Transcript of Chris Hedges speaking at #NATGAT
Via alert reader KL (who likes to do transcripts).
Chris Hedges at NatGat Philadelphia
July 1, 2012
CHRIS HEDGES: ...invisible from the wider public. We also were in southern West Virginia in coal camps where Big Coal are destroying the Appalachian mountains, hundreds of thousands of acres of devastation, because Big Coal doesn't want to dig down for the coal anymore. They blow the top four hundred feet off of the mountains. They use some of the largest land equipment on earth, 25-foot draglines, giant bulldozers where they just push all the trees and the topsoil over the edges of the mountains, giant billion-gallon containment ponds filled with heavy metals and sludge that periodically break. We went into villages in southern West Virginia where everybody has had their gallbladders removed because the water is fetid. Cancer is an epidemic. You go into the elementary schools, in the nurse's office, and there are just rows of little inhalers for the children.
That's America. That's the America that is created when you sacrifice your natural environment and you sacrifice people before greed, before corporate profit.
We were finally in Immokalee, Florida, with the undocumented workers who pick the nation's produce, and in this reconfiguration of America into a form of neofeudalism, a world where you replicate the power structure that George Orwell pointed out in 1984 where you have an Inner Party of 3% or 4%, an Outer Party who's a corporate manager and people who work in public relations – which is the most evil industry in America – and then the rest of us become proles. That's where we're headed. Not just within this country but globally, we are reducing, or allowing ourselves to be reduced, to a situation where we are told that to be competitive in the global marketplace and to be competitive with prison labor in China or sweatshop workers in Bangladesh who make 22 cents an hour.
I wrote a book called Death of the Liberal Class and it talks about the destruction, the conscious destruction of radical and populist movements, which disempowered us. The liberal class was never meant to be the political left. All of the true correctives in American democracy were brought about by popular movements, and if you go back, and Howard Zinn does a beautiful job of laying this out in The People's History of the United States – and I never met Zinn, but he's certainly somebody I've always admired. I teach in a prison, and when I submit my forms of my class I try to make them sound as innocuous as possible, so I compose class [3:18 inaudible] I teach American history, and once it got approved I went out and bought every inmate a copy of Zinn's People's History of the United States.
And when you teach that book to African-American young men who never had a chance, it'll break your heart, because they never were taught their own history, and you understand what a great and moral figure Howard Zinn was.
This government that was established by a white oligarchic slave-holding class was terrified of popular democracy, and that's why so many people were disenfranchised, Native Americans, African-Americans –
[distraction as Chris is handed a microphone: I think the parking people won't like it. “We got a clearance.” Oh, you have clearance now? [applause] [Now amplified:] I want to be clear. [Audience: “Freedom of speech”] I don't want to do anything illegal. [laughter]
The whole nature of American power [4:45 stream glitch] keep the underclasses, the disenfranchised and the poor out of the system. And they did that very effectively through not permitting women, African-Americans, Native Americans, people who didn't have property, indentured servants – none of these people were at the Constitutional conventions, and then they for good measure threw in the Electoral College and the Senate. It used to be that senators were appointed so that they could retain control. And as Zinn points out, every opening within our society was paid for with the blood, sweat, toil and sacrifice of the poor, of the working class, and of disenfranchised groups and minorities within this country, and we owe our freedom to them.
None of them ever achieved formal positions of power, the Liberty Party that fought slavery, the suffragists that fought for women's rights, the labor movement and the Civil Rights movement, ever achieved positions of power, and the failure of those of us who care about the open society is that we forgot that it's not our job to take power, it's our job to fight power. There's a wonderful scene in Kissinger's memoirs – do not buy the book!
– where it's 1971 and Nixon has ringed the White House with buses to keep out the antiwar demonstrators, and he's standing at a window with Kissinger going, "Henry, Henry, they're going to break through the barricades and get us!" And that's exactly where we want people in power to be.
With the destruction of radical movements in the name of anticommunism, culminating of course in the 1950s with the House Un-American Affairs activity and the disemboweling of liberal institutions in the name of anticommunism, we were left disempowered. We were left without the mechanisms to fight back, and the corporate state began the steady assault against all of us. By the 1970s, in the words of the Harvard historian Charles Maier, we had shifted from what he called an empire of production to an empire of consumption. Real wages for American workers began to stagnate or decline.
