Recorded at the Aladdin Theater, Chris Hedges visited Portland and spoke as a guest of KBOO community radio.
Chris Hedges is an award-winning journalist who has covered wars in the Balkans, the Middle East and Central America. He writes a weekly column for Truthdig.org and is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of many books includingEmpire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class, The World As It Is, and Wages of Rebellion.
One dictionary defines fascism as, “A system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.” The first fascist party was founded by Mussolini in Italy in 1915. Its etymology is traced to the Latin word meaning a bundle of rods tied around an axe, an ancient Roman symbol of authority. Today, the term, for many, immediately conjures up horrific images of storm troopers. But contemporary fascism has undergone a major wardrobe change. Could it happen here? Some see elements of it now with what is called populism, America First, coupled with a largely imagined past, Make America Great Again.
Welcome everybody and thank you for coming tonight. My name is Becky Meiers, I'm the development director for KBOO. I sometimes do social media, things like that. I don’t know if it’s light enough for a picture. That's okay. We can pass that. So it's an honor and a pleasure to welcome all of you to KBOO Benefit. I'm proud to be a part of this nearly 50-year old community institution and independent radio outlet. I'd like to thank you all for coming tonight, and I have a few other thank yous before we get started. I'd like to thank our grassroots media hero sponsors. Open Signal Portland Community Media. Thank you. Thank you to the Jupiter Hotel for being the 'bringing truth to light' sponsors. Yay!
Thanks also to the Aladdin Theater who take amazing care of us and have a beautiful facility. Thank you.
We have books available for purchase up front from Barnes and Noble Lloyd Center, so thank you for coming.
And before I depart I would like to invite you to consider joining us tomorrow when we have our discussion with Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges here which will be a phenomenon. Chris Hedges is in the back here, Joe Sacco is a Portland treasurer. And so please consider joining us tomorrow for a show at 2 pm. Without much further ado, I'd like to introduce to you to Paul Roland who you will be seeing tonight. He's the host on KBOO Community Radio for Wednesday talk radio, and Rise When the Rooster Crows. If you may join me in giving him a big welcome.
[lots of applause]
Alright. Welcome to the big time. Since you’re all here to listen to Chris Hedges you probably know about as much about him as I do. You probably already read one or more of his books, or his regular column for TruthDig, or his seen his TV program on RT on contact. I'm a little chagrinned to say that I came across his writing pretty late, probably cause I've been living on a farm in the Italian Alps for much of his career.
[light audience laughter]
The first time I recall seeing his byline though was on a piece that appeared in Ad busters in February 2010, 'The Zero Point of Systemic Collapse', which began with a Russian reminding a group of anarchists of a century that it wasn't their job to save a dying system, but to replace it. He said, “We think we are the doctors, we are the disease.” And Chris continues, “all resistance must recognize the body politic and global capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal to it.” Well I was hooked. And then I looked at the end of the article and read that he was or had been a New York Times columnist. And he corresponded which kinda shocked me and impressed me. So anyway I just want to read a few things from his TruthDig bio (which you can see for yourself), he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He's written eleven books, including the bestseller 'Days of Destruction', 'Days of Revolt', 'His Most Recent Wages of Rebellion', and 'The Moral Impart of Revolt'. He spent nearly two decades of foreign correspondence in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He speaks Arabic, French and Spanish. He currently teaches a class through Princeton University at a state prison in New Jersey where half of the students are Princeton undergraduates and half are prisoners.
[single cheer from the audience]
Indeed. In 2014 he was ordained as a minister for social witness at the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The theologian, James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology preached the sermon along Cornel West. And he's a damn fine and passionate and powerful writer and thinker, one of the best we got.
[lots of applause]
Thank you. So I wrote this out and felt a little bit like Noam Chomsky when I saw him give a lecture a couple years ago where he got up and said “A lot of people say I'm boring and I'm proud to be boring.”
