Transcribed Talk by Chris Hedges: "Markets and Morals"
Chris Hedges: Thank you. Doris asked me to say a couple of words about my dad, which is especially appropriate. He was a Presbyterian minister who spent time at Chautauqua... certainly the man who influenced my life more than anyone else. I grew up in a small farm town in upstate New York: Sahara, New York, less than 2,000 people, where my father had five churches. He would consolidate the services and do three services every Sunday, and I often traveled with him.
He was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, in the early 1960s, at a time when Martin Luther King was one of the most hated men in America, in rural white enclaves, such as the one I lived in. He was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam. He had been a veteran - he had been a sergeant in North Africa in World War II - and what got him into particular trouble in the Presbyterian Church was his outspoken support of gender equality, gay rights, ordination, and marriage for GBLT people in the 1970s. This was very a lonely position to take. His youngest brother, my uncle, was gay, and my father, for that reason, had a particular sensitivity to the pain of being a gay man in America in the 1950s and the 1960s. And when I was in college at Colgate University, by that time, my father had a church in Syracuse, and when he found that there was no GBLT group at Colgate, he brought the gay speakers to the campus. And I would join groups of students, my dad, and gay activists and this finally led, after several of these meetings, to my father telling the community that they had to form a GBLT alliance. But they were too uncomfortable, at the time, coming out of the closet, a problem my dad solved by driving down one day, taking me to lunch, and telling me that although I was one of the most committed heterosexuals at Colgate that I had to found it, which I did. Met every Tuesday night with my name attached to it, and when I would go into the dining hall for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the guy would take my card, check off the box, and hand it back to me and go, "Faggot."
My dad taught me many things. The church was particularly harsh on him for this stance, and wanted him to stop speaking out, and his response on an Easter Sunday was to hold a citywide Easter service in defiance of the church hierarchy for the GBLT community. And he came on down and picked me up at Colgate, and told me, correctly, that it was probably one of the last times I'd ever hear him preach. And I remember walking into that church where people were clutching hands, and weeping, and my father getting up and saying: "Marriage is a sacrament, it is not a reward for being a heterosexual, and any church that refuses to honor the sacrament of marriage does not deserve to call itself Christian." And so I hope, I hope if there are any Presbyterians here today who are going to the general assembly, you will honor my father's memory, and all of those who have suffered within the institution, and approve gay marriage and gay ordination.
I wrote a book a few years ago for Knopf, a big publishing house in New York, on the press. It wasn't my idea, it was theirs, and when they got the manuscript, the editor read it through, gave it to a few other editors, who then got back to me to tell me that they hated it. They said that they would be willing to publish the book after they assigned an editor to excise what they called, "all the negativity." Well, you can imagine how that went down. So I got Nation Books to buy them out, and in that process of transferring the manuscript to another publisher, began to reflect that it wasn't just the press that had begun to collapse as an institution, but all the pillars of the liberal establishment had crumbled: the liberal church, which, of course, I came out of; Labor; culture, which has become either commercialized or trivialized in large part; public education; and, of course, the Democratic party. And the question that I asked myself is: What happened? How did these forces that, in a capitalist democracy once made incremental, or piecemeal, reform possible, cease to function?
And that investigation took me back to a period in American history: one, of course, where Chautauqua has its roots. In the era before World War I, we had powerful progressive forces, including: Roush and Bush's social gospel, anarcho-syndicalists, unionists, the Wobblies, powerful anarchist and socialist movements... which had battled in the bloodiest struggle in the industrialized world, between the ownership class and Labor. As Richard Hofstetter points out, far more people had died in the United States in the struggle for labor rights - hundreds - thousands, of course, wounded and maimed - than in any other industrialized nation. And on the eve of World War I, these forces had coalesced. Some of the most widely-read journals in the country were socialist, including: Appeal to Reason, which had the fourth highest circulation in the United States; The Masses; and then, World War I broke upon the US.
Wilson, of course, had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of the war." And with the collapse of the Eastern Front in tsarist Russia, it freed the Kaiser to move over fifty divisions, onto the Western Front, which then unleashed an offensive that nearly toppled the British and the French. And so there was tremendous pressure from Wall Street on Wilson to enter the war because of the loans - the massive loans - that had been given to the British and the French, that would not be repaid if the Germans were victorious. This was aided by the Kaiser's attempt to impose a naval blockade. And yet, there was no sentiment, no support, within the country for the war. Which, Wilson was keenly aware of, and when he went to the Congress to make his announcement that he was declaring war, he was actually protected by an entire cavalry troop in the trip from the White House to the Congress because of fear of attacks by anarchists. And there's a fascinating intellectual debate at that moment between Walter Lippman, who goes on to write Public Opinion, and a guy named Arthur Bullard, and George Creel, and Wilson. Wilson wants to use the harsher measures of the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to force people to get behind the war effort. Lippman makes the argument that through a system of modern mass propaganda, the masses, the majority of the population, can be enticed to support the war effort, and the Sedition and the Espionage acts will only have to be used for the most recalcitrant figures, including Eugene V. Debs, who even from prison - I think it was the 1920 election - pulls 6% of the vote: 900,000 votes. And that reconfigured American society.
