Revolution and Resurrection Stalk Berkeley's First Congo after Osama Killing

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday May 04, 2011 - 12:12:00 PM

There was a message on my machine on Monday: “I’m just sort of stunned by the news, and I wouldn’t mind having a friend’s take on it. I feel some…relief, frankly.”

Well, yes. Full confession: I haven’t gotten back to her yet, because I don’t know exactly what to say. I find myself having heretical ideas, hard to process, harder to disclose.

On Monday night I went to hear Christopher Hedges speak for the benefit of KPFA (and to flog his latest book) at First Congo, thinking that with his background as a New York Times reporter on the Middle East he might shed some new light on the killing of Osama bin Laden. His talk (sermon, really) caused me to question all my beliefs—and not in a good way. 

He mentioned the bin Laden killing only once, at the beginning, and a couple of KPFA-ers immediately hissed, clearly disapproving, as per the usual script, of what the U.S. had done. No wonder my friend, who’s lived in Berkeley even longer than I have and is a dedicated café aficionado, felt a bit of trepidation about expressing her sense of relief at the Osama bin Laden killing in just any old arena. 

And the rest of the Hedges presentation, which came across as a peculiar combination of Nostradamus and John Knox, provoked my usual heretical reaction to any kind of orthodoxy, even my own brand. I even began to wonder if political assassination, which I’ve staunchly opposed since I found out about what happened to Patrice Lumumba in the 60s, might not occasionally serve a worthwhile purpose. 

Today is my granddaughter’s ninth birthday. Eight years ago, when she was a baby in a stroller and her cousins were little girls, our whole family marched together down Market Street in a vain attempt to head off G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Unlike the whole Bush administration, Tony Blair, most everyone at the New York Times (though not Chris Hedges) and just about everyone in the U.S. Congress (except Barbara Lee) we and all of our fellow marchers knew the war effort was doomed to failure. Eight years later, Iraq is a mess, as we predicted, even though Barack Obama (whose name was jeered by many in the Hedges audience) seems to be—very slowly—extricating the United States from the arena. 

Radical idea: maybe if G.W.B. had simply ordered the assassination of Saddam Hussein in 2002, how many lives, both American and Iraqi, both combatant and civilian, might have been saved? 

And extrapolating from that heterodox thought: what if the inept Bush administration had been able to find and assassinate Osama bin Laden right after 9/11/2001? Could we have avoided the pointless and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan altogether? And now that he’s finally dead, could that enable the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan? 

Just sayin’… 

I’ve also been trying to figure out what in the Hedges talk put me and my companion firmly out of sorts. 

First, I think it was his prosodies. He read his whole speech, start to finish, and he delivered relatively commonplace sentiments in dramatic measured cadences seemingly learned by listening to old Martin Luther King speeches hundreds of times. What works for an African American minister steeped in the traditions of the southern Black church just doesn’t sound the same when spoken in a recognizably preppy Northeastern White dialect by a bespectacled White guy in a button-down oxford shirt and khakis. 

P.K., I said to myself before he’d read six sentences, and in fact later in the speech he confirmed that he was indeed a Preacher’s Kid, son of a battling Presbyterian minister. Since one of my best friends is a Preacher’s Kid, she’s briefed me on how that upbringing can warp your perception of your place in the world if you’re not careful—can create a kind of messianic fervor even in those who have given up religion per se. 

Later Hedges mentioned that although he was what many would consider an atheist, he’d—confusingly—just had his baby baptized by Father Dan Berrigan. I yield to no one in my fondness for crazy old Irish Catholic radicals, but Berriganesque sentiments, dramatic calls for rebellion, just sound silly to me coming from such an obvious prep school boy. The real Irish (I’m not one) do it better. 

The speech strung together a river of quotes gleaned from Hedges’ obviously lavish education and subsequent fellowships: Harvard Divinity School (or was it seminary?), Niemann Fellow etc. according to Wikipedia. I’m not a fan of class warfare exactly, but I do think that those who have obviously already availed themselves of all the privileges of the privileged classes need to tread lightly when urging others to reject them out of hand. 

Since Hedges was born in 1956, he missed almost everything about the 60s counterculture except the FSM attitude, also available on recordings for those who missed it. But when asked about the era in the question period, he allowed as how he is not a big fan, that he disapproves of the way that counterculture “forced itself on the labor movement.” 

Huh? As someone who was politically active in those days, I can testify that the first and most important thing “forced” on the kicking-and-screaming labor movement was the futility of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In Michigan anti-war activists had a prolonged struggle with the majority of UAW members who controlled the state government in those days and who firmly supported the war-mongering Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson, warts and all, though a resolute but small minority of union activists knew better. And the craft unions in the old AFL needed to be “forced” to accept integration in those days, even in northern states like Michigan. 

The KPFAishers interrupted the speaker with applause on numerous occasions. They gave him a standing ovation at the end. The most enthusiastic cheers, the most obvious frissons of delight, came when he added a formulaic denunciation of “even the Democratic party” to his litany of institutions that must be smashed in the imminent revolution. 

Oh, come on, guys. If taking your marbles and going home were a winning strategy, Ralph Nader would still be president. 

The First Congregational Church on Monday night was still hung with Easter Alleluia banners. And the last word uttered by the speaker, coming off of a short question period, was right on message, a declamatory exultation: “Resurrection!” 

Those of us educated in the Christian tradition, even in this post-Christian era, still remember the Easter story, the whole story. Believers assert that Christ rose again on Easter. But in order to get to the point of Resurrection, he first had to go through Crucifixion, to die in order to be reborn. 

But if you don’t believe in the Resurrection story, as many in the audience don’t, one would assume, it makes very little sense to volunteer to sacrifice yourself on the political altar as Christopher (the name means “Christ-bearer”) Hedges seemed to be advising. Just slogging away in the political vineyards, to use another Christian metaphor, seems like a much more effective strategy to achieve meaningful and long-lasting change. 

And now, how about that assassination question? I could go through a whole Golden Bough trip to explain where I ended up and why, but let’s not.