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Wed May 15, 2013

Looking Ahead: Chris Hedges On Poverty, Politics, U.S. Culture

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today as part of our Looking Ahead series, we'll talk with writer Chris Hedges, former New York Times foreign correspondent and old friend and colleague who's joined us many times over the years, going back to what's probably still his best known book, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning."

We'll talk politics and the future of America, I promise. We'll also talk about his evolution as a reporter and how some unusual choices affected his career. If you have a question for Chris Hedges about something he's written - be specific now - give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program how a study of suicide notes may help save lives. But first we look ahead. Chris Hedges joins us here in Studio 42. His most recent book, with Joe Sacco is "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt." He has a weekly column on truthdig.com, and nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHRIS HEDGES: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: We first met over the phone 31 years ago.

HEDGES: That's right, oh my gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I was an editor here at the time. Argentina had just invaded the Falkland Islands. We needed a stringer in Buenos Aires, and this smart-aleck kid comes on the line.

HEDGES: And that's right, and I have to pay credit to Bill Buzenberg. I guess I can tell a story that since he doesn't work here anymore won't get him in any trouble. But I had a - very green, as you pointed out, and Bill came down for three weeks. And every night in his hotel room he made me write a story, a mock kind of story for NPR.

NPR has its own peculiar style. And he would rip it apart and put it back together. And when he left three weeks later, he gave me all his equipment and came back to NPR and said it had been stolen at the airport.

(LAUGHTER)

HEDGES: And that's how I became a radio reporter.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I did not know that part.

HEDGES: I kept that secret for a while. But it's really because of people like you and Bill, because I didn't go to journalism school as you know. Many of the correspondents, I went on to cover the war in El Salvador, these old, Vietnam hands who, you know, would mix up a Scotch and take me up to their hotel room, and it was a kind of apprenticeship program. And I am forever, you know, deeply, deeply indebted because I wouldn't be here without those people.

CONAN: I have to tell a story. There is a day during that, you were our stringer in Buenos Aires, I was back in Washington editing, and a submarine commander had been captured by the Brits after a submarine ran aground on New Georgia Island, I think Alfredo Astiz was his name.

HEDGES: Yes.

CONAN: And it turned out that he was also known as the Angel of Death, one of the worst characters in Argentina's dirty war. And we needed our stringer in Buenos Aires to give us a story on Astiz. And I kept sitting there all day, where the hell is Hedges, why isn't Hedges - before the days of cell phones, calling frantically, and deadline's approaching, deadline's approaching.

And then finally at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Chris Hedges finally calls and says I'm sorry I've been out of touch. I've been working on this story about Alfredo Astiz. You had the story I would've assigned six hours before. It was unbelievable. That was the day I knew you were going to make it.

But you came back to the States, and before you went on to that career as a correspondent, you did not go to journalism school, you did not get - you know, become an apprentice journalist. You went to divinity school.

HEDGES: Yeah actually, you know, I had dropped out of divinity school and gone to Bolivia, where I had studied Spanish with the MaryKnoll Fathers, the Catholic Missionary Society, although a Protestant. They had given me a scholarship at their great language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Then I had freelanced for the Washington Post and NPR and others and gone back and finished my degree. I had one year left. And then I turned around and went to cover the war in El Salvador.

CONAN: Why did you make each of those decisions?

HEDGES: Well, I went into seminary planning to be an inner-city minister. My father was a minister. I had a church in Roxbury, in the inner city in Boston, for two and a half years. And over those two and a half years, I had a kind of rupture both with the church and I think with liberal institutions that like the poor but don't like the smell of the poor. And had left divinity school very focused on what was happening at the time in Latin America. This was the age of the dirty war in Argentina, Pinochet in Chile, the death squads in El Salvador, Rios Montt of course who was just convicted for genocide in a Guatemalan courtroom was carrying out that genocide in Guatemala.

