Thursday, March 31, 2011

From the Field of Prayer to Fields of Despair. On the Prophetic Journalism of Chris Hedges

I have been reading a lot of Chris Hedges lately and have found both sanity and clarity within his view of the nature of the forces and powers that are presently hastening the collapse of industrial civilisation. Hedges is no armchair philosopher. His understanding has been shaped by nearly two decades of reporting from within the cauldron of war.

I first became aware of the writings of Chris Hedges while searching out coherent and committed voices within the maelstrom of opinion that addresses the nature of war, the way it has been conducted in recent decades, and its effects on communities caught up in its exercise. I had encountered his articles while trying to keep abreast of the times through on-line sources, but it was not until reading his impassioned reflection on the Israeli assault upon Gaza in January 2009 that I began to pay closer attention.

There has been a significant heightening in the sense of urgency carried in his more recent articles and postings. The prophetic dimension was evident in much of his earlier work though in a far more attenuated and restrained form.

As a young man, Chris Hedges trained for the priesthood and graduated from the Harvard Divinity School with a Masters degree in Divinity. He eschewed a comfortable Presbyterian ministry because of, in his own words, "my distaste for the hypocrisy of the church." In 1983, he went to El Salvador and Guatemala and spent the next six years in Central America reporting on the many CIA-fomented wars in the region. He then studied Arabic and spent the following seven years reporting for the New York Times on the many conflicts in the Middle East. In 1995, he travelled to Sarajevo and spent time in the war-zones of Bosnia and Kosovo.

Having thwarted death in the fields of war for nearly two decades, he returned to North America and has more recently directed his incisive intelligence to uncovering the systemic failings of a corroded civilisation on the point of collapse.

Chris Hedges is no casual journalist. As a student at Harvard, his sources of insight and inspiration included Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero and Daniel Berrigan. His journalistic reflections are further infused by a deep familiarity with the works of Greek historian Thucydides, Roman poet Catullus, philosophers of totalitarianism Hannah Arendt and Michael Polanyi, and existential activists Albert Camus and Simone Weil. He brings to his work a high intelligence coupled with a devastating knowledge of the human capacity for brutality gained through personal experience in the war-fields of Central America, the Middle East and the Balkans.

Even though his own faith in a providential universe was severely shaken by direct encounters with the violent and incomprehensible deaths of men, women and children through warfare, he chose to engage with the strident atheism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins. In May 2007, he took part in public debates with Sam Harris in Los Angeles and later with Christopher Hitchins in San Francisco. These experiences confirmed him in his view that "the New Atheists attack a form of religious belief many of us hate."

Hedges describes both Harris and Hitchens as secular fundamentalists whose views are as self-serving and extreme as those of religious fundamentalists of any creed. He vigorously challenges their belief that we have advanced morally as a species through rationality and through scientific knowledge and their certainty that we will eventually overcome flawed human nature once we are free of the pernicious influence of meddlesome religions. Chris Hedges identifies real religion with,
"fighting for justice, standing up for the voiceless and the weak, reaching out in acts of kindness and compassion to the stranger and the outcast, living a life of simplicity, finding empathy, and defying the powerful."
Hedges has little patience with Catholicism, Protestantism or the Jewish religion which have been conspicuously silent regarding the ways of contemporary civilisation. He observes:
"They have failed to unequivocally denounce unfettered capitalism, globalisation and pre-emptive war. The obsession of personal piety and "how-is-it with-me?" spirituality that permeates most congregations is narcissism."
Chris Hedges may, perhaps, have spent too much time in soul-numbing war zones and in a too-protracted examination of the crassness, narcissism and somnambulism of the dominant consumer culture. He may also - understandably - have lost sight of the universal and numerous "small acts of kindness" that continue to silently and invisibly grace the lives of so many in these darkening times, and individual acts of resistance to globalisation and militarism carried out by spiritually-minded women and men.  

Hedges believes that we are progressively losing our capacity to both live the moral life and to exercise the individual conscience which has given rise to the ethical systems of all civilisations:
"Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus, fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism. They initiated the separation of individual responsibility from the demands of the state. They taught that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to often oppose and challenge those in authority, even at great personal cost."
Having witnessed the failure of the liberal churches, the corruption by power of governments, the abandonment of autonomy and commitment to intellectual freedom by universities, and the manipulation of public opinion and political process by corporate elites, he has fully accepted the conclusion of Albert Camus, that "one of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt." Hedges concludes: "The capacity to exercise moral autonomy, the capacity to refuse to co-operate, is the only route left to personal freedom and a life with meaning."

That capacity has been embodied and expressed by those who stood alongside Martin Luther King; by those who protested against the Vietnam War and who gathered by the millions in numerous cities throughout the world to protest the invasion of Iraq; by those who have for many years spoken out against the self-serving activities of the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation; by those who refused to watch idly as the powerful energy conglomerates of the world serially subverted the Climate Change negotions at both Copenhagen and Cancun; by the three courageous Dominican nuns each of whom spent years in prison after cutting through a wire fence around a Minuteman III missile silo in Colorado, symbolically pouring their own blood around the site and pounding the concrete silo lid with a hammer in 2002. And more recently, by the two grandmothers, two Jesuit priests and a nun of the Sacred Heart order who received prison sentences ranging from two months to 15 months for cutting through the wire fence surrounding hundreds of nuclear weapons near Tacoma, Washington, walking nearly four miles to where the missiles were stored, unfurling hand-painted banners, and praying for peace through the night until they were arrested the following morning.

Chris Hedges believes that we are presently transitioning through the feel-good dystopia projected by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World towards the more sinister and totalitarian vision projected by George Orwell in 1984. He reflects: "We are moving from a society where we are skilfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled."

So, what is to be done? Chris Hedges has paid close attention to the recent writings of Australian cultural and political philosopher Clive Hamilton regarding the difficult times that await us all. Both have understood that immensely powerful forces within the energy industries have manipulated political and democratic processes and have effectively undermined all attempts to prevent profound climate change. Hedges reflects: "Copenhagen was perhaps the last chance to save ourselves."

He calls for increased collective action while this is yet possible:
"The climate crisis is a political crisis. We will either defy the corporate elite, which will mean civil disobedience, a rejection of traditional politics for a new radicalism and the systematic breaking of laws, or see ourselves consumed."
We must prepare ourselves for the task of living under radically altered circumstances. Hedges projects that the time ahead will not be easy:
"We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilisation blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity."
Yet this should not be a cause for despair. If anything, it represents a call to awakening. Throughout his active life in journalism, Hedges has continually reminded us of the need to shake off our collective somnambulism and to re-envision and re-energise our role as moral agents in the world.

Although our capacity to directly influence future change may be limited, we remain free to choose the values and principles by which we will live. Chris Hedges acknowledges that we are unlikely to alter the prevailing ways of the corporate state and consumer society but passionately urges us to work for the preservation of both our morality and our culture for the sake of those who will follow.

Our longer-term task is to mindfully work towards the creation of interdependent and sustainable communities capable of living simply and co-operatively with each other and with the earth.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
March 2011

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