As social inequality mounts, so does the campaign to keep us in darkness.
By Chris Hedges
August Wilson wrote 10 plays chronicling Black life in the 20th century. His favorite, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is set in 1911 in a boarding house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
The play’s title comes from “Joe Turner’s Blues,” written in 1915 by W. C. Handy. That song refers to a man named Joe Turney, the brother of Peter Turney, who was the governor of Tennessee from 1893 to 1897. Joe Turney transported Black prisoners, chained in a coffle, along the roads from Memphis to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. While en route, he handed over some of the convicts, for a commission, to white farmers. The prisoners he leased to the farmers worked for years in a system of convict leasing — slavery by another name.
In Wilson’s play, Herald Loomis, a convict who worked on Turner’s farm, arrives in Pittsburgh after seven years of bondage with his 11-year-old daughter, Zonia, in search of his wife. He struggles to cope with his trauma. At a boarding house, he meets a conjurer named Bynum Walker, who tells him that, to face and overcome the demons that torment him, he must find his song.
It is your song, your voice, your history, Walker tells him, which gives you your identity and your freedom. And your song, Walker tells him, is what the white ruling class seeks to eradicate.
This denial of one’s song is instrumental to bondage. Black illiteracy was essential to white domination of the South. It was a criminal offense to teach enslaved people to read and write.
The poor, especially poor people of color, remain rigidly segregated within educational systems. The backlash against critical race theory (CRT), explorations of LGBTQ+ identities and the banning of books by historians such as Howard Zinn and writers such as Toni Morrison, are extensions of this attempt to deny the oppressed their song.
PEN America reports that proposed educational gag orders have increased 250 percent compared with those issued in 2021. Teachers and professors who violate these gag orders can be subject to fines, loss of state funding for their institutions, termination and even criminal charges.
Ellen Schrecker, the leading historian of the McCarthy era’s widespread purging of the U.S. education system, calls these gag bills “worse than McCarthyism.” Schrecker, who authored No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America and The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s, writes:
“The current campaign to limit what can be taught in high school and college classrooms is clearly designed to divert angry voters from the deeper structural problems that cloud their own personal futures. Yet it is also a new chapter in the decades-long campaign to roll back the changes that have brought the real world into those classrooms. In one state after another, reactionary and opportunistic politicians are joining that broader campaign to overturn the 1960s’ democratization of American life. By attacking the CRT bogeyman and demonizing contemporary academic culture and the critical perspectives that it can produce, the current limitations on what can be taught endanger teachers at every level, while the know-nothingism these measures encourage endangers us all.”
The more social inequality grows, the more the ruling class seeks to keep the bulk of the population within the narrow confines of the American myth: the fantasy that we live in a democratic meritocracy and are a beacon of liberty and enlightenment to the rest of the world. Their goal is to keep the underclass illiterate, or barely literate, and feed them the junk food of mass culture and the virtues of white supremacy, including the deification of the white male slaveholders who founded this country.
When books that give a voice to oppressed groups are banned, it adds to the sense of shame and unworthiness the dominant culture seeks to impart, especially toward marginalized children. At the same time, bans mask the crimes carried out by the ruling class. The ruling class does not want us to know who we are. It does not want us to know of the struggles carried out by those who came before us, struggles that saw many people blacklisted, incarcerated, injured and killed to open democratic space and achieve basic civil liberties from the right to vote to union organizing. They know that the less we know about what has been done to us, the more malleable we become. If we are kept ignorant of what is happening beyond the narrow confines of our communities and trapped in an eternal present, if we lack access to our own history, let alone that of other societies and cultures, we are less able to critique and understand our own society and culture.
W.E.B. Du Bois argued that white society feared educated Blacks far more than they feared Black criminals.
“They can deal with crime by chain-gang and lynch law, or at least they think they can, but the South can conceive neither machinery nor place for the educated, self-reliant, self-assertive black man,” he wrote.
Those, like Du Bois, who was blacklisted and driven into exile, who pull the veil from our eyes are especially targeted by the state. Rosa Luxemberg. Eugene V. Debs. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King. Noam Chomsky. Ralph Nader. Cornel West. Julian Assange. Alice Walker. They speak a truth the powerful and the rich do not want heard. They, like Bynum, help us find our song.
In the U.S., 21 percent of adults are illiterate and a staggering 54 percent have a literacy level below sixth grade. These numbers jump dramatically in the U.S. prison system, the largest in the world with an estimated 20 percent of the globe’s prison population, although we are less than 5 percent of the global population. In prison, 70 percent percent of inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level, leaving them able to work at only the lowest paying and most menial jobs upon their release.