The decision by the deep state in ancient Rome. Like the United States in 2017 dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy, to strangle the Emperor Commodus in his bath in the year 192, did not halt the growing chaos and precipitous decline of the Roman Empire. Commodus, like a number of other late Roman empires and like Donald Trump, was incompetent and consumed by his own vanity. He commissioned innumerable statues of himself as Hercules and had little interest in governance. He used his position as head of state to make himself the star of his own ongoing public show. He fought victoriously as a gladiator in the arena in fixed bouts. Power for Commodus, as it is for Trump, was primarily about catering to his bottomless narcissism, hedonism, and lust for wealth. He sold public offices so the ancient equivalents of Betsy DeVos and Steve Mnuchin could orchestrate a vast kleptocracy. Commodus was replaced by reformer Perto Knox, the Bernie Sanders of his day, who attempted to curb the unchecked power of the Praetorian guards, the ancient version of the military industrial complex. This effort saw the Praetorian guards assassinate Perto Knox after three months in office. The guards then auctioned off the office of Emperor to the highest bidder. The next Emperor, Didius Juilianas, lasted 66 days. There would be five Emperors in 193 A.D., the year after the assassination of Commodus. Trump and our decaying Empire have ominous historical precedents. If the deep state replaces Trump whose ineptitude and imbecility are embarrassing to the Empire, that action will not restore our democracy any more than replacing Commodus restored the Republic to Rome. The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic is dead.
The idiots see in the decay, the chance for personal advancement and profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and project economic growth on the basis of myth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on the citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy. There is a familiar checklist for extinction; we are ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word; more. They are unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers cannot make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Habsburg, Ottoman, Romanov, Wilhelmine, Pallavi and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden at least to most white Americans. But with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming and cannibalized the nation. While at night like some monster from the Grand Guignol, the idiot in chief, overseeing our self-immolation sits slack-jawed in front of a television set before opening his beautiful Twitter account.
[few audience laughs]
Forget the firing of James Comey, forget the paralysis in Congress, and forget the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. Forget the noise. The crisis we face is not embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. The crisis we face is the result of a four decade long, slow-motion corporate coup d’état that has left corporations and the war machine amna Putin.
Turned our electoral system into legalized bribery and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom, he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal. And the extraditial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault done in the name of law and order; put the organs of internal security from the FBI to homeland security beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with a stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights, privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close advisor to Trump who created negative political advertisements and spread malicious gossip and false narratives. All eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth to deceive the public until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s or by what the political scientist, Samuel Huntington, called “America's excess of democracy,” built counter institutions to de-legitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties. They imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within the academia and the press. This campaign laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled, 'Attack on American Free Enterprise System' was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted. Our failure to demand justice for everyone leaves us all without justice. Our failure to halt the crushing of popular movements that stand unequivocally with the oppressed leaves us all oppressed. Our failure to protect our democracy leaves us without a democracy. The persecution of the radicals of four decades ago is not ancient history; it is the genesis of the present. It spawned the corporate coup and the machinery of state terror. We will pay for our complacency. We are trapped like rats in a cage. A con-artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off but the problem is the corporate state. And until we dismantle that, we are doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority. This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, the Soviet Union, facist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia.
Once a tiny cabal seizes power, monarchist, communist, fascist, or corporate, it creates a mafia economy and a mafia state. Trump and his coterie of billionaires, generals, half-wits, Christian fascists, criminals, racists and deviants play the role of the Snopes Klan in some of William Faulkner's novels. The Snopes has filled the power vacuum of the decayed south and ruthlessly seized control from the degenerated former slaveholding aristocratic elites. Flemm Snopes and his extended family which includes a killer, a pedophile, a bigamist, an arsonist, a mentally disabled man who copulates with a cow, and a relative who sells tickets, the witness, the bestiality; our fictional representations of the moral rot unleashed by unfettered capitalism. The usual reference to a morality while accurate is not sufficiently distinctive and by itself does not allow us to place them as they should be placed in a historical moment.
