Hedges and the Monasteries, a Follow Up

In the thread on Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a few commenters complained of what they described as a misreading, or undervaluing of what Hedges really meant when he called for his readers to “turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate the Republicans offer up for President…”

In the original post I highlighted what Hedges suggested as the proper course of action:  head to “a monastic retreat in which “we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.”

To me, this rejection of either choice in the acknowledged messiness of electoral politics is, frankly, disastrous.

But there were objections, and they weren’t frivolous…so consider this the point of warning:  What follows is ~1,000 words extending the argument.  If you have a better things to do, do them.

So — to kick us off here’s one dissent from what I argued: commenter Oliver’s Neck writes that what I read as a call for retreat is anything but:

The construction of communities that no longer depend upon corrupt powers is an historically recurrent and powerful act of non-violent revolution. It takes great courage and will and is not the act of a defeatist or a moon-eyed ideologue, but that of a pragmatic realist.

The other main complaint that came up in the thread is that I’ve simply read Hedges wrong, and that he’s not actually suggesting he or anyone else should withdraw from the fray.  In this argument, I’ve construed “monastic” too narrowly and don’t grasp just how active Hedges thinks his monks should be. Here’s Matryoshka writing in this vein:

My read was that Hedges doesn’t have much faith in any system that exists now, and that it will be a long time before we have one that works in our favor, so until then, we need to do what we can to preserve the values of humane values and environmental stewardship. At no point in the book does anything else point to a “fuck it, go off the grid and shewt yer own skwurrels” conclusion.

The “us” in “build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that allow us to survive” means all of us (humanity), not just a few isolated survivalists. Context makes a difference. Read the book. It will give you insight into the place we’re all going under the current arrangement.

I think there is some merit in both objections, but ultimately, they each miss what seems to me to be the vital point.

Oliver’s Neck urges us to see Hedges as a pragmatic realist.  He’s not. That’s by his own account. That link takes you to an extended interview Bill Moyers conducted with Hedges on this book (Oliver’s Neck referenced this in his comments as well). That interview is long enough to allow Hedge’s account of what he’s about to come through loud and clear.  He like Moyers is a former seminarian; his is the duty to recognize sin, to abstain from it, and to act to challenge the evil that is done with a call for right action.  He wants to be able to live with himself; everything he does, including blowing up his New York Times career flows from that need.

Even so, you might say that Hedges is a pragmatist — but only in one special sense:  he writes, he speaks, he commits civil disobedience in ways that connect clearly and logically to his goal:  to act with firmness in the right as his sight, his memory and his conscience  give him to see the right.  He wants to effect change as well, and all that he does aims at that ambition, but as he tells Moyers repeatedly, the prime mover in his work is what he sees as his obligation to do good, regardless of likely impact.

As Oliver’s Neck argues and I agree, this is a courageous stance.  It is not, in my view sufficient to our current circumstances.  Hedges is a holy fool, I think, and I mean that as high praise, and not even a little criticism.

But as the Bush years show us, deep and lasting harm can take hold unbelievably quickly. While we wait for the long run in which a growing community of “this far and no farther”-niks finally reach the scale to address all our pathologies, we may — we will, I believe — have lost too much and too many to ignore the question of what we need to do right now.  Hence, in my view, the need to work and vote and press in this election, 2012, Obama vs. Romney and all the undercards.

But what of Matryoshka’s claim that I miss in Hedges demand for electoral conscientious objection his actual call to action?  It’s there, of course — just as St. Francis’s was (to name one in the tradition in which I think Hedges falls).  He does want us to resist the institutions that undermine society and community.

Here’s Hedges’ call to action:

All conventional forms of dissent, from electoral politics to open debates, have been denied us.  We cannot rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible.  The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience. (Hedges and Sacco, p. 266)

I flatly disagree with Hedges’ first sentence.  There is great difficulty in making those forms of dissent powerful, but they are not closed to us — you see that in Sherrod Brown’s campaign; in Elizabeth Warren’s; increasingly in President Obama’s…not to mention here, in communities like this one, and much else besides.

Hedges’ second sentence demands attention.  I’ve noted a couple of times the really striking tone of Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.  You can’t get more centrist, more conventional wisdom than these two.  Mann, a Brookings Institute bloke, and Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute (sic!), document the failure of Congress as a political institution (props to Hedges) and indict the Republican Party as the perp who is murdering that body (a problem for Hedges).  With that as just the latest high profile reminder, no one can deny that our institutions — and not just the overtly political ones — are in deep trouble.  We cannot rely on them.  But we can use them, if and as we find ways to penetrate them.  Mann and Ornstein discuss both short term and longer timeline choices we can make if we choose to do so.  And to belabor the obvious:  we won’t get anywhere institutionally if we don’t engage in, among much else, the act of voting.

