I have some disagreements with Chris Hedges, particularly when he writes about religion and atheism. But I recently read an essay of his called "Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand" and his first book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and I was pleasantly surprised that he had some pretty powerful and profound things to say about American society and foreign policy. So I've started to dig deeper into his work. Thanks to my newfound interest in his work, I came across this terrifying reaction to articulate dissent.
This was May 17, 2003, when Hedges was still a correspondent for the New York Times. His book, War Is a Force..., was still in hardcover. Bush had declared "Mission Accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln two weeks earlier. Hedges, upon being invited to speak at the alma mater of legendary pacifist and suffragist Jane Adams, thought that he had the opportunity to speak his mind. Much of the audience felt differently.
The booing becomes audible within two minutes. Shouts and bullhorns soon follow. About three minutes in, some of the graduates decided to rise and turn their backs to Hedges- a dignified form of protest at a public speech. Due to the idiocy of some of the crowd, it proved counterproductive; the silent protesters were loudly cheered on. After less than five minutes of his sober lecture, some of the crowd are shouting "God Bless America!" and shouting "USA, USA!" Someone cuts the mic, and it isn't until the president of the college makes clear that the speech is to continue that they are turned back on.
Here is the text of the speech up to the point where the mics were cut, notations mine"
The mic was restored, apparently based on the instruction of the college's president, and the speech only continued after he calmed the crowd. It is notable that some cheered when it was announced Hedges would continue. The full speech lasted just over 20 minutes, with interruptions, and it only gets worse. People continue to shout, and several approach the stage to argue angrily with administrators. It is doubtful that his words were even being heard by the hecklers.I want to speak to you today about war and empire.Killing, or at least the worst of it, is over in Iraq. Although blood will continue to spill -- theirs and ours -- be prepared for this. For we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power, and security. But this will come later as our empire expands and in all this we become pariahs, tyrants to others weaker than ourselves. Isolation always impairs judgment and we are very isolated now.We have forfeited the good will, the empathy the world felt for us after 9-11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace and we are part now of a dubious troika in the war against terror with Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon, two leaders who do not shrink in Palestine or Chechnya from carrying out acts of gratuitous and senseless acts of violence. We have become the company we keep. [Low boos are audbile.]The censure and perhaps the rage of much of the world, certainly one-fifth of the world's population which is Muslim, most of whom I'll remind you are not Arab, is upon us. Look today at the 14 people killed last night in several explosions in Casablanca. And this rage in a world where almost 50 percent of the planet struggles on less than two dollars a day will see us targeted. Terrorism will become a way of life [first loud boo], and when we are attacked we will, like our allies Putin and Sharon, lash out with greater fury. [First bullhorn; man in crowd yells, "Good speech, moron!"] The circle of violence is a death spiral; no one escapes. We are spinning at a speed that we may not be able to hold. As we revel in our military prowess -- the sophistication of our military hardware and technology, for this is what most of the press coverage consisted of in Iraq -- we lose sight of the fact that just because we have the capacity to wage war it does not give us the right to wage war. This capacity has doomed empires in the past."Modern western civilization may perish," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, "because it falsely worshiped technology as a final good."The real injustices, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the brutal and corrupt dictatorships we fund in the Middle East, will mean that we will not rid the extremists who hate us with bombs. Indeed we will swell their ranks. Once you master people by force you depend on force for control. In your isolation you begin to make mistakes. [Man in crowd yells something indistinct about "September 11"]Fear engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. [Loud cheers break out for, apparently for students who turned their back on Hedges.] In the center of Dante's circle the damned remained motionless. [Bullhorn blows; shouts of "USA! USA!"] We have blundered into a nation we know little about and are caught between bitter rivalries and competing ethnic groups and leaders we do not understand [Man in crowd yells "Shut up!"]. We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe characterized, among other things, by the division of earth into independent secular states based on national citizenship in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed [Boos, catcalls and shouts increase as more audience members rise to turn their backs.]. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917; it will be a cesspool for us as well. [Woman ends indistinct, shouted statement with "God bless America"; more cheers ensue.] The curfews, the armed clashes with angry crowds that leave scores of Iraqi dead, the military governor [Chants of "USA!"], the Christian Evangelical groups who are being allowed to follow on the heels of our occupying troops to try and teach Muslims about Jesus. The occupation of the oil... [Mic is cut off, some audience members cheer.]
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a meditation on the how societies at war band together behind the cause, how they abandon reason in favor of "The Myth of War," and how, during war, dissent becomes unacceptable. It is sad how much the reaction of the audience served as support for his hypothesis. The irony was not lost on Hedges. In an interview on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman a few days later he said:
You know, as I looked out on the crowd, that is exactly what my book is about. It is about the suspension of individual conscience, and probably consciousness, for the contagion of the crowd for that euphoria that comes with patriotism. The tragedy is that -- and I've seen it in conflict after conflict or society after society that plunges into war -- with that kind of rabid nationalism comes racism and intolerance and a dehumanization of the other. And it's an emotional response. People find a kind of ecstasy, a kind of belonging, a kind of obliteration of their alienation in that patriotic fervor that always does come in war time.Some might argue that it was wrong for Hedges to make that address in the first place. Didn't he ruin an important day for a lot of nice people? I would argue that it was only the reaction of some members of the crowd that made the thing so unpleasant (though I was not there, obviously). It appears from the video that the majority of the people are perplexed by the response. If the crowd had simply listened, and all those who disagreed had been as principled as the students who turned their backs rather than disrupting, I think most people would have remembered the address as being unusual- perhaps even a little boring.
The speech Hedges wrote for the Rockford class of 2003, who are now about 30, did contain useful information. Those who did hear what he had to say got a better analysis of the situation of Iraq most had at the time, and might have had some insight into the events of the next 5 years as a result. That's more than I can say for any graduation speech I've heard.