AUDIO: What Does Chris Hedges Really Want From Us? (Updated)
In advance of the May 12 release of Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges’ new book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt,” Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer asks Hedges in a conversation on KPFK radio what Hedges is really asking people to do when he urges them to revolt.
Editor’s note: Transcript of the audio clip is posted following the story below.
Revolt “implies resistance, but it also implies suffering and violence and struggle of a kind that most often doesn’t end well,” Scheer says. It “suggests to people, ‘You’ve gotta go out there and throw your bodies on the barbed wire. You’ll suffer enormously; your family will and everyone you
know about.’ ”
“Is this what you’re holding out?” Scheer asks. “You still see — what — orderly alternatives? Peaceful alternatives? Peaceful protest?”
Hedges responds: “The fact is most rebellions don’t succeed. Most rebels are ultimately crushed. We are up against the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus — as you chronicled in your book [“They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy”] — in human history, something the Stasi state in East Germany never even dreamt of being able to impose. …
“I covered the breakdown of the Stasi state. When half a million people every single day was gathering at Alexanderplatz and tens of thousands of people were marching through the streets of Leipzig, what happens is they speak a truth, as Vaclav Havel’s great essay, 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless,’ that when you speak a truth — and you know, the American public is not fooled. Congress has less than a 9 percent approval rate at this point. They get it. They don’t trust the corporate media, nor should they — And when you speak that truth and enough of you are willing to go out on the streets and speak it, and then the state begins to get frightened, then as they did in East Germany, the dictator Erick Honecker sent down an elite paratrooper division to fire on the protesters in Leipzig and they refused, Honecker was out of power within a week. Because what happens is that when you rise up, the elites can no longer count on the foot soldiers that maintain control both within the civil service, within the police and everywhere else, to protect them. And I think that our elites at this point are so discredited on both the left and the right that, I’m not naive enough to tell you it’s gonna work, but it is a mechanism that might work, and frankly it’s the only mechanism we have left.”
— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.
Below is a transcription of an audio recording produced by Joshua Scheer, courtesy of KPFK 90.7 FM. In the recording, Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer interviewed Truthdig columnist and author Chris Hedges last week. Transcription by Lucy Berbeo.
Joshua Scheer: Hello, and welcome to another KPFK special. I’m Joshua Scheer. Today is a special show. I’m introducing a conversation between Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig and author of “They Know Everything About You,” and columnist for Truthdig Chris Hedges, discussing his new book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.” So Bob, I’m going to let you and Chris go. Chris is on the phone. Hi, Chris.
Chris Hedges: Hi.
Robert Scheer: Hi, good of you to take the time, Chris. Ah —
CH: No, not at all.
RS: Let me ask, we had a discussion about my book, “They Know Everything About You,” and the dystopian future. Let me ask you sort of the basic question arising from your new book: Why can’t the ruling class save itself? Why can’t they do what Roosevelt did in the Great Depression and come to their senses and cut down income inequality a bit and introduce some more social justice? What’s going on?