The Critic, Irving Howe, wrote of the Snopes, “Perhaps the most important thing to be said is that they are what comes afterwards. The creatures that emerge from the devastation with a slime still upon their lips let a world collapse in the south or Russia. And there are peer figures of course ambition driving their way up from beneath the social bottom. Men to whom moral claims are not so much absurd as incomprehensible. Sons of bushwhackers and music drifting in from nowhere and taking over through the sheer outrageousness of the monolithic force. They become presidents of local banks and chairman of party regional committees. And later a trifle slicked up, they muscle their way into Congress or the Politburo. Scavengers without inhibition, they need not believe in the crumbling official code of their society, they need only learn to mimic its sounds.
Societies that had democratic traditions are easy prey for the enemies of democracy. Demagogues pay deference to the patriotic ideals, rituals and practices and forums of the open society while they dismantle it. When the Roman Emperor Augustus, he referred to himself as the first citizen, neutered the Republic, he was careful to maintain the form of the Old Republic. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did the same when they seized and crushed the autonomous Soviets. Even the Nazis and the Stalinists insisted they ruled democratic states. Despotic government as Thomas Paine wrote “is a fungus that grows out of a corrupt civil society.” This is what happened to these older democracies, it is what happened to us. Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loo. It is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that cannot be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and business and de-industrialize the country.
Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water and food and from usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press owned by corporations is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of wrote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployed and underemployment masked by falsified statistics have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. Culture and the arts have been replaced by sexual commodification, banal entertainment and graphic depictions of violence. The infrastructure neglected and underfunded is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages and untreated illnesses that lead to early death, plague a harried underclass. The desperate flee into an underground economy dominated by drugs, crime and human trafficking.
The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarized police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, only a tiny percentage of whom ever got a trial. And 1 million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection. They are the corporate states ideal worker. The amendments of the Constitution designed to protect the citizen from tyranny are meaningless. The 4th amendment for example reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.” The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts and financial, judicial and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels are tracked, recorded and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks.
The state tortures not only in black sites such as Bagram or Guantanamo Bay, but in Supermax facilities such as the one in Florence, Colorado, where inmates suffer psychological breakdowns from prolonged solitary confinement. Prisoners endure around-the-clock electronic monitoring, and 23 hour a day lock downs. They undergo extreme sensory deprivation. They are beaten; they must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. They can write only one letter a week to one relative and cannot use more than three pieces of paper. They often have no access to fresh air, and take their one hour of daily recreation in a huge cage that resembles a treadmill for hamsters. The state uses special administration measures known as 'SAMs' to strip citizens of their judicial rights. SAMs restrict a citizen's communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters, and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Citizens under SAMs are not permitted to see most of the evidence against them because of a legal provision called the 'Classified Information Procedures Act' or 'SEPA.’ SEPA instituted on the Reagan administration allows evidence in a trial to be classified and those who are tried and convicted like Joseph K in Franz Kafka's 'The Trial', can be found guilty without ever seeing the evidence brought against them. And under SAMs, it is against the law for those who have contact with someone held under SAMs including attorneys to speak about the physical and psychological conditions being inflicted on the prisoner. When prisoners in our society are released they have lost the right to vote and receive public assistance, they are burdened with fines that if unpaid, will put them back behind bars. They are subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. They spend the rest of their lives marginalized as members of a vast criminal caste system. And that is why 76% of those released from State Penitentiaries return to prison within five years. Our system of mass incarceration however is not as critic charge, 'broken.' It works exactly the way it is designed to work. The bodies of poor people of color do not generate money for corporations on the streets of our de-industrialized cities, but they generate forty or fifty thousand dollars a year if we lock them in cages and that is why they are there.
The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate US citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists, and this is called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms democratic participation, voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance who is subject to detention anywhere at any time, who has lost their legal rights, who cannot protect themselves from corporate exploitation, whose conversations, messages, meetings, proclivities and habits are recorded, stored and analyzed, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The dismantling of democratic institutions, places where the citizen has agency in a voice, is far graver than the ascendency to the White House of Trump. The coup destroyed the two-party system, it destroyed labor unions, it destroyed public education, it destroyed the judiciary, it destroyed the press, it destroyed academia, it destroyed consumer and environmental protection, it destroyed our industrial base, it destroyed communities and cities and it destroyed the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values by making war on these values in the service of corporate power, and this rendered these values meaningless.
