George Orwell, in his political essays, made it a point that a principal ethic of the intellectual classes is to engage in rigorous self-censorship, particularly when doing so guards the interests of power systems to which they submit. In the unpublished preface to Animal Farm he writes:
“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”
Sadly, this ethic persists in the contemporary American press and in much more lethal forms. Yet there are some notable exceptions. Chris Hedges’ The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, in the tradition of Orwell, is such a work. Incredibly eloquent and incisive, Hedges obliterates the fictions of US power with a moral force that has few, if any, parallels in US media. In this collection of articles written between 2006 and 2010, Hedges indicts the numerous ills of modern society: the imperial wars of occupation in the Middle East, the structural violence of state-capitalism, the corporate rape of the ecosystem, the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and the many doctrines which sustain these injustices. Hedges begins the book by noting that his writings can be described most accurately as “sermons” which are quite distinct from the columns of the sort written by journalists in corporate America. Sermons, according to Hedges “do not please a congregation” but “disturb many, if not most of the listeners,” and, most importantly, “force those who hear them to be self-critical.” In page after page of The World As It Is this self-critical spirit is paramount.
Most refreshing was Hedges prophet-like fury over the criminal wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seldom are moral condemnations made of US militarism and “serious” critiques are typically confined to tactical errors. In a 2009 article titled Celebrating Slaughter: War and Collective Amnesia he expresses his disdain for the glorification of war through war memorials which are erected to “sanitize the savage instruments of death that turn young soldiers and Marines into killers, and small villages in Vietnam or Afghanistan and Iraq into hellish bonfires.” He goes on to decry the unwillingness of the US government to criminally prosecute our “elder statesmen” for the war crimes they commit overseas. This brings him to state “any honest war memorial would have these statesmen hanging in effigy. Any honest democracy would place them behind bars.”
Equally impassioned denunciations are directed toward the liberal class who he rightly describes as “useless” and “timid” for sacrificing principled ideals of peace and justice for the interests of the Democratic party. These commentaries strike a particular cord given the ominous silence that surrounds president Obama’s unprecedented assault on civil liberties, most recently showcased in the Justice Department’s brazen refusal to disclose completely the legal justification for murdering US citizens via drones without due process. Comparing them to the “Mouse Man” in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground , Hedges observes how liberals “have come to believe that the ‘conscious inertia’ of the underground surpasses all other forms of existence,” and that “the gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right . . . but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.”
This cowardice, of the liberal and illiberal brand, reemerged in several contexts throughout the book. On the topic of Iran we are reminded that “Iranians do not need or want us to teach them about liberty and representative government.” In 1953 the CIA, along with British intelligence, overthrew Iran’s democratically elected president Mohammed Mossadeq and installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Under the Shah dictatorship repression reached its peak which was exercised through the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police. Hedges, unlike most reporters, explores this historical backdrop and abolishes the stereotypes that now characterize Iran, stereotypes so undetectable to the privileged classes that they elicit little criticism when they are showered with Academy Awards (re: Argo).
In addition to debunking myths about Iran, Israel’s brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank also features prominently in this text. The relentless cruelty of this colonial project is outlined in graphic detail in his coverage of Operation Cast Lead. On December 29th he strongly condemned US support for Israeli atrocities writing “our self-righteous celebration of ourselves and our supposed virtue is as false as that of Israel. We have become monsters, militarized bullies, heartless, and savage. We are a party to human slaughter, a flagrant war crime, and we do nothing.” A similar “self-righteous celebration” occurred after last year’s Operation Pillar of Defense when the Obama administration condemned Hamas for firing rockets into Israel but said nothing about Israel’s merciless aerial bombardment of civilians in Gaza. Again, we were “monsters”.
Despite this bleak portrait of human affairs, one cannot fail to notice his unshakable belief in the intrinsic value of rebellion or as he states “faith, for me, is a belief that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures. We are saved not by what we can do or accomplish but by our fealty to revolt, our steadfastness to the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and those who endure oppression.” This “fealty to revolt” and the centrality of dissent in sustaining a planet worth living in is arguably the most significant contribution of Hedge’s work. Apart from unveiling “the world as it is”, Hedges, through his writings, alerts us to the world “as it can be”. A world where war criminals are “behind bars”, where the ecosystem is not destroyed for profits, where Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans and other victims of imperial savagery are granted self-determination not as a colonial talking-point but a natural right. If we wish to end this civilazational death march it is not enough to recognize such a future as achievable. We also must recognize the hard work necessary to construct this future as imperative.