The following is an excerpt from the new book Unspeakable: Chris Hedges on the Most Forbidden Topics in America, by Chris Hedges in conversation with the founder and former editor in chief of Salon, David Talbot, published here with permission from Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.
The Making of a Radical
What made you a radical?
It’s a combination of factors—including my personality type. I grew up in a literate household, in a farm town of 2,000 people in upstate New York called Schoharie. My mother, when I was a kid, was a teacher and ended up becoming an English professor. My father was a World War II army veteran—he had been a cryptographer in the North Africa, Palestine and Iran—and a Presbyterian minister. They were very involved in the 1960s in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. My dad took my younger sister and me to protests.
Dr. Martin Luther King, especially in rural white enclaves, was at the time one of the most hated men in America. Standing up for racial justice in a town where there were no people of color was unpopular. My father, who left the army largely a pacifist, hated war and the military. He told me that if the Vietnam War was still being waged when I was eighteen and I was drafted, he would go to prison with me. To this day I have images of sitting in a prison cell with my dad.
My father was, finally, a vocal and early supporter of the gay rights movement. His youngest brother was gay. He understood the pain of being a gay man in America in the 1950s and 1960s. The rest of my father’s family disowned my uncle. We were the only family my uncle and his partner had. My father’s outspokenness about gay rights defied the official policy of the Presbyterian Church.
By the time I was in college at Colgate University, my father had a church in Syracuse. When he found that Colgate, which was an hour from Syracuse, had no gay and lesbian organization he brought gay speakers to the campus. My father encouraged the gay and lesbian students to form a formal campus organization. They were too intimidated—not surprising given Colgate’s outsized football program and fraternity system—to do so. This was a problem my dad solved by one day taking me to lunch and telling me, although I was not gay, that I had to found the school’s gay and lesbian group—which I did. I used to go into the dining hall and the checker would take my card and had it back to me with saying “faggot.”
I saw my father, who I admired immensely, attacked for taking what were moral stances—stances that defied the institutional church where he worked and the values of the community in which we lived. I understood at a young age that you are not rewarded for virtue. Virtue must be its own reward. I saw that when you do what is right it is not easy or pleasant. You make enemies. Indeed, if you take a moral stance and there is no cost, it is probably not that moral. This was a vital lessen to learn as a boy. It prepared me for how the world works. I saw that when you stood with the oppressed you were usually treated like the oppressed. And this saved me from disillusionment. I saw my father suffer—he was a very gentle and sensitive man—when he was attacked. And here personality comes into play. I was born with an innate dislike for authority—my mother says that part of the reason she agreed to send me to boarding school was because I was “running the house”—and thrived on conflict. My father did not. He paid a higher emotional price for defiance.
Where were you sent to school?
I was given a scholarship to attend a boarding school, or pre-prep school, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, called Eaglebrook when I was 10. I went to Loomis-Chaffee, an exclusive boarding school—the Rockefellers went there—after Eaglebrook. The year I graduated from Loomis-Chaffee, John D. Rockefeller III was our commencement speaker.
Boarding school made me acutely aware of class. There were about 180 boys at Eaglebrook, but only about ten percent were on scholarship. Eaglebrook was a school for the sons of the uber-rich. I was keenly aware of my “lower” status as a scholarship student. I saw how obscene wealth and privilege fostered a repugnant elitism, a lack of empathy for others and a sense of entitlement.
C. Wright Mills understood how elites replicate themselves. The children of the elites are, as Mills pointed out in The Power Elite, shaped not so much by the curriculum of exclusive schools but by intimate relationships with teachers, who often went to the same schools and prep schools, and by each other. This acculturation takes place through sports teams, school songs and rituals, shared experiences, brands and religious observances, usually Episcopalian. These experiences are often the same experiences of the boys’ fathers and grandfathers. It molds the rich into a vast extended fraternity that, because of these unique experiences, are able to communicate to each other in a subtle code. No one outside this caste knows how to speak in this code. This is what Gatsby finds out. He can never belong.
