Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Chris Hedges on Revolution, Media, Prison, Corruption, and Hope

Chris Hedges, a former war correspondent for the New York Times - until they didn't like his anti-American coverage of the Iraq invasion - and an ordained minister, recently walked away (or was fired) from Truthdig in solidarity with Bob Scheer, and now he's in the middle of writing a book, but he spent an hour and a half talking about everything on The Jimmy Dore Show. I've transcribed some key points below under headings, with links and images. It's a little abridged and in a slightly altered order for clarity and brevity, and I also bolded pivotal statements for faster skimming, and added a table of contents!

     On a Revolution Against the Corrupt System
     On Journalism and the Role of the Media
     On Prison Education
     On Voting: Not Biden OR Bernie
     On Hope

On a Revolution Against the Corrupt System:

Hedges: We need to overthrow this system, not placate it. Revolution is almost always a doomed enterprise one that succeeds only when its leaders issue the practical and are endowed with what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr calls sublime madness. Sanders lacks this quality and for this reason Sanders is morally and temperamentally unfit to lead this fight. (Also see Kate Manne on Sanders.)

Dore: I'm putting all my focus now into trying to highlight people who are good at direct action and unions, and we had on Jane McAlevey, and she lays out step-by-step how you organize a good 90 percent strike, and we need to. Bernie Sanders, AOC? They are Obama 2.0. There is no doubt they are there because they will go along with the corporation no matter what. They're revealing it right now: AOC is doing live streams where she rants about the bill, but she only rants against the Republicans. She doesn't rant against the person who has the power in the house which is Nancy Pelosi.

Hedges: The night I did that event with Bernie and Shama there were other people there; Bill McKibben Naomi Klein and everybody were going after the Koch brothers, and as soon as Shama and I went after Obama's environmental record, the other panelists were angry, in fact attacked us for being partisan. You build your kind of moral stature by denying the complicity of the Democratic establishment tagging the Republican establishment, but in fact you're not serving the American public; you're not serving truth; you're serving the Democratic party hierarchy. That's kind of what's so sad about what's happened.

I hope this doesn't translate into political apathy. I hope it translates into wisdom, which is that the Democratic Party is incapable of reform. This corporate state is incapable of reform and we have to begin to mobilize to cripple it and bring it down.

Dore: Other people don't fully realize what's about to happen right now. I don't think people realize what this country is going to look like in a year or two after the economy "opens back up" and  everything is owned by a handful of people, which it already was, but now it's gonna be even more so. 

Hedges: I think political cowardice is not the wrong word. Stepping outside the system and challenging it immediately thrusts you into the wilderness. I've been thrust there myself. It's uncomfortable. It's a direct confrontation with the security and surveillance state, and it requires acts of sustained mass civil disobedience, which are at best uncomfortable and can get you arrested and will certainly get you followed by the internal organs of security. And a lot of people just don't want to go there. You're right about where we're headed because this will be a collapsing house of cards. Whether people organize rent strikes or not is irrelevant; there will be de-facto rent strikes. What happens to the credit card companies? What happens to student loans? Small businesses are already going under right and left aided of course by the fact that large corporate businesses swallowed up all these loans that were supposed to be given to small businesses to keep their employees employed. I mean it's been a complete disaster.

It's very clear from looking at other countries, especially in Europe, that the only way forward is a guaranteed sustainable income, which we're not doing. We're throwing checks which nobody can get. People file for unemployment; the system crashes at best. In essence the corporate oligarchs have made a choice, and it's a very grim choice.

There has to be sustained prolonged control testing shut down, but that's so detrimental to their profits that they are going to sacrifice tens of thousands of American citizens on the altar of greed. They would rather have them die, and that's what's going to hit. We're already watching these absurd calls to reopen. The tragedy is that the most vulnerable, the low-wage workers who actually do real work rather than sitting around like parasites on Wall Street, are the ones who are getting this right and left, so, economically, there certainly will be turbulence and unrest. I don't see how that's avoidable.

My fear is that it doesn't have a vision. If you have kind of spontaneous uprisings here and there. the state can crush it, but empower those uprisings with a vision against corporate power and a call for socialism, then that becomes very dangerous. I think that's part of the reason that people, like us, have been, not just pushed to the margins of the media landscape, but have been a victim of these algorithms that Google and Twitter and Facebook have imposed since 2017. That's not conjecture. Referrals by impressions over a 12-month period had fallen from over 700,000 to below 200,000. That's because the elites no longer have a counter argument. Nobody is buying their neoliberal mantra which never made any economic sense at all. It was drawn from these half-wits and totally discredited people figures like Frederick Hayek or Ayn Rand, if you can imagine it. But it did make sense as an ideology, to consolidate the wealth and power of the oligarchic elite, which is why it was rammed down our throats. Those who have a serious critique of it become dangerous. Before they were shunted aside and kind of ignored, but now there's a very active effort to shut those voices down.

Go back and read Emma Goldman or Randolph Bourne. Take a look at what happened at the when Wilson created the committee for public information and massive censorship and you know those few stalwarts, Eugene Debs was another one who wrote, how swiftly all these socialists embrace the censorship and the war effort that Wilson was pushing. And then those people with any kind of moral fortitude, people like Debs, are imprisoned. Joe Hill was killed; Big Bill Haywood had to flee the country. Emma Goldman was deported along with Alexander Berkman and 300 other leftist. So I think history bears out that, under pressure, it's actually a very small number of radicals who hold fast to the truth, and who are willing to defy power.