Lippman won that argument, and the Committee on Public Information, or the Creel Commission, was set into place: a massive - the first system, really - of modern mass propaganda. It's not accidental that Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations... his work Propaganda, that he writes after the war, becomes one of the seminal texts that Goebbels uses when he builds the Nazi propaganda machine. And this system of mass propaganda employs the understanding of crowd psychology, pioneered by figures like Le Bon, Trotter, and of course Sigmund Freud, who through marriage was Bernays's uncle twice over... That people were not moved by fact or reason, but by the skillful manipulation of emotion.
And so the Creel Commission, because it was headed by George Creel - the Committee on Public Information, as it was known, the Creel Commission - has its own film division in Hollywood that is making movies like The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, it has its own news division that is putting out daily pro-war stories. No publication in the country is allowed to publish unless it supports the war, which is why The Masses shuts down, and Appeal to Reason runs pro-war editorials, as required by law. It has speakers' bureaus. 45,000... they call them three-minute men, who would fan out across the country. Graphics artists. And, when you read the writings of Randolph Bourne, or Jane Addams, who stood fast against the war, there's a constant despair at not only how effective this system of mass propaganda is into seducing people behind the war effort, but how effective it has been in seducing the intellectual class behind the war effort; that there are very, very few people who are able to resist. Addams, of course, being booed finally off of a stage in Carnegie Hall for her denunciation of the war. And the effect of that system of mass propaganda, as the great social critic Dwight MacDonald wrote... MacDonald, I think, sadly sort of forgotten in American Letters; anyone who knows Noam Chomsky's development knows that MacDonald, for five years after World War II, published a magazine called Politics in which he ran articles by Hannah Arendt and George Orwell and Bruno Bettelheim and others, and Chomsky credits that magazine to his own political awakening.
MacDonald's a remarkable essayist, and he says, in essence, two things that I think are very true. First is that the war is the rock upon which these progressive movements broke. And secondly: that after the war, you saw a perpetuation of this system of crowd manipulation or mass propaganda. All of those who had worked within this system of mass propaganda migrated after the war to Madison Avenue and began working on behalf of corporations and the government. Indeed, when in 1954 the US government carries out the coup d'etat against Arbenz in Guatemala, they hire Bernays to do the black publicity, the black information that gets people behind the coup.
The second thing that MacDonald notes is that after the war, it creates what he says was never anticipated by any of the major political and social theorists of the 19th century, including Karl Marx, and that is the psychosis of permanent war. Which, MacDonald says, effectively gets the masses to call for their own enslavement. So immediately when the war is over, the dreaded Hun become the dreaded Red, and you see those weakened forces. Progressive movements, socialist... even the Communist party, which had played an important role in this country up until World War II, a role which has been pretty effectively erased from American history.
Bayard Rustin comes out of the Communist Party and works with King, and uses that experience to do things such as integrating lunch counters... early things we saw in the Civil Rights Movement, tactics that had been employed by the Communist Party in the twenties and thirties. And that's, of course, why a figure like Paul Robeson joins the Communist Party: because even Debs - and later in life, Debs was critical of this - did not fully accept African Americans into the socialist party. Indeed, Debs's political awakening came with the Pullman railroad porters' strike in 1898, which was the first time Debs went to prison; and because they wouldn't accept the African-American porters, the strike was broken. Those racial divisions were not part of the Communist ideology.
So, after the war, you see severe repression against the remnants of these radical or populist forces. We see Appeal to Reason is shut down. The Masses is shut down. The Espionage Act and the Sedition Act are used to destroy the Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalist union. So, you have Joe Hill in Utah, hung on trumped-up murder charges; Big Bill Haywood, another Wobbly leader - again on trumped-up murder charges - flees the country, spends the last ten years of his life unhappily in Moscow. You have the deportation of Emma Goldman, and Berkman.
At the same time, we have Madison Avenue: we have public relations inculcating, within the culture, corporate values. Upending traditional American values of thrift, self-effacement, and replacing it with the hedonism of the cult of the self. Instilling, within a consumer population, consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. And at this point, American society becomes cursed by these two forces. A force: what MacDonald calls, "the psychosis of permanent war." That constant ferreting out of the internal enemy. Of course, instead of in the name of ending Communism, it's now in the name of the War on Terror, and the bombardment of the public discourse with the culture of lies. And manipulation.
Now, at that point, these forces, which had cornered the robber baron class, are shattered, and we see their final resurgence with the breakdown of capitalism in the 1930s. But it's important to remember that figures like Roosevelt or his vice president, Henry Wallace, who responded to the New Deal, responded to the crisis of the Great Depression, were conciliatory figures. They were moderating figures. Roosevelt even says that his greatest achievement is that he saved capitalism. And, that illustration of the policies that Roosevelt adopted is a perfect example of - as Noam Chomsky points out - how a liberal class in a capitalist democracy is supposed to function. It is supposed to make piecemeal or incremental reform possible. It is not designed as the political Left. It's designed as a kind of safety valve, so that when there is a breakdown within the system, you have a mechanism by which you can ameliorate the suffering of the underclass, to keep the system balanced. And the destruction of those radical movements - the systematic destruction of those progressive and radical movements who held fast to moral imperatives... and then, especially with the House Un-American Activities Committee purges in the 1950s, the disemboweling of the liberal class - essentially broke that mechanism.
