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Trahison des clercs

By Michael J. Smith on Thursday October 28, 2010 03:09 PM

IOZ, whom I am finding increasingly indispensable, recently took a jab in passing at this rather remarkable essay from the pen of Chris Hedges:

The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions [which] abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years... The liberal class... failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault....
And so on at some length.

Now I love to see the liberals get beaten up, and Chris' language is suitably scathing. But there's something off about it.

Let's start with the very first sentence, about a "collapse of liberalism". No such thing happened. Liberals have not become less numerous, or less secure in their views, in the last 30 years.

Of course they have continued to serve, as they always have served, the structures of power which engendered and incubated a "liberal class" in the first place. But they have never abandoned the kindly pious hopes they have always cherished for nicer behavior on the part of those who wield power.

That the power-wielders paid no attention was hardly the liberals' fault; and the liberals quite properly responded to this indifference with redoubled sedulousness in reciting the Liturgy of Deploration, which is one of their important social functions.

The most curious thing about Hedges' piece is that he seems to believe there was a time when liberals called the shots, and that they somehow culpably dropped the ball. To mix a metaphor. But mixed or not, this story has no resemblance to reality. Hedges apparently thinks that the "liberal class" as such once had some agency:

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal.
The liberals "made reform possible"? This is utter nonsense. What happened was that the power-wielders became frightened enough of social upheaval to believe that reform was necessary -- to be rolled back, of course, as soon as the crisis passed.

Liberals thinking they made the New Deal possible is like the rooster thinking he made the sun rise; and blaming the liberals for the ascent of the Tea Party is, correspondingly, like blaming the rooster for the gathering darkness.

If the rooster had only crowed a little louder, then the sun would not have set.

Comments (51)

Mister, you just don't get it. It's reasonableness and econ-econ what gets the bosses nicelike.


Very good comrade.

Unless Mr. Hedges buys a copy of The Workers Vanguard now he should be relegated to the ranks of class collaborationists.

And when WE get into power, they will all be dealth with.

Liberals? What liberals? They're all "progressives" now. It's a new hip-hop-happinin' term which means, roughly translated, "chickenshit liberals."

I always enjoy Hedges, but agree that he's also somehow always building his castles on sand.

Personally, I think he's been thrashing around, trying to break out and start talking coherently and honestly about the overwhelming centrality of social class in America. At moments, he's a mere inch from reaching daylight.

But it's always a near miss, isn't it?

Perhaps he's just too well socialized to get past his own fears and cluttered concepts and assumptions on the topic. Witness the crocked pea-shooter of an idea at the heart of this latest drive-by: "the liberal class."

In a society that all but bans the c-word while allowing the reality of class power to dictate every major term of its lifeways, how does one imagine it might help to further bastardize "class" by reducing it to a label for a barely-existent political faction?


I once read a book called 'Blood Done Sign My Name,' which annoyed a lot of people by suggesting (among other things) that the peaceful protests for equality led by MLK and others had far less impact on both street-level & 'corporate' integration than did the increasing levels of racial violence in the early 70s. It was a very good book for a lot of reasons and, since I wasn't born in time to witness the actual events it described, I chose to trust its narrative.

So! I suppose you're probably right, depressing as that is to contemplate. I think we've probably all been reading a little too much Tolkienana, and not enough books like 'Blood.' (Especially me.)

Also, I guess "liberal class" = Lyndon Johnson? I keep bringing that up, but it's hard to think of any genuinely 'liberal' element of the American historical landscape that isn't traceable to Johnson. (Maybe public parks, I guess, and libraries, and all those nice solid concrete roads and bridges.)

I like parentheses!

The Depression is Great:

Also, I guess "liberal class" = Lyndon Johnson?