A state seeks to corner the monopoly on violence, and all other violence is illegitimate. Revolutions are actually nonviolent events. I'm halfway through Trotsky's history of the Russian Revolution. As all the theorists of revolution have pointed out, it's only when significant sectors of the apparatus that keeps the ruling elites in power defect so they'll no longer defend the regime - and I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe and so witnessed it then - that the system can't sustain itself. So in September of 1989 I was in East Germany; Erich Honecker, the dictator, sends down early paratroop division to Leipzig, which was the centre of the protests. They get there, and the local communist parties refused to deploy it. Honecker is out of power within a week. The Cuban Revolution, I mean Che, popularized Foucault's theory of an armed revolution, but in fact that's not what happened. When you look at what brought down Batista and the Cuban regime, it was general strikes. So violence is often a part of revolution, I mean even in the Russian Revolution it was when the Cossacks defected. It was a great scene, and you know the Cossacks actually started firing on the police who remained loyal to the Czar, but it's when the Cossacks defected that it was over. I've covered lots of conflicts: the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the first Gulf War, which was largely mechanized units in the desert, foreign occupations like Gaza. There are different categories, and during foreign occupations you go back and look at Vietnam: force does work to drive the occupier out, but in a revolution, a revolution is different. It's about essentially diminishing the power of a discredited elite until those around them won't protect them anymore. So the show-offs leave Iran and the head of the Armed Forces said, I will no longer defend the regime. It's over. That's how it works, and it's interesting. Lenin certainly understood the mechanics of revolution, which is why he was so opposed to anarchist violence even though his own brother was executed for an assassination plot against the Tsar.

America had a very radical socialist and communist movement erased from our history. In Chicago in the 1930s, when they came to evict you, when the police showed up to haul furniture out of the apartment, everybody said, 'Go get the Reds!' They may not have been communist, but they knew that all the communist stalwarts would come and move the damn furniture back in the apartment and block the police from throwing the people out. The war against, not only our left but even our liberal class, creates this distortion of the Cold War liberal or the Clintonesque type liberal, which is kind of that figure who speaks of feeling your pain but serves corporate and police power. There still is a communist party in France, and, as in Italy, I was once invited by the Communist Party to speak to all the graduating high school students, and in Florence 10,000 of them. But our left was eviscerated and destroyed so that we don't even have the vocabulary to speak about class warfare, which is precisely what's happening now. Our media systems have been so utterly degraded.

I pinpointed this in my book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, that we've severed ourselves from print, and you're never really going to understand systems of power by looking at a screen. You do have to sit down and read political theory. You have to read Marx, and I'm not a Marxist, and I don't believe in the withering away of the state and all this kind of stuff, but his critique of capitalism is unmatched with a heavy infusion of Friedrich Engels' data, and the first volume of capital gets it.

Voting is such a minor part of what it means to be civically engaged anyway. It's about holding power accountable. It's about pitting power against power. History has borne that out. I lived in France under Sarkozy, and when Sarkozy tried it, he was awful, and Macron is even worse. But when he tried to do something, next thing you know, Paris was filled with farmers on tractors blocking all the roads. My son did his graduate work in Paris. I said, when you go over there, ask your students what would do if suddenly they started charging 60 or 70 thousand dollars a year to go to college. Well they'd shut the damn country down, and that's how we got to begin to think. We shouldn't be having these discussions about elections. I'm a very strong supporter of extinction rebellion. They've got it right, but it's got to be nonviolent. We have to begin to create sustained mobilizations that muck the system up so it can't work. That's our only hope.

On Journalism and the Role of Media 

Truthdig was founded by this heiress, Zuade Kaufman. Bob Scheer was the editor-in-chief and she did bankroll it, so everyone was paid on the site. Bob was adamant that he wasn't going to take free work from writers. Then, I think because Bob was so fierce in denouncing the Russia Gate hoax and the red-baiting against Bernie, he fell out of favour. I don't know what her motives were, but she moved to remove him and the staff actually took over the site on March 11th, announced a work stoppage, and also demanded a union and an end to abusive labor conditions including forcing copy desk editors to be on call for several hours but only paying them for the time they were actually typing online. It's quite a long exhaustive list to surrender or nullify all of your civil and and labor rights, and she eventually shut the site down - claimed to be on a hiatus - and fired everyone. That's again a kind of window into the rhetoric of the liberal elites: Unions are fine for teachers or anybody else, but not for your own employees.

DORE: This is another one of those situations where the owner and the editor don't produce the value of that website just like the the stockholders of Ralph's don't produce the value of a grocery store. We're finding out during this pandemic it's actually the workers who create all the value. Same thing at Amazon; same thing at UPS. Why do people still need a billionaire heiress to bankroll them? Just set up your own subscription model. All the writers at Truthdig. Everybody wants to read them so you just create a website and you create a subscription model. People will support you. People support us because they know they can get here what they can't get anywhere else. That's where the business model is changing and that's the beauty: you don't really need them anymore. People can self-fund through Patreon or whatever.

Hedges: The old model of the press, which was flawed, where you depended on advertisers really doesn't work anymore because they don't need the medium of newsprint or a site to connect with consumers. They'll have all of our profiles and they can connect with us directly. That's raised some serious questions: how you will sustain journalism going forward. It does raise questions about how we're going to do journalism. Barbara Ehrenreich says journalists are going to have to get used to being members of the working class again. They're not going to get the kind of middle-class salaries that I and my colleagues got when I was at the New York Times. That's over. Setting up a website is what Matt Taibbi just did. I'm not rushing into anything right now because I want to finish the book.