Who were some of the names you went to school with?
The Mellons, the Buckleys, the Scrantons, the Bissell family, the son of the former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others. A friend of mine’s father owned Cartier’s jewelers, along with K-Mart and other businesses. I was at the estate of Governor Bill Scranton, who was the Republican governor of Pennsylvania and later a UN ambassador, and watched him come home from work in a helicopter. I had never seen an indoor swimming pool that big.
The rich have disdain for anyone who does not belong to their inner circle. They believe that their wealth and privilege is conferred upon them because of their superior attributes. They define themselves not by what they are in private—in private they are usually bastards—but by the public persona created for them by publicity. They see their possessions and power, which in most cases they inherited, as natural and proper because they believe they are inherently better than others. Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. He got that right.
All these families—the Mellons, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Morgans—started out as gangsters. They hired gun thugs to murder union organizers and strikers. We had the bloodiest labor wars in the industrialized world. Hundreds of workers were killed. Tens of thousands were blacklisted. These oligarchic families pillaged, looted and ruthlessly shut down competitors. Their grandsons were sitting next to me in class at Eaglebrook in their school blazers, which by the way could only be purchased at Lord and Taylor.
The refinement of the rich is a veneer. They can afford good manners because they use others—including the machinery of state—to carry out their dirty work. They often know the names of the great authors and artists, but they are culturally and intellectually bankrupt. They are consumed by gossip, a pathological yearning for status and obsessed by brands and possessions—mansions, yachts, cars, gourmet food, clothes, jewelry or vacations at exclusive resorts. They epitomize the cult of the self and the unchecked hedonism that defines a consumer society. They talk mostly about money—the money they made, the money they are making and the money they will make. They are philistines.
My mother’s family was from Maine. I spent most of my summers with her family, fishing and hunting. They were working class. My grandfather worked in a post office. One of my uncles—who had fought in the South Pacific in World War II—came back destroyed physically and psychologically. We did not have an understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He suffered alone. He was an alcoholic and lived in a trailer. He worked in my great-uncle’s lumber mill. But this was only because he was family. Once he was paid, he often disappeared to drink away his paycheck. He reappeared when his money ran out. Another uncle, who was the soul of decency, was a plumber. Many of my relatives, especially my grandfather, were quite intelligent. But none of them had much of an education. My grandfather had to drop out of high school to work his sister’s farm after her husband died.
Going back and forth between that world of an elite prep school and this mill town in Maine—Mechanic Falls—I realized that in terms of native intelligence and aptitude, there were people in my family who were as gifted as anyone in my prep school. The difference was that they, like most of the working poor, were never given a chance. And that is what it means to be poor in America. You don’t get a chance while the rich get chance after chance after chance.
Look at George W. Bush, a man of limited intelligence and dubious morals. He was a drunk, a cocaine addict, went AWOL from his National Guard unit, and never really held much of a job until he was 40. And he ends up as president. Affirmative action is alive and well, at least for the rich. They know how to take care of their own. And it does not matter how mediocre they are.
You obviously were closely observing your fellow students’ in their native habitats. When you speak of their “disdain” you mean the attitude that these rich kids had toward their servants?
Yes, I watched how the elites and the children of the elites treated those “beneath” them. I saw my classmates—boys of eleven or twelve—order around adults who were their servants, cooks and chauffeurs. It was appalling. The rich lack empathy for those who are not also rich. Their selfishness makes friendship, even among themselves, almost impossible. Friendship for them is defined as “what’s in it for me.” They are conditioned from a young age to kneel before the cult of the self. I do not trust the rich. To them everyone is part of their elite club or, essentially, the help. It does not matter how liberal or progressive they claim to be. I would go back to Maine and it would break my heart. I knew what my classmates thought of people like my relatives. I also knew where I came from. I knew whose side I was on. And I have never forgotten. My family was a great gift. They kept me grounded.
