Chris Hedges' 'Genocide' Jeremiad: more heat than light

By Robert Becker

 Apocalypse Now?

He who lives by the sweeping generalization, as does Chris Hedges, is vulnerable to analytic close reading (pinpointing ill-defined terms), let alone far more basic queries: is this true, does this apply, is the context right? Somehow I don’t see how his in-your-face, homiletic abstraction in “Science of Genocide” advances the moral, political, even hortatory progress this icon of the left seeks. In fact, overwrought equivalences between at best superficially comparable categories lower his credibility. To wit, the US was (presumably is) “as morally bankrupt as the Nazi machine” or “Soviet regime with which it was allied.” Just how morally bankrupt were “the Nazi machine” is left wholly to our imagination, a default to the abyss of infinity. My mind blanks out when all the key terms of a loose comparison blur so badly. The U.S. is today morally suspect without pouring on the Hitler or Stalin distortions – even forced equations with long-past eras.

Likewise, “the Japanese had been on the verge of surrender” is offered as plain fact, rather than the controversial claim argued over by experts. Why did it then take a second horrendous A-bombs? Ditto: “atomic blasts, ignited in large part to send a message to the Soviet Union, were a reminder that science is morally neutral.” Put aside message-sending (not germane, hard to prove), what the atomic bomb showed is that high-tech science is/was anything but neutral, a clear contradiction. Blithely, Hedges claims science simply results “in collective enslavement and mass extermination.” A fraction of science perhaps but not most, not all the medical breakthroughs, immunizations, or food, chemical. and water safety instruments, let alone better weather and ocean reports or measures of looming climate change.

Much “government weapons science” is not neutral, indeed onerous, but the widespread applications of science and technology reflect many variables, such as: business organization, public policy, majority rule, and billions of daily consumer decisions. Hedges’ overgeneralizations obscure more than they clarify when one analyzes even first-order implications of overdone, polemical claims. Was it really alone the mix of  “science, industry and technology that made possible the 20th century’s industrial killing”?  All the while, where’s any affirmation that countless scientific breakthroughs deliver a higher, more comfortable, longer-lasting quality of life for billions and billions. Check out the mortality rates from before 1900 and discover the vast majority of the earthlings now live twice as long as the average baby born in the 1700s — and by and large in better health.

Science exiles religion?

Finally, inspect Hedges’ tepid sermonizing: “science has supplanted religion. We harbor a naive faith in the godlike power of science . . . it feeds our hubris and sense of divine empowerment. And trusting in its fearsome power will mean our extinction.”  Who the hell is “we”? In fact, all gains of knowledge augment our sense of empowerment but not all lead to blind hubris. And tell the 44% of Republicans who are evangelical types religion (or God) is dead. In my layman view, total species extinction is more likely from asteroids – or some pandemic science can’t restrain.

Speak for yourself, Mr. Hedges, not for everyone, not humanity, not the entire globe. Science doesn’t mean knee-jerk extinction, though excessive misuse of machinery for hundreds of years by billions of users will cut populations and living conditions. The enemy isn’t merely the tools but all the tool users, in the billions, making individual choices daily. Steven Pinker’s work speaks to a mass reduction in organized killing nowadays, despite all that destructive science and population concentrations. Progress is not an entire illusion in today’s high-tech, industrial world.

The point is that Hedges’ misleading, even reactionary-sounding generalizations, however useful as political war cries, wither under the simplest logical challenges. To say science and industry equate with industrial killing is, frankly, to throw the baby out with the bath water. Nearly all, even the less affluent, live better, with less pain and suffering, thanks to this implied “criminal conspiracy” called technology. What sane person refuses surgery after a ruptured appendix?  Or AIDs intervention? Or antibiotics for the myriad of infectious blights that are easily cured today and would have, only a century ago, wiped out thousands. Who refuses to use computers because they could be the work of the high-tech, science devils?

Yes, we live in dark and dangerous times, and our politics are decidedly unhealthy. But do the times get brighter when we sacrifice logic, clear thinking and wider contexts to accept, with more passivity than we should, this kind of ominous, unhelpful overstatement? Not for me, thanks, whatever Hedges’ real accomplishments. I respect his activism, even his fine Occupy analyses, but not his addictive fondness for overwrought, historic and philosophic obfuscations.

