It was the following sentence in a book I was reading recently that grabbed my attention. “I grew up in Schoharie, a farm town in upstate New York.” It grabbed my attention because Schoharie is so close to Amsterdam, because I love Schoharie and because I respect the author of the book, Chris Hedges.
The title of the book is “Losing Moses On The Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America.” It was not the first book by Hedges I had read. The first was “War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” a powerful indictment of war, not sparing even the United States.
On my shelf waiting to be read are “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” and “Days of Destruction Days of Revolt.”
What is astonishing to me is not just that Hedges grew up in Schoharie, but that he is also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and yet I had never heard of him until a year or so ago.
How could that be? I knew of William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Albany, and I knew of Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Gloversville. (I also read with interest Bill Buell’s story last week about Niskayuna High graduate Gilbert King and his 2013 Pulitzer.)
I have to chalk up my ignorance in part to the hierarchy of Pulitzer Prizes. Hedges’ prize was for reporting on the war on terrorism for the New York Times. Kennedy and Russo won their prizes for fiction, and it is the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that gets most of the press and attention. Furthermore, Hedges’ Pulitzer was diluted because he was part of a team that won the prize.
I have to chalk up another part of my ignorance to the increasing marginalization of Hedges from the mainstream media in recent years because of his outspoken stance against our wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, terror and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. He left the Times in 2003 because the paper reprimanded him for denouncing President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
Today you are most likely to encounter Hedges in his books or on what might be considered left-leaning websites like Truthdig.com, where he is a columnist.
In his book about the Ten Commandments, which is different from any other book I have read on the subject, he tells about his denunciation of the war in the commencement speech he gave at Rockford College in Illinois in 2003. He tells it in the context of the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”
Hedges’ father was the minister of the Presbyterian Church in Schoharie. He was a World War II veteran who hated war. He opposed the Vietnam War, he supported Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and he fought on behalf of a community of poor whites in Schoharie County, known as Sloughters, none of which won him any friends.
Hedges, who earned a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard, planned to become a minister like his dad but opted to become a journalist instead. A courageous and successful war correspondent, he remembered and honored his father and the influence he had on him when he was going to speak at Rockford. In his book, he says, “Our lives circle back, unconsciously, sometimes consciously to our origin. I found myself in pulpits, of sorts, during the war in Iraq. I had to decide how to speak, what I was willing to risk, how far I was willing to go, what language I would employ. I remembered my father.”
Hedges was booed and heckled throughout his speech by the “educated,” “tolerant” and “freedom-loving” students of Rockford and their parents. In his speech, he said “We have forfeited the goodwill, the empathy the world felt for us after 9/11. We have folded in on ourselves, we have severely weakened the delicate international coalitions and alliances that are vital in maintaining and promoting peace. . . . We have become the company we keep.”
Growing up in the Presbyterian manse in Schoharie under the quiet but powerful influence of his father turned Hedges into a prophet as well as a writer. He is the true patriot, a man who loves his country to the point where he is unafraid to write and speak about the evil of some of its actions. He has made enemies because his stance. But it is this very aspect of Hedges — his anger over national sin — which gives his writing its intensity.
You may while away an afternoon reading Kennedy or Russo, have a nice little discussion over tea and cucumber sandwiches about their books with your literary friends and go home feeling satisfied. But that won’t happen when you read Hedges. He will discomfit you. Some things he writes about will disturb your sleep.
He will not transport you back into the past like Kennedy and Russo but will immerse you deeply in the present.
When you are done reading him, you know unequivocally that you have met a man with substance and have read a book with heft. And unless you are completely obtuse, you will be changed, forever.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.