June 2012

Peter Tieryas Liu

nonfiction

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Every once in a while, I'll read a book that makes me question what it means to be human. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges does exactly that as he recounts tragic stories based on interviews throughout five different cities in America.. It took me a minute to register the fact that these men and women weren't living in some war-torn third world country, but instead, here in the States. This book is the perfect companion to an earlier Hedges title, Empire of Illusion, which explores American society through the farce of wrestling, the loveless facade of porn, and the destructive fantasies that serve as the distracting "soma" for the masses. What gives even more poignancy to this book are the comic strips drawn by Joe Sacco, focusing on specific individuals within the chapters. I'll be upfront in saying there are many aspects of Hedges's politics I don't agree with, but politics takes a step back in a book that should be read by anyone with a conscience and a moral compass.

Like Empire of Illusion before it, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is split into five chapters focusing on different regions within America. Even before the book begins, there are some sobering statistics to set the tone ("Among industrialized nations, the United States has the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children; accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate," "third-shortest life expectancy," "largest prison population per capita"). We delve first into the life of the Native-Americans in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a reservation where the average salary can range between $2,600 to $3,500 a year. Alcoholism, violence, and sexual abuse are a regular part of their lives. Their current plight finds its historical roots in a policy that can only be described as genocide, with particular attention paid in the book to General Custer's violent campaign of rapine and senseless cruelty. Hedges makes sure to show the effects of that history, mixing personal testimonies with supplemental facts to fill in the gaps. One survivor is Verlyn Long Wolf, a sixty-two year old woman, whose painful testimony concludes with, "I'll say about three-quarters of the people I've grown up with are dead... Very few are still alive. Alcohol. Drugs. Violence."

It's the graphic novel sections within each chapter that movingly visualize the plights of specific individuals. Michael Red Cloud comprises the first gallery. Born into a life of crime, his "biological mom, her little brother, and little sister committed suicide in the same house that her step-dad killed her mom in." The pictures are framed in a way reminiscent of a comic book and follow in a similar pace, entertaining and swift. What distinguishes the images, what causes a reader to pause and reexamine the frame, is the fact that they are based on real people and events. Michael was initiated into a gang where "We'd go to the mall and pick up the little white girls... and buy booze and buy drugs. We'd give them the full experience. Take em' around with us and find some guys and kick the shit out of them and take them to a party. We tried to make it look glamorous, you know what I mean?" There's no glossing over brutal or unpleasant facts, and Michael's candor adds to the authenticity, especially when he gets sent to prison and witnesses his first rape, an image that is hauntingly visceral. Through the tribulation and suffering he endures, Michael undergoes a redemption of sweat in the Native American sweat lodges set up on the prison compound. "And you've got people controlling everything you do every hour of the day. They can take away your freedom. They can take away everything in your life. But they can't take away this relationship from your heart to your mind." Despite the destitute environment, Hedges always emphasizes a message of hope. But he makes sure to describe how bleak things are along the way, not sparing any detail, writing with the disciplined detachment of a hardened journalist who has seen some of the worst the world has to offer.

Hedges is no stranger to pestilence, disease, and war. He's worked as a foreign correspondent to regions like the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, so there is some trepidation in the fact that many of the places he describes in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, could also be said of some of the worst locations on the planet.

In the second chapter, we move to Camden, New Jersey. Camden used to be a booming city, full of industry and manufacturing. The Campbell Soup Company was born there in 1869, as was the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. One of their most famous hotels was named after Walt Whitman, who spent the last nineteen years of his life there. But after the big companies left Camden to find cheaper labor, all that remained was a dying town. "In Camden, the world is divided between the prey and the predators." Imagine finishing up at work, closing up the store, and living in constant terror of armed robbers with nothing to lose. That's what happened to Silvia Ramos and her husband, Oscar Medina, when three robbers charged through their front door. Oscar was shot in the back and died when the bullet perforated his heart. Silvia was left a bereaved widow.

Crime and prostitution are rampant in Camden, but even their poverty is complex, an issue that can't simply be solved by throwing more money at it. Hedges doesn't resort to wishful thinking, instead dissecting the deeper sociological issues and describing the political intricacies in the state that prevent an effective cure, if such a word even has a place in the dialogue.

Coal mining and its dehumanizing effects are the subject of the third chapter, taking place in Welch, West Virginia: "Disease in the coalfields is rampant... More than half a million acres, or eight hundred square miles, of the Appalachians have been destroyed... Along with an estimated one thousand miles of streams."