The Assange case gets to what Trotsky writes about the liberal class. Julian publishes, through the courage of Chelsea Manning, examples of egregious war crimes committed by forces primarily in Iraq but also Afghanistan, and the American press the New York Times, my old employer, the Guardian, der Spiegel, they all publish it. Somehow people have misinterpreted this as an act of courage on the part of the publishers; it isn't. They were astute enough to realize that if they didn't publish it, alternative publications would publish it, and it essentially shamed them into doing their journalism. We go back to Bob Scheer who was the editor-in-chief at Truthdig before he and all the rest of us were pushed out. Bob was at Ramparts; they published the first reports about the Vietnam War and what was actually happening including the iconic photo of the young girl running naked down a road burning with napalm, which King saw and prompted King to denounce the war on April 4th 1967 at Riverside Church. It's always been the role of the alternative press, which is not constrained by commercialism, to speak truth, to shame the traditional press into doing their job, and that's what happened. That's why the New York Times, for instance, ran it, but they hated Assange and Wikileaks from the start, and so they published the information but almost immediately they flipped into doing the state's bidding and destroying Julian. I'm not gonna get into the whole Swedish thing except to say it was bullshit, and I looked very closely at it as did Nils Melzer and several others who visited Julian, and said this guy is under psychological torture.  Then of course Julian's sin was that he went after all of the power leaders with the Podesta emails exposing Hillary Clinton's acceptance of $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, a sum that can only be described as a bribe. I visited Julian several times in the embassy when he was in Ecuador. I have tremendous admiration for him as I do with Chelsea Manning as I do for Edward Snowden as I do for John Kiriakou, Bill Binney, all these people who have risked their career, and in Julian's case his life, to stand up and speak the truth about Empire.

The liberal class does what the liberal class is designed to do - let's go again back to Chomsky - it posits itself as the moral arbiter of the society, and it is permitted that role within a capitalist democracy because it will never question the motives and the intentions of the ruling elites. When you actually do begin to question the motives and intentions of the ruling elites, when you begin to expose them for who they are, then you use the liberal class, which is what's happened with Julian. To turn them into credited pariahs, which they've also done by the way with Ralph, and so that's why you traditionally allow a liberal institution to exist. It can ameliorate the system and can address some of the more egregious excesses of the system, but it fundamentally buttresses and defends the system. I was a victim of this when I'd been the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times denouncing Bush's called to invade Iraq. On the day of the invasion, I was given 15 minutes on Fresh Air talking about why this invasion - and I am an Arabic speaker; I spent seven years in the Middle East, months of my life in Iraq - was going to be a fiasco. Not to mention the fact that pre-emptive war is is under international law a war crime. It's a criminal war of aggression. Then following me was Michael Ignatieff who was a friend and arguing with a heavy heart telling us that he'd opposed the war in Vietnam, but we had to go in there and liberate the people of Iraq and save the women of Afghanistan as if the first airborne is somehow gonna save the women of Afghanistan, and that is the traditional role of the liberal class.

Dore: I am gobsmacked on a daily basis how bad journalism is. Even if you're a journalist, it's like human psychology, you still want to be on the in-crowd, which is why 99.9% of journalists are worthless because they'll never go against the herd mentality

Hedges: It's careerism. Let's take the first Gulf War: anybody who reported with me out of the Middle East didn't have any difference in terms of my assessment and certainly my outspokenness on behalf of the Palestinians, they just recognize that it's not good for their career. I think that's what drives a lot of it. People read the zeitgeist; they understand that clobbering the Democratic Party for their complicity and the reconfiguration of American society into an oligarchy and the betrayal of the working class is not good for their career, so let's go after Putin and Russia. I'm not saying Russia didn't interfere in the election; they probably did. Every election I've covered overseas we interfered with. We gave Boris Yeltsin $1.5 billion in order to be reelected in '96. But that's not why Trump was elected. If you go after the the Democratic centers of power then you're gonna be pushed out. Matt Taibbi wrote a good book it's called Hate Inc, which updates Chomsky because a lot of things have changed with 24-hour news cycle. In the old system it was kind of this trusted father figure middle road objectivity that all broke down with cable. And now it's really kind of Orwell's "two minutes of hate," so you know we hate them they hate us; that's what sells now. On Taibbi's book, on one half of the cover is Sean Hannity; on the other is Rachel Maddow because they do exactly the same thing, and that's burlesque. It's show business. It's vaudeville. But it's not journalism. These people couldn't report a story if you put a gun to their head.

Power lies. I mean, all government lies. When I did journalism, I wasn't doing lunch in Washington. I was in  Sarajevo, or I was in El Salvador; I was in Gaza. My job was to show how they lie, and it meant that I was not only at war with my own government, but at war with a Washington bureau of the New York Times. So balance at the paper became my reporting from Gaza next to a column of probably exactly the same length given exactly the same display with a lie so people could believe what they wanted to believe. That's why Julian Assange is such a heroic figure and why I admire him so much, and you know from following these court proceedings it's fixed. I think he's going to be lynched under the Espionage Act, even though he's not an American citizen. WikiLeaks is not a US-based publication. It is a crime to possess classified information but all of us in journalism have published classified information, but once you create that legal precedent by sending Julian to prison - his sentence is potentially 175 years - then it's over. There is no way to shine a lens into the inner workings of power. That's where we're headed.