The third sentence in Hedge’s passage speaks directly to the complaints Oliver’s Neck and Matryoshka offer up.  Hedges does not simply call for escape.  He urges civil disobedience.  He wants us to act, and in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he holds up the Occupy movement as an example of the kind of non-violent revolt that he had almost given up hope of seeing over the last few years.

But neither that call to resistance, nor any recognition of the power of Hedges’ moral stance alter the real danger inherent in his call for a monastic retreat from American consumerism.

Why not?

Because despite Hedges’ disgust for what he’s seen from either party, there remain (as we’ve talked through many times here) major differences between the parties, distinctions that have real consequences within the lives of every American (and many others as well, to be sure).  So, to my mind, the real question is how much are you willing to risk to further, perhaps, that day when the resistance fractures the power structure sufficiently to erect a better place in its stead?  How deeply do you believe in the “sharpen the contradiction” approach to political transformation?

If you’re asking me? When we have a choice as clear as that of the ghoulish Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama?

Not much.  Not much at all.

One more thing:  It seems to me obvious that Hedges offers a false choice here.  This post is long enough, so for now I’ll just say that one can act on two lines at once:  vote, engage, demand the best out of what the system we have; and also pursue longer-term reformation:  Occupy, civilly disobey, non-violently resist what needs to be resisted.  It may be that I’ve spent too long studying Weimar and its sequel to take any great comfort from the relief from misery that may ultimately come.  Germany did ultimately become a social democracy.  But what transpired between 1933 and 1945 was a hell of a price.  As the historian Peter Gay wrote, (I paraphrase) if only Weimar’s friends had roused themselves to act in support of Weimar, how much sorrow might have been avoided.

Images:  William Hogarth, Soliciting Votes (from the series, “The Humours of an Election,”) 1754.

Unknown artist (formerly attributed to Giotto) St. Francis Preaching before  Honarius III, betw. 1297 and 1300.

 Cross posted

 

75 replies
  1. 1
    jibeaux says:

    A more thoughtful response than mine would have been, which is Fuck Ralph Nader and All His Wanna-bes.

  2. 2
    w3ski says:

    I have tried the monastic life. It does Not work. You can never be self sufficient today no matter how hard you try. Sorry about that. I agree the “system” is on the verge of failure but “back to nature” isn’t possible without a LOT of money
    w3ski

  3. 3
    Linda Featheringill says:

    A holy fool?

    That’s sweet but such creatures are not effective. He might not be technically advising that we roll over and play dead but he’s getting close. Withdrawing from society might be good for you personally but doesn’t affect the surrounding society much.

    How much did the Shakers affect US society? How much affect have the Amish had? How effective have all the hermits had?

    Answer: Very close to nada.

  4. 4
    Yutsano says:

    @w3ski: This was one of the primary criticisms of Hedges: the fact that he is privileged enough to just walk away and live a monastic existence. Hedges is secure in his personal position to do this, so of course it must be the correct solution for everyone. Never mind his giving zero ideas on how this would actually be accomplished.

  5. 5
    WereBear says:

    The book also sidesteps the fact that what the first world works with now IS the best we’ve come up with in the last 10,000 years. Anybody want to go back to the dice throwing of hereditary monarchy? Didn’t think so.

    We actually have a working system; we just need more participation. We got too good at it; we have vast chunks of the population who have no clue that infrastructure and systems and regulations don’t just happen.

  6. 6
    Scott S. says:

    I’m not sure you can withdraw to a monastic community and still engage in civil disobedience against the larger community you withdrew from.

  7. 7
    thalarctos says:

    We have to fight, because we cannot run off to the mountains and escape. To paraphrase Trotsky: You may not be interested in Tyranny, but Tyranny is interested in you.

  8. 8
    quannlace says:

    Sorry about that. I agree the “system” is on the verge of failure but “back to nature” isn’t possible without a LOT of money
    w3ski

    That reminded me of reading that Nehru commented on how many people it took to allow Gandhi to live the simple life.

  9. 9
    Gillette says:

    If the problem with politics is money then neither party offers a solution.

    “… and indict the Republican Party as the perp who is murdering that body”

    You left out the part where they also blame Democrats for being either willful or unknowing accomplices to this “crime” through their failure to oppose it because of….money, again.

  10. 10
    ericblair says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    Withdrawing from society might be good for you personally but doesn’t affect the surrounding society much.

    Besides the fact that this act is fundamentally selfish. It may not matter in his own morality whether it is or not, but you’re saying that you’re refusing to help others so that you yourself can stay pure. Wonderful. Thanks, dude, that helps.

    Any real change takes organization and persistence, which is what these manifestos either ignore or reject.

  11. 11
    schrodinger's cat says:

    @quannlace: Independent India quickly walked back from Gandhian ideals of self sufficient villages. Simple living not so simple actually

  12. 12
    dmbeaster says:

    The basic philosophy of withdrawing to set up your own little nirvana has existed and been tried repeatedly for 100+ years in this country. It does not accomplish anything except perhaps to allow the participant a false sense of bliss. It has no history of creating anything viable. Choosing to be a zero while evil grows in the broader world around you is an awful self-absorbed strategy.