More like Rexford Tugwell, Henry Wallace, Thurman Arnold, and Harry Dexter White.


talk about indispensable

the word liberal is much like the word patriot

one can hardly imagine
the reality of it without that lynchpin word

my sense of a professional liberal ??

well not lyndon though i agree the term got its leprosy during his final years
lyndon was something better i think
a hard headed megalomaniac
with a dream of out doing FDR

when i think main frame cold war liberal
i think the hump

shown here with man of destiny
and fellow thousand lakes senator
eugene gilhooly



"increasing levels of racial violence"

that would be not the 70's

but the middle to late 60's

the legislation preceeded this wave of long hot summers
one might suggest
once passed or once in mid passage
this official aknowledgement
of historic wrongs
--along with the nam black draft --
a release of righteous indignation
in urban america
a period of raisin holy hell
that doubtless
accelerated the ramping up
of various equality programs

the 70's was more about
gathering white reaction
more the slowly built response
to the upp risings of the 64- to
at the latest 71 period


hedges strikes me as a socialist only because professional liberals aren't liberal enough for his conscience
and he blames the corporations for this

so off the corporations eh ??

yes a bald myopic
anal aggressive preachers boy humanist

gad zooks
in the last analysis he's in
a 20 year twit because
unlike professional liberals
chris truly believes
in the liberal catechism

the Dembots were just too damn weak
in the moral fiber department
his anti corporatism
is of the old flesh pot school of anathema
he has no remedy beyond
mental abolition of all things
limited liability
glass towered


OP: but the middle to late 60's
Yes, but the book was about racial violence in the South in the early 70s. It was a man’s autobiographical account of his memories of the local murder of a black man, and the ensuing race-based fallout. And I was saying that I chose to accept that author’s conclusion about the palpable change in race relations that occurred after MLK was killed — that the thing white voters and legislators were reacting to wasn’t the sudden urge to take the high road and recognize the equality of all American citizens, but the real fear that if they didn’t give at least some ground to the encroaching hordes of angry negroes, Bad Things Would Happen.

Possibly I shouldn’t have couched my comment in those terms? I wasn’t trying to comment on integration; I was aiming for the sad idea that the only thing powerful people really appear to react to is the threat that large numbers of malcontents present re: hurting them and/or taking their fancy stuff away, in one way or another.

I am sure every disparate element you mentioned in your comment had everything to do with the change that occurred in the 60s and early 70s — but, again, I was talking about a book.

The Depression is Great: But, wasn’t all that FDR stuff eventually dismantled? Mostly? And nearly all of his administration’s policy was a reaction to the Great Depression, wasn’t it? Whereas the Great Society legislation is still (sort of) churning out welfare checks and Medicaid premiums, and was conceived to ameliorate American poverty in general. Or, that’s what it said in the history books. (Or, at least, that’s what I remember reading in them. Your mileage may vary.)



as jeremiah's go
compare this creepy pulpit sing song
to that press conference
of the reverend wright
that led barry
before the cock crowed twice
to deny him thrice


i now see your point and its one woven deep in the fabirc of inter communal struggle that indseed prolly had its priime vintage in the very early 70's through out the south

Emma, my first reaction is what integration?

My second reaction is that it's a mistake to make the contrast your book makes, the Malcolm v. Martin schtick.

The Civil Rights Movement and the riots that both fed and drained it shattered Jim Crow, which permitted a small trickle-up of blacks into the middling strata.

But have you seen the racial wealth statistics? The incarceration trends? Have you engaged many white people in conversations about race and its place in America?

We'retalking intergration with a very small "i."


"wasn’t all that FDR stuff eventually dismantled"
all of new deal one got dismantled
but new deal two
social security
the national labor relations act
the fair employment act
these are still the basis of our industrial
inter class and social contract
the transfer system that went into high gear
during the recent contraction
is a new deal set up

johnson added medicare and medicaid



i for one take the liberal
notion of integration to in essence mean assimilation
and that clearly is not happening
we have ..again in my estimation
both a black and a chicano nation
co habitating on this settled territory
with equal national claims here
as the white nation

just as we have dozens of native nations
we have several settler nations
softening it to communities i submit
fails to register the profound depth
of these groups as cohesive peoples

ah there i go babbling

my weird unreconstructed
leninism and the national question

pure sect chat

next i'll be talking about dispersed versus compact nations
castes versus nations estates versus castes classes versus estates

like a pink polonius


But that's mighty seductive stuff, OP, and with good reason. Should we think of group X as a nation, or a caste? It may not be a question answerable with unquestioned certainty, but it's very enlightening to ask it.


