A Case for Civil Disobedience

Chris Hedges offers a poignant view of how far we have drifted as a Nation and points to the urgent need for more than petitions, votes, and Facebook posts, while Rev. Barber offers a nationwide strategy to resist.

I was going to try to paraphrase what Chris Hedges said on Sunday afternoon in Albuquerque, but Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I am not. And what he had to say was so important, I have transcribed his closing remarks, read from his book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.”  After the excerpt, I close with some thoughts of my own, a feeble effort to bring his words directly back to New Mexico 2018. But first, Chris Hedges as he describes his thoughts as he waited to be arrested in an Occupy Wall St. protest:

“Faces appeared to me moments before protestors from Occupy Wall Street and I were arrested on a windy November afternoon in front Goldman Sachs. They were not the faces of the smug Goldman Sachs employees, who peered at us through the revolving glass doors and lobby window, a pathetic collection of middle-aged fraternity and sorority members. They were not the faces of the blue-uniformed police with their dangling plastic handcuffs, or the thuggish Goldman Sachs security personnel, whose buzz cuts and dead eyes remind me of the Stasi. They were not the faces of the demonstrators around me, the ones with massive student debts and no jobs, the ones weighted down by their broken dreams, the ones whose anger and betrayal triggered the street demonstrations and occupations for justice. They were not the faces of the onlookers—the construction workers, who seemed cheered by the march on Goldman Sachs, or the suited businessmen who did not.. They were faraway faces I had seen in the southern Sudan, Gaza, the slums of Brazzaville, Nairobi, Cairo, Delhi, and the wars I covered. They were faces with large, glassy eyes above bloated bellies. They were the small faces of children convulsed by the ravages of starvation and disease.

I carry these faces. They do not leave me. I look at my own children and cannot forget them, these other children who never had a chance. War brings with it a host of horrors, but the worst is always the human detritus that war and famine leave behind, the small, frail bodies whose tangled limbs and vacant eyes condemn us all. The wealthy and the powerful, the ones behind the glass at Goldman Sachs, laughed and snapped pictures of us as if we were an odd lunchtime diversion from commodities trading, from hoarding and profit, from the collective sickness of money worship, as if we were creatures in a cage, which in fact we would soon become.

Goldman Sachs’ commodities index is the most heavily traded in the world. The financial firm hoards futures of rice, wheat, corn, sugar, and livestock and jacks up commodity prices by as much as two hundred percent on the global market so that poor families can no longer afford basic staples and literally starve. Hundreds of millions of poor in African, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America do not have enough to eat in order to feed this mania for profit. The technical jargon, learned in business schools and on trading floors, effectively masks the reality of what is happening: murder. The cold, neutral words of business and commerce are designed to make systems operate, even systems of death, with ruthless efficiency.

The people behind the windows and those of us with arms locked in a circle on the concrete outside, did not speak the same language. Profit. Trade. Speculation. Globalization. War. National Security. These are the words they use to justify the snuffing out of tiny lives, acts of radical evil. The glass tower before us is filled with people carefully selected for the polish and self-assurance that come from having been formed in institutions of privilege. Their primary attributes are lack of consciousness, a penchant for self deception, aggressiveness, a worship of money, and an incapacity for empathy and remorse.

It is always the respectable classes, the polished Ivy League graduates, the prep school boys and girls who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut or Short Hills, New Jersey, who are most susceptible to evil. To be intelligent, as many are, at least in a narrow, analytical way, is morally neutral. These respectable citizens are inculcated in their elitist ghettos with “values” and “norms,” including pious acts of charity used to justify their privilege, and a belief in the innate goodness of American power. They are trained to pay deference to systems of authority. They are taught to believe in their own goodness, unable to see or comprehend—and are perhaps indifferent to–the cruelty inflicted on others by the exclusive systems they serve. And as norms changes, as the world is steadily transformed by corporate forces into a small cabal of predators and a vast herd of human prey, these elites seamlessly replace one set of “values” with another. These elites obey the rules. They make the system work. And they are rewarded for this. In return, they do not question.

