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Speech by Chris Hedges given in Berkeley, CA in early May, 2011
Abstract: a blunt, comprehensive, concise exposition about today's world. (Reading time: 28 min.)



I have walked through the barren remains of Babylon in Iraq and the ancient Roman city of Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria, which now lies
buried in silt deposits. I have visited the marble ruins of Leptis Magna, once
one of the most important agricultural centers in the Roman Empire, and now
isolated in the desolate drifts of sand southeast of Tripoli. I have climbed at
dawn up the ancient temples in Tikal, while flocks of brightly colored toucans leapt through the jungle foliage below. I have stood amid the remains of the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor along the Nile, looking at the statue of
the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II lying broken on the ground, with Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” running through my head:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Civilizations rise, decay, and die.

Time, as the ancient Greeks argued, for individuals and for states,
is cyclical. As societies become more complex, they inevitably become more precarious. They become
increasingly vulnerable, burdened by vast bureaucracies, an increasingly rapacious and disconnected
elite, and a blind loyalty to ideological systems and ideas that no longer correspond to reality. And as
they begin to break down there is a strange retreat by a frightened and confused population, from reality, an inability to confront the fragility and impending collapse. The elites who speak in
phrases and jargon that do not correspond to the real, retreat, into isolated compounds, whether at the
court of Versailles, the Forbidden City, or our own enclaves of wealth and privilege. The elites indulge,
within these enclaves, in unchecked hedonism, the accumulation of vaster wealth, and extravagant
consumption. They shut themselves off from the suffering of the masses, who are repressed, to extract
wealth upwards with greater and greater ferocity. Resources are ruthlessly and thoughtlessly depleted
until they are exhausted or destroyed. And then the hollowed out edifice, which appeared unassailable
and solid, collapses. The Roman and Sumerian empires fell this way. The Mayan elites, after cutting
down their forests and polluting their streams with silt and acids, retreated, like all dead empires, back into
primitivism. As food and water shortages expand across the globe, as mounting poverty and misery,
including rising food costs, trigger street protests in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, our elites are
doing what all elites do. They launch more wars, they build grander monuments to themselves, they
plunge their nations deeper into debt, and they take it out on the backs of the workers and the poor. The
collapse of our global economy, which wiped out a staggering 40 trillion dollars in wealth, was only the first
jolt. Our elites, after destroying and dismantling our manufacturing base, sold massive quantities of
fraudulent mortgage-backed securities to pension funds, small investors, banks, universities, state and
foreign governments, and shareholders. And when the speculative game imploded, they looted the
Treasury, cried out the nation had a deficit crisis (and of course it does not, it has a revenue crisis) and
began dismantling basic social services, making war on the last vestiges of our unions, slashing jobs,
freezing wages, throwing some 6 million Americans out of their homes, and standing idly by as they
created a permanent under-class of unemployed and under-employed, which now sees 1 in 6 Americans
without jobs. The Mayan elite became at the end, the anthropologist Robert Wright notes in “A Short
History of Progress”, extremists or ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drops of profit from nature
and humanity. This is how all civilizations, including our own, ossify and die. Signs of imminent death,
maybe to those who can break free from our electronic hallucinations, are undeniable. Common sense
may cry out for a radical, new response, but the race toward self-immolation only accelerates, because
of our intellectual and moral paralysis. As Sigmund Freud grasped in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”
and “Civilization and its Discontents”, “Human societies are as intoxicated and blinded by their own
headlong rush toward death and destruction, as they are by the search for erotic fulfillment”. We live
now in a nation where doctors destroy health,
lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, government destroys freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.

