NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Camden, New Jersey. Welch, West Virginia. Immokalee, Florida. Writer Chris Hedges describes them as sacrifice zones, parts of the country where human beings and natural resources have been used and then abandoned, where wrenching change spawned hopelessness, desperation and ravaged landscapes. With cartoonist Joe Sacco, he describes places and people at the bottom of the American economy and argues that without profound change, too many other places will join them soon.
The steel mill shutters, the shipyards shuts down, family farms are absorbed by agribusiness. If there's been a fundamental economic downshift where you live, what's the next step? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco's new book is "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt," and the writer joins us from our bureau in New York. Hey, Chris.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: The - this new book, why did you set out to go to these places that have been abandoned?
HEDGES: Because I wanted to show what happens when human beings, communities, when the environment is all forced to prostrate itself before the marketplace. You know, this has become the ideology across the political spectrum, and the consequences - as you see, in all the places you just mentioned - in many other parts of the country are devastating. And essentially, we have undergone a kind of corporate coup d'etat in slow motion. There are very little impediments left against these corporate forces. And what's happened in these sacrifice zones is now being visited upon larger and larger segments of the population as we reconfigure the country and maybe perhaps the global economic system into a form of neofeudalism.
CONAN: Well, let's take these places one by one. Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The edge of the Indian reservation is, in fact, where you focus your attention. This is, well - an Indian reservation is certainly not a place that was devastated by the marketplace.
HEDGES: Well, it was, actually. I mean, if you look at westward expansion, the lands were seized from indigenous people's native communities, and tribes were destroyed, most of them extinguished forever so that the railroad magnates and the timber merchants and the gold speculators could take the land. It all began with westward expansion. America, unlike Europe, colonized itself. It became the template by which we then went on to colonize other places like the Philippines or Cuba and Central America and everywhere else.
And so what happened in the western plains essentially set the momentum that is now coming back to haunt us, because with very few places left to sacrifice, these forces are, in essence, cannibalizing what's left. And you see that - I just came from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I'm writing a magazine piece. And you just see it in every, you know, post-industrial pocket across the country. These are the same forces that have willingly, in the name of profit, hollowed the country out from the inside, so that we produce almost nothing anymore. Four to 7 percent, I think, of jobs are in the manufacturing sector.
The American worker is told that he or she has to be competitive on the global marketplace, and that, in essence, means being competitive with prison labor in China or sweatshop workers in Bangladesh who make 22 cents an hour. The movements - especially the labor unions that once protected American workers - have been decimated and destroyed. And what's left of them within the public sector are being dismantled.
I live in New Jersey. Chris Christie is making war on not only the teachers union, but ultimately the police and fire unions, the Supreme Court decision, which severely weakened the public sector unions in California. These are the last sort of readouts of organized activity that once, you know, made the middle class possible, the eight-hour workday possible, you know, safety regulations. It's all vanished. And we are rapidly evolving into an oligarchic state.
So what's happen in the sacrifice zones - and not just economically, but environmentally. I mean, we're destroying the Appalachian Mountains. We flew - Joe and I flew over the mountains. Hundreds of thousands of acres turned into a wasteland because coal companies - almost none which are based in West Virginia - instead of digging down for the coal, want to blow the top 400 feet off the mountains.
CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges with Joe Sacco, the cartoonist. He's the author of the new book, "Days of Destructions, Days of Revolt." And we'd like to hear from those of you who live in a place where there's been a sharp economic downshift. What's the next step? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Cade, and Cade's on the line with us from Wichita.
CADE: Hi, there.
CONAN: Hi there.
CADE: I just will say (technical difficulties), they have a huge (technical difficulties).
CONAN: I'm sorry. Your cell phone is betraying you, Cade. Can you get to a better spot?
