Chris Hedges Presentation, Santa Fe
Chris Hedges Presentation, Santa Fe
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Bob Scheer: I worked at the L.A. Times for 30 years and so I know something about mainstream journalism. I have a particular respect for Chris Hedges coming out of that environment trying to work in these institutions, trying to maintain your integrity and up against everything from insufferable, arrogance, bureaucracy and opportunism. It has really been interesting to switch roles and be the editor of Truthdig and have this star journalist leading our site.
This week for example his column pulled, I believe, 90,000 readers. Of course, it is stolen by every other site so it has probably been about 10 million readers. I’m in this position where I realize I’ve put editors in where people ask me to explain Chris Hedges. Why such a strong view? Why sometimes such a dark view? Why not more cheerful? I’ve never been in this position before. Usually, people have to explain me. I always go back and reread these columns and I realize what is at work here. He hates it when you say he is the prophetic voice. He knows a lot about religion and I know nothing about religion, so maybe it means something terrible. I know what it means to me. That at any time in a society, in a civilization, there are things that have to be said and they are not said because people are going along, they are afraid, they want to be trendy, they don’t want to startle people. They don’t want to take the punishment.
Every time I read one of the Chris Hedges columns that some neighbor, or someone at the university or someone else tells me is too dark, I read it and I say “no.” The problem is unfortunately it is accurate. Unfortunately. That is not Chris’ doing. I have thought of another aspect of this and that has to do with the relation to religion. I moderated a forum we had a Royce Hall at UCLA, Sam Harris and Chris Hedges, and I came away from that with a renewed respect for what had once been the Christian tradition in the church. My own father had been born a Lutheran, but I was alienated from it. Hearing about Chris’ father, who is a minister, and what he got from his father and the example his father said of courage in the church in issues like civil rights and gay rights and what an example he set for Chris and what it did for his journalism has really very much impressed me.
The final thing I wanted to say, it really disturbed me today when we went to Los Alamos because I thought a lot about nuclear weapons and the whole way they are treated as a game. When we talked about mutually assured destruction and today I even bought a little pin that had a Fat Man bomb on it. Forgetting what weapons do, forgetting what war is about, I’ve had only brief encounters in war zones around the world, but I remember the first time I was in a battle situation I had trouble controlling my body functions. I was that frightened. I felt that out of control. The first time I saw the mayhem that we do to people I had trouble controlling my emotions, I was so sickened, frightened and everything else. When I look at Chris’ career and I read his writings, I realize this is the person who brought back the reality of our savagery, our indifference to human suffering. Finally, I want to say the whole idea of the best and the brightest … somehow the smarter, the better educated, the more learned you are, the dumber you are. We see that all the time. People come to these horribly erroneous conclusions and yet they are very well educated. I think with Chris Hedges finally we have the best and the brightest who actually gets it and is on the side of honesty and truth. It is a wonderful example of the importance of intelligence, the importance of knowing what you are talking about, of having information and of treating that information seriously. I think we are honored tonight, frankly, to have the most outstanding journalist indeed, at least in our country, if not the world. I can’t think of anyone that I read with greater respect and more honor to be associated with than Chris Hedges.
Chris Hedges: Well that’s embarrassing. The only reason I agreed to write for Truthdig is because of Bob. You can go all the way back to Ramparts and all the way up to him getting thrown out of the Los Angeles Times because he took a stand very, very few people in the mainstream press would take against the war in Iraq. I think right about the same time we both lost our jobs for the same reason.
For me, great journalism is not about news. Any journalist will tell you that we can take the same set of facts and spin the story any way we want. Journalists manipulate facts. Great journalists care about truth. In the same way that great preachers care about truth. That is why those journalists who do exist within institutions like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times are such management problems: because they will just hammer away and hammer away, often at the expense of their own career.
Sydney Schanberg is a good example. He comes back from Cambodia, from covering the rise of the Khmer Rouge, he is put on the city desk, he sees how developers are driving the working and the middle class out of Manhattan and he starts writing about it. Of course, these are the people who have lunch and socialize with the publisher. And he won’t let go, and he won’t let go until what happens at The New York Times, it’s a bit like the old Communist Party in the Soviet Union, they never tell you what you’ve done wrong, you just suddenly find out that you are the deputy party chief in Tajikistan. That is what happened to me at the end of my career. That is what has happened to Sydney. That is inevitably when you care about the truth, you are going to confront the institutions that you work for.
