Chris Hedges, 2010
I wanted so much more out of this book.
In many ways, there is a lot of valuable stuff here. Hedges does provide some concrete explanations that illuminate how America’s social structure underwent a fundamental shift once the US entered the first World War and journalism morphed from a system of balanced truth into a propagandizing system that like a puppet-master, pulled on emotional strings that influence human behavior rather than provide balanced truth that fosters rational judgement. “Print-based culture, in which fact and assertion could be traced and distinguished, has ceded to a culture of emotionally driven narratives where facts and opinions are interchangeable,” (207).
As emotion trumped reason this shift snowballed through the 20th century, fostering a culture of consumerism and permanent militarism that has blinded the working class from the fact that our corporate culture is really a system of neofeudalism that offers little choice for those who will to live outside the confines of the power structure because there is “a false left/right paradigm which diverts the working class from the real reasons of their hardships” (5). This paradigm has led to the development of extremists such as the Christian Right (which the divinity-trained Hedges likens to a hypocritical offshoot of Christian teaching due to its worship of wealth and pandering to corporate power) that promotes a blind patriotism that eschews radical liberal thought. He likens such patriotism as a “retreat into a tribal identity (that) is a desperate attempt to maintain self-worth and self importance at a time of deep personal and ideological confusion” (154). Such tribalism curtails any potential for rebellion against the corporate and military power structure because the voices of rebellion are silenced or ignored as militarism is worshiped and corporatism is lauded as the hallmark of social achievement. Therefore, with a silenced liberal moral voice the working class has been repeatedly subjected to a castration of power to the point where labor jobs are shipped over seas, artists are only successful in commercial endeavors and American culture is a vacuum of recycled movies, staged reality television, and self-pandering status updates.
Much of what Hedges says is right and true. However, the way that he expresses these thoughts are problematic. Above I have used the term “liberal moral voice” to express what I believe is lacking in our culture, however Hedges never uses these words. He uses the term “liberal class” but he denies the opportunity to define the constituents of this class. He launches into a vindictive diatribe about the failure of the liberal class as the source of all of America’s cultural depravity, however Hedges rarely acknowledges that he, himself is a member of this class. Only until the final paragraph does he begin to use the term “we” to promote change and influence, but it is to little to late. This is a very sad book and one that only frustrates with little hope for inspiration.
I feel that the book would have had a better premise if it was titled the ‘Decline of the Liberal Class’ and that Hedges provided a chronological thesis that demonstrated how the effectiveness of the liberal moral movement has declined as the corporate power and war state has risen in power. However that is not the book that Hedges wrote. His book is highly disorganized and often comes off as a rant full of demonstrative and emotionally charged adjectives to describe the liberal class as anemic, ossified, and of course dead. Although he professes that liberalism, or rather the class of liberalism is dead, Hedges is inconsistent in illuminating the actual moment when the liberal class died. He says it happens the day Woodrow Wilson entered the US into ‘the war to end all wars’, he says it arose when fascist hatred turned toward communist hatred and fear-mongering during the forties, he says that the death arose when arts subjected themselves to pithy worship of self and celebrity through the beats, the sixties, and the seventies avaunt-garde, he says that the liberal class died when the likes of Howard Zinn, Raplh Nader, I.F. Stone were followed by the FBI and silenced, he says the liberal class died when journalism subjected objective truth for propaganda and sensationalism. Over and over again Hedges provides concrete examples for the decline of the liberal class, but his writing is so streaked with contempt and anger that he fails to put it altogether into a concise argument and he is so convinced that the liberal class is dead that he fails to acknowledge that through the 20th century there has been a movement that has persisted and continues to thrive. True, the movement lacks the unification of the socialist union movement prior to the first World War, but the world changed and the movement has had to change with the changing world.
This is not a book that leaves one inspired or hopeful. It is a sad book.
I will say that it is a book a that promotes a lot thought and reflection. Despite my diatribe against Hedges’ argument above, in reflection on my life I can see the truths in his argument that the liberal class truly is dead. I live in one of the more “liberal” cities in this country, but the city of San Francisco is only liberal in its acceptance of radical individuals, not radical social structure. This is most clearly observed at the sky rocket cost of living here: the thought of owning a home is implausible despite my and my wife’s healthy salaries yet the “liberal” politicians will do nothing to curb this because they enjoy the tax benefits of a million dollar two bedroom condo. In conversation about what people are concerned about I find that it is easier to enter into an emotionally heated debate about George Lucas’ maniacal recreation of the Star Wars enterprise or argue about a website’s inability to change their user interface than it is to have an honest an informed conversation about my fellow citizen’s opportunity (or lack of opportunity) to make an impact upon society.
Whether liberalism is dead or not, the truth is that we live in a fictional democracy that has been usurped by the corporate state. Our role in this society is one that is subjected to corporate influence. However, unlike you or I, corporations have citizen status but do not face the threat of incarceration. We should be enraged at this but we have bought into the paradigm that there is little that can be done to change this structure. Reality has become fiction and we the citizens have succumbed to fiction worship, more willing to invest our energies in what is honestly fiction rather than the false hope of politics that pretends to be reality.