Chris Hedges visited Powell's City of Books on January 30, 2007. His books — American Fascists
, in particular — not to mention this conversation, scared the crap out of me.
Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1983, but he decided not to get ordained. Instead, he headed to El Salvador to cover the war as a freelance reporter. The next twenty years brought him to Yugoslavia, Somalia, Lebanon and Bosnia — more than fifty countries before he was through. He's been shot, he's been taken prisoner, he's witnessed some of the most brutal human behavior of our lifetime.
What frightens him now, though, five years after War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning dug in for the long haul on bestseller lists, are the millions of Americans removing themselves from open, public dialogue. The tens of millions who earn, collectively, less than a few rich men, and the threat such inequities pose to our pluralist, democratic society.
"Isolation always impairs judgment," Hedges warned a class of college graduates several days after America started bombing Iraq. Parents and students together booed him off the stage.
"Most people are incapable of understanding how fragile the world around them is and how quickly it can disintegrate," Hedges worries. "There is an inability to grasp that the world around you is crumbling even as it crumbles."
Dave: Your father went to the University of Missouri to become a journalist. He became a minister instead. You went to divinity school to become a minister and wound up a journalist.
Chris Hedges: That's exactly right.
Dave: What do the two vocations have in common?
Hedges: When they're done right, they have a lot in common. There's a prophetic quality to good journalism in the sense that a good reporter seeks out voices or issues that need to be heard within a society, or need to be understood within a society, but are ignored or shunted aside. The same is true within the prophetic tradition of ministry.
My father was a social activist. He was involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the gay rights movement. When I went to Colgate University in upstate New York, my father had a church in Syracuse, an hour away. When he found out that there was no gay and lesbian organization at my college, he brought gay speakers there. That kind of commitment is a common denominator between great journalism and Christian commitment.
For a long time, because I was raised in the church, I had difficulty with the notion of journalistic objectivity. I subsequently decided that I'm not objective about some things. I covered the war in the former Yugoslavia — I'm not objective about genocide or rape or the murder of children; I think they're wrong, and I think they're worth fighting. On the other hand, I would never lie — including the lie of omission, which is also a lie — on behalf of groups such as the Bosnia Muslims or the Kosovo Albanians, or, when I covered Iraq, the Kurds, who were being oppressed.
There are certain facets of American journalism that have been given a moral out. I think that's part of the problem with American journalism, especially broadcast journalism: there's a kind of cynicism about it.
Dave: Cynicism how? For example.
Hedges: As a journalist, I always thought there was a contract with my readers: I would seek as far as possible to tell them the truth. That contract has been broken. You watch the spin shows, and it's one side spitting out clichés, spinning on behalf of the Republican Party, and the other side doing the same on behalf of the Democratic Party. It's pseudo journalists sitting in the middle who may very well know that one side or the other is lying but don't feel the responsibility to call them on it. Somehow that's journalism. It's less pronounced within print, but it's there.
Much of the anger toward the mainstream media is justified. There's a catering to advertisers and the people advertisers want to reach. It's why huge sections of this country have been rendered virtually invisible.
There's been a kind of Weimarization of the American working class: less than ten percent of jobs are in the manufacturing sector now, and the jobs that have replaced them are abysmal. The salaries are two-thirds less than what a steelworker was making per hour, without benefits. And yet these voices are never heard within our society.
Just as a good Christian minister would feel compelled to embrace those who are on the margins, or those who are being pushed aside within society, and make sure the church promotes justice, that same motive should drive journalism, although now it rarely does.
Dave: Twenty-five years ago, your ethics professor warned students about the rise of Christian fascists, and "against the blindness caused by intellectual snobbery."
You explain in American Fascists that you didn't take the threat very seriously at the time. Are Americans ready to take the threat seriously now?
Hedges: Most people are incapable of understanding how fragile the world around them is and how quickly it can disintegrate. That's something I certainly encountered as a foreign correspondent. There is an inability to grasp that the world around you is crumbling even as it crumbles.
This was captured quite brilliantly, I thought, in the German film Downfall about Hitler's last day in the bunker. Literally, the walls of Berlin are crumbling and everybody is turning to the Fuhrer to save them.
In the cafés of Sarajevo before the war, many people in the city thought war was impossible. The same was true in the war in Kosovo, in Prishtinë.