    But freedom dictates that this is a choice. However, it should be clear that it is not a viable alternative to grappling with the larger problems our culture faces. It is resignation in the face of evil.

  13. 13
    NancyDarling says:

    @Yutsano: Hedges’ argument is sort of a version of the Repubs argument that “I built it myself”. There are numerous back-to-the-landers in my neck of the woods. I sometimes point out to them that they haven’t really gone “back to the land” unless they have a pump factory in their garage to replace their current one when their well goes out.

  14. 14
    patroclus says:

    Hedges’ argument seems to take the approach of the Chinese women’s badmitton team.

  15. 15
    Goblue72 says:

    The problem with Hedges is the same problem with too many modern day American leftists – they are too much of a wimp to pick up a gun & fight – mainly figuratively, but also literally.

    I have to give it to the Communists like Lenin, Mao, and Minh – they may have been complete douchebags, but at least they understood that their enemies on the nationalist right had armies on their side, so they needed to use a rifle every now and then if they were going to win.

    We may not need a literal armed revolution, but an occasional brickbat & pipe bomb thrown from the edges might send a better message than retreating to your summer home to grow zucchini.

  16. 16
    hilzoy says:

    Yep.

    I always want to ask people who recommend abstaining from politics on the grounds that it doesn’t work: what, exactly, are you proposing to replace it with? And why do you think that your alternative would be better?

    We have a democratic system that allows us to vote, to speak out, etc. There are a lot of things I would change — the filibuster, Citizens United, etc. — but at bottom, the reason things like Citizens United are problems is that altogether too many people are badly informed and thus open to manipulation by TV spots. If someone’s proposed alternative does not fix this problem, then it does not in any way ensure that things would be better. In general, it’s hard for me to see what marvelous utopian vision would work better *given* a largely apathetic and badly informed citizenry. If we don’t change that, very little works. If we do, our present system would work (again, speaking broadly: I’d still want to make the changes I mentioned above.)

    Before I would so much as consider not participating in an election in which one party, however flawed, actually cares about things like mine safety and consumer protection and not getting us into needless wars, while the other cares about getting more money to rich people and gutting basic government functions that actually save people’s lives, I’d want some actual details about what goal my non-participation is in the service of, why that alternative would be better, and how my non-participation will actually help to achieve it. Without those details, it’s just a self-indulgent pose for which other people will pay a very real price.

  17. 17
    Mnemosyne says:

    The construction of communities that no longer depend upon corrupt powers is an historically recurrent and powerful act of non-violent revolution.

    I guess this is my question for Oliver’s Neck if s/he comes back into the thread: which communities is s/he thinking of that successfully revolted against their larger society for more than a few years? Oneida was probably the most successful one ever, but that only lasted about 15 years. So which communities is s/he thinking of that successfully changed their societies by withdrawing from those societies?

  18. 18
    cyntax says:

    Good reading of Hedges T.L., and even better job of responding with care and precision to the critiques of commenters. It seems to me that your response to Hedges’ position is spot on, but even those who disagree with you should credit the thought you’ve put into your response.

  19. 19
    Yutsano says:

    @patroclus: Too soon?

    @hilzoy: This also is based upon the assumption our political opponents will also participate in the abstention. We have overwhelming evidence this does not happen. So when we refuse to vote in any meaningful proportion, we essentially concede the fight to them. I’m not willing to make that concession.

  20. 20
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @Scott S.:

    I’m not sure you can withdraw to a monastic community and still engage in civil disobedience against the larger community you withdrew from.

    This. The only possible “defense” of Hedges is to argue he didn’t mean what he wrote, which is no defense at all.

  21. 21
    slim's tuna provider says:

    a few disjointed points: (a) if hedges really thinks that all current institutions are corrupt beyond saving, why isn’t the answer revolution? (b) does he really think there aren’t corrupt tyrants and pompous, intransingent windbags in monasteries, or communes, or what have you? (c) if we tear down the old institutions, would the new ones be any better? why? (d) our politics being FUBAR might be the republicans’ fault (but then why are blue dogs so weak in the knees, fearing conservative backlash?) but surely the rot is in other institutions too. do we blame the authoritarian and feudal bullshit that led to the penn state situation on republicans? maybe on people who share the same values, but not specifically republicans qua republicans, right? do we blame the hate of the poor that has suddenly resurfaced throughout the first world on paul ryan?

  22. 22
    Culture of Truth says:

    @patroclus: No, the Chinese women’s badminton team gave all appearances of trying purposefully to lose. You know, like Mitt Romney.

  23. 23
    Culture of Truth says:

    Sure, but Gandhi was making a point about self-sufficiency vs. colonial rule; national dependence v national independence, not necessarily a nation of people withdrawing to small communes

  24. 24
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @WereBear: We’re the Morgs and Eye-Morgs of Spock’s Brain!!!

