(Andrew Tonkovich edits the literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.)
In welcoming Chris Hedges to Orange County for an event called, un-shyly, indeed provocatively, “Calling All Rebels: The Moral Imperative to Revolt,” we celebrate an exemplar of civic engagement and find an opportunity to celebrate something of ourselves, together. Especially bibliophiles who appreciate, value, the written word and its authors at a moment of seeming disconnect from that tradition of literary truth-telling.
Hedges offers, to quote Noam Chomsky, the threat of a good example. He has struggled faithfully against the everyday nightmare of mass acquiescence to and collaboration with the narrow, partisan, and giddily fatalistic show that is brought to us, 24-7, by the “Society of the Spectacle”.
Too many writers and thinkers with an audience risk not even one iota of their own putative power. They repeat what they are told or expected to say, and then as if in some further self-fulfilling simulcast, direct the fawning, hungry cameras at the predictable responses of the wealthy to the catastrophe, another rearranging of the deck chairs on The Carpathia.
Hedges, the former New York Times war correspondent is a triple threat or, if you prefer, triple role model, by way of his work as a journalist, activist and teacher. He writes for Truthdig and The Nation. He teaches incarcerated students. He sued President Obama over indefinite detention, engaged in protest and civil disobedience, and regularly testifies and speaks out against remote-control drone warfare. He is no ordinary writer or commentator.
Hedges is an activist public intellectual and person of living letters, a moral working historian who delves the canon and offers his analysis in near-parables, in meditations built around the word, sentence or episode carefully chosen, carefully directed, using the reinvigorated old-fashioned model of the righteous homily. He tours the country, creates weekly commentaries, talks about and thinks aloud about literature, of all things, as a guiding force, arguing in his latest, “Wages of Rebellion”, what we might learn from reading, or rereading Moby-Dick. He’s one of our best guides to living in a land where storytelling offers instruction, with its demands on imagination, contemplation, research, logic and interrogation.
Hedges has resisted in his own way the fleeting and contrived in favor of a mission of redeeming reading and books, of reclaiming them as moral instruments, of consciousness raising, of solidarity, empathy and, yes, rebellion.
And then, by way of further example, he has followed his own advice. In his writing, literature and philosophy do their gorgeous, wild dance which when then performed by actual people as Hedges himself and Occupy and Black Lives Matter and Veterans for Peace and organized and especially disorganized labor, and yes, Green Party organizers — even those in Orange County, California, USA! — the government cannot contain and corporations cannot snuff out or replace or co-opt or commodify or work into a Super Bowl halftime show.
He offers lessons in the exercise of “intellectual self-defense,” so very necessary just now, his example by turns furious and gentle, elegant and enviable.
In welcoming Chris Hedges to Orange County, California, we celebrate with new and old friends, comrades, neighbors. Yet surely along with those assembled in the hall, we also find authors, thinkers, forgotten or misremembered allies, opponents and even enemies who have also lived their vivid politics.
This active practice of remembering, understanding and celebrating of our own history of resistance may be unfamiliar. That’s likely because so many are busy or distracted or, most probably, purposely estranged from those myriad other genuine exemplars of happy resistance whom Hedges regularly invokes: Thomas Paine, Randolph Bourne, Reinhold Niebuhr, Emma Goldman, C. Wright Mills, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and in his most recent book, South African freedom fighters, anti-fracking eco-activists and the whistleblowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
In entering the world and worldview boostered by Chris Hedges we are invited to know and even become versions of those characters, as in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, where outlaw readers and thinkers have memorized books for an anticipated time of rebirth, when society is eager to embrace them, the books and the exiles both.
This is all — the power of writing, the radical activism, the gathering together to hear and see a writer-activist — perhaps unlikely, if thrillingly disobedient and, of course, contrary to the plan of those behind the camera.
Imagine reading a good book. But being a good book, as in becoming a player in an alternative history text? It’s a crazy, wonderful, ancient and still urgent conceit, this relationship to books and their creators, real and imagined. Yet in his latest collection, Hedges argues that it is impossible to defy evil and reaction, to live fully without this affirming, easy and much-needed variety of “sublime madness.”
Chris Hedges, “Calling All Rebels: The Moral Imperative to Revolt,” sponsored by OC Green Party, Sunday, September 20, music starts at 5 pm, $20, Delhi Center, 505 E. Central Avenue, Santa Ana, 92707. Tickets: www.ocgreens.org
Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Engagement Editor Julie Gallego at email@example.com.