I remember coming into the city and speaking with Kosovo Albanian friends, highly educated, multilingual, intelligent men and women, and they assured me that there would not be a war or a conflict with the Serbs occupying the province. I said, "But I just ran into a checkpoint set up by the Kosovo Liberation Army ten kilometers outside of Prishtinë." And they would say, "No, no, no. The Kosovo Liberation Army doesn't exist. Those are just Serbs dressed up like Kosovo Albanian rebels to justify the oppression against us." It was not until they were literally being herded down to the train station and loaded onto boxcars and shipped off to Macedonia by Serbian paramilitary and police that they understood.
We certainly have read enough literature, whether it's books like Sebastian Haffner's Defying Hitler or Victor Klemperer's I Will Bear Witness, to know that the encroachment of despotic or totalitarian movements is slow, gradual, and often imperceptible, so that by the time people understand that their open, pluralistic society is in jeopardy it's usually too late. I think there's no question that we're headed down that road.
The advances of anti-democratic forces, many of them grouped within the Christian right, is made a little clearer to me because I spent the most part of twenty years outside the United States. When I graduated divinity school, I went to El Salvador to cover the war. At the time, these people were on the fringes of American society. When I returned from the war, they were in the centers of political power, in the legislative, executive, and now increasingly in the judicial branches of government.
Unless they're stopped, they'll destroy American democracy. And they're quite up-front about it. They're up-front about their vision for a theocratic Christian state, and it doesn't include a place for most of us.
Dave: In American Fascists, you describe the cannibalization of language common to fascist movements. Dominionists cannibalize not only language but the whole conception of Christianity. Because they act under the guise of a popular and often charitable religion, they don't invite much serious attention.
Hedges: That's what fascist movements always do. Nazism was not exotic or foreign to Germans. It was comforting. It talked about the Aryan nation and Teutonic myths. If you look at the differences between Italian and German fascism, you can see the differences and also the similarities — Mussolini was obsessed with the glory of ancient Rome and Augustus.
These movements always come cloaked in a traditional iconography and language that puts people at ease, whether it's religious or patriotic. This is the brilliance of I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer wrote the first literary critique of national socialism. He was fascinated by language and words, and the news-speak quality of these movements, where suddenly traditional words that were understood broadly within the society mean something different to the initiated.
We see it here with the Christian right in words like liberty, which means something to most of us. It's a reassuring word when we hear it, coming from the Christian right or coming even from the President, but among believers it means complete submission; it means being born again and completely submitting yourself to Jesus (and, of course, to those who claim to speak for Jesus), and finding eternal liberty through Christ. It's a very different concept. They've done that with most of the essential words that help us grasp Christian concepts.
I didn't use the word fascists lightly. It has historical connotations. As I tried to examine the ideology of this movement, I found that it did bear many characteristics in common with traditional fascist movements. That's why I begin the book with the fourteen points by Umberto Eco that constitute what he calls "Ur-Fascism," or Eternal Fascism. Because they wrap themselves in the American flag and carry the Christian cross, they have become very effective at masking what a dangerous and insidious force they are within our society.
Dave: In Losing Moses on the Freeway, you published a commencement address from 2003. You told the audience that "isolation always impairs judgment." When you wrote the speech, what reaction did you anticipate?
Hedges: Well, I didn't expect to be booed off the stage.
Dave: Was that a reasonable expectation on your part?
Hedges: I don't think it was an unreasonable expectation because I had been speaking out against the war for over a year. It's not as if I suddenly changed my tack. This was consistent with what I had been doing for months, and the people who invited me knew that. If they wanted the potboiler climb every mountain, follow your dream speech they should have invited somebody else.
I don't have a lot of sympathy for them. They got what they paid for. They didn't like it. That's not my problem.
Dave: Did you ever find out why the university made such a miscalculation?
Hedges: They didn't expect the crowd to become so angry. They probably didn't expect me to be so blunt in my denunciation of this occupation which was now only a few days old.
I was trained as a preacher. I had a great professor at Harvard who said, "Don't try to reach a crowd. If the whole crowd or congregation loves you, you've failed. If you hit five or six people, you've succeeded."
After that commencement speech, people asked, "Shouldn't you have toned it down?" I said, "I got five or six letters from kids who won't forget that address for the rest of their life. Those were the five or six kids I was trying to reach. I succeeded."
