Monday, March 2, 2015

Journalist Chris Hedges Comes to Olympia

By Janine Unsoeld

Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and columnist for Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, with fifteen years at The New York Times.
Hedges will be speaking on Monday, March 9, 2015, 7:00 p.m., at South Puget Sound Community College’s Minnaert Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $10 for community members and free with SPSCC student identification. Tickets are available online at or by calling (360)753-8586 or at the Washington Center or the Minnaert Center box offices. The event is sponsored by B.R.I.C.K.
Hedges, who said he has never been to Olympia before, took the time to respond this morning to a few questions posed by Little Hollywood.

Hedges is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Empire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. His latest book, Wages of Rebellion, will be released in May.
According to Hedges’ press release:
Revolutions come in waves and cycles. We are again riding the crest of a revolutionary epic, much like 1848 or 1917, from the Arab Spring to movements against austerity in Greece to the Occupy movement. In Wages of Rebellion, Chris Hedges—who has chronicled the malaise and sickness of a society in terminal moral decline in his books Empire of Illusion and Death of the Liberal Class—investigates what social and psychological factors cause revolution, rebellion, and resistance. Drawing on an ambitious overview of prominent philosophers, historians, and literary figures he shows not only the harbingers of a coming crisis but also the nascent seeds of rebellion. Hedges’ message is clear: popular uprisings in the United States and around the world are inevitable in the face of environmental destruction and wealth polarization.
Focusing on the stories of rebels from around the world and throughout history, Hedges investigates what it takes to be a rebel in modern times. Utilizing the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, Hedges describes the motivation that guides the actions of rebels as “sublime madness” — the state of passion that causes the rebel to engage in an unavailing fight against overwhelmingly powerful and oppressive forces. For Hedges, resistance is carried out not for its success, but as a moral imperative that affirms life. Those who rise up against the odds will be those endowed with this “sublime madness.”
Interview with Little Hollywood:
Little Hollywood: You have a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard University. In secular media, do you notice a bias against people who share their thankfulness or faith in God? How does your religious training influence your writing?
Hedges: I worked at The New York Times for 15 years where they looked any anyone who expressed any appreciation for religious thought as slightly unhinged.  I would say all my writing is rooted in my theological studies and my reverence for the sacred.  That said, I am no friend of institutional religion.  The theologian Paul Tillich got it right.  All institutions, including the church, are inherently demonic.
Little Hollywood: Regarding terrorism, ISIS is a gang and seems to be effective in attracting disaffected young people – it gives them a purpose, an identity and a feeling of belonging. Is there a way to attract people toward good motives and purposes? 
Hedges: We created ISIS.  We did it by dropping missiles, artillery and carrying out air strikes for 13 years in the Middle East.  We did it with our militarized drones.  We have decapitated far more people, including children, than ISIS.  During the Vietnam War we carried out saturation bombing of Cambodia and got Pol Pot.  This is the modern equivalent.  When you brutalize people they become brutal.  And we would be no different.  ISIS burns a pilot in a cage because our air strikes burn whole families in their homes.  What ISIS did is cruder, but it is morally no different.  Employing more violence to solve a problem caused by indiscriminate violence is idiotic.  But it makes the merchants of war rich.
Little Hollywood: You are currently teaching prisoners at the maximum security prison in New Jersey and just posted a story about Siddique Hasan, a man on death row in Ohio. What are you teaching the prisoners, how often, and what are you learning?
Hedges: I teach college credit level courses to prisoners at the maximum security prison in Rahway, New Jersey.  I teach something different every semester.  This spring I am teaching a course on conquest so we are reading The Open Veins of Latin America, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Jacobins and Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made.  Last fall I taught W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Black Boy and Invisible Man.  The year before I helped prisoners write a play about prison called “Caged” (see my column "The Play's the Thing) that will be performed by a theater in New York in January.  Mass incarceration is the most important civil rights issues of our time.
Little Hollywood: You’ve won awards for your online journalism. In a question about online vs. print journalism, how do citizen online journalists get their stories noticed by a wider audience than the already converted? Do you read anything in print?
Hedges: I write a weekly column as if it was for a print publication.  I do not like social media -- I do not have a television, a web page, a Facebook page or tweet -- because I see it as a form of self-promotion and intellectually shallow. I remain rooted in a print-based culture.  There are 5,000 books in my house and I read for a few hours every night.  I wrote a book about the importance of remaining rooted in the world of ideas called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. 
