Nov 7, 2019
Slava Zilber: Chris, you are “a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers University, and an ordained Presbyterian minister.” Moreover, you write a weekly column for the website Truthdig and host the show, “On Contact,” on RT America.
What defines you most? How do you see yourself?
Chris Hedges: As a writer. That’s what I’ve always been. So, although I enjoy doing the show and I enjoy teaching, my primary focus is on books.
But you started your “career reporting on the Falklands War from Argentina for National Public Radio.” Why did you go in this direction? Was writing your primary interest at the time? Why did you choose something so dangerous instead of the safety and wealth of being, for example, an anchor at a major network?
Well, first of all, during the Falkland War I was in Buenos Aires. So it was not dangerous. I was not on the Falklands. Anchors on television are actors, news celebrities. They are not writers. I mean I wrote since I was a young child. I was very influenced by George Orwell. He would be one of my great intellectual mentors. I wanted to go to Latin America. This was in the early 1980s when the military junta ruled Argentina during the Dirty War, Pinochet ruled in Chile, the death squads in El Salvador were killing between seven hundred and a thousand people a month and I thought this was as close as I was going to come to fighting fascism in my lifetime like Orwell. So I married writing with this commitment towards exposing injustices and even atrocities and giving a voice to people who were under severe oppression and persecution. That’s why I went to Latin America and stayed there for six years, most of that time covering the wars in Central America. But it was always as a writer. I did work for National Public Radio, but that’s when I was a freelance journalist. And I always knew that my primary interest and passion was writing, not for radio, but for newspapers and magazines.
You mentioned fighting fascism and the atrocities committed by these groups. Now, US government official Elliott Abrams claimed that US support for them was about winning the Cold War and you have personally spoken to people who – it appears – honestly believed it. How do you respond?
People like Elliott Abrams did not understand the political, economic and social dynamics that led to rebellions in Central America just as Dick Cheney and Richard Perle and others did not understand the dynamics that underlay the situation in Iraq or in the Middle East. So these are people who lack linguistic, historic and cultural literacy and then start intervening in conflicts creating the kind of … I mean El Salvador to this day is along with Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world. And so it’s the unleashing of military force as we have seen in the Middle East that essentially opened a kind of Pandora’s box of evils. And it was kind of simplified or justified, as you correctly point out, as a battle within the Cold War. But the whole idea that Salvadoran peasants, half of whom were landless, were rebelling because of Moscow or communism was false. Not that Marxist ideology didn’t play a part in the FMLN rebels, but it was the control of the economy by roughly a dozen oligarchic families, who treated most of the country as if they were serfs, and the inability to carry out non-violent protest by the labor unions and student groups and others. I mean at one point in 1979 the police just set up machine guns on the roofs in downtown San Salvador and opened on the crowd. So when a political system just refuses to reform and refuses to address the very dire needs of its population, then it inevitably leads to violence. That’s not a particularly new story. But that does not mean that it was run by either Nicaragua or Moscow or Cuba.
Chris, you have taught at numerous prestigious universities. And in the talk Death of the Liberal Class, you said: “The very system – having taught at Princeton – by which these students get into a school as competitive as Princeton ensures that they are utterly subservient and compliant to authority.” Could you please talk about it? Why has it not affected you and your beliefs?
First of all, because of my experiences overseas. I spent twenty years on the outer reaches of empire and understand very well the nature of empire. The mask of empire was ripped off and I watched the empire function in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East. And so the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves were exposed. You can’t go through that experience and come back to the United States and accept the myth of American exceptionalism and of American virtue, which you know full well do not exist. Empire is largely about the theft of natural resources and the subjugation of foreign labor on behalf of a capitalist class or on behalf of corporations. So this is something students at elite universities, who are there to essentially perpetuate the plutocracy, either don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Princeton or Harvard, where I went to school, are schools that exist and have always existed to train the ruling elites. Most countries have them. In France, it’s ENS. And those students – C. Wright Mills writes about this – are essentially groomed to maintain empire and to become part of the ruling class. In a way, these school – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, all of them – do a poor job of educating students to think. And they create filters. They do that through standardized tests, advanced placement classes, private schools, high-prized tutors. And the kind of student that gets into these schools is a student who has paid complete deference to authority. They are so competitive and they’ve allowed authority to define them. And if you don’t pay that deference to authority, if you don’t achieve on this kind of measures, then you don’t get in. And what they become are essentially systems managers. They are trained to manage the system of corporate capitalism. So by nature these institutions are very distrustful of authority and distrustful of people who are fiercely independent. They don’t fit into those institutions. They organize learning around very specialized disciplines, very narrow answers, rigid structures that are designed to produce a very specific result. A place like Princeton is a funnel for Goldman Sachs and Wall Street as is Harvard. They train specialists. They thwart universal understanding and it dices up the disciplines into very tiny specialized fragments. I mean the largest major at Princeton as at Harvard is computer science. And then these people, who have not been taught to question the system – they don’t even know how to ask the questions –, are funneled into the system to perpetuate it. That’s not particularly new. That goes back to the founding of these institutions.
I would like to talk about the people who do not fit and who question authority. During the presentation “American Anomie” a year ago, you spoke of “anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critics [being] branded as agents of a foreign power.” What has your own experience been? How has the political discourse been affected?
