Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges delivers Friday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.
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While he was on his way to announce to Congress that he was declaring war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson feared he would be attacked by anarchists — so he brought an escort of cavalry troops along with him.
Wilson was keenly aware that, outside of Wall Street, there was virtually no support for the war.
“There was tremendous pressure from Wall Street on Wilson to enter the war, because of the loans — the massive loans that had been given to the British and the French that would not be repaid if the Germans were victorious,” said Chris Hedges, award-winning journalist.
Hedges spoke at Friday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. He was the last to speak on the week’s theme, “Markets and Morals.” His lecture traced the demise of liberal values in America since World War I and emphasized the importance of social movements in maintaining democracy.
During the war, Wilson resorted to propaganda to persuade Americans to support the effort. Publications that didn’t support the war were shut down, Hedges said. And the Committee on Public Information, or the Creel Commission, was established to produce pro-war films, news and graphics.
“When you read the writings of Randolph Bourne or Jane Addams, who stood fast against the war,” Hedges said, “there’s a constant despair at not only how effective this system of mass propaganda is into seducing people behind the war effort, but how effective it has been into seducing the intellectual class behind the war effort.”
Referencing the work of Dwight MacDonald, Hedges argued that American propaganda has done two key things. Through a “bombardment of cultural lies and manipulations,” it has erased every progressive movement from the face of the country.
The system has also created a “psychosis of permanent war,” Hedges said.
“American Democracy — and you can go back the Federalist papers — was set up in such a way as to preclude the voices of the majority,” he said. “There was a terror on the part of our slave-holding, white, male Founding Fathers of direct or popular democracy.”
Hedges argued that the Founding Fathers set up numerous mechanisms to shut people out of democracy. He noted that it’s only because of radical movements like the abolition movement, the suffrage movement, labor movements and the civil rights movement that democracy has been opened up. These were movements that never achieved significant power but that still pressured the elite to respond.
The downfall of these movements, accompanied by what Hedges called “the disemboweling of the liberal class,” has been disastrous. Progress that had been made, such as the Glass-Steagall Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is being stripped away, and the government is no longer able to represent its citizens.
“Unfettered, unregulated capitalism … has no self-imposed limits,” Hedges said. “Everything … becomes a commodity. Human beings become a commodity; the natural world becomes a commodity that it exploits until exhaustion or collapse. And that is why the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis.”
Hedges said that people in U.S. government understand climate change and its consequences. But there has been no substantial response, because the ones determining policy are corporate forces, which are not held accountable.
Corporate forces have also given rise to what Hedges called “faux-liberalism,” launched by former President Bill Clinton and continued today by President Barack Obama. Both, Hedges argued, have carried out an assault on the people they were supposed to protect — the people that the Democratic Party once did protect.
Under Clinton, the welfare system was destroyed, and Hedges said 70 percent of those affected by this decision were children. Clinton allowed the Federal Communications Commission to be deregulated, which resulted in half a dozen corporations claiming the airwaves and reducing political discourse. Clinton also passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which has increased the national prison population.
The prison system has turned into a form of “neo-slavery,” Hedges said. Poor people of color are worth little upon being released from prison — but inside, they are worth $30,000 to $40,000 per year to the state and private contractors, he said, referencing the cheap or unpaid labor prisoners do while incarcerated.
Last year, in Hedges v. Obama, Hedges successfully sued members of the federal government for the unconstitutionality of section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. However, following an appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling last week.
“It’s truly a frightening piece of legislation,” Hedges said.
The legislation permits the U.S. government to detain citizens who are suspected of affiliations with terrorism. Hedges is troubled by how loosely the legislation’s wording is. Furthermore, he said, in an age of permanent war, the people being held will never be released.
“As John Ralston correctly says, we have undergone a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion,” Hedges said. “And it’s over — they’ve won. We see it with the national security state, the fact that the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government have all signed off onto this egregious assault against our civil liberties.”
The government now has the right to eavesdrop on its citizens — Obama has so far used the Espionage Act seven times, most recently against Edward Snowden, to “shut down whistleblowers and people of conscience,” Hedges said.
He argued that there is no way to not vote against the interests of political funders like Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobile and Citibank. Corporations have reconfigured the U.S. into an oligarchic system.
“You cannot have a functional democracy in an oligarchy,” Hedges said. “It’s not a new idea. Thucydides … said, ‘The tyranny that Athens imposed on others as an empire, it finally imposed on itself.’ ”
To maintain control over the population, Hedges argued, the U.S. government has done what all empires have done: brought harsh forms of control from the outside to the inside.
“A night raid by a militarized police force in Oakland — command helicopters, searchlights, command vehicles, police in black, Kevlar vests … automatic weapons — looks no different from a night raid in Fallujah [Iraq],” he said.
Becoming a part of a social movement is the only way to respond to these issues, he said. There is no time to play the game of politics. In the words of Karl Popper, the question is not how to get good people to rule, because most people attracted to power are mediocre at best. Instead, the question is, “How do you make the power elite frightened of you?”
In 1971 there was such a giant anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., that President Richard Nixon had empty city buses surround the White House, bumper to bumper, as a barricade. According to Henry Kissinger’s memoir, Nixon was still worried that the protestors would break through.
“And that is just where we want people in power to be,” Hedges said.