On the front lines against the U.S.'s cozy relationship with one of the worst governments in the world.
Chris Hedges is an award-winning journalist who has covered wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central America. He writes a weekly column for Truthdig.com and is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 2002. His other books include American Fascists, Empire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class, and The World As It Is. When he was at The New York Times, he was part of a team of reporters that received the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism.
He’s a polymath with a deep love for, and knowledge of, poetry and the classics. His writing and his speaking are crisp and terse.
In person, Hedges is soft spoken and shy. (It took him some time into our interview before he made eye contact with me.) But in terms of his critique, he bursts from the gate at full speed.
He speaks in solemn tones almost like a secular preacher. Cassandra-like, he warns of what he calls “America’s slide into totalitarian capitalism.”
He reserves his most trenchant criticism for the liberal class, which has sold out, in his view. “Liberals have turned their backs on the working class,” he says. And he calls mainstream journalists “courtiers.”
He doesn’t spare the President, either. “Obama,” he says, “is seduced by power and prestige and is more interested in courting the corporate rich than in saving the disenfranchised.” His election, Hedges says, was “the triumph of illusion” over reality.
I talked with him in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a warm afternoon in May.
Q: How did you make the transition from Harvard Divinity School to The New York Times?
Chris Hedges: It wasn’t a direct route. I began as a freelance reporter. That’s an important distinction, because people who rise through the ranks of The New York Times become vetted, conditioned, harassed, and shaped by the institution. That never happened to me.
In my second year of Harvard Divinity School, where I was studying to be a minister like my father, I met a guy named Robert Cox, who had been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald during the Dirty War in Argentina. Bob used to print the names of those who had been disappeared the day before, above the fold in his newspaper. It was a kind of an awakening to me to see what great journalism can and should do.
I went off to Latin America at a time when there were horrible regimes. Pinochet was in Chile, the junta was in Argentina, the death squads in El Salvador were killing between 700 and 1,000 people a month, Ríos Montt was in Guatemala. So that was my transition into journalism from a seminarian who grew up in a household that was active in social justice. Those are my roots. And those roots led to a conflict with The New York Times.
Q: When did you start noticing problems there?
Hedges: embed. We all were forced to sign documents by the military when we got off the plane saying that we would, in essence, be servants of the military. The paper reduced us to little more than propagandists. The next day, I just threw the paper in the trash and went out on my own and started writing stories.
It pleased the Times, because they were getting stuff that was outside of the pool and outside the approved stories that were managed and controlled by the military. But it really angered the other reporters who were there, who had been good little boys and girls and done what the military had told them. So they actually wrote a letter to the foreign editor saying that because of my defiance of the rules, I was ruining our relationship with the military. I’m not a careerist; I never really gave a damn about my career, and I thought that was the end. But R. W. Apple, who was running the coverage at the time, interceded on my behalf, and, in fact, when he found out about the letter, called all the reporters in and dressed them down. Apple had covered Vietnam. He said, “You know, we don’t work for the U.S. military.”
The New York Times is an institution that attracts careerists, who are drawn to power and access. This gave me a kind of a free hand. The kind of work that I wanted to do, most of the other reporters didn’t want to do. I was not doing lunch. I was not sucking up to officials. I was writing from the street. I constantly volunteered to go to Gaza, and the other reporters had no interest in going to Gaza. I volunteered to go to Sarajevo. And when I did, the then-executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, said, “Well, I guess the line starts and ends with you.”
My clash with the paper happened when I came back. I had written War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, so I was on programs like Charlie Rose. And because I had been the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, I would be asked about the impending invasion of Iraq, and I denounced it quite strongly.
Q: You gave the commencement address at a college in Illinois two months after Bush launched the Iraq War. That rubbed the editors in New York the wrong way. Why?
Hedges:pt of the whole talk with what people shouted in brackets. The Times editors were pressured to respond, and they responded by calling me into the office and giving me a formal written reprimand for impugning the impartiality of The New York Times. We were members of the Newspaper Guild, and the process is that you give the employee a written warning and then, under Guild rules, the next time the employee violates that warning, you can fire them. So once I was handed that written warning, it was terminal, because I wasn’t about to stop speaking out against the Iraq War. I approached Hamilton Fish at the Nation Institute about becoming a senior fellow there and leaving the Times. I did leave the Times; I wasn’t fired. But if I had stayed long enough, I would have been fired. That was inevitable.
