Tuesday, December 08, 2009

"Liberals are a useless lot": Chris Hedges and the left-wing attack on liberals, liberalism, and Barack Obama

I hardly think we liberals are "a useless lot," but I like Chris Hedges a lot, and those are his words, and I think it's important that we think critically about ourselves and that we welcome thoughtful criticism from thoughtful commentators -- including from the likes of Hedges, a self-defined socialist (and the author of some excellent books) who voted for Nader. And here's the rest of the opening paragraph of "Liberals Are Useless":

They talk about peace and do nothing to challenge our permanent war economy. They claim to support the working class, and vote for candidates that glibly defend the North American Free Trade Agreement. They insist they believe in welfare, the right to organize, universal health care and a host of other socially progressive causes, and will not risk stepping out of the mainstream to fight for them. The only talent they seem to possess is the ability to write abject, cloying letters to Barack Obama -- as if he reads them -- asking the president to come back to his "true" self. This sterile moral posturing, which is not only useless but humiliating, has made America's liberal class an object of public derision.

And here's some of what he has to say about Obama:

How can an organization with the oxymoronic title Progressives for Obama even exist? Liberal groups like these make political satire obsolete. Obama was and is a brand. He is a product of the Chicago political machine. He has been skillfully packaged as the new face of the corporate state. I don;t dislike Obama -- I would much rather listen to him than his smug and venal predecessor -- though I expected nothing but a continuation of the corporate rape of the country. And that is what he has delivered.

I do not necessarily reject all left-wing criticism of Obama, and I think this is partly right. Obama is certainly a continuation of a sort of Democratic-Republican consensus that has ruled America for a long, long time. Take his new Afghanistan policy, for example, which is a surge very much like Bush's in Iraq, or take his bailouts of the banks and the auto industry, both of which seek to prop up the corporatism at the core of the oligarchy at the core of socio-economic America. It's just more of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower, at the end of his presidency, warned -- and it is what Morris Berman analyzes so thoroughly in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. Those who thought Obama would be a transformational president were bound to be disappointed. He is a brilliant man, I believe, but he is no revolutionary, nor even much of a radical -- no matter the silly propaganda of the right. Socialism? Please. Obama is no socialist. He wants to make America stronger, to rescue it from the brink of collapse, not replace it with something else entirely different. That much has always been clear.

Still, while we can wish that Obama were transformational, and that he wouldn't continue certain key elements of the Bush-Cheney national security state, which was itself a continuation of a long history of national security policy in the U.S., and that he might remake the financial sector rather than just save it from itself by feeding some of its worst habits, and that he might actually do something about the fact that America is a dying empire in need of an historic overhaul, as massive debt continues to flow to China and other international creditors and as the economy sinks below the possibility of recovery to anything resembling its former glory, while we can wish all that, and more, it would be wrong to think that nothing meaningful has changed, and this is where Hedges, for all his scathing left-wing criticism, comes up well off the mark.

Some of us would like to see a single-payer health-care system in the U.S., but it is likely that whatever reform bill Congress ends up passing, with Obama's support, even without a robust public option, will be an historic overhaul of a sick and unjust system. At the very least, it will be the thin end of the wedge leading to further and more substantial reform down the road. And what of Obama's commitment to addressing the climate crisis, including yesterday's announcement that carbon emissions will be regulated even in the absence of federal legislation? Again, we can wish that Obama would push a more transformational approach to global warming, which would require a transformation of the U.S. economy, but he is limited by what is possible within the context of federal politics and the Constitution. What is clear, though, is that he is nothing like his predecessor on this issue, the most pressing of our time, and he does seem genuinely committed to joining the international effort, as well as to changing U.S. energy policy broadly. And what of the re-engagement with the international community that has been one of the key priorities of the president's first year in office?

I do not disagree with this:

[H]ow about the refusal to restore habeas corpus, end torture in our offshore penal colonies, abolish George W. Bush’s secrecy laws or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of American citizens? The imperial projects and the corporate state have not altered under Obama. The state kills as ruthlessly and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury as rapaciously to enrich the corporate elite. It, too, bows before the conservative Israel lobby, refuses to enact serious environmental or health care reform, regulate Wall Street, end our relationship with private mercenary contractors or stop handing obscene sums of money, some $1 trillion a year, to the military and arms industry.

But I do disagree that Obama has simply been a continuation of Bush, that nothing has changed. Actually, a lot has changed, and there is the prospect of significant change to come, starting with health-care reform and continuing, hopefully, with climate legislation and energy reform. Yes, yes, there is much to criticize, and I do that, as many other liberals do, but it is important not to lose perspective, which I fear that Hedges has.

Hedges directs some of his most stinging criticism at "our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia," but he uses a broad brush that, once more, reflects a lack of perspective, a lack of nuance. There are many liberals who are very much like conservatives in their approval for the military-industrial consensus, yes, but liberals are not all part of some single-minded monolith. Really, liberals are all "cloying" when it comes to Obama? Hardly. Besides, liberals are very much at the center of the fight for health-care reform, the battle currently being waged up on Capitol Hill, and, while many of them may be looking for compromise rather than pushing a reform package that has no possibility of passing, such being the reality of things, it is simply wrong to claim that they aren't at all socially progressive. If you don't like the system, that's fine, but democracy in America is what it is -- both for better and for worse -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with working within the system to effect real, lasting change.

Like Nader, Hedges is just plain wrong that there is fundamentally no difference between Democrats and Republicans, between Obama and Bush, between liberals and conservatives. I'm sorry, but if that's what you think, you just don't have that much credibility -- and again, I really like Hedges otherwise.

