chris hedges

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Chris Hedges: The Politics of Cultural Despair

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 1:28am in

Princeton, New Jersey (Scheerpost) — The physical and moral decay of the United States and the malaise it has spawned have predictable results. We have seen in varying forms the consequences of social and political collapse during the twilight of the Greek and Roman empires, the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Voices from the past, Aristotle, Cicero, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Roth and Milovan Djilas, warned us. But blinded by self-delusion and hubris, as if we are somehow exempt from human experience and human nature, we refuse to listen.

The United States is a shadow of itself. It squanders its resources in futile military adventurism, a symptom of all empires in decay as they attempt to restore a lost hegemony by force. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Libya. Tens of millions of lives wrecked. Failed states. Enraged fanatics. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 24 percent of the global population, and we have turned virtually all of them into our enemies.

We are piling up massive deficits and neglecting our basic infrastructure, including electrical grids, roads, bridges and public transportation, to spend more on our military that all the other major powers on Earth combined. We are the world’s largest producer and exporter of arms and munitions. The virtues we argue we have a right to impose by force on others — human rights, democracy, the free market, the rule of law and personal freedoms — are mocked at home where grotesque levels of social inequality and austerity programs have impoverished most of the public, destroyed democratic institutions, including Congress, the courts and the press, and created militarized forces of internal occupation that carry out wholesale surveillance of the public, run the largest prison system in the world and gun down unarmed citizens in the streets with impunity.

The American burlesque, darkly humorous with its absurdities of Donald Trump, fake ballot boxes, conspiracy theorists who believe the deep state and Hollywood run a massive child sex trafficking ring, Christian fascists that place their faith in magic Jesus and teach creationism as science in our schools, ten hour long voting lines in states such as Georgia, militia members planning to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia and start a civil war, is also ominous, especially as we ignore the accelerating ecocide.

All of our activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations, the work of NGOs and misguided trust in liberal politicians such as Barack Obama have been accompanied by a 60 percent rise in global carbon emissions since 1990. Estimates predict another 40 percent rise in global emissions in the next decade. We are less than a decade away from carbon dioxide levels reaching 450 parts per million, the equivalent to a 2 degree Celsius average temperature rise, a global catastrophe that will make parts of the earth uninhabitable, flood coastal cities, dramatically reduce crop yields and result in suffering and death for billions of people. This is what is coming, and we can’t wish it away.

I speak to you in Troy, New York, once the second largest producer of iron in the country after Pittsburgh. It was an industrial hub for the garment industry, a center for the production of shirts, shirtwaists, collars, and cuffs, and was once home to foundries that made bells to firms that crafted precision instruments. All that is gone, of course, leaving behind the post-industrial decay, the urban blight and the shattered lives and despair that are sadly familiar in most cities in the United States.
It is this despair that is killing us. It eats into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifests itself in an array of self-destructive and aggressive pathologies. It fosters what the anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls “poisoned solidarity,” the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, suspicion, envy and the lust for vengeance and violence. Nations in terminal decline embrace, as Sigmund Freud understood, the death instinct. No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism. No longer able to build, they confuse destruction with creation. They descend into an atavistic savagery, something not only Freud but Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi knew lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilized society. Reason does not guide our lives. Reason, as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume, is the hard-pressed servant of the will.

“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked,” Freud wrote. “They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule, this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”

Freud, like Primo Levi, got it. The moral life is a matter of circumstances. Moral consideration, as I saw in the wars I covered, largely disappears in moments of extremity. It is the luxury of the privileged. “Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction,” Susan Sontag said.

To survive, it was necessary, Levi wrote of life in the death camps, “to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. “It was, he wrote, “a Hobbesian life,” “a continuous war of everyone against everyone.” Varlam Shalamov, imprisoned for 25 years in Stalin’s gulags, was equally pessimistic: “All human emotions–of love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellowman, compassion, a longing for fame, honesty–had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during our long fasts. The camp was a great test of our moral strength, of our everyday morality, and 99% of us failed it…Conditions in the camps do not permit men to remain men; that is not what camps were created for.”

Social collapse will bring these latent pathologies to the surface.

But the fact that circumstances can reduce us to savagery does not negate the moral life. As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, as the earth increasingly punishes us for our refusal to honor and protect the systems that give us life, triggering a scramble for diminishing natural resources and huge climate migrations, we must face this darkness, not only around us, but within us.

The dance macabre is already underway. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year from opioid overdoes, alcoholism and suicide, what sociologists calls deaths of despair. This despair fuels high rates of morbid obesity, some 40 percent of the public, gambling addictions, the pornification of the society with the ubiquitous of images of sexual sadism along with the proliferation of armed right-wing militias and nihilistic mass shootings. As despair mounts, so will these acts of self-immolation.
Those overwhelmed by despair seek magical salvations, whether in crisis cults, such as the Christian Right, or demagogues such as Trump, or rage-filled militias that see violence as a cleansing agent. As long as these dark pathologies are allowed to fester and grow–and the Democratic Party has made it clear it will not enact the kinds of radical social reforms that will curb these pathologies–the United States will continue its march towards disintegration and social upheaval. Removing Trump will neither halt nor slow the descent.

An estimated 300,000 American will be dead from the pandemic in December, a figure that is expected to rise to 400,000 in January. Chronic underemployment and unemployment, close to 20 percent when those who have stopped looking for work, those furloughed with no prospect of being rehired and those who work part-time but are still below the poverty line, are included in the official statistic instead of being magically erased from the unemployment rolls. Our privatized health care system, which is making record profits during the pandemic, is not designed to cope with a public health emergency. It is designed to maximize profit for its owners. There are fewer than 1 million hospital beds nationally, a result of the decades-long trend of hospital mergers and closures that have reduced access to care in communities across the nation. Cities such as Milwaukee have been forced to erect field hospitals. In states such as Mississippi there are no longer any ICU beds available. The for-profit health service did not stockpile the ventilators, masks, tests or drugs to deal with COVID-19. Why should it? That is not a route to increased revenue. And there is no substantial difference between Trump and Biden’s response to the health crisis, where 1,000 people a day are dying.

Forty-eight percent of front line workers remain ineligible for sick pay. Some 43 million Americans have lost their employee-sponsored health insurance. There are ten thousand bankruptcies a day, with perhaps two-thirds of them tied to exorbitant medial costs. Food banks are overrun with tens of thousands of desperate families. Roughly 10 to 14 million renter households, or 23 to 34 million people, were behind on their rent in September. That amounts to $12 to $17 billion in unpaid rent. And that figure is expected to rise to $34 billion in past due rent in January. The lifting of the moratorium on evictions and forecloses will mean that millions of families, many destitute, will be tossed onto the street. Hunger in U.S. households almost tripled between 2019 and August of this year, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture. The proportion of American children who do not have enough to eat, the study found, is 14 times higher than it was last year. A study by Columbia University, found that since May there are eight million more Americans who can be classified as poor. Meanwhile, the 50 richest Americans hold as much wealth as half of the United States. Millennials, some 72 million people, have 4.6 percent of U.S. wealth.

Only one thing matters to the corporate state. It is not democracy. It is not truth. It is not the consent of the governed. It is not income inequality. It is not the surveillance state. It is not endless war. It is not jobs. It is not the climate crisis. It is the primacy of corporate power — which has extinguished our democracy, taken from us our most basic civil liberties and left most of the working class in misery — and the increase and consolidation of its wealth and power.
Trump and Biden are repugnant figures, doddering into old age with cognitive lapses and no moral cores. Is Trump more dangerous than Biden? Yes. Is Trump inepter and more dishonest? Yes. Is Trump more of a threat to the open society? Yes. Is Biden the solution? No.

