Saturday, November 5, 2011

In Search Of An Analytical Faculty

This is a book I've been struggling with for a couple months now.  I'm not a voracious reader, but I made especially slow progress with this one, reading it in several-page snippets over weeks of lunches. But I've needed time to digest it, and I'm frankly making even slower progress with that. There's a lot to chew on in here, and I find myself strongly drawn and chastened at the same time.

I don't read a lot of politics, but I've been increasingly frustrated over the past decade at the seeming inability of progressives to craft a coherent message and stay on point. Conservatives by contrast seem to be able to lock arms at a moment's notice, and it seems nothing obstructs them in propagating their message. This doesn't need to be surprising, when conservatives have all the money and own most of the means of communication; but I've never been convinced that the gauntlet of their unified message was really reflective of mass thinking (though every election result gives me doubts). Regardless, progressives have done a much worse job of rising to the challenge: not only has our national discourse moved further and further to the right (in part due to Overton window mechanisms we've looked at previously), but progressives and centrists have been incredibly inept and disorganized in pushing back against this Dark Ages tide.

One could at this point toss off a growing, but far from comprehensive, list:

  • an unjustified war--a war waged against another nation!--followed by another and yet another, making for a kind of permanent state of armed conflict, the immense funding for which is now paid into the coffers of a handful of for-profit vendors; 
  • the Patriot Act; 
  • the suspension of habeas corpus; 
  • Guantanamo Bay; 
  • so-called "extraordinary rendition;" 
  • secret "black ops" prisons on foreign soil;
  • governmental sanction of the torture of prisoners; 
  • the constantly escalating efforts to erode the separation of church and state; 
  • the undermining of science education, and of the acceptance of the findings of science for political purposes; 
  • the systematic hobbling of government oversight of industry and of the protection of our environment and natural resources;
  • the war on women; 
  • the victimization of the poor; 
  • the politicization of our mainstream news coverage, including the escalation of hyperbole and outright falsification, always for political ends; 
  • the systematically and ongoing transfer of the nation's core wealth from the lower and middle classes of this country up to a tiny (and already very wealthy) sliver at the top of the food chain, a transfer which is mostly illegal and fraudulent and certainly immoral but which has been protected and sanctioned by the governments of both parties

This can go on and on. I want to cry to read a list like this, to think how far we have come from the innocence and can-do attitude for which this country has stood as a beacon for generations. But my dismay is far from universal. Conservative television and radio hosts speak to large audiences who alternately deny these conclusions or defend them pridefully.

I've found some relief from my gloom in the writings of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, people who aren't promoting a particular political philosophy so much as standing up forcefully for well-reasoned argument and the force of logic. And I hide for an hour or two a day under the awning of NPR, where issues are given a calm and methodical dismantling and look-see.

Chris Hedges is a former reporter and bureau chief for the New York Times, among other places (the Wikipedia article has an overview of his CV). I've read a number of his columns at Truthdig, and he shows up on NPR and on the occasional YouTube video. Like Christopher Hitchens, Hedges writes and speaks like a machine gun, fearlessly and brimming with righteous outrage. I find I am immediately drawn to him in print or in person.

So I bought one of his books, picking as an introduction one that seemed most germane to our present moment in history: The Death of the Liberal Class. And from the outset he presents one challenging page after another, premise after premise that make me sit up and question what I think I know and ask whether I really agree with what he's saying. On principle alone this seems like the best sort of book.

But--and here is the crux of my ambivalence--I had my hesitation as well: Hedges' name also crops up from time to time on religious matters, and invariably in a way that makes me wince--or at times droop in crushing disappointment. A graduate of divinity school and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Hedges consistently plants his flag on the opposite shore of the discussion from my own (and has earned the wrath and even dismissal of people I really admire like Sam Harris and PZ Myers). I don't care especially about his religious views in a political discussion, but I find he does not carry himself nearly so well on religious matters as he seems to do when discussing politics and this makes me wonder: are his political arguments similarly poorly supported and am I simply too ignorant of history to see it? Like Christopher Hitchens, Hedges makes his arguments by tethering current events to the long line of human history, and as with Hitchens I find I am ill-equipped to critique much of this approach. I am naturally skeptical of any argument from authority, but his eloquence and forcefulness are winning when he talks of politics; yet when he takes on atheism he seems quite out of the water.

But I vowed to forge ahead, and apart from a few sections where his mythological views come out and circulate among the crowd, he keeps the church bottled up for most of this book. And I find I have highlighted passages on nearly every page, hundreds of quotes ranging from quiet truisms to calls for militant action, passages where he connects solidly with the ball and hits it out of the park. Winnowing these passages down seems nigh-unto impossible; there's just too much here. Just starting with the opening chapter, I am immediately drawn into his argument (again apologizing for the e-book not providing reliable page numbers):

The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking in acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.

The media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions--the pillars of the liberal class--have been bought off with corporate money and promises of scraps tossed to them by the narrow circles of power. Journalists, who prize access to the powerful more than they prize truth, report lies and propaganda to propel us into a war in Iraq. Many of these same journalists assured us it was prudent to entrust our life savings to a financial system run by speculators and thieves. Those life savings were gutted. the media, catering to corporate advertisers and sponsors, at the same time renders invisible whole sections of the population whose misery, poverty and grievances should be the principle focus of journalism.

Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the corporate state has put the liberal class on a death march. Liberals did not protest the stripping away of the country's manufacturing base, the dismantling of regulatory agencies, and the destruction of social service programs. Liberals did not decry speculators, who in the seventeenth century would have been hanged, as they hijacked the economy... The liberal class was eventually forced in this death march to turn itself inside out, championing positions it previously condemned. That it did so with almost no protest exposed its moral bankruptcy.

Capitalism was once viewed by workers as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated as sages, celebrities and populists. The liberal class functions as their cheerleaders. Such misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that refuse to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, ignores the fact that the divide in America is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.

Permanent war is the most effective mechanism used by the power elite to stifle reform and muzzle dissent... The collapse of liberalism, whether in imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Weimar Germany, the former Yugoslavia, or the United States, was intimately tied to the rise of a culture of permanent war.

Military spending, which consumes half of all discretionary spending, has had a profound social and political cost. Bridges and levees collapse, schools decay. Domestic manufacturing declines. Trillions in debt threaten the viability of the currency and the economy. The poor, the mentally ill, the sick, and the unemployed are abandoned. Human suffering is the price for victory, which is never finally defined or attainable.

I have to stop. These come from the first 10% of the book, and Hedges is similarly quotable to the very end. On the strength of these passages alone I have to strongly recommend the book to anyone who inclined to this kind of subject matter. Myself, I find it incredibly energizing to see some fire and brimstone (to borrow a term) applied not against the little person but in their defense, and in defense of the dignity of work and the correctness of the desire for the good of society to spread among all its citizens. I understand the degree of naivety involved in this utopian vision; I can see as well as the next person the looming horde of freeloaders waiting to live off the public teat. But I've come to see that the expense and waste of THAT injustice is child's play next to the corporate welfare that is currently bankrupting our nation. (Hedges' recent speech at the OWS gathering in Zuccotti Park, after which he was arrested, gives an excellent introduction to his style and content.)

And yet. I listened a couple days ago to an interview on NPR with Chris Hedges after the publication of this book last year. Neal Conen spend half an hour talking with Hedges, who was a onetime correspondent for NPR, and in typical NPR fashion the soundbite is eschewed and the interviewee is given time to elaborate his theories and to stand for some grilling. I had just finished the book, and it was Neal Conen's grilling that again gave me some pause. On two or three occasions during the interview, Conen clearly restrained himself from asking yet another followup question after Hedges had seemingly gotten around the previous challenge. And again I was left feeling that I'm not really qualified to assess whether Hedges has made a good stand for his views or not. His fire and his dialectic skills connect solidly with me, but I feel it would be wise to embrace him provisionally while further efforts are underway to see how well tethered his conclusions are.

I welcome the comments of others who have read this (or other of his columns).


dbackdad said...

I used to read a lot of political books in the heyday of the 2nd Bush administration but moved away from that during early Obama administration. Partly from that feeling that you've reached the finish line (which of course we hadn't) and partly from pure burnout. Like you say, sometimes when you are reading about how we've given away our democracy, it can get a little depressing and you feel helpless.

The last year or so, I read about politics more tangentially much in the way you do from authors that are not specifically talking about politics. For ex. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins. Because religion and the suppression of science and reason are undeniably tied into politics, it gives perspective. Even reading authors like Michael Pollan, who is ostensibly writing about food, informs one's political opinions. Food is tied into agriculture, food safety, big business and we all know the influence those have on politicians or are influenced by the same.

The problem is that too many of our politicians don't read books about ideas and science. If they did, they would be better informed and would make better policy.

Sorry to be getting a little off topic. Anyway, back on topic. Like you, I've always been torn on liberal authors that happen to be religious. Their faith informing their views is OK as long as it does not blind them. I've been a fan of Jim Wallis (God's Politics), who is considered a "progressive evangelical". I was turned on to him by my wife's Pastor. His religion informs his views on race and peace and poverty, I admire him because he doesn't overstep or overstate what influence that religion should have in other areas and specifically in the lives of people that doesn't share his religion. While I don't believe that Hedge's sometimes overstepping invalidates his astute views in other areas, I do believe that he risks people tuning him out. Regardless, I'm going to eventually read this book.

wunelle said...

I've been following Hedges's doings with the OWS crowd, including his recent arrest at Goldman Sachs (the fact that he was arrested for protesting--the most basic form of free speech--while the bankers themselves, who have ripped us off to the tune of billions of public dollars, were being "protected" inside tells you just about everything you need to know.

He may be wrong on a lot of things (it's fascinating to hear him harp with great force and eloquence on the necessity of leaders to be reality-based and to pay heed to evidence, and then perform this peculiar little backflip and toss out those same virtues in his own thinking!) but he's demonstrably correct about a whole bunch of stuff. I guess we have to pick and choose, which is what a sensible person would always be doing anyway.

(FWIW, I believe I read somewhere that he's on record as not even being a believer; he just thinks that everyone else's beliefs are crucial to leading a moral life. Or something like that.)

I'll look forward to your thoughts on this book when you read it.