By Robert S. Becker
He who lives by the sweeping generalization, as does Chris Hedges, is vulnerable to analytic close reading (pinpointing ill-defined terms), let alone far more basic queries: is this true, does this apply, is the context right? Somehow I don't see how his in-your-face, homiletic abstraction in "Science of Genocide" advances the moral, political, even hortatory progress this icon of the left seeks.
In fact, overwrought equivalences between at best superficially comparable categories lower his credibility. To wit, the US was (presumably is) "as morally bankrupt as the Nazi machine" or "Soviet regime with which it was allied." Just how morally bankrupt were "the Nazi machine" is left wholly to our imagination, a default to the abyss of infinity. My mind blanks out when all the key terms of a loose comparison blur so badly. The U.S. is today morally suspect without pouring on the Hitler or Stalin distortions – even forced equations with long-past eras.
Likewise, "the Japanese had been on the verge of surrender" is offered as plain fact, rather than the controversial claim argued over by experts. Why did it then take a second horrendous A-bombs? Ditto: "atomic blasts, ignited in large part to send a message to the Soviet Union, were a reminder that science is morally neutral." Put aside message-sending (not germane, hard to prove), what the atomic bomb showed is that high-tech science is/was anything but neutral, a clear contradiction.
Blithely, Hedges claims science simply results "in collective enslavement and mass extermination." A fraction of science perhaps but not most, not all the medical breakthroughs, immunizations, or food, chemical. and water safety instruments, let alone better weather and ocean reports or measures of looming climate change.
Much "government weapons science” is not neutral, indeed onerous, but the widespread applications of science and technology reflect many variables, such as: business organization, public policy, majority rule, and billions of daily consumer decisions. Hedges' overgeneralizations obscure more than they clarify when one analyzes even first-order implications of overdone, polemical claims.
Was it really alone the mix of "science, industry and technology that made possible the 20th century's industrial killing"? All the while, where's any affirmation that countless scientific breakthroughs deliver a higher, more comfortable, longer-lasting quality of life for billions and billions. Check out the mortality rates from before 1900 and discover the vast majority of the earthlings now live twice as long as the average baby born in the 1700s -- and by and large in better health.
Science exiles religion?
Finally, inspect Hedges' tepid sermonizing: "science has supplanted religion. We harbor a naive faith in the godlike power of science . . . it feeds our hubris and sense of divine empowerment. And trusting in its fearsome power will mean our extinction." Who the hell is “we”? In fact, all gains of knowledge augment our sense of empowerment but not all lead to blind hubris. And tell the 44% of Republicans who are evangelical types religion (or God) is dead. In my layman view, total species extinction is more likely from asteroids – or some pandemic science can’t restrain.
Speak for yourself, Mr. Hedges, not for everyone, not humanity, not the entire globe. Science doesn't mean knee-jerk extinction, though excessive misuse of machinery for hundreds of years by billions of users will cut populations and living conditions. The enemy isn't merely the tools but all the tool users, in the billions, making individual choices daily. Steven Pinker's work speaks to a mass reduction in organized killing nowadays, despite all that destructive science and population concentrations. Progress is not an entire illusion in today's high-tech, industrial world.
The point is that Hedges' misleading, even reactionary-sounding generalizations, however useful as political war cries, wither under the simplest logical challenges. To say science and industry equate with industrial killing is, frankly, to throw the baby out with the bath water. Nearly all, even the less affluent, live better, with less pain and suffering, thanks to this implied "criminal conspiracy" called technology. What sane person refuses surgery after a ruptured appendix? Or AIDs intervention? Or antibiotics for the myriad of infectious blights that are easily cured today and would have, only a century ago, wiped out thousands. Who refuses to use computers because they could be the work of the high-tech, science devils?
Yes, we live in dark and dangerous times, and our politics are decidedly unhealthy. But do the times get brighter when we sacrifice logic, clear thinking and wider contexts to accept, with more passivity than we should, this kind of ominous, unhelpful overstatement? Not for me, thanks, whatever Hedges' real accomplishments. I respect his activism, even his fine Occupy analyses, but not his addictive fondness for overwrought, historic and philosophic obfuscations.
Hortatory and homiletic
Paul Kibble, a shrewd, more sympathetic commentator, captures the Hedges appeal, and limitations, while speaking to my points:
I find myself agreeing with Hedges on many issues from a general philosophical/political perspective, but disagree with him when it comes down to particulars. He tends to play fast and loose with alleged historical parallels and substitutes broad, high-flown rhetoric for logic. I am thus frequently put off by his more operatic pronouncements, which I think are a function of his formal training.
He does, after all, hold a degree from Harvard Divinity School as well as a B.A. in English. Perhaps that accounts for the hortatory, or rather homiletic, tone of his writing: he is not so much trying to persuade as to convert, winning souls for the Good Fight. In structure and style his articles are not closely reasoned analyses of an issue but jeremiads, in the root sense of that word: he is like an Old-Testament prophet calling an erring nation to account, demanding that it repent lest it incur eternal damnation.
What we need, in my opinion, are fewer, depressive jeremiads from activist-leaders, fewer versions of leftwing Revelations. Bad times don't improve from despair but the vision, leadership and execution of Jefferson, an FDR, or a Martin Luther King. I am not ready to abandon hope, all ye who enter here, nor do soaring invocations of apocalypse, as if chaos produces progress, foster a vision this earth-bound, "political materialist" buys into.