Q: You had a bit of an odyssey getting Death of the Liberal Class published. You started at Knopf. And then what happened?
Hedges: Well, I turned the manuscript in to Knopf, and they didn’t like it. They wanted a book that glorified the press as a heroic, noble institution. I do believe that the collapse of the traditional media is catastrophic for our democracy, but I wasn’t about to mythologize it. I understand its structural flaws, and the lies it tells, which are primarily, but not always, the lies of omission, and I wasn’t going to leave that out. Knopf offered to publish the book but they said that an editor was going to “take out all the negativity,” which, of course, I wasn’t going to accept. I had been paid half my advance, and I had Nation Books buy the manuscript for that half.
Then it became a broader and, I think, better book. The press doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s one of the pillars of the liberal establishment. So I decided to write about all of the traditional pillars of the liberal establishment—not just the press, but liberal religious institutions, higher education, culture, labor, and, of course, the Democratic Party—and show how the foundations of the liberal state have been degraded or destroyed.
When you have a liberal class that no longer functions, when those people who traditionally defend and care about a civil society no longer do so, then you cede power to very frightening, deformed figures, all of which we are watching leap up around the fringes of our political establishment—this lunatic fringe, which has largely taken over the Republican Party. And the legitimate rage on the part of working men and women is directed not only towards government but, I think quite correctly, towards liberals, who speak in a very hypocritical language about caring for their interests and yet support institutions that carry out an assault against working men and women.
Q: Knopf is part of the Bertelsmann conglomerate.
Hedges: It’s a huge corporation in its own right. And the executives who run it couldn’t tell a good book from a bad one if you put a gun to their head. The only things they know are numbers. It’s why they constantly seek out celebrity-driven books. At the time, I was working with an editor who also was handling Tony Blair’s book. Blair got millions of dollars for his book, which we now know is not only filled with self-congratulatory crap but, frankly, completely made-up interviews. But that’s what they like, because it’s all about money. It’s not about actually producing books that have any kind of longevity or any kind of intrinsic worth. The corporatization of just about every aspect of American life, including the publishing industry, is at its core an assault on culture.
Q: Talk about bread and circuses as a method of control. It seems to me that there is less and less bread nowadays, literally, and more and more circuses.
Hedges: The purpose of bread and circuses is, as Neil Postman said in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, to distract, to divert emotional energy towards the absurd and the trivial and the spectacle while you are ruthlessly stripped of power.
I used to wonder: Is Huxley right or is Orwell right? It turns out they’re both right. First you get the new world state and endless diversions as you are disempowered. And then, as we are watching, credit dries up, and the cheap manufactured goods of the consumer society are no longer cheap. Then you get the iron fist of Oceania, of Orwell’s 1984.
That’s precisely the process that’s happened. We have been very effectively pacified by the pernicious ideology of a consumer society that is centered on the cult of the self—an undiluted hedonism and narcissism. That has become a very effective way to divert our attention while the country is reconfigured into a kind of neofeudalism, with a rapacious oligarchic elite and an anemic government that no longer is able to intercede on behalf of citizens but cravenly serves the interests of the oligarchy itself.
Q: You talk critically about President Obama. Why do you think so many on the progressive left have been disappointed and disillusioned?
Hedges: The disappointment with Obama comes from people who don’t understand the structure of power. The charade of politics is to make voters think that the personal narrative of the candidate affects the operation of the corporate state. It doesn’t really matter on the fundamental issues whether the President is Republican or Democratic. The imperial projects will continue, Wall Street will be unimpeded in its malfeasance and criminal activity, social programs will continue to be cut, maybe not at the same speed as under a Republican Administration, but it’s all headed in the same direction.
Q: There was a lot of magical thinking about Obama, that he was somehow the peace candidate.
Hedges: He never presented himself as a peace candidate, to be fair to him. This was just wishful thinking on the part of the left. He talked about downsizing in Iraq. But, remember, at the time he was saying that Afghanistan was the war we really have to fight. So the failure was not Obama but the fecklessness of the left, which was seduced by the propaganda. People believed somehow that he didn’t really mean what he was saying, that once in office he would carry out a progressive agenda. But if you look at the two-year voting record he had in the Senate, it’s awful. It’s one corporate giveaway after another. There wasn’t a bill he supported that wasn’t an embrace of corporatism. I got the voting record, I read it, and I made my decision to vote based on that voting record. And that’s what we all should have done.