I teach in a prison and will begin another course this fall. Every course is different; the last one I taught, I used Leon Litwack's great works, Been in the Storm on Reconstruction, and Trouble in Mind on Jim Crowe. And the course before that. . . When you teach in a prison it's exactly the opposite of teaching at a University. I've taught at Princeton and a few other places, when you teach at Princeton you're trying to write something for the course catalog to entice students. When you teach at a prison you're trying to write a course description that will get slipped past prison authorities. So, for the course before this, I wrote, "I would like to teach a course on American history, our founding fathers, the Constitution, the values of our nation," which they embraced. And then I went out and bought every inmate a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
I run my prison classes a bit like a dictator, because otherwise I've found that every class descends into a discussion about "the hood," which is interesting to me, but not why I'm there - so you have to raise your hand. I always love Zinn, but boy, after teaching him to African-American prisoners, I came away... I mean, this guy's in the pantheon of intellectual saints, as far as I'm concerned, because I saw how cognizant he was of the history of those whose voices never get told. And I would hear the prisoners, as I was going through my 90-minute lecture notes on Zinn, say, "Damn. Damn. We've been lied to." And I've been lied to. Because American democracy - and you can go back to The Federalist Papers - was set up in such a way as to preclude the voices of the majority. There was a terror on the part of our slave-holding, white male founding fathers, of direct or popular democracy, and they created numerous mechanisms to shut people out. Of course, people of color were already shut out. Native Americans, African Americans, women, white men without property. Then we had the electoral college.
As some of you may know, I've been a long time supporter of Ralph Nader. I wrote his speeches for him in 2008, the last time he ran. I spoke at the University of Wisconsin, and some students said, "We love Ralph, but his speeches are so boring." As Zinn understood, all of the openings in American democracy came from radical movements that fought back against an entrenched power elite, whether that was the Abolitionists, the Suffragists, Labor, and, finally, the Civil Rights Movement. Although, as Cornel West points out correctly, Martin Luther King's Civil Rights Movement was a legal victory. It didn't free us from the institutional or economic forms of racism that keep the majority of our poor - especially poor of color - in what both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King called "internal colonies."
The battle was a battle to create space, so you had radical movements that never achieved formal positions of power, that pressured a liberal center to respond. Again, we can go back to the 1964 Civil Rights Movement, which unfortunately our Supreme Court has just gutted. As an example: Johnson, responding to a radical movement. And these radical movements, their imperative was to hold fast to ideals. It meant that they would never achieve power in a formal sense - and yet, you could argue, that until he was assassinated, in April of 1968, the most powerful political figure in the United States was Dr. King, because when he went to Selma or he went to Memphis, 50,000 people went with him.
The destruction of those radical movements, accompanied by the disemboweling of the liberal class, has been disastrous for all of the gains that we have made. And we of course are steadily seeing what gains had been made - including New Deal legislation like Glass-Steagall, or the Voting Rights Act - stripped away from us, as the predatory class now has no impediments. The result is a kind of inability, on the part of the system of power, to function, at least to function on behalf of the citizenry.
There are two very good books that I would recommend by Ellen Schrecker, the historian, on the 1950s. One is called No Ivory Tower, about what happened within the universities, and... I forget the name of the other.... But they're both about the McCarthy period, and they were both very instructive to me, in that it wasn't just about the high-profile figures - Charlie Chaplin, or Pete Seeger, or I.F. Stone - who's driven out, tainted with... of course, Henry Wallace himself, the 1948 presidential candidate, becomes a political pariah because he's supposedly "soft" on Communism, but this was far more insidious. Thousands and thousands of people lost their jobs, and as Schrecker points out, the way it worked is that the FBI would show up at a high school, and what we don't know is that many high schools were paired social workers. Social workers especially were targeted, because social workers in this country used to organize on behalf of their clients. Musicians, writers, artists, directors... they would show up with a list, no evidence, they would tell you that seven or eight high school teachers were Communist sympathizers. They would, without any kind of investigation, be removed from their jobs, and blacklisted.
This was especially true, of course, within the universities. I taught for a semester at the University of Toronto, and one of the most eminent mathematicians in the United States was there, Chandler Davis, who was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and refused to name names, and sent to prison for six months. And then of course could not get a job in academia, and so spend the rest of his career at the University of Toronto. He actually wrote some mathematical papers, or treatise, in prison, and dedicated the monograph to his prison authorities, who had housed and fed him during his research.
