Journalist Chris Hedges on Capitalism’s “Sacrifice Zones”
Camden, New Jersey is one of the poorest cities in the United States. Camden suffers from unemployment, urban decay, poverty, and many other social issues. Much of the city of Camden, New Jersey suffers from urban decay. (Photo:Phillies1fan777)
There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed. Journalist Chris Hedges calls these places “sacrifice zones,” and joins Bill this week on Moyers & Company to explore how areas like Camden, New Jersey; Immokalee, Florida; and parts of West Virginia suffer while the corporations that plundered them thrive.
These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed,” Hedges tells Bill.
“It’s the willingness on the part of people who seek personal enrichment to destroy other human beings… And because the mechanisms of governance can no longer control them, there is nothing now within the formal mechanisms of power to stop them from creating essentially a corporate oligarchic state.”
The broadcast includes a visit with comics artist and journalist Joe Sacco, who collaborated with Hedges on Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, an illustrated account of their travels through America’s sacrifice zones. Kirkus Reviews calls it an “unabashedly polemic, angry manifesto that is certain to open eyes, intensify outrage and incite argument about corporate greed.”
A columnist for Truthdig, Hedges also describes the difference between truth and news. “The really great reporters — and I’ve seen them in all sorts of news organizations — are management headaches because they care about truth at the expense of their own career,” Hedges says.
Exploring parts of America “that have been destroyed for quarterly profit.”
Bill Moyers: Welcome. Here we are, barely halfway through the summer, and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have stepped up their cage match, each attacking the other, throwing insults and accusations back and forth like folding chairs hurled across the wrestling ring.
Governor Romney pummels away at the economy; President Obama pummels away at Mr. Romney—when he was or wasn’t at his company Bain Capital, his tax returns and his offshore accounts. All the while, as they bob and weave their way through this quadrennial competition, punching wildly, the real story of what’s happening to ordinary people as capitalism runs amok is largely ignored by each of them. But not in this book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”—an unusual account of poverty and desolation across contemporary America. It’s a collaboration between graphic artist and journalist Joe Sacco, about whom more later, and my guest on this week’s broadcast, Chris Hedges.
Chris Hedges: All of the true correctives to American democracy came through movements that never achieved formal political power.
Bill Moyers: This is just the latest battle cry from Hedges, who, angry at what he sees in the world, expresses his outrage in thoughtful prose that never fails to inform and provoke. As a correspondent and bureau chief for “The New York Times,” he covered wars in North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East—leaving the paper after a reprimand for publicly denouncing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In such books as “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” his weekly column for the website “Truthdig” and freelance articles for a variety of other publications, Chris Hedges has taken his life’s experience covering the brutality of combat and shaped a worldview in which morality and faith, and the importance of truth-telling, dissent and social activism take precedence, even if it means going to jail.
Welcome, Chris Hedges.
Chris Hedges: Thank you.
Bill Moyers: Tell me about Joe Sacco. He was your companion on this trip. And he was your, in effect, coauthor. Although he was sketching instead of writing.
Chris Hedges: I’ve known Joe since the war in Bosnia. We met when he was working on his book, “Gorazde.” And I was not a reader of graphic novels. But I watched him work. And I certainly know a brilliant journalist when I see one. And he is one of the most brilliant journalists I’ve ever met.
He reports it out with such depth and integrity and power, and then he draws it out. And I realized that an extremely important component of this book was making visible these invisible communities, because we don’t see them. They’re shut out. They’re frightening, they’re depressing. And they’re virtually off the radar screen in terms of the commercial media.
Bill Moyers: This is a tough book. It’s not dispatches from Disneyworld. It paints a very stark portrait of poverty, despair, destructive behavior. What makes you think people want to read that sort of thing these days?
Chris Hedges: That wasn’t a question that Joe Sacco and I ever asked. It’s absolutely imperative that we begin to understand what unfettered, unregulated capitalism does, the violence of that system, which is portrayed in all of the places that we visited.
These are sacrifice zones, areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. And we’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed. And because there are no impediments left, these sacrifice zones are just going to spread outward.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean, there are no impediments left?
Chris Hedges: There’s no way to control corporate power. The system has broken down, whether it’s Democrat or Republican. And because of that, we’ve all become commodities. Just as the natural world has become a commodity that is being exploited until it is exhausted, or it collapses.
Bill Moyers: You call them sacrifice zones.
Chris Hedges: Right.
Bill Moyers: Explain what you mean by that.
Chris Hedges: Well, they have the individuals who live within those areas have no power. The political system is bought off, the judicial system is bought off, the law enforcement system services the interests of power, they have been rendered powerless. You see that in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia.
