Through his signature owlish metal-rimmed glasses, former foreign correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges surveys a packed hall of rapt listeners at U of T's Innis Town Hall.
He's just been asked what activists ought to do following the apparent dissipation of the Occupy uprising. "I am not going tell people what to do,'' he says. "I just tell what I do."
Hedges is being modest, of course. The "minister pretending to be a journalist," as some have called him, is probably the most read movement commentator in North America these days on all matters of protest against privilege and power. He's already spilled thousands of words of advice to Occupy - dump the black bloc, keep faith with non-violence - in his weekly column at Truthdig.com.
The Princeton-based writer is in T.O. on a tour promoting his 12th book, Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt, authored with graphic artist Joe Sacco.
Hedges's first book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (a pacifist, not a hawk document), left its mark on pop culture when a passage from it turned up as the opening quotation in the film The Hurt Locker. Days Of Destruction examines the hellish Mad Max world of America's decayed corners - "sacrifice zones" in a country where the marketplace rules and social supports are nil.
"When you fall in America, you fall straight to the bottom," he maintains. Canadians, though, shouldn't be complacent. "We set the worst example in the world - and yet you follow," he says, feisty like the former boxer that he is, in a tone belying his cazh light green sports jacket.
Before this phase of his life, Hedges spent more than two decades covering civil wars and military repression, mostly for the New York Times in places like Yugoslavia, El Salvador and Gaza. At one point, he was imprisoned in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
But he parted ways with the Times in 2003 after being reprimanded for his early critique of the Iraq war. Leaving, he said later, was the only choice; staying would have violated the integrity principles laid down by his radical Presbyterian minister of a father.
"The moral life requires a perpetual alienation from the centres of power, an adversarial relationship [to] the centres of power," he said in another context.
And, yes, he did do all his course work at Harvard Divinity School, though he was never formally ordained. It's easy to visualize a younger Hedges preaching at funerals in the Roxbury district of Boston, something he did as a seminarian working in a housing project.
"I have respect for the tradition I come out of. I am not going to demonize it the way the new atheists do," he tells me at a pre-meeting interview at the Toronto Street offices of Random House.
While the press is busy writing off Occupy, he says, the impulse that fed the protest persists. "Unfettered corporate capitalism is, as Karl Marx understood it, a revolutionary force that knows no limits on its own,'' he says. "It commodifies everything, and it will push and push and push until something pushes back.''
What exactly will be the next push back? he asks the audience. "When will it come? That I don't know." One thing he stresses is that the next expression has to be tougher, more focused and not get derailed looking after troubled people on the streets. "[Occupy] activists were up all night in de-escalation teams. Look, this is a political movement, not a homeless shelter."
In the meantime, he says, the Montreal student protests are some of the "most important in the world."
A supporter of the U.S. Green Party, Hedges nonetheless turned down an offer to be its vice-presidential candidate. "I don't invest any intellectual or emotional energy in elections. It is all movements now - that's all we have left."