Biden cannot plausibly offer change. He can only offer more of the same. And most Americans do not want more of the same. The country’s largest voting-age bloc, the 100 million-plus citizens who out of apathy or disgust do not vote, will once again stay home. This demoralization of the electorate is by design.

In America we are only permitted to vote against what we hate. Partisan media outlets set one group against another, a consumer version of what George Orwell in his novel 1984 called the “Two minutes of Hate.” Our opinions and prejudices are skillfully catered to and reinforced, with the aid of a detailed digital analysis of our proclivities and habits, and then sold back to us. The result, as Matt Taibbi writes, is “packaged anger just for you.” The public is unable to speak across the manufactured divide. Politics, under the assault, has atrophied into a tawdry reality show centered on manufactured political personalities. Civic discourse has been poisoned by invective and lies. Power, meanwhile, is left unexamined and unchallenged.

Political coverage is modeled, as Taibbi points out, on sports coverage. The sets look like the sets on Sunday NFL Countdown. The anchor is on one side. There are four commentators, two from each team. Graphics keep us updated on the score. Political identities are reduced to easily digestible stereotypes. Tactics, strategy, image, the monthly tallies of campaign contributions and polling are endlessly examined, while real political issues are ignored. It is the language and imagery of war.

This coverage masks the fact that on nearly all the major issues the two major political parties are in complete agreement. The deregulation of the financial industry, trade agreements, the militarization of police — the Pentagon has transferred more than $ 7.4 billion in excess military gear and hardware to nearly 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies since 1990 — the explosion in the prison population, deindustrialization, austerity, support for fracking and the fossil fuel industry, the endless wars in the Middle East, the bloated military budget, the control of elections and mass media by corporations and the wholesale government surveillance of the population–and when the government watches you 24 hours a day you cannot use the word liberty, this is the relationship of a master and a slave — all have bipartisan support. And for this reason, these issues are almost never discussed.
This goal is to set demographic against demographic. This stoking of antagonism is not news. It is entertainment, driven not by journalism but marketing strategies to increase viewership and corporate sponsors. News divisions are corporate revenue streams competing against other corporate revenue streams. The template for news, as Taibbi writes in his book Hate Inc., the cover of which has Sean Hannity on one side and Rachel Maddow on the other, is the simplified morality play used in professional wrestling. There are only two real political positions in the United States. You love Trump or you hate him, which comes from the playbook of professional wrestling.

By voting for Biden and the Democratic Party you vote for something.

You vote to endorse the humiliation of courageous women such as Anita Hill who confronted their abusers. You vote for the architects of the endless wars in the Middle East. You vote for the apartheid state in Israel. You vote for wholesale surveillance of the public by government intelligence agencies and the abolition of due process and habeas corpus. You vote for austerity programs, including the destruction of welfare and cuts to Social Security. You vote for NAFTA, free trade deals, de-industrialization, a real decline in wages, the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the offshoring of jobs to underpaid workers who toil in sweatshops in Mexico, China or Vietnam. You vote for the assault on teachers and public education and the transfer of federal funds to for-profit and Christian charter schools. You vote for the doubling of our prison population, the tripling and quadrupling of sentences and huge expansion of crimes meriting the death penalty. You vote for militarized police who gun down poor people of color with impunity.  You vote against the Green New Deal and immigration reform. You vote for the fracking industry. You vote for limiting a woman’s right to abortion and reproductive rights. You vote for a segregated public-school system in which the wealthy receive educational opportunities and poor people of color are denied a chance. You vote for punitive levels of student debt and the inability to free yourself of those debt obligations even if file for bankruptcy. You vote for deregulating the banking industry and the abolition of Glass-Steagall. You vote for the for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical corporations and against universal health care. You vote for defense budgets that consume more than half of all discretionary spending. You vote for the use of unlimited oligarchic and corporate money to buy our elections. You vote for a politician who during his time in the Senate abjectly served the interests of MBNA, the largest independent credit card company headquartered in Delaware, which also employed Biden’s son Hunter.

Biden was one of the principle architects of the wars in the Middle East, where we have squandered upwards of $7 trillion and destroyed or extinguished the lives of millions of people. He is responsible for far more suffering and death at home and abroad than Trump. If we had a functioning judicial and legislative system, Biden, along with the other architects of our disastrous imperial wars, corporate plundering of the country and betrayal of the American working class, would be put on trial, not offered up as a solution to our political and economic debacle.

The Democrats and their liberal apologists adopt tolerant positions on issues regarding race, religion, immigration, women’s rights and sexual identity and pretend this is politics. These issues are societal or ethical issues. They are important. But they are not social or political issues. The seizure of control of the economy by a class of global speculators and corporations has ruined the lives of the very groups the Democrats pretend to lift up. When Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, for example, destroyed the old welfare system, 70 percent of the recipients were children. Those on the right of the political spectrum — and we must never forget that the positions of the Democratic Party would make it a far-right party in Europe — demonize those on the margins of society as scapegoats. The culture wars mask the reality. Both parties are full partners in the destruction of our democratic institutions. Both parties have reconfigured American society into a mafia state. It only depends on how you want it dressed up.
The power of politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell comes from being able funnel corporate money to anointed candidates. In a functioning political system, one not saturated with corporate cash, they would not hold power. They have transformed what the Roman philosopher Cicero called a commonwealth, a res publica, a “public thing” or the “property of a people,” into an instrument of pillage and repression on behalf of a global corporate oligarchy. We are serfs ruled by the obscenely rich, omnipotent masters who loot the U.S. Treasury, pay little or no taxes and have perverted the judiciary, the media and the legislative branches of government to strip us of civil liberties and give them the freedom to engage in tax boycotts, financial fraud and theft.

In the midst of the pandemic crisis what did our ruling kleptocratic rulers do?

They looted $4 trillion on a scale unseen since the 2008 bailout overseen by Barack Obama and Biden. They gorged and enriched themselves at our expense, while tossing crumbs out of the windows of their private jets, yachts, penthouses and palatial estates to the suffering and despised masses.

The CARES Act handed trillions in funds or tax breaks to oil companies, the airline industry, which alone got $50 billion in stimulus money, the cruise ship industry, a $170 billion windfall for the real estate industry. It handed subsidies to private equity firmslobbying groups, whose political action committees have given $191 million in campaign contributions to politicians in the last two decades, the meat industry and corporations that have moved offshore to avoid U.S. taxes. The act allowed the largest corporations to gobble up money that was supposed to keep small businesses solvent to pay workers. It gave 80 percent of tax breaks under the stimulus package to millionaires and allowed the wealthiest to get stimulus checks that average $1.7 million. The CARES Act also authorized $454 billion for the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, a massive slush fund doled out by Trump cronies to corporations that, when leveraged 10 to 1, can be used to create a staggering $4.5 trillion in assets. The act authorized the Fed to give $1.5 trillion in loans to Wall Street, which no one expects will ever be paid back. American billionaires have gotten $434 billion richer since the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose corporation Amazon paid no federal taxes last year, alone added nearly $72 billion to his personal wealth since the pandemic started. During this same time period 55 million Americans lost their jobs.

The molding of the public into warring factions works commercially. It works politically. It destroys, as it is designed to do, class solidarity. But it is a recipe for social disintegration. It propels us towards the kind of Hobbesian world Primo Levi and Sigmund Freud warned us about. I watched competing ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia retreat into antagonistic tribes. They seized rival mass media outlets and used them to spew lies, mythological narratives exalting themselves, along with vitriol and hate against the ethnicities they demonized. This poisoned solidarity, which we are replicating, pumped out month after month in Yugoslavia, destroyed the capacity for empathy, perhaps the best definition of evil, and led to a savage fratricide.
The United States, awash in military-grade weaponry, is already plagued by an epidemic of mass shootings. There are death threats against critics of Trump, including Rep. Ilhan Omar. There was an aborted plot by 13 members of a right-wing militia group to kidnap and perhaps assassinate the governors of Michigan and Virginian and start a civil war. A Trump supporter mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and CNN, an effort to decapitate the hierarchy of the Democratic Party, as well as terrorize the media outlet that is the party’s principal propaganda platform.