The turmoil in the Middle East, the implosion of national economies such as those of Ireland and
Greece, the collapse of states such as Somalia and Ivory Coast, the increasing anger of a beleaguered
working class at home and abroad, the growing, desperate human migrations, and the refusal to halt a
relentless destruction of the ecosystem on which human life depends, are the harbingers of our own
collapse. They are the consequences of the idiocy of our elite, and the folly of globalization. Protests
and movements that are not built around a complete re-configuration of American society, including a
rapid dismantling of empire and the corporate state, can at best only forestall the inevitable. We will be
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saved only with the birth of a new and militant radicalism, one that defies all formal power structures
(including the Democratic Party), which seeks to dethrone our corporate elite from power, not negotiate
for better terms. Human societies seem cursed to repeat these cycles of exploitation and collapse. The
greater the extent of the deterioration, the less these societies are able to comprehend what is happening
to them, and the Earth is littered with the physical remains of human folly, ignorance, and hubris. There
is a dark intoxication with extinction, although this moment appears to be the denouement of the whole
sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago, for there is nothing left this time on
the planet to seize, and we are now spending down the last remnants of our natural capital, including
our forests, fossil fuel, air, and water. This time, when we go down, it will be global. There will be no
new lands to pillage, no new peoples to conquer and exploit. Technology, which has obliterated the
constraints of time and space, has turned our global village into a global death trap. The fate of Easter
Island will be writ large across the broad expanse of Planet Earth. The failure of the liberal class,
whose role in society is designed to prevent unchecked assault by centralized power, is discovering
what happens when you tolerate the intolerant, let hate speech pollute your airwaves, let corporations
buy up your courts, and state and federal legislative bodies, let the Christian religion be manipulated by
charlatans to demonize Muslims, gays, and intellectuals, discredit science, sanctify unfettered
capitalism, and become a source of personal enrichment, let unions wither under corporate assault, let
social services and public education be gutted and stripped of funding, let Wall Street carry out fraud,
deception, and plunder with impunity, and you roll-out the welcome mat for fascism. The Liberal class,
and much of the Left, has busied itself with the toothless pursuits of inclusiveness, multiculturalism,
identity politics, and tolerance, a word Martin Luther King never used, and forgot about the primacy of
justice. It naively sought to placate ideological and corporate forces bent on the destruction of the
democratic state, as well as the planet. The Liberal class, like the misguided Democrats in the former
Yugoslavia or the hapless aristocrats in the Weimar Republic, invited the wolf into the hen house. It
forgot that, as Karl Popper wrote in “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, if we extend unlimited
tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against
the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. Financial
regulation, largely put in place by the New Deal, not only protected us from the worst excesses of
capitalism, but were the bulwarks that made democratic participation possible. Workers in this country
fought long and hard for their rights. They suffered brutal beatings, mass expulsions from company
housing and jobs, endured crippling strikes, targeted assassinations of union leaders, and armed battles
with hired gun thugs and state militias. The Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Carnegies, and the Morgans,
(the Koch Brothers Industries, Goldman Sachs, and Walmart of their day), never gave a damn about workers. All
they cared about was profit. The eight-hour workday, the minimum wage, Social Security, pensions, job
safety, paid vacations, retirement benefits, and health insurance, were achieved because hundreds of
thousands of workers physically fought a system of capitalist exploitation. They rallied around radicals such as
Mother Jones, United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, and Big Bill Heywood and his Wobblies,
as well as the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. They had no illusion that the bosses
were their friends, much less celebrities, to be admired and emulated. It is they who made possible our
middle class, and opened-up our democracy.

The elite fought back, viciously. Federal Marshals, state
militias, sheriff's deputies, and at times Army troops, along with the courts, and legislative bodies, were
used to crush and stymie worker revolts. Striking sugar cane workers were gunned down in Louisiana
in 1887. Steel workers were shot to death in 1892 in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Railroad workers in the
Pullman Strike of 1894 were murdered. Coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado in 1914 and at Matewon,
West Virginia in 1920 were massacred. Our freedoms and rights were paid, paid-for with the blood of
ordinary men and women. American democracy arose because those consciously locked-out of the
system put their bodies on the line and demanded justice. The exclusion of the poor and the working
class from the systems of power in this country was, after all, deliberate. The Founding Fathers deeply
feared popular democracy, and they rigged the system to protect the elite from the start, something that
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has been largely whitewashed in public schools and by a corporate media that has effectively
substituted myth for history. Europe's poor, fleeing from squalid slums and workhouses in the 17th and
18th centuries were viewed by the elite as commodities to exploit. Slaves, Native Americans, indentured
servants, women, and men without property were not represented at the Constitutional Conventions.
And American history, as Howard Zinn pointed out in “A People's History of the United States”, has
been one long fight by the marginalized and the disenfranchised for dignity and freedom. Those who
fought this battle understood the innate cruelty of capitalism. “When you sell your product, you retain
your person” said a tract, published in the 1880's during the Lowell, Massachusetts mill strikes. “But
when you sell your labor, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men, and becoming vassals of
mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions
their right to enslave and oppress. Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status
of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as
they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals, and intellectuality, in the new
commercial feudalism.”