  25. 25
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @ericblair: #9

    Withdrawing is fundamentally selfish:

    Yes. One might well wonder whether Hedges has children. Is he going to withdraw from the terrible world or is he going to try to improve it for the sake of his children, etc.

    If he doesn’t have children, it might be easier to just withdraw. But it’s still selfish. What about other children? In other families?

  26. 26
    wrb says:

    There seems to be confusion on the part of some posters between going back-to-the-lan or seeking monastic distance from consumer society and political participation.

    You don’t have to be an urban consumer to be politically effective.

    Thoreau was an effective abolitionist.

  27. 27
    schrodinger's cat says:

    Abstain, join a monastery, while the Republicans gain control of all levers of power from local to state to federal. Burying your head in the sand is not going to the change the world. Hedges suggestion is beyond idiotic. It is dangerous. It is this kind of thinking that resulted in Republicans gaining huge majorities in 2010. Not to speak of the whole Dubya debacle.

  28. 28
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @cyntax:

    To Tom:

    Good reading of Hedges T.L., and even better job of responding with care and precision to the critiques of commenters. It seems to me that your response to Hedges’ position is spot on, but even those who disagree with you should credit the thought you’ve put into your response.

    Yes. I give Tom a 10 for his performance. :-)

  29. 29
    chopper says:

    @w3ski:

    everybody i’ve ever met who lived an honest-to-god monastic life left it at some point, either out of disgust or out of growing out of it and demanding a real life. my father was in the latter camp.

    i’ve met some people who have lived a sustainable life off the land, or at least enough that i’m willing to use the somewhat-loaded word ‘sustainable’. but it’s for very few.

    building resilient communities at the local level really is key for our society’s future, and it really does great things for the individual psyche. but let’s be honest, that’s not really what hedge is writing about. he is speaking more of disconnecting out of spite. and spite is a pretty horrible basis for building most anything.

  30. 30
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Mnemosyne: Hm, didn’t the commune movement of the 60’s profoundly influence what was to come in the broad society because of its failure? Free love was a popular notion among overeducated liberals for much of the 20th century, but when tried, it exposed a yawning gap in the status between men and women in such communities and generally. This experience, and the experience of women within certain leftist youth activist organizations, fueled 2nd wave feminism and profound change to our society. It also pushed a drive for funding of childcare and maternity leave. Unfortunately these goals were never fully achieved. I don’t know what it would take to push these matters back to the forefront. But I would not discount the trama of hundreds of thousands of idealistic young women finding out that they were expected to “put out” and then to find themselves 100% responsible for all childcare and expenses… ouch. Look at our laws on child support today. Utter reversal. That didn’t just happen.

  31. 31
    Punchy says:

    What follows is ~1,000 words extending the argument.

    Own stock in No-Doz, dontcha?

  32. 32
    jibeaux says:

    @Linda Featheringill: And are there antibiotics in this withdrawal community, because at least half of my kids would probably be dead without antibiotics.

  33. 33
    aimai says:

    No matter what destruction we are not living in the dark ages. No one who is able to see the financial and social devastation wrought by late stage capitalism needs to “retreat” to “cultivate his own garden” in order to preserve western civ and the light of anarchism. And I say that as someone whose own great grandfather ran two attempts, real ones, at Anarchist communes and farming communities.

    The impoverished, hard scrabble, crushed masses aren’t going to do it because it takes a massive amount of infrastructure and wealth to even begin to retreat and, frankly, skills which they do not have. Thats the entire problem with poverty in this country, and elsewhere, it fucking impoverishes people until they can barely lift their heads above the fight for survival.

    The elite, intellectual, upper classes don’t have the god damned luxury to retreat to some anti capitalist fortress if, by that, Hedges means an anti democratic action fortress. Its more reasonable to make an analogy to a poker game. first of all: nothing prevents you from fighting for what you believe in all day until the game starts. Second of all: if you refuse to play the game, or to throw your money into the pot, you can’t ever win the pot or have a working alliance with the guy playing the hand. Imagine that the poker game involes, oh, I don’t know: the right to set tax policy, the right to spend tax money, education for the massess, infrastructure, war, peace, social security etc… Somebody is going ot play that game every night. By retreating to virtue and never showing up you simply refuse even the chance of influencing the game, of winning, and of making those decisions. But somebody else always will. Not playing the game doesn’ tmean the game stops being played. It just means you never win.

    aimai

  34. 34
    aimai says:

    @wrb:

    Thoreau was not an “effective abolitionist.” We still had to actually fight a ground war and do a whole lot of other historically and economically contingent stuff to end slavery.

    aimai

    Also: my longer comment is in moderation. Don’t know why.

  35. 35
    ericblair says:

    @wrb:

    …back-to-the-lan…

    Hee. You sure this doesn’t belong on the cloud computing foodfight a few posts ago? “Do not fall for the siren song of ubiquitous access, for your frequent flyer accounts will be hacked and you shall surely perish and lose all upgrades! Back to the LAN, brothers!”