There is a great theologian, Paul Tillich, who says all institutions, including the church, are inherently demonic. Bob spoke about my father, who was after 40 years as a parish minister driven out of the Presbyterian Church for his stance on gay rights. His brother was gay. My father had a particular sensitivity to the pain of being a gay man in America in the 1950s and the 1960s. He did set the model for which I live my own life. I always tell the story of when I was booed off a commencement stage in Rockford, Ill., in Rockford College, for denouncing the war. Bob and I were lynched in exactly the same way. The same that Ralph Nader was lynched. They take a certain sound bite and loop it. In my case, it was four days long on Fox and “O’Reilly.” The [New York] Times was pressured to respond. I remember going in, “You are losing your job.” I knew at this point losing the job would mean I wasn’t going to get a job at another mainstream news organization. Confronting the institution where they gave me a formal, written reprimand, which under guild rules means that you have violated the ethics policy for speaking out against the war. I had been given that written reprimand and if I spoke out again I would lose my job. That is guild rules. I think finally the gift my father gave me was in essence, freedom. Because I didn’t need The New York Times to tell me who I was. I didn’t need any institution to tell me who I was because my father had taught me who I was. I remember when my dad lost his own job. He was publicly advocating gender equality rights at a time when the Presbyterian Church was deeply hostile, and although he was involved in the anti-war movement and a World War II vet. He had been a sergeant in North Africa. The gay rights movement the church found most unpalatable. He decided that one Easter he was going to publicly hold a citywide Easter service for gays and lesbians. I was at Colgate and he drove down and picked me up because he said it would probably be one of the last times I heard him preach, which turned out to be the case. He got up and said, “Marriage is not a reward for being a heterosexual. Marriage is a sacrament. Any church that refuses to honor the sacrament of marriage does not deserve to call itself Christian.”
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I noticed that somehow I’m supposed to speak [here] about war and peace. The only broader topic that you could have written is “life.” It doesn’t matter; I just speak about what I want anyway. There is a really great Canadian philosopher I admire very much named John Ralston Saul. I urge you to take time to read his work. Voltaire’s “Bastards” was a very important book for me. Along with another book by Sheldon Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated.” If I had to pick two books of sort of contemporary political philosophy that I think are vital, those would be the two. Saul deals with the breakdown of globalization. The lies, and Bob’s written a lot about this, the lies that the proponents of globalization, which he [Wolin] correctly calls a utopian ideology, have sold to the rest of us. He calls the period of time we live in one of those moments in history where we have yet to formulate new ideas by which we can live and function and are clinging to those dead ideas that people like Thomas Friedman popularize and perpetuate, but with even minimal examination are exposed as utterly bankrupt and mendacious.
All of the promises of globalization have in fact turned out to be untrue. Wolin’s book, and Wolin is an amazing philosopher — if you are really into punishment, get his 1960 work “Politics and Vision,” which is one of the seminal texts of political philosophy in this country. It’s really an incredible piece of work. It starts with the Greeks and goes all the way up. In “Democracy Incorporated,” he I think describes correctly that we no longer live in a functioning democracy. We live in a system that he calls inverted totalitarianism. By that he means that it’s not classical totalitarianism. It doesn’t find its expression through a demagogue or a charismatic leader, but through the anonymity of the corporate state.
Inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate forces that purport to pay fealty to electoral politics, the Constitution, the iconography and language of American patriotism and yet, internally, have seized all of the levers of power as to render the citizen impotent. John Ralston Saul calls it a coup d’état in slow motion, a line I steal and rarely credit. I think that is right. Part of the problem we have is that the sophistication of the public relations industry is such that we, even those of us who are literate and thoughtful, are made to confuse how we feel with knowledge. I think both Wolin and Saul expose the structures of power. You can’t respond rationally to what is happening unless you understand where power is centered. It’s not centered in the personal narratives of political candidates, I believe. It’s not centered in the Republican or the Democratic parties. It’s centered in Wall Street. Both parties are captive to Wall Street.
I did not support Obama in 2008 and it was largely because of my relationship with two people. One was Dennis Kucinich, who you heard on Monday and who smelled Obama out really thoroughly. Dennis said you have to look at Obama’s voting record in the Senate. It’s two years of one corporate giveaway after another, including supporting the death penalty. Dennis said when he was a kid he went to the baseball games in Cleveland and there would be ushers going up and down the aisle [yelling] “Get your score card, get your score card!” You have to look statistically at what these people do. I think that the inability to shut off the noise machine and look at what is happening has been very effective. Or the noise machine has been very effective in deluding many of us or at least masking where the real centers of power lie.
