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Friday, March 25, 2011

Do You Call Yourself a Liberal? Here's a Book You Should Not Miss

Yes, it snowed! Wednesday was a snow day all over Leelanau County, with an accumulation of well over a foot between bedtime on Tuesday and noon on Wednesday. It was good to stay home doing laundry, baking brownies, reading and writing and watching to see if the plow had come yet. I'm starting this post with the weather news because the title of my last seemed to promise an image and then didn't include one. These pictures are from Wednesday at home (above) and Thursday in Northport (below).

But now, on to the book of the day.

The liberal church, the press, universities, culture, labor and the Democratic Party have all failed us, says Chris Hedges. These institutions continue to speak in the rhetoric of liberal values but have sold out to--and now act in--alliances that have turned them into collaborators with the corporate state and the enemies of liberal values. The strength of Chris Hedges’s Death of the Liberal Class (NY: Nation Books, 2010) is in the evidence he puts forth and the fearless conclusions he draws from that evidence. The weakness is his tendency to reiterate, at unnecessary length, claim statements emphasizing blame and predicting further disasters. I found his argument convincing but suspect that many, some of whom might otherwise have been convinced, will dismiss his book because the author’s passion leads him to go on and on and on.

That’s a very general assessment. On the technical side, there is a problem with the index, obviously constructed before the final version of the text. For example, a reader sent to page 16 by the index must look to page 15 for the desired content. Very annoying.

The foregoing caveats are not to keep you away from the book, only to warn you that you shouldn’t look for a “smooth ride.” Nor is it escape reading. If, however, you care about the future of your country and the world and are not afraid to have your most cherished liberal beliefs challenged, Death of the Liberal Class is must reading.

When Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA, I started having serious doubts, but I was only disappointed in Clinton, not in the Democratic Party. It didn't occur to me to be disappointed in the party--and what alternative was there for anyone who believes in a role for government? When John Kerry lost, I tried to think it might be for the best, since he would have inherited an impossible situation. Better, I thought, to let Bush flounder for another four years until it’s obvious that a party pushing him to the White House doesn’t deserve to stay there. So then, yes, I was hopeful with Barack Obama—voted for him, was thrilled that he won the election, felt pride in my country. Now? Well, you?

Do you wonder about the eclipse of Ralph Nader, and do you think he brought it on himself? What do you think of “free trade” agreements, sold to us on trust with the specious argument that “globalization is inevitable”? (Death is inevitable, I kept reminding people who gave me that reply, but does that mean we should commit suicide today?) Do you feel that loving your country requires you to give allegiance to a foreign policy of permanent warfare? If you were raised as a Christian, does present-day Christianity seem strangely different from what you remember as a child? Can you think of a single arena of American life that has not been invaded by corporate culture?

Colleges and universities are run on a “business” model, more and more prisons and military roles “privatized,” and who thinks even to question these days the idea that hospitals should be run for profit? The churches with the fastest-growing congregations are the ones preaching the gospel of money, the idea that God wants you to be rich. Hedges began with an investigation into print media, the publishing world, but when his first publisher (Knopf) objected to some of the author’s “negative” views, he took his book elsewhere and expanded it to cover pretty much all of American life and the ways that liberalism has been watered down by liberals themselves so that it can no longer oppose the erosion of liberal values.

Here are some glimpses into the book, which I hope you will buy and read in its entirety.
The tragedy of the liberal class and the institutions it controls is that it succumbed to opportunism and finally to fear. It abrogated its moral role. It did not defy corporate abuse when it had the chance. It exiled those within its ranks who did. And the defanging of the liberal class not only removed all barriers to neofeudalism and corporate abuse but also insured that the liberal class will, in its turn, be swept aside.
p. 139

The mechanisms of control, which usually work to maintain a high level of fear among the populace, have produced, despite these admissions of failure [banking crises], the “patriotic” citizen, plagued by job losses, bankrupted by medical bills, foreclosed on his or her house, and worried about possible terrorist attacks. In this historical vacuum, the “patriotic” citizen clings to the privilege of being a patriot....
p. 154

For an introduction to the book from the author himself, see this eloquent and compelling video.

The video serves as a preview of the argument presented in the book. I have not presented that argument here. I could not hope to do Hedges justice, and his book deserves attention.


Dawn said...