Q: You wrote speeches for Ralph Nader in his 2008 campaign. You have also said we must abandon the two-party system and begin to build a viable socialism. How is that going to ever happen?
Hedges: Nader is a socialist. He just doesn’t use the word “socialism,” but he’s a socialist. I was never under any illusion that he was going to win anything. It was a way to express opposition and challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate state and corporate media and corporate political parties. It was a recognition that there is no way in this country to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. And it was a call for defiance. I think that it was an understanding that the two-party system, the corporate duopoly, no longer functions to further the rights or interests of citizens, and that the longer we’re fooled by this belief that reform can come through these formal structures of power, the more disempowered we’re going to become.
If we don’t hold fast to our moral principles, nobody’s going to. We don’t have to have a majority, but once ten, fifteen, twenty million people start voting left, we’ll scare the piss out of the Democrats, and they’ll have to respond. But they’re not going to respond to us until that happens.
We are facing another economic meltdown. The ecosystem, on which the human species depends for life, is being destroyed at a rate that has not even been anticipated by climate scientists. We don’t have a lot of time left. So either we get out and fight or we’re finished. Fear is the only thing the Democratic Party has to offer—fear that the Republican Party is worse.
The question is, how do you stop the power elite from doing as much damage to you as possible? That comes through movements. It’s not our job to take power. You could argue that the most powerful political figure in April of 1968 was Martin Luther King. And we know Johnson was terrified of him. We have to accept that all of the true correctives to American democracy came through these movements that never achieved formal political power and yet frightened the political establishment enough to respond.
The last liberal President we had was Richard Nixon. He signed the Mine Health and Safety Act, and he agreed to create OSHA and the EPA, not because he was a liberal but because we still had the remnants of movements that scared him.
So it’s time to turn your back on the Democrats and begin to regain a new kind of democratic militancy. If we don’t do that, if we remain fearful, then we will be further stripped of power as we barrel towards this neofeudalistic state where there is a world of masters and serfs, a kind of permanent underclass. That’s what’s happening; that’s what’s being created. Rapacious corporate business interests have shattered all kinds of regulations and controls. They have carried out a coup d’etat in slow motion. And it’s over; they’ve won.
Q: At the same time, you’ve written: “Battling evil, cruelty, and injustice allows us to retain our identity, a sense of meaning, and ultimately our freedom.” You added that rebellion “should be our natural state.”
Hedges: I’m not saying we’re going to win. I am saying rebellion becomes a way to protect your own dignity. Corporations are, theologically speaking, institutions of death. They commodify everything—the natural world, human beings—that they exploit until exhaustion or collapse. They know no limits. There are no impediments now to corporations. None. And what they want is for us to give up. They want us to become passive. They want us to become tacitly complicit in our own destruction.
Again, although I’m not a particularly religious person, I go back to the religious left that I come out of: There are moral imperatives to fight back. As Daniel Berrigan says, “We’re called to do the good.” And then we have to let it go. It’s not our job to know where the good goes.
The bleakness of what faces us is difficult to swallow. As long as we engage in happy platitudes and a false kind of vision of the possible, it may empower you over the short term, but it is eventually, because of the reality in front of us, going to lead to despair and cynicism and apathy. It’s better to swallow hard the bitter pill of what we’re up against.
We’d better grow up. We are the most illusioned society on the planet. We have to become adults. And it’s hard; it’s painful. I struggle with despair all the time. But I’m not going to let it win. It is incumbent upon all of us that at the same time we recognize how dark the future is, we also recognize the absolute imperative of resistance in every form possible.
Q: In February, you had a baby girl. When you look in her eyes, what are you thinking besides love and affection?
Hedges: Well, that it’s not about me. I’m doing this for them. What kind of a world are we going to leave the next generation? I, at least, want my children to look back and say, “My daddy was being arrested at the White House fence and booed off commencement stages. He was trying.”
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio. His last interview for The Progressive was with Arundhati Roy in March 2009.