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On Chris Hedges’s Death of the Liberal Class.

Death of the Liberal Class (2010) is a philippic against American society by one brave son. Think of the figure of Cassandra warning of the doom inside the horse to the Trojans. Imagine David in Goliath’s home of the brave. Imagine a malcontent, even a sniper aiming at one too many targets, institutional or collective, but also at a few good individuals in high places in the big land of the free.

Death of a Liberal Class belabors a general indictment of American society already present in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (check out my article in the Oberlin Review of Feb. 26, 2010). These two books will make a good reading, nice dessert and holiday-dinner conversation if you wish among those who care about the perception of a general decline of American society. Cheerfulness is out of the question. Think about it the other way: Good times give you fickle friends and trying times get rid of them. I would rather have this messenger of bad news than the no-news of institutional men and women biting their tongue and looking out of the window.

If you have nothing nice to say… Death of the Liberal Class has lots of un-nice things to say and that is the main point: to firmly go against a prevailing orthodoxy that does not want to acknowledge genuine structural deficiencies touching on multiple aspects of your social reality. Liberal is bunk, the once liberal journalist tells us piercing through the deafening silence of a society that appears incapable of coming to terms with itself with the best possible critical language. Death of the Liberal Class is hence formal repudiation of the liberal faith by one of its sons. This is apostasy of a belief once cherished, liberalism, and I will pick the religious dimension of the explicit gesture in the end of this review. Hedges is a liberal defector. Can you handle it? And what took him so long?

 

(via bookapex)

The title of the book is a bit misleading. Hedges is not doing class, much less class politics, despite the binary cliché, liberal class versus power elite, inherited from the 1950s. Sixty years later, our belligerent social commentator, once journalist, does not want to do that “culture war.” He wish he could do it. It is no longer possible. Nor does he want to mount rebellious “class consciousness” despite the assumed angry anti-elitism or empathetic populism (such attitude could either go Chomskian anarchism or pro-market “libertarianism” and our “post-liberal” author remains stuck at the “radical” crossroads of an ideological indecision with fusion of conventional polarities or dualities). Yet, it appears that almost everybody is doing this sort of anti-elitism, more or less honestly and intellectual life is not left untouched accordingly.

Frankly, American society appears too big and messy, too cumbersome, chaotic and fragmented, its population too individualized for any coherence of enunciation about any kind of common goal or collective dimension. Hence, there is almost universal denunciation, denunciation tout court here and something of the condemnatory gesture loses some of its edge in its very generality. I remember the comment by Fredric Jameson Hedges’ not favorite pen pal about the systematic destruction of the very social structure of class culture in American society and the resulting –and prodigious— social leveling articulating what he calls a “plebeianization” of resentment against any type of inherited privilege. There is something of this generic impulse in Death of the Liberal Class, despite the author’s willful distance from the “New Left” as he calls it (more about this later). So, the noun “class” means the idea of social group or collectivity, even institution, without ever reaching for the more meaty terminology of “class struggle,” which is still implied. There is defection and rebellion instead, which is fine, particularly against the conventional manners of mass media and consumer culture, also including university life.

 

The adjective “liberal” refers to two big historical dimensions now gone to smithereens: one, the historical or classical ideology of liberalism, the misty or foundational moments of the XVII century (Hobbes, Mills, Locke, Spinoza, perhaps the last one is a bit surprising here), keeping burning the fires of the notion of progress, perhaps the secular name of Christian teleology. And two, the beginning of the “modern,” or who we (say we) are today (but how malnourished is this “modernity” in the contemporary American vernacular indeed!). Hedges pulls out the big scissors out of his back pocket and makes its final cut of the “modern” at the end of WWI (7, 61). Hence, there is the dis-relationship between this official intellectual historyknown by how many Americans exactly? — and the sixty or so years that includes the previous generation in relation to our own: guess which one of the two portions our author will pick for greater public appeal. The second, of course.