I don’t believe we are going to be effective until we confront those centers of power, which is why I have been very involved in the Occupy movement. In acts of civil disobedience, I have been at Veterans for Peace and down in front of the White House. In the book I wrote, “Death of the Liberal Class,” there is a back story to that book actually. It started out, and it’s a good lesson for anyone who wants to be a writer. Never write someone else’s idea. Knopf, which is a big publisher so my agent was sort of salivating because they have big money, asked me to write a book on the press. I thought I didn’t want to do it. I gave a talk at the Ford Foundation with my former foreign editor who was the executive editor of The New York Times, Bill Keller. Then Ford said, “We think it’s a great idea. We will even give you a grant to write it.” So at that point I couldn’t turn it down. I did write it and I turned it in to Knopf and the editor of Knopf read it and he hated it. Knopf said, well, we will print it but will assign an editor to take out all the negativity. Of course, what they wanted was the mythical version without fear and favor, Watergate, Pentagon Papers, and actually I happen to believe the demise of the traditional press and especially newsprint is catastrophic for our democracy, what is left of it. But I’m not about to lie on behalf of the institution [of journalism]. I certainly understand the institution far better than the editors of Knopf. In fact, the editor who was assigned to this book was spending most of his time out there standing outside [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair’s office with a tape recorder ghostwriting Tony Blair’s memoirs, [for] which Knopf had paid $4 million. So I called the Nation Books. When you get an advance you get half of it upfront. So I got Nation to write a check for the money that I had already been paid and take the book. Instead of allowing Knopf to excise the negativity, they just got a check for what they paid and I took the manuscript back.
In the course of that process, of that transition, I thought: You know it’s not just the press that has collapsed, but all of the fundamental pillars of the liberal establishment. The liberal church that I come out of, liberal religious institutions including synagogues … where are the Abraham Heschels? The culture which has been completely decimated and commercialized. I had a great Irish writer as a professor in college, John McGahern, he was in Ireland when he died and it was on the front page of all the papers in Ireland. There still in Europe [is] an understanding [that] culture patrimony is something vital to the health of a nation. The destruction of labor, the destruction of the Democratic Party, and so I said I will write about all of these pillars that once made a democracy possible. I should say, and Bob is right, I come out of the religious left. The heroes in my house when I grew up were figures like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, who was if you look closely at King, a radical. Dan Berrigan, who baptized my daughter by the way, he is 92, is going to join us for a protest in New York [on June 7]. We have been after the New York City police, [which] pushed everyone out of Zuccotti [Park]. We held a demonstration and tried to occupy a vacant lot that is owned by Trinity Church in New York. Trinity Church is the third or fourth largest landowner in Manhattan. It has $30 billion worth of property. It is the landlord for Goldman Sachs. It brings in $30 million a year in revenue. The rector of Trinity Church, [the Rev. James] Cooper, his title is rector of Trinity Church and CEO of Trinity Corporation. There is a wonderful clip on YouTube of my friend George Packard, retired Episcopal bishop … climbing up a ladder on that cyclone fence and jumping over. About 60 people [were] arrested. Trinity won’t drop the charges and Packard was arrested on May 1 with a group of Veterans for Peace.
On the May Day demonstrations, several of the Occupiers congregated at the Vietnam Memorial down in lower Manhattan. It turns out Packard was a platoon leader in Vietnam, a lieutenant and got the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. He had a breakdown after the war. He set up mostly night ambushes and became a priest because of it. There was, in the usual confusion of Occupy, a call by some people to hold the park, others didn’t hold, but Packard and about 12 members from Veterans for Peace [did]. If he gets picked up again then he faces three months in jail. He’s ready to go. One of the leaders of the Occupy movement had said, “Bishop Packard, Bishop Packard, if they arrest you again you’re three months” and Packard said, “I’m not going anywhere, I put names on that wall.” He didn’t and they did arrest him.
But we are holding a demonstration to ask Trinity Church to drop the charges, which they won’t do. Because if Trinity Church will drop the charges against these protesters then there won’t be a trial. We are going to have a day of fasting and prayer on the steps of Trinity Church. And this was my idea, I thought we would go over to Rector Cooper’s lavish penthouse and hold a vespers service and serve the Eucharist in front of his doorman.
When I began writing this book I wondered, what is it that went wrong? How did we end up where we are? It led me back to World War I and the figure of Woodrow Wilson, who I think is a very dark figure in American history. I just finished teaching a course in a prison in New Jersey. They segregate the prisons by gang affiliation, so these were all Bloods. I taught them Leon Litwack’s two great, great works, he taught at Berkeley, “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery” and “Trouble in Mind.” But I remember reading in that book that someone as brilliant and aware as W.E.B. Du Bois voted for Wilson in the belief, and he was very close to Eugene Debs, in the belief that this was the practical thing to do. One of the first things Wilson did when he took office was re-segregate government offices. Of course it was a decision that Du Bois deeply regretted, walking out on Debs.
I turn to a lot of writers of the period, of the three that come away with the most integrity of sort of intellectuals are Randolph Bourne, Jane Addams, and Dwight Macdonald. Dwight Macdonald, if you don’t know him, is just an amazing writer. … Dwight Macdonald … founded a losing magazine in terms of profitability. … He published Bruno Bettelheim, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and it lasted five years and never had a circulation more than 5,000. Chomsky credits his entire political awakening to [the magazine] Politics. Macdonald in one of his essays writes about the fallacy of trying to dumb yourself down to reach the wider culture. [The fallacy] that numbers somehow mean something. Politics is a perfect example of how when you hold fast to intellectual rigor and integrity you don’t count numbers. Chomsky is probably the poster child but there were many others.