And I was very close, I had - I went to Harvard Divinity School and was very close to a guy named Bob Cox, who had been the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald during the dirty war. Bob was a remarkable man and the only newspaper that printed the names of the (speaking foreign language), the disappeared, on the front page in a box above the fold every day until Bob was finally taken away and really saved only because he's a British citizen. He was later knighted.

And it was through Bob that I began to see how I could, I think, marry that commitment that I had to people who are marginalized and don't have a voice with writing, which I always cared about. And I remember Bob, I finally decided to go to Latin America, and I was asking him because I was going with a backpack, and I asked him what books I should take, and he said take the collected letters, essays and journalism of George Orwell, that four-volume, which became my kind of Bible.

And to this day, Orwell very much remains my model of what it means to be a journalist who at once is not afraid to care and yet is scrupulous about telling the truth because of course Orwell, even when he writes "Homage to Catalonia," will not cover up the Barcelona - the attacks against the POUM, the anarchists in Barcelona, which he was a member of.

And the left roundly criticized him for hurting the war effort. And Orwell's great defense, that, you know, in the end we as journalists or writers, if we want to reduce it to its maybe crudest dimension are - the product we sell is credibility. And this is Orwell's words. And, you know, a lie works in the short term. But in the long term, you ultimately care, you destroy what you care about.

And it's because people know that you will always tell the truth, and the lie of omission is of course still a lie, that it gives you the kind of power you have. So that, you know, it was Bob, it was Orwell. I finished - both my parents had graduated from seminary. So there was - you know, they were in absolute horror that I wouldn't finish my degree. But when I went back and finished it, I knew that I was going to go back and be a journalist, which I did.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges. If you have a question for him about something he's written, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Eric(ph) is on the line with us from Orangeburg in South Carolina.

ERIC: Hi, I admire your work and your presentations. I've watched you through the years. I heard where you talked about where you worked with some at-risk youth when you were in divinity school in Boston. Whatever happened to those youth? And did you ever work with Mel King when you were there? And I'll leave it at that.

HEDGES: I knew Mel. I was just a kid. I did meet Mel and liked him very much. Mel King was a great activist, ran for mayor of Boston, came pretty close to winning if I remember correctly and then I think went on to teach after that at MIT.

I - you know, when I left the United States, I was pretty much out of the country for 20 years. So I lost touch with many of those people that I had worked - and you're right, you're very right. Your caller is right, I primarily worked with youth in - although I ran a church, I primarily worked with youth in Roxbury, missed every class on Friday because I was always in juvenile court, which didn't please my professors at Harvard.

But it's interesting, since I've come back to the United States, I teach in a prison and have been about to start again this fall and teach with inmates. And I think part of that is because as a writer who cares about voices - and I think this is really the mark of what journalism's golden function is within a society, giving a voice to those who otherwise, without us, would not have a voice.

In the age of celebrity culture and business reporting, I think we've forgotten a lot of that, but that's really what journalism is supposed to do at its core. And I as a writer don't want to lose touch. I don't want the - those people who are suffering - and of course Joe Sacco and I in "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt" spent two years in the poorest pockets of the country, I don't want these people to become abstractions to me. I don't want their issues to become abstractions to me.

And I think I've learned as a reporter that we always carry assumptions that are often shattered when they come into contact with reality, and I never want that reality to become distant.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Eric.

ERIC: Sure.

CONAN: Keeping in touch, there is - on your first story, your first big assignment, every reporter vows to keep - just these people mean so much, they're so vivid, they're such an important part of their education. And yet you move on, you move on to the next story, in your case El Salvador, and then you move on to the next country and the next part of the world.

HEDGES: Yes, you know, I covered the war in El Salvador for five years, and by the end I was - and I write about this in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," I was just breaking down. It was a very violent conflict, as you know. I think 22 journalists had been killed, including some journalists that I had worked very closely with. I had a nervous twitch in my face, had to be evacuated I think three times because the embassy had information that death squads were going to kill me. That wasn't uncommon, by the way. Journalists were often targeted. But I didn't want to leave Latin America, actually.