Now here, in terms of national resources is one of the richest areas of the United States. And yet these harbor the poorest pockets of community, the poorest communities in the United States. Because those resources are extracted. And that money is not funneled back into the communities that are sitting on top of, or next to those resources.
Not only that, but they’re extracted in such a way that the communities themselves are destroyed quite literally because you have not only terrible problems with erosion, as they cause when they do the mountaintop removal, they’ll use these gigantic bulldozers to push off all the trees and then burn them.
And when we flew over the Appalachians, and it’s a terrifying experience, because you realize only then do you realize how vast the devastation is. Just as when we were both in the war in Bosnia, you couldn’t grasp the destruction of ethnic cleansing until you actually flew over Bosnia, and village after village after village had been razed and destroyed.
And the same was true in the Appalachian Mountains. And these people are poisoned. The water is poisoned, it smells, the soil is poisoned. And the people who are making tremendous profits from this don’t even live in West Virginia–
Bill Moyers: You said something like, “While the laws are West Virginia are written by the coal companies, 95 percent of those coal companies–”
Chris Hedges: Right.
Bill Moyers: “–are not in West Virginia.”
Chris Hedges: That’s right. They no longer want to dig down for the coal, and so they’re blowing the top 400 feet off of mountains poisoning the air, poisoning the soil, poisoning the water.
They use some of the largest machines on earth. These draglines, 25-stories tall that are very efficient in terms of ripping out coal seams. But by the time they left, there’s just a wasteland. Nothing grows. Some of the richest soil, some of the purest water, and these are the headwaters for much of the East Coast, You are rendering the area moonscape. It becomes inhabitable. And you’re destroying you know, these are the lungs of the Eastern seaboard. It’s all destroyed and it’s not coming back.
And that violence is visited on these communities. And you see it played out. I mean, Camden, New Jersey, which is the poorest city per capita in the United States and always, the one or two in terms of the most dangerous, it’s a dead city. There’s nothing left. There is no employment. Whole blocks are abandoned. The only thing functioning are open-air drug markets, of which there are about a hundred.
And you’re talking third or fourth generation of people trapped in these internal colonies. They can’t get out, they can’t get credit. And what that does to your dignity, your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth.
BILL MOYERS I was struck by your saying Camden is “beset with the corruption and brutal police repression reminiscent of the despotic regimes that you covered as a correspondent for the New York Times in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.” You describe a city where the per capital income is $ll,967. Large swaths of the city, as Joe Sacco Shows us, are abandoned, windowless brick factories, forlorn warehouses.
Chris Hedges: At one point in the 50s, it was a huge shipyard that employed 36,000 people. Campbell’s Soup was made there, RCA used to be there. But there were a variety of businesses it attracted in that great migration a lot of unskilled labor from the South, as well as immigrants from New York
Because without an education, it was a place that you could find a job. It was unionized, of course, so people had adequate wages and some protection. And then it just– everything went down. With the flight of manufacturing overseas.
It’s all gone. Nothing remains. And that’s why it’s such a stark example of what we’ve done to ourselves, without realizing that the manufacturing base of any country is absolutely vital to its health. Not only in terms of its economic, but in terms of its, you know, the cohesion of a society because it gives employment.
Bill Moyers: But give me a thumbnail sketch of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Chris Hedges: Well, Pine Ridge is where it began, Western exploitation. And it was the railroad companies that did it. They wanted the land, they took the land, the government gave them the land. It either gave it to them or sold it to them very cheaply. They slaughtered the buffalo herds, they broke these people. Forcing a people that had not been part of a wage economy to become part of a wage economy, upending the traditional values.
And it really is about the maximization of profit, it really is about the commodification of everything, including human beings. And this was certainly true in the western wars.
And it’s appalling. You know, the average life expectancy for a male in Pine Ridge is 48. That is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. At any one time, 60 percent of the dwellings do not have electricity or water.
Bill Moyers: You write of one tiny village, tiny village, with four liquor stores. And that dispense the equivalent of 13,500–
Chris Hedges: Right.
Bill Moyers: –cans of beer a day. And with devastating results.
Chris Hedges: Yes. And they start young and some estimates run that, you know, alcoholism is as high as 80 percent. This contributes, of course, to early death. That’s in Whiteclay, Nebraska. There is no liquor that is legally sold on the reservation, itself. But Whiteclay is about two miles from Pine Ridge. And that’s where people go. They call it “going south.” And that’s all they do, is sell liquor.
That’s true everywhere. You build a kind of dependency which destroys self-efficiency. I mean, that’s what the old Indian agencies were set up to do. You take away the livelihood, you take away the buffalo herds, you make it impossible to sustain yourself, and then you have lines of people waiting for lard, flour, and you know, whisky.
