Saving Liberals from Chris Hedges

Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges (2010)
Reviewed by Patrick McEvoy-Halston
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Saving Liberals from Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges, in Death of the Liberal Class, ostensibly isn’t wishing the liberal class to die – he’s simply demarcating it as deceased, or so he argues – but he certainly doesn’t have much good to say about it either, and as a DeMausian psychohistorian, I’m probably normally not much in mind to defend it myself.  He describes it, the liberal class – a composite of left-leaning artists, journalists, and academics:  lefty intellectuals – as if it entrance to it now requires abdicating anything that meaningfully defined liberals as liberal in the first place.  You have to agree to no longer serve, to betray, the people, their best interests, and effectively end up sycophants to the mandarin corporate ruling class.  And to see my sort of psychohistory at all accepted within academia right now, I would likely have to see it especially emphasize the destructive aspects of patriarchy, how it afflicts women; I would have to see it value all periods of history, applauding any acute psychohistorical study, whether it concern Ancient Greeks or modern times; and I would have to see it adopt the academic tone and focus tightly on subject matter, thanking friends and loving support “for making our work possible” but otherwise keeping our personal life, and the personal—out.  And this would mean full disrespect of the remarkable truth that patriarchy, though indeed now retrograde, was once significant psychogenic evolution—people moving up the scale.  It would mean implicitly slighting the fact that evolution of the old kind, gradual betterment of people through time, is real, that the further you go into the past the more primitive the people you are dealing with are, making deeper descent into history an increasingly more harrowing descent that at some point must stop you into bluntly asking yourself why you were so eager to climb down in the first place?  It would mean betraying our awareness that our families didn’t just give us the support we needed but likely determined exactly what we’re up to in this reified realm of scholarship, and that the measured, neutral, reason-clearly-in-charge-here voice usually shows signs of its being an older psychoclass innovation.  It would mean betraying what I ought to love, degrading myself, ostensibly too, from heights to lows, knight to accomplice, elf to forlorn orc.  Nevertheless, if I am true to what I’ve either learned or confirmed from exploring DeMausian psychohistory, I’m not about to judge Hedges my peer; and am in fact trying to use the book to help keep faith in the same liberal establishment which treats the sort of psychological ideas so precious to us so very warily.

Hedges holds that those who believe in human perfectibility are ruinous to the maintenance of the best that human beings can actually hope to achieve.  His sort of liberals – the classic ones – born in the 17th century and who experienced their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th, were perfectly clear-headed, however, in that they had a skeptical attitude towards human beings, believed that though conditions on earth could be improved it’s never going to be made a utopia—for people are constituted so that they cannot be made all good.  They guarded against parts running rampant over wholes, in particular, private interests and self-serving passions over – respectively – the structuring of society and overall bent of mind.  The mind was best constituted with reason checking passions; and society, with multifarious interests and independent viewpoints having to contend, indeed, often highly combatively, with one another.  The high-times of American society – still mostly decentralized, with regions and interests fruitfully engaged yet still clearly separate – had this, but was sundered of it rapidly once independence of mind, independence in general, was made to seem injurious, traitorous, to hope of victory in the First World War, and with liberals coming to see a fractious society as inconsistent with their new view of human beings as perfectible and society as potentially harmonious.  The state concentrated, opinion concentrated and “narrowed,” at the same time as liberals came to see concentrated power as necessary to disseminate their message of human perfectibility and the subconscious-targeted manipulations required to unleash it in the mass (62-63, 101-103).  The end result, according to Hedges, was of course not perfection en masse, but rather mass degradation—people lost much of their Puritan inner guardedness, of guilt, and let themselves be ruled by their passions (101-103).  And from the 1980s on, liberals full-scale abandoned the public they had, with two notable exceptions, spent their time annihilating much of the dignity of, to competitively compete with one another for corporate support—only corporations, now having the public they always wanted, and apparently feeling less the need to keep liberals afloat “as a prop to keep the fiction of the democratic state alive” (25), soon started abandoning the-now-useless them to their death knell.  What follows for all of us is surely the chaos of hypermasculine response to widespread powerlessness, unless somehow some brave someone sounds a clarion call that draws fallen liberals back amongst the people.

