Monthly Archives: February 2009

Is Chris Hedges addicted to overstating the point?

For a disclaimer, despite the screed about the New Atheists that Chris Hedges wrote last year (a book that I think is about half brilliant and half completely idiotic), I like Hedges work.   He’s done great work on understand Middle East conflicts and the development of fundamentalist Protestant thought in the United States.

Still, Hedges recent article for Truthdig, actually makes James Howard Kunstler seem optimistic about American society:

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.

How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won’t have to wait long to find out.

Let’s break these claims and rhetorical questions down.   The very first one seems questionable:

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real

Really, Mr. Hedges?  No period in American history?  Not in the Great Depression where fascism was not discredited and seriously considered by groups in both the American right and the American left?  Or in the Cold War where we were actually in a true existential thread of nuclear annihilation?   Or right after the revolutionary war when there were elements of the American populous willing to make General George Washington a king?

Next point:

Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions?

I agree with this question and its implied best answer, but the tone of this article is NOT one of the sober and rational.   You don’t convince people to be sober and rational by scaring the living shit out of them.

Moving on to the next point:

There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader, rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most, intellectually and morally useless.

I read lots of Chomsky and Wolin in college, Mr. Hedges.  Again, you are overstating an otherwise valid point.   I am huge fans of most of the people listed above, even though you wouldn’t have a coherent political philosophy from reading them.  Bacevich being a conservative, and the rest being less technocratically inclined progressives and moderate socialists.

Mr. Hedges account of his interview with Dr. Wolin is very interesting.  I think we should read it and take it seriously.  Wolin has fallen out of favor in recent years, but his thoughts shouldn’t be overlooked.  Yet I almost DIDN’T read it because the fever pitch of Hedges’ rhetoric.

Here’s the key point:

Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. He said that without “radical and drastic remedies” the response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge “expansion of government power.”

“Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic consciousness,” he said. “The political system and its operatives will not be constrained by popular discontent or uprisings.”

Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?

The fact of demagogues from the right may be odd right now since we just seemingly moved away from it.   I think the current flavor of the Christian right is in the decline, but we may see stronger demagogues coming out of the political center if our current politics is any indication.

“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”

I think Dr. Wolin’s point here is very well-taken.   However, these people were not on the evangelical right.  Huey Long was a populist as were elements of the Klan.   My thoughts here are simple: Dr. Wolin has already pointed out that Hedges was overstating the uniqueness of the current danger here by showing a comparison to the 1930s.

However, Dr. Wolin makes a lot of points I agree with despite Hedges sensational and more than slightly demagogic set-up to the interview.

“I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative,” he went on. “This country once prided itself on its experimentation and flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the advanced countries.”

“The left is amorphous,” he said. “I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, except for Nader’s efforts, we don’t have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”


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