Liberals aren't useless, they're fighting for some of the very things Hedges seems to support. They may not be as revolutionary as some left-wing progressives would wish, but they have been the driving force behind much of American history -- I would argue, behind most that has been good in American history -- and, contrary to the illiberal views of their critics on the left and right, they continue to be that even now. There are exceptions, of course, and liberals can be deeply critical of their own kind, and rightly so. Some liberals really do seem to have given up, and to have joined the ruling consensus -- we see that in the media all the time, where "liberals" seem like conservatives with a bit of a social conscience and nothing more -- but America's liberal class, and I'm not even sure what that means, or who supposedly belongs to it, is hardly an object of public derision any more than any other "class." And if it is, it's only because conservative anti-liberal propaganda, combined with similar condemnation from the left, has been so effective at making liberalism a dirty word.

Yes, we liberals could and should be doing a lot more, and a lot better, but there's no reason we shouldn't be proud of our accomplishments, encouraged by our successes, and dedicated to our principles. America needs liberals and liberalism more than ever.

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  • Playing the Nader card? You are pathetic. Everything Hedges said was true. But instead of using it as a moment of self reflection on how useless you are, you chose to try and critique something you can't even comprehend.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:39 AM  

  • First, it was Hedges who brought up Nader, not I.

    Second, if you actually read my post, you'll see that I'm quite sympathetic to the progressive critique of Obama. I even state my support for a transformational overhaul of the American economy, as well as a radical departure from current U.S. foreign and military policy.

    Third, what don't I comprehend? That some on the left see no difference between Bush and Obama, so blinded are they by ideology?

    Fourth, you're clearly an idiot. Hedges is a smart guy, and he makes some good points, but it's ridiculous to say that everything he wrote is right.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:07 PM  

  • Ah, well there's nothing like an anonymous troll that hangs around other people's blogs, writing things like "try and," wasting time on the office computer, calling someone -- anyone -- pathetic and useless from the safety of his little cubicle, pretending it's some chair of economics or political science at Harvard.

    It's amazing how many geniuses are out there, living the lives of losers.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 4:54 PM  

  • I like Hedges too, but it's not surprising that he would write what he did, given his affection for Ralph Nader and his dislike of the Dems.

    I'm a liberal and a Dem and I don't plan on changing any time soon, but the thing we have to recognize is that, while the Democrats are the majority, the liberals are not. The Dems in power are the same ones who began using the word "progressive" in order to get out from under the stigma of "liberal". They see us as one shot shy of socialists, and that's too bad because, as you say, the liberals are the ones who brought social order and fairness to this country.
    We've been the underdogs for a long time now and it's going to take a lot of hard work and organization to get us back where we have the power to make changes.
    I admit I've grown tired many times, but we just can't give up now. We have to get back to being proud of our liberal heritage--and we can start by telling people like Hedges to go bag it.
    We are the caretakers, the do-gooders, but we really are a disorganized lot.
    We have strong, articulate voices and we need to be shouting from the rooftops. I see signs of it--Rachel Maddow makes me proud to be a liberal--but we need to stop taking seriously those voices that would make us ashamed of who we are.
    We're working FOR our country, not against it. We need to remember that.

    By Blogger Ramona Grigg, at 9:42 PM  

  • the american positions of right and left, republican and democarat, are all so far right to begin with, the minor shading of difference in policies (guantanamo in Cuba,or guantanamo in illinois),are essentially meaningless. This is what i think hedges is trying to say, and he is correct.

    for a supposed liberal writer such as yourself to say there is progress because Obama may pass ANY health care bill, or that the environment is better because we pass ANY climate control treaty, or because we move a clearly illegal prison from one country to another is disingenuous, wrong headed and frankly narrow minded.

    such lame 'well at least its a start guys' only serves to deflect discussion and assuage dissent and most of all such actions as lauding a passing of ANY health care legislation serves only to obfuscate the issue: does the eviscerated healthcare plan now being further hollowed out in the Senate really mean progress? Is it not further empowering the insurance companies, and giving them further power? In what way does it help the poor? it doesn't much and in the few ways it does it also ensures the insurance companies will be further enriched in the process, paid for by the middle class and not the wealthy 5% of america, who coincidentally pay the lobbyists.

    with gitmo not a discussion about the subversion of US law and human rights and war crimes, but it gets reduced to whether we should move it and when.

    the system is broken. Minor tinkering is not what is needed. Obama dances still with thems that brung him. He does not have the stomach for real change, and in that sense he IS different than bush. He is weaker

    Bush was brave. He initiated his agenda, he pushed it through. He took the US from right to extreme far right. He redefined what the centre was so that 'liberal' writers such as yourself think obama is somewhat radical, somewhat risque.
    Obama has not reversed any of the fundamental swings to the right Bush initiated; he has halfheartedly attempted to slow some of the more egregious crimes, but has won only the silly battles and compromised or cave on all the important issues rather than taking a stand, as Bush did.

    If he would at least have the courage to go down fighting... but alas, he seems to just want to remain president and friends with all the people who are cutting off his balls.

    Say what you will of GW, and I think he is the worst president in US history, he stood up for what he was told to believe in. Obama? Not so much. and until people have stopped being lulled into false sense that some positive change is happening, the house will continue to burn, and the smiling faces will continue to steal everything that is not on fire

    a better article might be what exactly would it take for the country, the people other than the 5% at the top to actually wake up and see what is going on?

    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:54 PM  

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