CH: Well, I think, as I kind of chronicled in “Death of the Liberal Class,” those progressive or populist movements, from labor to, you know, including the old CIO and the Wobblies, the old Communist Party, the Socialist, the Progressive Party — they’re gone. So there’s no pressure on the center. And as Chomsky has, I think, correctly pointed out, the liberal elite — so the liberal class, the Roosevelts — were never designed to be the political left. They were designed as the safety valve that could ameliorate the grievances and injustices that were visited upon a population, especially in a moment of crisis such as the 1930s with the breakdown of capitalism. And Roosevelt says that his greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. And I think that’s right. But the myopia of the ruling elites, which saw the liberal establishment as the enemy without understanding that it provided ballast in a capitalist democracy, destroyed the liberal establishment in the name of anti-Communism. You know, starting at the end of World War I, I mean, going all the way from the Palmer Raids up through the McCarthy hearings, the purging of thousands of people from academia, you know, destroying unions like the old [social worker’s] union that used to actually lobby and agitate on behalf of its clients, if you can believe it. Hollywood directors, writers, I.F. Stone, on and on and on. And that essentially allowed corporate capital to accrue to itself greater wealth. I mean, and now we have this vast income disparity, but as well as almost absolute political power. And I think that Karl Marx kind of nailed it, that unfettered, unregulated capitalism, because it has no internal constraints, once those external constraints are lifted, has built within it a [self-annihilating] quality, because it exploits to achieve greater and greater profit. And if you look at Joseph Tainter’s great book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” where he studies the collapse of 24 past civilizations, he finds that very familiar pattern where an elite essentially becomes blinded by its own greed and its own hubris, and drives their civilizations into the ground. And I think we are replicating that pattern. RS: So it’s Robert Scheer. I’m talking to Chris Hedges. I’m the editor of Truthdig, and he’s our most famous and important columnist. And we’re talking about his new book — it’s coming out in the next month, actually — “Wages of Rebellion.” And let me ask you the question about unfettered capitalism. One would have thought the wisdom that came out of the Great Depression and the New Deal was that capitalism has to be fettered in order to serve the interests of the richest and most powerful people. There have got to be enough crumbs falling off the table to keep the rest of the folks happy and the illusion of mobility. And something happened somewhere between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, where they said, “We don’t have to do that anymore. We can just be as greedy as you can go, and be as short-sighted as we want, and we’re going to just fatten our wallets.” We just had a news story this week with the top hedge funds, which didn’t do any better than just the regular stock market index; still, these guys pay themselves a billion dollars a year — a billion! — for failing, or for keeping, just running in place. What happened? How did greed — what happened to the culture that the old sense of obligation to at least their heirs, you know, of the Rockefellers, of the Morgans and so forth — evaporated? You know these folks somewhat; what happened to them?
CH: It’s that old, you know, après moi, le déluge. It’s that sense that they kind of know that everything is terminal, and they’re just stealing as much, as fast as they can on the way down. Of course, it doesn’t make sense if you have a consumer-driven economy … Seventy percent of the American economy is driven by consumption, but it doesn’t make sense to impoverish your working class, and increasingly your middle class, so that they can’t buy the products that are the engine of that economy. That’s why Wall Street has now spun off into this kind of casino capitalism, or speculation, you know, buying up futures of, you know, commodities and hoarding them, and trying to drive the price up, and you know, flash stocks and all this kind of stuff. It is this kind of fantasy that money is real, in the sense that you can make money off of money — and you can, of course, but you drive up bubbles. We are driving up another one; I mean, all the indicators are pointing to another collapse as catastrophic as the one we endured in 2008. And I think it’s just because the sums, as you mentioned, for instance, in these hedge funds are so massive because these people really virtually don’t pay taxes, not in the way they should pay taxes. Because they extract in the name of austerity, all these municipal and city budgets are cut, and so 30 to 40 percent of revenues — this was part of the engine behind Baltimore’s uprising, and Ferguson — is derived from the poorest of the poor. And they, of course, have to pay fines for the most absurd, like, not mowing your lawn, or you know, standing still for five seconds. I mean, they just, it’s capricious. And that replicates, you know, the collapse of other societies where the elites would draw into their gated compounds; the equivalent of Versailles, or the Forbidden City. They’re no longer connected with our lives; they never fly commercial airlines, the only members of the working class they ever nod to are their gardener or their chauffeur. And yet they have gathered almost total economic and political power, and that’s very dangerous because they’re really living in a non-reality-based world; they’re not, they have very little conception of not only how most of us live, but the impact of their policies. And that’s why we’re beginning to see these conflagrations in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, where people have just had enough. And that goes all the way back to Occupy, where the demands — the Occupy movement did have demands; it wanted, you know, corporate power to be dismantled. It, you know, wanted to address, as the Debt Jubilee has, the imposition or the debt peonage put on students, $1.3 trillion now in terms of student loans, and these people are soon going to be paying more interest than they would if they’d taken the money directly from a bank; the looting of the Fed, and you know. But the state’s response is essentially to increase control, to shut down movements like Occupy, to demonize — I mean, even our president is calling the people in the streets of Baltimore criminals and thugs. And that’s not a response; that’s just a way of dumping fuel on the fire. So I think that part of the problem is that we’re being ruled by people whose unchecked greed is matched by a phenomenal inability to understand the consequences of their actions or what’s happening around them. And of course we haven’t even begun to talk about climate change. We just saw the month of March, being where every day in the month of March we had over, in terms of carbon emissions, 400 parts per million; that’s the highest in recorded history. And yet, you know, we’re doing next to nothing as we burn up the planet.