The DeMausian take on liberals in the 20th century can be reached simply by inversing everything Hedges says.  The altered liberals, the ones that came to genuinely hope for the elimination of all strife and who thought they saw its realization in the near future, weren’t fallen but rather progressed from their classic predecessors.  The classic liberals were notable, for being an advancement beyond their medieval/renaissance predecessors, and for representing a belief in what human beings were capable of (and deserved) that lead to considerable social reforms, but only, really, in the now very qualified way that patriarchy was an advancement over matriarchy:  It should look good to you—but only until you become familiar with what all succeeded it.  The changed liberals Hedges deplores were no-doubt members of a superior psychoclass, who stopped seeing strife and division as necessarily a good thing[1] for having experienced the truly better things issuing from out of their less divided, less “intrapsychically” stricken minds (DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, Creative Roots, 1982, 238).[2]  That they saw within human grasp, utopia, speaks strongly to their credit:  because it was only with this psychogenic advance in ambition that the inequalities and cruelties the classic liberals understood as not just ineradicable but, in full honesty, as actually desirable – for it well communicating the fact of human imperfectability and the limit of their potentially hubristic highest accomplishments – could in fact begin to be eradicated.   It would mean the reduction in size of a handy class of people to project all one’s anxiety-arousing desires into; but they were better prepared to handle this great but daunting leap forward as well.

The “growth” Hedges believes liberals sadly ended up leading the public into, and that he deems as only wholly regrettable mass lapsing to base drives, wasn’t on the contrary simply a beautiful thing.  The socializing-psychoclass dominated 20th century, with its erotic materialism, its “my soul would be quiet if only everyone could buy endless material goods” (DeMause, 237), certainly didn’t have it all figured out.  But still what they sought out in life was far from vile, and overall represented true growth in human ambition.  Indeed, it could at times simply be about joy in living, playful experimentation and expansion of self, not simply the quieting of the disquieted soul, one of the two periods Hedges applauds liberal participants within partook of in a variety of ways.  In fact, it was really generous true display of fidelity to the larger public’s best interests displayed by postwar liberals during the 60s and 70s that lead the public to, in effect, shortchange, to betray, its further fruition in the 80s.  Hedges regrets that, unlike their 30s ostensible counterparts, 60s liberals were of two parts when they would have been best served if composed of but one.  They were, wonderfully!, truly with the people and for conflict, for fighting vested interests in way of common cause and social improvement; but they were also, so sadly!, so ultimately doomingly!, for urging everyone to realize the American Dream – the spread of hedonism (even Martin Luther King, who, Hedges believes, compares poorly with his counterpart, Malcolm X [184-185]) – as well.  But the truth is that it was because they were so full of hedonistic impulse, or rather, of genuine, untainted love of themselves and the possibilities of life, that we know their social reforms were moved out of good—the former lead to the firm expectation of the other.  If reform was moved by a more staid, more degraded impulse it might have lead to the results of reform efforts in the 30s, which may in fact, if what reformers then mostly worked to do was confirm a public’s substitution of bland, mundane aspirations for previous exciting Jazz Age ones, have been about cementing the neutering of dreams than their partial realization, defining them and shutting them down until new life could begin after the war.  It would have made the 60s liberals their opposites, and only now kin to those who thrived in the 30s, their ostensible counterparts, when group phase had regressed gaspingly to Depressed from thrillingly Innovative.