And that has been true in West Virginia. That’s certainly true in Camden. And it is a form of disempowerment. It is a form of keeping people essentially, at a subsistence level, and yet dependent on the very structures of power that are destroying them.
Bill Moyers: One of the most forlorn portraits is in your description of Immokalee, Florida. You describe Immokalee as a town filled with desperately poor single men.
Chris Hedges: Most of them have come across the border illegally. Come up from Central America and Mexico, especially after the passage of NAFTA. Because this destroyed subsistence farms in Mexico, the big agro businesses were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap corn. Estimates run as high as three million farmers were bankrupt, and where did they go? They crossed the border into the United States and in desperate search for work. They were lured into the produce fields. And they send what money they can, usually about $100 a month home to support their wives and children.
Bill Moyers: And they make $11,000, $12,000–
Chris Hedges: At best.
Chris Hedges: It’s brutal work, physically.
Bill Moyers: Yeah.
Chris Hedges: But they’re also exposed to all sorts of chemicals and pesticides. And it’s very hard to show the effects because as these workers age, you know, they’re bent over eight, ten hours a day. So they have tremendous back problems. And by the time they’re in their thirties, the crew leaders, they’ll actually line up in these big parking lots at about 4:00 in the morning, the busses will come.
They just won’t pick the older men. And so they become destitute. And they go back home physically broken. And it’s hard to tell, you know, how poisoned they’ve become, because they’re hard to trace. But clearly that is a big issue. They talk about rashes, respiratory, you know, not being able to breathe, coughing, it’s really, you know, a frightening window into the primacy of profit over human dignity and human life.
Bill Moyers: Fit this all together for me. What does the suffering of the Native American on the Pine Ridge Reservation have to do with the unemployed coal miner in West Virginia have to do with the inner-city African American in Camden have to do with the single man working for minimum wage or less in Immokalee, Florida? What ties that all together?
Chris Hedges: Greed. It’s greed over human life. And it’s the willingness on the part of people who seek personal enrichment to destroy other human beings. That’s a common thread. We, in that biblical term, we forgot our neighbor. And because we forgot our neighbor in Pine Ridge, because we forgot our neighbor in Camden, in Southern West Virginia, in the produce fields, these forces have now turned on us. They went first, and we’re next. And that’s–
Bill Moyers: What do you mean we’re next?
Chris Hedges: Well, the–
Bill Moyers: We being—
Chris Hedges: Two-thirds of this country. We are rapidly replicating that totalitarian vision of George Orwell in “1984.” We have an inner sanctum, inner party of 2 percent or 3 percent, an outer party of corporate managers, of 12 percent, and the rest of us are proles. I mean–
Bill Moyers: Proles being?
Chris Hedges: Being an underclass that is hanging on by their fingertips. And this is already very far advanced. I mean, numbers, I mean, 47 million Americans depending on food stamps, six million exclusively on food stamps, one million people a year going filing for personal bankruptcy because they can’t pay their medical bills, six million people pushed out of their houses.
Long-term unemployment or underemployment– you know, probably being 17 to 20 percent. This is an estimate by “The L.A. Times” rather than the official nine percent. I mean, the average worker at Wal-Mart works 28 hours a week, but their wages put them below the poverty line. Which is why when you work at Wal-Mart, they’ll give you applications for food stamps, so we can help as a government subsidize the family fortune of the Walton family.
It’s, you know these corporations know only one word, and that’s more. And because the mechanisms of governance can no longer control them, there is nothing now within the formal mechanisms of power to stop them from the creating, essentially, a corporate oligarchic state
Bill Moyers: And you say, though, we are accomplices in our own demise. Explain that paradox. That corporations are causing this, but we are cooperating with them.
Chris Hedges: This sort of notion that the corporate value of greed is good. I mean, these deformed values have sort of seeped down within the society at large. And they’re corporate values, they’re not American values.
I mean, American values were effectively destroyed by Madison Avenue when, after world war one, it began to instill consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. But old values of thrift, of self-effacement, or hard work were replaced with this cult of the “self”, this hedonism.
And in that sense, you know, we have become complicit, because we’ve accepted this as a kind of natural law. And the acceptance of this kind of behavior, and even the celebration of it is going to ultimately trigger our demise. Not only as a culture, not only as a country, but finally as a species that exists, you know, on planet Earth.
