Groupthink in Illinois

Monday, 22 October 2012

In May 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the writer and journalist Chris Hedges was invited to give a speech at a graduation ceremony at Rockford College in the US state of Illinois. Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was at that time a reporter for the New York Times, used the occasion to share his assessment of the invasion and the implications of it. The reaction he received was nothing short of extraordinary. He was booed and subjected to a volley of abuse as people turned their backs on him in protest.

I had never heard about the incident until I was reading up about Hedges the other day. I managed to find a video recording of it (links below), and the footage is quite jawdropping — something I think future generations will be able to look back at in order to study the violent, jingoistic climate that polluted sections of American society following the terror attacks on New York in September, 2001.

Hedges' comments were not actually that controversial — it's just that they deviated from the kind of tub-thumping groupthink that dominated mainstream discourse particularly in the lead up to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Iraq invasion. His speech was a prophetic, critical analysis of what the invasion, in his view, would lead to. He warned the crowd of Americans, young and old, that "we are embarking on an occupation that if history is any guide will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security." He said: "we have blundered into a nation we know little about, are caught between bitter rivalries and competing groups and leaders we do not understand," adding:

We are trying to transplant a modern system of politics invented in Europe — characterised among other things by the division of the Earth into the independent secular states based on national citizenship — in a land where the belief in a secular civil government is an alien creed. Iraq was a cesspool for the British when they occupied it in 1917. It will be a cesspool for us as well.
Within about two minutes Hedges was getting booed. People in the audience began shouting things like "moron" at him, and eventually large sections of the crowd stood up and turned their backs. The microphone plug was pulled on a couple of occasions, with a member of the college's staff having to step in to ask that people please give Hedges time to speak. He eventually managed to finish, but not before one or two people attempted to rush the stage as others shouted things like "USA! USA! USA!", "God bless America", and "get him off the stage!"

Astonishingly, in the days after the incident, the president of the college, Paul Pribbenow, issued an apology to the students (not to Hedges). He circulated a letter telling them that: "Unfortunately, our commencement address this past Saturday did not focus on your educational accomplishments and the challenges you will meet in the future ... Our speaker presented his ideas in a style that suggested the day was about him and not you. For this, I am very sorry." And Hedges' then-employer, the New York Times, accused him of breaching its "ethics code" because he had "engaged in public discourse concerning his political or personal views." (He ended up leaving the newspaper, largely due to the critical position he took on Iraq. Ironically, in 2004, the Times published an apology for its Iraq coverage, telling readers that some of its reporting on the threats allegedly posed by Iraq, used to justify the invasion, had been "insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged ... we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.")

Though the college's president told his students that Hedges' speech on that day was about "him and not you" and had no bearing on the "challenges you will meet in the future," saying so was myopic and wrong. Granted, the speech was hardly an uplifting one for a graduation day. But it was hardly a self-interested rant. It was clear to me that Hedges was attempting to communicate something meaningful and important to the students about the dark turn the US was taking into dangerous and tumultuous territory — which had a direct bearing on their future as young American graduates.

Despite the booing, the jeering, the back-turning and the microphone unplugging, most of what Hedges said on that day has turned out to be accurate. I reported earlier this year that the attempt to transplant a western-style democracy in Iraq has led to sectarian divisions, heightened violence and corruption — not to mention an appalling death toll of more than 100,000 civilian dead. Like Hedges predicted, Iraq did become a "cesspool" for the US and the allied forces, which is ultimately why Barack Obama's administration was forced to pull out last December. It has not brought peace to the region, and nor has it lessened the threat of terrorism or led to a world that is more stable and secure.

When it emerged that the case for the invasion of Iraq had been built on disinformation, I wonder what those people who turned their backs on Hedges thought about. When they read that an estimated 35,000 civilians died in the first three months, along with countless young American soldiers, I wonder if they regretted their actions. And I wonder if almost a decade on since the invasion they would today listen to Hedges' analysis and still decry him as a "moron." I doubt it.

Watch/read the speech here: part one; part two; part three; part four; transcript.

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