Reviewed by Robert R. Thomas
An unsettling childhood memory is that things were not as they seemed, and nobody was talking about it. My brother Alan succinctly described our childhood milieu as a “culture of silence.” While reading America: The Farewell Tour, by Chris Hedges, that childhood culture of silence revisited me.
The book’s chapters—DECAY, HEROIN, WORK, SADISM, HATE, GAMBLING and FREEDOM—are lucid reveals about the fall of empire, historically and currently. The book’s focus is a deep dive into pathologies of self-annihilation, both individually and culturally.
For Hedges, these pathologies arise from the destruction of the social bonds that give us meaning, dignity, status, a sense of place, stability and purpose. He demonstrates historically that societies which lose the capacity to separate illusion from reality die. The farewell tour of such a culture, Hedges offers, always entails a spiritual malaise, a cult of self, that has created tremendous disassociation, depression, and unhappiness.
Drawing on sociologist Emile Durkheim’s 1897 classic treatise, On Suicide, which holds that what drives a person to kill is a yearning for self-extinction, Hedges references the term, “anomie,” which Durkheim defines as “rulelessness,” a society that no longer has rules, or at least the rules are no longer obeyed. Once anomie grips a society, a series of self-annihilating pathologies arise. Anomie runs rampant through America, as Hedges delineates in America: The Farewell Tour.
DECAY plunges the reader into the heart of economic darkness in empire’s failures through the lens of a deindustrialized American city, Scranton, Pennsylvania. After the city’s many attempts to keep afloat financially, nothing was left to steal or hock. “But after the last city assets are sold, what is next?” asks Hedges. “No one has an answer.” What once was “had been replaced,” reports Hedges, “in Scranton and across America by desperation, poverty, drift, a loss of identity, and a deep and crippling despair.”
“Marx was keenly aware of capitalism’s ability to innovate and adapt,” writes Hedges. “But he also knew that capitalist expansion was not eternally sustainable. And as we witness the denouement of capitalism, Karl Marx is vindicated as the system’s most prescient critic.” Hedges notes that Marx’s warning about the last stages of capitalism at its most predatory is an economy built on austerity and the scaffolding of debt expansion, what Marx called “fictitious money.”
“There comes a moment, Marx knew,” writes Hedges, “when there would be no new markets available and no new pools of people who could take on more debt. This is what happened with the subprime mortgage crisis. Once the banks could not conjure up new subprime borrowers, the scheme fell apart and the system crashed.”
Positing Marx’s definition of work as “wage slavery,” WORK opens with a quote from Durkheim’s On Suicide:
“When life is not worth living, everything becomes a pretext for ridding ourselves of it…There is a collective mood, as there is an individual mood, that inclines nations to sadness…For individuals are too closely involved in the life of society for it to be sick without their being affected. Its suffering inevitably becomes theirs.”
For Hedges, “Corporate capitalism has made war on the communal and the sacred, on those forces that allow us to connect and transcend our temporal condition to bond with others. These bonds will be reestablished or we will slip further into a world where death is more attractive than life.”
SADISM, writes Hedges, “has become an accepted part of mass culture. Fifty Shades of Gray, like the movie American Sniper, expresses the ethos of a predatory world where the weak and the vulnerable are objects to exploit. The powerful are narcissistic and violent demigods for whom pleasure comes at the expense of another.”
It is also a windfall for corporate capitalism’s investors.
“When you fight porn, you fight capitalism,” Professor Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, tells Hedges. “The venture capitalists, the banks, the credit card companies are all in this feeding chain. This is why you never see anti-porn stories. The media is implicated. It is financially in bed with these companies.”
Hedges sums up their conversation: “The violence and commodification of human beings for profit are the quintessential expressions of global capitalism. Our corporate masters are pimps.”
GAMBLING depicts a pathology in which predators abound in an industry that preys on the despair of people who are in financial distress, people who have a difficult time coping with life’s challenges. Casino capitalism, presented as economic development, has spread across the land. Gambling offers both a possible solution to financial difficulties and a drug to anesthetize the loser from the loser world around him.
With his withering emphasis on human greed, power, and cruelty, Hedges is often portrayed as Mr. Bad News. His latest investigation into pathologies of scale will certainly do nothing to diminish that reputation as he spotlights the detritus and decay delusional thinking creates. Furthermore, he doubles down on the scariest part of delusional thinking. “The most important existential issues that face us are not even articulated. And that is very dangerous.”
FREEDOM, the final chapter in America: The Farewell Tour, is a cri de cœur. Even though it is Mr. Bad News delivering the sermon, his choir of voices throughout the chapter confirms his humanitarian message with their stories of faith, hope and love.
Sybil and Josh Medlin, who come out of the Catholic Worker Movement, own and operate Burdock House in Anderson, Indiana, which Josh describes as “a house of hospitality” and “an alternative model to a culture that focuses on accumulating as much money as possible and on an economic structure based on competition and taking advantage of others.” Hedges deftly weaves into their narrative fabric Walker Percy’s classic American dystopian novel from 1971, Love in the Ruins. He accentuates the weave with literary and political commentary. As a reader and writer, I found this section of narrative journalism particularly rich.
Adding to the weave are stories of a community organizer in Brooklyn, a trip to Standing Rock, militarized police forces, a sociologist specializing in nonviolent social change, T-Dubb-O and Rika Tyler, cofounders of Hands Up United, the privatized prison industry in carceral state and the plethora of guns and violence. Throughout their stories resistance rears its diverse head.
“Resistance,” Hedges writes, “is not, fundamentally, political. It is cultural and spiritual. It is about finding meaning and expression in the transcendent and the incongruities of life….Art celebrates the freedom and dignity of those who defy malignant evil. Victory is not inevitable, or at least not victory as defined by the powerful. Yet in every act of rebellion we are free.”
A culture of silence is a most dangerous game under Hedges’s spotlight because it is a gathering darkness of delusional, self-annihilating thinking. He notes that theologian Paul Tillich and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard regard “sin” as an estrangement from the forces that give us ultimate meaning and purpose in life.
“As long as we fold inward and embrace a hyper-individualism that is defined by selfishness and narcissism,” writes Hedges, “we will never overcome this estrangement. We will be separated from ourselves, from others and from the sacred.”
A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning former journalist for The New York Times who covered the horror of wars around the world for nearly twenty years, Hedges is a seasoned guide to existential, moral, and intellectual issues.
The final paragraph of FREEDOM’s cry and the conclusion to America: The Farewell Tour resolves the author’s quest to debunk the delusions of human supremacy and promote the righteousness of human dignity:
“Resistance is not only about battling the forces of darkness. It is about becoming a complete human being. It is about overcoming estrangement. It is about our neighbor. It is about honoring the sacred. It is about dignity. It is about sacrifice. It is about courage. It is about freedom. It is about the capacity to love. Resistance must become our vocation.”
In the end, hope is born out of the tragic. In interviews and talks, Hedges often quotes from Vassily Grossman’s book, Life and Fate: “It’s not a battle between good and evil; it’s a battle between a great evil trying to crush human kindness. But if human kindness has not been crushed, even now, then evil will never win.”
Faith, for Hedges, is a truth he derived from Rev. Daniel Berrigan: the belief that the good draws to itself the good.
Mr. Bad News, it turns out, is deeply in love with humanity and what was once called reality. His message is not FEAR; it is WAKE UP.
EVM book reviewer and board member Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.