The American Dream is one of the most powerful myths of all time. It is so powerful because one of its main tenets appeals to a basic sense of justice which dictates that if you work hard, you should be rewarded in kind. This is America's promise. In 'Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt', Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco show this promise to be tragically hollow.
Hedges is a former New York Times journalist who has previously won the Pulitzer prize. Joe Sacco is the pioneer of 'comics journalism', and the author of a number of excellent works in that genre. 'Days of Destruction...' is largely a collection of prose reportage supported by detailed drawings by Sacco, along with a number of longer comic strips which tell particular parts of a certain character's story. It is an interesting idea, and one which is executed with mixed success.
The book contains five sections in total. The first four focus on places in America facing extreme poverty and exploitation at the hands of corporate and governmental elites - Pine Ridge, South Dakota; Camden, New Jersey; southern West Virginia; and Immokalee, Florida. The fifth section looks at Occupy Wall Street and what it might mean for the future. All concern people who have done what they were supposed to for their share in the American Dream, and were dispossessed in the name of power and profit.
Hedges is foremost an excellent writer. His prose is simple, crisp, and engaging. He provides vivid portraits of characters, places and their stories; fitting them neatly into a wider context, and in some cases even adding a bit of theoretical background to bolster his arguments. He is clearly disgusted at what he has seen in his country, writing furiously in the hope that the stories he tells will gain wider attention. This lends him an air of deep compassion, but also, at times, a degree of sanctimoniousness. From time to time I felt that his sympathy for the people he interviewed (and indeed the fact that he avoided interviewing anyone on the opposing side of an issue in all but one case) skewed the reality of the stories a stroke too far, but then again, this isn't supposed to be objective reporting; it's a worthy expression of outrage at needless indignity and squalor. Particularly interesting was the part about Camden, New Jersey. Though it tells a story similar to that of many East Coast cities, the corruption and brutality of Camden's experience is both moving and depressing, evoked sensitively by Hedges. The Pine Ridge, South Dakota story is also very good, but is difficult to read since it portrays the diminished and broken people living on a native American reservation, forgotten by the rest of America, condemned to a life of alcohol, drugs, and crime.
The contributions by Sacco are fewer, but when set alongside prose, they serve to highlight the largely unrecognised strengths of 'comics journalism'. While Hedges with his writing can sometimes lapse into tracts of righteous indignation, the form Sacco works with allows him room only to let the subjects speak. There is no space for preaching. As a result, the reports are often stark and shocking in the terseness - perhaps even the banality - with which they tell of endless heartbreak, tragedy and suffering. It is true that Sacco has to take liberties with his drawings, which because they seek to put together a story from the past, he must base to a good extent on his own imagination. But his gift for capturing important moments, and teasing out a person's humanity make his journalism uniquely affecting. I was a little disappointed there were not more comic strips from Sacco in this book, but I can imagine it probably took him just as long to do what he did as it took Hedges to write the other 200 or so pages, such is the detail of Sacco's work.
One thing that left me unconvinced was the final section on Occupy Wall Street. While I am broadly sympathetic to its cause and appreciated the insight the piece gave, I felt Hedges avoided looking at some of the deeper issues it raises. For example, I am not sure there is a better alternative to a properly regulated free-market economy, and Hedges didn't question any of his interviewees about the possibility that capitalism may be a good thing, and that better regulation rather than dissolution could be a safer and more beneficial solution to what we have now. I was also concerned about the kinds of anarchistic power structures which seemed to develop there. Though in an ideal world I could be happy living in an anarcho-syndicalist community, in reality this seems completely impossible for a number of reasons. Hedges accepted this anarchistic take on the organisation without raising any of the general problems with the theory. Nonetheless, I found the details of the way the organisation developed quite compelling, and the intelligence, empathy, and eloquence of the people interviewed was heartening.
'Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt' is an important work which shows how people in America have been brutally beaten down by the quest for profit, but also how they refuse to be defeated by continually fighting back and never losing hope. There is a brilliant quote by H. L. Mencken which is included in the book which perfectly sums up the attitudes of the authors and those they met:
"The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair."
Though the traditional American Dream may be a lie, these people still love America and are doing their best to help make it into the place they know it can become.