Postmortem: Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist Chris Hedges on Death of the Liberal Class
Robin Lindley is a Seattle attorney and writer. His articles have appeared in Real Change, Crosscut, History News Network, Washington Law & Politics, and others. A shorter version of this interview appeared in Seattle’s Real Change in January 2011.
The mainstream media largely ignored a recent story:
On Thursday, December 16, 2010, police arrested 131 anti-war activists outside the White House at a nonviolent demonstration led by Veterans for Peace to protest the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Among those arrested were Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges.
Hedges saw the snowy White House protest as an act of hope. He then said: “The normal mechanisms by which democratic participation are rendered possible in this country have been closed shut, and if we don’t do this, we die. This is what’s left of hope in this country.”
In his most recent book, Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges argues that the traditional channels for democratic participation, the five pillars of the liberal class—the press, universities, unions, liberal churches and the Democratic Party—have become corrupted and have permitted the rise of terrifying corporate-national security state that has dismantled protections for ordinary Americans. Hedges dates this demise to the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I and describes a state of perpetual war since then.
Hedges also wrote of the bestsellers American Fascists and Empire of Illusion, and National Book Critics Circle finalist for War Isa Force That Gives Us Meaning. He was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 as part of a team covering global terror. Hedges now is a Senior Fellow at The Nation Institute and a Lannan Literary Fellow. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University.
Hedges recently talked about his new book by telephone from the East Coast.
Lindley: In Death of the Liberal Class, you date a takeover by corporate power and a state of perpetual war to the era of Woodrow Wilson and World War I.
Hedges: That’s the seminal moment when the massive reconfiguration of American society begins.
The first system of modern mass propaganda was created during World War I under the Committee for Public Information headed by George Creel. It employed the understanding of mass psychology pioneered by Trotter, Le Bon and Freud that grasped that people are manipulated more effectively by appeals to emotion rather than fact or reason.
The Committee for Public Information had a news division that churned out pro-war stories; a speakers’ bureau and graphic artists [that] saturated the culture. It was very closely studied by Goebbels (Hitler’s propaganda minster]. It seduced most of the country, including a lot of the leading socialist intellectuals. Randolph Bourne and Jane Addams wrote quite movingly on how effective that propaganda was, and how few people were able to resist. Those who did resist were silenced with a cruder form of state control under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. That’s how publication of The Masses was shut down. Appeal to Reason, the fourth-highest circulation publication in the country, was allowed to publish but only if it continued its editorial policy in support of the war.
Once the war was over, the effective psychological manipulation continued, so the dreaded Hun was instantly replaced with the dreaded Red. The Espionage and Sedition Acts were used to deport Emma Goldman and others. The climate of fear, the search for the internal enemy, the constant witch hunts for the communist sympathizers never left American society.
Dwight MacDonald writes that World War I “was the rock on which progressive movements broke.” So we saw a dismantling of populist radical movements, and an internal purging within tradition liberal institutions. It was the radical movements that kept the liberals honest.
Those radical movements, certainly after the witch hunts of the 1950s, were destroyed, and the liberal institutions pushed out thousands of people—teachers, social workers, professors, journalists—who weren’t affiliated with the Communist party but had a moral autonomy that was unacceptable. With the rise of neo-liberalism, under Clinton in particular, these liberal institutions didn’t fight back or withered as effective counterweights to power.
Lindley: Your new book is an obituary not just for the liberal class but also for democracy.
Hedges: Of course. You can’t have a functioning democracy if liberal institutions have atrophied and died. This was something Dostoevsky understood: the breakdown of the liberal class propelled you into moral nihilism, which is what Notes from the Underground is about. He’s right, and this is the book of our time: The defeated dreamer who went to all of the Obama rallies and chanted “Yes We Can,” and was betrayed, and became cynical, and went underground, and realized only fools and idiots assumed power in this environment, and washed his hands of it all. Then you’re trapped, and that’s precisely what’s happening.
Lindley: What is the role of the liberal class in a democracy?
Hedges: Liberal institutions, when they function, provide a safety valve. They offer a mechanism within the formal structure of power by which the injustices and grievances of working and middle class members can be redressed. We saw this with the New Deal. The New Deal was not a product necessarily of Roosevelt but of very militant labor activity [such as] sit down strikes and Bonus Marchers.
Now these institutions have calcified to such an extent that the suffering visited on our dispossessed working class, much of it created by self-identified liberals such as Clinton, has nowhere to go but outside the formal channels of power. That’s what we’re seeing with movements like the Tea Party and militias that assault not only government as the enemy but attack the liberal class with some justification, because those self-identified liberals—people like Obama and Clinton—have betrayed core liberal values. The anger is not misplaced [because of] the hypocrisy of the liberal class.