Our travails are said to begin with the Woodrow Wilson moment reaching all the way to the “treason of intellectuals”following Chomsky’s Benda position (144)claiming today to be fighting the “good war” in Iraq and Afghanistan (typified by Anne Marie Slaughter from Princeton, 38ff, 59ff). This is a thoroughly hypocritical claim according to our author, who does not hide his contempt (the anti-war position of the former war journalist is not fully developed). So, our “postmodernity”Hedges does not use the fancy wordbegins with the “modern” at the end of WWI and this is the betrayal of the discontinuity with the classical liberal ideas of the XVII century that conventional Americans may have heard recite in high school history classes (the piety embedded in the brittle construction of this abbreviated history of ideas brings to mind the tale of the three little piglets, the house and the wolf rather than veneration of historicist endeavors).

Yes, Hedges’ heart is closer to the “modern” fracture he will denounce. Liberal sectors are complicit in their pusillanimity with the crumbling status quo from which they benefit against the interestes of the immense majority of American society (10, 12, 21). Liberals used to be against the power elite, now they are minority part of it against the anger of the majority. These liberals are toadies (34) and handmaidens of corporate interests. Hedges is explicit about the lethality of these interests that appear to respect nothing –man, woman, child, nature, secular or sacred dimensions—in American society, much less other societies. Manufactured commodity culture has become American culture (82), and Death of the Liberal Class makes an expansive claim: it is not onlyy the death of a social group, it is the end of American society as we know it. But unlike the song, Hedges feels the opposite of fine.

 

There is no exhilaration at the possibility of a drastic mutation. This is the big, bad, bitter end. More bad and ugly than good and pretty. Finito. Kaput. Forget about it. “Hasta la vista, baby.” Imagine a Terminator figure talking to your in poor English before shooting you down and anything that moves amid action-movie apocalyptic explosions. This is the ethical climate of Death of the Liberal Class. This is what Hedges wants the reader to think about: those who you thought were on your side the liberalsare not, there was never any illusion about the others, and early 21st century is high time to wake up and smell the stronger-than-conventional-American coffee. Fancy some?

Yet, our brave author remains in a historical moment of ideological disorientation: certainly not neo-liberal, post-liberal, but without crossing over to other more “radical” positions (conventional American idiom equates “radical” with “extremist,” disrespecting the etymology of the adjective). This sense of ideological irresolution –Hedges has left the liberal house and remains homelessis crucial to this pugnacious book that sees no light at the end of the tunnel. Our roadrunner only sees the train coming at him and there is no way out of the tunnet in the vicinity of the precipice high up there in the big mountains. I make light of what is not: Death refers to Hedges’ assessment of the general degradation of American society that he connects with the betrayal of classic liberal ideals at least since the end of WWI.  A bit of an explanation about these two or three decades would have been nice. Hedges’s choice of intellectual arsenal comes mostly from the “public intellectuals” and a few artists of the middle of last century: Walter Lippman (68ff), Irving Howe (16ff), Wright Mills (94, 121), Alan Magee (116ff)… These are the few good men –fewer women, if any—that Hedges puts in his photo album against the manipulators of the modern public relations such as Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew (80ff), George Creel (74ff)… Hedges’ tone is Chomskian in Manufacturing Consent, a bit too solidly on the “conspiracy theory” side of things, and who can blame him? Everything bad, the crack in the modern so to speak, begins with Woodrow Wilson, personification of the intellectual treason that Hedges castigates, and this is surely a thick-brush color-paint to the recent white-washing reinventions of the said individual in some high places, but not society at large.

Wilson is the personification of the liberal anti-war candidate turned reluctant hawk while tramping domestic dissent and promoting the Sedition Act (treasure the anecdote of watching The Birth of the Nation in the White House!). Feel free to check out the account of John Maynard Keynes about Wilson. Mutatis mutandis: Hedges is really talking about our actuality and he appears to have a particular kind of anger reserved for Princetonians typifying “the privileged little islands” (196) against the oceanic feeling of society at large (the book jacket mentions that he lives right there in such area of New Jersey).