Bill Moyers: As we came here, I pulled an article published in “Nature” magazine by a group of rather accomplished and credible scientists who have done all the technical studies they need to do, who come to the conclusion that our planet’s ecosystems are careening towards an imminent, irreversible collapse. Once these things happen, planet’s ecosystems as we know them, could irreversibly collapse in the proverbial blink of an eye. Connect that to what you’ve been reporting.
Chris Hedges: Well, because the exploitation of human beings is always accompanied by the exploitation of natural resources, without any thought given to sustainability. I mean, the amount of chemicals and pesticides that are used on the produce in Florida is just terrifying.
And that, you know, migrates from those fields directly to the shelves of our supermarkets and we’re consuming it. And corporations have the kind of political clout that they can prevent any kind of investigation or control or regulation of this. And it’s, again, it’s all for short-term profit at long-term expense.
So the, you know, the very forces that we document in this book are the same forces that are responsible for destroying the ecosystem itself. We are watching these corporate forces, which are supranational. They have no loyalty to the nation state at all, reconfigure the global economy into a form of neo-feudalism. We are rapidly becoming an oligarchic state with an incredibly wealthy class of overlords.
Sheldon Wolin writes about this in “Democracy Incorporated” into what I would call, what he calls inverted totalitarianism, whereby 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 that purports 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. This is what it means when lobbyists write all of our legislation, or when they stack the Supreme Court with people who serve the interests of corporations. And it’s to render the citizen impotent.
Bill Moyers: And what is it, you think, led us to this point of this mind-boggling inequality, mind-boggling consumption, which obviously many of us like, or we wouldn’t be participating? And the grip that money has on politics? What are the forces that got us to this?
Chris Hedges: I think it began after World War I. You know, Dwight McDonald writes about how after World War I, American society became enveloped in what he called the psychosis of permanent war, where in the name of anti-Communism, we could effectively banish anyone within the society who questioned power in a serious kind of way.
And of course, we destroyed populist and radical movements, which have always broadened democracy within American society, it’s something Howard Zinn wrote quite powerfully about in “A People’s History of the United States.” It has been a long struggle, whether it’s the abolitionist movement that fought slavery, whether it’s the suffragists for women’s rights, the labor movement, or the civil rights movement. And these forces have the ability to essentially destroy those movements, including labor unions, which made the middle class possible in this country. And have rendered us powerless. And–
Bill Moyers: Except for the power of the pen. You keep writing, you keep speaking, you keep agitating.
Chris Hedges: I do, but, you know, things aren’t getting better. And I think, you know, like you, I come out of the seminary, and I look less on my ability to effect change and understand it more as a kind of moral responsibility to resist these forces. Which I think in theological terms are forces of death. And to fight to protect, preserve, and nurture life.
But you know, as my friend, Father Daniel Berrigan says, you know, “We’re called to do the good, or at least the good insofar as we can determine it. And then we have to let it go.” Faith is the belief that it goes somewhere.
Bill Moyers: So let’s talk about you. You’ve been showing up in the news as well as well as just reporting the news, you took part in that mock trial down at Goldman Sachs.
Chris Hedges: Goldman Sachs is an institution that worships death, the forces of Thanatos, of greed, of exploitation, of destruction.
Bill Moyers: And I still remember the picture of you and the others sitting down, locking arms, and blocking the interests of the company. What was that about?
Chris Hedges: That was personal for me. Goldman Sachs runs one of the largest commodities index in the world. And I’ve spent 20 years in places like Africa, and I know what happens when wheat prices increase by 100 percent. Children starve. And I knew I was going to get arrested because, you know, I was, I covered the famine in Sudan and was in these huge U.N. tents and feeding stations trying to save.
And you know, the people who die in famines were usually elderly and children. The place was, I mean, everyone had tuberculosis. I have scars in my lungs from tuberculosis, which I successfully fought off. And those are sort of the whispers of the dead. All those children and others who couldn’t didn’t have the ability to go in front of a place like Goldman Sachs and condemn them.
Bill Moyers: But surely those people, as you were arrested, there were people working for Goldman Sachs looking down from the windows–
Chris Hedges: They were taking pictures–
Bill Moyers: Taking pictures, laughing. Surely you don’t think they would wish that outcome in Africa or anywhere else, right?
Chris Hedges: Well, it’s moral fragmentation. I mean, they blind themselves to what they do all day long, and they define themselves as good human beings by other criteria, because they’re a good father or a good husband or because they go to church. But it is that human trait to engage in what I would have to describe as a system of evil. And yet, look at it as just a job.
Bill Moyers: But are we all then therefore, and I come back to this, aren’t we all part of this system that in some way produces Pine Ridge, Immokalee, the coal fields, the inner-cities, and the starving children in Africa? Aren’t we all who have jobs and participate in the culture and are in the economic game, aren’t we all, in a way, as complicit as those people looking down on you from those windows at Goldman Sachs?
