Interviewed by David Barsamian
Radio LORA, October 2011 und Alternative Radio
Santa Fe, New Mexico 18 May 2011
Chris Hedges is an award-winning journalist who has covered wars in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central America. He writes a weekly column for Truthdig.org and is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of “American Fascists,” “Empire of Illusion,” “Death of the Liberal Class,” and “The World As It Is.”
I love your answer to the question of how you transitioned from Harvard Divinity School to The New York Times.
I didn’t go directly from Harvard Divinity School to The New York Times. I began as a free-lance reporter. That’s an important distinction, because people who rise through the ranks of The New York Times become vetted, conditioned, harassed, formed, shaped by the institution. And that never happened to me. Which, of course, led to my problems eventually with The New York Times.
So I would write compulsively, like most writers, published my first piece in a historical journal when I was 14, published my first piece in a major American newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, when I was in college, but could not reconcile the social activism, in particular of my father, who was a Presbyterian minister, and the idea of impartiality and neutrality and objectivity in American journalism.
That bridge was really made for me in my second year of Harvard Divinity School, where I was studying to be a minister, when I met a guy named Robert Cox, who had been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald during the dirty war in Argentina. Bob had printed the names of the disappeared, those who had been disappeared the day before, above the fold on his newspaper, which eventually led to the death squads’ coming and disappearing him. He survived largely because he’s a British citizen and the British government intervened to get him out, later knighted him. Bob was at Harvard. It was a kind of awakening to me to see what great journalism can and should do.
I went off to Latin America at a time when there were horrible regimes. Pinochet was in Chile, the junta in Argentina, the death squads in El Salvador were killing between 700 and 1,000 people a month, Ríos Montt was in Guatemala. And I thought that it was as close as my generation was going to come to fighting fascism, like my hero, Orwell. So that was the transition from a seminarian from a household that was active in social justice into journalism. Those were my roots. And those were roots that eventually, although I ended up at The New York Times, led to a conflict with The New York Times.
What you said was that you went from one godless institution to another.
Harvard Divinity School has probably proudly produced more atheists than any other divinity school in the country, that’s true.
When you were at Harvard, you were living in Roxbury, and that was a formative experience for you. What did you learn there?
That was extremely important experience for me. And maybe, when I look back at my life, one of the most important experiences, because I lived across the street from the main Mission Main Extension housing project, which at the time was one of the worst projects in Roxbury. It’s since been leveled and rebuilt. But they had a 60% vacancy rate, no security. All the locks on the doors in the apartment complexes had been broken. Just to walk in these unlit, urine-filled halls was exceedingly dangerous.
It was important for me to live in Roxbury and grasp a couple things. One is how institutional forms of racism and repression work. These internal ghettos, how they function, how we make sure that one generation of poor remain poor into the next generation and the succeeding generation through the collapse of all kind of institutions, whether it’s the courts, whether it’s banking, whether it’s the educational system. And then, if you live among the poor, you can’t romanticize the poor. One of the writers I like is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, although he was a fascist, because he had that very hard-headed kind of view. He also was a doctor practicing in the slums of Paris.
One of my problems with Harvard Divinity School and the liberal church was that they had very romantic visions of people they never met. They liked the poor, but they didn’t like the smell of the poor. They talked about empowering people whom they didn’t know. I at once developed a very hard-headed view of poverty and what it does to individuals and at the same time had a window into the hypocrisy of liberal institutions. When I went to divinity school, it was very popular among leftists to go down to Nicaragua and pick coffee for two weeks, which many of my classmates did. And yet they wouldn’t take the 20-minute ride on the Green Line over to Roxbury to see where people in their own city were being warehoused little better than animals. So I always say that Harvard Divinity School is where I learned to hate liberals. I should also add that I was, not surprisingly, a fairly high-testosterone, rebellious young man, and during those two and a half years I was a member of the Greater Boston Alliance boxing team. I used to box for $25 a fight in places like Charlestown. So most of the friends that I hung out with were, in fact, boxers who were dish washers and construction workers.
So, yes, I think it’s extremely important for those of us who don’t grow up in those kinds of depressed, impoverished milieus to spend significant time in them, because we can’t learn to fight on behalf of the poor if we don’t have a very realistic appraisal of what these impoverished enclaves are like and what the effects of these enclaves are on the people who live there.
Tell me a bit about your father, who was a minister in upstate New York. I can sort of see you as a young kid going around with him and after every sermon kind of interrogating him about what he had said.
