Acclaimed Journalist Chris Hedges Talks Occupy, Reporting From War Zones
February 28, 2012 1:10 p.m.
The annual Writers Symposium by The Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University is underway. We'll hear from Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author Chris Hedges.
CAVANAUGH: Every year, the writers' symposium by the sea sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene college brings an eclectic mix of celebrated authors to San Diego, and it's our pleasure to welcome one of those authors to Midday Edition. My guest, Chris Hedges. He's a Pulitzer price winning reporter, and presently a popular online journalist. His column published on the truth dig website was awarded best online column in 2010. He is also a prolific political author, author of a recent compilation of his online articles called the world as it is: Dispatches on the myth of human progress. Welcome to the show.
HEDGES: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Your column this week on truth dig was about the future of the occupy movement. In fact, you've written a great deal about the occupy movement. Why is that?
HEDGES: Well, I have in the last few books come to the conclusion that the political system doesn't work, at least for ordinary working men and women. That we've undergone a kind of corporate Coup d'Ètat, and that the only mechanisms we have left to challenge formal structures are power are acts of civil disobedience, and I have carried out acts of civil disobedience with veterans for peace, and other groups even before the rise of occupy. But occupy articulated something that I thought was extremely important, and in a way that I could embrace. In the last two weeks, I've been battling the black lock anarchists, I call them the cancer of the occupy movement. These are the groups that fet their name because they move in a group and en mass, cover their faces, taunt the police, carry out acts of petty vandalism. And I think this is deeply destructive to this movement because I think the power of the occupy movement is that it really did resonate with the 90%, that it articulated something that not only the poor the working class, but even the middle class is experiencing, and that is our reconfiguration into a kind of neofeudal society where you have a rapacious oligarchic elite, the head of Walmart makes $11,000 an hour, then you have people struggling on $7.25 an hour, working two and three jobs, six million people being pushed out of their homes. But I think it has to remain nonviolent if it is going to bring in, as it has done, the manipulate stream, and this article -- comes from a conversation with raffle theyeder. And he thinks that the movement can build broad popular support. Of course the unions would get behind, the cawillical nurses' association, which has one of the most courageous and vocal unions in the country on this issue, la rasa, the NAACP, and it's just a matter of fairness. It's not been indexed. In real term, those living on minimum wage have seen their salaries stack Nate or decline. And I think it has a potential to resonate across the country. And we know from opinion polls, roughly 70% of Americans support raising the minimum wage to about $10 an hour.
CAVANAUGH: And a lot of political movement, even in the middle class, and the working class in this country has been fueled by people who frame the argument and pit people against each other. We just had a talk about pension reform in San Diego County. And the argument could be made that the idea of saying public sector workers should not get guaranteed pensions anymore is pitting public sector workers against private sector worker who is basically have no retirement pension plans anymore. And yet, it's a very popular argument. People say yes, why should I be working for someone who gets a pension? Why should I be paying that pension for that person?
HEDGES: It's an insidious argument, and it's asking the wrong question. The question is what happened to our society? Why aren't people in the private sector as they once did, as steel workers did, and I come out of the working class, relatives who could make 50 there's an hour, who had medical benefits, who had pensions who could on that salary, none of them got rich, but they could support a family, send their kids to college, buy a small house. What happened to that? That's the question. And by these corporate systems of information, have we framed it. And the same way before the rise of the occupy movement, we talked about a deficit crisis, they framed the language by which bee discuss it. We don't have a deficit crisis. We have a revenue crisis. And much of that crisis comes from the fact that large corporations don't pay taxes. They don't pay income tax. They haven't for years. And these unbelievable bonus packages and CEO salaries in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. It's obscene. And as we have seen a consolidation of the media into roughly the hands of six corporations, as Dorothy parker used to say about Catherine help burn's emotional range of acting, the discussion goes from A to B. And that's the problem. We're not asking the right question. So the last readout of unionized laborer in this country is largely public sector.
CAVANAUGH: You in your writings and in some of the speeches that I've heard you give on YouTube are very critical of President Obama. You say many people who voted for him are deeply disappointed. Can you explain that?