  36. 36
    wrb says:

    @aimai:

    Thoreau was not an “effective abolitionist.”

    Sure he was.

    It took a whole lot of opinion shaping and consciousness raising before this country was willing to fight a ground war.

  37. 37
    jibeaux says:

    @aimai: Yes, if memory serves, a Constitutional amendment was involved too.

  38. 38
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @ericblair:

    “Back to the LAN, brothers!”

    LOL!

  39. 39
    chopper says:

    @wrb:

    he was effective enough, but nearly as much as those who didn’t withdraw from society.

  40. 40
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Eventually, to allude to Trotsky, these assholes WILL come looking for you. It’s their nature. They can’t stand the idea of anyone escaping their brilliant solution to the world’s problems by reverting to feudalism.

    The very idea that someone is free of their control drives them bonkers. They are evil. Deal with it.

  41. 41
    Jennifer says:

    There’s also the tactic of withdrawing without really withdrawing, e.g. general strikes, which every time I mention I get beat about the head and shoulders with all the reasons why strikes can’t and won’t work as a strategy, despite their effectiveness 80 – 90 years ago in this country and their continuing effectiveness in European countries. There’s a much greater likelihood of getting a wide swath of people to agree to not show up to work for a week than there is of getting them to agree to go live on a remote mountaintop. The bonus being that it really wouldn’t take all that long of a period of people just not showing up to work to kill the continuing stupidity of the “job creator” and “parasite” bullshit. It would even be possible to organize to an extent that financial support could be provided to strike participants who need it, as unions were once able to do before being broken by corporate-government collusion.

    FWIW, I have begun a fledgling effort to write a book about the top economic myths plaguing America, how they harm ordinary working people, and why, even though they can be proven false with just the slightest bit of common sense thought, they continue to be promulgated and perpetuated by the media and at least half of the political class. I’m sure I’ll probably never be able to find someone to publish it, but I’m giving it a go anyway. So far the intro and 2 chapters are drafted; I start with the myth that capital creates jobs/wealth rather than the other way around; chapter two dissects the “job creator” bullshit. The basic thesis of the whole book is that theft of labor has been with us since the birth of civilization and only by recognizing this and addressing it can we have an equitable and well-functioning economy.

  42. 42
    RP says:

    I have a more fundamental problem with Hedges’ argument: We live in one of the safest, least violent, fairest, and most prosperous societies in the history of the human race. Yes, there are lots and lots of problems with our society that need to be addressed, but anyone who fails to account for the amazing success of the rights revolution over the last 60 years, the decline in violent crime, and many other factors that make our society a far better place to live than countless others both in today’s world and throughout human history doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it truly does bend towards justice.

  43. 43
    RP says:

    And, I should add, most of the great stuff in our society is a result of liberal efforts, and we should celebrate that fact.

  44. 44
    scav says:

    Please distinguish “a monastic retreat in which “we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.” from a Gated Community.

    Like most principles, what’s effective in measured doses in specific circumstances so often gets over-hyped and extended beyond its limits. A tactical retreat and strategic disengagement is one set of tools in the belt. Even the church had more than one card in its deck. There were the Templars and the Knights of Malta, the teaching orders, Anchorites, Stylites, a lot of lay people making monk jokes, and literary discussions of where exactly the Devil kept all the Friars in Hell.

  45. 45
    Tehanu says:

    @hilzoy:
    @Yutsano:
    What you two said.

    @Another Halocene Human:

    Hm, didn’t the commune movement of the 60’s profoundly influence what was to come in the broad society because of its failure?

    That’s a really interesting point. I think there is, or ought to be, room for both “holy fools” who withdraw to try to carry out an alternative, like the commune-types, and those who stay in and engage directly. Thoreau obviously didn’t achieve abolition all by himself, but he provided ideas that helped in the real fight. Whether or not the holy fools succeed, as you point out, isn’t so important.

  46. 46
    wrb says:

    @chopper:

    At a Fourth of July gathering in Framingham, Massachusetts, he spoke in league with the most militant abolitionists of the day, vigorously protested the rendition (return to his owner by federal authorities) of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, and seconded the call for an end to the Union that continued to condone slavery. His increased anger over slavery coincided with anticipation…
    ___
    Thoreau’s passionate commitment to antislavery is well documented. From his 1844 essay praising the antislavery weekly the Herald of Freedom and its editor Nathaniel P. Rogers, to his advocacy for Wendell Phillips’s appearances before the Concord Lyceum in the early 1840s, to the inspiration for his militant essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” and, finally, to his increasingly enraged Journal commentary in the 1850s, Thoreau makes clear his abolitionist sympathies. His mother and sister Helen were among the founding members in 1837 of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, and they and others often involved Thoreau in their activities. The Thoreau family hid fugitive slaves in their home, and Thoreau assisted the runaways by purchasing their railway tickets, driving them to the train station, often riding with them to the next station, and nursing back to health those who were unable to travel.(4) In fact, Concord resident Ann Bigelow recalled years later that “Henry Thoreau went as escort probably more often than any other man” when she discussed the town’s participation in the Underground Railroad (Emerson). As Gary Collison points out, runaway slaves who made it to the northern states usually had to depend on whites for assistance to continue their journey to Canada since local free blacks typically did not have the financial wherewithal to help them (151). Thus, in addition to voicing his antislavery convictions in various forums, Thoreau also acted on these beliefs, often at considerable personal risk.(5)…

    Did private contemplation shape and fire Thoreau rage against slavery? Was it there that he found his persuasive eloquence?

