Chris Hedges: We’re Missing Our Safety Valve

Chris Hedges, among those anxious prophets to whom attention must be paid, is a sort of George Carlin without the laugh lines. Grim obituarist of our empire, democracy and culture, the ex-New York Times war reporter is gabbing with us here about the smothered conscience of power: the Death of the Liberal Class, in the title of his new book.

A minister’s kid in New England, then a literature student at Colgate and Harvard, Chris Hedges came to see his fellow liberals running a fool’s errand. The job was to represent — in churches, media, labor unions, universities and the arts — as much virtue as was viable in an aggressively commercial, unequal and unjust world. At best the liberals worked a narrow zone of correction and commentary. In a new century, imperial excess, permanent war and the sharp polarizations of wealth, power and income seem to have driven everybody off the island, one way or the other.

We’re talking about Tom Friedman of the New York Times, for example, and Judge Richard Goldstone, two classic liberals. Friedman walked off the island to marry George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. His hideous claim for the war on the Charlie Rose Show in 2003 — his “suck on this” rationale that sodomy-rape of Iraq by American troops was an appropriate way to pop a “terrorism bubble” — was dredged from the darkest, least speakable of Rumsfeld-Cheney dreams. But Friedman is still an opinion monger at the New York Times, and people who read him casually keep telling me he’s a “liberal.” Richard Goldstone, on the contrary, was frog-marched off the island precisely for staying in character — as a fearless fact-finder and judge in human-rights cases in his native South Africa, also in Rwanda and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Goldstone was a world-standard of conscience and the law until the UN council he chaired found that Israel had executed “a deliberately disproportionate attack” on Gaza at the end of 2008, “designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize a civilian population…” It was a judgment that made Goldstone a pariah, first among establishment liberals.

Perhaps it was never graceful or quite respectable to be a liberal. The only good liberals, it seems in this conversation, are dead liberals who kept their distance from power: Orwell, supremely; Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; the pacifist Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker soup-kitchens; the independent journalist I. F. Stone; Julian Benda, the French writer whose Treason of the Intellectuals anathematized the thinkers between the World Wars who adopted the politics of class, party and tribe. But Chris Hedges is rueful, too, about a world with fewer and fewer engaged and half-way trusted rationalists in the public square. He’s missing those late, unloveable but maybe indispensable liberals. Not least he mourns journalism, for all its faults: “With the death of newsprint,” he is telling us, “we’re losing a whole cadre of people who are trained to go out, report stories, have them fact-checked, publish them. The end result was to build a public discussion around verifiable fact. When we lose those skills of reporting, all discussion becomes — from the left, from the right — emotionally driven. Verifiable fact no longer becomes the foundation of public discourse.”

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  • John Maas

    Not to be a stickler but from previous bits re: Chris Floyd, New Englander he’s not. As former residents of Schoharie County, NY, I’m sure he would agree it’s a different kettle of fish. And all the more powerful for that.

  • chris stromquist

    Radio station in Belgrade is B92, not B52. Great show!

  • Pete Crangle

    Superb. Clarity. Apocalyptic. Dismal. Thank you. Weirdly reminded of Marshall McLuhan and the maelstrom.

    El sueño de la razón produce monstruos

    Oliver Crangle’s America never sleeps…

  • Matthew

    Christopher and Chris, thank you both for another fantastic conversation.

  • Bob Zucchi

    This conversation between two distinguished public intellectuals on the debased state of our regnant political philosophy caused me much pain…first, of recognition, and then of separation. The latter because I see that I’ve undergone “die innere Emigation,” a passive resistance to our country’s political culture, from which estrangement, at my (which is also Mr. Lydon’s) age, there is unlikely to be a way back.

    Today’s on-air discussion strengthens my conviction that my first allegiance must be to democracy…however imperfectly taught and practiced, and however imperfectly absorbed by me in 1940s Rooseveltian America.

    Our (like every other) polity has its far-right, of course, and their prospects were much improved when the regionalist, anarchic, and provincial among us were inveigled by certain politicians a generation ago (as a campaign strategy) into adding the ardor of their primitivism to the vulgar energy of our rising “conservatives.” Only… democracy cannot be made, let alone sustained, by such folk. Democracy is made by people who believe in it as a first principle, even ahead of their religion (!) and in the teeth of their personal prejudices…and who have the wits and maturity to work out that belief by supporting moderate policies (a modest start on health care reform fits that definition, by my lights) and rational choices (bring our militarized foreign policy to an end!).

    Modern democracy has its precepts, and they are testable. And applying those tests after today’s program was a sobering exercise. How to prepare for the deluge, though. Cultivate your inner peasant?

  • Robert Beal

    Yes, radicals can riff without consequences until too much of the masses sees that the emperor has no clothes (a la Wikileaks) and/or until there is an effective uprising. Then comes the power elites’ targeted backlash.