The spark that usually sets such tinder ablaze is martyrdom. Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was wearing a loaded Glock pistol in a holster and had bear spray and an expandable metal baton when he was shot dead on August 29, allegedly by Michael Forest Reinoehl, a supporter of antifa, in the streets of Portland. A woman in the crowd can be heard shouting after the shooting: “I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight.” Reinoehl was ambushed and killed by federal agents in Washington state in what appears to be an act of extra-judicial murder. Once people start being sacrificed for the cause, it takes little for demagogues to insist that self-preservation necessitates violence.

Political stagnation and corruption, along with economic and social misery, spawn what anthropologists call crisis cults–movements led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and financial distress and champion violence as a form of moral purification. These crisis cults, already well established among followers of the Christian Right, right-wing militia groups and many followers of Donald Trump, who look at him not a politician but as a cult leader, peddle magical thinking and an infantilism that promises–if you surrender all autonomy–prosperity, restored national glory, a return to a mythical past, order and security. Trump is a symptom. He is not the disease. And if he leaves office far more competent and dangerous demagogues will rise, if the social conditions are not radically improved, to take his place.

I fear we are headed towards a Christianized fascism.

The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce the followers of the Christian right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant, it ceded religious legitimacy to an array of con artists, charlatans and demagogues and their cultish supporters. It stood by as the core Gospel message–concern for the poor and the oppressed–was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The white race became God’s chosen agent. Imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith.
The mega-pastors, narcissists who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. These believers find in Trump, who preyed on this despair in his casinos and through his sham university, and these mega-pastors, champions of the unfettered greed, cult of masculinity, lust for violence, white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance, anger, racism and conspiracy theories that are the core beliefs of the Christian Right.

When I wrote American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America I was quite serious about the term “fascists.”

Tens of millions of Americans live hermetically sealed inside the vast media and educational edifice erected by the Christian Right. In this world, miracles are real, Satan, allied with liberal secular humanists and the deep state, along with Muslims, immigrants, feminists, intellectuals, artists and a host of other internal enemies, is seeking to destroy America. Trump is God’s anointed vessel to build the Christian nation and cement into place a government that instills “biblical values.” These “biblical values” include banning abortion, protecting the traditional family, turning the Ten Commandments into secular law, crushing “infidels,” especially Muslims, indoctrinating children in schools with “biblical” teachings and thwarting sexual license, which includes any sexual relationship other than marriage between a man and a woman. Trump is routinely compared by evangelical leaders to the biblical king Cyrus, who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and restored the Jews to the city.

Trump has filled his ideological void with Christian fascism. He has elevated members of the Christian right to prominent positions, including Mike Pence to the vice presidency, Mike Pompeo to secretary of state, Betsy DeVos to secretary of education, Ben Carson to secretary of housing and urban development, William Barr to attorney general, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the televangelist Paula White to his Faith and Opportunities Initiative. More importantly, Trump has handed the Christian right veto and appointment power over key positions in government, especially in the federal courts. He has installed 133 district court judges out of 677 total, 50 appeals court judges out of 179 total, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices, and with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination most likely three, out of nine. This is nineteen percent of the federal trial judges currently in service. Nearly all of the extremists who make up the judicial appointees have been rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association, the country’s largest nonpartisan coalition of lawyers.
Trump has adopted the Islamophobia of the Christian fascists. He has banned Muslim immigrants and rolled back civil rights legislation. He has made war on reproductive rights by restricting abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood. He has stripped away LGBTQ rights. He has ripped down the firewall between church and state by revoking the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches, which are tax-exempt, from endorsing political candidates. His appointees, including Pence, Pompeo and DeVos, throughout the government routinely use biblical strictures to justify an array of policy decisions including environmental deregulation, war, tax cuts and the replacement of public schools with charter schools, an action that permits the transfer of federal education funds to private “Christian” schools. At the same time, they are building paramilitary organizations, not only through ad hoc militias but through mercenary groups of private contractors controlled by figures such as Erik Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos and the former CEO of Blackwater now called Xe.

I studied ethics at Harvard Divinity School with James Luther Adams who had been in Germany in 1935 and 1936. Adams witnessed the rise there of the so-called German Christian Church which was pro-Nazi. He warned us about the disturbing parallels between the German Christian Church and the Christian right. Adolf Hitler was in the eyes of the German Christian Church a volk messiah and an instrument of God—a view similar to the one held today about Trump by many of his white evangelical supporters. Those demonized for Germany’s economic collapse, especially Jews and communists, were agents of Satan. Fascism, Adams told us, always cloaked itself in a nation’s most cherished symbols and rhetoric. Fascism would come to America not in the guise of stiff-armed, marching brownshirts and Nazi swastikas but in mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the biblical sanctification of the state and the sacralization of American militarism. Adams was the first person I heard label the extremists of the Christian right as fascists. Liberals, he warned, as in Nazi Germany, were blind to the tragic dimension of history and radical evil. They would not react until it was too late.

Trump’s legacy will, I fear, be the empowerment of the Christian fascists. They are what comes next. Noam Chomsky, for this reason, is right when he warns that Pence is more dangerous than Trump. For decades the Christian fascists have been organizing to take power. They have built infrastructures and organizations, including lobbying groups, schools, colleges and law schools as well as media platforms, to prepare. They have seeded their cadre into positions of power. We on the left, meanwhile, have seen our institutions and organizations destroyed or corrupted by corporate power and been seduced by the boutique activism of identity politics. FRC Action, the legislative affiliate of the Family Research Council, already gives 245 members of Congress a 100 percent approval rating for supporting legislation that is backed by the Christian Right.

Christian fascism is an emotional life raft for tens of millions of Americans. It is impervious to science and verifiable fact. The Christian fascists, by choice, have severed themselves from rational thought and the secular society that almost destroyed them and their families and thrust them into deep despair. We will not placate or disarm this movement, bent on our destruction, by attempting to claim that we, too, have Christian “values.” This appeal only strengthens the legitimacy of the Christian fascists and weakens our own. These dispossessed people will either be reintegrated into the economy and the society and their shattered social bonds mended, or the movement will grow more virulent and more powerful.

The Christian Right is determined to keep the public focus on societal or ethical as opposed to economic issues. The corporate media, whether it supports or opposes the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, almost exclusively discusses her opposition to abortion and membership in People of Praise, a far-right Catholic sect that practices “speaking in tongues.” What our corporate masters, along with the Christian fascists, do not want examined is Barrett’s subservience to corporate power, her hostility to workers, civil liberties, unions and environmental regulations. Since the Democratic Party is beholden to the same donor class as the Republican Party, and since the media long ago substituted the culture wars for politics, the most ominous threat posed by Barrett and the Christian Right is ignored.

The road to despotism is always paved with righteousness.

All fascist movements paper over their squalid belief systems with the veneer of morality. They mouth pieties about restoring law and order, right and wrong, the sanctity of life, civic and family virtues, patriotism and tradition to mask their dismantling of the open society and silencing and persecution of those who dissent. The Christian Right, awash in money from corporations that understand their political intent, will use any tool, no matter how devious, from right-wing armed militias to the invalidation of ballots, to block Biden and Democratic candidates from assuming office.