And with this reconfiguration of American power, with this disempowerment of the American working class and the poor, we created the monstrosities of faux liberals, people like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. And the way they work is to continue to speak in that traditional feel-your-pain language of liberalism by selling out our interests to corporations. And that's why under a Democratic administration led by Bill Clinton, we saw the destruction of welfare – and let's never forget that when they destroyed welfare, 70% of the recipients in that welfare program were children.
He deregulated the FCC, which is not a small action, because it allowed six corporations, roughly a half dozen – Viacom, General Electric, Ruport Murdoch's News Corp, Clear Channel, Disney – to control the airwaves as well as much of the newsprints and to shrink the acceptable range of opinion.
My frustration with Fox is the same as my frustration with MSNBC: They are courtiers. They engage in court gossip. They spin it differently, but it's the same shit. Whether it's Ann Romney's horse or Newt Gingrich's moon colonies. [laugher] But the real issues, the real issues that affect your life and mine, are never discussed, because the corporate state, as Dorothy Parker said about Katharine Hepburn's emotional range as an actress, that it went from A to B. The corporate state essentially only permits discussion within that narrow parameter. And if you actually speak, as the Occupy movement does, about the legitimate and real structures of power, you become a pariah and you are pushed out.
So we have reached the point where within the formal systems of power we have no mechanism left by which incremental and piecemeal reform is possible. Traditionally the liberal class functioned not as the left but as a safety valve, so that when there were significant grievances and injustices within a society there was a way to provide enough reform to keep the masses quiet.
That's what the New Deal was about. When Conrad Black writes his biography of Roosevelt, he says that Roosevelt's greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism, and that is precisely right.
What happens when that safety valve atrophies, when it doesn't function, which is where we are now, you get political paralysis, and political paralysis in a time of economic decline and frustration and diminished expectations is dangerous. I lived through it in the former Yugoslavia.
Dostoevsky's obsession with the death of the liberal class runs through Notes from Underground, it runs through Demons, because he understood, and these are his words, that when that mechanism for reform is broken, you enter an age that he describes as moral nihilism. And that's where we are.
We have created, or allowed to be created for us, a very powerful form of political theater. We are constantly bombarded with the personal narratives of candidates, as if they make any difference. Romneycare in Massachusetts, if you've read the bills, is Obamacare. It's a faux debate. The whole thing was hatched in the Heritage Foundation, first put into practice in 2006 by then Governor Romney, and then tweaked by the corporate lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and insurance industry, who wrote into those 2,000 pages a subsidy for themselves of $447 billion. That is the equivalent of the bank bailout bill for the pharmaceutical and insurance industry.
And the first thing that Obama does when it passes is he hands out exemptions, because these corporations don't want to insure chronically ill children. Which means that we live in a country where it is legally permissible for corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons and daughters.
That's the world that corporations create. They commodify everything.
Karl Polanyi lays it out in his great work, The Great Transformation, 1944, and as Karl Marx understood, unfettered, unregulated capitalism is a revolutionary force that has built within it a quality of assured self-destruction, because they know no limits. As Polanyi says, and he uses this word even though he's an economist, when societies lose the capacity for the sacred, when everything has a monetary value and nothing has an intrinsic value, then you exploit those commodities until exhaustion or collapse. And that is why the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis.
And we don't have a lot of time left, as anyone who reads climate change reports will tell you. We have very little time left. And yet our relationship to the environment is determined by BP and Exxon Mobile and natural gas and fracking companies. It's insane. They can't see beyond the quarterly profit, they've lost the capacity for the sacred, they've commodified the natural world that they will exploit until they kill us, and they'll take us down with them.
In Karl Popper's great work The Open Society and Its Enemies, he writes that the question is not how you get good people to rule – that's the wrong question. Most people attracted to power, Popper writes, are at best mediocre, which is Obama, or venal, which is Bush. The question is, how do you keep the power elite frightened of you? How do you keep them in check? And that will only come by rebuilding movements.
One of the amusing reactions to the Occupy movement, for me, was this, "What are your demands? Tell us your demands." I don't think the Occupy movement could have been any clearer about what its demand is, and that is, we want to reverse the corporate coup d'etat. We want to take power back from corporations and put them into the hands of citizens, where power belongs.
And as Crane Britton writes in his great study of revolution, The Anatomy of Revolution, he says that one of the characteristics of all revolutionary movements is that their fundamental or principal demand is one the ruling class can never agree to because it would mean their dissolution, and that's why for me Occupy is a revolutionary movement and one I support.