That’s exactly what happened. He had five churches in rural Schoharie County in upstate New York. He would consolidate two of the services, so he would preach the same sermon three times. And I often went with him on this kind of circuit. I didn’t hear the sermon three times, but in between I would grill him on it. My father wasn’t a great intellectual, but he was a great minister and a great man and had the kind of wisdom that comes with being a parish minister for 40 years by the time he retired.
I remember once as a teenager—when somebody would die in the town, my father would go and spend the day at the house of the family with the bereaved. And I remember asking him once, “What do you say?” And he said, “Mostly I just make the coffee.” And I remember as a teenager sort of rolling my eyes and thinking, That’s my dad, when in fact years later I realized that there was a profound kind of wisdom that in the face of death there is nothing to say and that it was primarily his presence that was called for.
And did he share what you found at Harvard, a certain romanticization of the poor as well?
My father had no real understanding of the inner-city poor. The county we lived in was very poor, and my father was a champion for the poor. We had probably mixed-race. But the poor whites in our county were derisively referred to as “slouters.” I’m not sure where the term comes from. But they were probably mixed Indian-African American, and they lived in segregated parts of the town. We had a horrible principal at the high school. The kids would sometimes be unruly. And he would expel them from the high school and not allow them back into the high school. My father was a champion on their behalf, and he clashed so much with that principal that they finally passed a restraining order that my dad wasn’t allowed on the high school property, because he just went ballistic. The education of these children, because they were poor, was terminated at the whim or capriciousness of a heartless administrator.
My father came from money; he was a product of the upper middle class. To the day he died, he was dressed in Brooks Brothers suits. So, yes, I would say that my understanding of the darkness of poverty and how that darkness visits itself on human beings was probably not viscerally something he understood.
What kind of influence did your mother have on you?
My mother was the intellectual of the family. She was an English professor. And I am a mix of the two. My father, although, of course, highly educated, I wouldn’t describe him as first and foremost an intellectual. My mother was intellectual. So I got a marriage of the two.
Did your love of the classics—and you’re very steeped in classical literature—stem from your mother?
No. She taught mostly the canon of American literature. Neither of my parents was particularly well versed in the classics. My father had study biblical Greek, but he was by no means a classic scholar. That was a path that was provided to me by Harvard, which I took, and which I relished and loved. But I would say that that came from great classics professors at Harvard.
Talk about getting Death of the Liberal Class published. It was a bit of an odyssey. You started at Knopf. And then what happened?
Well, I turned the manuscript in to Knopf and they didn’t like it. I do believe that the collapse of the traditional media is catastrophic for our democracy, but I wasn’t about to mythologize it. I understand its deep, structural flaws, and the lies it tells, which are primarily, but not always, the lies of omission, and I wasn’t going to leave that out. Knopf offered to publish the book but they said that an editor was going to “take out all the negativity,” which, of course, I wasn’t going to accept. I had been paid half my advance, and I had Nation Books buy the entire book for that half that I had been paid and publish it.
But that transition between Knopf and Nation Books was one where I began to reflect that the press doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s one of the pillars of the liberal establishment. The reason the press doesn’t cover labor is because labor has atrophied. Labor as a force in American political life largely doesn’t exist. So I wanted to write about all of the traditional pillars of the liberal establishment, not just the press, but liberal religious institutions, public education, in particular, universities like City College, culture, labor, and, of course, the Democratic Party, and show how the foundations of the liberal state have been degraded or destroyed. And the press is part of that story. So it became a broader and, I think, better book because of that interlude.
And Knopf is part of the Bertelsmann conglomerate.
It’s a huge corporation in its own right. And these corporations, the executives who run them, couldn’t tell a good book from a bad book if you put a gun to their head. The only thing they know are numbers. It’s why they constantly seek out celebrity-driven books. At the time, the editor I was working with was working with Tony Blair. I think Blair got something like $4 million for his book, which we now know is not only filled with self-congratulatory crap but, frankly, completely made-up interviews. But that’s what they like, because it’s all about money. It’s not about actually producing books that have any kind of longevity or any kind of intrinsic worth. And the people who work there don’t even have the literary and intellectual capacity to know whether the book has any worth. I had been with Simon & Schuster Free Press before. I had been through this. It’s really frustrating. The corporatization of just about every aspect of American life, including the publishing industry, is at its core an assault on culture. It’s about the destruction of culture.
You land up at the most prestigious paper in the country, The New York Times, in 1990. You’ve alluded to the problems you had with the editorial staff. When did you start noticing them?
