Chris Hedges: Occupy And Building Power Now To Confront Autocracy

In his recent article, “America’s Fate: Oligarchy or Autocracy,” Chris Hedges writes that bankrupt liberals have sold out to the oligarchic class to try to prevent an autocracy from rising but that is actually creating the conditions for autocracy. Hedges speaks with Clearing the FOG about the lessons from the Occupy movement – he was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC in 2011 – and why we must build a militant movement now to confront and hold power accountable. He explains how power works, including the role of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in protecting the interests of the wealthy classes.

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Chris Hedges, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born on September 18, 1956 in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. He grew up in Schoharie, a rural farm town in upstate New York.  He was a scholarship student at The Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts, a pre-prep boarding school, and at the boarding school Loomis-Chaffee in Windsor, Connecticut.  He was the captain and MVP of the Loomis-Chaffee cross country team.  He also wrestled and ran track.  He founded an underground newspaper that was banned by the school authorities and saw him put on probation.

Hedges graduated from Colgate University with a BA in English Literature and went on to receive a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Harvard University.  During his time at Harvard he lived in the depressed community of Roxbury in Boston where he ran a small church.  He was also a member of The Greater Boston YMCA boxing team.  He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2009 from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

Hedges began work as a freelance journalist, writing for newspapers such as The Washington Post and covering the Falkland War from Buenos Aires for National Public Radio (NPR).  He covered the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala from 1983 to 1988, working from 1984 to 1988 as The Central America Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News. 

In 1988 Hedges took a sabbatical to study Arabic.  He was appointed the Middle East Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News in 1989.  In one of his first stories for the paper he tracked down Robert Manning, the prime suspect in the 1985 bombing death in California of Alex Odeh, head of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Western office, in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.  Israel, until Hedges discovered Manning, said it had no knowledge of Manning’s whereabouts.  Manning, linked to the militant Jewish Defense League and allegedly behind several murders, was extradited to the United States in 1991 where he is serving a life sentence.

Daniel Berrigan told me that faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good. The Buddhists call this karma. But he said for us as Christians we did not know where it went. We trusted that it went somewhere. But we did not know where. We are called to do the good, or at least the good so far as we can determinate it, and then let it go.

Hedges was hired by The New York Times in 1990.  He covered the first Gulf War for the paper, where he refused to participate in the military pool system that restricted the movement and reporting of journalists.  He was arrested by the U.S. military and had his press credentials revoked, but continued to defy the military restrictions to report outside the pool system.  He entered Kuwait with the U.S. Marine Corps.  He was taken prisoner in Basra after the war by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite uprising.  He was freed after a week.  Hedges was appointed the paper’s Middle East Bureau Chief in 1991.  His reporting on the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein in the Kurdish-held parts of northern Iraq saw the Iraqi leader offer a bounty for anyone who killed him, along with other western journalists and aid workers in the region.  Several aid workers and journalists, including the German reporter Lissy Schmidt, were assassinated and others were severely wounded.

Hedges became the Balkan Bureau Chief for The New York Times in 1995 reporting from the besieged city of Sarajevo.  He later covered the war in Kosovo.  He and his photographer, Wade Goddard, were the first journalists to travel with armed units of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) at the inception of the insurgency mounted against the occupying Serbs.

During the academic year of 1998-1999 Hedges was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University where he studied classics.

After 9/11 Hedges was sent to Paris where he covered Al-Qaeda in Europe and the Middle East.  He was part of a team of reporters for The New York Times in 2002 that won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. That same year he won an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism.

In 2003, shortly after the war in Iraq began, Hedges was asked to give the commencement address at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois. He told the graduating class “…we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power and security.” He went on to say that “this is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation.” As he spoke, several hundred members of the audience began jeering and booing. The crowd started to sing God Bless America.  His microphone was cut twice.  Two young men rushed the stage to try to prevent him from speaking and Hedges had to cut short his address.  He was escorted off campus by security officials before the diplomas were awarded. This event made national news and he became a lightning rod not only for right wing pundits and commentators, but also mainstream newspapers. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial which denounced his anti-war stance and the The New York Times issued a formal reprimand, forbidding Hedges to speak about the war.  The reprimand condemned his remarks as undermining the paper’s impartiality. Hedges resigned shortly thereafter.

From 2006 until 2020 he wrote a weekly column for the progressive web site Truthdig.  He and the entire editorial staff were fired in March 2020 after they went on strike to protest the publisher’s attempt to remove the Editor-in-Chief, Robert Scheer, and demand an end to a series of unfair labor practices and the right to form a union.

Hedges hosts the Emmy-Nominated RT America show On Contact.  He previously hosted the show Days of Revolt on TeleSur.

Hedges was ordained in 2014 as a Presbyterian minister to work in prison ministry.  The theologian James Cone preached at the ordination along with Cornel West.  The service was oriented towards the victims of mass incarceration.  The family and friends of many of the students Hedges taught in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University in New Jersey prisons attended the service.

He became vegan in 2014, writing that the “animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined.”

Hedges has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University and The University of Toronto.  He has taught in the B.A. program run by Rutgers University for men and women in the New Jersey prisons system since 2013.  The Passage Theater in Trenton produced the play Caged in 2018 which Hedges helped his incarcerated students write about their struggles with poverty, police violence and mass incarceration.  The play was published by Haymarket Books in 2020.

Hedges is the author of twelve books that include the best seller, War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), which is an examination of what war does to individuals and societies.  His other books include What Every Person Should Know About War (2003); Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America (2005); American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007); another New York Times best-seller, I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008); Collateral Damage (2008), which he co-wrote with Laila Al-Arian, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009); Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012); which he co-wrote with Joe Sacco and was also on The New York Times best-seller list, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (2013); Wages of Rebellion (2015);Unspeakable (2016); where he was interviewed by David Talbot, and America The Farewell Tour (2019).

Hedges was active in 2011 Occupy Wall Street.  He and Cornel West held a People’s Hearing of Goldman Sachs that culminated with a march on Goldman Sachs where Hedges and other activists were arrested.

In 2012, after the Obama Administration signed the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, Hedges sued members of the U.S. government, asserting that section 2021 of the law unconstitutionally allowed presidential authority for indefinite detention without habeas corpus. He was later joined in the suit, Hedges v. Obama, by activists including Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg. In May 2012 Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the Southern District of New York ruled that the counter-terrorism provision of the NDAA is unconstitutional. The Obama administration appealed the decision and it was overturned. Hedges petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but the Supreme Court denied certiorari in April 2014.

Hedges is married to the Canadian actor Eunice Wong.  They have two children.  Hedges has two children from a previous marriage. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.