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March 25, 2009


I made a living, as a writer doing screeds mostly for p.r. and fundraising, i.e.,as a manipulator, for all my working life,so it would be facile to say that reading Hedges makes me feel bad. And untrue. It gives me hope in the sense that I see how hard it is to do otherwise, it seems to bless the struggles I have been having even to imagine finding another form and way, that would grow out of the lyrics of my youth or the experiments of my MFA into something coherent. I don't even hope any more (whether from genuine lack of ambition or a muffled kind of pride) to produce a "body of work" [this is really a comment on your previous]. All I want is to capture what is is really like, not as one of those "realists" Adorno lumps in with the manipulators, but as a human being in the middle of all of it, or at least, at the edge of it!

Vivan, I'm glad you wrote this, full of uncomfortable truth. Probably I wouldn't have responded to Hedges' rant if I didn't have my own unresolved issues with manipulation (my own career, after all, has been in design, communications and even, gulp, advertising and marketing for a while, so who am I to talk?). But as for the "body of work" thing - I dont' think we need to take it literally. Yes, the painter paints hundreds of canvases, the poet write his thousand verses and the writer her ten novels, but a body of work can also be a life consciously lived. Which I know, quite well, you have already created many times over.

What I think Hedges is trying, in his flawed and angry way, to get at is his frustration (the guy does have a divinity degree, after all) with our lack of spiritual focus - not even in a religious sense - but as human beings moving through time and history with one another, and yet so often in opposition and competition and desperate me-first-ness and poverty of spirit. You can be an investment banker or a marketing writer and use that work to learn about what it means to be human, and you can be a doctor or teacher or rabbi and be a selfish and manipulative person who doesn't make much progress in their life, in a spiritual sense.

I've always struggled with the body-of-work thing, because it is a frustration or failure I sometimes feel in myself, but when I settle down, I don't really think that's the case. It's just that the tangible body-of-work isn't there to see quite so readily, but the conscious work has been happening over a long time, as it has for you.

Back a few postings you wrote about Chris Hedges’ column entitled “America Is in Need of a Moral Bailout.”

I’ve been trying to understand you position on your post when you referred to “Hedges’ rant” and his “in his flawed and angry way.”

Defining the word “rant” as angry or violent and “flawed” as imperfections is where I’m having a difficult time.

I read Hedges’ column when it was published and found it right on point. What I couldn’t figure out is why you used “rant” and “his flawed and angry way.”

I read his piece as a moral bailout not a spiritual bailout. By moral I mean relating to issues of right and wrong and how individuals should behave.

I can’t read a “rant” or “flawed” into his article---”angry” I’m sure he is. But it is close to impossible not to be angry living in the United States today.

Are we a “decaying society” as “the elite hollowed out the democratic system to serve the corporate state” and the “AIG’s being taken care of while promises to desperate families will never be fulfilled?”

I believe we do live in an age of “moral nihilism” and have trashed our universities. Hedges’ quote from Theodor Adorno that “the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained largely unchanged.” This is so true today.

One example, the 1996 UNICEF report claiming a half million Iraqi children had died as a result of the bombing by the US and England during the Iraqi sanctions.

When Madeline Albright the Secretary of State of the U.S. was asked about these deaths, that more children had died in this bombing than died when we dropped an A-bomb on Hiroshima, her answer was “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think is worth it.
Worth what?

It has been recently reported that the US was holding a 13 year boy at Guantanamo Bay ------ a 13 year old ----really.

Europe TV and newspaper has reported that we have tortured children in Iraqi trying to get their mothers to tell us where there husbands were.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s book “Bend Sinister” Prof. Krug’s son was killed by a dictator by mistake trying to force his father to back his regime. Ellen Pifer in her book on Nabokov’s novels states in Nabokov’s world “betraying the child’s innocence signifies the greatest evil know to man or woman --- it constitutes nothing less than a crime against the cosmos.”

Any country that thinks it’s “worth it” to kill 500,000 children or lock up 13 year olds as terrorists certainly needs a Moral Bailout.