Capitalism, driven by the obsession to maximizing profit and reduce the cost of production by slashing worker’s rights and wages, is antithetical to the Christian Gospel, as well as the Enlightenment ethic of Immanuel Kant. But capitalism, in the hands of the Christian fascists, has become sacralized in the form of the Prosperity Gospel, the belief that Jesus came to minister to our material needs, blessing believers with wealth and power. The Prosperity Gospel is an ideological cover for the slow-motion corporate coup d’état. This is why large corporations such as Tyson Foods, which places Christian Right chaplains in its plants, Purdue, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Warehouse, along with many other corporations, pour money into the movement and its institutions such as Liberty University and Patrick Henry Law School. This is why corporations have given millions to groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to campaign for Barrett’s appointment to the court. Barrett has ruled to cheat gig workers out of overtime, green light fossil fuel extraction and pollution, gut Obamacare and strip consumers of protection from corporate fraud. Barrett, as a circuit court judge, heard at least 55 cases in which citizens challenged corporate abuse and fraud. She ruled in favor of corporations 76 percent of the time.

Our corporate masters do not care about abortion, gun rights or the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. But like the German industrialists who backed the Nazi Party, they know that the Christian Right will give an ideological veneer to ruthless corporate tyranny. These oligarchs view the Christian fascists the same way the German industrialists viewed the Nazis, as buffoons. They are aware that the Christian fascists will trash what is left of our anemic democracy and the natural ecosystem. But they also know they will make huge profits in the process and the rights of workers and citizens will be ruthlessly suppressed.

If you are poor, if you lack proper medical care, if you are paid substandard wages, if you are trapped in the lower class, if you are a victim of police violence, this is because, according to the Prosperity Gospel, you are not a good Christian. In this belief system you deserve what you get. There is nothing wrong, these homegrown fascists preach, with the structures or systems of power. Like all totalitarian movements, followers are seduced into calling for their own enslavement.

As the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels understood: “The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.”

The tinder that could ignite violent conflagrations lies ominously stacked around us. It may be triggered by Trump’s defeat in the election. Millions of disenfranchised white Americans, who see no way out of their economic and social misery, struggling with an emotional void, are seething with rage against a corrupt ruling class and bankrupt liberal elite that betrayed them. They are tired of the political stagnation, grotesque, mounting social inequality and the punishing fallout from the pandemic. Millions more alienated young men and women, also locked out of the economy and with no realistic prospect for advancement or integration, gripped by the same emotional void, have harnessed their fury in the name of tearing down the governing structures and anti-fascism. These polarized extremes are inching closer and closer to violence.
There are three options: reform, which, given the decay in the American body politic, is impossible, revolution, or tyranny.

If the corporate state is not overthrown, then America will soon become a naked police state where any opposition, however tepid, will be silenced with draconian censorship or force. Police in cities around the country have already thwarted the reporting by dozens of journalists covering the protests through physical force, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray.  This will become normalized. The huge social divides, often built around race, will be used by the Christian fascists to set neighbor against neighbor. Armed Christian patriots will attack those groups blamed for social collapse. Dissent, even nonviolent dissent, will become treason.

Peter Drucker observed that Nazism succeeded not because people believed in its fantastic promises, but in spite of them. Nazi absurdities, he pointed out, had been “witnessed by a hostile press, a hostile radio, a hostile cinema, a hostile church, and a hostile government which untiringly pointed out the Nazi lies, the Nazi inconsistency, the unattainability of their promises, and the dangers and folly of their course.” Nobody, he noted, “would have been a Nazi if rational belief in the Nazi promises had been a prerequisite.” The poet, playwright and socialist revolutionary Ernst Toller, who was forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship when the Nazis took power in 1933, wrote in his autobiography: “The people are tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection. They ask, what has reason done in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge done us.” After Toller committed suicide in 1939, W.H. Auden in his poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller” wrote:

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

Once the internal enemies are purged from the nation, we are promised, America will recover its lost glory, except that once one enemy is obliterated another takes its place. Crisis cults require a steady escalation of conflict and a steady stream of victims. Every new crisis becomes more urgent and more extreme than the last. This is what made the war in the former Yugoslavia inevitable. Once one stage of conflict reaches a crescendo it loses its efficacy. It must be replaced by ever more brutal and deadly confrontations. It is what Ernst Jünger called a “feast of death.”

These crisis cults are, as Drucker understood, irrational and schizophrenic. They have no coherent ideology. They turn morality upside down. They appeal exclusively to emotions. Burlesque and spectacle become politics. Depravity becomes morality. Atrocities and murder, as the federal marshals who wantonly gunned down the antifia activist Michael Forest Reinoehl in Washington State illustrated, becomes heroism. Crime and fraud become justice. Greed and nepotism become civic virtues.

What these crisis cults stand for today, they condemn tomorrow. There is no ideological consistency. There is only emotional consistency. At the height of the reign of terror on May 6, 1794 during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre announced that the Committee for Public Safety now recognized the existence of God. The French revolutionaries, fanatical atheists who had desecrated churches and confiscated church property, murdered hundreds of priests and forced another 30,000 into exile, instantly reversed themselves to send to the guillotine those who disparaged religion. In the end, exhausted by the moral confusion and internal contradictions, these crisis cults yearn for self-annihilation.

The ruling elites will no more restore these ruptured social bonds and address the deep despair that grips America than they will respond to the climate emergency. As the country unravels, they will reach for the familiar tools of state repression and the ideological prop provided by Christian fascism.

It is up to us to carry out sustained acts of nonviolent, mass resistance. If we mobilize in large and small ways to fight for an open society, to create communities that, as Vaclav Havel wrote “live in truth,” we hold out the possibility of pushing back against these crisis cults, holding at bay the brutality that accompanies social upheaval, as well as slowing and disrupting the march towards ecocide. This requires us to acknowledge that our systems of governance are incapable of being reformed. No one in power will save us. No one but us will stand up for the vulnerable, the demonized and the earth itself. All we do must have the single aim of crippling the power of the ruling elites in the hopes of new systems of governance that can implement the radical reforms to save us and our world.

The most difficult existential dilemma we face is to at once acknowledge the bleakness before us and act, to refuse to succumb to cynicism and despair. And we will only do this through faith, the faith that the good draws to it the good, that all acts that nurture and protect life have an intrinsic power, even if the empirical evidence shows that things are getting worse. We will find our freedom, our autonomy, our meaning and our social bonds among those who also resist, and this will allow us to endure, and maybe even triumph.

Feature photo | Art by Mr. Fish / Original to Scheerpost

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. 

The post Chris Hedges: The Politics of Cultural Despair appeared first on MintPress News.

Chris Hedges: The Cost of Resistance

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 12:23am in

Princeton, New Jersey (Scheerpost) — Two of the rebels I admire most, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks publisher, and Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, are in jail in Britain. That should not be surprising. You can measure the effectiveness of resistance by the fury of the response. Julian courageously exposed the lies, deceit, war crimes and corruption of the ruling imperial elites. Roger has helped organized the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in British history, shutting down parts of London for weeks, in a bid to wrest power from a ruling class that has done nothing, and will do nothing, to halt the climate emergency and our death march to mass extinction.

The governing elites, when truly threatened, turn the rule of law into farce. Dissent becomes treason. They use the state mechanisms of control – intelligence agencies, police, courts, black propaganda and a compliant press that acts as their echo chamber, along with the jails and prisons, not only to marginalize and isolate rebels, but to psychologically and physically destroy them. The list of rebels silenced or killed by ruling elites runs in a direct line from Socrates to the Haitian resistance leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the only successful slave revolt in human history and died in a frigid French prison cell of malnutrition and exhaustion, to the imprisonment of the socialist Eugene V. Debs, whose health was also broken in a federal prison. Rebel leaders from the 1960s, including Mumia Abu Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Kojo Bomani Sababu, Mutulu Shakur and Leonard Peltier, remain, decades later, in U.S. prisons. Muslim activists, including those who led the charity The Holy Land Foundation and Syed Fahad Hashmi, were arrested, often at the request of Israel, after the hysteria following 9/11, and given tawdry show trials. They also remain incarcerated.