People say you write for yourself. I don't know if I write for myself, but I certainly write for people who are like me and feel on a certain level isolated and alone. I want to reach out and say, "You're not alone."
I don't want to write to the lowest common denominator. I don't ever want to write down to anyone. I'd rather have people get ten pages into the book and decide they really want to read Ayn Rand. I think that comes out of being trained as a minister.
Dave: The case you make in American Fascists stands upon an argument that says we've abandoned the working class, and that it's ultimately their despair creating an opportunity for the dominionist movement.
Hedges: We've abandoned the working class, yes — and now we're in the process of abandoning the middle class. That's the heart of the book. That's it.
It's not a particularly original idea. In almost every journalism class I teach, I figure out a way to make the students read at least parts of Hannah Arendt's classic work, The Origins of Totalitarianism; Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair; Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies — they all understand that the root or the cause of totalitarian movements is despair. Hannah Arendt calls it "atomization." They use different words for it. Fritz calls it despair.
You cannot in an open society create the kind of social and economic inequities that we have and not create radical movements that seek the destruction of that society.
All totalitarian movements essentially shut their followers off from the real world to embrace a non-reality belief system, a world of magic, where they're destined either by God or history or fate to create the utopia. Unfortunately, when you create these disparities, when you disenfranchise tens of millions of your own citizens, they become ripe for manipulation by demagogues. Demagogues who offer them a world that is geared toward fulfilling their emotional needs while of course severing them from the real world.
That's what Creationism is about. We're the only industrialized nation in the world that argues about the validity of evolution. It is about the destruction of dispassionate, honest, scientific and intellectual inquiry, and replacing it with an ideological system where everything comes filtered through that ideological lens so that the only valid scientists are Creation scientists. This is no different from what the Nazis did with eugenics, a pseudo-science based on skull sizes and cheekbones and the distance between your eyes, to determine the pure, Aryan, and of course supreme race. What is the difference between the master race in Germany, although it was racial in its type, and the master race here, which is Christian in its type?
Despotic movements create vanguards. They create elites. They define who has a right to have power, and they leave everyone else to be second-class citizens — and sometimes worse than that.
Dave: If, as you say in the book, debate with the radical Christian right is useless because there is no rational debate within that community...
Hedges: How can you debate with people who think dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, and the earth was created in six days?
Dave: I spent quite a bit of time last night on the Answers in Genesis web site.
Hedges: Exactly. What's the debate? Even by sitting down with people who are essentially promoting mythology, you're giving them a credibility that they shouldn't have.
Why are we debating with people who call for the extermination of homosexuals? I don't understand what the debate is. Any kind of debate or discussion can only begin when there is mutual respect, when there is a belief that other ways to be offer legitimacy and should be heard. They don't offer that. When you don't have mutual respect, when you have a group, as we do within our society, that ultimately believes that unless we submit to them we will be exterminated by an angry God — and they're obsessed with pornographic visions of violence — it's not a debate, it's a fight for survival.
Dave: What is a person to do in the face of that? We're accustomed to acting; Americans are accustomed to acting — we engage in activism. What is the course of activism against this movement?
Hedges: Ultimately, we're not going to blunt the movement until we address the vast inequities and disparities that have caused it, until we reincorporate these people who've been shunted aside by our society. That's the engine of the movement, and no matter what we do we won't blunt it until we face that problem and fix it. Just as in the 1930s what saved the country — there was that open flirtation with fascism — was the New Deal, where progressive forces brought the disenfranchised back into the fold.
I look at it as a mass movement; I don't look at it as a religious movement. Those of us who are biblically literate understand how grossly they have perverted and misused the bible to promote their ideology. That also gives a nice window into what they want. When you know the Gospels, when you know the Hebrew bible, you see what it is they pick and choose, what they make up and what they ignore, and it's pretty clear what they're about.
They have created parallel, hermetic channels of information through Christian radio, broadcasting, and publishing, along with Christian schools. And it's unchallenged; people can live completely encased within this closed system. They never have to live within the real world at all.
The bigotry and intolerance and hatred and lust for violence, this filth that is pumped into homes twenty-four hours a day, is completely unchallenged. Everything is seen through the prism of this peculiar worldview, whether it's Christian entertainment, Christian rock, news, health and beauty tips, or spiritual guidance. For an open society that believes in the free exchange of ideas, that's a very frightening phenomenon.