The revolt we see rippling across the country is a revolt not only against a corporate system that has betrayed workers, but also for many, he tenants that define a traditional democracy. And this is very dangerous. It will allow the radical right with or without Trump, to cement into place Americanized fascism. The acceleration of de-industrialization by the 1970s, created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology. As Stuart Hall explains in his book 'Policing the Crisis', “this ideology trumpeted by a compliant medium shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that they're suffering stemmed out not from corporate greed, but from a threat to national integrity.”
The old consensus that butchers the programs of the New Deal in the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens and social parasites. These parasites were to blame. And this opened the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith and the return of a mythical past. It turns out 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine, the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban al Qaeda or ISIS. They are the financed ears, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists and businesspeople cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists unable to generate profits by expanding markets have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the sate like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing. It is created by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities, and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate, young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers, burdened by credit card debt and mortgages, towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services. This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. It is inevitable...
It is inevitable that for the final act, we vomited up Trump.
Europeans and American have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures which stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet's wealth and resources, they believe this orgy of blood and gold will never end. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalism and imperialist expansion is over and that it is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited. But even as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from the myth of human progress.
Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 amid the rise of European fascism and looming world war this; “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed, but a storm is blowing from paradise. It has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned. While the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
The more the warning signs are palpable, rising temperatures, global financial meltdowns, mass migrations, endless wars, poisoned ecosystems, rampant corruption among the ruling elites. The more we turn to those who insist that what worked in the past will work in the future, that progress is inevitable, factual evidence since it is impediment to what we desire is banished. The taxes of corporations and the rich who have turned most of our cities into wastelands are cut; regulations and laws are rescinded to bring back the supposed golden era of the 1950s for white American workers. Public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry even as rising carbon emissions doom our species. Declining crop yields stemming from heat waves and droughts are ignored. War becomes the principal business of the kleptocratic state.
Magical thinking is not limited to the beliefs and practices of pre-modern cultures. It defines the ideology of capitalism quotas and projected sales can always be met. Profits can always be raised. Growth is inevitable. The impossible is always possible. Human societies if they bow before the dictates of the marketplace will be ushered into a capitalist paradise. It is only a question of having the right attitude and the right technique. When capitalism thrives we are assured we thrive. The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self-reflection and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism, wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We have been molded into a compliant and repressed collective. This conformity of care is a characteristic of totalitarian and authoritarian states. It is expressed in the densification of America the land of eternally happy thoughts and positive attitudes, and when magical thinking does not work we are told and often accept, that we are the problem. We must have more faith; we must envision what we want. We must try harder. The system is never to blame. We failed it, it does not fail us. And all our systems of information from self-help gurus to Hollywood to charlatans such as Trump, sell us this snake oil.
What does resistance look like now? It will not come by investing hope in the Democratic Party.
[lots of audience applause]
Which did not lose the elections because of Comey or the Russians.
[few audience cheers]
But because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power.
And used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could've defeated Trump, from getting the [Democratic] nomination.
[lots of applause]
The proposed cuts: 9.2 billion dollars from the Department of Education. 616 billion dollars from Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance program over 10 years. 200 billion dollars from the Food Stamps program, a lifeline for 44 million people. 72 billion dollars for people with disabilities. 39 billion dollars for subsidized student loans. And 859 million dollars for public service loan forgiveness. Along with a half a trillion dollar increase to the Pentagon's budget over the next decade
[few audience boos]
that accelerates austerity programs and militarism that has been embraced by the Democratic party. As Diane Ravitich pointed out for example, the Democrats bear as much responsibility for Betsy DeVos as the Republicans.
DeVos' proposed voucher system allowing parents to use public funding for private and religious schools is modeled on a school choice program introduced by then Governor, Bill Clinton.