I never took a journalism course, so I would say definitely an undergraduate major in journalism is a complete waste. I went to El Salvador as a freelance reporter, and I learned journalism from all these old reporters who covered Vietnam, which is why I'm still alive because I listen to them. They would edit my copy, and it was a kind of de-facto journalism school. Journalism school is a trade, and I spent eight years in a university without ever getting a doctorate, which took work, but you know I studied theology, English literature, philosophy, classics, and I think that gave me a kind of a rich grounding in the humanities and liberal arts in history that made me a better journalist. I think that's far more important. We work with words the same way. When you do it well it takes a great deal of skill. It's like a master carpenter: we can all go out in our garage with a couple boards, but to be a master carpenter takes years and years of work.

I would bring up the climate crisis because this system is quite willing to sacrifice us and all future generations for their short-term profit. I think it's a degradation of the media landscape, and I've watched it over my whole career. I began as a reporter in the 1980s in Central America, the rise of illiteracy, the sophisticated forms of control, the way politics has just become another version of ESPN with the numbers and the stats and the horse race and these manufactured personalities. They're all manufactured personalities: Biden, Trump, Bernie. All of them they're manufactured. They're not real, and that personalization of politics has kind of dumbed down the country. Of course that's why slaveholders didn't want enslaved people to read, and in fact they could be killed for it. The point is to keep us unaware. The point is to keep us ignorant and for those people who refuse to name systems of power and attempt to confront them, then they have the iron heel of the boot, and they use it. Those are the people I teach in prison.

Hannah Arendt

On Prison Education

Dore: You teach in a prison; the prisoners have written a play, and it's called Caged, and they're now being called New Jersey Prison Theatre Cooperative, and Haymarket Press is now printing it. Anytime there's a real leader, they just immediately imprison them. Is that what is happening? Is that why we haven't had any great leaders since Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?

Here's a portion of the introduction by Boris Franklin,
"Professor Hedges asked us to write about our experiences and those of our families outside of prison as well as our life in prison in dramatic dialogue. We reached back into our past to produce small dramatic scenes we resurrected emotions and painful experiences as well as ones of joy and love buried deep within us. Professor Hedges selected several dialogues each week to read out loud, sometimes asking the student who wrote it to read it to the class. There were many times, however, when the pain of what had been put down on paper was too much to speak. Stories of pain, humiliation, humor, love, courage, grief, loneliness, loss, shame, and guilt poured out of us. The emotional walls erected between us and the prison began to  crumble as we listened to these stories being read out loud often by men whose voices were breaking with emotion. We began to understand that when you are a poor person of color in America, you have one story. There are many different variations of this story, but the core is the same one made familiar by white supremacy, poverty neglect, despair, rage, violence, addictions, and abandonment. Telling this story, our story, was liberating. We found our voice. Our voice became the play, Caged." 
Hedges: I've taught in prisons for years, so it's something I care a lot about. I originally started teaching because of a friend of mine, who was the head of the history department at the College of New Jersey; this was before there was an accredited college program. We would just buy the books ourselves, go in teach a semester of course, and then go home on our computers and print out - if they did the work- a certificate saying they had done the academic work, which was not going to be accepted by any academic institution, but which they could put in their folders, which is helpful when they went up before probation committees or anything else. Then eventually, in 2013 Rutgers University established a program, a BA program inside the prison. I began teaching that program. This class was the first class. It was 2013. I was teaching drama so August Wilson, Amira Baraka, James Baldwin, all sorts of playwrights, and I, as an experiment, had them write dramatic scenes to familiarize them with dramatic dialogue. And we eventually hammered it into a play, and it was put on at the theatre in Trenton, and then just published by Haymarket books. I don't think will make any money, but any money from the play will go into a re-entry fund so that all of those playwrights will have something. I put down a down payment on an apartment for one of the playwrights who's getting out in June because you come out with nothing. It was moving, and in prison you don't share those experiences. It was inadvertent. It wasn't planned on my part, but as Boris said it became highly charged, highly emotional, and highly therapeutic because people began to speak about their own pain, their own loss, their own suffering, their own struggles. There was built a kind of phenomenal connection and bond that has continued to this day. I mean, I met Boris at the gate when he got out. I've met several of these students at the gate. [Here's Hedges' graduation address for 27 former inmates from Rutgers: Integrity Forged in Cages.]

Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our age. One of the reasons I will not vote for Joe Biden is because he was the architect, along with Bill Clinton - half of my students would not be in the prison but for Clinton and Biden: a huge expansion of the death penalty, which he bragged about, military as police. I mean there are many reasons not to vote for Biden, but I just can't come out of that prison and cast a ballot for somebody who's done that to the people I care about.
"The most valuable blacks are those in prison. August Wilson once said those who have the warrior spirit who had a sense of being African, they got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them. He added, the greatest spirit of resistance among blacks is found among those in prison."
Mass incarceration, militarized police who create reigns of terror, and what Malcolm X calls 'these internal qualities,' they are forms of social control. This isn't about justice. 94% of the people in our prison system never get a jury trial. They're coerced, and I use that word intentionally, coerced completely over charges stacked against them, which the police the prosecutors, the public defenders all know are not true. And then you barter, and if you go to trial - the students that I have in prison with the longest sentences, are the ones who went to trial, and almost always the ones who did not commit the crime because they thought if they were innocent they would be found innocent. In fact they were used as an example and given these horrific sentences. Again let's go back to Clinton and Biden who doubled, tripled, quadrupled the sentences meted out to the poor in these courts, and in the prisons, immediately. I mean I taught a class called 'Conquest' a couple years after this class. We read Open Veins of Latin America, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, and CLR James' The Black Jacobins on the Haitian war of independence, the only successful slave revolt in human history, and Haiti's been paying for it ever since.