    As soon as the leftist guerilla army invaded San Salvador, the seven Jesuit liberation theologist priest/professors were laid in a line on the campus of their San Salvador university and shot in the back of their heads (credit to the current issue of Harpers for this historical reference).

  • Ed

    If “it’s over and they’ve won”, there’s no point in trying to change things for the better is there? Actually, there’s not much point in discussing it either.

  • A completely unknown figure emerges in 2004 out of nowhere, a “community organizer”, even, and receives national recognition. In 2006 he has published a book stating his political principles, and asks those who have read him, while on his book tour, if he ought to run for the highest office in the land. In 2008 he gets elected President of the United States. There are many terms to name a person with this kind of persuasive power, but a “mediocrity” is not one that comes to mind. Which is what Hedges calls President Obama around the 36:45 mark.

    On the one hand we have The New York Times providing us facts and verification that are hard to come by; outside of that, however, their opinions are a bourgeois scourge, as evidenced by the thought processes of a Thomas Friedman. On the other hand, we have passionate individuals like Chris Hedges, who at least to me, in this interview, provided a lot of factual information I was unfamiliar with (such as what he had to tell us about Yugoslavia). At the end of the interview, Hedges tells us we can’t discuss things rationally, as a nation, because certain elements in American life are too emotional to make any sense, let alone to try and verify their own facts. However, at least to these ears, outside of Hedges’s facts, all I hear is an emotional tone of “we want the world and we want it now” approach, which a growing amount of independents in the country have learned to mistrust, and with very good reason.

    Significantly, when Chris asked Hedges toward the end about the power of the people, through the internet and other means, Hedges immediately fell back on an overused, empty term, “the power elite”. So basically what he’s saying is, those in power are all mediocrities, and yet what we all need to do is focus our attentions on them, if anything’s ever to be done. I’m not persuaded.

    And yet just because we can recognize tired, dead language when we hear it, doesn’t mean poverty and war would suddenly evaporate too. I admire Hedges’s passion. As for the topic of his book, what has happened to the Left? Chomsky may be a bad influence here, teaching us how to recognize political power, which has its uses. But whatever happened to the aesthetic power our finest intellectuals used to instruct us on too? Chris has been asking this question through so many shows, and at least here with Hedges, we didn’t get a satisfactory answer. It’s truly a historical phenomenon wondering whatever happened to it.

  • Potter

    I too am going to put my hope in the internet and I do think we will see an uproar if voices are squelched. After all I would not even be listening to Chris Hedges here were it not for cyberspace.

    In the past I have found Hedges too much for me to bear, but this time I was able to listen and allow some of this to penetrate up to the end without saying “too too much”. Still we have to live in this country, in this world, even as it goes the way it goes.

    A couple of names that were not mentioned came to mind: Michael Moore who I think does himself and the rest of us a disservice by going just a bit too far, enough to disqualify himself for the ears that should hear him out. Then Bill Moyers who belongs not the the same category. Recently Moyers gave an excellent speech at the Howard Zinn Lecture Series: Welcome to the Plutocracy which I urge you to read if you have not.
    At the very least we can commiserate and engage in some consciousness raising.

    Most interesting in this interview was Chris Hedges slant on history starting with the First World War.

    Thank you very much for this Chris.

    This is another interview that confirms that I need an extra glass of wine at dinner… and some Beckett (I must go on, I can’t go on, no, I must go on)

  • Marc

    Great show, fascinating perspectives. All classic ROS shows make me listen twice right away, in case I missed something. I even want to make a right wing friend of mine listen. Half of it will make her shake her head in agreement, the other half will make her head want to explode.

  • Russ

    Chris Hedges is such a badass. I love this guy. His speech the other day in D.C., where he quoted W.H. Auden, was brilliant. Yeah, his “news” is bad, but, as he says, you gotta have the cold, hard truth before you have hope.

  • Paul

    Absolutely brilliant but I am not sure I agree they have won. You need to have faith that, as painful as the cleansing will be, democracy will win out. The concept is too beautiful, the human desire for it too strong, for it to vanish from this nation.

  • EDA (a guy)

    January 8th of a new year…still files, piles, and baskets akimbo. Yes, here we are. The righteous indignation at the firing has me a tad whoozy. The crowd high on vendetta assigning comic book names to bills before congress. And then….oh yes, then the reserve of our camp regarding claims of “recovery” (no, give me Nader’s comments or Chris Hedges). The total chaos of the moment has me down and about ready to rant (which, with permission, I may do in only one post soon to follow).

    Sorry for being dense, Stephen, but why is it bad Chomsky teaches us that? I don’t mean the question rhetorically.

    “But whatever happened to the aesthetic power our finest intellectuals used to instruct us on too?”