Resistance, genuine resistance, exacts a very, very high price. Those in power drop even the pretense of justice when they face an existential threat. Most rebels, like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and the tens of thousands of rebels the U.S. has had kidnapped, disappeared and brutally tortured and killed throughout American history end up as martyrs.

Once a rebel is caged the state uses its absolute control and array of dark arts to break them. Julian, whose extradition hearing is underway in London, and who spent seven years trapped as a political prisoner in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, is taken from his cell in the high security Belmarsh Prison at 5:00 am. He is handcuffed, put in holding cells, stripped naked and X-rayed. He is transported an hour and a half each way to court in a police van that resembles a dog cage on wheels. He is held in a glass box at the back of court during the proceedings, often unable to consult with his lawyers. He has difficulty hearing the proceedings. He is routinely denied access to the documents in his case and is openly taunted in court by the judge.

It does not matter that Julian, being prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, is not a U.S. citizen. It does not matter that WikiLeaks, which he founded and publishes, is not a U.S.-based publication. The ominous message the U.S. government is sending is clear: No matter who or where you are, if you expose the inner workings of empire you will be hunted down, kidnapped and brought to the U.S. to be tried as a spy and imprisoned for life. The empire intends to be unaccountable, untouchable and unexamined.

Julian Assange Cartoon

Illustratin by Mr. Fish for Scheerpost

The U.S. created in the so-called “war on terror” parallel legal and penal codes to railroad dissidents and rebels into prison. These rebels are held in prolonged solitary confinement, creating deep psychological distress. They are prosecuted under special administrative measures, known as SAMs, to prevent or severely restrict communication with other prisoners, attorneys, family, the media and people outside the jail. They are denied access to the news and other reading material. They are barred from participating in educational and religious activities in the prison. They are subject to 24-hour electronic monitoring and 23-hour lockdown. They must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. They are permitted to write one letter a week to a single member of their family, but cannot use more than three pieces of paper. They often have no access to fresh air and must take the one hour of recreation in a cage that looks like a giant hamster wheel.

The U.S. has set up a segregated facility, the Communication Management Unit, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. Nearly all the inmates transferred to Terre Haute are Muslims. A second facility has been set up at Marion, Ill., where the inmates again are mostly Muslim but also include a sprinkling of animal rights and environmental activists. Their sentences are arbitrarily lengthened by “terrorism enhancements” under the Patriot Act. Amnesty International has called the Marion prison facility “inhumane.” All calls and mail – although communication customarily is off-limits to prison officials – are monitored in these two Communication Management Units. Communication among prisoners is required to be only in English. The highest-level “terrorists” are housed at the Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, known as Supermax, in Florence, Colorado, where prisoners have almost no human interaction, physical exercise or mental stimulation. It is Guantánamo-like conditions in colder weather.

Julian is already very fragile. His psychological and physical distress include dramatic weight loss, severe respiratory problems, joint problems, dental decay, chronic anxiety, intense, constant stress resulting in an inability to relax or focus, and episodes of mental confusion. These symptoms indicate, as Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture who met and examined Julian in prison has stated, that he is suffering from prolonged psychological torture.

If Julian is extradited to the U.S. to face 17 charges under the Espionage Act, each carrying a potential 10 years, which appears likely, he will continue to be psychologically and physically abused to break him. He will be tried in the burlesque of a kangaroo court with “secret” evidence, familiar to Black and Muslim radicals as well as rebels such as Jeremy Hammond, sentenced to 10 years in prison for hacking into the computers and making public the emails of a private security firm that works on behalf of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, and corporations such as Dow Chemical.

Roger is being held in Pentonville Prison in London which was built in 1842 and is in disrepair. He is charged with breaking bail conditions over an action that saw activists throw paint on the walls of the four major political parties, as well as conspiracy to cause criminal damage. A Green Party member leaked to the British police a recorded Zoom discussion Roger was having with three other members of Burning Pink, an anti-political party organized to create citizen assemblies to replace ruling governing bodies, as they discussed upcoming actions. The homes of the four activists on the Zoom meeting – Roger Hallam, Blyth Brentnall, Diana Warner, Ferhat Ulusu and Anglican priest Steven Nunn – were raided on August 25. Their electronic devices were confiscated by police and they were arrested.

Roger is housed in a dirty, vermin-infested cell and denied books and visitors. A vegan, he is forced to live on a diet of cold cereal and bread. On many days there is no hot food served in the prison. Violent altercations within the prison are commonplace. The overcrowded cells often lack lighting and heat. He has no change of clothes and has been unable to wash the clothes he is wearing for weeks. He stuffs bed sheets and paper in the cracks of the door to block mice and cockroaches. The toilet in his cell has no seat, is covered in excrement and does not flush properly. He goes days without access to the outside. His reading glasses are broken. He is waiting on a request for tape to fix them. The COVID-19 pandemic is in the prison. Two of the staff have died from the virus. Roger could be imprisoned in these conditions until February if he is denied bail in a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Roger’s arrest came as Extinction Rebellion was planning the blockade of the printing presses of News Corps Printworks, which prints the newspapers The Times, Sun on Sunday, Sunday Times, The Daily Mail and The London Evening Standard. The blockade took place on September 4 to protest the failure of the news outlets to accurately report on the climate and ecological emergency. The blockade delayed distribution of the papers by several hours.

“The days of standing up to tyranny have long faded,” Roger writes from prison. “The life-and-death struggle against Hitler and fascism is consigned to the history books. Today’s liberal classes believe only in one thing: maintaining their privilege. Their one priority is power. The number one rule is: preserve our careers, our institutions at all cost. The historical rule number one of fighting evil is the willingness to lose your career and to risk the closing down of your institution. The prospect of death and destruction is lost in a postmodernist haze. Leadership has decayed into sitting behind a desk, following public relations protocols (otherwise known as lying). Leading from the front, the first to go to prison Martin Luther King-style died with the passing of the World War II generation.”

“The game is up,” Roger continued. “The old alliance with the liberal classes is dead. New forms of revolutionary initiative and leadership are rising up. Members of the new political party Burning Pink have thrown paint at the doors of the NGOs and political parties calling for open dialogue and public debate. The response, true to form, has been a lethal and deafening silence. We are now in prison from where I write this article after a Green Party member recorded a Zoom call and passed it to the police. We have not been let out for exercise for the first five days. We have no kettle, no pillows, no visits. But we don’t give a shit. We are doing something about Evil.”

Feature photo | Protesters move a banner at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in London, Sept. 21, 2020, as the Julian Assange extradition hearing to the US continues. Frank Augstein | AP

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He wrote a weekly column for the progressive website Truthdig for 14 years until he was fired along with all of the editorial staff in March 2020. [Hedges and the staff had gone on strike earlier in the month to protest the publisher’s attempt to fire the Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, demand an end to a series of unfair labor practices and the right to form a union.] He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact.

The post Chris Hedges: The Cost of Resistance appeared first on MintPress News.

Chris Hedges: My Student Comes Home

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 30/06/2020 - 1:22am in

Rahway, New Jersey (Scheerpost) — When Lawrence Bell, an orphan living in an abandoned house in Camden, New Jersey, went to prison he was 14-years-old. Barely literate and weighing no more than 90 pounds, he had been pressured by three Camden police detectives into signing a confession for a murder and rape he insisted at his trial he did not commit, although admitted he was in the car of the man who dragged a young mother into the bushes where she was sexually assaulted and strangled to death. It made no difference. The confession condemned him, although there was no scientific evidence or any independent witnesses tying him to the crime. He would not be eligible to go before a parole board for 56 years. It was a de facto life sentence.