Hortatory and homiletic
Paul Kibble, a shrewd, more sympathetic commentator, captures the Hedges appeal, and limitations, while speaking to my points:

I find myself agreeing with Hedges on many issues from a general philosophical/political perspective, but disagree with him when it comes down to particulars. He tends to play fast and loose with alleged historical parallels and substitutes broad, high-flown rhetoric for logic. I am thus frequently put off by his more operatic pronouncements, which I think are a function of his formal training.

He does, after all, hold a degree from Harvard Divinity School as well as a B.A. in English. Perhaps that accounts for the hortatory, or rather homiletic, tone of his writing: he is not so much trying to persuade as to convert, winning souls for the Good Fight. In structure and style his articles are not closely reasoned analyses of an issue but jeremiads, in the root sense of that word: he is like an Old-Testament prophet calling an erring nation to account, demanding that it repent lest it incur eternal damnation.

What we need, in my opinion, are fewer, depressive jeremiads from activist-leaders, fewer versions of leftwing Revelations. Bad times don’t improve from despair but the vision, leadership and execution of  Jefferson, an FDR or a Martin Luther King.  I am not ready to abandon hope, all ye who enter here,.  Nor do soaring invocations of apocalypse, as if that chaos alone produces progress, foster a vision this earth-bound, “political materialist” buys into.

17 replies »

  1. Okay, this has a few cranky moments — and I do admire Hedge’ activism and his straight journalism. It’s the faux philosopher that keeps coming forward that I challenge here. We’re talking about one of the half dozen most influential leftwingers, and he’s certainly earned his right to pop off from frustration. And yet . . . I thought I’d open a conversation.

    • I think Hedges is that rarest of disappearing breeds these days: the genuine iconoclast. We live in this society where it seems like everyone has taken a side and the effect is that public figures almost never say anything that surprises us. Hedges, though, surprises me every time he fires up his laptop, it seems. He operates according to a set of principles that doesn’t much care about conventional left vs. right, and he clearly understands that pissing people off keeps him in the headlines is good for the brand which means he gets more chances to piss people off.

      Smart guy. Interesting guy. And even when he’s being a dickhead, he’s making you think. We could use more of that.

  2. Yes, smart, yes, interesting. Not a dickhead, just a guy who loves to overstate. I don’t find his philosophizing “surprising” but incredibly predictable. What good news does he offer about big issues (Occupy aside) or the prospect of moving from what we have today to some revolutionary future where his dire concerns will be addressed? I get depressed reading him, not stimulated to act.

    In fact, I find the left (look at Paul Craig Roberts’ jeremiad, “Amerika’s Future is Death — a guy I also like half the time) to be full of overwrought and indefensibly overwritten depression. All is woe and there is no hope. The left is plastered with negativity, which I understand, but no revolutionary simply says “Things are miserable” without offering some way out, even a glimmer.

    If I learned more from Hedges, then maybe I’d elevate his “iconoclasm.” Frankly I would never send his pieces to an undecided centrist in hope of deflecting him or her from voting for any insane rightwing lunatics. He is not in my opinion helping the left’s cause when he states what too many ordinary folks, not obsessed with politics, simply dismiss as not supportable by logic or context. We may be a miserable country but morally equivalent to Nazi Germany?? What’s the gain, aside from your defense, that he serves his shock value brand. Time for the overwrought to be called in question by the transiently optimistic. I welcome change, not a different brand with its own self-serving agenda.

  3. The sweeping generalization is the enemy of a credible argument. I’ll be quoting your lede to my opinion-writing students from now on.

    This is an exemplar of analysis, Robert. Thx.

  4. Actually, your reworked phrase has greater succinctness in its favor. I thought my opening a bit convoluted but I accept your high praise and appreciate the quality of the source. On other sites I received more hostility than support as folks thought I was not appreciating the genius, with insightful surveys of wide horizons. And being an icon who rightly opened up zillions of minds for some puts one beyond the pale. I have mulled over the last few of this Hedges’ voice before jumping in.

    If the left doesn’t lead with logic, evidence, context and clear phrasing, then we won’t ever show to the adults who remain what drives the hard right: emotion, prejudice, racism, authoritarianism, et al. Without reason, it’s just a donnybrook. Without less inflammatory equivalences, we wither in the shadows.

    • If the left doesn’t lead with logic, evidence, context and clear phrasing, then we won’t ever show to the adults who remain what drives the hard right: emotion, prejudice, racism, authoritarianism, et al.

      Except that if you lead with logic and evidence in this society, you are forfeiting a huge portion of the audience. I hate to be cynical, but tell me I’m wrong. It feels more and more like our choices are a) take the high road and lose or b) play down to the level of the opposition and have a chance.