I was very far away from the mother ship for my career, but I had problems almost from the beginning, because I was sent to cover the first Gulf War, and I wouldn’t embed. We all were forced to sign documents by the military when we got off the plane in Dhahran saying that we would in essence be servants of the military. We were, first of all, in Saudi Arabia, we weren’t in the U.S., but the paper reduced us to little more than propagandists. The next day I just threw the paper in the trash and went out on my own to a town called Khafji and started writing stories.
It pleased the paper, because they were getting stuff that was outside of the pool and outside the approved stories that were managed and controlled by the military. But it really angered the other reporters who were there who had been good little boys and girls and done what the military had told them. So they actually wrote a letter—I was a new reporter—to the foreign editor saying that because of my defiance of the rules, I was ruining our relationship with the military. I’m not a careerist, I never really gave a damn about my career, and I thought that was the end. But R. W. Apple, who was running the coverage at the time, interceded on my behalf, and in fact, when he found out about the letter, called all the reporters in and dressed them down. Johnny Apple had covered Vietnam. He said, “You know, we don’t work for the U.S. military.” But without Johnny’s intercession I would have been shipped back to New York in some disgrace and probably wouldn’t have been able to further my career. As it turns out, the collection of stories that I wrote on the Gulf War were chosen by the paper for their submission for the Pulitzer that year, didn’t win it.
So I was sent very quickly overseas. There is a kind of strange phenomenon within institutions like The New York Times: the closer you get to the epicenters of power, like Washington or New York, the more you acquiesce to the needs and the desires of those centers of power. The further you are away, the more latitude and freedom you have. So I made sure that throughout my career I never—for instance, I wouldn’t do the press briefings by Schwarzkopf. I preferred to be out interviewing lance corporals up on the front line, which is mostly what I did. That means you don’t write the big policy pieces, you don’t have access to the senior officials. But that never interested me in journalism.
And because The New York Times is an institution that attracts careerists, who are attracted to power and access, this gave me a kind of free hand. The kind of work that I wanted to do, most of the other reporters didn’t want to do. I constantly volunteered to go to Gaza, spent months in my life in Gaza, and the other reporters had no interest in going to Gaza. I volunteered to go to Sarajevo. And when I did, the then executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, said, “Well, I guess the line starts and ends with you.” So the things that I cared about, the things that I wanted to report, I had very little competition within the institution to report them.
My clash with the paper came when I came back. I had written War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, so I was on programs like Charlie Rose. And because I had been the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, I would be asked about the impending invasion of Iraq, and I denounced it quite strongly. And this led me to conflict with the paper.
But for me, I was always consistent. I’ve had people ask me, “Is that a kind of metamorphosis?” Or “When did you change?” I never changed. I placed myself in places like Sarajevo or Gaza so that I could do the kind of reporting I wanted, which was not doing lunch, which was not sucking up to officials, but writing off the street. That sort of gritty, day-to-day, almost cop kind of reporting where you would go out and get a story, that’s pretty much what my career was. I wasn’t writing the big thumb-sucking analytical pieces. I did very, very little of that.
To fast-forward to 2003, you gave the commencement at a college in Illinois. Apparently that rubbed the editors in New York the wrong way. Why?
Because I was booed off the stage. The Progressive actually ran a transcript of the whole talk with, in italics, what people shouted. So I got lynched, the same way cable news lynched Howard Dean or Jeremiah Wright, all these figures. So the paper had to respond, or they were pressured to respond, and they responded by calling me into the office and giving me a formal written reprimand for impugning the impartiality of The New York Times. We were Guild, I was Guild, and the process is that you give the employee a written warning, and then, under Guild rules, the next time the employee violates that warning, you can fire them. So once I was handed that written warning, it was terminal, because I wasn’t about to stop speaking out against the Iraq war. And I approached Hamilton Fish at The Nation Institute about becoming a senior fellow there and leaving the Times. I did leave the Times; I wasn’t fired. But if I had stayed long enough, I would have been fired. That was inevitable.
One of the interesting things that happened in the Times was their extensive coverage of Jason Blair’s transgressions. He was their reporter who fabricated information in his stories. Front page. Thousands and thousands of words. His articles were parsed sentence by sentence. I always contrast that with the paper’s short apologia below the fold, inside the paper about how they got the Iraq war wrong.
