Chris Hedges began a recent column, in these days just prior to congressional elections by announcing:
“The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty.”
In a short column this comes off as little more than a “don’t vote for the evil of two lessers” sound bite, ready for easy rejection by the living dead liberal class intent on doing just that. But Hedges was drawing from the depth of his new book “The Death of the Liberal Class,” which demonstrates overwhelmingly that — regardless of how you will or should vote — the American liberal class is dead and gone. We who remain lack the institutions and the attitudes necessary to save the plutocrats from themselves, much as we might like to do so.
Hedges traces the dying of liberalism in the United States to World War I, which “consolidated state and corporate control over economic, political, cultural, and social affairs. It created mass culture, fostered through the consumer society the cult of the self, led the nation into an era of permanent war, and used fear and mass propaganda to cow citizens and silence independent and radical voices within the liberal class.” The illness worsened with World War II and McCarthyism, as the liberal class “became part of the corporate structure it should have been dismantling. It created an ideological vacuum on the left and ceded the language of rebellion to the far right.” Hedges opens his book with a personal story of a man rebelling against the current system whose language comes from the right, a phenomenon that simply must exist when the left is afraid of its own shadow.
Hedges quotes the Washington Post in 1918 on a trial that acquitted the leaders of a mob that lynched a German-American: “[I]n spite of the excesses, such as lynching, it is a beautiful and wholesome awakening of the interior of the country.” The country has never unawakened from militaristic madness, which the Post has never stopped promoting. But history did not have to go this way, and it was not always common or even imaginable in this country for newspapers, labor unions, academics, and progressive activist groups to line up on the side of war and corporatism. The horror of that situation is softened by the pretense that what these people and groups are doing is inevitable, realistic, rational, and “objective.”
The corporate mask of “objectivity” hides us from our responsibility to take positions on our own, not just in accordance with the demands of power. Hedges compares the way news was written about in 1834 and 1995:
“In 1834 the New York Sun reported on a woman whose husband came home drunk and abusive once too often. It wrote of the events in a manner that would be impossible in today’s cold, stripped-down reliance on fact: ‘As every sensible woman ought to do who is cursed with a drunken husband, she refused to have anything to do with him hereafter — and he was sent to the penitentiary.’ For comparison, here is the final sentence of a 1995 item from the Ann Arbor News, about a man who assaulted a prostitute after she refused to have sex with him: ‘Employees at the Ramada Inn Ann Arbor, 3750 Washtenaw Avenue, said the man and woman checked in around 2 a.m. Friday.'”
That the 1995 story sounds normal, professional, and appropriate to us ought to make us physically ill. Were we to realize what we’ve come to, we might not be able to stand it. Or we might be able to better push back, rebel, and work for a better world. That, not despair, is what Hedges advocates.