An interview with Chris Hedges, whose new book, "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt," looks at the effects of "unfettered capitalism" on families.
You don’t go into Camden, N.J., unless you’re up to something.
Otherwise, you pass over it, as quickly as possible, to get to Philadelphia — maybe with your feet lifted off the floor for good measure, the way some kids do over railroad tracks.
At night, you don’t even notice the place. Because there are very few lights in Camden. They’ve been smashed out or cut off or, in author Chris Hedges’ view, pinched out by corporate giants.
In his new book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” the former New York Times war correspondent heads into five of America’s “sacrifice zones” — places he believes have been drained of purpose and promise by political and corporate vampires.
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“We wanted to physically show what unfettered, unregulated capitalism did to families, to communities, to the environment,” Hedges, 55, said the other day. “When you have no ability to fight back, this is what corporate exploitation does to you.”
Hedges, who will speak at Town Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m., is now a columnist at Truthdig.com and a senior fellow at The Nation Institute. But his 15 years in war zones prepared him well to head into the most Godforsaken places in America:
Camden, corroded by political corruption; South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with its legacy of poverty and drug addiction; southern West Virginia, where strip mining for coal has stripped its people of health and hope; Immokalee, Fla., and its seemingly enslaved migrant workers; and encampments of the Occupy movement, where Hedges believes revolution is at hand.
The book is a primer for every American who is overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the stock market, who wonders where America’s muscle went, and how much heavy lifting our kids will face.
“Days” is co-authored by award-winning cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco, whom Hedges met in Bosnia.
What Hedges did with words, Sacco did in panels to great effect; his work is placed just when you need a break from page after page of bleak statistics. In the section on Camden, for example, Sacco tells the story of the city through the eyes of Joe Balzano, one of the few whites who didn’t leave.
“His [Sacco's] ability to make these lives visible gives this book a punch that simple prose doesn’t do,” Hedges said. “And you can do things through illustration that you can never do in a photograph. You can create movement, go in and out of time.”
The book is heavily reported in Hedges’ immersion style. He went back to these places time and again.
But Hedges is a bit of a contradiction. He lives in Princeton, N.J., amid the progeny of American’s most privileged and academia’s biggest minds and egos. These people even have clubs for eating.
“I live in the heart of the beast,” Hedges said. “It may as well be a gated community. You don’t want to talk to anyone who lives here. It’s full of upper-middle-class prejudice.”
There are “constant” food drives in Princeton, Hedges said, but as a neighbor up the street told him, “We have to send them food, or they’ll come here.”
Hedges says that he uses Princeton’s riches — the university library, the theater, stores like Labyrinth Books, and easy train access to New York City — to fortify his fight for those less fortunate.
To that end, Hedges was one of a group of activists who earlier this year sued President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta over the National Defense Authorization Act, which grants presidential authority for indefinite detention without habeas corpus.
In May, a judge ruled that provision of the act is unconstitutional.
“I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Where are the law professors? The law-school deans?’ ” Hedges said. “They’re at Harvard having lunch, and who are they having lunch with? Goldman Sachs.”
Hedges’ strong opinions and socialist leanings have gotten him in trouble. In 2003, he was reprimanded by The New York Times for publicly condemning the Iraq war at a college commencement. His critics say he twists the truth; Hedges thrives on being challenged.
Hedges, who is married to Canadian actress Eunice Wong, is the father of four children, ranging in age from 22, to 18 months.
Ask him how he unwinds — does he cook? macrame? taxidermy? — and he goes the other way, saying he spends 90 minutes to two hours a day at the gym.
Recent reads included a biography of Malcolm X and another of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. No keeping up with the Kardashians for this guy.
“I’d love never to know who these people are,” Hedges said. “But even of you don’t have a TV, you do. I know she had a fake marriage.”
“I don’t want to know that someone like her exists,” he said. “But I do.”
Hedges’ book calls for drastic change, and he sees glimmers of that in the Occupy movement.
“The fact that the corporate state is so tone-deaf to the suffering of citizens, that they can extinguish employment for thousands of Americans and do nothing means that there will be a reaction,” Hedges said of Occupy. “It has told people that they are not alone, it has told them that they can have power outside the political system, and it has named the problem.”
The movement has taken some “body blows” and made mistakes because it’s young, Hedges said. But it’s not going away.
Nor is Hedges, who hopes to continue to cover the war here at home: The generals, the corporate casualties and the weapons of the wealthy and those on welfare.
“Reporting is like being in school,” he said. “It keeps you honest because so many assumptions that you carry with you to these places get shattered,” he said. “And I find that really refreshing.”
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.