Chris Hedges: No. Because you know, the people who actually run the commodities index are very tiny, elite, and extremely wealthy group. And they’re highly compensated. These people make hundreds of thousands, often millions of dollars a year. And most of us don’t make that. And that personal enrichment, I think, is a powerful inducement to ignore their complicity in what is clearly a crime against other human beings.
Bill Moyers: But do you think what you did made any difference? Goldman Sachs hasn’t changed.
Chris Hedges: Well, that doesn’t matter. I did what I had to do. I did what I believed I should’ve done. And faith is a belief that it does make a difference, even if all of the empirical signs around you point otherwise. I think that fundamentally is what faith is about. And I’m not a very good Christian anymore. But I retain enough of my Christian heritage and my seminary training to still believe that.
Bill Moyers: What are you?
Chris Hedges: A, you know, a sinner.
Bill Moyers: Welcome to the clan.
Chris Hedges: You know, a doubter.
Bill Moyers: But you’re driven by something. I mean, I talked to you when you wrote your first and remarkable book “War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning.” I haven’t seen anyone as affected in their life after their experience as a journalist as you had been. I mean, there have been others, I just don’t know them. But somehow what you’re doing today goes back to what you saw and did and felt and experienced in all those years you were overseas and on the frontiers of trouble.
Chris Hedges: Well, because when you spend that long on the outer reaches of empire, you understand the cruelty of empire, what Conrad calls, “The horror, the horror.” And the lies that we tell ourselves about what is done in our name. Whether that’s in Gaza, whether that’s in Iraq, whether that’s in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, El Salvador, I mean, there’s a long list.
And when you come back from the outer reaches of empire, you are, and I think, you know, many combat veterans feel this who come back, you’re forever alienated. And you to speak a very unpleasant truth about who we are, a truth that most people don’t want to hear. And yet I think to hold that truth in and to remain silent and not to speak that truth destroys you.
That it’s better to get up and speak it even as you correctly point out, you know that Goldman Sachs, you know, everyone at Goldman Sachs gets up the next morning and does it. I mean, this was also true as a war correspondent. I mean, the Serbs would kill.
They’d block all the roads into the village, we’d walk in with our satellite phones, we’d file it, we never believe they weren’t going to do it again the next day. But somehow not to chronicle it, not to take the risks to report it, was to be complicit in that killing. And I think that same kind of thought goes into what’s happening here.
Bill Moyers: But do you think taking sides marginalizes your journalism? I mean, when you were being arrested, and some businessman was quoted in the paper passing by and looking at those of you being carried away and said, “Bunch of idiots.” He needs to hear what you, read what you say. Do you think he will once he knows you’ve taken sides?
Chris Hedges: Well, I think that in life we always have to take sides.
Bill Moyers: Do journalists always have to take sides?
Chris Hedges: Yes. Journalists always do take sides. You know, you’ve been a journalist a long time. The idea that there’s something objective and impartial is just a lie. We sell it. But I can take the same set of facts– I was a newspaper reporter for a long time, and I can spin that story one way or another. We manipulate facts. That’s what we do. And I think that the really great journalists–
Bill Moyers: Not necessarily to deceive though. Some do, I know, but–
Chris Hedges: Right, but we do.
Bill Moyers: We choose the facts we want to organize–
Chris Hedges: Of course, it’s selective. And it’s what facts we choose, how we place, where we put the quotes. And I think the really great journalists, like the great preachers, care fundamentally about truth. And truth and news are not the same thing.
And the really great reporters, and I’ve seen them, you know, in all sorts of news organizations, are management headaches because they care about truth at the expense of their own career.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean truth as opposed to news?
Chris Hedges: Well, let’s take the Israel occupation of Gaza. You know, if I had a dinner with any Middle East correspondent who covered Gaza, none of us would have any disagreements about the Israeli behavior in Gaza, which is a collective war crime. And yet to get up and write it and say it within American society is not a career enhancer.
Because there’s a powerful Israeli lobby, and it’s a lobby that I don’t think represents Israel, it represents the right wing of Israel. And you know it. But, the great reporters don’t care. And they’re there.
But you know, large institutions like “The New York Times” attract huge numbers of careerists like any other large institutions, the Church of course, being no exception. And those are the people who are willing to take moral shortcuts to promote themselves within that institution.
And when somebody becomes a headache, even if they may agree with them, even if they may know that they are speaking a truth, and it puts their career in jeopardy– they will push them out or silence them.
