What sadness there is in what every U.S. politician says is "the greatest nation in the world."
American journalist and author Chris Hedges writes about, and prominent graphic novelist Joe Sacco draws, the dispossessed of the United States, the people who are the waste products of a corporate culture that puts profits before people, and provides some hope for the future.
This is an important book.
In each chapter, Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of several left-leaning books, describes with fluid and simple prose the taste and smell and look of these devastated parts of our neighbour to the south.
He interviews beaten people, some fighters, all with insight, about their lives. He extrapolates to the big picture, with clear research.
Joe Sacco, best known for his 1996 graphic novel Palestine, contributes stark, powerful and moving illustrations, all in black and white, as well as five short comic books illustrating the lives of some of the interviewees.
The first stop in their tour ("Days of Theft") is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, a pathetic place that bears the legacy of the so-called Indian Wars, when the U.S. Cavalry stole land from aboriginal people and forcibly put the children into boarding schools, setting the stage for alcoholism and drug dependency.
Next ("Days of Siege") is Camden, N.J., once a centre of industry (Campbell Soups, RCA Victor), and now the poorest and most dangerous city in the U.S., without a viable police force, full of gangs, drugs and corruption.
Third ("Days of Devastation") is southern West Virginia, denuded of its mountaintops, and polluted in its air and water, by industrial strip mining that is so machine-dependent that people fight for the few jobs available, and physically harass those who are concerned about the effects of the pollution on the children.
Last ("Days of Slavery") is Immokalee, Fla., where legal and illegal migrant workers place themselves into virtual (and in some documented cases, real) slavery and chemical poisoning to eke out a horrible life in order to send some money to their families so we can get cheap produce.
Such sadness. Such devastation to the human psyche. So eloquently, sympathetically and passionately described:
"The decline of America is a story of gross injustices, declining standards of living, stagnant or falling wages, long-term unemployment and underemployment, and the curtailment of basic liberties, especially as we militarize our police," Hedges writes.
"It is a story of the weakest forever being crushed by the strong. It is the story of unchecked and unfettered corporate power, which has taken our government hostage, overseen the dismantling of our manufacturing base, bankrupted the nation, and plundered and contaminated our natural resources. Once communities break down physically, they break down morally."
These four chapters are, Hedges says, the harbinger of what is to come to many more Americans (and, by extension, Canadians): "The suffering of the other, of the Native American, the African American in the inner city, the unemployed coal miner, or the Hispanic produce picker is universal. They went first. We are next. The indifference we showed to the plight of the underclass, in biblical terms our neighbour, haunts us. We failed them, and in doing so we failed ourselves. We were accomplices in our own demise. Revolt is all we have left. It is the only hope."
The last chapter ("Days of Revolt") focuses on the Occupy movement, and provides some hope of change. Hedges, who has witnessed revolutions around the world, sees the beginnings of revolution in the United States. The necessary pre-conditions for revolution are present, he says.
Most significant, he says, is the intractability of those in power. They have an agenda and are not willing to make compromises or incremental reforms that could diffuse the energies of those who want change.
Hedges knows how to write. His sentences ebb and flow with vitality and rhythm. Although the format is familiar -- the personal experience extrapolated and generalized -- it is easy to read and very insightful. Sacco's illustrations help create a visceral experience.
Does it work? It may depend on whether you already think that the U.S. has succumbed to the corporate agenda.
The book contains facts, statistics, personal stories, trenchant observations. These will not, however, convince those who do not want to believe.
For those who sense that there is something wrong in this world, however, Hedges ties it all together, provides a focal point, and points the way, in a manner that few have done in recent memory.
Lawrie Cherniack is a Winnipeg mediator and
adjudicator and a former provincial NDP
candidate in Fort Garry.
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
By Chris Hedges
and Joe Sacco
Random House Canada,
302 pages, $30