its remarkable we haven't a modernized model of a caste eh ??

how a fully absorbed dispersed nation becomes like a caste

dare i mention to lenin the jews of russia
were a caste not a nation


We don't want to acknowledge that we still have castes. We'd rather think of these things as patches of color in the gorgeous mosaic, and celebrate them all under the rubric of "diversity."


But have you seen the racial wealth statistics? The incarceration trends? Have you engaged many white people in conversations about race and its place in America?
1. Yes, I read that last one that was published in the BBC feed (and probably other places, but I only read three straight newsfeeds) semi-thoroughly. It was horrifying. I didn't think things were anywhere near that awful. I was shocked.
2. I have listed to various Randy Newman songs.
3. Not if I can help it.

OP: I stand corrected! Or, sit. Rather.
The rest of that is quite literally actually really genuinely honest please too terrible to contemplate. I am kind of getting to a place where I can understand why Teabaggers seem to take glorious refuge in the absence of thought.





At moments, he's a mere inch from reaching daylight.

But it's always a near miss, isn't it?

Fuck yeah.


yes a bald myopic
anal aggressive preachers boy humanist...

unlike professional liberals
chris truly believes
in the liberal catechism

Fuck double yeah.


The self-styled "lone voice in the wilderness" who "bears moral witness" is good for something other than the grandiose exoneration of his own tortured conscience, like a little muckraking here, a little whistle-blowing there. That's nothing to be scoffed at. But the instant there's any kind of mass awakening, these characters are utterly dispensable -- and their rather self-important screeds during the interregnum pretty much have zilch to do with said awakening.

Much more central to cultural survival during the bleak years are sardonics -- and that's where IOZ and MJS come in -- rather than jeremiads.


My own intuition on Hedges leads me to agree with the consensus here: he hasn't quite gotten certain sentimental mythologies worked out of his system, and so his views on politics (and religion, and war) are very close to being right, but just incoherent enough to be sort of useless as a guide to the real world.

His constant inclusion of "the church" in his list of liberal institutions, for example, accords with the weird premise of "American Fascists", namely: that whatever lefty upper-middle-class mainline Protestant denomination he grew up in used to be the dominant religious persuasion in America before the conservative fundamentalists appeared out of nowhere in, like, 1994.

But I wonder sometimes if his religious background hasn't infected him with a basically hopeless view of the world: I mean, who uses the term "safety valve" approvingly in political discourse? It may be that he believes the world to be irredeemable, and suffering the unavoidable lot of the majority. If revolution never results in anything but temporary atrocity followed by more of the old oppression, then there's every reason to approve of a "liberal class" whose function is to act as a safety valve keeping the machinery of exploitation running smoothly.

That's where I think he's possibly being misread by MJS:

The liberals "made reform possible"? This is utter nonsense. What happened was that the power-wielders became frightened enough of social upheaval to believe that reform was necessary -- to be rolled back, of course, as soon as the crisis passed.

This doesn't, I think, contradict what Hedges is saying. The rulers sometimes need to perform certain acts through a proxy, in order to stay on-message. Good cop/bad cop etc. It seems clear to me that Hedges is positing the "liberal class" as the proxy -- the "safety valve" -- used for measures like the New Deal.


Looks like another case of Atticusfinchitis. I think they've got a cream for that now.

As I keep saying: Hedges won't remove that Donkey tattoo from his heart. Too painful a process, and he gets much existential warmth and tribal belonging from leaving it there.

