This is a talk that Chris Hedges gave Monday, April 17, 2017 at Princeton University in New Jersey.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead. Some of them are forgotten. Most of them are unknown.
These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits—a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence and a deep empathy that was extended to people who were different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent. And to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Vaclav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met most evenings, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, in the Magic Lantern Theatre in Prague. Others, no less great, you probably do not know, such as the Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuria, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those “ordinary” people, although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, no people are ordinary, who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity being persecuted and hunted. And to some of these “ordinary” people I owe my own life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It is to defy injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency and at times your life. It is to be a lifelong heretic. And, perhaps this is the most important point, it is to accept that the dominant culture, even the liberal elites, will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do, but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at The New York Times after being booed off a commencement stage in 2003 for denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded by the paper for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I had known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby. They did not want to be contaminated by the same career-killing contagion.
Ruling institutions—the state, the press, the church, the courts, academia—mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, no matter how venal, which provide them with money, status and authority. In times of national distress—one has only to look at Nazi Germany—all of these institutions, including the academy, are complicit through their silence or their active collaboration with radical evil. And our own institutions, which have surrendered to corporate power and the utopian ideology of neoliberalism, are no different. The lonely individuals who defy tyrannical power within these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs.
All institutions, including the church, Paul Tillich once wrote, are inherently demonic. And a life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is often temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience will not allow you to make. To be a rebel is to reject what it means to succeed in a capitalist, consumer culture, especially the idea that we should always come first.
The theologian James H. Cone in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” writes that for oppressed blacks the cross was a “paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.”
Cone continues: “That God could ‘make a way out of no way’ in Jesus’ cross was truly absurd to the intellect, yet profoundly real in the souls of black folk. Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross. Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life—that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the ‘troubles of this world,’ no matter how great and painful their suffering. Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible in humility and repentance. There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others. The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.”
Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression “a sublime madness in the soul.” Niebuhr wrote that “nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places.’ ” This sublime madness, as Niebuhr understood, is dangerous, but it is vital. Without it, “truth is obscured.” And Niebuhr also knew that traditional liberalism was a useless force in moments of extremity. Liberalism, Niebuhr said, “lacks the spirit of enthusiasm, not to say fanaticism, which is so necessary to move the world out of its beaten tracks. It is too intellectual and too little emotional to be an efficient force in history.”
The prophets in the Hebrew Bible had this sublime madness. The words of the Hebrew prophets, as Abraham Heschel wrote, were “a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” The prophet, because he saw and faced an unpleasant reality, was, as Heschel wrote, “compelled to proclaim the very opposite of what his heart expected.”
This sublime madness is the essential quality for a life of resistance. It is the acceptance that when you stand with the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. It is the acceptance that, although empirically all that we struggled to achieve during our lifetime may be worse, our struggle validates itself.
Daniel Berrigan told me that faith is the belief that the good draws to it the good. The Buddhists call this karma. But he said for us as Christians we did not know where it went. We trusted that it went somewhere. But we did not know where. We are called to do the good, or at least the good so far as we can determinate it, and then let it go.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the only morally reliable people are not those who say “this is wrong” or “this should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.” They know that as Immanuel Kant wrote: “If justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.” And this means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act, and given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason, but by faith.
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I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith, which lies outside any religious or philosophical creed. This faith is what Havel called in his great essay “The Power of the Powerless” living in truth. Living in truth exposes the corruption, lies and deceit of the state. It is a refusal to be a part of the charade.
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Havel wrote. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. ... The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin—and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.”
The long, long road of sacrifice and suffering that led to the collapse of the communist regimes stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They did not try to reform the Communist Party. They did not attempt to work within the system. They did not even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives. They did so because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue; indeed they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these poets, playwrights, actors, singers and writers finally triumphed over state and military power. They drew the good to the good. They triumphed because, however cowed and broken the masses around them appeared, their message of defiance did not go unheard. It did not go unseen. The steady drumbeat of rebellion constantly exposed the dead hand of authority and the rot of the state.
I stood with hundreds of thousands of rebellious Czechoslovakians in 1989 on a cold winter night in Prague’s Wenceslas Square as the singer Marta Kubisova approached the balcony of the Melantrich building. Kubisova had been banished from the airwaves in 1968 after the Soviet invasion for her anthem of defiance “Prayer for Marta.” Her entire catalog, including more than 200 singles, had been confiscated and destroyed by the state. She had disappeared from public view. Her voice that night suddenly flooded the square. Pressing around me were throngs of students, most of whom had not been born when she vanished. They began to sing the words of the anthem. There were tears running down their faces. It was then that I understood the power of rebellion. It was then that I knew that no act of rebellion, however futile it appears in the moment, is wasted. It was then that I knew that the communist regime was finished.
“The people will once again decide their own fate,” the crowd sang in unison with Kubisova. [Editor’s note: To see YouTube photographs of the 1989 revolution and hear Kubisova sing the song in a studio recording, click here.]
The walls of Prague were covered that chilly winter with posters depicting Jan Palach. Palach, a university student, set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square on Jan. 16, 1969, in the middle of the day to protest the crushing of the country’s democracy movement. He died of his burns three days later. The state swiftly attempted to erase his act from national memory. There was no mention of it on state media. A funeral march by university students was broken up by police. Palach’s gravesite, which became a shrine, saw the communist authorities exhume his body, cremate his remains and ship them to his mother with the provision that his ashes could not be placed in a cemetery. But it did not work. His defiance remained a rallying cry. His sacrifice spurred the students in the winter of 1989 to act. Prague’s Red Army Square, shortly after I left for Bucharest to cover the uprising in Romania, was renamed Palach Square. Ten thousand people went to the dedication.
We, like those who opposed the long night of communism, no longer have any mechanisms within the formal structures of power that will protect or advance our rights. We too have undergone a coup d’état carried out not by the stone-faced leaders of a monolithic Communist Party but by the corporate state.
We may feel, in the face of the ruthless corporate destruction of our nation, our culture and our ecosystem, powerless and weak. But we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements that follow us. It passes on another narrative. It will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes. But if we persist, we will keep this possibility alive. If we do not, it will die.
Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague” is not driven by ideology. He is driven by empathy, the duty to minister to suffering, no matter the cost. Empathy, or what the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman called “simple human kindness,” becomes in all despotisms a subversive act. To act on this empathy—the empathy for human beings locked in cages less than an hour from us [here in Princeton], the empathy for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, the empathy for Muslims who are demonized and banned from our shores, fleeing the wars we created, the empathy for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, the empathy for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, the empathy for all those who suffer at the hands of a state intent on militarization and imposing a harsh cruelty on the vulnerable, the empathy for the earth that gives us life and that is being contaminated and pillaged for profit—becomes political and even dangerous.
Evil is real. But so is love. And in war—especially when the heavy shells landed on crowds in Sarajevo, sights so gruesome that to this day I cannot eat a piece of meat—you could feel, as frantic family members desperately sought out loved ones among the wounded and dead, the concentric circles of death and love, death and love, like rings from the blast of a cosmic furnace.
Flannery O’Connor recognized that a life of faith is a life of confrontation: “St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: ‘The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.’ No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller.”
Accept sorrow—for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation, the world and our ecosystem—but know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom and, if not joy, a strange, transcendent happiness. Know that if we resist we keep hope alive.
“My faith has been tempered in Hell,” wrote Vasily Grossman in his masterpiece “Life and Fate.” “My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious leaders, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”