Chris Hedges is an American journalist, author, activist, professor and, for good measure, a divinity school graduate and ordained Presbyterian minister. He was recently in Canada promoting his latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, in which he predicts the imminent demise of the American empire and the collapse of that society as we have known it.
Hedges spoke at Southminster United Church where he was also interviewed by Jim Creskey, founder and publisher of The Hill Times newspaper. Creskey is an American who relocated to Canada and like Hedges was involved in the Catholic Worker Movement associated with the late Dorothy Day.
Although Hedges has academic and theological training, he was also a longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times and during that time visited home mostly on holidays. In Ottawa he talked about his returning permanently to the US to find a country in the late stages of empire, just as Britain was a century ago and Rome and Greece were long before that.
Internationally, he said, the US is engaged in constant war and military folly. Domestically, the country is awash in assault weapons and there are mass shootings in schools, malls, concert halls and churches. “This is how a diseased society manifests itself,” Hedges said, “in hate, murder, suicide, sexual sadism, compulsive gambling and magical thinking.”
Hedges has written a reporter’s book but one deepened by his reading of history, philosophers and theologians. The book is structured around his encounters with fascist white nationalists, unemployed workers in shuttered towns and cities, heroin addicts, prostitutes and workers in the burgeoning pornography industry.
The US, he said, has experienced “a corporate coup d’état in slow motion.” Corporations have seized power and the country is being hollowed out. Inequality is greater now than it has ever been and will get even worse with the Republican tax cuts. Many people are living in extreme poverty and amid violence. “That kind of despair, he said “is the starting point of totalitarianism.” People are angry and in their rage they elected Donald Trump, a would-be strong man who promises deliverance and looks for scapegoats.
Hedges referred to “sober economists” who predict another financial meltdown. This time the country won’t be able to slash interest rates because that was done during the last crisis in 2008-09 and they can’t go lower. “When the economy goes down the country will explode, “Hedges said, “and I am terrified about what will happen.” He added that the only two outcomes are some form of revolution or state terror, and he believes the latter is far more likely.
Refreshingly, in his presentation Hedges did not dwell on Donald Trump. “Trump is the symptom, not the disease. He is what happens when a small cabal of rich people relentlessly seek their own further enrichment. If Trump goes, [Vice President] Michael Pence will be even worse.”
Resistance the only hope
One reviewer of Hedges’ book describes it as a work of “weary despair backed up by diligent reporting.” Another describes it as “heavy-handed polemic and sharply observed detail.” I recall that after my reading American Fascists, published in 2007, I was impressed with the work but was unable to believe that the situation could possibly be so bleak. In 2018, Hedges’ description is even darker. That raises at least two common questions. One was put to Hedges recently in a Maclean’s interview: Where are the signs of hope?
Hedges responded as follows: “I don’t think like that. One of the great existential crises of our time is to understand how bleak the world is, and resist anyway . . . If we resist we have hope, however marginal and impossible that hope may seem. If we don’t resist, you can’t use the word hope.”
What to do?
A second question is: What do we do about it? In Ottawa, Hedges answered the question by saying: “We have to seek to appeal morally to those who are open to it. We have to build sustained mass movements of resistance and the only way to do that is through relationships. You can’t do it sitting at home and using social media. In the US it means that we have to walk away from the two old political parties. They have almost identical policies on all of the important things.”
If Hedges does not offer a detailed way forward in his books, he appears to do so in his own life. He is an academic who teaches a class to prisoners – he told his Ottawa audience that mass incarceration is a big business in the US and increasingly it is farmed out to private contractors who benefit from having people placed in jail and kept there. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he wrote speeches for candidate Ralph Nader. In 2012, he supported Green Party in the presidential election. He is no fan of Obama or of Justin Trudeau for that matter.
In 2014, Hedges participated in the People’s Climate March, along with Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and others, and he also took part in the Wall Street protests that occurred soon after. In the same year, Hedges wrote an article saying that he and his family had become vegan, and he described it as “the most important and direct change we can immediately make to save the planet and its species.”
There are specifically Canadian angles to Hedges’ story. His wife is Canadian and he is familiar enough with this country to describe himself to Maclean’s as a “Tommy Douglas socialist.” That may seem normal in Canada but in the US being a socialist of any description brands Hedges as an outlier. He said, for example, that it is virtually impossible to have a public discussion about public, single payer health insurance. “There is no rational discussion of it,” Hedges told Maclean’s, “because people who advocate public, universal health care are never allowed to have a platform.”
The mention of Canada leads to a final question. Are things better here? Hedges told his Ottawa audience that Canada is not characterized by the same level of violence that is commonplace in the US, and that Canada also has a variety of government health and social programs which are popular. But he said that the same corporations that have led the attack against workers and movements in the US also exist in Canada and have the same designs.
I remember the new left critique in the 1960s, that the political system in the US was rigged in favour of the rich and that existing political parties were irredeemable. That analysis also informed much of our own debate in Canada. But Medicare was introduced by the CCF in Saskatchewan in 1962 and became a national program later in the decade with all-party support. In the 1970s, the NDP government of Allan Blakeney nationalized half of the potash industry in Saskatchewan and created Crown Corporations to ensure an adequate return to the public purse from the resource sector. The government then used the income to pay for a limited prescription drug program, a dental program for school children, and new investments in housing and education targeted especially toward the poor.
Those programs were later overturned by Conservative governments, but it’s worth pondering whether Canada’s political system at the national level — with a long and valuable NDP presence and the more recent emergence of the Green Party — is more responsive than the party system in the US. The same discussion could be extended to the provincial and civic politics. Of course, the ability of Canadians to manoeuvre is limited by the same dark forces in Washington that Hedges describes, as we have found in the recent NAFTA negotiations.
America, The Farewell Tour is a bleak book but Hedges has left us with much to think about, and do. We should thank him for that.