So I think that one can take sides, and Orwell becomes the kind of model for this. But one can never not tell the truth. And I’ve often written stories that are not particularly flattering. And there’s much in this book about people in Pine Ridge or Camden, you know, that is not flattering. I mean, we’re interviewing people that are drug addicts and this kind of stuff. And–
Bill Moyers: Drug dealers–
Chris Hedges: –prostitutes and–
Bill Moyers: Yeah, drug dealers–
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Bill Moyers: –prostitutes.
Chris Hedges: So we’re not, you know, the lie of omission is still a lie. But I don’t think any foreign correspondent who covers war, whether it was in Bosnia or whether it was in Sarajevo can be indifferent to the tremendous human suffering before them and not want that human suffering to stop.
Bill Moyers: But there is a price, as you have said, to be paid for stepping outside of the system that enabled your name and reputation and becoming a critic of that system. I mean, what price do you think you’ve paid?
Chris Hedges: I don’t think I paid a price, I think I would’ve paid a price for staying in. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. You know, I was pushed out of “The New York Times” because I was publicly denouncing the invasion of Iraq. And again, it comes down to that necessity to speak a truth, or at least the truth as far as you can discern it.
I’ve spent months of my life in Iraq. I knew the instrument of war. I understood in all the ways that this was going be a disaster– including upsetting the power balance in the Middle East. It’s one of the great strategic blunders of the United States, it’s empowered Iran. And to remain silent would’ve been the price. Was it good for my career? Well, of course not.
But my career was never the point. I didn’t drive down Mount Igman into Sarajevo when it was being hit with 2,000 shells a day because it was good for my career. I went there because what was happening was a crime against humanity. And as a reporter, I wanted to be there to chronicle it.
Bill Moyers: Well, you should. But, so you don’t think journalism is futile?
Chris Hedges: I think journalism is essential. I think it’s essential. And we’re watching its destruction. You know, journalism, the power of journalism is that it is rooted in verifiable fact. You go out as a reporter, you seek to find out what is factually correct. You crosscheck it with other sources. It’s sent to an editor. It’s fact-checked, you put it out. That’s all vanishing.
That’s what we’re really losing with journalism. Yes, you know, commercial journalism, there were things they wouldn’t write about. You know, as Schanberg says, “The power of great newspapers like “The Times” is that at least it’s stopped things from getting worse.” I think that’s right.
Bill Moyers: But can it make things better? I mean, do you think you can accomplish more as a dissenter, and I look up on you now, when I ask you what’s your faith, I think your faith is in dissent, if I may say so. It’s in “This far and no further.” But do you think you can accomplish as much as a dissenter than as a journalist?
Chris Hedges: Yeah, it’s not a question that I’ve asked. Because the question is, “What do you have to do?” I certainly knew after 15 years at “The New York Times” that running around on national television shows denouncing the war in Iraq was, as a news reporter, tantamount to career suicide. I mean, I was aware of that.
And yet, you know, as Paul Tillich writes about, you know, “Institutions are always inherently demonic, including the Church.” And you cannot finally serve the interests of those institutions. That for those who seek the moral life, there will always come a time in which they have to defy even institutions they care about if they are able to retain that moral core. And in essence, what, you know, “The New York Times,” or other institutions were asking is that I muzzle myself.
Bill Moyers: But all institutions do that, don’t they?
Chris Hedges: All institutions do.
Bill Moyers: Intuitively or explicitly.
Chris Hedges: That’s right. And I think for those of us who care about speaking, you know, the truth, you know, or if you want to call it dissent, we are going to have to accept that at one day, there’s going probably mean a clash with the very institutions that have nurtured and supported us. And I have been nurtured and supported by these institutions.
Bill Moyers: But your columns, your essays, your recent book, this book, contained repeated calls for uprisings, for civil disobedience. You even say in here, quote, “Revolt is all we have. It is our only hope. It is our only hope.” Unpack that from our viewers who are sitting there thinking, “What is he asking me to do? What does he mean by revolt? What’s he talking about?”
Chris Hedges: Nonviolence civil disobedience. And accepting the fact that engaging in that process will mean arrest. I’ve lived in societies that are rent and torn by violence, and I don’t want us to go there. And I think that we don’t have a lot of time left. And that for those of us who care about veering off into another course, a course that’s rational and sane and makes possible the perpetuation of not only the human species but the planet itself, we have to take this kind of radical action. And if we don’t, then as things disintegrate and as the paralysis within the centers of power become more and more apparent, then we will fuel very frightening extremes.
You know, again, which I saw in places like Central America or Bosnia. And I look at this as many ways, a kind of, a preventive action. A way to respond peacefully. A way to respond, in a Democratic fashion, to the problems in front of us before it’s too late.