I wanted to go to South America. I was working for the Dallas Morning News at the time. They didn't want to open a South America bureau. They offered me London, where you worked, I turned it down, or Jerusalem. And so - I mean, I love England, I just didn't think the story was that compelling.

And so I said OK, I'll go to the Middle East if I can take a sabbatical to study Arabic, which the Dallas Morning News gave me. It just makes all the difference when you have the language facility. And so yes, I went there, and although by choice I would have never Latin America, I'm glad that I did because it was a kind of contact with another culture, another history, other forms of suffering, other ways of being, and I certainly grew both as a human being and as a reporter because of it.

CONAN: The other aspect of that, though, is you go from war to war to war.

HEDGES: Right.

CONAN: This becomes your profession. You become an adrenaline junkie.

HEDGES: Yeah, and I also addressed that, the poison of that, in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." And you're very right. It's how you - you know, I ended up in Kosovo covering the war with people who I had covered the war with in El Salvador two decades before. Foreign, you know, war photographers, war correspondents are a small fraternity, and they tend to leap from conflict to conflict to conflict.

And the longer you do that, the less able you are to fit in at home, in - or even in a society not at war. I think that, you know, soldiers call it a combat high. that's very real. Those adrenaline rushes become something you need. They pervert, deform you. And I think it is much - I've not used drugs, but I think it is much like an addiction, a drug addiction. And you go back to an environment where you can get those kinds of rushes, but as importantly where you're surrounded by people who have the same kind of pathology.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges in our series Looking Ahead. We're going to look ahead, stay with us. If you have a question for him about something he's written, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Chris Hedges has covered Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He's written about a dozen books on everything from Iraq to atheism to war to the death of the liberal class. Over the years he's joined us several times here on TALK OF THE NATION to talk about all of that and more.

Today he'll join us to look ahead at the future of America and back at his long and varied career. If you have a question for Chris about something he's written, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You're going to find us on Twitter, @totn. And this, an email from Richard(ph): Chris Hedges, tell us about Larry Gibson(ph).

HEDGES: Larry Gibson. Larry Gibson was the character I open the chapter with, Joe and I open the chapter with, on southern West Virginia, one of these remarkable resistance figures who protected his family land, a small, I think it was roughly 40 acres, from coal companies who kept trying to buy him out. They bought everyone else around him out, so he was completely surrounded by these denuded hills that had been blown, the top 400 feet had been blown off to get the coal seams.

And he just hung - he died not long after we wrote the book, but boy, those are inspiring people, and because the forces that they stand up against are so monolithic. Big coal in places like southern West Virginia, you know, they own the judges, they own the politicians, they own the press. There isn't anything they don't own.

And it's a very lonely and heroic fight. And the other thing about Gibson, which - and Judy Bonds(ph) had this, she had died just when we got there, and Joe and I went to her memorial service, you know, these people are not necessarily formally educated. But their understanding of power and how it works and their ability to articulate it - and Larry was an example of that, and I think you see that in the long interview that we have as we're walking over his land - is really remarkable. I mean, there's - you know, he was a very moving figure.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Gina(ph), and Gina's on the line with us from Syracuse.

GINA: Hello.

CONAN: Hi Gina, you're on the air, go ahead please.

GINA: Yes, I'd like to say thank you, Chris Hedges, I have been using your book "Days of Destruction" in my sociology classes at a community college since it was first aired on NPR. And it's caused so many of my students to become activists, to realize what is actually going on in the sacrifice zones and how it's legitimating rationales for power and corporate profits are harming people. And it's just such a pleasure to talk to you, and thank you so much for that book. It's done wonders in my classes.

HEDGES: Well thank you.

CONAN: Sacrifice zones, you might have to explain that a little bit.

