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Violence and American Character: Elite Ethics or Original Sin
Chris Hedges interviews Scheer on his new book revealing opposing views on American history and the use of violence for political gain.
By Robert Scheer
Editor's Note: Below is an excellent discussion between two of the leading public intellectuals in civic life today on the topic of whether violence is part of the basic character the American people or is the result of decisions/actions/attitudes of elites in powerful positions in government and business. Below you can view a video of part six of a seven part discussion at The Real News Network. Then there is a written introduction of Robert Scheer and Chris Hedges. And then follows a written transcript of the video.
I have come to believe that a very critical aspect of Christian faith is that it includes a substantive interpretation of history, not just long ago as in the bible, but also an interpretation of our understanding of God in relation to the actual events of our lives and the nations of the world today. So carefully listen to these two men speaking about how best to interpret recent history. It is a fascinating discussion.
Robert Scheer is editor-in-chief of Truthdig and has built a reputation for strong social and political writing over his 30 years as a journalist and author. His latest book is They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig , spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years. He has written nine books, including Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), I Don't Believe in Atheists (2008) and the best-selling American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2008). His book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Transcript - Scheer and Hedges: They Know Everything About You (6/7)
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Hi. Welcome back. I'm Chris Hedges for The Real News. And I'm speaking with Robert Scheer about his new book, They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. We have in previous discussions had some dispute about whether we are destroying it or whether it's destroyed. And we're going to try and talk in this last section a little bit about the culture of violence in the United States, which makes it very different from many other countries--Canada would be a good example--and how in a moment of societal breakdown that violence will manifest itself.
So let me begin. We are a deeply violent culture. We always have been. It is the nature of imperialism, which--of course, we colonized ourselves, and in a way that's very different from Europe, with the subjugation and campaigns of genocide against Native Americans. The whole institution of slavery was one that was kept in force by coercion, and then the subjugation of African-Americans after emancipation through convict leasing, up to Jim Crow laws, up to the current system of mass incarceration, which of course targets, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out, primarily people of color, poor people of color. We have one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the industrialized world, 83 weapons, I think, per 100 Americans. I believe I have that figure right. Not only are there young African-American men that are killed week after week after week, even after these killings are caught on videotape and in most cases the police are not charged. I mean, since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, we'd had 11 people shot dead in the St. Louis area. And that's just writ large. We have these bizarre school shootings, largely carried out by people who come out of the white survivalist cult. It's not violence by African-Americans. Adam Lanza's mother was a survivalist. And then we have proto-fascist entities--the Christian right, Tea Party, militias, the Minutemen, and others who celebrate not only the gun culture, but celebrate or, I think, express those fundamental tenets of fascism, which is where you direct your rage and legitimate despair towards the vulnerable, towards undocumented workers, Muslims, homosexuals, liberals, intellectuals, feminists. And in a moment of breakdown--and I think we are headed for some type of breakdown--all of these groups are empowered to express themselves in our society through violence.
And I think that especially having come out of disintegrating societies--I've covered the war in Yugoslavia or I covered the civil war in El Salvador--I'm cognizant of how swiftly societies can unravel, how quickly law and order breaks down, how fragile social, political, and cultural systems are, and how easily neighbor can kill neighbor, how swiftly human beings can be acculturated to carry out atrocities. That's one of the most disturbing things that comes out of being a war correspondent. And I think in this last segment I'd like to have you look at, a little bit, that reality, the reality of American violence, our propensity for violence, and how, as things unravel, that may express itself within American society.
PROF. ROBERT SCHEER, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, there's no question about our propensity for violence. I was in Vietnam, both the South and the North, and I saw what carpet bombing does and I saw the destruction. I mean, three and a half million people were killed, Indochinese people, along with 59,000 Americans, and there was no rhyme or reason. And the bloodlust, the vengeance, the indifference to human life, the idea that maybe these people had families who cared, loved, you know, the people we're bombing, napalming, and so forth, that's pretty blatant. I still have not gotten over the bombing of Japan and Germany, even though we're on the right side, the dropping of the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
HEDGES: And I think in a very important column you wrote you correctly pointed out that it was dropped on a nonmilitary zone to send a message to the Soviet Union.
SCHEER: Yeah. It's a greatest act of terrorism that the world has ever seen is the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The target was during the day when schoolchildren would be out, would be vulnerable. There was no military reason for it. General Eisenhower was against it and said there was no reason. And it was done to justify a big wartime program that we had spent money on, but it was also to prevent the Soviets from being one of the occupying powers of Japan and so forth. So there was a lot of cynical political reasons.