It's what Karl Popper calls "the paradox of tolerance": At what point do you not tolerate the intolerant? Open societies have a hard time grappling with that, and that is what allows despotic movements to rise to power. It's what destroyed Yugoslavia. Milosevic would preach vitriol and hate against Croats or Muslims, and the moderate center in Yugoslavia kept trying to domesticate him. It never worked.
The same was true with Hitler. Vön Poppen was appointed Vice Chancellor and assured everyone that he could control this Viennese peasant who couldn't even speak proper German. A year later everyone in the Cabinet was a Nazi.
Open societies are woefully ill-equipped to deal with despotic movements. By the time these movements have garnered enough power and made naked their ambition, the democratic, moderate center has become so eroded that they've lost the capacity to fight back. I worry that that's where we're headed.
I certainly believe that the imposition of hate crime legislation is a step forward, but anything we do is essentially working around the margins until we address the much larger problem, which is the American oligarchy. We live in a country where the top one percent controls more wealth than the bottom ninety percent combined. Those kinds of conditions do not make for a stable democratic system.
That's not a new thought. Plutarch wrote about it. People who have reflected on what makes a democratic society possible are keenly aware that the stability of an open society is rooted in a content, or certainly a properly compensated, working and middle class.
Tens of millions of people in the United States have lost hope. Their communities have been destroyed. You drive through Ohio or any of the former manufacturing centers, and it looks like the Third World: potholed streets, boarded-up buildings, crumbling schools. People have embraced a theology of despair, a theology that says nothing in this world is worth saving and the faster it's destroyed the better. That's what this ideological system is about; it's a kind of collective suicide.
Dave: How did your perceptions of war change, the more you witnessed? After ten, fifteen, and twenty years as a war reporter, you brought more experience to war than most of the soldiers.
Hedges: It's possible to hate war and be addicted to the experience of war, which is what I had to grapple with. I liken it to a narcotic. I spent five years covering the war in El Salvador. By the end of the five years I had a pretty good idea what war was like. It took longer for me to confront the way war had perverted and deformed me as a person.
That kind of intoxication with war is part of being a war correspondent or a war journalist. A small group of us would leap from war to war to war. I think I understood the nature of war, but it took much longer to understand how it had affected me personally. It was pushing me closer and closer to my own annihilation, first emotional, then spiritual, and finally physical, so that when I write about war and its dark underside, it's a dark underside that I carry within me. It was part of my own make-up. That was the hardest thing to confront, and it made writing War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning a really painful process.
Dave: I would guess that removing yourself from war eliminated the distractions that had allowed you to stay in the present, the action that kept you focused on your mission and the cause. Leaving that behind would be harder for all the time suddenly to reflect on what you'd seen.
Hedges: The longer you do it, the harder it is to walk away. First of all, you can't adjust to peacetime society. You're deeply alienated. You have been through experiences that most people around you can't comprehend, and don't want to hear much about, frankly.
Soldiers call it a combat high. It's very real, that rush you get with fear. War has a Zen-like quality to it. Colors appear brighter. You're aware, in ways that you never were before. And you're around a lot of other messed up people who get you, in the same way that junkies probably hang out with other junkies. The longer you do it, the harder it is to adjust.
After ending my time as a war correspondent, it probably took me three years to pull myself back together, to reintegrate into the world around me. And I'll always carry a kind of alienation, partly because I have post-traumatic stress disorder, not badly, but I have it. And partly because I carry things inside, images and events, that are just horrific, and I think beyond the realm of comprehension of people who have not gone to war.
Nobody ever sees a war except the people who go to war. The images you see, however horrible they may look to you, are so sanitized and cleaned up that the reality of war is lost, the barbarity and horror. And of course we live in a society where violence, choreographed violence, is a form of entertainment. It bears no more relationship to war than ballet has a relationship to war, but it's very difficult to fight that myth, because it's an empowering myth, intoxicating and attractive. The reality of war is completely different.
Dave: If reporters were forbidden from reporting on their own nation's battles, what different stories might we hear?
Hedges: When you report on your own nation at war, you work to make everything fit the mythic narrative that everyone wants to hear. That's how William Randolph Hearst built his empire. The mythic as opposed to sensory.
