Ottawa Writers Festival: Chris Hedges sees the decline and fall of America

Chris Hedges. Photo: Michael Nigro

The Roman empire collapsed, overextended and sclerotic, badly led by men who had lost touch with reality. The Romanov dynasty disappeared under the weight of its own delusions influenced by the teachings a mad monk. And when the Soviet Union collapsed the society was beset by alcoholism and a plummeting death especially for men.

The end of empire is clearly difficult. And, the American writer and activist Chris Hedges says, the decay is detectable, if you look. And he does.

He has found those symptoms in the United States. Hedges is in Ottawa Thursday evening with a new book in hand called America, The Farewell Tour. For Canadians, who suffer every time the American elephant rolls over, his message has resonance.

The former New York Times correspondent has seen nations collapse firsthand. He was in what was Yugoslavia and he covered the brutal mess that was created in El Salvador by Ronald Reagan.

And now, in his own country, he sees the signs: an opioid crisis that is leading to addictions and overdose deaths on a staggering scale, rampant gambling, corporatist government, the ‘pornification’ of culture, what he calls “magical” (delusional) thinking, bloody mass shootings and daily on-going violence, the rise of hate groups, an epidemic of suicides particularly of white working class men and finally climate change denial and upheaval.

As you might guess it is a dark story. Hedges doesn’t pretend to offer hope, but it is a call to action nonetheless.

“The genesis of the book is an idea proposed by (the late 19th century French thinker Emile) Durkheim and his understanding that diseased or decayed societies produce very frightening pathologies,” he said in an interview.

“The genesis of these pathologies comes out of a society that, in many ways, has ceased to function. So I wanted to talk about how the degeneration of American society manifests itself in behaviours that are now commonplace in the United States: mass shootings, gambling, opioid addiction, suicide, hate groups.”

Durkheim called this anomie.

And, Hedges said, “if you don’t address that (anomie) the pathologies will only grow and nobody is addressing it.”

When societies collapse, civilizations end, there is some sort of tipping point. The question then is: Has U.S. passed it?

“I think politically that’s true in the United States.”

On climate change, there is an understanding that it will create what Hedges calls “feedback loops” that will accelerate global warming and its effects.

“We are not responding to these warnings. We are barreling towards extinction. We have kind of turned the other way. That is a form of magical thinking which is also very common in collapsing societies,” he said.

“We manifest the disintegration and the typical response. If you look at the end of the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it’s very similar. And it has been chronicled. In our way we are doing exactly the same thing.”

There is a cure, but Hedges is not optimistic about it working.

“You can’t vote against the interests of companies such as Raytheon and Citibank. It’s impossible. Either the system is overthrown or it will kill the democracy. It probably already has killed the democracy and it will literally create systems within the biosphere that will make human habitation impossible.

“My response is to fight the system in the marginal hope that it can be overthrown. I wouldn’t say it has much chance of success, but I have to try.”

His prediction is that as, what he calls the economic assault on the American working class grows, they will become more restive.

“How that will manifest itself is an unknown. It may manifest itself in the embrace of a right wing Christianized proto-fascism. Corporate forces know only one word and that is more. There are no impediments to exploitation and that potentially will trigger an eruption but it might be an eruption where people burn down the shops of undocumented Central Americans.”

“I saw the same thing in the former Yugoslavia”

Hedges is also a Presbyterian minister raised in the traditions of the Social Gospel, a movement that in Canada spawned the CCF and later the NDP. He now refers to himself as a Christian anarchist.

“(The Social Gospel) doesn’t have a lot of reach now,” he said. The solution to the American malaise might rather be in the streets through movements such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy and and Me Too.

“That is why I write about Standing Rock, the protest against a pipeline that drew thousands to the Standing Rock Sioux First Nation.

Can spirit of Standing Rock build?

“That’s an unknown. I think people forget how the Occupy movement was fragmented after it was broken up by the Obama administration. That created a community of consciousness and many people went on to be involved in Black Lives Matter and other movements. Up to 10,000 people were at Standing Rock about half of them Indigenous.

“These things are very important even if they fail. They provide a template and a consciousness that is vital if we are going to resist.”

It will begin, he says, in local action and grow from there.

Hedges is neither an optimistic pessimist nor a pessimistic optimist.

“I just don’t think that way. I don’t share the American obsession or mania with hope. I want to make a cold calculation of the forces arrayed against us and respond as best I can.

“You can’t be in Sarajevo as I was and being hit with 2,000 shells a day, week after week” and think any other way. “You do the best you can to document the atrocities around you and get up fully aware the next day there would be more.”

Hedges book is part polemic and part journalism. He is in doing reporter’s work, something that he believes is an endangered craft. He is a bit of a unique individual. He doesn’t have a website and is not on any form of social media.

“Reporting is kind of a dying courtesy of the internet and the fact that nobody pays for it anymore. With the decline of print, people don’t know how to do reporting especially investigative reporting. That worries me a bit.”

For Hedges, the presidency of Donald Trump is another symptom of the decay inside American democracy.

“He is a demagogue and a con artist and people bought” what he was selling. “They always do in systems that have ceased to function. He challenged the established and despised elites in the Republican and Democratic parties. That’s how he got to power. That’s what Milosevic did in former Yugoslavia.

“That’s the danger of dysfunctional democracies, they vomit up people like Donald Trump. History has proved that over and over again.”

No matter what happens, Hedges wishes people would get real about hope.

“We have to put things into perspective. We are all going to the same place and it’s not good and it’s coming quicker than we think.

“It is a matter of growing up. Childish hope is really about passivity. Every time they write about climate change (for example) they write about the year 2100. I can tell you by 2100 if there are not massive changes in our relationship with the planet and the ecosystem we are gone.

“People put it out of their own lifespan so they don’t have to deal with it.”

We do the same thing with death, he says.

“We are a culture utterly incapable of confronting death, not only our own death but the death of the ecosystem upon which we depend for life.

“We all want hope, but it’s another opioid. The greatest existential struggle of our time is to recognize how bleak our situation is and to respond any way.”

Hedges is in Canada a lot, in part, because “my books do well in Canada. My critique of corporate greed is more palatable in the Canadian mainstream than it is in the United States. In the U.S., that discussion is completely censored.”

He also acknowledges that Canada has a different political ethos.

“Canada’s not as different as it thinks it is, but it is different.”

America, The Final Tour
Chris Hedges (Simon & Schuster)
In town: The author will be at Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave. at 7 p.m. Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.