    Perhaps there is now an historically unmatched counterfeit of “aesthetic power.” I’m speaking (writing) here of the net. You see, even I can look at the finished facebook “wall” and think, “Well, someone just might get the message.” Perhaps we are all divided off into niches by the merchants of cool. Everything becomes clip art which we appropriate to ourselves, becoming editors with our own little kingdoms. If art were play money, it’s like they give us all a little stack? What I mean is we are so busy marshalling and identifying with the visual…we are not noticing there is less space for the verbal. [perhaps we are noticing, but are we noticing how much less?] If I tried to whip up some interest in whether Carter signed that finding for arms prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or post…on facebook…what do you think the chances of success would be? [the strange part, IIANM, is that the net has the answer] I could ask a few questions re Europe’s aims and the Balkan War too (which I never even hear Hedges discussing), but then…same issue. Another congruent observation…the net nowhere bothers with a flow chart of the entire economy…not on Alternet, not Public Citizen, not dollarsandsense dot org nor Mother Jones (though mojo in Feb had very good charts on the bailout and two stimuli). This tells us something: words and letters cannot be worked into art anymore (at least the art they think we wish to buy and mimic). Net “art” could not be bothered with anything like the labor that went into cubism eg. To put it another way, if one of our “finest intellectuals” wanted to do such a chart the aesthetics of which consisted in its clarity vs its appeal…it wouldn’t fly obviously. Thus, we return to the sad phenomenon that fascism in Germany depended on artistic enroads (we return to this phenomenon so as to ask if there is a parallel going down here at present).

  • Homer Erotic

    What’s wrong with being a fruitcake? Fruitcake is very substantive, never becomes rotten, it’s colorful, and it’s really not so bad once you give it a chance! 😀

  • amazing interview. I think that the allure of the internet enables many of those who would otherwise have no voice. The problem is that much of what we consider news now is only opinion. One thing I love about the internet is that it is possible to find trustworthy sources amongst all the garbage. Compare getting all of your news from a newspaper, and 3 television stations to all of the internet. It’s a dangerous alternative because you can also easily create very crazy nichegroups but with the rise of social media many times the best stories get voted up. That’s how i found this interview.

  • Sam Dinista

    As much as I agree with Mr. Hedges and as much as I avoid comment boards, I must take a vocal issue with his assessment of the Internet and its capabilities. I do not believe the Left dogma that all technology is bad is healthy. In fact, I find it quite dangerous.

    If we the Left allow tech to become the sole “ethical” property of the right we will lose the most valuable tools of communication humankind has created. It is utter nonsense to believe that since tech has changed human paradigms it is intrinsically evil. What is worse is that many self made tech giants are liberal at heart, yet the Left’s aversion to tech could change their disposition in time.

    That leftist tendency amongst tech innovators is not a side effect of writing code. It was a generational product as many of today’s tech pioneers grew up in the 60s and 70s. But a new batch of cold Gen Xers is on the rise. Kids that grew up with Reagan and Transformers. They will not have the same predisposed tendency toward Liberal ideology. It is up to prominent Left thinkers to court this generation as heroes of a free tomorrow, not pariahs destroying the world one line of code at a time.

    Mr. Hedges spoke about how several Govts tried to take down Wiki Leaks. What was not mentioned is how normal user freed up server space and kept the site and it”s links/data alive. Sure, a site can be shut down for a few hours. But removing information from the internet is akin to removing urine from a pool. It will never be completely gone unless you drain the whole vessel. If some world power were to attempt that, all people would revolt in disgust.

    Sophisticated communication is not the enemy. But the refusal to embrace it may be. Technology can change every social dynamic in favor of a Liberal Democratic society. To hinge one’s hatred of it on the “threat” it poses to traditional journalistic practices strikes me as very similar to those who did not want the Prols to read after Gutenberg popularized the printing press. We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we allow misconceptions of technology and it’s potential to dominate left thinking.

  • Grady Lee Howard

    I’m listening to this on archive three months out. In that short time I’ve seen a deterioration in the US economy and the political climate. For one thing the Jasmine Revolution instability in North Africa and the Middle East has driven up fuel prices. How strange that the corporate-line news outlets have so much more to say about this little crisis than the American people who are paying fifty cents to a dollar more per gallon for gas than they were at Christmas. Citizen docility and consumer zombieism is so powerful and so difficult to fathom. People seek digital entertainment even up to the point they have no home and no transportation. Game revenue has eclipsed live performance and film: It is an embryonic encapsulation of the consciousness that is self-destructive and shielding simultaneously. People can’t endure the actual facts about our real situation so are running screaming with their eyes closed hands over ears. The most active sleepwalkers are the most dangerous because they believe they can prosper and gain power by mimicking corporate ruthlessness. I fear the gun crowd, as in Yugoslavia, but I understand that even they, as they anticipate committing murder, slavery and rape, are living out an interactive scenario custom manufactured in the corporate capitalist subconscious.

  • All i can say is, we see an economic oxymoron. Where we have corporates we also display the poor people. Where we talk of peace and serenity we also have loads of criminal activists.

  • jack bottomly

    This is a truly excellent program . A meeting of great minds telling the truth !