I had given them the syllabus, and I said I won't be here this week because I'm speaking to the University of Montana. I got a phone call in my hotel room: "This is the Special Investigations Division of the Department of Corrections of the state of New Jersey. Are you aware that your students just led a sit down strike in the prison?" It was a very emotional moment for me. I knew nothing about it. I was not informed about it. They actually said, "And we think you're behind it," so I was interrogated for five hours, and I really didn't know about it. I mean they're not going to tell me, but what they did is strip search all the cells, interrogate everybody, threaten to take away their job in the kitchen or their right to take a college course, until they found the two leaders. And they found them, and they put them in indefinite solitary confinement, and that's what they do. August Wilson is right: the level of discussion that I have in a prison classroom dwarfs anything, and I've taught three times at Princeton or at Columbia, and all these other universities, because not only do I teach serious intellectuals who have turned their cells into libraries but people who understand the criminal justice system, understand white supremacy, understand the intrinsic violence of the American state, and so you begin discussions in those classrooms at a level that these privileged white kids can't even begin to meet.

It's the quota system. It's not about crime. If people want federal dollars, which they all want, for 'the war on drugs' then it's about a number game and that's all they do. It's harassment, and it's because corporations and the wealthy no longer pay taxes. They've got to fill those holes. You take St. Louis County, this is where Ferguson is. In Ferguson Michael Brown was killed; 70% of the income came from fines, and they just make up fines. My favorite is obstructing pedestrian traffic. This is real. That means standing on a sidewalk. Also mowing your lawn, not mowing your lawn, I mean anything; loose cigarettes is how Eric Garner was choked to death, although he actually that day wasn't even selling loose cigarettes. It's social control because these urban wastelands that have been decimated with the shipment of manufacturing overseas, which are filled mostly with people of color, have to be controlled, and you do it three ways: you unleash police who are given total impunity including the ability to use lethal force against unarmed civilians. 1,000 people die a year, almost all of them unarmed. You create a court system that is just a conveyor belt for people into jails and prisons. And then evictions; people forget about evictions. Roughly every six months you lock up the men, and you evict the women and children, and so there there's constant instability, which makes it impossible to have any cohesion or networking within the community. That's also by design.

DORE: The government will pay the corporation  $70,000 here in California year to lock them up so they now become valuable to the corporation to the point where, when a judge in California ordered Kamala Harris's office to release prisoners because of overcrowding, they argued in court that they couldn't do it because it would upset the prison labor system. We've turned poor people into  commodities. It's like it's a new slavery.

Hedges: It is a new slavery. That's exactly right, and prisons are plantations. In prisons in the South, they don't even get paid; my students get 22 cents an hour, $28 a month for a 40-hour week, and you have about a roughly a million people within our prison system working for for-profit corporations, McDonald's uniforms, stuff like this. You have prisons going to corporations saying, "Look, you don't need to abuse sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. We have plenty of sweatshop workers right here behind bars, and they can't strike; they can't organize; you don't have to pay any benefits; you don't have to pay them if they're sick, and if they're a problem we'll put them in solitary confinement." For me, prison is a window into the perfect world of the corporate state, and what they want to do to the rest of us. Who said, if you want to understand a country go to their prisons? I think was Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. [It's often misattributed to Dostoevsky.] You've got to look at at how they treat people who are powerless to know how they want to treat you, so I suppose if there's any dark humour to this it's because we've turned our backs on these people and ignored them, and we busy ourselves with kind of boutique activism, while people of color are being crucified across the street. They started with them, but they're not done with them. They're coming for us now, and given what's happening because of the coronavirus and the economic meltdown, it's coming a lot sooner than you think.

One of the reasons I teach in a prison because if you don't have the language to describe systems of power, you can't confront them. I went to these elite schools where you can get that kind of education, and of course what you're doing at places like Harvard is being groomed for the plutocracy. It's why places like Harvard exist, but if you stand fast with the what James Cone called the crucified of the earth, if you know who you are and who you represent, then they're damned if you're gonna get an education that will allow you to understand how the system functions. I mean people say for instance the prison system doesn't work, and as you pointed out these bodies are worth nothing to the corporate State on the streets of Newark or Cleveland or Detroit or anywhere else. But once you lock him in a cage, they generate sixty thousand dollars a year. You don't understand that the system works exactly the way it's designed to work, and we have to begin to understand the nature of power that is arrayed against us and how vicious and venal it is.

So every night their play was sold out, and what was most moving is that we had a night just for the families of the playwrights, and about three or four minutes into the play I heard somebody sniffling, and they cried for 90 minutes. The Bard had a college debating team debate Harvard and won. This was big news all around the world. It wasn't news to me. I wasn't surprised at all. I went to Harvard, so maybe that's why I wasn't surprised.

Dore: My brother, who's a personal injury lawyer, what he says is that what isn't said is that the goodness of humanity inside of those men in prison existed inside of them before they were imprisoned, and the failure of our society is that its system is unable to tap that, rather it locks them away.

