Vote Hope 2008 :: 5 :: Chris Hedges
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Facing Down Despair
Online-only: full interview with Chris Hedges, author, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America
Sarah van Gelder: I wonder if you could talk a bit about where you see some opportunities to address some of the very troubling trends that you describe in the book in the context of an election?
Chris Hedges: Well, the fundamental problem that contributes to the rise of a radical Christian mass movement is the personal and economic despair that has gripped tens of millions of Americans—through the outsourcing of jobs, the slashing of federal and state assistance programs—that have left whole areas of the United States looking like the Third World. Including the former mill towns where my own family comes from in Maine. And, until that issue is addressed, until the American working class and now increasingly the American middle class are given hope, and some kind of stability, and some kind of belief in the future, this movement is going to grow. It certainly will suffer reverses and setbacks as it did in 1980 when Pat Robertson ran for president and got shellacked and everybody wrote them off—but the engine of this movement is personal and economic despair; and that's not gone away, it's only gotten worse.
Sarah van Gelder: What are the mechanisms by which this kind of despair turns into the tendency to support fascism?
Chris Hedges: Well, totalitarian movements are built off of despair. And that's not an original idea, that's something that writers on totalitarianism and fascism such as Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Fritz Stern, Robert O. Paxton and others all noted—that when the reality-based world no longer works, people look for magic and miracles and a mythic world—one where they have a specially anointed place and a destiny—and that's precisely what has happened with the Weimarization* of the American working class.
And now, of course, we're seeing in the middle class the same kind of pernicious assault by corporations. Anything that can be put on software can be outsourced, and is being outsourced, from engineering to architecture.
We are rapidly creating an oligarchic state. I mean, we already live in a country where the top one percent controls more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, and democracies cannot be sustained in oligarchic states—that's something that goes back to Plutarch and Thucydides, when they wrote about democracy in ancient Greece.
And that's the problem. With the exception of Dennis Kucinich and maybe Ralph Nader—and I don't know if Ralph is running—nobody is addressing the fundamental issue that is distorting and destroying American democracy and giving rise to a mass movement under Christian banners that seeks political power and that has fused with the corporations.
I mean, this is a mass movement to give legitimacy to the corporate state. And you see it in the Bush Administration, I mean, with neo-cons like Cheney or Pearl or Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld. And it's why large corporations like Wal-Mart bring in evangelical ministers to their warehouses and their plants, because, you know, if you're taught and believe that with enough faith, Jesus will cure you and has a plan for you and will take care of you, then you don't need labor unions or health insurance. So there's a kind of synergy between the rise of an American oligarchy and an American corporate state and this mass movement. And let's not forget that the leaders of this movement, people like Pat Robertson, have also become personally exceedingly wealthy, from nothing less than the manipulation of people who are in very desperate straits.
Sarah van Gelder: Does this also contribute to the tolerance of the American people for things like the adventure in Iraq?
Chris Hedges: Well, the war in Iraq has gone pretty sour for many people within the Christian Right, in large part because their kids are over there and they're paying the cost of it, and that has certainly set the movement back, and crippled the Republican Party. I mean, the Republican Party's imploded over this issue.
I think, certainly in the short term, the war has really hurt the movement because the movement was very much behind the war and described it as a war against the satanic forces of Islam, and another Crusade. I mean, initially when the troops went in a lot of these groups sent over evangelists. They had to leave because it was too dangerous for them to continue their proselytizing in Iraq. But the initial support of the war, across the board, within the Christian Right was not only uniform but enthusiastic, and the movement's taken a hit because of that.
Sarah van Gelder: You also see some of the evangelical groups getting very concerned about climate change and taking a new stance in relationship to that.
Chris Hedges: Some. I think that segment—people like Ron Sider and others—I mean, they get a lot of press, I don't know how mainstream they are within the movement itself.
You still pick up these textbooks in Christian schools and it's pretty devastating. Not only have they rewritten American history—I mean, all the founding fathers were fundamentalist Christians, and God anointed America to sort of lead the global Christian empire and all this kind of stuff—but their science textbooks also peddle fictions, disputing evolution and talking about the world being created 6,000 years ago and describing climate change as a hoax. So within the mainstream of the movement, they still haven't addressed that issue.
