Hedges and the Monasteries, a Follow Up
In the Baloon Juice thread on Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a few commenters complained of what they described as a misreading, or undervaluing of what Hedges really meant when he called for his readers to “turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate the Republicans offer up for President…”
In the original post I highlighted what Hedges suggested as the proper course of action: head to “a monastic retreat in which “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.”
To me, this rejection of either choice in the acknowledged messiness of electoral politics is, frankly, disastrous.
But there were objections, and they weren’t frivolous…so consider this the point of warning: What follows is ~1,000 words extending the argument. If you have a better things to do, do them.
So — to kick us off here’s one dissent from what I argued: commenter Oliver’s Neck writes, that what I read as a call for retreat is anything but:
The construction of communities that no longer depend upon corrupt powers is an historically recurrent and powerful act of non-violent revolution. It takes great courage and will and is not the act of a defeatist or a moon-eyed ideologue, but that of a pragmatic realist.
The other main complaint that came up in the thread is that I’ve simply read Hedges wrong, and that he’s not actually suggesting he or anyone else should withdraw from the fray. In this argument, I’ve construed “monastic” too narrowly and don’t grasp just how active Hedges thinks his monks should be. Here’s Matryoshka writing in this vein:
My read was that Hedges doesn’t have much faith in any system that exists now, and that it will be a long time before we have one that works in our favor, so until then, we need to do what we can to preserve the values of humane values and environmental stewardship. At no point in the book does anything else point to a “fuck it, go off the grid and shewt yer own skwurrels” conclusion.
The “us” in “build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that allow us to survive” means all of us (humanity), not just a few isolated survivalists. Context makes a difference. Read the book. It will give you insight into the place we’re all going under the current arrangement.
I think there is some merit in both objections, but ultimately, they each miss what seems to me to be the vital point.
Oliver’s Neck urges us to see Hedges as a pragmatic realist. He’s not. That’s by his own account. That link takes you to an extended interview Bill Moyers conducted with Hedges on this book (Oliver’s Neck referenced this in his comments as well). That interview is long enough to allow Hedge’s account of what he’s about to come through loud and clear. He like Moyers is a former seminarian; his is the duty to recognize sin, to abstain from it, and to act to challenge the evil that is thus done with a call for right action. He wants to be able to live with himself; everything he does, including blowing up his New York Times career flows from that need.
Even so, you might say that Hedges is a pragmatist — but only in one special sense: he writes, he speaks, he commits civil disobedience in ways that connect clearly and logically to his goal: to act with firmness in the right as his sight, his memory and his conscience give him to see the right. He wants to effect change as well, and all that he does aims at that ambition, but as he tells Moyers repeatedly, the prime mover in his work is what he sees as his obligation to do good, regardless of likely impact.
As Oliver’s Neck argues and I agree, this is a courageous stance. It is not, in my view sufficient to our current circumstances. Hedges is a holy fool, I think, and I mean that as high praise, and not even a little criticism.
But as the Bush years show us, deep and lasting harm can take hold unbelievably quickly. While we wait for the long run in which a growing community of “this far and no farther”-niks finally reach the scale to address all our pathologies, we may — we will, I believe — have lost too much and too many to ignore the question of what we need to do right now. Hence, in my view, the need to work and vote and press in this election, 2012, Obama vs. Romney and all the undercards.
But what of Matryoshka’s claim that I miss in Hedges demand for electoral conscientious objection his actual call to action? It’s there, of course — just as St. Francis’s was (to name one in the tradition in which I think Hedges falls). He does want us to resist the institutions that undermine society and community.
Here’s Hedges’ call to action:
All conventional forms of dissent, from electoral politics to open debates, have been denied us. We cannot rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible. The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience. (Hedges and Sacco, p. 266)
I flatly disagree with Hedges’ first sentence. There is great difficulty in making those forms of dissent powerful, but they are not closed to us — you see that in Sherrod Brown’s campaign; in Elizabeth Warren’s; increasingly in President Obama’s…not to mention here, in communities like this one, and much else besides.
Hedges’ second sentence demands attention. I’ve noted a couple of times the really striking tone of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. You can’t get more centrist, more conventional wisdom than these two. Mann, a Brookings Institute bloke, and Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute (sic!), document the failure of Congress as a political institution (props to Hedges) and indict the Republican Party as the perp who is murdering that body (a problem for Hedges). With that as just the latest high profile reminder, no one can deny that our institutions — and not just the overtly political ones — are in deep trouble. We cannot rely on them. But we can use them, if and as we find ways to penetrate them. Mann and Ornstein discuss both short term and longer timeline choices we can make if we choose to do so. And to belabor the obvious: we won’t get anywhere institutionally if we don’t engage in, among much else, the act of voting.
The third sentence in Hedge’s passage speaks directly to the complaints Oliver’s Neck and Matryoshka offer up. Hedges does not simply call for escape. He urges civil disobedience. He wants us to act, and in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he holds up the Occupy movement as an example of the kind of non-violent revolt that he had almost given up hope of seeing over the last few years.
But neither that call to resistance, nor any recognition of the power of Hedges’ moral stance alter the real danger inherent in his call for a monastic retreat from American consumerism.
Because despite Hedges’ disgust for what he’s seen from either party, there remain (as we’ve talked through many times here) major differences between the parties, distinctions that have real consequences within the lives of every American (and many others as well, to be sure). So, to my mind, the real question is how much are you willing to risk to further, perhaps, that day when the resistance fractures the power structure sufficiently to erect a better place in its stead? How deeply do you believe in the “sharpen the contradiction” approach to political transformation?
If you’re asking me? When we have a choice as clear as that of the ghoulish Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama?
Not much. Not much at all.
One more thing: It seems to me obvious that Hedges offers a false choice here. This post is long enough, so for now I’ll just say that one can act on two lines at once: vote, engage, demand the best out of what the system we have; and also pursue longer-term reformation: Occupy, civilly disobey, non-violently resist what needs to be resisted. It may be that I’ve spent too long studying Weimar and its sequel to take any great comfort from the relief from misery that may ultimately come. Germany did ultimately become a social democracy. But what transpired between 1933 and 1945 was a hell of a price. As the historian Peter Gay wrote, (I paraphrase) if only Weimar’s friends had roused themselves to act in support of Weimar, how much sorrow might have been avoided.
Images: William Hogarth, Soliciting Votes (from the series, “The Humours of an Election,”) 1754.
Unknown artist (formerly attributed to Giotto) St. Francis Preaching before Honarius III, betw. 1297 and 1300.