Thursday, December 24, 2020

#359 / The Politics Of Cultural Despair

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He is also a Presbyterian minister. I heard Hedges speak in person once, here in Santa Cruz County. 

Earlier this year, Hedges made a speech in Troy, New York. That speech came to my attention when it surfaced as an article in Consortium News. The article was titled,  "The Politics of Cultural Despair." 

The title fits. It is a pretty despairing article. The image above, taken from the article, is consistent with the tone of what Hedges has to say. Another recent Hedges' article is titled, "America Is Now a Corpse." That article is even more despairing! Three thousand years ago, or so, Hedges might have felt quite at home with the Old Testament prophets. He brings Jeremiah back to life right here in modern-day America:

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 ... 
This requires us to acknowledge that our systems of governance are incapable of being reformed. No one in power will save us ... 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, and 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.

Those last paragraphs follow many dozens of cascading, earlier paragraphs, with each one of the earlier paragraphs having pounded harder than the one before it upon the despairing shoreline of Hedges' prose. Those last two paragraphs are the hopeful part of what Hedges has to say. If you haven't read the entire speech, you can probably imagine what it is like - a litany of everything that is wrong in our economy, society, and politics. And a lot of things are wrong, too! Very wrong!

So let me ask you this: When you see those final paragraphs, do you feel better now?

Hedges' litany of what is wrong is largely accurate. At least I think so. Here's a problem, however, that I find with what Hedges has to say. Hedges' analysis is twisted like a DNA pair, every insight as to what is wrong being partnered with a determinism. 

The ruling elites will never do the right thing - and they will always be the rulers. That's what Hedges advises: "No one in power will save us," he says. If, however, it is actually true that "our systems of governance are incapable of being reformed," on what basis could we ever take Hedges' advice and "refuse to succumb to cynicism and despair?"

If it were actually true that what is bad is "incapable of being reformed," then we are doomed for sure. Let's just admit it. Let's just give up.

In fact, with all deference to Hedges' prophetic calling, nothing is absolutely determined or inevitable in our human world. While what we face is horrible, we should face the horrors not with a thought that it is not possible to overcome them, but with exactly the opposite predisposition. Using the word "will," as Hedges repeatedly does, telling us what "will" happen, is to deny our own freedom and agency. No description of what exists now is fated to be our destiny. Our "systems of governance" are ultimately in our own hands. 

So, on the day before Christmas, let's not talk ourselves into despair. We may well perish. We may well fail. But if we accept the proposition that that we absolutely "will" fail, and if we name such a determinism as the reality of our situation, then there is no question about it .... Fail we will!

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