Joe Sacco doesn't glamorize his drawings of the miners, emphasizing gestures, wrinkles, poses brimming with both resignation and defiance. They sweat tears, covered in grime, struggling against both the planet and their supervisors to eke out a meager living. Rudy Kelly, the subject of this section, was eventually diagnosed with black lung and underwent multiple operations, the doctors telling him he was supposed to have died more than twenty years ago.

What makes this section so damning is what Julian Martin, a seventy-four-year-old retired high school teacher, says about the reasons for the coal mining and the devastation that has leveled the region. They consider it "...a sacrifice zone. It's so the rest of the country can have electric toothbrushes and leave the lights on all night... and shit like that."

Hedges makes a fascinating case study of Easter Island as a lesson in what happens when excess waste and agricultural depletion spin out of control. When the inhabitants first found the island, it was rich and abundant with food. Population swelled, the resources were exploited, land became sparse, and it eventually led to their extinction. Connecting it back to the situation of the planet: "Our march toward self-annihilation has already obliterated ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans and wiped out half of the mature tropical forests, the lungs of the planet... Huge parts of the planet... will be unfit for human existence. And yet we retreat into fantasy."

One of Hedges main goals is to dispel the fantasy, to tear apart illusion, and show us the world as it is. Current day slavery becomes his next target.

If I felt bad about lights, I felt even worse about eating tomatoes with the fourth chapter that takes place in Immokalee, Florida. Illegal immigrants have a tough life, and this because they chase their dreams of making enough just to support their family. Farm work is one of the toughest professions around, and pesticides and chemicals make their already rigorous tasks deadly. With no legal rights, their lives verge on bondage with unbearable living conditions that they are forced to bear. We see this with Ana who started her life in Guatemala. Her husband came to the States first and she crossed the border afterward. The illegal smuggling is depicted in harsh illustrations with corpses and snakes littering the way. She trudged through the desert, clinging to the hope of something better. When she met her husband in Philadelphia, she was shocked at the poor condition of the house they shared with many others. Moving to Immokalee was supposed to be better. But, as she says: "...In the trailers where we had to live there were rats and cockroaches... The reality is we're not free; we're treated badly... Americans don't look at us as human beings. They look at us as tools for work."

These are tough chapters to read. This isn't just some distant region Hedges is describing. This is our own backyard, these are the people who walk invisibly among us, persecuted and denigrated as the cause of our economic woes when, in fact, they are the labor force that contributes to making our produce at markets so cheap. Hedges, wisely, takes a step back in the text, letting the individuals speak for themselves. In many ways, his role is curator for all the different narratives, weaving them together as he composes a damning tapestry.

This brings us to the last chapter of the book, titled "Days of Revolt," about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hedges effectively paints the movements in historical brush strokes, and is a supporter of much they stand for as there is a lot to admire. "The Occupy movements are the physical embodiment of hope." And "Perhaps the most important rule adopted by the protesters is nonviolence and nonaggression."

Hedges makes the "corporate state" out to be the primary culprit of all that has gone wrong. "The virus of corporate abuse -- the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters -- has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plagues our communities with foreclosures and unemployment." To which Hedges concludes, "Revolt is all we have left."

I found myself respectfully disagreeing, not on the symptoms, which are clearly disastrous, but the medicine he proposes, particularly the more extreme calls he makes. Call me na´ve, but I still believe in the American system and its capacity to change, however slow it might seem. I also thought that his demonization of corporations was too general, because even with all the examples of corruption, there are still many companies that don't follow that path. Of course I don't want to get into a political discussion. I only mention my disagreement to emphasize the point that this is where the book might risk alienating certain readers. The quotation about revolt as the only hope, taken out of context, could also turn off potential readers. But that would be a big mistake because this book should be read, regardless of the readers' inclinations and beliefs. Hedges carries the mantle of Upton Sinclair, Howard Zinn, George Orwell, and all the agitators in fighting for the soul of nations when so many have forgotten what that means. His eloquence is in the eloquence of the lives he presents, and Sacco lovingly animates them. It's rare that a book carries so much courage and conviction, forcing reflection and an urge to immediately rectify the problems.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, is a memoir not just of the impoverished, but one of all of us. It's a call to start rewriting the forthcoming days by redressing these issues now. I imagine Hedges's hope is that we can eventually all have new chapters, ones we can proudly draw out with the brush strokes of our own lives.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
Nation Books
ISBN: 978-1568586434
320 pages