Macdonald writes that World War I, he talks about progressive and radical movements. He said World War I was the rock on which they were broken. On the eve of the war, remember Wilson and the war had no popular support in this country. Wilson had run for re-election on the slogan that he kept us out of the war. You had over 70 socialist mayors. You had publications like Appeal to Reason, which had the fourth-highest circulation in the country. A socialist journal, you had The Masses, you had radical unions like the Wobblies that had a broad social vision. The reason the Canadians have universal health care is because their unions fought for it for everyone. Whereas our unions by the time health care was an issue were so decimated that it was about the rank and file and those that had that broad social vision had been pushed out.
What happened in World War I was the creation of the Committee on Public Information, or the Creel Committee. It was headed by a former muckraking journalist named George Creel who ends his career working for Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon in the House Un-American Activities affair. The most interesting figure, the sort of grand inquisitor of the era, is Walter Lippmann, who Wilson … what happens is the collapse of czarist Russia raises the possibility that the kaiser can move 100 divisions over to the western front. The fear is that it would tip the balance against the British and the French. Wall Street had lent tremendous sums to the British and the French. If they were defeated, it would not be paid back. Suddenly there is all this pressure on Wilson to go into the war. Wilson accepts. This was also aided by the kaiser’s decision to try to create a naval blockade around Britain and I think he sinks two or three American merchant ships. Wilson decides he will rule or impose order through the traditional coercive mechanisms of legislation and most specifically the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act. Lippmann said no. He said in fact we can create a system of mass propaganda, where you will only have to use the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act selectively against those few dissidents who refuse to conform. Mass propaganda has the capacity to seduce an entire population into the war effort.
Now what is important is that this is the first time you have a system of mass propaganda that employs the understanding of crowd psychology pioneered by figures like Le Bon, Trotter and of course Sigmund Freud. Edward Bernays, the sort of father of public relations, ends up working for the CIA; he does all the black propaganda for the 1950s. You manipulate people’s emotions. People are not moved by fact or reason.
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So you have this massive propaganda apparatus in place; they have speakers’ bureaus, three-minute men who go out and give talks at movie theaters. You have a film division that is making movies like “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.” There were actually riots when these films first premiered because people are fighting to get a seat. You have its own news division and it becomes national policy that every single publication has to support the war.
So the masses shut down. Appeal to Reason continues to publish, but has a pro-war stance. And for a window into how terrifying an effect of that propaganda is you look at the writings of Randolph Bourne and Jane Addams who hold fast to the anti-war message because what happens is this isn’t used just to promote the war, it is used to destroy all of those radical movements that had frightened the robber barons and the power elite. Those who hold out like Debs end up in prison. What happens [is that] Macdonald writes that the moment the war is over, the dreaded Hun becomes the dreaded Red. We entered an era of permanent war and Macdonald said none of the political theorists of the century grappled with this concept of permanent war where you are constantly fighting the external and the internal enemy. In fact, Marx doesn’t write much about war but he writes during the Prussian War and he hopes for a German victory, because if there is a German victory we will be closer to having the worker state.
I think Macdonald is right. What becomes an effective mechanism, one that is closely copied by the Nazis. One of the seminal texts that Goebbels uses is Bernays’ book “Propaganda.” There is a kind of very dark irony that the fact that the work of Bernays contributes quite directly to the murder of many of his own relatives.
It becomes all about emotion and all about the manipulation of emotion. After the war, all of these people go straight to Madison Avenue and they start working for corporations.
Laura Nader, who teaches at Berkeley and is Ralph’s sister … said something that is very smart. People talk about American culture but what they are really talking about is corporate culture, and this corporate culture was instilled, this compulsion to consume. This inner compulsion to consume. The destruction of traditional values of thrift, self-effacement, replacing it with the cult of the self, with hedonism. Malcolm Cowley in his memoir “Exile’s Return,” when he writes about the culture mostly in Greenwich Village of the bohemians in the 1920s and ’30s, comments that although they consider themselves the bohemians … while they consider themselves outsiders, that cult of the self has infected even the left. This coming out of the religious left. It was interesting, although I was very young … I was very conscious when my father took us to demonstrations he would wear a clerical collar. I lived in a house where there was no alcohol. We didn’t work on the Sabbath. There was great disdain for the hedonism of the New Left on the part of the religious left. There was always something that made us deeply uncomfortable. I think that when you look back at the kind of qualities that you see in the old radicals, the pre-World War I radicals like Mother Jones and others that you can see exactly the kind of transformation that Cowley writes so eloquently about.
