Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lifting Up Hope: Review of "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt"

Review of “Day of Destruction, Days of Revolt”
by the Rev. John Kirkley

Joe Gibson is a modest man, who has inherited a rich legacy: one that he is desperately trying to preserve.   He lives on the fifty acres remaining of his family’s five hundred acre property on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia.  It is an island of beauty surrounded by a vast swath of ecological destruction.  Barren plateaus, poisoned aquifers, and a fine layer of coal dust is all that remains of thousands of acres of the Appalachian Mountains blasted into a wasteland in the pursuit of seams of coal. 

Gibson is one of the few holdouts in a region decimated by the stripping of forests; the leakage from slurry ponds holding billions of gallons of coal waste; and the assaults on the health and culture of rural communities exploited and the cast aside by big coal companies.  These companies have done everything possible to buy or force Gibson out of his land, which probably sits on hundreds of thousand of dollars worth of coal.   In 1992, he set up a nonprofit foundation to protect his property.

He pays a steep price for his resistance.  His cabin was burned down.  Two of his dogs were shot dead, and he has been subjected to drive-by shootings and attempts to run him off the road.  He lost water in 2001 when the blasting from nearby mountain top removal dropped the water table.  He is painted as an enemy of Big Coal and the few remaining good jobs it provides in a desperately poor part of the country.  But he knows who the real enemy is.

Coal emissions are directly related to 24,000 deaths and some 640,000 premature births and birth defects annually in the U.S.  Referring to big coal, Gibson says,

They’re gonna destroy my state, and the government’s gonna give them the incentives to do it.  My grandchildren and great-grandchildren won’t have any heritage here.  They won’t have any mountain culture here, ‘cause they’re wipin’ it out.  I had the best of time of my life not knowin’ I wasn’t rich or comfortable or wealthy.  How could I enjoy myself outdoors if I wasn’t wealthy?  Who measures wealth?  How do you do it?  All the energy we have, all the people they destroyed, all the fatalities on these mine sites, and they keep makin’ reference to this as cheap energy.

When asked “What keep you going?” he simply replies, “I’m right.  That’s all.”[1]


Stories like that of Joe Gibson give Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt its narrative force and moral clarity.  Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and American Book Award-winning cartoonist Joe Sacco combine interviews, history, and first-person accounts in graphic novel form to provide a richly textured description of life in the “sacrifice zones” of America.  At times, it reads almost like an anthropological account of another culture:  a world of despair, violence, and ecological degradation rendered invisible by corporate controlled media. 

The book provides a tour of these sacrifice zones, with stops to view the culmination of genocidal policies toward Native Americans at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; the postindustrial decay of urban America in Camden, New Jersey; the ecological devastation of West Virginia’s coal country; and the new slavery imposed on migrant farm laborers in the tomato fields of South Florida. 

Hedges and Sacco offer a cautionary tale about the excesses of capitalism in the vein of Upton Sinclair, Michael Harrington, and Howard Zinn.  It is a crie de couer lamenting the sacrifice of moral imagination on the altar of financial markets, and the exploitation of the common wealth for the benefit of corporate elites.  It offers a moral accounting of the cost of ignoring economic “externalities” that happen to include huge swaths of the American people and landscape. 

The book concludes with an account of the then emerging Occupy movement, finding in it a rallying point for resistance to corporate domination.  In the end, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt moves beyond mere anthropological description, or even journalistic exposé, into the language of prophetic critique.   It is a call to choose sides.

There are no excuses left.  Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history.  You either obstruct through civil disobedience, the only way left to us, the plundering of the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil.[2]


The rhetoric is heartfelt, and the arguments have merit, but what persuades and inspires are the stories at the heart of the book.  The moral conviction of Joe Gibson and his recognition of the common wealth that truly enriches human life recalls the biblical admonition:  “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”[3]  The life and death struggle of migrant farm workers to hold corporate produce buyers to a Fair Code of Conduct Agreement rings with the power of a New Testament epistle:

Come now you rich people weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you . . . Listen!  The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure:  you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who did not resist you.[4]

Stories of the preservation and creation of sustainable local communities, viable alternatives to the spiritually and ecologically exhausted global corporate culture, provide us with a real future.  As the authors themselves argue, “We have to create monastic enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.”[5]  But why celebrate the emergence of such “monastic enclaves” in the Occupy movement, but not in the revival of indigenous cultural practices among Native Americans at Pine Ridge or the tiny urban oasis created by Sacred Heart Church in Camden? 

If the already fading Occupy movement is to have any lasting significance, it has to connect to the work of such local communities.  Noam Chomsky identified the real potential of the Occupy movement when he noted that

There is a lot of sympathy for the goals of the Occupy movement.  They’re quite high in polls, in fact.  But that’s a big step short from engaging people in it.  It has to become part of their lives, something they think they can do something about.  So it’s necessary to get out to where people live.  That means not just sending a message, but if possible, and it would be hard, to try to spread and deepen one of the real achievements of the movement which doesn’t get discussed that much in the media – at least I haven’t see it.  One of the main achievements has been to create communities, real functioning communities of mutual support, democratic interchange, care for one another, and so on.  This is highly significant, especially in a society like ours in which people tend to be very isolated and neighborhoods are broken down, community structures have broken down, people are kind of alone.[6]

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt provides a devastating critique of what is wrong with America.  It rightly urges us to resist the corporate culture that is destroying the planet, placing before us a stark alternative between a culture of life and a culture of death. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[7]  Yet it fails to recognize the promise of the alternative sustainable cultures whose emergence it chronicles.  There is a curious disconnect between Zuccotti Park and the “sacrifice zones” depicted in the book, as if those zones represented the problem only, and not also the solution.

The signs of renewal must be found in the very heart of despair, and they must become visible to one another across the sacrifice zones of the American empire.  Like Father Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, NJ, the poorest city in America, we have to understand that “It is my job, my vocation, to promote and celebrate hope, to hold it up.”[8]

The great strength of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is its ability to do just that: even, perhaps especially, when it doesn’t realize that it is doing so.

[1] Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (New York: Nation Books, 2012), p. 124.
[2] Hedges and Sacco, p. 260.
[3] Luke 12:15.
[4] James 5:1-6.
[5] Hedges and Sacco, p. 267.
[6] Noam Chomsky, Occupy (Brooklyn: Zuccotti Park Press, 2012), pp. 72-73.
[7] Luke 16:13.
[8] Hedges and Sacco, p. 110.

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