Little Hollywood: You left The New York Times after being issued a formal reprimand for denouncing the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in a graduation speech. In an interview, you said The New York Times acted as nothing less than a stenographer for the Bush White House pumping out lies used to justify the war. What stories is The New York Times currently getting wrong? 
Hedges: The New York Times is an elitist publication.  Its unwritten credo is: do not significantly alienate those on whom we depend for money and access.  That said, it can still do great journalism.  But it is an establishment organ.  Its biggest sin right now is that it continues to treat centers of power, both political and financial, with respect and deference when they have become criminal.  This includes Wall Street, the courts that defend wholesale surveillance and a system where money replaces the vote and our political leaders who are corporate puppets.  The longer they continue to play this game the more credibility they lose.
Little Hollywood: You’ve been fortunate to travel to get first-hand source information and interviews, especially since you know three languages in addition to English: Arabic, French, and Spanish. In a 2007 interview, you said that you don’t own a television. Is this still true, and for how long have you not had a television? How has this influenced your children’s development and understanding of the world? 
Hedges: I have never had a television.  I did not grow up with one.  Neither have my children.  This is why they are readers.  We spend a lot of time outdoors.  We unplug from the electronic hallucinations of modern culture.  And we are much healthier for it.  As a writer I do not want to speak in the language the corporate state gives to us.  This is why reading is so important.  You cannot challenge systems of power unless you understand those systems -- including the nature of capitalism -- and this requires you pick up, for example, Marx's Capital Volume I and read all 940 pages.  There is no short cut to knowledge.
Little Hollywood: Many environmentalists seem to arrive upon an issue too late, or chase the latest issue du jour. A lot of energy is wasted participating in structured public hearings that are designed to involve the public too little and too late. How can activists work smarter on issues that really matter, and really make a difference?
Hedges: By realizing that the system is gamed.  The corporate forces that are destroying the environment are writing the regulations.  This is why after the three decades-long struggle by environmental groups things are worse.  We can't halt the destruction of the eco-system by asking those who are destroying it to regulate themselves.  This is ridiculous.  We have to create acts of mass civil disobedience to make this destruction difficult for them.  Not one in the Democratic or Republican parties at this point is going to help us.    
Little Hollywood: I’ve told you a little bit about the types of issues local environmental activists are interested here in Olympia: land use, climate change, growth, food sustainability, Puget Sound water quality, the Port of Olympia’s acceptance of ceramic proppants from Asia used in the fracking industry and the export of raw logs to Asia, proposed oil train-to-marine transfer terminals in Washington State, and more.  In general and environmentally, what types of stories do you feel are most underreported that, if covered, will help progressive citizens get to the root of making a difference? What would that look like?
Hedges: No one writes about the poor, now about half the country.  They have become invisible.  What is being done to the poor, especially the poor in our sacrifice zones, such as the coal fields of West Virginia, is key to understanding what corporate forces are now doing to us.  Joe Sacco and I wrote a book out of the poorest pockets of the United States called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, that tried to show what unfettered capitalism looks like.  When there are no impediments to capitalism it becomes, as Marx wrote, a revolutionary force.  People and the nature world become commodities to exploit until exhaustion or collapse.  We are all being sacrificed now and we better wake up and overthrow the corporate state or we will be complicit in the extinction of the human species.
Little Hollywood: You wrote about a hike you took in 2010 on the Appalachian Trail. It sounds like you appreciate nature and turn to it where you live to unwind and help you process the atrocities you have seen in so many war-torn areas of the world. How do you keep from getting overwhelmed with all the world’s issues and how do you choose what to write about?
Hedges: I unplug from the world, go into the woods for days on end with my backpack, look at the stars at night and connect with the vastness of the universe.  This gives me peace.
Little Hollywood: I read in your column, “Saving the Planet One Meal at a Time,” that you became a vegan three months ago.  You wrote:My attitude toward becoming a vegan was similar to Augustine’s attitude toward becoming celibate—“God grant me abstinence, but not yet.” But with animal agriculture as the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, ocean dead zones and habitat destruction, and with the death spiral of the ecosystem ever more pronounced, becoming vegan is the most important and direct change we can immediately make to save the planet and its species. It is one that my wife—who was the engine behind our family’s shift—and I have made.” How is it going?
Hedges: I remain a committed vegan.  No one who cares about saving the planet, and who believes life is sacred, can eat animal products.
Little Hollywood would like to thank Chris Hedges for taking the time to respond to my questions.
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If you require disability accommodations for this event, please contact the Office of Student Life at or call (360) 596-5306.