In a functioning democracy, the liberal class is never designed to be the political left. It is designed to be the political center. Chomsky has written about this quite well. The political role of the liberal class in a capitalist democracy is that it functions as a safety valve to make incremental and piecemeal reform possible. Karl Popper also makes this point in “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Popper has a great line, which I like: The question is not how do you get good people to rule. [Most people attracted to power are at best mediocre (which is Obama) or venal (which is George W. Bush).] The question is how do you make the powerful frightened of you? There is that wonderful scene where it’s late 1970-71, Nixon is in the White House. There is a huge anti-war demonstration. They’ve ringed the White House with buses and Nixon’s standing at the window wringing his hands, going “Henry, they are going to break through and get us.” That’s just where you want people in power to be.
Conrad Black when he writes his biography of Roosevelt says that Roosevelt’s greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. That is exactly right. That is what he did. That is what the New Deal was about. The liberal class, as Chomsky points out, sets the parameters of the debate. You are allowed to … question the tactics or the strategy employed in the invasion of Iraq, but not the virtues of those who carried out the war. The same thing, and this is Chomsky’s attack on people like Anthony Lewis and others after the Vietnam War, oh we were naive, we didn’t expect the insurgency, but you can’t cross that line into attacking the virtues of the ruling class, questioning the system of capitalism itself. Once you do, you end up like a Ralph Nader, you become a pariah, you are pushed out of that system.
Of course, I think what has happened, I think Bob would agree with me, when I began as a journalist, when he began as a journalist at the L.A. Times, there was far more space, far more acceptance of a range of viewpoints. We’ve just watched the walls close. There is no place anymore for someone like me at The New York Times. It reminds me of what Dorothy Parker once said of Katharine Hepburn’s emotional range as an actress, it ranges from A to B. So we saw the destruction after the war, of course the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were used against Emma Goldman and Berkman and the deportations, Appeal to Reason even though it supported the war was shut down, The Masses was shut down, radical unions like the Wobblies were destroyed, Big Bill Haywood [the victim of] trumped-up murder charges. Accompanying that is a disemboweling of liberal institutions themselves. Sidney Hook, a later figure, becomes the poster child for this. Hook … flirted briefly with communism in the ’30s when capitalism crashed. Because of that terror he would name names within academia, this was in the ’50s. You have a weakening of the liberal institutions that make incremental reform possible and you have a destruction of those populist and radical movements that have always been the true correctives to American democracy.
Howard Zinn does a very good job in his book “A People’s History of the United States” explaining precisely that the creation of the American political system, the deification of the Founding Fathers just absolutely mystifies me. They did not want a popular democracy. They were slaveholders. They were fervent supporters of the genocide of the Native Americans. They created mechanisms by which popular rule would never be achieved. Senators were appointed. The Senate held all the power, the Electoral College, you disenfranchise women, you disenfranchise African-Americans, Native Americans, people without property, so it is essentially this white ruling class.
Zinn does a very good job. I actually taught Zinn’s book in the prison. It was great because nobody in the prison system reads, so I said I’m going to teach a course on American history. They thought that was great. I just brought in boxes of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and handed them out to the inmates. It’s really moving to teach these guys and heartbreaking because there are always four or five in every class that are hungry to learn. They never had a chance, ever, and they know that when they walk out those prison doors they won’t have a chance. They will walk back into neighborhoods not only where there are no jobs, but where anytime they fill out an employment application to work in a warehouse they have to check that box that says they are a felon. They know it. And when they have that kind of knowledge coupled with that kind of hunger, it just breaks your heart.
This is the third course I’ve taught in the prison. They are not terribly disciplined. The first class I think we talked more about the ‘hood then we talked about anything else. That idea of a colloquium went out the door. From then on it was like 90-minute talks. I’d be teaching it and I’d hear these inmates go “Damn, damn, we’ve been lied to.”
In this last class when I taught Litwack … just understanding the reign of terror of lynching or the amount of rape that was carried out by both white slaveholders or white males of black women after slavery. We were going through that chapter and one of the inmates raises her hand and goes, “Is this why some of us are light-skinned?” In that class, those inmates had to grapple for the first time that some of them were of course descended from slaveholders. Mary Chestnut writes in her diary that when she visits plantations there were always gaggles of mulatto kids that everybody just sort of ignored, but they were children of all the white slave owners.
The destruction of the liberal institutions throwing people out because they are communists finally culminated in the McCarthy hearings. Thousands of people lost their jobs. High school teachers, social workers used to organize the union on behalf of their clients, university professors, artists, directors, radio personalities, journalists, I think at that point the props are knocked out from under us because the radical movements have been destroyed in the name of anti-communism. I’m very critical of the New Left because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the old radical left of pre-World War I. I just did a book with graphic illustrator Joe Sacco called “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” We’ve just spent two years on it. It’s coming out in June. When we began, the revolt was conjecture. But it was a belief that unfettered, unregulated capitalism knows no limit. Karl Polanyi writes in “The Great Transformation” on what unfettered, unregulated capitalism is like. He grasps that as Karl Marx understood, it is a revolutionary force. It in essence commodifies everything. Beings become commodities; the natural world becomes a commodity that you exploit until exhaustion or collapse. Polanyi, although he is an economist, actually uses the word “sacred.” He said when a society loses the capacity for the sacred, when nothing, including human life, has an intrinsic value but only has a monetary value, that society cannibalizes itself until it dies. Which is precisely what is happening.
