Events / Miscellaneous

Chris Hedges on the future of social activism

Photo courtesy of  Chris Hedges via Wikimedia Commons 

Vjosa Isai

We wanted to get there an hour before doors opened. Walking at the speed set by our overweight schoolbags, my friends and I panted our way to Bloor Street United Church in Toronto. Aside from another girl perched on the church steps, we were the first in line for the September 20 event that was expected to seat 800 attendees. We peeled off our backpacks and plunked ourselves down on the cool grey church steps in the shade of looming rainclouds.

I scoped the growing crowd periodically and spotted things characteristic of leftist gatherings. Political messages were printed in aggressive typeface on the occasional t-shirt. Steno pads were tucked neatly under armpits, ready to scribble down the antidote for political afflictions that would be prescribed by tonight’s guest. Members from the Citizens Climate Lobby handing out flyers; Trotskyists circulating the line with their latest newspaper and Bolsheviks distributing invitations to talks on imperialist crimes in the Middle East.

The event organizers, Canadian Dimension magazine, cater their publication to exactly these types, expressed in their slogan, “For people who want to change the world.” And as the wooden doors swung open, these people herded their way through to hear just how they could change it by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author, Chris Hedges.

After a thunderstorm of clapping and two brief introductions from Canadian Dimension sports writer, Simon Black and economist Jim Stanford, Hedges approached the mike.

He began his talk by recapping U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand comment that allowed for a diplomatic approach to the Syrian conflict, calling it a “seismic moment in modern American history.” Hedges recapped how the war rhetoric of the last decade – such as appealing to American exceptionalism and their fear of a menacing dictator – somehow failed the Obama administration.

Hedges relates this moment to when he was a boy going to anti-war demonstrations in the 1960s with his dad. The protests of that decade spawned a popular opinion that the Vietnam War was nothing more than a massive atrocity.

“We shifted from a mythical narrative about war to a sensual understanding of war, sensual in a sense that suddenly, we began to respond to facts, to feelings and to emotions rather than to myths.”

This is cycle is beginning again in the United States.

In 2003, responding to facts cost Hedges his job after he openly spoke against the war in Iraq during a college commencement speech in Rockford, Ill. “America had drunk deep from that dark elixir of nationalism, and no one was opposed to the Iraq War,” he said of the post 9/11 climate. Not even his employer, the New York Times. Hedges refused to have his pleas for peace silenced, and subsequently handed in his resignation.

“It’s not just the press that has collapsed; it’s all the pillars of a liberal society that have collapsed,” he said. This realization came after Hedges received a shocking response from Knopf after submitting a manuscript for publication. “They would publish it only after they assigned an editor to excise all the negativity, what they called ‘negativity’, out of the book.” Again, Hedges refused to purge his work of the facts, the truth, and opted to print with a different publishing house.

Chris Hedges (centre) signing books at Bloor Street United Church

Chris Hedges (centre) signing books at Bloor Street United Church Photo by: Abdallah Butt

His drive to blow away the smokescreen of euphemistic narratives perpetuated by the establishment led Hedges into court last May. The case? Hedges v. Obama. With the help of other intellectuals and activists, such as renowned political activist Noam Chomsky and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Hedges sued the Obama administration for the unconstitutionality of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Sections 1021 of the NDAA allow the American military to seize anyone suspected of “substantial”, not material, support of terrorist organizations and hold them indefinitely in military detention without due process. Anyone who commits acts that are deemed to be “belligerent” or aggressive towards the United States can also be imprisoned. Hedges stressed that this can include journalists and whistleblowers.

Hedges’ victory was short-lived. While U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the Southern District of New York may have declared the law to be unconstitutional, the decision was quickly appealed by the Obama administration in an emergency hearing in appellant court. The fact that they demanded a temporary injunction on Judge Forrest’s decision is curious.

“The only reason, at least as far as the lawyers and I can figure out, is because they are already using the law,” Hedges said.

Despite ongoing wars ravaging populations in the Middle East, corporations leeching planet earth of its resources and certain governments continuing their assault on civil liberties, Hedges is hopeful.

“We who care about social justice must accept that we are perpetually alienated from power. It is our job to organize and push and frighten those in power to respond.”

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2 thoughts on “Chris Hedges on the future of social activism

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  2. Perfect article for keeping up with Hedges’ work. I’m sure even he would enjoy reading it! Also liked the photo. It captures lectures by notable speakers so well, the book signing!

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