My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Halfway through Days of Destruction I began asking myself about the real target audience.
Having been raised in an area similar to one of the “sacrifice zones” Hedges profiles (a forgotten part of Phoenix called Maryvale), not much of what he reveals comes as a shock. Just in my lifetime I’ve seen the happy, clean world of the educated and attractive people on TV commercials grow ever less representative of how Americans really live. Most of us seem to live very close to the poverty Hedges skillfully captures with the help of cartoonist Joe Sacco. That’s just America. Those people on TV have a lifestyle only a scant minority of us can afford.
Then, came the realization: This book is for those people. It’s for the people who can live like they’re on TV commercials. It’s for the 1%.
The central argument of Days is that the historic exploitation of “the other” has come home to roost. American culture is effectively eating itself. The buildings in downtown Camden, New Jersey are literally being fed to the recycling crushers that took the place of a once-vital port. In West Virginia, over five hundred mountaintops have been removed by coal companies, with surrounding land and homes despoiled and people impoverished. Liquor, drugs, deceit, and historic genocide have destroyed once-vibrant Indian civilizations in the Dakotas. Tomato pickers in Florida live (but really just barely survive) in actual slavery or debt-peonage. Now the infection has spread to whatever remains of the working and middle classes: those who might have economically benefited from the exploitation at one time. This has happened not in a moment, and not thanks to any single policy, but as a consequence of the moral bankruptcy of the West itself. The story of America in the 21st century is one of self-cannibalization.
Those who find this shocking and foreign are the ones who don’t live with its effects staring them in the face daily. Not everyone sees the real results of an America where “the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profits.” Some live like people on TV commercials. Others have convinced themselves that they’re only a few double-shifts away from joining them.
The sad sense pervading the book is that it’s really too late for most of us. “Those jobs aren’t coming back” Steve Jobs tells Barack Obama — with a finality — when he asks what it would take to build the iPhone in America. The nation is drowning in a flood of greed and self-interest resembling the brackish waters of a sludge impoundment at an Appalachian coal mine. Those among us who might have helped stem the tide have been subverted. In some cases that scream “Stockholm syndrome,” they side with their own oppressors. As a side-note: Many of the Occupy Wall Street activists Hedges praises have been driven underground by surveillance since the book’s release. It looks pretty grim, overall.
To his credit, Hedges doesn’t try to put lipstick on a pig. The closing chapter foresees only a massive revolution on par with the liberation of the former Soviet Bloc can reclaim America from those who have sacrificed every other value in the name of shareholder value.
So I’d recommend Days as a jeremiad for those who need confirmation of their perceptions, a call to action for the doers, and a wake-up call for the affluent prisoners of gated communities. But for those in all but the last group, I can’t imagine it will bring many surprises.