Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chris Hedges: American Prophet

On July 3 I went book shopping with nothing particular in mind (I do that a lot). Of course, on the 4th of July its my custom to read something about American history; however, as of the night before, I didn’t have a title that was calling to me. So as I browsed, I came across a new title by Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009 193p). As a reporter and social critic, Hedges is unsparing. He chronicles everything from professional wrestling to the porn industry to higher education to positive psychology. Hedges doesn’t shy away from detailing the dirt and grit of life—he was for almost 20 years a war correspondent for the New York Times—but he always looks through the lens of a prophet. Indeed, in addition to the NYT spot on his resume, he’s a graduate of Harvard Divinity School (but not ordained). Hedges greatly fears our foolishness and moral impotence. I find some of his criticisms perhaps too harsh. Positive psychology (think Martin Seligman) seems much more shallow than malign, medicine of the soul that simply does not go far enough with the necessary purgatives and restoratives to prove of permanent lasting value. However, Hedges suggests that this phenomena, like others, inoculates us from taking a harder, more determined look at our situation.

Having read this, I listened to Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (202 185p). This book is the most intense, bracing, and forceful book that I’ve read on war. It is not for those too delicate to contemplate the horrors that man can unleash on man. I’ve read books about the horrors of war before, but as Stalin suggested, a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. Hedges writes about people: himself—having covered Central America, Africa, Palestine and Israel, and the Balkans—and those he encountered, the quick and the dead. I suppose that anyone covering wars like he has could write gut wrenching tales of hatred and loss, but he does so within a context of an education and upbringing that makes him unwilling to accept this status quo lightly. Even as he describes war’s intoxicating effects, he knows that he’s involved with a dangerous habit and how it can entrap him or anyone. He knows well the Illiad, the Aeniad, Shakespeare, Remarque, and Auden, who have given voice in the past to the fascination of war and violence and its effect on the persons it touches. I can’t think of a better book to place on a required reading list of anyone thinking of supporting or fighting a war. It is a strong and necessary tonic

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