CADE: (technical difficulties)
CONAN: Giving you a few more seconds. Well, I apologize. We're going to have to let you go. Please call back when you get a stronger - get some more bars on your phone, and then we'll see what we can do. Let's go next to - and I put it on lock, and now I'm trying to unlock it. Chris - another Chris. This is - Chris is with us from Flynn, Michigan.
CHRIS: Yes, hello. How are you today?
CONAN: I'm very well. Thank you. If I can get the screen to work, I'll be even happier, but go ahead.
CHRIS: So, yes. I'm from Flynn, Michigan. I - my whole family were shop rats with General Motors, from my grandfather, my great grandfather. My great grandfather is a part of the 1937 (unintelligible) strike of General Motors. And so, you know, I guess, the issue that I saw growing up, you know, growing up in the late '80s, seeing the industrialization and how it affected my life - our lives. I mean, we went from the greatest generation producing all of these cars and this wealth within the city, to a city now that looks like a third world country. So I guess the downside of our booming economy is this type of issue here, where we sacrifice the city of over 300,000 people, which is now half of its population.
CONAN: And, Chris, the parallel in your book would be Camden.
HEDGES: Yes. I mean, we purposely - Joe and I purposely - and we should mention that 50 pages of this book are drawn out by Joe, including comic panels that give a kind of filmic quality to people's lives. Yeah, we went to the bottom. Camden, per capita, is the poorest city in the United States and not incidentally usually ranked in the top two or three in terms of the most dangerous. Some years, it's number one. And in Camden, everything went.
In other cities, there still is kind of residue, something that remains. But Camden, in essence, is a dead city. It makes nothing. And yet, Camden was an industrial hub. RCA Victor was there. Campbell Soup was there. The shipyards, in the '40s and '50s, employed 36,000 people. All of that is gone. And the consequences of that are played on the streets of Camden. Much of the city is abandoned. You can drive down whole streets of old row houses - just gaping, you know, windowless, destroyed. It, you know, it looks like somebody bombed it. The only sort of economic activity are the roughly 100 open-air drug markets, and you see the descent. Seventy-seven percent or 75 percent of the city budget of the - is spent on police and fire. The school systems don't function.
You essentially created these internal colonies where people are hemmed in by both visible and invisible walls, of course, constant circulation through the prison system. And I think, you know, in biblical terms, we forgot our neighbor. We forgot the African-American. In Camden, we forgot the native American. In Pine Ridge, we forgot the coal miners, in southern West Virginia, and the produce workers in Immokalee, Florida. And now, they finished with them and they're coming for us. And there are no shortage of stories or places that we could have gone - Flint being one of them - to illustrate the points that we try and raise within the book.
CONAN: Matt, are you still there? I think Matt has left us, but we thank him for the phone call. It's interesting, you mentioned the drawings by Joe Sacco. I was wondering, as I started to read the book, about why a cartoonist, not a photographer, for example. There's an image that he has of Camden where an old - elderly man is describing what it looked like in the 1950s and what it looks like now. And I realized that couldn't be done...
CONAN: ...as well or as - with such impact with a photograph.
HEDGES: Right. There are things that he does as an illustrator that a photographer cannot do, and it was counterintuitive as a reporter. And the book is, of course, heavily reported. It was always the best personal narratives that I handed over to Joe, the ones you really prized, the ones that are emblematic of a city or of a place, and then he drew them out.
So that, for instance, we did one of an elderly miner, who's since died - Rudy - who begins working in the mines in the 1930s as a teenager after his father is killed in a mine accident when it's not mechanized or it's not unionized. The only time he leaves West Virginia is when he is drafted in World War II. He's wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. And you can see the entire, sort of, history of coal through his life. And Joe has drawn it out. It's - it gives it a kind of punch.
I mean, these, you know, these pockets, you know, this sort of segment of the population, has largely become invisible. And I think one of the goals of the book was to make them visible. And Sacco was able to raise - I think that because of the drawings raised the book to a level, give it a kind of punch that simple prose would not have had.