Bill Moyers: Bear with me as I explore this, ’cause there’s a paradox at two levels. One at a conceptual level, and the other at a practical level. You write in here, “Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history. You either obstruct through civil disobedience, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil.” But in an early book, “Death of the Liberal Class,” which I think is one of your best, you wrote that, “The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that, a fantasy.”
Chris Hedges: I wrote that before Occupy. And I was writing out of a kind of belief that this was what was absolutely necessary and yet I saw no signs within the wider society that was happening. And then suddenly, on September 17th, Zuccotti Park appears. And mostly fueled by the young. And I was writing out of a present reality. And I didn’t see Zuccotti coming. I was writing out of a kind of despair, for all of the reasons that I said.
Bill Moyers: Why did you take hope from that? Because after you’d been down there? You subsequently write that “By the end, even the most dedicated of the Occupiers in Zuccotti Park burned out.”
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Bill Moyers: “They lost control of the park. The arrival in cold weather of individual tents, along with the numerous street people with mental impairment and addictions,” that you’re nothing if not honest in what you write, even about those people you support, “tore apart the community. Drug use as well as assaults and altercations became common.” So how is that square with what you said earlier that the Occupy Movement gave us a blueprint for how to fight back?
Chris Hedges: Because this is the trajectory of all movements. You know, it’s not a linear progression upwards. And the civil rights movement is a perfect example of that. All sorts of failures, whether it’s in Albany, Mississippi or anywhere else. You know, there were all sorts of moments within the civil rights movement where King wasn’t even sure he was going to be able to hold it together. And what happened in Zuccotti is like what happened in 1765 when they rose up against the Stamp Act.
That became the kind of dress rehearsal for the rebellion of 1775, 1776, 1905. The uprising in Russia became again the kind of dress rehearsal. These movements, this process, it takes a very long time. I think the Occupy was movement and I was there.
I mean, I certainly understand why it imploded and its many faults and how at that size, consensus doesn’t work, everything else. And yet it triggered something. It triggered a kind of understanding of systems of power. It, I think, gave people a sense of their own personal power. Once we step out into a group and articulate these injustices and these grievances to a wider public, and of course they resonated with a mainstream. I don’t think it’s over. I don’t know how it’s going to mutate and change, one never knows. But, I think that it’s imperative that we keep that narrative alive by being out there because things are not getting better.
The state is not responding in a rational way to what’s happening. If they really wanted to break the back of the opposition movement, rather than sort of eradicating the 18 encampments, they would’ve gone back and looked at Roosevelt. There would’ve been forgiveness of all student debt, $1 trillion, there would’ve been a massive jobs program targeted at those under the age of 25, and there would’ve been a moratorium on more closures and bank repossessions of homes.
That would’ve been a rational response. Instead, the state has decided to speak exclusively in the language of force and violence to try and crush this movement while people continue this dissent.
Bill Moyers: In one of your earlier books, you wrote that, quote, “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilization blink out, and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” Do you really think that’s ahead?
Chris Hedges: If there’s not a radical change in the way we relate to the ecosystem that sustains life, yes. And I see, if you ask me to put my money down, I see nothing that indicates that we’re preparing to make that change.
Bill Moyers: But here’s another paradox then, you present us with a lot of paradoxes. You just– you and your wife a year and a half ago had your fourth child. How can you introduce another life into so forlorn a future?
Chris Hedges: That’s not an easy question to answer. I look at my youngest son, and his favorite book is “Out of the Blue,” which are pictures of narwhales and porpoises and dolphins. And I think, “It is most probable that within your lifetime, every single one of those sea creatures will be dead.” And in so many ways, I feel that I have to fight for them.
That even if I fail, they’ll say, “You know, at least my dad tried.” We’ve deeply betrayed this next generation on so many levels. And I can’t argue finally, you know, given the empirical facts in front of us that hope is rational. And I retreat, like so many people in my book, into faith. And a belief that resistance and fighting for life is meaningful even if all of the outward signs around us deny that possibility.
Bill Moyers: That faith in human beings?
Chris Hedges: Faith in that fighting for the sanctity of life is always worth it. Because you know, if we don’t fight, then we are finished. Then we signed our own death sentence. And Camus writes about this in “The Rebel,” that I think resistance becomes a kind of way of protecting our own worth as an individual, our own dignity, our own self-respect. And I think resistance does always leave open the possibility of change. And if we don’t resist, then we’ve essentially extinguished that hope.
Bill Moyers: H. L. Mencken, the celebrated iconoclast of the early part of the last century once wrote, “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is more likely one who likes his country more than the rest of us and is those more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debouched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime, he is a good citizen, driven to despair.” Is that you?