We seemed to have lost, at least until the advent of Occupy Wall Street movement, not only all personal responsibility but all capacity for personal judgment. Corporate culture absolves all of responsibility. This is part of its appeal. It relieves all from moral choice. There is an unequivocal acceptance of principles of unregulated capitalism and globalization as a kind of natural law. The steady march of corporate capitalism requires a passive acceptance of new laws and demolished regulations, of bailouts in the trillions of dollars and the systematic looting of public funds, of lies and deceit.  The corporate culture, epitomized by Goldman Sachs, has seeped into our classrooms, our newsrooms, our entertainment systems, and our consciousness.The corporate culture has stripped us of the right to express ourselves outside of the narrow confines of the established political order. We are forced to surrender our voice. Corporate culture serves a faceless system. It is, as Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘the rule of nobody and for this very reason perhaps the least human and most cruel form of rulership.’

Those who resist–the doubters, outcasts, artists, renegades, skeptics, and rebels–rarely come from the elite. They ask different questions. They seek something else: a life of meaning. They have grasped Immanuel Kant’s dictum: ‘If justice perishes, human life on Earth has lost its meaning.’ And in their search they come to the conclusion that, as Socrates said, it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. This conclusion makes a leap into the moral. It refuses to place monetary value on human life. It acknowledges human life, indeed all life, as sacred. And this is why, as Arendt points out, the only morally reliable people are not those who say ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this should not be’ but those who say ‘I can’t.’

‘The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,’ Arendt wrote. ‘For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing ourselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur–the Zeitgeist or History or whatever temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots, it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.’

There are streaks in my lungs, traces of tuberculosis I picked up around hundreds of dying Sudanese during the famine I covered as a foreign correspondent. I was strong and privileged and fought off the disease. They were not and did not. The bodies, most of them children, were dumped into hastily dug mass graves. The scars I carry within me are the whispers of the dead. They are the faint marks of those who never had a chance to become men or women, to fall in love or have children of their own. I carried those scars to the doors of Goldman Sachs. I placed myself at the feet of these commodity traders to call for justice because the dead, and those dying in slums and refugee camps across the planet, cannot make this journey. I see their faces. They haunt me in the day and come to me in the dark. They force me to remember. They make me choose sides.”

When Hedges finished reading, he closed by saying that he would continue to fight against all odds because he wanted his son to know he tried. He was holding back tears as he said this, as was most every person in the church. What he didn’t say, is that we have no choice.

Over the past 18 months, this blog has described the decades-long descent of our country into a valueless culture that has unfathomable technical skills and no moral compass. We can skip past the news and somehow think that our comfort is okay, has even been earned. And yes most all of us have worked hard and we have done important things, but we have done this in a nation and culture that can allow, even reward handsomely, commodity traders whose job it is to starve the world. We allow a state in which we can gloat about the huge infusion of new revenues into our state coffer, revenues derived from the raping of the entire southeast corner of our enchanted state. We allow the unchecked influence of the NRA to overwhelm both common sense and common decency as more and more innocents are slaughtered in schools, churches, and theaters. To Wall St, people and planet are commodities to be traded, used, and tossed away, and for far too many of our elected officials on both sides of the aisle, this is just collateral damage from a free market that is what makes America great. It is certainly damage, but it is not collateral, it is not accidental, and it does not make us great. It is brutally intentional and we are all responsible as long as we pay our taxes and accept the benefits of our privilege.

Maybe it is time to step out of our relative security and risk some of our comfort. Maybe it is time, as Mario Savio famously said: to throw our bodies on the machine to make it stop. Because as long as we allow this, the blood from that collateral damage is on our hands whether we see it or not.

I have no real understanding whether the Poor People’s Campaign is going to be the tipping point of a social movement that catalyzes the nation and forces us all to look into the face of capitalism and and into the eyes of its victims and say: no more. But at least there will be dignity in the fight and at least my kids will know that I wasn’t silent.

Here is a link here to sign up for the Campaign and get information as we advance toward the launch of nationwide civil disobedience on May 13. I am not sure where we are headed, but I know I can’t continue to just write, vote, petition, and call. It is, as Hedges notes, time to choose sides.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

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