    Could be. Can’t know.

  47. 47
    aimai says:

    @wrb:

    This is a ridiculous argument and its also kind of contemptuous of what Ta Nehisi Coates has pointed out is the central, 400 year long, struggle of actual slaves against slavery. I love Thoreau and live near Walden Pond, actually, but come the fuck on. People who were actually enslaved didn’t have the luxury of “contemplation” and withdrawal in order to arrive at abolitionist sentiments. Lots of people were for and against abolition from personal experience and from philosophical goals without contemplation. And of course the war wasn’t sparked by abolitionism but rather by the South attempting to withdraw. You are way oversentimentalizing and overvaluing Thoreau’s faux withdrawal–he withdrew no farther into the woods than his mother could reach with a god damned pie.

    aimai

  48. 48
    FlipYrWhig says:

    I think there’s merit to the idea that dissenting through the available channels is not radical enough. OK, let’s stipulate that that’s true, and what looks like subversion may well be a roundabout manner of containment (e.g., Carnival as a safety valve that protects institutional power by allowing a space for contestation and mockery that then slams shut). But that raises the question of “not radical enough for what?”. If you don’t do _something_ to engage official channels of power like law and politics, it’s not like they won’t still cover you and affect you and be able to use violence and other coercive methods upon you.

    And, like I and others said in the other thread, it sounds an awful lot like Going Galt, only from the agrarian/communitarian left instead of the paranoid right.

  49. 49
    aimai says:

    No matter what destruction we are not living in the dark ages. No one who is able to see the financial and social devastation wrought by late stage capitalism needs to “retreat” to “cultivate his own garden” in order to preserve western civ and the light of anarchism. And I say that as someone whose own great grandfather ran two attempts, real ones, at Anarchist communes and farming communities.
    The impoverished, hard scrabble, crushed masses aren’t going to do it because it takes a massive amount of infrastructure and wealth to even begin to retreat and, frankly, skills which they do not have. Thats the entire problem with poverty in this country, and elsewhere, it fucking impoverishes people until they can barely lift their heads above the fight for survival.
    The elite, intellectual, upper classes don’t have the god damned luxury to retreat to some anti capitalist fortress if, by that, Hedges means an anti democratic action fortress. Its more reasonable to make an analogy to a P*.* game (I think the name of this game is what put me into moderation.). first of all: nothing prevents you from fighting for what you believe in all day until the game starts. Second of all: if you refuse to play the game, or to throw your money into the pot, you can’t ever win the pot or have a working alliance with the guy playing the hand. Imagine that the game involes, oh, I don’t know: the right to set tax policy, the right to spend tax money, education for the massess, infrastructure, war, peace, social security etc… Somebody is going ot play that game every night. By retreating to virtue and never showing up you simply refuse even the chance of influencing the game, of winning, and of making those decisions. But somebody else always will. Not playing the game doesn’ tmean the game stops being played. It just means you never win.
    aimai

  50. 50
    aimai says:

    @FlipYrWhig:

    This.

    aimai

  51. 51
    wrb says:

    @aimai:

    I’m not sentimentalizing Thoreau. I picked him because he is well known and for many symbolizes withdrawal, yet he was contributed effectively to the anti-slavery cause.

    I’m well aware that his actual withdrawal was rather imperfect.

    I’m not advocating political withdrawal and not supporting Hedges.

    I’m arguing that the non-materialistic contemplative life is not and has not been incompatible with political and social contribution. A more thoughtful life can result in greater effectiveness.

  52. 52

    As I mentioned in the above thread: We’re facing a huge drought this summer. Even without global warming, they happen. Do you know what happens when you live in a closed, self-sufficient community cut off from the outside world when a drought like this happens?

    You die.

  53. 53
    Deb T says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    Well Shaker furniture and handcrafts are pretty popular. I think those objects can affect certain feelings and ideas toward simplicity and strength.

    Of course diving the sexes and keeping them separate, not even condoning pro-creation, was a big FAIL.

  54. 54
    Maude says:

    The Donner Party was self sufficient.

  55. 55
    wrb says:

    @Frankensteinbeck:

    You die.

    Or move.

    Or get a job in town for awhile.

    Or write books or software and buy some groceries.