But this has had an absolutely disastrous effect, and we are now feeling the consequences of what has been carried out against us. Unfettered, unregulated capitalism, as Karl Marx correctly pointed out, is a revolutionary force. It has no self-imposed limits. Everything, in their eyes, becomes a commodity. Human beings become commodities. The natural world becomes a commodity... that it exploits until exhaustion or collapse. And that is why the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis. We allowed corporate forces - in the name of maximizing corporate profit - to destroy the country and, in particular, our manufacturing base. To create what Ralph Nader correctly calls, "a global system of neo-feudalism," where workers in the United States are told that to be competitive in a global marketplace, they have to be competitive against people earning $0.22/hour in sweat shops in Bangladesh, or prison labor in China. And this, as the Harvard historian Charles Maier points out, created a transformation in the United States: so that, as Maier says, by the 1970s we transitioned from what he called an "empire of production" to an "empire of consumption." We began to borrow to pay for a level of consumption and an empire we could no longer afford.
It also gave rise to this faux liberalism, embodied first in the figure of Bill Clinton. Clinton spoke, as Barack Obama does, in that kind of feel-your-pain language, and yet assiduously carried out an assault against the very people, linguistically and rhetorically, he said he protected... and that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party indeed did once protect. So, under Clinton you get NAFTA, 1994: the greatest betrayal of the working class in this country, since the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act that makes it difficult to organize. It's under Clinton that you get the destruction of the welfare system; and remember that in our old welfare system, 70% of the recipients were children. It's under Clinton that you get the deregulation of the FCC, so that a half-dozen corporations - Viacom, General Electric, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Disney, Clear Channel - buy up all the airwaves, and reduce political discourse. It reminds me of what Dorothy Parker once said about Katharine Hepburn's emotional range as an actress: it goes from A to B. Step outside those parameters as Nader does, or as Chomsky does, and you might as well be muzzled; you're not heard.
It's under Clinton that we get the Omnibus bill that explodes the prison population. I just - in a very moving day a couple of weeks ago - drove Cornel West and my great friend James Cone, hands-down the greatest theologian in the United States, up to see Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania. And there, I was with arguably three of the most important African-American radicals and intellectuals of our time. At one point in the visiting room... both Mumia and Cornel love Curtis Mayfield, and I'm listening to Cornel West and Mumia Abu-Jamal sing Curtis Mayfield's "Ghetto Child" at the tops of their lungs in the waiting room.
So, the distortion within the country; the stripping, especially of poor people of color, of the capacity by which they can earn a living, and find dignity... And, I'm not a great fan of Pope John Paul II, but I think his encyclical on work is brilliant. His understanding that work is mainly about self-esteem, about your sense of being... and the message that essentially happens when this prison population explodes, to people of color, is that once in the street, you are worth nothing, but behind bars - to the state and to private contractors - you're worth $30-40,000/year. And that's a form of neo-slavery. Prisoners work. In prison populations, at the height, it's $1/hour - in New Jersey, if you call the ministry of tourism, it's a female inmate picking up the phone, who's earning $0.23/hour; and in county jails like in Union County Jail in Elizabeth, they work for nothing.
It's under Clinton that you get the destruction of Glass-Steagall, and the ripping-down of the firewalls between investment and commercial banks that precipitates the global and the national crisis. Now, why? Because Clinton knew that if he did corporate bidding, he would get corporate money. So that by the 1990s, the Democratic party is at fundraising parity with the Republicans, and when Barack Obama runs in 2008, he gets more.
Now, the internal mechanisms of this security and surveillance state. I was just in London, interviewing Julian Assange. And as some of you know, I sued Barack Obama in federal court - in Southern District Court - over Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. We won, to Obama's surprise. Unfortunately, the Second Circuit just ruled two days ago... Obama appealed, and they ruled in his favor. I don't know how familiar you are with Section 1021, but it's truly a frightening piece of legislation. It permits the US government, contravening 200 years of domestic law, to use the military to seize US citizens who are deemed to have "substantially supported" - now, that's not material support; it's not a legal term, it's an amorphous term - "substantially supported" Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or something called "associated forces"... hold those citizens in military facilities - including in our off-shore penal colonies like Guantanamo - until, in the language of that section, the end of hostilities... which, in an age of permanent war, is forever.
And Judge Forrest, who courageously ruled in our favor, wrote a 112-page opinion, which is worth reading because it's really a kinda treatise on the destruction of the separation of powers. And the fact that, as John Ralston Saul correctly says, we've undergone a coup d'etat, a corporate coup d'etat, in slow motion. And it's over. They've won. We see it with the national security state - the fact that the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government have all signed off onto this egregious assault against our civil liberties. Because the state understands where we're headed. It knows the catastrophic effects of climate change, and yet these forces, these corporate forces, that have essentially... are now operating without any constraints... have no checks. So, 40% of the summer Arctic Sea ice melts: Shell Oil is up there dropping half-a-billion-dollar drill bits. It's the death throes of the planet... and to them, it's a business opportunity: mining the last vestiges of fish stocks, oil, natural gas, and minerals.
