Chris Hedges’ Bleak House

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

Don’t Be A Nader, Ralph

So it seems that the Ralph Nader Sweepstakes are on. People are stating their case and placing their bets on who’s going to play official spoiler in this year’s mayoral election here in Toronto. And the stakes are quite high this time around, too. One bad wager, a slight miscalculation and you know who will become our next mayor…

Joe Pantalone supporters? Do you really want to be the blame for a Rob Ford victory?

A quick recap for those of you groggy from all that turkey tryptophan. Conventional wisdom has it that if Ralph Nader had not run his ridiculously impossible presidential campaign back in 2000 and siphoned off some progressive votes from Al Gore, George Bush would not have won the state of Florida (probably wouldn’t have even been the need for a recount and all those hanging chads etc.) and not become President of the United States. Hoo-rah! Probably no Iraq. No backsliding in terms of the environmental policies. No massive debt.

Ralph Nader and those who supported him have all that to answer for.

When asked afterwards if he regretted his role in bringing about the presidency of George W. Bush, Nader was unrepentant, saying that he saw no difference between the corporate owned entities that were the Democrat and Republican parties. After much sounds of indignant blustering and pointing of fingers at examples of just how bad George Bush was for the country, for the world, Nader is then written off as just some bitter old crank. Yesterday’s man, coasting on past glories and with no eye on the future.

Yet, the Democrats regained both the Senate and the House by 2006, and the White House in 2008 on a surge of hope for change and a massive reversal of the Bush era damage. Now in 2010, one might argue that not a whole lot has changed. A draw down of troops in Iraq hardly constitutes actually ending the war. There are more troops in Afghanistan, the battle has intensified and now become Obama’s war. Environmental agreements in Copenhagen were underwhelming as have been many of Obama’s domestic moves. He staved off a complete economic meltdown but has since been very timid in reworking the economy, leaving in place many of the culprits responsible for the crisis. His healthcare bill was but a shadow of what progressives hoped it would be.

So you might have to excuse Ralph Nader a little if he popped his head in to score himself an I Told You So. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. The only thing keeping that from truly being accurate is the Republican insistence on moving further and further into Crazytown.

A parallel between the situation in 2000 with the U.S. presidential election and our mayoral campaign of 2010 is a little iffy although that hasn’t stopped those petrified at the possibility of a Rob Ford win on October 25th from accusing anyone thinking of backing Joe Pantalone of Naderism. Firstly, as much as the Smithermaneers want to marginalize Pantalone the fact is, Pantalone isn’t some 3rd party, fringe candidate here. Of the four remaining leading contenders he is the only true progressive and thereby represents a huge swath of voters. He is hardly Ralph Nader in this equation.

And George? I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. I’ve read The Assault On Reason. And you’re no Al Gore, sir.

But if there is a Naderish role in our election, I’d nominate John Sewell for the position. Like Nader, politically speaking, Sewell is not a major force, representing a small if resolute portion of the voting public. His open endorsement of George Smitherman will hurt Pantalone but perhaps not as much as Joe Mihevic’s move into the Smitherman camp. If the election is really close, even the slightest support from more left of centre voters toward Smitherman could be enough to put him over the top.

The real Sewell-Nader comparison, however, comes with the reason that brought about Sewell’s endorsement of Smitherman. If elected, Smitherman has promised to establish a panel to examine “municipal government” reform that Sewell would head. “I think it’s a spectacular opportunity,” Sewell said. “I congratulate George on it. If that means I’m endorsing him because of it, so be it; that’s fine with me.”

Not a ringing thumbs-up certainly but it makes one wonder if John Sewell was so easily bought – the panel is an unpaid gig that Smitherman said shouldn’t cost more than a pot of coffee – where was the Pantalone team on this? Was municipal reform not high on the candidate’s list? If so, it suggests Pantalone is seriously out of step with progressive grassroots and shouldn’t be expecting a swell of support from them.

“If I can say one thing about Joe Pantalone,” [says Sewell], “he’s representing the position that Toronto’s working well right now. I don’t think a lot of people share that. It’s not an opinion I share.”

While I think that comment may be overly harsh and slightly out of context (Pantalone’s been making that claim in the face of unduly and at times outrageous attacks on how dysfunctional Toronto actually is, some even from the candidate Sewell’s now endorsing), it shouldn’t pass without notice and is reminiscent of Nader’s a plague on both their houses sentiment. If Joe Pantalone wants to take credit for the things that are going right in Toronto because he’s been a part of the process for 30 years, then he should accept the blame for that which isn’t working, and be out campaigning on what he would do as mayor to move forward and fix those things. That includes municipal reform. George Smitherman recognized it and seized the opportunity. Joe Pantalone didn’t.

Like Ralph Nader, John Sewell pulled back the curtain a little and our progressive candidate was shown to be somewhat lacking.

naderly submitted by Cityslikr