Well, of course, because the failure to report or, let’s put it this way, the decision on the part of The New York Times to become a propaganda arm of the Bush White House for the Iraq war, exposed tremendous structural flaws within the institution. Look, I can’t stand Judy Miller and I hate to defend her, even obliquely. But the fact is, she was a scapegoat. This was an institutional failing; it wasn’t a failing of one reporter. They did single her out. But they can’t go there, because it would be to ask questions about their whole modus operandi, how they see themselves as a player within the establishment. They, of course, defined their worth based on their ability to have access to the powerful. All of this stuff would have had to have been called into question. And they weren’t capable of doing that.
The big failing of The New York Times is that it treats with deference centers of power that no longer should be treated with deference. When you had a ruling elite that was somewhat accountable to a demos, or a democratic populace, then those institutions were worthy of some kind of deference. Now, we have financial and political institutions that are wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state and criminal enterprises in many cases—Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Bank of America. Yet the Times continues to treat them with a kind of deference they don’t deserve. That is at its core the real failing of the paper and why it was able to disseminate the lies handed out by Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Dick Cheney and others, why it completely missed the financial meltdown. Because it should have been in low-income neighborhoods interviewing people who had been given mortgage agreements that they had no hope of ever paying. Instead, they were running down and interviewing Robert Rubin at Citibank. So that in a way, because their sense of identity is built around access, it’s become their Achilles heel. At some kind of fundamental level they lack common sense. It’s been very destructive to the integrity and credibility of the paper. I read the paper every day. For all its flaws, I’m a devoted reader. I certainly do not want to see The New York Times go down. But, unfortunately, the people running the paper have not been able to confront the new political reality that exists.
You live in New Jersey. Perhaps that state’s most famous son, if you will, is Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University, two-time president of the United States. You call him “a very dark figure” in U.S. history. Why?
Because he created the first system of modern mass propaganda, the Committee for Public Information, or the Creel Commission, as it was known popularly, to justify America’s entry into World War I, which had very little popular support. Wilson had run in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” but Wall Street and the bankers, especially with the collapse of the eastern front with czarist Russia, were terrified that if the Germans won the war—and there was a real possibility that they could win the war—all of the massive loans that they had provided to the British and the French would not be repaid. So Wilson dragged us into the war and created this amazing system, massive, first of all—its own news division, its own film division, making films out of Hollywood like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, speakers’ bureaus—but, most important, employing the techniques of mass or crowd psychology employed by Le Bon, Trotter, and, of course, Sigmund Freud. And you have Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew twice over, coming out of the Creel Commission and going straight to Madison Avenue, the father of modern public relations. They understood that people were moved and manipulated by emotion, not by fact, not by reason. And they very skillfully employed these techniques to not only promote the war but break the back of socialist, radical, populist movements that had opposed the war. Socialists, anarchists, communists all became demonized.
And the legacy that Wilson left for us is this culture of permanent war, this culture of fear. So that on the day the war ends the dreaded Hun becomes the dreaded Red. You use this fear to not only destroy your populist forces—because, remember, the liberal class at one point was a political center in the political establishment. That was its function, to make incremental or piecemeal reform possible. That was its role. But you destroy the popular movements which hold fast to moral imperatives and which were the true correctives to American democracy—the labor movement, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the abolitionist movement—and then you disembowel the liberal institutions themselves by going after anybody who is purportedly soft on communism. So essentially what you do over time is what we’ve done, which is to render the society defenseless against rapacious corporate business interests that have shattered all kinds of regulations and controls. As Karl Marx understood, unfettered, unregulated capitalism is a revolutionary force. We are living in the midst of it. They have carried out a coup d’etat in slow motion. And it’s over, they’ve won. Wilson I think was the starting point for this.
Few realize the extent of the popularity of the left in that period. Appeal to Reasonhad something like 700,000 subscribers, 4 million readers. You had people like Eugene Debs getting a huge number of votes.
Right. Even in prison in 1920 he pulls almost 1 million votes. And it’s destroyed the language by which we can understand what’s happening to us. People don’t even have the vocabulary of class warfare to get it. The fact that buffoonish, amoral, shallow people like Donald Trump or Warren Buffet or any of these figures can be held up as icons shows you how far our descent is. Dwight Macdonald, whom I admire very much, said that the war was the rock on which these progressive movements broke. And I think that’s right.
So that the harsher tactics of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, because of the effectiveness of the propaganda—and this was something that Walter Lippmann laid out in Public Opinion—and how you manufacture consent, had to be very rarely employed. They were used against Debs to put him in prison. But in most cases—and Randolph Bourne and Jane Addams write about this—even the intellectual class—and it wasn’t just the masses that were seduced by this propaganda, but the intellectual classes as well. And then the remnants of these movements in the aftermath of World War I, like the Wobblies, the old CIO, Emma Goldman, then they used, through the Palmer Raids and deportations, the harsher forms of state control to eradicate those that have stood fast to these moral principles.