And Obama is cut precisely out of that mold of Clinton. The Democratic party, in Europe, would be considered a far-right party. Obama's assault on civil liberties has been far worse than under George W. Bush: an absolutely remarkable fact. The FISA Amendment Act, which retroactively makes legal what, under our Constitution, has traditionally been illegal: the warrantless wiretapping, monitoring, and eavesdropping of tens of millions of American citizens. The radical - and I think most dispassionate legal scholars would go, inappropriate -interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force act as giving the government the right to assassinate American citizens... and of course I'm speaking about Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni cleric... and not, incidentally, his 16-year-old son, two weeks later, who was on no terrorism list at all.
The use of the Espionage Act... this is quite disturbing, as a former reporter for the New York Times. Obama has used it seven times, including now against Edward Snowden, to shut down whistleblowers and people of conscience. And, of course, we sadly just saw Judge Lynn, in the Bradley Manning trial, uphold the government's right to charge Manning with "aiding the enemy": the utter inversion of the rule of law, and of the moral order. Yes, of course Manning committed a crime. But next to the war crimes which he exposed, the crime that he committed is marginal. And yet, the killers.... Take just the collateral murder video, where helicopter pilots were gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians, and then coming around to shoot civilians who came to the rescue of those who had been wounded, including two children who were in a van, and including two colleagues of mine from Reuters who had been killed. The war criminals are not prosecuted. Those who stand up and have an act of conscience to expose the malfeasance and criminal activity and fraud of government are. Kiriakou, the CIA analyst who exposed torture, is now spending 30 months in federal prison in Pennsylvania.
And the use on the part of the state of these mechanisms, including the Espionage Act, has essentially - and, I speak to many colleagues who still do investigative reporting - shut down any possibilities of shining a light within the inner workings of power. So that we have, in essence, a two-tiered legal system: one that functions on behalf of that One Percent, Goldman-Sachs. The bottom line now in American politics is that there is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman-Sachs. Or Exxon-Mobile. Or Citibank. That these corporations now are cannibalizing the country. Reconfiguring the United States into an oligarchic system - indeed, it's a global oligarchic system - and you cannot have a functioning democracy in an oligarchy. It's not a new idea. Thucydides wrote about it. Indeed, Thucydides said that the tyranny that Athens imposed on others as an empire, it finally imposed on itself. So, when empires implode.... We are imploding economically, morally, physically... look at our infrastructure, major cities... we just saw Detroit declare bankruptcy. In order to keep a population under control, you bring the harsher forms of control from the outer reaches of empire back to the heart of empire. That's what happens in empire. Drones, privatized security... 70% of our intelligence work is now done by private contractors, as Jeremy Scahill has pointed out. A night raid by a militarized police force in Oakland - command helicopters, search lights, command vehicles, police in black, Kevlar vests, with automatic weapons - looks no different from a night raid in Fallujah. How, then, do we confront what has happened to us? It is not by responding or playing the game of the political theater that is put upon us. Just from the environmental crisis that confronts us alone, we have no time.
It is only by beginning to recapture the moral imperative of radical movements that stood up to these forces. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, writes that the question is not, "How do you get good people to rule." Popper says that's the wrong question. Most people attracted to power, Popper says, are at best mediocre, or venal. The question is, how do you make the power elite frightened of you? There's a scene in Kissinger's memoirs - do not buy the book! - 1971: there's a huge anti-war demonstration, and Nixon has put empty city busses end-to-end around the White House as a kind of barricade. He's standing, looking out the window with Kissinger, wringing his hands, going, "Henry, Henry, they're gonna break through the barricade and get us," and that is just where we want people in power to be.
Thank you very much.
You can thank Doris for the counterweight to David Brooks.
Questions: Thank you, Mr. Hedges, for a very stimulating talk. In your 2006 book, American Fascists, you describe the Christian Dominionist Movement as a fascist movement with growing power, numbers, and strength. Could you update that? In 2013, is it still growing in numbers and strength? Does it represent the threat that you described in that book, today?
A: Yes. He's referring to a book I wrote on the Christian Right call American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America - I was trying to reach out to them, haha. America's a peculiar culture, in that it's a deeply violent culture. I think it's 80 out of every 100 Americans owns a weapon - 1.5 million assault rifles. And yet, throughout our history - with a few exceptions, like the Shays' Rebellion, or the uprising of the coal miners at Blair Mountain - that violence has almost always been vigilante violence: the KKK, the slave patrol, the Pinkertons. And it stems - as writers like Richard Slotkin and others have pointed out - from this Puritan ethic, this belief that we have a divine right to use force to sanctify the world. And of course, we're still trying to do it in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia. And the Christian Right - and by the way, Karen Armstrong is here, she wrote a very good book on that called Battle for God - the Christian Right changed radically.
You were right to use the word "Dominionism," because traditionally, Fundamentalists, or Evangelicals, were very wary of politics. Indeed, especially in Fundamentalist religion, believers were called upon to remove themselves from the contaminants of politics. But we saw, with the rise of this Dominionist Movement - as articulated by Rushdoony and, later, others - this fusion of the iconography and language of American patriotism with the iconography and language of Christianity. And, that has been given expression even in mercenary armies such as Blackwater - which was renamed "Xe," and I think is renamed something else - with figures like Erik Prince.