But on Sunday, thanks to the dogged work of Jennifer Sellitti, an attorney who is in charge of training the Public Defender’s office’s 600 lawyers, Lawrence walked out of East Jersey State Prison after serving thirty years and one day. Sellitti, who devoted two-and-a-half years to freeing Lawrence and who openly wept in court, used Lawrence’s case as a prototype for re-sentencing hearings for juveniles that were tried as adults. Lawrence will attempt, with no money and few connections, to start a life interrupted by a dysfunctional judicial and prison system, filled mostly with 2.3 million poor men and women like Lawrence. It was a tiny victory in a sea of defeats.

Lawrence and I walked the two blocks from the prison to the QuickChek, a ritual for most prisoners released from East Jersey State Prison. The convenience store, which can be seen from the barred windows, has a mythic status in the prison, a symbol for those locked inside of the outside world.

Lawrence Bell

Lawrence Bell [right], moments after being released from East Jersey State Prison on Sunday, is greeted by his friend Ron Pierce [left], who was also incarcerated for three decades.

“I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation,” he said. “It feels so strange right now to be walking outside without handcuffs and shackles.”

“How long has it been since you walked outside as a free man?” I asked.

“Thirty years and one day,” he said. “June 27, 1990 I came into prison at 14-years-old. I’m now going on 45-years old. It’s amazing. It’s scary. But it’s here.”

He said he was up at 4:00 a.m. to wait by his cell door. He was released at 8:30.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said of his release. “A lot of these guys I grew up with. They’re my brothers, they’re not my friends. As happy as I am to be leaving, I won’t ever forget the fact that I’m leaving people I love and care for behind. But this is just a chance to help ‘em, man, to come back for ‘em, just like everybody came back for me. We got to go back for them, too. As I say, it’s bittersweet, but somebody got to go at some point to start bringing other people home. And that’s just the way I try and keep it in focus, keep myself from having like survivor’s guilt.”

“The hardest thing about getting out is the unknown, not knowing what I’m gonna face, not knowing what’s gonna be there, what’s not gonna be there, who’s gonna be there, particularly for me coming in as a kid, as literally a child,” he said. “These are my first steps in the free world as a grown man. I don’t know how to pay a bill. I don’t know how to open a bank account. I don’t know how to apply for insurance. There are so many things I don’t know, and I think that is probably the scariest thing for me, trying to figure out how to exist as a grown man in a free world after 30 years.”

“When you thought about getting out was there one thing you wanted to do in particular?” I asked.

“As crazy as this sounds, I want to ride a bike and go swimming,” he said. “I don’t know why. I think that might be a reflection of the fact that I got locked up as a child. I kind of think about the things that I left off doing as a child. I also look forward to getting up that first morning and sitting outside and having myself a cup of coffee on the steps, just quiet, just enjoying freedom.”

Lawrence entered the QuickChek, clutching some cash friends had handed to him, and came out with a bouquet of flowers for his lawyer.

The police violence in the streets of American cities is savage and lethal, but its counterpart is our monstrous prison system where the poor are railroaded into cages by courts that coerce 94 percent to take plea deals rather than jury trials. The poor are imprisoned for decades for crimes they did not commit or with sentences for crimes they did commit that are four or five times longer than in any other industrialized country. We have 25 percent of the world’s prison population but are 4 percent of the global population. Half of those in our prison system have never been charged with physically harming another person.

The poor rarely get adequate legal representation and once locked up usually depend on self-taught prison paralegals to help them file desperate appeals, although many sentences increasingly come with the stipulation that there can be no appeals. Hiring an outside attorney to file an appeal costs as much as $100,000, a sum neither they nor their families can obtain.

Prisons, along with the police, are the twin pillars of social control. They are used by the ruling elites to keep those discarded by deindustrialization and austerity fearful, intimidated and neutralized. Break the reigns of terror by the police and the bonds of the world’s largest prison system and the ruling elites will stand naked before us. And this is why the reigning oligarchs, despite gaslighting us with promises of reform, have no intention of weakening the two principle institutions that keep those they have betrayed in bondage and themselves in power.

Lawrence, who I taught in the B.A. program in the New Jersey prison system run by Rutgers University and who has a 4.0 GPA, never had a chance. He lived at 14 different addresses, a common experience for the poor who are repeatedly evicted from their homes and often suffer from the same perimigration trauma I witnessed among refugees and the displaced in war zones. (Perimigration is the phase between initial displacement and eventual resettlement.)

Like orphaned children buffeted by war, Lawrence endured extreme poverty, chronic instability, physical abuse and the early death of his parents. He lived in constant fear, even terror, amid street violence — Camden per capita was often ranked as the most dangerous city in America — was exploited by drug dealers, deprived of his most basic needs, and was rejected and outcast by the wider society. He never had an adequate income or sufficient food.

Lawrence, terrified and alone in the Camden police interrogation room, was repeatedly assured by the detectives that they wanted to help him, that if he signed the papers he could go home, that 10 years would immediately be taken off his sentence. He had no family to intercede on his behalf or legal representation. His father had died when he was about two. His mother, who had raised him and his sister, had died in June 1985 when he was nine. His forlorn efforts at his trial to recant the confession, to insist he did not commit the crime and did not understand what was in the confession or its consequences, were brushed aside by Judge Isaiah Steinberg.

He was charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault, kidnapping, and related offenses in the 1990 rape and murder. Steinberg, when he announced the aggregate sentence of life plus 50 years with 55 years to be served without parole, sneeringly called Lawrence in the courtroom a “despicable coward.” Lawrence was 14 at the time of the crime. He was 15 when the court told him he was an adult. He was 16 during his trial. He would be 70 before he could see a parole board.

Lawrence, who I taught in several classes, was one of my most dedicated and gifted students. If I mentioned a book that was not required reading, he made huge efforts to obtain it and read it. At the end of a history course I taught called Conquest — we read Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution — Lawrence waited until the classroom was empty. He told me, “I know I am going to die in this prison, but I work as hard as I do so one day I can be a teacher like you.”

Lawrence’s life was a train wreck of abuse and neglect, one that defines the lives of many of my students. He suffered terrible physical abuse from his mother’s boyfriend Reggie. The tragic struggles of the poor are rendered largely invisible by a corporate media that caters to the demands of advertisers and is addicted to ratings. This is why protestors in poor neighborhoods attack camera crews. It is why crowds trashed the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. The poor know that these reporters only appear to film or write about looting, fires and rioting, never exposing or explaining the long slow drip of neglect, poverty, police terror, mass incarceration and humiliation that make the eruptions comprehensible.

“My earliest memory is of coming home from kindergarten,” Lawrence said. “My mom and I would watch TV shows together in the afternoons. That day, I came in through the door and saw my mom sitting on the couch with Reggie holding a shotgun to her head. And she said in a very calm voice, ‘Go upstairs.’ And so, I did. Something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t understand what was going on. At that age, you believe your mom, so I thought everything must be OK.”

“I had a couple of guinea pigs that I would take care of, and they can be dirty and will, you know, make a mess everywhere,” he said. “One day, Reggie told me to clean up after them, and I said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ but I didn’t clean up the mess right away. So, later on, without saying anything, he brought his dog up to the second floor where the guinea pigs were kept. He let his dog behind the gate at the top of the stairs and the dog went in and ate the guinea pigs. He would do things like that. Just sadistic. Another time, we had some small dogs like poodles that were outside one night — and this was winter — and he took some water and threw it all over them and closed the door with them still outside. They froze to death.”

