In welcoming Chris Hedges to Orange County for an event called, un-shyly, indeed provocatively, "Calling All Rebels: The Moral Imperative to Revolt," we celebrate an exemplar of civic engagement and find an opportunity to celebrate something of ourselves, together. Especially bibliophiles who appreciate, value, the written word and its authors at a moment of seeming disconnect from that tradition of literary truth-telling.
Hedges offers, to quote Noam Chomsky, the threat of a good example. He has struggled
faithfully against the everyday nightmare of mass acquiescence to and collaboration with the narrow, partisan, and giddily fatalistic show that is brought to us, 24-7, by the Society of the Spectacle. Too many writers and thinkers with an audience risk not even one iota of their own putative power.
They repeat what they are told or expected to say, and then as if in some further self-fulfilling simulcast, direct the fawning, hungry cameras at the predictable responses of the wealthy to the catastrophe, another rearranging of the deck chairs on The Carpathia.
Hedges, the former New York Times war correspondent, is a triple threat or, if you prefer triple role model, by way of his work as a journalist, activist and teacher. He writes for Truthdig and The Nation. He teaches incarcerated students. He sued President Obama over indefinite detention, engaged in protest and civil disobedience, and regularly testifies and speaks out against remote-control drone warfare, that Terry Gilliam Brazil-style Tuesday morning oval office video game death lottery.
Chris Hedges is no ordinary writer or commentator. He's an activist public intellectual and person of living letters, a moral working historian who delves the canon of books, art, philosophy and offers his analysis in near-parables, in meditations built around the specific word, sentence or episode carefully chosen, carefully directed, using that lovely if reinvigorated old-fashioned model of the righteous homily. He debated the late Christopher Hitchens. He is an ordained minister. He was booed and heckled at Rockford College, in Illinois, for criticizing the Iraq War early on. His microphone was shut off. Silly Rockfordians, you cannot quiet Mr. H!!!
Today he tours the country, creates weekly commentaries, talks about and thinks aloud about literature, of all things, as a guiding force. Imagine! Arguing in his latest, Wages of Rebellion, what we might learn from reading, or rereading Moby-Dick. He's one of our best guides to living in a land where storytelling (metaphor, characterization, symbol, plot) offers instruction, with its big, pleasurable, satisfying demands on imagination, contemplation, research, logic and interrogation. And talking about it with others, in an informed discourse.
Hedges is a rebel. He has resisted in his own way the fleeting and contrived in favor of a mission of redeeming reading and books, of reclaiming them as moral instruments, of consciousness-raising, of solidarity, empathy and, yes, rebellion. He would appear to be a home-grown American democratic Socialist! Of faith! (He wrote a book on the Christian right titled, gently, American Fascists!)
And then, by way of further example, he has followed his own advice. In his writing (twelve books, along with op-eds and decades of reporting), literature and philosophy do their gorgeous, wild dance which when then performed by actual people as Hedges himself and Occupy and Black Lives Matter and Veterans for Peace and organized and especially disorganized labor, and yes, Green Party organizers–even those in Orange County, California, USA!–the government cannot contain and corporations cannot snuff out or replace or co-opt or commodify or work into a Super Bowl halftime show.
He offers lessons in the exercise of "intellectual self-defense," so very necessary just now, his example by turns furious and gentle, elegant and enviable.
In welcoming Chris Hedges to Orange County, California, we celebrate with new and old friends, comrades, neighbors. Yet surely along with those assembled in the hall, we also find authors, thinkers, forgotten or mis-remembered allies, opponents and even enemies who have also lived their vivid politics.
This active practice of remembering, understanding and celebrating of our own history of resistance may be unfamiliar. That's likely because so many are busy or distracted or, most probably, purposely estranged from those myriad other genuine exemplars of happy resistance whom Hedges regularly invokes: Thomas Paine, Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, Emma Goldman, C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and in his most recent book, South African freedom fighters, anti-fracking eco-activists and the whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
In entering the world and worldview boostered by Chris Hedges we are invited to know and even become versions of those characters, as in, yes, Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451, where outlaw readers and thinkers have memorized books for an anticipated time of rebirth, when society is eager to embrace them, the books and the exiles both.
This is all–the power of writing, the radical activism, the gathering together to hear and see a writer—perhaps unlikely, if thrillingly disobedient and of course contrary to the plan of those behind the camera.
Imagine reading a good book. But being a good book, as in becoming a player in an alternative history text? It's a crazy, wonderful, ancient and still urgent conceit, this relationship to books and their creators, real and imagined. Yet in his latest collection, Hedges argues that it is impossible to defy evil and reaction, to live fully without this affirming, easy and much-needed variety of "sublime madness."
And what a great moment, in our temporarily up-for-grabs hopeful anti-moment of a pre-primary presidential contest, with the flapping of democratic butterfly wings, in perverse if joyous anticipation of what's called "the butterfly effect." Yes, we like to believe, somewhere, anywhere, a hurricane of some sort will result commensurate with but not at all in proportion to the number, strength, type of butterfly. Alas, the physics will hit a wall. Just now, however, there are Bernie Sanders, Green Party candidate Jill Stein (also on the Rebels line-up), the spectre of Elizabeth Warren and, of course, among the fascist insects, the funny-looking one offering his helpful case study in low-grade fascist populism. The contest just now is not for an actual candidate. In a few months the two corporate-capitalist Wall Street military-industrial parties will again conspire to erase any memory of real debate about class, income, war and peace, from within and without, give us the old bait-and-switch "lesser of" coercion. But a glimpse will remain, something at the edges of a dream, snippets of a speech, recollection of a tent city, demonstration, rally or sing-along, the remembered chorus of a song sung by voices we will be told never assembled. (See Shirley Chisolm, Ralph Nader, Eugene McCarthy, Howard Dean…) Just now the rigged system allows for a short seasonal exercise of lepidopterological riots of political imagination. While that lasts, we can and should and must holler about what we want. And assemble, as next Sunday night in Santa Ana, for some exemplary speechifying, argument and analysis in circumstances which, even in their exercise of solidarity and joyful engagement, must absolutely be imagined.
Chris Hedges, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Nation Books, 286 pgs., $ 26.99
Chris Hedges, "Calling All Rebels: The Moral Imperative to Revolt," sponsored by OC Green Party, Sunday, September 20, music starts at 5 pm, $20, Delhi Center, 505 E. Central Avenue, Santa Ana, 92707. Tickets: www.ocgreens.org
Andrew Tonkovich edits the literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.