HEDGES: Yeah, I mean, these are - and that's what we set out to look at with a kind of thesis that we live in an age of unfettered or unregulated capitalism. And so we went into these zones, these areas that were sacrificed first, where everything, the environment, communities, families, were all made to prostrate themselves before the dictates of corporate profit, corporate power.

And now of course what's happening is that with the impediments to unfettered capitalism lifted, the destruction of regulations, the decimation of a legal system by which we once held these entities accountable, we're all being sacrificed. And, you know, I was saying to you, Neal, right before the show started, I mean, we reached this week a point of 400 parts per million...

CONAN: Last Thursday, yeah.

HEDGES: Yeah, last Thursday, and what is it that we're watching, you know, it's O.J. Simpson and Angelina Jolie. And, you know, this is - you know, this is on mainstream CNN. And it's kind of frightening for somebody who comes out of a world if we just lost all sense of proportion, all sense of priority.

So, you know, and the domination of the media by roughly a half-dozen corporations, which really begun with - or was accelerated by Clinton's deregulation of the FCC, has meant that Viacom, General Electric, Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorps, Disney, Clear Channel, control almost everything most Americans watch or listen to, and I think that...

CONAN: But that's so much more available on the Web these days, including the place you write for.

HEDGES: Yes, but you have to be proactive, and I think the other problem with that, and again I would go back to the traditional news organizations like the New York Times that I worked for, even NPR, there's a kind of egalitarian or democratic quality, let's say, to a newspaper because you get things that you may not agree with. You get things you're not necessarily looking for, whereas you on the Web, and I think I'm guilty of this, and we're all - you tend to retreat to your own intellectual ghetto.

And I think the other problem with the Web that worries me is that there isn't a lot of reporting on it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Gina.

GINA: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is, if I can push the button properly, Shane(ph), Shane with us from Lynchburg, Virginia.

SHANE: Hey, great to talk to you, Chris, I'm a big fan of yours, big fan of you, as well, Neal. I've been on this show once or twice before. I recently finished "American Fascist," and I know that was written during the Bush administration, and I really loved the book. Now that it's - you know, we're coming around on about 10 years after that book was written, it's seven or eight years, the theme of that book that I gathered was this push of, you know, this very conservative, almost fascism as you described it, in America. I wanted to know now that that's a thing of the past, what do you see as the present and the future of American politics and American political power?

HEDGES: Well, the first chapter of that book is on despair and how, you know, when the walls close in on you, when there are no options, when life or the real world defeats you - and of course having spent two years writing that book, a lot of the people that went into the embrace of the Christian right struggled with, you know, drug addictions, alcoholism, you know, sexual abuse, family breakdown.

And if you go back and look at all of the writers on totalitarianism, whether it's Hannah Arendt, Fritz Stern, Karl Popper, they all talk about that despair as essentially driving you into a non-reality-based belief system. And the despair is only growing. I think we have powerful proto-fascist movements in this country, and I look at the Tea Party, the militia, the Christian right, where they celebrate the language of violence, they celebrate the gun culture. And they channel what I would describe as a very legitimate rage and a legitimate sense of betrayal towards the vulnerable, towards Muslims, towards undocumented workers, towards homosexuals, intellectuals, feminists, liberals. They have a long list of people they don't like. And I think that is a very - remains a very frightening and powerful undercurrent within American society.

My wife is Canadian. Canadian culture is different in many ways, but fundamentally it's different in that it doesn't have this kind of belief, which has been part of the American fabric from our inception, and that is regeneration through violence.

We are a very violent nation. You can see it just in the numbers of shootings since Newtown. I think we're close to 2,000 almost every day. And so yes, I think those forces, as we see an unraveling of the economy, continued sort of slow unraveling or certainly an inability to ameliorate the chronic unemployment or underemployment, a kind of chipping away at Head Start and Social Security and, you know, failure to prolong unemployment benefits, these are really throwing large sections of the United States into distress.