This voucher system was promoted by Obama and Arne Duncan. Obama closed countless public schools. He doubled the number of students attending charter schools. And it was Bill Clinton and the Democratic party who gave us NAFTA, the destruction of welfare,
the deregulation of the FCC, the explosion of our prison population, and the abolishment of glass-steagall that precipitated the global financial meltdown.
[single cheer followed by audience applause]
Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power especially the fossil fuel industry.
After all, the only say figure for carbon emissions is zero.
This will require us as Ralph Nader has long said, "to show up." We have to as Max Weber advised, "make politics a vocation." And resistance will begin locally as we transform our neighborhoods and our communities.
[few audience cheers followed by applause]
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities. Who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some of them are forgotten, most of them are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits. A profound commitment to the truth. Incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people who were different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy.
They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent. And to this day, I set my life by the standards they set. You have heard of some, such as Vaslav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met most evenings during the Velvet revolution in Prague in 1989 at the Magic Lantern Theater. Others no less great, you may not know such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio a Archarya, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then, there are those ordinary people, although as the writer, V.S. Pritchett said, no people are ordinary. Who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an imposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. And to some of these ordinary people, I owe my life. To resist radical evil, is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society, is a failure. It is to defy injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It is to be a lifelong heretic and perhaps this is the most important point. It is to accept that the dominant culture, and perhaps and maybe even especially the liberal elites, will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character.
When I returned to the newsroom at The New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq, and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war,
reporters and editors I had known and worked with for 15 years, lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby. Ruling institutions, the state, the press, the Church, the courts, academia mouthed the language of morality but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status, and authority. In times of national distress, one has only to look at Nazi Germany; all these institutions including the Academy are complicit through their silence or their active collaboration with radical evil. And our institutions are no different. The lonely individuals who defy tyrannical power within these institutions as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are usually purged and turned into pariahs. "All institutions," the church Paul Tillich once wrote, "are inherently demonic, and a life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is usually temporary because sooner or later, that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience will not be able to make."
To be a rebel, is to reject the capitalist mantra that "I come first." The theologian, James Cohen, in his book ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ writes that "for oppressed blacks, the cross was a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world's value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat. That suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last should be first and the first last."
Cohen continues that, "God could make a way out of no way in Jesus's cross was truly absurd to the intellect yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified, manifested God's loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life. That transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately in God's eschatological future they would not be defeated by the troubles of this world no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and mighty, for people who think that called God called them to rule over others. The cross was God's pratik of power, white power with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat."
Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of oppression, a "sublime madness in the soul." Niba wrote that "nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places." This sublime madness as Niba understood is dangerous but it is vital. Without it, truth is obscured. And Niba also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. "Liberalism", Niba said, "lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism. Which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks, it is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history."
The prophets in the Hebrew bible had this sublime madness. The words of the prophets as Abraham Heschel wrote, "were a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven. The prophet, because he or she saw, and faced an unpleasant reality was" as Heschel wrote, "compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his or her heart expected." This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that although empirically all that we struggle to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.
Daniel Berrigan once told me that "faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good." The Buddhists call this Karma. But he said for us, we did not know where it goes, we trust that it goes somewhere, we do not know where. But we are called to do the good or at least the good in so far as we can determine it and then let it go. As Hannah Aaron wrote in ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, "the only morally reliable people are not those who say this is wrong or this should not be done but those who say I can't." They know that as Immanuel Kant wrote, "if justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning." And this means that like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than do wrong. We must at once, see an act, and given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair not by reason but by faith. I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith which lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed. This faith is what Havel called in his essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, "living in truth." Living in truth exposes the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It is a refusal to be part of the charade and it has a cost. "You do not become dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career" Havel wrote. You are thrown into it, by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society. The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He or she is not seeking power, he or she has no desire for office, and does not gather votes.
He or she does not attempt to charm the public. He or she offers nothing and promises nothing. He or she can offer, if anything, only their own skin and they offer it solely because they have no other way of affirming the truth they stand for.