Chris Hedges: Yeah–
Bill Moyers: A good citizen driven to despair?
Chris Hedges: Yes. And a good citizen driven to despair who will not remain apathetic and passive. And, you know, in every single place that we went to, Camden, West Virginia, Pine Ridge, we found these utterly magnificent human beings. I mean, this woman Lolly in Camden, African American woman, who you know, raised her own children. And I think by the time she was done, 19 others.
Her fiancé was shot and killed, one of her little seven-year-old daughters died of an asthma attack because they didn’t have the right medicine. And I said, “Lolly, how do you do it?” And she said, “I never ask why.” And when you spend time in the presence of people like that, and they were everywhere you know, they understood what they were up against.
It is deeply empowering. Because not to resist, not to fight back is on a very personal level to betray these people. And when you build relationships, as over the two years Joe and I did, with figures like that, it really, you know, almost comes down to something that simplistic. You can’t betray Lolly. You can’t betray any of these great figures who’ve stood up. Because their fight is our fight. And oftentimes they’ve endured far, far more– well, they have endured far, far more than I have endured or ever will endure.
Bill Moyers: The Book is, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Thank you very much Chris for being with me.
Chris Hedges: Thanks Bill.
Bill Moyers: For all his power of expression, sometimes words fail even Chris Hedges, and a picture can say more in a single frame, well-drawn, than paragraphs of explanation. That’s what makes his partnership with graphic artist Joe Sacco on their book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” so potent and so effective. Joe Sacco has traveled all over the world, using the techniques of the comic book illustrator as a tool of journalism, telling stories with insight and humanity.
Joe Sacco: My name’s Joe Sacco and I’m a comics journalist. Drawing really often provides mood and atmosphere, and writing is that sort of precision. The facts. And you can put those two things together with comics, which I think is what makes the medium very powerful.
When I’m in the field, I meet people who are really in hard situations. I’m not interested in tears. I’m not even interested in sentimentality. But I am interested in telling people’s stories as well as possible who are oppressed or are poor.
Chris and I had already worked on a magazine piece about Camden and we decided we would expand that. You can read about poverty. You can read about despair. Or you can read about resignation. But to see it is really, it’s eye-opening.
I didn’t do that many stories in the book, maybe five or six. They all moved me quite a bit. I think the one that was sort of hit me in this way, because it was so unfamiliar to me was the woman who came out from Guatemala, the one that we call Anna in the story.
Her waiting by the phone after her husband had made the long, arduous trip so the United States. Waiting eight days, knowing he had to cross a desert where many people die. And that sort of story really touched me. Because when we think of migrant workers, we can be so dismissive of them. They’re just working in a fields. Oh, you see them bent over and they’re just doing their job, and you know they’re getting minimum wage. And you sort of feel sorry for them in a sense.
But to get a sense of, and to actually hear an individual story like that, for some reason that just really got to me when I was drawing it.
When I was about seven years old. I started drawing stories. Because I liked forms of self-expression and that was just one I never let go of. I never really drew just for the sake of drawing. There always had to be a story to go with it.
A story can be more true if you just let it be told. It’s very important for me, with my work, not to create these angelic people. You want to show people as nuts and bolts. Those are the people who seem real. With the Michael Red Cloud’s story, a story about his drug dealing days, making big money, partying, having women with him at all times. Now, he wasn’t necessarily pleased with how he’d lived his past life, he wasn’t. But to me, the idea is just to present the complete human being. You know, he’s a real person. I was moved by his story, or I saw the changes that he made through his story. And then you see the hard things in the context of his upbringing, in the context of what was around him, in the context of what he learned from people around him.
You see the commonalities between people who have nothing around them but despair. They are born into a context which simply doesn’t provide them opportunities or even the thought of opportunities. To me, it’s incumbent upon the journalist to go and see for himself or herself what’s actually going on. Journalism to me isn’t like a tennis match, where you’re just watching the ball, and each side is hitting it, hitting it back and forth to each other.
At some point, you have to arrest where the ball is, and that’s where truth is, you know? And like I say, truth doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle. And I’ve always had a problem with journalists who say things like, “Well, I pissed off both sides. I must be doing something right.” That is the laziest sort of phrase I’ve ever heard.
You know, hundreds of stories that still need to be told. I’m interested in sort of answering questions that journalism doesn’t really put its finger on.
To me, it’s very important to remind ourselves of the costs of what is going on in this world. The human costs.
I feel like I wouldn’t be where I need to be for myself if I didn’t look to those things, and I didn’t face them squarely. I just feel that’s who I am, and what I have to do.
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.