Once a war goes sour, as it eventually did in Vietman and as it has gone sour in Iraq, then you can report war as butchery and slaughter. Until then no one wants to hear it. They all want to hear about the hometown heroes and freedom and the power of our weapons. They get off on it.
After that doesn't work, they don't want to hear about the war at all. The very cable news channels that sold us the war, like Fox, no longer report the war because it doesn't fit the myth of us as a great, powerful, glorious nation, so instead of the war they spend most of their time giving us celebrity and gossip and trivia that these days is considered news.
Dave: At this point, what motivation does Fox have to address concerns of the left? I'm assuming a basic lack of journalistic integrity, but I think that's fair given their programming. If you don't have an audience on the left tuning in, and you're after advertising dollars, what point would there be to present a balanced view?
Hedges: Of course. But I think CNN is probably a better example. In the lead-up to the war, it was all war all the time, with graphics and drum rolls and Countdown to Iraq, all this crap, retired military people talking about our weapons and what they could do, making us feel powerful and sanitizing what those weapons actually do to human beings. We never saw the aftermath or the effects of those explosive devices.
Now all the networks have cut drastically the amount of airtime they give to the war coverage because people don't want to see it; it doesn't work anymore. Across the board, there's complicity. Those who were most complicit in selling the war have now shown a further moral failing by essentially walking away from coverage of the war.
Dave: Do you see a chance for positive change in new communication systems such as the Internet?
Hedges: The Internet is a great tool. However, the people who get good information off the Internet are very proactive. They want it. And most people are passive. They are spoon-fed what the large corporate interests that control our news media want people to hear.
So, yes, if you take the time and energy and you have the interest, you can use the Internet to find stuff out, but the notion that the Internet is going to be a counterweight to a culture that is now saturated with trivia, gossip, and lies is mistaken, I think.
Those people that have a conscience and a curiosity in any society, even a totalitarian society, have been able to seek out information that counters the propaganda and stereotypes disseminated to the masses. But they're a minority. The fact is, modern information systems and corporations that deal with entertainment know very well what we want and how to get us to respond emotionally. This is the pernicious effect of a consumer culture in the advertising age, which has now seeped into what is so-called news. We are a nation awash in lies and manipulation.
The pockets of people within the country who ask the right questions are getting smaller and smaller. After traveling all over the United States for the past two years for this book, I walked away thinking that I no longer live in a liberal country. By that I mean a country that embraces and cares about liberal, democratic values. Most people in the country no longer care.
Dave: That brings me back to the line about isolation and judgment. As we get more mobile, communities are sorting themselves out in such a way that people need not interact with anyone that doesn't share their belief system. Portland is very liberal, for example. Get out of the city and culture quickly skews to the right. But who moves to Portland? More young, educated liberals. Which doesn't bode well for open-minded dialogue.
Hedges: When societies break down, you get urban centers that embrace difference, intellectualism, and artistic expression. The rest of the country dries up. We see that happening.
Many people didn't understand that the war in Yugoslavia was really a war between the countryside and the cities. There was physical destruction in Mostar, Sarajevo, and Vukovar, those places where people of different ethnical nationalities coexisted and even intermarried, where there were attempts to examine the society and themselves.
There has been such an assault on culture in the United States that the pockets that still embrace the kind of self reflection and self criticism that authentic culture makes possible almost feel like another country. It's why in Nazi Germany, once the Nazis took control, everyone was so happy to see Berlin finally get it. Berlin served the same role that New York does, as a lightning rod for this movement sweeping across the United States.
This is another indication of the sickness of American society. There's a kind of siege mentality, and the worse it gets the more people in these urban pockets look inward and pretend what's happening outside their urban centers doesn't exist.
The best example is in the gay community. If you're a gay man in Iowa or Missouri or Kansas, and you're seventeen years old, and you're not a professional, you're not making much money, you're pumping gas, life has become terrifying. Life has become hell. The gay rights movement has forgotten about these people. Gay communities in San Francisco and New York, which are upwardly mobile, wealthy, have abandoned the rest of gay America. We see that response reflected among those of us who care about a pluralist and open society; we see the same phenomenon happening in essentially liberal democratic circles as has been happening within the gay community now for some time.
Chris Hedges visited the Powells.com ranch before his reading at Powell's City of Books on January 30, 2007.