With the breakdown of capitalism in the 1930s we saw a resurgence somewhat of these movements, which made the New Deal possible, and you saw liberal figures, like Roosevelt, or his vice president, Henry Wallace. That was the last—you could argue on a limited scale the civil rights movement, but that was the last great gasp of liberalism. And everything since, starting with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 has been a destruction or a dismantling of the advances that we made in popular democracy through the New Deal.
Hitler wrote admiringly about the propaganda efforts in Mein Kampf. Hitler admired the war propaganda, yes, that’s right. But more important, Goebbels considered Edward Bernays’ book Propaganda one of the seminal texts in creating their own propaganda.
Talk about bread and circuses as a method of control. It seems to me that there is less and less bread nowadays, literally, and more and more circuses.
The purpose of bread and circuses is, as Neil Postman said in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, to distract, to divert emotional energy towards the absurd and the trivial and the spectacle while you are ruthlessly stripped of power.
I used to wonder, is Huxley right or is Orwell right? It turns out they’re both right. First you get the new world state and endless diversions and hedonism and the cult of the self as you are disempowered. And then, as we are watching, credit dries up, the cheap manufactured goods of the consumer society are no longer cheap. Then you get the iron fist of Oceania, of Orwell’s 1984. That’s precisely the process that’s happened. We have been very effectively pacified by the pernicious ideology of a consumer society, which is centered around the cult of the self, kind of undiluted hedonism and narcissism. That became a very effective way to divert our attention while the country was reconfigured into a kind of neofeudalism, with a rapacious oligarchic elite and an anemic government that no longer was able to intercede on behalf of citizens but now cravenly serves the interests of the oligarchy itself.
Your work is replete with references to poetry. For example, you quote Yeats, “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
That’s what happens. Because when you live in an illusion, when life is all about serving your own personal pleasure, you banish empathy. That’s what the corporate state has done very well—to banish the capacity for empathy. I come out of the religious left, and it was drilled into us, It’s not about you, it’s about your neighbor. True spirituality—King wrote about this, Bonhoeffer wrote about this, Dorothy Day wrote about this, Daniel Berrigan, writes about this—is about justice. It is about justice. And, unfortunately, the left became preoccupied with the pursuits of inclusiveness and multiculturalism and identity politics and forgot the core issue of justice. Not that multiculturalism or these things are bad in and of themselves. But when they’re divorced from justice, especially justice for the poor and working men and women, then it becomes a kind of boutique activism, which is not only largely irrelevant but very easily absorbed, as it has been, into the consumer society itself, because it just creates more consumers.
You look at the huge billboards that Benetton and Calvin Klein put up a few years ago with HIV-positive models and people of color. They function the same way Barack Obama functioned for the corporate state: to give their products a kind of risqué edge and smell of progressive politics. But in the end it did what all these brands do, and that is make consumers confuse a brand with an experience. And it’s why, when Barack Obama wins the presidency, Advertising Age gives him its top annual award, Marketer of the Year. He beat Nike, Apple, Zappos. Because the professionals know damn well what he did and who he is.
He also got more corporate money than McCain.
That goes back to Clinton, because Clinton understood that if he did corporate bidding, he would get corporate money. That’s how we got NAFTA, the destruction of welfare, deregulation of the banking system, deregulation of the FCC. He continued to use that feel-your-pain kind of language while serving corporate interests. By the 1990s, the Democrats had fund-raising parity with the Republicans. And by the time Obama ran, they got more.
One more Yeats poem that’s often quoted, “The Second Coming.” “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” I’m wondering about his intent there, and whether that’s really accurate about “the best lack all conviction.”
Yeats is a great poet, and a fascist. He wrote this poem because of a fear of the left, not a fear of the right. Remember, he ended his career writing ditties for the fascist blue shirts in Ireland. But he’s such a fine poet that he captures a kind of truth.
I think we certainly do live in an age where the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. That’s very dangerous, when you have a liberal class that no longer functions. When those people who traditionally defend and care about a civic society no longer do so, then you cede power to very frightening, deformed figures, all of which we are watching leap up around the fringes of our political establishment—this lunatic fringe, which has largely taken over the Republican Party. But I look at it as a fault of the liberal class, that has not responded. So that the legitimate rage on the part of working men and women is directed not only towards government but, I think quite correctly, directed towards liberals, who speak in a very hypocritical language of caring about their interests and yet support political systems—and, in particular, the Democratic Party—that have done nothing since 1994, with the passage of NAFTA, but carry out an assault against working men and women.
