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In an interview with National Observer, renowned author Chris Hedges called Donald Trump a symptom of a diseased society, talked about loss of economic control to international banking systems and shared stories of his two-year journey through 12 U.S. states while writing his new book America, the Farewell Tour.
Hedges, who spent nearly two decades reporting as a journalist in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, also worked 15 years with the New York Times, "when it was raking in a lot of money," he told Linda Solomon Wood in an interview on Oct. 10 at National Observer's Vancouver office.
Hedges now writes a weekly column for the online magazine Truthdig, but that's about the most time he spends online, he said, even as the interview streamed live on Facebook. Hedges doesn't contribute to his own Twitter account, avoids Facebook, Instagram, television and other media that he believes "feed self presentation and a sick culture of narcissism."
In America, the Farewell Tour, Hedges provides powerful reportage from inside communities across America, shedding light on what he calls "diseases of despair" like the opioid crisis, a culture of pornography and the emboldening of hate that has resulted from ruptured social bonds and various systems of oppression.
"I worked on the book for two years," Hedges told National Observer. "When I submitted the title, everyone twinged, but after Trump was elected, it didn't sound so hyperbolic. Two years ago, nobody could conceive of Donald Trump as President of the United States, but for those of us who had been reporting out of the malaise of the country, we had a better grasp of the sickness that has gripped American society and what it is capable of producing."
Hedges called Trump a symptom of a diseased society. However, Trump is not the issue, in many ways, Hedges said, but the symptom of a larger disease.
Until people address the 'diseases of despair' that plague American society, Chris Hedges said, there is no way to blunt the self-destructive pathologies that made a #Trump presidency possible.
"We can get rid of Trump, but it isn't going to make any difference until this assault on the social bonds that make an open society possible are resurrected," Hedges said. "And of course, we are moving rapidly in the other direction."
Until people address the 'diseases of despair' that plague American society, Hedges said, there is no way to blunt the self-destructive pathologies that made a Trump presidency possible. Addressing the array of pathologies discussed in his book, Hedges said people need to get clear on what "believing in America" and the American dream really means.
"What does believing in America mean? Does believing in America mean believing in the mythology of white America? Or does believing in America mean confronting the darkness that is endemic within America? Facing the fact that we're a society founded on the twin pillars of genocide and slavery?" Hedges asked. "The American system, from its inception, was designed to be a closed system, to lock out the majority. We have never confronted who we are."
Hedges said American society continues to feed itself lies of "fictitious virtues." The denial of reality, he said, is part of what created a figure like Trump. Hedges has lived in Germany and Austria and said "the Austrians never confronted their role, (referring to the second world war) but painted themselves as victims, while Germans, "for all their faults, attempted to face the radical evil of the Holocaust and accept responsibility."
Hedges said Americans have never accepted the radical evil that fosters slavery and forms of neoslavery, allowing the mechanisms that control and repress vulnerable populations to mutate form.
Neoslavery can be understood as a new or modified form of contemporary slavery. As explored in the popular documentary titled13th, some believe that slavery wasn't necessarily abolished with the 13th amendment, but mutated into the prison system, which provides little or no compensation for mandatoy prison labour.
"If you work 40 hours a week in (prison in) New Jersey, you're paid 28 cents an hour," Hedges said. "In Louisiana it's four cents an hour and in Georgia it's zero. Prisons can't operate without bonded prison labour. Almost every job is done by prisoners."
Hedges called the American prison system, where he has taught for a decade, "a monstrosity." While Americans make up five percent of the world's population, they have 25 percent of the worlds' prison population. The majority of prisoners in America, Hedges pointed out, are poor and mostly people of colour.
In America, the Farewell Tour, Hedges interviewed a young man, Siddique Hasan, who greeted him in the Ohio State penitentiary with shackles on his hands and feet. When he sat down for the interview, Hedges said guards shackled him to the chair. His crime? Leading a prison uprising. His punishment? Death row.
"Siddique and the other uprising leaders said the only way to stop the system of neoslavery is to stop being a slave," Hedges said. When asked about effective societal uprisings, Hedges referenced Standing Rock as a "great example we have to replicate." Standing Rock, or the 'Dakota Access Pipeline Protests,' involved a historic gathering of Indigenous communities and allies standing up to protect the land and water from extractive industry in 2016.
"It was Indigenous-led, nonviolent and had that spiritual component that I think is essential to effective resistance," Hedges said. During the Standing Rock standoff, water protectors were met with intense state-enforced backlash. More than 700 people were arrested, many people were surveilled, camps were infiltrated, people were pepper sprayed by police, dogs were unleashed and water canons sprayed at crowds in subfreezing temperatures.
"When you are effective in defying the State, you can expect to be treated with great cruelty," Hedges said. "The State responded viciously."
Though Hedges referenced the Standing Rock movement, the Occupy Movement, the Idle No More Movement, and the Quebec student protests as effective episodic acts of civil disobedience, he doesn't have much faith in the direction of his country.
"It's becoming more tribal," Hedges said. "The breakdown of civil discourse, of which Trump is emblematic - the use of vulgarities, the belittling of others, the racism, the misogyny, the bigotry - all of which is now overt, is creating divides, which, if we don't reconnect, will have disastrous consequences."
During his research for the book, Hedges spent time with various politically organized groups like the 'Proud Boys,' the 'Knights of the Alt-Right' and the 'One-percenters." Hedges said in his time, he came to recognize the most dangerous force in America, as the "Christian Right." Hedges calls them "Christian fascists," and said that he doesn't use the word fascist lightly.
"They fuse the American iconography and language of American patriotism with the iconography and language of the Christian religion," Hedges said. "Trump has no ideology. The Christian Right rapidly filled the ideological vacuum." Hedges said Christian Right ideology was the "engine" that put controversial Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who Hedges called "a corporation masquerading as a human being" in the Supreme Court.
So where does hope lie?
In Iceland, apparently. Hedges said Iceland "got it" when they put bankers in jail.
"Global corporate capitalism is a giant octopus that has its tentacles around the neck of just about everyone," he added, saying holding corporations accountable is not an easy task, but that if the rise of fascism and neofascism is not reversed, "we're in serious trouble."