Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges, 2011
Most accounts of our current political paralysis starts in the 1970s or with the election of Reagan and focus on the role of the Neocons and their greedy corporate masters. This history starts with the outbreak of the Great War (WWI) and asks the question: What happened to the once powerful and independent liberal class, the Democratic party, the labor unions, the academics and intellectuals, the liberal media, the arts, music, and theater to allow the total takeover of the corporate masters and their war machine? Hedge’s answer:
The liberal class has ossified. It has become part of the system it once tried to reform. It continues to speak in the language of technical jargon and tepid political reform, even though the corporate state has long since gutted the mechanisms for actual reform. The failure of the liberal class to adjust to the harsh, new reality of corporate power and the permanent war economy, to acknowledge its own powerlessness, has left the liberal class isolated and despised. The liberal class has died because it has refused to act as if anything has changed. It ignored the looming environmental and economic collapse. It ignored the structural critique that might pull us back from the horrific effects of climate change and a global depression. Our power elites and their liberal apologists lack the ideas and the vocabulary to make sense of our new and terrifying reality.
This situation has left the entire country disenfranchised and Hedges joins the growing list of writers who supported the Obama election hoping for change, and are now totally disillusioned. The timidity of Obama and the liberal class to stand up to the Corporate elites is both frightening and astounding. He fears the disenfranchised, in their disillusion, will be manipulated by demagogs and does not rule out a fascistic takeover. he quotes Jaron Lanier:
The preponderance of them (the disenfranchised) are located in rural areas and in the Red States, the former slave states. And they are connected (via the Internet) and get angrier and angrier What exactly happens? …There is a potential here for very bad stuff to happen.
This reader would have liked Hedges to start a little earlier, with the progressive movement and Teddy Roosevelt (TR) that brought the robber barons under control and broke up Standard oil. Government control expanded and incomes were better distributed. This short progressive era also saw the first American colonies in Cuba and the Philippines and the use of gunboat diplomacy to open Japan and persuade Columbia to allow an independent Panama in exchange for a little 100 mile corridor called the Panama Canal zone.
This short progressive period ended under liberal president Woodrow Wilson, former President of Princeton University, who aided and abetted the corporate and banking interests who wanted the US to enter WWI so it would have a seat at the table in determining the future of Germany and Europe and the fate the Ottoman Empire at war’s end. To this end, the corporate and media powers created the first modern propaganda machine under George Creel, silencing opponents of war (most Americans and their Congressional representatives). With the German U boat sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson was able to push his war resolution through Congress and launch America into the new era of the perpetual war state.
The propaganda machine created such memorable slogans and “The war to end all wars” and “the war to make the world safe for democracy”, both patently false. At the end of the short war, the propaganda machine instantly turned to vilify Russian communism blaming the Germans and lower East Side Jews for fomenting the revolution.
America entered a decade long period of unfettered capitalist madness culminating in the stock market crash of 1929 and the start of the Great Depression with its massive worldwide suffering. Two elections in 1932 were to seal the fate of the world for the next several decades; the US election of FDR and the German election of the Nazi party with Hitler as Chancellor. It is the latter model that Hedges fears for America’s future.
With FDR, the US entered another short progressive period, this time with major gains by labor unions. Even socialists were elected to office and there was a flourishing of art, literature, and theater directed at the mass of the working public. Hedges sites particularly, the musical “The Cradle will Rock” first produced in 1937. He also sites the writings of John Steinbeck. This progressive era was again cut short by war with FDR committing America to a two front war against Japan and Germany.
Once again, the propaganda machine was instantly turned against the Soviet Union at the end of the war and we entered the long not so cold war with misadventures in Korea and Vietnam. The unamerican activities hearings intimidated and silenced broad swathes of liberal artists and intellectuals at a time when they should have been speaking loudest. With a brief renaissance of the civil rights movement and consumer and environmental movements under Ralph Nader the country quickly reverted to corporate control.
Hedges has a particularly bitter feeling for the New York Times and its then executive editor, right wing Abe Rosenthal who oversaw the marginalization of Nader and instituted a policy which seems to still be in place that Noam Chomsky was never to be sited in the Times. Hedges himself was forced out of the Times for speaking the truth after 15 years work in the Middle East. Even legendary reporter Sydney Schanberg (The Killing Fields) was forced out by the Times because he insisted on reporting the truth about New York. Hedges believes both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King would have been marginalized into irrelevance by the media had they lived a couple of years longer. Today the best the Times can do is offer Tom Friedman and his second Iraq war and benefits of globalization corporate cheer leading.
Unions marginalized themselves by cozying up to management and cutting sweatheart deals undercutting their own membership. Universities turned the process of tenure from protecting the academic freedom of deserving members to a process of ensuring tepid work and conformity. Many disciplines became meaningless closed loops of obscurity such as the followers of Derrida whose language and work can have meaning only to those inside the loop. Theater has become meaningless extravaganza that few can afford to attend. Art has become a commodity to be manipulated by museums and the wealthy and is more about celebrity than any possible meaning.
Hedges only glimmer of hope lies with the continuing works of Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky. He also considers Howard Zinn’s life a meaningful example of honesty and protest, a man who believed history should be told from the point of view of its victims. His A People’s History of the United States remains an important legacy. As far as journalism is concerned, Hedges has little positive to say. Nader, though, sites Amy Goodman of Pacifica’s Democracy Now as the only place he turns today when he has something to contribute. Democracy Now was the only reliable source of the information during the Arab Spring and is now the most reliable source of information on the Occupy Wall Street movement.
We can only hope that meaningful change will come out the Occupy Wall Street movement. The alternative, fascistic scenario is too awful to contemplate. What is clear to Hedges is that the liberal class is incapable of fixing itself. It sold its soul to the corporate masters and is dead.