The Failure of Moral Education
You know, Chris — I’m talking to Chris Hedges [about] his new book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.” You know, I interviewed a number of these people; I remember Nelson and David Rockefeller, and folks like that. And they at least, you know, had some sense of what are they leaving for their grandchildren, you know, and what institutions would survive. And this of course was the wisdom of Roosevelt, and they surrounded themselves with an intellectual class that at least had studied history, and had some sense of the decline of civilizations. Again, I keep pushing this issue, but what took the wraps off? Are they all on cocaine? Are they drunk? Are they out of their minds? Do they not understand that this will besmirch not only their reputation but destroy the lives of their grandchildren, that this is unsustainable? What went awry, was it in the teachings of their lead schools? I mean, after all, the whole point of a Harvard or a Yale was to teach young men coming in to the wealthiest class some sense of social obligation, some sense of, you know, surviving as a class in the midst of those who had much less. Where did it all go wrong?CH: Well, I think with the rise of neoliberalism, and the notion that the dictates of the free market, as it’s called, should determine the cultural, political, social, economic life of a country, which is of course absurd. You know, I come out of Calvin, so I kind of have a dark view of human nature. But unrestrained capitalism is a destructive force. And I think that — I think it’s a failure in terms of education, but not just education, but moral education. And you know, with the rise of the consumer society, with the rise of neoliberalism, it’s all about the self. You know, any communal values, any sense that we have any kind of a responsibility to the vulnerable and the weak is eradicated. And that has been disseminated throughout popular culture. And this is, when I wrote my book “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy” and the Triumph of Spectacle,” I, you know, was attending professional wrestling matches and looked at the porn industry and reality TV — I mean, look, reality TV inculcates those values of manipulation, of deception, of one’s advancement at the expense of others, and at the end you get a moment of fleeting fame and money. And that’s kind of just fed to us now across the cultural spectrum. And I think it’s devastated what — and I think you’re right that the old elites, however patrician and racist, had some sense that if you didn’t hold the society together, if you didn’t pay some deference to the common good, it was all going to fall apart. But you look at the old Republican establishment as embodied by figures like Rockefeller, and of course, there would not only be no place for them within the Republican Party, they’d have a hard time making it in the Democratic Party.
RS: So let me ask you a question about this ruling-class structure now that’s falling apart. You went to Harvard Divinity School; you are actually a minister now. And you know, you have someone like Lawrence Summers. Wasn’t his, he was the president of Harvard and yet he was working for the D.E. Shaw hedge fund and getting 8 million bucks. He was a key advisor first, obviously, to Bill Clinton, when he pushed through this radical deregulation that allowed this unleashing of greed, and then an advisor, key advisor to Obama. And how do you assess this man, who was the president of Harvard? Wasn’t it his job to tell these people, go slow, save something for the future, you know, heed the lessons of the past? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Are they just jesters, aren’t they supposed to also be the court thinkers? What happened to them? What happened to this intellectual class?