    People who decide they want to live back-to-land: in the country and include raising some critters and veggies in their lives, maybe get some power from renewable sources, and prefer reading books to watching TV don’t usually sign unbreakable monastic vows these days.

  56. 56
    chopper says:

    @wrb:

    shrug. i happen to think john brown was much more influential by not withdrawing from society. but that’s just me.

  57. 57
    chopper says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    running away from society hardly ever improves it to your liking, except in the addled minds of randroids.

  58. 58
    catclub says:

    @chopper: My impression from monastic writings is that the monks _believe_ that their life of prayer is a positive contribution to the wider community, not that it is a complete withdrawal.

  59. 59
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @wrb: It kinda undermines the radical statement of disengaging from the corrupting worldly forces if you re-engage whenever it’s necessary or convenient, no? That’s not a monastic enclave anymore, it’s La Petit Trianon.

  60. 60
    aimai says:

    @wrb:
    Sure, but I guess I think that’s not what Hedges is advocating at all, he’s advocating (or being seen to be advocating) a generalized retreat, as FYW pointed out a “going galt” for the left libertarians and hopefuls. That’s not a temporary withdrawal to academe or to the woods to better face the actual fight.

    As I said upthread, somewhat obscurely, my great grandfather ran two anarchist communes during the 1930’s-early 40’s. People were desperate because of the depression and also had high ideals, based on the theories of Kropotkin. Neither commune “worked” long term because its damned hard to withdraw and be self supporting in any meaningful way. That’s not to say that the experiment wasn’t valuable–but it didn’t replace political action and voting and pressure on all the institutions that affect people’s lives on a day to day basis.

    Just look at healthcare. People can withdraw from the fight and accept fee for service/no health care/unaffordable health care if they want but 40 million uninsured people would still be uninsured if we had all taken Michelle Bachmann’s “pay ’em with a chicken” approach to health care reform. When public political institutions control major aspects of people’s lives refusing to engage with those institutions is a death sentence for society and the individual.

    aimai

  61. 61
    Mnemosyne says:

    @wrb:

    Thoreau was an effective abolitionist.

    Not really — he had very little influence during his lifetime. He was far more influential after his death:

    Thoreau’s political writings had little impact during his lifetime, as “his contemporaries did not see him as a theorist or as a radical, viewing him instead as a naturalist. They either dismissed or ignored his political essays, including Civil Disobedience. The only two complete books (as opposed to essays) published in his lifetime, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), both dealt with nature, in which he loved to wander.”

  62. 62

    @wrb:
    Yes. Which is why the ‘build monastic self-sufficient communities’ idea is stupid. Either you will die because you lack the safety net and resources of established society, or you will take part in that society because that’s your only option for survival. Either way, it’s a fantasy.

  63. 63
    wrb says:

    @FlipYrWhig:

    That radical disengagement thing’s very rare.

  64. 64
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @wrb: That’s why Hedges is getting cuffed around in these two threads, because he seems to be one _rara avis_.

  65. 65
    geg6 says:

    This shit is exactly the pie in the sky “progressive” bullshit in a nutshell. I have no idea why you take ANY of it seriously, Tom. These are most emphatically NOT serious people with serious ideas or any kinds of solutions to any problems afflicting anyone in these United States. They are selfish idiots, more concerned with their beautiful minds being sullied by all of us non-believers in their stupid unicorns than with anything actually affecting those of us who live in the real world.

    I hope everyone who takes this prattle seriously would go off with Hedges and Sacco to their utopian commune and leave the rest of us adults to fix what has been torn asunder in this country. Which is, at least in part, a result of dimwits like them.

  66. 66
    dilford says:

    @Scott S.: I would point out a large number of Tibetan monks and nuns who do just that. I find the thorniness of balancing engagement with an active/objective “wrong” with a personal/cultural philosophy that emphasizes non-attachment and compassion is worth my attention and study. I’m sure a substantial number of the more loony right-wingers feel that they are just like the Tibetans, fighting an alien occupation trying to snuff out all they feel is moral, right and good in their country. The fact that this is clearly delusional gives me hope that more exposure to “reality-based” politics might change them over time (allowing for the ever-constant 27% who are just too stuck in their ways). Our host is one example, a paid-for operative like David Brock is another. The small number of genuinely puzzled Republican elected office-holders who are publicly questioning the overwhelming influence of the fringe may offer some small sliver of hope, but I won’t hold my breath until they actually embrace the Democratic Party as the only rational hope for our nation.

  67. 67
    Spike says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Independent India quickly walked back from Gandhian ideals of self sufficient villages. Simple living not so simple actually

    Van Halen trumps Gandhi.

  68. 68
    Gillette says:

    “But neither that call to resistance, nor any recognition of the power of Hedges’ moral stance alter the real danger inherent in his call for a monastic retreat from American consumerism.”

    I agree that the call for “retreat” from the trappings of modern society really doesn’t seem to provide much of a solution to the problems Hedges/Sacco outline.