Their actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost. The long long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible or those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They did not try to reform the communist party. They did not attempt to work within the system. They did not even know what, if anything, their tiny protest, ignored by the state controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all, they held fast to moral imperatives. They did so because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue and deed and got none. They were marginalized and persecuted and yet these rebels, poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers ultimately triumphed over state and military power. They drew the good to the good. They triumphed because however cowered and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard. It did not go unseen. The steady drumbeat of rebellion exposes the dead hand of authority and the rot of the state.
I stood with hundreds of thousands of Czechs in 1989 on a cold winter night in Prague's Wenceslas Square as the singer, Marta Kubashova, approached the balcony of the Malatrik building. Kubashova had been abandoned by the airwaves in 1968 after the Soviet invasion for her anthem of defiance, ‘A Prayer for Marta.’ Her entire catalog including 200 singles had been confiscated and destroyed. She had disappeared from public view. Her voice that night suddenly flooded the square. Pressing around me were throngs of students. Most of whom had not been born when she vanished from public view. They began to sing the words of the anthem. There were tears running down their faces. It was then that I understood the power of resistance. It was then that I knew that no act of rebellion, however futile it appears in the moment, is wasted. And it was then that I knew that the Communist regime was finished.
The walls of Prague were covered that winter with posters of Yann Pollock. Pollock, a university student, set himself on fire in Wenceslas square on January 16, 1969 in the middle of the day, to protest the crushing of the country's democracy movement. He died of his burns three days later. The state swiftly attempted to erase his act from national memory. There was no mention of it on the state media. A funeral march by university students was broken up by the police. Pollock's grave site became a shrine, so the communist authorities exhume his body, cremate his remains, and ship them to his mother with the provision that his ashes could not be placed in the cemetery. But it did not work. His sacrifice spurred the students.
In the winter of 1989 to act, Prague's red army square. Shortly after I left for Bucharest to cover the uprising in Romania, it was renamed Pollock Square, and 10,000 people were at the dedication. We may feel powerless but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power.
[few audience cheers]
Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative, and it will as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive and if we do not, it will die. Dr. Rieux and Albert Camus's novel, ‘The Plague,’ is not driven to act by ideology. He is driven by empathy, the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. To act on this empathy, the empathy for human beings locked in cages. The empathy for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities. The empathy for Muslims who are demonized and banned from our shores fleeing the wars and terror we created. The empathy for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets. The empathy for girls and women trafficked into prostitution. The empathy for our great and glorious earth which gives us life and which is being destroyed.
It is not only viewed by despots as political but seditious. A life of faith, and we are all called to faith, is a life of confrontation. As Flannery O' Connor writes of Saint Cyril Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, "the dragon sits by the side of the road watching those who pass. Beware, least he devour you. We go to the father of souls but it is necessary to pass by the dragon. No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell. And this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time and any country not to turn away from the storyteller." Except sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful the state of our nation, the world, what we are doing to our planet. But know that in resistance, there is a bomb that leads to wisdom and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Know that as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
"My faith has been tempered in hell," wrote Vasily Grossman in ‘Life and Fate.’ "My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious leaders, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb blind love is man's meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is the battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush the small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human is human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer."
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred. We must fight for life. We must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves but for those who will come after us, our children. Revolt is a political necessity. It is a moral imperative. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious. The moment we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, we are victorious. The moment we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others see, we are victorious. The moment we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, we are victorious. The moment we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, we are victorious.
The moment we mass in the streets to defy police violence, we are victorious. We must turn the tide of fear. We must by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us. [audience applause]
To sit idle. To refuse to defy these forces. To buy our silence and be complicit. It will atrophy and wither our souls. It will leave us husks of human beings. This is not only a fight for life. It is a fight that gives life. It is the supreme expression of faith. It is the belief that no matter how great is the power of evil, the power of love is greater.
I do not in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.
[standing ovation and cheers]
Well, there's not really much to do as an MC because we're not going to have questions tonight. But there will be an extended opportunity for give-and-take tomorrow if you want to come back. But he is going to stay here for book signing out in the library and he wanted to have a lot of time to interact individually with people. I encourage everyone to hang out with each other, form affinity groups, cadres of resistance, anyway thank you all so much for coming.