Frontier Psychiatrist

American Epitaph – A Review of Death of The Liberal Class

Posted on: May 19, 2011

America is an empire on its deathbed. We wage perpetual wars that profit corporations, bail out billionaires on Wall Street, and leave ordinary people poor and oppressed. We destroy our environment, eviscerate our health-care system, gut public education, segregate our cities, pack our prisons, and sign away our individual freedoms. President Barack Obama is not a beacon of hope, but a “Benetton” version of George W. Bush. We are slaves to a mass culture of illusion, narcissism, and idol worship, a hollow hoopla that dulls our intellect and numbs our social conscience. At this rate, we may be headed for serious social unrest followed by a totalitarian crackdown in the mode of fascist Italy, tsarist Russia, and Nazi Germany.

This grim outlook comes from The Death of the Liberal Class, the eighth and latest book by Chris Hedges, a Harvard seminarian turned journalist who has covered wars in Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia, and won a Pulitzer Prize for his terrorism coverage in The New York Times. His central premise is that the destruction of the country has been abetted by the complacency and collusion of the “liberal class,” the once vital and now irrelevant voices in schools, churches, the media, and the arts. If you call yourself a liberal, this book might make you burn with anger or squirm with shame.

As in his previous books, Hedges fuses reportage, essay, and memoir as he dissects how often people surrender critical thought and submit to destructive causes. In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), he argued war is a narcotic that promises a higher purpose to soldiers and citizens and gives states license to stifle dissent. In American Fascists (2006), he argued the Christian Right promises salvation bundled in a totalitarian model of exclusion, greed, and hatred. In Empire of Illusion (2008), he cataloged the lies that Americans swallow in daily life, from reality television to pornography to political discourse. As in these books, The Death of the Liberal Class implores readers to challenge systems of power and entrenched modes of thought –or else suffer tyranny.

The Death of the Liberal Class begins with a profile of a 25-year-old unemployed Marine Corps veteran whom Hedges calls “the new face of resistance. He is young, at home in the culture of the military, deeply suspicious of the Federal Government, dismissive of the liberal class, unable to find work and angry.” For the next 216 pages, Hedges sketches a brisk history of iniquity, from World War I to the present day. Along the way, he argues that our government has consistently stifled dissent and that liberals have become gutless handmaidens for capitalism and a consumer-driven society.

Hedges has inherited his skepticism about the liberal elite from Dr. James Luther Adams, his ethics professors at Harvard Divinity School. In American Fascists, Hedges recalled how Adams, who had escaped the Nazis, warned that the liberal elite in Germany were “self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with the government and corporations…[and] unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age.” In The Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges reveals a more personal reason for his deep disappointment in the liberal establishment. After covering wars for The New York Times for 15 years, he lost his job after he publicly opposed the Iraq war and his editors questioned his journalistic objectivity.

Much of the historical material in The Death of the Liberal Class will feel familiar to anyone who has read Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. His heroes include icons of the Left such as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and Michael Moore, as well as more obscure figures. Similarly, his contemporary material should be familiar to anyone who follows the news with a critical eye and reads The Nation, Mother Jones, The New Yorker, and even The New York Times, without which, Hedges begrudgingly concedes, American journalism would be greatly diminished.

What makes the book most disarming is the final chapter in which Hedges spells out his apocalyptic vision of the future and call to action: “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.”  It’s too late, he says, to reverse our course. But there is still time for small acts of resistance.

I suspect that Hedges might hate Frontier Psychiatrist. He has no love for the Internet, which he says “has begun the final and perhaps the deadliest assault on the arts and intellectual inquiry.” He might note that FP has so far steered clear of politics or social issues, with the exception of a recent piece on the death of bin Laden and another about the travails of Michigan. He might call our coverage of the arts, food, beverages, and urban culture a celebration of consumerism. He might accuse our music coverage of the elitist ethos he sees in museums and galleries, Ultimately, and perhaps most damning, he might label our editors, writers, and readers as members of the irrelevant liberal elite.

Then again, Hedges might appreciate Frontier Psychiatrist as a labor of love, an effort by friends to share their tastes with the world, a counterweight to the mainstream media. He might value the community we have built among writers and readers.  He might value our commitment to the written word, which he sees as under assault by the culture of the image,. Above all, he might value our commitment to the arts, which he says “will be the bulwarks that separate those who remain human from those who become savages.”

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.


6 Responses to "American Epitaph – A Review of Death of The Liberal Class"

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges and The Pale King by David Foster […]

[…] is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed Eaarth: Life on a Tough New Planet, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed Eaarth, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. His first girlfriend’s name started with the letter […]

[…] Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include Incognito, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. His review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Life on a Tough New Planet was […]

[…] Psychiatrist. His book reviews for FP include The Central Park Five, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. He studied Japanese in college and worked in Tokyo for a summer. He has […]

[…] Chris Hedges, The Death of the Liberal Class […]

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