I saw Chris Hedges speak at a KPFA event last night (6/9/15). I went with my friend Connie, to spend some time with her over dinner, to fill the evening and not spend it in front of a lonely TV set but most of all because I am interested in the topic: “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. ” I thought perhaps I might pick up some pithy words or phrases I could “borrow” to use in Yippie Girl. Couldn’t hurt, right?
No question Hedges is a smart man. There’s a lot of brain hidden behind his tall shiny forehead. And he has an enviable speaking style; without notes; clearly not yet a victim of the ageing brain that causes me to fumble and forget names. Hedges came up with memorable phrases: corporatist oligarchy, hyper-masculinity, inverted totalitarianism to describe our current system. America is experiencing a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion, he says, especially since they have turned even the natural world into a commodity. I especially appreciated Hedges comment that progressive achievements come from radical movements that never achieve power. So yes, I agree: to live a moral life, we must stand with the oppressed; we must cultivate and practice defiance.
So, why wasn’t I inspired? Why was I slow to raise myself out of my seat and join the standing ovation? It was not, I think, my usual lack of energy from grieving; my mood was good. It was not Hedges critique of Bernie Sanders run for President – that by so doing Sanders gave legitimacy to a corrupt and venal Democratic Party. I remember that critique from the 1960s. For me, one of the mistakes I think my end of our movement made was rejecting all electoral politics. I say that as a non-citizen. I’m still Canadian. Like a woman before suffrage I have never voted, yet haven’t we all learned by now that elections controlled by bourgeois oligarchs have consequences? Nor was it Hedges wide-eyed approval of Ralph Nader, a man who I once asked at a private event in Portland to clarify his position on choice and received an answer that I can best describe as a waffle.
What bothered me most was Hedges idealization of prisoners. I know, I know, our militarized police state murders, tortures, and puts in jail what is it – 35% of our young African-American population? We have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Imprisonment, especially putting human beings in 23 hour a day solitary confinement for 40 plus years – is horrific, abhorrent, evil and wrong. My words are mild compared to black lives ruined.
Hedges teaches classes to inmates in a New Jersey prison. In itself an admirable and praise-worthy act. As did I. When Stew and I lived in Hurley, near Woodstock, I taught at Napanoch Correctional Facility, driving 45 minutes from home once a week to have door after steel door clang behind me, cutting me off completely from any outside contact. Hedges rightly pointed to the brilliance of inmate art and poetry, to the sadness, and self examination those imprisoned can give. I recall a prisoner named Rasheed, who somehow put together the most heart-wrenching and beautiful book of photographs. So yes, the number of black lives ruined is legion, the corporate prison-industrial complex is a defining evil of our time.
At Napanoch I had in my class a man who claimed he was one of three participants in the murder of Malcolm X. True? No way to know except his sentence – murder. Did he introduce himself to me as one who “did it?” Not in so many words but his inference was clear. Was the man repentant? Not a bit, he was proud of his act. It had defined him as a person and a celebrity. To generalize the behavior of one individual to an entire people is unfair. And very possibly racist. But Hedges did exactly that: he lumped all the prisoners in his class into one category, not bad guy but revolutionary angel. Hedges is an either/or kind of person who spouted too much high level rhetoric for me not be a little skeptical. He offered that same binary “solution/problem” perspective I used to hear from Eldridge Cleaver. When Hedges said “we must stand with “all of the oppressed” he added “or none of the oppressed.” I once believed that. I have excellent ultra-leftist credentials. But I have learned from having two dead husbands that even things we hate contain nuance and complexity.
Finally, Hedges refuses to use social media; for him print is the only legitimate outlet. I wonder, does he still use a typewriter not a computer? Is he aware the corporate oligarchy he hates has infiltrated publishing as much as any other business? Hedges claims to admire the tattooed piercing of those who make up Occupy, yet he can’t bring himself to learn or use their preferred technology. That’s the grumpy old white guy arrogance I remember from back in the day. People like Hedges who have important things to say need, in my humble opinion, to show a little humility.
End of rant. Yes I am glad Hedges is with us to say what he does and is enough of a celebrity that people take him seriously. And no, I haven’t read his book, where he may indeed offer the nuance I was missing, so perhaps everything I’ve said here is as inconsequential as a puff of smoke.