I discovered Chris Hedges’ work maybe a year or two ago, and for a time, he was an inspiration. At times, like this morning, he still is. He’s obviously gifted in rhetoric, and committed to justice. But some of his more recent writings have been not only depressing, but annoying. My thought was that he’s carried away by his own rhetoric into a realm of hopelessness and despair. Resistance may be beautiful, but it’s futile. The ballot box is useless. There’s nothing we can do. That was the message I heard several times, and some of my understanding is clearly accurate. But in his latest post on truthdig, copied below, I feel he transcends all that to produce, once more, a piece that elevates and inspires, even as it touches on profoundly depressing aspects of our situation, and calls by name many of the more destructive players in our world. The value of this piece came to me forcefully when, about two-thirds of the way through, I began to cry.
I don’t know where it comes from, but not unlike Chris Hedges and many others whose work helps to inform and sustain me these days, I feel driven to respond to the cruelty and injustice that I see. I’ve always been this way, speaking out in writings and other ways. But lately, as I must see fifty things a day that cry out for a response, I’ve been trying to let myself off the hook sometimes. A life spent completely in dwelling on such things is a life completely spent; I pay for it in anxiety and physical tension that used to lead to migraines until I learned to manage my energy a little better. So I don’t always speak out. The cruelty and injustice are too ubiquitous, and I’m not one of the prophets, I just admire them. But I try to emulate them in a small way, to target some of the worst offenses, learn enough about them to say something useful, and then pass that along, on this blog, in an op ed or letter to the editor, in emails and conversations with friends.
Faced with the pervasive catastrophes of our time, I do try to respond constructively. What happened this morning, when I broke down and cried in the middle of Chris Hedges’ essay, was that it all just got to me too deeply. That happens at times. There is just so much. I won’t repeat the list, Hedges does an estimable job in the piece I’m about to copy here. And it does seem that our situation might be hopeless, in the sense that, as I think Wendell Berry said recently, everything of value is threatened, and it seems unlikely the lives we now lead can be sustained in any easily recognizable form. There appears to be, as Hedges says, just a thin line of defense between civil society and its disintegration.
But before repeating Chris Hedges’ prescription, I want to say that I think more is possible. As Noam Chomsky frequently points out, we do still have enormous freedom to agitate, organize, protest and struggle for change. The ballot box isn’t useless, it just isn’t being used nearly enough. But we still have it. And for its use to be more effective, we need a great many more people who recognize our real problems and demand that our political structures and players address them. It isn’t yet quite true, as Leonard Cohen said so long ago, that “the cities they are broke in half, and the middlemen are gone.” So “let me ask you one more time, O children of the dust: All these hunters who are shrieking now, do they speak for us?”
But I won’t ask just one more time. I’ll keep asking, nagging, agitating, informing, sharing information and analysis in the hope of helping to organize a sufficient and sustained opposition to the evils of our time, and a multitude of forces for the common good. That is, by the way, what is so evil about the current attacks on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the safety net generally, such as it still is: The real animus behind these attacks is hostility to the idea of the common good, the notion that we should care about and for one another, the very idea that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization.
What I think we need is organizing: the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that will enable enough of us to act collectively, constructively, in coordination, to redeem the commons and serve the common good. Given that the airwaves are saturated with lies, the truth needs to be shared through other means: mind-to-mind, hand-to-hand, person-to-person, sometimes but not necessarily face-to-face and one-on-one. That’s what organizing ultimately is, and it can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including by the written as well as the spoken word.
I may misunderstand Chris Hedges, but that’s what I think of as my disagreement with him, that I wanted to express before sharing his wonderful latest piece of work. I don’t think it’s hopeless – it may be, but that’s just a hypothesis, like its opposite, at this point in our time – and there are things we can do to affect the outcome. Some of them may consist of protests like the one planned by Dan Ellsberg, Chris Hedges and others (described below), and routinely engaged in over the years by the War Resisters League and the Catholic Workers, to mention just two of my favorites. But others include conversation, speech-making, publication, and even use of the ballot, once organizing has produced a critical mass sufficient to put good people into office. Iraq Veterans Against the War is organizing by a variety of means, and as I wrote to them just the other day, theirs is some of the best organizing and most important work I’m aware of. Progressive Democrats of America and others are organizing to make more effective use of the ballot box. Even in Congress, there are some very good people: most members of the Progressive Caucus were reelected earlier this month, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky somehow got onto the Deficit Commission and has offered a compassionate and practical alternative to the deficit hawks’ attack on the safety net and the common good.
I think I will copy here the piece by Chris Hedges, and follow that with a script I composed for a reading at a bar mitzvah several years ago.
And please remember this: Like lovers in a stormy night/with a child to defend,/No defeat, baby. No surrender.
Real Hope Is About Doing Something
Posted on Nov 29, 2010 – By Chris Hedges
On Dec. 16 I will join Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern and several military veteran activists outside the White House to protest the futile and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us will, after our rally in Lafayette Park, attempt to chain ourselves to the fence outside the White House. It is a pretty good bet we will all spend a night in jail. Hope, from now on, will look like this.
Hope is not trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people. It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better. Hope is not about chanting packaged campaign slogans or trusting in the better nature of the Democratic Party. Hope does not mean that our protests will suddenly awaken the dead consciences, the atrophied souls, of the plutocrats running Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or the government.