Hedges is like that one dude you meet at a random party, cmes from money and privilege, and your first impression is that the dude actually has a conscience. The first impression arises because he knows all the right words to say to appear empathetic and holistic. But, when it comes to personal behavior, he's sailing on The Good Ship Empire every time it takes a voyage. Which it does daily.

He'll utter lukewarm condemnation of a few of the crew and occasionally the captain, but he won't rock the boat. He likes its creature comforts. Some evening, he may get to dine at the Captain's Table. So that's a worthy aim, eh?


"Much more central to cultural survival during the bleak years are sardonics ...rather than jeremiads"

before you wrote that i loved your comment

but you done went and wrote it
as if that's the choice

no thats only a self administered
arm chair bromide of a choice

putting aside the ascription of sardonic
to either of these two heros
of the independent left
messers I-pause and father euphues
neither of whom i suspect strives
to be unremittingly sardonic ...

well... to be positive first..

i heartily agree
preachers boys gibbering away
playing at social prophet
simulating in snit fit mode
righteous anger
and visions of judgement day
is a genre of caterwalling
to be shunned by all

indeed they and that screeching
get's us positively ..no where
but maybe half way thru
a dark and dull chamber's window night
before a glowering dawn

how some ever
'sardonics 'are no better maybe worse
as a pecularly niche type bromide
designed primarily
for the fully and finally
resigned to lifes inner nothingness

a flash of intemporate sarcasm now and agian
is one thing
as is
a studiously controled
simmering run of irony

but a certain self satisfied
aren't i just havinga grand old
black time of it here
in our case some broad side blast
filled with red queen facetiousness
tricked out
with higly wrought prose and pose
and complete
with virtual chopping block

my reaction??

cue the fart maker ...

the state of nihilism
with it's proper infestation
of wasting demons
is indeed
like a high time in hell itself

just another dirty final state
of a lost soul
a state of gaity
that winds down to horror loss
and remorse


"sentimental mythologies "
excellent phrase


mixing oxy and picador
i think this credo even if self serving in some deep way

"..believes the world to be irredeemable, and suffering the unavoidable lot of the majority. If revolution never results in anything but temporary atrocity followed by more of the old oppression, then there's every reason to approve of a "liberal class" whose function is to act as a safety valve keeping the machinery of exploitation running smoothly"

leads to this

"He'll utter lukewarm condemnation of a few of the crew and occasionally the captain, but he won't rock the boat"
whether or not he likes creature comfotrs or appears every day in sack cloth eats ashes and
beats his cock with a stick every night

convinced non violence convinced voluntarism
can produce not just mellow quietism
but anal agressive church lady crabing
as well as ....well...stridently sardonic



i suspect mjs is thinking more about the power plant of reform
its clearly not liberal ummph

its the sudden ubiquitous flare up
of serious masses in motion and in a "lets smash the fucker all up " mood
that doesn't seem
to have a self damping device
this as md points out has an aweful synergy with well organized refusals
like the mid 30's plant occupations
and those early 60's 'bamaland
we shall not be moveds

If it's producing it, then it must be producing it!


too filtch from scrooge

"have we not prousts enough"

and then there's ...me
just another manic friday mode

ugh !!!

death to all double domers
starting with
your's fraudulently here

plunge into the murky old river !!!

organize the fight back !!!


Sardonics is just my preferred coping mechanism. Of course there's commitment to prole power beneath the facade. I wasn't endorsing National Lampoon asshattery, from which the likes of Jon Stewart are one step removed.

Hedges is like mood music. You've gotta be in the mood. The more you read him, the less you're in the mood.


Ox, what do you know of Hedges' "personal behavior"? Are you merely taking into account Hedges' elite schooling and his style of discoursing and putting two and two together?


Picador, your post is very perspicacious. It requires a certain familiarity with the lifeworld of the "lefty upper-middle-class mainline Protestant denomination(s)," and I assume that not too many SMBIVAns have such familiarity.


Looks like the convo is about to become a moveable feast...

gluelicker... are you "merely" trying to dismantle my comment's inferential logic?

