Road To Perdition

Chris Hedges writes that our nation's soul is imperiled in a morass of false piety, hypocrisy and covetousness.

June 19, 2005|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff

Losing Moses on the Freeway,

By Chris Hedges. Free Press. 206 pages. $24.

Chris Hedges went off to be a war correspondent and saw some of the worst that people are capable of. He took it as representative. But weren't the conflicts in Central America and Yugoslavia, which he covered, particularly cruel and dishonest and vicious? Weren't they, perhaps, exceptions to normal human behavior? They may have been, but Hedges came away from both places with a healthy appreciation in general of the depths to which people willingly go, and the impulses that take them there. Then he came home to America, and guess what? People are people the world around. Now there's a depressing thought.

The former New York Times correspondent, who has written movingly about the self-reproach that dogs any good war correspondent -- futile witness that he or she must be to stupidity, dismemberment and death -- now turns his angry gaze on his fellow Americans. Losing Moses on the Freeway is a collection of essays about a country that's willfully tumbling toward perdition. I don't use that word lightly: Hedges devotes a chapter to each of the 10 Commandments, and describes how flagrantly Americans and America violate every one of them, every day. This is a book with a lot of venom in it, but don't be fooled; even though it's subtitled America's Broken Covenant With the 10 Commandments, preachers and other evangelicals will take no comfort from it because Hedges' main target is organized religion.

Hedges was a seminary student in Boston in the 1980s, and the conclusion he draws from that experience is that the church is a refuge -- from God. "I went there to worship my virtue," he writes. He goes on to accuse the church (all churches, any churches -- well, possibly excepting the liberal Protestant churches in upstate New York where his father served as minister) of promoting greed, envy, idolatry and pride, and ignoring a political system that wrecks the environment and ruins lives. If it's a dark view you want, it's hard to argue with this one.

But hold on: Americans aren't hacking each other limb from limb, the way Serbs hacked Bosnian Muslims, so what's the connection here again? What does Srebrenica have to do with, say, Enron? Having spent a little time in Yugoslavia myself, I would put it this way: War brings out the demons that are within, and there's not a noble thing about it. But the demons, of course, are always there, lurking beneath the surface, and, once you know what to look for, if you look hard enough, and honestly enough, you'll see them plainly anywhere, even in a society as civilized and peace-loving as our own.

It's not that individuals are so bad -- Hedges is willing to acknowledge human weakness. It's more that the institutions that people create -- governments, religions, militias, corporations -- are soul killers. Hedges has a powerful passage on the idea of "comradeship," and how that involves the submersion of individual will and promotes, in the end, the opposite of love. It makes you want to stay away from the locker room.

But to get to that passage, you first have to wade through one in which he manages to compare the sort of people who attended Phish concerts in Vermont to those who used to attend Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, because both groups willfully turned away from reality, and looked for the false comfort of the group. Isn't that a bit harsh? Or glib, even?

Maybe it's unfair to look for a sense of proportion in a book like this one. Hedges' main point is that America is a nation marked by self-satisfaction, false piety, hypocrisy and covetousness, and that its institutions and culture aid and abet these very real failings, and what all this means is that America is very far from God. (You can take the war correspondent out of the seminary, but you can't take the seminarian, etc., etc.)

The most troubling section recounts a commencement speech Hedges gave at Rockford College, in Illinois, in May 2003. Having seen the stupidity, dishonor and unassuageable pain of war, and the ignoble ways in which people are driven to kill and be killed, Hedges spoke out sharply against the self-congratulatory fervor that was sweeping America after the fall of Baghdad. It was the right impulse; anyone who had witnessed the thoughtless and corrupting violence of war should have felt an obligation to speak out at that time. And Iraq's sorry history in the two years since makes Hedges' warning seem all the more prophetic.

It was in this speech, in fact, that he spoke so eloquently about the dangers of comradeship. And yet, as pertinent as his remarks may have been, overall there's an unmistakable odor of self-righteousness. Hedges reprints his address and makes sure to include all the interruptions and heckling that attended it. Those people wouldn't listen to me, he is saying, and the further implication is that they'll be sorry.

This is what's so infuriating, ultimately, about Losing Moses on the Freeway. Hedges is so immoderate -- OK, granted, sometimes moderation is not a virtue -- but he's so immoderate that even when you agree with him, which is most of the time, you still get the uneasy feeling he's driving you into a corner. His dissection of contemporary folly and sin is precise and insightful, but neither the fool nor the sinner is likely to be persuaded by his unrelenting prose. If you're really fed up with the sorry state of things in America today and aren't sure why, Hedges lays it out for you here. But if you don't quite accept the national fall from grace as a given, if the jeremiad isn't your favorite literary form, you might look elsewhere for a fuller, and more nuanced, argument about the course of the nation.

Will Englund, The Sun's associate editorial page editor, is a former Sun foreign correspondent.

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