HEDGES: Well, I didn't support Obama. And I think it's because a close examination of the systems of power illustrate as probably our greatest living political philosophy, Sheldon Woolern has pointed out, that we exist under a system that's best described as inverted totalitarianism. And he doesn't mean classical totalitarianism. It doesn't find its expression through a demo going to or a charismatic leader but through the classic state. You have a reactionary party overthrowing the structure and replacing it in. In inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate forces that purport to pay to electoral politics, the constitution, and yet internally have seized all of the levers of power as to render the citizen impotent. And we -- Obama care being a good way to start. This is just the equivalent of the bank bailout bill for the pharmaceutical industry. One of the first things the White House did after the passage of the bill was hand out exemptions because these insurance companies do not want to care for chronically ill children. I come out of seminary, think of it in moral terms. We live in a nation where it is now legally permissible for corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. And Obama is as graven to these interests as was George W. Bush. He has broken just about every campaign promise he made, including the promise to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. He is now using super pacs, which he said he would never do to fund his campaign. He has done nothing to restrain the criminal activity of the speculator class on Wall Street, and in the 17th century, financial speculation was a crime. And today, they control, they dominate our economy, and they run our political space. And I think that the Democratic Party is as broken as the Republican party.
CAVANAUGH: So where is one to go politically?
HEDGES: To act, to up, to civil disobedience. And I think that's the only way to put pressure on the centers of power. But the question is whether they get the numbers. If you continue to have incidents as we saw in Oakland where you have these hooligans dressed in black breaking coffee shop windows and desecrating public property and burning flags, well, then we're finished. And frankly, just as the state has employed tremendous resources externally to remove these encampments, I have no doubt they are working internally to destroy them. And for me, violence and vandalism, disrespect, is the fastest way to alienate the occupy movement from the mainstream. And I've got to believe that's what they want to do.
CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you a question that's really a 180 from what we were talking about. You were for many years a war correspondent, and I wonder if you could talk about your reaction to the news of the deaths of three journalists in Syria that happened over the next two weeks.
>> Well, I knew Marie Colvin very well, we worked together in the Middle east. We were colleagues, not friends, but nevertheless, I was a little surprised at how much her death affected me. I have over the 20 years, I was a war correspondent, lost many, many people I worked with, some of whom I was very close to. I think my reaction was one where I found the mythologizing of what they do repugnant. There are very dark motives that drive us into these situations. I do believe that they in the end serve a vital and important role in term was chronicling what happens. But I think also there's a tendency to use war to endo you themselves with glamour. They're adrenalin junkies.
CAVANAUGH: Is that what happened to you?
HEDGES: Yes, and I know of what I speak.
CAVANAUGH: And so it was a mixed wag of emotions when you heard about this.
HEDGES: Well, it's -- I think, well, of course I was deeply saddened and troubled by her death and her loss. But also the way she died. I've been in buildings that have been hit -- hit by a rocket, and they were running down the stairs, and they were 10†feet from the door, and they were killed. The situation is just so close to situations I've been in. So in the one hand, yeah, it was quite devastating. On the other hand, the kind of very one dimensional portrayal of the war correspondents, which was something that I worked very hard to counter was mythic rather than real.
CAVANAUGH: What are you going to be speaking about tonight at the writers' symposium?
HEDGES: Well, I think I'm supposed to speak about all my books. I guess we'll have to extend it well past midnight. But I think they've picked out topics from several -- and actually the themes are there. It's -- I grew up in the church, I come out of the seminary, you can't escape your upbringing.
CAVANAUGH: And you can't turn on the news without hearing about something like that today.
HEDGES: You just look at the world in a different way, when you're raised in those kinds of environments. You have a different vocabulary, a different language, and I think ultimately sometimes you ask different existential questions. And I think those questions, although my books are on a range of topics, war is a force that gives us meaning is a meditation on war, and what it does to individuals and societies, the latest book is very different.
CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone that you will be at the writers symposium tonight at 7:00 at Point Loma Nazarene university. You can go to our website, KPBS.org/midday. Thanks so much.
HEDGES: Thank you.