Lindley: You wrote after the 2010 election that you see the Tea Party as a proto-fascist movement. Many view the Tea Party as buffoons, and you’ve mentioned that in Yugoslavia, Milosevic and his ilk were seen as buffoons before the war there in the 1990s, and in Weimar Germany before 1933, Hitler and his Nazis were seen as buffoons until Hitler’s sudden and unlikely rise to power.
Hedges: When a liberal class no longer functions, when normal mechanisms for change are shut down, then you vomit up figures like Slobodan Milosevic or Hitler. Tea Party figures provide an emotional consistency but their political agenda is utterly irrational. They want to dismantle government and yet don’t want to touch the military: the part of the government that consumes more than 50 percent of discretionary spending.
They have a great deal of rage, which is legitimate because they have been betrayed by an establishment figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And that rage is also effectively used by the demagogues to target weak scapegoats, which always happens, so they demonize Muslims [and] undocumented workers [and] funnel that rage away from Wall Street and the criminal class that manage our financial institutions.
Although we live in a period of relative stability, that will change if we don’t radically alter our economic and political policies, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which we’re borrowing from the Chinese at the absurd rate of two billion dollars per day to fund. If that doesn’t change, we’re playing with an implosion of our currency, and if that happens and we enter a period of instability or crisis, we’re no more immune from the effects of breakdown than were the Yugoslavs or the Germans or the Russians or anyone else. And then it becomes very frightening.
These buffoonish figures like Glenn Beck and others who are laughed off by the establishment find a following among people who feel quite correctly that they have been betrayed by the traditional institutions of power.
Lindley: I heard a brief mention of your December arrest with 130 other antiwar protesters on NPR, but otherwise it seems the mainstream media didn’t even note the demonstration.
Hedges: There’s been a constriction in the kinds of things covered and those who still do journalism are very circumspect about what and how they report. They are very deferential to corporate and state structures of power. And that means that events like [the demonstration] don’t get published.
Lindley: The mainstream media often sidesteps war, disease and poverty, while you focus on these difficult issues. Can you comment on the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Hedges: It’s not covered anymore, in the same way that poor people and a dispossessed working class have all become invisible. We are preoccupied with tawdry, running soap operas whether it’s John Edwards’ love child or Michael Jackson—I can’t even keep up with it. We’re distracted by the celluloid shadows on Plato’s cave while what’s left of our democratic state is dismantled and destroyed.
Lindley: You stress that ostensible liberals supported the Iraq War.
Hedges: The liberal class played its traditional function in the buildup to the war in that it argued the war was a necessary evil and defined themselves as reluctant hawks. That’s traditionally why the power elite tolerates the liberal class. They give a moral veneer to activities that, in this case, were clearly criminal. People like Michael Ignatieff, George Packer, David Remnick of The New Yorker, even figures like Frank Rich, all supported the war with a kind of anguish that gave the war a moral patina that it didn’t have. That’s what liberals traditionally do.
Lindley: You’re outspoken on portrayal of the poor and underclass in the media, as on The Jerry Springer Show.
Hedges: Yes, they’re figures of ridicule in the commercial media. The media propagates a message that corporations want, and there’s a belittling and mocking of the poor and celebration of wealth. A kind of cutthroat, rapacious capitalism is celebrated on reality television shows where you betray and manipulate and push aside your competitors for fleeting fame and money. These are sick values, but they’re disseminated through corporate media in almost every program you watch.
Lindley: Like journalist Jeremy Scahill, you see growing privatization of traditional government functions as part of a corporate class takeover.
Hedges: Yes, they’ve hollowed the state out from the inside, and now they’re gunning for Social Security. They’re parasitic. A corporation like Halliburton is a classic example. It is a creature of taxpayer money and its stock has quadrupled since the start of the war in Iraq, and yet most of its subsidiaries are set up in Dubai so they don’t have to pay taxes. Corporations are supranational: they’re quite happy to destroy the state as they’ve destroyed our manufacturing sector, to leech off the state in terms of sucking taxpayer money out of it. Goldman Sachs and Citibank and Wall Street investors have done [this], then refused to invest that money back into the country. That’s what has happened: a reconfiguring of American capitalism into a very frightening feudalism.
Lindley: You mention the press as a dying liberal institution. Why did you leave The New York Times?
Hedges: Because I was very outspoken against the Iraq War, and that became a public issue after I gave a commencement address at Rockford College that was picked up by Fox and all the trash cable shows. The Times responded by giving me a formal written reprimand saying that I could no longer speak about the war in Iraq. I had a choice: I could muzzle myself in service of my career, which I was unwilling to do, and I left the paper.
