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The World as it Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress

Chris Hedges

(Nation Books; US: May 2011)

Here is a statistic quoted from somebody Chris Hedges deems a reputable source: “Right now in Afghanistan there are 104,000 Department of Defense contractors alongside 68,000 US troops. There is almost a 2-to-1 ratio of private-sector for-profit forces that are on the US government payroll versus the active-duty or actual forces in the country.” Put the pathos aside for a moment and look at those figures again: 68,000 troops for 104,000 contractors. As PopMatters readers know—because PopMatters readers are educated and savvy—to get a quick ratio all one need do is simplify the numbers and divide.


Hedges’s source rounded the US troops down to 50 and the contractors to 100, a 100 percent difference. Somebody else, however, might have rounded 68 to 70, and 104 to 100, concluding with a more accurate statement that in Afghanistan the US employs 30 percent more contractors than troops.


Now let’s look at the pathos. Hedges devotes one and three quarters pages of quotes to this source, so it’s presumed that Hedges values the source’s ethos. By juxtaposing “government payroll” employees to “actual forces” the source, and Hedges, make the argument that war time contractors are somehow second class to soldiers. Indeed, contractors and soldiers do different work, but no work is more important than any other. Hedges obscures this and implies that contractors are frauds.


Hedges obscures that truth on purpose. He never once mentions that it takes more ancillary staff than soldiers to run a war—people to cook, clean, build, get supplies, do paperwork, cut paychecks, translate—because he doesn’t want the reader to make that connection. Rather, Hedges wants the reader to come away with the impression that the defense contracting system is fraudulent by design and that being a war time contractor is equal to being a war profiteer (it’s not). That’s why Hedges’s source used questionable arithmetic, and it’s why Hedges puts the quote in such a prominent way.


That’s just one example of bias out of many. Indeed, all of the book, except for perhaps two instances, have that mythic and unsubstantiated For the People skew popular with what Hedges calls “the liberal intellegentsia”. This book, unfortunately, won’t appeal to readers searching for fair and rational understanding of current events—it’s just as biased as anything Ann Coulter puts out. That’s Hedges’s intention, though. Despite the title of his book, he doesn’t want to show the world as it is, he wants to show a narrow and distorted view of it for a particular reason.


The World as It Is is a collection of Hedges’s columns written for the website Truthdig.org. The website, and Hedges, tailor writing to the Mother Jones or Nation magazine objectivity—pointing out how the US government and US corporations do harm to what the writers consider to be average Americans, the symbol of which is right now sold as Main Street Joe.  By design this is unfair and lacks real objectivity.


It’s true that US government policy and US corporations can do harm, but it’s also true that policy and products and services do a lot of good, as well, including make up the framework for developed societies. That bank lending helps a person buy a home or go to university takes no part in Hedges’s rhetoric; rather, what’s argued is the reductive though sexy “The Crooks Get the Cash while the Poor Get Screwed”, a title of one of Hedges’s columns.


Hedges was a news corespondent with the New York Times for 15 years and won a Pulitzer prize for journalism, on top of publishing several books and two essays for Harper’s magazine. Some of his past writing has a similar skew to this collection of opinion columns. Indeed, in his introduction Hedges writes, “I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq….” Fair enough.


His ostensible point, then, is that world tragedy deserves only to be seen in a certain light: because human suffering is often profound, there must be a journalistic voice to argue that the events which led to the tragedy are unlawful or immoral. Hedges has obvious education and experience, and so it has to be assumed that he could, if he wanted, write something with academic fairness. But rather, popular newscasters such as Katie Couric, “lack a moral compass,” he writes, they “have become nothing more than courtiers to the elite, shameless hedonists of power, and absurd court propagandists.” It’s true that many people dislike the evening news, but it’s also true that millions of people watch it.


The New York Times style of journalism—giving a narrative structure and presenting issues in an easy to understand two sided form—is popular, and it’s used in some form by almost every news station because it attracts audiences. The way the New York Times uses facts and truth, though, is contrary to how Hedges thinks journalism should be. He uses two quotes from George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm, to illustrate his point: “I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing,” and, “The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions—racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war….” He claims to try to embody Orwell’s words, and that to do so, in Hedges’s opinion, necessarily means that reason has to be traded for slant.