Now my analysis is not going to be radically different from an analysis that you get, both in terms of the environment and the degradation of the economy, in the National Security Council or anywhere else within the bowels of power. The difference is, of course, that they won't be telling you to revolt. And for those of us who care about responding rationally to power, we have to accept the cynicism of those who rule and we have to begin to see the mechanisms that they are putting in place so that they can retain control. The first mechanism is to write a legal system that criminalizes dissent. And the assault against civil liberties is arguably worse under Barack Obama than it was under George W. Bush.
The refusal to restore habeas corpus, the support of the FISA Amendment Act – and by the way, I'm one of the ACLU plaintiffs, which has just gone to the Supreme Court asking that that be overturned –
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. And now we know where they're storing all of our crap, out in a supercomputer in Utah.
The radical interpretation of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act, which Obama believes gives him the right to assassinate American citizens and then assassinate their 16-year-old son two weeks later.
The use of the Espionage Act to shut down whistleblowers and leakers. I have many friends who are investigative journalists in this country, and they'll tell you that there is a total chill, a total freeze, no one within the centers of power will talk to them, because there are now six cases, including [18:05 inaudible] a former CIA official who reportedly exposed war crimes that we were committing to the New York Times. They even called in the the New York Times reporter Jim Risen and demanded that he expose and tell the government who his sources were.
And finally, the National Defense Authorization Act, which unfortunately for this administration, since I sued them and won, is no longer, or at least temporarily no longer, law.
Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act – it's not very long, go home and read it – permits the U.S. government to use the military to seize American citizens who may be deemed to have links with Al Qaeda, the Taliban or what they call associated forces, strip them of due process, hold them in military facilities including our offshore penal colonies, until, in the language of this section, "the end of hostilities," which in an age of permanent war is forever. And we sued Panetta and we sued Obama in federal court – two great lawyers, Carl Mayer and Bruce Afran, who worked pro bono – and Judge Katherine Forrest agreed that this was unconstitutional, and we are waiting to see whether the government will appeal, in which case it will go to an appellate court, and if the appellate court upholds that ruling, then it will go to the Supreme Court.
In every single case that I mentioned, you have a government that is essentially criminalizing dissent and making sure that all of the forces of the state are at their disposal to shut down any mass movement or any protest. We saw with the concerted and organized effort to close and erase the Occupying campus exactly what the government has to offer.
And I read Krugman, as many of you do, and was on Democracy Now a few weeks ago with Paul, where I'd spoken and Paul, and he's talking about a rational response to the economic crisis that we're undergoing. And I said, "Paul, that assumes that we have systems of power that can function rationally. It presupposes the capacity of systems of power to function rationally. And I think that as long as you make that presupposition, you are disempowered, because those corporate forces could care less what you think, what you need, what you care about. They are barreling towards a world of masters and serfs. And they know where they're headed.
So all responses at this point have to sever themselves from the formal mechanisms of power and attempt to rebuild the movements that were taken away from us and that were the true correctives for American democracy and made us a flawed, but it made us a democracy. At least for some of us.
I want to talk a little bit about the response of the state. Once they got rid of those Occupying campus, they sent for me two messages, one, that they were incapable of rationing the legitimate suffering of tens of millions of American citizens. If they could respond rationally, if they responded the way the New Deal responded or the way traditional liberal institutions within a capitalist democracy would call on them to respond, at a minimum they would have instituted a massive jobs program, in particular targeted those under the age of 25, there would have been a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions, a complete forgiveness of student debt, and a rational public option or universal health for all American citizens.
Now that response would have gone a long way to mitigating the anger that fuels the movement, and the fact that they were unable to respond rationally means, in my mind, that this movement isn't going away. Movements have reverses. They make mistakes. Anybody who's studied the Civil Rights movement knows that. They are knocked off balance, and we have certainly been knocked off balance.
I have been very critical of the black bloc, and my criticism is based on this analysis: The goal of the state is to sever this movement from the mainstream, because the fact is, this movement articulates what the mainstream feels, and that's terrifying for centers of power.
And so the way that they want to do this is to demonize the movement. And we can get into a discussion about property destruction and taunting the police, but as far as this movement is, as far as keeping this movement a mainstream movement, that kind of activity plays into the hands of those who want to destroy us.
I'm not going to report anybody who does black bloc activity, but they can't do it within this movement. They have to do it as their own movement. And that doesn't mean that there can't be alliances or even a convergence of interests, but the power of the Occupy movement, as anyone who was in Zuccotti Park knows, was that on the weekends you had mothers and fathers from New Jersey coming in with their strollers going up and down. And that the state can't allow. So the goal is to demonize the movement and follow the energy of that movement back into a dead political system, and for that you have Van Jones and Rebuild the Dream and Al Sharpton and others.
