Dispatches from the front line of the war for democracy: an interview with Chris Hedges

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Immersing yourself in author and journalist Chris Hedges’ world, even briefly, is overwhelming and important. His work chronicles all that is ugly and corrupt in the corporate-controlled western world — from environmental destruction, to right-wing Christian fascism, to new-age slavery — and forces you to reconsider the spoon-fed notion that we live in a functioning democracy.

His impeccable writing, his soaring calls to arms and his prickly personality are all hard earned as a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author and activist embroiled in the increasingly ugly fight for basic rights south of the border.

Hedges sounds tired on the phone after spending the day in a Manhattan federal courtroom where Jeremy Hammond, an activist and hacker, was just sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing emails from private intelligence firm Stratfor, which detailed, among other things, corporate and government collusion in spying on and attempting to persecute activists.

We ask if this is what he means when he says dissent is once again a criminal act in the U.S. “Well yeah, he’s a classic whistleblower,” says Hedges. “If you don’t have Jeremy Hammonds, you don’t have a free press.”

Hedges’ most recent book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a collaboration with illustrator Joe Sacco, is a shocking catalogue of misery in America’s “sacrifice zones” — areas essentially abandoned to corporate malfeasance and government neglect or corruption. It was an experience that took its toll.

“It was physically and emotionally pretty gruelling to do,” says Hedges. “It was a lot of work. It was two years of pretty unrelenting work in difficult conditions, so I think both Joe and I were pretty exhausted when we finished.”

It sounds odd for a man who has worked in war zones and been stationed in shattered countries to describe writing a book on the wealthiest nation this world has ever seen in such stark terms, but reading through it, and delving into his collected work on Truthdig.com , paints a vivid picture of a declining superpower that has abandoned large swaths of the country as well as those mired in poverty.

“Whether that’s in Bosnia or whether that’s in southern West Virginia, it’s painful to see, especially children, get discarded by forces that are callous to and indifferent to human suffering,” he says.

“Half the United States now either lives in poverty or near poverty. That’s the whole point of the book is that these sacrifice zones are expanding.”

It’s something that shouldn’t be seen as simply an American problem either. Although Canada is in better shape than our southern neighbours, income disparity is growing right along with the concentrations of wealth. The federal government is outright hostile to civil society groups while coddling and funding corporations, particularly those in the oil and gas sector.

“Canada is following the model. It’s a corporate model,” says Hedges. “And Canada is as susceptible to this as any other industrialized state that is taken over by corporations. You have seen now within Canada the shredding of Kyoto, the rise of the security and surveillance state, the assault against public education, the underfunding of your health-care program in an effort to kill it and make it dysfunctional so you can have capitalists run your health-care program. Canada is well on its way to replicating all of the mistakes that we unfortunately endure.”

Those dismissive of his claims aren’t paying attention.

Recent documents obtained by the independent Vancouver Observer show the National Energy Board, a federal agency tasked with regulating the energy sector, was collaborating with the very companies it is supposed to oversee in order to infiltrate and spy on anti-pipeline and anti-oilsands organizations, including Idle No More, Sierra Club and the Council of Canadians.

It’s just one more indication of a state that is rapidly shedding what remains of its accountable veneer. But still, doesn’t Hedges give too much credit to those wealthy few pulling the (purse) strings?

“We have created an oligarchic system where a fraction of one per cent controls staggering sums of wealth, and like all oligarchic states, with that kind of political and economic power, their primary concern is enriching and empowering themselves at everyone else’s expense,” he says.

“You can’t run a democracy and an oligarchy. That’s not a new idea — Thucydides wrote about that in ancient Athens. That’s the problem. When you create a tiny power elite with that much power and you disempower the citizenry, then the plunder and abuse of power becomes rife and that’s precisely what’s happened.”

Which brings us to solutions, and they aren’t pretty.

Hedges is convinced that the U.S. is headed for revolution.

“Well, I hope it isn’t [violent],” he says. “I’ve been around a lot of violence and that’s something I’m working really hard to avoid. But if the court, as it did today, stands up and sentences a person of conscience to 10 years in prison for providing information that is ours, that deserves to be public, what do they think is going to happen?”

He reiterates the basic need to have information concerning the public in public hands, something that seems so shockingly simple it’s hard to imagine there are many who support prosecuting, or rather persecuting, those like Hammond who find and provide the information. Like the files obtained by the Vancouver Observer , only several times more terrifying, Hammond’s leak uncovered attempts to link non-violent activists with terrorist organizations in order to apply draconian terrorism “laws” — which includes indefinite detention with no charges — to them.

“If [dissent] becomes a criminal act, and… if none of that [reaction] can be curbed or controlled or even known, and those who expose it are persecuted, then you inevitably create a system whereby dissent devolves into violence. That’s really what we’re flirting with,” says Hedges.

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