Chris Hedges’ Bleak House

November 9, 2010

A commenter to a post from last week accused me of being “optimistic”. Downright Pollyannish compared to the likes of one Chris Hedges. Well, I never. Of all the nerve. I dwell in the darkness. No glass is full enough that I can’t see as half empty. Optimistic? How dare you, madam commenter!

Now, I am secure enough in my ignorance to admit that I wasn’t sure who this Chris Hedges was or anything about the book Death of the Liberal Class. A Google search followed and, well oh well, I have to admit that the commenter was absolutely correct in her assessment. I am a veritable Santa Claus, bringing joy and happiness to the wider world when put up against Chris Hedges. Where he’s seen fire and rain, I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.

In my defense, I have not spent any time whatsoever in the world’s war torn hotspots like El Salvador back in the day, the former Yugoslavia back in the day, northern Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s violent suppression of Shia and Kurdish rebels in 1991. I did not leave a high profile post at the New York Times after receiving a formal reprimand from the paper for my denunciation of the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq. So the opportunity to truly blacken my soul and shrivel my heart has not been offered up to me as it has Mr. Hedges. To such a consummate professional as he, years and 1st person experience combine to provide a dark view. Me? A mere dilettante, an armchair cynic.

So I bought me a copy of Mr. Hedges Death of the Liberal Class from a locally owned, independent bookstore and set down to reading it. Since I’m only a couple chapters in, this isn’t any sort of review but the premise of the book goes something like this: the liberal class, consisting of the media, academia, labour movement and moderate religious institutions, historically acted as the “safety valve” that fought for, at least, “incremental reform” in the face of the vested interests of the “power elite”. But with the rise of the “corporate state”, Mr. Hedges claims that “the liberal class has distorted its basic belief systems to support unfettered capitalism, the national security state, globalization, and staggering income inequalities.” In so doing, it has “relinquished its moral authority” and ceased speaking for the working and middles classes, helping feed the anger that’s given rise to such movements as the Tea Party (and, dare I say it? Rob Ford here in Toronto.)

A dust jacket synopsis to be sure and I bring it up because, despite Chris Hedges’ pedigree including a Pulitzer prize, such a position as he takes in this book will surely relegate him to the fringe bin. That place we put people who spout uncomfortable ideas and question the conventional wisdoms we as a society operate under. It already occurred when Hedges appeared on The Agenda a couple weeks back. During the debate segment of the show, fellow media liberal class member Tony (“The World’s Not Perfect But…”) Keller politely dismissed Hedges’ book treatise as too conspiratorial. Implicit in that argument is the sentiment, and where’s your tinfoil hat, Chrissie?

Why I find all this interesting enough to write about is that at the same time I was discovering Chris Hedges, in an unrelated matter I coincidentally encountered what is now referred to as the Powell Memo. Written in 1971 by Lewis Powell just a couple months before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, it was sent to Eugene Sydnor, a Chamber of Commerce mucky-muck, and outlined a battle plan for beating back the opponents of America and its free enterprise system. “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility. There always have been some who opposed the American system, and preferred socialism or some form of statism (communism or fascism). Also, there always have been critics of the system, whose criticism has been wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve rather than to subvert or destroy. But what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America. We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.

The irony of this memo is rich and the disengenuousness of it deep. Before assuming his position on the bench, Lewis Powell was a corporate lawyer whose firm represented various tobacco companies. Powell himself sat on the board of Phillip Morris. So yeah, the 60s were a bad time for businesses like tobacco (Damn you, 1963 Surgeon General’s Report!), as government slowly interceded in tying their hands in peddling their poisonous products and marketing them as ‘healthy alternatives’. Powell expresses special disdain for the likes of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and thought it high time for right thinking American business leaders to stand tall against the creeping insidiousness of anti-consumerism and environmentalism.

More interesting about the Powell memo (or at least, more relevant to this discussion) are the pages and pages written, targeting the culprits (**cough** Communists! **cough**) of said attack on the American way of life and the remedies to combat it. Campus, media and the pulpit. That there would be a huge overlap with Chris Hedges’ pillars of the liberal class. Academia, media and moderate religious institutions. So three decades ago influential business leaders targeted what they saw as opponents of free enterprise (“The threat to the enterprise system is not merely a matter of economics. It also is a threat to individual freedom”) and set out to reverse their influence.