CH: Well, in fact, Summers spent most of his time at Harvard making war on the humanities. His first speech was at the Harvard Club in London, in which he said that he blamed the fall of the British Empire on their studying of the classics — which, unfortunately, that was an unfortunate statement for him to make, because at the time the head of the classics department, Richard Thomas, in ’68 had been a radical student activist, and he’s the one who almost from day one began organizing against Summers, that resulted in finally a faculty vote of no confidence against the president. No, I’m — you know, I’m going to quote Bob Scheer here. I remember you once saying that, you know, that Obama talks and talks about education, and that education isn’t the problem, the problem is greed. And that’s it. And these large universities, like Harvard, like Princeton, they’re just big corporations. You know, half of the people on their trustee boards should be in jail. They have more money than they know what to do with. I think Harvard’s endowment is $23 billion; I can’t remember what Princeton’s is, nine, 10, $12 billion. And you know, I get the emails from Harvard. They’re mounting a $6 billion capital campaign like they need more. I mean, so, you know, the people that they celebrate, the alumni they celebrate, the people they cater to are all people with money. And that’s why these schools are not turning out — I mean, you know, a couple years ago I saw the figures, Harvard, 49 percent of graduates from Harvard went straight to the financial services industry, and that didn’t count all the people who went to law school to be corporate lawyers. So at that point you’re talking 70 percent. And Princeton’s no better. So all of these people are, as John Ralston Saul calls them, systems managers; they’re trained to run the system. Not to question it. They’re not trained to think. We’ve seen the humanities wither away; the humanities being, of course, that academic discipline that helps people challenge assumptions and structures. And, I think, ultimately, you know, these corporate forces get it; it is subversive in that sense, you know; it’s being taught how to think rather than what to think. And these schools, from top to bottom — Stanford is just a giant vocational school; Harvard is rapidly becoming one. It’s all about engineering and biotech and all this kind of stuff. And you know, maybe you take a few English courses so you can sound polished at a corporate cocktail party, but it is kind of the death of thought. And it is being perpetuated by our academic institutions.
The Goal of Building Movements
So let’s talk about the upcoming election, and does it matter. And you’re going to have a lot of people who are going to say, you know, Hillary Clinton is somehow better than the alternative, and we should rally around her, and it’s sort of depressing that even though Bill Clinton managed to destroy half the wealth of black people in this country, he seems to be popular at least in some sectors of the black community. He has support among Latinos, even though he destroyed 70, 80 percent of the wealth of Latinos as a result of the deregulation that he pushed through. And is this going to be another exercise in self-destruction for most people? Are they just going to cheer like it’s a football game and they’re going for the home team? Or do you see Bernie Sanders or anybody else mounting a challenge to that?CH: Well, I think Bernie Sanders made a very fatal mistake when he decided not to run as an independent. Because the Democratic Party is saturated with corporate money, and is as indebted to corporate — or, you know, under the control of corporate power — as the Republican Party. It is, as Ralph Nader said, a kind of two-party duopoly, which in the end serves the interests of corporations and, of course, our massive defense industry and endless war. Obama has, I think, proven that in his eight years, by the time he finishes, eight years in office; his assault on civil liberties has been worse than, in fact, what was carried out under George W. Bush. And so I think there is a role for a third party candidate, which is why I was always a supporter of Nader — with the understanding that, as Kshama Sawant, the socialist city councilwoman in Seattle says, we have to recognize at this point that the goal is to build movements, in the same way that [leftist political parties like] Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain is building movements. That you may run a candidate, not necessarily to win — and I know from Nader all of the mechanisms by which they lock you out if you run as a third party; I mean, it’s almost impossible — but the goal is to further empower the movement. The problem with Sanders is that he’s giving legitimacy to the Democratic Party, which he should not. I understand why, I’ve spoken to him about it; he didn’t, he told me he did not want to end up as Nader. He knows all of the obstacles that were thrown up in front of Nader, most of them by the Democratic Party, which was especially after 2000 very frightened of Nader. And then it also preserves his status in the Senate, his committee chairmanships. But they’re not going to let him on the debates unless he agrees to endorse the candidate, the Democratic candidate, which is going to be Clinton. So he functions — I fear that he will function as a kind of sheepdog, where he corrals progressives and people who would, you know, like to change the system back into the fold of the Democratic Party. We saw Van Jones, for instance, serve that function in the last election. And I think at this point, neither the Democratic Party nor Hillary Clinton is reformable; we have to begin to agitate on the outside. And you know, I’m really sorry — I think Bernie, there’s a lot that I agree with Bernie on, although not Israel, of course. He’s not very good on the foreign wars and foreign policy. But nevertheless, I mean, there’s a lot that I agree with him on, and I wish that he had stood up to the Democratic establishment.