      Not much to like in that…..

  5. Well, “lead” was meant in terms of making an example, having a rational foundation to support whatever we write, silly, frivolous or serious.. More to the point, the other side is offering unreason (on climate, science, economics, government roles, gridlock) and that means we have to present some consensus about the “real world” which is open to verification. So, that’s what I meant, without handcuffing what we actually do to get and keep the attention of the masses.

    Failed economic mindsets lead to painful recessions and times may have to get worse before the less informed masses are responsive. You think there aren’t millions of rightwing farmers rethinking the climate deniers as their farms go up in dust and drought? Reality must prepare for whatever statement we make and those in enough pain will look elsewhere when rightwingers are shown as utter frauds.

    Writers can still appeal to emotion and reptilian brains (as I try in every essay) with clever headlines, compelling phrasing, satiric entertainment, shifts in voice, imagery — without forgoing an ultimate basis in reason or logic or proof. Those who can’t hear won’t but I can’t imagine mimicking the techniques of the dark side as a way into the light. In any case, our choice at S/R is not about “the huge portion of the audience” for they are years away from anything we might concoct. We are prepping the next wave, 20 years hence, of writers, if we’re lucky. By the time I die, in 20-30 years, the status quo will not be radically different. But I am happy to be wrong about that. I just hope it’s not much worse.

    • You think there aren’t millions of rightwing farmers rethinking the climate deniers as their farms go up in dust and drought?

      A good example that I think illustrates MY point. The good guys played by the rules while the right lied every time they opened their mouths, and the result was years and years and years of failing to address the problem. What if the science/progress side of the “debate” had begun playing PR hardball a generation ago? Would we now have a situation where farmers NEED to rethink or would the battle have been won before it was too late?

  6. Sure, that would have been better but too many in the heartland weren’t ready. Look, I don’t think logic convinces a fixed mind they should change, simply provides a basis of potential when they abandon what no longer works. AA is the model: until the sufferer says, “Enough, this isn’t working,” they don’t even look for alternatives. My position is very conventional: we return to trusted, tested values of discourse, where facts and experts count, or we’re finished. It’s not a leftwing value to honor evidence, it’s the only choice we have. I don’t convert many or even think I can (with a lousy success rating, despite my wasted education) but I can articulate models based on a different value system from what is clearly wrongheaded.

    But unless our educational system improves — and the media and the arts — you may be right: even lucidity and logic falls on deaf ears. Not my issue, says, the poet: I write what I think is necessary and comes out of my brain. The impact, whatever my hopes, will never be what I expect. I never said logic would change the world, only that it’s the sole play we have. If not reason, then mayhem; if not method, then chaos. If no one listens, it hardly matters what my standards and values are. I am no preacher but I like to think seeing a mind at work would strike a cord. Maybe Denny’s students will hear and think.

  7. Argued by whom? It’s well known that the Japanese did extend offers of surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped. Their only condition was to keep the emperor and not have him charged with war crimes. Churchill and Stalin were both against the requirement of unconditional surrender, maintaining it as a requirement came from the US.

    And the US went to Potsdam, still insisting on unconditional surrender, after the test of the atomic bomb and with Truman hinting to Stalin about the bomb. Perhaps it should be noted that after two atomic bomb blasts on population centers, a conditional surrender was accepted and the emperor remained on the throne.

    After the war there was a pretty big backlash against the bomb. Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz, etc. and pretty much all the scientists that worked on it said it shouldn’t have been used and was unnecessary. It wasn’t until then that there started to be magazine articles talking about the millions of lives its saved.

    It’s point was to dazzle and scare Stalin as well as broadcast to the American people that we were the new undisputed masters of the globe. To do so, Truman was willing to kill mountains of women and children in a grisly fashion … and for the most part, the American people were just fine with that.

    That doesn’t make the entire case for morally bankrupt by a longshot, but it’s pretty distasteful.

  8. Thanks for the informative comment. I claim no great specialization in late WWII Japanese-American history so you may well have corrected a mischaracterization. Yes, I know about the Japanese feelers but what country in that circumstance needs two terrible bombs even to come to the peace table. I think the bomb’s primary function was to end the war but, if the intent was to scare Russia, that worked as they ended up producing thousands of them, a problem to this day.