And part of the danger of the destruction of radical movements in this country is that as we deteriorate... as we face both challenges from economic and environmental dislocations... that species of American fascism - that celebration of violence, that clutching of the Christian cross and the weapons - remains very much a part of our national psyche. So that when you look at groups like the Tea Party, militias, the lunatic fringe of the Republican party - which may be all of the Republican party - you see that classic fascist ethos where you target the vulnerable. You turn on the weak. You blame the social ills on Muslims... undocumented workers... homosexuals... feminists... intellectuals... liberals... they have a very long list of people they hate. And so, I think that the danger of a right-wing backlash that embraces violence and the language of violence remains very real. And very frightening.
And much of what's happening now reminds me of - I covered the war in Yugoslavia for the New York Times - the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Where you have a political center that is paralyzed as, in essence, our political center is. Dostoyevsky wrote about this: Demons is about this; Notes from Underground is about this. And Dostoyevsky was nothing if not prescient about the consequences of that, as explicated in Raskolnikov's dream at the end of Crime and Punishment. He knew that that political paralysis - that defeated liberalism, or that bankrupted liberalism... people who spoke in the traditional language of liberalism, and yet were ineffectual... in a society that functioned, or deteriorated - saw a revolt, and it wasn't just a revolt against liberals: it was a revolt against liberal values. That's, of course, what happened in Weimar. And that's what happened in Yugoslavia. So with the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia - and the inability, on the part of a self-identified liberal Senate, to respond - you vomited up figures like Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudman, the same way that in Weimar, you vomited up the Nazi party. And we are not immune to that, No. 1; and No. 2, because we have systematically destroyed our popular movements, we've lost the traditional counterweight, should that happen.
Q: A question I imagine many people have: During the 1960s, 50,000 people knew to follow Dr. King. I know you participated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which seemed to have petered out pretty quickly. Whom do we follow now, and how?
A: Well, the Occupy Movement was destroyed. Let's be clear. Barack Obama, in a coordinated federal effort, shut down the encampments of the Occupy Movement, because the Democratic party was terrified of the Occupy Movement. The Occupy Movement was a mainstream movement. It gave expression to the concerns of the mainstream. And part of what frightens me is the inability of the power elite to respond to the issues that pushed people into the street.
Krugman writes in his columns about responding rationally to the economic crisis. And I agree! A rational response to where we are would have been: a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions; forgiveness of all student debt; a massive jobs program, especially targeted to people under the age of 25; and a rational healthcare system. Capitalists should not be allowed anywhere near a healthcare system. We live... in moral terms, we live in a country where it is legally permissible for a corporation to hold a sick child hostage, while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. That's the moral degeneracy to which we have fallen. A rational response would be a response that ameliorates the suffering - the tremendous suffering.
In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Joe Sacco and I - for the last two years - have been in the poorest pockets of this country: places like Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where the average life expectancy of a male is 48... that is the lowest in the Western hemisphere outside of Haiti. That's the United States. And if you saw with so-called austerity programs, unfortunately, the tribals - the tribes are being decimated. That's irrational. But when you unleash these forces, which are utterly unplugged from the reality... these people don't fly, Lloyd Blankfein... they don't get on commercial air jets, they don't, they live in, a New Yorker writer called it "Richistan," they don't even live in the United States - and yet they make all the decisions. Their lobbyists write all the laws. And what happens... go back and read Tainter, Tainter's great work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, or Redman's Ancient Environments... we're going down the way all civilizations go down. Our elites are withdrawing into the equivalent of the Forbidden City, or Versailles, and driving the masses harder and harder and harder, extracting more blood... more blood... more blood... until, of course, the whole system goes down. The difference being that this time when we go down, the whole planet goes with us.
Q: What's a rational response to BP, which apparently, according to The Washington Spectator, has dropped 4 million gallons of a dispersant into the Gulf? A dispersant which has just taken the oil to the bottom, and is destroying sea life, is putting people out of business all along the Gulf Coast - what's a rational response to their lying publicity campaign?
A: Well, this is exactly the point. In theological terms, these corporations are systems of death. And they will, quite literally, kill us. They will drive the ecosystem, or exhaust and corrode and degrade and destroy the ecosystem, until the human species can no longer sustain itself. And the formal mechanisms of power will not help us. So, the only response is civil disobedience.
As Wendell Berry says, "Going to jail is more time than I care to donate to the US government. However, we have nothing else left." And that is why I was not only a strong supporter of the Occupy Movement; Cornel West and I held A People's Hearing of Goldman-Sachs in Zuccotti Park. We had unemployed New York City high school teachers who'd been laid off, single mothers who'd been evicted from their homes... and then we marched on Goldman-Sachs, where I and several other activists were arrested.