Hedges’s rhetoric, though, differs from Couric’s in appearance only—there’s no substantial difference: just as Couric tailors what she does for an audience and for a salary, Hedges does, too. His claim to embody Orwell is specious but hollow. Where Orwell uses craft and plot and simple, terse prose to illustrate how power corrupts, Hedges rants and misuses facts and quotes to strike a vapid and slightly propagandistic tone. Indeed, Hedges even misuses his Orwell quotes. The first one given is only one part of why Orwell writes, and with the second, Orwell meant to show that world leaders function by emotion, not that journalists should, and that intellectuals need to understand how pride and anger affect decisions by world leaders instead of assuming that politicians act with reason.


Hedges likely read Orwell’s works, though misread them in the same way Fox News opinionist Glenn Beck misread Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Why Hedges channels Orwell is unclear other than because Orwell has become popular with For the People propagandists, and Animal Farm has been coöpted into anti-capitalist rhetoric, which it’s not: Animal Farm is Orwell’s argument against too powerful central governments), and such a misreading colors all of Hedges’s book. His argument that his dismissal of facts and truth is deliberate instead seems to be latter justification for bad writing, or an implicit admission that he needs to sell to an audience. Because of his credentials it’s the latter of the two I suspect is correct.


Hedges hits on the common selling points of what he calls the “liberal intellegentsia”, politics, Israel and Palestine, the Middle East, and “the decay of empire”. (The etymon of intellegentsia is Latin—intellegentia—which later became the Middle English intelligens, and later still evolved into intelligence. Intellegentsia was first used in the early 1800s as a colloquialism to describe a particular 1700s Russian nobility.)  It’s important to note that Hedges chooses provocative titles for his columns, such as “This Isn’t Reform, It’s Robbery,” and uses the columns as platforms stoke fear and emotion.


Provocation will always be sexy. In his column “Nader Was Right: Liberals are Going Nowhere with Obama”, Hedges writes, “Our task is to build movements that can act as counterweight to the corporate rape of America.” Hedges doesn’t qualify “corporate rape”, nor does he connect his ostensible agapeistic social engineering to Ralph Nader, a former candidate for the US presidency, or current US president Barack Obama’s policies. Indeed, Hedges’s column goes from “The American empire has not altered under Barack Obama. It kills as brutally and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as it did under George W. Bush,” to about a page and a half of quotes from Nader in a four page column, to “Massive borrowing acts as an anesthetic. It prevents us from facing the new limitations we must learn to cope with domestically and abroad.” Hedges is able to cover so much ground in four pages of rhetoric, with one and half of those as block quotes, because he doesn’t say any single, coherent argument. Rather: he strings together provocative and alluring siren calls of his particular political class.


Turn to any page at random and see that it’s always the same. It’d make a fun game. Page 120, “The human species during its brief time on Earth has exhibited a remarkable capacity to kill itself off.” Page 258, “The corporate forces that control the state will never permit real reform. This is the Faustian bargain made between these corporate forces and the Republican and Democratic parties.” Page 78, quoting former New York Times columnist Russell Baker, “a refugee from Nazi Germany who appears on television saying monstrous things are happening in his homeland must be followed by a Nazi spokesman saying Adolf Hitler is the greatest boon to humanity since pasteurized milk.”


Hedges doesn’t provide contextualization for such quotes, nor does he make connections for the readers, and he often misuses references. In these cases, there obviously was no Faustian bargain, even the Catholic church no longer believes in the literal devil, though Hedges, a religious man by his own admission, likely does. His quote from Baker was given to show that modern journalism can never tell the truth because there are only two sides shown. What Hedges left out is that Baker was a satirist. (To be fair, Baker did have qualms with modern journalism, and he did think that it was often formulaic. His quote used, though, is hyperbole in Baker’s essay, “Getting to Be Mighty Eerie Out Here”. It’s funny and worth reading.)


It is, in general, part of academic due diligence to get as many viewpoints as possible and collect as many facts as reasonable, and in that idealist way it’s worthwhile to read everything, including Hedges’s book. But in reality this book offers little for the time it takes to read: any worthwhile statistics or viewpoints can be found in more authoritative and professional sources.


If reading this book, though, it’s important to remember that Hedges’s type of writing sells. That Hedges writes with a marketable bias is important to note because reading 321 pages of ranting can be brainwashing: realizing that Hedges needs an audience helps maintain critical thinking, a skill paramount to savvy and sophisticated PopMatters readers, readers who know that 68 is nearer 70 than 50.

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