A few months ago I attended at the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus in Camrose to listen to a lecture by the esteemed author and journalist Chris Hedges, whose latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, I had read with interest. America is a call to action, a call to reject materialism and capitalism and to embrace socialist democracy, to clean up our politics, economics, and the environment before it’s too late. Yet a quick check of Hedges’s personal circumstances made me wonder if he walks the walk, or if he’s just another author with a bestselling manifesto he only aspires to. So I was both curious and fortunate to ask him the question that had arisen in my mind as I had read the book’s final pages:
In the final chapter of America: The Farewell Tour you write, “The seductive inducements to conformity — money, celebrity, prizes, grants, book contracts, hefty lecture fees, important academic and political positions, and a public platform — are scorned by those who resist.”
How do you reconcile that statement with your own position as a prize-winning author of 14 traditionally published books, lecturer at an elitist institution, minister of a mainstream church, husband of an actor, resident of a city with an average income of $118,000, and here now on a public stage at another elitist institution? I don’t ask this to be glib; I ask this because most revolutions actually start with educated elites, and that always presents a personal and social paradox. For example, in Farewell you often reference Karl Marx. Marx was a well-educated man from an affluent family, and he later accepted financial support from Frederich Engels, who had become considerably wealthy through ownership of the very same exploitative, capitalist factories the two men decried. So where is the line between pragmatic self-preservation and outright hypocrisy? Or, to put it another way, can the personal not be political?
Hedges responded thus (edited for length):
It depends where your loyalty lies. In my own case I lost my job at the New York Times, which meant losing my pension, my medical benefits. I mean I’ve been to Gaza, so I don’t pretend it was close to the kind of sacrifices that oppressed people like the Palestinians endure, but it was difficult, certainly in the moment, and a hard choice. I was finished in American journalism. No newspaper was ever going to hire me because I had crossed the line and had begun to denounce the [Iraq] war. … My first book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning … happened to explode by word of mouth and sold 400,000 copies. But it wasn’t my intent; I didn’t write the book to make money. … What happens often with a writer is very similar to a musician in that you build your own audience … So if I write a book, I almost always can sell about forty to fifty thousand hardback and another sixty thousand [paperbacks]; it’s that same audience. Now, the United States has over 300 million people, so we’re not even talking about one percent. But it is the loyalty of that audience that makes me able to make a living, and I’m fortunate. But it wasn’t by design. … I don’t pretend I’m suffering in any way, but … my loyalty is to what I write. First and foremost. And then I will take whatever comes. And I have been, as you point out, successful in that sense. But number one, that’s not how I define success, and it was not my intent. …
I am constantly clashing with the Israeli lobby in the United States because of my very public support for the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement. [As a result] I am constantly not only blocked from lecturing but even to the point of being disinvited: I was invited to speak at the University of Pennsylvania; [the Israeli lobby] mounted a huge campaign against me and I was disinvited. I don’t pretend that I pay a particularly harsh price for where I stand, but I do pay a price. I’m not on MSNBC. I am locked out of the mainstream media — and I used to be at the epicenter of the mainstream media — because the positions I take are not valid [to them]. So I try to live with as much integrity as I can and do the best I can. And you can google my house in Princeton; it’s not very impressive.
His answer struck me as tepid, bourgeois even. It was an answer I would expect from most people, including myself: We all know we need to do more but most often we are not willing to bear the pain. Instead we take the micro approach to fixing the world’s problems, believing that if we just compost our waste and lower the thermostat a degree we’re doing our part. But then again, most of us are not writing a treatise like America. Does that make a difference? Does the writer have to be a stellar example of their words?
The simple answer is no.
Even if Hedges were to live a life completely contrary to his words, it would not in any way invalidate them. As readers we must judge a work on its own merits, not on the perceived right of the author to write it. To dismiss an argument because its maker is a flawed human being is to adopt the tactics of the politically and morally corrupt who, devoid of a legitimate argument to the contrary, attack the person instead and hope the argument suffers by proxy. America is well written and researched and its message is sound. To dismiss it is an act of self-sabotage.
Similarly, Tristram Hunt, author of The Frock-coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, writes in The Guardian:
The life of Friedrich Engels, the mill-owning Marxist, was one of supreme self-contradiction — particularly when it came to feminism. He was a socialist who condemned the use of prostitutes as “the most tangible exploitation — one directly attacking the physical body — of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie”, but then regularly enjoyed their services. He demanded female equality, but couldn’t bear the company of high-minded women. Engels was the intellectual architect of socialist feminism, and an old-fashioned sexist.
In today’s public culture, when the personal is forever political, we seem to find it impossible to disassociate such personal exposés from the philosophical legacy. But in doing so, we risk dismissing in Engels one of the most creative modern thinkers on gender and the family.
In other words, if you focus on Engels’ personal shortcomings instead of his message, you’ll miss the boat. And, I might add, possibly drown.
But if we decide the personal is not political, where, then, is the the line between pragmatic self-preservation and outright hypocrisy? I don’t know the answer to that. But I suspect that Hedges knows more than he lets on: What I found particularly interesting about America‘s examples of what is scorned by those who resist is that they form a shopping list of Hedges’s life. He could have chosen a multitude of other examples, so I wonder if his words were (consciously or otherwise) self-critical, a call — to himself — to do more, to do better.
So while I do not know where the line is, what I do know is that the personal can alter my experience of the political. A summary of America is that America has gone to hell in a handbasket and the flames are licking at our feet, so if its own author cannot achieve the degree of self-sacrifice required to change our collective course, is there any hope at all? Rather than alleviate my despair at our current condition and spur me to action, America and Hedges’s response to my question make me feel pessimistic and overwhelmed. I’ll still try to do my part, but I have little hope it’ll make a difference. And I’m pretty sure that was not the author’s intent.