CONAN: Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges' book is "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Jeff is on the line with us from Ashland, Wisconsin.
JEFF: Hi. Good afternoon. My wife and I just made the trip across the UP and over the Mackinac Bridge. I've made this trip about 50 times since 1985. The last two times I made the trip, with the exception of Marquette, from end to end, it looks like a junkyard, every small town, every old house, every building. It will take them 10 years to bulldoze all of that stuff, so your guest is right on target. You can drive around this country, and you can see it turning into a junkyard. Thank you.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Jeff.
HEDGES: Well, that - he's right. I mean - and this is part of the tragedy. I mean, in sort of terms of patriotism, these corporations were traitors. Instead of making, you know, a few million dollars, they wanted to triple or quadruple that at the cost of the American worker, the American worker who made them wealthy in the first place, who built this country, who turned it into a, you know, a place where a working man and woman at one point could not get rich, but could certainly live a life of dignity and unparalleled prosperity compared to the working class almost anywhere else.
And they took that all away, to the point where we were watching them, you know, create factories in states like Ohio. And now, we're seeing, you know, shift them over the border, to Mexico. And now, we're seeing large scale factory closures in Mexico, because they fled for the cut-rate embrace of China's totalitarian capitalism or Vietnam or somewhere else. And they've really betrayed the country.
You know, you mentioned, Neal, at the beginning, farms. I grew up in a farm community, and, you know, what happened to family farms, people who, generation after generation, had poured their sweat, their blood, their pride - everything into it and then were destroyed by agribusinesses with no protection. And, you know, and suicide was rife among farmers who finally went bankrupt.
You know, this is - this sort of untold story of unfettered corporate capitalism, which is super national, it owes no loyalty to the nation state. And, of course, as any small business owner will tell you, especially the ones who can no longer get credit from the banks, these people are no friends of the small entrepreneur.
CONAN: You end this book by recounting your experiences as a younger man, in the boxing ring, where sometimes in the clubs professional fighters would come in looking for a little exercise and toy with you.
HEDGES: Yeah. I mean, I was very involved with the Occupy movement. I think that, at this point, the - both the Republican and the Democratic Party have become hostage to corporate money and corporate power. I think Citizens United in 2010 was probably the last nail in the coffin. It's impossible for us to fight against it. There's a two-tiered legal system, a two-tiered legislative system. Large corporations like Goldman Sachs, they write those laws. They write, you know, the - they write, in essence, author the judicial rulings that are handed out because of the influence they have. And I think appealing to those formal mechanisms of power is not working, has not worked.
And, therefore, of course, you know, I spend as, you know, many years as a war correspondent and I'm deeply, you know, have seen the poison of violence. And I don't want to see us go there. Non-violent, peaceful protests and ability to bring people out into the street to protest against these kinds of conditions is, I think, vital, in essence, rebuilding the kind of movements that protected working men and women in this country. And yet, it's daunting. I mean, these are incredibly powerful institutions that, you know, control, largely, the systems of commercial communications, certainly control our legislative process, our electoral process.
And I do end by speaking about, you know, those moments - I was a semi-pro fighter, and they'd send in - professionals would come in and just sort of play with us to tune up. And you knew, you know, after a few seconds in the ring, that you are woefully mismatched. And you just fought to say something about who you were as a human being, about your own dignity, and the crowd would always recognize that. They would recognize the - maybe, the superior skills of your opponent, but your heart. And I think, for those of us, it's important not fall into despair.
And I also think that these, you know, corporate systems of power are becoming increasingly marginalized across the political spectrum. Most people are beginning to see what is happening to the country. And I think that, you know, we can build bridges with all sorts of political elements, that in the past were antagonistic, to begin the challenge of these forces.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much as always.
HEDGES: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Chris Hedges' new book, co-written with Joe Sacco, was called "Days of Destructions, Days of Revolt." He joined us from our bureau in New York.
Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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