Chris Hedges’ new book The Death of the Liberal Class should be mandatory reading for anyone who hopes that activism can still make a difference. It is probably the best of his books, the work of a mature mind and a disciplined pen. When the book club I run read Empire of Illusion, published in 2009, its members accused Hedges of not providing solutions to the problems he exposed. This time he does, and they are brutal.
Identifying hedonism, fear and distrust as the weapons of choice of a system that is too far gone to save, he faults the liberal class for having identified itself with power that is determined to ‘recreate the world through violence’. In a powerful indictment of the media, academia and government officials, he describes the ‘Freudizing of society’: The belief that if our individual repressions can be removed – by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist – then we can adjust ourselves to any situation, and the world would no longer need to be changed.
Hedges harbors a particular – and justified! – animosity toward the press, which reduces news to ‘facts’, allowing the public’s emotions – which determine how they think - to be manipulated by surveys and polls, where labels, celebrity gossip, angry rhetoric and syndicated columns replace local reports, town debates and other forms of popular expression.
Hedges traces the demise of committed journalism in the early twentieth century, noting how the shift “from hatred toward ‘the Hun’ to hatred toward the Red was seamless.” (Early propaganda tied communists to the German war machine, much as, today, the Tea Party lumps Communism and Fascism together.)
Those of us who criticized the right for lumping liberalism and socialism can learn from Hedges analysis of its evolution:
“The liberal class – buoyed by the rise of an independent press, militant labor unions, workers’ houses, antipoverty campaigns, and the rising prosperity of the country bequeathed by the industrial revolution – embraced institutions, and especially the state, as tools for progress. This created a new form of liberalism that departed from ‘classical liberalism’. While the two belief systems shared some of the same characteristics including a respect for individual rights, the new liberal class was and remains distinctly utopian.’ It places its faith in practical state reforms to achieve a just society… (whereas) classical liberalism was colored by a healthy dose of skepticism about human perfectibility.”
Hedges’ disdain for intellectuals who have chosen to work within the system is boundless. He explores the influence of the Social Gospel movement, which he obviously admires as a former seminarian, and some of the best parts of the book are devoted to Dorothy Day and the movement she founded, Malcolm X, and King who, according to Hedges, was much farther to the left than is commonly believed.
I interrupted this diary for lunch, but Hedges’ book provided a template for understanding the news on Democracy Now running on my computer: today, Wikileaks revealed U.S. pressure on European countries as well as the European Union itself to eliminate the barriers to genetically-modified seeds, and Amy Goodman’s guest scientist described laboratory studies on mice that vividly illustrated the corporate/government nexus that Hedges’ excoriates in his book. How to be surprised that out tax dollars allow our diplomats to strong-arm the rest of the world into buying Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, even if they cause cancer and other damage to humans? In the same broadcast, various peace and pro-Palestinian activists told of getting ‘a knock on the door’ at seven a..m. from FBI agents armed with subpoenas to appear before a grand jury, or with authorizations to search their homes and cart away boxes of documents. One of them referred to the visitors as ‘the thought police’, because these activists are being investigated for their opinions.
I will return to Hedges’ book tomorrow. It is too long to accommodate my preference for writing relatively short posts, but I want to get this out: Hedges’ warnings that it may be too late for anyone to reverse the tide may strike some as exaggerated, but there is not a single point that I disagree with.
Tomorrow: Hedges talks about Marx and climate change.