And what's fascinating is that Daniel Berrigan... I had dinner with him a couple of months ago... 93. As Father Berrigan says, it is a moral imperative. It's not any more about what's practical, it's about what's right. And that we, who come out of a community of faith, are called to do the good, as Berrigan says, "Or at least the good insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go." That the Buddhists call it karma. For us, that's faith. The faith that the good draws to it the good, which of course is always nonviolent.
I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe: East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania. And I watched, especially figures like Havel - I spent every evening in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague with Havel, and the others - Klaus, Dienstbier, and others who would go on to inherit the government. And I saw - especially go back and read Havel's 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless" - that capacity to live in truth... that the wider public may appear asleep and may not respond, and yet they can recognize truth when the see it.
So that up and down the streets of Prague that winter were posters of a young Charles University student, Jan Palach, who to protest the Soviet invasion of his country, the overthrowing of Dubcek, had lit himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. Four days later, he died of his burns. Thousands of university students that marched to the cemetery with his body were broken up by police. None of it was ever reported in the state media. When his grave became a shrine, his remains were exhumed and cremated, and his ashes were given to his mother, and she was told she could not rebury them. His picture was everywhere in that city. And two weeks after the Communist government fell, 10,000 people in Prague went to Red Army Square and renamed it Jan Palach Square. I was in Wenceslas Square that December night... it was snowing... 500,000 people... and, a woman who had once been Czechoslovakia's greatest singer, Martha Kubisova, walked out on the balcony. In 1968, she had sung an anthem of defiance calling on Czechs to rise up and fight the Soviet invasion... and when the Soviet regime was installed, she became a nonperson. Her entire recoding stock was destroyed. Her voice was not allowed to appear on airwaves. And, in the intervening years, she had worked on an assembly line in a toy factory. And when she walked out on that balcony and sang that anthem, every Czech in the crowd knew every word... and that's faith. That is the belief that standing up for what's right.
Faith is not practical. If we wait for the practical, we're doomed. Faith is that moral imperative embodied in great figures like King. And remember that King, at the end of his life, was a very lonely man. The Black Power Movement was disintegrating... even his own movement... he was, especially after the riots in Watts... he was booed, he was under pressure, from Stokely Carmichael and others, to become more militant... and two months before he died, he got up under all that pressure to at least condone acts of violence, and he said, "I take nonviolence to be my lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and in health." That's faith.
And that's why I invested as much time as I did in the Occupy Movement. Because they were young, they weren't as confident as they looked, and yet they spoke in a language of nonviolence, and a language of concern for those we have walked out upon. And the liberal class in this country is responsible for that abandonment of the poor and the working class. We busied ourselves with the boutique activism of multiculturalism and identity politics - all of which I support - but not when it is divorced from justice.
Q: That kind of goes into my question. And I applaud the Occupy Movement, because even though - I don't think it petered out... but anyway it died - it did at least bring to the attention of people, issues they maybe hadn't thought about. But when you're talking about all the young people - and I have two daughters in their twenties... who I think are trying as best they can to walk the walk, but you get out of college in this kind of environment, and... if I'm cynical, they are even more so. What do you think about the youth coming up? When I see Occupy Wall Street - the movement - I think, maybe they'll be better than we are. But, I dunno. Because the usual systems they could turn to are gone, or are at least letting them down.
A: Right. We cannot continue where we're going. I mean, this is... and I love Paul Krugman, and I read his stuff, but he wants to get us back to where we were. We can't go back to where we were, if we're going to survive as a species. A material diminishing of our situation does not mean a spiritual diminishing of our situation. It means a re-creation of communities, especially on a local level. And I think that we have to look at the Occupy Movement as a tactic. In the same way that Rosa Parks got on a bus in 1954, and it was five years before we had the Freedom Riders. I think something has been unleashed by the Occupy Movement that terrifies the state, which is why the state is working as hard as it is to shut down public space... to make public space unavailable so that another mass movement doesn't arise. It's why the security and surveillance state is downloading and storing all of the electronic communications every single one of us here today has, in perpetuity in supercomputers in Utah. Because they're frightened. Because they understand, internally, how rotten it is. And one of the reasons why they want the NDAA passed is because ultimately, they don't trust the police to protect them. You saw it in the Chicago teachers' strike, where teachers in the street would go in and use bathrooms in precincts, and the police would applaud them.
I was arrested with 131 veterans in front of the White House, protesting the war in Afghanistan - you know, for me, that's my church. It was snowing. Watermelon Slim, a Vietnam veteran, played "Taps" on his harmonica. Veterans from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan - most in their uniforms - folded the flag of a boy who'd been killed in Afghanistan a few weeks before. Everyone was silent. Someone beat a drum. Everybody marched single-file through the snow to the fence to be arrested. And most of us were crying. And when the police cuffed us, they would whisper in our ears - of course all of them are vets - they would whisper in our ears, "Keep doing what you're doing, because these wars stink." That terrifies the state. Because as Berrigan said, you draw the good to the good. How did the East German Communist party fall? Erick Honecker - the dictator for 19 years - sent an elite paratroop division down to Leipzig - I was there at the time - to fire on the crowd, and they refused. Honecker lasted another week in power.