As Noam Chomsky points out, the sentiment expressed by the Lowell mill
workers predated Marxism. It points to a time in American history 150 years ago when working for
wages was a form of chattel slavery. The slogan of the Republican Party, the banner under which
Northern workers went to fight in the Civil War was, “We're against chattel slavery, and wage slavery.
Free people do not rent themselves to others. Freedom means not taking orders from others.” It took a
long time, Chomsky points out, to drive into people's heads that it is legitimate to rent yourself, and
once that was accomplished, we began to internalize oppression.

We chatter about something called
“The American Dream”. And now that the oligarchic elite have regained control of all of the levers of
power, that dream is being exposed as a cruel hoax, and we are being shoved back into the cage. Slick
public relations campaigns, the collapse of public education (nearly a third of the country is illiterate, or
semi-literate), the rise of amoral politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who pose as
liberals while selling their souls and betraying basic liberal and democratic principles for corporate
money, have left us largely defenseless. The last vestiges of unionized workers in the public sector are
reduced to protesting, in states like Wisconsin, for collective bargaining- in short, the right to ask
employers for fair working conditions. This shows how far labor, and the country, have deteriorated.
And it looks as though even this basic right to ask, as well as raise money through union dues, has at
least for the moment been successfully revoked in Madison. The Democratic Party and the remnants of
organized labor steered passions in Wisconsin away from a general strike, where workers should have
gone, and into tepid attempts to recall legislators. The public debate, meanwhile, dominated by
corporate-controlled systems of information, ignores the steady impoverishment of the working class,
and the absence of legal and regulatory mechanisms to prevent our reconfiguration into a neo-feudal
society. The airwaves are saturated with good-looking and charming corporate apologists. They ask us
why public sector employees have benefits, sneeringly called “entitlements”, while non-unionized and
working and middle-class people are denied. And the argument is ingenious. It pits desperate worker
against desperate worker, in a mad scramble for scraps. It is of course the wrong question. “Why” (we
should ask) “don't working-class men and women have health insurance, pension plans, job protection,
and living wages?”

And until we again speak in the language of open class warfare, grasping, as those
who went before us did, that the elite will always promote itself at our expense, we are doomed to a 21st
century serfdom. The pillars of the liberal establishment, which once made incremental and piecemeal
reform possible, no longer function. The liberal church, for example, forgot that Christian heretics
exist. It forgot that the scum of society (look at the new Newt Gingrich) always wrap themselves in the
flag and clutch the Christian cross to promote programs that mock the core teachings of Jesus Christ.
And for all their years of seminary training and Bible study, these liberal clergy have stood by mutely
as tele-evangelists betrayed and exploited the gospel to promote bigotry, hatred, and greed. What was
the point, I wonder, of ordination? Did they think the radical message of the gospel was something they
would never have to fight for? Schools and universities, on their knees for corporate dollars, and their

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boards dominated by hedge fund managers and investment bankers, have deformed education into the
acquisition of narrow vocational skills that serve specialized corporate interests. Our public schools
create classes of drone-like systems managers. They make little attempt to equip students to make
moral choices, stand up for civic virtues, to seek a life of meaning, and to actually think. The moral and
ethical issues that should define education are no longer asked. Humanities departments, whose
liberal arts curriculum once challenged structures and assumptions, are vanishing as quickly as the
ocean's fish stocks. The electronic and much of the print press has become a shameless mouthpiece for
the powerful, a vehicle for spectacle, and a magnet for corporate advertising, as anyone watching live
coverage of the Royal Wedding (sponsored by JPMorgan Chase) grasped.

It does not give a platform to
the poor or the working men and women, but diverts us with celebrity meltdowns, lavish lifestyle
programs, reality television, and gossip. Artists who once had something to say have retreated into
elite enclaves, preoccupied themselves with abstract, self-referential junk, and the frivolous.
Advertising agencies and publicists flood the airwaves with lies, on behalf of corporate sponsors. And
the Democratic Party, most egregiously, sold out working men and women for corporate money. It
permitted, under Clinton and Obama, the state apparatus to be surrendered to corporate interests. And
there is no liberal institution left (the press, labor, culture, public education, the church, or the
Democratic Party) that makes any effort to hold back the corporate juggernaut. And the longer we are
tricked into investing our faith in the power system, the more easily we will be exploited.

We have been
taught to tolerate the intolerant, from propaganda outlets such as Fox News, to Christian fascists, to
lunatics and bigots in the Republican Party, to a criminal class on Wall Street and in corporations. And
we are paying the price. The only place left for us is on the street. We must occupy state and federal
offices. We must foment general strikes. We must be willing to accept the discomfort of arrest and jail.
The elite, with no check left on their greed and criminality, are gorging on money, while they are
slashing basic services: budgets for schools, firefighters, and assistance programs for children and the elderly. So
we will pay for the fraud they committed when they wiped-out 14 trillion dollars of housing, wealth,
wages, and retirement savings. We now live in Orwell's Oceania, not Huxley's The World State. Osama
bin Laden and Al-Qaeda play the role assumed by Emanual Goldstein in Orwell's novel “1984”.