You talk critically about brand Obama. You’ve written about Cornel West who is emblematic of many on the so-called progressive left expressing disappointment and disillusionment.
The disappointment with Obama comes from people who don’t understand the structure of power. The charade of politics is to make voters think that the personal narrative of the candidate in any way affects the operation of the corporate state. This is why Sheldon Wolin’s book Democracy Incorporated is important, which was written in 2004. He makes it quite plain that it doesn’t really matter on the fundamental issues whether it’s Republican or Democratic. The imperial projects will continue, Wall Street will be unimpeded in its malfeasance and criminal activity, social programs will continue to be cut, maybe not at the same rate that they would be cut, i.e., the speed or the acceleration would be greater under a Republican administration, but it’s all headed in the same direction.
It’s interesting because after Cornel’s very harsh critique of Obama, the liberal apologists for Obama have gone after him. They haven’t responded to anything he said, including a piece in The Nation, but it’s character assassination: He’s bitter. It’s a personal slight. That’s what they do. They don’t address any of the issues of the abandonment of working men and women, the abandonment of the poor. He talks about prisons. They won’t address any of those issues. They address Cornel’s character. That is the traditional role of the liberal class, that it sets the parameters by which acceptable debate is defined. And when you cross those parameters, as Cornel did, then you immediately are attacked by liberals and become a pariah.
I spend a fair bit of time in Death of the Liberal Class interviewing and speaking to figures like Nader, Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Sidney Schanberg from The New York Times, who covered Cambodia and then tried to take on the big real estate developers in New York and got pushed out of the paper, about what happens when you cross those lines. The attackers come out of the very liberal establishment that you were once part of. That’s what’s so fascinating. And, of course, in the end I was a victim of the liberal establishment as well. The figure that I think the traditional self-identified liberal class hates most is not some nut case like Glenn Beck but it’s Noam Chomsky, because Chomsky has made a career of exposing the complicity of the liberal elite with the centers of power. So to challenge the orthodoxy, to challenge the official narrative in a real way and to talk about systematic forms of injustice, is to become banished from the liberal establishment itself.
There was a lot of magical thinking attendant to Obama, that he was somehow the peace candidate. He is bombing Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and continuing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
He never presented himself as a peace candidate, to be fair to him. This was just wishful thinking on the part of the left. He talked about downsizing in Iraq. But, remember, at the time he was talking about that Afghanistan was the war where we really have to fight. So the failure was not Obama but the fecklessness of the left, who were seduced by the propaganda. They believed somehow that he didn’t really mean what he was saying, that once in office he would carry out a progressive agenda. But if you look at the two-year voting record he had in the Senate, it’s awful. It’s one corporate giveaway after another. There wasn’t a bill he supported that wasn’t an embrace of corporatism. I don’t own a TV, because I don’t need my head filled with this garbage. I got the voting record, I read it, and I made my decision to vote based on that voting record. And that’s what we all should have done. Obama is not even a liberal. The Democratic Party in Europe would be considered a far-right party.
If we don’t hold fast to these moral principles, moral imperatives, nobody’s going to. Politics is a game of fear. We don’t have to have a majority, but once 10, 15, 20 million people start voting left, we’ll scare the piss out of the Democrats, and they’ll have to respond. But they’re not going to respond to us until that happens. We are going to continue this very frightening drift towards what Sheldon Wolin calls the system of inverted totalitarianism. The only thing that’s going to stop it is when we draw a line in the sand and say “Enough!” I’m not sure it’s going to happen this time around. I think any kind of cold analysis of the liberal response would have to concede that this response is not working. We are facing another economic meltdown. The ecosystem, on which the human species depends for life is being destroyed at a rate that has not even been anticipated by climate scientists. We don’t have a lot of time left. So either we get out and fight or we’re finished. But fear is the only thing the Democratic Party has to offer—fear of the other.
We are only going to be further disempowered if we remain afraid. The object should be to make them afraid. As Karl Popper pointed out in The Open Society and Its Enemies, the question is not how you get good people to rule. As Popper points out, most people attracted to power are at best mediocre, which is Obama, or venal, which is Bush. The question is, how do you stop the power elite from doing as much damage to you as possible? That comes through movements. It’s not our job to take power. You could argue that the most powerful political figure in April of 1968 was Martin Luther King, because when he went to Memphis, 50,000 people went with him. And we know Johnson was terrified of him. We have to accept that all of the true correctives to American democracy came through these movements that never achieved formal political power and yet frightened the political establishment enough to respond. The last liberal president we had was Richard Nixon. OSHA, the Mine Safety Act. Not because he was a liberal but because we still had the remnants of movements that scared him. So it’s time to turn your back on the Democrats and begin to regain a new kind of democratic militancy. If we don’t do that, if we remain fearful, then we will be further stripped of power as we barrel towards this neofeudalistic state where there is a world of masters and serfs, where two-thirds of the country lives on a subsistence level, a kind of permanent underclass. That’s what’s happening; that’s what’s being created.