Facts like these I think moved Chris Hedges to write this article. I would not or could not call it a “rant” or “flawed.” I believe he is speaking to us all on our need to obtain moral autonomy in this country and this world.

I’m surly frustrated in our lack of “moral autonomy.” As Immanuel Kant wrote, moral autonomy is possible only through reflection, self-determination and the courage not to cooperate. What university teaches those attributes? I worked for a University for the last ten years of my working life and saw that they do not teach critical thinking, self-determination and courage. And you better cooperate with the powers to be or else.

The reason I am sending you this note is that I regard your blog as one of the best written, intelligent and interesting on the web. I was just struck by those qualifiers, “rant” and “flawed.”

Hal -- Well, I'm glad you called me on this. I shouldn't have used the word "rant," to begin with, and I should have explained what I meant by "flawed."

What happened was that I read Chris' article and reacted the same way you did - I agreed just about completely and thought he was spot-on. I then sent the link to a half-dozen or more close friends with whom I talk regularly about politics, literature, education, and society -- and who I thought would feel the same way I did. Every single one of them agreed in part, but took exception to Hedges' tone and saw his conclusions as unrealistic and out-of-touch. I was kind of shocked, but still felt I wanted to post the link, which I did. As you can see, it got only one comment, and I think I was reacting to the prior exchange with my friends when I backpedaled and qualified my own comment with those words you objected to.

I've read Chris's articles for a long time, and heard him speak in person a few years back - I was very impressed. He's right about the Middle East and our complicity, and he is very courageous for continuing to talk about this. And I also think he's absolutely right when he talks about America's moral decay. He's angry for the right reasons, and they're the same reasons I'm angry, the same reasons you cite in your letter. What frustrates me is that the far left, where Chris is, is making very little headway. Part of that is the defection of the mass media to the safe center, and the expulsion of highly qualified journalists like Hedges from the forums they used to occupy because they are considered too radical. Meanwhile, Fox garners huge audiences for right-wing hate speech that is way more radical and way more dangerous. Some of Hedges' frustration certainly comes from being marginalized in the media. As much as we on the left may enjoy TruthDig and other alternative sites, they are not penetrating into society nearly as much as Fox, for example. Chris's increasingly strident tone is what bothers me. It's totally justified, but if my little sample is any indication, it's apparently turning off the people he needs to be reaching - people who are younger, a little mroe centrist. This particular piece was even less that way than some of the subsequent ones. As a Nader supporter, he's also bucking the Obama tide, and I've found that especially among younger people, criticising Obama is a big turn-off right now.

If you compare earlier articles Chris wrote for Harper's or the New York Times to what he's doing now, I think you'll see a difference. Just as you took me to task here (rightly so) for using pejorative words, I think we have to write very carefully and argue extremely skillfully if we're going to affect society and not just "preach to the choir." It's still a real uphill battle. I'm sad that Chris, who has one of the best journalistic minds I've encountered and is extremely smart and skillful with words, doesn't have the same entree to the media that he used to, and I'm trying to see why - and what we can all do to get our writing about these critical themes into the hands of a wider audience.

The trend toward more and more polarized media, increasingly customized
for our own political leanings, parallels our society's trend toward living and playing with those who are much like us. Most people don't seem to see any need to make up their own minds about news or issues after digesting a variety of sources, and with education being what it is, like Chris I question whether many people are even capable of doing this. That's unprecedented in our history - for example, I just read a biography of George Washington and it opened my eyes to the vibrancy of political discussion among ordinary people as well as politicians during the days when the nation was being founded.

One bright note - this is not the way it is in Quebec. So I can see that it's possible for a society to function differently. Education and exposure to different cultures, though, are the keys, as well as a belief that the individual is not powerless or voiceless in shaping government and society.