Goldstein, in the novel, is the public personification of evil. His machinations and clandestine acts of
violence dominate the nightly news and national discourse. Goldstein's image appears each day on
Oceania's television screens as part of the country's “Two Minutes of Hate” daily ritual. And without
surrendering all power and civil liberties to the state, Goldstein (like the Islamic terrorists, we are told)
will kill you. All excesses are justified in the titanic fight against evil personified. The inculcation of
fear and the pernicious ideology of permanent war have left us clamoring for our enslavement. Like the
residents of Oceania, we forgot that terrorism is a tactic, one that has been with us since Sallust wrote
about it in “The Jugurthine War”, and you cannot make war against a tactic. Terrorists are defeated by
isolating them within their own societies. After 9/11, we had garnered the empathy of not only the
world, but the Muslim world, where I was reporting at the time for the New York Times.

Muslims were
appalled at what had been carried out in the name of their religion. Sheik Tantawy, the chief Islamic
authority in the Sunni Muslim world, denounced the attacks of 9/11 as a crime against humanity (which
they were) and Osama bin Laden as a fraud - someone who had no religious training or authority to
issue religious edicts or fatwas. And if we had had the courage to be vulnerable, to build on this
empathy, rather than dropping iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East, we would be far
safer and more secure today. But we drank deep from the very dark elixir of nationalism, that toxic
brew of self-exaltation and racism, that elevation of ourselves and denigration of others, and at that
moment embraced the evil we set out to fight. We widened our occupation of Muslim land across the
Middle East, unleashed proxy wars in Yemen and Pakistan, turned our backs on the brutal assaults by
Israel against the Palestinians and Lebanese, and chose to speak to the Muslim world exclusively in the
language of violence. Where else, but from us, did the 9/11 hijackers learn that huge explosions and
death above a city skyline are a peculiar form of communication? It was straight out of Hollywood.

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And this is the way we have spoken to the rest of the world for decades. Robert McNamara in 1965
began the saturation bombing of North Vietnam, a bombing that would leave hundreds of thousands of
civilians dead. He said it was designed to “send a message to Hanoi”. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda
learned to speak the language we taught them, and the death-spiral of violence that we have embraced
is one where, as Friedrich Nietzsche understood, we are doomed to pit our monsters against their
monsters. Terrorism against us will not end until the state terrorism we practice on Muslim land ends.
We began this cycle of hate, and only we can end it.

The torture of Pvt. Bradley Manning mirrors the
torture of the dissident Winston Smith at the end of “1984”. Manning, held as a maximum-custody
detainee, spends 23 hours of every 24 hours alone. He is denied exercise. He cannot have a pillow or
sheets for his bed. Army doctors have been plying him with anti-depressants. The cruder forms of
torture practiced by the Gestapo have been refined by our Orwellian techniques, many developed by
government psychologists, to psychologically destroy human beings. We break souls as well as bodies.
It is more effective. And by breaking dissidents like Manning, who expose the war crimes we are
committing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it sends a message to all who contemplate defying state
power. We can all end up in Orwell's dreaded room 101. We can all be made compliant and harmless.
These “special administrative measures” are now routinely imposed on dissidents, including Syed
Fahad Hasmi, who was imprisoned under these conditions for 3 years before ever going to trial.
Thousands of detainees, in our black sites across the globe, experience these forms of scientific torture
daily, as do those in our maximum security prisons, where the state makes war on our most politically
astute underclass, African-Americans.

We once had Huxley's World State, with its easy credit,
consumerism, and mass-produced junk. But that was only a temporary diversion, as we were cleverly
stripped of personal and political power. Now that the credit has dried-up, the mass-produced goods are
no longer cheap, and our ability to make a decent standard of living is gone, we get Orwell's naked iron
fist. The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression. Tens of
millions of citizens have their emails, phone records – all communication, turned over to the
government. We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history. Our daily routines are
caught on dozens of security cameras. Our proclivities and habits are recorded on the Internet. Our
profiles are electronically generated. Our bodies are patted-down at airports, and filmed by scanners.
And public service announcements, car inspection stickers, and public transportation posters
constantly urge us to report suspicious activity. Public space has been privatized by corporations who
use security systems to prevent public expressions of discontent, and remind us that we are nothing
more than their consumers. The enemy, we are told, is everywhere.