Did your rich friends ever visit you where you lived?
Is that because you didn’t want them to?
(Pauses) Probably. I’ve never thought about it. I didn’t see my family very much. My father worked on the weekends. I used to go to New York with a friend of mine —this is the boy whose father owned Cartier’s. His father would send the Rolls Royce down on Friday with the chauffeur so we could go to New York for the weekend. There wasn’t really the opportunity for me to have friends over. I lived several hours from the school. But I felt it. When my father picked me up in his old Dodge Dart, classmates would be getting into their limousines.
Were you embarrassed?
I don’t know that I was embarrassed, but I was conscious of it. I didn’t like these people. I didn’t want to have a limousine, but you were once again called out as the scholarship kid. The world of the rich is very hierarchical. It is built on gradations of wealth. Some scholarship kids, maybe most, desperately wanted to join the elites—that’s the story of Gatsby. They were terrible conformists, aping the manners and attitudes of rich classmates. I loathed the rich.
Why do you think your parents—who were from modest backgrounds and were involved in social activism—sent you to privileged schools like this?
There were a few reasons. My father was at war with the local public school authorities. We had in our community a group of very poor, mixed-race people—probably a mix of white, Indian and black, known in racist slang as sloughters. They lived in remote areas outside the village. When the kids from these families got into trouble—and this gets back to my point about how the poor at best get one chance – the principal expelled them. The only person these families could turn to was my father, the local minister. My father hated the principal, who was destroying the lives of these children by denying them an education. So my father was finally banned from entering the school— I think they put a restraining order on him. He was not violent, but he could get angry, especially when children were being hurt.
My mother was teaching in a neighboring village. My parents transferred my sister to her school. I was sent to boarding school, something I never considered for my own children. It was out of Dickens. The youngest boys were bullied by older boys. I fought back, which meant they usually left me alone. I was, however, in a few fights. I still have chipped teeth and once ended up in the hospital with internal bleeding. Boys that did not fight back were crushed. My closest friend at Eaglebrook, a sensitive and sweet boy who should have never been sent to boarding school, committed suicide as a teenager. He may have been gay. The bullying was an accepted part of the culture. Boys were supposed to be tough, not to whine or complain. They were expected to stand up for themselves, to become “men.”
I knew about a half dozen boys who were molested by teachers. These schools, where boys and teachers interacted in the classroom, on the athletic fields, in the dining halls and in the dormitories were a paradise for pedophiles. The response of the school was always the same—cover it up. When I was about twelve, my room was next to the apartment of the teacher—we called them masters—on our dorm floor. After lights out at 9:30, he would usher a boy down the hall into his apartment. When we came back from Christmas that year, he and the boy had disappeared. No one said a word. These boarding schools are as culpable in hiding and perpetuating sexual abuse as the Catholic Church.
My father had grown up with old money, although by the time he was an adult the money was gone. He came from an established family—his ancestors settled East Hampton, New York in 1650—so he knew the world of prep schools. He always wore Brooks Brothers suits, although they were an extravagant expense for a Presbyterian minister. He knew the culture of the elites and had contacts among them. I was also gifted academically. Education was important in our family. There was the assumption that these schools would provide a superior education.
So after prep school, you continue your elite education at Colgate?
Yes, but when I went to Colgate, it was not what it is now. When I went, because I was a resident of New York State, there was generous state scholarship money for students like me. There was a New York State program for lower income students called Tuition Assistance Program. There were regent scholarships. I pretty much went to Colgate for free. About 60 percent of the kids at Colgate were on scholarship. Since then, it has become an elite outpost of places such as Greenwich, Connecticut—but it wasn’t like that when I was there. It was a healthier place. I was quite happy there. I had been a very good long distance runner in high school and expected to run in college. My coach had gone to Colgate. It was the only school I applied to. My career as a runner was cut short by injuries. I ended up doing a lot of theater in college, especially Shakespeare.