First of all, your snow is prettier than ours. Second..yumm...brownies!....third...I met Ralph Nader a year ago in a meeting and he might have brought about his demise himself...he was certainly squirrely in the meeting, though he was on our side...fourth..I'd like to read the book but I'm exhausted. But I'll add it to my "to be read" list.

P. J. Grath said...

Our snow is beautiful, and it's staying beautiful because--it's so COLD here! Zero degrees this morning, up in the 20s today, and headed down for zero again overnight.

I hope you will read the book, Dawn. It's my mission (well, one of my missions) to get as many people reading it as possible.

(Hi, Katie!)

dmarks said...

I'm all for free trade, which leaves such trading decisions to the people instead of to a few ruling elites.

I'm reminded of the small "fair trade" store in Traverse City in the alley behind Union Street. It's not there now, but the owner was once railing (in Northern Express?) about how awful free trade was.

However, every one of their "fair trade" goods would not have been on the shelves if not for free trade... which gave people like the owners the ability to do their "fair trade" commerce in the first place.

P. J. Grath said...

I’ve seen those little fair trade stores in other towns, too. There was one in Champaign, Illinois, when I was in grad school. The goods for sale are crafts, such as carved wood, pottery or weavings.

The large so-called “free trade” agreements have mostly to do with commodities—i.e., food, grains, metals. Let’s say that you, dmarks, are the prince of a very small country with a single cash export. It could be bananas, or it could be wine bottle corks. Your national cash economy depends on exporting this product; at the same time your people are otherwise self-sufficient, because they raise chickens and goats and cows and plant vegetables that they sell to one another at the Saturday market. Now suppose your country must sign an international agreement in order to continue to have foreign markets for its cash export. In return, some large, unnamed “most powerful country in the world” says that it is you are “impeding free trade” by not allowing their much cheaper food into your country. In floods the cheap food, much cheaper than the people of your country can afford to grow or raise. Now your people can no longer to afford to live on their small farms, but there is no other work for them, and in come the multinational companies with factories, surrounded by barbed wire, where your people can work for less than a living wage. Add to it that the “cheap” foreign food they are now hard pressed to afford came from countries that subsidized these gluts on the market, produced by giant growers that had forced small growers off the land there, too. This is coercion, at home and abroad, but it is given the label “free.” Orwell, anyone?

Anyone in favor of free trade should be against coercive and unfair agreements masquerading under the name.

dmarks said...

" not allowing their much cheaper food into your country....countries that subsidized these gluts on the market..."

Well, I don't give the label "Free" to that. While NAFTA certainly was not entirely free, it did remove a lot of this.

"where your people can work for less than a living wage"

Which is a different subject. What a "living wage" varies wildly dependinng on someone's life situation. I'd rather people be paid for the value of the work, than to have a business pay everyone a different amount, based on whatever their living wage is. That makes a business into a welfare agency, giving mostly unearned handouts. I'd rather have the government hand out the welfare

P. J. Grath said...

You’d have to explain to me very carefully and in detail how you think NAFTA increased market freedom, dmarks. Also, for whom? As for living wages, in the scenario I’ve sketched people were making a living in your country prior to losing their cash export and having to import cash jobs, and while that may be a “different subject,” these different subjects have a way of bleeding into each other in the real world, where the solution to one problem for one group always creates new problems and usually for a different group.

It’s complicated, I agree. What total free market advocates--and there’s never been a totally free world market and never will be: someone with a big club is always calling the shots—don’t like to remember is that our country, when young, small and struggling, had protective tariffs to nurture fledgling home industries. Now that we’re the biggest, we cry “Unfair!” when other small, struggling countries try to protect their economies.

You’re right: it isn’t what you’d call free. But it’s what our national policies and neoconservative ideologues (sorry, I can’t buy them as conservatives) call free, and that’s a crying shame.

Sybil said...

An interesting discussion. A bit too deep for me. I sorta zone out :-)

I'm Canadian and dying to get rid of our current Conservative government and it's left of your Democratic gov't. :-)

Best wishes,

Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

P. J. Grath said...

Hello and welcome to Michigan, Sybil! I zone out myself from time to time when it comes to this heavy stuff, but if we don’t zone back in, if we lose track completely for too long, there’s not much hope of getting the kind of government we want, eh?

Right, left? I'd take one that hasn't been sold to the highest corporate bidders.