Every opening in American democracy came not in the formal mechanisms of power, but through movements. Whether it was the Liberty Party that fought slavery, whether it was the suffragists that fought for women’s rights, whether it was the labor movement and whether finally it was the civil rights movement. You can argue that the most powerful political figure in many ways, in this country at least until he was killed in 1968, was Martin Luther King. Because when he went to Memphis 50,000 people went with him. …
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I’ve taught at some of the best institutions in this country, Princeton, Columbia, NYU, and Princeton is a corporation. It acts like a corporation. It thinks like a corporation. I was just at my son’s graduation and I can tell you that most of the trustee board sitting up there on the platform in their academic gowns are hedge fund managers who should be in jail. Yet, they are presiding over this institution. If you live within the confines of this institution you aren’t going to speak out against corporate power and the assault on the humanities. The decimation doesn’t happen at places like Princeton, but most kids go to Princeton to get branded, not to get an education anyway.
If you look at state universities, [SUNY] Albany abolishes its classics department, its foreign language department. I spoke to the University of Washington and they had 10 percent budget cuts and their response was not to touch the gleaming, sponsored business school but to abolish the theater department and the philosophy department. All of those academic forces that have the capacity to teach you how to think rather than what to think. All of those things within the society that deal with beauty and truth and the sacred; all those forces within the society that make transformation possible are under brutal assault and you see it among artists, journalists, musicians, writers. We don’t remunerate. The only thing we remunerate are corporate management and public relations, which are lies.
With the rise of the New Left you already begin to see this disease. So you have figures like Lane Kirkland and George Meany and the AFL-CIO who are enthusiastically backing Nixon’s war in Indochina and denouncing the hippies in the street. I was just telling you about the book, Sacco and I did this book. We wanted to write about these sacrifice zones. The poorest places in America because in a world of unfettered capitalism these sacrifice zones are just going to expand outwards until we create, as Ralph Nader constantly reminds us, a system of neofeudalism. A world of masters and serfs, a world chronicled in, we were just talking about “1984,” where you have the Inner Party which is about 3 or 4 percent, you have the Outer Party which is about 12 percent and everyone else is a prole, and that is where we are headed.
So we went to Camden, New Jersey, which per capita is the poorest city in the United States. Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the poorest county in the United States. Average life expectancy for a male in Pine Ridge is 48, which is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. The coal fields of southern West Virginia. The struggle of the miners, the rise of figures like Mother Jones, like John Lewis and the fact that you can’t walk into a diner or a motel, all you hear is Fox News, that is it. It used to be in 1912, the hero or heroine in the coal fields of southern West Virginia was Mother Jones, now it’s Sarah Palin.
I think that the destruction of the liberal class, Bob just told me he is about to start a book on the Clintons … Clinton to me becomes a poster child for that. He speaks in that traditional feel-your-pain language of the liberal class and yet he just sells them out at every turn. For me Clinton becomes a very important figure in this process whereby we create a species of absolutely hollow junk politics. A species of political theater that is built around the personal narratives of candidates that are utterly irrelevant to the systems of power. So you have a Clinton who begins to take corporate money and knows that if he does corporate bidding he will get more money. So he passes NAFTA, which was the greatest betrayal of the working class in this country since the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act. He destroys welfare. He deregulates the FCC, which is not a small step, because it allows corporations like Clear Channel and Rupert Murdoch, News Corp., and Viacom, General Electric and Disney to just buy up the airwaves completely and crowd out anything other than celebrity gossip, trivia and right-wing demagoguery. He decimates, along with Larry Summers, the banking system.
There is no banking crisis in Canada because [Prime Minister Jean] Chretien did not destroy the firewall between commercial and investment banks. There are no bank closures in Canada. At that point, I think the game was up. I think the final deathblow was Citizens United 2010. Not that corporate money at that point was not driving politics and driving the debate. If you have time, watch that documentary they made on Nader, “An Unreasonable Man.” It is really good because they give a lot of time to Nader’s critics. They interview a lot of old Nader’s Raiders who say — now of course they are pulling down a lot of money in some law firm — and they are all going “You know Ralph squandered his legacy.” Ralph remains completely consistent. They ask Ralph about his legacy and he says: What are they going to do, take seat belts out of cars? Ralph, I think, understands corporate power to my mind better than any other American in this country and has been fighting longer and with more integrity and courage and brilliance than any other figure in this country. In 2008, he wanted me to come to Washington and come work with him on the campaign. … As my contribution to his campaign, I wrote his major policy speeches, which I have to say I thought were pretty good until I got to the University of Wisconsin and gave a talk and a student raised their hand and said, “We really like Ralph Nader, but every time we hear his speeches they are so boring.”