And what you get when you enter that kind of ideological belief system is you no longer deal with reality. You believe that - you believe in magic. You believe that Jesus will intervene to protect you and promote you, and then it becomes impossible to have a kind of rational discussion, for instance with people who believe that, you know, everything - the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, and there were dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.

You know, I went, in "American Fascist," to the Creationist Museum in Peterborough, Kentucky. And we're going on the tour, and they have the tour of the Garden Eden and a fake waterfall and Adam and Eve, who are naked, but Eve's sort of turned, you know, so you can't see her plastic breasts or anything.

And there's a T. rex there, and the guide is explaining to us, well, I'm sure you all wonder why the T. rex has such big teeth. Well, it's because Adam and Eve used T. rex to open the coconuts. And then we went into the next room, which was a replica of Noah's ark, and she's saying, well, I'm sure you all wonder how Noah got the dinosaurs on the ark. Well, Noah only put baby dinosaurs on the ark.

I mean this kind of utter walking away from rational thought, from science, that's what totalitarian systems are. But it puts you in a kind of cocoon. The problem is that these systems are...

CONAN: Aren't those pretty easy targets?

HEDGES: You know, they're - you mean for those of on the outside?

CONAN: Yeah.

HEDGES: You know, you go through...

CONAN: Because it sounds a little patronizing.

HEDGES: Yeah, but it's - you know, to go through it, I found it kind of frightening to see people believing it. And I think that an element to the Christian right, again, is this - this lust for apocalyptic violence. And I think that that - and I was with LaHaye in Detroit, at an end times gathering weekend. And I think that - I mean, I - by reporting off the ground, I think that that apocalyptic violence is really a kind of celebration of destroying a world that almost destroyed them.

I - and I begin that - that book with the stories of people who really fell into profound despair. You know, I think when I went into the book - and this is an example - I was patronizing. But I think by the end of the book, I had a great deal of empathy for the people within the movement, and a great deal of distaste for those who ran the movement who I felt were manipulative and, of course, people like Pat Robertson, who's made tremendous fortunes off of these people's suffering.

CONAN: Shane's question is about - was in part what - about what had happened in the 10 years since. And we have an Obama administration, which is, we're just learning, is seizing reporters' phone records...

HEDGES: Yeah.

CONAN: ...and, of course, conducting a drone war far more avidly than its predecessors.

HEDGES: I think it's important that, you know - and Sheldon Wolin writes about this in "Democracy Incorporated" - that we have the facade of the democratic state, and yet what we've undergone is a kind of corporate coup d'etat in slow-motion, and Obama serves those centers of power.

There's been no, not only reining in of Wall Street, but no real prosecutions of Wall Street for the activities, the clear fraud that they committed. The assault on civil liberties has been actually worse under the Obama administration than it was under the Bush administration. The...

CONAN: And doesn't attract the same kind of criticism.

HEDGES: Yes. And I think that's what - that's - and that, I think - again, I wrote a book, "Death of the Liberal Class," that, I think, talks about this, that - I actually believe in those values, and I think they're worth fighting for. And it - no matter who is in power. I mean, I think as a reporter, you learn power is the problem, and there should always be a kind of antagonism to power. And, unfortunately, the liberal class has forgotten this.

So we have an executive branch that interprets the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act - and I think, you know, you read it - incorrectly as giving them the right to assassinate American citizens. You have the FISA Amendment Act: warrantless wiretapping, eavesdropping and monitoring of tens of millions of Americans. We now know that our personal information is stored in perpetuity out in supercomputers in Utah.

You have the use of the Espionage Act six times, more times than - it was written in 1917. It's our foreign secrets act. It was never designed to shut down whistleblowers. Obama has used it. Between 1917 and when Obama came into power in 2009, it was used three times to shut down whistleblowers, the first time against Ellsberg.

