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Post Road Magazine #33

How the 1% Stole America: "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt," by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

Pete Hausler

Published in 2012 by Nation Books, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a devastating portrait of a country held hostage by corporations. Unfortunately, that country is the United States. As this book makes clear, American corporations own Congress and therefore make the rules; it is they who own the working poor, and who have rigged the system so that the working poor are grateful for the meagre scraps thrown to them. So entrenched is this oppressive structure, say authors Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, that this period in our history is comparable to the decline and fall of other great civilizations: "That destruction [of Appalachia coal country], like the pillaging of natural resources in the ancient Mesopotamian, Roman and Mayan empires, is one of a willful if not always conscious self-annihilation."

The authors spent many years in the late '00s and early '10s traveling throughout the country, to so-called American sacrifice zones, and build a strong case that Big Corporations (with close ties to congress, natch), reave and reap with impunity, callously render our natural resources disposable and consider our downtrodden working class (both citizens and illegals) expendable. The five chapters of Days are titled Days of Theft; Days of Siege; Days of Devastation; Days of Slavery; and Days of Revolt. Subtle it ain't. Pretty it is not, whether describing the post-mining moonscapes of southern West Virginia's coal country, or the abandoned, post-industrial hellscape of formerly-thriving Camden, New Jersey.

I am more familiar with Joe Sacco's graphic reportage, than I am with Chris Hedges' polemical, long-form journalism (though I do often read the Hedges' column on Sacco's books of comics journalism include his first-person, graphic-novel-like accounts of contemporary Israel ("Palestine") and the war in former Yugoslavia ("Safe Area Gorazde" and "The Fixer"). Sacco's thing is to immerse himself in a locale for months or years, and then profile—in stark black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings—the often heartrending stories of the people he meets. (His illustration style is reminiscent of Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman). Hedges, best known for his book "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning," is a Pulitzer Prize-winning, former war correspondent for the New York Times. Each chapter of Days is interspersed with Sacco's short, illustrated profiles and Hedges' heavily researched exposition, stats, and anecdote.

The first four chapters of Days profile the greed-induced devastation of natural resources and/or the draining of the human spirit in four of the most impoverished places in the U.S.: the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota; the crumbling, citywide ghetto of Camden, New Jersey; West Virginia's coal country; and Immokalee, Florida, an unincorporated "census-designated place" that is central to that state's Big Ag network. The fifth chapter offers a glimmer of fightback hope, by portraying Zuccotti Park—in the heart of New York's downtown financial district—where, for a few months in late 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement hunkered down.

The authors pull no punches here and indeed, a random, angry Hedges' paragraph buried in the middle of the second chapter on Camden, could serve as the thesis statement for the whole book:

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. It is a story of the weak 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.

This pent up rage of a paragraph is common in these pages, but it's so unusual to see such unabashed disdain for the status quo, that I found it exhilarating.

There are no sacred cows here: to wit, George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War general and slain martyr of Little Big Horn, the most infamous battle in the Indian Wars. The authors rightly call out Custer's atrocities at Washita River—the My Lai of its day—where troopers of the 7th Cavalry massacred mostly women and children in a bloody, pre-dawn raid on a Cheyenne encampment. Also cited are anecdotal accounts alleging that Custer and his officers indulged in regular and systemic rape of women captured from Washita and other villages. And if I didn't know better, I might mistake this Custer depiction for a certain real estate mogul turned American president: "Custer, whose tireless self-promotion, outsized vanity, lust for fame and power, and incapacity for empathy—most of his soldiers detested him—presaged the sickness of the modern celebrity culture, embodied the cult of the self. He was the quintessential American hustler."

Days is uncompromising, filled with horror stories of chronic alcoholism and rape (Pine Ridge), political cronyism and predation of the poor (Camden), corporate malfeasance via blatant judicial and/or congressional bribery (West Virginia), and modern-day slavery perpetrated by vast and powerful agribusinesses (Immokalee). The numbing procession of described injustices, both historical and contemporary, portray an endemic system of corporate wealth and power gained at the expense of society's poorest and most vulnerable citizens. In describing Abel Matiaz, an itinerant Mexican produce-picker adrift in the American south, the authors let loose with this savage bit of deadpan sarcasm that encapsulates the plight of all such workers: "Matiaz…is the model worker in the corporate state. He has no job protection or security, no benefits, no medical coverage, no overtime, no ability to organize, no Social Security, no food stamps, no legal protection, and when his employers do not need him he is left without an income, a place to live or something to eat."

Sometimes, Important Books are hard to read because they speak hard truths. This book is as important a read as I can possibly imagine, and it has been rendered even more topical with the election of Donald Trump. The micro stories and macro situation Hedges and Sacco documented five to ten years ago, seem like they will only get worse in the next four or—god forbid—eight years, with this current crop of unabashed Corporatophiles running/ruining the country. Despondency and helplessness permeate the stories in Days. A philosophical West Virginia postmistress ruminates on the psychological punch delivered in seeing local geography literally change overnight through the mining technique called mountaintop removal; a 60-something Sioux woman recounts being raped countless times in her life (mostly by relatives or other people known to her) including when she was only eight years old; predatory criminals who know that Camden's Latino immigrants don't do banks, and so are home-invaded constantly, sometimes meeting violent ends.

I often tell my teenage daughters that the United States is no longer a democracy (if it ever was), but a flat-out Corporatocracy, where company profits outweigh the greater good, where boons to businesses and their overlords trump the needs and rights of the citizenry. This book brings that frightening truth out in the open, exposing the hidden and not-so-hidden powers—those who pull the strings and tweak the laws, to their benefit and our detriment. The 1% versus the 99% indeed.

As bleak a journey as the urban and rural 'sacrifice zones' portrayed within, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt should be required reading for any American who cares about their country. To quote the H.L. Mencken epigraph that introduces a chapter: "The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and…idiotic. He is…one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched." If you aren't disheartened, disillusioned, or downright depressed at book's end, then you have a heart of stone.

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