“It was like walking on eggshells all the time. Everyone would have to be quiet whenever he was home. My mom would try to keep us all quiet by having us play board games or do other quiet things. The door was set up with a lock on the inside and the outside, so you would need a key to get out of the house. And we couldn’t go into the basement or their bedroom. They were off limits. I don’t think I saw into my mom and Reggie’s bedroom until I was maybe seven or eight years old. I can remember hearing fights going on upstairs. Like, you would hear things being thrown around and breaking or like my mom being thrown around. And then, after a few minutes, there would just be silence. He would come downstairs like nothing had happened and leave. Then we would go find my mom and she would have a swollen face and bruises, putting ice on her face in front of the mirror. And I just remember wanting to get bigger so I could beat him up. I wanted to kill him for doing that to my mom. The saddest thing was that even when he wasn’t home, we would still act like he was. Because he drove a tow truck for work, we didn’t know when he was going to show up, so we always acted like he was home.”

Lawrence’s oldest brother, Gary, was about 20. He was in and out of prison. He was “everybody’s hero because he would stand up to Reggie.” By the time Lawrence was seven or eight the only children left in the house were his sister, who Reggie sexually molested, and himself. His sister once jumped from the attic window trying to escape from Reggie and broke her ankles. Reggie’s fury and violence intensified. His mother tried to leave, but Reggie would take Lawrence or his sister hostage until his mother returned. Reggie once took Lawrence when he was about seven or eight to the apartment of a stranger after picking him up from school. Reggie called his mother and said he was going to give Lawrence pills, which he told Lawrence was candy. His mother shouted over the phone for him not to swallow the pills. She agreed to come back to Reggie if he would hand her son back to her.

“For a long time, I was angry with her for not leaving,” he said. “I blamed her for allowing us to be abused by him. But later on, as I thought more about it, I could see how she couldn’t leave. I learned about Battered Woman Syndrome and how people can be manipulated, and I know that that’s what happened to her. After being angry with her for years, I was able to let go of blaming her. I forgave her. And then I also had to forgive myself for ever blaming her.”

On June 22, 1985 his mother collapsed in the kitchen.

“We called 9-1-1,” he said. “I held her head in my lap while we waited for the ambulance to come. It was a blood clot in her lung, a pulmonary embolism. She was dead there on the floor, but I think they revived her at the hospital. Then she died on the operating table, if I remember correctly.”

Reggie came home that night from the hospital.

“Your mother died, and I don’t want to hear anything out of you,” he told the children.

“He forbade us from crying about it,” Lawrence said. “I remember the exact song that was playing when he told us she died. My sister and I just sat there in the living room for what must have been a long time. For months after she died, I wouldn’t speak to anyone. Sometimes I would whisper to my sister, but I stopped talking to other people for a while. Before she died, I didn’t smoke weed. Before she died, I was a good student. I started getting into trouble at school after that. I got into my first fight that year in school, my first physical fight. A kid said something about my mom, some joke about her being stupid. I grabbed a chair and hit him with it. I think there was a rage inside of me that wasn’t there before. No school counselor or anyone else talked to me. I am the epitome of systemic failures. If you want to talk about how systems fail, just look at my life. There isn’t anyone available to help you in that situation. I never remember the police coming around the house except for maybe once when my brothers were brought home for playing hooky. So, after the police left, we all watched as they got beaten. But no one ever intervened.”

The death of Lawrence’s mother deeply affected his older brother Troy who was manic-depressive and an alcoholic. Troy, after his mother’s death, tried to kill himself by cutting his arm from his wrist almost to his elbow with a hunting knife.

“I was sitting on the porch with my sister when Troy called once,” Lawrence said. “He was crying and drunk. He told her that he was going to kill himself. So, I got in my car, I had been driving since I was twelve, and drove over to the cemetery where my mom was buried. He was sitting at her grave. He was drunk and crying and said he wanted to die. I went over to talk to him. And I’m not sure if it was a moment of clarity or a moment of acceptance, but I went back to my car and got my gun. I loaded it and handed it to him and said, ‘Here. If you want to die, put it in your mouth. You won’t miss.’ He looked at me for a moment, then he got up and walked to my car and got in.”

Troy later tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach. Troy visited Lawrence in prison a few times.

“He died a few years ago from heart complications, tuberculosis, alcoholism — you pick the reason,” Lawrence said.

Six months after his mother died Reggie was arrested and sent to prison. Lawrence moved in with an older woman, a friend of his mother’s, who lived across the street, who he called Grandma. But she soon left for New York City and passed Lawrence into the care of her daughter Debbie, who was bipolar and physically abusive.

“Debbie was sort of like my guardian, if you can call her that, but she wasn’t officially my guardian,” he said. “That’s now an issue in my case — to this day, the state of New Jersey doesn’t know who my legal guardian was after my mom died. Debbie wasn’t legally responsible for me, so she wasn’t able to give the police permission to interrogate me like they claimed. I got left with Debbie because I guess Grandma thought it would be good for Debbie to have the responsibility of taking care of me. She thought it would calm her down and give her more stability.”

“Reggie’s abuse was sometimes physical but mostly psychological, but Debbie’s was just physical,” he said. “It would get to the point where it was a preemptive beating. When I’d come home from school, she’d say, ‘I know you did something,’ and beat me. And she was smoking and selling weed. The house was raided by police multiple times when I was staying there. She got me to sell weed for her. She’d say that if I wanted new sneakers, I would need to earn them. I’d see other boys I knew selling drugs and making money. One day Debbie asked me where my friends were getting their money from, and I said drugs. She said, ‘Well, why don’t you go out there with them?’ So, I started selling for her. I’d sell dime bags. One package was 35 bags, so I’d give $300 to Debbie and keep $50 for myself. That was a standard cut at the time. After that, I always had money. I saved a lot of what I made. I was the kind of kid who would keep at least $20 in my shoe at all times. I would take my money, go buy an ounce of weed, pack it up into bags, and sell it myself. I was making more that way. That was the end of depending on her.”

He still had a key to his old house on 25th Street, although it was abandoned. He started sleeping there at night. He carried a gun, a .32 special, fearful of being robbed.

“Before I went to sleep, I’d spread some gravel over the porch so that I could hear if anyone came up to the house during the night,” he said. “I could sell drugs and take care of myself without her. My sister was still around. She would argue with me and tell me I needed to stop selling, but at the same time, she was accepting my help. She had little kids by now and she was struggling financially. So, even though she didn’t want me to sell drugs, she needed Pampers for her kids and she accepted my money.”

He got a girl pregnant when he was thirteen. She had an abortion.

“It felt like another loss,” he said. “I never had suicidal thoughts or a desire to die like Troy, but I will say that I was sort of numb. I didn’t care about living. One night … I was sitting on my porch smoking weed and taking pain pills. I was drinking beer, too. I had been given a prescription for the pills because I was hit by a car and broke both of my knees. I also had head trauma from the car accident. I was sitting in a chair on my porch with my legs propped up because they were in a soft cast, and taking these pills, but they weren’t helping. I took another one, and nothing. I took a few more, still nothing — no help with the pain. A friend of mine had some Xanax, so he gave me some, and I took one or two. Not long after that, my sister came over and saw me on the porch with the pills. And she said, ‘What are you doing mixing those pills with all of that? You’re gonna kill yourself.’ And my response was just, so? That was my attitude toward life then – I didn’t care if I died.”

