Like most persons, no doubt, who give Chris Hedges a sympathetic reading, I come away from his writings in an agitated state. I am morally outraged by the evils and injustices that he so provocatively documents. Despite many inner resistances, I am nudged by his galvanizing rhetoric to go out and act on behalf of numberless victims in organized, defiant opposition to the corporate, governmental, and other institutional victimizers. The essays and books are a ‘trumpet call to war’ against the bad guys. While Hedges is not so crudely and buffoonishly black and white in his ‘us versus them’ moral dichotomy as Joe McCarthy was—or, for that matter, certain idiotic demagogues from the Christian right and the imperialistic neo-cons—he certainly comes close to advocating (and trying to incite) class war, if he doesn’t actually cross the line. He tells us to ‘rise up and resist or become serfs.’ It sounds like he’s jonesing for a slave rebellion and that he’s just itching for a modern-day Spartacus to gather an army of disgruntled, marginalized Americans who have nothing left to lose.
All this to make the simple point: I, for one, do not come away from Hedges’ books feeling more centered or more inwardly prepared to deal with the dismal situation we are all in today. His rousing, high-octane agitprop, his nimble command of disquieting facts and his impressive erudition tend to compete with my love for inner centeredness and calm detachment.
In the introduction to The World As It Is, he writes:
I have never sought to be objective. How can you be objective about death squads in El Salvador, massacres in Iraq, or Serbian sniper fire that gunned down unarmed civilians, including children, in Sarajevo? How can you be neutral about the masters and profiteers of war who lie and dissemble to hide the crimes they commit and the profits they make? How can you be objective about human pain? And, finally, how can you be objective about those responsible for this suffering? I am not neutral about rape, torture, or murder. I am not neutral about rapists, torturers, or murderers. I am not neutral about George W. Bush or Barack Obama, who under international law are war criminals. And if you had to see the butchery of war up close, as I did for nearly two decades, you would not be neutral either. (xii)
Now I may be wildly wrong here, but it seems to me that two great spiritual exemplars this benighted planet has miraculously produced—Jesus of Nazareth and Gautama Buddha—were both quite objective about the villainy and the suffering that continue to thrive within this decentered and chronically imbalanced species. Buddha explicitly stated that all life is suffering and that the two fundamental forces that are responsible for our suffering are fear and cupidity, or restless desire. Jesus’ words and example exhort us to ‘resist not evil’ and to ‘love your enemy.’ The result of mentally transcending the pendulum swing between fear and desire is a state of poised centeredness, or, in Buddhist parlance, nirvana. Through cultivated quietness and concentration on the stillpoint at the center of our ‘cyclonic’ existence, consciousness becomes established within the silent, uncompelled eye of this hurricane. The winds still roar and sweep violently throughout the periphery, and will always do so, since that is the ‘objective’ nature of things out beyond the serenity of the immovable axis, or hub, of the inner cosmos. One remains subjected to the ever-recurring clashes and conflicts of competing wills unless and until he learns how to loosen up his sticky attachments to those swirling and bubbling forms—either good or evil, alluring or frightening, noble or base—and sinks, slowly and impersonally, into the center, beyond the fray—beyond the moral and political heroics of the armed conflict of good against evil. Such compassionate detachment—as the examples of Buddha and Christ demonstrate—involves the symbolic death of the personal self, along with all of its attachments. These attachments are of all types and degrees: physical, emotional, ideational, aesthetic, familial, national, ethnic, doctrinal, etc. All must ultimately be tossed into the fire. I have a vision of this process—and this vision of ongoing renunciation and surrender serves as the ‘hidden hand’ that guides my otherwise insignificant little life. From time to time I lose my way, but the vision returns and my spirit is restored.