You're right that there are some. The other thing about the evangelical and fundamentalist movement is the wide diversity of beliefs and believers. Traditionally, fundamentalists had nothing to do with charismatics, Pat Robertson for instance, because they speak in tongues. Fundamentalists think that charismatics are Satan worshipers because of speaking in tongues, at the most extreme. But what we've seen in the last thirty years is a mutation that has grown out of these movements which calls for the assumption of secular power. Now, that's completely new. We never saw that in fundamentalist movements in America before, we never saw it within evangelical movements. This belief that there should be a drive to take political power is not something that has ever been part of fundamentalism or evangelicalism, so that this new movement, probably properly called Dominionism, which speaks in the language of the Christian state, and uses the iconography and language of conservative Christianity as well as American patriotism, is actually something radically new that we have not seen in the American landscape before, with all the religious revivals that we've had, going back to the Great Awakening of 1740.
Sarah van Gelder: In more recent history, just two years ago when the Democrats took Congress, some people felt some sense of relief and some sense that sort of a dark period was coming to an end. But I take it you see that as more of a setback than a major turn-around.
Chris Hedges: It seems pretty clear that the Democrats regained control of Congress on the issue of Iraq, which is pretty unequivocally a disaster. Now, the Democrats have not proved particularly adept at doing much about the war in Iraq. It now appears that, from everything we're seeing within the Democratic Party, that they will continue to fund the war through the end of the Bush administration. That's going to hurt the Democrats a lot.
And I think ultimately, the issues that have driven people into the arms of this movement remain. I mean, if you go up to the Rust Belt in Ohio, there are whole sections around Youngstown that look like war zones. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to a lot of these people. And, until that issue is addressed, I don't see anyway in the long term to blunt this movement at all. In fact it's getting worse. Some people have estimates that this war is going to cost $6 trillion, all of which we're eventually going to have to pay for. And that's going to come out of the slashing of social services, which has already been extreme. It began under the Reagan administration, carried through the Clinton administration, and is going to continue. And as people become more desperate, they turn to non-reality based belief systems. That's how totalitarian movements are built.
Sarah van Gelder: So, given that the election is a time when we get some greater national conversation about issues—at least in theory! —do you see any opportunities for getting to the root of some of these issues?
Chris Hedges: The only Democratic candidate who addresses the root of the issues is Kucinich. And that's it. Because the issue is the corporate state. And, you know, the citizenry within a nation, the only institution it has to further its interests, however inept and an instrument that may be, is the government. And what we've seen is essentially the government wrested from the hands of the citizenry. We have a government that no longer acts on behalf of its citizens, but acts on behalf of corporations. And until the government is wrested back, it's going to get worse and worse. I mean, everything is becoming privatized, from water—I mean, look at the healthcare system. Look what's happening to education.
Sarah van Gelder: How about on the state and local level? Do you see any signs of interesting races or initiatives? If you were to say to the readers of YES!: here are some places that are worthwhile to get involved in during the election season, to get at these root causes—what would they be?
Chris Hedges: Vermont. [Laughter]. Yeah, there are some pockets. There are some good movements in Oregon. But they're regional and isolated. The fact is, it's really hard to get elected to a national office unless you have the corporations behind you. Our whole American democracy has become a consumer fraud. And unless we free up a system where people don't have to be backed to the tunes of hundreds of millions of dollars to run for president and millions of dollars to run for the House—I mean, unless we break away from that system, we're not going to break the oligarchy. I mean, suppose Hillary Clinton gets elected. How many years will we have a Clinton or a Bush in the White House? You know, that in itself is symptomatic of a system that's just gone terribly wrong.
Sarah van Gelder: So is campaign finance reform the key?
Chris Hedges: Well, it's huge. It's something that neither party's going to support. But for those of us who'd like to get candidates in office who are not beholden to corporations, campaign finance is a huge first step.
Sarah van Gelder: A lot of other democratic countries of course have more than two parties. And maybe they have a party that represents some of the interests that we've been talking about—a more progressive way of looking at the world. And we don't, in the United States, or at least we don't have one that's able to be effective. What do you think it's going to take for us to get sufficient political strength to be able to have a voice in the political dialogue?
Chris Hedges: Well, the problem is that, again, we have to break the power of the corporations. You know, 80 percent of American media is controlled by what, six or eight companies. Television is a wasteland. It's filled with trivia, gossip, what news it presents is judged on its entertainment value. You know, we are a country that is woefully uninformed, not only about what it does abroad, but how we're perceived by others. The very cable news networks that sold us the war no longer report the war, because it doesn't fit that sort of mythic narrative of us as a great and glorious nation liberating oppressed Iraqis. So instead of the war—and we know, there have been studies, Columbia Journalism Review and others, about the actual number of minutes devoted to the war have declined precipitously. And we get, we're fed trivia and gossip whether it's O.J. Simpson or Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton—and that's supposed to be news.