Obama's used it six times, and there's been a distinct chill, as any investigative reporter will tell you, with government officials being terrified to speak. You have the national - Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. I sued the president in federal court, in Southern District Court of New York, over that. And, of course, the recent case of the AP, seizure of the AP files.

CONAN: Shane, thanks very much for the phone call.

SHANE: Thank you. It's, like I said, it's really a pleasure to speak to you, Mr. Hedges. Keep up the good work.

HEDGES: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges. He's got a weekly column at truthdig.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And from all of that, Chris Hedges, a listener might come away with the feeling that you're feeling bleak about the future, that you're very pessimistic.

HEDGES: Well, I think anyone who reads climate science reports is - must - you know, if you read them, you must be terrified. And the World Bank put out a report a few months ago that, of all institutions, was pretty stark, turning up the heat, I mean, talking about essentially reaching a point where human life, as we know it, is not sustainable. And yet, you know, how is the corporate state responding?

Forty percent of the summer Arctic sea ice melts, and it's a business opportunity to drop half-billion-dollar drill bits, mine the last vestiges of fish and natural - it's insane. I mean, it makes Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick" the most prescient study of American character. We're all in the Pequod, which, of course, is named for an extinct Indian tribe. Ahab's in charge.

All of us know on some level that it's a kind of suicidal trajectory, and we are - to steal a line from Neil Postman - amusing ourselves to death. And I think that it's clear that the formal mechanisms of power are not going to save us, either from the rise of the security and surveillance state, the degradation of the ecosystem and the kind of fraying and destruction of what is left of our democracy.

And that is why I was such a supporter of Occupy, and we - that's another show. I'm certainly well aware of the weaknesses of Occupy, but at least it began to respond. And, you know, having spent so much of my life around violence, I'm - you know, I am deeply, passionately nonviolent. And yet I understand that when human - I covered Yugoslavia - when human societies get pushed far enough, violence erupts, and that frightens me.

I look at what's happening in the United States as having similarities to Yugoslavia. And I warn Yugoslavia was caused by the economic collapse of Yugoslavia, not by ancient ethnic hatreds. There you saw people retreating into a kind of faux mythology of ethnic glory, whether they were Serb, Croat, Muslim. There you saw the rise of demagogic figures as - I mean, in essence, we live in a system that's paralyzed, that isn't able to respond rationally to what's happening to us. And the longer that paralysis continues...

CONAN: And do you see us breaking into those kind of tribal structures?

HEDGES: I see when - the longer that paralysis goes on, then you inevitably empower the extremes. And the danger is that not only does that liberal center get washed away because it's ineffectual, but then there's a rejection of traditional liberal values. That's what happened in Yugoslavia. That's what happened in Weimar. And look at the - what's the approval rating for Congress? Nine percent? I mean, with justification. I'm not saying that - but that scares me.

CONAN: About the same for the media.

HEDGES: Yeah. There you go. Except this show.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: One last question, point of privilege: You have the opportunity, you got one of those precious Nieman Fellowships when you were at The New York Times. I think your editors expected you to study political science or something. You chose something else.

HEDGES: Classics.

CONAN: Why?

HEDGES: Boy, it was because of the great James Freeman, the former president of Dartmouth, who met with me that first week and, you know, I was struggling with post traumatic stress disorder and 20 years of being a war correspondent, and he wisely steered me. And not only - I had Greek in divinity school, but to do Latin, it - you stepped outside of your own culture. You freed yourself from the cant of contemporary culture, and you were able to look at another culture through the eyes of an Aristotle, through a Plato, through a Catullus, through a Virgil, through a Horace. And I think that that experience was one that gave you an ability to walk back into your own culture and see it with different eyes. I'm a huge believer in the classics. It was, you know, one of the great years of my life.

CONAN: Chris Hedges, thanks very much for being with us.

HEDGES: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, a look at what suicide notes can teach us about preventing future suicides. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.