My sense about Hedges is that he is still so passionately invested in his moral-political crusade that perhaps he has become blind to the unwinnability of this ‘permanent state of war’ that is the ‘objective nature of things’ in the periphery—in the natural and merely human realms. Even the most eloquent writers and thinkers of moral conviction, such as Hedges, must ultimately face the crushing realization that they are beating their heads—and the heads of their entranced followers—against a very solid wall. I should perhaps confess that it is my view that human, all-too-human experience in the natural and moral-political worlds is, at bottom, purgatorial and infernal. Our experience here is meant to teach us a hard but liberating lesson: that liberation from the suffering and the inevitable dissatisfactions that are inherent in a consciously lived human life will never be attained either by fulfilling our instinctual human cravings or killing off all our enemies. It comes, if at all, only by psychologically transcending those cravings and fears, since these are the very ligaments binding us to the turbulent, peripheral world whose very nature is suffering, self-consumption, and ceaseless change.
In offering this brief sketch of a rather uncommon response to the suffering and injustice that are inherent in ordinary human existence (when that existence is meditated on deeply and with unflinching honesty, such as Shakespeare and Dante, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, brought to their work)—I sketch a response that is very different from those of Hedges, Chomsky, Zinn, Nader, Sanders, and other valiant champions of the underdogs and victims of deceit and injustice. I do not for a moment wish to undervalue or disparage their commendable and courageous efforts. The fact that such noble and morally upright champions of truth and justice reach so deeply under my skin with their words and deeds makes it clear to me that I am no stranger to the anger and disgust they feel towards the miserable state of affairs that unbridled human greed, willful ignorance, willful deception, laziness, and cruelty present us with. Such spirited and intelligent critics, whistle-blowers, and dissenters—even when they are shunned and ignored by the very citizens they faithfully serve, or are marginalized and jeered at by the corporate media and power elite they expose and indict—provide a priceless service in reminding us of the unflattering truths about ourselves as a species. They are generally ignored or despised precisely because they hold the mirror up to us and show us—wherever we happened to be situated within the wide range of human fortunes—what part we play in this global mess we are in. Our ‘sins’ may be more of omission than commission—more the result of passive conformity to deplorable norms than of the virulent, aggressive evil that we see in the pernicious puppeteers and profiteers who design and command the systems of exploitation and planetary degradation.
Admittedly, my response tends to be that of a quietist, and not of a political activist or a moralizing Cato. The response of the quietest to socio-political, cultural, and economic breakdown is nothing new or unprecedented. Quietism—whether in the ancient Epicureans or Cynics, Christian mystics or Taoists in China, Vedantists and Buddhists in India and Tibet, or Sufism in Persia and Andalusia—has a long, if understated, history. For the quietist, the ‘war,’ ‘contest,’ or ‘agon’ is ultimately interior and great care is taken to avoid projecting or externalizing the source of the conflict outside, for to do so is to fall into a snare or trap. Satan’s third temptation of Christ and Mara’s temptation of the Buddha symbolize this snare, whereby the spiritual man is tempted to locate the source, both of trouble and salvation, in ‘the world as it is.’ The quietist gently but continually strives to unfetter his spirit, his mind, his heart, and his allegiance from outer, sensory world phenomena/persons and to establish his consciousness in the center, where the pairs of opposites are harmonized. When the various pairs of opposites are reconciled in this way, dualisms and warring antitheses are, as it were, dissolved in the process. At last, unity is known. In this grounding experience of unity, we have the compelling sense, or recognition, that there is nothing to do and no-where to go. All is already done. All is present. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced this condition of blissfully contented oneness numerous times throughout my life. It always serves as a profound reminder of the ultimate futility of seeking salvation and true fulfillment outside of myself in the social, moral, political, and economic realms. Other humans cannot deliver it to us—or us to it. Sensual pleasures and worldly honors are dim shadows and poor substitutes for the contentment of enlightened centeredness. After genuinely experiencing this condition of inner balance and blessedness—and recognizing where our happiness is authentically located—we gradually learn to pull up stakes in the outer world, reducing our investment in its false promises and its deceptive allurements. Eventually, our loyalty and our psychic center of gravity shifts, or pivots, and the plodding, determined, liberating work of uprooting our souls from the purgatorial realm of human life proceeds apace. But only when we’re ready.