You can watch a two-part discussion of my book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, and the importance of prison education, here and here.
Like Loomis, those freed from bondage become pariahs, members of a criminal caste. They are unable to access public housing, barred from hundreds of jobs, especially any job that requires a license, and denied social services. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates in a new report that 60 percent of the formerly incarcerated are jobless. Of more than 50,000 people released from federal prisons in 2010, the report found, 33 percent found no employment at all over four years, and at any given time, no more than 40 percent of the cohort was employed. This is by design. More than two-thirds are rearrested within three years of their release and at least half are reincarcerated.
You can see a two-part discussion on the numerous obstacles placed before those released from prison with five of my former students from the NJ-STEP college degree program here and here.
White members of the working class, although often used as shock troops against minorities and the left, are equally manipulated and for the same reasons. They, too, are denied their song, fed myths of white exceptionalism and white supremacy to keep their antagonisms directed at other oppressed groups, rather than the corporate forces and the billionaire class that have orchestrated their own misery.
Du Bois pointed out that poor whites, politically allied with rich southern plantation owners, were complicit in their disenfranchisement. They received few material or political benefits from the alliance, but they reveled in the “psychological” feelings of superiority that came with being white. Race, he wrote, “drove such a wedge between white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”
Little has changed.
The poor do not attend college, or, if they do, they incur massive student debt, which can take a lifetime to pay off. U.S. Student loan debt, totalling nearly $1.75 trillion, is the second-largest source of consumer debt behind mortgages. Some 50 million people are in debt peonage to student loan companies. This debt peonage forces graduates to major in subjects useful to corporations and is part of the reason why the humanities are withering away. It limits career options because graduates must seek jobs that allow them to meet their hefty monthly loan payments. The average law school student debt of $130,000 intentionally sends most law school graduates into the arms of corporate law firms.
Meanwhile, fees to attend colleges and universities have skyrocketed. The average tuition and fees at private national universities have jumped 134 percent since 2002. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 141 percent while in-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 175 percent.
The forces of repression, backed by corporate money, are challenging in courts Biden’s executive order to cancel some student debt. A federal judge in Missouri heard arguments from six states attempting to block the plan. To qualify for the debt relief, individuals must make less than $125,000 a year or $250,000 for married couples and families. Eligible borrowers can receive up to $20,000 if they are Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 if they haven’t received a Pell Grant.
Education should be subversive. It should give us the intellectual tools and vocabulary to question the reigning ideas and structures that buttress the powerful. It should make us autonomous and independent beings, capable of making our own judgments, capable of understanding and defying the “cultural hegemony,” to quote Antonio Gramsci, that keeps us in bondage. In Wilson’s play, Bynum teaches Loomis how to discover his song, and once Loomis finds his song, he is free.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”
Author’s Note to Readers: There is now no way left for me to continue to write a weekly column for ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show without your help. The walls are closing in, with startling rapidity, on independent journalism, with the elites, including the Democratic Party elites, clamoring for more and more censorship. Bob Scheer, who runs ScheerPost on a shoestring budget, and I will not waiver in our commitment to independent and honest journalism, and we will never put ScheerPost behind a paywall, charge a subscription for it, sell your data or accept advertising. Please, if you can, sign up at chrishedges.substack.com so I can continue to post my Monday column on ScheerPost and produce my weekly television show, “The Chris Hedges Report.”
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I suppose, J Anthony, that the next move will be to make voting mandatory.
In support of democracy, liberty, and freedom of choice.
That will allow the meritorious compradorial class to feel most smug and righteous.
With the weight of law behind the franchise, things might become “interesting” when the Little Folk figure out that the entire Legal $y$tem is (and was) designed to protect and preserve the $tatu$ quo of wealth, power, and privilege.
Coupling that to education becoming a privilege, with NO societal responsibility attached, we are well on the way to seeing the rise of a class that might reasonably be compared to royalty.
Time will tell, unless whatever time might have to say is “redacted” … for “National Security reasons”, which the public cannot be privy to, of course.
China is a prime example of the effects of education; The Chinese have lifted hundreds of millions of themselves out of abject poverty. Authoritarian methods have mellowed as survival has become more assured for more and more people. There are still hundreds of millions of Chinese in poverty. They attract corporations, which appreciate authoritarian capitalism.