So I have no doubt that Martin Luther King was right when he condemned the U.S. government as the major purveyor of violence in the world today. We have that capacity and we have the technology.
Where I disagree is to blame this on anything that traces back to who we are as a people. I think we are manipulated into violence. I don't think it's part of our culture. I think the basic cultural experience coming out of an immigrant culture, which we are--all of us are immigrants, with the exception of the people we committed genocide against, the native population, came here to do things other than to be violent. They wanted to succeed, they wanted to have security, they wanted to have a family.
And I remember growing up in the Bronx, which was like growing up in the Balkans or something. I mean, one part of my building were Orthodox Russians, and another part were Jews, and I had German relatives and Jewish, and you had the Italians over there and the Irish and the Puerto Ricans and so forth. I felt that our tensions really were a response to the weaknesses of the society. I remember my aunt was a German maid, and she was very proud that she was a German maid, and she had a false sense of class consciousness, because she wanted to say she was superior to the Irish maids, who felt they had to be superior to the Puerto Rican maids. And there's always this dividing and trying to salvage some respectability and some power from your class, your religion, your culture, and so forth.
But I felt that the violence that I saw--and this goes back to an early age, 'cause I was born into the Second World War--was really the responsibility of our leaders. I felt this very strongly. I didn't have to talk myself into it. I remember even as a kid trying to figure out what's going on. Why is the German part of my family exterminating the Jewish part of my family? After all, my mother'd come from Lithuania and my father'd come from Germany. I struggled with it as a kid. And so, as I spent a lot of time--I've been back to Germany many times. I found my father's brother, who was wounded at Stalingrad. You know, I've seen this. I tried to find my Jewish relatives in Lithuania or something. And when I look back at what was going on, the part of our country that said, oh, Hitler's not so bad, 'cause he'll knock off Stalin, the part, the group that said, oh, let them fight it out or we don't have to intervene, or the contradictions in it all, it seemed to me it was the use of politics by people who had imperial ambitions, who played with politics, who used it as an excuse for getting their own power or profit or what have you, that caused the misery for others. And this had to do with domestic issues as well: divide and conquer. What, after all, was the civil rights movement about was to say, you know, those who supported the civil rights movement--I remember going--the first trip to the South was 1960, and I actually visited an integrated Christian community, a /kɔːjənir / farm where [incompr.] and they had been bombed and attacked and so forth. And it was clear to me that powerful interests in this country benefited from segregation, even, say, the Democratic Party.
Why did the Democratic Party put up with a segregated South? Because it delivered Democratic votes. You know, everybody forgets that now. You know, we had this benign view of Lyndon Johnson and, oh, no, the Selma didn't give Johnson enough credit. It was utter nonsense. Lyndon Johnson was a Southern politician. He didn't act aggressively enough when he was coming up. He certainly could have stopped Hoover from destroying Martin Luther King. There was great deal of indifference. And were it not for a heroic grassroots civil rights movement, there wouldn't have been any progress. This was true of the labor movement. I mean, my parents were very active in the labor movement. They were on picket lines and all this sort of thing.
So my view of the society is that the impulses that came up from below--and I don't think I'm romanticizing it--were closer to Woody Guthrie's description or Pete Seeger's description that people had a thirst for freedom and it ultimately would be in favor of equality and respect for individual [crosstalk]
HEDGES: But let me--.
SCHEER: And if I could just add one little thought, what I've been doing as a journalist all my life is trying to get powerful, respectable, ruling-class, well-educated people to do the right thing. You know, why are you in a war that makes no sense? Why are you ignoring poverty? Why aren't you more concerned about income inequality? Why do you smash the labor movement? So most of my issues in my life and my reporting and my concern is: why are you people being so irrational and selfish and mean-spirited, you people of power? And so that--.
HEDGES: Well, because for them it does make sense. I mean, Raytheon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, their stock prices have quadrupled. They would have love to drop cruise missiles all over Syria and Iran because that's how they make money.
SCHEER: That's how they make money in the short term.
HEDGES: Yeah, but they only think in the short term.
SCHEER: You see, I had the misfortune or fortune (I can't tell you) to actually travel around with Nelson Rockefeller, with Richard Nixon, I mean, to interview these people, to be there at the presence. And I think they had enough wisdom to know that this would lead to the destruction of the nation, including the foreign policy. I mean, after all, there was the alliance of the Americas, there was all of these attempts that they gave lip service. But I think it was more than lip service, that we had an elite that intellectually could comprehend that this stuff was self-defeating.
