The Other America
‘Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt’
This book is a collaboration between Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, showing us daily life in four centers of 21st-century American poverty. Hedges’ contribution — a combination of reportage and commentary — is in a long tradition of literary journalism. Sacco’s is the sort of graphic art popularized by Art Spiegelman in “Maus.” Both writers have decades of experience as correspondents in war zones, but in “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” they turn their attention to the bombed-out and collapsed areas of their own country.
Sacco’s sections are uniformly brilliant. The tone is controlled, the writing smart, the narration neutral; we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. Hedges sees this book as a call to revolution, and as with most works in which the author’s philosophical and political beliefs are aired in an unfiltered manner, a lot of what you appreciate about Hedges’ writing will depend on how closely you identify with his politics.
From my point of view — and perhaps I could be accused of not being political enough — this is unfortunate. This is an important book. But it is at its best when simply presenting the facts.
Anyone who grew up near a postindustrial area — who has seen a middle-class town become a pocket of destitution — will not find any one chapter in this book too shocking. What is shocking is the degree to which this depth of poverty is found everywhere, from rural Indian reservations to near-slave conditions in Florida tomato fields. These are not pleasant stories. They are the very sort of thing we all prefer to forget so that we can focus on our daily lives, and this makes it all the more important that they are recorded.
The first chapter opens with a sketch of life on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota. As it follows the lives of various people on the reservation, weaving between history and personal narration, we see the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), its eventual collapse and how people today have learned to live with the consequences.
Hedges’ rage here is palpable, as is his sympathy with his subjects, and occasionally the tone gets a little strident. But as the book continues, the polemics fade. The second chapter brings us into Camden, N.J., telling the story of its decline and abandonment by the powers that be; the third chapter does the same for West Virginia, focusing on coal mining’s economic, social and environmental effects. The fourth chapter, which covers human slavery in the Florida tomato fields, is the most shocking.
The book’s final chapter takes place in New York City, at the center of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hedges believes this was a turning point in American history, and there is an insider feel, something almost Woodstockian in the tone. Hedges’ take is that the seeds of a revolution were sown in Zuccotti Park, but those who saw the events from the outside might be more reminded of the protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
By the end of this book, I found myself preferring Sacco. Maybe even more so than in his other work, he allows characters and situations to speak for themselves. If you are a close reader, his point of view is clear, but it is controlled in such a way that you are allowed to disagree with him.
Hedges is a serious writer and thinker, and as in his seminal work, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” he is brilliant at depicting human life at the extremes of existence — from war to grinding poverty — and explaining the effects on the human psyche. But if in that book he was more like a teacher, in this one he is high priest. We’re given little room to form our own opinions. “There are no excuses left,” he says in the final chapter. “Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history.”
How you react to being ordered to join the revolt will determine a lot of what you think about this book. If you’re a believer, it will all be fuel for the fire, but the people who would learn the most from these stories will very likely have trouble getting past the first pages. I couldn’t help wondering about conservative friends of mine, their children and other folks who might have read this book if the tone had been less strident. But maybe that is the problem with all calls to revolution: You hear them only if you want to.