Those who do not comply with the
security dictates of the War on Terror, a war which Orwell noted is endless, are silenced. The draconian
security measures used to cripple protests at the G-20 gatherings in Pittsburgh and Toronto were wildly
disproportionate for the level of street activity. But they sent, like the torture of Manning, a clear
message: DO NOT TRY THIS. The FBI's targeting of anti-war and Palestinian activists, which saw
agents raid homes in Minneapolis and Chicago, is a harbinger of what is to come for all who dare to
defy the state's official Newspeak. The agents, our Thought Police, seized phones, computers,
documents, and personal belongings. Subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have been served now
on 26 people. And these subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting “providing material support or
resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations”. Terror, even for those who have nothing to do
with terror, becomes the blunt instrument used by Big Brother to protect us against ourselves.

“Do you
begin to see then, what kind of world we are creating?” Orwell wrote. “It is the exact opposite of the
stupid, hedonistic utopias that the old reformers imagined, a world of fear and treachery and torment,
a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow less, not more, merciless, as it
refines itself.”

Acts of resistance, in the face of evil, are moral acts. They are carried out because
people of conscience can no longer tolerate abuse and despotism. They are carried out, not because
they are effective or even practical in the utilitarian sense, but because they are right. Those who begin
these acts are few in number. They are dismissed by the cynics, who hide their fear behind their

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worldliness. Resistance, at its core, is about affirming life in a world dominated by corporate systems
of death, and resistance is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality. It is time for us to
choose whose side we are on, who we will stand with as our civilization unravels. The hungry and the
suffering, who already comprise half of our globe, are becoming as familiar to us as our own
underclass, and it is time to accept that to live in the fullest sense of the word, to exist as a free and
independent human being, means open rebellion, and a constant defiance of all centers of established
power, including the Democratic Party.

“Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your
whole influence” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience” after going to jail for refusing to pay his taxes
during the Mexican-American War. “A minority is powerless when it conforms to the majority. It is not
even a minority then. But it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.” Those who recognize the
injustice of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who can see that these wars are not only a violation of
international law, but under post-Nuremberg laws defined as criminal wars of aggression, yet continue
to support politicians, including Barack Obama, who fund and advance these wars, have forfeited their
rights as citizens. By allowing the status quo to go unchallenged, from Wall Street to Baghdad, they
become agents of injustice. To do nothing is to do something, and those who profess a love of
democracy and justice, but who continue to cooperate with these established power structures practice
a false morality. They vent against war and the corporate state, but do not actually resist. They take
refuge in the conception of themselves as practical men and women, as realists, as moderates. They
stand on what they insist is the middle ground, without realizing that the middle ground has shifted
under us, and the old paradigm of left and right, liberal and conservative, is meaningless in a world
where, to quote Immanuel Kant, “all of our structures of power have embraced a radical evil”.

This
timidity, this failure to act, is the worst form of moral cowardice. It cripples and destroys us. When
Dante enters the city of woes in the Inferno, he hears the cries of those whose lives earned neither
honor nor bad fame, those rejected by Heaven and Hell, those who dedicated their lives solely to the
pursuit of happiness. And these are all the good people, the ones who never made a fuss, who fill their
lives with vain and often empty pursuits, harmless no doubt, to amuse themselves, who never took a
stand for anything, never risked anything, who went along. They never looked too hard at their lives,
never felt the need to look, never wanted to look.

As long as we remain paralyzed by fear, and fear of
the other is the only thing Obama and the Democratic Party intends now to offer us, we will continue to be
disempowered and impoverished. To resist, while there is still time, has become a moral imperative. It
must be carried out, not because it will or won't work – I'm not na´ve enough to promise you that it will
– but because it is right. We cannot use the word hope if we do not actively resist, if we are not willing
to make hope visible. Courage, as Aristotle wrote, is the highest of human virtues, because without it,
we are unlikely to practice any other virtue. And once we find this courage, we find freedom. Camus
argued that we are separated from each other. “Our lives” he wrote, “are meaningless. We cannot,
finally, influence fate. We will all die. Our individual being will be obliterated. "And yet", Camus wrote, "one of the only
coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity.
It is not an aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate without the
resignation that ought to accompany it. A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic
condition of an object", Camus warned. "But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another
kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.” The rebel, for Camus, always stands
with the oppressed: the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the 1 of 4 children in this country who
depend on food stamps to eat, the Palestinians in Gaza, the frightened families in Iraq and Afghanistan,
the disappeared who are held in our global black sites, the legions of poor in our inner cities and
oppressed rural communities, undocumented workers, and those in our prison system. To stand with
them does not permit us to collaborate with institutions, such as the Democrats, who mouth the words of
justice while carrying out acts of oppression. It means open and direct defiance and often very lonely
acts of revolt. The power structure and its liberal apologists dismiss the rebel as counter-productive.
They condemn the rebel for refusing to compromise on justice. The elites and their apologists offer