Let's take the rise of terrorism. It's a very good example. You know, who are the people who pushed for going into Afghanistan and supporting these so-called freedom fighters? It started with a guy named Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was working for Carter. And Brzezinski has been quoted in Nouvel Observateur. They did an interview with him, and they said, look, wasn't it crazy? There was a secular government in Kabul. It happened to be close to the Russians. But you went and got these so-called freedom fighters. And you couldn't find enough religious fanatics in Afghanistan. You had to find them, where, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, you know, and bring them there. And the CIA recruited them. What were you thinking?
That question, what were you thinking, comes up all the time. What were you thinking when you went into Vietnam, a small, very poor country that was never going to be able to attack you? How did you ignore the Sino-Soviet dispute? How did you ignore Vietnam's thousand years of having been occupied by China? Where did you get this invention of an international communist movement? What were you thinking?
And your answer is, they were thinking short-run profit and short-run political ambition, right?
HEDGES: I'm talking about the arms industry.
SCHEER: Yeah. But, generally, what were you thinking?
HEDGES: Well, a lot of them don't think. I mean, a lot of them are not culturally, historically, or linguistically literate about the countries they seek to dominate.
SCHEER: Okay. Now here I am in total agreement. The great lesson in my life is we don't have adults watching the store.
HEDGES: Well, that's been--.
SCHEER: I was raised with the idea they must be adults. They, after all, have gone to the best colleges. They sound good. They seem to be informed. They have great advisors. And I've spent my life, a good part of my life, analyzing these people, being around them, traveling with them, attending their conferences, interviewing them. And what I have found is this stupidity, this lack of intellectual curiosity.
HEDGES: Well, they're also blinded by their own power, their economic and their military power, and they believe that they can reshape the world in their image because they have that power.
SCHEER: Yes. But why did they--taking this back to the beginning of this whole discussion of the six parts, my reading of the framers is there was a wisdom to that elite group of powdered-wigged characters, that they had studied the collapse of other societies. They understood that Rome had become a disaster. They understood that the English limited monarchy was a disaster. They understood that the French Revolution was a necessity. And they were determined to avoid that path. I mean, this is--maybe we have a disagreement, but my book is based on the idea that our constitution is an attempt to avoid Rome.
HEDGES: Well, that's true, and they were classicists, and they read Cicero. But at the same time, they were implanting the very seeds of violence through slavery, through the subjugation of indigenous communities, which began with the Puritans eradicating the Narragansetts and everybody else, the Iroquois. And so there was this contradiction in terms of their particular ideal and their actual activity, and that the violence of American culture is deeply seated and deeply rooted since our inception and has never left.
And I think when you talk about groups of people who want liberty, we go back to Marx and his understanding of the lumpenproletariat, that these were the people that signed up faster than anyone else to join the brownshirts or whatever fascist equivalent there is. And Erich Fromm writes about this in Escape From Freedom, that there is a segment of society that has the kind of individual strength to--because accept the anxiety that comes with freedom. But especially in moments of turmoil, you have large segments of the society--and I would argue a majority of a society--that wants the iron fist and they don't want to make moral choice. They want to be told what to do.
SCHEER: And this is where we disagree, because my view of what happens, say, the period I was growing up, is that because of the Great Depression, we had a mass movement in this country that was determined to change the economy, make it more responsive to the needs of people, empower workers, empower farmers, who were then generally small farmers, protect them against the vicissitudes of what was called a free market, to break the cartels, whether it's Teddy Roosevelt, whether it's Walter Reuther, or whether it's more radical people, that there was a general, mass consensus, okay, that this stuff was not working.
And there was also--sometimes it was called isolationism, but there was a strong feeling of resistance, going back to the founders, of not getting involved in empire--empire is a loser, empire is distracting, and so forth.
And what happened was that an elite distorted those movements, that certainly after the Second World War there was--we could have gone the route of Henry Wallace, which was really a continuation--.
HEDGES: Well, they destroyed Henry Wallace.
SCHEER: Okay. But that was a continuation of Roosevelt,--
SCHEER: --who I think became a true believer in progress--you know, imperfect, but a true believer that we have to go that way. And the movement that had come out that--it was broad labor movement. The autoworkers, the electrical workers, the chemical, the steelworkers were in these massive industrial unions that were inherently progressive and were increasingly opening up to minorities, increasingly, because--.
HEDGES: Very late, but--.
SCHEER: Well, but the war had changed the labor force, including minorities, women. This is where the South, people from the South came up North and so forth. And at a critical moment in American history, that movement for progress was betrayed by this primitive anticommunism, by which I need a scapegoating of what was--.