DeMausians appreciate that if 80s on liberals actually came to despise ordinary people, this was, though still unfortunate, understandable, for ordinary people were responsible for the creation of an environment which would objectively make them seem less and less appealing.  For three decades, they, the ordinary people, those of lesser psychoclasses, were mostly in-sync with the less ordinary, the members of higher ones.  They permitted and engaged with the reforms, the expansions of experience, of pleasure, the more loved and evolved amongst them lead them onto, were allowed to lead them onto, owing to pretty much everyone feeling that some great mountain-world of happiness had been earned to partake in by the giant sacrifices endured through the Second World War and the two decades of dreariness previous to it.  Three decades—until the more regressed psychoclasses experienced in a way that could not temporarily be abated through war or recession but only through the more total sort of renouncement involved in what we understand as historical group phase change, their maternal alters chastising them for pleasing themselves too much, threatening upon them abandonment which spoke to them as death.[3]  Truly good things began to look mostly sinful, and bland things, more appropriate, if not exactly desirable, for the former speaking louder of guilty self-pleasure and the latter of its forsaking.  And they “decided” to help more fully demarcate themselves from those with self-respect by bonding themselves to the likes of sludge-pile Limbaugh while innovation-prone liberals sought out refinement on the coasts, with Prada, with Armani.[4]  And what happened to the 80s psychoclasses that finally succumbed should be understood as incurring upon Chris Hedges right now.
            Hedges is now fully with the people.  He announces this fact, entrenchs it so that it is sunk into his every thereafter-moment in the text, by beginning his book with a vivid personal account of one suffering owing his being criminally forsaken:  people like him – specifically, one Ernest Logan Bell – are not only always on his mind but much closer than any time previous, his near proximity.  He makes clear he wasn’t always “here,” though, that before as an employee of the New York Times he existed within a highly seductive culture, daily-exposed to voices that baldly tempted sin but also heights fully and thrillingly aloof from pedestrian morality.  Exposed to the same, he lets Doug McGill, an employee of the Times for ten years, recount its essence:  “[I]f you keep writing good stories you will keep getting access to the CEO plus perks like lunches and home telephone numbers for future stories” (133); “I was beginning to get too used to having mayors and governors and CEOs call me up, as if I were a friend, and pay for my dinners and give me their press releases and have me describe them in glowing terms” (134).  But he, Hedges, found way to stick to his principles, something that ultimately lead to his being loudly booed at universities and coldly dismissed from the Times—badges he wears and prouds around in his book that serve, like warriors’ wounds, to announce his commitment away from himself, apart from his previous life which he had come to essentialize as soul-claiming and self-indulgent for so baldly proclaiming that it might be okay to claim something all for yourself, without even any tinge of morality to buttress or qualify it.  Given that all such are described as having to go through the same humiliations – and be clear, the humiliation rites he describes are not really to be understood as descriptions of what happens to those who balk establishment expectations but as markers required to delineate one as martyr-hero[5] – it leads to him being counted in his own mind within the same class of those, the real greats, who, for speaking inconvenient truths, incur sharp miniaturization in status and subsequent near-empty-cupboard levels of financial compensations.  It could us draw us to think of him along the lines of Chomsky, who comes up frequently in the text to serve as the lone hero who braved balking establishment consent we should all try to emulate, or of Michael Moore, who got booed and jeered at the Oscars for speaking off message, or of Ralph Nader, who drew upon himself a whole chatter-classes’ animosity for presuming the same could be institutionalized and perhaps one day even the norm; but perhaps because it is difficult to talk of these renowned figures and simply conjure up feelings of disavowal, to delineate the fate of those who speak truth to power he temporarily delimits our attention to the sad fate of mostly-unknown-to-us Finkelstein, who for “refus[ing] to back down” and “demolishing myths surrounding Israel” (151) incurred a life sentence of marginalization and a frozen income level of $15, 000 to $18, 000 a year.[6] 
Whatever actually develops with him, the-now-ever-increasingly-renown Hedges, he made his choices assuming they meant his following the martyr’s path:  this is the truth he will cling to, and you are not to question it!   If you indeed questioned how much his principled stand was mostly egoism, hoping to prompt him to question if his description of martyrs, with it involving “defiance and execution [that] condemns [the] [. . .] executioners” (206), likely had an aspect of relish to it that told the truer tale,[7] he’d probably ask you when the last time was you’d volunteered in a soup kitchen?  And after debasing you by suggesting how reluctant you are to do the least bit to close with the suffering – and note, it wouldn’t have mattered if you could recall a recent time you had, for he would understand it as merely show, an anxiety-ward, a “boutique” gesture – he’d follow through with more thunderous humiliation by asking you when the last time was you risked loss of life or career termination for a cause you believed in?[8]  Then he’d quickly slide past you for knowing for not simply assenting to him, guaranteed, you’re part of the amalgam of outraged left who seek to bring down people like him simply for the crime of showing up their own emptiness,[9] and are a complete waste of his further time.  You’re one of those he’s encountered time and time again who’ve left him with remembrances that have piled up in his mind so readily and appropriately as simply more heaps onto an already comically massive pile of degrade, it might draw him to laugh.  That is, one who “engage[s] in useless moral posturing that requires no sacrifice or commitment” (156),” is “childish” (194), has been “rendered impotent” (19), who has “nothing to offer but empty rhetoric” (9), possesses an “irrational lust for power and money that is leading to collective suicide” (194), is “passive” and only encourages “rot” (200), who “wallow[s] in the arcane world of departmental intrigue and academic gibberish” (126), is beholden to those “not endowed with decency or human compassion” (204), is “seduced by careerism” (142), is damningly “complicit in the rise of [. . .] oligarchy” (142), who “hide[s] [his] cowardice behind [his] cynicism” (205), who would applaud the aghast act of “shoving a health care bill down our throats” (27), who is “smarmy,” “fatuous,” oily,” “buffoonish, “ignorant,” a “parasite” and a “courtier” (190), and so on.[10]