What’s happened is the ideology of neoliberalism or unfettered capitalism has been exposed as a fraud, a con game. And the ruling elites don’t really have a counter-argument. We saw the critique of the system embodied in 2016 in the two insurgent candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, although Donald Trump, of course, had no intention of thwarting the oligarchic rule. In fact, he has accelerated it. But he spoke to the reality that has gripped the American working class. And because the elites don’t have a counter-argument anymore, they have taken critics of corporate capitalism who were already marginalized and pushed them further and further into the outer reaches of the internet by imposing algorithms – Facebook has done this and others – supposedly to combat foreign influence and specifically Russian influence which is just ridiculous. I don’t think I have ever written a nice word about Putin in my life or written much about Russia at all. But you saw a campaign directed at left-wing sites, all of which have been targeted in an effort to essentially, if not silence, at least ghettoize these critics who do not appear on the mainstream. People like Noam Chomsky, for instance, who I would argue is probably America’s greatest intellectual, are virtually blacklisted. And so all of us who critique imperialism and corporate capitalism have been pushed off, even on the supposedly ‘liberal’ networks like MSNBC because these corporate elites don’t have an answer anymore.
President Trump appears to have significant support among evangelicals. How would you as a theologian comment on this?
Many people raise the issue of Trump’s relationship with the evangelical community and express surprise. In fact, Trump and the evangelical community are very similar. I have reported out of these megachurches in my book “American Fascists.” The white, male pastors that run these churches share most of Trump’s dishonesty, manipulation, sense of narcissism.
Trump doesn’t have an ideology and that ideology is being filled by the Christian right, this Christianized fascism which is organized. It has not only its megachurches, but schools, universities, law schools, a huge radio and television empire and that has become an important ally for the White House. And so we have to look back over the last few decades where the Christian right has been organizing and preparing to take power for a long time. Most of these judges that Trump is appointing including Gorsuch on the Supreme Court are the anointed of the Christian right. So we’ve seen Trump give the Christian right what they want in his efforts to restrict abortion, to defund planned parenthood, to discriminate against LGBT community in the name of religious liberty, to allow churches to become active in politics by revoking what is called the Johnson Amendment and, as I mentioned, the nomination of these judges that are championed by the Federalist Society and the Christian right along with the ban on Muslim immigrants. He has appointed several major figures in the Christian right within his administration: Mike Pence, of course, as Vice President, Jeff Sessions who was at the Justice Department, Gorsuch who was on the Supreme Court, Betsy DeVos to the Department of Education, Ben Carson to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. These people all come out of the Christian right. And they all embrace this white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance and racism that define the Christian right, as well as the kind of magical thinking and conspiracy theories that define the worldview of the Christian right, which always sees itself as under attack from satanic forces of secular humanism, which they argue, are perpetuated by the media, academia, the liberal establishment, Hollywood and, of course, the Democratic Party. And in this world, the reality is not an impediment to what they believe: Climate change isn’t real. Barack Obama is a Muslim. Millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election. In fact, there is a kind of very symbiotic relationship between the character of Trump and Trump’s worldview and the Christian right, which is why he has such broad support among the Christian right.
And I will just add as a former seminarian that these people are Christian heretics. They’ve perverted Christian gospel to acculturate it with the worst aspects of American capitalism and American imperialism. Jesus did not come to make us rich. Jesus did not come to bless the dropping of fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East. Jesus does not celebrate the white race and particularly the American white race above other races. This is just all heretical and, unfortunately, the liberal church has not called these people out for who they are.
But as things deteriorate you will see in essence under a Trump administration an increase in the power and authority of the Christian right. And I think that we have to look back at the fact that this movement preys on desperate people in the same way Trump preyed on desperate people through the slot machines in his casinos or his sham university or his real estate deals. The mega pastors just do it in another way: by extracting ‘seed offerings’ or love gifts or ties or donations or selling miracle healings, with prayer cloth, self-help books, and audio and video recordings. In essence, the Christian right has done in their megachurches exactly what Trump did in his businesses. They have created despotic, little thiefdoms where those who rule these thiefdoms cannot be challenged or questioned any more than an omnipotent Trump could be challenged on his reality television show “The Apprentice.” I look at the kind of personal piety that is the cover for this movement as a complete fraud. And the personal life of these mega pastors is marked by the same hedonistic squalor including mansions, private jets, limousines, bodyguards, personal assistants, servants, shopping sprees, lavish vacations along with sexual escapades that rival those carried out by Trump. And so, yes! There is a natural alliance between Trump and the Christian right.
Could you please comment on the trial of the Plowshares activists in Georgia? On October 24th, they were found guilty. They protested against nuclear weapons at a nuclear submarine base.
This comes out of the Catholic worker movement, non-violent Christian anarchism, which I’ve always been close too. My father was a minister and very close to them. And what they are seeking to do is – and they face up to 20 years in prison for this – use non-violent civil disobedience to decry or bring attention to the weapons of mass destruction. And this submarine base is, I think, the largest nuclear weapons submarine base in the world. They want to raise the point that if we don’t curtail and ultimately abolish these weapons one day they will again be used as they have been in the past. The United States has used them. We are talking about the end of civilization and most of humanity. And so they very courageously entered this base illegally. They carried vials of their own blood to pour on the nuclear weapons and spray-painted messages and hung banners and have now been found guilty and face up to twenty years in prison for four counts of destruction and depredation of government property.
You mentioned that George Orwell has influenced you. Could you please talk about other influences on your work.
I come out of seminary. So I am certainly deeply influenced by major theologians and ethicists. I spent eight years in the university, so I read most of them: Kant, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, of course Noam Chomsky, Sheldon Wolin who was probably our most important contemporary political philosopher, the theologian James Cone, writers like Primo Levi, Dwight Macdonald, Randolph Bourne, Walter Benjamin, James Baldwin, John Ralston Saul, the great Canadian intellectual, Max Weber. So I am pretty steeped in all of these works and they’ve all been extremely important influences in helping me understand systems of power and how they function.
What is next for you?
I am writing a book on prisons. I have been teaching in prisons for ten years. So I am writing a book on mass incarceration which is the most important civil rights issue of our time in the United States.
*(Top Image: Chris Hedges. Credit: Michabo Sustainable Harmony/ YouTube)