Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class

Death of the Liberal ClassI was first exposed to Chris Hedges in high school, by one of the small handful of teachers who have shaped my character and thought. That first assigned book was War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), a partly political, partly philosophical treatise on war and its pernicious influence on society, drawn from Hedges’ experiences as a correspondent in warzones from the Middle East and Africa to the Balkans and South America. In Death of the Liberal Class, he turns his attention to American politics, inveighing against what he sees as not only the capitulation of the liberal class, but its inversion and conversion to serve interests antagonistic to its traditional aims, resulting in a rightward shift of the political zeitgeist responsible for increasing income disparity, irresponsible and perhaps irreversible damage to our environment, and a state of near-constant war, all of which undermine the integrity of democracy.

Hedges begins by identifying five historical pillars of liberalism – universities, the arts, the press, churches and the Democratic party – and arguing that each of them has been in some way complicit in creating the problems of our present day, problems Hedges never shies from naming:

The illegal wars and occupations, the largest transference of wealth upward in U.S. history, the deregulation that resulted in the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and the egregious assault on civil liberties – begun under George W. Bush – raise only a flicker of protest from the liberal class.

On the Republican/Democrat dualism, Hedges quotes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, arguing that elections provide merely “a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives,” and is not sparing in his criticisms of President Obama:

Obama lies as cravenly, if not as crudely, as George W. Bush. He promised that the transfer of $12.8 trillion in taxpayer money to Wall Street would open up credit and lending to the average consumer following the financial crisis. It did not. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) admitted that banks have reduced lending at the sharpest rate since 1942. As a senator, Obama promised he would filibuster amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which retroactively made legal the wiretapping and monitoring of millions of American citizens without warrant; instead, he supported passage of that legislation. He told us he would withdraw American troops from Iraq, close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, end torture, restore civil liberties such as habeas corpus, pass a health-care bill with a robust public option, and create new jobs. Some troops have been withdrawn, slowly and piecemeal, from Iraq, but other than this too-little-too-late process, almost none of his promises has been kept.

He shoved a health-care bill down our throats that will mean ever-rising co-pays, deductibles, and premiums and leave most of the seriously ill bankrupt and unable to afford medical care. Obama, after promising meaningful environmental reform, did nothing to halt the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, a decision that ended perhaps our final chance to save the planet from the catastrophic effects of climate change. He empowers Israel’s brutal apartheid regime. He has expanded the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where hundreds of civilians, including entire families, have been slaughtered by sophisticated weaponry such as drones and the AGM-44 Hellfire missile, which sucks the air out of its victims’ lungs. He is delivering war and death to Yemen, Somalia, and, perhaps soon, he will bring it to Iran. Obama is part of the political stagecraft that trades in perceptions of power rather than real power.

I’ve reproduced this rather lengthy criticism in full, in large part because, despite some of its more contentious charges, it represents the most cogent condemnation of Obama’s presidency I have yet to read (which, incidentally, says quite a lot about the current state of American conservatism) and provides a necessary counterpoint to the rah-rah optimism and blind faith that characterizes so many of his supporters. And Hedges has a point, does he not? There is something perverse about a Harvard law school graduate and constitutional law professor continuing, and expanding upon, the executive power grabs of his predecessor. In December of 2011, a full year after the publication of Hedges’ book, Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, permitting the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial or indictment, effectively reversing habeas corpus. The present political climate is such that any attempt to enact or expand upon gun control measures is met with virulent protests and outspoken defenses of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, but when habeas corpus, the most fundamental of civil liberties the like of which the Second Amendment was drafted to protect, is undermined, infringed upon or outright revoked, there is barely a whisper of complaint.

Hedges’ outrage is therefore welcome, a refreshing change of tone from the apathy and banality that characterizes the reportage of mainstream US news media (just as an experiment, spend ten minutes watching Al Jazeera or the BBC, and contrast what you see with any ten minutes of coverage from Fox, CNN, NBC or what have you; the difference will astonish you). And, having been a foreign correspondent and journalist for the New York Times, Hedges is well-placed to criticize these institutions. In one of the strongest and most disheartening sections of the book, he paints a bleak picture of journalists lazily swallowing official statements from biased public relations workers, or choosing free dinners, rides on corporate jets and access to CEO cell phone numbers over the impartial, difficult and considerably more accurate method of independent investigation. How can any democracy function when the organs of information distribution are so demonstrably corrupted? What good is a vote when it is cast based on incorrect or incomplete understanding of a given social issue?

