PORTLAND, Maine — Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, spoke out against the forces of capitalism on Monday night during Peace Action Maine’s annual Peace Gathering.
Hedges said that from an early age he had a “hatred for rich authority figures,” having relatives who were active on Wall Street. He felt more in-tune with his mother’s side of the family, which was made up of working class men and veterans from central Maine. At age 10, Hedges was accepted to an elite boarding school where he went with students he described as “children of the ultra-rich.”
“I went to school with the George Bushes, these people who were given everything and no matter how many times they failed there was always someone to pick them up,” said Hedges.
That experience led him to discover that his loyalties aligned with his working class roots and he has dedicated much of his professional life as a writer to exposing the problems surrounding capitalism in America.
Hedges offered the audience a lesson in his version of American labor history, speaking at length about the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a federal law that limited the activities and power of labor unions.
“At that point, we essentially were disarmed,” Hedges said, arguing that Taft-Hartley and the government policies that followed stripped workers of their power. According to Hedges, less than 12 percent of American workers now belong to unions.
“We moved from an empire of production, when we actually produced things, to an empire of consumption where both the empire and the individuals within it were borrowing frantically to maintain a lifestyle that they could no longer afford,” said Hedges.
Hedges said that this is the point in American history when capitalism took over and that the country has yet to recover. He described recent Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as faux-liberals who “use that traditional feel-your-pain language of liberalism and yet betray all its core values.”
“It’s under Clinton that the prison population explodes and mass incarceration in this country turns into a business,” said Hedges, “where a poor person of color’s body is worth nothing on the streets, but behind bars is worth $50,000 a year to prison contractors and phone companies and prison guard companies.”
He went on to call public relations the most evil business short of the arms industry, saying politicians know what the people want to hear, but don’t follow it up with any action.
“The real tragedy of Obama is that he had the popular mandate to institute real change and he served the centers of corporate power from the beginning rather than the people who elected him,” said Hedges.
Hedges indicted corporations for taking advantage of Americans in a variety of areas, including natural resources, education and health care.
“In moral terms, we live in a country where it is legally permissible for pharmaceutical insurance corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons and daughters,” said Hedges. “In theological terms, these corporate forces are forces of death. They will sacrifice the next generation and succeeding generations for short-term profit.”
After his presentation, Hedges took questions from the audience and signed copies of his published books. His talk went on despite recent accusations that he had plagiarized materials from a variety of sources in his past reporting.
Peace Action Maine also presented its annual Peace Worker Award to Robert Shetterly, a Maine-based artist best known for his portrait series, “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” a series of portraits and narratives highlighting people who address issues of social, environmental, and economic fairness. The series began as a collection of 50 portraits when Shetterly started 12 years ago, but has grown to more than 200 pieces, including a portrait of Hedges.
“It was an act of necessary defiance for myself. I was overwhelmed by this country and its people being lied into another war,” said Shetterly. “I was just desperate to feel less alienated and to see if I could find some kind of voice.”
Shetterly says he thinks of his work as an educational tool for students, providing narratives for role models that aren’t necessarily provided in the press or at school.
“It is a recognition by people who he considers his peers that he is at the very forefront of the most important work that there is, which is trying to solve the problems of conflict,” said Seth Berner, chair of Peace Action Maine. “There isn’t another person that is more deserving of this award.”