And then you have imperial wars in distant lands. You often cite Thucydides on tyranny—tyranny abroad, tyranny at home.
Imperial power is a disease, because the techniques of imperial power, which is all about not only control through force but the looting of natural resources, not about democracy, the techniques that imperium uses abroad it soon uses at home. That’s what Thucydides wrote, that the tyranny that ancient Athens or the Athenian empire imposed on others, it finally imposed on itself. That what destroyed Athenian democracy, it was destroyed from within. That’s precisely what’s happening. What is Homeland Security? It’s the most intrusive government institution in the history of America. And yet we accept it. We accept it because we’re made afraid of terrorism.
So, yes, the techniques of empire always migrate back home. And the techniques of empire are anathema to democracy. And those most rapacious forces, like Halliburton, make their money off of empire. They make their money in Iraq, they make their money in Afghanistan. It’s all taxpayer money. And then they come back to the U.S. and use that money, through corruption, to reconfigure the political system to their advantage. That is a classic example of what empire does.
Talk about the multiple uprisings in the Middle East, which are classified under the rubric of Arab Spring. Were you surprised at the series of events that evolved?
I was surprised at the timing, but that’s nothing new. For instance, we knew that the pressure on the Palestinians was intense. We didn’t know that when a van full of Palestinian day workers was hit by an Israeli vehicle and several were killed, it would ignite the first intifada. You can’t know that. I was in Leipzig on November 9, 1989, with the leaders of the East German opposition, and they were talking about how maybe within a year they would have free passage back and forth across the wall. A few hours later the wall didn’t exist. You never can know the timing. So that was a surprise.
I think that the Arab Spring—we use all these clichés to make these movements instantly understandable. In fact, the military institutions, which are the problem, still have control both within Tunisia and Egypt. And I think that the other big issue here is food. Commodity prices have been rising. Wheat has risen 100% in the last eight months. When you live on $2 a day, which half of the Egyptian population does, and you’re already spending 50% of your income on food, these kinds of commodity increases are devastating to your ability to feed your family. And we’re seeing that to a lesser extent within the U.S. If you take the roughly 40-45 million Americans who live in poverty, they’re now spending about 35% of their income on food.
I think what we’re really seeing is the breakdown of globalization, the inability of the systems that have been set up by corporations to feed and house the world, to provide adequate income and a decent living. And, of course, it will ripple inwards from the outer reaches of empire. But we’re hardly immune to what’s happening. Look at what’s happening in Greece right now. It’s a good example. All of these things eventually are going to migrate or are already migrating to the U.S. I think we will see these elites, which ruled first through fraud, begin to rule through the much more draconian methods of force. Fraud isn’t working so well anymore.
What’s your assessment of what happened in Madison?
Hopeful. However, it didn’t go far enough. There was no real class consciousness. What they were fighting for was the right to ask for decent working conditions, collective bargaining, which is sort of an indication of how far the labor movement has deteriorated. They didn’t do what they should have done, which is organize general strikes. They invested their faith, courtesy of a bought-off labor establishment of the Democratic Party, in recall, which is not working out real well. We have to undertake a militant and sustained defiance of these systems of power, which means jettison any kind of allegiance to traditional groups of organized labor, as well as the Democratic Party.
Chomsky says there is a significant difference between the uprisings in the Middle East and what’s happening in some communities in the U.S.: in the Middle East people are clamoring for rights they never had, and here they’re trying to defend rights that they won or generations ago were won for them.
And Sheldon Wolin makes that point in Democracy Incorporated, that what we have been fooled into thinking is that the utopian vision of globalization and NAFTA and deindustrialization is somehow progress. Everything we do is sort of defined as progress. When, in fact, Chomsky and Wolin are right, that we should be looking back and seeing that a system that we had set up, however imperfect, was far better than what is being put in place to replace it, and that our battle should be to defend what—let’s be clear—thousands of workers endured tremendous amounts of oppression and even murder to create. The rights that we have—Social Security, the 8-hour workday, an end to child labor, benefits, health insurance—these were paid for with the blood of working men and women.