You graduate from Colgate in 1979 and go on to Harvard Divinity School—at that time did you think you would follow in your father’s footsteps and become a minister?
Yes, although by nature I was a writer. I dictated stories to my mother and she typed them when I was four and five. I always loved books. I wrote stories and poems until I was a teenager. I started an underground newspaper that was eventually banned. When Loomis-Chaffee launched a campaign to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to renovate the chapel, I went up to the squalid living quarters of the kitchen workers although students were forbidden. I took pictures and wrote a story about the conditions endured by the kitchen staff. I waited until the commencement issue to publish it for maximum embarrassment. It worked. The living quarters were renovated. The kitchen staff chipped in to put up a small plaque in my honor. It was an early lesson about the social good that journalism could accomplish.
At Colgate, I had gotten a job the summer after my junior year as an unpaid intern on the House Subcommittee for International Development. I wrote a case study of the corporation Gulf & Western and how it was breaking the unions that were organizing against their sweatshops in the Dominican Republic. Union organizers were being routinely assassinated. Gulf & Western eventually sent a couple guys in suits to meet with the Congressman Michael Harrington, and I was fired from my unpaid internship. I hastily collected $220 dollars from the other interns and hitchhiked to Miami. I flew to the Dominican Republic. I wrote up the story and it was set to appear in the Outlook section of the Washington Post. But Gulf & Western, which owned Paramount Pictures, threatened to pull advertising and the paper killed it. I got it published in The Christian Science Monitor.
I loved reporting and writing. But I couldn’t reconcile American journalism’s supposed objectivity and neutrality with the imperative of social justice. At Colgate, I had been very influenced by my religion professor, Coleman Brown, who had worked in East Harlem as a minister. And there was my father. I decided I would be an inner city minister.
I moved across the street from a housing project in the Roxbury section of Boston and ran a church for two-and-a-half years. I commuted to Cambridge to go to divinity school. But I never stopped writing. Writing, for me, is like breathing.
What were some of the issues you were dealing with in Roxbury?
Racism. Violence. Poverty. Homelessness. Rape. Prostitution. Domestic and child abuse. Drug and alcohol addiction. Police violence. Mass incarceration. Welfare. Probation. Failed schools.
I preached on Sunday and ran a youth group. I missed classes almost every Friday because I was in juvenile court. I didn’t understand institutional racism until then, all the ways society keeps the poor poor. And I had never experienced this level of human suffering, especially the hell endured by people addicted to substances. Poverty, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, is “the worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it.” Roxbury put race at the center of my understanding of America.
Roxbury is also where I developed my deep dislike for liberals. I was a Presbyterian seminarian, but the church had abandoned the poor with white flight. My classmates at Harvard Divinity School sat around talking about empowering people they’d never met. They liked the poor, but they didn’t like the smell of the poor. They would pick coffee for two weeks in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas and spend the rest of the semester talking about it—but they wouldn’t ride 20 minutes on the Green Line to where people were being warehoused like animals. I grew increasingly disenchanted with the liberal church and with liberal institutions like Harvard Divinity School. I decided I’d be an inner city cop. I took the police civil service exam.
Why a cop?
Because I saw that a good cop could make a difference. We had a few.
This is Adam Walinsky’s line, who became an advisor to urban police departments after working as a young Senate aide to Bobby Kennedy. He spent years trying to get the police to function more as inner city social workers.
Exactly. About 60 percent of all police calls are for domestic disputes. There was this one cop, he was white and his wife was black. He cared—most of them didn’t. So I took the exam, there were 50 openings in the department at the time. Kevin White was the mayor. It later came out in his FBI indictment that he gave 48 of the jobs to the children of his cronies in South Boston. It was nepotism. It was rigged. I didn’t get the job, even though I scored 98 percent.
This has been an adapted excerpt from Unspeakable: Chris Hedges on the Most Forbidden Topics in America, by Chris Hedges in conversation with the founder and former editor in chief of Salon, David Talbot, published here with permission from Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.