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Friday, August 18, 2017

Politically incorrect: rejecting Chris Hedges

I’m posting here in response to a friend’s Facebook post of Chris Hedges speaking in Portland:   . . . I watched the entire hour and nine minutes and had a pretty strong reaction to it, which I’ll share in part. I could write a book’s worth here, but that seems a bit much at this point! I’d been hoping it would make me feel more positive about Chris Hedges, someone who is admired by many people I admire. But my opinions, mostly negative, were only reinforced.

People cite Hedges’ Pulitzer Prize (actually shared, as part of a team) as if it makes his views somehow superior, beyond questioning by lesser mortals. I’m glad I don’t put much stock in prizes. I admire his courage and strength in covering combat on the front lines, and his ability to string words together, but I don’t think having a Pulitzer makes his opinions beyond criticism, or his arguments unassailable. That would be a bit like saying the President of the United States must be a really smart guy, so we might as well give up and take his pronouncements as truth.

Probably anyone watching the video would agree that it’s depressing. He begins with a long, sad litany of evils perpetrated by the United States, most of them over the last 10 years, and this goes on and on, with very little letup and no relief, through more than half the speech. He gradually turns to a description of the evils of capitalism, á la Marx, making sweeping statements about how the institutions governing current society have long ago sold out to corporate greed, with the inescapable conclusion that they all have to be torn down and something new built in its place. If I recall correctly, most of the last third of the speech is a call to sacrifice and dedication to bringing this about.

I’m sure Hedges and I pretty much agree on what an ideal society would look like: peaceful, egalitarian, just, compassionate, and with a shared sense of responsibility towards the earth and towards each other. But there’s a big difference between sharing his goals and sharing his view.

Fully expressing my take on Hedges’ comments is a challenge which will take longer than I want to take this morning. But I’ll make a stab at it anyway, point by point, please bear with me: 
  • He appears to demonize corporations with a blanket condemnation, seeing no shades of gray in the capitalist world. He carries this forward, painting both major parties in the US as irredeemably sold out to those shadowy entities and therefore to be completely disdained.
  • He says Karl Marx has been “vindicated as capitalism’s most prescient and important critic.” 
  • He lists as many bad things as he can think of about the US, without any good things mentioned at all. 
  • He romanticizes those he calls “the oppressed” as apparently a better class of people than those he calls their oppressors.
  • He dismisses the idea that political action through the ballot box can have any value at all anymore, that it’s gone too far, and that the current democratic process is a sham.
  • His idea of a solution seems based on a spiritual experience he had in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as the Czechs began to throw off the chains of communist domination. He seems to equate the situation in the present-day US with that, as if we Americans have had the thumb of a foreign military power pressing on our backs for decades. He envisions vast throngs of people, all of one mind, clogging the streets and arteries of our cities and towns and crying out for the freedom they have been denied.

Quick answers from me for each point: 
  • Agree that there’s a lot of evil being done by large corporations. Disagree that they’re all the same, or that there aren’t real people within those corporations trying to do good things, or that there aren’t corporations themselves trying to do good. Solar power businesses? Bill Gates giving billions to fight famine and poor education? CREDO Mobile? Also agree that corporations have too much influence. But isn’t there a constitutional amendment going the rounds of the states to eliminate the “Citizens United” disaster? Is that doomed, for sure? And all Democrats are sellouts, huh? What about Russ Feingold? Al Franken? I could go on and on.
  • Karl Marx vindicated? In your dreams. Now there was a guy who thought he had a scientifically accurate theory for how history works: back and forth like a big pendulum, till finally stopping and, once the proletariat has achieved its goals, moving no more. That theory, no matter how seductively phrased, was ludicrous from the beginning, and to my mind (and I think to most of ours) has been thoroughly discredited by history itself. It assumes there will be no significant disagreements in the end. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to live in a world like that, but we seem in no danger of it.
  • There are plenty of good things about the US, and many of them have been created through our system of constitutional democracy. I’m about to go visit the US and enjoy some of the wilderness protected by it, using my “Golden Eagle” retiree passport to get free entrance to national parks. Yes, many of the good things are under attack now, as they always have been, only worse, but that’s all the more reason to get involved and fight them in the arena where they’re being challenged. 
  • There’s nothing to romanticize about the poor or the disadvantaged. In my experience, people who have no money are no better than people who have money. Minorities have good and bad people in about the same proportion as anyone else. Of  COURSE we should treat everyone fairly, but couching it in terms of rising up against an oppressor doesn’t seem to me very applicable in the US at the moment. I agree there are some really evil bastards holding the reins of power right now, and that’s a big crisis. But Hedges seems to me to be appealing to the same illusions so many of us had in the 60s, that “the people” were on the verge of rising up and taking their rightful place. I always asked then, and I ask now, “what people?” I only want good, sensible ones in charge. How are you gonna guarantee that? 
  • See the above. Like Obama or not – and while I pretty much like him, I see big flaws – he represented a positive change, at least for a moment. So did all the changes about gays in the military, etc., and many other such. Hedges wouldn’t agree with me. The piece he wrote about “useful idiots” – a Stalinist phrase, by the way – really formed my opinion of him. Complete arrogance, a “my way or the highway” view, no respect for other people’s opinions, and to my mind a complete misunderstanding of the democratic process, which ALWAYS involves compromise with people who don’t see it your way. 
  • Finally, comparing the release from decades of outside oppression experienced by the Czechs to living in the USA – even for disadvantaged folks, I think, though I’m not one of those – is to devalue the courage and determination of those very people Hedges stood and sang with in Wenceslas Square, and also to over-romanticize the event itself. I would have been immensely moved, myself, if I’d been there. But it didn’t signify the beginning of a new utopia. It only meant that afterwards the Czechs would be able to live in the same world, facing the same challenges, that the rest of us are facing, rather than being force-fed a brutal ideology.
     I am a guy who speaks his mind. I get called snowflake by yo-yos on the right, and “living in the bubble” by yo-yos on the left. I share most of the goals of what’s commonly thought as the “left,” but I hate “political correctness” and the intolerance toward differing views I see from both sides. I very much dislike labels. In the 60s, “liberal” was a label disdained by the lefty movements of the time, denoting someone who’d sold out. Now it seems to be more an insult hurled from the right. I avoid the term. I pretty much exclusively vote Democrat, but don’t use the capital “D” to describe myself.
     Something I rarely mention about myself is that after coming back from the Peace Corps I intended to become a Unitarian minister. Never mind that I dropped out after deciding the program was pretty empty and hypocritical, I am within one quarter of an M.Div. from Starr King School for the Ministry, the same institution that awarded Chris Hedges an honorary doctorate (although they don’t even offer an academic doctorate). Hedges actually is an ordained minister. This gives me, I think, a unique perspective when listening to his talks, which I see as really sermons in form and substance, designed more to move people than to educate or enlighten.

