A Report from America’s “Sacrifice Zones”

What inspired you to write Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

My previous book, Death of the Liberal Class, looked at how movements and the liberal establishment had been destroyed by corporate power. With the destruction of the regulations, laws, and impediments such as labor unions to restrict corporate capitalism, I wanted to write a book that looked at what happened when you forced individuals and communities, as well as the environment, to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace. The best way to do this was to go to the nation’s sacrifice zones, those poorest pockets of the country that had been exploited first, to show what happens when you allow the marketplace to rule.

I wanted to do this in a way that was not polemical, although there are polemics in the book, but viscerally showed people this power and how it operates. This is why I asked Joe Sacco to illustrate it. Most people in the country do not see these areas of devastation and those who inhabit these sacrifice zones are largely invisible to the wider public.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?  

That we can’t build a rational society or foster the common good by allowing the marketplace to determine human behavior and how we structure our economy and political system. This is a utopian vision. There is nothing in 3,000 years of economic history to justify this belief, and yet it is the dominant ideology now and we, and the ecosystem, are paying for it.

When nothing in your society has an intrinsic value, when everything, including human beings and the natural world, is made into a commodity, you exploit it until exhaustion or collapse. This is a form of collective suicide. And I would hope that readers realize that we have to begin to resist through acts of civil disobedience as the formal mechanisms of power are hostage to corporate interests.

Is there anything you had to leave out?  

I left a lot out. This is the nature of writing. The original chapter on Pine Ridge has twice as long, but you need to keep a book moving, tight, and focused. I rewrite chapters as many as six or seven times and I am ruthless with my own work, cutting and honing until I can’t look at it anymore.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

That the book is somehow ideological. It is not. It seeks to examine a force, corporate power, that is as destructive to the lives of conservatives as to liberals and progressives.

If we do not radically alter our relationship to the ecosystem on which the human species depends for life, we are finished. And we don’t have much time left. Other civilizations have collapsed in the past in similar fashion, but this time we will bring the whole planet down with us.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing? 

No. Joe and I never once asked ourselves who would buy it or if it would sell. We focused only on producing the very best work we could, a work we were proud of, a work that spoke to us and hopefully would speak to others.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?  

I am hoping they will wake up to the corporate forces arrayed against them, forces that if left unchecked will doom the future of their children. You cannot, as Joe and I were, be around so much human suffering for two years and not be pissed off at what we have done to these people, how we have betrayed them, especially the children. It would be inhuman not to see this suffering and be angry. Each of us have had a hard time getting started on new projects as the emotional cost of being in these environments was high. We are still haunted by it.  

What alternative title would you give the book?  

I never had an alternative title. I have for other books, but this one came to me before the idea of the book was fully put together.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the cover. And I love Joe’s work. He is a brilliant artist and reporter, one of the finest I have ever met. And I knew that all of the best personal narratives in the book, the ones a reporter covets, would go to Joe because as an illustrator he could do things with those narratives I could not. So putting his work on the cover gives readers and idea of what they are in for.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?  

There are many. Leopold’s Ghost is one, a marriage of great history with great narrative that says something about us and our society. Animal Farm is another. Here you have the nature of totalitarian society distilled into a deceptively simple and brilliant parable. Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, Life and Fate, The Brothers Karmazov, Bleak House, they are all books I have read and re-read.  

What’s your next book?  

I will do a book on the consequences of political paralysis, the empowerment of extremes, the way a dysfunctional society produces and empowers the extremes, but this is not yet an idea that has solidified. The ideas always come first, then you figure out how to make them coherent on the page. I know I will do reporting as I love reporting. Reporting shatters assumptions. You learn a lot. And I enjoy it. 

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