disinclined to complain about my life, because I'm deeply appreciative of anything I have, and know my life could be so much worse than it is. So, I sort of inadvertently lend the impression that I've somehow made it all work. But the truth is that I eat once or twice a day, probably half my getting by is attributable to debt or support and mutual aid from my community, and there are days when I literally can only go as far as my legs will carry me, because my bike was stolen and I can't afford the subway. 

Additionally, the economics of writing are not altogether unlike those of being a musician -- the recording of one's creative process usually yields very little. It's the live presentation that offers any meaningful return. So, I make far more of my income from teaching, guest-lecturing, giving talks, and so on, as a result of my written work getting around. I also do a bit of editing, here and there, for writers with bigger budgets than I have. I've even ghost-written papers for grad students, at points. I could opt to balance that with some more conventional line of work, but the truth is what I'm guessing any other writer would tell you: The reduction in one's ability to produce in that scenario is not a one to one thing; the effect is really exponential. At the moment, I'd rather tighten my belt and retain the ability to give my work the attention I currently can than take on the scaling-back of that work that a less materially-precarious life would require.

So, the short answer is: It's not really possible. I mean, editors are far more likely to commission work from me when I'm in the Eastern Mediterranean, for what are probably obvious reasons. They're less connected to the landscape of people writing from that region in many cases, and I provide a point of entry for them, and perhaps an unconventional approach to the material. The economics of it are such that I can command more of a premium in that equation than I can writing from Brooklyn, usually. But the costs of doing that are higher, as well. Even sleeping on friends' floors or couches, or in airports or overnight buses, just getting to those places involves increased costs on the front end. And the economics of writing just don't support that, anymore. Even The Atlantic only pays $100 for original web content, these days. The neoliberalization of the trade has produced a scenario in which compensating --and by that, I mean actually putting food in the mouths of-- writers is perpetually passed off to someone else, as though merely putting our work in front of "broader audiences" is a contribution toward some payoff down the road. 

That's not a workable model. As a community of movements, the ways we value this sort of work is ultimately going to have to be expressed in different structures for supporting knowledge-production, for which we take direct responsibility. We can't simply off-load that on the market, anymore. Behind the scenes, it's killing us.

Reidy: Activist media is not what it is was during the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s. There is not the same struggle for a platforms by which to tell our own struggles. The internet of today has a released what I view as a wall of sound -- where everyone can constantly release their opinions and because of all the media -- much actually gets lost. Is it a positive thing that so many people have the ability, through blogs/social media/innumerable websites, to tell their stories? Is this what we were unknowingly fighting for -- for people to make their voices heard to "Become the Media"? Do we need to do organization of the internet? What needs to happen in order to actual be a force in internet culture -- realistically the undeniably major way that people garner their news? I know that this is a rambling question -- my main point, within this is: How do we, in an internet culture that has undoubtedly done incredible things for social movements, make voices heard in what can be viewed as an echo chamber with uncountable voices?

Stephens: The blogosphere seems to represent the convergence of zine culture and the platforms popularized by the Independent Media Center, coming out of the alter-globalization movement of ten years ago. And the point of both those things was to bypass filters. Consequently, both were extraordinarily empowering, for whole spectrums of voices. But they also eroded the social quality of writing, as a process. Very little of what I put out into the world happens unilaterally; I have editors giving me feedback, pushing me to be more accessible, or more rigorous, and working as advocates for the audience (as it were). That editorial process is an act of care, and I think that prior to all the possibilities the internet wound up providing, we'd grown to see that process as one of our being shut out. Because it was, in so many cases. 

Writing, like anything else, ought to reflect how we care for one another. The editorial process is a crucible for that, and I think we need to reclaim and insist upon it. Just in terms of how it shapes and provokes, even anchors the growth of writers, it's vital. You can't get that from hitting "submit" on Tumblr or whatever. And the self-referencing, ideological ghettos we see in social media, various web forums, etc. are a direct outcome of that absence. It's left us entitled and unable to see each other, much less communicate across difference. We seem to be getting the fact that the impulsiveness and lack of accountability that comes with debate and whatnot in web formats is unhealthy and corrosive, but I think we've got some distance to go in getting the value of having each other to say "Rethink this. Rewrite this. Shut the fuck up and listen a little more; observe a little more. Be a better human being."