     Summing up, Chris Hedges appears to me to have a very narrow field of vision, and what vision he has – while perhaps looking toward similar goals as my own – is expressed in very divisive and unproductive ways. I would urge people not to be carried away by his apparent righteousness, which I think is more aptly characterized as arrogant dogma, however well intended.


  1. You're much more charitable than I. Let’s agree that he means well. But, 69 minutes? To say that, at least historically, big nations not to mention the connected world, do not evolve that way. Not even a perhaps fantasied revolution would be likely to have the kind of result he imagines. But, I guess that there will always be bright people who see all of the darkness of the every-day world and are driven to relieve whatever it is that they then feel by imagining the sudden onset of a utopia. Nice piece, my friend.

  2. Thank you. I think the times call for as much charity as we can muster, but I understand! :)

  3. Peter, Is there a Middle Path between abject and predatory corporatism on the one hand and wholesale destruction of the corrupt state? Historically, the former has resulted in despotism, the latter in anarchy.

    The harsh language of the biblical prophets like Chris Hedges raise consciousness, but does this language result in a modus vivendi that is tolerable for most, but ideal for none?

    Thanks for posting and discussing, Peter.

  4. That may be overthinking this whole thing. First of all, you couch the question in absolutist language. Is what we have now completely "abject and predatory corporatism?" I think that's not a useful characterization. Same for "the corrupt state." Hell, all states are corrupt, to some extent, it's just a question of degree. How do you best describe our situation? I'd say something like "dire, but not hopeless." Chris sounds hopeless. I don't think his harsh language raises consciousness, quite the opposite. And I don't see how it results in any kind of modus vivendi (way of getting along?) at all. It's quite exclusive. Notice how often he uses the word "idiot." If you're not with him, you're an idiot.

  5. Pete,
    Thanks for posting your opinion on this!
    I was impressed by your balanced, reasoned, detailed point-by-point review of Hedge’s position in his recent speech. You supported your views clearly and without resorting to generalizations; the hallmark of a journalist and intellectual, and I feel those who identify themselves as thoughtful readers give greater weight to balanced, reasoned statements such as yours.
    In this case, however, your informed, educated opinion could be more of a guide to others.
    In short: You’re being too soft on this guy, Pete.
    Chris Hedge’s statement was not part of an intellectual debate, and he is unlikely to consider your comments and modify his public position. He was delivering an emotional appeal to motivate a large group who trust his credentials and opinion to guide their own viewpoint in the same way your readership trust your enormous experience and education.
    In this way, the tone of your response fails to evoke the same result because you’re not “playing the same game.” Intellectuals and journalists are often handicapped by their balanced language, when often they are the best-equipped to provide wide public guidance. You often qualify positions as, “my opinion” as if your informed, educated opinion shouldn’t be a guide to others.
    People want direction and have proven time and again they find clear, uncompromising and emotional appeals more compelling than balanced, nuanced language. Cautious language from the largely silent middle ground is losing the war of words in public opinion, which journalists and politicians are slowly coming to realize is the group driving action in recent years. And yes, I realize even framing the discussion as a “war” is itself polarizing, and ironically indicative of the issue.
    It wasn’t long ago journalists, like politicians, enjoyed a unique position to influence many people and needed to be cautious with their language. Today, virtually anyone can reach large numbers of people, and you needn’t be as cautious.
    Take the gloves off, Pete. Recognize that you are in a fight to influence real action and stop being the only fair fighter in ring. Offering an alternative viewpoint to a thoughtful readership is laudable, but you need to develop other tools to educate and influence a broader group who are currently under the thrall of an ideologue free to espouse his/her position is the strongest, most uncompromising, biased fashion.
    I’m not qualified to approach the substance of your review and don’t have a broad understanding of your body of work, which I’d say puts me in the majority of readers who might be influenced by your opinion. I know enough about you to read your blog and value your insights, and I’m saying you need to come out swinging. Many learned this lesson too late in the last election and are regretting it today.
    I understand your current audience values balanced, precise language appropriate to intellectual discussions, but an uncompromising style to guides wide public opinion. Maybe there is too much of that and it limits debate, but it’s undeniably effective, and I’m tired of it all coming from one side.

  6. Thanks greatly for this! I appreciate the comments as well as your compliments. I am actually not sure whether I should try to be more forceful. Maybe. One reason I try to keep the rhetoric down is to appeal to the rationality of the reader. I want to get people to think calmly and be absolutely as reasonable as they can, because one of the problems in the current climate is that people are too emotional. I'd rather have them think then react. But maybe I could modify my approach, have to think about it. I hate all the shouting down that goes on, too. Anyhow, thanks. Anyhow great to see you posting here.