This is a letter I received on the same subject, from a friend who is now in his early eighties:

"I forwarded your Hedges article to my sister, and in cleaning up the diacritical mess that Apple/PC forwardings always create (a 3-symbol replacement of quotation marks which confuses meaning) I reconsidered some of Adorno's ideas. They are as in the 60's very compelling; but I distrust profoundly his urge to make schools into a moral-educaton seminary (Hedges seems to me simply to get over-excited about anything attacking capitalism). Adorno's horror of the Holocaust reflects his period of writing, when it was still fresh news.

But where is morality to be taught? I was of the generation of teachers for whom 'great literature' was precious not only for its linguistic and historical breadth, but for its moral force. Deconstructionism zapped much of that significance -- watching the McKellan performance of 'King Lear' last night I was swept again by the moral force of the spectacle, as well as by a sort of despair at Lear's seeming like the self-indulgent holders of power today (in the church, perhaps) who wail at their lost influence.

Our paper this morning is full of debate about same-sex marriage: the Gov. of Vt. says he will veto the bill the legislature is about to pass because he believes it is wrong. Jay Heinrichs writes a letter saying 'marriage' is a term only churches should use, and should be limited to their own faithful. I think he's right; but the consequence is going to be what Adorno predicts.

Hence my returning to what I said yesterday, that the generation now about 40 (unlike that over 50)seems to me to be developing a level of ethical decency which may be practicable beyond current societal boundaries, and may serve to supplant 'moral' categories now useful mainly as rhetorical cudgels."


I think we have to write very carefully and argue extremely skillfully if we're going to affect society and not just "preach to the choir."

I agree with this, and it is something I keep pointing out over at MetaFilter (where I spend too much time). It is easy and satisfying to let the rhetoric take over when you know you're right and the people you're castigating are wrong, and of course the people who agree with you anyway will cheer, but you are turning your back on those who might be swayed if you reined it in a little, stated the facts and let readers find their own moral outrage. We must always remember that those we oppose also know they're right; that's not a push in the direction of moral relativism or that convenient whipping boy postmodernism, it's just a plain fact that needs to be taken into account. Our knowing we're right is not a guarantee that we are right, a point which is blindingly apparent to those who do not already agree with us. So if we're aiming our words at whatever general public still exists, it behooves us to talk as though it were still possible for facts to make a difference, for people to get outraged at the torture of children without our prompting their outrage through our megaphone.

What Hat said.

Well, new here but with opinions. I don't know about the whole top down/Them vs. Us model. Yes, there's something missing in the middle, but I can see a course leading from the American Revolution to where we are today...The colonies did not want to be dictated to, rebelled, and pointed to their virtue as opposed to their oppressors. Individual Americans have repeatedly made the choice to accept appearance over substance (did someone say outer-directed?). What we end up with at the end of the trajectory is words with no content (for instance at the conventions, "The great state of Arkansas casts its votes for..."). Enamored of our own greatness, prudence on both sides of the aisle is seen as cowardice. To drag Willie Yeats out yet again, "The best lack all conviction while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity". I don't agree with all of Obama's choices, but I so appreciate his willingness to make a considered choice without worrying about how it's going to play out in the next five minutes and without relying solely on moral outrage to convey his beliefs/intentions.

That said, yes, our universities are in trouble.

You might want to take a look at Mike Rose's blog, he's a UCLA Professor who writes about education in the public schools.

I'm writing this from the Washeteria in Manley, AK, and my time on line is short. I think these ideas are important, and I need time to digest them. My first reaction, is, however, that I dislike being told how I should think, and given the moral "truth" from someone who believes he and those who think like him have exclusive posession of the moral "truth." I think rant is an accurate way to describe this essay. That is not to say that I don't at least in part agree with what he says. I think an education that is all vocational and job directed is not an education. But I think that one should not aim to teach people how to think. I prefer to have them learn what others have thought, and then to think for themselves. I have lots of thoughts about all the terrible things our government and the government of Israel have done. But then, what place can claim to have never done such things? That doesn't make them right, but it means that to single out one people or place as the center of evil (just as Bush did) is not a way to improve the moral environment. It is just another way for people to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.