|Comics, reportage dovetail in seething manifesto
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s critical deconstruction of America’s ‘sacrifice zones’ reveals a society in ferment, with no time for those left behind, writes Aditya Mani Jha.
ADITYA MANI JHA 26th Oct 2013
Joe Sacco’s sketch of protests at Liberty Park, New York
t is perhaps a little frivolous to discuss the mechanics of artistic collaboration with respect to Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges. After all, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a cussedly serious work; perhaps the most grim, cautionary narrative you will encounter all year. Its preferred mode of discourse is the polemic. If it were any more angry, it would’ve sprouted jaws on its spine. And yet, by the time you’re done taking in that last impeccably cross-hatched Joe Sacco sketch, what you’ll take away from this book is the unique reading experience it offers.
Chris Hedges, of course, is the perfect choice to draw up the white paper for American hypocrisy. Over and above his (considerable) journalistic credentials, he is also known for the lawsuit Hedges vs. Obama, where he (along with Noam Chomsky and others) sued members of the U.S. government. The provocation was the National Defense Authorization Act, section 1021, which allowed the President to sign off on infinite detention of terror suspects without habeas corpus. (In May 2012, the U.S. government lost the case, and appealed the decision) Reading his book American Fascists in college (three, maybe four years back) was an eye-opener for me. This was a former seminary student (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt begins with an Old Testament epigram) tearing into the Christian right, with gusto. As a twenty-something with strong views on both organised religion and longform journalism, I was hooked. It was during this same period that I stumbled upon an Alternet article Hedges had written, where he explained how the fascism of the Christian Right was aided and abetted by the decline and eventual decay of America’s industrial towns.
“During the past two years of work on the book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, I kept encountering this deadly despair. Driving down a highway lined with gas stations, fast food restaurants and dollar stores I often got vertigo, forgetting for a moment if I was in Detroit or Kansas City or Cleveland. There are parts of the United States, including whole sections of former manufacturing centers such as Ohio, that resemble the developing world, with boarded up storefronts, dilapidated houses, pot-hole streets and crumbling schools. The end of the world is no longer an abstraction to many Americans.”
No doubt, the seeds of this book were sown by then. In the opening chapter, (called Days of Theft) Hedges and Sacco paint a devastating picture of Whiteclay, Nebraska – a bleeding, crumbling block-and-a-half with no police, no municipality, no sewage and “only five or six permanent residents”. The unique reading experience that I spoke of in the opening para, is palpable already. It is one thing to read about the plight of native Americans from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation; hapless drunkards who “buy on credit, trade food stamps for alcohol, or offer sexual services to get money.” It is quite another to see Sacco’s portrait of Michael Red Cloud, the troubled heir of a legendary Indian chief. As Red Cloud (who likes to be called ‘Mike’) narrates his life story, Sacco takes over for fourteen pages.
hink about it – in the span of fourteen pages, Sacco compresses Mike’s topsy-turvy childhood (his great-aunt adopted him because his mother was a teenager at the time, and a drug addict to boot), stories from his alcohol-addled neighbourhood, his own crystal meth addiction and subsequent refuge in spirituality. This is several chapters’ worth of material, potentially. Sacco’s economy, then, his technique (a memorable panel showing Mike’s meth-induced paranoia ranks up there with the best of Palestine or Footnotes in Gaza) and the precision of his craft are awe-inspiring.
With every subsequent chapter, the authors repeat this pattern, with frequent illustrations and inset comics sequences six, ten, fifteen pages long. Often, these sequences bring to life some of the more memorable characters the duo comes across. (Like 90-year-old Rudy Kelly, an ex-miner from Welch, West Virginia living with black lung disease for two decades)
Make no mistake – this is not a book for the faint-hearted. The cultural gravitation towards naked capitalism that Hedges describes is very real, and not an easy proposition to stomach. This isn’t a shrill book tone-wise, but don’t be surprised if you stop in the middle to close your eyes and ears, if only for a moment. In a way, it has been written to defeat the kind of “narrow, analytical intelligence” which Hedges insists is “morally neutral”. And towards the end of the book, the first signs of hope are noted by Hedges and Sacco, who weighs in with a magnificent rendition of New York’s Liberty Square protests. (See picture)
As Hedges mentions in the introduction, the events of Septemer 17, 2011 at Zuccotti Park were an unexpected boost for the project, a united front which stood in contrast to the ‘pockets of resistance’ fighting ‘garngantuan forces’ in vain; in New Jersey and South Dakota and West Virginia. The men and women who were witness to this historic protest must surely hail Hedges and Sacco; they have landed a significant blow with this book.
“We expected a beleaguered population to push back, but we did not know when the revolt would come, or what it would look like. (…)This revolt rooted our conclusion in the real rather than the speculative. It permitted us to finish with a look at rebellion that was as concrete as the destruction that led to it. And it permitted us to end our work with a capacity for hope.”
A word, also, for Navayana’s efforts; they have done well to bring this gem to Indian bookshops. (The book was released internationally in 2012) Since 2009, the Delhi-based publishers, known for their anticaste titles, have expanded their ouevre significantly, “for the struggle against caste cannot happen in isolation from other struggles for justice and equality.” To that extent, they could hardly have chosen better than Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.