Lindley: What are your political beliefs?
Hedges: I believe in heavy taxation, heavy regulation. Without heavy government interference in a capitalist society, it descends into a mafia political system and a mafia economic system, which is pretty much what’s happened. I’m a European socialist, not a Marxist. And I’m not an anti-capitalist. I’m anti-corporate capitalism, and if you don’t set up huge barriers to protect against corporate capitalism, it becomes predatory and will destroy your country.
Lindley: You were trained as a minister. How does your training as a minister and experience as a journalist tie into the genesis of this book?
Hedges: Because I was trained in ethics I think I have a vocabulary that people who don’t have that training lack. I studied for many years systems of power and institutions and how they work and how moral decisions were made, which I think gives my writing a quality that people who don’t have that background often lack or struggle to express. And of course the journalism is key because I know how to report and how to find stuff out. It’s not brain surgery, but it takes a long time to be a good journalist. I think those two skills come together in my book and give it perhaps a unique quality that’s uncommon with that wedding of academic background coupled with the skills of reporting, which I did for twenty years, fifteen of them with The New York Times.
Lindley: You foresee not only the end of democracy but also the environmental ruin of civilization as we know it.
Hedges: Of course. The commodification of human beings, which is what corporations do, is matched by a commodification of the natural world. Nothing has an intrinsic value; everything is exploited for money or profit until exhaustion or collapse, and that’s why the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis.
Lindley: Your prognosis for American democracy is bleak, but you find hope in the stories of figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Nader, journalists Sydney Schanberg and I.F. Stone, historian Howard Zinn, and [Catholic social activist] Dorothy Day.
Hedges: Hope comes from physical actions: resistance or rebellion. It’s not going to come from placing our faith in bankrupt liberal institutions. All those people you mentioned are essentially American radicals who understood that. We don’t have a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has any power or influence. Labor unions are spent. Liberal churches are irrelevant. Universities and the press have been corporatized.
So it’s incumbent upon those of us who care about protecting what’s left of civil society to recognize that hope comes in physical acts of resistance. If we’re not willing to do that, hope is extinguished.
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james joseph butler - 2/20/2011
Telling the truth often makes people angry. However, I agree with you. Hedges was wrong to choose an ordinary college commencement speech to harangue ordinary oblivious Americans, who've spent a lifetime waiting to see their beautiful babies graduate, about their lack of attention to America's far flung empire.
Dale R Streeter - 2/16/2011
If you were there or heard the speech you would realize that Hedges made people angry not thoughtful. They were there to celebrate the accomplishments of their graduates, not listen to a political diatribe. Why should they? It was totally unreasonable and inappropriate of Hedges to berate a captive audience with his personal political views. By the way, the cheers were very few indeed.
james joseph butler - 2/15/2011
"Boos cheers, shouts, fog horns, and the like" is how the Rockford News describes the Hedges coda. Hedges made people think and you have a problem with that? God Bless mindlessness.
james joseph butler - 2/15/2011
Chris Hedges is angry because he's paying attention. He lives in the richest country yet our health care statistics are virtually the same as Cuba's apart from per capita expenditures. He's miffed that America President Obama and Sec of State Clinton thought Egypt's Mubarak wasn't authoritarian and was a friend of the family. He's ruffled that Goldman Sachs played both ends of the subprime game, the bonuses are better than ever, and the little people will find a way.
When you're trained as a minister, in the Western tradition, you aspire to the Golden Rule. In America Hedges sees Darwin not Jesus. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Michael Barton - 2/14/2011
Who let this guy in? Chris Hedges is not doing commentary; he's doing cartooning. His remarks are models of extremism, intolerance, and arrogance. The country has problems, of course. The question is, what's his problem?
Dale R Streeter - 2/14/2011
"Because I was very outspoken against the Iraq War, and that became a public issue after I gave a commencement address at Rockford College that was picked up by Fox and all the trash cable shows."
This is disingenuous. Mr. Hedges commencement speech at Rockford College was so egregious and extreme in its criticism of the administration that he was almost driven from the dais by the indignant audience. In fact his microphone was shut off for as time. His opinions are certainly his own and he has a right to express them, but it was obvious to all who were there that the views he expressed and the vociferousness he used to express them were generally thought to be inappropriate for the occasion. The parents and guests of the graduates (and perhaps some of them as well) were the ones who took offense. I don't actually recall much attention to this event on any news site, but I can't testify about every news report. However, his recollection of the event is self-serving.