Whether or not they succeeded in doing so is not the point of this post. Clearly writers like Chris Hedges think they did. But to dismiss his arguments purely on the grounds of being ‘conspiratorial’ as Tony Keller did is lazy and suspect. Mr. Hedges has earned his dim world view by engaging it on the ground. Those disagreeing with him based solely on the notion of his ideas being too fantastical really only serve to prove the point of his book. We purporting to be of the liberal class are our own worst enemies.

liberally submitted by Cityslikr


The Enthusiasm Gap

November 4, 2010

What exactly would it take to get what is essentially the other half of eligible voters out to cast a ballot?

I ask because in the past 10 days or so, we here in Toronto have participated in and born witness to a couple notable elections, let us call them. Hotly contested affairs with nasty slinging of mud and fundamental questions about the kind of government we want. Yet, only in and around 50% of those eligible to vote came out to do so.

Big increases from previous elections, you’ll say. A record number in post-amalgamated Toronto, nearly 53%, up about 14% from 2006. On Tuesday, just over 41% turned out, the highest for U.S. midterms since 1982.

Where was everybody else? If these two elections could not stir a massive majority of the population up and out of their La-Z-Boys or away from the gaming consoles, what will? In the States, there were candidates openly questioning Constitutional amendments. Here, it was a pitched battle between two diametrically opposed visions of the kind of city we want to live in. Nosing up on high drama, I might offer, and still, nearly 48% of those who could vote in Toronto chose not to. Almost 3 out of 5 Americans opted out of exercising their democratic right.

I lace up my empathy shoes and perform a tolerance tango in an attempt to understand what exactly de-motivates people from voting but come up empty. I’m so busy. I had to get the kids to cello practice. I work 3 jobs. Who has the time? My vote doesn’t really matter. Politicians, they’re all the same.

None of it washes. The political burdens of being a member of a 21st-century free society are far from heavy. Not much is asked of us. Showing up for even a couple hours if need be every other year or every 4th year is not really all that onerous. Hell, I’m not even asking for voters to be all that informed although it would help.

I pay taxes! How much more do you want from me?

That’s a commercial exchange, really. Money paid for services rendered. As our mayor-elect says, it’s all about respect (or not) for taxpayers. Voting is what a citizen does.

I took in Inside Job last night, a documentary about the financial meltdown that brought us to the current Great Recession. One of the take away messages I got from it was that our democracy has been hijacked by special interests, in this case the financial services industry. Money and influence in the form of political contributions and lobbyists constantly guts the will of the people, transforming government into nothing more than a tool of the wealthy and business.

Big surprise. So it is as it always has been. What’s one vote from one little person going to do to change that?

Probably nothing. But sitting at home when the opportunity arises for you to express an opinion will do nothing to alter anything either. Arguably, disengagement from the process only serves to encourage political lawlessness and disregard for well-being of the commonwealth. If you don’t care enough to bother to vote, why would those intent on bending democracy to do their bidding worry about the repercussions of their actions? Non-voters actively collaborate in the corruption of the system.

Those who chose not to vote (or forget or simply can’t be bothered) are as much enemies of the body-politic as those seeking to undermine it for their own gain. Societal parasites leaving the heavy lifting of democracy to their friends, family and neighbours who do find the time and inclination to cast a ballot. It’s nothing more than a big fuck you to everyone else trying to make this thing run right. Deciding not to vote doesn’t constitute a statement or political stance. It just signals to everyone that you simply don’t care enough to be slightly inconvenienced. It’s a mockery to all those coming before us who fought for the very right to do what you are now neglecting to do and to those throughout the world still struggling and dying for that right that you shrug off.

People shouldn’t need to be chided for not voting. No law should be necessary making it compulsory to vote. Nor should blame be laid at the feet our politicians or system for not engaging voters enough to get them to do what they should reflexively do as citizens. Voting is not merely a right. It is a responsibility. By shirking that responsibility, non-voters work in cahoots with the predators operating and scheming to undercut the democratic principles that differentiate us from the despotic regimes that deny the most basic of human rights.

If the only voting you take part in is that of Canadian Idol, there should be an exchange program to send you over for a spell in Iran or China or Myanmar (or any other place where voting really doesn’t matter) and bring us people who know what it’s like to exist without an opportunity to have a say in how the government works.

sanctimoniously submitted by Cityslikr