Reidy: As another part of this question, how has social justice media transformed today's social movements? What do you think are next steps?

Stephens: I think the immediacy of social media has been one of the single-most transformative features of social movement, globally. I could cite so many things as indication of that, but I think we're all, at least vaguely, aware of them. To be totally honest, I feel like I'm steadily reaching an age at which I'm somewhat out of touch with all the ways it's developing. A lot of what seems to be coming into being goes well over my head, or at least I have less of an attention span for fully understanding the technology. I'm probably the last person who should be making predictions about where that will go. 

Reidy: Many have argued that the internet has made activist culture far more disjointed. Do you think this is true? If so, do you think independent media can bridge communities together in new ways?

Stephens: I honestly wonder if that sentiment is a bit of a cop-out, and whether people expressing it realize that the way it constructs "the activist" effectively erases millions of people. Inasmuch as so many people have found each other through internet-driven vectors, and collaborated to literally take down decades-old despotic regimes of late, it seems grossly at odds with the recent historical record. I think people's habits, comfort zones, entitlements and attachments are more to blame for disconnection. 

There was a sort of anarchist "policy" or position piece on the Syrian revolution published by some Western anarchist group or another a while back, right after I'd interviewed Nader Atassi about Syrian anarchism in the revolution, for Truthout. I think it was on Anarkismo or LibCom, or one of those sites. My interview with Nader got something like six thousand hits on Facebook and got more traction on Twitter than probably everything I'd written prior, combined. It wasn't obscure. I coded a link to his blog into the intro I'd written for it. The guy's not hard to track down. There are multiple pages on Facebook that serve as community access points for Syrian anarchists. And yet, this "position" piece was written and published without any consultation of Syrian anarchists. No one asked them about their own struggle. No one seemed to think that would be a necessary condition for opening one's mouth, much less issuing a position piece -- as though it matters terribly much what any Westerner's thoughts on the Syrian revolution are, to begin with. And, unsurprisingly, Arab anarchists were frustrated by it, and had to reach out to make themselves known, and express their misgivings about this piece.

That's not an effect of technology, you know? It's reflective of something else, entirely. From where I'm standing, it confuses form with content. Internet technologies, independent media, whatever -- these are forms; they're tools. But the content, the ethics that drive them, are what produce these sorts of outcomes, and rationalize these sorts of insularity. 

In a certain way, it goes back to what I was saying earlier, about the editorial process. I can't think of a single editor I work with who wouldn't have stepped in and said "Your first step here needs to be reaching out to Syrian anarchists; it's not acceptable practice to give the people you're ostensibly representing no means of speaking for themselves". That's why the social process of writing matters. To the extent independent media serves to restore that, and mentor and shape new writers (and new editors), it's a valuable tool. But it's not sustainable if we value that sort of cultivation so little that we can't find ways of materially supporting it. Any number of creative options exist for doing that --writing residencies in collective houses, serving as fellowships, financed by other residents' rent, for example. And we're creative enough as a community to devise means of doing that. But for some reason, we seem to think the market is going to take care of and support the cultivation of writers on our behalf, despite all mounting evidence to the contrary.

Reidy: Thank you so much taking time to talk with us. Do you have any final thoughts?

Stephens: I've always appreciated the rigor the Indyreader brought to movement publishing. There's so much right about what you all have done over the years, and I think you've set a really solid example. I'm sad to see you hang up the gloves, but I get it, as well. Sometimes, that's what has to happen in order for new generations to pick up where we left off or ran out of steam. Regardless, I think you've handed off a real inheritance for whoever steps up, next, simply by setting certain standards. Thanks for that. Best of luck to you all, moving onward.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anticapitalist, international solidarity, and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades. He currently divides his time between the northeastern U.S. and various parts of the Mediterranean.