 

Six chapters form Death of the Liberal Class: resistance, permanent war, dismantling the liberal class, politics as spectacle, liberal defectors and rebellion. There are interpenetrations among them and the red-threat continuity of righteous indignation. Against the mood-neutral, passive-aggressive and calculated, language-thin mode of institutional behavior that I am sure you must have witnessed out there, this pugnacious mood is a very healthy attitude indeed. If there is something most institutions cannot handle is intelligent and articulate, sustainable discontent. Death of the Liberal Class is a middle-brow version of just that. The book is an eclectic mix of journalism and social commentary with the sprinkling of public-intellectual scholarship stretching out from the mid-20th century to contemporary recognizable figures such as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and Howard Zinn, recently deceased (this is an all-American attack on America with precious few foreigners added to the mix, and perhaps the “radicalism” of the criticism would have benefited from some “foreign-language” materials, even in translation).

Still, Hedges’s disappointed post-liberalism, if I may call it that, approaches these aforementioned “classic” figures of dissent, quotes from them, pays them tribute without fully endorsing their political “radicalism” (think of Hedges as the American counterpoint of the more articulate and erudite European war correspondent Robert Fisk, and it will not be uncommon to catch them doing a book presentation together in New York city). The 250-page book includes quick vignettes of desperate Americans in protest against the establishment. There are interviews with them and with these authors of dissent in the context of public events such as Left Forum, “The Center Cannot Hold,” at Pace University in New York of last year (Chomsky was the key note speaker there in a memorable presentation that has been kept alive in the alternative media). Hedges keeps alive Chomsky’s empathetic rendition of the anger felt by the American public and the real possibility of the threat of fascism breaking through institutional malfunction (there is a new emphasis in the Weimar Republic in metropolitan museums in the big city in the last few years as though something was in the air). Readers see vignetttes of broken-down and thoroughly erratic Americans such as Ernest Logan Bell gravitating towards the Tea Party movement, of Joseph Andrew Stack who crashed a plane in Austin, Texas leaving a suicide note with his reasons for despair (Hedges repeats the Chomsky gesture of tacking the suicide note seriously in his presentation to the Left Forum conference).

Denouncing the white-washing of the legacy of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Hedges seeks refuge in a certain kind of belligerent Christianity represented by Father Daniel Berrigan fighting the Vietnam draft and of Catholic Worker movement members such as Dorothy Day, and inspirational figures such as the critical journalism of I.F. Stone’s WWII coverage, the lessons of George Orwell, whose initial quote opens the book, in relation to other times and foreign places… Hedges makes this foreign native. There is not an awful lot to fight with in relation to what appears to be a wholesale terminal condition of being of American society.

 

Despite the early reference to classic liberalism, Death of the Liberal Class is not and does not want to be a history lesson. Hedges is concerned with the immediate now which is in his estimation in undeniable shambles. Liberalism was once the belief in the irreversible change in one good direction, the belief in progress,  that is to say that “liberal institutions were created to make the world a better place.” The rhetoric is conventionally American and translations into other languages do not actually work, historically.

There is a bit of a nostalgia for a time Hedges did not live, the mid-1950s and this is perhaps peculiar to the field of journalism from where Hedges has been expelled: Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Fritz Stern, Stanley Hoffman, fellow New York Times war correspondent Sydney Schanberg, author of the book behind the film The Killing Fields, South African justice Richard Goldstone…  Hedges puts eveything in the same corrupt corporate basket (media, church, the university, political parties, the arts, the labor unions, the pillars of the liberal class) and there is very little left except individual acts of defiance, accusation and resistance. There is not much lemonade and the lemons are bad anymore and there is not much thirst either. Most of the apples are rotten at the core at the bottom of the barrel that is also broken. Should we insist in looking for oranges in the hardware store? This is Hedges’ vision of American society in the early decade of the new century. And the cherry on top of the apple pie: permanent war against other societiesand stifling of dissent at homewith liberals of the Woodrow-Wilson persuasion such as Michael Ignatieff and Anne Marie Slaughter, currently in the Obama administration, marching on.