I realize I could make either Chomsky or Nader (or even maybe my foremost hero, Paul Krugman) look bad through a selective massing of their quotes, but with them I would be sure to suggest, probably through an equally large counter, that they are still warm men who mean most everyone well—for they would be delighted if through their efforts more people became happier; I feel it in them, these hubristic leaders permitted to rise and draw us closer to the ideal during our last growth phase, through all the disgust and other-evisceration, however aplenty.  But though they’re his heroes, I judge this simply not so with depression-hefted Hedges, who’ll I’ll let be understood by these actually-not-so-selective quotations without attenuation for being someone who to me will only be satisfied when most people count amongst the humbled, not the happy.  I feel I might possibly get through to Chomsky or Nader in a way I never could with him; for with these two counter-evidence, proof of errors of observation or presumption, that could lead to more self-awareness, wouldn’t be abused into mere opportunity to cement a rigid course—something they were evidently primed to cripple and then assimilate within a pre-existing schema.  If Hedges, clearly under the rule of his maternal alter, obsessed as he is in seeing the neglectful and self-centered punished, let in information that unmistakably communicated to his subconscious fidelity to truth, at all times, truly above anything else, his alter would immediately understand the implications of it and remind him why he installed it in as his protector, his super-ego, in the first place.           
Even if his disposition, his emotional well being, his psychoclass, was equivalent to Chomsky’s and Nader’s, you’d still have to be really skilled to draw him to doubt, for each of these men believe they’ve already fully delineated what is unreal in this world and possess as heightened a sense of raw pure truth as is possible to achieve.  To us psychohistorians it may seem ritualistic, a bit too apropos, pre-determined, childishly simple and binary, that once you’ve come to be able to acutely diagnose the mistruths of those who hold power you end up inevitably finding such great virtue in those most afflicted by them, but nevertheless ordinary people cannot be understood by these men as other than noble-hearted John Bulls.  Perhaps one of the reasons for this incredible inability to consider them differently, more skeptically, is that they probably believe they have been so abundantly induced to think of them as ignoble by scorning liberal brethren, that surely long ago they engaged with its possibility in full—it’s simply to be presumed, and its simply on to long overdue redemption.  But with Hedges, at least, the primary explanation actually lies in his so coming to see suffering people as doing, simply with their suffering, something noble, as being noble, that their overall degradation as human beings can’t be seen.  Hedges and the multiple of leaders that will emerge during this depression will draw us so very close to the people’s suffering for the same reason “heroes” allowed to emerge in the Great Depression, such as John Steinbeck, did:  to confirm that people are doing as directed and making much of the rest of their lives about withering for previously having made it for so long about self-enrichment.[11]  They’ll weave romance around brutal suffering, cast a chilly spell that fully obfuscates but suffices to calm:  “All we expect ‘is’ the absolute basics, and for this we submit—Won’t Mother now you just let us be?”
I understand that my analysis looks, with its identification of Hedges as someone who has come to hate anything that smacks of true growth, to be aggressing to view the group he despises, contemporary liberals, as golden.  I don’t think they are, and so my start of the costs larger acceptance amongst them would currently require for DeMausians.  But I think more than just that their helping bulwark a society of “mak[ing] more money, meet[ing] new quotas, consum[ing] more products, and advanc[ing] careers” (200) is preferable to the payback and full-stop Hedges wants to get behind and the cleansed society he wants to help put in place, more than just that the “specialist[’]s master[y] [of] narrow, arcane subjects and disciplines” (115) sounds like far better bedding for the next growth phase to arise in than Hedge’s “righteous thunder” and “implo[sions]” (140) does, more than just their ostensibly typical belief that “if our repressions can be removed – by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist – then we can adjust ourselves to any situation” (Malcolm Crowley, quoted in Hedges, 101) sounds better for the future of psychohistory than Hedge’s disdain for self-esteem movements, for psychoanalysis proper, and the “preoccupation with the self” (111) does.  I think that as many of the highest psychoclass liberals watch their peers rapidly start sounding like Hedges (the online liberal magazine Salon, frequently accused of being too lifestyle focused and pointless, has, for example, recently relaunched itself as aggressively populist, encouraging readers to support its abandonment of fluff for the righteous fight by becoming “core” members), regressing into conflict-obsessed warriors akin to him, they will from being disturbed, rattled and alienated by their alien thunder become more cognizant of who truly are their natural peers, and psychohistorians will find themselves gifted through the mechanism of psychoclass migration and realignment with some very talented people to further their own studies—right now.  Liberals haven’t exactly been golden, but fidelity to them may help gift us with another golden age of psychohistorical studies, way before it was in fact due. 

