Wednesday, May 13, 2015

If I May But Touch His Garment

I went to see Chris Hedges speak last night.  His words brought forth a mix of devastation and elation, with some in the congregation compelled to applaud after every few sentences.  He's a brilliant storyteller, and I could have listened to him all night.  It went far too quickly.

I had a chance to speak with him in the time it took him to sign my well-annotated copy of Empire of Illusion and my brand spankin' Wages of Rebellion, and I regret not buying all of his offering in order to extend our conversation.  My voice actually shook a little when I started talking, and I talk to people for a living!

I told him of the impact Sam Harris has had on my students who now say openly bigoted things in class, and he gave me some words of encouragement and signed my book "keep resisting."  Well, he signed everyone's book like that, but still.  I felt sincerely encouraged, and he looked me right in the eye when he spoke to me.

He was being interviewed by Susan G. Cole, whose books I gobbled up twenty years ago.  I actually called her up once and asked her if she'd present to my students at a conference I organized in the mid-90s, and she agreed but for a handsome fee.  Unfortunately I didn't have the wherewithal to ask the school board for money, and I was a dirt poor mom of two babies - all I really had were the balls big enough to call her up - so I had to decline her acceptance.  But she was a great moderator.

Here are the bits that stayed with me after he finished.  These are his words, only somewhat paraphrased and out of order (I'm a fan, not a journalist), but they lack the stories that give them colour, so you still have to buy the book!

On Intellectual and Emotional Knowledge and the Necessity of Faith

When confronting climate change, we know intellectually that change is necessary. But the emotional knowledge of our fragility is hard to acquire.  The existential issue of our time is how to digest issues intellectually and emotionally in order to rise up and resist.  Rebellion is an act of faith.  It's what we become, not what we achieve.  The religious (not necessary a belief in a god, but those with belief in  our inevitable historical progress) are less susceptible to emotional highs and lows.

We need to fight fascists, not to win, but because they're fascists. And we need to believe in the good in order to want to take action.  Most people don't want to change anything because their religion is a belief in the system (e.g. they believe we have a free press).  It keeps people doing nothing.  The American religion glorifies the hyper-masculine, patriotism, strength, and the right to use violence to impose virtues on the rest of the world.  It's a sacralization of empire.

Faith isn't irrational, but non-rational.  It can't be empirically measured much like beauty, truth, justice. Wisdom involves enveloping the non-rational forces into our life - what artists do.  The utilitarian tech culture severs us from these forces: arts, education, journalism - anything that has the power to transform.  But we can only achieve wisdom with the capacity to be in touch with the non-rational.

The christian right are heretics.  Jesus was not about making money.  Like Popper said (p 543), in the name of tolerance, we've accepted intolerance.  The christian right has infused the state with religion. They've misused the gospel to sacralize elements of the state.

On Prisons:  "The only act left is civil disobedience."

People are convicted before trial.  They stack charges, then plea bargain away most so they never go to trial.  It's criminalized poverty.  They prey on the poor knowing they have no resources.  They prey on families who are fleeced for hundred of dollars for phone calls.  Due to austerity measures, in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, 30-40% of city funds are raised by fining residence for things like not mowing their lawn.  There's a 64% recidivism rate.  Dostoevsky [possibly*] said we understand civilization by looking at the prisons.  To corporations, these are the ideal workers.  They live there; they're never late, and they cost little.

Inmates know the horrible things that can happen to them if they step out of line.  They're a deeply religious community because they have so little else to hold on to.  Like in Gaza - the only thing to give structure or normalcy to their days is the call to prayer.  And, with respect to Charlie Hebdo, I'm angry at the idea that it's amusing to make fun of religion.

The privatization of the prison system means each prisoner makes the prison some money.  Prisoners are charged for everything: they have to buy their own shoes, blankets, phone calls....  There are fees charged to send money home to your family.  An emergency visit to a relative's deathbed will cost you $900.

Corporations write the legislation.  Slavery is integral to the U.S. economy. We're seeing sweatshops being recruited by prisons.  They can pay 22 cents/hour here instead of in some factory in Bangladesh.  It's neo-slavery.  The 13th Amendment allows us to use it as a form of punishment, and it's used by Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Victoria Secrets....

Appealing to the systems that are profiting off the exploitation of prisoners is useless.  The only act left is civil disobedience inside and outside the prisons.  Prisoners had a demonstration knowing the consequences they would face.