But Ralph chronicles that sort of encroachment of corporate power and he knows all of the players and of course I think like Bob and I, Clinton becomes a very pivotal player in that process so that by the time we arrived to 2008, our liberal institutions had been decimated, our radical popular movements which really are the engine of opening up our democracy and that is the whole thesis of Zinn’s book. There is a constant battle of movements to open up our democracy. The founders of this country did not intend it to be a popular democracy. They were not sympathetic to movements. It’s that long fight. One of the things that makes Zinn’s book so moving and comes out of his teaching at Spelman is that he never forgets the African-American narrative.
That is just there from the beginning and throughout the entire book and of course, King in 1967 and 1968, there is a really fine biography of King called “Bearing the Cross” by David Garrow. I just read a really fine biography of Malcolm X written in 1965 by Peter Goldman called “The Life and Death of Malcolm X.” It is interesting that both Garrow and Goldman are white but they get it. Goldman knew Malcolm, had covered him as a reporter in Chicago and then had gone to New York and covered him there, but that convergence … of King and Malcolm. That understanding that white liberals are quite happy to ensure that black people will get the vote but they were never going to do anything to get them out of the economic squalor that had kept them trapped in these sacrifice zones or internal colonies since slavery.
This is the power of Litwack’s book that 40 percent of the population in the South is black. They build the South, literally. With slavery they are given nothing. Not even that proverbial 40 acres and a mule. Some of them were on Sherman’s March to the Sea. Because they were hanging onto Sherman’s army and they [the Army] wanted to get rid of them, but a year later they took it all away from them and there are really heart-wrenching stories of federal troops going in there and blacks actually fighting the troops to try and protect their land, what they had built, their sod huts and their crops, and of course they are defeated.
What happens in 2008 is that at this point the system, in my mind, is completely gamed. Wall Street pulls all the strings. With the financial collapse Wall Street thinks they’ve gotten caught. They think the criminal malfeasance they have engaged in, the massive fraud, the ripping off of Americans, the selling of garbage, toxic junk to foundations, institutions, colleges, pension plans, mutual funds, they think they are going to get it. They’ve evaporated in many cases 40 percent of people’s individual wealth. They are so discredited that a figure like Barack Obama who uses the rhetoric of accountability, responsibility, of corporate control, assumes power.
I think Obama played a very cynical game. If you look at all of the campaign promises that he made, I don’t think there is one that he hasn’t broken. He has been far worse, by the way, on civil liberties then George Bush. The Espionage Act six times has been used against whistle-blowers and leakers. You talk to any investigative journalist in this country and they can’t get anything because anybody within the system knows that they face prison time. Even if they are exposing war crimes, as the CIA agent Sterling was when he apparently spoke to Jim Risen at The New York Times. You know Risen was just called in the other day before a court and told that he has to expose his sources, something that traditionally journalists have been protected from doing. He hasn’t restored habeas corpus. The FISA Act, which retroactively makes legal under our Constitution what is illegal, the warrantless wiretapping, eavesdropping, monitoring of ten of hundreds of millions of Americans citizens with this new super computer being built out in Utah to store all the data. Unfortunately, for President Obama, Section 1021 in the National Defense Authorization Act was just declared invalid by a federal judge in Manhattan. We are waiting to see if they will appeal.
For me, Obama is a brand in the same way that a few years ago Calvin Klein would put people of color and HIV-positive models up on their billboard to associate their product with a risqué lifestyle and progressive politics. That is why Obama won Advertising Age’s top annual award after he was elected, which was marketer of the year. …
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When Joe and I were beginning the final leg of this book, last fall we suddenly saw the rise of Occupy at the gates of Wall Street. It was clear that this revolt, this belief, and it really came out of Polanyi. This understanding that with all impediments lifted, corporations would continue to essentially cannibalize both the global and national economy in the name of profit. Anytime you see hedge fund managers taking an interest in inner-city education it’s not because they want to teach poor African-American children how to read and write. It’s because they know the federal government spends about $600 billion a year on education and they want it. Just like they want the Social Security fund and everything else. The rise of the Occupy movement, we actually added a chapter, the last chapter will actually be the days of revolt. In the belief that it is only by building these movements that we have the capacity to confront what in theological terms are systems of death. It’s not hyperbolic. What these corporations, and especially the fossil fuel industry, is doing to the ecosystem dooms the next generation.