[1] No doubt, also, a strong centralized state was less offensive to them owing to their experiencing more abatement of early placental smothering from their less needy, better assuaging, more-your-own-needs-concerned themselves-better-loved psychoclass mothers.

[2] This is not to say that unification during the period Hedges speaks of it largely arising – the First World War – wasn’t actually mostly for a short time simply a truly regrettable regression into growth panic-spurred group think, but that its ongoing continuation should be seen as owing to psychoclass innovation.  

[3] For the degree to which “death” is infused with feelings of annihilation incurred from maternal rejection, see of course Joseph Rheingolds’ The Mother, Anxiety, and Death (Little Brown, 1967).

[4] The 80s-on mass concentration of liberals to the coastal cities should be understood as a wisely informed psychoclass migration; unfortunately one that didn’t let itself be quite segregated enough.

[5] Or rather, hard-to-acquire prizes, that sparkle forth as if giant gushing gem-stones, which could draw upon him a charge of vanity that might stick if he doesn’t stop showing them to people, and put them down for awhile.

[6] As opposed to those professors we remember Hedges delineating for us at the beginning of the text, the ones apt to earn $180, 000, not $18 000, “so long as they refrain[ed] from overt political critiques” (10).

[7] Specifically, that executioners should properly be understood here really as patsies upon which one’s own martyrdom is exultantly executed.

[8] For, yes, to Hedges, what happened when he spoke unpopular truths on campuses make him, in essence, the soldier who took bullets for the crowd (he refers to himself as someone “inflicted [with] career wounds” [127])—showing each other their wounds, neither in his mind would trump the other:  I dare you to read this book and judge any different.

[9] About the liberal establishment’s reaction to Chomsky, Hedges writes, “He has consistently exposed their moral and intellectual posturing as a fraud. And this is why he is hated” (35-36).

[10] Presuming higher discourse than the like he’d encounter on Fox News, after having previously been asked by Kevin O’Leary if he was a “left-wing nutbar” on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) interview show, the “Lange & O’Leary Exchange” (Oct. 6, 2011), a disgusted Hedges snorted, “it’ll be the last time,” after at the end being thanked for appearing.  One wonders how less offensive Hedges’ own scornful 3-word encapsulation of the liberal class would be – and if something likely, like “fetid, cowardly, sycophants,” if this would be something he’d hesitate to say on a respected stage? 

[11] Though Hedges sees Steinbeck as noteworthy for raising a nation’s moral reach by balking mean stereotypes through his capacity to empathize, show skepticism, and his startling willingness to verify what was really going on amongst the destitute – showing in detail what was happening to them in material terms (138) – I agree with Morris Dickstein’s assessment of him in Dancing in the Dark (Norton, 2009) as instead someone who helped homogenize people into homo economicus, who played to preferences at the price of the real, who couldn’t empathize with those he closed in with enough to not mistake them for possessing inner resources sufficient to power heroic endurance simply impossible for people so stricken to be able to possess (140), and who cursed a Depression generation by helping cement it with an “apotheosis of the real, the material, with [a] [. . .] grave suspicion of the imagination” (107).


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