A Brilliant Snapshot of a Nation in Despair
There is so much to like about Chris Hedges's and Joe Sacco's, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt (Nation Books, New York, 2012), I hardly know where to begin.
What's not to like when a book that speaks the unvarnished truth? Corporations flourish, ordinary people languish; the super rich get richer, ordinary people suffer; the American Dream is an illusion, with "winners" tap-dancing uneasily over the freshly dug graves of those for who have long since lost hope. Do you want change? Behold the national security state, the smartly clad and well-armed local police departments, the smug prosecutors, Wall Street and the politicos, dancing hand-in-hand round and round in Washington while the rest of us turn away in disgust.
Hedges tells it like it is. Sacco illustrates.
This work is part text and part graphic presentation. I was at first put off by the graphic component. Times are grim. This is no time for comic books, I found myself thinking. But as I studied the graphic portraits of despair in such places as the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, the desolate streets of Camden, New Jersey, the desiccated mountains of West Virginia, or the plantation-like cruelty supporting the tomato harvesting agribusiness in Immokalee, Florida, I was moved by the grimness on the look of the characters' faces. These line drawings convey what words have difficulty expressing. Call it dignified hopelessness: There are Americans who read their death warrants written on corporate ledgers of firms too big to fail who nonetheless continue to speak the truth.
I devoured this book in an afternoon, feeling as though I had found friends: My ruminations about a country adrift, corporate fat-cats hand-in-hand with their cronies in government turning the nation into a fascist fat farm, these thoughts don't mark me as a solitary grievant. There are thousands, if not millions, of Americans thinking and feeling the same thing. Hedges gives voice to a grumbling evidence to any who will listen.
Hedges and Sacco traveled to some of the most distressed regions of the country to see how the dispossessed live. Their reports are grim: Alcoholism and despair on the Pine Ridge reservation; drug use and rage in the ghetto; fear and exhaustion in immigrant communities; wary resignation in coal country. But alongside all this misery the bitch goddess profit and her handmaidens in the form of corporate thuggery and political diffidence among the elite. It's enough to make you want to ...
Well, what, exactly?
The book ends with a chapter on the Occupy Movement that flourished in an instant, and then vanished almost as quickly as it came. Hedges interviews Occupiers, and you can hear something like flinty hope in their voices. They may not have had a vision of how to reconstruct a better world. It was enough to assert that the world as it is fails to deliver what is both needed and promised. There was, and there remains, a value in refusal. Where has that struggle gone?
Hedges writes too briefly about a trial in Utah of an activist named Tim DeChristopher, who disrupted a Bureau of Land Management auction in 2008 - he sought to impede the Bush administration's selling of federal land to gas and oil interests. DeChristopher hoped to rely on jury nullification to defend himself. He was devastated when the judge told jurors they could do no such thing. The judge "said it was not their job to decide [what]... is right or wrong, but to listen to what he said the law was and follow that even if they thought it was morally unjust. They were not allowed to use their conscience." The fact that he was surprised by the fact that the law can be applied devoid of conscience was oddly refreshing. Perhaps people can be taught to reclaim their sovereignty.
When DeChristopher was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, he told the judge: "I am here today because I have chosen to protect the people locked out of the system over the profits of the corporations running the system. I say this not because I want your mercy, but because I want you to join me."
Fat chance the judge will do that; it is far easier to decide cases according to law, to put blinders on about who writes the law to serve what interest -- a sleeping people are easily managed.
Jury nullification remains, in my view, a powerful means of citizens' taking direct action to challenge the law, a topic I wrote about at length in Juries and Justice. (Sutton Hart, 2013). I've not seen enough written on the topic and its potential to radicalize and mobilize ordinary people in literature about what can be done to reclaim the promise of the American dream.
The final chapter on the Occupy movement rings with hope and fiery prose. "There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history." I like the sentiment, but the call to "create monastic enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive," rings a little defeatist and hollow - even prosaic, even if, as it seems, it is the only realistic course. The American century has ended, and with it visions of common dreams.
And that is, I suppose, the flaw in this otherwise wonderful book. The world is unhinged. Corporations and government are joined at the hip in a new form of something like fascism. The new national security or surveillance state promises security at the expense of a numbing uniformity. If ever there were a time that the anarchists in our history looked like prophets, it is now. I wonder why Hedges couldn't bring himself more directly say so? When even radicals pull punches the future seems dark indeed.