Hedges: I couldn't agree more. In the play at one point I asked them to write about their mother, and one of the students said at the end of the class, 'Well what if we're a product of rape?' and I said, well tell me. It comes back the next week, it's completely autobiographical, and he and his half-brother in a car they're stopped by the police they find a weapon. If nobody claims the weapon they're all charged with weapons possession. It wasn't his gun, and he tells the police it's his, and then he relates the phone call from the county to his mother that says it doesn't matter, Ma, you have the son you love. That's why he's in prison. I have many stories like. These are some of the most remarkable human beings I ever met who have risen above adversity and oppression and racism, endured things that none of us can imagine, and come out men and women of such amazing integrity and brilliance. I'm truly inspired by them and privileged to be among them. I get far more from them than I give. They are the most remarkable people I've ever met and how they came out on the other end to be who they are is nothing short of miraculous, and that they're behind bars is one of the greatest crimes this country engages.

On Voting: Not Biden or Bernie

Dore: "What's the point of electing people who don't take corporate money if they take orders from the people who do?"

Hedges: They've all become part of the club.  Bernie Sanders by the way has been a longtime member of the club and yeah the system has made it very clear that either you toe the line. . . Ocasio Cortez announced today she's going to vote for Biden -  and if you don't toe the line you're out.

There's a very stark kind of division between critics of corporate capitalism who actually mean it and stand for something like Ralph Nader, and those who know the appropriate words but their actions essentially buttress the corporate state and that would include your right, the squad, along with Bernie Sanders. When you stand up for people, like when you stand up for the people who are being kicked out of their house and you stand up to Wall Street, really stand up to them, what is going to happen is you're going to be treated just like those people. That is the one thing Bernie Sanders is not willing to do; he is not willing to be treated the same way Ralph Nader is treated.

Bernie spent four years, instead of building a real opposition movement, acting as a lackey to Schumer, and remember the power of Schumer and Pelosi is that they funnel all the Wall Street and corporate money to the anointed candidates. He runs again and now of course he's endorsing Joe Biden, and I think it is political cowardice. I mean, it must have been incredibly naive to think the Democratic Party was ever gonna give him a shot even though he was kind of a loyal poodle for those four years. He's not wrong. They would have destroyed him. Everybody else would have crucified him day in and day out although they did a pretty good job of red-baiting Bernie even when he was running. That's the price Bernie didn't want to pay. Bernie knows exactly the cost of doing what he is supposed to do, and he is unwilling to do it, and the cost of what he's supposed to do which is, like, to put a hold on one of these horrible stimulus bills until it's explained to everybody exactly what's going on. The problem is Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. In a sense he's selling us out, and he's really not even getting anything. He's just getting a Senate appointment and people being nice to him. That sounds almost crazy.

Sanders knew by September 2016 that the process was rigged, but said nothing to his supporters. He was tacitly complicit in the cover-up. It was left to one of the architects of the fraud, Donna Brazile, to reveal the scam, but by then it was too late. Sander's capitulation in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the rigging of the nomination process was political and moral cowardice. He missed his historical moment, one that should have seen him denounce a corporate dominated party elite and walk away to build a third party candidacy. Sanders will never recover politically. Those who support Sanders' capitulation, including his high price establishment consultants, will argue that politics is about compromise, and in practice this is true, but playing politics in a system that is not democratic is about becoming part of the charade.

The tragedy about Bernie is that I actually think he does care about Labor. I think these commitments are real. I don't think he's corrupt, but he lacks the fortitude to go up against this monolithic machine because he understands how destructive and brutal it is, and so he has capitulated.

DORE: Whatever we do as a country, really we're a corporate state, to other countries, which is invade them under false pretenses, say we're going to bring liberty and democracy. What we're really bringing is corporate exploitation, and we want to steal their natural resources. So we create this amazing crisis in another country with our military invasion, which is terrorism, and then we use that crisis to steal their natural resources and reconfigure their culture in a way that serves us. David Felton would always say whatever we do to people overseas, we're going to do it to ourselves.The corporate fleecing of this country is unparalleled. In the middle of a pandemic, instead of coming up with a healthcare plan to give people health care, they immediately gave five trillion dollars to the richest people in the country and left everyone else scrambling. And Hillary Clinton says we need to open up the markets so we can sell people health care as they lose their job, so that's worse than saying let them eat cake; that's saying let's sell them some cake. That's where the Democratic Party is. 

And I'm supposed to vote for Joe Biden?? Biden is the greater evil of Donald Trump because when people elected Barack Obama they went to sleep. They thought, "Well he's in charge." He kicked five million people out of their house in a crisis; he doesn't help people. He does what the corporate state wants. Aren't you still shocked that people like Chomsky can say you have to vote for Joe Biden? If John McCain would have won that election in 2008, we'd be better off right now because nobody would have let him kick five million people out of their house, while he made the bank's bigger, took us from two wars to seven, opened the Arctic to drilling. All the stuff Barack Obama did, people would have screamed about it, but because Barack Obama did it instead of John McCain, everybody was okay with it. Just like Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils. So can you speak to this kind of ridiculous idea in our culture that even Chomsky repeats every four years, that voting for the lesser of two evils somehow gets you somewhere.

Hedges: I love Chomsky. I would argue he's our most important intellectual, and I've learned tremendous amounts from him, but Noam has done this for a really long time. He also doesn't support BDS, so there are certain issues that he has - and probably issues that I have that he doesn't agree with. I just don't think historically it's proven that it works very well, and let's be clear about the "least worst" because when Bernie was surging there were all these articles in the New York Times quoting Lloyd Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and all these other rich Democratic donors saying, 'If Bernie is the nominee we're all going to vote for Trump.' So least worst only works for us, not for them. They know they're safe with Biden. It's all of these programs of austerity, the evisceration of our constitutional rights and civil liberties, the complete control of the legislative process by corporate lobbyists and corporate money, the massive amounts of money it takes to run, which comes from the oligarchs, which is only a form of legalized bribery. This hope came through figures like Clinton who were going to have fundraising parity with the Republicans and serve corporate power, which is what happened. And Biden was a stalwart of this by essentially not only abandoning working men and women but making war on the vulnerable. It all came from them and that's how we ended up with Trump. Trump is the symptom; he's not he's not the disease.

