Last night, I heard author, journalist, and activist Chris Hedges speak at the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, sponsored by the excellent Canadian Dimension.
Hedges is a radical intellectual, in the Chomsky vein, also compassionate and fearless, in the mode of Howard Zinn. He touched on many subjects - and credited the work and thoughts of many others. I can only hope to impart a few snippets of the many threads Hedges wove.
"A seismic moment"
Hedges called the recent US debate on Syria a "seismic moment". The Obama administration pulled out all the familiar mechanisms used to sell wars to the public: the ruthless dictator, the weapons of mass destruction, the atrocities. It invoked the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Europe. It did the usual war dance... but none of it worked. The ploys, usually so effective, failed both internationally and domestically, blindsiding the Obama administration.
Hedges compared the distaste for war on Syria to the turning-point in the US's war on Vietnam. Remember, he said, that war enjoyed majority support for 10 years. Only after 10 years - the "quagmire", the middle-class draft - did the narrative shift from myths about war to the brutal facts. And once the myth falls away, the country wakes up from its drunken reverie and sees the war for what it is. Hedges says that shift has occurred in the United States today.
Hedges linked the total invisibility of the underclass in the US to the terror we should all feel about climate change: both are the products of uncontrolled corporate capitalism. At this moment, he said, we either transform our relationship to the natural world, or we die. And he pointed out that Harper has shifted Canada to that same relationship: a government dominated by the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
He spoke of how, after September 11, 2001, the United States "drunk deep of the intoxicating elixir of nationalism," along with heavy doses of nationalism's constant partner, racism. He spoke of the "plague of nationalism" - something I was very moved by in one of Hedges' books, which I wrote about here and here - and how the "virus that gripped the United States after 9/11" was finally broken by the debate on war on Syria. And with that debate, he feels the US may have woken up from its "long drunken revelry of war".
Hedges also noted that the US's plans for Syria would have dropped incredibly huge numbers of bombs, inflicting untold numbers of deaths. As he was a war correspondent for many years and has seen the devastation of war firsthand, Hedges always includes not only the dead, but the permanently wounded, the traumatized, the brain-injured, and the famine, the destruction.
The collapse of the liberal establishment...
Hedges spoke on several points from his book Death of the Liberal Class. The liberal establishment - the media, the church, government regulation, the social safety net - has been destroyed or has been rendered completely ineffectual.
Hedges - whose father was a Presbyterian minister, and who studied at Harvard Divinity School - lambasted the church (as an institution) for not denouncing the radical Christian right as heretics. He noted that one needn't have studied at Harvard Divinity School to know that Jesus didn't preach about how to get wealthy, and never talked about abortion, and that the gospel wasn't about "how to make everything good for me".
The media has been destroyed by corporate ownership and conglomeration, a consequence of deregulation.
The effectiveness of the US labour movement was destroyed by the purposeful purging of radicals from its leadership. And the same is coming any minute now in Canada. Hedges said, "It's amazing. We do everything wrong in the United States, and 10 years later, Canada copies us."
The US, Hedges pointed out, had the most radical labour movement in the world. The birth of organized labour in the US is the bloodiest in modern history. (I love US labour history, so this was exciting for me.) It was through radical politics that the US labour movement pushed back against the robber barons, and through those same movements, always opposed war. Compare organized labour's fierce opposition to the US entering World War I with its stance on the Vietnam War: "these colours don't run" and get the hippies out of the streets.
Hedges touched briefly - quickly, and a bit confusingly, tossing out a long ribbon of names and influences - on the roots of "manufactured consent" (Walter Lippman, Dwight Macdonald, Macdonald's work radicalizing Chomsky), and the "psychosis of permanent war", the state keeping the populace always on edge, always in fear, and the constant need to ferret out enemies both external and internal. There was no popular support in the US for World War I; Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage and Sedition Acts in order to squelch dissent and make room for the war propaganda.
The liberal class, Hedges notes, is a safety valve. When pressured by radical movements, the liberal class can adjust the system to prevent further suffering of the underclass... and so, they save capitalism. (Think Franklin D. Roosevelt. Think New Deal. That was the closest the US had ever come to revolution... and FDR himself said his greatest achievement was preserving capitalism.)
Hedges said that the greatest difference between Canada and the US - universal health care - exists because in the US, the labour movement is divorced from its radical politics. From the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, up through the McCarthy era of the 1950s, radicals and leftists were systematically purged from the United States. The Hollywood purges are perhaps the most famous, but leftist intellectuals were rooted out and destroyed from every field and facet of American life.