This is an immensely important book, but it is not without its faults. So much of it is premised on the idea that war in Iraq and Afghanistan is an outrage, morally and politically indefensible, but Hedges declines to engage with any of the arguments advanced in favor of these wars. Christopher Hitchens, the left’s foremost defender of war in Iraq, is mentioned only once in the book, where he is unfairly dismissed as a “parrot” for the Bush administration. Saddam Hussein, too, only receives one mention, and that in an attempt to soften his despotic image. Instead, the brunt of Hedges’ work is spent analyzing the suppression of dissent and dissemination of lies during wartime, going back as far as World War I; a worthy endeavor, no doubt, but somewhat off topic and hardly without precedent. Consider Samuel Johnson’s famous remark, in his Idler of 1758: “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages.” His entire argument against war borders on facile, mocking the idea that war could ever be used in service of peace, and culminates in this warning missive:

Look beyond the nationalist cant used to justify war. Look beyond the seduction of the weapons and the pornography of violence. Look beyond Obama’s ridiculous rhetoric about finishing the job or fighting terror. Focus on the evil of war. War begins by calling for the annihilation of the Other, but ends ultimately in self-annihilation. It corrupts souls and mutilates bodies. It destroys homes and villages and murders children on their way to school. It grinds into the dirt all that is tender and beautiful and sacred. It empowers human deformities – warlords, Shiite death squads, Sunni insurgents, the Taliban, al-Qaida and our own killers – who can speak only in the despicable language of force. War is a scourge. It is a plague. It is industrial murder. And before you support war, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, look into the hollow eyes of the men, women and children who know it.

This is fine rhetoric, and a stirring denunciation of the evils of warfare, but it is not an argument against the necessity of combat. Hedges’ unwillingness or inability to acknowledge the possibility of a just or necessary war weakens his case, and his diatribe against war acts, in a verbal sleight of hand, as a replacement for an actual argument against military intervention in the Middle East. No small wonder, then, that he spends much time denouncing the government’s excesses during World War I and the Vietnam war while subtly skipping over World War II. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s remarks after Neville Chamberlain returned from having signed the Munich Agreement, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Churchill, who was no stranger to the horrors of war, understood what Hedges does not: that, at times, the moral decision is also the violent one.

There was one other moment in the book that made me cringe. After three pages of gushing veneration of Noam Chomsky (whose Manufacturing Consent, about the myriad ways governments, politicians and corporations coerce the public into unwittingly supporting their causes, forms the backbone of so much of Hedges’ thinking), Hedges paints Michael Moore as a martyr for the liberal cause for his denunciation of war in Iraq during his 2003 Oscar acceptance speech. This requires masochistic levels of hypocrisy. Michael Moore has long ago proved himself indifferent to truth, preferring instead the exact kind of spectacle-based manipulations and appeals to emotion that Chomsky denounces. Moore is unworthy even of this disingenuous fawning.

Another reviewer of the book accused it of descending into “pessimism porn,” and there is, I’m afraid, some merit to this accusation. Hedges is quick to criticize but slow to offer alternatives or propose suggestions for amending the pitiful state of liberal impotence. In one of the few instances he does, the suggestions are so feeble and ineffectual – recycling, donating to charity, grassroots activism – as to be embarrassing.  I also cannot complete this review without bringing to bear some extra-textual information. I happen to know of his public feuds with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, and the dishonest and disingenuous ways he has engaged with these men. Hedges, for reasons unknown to me, has proven unwilling to put aside specific disagreements – over, for example, war in Iraq or the importance of religion – in service of a common veneration of the individual, of literature and reason and debate – interests and passions they all have in common. Ultimately, this is not a failing of liberalism but of Christopher Hedges, and as long as humanists like Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins continue to thrive and prosper, any lamentation for the death of the liberal class is premature.