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calm and patience. They use the hypocritical language of tolerance, compromise, generosity, and
compassion, to argue that the only alternative is to work, and accept systems of power that long ago
abandoned these virtues. The rebel, however, is beholden to a moral commitment that makes it
impossible to stand with the power elite. The rebel refuses to be bought off with foundation grants,
invitations to the White House, television appearances, book contracts, academic appointments, or
empty rhetoric. The rebel is not concerned with self-promotion, or a career, or public opinion. The rebel
knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage: anger at the way
things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. The rebel is aware that virtue, in
the wider society, is not rewarded. The act of rebellion defines itself. And in these acts of rebellion,
especially when they are carried out against monolithic forces of power, we see human majesty.

“You
do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career.” Vaclav
Havel said when he battled the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. “You are thrown into it by your
sense of personal responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast
out of the existing structures, and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to
do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of the state.” The dissident does not operate
in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office, and does not
gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing, and promises nothing. He can
offer, if anything, only his own skin. And he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming
the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.

The
capacity to exercise moral autonomy, the capacity to refuse to cooperate, offers us the only route left to
personal freedom, and a life with meaning. Rebellion is its own justification, and those of us who come
out of the religious left have no quarrel with Camus. Camus is right about the absurdity of existence,
right about finding worth in acts of rebellion rather than in some bizarre dream of an afterlife, or in a
Sunday school fantasy that God rewards the just and the good. “Oh my soul,” the ancient Greek poet
Pindar wrote, “do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” We differ with
Camus only in that we have faith that rebellion is not ultimately meaningless. Rebellion allows us to be
free and independent human beings, but rebellion also, I believe, chips away, however imperceptibly, at
the edifice of the oppressor, and sustains the dim flames of hope, empathy, justice, and love. And in
moments of profound human despair, these flames are never insignificant. They keep alive the capacity
to be human. We must become, as Camus said, “so absolutely free that existence is an act of rebellion”.
And those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism, those who convince themselves that
there is no alternative to collaboration, commit spiritual and moral suicide. Alexander Herzen, speaking
a century ago to a group of anarchists about how to overthrow the Czar, reminded his listeners that it
was not their job to save a dying system, but to replace it. “We think we are the doctors,” he said, “We
are the disease.” All resistance must recognize that the body politic, and global capitalism, are dying.
And we should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal to it. This does not mean the end of
resistance but it does mean very different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies towards
building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and
resist without a cooperative effort. It means acceptance that the struggle for justice will outlive us, that
every value we fight for may be diminished when our own lives draw to a close. But external reality
cannot be the yardstick for how we measure the moral life. Our mediocre and bankrupt elite are
desperately trying to save a system that cannot be saved. And more importantly, they are trying to save
themselves. All attempts to work within this decayed system, and this class of power brokers, will
prove useless. And resistance must respond to the harsh new reality of a global capitalist order that will
cling to power through ever-mounting forms of brutal and overt repression. Once credit dries up for the
average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass, and the cheap
manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, we will evolve, I expect, into
a system that more closely resembles classical totalitarianism. Cruder, more violent forms of repression
will have to be employed as the softer mechanisms of control, favored by what the philosopher Sheldon
Page 8
Wolin calls “our system of inverted totalitarianism” break down. We cannot allow ourselves to
surrender to the dehumanizing ideology of totalitarian capitalism. Acts of resistance that keep alive
another narrative empower others, who we may never meet, to stand up, and carry the flame we pass to
them. And I know of what I speak. It was my father's life of defiance, his fight, as a Presbyterian
minister, for racial equality, against war, and finally his outspoken defense of gay rights, positions that
sabotaged his own career and drove him out of pulpit after pulpit, that set every single standard by
which I measure my own life. It is my voice tonight that you hear, but these are his words, and in the
Christian faith we call this...resurrection. Thank you.


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