So where are we going? I covered a lot of movements as a foreign correspondent. I covered most of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, I covered the two Palestinian uprisings or intifadas, I covered the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Miloševi?, and I learned that movements have a mysterious life force of their own. Even the purported leaders of movements don't know where they're going.
When Joe Sacco and I wrote this book, we named it Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, and yet the revolt was conjecture. We certainly understood that with no impediments to corporate capitalism – and let's look what they've done to us just in the last couple weeks: Refusing to extend unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of American citizens, refusing to adequately fund food stamps, passing a Supreme Court ruling that severely weakens if not disempowers public sector unions – that's all in the last couple weeks. That march will continue until there's a reaction, and the state knows it, which is why they are trying to push through every legal mechanism to shackle us as soon as we rise up.
We knew that there would be some kind of a backlash. We didn't know where, we didn't know when, we didn't know what it would look like, and then you had Zuccotti on September 17th.
And the last chapter of the book is Days of Revolt. Because we have to go to a process that they won't be able to stop. 1905 in Russia was the dress rehearsal for 1917, 1765 Stamp Act rebellion was the dress rehearsal for 1776, and this is the dress rehearsal for the end of the corporate state.
Stop asking yourself whether its practical. It's never practical. Turn off your television. Nothing you do in the eyes of the corporate media is ever going to be a success. You're always going to be deemed a failure. And listen to the people around you and at the pollution pouring out over the airwaves.
I was in Leipzig on November 9, 1989, with the leaders of the East German opposition, and they said, "Maybe within a year there will be free passage back and forth across the Berlin Wall." Within a few hours the Berlin Wall, at least as impediment to human traffic, did not exist. No one knows how movements work. No one knows at what point that spark ignites a conflagration.
Acts of resistance finally are moral acts. I just did an action in Zuccotti Park with Father Daniel Berrigan, who's 92 years old, who burned draft records in the 1960s and went to prison, federal prison, for 23 months.
And as Father Berrigan says, we are called to do the good, or at least the good insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go. Faith is the belief that it goes somewhere, that the good draws the good. But we can't know. The Buddhists call it karma.
When I was in Prague for the Velvet Revolution, every night in the Magic Lantern with Václav Havel and Dienstbier and Klaus and all of those who would eventually inherit the government, there were posters throughout the city of a young Charles University student named Jan Palach. When the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to overthrow the Dub?ek government in 1968 and reinstall a pro-Soviet regime, Palach went to Wenceslas Square and lit himself on fire. Four days later he died of his burns. Thousands of university students marched with his body to the cemetery until they were broken up by police, and of course his action was never mentioned by state media. When his grave became a shrine, the authorities exhumed his body, cremated it, gave the ashes to his mother and told her she was not allowed to bury them. Two weeks after the fall of that Communist government, 10,000 Czechs gathered in Red Army Square and renamed it Jan Palach Square.
I was in Wenceslas Square when the great singer Marta Kubišová – five hundred thousand people were there – marched out, walked out on a balcony. Kubišová, who was then the best-known singer in Czechoslovakia before the 1968 overthrow, had sung the anthem of defiance that was broadcast out over the airwaves, and for that she too became a nonperson, her recording stock was destroyed, she no longer was heard over the airwaves, and she spent the intervening years working on an assembly line in a toy factory. When she walked out on that balcony and began singing that anthem, every Czech in that crowd knew every word.
The power of defiance, the power as Havel wrote in his great 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless – and that is our power, however incongruous that it seems, our greatest power is our powerlessness and our transparency, because we speak a truth the corporate state does not want heard.
And when you speak that truth, you have the capacity to draw the good to the good, to bring those within the systems of power to your side.
When the East German dictator Erich Honecker decided to break the resistance movement in East Germany, he sent down elite paratroopers to Leipzig and ordered them to fire on the crowd. And when the officers went into the barracks, they found the paratroopers weeping on their beds because they had family members and friends in the crowds that they were supposed to open fire upon. They never shot those crowds. And Honecker lasted less than a week in office. That is our power. Those on the other sides of the barricades know the truth we speak, and that is why the repression of the state has been as fierce as it has.
And there's something else that those within the foundations of power understand, and that is how corrupt, rotten and gamed it is, and they know that better than us.
So hold fast, because those systems of power are far more fragile than they appear, and because every time you raise your voice, it keeps truth alive.
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.