What broke the autocratic rule of the Tsar? It was when the bread riots in Petrograd erupted, the Cossacks were sent in, and instead of crushing the riots, they fraternized with the crowd. And I think the truth we speak is one that is accessible to the foot soldiers of the elite. Because police have brothers, relatives who have been foreclosed, who don't have jobs. And it is by holding fast to that moral imperative, and speaking truth to power - or as Vaclav Havel says, living in truth - that is our best mechanism for breaking the back of these systems of death.
Q: So Chris... this is more a call to action for you, to you, from me. We need leadership in this country to help us citizens somehow come together in a way that we can take back our country. And I don't wanna burn myself... I've spent one night in jail, that was enough, forty years ago - that was enough. But, I've been to many demonstrations in my lifetime. There were a lot of very intelligent people this week who came to speak - including, of course, yourself - who know the higher facts, what's behind everything that's going on.... And we, as a citizenry, need people to help create an organized movement to take these facts out the books and the lectures, and help channel us so that we can do something. So I'm asking you - you know a lot of people, you know so much - get a band of brilliant people together to help us regain ourselves. And make sure 50% of them, at least, are women. Thanks.
A: I think they're there. And, one of the things that stunned me about the Occupy Movement is how thoughtful these people were. But I think that we have created a mechanism by which their voices are not heard. MSNBC is a corporate sponsor gossip machine just like Fox; it just spins it in a different direction. But actual voices... you notice Cornel West never appears on MSNBC... neither does Nader... neither does Chomsky... the MSNBC crew, for all their moral posturing, never covered the NDAA case at all, because it didn't make Obama look good. And so, the systems of propaganda... and then you turn to the commercial airwaves, and it's just trivia. Celebrity gossip.
I wrote a book called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, that looks at all this. But I think that the voices are there, but society is so deformed that we don't hear them. And let's go back to... at the dying days of any empire, that's what happened. Read Cicero. So that in the civil war, Cicero, who inveighs against the arena - which subsumes the intellectual and emotional life of Rome in the tawdry, in violence, in often-sexual violence... Cicero's hunted down, beheaded, and his hands are cut off, and they bring his severed head and hands to the arena, and they announce he'll never write or speak again, and 40,000 people cheer. And I think that's where we are.
You know, the sort of turning of voices, like my friend Jeremiah Wright, into pariahs. And the way they do it is by mocking them in the way they mock Nader or they mock anyone... and Chomsky's just been completely erased from the radar screen at all. So, they're there. They are there. But we live in a species of what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin - and that's another great book, Democracy Incorporated - calls "inverted totalitarianism." Where corporate systems control everything, including systems of information. Including universities like Princeton, that function as corporations.
Q: As one who studied back in the day under Jim Cone and Cornel West at Union Seminary, I say "Amen" to what you've said about those amazing human beings. Quick two-part question: Should we, then - in light of what you've told us today and have written about - bother at all with the voting process, the electoral process? And No. 2: Do you take any hope from the demographic changes, regionally and nationally, so that fairly soon now, people of color and women will - thankfully - outnumber white males?
A: Well, I mean, as Emma Goldman said, if voting were that effective, it'd be illegal. I vote, but I have voted, since 2000, in opposition to the system, which meant voting for Nader, and voting in the last election for Jill Stein. And Nader was right, in that he said if we can get 5, 10, 15 million people as a counterweight, then we can begin to frighten the power elite. That was always Nader's goal. And I think the more - and this is why the Occupy Movement was so disturbing to the power elite - the more the masses are wiling to step outside the system, the more power we will get.
In terms of the demographic changes, we have to be careful with that, because corporations look... they're colorblind, everybody's a consumer to them... and the way Obama was sold to us, he was sold as a brand. And effectively as a brand, which is why, after the 2008 election, his campaign won Advertising Age's top annual award, which was Marketer of the Year. Because the professionals knew precisely what he had done. So again, the inclusion of voices - minorities, genders who have traditionally been excluded - is a good thing, but I'll go back to what I said before: not when it is divorced from justice.
Q: Hi. There's a national movement underway to pass a Constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not people, and money is not speech: Money out of Politics. And so, 16 states have already passed this resolution, and 500 cities: New York, Los Angeles.... So, I'm wondering if you would write a book, perhaps, on what the world would look like if that amendment were actually passed, and we could get money out of politics? Because the vision seems to be lacking in... partly me... but partly I have a hard time imaging what life might actually be like if Congress was actually working for us.
A: Well, the last people who want money out of politics are the people in Congress who... I mean, let's just tick off the number of millionaires... I mean, this has become a very lucrative business, as Hillary Clinton has now illustrated to us. I mean, these people step outside the political arena, are lavished with money, and go back in. It's a form of legalized bribery. And to count on these people to reform a system that serves their own very narrow and selfish interests, I think, isn't gonna work. And so, again, I'm gonna go back and say that we've gotta do precisely what the antiwar demonstrators in 1971 did to Nixon: and that's begin to make those in these circles of power scared to death.
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