I have covered collapsing societies, spent twenty years overseas and Central America. I lived in Argentina under the haunt; I was in the former Yugoslavia for the war when the system seized up. When power is taken by a cabal, when it no longer works, when everything within that society - even if it has the veneer of democracy - is used to funnel wealth and power upwards into the hands of this totally unaccountable rapacious oligarchic elite, then eventually people revolt against the system itself. The problem is the system. If anybody thinks Joe Biden is gonna make things better, I suppose maybe temporarily it's a little better, but this is the system of corporate power that Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism, and that is not going to get better unless we make war against the system. You know this whole idea that voting makes any real difference as Emma Goldman said, "If voting was that effective it would be illegal." The oligarchs want Biden just like they wanted Clinton because he's a more palatable face.

Having spent 20 years on the outer reaches of empire, what Empire is is the external expression of white supremacy. My closest friend who just died, James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, grew up in segregated Arkansas. We had completely different lives, but I think we connected on that understanding how venal and and how evil white supremacy is because I was in countries in Central America in the Middle East for seven years where I saw how the Empire used the most brutal forms of control and violence and which was an overt kind of racist disdain for the cheap labor that they were subjugating and the natural resources that they were plundering. You know what happens in empire comes home through cities. He wrote about the evil of the Athenian empire, and said the tyranny that Athens imposed on others had finally imposed on itself, and that's exactly what's happening to us because they they test the techniques, the drones, the wholesale surveillance, the militarized police, they test it out on the wretched of the earth, and they hollow the country out from the inside. The American military is the institution most responsible for the death of American democracy, what democracy we had, and it was always very flawed and largely for white people. As they've hollowed the country out, and it's just become one center of impoverished urban decay after another, they've brought back all of the mechanisms of control they use overseas and empire to be imposed on us. That's what's happening.

I think a corporate coup d'etat is happening in fast motion right now. That's John Ralston Saul's term. He wrote a very good book, Voltaire's Bastardswhich I would recommend. Anybody who thinks that we live in a functioning democracy should turn off Rachel Maddow, and start reading Sheldon Wolin. The mechanisms to essentially halt any kind of descent into a very overt police state are now gone, and what will happen is that there will be unrest. I think it's inevitable. I don't know what it will look like. I don't know what form it will take, but it's coming, and all you have to do is look at our internal colonies to see how both the physical mechanisms of militarized policing without accountability, terror, coupled with a court system that doesn't function, coupled with a rewriting of laws, the creating of a society where rights become privileges, which means they can be taken away, what's been done to poor people of color in these urban pockets will now be done to the rest of us the tools of subjugation, will be used on the rest of us, and there is no effort to respond rationally to what's ahead of us.

I mean they know that we are headed for an economic dislocation that will rival the depression that we underwent in the 1930s, but there have to be some people who are astute enough to realize that there are mechanism Roosevelt employed, many of them by which you can mitigate this suffering, but they're not going to go that route this time. This time they're gonna bring out their version of the brownshirts, which will include these paramilitary for-profit mercenary entities organized by these Christian fascists like Eric Prince [founder of Blackwater], the brother of Betsy DeVos, and of course there was just a story a couple weeks ago about how he's using these mercenaries to infiltrate teachers unions. That's what's coming. They're ready. It's the infrastructure; the legal system is decayed to such an extent that there's no impediment. We don't have any form of power left. Our unions have been broken. We're all sitting entranced in front of electronic hallucinations. It doesn't look good.

All of this was a bipartisan effort. On all of these major issues, whether it's wholesale surveillance or austerity or prisons or anything else, there's virtually no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Yes the Democrats are more tolerant, and if you are willing to put the face of a woman or an African-American as a kind of branding of empire, but again it's this personalization of politics which is so infantile, and everything we debate is really anti-politics because we don't talk about anything of substance, and that comes down to issues of how your economy is structured, class, everything else. We never have those discussions.

The Christian left has left the urban enclaves with white flight. They engaged in the same kind of boutique activism, which is just narcissism. They ignored economic justice, which King and Malcolm and everybody else understood was fundamental to confronting racism, and they continued to speak like the liberal class in that rhetoric of justice and fairness and tolerance. This is why I don't like liberals because I learned my lesson: I lived in housing project in Roxbury and ran a church there while I was in seminary at Harvard Divinity School, and I would commute into Cambridge with all of these classmates of mine who talked about empowering people they never met, and so this is the root Chomsky has delineated. This is the role of the liberal establishment where the rest of the liberal society is checked out, refusing to confront the monolithic forms of evil, even death, that lie before us. If we talk about climate change and busying themselves with diversity and identity politics, inclusiveness, I mean all of this is good, but to somehow draw a line there as if Clarence Thomas, because he's a black man, is an asset on the Supreme Court. It's all cosmetic. I mean as Cornel West said very correctly about Barack Obama, he was just a black mascot for Wall Street. So the church has been destroyed by the same kind of liberal irrelevance that has infected the rest of the liberal society.