RS: You know, so when people read the book — this is Robert Scheer, the editor of Truthdig, talking to our most famous and vital columnist Chris Hedges about his book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt”. What is meant by revolt? Is it — I mean, it implies, yes, resistance; but it also implies suffering and violence and struggle of the kind that most often doesn’t end well. Ah, is this what you’re holding out?
CH: Well, I mean, I think the fact is most rebellions don’t succeed. Most rebels, you know, are ultimately crushed. We are up against the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus — as you chronicled in your book — in human history, something the Stasi state in East Germany never even dreamt of being able to impose. We live in a militarized state. Our police forces are militarized. We have a young man or woman of color being murdered in this country — you know, they’re unarmed — almost every day. And we march, people march in the streets, and people are still murdered. We have videotapes of people being choked to death, shot in the back, it’s — and the state uses this kind of lethal force and commits these egregious violations of our Constitution, including our right to privacy, due process, habeas corpus and everything else, with utter impunity, and is completely tone-deaf. So I think that we have to tear down the system, and we have to do that by building large, mass, sustained movements, you know, as I saw in Eastern Europe. And that hopefully will begin to discredit the institutions that have surrendered to corporate power, including our courts, which used judicial fiat to strip us of our constitutional rights. I mean, the idea that unlimited corporate cash has the right to petition the government — I mean, this is just upending the very language and concepts of the Constitution. Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the military to, in essence, carry out extraordinary rendition the government-sponsored practice of abducting people, usually foreign nationals, and transferring them to countries that permit them to be tortured] on the streets of American cities against U.S. citizens, and hold them in military facilities without due process. They know what’s coming. They’ve run the scenarios on climate change, financial collapse, another act of catastrophic domestic terrorism. You know, we created [the Islamic State group] ISIS in the same way we created al-Qaida. Everybody used to say, what’s worse than Saddam Hussein? Well, ISIS is worse than Saddam Hussein. You know, when you bomb people the way we bombed the Cambodians, you get [the Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot, or you get [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]. It’s, that’s how the world works. So they know it doesn’t look good, and rather than carry out rational reform — rather than respond in any kind of a serious way to climate change — they are preparing the iron fist. And I think that while we have space, and we have some space now, we have to begin to mobilize; we have to begin to organize; we have to look to Europe, to parties like Syriza that imagined another way of creating society. Well, Syriza 10 years ago pulled 4 percent. It was about what Nader pulled in 2000. And we have to re-create ourselves, and we don’t have much time left.
The Power of the Powerless
So just so I understand, because revolt suggests, as I say, to people, you know, you’ve got to go out there and throw your body on the barbed wire. You’re going to, you know, suffer enormously, your family will, everyone you care about. Do you still see some, what, orderly alternatives, peaceful alternatives, peaceful protest?
CH: Well, in — sure, I mean, look, I covered the breakdown of the Stasi state, when half a million people every single day were gathering at Alexanderplatz, and tens of thousands of people were marching through the streets of Leipzig. What happens is, you know, they speak a truth — it’s Vaclav Havel’s great essay, 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” that when you speak a truth — and you know, the American public is not fooled. I mean, Congress has less than a 9 percent approval rating at this point; they get it. They don’t trust the corporate media, nor should they. And when you speak that truth, and enough of you are willing to go out on the streets and speak it, and then the state begins to get frightened — then, as they did in East Germany, the dictator Erich Honecker sent down an elite paratroop division to fire on the protesters in Leipzig, and they refused; Honecker was out of power within a week. Because what happens is that when you rise up, the elites can no longer count on the foot soldiers that maintain control both within the civil service, you know, within the police and everywhere else, to protect them. And I think that our elites at this point are so discredited on both the left and the right that, you know, I’m not naive enough to tell you it’s going to work, but it is a mechanism that might work, and frankly it’s the only mechanism we have left.