And that, says Hedges, is how you get "freaks like the Clintons," supposedly liberal politicians who laid the groundwork for everything from which we now suffer. NAFTA and other so-called free trade agreements. (Goodbye economy, labour laws, and environmental laws.) The explosion of the prison population. (2.2 million, or 7 million if you count everyone on probation or suspension.) Deregulation of the FCC. (Media conglomeration.) Deregulation of the banking industry. (Robber barons gambling with citizens' money, and everything that led to.) The end of the federal guarantee of welfare. (Seventy percent of those thrown off welfare rolls were children.)
You want freaks? Hedges detailed how Obama, supposedly a liberal, has mounted "a far more grievous assault on civil liberties than George W. Bush did": the NDAA, the kill lists, the indefinite detentions, the unprecedented resurrection of the Espionage Act, the persecution of whistleblowers, the insane sentence for Chelsea Manning. About Manning, Hedges said, "When the true account of the country is written, she will be remembered as one of the most heroic figures in United States history."
Hedges, who covered the revolution in Eastern Europe for many years, said the current surveillance state dwarfs anything dreamed of by the infamous Stasi.
...not be confused with radical movements for change
The collapse of the liberal establishment should not be confused with a dearth of radical people's movements. Hedges noted that Howard Zinn always taught that radical movements never achieve formal positions of power, nor should that be their aim.
He talked about the need to recapture and rebuild the strength of radical movements, rather than put our faith in the political system. (Obama voters, please take note.) Hedges quoted Karl Popper (paraphrased here): The question should not be how to get good people in power, but how to make those in power afraid of the people.
Hedges related an anecdote from Henry Kissinger's biography (with a warning that we shouldn't waste our time reading it!) that sees Nixon in the White House, utterly terrified of the protests going on outside. And that is what we want.
Power, Hedges noted, is the problem. It's not what we should be after. We who care about social justice must accept that our goal is not to put one of our own in power, but to push power from the outside.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Hedges had an opportunity to expand on this. He said he always votes for a radical party, but "voting is a small part of what I do," quoting Emma Goldman: "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal."
To my delight, Hedges talked a bit about how the Democrat party furiously tried to shut down Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and dismissed the ridiculous myth that Nader gave the 2000 election to Bush, mentioning briefly what really happened in Florida. He noted surprise at how many people actually believe that nonsense. Like me, Hedges is unable to say that George W. Bush was elected. He is not afraid of facts.
Mount a resistance
While talking about the differences between Canada and the US, and the relative strength of organized labour in each country, Hedges asked, "Do you have 'right-to-work' laws here yet?" The audience answered that we do not. And Hedges replied: "The minute Harper passes those laws, if you guys don't have a massive general strike, you're finished." He said, "You still have enough organized labour in Canada to mount a resistance."
When asked about the general strike during the Q&A, Hedges said that any and all civil disobedience is important. He mentioned the organizing fast-food workers as an important piece of resistance. "Anything that messes them up is good," he said. "Anything that interrupts the mechanisms of how they make money."
Again invoking the image of a terrified Nixon, Hedges wondered, what would happen if the French government announced that university tuition was now $50,000 per year? We don't have to look all the way to France for the answer: look at Quebec.
"At least they tried"
Hedges spoke a little about the Hedges vs. Obama lawsuit (Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg are also plaintiffs in the case), and spoke about despair. Climate change. Corporate capitalism. The largest surveillance state in history. Humankind on the cusp of the most catastrophic moment of its history. Hedges, who has four children, could only say that it is incumbent on all of us, especially elders, to stand up, so at least the next generation can say, "At least they tried."
Hedges related some amusing anecdotes about road trips with Cornel West. He noted how we must destroy the Harper Government before it destroys Canada. And he closed with the People's Trial of Goldman Sachs, and linked uncontrolled corporate capitalism to the famine and death he has witnessed around the globe. He ended with a painful memory - he was too choked up to speak - of dying children, corporate capitalism's most vulnerable victims.
But for me, and perhaps for my friends from the War Resisters Support Campaign with whom I was sitting, the most piercing moment came a bit earlier. Hedges said: "Courage is not about saying 'This is wrong,' or 'We shouldn't do this'. The most courageous words we can say are: I can't."