What one says.

What one does.

In Hedgehog's case, his saying (essay-writing) is his doing, isn't it? That's what he gets paid to do, right? That's his "job," right?

I submit that if you want to use the concept behind the word "mere," you may do so with reference to its use in Lewis's book Mere Christianity and then, perhaps, I'll agree.


Of course there's commitment to prole power beneath the facade.

As IOZ would say, LULZ.


elite schooling ??

loomis and collby ..or is it colgate ??

please second tier...at best

of course after the cia recruited him
the schools he attended improved eh ??


oxy is a burlesque act eh ??

enters stage left
as belligerent as a wolverine
prances and snarls
and if chided even in good spirit
as thin skinned
nasty harmless and yelpy
as a chi wah wah

i implore u oxy
play nicely with us kids
we like you here
i certainly do
and would miss you sorely
so why over play your hand
give us some slack


i hope u can over look
my hijack of your comment
i was using it ..unfairly...
to drive in a point


Too cynical by half --

Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Watergate Commission, response to Saturday Night Massacre, Church Committee . . . .


Better tied fly, but still a very lousy presentation. The thing is motorboating across the slick surface and the trout are laughing.

Try a puddle cast next time. Read some Lefty Kreh if you don't know how to do one.

I hope you continue to note the psychological profile points of a fictional entity. Triangulation and scarecrow-ism are amusing ways to make one's point by not making a point at all.

"what do you know of Hedges' "personal behavior'"

I have watched two of Hedges recent speeches wherein he brags about "seducing" the girlfriend of some college foe who called him a fag repeatedly in the cafeteria line.

Also, he has made references to a case of PTSD, which he acquired following around the armies of empire and recording (within the limitations of the NYTimes framework for such work) their business.


okay it isn't snarling its more like beltching
a show of justified disrespect
u fail to grasp
that part i like

its your underlying
... prolly conciously unavailible rage and anguish
that disconcerts one
to clink to this mask so tightly
suggests you don't dare
taking it off

come now oxy i'm not trying to hook you
with raw bait ??

this is a friendly place no hooks here
no foreign objects in the ring
hey it isn't even a ring its a sand box

i want to play with you oxy
build a castle


linda great stuff

seduction ??

if he's still in that game today
he must use sleeping powders


about nations i like the 'tributaries' metaphor, all of us growing up in different parts of the mountain chain, with different churches even, but strangely coming to like tacos, kung fu, expressive dancing & private property before we reach the sea

That's funny op! It shows a kind of irony that hipsters only pretend to use and/or embody.

Who says I'm not playing? I'm just playing a different game. I'm playing the angle of "I'm superior because I didn't jump through all the Marxist Hoops and you did," while you are playing the gambit of "I'm superior because I write obtuse poesy laden with the very things I accuse you of doing."

Is it really that tough to see that it's a game? Especially for a fellow as highbrow, overeducated and collar-starched as yourself?


is not an attribute i attach to myself
in that i embody the calvinist devotion
to the dogma
of .....universal and utter human depravity

Where is Utter Human Depravity? Is it a tiny collectivist nation-state within Uttar Pradesh? The region's Liechtenstein? Or maybe its Galt's Gulch?

Cluster's Stalker:

"I hope you continue to note the psychological profile points of a fictional entity. "

Who says fictional? Prove it.

FWIW, Hedges says that he refuses to vote for Democrats.

My experience reading him is that he's saying a lot of things that I agree with, and then I see something jarring, and wonder where the hell that come from. And that's when I realize he's coming from a different place than I did, or came from one.

It's weird to see liberals referred to as a class, but I think his "liberal class" is broadly synonymous with the "merit class" popular on this blog, a caste of middle managers and technocrats consistently upper-middle class and liberal Democratic from generation to generation, not actually on the side of good, but meliorists who realize that certain moderate social democratic measures are necessary to prevent a revolution.

In the video Q&A session, someone calls him on the New Deal, and he clarifies his position.

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