This nascent moment in the US is about organizing prison labour to get minimum wage.  It would collapse the system built on neo-slavery.  This is a perfect example of how we have to organize in that manner.

ETA - John Oliver on the inequity of bail:

On the Right and Left

Nader was destroyed by the Democrats when he ran as an independent.  They were frightened by him.  Sanders won't run as an independent because he doesn't want to be hit like Nader was.  It would mean not being at the debates and not having enough money.

The Liberals are more dangerous than the right.  Under Clinton and Obama, there were more executions and we filled more prisons.  Clinton brought in the 1993 Omnibus crime bill and drug laws, which are key to understanding the rise of the surveillance state.  This is "omnipotent policing" as Arendt calls it in Imperialism.  These are mechanisms that prey on the undocumented and the poor.

[In an different interview, he clarified that Sanders made a mistake not running as an independent. The democrats are saturated with corporate money so they're under the control of corporate power. Obama proved that in an 8-year assault on civil liberties worse than under Bush.  It's the role for the 3rd party candidate with the understanding that we have to recognize that the goal is to build movements; that you may run a candidate not to win, which is almost impossible, but to further empower the movement.  Sanders is giving legitimacy to the Democratic Party.  The democrats aren't reformable.  We must be able to agitate on the outside.]

On Activists:  "People are complex.  There's no perfect hero."

[They discussed Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Wiebo Ludwig, Che Guevara, and Martin Luther who was an anti-semite alcoholic, and scribes recorded everything he said even when he was drunk, so at least we got a full picture of the man.]

These people are messianic.  The rose up against corporations.  They have the DNA of constant rebellion.  No uprising is possible without them.  They feel passion for social change.  Community is key; we can't effectively resist without it, so we need to create acts of solidarity.

On Canada:  "There are signs of life here, but you're not going in the right direction."

There's no hope in the U.S.  We're finished.  It's remarkable how often the U.S. blunders, and then Canada replicates it.  But Canada's not nearly as far gone.  The U.S. is very violent, founded on genocide and slavery, with corporate-owned politics.  Canada doesn't have nearly the same level of violence, and its political system isn't completely closed.

To stop Harper, read Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The question is NOT about how to get good people to rule.  The question is how to make the power elite frightened of you.  Power is always the problem.  We need movements to keep power in check.  Elections are fine, but the last liberal president was Nixon because he was the last one still frightened of movements.

In Canada you have Idle No More and the Quebec student protests, which are great. You have to begin movements that might have a political wing, but every action must be about nourishing the movement.

On Rebellion and Madness:  "A protest of one is still a protest."

Nothing gets done if we're enraged or overwhelmed.  We need to embrace sublime madness to make real change.  There's nothing rational about rebellion.  When rebellion starts, people are not striving towards a vision, but driven by it.

Movements are monitored and infiltrated. There is a psychological warfare waged against you.  We can't compete on the state's level of violence or security.  What we do have is transparency and non-violence.  If we try to play their game (snitches...), we'll eat ourselves alive. We can create tiny committees to mess with the heads of state.  Consider: What can we do as an act of resistance that they won't expect?  It says to the state, 'You don't know everything.'

The most powerful weapon we have is speaking truth about discrediting the system of power that many can hear.  I talk to people about the difference between police in blue shirts and the white shirted assholes.  The blue shirts have to listen to the white shirts all day. But there are always people even at that level that can hear you.

We're standing up as forces of life.  Saving the ecosystem so the future can have life is as stark a battle as you can get.  Our capacity to speak truth is relentless, and non-violent, and there's a real possibility of bringing foot soldiers to our side.  Once we do that, then the state has no security.

I sued Obama over section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act which allowed military to take over in cases of domestic law.  We won federally, but Obama appealed and won.  The law was enacted because the state doesn't trust the police not to defect.

The state is corrupt and decadent.  In marches we find hope, light, creativity.  We are blessed by new generations of rebels.

* Sources suggest it's in The House of the Dead, but I couldn't find it, and I wonder if this is similar to the situation with Voltaire's quotation on free speech that he never said.  

1 comment:

Lorne said...

Thanks for writing this detailed overview, Marie. I have long been an admirer and reader of Hedges' work, although I have to confess that when i saw him speak about six years ago, I was quite put off by his assertion that the newly-elected Obama would prove to be no different from his predecessors. As I recall, he said that "brand Obama was the same as brand Bush, brand Clinton, etc." Time, of course, has proven him to have been essentially correct.

To see a man so constant in his fight against the forces that engulf us is to give all of us strength. Long may he continue.