RS: Let me ask you about that. You mentioned Seattle, where you have very good City Council members who have pushed for a living wage and now they’ve adopted it. And on Amy Goodman’s show I had a debate, something of a debate with Joe Conason, who was being much kinder to Hillary Clinton, and I was being critical, and that councilwoman was on the show. And it was just dismissed — oh, what is Seattle, why is that an example.CH: Hmm.
RS: I know you’re going to be speaking there soon. Why is it an example? Is this the sort of thing we can do, and could it really turn around this incredible colossus of power?
CH: Yeah, because — because we can’t — we can’t, we can’t break through the iron curtain that the Republican and the Democratic parties have dropped around the national electoral process. I mean, Hillary Clinton, I think, is estimated to be raising $2.5 billion, is that right?
RS: Yes, and she’s also going out to raise money openly and publicly for the nonofficial PACs that will support her. So she’s actually betraying even her own rhetoric about this kind of money and will probably end up —
CH: Well, that’s nothing new for the Clintons.
RS: — yeah, and might end up raising more money than the Republicans, because she’s very big into Wall Street. That’s true. We’re going to run out of time, and I want to mention your book, “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.” But I want to ask you a question, going back to your religious training. And I know you take this message into the jails, you have a writing program and so forth. How do you convey the sense of a redeemer, a truth-sayer — how do you explain the whistleblower, for example, and why are there so few? Why is there a Daniel Ellsberg, and you wait 40 years for an Edward Snowden or a Chelsea Manning or so forth? What happens to character? And in terms of, you use [the phrase] “the moral imperative of revolt” — what happens to our moral sensibility in an ostensibly religious society? Is there a total disconnect of the religious teaching with the way people are?
CH: Well, I think it’s careerism. I mean, to stand up and do what a [Thomas] Drake or a [John] Kiriakou or Bill Binney or Snowden or Chelsea Manning, these people have paid tremendous price for their moral courage and their honesty. And there is a kind of, I think, within the rebel — and I use that term that Reinhold Niebuhr uses, about you know, the necessity of what he calls sublime madness. And he said that in moments of extremity, liberalism is kind of a spent and a dead force, and you need that sublime madness to stand up against this, you know, massive apparatus, and defy it, and understand the consequences that will rain down upon you. Julian Assange would be another example. So there is a kind of — I think great rebels often have the same kind of qualities that you see in religious mystics, that they, they just can’t do otherwise. Hannah Arendt writes about that, that the people who resist are not those who say, “Oh, it shouldn’t be done, or it oughtn’t to be done”; but the people who say, “I can’t.” And right now, because we live in a moment of extremity, of this, you know, we’ve undergone this kind of corporate coup d’etat, and it’s over, they’ve won — then we need to turn to the rebel. We need to turn to these people with what Niebuhr calls sublime madness. Because it’s our only hope. And most people who rebel, you know, when they begin are very lonely, isolated figures that the rest of the world writes off. And you see it, you know, you can look back at any revolutionary movement. You know, whether it’s the Bolsheviks or Castro and Che. I mean, so, ah, those rebels are what will lead us out of the wilderness. And there is a kind of madness to it. Rebels make very poor leaders. I interviewed Ronnie Kasrils, who founded the armed wing of the ANC with Mandela, and once in power he turned on the excesses of his own party, especially when they shot those miners. So you know, I think ultimately the rebel is always, the true rebel is always antagonistic to power, even when power is achieved among its own. You saw that with Che Guevara, by the way. So right now we need the rebel, and we need that figure like a Chelsea Manning or like a Snowden, who will defy the most powerful imperium on the planet and take the consequences. And why do they do it? You know, again, going back to the great theologian Niebuhr, motives are always mixed, you know; and there are always dark motives mixed with pure motives. I mean, nothing is kind of absolute. But I think ultimately because there’s something deep inside them that does not permit them to be complicit — and you know, if we really want to use a theological term — with evil.