Free public education with competitive aspects has been partly responsible for today’s Chinese birthrate of 1.3 children per couple. This is the top honor badge of a mature society existing on the edge of global climate collapse. Control of the pandemic has illustrated attention to the right of life.
Capitalism requires faster and faster growth to infinity, that is the rules based order. It is only one rule. Grow to infinity.
The good news is that humanity can figure out which way to go using real democracy.
There are so very many “sacred cows” in our dense mythology of superiority and exceptionalism, comprised mostly of un-examined assumptions – voting, the “franchise”, being among the most un-examined or seriously considered.
Recall the Princeton University “Study” done by Gilens and Page, which concluded that the needs, interests, and aspirations of the many have a “near zero” effect on U$ government policy.
Gilens and Page were discussing the laws which Congress chooses to pass and who benefits.
Yet we could include the Executive and Judicial “branches as doing very much the same thing.
The purpose of voting, in the U$, is akin to affixing a toy steering wheel to the children’s car seats.
The “adults”, up front, are pleased because the Little Folk are (pre)occupied, while the Little Folk firmly believe that their efforts and inputs are having some effect on the direction in which things are going.
So, if the “Little Folk” do not benefit from voting – being permitted only to choose between two personalities, not the candidate’s policies, (a simple binary, to keep things “simple”, avoiding nuance and any notion of context or history, which is most useful when the empire is said to be beset with tyrants and savages), then who does benefit from “un-attached” voting?
That would be the ruling elite and those who own them.
“Voting” legitimizes the ongoing corruption, now bordering on insanity and not just greed and depraved indifference, which is the “work” of those who expect, even demand, our vote, that, and doing our thinking (and choosing) for us.
It is quite a grift.
On a deeper level, this has to tug a bit at the question of whether humanity has ever enjoyed what we are happy to call “civilization”?
What if all we’ve ever had, so far, has simply been serial tyranny, some worse and more odious that others?
Despite the efforts of Princeton’s Gilens and Page, generally speaking, institutions of “Higher Learning”, in the U$, have not, apparently, noticed anything for the past half-century; not the destruction of civil society (even claims that it does not exist) nor the destruction wrought by “bipartisan” neoliberal policies that always benefit the 1% at the cost of most everyone (and everything) else.
The political class preach intolerance, mistrust, push and create division and mean suspicion, undermining trust and mutual interest among people, encouraging them to mistrust, despise, and hate each other, here and around the globe, that being “good” for the “bottom line”, especially when “better PR” is not working.
I do wonder if “alternative” media will soft sell the Democrats, this (“most important ever!” ) election season, with the lament, “We have no choice … but to vote for the lesser weevil …”
Which is the point.
There is NO meaningful choice.
Indeed, until each and every ballot always has one other choice: “None of the above”, which means that the people have no confidence, or trust, in the status quo political class, there can be no honest claim, most often, of legitimacy.
Perhaps, in their great democratic sacredness, in the sacred halls of democracy, the politicians, some regarded as near saints, slaving away for us, at great and terrible cost to themselves, our exalted ones might decide that “voting” is too divisive, and that they, born to rule, had best select, for example, Senators.
You know, like it used to be, in the good old days.
It would be a start, of sorts, especially for an empire which considers itself to be the be all AND end all – possibly, of everything.
Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been saying to people for years, the only way to slow down this train is to stop voting, particularly in the national elections, or at the very least stop voting for the duopoly parties. We are giving the inherent corruption (now business-as-usual) a veneer of credibility by continuing to vote (D) or (R).
Children are the future. Education is the future. Societies exist for the sake of educating the future generations to come. Undermining education and children’s lives for the sake of maintaining power or control in the present kills that future, for everyone. It’s just another way that empires fall. Instead of building a sustainable present and future, those with narrow, unsustainable agendas destroy that future for short term, unsustainable, and usually self-serving benefit now.
So many ways to fall and yet all are the same way. Two words which are necessary for anyone or any nation to survive and prosper and why America probably cannot: control yourself. At this point, it seems a bridge too far.
Tnx Mr Hedges, CN
Last paragraph summation, though lacking term: “Critical Thinking”… does seem 2 discribe it.
Bravo! Mr Hedges.
The “blues” were born of the Great Depression; our collective song of the VietNam-era was R&R and folk.
There seem to be no voices against neoliberalism.
I have my ears open and my heart ready for songs against oppression.
See Five Times August and the Roger Waters tour, This Is Not A Drill.
For some unfathomable reason, all people of color are victims — EXCEPT Palestinians!
Just ask the ADL or the SPLC.