Dore: I was really enamored of Tulsi Gabbard's campaign because she seemed to be doing the critique that no other Democrat was willing to do, not only of our interventionist wars, but of the Democratic Party and the security state and the intelligence community and how it worked. Am I just being naive that I thought she was making a real critique?

Hedges: She paid for it. They called her a Russian asset. These people play hardball. I know as a reporter for the New York Times, which means just on the inside and behind that curtain, the knives are out, and they'll stop at nothing, and that's what frightened Bernie Sanders. That's what frightened Diane Feinstein when she tried to investigate the torture program by the CIA. There's a stunning press conference where her face is as white as a ghost, and she realized that the deep state is real, that she just picked out an enemy who would stop at nothing to destroy her. These centers of power are very unforgiving, and they will destroy you personally, politically, economically. They will stop at nothing, and very very few people have the moral fortitude, what Niebuhr called sublime madness to just keep going. Ralph Nader is one. Ralph just wouldn't bend, and he paid for it. I think we will look back on this particular period in American history, if there's any of us to look back on it, and recognize that he's one of the most important and courageous figures in American political life.

On Hope

Dore: We went through eight years of Barack Obama, black guy with a Muslim name as president and chief of our criminal justice system; he imprisoned zero bankers, wouldn't take marijuana to a schedule... Is there any hope? We're the world's largest penal system in the world.

Hedges: I don't share the mania for hope. We just have to do what's right. Hope's a funny thing especially when you build real relationships with oppressed people. I speak as a white privileged male, and I understand that privilege is a form of a blindness, as hard as I try, that privilege means that I can never fully understand who these people are, what they endure, but if I honor that blindness, I can have relationships. In that class I taught, where the students had the sit-down strike, I had one A+. He was living in an abandoned house at the age of 14, picked up for a crime he didn't commit. He was barely literate, forced to sign a confession he couldn't read, sentenced as a child as a young teenager as an adult. He's not eligible to go before a parole board until he's 70, and he at the end of the class he says, "I know I'm gonna die in this prison, but I work as hard as I do because one day I'm gonna be a teacher like you." And he walks out. That's hope. Maybe in the end we only changed the world one person at a time itself, but it sustains you when you can connect. I kind of think we're finished, but, as so many of my students in prison understand, it's about dignity; it's about independence; it's about justice. It's about the understanding that we will stand with the oppressed and the crucified of the earth no matter what. When you truly stand with the oppressed, then you can expect to get treated like the oppressed and finally it really comes down to what constitutes a life of meaning, and everything I've fought for my entire life is worse than when I began, but I don't think that invalidates what I've done.

Most revolutionaries rise up. Hannah Arendt says never trust those people who say this shouldn't be done or this ought to be done, only trust those people who say I can't. Most revolutionaries throughout history succeed every once in a while. They do. Most don't. I mean our greatest prophets Martin and Malcolm, were killed. Fred Hampton 24 years old, was building alliances with the white working-class in Chicago and that was something that the FBI was terrified of. It is about sublime madness; it is about the great radical priest who baptized my youngest daughter who said faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good, even if empirically everything around you says otherwise. It's what Kierkegaard calls the leap of faith, and you believe it even though you don't have physical empirical evidence to prove it. I think the good does draw to it the good. I do what I do because of all those people my father helped. He was a Presbyterian minister civil rights advocate and gay rights activists; his brother was gay. I can't betray those people. I spent 63 years now, and I worry a lot about the ecocide. I have children, and it doesn't look good. I, at least, want them to look back and say that their father tried, and that's all we can do. I don't share the culture's mania for hope. I care more about doing what's right in maintaining relationships with people who are oppressed. I think too many liberals for the oppressed are an abstraction. If you can't walk out of that prison and be angry, you don't have a heart. I can't keep quiet. I can't stop doing what I'm doing because people I care deeply about are sitting in a cage right now, and, because of corona, they're sitting in a cage 23 hours a day. Oftentimes that's much of my drive. I have spoken about what's happening to Palestinians in Gaza because I have close relationships with people in Gaza, and I know whatever price I pay is nothing compared to what they endure, and I think that that acts of human solidarity transcends hope, and to somehow not stand up on behalf of these people and not cry out, especially because their voices are often muzzled, I just couldn't live with myself.

Hedges' most recent book was The Farewell Tour, and his upcoming book will be called Mass Incarceration.


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for transcribing all that. Read every word. Good to get a bit of background on Mr Hedges, because now I know he's real and not just another "progressive" writer.

His take on the NYT and Guardian mirrors mine. Yet there are many Progressive Bloggers who still trust those two outlets as if they spoke the word of God, the truth. Why, I do not know. There enough ex Guardian reporters like Jonathan Cook or the off-guardian crew who point out the problems there. But many progressives just hope against hope that fairness and logic will somehow win the day, and re-post nonsense from the Gray Lady or the Grauniad followed by little snippets of wisdom quotes in the comments. They refuse to read the alternative press, and are diminished in my eyes by not doing so. Their education is incomplete. Things are as bad as one can imagine, and the current plague, whether as awful as pre-imagined, or not, has got us all cowering in homes unable to organize, ready to be fleeced with apps or RFID chips monitoring our every move, ostensibly to record our near misses with plague carriers. All for our own benefit, of course.

Good to read stuff from the fearless.

Just an aside: that's "toe the line", not tow the line. Toeing the line is what you now do at the supermarket checkout these days. Yes, the line is right there on the floor, and you and everyone else had better toe it. Mind games.

Thanks again for the effort. Well worthwhile.


Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, BM - and thanks for the correction!