My youngest son is 4 and I will walk by his room and his favorite book is called “Out of the Blue” and it’s a big picture book. Every time I see him look at those pictures it kills me because I know if there is not a radical change in our behavior every single one of those sea creatures will be dead within his lifetime. That is what they are doing. You fly over the Appalachians, which I did, and you can’t understand the destruction of Bosnia until you flew over [that country]. You would drive through these villages where the Serbs had gone in there and driven everyone out and dynamited all the foundations, but when you flew over it in a helicopter. You fly over them and you saw a completely ravaged landscape. The same is true in the Appalachian Mountains where the coal companies don’t want to dig down anymore for the coal. They blow off the top 400 feet of the mountains and they poison the water and they poison the streams. You go into these old coal camps and everybody is medicated and taking “hillbilly heroin.” Massive quantities of it. We interviewed people and seven weeks later we called and he died of an overdose. No fresh food. The nearest supermarket is an hour away. When people line up and you go to the gas station, no one fills their tank up. So they are eating this processed crap. The same is true in Camden. There is no supermarket in Camden because these people cannot afford fruits and vegetables that are trucked all the way from California or up from Florida. These corporations, there is a business term for it, they “harvest.” What these corporations are doing in essence not only to the country, but to the planet, is harvesting it. I don’t know whether they think they can escape from it. I had the unfortunate experience of going to a very elite boarding school on scholarship at the age of 10 so I grew up with a lot of these people. My sneaky suspicion is that they are just stupid. They really don’t think. Look at George W. Bush. As soon as I saw Bush, I went to school with so many Bushes. The only thing they can talk about is money and how to make it. That’s it. They are utterly blinded to the wider world. In biblical terms, it’s called idolatry.
Unless we begin to create mechanisms of resistance outside the formal structures of power, which may be Occupy, and I was deeply enough involved in Occupy to know its many weaknesses including the consensus model, which doesn’t really work. It’s interesting though, the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who had been a natural scientist and begun his career studying animal herds, actually writes about that and he says that consensus usually breaks down, especially in tribal communities, once you reach 150. Once you start reaching the large numbers then you have to break off. He also has an interesting counter to Darwin in that he says it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of those groups that cooperate. He talks about herds where an animal will be wounded and the other animals will circle that animal that in fact, survival is best achieved by mutual interdependence, not survival of the fittest.
I can’t tell you where the Occupy movement is going; no one knows — I’ve covered movements. I’ve covered both of the Palestinian uprisings. I’ve covered most of the revolutions in Eastern Europe. I was in East Germany in 1989, Czechoslovakia and later in Romania. I grew up in a small farm town in upstate New York. It was communist this and communist that and after a few days in Romania I spoke to friends I grew up with and I said you know all those things they told us about communists, they are true. What was interesting about the movements is that even the purported leaders of these movements didn’t know where they were going. You have a few Lutheran pastors and congregants holding candlelight vigils … and then suddenly one day instead of 70 people it’s 200 people and then the next thing you know in September of 1989 it’s 70,000 people. Erich Honecker sends down an elite paratrooper group to fire on the crowd. When the officers go in the barracks the paratroopers are weeping because they have family members in those demonstrations. When they physically get down there but the local Communist Party refuses to give them the order to open fire on the crowd and Honecker lasts another week in power. When you can pull those kinds of numbers to discredit. This was the most efficient police state at the time in the world. For every 63 East Germans there was an informant. It fell. I was with the leaders of the East German opposition on the afternoon of November 9, 1989, and I remember them telling me that perhaps within a year there would be free passage back and forth across the Berlin Wall. Within a few hours the Berlin Wall at least did not exist.
The power of resistance even when … we aren’t getting the numbers … that power of resistance is potent. As Havel points out in “The Power of the Powerless,” remember that the Czechs in 1977 fought and struggled and were marginalized for many, many years before Havel emerged in 1989. It keeps alive that other narrative. When I was in Prague that winter, up and down the streets were posters of Jan Palach, who was a Charles University student who in protest of the 1968 invasion lit himself on fire and died four days later of his burns. When fellow students tried to carry his body in a funeral procession to the cemetery, the police broke it up. When his grave became a shrine, they dug up his remains, cremated them and gave them to his mother and told his mother she was not allowed to bury them. Yet and though it wasn’t covered, although he had been rendered a nonperson by the communist dictatorship, his picture was everywhere. Two weeks after the communist government fell, 10,000 people converged on Red Army Square to rename it Jan Palach Square.
Remember these revolutions were pulling half a million people in Wenceslas Square. When you use nonviolence as a tactic and when you speak truth to power what you are doing is not so much confronting power, but pulling forces within the power structure to you so that the foot soldiers who are tasked with carrying out forms of repression are not trusted by the power elite. At that point, the power elite is finished. That is the route that I think we have to follow.
It was winter, it was December, it was cold, it was snowing. A singer named Marta Kubisova walks out on the balcony. When the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, she had sung an anthem of defiance. The punishment for that is when [Alexander] Dubcek was overthrown and the Soviet client regime was installed she became a complete nonperson. Her entire recording stock was destroyed. You never heard her on the airwaves. She had spent the time between 1968-1989 working on an assembly line in a toy factory. She walked out on that balcony and she sang that anthem and everyone in the crowd knew every word. That is the power of resistance. The power of truth and ultimately the power of faith. Thank you.Wait, before you go…
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