Voices of sanity: the investigative reporter Scahill and the Ohio politician Kucinich in relation to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A horrendously small minority against the eerie institutional silence, “liberal” instittutions of higher learning included (not for nothing, there are one too many federal entanglements to say something not nice about foreign wars). Do not hold your breath for Hedges’ enthusing for Obama. With or without his principled pacificism, one must still give some credit to the former war journalist who cut his teeth on the ground as War is a Force that Gives us Meaning attests.

 

Death of the Liberal Class makes for a sober, somber reading of the good “adult” kind. Can your cultural literacy, happily supported by your immediate institutional infrastructure, handle it? There is abundant care and awareness and also the occasional moment of blindness. I personally have no problem with the drastic gesture, which is not quite punk in the total denunciation of a corrupt society (Hedges’ demeanor is quite unlike Jello Biafra of the historic Dead Kennedys). In between the two worlds however, that of the American saying (don’t say anything if you have nothing nice to say) and that of the Spanish saying (“quien calla, otorga;” or the complicity of silence), I pick the second attitude any day: and Hedges is here. And I am with him welcoming the shattering of the silent glass of culture in Death of the Liberal Class, for example when he speaks of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection of mostly American postwar art, typified as “a dreary example of flat, sterile, and self-referential junk “ against the Bauhaus moment exhibited in the same noted museum on another floor (113). Whether one agrees or not, the explicit gesture of rejection is intellectually important in our “postmodern” moment of an incredible docility.

Hedges defends that we have entered a historical vacuum with the failure of old beliefs and the inarticulation of new alternatives. His own paratactic style of simple sentence is evidence of a kind of staccato emotionality of indignation, particularly in the context of total war. And we are all struggling with these failures and inarticulations. The worst thing would be the denial. In this light, I wish to register one big difference with Hedges. Against the Popular Front of the 1930s, The New Left of the 1960s is also exemplary –for him— of a moral vacuum. He does not appear to rescue anything of worth from this historical moment. And he does not hesitate to blame “French poststructuralist literary and cultural theory” (123). For what exactly? He quotes from Fredric Jameson’s prose (124) to dismiss it as incomprehensible as though anyone could do any cut and paste of any textual portion in isolation and try to make it immediately intelligible without a sense of a history of philosophy and a certain intellectual trajectory in the first place. Imagine a sweet undergraduate in a privileged college dismissing Jamesonian prose without knowing who Heidegger or Hegel are! This is facile anti-intellectualism losing the war of ideas against the general anti-intellectualism of the marketplace of ideas throw the university spaces into the equation too — that a few of us are happy not to do ever. What is needed is more “theory,” no less, more complexity of language and thought, no less.  I think Hedges is shooting a bit too indiscriminately here unwilling to make room for deeper, dare I say philosophical?, considerations (a more elaborate language is anathema to the regime of automatic intelligibility of the barely literate public of customers and consumers increasingly distant from careful engagements with textuality while “thriving” in virtualized images, conventional Americans do not know what it is to do “continental” philosophy, an entirely foreign endeavor even in departments of philosophy).

This dismissal is deeply ironic since Hedges speaks of the “dying civilization in a terminal condition” precisely built in the faux ecstasies of celebrity culture with the print-based culture knocked out in the gloomy corner (199ff, 207ff). Your happy classroom interactions will confirm Hedges’ point most of the time. I say this in solidarity with Hedges whose tone is more of grief, loss and bereavement than anything else: there is no need to pour the hot teapot on the lap of the “French postructuralist literary and cultural theorists,” many of them already left the room by now?, but this phrase contains one too many poly-syllables to be sure for your conventional American reader of books, much less the conventional mass media to handle it with a straight face! Yes, this is Hedges’ America, and yours as well, and unlike most people with no face and no language he is not smiling the happy pro-business smile. I would take this fellow traveler over the cowardice of sensitive men and women any day.