HEDGES: Right. But that began after World War I with the destruction of the Wobblies, the CIO, everyone, number one. But number two, I think that within a--you know, we had the bloodiest labor wars of any industrialized country. Hundreds of American workers were murdered. Thousands were wounded and injured. Tens of thousands were blacklisted. And we have seen throughout American society armed vigilante groups tacitly and often directly supported by the state, whether that's Baldwin-Felts, whether that's the Klan, whether that's the White Leagues.
SCHEER: Alright. But you do realize, Chris, what's dividing us here now is--if I understand this correctly, I think it's a serious division. My reading of American history--yes, we always can have lumpenproletariat. We will have drunken people doing this. We'll have--. You know. But my view of American history--and I think it's an accurate one; I don't think it's a romanticization--was that the aspirations of the people in this country, from all of their immigrant background, was basically a healthy aspiration of a better life, a fairer life, more opportunity, and that at critical points it has been betrayed by an elite that even betrayed its own long-run interests.
HEDGES: Right. But, Bob, look at Westward expansion. It was a better life at the expense of indigenous Native Americans.
SCHEER: No question about it. But--.
HEDGES: But that's not a small thing.
SCHEER: I'm not saying it's a small thing.
HEDGES: And when they got in our way, we killed them.
HEDGES: And if you look at--.
SCHEER: But we have to look at what the we is. Okay? Where we are disagreeing is the degree of responsibility and authority and power of ordinary people. It's like when I celebrate--you know, I stopped going to satyrs because I would always have an argument: why are you drowning the firstborn of the Egyptians? They don't have any power. They didn't elect a pharaoh. They didn't have information. They didn't know what's going on. Well, that's the way I feel about the American public, okay, that they have been lied to by an elite all through my life. And then, when--in the face of true crisis, like the Depression and the war, the elite was forced to reform. That's what Roosevelt was, and that we reached a moment of relative sanity, opportunity, fairness, and so forth. Okay? It doesn't whitewash everything that came before. But the only reason we had a civil rights movement is that because of the crisis of the war and the depression and everything and the movement of black people from the South and the need to deal with democracy in the world, right, we had to end segregation in the military, we had to be consistent. That's why you had the movement in that direction.
And what I'm saying is the difference--and I see it now more clearly than I have previously--is I put the onus on the people who were in the elite, who had power, who could shape the debate, whether it was Hearst or whether it was /oʊks/. You know, I blame the elite. You know, my people at City College did not mess up this country. Okay? You know, some of them rose to positions of power. Some of them got ahead. But in the main, we were struggling to make sense of a society in which we had very little power. Okay? And to the degree that we could have an impact on it, we made it a better society. At every key turn, it was an elite. And some increasingly came from poorer backgrounds and were co-opted, but it was an elite that didn't even have the sense to act in an adult, rational way for their own self-interest, going along, basically, with the war in Vietnam, for instance. That's the whole point of the best and the brightest. They introduced madness in foreign policy, right? All this stuff that what--you know, blaming the CIA for--you know, the CIA was an elite organization. It was the establishment. It was the product of our best education. Who are the--McNamara's a person--. HEDGES: Well, no, I don't disagree with any of that. But I would say that, at the same time, because we benefited from--especially economically from the fruits of Empire, we are complicit. And if you look at any cavalry unit in Westward expansion, 60, 70 percent of them, including the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, they didn't even speak English. They could hardly get on a horse, because as soon as they got off a boat from Ireland, there were no jobs. They were recruited to go. We even had blacks soldiers.
SCHEER: Right. But you're suggesting that they could empower themselves to comprehend and challenge. Some did. But in the main, they are the victims. They are the victims, because they were fleeing starvation in Ireland.
SCHEER: They're trying to survive. They're in this place. And people, an elite, says, this is the way to behave. And let's go to our job as journalists. All my life, the people that I was growing up with and I was around were being lied to, systematically lied to. I remember in school, you know, PS 89, I wrote a paper on segregation, believe it or not, in South Africa, because in my home, we had more of a counter press, and whether it was a socialist or a communist or what have you, we had--. So I knew that in South Africa life was miserable. I wrote a paper in the seventh grade, and I was flunked because I didn't use The New York Times as a source. I used /kɑːmpəs/, the PM, the Daily Worker, the whatever paper. Okay? So the elite was telling us, no, South Africa's hunky-dory, South Africa's a great place.
HEDGES: Right. Well, there's no dispute. We're going to end this segment and do one more. This is segment number six at The Real News. I'm Chris Hedges. We've been speaking with Robert Scheer, the author of They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy.
Thank you, Bob.
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