Hope does not mean we will halt the firing in Afghanistan of the next Hellfire missile, whose explosive blast sucks the oxygen out of the air and leaves the dead, including children, scattered like limp rag dolls on the ground. Hope does not mean we will reform Wall Street swindlers and speculators, or halt the pillaging of our economy as we print $600 billion in new money with the desperation of all collapsing states. Hope does not mean that the nation’s ministers and rabbis, who know the words of the great Hebrew prophets, will leave their houses of worship to practice the religious beliefs they preach. Most clerics like fine, abstract words about justice and full collection plates, but know little of real hope.
Hope knows that unless we physically defy government control we are complicit in the violence of the state. All who resist keep hope alive. All who succumb to fear, despair and apathy become enemies of hope. They become, in their passivity, agents of injustice. If the enemies of hope are finally victorious, the poison of violence will become not only the language of power but the language of opposition. And those who resist with nonviolence are in times like these the thin line of defense between a civil society and its disintegration.
Hope has a cost. Hope is not comfortable or easy. Hope requires personal risk. Hope does not come with the right attitude. Hope is not about peace of mind. Hope is an action. Hope is doing something. The more futile, the more useless, the more irrelevant and incomprehensible an act of rebellion is, the vaster and the more potent hope becomes. Hope never makes sense. Hope is weak, unorganized and absurd. Hope, which is always nonviolent, exposes in its powerlessness the lies, fraud and coercion employed by the state. Hope does not believe in force. Hope knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on us all. Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope’s power and it is why it can never finally be defeated. Hope demands for others what we demand for ourselves. Hope does not separate us from them. Hope sees in our enemy our own face.
Hope is not for the practical and the sophisticated, the cynics and the complacent, the defeated and the fearful. Hope is what the corporate state, which saturates our airwaves with lies, seeks to obliterate. Hope is what our corporate overlords are determined to crush. Be afraid, they tell us. Surrender your liberties to us so we can make the world safe from terror. Don’t resist. Embrace the alienation of our cheerful conformity. Buy our products. Without them you are worthless. Become our brands. Do not look up from your electronic hallucinations to think. No. Above all do not think. Obey.
W.H. Auden wrote:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The powerful do not understand hope. Hope is not part of their vocabulary. They speak in the cold, dead words of national security, global markets, electoral strategy, staying on message, image and money. The powerful protect their own. They divide the world into the damned and the blessed, the patriots and the enemy, the rich and the poor. They insist that extinguishing lives in foreign wars or in our prison complexes is a form of human progress. They cannot see that the suffering of a child in Gaza or a child in the blighted pockets of Washington, D.C., diminishes and impoverishes us all. They are deaf, dumb and blind to hope. Those addicted to power, blinded by self-exaltation, cannot decipher the words of hope any more than most of us can decipher hieroglyphics. Hope to Wall Street bankers and politicians, to the masters of war and commerce, is not practical. It is gibberish. It means nothing.
I cannot promise you fine weather or an easy time. I cannot assure you that thousands will converge on Lafayette Park in solidarity. I cannot pretend that being handcuffed is pleasant. I cannot say that anyone in Congress or the White House, anyone in the boardrooms of the corporations that cannibalize our nation, will be moved by pity to act for the common good. I cannot tell you these wars will end or the hungry will be fed. I cannot say that justice will roll down like a mighty wave and restore our nation to sanity. But I can say this: If we resist and carry out acts, no matter how small, of open defiance, hope will not be extinguished. If all we accomplish is to assure a grieving mother in Baghdad or Afghanistan, a young man or woman crippled physically and emotionally by the hammer blows of war, that he or she is not alone, our resistance will be successful. Hope cannot be sustained if it cannot be seen.
Any act of rebellion, any physical defiance of those who make war, of those who perpetuate corporate greed and are responsible for state crimes, anything that seeks to draw the good to the good, nourishes our souls and holds out the possibility that we can touch and transform the souls of others. Hope affirms that which we must affirm. And every act that imparts hope is a victory in itself.
Also from Auden:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Chris Hedges is Truthdig columnist and a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.” More information on the Dec. 16 protest can be found at http://www.stopthesewars.org.
Reprinted from Sharon Astyk’s Blog CASAUBON 11/11/07 (excerpt):
Tikkun Olam, if you are a Jew, or even if you find the metaphor compelling – tikkun olam means “the repair of the world.” In my faith, that is why we are here – to fix what is broken, repair what is damaged, to improve what can be improved. As the saying goes, it is not required of us that we complete the work, but it is not permitted for us not to try. …
Comments: Robert said…
Thank you, Sharon. … Recently I was asked to prepare a reading for a bar mitzvah. … I somewhat surprised myself by coming up with the following, which I’d like to share in response to your statement:
There has been substantial progress in the unending quest for justice and freedom in recent years…. The crises we face [today] are real and imminent, [but] in each case means are available to overcome them. The first step is understanding, then [at times, individual action can be effective; at others, we need] organization and [collective] action. That is the path that has been followed in the past, bringing about a much better world and leaving a legacy that can be carried forward from a higher plane than before.…
Therefore, may we have not only strength, determination, and will power, but understanding, compassion, patience, persistence, and the courage to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, [to vindicate] the rights of all who are left desolate,” and to work in cooperation with our neighbors and the world community, that our world may become just and therefore peaceful and safe, and that our lives may be blessed.
And let us say: Amen.
 Adapted from Noam Chomsky, Failed States, and “Imminent Crises: Threats and Opportunities,” Monthly Review 17, June 2007.
 Proverbs 31:8.
 Adapted from Jack Riemer, Social Action