    But what are YOUR solutions? If it’s simply to Vote Obama, well, I’d say that clearly isn’t a solution either…wouldn’t you?

  69. 69
    Patricia Kayden says:

    I wonder if Hedges can be so naive because if Romney wins, there are few negative consequences for him on a personal level.

    He doesn’t have to worry about restrictions on access to reproductive rights, or Voter ID laws, or immigration policies, anti-gay bigotry, etc. None of these things impact him personally. Other people will bear the brunt of the Repub onslaught (women, minorities, gays) that will result from a Romney victory. Not him.

    I could be wrong, but that’s how I read his excerpts.

  70. 70
    Ruviana says:

    @Jennifer: I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your book.

  71. 71
    El Cid says:

    In the long run, we are all dead.

    Of course, that’s why we should embrace supply-side economics and austerity for us schlubs, because though it benefits the rich right now, it will work better for us in the long run.

    And since by that time we’ll all be dead, we won’t be around to bug them if it doesn’t work out well for us.

    We must be patient.

  72. 72
    David Koch says:

    This is all wankery.

    It’s easy for an UPPER CLASS WHITE MALE living in the security of Liberal Mecca (AKA NYC) to say the “worst the better” or “after Hitler comes us” when you’re financially and politically insulated from the horrors of a Fourth Reich.

    White male privilege, coupled with financial security, in a liberal enclave, allows such insensitivity.

    They don’t have to worry about financing college, about union busting, about public schools turning into christian indoctrination camps, about being murdered for wearing a hoodie, about reproductive freedom, about being lynched for being gay.

    “The worst the better”? You first, Thurston.

  73. 73
    David Koch says:

    Instead of turning our backs on Democrats, how about we turn our backs on the chris hedges types.

  74. 74
    Oliver's Neck says:

    Oh—and about that anti-intellectual stuff…and the horse you rode in on, partner.

    In fairness to us both, I did note that I was surprised. I’m not sure that being deliberately unnuanced is a distinction with much difference.

    However, it was very generous of you to revisit this with your usual deliberate nuance. I very much appreciate it

    I think my claim regarding the pragmatism of Hedges’ ‘call to action” is still sound. If (1) the current instutions of power in civil society are failling to serve the needs of the general populous, and (2) the general populace has no meaningful recourse to change those existing institutions from within, and (3) the construction of parallel institutions is an approach that has been demonstrably effective throughout history (and is, arguably, the only effective non-violent response to (1) and (2)), then (4) taking that course of action is pragmatic. True, Hedges claims to be less interested efficacy than doing what he thinks is right, but that fact does nothing to alter the soundness of the argument regarding the pragmatism of his “call”.

    Now, one need not conceed the truth of those premises. You certainly don’t agree with the second premise (though it seems you would find the others unproblematic). For whatever it is worth, I’m not sure I do either. I think we are also aided by the fact that unfettered capitalism tends to destroy itself. Though I worry that a victory born of that fact will be entirely pyrrhic. So I’ll concede that Hedges might be engaging in a false dilemma here, though via your comment about holy fools it seems you can see the value to us all in his doing so.

    [I would be very interested in reading more of your thoughts regarding “holy fools”, btw]

    I’ve avoided the discourse on “levels of evil” raised by both Hedges and you, as I’m not sure how to effectively wade into that. I do know that Hedges has seen far more of the evil perpetrated in our name (as U.S. citizens) than I have.

    But his call to abandon U.S. party politics necessarily comes from a conviction that those people both within and outside the U.S. who are most vulnerable to the corporate oligarchy (which U.S. party politics enable) cannot and will not be meaningfully better off under a Democratic government than a Republican one. Your disagreement on this point seems to be simply begging the question. I think for your counterargument to have genuine strength you’d need to actually demostrate how, in fact, the “major policy differences” of an Obama administration versus a Romney one would (even genuinely intend to) meaningfully alter the material conditions of the populations of Camden, Pine Ridge, Immokalee, Liberty Square, and Welch (as well as those who suffer at the edges of our empire) with which Hedges is most concerned. There is certainly a strong argument that the lives of everyone from the working poor through the middle classes would suffer more under a Romney administration. But Hedges’ claim is that things for the populations he cites cannot deteriorate any further and will only be maintained by either party. You need to address that somehow. Alternately, you could argue that the deterioration of the working poor and middle classes is a worse outcome (“evil”) than a static situation for the poorest (an argument to which you seem to be pointing). Again, I’m not sure how to meaningfully grade that but Hedges clearly has his stance. Perhaps I’m asking for you to more clearly state yours.

    Again, thanks.

  75. 75
    Oliver's Neck says:

    Hrmm, some embarrassing spelling and grammar errors in the above – particularly so given to whom the comment is directed. Shouldn’t have written it whilst trying to put an angry 3 year old to bed. Nevertheless, I suppose I’ve made a hash of any attempt to get into your grad program.

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