The World As It Is

Chris Hedges
2011

Some readers consider Hedges an anarchist, but he calls himself a socialist, a term that has quickly become almost quaint, tinged with a flavour of musty and archaic rationalism.

At the beginning of The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, Chris Hedges suggests that he is no longer really a journalist — now, he’s more of a minister, trying to lead his flock down the paths of righteousness. It’s in this spirit that Hedges, a Harvard divinity grad before he gave up organized religion, titles one of his essays “War Is Sin.”

Hedges’s tone is a mixture of anguish and anger, and his acerbic prose takes no prisoners. His style may be unattractive, even unsettling, but I can find no fault with his main arguments. His is a voice of truth in a wilderness of spin, and I wish that it weren’t so.

Here’s his assessment of Barack Obama, the candidate of change who became the president of the status quo:

The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush. It steals from the U.S. Treasury to enrich the corporate elite as rapaciously. It will not give us universal health care, abolish the Bush secrecy laws, end torture or “extraordinary rendition,” restore habeas corpus, or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of citizens. It will not push through significant environmental reform, regulate Wall Street, or end our relationship with private contractors that provide mercenary armies to fight our imperial wars and produce useless and costly weapons systems.

It’s hard to disagree with this appraisal, and Obama is just one of the targets in Hedges’s sights.

Obama doesn’t get anything close to the most space in the book — that “honour” is reserved for the government of Israel and its mistreatment of the Arab peoples of Palestine.

Hedges’s Israel critique may be the largest section of the book, but I’m inclined to ignore it, as my own interests at the moment run more to domestic North American policy and politics.

(Although Hedges writes exclusively about the United States, many of the criticisms he makes apply equally well to the right-wing Harper government of Canada, a government which claims a mandate based on holding a majority of the seats despite getting less than 40% of the popular vote. Such are the vagaries of a multi-party parliamentary system.)

Some readers consider Hedges an anarchist, but he calls himself a socialist, a term that has quickly become almost quaint, tinged with a flavour of musty and archaic rationalism. He writes that “we must articulate and stand behind a viable and uncompromising socialism, one that is firmly and unequivocally on the side of working men and women.”

Hedges is a journalist, and it’s in this context that he blasts the mainstream media for retreating from their moral responsibility to tell the truth into their present stance as “recorders” of scripted and spun events. Hedges expresses his disdain for the bankrupt “objectivity” ethic of the press with a vehemence that is typical of his prose: “The tragedy is that the moral void of the news business contributed as much to its own annihilation as the protofascists who feed on its carcass.”

And,

The corporate forces that destroyed the country wil use the information systems they control to mask their culpability. The old game of blaming the weak and the marginal, a staple of despotic regimes, will empower the dark undercurrents of sadism and violence in American society and deflect attention from the corporate vampires who have drained the blood of the country.

In an echo of his previous book The Death of the Liberal Class, also reviewed here, Hedges describes liberals, and specifically the Democratic Party which is their political home, as a spent force that “prefers comfort to confrontation. ” Hedges writes: “It will not challenge the decaying structures of the corporate state. It is intolerant within its ranks of those who do. It clings pathetically to the carcass of the Obama presidency. It has been exposed as a dead force in American politics.”

What, if anything, can be done? Hedges is not hopeful, but he is clear about the nature of the solution:

Do not fear the Tea Party movement, the “birthers,” the legions of conspiracy theorists, or the militias. Fear the underlying corporate power structure, which no one, from Barack Obama to the right-wing nut cases who pollute the airwaves, can alter. If the hegemony of the corporate state is not soon broken, we will descend into a technologically enhanced age of barbarism.

Hedges cites Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in Hedges’s version of the typical postcolonialist indictment of the Enlightenment:

Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness ripped open the callous heart of civilized Europe. The great institutions of European imperial powers and noble ideals of European enlightenment, as Conrad saw in the Congo, were covers for rapacious greed, exploitation, and barbarity.

This is a most appropriate citation, for in The World As It Is, it is very clear that Chris Hedges, for one, has seen “the horror.”

The horror for Hedges is the reality of war. That he has been changed, and forever scarred, by his years as a war correspondent is clear in his scorn for the official memorials to the honoured dead:

War memorials and museums are temples to the god of war. The hushed voices, the well -tended grass, the flapping of the flags allow us to ignore how and why our young died. They hide the futility and waste of war. They sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq into hellish bonfires. There are no images in these memorials of men or women with their guts hanging out of their bellies, screaming pathetically for their mothers. We do not see mangled corpses being shoved in body bags. There are no sights of children burned beyond recognition or moaning in horrible pain. There are no blind and deformed wrecks of human beings limping through life. War, by the time it is collectively remembered, is glorified and heavily censored.

Hedges’s compulsion to cut through the glorification and the censorship and instead to write the truth keeps him writing.

He may have little hope for himself, as the rage and bitterness with which he writes make clear, yet, as he says in the dedication, he must seek the solutions to our problems, for it is his three children “whose joy and laughter save me from despair and for whom I must always hope.”

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