Chris Hedges and confusion (originally in 2011)

So, apparently, by accident I have started series on figures that are beloved by leftists, progressives, and liberals that I am deeply divided with myself about. Even in February of 2009, I found Hedge’s jeremiad tone to be more reactionary in attitude and elitist in rhetoric than reality really allows for. In his book Empire of Illusion, I thought he was essentially making a conservative argument that took an idealized form of the American past as a given. Historians at HNN agreed with me:

Again: the coarseness, even brutality, Hedges describes in modern popular culture is real and may even be growing in relative prominence. But most of the culture of any time and any place is mediocre at best, and if Hedges assumes that the viewers of pornographic movies or wrestling matches uncritically accept everything they’re shown as a transparent description of reality, he betrays a lack of respect for ordinary Americans not all that different from conservative critics of popular culture (like Jose Ortega y Gasset, also unselfconsciously invoked here) who are at least clear in their own minds about their contempt for the masses whose culture they decry.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Hedges’s critique of the academy is similarly ham-fisted.”Our elites replicate, in modern dress, the elaborate mannerisms and archaic forms of speech employed by calcified, corrupt, and dying aristocracies,” he writes.”They cannot grasp that truth is often relative. They base their decisions on established beliefs, such as the primacy of the unregulated market or globalization, which are accepted as unquestioned absolutes.” Maybe so. But most critics of university culture would say that if there is one thing that characterizes academic life in the humanities, whose influence he rightly notes is shrinking, it is skepticism about the market economy and a doctrinaire insistence on the constructed nature of reality, a form of relativism that Hedges also decries (indeed he’s quite bitter about the state of the humanities on this and other counts). He also manages to lump together the oft-commented upon narcissism of our contemporary meritocratic elite of Ivy-League universities with the old-boy network of George W. Bush — a conflation of two admittedly unattractive, but hardly interchangeable, demographic segments

Hedges is a polemical writer and some hyperbole can be allowed him, but reading his Truthdig columns for four years indicate that this is his pattern. Take this one from August 29 of this year:

We have begun the election march of the trolls. They have crawled out of the sewers of public relations firms, polling organizations, the commercial media, the two corporate political parties and elected office to fill the airwaves with inanities and absurdities until the final inanity—the 2012 presidential election. Journalists, whose role has been reduced to purveyors of court gossip, whether on Fox or MSNBC, descend in swarms to report pseudo-events such as the Ames straw poll, where it costs $30 to cast a ballot. And then, almost immediately, they blithely inform us that the Iowa poll is meaningless now that Rick Perry has entered the race. The liberal trolls, as they do in every election cycle, are beating their little chests about the perfidiousness of the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. It is a gesture performed not to effect change but to burnish their credentials as moralists. They know, as do we, that they will trot obediently into the voting booth in 2012 to do as they are told. And everywhere the pulse of the nation is being assiduously monitored through polls and focus groups, not because our opinions matter, but because our troll candidates understand that by parroting back to us our own viewpoints they can continue to spend their days lapping up corporate money with other trolls in the two houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and television studios where they chat with troll celebrity journalists.

It’s not even that I disagree with him–although I don’t think decrying how money is worse really understands the situation. This has always been part of the American electoral system, its just moved from illicit to explicit. It’s just Hedges knows way more about how to write with spleen than with either a systemic answer or a focused historical critique. It’s the polemic of the bile and the anecdote. Agitprop, reactionary agitprop even, that missed some lost notion of the center-left in America.

Let’s look at this one from December of last year:

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.

We stand naked and defenseless? What exactly is your point, Mr. Hedges if it is already too late, which you seem to think it is. Furthermore, why are you so focused on culture as if it trumps material conditions?


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