We need to look back. Of course, the kind of historical amnesia that is fostered by the corporate state does a wonderful job of obliterating whole sections of American history and rewriting it around a mythic kind of version of Horatio Alger and the American Dream and all this kind of stuff. We need to go back and understand what it was that was fought for, the price that was paid to achieve it, and what it’s going to take to—of course, I can’t even say defend it because so much of it has been dismantled—but to get it back.
You wrote speeches for Ralph Nader in his 2008 campaign. At the same time, you’re talking about the electoral system as a charade. I was wondering how you reconcile that. You have also said we must abandon the two-party system and to begin to build a viable socialism. Where do you see in the political landscape out there the roots of that possibility happening?
Nader is a socialist. He just doesn’t use the word “socialism,” but he’s a socialist. I was never under any illusion that Ralph Nader was going to win anything. It was a way to express an opposition and challenge the orthodoxy of the corporate state and corporate media and corporate political parties. It was a recognition that there is no way in this country to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. And it was a call for defiance. I think that it was an understanding that the two-party system, the corporate duopoly, no longer functions to further the rights or interests of citizens, and that the longer we’re fooled by this belief that reform can come through these formal structures of power, the more disempowered we’re going to become.
You’re arguing along two different tracks. And I don’t mean this as a criticism. I find it interesting because I experience the same thing myself. You say, on one hand, “This time when the empire collapses, it will be global, the whole system will go down with us, we stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history.” At the same time, you’re saying, “I have hope. Battling injustice allows us to retain our identity in the sense of meaning, and ultimately our freedom. Rebellion should be our natural state.”
If you read carefully, that’s not the same thing as saying we’re going to win. It is an understanding that rebellion becomes a way to protect your own dignity and to keep alive another narrative. Corporations are, theologically speaking, institutions of death. They commodify everything—the natural world, human beings—that they exploit until exhaustion or collapse. They know no limits. There are no impediments now to corporations. None. But I think that, of course, what they want is for us to give up. They want us to become passive. They want us to become tacitly complicit in our own destruction. Again, although I’m not a particularly religious person, I go back to the religious left that I come out of, that there are moral imperatives to fight back. As Daniel Berrigan says in Death of the Liberal Class, “We’re called to do the good,” or at least the good are insofar as we can determine what it is. And then we have to let it go. It’s not our job to know where the good goes. Faith is a kind of belief that it’s not meaningless, that it goes somewhere. Camus says the same thing. Except, I suppose the difference is that Camus thinks that it goes nowhere. But still you have that moral imperative to rebel. In his book The Rebel that’s what essentially he says.
I think that that’s right. The bleakness of what faces us is difficult to swallow. But as long as we engage in happy platitudes and a false kind of vision of the possible, it may empower you over the short term, but it is eventually, because of the reality in front of us, going to lead to despair and cynicism and apathy. I think it’s better to swallow hard the bitter pill of what we’re up against.
My little 3-year-old looks at books of fish. He loves fish. He’s fascinated. And every time I see it, I think, when he’s my age the fish stocks of the ocean will probably all be dead. The shredding of Kyoto by Obama and corporate figures in the industrialized world in Copenhagen is a retreat into magical thinking, as if we have much time left. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, it would still rise to about 500-550 parts per million. And we’re not stopping it.
So I think we’d better grow up. You strive towards a dream. You live within an illusion. We are the most illusioned society on the planet. We have to become adults. And it’s hard, it’s painful. I struggle with despair all the time. But I’m not going to let it win. I don’t have any false illusion that I’m going to build some great populist movement or be part of some great populist movement that’s going to overthrow the corporate state and impose light and goodness. Yet, I think it is incumbent upon all of us that at the same time we recognize how dark the future is, we also recognize the absolute imperative of resistance in every form possible.
In February you had a baby girl. When you look in her eyes, what are you thinking besides love and affection?
Well, that it’s not about me. I’m doing this for them. That even if I fail—look, what is the next generation going to say? What kind of an earth, what kind of a world are we going to leave them. I at least want my children to look back and say, “My daddy was being arrested at the White House fence and booed off commencement stages and he was trying.” Really, at its very core, that’s why I do it. I do it for them. I do it for not just my children but all of those kids, because we betrayed them. Our generation and preceding generations have betrayed them in a very deep way. We should at least have the moral integrity, even if we can’t win, to get up and battle on their behalf. That’s why I do it.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
Gil Scott-Heron: Winter in America
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