 

Let us close down with a final point. Hedges’s critique is an internal one: barbarism begins at home in relation to your own civilization that you hold so dear, or at least publicly so. And this line of critique is introduced in relation to “Afghanistanism,” the funny expression associated with Sydney Schanberg, former reporter of the New York Times (145ff). It means something like the structural manufacture of a disrelationship. It is about another time and place out there that is kind of messy and I say it is messy as long as relationships with the immediate time and place, the one over here, which is where I make my living, are not established. Your Titanic may be sinking out there in the foreign location, but not mine, the native one, and the “global-village” puts you and me in the same sinking ship, at least according to Death of a Liberal Class. So yes, you can go ahead and do the best coverage of corruption “out there,” but never coventionally “in here” in relation to your own immediate circumstance, in the workplace, in the own backyard of your current institution. Hedges’ latest book rejects this modus operandi flat out and disciplinary fields of area studies and the overwhelming dimension of the “foreign humanities”barely alive by the time of submitting this reviewwould do well in challenging this “Afghnistanism” too.

I happen to know a thing or two about this systematic denial of inter-relational perspectivism that must incorporate the immediate platform of observation in relation to ever-expansive and inclusive domains of knowledge production. The Madrid philosopher called it the “salvation of circumstances.” In more pedestrian fashion, world footballas opposed to American footballhas the expression “echar balones fuera” [to kick the ball out of the field when you are playing defensively]. Some of this defense is implied in this “Afghanistanism” that Hedges is happy to violate in his latest book. Yet in another way: Think also of the gossip structure in which X is talking to Y about the missing third party Z, who is never allowed to join in the conversation.

X and Y thus team up precisely in the condition of institutional subordination, if not repudiation of the location of Z violently put “outside.” This is bureaucratic politics 101 that precisely cuts across eloquent discourse, experience and care. This is the society of customer service and controlled environments of “liberal” ideology in which the “final solution” is the one in which “the customer is always right.” Some of this structural manufacture of controlled environments decorated with thick silence is also violated by our social commentator. Death of the Liberal Class tells you that here everything is not sunny weather and that it cannot be silent not unlike the loud mess out there and any fabricated cheerfulness of any light mood is effectively destroyed.

 

My theoretical atheism is finally willing to reconsider Hedges’ religiosity for the main reason that it is an uncomfortable variety that does not fall into the cultural-diversity or multi-faith modalities that you get to see in some “liberal” campuses out there that will do the impossible to march quietly through the tulips not to ever touch the stalks of any foreign policy. It is not what you get to see on mass media or in preaching pulpits. Hedges’s gesture is that of apostasy towards liberalism: he publicly repudiates the official social faith of the land that no longer sustains the belief system of the social body. He finds refuge in the anti-war activism of Daniel Berrigan, the 1918 writings of Karl Barth (87) and the dissidence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (206). The admired French theorist Paul Virilio makes identical gesture of intellectual tribute in relation to the martyr of Nazi barbarity. Mind you: this type of religiosity is anti-establishment in moments of extremity that may be coming our way sooner rather than later. The  historical parallel of the religious disposition of both respectable authors is worthy of critical attention, particularly when other spaces are missing in action (Jameson, for once, wants cultural studies to reconsider some of the insights of Hegel about religion). It must be the badness of the global historical situation that prevents easy dismissals of superstitious belief systems. In closing, I wish to remember the good anecdote of sharing a good seat in a theater production in the big city, a Theater-of-the-Absurd play that was made dance-friendly and slapstick, more hand-clapping and light, more Seinfield, than anguish in-the-bone and world-war angst, more chatter than silence, and it is true that New York audiences do not flock to witness dark moods on the stage, and the polished neighbor sitting next to me admitted that he has reached a certain age at which he is not willing to put up with that unbearable lightness of being, theatrical or otherwise, in silence any longer because there are moments in life that matter a thought and a feeling of consequence. What can we say about the excess of your individuality, your historical and collective life? Death of the Liberal Class helps us go in the right direction, towards the pursuit of knowledge of social consequence with a fitting mood of concern, if not foreboding and anger. And this is a meaningful gift by a native son I would personally welcome, and pass along, with or without the holidays. 

 

Any comments? Get in touch, fherrero@oberlin.edu, fgh2173@gmail.com

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