“Imagine that you are fourteen, still a kid, and you are brought into a courtroom,” he said. “You have these adults around that you’ve never met before and they are saying things you don’t understand. You catch a few words like ‘murder’ and ‘rape,’ but you still don’t know what they are talking about. It happens really fast and then they take you away, back to the youth house — the correctional facility. That’s what it was like. That whole hearing was like a blur. Next thing I know I’m in the youth house, I was meeting with a lawyer, then going to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. But I don’t fully understand what’s going on. That’s why I never want to be in a situation where I can’t follow what the people around me are saying. Part of what drives me to learn and be ready for anything, any conversation, is wanting to prevent that from ever happening again.”

He spent 22 months in jail before going to trial.

“The judge decided to charge me as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime,” Lawrence said. “He said I didn’t seem remorseful. But what they didn’t think about was the effect that being in jail had on me. I saw two people get killed when I was there. During the trial, my mind was partially focused on that, keeping myself prepared for going back into that situation. They interpreted that as indifference and a lack of remorse. One thing that the judge said has stuck with me. He called me ‘irredeemable.’ I’ve been working hard and working on myself all this time to prove him wrong. I want him to be able to look at me and admit that he was wrong about [that]. If I saw him again, I’d tell him, ‘You were wrong about me. But that’s OK, it’s OK as long as other kids — babies — don’t end up being locked up like I was.’”

“After the trial, they took me away, stripped me down and put me in a jail uniform,” he said. “That’s when it became real and I knew what was happening. I went to the jail that night, but the people at the jail didn’t want to admit me at first. I was so small and looked young. They were calling their supervisors to find out what to do with me. That first night I was put in a holding cell with other guys. And one of the guys was staring at me, looking at me funny. I started a fight with him — I felt like I had to. I was taken away and I ended up being placed in protective custody. It’s a block for anyone who can’t be in the general population. I was in isolation. It’s called ‘23 and one’ — 23 hours in isolation and one hour outside of your cell each day. I would count all the bricks in my cell, all the lines on the walls. I still do that. I will count all of the photos in a magazine or every time a word or phrase shows up in a book. I learned that habit while in isolation. The hardest part, probably, is being alone with your thoughts. They were concerned for my safety because I was so small and skinny. But there were, I think, six pedophiles on that block. I wanted out. So, I signed a waiver so that I could join the general population.”

Lawrence’s brother Gary was known within the prison population. His friends watched out for Lawrence, who was now 17-years-old and at Garden State prison.

“A man named Salaam, who was like a father figure to me, really took care of me,” he said. “Whenever I was getting into trouble or fights, he’d come and talk to me. Reverend Du Bois was another person who helped me a lot. He was the head chaplain at Garden State. He showed me respect and really cared about me even though I was Muslim, and he was Christian.”

“There was a time when members of the Bloods tried to take over the chapel,” he said. “Some guys, including me, intervened on behalf of Reverend Du Bois. He was really well-liked and respected by everyone. In the end, the Bloods backed off. I bring up this story because not all Christians were as accepting of me as a Muslim as Rev. Du Bois. Years ago, I wrote to Centurion ministries asking for help with my case. They said they wanted to help but that they were focused on helping Christians, not Muslims. They might have felt differently about taking on my case if they had known how I’d put my neck on the line to help Christians like Rev. Du Bois.”

“When I was young, people didn’t give me chance,” he said. “Nobody intervened, nobody tried to help or took me aside and said that they believed in me. But once I got to prison, I encountered people who cared about me and really wanted to help. As soon as I was given a chance, I took to it like a fish to water. So many teachers and classes have had an impact on me over the years. My teachers have been mentors. They stand as examples of what I want to be and show me what is possible. Every day, I am trying to make progress and be a little better than I was yesterday. I’m always learning, growing. It may be that today I learn a new word or work through a puzzle – anything that challenges me. Something in me pushes me to keep getting better. My most prized possessions are my books. I have nice, hardbound editions of The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and others. I love reading Homer and Ovid and the classics. I’ve read everything that Shakespeare has written. I actually have a one-volume edition of Shakespeare’s works. I like his sonnets and comedies the most. My favorite book is probably Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. I read that one a long time ago and still like it. You’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy, right? Right now, I am writing a book that follows my life as a journey through the different stages in the Divine Comedy. It sees my own experiences as part of a journey that leads to the discovery of self. I remember thinking when I first read the Divine Comedy that his idea of Purgatory is sort of what it feels like being in prison.”

Lawrence would not have walked out of East Jersey State Prison on Sunday without Sellitti.

“When I first started as a lawyer, my boss in Wooster was this guy named Mike Hussy, who is an amazing attorney,” Sellitti told me. “He’s retired now. And I would go to court all the time, and I would come back from court, you know this little new lawyer, and he would say to me, ‘Doing justice?’ And on the days when I did something great in court, when I got a great victory for a client, I’d be like ‘Yeah! Yeah! I’m doing justice!’ And on the days when things went wrong, I’d be like, ‘No, no justice today.’ And then finally, one day, I believed my client was innocent, but he got such a good deal and he really wanted to take it. I didn’t want him to, but I understood what he was doing, and he took it. I came back to the office and he asked, ‘Doing justice?’ I said, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ He said, ‘I’ve been asking you that question for two years, and you finally got the answer right.’ And that’s like, kind of the best way you can look at the system. Half the time, I’m like, I don’t know.”

Those who know Lawrence and who were released before him have used the last few weeks to fill my garage with household items. We applied for and received a grant from the Lilah Hilliard Fisher foundation to rent a small apartment in East Orange, NJ. In the fall he will finish his degree at Rutgers. We will pool our meager resources, because no one else will, to help him resurrect his life. It is a victory for us. But it does nothing to halt the onslaught that continues around us. There is only triage, the attempts, often by those most abused by the system, to extract a little justice. I cling emotionally to these tiny victories — a job for a student who was released, covering the rent for a student who got out and was evicted from his fiancée’s trailer because of his conviction 30 years earlier, buying a computer for a student who matriculated to Rutgers but did not have any money. These victories keep me going, but they do little to blunt our callous indifference to the most vulnerable among us.

You become fatalistic, you strive against a monolithic evil knowing that whatever you achieve is Pyrrhic, that the system flourishes despite your efforts. And yet, what binds you, what keeps you going, are these relationships. How can you walk away? How can you do nothing? If you stand with the oppressed and are defeated have you failed? Or does one succeed by simply being willing to make that journey, to show them they are not forgotten, not alone? And while Lawrence’s release is minuscule when set against the vast injustice around us, it is not minuscule to us.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the last volume of the Gulag Archipelago, once he is released and sent into internal exile, writes of a Serb, a teacher, also in forced exile, named Georgi Stepanovich Mitrovich. He, too, had been recently freed from the gulag. Mitrovich would not give up his dogged battle with local authorities for justice for his students.

“His battle was utterly hopeless, and he knew it,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “No one could unravel that tangled skein. And if he had won hands down, it would have done nothing to improve the social order, the system. It would have been no more than a brief, vague gleam of hope in one narrow little spot, quickly swallowed by the clouds. Nothing that victory might bring could balance the risk of rearrest — which was the price he might pay.” (Only the Khrushchev era saved Mitrovich).

“Yes, his battle was hopeless, but it was human to be outraged by injustice, even to the point of courting destruction! His struggle could only end in defeat — but no one could possibly call it useless. If we had not all been so sensible, not all been forever whining to each other: ‘It won’t help! It can’t do any good!’ our land would have been quite different.”

Feature photo | East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, on July 12, 2018. Photo | Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He wrote a weekly column for the progressive website Truthdig for 14 years until he was fired along with all of the editorial staff in March 2020. [Hedges and the staff had gone on strike earlier in the month to protest the publisher’s attempt to fire the Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer, demand an end to a series of unfair labor practices and the right to form a union.] He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact.

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