So, you know, it's very hard to work in a society that's lost the ability to discern what's true and what isn't, and willfully kept in darkness. For those of us who are journalists it's a really depressing time. Especially for those of us who are foreign correspondents. I mean, foreign coverage has gone the way of blacksmiths. It's not done anymore. We've just completely folded in on ourselves. That kind of inability to understand the world, coupled of course with immense military power, is a really dangerous combination. That's what led us into the debacle in Iraq.
Sarah van Gelder: What sort of response have you been getting to your book, American Fascists?
Chris Hedges: Well, what was most interesting is that I expected to be criticized for the use of the word “fascists,” and that wasn't where I was taken on. The general criticism was that it was alarmist and the American democracy is strong enough to withstand the rise of a totalitarian state, and don't worry, everything will be okay, and the 2006 elections prove that we're healthy and strong. When it was criticized, that's how it was criticized.
Sarah van Gelder: And have you gotten responses of people also saying, “ah, now I got it!” ?
Chris Hedges: Well, it sold really well. I think it was, I think up to number 13 on the New York Times bestseller list. You know, we sold a lot. And I think that a lot of people began to understand the dynamics of the movement itself. I begin the book by quoting fourteen points of Umberto Eco's “What Makes a Brown Shirt?” [really “Eternal Fascism: 14 Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.”] What determines Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism—including, you know, the cult of traditionalism, and the anti-intellectualism and the cult of masculinity and all that kind of stuff—and when you look closely at the movement, it's all there. When you dissect the ideology of the movement—and as somebody who comes out of the church, you know, I grew up in the church, my father was a minister, I graduated from seminary—I think those of us who come out of a religious tradition and those of us who are biblically literate are a little more attuned to what these people are doing because we understand how they distort and misuse the Bible to promote an ideology that is bigoted and obsessed with violence, especially apocalyptic violence, as a cleansing agent. They describe themselves as Biblical literalists, but they're not, you know, they're selective literalists—they pick and choose what they want and they ignore the rest. I mean, they ignore the beatitudes and focus on the Book of Revelation of the Book of Daniel, which are bloody, apocalyptic texts. There are whole parts of the Bible they reject as well. They don't think God is looking down on us through little peepholes in the sky called stars, as many biblical writers thought. They pick and choose what they want, and when you know the Bible well, and you see what it is they pick and choose, then I think you realize what it is they're about.
Sarah van Gelder: I've been reading some of Naomi Klein's recent book about disaster capitalism, which is somewhat along the same lines as what you're talking about—
Chris Hedges: I read her piece in Harper's; I didn't read the book yet.
Sarah van Gelder: The question is, if both of you are talking about times of disruption leading to things getting worse, either in an economic or a political sense—is there a way to think about and prepare for some of the common discontinuities like those caused by climate change and those caused by the housing crisis in a way that could build for something better instead of seeing things further fall apart?
Chris Hedges: Well, the problem is that we're all locked into the lifestyle. And I include myself. And we're all driving cars that contribute to greenhouse gases, we heat our homes with fuel, we live within the consumer culture, and it's hard to extract yourself from it. But I think that's probably the only way we're going to fight back, to the extent that we do extract ourselves from it. And I haven't done that. I may be really careful and use the right kind of light bulbs and make sure I ride my bike around town rather than drive, but in the end it's going to really entail a radical change of lifestyle if we're going to ward off these disasters, even if we can ward them off.
And the problem with that instability is that it fuels the very forces, as Naomi Klein points out, that cause the problem. It empowers them even further. And that is not only that we look to the corporations to save us—because of course the federal government no longer functions, it's been hollowed out from within, as she correctly points out. But, on a political level, when you get a backlash, and I think we will get a backlash, I think we're going to get a right-wing backlash, and people are going to again appeal to the very political forces that destroyed them to help them.
So that I think that there will be a kind of twin, or a very pernicious twin movement here, so on the one hand you appeal to right-wing nationalist Christian movements, along with corporations, to come in and clean things up and make things safe and secure. And of course it's only going to make it worse. And the problem is, there is no Left in this country. It's gone. The labor unions are dead, the alternative press survives here and there but not on any large scale, television is a form of thought control, and we're in big trouble.
Sarah van Gelder: Well, thank you so much. I wish we could come up with something a little more hopeful, but I certainly can't fault any of your reasoning.
Chris Hedges: Thanks for doing it.
Sarah van Gelder's interview first appeared in Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is the Executive Editor of YES! Magazine.
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