Creating a Life of Meaning
You know, I just want to end on one last question, because people often ask me, you know — I know you have a great life force. I know you like many of the so-called ordinary aspects of life; I’ve spent time with you. And then people say: Why can’t Chris Hedges be more positive? Now, you’re quite positive. You’re positive about life. In fact, going into prisons and working with prisoners who face long sentences or even, you know, life imprisonment, death — ah, that takes a great deal of optimism. But it seems to me the difference between what you do and what many or most intellectuals, people who work with words, who write, do, is you have not accepted careerism as the measure of worth. And how did we get to the place where this became the trump card? Going along to get along and to be rewarded, as Lawrence Summers was with millions of really ill-gotten gains, advising people to do the wrong thing. How did this happen? And particularly given the examples we’ve had in human history. After all, the Germans were the best-educated people in the world when they embraced Hitler. Ah, and you know, as a journalist, like you I’ve been to totalitarian countries. And you know, and you really wonder how do so many people go along just to survive? And you mentioned Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil. Aren’t we seeing something like that now, where we’re seduced into being shoppers before we’re citizens, before we’re parents, before we’re anything else? There’s a kind of inhumanity to the basic cultural experience. How did this happen?
CH: Well, it’s the cult of the self, which is the engine of consumer society. It’s about the imposition of consumer desires, which were manufactured by the propaganda or the public relations industry after World War I, Edward Bernays, [Harold] Lasswell and others. It’s about destroying self-effacement, thrift, communitarianism and creating other — I don’t want to call them values, but other sort of dark beliefs that dominate life. So when we talk about even spirituality anymore — if you hear that term, which kind of makes me gag — ah, it’s kind of, it’s defined with “How is it with me?” And this is completely the opposite of every core teaching of any religious belief. Because it isn’t “How is it with me?” It’s “How is it with my neighbor.” And especially my neighbor who is suffering. And I think that the — I mean, I look at the public relations industry as one of the darkest industries in modern society because they very skillfully know how to make us confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. They’ve turned political campaigns into, you know, building emotional relationships with fictitious personalities that they create. This is anti-politics. So I think that, you know, we’re a culture that’s awash in these kinds of lies and this kind of manipulation. And the goal is to keep us alienated. The goal is to keep us atomized. The goal is to make us seek to reach out to the consumer society to fill this kind of spiritual void that is within us, to ameliorate the anxieties that are largely created by that society. And it’s a never-ending process which, you know, the manipulators of the consumer society understand. Because whatever it is that you achieve or you buy at a moment, it’s ultimately not fulfilling. And so you seek some — it’s this kind of endless quest, which is endless manipulation. And I think we go back to [Theodor] Adorno’s great essay, “Education After Auschwitz,” where he asks the question you just asked: How do we teach people to be moral beings? And we have created a system through charter schools and standardized testing and a war against the humanities and a celebration of wealth, ah, that has essentially snuffed out the capacity to teach what it means to be a moral being.
RS: And so the only way to reverse that is examples of courage and inspiration —
CH: And solidarity, and self-sacrifice, and acceptance that there are things that we must carry out in our life that will not bring us any kind of momentary happiness, but that we must do because they’re right. And it really gets down to the capacity to create a life of meaning. And a life of meaning is very different from a life that is spent after achieving an illusive or ephemeral joy or happiness; a life of meaning is about sacrifice for the other. I mean, I would ultimately say that that life of meaning brings you, you know, a kind of sense of self-worth which trumps any kind of, you know, euphoric happiness that may be able to be delivered in the emotional highs and lows of a consumer society. But that is an ethic that is completely counter to the dominant ethic of the culture.
RS: Well, Chris Hedges, the author of “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.”WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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