Beyond hope

A conversation with Chris Hedges

by Bruce Mason

Chris Hedges speaking at the St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church, Vancouver, last February
Chris Hedges speaking at the St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church, Vancouver, last February

Chris Hedges is a controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of best-selling books. He has covered Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans for two decades and writes and speaks extensively on war, terrorism, climate, culture and conflict. On February 19, as part of the SFU Vancouver Speakers Series, he gave a 90-minute talk entitled “Rules of Revolt: What do citizens owe ourselves, each other and our governments?” In late March, he returned to Vancouver to give a keynote talk at the public Conference on Mining, Fossil Fuels and Common Resources. He also touched off a local controversy with his Truthdig column posted from Vancouver on March 8. Entitled “The whoredom of the left,” it began with: “Prostitution is the quintessential expression of global capitalism.” For several hours before and after his February talk, Bruce Mason had an opportunity to interview Hedges for Common Ground.

Bruce Mason: Welcome back to Canada.

Chris Hedges: Thanks. Those of us who care about climate change look to you as the front-line in fighting tar sands and pipelines projects that would be truly catastrophic for the planet. And we must come up here and join you. My wife, the actress Eunice Wong, is Canadian and one of my daughters is taking a year away from her studies at UBC. Of course, there’s that infamous interview on CBC in 2011 when Kevin O’Leary mocked the Occupy movement and called me a “left-wing nut-bar.” I discuss issues and don’t go on anything like Fox News so I walked out of the studio. After hundreds of complaints, the CBC apologized and I understand Kevin moved on [laughter].

In the US, half the population now lives at near poverty levels. We don’t have Canada’s social safety nets and are a more deeply violent society. However, Harper’s new terrorism law, Bill C-51, is as bad as anything in the US, which has all but eradicated privacy. In the aftermath of the Occupy movement – because communication was electronic – leaders have been hauled into court and forced to plea bargain, preventing them from further activism. Of Muslims who have been caught up in terrorism charges since 9-11, 95+ percent have been framed / set up.

BM: You, in fact, sued the President over legislation, which created new powers.

CH: Yes Hedges vs. Obama fought the overturning of 150 years of legal due process through authorizing military to carry out nebulous, extraordinary rendition and indefinite incarceration, including on US streets. We won the case, but the administration aggressively and successfully appealed because we suspect they were already using these powers and could be in contempt, otherwise. In a subsequent case, we were told that our fears of being monitored were “speculative” – if the government were spying on us, we would be told (laughter). After the Snowden and other revelations, of course, we knew this was a lie.

BM: What are your thoughts on the rationalizations for the war on terrorism and the calls for increased security and surveillance?

CH: In every war I’ve ever covered, the first step is to dehumanize others before exterminating them. The awful movie American Sniper is, at its core, an excuse for murdering hundreds of thousands of innocents, including burning women and children in their homes and beheading people with bombs from drones. The corporate media has done a good job of presenting a mythical, false narrative of who we are and our supposed virtues. Our refusal to grasp what we have done, ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric and the inability to understand our culpability in creating this rage over many years helps to produce a false belief that violence is the remedy, not the cause. It’s part of our collective insanity. Externalizing evil, instead of looking what’s inside us. And it’s terrifying.

BM: The question from the people who know I am speaking with you is “Why is there so little hope in your work?”

CH: I’m not in the hope business. I’m in the truth business. I prefer hope’s daughters, anger and courage. Social movements and art must become conduits for unvarnished moral outrage and passion. Mania for hope is a kind of sickness that prevents us from seeing how dire and catastrophic our situation really is, if we don’t radically reconfigure our relationship with each other and the ecosystem.

I’ve borrowed a phrase from Canada’s John Ralston Saul – “the corporate coup d’état.” It’s complete. One percent now owns one-half the world’s wealth, live in luxury, with obscene military and economic power, which is growing exponentially. Eighty percent of people in the world share five percent of the rest. The system no longer works on our behalf and is beyond reform or appeals to rationality. All resistance must recognize and ingest this fact in order to rise up in a mass global movement.

Irreversible climate change from a 500-year rampage, driven by wilfully destructive, greedy and self-deluded fossil fuel and other industries, a political system completely corrupted and dominated by the wealthiest and most powerful corporations, while their media lavishly diverts attention into delusion, fantasy and escapism.

That is contemporary reality – the truth we must know emotionally and intellectually and live and resist in, if we are to wrest power while we still have a chance.

BM: You continue to argue against property destruction and to favour non-violence.

CH: The only tools left are bodies in the streets in a different kind of mass resistance. I’m not a pacifist and may be naive. I understand that the interests of citizens, and indeed the planet, are utterly irrelevant to global capitalism and must be resisted forcefully. But violence is most effective in civil wars and foreign occupation. Non-violence has proven to be twice as successful for more than a century and can be internal. I’ve witnessed the dividing and paralysing of power structures, winning over civil servants, even police, who have told us “keep on protesting” while we were being hand-cuffed. I may be gambling on non-violence, but I hope I’m right.

BM: What sorts of activities are possible / desirable?

CH: Personal choices – which is why I became a vegan. The animal/agriculture industry is one of the engines of climate destruction. Local farmers’ markets and such are important. Building sustainable communities that give you the energy and support to carry out resistance. The more you remove yourself from the wider consumer culture, the more you have the capacity to resist. And we have to pull people into the streets in large numbers for sustained resistance. Going to jail is more than I care to donate, but putting our bodies into the street is all we have. That’s it. And we don’t have much time.

BM: What advice do you have for those who despair?

CH: Revolutions and acts of resistance come in waves. They can’t be measured as they take place or be predicted, even by purported leaders. They may appear to be futile and be ignored by the wider society. However, the actions of an active one to five percent of the population have a moral force, which keeps a flame alive and triggers greater consciousness in dismantling a corrupt, unjust and destructive system. People who block pipelines, etc., must have faith that a time will come when they will not be alone, when fear, conformity and passivity melt away and the numbers of resistors will multiply. I’ve seen it at the Berlin Wall and many other places, all over the world.

Throughout my career – including teaching in a maximum security prison – I’ve learned that to manage and not succumb to despair, real despair such as many of us now feel, requires having a personal relationship with the oppressed and the poorest of the poor. They can’t become abstractions, but must have a face and more importantly, be loved. This act of human imagination makes endurance and resistance glorious and keeps me going.

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