Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Vintage Canada 2013, trade paperback, 302 pages, $19.95.
* * *
This latest book by Chris Hedges differs from most of his others by being less theoretical and more concrete. It is also a collaboration with graphic artist Joe Sacco, whose illustrations in cartoon format tell the stories of individuals in each of the “sacrifice zones” that Hedges singles out for examination. By this he means those areas of the United States “that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement.”
He begins in the Pine Ridge Reservation in North Dakota, or more precisely, just over the border in Nebraska, in the “town” of Whiteclay, which basically consists of four liquor stores. Since the sale of liquor is banned on the reservation, where alcoholism is estimated to be as high as 80%, its residents must go to Whiteclay to get their fix. Hedges tells the stories of several members of the Oglala Sioux Nation living on the reservation, and Sacco illustrates the life of another who got involved in the gang and drug culture, spent time in prison, and is now trying to turn his life around with the help of Native spirituality.
Pine Ridge today is just a small remnant of what was promised in perpetuity by treaty to the Oglala Sioux. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, the Indians were pressured to sell their land. When this didn’t work, it was seized by troops led by General Custer. What followed was the familiar story of forced assimilation, residential schools, a totally inadequate resource base, unemployment and poverty, leading to crime and addictions. Hedges sees the conflict between Indians and Euro-Americans as a template for our situation now in the corporate state: “The tyranny we imposed on others is now being imposed on us. We too are wage slaves. We, too, no longer know how to sustain ourselves. We are as dependent on the state as the Indians who were herded into the agencies and stripped of their self-sufficiency.”
The author then visits Camden, New Jersey, formerly a thriving industrial city, but now a post-industrial wasteland. The corporations and industries that once provided employment packed up and went overseas in search of cheap labour, leaving, in Hedges’ words, “a dead city. It makes and produces nothing. It is the poorest city in the United States.” Camden declared bankruptcy several years ago and laid off nearly half its police force in 2011. It is now mired in police and government corruption and faces huge problems with gangs, prostitution, and drugs.
Equally bleak is Hedges’s depiction of his next destination, West Virginia. There, mountaintop removal for coal mining has altered the landscape and ruined people’s lives. Entire mountaintops are blasted away to get at coal deposits that will only add to greenhouse gas emissions. This destroys the natural ecosystem of valleys and streams, poisons wells, fills the air with toxic compounds, and results in huge, poorly maintained toxic waste ponds that could unleash a flood at any moment. This environmental devastation is allowed because state politicians are beholden to contributions from the mining companies to finance their election campaigns. More than half a million acres of the Appalachians have been destroyed and 500 mountain peaks are gone, along with 1,000 miles of streams.
“Those who carry out this pillage,” says Hedges, “probably believe they can outrun their own destructiveness. They think that their wealth, privilege, and gated communities will save them. But the death they have unleashed, the relentless contamination of air, soil and water, the physical collapse of communities, and the eventual exhaustion of coal and fossil fuels themselves will not spare them.”
Perhaps the most shocking situation Hedges exposes exists in the state of Florida today. There he visits the town of Imokalee, where migrant labourers, mostly undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, work picking tomatoes and live in a state of virtual slavery. The farms depend on this kind of labour in order to stay in business, for the Wal-Marts and fast-food restaurants have so driven down prices that any other business model is uneconomic. Workers are exposed to dangerous pesticides and have no recourse when they suffer ill-health. They pay exorbitant rent to sleep in filthy 10-person trailers owned by their employers. To complain or seek legal redress would risk exposure and deportation.
Hedges’s final destination is the Occupy Wall Street camp that sprang up in the fall of 2011 and started a world-wide movement to protest income inequality and the hegemony of bankers and money traders. He interviews a number of the occupiers, who turn out to be surprisingly thoughtful, as in this analysis of street culture vs. suburban culture by John Friesen: “They don’t understand one another. They don’t share their experiences. They’re isolated. And this façade of individuality, of consumeristic materialism, gets translated into communities throughout the country that don’t want anything to do with one another.”
The author ends by stating his belief that nothing less than a revolution is required if the corporate state is to be replaced by “a world where we no longer kneel before the absurd idea that the demands of financial markets should govern human behaviour.” He makes no predictions as to when that will occur, but this deeply felt and often moving book should go some way towards bringing that day closer.