    You last line appears to confirm my view that, while Hedges may not have distorted as badly as I implied, his historical readings left his main point unsupported, even obscured. Yes, I know, after the fact, the damage to civilians was such that average folks started second guessing Truman’s (and the American military) judgment. John Hersey’s first magazine piece on Hiroshima appeared soon after the war, as I just confrimed.

  9. “Reality must prepare for whatever statement we make and those in enough pain will look elsewhere when rightwingers are shown as utter frauds.”

    Which is why, crazed as it sounds, I’ll still be voting the Boil the Frog quickly ticket of Romney/Ryan. A more rational vote for the nominal lesser evil, while laudable in its intent, is, to my way of seeing it, a vote for more of the incrementalism that Dr. King decried. Let the GOP pound us into dust with their Bronze Age ideologies, their jingoism, and their overt support of a landed aristocracy long enough and we’ll finally have a reality that cause enough pain for a curative reaction. This incrementalism we keep choosing to suffer in lieu of the more obviously destructive path just seems to more deeply entrench an Orwellian police state that colludes with the same aristocracy served by the Right.

  10. Of course your assumption, like mine, is that only further disasters would produce revolutionary fervor and that calls to arms will find direction and begin to resolve the problem. It’s a risk and worse tyranny is not impossible. I hear your logic but my inclination is a third party, protest vote — that way you don’t vote for the lesser or greater of two weasels. But if revolution depends on pain, then third parties are just the easy way out, a comfortable delay. I don’t expect revolution in this country for a long, long time.

  11. I’m writing in Rocky Anderson for President here in Texas. Rocky will be on the ballot in about 16 states. I wanted to add a comment for the person who says he is voting for Romney so that ultimately after Romney leaves the voters in the U.S. are “lying in the dust” they will wake up and see how bad things really are and then vote more intelligently. That argument was put forward by the communists before Hitler rose to power.

    Regarding Chris Hedges, I do think that looking through his prism of a former war correspondent is helpful. The liberal establishment, which Chris describes so well in the Death of the Liberal class has become too accommodating of the Endless War State that we now have. The anti-war movement, which disappeared when President Obama was elected, is now exposed as moral relativists. I prefer Chris’ passion and occasional factual errors and tactical misjudgements to those who have easily adjusted to the madness of the world. Prophetic voices like Chis Hedges appear to be the ones who are mad because they question the assumptions that the rest of the world never question.

  12. So far, so good with Rocky Anderson, a fine third party choice. And he was/is a politician, which I think is good training (if not wholly corrupting) for being a workable politician. Good intentions are fine but there is a craft of politics that isn’t honed by folks who were actors or business types or just blowhards, like Herman Cain.

    Let’s be clear: Hedges’ overall leftwing stance is not at question by me but whether his repeated and highly compromised delivery, in my view, doesn’t remove the range and punch of someone who ought to stand next to Bill Moyers or Noam Chomsky in impact. He doesn’t and won’t likely, coming across as a hyperbolic crank, and I think that’s less about his iconoclasm, or willingness to puncture status (all in favor of that) but the tone of religious condescension and absolute certitude that informs his presentation (half the time, not on Occupy, nor as war correspondent, even straight journalist). Fine, let him stick to that and avoid all those bloated philosophic tracks.

  13. My main difference with Chris is his claim that electoral politics is a waste of time and that going to the streets is the only option we have. I tend to believe in a both/and, instead of an either/or approach, especially if Occupy refuses to participate in electoral politics, ceding governmental power to those who already wield it with terrible results for everyone.

    Religious certitude from someone on the Left is only surprising if you don’t know about the power of the Social Gospel in U.S. politics that influenced Chris’s dad and Chris himself. The Social Gospel influenced the antislavery movement before the Civil War, even before this interpretation of Jesus’ teachings acquired status as a school of thought, and also the Progressive Movement in the 20’s and 30’s that brought concerns about child labor, worker’s rights, the 40-hour work week, and other issues championed by labor unions into the nation’s political debate. The African-American church, which Chris mentions favorably in an article today (http://truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/11021-days-of-siege), was “certain” that God was not on the side of Oppressors. That belief gave them the power to endure untold suffering. Even the Church’s belief in Heaven including a belief that their white oppressors would finally “get theirs” when the Final Judgment occurred. After the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s achieved its goals, references to universal values such as Justice went out of fashion in the Left. Replaced by Black and Brown Power, the political debate moved into a territory in which the elites prefer to debate because they have almost all of the power and now have hammer of the police state to back it up.